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Eastern Roman Empire

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Eastern Roman Empire
Imperivm Romanvm Pars Orientales
The Eastern Empire (Right) By 476 AD.
Capital Constantinople
Languages Greek
Religion Orthodox Christianity
Government Monarchy
Eastern Roman Emperor
 -  306–337 Constantine the Great
 -  1449-1453 Constantine XI
Historical era Late antiquity
 -  Established 330
 -  Foundation of Constantinople May 11, 330
 -  Disestablished 1453
Currency Solidus

The Eastern Roman Empire or the Eastern Empire was the name given to the eastern part of the Roman Empire after its division in the 3rd century AD.

Its capital city was Constantinople (or New Rome). It represented an administrative division of the Roman Empire, but after the fall of the western part it survived until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The Eastern Empire was also called the Byzantine Empire. The term "Byzantine Empire" dates from the 17th century.

The Roman empire was divided by Theodosius I (also called "the great") to his two sons Arcadius to the East (with his capital in Constantinople) and Flavius Honorius in the Western Empire (with his capital in Milan).

The division of the Empire began with the Tetrarchy (quadrumvirate) in the late 3rd century AD with Diocletian, as an institution that was aiming to control efficiently the vast Roman empire.

Partition of the Roman Empire

Between the 2nd and 3rd centuries, three crises came together and threatened the crumbling Roman Empire: external invasions, internal civil wars, and an economy riddled with weaknesses and problems. Meanwhile, the city of Rome became less important as an administrative centre for the Roman Empire. The crisis of the 3rd century displayed the defects of the heterogeneous system of government which Augustus had established to administer his immense dominion. His successors had introduced some modifications, but events made it clearer that a new, more centralised and more uniform system was required.

Diocletian was responsible for creating a new administrative system (the tetrarchy). He associated himself with a coemperor, or Augustus. Each Augustus then adopted a young colleague, or Caesar, to share in the rule and eventually to succeed the senior partner. After the abdication of Diocletian and Maximian the tetrachy collapsed, and Constantine I replaced it with the dynastic principle of hereditary succession.

Constantine establishes the Eastern Roman Empire

Constantine moved the seat of the Empire, and introduced important changes into its civil and religious constitution. In 330, he founded Constantinople as a second Rome on the site of Byzantium, which was well-positioned astride the trade routes between East and West; it was a superb base from which to guard the Danube and Tanais rivers, and was reasonably close to the Eastern frontiers. Constantine also began the building of the great fortified walls, which were expanded and rebuilt in subsequent ages. According to Edward Gibbon, "Constantine was not insensible to the ambition of founding a city which might perpetuate the glory of his own name. And indeed Constantine's city flourished mightily throughout the Middle Ages. J. B. Bury asserts that "the foundation of Constantinople [...] inaugurated a permanent division between the Eastern and Western, the Greek and the Latin, halves of the Empire – a division to which events had already pointed – and affected decisively the whole subsequent history of Europe."

Constantine built upon the administrative reforms introduced by Diocletian. He stabilized the coinage (the gold solidus that he introduced became a highly priced and stable currency) and made changes to the structure of the army. To divide administrative responsibilities, Constantine replaced the single praetorian prefect, who had traditionally exercized both military and civil functions, with regional prefects enjoying civil authority alone. In the course of the 4th century, four great sections emerged from these Constantinian beginnings, and the practice of separating civil from military authority persisted until the 7th century.

Emperor Constantine I.

Under Constantine, Christianity did not become the exclusive religion of the state, but enjoyed imperial preference, since the Emperor supported it with generous privileges: clerics were exempted from personal services and taxation, Christians were preferred for administrative posts, and bishops were entrusted with judicial responsibilities. Constantine established the principle that emperors should not settle questions of doctrine, but should summon general ecclesiastical councils for that purpose. The Synod of Arles was convened by Constantine, and the First Council of Nicaea showcased his claim to be head of the Church.

The state of the empire in 395 may be described in terms of the outcome of Constantine's work. The dynastic principle was established so firmly that the emperor who died in that year, Theodosius I, could bequeath the imperial office jointly to his sons: Arcadius in the East and Honorius in the West. Theodosius was the last emperor to rule over the full extent of the empire in both its halves.

Constantine's sons

The Empire was parted again among his three surviving sons. The Western Roman Empire was divided among the eldest son Constantine II and the youngest son Constans. The Eastern Roman Empire along with Constantinople were the share of middle son Constantius II.

Constantine II was killed in conflict with his youngest brother in 340. Constans was himself killed in conflict with the army-proclaimed Augustus Magnentius on January 18 350. Magnentius was at first opposed in the city of Rome by self-proclaimed Augustus Nepotianus, a paternal first cousin of Constans. Nepotianus was killed alongside his mother Eutropia. His other first cousin Constantia convinced Vetriano to proclaim himself Caesar in opposition to Magnentius. Vetriano served a brief term from March 1 to December 25 350. He was then forced to abdicate by the legitimate Augustus Constantius. The usurper Magnentius would continue to rule the Western Roman Empire until 353 while in conflict with Constantius. His eventual defeat and suicide left Constantius as sole Emperor.

