In 650 BCE, during the reign of the Greek Empire, the city of Byzantium (known today as Istanbul) was founded and built on a triangular shaped peninsula at the tip of Europe. The narrow waters of the Bosporus Strait separated Byzantium from Asia. In 324 CE, after the Roman Empire conquered the Greek Empire, Emperor Constantine drew up plan to build a new capital for the Roman Empire on the site of Byzantium. Six years later, the work was completed and the city was renamed Constantinople in honor of Constantine. Although the city was the capital of the Roman Empire, Greek studies, philosophy, literature and art dominated the city.
The Roman Empire was split and reunited several time after 286, however it was permanently divided into east and west in 395. The eastern Roman Empire remained strong for 1,000 years and eventually became known as the Byzantine Empire. One of the greatest emperors of the Byzantine Empire was Justinian. He reigned from 527-565. Justinian became known as the last of the Romans, because he tried to maintain Latin as the official the official language of the empire in an effort to counteract the rising influence of Greece and the declining influence of Rome.
Justinian's goal was to conquer parts of the empire that the Germanic countries had seized from Rome. His general, Belisarius, was successful in re-conquering the parts of North Africa that are now Algeria and Tunisia. A number of years later, Justinian, along with Belisarius, marched toward Italy and triumphed over Rome. After the conquest of Rome, Justinian advanced further and conquered the southern part of Spain.
Under Justinian's rule, the Byzantine Empire flourished and prospered. Justinian is known for his buildings and architecture. One of the most famous buildings that he built was Constantinople's Church of St. Sophia, Hagia Sophia, which was completed in 538. It became the center of the Greek Orthodox Church for a number of centuries.
Justinian also encouraged the arts in the form of painting, sculpture, mosaics, jewelry and illuminated manuscripts. Justinian's era is outstanding for its production of icons. Some of the earliest icons were painted on wood panels. Many of the icons from that period can be found today in the Monastery of Saint Catherine, in the Sinai peninsula. It is believed that Justinian sent some of the icons to the monastery as gifts.
Emperor Justinian is renowned for the set of laws that he drew up, known as the Justinian Code. The code, which took him four years to complete, became the basis for many modern judicial systems. Starting in 554, Byzantium became a center for the making of silk. This event was precipitated when two Byzantium monks took a trip to China to observe the art of silk making. While in China, they stole some silk worms, brought them back and began to cultivate their own silk worms.
Justinian was very influential in the Church and played a leading role in fashioning its policies. He was a firm believer in Christian Orthodoxy and fought vehemently against sects he considered heretical, such as the Samaritans, Arians, Manichaeans and Monophysites. He also fought to rid his empire of the last remnants of Greco-Roman paganism. In 543, Justinian had a bitter encounter with the pope, causing a major strain on the relationship between the eastern and western parts of the empire.
The Byzantine Empire began to suffer its first decline in the early 540s, with a horrific outbreak of bubonic plague that spread throughout the empire, killing thousands of people. The so-called the plague of Justinian ended the age of splendor of the Byzantine Empire.
The death of Emperor Justinian, on November 14, 565, was a watershed for the Byzantine Empire. After his death, the Byzantine Empire suffered many setbacks. Although Justinian was followed by other emperors such as Hercules, the empire never attained its previous glory. Justinian was ordained as a saint by the Eastern Orthodox Church after his death, and is also celebrated as a saint by the Lutheran Church.