7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Posted by Powee Celdran 

Hello everyone and welcome back to my personal blog site! It’s been more than 3 years since I last published something here, but now I’m back. For now, the topic will not be so much like the usual military history analyses, my bathroom art, or historical figures collection. This time, I am back to discuss my favorite topic, Byzantium and why I write about the history of it and why to be interested in it. A lot of people in present day happen to have an interest for ancient and medieval history and there are several books published about Ancient Greece and Rome, as well as Medieval and Renaissance Western Europe, but one particular part of medieval history does not get much attention, this is the history of the Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) which has been around for more than a thousand years spanning the whole middle ages and encountering a variety of different empires, cultures, and races. With the lack of popular books, movies, and TV series about the history of Byzantium, Byzantine history and culture happens to be underrated, but still there are so many interesting things about this era and this empire that has ruled the busiest part of the world back then, the Eastern Mediterranean and till this day has left behind a great cultural legacy especially in the arts and religion. For me, I have always been into Greek, Roman, and Medieval history but the time period and empire I have always been fascinated with was Byzantium after discovering it from old and new books. Now here are 7 reasons to be interested in Byzantine history.

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Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols

 

I. More than a Thousand Years of History Encountering Everyone

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Byzantine Empire at its height (565)
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Byzantine Constantinople

 

The Byzantine Empire, also known as the Eastern Roman Empire is basically the continuation of the original Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. Ever since the capital of the Roman Empire was moved to Constantinople in 330AD by Emperor Constantine I, although the city itself has been around since the 7th century BC founded by Greek colonists. Even if Byzantium is culturally more Greek with the use of the Greek language, they were still considered the successors of the once powerful Roman Empire and in the early part of the Middle Ages, Byzantium was the powerful empire while the rest of Europe was at the Dark Ages as the medieval kingdoms of France, England, Spain, and Germany were forming. Although the Byzantine Empire lasted for more than a thousand years (330-1453), it was only in its first few centuries when they were at their height of power, particularly during the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-65) when they possessed a large amount of territories covering parts of the old Roman world. As the Byzantines have ruled over the Eastern Mediterranean and parts of Europe, the Middle East, and Africa for this long period of time, they have encountered so many different types of peoples from empires to tribes to traders and naval powers. The many different type of cultures and people the Byzantines encountered from outside include the Sassanid Persians, Vandals, Goths, Huns, Ostrogoths, Avars, Slavs, Alans, the Kievan Rus’, Arabs, Bulgars, Serbs, Venetians, Crusaders, Genoese, and the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. Even people such as the Vikings, Ethiopians, Mongols, and Chinese have traded and interacted with the Byzantines with the Vikings even serving as the imperial bodyguard known as the Varangian guards; on the other hand, it is said that some Byzantine traders and priests have reached China after being taken into the Mongol lands. Many of these people have been allies with the Byzantines at times but at times their enemies against other enemies. The Rus’ and Bulgars have at some points been allies to Byzantium but Byzantium’s biggest mortal enemies have been the Sassanid Persians, Arabs, Crusaders, and of course the Ottoman Turks who fully defeated the Byzantine Empire in 1453 after the capture of Constantinople. The reason for why Byzantium has encountered all these people is not so much that they have been around for 1000+ years but mostly because of their empire’s location, situated between Europe and Asia.

Read this for a more general overview of Byzantium

 

II. The Legacy of the Roman Empire

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Mosaic of Emperor Justinian I and his entourage

