AskDefine | Define Byzantine

Dictionary Definition

Byzantine adj
1 of or relating to the Eastern Orthodox Church or the rites performed in it; "Byzantine monks"; "Byzantine rites"
2 of or relating to or characteristic of the Byzantine Empire or the ancient city of Byzantium
3 highly involved or intricate; "the Byzantine tax structure"; "convoluted legal language"; "convoluted reasoning"; "intricate needlework"; "an intricate labyrinth of refined phraseology"; "the plot was too involved"; "a knotty problem"; "got his way by labyrinthine maneuvering"; "Oh, what a tangled web we weave"- Sir Walter Scott; "tortuous legal procedures"; "tortuous negotiations lasting for months" [syn: convoluted, intricate, involved, knotty, labyrinthine, tangled, tortuous]
4 characterized by elaborate scheming and intrigue; devious; "Byzantine methods for holding on to his chairmanship"; "a fine hand for Byzantine deals and cozy arrangements" n : a native or inhabitant of Byzantium or of the Byzantine Empire

User Contributed Dictionary





  • a RP /bɪˈzæntaɪn/ or /bɪˈzæntiːn/
  • a US /ˈbɪzəntiːn/ or /ˈbɪzəntaɪn/


  1. Overly complex or intricate.
  2. Of or pertaining to Byzantium.


overly complex or intricate
  • Finnish: bysanttilainen
  • Russian: византийский
of or pertaining to Byzantium
  • Finnish: bysanttilainen
  • Russian: византийский


  1. A native of Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul)
  2. Belonging to the civilization of the Eastern-Roman empire, between 331 A.D. when the capital was moved to Constantinople (now Istanbul) and up 1453 when it was conquered by the Turks.


native of Byzantium
  • Finnish: bysanttilainen
  • Russian: византиец, византийка
belonging to the civilisation of the Eastern-Roman empire
  • Finnish: bysanttilainen
  • Russian: византиец, византийка

Extensive Definition

The terms Byzantine Empire (a historiographical term used since the 19th century) and Eastern Roman Empire are expressions used to describe the Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, centered on its capital of Constantinople, referred to by its inhabitants simply as the Roman Empire (in Greek ) or Romania (), its emperors continuing the unbroken succession of Roman emperors, preserving Greco-Roman legal and cultural traditions; to the Islamic world it was known primarily as روم‎ (Rûm, "land of the Romans"). Due to the dominance of Medieval Greek language, culture and population, it was known to many of its western European contemporaries as Empire of the Greeks.
As an outgrowth of the eastern portion of Empire founded in Rome, the Byzantine Empire's evolution into a separate culture from the West can be seen as a process beginning with Emperor Constantine's transferring the capital from Nicomedia in Anatolia to Byzantium on the Bosphorus (then renamed Nova Roma, and later Constantinople). By the 7th century under the reign of Emperor Heraclius, whose reforms changed the nature of the Empire's military and recognized Greek as official language, the Empire had taken on a distinct new character.
During its existence the Empire suffered numerous setbacks and losses of territory yet it remained one of the most powerful economic, cultural and military forces in Europe. The empire's influence also spread into North Africa and the near East for much of the Middle Ages. After a final recovery under the Komnenian dynasty in the 12th century the Empire slipped into a long decline culminating in the capture of Constantinople and the remaining Roman/Greek territories by the Ottoman Turks in the 15th century.
During her thousand-year reign, the Empire, a bastion of Christianity and one of the prime trade centers in the world, helped to shield Western Europe from early Muslim expansion, provided a stable gold currency for the Mediterranean region, influenced the laws, political systems, and customs of much of Europe and the Middle East, and preserved much of the literary works and scientific knowledge of ancient Greece, Rome, and many other cultures.


details Names of the Greeks The term "Byzantine Empire" is an invention of historians and was never used during the Empire's lifetime. The Empire's name in Greek was Basileia Rhōmaiōn () — "The Empire of the Romans" — a translation of the Latin name of the Roman Empire (); or just Rhōmania ().
The term "Byzantine" itself comes from "Byzantium", the name that the city of Constantinople had before it became the capital of Constantine. This older name of the city would rarely be used from this point onward except in historical or poetic contexts.
The designation of the Empire as "Byzantine" began in Western Europe in 1557, when German historian Hieronymus Wolf published his work Corpus Historiæ By­zantinæ, a collection of Byzantine sources. The publication in 1648 of the Byzantine du Louvre (Corpus Scriptorum Historiæ Byzantinæ), and in 1680 of Du Cange's Historia Byzantina further popularized the use of Byzantine among French authors, such as Montesquieu. It was not until the 19th century, however, with the birth of modern Greece, that the term "Byzantine" came into general use in the Western world.
Before this, the Empire was described by Western Europeans as Imperium Graecorum (Empire of the Greeks)—Byzantine claims to Roman inheritance had been actively contested from at least the time of the coronation of Charlemagne as Imperator Augustus by Pope Leo III in 800. Whenever the Popes or the rulers of the West wanted to make use of the name Roman to refer to the Byzantine emperors, they preferred the term Imperator Romaniæ instead of Imperator Romanorum, a title that Westerners maintained applied only to Charlemagne and his successors.


