Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (A review on Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium”)

Posted by Powee Celdran

In this sense, Byzantine culture embodies the French historian Fernand Braudel’s notion of the longue durée, the long term: that which survives the vicissitudes of changing governments, newfangled fashions or technological improvements, an ongoing inheritance that can both imprison and inspire.” -Judith Herrin, on Byzantium

“Byzantium” by Judith Herrin (Penguin Classics)

Hello everyone and welcome back to my articles! This one will once again be about Byzantium, but unlike my last article, this will be more on insider facts on the history of the Byzantine Empire. The title of this new article is exactly the tile of an interesting book I have finished in which I have learned so much about the 1,100-year life of the Byzantine Empire; this book is entitled “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” by Judith Herrin, published in 2007. And as I have mentioned, last February I published an article on “7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium”, which was more on general knowledge of the empire’s history and their greatest contributions to history, this time, this article will be more on smaller details about the Byzantine Empire. Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium” explains in detail all the intriguing facts of the Byzantine Empire making it one of history’s most colorful empires. As I have mentioned 2 articles ago, the Byzantine Empire lasted from 330-1453 and was one of the most advanced societies of the Middle Ages compared to the kingdoms of Western Europe as they had a strong legal and educational system, innovated inventions and philosophies, sophisticated architecture, and advanced siege weapons including Greek Fire, but the only problem is that they are not as well remembered today. As my previous Byzantine article featured the more commonly known facts of the empire not so commonly known, this time I will focus more on the lesser known facts of the empire which is already less known today. These lesser known facts may have influenced history in many ways, but some of them may be very trivial as well; these include the Byzantine imperial court, the economy, the inventions they’ve made, and even facts about their history including their role in the 1st and 4th crusades and their role as a cosmopolitan melting pot between east and west. As a blogger, it is my part to give life to the history of Byzantium which has been forgotten over time by many including those I know who have little to no idea about its name and existence. Now here are the 10 surprising facts about Byzantium.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols

Read my previous articles for more about Byzantium:

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantine Siegecraft and naval warfare 

The Byzantine Army 

Byzantine art, architecture, fashion


I. Byzantine Empire- Its Name?

Roman-Byzantine Empire mash-up flag
News on Constantine I moving Rome’s capital
Constantinople as the “New Rome”
Division of the Roman Empire- Western Empire (red), Eastern Empire or Byzantium (purple)

First of all, let’s start with the empire’s name. Most of us know that the Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire that survived throughout the Middle Ages, but what we don’t know here is that it was never called the “Byzantine Empire” or “Byzantium” until the 18th and 19th centuries when western historians gave it that name. In reality, the Byzantine Empire in its 1,100-year existence was called the “Eastern Roman Empire” or even just the “Roman Empire” even without having Rome as its capital or even controlling Rome. The inhabitants of Byzantium called themselves “Romans” (Romaioi in Greek) but were mostly Greek by ethnicity and used Greek starting in the 7th century as the empire’s official language replacing Latin, but still called themselves Romans as they were the continuation of the old Roman Empire which controlled a much larger part of the known world. The name “Byzantine” came from the original name of its capital, Constantinople which was “Byzantium” named after the Greek colonist Byzas of Megara who founded the settlement at the narrow strait of the Bosporus between Europe and Asia in the 7th century BC. When Roman Emperor Constantine I the Great moved the empire’s capital from Rome to the settlement of Byzantium (Byzantion in Greek) in 330, he renamed it “Constantinople” after himself. Shortly after the capital was moved, Constantinople grew into a large metropolis like Rome except much more impressive and strategic in location, which also gained it its nickname “Nova Roma” or “New Rome”. Even being mostly Greek, the Byzantine people kept a lot of their old Roman traditions and practices including the laws, architecture, and military structure, but Orthodox Christianity was its official religion replacing the old Roman Paganism. The difference between Rome and Byzantium was that the Romans controlled a massive empire twice the size of Byzantium at their height of power, although the Byzantine Empire probably had a lot more inhabitants as the population doubled in their era while the Roman Empire controlled parts of the empire that were barely populated.

