The Roman Empire and its history has captured the imagination of Western society and has left a legacy in Western art, literature, politics, culture, morals, and much more. Even in popular culture the influence of Rome can be felt — many people who dress up in costumes on Halloween, for example, will wear the Roman toga. Few Westerners, however, are aware of the influence of the Byzantine Empire that preserved the best of Roman society during the medieval period.
Historians designate the Eastern half of the Roman Empire that continued on after the fall of Rome in 461 AD as the Byzantine Empire. The empire gets its name from the Greek colony Byzantium that was later converted to Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire. Nevertheless, the Byzantine Empire was not a self-designation; it considered itself the Roman Empire and the people called themselves Romans until the fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottomans in 1453 AD. Today Constantinople goes by the name Istanbul, a testimony to the Byzantine Empire's ongoing conflicts with the various Islamic empires throughout most of its history.
Like other empires, a succession of emperors governed the Byzantine Empire. The most famous of all of these rulers was Justinian the Great who ruled from 527–565 AD. Justinian streamlined Roman law, which had become very complicated just prior to his reign, and he was an active player in Christian theological controversies for much of his reign. His wars of conquest and reconquest cost the empire dearly, and in some ways they prefigured the later weaknesses of the empire.
Besides the wars with the Muslims, the Byzantine Empire also suffered greatly at the hands of the Crusaders from the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries. Today, many people exalt the Western knights and are even willing to dress in medieval costumes that mimic a knight’s armor. Yet many of these knights ravaged the Byzantine Empire on their way to Jerusalem, leaving a tarnished legacy. These crusades weakened the empire and made it ripe for later conquest at the hand of the Ottoman Empire.
Yet when Western Europe suffered through the dark ages, the Byzantine Empire preserved a thriving artistic, economic, and intellectual culture. Byzantine gold was valued throughout the world and the coinage of the empire would become a model for later European money. A thriving silk trade with Persia allowed for knowledge to be exchanged between two cultures. Monks preserved Greek texts and produced beautiful icons for use in worship in what would become the Greek Orthodox Church. The Empire sent missionaries into Russia and Eastern Europe, establishing the Orthodox Church there and leaving a permanent religious legacy.
Further study of the history of the Byzantine Empire is highly recommended for anyone who would like to have a greater understanding of this influential civilization and its impact on world history. Resources for study abound and no one has to go too far today in order to find quality sources for research at both the popular and scholarly level.