The Byzantine Empire to understand it fully was the continuation of the Roman Empire that lasted throughout the Middle Ages for 1,100 years. The Roman Empire at its height in the 2nd century covered almost all of the known world spanning from Britain to the north, Egypt to the south, the Atlantic coast of Portugal to the west, and the Persian Gulf to the east. However, in the end of the 3rd century, the empire was divided between east and west and in 330, the capital was moved to Constantinople and the east grew more powerful as the west declined from Barbarian invasions. After the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395, the empire was fully divided with Constantinople as the powerful capital of the Eastern Empire and Rome losing its significance as the Western Empire was on the decline and by 455, Rome was taken over by the Vandals leading to the full collapse of the Western Roman Empire and the transition of Italy into the Ostrogothic Kingdom, while France fell to the Franks, Britain to the Saxons, Spain to Visigoths, and North Africa to the Vandals. Meanwhile, the east remained strong and with Justinian I as emperor (527-65), his mission was to reclaim the west from the Barbarians and restore Roman rule from Constantinople. As emperor, Justinian did not only recapture Italy and North Africa by the conquests of his general Belisarius, as emperor he built the cathedral of Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the Middle Ages and to continue the Roman legacy in Byzantium, he codified all the previous laws of the past Roman emperors into a book of 4,652 laws known as “Corpus Juris Civilis” or “Body of Civil Laws” to make the laws more consistent and up to this day, his laws are used as a model for the laws of most countries. In the codified version, the previous Roman laws were retained but reformed in the way that it was made easier to free slaves and sell land but also made crimes out of heresy and seduction. Other than the laws, Byzantium continued the Roman legacy with its impressive works of architecture including the domes and arches of the churches and palaces, roads, aqueducts, movable mills, and bridges. The Byzantines also kept a lot of Roman traditions such as the sport of racing at the Hippodromes such as the grand Hippodrome of Constantinople but they also improved Roman architecture by creating cisterns. In language, the Byzantines mostly used Greek as most of the empire’s inhabitants were either Greek or spoke it but Latin was used for official purposes. What they changed from Rome was the Christian religion or Orthodoxy and other practices used by them were adopted from the east including the use of silk robes and jewelled crowns by the emperors. On the other hand, the Byzantines still used the imperial symbol of Rome, which was a gold eagle except changing the design by using 2 heads and instead of the SPQR standard, they replaced it with PX but the colors of gold and red were unchanged. Another Roman system the Byzantines used was the division of land into military regions which the Byzantines called themes found all over their empire. Overall, Byzantium was an integration of Greek, Roman, Eastern, and Christian traditions. More or less, the Byzantines were the descendants of Rome but were not entirely Romans because they did not rule from Rome, although the inhabitants of Constantinople and the empire considered themselves Roman.

 

III. Richness of Art and Architecture

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Sample, Byzantine style church

Till this day, everyone will remember Byzantium for its art and architecture which has a distinct look. For architecture, the best example of it is the former Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople (Istanbul) which was built in 537 and back then, they could already build a large dome that high. Other forms of Byzantine architecture include several other former churches in Istanbul including the Chora monastery and the monasteries of Greece and Bulgaria, as well as the architectural style of red bricks and protruding 2nd floors. In Eastern Europe, the architectural style of their churches was based on the Byzantine style of several small domes and arched windows and entryways. Other than churches, the Byzantines built impressive fortifications that could even go uphill like the walls of Constantinople and Thessaloniki. With the richness of its architecture, Byzantium was even more renowned for its imperial art consisting of colorful mosaics, frescoes, and ivory carvings. In some Byzantine churches like the Hagia Sophia and San Vitale in Ravenna, mosaics made of thousands of tiles, mostly gold for the backgrounds decorate its walls and ceilings. Byzantine art is in many ways distinct as it usually portrays religious subjects and are painted in a way that it looks colorful with a background of darkness and expressionless characters but at the same time full of life. Many works of Byzantine art are done using mosaics but these were very laborious in the making as some consisted of thousands of tiles. The more common form of Byzantine art were frescoes such as those seen in the church of Chora, several in Greece, and the ones in the town of Ohrid in Macedonia. Another ornate form the Byzantines did art in was in the form of ivory carvings as well as engravings on gold with jewelry forming objects like crosses, boxes, and frames. Till this day, the Byzantines have left behind a great legacy in the arts and in the Middle Ages it has fascinated western ambassadors from France and the Holy Roman Empire which inspired them to use Byzantine art as a model for Gothic and later Renaissance art in Europe.

Read this for more about Byzantine art and architecture

 

IV. A History of Trade and Luxuries

Being around for more than a thousand years, the Byzantine Empire maintained its wealth and power through trade and diplomacy. As the empire was at the center of the known world and its capital in a strategic position, it grew rich from trade with most of the world as many trade routes passed the Byzantine Empire. From within the empire during its apex in the 6th century, grain to make bread given away for free to citizens came from Egypt, furs came from Scythia in the north of the Black Sea, and jewels, sugar, and silks came from the east and south. Meanwhile the west did not have much to offer for trade except for wine and furs but since Byzantium was at the center of trade routes between east and west, north and south, the Byzantines had access to all these goods. The Silk Route even passed the empire which means that they even had access to the silk and other rare materials from China. With all these goods passing the empire, the Byzantines made good use of them using jewels and gold for their art and churches and silks for the clothing of the emperors and nobility. The Byzantine nobility had a high sense of fashion by using expensive silk and wearing layers of them while the Byzantine empresses dressed up with lots of jewelry. With the influences from eastern powers like Sassanid Persia, the Byzantine imperial court enjoyed a life of luxury with fine food, expensive clothes, and playing Polo (called Tzykanion in Greek) which was adopted from Persia. Even with the Byzantine Empire slowly losing its territory, it still retained its wealth through trade and merchants but this source of wealth was still looked down upon by the senators and nobles of the empire who preferred the feudal system for their wealth. In later centuries, as the empire was losing its influence and Venice gaining theirs, the Byzantines still valued luxury goods but when it came to trading they would never export the expensive purple silks reserved for the imperial court and the powerful weapon known as Greek Fire. Although because of too much luxury, this is became one of the causes of Byzantium’s downfall.

