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European Kingdoms

Eastern Mediterranean


Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire
AD 395 - 1453

The Roman empire had been unofficially created in the late first century BC when Octavian assumed the position of 'first citizen', essentially emperor by another name. The empire endured through thick and thin for almost four centuries after that until, by the early fourth century AD it encompassed a huge volume of territory, from northern Britannia to Judea.

However, it had become difficult to govern and was rife with problems. In an attempt to deal with this and to fine-tune imperial governance, in AD 293 Emperor Diocletian introduced a system known as the 'tetrarchy'. This effectively split the empire into four regions, two of which were ruled by emperors (augustus), and two by each emperor's heir (caesar). This system began to collapse though, riven by personal ambition and clashes of personality.

One of the members of this administration, Emperor Constantius, was succeeded by his son, later known as Constantine 'the Great'. He gradually battled his way towards full and total control of the empire, reuniting it under a single command. It was Constantine who, in AD 330, selected the Greek town of Byzantium to become his city of Constantinople, capital of the eastern portions of the empire (today's Istanbul in Turkey). Unfortunately for that empire, his immediate successors were not up to the task of replicating his successes.

Theodosius I was the last sole Roman emperor, following whom, in AD 395, the empire was split in two. This split acknowledged what had existed in practice for many years, creating the Western Roman empire on the western side of the Balkans, and the Eastern Roman empire beyond that. As the western empire declined in the face of increasing barbarian incursions and settlement, the eastern empire survived and, in some periods, actually thrived (notably under the Justinian and Macedonian dynasties). However, the initial rule of the young Arcadius and the subsequent dynasty of Theodosius began on somewhat shaky ground.

The citizens of the Eastern Roman empire thought of themselves as the true survivors and inheritors of Rome's power and glory, and they referred to themselves as Romans until at least the end of the first millennium. The term 'Byzantine' was the invention of sixteenth century scholars who wanted an easy term of reference for the various stages of Eastern Roman rule and their various territories. They selected the Greek name - Byzantium - of the city which had been rebuilt as Constantinople. That name was never knowingly used during the lifetime of the empire itself to refer to that empire.

Scholars are divided on just when and how it should be used, in fact. Some advocate its use after the fall of the western empire, from AD 476. Some prefer its use after the failed Justinian attempt to reunite the lost western territories after 565, while the onset of the Islamic empire's creation is another favoured point.

If it can ever be said that the term 'Byzantine' was relevant for the Eastern Roman empire during its existence then it could be from AD 1204 when the Fourth Crusade captured Constantinople and forced the legitimate Eastern Roman emperors to relocate to Nicaea. There the term 'Byzantine' could be used as an umbrella label for the very concept of an Eastern Roman empire, and not only for Constantinople and Nicaea but also for the various rival Eastern Roman or Fourth Crusade principalities which were created at the same time.

Internally, the accession of Honorius (in the west) and Arcadius (in the east) was marked by a basic change in the role of the emperor. It affected east and west differently, and what happened is of major importance in comprehending what subsequently occurred in the two halves of the empire. Eastern Roman emperors after Theodosius were heads of state but no longer held effective power. This now fell into the hands of their chief ministers.

The change was complete in the west, but less so in the east where occasional emperors still took direct command. Perhaps the crucial difference was that in the east the ministers were usually civilians, but in the west they were almost without exception professional soldiers who tended to dominate their emperors. This was a necessary evolution for the west though, as Emperor Honorius and his successors rarely seemed to be able to get on top of increasingly chaotic events or to divine solutions for them.

Elsewhere, all members of the Jewish Diaspora within the Roman empire became citizens along with everyone else in AD 212. Therefore they had equality with all other citizens, whether Christian, pagan, or anything else. They were allowed to worship in synagogue as long as they paid the required tax, and to carry out religious practices which outside of a synagogue may have been illegal (primarily circumcision). When the empire was officially divided, those in the east became Byzantine Jews (a later label, designed to differentiate between Jewish groups and their complex individual histories).

Eastern Roman Emperor Basil II in iconography

(Information by Peter Kessler, with additional information from Slovenska zgodovina do razsvetljenstva, Peter Štih & Simoniti Vasko (1996, in Slovenian), from An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples, Peter B Golden (1992), from The Chronicle of Theophanes Confessor, Byzantine and Near Eastern History, AD 284-813, Cyril Mango & Roger Scott (1997), from Prosopographie der mittelbyzantinischen Zeit, Volume 1, Ralph-Johannes Lilie, Claudia Ludwig, Thomas Pratsch, & Ilse Rochow, from the World Heritage Encyclopaedia, from Viking-Rus Mercenaries in the Byzantine-Arab Wars of the 950s-960s: the Numismatic Evidence, Roman K Kovalev, from The Russian Primary Chronicle (Laurentian Text), Samuel Hazzard Cross & Olgerd P Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Eds and translators, Mediaeval Academy of America), from the BBC series, Mary Beard's Ultimate Rome: Empire Without Limit, presented by Mary Beard and first screened between 27 April-18 May 2016, from Encyclopaedia of the Roman Empire, Matthew Bunson (1994), and from External Links: Turkic History, and History Extra, and Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Jewish Encyclopaedia, and History of the Byzantine Empire (Live Science).)


King list Dynasty of Theodosius (AD 395 - 457)

From the start, the eastern capital was based at Constantinople, dedicated by Emperor Constantine 'the Great' in 330 and retained until the final fall of the empire.

Index of Rome Rome & Empire (753 BC - AD 1453) (Index)

Legend states that Rome was founded by Romulus in 753 BC, later to be the heart of the greatest ancient empire.

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