Constantine, Justinian
[Byzantine Empire]
Byzantium

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The Byzantine Empire
An outline history

Serious overcrowding in the Greek homelands in the eighth century BC led several city-states to attempt to establish trading colonies to the east and to the west throughout the Mediterranean basin. Thus it happened that, in the year 667 BC, one Byzas of Megara, after consulting the oracle of Apollo at Delphi, founded a settlement which became known as Byzantium at the entrance of the Black Sea. The city state of Megara functioned as a sponsor to this settlement.

The location chosen proved to be extremely advantageous for purposes of trade as it was approachable by water from both the Mediterranean and Black Seas and by land from both Europe and Asia Minor. The site was also favourable for defence in that there was only a limited landward perimeter and, if Byzantium were to come under attack, it could hope for relief from the seas.

As the sway of the kingdom of Macedon expanded in the second half of the fourth century BC under the leadership of Philip II (382-336 BC) and of his son Alexander the Great (356-323 BC) Byzantium was brought within its orbit. After the death of Alexander the Macedonian Empire decayed but Macedonian Greek influence was continued within the several kingdoms that powerful Macedonian generals established on the ruins of Alexander's Empire.

As the centuries passed a formerly insignificant settlement called Rome became the focus of an expanding empire such that Byzantium featured as one of many acquisitions of territory made by the Roman Empire before 100 BC. This Empire came to routinely feature disputations between claimants to the Imperial throne and, in one such contest, Constantine laid siege to Byzantium from where his brother-in-law was also seeking recognition as Roman Emperor.

These were times of challenge to the Empire from peoples who tended to invade its provinces, the ready defensibility of Byzantium, and the inherent improvement in communications that would follow from a relocation of the Imperial capital, resulted in Byzantium being deliberately much extended between 324 AD and 330 AD by order of Constantine in order to serve as the new capital of the Empire. From this time Byzantium, which had been endowed with churches, universities, bath-houses, circuses, law courts, and many works of art by Constantine, became known as Constantinople.

The Roman Empire before these times had been divided into adminstration regions variously run by Caesars and their deputies who held the title of Augustus. The most significant basis of this division being somewhat culturally based in the form of a recognition of a substantially Latin west and a substantially Hellenic / greek east. In theory all regions of the Empire recognised the same laws, the same political institutions and the same church structures.

Although the Roman Empire in the west fell under the onslaught of numerous invading peoples such as the Huns, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, Franks and Burgundians in the fifth century AD a Roman Empire based at Byzantium / Contantinople continued in being. Under Justinian (483-565 AD) this Byzantine Empire actually recovered many rich provinces in the west that had fallen to the invading peoples. He was also responsible for the construction of the great church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) the dome of which was to be the largest in the world for almost a thousand years.
In 534, a commission appointed by Justinian produced the Corpus Juris Civilis (The Body of Civil Law) which was widely accepted, in many parts of Europe and elsewhere, as the standard legal work until the middle of the 19th century.

The Byzantine Empire found its frontiers and its wealth to be under assault from many sides and had to make considerable arrangements for defence. It was also intermittently weakened internally by political faction fighting and by religious disputations concerning complex theological issues.
From the seventh century of the Christian era the adversaries that the Empire had to face included, in cases, the followers of another, more recently founded, faith - Islam. Such provinces as Palestine, Syria, and Egypt fell to the control of an expanding Islamic faith based civilisation in the seventh century AD. Byzantium itself was put under a brief direct siege in the early eighth century.

The continued existence of a Byzantine Empire was seriously compromised by the participants in the Fourth Crusade who treacherously overwhelmed the city in April 1204 and looted its prodigious wealth. A Latin Empire of Constantinople was now established that lasted until 1261 when Constantinople was retaken by a revived Byzantine Empire. Other Latin kingdoms established upon former Byzantine provinces also endured for several decades. The city state of Venice which had conveyed the crusading forces to the east, and encouraged the assault on the city, gained a longstanding monopoly on the trade formerly handled by Byzantine merchants.

The territories and sway of the Byzantine Empire continued to be encroached upon from several sides such that Constantinople itself became open to being referred to as a "massive head without a body." The ever contracting extent of the power of Constantinople led many greek scholars to relocate to the west in the early fifteenth century where they often found an enthusiastic reception as they were regarded as the custodians of a classical civilisation that was held to be undergoing a re-birth in the Renaissance Europe of the day.

In 1453 AD the city of Byzantium fell after a prolonged siege and Byzantium / Constantinople now, as Istanbul, became the capital of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

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Start of
An outline history of the Byzantine Empire