 

V. The Byzantine Army and Navy

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Dromon warship

Several times before, the Byzantine Army was a subject of my articles and this is because their army has an interesting story of adopting both eastern and western military tactics, armor, and weaponry.  At the beginning, even when their empire was at its height, their army was not as powerful as the Romans before them or the Persian armies but they were still many in numbers and had great strategic generals like Belisarius who managed to reconquer North Africa and Italy as well as defeat the Persians several times. By the 7th century, the Byzantines had lost all the lands they have reconquered mainly because their war tactics were outdated as they still used the same tactics the Romans used and their enemies such as the Lombards, Persians, and Arabs came in large numbers with a strong cavalry. Over the next years, the Byzantines developed new tactics and military units including a heavy armored cavalry known as the Cataphracts and using Nordic mercenaries for the imperial bodyguard known as the Varangian Guards. The Byzantines used armor that did not look very much like Medieval European armor but rather with more eastern influences such as the use of the plated lamellar armor which were also used by the Arab, Mongol, and Chinese armies. For weapons, the Byzantines mostly used western swords, axes, spears, and maces but archery and defensive strategies was something they were skilled at such as when they defended Constantinople from the simultaneous invasion of the Avars, Slavs, and Persians in 626. The Byzantine Army would later decline after their defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071 and from then, they would suffer more humiliating defeats such as the capture of Constantinople by the crusaders in 1204 but later Byzantium was still restored, but in its last decades reduced in territory as the Ottomans surrounded Constantinople until the capital fell in 1453 becoming the new capital of the Ottoman Empire. With already a strong army, the Byzantine Navy was equally powerful as well as they were a naval empire that controlled the Eastern Mediterranean and Black Sea. The navy was not powerful because of having a large fleet of Dromon ships but because of a powerful siege weapon known as Greek Fire that was used as a flamethrower against enemy ships. The formula for this weapon has disappeared as the Byzantine emperors kept it confidential to them and its formula later died with the empire but it still was an effective weapon against the Kievan Rus’ invaders who jumped into the sea in fear of the fire. Siege weapons other than Greek Fire including the counterweight trebuchet, clay grenades, and a portable flame thrower were all invented by the Byzantines.

Read this for more about the Byzantine Army

and this for more about the Byzantine Navy 

 

VI. Interesting Imperial Intrigues and Inspirational Stories

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Manuscript of John Skylitzes, found in Madrid

The word “Byzantine” is now used for something meaning complicated in political terms and true enough this word comes from the Byzantine Empire which had very complex political situations. Several plots took place in the imperial court especially in overthrowing emperors or removing someone in court. Ever since Byzantium began in the 4th century, plots within the court have already been taking place and over the centuries many emperors were assassinated and died very violent ways when someone plots to take over the throne. One of the emperors who died a violent death was Leo V being stabbed and mutilated during the Christmas Mass service; then there was Emperor Nikephoros II who was assassinated by his wife’s orders in his bedroom; and then there was Andronicus I who was tortured for days before being stabbed to death. Other emperors were either stabbed, blinded, or poisoned while the last emperor, Constantine XI died when the city fell to the Ottomans in 1453 but few of them such as Justinian I died a peaceful death. Other than all the violent intrigues, there are a lot of inspirational stories from the Byzantine emperors and their rise to power. Unlike in Western Europe where the kings are succeeded by their children, things were different in Byzantium, although it was intended to be a hereditary monarchy, except that plots always happened and the emperors had favorites in their courts and before dying would appoint these favorites as their successors. One of these stories includes Emperor Basil I who started out as a Macedonian peasant but moved to Constantinople and joined the imperial court becoming a favorite of Emperor Michael III, although Basil plotted the assassination of Michael making himself emperor. Justinian I also had an interesting story of rising to power, although it came with the help of his uncle who became Emperor Justin I who came from a peasant background originally from Macedonia. The young Justinian grew up as a Macedonian peasant but when his uncle became a captain of the imperial guard to Emperor Anastasius I, Justinian was taken into Constantinople to be educated and later became a member of the imperial guard as well. When Anastasius I died, there was a debate on who to succeed him and with the help of a young Justinian, his uncle Justin became emperor for the next 10 years leaving the throne to him after his death. Even coming from a commoner background, Justinian became the greatest emperor of Byzantium, and at the same time his wife, Empress Theodora began as a stage performer until marrying Justinian when he was a member of the senate, later they would rule the empire and Theodora would be her husband’s advisor and was very effective in shaping the empire.

