It is often said that where the Byzantine story ended, American history began.
The Byzantine Empire was a world unto itself, a great power which survived a millennium during which the rest of Europe dissolved under the pressure of barbarian invasions and interminable struggles between petty princes. From its seat of power in the city of Constantinople strategy location straddling the passage between Europe and Asia, Byzantine Emperors exercised an influence over all the Christian nations of Europe East and West. Its currency the golden Byzant (Constantine) was the standard acceptable coin in trade; its laws were adopted in one form or another by all European nations; its missionaries translated the Bible into Gothic, Slavonic and many other languages; its artists established standards that led to the Renaissance.
The story of the Empire begins and ends at Constantinople its capital. Constantinople had been established by Emperor Constantine the Briton and named New Rome, as the center of political power for the Eastern provinces of the universal Roman Empire. When the Western Empire dissolved around 476, the Eastern Empire survived barbarian invasions. The ambitious 6th century Emperor Justinian (Iustinianos) and the upstart Empress Theodora, a former dancer, restored the Roman Empire to the western provinces on the Mediterranean Sea, defeating in succession the Persians, the Ostrogoths entrenched in Italy and the Vandals in North Africa. In truth Justinian could be called the last Emperor of the old Roman Empire and the first of the New. With Justinian's death in 565, the empire tottered into instability.
With Slavic tribes marauding through the Balkans, Asiatic nomads at the gates demanding tribute, and the Persians conquering Syria, Palestine and Egypt, the emperor Heraclius (610- 640) swiftly crushed the Persian Empire and regained Syria, Palestine, Egypt and the Holy Cross. Glory was short-lived. A new enemy, Islam stormed in from the desert. Within a century, Palestine, Syria, Persia, Egypt and Northern Africa and Spain fell to the Arabs. Every year an Arab fleet attacked Constantinople, while the weakened empire faced a threat on land from the Bulgars. By 700 the entire empire verged on disintegration. A scientific discovery, Greek Fire, naphtha which turned water to fire, a gift from a Greek alchemist, drove back a desperate Arab assault on Constantinople in 718. In victory, Civil and military reforms left the Empire securely resting on a land-granted peasant militia and a small professional army spearheaded by the Vagarian (Barbarian) guard, soldiers recruited from all nations.
Almost unnoticed by the East embroiled with the intrigue of the Empress Irini (Irene), in the former Western provinces of the Roman Empire, the Frankish nation produced Charlemagne, a moose of a man and a capable leader who would re-alter the balance between east and west in politics and in the church. On Christmas Day 800 Pope Leo III placed the diadem on Charlemagne's head as the king arose from prayer before the altar. The clerics and the great nobles of the realm sung the Roman acclamatio: "To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving emperor, life and victory!" The pope proclaimed Charlemagne Emperor of the Romans and proclaimed the Roman Empire restored under Charlemagne, breaking the pope's vow of allegiance to the Christian Emperor at Constantinople.
The coronation of Charlemagne as emperor was a milestone, signifying the arrivist German claims on the Roman heritage and the emerging power of the pope separate from Byzantine Orthodoxy. Even Charlemagne was not pleased by the pope's action in awarding the title: Emperor. The gift tacitly announced the power of the giver more clearly than that of the recipient.
Eventually in 812, Constantinople's Christian Emperor recognized the newly formed Holy Roman Empire of the West. Byzantium remained the standard, but East and West were beginning to drift toward permanent separation with the emergence of a distinct Western Christianity headquartered in Rome and a transalpine German military tradition. The coronation of Charlemagne marks the beginning of modern Western Europe, as the convenient merger of old Latin Rome with its German conquerors.
Charlemagne had his work cut out for him in this task. He found most administrators of his Empire were either poor in script or absolutely illiterate. A major task in resurrecting the old Empire of the West was teaching the Latin cursive script.
While the arrivist Empire of the West struggled to spread literacy so the government could function, the Byzantine Empire was blessed by the strength not only of policies established by its capable leaders like Leo and Justinian, but from its direct inheritance in continuity of the Roman tradition of a highly efficient and highly centralized system of administration, aided by a well-trained bureaucracy. An emperor may be annointed as God's chosen with absolute power in the title Autokrator, absolute supremacy, but the daily burdens of government rested upon the officials who kept track of events throughout the Empire from a large cavern located under the Hipodrome (the sports arena).
