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ByzantiumJustinian

Byzantium[]

History[]

Existing for more than 1,000 years, the Byzantine Empire, centered in the legendary city of Constantinople, was initially formed as the eastern seat of power for the mighty Roman Empire. Located along the trade routes connecting Europe to Asia, Constantinople grew to become the primary trade hub in the region, flourishing despite the conflicts that led to the decline of Rome in the west. Inspired by a number of memorable rulers, the Byzantine Empire was also a source of great cultural growth along the eastern Mediterranean, its affluence allowing for grand displays of art, architecture, science, and music.

Geography and Climate[]

Before the arrival of Constantine in 330 AD, the city of Constantinople was known as Byzantium, a small Greek colony founded in the 7th century BC. Strategically placed along the Bosphorus, the only waterway connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean (via the Marmara and Aegean Seas), this site would prove to be the ideal location for a larger settlement. Protected by water on three sides, Constantinople solidified a nearly impenetrable system of defense with the construction of its legendary walls. Despite the ebb and flow of territories controlled by the empire, the prosperity of the Byzantines could always be attributed to the wisely selected location of Constantinople. Today, the city is known as Istanbul, a megacity located in Turkey with a population of over 13 million people.

Outside of their renowned capital, the vast expanses of territory controlled by the Byzantines featured a diverse geography. At its peak, the empire primarily held regions surrounding the Mediterranean, featuring a subtropical climate with warm, humid summers followed by moderate winters.

Crisis of the Roman Empire[]

Throughout the early centuries of the new millennium, the Roman Empire continued its conquest of Europe and the Mediterranean unabated, consuming new territories faster than the Romans could properly administer them. Particularly on the eastern front, the Roman Emperor Diocletian saw the need for administrative reforms, seeking to improve both the economic stability as well as the defensive capabilities of these frontier territories. In roughly 285 AD, the system Diocletian devised, Tetrarchy, divided leadership of the Roman Empire among four rulers, with four frontier capitals. Nicodemia, the eastern Roman capital (today known as the city of Izmit, Turkey) would later be moved to Constantinople after Constantine I became emperor in 306.

From Four, Two[]

The early development of a distinct Byzantine Empire can be attributed directly to the efforts of the Roman Emperor Constantine I, who, in 330 AD chose the city of Byzantium as the settlement which would become the "Second Rome"- Constantinople. Intended to serve as the capital city of the Eastern Roman Empire (the "Byzantine Empire" being a name conceived of by modern historians), following the dissolution of Diocletian's tetrarchy, Constantinople's separation from Rome would prove to be more pivotal than expected.

With wealth came stability, and the Byzantine Empire, benefitting from its dominance of crucial trade routes, managed to avoid many of the conflicts that Rome itself could not. Relatively young as a city and geographically distant, Constantinople was far less of a prize to the raiders battering Rome during this period. However, the Byzantines were unable to escape the keen eye of history's greatest barbarian - Attila the Hun. These ongoing conflicts with the Huns proved to be troublesome for the Byzantines. Had Attila not died in 453, things might have turned out differently for the empire, as it is said that Attila was planning to return and conquer the kingdom once and for all, following his campaign in Italy.

During this period, the Western Roman Empire (Rome proper) had endured continual economic and military strife and following the eventual fall of Rome itself to the increasingly powerful Germanic tribes, the Byzantine Empire would rise to succeed Rome, becoming one of the most influential kingdoms on the world's stage.

Rule of the Justinians[]

The Justinian Dynasty, founded by Emperor Justin I in 518 and led shortly after in 527 by Justinian I, would see a period of reclamation for the Byzantine Empire, during which time many of the provinces lost by Rome during its decline were regained by Justinian. The Byzantine general Belisarius, who would also serve Justinian in crushing the infamous Nika revolt, led a number of successful campaigns against the Vandals and Ostrogoths during this period of reclamation.

It was during the Justinian Dynasty that Empress Theodora came to play an influential role in the empire. Wife and co-ruler to Justinian I, Theodora made her mark on history as a highly intelligent, trusted advisor to Justinian and an early advocate for the rights of women within the empire. It was Theodora's emphatic speech that guided Justinian through the Nika revolt, an uprising of rival political factions attempting to usurp Justinian's throne in 532. It is said that while Justinian considered fleeing the city, Theodora implored him to remain, allegedly quoting an ancient saying "Royalty is a fine burial shroud." Justinian heeded Theodora's advice, ordering his general Belisarius to suppress the rebellion, leading to an eventual massacre at the Hippodrome that would secure Justinian's throne.

