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Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire, eastern part of the Roman Empire (Roman Empire), which survived after the breakup of the Western Empire in the 5th century AD. Its capital was Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

Constantinople became a capital of the Roman Empire in 330 after Constantine the Great, the first Christian emperor, refounded the city of Byzantium and named it after himself. Only gradually did it develop into the true capital of the eastern Roman provinces-those areas of the empire in southeastern Europe, southwestern Asia, and the northeast corner of Africa, which included the present-day countries of the Balkan Peninsula, and Syria, Jordan, Israel, Lebanon, Cyprus, Egypt, and the eastern part of Libya. Scholars have called the empire Byzantine after the ancient name of its capital, Byzantium, or the Eastern Roman Empire, but to contemporaries and in official terminology of the time, it was simply Roman, and its subjects were Romans (Rhomaioi). Its predominant language was Greek, although some of its subjects spoke Latin, Coptic, Syriac, Armenian, and other local languages during its long (330-1453) history. Its emperors regarded the one-time geographical limits of the Roman Empire as theirs, and they looked to Rome for their traditions, symbols, and institutions. The empire, ruled by an emperor (basileus) without any formal constitution, slowly formed a synthesis of late Roman institutions, orthodox Christianity, and Greek language and culture.

EARLY PERIOD

Constantine the Great established precedents for the harmony of church and imperial authorities that persisted throughout the history of the empire. These included his creation of a successful new monetary system based on the gold solidus, or nomisma, which lasted into the middle of the 11th century. The commercial prosperity of the 4th through the 6th century enabled many ancient cities to flourish. Large estates dominated agriculture, and while heavy taxation resulted in much abandonment of land, agriculture continued to be productive. The church acquired vast landed estates and, along with the emperor himself, was the largest landholder during most of the empire's history. Rigorous imperial regulation of the purity and supply of precious metals, as well as the organization of commerce and artisanship, characterized economic life.

Emperor Justinian I and his wife, Theodora, attempted to restore the former majesty, intellectual quality, and geographic limits of the Roman Empire. At great cost, they reconquered, between 534 and 565, North Africa, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, and parts of Spain. This effort, however, together with substantial expenses incurred in erecting public buildings and churches-in particular, Hagia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople-overstrained the empire's resources, while plagues reduced its population.

THE EMPIRE BESIEGED

The empire had survived Germanic and Hunnic tribal migrations and raids in the 5th and 6th centuries and had stabilized a reasonably secure eastern frontier against the Sassanid Persian Empire, but it could not recover, hold, and govern the entire Mediterranean world. During the second half of the 6th century the Lombards invaded and gradually occupied much of former Byzantine Italy-except for Rome, Ravenna, Naples, and the far south-while Turkic Avar cavalry raided and depopulated much of the Byzantine Balkans.

Many features of the empire and its culture changed during the 7th century. Most of the Balkans were lost to the Avars and to Slavic tribes, who resettled abandoned sites. Meanwhile, the assassination of Mauricius, the first Byzantine emperor to fall to a violent death, led to civil and external war. Emperor Heraclius finally terminated a long series of wars with the Persians by a decisive victory in 628 and the recovery of Persian-occupied Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Exhaustion from this struggle and bitter religious disputes between rival Christian sects weakened Byzantine defenses and morale, leaving the empire unprepared to face another danger in the decade that followed. Between 634 and 642, Arabs, inspired by a new religion, Islam, conquered Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, and Egypt. Constantinople weathered major Arab sieges in the 670s and in 717-18, and Byzantine Asia Minor survived almost annual Arab raids. Byzantium, by a process that remains controversial among historians, transformed its armies into an elite expeditionary guard named tagmata and into army corps called themes (themata). Each was commanded by a strategos, or general, who acquired civil and military authority over his army district; thematic armies became army corps districts, and their soldiers, who acquired tax-exempt lands, preserved the core of the empire while avoiding the ruinous drain of cash that had overstrained the salaried armies of the period before the Arab invasions. Urban life and commerce declined except in Thessalonнki and Constantinople. Warfare and resulting insecurity inhibited agriculture and education. The empire, with limited resources, could no longer maintain the full dimensions, infrastructure, and complexity of the late Roman Empire. It managed to endure and adapt to its straitened circumstances.

