Forgotten but Significant Byzantine Science and Technology

Posted by Powee Celdran 

The sciences were financially supported, honoured everywhere, universally pursued; they were like tall edifices supported by strong foundations.” -Al Masudi, Arab historian (896-956)


Hello everyone and once again welcome to another Byzantine article from the Byzantium Blogger! The last article was a special edition feature on the mosaics of Ravenna and stories behind them, now this time I will be tackling more interesting stories on Byzantium, this time about their science and technology. In the 1100-year existence of the Byzantine Empire, the Byzantines being a civilized and educated people have made several scientific discoveries in the fields of physics, chemistry, medicine, astronomy, geography, and even philosophy that have been a basis for modern science and have made quite crazy but very practical inventions. A lot of us remember people from the Renaissance like Leonardo Da Vinci and Galileo for their mind-blowing inventions and scientific discoveries but what a lot of us do not know is that the Byzantines who came before them have already made discoveries and inventions as significant as theirs. With the preservation of ancient Greek and Roman science, the Byzantines had studied them in order to improve them and make new discoveries, which later influenced Islamic science in the Middle Ages and Western European science in the Renaissance. Flamethrowers, hand grenades, portable sundials, musical organs, hydraulics, water cisterns, ship mills, and the fork were among the many inventions of the Byzantines. However, other than inventions, the Byzantines have already made some crazy but true scientific discoveries before the Renaissance including the theory of the earth being a sphere, time zones, and the basis for the Gregorian Calendar we use today. All the information in this article comes from the chapter on Science and Technology from the fascinating book “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis which includes a lot more “strange tales and surprising facts from history’s most orthodox empire”. Some more additional information here comes from Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” which is another great book on the history of Byzantium. Like the great detail and amount of work that went to the art of the Ravenna mosaics, the Byzantines put this much enthusiasm to creating new theories and inventions.

Note: This information is from sources written by Byzantine historians.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities, Anthony Kaldellis

Other Byzantine Articles from the Byzantium Blogger:

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium

Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire 

Byzantine Siegecraft and Naval Warfare 

The 94 Emperors

The Ravenna Mosaics and What to Expect 

Watch this video for more info on Byzantine Science and Technology 


Byzantine Inventions for War:


The one invention everyone would remember the Byzantines for is the war machine known as “Greek Fire”, which was a large flamethrower placed on ships dating back to the 7th century first used in protecting their capital, Constantinople from an Arab siege. The liquid fire from the flamethrower was made up of a chemical compound of flammable resins, Sulphur, and Naphtha which came possibly from the Naphtha wells in the Crimea. The formula for Greek Fire is a mystery and has remained a Byzantine state secret and this weapon could only be operated by a secret branch of the army. In the book De Ceremoniis by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959), he explains to his son, later Emperor Romanos II (r. 959-963) that Greek Fire is something the Byzantines should keep to themselves and not share to other nations because these other nations may copy their invention. Greek Fire was operated by heavy air pressure pumped into a heated sealed container to ignite the compound enabling it to release a large blast of fire to burn down ships or scare the enemy away, although Greek Fire was hard to operate as it was slow and went in its own direction, as seen while playing Assassin’s Creed Revelations (2011). Greek Fire was also used in defending the Bosporus from Viking attacks and against the Normans in Dyrrachion from 1107-8 as mentioned by the historian Anna Komnene. Some ships used the Greek fire by making it come out of the mouths of animal sculptures such as lions. However, Greek Fire was not only used in ships but on land as well as it was recorded that some Byzantine soldiers used it against the Turks besieging the inland city of Manzikert in Asia Minor against the Turks besieging it in 1054. Another version of Greek Fire was the portable Cheirosiphon said to be invented by Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) which was used by soldiers when besieging cities.

Greek Fire, Byzantine invention (Madrid Skylitzes)


To communicate with the different Themes or military regions across the empire, the Byzantines developed a system to send a signal across Asia Minor in an hour. This system consisted of beacons all timed by a synchronized clock and were equidistant to each other starting from a fort near Tarsus in the east of Asia Minor and ending at the seaside palace in Constantinople and in 1 hour, the signal would reach the other end. This system of lighting the beacons was created by the scientist Leo the Mathematician for Emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842). With the beacons being lit, word would quickly reach the emperor in the capital to inform him usually of a threat, and usually the beacons were lit across Asia Minor when the Saracens from the east would be attack in order to inform to emperor to send reinforcements. This beacon system the Byzantines used was used in the 3rd movie of The Lord of the Rings Trilogy- The Return of the King (2003).

