The Byzantine empire 336-1453

The Eastern Roman Empire or else Byzantium was a majestic empire which lasted over a millenia. Its capital Constantinople (Nova Roma) was founded by emperor Constantine the Great in 330 AD, at the place of the ancient Greek city Byzantio. The empire was the ark of the ancient Greek knowledge, because many ancient documents preserved in the monasteries and the library of Constantinople. The Byzantine empire was connected with the Greek element, because in the eastern roman empire the people used the Greek language and after the 7th century AD it became the official language. The Byzantine society was very advanced, the capital reached 1.000.000 citizens. Also their weapons were very advanced, for example the liquid fire or else the Greek fire as it is called, was a flamethrower weapon and with its use they destroyed the Arab fleet and save europe from Islam. In 530AD emperor Justinianus with his architects Anthemius and Isidorus built the temple of Aghia Sofia, which was the wonder of medieval times. The economy of Byzantium was not Feudalism, as it was in Europe, it was a commercial economy. The empire with missionaries helped culture to expand in the slavic and russian kingdoms. Cyril and Methodius created the slavic alphabet or else Cyrilic alphabet as it is called and converted them to Orthodox christianity. The Byzantine empire had many enemies, but outlasted them for many years, especially with emperor Basil the 2nd the empire was restored. After the death of the emperor Basil (1025) Byzantium began to fall because of incapable emperors. In the year 1071 the Byzantines lost the battle of Manzikert against the Turks, while at the same time Bari fell to the Normans. Emperor Alexius Comnenus and his successors began the restoration of the empire. In the year 1204 Constantinople was captured by the crusaders of the 4th crusade. The remnants of the empire were divided in the empire of Nikea, of Trapezunta and in the despotate of Epirus. In the year 1261 Constantinople was recaptured by the Byzantines and Michael Palaeologos became Emperor. The Palaeologian dynasty was the last dynasty of Byzantium. The two civil wars at the years 1324-1357 torn apart the empire. The civil wars gave the oppotunity to the Ottoman turks to invade Europe. Emperor John Palaeologos in a last effort asked for help from the Pope, but the people of Constaninople refused his help. In May 29 1453 Constaninople fell to sultan Mehmet the 2nd of the Ottomans. The capital renamed to Istanbul and became the capital of the Ottoman empire. After the capture of the Byzantine capital the Balkans and Hungary fell to the Ottomans rule. The Despotate of Morea fell in 1460 and the empire of Trapezunta fell in 1461. The destruction of the Byzantine empire triggered Renaissance age, because many ancient documents from the monasteries and greek scholars fled to Italy, where they translated the documents from greek to Italian and Latin. The legacy of the Byzantine empire is Orthodoxy, the Orthodox church preserved the memories and the values of the empire until the present day.