AGE OF RECONQUEST

Beginning in the 9th century, Byzantium experienced a major recovery that took several forms. The Muslim offensive halted on the eastern frontier, both because of the decline of the caliphate and because of the ingenuity of Byzantine strategy. Byzantium began to regain territory in southeastern Asia Minor in the early 10th century. Lands lost to the Slavs in Greece, Macedonia, and Thrace also were reconquered and reorganized. The recovery reached its maturity under the long-reigning Macedonian dynasty, which began in 867 under its founder, Emperor Basil I, and lasted until 1081. Intellectual life revived in many dimensions: Ancient manuscripts were recopied and summarized; encyclopedias and other reference works were compiled; and mathematics, astronomy, and literature received new attention. The revival of learning was accompanied by a conscious return to classical models in art and literature. External trade also intensified in the Mediterranean and Black seas.

Bulgaria declined and was occupied by Byzantine armies in the 970s, while these armies also reconquered land southeast of the Taurus Mountains from the Muslims, including parts of northern Mesopotamia, northern Syria, and the northern Syrian coast.

The greatest Macedonian emperor was Basil II, who sternly repressed (1014) a lengthy Bulgarian rebellion and expanded his control of formerly independent Armenian and Georgian principalities. His efforts, like those of his predecessors, ultimately failed to reverse the growing concentration of land in the hands of a few wealthy individuals and the church. He replaced the power of many older families with a new group of loyal families. This failure damaged the revenues, authority, personnel, and other military resources of the state.

After the death of Basil II, the empire enjoyed economic expansion and prosperity but suffered from a series of mediocre emperors who neglected new technological, cultural, and economic developments in western Europe and the Islamic world while the army deteriorated. The Seljuk Turks, after making devastating raids into Byzantium's eastern territories, crushed an imperial army at the Battle of Manzikert (1071) and overran most of Byzantine Asia Minor. The old thematic armies had decayed. Meanwhile, the Byzantines lost their last foothold in Italy and were alienated from the Christian West by a schism (1054) between the Orthodox church and the papacy.

DECLINE AND FALL

Emperor Alexius I, founder of the Comnenian dynasty, nevertheless appealed to the pope for aid against the Turks. Western Europe responded with the First Crusade (1096-99).

Although Byzantium initially benefited from the Crusades, recovering some land in Asia Minor, in the long run they hastened the empire's decline. Italian merchant cities won special trading privileges in Byzantine territory and gained control of much of the empire's commerce and wealth. The Byzantines experienced a superficial prosperity in the 12th century, but their political and military power waned. Crusaders allied with Venice, then took advantage of internal Byzantine strife to seize and plunder Constantinople in 1204, establishing their own Latin Empire of Constantinople. Byzantine resistance sprang up in Epirus, Trebizond, and especially in the city and region of Nicaea, in Asia Minor. Emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus recaptured Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 and founded the Palaeologan dynasty, which ruled the empire until 1453. The Palaeologan Empire's resources were very limited in terms of finances, land, and central authority. Agricultural conditions worsened for the rural population. The emergent Ottoman Turks conquered the remnants of Byzantine Asia Minor early in the 14th century. After 1354 they overran the Balkans and finally took Constantinople, bringing the empire to an end in 1453.

THE IMPERIAL OFFICE

The Byzantine Empire was ruled by autocratic emperors who were the source of governmental authority. Emperors were responsible for upholding correct religious doctrine by placing the full force of imperial power behind doctrinal uniformity. Emperors strove for religious unanimity, in part to cultivate favor from church officials, but also because they believed that the survival and welfare of the empire depended on divine favor. The emperor embodied living law, issued legislation, and was the final interpreter of secular law. Ultimate responsibility for all political and military appointments rested with him, and he had a decisive role in selecting and removing the patriarch of Constantinople and other church officials. The emperor was at the summit of a splendid formal etiquette, and Byzantine society was characterized by rank consciousness and minute attention to protocol.

THE BYZANTINE LEGACY

This conception of imperial authority, together with the creation of the Cyrillic alphabet for the Slavs by Byzantine missionaries, and the preservation of ancient Greek manuscripts and culture by Byzantine scholars, were the most important contributions of Byzantium to posterity. The Byzantine intellectual tradition did not die in 1453: Byzantine scholars who visited Italy as individuals or imperial envoys in the 14th and 15th centuries exerted a strong influence on the Italian Renaissance. The Palaeologan revival of elements of Greek classicism, especially in encyclopedism, history, literature, philosophy, mathematics, and astronomy, was transmitted to a rarefied audience of Italian scholars and Greek residents of Italy, and in this fashion Byzantine scholarship long survived the disappearance of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine traditions and procedures also survived among the Greek and Slavic peoples. Conversion of the rulers of the Bulgars, Serbs, and Russians to Orthodox Christianity in the 9th and 10th centuries drew these peoples into the Byzantine cultural and ecclesiastical sphere and greatly influenced their development in medieval and early modern times.


10.06.2009

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