5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed

5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed

Patrick Lynch - December 18, 2016

In a previous article, I looked at the reasons why Byzantine Empire lasted so long. In this piece, I will analyze the events that led to its ultimate downfall. As was the case with the Western Roman Empire, its Eastern equivalent was faced with an array of foreign enemies. However, it was arguably its internal issues that led to its demise.

Emperors like Justinian I tried to expand the empire but throughout its history, a host of problems arose and contributed to its downfall. No single issue caused the end of the Byzantine Empire. It was made great by its economy, military, unity, and ability to take advantage of the moments of weakness of rivals and neighbors. Over time, its economic and military might waned and along with it, the empire’s capacity to seize an opportunity. Add in civil unrest, natural disasters and powerful enemies such as the Arabs, Seljuk Turks, Bulgars, Normans, Slavs, and Ottoman Turks, and you can see why the Byzantine Empire eventually crumbled.

5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed

1 – The Battle of Manzikert (1071)

This is arguably the most decisive battle in Byzantine history and the eyes of many historians; it marked the beginning of the end for the empire. By 1070, the Seljuk Turks had replaced the Arabs as the main Muslim threat. However, they were one of the several enemies the Byzantines had to cope with in the 11th century. The Bulgars and the Normans would have kept the Eastern Roman Empire’s hands full by themselves, but the added threat of the Seljuk Turks was seemingly too much to handle.

The Turks were former nomads who had converted to Islam and began a new era of conquests in the name of their religion. While the Normans were invading Italy, the Turks set their sights on Asia Minor. The Byzantine Emperor, Romanos IV Diogenes, brought an army to stop them and faced the Turks near Manzikert on August 26, 1071. The battle was a complete disaster for the Byzantines as their leader was captured and thousands of men were killed including almost all of the famed Varangian Guard while the Emperor was also captured. They also learned the harsh lesson that mercenaries were unreliable as between 20,000 and 35,000 men deserted.

As well as severely weakening the Byzantine army, victory at Manzikert allowed the Turks to take Anatolia. It was considered the heartland of the empire as it was the home of the majority of its farmers and soldiers. The ‘Theme’ system, which supplied the empire with most of its men, was destroyed, which meant the Byzantines had to look west for aid, with disastrous consequences.

However, Manzikert alone was not responsible for the decline of the Byzantine Empire. During the 12th century, much of Anatolia was recovered under the Komnenian Restoration, but the recovery was brought to a crashing halt at the Battle of Myriokephalon in 1176. The Byzantines were ambushed by the Seljuk Turks and suffered heavy casualties. It was the last effort to recover the interior of Anatolia, and in strategic terms, Myriokephalon was almost as important as Manzikert.

5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed
History to the Public (The Sacking of Constantinople 1204)

2 – The Crusades

After the Battle of Manzikert in 1071, the Byzantine Empire’s military was in a terrible state. Alexios I became emperor in 1081 and realized that he needed help from the West if he was to rebuild his shattered empire. This was awkward given that relations between the east and west were less than friendly since the East-West Schism of 1054 which involved a break of communion between the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

However, Alexios was desperate, so he appealed for mercenaries. Despite the agreements, Western Europe believed that the Byzantine Empire was the only thing preventing the Muslims from invading the continent. Pope Urban II called for a Crusade against the Muslims so, in 1095, armies of soldiers from Western Europe called Latins or Franks by the Byzantines, marched east in what became known as the First Crusade. Although these men were supposed to help the Byzantines, they also hoped to win back Jerusalem.

The Crusaders agreed to return any lands they recovered that were previously under control of the Eastern Roman Empire to the Byzantines. The Crusaders reneged on the agreement and turned Edessa and Antioch into their kingdoms. The westerners took Jerusalem in 1099, and by now, the Byzantines viewed them as a threat comparable to the Muslims.

