Read about the continuities and changes between the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire and complete guided practice.

Оршил

  • The Byzantine Empire was the eastern continuation of the Roman Empire after the Western Roman Empire's fall in the fifth century CE. It lasted from the fall of the Roman Empire until the Ottoman conquest in 1453.
  • Continuities: The Byzantine Empire initially maintained many Roman systems of governance and law and aspects of Roman culture. The Byzantines called themselves "Roman". The term "Byzantine Empire" was not used until well after the fall of the Empire.
  • Changes: The Byzantine Empire shifted its capital from Rome to Constantinople, changed the official religion to Christianity, and changed the official language from Latin to Greek.

From Rome to Byzantium

The fall of the Roman Empire was a pivotal moment in world history. But we sometimes forget that part of the Roman Empire continued on. Even though the Western Roman Empire, which was centered around Rome, collapsed, the Eastern Roman Empire survived as the Byzantine Empire.
The Byzantine Empire lasted for a millennium after the fall of the Roman Empire, ending with the Ottoman conquests in 1453. While the Roman Empire's capital was Rome (for most of its history), the Byzantine Empire’s capital city was Constantinople, which was previously called Byzantium, and today is Istanbul. The capital was well-positioned near active trade routes connecting east and west. Constantinople was named after Emperor Constantine I, the first Byzantine emperor.
In this article, we're going to look at some of the continuities between the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire. We'll also examine some of the changes that occurred, transforming the Eastern Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire.
The Roman Empire in the east transformed into the Byzantine Empire over time, so it's pretty hard to neatly separate the histories of the two empires, but most scholars agree that Emperor Constantine's reign was the start of the Byzantine Empire.
A map depicting Constantine's empire, which spread over modern-day Italy, Greece, and Turkey and more.
Map of Constantine's empire, 306-324 CE. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Constantine—who ruled from 324 CE to 337 CE—made some significant changes to the Roman Empire. Two of these changes were the new capital at Byzantium and the new Christian character of the empire (Constantine legalized Christianity and eventually converted himself). These changes eventually created a distinct culture which would characterize the Byzantine Empire after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
Even so, people living under the Byzantine Empire continued to see themselves as Romans and continued to refer to their empire as the Roman Empire; the terms Byzantine Empire and Eastern Roman Empire were created much later.
Stop and consider: Why was Constantine a pivotal figure in Byzantine history?
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Even though the Byzantine Empire is considered to start with Constantine's moving the capital to Byzantium, it was not considered a separate empire by historians until the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.
Even during this overlap, the nature of the Eastern and Western halves of the Empire began to diverge. In particular, the Greek language became more and more important in the East relative to Latin.
In addition, Constantine legalized Christianity. However, this was still a period of transition. It wasn't until later, under Theodosius I—who ruled from 379 CE to 395 CE—that Christianity became the official state religion of the Roman Empire (both East and West).
During Constantine's rule, there was a mix of Christian and pagan elements. Let's look at this passage written by the historian Timothy E. Gregory:
There can be no doubt that, from 312 CE onward, Constantine favored the Christian church and that he offered it considerable wealth. He clearly became deeply involved in the religious controversies of the age and he favored Christians in the employ of the state. At the same time, Constantine continued to hold the office of pontifex maximus (chief priest of the state religion), and pagan symbols continued to appear on his coins, at least until 323 CE.
Stop and consider: According to Gregory, what were some indications that Constantine supported the Christian church?
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The early Byzantine state

Once the Western Roman Empire fell to Germanic conquerors in 476 CE, the Eastern Empire continued on as what historians would later refer to as the Byzantine Empire.
The first truly strong Byzantine Emperor was Justinian—who ruled the Byzantine Empire from 482 CE to 565 CE. He was able to reclaim much of the Western Empire during his reign.
Emperor Justinian also built upon Roman ideas when he put forth a unified Roman legal code. Prior to his reign, Roman laws had differed from region to region and many contradicted one another.
It was during Justinian’s reign that many of the most notable buildings and works of art in the Byzantine Empire were completed. In Constantinople, the Hagia Sophia was constructed under Justinian’s orders. At the time, it was the largest church in the world. Justinian also contributed to Constantinople’s growth by creating trade routes linking the capital to major cities to the east and west.
A large domed building with multiple towers.
The Hagia Sofia in Istanbul. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.
Southwestern entrance mosaic of the Hagia Sophia. The Virgin Mary is standing in the middle, holding the Child Christ on her lap. On her right side stands emperor Justinian I, offering a model of the Hagia Sophia. On her left, emperor Constantine I, presenting a model of the city.
Southwestern entrance mosaic of the Hagia Sophia. The Virgin Mary is standing in the middle, holding the Child Christ on her lap. On her right side stands emperor Justinian I, offering a model of the Hagia Sophia. On her left, emperor Constantine I, presenting a model of the city.
Stop and consider: What were some of the ways the Byzantine Empire changed during Justinian's reign?
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A changing empire

