Byzantine Empire: An Introduction

The Byzantine Empire -A Thousand Year Success Story

The Roman Empire lasted over 507 years, conquering 1.7 million square miles of land across three continents with its massive army.  However, the seeds of change were planted when in 323 CE, a young Roman officer named Constantine gained power and became the Emperor of Rome. Within a few years of his reign, he made several major decisions which effected the course of history for Europe and the Arabian Peninsula and laid the foundation for a separate and powerful Kingdom that would outlast the Roman Empire.

Firstly, he converted to Christianity. Up until that time, Christians had been persecuted (arrested or killed) for their faith, but Constantine legalized the religion and provided them with safety. This allowed Christian monks and the church missionaries to travel and tell more people about the religion. Constantine also commissioned the building of many elaborate churches that displayed not only Roman architecture, but also a new style historians called Roman Orthodox or Eastern Roman. Influences came from the people living in the Eastern parts of the Roman Empire and included gorgeous mosaics, massive dome roofs, and gold coffered ceilings.

In addition to converting to Christianity, Constantine moved the Empire’s capital from Rome to a small village in modern-day Turkey called Byzantium. He oversaw the construction of the Imperial Palace and an extravagant city which he renamed Constantinople after himself. The strategic location of Constantinople gave the Byzantine Empire several advantages. Constantine kept close watch on the threats of Persia and Germanic tribes at the Eastern edge of his empire. This location also placed him closer to areas considered sacred to Christians, such as the Holy City of Jerusalem, and the Roman cultural centers such as Troy.

Even as the original Western Roman Empire pulled away culturally and religiously from the East and fell to European and Germanic tribes, a new emperor, Justinian, continued Constantine’s work. He rewrote and improved Roman law, which you will read about in one of the stations. While Greek was becoming more popular, Latin remained important to the Eastern Romans, becoming the official language. A focus on different religious rites, specific prayers, and worship eventually lead to a split between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church in 1054.

Byzantine territory expanded and reduced several times, often due to Arab and Persian attacks. In the 12th century, the Roman Catholic Crusaders also attacked areas of the Byzantine Empire on their way to the Holy Land. This greatly weakened the Byzantine forces and left them vulnerable to Persia’s advances in 1453 by the Ottoman Turks. The Turks called their captured city Istanbul and reverted the official religion to Islam. Though the Byzantine no longer existed, it lasted over 1,000 years, nearly twice as long as the Roman Empire!


Tour the City of Constantinople! Destination #1: The Bosporus

Key concepts you will learn about at this stop:

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Geography – Physical environment and how it may influence an economy and culture.

The Economic Hub between Asia and Europe

At the heart of the Byzantine Empire is the Bosporus strait, the waterway Byzantine emperors controlled as part of the massive trade route bridging the Silk Road from Europe to Asia. It’s the only way between the Black and Mediterranean seas, and has caused many conflicts throughout history. The economy of the Byzantine Empire thrived on trade conducted right outside and within its capital city, Constantinople.

Many historians believe that the Byzantine Empire holds the title of the richest empire known in human history. Each trader, by land and via the waterway known as the Bosporus, were taxed 10% in gold or goods. Traders came East from the Roman Empire and Northern Africa, North from the Middle East, China, and India, and even Vikings and Russians came south down major rivers. These traders brought a plethora of products, including fish, meat, vegetables, other alimentary products, timber, wax, ceramics, linen, woven cloth, silks, perfumes, oil, wine, salt, and spices. Merchants from Rome, the capital of the Western Roman Empire early in its history, marveled at the wealth of Constantinople. Traders conversed in many languages, but Greek remained the Eastern Roman Empire’s designated speech.

Tour the City of Constantinople! Destination #2: The Hagia Sophia

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Achievements -The lasting contributions of a civilization.

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization. 

The influence of religion

The marvelous church Hagia Sophia  balances beauty with reverence. Commissioned by Emperor Justinian in the 6th century, its dome and semi-domes should not have withstood time. Yet its exquisite  mosaics, polished marble walls and columns, and fresco paintings still awe over 28 million guests each year. Historian Prokopios wrote about it when the Byzantine’s completed construction:

“The church is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted by the sun from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into this church.”

Byzantine royal families used Hagia Sophia as their main place of worship, and many baptisms, emperor consecrations, and funerals happened there.

Tour the City of Constantinople! Destination #3: The Great Palace & Justinian

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

The Justinian Codes

The Justinian Codes were most certainly contemplated in his royal home, the Great Palace.  In order to oversee his empire, Justinian ordered experts to consolidate old Roman laws into a single document. The Justinian Code, as it became known, served as the legal basis for criminal justice, marriage, property, slavery and women’s rights. The law became one of the most important contributions of the Byzantine Empire and serve as a basis for the organization of law even today. The following are two examples of the Justinian Codes:

Book I, Of Persons – VIII. Slaves

Slaves are in the power of masters, a power derived from the law of nations: for among all nations it may be remarked that masters have the power of life and death over their slaves, and that everything acquired by the slave is acquired for the master.

Book II, Of Things I. Division of Things 

If the wheat of Titius is mixed with yours, when this takes place by mutual consent, the mixed heap belongs to you in common because each body, that is, each grain, which before was the property of one or other of you, has by your mutual consent been made your common property; but, if the intermixture were accidental, or made by Titius without your consent, the mixed wheat does not then belong to you both in common.

Tour the City of Constantinople! Destination #4: The Church of the apostles

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Economy – How a Civilization makes money by the buying and selling of goods and services.

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization. 

