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Dynasties Of The Byzantine Empire History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

The history of the Byzantine Empire begins with the tetrarchy introduced by the Roman Emperor Diocletian in 286 CE and the founding of Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire in 330 CE by Constantine I. Diocletian had established a tetrarchy. The empire gets its name from Byzantium the former name Constantinople. Once Constantine changed its name to Constantinople, he did not hesitate to call it “the new Rome” making it more important than the waning power of Rome. When Constantine came to power he put an end to tetrarchy replacing it with hereditary succession.

Although a part of the Roman Empire, the Eastern Roman Empire was more Greek than Roman. The principle language was Greek and not Latin and people adopted Christianity sooner than the Romans.

Dynasties of the Byzantine empire

The tradition of dynastic rulers based on hereditary succession was laid down by Constantine (324-337 CE) which continued until Emperor Justinian. This dynasty was also called the Neo Flavian dynasty as every ruler bore the name Flavian.

Constantine Dynasty (306 CE to 363 CE)

The Constantinian Dynasty (C. 306 CE to 361 CE) ruled over an empire covering portions of Egypt, Syria and the Balkans (considered to be covering Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Macedonia, Albania, Bulgaria, Romania, and Moldova). Emperor Valens (364-378 CE) was the patron of the Valentinian Dynasty.

Constantine was a farsighted ruler who had introduced many administrative reforms to upgrade the socio-political structure of the empire. He introduced the gold solidus (coins) which stabilised the economy as it was highly prized.

Mosaic of Constantine in Hagia Sophia

The strategic location of Constantinople on the trade route between the East and the West overlooking the Danube River helped Constantine to use to his advantage. He strengthened the army and extended the fortifications of Constantinople making them impossible to conquer. To ward off the continuous attacks of foreigners Constantine had started a system of giving subsidies (purportedly 300kg gold annually) and also favoured merchants who traded with the Huns and other foreign groups.

Constantine’s successors worked towards dividing the civil and military authorities which persisted until the seventh century. They further strengthened the defences of Constantinople. The Eastern Empire was spared the hardships of the West thanks to effective administration and able rulers.

Under Constantine Christianity received royal patronage in the form of generous privileges by the emperor. This helped the religion to reach the masses.

The Constantine Dynaty was followed by non dynastic rulers from 363 CE to 364 CE followed by the Valentian dynasty from 364 CE to 379 CE. Under Arcadius, a ruler from the Theodosian dynasty (379 to 457 CE) the Roman Empire was permanently divided to form the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire in 395 CE.

Leonid Dynasty (457 CE to 518 CE)

This dynasty was founded by Leo I (457-474 CE) who made an unsuccessful attempt to reconquering the imperial parts of North Africa. His son-in-law Zeno (474-491 CE) succeeded him as the next emperor as his own son Leo II died after serving for only one year. When the Western Roman Empire fell, Zeno was in charge in the East. Zeno tried to get back the Western Empire by sending a Gothic warrior Theodoric I as the commander-in-chief of Italy. Although Theodoric ruled as an independent king, Zeno maintained at least a nominal supremacy over the Western Empire.

Justinian Dynasty (518 CE to 602 CE)

Justinian I (527-656 CE) the successor to the founder of the dynasty Justin I, was perhaps the only king who embarked upon the ambitious task of uniting the Western and the Eastern Empire. Justinian brought great prosperity to his kingdom. Although an ambitious ruler, some of his policies were unpopular with the masses. This unpopularity nearly cost him his crown during the Nika Riots (532 CE). His queenTheodora encouraged him to suppress the riots rather than beat a hasty retreat. 30,000 civilians are believed to have been killed in Justinian’s attempt to suppress the riots.

Motivating words of Queen Thoedora that prompted Justinian I to face the Nika Riots were “Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never will I see the day when I am not saluted as empress.”… “Royalty is a fine burial shroud,” or perhaps, [the royal color] “Purple makes a fine winding sheet.”

