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Byzantium: Rome Stuck in a Medieval World

The myth of the “Dark Ages” has clouded the modern perception of the Ancient World, as Rome, the civilization that had and will forever be tied to the name of Antiquity, survived the collapse, and not only thrived in a new medieval era, but ensured the growth and survival of Western Europe. Although the old historians of a bygone era will dispute these claims, one cannot deny that the centuries following the collapse of the West was a period of change and creativity. Whether an individual agrees with the survival and continuity of Rome or not, there is no denying that the Eastern Roman Empire, the inheritors of Greco-Roman culture, was the fuel that powered the first steps of Western Europe.

Similar to a family that had passed down money and influence through the centuries, Byzantium gained its unique wealth through inheritance. From the times of Constantine the Great and Justinian, the eastern half of the Roman Empire contained the riches provinces in the Mediterranean, as the endless grain of Egypt, and the mighty walls of Constantinople far outstripped whatever the Western provinces of Gaul and Brittany had to offer. Coupled with the centralized government, unrivaled infrastructure and Roman laws passed down from Justinian and his predecessors, the Medieval Romans had a degree of wealth and stability unheard of in the infant and Feudal Europe. As such, the empire managed to fend off both external, and internal threats on a regular basis without causing the complete collapse of the state.

For instance, the tribulations faced by the Empire after the Muslim expansion into Egypt, the breadbasket of the Empire is evidence enough to support the statement, as Byzantium adapted to the loss of more than half of the provinces by shifting the heart of agriculture into their remaining territories in Asia Minor, which ensured the long term survival of the state. In turn, the ancient economy and laws that had been preserved since the times of Augustus were well established enough for the Romans to compete with the great superpowers of Medieval Asia despite their diminished size.

As Medieval Europe first began developing strong Kingdoms and rediscovering classical philosophy, the Eastern Romans had been in a deadlock with the Islamic superpower of Umayyad Caliphate since 661 A.D. The conflict between the Romans and Umayyads hung in a balance, as Constantinople, the great capital of the Romans had been besieged three times, but all ended in defeat for the Caliphate. The survival of the ancient city saved not only the fatigued Empire, but all of Europe from Muslim expansion, and gave valuable time for Western Europe to strengthen and grow. Although the “Queen of Cities” survived, the provinces of Asia Minor had been consistently ravaged and raided by hordes of Muslim Cavalrymen, and it would not be until the ninth century when the Byzantine Empire fully recovered their strength and gradually took the offensive against the divided Muslim world.

However, one must not only look at the military protection the Romans provided Europe, as the Empire spread many Ancient Greek texts and manuscripts towards the West that brought about the Renaissance, and the Empire as a whole, provided a model framework for numerous kingdoms to base their laws and customs towards. Subsequently, a hint of irony riddles the tale of the Normans, as they were the prime example of the jealousy yet admiration felt by Latin Europe towards the Ancient Empire. Following the Norman conquest of Southern Italy, they blended Byzantine art and culture into their newly formed state, and their admiration for the sophisticated Roman culture resulted in numerous wars and attempted conquests of the Empire, as those who admired the Roman state the most, were the greatest threat towards Byzantium.

As the weakness brought about by time is felt by all things, the Byzantine Empire was no exception. Similar to a mother watching her children grow up while she grows old, the State of Byzantium entered a period of decline while the Latin West grew to surpass their ancient guardians. Following the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Romans lost their heartland of Anatolia, and only through the herculean efforts of the Emperor Alexios I did the empire survive the turmoil. However, the respite of the state was temporary, as the Crusades which were meant to support the Byzantines against there foes backfired.

Contrary to the goal, the Crusades merely brought the decline of Byzantium out in the open for all to see, as the Empire fell from the foremost superpower of Europe, to another kingdom amongst the countless squabbling states of Europe. Subsequently, the Crusaders exploited the weakness, and in the year 1204 A.D, achieved what the Persians and Muslims could not do, conquer Constantinople. The historic moment solidified the power and influence of the West at the expense of Ancient Byzantium, and the centre of power, which had been in the glorious city of Constantine for the past six centuries, was finally transferred over to the West as the remnants of Ancient Rome crumbled.

Byzantine-Arab Wars of the eighth century


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