Constantius's rule would however be opposed again in 360. He had named his paternal half-cousin and brother-in-law Julian as his Caesar of the Western Roman Empire in 355. During the following five years, Julian had a series of victories against invading Germanic tribes, including the Alamanni. This allowed him to secure the Rhine frontier. His victorious Gallic troops thus ceased campaigning. Constantius sent orders for the troops to be transferred to the east as reinforcements for his own currently unsuccessful campaign against Shapur II of Persia. This order led the Gallic troops to an insurrection. They proclaimed their commanding officer Julian to be an Augustus. Both Augusti were not ready to lead their troops to another Roman Civil War. Constantius's timely demise on November 3, 361 prevented this war from ever occurring.

Valentinian dynasty

The role of choosing a new Augustus fell again to army officers. On February 28 364, Pannonian officer Valentinian I demanded Valentinian choose a co-ruler. On March 28 Valentinian chose his own younger brother Valens and the two new Augusti parted the Empire in the pattern established by Diocletian: Valentinian would administer the Western Roman Empire, while Valens took control over the Eastern Roman Empire.

Valens's election would soon be disputed. Procopius, a Cilician maternal cousin of Julian, had been considered a likely heir to his cousin but was never designated as such. He had been in hiding since the election of Jovian. In 365, while Valentinian was at Paris and then at Rheims to direct the operations of his generals against the Alamanni, Procopius managed to bribe two legions assigned to Constantinople and take control of the Eastern Roman capital. He was proclaimed Augustus on September 28 and soon extended his control to both Thrace and Bithynia. War between the two rival Eastern Roman Emperors continued until Procopius was defeated. Valens had him executed on May 27, 366.

Theodosius the Great (379-395)

Gratian elevated Theodosius I to the rank of Augustus of the east on 19 January 379 CE. Though, as part of the empire, they would be required to provide soldiers to the empire. The barbarian tribes included in this treaty were by no way exclusively Visigothic. Theodosius showed even greater determination than Valentinian to increase the amounts he could obtain by taxation. Theodosius' relationship with his fellow emperor Gratian in the west was a strained one, largely on religious grounds, but the fact that Theodosius' father had been executed under Gratian will surely not have made for friendly relations. But when Magnus Maximus usurped the western throne in AD 383, Theodosius only reluctantly granted him recognition. By acknowledging Maximus, Theodosius managed to persuade the usurper to recognize Valentinian II. Meanwhile, Theodosius promoted his own son Arcadius to co-Augustus of the east in 383.

The Roman Empire, c.395 AD at the death of Theodosius

When in 387 Maximus invaded Italy in order to dispose of Valentinian II, Theodosius led an army against him. The eastern emperor's German and Hun troops helped him to defeat Maximus at Siscia and then at Poetovio. Maximus was beheaded in Aquileia (AD 387). Thereafter Theodosius stayed in Italy until 391 effectively acting as sole emperor, despite reinstalling Valentinian II as western Augustus. Being stern on matters of law and taxation, then on religious grounds, too, Theodosius became seen as a hardliner. Christian heretics were repressed with a series of new laws, at a time even actual religious discussion itself was outlawed. Though Theodosius himself at times did not fare well himself in religious matters. Only after Theodosius had done penance was he allowed back into the church. In AD 391 pagan temples were closed and all of their worships were forbidden by threat of harsh punishment.

As Theodosius returned to Constantinople he left behind his 'Master of Soldiers' to assist Valentinian II in his rule of the west. But his faith in Arbogast proved a dire misjudgement of character. In AD 393 Theodosius promoted his second son, Honorius, to be the third Augustus in the east. Thereafter, once again, Theodosius needed to embark on a campaign to remove a usurper in the west (AD 394). On the river Frigidus he defeated Arbogast in AD 394 and thereafter had Eugenius executed; however, in January AD 395 Theodosius himself died at Mediolanum (Milan).

Late Eastern Roman Empire (396-476)

The Eastern Empire was largely spared the difficulties that the West faced in the 3rd and 4th centuries, partly owing to a more firmly established urban culture and greater financial resources, which allowed it to placate invaders with tribute and pay barbarian mercenaries. Throughout the 5th century, various invading armies overran the Western Empire but spared the East. Theodosius II further fortified the walls of Constantinople, leaving the city impenetrable to attacks; they were not breached until 1204. To fend off the Huns of Attila, Theodosius gave them subsidies (purportedly 300 kg (700 lb) of gold). Moreover, he favored merchants living in Constantinople who traded with the barbarians.

