To the people living there, this was the Roman Empire or in Medieval Greek Βασιλεία Ῥωμαίων (Basileía Rhōmaíōn) "Roman Empire". The short form of the name was simply Ῥωμανία (Rhōmanía - not to be confused with that Romania, although its territory was included in the empire); its inhabitants were "Rhōmaíōi", or Romans. It was largely Greek speaking while the parts of the Empire West of the Adriatic were largely Latin speaking. The name "Byzantine" as we know today was coined, posthumously, by a German historian named Hieronymus Wolf in 1557, after the capital Byzantium, later Constantinople. The empire/kingdom called itself Roman to the very end. The phrase Byzantine Empire remains in use largely because of Pop-Cultural Osmosis but on account of modern revival of interest in this era, it is often used with qualifications and sometimes in alteration with the newer and more accurate Eastern Roman Empire. note
The area of land that comprised the Empire (the territory of classical Greece, such as the Peloponnesian Peninsula, Macedonia, the many islands, the Balkans, Asia Minor, including the Dardanelles and Anatolia, and extending into the Levant) had been part of the hegemony of Alexander the Great and the successor kingdoms formed by his generals (called the Diadochi). Greece was conquered by The Roman Republic in 146 BC, with the remaining Diadochi kingdoms and Hellenic colonies becoming clients and tributary Kingdoms, before eventually becoming entire provinces. The last of the Diadochi fell in the Battle of Actium when Cleopatra VII Philopator, last of the Ptolemaics, committed suicide and Hellenic Egypt became a Roman Province. Hellenic civilization (the Greek language, its philosophies, and classics) had spread as a result of Alexander's conquests and became part of the ground reality even when the Romans took over, forcing the Romans to become partly Hellenized, as per Horace's famous quipnote . After all, the oldest manuscript of the New Testament is in Athenian Greek. Even when The Roman Empire was at its most unified and stable, it gradually became very difficult to govern two drastically different parts of the Empire: the Greek/Hellenic part of the Empire was far more stable and far wealthier than the Western half. The latter gradually decayed during the Crisis of the Third Century, and sacks by the Huns and the breakdown in relations between the capital and its Germanic mercenary tribesmen eventually caused the Latin-speaking Western Empire to fall and break apart, while the Eastern Roman Empire endured and remained active throughout The Middle Ages, becoming the major superpower of the Continent until late in The Crusades.
The Empire itself became more and more Greek or Hellenic, overtaking Latin as the administrative language in the 7th century. Orthodox Christianity was the state religion, and high Romano-Hellenistic traditions of science and literature continued unbroken, though with a Christian overtone. The transition between what we know as classical Rome and medieval Byzantium was a very long and gradual one, so any "founding" date of the Byzantine Empire is completely artificial. There are two dates frequently used by modern historians to separate the "Roman" from the "Byzantine" periods: 324, the year Emperor Constantine I moved his capital to "New Rome" (Constantinople), and 395, when the Roman Empire was formally divided into Western and Eastern halves. Inheriting Roman military philosophy and discipline, Byzantium maintained, at least initially, a highly effective army based on heavy cavalry and professional infantry, and it was the undisputed naval power of Mediterranean Europe in The Low Middle Ages, with its infamous "Greek Fire", whose chemical components are still unknown today. Their naval supremacy was challenged by the Arabs, then on a more concerted basis during The Viking Age by the Rus, Vikings who came down the Volga and through the Black Sea, as well as by their Norman successors who set up shop in Sicily.
Some notable lines of rulers are: the Justinianic dynasty, which saw the largest extent of Roman territory after the fall of the West, the Macedonian dynasty, boasting some of the most capable warrior-emperors, including Basileios (Basil) II the "Bulgar Slayer", the Komnenoi, with Alexios I Komnenos, Ioannes II Komnenos, and Manuel I Kommenos, and finally the Palaiologoi, which restored the kingdom from the mess caused by the Crusaders and defiantly carried on until The Fall of Constantinople. Men didn't have all the fun to themselves, either: there were powerful female figures like Theodora and Irene of Athens. Political rivals had a curious tradition of mutilating their opponent's faces note . While this may seem cruel, it was actually considered a more humane replacement for executing people. Executing them wouldn't give them a chance to repent of what they had done; mutilation, on the other hand, allowed them to live on (often in a monastery) so they had time to repent and still get to heaven.