He reclaimed the province of North Africa in 533 CE which had been lost to the Vandals. He reached as far as Italy and defeated the weak Ostrogoths. But the Ostrogoths soon rearranged themselves and came back with double force and evicted his general Belisarius. Justinian entered into a number of treaties with the neighbouring kingdoms to ward off the continuous threat of invasion. By 555 CE, Justinian had won victories in most places except the Balkan territory which was continually invaded by the Slavs.

Justinian became universally famous for revising the old Roman legal code and creating the new corpus of laws popularly known as Justinian’s Code. The code serves as a basis for civil law even today and provides a valuable insight to historians into the concerns and activities of the later Roman Empire.

Justinian was a devout Orthodox Christian which made him intolerable not only to other religions but even to differing ideologies within Christianity. He had become a patron of Christianity and has even been mentioned in the Bible as a saint. He regulated everything related to religion and law. The bishops of the Church recognised that nothing could be done without the will of the emperor. He brutally suppressed any heresy by opponents of the Church. He promoted monasticism, granting the monks many rights which were earlier considered a taboo, like owning property. He granted them the right to inherit property from private citizens and and revoked the ir right to receive solemnia or the monks’ right to receive gifts from the imperial treasury or from the taxes of certain provinces. He aalso prohibited confiscation of monastic estates for any reason.

Justinian rebuilt the Church of Hagia Sophia which had been destroyed during the Nika Riots. It served as the principal church of the Byzantine Empire.


Byzantine art was an extension of the Roman art. As Roman art itself was inspired by the Greek art, one can see similarity among the three. However Byzantine art differed with the latter two in its approach which was more abstract than realistic. The figures and figurines in the Byzantine art appear flat and one dimensional with little use of shadow to give a life-like appearance. Faces were long and narrow devoid of any reality.

The sixth century was regarded as the ‘Golden Age’ of Byzantine art. One can see a considerable shift in the thinking and application of art in this period. Mathematics was regarded as the highest science and Justinian had appointed Anthemius of Tralles, a mathematician, as one of Hagia Sophia’s architect. Anthemius described architecture as ‘an application of geometry to solid matter’. The architecture differs from the traditional style in its execution of the domes and columns. The domes are more semi-circular than the almost circular patterns found in the West. Most of the art depicts scenes from the life of Christ. One of the most important genres of Byzantine art was the icon, an image of Christ, Virgin Mary or a saint. The kings too found a place of reverence in these religious temples.


Mosaics were more central to the Byzantine Empire than where they originated – the Western Roman Empire. Mosaics were not only found in churches but in every household in the form of small icons to commemorate the life and times of Christ. Some even depicted routine life. Mosaic art was at its peak during the fifth and sixth centuries.

(From left to right) – Mosaic depicting daily life; an iconic mosaic from the Patmos Monastery, Greece and a Gladiator mosaic found in Cyprus

Boy and Donkey, Byzantine Mosaic


According to historians the foundation of Hagia Sophia was laid by Constantine I. The Church was built in three phases. The first church was by Constantius II in 360 CE and the second by Theodosius II in 415 CE. During the Nika riots in 532 CE the church was burned to the ground. Justinian built the third phase which is still intact.

The Hagia Sophia Museum as it stands today-the minarets were added by the OttomansJustinian was very ambitious about the Hagia Sophia church. The church was constructed so magnificently that when it was completed, he exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” He called it the ‘Church of Holy Wisdom’. He had bought the most exotic and majestic materials from all over the Roman Empire – eastern as well western. The Hellenistic columns were ordered from the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, large stones from the quarries in Egypt, green marble from Thessaly, Greece; black stone from the Bosporus region, and yellow stone from Syria.

Some of the few surviving mosaics from the Hagia Sophia – Christ and the Virgin Mary


Ravenna served as a Byzantine centre in the Italian heartland and many structures were constructed in the city. The Church of San Vitale is one of the finest examples of Byzantine art and architecture in the Western Roman Empire. Although the architect of the structure is unknown, it was sponsored by a Greek banker Julius Argentarius around 527 CE. The Church is a fine combination of Roman and Byzantine art. It has the Roman elements of archways, domes and stepped towers and the Byzantine legacy of polygonal apse (semi circular, arched space in the wall- significant to Byzantine art), pillars, columns and narrow bricks.

