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End of the Roman Empire

The End of the Western Roman Empire
The Division of the Empire
The Barbarian Invasions
The Western Empire Collapses
Constantinople: The Great Crossroads

Byzantium Index

Constantine the Great
Emperor Theodosius
Byzantine Conquest - Justinian
Byzantine Government
The Schism of Christianity into two Churches - The Orthodox Church
The End of Byzantium
Chronology of the Byzantine Emperors
The Orthodox Church
Visit to an Orthodox Church
English Workshop, Classwork and Homework


Living History Project

Living History Project Index


Background Reading : The Byzantine Empire (395 - 1453)

By the beginning of the 4th.century A.D. the Roman Empire seemed as powerful as ever but this was not the case. One of the problems it had to face was its size, it was simply too big for one man, the emperor, to govern effectively. Another problem was that the eastern part of the empire was not only far more populated than. the western part but it was also far richer; Rome was the only major city in the west , whereas in the east were found great cities of trade and culture such as Alexandria in Egypt, Haifa and Jaffa in Palestine and Antioch in Syria.

Constantine the Great

In the year 307 A.D. Constantine became Emperor of Rome and although he was not a Christian (he did convert to Christianity just before his death in 337 A.D.) he was sympathetic to Christians and in the year 312 he decreed that Christians had complete freedom of worship. In 313 Constantine went further and decreed that Christianity was one of the official religions of the Roman Empire.

In addition Constantine decided that Rome was no longer the best place from which to govern this vast empire. He eventually chose the small Greek port-city of Byzantium as the site of his new capital city. This small Greek town was totally reconstructed as an imperial capital city and in the year 330 A.D. Byzantium, now renamed Constantinople became the new capital city of the Roman Empire.

After Constantine's death in 337 every Roman Emperor was Christian (except for the two year reign of Julian the Apostate who continued to worship the old Roman gods).

Emperor Theodosius

Theodosius was important for two major decisions:

A. In the year 393 he decreed that Christianity was the official religion of the Roman Empire and that all pagan religions were forbidden. Judaism was tolerated.

B. In the year 395 Theodosius finally solved the problem about the size of the Roman Empire very simply; he divided it in two!

This decision by Theodosius created two Roman Empires:

The Western Roman Empire ruled by the Western Roman Emperor from Rome or Ravenna.

The Eastern Roman Empire ruled by the Eastern Roman Emperor from Constantinople.

Until 476 the two empires existed side by side but in that year the Western Roman Empire collapsed and western Europe was totally dominated by "barbarian" Germans.

As long as Byzantium kept control of these four trade routes it would remain rich and be able to afford a powerful army and a huge navy to protect the land and the sea.

This was the situation in the 6th.century especially during the reign of the greatest of the Byzantine emperors; his name was Justinian I (the Great) who ruled from 527 until 565.


Justinian's Court (Ravenna, Italy)

Justinian's Court (Ravenna, Italy)


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The Byzantine Empire


Roman Empire 330 AD


In 324 the Roman Emperor Constantine was very concerned about the barbarian invasions, which were literally at the gates of Rome. So Constantine moved the Empire's capital to a little known Greek colony called Byzance.


Constantine I

Constantine the Great 306 - 337 AD
photo by Jean-Christophe Benoist

As the Western Empire fell apart and disappeared in 476, the Eastern Empire based in Byzance or Constantinople survived until 1453. Byzance became the great city of Constantinople. The Eastern Empire or Byzantium founded a rich culture based on Greek traditions and Christianity. Byzantium has also left us its own story thanks to one of its greatest writers, the historian Anna Comnena, the daughter of the emperor Alexius.


Byzantine Conquest - Justinian

Justinian mosaic

Theodora, Mosaic at Ravenna

Justinian mosaic

Theodora, Mosaic at Ravenna

  • Under one of Byzantium's earliest Emperors, Justinian 527-565, attempts were made to drive the barbarians out from the remains of the Western Roman Empire. Justinian had some successes, as he re-conquered the Italian peninsula, the south coast of Spain and parts of North Africa.

  • In Italy, in Ravenna, Justinian established his new capital city as a declaration of his ambitions, to rebuild the old Roman Empire.

  • In Ravenna he founded a new system of law codes, or Corpus Juris Civilis, which are still a basis of many systems of justice in the world today. Justinian legitimised his works of Empire building by patronising the Christian Church. In Ravenna he built chapels like Saint Vitale, and ordered craftsmen to make great mosaics to depict the qualities of Justinian's Empire, religion, law and conquest.

  • In Byzance itself he had the great Hagia Sophia Cathedral built.

  • The Italian peninsula was devastated by Justinian's own invasion, so severely that it was Justinian who prevented a reconstruction of the Roman Empire; not the barbarian invaders.

  • Justinian's successes were short-lived. By 700 Arabs, Lombards and Slavs had reduced Byzantium to its original size. Following Justinian's death the Eastern Byzantine Empire was unable to defend its western conquests from fresh barbarian invasions.

  • The price of conquest in Italy, Spain and North Africa was crippling for Byzantine finances, and some historians say that this cost was never recovered.

  • Justinian's actions gained the Byzantine Empire respect from its foes, and a firm basis for the future, one thousand years until 1453.


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© Shirley Burchill, Chris Green, Mathew Hill, Nigel Hughes and Antony McDermott 2018

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