The Islamic World to 1600
In the centuries before 600 CE, the Roman Empire was the most influential power in many regions that would later become Islamic. The Roman state developed from an early monarchy into a republic, established around 500 BCE. By the 3rd century BCE Rome had completed its conquest of the Italian Peninsula, and embarked on military campaigns against foreign powers. The first major conflict, known as the Punic Wars, involved Rome and Carthage, an empire in North Africa. Sparked by Carthaginian expansion into Greek settlements in Sicily, the Punic Wars ended with a Roman victory and subsequent control of all Carthaginian territory. Roman territory eventually came to include the region encircling the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain, North Africa, Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt. More information on the expansion of the Roman Empire can be found in the First Europe Tutorial.
|First Europe Tutorial - Roman Territorial Expansion|
Head of Constantine I
Rome, ca. 325
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, N.Y.
Beginning in the 3rd century CE, the Roman state underwent a prolonged series of crises. Regional disparities of long standing induced the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) to officially split the empire. However, it was again briefly reunited by Constantine I (r. 306-337), who also became one of the Roman Empire's most significant rulers. He was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. Christianity had long been one of many religions present in the empire, and over its first three centuries it had evolved from a Jewish sect into a complex system of beliefs, though it continued to include a number of rival currents. Constantine's conversion and his subsequent actions to protect the Christians of the realm were instrumental to the religion's survival and expansion. In 313 he signed the Edict of Milan, establishing a policy of toleration for Christians in the Empire, and in 325 he organised the Council of Nicaea, which attempted to establish standard articles of faith to resolve doctrinal disputes among Christians. In 330 Constantine built the city of Constantinople on the site of the ancient Greek city, Byzantium, as the principal capital of the Roman Empire, whose power was slowly shifting east from Rome.
The reign of Theodosius I (r. 379-395) was also important for the Roman Empire, as he was the last to rule over a united empire. He entrenched the separation between the Eastern and Western Empires in 395 by assigning his son Arcadius to rule in the East, and his son Honorius to rule in the West. From that time until the fall of the Western Empire to Germanic invaders in the late 5th century CE, the empires were separate. Theodosius was also the first ruler to declare Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon divided the Christian world into five patriarchates, or regions to be overseen by a patriarch: Rome (whose patriarch later assumed the title of pope), Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. When the Islamic conquests of the 7th century brought the latter three patriarchates under Muslim rule, Constantinople became the leading city of Eastern Christianity. Eventually the division between the Western church, based in Rome, and the Eastern church, based in Constantinople, culminated in the Great Schism of 1054, when the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other. The result was the formation of the Catholic Church in the west, and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east.
In the 5th century the Western Empire progressively disintegrated, and in 476 Romulus Augustus, the last Roman Emperor in the west, was deposed by the German leader, Odovacer. The empire's eastern regions survived as a functional state. Though attempts to recapture large blocks of territory in the west were not successful, the emperors resident in Constantinople continued to rule over one of the most powerful empires in the region.
The Byzantine Empire
S. Vitale, Ravenna
Courtesy of Tulane University
Although the rulers, inhabitants, and enemies of the Eastern Empire knew it as the Roman Empire, even after the collapse of the Western Empire in 476, it has acquired the name, Byzantine Empire, from later historians. The name is based on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which became the site for Constantinople in 330. Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) reclaimed the Italian Peninsula from the Visigoths, bringing the Christians of the former Western Empire under Byzantine rule. He also conquered northwest Africa and coastal Spain, temporarily bringing most of the Mediterranean under Byzantine control. The Sassanid Empire in Persia, a historic enemy of the Roman Empire, began a new campaign into Byzantine territory in 610, the same year that Muslims believe Muhammad received his first revelation from God, in Mecca, that he was the prophet of Islam. Within 30 years these three civilisations - the Byzantine, Persian, and Arab - would collide in what was for some a very unexpected way, as the Muslim Arabs embarked on a rapid expansion campaign that brought down the Sassanid Empire and took a large swath of Byzantine territories in North Africa and Mesopotamia. As we shall see in the following chapters, the Islamic and Byzantine Empires were enemies for centuries. They constantly traded territory, particularly in the region of Asia Minor that surrounded Constantinople. In 1453, however, the Muslims would finally defeat the Byzantine Empire completely, with the sack of Constantinople.
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