The Byzantine Empire

Essential Question

How did the Byzantine Empire begin? What is the significance of Constantinople?

Constantine & The Rise of The Byzantine Empire

As we learned in previous lessons, Diocletian split the Roman Empire in half because the empire was too difficult to manage. Rome became two empires, the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. The main capital was the city of Rome in the Western Roman Empire. However, shortly after the division of the Roman Empire the power of Rome slowly started to shift to the Eastern Roman Empire because the West was falling apart. In 324 Rome was in a civil war and many generals were fighting each other for ownership of the empire. A Roman leader, named Constantine won the civil war and became the emperor of Rome.

Constantine was a pagan (someone who believes in more than one god) for most of his life, but he became Christian when he received a vision from God that won him a great battle in the civil war that made him emperor. Constantine believed God was the reason he became emperor. As emperor, Constantine made a pronouncement called the Edict of Milan. This edict ended the persecution of Christians and established religious tolerance for Christians in the Roman Empire. Before the edict, emperors thought Christians were dangerous because they worshiped God above all things and the emperors wanted Christians to worship the emperor. So the emperors before Constantine ordered Christians to be rounded up, toured, and killed if they did not abandon their faith.

In 330 Constantine moved the capital of the Roman empire from Rome in the Western Roman Empire to an old Greek city in the Eastern Roman Empire named Byzantium. He then renamed it Constantinople, after himself. He wanted to build a "new Rome" and make his capital a Christian city. Constantine laid the foundation for the Byzantine Empire. Years after his death. When the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 473 the Eastern or Byzantine Empire thrived for another 1,000 years. It tried to reconquer the lands from the Roman Empire, but it was never able to regain all its land.

The Byzantine Empire

Historians now call the Eastern Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire. But the people living in it just thought of it as the Roman Empire. The citizens of Constantinople and the rest of the Eastern Roman Empire called themselves Romans and Christians. Byzantine Empire preserved Roman laws and achievements in philosophy, architecture, engineering, and more. They also improved upon the Roman ideas and spread them to the rest of the world. However, the Byzantines spoke Greek instead of Latin (the language of Rome) and they were Christian while Romans were pagan.

You can visit Constantinople today, which is the modern-day city of Istanbul in Turkey. Constantinople was an excellent capital city. It was in the center of the empire. Since it was built on a Peninsula and had massive walls it was easy to defend. Most important it was at the center of a crossroads for European and Asian trade routes so there were many goods and ideas moving through the city. The cities harbors made it an ideal shipping location that traded goods from China, India, Egypt, and beyond. Constantinople became a very rich city from all the trade that flowed through it. Many great monuments were built using Constantinople's wealth including the domed Church of Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia.

Discussion Questions

  • Who is Constantine? Why is he important?

  • Where did Constantine move the capital? Why?

  • How is the Byzantine Empire connected to the Roman Empire?

  • Why is Constantinople a good capital?

  • Did the people of the Byzantine Empire call themselves Byzantine? Why or why not?

Activity: How did the Byzantine Empire start and thrive?

Using the information from this lesson, answer the questions in a thinking map. Complete this assignment digitally or on paper. It will be collected in your portfolio.

Extension Acitivites

NEWSELA: The Byzantine Empire