The Tetrarchy

Constantine moved the seat of the Empire, and introduced important changes into its civil and religious constitution. In 330, he founded Constantinople as a second Rome on the site of Byzantium, which was well-positioned astride the trade routes between East and West; it was a superb base from which to guard the Danube river, and was reasonably close to the Eastern frontiers. Constantine also began the building of the great fortified walls, which were expanded and rebuilt in subsequent ages. J. B. Bury asserts that "the foundation of Constantinople [...] inaugurated a permanent division between the Eastern and Western, the Greek and the Latin, halves of the Empire—a division to which events had already pointed—and affected decisively the whole subsequent history of Europe." He stabilized the coinage (the gold solidus that he introduced became a highly prized and stable currency), and made changes to the structure of the army. To divide administrative responsibilities, Constantine replaced the single praetorian prefect, who had traditionally exercised both military and civil functions, with regional prefects enjoying civil authority alone. In the course of the 4th century, four great sections emerged from these Constantinian beginnings, and the practice of separating civil from military authority persisted until the 7th century.
Under Constantine, Christianity did not become the exclusive religion of the state, but enjoyed imperial preference, since the Emperor supported it with generous privileges: clerics were exempted from personal services and taxation, Christians were preferred for administrative posts, and bishops were entrusted with judicial responsibilities. Constantine established the principle that emperors should not settle questions of doctrine, but should summon general ecclesiastical councils for that purpose. The Synod of Arles was convened by Constantine, and the First Council of Nicaea showcased his claim to be head of the Church.
The state of the Empire in 395 may be described in terms of the outcome of Constantine's work. The dynastic principle was established so firmly that the emperor who died in that year, Theodosius I, could bequeath the imperial office jointly to his sons: Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. Theodosius was the last emperor to rule over the full extent of the empire in both its halves.

Early history

The Eastern Empire was largely spared the difficulties faced by the West in the third and fourth centuries, due in part to a more firmly established urban culture and greater financial resources, which allowed it to placate invaders with tribute and pay barbarian mercenaries. Throughout the fifth century, various invading armies overran the Western Empire but spared the east. Theodosius II further fortified the walls of Constantinople, leaving the city impenetrable to attacks; they were not breached until 1204. To fend off the Huns of Attila, Theodosius gave them subsidies (purportedly 300 kg (700 lb) of gold). Moreover, he favored merchants living in Constantinople who traded with the barbarians.
His successor, Marcian, refused to continue to pay this exorbitant sum. However, Attila had already diverted his attention to the Western Roman Empire. After he died in 453, his empire collapsed and Constantinople initiated a profitable relationship with the remaining Huns, who would eventually fight as mercenaries in Byzantine armies.
After the fall of Attila, the true chief in Constantinople was the Alan general Aspar. Leo I managed to free himself from the influence of the barbarian chief by supporting the rise of the Isaurians, a semi-barbarian tribe living in southern Anatolia. Aspar and his son Ardabur were murdered in a riot in 471, and henceforth, Constantinople was freed from the influence of barbarian leaders for centuries.
Leo was also the first emperor to receive the crown not from a military leader, as was the Roman tradition, but from the Patriarch of Constantinople, representing the ecclesiastical hierarchy. This change became permanent, and in the Middle Ages the religious characteristic of the coronation completely supplanted the old military form. In 468, Leo unsuccessfully attempted to reconquer North Africa from the Vandals. By that time, the Western Roman Empire was restricted to Italy and the lands south of the Danube as far as the Balkans (the Angles and Saxons had invaded Britain as early as 410; the Visigoths and Suebi had possessed portions of Spania since 417, and the Vandals had entered Africa in 429; Gaul was contested by the Franks under Clovis I, Burgundians, Bretons, Visigoths and some Roman remnants; and Theodoric was destined to rule in Italy until 526 He also reformed the tax system, and permanently abolished the hated chrysargyron tax. The State Treasury contained the enormous sum of 320,000 pounds of gold when he died.

