The Byzantines (476 to 1453) The Byzantines took their name from
Byzantium, an ancient city on the Bosphorus, the strategic waterway linking
the Black Sea to the Aegean Sea. The Roman Emperor Constantine had renamed
this city Constantinople in the fourth century and made it a sister capital
of his empire. This eastern partition of the Roman Empire outlived its
western counterpart by a thousand years, defending Europe against invasions
from the east by Persians, Arabs, and Turks.
The Byzantines persevered
because Constantinople was well defended by walls and the city could be
supplied by sea. At their zenith in the sixth century, the Byzantines
covered much of the territories of the original Roman Empire, lacking only
the Iberian Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), Gaul (modern France), and
Britain. The Byzantines also held Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, but by the
middle of the seventh century they had lost them to the Arabs. From then on
their empire consisted mainly of the Balkans and modern Turkey.
great Byzantine emperor was Justinian I (482 to 565). His ambition was to
restore the old Roman Empire and he nearly succeeded. His instrument was the
greatest general of the age, Belisarius, who crisscrossed the empire
defeating Persians to the East, Vandals in North Africa, Ostrogoths in
Italy, and Bulgars and Slavs in the Balkans. In addition to military
campaigns, Justinian laid the foundation for the future by establishing a
strong legal and administrative system and by defending the Christian
The Byzantine economy was the richest in Europe for many centuries
because Constantinople was ideally sited on trade routes between Asia,
Europe, the Black Sea, and the Aegean Sea. It was an important destination
point for the Silk Road from China. The nomisma, the principal Byzantine
gold coin, was the standard for money throughout the Mediterranean for 800
Constantinople's strategic position eventually attracted the envy and
animosity of the Italian city-states. A key strength of the Byzantine Empire
was its generally superior army that drew on the best elements of the Roman,
Greek, Gothic, and Middle Eastern experience in war. The core of the army
was a shock force of heavy cavalry supported by both light infantry
(archers) and heavy infantry (armored swordsmen). The army was organized
into units and drilled in tactics and maneuvers. Officers received an
education in military history and theory. Although outnumbered usually by
masses of untrained warriors, it prevailed thanks to intelligent tactics and
good discipline. The army was backed by a network of spies and secret agents
that provided information about enemy plans and could be used to bribe or
otherwise deflect aggressors.
The Byzantine navy kept the sea-lanes open for
trade and kept supply lines free so the city could not be starved into
submission when besieged. In the eighth century, a land and sea attack by
Arabs was defeated largely by a secret weapon, Greek fire. This chemical
weapon, its composition now unknown, was a sort of liquid napalm that could
be sprayed from a hose. The Arab navy was devastated at sea by Greek fire.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs overran Egypt, the Middle
East, North Africa, and Spain, removing these areas permanently from
Byzantine control. A Turkish victory at Manzikert in 1071 led to the
devastation of Asia Minor, the empire's most important source of grain,
cattle, horses, and soldiers. In 1204 Crusaders led by the Doge of Venice
used treachery to sack and occupy Constantinople.
In the fourteenth century,
the Turks invaded Europe, capturing Adrianople and bypassing Constantinople.
They settled the Balkans in large numbers and defeated a large crusader army
at Nicopolis in 1396.
In May 1453, Turkish sultan Mehmet II captured a
weakly defended Constantinople with the aid of heavy cannon. The fall of the
city brought the Byzantine Empire to an end.