It was also during the Nika revolts that the predecessor of the Hagia Sophia, a Christian church dating to the early times of Constantinople, was destroyed. The grand monument as it is today was constructed shortly after Justinian and Theodora quashed the revolt. Said to have been rebuilt using components gathered from across the empire, the Hagia Sophia features a number of innovative architectural elements and is considered a masterpiece of Byzantine architecture for its lavish decoration and grand scale.

Byzantine Culture[]

Throughout its history, and in particular during the rule of Justinian, culture within Constantinople flourished. Artisans and craftsmen labored to produce grand works of art throughout the city, displaying the influences of their Greek and Roman heritage, as well as the overwhelming authority of the Christian doctrines within the city. Christian art and icons would be revered within the empire for centuries, until the rise of iconoclasm, a backlash against the adulation of religious icons, in the 8th century AD. Although the spark that ignited such fierce iconoclasm within the empire is still debated today, it can be said with certainty that this response led to the destruction of many great works of religious art within Constantinople.

Byzantine architecture is another widely recognized aspect of the empire's storied history. As with Byzantine art, architecture within the empire was heavily influenced by religious motifs. The Byzantines' study of mathematics, which influenced both their aesthetic design as well as their engineering capabilities, allowed for the construction of elaborate basilicas throughout Constantinople. Most notably, the Hagia Sophia and the massive underground water storage chamber known as the Basilica Cistern were completed during the reign of Justinian I.

Dynasties of the Later Millennium[]

During the 7-9th centuries AD, the Byzantine Empire was ruled by a number of short-lived dynasties. In the 7th century, Constantinople fell under the rule of the Heraclians, who struggled continuously with conflicts against the Arab Umayyad forces. The Arabs went so far as to lay siege to the city itself in 674, and although the defenses of Constantinople held, the city entered a period of decline with sharp reductions in its population. This would mark the beginning of the Arab-Byzantine Wars, during which time the Christian Byzantine Empire would be entangled in near constant war with the Islamic Caliphs controlling portions of Iraq, Syria and southern Italy. This conflict would continue sporadically for the next 400 some years, and the empire would suffer through some of its lowest points, before the resurrection of Byzantine power by the Macedonians in 867.

The Macedonians[]

During the reign of the Macedonian Dynasty (867-1057), the Byzantine Empire grew to perhaps its greatest heights, recovering from centuries of decline and once again entering a period of affluence and cultural expansion. Beginning with the reign of Basil I, a growth in both economic prosperity and military power bolstered the empire, and the Byzantines managed a number of key victories over the Arabs and the Bulgarians, regaining lost territory in parts of Syria and the Balkans.

It would be these clashes with the Bulgarians in particular that would have the greatest effect on the future Byzantine Empire. As a result of the Byzantine-Bulgarian Wars, by 1018, the Byzantines had conquered Bulgaria and subjugated the Bulgars. The Bulgars would eventually become unlikely bedfellows to the Byzantines following the siege of the Fourth Crusade.

The Fourth Crusade[]

Although the crusades are often seen as a direct response to the increasing power of the Islamic Arab states and the need to assist the Byzantines in thwarting them (as the primary Christian stronghold in the east), the crusaders didn't always target Constantinople's enemies. The Fourth Crusade was said to have been focused on taking control of Muslim-held Jerusalem, but instead the attackers moved to Constantinople, apparently still clinging to the events of the Great Schism of 1054, which isolated the Eastern Orthodox Church (Byzantines) from the Roman Catholic Church. In 1204, Constantinople was conquered by the crusaders, led by the Franks and the Venetians, and the city was relentlessly pillaged. The crusaders destroyed many of the Orthodox Churches and their relics, defiling them in ways said to have disturbed even the Pope, who had initiated the crusade in the first place. The events of the Fourth Crusade, creating both physical and political havoc within the Byzantine Empire, are said to have directly contributed to its downfall at the hands of the Ottoman Turks less than three centuries later.

Exile and Recovery[]

Following the sacking of Constantinople, most of the Byzantine territory was divided by the Franks and Venetians into a new domain, the "Latin Empire." However, Byzantine opposition still existed in the southern regions, and two Byzantine successor states were formed, the Empire of Nicea and the Despotate of Epirus. It would be the former, the Empire of Nicea, allied with the Bulgarians, which would eventually retake Constantinople from the Latins in 1261, leading to a short resurgence in Byzantine power.

Decline of the Empire[]

The decline of the Byzantine Empire, much like its counterpart in the Western Roman Empire, took place over the course of several centuries. Historians have long debated the roots of the Byzantines' fall from grace, crediting everything from the early Arab conquests and the Byzantine-Arab Wars, to the loss of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade as the pivotal event in the downfall of the empire. In any case, brief periods of resurgence were, seemingly without fail, always followed by newfound opposition and conflict.

