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The Byzantine Empire - The Empire in the East - 378-1453

The Roman Empire was compelled to concentrate on the defense of its frontiers, and with Diocletian (284-305 AD), it was divided into a Western Empire and an Eastern Empire, with two Emperors. Constantine (306-337) assumed both offices but moved the Imperial Court to Constantinople. By 330, the emperor Constantine had rebuilt the Greek City of Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople.

In time, the eastern Roman Empire became known as the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantine Empire is the term used since the 19th century to describe the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, centered on its capital of Constantinople. It is also known as the Eastern Roman Empire. The term ''Byzantine Empire'' is an invention of historians and was never used during the Empire's lifetime. The Empire's name in Greek was "Basileia ton Romaion" which means "The Empire of the Romans".

With the reigns of Valerianus and Gallienus (253-260), emperors tendened to divide the empire into eastern and western spheres of authority, and sharing it with a co-ruler. This was confirmed in 285 with the Tetrarchy of Diocletian (284-305). The division of the Empire become permanent in 395 with the division of the empire between the two sons of Theodosius I (379-395). The empire was still conceptualized as a single polity, though by the time of the Tetrarchy of Diocleitan Rome was no longer the true focal point of the Empire, as emperors were increasingly spent time in the field combating foreign threats and rivals for power among army commanders. After reuniting the Empire in 324, Constantine (306-337) inaugurated a new capital at the site of ancient Byzantium, calling it New Rome, later Constantinople (now Istanbul). Constantinople became a permanent capital for emperors who resided in the East. After the collapse of the western portion of the Roman Empire in 5th century, the imperial government survived in the East and operated from Constantinople with only one interruption until its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

The history of the Eastern Empire may conveniently be divided into several periods:

  1. The first period of the empire, which embraces the dynasties of Theodosius, Leo I, Justinian, and Tiberius, is politically still under Roman influence.
  2. In the second period the dynasty of Heraclius in conflict with Islam, succeeds in creating a distinctively Byzantine State.
  3. The third period, that of the Syrian (Isaurian) emperors and of Iconoclasm, is marked by the attempt to avoid the struggle with Islam by completely orientalizing the land.
  4. The fourth period exhibits a happy equilibrium. The Armenian dynasty, which was Macedonian by origin, was able to extend its sway east and west, and there were indications that the zenith of Byzantine power was close at hand.
  5. In the fifth period the centrifugal forces, which had long been at work, produced their inevitable effect, the aristocracy of birth, which had been forming in all parts of the empire, and gaining political influence, at last achieved its firm establishment on the throne with the dynasties of the Comneni and Angeli.
  6. The sixth period is that of decline; the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders had disrupted the empire into several new political units; even after the restoration, the empire of the Palaeologi is only one member of this group of states. The expansion of the power of the Osmanli Turks prepares the annihilation of the Byzantine Empire.
From another point of view, one might divide the external history of the Empire into four great periods, each marked by a struggle with a different Asiatic power:
  1. with Persia, ending c. 630 with the triumph of Rome;
  2. with the Saracens, who ceased to be formidable in the 11th century;
  3. with the Seljuk Turks, in the nth and 12th centuries;
  4. with the Ottoman Turks, in which the Roman power went down.

The reign of Constantine the Great [r. 324-337] forms the most deep-reaching division in the history of Europe. The external continuity is not broken, but the principles which guided society in the Greek and Roman world are replaced by a new order of ideas. The emperor-worship, which expressed a belief in the ideal of the earthly empire of Rome, gives way to Christianity; this is the outward sign that a mental transformation, which began 300 years before in visible processes of decay and growth, had reached a crisis.

Besides the adoption of Christianity, Constantine's reign is marked by an event only second in importance, the shifting of the center of gravity of the Empire from the west to the east by making Byzantium a second capital, a second Rome. The foundation of Constantinople determined the subsequent history of the state; it established permanently the division between the eastern and western parts of the Empire - a principle already introduced - and soon exhibited, though not immediately, the preponderance of the eastern half. The eastern provinces were the richest and most resourceful, and only needed a Rome in their midst to proclaim this fact; and further, it was eastward that the Empire fronted, for here was the one great civilized state with which it was in constant antagonism.

