Basil defeats and annexes the Bulgarian Empire
Despite Bulgaria’s conversion to Orthodox Christianity, Byzantium and Bulgaria remain at loggerheads - Byzantium never quite managing to gain a decisive advantage over its nearest and potentially most dangerous enemy.
For much of his reign Basil had waged war against the Bulgars, who are led by Samuel - their brave and capable Tsar. Basil intends primarily not to destroy the Bulgarian empire, but instead to reduce the Bulgars to client status, dependent upon Byzantine favour. However the final collapse of Bulgarian resistance presents the Byzantines with an opportunity too good to miss.
Bulgaria is formally absorbed into the Byzantine Empire, but is allowed to retain a degree of self-determination.
Death of Basil II
Basil’s death marks the high tide of Byzantium’s status as a medieval superpower - the strongest and wealthiest state in all of Europe and the Middle East. Despite the annexation of Bulgaria, and other territorial advances in Georgia and Armenia, Basil did not seek conquest for its own sake. Instead he attempted to secure the Empire’s existing borders by exhaustion and defeat of its enemies.
Basil commits one cardinal error by failing to properly provide for his succession. He dies unmarried, survived only by his ineffectual brother Constantine, and Constantine's daughters, Zoë and Theodora.
1025 to 1081
Political instability and military defeat
The eleventh century marks a period of great cultural brilliance for Byzantium, which tends to obscure a disturbing deterioration in the Empire’s political and military affairs.
The Byzantine government goes into free-fall as a series of alternately incompetent or unlucky rulers follow each other in quick succession.
The Great Schism
The Orthodox Patriarch and representatives of the Pope are drawn into a bitter argument over various aspects of religious doctrine and church protocol. The dispute has more to do with the combative arrogance of leaders on both sides than any substantive argument, but ends with mutual excommunication of the Patriarch, on the one hand, and the Papal representatives on the other.
The schism permanently sours relations between eastern and western churches.
Battle of Manzikert and the fall of Bari
The deteriorating situation is brought to a head by two military disasters at opposite ends of the Empire. In Italy, the key Byzantine stronghold of Bari falls to the Normans. A more telling blow falls near the town of Manzikert, in the Armenian borderlands, when the Seljuk Turks rout a Byzantine army under the Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes.
The Seljuk Turks, originating in Central Asia, have made themselves masters of Baghdad and established a protectorate over the Abbasid Caliphate. Their victory over the Byzantines is a stunning blow for the Empire, but one from which recovery should have been possible. Unfortunately the Byzantine political scene is thrown into further disarray by the defeat and there is no effective response to further Seljuk incursions into Byzantine territory.
Over the next ten years virtually all of Asia Minor is lost to the Seljuks, who establish a capital for their new Sultanate of Rum (Turkish for "Rome") at Nicaea.
Alexios I Komnenos is crowned emperor
Alexios is the first truly effective Byzantine leader since Basil II, but he inherits a dreadful situation. The first years of his reign are marked by improvised and not always successful attempts to deal with the Normans of South Italy, who are as much a threat to the Empire in the West as the Seljuks are in the East. Alexios also has to deal with Pecheneg raiders on the Empire’s north-western frontier and with internal plots against his rule.
Alexios is finally able to defeat the Norman invasion of Greece, and scores a decisive victory against the Pechenegs. By the early 1090s his position is secure and the Empire’s precarious position has been stabilised. Asia Minor, though, is still under Turkish control.
The First Crusade is launched
Alexios still lacks the necessary military resources to attempt a reconquest of Asia Minor. He puts out diplomatic feelers to the Pope, Urban II - perhaps a strong mercenary force could be arranged to help free the eastern Christians ?
The original Byzantine request is interpreted by the Pope as a call for a full-blown holy war. At the Council of Clermont, Urban extends the Crusade’s objectives to capture of Jerusalem from the Muslims.
After a false start sometimes known as the "People’s Crusade", the crusading armies proper arrive before Constantinople in late 1096 and early 1097.
Alexios is horrified - the vast crusading army, made up of powerful western noblemen and their retinues, is hostile to the Byzantines and more of a potential threat than help to the empire. Worst of all, the crusading army includes a contingent of Normans - Alexios’s archenemies.
Alexios uses all of his diplomatic skill, and his small but efficient army, to flatter and cajole the crusaders into swearing an oath of allegiance to him. They are safely ferried across the Bosphoros and away from Constantinople.
The Crusaders capture Jerusalem
Against all sensible expectations the Crusaders reach their ultimate objective, Jerusalem, and take it amidst scenes of horrific bloodshed.
As a by-product, the crusade assists Byzantine recovery of the western coastlands of Asia Minor. Overall though, the crusaders represent a dangerous and unstable addition to the politics of the eastern Mediterranean.
Reigns of John II and Manuel I Komnenos
Alexios is succeeded first by his son John, who reigns for 25 years, and then his grandson Manuel, who rules for 37 years.
