The term Byzantium is occasionally used to describe something beautiful, vague and romantic. But it can also mean sycophantic, making compliments to get better off it. These two almost opposite meanings are an indication for the wicked empire that Byzantium actually was.
The empire of Byzantium is usually defined as the eastern part of the Roman Empire
as it existed in increasingly smaller shape from 330
(the founding of Constantinople
) to 1453
(the fall of Constantinople). This definition is a tricky business 'though:
- First of all the Byzantines saw themselves as Romans and therefore as inhabitants of the Roman Empire, that had never gone under in their opinion. But through the centuries the Byzantines transformed to Greeks rather than Romans in every possible area, most importantly in religion and culture. This is what is called the Roman Empire in Greek shape.
- Furthermore the size of the huge empire decreased and decreased. Especially from 622, the growing Islam put a large part of the empire out of reach for the Byzantines. Halfway through the 7th century, the Muslim armies had already reached the eastern border of current Turkey. Because of this, Byzantium then only consisted of (what we call now) Turkey, Greece and parts of other Balkan countries. Besides the problems in the East, the empire also had to deal with pressure from the North as well as the West. In the North it was the Slavs threatening the borders and in the West crusaders, Latins and Venetians were knocking on Byzantium's door.
Thousand years of Byzantium
In spite of these problems, the empire managed to maintain for a thousand years. The main reason: mighty Constantinople. It was founded in 330 by Constantine the Great
as the new capital of the Roman Empire. He called it Roma Nova
as such. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Turks renamed the city to Istanbul
Besides the vague, romantic image, the term Byzantium also has a tragic side. I can point out two causes for this: an heroic battle of a thousand years that still ends in misfortune, and the well-known historian Gibbon who in his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire refers to Byzantium as
a long tail of weakness and misery.
Political characteristics: basileus
Byzantium was a strongly centralized empire. All decisions were made by Constantinople, where an autocratic
) had assistance of a large bureaucratic apparatus
. This centralization
was very unusual in this era. In Western Europe
for instance, political power was often spread over multiple regions within the empires.
Because there were no powerful cities or nobility, Byzantium never had a parliament. The basileus stayed in control easily. The punishment for opposition was mutilation. The term used for these mutilated was eunuch, synonym for castrated people.
Religious characteristics: caesaropapism
The religious power was also in hands of the basileus. We call this caesaropapism
, in which you can recognize Caesar
. The church patriarch
was appointed by the basileus and patriarch resistance never led to change of distribution of power, as happened in Western Europe in the Investiture Controversy
The emperor was head of the Christian Orthodox church, that had been existing since the Eastern Schism of 1054. The lawfulness of this schism is still questioned by the Vatican because the papal emissary Humbert of Moyenmoutier acted on behalf of pope Leo IX, who had already died in the meantime!
Economic characteristics: healthy economy
The bureaucracy could only exist through reliable salary arrangements by the basileus. This was possible by the healthy economic situation in Byzantium, for which it could thank Constantinople's favourable economic location and the transit
trade of products with Caesarian monopoly
. A good example is the emperial monopoly on silk
. For all monopolized goods taxes were due on transit. The introduction of the bureaucratic system also meant that Western feudalism
had no chance of success in Byzantium.