While we refer to the Byzantine Empire, people in the Middle Ages never lost sight of the fact that this was the eastern half of the Roman Empire that had survived the barbarian invasions of the fifth century C.E. As a result, they called them "Romans". They were the direct heirs of the Roman Empire and did carry on the remains of that empire for some 1000 years after the fall of the western half of the Empire. However, for all intents and purposes, it became a predominantly Greek empire and culture as the Middle Ages progressed. Its subjects spoke Greek, worshipped in what came to be the Greek Orthodox Church, and wore beards in the Greek fashion.
Byzantine society was very hierarchical, which meant that people lived at different levels of rank and status. At the top of the society was the emperor, who made the major decisions affecting the empire. He was aided by an inner circle of advisers and bureaucrats. There was also a Byzantine senate, which prepared laws for approval by the emperor. Emperors usually chose their successor, either a son or a trusted adviser. The emperors ruled with the help of a strong and well-trained army that had as many as 120,000 members.
The majority of the population, however, was poor and either labored in the city or grew their own food on small plots of land that were controlled by wealthy landlords.
No matter how centralized their administration or how absolute their power on paper, the emperors were unable to stop the feudalization of the empire and the concentration of land and wealth in a few great families. The rivalry between rural and urban aristocracies led each faction to nominate its own imperial candidates. While they were engaged in civil disputes, new enemies, the Normans and the Seljuq Turks, increased their power around the eastern Mediterranean.
History was changed in 324 AD when Emperor Constantine decided to build a new capital city for the Roman Empire. Constantine's experts drew up plans for a new fortified city on the site of Byzantium and work was almost complete after 6 years. The new city was inaugurated by Constantine on 11 May 330 AD. It became known as Constantinople.
Constantinople was located on the European shore of the Bosporus, midway between the Aegean and Black seas, in what is now the country of Turkey. The city brought together people from the lands of Europe and Asia. In 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople became the capital of the new Ottoman Empire.
Byzantines were great traders. They opened trade routes throughout the Middle East and into Asia and soon were exposed to Eastern styles of clothing, jewels, and decoration. Byzantine costume thus became a mix of Roman garments, such as the tunic (shirt) and the stola (a type of long dress), mixed with Eastern ornament and pattern. It was this mix that made Byzantine culture distinct.
The Empire's strategic and economic position gradually improved through the ninth and tenth centuries. Throughout this period the Tagmata were developed into a fully fledged professional army, which employed sophisticated infantry tactics combined with the shock effect of heavily armoured cavalry. A series of soldier-emperors such as Nikephoros Phokas, John Tzimiskes and Basil Bulgaroctonos were able to undertake significant offensive campaigns and to turn the tables in particular against the Bulgars in the west and the Arab "raiding emirates" in the east. The pursuit of military glory consequently became an important component of Byzantine imperial propaganda.