Byzantine Origins


The Byzantine Empire was the continuation of the Roman Empire centered on Constantinople, and ruled by emperors in direct succession to the Roman emperors.[1] The Byzantine Empire preserved Roman legal traditions, but was also known as the Empire of the Greeks. In the Islamic world it was known as Rome. Constantinople had been founded in 330 on the older Greek city of Byzantium as a new capital of Rome. The new city had already developed a Greek character, because it lay in a heavily Greek region, quite distant from Roman Italy. However, the court language, traditions, and procedure were Latin and Roman. The Roman empire had been divided into Eastern and Western halves by Diocletian by c300 and the shift to Byzantium was thus a gradual evolution, rather than a specific action or date.

The last Western Roman emperor fell to the Goths in 476 and inevitably changes were introduced into the remaining Roman Byzantine world. Serious change away from Rome probably dates to Justinian (527-565). However, not until the Emperor Heraclius (610-641) was the Byzantine army re-structured and Greek recognized as the official language. During its thousand-year existence the Byzantine Empire remained one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and military forces in Europe, defending Europe during her wars with Persia and the Arabs. However, the Empire slipped into a long decline, with the Byzantine–Ottoman Wars culminating in the Fall of Constantinople and its remaining territories to the Muslim, Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Because the Romans had created a successful, stable world in Europe, there were several claimants to their legacy. The Franks under Charlemagne were able to justify their empire as a Holy Roman Empire, courtesy of the pope; however, the popes also claimed Roman authority via an infamous forgery.[2] The Russians, Bulgars, Turks, and Greeks also claimed the same inheritance and thereby invented the title tsar/csar (caesar), or claimed Constantinople/Istanbul as geographical authority. The resulting semantical confusion led to the modern distinction based on the early Greek Byzantium colonial name.

From Rome to Byzantium

During the 3rd century, three crises threatened the Roman Empire: external invasions, internal civil wars and an economy riddled with weaknesses and problems. The city of Rome gradually became less important as an administrative centre. Diocletian created a new administrative system: he invented a co-emperor, or Augustus. Each augustus would then create an assistant, or Caesar, to share in the rule and eventually to succeed the senior partner as augustus. A good plan that didn't work and Constantine I replaced it with the dynastic principle of hereditary succession. It was no coincidence that trade in Asian silks and spices, as well as serious imperial enemies were all in the east.



The Byzantine Empire

Constantine moved the political capital and administrative centre to Byzantium, and introduced important changes into civil and religious constitution. In 330, he founded Constantinople as a second Rome at Byzantium on the trade route to Asia.[3] Constantine built upon Diocletian's administrative reforms, stabilized the coinage, and restructured the army. Under Constantine, the Empire recovered much of its military strength, social stability, and economic prosperity. Christianity did not become the state religion, but the Emperor supported it with generous privileges. Constantine also established the precedent of ecclesiastical councils to settle questions of religious doctrine. Constantine convened the 325 First Council of Nicaea, which established a uniform Christian doctrine and continued the imperial tradition of the emperor as head of the Church (Pontifex Maximus).

Theodosius I (347-395) was the last emperor to rule over the entire Roman empire while the west confronted a series of Gothic invasions. Rebellious challenges from Valentinian and Magnus Maximus further distracted government attention already strained by civil and external problems. To confront the Goths with an over-stretched army Theodosius resorted to hiring the same Goths as soldiers in exchange for land: it did not work well. The wealthy Eastern Empire was largely spared these difficulties with an established urban culture and the ability to buy-off invaders and pay foreign mercenaries. Theodosius II succeeded to the East in 408-450 and he improved Constantinople's defences with additional walls, leaving the city impervious to attacks until 1204. To buy-off Attila's Huns, Theodosius was able to bribe them to leave (with 300 kg of gold). Theodosius also formalised laws and encouraged trade with the Huns and other foreigners. Huns would eventually fight as mercenaries in Byzantine armies for centuries. After Attila died in 453, the Eastern Empire enjoyed a period of peace, while the Western Empire collapsed to the Gothic general Odoacer in 476. To recover Italy, the emperor Zeno invited the Ostrogothic king Theodoric I to rule Italy on his own - theoretically in Rome's name.


Roman engineering skills were transferred to Constantinople in the successor Byzantine Empire. Constantinople (now called Istanbul) is located strategically between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara at the point where Europe meets Asia. Constantinople was highly significant as the successor to ancient Rome and the largest and wealthiest city in Europe throughout the Middle Ages. Constantine chose an earlier ancient Greek city called Byzantium (re-named after him as Constantinople) as his capital in 330. At its height Constantinople spoke Greek, had sewers, street lights, a population of 1m, and the greatest architecture of its day. In 1098, the crusader Robert de Clari reported that there were: '4,388 palaces, many hospitals, orphanages, poor-houses, thousands of churches and a University of Pandidaktirion' (founded in 849). Unlike Rome, Constantinople had several industries producing: luxury goods, military supplies (the famous greek fire), hardware, textiles and jewelry. In c550, with silkworms smuggled out of China, silk protection became a highly profitable industry. (With the acquisition of silkworms in Constantinople, and then the Asian invasions, the Silk Road was closed.) The Byzantines paid close attention to business and controlled the economy. The emperors set wages, profits, work hours, and prices; while bankers and doctors were organized into corporations. Security and wealth encouraged an active political, cultural, and intellectual life, with widespread literacy and education amongst both men and women. John II Comnenos abolished the use of tortures and the death penalty. West Europeans learned from Byzantines how to eat with forks and to sleep on silk sheets, in cities lit with street-lamps.