Byzantium during this period seems as powerful and as wealthy as ever - but during Manuel’s reign there are ample warning signs of trouble to come.
Timeline: Decline and Fall (13th to 15th Centuries)
The Fourth Crusade
The end of the Komnenian dynasty signals a new period of weak and finally incompetent rule.
A disinherited Byzantine prince involves a crusading army in Byzantine politics with disastrous results. The crusaders were originally bound for Egypt. Encouraged by the Venetians, who by now are a significant maritime and economic power, the crusaders instead attack and partially destroy Constantinople - the greatest city in Christendom.
For the first time in almost eight hundred years the walls of Constantinople yield to an attacking army. Committed by one group of Christians against another, the so-called "Fourth Crusade" ranks as one of the most shameful episodes in all of European history.
For the next sixty years Constantinople languishes under Latin rule.
1261 to 1282
Byzantine recovery of Constantinople and reign of the Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos
Although the heart of Empire was torn out by the capture of Constantinople, the Byzantines themselves show a considerable amount of resilience. Three major "successor states" are set up by Byzantines within the borders of the old Empire. The strongest of the successor states is the so-called Empire of Nicaea. In 1261 the Nicaean Emperor, Michael VIII Palaiologos, succeeds in recapturing Constantinople from the Latins.
Michael’s brilliance as soldier and diplomat restores the Empire to some of its former glory, but he remains an ambivalent figure in Byzantine history - he had murdered his way to the top but had committed a still greater crime in the eyes of his subjects. In the interests of securing some form of western alliance, Michael had attempted forced union of the Catholic and Orthodox churches. Church union is unthinkable to most ordinary Byzantines - their attitude towards the west permanently embittered by the Fourth Crusade.
Ottoman Turks capture Nicaea
The weakened Empire is unable to hold on to its provinces in Asia Minor. Osman, a Turkish Emir with his power base in northwestern Asia Minor, enhances his power at the expense both of his Turkish neighbours and the Byzantines. His emerging state, named after him, is known as the Ottoman Emirate.
The Ottomans take Nicaea after an unsuccessful Byzantine relief expedition. Little of Asia Minor is left in Byzantine hands.
1341 to 1391
Civil War, Plague, political and military collapse
Byzantium’s position is exacerbated by a protracted civil war, fought out between aristocratic factions and partisans of the Palaiologos family. Superimposed upon civil war is the Black Death, which hits Constantinople in the spring of 1347.
Shorn of virtually all of its territory Byzantium is a virtual dependency of the Ottoman Turks, who now surround Constantinople from Europe and Asia.
1397 to 1402
First Turkish siege of Constantinople
The siege is finally lifted as an incidental effect of the Battle of Ankara - a terrible Ottoman defeat at the hands of Timur-Lenk (Tamburlane) and his army of Mongols and Tartars.
Manuel II Palaiologos undertakes a tour of western Europe (as far afield as Britain) in the hope of stirring up support for what remains of his empire. Western Europe is becoming more aware of its Greek heritage and Manuel encounters much sympathy and expressions of goodwill - unfortunately these do not extend to much in the way of concrete assistance.
Second Turkish siege of Constantinople
The second Turkish attack upon Constantinople, this time led by the Ottoman Sultan Murad II, is a shorter and much fiercer affair than its predecessor. Nevertheless, the Byzantines put up a determined resistance and the Turks eventually lift the siege - partially, also, as a result of clandestine Byzantine interference in Ottoman politics.
The fall of Constantinople
The young Ottoman Sultan, Mehmet II, decides upon the final elimination of the Byzantine "Empire" - which is now effectively reduced to Constantinople itself and the Despotate (Province) of Morea in the Peloponnese.
Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos is the last Byzantine Emperor, strictly speaking the last Roman Emperor, in an unbroken political tradition stretching back to Augustus, almost 1,500 years earlier.
Constantine had been proclaimed Emperor at Mistra (capital of the Despotate of Morea) in 1449 and had precious little time to prepare for the Turkish assault. For the defence of Constantinople he has a small army of just over 8,000 men - 3,000 of them foreigners, including, ironically enough, contingents from Genoa and Venice, the two great Italian maritime cities who had done a considerable amount of damage to the Empire over the previous three centuries.
The defenders, outnumbered at least 10 to 1 by Mehmet’s army, put up an extraordinarily brave and effective defence - differences between Latin and Greek are forgotten in the last few desperate days of the Empire.
Finally, in the early hours of Tuesday, 29 May 1453, the Turks launch wave after wave of attackers against Constantinople’s land walls. Turkish soldiers force their way in through a small gate and organised Byzantine resistance finally collapses. Constantine and most of his Byzantine soldiers die fighting along and around the walls. The aftermath of the City's fall is rivalled only by that of the Fourth Crusade.
Mehmet, who is later to make Constantinople the capital of his own great empire, is a dynamic and ruthless 21-year-old. After touring the City’s ruined Great Palace, he is moved to speak a few lines by a Persian poet:
"The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars;
The owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab ...."