A short history of Byzantium

Over a thousand years of glory, but where does it actually begin?

I often wonder how do we pinpoint the beginning of the Byzantine Empire? There are so many identifiable dates or ‘markers’ in history to choose from and most ‘beginning’ dates all have their merits. However before we go any further, I would like to be briefly put it on record by saying that ‘Rome’ (to me) and all its reincarnation, is one long continuous republic/empire that lasted around 2000 years. Yes, that does sound ridiculous ! Beginning in 509 B.C with the birth of the republic to the fall of Constantinople in 1453 is indeed a very, very long period! Historians manage, divide or categories all of this period (history) into ‘bite size’ pieces. Keeping this in mind, it’s no wonder historians have difficultly in agreeing or identifying a ‘beginning’ to the section of Roman history that we call Byzantium (Byzantine Empire).

Generally speaking most historians look to the beginning of Constantine the Greats reign from 306 AD, or the dedication of his city, Constantinople in 330 AD as the first building blocks of the Byzantine Empire. Both, his reign and the ‘new’ capital in the east (of the Roman Empire) would mark the beginning of the end of the old pagan world with eventually a new Christian one (era). The prosecution of the Christians would end with Constantine’s Edict of Milan in 312 AD and by 391 Theodosius I would make Christianity a State religion.

Another plausible date may be found in the formal political dissolution of the empire in 395, when Theodosius divided the empire between his two sons, Honorius in the west and Arcadius in the east. The two co-emperors, one in Milan (Rome has ceased to be the capital) and the other in Constantinople, maintain imperial unity, but went about their own business. Though, this division of empire was not anything new, Diocletian (284-305 AD) had done the same thing about a hundred years earlier during his reign. He realized that the empire was too vast to rule on your own, and had conceived a plan two split the empire into east and west, with one senior and junior emperor in the west and the same in the east. The tetrarchy or ‘rule of four’ was suppose to be the model, in which, the junior emperors would succeed their senior counterpart upon their death, and in turn appoint a new junior emperor, continuing the smooth transition of power. (One could almost credit Diocletian as the founder or ‘godfather’ of Byzantium ?) Unfortunately it wasn’t to be with Constantine I, after a whole series of events, bringing the empire back under his sole control. Even though Constantine became master of the whole Roman world, he would deliberately move the heart of the empire to Constantinople in the east.

Another viable ‘beginning’ date leads us to the year 457 AD, when a Thracian by the name of Flavius Valerius Leo was crowned as emperor. What was significant about his coronation is that he was the first emperor crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople. Even 476 AD, comes to mind, the year when the last Western Emperor was removed from power by Odoacer and the western imperial regalia was sent back to Constantinople. With it a note was sent that said that there would be no need for an emperor to oversee the west anymore. This disturbing news with the collapse of the Western half, left the Eastern half to survive and carry on the Roman name. (There would be no western emperor until 800 AD in the form of Charles I, Charlemagne.)

A four and fifth option place the beginning of the Byzantine empire well into the sixth and seventh century. Both are at the end of the rule of two great emperors, Justinian the Great and Heraclius.

Many historians consider Justinian the last great truly Roman emperor. The last emperor to speak Latin rather than Greek, the emperor who ended the Roman consulship that began with the republic in 509 BC and maybe the last emperor who failed to truly reunited the Roman Empire with his conquests. It would make for a fitting end to the old Roman empire and the beginning of the byzantine section of its history. Some academics even boldly claim that the Empire was dead even before Justinian was born, others point out (including myself) that the empire was just simply constantly changing, adapting and assimilating, to the extent that there really was no end –it became a new ‘beast’.

Lets not forget to mention the last of the possible option as the beginning of Byzantium by addressing why some believe Heraclius ushered in the byzantine empire. Significantly, it is because he replaced Latin with Greek as the empires official language administratively and militarily. Within a generation the empire itself would take on a Greek nature. Is it not why Edward Gibbon utterly detested the ‘Greek Empire’ for ruining what was once the Rome of old  and a betrayal of all that was once best in ancient Greece and Rome?

Here, we have it, many of the most plausible option of the ‘beginning’ of the Byzantine Empire. Which would you choose? Which do most scholars and archeologists choose?

Like many in the field of history before me and in the countless books I have read, most agree that Constantine the Great is the architect of what we call the Byzantine Empire. I believe Prof. Dame Averil Cameron, in her book, ‘The Byzantines’ (2006) sums it up best by stating that “choosing to begin from the reign of Constantine (it) has the advantage of recognizing the symbolic importance that his foundation of Constantinople came to play in Byzantine consciousness.” p.6

I think this makes a sensible starting point. It is arguably at this point in Roman history that the empire began to change and adapt to a new Christian world and much later in the Middle Ages to other external threats.

Photo credit: The header image is Emperor Constantine the Great presenting a model of the city of Constantinople to the Virgin Mary, found on the southward entrance of the Hagia Sophia. 

7 comments on “Over a thousand years of glory, but where does it actually begin?

  1. Richard Shepherd

    You could argue that the Roman Empire still exists, in the form of the Catholic Church…

  2. I’m fairly ignorant on the subject, but I’ve always wondered why the question is whether or not the Byzantine Empire is a continuation of the Roman Empire. Why doesn’t the Holy Roman Empire every get brought up in this conversation? It’s got the name in its title, was bequeathed by the pope and lasted into the 1800’s. Is there some sort of cultural elitist snobbery towards its beginnings as a barbarian kingdom?

    Just wondering out loud.

    • It’s isn’t the same civilization; the Byzantine Empire, or Medieval Period Roman Empire was the unbroken cultural, societal and administrative body that existed before the western half of the Empire fell, whereas The Holy Roman Empire, like the Seljuk or Ottoman Turks, is an entirely separate Frankish civilization that simply gave itself the title of being Roman; simply because you call yourself the heirs to an ancient civilization does not make it any more genuine, as it’s only a sentiment, and in the case of Charles the Great and the Carolingians that sentiment justified their conquering more of western Europe than anyone had since the actual Romans did.

  3. Robert, I’d have to pick the dedication of his city, Constantinople in 330 AD as the first building blocks of the Byzantine Empire. He puts his stamp on world history and I believe he saves civilization from the barbarian hordes. Good work!

  4. Constantine as the architect of the Byzantine Empire is an awesome word picture! We covered the Roman to Byzantine Empire in my Art History class this semester but barely scratched the surface before barrelling ahead to the early medieval period. I’ve been enamoured with the Renaissance for years but after studying the Byzantine empire have suddenly switched favourites. Love your blog!

  5. I’ve seen it argued that the “Byzantine” Empire began after Heraclius not primarily because of the change in the language of government to Greek, but because the loss of Egypt and north Africa to Islam forced a change in the power relations between the Emperor and the regional aristocracies of Anatolia and south-eastern Europe. Without the centralised state being able to rely on the food supply from Africa to distribute at will, the Emperors became far more dependent on the support of the nobility and the structure of power in the Empire became less centralised- more distributed- as a result. This was the biggest structural change in Imperial government since Diocletian and meant that notwithstanding the continuities of the Roman Empire from the 7th century onward, it was a different kind of state in many ways than it had been hitherto.

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