The city commanded the trade routes between the Aegean and the Black Sea, became fabulously rich and was surrounded by 20 kms of walls with 400 towers. The emperor Theodosius I had had his Roman engineers build the walls (completed in 447) to protect this wealth. There were up to four belts of walls, which were up to 12m high and 4m thick, supported by elevated 20m terraces and bastions. Part of Constantinople's defences included a 20m moat with a depth of 5-10m. The walls were supported by tunnels to move covered infantry, and were anchored at both ends by great fortresses. The sea defences were strengthened by Emperor Leo III who built a huge chain to protect the Golden Horn harbour. Those strong walls defeated 17 attacking armies! In 717, a Turkish army of 200,000 was defeated with 170,000 casualties while Arab armies occupied Spain and invaded France. (Those Arabs were stopped by Charles Martel at Tours, France in 732.) Although Constantinople was also widely still called Byzantium (as was the Empire itself), the Serbs called it Tsargrad (city of the Caesars), and the Varangians called it Micklegard (the great city). The Ottoman Turks finally captured Constantinople in 1453 and they renamed it to the present Istanbul.

Although traditional Greco-Roman culture was still influential Christian philosophy and culture began to dominate the older culture. Hymns marked the development of a Divine Liturgy, while architects and builders worked to complete the new Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia. Hagia Sophia stands today as one of the major monuments of architectural history. By far the most significant building of the Byzantine Empire is the great church of Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople (532-537), which retained a longitudinal axis but was dominated by its enormous central dome. Seventh-century Syriac texts suggest that this design was meant to show the church as an image of the world with the dome of heaven suspended above, from which the Holy Spirit descended during the liturgical ceremony. The Emperor Justinian emptied his treasury to build the Ayia Sofia church as a unique structure in less than six years at an estimated cost of ~$2b.[4] The Byzantine architects had to invent 'pendentives' (curved triangles) to carry the weight of the round dome to the supporting square walls; and they used many arches. The 31m dome is pierced by 40 windows around its base to light the vast interior of the cathedral. The Ayia Sofia was the seat of the Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople, and is now called Hagia Sofia after its occupation as a Muslim mosque.

Constantinople created a more advanced civilization of Byzantium. As early as the sixth century Constantinople had a system of street-lighting; sports, equestrian games or polo-playing, and above all races in the circus attained a high national and political importance. Byzantine princesses married to Venetians introduced the use of table forks in the West. As early as the eighth century, the Byzantines successfully mixed gunpowder with tar and called the result Greek fire in their wars with the Arabs. Otto III preferred to be a Roman of Byzantium rather than a German .

The Byzantine Empire

Over the centuries, Byzantium evolved into a very different civilization from the Roman. The Eastern Empire had always been predominately Greek in character, but the Byzantines had to deal with cultural influences and political threats from Europe, Asia and, primarily the spread of Islam after the seventh century.



Justinian's Ayia (Hagia) Sofia: 537


Justinian I began his highly successful reign in 527, reconquered much of the former Roman territory, and engaged the Persians, Slavs and Bulgars. Justinian began his political career as the real control during the reign of his uncle, Justin I (518–527). In 532, Justinian solidified his power by putting down a revolt with the death of 30,000 rioters. Justinian sent General Belisarius with a army of c15,000 to the former province of North Africa (533-548) to oust the Vandals. In 535, another small Byzantine expedition landed in Sicily and confronted the Goths, and in 540 Belisarius captured Ravenna, after successful sieges of Naples and Rome. The Ostrogoths were finally defeated in Italy at the Battle of Mons Lactarius in October 552. In 551, the Byzantines even recovered a strip of the Spanish coast.

In the east, Roman-Persian Wars continued until 561 when envoys agreed to a bribe and a 50-year peace. By the mid-550s, Justinian had won victories in most theaters of operation, with the notable exception of the Balkans, which were subjected to repeated Slavic incursions. Justinian also became universally famous for his legislative work, remarkable for its sweeping character. In 529 a commission created a new Corpus Juris Civilis, a collection of laws referred to as "Justinian's Code". After Justinian died in 565, his successor, Justin II refused to pay the large tribute to the Persians. Meanwhile, the Germanic Lombards invaded Italy and by 600 only a third of Italy was left to the Byzantines. Justin's successor, Tiberius II, choosing between his enemies, awarded subsidies to the Avars while taking military action against the Persians. Although Tiberius' general, Maurice, led an effective campaign on the eastern frontier, subsidies failed to restrain the Avars. They captured the Balkan fortress of Sirmium in 582, while the Turks began to make inroads across the Danube.

Justinian's successors rescued Byzantium from his financial excesses, especially his costly, failed attempt to recover Italy. The emperor most responsible for saving the Empire was Heraclius I (610-641). The Persian Empire threatened to overwhelm Asia Minor and in the west, a mix of German, Slavic, and Mongolian peoples were pressing into Greece and the Balkans. Heraclius allowed a group of Huns to settle in the Balkans to create a buffer and protect the western borders, while the Byzantine empire focused on Persia. Heraclius led a Byzantine army of 70,000 men and finally defeated the Persians at the Battle of Nineveh in 627, and in 629 Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in a majestic ceremony. However, the war had exhausted the Empire, and left it vulnerable to the new Arab forces. The Byzantines suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636, the Persian city Ctesiphon fell to the Arabs in 634, and Muslim armies made sweeping raids deep into Byzantine Syria. Increasingly, Byzantium became less European and more Asian in focus and character.

