The Byzantine Empire is the term casually and incorrectly used to describe the Eastern Roman Empire which was centered on its capital, Constantinople, which had, in antiquity, been called Byzantium. During much of its later history it was known to many of its Western contemporaries as the Empire of the Greeks because of the predominance of the Greek language, culture and population. To the majority of its inhabitants it was simply the Roman Empire (Greek: Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων), and its emperors continued the unbroken succession of the Roman emperors. In the later Islamic world it was known primarily as روم (Rûm, land of the "Romans").
Byzantium had been a modest Greek settlement at the furthest extremity of the European continent, on the Sea of Marmara, and said to have been founded in 658 BC, by a group of colonists from the Greek city of Magara. The Emperor Constantine I, "The Great" (reigned AD 306–337), is generally considered to be the first Roman Emperor based here. It was he who decided, towards the end of AD324, some six months or so before the Council of Nicaea, which he opened, to move the Imperial capital from a tottering Rome to Byzantium, which he refounded and renamed it Constantinople (after himself), sometimes therefore called the Nova Roma (New Rome). The formal ceremony founding the new city was 4th November 328, and construction work on the new city and its walls began "at a furious rate". He was baptised by his own request into the Christian faith, licensed it throughout the Roman Empire and made it the official State religion. The Church in Council met and the Patriarchs bestowed upon the Emperor his semi-holy status as "Divine Head of the Church" and "God's Viceroy on Earth".
The period after Constantine's death again saw some persecutions of Christians but the Emperor Theodosius I (379–395) ordered that this be halted and that Christianity finally supplant the old decaying pagan Roman religions. Following his death in AD395, the political division between the Eastern and Western Empires became permanent. Some writers place the real commencement of the Eastern Empire yet later, in 476, when Romulus Augustulus, traditionally considered the last western Emperor, was deposed, thus leaving sole Imperial authority with the emperor at Constantinople. Some even point to the reorganization of the empire in the time of the Emperor Heraclius (circa AD620), when Latin titles and usages were officially replaced with Greek-language versions. In any case, the changeover was gradual but permanent and when Constantine inaugurated his new capital, the process of Hellenic administration and increasing Christianization was already under way.
The Empire is generally considered to have ended after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks after a great siege in 1453, although 'Greek' rule continued over fragments of the Empire's territory for several more years, until the fall of Mystras in 1460, Trebizond in 1461, and Monemvasia in 1471.
- Norwich, John Julius, Byzantium, London, 1988, republished by the Folio Society 2003: vol.1, "The Early Years, vol.2, "The Apogee", vol.3, "The Decline and Fall".
- Norwich, 1988/2003, vol.1, p.1-2.
- Norwich, 1988/2003, vol.1, p.40.
- Hakahyhe, journal of the Russian Monarchist League, London, Winter edition, 1987, p.9, citing Eusebius (264-340AD).