The division of the Empire after the death of Theodosius I, ca.395 AD superimposed on modern borders.
  Western Roman Empire
  Eastern Roman Empire

His successor, Marcian, refused to continue to pay this exorbitant sum. However, Attila had already diverted his attention to the Western Roman Empire. After he died in 453, his empire collapsed and Constantinople initiated a profitable relationship with the remaining Huns, who would eventually fight as mercenaries in Byzantine armies.

Leo I of the Byzantine Empire (401–474, reigned 457–474).

After the fall of Attila, the true chief in Constantinople was the Alan general Aspar. Leo I managed to free himself from the influence of the barbarian chief by supporting the rise of the Isaurians, a semi- barbarian tribe living in southern Anatolia. Aspar and his son Ardabur were murdered in a riot in 471, and henceforth, Constantinople was freed from the influence of barbarian leaders for centuries.

Leo was also the first emperor to receive the crown not from a military leader, as was the Roman tradition, but from the Patriarch of Constantinople, representing the ecclesiastical hierarchy. This change became permanent, and in the Middle Ages the religious characteristic of the coronation completely supplanted the old military form. In 468, Leo unsuccessfully attempted to reconquer North Africa from the Vandals. By that time, the Western Roman Empire was restricted to Italy and the lands south of the Danube as far as the Balkans (Britain had been abandoned and was slowly being conquered by the Angles and Saxons, Spain had been overrun by the Visigoths and Suebi, the Vandals had taken Africa, and Gaul was contested by the Franks, Burgundians, Bretons, Visigoths and some Roman remnants).

In 466, as a condition of his Isaurian alliance, Leo married his daughter Ariadne to the Isaurian Tarasicodissa, who took the name Zeno. When Leo died in 474, Zeno and Ariadne's younger son succeeded to the throne as Leo II, with Zeno acting as regent. When Leo II died later that year, Zeno became emperor. The end of the Western Empire is sometimes dated to 476, early in Zeno's reign, when the barbarian general Odoacer deposed the titular Western Emperor Romulus Augustus, but declined to replace him with another puppet.

To recover Italy, Zeno could only negotiate with the Ostrogoths of Theodoric, who had settled in Moesia. He sent the barbarian king to Italy as magister militum per Italiam ("commander in chief for Italy"). After the fall of Odoacer in 493, Theodoric, who had lived in Constantinople during his youth, ruled Italy on his own, maintaining a merely formal obedience to Zeno. He was the most powerful Germanic king of that age, but his successors were greatly inferior and their Italian kingdom started to decline in the 530s.

In 475, Zeno was deposed by Basiliscus, the general who led Leo I's 468 invasion of North Africa, but he recovered the throne twenty months later. However, he faced a new threat from another Isaurian, Leontius, who was also elected rival emperor. Isaurian prominence ended when an aged civil officer of Roman origin, Anastasius I, became emperor in 491 and after a long war defeated them in 498. Anastasius revealed himself to be an energetic reformer and an able administrator. He perfected Constantine I's coinage system by definitively setting the weight of the copper follis, the coin used in most everyday transactions. He also reformed the tax system, and permanently abolished the hated chrysargyron tax. The State Treasury contained the enormous sum of 320,000 pounds of gold when he died. In 476, Basiliscus was imprisoned and left to die in a cistern by Zeno who retook his throne.

Eastern Roman military

Early Eastern Roman army

The Eastern Empire dates from the creation of the Tetrarchy ("Quadrumvirate") by the Emperor Diocletian in 293. His plans for succession did not outlive his lifetime, but his reorganization of the army did by centuries. Rather than maintain the traditional infantry-heavy legions, Diocletian reformed it into limitanei ("border") and comitatenses ("field") units. There was an expansion of the importance of the cavalry, though the infantry still remained the major component of the Roman armies, in contrary to common belief. For example, in 478, an Eastern field army consisted of 8,000 cavalry and 30,000 infantry and it can be calculated that in 357 Emperor Julian had 10,000 infantry and 3,000 cavalry at Strasbourg. But the importance of cavalry for the commanding officers, though not the numbers, did increase, and by the time of Justinian, the numbers had increased, too.

The limitanei units were to occupy the limes, the Roman border fortifications. The field units, by contrast, were to stay well behind the border and move quickly where they were needed, whether for offensive or defensive roles, as well as forming an army against usurpers. The field units were held to high standards and took precedence over Limitanei in pay and provisions.

