Although the center of the Roman Empire was officially transferred to the east, when the new capital, New Rome or Constantinople, was inaugurated on May 11, 330, the two parts of the Empire continued to coexist until the end of the fifth century. Bound by the traditions of the universal Roman state, their ability to assimilate foreigners, sometimes the presence of strong rulers, and Christianity, a religion which introduced a new element of unity among the peoples of the Empire, they resisted, not always successfully, the onslaught unleashed by the Germanic tribes.
When, in the fifth century, weak rulers sat on the imperial throne and the empire failed to assimilate, or even expel, the Germans who now lived in its midst, especially in the west, the damage proved irreparable. Theodosius I (379-395) was the last Roman Emperor to hold the two parts of the Empire together. His successors were unable to do so. Soon the western part of "Romania", ruled by weak Emperors, came under the control of barbarian generals, like Stilicho, who, to his credit, tried to keep the Goths out. It was futile. Alaric and his Goths sacked the old capital in 410. Then, in 476, came the final blow: the fittingly named Romulus Augustulus (475-476) was deposed by the German conqueror Odoacer. Romulus's surrender spelled the end of the Latin Roman West.
It was to be outlived by the Greek Roman East until 1453. The areas which survived the disappearance of the western part of the Empire included the heavily christianized Hellenistic regions in the east, as well as the lands of classical Hellenism in western Asia Minor, Cyprus, the Greek peninsula and Southern Italy and Sicily. This is the area, aptly described by George Ostrogorsky, as defined by Greek culture, Christian faith, and Roman state structures. Today the eastern part of the Roman Empire is known and studied under the name of Byzantine Empire, a name deriving from Byzantium, the old name of its capital Constantinople. To its contemporaries it was Romania, and themselves were Romans.
The history of the Byzantine state is characterized by constant change and mutation. The extent of its territories was deeply influenced by outside pressures. In its early centuries, when the rest of Europe was trying to pull through the chaos in which the barbarian invasions had plunged it, the Empire, and its ruling classes, figured as a beacon of civilization and stability. Its Christian rulers claimed control over all the lands which in the past had belonged to the universal Roman Empire. Furthermore, they fought to impose, as real autocrats, an ideological uniformity on their subjects, which went beyond the traditional imperial cult practiced in the old Empire. Indeed, while the old Roman Empire tolerated a variety of religious expressions, in the new Christian Roman Empire Religion became the most powerful, and also the most popular, unifying factor. As a matter of fact, the ruler of the Christian Empire was selected by the Church, a fact that carried a religious significance. He was the champion and the living symbol of the faith, and was seen as such by his subjects. In the new Empire State and Church are close allies. Christianity also became the new instrument of introducing into the new Roman Universe, and hence civilization, the new converts, as the Christianization of the Slavs was to prove later. On the other hand, attempts, by mostly eastern Clergymen, to deviate from the accepted religious doctrine brought to the fore the divisions between the eastern populations of the Empire and the populations which lived in the old Greek speaking areas.
The Christological quarrels of the early Byzantine centuries were territorially defined by the borders between the Asiatic and the Greek lands of the Empire. The popularity, among the eastern populations, of the Monophysitic and Nestorian interpretations of the Christian dogma, is seen as a powerful expression of the political particularism of the eastern regions. This ideological separation, along with the military exhaustion of the Empire, following the long but victorious war against Persia during the rule of Heraclius (610-641), undermined resistance in the Christian east when, in the course of the seventh century, the time came to resist the Arab attack.
In its early period, from the fourth to the seventh century, the Empire fought for survival. Despite the disaster of 378, near Hadrianople, when the Goths annihilated the Imperial army, it was, finally, able to repel the Germanic threat, and for a short time it appeared that the only trouble spot would continue to be its traditionally unstable and far away borders with the Sassanid Persian Empire. The masses of Slavic migrants who started, near the end of the sixth century, settling permanently in the regions south of the river Danube, who were followed one century later by the Bulgarians, shattered this impression. The newcomers challenged the imperial authority and soon the Empire found itself fighting in a new front. Fighting in the north became a protracted affair. Large territories were lost and the Greek areas were threatened by the invaders. Mastering its resources the Empire fought back; it eventually checked their advance and in time brought them under its influence. They joined the Byzantine Commonwealth and participated fully in the building of European Medieval Civilization.
The loss of the East to another monotheistic religion, Islam, brought to the area profound changes. In time Christianity became, and still is in the region, the religion of a demographic minority. Islam became a powerful ideological instrument of territorial expansion. Furthermore, combined with the strong, and one thousand years old, Hellenistic foundations of the former Roman provinces of the east, the new religion contributed to the creation of a resplendent Eastern Medieval Civilization.