Justinian I and his successors

seealso Justinian I Justinian I, who assumed the throne in 527, oversaw a period of Byzantine expansion into former Roman territories. Justinian, the son of an Illyrian peasant, may already have exerted effective control during the reign of his uncle, Justin I (518–527). In 532, attempting to secure his eastern frontier, Justinian signed a peace treaty with Khosrau I of Persia agreeing to pay a large annual tribute to the Sassinids. In the same year, Justinian survived a revolt in Constantinople (the Nika riots) which ended with the death of (allegedly) thirty thousand rioters. This victory solidified Justinian's power. Pope Agapetus I was sent to Constantinople by the Ostrogoths king Theodahad, but failed in his mission to sign a peace with Justinian. However, he succeeded in having the Monophysite Patriarch Anthimus I of Constantinople denounced, despite Empress Theodora's support. The western conquests began in 533, as Justinian sent his general Belisarius to reclaim the former province of North Africa from the Vandals with a small army of about 15,000 men. Success came with surprising ease, but it was not until 548 that the major local independent tribes were subdued.
Nevertheless, the Ostrogoths were soon reunited under the command of Totila and captured Rome on December 17, 546; Belisarius was eventually recalled by Justinian in early 549. The arrival of the Armenian eunuch Narses in Italy (late 551) with an army of some 35,000 men marked another shift in Gothic fortunes. Totila was defeated and died at the Battle of Busta Gallorum. His successor, Teias, was likewise defeated at the Battle of Mons Lactarius (October 552). Despite continuing resistance from a few Goth garrisons and two subsequent invasions by the Franks and Alamanni, the war for the Italian peninsula was at an end. In 551, a noble of Visigothic Hispania, Athanagild, sought Justinian's help in a rebellion against the king, and the emperor dispatched a force under Liberius, who, although elderly, proved himself a successful military commander. The Byzantine empire held on to a small slice of the Spania coast until the reign of Heraclius. In the east, Roman-Persian Wars continued until 561 when Justinian's and Khusro's envoys agreed on a 50-year peace. By the mid-550s, Justinian had won victories in most theatres of operation, with the notable exception of the Balkans, which were subjected to repeated incursions from the Slavs. In 559, the Empire faced a great invasion of Kutrigurs and Sclaveni. Justinian called Belisarius out of retirement, but once the immediate danger was over, the emperor took charge himself. The news that Justinian was reinforcing his Danube fleet made the Kutrigurs anxious, and they agreed to a treaty which gave them a subsidy and safe passage back across the river.]] Justinian became universally famous because of his legislative work, remarkable for its sweeping character. In 529 a ten-man commission chaired by John the Cappadocian revised the ancient Roman legal code, creating the new Corpus Juris Civilis, a collection of laws that came to be referred to as "Justinian's Code". In the Pandects, completed under Tribonian's direction in 533, order and system were found in the contradictory rulings of the great Roman jurists, and a textbook, the Institutiones, was issued to facilitate instruction in the law schools. The fourth book, the Novellae, consisted of collections of imperial edicts promulgated between 534 and 565. Because of his ecclesiastical policies, Justinian came into collision with the Jews, the pagans, and various Christian sects. The latter included the Manichaeans, the Nestorians, the Monophysites, and the Arians. In order to completely eradicate paganism, Justinian closed the famous philosophic school in Athens in 529.
During the 6th century, the traditional Greco-Roman culture was still influential in the Eastern empire with prominent representatives such as the natural philosopher John Philoponus. Nevertheless, the Christian philosophy and culture were in the ascendant and began to dominate the older culture. Hymns written by Romanos the Melode marked the development of the Divine Liturgy, while architects and builders worked to complete the new Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, designed to replace an older church destroyed in the course of the Nika revolt. Hagia Sophia stands today as one of the major monuments of architectural history. Justinian's successor, Justin II, refused to pay the large tribute to the Persians. Meanwhile, the Germanic Lombards invaded Italy; by the end of the century only a third of Italy was in Byzantine hands. Justin's successor, Tiberius II, choosing between his enemies, awarded subsidies to the Avars while taking military action against the Persians. Although Tiberius' general, Maurice, led an effective campaign on the eastern frontier, subsidies failed to restrain the Avars. They captured the Balkan fortress of Sirmium in 582, while the Turks began to make inroads across the Danube. Maurice, who in the meantime had become emperor, made peace with the Sassanian Emperor Khosrau II, achieving access to Armenia, and forced the Avars and Slavs back across the Danube by 602. Phocas, an unpopular ruler who is invariably described in Byzantine sources as a "tyrant", was the target of a number of senate-led plots. He was eventually deposed in 610 by Heraclius, who sailed to Constantinople from Carthage with an icon affixed to the prow of his ship. Following the accession of Heraclius the Sassanid advance pushed deep into Asia Minor, also occupying Damascus and Jerusalem and removing the True Cross to Ctesiphon. The counter-offensive of Heraclius took on the character of a holy war, and an acheiropoietos image of Christ was carried as a military standard. Similarly, when Constantinople was saved from an Avar siege in 626, the victory was attributed to the icons of the Virgin which were led in procession by Patriarch Sergius about the walls of the city. The main Sassanid force was destroyed at Nineveh in 627, and in 629 Heraclius restored the True Cross to Jerusalem in a majestic ceremony. The war had exhausted both the Byzantine and Sassanid Empire, and left them extremely vulnerable to the Arab forces which emerged in the following years. The Byzantines suffered a crushing defeat at the Battle of Yarmuk in 636, and Ctesiphon fell in 634.
Heraclius was the first emperor to replace the traditional Latin title for his office (Augustus) with the Greek Basileus (). This shift from Latin to Greek finds a parallel in the contemporary abandonment of Latin in official documents. In an attempt to heal the doctrinal divide between Chalcedonian and monophysite Christians, Heraclius proposed monotheletism as a compromise. In 638 the new doctrine was posted in the narthex of Hagia Sophia as part of a text called the Ekthesis, which also forbade further discussion of the issue. By this time, however, Syria and Palestine, both hotbeds of monophysite belief, had fallen to the Arabs, and another monophysite center, Egypt, fell by 642. Ambivalence toward Byzantine rule on the part of monophysites may have lessened local resistance to the Arab expansion.
Heraclius did succeed in establishing a dynasty, and his descendants held onto the throne, with some interruption, until 711. Their reigns were marked both by major external threats, from the west and the east, which reduced the territory of the empire to a fraction of its 6th-century extent, and by significant internal turmoil and cultural transformation.
The withdrawal of massive amounts of troops from the Balkans to combat the Persians and then the Arabs in the east opened the door for the gradual southward expansion of Slavic peoples into the peninsula, and, as in Anatolia, many cities shrank to small fortified settlements. In the 670s the Bulgars were pushed south of the Danube by the arrival of the Khazars, and in 680 Byzantine forces which had been sent to disperse these new settlements were defeated. In the next year Constantine IV signed a treaty with the Bulgar khan Asparukh, and the new Bulgarian state assumed sovereignty over a number of Slavic tribes which had previously, at least in name, recognized Byzantine rule. In 687/8, emperor Justinian II led an expedition against the Slavs and Bulgars which made significant gains, although the fact that he had to fight his way from Thrace to Macedonia demonstrates the degree to which Byzantine power in the north Balkans had declined.
The one Byzantine city that remained relatively unaffected, despite a significant drop in population and at least two outbreaks of the plague, was Constantinople. However, the imperial capital was marked by its own variety of conflict, both political and religious. Constans II continued the monothelete policy of his grandfather, Heraclius, meeting with significant opposition from laity and clergy alike. The most vocal opponents, Maximus the Confessor and Pope Martin I were arrested, brought to Constantinople, tried, tortured, and exiled. Constans seems to have become immensely unpopular in the capital, and moved his residence to Syracuse, Sicily, where he was ultimately murdered by a member of his court. The Senate experienced a revival in importance in the seventh century and clashed with the emperors on numerous occasions. The final Heraclian emperor, Justinian II, attempted to break the power of the urban aristocracy through severe taxation and the appointment of "outsiders" to administrative posts. He was driven from power in 695, and took shelter first with the Khazars and then with the Bulgars. In 705 he returned to Constantinople with the armies of the Bulgar khan Tervel, retook the throne, and instituted a reign of terror against his enemies. With his final overthrow in 711, supported once more by the urban aristocracy, the Heraclian dynasty came to an end.
The 7th century was a period of radical transformation. The empire which had once stretched from Spain to Jerusalem was now reduced to Anatolia, Chersonesos, and some fragments of Italy and the Balkans. The territorial losses were accompanied by a cultural shift; urban civilization was massively disrupted, classical literary genres were abandoned in favor of theological treatises, and a new "radically abstract" style emerged in the visual arts. That the empire survived this period at all is somewhat surprising, especially given the total collapse of the Sassanid Empire in the face of the Arab expansion, but a remarkably coherent military reorganization helped to withstand the exterior pressures and laid the groundwork for the gains of the following dynasty.

