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The Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire was the eastern section of the Roman Empire which remained in existence after the fall of the western section. The life of the empire is commonly considered to span AD 395 to 1453. During the thousand years of its existence, it was known simply as the "Roman Empire." The Byzantines considered themselves to be Romans (Rhomaioi) and the legitimate continuation of the Roman Empire. Even though much of its, language, and culture was Greek, this posed no contradiction for the Romans of the Eastern Empire. Greek had been their language, and their culture had been Hellenistic for centuries. Latin remained the official language until the 7th century. Surrounding lands and empires (such as the Persians and Arabs to the east, Europeans to the west, and Russians to the north) called them Roman as well, and it was considered a great insult to refer to the empire as "Greek.", because "Greek" meant "Pagan". The empire was not referred to as "Byzantine" until the 17th century--and only then by "Western" historians, when they decided to distinguish the medieval entity from the (in reality quite different) ancient empire. This name comes from the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium.
Another defining moment in the history of Roman/Byzantine Empire was the Battle of Adrianople in 378. This defeat, along with the death of Emperor Valens, is one possible date for dividing the ancient and medieval worlds. The Roman empire was divided further by Valens' successor Theodosius I (also called "the great"), who had ruled both beginning in 392. In 395 he gave the two halves to his two sons Arcadius and Honorius; Arcadius became ruler in the East, with his capital in Constantinople, and Honorius became ruler in the west, with his capital in Milan. At this point it is common to refer to the empire as "Eastern Roman" rather than "Byzantine."
The 6th century saw the beginning of the conflicts with the Byzantine Empire's traditional early enemies, the Persians, Slavs, and Bulgars. Theological crises, such as the question of Monophysitism, also dominated the empire. However, the Eastern Empire had not forgotten its western roots. Under Justinian I, and the brilliant general Belisarius, the empire even regained some of the lost Roman provinces in the west, conquering much of Italy, north Africa, and Spain. Justinian updated the ancient Roman legal code in the new Corpus Juris Civilis, although it is notable that these laws were still written in Latin, a language which was becoming archaic and poorly understood even by those who wrote the new code. Under Justinian's reign, the Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was constructed in the 530s. This church would become the centre of Byzantine religious life and the centre of the Eastern Orthodox form of Christianity.
Justinian left his successors an empty treasury, however, and they were unable to deal with the sudden appearance of new invaders on all fronts. The Lombards seized Northern Italy, the Slavs overwhelmed much of the Balkans, and the Persians invaded and conqured the eastern provinces. These were recovered by the emperor Heraclius, but the unexpected appearance of the newly converted and united Muslim Arabs took Heraclius by surprise, and the southern provinces were all overrun. Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt were permanently incorporated into the Muslim Empire in the 7th century.
The 8th century was dominated by the controversy over iconoclasm. Icons were banned by Emperor Leo III, leading to revolts by iconophiles within the empire. Thanks to the efforts of Empress Irene, the Second Council of Nicaea met in 787 and affirmed that icons could be venerated but not worshipped. Irene also attempted a marriage alliance with Charlemagne, which would have united the two empires, but these plans came to nothing. The iconoclast controversy returned in the early 9th century, but they were restored once more in 843. These controversies did not help the disintegrating relations with the Roman Catholic Church and the Holy Roman Empire, which were both beginning to gain more power of their own.
Like Rome before it, though, Byzantium soon fell into a period of difficulties, caused to a large extent by the growth of the landed aristocracy, which undermined the theme system. Facing its old enemies, the Holy Roman Empire and the Abbasid caliphate, it might have recovered, but around the same time new invaders appeared on the scene who had little reason to respect its reputation - the Normans, who conquered Italy, and the Seljuk Turks, who were mainly interested in defeating Egypt but still made moves into Asia Minor, the main recruiting ground for the Byzantine armies. With the defeat at Manzikert of emperor Romanus IV in 1071 by Alp Arslan, sultan of the Seljuk Turks, most of that province was lost. The final split between the Roman and Orthodox churches occurred at this time as well, with their mutual excommunication in 1054.
Frederick Barbarossa attempted to conquer the empire during the Third Crusade, but it was the Fourth Crusade that had the most devastating effect on the empire. Although the intent of the crusade was to conquer Egypt, the Venetians took control of the expedition, and under their influence the crusade captured Constantinople in 1204. As a result a short-lived feudal kingdom was founded, (the Latin Empire) and Byzantine power was permanently weakened.
Three Byzantine successor states were left - the Empire of Nicaea, Epirus, and Trebizond. The first, controlled by the Palaeologan dynasty, managed to reclaim Constantinople in 1261 and defeat Epirus, reviving the empire but giving too much attention to Europe when the Asian provinces were the primary concern. For a while the empire survived simply because the Muslims were too divided to attack, but eventually the Ottomans overran all but a handful of port cities. The empire appealed to the west for help, but they would only consider sending aid in return for reuniting the churches. Church unity was considered, and occasionally accomplished by law, but the Orthodox citizens would not accept Roman Catholicism. Some western mercenaries arrived to help, but many preferred to let the empire die, and did nothing as the Ottomans picked apart of the remaining territories.
Constantinople was initially not considered worth the effort of conquest, but with the advent of cannons, the walls, which had been impenetrable except by the Crusaders for over 1000 years, no longer offered protection from the Ottomans. The Fall of Constantinople finally came after a two-year siege by Mehmed II on May 29, 1453. By the end of the century the remaining cities, such as Trebizond and Mistra, had also fallen.
The Byzantine empire played an important role in the transmission of classical knowledge to the Islamic world. Its most lasting influence, though, lies in its church. Early Byzantine missionary work spread Orthodox Christianity to various Slavic peoples, and it is still predominant among them and the Greeks. The start and end dates of the capital's independence, 395 to 1453, were originally the defined bounds of the Middle Ages.
See also List of Byzantine Empire-related topics, Roman Empire, Roman Emperors, Byzantine Emperors, Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, Byzantine currency, Byzantine architecture and Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy.
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