Byzantium (ca. 330–1453)
In 330 A.D., the first Christian ruler of the
empire, Constantine the Great (r. 306–337) (
), transferred the ancient imperial capital from Rome to the city of Byzantion located on the easternmost territory of the European continent, at a major intersection of east-west trade. The emperor renamed this ancient port city
(“the city of Constantine”) in his own honor (detail,
); it was also called the “New Rome,” owing to the city’s new status as political capital of the Roman empire. The Christian, ultimately Greek-speaking state ruled from that city would come to be called Byzantium by modern historians, although the empire’s medieval citizens described themselves as “Rhomaioi,” Romans, and considered themselves the inheritors of the
ancient Roman empire
The Beginning of Byzantium
The first golden age of the empire, the Early Byzantine period, extends from the founding of the new capital into the 700s. Christianity replaced the gods of
as the official religion of the culturally and religiously diverse state in the late 300s (
). The practice of Christian monasticism developed in the fourth century, and continued to be an important part of the Byzantine faith, spreading from Egypt to all parts of the empire.
In the Early Byzantine period, Byzantium’s educated elite used Roman law, and Greek and Roman culture, to maintain a highly organized government centered on the court and its great cities (
). In later decades, urban decline and the invasions of the empire’s
by Germanic tribes, especially in the fifth century, led to the diminishment of western centers including Rome, sacked in 410 by the Goths and in 455 by the Vandals. Despite the territorial gains of the emperor
in the sixth century (
), many of the empire’s Italian provinces were overtaken by Lombards in the late 500s. In the 600s,
Persian and Arab invasions
devastated much of Byzantium’s eastern territories.
The artistic traditions of the wealthy state extended throughout the empire, including the southernmost provinces of Egypt and North Africa, which remained under Byzantine control until the Arab conquest of the region in the seventh century (
). The development of the codex, or
, replacing the ancient scroll marked a major innovation in these first centuries. A number of deluxe, illustrated Early Byzantine manuscripts survive from the fourth to sixth centuries, including
, editions of Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad, and medical treatises such as Dioscurides’ De materia medica.