Even after Justinian’s efforts to reunify the Byzantine Empire, reconquer territory, and institute reforms, the stability of the Byzantine Empire was at risk. Attacks from neighboring groups—including the Persians, Slavs, Arabs, and Turkic steppe people—weakened the integrity of the empire. The empire also lacked revenues and struggled to keep up with mounting military expenses.
Emperor Heraclius’—who ruled from 610 CE to 641 CE—responded to these threats with a new set of reforms. He restructured the military, paying for it by clamping down on corruption and increasing taxes. He also started putting less gold in coins so he could mint more of them, enabling him to pay more soldiers.
Despite these reforms, wars with the Arabs and the Slavs significantly damaged the Byzantine Empire and reduced its territory drastically. Though the government organization had stayed very much the same since the time of the Romans, the Byzantine Empire began to transform in more drastic ways in the aftermath of these devastating wars.
How did it change? Let's read this passage written by Byzantine scholar Robert Browning:
Since the days of Diocletian and Constantine, at the turn of the third and fourth centuries, rigid separation of civil and military authority had been the rule. Civilian governors of provinces had no authority over troops stationed in their area. Army commanders had none over the civilian population. [...] It was a system designed to keep generals from dabbling in politics and staging military coups, and it worked. But it was cumbersome, it depended on the cooperation of the governing bodies of cities, which had to undertake much of the execution of government policy, and it made coordination of military and civil policy slow and difficult. Now that no region of the empire was safe from attack, something different was needed. [...] Territories still under Byzantine control were formed into military districts under the command of a strategos (army leader), who was responsible for all aspects of government, civil and military. [...] These new military districts were called themes, a word whose primary connotation is that of a division of troops.
Stop and consider: According to Robert Browning, how did the government administration change?
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In the passage, Browning described the emergence of the theme system. During Heraclius' rule the Byzantine Empire switched from the provincial administration system to this new system. Under the theme system, land was granted to farmers who, in return, provided the empire with loyal soldiers. Each district was called a theme. The efficiency of this system allowed the empire to keep hold of Asia Minor.
The previous system of provinces was a civil administration, but the theme system fused civil administration with military administration. This system was fairly successful. Because there was not enough money to pay soldiers, land grants were able to subsidize the military. Also, soldiers had a personal stake in the land since it was their own.
A map of the Byzantine Empire in 750, divided into distinct themes, or districts.
The Byzantine Empire in 750, divided into distinct themes, or districts. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons).
By the early eighth century, the Byzantine Empire began to look very different from the Roman Empire. The loss of the empire's richest provinces, coupled with successive invasions, had reduced the imperial economy to a relatively impoverished state, compared to the resources available to the neighboring Arab Muslim empires.
The Byzantine government and military had been restructured, and the culture of the empire changed, too. As of Heraclius’ reign, Greek replaced Latin as the official language. Instead of an urbanized, cosmopolitan civilization, the Byzantine Empire became an agrarian, military-dominated society caught up in a lengthy struggle with its neighbors.
Between the ninth and the eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire went on the offensive against its enemies and expanded its territory, conquering Crete, Cyprus, and most of Syria. This period saw the conversion of the Bulgarians, Serbs, and Rus to Orthodox Christianity, permanently changing the religious map of Europe and the face of the Byzantine Empire.
Stop and consider: What are some of the ways the Byzantine Empire changed between the eighth and the eleventh centuries?
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Throughout this period, there was great competition among nobles for land in the theme system. Since landowners could collect taxes and control the military forces of their themes, they became independent of the emperors and acted independently. This weakened the authority of the emperors. Landowners tended to increase taxes on small farmers in order to enrich themselves. These increased taxes caused riots and further destabilized an already weakened order.
Though the situation seemed bleak, the Byzantine Empire survived into the fifteenth century, undergoing more transformations. However, the empire incurred significant territorial losses, and by the time the Ottomans conquered Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire was little more than Constantinople itself.
Article written by Eman M. Elshaikh and partially adapted from Boundless and Ancient Encyclopedia.
Bibliography:
Browning, Robert. The Byzantine Empire. Washington: Catholic Univ. of America Press, 1992.
Gregory, Timothy E. A History of Byzantium. Malden, Mass.: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011.
Jeffreys, Elizabeth, John Haldon, and Robin Cormack. The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.
Každan, A.P. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Shepard, Jonathan. The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.
Stephenson, Paul. The Byzantine World. London: Routledge, 2012.
Treadgold, Warren T. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.