The withdrawal of massive numbers of troops from the Balkans to combat the Persians and then the Arabs in the east created an opportunity for the gradual southward expansion of Slavs into the peninsula. As in Anatolia, many Byzantine cities in the Balkan shrank to small fortified settlements. In the 670s the Bulgars were pushed south of the Danube by the arrival of the Khazars, and in 680 Byzantine forces which had been sent to disperse these new settlements were defeated. In the next year Constantine IV signed a treaty with the Bulgar khan Asparukh, and the new Bulgarian state assumed sovereignty over a number of Slavic tribes which had previously, at least in name, recognized Byzantine rule. In 687–688, the emperor Justinian II led an expedition against the Slavs and Bulgars which made significant gains, although he had to fight his way from Thrace to Macedonia indicating the decline of Byzantine power in the northern Balkans. Similarly, the Arabs captured much of the Mediterranean

Almost all Byzantine energies over the next few centuries would be focused on Islam. Arab Muslims conquered Byzantine territory in Syria and Egypt, in part exploiting religious differences with persecuted Byzantine Christians and Jews. However, the Arabs wanted Byzantine territory and the conquest of Byzantium itself. They conquered all the Persian territories, but they never conquered the heart of Byzantium itself. The Arabs, now firmly in control of Syria and the Levant, sent frequent raiding parties deep into Anatolia, and between 674 and 678 laid siege to Constantinople itself. In 670, they launched an unsuccessful invasion with a large fleet; in 717, they tried again with a land and sea operation against the city. However, they had become over-extended and lost their momentum. Under Emperor Leo the Isaurian (717-741), the 717 Muslim invasion was turned back and the Byzantines began to hold their own against the waves of Islamic attacks.

The temporary reconquest of Crete (843) was followed by a crushing Byzantine defeat on the Bosporus, while the emperors were unable to prevent the ongoing Muslim conquest of Sicily (827–902). Using present day Tunisia as their launching pad, the Muslims conquered Palermo in 831, Messina in 842, Enna in 859, Syracuse in 878, Catania in 900 and the final Byzantine stronghold, the fortress of Taormina, in 902. These drawbacks were later counterbalanced by a victorious expedition against Damietta in Egypt (856), the defeat of the Emir of Melitene (863), the confirmation of the imperial authority over Dalmatia (867), and Basil I's offensives towards the Euphrates (870s). Unlike the deteriorating situation in Sicily, Basil I handled the situation in southern Italy and the province would remain Byzantine for 200 years.

The Byzantines began to reassert their dominance over Asia Minor in c850s. By the middle of the tenth century, they had reconquered most of Syria and were once again a powerful and influential empire stretching from Greece to Arabia. In August 1071, however, the Seljuk Turks, led by Sultan Alp Arslan decisively defeated the Byzantine army at Manzikert (in eastern Turkey) and captured Emperor Romanos Diogenes. The Seljuks pillaged Manzikert itself, killed much of its population, and burned the city to the ground. After this victory, the Seljuks quickly overran all the Byzantine territory in the east and established the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum. In the 8th and 9th centuries religious divisions emerged with Rome over Iconoclasm. Icons were banned by Leo and Constantine, leading to revolts throughout the empire.

In 904, disaster struck the empire when its second city, Thessaloniki, was sacked by an Arab fleet. The Byzantines destroyed an Arab fleet in 908, and sacked Laodicea in Syria two years later. However, the Muslims defeated the Byzantines at Crete in 911. Emperors Nikephoros II Phokas (963–969) and Ioannes (John) I Tzimiskes (969–976) captured much of Syria, defeated the emirs of north-west Iraq, and reconquered Crete and Cyprus. But, another imperial expedition was defeated at the Battle of Acheloos in 917, and the Bulgarians ravaged northern Greece as far as Corinth. Adrianople was captured in 923 and in 924 a Bulgarian army besieged Constantinople. In 968, Bulgaria was overrun by the Rus' under Svyatoslav I of Kiev, but three years later, the Emperor Ioannes I Tzimiskes defeated the Rus' and re-incorporated eastern Bulgaria into the Empire. At the turn of the millennium, Basil II (reigned 976–1025) was preoccupied with internal revolts in Anatolia, while the Bulgarians expanded their realm in the Balkans. Eventually, at the Battle of Kleidion in 1014 the Bulgarians were completely defeated. The Bulgarian army was captured, and it is said that 99 out of every 100 men were blinded, with the remaining hundredth man left with one eye so as to lead his compatriots home.

Between 850 and 1100 the Empire developed a mixed relationship with a new state that emerged to the north across the Black Sea, that of the Kievan Rus'. This relationship would have long-lasting repercussions in the history of Russia. Byzantium quickly became the main trading and cultural partner for Kiev, but relations were not always friendly. The most serious conflict between the two powers was the war of 968-971 in Bulgaria, but several Rus' raiding expeditions against the Byzantine cities of the Black Sea coast and Constantinople itself are also recorded. Although most were easily repulsed and posed little danger to the Empire, they were concluded by trade treaties that were generally favourable to the Rus'.

Rus'-Byzantine relations became closer following the marriage of the Anna Porphyrogenita to Vladimir, the Great, and the subsequent Christianization of the Rus': Byzantine priests, architects and artists were invited to work on numerous cathedrals and churches around Rus', expanding Byzantine cultural influence even further. In exchange, numerous Rus' served in the Byzantine army as mercenaries, most notably in the famous Varangian Guard. The Byzantine Empire then stretched to Armenia in the east, to Calabria in Southern Italy in the west. Many successes had been achieved, ranging from the conquest of Bulgaria, to the annexation of parts of Georgia and Armenia, to the total annihilation of an invading force of Egyptians outside Antioch. Yet even these victories were not enough; Basil considered the continued Arab occupation of Sicily to be an outrage. Accordingly, he planned to reconquer the island, which had belonged to the Roman world since the First Punic War. However, his death in 1025 put an end to the project.

Byzantium soon fell into a period of difficulties, caused to a large extent by the neglect of the military. Nikephoros II, Ioannes I Tzimiskes and Basil II changed the military structure from a rapid response, primarily defensive, citizen army into a professional, campaigning army increasingly manned by mercenaries. Mercenaries, however, were expensive and as the threat of invasion receded in the 10th century, so did the need for maintaining large garrisons and expensive fortifications. Basil II left a burgeoning treasury upon his death, but neglected to plan for his succession. None of his immediate successors had any particular military or political talent and the administration of the Empire increasingly fell into the hands of the civil service. Efforts to revive the Byzantine economy only resulted in inflation and a debased gold coinage. The army was now seen as both an unnecessary expense and a political threat. Therefore, native troops were cashiered and replaced by foreign mercenaries on specific contract.