Isaurian dynasty and Iconoclasm

The process of reconquest began with variable fortunes. The temporary reconquest of Crete (843) was followed by a crushing Byzantine defeat on the Bosporus, while the emperors were unable to prevent the ongoing Muslim conquest of Sicily (827–902). Using present day Tunisia as their launching pad, the Muslims conquered Palermo in 831, Messina in 842, Enna in 859, Syracuse in 878, Catania in 900 and the final Greek stronghold, the fortress of Taormina, in 902.
These drawbacks were later counterbalanced by a victorious expedition against Damietta in Egypt (856), the defeat of the Emir of Melitene (863), the confirmation of the imperial authority over Dalmatia (867) and Basil I's offensives towards the Euphrates (870s).
The threat from the Muslims was meanwhile reduced by inner struggles and by the rise of the Turks in the east. Muslims received assistance however from the Paulician sect, which had found a large following in the eastern provinces of the Empire and, facing persecution under the Byzantines, often fought under the Arab flag. It took several campaigns to subdue the Paulicians, who were eventually defeated by Basil I. The Bulgarian army was captured, and it is said that 99 out of every 100 men were blinded, with the remaining hundredth man left with one eye so as to lead his compatriots home. When tsar Samuil saw the broken remains of his once gallant army, he died of shock. In 1018 Bulgaria surrendered and became part of the empire. This stunning victory restored the Danube frontier, which had not been held since the days of the emperor Heraclius. Many successes had been achieved, ranging from the conquest of Bulgaria, to the annexation of parts of Georgia and Armenia, to the total annihilation of an invading force of Egyptians outside Antioch. Yet even these victories were not enough; Basil considered the continued Arab occupation of Sicily to be an outrage. Accordingly, he planned to reconquer the island, which had belonged to the empire for over 300 years (c. 550 – c. 900). However, his death in 1025 put an end to the project. Basil II left a burgeoning treasury upon his death, but neglected to plan for his succession. None of his immediate successors had any particular military or political talent and the administration of the Empire increasingly fell into the hands of the civil service. Efforts to revive the Byzantine economy only resulted in inflation and a debased gold coinage. The army was now seen as both an unnecessary expense and a political threat. Therefore, native troops were cashiered and replaced by foreign mercenaries on specific contract. At the same time, the Empire was faced with new, ambitious enemies. Byzantine provinces in southern Italy faced the Normans, who arrived in Italy at the beginning of the 11th century. The allied forces of Melus of Bari and the Normans were defeated at the Battle of Cannae in 1018, and two decades later Michael IV the Paphlagonian equipped an expedition for the reconquest of Sicily from the Arabs. Although the campaign was initially successful, the reconquest of Sicily was not accomplished, mainly because George Maniaces, the commander of the Byzantine forces, was recalled when he was suspected of having ambitious schemes. During a period of strife between Byzantium and Rome which ended in the East-West Schism of 1054, the Normans began to advance, slowly but steadily, into Byzantine Italy.
It was in Asia Minor, however, that the greatest disaster would take place. The Seljuq Turks made their first explorations across the Byzantine frontier into Armenia in 1065 and in 1067. The emergency lent weight to the military aristocracy in Anatolia who, in 1068, secured the election of one of their own, Romanos Diogenes, as emperor. In the summer of 1071, Romanos undertook a massive eastern campaign to draw the Seljuks into a general engagement with the Byzantine army. At Manzikert Romanos not only suffered a surprise defeat at the hands of Sultan Alp Arslan, but was also captured. Alp Arslan treated him with respect, and imposed no harsh terms on the Byzantines.

