The History of the Byzantine Empire (or East Roman Empire): An Animated Timeline Covering 1,100 Years of History

The his­to­ry of Rome is, more or less, the his­to­ry of the mod­ern world. But the Roman world seemed to shrink dur­ing the Neo­clas­si­cal peri­od, an Enlight­en­ment-era move­ment to puri­fy the arts. Where Rome once encom­passed a glob­al empire, it began to inhab­it a nar­row range of ideas, imposed by human­ist schol­ars, French Jacobins, bour­geois rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies in the North Amer­i­can colonies, and the courts of Louis XVI, George III, and Napoleon. Neo­clas­si­cal art was an ennobling arti­fice in a time when Euro­pean empires were swal­low­ing up the globe. (It was lat­er the favored style of Mus­soli­ni and, more recent­ly, Don­ald Trump.) Aca­d­e­mics and states­men rede­fined the cul­tur­al bound­aries of ancient Rome to suit the agen­das of their age.

Elites of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th and 17th cen­tu­ry, for exam­ple, believed there was no sep­a­ra­tion between them­selves and ancient Rome. They called them­selves Rūmī, Romans, inher­i­tors of the Empire. West­ern Euro­peans, how­ev­er, exclu­sive­ly used the terms Ottomans or Turks, in rhetoric designed to evoke fears of dan­ger­ous, threat­en­ing oth­ers. Sim­i­lar­ly, the East­ern, or Byzan­tine, Empire, ruled from Con­stan­tino­ple by Con­stan­tine and his suc­ces­sors, nev­er thought of itself as any­thing oth­er than Roman, and cer­tain­ly not as “Byzan­tine,” a word that comes from the city’s ancient name, Byzan­tium.

As the poster of the video above writes, “the empire this video is about was nei­ther called ‘Byzan­tine’ nor ‘East­ern Roman,’ but sim­ply ‘Roman/Romaioi’ but its con­tem­po­raries. ‘Byzan­tine empire’ is a made up term that appeared in the course of the 16th cen­tu­ry.” Orig­i­nal­ly meant to sug­gest the Greek influ­ence on the late Roman Empire, the word became a way of brack­et­ing off the late empire as strange and exot­ic. Then it became a pejo­ra­tive adjec­tive mean­ing “exces­sive­ly com­pli­cat­ed.” Not coin­ci­den­tal­ly, this also hap­pened to be the opin­ion of the Neo­clas­si­cists when it came to the late Roman Empire. Neo­clas­si­cal ideals empha­sized order, per­fec­tion, sim­plic­i­ty, virtue, ratio­nal­i­ty, all qual­i­ties retroac­tive­ly applied to the Rome of antiq­ui­ty, but not to the “East­ern” Empire.

Like many a term of abuse, both the Ottoman Empire and Byzan­tine Empire were reclaimed by nation­al­ists who had no desire to iden­ti­fy with ancient Rome. Dur­ing the Crimean War, Greek nation­al­ists embraced the Byzan­tine Empire as a his­tor­i­cal real­i­ty and a vision of a future restora­tion once Istan­bul had been reclaimed. The inhab­i­tants of Con­stan­tino­ple and many of the ter­ri­to­ries under its sway dur­ing the peri­od cov­ered by the ani­mat­ed time­line above, how­ev­er, just called them­selves Romans. “Indeed, the ‘Byzan­tine’ sov­er­eigns,” the video notes, “nev­er ceased to con­sid­er them­selves as the legit­i­mate suc­ces­sors of the Roman empire which had been divid­ed in 395 and whose West­ern part had fall­en in 476.”

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

An Ani­mat­ed His­to­ry of the Ottoman Empire (1299 – 1922)

How the Byzan­tine Empire Rose, Fell, and Cre­at­ed the Glo­ri­ous Hagia Sophia: A His­to­ry in Ten Ani­mat­ed Min­utes

A Vir­tu­al Tour of Ancient Rome, Cir­ca 320 CE: Explore Stun­ning Recre­ations of The Forum, Colos­se­um and Oth­er Mon­u­ments

What Did the Roman Emper­ors Look Like?: See Pho­to­re­al­is­tic Por­traits Cre­at­ed with Machine Learn­ing

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Nina Newton says:

    Inter­est­ing arti­cle! Weari­some, how­ev­er, when every­thing, old and new, con­tin­ues to some­how bring Don­ald Trump into the con­ver­sa­tion. Appre­ci­at­ed the per­spec­tive on the East­ern and West­ern Empires self-under­stand­ing. Thanks!

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