Watch this for a summary on Byzantium:  


II. Byzantine Economy and the “Themes”

Map of the Byzantine Themes
Detailed map of the Themes in Anatolia

In the 6th century, Byzantium was at their height of power during the reign of its most influential emperor, Justinian I the Great, when the empire controlled almost the whole Mediterranean including Italy, North Africa, and Southern Spain but in the next century all these lands were lost due to constant invasions. Most of Italy was lost to the Lombards while the Sassanid Persians took most of the eastern lands including Egypt which cut off the empire’s free bread supply, making the Byzantines rely on Thrace (present day Bulgaria and Northern Greece) for bread supply which was no longer free. As the empire was downsizing in the 7th and 8th centuries due to a new threat, the Arabs, its economy began to decline so the emperor, Leo III reorganized the imperial provincial structure by creating Themes (Themata in Greek) or military districts controlled by a general (strategos in Greek) and each theme recruited soldiers locally who joined the army in exchange for land in their theme. As mentioned in the chapter of the book about the Byzantine economy, the themes or military districts were found all over Anatolia (Turkey) and Greece and were named after the military units recruited in each of them. This was a semi-feudal system but not like in Western Europe because in Byzantium, these themes were not controlled by land lords but by generals who answered directly to the emperor, although this system was effective in sustaining the Byzantine economy and recruiting and training enough soldiers to defend the empire and the capital against Arab and Slavic invasions. Aside from land themes, there were naval themes which had control over the waters of the Eastern Mediterranean recruiting locals to the navy. The military themes of Byzantium also helped in growing the army by training farmer-soldiers to be the elite cavalry force or the Cataphracts and the armor and weapons of the soldiers were all made centrally in each theme. With the themes in function, the Byzantines created a signalling system with beacons equidistant to each other, and in time of conflict such as when an invader approaches, the beacons are lit to ask for help from the next theme. The system of the themes was in use all the way to the end of the empire in 1453 even as the empire gradually downsized. This beacon lighting system of the Byzantines is very much like the one seen in the 3rd Lord of the Rings movie “The Return of the King” (2003).

Watch this for more info on the Byzantine economy and the themes: 


III. Byzantine Imperial Court and the Purple Room

Byzantine imperial throne

The Byzantine Empire may have faced economic problems several times, but this did not stop the highly luxurious imperial court life in the Magnaura and later the Blachernae palaces at Constantinople. In the chapter of the book about the imperial court, the author describes in detail how foreign ambassadors were received and their impressions of the court life. The imperial throne room was lavishly decorated with mosaics, arches, and marble tiles while the emperor’s throne was elevated and was even pushed up by hydraulics to make the emperor look divine, meanwhile the throne was flanked by 2 golden lions inspired by the Persian imperial throne. The imperial court received all sorts of foreign ambassadors including Arabs, Turks, Italians, Slavs, the Rus’ (Nordic blood Russians), and Franks and all had exceptional impressions of the court and of the Hagia Sophia, the largest church in the world during the Middle Ages with an extraordinary dome that high that it looked like it was hanging from heaven. Court affairs and events were managed by the Eunuchs, which shows that events management and organization was one of the skills possessed by the Byzantines. One of documented visits to the imperial court was by Liutprand of Cremona, an Italian bishop and diplomat who described his 1st visit to Constantinople in 949 in the court of Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos in a positive way as he was treated with respect. Meanwhile, he describes his 2nd visit in 968 at the court of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas negatively because he was humiliated by eating not the same food as the emperor and his guests at the far end of the table. Other notable guests at the imperial court included Princess Olga of Kiev in the 10th century and Harald Hardrada in the 11th century who later became king of Norway. Apart from the luxurious life of the court, the imperial palace at Constantinople had a purple room where the imperial children were born to legitimize their claim to the throne. In the ancient days, purple was the royal color as it only came from expensive materials such as the murex shell and the dyeing process was expensive, which made purple silks only restricted to emperors and high-ranking officials. Meanwhile, the purple room wasn’t only made purple from silks but from its purple walls made from porphyry, a rare and expensive purple stone. In the chapter of the book about the purple room, almost all the emperors from the Macedonian, Komnenos, and Palaiologos dynasties were born in it; the male heirs born in it had the tile “Porphyrogennetos” meaning “born in the purple”, this included Constantine VII while female heirs born in it like the historian princess Anna Komnene had the title “Porphyrogenita”. The practice of the children born in the purple room to secure their legitimacy to the throne from rivals was kept until the empire’s end in the 15th century. The Byzantine court life was nothing compared to the courts of the Medieval European kingdoms in terms of opulence, that it became the inspiration for the court of Louis XIV at the Versailles in the 17th century.