The first Roman Emperor to profess Christianity

The Church of the Apostles is a holy place that housed bodies of most of the Eastern Empire’s leadership, including its founder and builder Constantine. The original church was cross-shaped, depicting a dedication to Christianity. It displayed the unique architecture of the Byzantine Empire also reflected in the Hagia Sophia: Ornate, gold plated domes, Roman-style baths, and ornate marble.

Constantine was a fierce and successful warrior. He claimed to receive a message from God that he would have victory in the cross. He converted to Christianity and used the cross as a symbol for his power. It was placed on coins, his soldiers shields and armor, and his flags. The Emperor wrote a special prayer for his men, and moved from battle to battle with a special chapel tent for prayer and worship. Constantine decreed the building of many Christian churches in the Roman Empire, including the Church of the Apostles. He considered himself Jesus’s 13th apostle, and his tomb is surrounded by memorials of the twelve other disciples.

Constantine ruled from 324 CE to 337 CE, and committed to Christianity both personally and as an Emperor. Even though the Byzantine population considered themselves Romans, they followed his decisions as a representative of Christ and these changes helped them stay in power when the Western Roman Empire fell in 476 CE.

Tour the City of Constantinople! Destination #5: The Hippodrome & Theodora

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Social Class – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities and privileges.

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

A look at empress Theodora’s early life

While Constantine did away with many Roman cultural events that he deemed unaligned with Christianity, the need for entertainment and celebrations led to the building of the Hippodrome arena in Constantinople. This massive arena similar in architectural style to Rome’s colosseum held chariot races, parades, and occasionally, the public shaming of the Emperor’s enemies.

The Hippodrome also held the humble beginnings of Byzantine’s most influential woman. Empress Theodora lived as the daughter of a bear-keeper in the Hippodrome and became an actress. Her performances caught the eye of Justinian before he became Emperor, and they married. Her low-class birth made many Byzantine leaders unhappy with her royal husband. Even if her father had pledged to the emperor as a feudal lord, she would not have been considered acceptable for the heir to the throne.

Empress Theodora’s Influence

Empress Theodora proved her value in supporting and assisting her husband through several political hardships. One such example, the Nika Revolt of 532 BCE, stirred up a riot in the Hippodrome. Empress Theodora convinced Justinian to fight the mob and stand firm in the decrees the rioters opposed. The Empress is noted for being highly intellectual and respected by her husband, Justinian as his most trusted advisor. The empress is  credited as one of the first rulers to recognize the rights of women. She initiated passing strict laws to prohibit the trafficking of young girls and altering the divorce laws to give greater benefits to women.

Tour the City of Constantinople! Destination #6: The Theodosian Walls

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

The structures of Byzantine’s military power

The Eastern Romans erected the Theodosian Walls to protect Byzantine from outside threats at the commission of Emperor Theodosius II (408-450 CE). They are considered the longest and thickest walls built in human history, even more impressive than China’s Great Wall.  The Golden Gate at the Eastern end of Constantinople created a formidable entrance for merchants and visiting nobility. Two towers flanked the 40-foot-tall gate, ushering visitors through three massive arches. Sadly, most of the walls have been destroyed by attacks and earthquakes. When Rome fell in 410 CE, Theodosius commissioned additional defenses, including triple layer walls and deep ditches that could be flooded with dam water to make Constantinople safe.

Fall of Constantinople

In 1204 CE, Constantinople unexpectedly fell to the armies of the fourth crusade. The crusaders gained control of the Bosporus and the harbor of the Golden Horn, set fire to the city, and scared off the reigning emperor. Though Byzantine never completely bowed to the Western Pope or remerged with Europe, it also never returned to its former glory. In 1453 CE Constantinople was attacked by the Muslim Ottoman Turks. Historic Byzantine churches were converted to mosques, and the glory of this Christian capital in the east was never fully restored.

Tour The Byzantine Empire! Destination #7: Monastery Caves in Cappadocia

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization. 

Geography – Physical environment and how it may influence an economy and culture.

Dedication to Christianity in the hills

The Romans believed in a group of myths and gods called the Pantheon. When Christianity took root in Rome, hostility grew. As Christians began to evangelize, or teach their religion to others, they settled in other regions. To keep better control of their conquered land, Rome set leadership over regions called provinces. Cappadocia was one of the Western Roman Empire’s largest provinces nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the Taurus Mountains in modern-day Turkey. Christians hid in caves to avoid being arrested or killed. The natural tuff (volcanic rock) caves, ferry chimneys, and defensible locations in Cappadocia became a prime spot for a monastic lifestyle. Christians created unique architecture throughout these tunnels and even used pigeon poop as a base for paint to decorate their underground homes and churches.

Eventually, Emperor Constantine embraced Christianity and later Constantine IX set up a feudal system to protect his population in exchange for property and service in his armies. However, the Cappadocian Christians stayed safe in their caves.

Tour The Byzantine Empire! Destination #8: Ravenna

Key concepts you will learn about at this station:

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

The Art and Architecture of Ravenna

The city of Ravenna in north-eastern Italy houses some of the most beautiful art from the Roman and Byzantine Empires. Dozens of churches commissioned by various Roman leaders portray a fusion of classical Roman architecture and painting techniques. Many of the churches have a cross layout, glittering domes, and mosaic adornments typical of the Eastern Byzantine style. However, the arches, beam structures, and pillars are typical of the Western Roman Empire architecture. The harbor at Classis furthered the wealth of this Italian city, offering a stop for merchants on the Adriatic Sea.

Ravenna Changes Hands

Rome held the title of Capital of the Western Roman Empire until 402 CE, when Emperor Honorius feared the barbarian invasions and moved his household and administration to the safety of Ravenna. When the Western Roman Empire fell to barbarians, this magnificent city spent 100 years under their reign. Then, the Byzantine armies retook Ravenna in 540 CE and set up the city as the capital of their Italian province.