The Byzantine Empire

In its dying days the Roman Empire gave birth to a successor which was to surpass it in both brilliance and longevity. In 330 AD, Emperor Constantine shifted the capital from Rome to the small town of Byzantium, which he renamed Constantinople and turned into a city so magnificant that to this day the word "Byzantine" is synonymous with splendor. The Byzantines inhereted the Empire of Rome and the culture of ancient Greece. They also brought something new - Byzantine was founded as the first Christian relm in history.

Constantinople was ideally placed on the Bosphorus Straits, at the junction of the North - South and East - West trade routes. Its harbour, the Golden Horn, was one of the most magnificant in the world. At the end of the triangular peninsular protected on two sides by water and on the third by the triple Walls of Theodosius, the city was almost impregnable. It withstood 19 sieges and was taken only twice in its history.

In the 6th century, Emperor Justinian the Great codified the laws and embarked on an enormous programme of building and conquest. Despite initial success, Justinian's extravagance almost bankrupted the empire and turned Italy and North Africa into veritable deserts. Much of the conquered territory was soon lost again and the sudden rise in Islam threatened the Empire. The Holy Land and North Africa were both lost and an Arab army reached the gates of Constantinople. The Empire took almost three centuries to recover, both politically and culturally. By the tenth century it had regained its former glory. Basil II ( the Bulgar-Slayer ) was only one of the great Emperors of this time. He defeated an enormous Bulgarian army and blinded 9 out of every 10 soldiers, leaving the 10th with one eye to guide his comrades home. Basil also founded the Varangian Guard.

In 1071, an army led by Emperor Romanus was defeated by the Seljuk Turks at the catastrophic battle of Manzikert. The rich provinces of Anatolia were lost. This defeat was to mark the turning point in the Empire's fortunes. So hard was it hit that the gold nomismata, the Empire's currency, had to be devalued by 50%. Emperor Alexius I asked the Pope to raise mercenaries to serve in the Byzantine armies to regain their lost territories. Instead, the Pope preached the First Crusade, and in 1096 a vast unruly army of adventurers stormed through the Empire to carve out kingdoms for themselves in the Holy Land.

The Fourth Crusade of 1204 will live in infamy; instead of invading Muslim Egypt, the Crusaders attacked and sacked Christian Constantinople. A Crusader "Empire" based on Constantinople survived till 1261, when it was overthrown by the Imperial family returning from exile in Nicea. The Byzantine Empire never recovered and slowly lost territory to the Ottoman Turks. In 1453, after losing all its lands except the city itself, Constantinople fell to the Turkish cannonades. The last Emperor, named Constantine just as the first was, died defending the city.

quarfwa@atinet.com.au 10 April 1996