The Byzantine Empire is also known as the Eastern Roman Empire, for it was in fact a continuation of the Roman Empire into its eastern part. At its greatest size, during the 500’s AD, Byzantine included parts of southern and eastern Europe, the Middle East, and northern Africa.
The Byzantine people called themselves Romans although they were actually descendants of various ancient peoples and they spoke Greek. The word Byzantine, in fact, comes from “Byzantium,” which is the Greek name for a city on the Bosphorus. The Greeks colonized the area first, in the mid-600’s BC, even before Alexander the Great brought his troops into Anatolia (334 BC). Greek culture continued its influence long after the region became part of the Roman Empire, in the 100’s BC. But it was when Roman emperor Constantine the Great moved the capital of the Empire from Rome to Byzantium and renamed it Constantinople (Istanbul today), in 330 AD, that the Byzantine Empire really began. It lasted over 1000 years, ending finally in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul.
Christianity had a strong influence on Byzantine art, music, and architecture. Since Constantinople was the political center of the Empire, it also was the educational center, where future government officials learned to read and write the language of ancient Greece. Thus this period produced remarkable works in history as well as fine poetry, and much religious prose. All the visual arts flourished, too. Most of the artists worked as servants of the court or belonged to religious orders, and they remained anonymous. Ivory carvings, Byzantine crosses, and “illuminations,” or small manuscript paintings, attest to their skill. Almost all that survives of the Byzantine architecture are its churches, with their glorious frescoes and mosaics. With Hagia Sophia as an example, their architects and artisans reached heady heights of magnificence, indeed.
For 1100 years, the Byzantine’s were able to maintain control of their empire, although somewhat tenuously at times; the Empire’s expansion and prosperity were balanced by internal religious schisms (such as Nika Riot) and recurring wars with enemies from the outside. Finally, weakened by recurring waves of attack, the Ottomans overcame the exhausted Byzantines and a new era of leadership began. The Byzantine Empire, however, had left its mark on the culture, never to be entirely erased even after the Conquest.