IV. Icons and Iconoclasm

Byzantine mosaic icon depicting Christ Pantokrator with Emperor Constantine IX and Empress Zoe

You cannot simply go on talking about Byzantium without mentioning the Greek Orthodox religion and their iconic works of art for worship or icons; it is like talking about Medieval Western Europe without mentioning the role of the Catholic Church, or modern Japanese culture without mentioning anime, or Star Wars without any mention of The Force. In Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium”, several chapters were dedicated to the Greek Orthodox faith and how it played a role in shaping the empire; these chapters included how the Byzantine Empire made Orthodoxy grow in Eastern Europe not just by setting up churches and monasteries but by converting the Slavs with missionaries such as St. Cyril and St. Methodios, also there is a chapter on the church of Hagia Sophia, the monasteries of Mt. Athos, the unstable relations between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople, and of course about the veneration of icons and the movement of Iconoclasm that went against the icons. The art form of icons dates back to the early days of Christianity even before the Byzantine Empire, and in fact the 8th century Byzantines identify St. Luke the Evangelist in the 1st century as the 1st icon painter. The icons (eikon in Greek, meaning “image”) were in fact a tradition dating back to the Pagan ancient Greeks and Roman who used images of their gods and prayed to them. As Christianity spread around the Mediterranean during the era of the Roman Empire, early Christians mixed Christian traditions with their old Pagan beliefs including venerating saints through painted images, which were icons. Many icons show detailed and impressive images while the even more impressively made ones are the mosaics found at churches, although some churches use detailed and darkly colored frescoes. These icons were not just impressive art to look at but helped people visualize when they prayed. Even if icons remained a vital part of Byzantine life, they were not always respected as we think they are because there was one long period of time from 726-842 when the Byzantines literally had a war on icons called the Iconoclast movement. It began with Emperor Leo III in 726; he and his army were originally from Anatolia which had been attacked several times by the Muslim Arabs who forbade the use of human images, this probably influenced these Byzantines to impose it on their faith and culture. For years, the Byzantines destroyed the images of Christ, the Virgin Mary (Theotokos in Greek), and the saints justifying their actions by following one of the commandments in the 10 Commandments that prohibits the worship of images as it is considered idolatry. However, the movement of Iconoclasm did not go on forever; in 842, Empress Theodora, the wife of the late emperor Theophilos ended the movement by having the icons restored, and in the next years, the Iconoclast movement never returned.


V. Greek Fire- A Secret Weapon

Greek Fire, operated by Byzantine soldiers
Greek Fire, Byzantine invention (Madrid Skylitzes)

As I have mentioned before in previous articles, one thing that made the Byzantine Empire strong in defending itself against enemies was a secret artillery weapon kept only to themselves- and died with them- which was “Greek Fire” or “Sea Fire” (Pyr Thalássion in Greek). Greek Fire was a mysterious incendiary weapon- a flamethrower long before the 20th century- used for naval combat blowing out liquid fire to burn enemy ships. Its power wasn’t only to burn ships and enemy troops but the fire it blew out could even float on water and scare the enemies away. The liquid fire was based on a compound of naphtha and quicklime as well as pine resin, sulfur, and saltpeter, but what remains a mystery is how the weapon was manufactured as well as the hydraulic mechanisms (the naphtha material came from the Crimea above the Black Sea, which was also part of Byzantine territory). The only Byzantine era depiction of Greek fire is found at the 11th century chronicles of John Skylitzes, now found at the National Library in Madrid, which shows that Greek fire came out of siphon from an artillery weapon in which air was pumped to release the fire. If Greek Fire was already a technologically advanced weapon back then, the Byzantines even had something more unbelievable, which was a handheld version of Greek Fire used for sieging cities, this was known as a Cheirosiphon. The ancient flamethrower was invented in around 672, possibly by a man named Kallinikos before the first long Arab siege of Constantinople in which the Byzantines successfully defended their capital with the use of Greek Fire, and again from 717-18 it successfully defended the capital from the 2nd Arab siege. Constantinople already had triple-layered impregnable walls, but when enemies came from the sea, Greek Fire was the most powerful weapon to drive away invaders, not just the Arabs but the Rus’ as well who have raided the Bosporus in the 10th century. Since Greek Fire was the weapon that other kingdoms and empires at that time wanted from the Byzantines, Emperor Constantine VII kept it a state secret to not be shared to anyone else but the Byzantines; he also warns his son, who would be Emperor Romanos II to not reveal the secrets of the weapon to anyone as rulers of foreign lands always ask the Byzantines for Greek Fire and imperial brides. A chapter in Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium” is dedicated to Greek Fire as an imperial secret, although it also mentions that in 2006, the historian John Haldon tried to recreate Greek Fire. In the video game “Assassin’s Creed: Revelations” (2011), you can actually get to operate Greek Fire in a mission, although while playing it, it gives you the impression that Greek Fire was hard to operate and with the wind, the fire’s direction cannot really be controlled, it was also slow to move, heavy, and could easily explode on its user.