Komnenian dynasty and the crusaders

details Byzantium under the Komnenoi

Alexios I and the First Crusade

details Alexios I Komnenos see also First Crusade After Manzikert, a partial recovery (referred to as the Komnenian restoration) was made possible by the efforts of the Komnenian dynasty. The first emperor of this royal line was Isaac I (1057–1059) and the second Alexios I. At the very outset of his reign, Alexios faced a formidable attack by the Normans under Robert Guiscard and his son Bohemund of Taranto, who captured Dyrrhachium and Corfu, and laid siege to Larissa in Thessaly. Robert Guiscard's death in 1085 temporarily eased the Norman problem. The following year the Seljuq sultan died, and the sultanate was split by internal rivalries. By his own efforts, Alexios defeated the Pechenegs; they were caught by surprise and annihilated at the Battle of Levounion on 28 April 1091. However, he still did not have enough manpower to recover the lost territories in Asia Minor, and to advance against the Seljuks. At the Council of Piacenza in 1095, Alexios' envoys spoke to Pope Urban II about the suffering of the Christians of the East, and underscored that without help from the West they would continue to suffer under Muslim rule. Urban saw Alexius' request as a dual opportunity to cement Western Europe and enhance papal power. On 27 November, 1095, Pope Urban II called together the Council of Clermont, and urged all those present to take up arms under the sign of the Cross and launch an armed pilgrimage to recover Jerusalem and the East from the Muslims. The response in Western Europe was overwhelming. Alexios was able to recover a number of important cities and islands, and in fact much of western Asia Minor. Nevertheless, the crusaders believed their oaths were invalidated when Alexios did not help them during the siege of Antioch (he had in fact set out on the road to Antioch, but had been persuaded to turn back by Stephen of Blois, who assured him that all was lost and that the expedition had already failed). Bohemund, who had set himself up as Prince of Antioch, briefly went to war with the Byzantines, but agreed to become Alexios' vassal under the Treaty of Devol in 1108, which marked the end of Norman threat during Alexios' reign. Alexios reconstituted the army and navy, but only by means of stabilizing the gold coinage at one-third of its original value and by imposing supplementary taxes. The supply of native soldiers had virtually ceased with the disappearance or absorption of their military holdings. Alexios promoted an alternative source of native manpower by extending the system of granting estates in pronoia (by favour of the emperor) and tying the grant to a military obligation. Similarly, Alexios tried to promote more profitable development of the estates of the church by granting them to the management of laymen.

John II, Manuel I and the Second Crusade

John's chosen heir was his fourth son, Manuel I Komnenos, who campaigned aggressively against his neighbours both in the west and in the east. In Palestine, he allied himself with the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem and sent a large fleet to participate in a combined invasion of Fatimid Egypt. Manuel reinforced his position as overlord of the Crusader states, with his hegemony over Antioch and Jerusalem secured by agreement with Raynald, Prince of Antioch, and Amalric, King of Jerusalem respectively. In an effort to restore Byzantine control over the ports of southern Italy, he sent an expedition to Italy in 1155, but disputes within the coalition led to the eventual failure of the campaign. Despite this military setback, Manuel's armies successfully invaded the Kingdom of Hungary in 1167, defeating the Hungarians at the Battle of Sirmium. By 1168 nearly the whole of the eastern Adriatic coast lay in Manuel's hands. Manuel made several alliances with the Pope and Western Christian kingdoms, and successfully handled the passage of the Second Crusade through his empire. Although hopes for a lasting Papal-Byzantine alliance came up against insuperable problems, Pope Innocent III clearly had a positive view of Manuel when he told Alexios III that he should imitate "your predecessor Manuel of famous memory" who "always replied favourably to ourselves and our predecessors".
In the east, however, Manuel suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Myriokephalon, in 1176, against the Turks. Yet the losses were quickly made good, and in the following year Manuel's forces inflicted a defeat upon a force of "picked Turks". John Vatatzes, who was sent by the Emperor to repel the Turkish invasion, not only brought troops from the capital but also was able to gather an army along the way; a sign that the Byzantine army remained strong and that the defensive program of western Asia Minor was still successful.

12th century Renaissance

see also Komnenian army John and Manuel pursued active military policies, and both deployed considerable resources on sieges and on city defenses; aggressive fortification policies were at the heart of their imperial military policies. Despite the defeat at Myriokephalon, the policies of Alexios, John and Manuel resulted in vast territorial gains, increased frontier stability in Asia Minor, and secured the stabilization of the empire's European frontiers. From c.1081 to c.1180, the Komnenian army assured the empire's security, enabling Byzantine civilization to flourish. This allowed the Western provinces to achieve an economic revival which continued until the close of the century. It has been argued that Byzantium under the Komnenian rule was more prosperous than at any time since the Persian invasions of the 7th century. During the 12th century population levels rose and extensive tracts of new agricultural land were brought into production. Archaeological evidence from both Europe and Asia Minor shows a considerable increase in the size of urban settlements, together with a notable upsurge in new towns. Trade was also flourishing; the Venetians, the Genoese and others opened up the ports of the Aegean to commerce, shipping goods from the Crusader kingdoms of Outremer and Fatimid Egypt to the west and trading with the Byzantine Empire via Constantinople.
In artistic terms, there was a revival in mosaic, and regional schools of architecture began producing many distinctive styles that drew on a range of cultural influences. During the 12th century the Byzantines provided their model of early humanism as a renaissance of interest in classical authors. In Eustathius of Thessalonica Byzantine humanism found its most characteristic expression.

