Thrown toward an enemy, it would ignite on contact, and its fire could not be put out with water. For centuries, Greek fire was an effective and terrifying weapon of the Byzantine navy.

A map shows the Byzantine empire to 1360.
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The Byzantine empire reached its greatest size by 565.

Analyze Maps

Describe the Byzantine empire's extent in 1020.


What does the empire's size in 565 suggest about Justinian's rule?

The Empire Declines

The fortunes of the Byzantine empire rose and fell in the centuries after Justinian. Time and again, its skilled forces held off attacks by invaders. The empire withstood successive attacks by Persians, Slavs, Vikings, Huns, Arabs, and Turks. The empire thus served as a buffer for Western Europe by absorbing the brunt of invasions from the east. Among the fiercest attacks came from the Arab armies that were carrying a new religion, Islam, into the Mediterranean world and beyond.

In the 600s and 700s, Arab armies overran the wealthy Byzantine provinces of Egypt and Syria before advancing on Constantinople. The city held out, eventually turning back the attacks. By resisting the Arab advance, the Byzantine empire gave a measure of security to the small, weak Germanic kingdoms that had divided up Western Europe after the fall of Rome.

Changes in Western Europe

In Europe, the centuries after the fall of Rome are called the Middle Ages, which lasted from about 500 to 1350. The Middle Ages refers to the time between the ancient and modern worlds. During this long stretch of time, Western Europe passed through two distinct phases: the early Middle Ages, lasting from about 500 to 1050, and the late Middle Ages, lasting from about 1050 to 1350.

A Shift to the North

At its height, the Roman empire included much of Western Europe. Rome unified the region and spread classical ideas, the Latin language, and Christianity to the tribal peoples of Western Europe. But Rome was a Mediterranean power. The Germanic peoples who ended Roman rule in the west shifted the focus to the north. There, the peoples of Europe would begin to create a new civilization, building on the legacy of Rome.

Despite the disorder and decay that came with the fall of Rome, Western Europe was a place of great potential. It had fertile land and other resources, such as timber, furs, and tin. In the early Middle Ages, gradual changes took place that would eventually bring a measure of order.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments