Byzantine (476 – 1453)

The heirs to the Roman Empire.

Byzantine Empire
Germanic barbarians
Basil I
The Council of Chalcedon
The Varangian Guard
Mehmed II

Who were the Byzantines?

History can be divided into three periods: ancient, medieval, and modern. The ancient period was defined by emerging civilizations, like the Egyptians and Romans, who developed writing, trade, cities, and laws, unlike anything seen before.

When the Roman Empire fell to a sea of barbarian forces in 476 CE, it marked the start of a new chapter: the medieval period. The reign of the ancients was over, and it was time for others to take their place.

At least, that is the traditional narrative. In recent years, historians realized that the Roman Empire did not fully collapse in 476 CE. The Eastern half – centered around the city of Constantinople – continued to thrive under a different name: the Byzantine Empire.

The origins of the Byzantines

The origins of the Byzantine Empire can be traced to the ancient period. In 330 CE, Roman Emperor Constantine I decided to build a ‘New Rome’ at the site of Byzantium, in modern Turkey.

At the time, the Roman Empire stretched across much of Europe and Asia, and the city of Rome was badly positioned to rule the eastern territories. Located at a strategic crossroads between Europe and Asia, Byzantium was meant to solve this problem; it gave emperors the chance to rule both halves from a single, centralized position.

The city became known as Constantinople. To protect it from harm, the Romans constructed colossal city walls. These defenses were the most impressive fortifications in the world at that time, and generally considered impenetrable. Inside these walls, the city thrived: a jewel in Constantine’s crown.

The fall of Rome

After Constantinople was founded, the city’s history unfolded very differently from its counterpart capital in Rome. In the 5th century, Germanic barbarians began to raid the western portion of the empire, breaking it down into pieces.

This process culminated in 476 CE, when a barbarian king – Odoacer – took control of the city of Rome. This brought an official end to the Roman Empire in the west.

But the eastern half of the empire remained strong, with Constantinople at its core. Barbarian groups tried to seize it too, but it was kept safe by its famous, impenetrable walls. The people there continued to think of themselves as Romans, but historians have given them a different name: the Byzantine Empire.

The wars of Justinian

Emperor Justinian I was the first great Byzantine emperor, ruling from 527 to 565 CE. He is best known for his ambitious military campaigns, which sought to reclaim former Roman territories in the Mediterranean basin.

The wars of Justinian, as they are sometimes known, were largely successful. He reclaimed most of the land at the edges of the Mediterranean, and turned the region into ‘Mare Nostrum’ – a Latin phrase meaning “our sea”, which was often used during the heyday of the Roman Empire.

Justinian also left a lasting legacy through a series of construction projects. He built Hagia Sophia, one of the most iconic churches in history, as well as many other public works such as aqueducts and bridges. He also established the Code of Justinian – a collection of laws which helped to modernize the Byzantine Empire, and served as a foundation for domestic stability and prosperity.

The Byzantine golden age

About three hundred years after the reign of Justinian, the Byzantine Empire was blessed with another great emperor: Basil I, who ruled from 867 to 886 CE.

Emperor Basil ushered in a golden age for Byzantine art and literature. He commissioned the construction of churches, monasteries, and other public works that featured intricate mosaics depicting religious scenes. These mosaics were made of small pieces of ceramic called tesserae. They were highly prized for their beauty and craftsmanship, and became an integral part of Byzantine culture.


Basil also encouraged scholars to study classical Greek literature, which had been largely forgotten during the preceding centuries. This renewed interest in ancient texts continued long after Basil’s death; in the 12th century, Eustathius of Thessalonica wrote some famous commentaries on Homer’s epics, as well as histories of Byzantine events.

The East-West Schism

Officially, the Byzantine Empire was a Christian entity, but things were a little complicated. In 451 CE, not long before the fall of Rome, the Council of Chalcedon had divided Christianity into branches. The Papacy controlled churches in the west, while the Patriarchy controlled churches in the east.

The Papacy and the Patriarchy survived into the medieval era, and took different approaches to the Christian faith. For example, the Papacy believed that clerics should remain celibate, while the Patriarchy disagreed.

In 1054 CE, the two sides officially cut ties with each other, in what is known as the East-West Schism. The western branch of Christianity became Roman Catholicism; it dominated Europe, with many kings embracing the religion. Meanwhile, the eastern branch became Eastern Orthodoxy; it thrived in the Byzantine Empire.

The Varangian Guard

While religion and culture flourished in the Byzantine Empire, the famous walls of Constantinople remained as strong and impenetrable as ever. Throughout the period, they saved the city from several sieges by Umayyad, Rus’ and Bulgar forces.

The city’s defenses became even stronger in the 10th century, when the Byzantines recruited a force of mercenaries called the Varangian Guard. These fierce warriors had Viking blood, and were famed and feared for their brutal loyalty to the Byzantine cause.


According to one contemporary description, these warriors “attacked with reckless rage and neither cared about losing blood nor their wounds.” They served the empire for hundreds of years, keeping the Byzantines safe from harm.

The collapse of the Byzantines

The long history of the Byzantine Empire came to an end in the 14th century. Its fate was sealed by the invention of gunpowder weapons, which were adopted by the neighboring Ottomans.

Led by Mehmed II, the Ottomans used their powerful cannons to blow through Constantinople’s famous walls – a siege that no one could have possibly imagined when the walls were built more than a thousand years earlier.

The Ottomans surged into the city, outnumbering the Byzantines 2-to-1. Even the Varangian Guard could not hold them back. Emperor Constantine XI was killed, bringing an official end to the Byzantine Empire – the final bastion of the Roman Empire – a civilization whose history had stretched for almost 1500 years.

The legacy of the Byzantines

The fall of the Byzantine Empire, in 1453, is often used to mark the end of the medieval era. New civilizations were taking shape, many with modern gunpowder weaponry, and older empires found themselves left behind.

In the centuries following the medieval period, it was often referred to as the Dark Ages. This term suggested that the medieval period was an era of ignorance and intellectual decline – a dark valley between the sunlit peaks of ancient and modern.

But this label has been rejected by modern historians. Many civilizations flourished in this period, and the Byzantines were one of them. Constantinople was a glorious city full of art, literature and architecture – and even when the empire fell, their work continued to inspire many of the modern empires which followed.

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