The loss of the East to Islam, and the transformation of eastern Asia Minor to a battlefield on which Byzantine Christianity and Islam fought for centuries, combined with the permanent Slavic and Bulgarian settlements south of the Danube, transformed profoundly the Empire. Occupying the areas of Classical Hellenism, territorially, demographically and culturally, the Byzantine Empire, which emerged from the amputations of the seventh century, constitutes the Greek nation's Medieval State.
The period between the seventh century and the beginning of the thirteenth is one of deep mutations. The introduction, during the reign of Heraclius of the new institution of the Themes, military districts which were continuously reorganized in order to respond to internal and external pressures which threatened the state, promoted the militarization of the Empire. Also, the presence of a long line of able warrior-Emperors, the troubles of the iconoclastic controversy, the continuing internal struggle between small peasant property and the great landed aristocracy, the spreading of Christianity among the Slavs, the cultural achievements of Medieval Hellenism, the emergence of Constantinople as the leading urban center in Europe and in the Mediterranean world, point to a society in continuous transformation. At the time of the Comnenian dynasty, which represented the politically triumphant great military landed aristocracy, the Empire began entering a new phase. New threats challenged the existence of the Byzantine state. In the east, the old enemy, Arab Islam, which had reached a level of border coexistence with Byzantine Christianity, was replaced by the young and vigorous Turkish Islam. By the end of the eleventh century fighting had resumed in Asia Minor. Comnenian diplomacy, military might and Imperial splendor were, for a time, able to handle the crusading fervor of the Western European knights. Emperor Alexius I (1081-1118) was able to temporarily control the Norman threat to the Empire. But it was during his reign that the economic penetration of the Byzantine world by the Italian republics began. It was to have disastrous consequences for the Empire. The ruthless commercial efficiency and economic initiatives of the Italian cities took advantage of the needs, of the political errors, as well as of the ambitions and political incompetence of the Byzantine ruling elits. Alexius's successors continued his policies and despite a setback at Myriokephalon, in central Asia Minor, in 1176, it appeared that the border between Byzantine Christianity and Turkish Islam was stabilized in central Asia Minor. The Comnenian period is also marked by continuous fighting on all fronts. The religious division between Catholic West and Orthodox East had created deep resentment among Europeans. In the long run the Schism proved disastrous; it became a political issue and finally a propaganda tool to discredit the opponent.
In Christian Europe the Orthodox peoples, and especially the Byzantine state, occupied the eastern frontier and had acted as a shield, behind which Western Europe developed in security. In 1204 the knights of the 4th Crusade and their Venetian allies shattered that shield into pieces. The sacking of Constantinople by the Christians, in 1204, and the partition of the Empire, were followed by the formation on its territory of a number of Latin and Greek states. That western European, basically colonial, enterprise, in which territorial occupation and colonial exploitation were present, marked the beginning of the final phase, in the life of the Byzantine Empire, which ended in 1453. The brief Lascarid interlude, in the new Nicean Empire, proved that in the hands of realistic and competent rulers Byzantium, drawing strength from its powerful foundations, could regenerate itself.
The taking of Constantinople from the Latins by Michael Paleologus, in July 1261, was seen as the rebirth of the Empire. The years of western occupation had produced not only political anarchy but had also deepened the hostility between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. After that period any attempt at reconciliation was doomed. The new Byzantine Empire included a small part of the former imperial territories, the incompetence and the avidity of the Latin conquerors had devastated the capital, the state was economically controlled by the Italian republics, usually at loggerheads with each other, and while it was assaulted from all sides its ruling classes, in order to control the ghost of authority, soon began fighting each other. Drained from economic and human resources, it became, by the middle of the fourteenth century, a small state centered around its almost empty capital. It depended for survival on western assistance, when at the end of the century the Ottomans besieged Constantinople. Death came on the 29th of May 1453.
When Mehmed the Conqueror entered Constantinople the Byzantine Empire and its great capital had already acquired a status of their own: they had become a civilization. A civilization transcends time and territory, it becomes a state of mind and reaches eternity.
For over one thousand years the Byzantine Empire preserved Greek classical civilization and Roman Imperial tradition. Based on the inheritance of the past, as well as on Christianity, it built its own civilization. It defended Christianity and spread it among the Slavs, subsequently bringing Eastern Europe into a wide cultural community. It shielded the whole of Europe from being attacked and conquered by powerful opponents and simultaneously gave it time to overcome the traumatism of the barbarian invasions and built its ecclesiastical and social institutions. Its destruction in 1453, combined with the occupation of Russia by the Mongols in the thirteenth century, put an end to the evolution of the other European civilization.
Professor of Classical and Byzantine Studies, and Chairman of Hellenic Studies Center at Dawson College, Montreal, and Lecturer at the Department of History at Universite de Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Professor Hatzopoulos is also the editor of the Romiosini.