Byzantine intellect and Byzantine culture

The university of Constantinople 5th-15th cent

The very foundations of the Byzantine culture and intellect lay in the Greco-Roman world and the Christian ideas of the Apostles, Greek philosophy and Greek ideas were a dominant role model of the empire, while the Greek was the official language of the empire at least from the 7th cent AD. The eastern Roman empire was also an empire of the mind and had brilliant scholars, in fact the greatest in Europe, as their knowledge and abilities were unmatched. The Byzantines gave emphasis in philosophy and in spiritualism, some of the greatest cultural achievements of the empire were, the Orthodox dogma which dominated and influenced half of Europe and the creation of the Cyrilic alphabet by two Greek brothers, Cyril and Methodius  from the city of Thessalonica. The Byzantines had also the first university in medieval Europe which was the Magnaura university in Constantinople (The pandidaktirion) which was founded in 425 AD.  The university included schools of medicine, philosophy and law. At the time various economic schools, colleges,polytechnics, libraries and fine arts academies were also open in the city. Byzantine scholars were able of creating automatic machines such as automatic birds and lions by using steam or hydraulic power, advanced weapons such as flamethrowers and grenades and they wrote important works such as the Alexiad by Anna Comnena, the work "De administrando imperio" by emperor Constantine porphyrogenitus and the "Poliorcetica" of Hero of Byzantium. Byzantine scholars were also familiar with the philosophical works of ancient Greece. After the destruction of the library of Alexandria, Constantinople, the imperial capital, had the greatest library in Europe. The library of Constantinople had all the works of ancient Greece and of the Hellenistic world, unfortunately the library of Constantinople was looted by the barbaric raids of the Crusaders in 1204. The Byzantine art also had its roots from the Hellenistic world. Byzantine art was expanded in eastern Europe in south Italy and in middle east. Marvelous works of art were created and wonderful structures were erected. A Byzantine wonder of Architecture was the Hagia Sophia Cathedral and was the greatest building in medieval Europe, while it was built by two Greek architects and mathematicians, Anthemius of Trales and Isidore of Miletus in 537 during the reign of emperor Justinian. The Byzantines not only they influenced Europe but also the Arab world. The islamic world, after the fall of Byzantine Alexandria and the fall of Byzantine Syria, adopted the ideas and philosophy of ancient Greece, the philosophical ideas of Aristotle were very popular amongst various muslim philosophers such as Avicenna. The Arabs despite the wars and their rivalry with the Byzanine empire had close contacts with the Byzantines and the Arabs were very interested in the cultural achievements of the empire, for example the Caliph of Baghdad Al Mamun frequently exchanged letters with  Leo the Mathematician, the Byzantine scholar answered all his questions of Astrology, mathematics and philosophy. Byzantine Scholars were also responsible for the creation of the Renaissance age, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453, many ancient documents from the monasteries and greek scholars fled to Italy, where they translated the documents from greek to Italian and Latin.

The greatest Byzantine Scholars and philosophers

Zosimos of Panopolis 4th cent

Hypatia 370-415

Nonnus of Panopolis 5th cent

Proclus 415-485

John Philoponus 490-570

Anthemius and Isidore 6th cent

Stephanus of Byzantium 6th cent

Stephen of Alexandria 610-641

Callinicus of Heliopolis 7th cent

Marcus Graecus 8th cent

Leo the Mathematecian 790-869

Photios I of Constantinople 810-893

Cyril and Methodius 9th cent

Hero of Byzantium 9th cent

Michael Psellus 1017-1078

Anna Comnena 1083-1153

George Pletho Gemistus 1355-1452

Basilios Bessarion 1403-1472

Byzantine society

The Byzantines called themselves as Romaioi and their empire as kingdom of the Romans (Basilion ton Romeon) or Romania (Ρωμανια), but their cultural identity and language was Greek. The Byzantine society was very advanced, the Byzantine capital had reached 1.000.000 citizens at its high peak. Constantinople was the greatest city in the medieval world, even greatest in population from Bejiing. Clearly we see the greatness of  byzantine society in the work of Henri Pirenne "Medieval cities: Their origins and the revival of trade". While in west and north Europe people lived enclosed in small fortified castles being depended by the land as the economical system in Europe was feudalism, while Byzantium had a commercial economy. Trade was very limited in Europe as the people were forbidden to move from their villages or cities. The Feudal system had the people binded by the land and the Feudal lord had the full control over his subjects. That had as a result to limit trade and eventually caused the collapse of the Carolingian economy. Feudalism had led Europe to economic exhaustion and prevented the development of trade and the growth of cities. While the Byzantine society had a growing economy as it was based on a commercial system. Byzantine traders traveled to the middle east and even in the far east. Byzantine trade had even reached china and fine Silks were brought to Constantinople eventually the Byzantines developed their own silk industry and made great profits from the silk trade. The Orthodox Church had a leading role in Byzantium, there wasn't much superstition amongst the circle of the orthodox church although, the issue of iconoclasm had created serious problems and divided the Byzantine society and hierarchy.During the issue of Iconoclasm many works of art were destroyed and many people were persecuted and killed. Finally the whole issue was resolved by empress Irene of Athens. The orthodox church also faced various "heretical" dogmas such as the "heresy" of Nestorianism, Arianism and Paulicianism. The emperors were often ruthless against such religious groups. The great hippodrome of Constantinople was a popular mean of entertainment, horse racing and chariot racing were popular pastimes in the ancient world and hippodromes were common features of Greek cities in the Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine eras. It should also be mentioned that in the Hippodrome were various factions such as the Blue (Veneti) and the green (Prasini) faction. These factions were very popular and their strength could even threaten emperors, for example in the Nika riot the two factions of the hippodrome caused a whole riot from which Justinian almost lost his throne. Like in all empires, there were many nationalities in the Byzantine empire, such as Syrians, Armenians, Slavs, Thracians and Anatolians, but the Greek population was the one which dominated the empire, first the Greeks dominated the empire culturally as they were able to force their culture over all the other groups, and in the 7th cent the Greek language replaced latin in the governmental status. Slowly as the empire shrunk the Greek population became the most dominant and until the 13rd cent AD the Byzantine empire had became  a Greek state.