 

VII. Inventions and Ideas that Changed Europe

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Sts. Cyril and Methodios

The Byzantines would be best remembered for Orthodox Christianity and influencing Eastern Europe with it beginning with the Byzantine Greek missionaries St. Cyril and St. Methodios being sent to convert the Slavs of modern-day Yugoslavian countries up to Czechia and Poland by teaching the faith to them in their Slavic tongues. Not only did these missionaries convert the Slavs to Christianity, they invented the Cyrillic Alphabet based on the Greek one which became the official alphabet used in Serbia, Bulgaria and later in Ukraine and Russia as Christianity reached those parts. Because of this, Byzantine art and architecture inspired the architecture and art of the churches of Slavic countries. Within the empire, the Byzantines safeguarded the knowledge found in ancient Greek texts including history, literature, and philosophy as they had control of Greece and during its existence, Byzantium made sure these texts were not lost otherwise the world would later have no idea of Greek knowledge. Because of this, scholars from Byzantium later fled to Western Europe, particularly Italy when Byzantium was slowly falling to the Ottomans. This then gave birth to the Renaissance when scholars of Italy and other parts of Western Europe rediscovered classical knowledge from the texts kept by the Byzantines adapting it to their society through art, architecture, and philosophy. Other than big ideas of law, philosophy, and religion, the Byzantines have also contributed smaller inventions to the rest of Europe, one of them being the simple utensil of the fork. It is unclear if the Byzantines were first to use the fork or if it has already been used in the eastern world, but Europe in the Middle Ages never knew about using a fork for eating and instead used their fingers. One Byzantine princess, Maria Agyropoulina who was to marry a Venetian prince in the early 11th century was seen using a utensil with 2 points for eating, which the Venetians found strange but after this, Europeans began using the fork. When other Byzantine princesses married into European royalty, silks, art, and jewelry were brought into Europe. Aside from all their ideas and inventions, the Byzantines helped Europe a lot by being its bulwark against Islamic invaders such as the Arabs and the Turks, without the existence of Byzantium or their army, Eastern and Central Europe would fall under Middle Eastern control. However, even with the Byzantines, the Arabs still made their way into Europe through Spain establishing the Moorish kingdoms but it was only present in the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand, Byzantium still fell to the Muslim Ottomans who still conquered parts of Europe but at the same time gave introduced new cultural influences.

 

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As this article concludes, there are some things I have to say about Byzantium and their rich history. First of all, this civilization is underrated and not given much attention to as well as being not as remembered as the Roman Empire, Renaissance Italy, Medieval Europe, and the history of England and France. Byzantium has an equally fascinating history as those mentioned earlier and despite its obscurity, it has influenced European culture in many ways such as in the arts, architecture, law, and even in being the catalyst of the Renaissance and bringing in new ideas such as the fork. In literature, many authors including J.R.R. Tolkien used the Byzantine Empire as the inspiration for Gondor in the Lord of the Rings novels as it made allies and enemies with its surrounding realms like Byzantium. Byzantine culture integrated Greek, Roman, and Eastern traditions and kept it for the next 1,100 years and even after its fall in 1453 and by being the successor of the Romans, Byzantium was formally called the Eastern Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, and the name “Byzantine Empire” was a term used by westerners to not legitimize them as the Romans as for them the Holy Roman Empire of Germany was considered the new Rome but for the Arabs and Turks, the Byzantines were considered Romans. The strange thing today is that even with a lot of Byzantine influence in culture, many western countries do not care much about Byzantium and haven’t really published a lot of books or made movies or series about it despite its rich history. Before I finish, I would like to say that Byzantine history is the most interesting field in history I have read about and learning about their culture and inventions is very surprising as it has not really been talked about. In reality, I am a person who is majoring in the business field of Entrepreneurship as a backup but in another reality, I would be a full scholar of Byzantine studies. But even while studying my current course, I think Byzantine history has an important role especially in the business side of the empire on how it handled its economy, traded with the east and west, and managed businesses. Well, this is all for now and hope this was an interesting read… thanks for viewing!

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