At the same time, the Empire was faced with new, ambitious enemies. Byzantine provinces in southern Italy were attacked by the Normans, who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 11th century. During a period of strife between Constantinople and Rome which ended in the East-West Schism of 1054, the Normans began to advance, slowly but steadily, into Byzantine Italy. It was in Asia Minor, however, that the greatest disaster would take place. The Seljuq Turks made their first explorations across the Byzantine frontier into Armenia in 1065 and in 1067. The emergency lent weight to the military aristocracy in Anatolia who, in 1068, secured the election of one of their own, Romanos IV Diogenes, as emperor. In the summer of 1071, Romanos undertook a massive eastern campaign to draw the Seljuks into a major battle: sadly for him he succeeded. At the August 26, 1071 Battle of Manzikert, Romanos not only suffered a surprise defeat by Sultan Alp Arslan, but was also captured. Alp Arslan treated him with respect, and imposed no harsh terms on the Byzantines. By 1081 the Seljuks had expanded their rule over virtually the entire Anatolian plateau and founded their capital in Nicea.[5]

The Byzantine Empire: c1045

Christianity Divided

After the efforts of Empress Irene, the Second Council of Nicaea met in 787, and affirmed that icons could be venerated but not worshipped. Irene is said to have endeavored to negotiate a marriage between herself and Charlemagne, but, according to Theophanes the Confessor, the scheme was frustrated by Aetios, one of her favourites. In 813 Leo V the Armenian restored the policy of iconoclasm, but in 843 Empress Theodora restored the veneration of the icons with the help of Patriarch Methodios. Iconoclasm played its part in the further alienation of East from West, which worsened during the so-called Photian Schism, when Pope Nicholas I challenged Photios' elevation to the patriarchate.

The traditional struggle with the See of Rome continued, spurred by the question of religious supremacy over the newly Christianized Bulgaria. This prompted an invasion by the powerful Bulgarian Tsar Simeon I in 894, but this was pushed back by the Byzantines with help from the Hungarians. Seemingly equally powerful, the Byzantines were in turn defeated at the Battle of Bulgarophygon in 896 and forced to pay annual subsides to the Bulgarians. Later in 912, Simeon even had the Byzantines grant him the crown of Basileus of Bulgaria and had the young emperor Constantine VII marry one of his daughters.

Eastern theology had its roots in Greek philosophy, whereas Western theology was based on Roman law. This gave rise to misunderstandings and at last led to two widely separate views regarding and defining one important doctrine. The issue was the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father or from the Father and the Son. The Roman churches, without consulting the East, incorporated the Son into their creed. The Eastern churches also resented the Roman enforcement of clerical celibacy, the limitation of the right of confirmation to the bishop, and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist.

The 11th century was also momentous for its religious events. In 1054, relations between the Eastern and Western traditions within the Christian Church reached a terminal crisis. Although there was a formal declaration of institutional separation, on 16 July, when three papal legates entered the Hagia Sophia during Divine Liturgy on a Saturday afternoon and placed a bull of excommunication on the altar, the so-called Great Schism was actually the culmination of centuries of gradual separation. Political jealousies and conflicting interests intensified disputes between the Latin and Greek Christians. The final break came in 1054, when Pope Leo IX struck at the Orthodox Patriarch Michael Cerularius and his followers with an excommunication: the Patriarch retaliated with a retaliatory excommunication. There had been mutual excommunications before, but they had not resulted in permanent schisms. At the time there seemed possibilities of reconciliation, but the rift grew wider; in particular, the Greeks were bitterly antagonized by the Latin capture and rape of Constantinople in 1204. Roman pleas for reunion (on Roman terms), such as those at the 1274 Council of Lyon or the 1439 Council of Ferrara-Florence, were rejected by the Byzantines.[6]

Crusading Help

By April 1097 the various crusading groups were ready to advance together from Constantinople. They were accompanied at this stage by a Byzantine army, for the first task was to clear a route through Anatolia, seized from the Byzantines by the Seljuk Turks. The immediate target was the Seljuk capital in the heavily fortified Byzantine town of Nicaea. After a siege it was captured, in June 1097, and was restored to Alexios I . This was virtually the last act of cooperation between the crusading armies of western Christians and the Greek emperor in Constantinople.

The Byzantines, turned to Europe for help against an onslaught of Muslim attacks. The Byzantine emperor, Alexios Komnenus, called upon the European states to push back the Muslim conquerors. While Byzantium and the Europeans had drifted apart culturally, they still shared a common religion, and the European states complied. They had, however, designs of their own on Byzantine territories. While they successfully pushed back the Seljuks and returned territory to the Byzantines, the western Europeans also carved out kingdoms of their own in Syria and Palestine. This wasn't quite enough for them—in 1204, the Crusaders attacked, conquered, and pillaged the city of Constantinople, a goal that the Muslims had been trying for for centuries.

For the Emperor Alexios I coping with the Turks was complicated by separate Norman attacks in Italy. The fierce Normans captured southern Italy and Sicily, and then threatened Constantinople. Led by Robert Guiscard and his son Bohémond of Taranto. the Normans expelled the Byzantines from southern Italy in 1071. By 1082 Duke Robert had captured Durazzo and Corfu, and had defeated Alexios in October 1081at the Battle of Dyrrhachium in Albania. Fortunately for the Byzantines, Robert Guiscard died of fever in 1085 easing the Norman problem. The following year the Seljuq sultan died, and the sultanate was split by internal rivalries. Then freed from distractions, Alexios defeated the Pechenegs who were surprised and annihilated at the Battle of Levounion on 28 April 1091.