Byzantine military

The Byzantine empire faced many enemies and managed to outlast them for centuries, during its over 1000 years existence. The Byzantines faced, Goths, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Slavs, Bulgars, Vikings, Lombards, Crusaders... and managed to survive for a millenia. The Byzantine army was a direct descendant of the Roman army, in the eastern Roman empire legion formations were used at least until the time of emperor Heraclius in the 7th century AD. Emperor Heraclius reformed the army and that put an end to the old Roman military structure, Heraclius also created the Byzantine themes (Themata), the very name of the Themes draws its etymology from the Greek word thesis (placement), the themes replaced the former Roman provincial administration. The Byzantine battalions or regiments were called Tagmata, some of the greatest military units were the Cataphracts, the Akrites, which was the border line guard in Anatolia and the Varangian guard.
The Varangian guard was formed during the reign of emperor Basil II, the members of that guard were vikings. The Varangians were renowned for their bravery in battle, they were fierce warriors and well respected soldiers. The Byzantines were once tested by their attacks, the Viking Rus had made several raids against the empire, but the Byzantines managed to hold them back with their superior Greek fire weapons. Emperor Basil II created the Varangian guard, since then the Varangians became a trusted ally and one of the best Byzantine units, they participated in many battles, in the balkan peninsula against the Bulgars and in Anatolia and sicily against the Arabs. Other units were the Palatine Scholae which was an elite guard originating from the Roman empire, the Hetaireia (The Company) which was the personal guard of the emperor, echoing from the ancient Macedonian companion cavalry of Alexander the great (hetairoi). The guard was composed by Byzantine Aristocratic members and also by many foreigners such as Franks, in later times it was divided in various units such as the Byzantine immortals (Athanatoi) in the 10th and 11th cent AD. The Byzantines also employed many mercenaries, but the loyalty of these mercenary units was doubtfull, for example the Catalan company was employed by the Byzantines but eventually the Catalans turned against the empire they raided many cities in Thrace and created many problems to the empire.
The Byzantines were also very advanced in the art of warfare. They were the first to use trebuchets in medieval Europe and it apears that the Byzantines were the ones who invented the counterweight trebuchet and it was a very effective weapon especially in sieges. The Byzantines were very innovative and had great engineers, one of them, Leo the mathematician had created an optical telegraph (a system of beacons) which alerted the Byzantines of the movements of the enemy, very quickly.That system gave the upper hand to the Byzantines in Anatolia and secured victory over the Arabs. But of all the Byzantine weapons the greatest was the Byzantine flamethrowers which were called as Greek fire, or as "automaton pyr" (Automatic fire). During an Arab attack against Constantinople in 672 AD Callinicus of Heliopolis brought the weapon to the imperial capital. Callinicus was credited with the invention of Greek fire and the Byzantines achieved victory over the muslim army. The weapon itself was kept secret and the family of Callinicus continued to develop it under secrecy, the Alexiad in the 11th century mentions of Lambros an engineer of Greek fire, who was a descendant of Callinicus.The Byzantines also used flamethrowers at naval battles, they had installed huge fire siphons in their war ships. The Byzantine navy was tested by the saracens but eventually managed to become dominant in eastern Mediterranean. The imperial navy also confronted Viking fleets of the Kievan Rus and Normans, the Pisan fleet in 1099 near Rhodes, seljuk and pirate fleets. Also pyrotechnics and cannons were used in the Byzantine army, for example during the siege of Constantinople the Byzantines had installed various cannons on the city walls. There is also an assumption that gunpowder may had been known to Byzantine engineers in Constantinople from the 8th cent AD as some sources mention. The greatest military tacticians in Byzantium were, General Belisarius, general Nikiphoros Ouranos, Emperor Alexius Comnenus, Emperor Basil II, Emperor Heraclius, Emperor Nikiphoros II Phocas and John I Tzimiskes. It should also be mentioned that the title of general was called as Strategos or Stratelates and as Magister (Magistros). Important military works were the Tactica of Leo the wise, the tactica of Nikephoros Ouranos and the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium. Finally the Byzantine army managed to survive for over a millenia but eventually the empire was overrun as enemies appeared from all fronts and due to inner rivalries it finally collapsed.

