Byzantine Empire

Icon of St John the Baptist

Byzantium was the thousand-year successor to the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean. In AD 330, the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great (AD 305-337), re-founded Byzantium as Constantinople (nowadays Istanbul), joint capital with Rome.

Christian art gradually emerged, drawing on pagan, classical and Jewish sources. Under Justinian I (AD 527-565) the Byzantine empire was at its greatest extent, regaining much of the old Roman western Mediterranean. Meanwhile, Constantinople’s great church Haghia Sophia was built, and Roman law was codified.

By the mid seventh century AD the Byzantine Empire was shrinking due to Lombard, Avar, Slav and Islamic conquests. Iconoclasm, a political and religious dispute, led to a ban on the worship of religious images which lasted until AD 843. The subsequent Middle Byzantine period saw regeneration and re-conquests under the Macedonian dynasty. By the death of the emperor Basil II in 1025 the empire was its most extensive since Justinian I. This political stability was accompanied by an artistic revival and many new churches.

It was not to last. Byzantium gradually succumbed under pressure from the Seljuk Turks and western European states. In 1204 Constantinople finally fell to the Crusaders. Despite recapturing the capital in 1261, the next 200 years was a period of relentless political and military decline for the Byzantines.

However, it was also a period of great creativity:  the last flowering of Byzantine art and architecture. Constantinople, and the Byzantine empire, finally fell to the Turkish armies of the Ottoman sultan Mehmet II on 29 May 1453.  

Image caption: Icon of St John the Baptist
Byzantine, around AD 1300. From Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey)

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