The beginning of the Byzantine Empire signaled the decline of the Roman Era and the founding of the famed city Constantinople in 324 B.C. by Constantine the Great, who relocated the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the city of Byzantium, which he later renamed after himself. As the continuation of the Eastern Roman Empire, the residents of Byzantium called themselves Greeks (Rom-ee-ee), from which comes the term Hellenism, which is still synonymous with the word Greek.
The Byzantine empire can be characterized as tumultuous and one with a series of dynastic successions to the Emperor’s throne, and also one with a tidal wave of raids by peoples like the Huns and the Goths, with cultural and linguistic diversity but always united under the umbrella of the Christian faith, which played a critical role in the history of the new Empire. At the same time, Greek remained as the official language in this multi-ethnic mosaic. The Byzantine empire lasted for more than a thousand years, with periods of great prosperity during the reign of Emperor Justinian and Herakles, but also during the dynasties of Komnenos Macedonian and Paleologos.
The world-renowned cathedral St. Sophia resides in Constantinople, whose construction finished on December 27th, 537 A.D., and to this day remains as one of the most important and revered centers of Christianity.
The people of this capital city lived in two districts; that where the Greens lived, and that of the Venetians, who had different interests and even fanatical followers. The Hippodrome served the Constantinople area for public events and other entertainment. While the years of Justinian were prosperous, they did decline over time, as witnessed by the Stasi tou Nika, until he reigned no more.
Important Developments of the Byzantine Empire
• Stasi tou Nika took place in 532 A.D., and was a riot motivated by the dissatisfaction of citizens expressed mainly in the two main districts (Greens and Venetians), for the oppressive and excessive tax burden placed upon on them by the Emperor. The uprising was suppressed the rebels didn’t have a clear and organized plan.
• Iconoclast Controversy – in the 8th century A.D. a controversy arose around the question of icons, where church leaders and the laypeople sided with one of two camps; the Iconoclast and the Iconolatry. This led to a full-blown crisis within the Christian Church, with violent reactions coming from both sides of the dilemma. It all started with an official decree from Leo III against all iconic images, while the solution to the tense situation took place on March 11th, 843 A.D. with their restoration. Each March, we celebrate this historic event with the Sunday of Orthodoxy.
• The Great Schism – the 11th century was marred by the Great Schism of the Christian Church, where the rift broke the Church in two; the Western Church and the Eastern Church, which resulted in the excommunication of the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Kiroulariou, that would forever rock the relations between the Church and the state and created a deep civil crisis within the Byzantine Empire. These disappointing episodes finally managed themselves with the enthronement of a new dynasty; the Aggelis.
While the period from 717-867 A.D. saw many threats, sieges and attacks by the Arabs, Bulgars and the Saracens, the Byzantines gloriously prevailed each time and even consolidated their command. Her run of great authority and influence culminated in the Christianization of the Slavs and other Slavic tribes, in part by using their alphabet and under the direction of monks Cyril and Methodius.
The Great Schism, however, along with the general internal rife, contributed to the weakening of the Byzantine Empire, exemplified by the fact that the Crusaders took advantage of this by sacking the City on April 13th, 1204. This led to the fracturing of the Empire into what you could describe as small, feudal states, with the largest and most prominent of these being the Duchy of Athens. It was from this feudal state that a great Greek nation would emerge.
In the year 1261, the occupation by the Crusades ended, and the new dynasty elevated to the throne; the Paleologos. From here on, we see the term “Greek” applied to more and more to the people. The Paleologos dynasty, sadly, lasted less than two centuries, as the Byzantine Empire fell once and for all, to the Ottomans, under the rule of Mohammed II. This fateful event in history happened on Tuesday, May 29th, 1453. This marked the end of the Hellenistic Middle Ages.