Why the Byzantine empire was a Greek empire

The Byzantine empire was the eastern part of the Roman empire, the people of the empire called themselves as Romaioi (Ρωμαιοι) and called their state as Romania (Ρωμανια) or Kingdom of the Romans (Basilio ton Romeon). The term Byzantine was introduced by Hieronymus wolf a German historian in the 16th century after the fall of Constantinople. The empire was truly Roman only until the 7th century AD when emperor Heraclius reformed the empire, he abolished latin and made Greek the official language of the empire.It is also true that the name Hellene was corrupted and took the meaning of pagan in the first centuries of the Byzantine empire. But the eastern part of the Roman empire was Greek speaking and was once a part of the Hellenistic world. Heraclius also adopted the tittle of Basileus instead of the Roman tittle of Imperator. From that point and after the empire was becoming more and more Greek and until the 13rd century AD it became a Greek state until its fall. The empire was multinational with a significant Greek population, all these national groups inside the empire, were under the influence of Greek culture, language and education.

The Byzantines although they called themselves as Romans they were aware of their Hellenic origins. Some examples of their Greek consciousness are:

Evidence of the use of the term Graikos can be found in the works of Priscus, a historian of the 5th century AD. The historian stated in one of his accounts that while unofficially on an embassy to Attila the Hun, he had met at Attila's court someone who dressed like a Scythian yet spoke Greek. When Priskos asked the person where he had learned the language, the man smiled and said that he was a Greek by birth.

Leo the Mathematecian (790-870 AD)  calls himself a Greek through one of his poems with the tittle"To myself who is called Greek" And he describes himself as a modest person who doesnt desire fame or riches.

Already from the 11th century Anna Comnene ("The Alexiad") uses the name Greeks as a national identification for the people of the empire.
Anna Comnene "The Alexiad"

Nicetas Choniates insisted on using the name "Hellenes", he states that he cannot continue in writting history, which is one of the greatest inventions of Hellenism and he stressed out the outrages attacks of the "Latins" against the "Hellenes" in the Peloponessus.
Nicetas Choniates, "The Sack of Constantinople", 9 '¦Å, Bonn, pp.806

Emperor John III Ducas Vatatzes (1192-1254 AD), wrote in a letter to Pope Gregory IX about the wisdom that "rains upon the Hellenic nation"and states that Constantine's heritage was passed on to the Hellenes, so he argued, and they alone were its inheritors and successors.
John Vatatzes, "Unpublished Letters of Emperor John Vatatzes", Athens I, pp.369--378, (1872)

Theodore II Lascaris (1222-1258), was eager to project the name of the Greeks with true nationalistic zeal. He made it a point that "the Hellenic race looms over all other languages" and that "every kind of philosophy and form of knowledge is a discovery of Hellenes... What do you, O Italian, have to display?"
Theodore Lascaris, "Christian Theology", 7,7 & 8