It wasn’t all bad news for the Byzantines. They retook control of Anatolia and were able to keep the Turks at bay. In the 12th century, Byzantine Emperors gave trade concessions to major Western cities such as Venice and Genoa as a means of receiving military aid from the West. This strategy backfired spectacularly. Some 60,000 Latins were living in Constantinople by 1180, and they put local merchants out of business. In 1182, angry locals rioted, and tens of thousands of Latins were killed.

Pope Innocent III called for the Fourth Crusade in 1198 to restore Christian control over the Holy Land. It didn’t begin until 1202, and the crusade was under the supervision of the Venetians who had supplied the ships for the mission. The Crusaders met Alexios IV Angelos, a Byzantine prince, and son of recently deposed Emperor Isaac II Angelos. He offered the Crusaders a huge sum of money to divert their mission from its original destination of Egypt to Constantinople to help him defeat emperor Alexios III Angelos.

The Crusaders took Constantinople, but Alexios IV was unable to keep his promise as the fleeing former emperor took at least 1,000 pounds of gold and countless jewels. Alexios IV left to fight Alexios III, and in his absence, another riot broke out, and more Latins died. The angry Venetians wanted vengeance while the Crusaders only wanted money. In the end, they sacked Constantinople in 1204 and pillaged most of the wealth the Empire had accumulated in its history.

Constantinople languished under Latin rule until 1261 when Michael VIII Palaiologos regained the city. However, he found it in a terrible state and while he oversaw a recovery of sorts, the Byzantine Empire was practically finished; all that was left was a slow, lingering decay.

5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed
Pinterest (Justinian I)

3 – Constant Strain & Internal Affairs

Although the Byzantine Empire lasted over a millennium, it was riddled with crises almost from the very beginning. A combination of in-fighting, disease and natural disaster served to prevent the empire from expanding, weaken it and ultimately cause its decline at various stages. It was an extraordinarily resilient empire, but the accumulation of issues ultimately led to its demise.

The empire was flourishing under the rule of Justinian I when a terrible plague in 540 wiped out a large proportion of its population. It impacted the army and weakened it to a point where Justinian had to accept a humiliating peace treaty with the Persians. The Byzantines ultimately subdued the Persians, but both empires were weakened by a 25-year war and were ripe for the marauding Arab invaders of the 7th century. The Arabs destroyed the Persian Empire and almost took Constantinople on a couple of occasions. The Byzantines held firm but lost territories such as Palestine and Egypt. The latter was of extreme importance since the Egyptian province of Aegyptus provided the empire with a vast proportion of its goods and natural resources.

The Byzantine Empire was also the architect of its downfall. It was routinely hurt by vicious in-fighting which often happened at times when the empire needed to establish a united front. This internal conflict occurred during the Arab invasions of the 7th century, the Turk invasion of the 11th century and in the 14th and 15th centuries when grandfathers fought grandsons! Rather than standing together against a common enemy, nobles squabbled over power and territory.

After the Arab invasions, there was a period of stability in the 8th century. Alas, the nobles feasted their greedy eyes on the farmlands of the free peasantry which were worth a lot more during times of peace. The government depended on the peasants for taxes and soldiers, but the nobles caused problems by trying to take this land and turn its inhabitants into serfs. The government sought to help the farmers, Basil II, in particular, did all he could, but the power of the nobles was too strong.

After Basil II died with no male heirs in 1025, the issue of greedy governors was to cost the empire dearly. His nieces married a series of men and elevated them to powerful positions. At this time, governors were able to rule almost independently of the government as they controlled the military forces of their themes and collected taxes. They had a nasty habit of imposing excessive taxes on farmers which caused widespread dissatisfaction. These charges led to a rebellion amongst the Bulgars.

The short-sighted action of the governors also resulted in the decline of the free peasantry and along with it, the strength of the theme system as it no longer supplied men to the army in the numbers it did previously. The state increased the taxes on peasants because it needed to pay for foreign mercenaries and this vicious cycle significantly weakened the empire as it got to the point where it could no longer afford a navy. It was aided by the Venetians and Genoese fleets but had to remove the 10% import toll. These merchants could undercut their Byzantine counterparts which reduced government income from trade! All of the above resulted in the weakened military which ensured the empire entered a permanent downward spiral.