Cavalry formed about 1/3 of the units, but as a result of smaller units, about 1/4 of the Roman armies consisted of cavalry. About half the cavalry consisted of heavy cavalry, wearing varying names: scutarii, promoti and stablesiani to name some. They were basically armed with spear or lance and sword and armored in mail. Some had bows, but they were meant for supporting the charge instead of independent skirmishing. In the field armies there was a component of some 15% of cataphracti or clibanarii, heavily armoured cavalry who used shock tactics. There were also horse archers (Equites Sagitarii) and several sorts of light cavalry. The light cavalry featured high amongst the limitanei, being very useful troops on patrol. The infantry of the comitatenses was organized in regiments (inconsequently named legio, auxilia or just numerus) of about 1,200 men. They were still the heavy infantry of old, with a spear, sword, body armour and a helmet. But now each regiment was supported by a detachmment of archers and some skirmishers. But if needed, the infantry could lay off (some of) their armour to act in a more flexible way as Modares did (according to Zosimus) during the Gothic War of the 370s. The regiments were commanded by a tribunus ("tribune") and brigaded in pairs (cavalry units did, too) under a comes. These brigades probably were tactical and strategic units only, as no traces survive of brigade staff corps.

On the other hand, little is known of the liminatei. The old legions, cohorts and cavalry alae survived there, and newer units were created (the new legions, or auxilia and vexillationes, amongst the cavalry. Possibly the limitanei infantry was lighter-equipped than the comitatenses infantry, but again, there is no evidence whatsoever. They were paid less than the field troops and recruited locally. Consequently, they were of inferior quality. However, they were in the line of fire. They countered most incursions and raids. Thus, it can be assumed they did have superior field experience (except in periods of long campaigning for the comitatenses), though that experience did not extend to large battles and sieges.

Scholae units, which were more properly known as the Schola Protectores Domestici and the "Protective Association of the Royal Escort" (also called the Obsequium), were the personal guard of the Emperor, and were created to replace the Praetorian Guard disbanded by Constantine I.

The legions in the third and fourth century were not the legions of the Republic or earlier Roman empire, that they consisted largely or solely of equites troops, and that they tended to be far short of the Augustinian legion component of 5,000 men.

Late Eastern Roman army

During the fifth century CE the Germanic Foederati became the military force of real importance in the west and eventually bringing about the Fall of Rome. But in the Eastern Empire the emperors Leo I and later Zeno managed to avoid Germanic dominance of the army by recruiting large numbers of soldiers from Anatolia. It was this development which assured the survival of the east against the threat of the Germanic foederati warbands. The east gradually developed its cavalry into a force of horse archers, much like that of the Persians, with their foederati German heavy cavalry fighting with lance and sword. Together these two forms of cavalry proved superior to the Germanic cavalry which didn't use the bow at all.

Procopius describes the eastern horse archer as wearing a helmet, chest and backplate and greaves as armour, being armed with a bow, a sword and, in most cases, also with a lance. Also they had a small shield slung on their left shoulder. These horse archers were well-trained troops, good riders and capable of firing their bow while galloping at full speed. What also added to the effectiveness of cavalry was that somewhere in the fifth century, the exact origin is unclear, the stirrup began to be introduced.

Another development of the day was that the individual native Roman units were becoming organised along the lines of the barbarian federates. If the foederati operated in a unit called a comitatus then this meant that they were a war band attached to the command of a chief by personal loyalty. This system now became apparent with the native Roman troops, largely due to the system which allowed distinguished officers to raise their own troops for the imperial service.

The most prestigious of such troops raised by high ranking officers were the oath-bound bodyguards, the buccellarii, who were not part of the army at all. Far more they were seen as a general's personal bodyguard. The famous commander Belisarius surrounded himself with a large number of such buccellarii. If Belisarius used his army as described largely above, with light infantry/archers, heavy cavalry and horse archers, then his successor Narses added another option to this array. In several battles he ordered his heavy cavalrymen to dismount and use their lances in a phalanx against cavalry, creating a form of armoured pikeman. This method appeared very effective, though it is doubtful if Narses did not deploy this tactic to prevent his heavy cavalrymen, whom he deeply distrusted, from fleeing the battlefield, rather than seeking to create a new form of soldiers.

Eastern Roman navy

In 330 both main fleets were stationed in Constantinople. The navy stationed in the Eastern Empire became the cadre for the Byzantine Empire. Under the rule of Justinian I triremes were still in use, although mainly dromons were employed, Constantinople was itself protected by a fleet of liburnians.

The Eastern navy, was a continuation of the earlier Old Roman Empire model. In 323 CE the Emperor Constantine defeated a fleet of 350 triremes of the Eastern Emperor Licinius with a fleet of 200 liburnians, which were smaller and lighter than Roman triremes. In the early period its organizational structure and technology was similar to that of the Roman Navy. While the Vandal kingdom of Carthage lasted (428-534), the eastern emperors were compelled to attend to their fleet. However, the new threat came from the Arabs. Prompted by early Byzantine naval actions, the Arabs eventually built up a massive fleet and conquered many of the large Mediterranean islands.

Eastern emperors

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