The Eastern Romans made many plans to re-establish the full territorial Roman Empire, with Justinian coming the closest to doing so, retaking North Africa, Italy, some of what is now southern France, and parts of Spain - commanding the services of the legendary general Flavius Belisarius helped. However, the lengthy wars needed to accomplish this were devastating in Italy and Rome itself, greatly depopulating the city until the Early Modern Era. A terrible plague, the so-called 'Plague of Justinian', the ultimate cause of which is still up for debate (it was probably bubonic plague, but there are also strong arguments that it might have been something else) put an end to that dream, and the greater threat to the East in the form of the Sassanid Empire led the Eastern Romans to play their main geopolitical role as the gatekeepers of Europe, especially after the birth of Islam and the Arab Empires which largely took over the Hellenic-Roman provinces in the Levant and North Africa and established a kingdom in Moorish Spain, but who were constantly repelled from taking over Constantinople. The Empire often saw itself as a cork stopping Islam from spreading into Europe, which, from the late 11th century onwards, periodically convinced their Western European neighbors to help them, even if neither side - with rare exceptions - liked the other very much. However, the 'Latins' did like their wealth and riches, of course. While each ruler of the Empire naturally bestowed on himself the title of Roman Emperor, this was never recognized as legitimate by their neighbors. The Roman Catholic Church saw itself as the true Spiritual Successor of the Roman Empire, and its Pope greatly increased its power and authority by granting legitimacy to the many new Kings and rulers of Western Europe. The most notable example is Charlemagne who was crowned Emperor, and whose kingdom was called Holy Roman Empire in the year 800. The Pope insisted on calling the ruler of Constantinople Imperator Romaniæ ("Emperor of Romania") and later that became ''Imperator Graecorum'' (Emperor of the Greeks) and ''Imperium Graecorum'', ''Graecia'', ''Terra Graecorum'' or even Imperium Constantinopolitanum. These terms de-legitimized the Eastern Romans in the Catholic Lands, which was annoying to the Romans but which they shrugged off, because they had more than enough on their plate in the East with new Kingdoms and threats, as well as many other clients who they had their hands full in balancing each other against them.
The loss of the Western Empire made the Eastern Romans permanently threatened by a multi-front war, but they endured thanks to a strategically important and defensible capital city, and control of the crucial waterways. Its remarkable resilience and repeated habit of coming back from the apparent point of no return never quite changed that essential geopolitical problem that bottled them, as much as they bottled the Arabs and the Persians from coming in West. These problems led to The Crusades, where loss of territory to the Seljuq Turks in the late 11th century (contrary to popular belief, the defeat at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 wasn't a crippling blow, just horrendously embarrassing), coupled with activities by Norman Kingdoms settled in Italy led by Robert Guiscard, who made several concerted attempts to take over the Empire, led them to turn to the Pope for help in dealing with problems east and west of them. The Pope of the time, Urban II, had his own issues with the Normans and the Franks, and was part of the Reform Papacy that was very interested in expanding Papal authority into the secular sphere, and was thus eager to send the latter to "Holy War" in a series of expeditions in the already divided Shia and Turkic kingdoms in the Middle East. Thus the Crusades. This strategy worked for a time, but fatally backfired on them in the Fourth Crusade. This led to the first and most damaging sack of the city, a body blow which led to a 57-year 'Latin Empire' and the fragmentation of the rest of the Empire, and despite a spirited comeback by the Palaiologoi, it was a blow that the Empire never recovered from. Constantinople was so badly damaged by the Fourth Crusade that it would not quite recover in population and infrastructure until after the Ottomans captured it. The famous Horses of Saint Mark, a triumphal quadriga, were taken by the Venetians (alongside many other artifacts) and placed in pride of place in Saint Mark's Squarenote . The final end of the Empire played a key part in the spread of the Italian Renaissance. Scholars and craftsmen fled the shrinking kingdom in the 15th century, bringing their ideas into Florence and other city-states. Likewise, the end of the main port and pathway for trade to the East led the other Catholic Kingdoms to seek new trade routes, leading to the Age of Discovery.
Speaking of succession, you might ask what has become of the Byzantine/Roman identity. Well, Greek people nowadays still consider Byzantium to be the medieval incarnation of Greece, some even go as far as demanding Istanbul, nay, Constantinople, even Asia Minor back from Turkey. The last attempt to actually force the issue in the immediate aftermath of World War I went badly for Greece. For a while, Russians saw themselves as the spiritual successors of Constantinople too, what with being Orthodox and all (and the czars being descended from the niece of the last Byzantine Emperor), would call Russia's Moscow The "Third Rome" and adopt many Byzantine symbols such as the double-headed eagle. The Russians also point out that their Cyrillic Alphabet was invented by Orthodox Bishops in service of the Eastern Roman Empire. Certainly, they spent the next 450 years trying to conquer Constantinople, making the last real attempt in 1913. On the other hand, the Ottomans in their early years, starting from Fatih Mehmed (Mehmed The Conqueror) called themselves Kayser-I-Rum (Emperor of Rome) and presented themselves as the true inheritors of Byzantium, and their Western invasions were driven by their aim to complete Justinian's dream of reconquering Rome, and Mehmed at least was descended from a Byzantine Princess. Geopolitically, the Ottomans replaced the Byzantines as the Great Power of the Mediterranean, the Balkans and the Middle East, defeating the Venetian Republic that had crippled their predecessors in the Fourth Crusade while also continuing the Eastern Roman Empire's role as the slave power in the Mediterranean. Likewise, in its early years, the Ottoman Empire even had the support from some Orthodox Churches who saw them as an improvement on the Latins (something helped by Mehmed's ample and evident respect for Orthodox Christianity and an attitude among his successors that was generally summed up as 'worship however you damn well like, follow whichever of your own laws you like, we don't care as long as you pay your damn taxes'), and many Greeks, converted or enslaved under the devsirme served as Janissaries (who ended up basically running the Empire). This argument is contentious in both Turkey and Greece for obvious reasons, and the two countries have a somewhat tetchy relationship to this day - disputes over Cyprus don't help.
