The Byzantine Empire immediately conjures up images in our Western European minds: magnificently dressed emperors, mighty domes and glowing mosaics, but also decadence and intrigue. Unfortunately, our classical school education often does not provide much more than that. The mysterious and fabulously rich Byzantium seems far away to us – and yet it has left its mark all over Europe and the world to this day. In the more than 1000 years of its existence, it has more than once set the tone and shaped the Occident, be it politically, religiously or culturally.
Historians traditionally divide the long history of the empire into three major periods – the early Byzantine (or Eastern Roman, c. 330 or 395-641), the middle Byzantine (c. 641-1204) and the late Byzantine (c. 1204-1453). The citizens of this empire never called themselves Byzantines or their homeland the Byzantine Empire. Nor did they use the term Eastern Roman Empire. These terms come from modern historiography. Rather, they continued to see themselves as Romans, even though the culture would soon become increasingly Greek. Constantinople quickly became the political, economic, religious and cultural center of the eastern Mediterranean world. Along with Jerusalem, it was also the most important Christian pilgrimage destination in the East. Even though Byzantium was considered the most magnificent court in Europe and was the envy of the West for its splendor and wealth, most of the people of the multicultural empire lived as they did in the rest of Europe: as simple peasants.
In the early Byzantine period, the reign of Emperor Justinian in the sixth century may be considered a golden age. His generals were able to reconquer large parts of the former Western Roman Empire. Nevertheless, Byzantium’s power dwindled visibly in the following centuries. Territories were lost, the military and economy faltered and reformed, and religious and social tensions were added.
From 876 to 1025, the so-called Macedonian dynasty was on the imperial throne and provided a peak of Byzantine power and splendor not seen since Justinian. The arts and sciences flourished one last time, and Constantinople was the undisputed economic capital of the Old World until the Crusades.
In 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Ottomans under Sultan Mehmet II after almost two months of siege. This meant the end of the Byzantine Empire and at the same time the rise of the Ottoman Empire to a great power, which from then on directly threatened Europe for centuries. Constantinople became the new capital of the Ottomans and remained so until the emergence of modern Turkey from 1922. The fall of the “Second Rome” shook the Christian West and is considered a date that marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the early modern period. Numerous scholars fled or left Constantinople and found refuge in Italy, mostly Venice. There they accelerated, among other things, the Italian Renaissance. Byzantium was an important mediator of culture and knowledge.
To this day, however, Byzantine culture continues to have an effect, especially in the rite of the Eastern Orthodox churches. This still has numerous believers in Eastern Europe, the Balkans and Greece, as well as in Caucasia, where the art, architecture and customs should be strongly influenced by the Byzantine heritage. While older historiography often dubbed Byzantium merely an Orientalized, decadent despotism, this reputation has since been radically revised. For centuries, the Byzantine Empire was a kind of “protective shield” for Europe against the Persians and steppe peoples of late antiquity and the caliphates and sultanates of the Middle Ages.