Byzantine Empire

Empire, southeastern and southern Europe and western Asia. It began as the city of Byzantium, which had grown from an ancient Greek colony founded on the European side of the Bosporus. The city was taken in AD 330 by Constantine I, who refounded it as Constantinople. The area at this time was generally termed the Eastern Roman Empire. The fall of Rome in 476 ended the western half of the Roman Empire; the eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital. The eastern realm differed from the west in many respects: heir to the civilization of the Hellenistic era, it was more commercial and more urban. Its greatest emperor, Justinian (r. 527–565), reconquered some of western Europe, built the Hagia Sophia, and issued the basic codification of Roman law. After his death the empire weakened. Though its rulers continued to style themselves “Roman” long after Justinian's death, “Byzantine” more accurately describes the medieval empire. The long controversy over iconoclasm within the eastern church prepared it for the break with the Roman church (see Schism of 1054). During the controversy, Arabs and Seljuq Turks increased their power in the area. In the late 11th century, Alexius I Comnenus sought help from Venice and the pope; these allies turned the ensuing Crusades into plundering expeditions. In the Fourth Crusade the Venetians took over Constantinople and established a line of Latin emperors. Recaptured by Byzantine exiles in 1261, the empire was now little more than a large city-state. In the 14th century the Ottoman Turks began to encroach; their extended siege of Constantinople ended in 1453, when the last emperor died fighting on the city walls and the area came under Ottoman control.

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The term Byzantine was first applied to the eastern Roman Empire by historians in the 16th century, decades after the Fall of Constantinople to the forces of Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire on 29 May, 1453. The term is used to describe any work, law, or organization that is excessively complex or difficult to understand (see also Baroque).

The Byzantine Empire, sometimes known during its early phase as the Eastern Roman Empire, acquired a negative reputation among historians of the 18th century and 19th century because of the complex organization of its ministries and the elaborateness of its court ceremonies, as well as for its supposed lack of backbone in martial affairs.

However, many of the Byzantine emperors of the Middle and Late Empire were full-time military commanders - several of them being men of letters as well - and might well have shown little patience with elaborate court ceremonies.

This reputation originated, according to the medievalist Steven Runciman, from the relations of medieval Europe with this mighty power: "Ever since our rough crusading forefathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence."

By the 18th century refinement and polite manners were no longer considered effeminate, so writers like Edward Gibbon and Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu searched for a new justification for their prejudice against this civilization. Gibbon found it in the scholarly works of the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos (905 - 959, reigned 913 - 959) , and seized upon the pedantic style of this invalid and bookish ruler, who was forced to pass most of his reign as a figurehead. Exploiting this source to confirm his own preconceptions, Gibbon thus gave new life to an oversimplified view of a "decadent" Byzantium.

In the 19th century, this reputation was cemented and quite obvious in the writings of the historian William Lecky:

"Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet "mean" may be so emphatically applied...The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude."
(A history of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne 2 vols. (London 1869) II, 13f.)

It is a view that was given further credence by the poetry of William Butler Yeats.

Likewise, the term "Byzantine" also suggests a penchant for intrigue, plots and assassinations and an overall unstable political state of affairs. In fact, the Empire was among the more stable political entities in history, surviving (albeit precariously and with continually-diminishing territory) for over a millennium after the Fall of Rome ended its Western counterpart. Its famous intrigues and turmoils were probably equal to that of contemporary Western Europe's unruly feudal states (and probably less when one includes the squabbles that turned into outright war), and occurred most often during relatively brief interregnums between strong dynasties. The very stability of the imperial state, however, probably undermined the creative impulses and innovation that characterized the early centuries of the Byzantine civilization, thus contributing to its eventual downfall.

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