In either case, the Byzantine Empire straddled several cultures and peoples across Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean Sea, and despite seemingly gone forever off the map, it made a huge mark on the history of the world.
Leo I the Thracian (457 - 474)
A Roman general, he was placed on the throne as a puppet emperor but quickly proved to be more than capable of ruling in his own right. His reign was primarily focused on aiding the faltering Western Roman Empire. His attempted reconquest of Africa was a major fiasco however, and he was soon forced to focus on his own part of the empire which was being ravaged by the Ostrogoths. He died of dysentery and was succeeeded by his six year old grandson (Leo II) who would follow him into the grave in less than a year.
Zeno (474 - 475, 476 - 491)
Son-in-law of Leo I and father of Leo II, he was appointed regent over the latter before he died under mysterious circumstances after which he became the next emperor. He was deposed in 475 by Basiliscus (Leo I's brother-in-law and former commander of the disastrous attempted reconquest of Africa) who proved to be an ineffectual ruler and Zeno regained his throne the next year. He spent the rest of his reign fighting civil wars whilst also dealing with religious dissension, this meant that he could do nothing about the Western Roman Empire, which ceased to exist during his reign. He managed to hold on to power, just barely, for over a decade before dying of dysentery.
Justinian (527 - 565)
Emperor in Constantinople, born in Thrace to a fairly low ranking family, he emerged as the power behind the throne during the reign of his uncle Justin I for about a decade before taking the throne himself. He reconquered much of what had been the western Empire, including all of North Africa, almost all of Italy, and significant chunks of Spain. Also known for compiling Roman law in the Corpus Juris Civilis which became the basis for law in civil law jurisdictions, employing the legendary general Belisarius who did most of the conquering and was the last Roman commander to be awarded a Triumph as a result, and Badass Bureaucrat Narses, who did most of the rest, building the splendid Hagia Sophia, dealing with epic scale chariot-racing hooliganism, and being married to cunning ex-"dancer" Theodora. Last Roman Emperor to natively speak Latin.
Maurice (582 - 602)Spent virtually his whole reign at war holding the empire together. He supported Khosrau II's claim to the Persian throne, leading to peace between the two empires upon Khosrau's accession, and the Empire receiving a hefty chunk of Armenia as a reward. He wrote the Big Book of War of his era, the Strategikon. All hell broke loose when he died.
Phocas (602 - 610)
A brilliant general, but arguably the worst emperor in the 1,480-year-long history of the Roman Empire, although he was the last emperor, East or West, to have a monument erected in his honor in the Roman Forum (by a political ally). Assassinated Emperor Maurice and his whole family, leading to Khosrau II declaring war in revenge (or at least, on the pretext of revenge). The Avars and Slavs also invaded the Balkans. He started a reign of terror in Constantinople, and was responsible for the rise of mutilation as a political tactic. When he died, the Empire was on the brink of collapse.
Changed the official language of the Empire to Greek. Married his niece. When much of the empire was being overrun by Persian forces, he led a heroic campaign to reconquer all of it in a sort of proto-Crusade (to the point where he has been dubbed 'the First Crusader'). He succeeded, only to see those same territories lost to the Muslim Arabs. His reign wasn't pointless, though. The territories lost to the Arabs were smaller than the losses to the Persians, who had overrun almost the entire empire, as opposed to the Arabs, who "only" took about half of it (and completely conquered Persia for good measure).
Konstantinos III (641)
Briefly succeeded his father, Heraclius, for four months before his death at the age of 28. His stepmother (and cousin) Martina was accused of murdering him; both she and her son Heraklonas were mutilated and exiled. Konstantinos III's eleven-year-old son Constans succeeded him as emperor.
Constans II (641-668)
An unpopular emperor, who was unsuccessful in war against the Arabs and had to pay off the caliph to stop him from advancing further into Byzantine territory. During his reign, Egypt was lost to the empire forever. He is best known for being the first emperor to visit Rome in 200 years, and for stripping the city of its gold and jewels (including from the Pantheon) and hauling the riches back to Constantinople. Supposedly, he was so hated by the citizenry that he eventually abandoned Constantinople for Syracuse (his actual motives are debated). A servant assassinated him in his bath by bashing his head in with a soap box.
Konstantinos IV (668-685)
Ruled jointly with his brothers Heraklios and Tiberios before having their noses cut off and depriving them of their imperial titles. Defeated the Arabs in the First Siege of Constantinople, which saw the first use of Greek Fire He died aged thirty-three, leaving the throne to his son, Justinian II.