Byzantium was refounded on the model of Rome, had its own senate, and presently a praefectus urbi. But its character was different in two ways: it was Christian and it was Greek. From its foundation New Rome had a Christian stamp; it had no history as the capital of a pagan empire. There was, however, no intention of depressing Rome to a secondary rank in political importance; this was brought about by the force of circumstances.

The Christian Roman Empire, from the first to the last, endured for 1130 years, and during that long period, which witnessed the births of all the great modern nations of Europe, experienced many vicissitudes of decline and revival. In the 5th century it lost all its western provinces through the expansion of the Teutons; but in the 6th asserted something of its ancient power and won back some of its losses. In the 7th it was brought very low through the expansion of the Saracens and of the Slavs, but in consequence of internal reforms and prudent government in the 8th century, was able before the end of the 9th to initiate a new brilliant period of power and conquest. From the middle of the 11th century a decline began; besides the perpetual dangers on the eastern and northern frontiers, the Empire was menaced by the political aggression of the Normans and the commercial aggression of Venice; then its capital was taken and its dominions dismembered by Franks and Venetians in 1204. It survived the blow for 250 years, as a shadow of its former self.

During this long life its chief political role was that of acting as a defender of Europe against the great powers of western Asia. While it had to resist a continuous succession of dangerous enemies on its northern frontier in Europe-German, Slavonic, Finnic and Tatar peoples-it always considered that its front was towards the east, and that its gravest task was to face the powers which successively inherited the dominion of Cyrus and Darius.

Medieval historians, concentrating their interest on the rising states of western Europe, often fail to recognize the position held by the later Empire and its European prestige. Up to the middle of the 11th century it was in actual strength the first power in Europe, except in the lifetime of Charles the Great, and under the Comneni it was still a power of the first rank. But its political strength does not express the fulness of its importance. As the heir of antiquity it was confessedly superior in civilization, and it was supreme in commerce. Throughout the whole period (to 1204) Constantinople was the first city in the world. The influence which the Empire exerted upon its neighbours, especially the Slavonic peoples, is the second great role which it fulfilled for Europe - a role on which perhaps the most speaking commentary is the doctrine that the Russian Csar is the heir of the Roman Caesar.

The Empire has been called by many names -- Greek, Byzantine, Lower (Bas-empire), Eastern (or East-Roman). All these have a certain justification as descriptions, but the only strictly correct name is Roman (as recognized in the title of Gibbon's work). The continuity from Augustus to Constantine XI. is unbroken; the emperor was always the Roman emperor; his subjects were always Romans. "Greek Empire" expresses the fact that the state became predominantly Greek in character, owing to the loss, first of the Latin provinces, afterwards of Syria and Egypt; and from the middle of the 6th century Greek became the official language. "Lower Empire" (Later is preferable) marks the great actual distinction in character between the development before Constantine (Haut-empire) and after his adoption of Christianity.

"Byzantine" sums up in a word the unique Graeco-Roman civilization which was centerd in New Rome. Eastern is a term of convenience, but it has been used in two senses, not to be confused. It has been used, loosely, to designate the eastern half of the Empire during the 80 years or so (from 395) when there were two lines of emperors, ruling formally as colleagues but practically independent, at Rome and Constantinople; but though there were two emperors, as often before, there was only one Empire. It has also been used, justifiably, to distinguish the true Roman Empire from the new state founded by Charles the Great (800), which also claimed to be the Roman Empire; Eastern and Western Empire are from this date forward legitimate terms of distinction. But between the periods to which the legitimate and illegitimate uses of the term 'Eastern Empire" apply lies a period of more than 300 years, in which there was only one Empire in any sense of the word.

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