Watch this to see how Greek Fire is operated:


VI. A Literate and Articulate Society

Manuscript of the Byzantine University at Constantinople

As mentioned in one chapter in the book, the Byzantine Empire was an advanced medieval society mainly being a literate and articulate one. Unlike in Medieval Western Europe where education was only reserved for those wanting a career in the church, in Byzantium it was open to any boys to train them for their future careers whether in the church, civil administrations, or in the army. Part of the Byzantine educational system was the preservation of Ancient Greek and Roman philosophies, literature, and sciences which were taught to Byzantine boys that attended to school in order to learn about their past and apply it to their lives. Learning centers were found in towns and cities all over the empire, but the best ones were at the capital where boys would learn from professionals in the empire; although monasteries provided basic education as well as to teach the common people to read and write. Education began with primary school for boys ages 8-10 where they would learn basic vocabulary and writing in Greek, then for secondary education they would learn the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic as well as the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The best universities in the empire were found in certain cities for specific courses; for philosophy the best schools were in Athens, then for law it was at Berytus (Beirut) when it was still under Byzantium in the earlier history of the empire, then Constantinople had the best schools for theology and philosophy. The rulers of Byzantium valued educations and literacy highly, which meant that scholars also preserved the notable Ancient Greek and Roman works including the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle, the literature of Homer and Virgil, the histories of Herodotus and Thucydides, and the geography of Ptolemy. The Byzantines were also innovative in language by making Greek the official language replacing Latin during the reign of Emperor Heraclius in the 7th century which meant that they later developed a new form of Greek language for the common people known as Demotic Greek instead of using the sophisticated tongue of Attic Greek, although Demotic Greek was still confusing and redundant. The high literacy rate and scholarly culture made Byzantium a sophisticated civilization but this made them be criticized by the West for being cowards and not strong warriors like the westerners such as the Franks.


VII. A Cosmopolitan Society

Varangian Guards in battle with Emperor Basil II
Illustration of Constantinople with the Pera district (right)
Jews in Byzantium

Being located in the intersection of Europe, Asia, and Africa and at the Silk Route, the Byzantine Empire and particularly its capital, Constantinople had a cosmopolitan society with different races and traditions seen side by side with each other. Like London and New York today or Coruscant in Star Wars, Constantinople had a rich mix of cultures and races which meant a melting pot of different cuisines, customs, goods, outfits, and faiths; this mix of people included Varangians including Russians and Norsemen, Persians, Arabs, Turks, Khazars, Armenians and Georgians, Scythians, Italians, and Jews. The most notable group of foreigners found in the capital were the Varangians, which were a mix of large blonde Nordic and Russian men in the service of the emperor as his bodyguards. The Varangian Guard unit was formed by Emperor Basil II the Bulgar Slayer in 988 as his elite warrior force in which he asked for from Prince Vladimir of Kiev in exchange for marriage to his sister, Anna Porphyrogenita. The Varangians settled within the city carrying their large Nordic battleaxes but wearing the plated Byzantine armor, but they looked different from the rest of the Greek population by being large in size with blonde hair and beards in which the emperors found exotic; most of these Norsemen however served for a period of 10 years in the army before returning to their northern lands instead of settling down and marrying in Byzantium. The Varangians were determined to serve the imperial court particularly because they would be paid a lot and when they returned, they came home rich with silks and gems from Byzantium; notable people who served the Byzantine Empire in the Varangian Guard were Harald Hardrada and Sigurd who later became kings of Norway. Apart from the Norsemen who came to Constantinople via the rivers of Eastern Europe into the Black Sea in long ships, another large group of foreign settlers in the capital were Italian merchants which included Genoese, Venetians, and Pisans. The Genoese were a strong ally of the Byzantines living in the district of Pera in the north of the Golden Horn, in fact the Genoese even helped in the final defence of the city in 1453. Meanwhile, the Venetians were once allies of the Byzantines supplying their ships when the Byzantines fought the Normans in Southern Italy during the 11th century, however in 1171 with Venice growing as a large naval power in the Mediterranean, the Byzantine Emperor Manuel I Komnenos ordered the Venetians kicked out of the capital together with destroying their ships and imprisoning merchants which led to Venice’s embitterment towards the empire and their reason to attack Constantinople in 1204. Georgians and Armenians were another large population within the empire and most of them became commanders in the army and gained their fortune there one of the notable ones include Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (920-944) who was an Armenian; meanwhile Arabs were also living in the empire practicing their Islamic faith since there were also times when the Arabs and Byzantines were at peace with each other. Lastly, another large group of people that lived within the empire were Jews in which the proud Christian Byzantines were not too hostile towards but they would still discriminate and shout insults at them or throw the dirty tanning water at them for not accepting Christianity and sticking to their ancient religion. In truth, the Byzantines mostly found the Jews to be very mysterious and suspicious for sticking only to each other and living near their synagogues when they could live anywhere. Even after the fall of the empire in 1453, Constantinople still remained a cosmopolitan city under the Ottomans, and till now modern day Istanbul still displays a melting pot of cultures. Out of the many chapters in the book, the one about the Byzantine cosmopolitan society is one of my favorites as it shows that Byzantium was not only a Greek empire but incorporated many cultures into it, which means that this is one thing I would do an article on in the future.