In the 14th cent AD  Nikolaos Kavasilas calls Greeks the scholars of Thessaloniki, and the city as "house of Hellenism". Nicephorus Blemmydes referred to the Byzantine emperors as Hellenes. Theodore Alanias (in 1204) wrote in a letter to his brother that "the homeland may have been captured, but Hellas still exists within every wise man".
Nicephorus Blemmydes, "Pertial narration", 1, 4
Theodore Alanias, "PG 140, 414"

The neo-platonic philosopher George Gemistos Plethon (15th cent AD) stated "We are Hellenes by race and culture".
George Gemistus Plethon, "Paleologeia and Peloponessiaka", pp.247

The scholar, teacher, and translator, John Argyropoulos (15th cent AD) calls John VIII Palaiologos  as a Greek king and addresses him  as "Sun King of Hellas".
Makrides, Vasilios (2009). Hellenic Temples and Christian Churches: A Concise History of the Religious Cultures of Greece from Antiquity to the Present. New York, New York: New York University Press.

Two days before the fall of Consantinople the Emperor Constantine Paleologos calls the city as "The joy and hope of all Greeks".
Sphrantzes, George (1477). The Chronicle of the Fall.

Byzantine papacy and Byzantine Rome
Another fact which confirms that the empire was Greek , is that when the city of Rome was in Byzantine hands, Greek Popes were elected (678-752). Popes like saint Pope Agatho and Pope Zachary were of Greek origins. From 678 to 752, thirteen popes were elected, 11 of them were either of Greek origins or Greek speaking. This is another fact that confirms the turning point of the 7th cent AD, the reforms of Emperor Heraclius had changed the latin character of the empire into Greek and that is reflected and during the Byzantine papacy of 678 to 752.

The foreigners saw the empire as Greek and reffered to it as Imperium Graecorum. For Pope Gregory the great, Gregory of Tours, Isidore of Seville, Liutprand of Cremona, Paul the Deacon the chronicler of the lombards, wiliam of Tyre and many others the eastern Roman empire was Greek and all the western documents call the empire as Imperium Graecorum which means a Greek empire. Also Stefan Dousan after conquering parts of the Byzantine empire took the title of "Imperator Grecorum et Raxie".
  While the vikings saw the Byzantines as Greeks.In their runestones which are being called as Greece runestones, they recorded the Byzantine empire as a Greek empire.
"On these runestones the word Grikkland ("Greece") appears in three inscriptions, the word Grikk(j)ar ("Greeks") appears in 25 inscriptions, two stones refer to men as grikkfari ("traveller to Greece") and one stone refers to Grikkhafnir ("Greek harbours"). Constantinople is being mentioned by the Norse as Miklagard which means the big city. Rune inscriptions are even to be found inside the Hagia Sophia temple and were made by the Varangian troops who served in the Byzantine army."


The orthodox world

The Byzantine empire or else Eastern Roman empire was the most powerfull and most advanced state in medieval europe. The empire was a direct descendant of the Roman empire, but it transformed into a Greek empire, as its language and culture after the 7th cent AD was Greek. Constantinople was a beacon of knowledge and art and it was the greatest city in the world. The empire managed to survive for over 1000 years, an achievement that few empires accomplished in world history. The empire ceased to exist by 1453 and 1461 (fall of Trapezunta), but its legacy remained. Some reminders of this legacy are, the Cyrillic alphabet, the Byzantine art and the Orthodox church.


  • Henri Pirenne "Medieval cities their origins and the revival of trade"
  • James Riddick Partington "A history of Greek fire and gunpowder"
  • Anna Comnena "The Alexiad"
  • History of the Greek nation, Academy of Athens  (Ιστορία του Ελληνικού έθνους,  Ακαδημία Αθηνών)
  • Γιώργος Καραμπελιάς "1204 Η διαμόρφωση του Νεώτερού Ελληνισμού"
  • Νίκος Σβορώνος "Επισκόπηση της Νεοελληνικής ιστορίας"
  • Articles from wikipedia