While the Byzantines struggled with civil war during the 14th century, the Ottoman Turks embarked on a number of successful military campaigns against the Venetians and Serbians, leading to an eventual showdown with the severely weakened Byzantine Empire. It is said that the last of the Byzantine emperors, Constantine XI Palaiologos, died in combat while defending the city walls during the Ottoman siege. The Ottoman Turks led by Mehmed II successfully conquered Constantinople in 1453 AD, marking the end of both the Byzantine Empire, and the final end to any remnants of the once great Roman Empire.

Byzantine Trivia[]

The term "Byzantine" is used in language to refer to an overly complex concept that goes beyond reasonable expectations of understanding, inferring that it may not be worth attempting to understand. This definition arose from the increasing complexity of the Romans' bureaucratic management schemes during the later stages of the empire.

Although commonly known as "Greek Fire," the infamous incendiary weapon was actually used most effectively by the Byzantine Empire, particularly by the Byzantine navy against the Arab fleets during the Byzantine-Arab Wars.

It was written by the historian Procopius that Emperor Justinian arranged to have silkworm eggs smuggled from China via monks using hollowed-out walking sticks, introducing silk production to the Roman Empire for the first time.

The song "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)," originally performed by The Four Lads in 1953, is set to the tune of "Puttin' on the Ritz" and opines about the reasons the Turks changed the city's name after conquering it.

Justinian I[]

History[]

Justinian the First, known as Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus in Latin, was emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 527 until his death in 565. His four decades of rule marked the greatest expansion of the Byzantine Empire since its split with the Roman Empire and a sweeping revival in the Christian religion.

Born in a small village in modern Macedonia, Justinian had little connection to power in Constantinople as a youth. It was the rise of his uncle, Justin, a Byzantine general who succeeded the Emperor Anastasius, which drew young Justinian from the Macedonian pastures into cosmopolitan Constantinople. Justinian served his uncle as a close advisor for a decade before the passing of Emperor Justin transferred the diadem to Justinian.

With Justinian's rise to power, two other important faces rose to prominence. Belisarius, a close friend of Justinian, became the leader of Justinian's armies and proved himself as a brilliant tactician. The second face belonged to his beautiful and savvy wife, Theodora, who took on the role that Justinian himself once filled, that of the emperor's closest advisor.

One of Justinian's first actions as Emperor was to order a collection of all Roman law, the Corpus Juris Civilis. But not long after the first issuing of the Corpus, an uprising among two rival chariot racing factions, the Blues and the Greens, engulfed Constantinople in a wave of violence and conflagration. Enterprising powers within the city allied against Justinian, using the chaos to declare a new Emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of Anastasius. Justinian, unsure of the strength of usurpers, decided to flee the city, but his brave wife refused. Instead, Belisarius was ordered to take two divisions and quell the uprising, which he did with ruthless ability, trapping rioters in the Hippodrome and killing nearly 30,000 before the riot was finally put down.

The damage done to the city after the riots was substantial. Among the smoldering ruins lay the Hagia Sophia, Constantinople's greatest cathedral, burnt to the ground. Justinian thus began a monumental campaign to expand and restore the building. With its completion five years later, the reconstructed Hagia Sophia was christened as the world's largest cathedral, a title it would hold for a millennium. Under Justinian`s order, twenty-five cathedrals were built in Constantinople alone, with many more built outside the capital city.

Legacy[]

The Empire thrived under Justinian. Thanks in no small part to the able command of Belisarius, Emperor Justinian's reach spread from Constantinople to Southern Spain, with North Africa and Italy all falling under the Byzantine grasp. Justinian's reign marked a high point for the Byzantine Empire, as shortly after his death, much of the land conquered in his name was lost. War with powerful Germanic tribes and neighboring Persia would cost the empire much of its hard-fought gains.

Unique Components[]

Cataphract[]

Among the most heavily-armored forms of cavalry used throughout history, the Cataphract was a formidable opponent on the battlefield. With horses draped in chain mail or plated armor, and the rider himself in an equally impressive suit of armor, these mounted units were used primarily for crushing through the lines of enemy infantry they faced. The Byzantine Empire was known to have made extensive use of Cataphracts throughout its storied history, as they played a prominent role in defending the empire following the decline of their Roman brethren in the west.

Hippodrome[]

The Hippodrome of Constantinople (literally "Horse Path" in Greek) was constructed in 203 AD by the Emperor Sepitmus Severus. The building was a massive venue for chariot races. While the art of charioteering saw great advances in the Hippodrome - the first four-horse races were held here - much of the venue's renown would stem from its involvement in one of the most terrible massacres in Byzantine history. During the Nika Revolts, a brutal uprising between rival racing factions, nearly 30,000 rioters were slain by Byzantine troops within the Hippodrome.

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