Decline and disintegration

Dynasty of the Angeloi and Third Crusade

Manuel's death on 24 September 1180 left his 11-year-old son Alexios II Komnenos on the throne. Alexios was highly incompetent at the office, but it was his mother, Maria of Antioch, and her Frankish background that made his regency unpopular. Eventually Andronikos I Komnenos, a grandson of Alexios I, launched a revolt against his younger relative and managed to overthrow him in a violent coup d'état. Utilizing his good looks and his immense popularity with the army, he marched on to Constantinople in August 1182, and incited a massacre of the Latins. After eliminating his potential rivals, he had himself crowned as co-emperor in September 1183; he eliminated Alexios II and even took his 12-year-old wife Agnes of France for himself. The new emperor was a man of astounding contrasts. Handsome and eloquent, Andronikos was at the same time known for his licentious exploits. Energetic, able and determined, he had been called a "true Komnenos". However, he was also capable of terrifying brutality, violence and cruelty.
Andronikos began his reign well; in particular, the measures he took to reform the government of the empire have been praised by historians. According to George Ostrogorsky, Andronikos was determined to root out corruption: Under his rule the sale of offices ceased; selection was based on merit, rather than favoritism; officials were paid an adequate salary so as to reduce the temptation of bribery. In the provinces Andronikos' reforms produced a speedy and marked improvement. Andronikos' efforts to rein in the oppressive tax collectors and officials of the empire did much to alleviate the lot of the peasantry, but his attempt to check the power of the nobility was considerably more problematic. The aristocrats were infuriated against him, and to make matters worse, Andronikos seems to have become increasingly unbalanced; executions and violence became increasingly common, and his reign turned into a reign of terror. Andronikos seemed almost to seek the extermination of the aristocracy as a whole. The struggle against the aristocracy turned into wholesale slaughter, while the emperor resorted to ever more ruthless measures to shore up his regime.
Despite his military background, Andronikos failed to deal with Isaac Komnenos, Béla III who reincorporated Croatian territories into Hungary, and Stephen Nemanja of Serbia who declared his independence from Byzantium. Yet none of these troubles would compare to William II of Sicily's invasion force of 300 ships and 80,000 men, arriving in 1185. Andronikos mobilized a small fleet of 100 ships to defend the capital but other than that he was indifferent to the populace. He was finally overthrown when Isaac Angelos, surviving an imperial assassination attempt, seized power with the aid of the people and had Andronikos killed. The reign of Isaac II , and, still more, that of his brother Alexios III, saw the collapse of what remained of the centralized machinery of Byzantine government and defense. Although, the Normans were driven out of Greece, in 1186 the Bulgars began a rebellion that was to lead to the formation of the Second Bulgarian Empire. The mismanagement of the Third Crusade clearly demonstrated Byzantium's weaknesses under the Angeli. When Richard I of England appropriated Cyprus from its ruler, Isaac Komnenos, he refused to hand it back to the Empire, And when Frederick Barbarossa conquered Iconium, Isaac failed to seize the initiative. The internal policy of the Angeloi was characterized by the squandering of the public treasure, and the fiscal maladministration. Byzantine authority was severely weakened, and the growing power vacuum at the center of the empire encouraged fragmentation. There is evidence that some Komnenian heirs had set up a semi-independent state in Trebizond before 1204. According to Alexander Vasiliev, "the dynasty of the Angeloi, Greek in its origin, [...] accelerated the ruin of the Empire, already weakened without and disunited within." The stated intent of the crusade was to conquer Egypt, now the centre of Muslim power in the Levant. The crusader army that arrived at Venice in the summer of 1202 was somewhat smaller than had been anticipated, and there were not sufficient funds to pay the Venetians, whose fleet was hired by the crusaders to take them to Egypt. Venetian policy under the aging and blind but still ambitious Doge Enrico Dandolo was potentially at variance with that of the Pope and the crusaders, because Venice was closely related commercially with Egypt. The crusaders accepted the suggestion that in lieu of payment they assist the Venetians in the capture of the (Christian) port of Zara in Dalmatia (vassal city of Venice, which had rebelled and placed itself under Hungary's protection in 1186). The city fell in November 1202 after a brief siege. Innocent, who was informed of the plan, but his veto was disregarded, was reluctant to jeopardize the Crusade, and gave conditional absolution to the crusaders—not, however, to the Venetians. Innocent was aware of a plan to divert the Crusade to Constantinople, and forbade any attack on the city; but the papal letter arrived after the fleets had left Zara.
Alexios III made no preparations for the defense of the city; thus, when the Venetian fleet entered the waters of Constantinople on June 24, 1203, they encountered little resistance. When in late November 1203 Alexios IV announced that his promises were hard to keep as the empire was short on funds (he had managed to pay roughly half of the promised amount of 200,000 silver marks, and could not fulfil his promise that he would cover the Venetians' rent of the fleet for the crusaders.), the crusaders declared war on him. Meanwhile, internal opposition to Alexios IV grew, and, on January 25, 1204, one of his courtiers, Alexios Doukas killed him, and took the throne himself as Alexios V; Isaac died soon afterwards, probably naturally. The crusaders and Venetians, incensed at the murder of their supposed patron, prepared to assault the Byzantine capital. They decided that 12 electors (six Venetians and six crusaders) should choose a Latin emperor. When Innocent III heard of the conduct of his crusaders, he castigated them in no uncertain terms. But the situation was beyond his control, especially after his legate, on his own initiative, had absolved the crusaders from their vow to proceed to the Holy Land. When order had been restored, the crusaders and the Venetians proceeded to implement their agreement; Baldwin of Flanders was elected emperor and the Venetian Thomas Morosini chosen patriarch. The lands parcelled out among the leaders did not include all the former Byzantine possessions. The Byzantine rule continued in Nicaea, Trebizond, and Epirus. The weakening of the Sultanate of Rum following the Mongol Invasion in 1242-43 allowed many Beyliks and fanatical ghazis to set up their own principalities in Anatolia, weakening the Byzantine hold on Asia Minor. In time, one of the Beys, Osman I, created an empire that would conquer Byzantium. However, the Mongol Invasion also gave Nicaea a temporary respite from Seljuk attacks allowing it to concentrate on the Latin Empire only north of its position.