Justinian with his soldiers and the clergy

San Vitale is famous for the mosaic panels of Emperor Justinian and his queen Theodora. The mosaic of Justinian says a lot about his power and position. He is standing in the middle with soldiers to his right and the clergy on his left including Bishop Maximianus, emphasising Justinian as the leader of both church and the State. He is clad in purple, the royal colour and has a golden halo, which gives him the same status as Christ.

Theodora too is depicted as a goddess, solemn and humble, carrying the chalice that holds the holy wine. She is flanked by priests on the right who are escorting her in the church and a court of ladies on the left.

Theodora being escorted to the Church


Theodora, before marrying Justinian was a public entertainer. In those days, this profession was not considered worthy of respect. According to church laws, such women were not well received. However Justinian fell madly in love with Theodora and in order to make her his queen, abrogated the law and in fact provided better protection for women offenders and created separate cells for women offenders guarded by women guards.

Consider the above incident and reflect on what this incident tells us about the power that Justinian held over the Church?

How has religion become a tool in the hands of the powerful?

“…abrogated the law and in fact provided better protection for women…” Is it applicable to the present times? Support your answerwith reasons.

Laws have been held to have absolute power; however they have been twisted and amended to suit one’s need, usually of the powerful. In the present context have you come across any such arbitrary law? Name it/ them and explain why you feel they are arbitrary.

Use your grey cells…

Beauty in Words…

Read the following article “Talking Turkey”by eminent columnist Jug Suriya describing the beauty of Istanbul, Turkey. Courtesy blog “Juggle- Bandhi”featuring in the Times of India website.



Istanbul has witnessed the seesaw of history between East and West

Bunny and i take a boat from Europe to Asia. The journey lasts 20 minutes. We are in Istanbul, and the ferry takes us from Eminonu, which is on the European side of the city, to Uskudar, which is on the Asian side, on the other shore of the Bosphorus.

Istanbul – formerly known as Constantinople, after the Christian emperor Constantine – is the fabled meeting place of Europe and Asia, East and West. The sprawling city of 22 million people is strikingly beautiful, a challenge to the artist’s brush, the poet’s phrase. Seven low hills crouch down to the sun-spangled Sea of Marmara, flanked on one side by the Bosphorus, which links it to the Black Sea, and on the other side by the inlet of the Golden Horn. The water is so blue that it has given us the word ‘turquoise’, a colour originating in Turkey.

Europe and Asia, East and West, rub shoulders in comfortable familiarity. Sleek, French-built tramcars glide noiselessly down broad thoroughfares bounded by bustling pavements where designer-ripped jeans and hijabs go hand in hand. The slender minarets of a myriad mosques conjure a communion of earth and sky, and hard rock discos coexist with dervishes whirling in Sufi ecstasy. In the Grand Bazaar in Beyazit, the ‘fixed price’ rigidity of the western supermarket is made flexible and fluent by the eastern art of bargaining, for anything and everything, from carpets and spices, to 22-carat gold jewellery and cellphone cards, for the sheer pleasure of it. For what better way for customer and shopkeeper to spend the day than in spirited negotiation, over endless tiny cups of thick, treacle-sweet coffee?

This co-mingling of East and West is best represented by the many-domed Ayasofya, billed as one of the most wondrous buildings in the world. Originally called Hagia Sophia, it was built in the sixth century by the Byzantine emperor Justinian and for almost a thousand years it was said to be the world’s largest Christian church. In the 15th century, after Sultan Mehmed II seized Constantinople and changed its name to Istanbul, which simply means ‘The City’, Hagia Sophia was turned into a mosque and renamed Ayasofya. Five hundred years later, Kemal Ataturk, the founder of modern Turkey, made it into a museum. Ataturk – often said to be Turkey’s counterpart of Russia’s Peter the Great – tried to ‘westernise’ his country by making it into a secular state, introducing the Latin alphabet, and adopting the European hat as the national headgear instead of the traditional fez.

