The Byzantine Empire

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Constantinople was the old Roman Empire’s eastern capital and it was built on the Byzantium’s Greek port. When the western part of the Roman Empire finally collapsed in AD 476, Constantinople became the Byzantine Empire’s capital. During its beginning, this empire controlled only a small amount of land around the Aegean Sea. Its emperors always wanted to defeat the barbarians to reunite the former Roman Empire. The peoples who attacked the empire believed that its residents were Romans.

During Emperor Justinian’s reign from AD 527 to AD 565, under his general Belisarius, North Africa, Italy, and southern Spain were re-conquered and the empire expanded to include the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea. However, most of the land was lost soon after Justinian’s death, by the conclusion of the 6th century.

Constantinople, now called Istanbul, was located at the entrance to the Black Sea. It became the land route between Europe and Asia where it functioned as a significant trading center for the world. The empire produced gold, grain, olives, silk, and wine; these goods were traded for commodities such as spices, precious stones, furs, and ivory, from the Far East and from Africa.

The Byzantine Empire was a leaning center, where ancient Greek philosophy was combined with Christian Church teachings. The Byzantines developed their unique form of Greek Orthodox Christianity. For centuries, the greatest Church in Christendom was St. Sophia in Constantinople. The emperor was believed to be God’s representative on Earth.

Emperor Justinian and Theodora

Justinian ruled the Byzantine Empire with his wife, Empress Theodora. They believed their empire was civilization’s guardian because it practiced the true religion. They believed that laws should be made by wise rulers, rather than directives handed down as a tradition. Under Justinian the Old Roman laws were reorganized and his ideas later spread back to Western Europe.

Justinian’s wife, Theodora, helped him govern the empire. She had been an actress before becoming Justinian’s wife and was described by many admirers as extremely beautiful. Justinian relied on her continually for advice, emotional, and psychological support. She changed laws to improve the conditions of the poor and women.

Byzantine Empire’s Weapon

The Byzantine Empire was often attacked from both sea and land. The Byzantine Navy employed a secret weapon called “Greek fire” against its enemies. According to many historians and modern chemists, Greek fire was a mixture of quicklime, petroleum, and sulfur, which burst into flames when the quicklime made contact with water. Greek fire was very successful at keeping the enemy away and some military historians describe it as the first modern weapon.

Constantinople’s Fall

In Eastern Europe and the Middle East, two empires fought for power during the late Middle Ages. One was the Christian Byzantine Empire, while the other was the Islamic Ottoman Empire, founded in AD 1299 by Turk Osman I. The Ottoman Turks built up their Empire quickly. In AD 1326, they proceeded to conquer large parts of the Byzantine Empire. They controlled most of Greece, Bosnia, Albania, and Bulgaria by 1450, and tried to conquer Hungary. The only territory remaining in the Byzantine Empire was Constantinople, which was founded in the village of Byzantium.

Finally, in AD 1453, the Turks, under their celebrated commander Muhammad II, made their final assault on the old city. The last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, had roughly 10,000 Christian soldiers under arms, while Muhammad had between 125,000 Muslim warriors. Muhammad could not send his warships into the Golden Horn, a sea channel which runs through Constantinople, because it was guarded by huge and heavy iron chain. Therefore, he dragged 70 small warships overland to launch an attack. Although Byzantine soldiers were protected by strong walls, Muhammad battered their walls with heavy cannon fire for 54 days before his elite fighting troops, the Janissaries, overran the city.

According to Nicolo Barbaro, all through the day the Turks slaughtered the Christians. The blood flowed like rain water in the gutters following a sudden and violent storm, and the swollen corpses floated out to sea as melons along a canal. This was the end of the Byzantine Empire and the beginning of the Golden Age of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.