Regarded by many historians as part of one of the five most powerful empires in history, the Byzantine Empire (also known as the Eastern Roman Empire) has a long and complicated place in history.
Led by Roman Emperor Constantine the Great, Byzantium (later renamed Constantinople, known now as Istanbul) was coveted and attacked by many in its 1100 years of existence.
Due to its strategic location and commercial significance, the empire was the heart of power and wealth in the middle ages, existing in different forms from 330 to 1453.
Keep reading to learn about the rise and fall of this magnificent empire and how you can visit some of its most splendid sites during your visit to Turkey.
Born Flavius Valerius Constantinus and later known as Constantine the Great, Constantine I was the first Christian Roman Emporer.
Many historians charge him with transforming the Roman Empire into a Christian state that is an accomplishment that would have an impact for centuries leading up to modern-day.
Constantine the Great’s most prominent action in history is the formation of “New Rome” in the then-Greek state of Byzantium. He later renamed the city Constantinople, which is now what we know as modern-day Istanbul. It was Constantine’s Christian beliefs that ultimately paved the way for the growth of the empire.
He also solidified the Christian culture that would be present in the Roman Empire and the Western world for centuries to come.
Though it was initially the ancient Greeks who colonized the area in the 600’s BCE, it was the empire of Constantine the Great who took that power in the area to new heights.
Emperor Constantine decided to move the empire’s capital from Rome to modern-day Istanbul (then the Greek state of Byzantium) in 330. This was the beginning of 1100 years of power and wealth for the region.
Historians regarded Constantine as one of the greatest strategists in history. He was playing the long game when he moved the capital of the Roman Empire.
At the time, Rome was being weakened by the day, struggling from constant attacks from the neighboring Barbarians. Emperor Constantine knew he had to make a drastic change.
Though it was seen as an unprecedented and surprising move, the relocation from Rome to Byzantium is what extended the empire’s power for more than 1000 years, long after the death of Constantine the Great in 337.
This is a question that has challenged historians for many years. It’s generally been settled on that the Byzantine Empire was Roman.
The people of the region did call themselves Roman, even though the primary language was Greek. Most of the culture and art of the area were considerably more Greek-influenced than Roman-influenced.
Byzantium was initially a Greek state. Moving in and suddenly calling it New Rome didn’t change the culture of its people. It did, however, succeed in becoming the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, so the question of the culture is a bit skewed.
Though it wasn’t apparent right away, Constantine’s move of the capital to Byzantium eventually proved to be a perfect choice. Its position between Europe and Asia gave it a strategic and powerful stance. Plus, there was only one seaway, the Bosphorus, connecting the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea.
Byzantium-turned-Constantinople was right in the middle of the trade line between Europe and the Silk Road. This unique position made it a highly coveted place to be. The move from Rome to the strategic and relatively safe location of Byzantium turned out to be one of the soundest strategic steps in the history of the middle ages.
Following the death of Constantine the Great in 337, the region saw the beginnings of a decline. His throne was succeeded by Theodosius I when the empire was in danger of collapse. Under his reign, Theodosius turned things around for the region. He was successful at maintaining strong administration and securing its borders once again. He kept hold of the status that would eventually turn it into what’s known as the Byzantine Empire.
When Theodosius met an untimely and unexpected death, the throne was taken over by his two sons, Honorius and Arcadius. Honorius was only 12 years old at the time and was the official ruler of Western Rome. Arcadius, 18, ruled in the East and would become the first official Emperor of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire.
Perhaps the most significant of the Byzantine Emporers (other than Constantine himself), was Justinian who had ambitious plans for the Empire. He made his mark in history in many important ways; regionally, culturally, and spiritually.
First of all, he expanded the borders of Constantinople to the West. His gains took over regions in Southern and Eastern Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.
The empire was at its most significant height of power and wealth during Justinian’s 38-year rule. He was the first Roman emperor to marry and make his wife co-ruler of the land. Some historians regard his wife, Theodora, as the most powerful empress in the history of the middle ages.
Justinian I had a huge impact on the art and culture of the Empire.
Justinian’s cultural impact is one you can visit in person today. He was the ruler who built the famous Hagia Sophia, one of the most important and famed temples in modern-day Europe.
Now situated in the heart of Istanbul, the Hagia Sophia is the picture of Byzantine architecture.
Although Justinian I was successful at expanding the borders of Constantinople and bringing the empire to its golden age, he, unfortunately, spent all of the money in the reserves doing so.