Today, Ayasofya is still a museum, thronged by visitors who strain their necks to stare in wonder at the mosaic-encrusted central dome, so high that it can accommodate the Statue of Liberty. But Turkey has voted in favour of an Islamic government instead of Ataturk’s secular dispensation, a development which is one of the impediments to the country’s desired membership of the all-Christian European Union. East or West? The seesaw of history has yet to settle which of the two Turkey really belongs to.

Or perhaps it belongs to both, and in doing so belongs to neither. For Istanbul, more than any other city, is historic proof that ‘East’ and ‘West’ are arbitrary geographical and cultural constructs which increasingly are becoming interchangeable with each other. Long before ‘globalisation’ became a catchphrase, Istanbul that once was Constantinople was living proof of a cosmopolitan universality which underlies the cosmetic changes that history makes on the face of time.

We take the ferry from Uskudar back to Eminonu, from Asia to Europe, from East to West. And we’re still in the same place, still in Istanbul, still in the city which could be given a name no other than ‘ The City’, unique unto itself.


If you had the choice, which city would you like to visit a city of antiquity and why?



The Eastern Roman Empire was the most prosperous civilisation from the beginning of the Middle Ages until the Arab invasions. Travellers and explorers described it as the most advanced civilisation of the time and were in awe of the people living in luxury with its superb architectural marvels. Constantinople was a trade haven, extending to Eurasia and North Africa. It was the primary western hub of the silk trade. From Constantinople, the silk was then exported to Egypt, Bulgaria and further west. The state controlled internal and international trade and held a monopoly over issuing coinage. The currency of the Byzantine Empire had a high value in the middle ages. Reforms initiated by Diocletian and Constantine laid the foundations for the Byzantium economy by replacing the gold aureus with the solidus and introducing the follies (coins) in bronze. Coins were minted both in the capital as well as provinces. Many mints were located in large eastern cities like Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Kyzikos, Ravenna and Rome. Major guilds and corporations were supervised through taxation, controlling interest rates and regulating commodity prices.

Non-monetary exchange of goods and services through barter was more typical to remote areas.

The Byzantines had a strong hold on commercial activities. Professions were organised in guilds and no one was allowed to belong to two guilds simultaneously. Builders, by law, had to provide a ten-year guarantee of the structure they erected!

Solidus of Justinian II from the seventh century

Coin of Justinian I excavated in India suggesting existence of Indo-Roman trade

People were engaged in a variety of professions, agriculture being the predominant occupation. The upper class mostly comprised of the aristocracy, state functionaries, senior military officers and large land owners. The middle class was made up of the merchants, skilled craftsmen and owners of medium size lands and properties while the lower class was made up of wage earners, labourers and destitute. Men occupied all the official posts in the imperial courts, bureaucracy and military.

Women generally did not actively participate in trade and were confined to household duties however evidence of women engaging in weaving and spinning, working as fruit and vegetable vendors, herb gatherers and kourisses (women who dressed other women’s hair employed either privately or in public baths). Women could also have the option of being physicians and midwives. Some served food in guest houses and taverns. Although women were excluded from priesthood, they had a special place in monasteries. Many nunneries in the Byzantine Empire were run by female abbots.


The Byzantine society worked on the model of paterfamilias. The male exerted absolute authority and took care of the family. The families were extended family with two to three generations living together. Nuclear families existed in urban cities where traders moved and settled with their immediate family members. The woman of the family raised and cared for the children.

The more liberal paterfamilias of the Roman society was reduced to the Greek idea of paternal families where daughters were kept under strict authority of the male relatives and boys were given the freedom to act independently. A woman was invariably accompanied by someone whenever she left house. Kekaumenos, a Byzantine author in his work Strategikon has said, “Keep your daughters as prisoners, confined and inconspicuous”. Education was limited to reading and writing.

Girls got married at the age of thirteen or fourteen and the suitor was selected by the parents. Sometimes professional matchmakers helped in bringing two compatible families together and earned by taking a percentage of the dowry. Girls usually did not have a say in choosing the partner. Marriage was a formal ceremony sanctioned by the church. A woman earned respect in society through her marriage. It was important to have at least one male child.


