The Forgotten Empire

Byzantine Civilization of the Middle Ages

In the fifth century AD, the mighty Roman Empire "fell" to invading barbarians and complex internal pressures. The land that had been centrally governed for centuries disintegrated into numerous warring states. The safety and privileges enjoyed by some residents of the empire vanished to be replaced by a constant state of danger and uncertainty; others merely traded one set of daily terrors for another. Europe was plunged into what Renaissance scholars would label a "dark age."

Yet Byzantium remained.

The Empire of Byzantium was the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, which was divided in 395 A.D. Its capital of Constantinople, located on a peninsula, was naturally secure from invasion on three sides, and its fourth side was fortified with a network of three walls that withstood direct attack for over a thousand years. Its stable economy provided a strong military and, together with an abundant food supply and advanced civil engineering, a high standard of living. Christianity was firmly entrenched in Byzantium, and literacy was more widespread there than in any other nation in the middle ages. Although the predominant language was Greek, Latin was also fairly common, and at one point all seventy-two of the world's known languages were represented in Constantinople. Intellectual and artistic endeavors thrived.

This is not to say that the Byzantine Empire was an oasis of peace in the desert of the perilous middle ages. On the contrary, its long history is marked by numerous wars and remarkable internal strife. Its official borders expanded and shrank several times as its rulers attempted to restore the empire to its former glory or fought off invaders (or occasionally attempted both simultaneously). The penal system was so harsh as to be viewed by western crusaders -- no strangers to mutilation and other extreme measures in their own systems of justice -- as exceedingly cruel.

Nevertheless, Byzantium remained the most stable nation of the middle ages. Its central location between western Europe and Asia not only enriched its economy and its culture but allowed it to serve as a barrier against aggressive barbarians from both areas. Its rich historiographical tradition (strongly influenced by the church) preserved ancient knowledge upon which splendid art, architecture, literature and technological achievements were built. It is not an altogether unfounded assumption that the Renaissance could not have flourished were it not for the groundwork laid in Byzantium.

The exploration of Byzantine civilization is undeniably significant in the study of medieval world history. To ignore it would be akin to studying the classical era without considering the cultural phenomenon of ancient Greece. Unfortunately, much (but thankfully not all) historical investigation into the middle ages has done just that. Historians and students often focused on the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the numerous changes in Europe without ever once glancing at Byzantium. It was often mistakenly believed that the Byzantine Empire was a static state that had little impact on the rest of the medieval world.

Fortunately, this view is changing, and a great wealth of information concerning Byzantine Studies has recently been produced -- much of it available on the net.

Selective Byzantine Timeline
Highlights from the dynastic history of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Byzantine Studies Index
A multilevel directory of useful sites about the people, places, art, architecture, religious history, military history and general history of the Eastern Roman Empire. Also includes maps and useful resources for the professional.

Suggested Reading
Useful and informative books about the Eastern Roman Empire, from general histories to biographies, art, militaria, and other fascinating topics.

The Forgotten Empire is copyright © 1997 by Melissa Snell and licensed to Permission is granted to reproduce this article for personal or classroom use only, provided that the URL is included. For reprint permission, please contact Melissa Snell.