Justinian II (685-695, 705-711)
His despotic rule led to him being ousted in a palace coup, mutilated, and exiled. He escaped to the Khazars (a nomadic tribe of Turkic-speaking Jews, although they weren't Jewish yet at the time), married their khan's sister, and when his brother-in-law agreed to assassinate him (having been bought off by the usurper emperor Tiberios III) Justinian strangled the would-be assassins with his own hands. He escaped the Khazars, vowed revenge on everyone who'd wronged him, and alongside his new allies, the Bulgars, returned to Constantinople in 705 and snuck in via an obscure aqueduct, thus regaining his throne. He captured the two men responsible for his deposition, Leontios and the aforementioned Tiberios, had them trussed and used them as foostools before executing them. He then turned on his former allies, plunged the empire into war, and was deposed and murdered. Has the honor of being a Badass Of The Week.
Leo III the Isaurian (717 - 741)
He stopped the Arabs at the walls of Constantinople in 717. An interesting fellow, who had lived at the eastern edge of the Empire and spoke Arabic, he became convinced that the reason for the Empire's recent defeats was divine punishment—specifically, the consistent disregard for the Second Commandment ("Thou shalt not make any graven image") in the form of icons (the Muslims hewed to this particular commandment very closely). Thus began the campaign of iconoclasm, or image-breaking, by forbidding the veneration of images. This led to instability throughout the Empire, and more significantly, induced the Pope in Rome to act more independently, eventually resulting in the Great Schism some 300 years later.
Irene (797 - 802)
Reigned 780-90 as a regent for her son, then on her own after she had him blinded after he displayed iconoclastic tendencies (she was a fervent iconodoulenote ). This gave The Pope an excuse to crown Charlemagne emperor, under the pretext that the Roman throne was vacant according to Heir Club for Men rules. From then on, the Holy Roman Empire was a rival to Byzantium.
Nikephoros I (802-811)
The Dog of Rome. An all-around disaster as emperor. Fought a war with Charlemagne, the new Augustus in the West, over Venice, which only ended in a stalemate after his death. Also attempted break off the Eastern Roman Empire's practice of paying the Abbasid Caliphate tribute, while also asserting that as the "superior civilisation", the Arabs should have been paying the Byzantines. Harun al-Rashid, Caliph at the time and one of the greatest military and political leaders of the age, promptly handed him his ass on a silver platter during the Abbasid Invasion of Asia Minor (806 AD), which ended with Nikephorus having to sign a peace treaty reaffirming what was essentially, the Byzantines' subservience to the Caliphate. Once peace was finally made with the Muslims, Nikephoros turned his eye on the Bulgars to the north, and brutally sacked the Bulgar capital of Pliska. When he and his troops finally left the city, they were ambushed and almost annihilated by a Bulgar army. He was so hated by now that both sides claim to have killed him. Whatever the truth, most sources agree that the Bulgar Khan Krum came into possession of Nikephoros' skull, which he coated in silver and used as a drinking cup.
Son of Nikephoros I. He barely managed to escape the battle in which his father died, though he did receive a nasty sword wound near his neck that paralyzed him. With his health rapidly fading he was convinced to abdicate in favour of his brother-in-law, Michael Rhangabe. He retired to a monastery where he died shortly after.
Mikhael I Rhangabe (811-813)
Son-in-law of Nikephoros I. Officially recognized Charlemagne as the Western Roman Emperor, who returned Venice to him out of gratitude. He continued to war against the Bulgars, however, and after initial successes they were routed at Versinikia. After this disaster he decided to abdicate the throne and retire to a monastery with his sons, eventually dying in 844. One of his sons eventually became the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Mikhael III (842-867)
Became emperor at the age of two. Supposedly a drunk and a wastrel (his reputation was rather tarnished by historians sucking up to his usurper and his usurper's successors), Mikhael and his special friend Basil conspired to murder Mikhael's uncle and regent, Bardas. Mikhael and Basil then lived in an odd foursome with Mikhael's sister Thekla and Basil's wife, Eudokia Ingerine (who was also Mikhael's mistress) until Basil grew jealous of another courtier's influence on Mikhael and had them both assassinated.
Basil I (867-886)
Called "The Macedonian" although he was, confusingly, of Armenian parentage (later chroniclers tried to claim that, among other things, he was descended from Alexander the Great and thus really royalty after all), Basil was a peasant whose fine physique and lack of scruples brought him to the attention of the Emperor Mikhael III. He assassinated Mikhael, took the throne, and despite these inauspicious beginnings, proved to be an able politician and lawmaker. He despised his second son, Leo, whom he imprisoned and very nearly had killed before Basil died in a "hunting accident", the only witness to which was the father of Leo's girlfriend (and later wife) Zoe.
Leo VI the Philosopher (886-912)
Best remembered today for his bizarre paternity, the scandal created by his four marriages, and his father's attempts to kill him. Leo's mother was the mistress of Emperor Mikhael III and the wife of Emperor Basil I, and it is still debated as to which of them fathered Leo (his own mother may not have known). His first three wives died without giving him a male heir, so Leo married his mistress after she gave birth to a son (the future Konstantinos VII), enraging church leaders who believed that successive marriages were illegal. Had a reputation as not only very wise, but also as something of a prophet and magician.