VIII. The Crusades and the Temporary Death of Byzantium

Map of the route of the 1st Crusade
Map of the route of the 4th Crusade
Division of Byzantium after the 4th Crusade of 1204
Michael VIII Palaiologos re-enters Constantinople restoring Byzantium in 1261

A few chapters in the book are dedicated to the story of the crusades and the role of Byzantium in taking part in starting the 1st crusade in 1096 and the attack of the capital in 1204 which nearly ended the empire, which eventually resumed in 1261. First of all, in 1071 the Byzantine army suffered a heavy defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert leaving the Seljuks to take over almost the whole of Anatolia eventually heading south capturing Jerusalem to make their way into Egypt. The Byzantines were short of troops which meant that Emperor Alexios I Komnenos asked for help from the west for armies to fight the Seljuks leading Pope Urban II in 1095 to call for the 1st crusade movement in Clermont, France. In 1096, the people’s crusade began and many travelling by foot passed through Constantinople before heading to Antioch and Palestine, and in Constantinople many westerners (known as the Latins) settled and became advisers in the imperial court. During the time of the crusades in the 12th century, the west started having negative feelings towards Byzantium characterizing them as cowards for making peace deals with their enemy, the Islamic Caliphates of the east and for asking too much help from the without offering much in return. In 1203, Alexios Angelos, a deposed Byzantine prince made a deal with the French and Venetian crusaders to capture Constantinople and place him on the throne, but by 1204 the crusaders were not paid and Alexios himself was deposed by the people, leading to the sacking of the city. The crusaders in truth wanted all the wealth of the Byzantines and did not care much about its culture, art, and literature so when they planned to head over to Jerusalem, the shortage of funds and using the ships of Venice led them to attack Constantinople, but also, they justified their actions in attacking the city by taking revenge on the Byzantines for separating from the Church of Rome in 1054. Within only 9 days in April of 1204, Constantinople was captured and looted with its population massacred by the crusaders; with the help of the Doge of Venice, Enrico Dandolo, the crusaders found the weak spot to enter which was at the back of the Golden Horn and afterwards, the Byzantine government was sent to exile with the Latin Empire replacing it having Constantinople as its capital and Baldwin of Flanders elected emperor. With the temporary 57-year death of Byzantium, 3 mini-Byzantine Empires sprang up: 1 based in Epirus in Western Greece, 1 in Trebizond at the southeast corner of the Black Sea in Northeast Anatolia, and the other in Nicaea which was less than a day away from Constantinople which was the seat of the Latin Empire. Progress was stagnant with the Latins at Constantinople while the 3 mini empires continued to grow Byzantine culture but in 1261, with the forces of the Latin Empire and the Venetian fleet away on an expedition in the Black Sea, the Byzantines at Nicaea quickly marched back to the capital retaking it and installing Michael Palaiologos as Emperor Michael VIII, although Trebizond and Epirus never reunited with Byzantium. The Byzantine Empire once again returned but was no longer a world power as it was before, but rather a small state focused on arts, culture, and trade.


