The Byzantine Empire/Eastern Roman Empire

The split between the Eastern Roman Empire (later known as the Byzantine Empire) and the Western Roman Empire came about because, during the 4th century, the empire could no longer control its long borders and far-flung outposts. So when Constantine I became emperor, he divided the empire into east and west and set up a capital in the east named Constantinople (now known as Istanbul).

Birth of the Eastern Roman Empire

When looking for a place to build his new capital, Constantine I decided on an ancient Greek site known as Byzantium around 330 AD. He took over a small Greek town and developed the new Eastern Roman capital, Constantinople.

In the coming decades, Constantine set to work setting up his capital and ensuring his Eastern outposts were controlled. The Citizens of the Byzantine Empire saw themselves as both Romans and Christians. Their official language was Latin, but many spoke Greek or Arabic languages too.

As the Western Roman Empire crumbled, the Eastern Roman Empire flourished and expanded its borders. Constantine had chosen the location of his capital well as it was very difficult to attack and was in a strategic location for trade between Europe and Asia.

Some key figures from the beginning of the Eastern Roman Empire

One tumultuous leader from this time was Flavius Zeno, an Eastern Roman emperor from 474 to 475 and 476 to 491.

His reign managed to attract several domestic revolts and religious conflicts. His power also saw the end of the Western Roman empire.

One figure in particular greatly impacted his rule: a Roman general named Illus. Flavius Illus was a Roman general who played a big part in the reigns of the Eastern Roman emperors Zeno and Basiliscus (Emperor of Eastern Rome between 475 and 476).

Basiliscus took the reign from Zeno for one year before Zeno returned. Illus played an important role in the revolt of Basiliscus. His support was short-lived, though, as he quickly changed sides, supporting Zeno’s return in 476.

Illus appeared to serve as a loyal follower of Zeno. He helped him defeat Marcianus  479, a tyrant who tried to replace Zeno by force.

However, Illus, rather unsurprisingly, betrayed Zeno and supported the revolt of Leontius, another usurper, in 484. The rebellion lasted four years, but, unfortunately for Illus, the revolution was unsuccessful, and he was subsequently killed in 488.

Expanding the Eastern Roman Empire

Justinian I

With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire officially became known as the Byzantine Empire. One of the best-known rulers of this empire was Justinian I. He came to power in 527 and ruled for nearly 40 years. He expanded the empire to include most of the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea and created beautiful architecture, such as the ‘Hagia Sophia cathedral in Constantinople.

After Justinian I

Unfortunately, to expand the empire so much, Justinian I had to borrow large sums of money. As a result, he left a lot of debt, and the following rulers had to tax citizens to maintain the empire.

The imperial army also found it hard to hold on to the new territory that had been conquered as the Byzantine Empire did not have the same intricate road and travel network that the original Roman Empire had developed.

The Golden Age of the Eastern Roman Empire

During the 10th and 11th centuries, the Byzantine Empire entered a period of peace, there were very few wars, and many of the citizens could reach a level of prosperity. It became known as the “Golden Age” of the empire. Even though the kingdom had lost some of its furthest outposts, its leaders focused on the closest territories and expanding trade/wealth.

Many Byzantine Emperors were skilled at diplomacy and trade links with neighbors to protect the peace and trade they had developed. As a result, trade moved freely from China through Asia, the Middle East, Europe, and Britain/France.

Fall of the Empire

The Byzantine Empire acted as a buffer and link between Europe/Asia. Although, as European crusaders passed through the empire to battle Muslims in the Holy Land/Jerusalem, tensions grew. Eventually, the crusaders decided to take control of the city and attacked Constantinople in 1204.

After several attacks by the European crusaders, the Byzantine Empire could never regain control over its territories and existed in a weakened state for two more centuries before being overtaken by the Middle Eastern Ottoman Empire.

Eastern Roman Empire Timeline

  • 395 AD: The Roman Empire divides in half, with the Eastern and Western Roman Empires controlled separately.
  • 476 AD: The Western Empire falls, and the Eastern Empire is now labeled as Byzantine Empire.
  • 526 AD: Justinian I begins his reign and reconquers much of the territory of the lost Western Empire.
  • 693 AD: Muslim armies attack Constantinople, but the military is defeated.
  • 717 AD: A large force besieges Constantinople from Asia but is held off.
  • 800 AD: Charlemagne, King of the Franks, is crowned ‘Emperor of All Romans’ by the Pope.
  • 941 AD: The Byzantine Empire destroys the vast fleet of Russian ships during a war with Prince Igor of Kyiv.
  • 995 AD: Basil II reconquers Syria and Greece.
  • 1055 AD: Italian territories are lost to the Normans
  • 1075 AD: Syria is lost to Muslim kingdoms.
  • 1096 AD: Crusaders first arrive at Constantinople.
  • 1204 AD: The Fourth Crusade attacks Constantinople and captures it.
  • 1453 AD: The rest of the Byzantine Empire is overtaken by the Ottoman Empire.
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