With nothing left in the treasury following his death, his successors failed at holding the newfound boundaries of the empire. This weakness left the borders exposed and open. The empire was once again in danger of collapse with attacks from the Arabs, Sasanids, Bulgarians, and Avars coming from all directions.
Emperor Heraclius stepped in and secured the borders for a short time, but it wasn’t long before much of the expanded region was lost.
The next stage of the empire’s power and success was due to the reign of the Isaurian Dynasty. The next succession of Isaurian rulers, specifically Leo III, made successful reforms and once again secured the borders of the Empire.
What happened next would have both Constantine and Justinian spinning in their graves. The Isaurian Dynasty prohibited Christianity. They banned and removed all religious frescoes, took all remaining religious icons from the church, and kept the riches for themselves.
Constantine worked hard to turn the Roman Empire into a Christian one. Justinian kept the spirit of Christianity alive. The Isaurians saw Christianity as a threat and thought its demise was the only way forward. This period was known as Iconoclasm. The dynasty had their reasons for taking such drastic measures against religion.
Leo III and the Isaurian Dynasty were of the mindset that the emperors should have more wealth and power than the church. So with a few big moves, they made it so.
And just like that, the spiritual and religious work of Constantine and Justinian crumbled into dust, and much of the Byzantine’s art and culture were lost.
Iconoclasm lasted more than 100 years under the Isaurian rule, from 726 to 843. Some regard this period as the dark ages of the Byzantine Empire.
It wasn’t until the Macedonian Dynasty took over the throne in the mid to late 800’s that religious art and the practice of Christianity was restored. A mosaic was created on the altar of the Hagia Sophia temple to symbolize the end of Iconoclasm. You can see the mosaic today at the Hagia Sophia Museum in Istanbul to witness this poignant piece of history first-hand.
Macedonian Emperor Basil II not only restored art and culture for the empire, but he was also a strong player on the battlefield. He restored the empire to its original borders, boosted trade agreements, and strengthened the defense of the region once again. The success of Basil II was widespread and significant. But he, like Justinian, made one crucial mistake which was different than that of Justinian, but it too resulted in a loss for the empire.
Basil’s big mistake was that he did not appoint his successor, and as a consequence, the empire was eventually taken over by bureaucrats who were linked to the throne by marriage. This was not acceptable to the Byzantine military. The conflict that arose between the soldiers and the bureaucrats was eventually won by the bureaucrats, which resulted in the loss of all gains made by Basil II during his reign.
The Byzantine military met defeat under the rule of the Doukas Dynasty in the battle of Manzikert in 1071. This loss led to the victory for Seljuk Turks, who took the Byzantine-ruled region of Anatolia.
One of the Doukas Dynasty’s generals, Andronicus Doukas, betrayed Emperor Romanos Diogenes and led to his capture.
The significant loss of the Battle of Manzikert is considered by many historians to be the beginning of the fall of the Byzantine Empire.
The Seljuk Turks won the battle of Manzikert and kept hold of the region for a while. But when Latin Crusaders persistently invaded the territory from all angles, the empire was weakened, and once again restored to the Byzantines.
The Byzantines successfully fought off the Crusaders for a time, but eventually, in the 4th Crusade, Constantinople was captured due to the strength of Enrico Dandolo (the Doge of Venice).
During this time of weakened borders and spent resources, the empire was further damaged by the Great Schism of 1054, marking the official division of the Eastern and Western Roman churches, which weakened its power even further.
The invasion of the Latin Crusaders lasted nearly 60 years and was highly detrimental to the empire, eventually leading to the dissolution of Constantinople in 1453.
The Byzantine army was strong enough to score a success in fighting off the Latin crusaders, but the damage was done. The empire was at its weakest and most vulnerable point, and the official fall of the empire began when Turkish warlord Osman formed the Ottoman Empire.
The seventh ruler of the Ottoman Empire, Mehmed II, is who would finally capture the coveted capital of Constantinople and mark the fall of the Byzantine Empire for good.
All of this is an important part of the history of modern-day Turkey. It opened doors to pave the way for the eventual migration of people in Central Asia to settle in what we now know as the European country of Turkey (named Turkey because of a French word meaning “Land of the Turks”).
Now that you know all about the Byzantine Empire, it’s time to book your tickets to Turkey to visit the capital of Istanbul.
In Istanbul, you can visit the beautiful and famed Hagia Sophia Museum, walk in the footsteps of Constantine the Great, and see with your own eyes the mosaic that marked the end of Iconoclasm.
Contact us now for information about tours and find out more about the fascinating history of Turkey.