However, Alexios still had major problems with the wartime economy, the disintegration of the imperial defences, and the lack of the manpower to take on the Seljuks. The Byzantines turned to Europe for help against the Muslim attacks and to push back the Turks. While Byzantium and the Europeans had drifted apart culturally, they still shared a common religion. At the Council of Piacenza in 1095, Alexios' envoys asked Pope Urban II to ease the suffering of the Christians of the East, and underscored that without help from the West they would only continue to suffer under Muslim rule. Sadly, Urban saw Alexios' request as an opportunity to cement Western Europe, to enhance papal power, and to reduce fighting in Europe amongst the aristocracy. On 27 November 1095, Pope Urban II called the Council of Clermont, and urged the European leaders to take up arms under the sign of the Cross and launch an armed pilgrimage to recover Jerusalem and the East from the Muslims. Alexios' problems seemed to have got lost at Clermont. The response in Western Europe was overwhelming.

Alexios had needed help in the form of finances or disciplined mercenary forces from the West, but he was unprepared for the arrival of enormous, undisciplined, and badly- prepared forces. It was no comfort to Alexios to learn that four of the eight leaders of the main body of the First Crusade were Normans, among them his former enemy Bohemund. The Europeans had, however, designs of their own on Byzantine territories. To their consternation, the Byzantines soon learned that the Europeans intended to confront the Turks, conquer their lands, and create their own kingdoms. Since the Turks were sitting on captured Byzantine lands, which he was trying to recover, the crusaders zeal for conquest was hardly likely to help the Empire. God save me from my friends! To cope with this revelation, Alexios required the First Crusade leaders to swear to restore to the empire any towns or territories they might conquer from the Turks en route to Jerusalem. In return, he gave them guides and a military escort. Alexios was able to recover a number of important cities and islands, and in fact much of western Asia Minor. Nevertheless, the crusaders claimed that their oaths were invalidated when Alexios did not help them during the siege of Antioch. (Alexios had set out for Antioch, but had been turned back by Count Stephen of Blois, who told him that the expedition had already failed).

The First Crusade recovered northwest Anatolia for the Byzantines, but the rest remained in Turkish hands. During the next century troubles multiplied for Constantinople, particularly in its relations with Western Europeans. The Normans of south Italy and Sicily were hostile to eastern Christianity, frequently raided Greek shores and islands. Antioch, beyond Anatolia, was also in Norman hands. After the leaders of the first crusade betrayed their agreement with Alexios, they allotted this ancient Greek city to the Norman Bohémond as a hereditary principality. Bohémond established himself as the Prince of Antioch, but in 1108 finally agreed to become Alexios' vassal. While they had successfully pushed back the Seljuks and returned territory to the Byzantines, the western Europeans had also carved out kingdoms of their own in Syria and Palestine.

Friedrich I Barbarossa attempted to conquer the Empire during the Third Crusade, but it was the Fourth Crusade that had the most devastating effect on the Empire. Although the stated intent of the Fourth Crusade was to conquer Egypt, the Venetians took control of the expedition when the crusaders could not pay to transport their troops. Under Venetian influence the Fourth Crusade captured and wantonly pillaged Constantinople in 1204. The Venetian doge did get to bring back the marvelous bronze horses to decorate San Marcos, but Byzantine power was broken and vulnerable to the later Ottoman Turkish attacks.

Byzantine Behaviour

Alexios' son Ioannes II Komnenos ruled 1118-1143, determined to undo the damage from their defeat at the Battle of Manzikert. Ioannes allied with the German Empire; defeated the Pechenegs in 1122 at the Battle of Beroia; and fought the Turks in Asia Minor. Ioannes restored many towns, fortresses and cities across Anatolia. He also thwarted Hungarian, and Serbian threats during the 1120s, and in 1130 allied himself with the German Kaiser Lothair against the Norman King Roger II of Sicily. John defeated the Danishmend emirate of Melitene, and reconquered all of Cilicia, while forcing Raymond I de Poitiers, Prince d'Antioch, to recognize Byzantine suzerainty. In an effort to demonstrate the Byzantine emperor's role as the leader of the Christian world, Ioannes marched into the Holy Land at the head of the combined forces of Byzantium and the Crusader states; yet despite the great vigour with which he pressed the campaign, Ioannes' hopes were disappointed by the treachery of his Crusader allies. But there are even more intense hostilities at closer quarters, among merchants competing bitterly for trade in Constantinople.

In 1082 Venetian merchants were granted exclusive trading privilege within the Byzantine Empire for their help against the Normans. Sadly, the wealthy Venetians grew arrogant and provoked considerable hostility in Constantinople. To rebalance relationships, Manuel I Komnenos made trading agreements with Genoa in 1169 and with Pisa in 1170. In 1171, Manuel confiscated the goods of every Venetian merchant in the empire. In 1182 the people of Constantinople take matters into their own hands with a massacre of the Latins (or Roman Catholics) living in the city. Evidently, as the Byzantines were to learn, the Venetians held a grudge. Manuel I Komnenos allied himself with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and sent a large fleet to participate in a combined invasion of Fatimid Egypt. Manuel reinforced his position as overlord of the Crusader states, with his hegemony over Antioch and Jerusalem secured by agreement with Raymond I de Poitiers, Prince d'Antioch, and Amalric I, King of Jerusalem respectively. Manuel made several alliances with the Pope and Western Christian kingdoms, and successfully handled the passage of the Second Crusade through his empire.