Map of the Byzantine Beacons in Asia Minor


A smart invention the Byzantines made in time of war were ship mills, first made in 536 when the Goths had besieged Rome and the Byzantine Army of Emperor Justinian I under the general Belisarius was on their mission to reconquer Italy. The Goths had previously destroyed the Roman aqueducts to cut the food supply for the population of Rome and when the army of Belisarius reached Rome, they too needed food supply. Belisarius thought of a smart solution by finding the part of the Tiber River where the current was at its strongest and there he stretched 2 ropes putting ships between them with wheels attached on their sides and this way, the grain was able to be milled due to the strong current of the water, thus the population of Rome was fed. When the Goths learned of this, they responded by tossing debris down the river to jam the mills, but Belisarius countered it by hanging chains down the bridges to catch the debris and pull it up.

Modern ship mill


The Byzantines also knew that human excrement was useful against any kind of siege engine, including interlocked shields which could distract the soldiers inside. Stirrups for horses were however not invented by the Byzantines but were first attested by them in 600 by Emperor Maurice after being brought into them by the Avars who took it from Central Asia. Stirrups then proved useful in cavalry combat to keep riders such as the Cataphracts in place, especially when firing arrows while mounted. For horses, the Byzantines have also developed a way to deploy mounted Cataphracts from ships directly to land by attaching a ramp that drops from the ship once it hits the land, therefore the mounted cataphracts immediately ride off to attack the enemy similar to the World War II D-Day Landings (1944). This ramp system on ships was used in Crete when being recaptured by the general Nikephoros Phokas in 961.


Other Byzantine Inventions: Palaiologos_Dynasty_emblem1

The Byzantines have introduced a couple of new inventions to the west, one of the being the fork which came in to the west when western princes married Byzantine princesses introducing a new method for eating. Other than the fork, it is also believed that the Byzantines introduced the musical organ to the medieval west. Unlike in the medieval west, the Byzantines did not really use organs in churches but for shows at the Hippodrome, for court receptions in the imperial palace, and even with soldiers during battle and for emperors touring the provinces. The organ was introduced to the west in 757 when Emperor Constantine V sent one as a gift to Pepin, the king of the Franks, this organ was named Big Mouth with a Loud Voice.


Like the Romans before them, the Byzantines also built aqueducts to supply water for their capital, Constantinople. The capital however was far from a large fresh water source, which was in Thrace so they had to build 3 large aqueducts spanning 592km long, which was even longer than the lengths of Rome’s 11 aqueducts combined which in total was 520km. The water brought in from the aqueducts was stored in hundreds of cisterns located around Constantinople and the notable ones that still can be seen today include the open-air Aetius Cistern, the covered Philoxenos Cistern which has 224 double columns, and of course the most famous one being the Basilica Cistern across the Hagia Sophia which can hold up to 80,000 cubic meters and has 336 columns. The large water supply in the cisterns coming in from the aqueducts was able to sustain the population of Constantinople especially during times of siege when the enemy cuts the water supply. Aside from providing a sustainable amount of water supply for the population, the cisterns also provided enough water for the many fountains in the city. The Basilica Cistern was abandoned and was covered up after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 but was rediscovered in the 1540’s by the French scientist Pierre Gilles who sent on a mission by King Francois I of France to find ancient manuscripts. When Gilles went to the basement of a house, he found an opening leading to some water and took a small boat across the abandoned cistern.

Aqueduct of Valens, a surviving Byzantine aqueduct bringing water supply to Constantinople


In the early Byzantine period, more accurate sundials have already been developed by the Byzantines which had latitude scales and a list of places and their latitudes, and at the same time could be adjusted when at those specific locations. The locations in these sundials with their latitudes included Constantinople which headed the list of latitudes, Rome, Bordeaux, and Merida. An early portable Byzantine sundial contained a mechanism of interlocking gears and dials the synchronized the time with the day of the week; each day of the week represented by images of the Sun (Sunday), Moon (Monday), Mars (Tuesday), Mercury (Wednesday), Jupiter (Thursday), Venus (Friday), and Saturn (Saturday) as well as with the month and phases of the moon.