Reconquest of Constantinople

The Empire of Nicaea, founded by the Laskaris, managed to reclaim Constantinople from the Latins in 1261 and defeat Epirus. This led to a short lived revival of Byzantine fortunes under Michael VIII, but the war-ravaged empire was ill-equipped to deal with the enemies that now surrounded it. In order to maintain his campaigns against the Latins, Michael pulled troops from Asia Minor, and levied crippling taxes on the peasantry, causing much resentment. Massive construction projects were completed in Constantinople to repair the damages of the Fourth Crusade, but none of these initiatives was of any comfort to the farmers in Asia Minor, suffering raids from fanatical ghazis.
Rather than holding on to his possessions in Asia Minor, Michael chose to expand the Empire, gaining only short-term success. To avoid another sacking of the capital by the Latins, he forced the Church to submit to Rome, again a temporary solution for which the peasantry hated Michael and Constantinople. The efforts of Andronikos II and later his grandson Andronikos III marked Byzantium's last genuine attempts in restoring the glory of the empire. However, the use of mercenaries by Andronikos II would often backfire, with the Catalan Company ravaging the countryside and increasing resentment towards Constantinople By 1390, Philadelphia, the last Byzantine stronghold in inner Asia Minor, fell to the Turks.
Civil war wrecked the empire during the 14th century, since Andronikos III's successor was far too young to rule and the resulting regency's rivalry tore the Empire. The Asian provinces were lost to the Turks, while the Serbians and Bulgarians conquered the Empire's remaining territory in Europe. For a while, the empire survived simply because the Turks of Anatolia were too divided to attack. Nevertheless, the unifying influence of Osman I (1258–1326) allowed the newly founded Ottoman Empire to deprive the Byzantines of all but a handful of port cities.
Things went worse for Byzantium, when, during the civil war, an earthquake at Gallipoli in 1354 devastated the fort, allowing the Turks the very next day to cross into Europe. By the time the Byzantine civil war had ended, the Ottomans had defeated the Serbians and subjugated them as vassals. Following the Battle of Kosovo, much of the Balkans became dominated by the Ottomans. The Emperors appealed to the west for help, but the Pope would only consider sending aid in return for a reunion of the Eastern Orthodox Church with the See of Rome. Church unity was considered, and occasionally accomplished by imperial decree, but the Orthodox citizenry and clergy intensely resented Roman authority and the Latin Rite. Some western mercenaries arrived to bolster the Christian defence of Constantinople, but most Western rulers, distracted by their own affairs, did nothing as the Ottomans picked apart the remaining Byzantine territories.
Constantinople by this stage was underpopulated and dilapidated. The population of the city had collapsed so severely that it was now little more than a cluster of villages separated by fields. On April 2, 1453, the Sultan's army of some 80,000 men and his hordes of irregulars laid siege to the city. Despite a desperate last-ditch defense of the city by the massively outnumbered Christian forces (c. 7,000 men, 2,000 of whom were foreign mercenaries



details Byzantine economy The Byzantine economy was among the most advanced in Europe and the Mediterranean for many centuries. Europe, in particular, was unable to match Byzantine economic strength until late in the Middle Ages. Constantinople was a prime hub in a trading network that at various times extended across nearly all of Eurasia and North Africa, in particular being the primary western terminus of the famous silk road. Some scholars argue that, up until the arrival of the Arabs in the 7th century, the Empire had the most powerful economy in the world. The Arab conquests, however, would represent a substantial reversal of fortunes contributing to a period of decline and stagnation. Constantine V's reforms (c. 765) marked the beginning of a revival that continued until 1204. From the 10th century until the end of the 12th, the Byzantine Empire projected an image of luxury, and the travelers were impressed by the wealth accumulated in the capital. All this changed with the arrival of the Fourth Crusade, which was an economic catastrophe. The Palaiologoi tried to revive the economy, but the late Byzantine state would not gain full control of either the foreign or domestic economic forces. Gradually, it also lost its influence on the modalities of trade and the price mechanisms, and its control over the outflow of precious metals and, according to some scholars, even over the minting of coins. One of the economic foundations of the empire was trade. Textiles must have been by far the most important item of export; silks were certainly imported into Egypt, and appeared also in Bulgaria, and the West. The state strictly controlled both the internal and the international trade, and retained the monopoly of issuing coinage. The government exercised formal control over interest rates, and set the parameters for the activity of the guilds and corporations, in which it had a special interest. The emperor and its officials intervened at times of crisis to ensure the provisioning of the capital, and to keep down the price of cereals. Finally, the government often collected part of the surplus through taxation, and put it back into circulation, through redistribution in the form of salaries to state officials, or in the form of investment in public works.

Science, Medicine, Law

details Byzantine science The writings of Classical antiquity never ceased to be cultivated in Byzantium. Therefore, Byzantine science was in every period closely connected with ancient philosophy, and metaphysics. Although at various times the Byzantines made magnificent achievements in the application of the sciences (notably in the construction of the Hagia Sophia), after the 6th century Byzantine scholars made few novel contributions to science in terms of developing new theories or extending the ideas of classical authors. Scholarship particularly lagged during the dark years of plague and the Arab conquests, but then during the so-called Byzantine Renaissance at the end of the first millennium Byzantine scholars re-asserted themselves becoming experts in the scientific developments of the Arabs and Persians, particularly in astronomy and mathematics.
In the final century of the Empire, Byzantine grammarians were those principally responsible for carrying, in person and in writing, ancient Greek grammatical and literary studies to early Renaissance Italy. During this period astronomy and other mathematical sciences were taught in Trebizond; medicine attracted the interest of almost all scholars.
In the field of law, Justinian I's reforms had a clear effect on the evolution of jurisprudence, and Leo III's Ecloga influenced the formation of legal institutions in the Slav world.


further Eastern Orthodox Church
According to Joseph Raya, "Byzantine culture and Orthodoxy are one and the same." The survival of the Empire in the East assured an active role of the Emperor in the affairs of the Church. The Byzantine state inherited from pagan times the administrative, and financial routine of administering religious affairs, and this routine was applied to the Christian Church. Following the pattern set by Eusebius of Caesarea, the Byzantines thought of the Emperor as a representative or messenger of Christ, responsible particularly for the propagation of Christianity among pagans, and for the "externals" of the religion, such as administration and finances. The imperial role, however, in the affairs of the Church never developed into a fixed, legally defined system.
With the decline of Rome, and internal dissension in the other Eastern patriarchates, the church of Constantinople became, between the 6th and 11th centuries, the richest and most influential center of Christendom. Even when the Empire was reduced to only a shadow of itself, the Church, as an institution, had never exercised so much influence both inside and outside of the imperial frontiers. As George Ostrogorsky points out: The Patriarchate of Constantinople remained the center of the Orthodox world, with subordinate metropolitan sees and archbishoprics in the territory of Asia Minor and the Balkans, now lost to Byzantium, as well as in Caucasus, Russia and Lithuania. The Church remained the most stable element in the Byzantine Empire.
However, there were some non-Christian minorities in Byzantium, most notably Jews.

