Skip to main content
main-content
Top

About this book

This introductory text provides a concise overview of the history of Byzantium, from AD 285, when it first separated from the Western Roman Empire, to 1461, when the last Byzantine splinter state disappeared. Over the course of this period, the Byzantine state and society underwent many crises, triumphs, declines and recoveries. Spanning twelve centuries and three continents, the Byzantine empire linked the ancient and modern worlds, shaping and transmitting Greek, Roman and Christian traditions that remain vigorous today. This book examines the causes behind Byzantium's successes, failures and remarkable longevity. The author shows how Byzantine political leadership, military strategy, cultural attitudes and social, institutional and demographic changes combined with the strengths and weaknesses of the empire's enemies to explain the paradoxes of Byzantium's long history.

This revised second edition has been updated throughout to incorporate new research, most notably on gender, iconoclasm and environmental history. It is an essential text for students taking courses on Byzantine history seeking an introductory overview to this broad and complex topic.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Abstract
In AD 285, the emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two parts. The eastern part, the subject of this book, became known as the Eastern Roman Empire or, after the last of the Western Empire disappeared in 480, simply as the Roman Empire. Only after the former Eastern Empire also fell in 1453 did some scholars feel a need for a name without “Rome” in it for an empire that had not included Rome. Although the capital of the East had usually been at Constantinople, the term “Constantinopolitan Empire” was ungainly. The renamers settled on “Byzantine Empire” or “Byzantium,” Byzantium having been the name of the small town refounded as Constantinople in 324. For better or worse, this name has stuck, though historians disagree about the right date to start using it. This book begins with 285, when the Eastern Roman Empire began its separate existence, but the town of Byzantium had no special importance as yet. I avoid calling the empire “Byzantine” until the fifth century, when Constantinople truly became its political and cultural capital and the Western Roman Empire fell away.
Warren Treadgold

2. The Formation of Byzantium (285–457)

Abstract
Diocletian, like most of the short-lived emperors of the previous half-century, was a soldier from the Balkan Peninsula, then called Illyricum. Level-headed and shrewd, Diocletian commanded the respect of those who knew or met him. His original name, Diocles, meant “Zeus’s Glory,” and he took it seriously, showing a special devotion to the king of the gods throughout his life. It was also a Greek name, though he Latinized it to Diocletian. Apparently he felt at ease speaking either Latin or Greek, the one the language of the army and government and the other the common tongue of the polyglot natives of the eastern part of the empire. In 284, at the age of about forty, he was head of the imperial bodyguard when he seized power in the East, while claiming that someone else had murdered his predecessor. The next year, in a bloody battle in Illyricum, Diocletian disposed of his last rival, the brother of the emperor he had succeeded.
Warren Treadgold

3. Reconquest and Crisis (457–610)

Abstract
The Eastern senate offered to elect Aspar emperor, which might have been the best way to assure his downfall. But he prudently declined, passing the crown on to his subordinate officer Leo. Like Marcian, Leo was in his late fifties, lacking a power base, a hereditary claim to the throne, a son to succeed him, or much of a reputation. In an attempt to enhance his frail legitimacy, Leo had himself crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople, a ceremony that set a precedent for emperors in the future. Though Leo had the wits and will to be more than a figurehead, his barbarian master was still more powerful than he. Aspar commanded one of the two praesental armies, Aspar’s son Ardabur commanded the Army of the East, and Aspar’s ally Theoderic Strabo (“the Squinter”) led the empire’s Ostrogothic allies in Thrace.
Warren Treadgold

4. Catastrophe and Containment (610–780)

Abstract
After deposing the disastrous Emperor Phocas, the new Emperor Heraclius faced the daunting task of saving the empire from simultaneous and full-scale Persian and Avar invasions. In his mid-thirties, of Armenian stock, but familiar with not much more than northwestern Africa, Heraclius had limited military and political experience and only such legitimacy as he could claim for having overthrown a usurper. The Persian King Khusrau II considered him no more legitimate than Phocas had been. On the other hand, no one living had a better claim to the Byzantine throne than Heraclius did, and he possessed an instinctive doggedness and strategic sense that allowed him to survive and to grow into his position.
Warren Treadgold

5. Recovery and Victory (780–1025)

Abstract
After Leo IV’s death his widow Irene became regent for their nine-year-old son Constantine VI. An empress without the support of a strong emperor was always at a disadvantage at the Byzantine court, and Leo’s five younger brothers were all of age and obvious contenders for imperial power. But Irene, in her mid-twenties, was shrewd and iron-willed, with a firm commitment to restoring the icons that had already won her allies in the palace. Not two months after Leo’s death, she frustrated a conspiracy to proclaim one of his brothers and had all five of them ordained priests.
Warren Treadgold

6. Wealth and Weakness (1025–1204)

Abstract
Nothing reveals Basil II’s narrow conception of his responsibilities so starkly as his lack of interest in the succession. Although he could hardly have disinherited his old and ailing brother Constantine VIII, Basil should at least have married one of Constantine’s daughters to a man fit to be emperor while she was young enough to bear children. Yet after an undistinguished reign of three years, even Constantine waited until he was on his deathbed to see his daughter Zoë married. The forty-nine-year-old Zoë cared mostly for cosmetics, and Constantine’s officials recommended her new husband Romanus Argyrus chiefly because they believed they could control him easily. Worse yet, similar bureaucrats were to run the government for most of the next half-century, always favoring malleable candidates for the throne.
Warren Treadgold

7. Restoration and Fall (1204–1461)

Abstract
The best proof of Byzantium’s underlying strength is that Byzantine states survived for more than two and a half centuries after the seemingly fatal Fourth Crusade. The reason was certainly not strong and unified Byzantine leadership. When the Crusaders stormed Constantinople, the deposed Alexius III Angelus still held the region of Thessalonica, while his son-in-law Theodore Lascaris held the northwest part of Byzantine Anatolia, supposedly in Alexius’ interest. The fugitive Alexius V held most of eastern Thrace. A grandson of the late emperor Andronicus, Alexius Comnenus, had seized the northern coast of Anatolia and declared himself emperor at Trebizond. Yet though Alexius claimed to be the Byzantine emperor, he was merely a local potentate and is best called the Emperor of Trebizond. The rebels in southern Greece and southwest Anatolia had purely local ambitions.
Warren Treadgold

8. Conclusion

Abstract
That Byzantium saw many dramatic reversals of fortune is obvious. Yet modern and Byzantine observers alike have disagreed about the importance of those changes in Byzantine history. The Byzantines, aware of how long their empire had lasted and assuming it had always been much as it was in their own times, usually underestimated any changes. In this modern scholars have sometimes followed their Byzantine sources and sometimes reacted against them. Occasionally disagreement among modern historians has been sharp, as in the dispute between those who think Byzantium became poorer between the tenth and twelfth centuries and those who think it became richer. More often, however, the modern disputes are over matters of degree, such as whether the political and military decline of the empire in the seventh century was utterly devastating or merely severe. In some cases, both sides have defined their positions so vaguely that they seem to disagree not so much about what occurred as about how best to describe it. For example, the controversy about whether Byzantine cities disappeared or merely shrank in the seventh century may simply hinge upon the size that each side considers the minimum to call a settlement a city.
Warren Treadgold
Additional information