Sooner or later in a series on the Middle Ages, the prospect of looking a little more closely at the Byzantine Empire approaches, causing a certain dread. That time, alas, has now come. The fact of such a realm goes back to Emperor Diocletian who, in 295, split the Roman Empire into a Pars Occidentalis and a Pars Orientalis, and the Byzantine was the latter—but, while indeed its capital became the ancient Byzantium, rapidly renamed Constantinople, during that empire’s life it was never referred to as the “Byzantine.” The first such label came in the sixteenth century; and the general usage, “Byzantine Empire” dates to yesterday, you might say, the nineteenth century. The people of the actual empire called it “Empire of the Romans” but they spoke Greek. For them it was Basileia tōn Rhōmaiōn. Such is the nature of human usage—making me wonder what the Far Future will call the United States ...
The dating of the Byzantine is usually from 330 when Constantine completed his transfer of the Roman empire’s capital to Byzantium. I prefer 324, when he began this work—because it gives us a clean 1130 years for the realm’s duration. It ended in 1453 with the Ottoman capture of Constantinople. The realm was ruled by 16 dynasties. There were 92 dynastic rulers and 10 emperors who did not manage to form dynasties. Each ruler served an average of 11 years. How to give this vast stretch of time some shape in a short post?
My approach here will be concentrate on broad patterns and leave historical patterns unexplored: too many dynasties, too many rulers. And the usual method, thus singling out the most famous figures, obscures the general pattern—namely the manner in which the longer-lasting part of the Roman empire, the oriental part, was gradually dismembered over time. Do not, therefore, expect history here. Let’s call it a natural process of cultural transformation.
Let me begin with a tabulation which shows how little of that Rhōmaiōn was actually present in that Basileia. The first three dynasties, to be sure, retained their Roman character — minimally because business was transacted in Latin. But we must note that the only genuine Westerner among the early dynasties was Theodosius; he was born in Spain. Constantine was born in Serbia and Valentinian in Croatia. The birthplaces of all dynastic founders, including the first three, are shown in the following table and indicate that the Roman character of that realm faded rather rapidly.
Concerning this table, note first that under Leo I of the fourth, the Leonid, dynasty, Greek was adopted for all legislation and for doing business generally. Leo was also the first such emperor crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Note that the geographical origins of dynastic founders are evenly divided between countries we would call Balkan—and Turkey. The only other Western line that ruled a part of the Byzantine much later was the Hainaut, Baldwin I being the first. The Hainauts came from Flanders, but this family only ruled the so-called Latin Empire, which was roughly one half of a split Byzantine realm. That split came after the Western conquest of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade. The crusades had, by that time, also degenerated into wars with predominantly commercial aims—which, in the case of the Fourth, was to secure Constantinople for Venerian influence. The other half of the temporarily split realm was ruled by the Empire of Nicea under the Laskarid Dynasty. Michael Palaiologos, the last ruler of Nicea, and re-conqueror of Constantinople, was also the founder of the last dynasty to rule what little was left of the Byzantine—by then an empire only in name.
The seven maps I show, from a Wikipedia animated map found here, shows the territorial disintegration of the Basileia tōn Rhōmaiōn, with occasional attempts at recovery—but the trend is clear enough. The first image, for 550, shows the Byzantine at its greatest extension, after Justinian’s reconquest of Italy, the north coast of Africa, a slice of Spain, and the Mediterranean islands. The last, for 1400, shows what’s left of the empire 53 years before the Ottoman’s finally captured Constantinople.
From a certain time-perspective, the usual human ways of seeing things blur away into naturalistic patterns which tend to mirror nature much more closely than genuinely human behavior, even when the naturalistic changes are largely human-made. But for those who think that dynasties and personalities make a real difference—and they certainly do at the human perspective and time-scale—I will close out this post with a rather lengthy timeline in which I show largely dynasties over time and only here and there mark the presence of non-dynastic rulers and events. The color-shading is intended to show a kind of fading as we progress in time—and as the Empire becomes ever less coherent and more and more localized.
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