Konstantinos VII (913-959)
Son of Leo VI and nephew of the Emperor Alexander, and son-in-law of Romanos I, who only really took the throne from 944 onwards. Having spent his youth and a large chunk of his adulthood first under regencies, then under the thumb of Romanos I - who made no secret about his desire to have his oldest son Christopher succeed him - Konstantinos kept his head down, but bolstered his claim by referring to himself as "Konstantinos Porphyrogenitos" (Latinized as "Constantine Porphyrogenitus"), Porphyrogenitus meaning 'born in the purple' (specifically, a special room in the palace made of a kind of rare and expensive purple marble known as Porphyry). This was a key part of his ascension to the throne - though the fact that his brothers in law died shortly after Romanos did probably helped. This came to be a key means of elevating an Emperor's claim to the throne.
Konstantinos was a scholar, an artist, an author, and an exceptionally able diplomat and politician. During his reign the Empire prospered in what has come to be known as the "Macedonian Renaissance". One of his better known works is De Administrando Imperio - a foreign policy handbook for his son which can be more or less summed up as 'Foreigners and How to Manipulate Them'. Because it was meant only for imperial eyes, it's remarkably open about the Manipulative Bastard nature of Byzantine foreign policy, recommending different tactics for the different peoples the Byzantine's dealt with (in the process providing detailed ethnographic, historical, and contemporary political information), even including advice on how to respond if a foreign power asked to marry a Byzantine Prince or Princess (answer: unless they are a Frank, the answer is no, because Constantine I said so. If they bring up previous relaxations of that rule, i.e. by his father-in-law, say it was done by idiots who were not born in the purple and thus didn't understand the dignity of imperial office.).
Romanos II (959-963)
After the death of his first wife, Bertha of Italy, with the two being betrothed as children, Romanos supposedly got his father, the emperor Konstantinos VII, to promise that he would be allowed to choose his own second wife . Romanos fell in love with the beautiful daughter of an innkeeper and married her, much to his father's horror. She became known as Theophano. He died at the age of 25, leaving Theophano and three young children.
Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969)
A brilliant general, a terrible diplomat, and a worse politician who married the widowed empress Theophano shortly after the death of her husband, Romanos II. It was a marriage of convenience, however (Nikephoros wanted nothing more than to become a monk, but he was a brilliant general and Theophano needed an Emperor). Built a wall around the Great Palace in Constantinople. It didn't help. Theophano apparently began an affair with his nephew, Ioannes (John) Tzimiskes, and with her probable connivance, he assassinated Nikephoros and paraded his head around on a spike. On his coffin was carved: You conquered all but a woman.
Ioannes I Tzimiskes (969-976)
After assassinating his uncle Nikephoros, Ioannes exiled his lover (and Nikephoros' widow) Theophano at the insistence of the Patriarch, then married Theodora, a sister of the late emperor Romanos. A highly successful general in his own right, he died suddenly while returning home from campaigning against the Abbasid Empire. Legend has it that he was poisoned by a courtier. He was succeeded by Basil, son of Romanos II and Theophano.
Basil II 'the Bulgar-Slayer' (976 - 1025)
After some early wobbles, including several rebellions, one of which in 988 forced him to marry off his sister, Anna Porphyrogenita, to Vladimir the Great, ruler of the Kievan Rus (Vikings who founded Russia), which resulted in a Christianised Rus, a stable Empire, and the foundation of the Varangian Guard. After this, he demonstrated his grandfather's diplomatic and political abilities, combined with a whole new level of ruthlessness, leading to the conquest of Bulgaria which earned him his fearsome moniker - one story had him allegedly blinding 99 out of every 100 Bulgar captives after a major battle, which supposedly led the Bulgar king to die of shock. A hyper-competent general and administrator, he expanded the Empire to its greatest extent since the Arab invasions, making it the most powerful country in Europe and the Mediterranean during his reign; this period also brought great wealth, and some lists of history's wealthiest individuals put Basil at the very top (by any measure, he ranks very highly). Would quite possibly have been the greatest ruler in the Empire's history if he had ever actually married and provided a decent heir - or at least ensured that his nieces did. Died of an illness while preparing to reconquer Sicily.
Konstantinos VIII (1025-1028)
Brother, supposed co-Emperor (in practice, his brother ruled alone) and successor of Basil II. Already an elderly man when he became emperor, he ruled capriciously and cruelly. He had no sons, so the empire was left to his daughters, Zoe and Theodora, and Zoe's husband, Romanos III.
Daughter of Konstantinos VIII and sister of the Empress Theodora. After a marriage alliance with Otto III of Germany, the Holy Roman Emperor fell through due to his untimely death, her father kept her and her sister from marrying until they were both almost fifty years old. From 1028 she ruled alongside her three husbands and then her sister. Her first husband, Romanos III, was found dead in his bath in 1034, and Zoe married her lover, who became the emperor Mikhael IV, later that same day. After Mikhael IV's death, Zoe's adopted son and Mikhael's nephew Mikhael V banished her to a monastery, but she returned after a coup removed Mikhael V from power, blinding him and sending him to a Monastery. She was forced to share power with her sister Theodora. Hoping to diminish her sister's power, Zoe married a third time, to Konstantinos Monomakhos, who after her death continued ruling alongside Theodora.