Art and literature

Architecture, painting, and other visual arts produced in the Byzantine Empire and in various areas that came under its influence. Byzantine art is almost entirely concerned with religious expression and, more specifically, with the impersonal translation of carefully controlled church theology into artistic terms. Byzantine forms were spread by trade and conquest to Italy and Sicily, where they persisted in modified form through the 12th century, and became formative influences on Italian Renaissance art. By means of the expansion of the Eastern Orthodox church, Byzantine forms spread to eastern European centers, particularly Russia. Influences from Byzantine architecture, particularly in religious buildings, can be found in diverse regions from Egypt and Arabia to Russia and Romania.
In Byzantine literature, therefore, four different cultural elements are to be reckoned with: the Greek, the Christian, the Roman, and the Oriental. Byzantine literature is often classified in five groups: historians and annalists, encyclopedists (Patriarch Photios, Michael Psellos, and Michael Choniates are regarded as the greatest encyclopedists of Byzantium) and essayists, and writers of secular poetry (The only genuine heroic epic of the Byzantines is the Digenis Acritas). The remaining two groups include the new literary species: ecclesiastical and theological literature, and popular poetry. Of the approximately two to three thousand volumes of Byzantine literature that survive, only three hundred and thirty consist of secular poetry, history, science and pseudo-science. While the most flourishing period of the secular literature of Byzantium runs from the ninth to the twelfth century, its religious literature (sermons, liturgical books and poetry, theology, devotional treatises etc.) developed much earlier with Romanos the Melodist being its most prominent representative.

Government and bureaucracy

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Secondary sources

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Further reading

  • Ahrweiler, Helene "Studies on the Internal Diaspora of the Byzantine Empire", Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Ahrweiler, Helene Les Europeens, Herman (Paris), 2000.
  • The Byzantine Wars: Battles and Campaigns of the Byzantine Era
  • J.M. Hussey, The Cambridge Medieval History, Volume IV — The Byzantine Empire Part I, Byzantium and its Neighbors, Cambridge University Press 1966.
  • Byzantine Civilisation
  • The Emperor Romanus Lecapenus and his Reign
  • Constantine Porphyrogenitus and His World
  • The Byzantine Revival 780–842

External links

Byzantine studies, resources and bibliography


Byzantine in Arabic: إمبراطورية بيزنطية
Byzantine in Aragonese: Imperio Bizantino
Byzantine in Asturian: Imperiu Bizantinu
Byzantine in Azerbaijani: Bizans İmperiyası
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Byzantine in Bulgarian: Византийска империя
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Byzantine in Czech: Byzantská říše
Byzantine in Welsh: Yr Ymerodraeth Fysantaidd
Byzantine in Danish: Østromerske Kejserdømme
Byzantine in German: Byzantinisches Reich
Byzantine in Estonian: Ida-Rooma keisririik
Byzantine in Modern Greek (1453-): Βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία
Byzantine in Spanish: Imperio Bizantino
Byzantine in Esperanto: Bizanca imperio
Byzantine in Basque: Bizantziar Inperioa
Byzantine in Persian: امپراتوری روم شرقی
Byzantine in French: Empire byzantin
Byzantine in Scottish Gaelic: An t-Impireachd Bheasantian
Byzantine in Galician: Imperio bizantino
Byzantine in Korean: 비잔티움 제국
Byzantine in Croatian: Bizant
Byzantine in Indonesian: Kekaisaran Romawi Timur
Byzantine in Ossetian: Византиаг импери
Byzantine in Icelandic: Austrómverska keisaradæmið
Byzantine in Italian: Impero bizantino
Byzantine in Hebrew: האימפריה הביזנטית
Byzantine in Georgian: ბიზანტიის იმპერია
Byzantine in Kazakh: Шығыс Ұрым империясы
Byzantine in Swahili (macrolanguage): Ufalme wa Byzanti
Byzantine in Kurdish: Împaratoriya Bîzansê
Byzantine in Latin: Imperium Romanum Orientale
Byzantine in Latvian: Bizantija
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Byzantine in Macedonian: Византија
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Byzantine in Dutch: Byzantijnse Rijk
Byzantine in Newari: बैजन्टाइन साम्राज्य
Byzantine in Japanese: 東ローマ帝国
Byzantine in Norwegian: Østromerriket
Byzantine in Norwegian Nynorsk: Austromarriket
Byzantine in Polish: Cesarstwo bizantyjskie
Byzantine in Portuguese: Império Bizantino
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Byzantine in Russian: Византийская империя
Byzantine in Sicilian: Mpiru bizzantinu
Byzantine in Simple English: Byzantine Empire
Byzantine in Slovak: Byzantská ríša
Byzantine in Slovenian: Bizantinsko cesarstvo
Byzantine in Serbian: Византијско царство
Byzantine in Serbo-Croatian: Bizantsko Carstvo
Byzantine in Finnish: Bysantin valtakunta
Byzantine in Swedish: Bysantinska riket
Byzantine in Tagalog: Silangang Imperyong Romano
Byzantine in Tamil: பைசண்டைன் பேரரசு
Byzantine in Thai: จักรวรรดิไบแซนไทน์
Byzantine in Vietnamese: Đế quốc Byzantine
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Byzantine in Ukrainian: Візантійська імперія
Byzantine in Urdu: بازنطینی سلطنت
Byzantine in Venetian: Inpero bizantin
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Byzantine in Chinese: 拜占庭帝国

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