One of the more trivial but interesting Byzantine inventions were the mechanisms at the throne room or Magnaura of the imperial palace. The mechanisms included hydraulics behind the 2 golden lion sculptures flanking the throne in which the sounds it made and its movements were operated by water pumps inside and beside the throne was a golden tree with mechanical birds. Although the hydraulics were not operated within the statues itself but from curtains behind it but pipes connect it to the lion statues. The mechanisms in the throne room were recorded by Liutprand, bishop of Cremona during his visit in 949 during the reign of Constantine VII. Here, he mentions that the lions moved their tails and made sounds, the birds warbled at the bronze tree, and when he bowed down he saw the throne elevated to the ceiling on it while the emperor was seated on it. Liutprand however says he was not afraid because he had been told all about the imperial throne room in advance.

Byzantine imperial throne room with lion statues and mechanical birds


For the Byzantines, purple was the color only reserved for emperors as it is seen in their purple tunics and togas but one lesser known fact is that a special purple ink was made only for emperors in signing documents and no one else but they could use it, otherwise if anyone else manufactured it, the punishment is death. The only surviving specimen of early Byzantine use of the imperial ink is on a missive signed by Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) to a commander in Egypt while a specimen from the late Byzantine period shows a sheet signed by Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) using the purple ink. Aside from using the ink, only emperors could seal documents with the golden seal known as the Chrysoboulla or “golden bulls”.


Theories in Science and Math: 


In 4th century BC Ancient Greece, Aristotle already came up with a theory that heavier bodies fall faster in proportion to their weight, this theory though was refuted by Galileo in the Renaissance era. However, long before Galileo, John Philoponos, a teacher from Byzantine Alexandria in 530 had already refuted Aristotle’s theory by testing it himself. Philoponos denied Aristotle’s theory and said that if you drop two bodies of vastly different weight from the same height, there will only be small difference in the amount of time the objects will land on the ground.


Apparently, the Byzantines already did know something about solar and lunar eclipses and how they are caused and that the Sun was much bigger than the Earth, although the Church Father say the sun is the size of the earth. In the 11th century, the Byzantine scholar Symeon Seth gave some proofs in his book, “Summary of Physics” that the earth is a sphere. His first theory is that he noticed that the sun comes in from the east and sets in the west, already proving the fact about time zones. With the pattern of the sun, he concluded that when it is afternoon in Persia, it is morning in their part of the world (Greece and Asia Minor). Second, Seth could prove that the earth was round when seeing mountaintops appear from the horizon when sailing at sea, similar to seeing the top of ship’s mast first. Third, he noticed that not all stars in the night sky are visible but they change and that there are some stars that can only be seen in the north and some at south which means that the earth is not flat.

Map of Global Time Zones


When it came to numbers, the Byzantines stuck to the Greek numerical system which used numbers as combinations of Greek letters. In 1305, the scholar Maximos Planoudes wrote about how to Arabic numerals which he calls “Indian numerals”. According to him, numbers are infinite but we cannot have infinite numbers so philosophers (from the Orient) invented signs and a method for using them in a concise way. Planoudes says there are only 9 signs (numbers 1-9) and the other sign they made was called the cipher which means nothing, and this sign is 0. From then on, the Byzantines began to adapt to the Arabic/ Indian numerical system.


One Byzantine astronomer that could predict eclipses together with their year, date, time of day or night, and its extent was Nikephoros Gregoras (1295-1361) who was at the same time a theologian and historian during the late Byzantine period known as the Palaiologan Renaissance.  However, because of opposing the prevailing theology of his time, Gregoras was put under house arrest where he worked on more astronomical theories creating many books as well, including some histories of the Palaiologos imperial family. One of the things Gregoras is best known for was when he found an accurate way to calculate the date of Easter in 1324 in which he realized that the Julian calendar miscounted the length of the year by a small fraction of a day. Once he saw this mistake and fixed the calendar, he explained his findings to the emperor Andronikos II who saw that Gregoras was right but decided to not push through with changing the calendar for it might create a split in the Eastern Churches (in which it later did with the Russian Church). The calendar system Gregoras discovered was not implemented until 1582 when Pope Gregory XIII implemented the new calendar system using the one of Gregoras but only with a few changes. This calendar system is the Gregorian calendar which we use today which would have been called the Gregoran calendar if it weren’t implemented by the pope in 1582.