Konstantinos IX Monomakhos (1042-1055)
Co-ruler with his wife Zoe (who was about twenty years older than him). Militarily he was a weak ruler and during his reign the religious schism between Constantinople and Rome resulted in the splitting of the church into the Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) branches.
The younger sister of Zoe, Theodora was much plainer than the beautiful Zoe but also more intelligent and determined. She never married nor had children; shortly before her death she chose Mikhael Bringas as her successor.
Non-dynast old man
Mikhael VI Bringas (1056-1057)
An elderly bureaucrat. He couldn't gain the support of the military, who forced him to abdicate to the general Isaac Komnenos.
First try of the Komnenid dynasty
Isaac I Komnenos (1057-1059)
A well-respected general. He immediately set out to restore the empire's finances. He fell gravely ill after a successful campaign against the Pechenegs and his courtiers used this opportunity to force him to abdicate. His family would eventually regain the imperial throne and become known as one of the great imperial dynasties.
Constantine X Doukas (1059-1067)
Replaced a large portion of the Byzantine Army with mercenaries to save costs. His decision to disband the Armenian local militia contributed heavily to its swift fall to the Seljuk Turks, leaving Anatolia dangerously vulnerable. Large portions of Italy and the Balkan territories were also lost during his reign. When he died he insisted that only his sons should succeed him, which his wife quickly ignored by marrying Romanos Diogenes.
Romanos IV Diogenes (10681071)
Perhaps unfairly, by far most famous for the Battle of Manzikert (which was not the cataclysmic defeat it has since been painted as, in military terms, just incredibly embarrassing). He sought to decisively defeat the leader of the Seljuk Turks and thus stop the bandit raids on the eastern borderlands, which would have been a better idea if Sultan Alp Arslan was the least bit interested in attacking the Romaioinote and/or the bandits doing the raiding even pretended to acknowledge his authority. Moreover, the implementation of the plan would have gone rather better had one of Romanos' commanders not vanished with a third of the army before the battle and another not spread rumors of his fall during it.
Wounded and captured, Romanos IV was the first Roman Emperor to be a POW in over eight centuries. His captor, once the ritual boot-on-neck thing was done with, was quite chivalrous about the matter; treating him as an honored guest, negotiating an affordable ransom, securing minor border adjustments, and providing Romanos an escort 'fit for an emperor' to return to Constantinople. Cue civil war, deposition, blinding, death, more civil war, nomadic Turks wandering into what had been reduced to sheep pasture over the past few decades, said Turks being hired to deal with one faction or another, etc...
Mikhael VII Doukas (1071 - 1078)
Son of Constantine X. He was uninterested in politics, surrounding himself with sycophants and incompetents while the empire crumbled around him. Lost much of Asia Minor to the Turks, only having to call upon said Turks to help put down a mercenary revolt. The empire's last possession in Italy, Bari, was also lost during his reign. The army eventually mutinied and Mikhael abdicated without a fight, retiring to a monastery where he died in 1090.
Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078 - 1081)
A competent general with a long but unremarkable career, he rebelled against Mikhael with the aid of the Turks and became emperor at the ripe old age of 79. His lack of political acumen and allies meant that uprisings began all across the empire, which he barely put down. Eventually the Normans invaded in support of one of Mikhael VII's sons, only failing because they were recalled by the pope. The army sent to deal with this threat, led by Alexios Komnenos, mutinied shortly afterwards and Nikephoros quickly abdicated.
The Return of the Komnenid dynasty
Alexios I Komnenos (1081 - 1118)
Nephew of Isaac I, an accomplished general, fighting off concerted attempts by the Norman Duke of Apulia, Robert Guiscard, to conquer the Empire. Appealed to the Pope and the western European kingdoms for assistance against the Turks, leading to The Crusades, something which he did not expect but adapted admirably to - in essence, he shipped the Crusaders to Asia Minor, gave them supplies and a moderately sized force of his own men after talking them into an oath to give back any territory conquered which had previously been Byzantine, and followed along behind, mopping up Asia Minor. Halted the Empire's sharp decline after the disasters of the mid 11th century, at least for a while, reconquering Asia Minor - and if it had not been for a false report from a high ranking Crusader deserter, Stephen of Blois,note and the ambition of Bohemond of Taranto (who decided he wanted Antioch), he'd probably have reclaimed the Middle East as well.
Ioannes II Komnenos (1118-1143)
Son of Alexios I, and brother of Anna Komnene, author of literature/The Alexiad (she despised him and tried to seize the throne from him). A strict but moral ruler, and a successful general and diplomat.
Manuel I Komnenos (1143 - 1180)
Youngest son of Ioannes II, but became emperor due to a prophecy. Pursued an aggressive foreign policy and expanded the Empire, getting on very well with the West and bringing the Principality of Antioch firmly under his thumb, but his conquests didn't last long.
Alexios II Komnenos (1180-1183)
He was eleven-years-old when his father, Manuel I, died. His father's cousin Andronikos Komnenos became regent, removed Alexios' mother and her supporters from power, and eventually had Alexios II himself strangled with a bow-string. Alexios' mother, sister, and most of the rest of his relatives would die at Andronikos' hands.