Manuel's death in 1180 left his incompetent 11-year-old son Alexios II Komnenos. Eventually Andronikos I Komnenos, a grandson of Alexios I, launched a revolt against his younger relative and managed to overthrow him in a violent coup d'état. Despite his military background, Andronikos failed to deal with Isaac Komnenos, Béla III Arpad who reincorporated Croatian territories into Hungary, and Stefan Nemanja of Serbia who declared his independence from Byzantium. When William II of Sicily's invasion force of 300 ships and 80,000 men arrived in 1185,. Andronikos was overthrown. Isaac Angelos, surviving an imperial assassination attempt, seized power and had Andronikos killed. Isaac II, and his brother Alexios III, ruled over the collapse of the Byzantine government, while they emptied the treasury and accelerated the ruin of the weakened Empire. In 1186 the Vlachs and Bulgars rebelled and formed the Second Bulgarian Empire. While Isaac II was hunting in 1195, his brother Alexios III seized power and had Isaac blinded and imprisoned in Constantinople. Isaac's son  Alexios escaped prison in 1201 and fled to the western Europe to plot revenge and return.[7]

The Fourth Crusade

In 1198, Pope Innocent III broached the subject of a fourth crusade through legates and encyclical letters. The stated intent of the crusade was to conquer Egypt, then the centre of regional Muslim power. In 1201, it was proposed that the crusaders sail to Egypt in a great fleet from Venice and the Venetians, being masters of secret diplomacy, realised that their moment for their revenge and profit had arrived. After the death of Theobald III, Comte de Champagne leadership of the crusade passed to Bonifacio I, Marchese di Monferrato. A small crusader army arrived at Venice in July 1202 seeking the previously agreed shipping to sail to Egypt. The Venetians demanded more money than expected and negotiations were elevated to the Doge Enrico Dandolo.

Doge Dandolo was an early believer in capitalism and knew that a good market was at hand. Although blind and aging he was a cunning hypocrite and had no compunctions about exploiting the opportunity to redress the Byzantine slights to Venice to the fullest. Dandolo certainly did not allow minor considerations of honesty, fairness, Christianity, or the pope to get in his way. The Doge had no interest in the Pope Innocent III's crusade against Egypt. The Egyptians were his business partners and his main competitors were the Byzantines in fabulously wealthy Constantinople. Furthermore, as commercial neighbours to the Greeks the cynical Doge was perfectly aware of the state of Byzantine politics and the availability of the ambitious Byzantine  Prince Alexios, son of the earlier deposed Emperor Isaac II. However, first Dandolo demanded that the crusaders make a minor detour and use their army to aid Venetian commercial interests.

The doge offered to postpone crusader payment of the Venetian fees to equip and transport the army until after the crusaders had secured Constantinople, but only in exchange for the army's help with a small rebellion. Clearly the crusaders must have grabbed at the straw and accepted the suggestion that in lieu of immediate payment they capture the (Christian) port of Zara in Dalmatia. Zara had rebelled against Venetian overlordship and placed itself under Hungary's protection in 1186. The city fell in November 1202 after a brief siege and more Christian casualties. With no where else to winter the army stayed in Zara and ate the locals' food, which they could not afford to buy.

Bonifacio was a friend of the Hohenstaufen Philip of Swabia. In mid-winter Boniface met  Alexios in Germany. As if he were following a Hollywood script  Alexios promised to support the beached crusade in exchange for their help to secure his throne. In 1202, Alexios was only 20 years old and he was unaware of the Empire's financial position; however, he promised 200,000 silver marks to pay off the Venetians, to join the crusade with an additional 200,000 silver marks, to provide the supplies required to get to Egypt, to provide 10,000 soldiers to help their crusade, to station 500 permanent knights in the Holy Land, to lend 20 Byzantine ships to help transport the crusaders to Egypt, and he promised to bring the Greek Orthodox Church under the authority of the pope. Of course Boniface thought this was the answer to his problems but the cunning Dandolo said nothing. When Boniface outlined the full proposal and Dandolo must have just smiled. As a serious commercial business man he would have had a good assessment of Constantinople's finances and would have known that the money was not available.

Dandalo had much greater aims than Zara. Although t he Venetians' fleet had been commissioned by the crusaders to take them to Egypt, Venetian policy was controlled by the aging and blind but still ambitious Doge Enrico Dandolo. Dandolo's aim was at variance with that of either the Pope or the crusaders, because Venice was closely related commercially with Egypt. The crusaders accepted the suggestion that in lieu of payment they assist the Venetians in the capture of the (Christian) port of Zara in Dalmatia (a vassal city of Venice, which had rebelled and placed itself under Hungary's protection in 1186). The city fell in November 1202 after a brief siege. Innocent, who was informed of the plan, but his veto was disregarded, was reluctant to jeopardize the Crusade, and gave conditional absolution to the crusaders—not, however, to the Venetians. Although the Pope could hardly have been unaware of the evolving crusader plans, his letter forbidding an attack on Constantinople did not arrive in Venice until after the army had left in the following year - despite open knowledge of the Venetian plan to divert the Crusade from Egypt to Constantinople.

The crusaders arrived outside the city in the summer of 1203 as Alexios III fled. However, as Dandalo had anticipated neither the new Emperor Alexios IV and nor his father Isaac II were unable to keep Alexios' earlier rash promises to the crusaders. They were soon deposed by Alexios V. Eventually, the crusaders breached the defences and took the city on 13 April 1204. Since the crusaders still owed Doge Dandolo and the Venetians the transport costs they had no choice but to agree to Danalo's suggestion to meet their debt by allowing three days of unrestrained pillage. Constantinople was subjected to unrestrained rape, burning, destruction, pillage, and massacre for three days. Thousands of priceless icons, relics, and other objects were deliberately looted and later turned up in Western Europe: unsurprisingly a large number in Venice.