5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed

4 – Weak Military

In the early middle ages, the Byzantine Empire boasted superior military technology to Western Europe and possessed an enormous standing army by the standards of the time. As it was an incredibly wealthy empire, it could afford to hire mercenaries in times of need. In the later stages of the empire, its enemies had caught up regarding technology and the Byzantine army dwindled in size.

The theme system was the empire’s primary method of army recruitment. The empire was divided into several regions, also known as ‘themes.’ Each theme provided the imperial armies with a certain number of soldiers. It was a cheap and efficient method of building an army and allowed the empire to create an enormous force in comparison to its enemies. One example is the theme of Thrakesion which alone provided almost 10,000 men to the army in the early 10th century.

The original system fell apart in the wake of Manzikert; a dramatic collapse since the empire had a force superior to all its enemies in 1025 under Basil II. There was a brief revival under the Komnenian dynasty in the 12th century when Manuel I Komnenos could call upon a standing army of approximately 40,000. This was the last time the Byzantines had an army befitting an empire. When Andronikos I Komnenos was deposed in 1185, it was the end of the empire as a military force.

The new system had required the leadership of a competent emperor; the Angeloi dynasty couldn’t provide it, so the Byzantine army disintegrated. The empire could no longer afford to pay for high-quality mercenaries after being plundered in 1204 after the Fourth Crusade and at this time, it could only produce a pitiful standing army of 4,000. Despite the best efforts of the Palaiologan Dynasty, the Byzantine Empire was doomed; it was just a question of time.

5 Reasons Why The Byzantine Empire Finally Collapsed

5 – The Ottomans

Michael VIII became emperor in 1259 and regained Constantinople within two years. He was not highly regarded in Byzantine history despite being an accomplished ruler; perhaps because he murdered his way to the top although his attempt to unite the Catholic and Orthodox churches also made him an unpopular figure. Michael managed to end the Latin Empire, but his death in 1282 probably extinguished the last fleeting hope of a revival.

The Ottoman Empire rose in 1299 upon the decline of the Seljuk Turks and set its sights on the Byzantine territory. By now, the Byzantine Empire was in complete disarray and a civil war between 1321 and 1328 damaged it severely as the rising Turks were able to make gains in Anatolia. After the Siege of Nicaea (1328-1331), the Byzantines held little of Asia Minor and was an empire in name only. Another civil war (1341-1347) rocked the Byzantines and allowed the Serbs to make gains in Macedonia, Epirus, and Thessaly. The Black Death followed the civil war and devastated Constantinople just as it did many cities in Europe.

By the end of the 14th century, Byzantine was little more than a dependency of the Ottoman Turks who almost surrounded Constantinople. Unsurprisingly, the Turks made the capture of Constantinople its number one priority. The first Siege of Constantinople began in 1397 but was relieved in 1402 after the Turks suffered a heavy defeat to an army of Mongols and Tartars at the Battle of Ankara. Manuel II Palaiologos tried to gain support from nations in Western Europe but received sympathy and little else.

Ottoman Sultan Murad II led a Second Siege of Constantinople in 1442, but it was quickly lifted after fierce resistance by defenders of the city. In 1453, Sultan Mehmet II decided to end the Byzantine ‘Empire’ once and for all. By this stage, the empire consisted of the province of Morea and Constantinople only. Emperor Constantine XI and the 8,000 men defending the city fought bravely against overwhelming odds but on May 29, 1453, Constantinople finally fell.


Sources For Further Reading:

University of Montana – Did Justinian Create the First Pandemic?

History Collection – 10 Byzantine Emperors Who Met a Violent End

History Collection – 6 Key Turning Points in the Ottoman Wars Against Europe

History Collection – 4 Reasons Why The Black Death Was Beneficial To Europe

History Collection – 10 Ways the Black Death turned Medieval Society Upside Down