IX. Byzantium’s Role in Starting the Renaissance

The Italian Renaissance, partially influenced by Byzantium
Mystras in Southern Greece, once a center for Byzantine culture and learning

We all know the Renaissance brought back classical art, architecture, and literature to Europe and also it brought new scientific discoveries including the printing press and gunpowder and also began the Age of Exploration where explorers sailed across the Atlantic and beyond, but what we don’t know is that the Byzantines helped in making the Renaissance happen. As I mentioned, the Byzantine Empire had a literate and articulate society that has preserved classical knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and Romans and after the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204, Byzantine scholars fled to Italy and other parts of Europe bringing their work with them. Between 1204 and 1453, Greek scholars mostly went to Italy and introduced Classic philosophy which then gave birth to the ideas of Renaissance Humanism in Italy. The Byzantines were a society of intellectuals such as historians including Procopius who documented the reign of Emperor Justinian I (527-565), then there was Anna Komnene who documented Byzantine court politics and the 1st Crusade during the reign of her father Alexios I, and then there was Niketas Choniates who documented in detail the 4th Crusade and the bloody attack on the capital. The Byzantines had several philosophers as well during the 15th century before the end of the empire such as John Argyropolous, Cardinal Bessarion of Trebizond, and the most notable one being George Gemistos Plethon from the Byzantine city of Mystras is Southern Greece, he was known for reintroducing the works of Plato to Italy and Western Europe and also convinced Cosimo de Medici of Florence to found an academy for philosophy. After the recovery of Byzantium in 1261, the Byzantines could no longer focus on expanding their empire due to the lack of troops and funds and because Venice had already controlled trade in most parts of the Mediterranean, so the Byzantines instead focused on investing their money on the arts and culture. At this time between the recovery of Constantinople in 1261 and its fall in 1453, the Byzantines often refused to ask the west for help unless in dire times like when the Ottomans were already laying siege to their capital. The Byzantines, knowing their end was near preferred to be ruled over by the Muslim Turks rather than the Catholic west, and in fact the last Grand Admiral of Constantinople, Loukas Notaras said “Better the Turkish Turban than the Papal Tiara” seeing that the Turks will tolerate them more than the westerners would. As I have mentioned in a previous article that one of the best contributions of the Byzantines was introducing the fork to the western world, but a bigger contribution of theirs was helping in starting the Renaissance movement which quickly spread across Europe freeing it from the Middle Ages by promoting humanism and bringing back knowledge of the past.


X. Why Byzantium is Forgotten?

Byzantium in 1450 (purple)
Ottoman super cannon, “The Imperial” breaches the walls of Constantinople (1453)
The Hagia Sophia, the greatest surviving legacy of Byzantine architecture

