The Byzantine Empire is one of the more important cultures of the pre-modern era, surviving for eleven hundred years after its creation out of the collapsing Roman Empire. Its story is interesting for what it tells us about human society, governments, and power, and its history features common themes, such as the influence of geography and religion. Having said that, there are certainly enough uniqueness in this culture to qualify it as a “one off”.
Purists might say I’m out of scope because the focus of this blog is ancient history and Byzantine Empire falls outside of the designated end date for antiquity (476 AD). But it was a child of antiquity and carried forward its institutions for centuries, making it relevant alongside any story from the ancient world. It was a thousand year empire born at the end of the Roman millennium.
The Byzantine Empire was made possible largely through the influence of two men: the Roman emperors Diocletian and Constantine. The former divided the Roman Empire into east and west in 284 AD and, for the first time, set up an emperor and administrative apparatus separate from the west. Then, in the early decades of fourth century AD, Constantine renamed the city of Byzantium to Constantinople, made it the capital city of the east, and designated Christianity the official state religion of Rome. It took more than the organization and names of two men to launch the Byzantine Empire, however. It also took strength of leadership and hard work to repel wave after wave of barbarian invaders until that threat came to an end.
Diocletian divided the empire into east and west for at least two reasons. First, Rome was constantly being attacked by tribes from the Balkans, which was difficult for the western army to defend against. Secondly, Persia had risen to the level of a formidable adversary in Asia Minor, so it made sense to base a powerful army in the east. Once the maps were redrawn, Diocletian gave himself the east and named Maximian the emperor of the west. Why did he do that? We can only guess but most likely he favored the east because it had a larger army and a more significant adversary in Persia. As the senior leader of Rome it made sense to him to take on the biggest challenge.
Diocletian served until 305 AD and then he retired. His successors were not strong enough to maintain stability and civil wars dominated the Roman landscape until Constantine gained control of east and west in 314, after the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Constantine ruled long and well, relying on subordinates to keep the Roman world together. In 324, he re-dedicated the city of Byzantium naming it New Rome (later renamed Constantinople), because he wanted create his own capital in the east to replace Nicomedia. Constantine re-fortified the city and began a large scale reconstruction effort designed to make the city worthy of its title as the capital of the east. He was also heavily involved in the philosophical battles within the Christian church during this period and he attended the Nicaean council in 325. Constantine was baptized as a Christian on his deathbed in 337.
The century and a half after Constantine saw significant infighting among the Romans for control of the empire and its territory, at the same time fending off invasions by the Goths and Huns. The most significant military event of the later fourth century was the Roman defeat at Adrianople in 376, which nearly destroyed the eastern army, and made it dependent on the armies of the west until it could rebuild itself. This Gothic invasion foreshadowed a period of wars lasting a century and included the invasion by Attila the Hun in 452. When the empire in the west collapsed in 476, the east was able to stand on its own as the legitimate successor state, but it took another forty years of fighting wars to end the threat and set the stage for the reign of Justinian.
The Byzantine Empire was not an “empire” in the way the dictionary would define it. It was, in reality, an artificial state which governed a diverse culture featuring Hellenistic philosophy, Christianity, and the Greek language. It survived for the same reasons any political system survives – strong leadership, a competent professional bureaucracy, and reasonable economic opportunity for its populace. Although its emperor’s sought to unify the empire’s religion as Christianity, they were never completely successful in this endeavor and, for the most part, chose to tolerate religious diversity.
There was no concept of patriotism in the Byzantine Empire in the way we understand it today, so language and religious differences did not rise to the level where they could destabilize the government. The people obeyed their emperors whether they liked them or not and lived their lives. They believed they lived in the greatest empire in the world but that didn’t have much to do with how big or strong the empire was and they never really resisted the idea that an emperor could be overthrown in favor of someone who might be better.
One might suggest that any perceived weakness resulting from the lack of structure in the Byzantine Empire was actually a strength because its “loose” cultural norms were not exclusionary based on any principle or set of principles.