However the cyclical decline accompanied the end of the Macedonian dynasty in 1057. Internal disputes, a court cabal placing an incapable usurper, the Empress' boyfriend on the throne, the rise of Venice as a commercial rival, and Turkish incursions in Asia Minor led to a defeat at Manzikert in 1071. All of Asia Minor was lost. Emperor Alexius appealed to the Pope Urban II to raise crusaders to fight the Turks.
It is one of the ironies of history that these crusaders, fellow Christians from the west, would play an important role in the collapse of Christian Byzantium. In the short run, the First Crusade weakened Muslim strength in Asia Minor and enabled Emperor Alexius to recover valuable Asia Minor. Even in Gibbon's account, the crusaders were a rough lot, by comparison to the sophisticated Byzantines. Frothing avarice overwhelming any religious fervor, the crusaders turned watery, envious eyes on the weakened city of Constantinople. The Fourth Crusade diverted to Constantinople in 1204, sacked the city fractured by internecine strife. Priceless works of art, irreplaceable ancient manuscripts, and magnificent statuary were either destroyed or carried off to the west to private collectors.
A so-called Latin Empire of Constantinople partitioned the Byzantine Empire into feudal states ruled by self-styled "Latin" princes. The result was tumult. From a base in Nicea, the Byzantines, determined to retake their capital, battled the "Latin" Frankish princes installed in Southeastern Europe. Meanwhile in the chaos, Venice swept up the most strategic Greek ports in the West.
Despite disorder Byzantium would not die peacefully. In 1259, the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaeologus recaptured the Peloponnesian and wrested Constantinople from Frankish adventurers in 1261. Restoration saw a flurry of Byzantine intellectual activity. Yet, the Empire, beset by a plague, had been reduced to a hollow shadow of itself. The episode left a lasting hatred for the Roman Catholic Church which Greeks dismissed as a heretical offshoot of true Orthodoxy.
Notwithstanding the enthusiasm of restoration, the Byzantine Empire continued a steady decline. Feudalism sapped the empire of its financial stability; Money was devalued; military forces weakened. The empire shrank to a tiny sliver, surrounded by ambitious rivals. A tremendous foe, Ottoman Turks, advanced across into Europe, captured Adrianople and lunged for the heart of the Empire. Within 30 years the Ottomans would overrun Bulgaria, Serbia and Daccia.
Meanwhile in the Balkans throughout the 1300's, the Christian Serbian Princes nipped at the Byzantine's heels. Uniting under a Serbian Emperor Stefan Dusan, Serbia warred on the Byzantine Empire greatly expanding Serbian territory at the Byzantine expense. In 1389, the fatal mistake was made. The Byzantines used Ottoman invaders to destroy the Serbs at Kosovo. The Byzantines had used the viper to swat a flea. On a dusty day in April 1453 the Ottomans appeared before Constantinople and demanded its surrender. The Emperor Constantine XI, often called The Faithful, walled up his city and vowed to defend it to the death.
The Greeks say of their nation that it is not one which worships war or the banners of war. Yet the battle for Constantinople was so hotly contested by so few Greek warriors against such an overwhelming well-armed force that it deserves to be called, A Greek Alamo. The Ottoman Turks surrounded Constantinople. In a seven week siege 9000 Greeks fought off an army of 160,000 Turks armed with canon. Greek fire was ineffective; the Turk moved its fleet across land on a causeway. Swarming through an undefended open gate the Turks overwhelmed the defenders and captured the city, ending the empire which had preserved European culture and learning throughout the dark ages. The final Roman Emperor was last seen riding through the streets on his horse pleading for a Christian to slay him. And with him died all the heroes of the classical world and much of its learning as well.
The fall of Constantinople sent a shock wave through Western Europe: renaissance, reformation and fierce civil wars. The loss of trade routes led to explorations and ultimately discovery of North America.
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