Andronikos I Komnenos (1183-1185)
Ne'er-do-well cousin of Manuel I, he took over as regent for Manuel's underage son, Alexios II, and then killed the boy, the dowager empress, and most of the rest of the imperial family while he was at it. He also married Alexios II's child-widow, Princess Agnes of France, even though he was past sixty and she was only eleven. Tried to flee the city in panic after the commoners revolted in support of his cousin Isaakios Angelos, but was captured, brutally tortured, and executed. His sons were killed as well, but two grandsons survived and eventually founded the independent state of Trebizond in 1204.
Isaakios II Angelos (1185-1195, 1203-1204)
A maternal-line descendant of Alexios I and a distant cousin of his predecessor Andronikos I, he came to the throne due a bizarre fluke (he killed an official who'd come to arrest him; in the ensuing chaos, Andronikos tried to flee, was captured and executed, and Isaakios took his place). His adored brother, Alexios, repaid his trust by staging a coup, blinding him, and stealing his crown. Briefly returned to power after the Fourth Crusade ousted Alexios III in 1203. He quarrelled with his son and co-ruler, Alexios IV, and became paranoid and obsessed with regaining his lost sight. Died of shock when his son was murdered by the usurper Alexios Mourtzophlos.
An interesting bit of royal trivia: His daughter Irene Angelina married Frederick Barbarossa's son Philip, Duke of Swabia; through their children, he is the ancestor of every single European monarch now reigning.
Alexios III Angelos (1195-1203)
Brother and usurper of Isaakios II. A decadent and weak ruler who bankrupted the state and let the warships rot in the harbor, when the Fourth Crusade arrived on the scene he sneaked out of the city under cover of night, abandoning his daughters and wife but taking with him what was left of the treasury. His only real ally was the Seljuk sultan Keyhüsrev, who regarded him as a surrogate father and died in battle trying to help Alexios regain his lost empire.
Alexios IV Angelos (1203-1204)
Son of Isaakios II, the teenaged Alexios escaped his uncle Alexios III and made his way to Germany, where his sister Irene was empress to the Holy Roman Emperor Philipp of Swabia. He met with the pope and promised him the moon in return for the Fourth Crusade's diversion to Constantinople. After his uncle fled the city, the Crusaders set Alexios IV up as co-ruler alongside his father, but Isaakios II resented his son and thwarted him at every turn when, full credit to him, he tried his best to follow through on his promises. The courtier Alexios Mourtzophlos staged a coup and murdered Alexios IV; the Crusaders attacked the city in retribution, leading to the disastrous Sack of Constantinople.
Alexios V Doukas "Mourtzophlos" (1204)
A courtier who'd been imprisoned by Alexios III for romancing the emperor's daughter, Eudokia. Though freed by Alexios IV, he nevertheless turned on the young emperor, killed him, and declared himself emperor. He fled Constantinople when the Crusaders attacked. While exiled, he joined up with his father-in-law, Alexios III, who treacherously blinded him and left him for the Crusaders to find. He was executed by being thrown from the top of the Column of Theodosios. He was the last Greek, or Byzantine, emperor to rule Constantinople for 57 years, until the accession of Mikhael VIII Palaiologos. His nickname, mourtzophlos, meant "hairy eyebrows".
Mikhael VIII Palaiologos (12591282)
A great-grandson of Emperor Alexios III on his mother's side, Mikhael was brought up in the sophisticated court of the emperor of Nikaia (Nicaea, a Greek splinter state founded after Constantinople fell to the Crusaders in 1204). Charismatic and talented, Mikhael made himself regent for the seven-year-old boy emperor of Nikaia, Ioannes IV Doukas Laskaris. The Byzantines recaptured Constantinople in 1261, pouring in through an unlocked gate in the city walls (yes, really) and Mikhael took the opportunity to crown himself and his infant son Andronikos as emperors. The boy-emperor Ioannes IV was quietly blinded and locked up in a monastery. A schemer and a dissembler, Mikhael helped incite the Sicilian Vespers against his enemy, the powerful Charles of Anjou who had had ambitions of reconquering Constantinople and re-establishing the Latin Empire; assisted Pedro III of Aragon in invading Sicily; and instigated revolts in Crete against the Venetians. His dynasty would rule Constantinople until the city fell to the Turks in 1453.
Andronikos III Palaiologos (1328-1341)
He accidentally murdered his own brother Manuel in 1320, having mistaken Manuel for his mistress's lover. Their father, co-emperor Mikhael IX, died of grief and their grandfather, Andronikos II, disowned him. This led to civil war between grandfather and grandson. Eventually, Andronikos III was recognized as co-emperor, and in 1328 he deposed his grandfather altogether. During his reign, Serbia and the Ottoman Turks steadily chipped away at Byzantine territory.
Konstantinos XI Palaiologos (1449 - 1453)
The last emperor in the east, he led Constantinople in a heroic Last Stand against the Turks. His body was never found, elevating him to legendary status. A legend among the Greeks states that he was saved by an angel, and that he will return one day to reconquer Constantinople for the Greeks.
