<b>The Byzantines (476 to 1453)<b>
The Byzantines took their name from Byzantium, an ancient city on the
Bosphorus, the strategic waterway linking the Black Sea to the Aegean
Sea. The Roman Emperor Constantine had renamed this city Constantinople
in the fourth century and made it a sister capital of his empire. This
eastern partition of the Roman Empire outlived its western counterpart by
a thousand years, defending Europe against invasions from the east by
Persians, Arabs, and Turks. The Byzantines persevered because
Constantinople was well defended by walls and the city could be supplied
by sea. At their zenith in the sixth century, the Byzantines covered much
of the territories of the original Roman Empire, lacking only the Iberian
Peninsula (modern Spain and Portugal), Gaul (modern France), and Britain.
The Byzantines also held Syria, Egypt, and Palestine, but by the middle
of the seventh century they had lost them to the Arabs. From then on
their empire consisted mainly of the Balkans and modern Turkey.
The first great Byzantine emperor was Justinian I (482 to 565). His
ambition was to restore the old Roman Empire and he nearly succeeded. His
instrument was the greatest general of the age, Belisarius, who
crisscrossed the empire defeating Persians to the East, Vandals in North
Africa, Ostrogoths in Italy, and Bulgars and Slavs in the Balkans. In
addition to military campaigns, Justinian laid the foundation for the
future by establishing a strong legal and administrative system and by
defending the Christian Church.
The Byzantine economy was the richest in Europe for many centuries
because Constantinople was ideally sited on trade routes between Asia,
Europe, the Black Sea, and the Aegean Sea. It was an important
destination point for the Silk Road from China. The nomisma, the
principal Byzantine gold coin, was the standard for money throughout the
Mediterranean for 800 years. Constantinople's strategic position
eventually attracted the envy and animosity of the Italian city-states.
A key strength of the Byzantine Empire was its generally superior army
that drew on the best elements of the Roman, Greek, Gothic, and Middle
Eastern experience in war. The core of the army was a shock force of
heavy cavalry supported by both light infantry (archers) and heavy
infantry (armored swordsmen). The army was organized into units and
drilled in tactics and maneuvers. Officers received an education in
military history and theory. Although outnumbered usually by masses of
untrained warriors, it prevailed thanks to intelligent tactics and good
discipline. The army was backed by a network of spies and secret agents
that provided information about enemy plans and could be used to bribe or
otherwise deflect aggressors.
The Byzantine navy kept the sea-lanes open for trade and kept supply
lines free so the city could not be starved into submission when
besieged. In the eighth century, a land and sea attack by Arabs was
defeated largely by a secret weapon, Greek fire. This chemical weapon,
its composition now unknown, was a sort of liquid napalm that could be
sprayed from a hose. The Arab navy was devastated at sea by Greek fire.
In the seventh and eighth centuries, the Arabs overran Egypt, the Middle
East, North Africa, and Spain, removing these areas permanently from
Byzantine control. A Turkish victory at Manzikert in 1071 led to the
devastation of Asia Minor, the empire's most important source of grain,
cattle, horses, and soldiers. In 1204 Crusaders led by the Doge of Venice
used treachery to sack and occupy Constantinople.
In the fourteenth century, the Turks invaded Europe, capturing Adrianople
and bypassing Constantinople. They settled the Balkans in large numbers
and defeated a large crusader army at Nicopolis in 1396. In May 1453,
Turkish sultan Mehmet II captured a weakly defended Constantinople with
the aid of heavy cannon. The fall of the city brought the Byzantine
Empire to an end.