Successful and Failed Experiments:


Back in the 6th century, according to the histories of Agathias, Anthemios of Tralles, the architect of the Hagia Sophia during the reign of Justinian I (527-565) performed an experiment in steam power to scare off his neighbor, the lawyer Zenon who had blocked his view with a structure. Anthemios was unable to defeat Zenon in court so he had to create something to scare Zenon and make him leave. A part of Anthemios’ basement was underneath Zenon’s house and there he built vats connecting their sealed lids to the beams of the floor above. With the vats, Anthemios was able to make the water boil causing the floor above to shake while steam spewed out of the floor, meanwhile the steam also made the sound of thunder which very much bothered Zenon causing him to run to the street in terror thinking there was an earthquake while everyone mocked him as none felt an earthquake but him.


Sometime during the reign of Theophilos (829-842), the helmet of Justinian I’s equestrian statue above a high column next to the Hagia Sophia fell off. When this happened, no one really knew how to put it back until one worker found a way by climbing up to the roof of the Hagia Sophia, shooting an arrow with a rope attached to it to the statue. The rope was then fastened between the top of the column and the Hagia Sophia and this worker walked across the tightrope with the helmet and placed the helmet back onto the head of Justinian’s statue, and he was rewarded with 100 gold coins by the emperor.


According to the Histories of Niketas Choniates, an Arab resident in Constantinople in 1162 tried to fly off the towers at the gates of the Hippodrome by making wings. When he stood above the high gates of the Hippodrome, the people believed he could fly and at the right moment when the wind was strong, he unfurled the twisted white robe wrapped around him and jumped off. However, this experiment was a failure and instead of flying, he fell straight to the ground dead with his bones all shattered. A similar attempt was done at the Eiffel Tower in 1912 and the same result happened.

Illustration of Constantinople’s Hippodrome
Eiffel Tower Death Jump (1912)

Watch this to see the Eiffel Tower Death Jump of 1912, very much like the Constantinople Hippodrome Death Jump of 1162


Well, this is all for now on Byzantine science and technology. So far, this is about it recorded on Byzantine inventions and scientific theories, but true enough they are really influential and used up to this day. So far, this was the 1st article I wrote which is mostly about science, but still interesting as well especially since it had to do with the Byzantine Empire’s history. A lot of these inventions were brilliant ideas such as Greek Fire, ship mills, cisterns, organs, and sundials or had some crazy back story behind them like the steam boiler in the basement but more importantly, it is interesting to realize that some theories that we believe in today including the falling of objects, learning about the earth being a sphere, and about time zones because of the sun’s direction were already thought of back in the early Middle Ages when the Byzantines were at their height of power while Western Europe was still growing. For me, perhaps the most fascinating discovery from Byzantine science and astronomy was the creation of the calendar predating the Gregorian calendar by Nikephoros Gregoras, and yet none of know that the basis for the calendar we use today (the Gregorian calendar) came from an astronomer in Byzantium. As I have mentioned many times, the Byzantines are an underrated civilization everyone tends to forget about but have made so many contributions to global civilization, and a lot of them happened to be in the fields of science, math, and technology rather than in the arts. Of course, creating spectacular art such as the Ravenna mosaics needed some science and math too in order to get the exact shapes, align them together, and stick them up in high places. The continuous discoveries in science by the Byzantines show that they continued in preserving ancient Greek and Roman knowledge and continued developing them before they travelled west in the Renaissance, but also with the help of intellectual emperors the Byzantines were able to continue in developing science as well as medicine. Even before the Renaissance began, the Byzantines were already the Renaissance people being skilled in art, science, philosophy, theology, and practical inventions except that they were not as advanced enough to build massive ships and navigate the oceans the way the Portuguese did in the Renaissance. The sciences developed the Byzantines at the end ended up influencing the eastern Islamic world as well when the Arabs gained knowledge from attacking the Byzantines over the centuries just as how Byzantine scholars in the declining years of the empire went west to spread their knowledge of science and philosophy. Of course, one thing I have to mention before finishing is the author Anthony Kaldellis and how well written his book “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” is, especially with the amount of facts and crazy but true stories about the Byzantines he mentioned, which gave me inspiration to write this article. Well, this is about it for the article and next time hopefully I will post an article about more interesting facts on Byzantine medicine or perhaps crime and punishment in the Byzantine era, or as I have always wanted, an article on Byzantium’s cosmopolitan society. This is all for now on the Byzantium Blogger, thanks for viewing!

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