The Eastern Roman Empire in popular culture:
- The Byzantines are playable in Age of Empires II as a well-rounded civilization with bonuses to their Fire Ships and access to the superheavy Cataphract cavalry unit, which is more vulnerable to archer fire but quite resistant to Anti-Cavalry units like spearmen or camels.
- Faux-Byzantine stragglers attempt to retake Constantinople from the Ottomans in Assassin's Creed: Revelations. They ally with rogue Turkmen and their true leader is in fact an Ottoman Prince.
- In Axis Powers Hetalia, it's implied that Ancient Greece eventually became Byzantium, which takes then-Ottoman Turkey's role in ending the Empire a darker turn. This also could explain why her son Modern Greece bears a grudge against Turkey. Aside of being his prisoner after the fall of the empire itself.
- The Belisarius Series features the Empire as the heroes of the series. But instead of trying to retake the western empire as in history, Belisarius finds himself campaigning in India to counter a time-traveling Big Bad trying to alter humanity's evolution by taking control of the brutal Malwa Empire.
- Blood Feud by Rosemary Sutcliff, from the perspective of a Viking mercenary fighting for Basil II.
- Civilization has featured the Byzantines with both Justinian and Thaodora as leaders - in Civ V their gimmick was that they got to pick an extra benefit when founding a religion, allowing them to better customize it to suit their playstyle. Interestingly, the Civ games have also always featured Rome and Greece as playable factions, making the Byzantines distinct from both their cultural and geographic forebearers. And if the Ottomans are around, it's quite possible to have Istanbul and Constantinople to both be on the map as separate cities, for bonus weirdness.
- Count Belisarius, a 1938 novel by Robert Graves of I, Claudius fame.
- In Crusader Kings the Byzantines are a major power for the earlier starting dates, though also prone to revolts and civil war due to all the scheming in the capital. The Legacy of Rome expansion for CK II focused on the Byzantines, and introduced event chains that allow the player to mend the Great Schism by force, and even restore the Roman Empire. There were some technical problems, though - Greek characters were given the option to blind or castrate prisoners, which caused severe lag as the game was constantly making "Can I Castrate?" checks between Greek characters until that issue was patched.
- The Tevinter Imperium in the Dragon Age series is the Byzantine Empire if it was ruled by mages. The remnants of an once powerful dynasty now a shadow of its former self, abandoned its pagan ways to embrace the Christianity equivalent of the setting, only to break away from other nations to worship in their own ways and causing tension among them (mirroring the West-East Schism). They are also at war with the Qunari, who are partially analogous with Muslim states that the Byzantines have fought against and just like them, it has been said they have been locked in such Forever War that the Tevinters are the main bulwark against the invasion on Thedas.
- Interestingly, on release Europa Universalis III began the day after the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453. Then the expansions pushed this start date back to 1399 and the Byzantines became a playable minor faction, one which was rather popular and had lots of nation specific missions.
- In I Am Skantarios, the titular Warrior Prince takes Byzantium from Vestigial Empire and right back into The Empire again, by any means necessary... and then politics happen. And also a great deal of war crimes and religious atrocities.
- The Kingdom of Gondor in The Lord of the Rings has some resemblances to the Byzantine Empire, being The Remnant of a once-great empire now in decline, and may have been partly inspired by it.
- Has a Fantasy Counterpart Culture in Sarantium in Guy Gavriel Kay's The Sarantine Mosaic.
- In the Second Apocalypse series, the Nansur Empire is the Vestigial Empire of ancient Cenei, is ruled by a Deadly Decadent Court, lost control of its religion's holy city to heathen desert peoples and considers itself more cultured than the other Inrithi nations.
- Total War games:
- In Medieval: Total War and its sequel, the Byzantines are a playable faction with a very strong capital, lucrative trade routes, and a formidable early-game military. But their endgame units are lacking compared to their rivals, and they start out surrounded by the Rising Empires of Venice, Hungary, Russia and the Turks.
- They appear as the Eastern Roman Empire faction in Total War: Attila - unlike the previously-mentioned European medieval strategy games, the time period is around the Migration Period with its brother the Western Roman Empire still currently intact (though unless the WRE is being successfully played by the player, odds are they won't be for long). The Last Roman DLC additionally depicts them as an unplayable separate faction during the military campaigns of Flavius Belisarius (whose own faction is the Roman Expedition) after he suppressed the Nika riots, mostly just settling territory in the wake of Belisarius handing his conquests to it.
- In Up the Line, by Robert Silverberg, the protagonist and other major characters are Time Couriers who specialize in giving tours of the Byzantine Empire throughout its history. Most of the plot occurs in or near Byzantium, and several people native to that time play key plot roles. This also allows Silverberg to show his knowledge of the history of the Empire.
- Harry Turtledove studied Byzantine history at university, and as well as writing several stories (fantastic and mundane) set in the real thing, his Videssos fantasy series is based on a Fantasy Counterpart Culture version of the Empire and its neighbours.