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In Byzantine markets fines silks are exchanged for precious metals, while in the palaces the influential discuss how they might reprise -- and surpass -- the achievements of antiquity.

The founding of the new capital in Constantinople by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in 330 CE on the site of the ancient colony of Byzantium is generally considered the starting point of Byzantine history. Nonetheless, it was not until the Roman Empire was divided into East and West in 395 and the subsequent collapse of its western counterpart in 476 that the Byzantine Empire began to exist as an independent entity. Between the inauguration of Constantinople in 330 and its fall in 1453 was a period spanning 1,123 years and 18 days, also known as the “Byzantine Millennium.”

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Although the Byzantine Empire emerged from the Roman Empire, it evolved a unique blend of Greek and Oriental cultures. It continued to follow the Roman Christian tradition of a universal empire, however, in which all the territories that had once been Roman were destined one day to become so again. This concept resulted in several attempts to reconquer lost territory. Nevertheless, after the second half of the 11th century the emperors could only stand by and watch as their possessions were chipped away. Considered God’s regent on Earth, the Basileus (or Emperor) had autocratic power with total control over the military and political and religious life. Dressed in purple as a symbol of his royal status, he was the focus of a strict ceremonial code. The empire was immensely wealthy thanks to agriculture but also to commerce. Its currency, the solidus, was known far beyond the empire’s borders and was an unusually stable currency up until the 11th century. Constantinople, a cosmopolitan city that appears to have had up to 500,000 inhabitants, symbolized the empire as a great trading hub and was the envy of the world. It straddled two continents and was located at a junction between the Mediterranean, the Black Sea, the Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Russian steppe. Streams of men and merchandise would converge here from the farthest reaches of the globe.

Did you know?

In Byzantium, purple was a color exclusively reserved for the imperial family. Aside from being an expensive color, children of the imperial couple were said to be “born in the purple.” This meant they were born in the palace delivery chamber, which was built with purple porphyry stone. Thereby, they received the title of “Porphyrogenite.”