Perhaps only the Venetians with their long trading experience in Constantinople could have appreciated the treasures of Byzantium. While the crusaders (including some of their clergy) burned, killed, raped, and destroyed, the Venetians systematically looted fabulous wealth; after all, only the Venetians had the ships to transport the loot back to Venice. San Marcos in Venice now has many rich possessions from the deliberate 1204 pillage. Parts of the San Marcos Pala d'Oro, the porphyry figures known as the tetrarchs, and above all the four great bronze horses all came from the Rape of Constantinople. There is little historical question that the crusaders were deliberately led to their attack in full knowledge that the promised Byzantine funds would not be available; and it was the Venetians who suggested the three-day destruction to redress the shortfall shipping debt. The following is an eye-witness account.[8]

. . . How shall I begin to tell of the deeds wrought by these nefarious men!...Nor can the violation of the Great Church [note: Hagia Sophia] be listened to with equanimity. For the sacred altar, formed of all kinds of precious materials and admired by the whole world, was broken into bits and distributed among the soldiers, as was all the other sacred wealth of so great and infinite splendor.

When the sacred vases and utensils of unsurpassable art and grace and rare material, and the fine silver, wrought with gold, which encircled the screen of the tribunal and the ambo, of admirable workmanship, and the door and many other ornaments, were to be borne away as booty, mules and saddled horses were led to the very sanctuary of the temple. Some of these which were unable to keep their footing on the splendid and slippery pavement, were stabbed when they fell, so that the sacred pavement was polluted with blood and filth.

Nay more, a certain harlot, a sharer in their guilt, a minister of the furies, a servant of the demons, a worker of incantations and poisonings, insulting Christ, sat in the patriarch's seat, singing an obscene song and dancing frequently. Nor, indeed, were these crimes committed and others left undone, on the ground that these were of lesser guilt, the others of greater. But with one consent all the most heinous sins and crimes were committed by all with equal zeal. Could those, who showed so great madness against God Himself, have spared the honorable matrons and maidens or the virgins consecrated to God?

Nothing was more difficult and laborious than to soften by prayers, to render benevolent, these wrathful barbarians, vomiting forth bile at every unpleasing word, so that nothing failed to inflame their fury. Whoever attempted it was derided as insane and a man of intemperate language. Often they drew their daggers against any one who opposed them at all or hindered their demands.

No one was without a share in the grief. In the alleys, in the streets, in the temples, complaints, weeping, lamentations, grief, the groaning of men, the shrieks of women, wounds, rape, captivity, the separation of those most closely united. Nobles wandered about ignominiously, those of venerable age in tears, the rich in poverty. Thus it was in the streets, on the corners, in the temple, in the dens, for no place remained unassailed or defended the suppliants. All places everywhere were filled full of all kinds of crime. Oh, immortal God, how great the afflictions of the men, bow great the distress!

Pope Innocent III had not authorised the attack on Constantinople, indeed he had sent a letter specifically forbidding the attack: a pity that it took over six months to send the letter from Rome to Venice! The implication is of massive Latin cynicism and the Roman Church's perceived need to force Greek Christians to obedience to Rome. Although Constantinople defended Western Christendom, the short-sighted Europeans of the Fourth Crusade had attacked, conquered, burned, killed, and plundered the city in 1204. This attack on fellow Christians who had consistently supported the Crusaders was justified by Pope Innocent III in the following open letter.[9]

To all the clergy and people in the Christian army at Constantinople.

If the Lord had granted the desires of His humble servants sooner, and had transferred, as He has now done, the empire of Constantinople from the Greeks to the Latins before the fall of the Holy Land, perhaps Christianity would not be weeping today over the desolation of the land of Jerusalem. Since, therefore, through the wonderful transference of this empire God has deigned to open to you a way to recover that land, and the detention of this may lead to the restoration of that, we advise and exhort you all, and we enjoin upon you for the remission of your sins, to remain for a year in Romania, in order to strengthen the empire in its devotion to the Apostolic See and to us, and in order to retain it in the power of the Latins; and to give wise advice and efficient aid to Baldwin, our most beloved son in Christ, the illustrious emperor of Constantinople; unless, perchance, your presence in the Holy Land should be necessary before that time, in which case you ought to hasten to guard it before the year elapses.

cMay 20, 1205

The Crusade's papal legate absolved the crusaders from their vow to fight in the Holy Land. When order had been restored, the crusaders and the Venetians proceeded to implement their next agreement. Baudoin, IX Comte Flandre was elected emperor and a Venetian was chosen as patriarch. The lands parcelled out among the leaders did not include all the former Byzantine possessions. The Byzantine rule continued in Nicaea, Trebizond, and Epirus. Eventually the Byzantines recovered their empire from the Latins, but it had been fatally weakened and was doomed.

Decline and the Ottomans

Ottoman Empire: c1450


Ottoman Empire: c1683


After the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the Crusaders, two Byzantine successor states were established: the Empire of Nicaea, and the Despotate of Epirus, either of which might have reclaimed Constantinople. However, the 1242 Mongol Invasion further weakened the Byzantines and enabled many Beyliks and ghazis to move into Anatolia. One of those beys, Osman I, created an empire that finally conquered Byzantium in 1453 by Sultan Mehmed II. However, the Empire of Nicaea managed to reclaim Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 and defeat Epirus. This led to a short-lived revival of Byzantine fortunes under Michael VIII Doukas Palaiologos, but the Byzantine defences had been fatally damaged by the Fourth Crusade and the enormous cost of re-building was unpopular.

Michael avoided another European sacking of Constantinople by forcing the Church to submit to Rome. The efforts of Andronikos II Palaeologus and later his grandson Andronikos III marked Byzantium's last attempts to restore the empire. Sadly limited manpower led to mercenaries who pillaged the peasants and increased resentment towards Constantinople and civil war. In 1354 an earthquake devastated Gallipoli and enabled the Turks to cross into Europe. The Ottomans defeated the Serbians and conquered much of the Balkans. The Emperors appeals for help were largely unanswered since the Pope insisted on the reunion of the Eastern Orthodox Church under Rome, which the Orthodox citizens and clergy intensely resented.

