The Byzantine Empire, or the Eastern Roman Empire (sometimes called “Byzantium”) was the longest-lasting medieval power. At various times in its history, the Byzantine Empire ruled the lands in Italy, Greece, the Balkans, the Levant, Asia Minor, and North Africa. It had enormous influence over political systems, religion, art, and architecture. The Byzantine Empire existed between approximately AD 330 and 1453. The end of the Byzantine Empire came on Tuesday, May 29, 1453, when the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered the capital city, Constantinople.
Constantinople was built on the ancient site of the city of Byzantium and was founded by Emperor Constantine I, who ruled from AD 306 to 337. Constantine named the capital “New Rome,” but the city was renamed in his honor after his death. The city eventually became the most important Christian city in the world, and a Byzantine Emperor was able to stay on the throne for 12 centuries.
The church in the Byzantine Empire was headed by a bishop who was appointed or removed by the emperor. Christianity became a key factor in the joining together of divergent cultures into a united empire containing Greeks, Armenians, Slavs, Georgians, and many other ethnicities, along with those of other faiths who were allowed to observe the tenants of their religions freely.
The church from the fourth century onwards had five patriarchs or heads, and each one governed a certain area or patriarchate. The patriarchates were located in the West in Rome and in the East in Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Byzantium. At first, there were only simple disagreements in language and doctrine between the Western (Latin-speaking) church in Rome and the Eastern (Greek-speaking) patriarchates in Constantinople and the other three cities. But, in time, these differences became a deep dissension between the Eastern and Western branches of the church. In the eleventh century, a rift known as the “Great Schism” formed between the Western, or Roman Catholic Church; and the Eastern, or Greek Orthodox Church.
There were several areas of concern between the church of the Byzantine Empire and the church of Rome: the use of leavened or unleavened bread in communion, the use of imagery or icons, and the requirement of celibacy in priests, for example. Also contributing to the schism was a dispute over the sending of the Holy Spirit—did the Holy Spirit proceed from the Father only, or from the Father and the Son?
The Crusades also figure into the history of the Byzantine Empire. In particular, the Fourth Crusade affected Byzantium directly, as in April 1204 Western armies sent by Pope Innocent III conquered Constantinople. The original goal of the Fourth Crusade had been to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims, but it somehow ended with an attack on the Byzantine Empire and the sacking and looting of its capital. This resulted in several years of Western rule over Byzantium. Following a time of conflict between Western forces and the Nicaeans, Constantinople was freed from Western rule in 1261.
The influence of Christianity in the Byzantine Empire is seen to this day in remains or restorations of domed churches; impressive basilicas; intricately decorated and enameled plates, cups, jewelry, and Bible covers; and religious icons, wall paintings, and mosaics found everywhere from Egypt to Russia. In turn, the Byzantine Empire had a great impact on the form of Christianity in the East. This is seen in the continuation of the Eastern Orthodox Church in Greece and eastern Europe and among various Slavic populations. The influence of Byzantium is also felt today in Ethiopia, in Egypt among the Coptic Christians, and in Armenia among those of the Oriental Orthodox Church.