Christianity had pervaded every facet of human life in the Byzantine Empire, including law and order. State laws received a divine sanction as the emperor was held to be God’s earthly representative and so his laws were essential for maintaining stability. An expanding body of Canonical Laws reflect the growing authority of the church.

Corpus juris civilis introduced by Justinian I served as a basis for civil jurisprudence. Many later contributions like Nomos Georgikas (Farmer’s Law) and Rhodian Sea Law were private collections of codes pertaining to rural life and maritime activities respectively.

Criminal law mainly addressed instances of theft, robbery, damage or injury to another person or property. Courts were established to deal with these matters. Punishments ranged from financial compensation, imprisonment, exile and in cases of pre-meditated murder or fatal assault death penalty was awarded.

Class barriers existed in the Byzantine Empire too. Convicted elites in cases other than treason could lose their titles, personal property or get banished to a monastery or remote province, whereas public flogging, mutilation and execution were the punishments referred for the members of the lower classes. As the influence of the church grew, such punishments were avoided and banishment in monasteries became more common. The church became an asylum for personal repentance and spiritual healing.


Decline of the Byzantine Empire was a process which lasted several centuries before the final collapse. Although there is no certain date for the beginning of the decline, historians unanimously agree that it all started with the invasion of the Arabs.

The Arabs had conquered territories in the Levant (modern-day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian territories) and Egypt by the ninth century. The loss of Egypt was a substantial blow as most of the manufactured goods and naturals resources of the Byzantine Empire came from the province. Conversely Egypt now proved to be a source of finance to the Ummayad and Abbasid Caliphates, giving them the courage and resources to expand. The Byzantine-Arab Wars crippled the empire not only monetarily but the continuous state of war drained the people of their physical and emotional strength.

Between the 11th and 12th centuries, the Seljuk Turks permanently settled in Anatolia. By 1025, the whole of Asia Minor, nearly 70 per cent of the Byzantine Empire was lost to the Seljuks.

The Crusades were launched partly to restore the lost glory of the Byzantine Empire but majorly to get back the holy places in and near Jerusalem. However the Crusades added to the financial burden of the Empire and became a reason for its decline.

Important dates

286 CE- Founding of Constantinople by the first Constatnitne Emperor Constantine I.

306- Founding of the Constantine Empire by Emperor Constantine.

330 -founding of Constantinople as the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

360- First Church of Hagia Sophia built by Constantius II.

363 to 364- non dynastic rulers.

364 to 379 -Valentian dynasty.

379 to 457 – Theodosian dynasty.

395- Final division of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire.

415-Second Church of Hagia Sophia built by Theodosius II.

457 – Founding of the Leonid Dynasty.

518 – Founding of the Justinian Dynasty by Justin I.

523- Nika Riots put down by Justinian I.

533- Justinian reclaims the province of North Africa.

Use your Grey Cells…


Describe the geographic factors that made Constantinople a centre of cultural diffusion, military defence, and trade.

How were the Roman and Byzantine empires connected?

What is Justinian’s Code?

How did the Byzantine Empire help to preserve and transmit classical Greek and Roman culture and knowledge?

How did Byzantine art and architecture differ from the Romans?


Justinian’s’ Code helped establish order in the Byzantine Empire. What role do you think rules and laws play today?

Given below is a law on slaves from Book I of Justinian’s Code. Read it carefully and answer the questions that follow;

Slaves are in the power of masters, a power derived from the law of nations; for among all nations it may be remarked that masters have the power of life and death over their slaves, and that everything acquired by the slave is acquired for the master.

Was it a just law?

Would this law work today? Why?

Justinian uses the words law of nations? Do you think the phrase is exaggerated? Why?

In Grade 6, you learnt about Hammurabi’s Code. How does it differ from Justinian’s Code? Compare and contrast.

Why has codification of law been an important aspect of judicial processes?


Byzantine Empire has contributed immensely to art and architecture. In light of the statement evaluate the contribution of Byzantine art.

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