Constantinople by this stage was underpopulated and weak: it had never recovered from the Venetian rape. The population of the city had collapsed so severely that it was now little more than a cluster of villages separated by fields. On 2 April 1453, Sultan Mehmed's 80,000-man army began the final siege and Constantinople finally fell to the Ottomans on 29 May 1453. By 1500, the Ottoman Empire was established in Asia Minor and parts of the Balkan peninsula. The role of patron of Eastern Orthodoxy was claimed by Ivan III, Tsar of Muscovy. He had married Zöe Sophia Palaeologue, whose grandson, lvan IV, would become the first Tsar of Russia, or caesar. The tsars supported the idea that Moscow was the heir to both Rome and Constantinople.

As the only stable long-term state in Europe during the Middle Ages, Byzantium isolated Western Europe from many of the eastern invasions. Constantly under attack, Byzantium distanced much of Western Europe from the Persians, Arabs, Seljuk Turks, and for a time, the Ottomans. The Byzantine-Arab wars enabled the rise of Charlemagne, and stimulated European feudalism and economic self-sufficiency.

Byzantine Legacy

The Byzantine era ended with the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, but by this time the Byzantine cultural heritage had been widely diffused, carried by the spread of Orthodox Christianity, to Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania and, most importantly, to Russia, which became the centre of the Orthodox world following the Ottoman conquest of the Balkans. Even under Ottoman rule, Byzantine traditions in icon-painting and other small-scale arts survived, especially in the Venetian-ruled Crete and Rhodes, where a "post-Byzantine" style under increasing Western influence survived for a further two centuries, producing El Greco and other significant artists.

The influence of Byzantine art in western Europe, particularly Italy was seen in ecclesiastical architecture, through the development of the Romanesque style in the 10th century and 11th centuries. This influence was transmitted through the Frankish and Salic emperors, primarily Charlemagne, who had close relations with Byzantium. The contribution of the migrated Byzantine scholars in Renaissance is also very important.[10]

Perhaps the single most salient aspect of Byzantine culture was the transmission of classical culture. While classical studies, science, and philosophy largely dissipated in the Latin west, Byzantine education and philosophy zealously pursued these intellectual traditions. It was in Byzantium that authors like Plato and Aristotle continued to be studied, translated, and then eventually transmitted and taught first into the Islamic world and then back into western Europe. A basic education in Byzantium consisted first of the mastery of classical Greek literature, such as Homer (largely unknown in the West during this period) - almost all of the Greek literature we have today was only preserved by the Byzantines.

Unlike Greece and Rome during the classical period or the Latin West during the Middle Ages, women actively participated in the intellectual life of the culture. While they could not attend schools, aristocratic women were often well-educated at home by tutors in literature, history, composition, and philosophy. The greatest of Byzantine writers, in fact, was the historian Anna Komnene, the daughter of the emperor Alexios. Her biography (The Alexiad) of her father is one of the greatest works of medieval historiography in existence—this includes the histories written in Europe.

Of the results of the Fourth Crusade, the Ottoman Turks had real cause to be thankfull. With the 1204 destruction of this bastion, although Byzantium limped forward another 250 years it was finally defeated, raped and pillaged again 250 years later. (The Sultan Mehmet II only allowed two days of rape and pillage for his soldiers!) With those defences gone it then an easy matter for the Ottomans to successfully invade Europe. The Balkans, Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia; and Italy were all either invaded, or conquered by the Ottomans. The price paid for the stolen horses of San Marcos was high, but then it was never paid by the Venetians themselves.


1             Adapted from Colin Wells, Sailing from Byzantium; and Byzantine Empire at,; and Constantinople at I have also used Richard Hooker's The Byzantine Empire at; and The Byzantine Empire at,; Internet Medieval Sourcebook at,; The Byzantine Empire at,; Medieval Sourcebook: Anna Comnena: The Alexiad at,; HISTORY OF THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE at,; List of Byzantine emperors at,; and An Online Encyclopedia of Roman Rulers and their Families at,

2             See the Donation of Constantine at, Pope Stephen II annointed Pepin the Short as king of the Franks in 754. Suspiciously, the pope produced a document designating Pope Sylvester I (and subsequent popes) as heir of the Roman Emperor Constantine I for the lands of Judea, Greece, Asia, Thrace, Africa, as well as the city of Rome, with Italy and the entire Western Roman Empire, while Constantine would retain imperial authority in the Eastern Roman Empire from his new imperial capital of Constantinople. Despite later proofs of fraudulence, the Pope used the implicit authority to legitimise Pepin's seizure of Frankish power, for which King Pepin then granted back Italian lands, which in turn became the Papal States and the origin of secular papal power.

3             Constantinople at,

4             Haggia Sophia details are from Constantinople at,

5            For maps see Constantinople at,; The Byzantine Empire at,; and Ottoman Empire at,

6            Schism of 1054 at,

7            The complex story of revenge, greed, and lust is recounted in Andronicus I Comnenus(A.D. 1183-1185) at; Alexios IV Angelos at,

8             Medieval Sourcebook: Nicetas Choniates: The Sack of Constantinople (1204) at, This account of the sack of the city was by Nicetas Choniates who was a Byzantine historian. There are other accounts much worse. See also Alexander Canduci, The Greatest Lies in History, pp. 36-47.

9            The Sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders at,, which cites and gives extracts from "The Fourth Crusade" Translations and Reprints from the Original Sources in European History, Dana Carlton Munro, ed. and tr., vol. III, no. 1 (University of Pennsylvania, 1907), pp. 13-14. Original found in Robert de Clari, ch. lxxiilxxiii, in Hopf: Chroniques, pp. 5758. Old French. The date of the letter appears to be an estimate cited from Potthast: Regesta went. Rern., No. 2507.

10          See Byzantine art at,

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