In the early fourth century, the emperor Constantine established a new capital for the Roman empire. This capital was situated on the site of a Greek colony called Byzantium.

Thus, Constantine laid the foundations for the Byzantine -- or East Roman -- empire which, at its greatest extent in the sixth century, stretched from southern Spain in the West to the borders of Sassanian Iran in the East. This spectacularly diverse combination of ethnic groups, languages, cults, and creeds was bound together by a Greco-Roman economic, political and cultural matrix.

MAP:Byzantine world

Constantine's legalization of Christianity was crucial for the subsequent development of the Byzantine empire. Gradually, over the following centuries, the Christian religion became the offical religion of the Empire -- and of medieval western Europe as well -- while pagan cults diminished both in importance and in the number of their adherents.

By the end of the sixth century the Empire was embattled on all sides. Thereafter, its territorial holdings diminished as it lost control of the West to Northern European invaders and parts of the East to Persian, and then to Arab Islamic rule. By the time of its final collapse in the middle of the fifteenth century, the empire was no larger than its capital city, Constantinople.

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