By the 15th century, Byzantium was reduced only to Constantinople and its surroundings and the part of Southern Greece of Mystras without any land connecting both parts as the capital had been surrounded by the Ottomans who have already made their way into the Balkans. In 1453, after so many years of attempting to capture Constantinople, the Ottomans finally captured the city with the use of a powerful cannon made by a Hungarian engineer named Janos Orban originally made for the Byzantines to drive away the Ottoman invaders until the Byzantines had no money to fund the engineer. It was the invention of gunpowder and the cannon that brought the end of Byzantium, and also revolutionized warfare. On May 29, 1453 the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaiologos was killed and his body was never found while Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II the Conqueror marched into the city making it the new capital of the Ottoman Empire but still keeping the Byzantine architecture despite replacing the churches with mosques and many of its citizens were spared including the scholar works of the empire. However, the question about why Byzantium remains mostly forgotten in history is not mainly because the Ottomans captured Constantinople and ended Byzantium after 1,100 years but rather because of the views of the west on Byzantium. Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium” mentions in one chapter that the west has been introduced to luxuries and luxurious life brought in by Byzantine brides into the courts of France and the Holy Roman Empire in which priests and clerics thought these ideas were corrupting their society making the Western Europeans believe that the Byzantines were poisoning their society. Later on, during the time of the crusades, the Western Crusaders saw the Byzantines as cowards and effeminate for choosing diplomacy and trade with the enemy, the Arabs instead of war, which the westerners were known for. After Byzantium was gone in 1453, Western European kingdoms such as France, England, Spain, and Portugal grew to become world powers and became the writers of history and with the west being the writers of history, the often discredited the Byzantines for their contributions mainly because they separated from the Church of Rome and were not considered one of them by western writers. Western historians such as Edward Gibbon depict the Byzantine Empire as nothing better than plotting and murders- hence the word “Byzantine”, meaning complicated came from the intrigues of the imperial court. However, the Byzantine Empire was more than plots and murders but the preservation of ancient philosophies which helped start the Renaissance, colorful and detailed art, a great number of intellectuals and a highly literate society, the use of a systematic legal system, impressive architecture, sophisticated siege weapons like Greek Fire, and most of all Byzantium helped in protecting the rest of Medieval Europe from being invaded by the Muslim forces of the Arabs and Turks up until the 15th century. In the medieval world, we all know there was Western Europe in the west with the Islamic powers in the east and the Chinese Empire in the far east, but what remains lesser known is that there was a 4th power that stood between east and west, this was Byzantium. The Byzantines began powerful as the Western Roman Empire gradually collapsed and started out as the continuation of the Roman Empire with the Latin language and the same systems and imperial traditions but as centuries went by, Greek influences shaped the empire together with Eastern traditions and aesthetics making Byzantium more unfamiliar to the west. Byzantium happens to be quite an obscure civilization that there is not much pop culture depicting Byzantium today- except for Assassin’s Creed Revelations– also there are no Hollywood productions about it, nor any play written by Shakespeare set in Byzantium. But to think about it, if not for the Byzantines, we probably not be using the fork to eat or the Renaissance may not have taken place, or more importantly the knowledge of the Ancient Greeks and Romans would have been lost.



By Reading “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” by Judith Herrin, my eyes were completely opened to the life of the Byzantine Empire which I haven’t really know about. Before that, I only knew the basic facts about Byzantium such as their works of architecture like the Hagia Sophia, about the Greek Orthodox Church, the rise and fall of the empire, and of course about the army and its units. However, by reading this book I have learned more about their interesting imperial stories including the complex history of the Macedonian emperors (867-1056), the story of how people of humble origins such as Justinian I and Basil I became emperors, how a marriage introduced the fork to the west, and how an empire could stand for 1,100 years despite constant invasions, civil wars, economic difficulties, and religious conflicts with the west. Herrin’s novel on Byzantium shows that Byzantium went through a history of constant expanding and downsizing but also it began strong while Western Rome gradually collapsed, though in its last years the same gradual loss Western Rome faced happened to Byzantium, showing that history repeats itself. After reading the book, I have realized that the Byzantines’ characteristic was staying true to their beliefs, traditions, and inventions such as Greek fire which they would not share to anyone else. This trait helped Byzantium shape its identity as a proud and confident empire, although it made them mysterious to others as well creating distrust from others, especially the west. Nowadays, Byzantium remains a big mystery that some of my classmates think it is a medicine of football club, while one of my teachers even thought it was something related to football by seeing a sticker of the Byzantine imperial flag, although some others in school actually knew what it was but are not overall familiar with it; although on the other hand, a Roman-Byzantine history Facebook group which I am a member of has a few other members who are strongly devoted to Byzantine history, which means Byzantium is still not completely forgotten. How I got into Byzantium is an interesting story, because before, I did not have any clue about them until hearing about them in “Assassin’s Creed: Revelations”, which made me want to study them more and in 3rd year high school, Byzantium was part of my history subject but not explained in detail, so I ended up reading more about them for the next few years till I got so interested in the history of the empire. Now that I’m in college, and taking up Entrepreneurship, which is very far from my Byzantine interests, I still use my free time to study more on the Byzantines and always remember them whenever I eat with a fork or in rare occasions when I take part in running an event, I remember the Byzantines and their invention of the fork and skill in running events. Anyway, as a blogger, it is my task to raise awareness of the interesting history of the empire no one really remembers but has been around for more than a thousand years surpassing other kingdoms and empires within its timeline. Anyway, this is it for now… thanks for viewing!


Published by The Byzantium Blogger

Powee Celdran, currently majors in Entrepreneurial Management, a Byzantine scholar and enthusiast, historical military sketch and bathroom mural artist, aspiring historical art restorer, Lego filmmaker creating Byzantine era films and videos, and a possible Renaissance man living in modern times but Byzantine at heart. Currently manages the Instagram account byzantine_time_traveller posting Byzantine history related content.

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