The Art of War in the Byzantine World

Posted by Powee Celdran 

We must always prefer peace and refrain from war whenever possible.” –Tactica of Emperor Leo VI the Wise


Welcome back to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! It’s been some time since I last posted an article, well now here’s a new one and it should not be as long as the previous ones I wrote. This article will be generally about warfare in the Byzantine world, how the Byzantines reacted to war, and how they managed their empire through warfare, but as well as some interesting stories set during war in Byzantine times. In previous articles, I have already written quite a lot about Byzantine armies, their weapons, uniforms, army units, battle formations, and more but this time, I will focus more on the Byzantine battle tactics, strategies, skills in battle, and alternative methods to war such as espionage and brining off enemies to stay away from Byzantine territory. To many, the Byzantine Empire is thought of as an unwarlike empire focused more on the arts, court life, and religion, however in reality, the Byzantines were actually unwarlike compared to other European kingdoms in their time but the Byzantines were only warlike when it came to defending their empire where they would do all they can to strengthen their armies to fortify their borders as their empire constantly faced attacks from the Arabs in the south, Turks and previously Persians in the east, Bulgars and Slavs in the north, and Normans as well as other westerners in the west and sometimes the enemy would at times be able to besiege Constantinople, the capital itself. When Byzantium began as the Eastern Roman Empire after it has been separated from the Western Roman world, it was much more powerful than the western half and rich enough for emperors to bribe invaders to not attack Roman territory, then during the reign of Justinian I in the 6th century, the Byzantines were at their height of military strength able to reconquer the entire Mediterranean. However, in the years after Justinian I, Byzantium began to decline in power and began to fight wars on the defensive side to protect their empire from countless invasions. It was only in the 10th century when Byzantium was under the rule of the Macedonian Dynasty with formidable generals such as Nikephoros Phokas that it once again changed its tide of war going back to the offensive and expanded its borders once again first by pushing out the Arabs to the south and east and later reconquering the Balkans from the Bulgars. Although after a short moment of success, Byzantium’s power once again declined in the 11th century with the conquests of the Turks and Normans until it was able to regain some of its power during the time of the 1st Crusade in the end of the 11th century but it so happened that it was the 4th Crusade that temporarily dismembered the Byzantine Empire in the early 13th century that brought about Byzantium’s decline. In the last 2 centuries its existence, Byzantium once again fought wars to defend itself primarily from the Ottoman Turks but this time being even more desperate for foreign alliances. The Byzantines usually fought wars not only using their own recruited soldiers known as the Themata and Tagmata from the provinces or Themes but also by hiring foreign mercenaries, mostly barbarians who were stronger warriors but poor in strategy compared to them, but still the Byzantines had to impress these mercenaries well enough to show they weren’t cowards. The Byzantine Empire lasted for about 1,100 years which meant that they had to fight wars in which new strategies and weapons were developed in order to exist that long but during its course of a millennium and one century, the Byzantines fought about 120 civil wars- even when they were on the threat of being invaded- on average one every 10 years and 1/6 of these civil wars succeeded in overthrowing an emperor and sometimes changing a dynasty. The famous phrase “If you desire peace, prepare for war” strongly relates to the Byzantines as it has also been written down as early as the 5th century in the military manual De re Militari by Vegetius, and a thousand years later, the scholar Cardinal Bessarion wrote in his Encomium of Trebizond, “He is most at peace who is best prepared for war” as they still believed wars were only to be fought when necessary. The Orthodox Church of Byzantium on the other hand did not think highly of war unless it was a holy war in which soldiers would be forgiven of their sins and would advise soldiers to abstain from communion for 3 years. This article is once again mostly based on the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis on the chapter War-by any means but some parts of it as well from another book entitled Streams of Gold, Rivers of Blood also by Kaldellis which is about warfare in Byzantium and the events of the 10th and 11th centuries from their short time as a world power to another period of decline. This article will once again be written in different categories about different aspects of warfare but will mostly focus on the insider part of Byzantine warfare. Also, this article which is mostly about surprising and strange stories in the times of war during Byzantine history, there will be some videos linked from different channels that will discuss in detail about different wars in Byzantine history.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
Map of the Byzantine Themes in 1025
Byzantine battle tactics from the Madrid Skylitzes


Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians from the era of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453).

WARNING: This article contains some bloody information.  

Other Articles from the Byzantium Blogger: 

Byzantine Military Figures and Military History

Warfare of the Romans

Byzantine Siege Weapons and Naval Warfare 

Byzantine Science and Technology 

Byzantine Crime, Punishments, and Medical Practice 

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines part2

The Surprising life of a Medieval Empire 

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium 

The 94 Emperors 

Watch this for more information about the Byzantine army and the Themes

Byzantine Videos from No Budget Films:

The Rise of Phokas- Story of Nikephoros II Phokas 

Killing a Byzantine Emperor- Death of Nikephoros II 


Alternative Means to War


The Byzantines usually would only fight wars only when necessary, but really, they fought wars all the time because of constant invading enemies. However, many Byzantine emperors were smart enough to choose paying off potential invaders to avoid battle which despite paying off a lot of money was still more cost-effective because wars cost a lot more not just for paying soldiers and supplying them with food and weapons but also for the costs of rebuilding war damage on cities and farms. The Byzantine Empire was much richer than other kingdoms around them and they would use this money to pay barbarian tribes and smaller kingdoms for protection against more powerful enemies, but these acts led some to accuse emperors of being “soft on barbarians”. In the 5th century, when barbarians took over land that was once part of the Western Roman Empire, including Italy, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Emperor Zeno (r. 474-491) chose to pay off these barbarians to avoid them from attacking the Eastern Roman Empire and focus on the west instead. Later on, emperors had also preferred to pay their enemy’s neighbor to attack them from behind, thus slowing down their invasion on Byzantine territory, and here are some examples of this situation. First, during the 540s, Emperor Justinian I (r. 527-565) and the Byzantines were at war with the people known as the Gepids in the Northern Balkans, but to make things easier for Byzantium, Justinian paid off the Lombards of Northern Italy turning them against the Gepids resulting in the defeat of the Gepids. Meanwhile, Justinian also fought off the invading Kutrigur Huns by paying off the Utigur Huns to fight the Kutrigurs. Later on, in the 7th century, Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) when campaigning against the Sassanid Persian Empire turned the Central Asian Turkic tribes against the Persians as a way to make sure the tide turns on the side of Byzantium, and eventually Byzantium won the war against Persia. In 895, with Byzantium at war with the Bulgars in the north, Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) bribed the Magyars of Hungary in the north to strike against the Bulgars, thus ending in a victory for Byzantium. Later on, Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) while also facing war against the Bulgars in the north invited the Rus led by their prince, Sviatoslav I to attack the Bulgars from the north ending in success for the Rus and Byzantium. Then later on, in 1091, Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) when at war with the Pechenegs in the north used the Nomadic people known as the Cumans against the Pechenegs ending in another victory for Byzantium. Apparently, the tactic of using the support of the enemy’s neighbor did help in winning wars for the Byzantines but this was not the case with later emperors using the Franks from the west to fight the Turks in the time of the crusades and using Turks to fight the Franks when trying to regain Constantinople from the Latin Empire in the 13th century as this ended up with the Franks and Turks turning on the Byzantines and taking land from them.

Map of Barbarian invasions into the Roman Empire
Renaissance painting of the Byzantine-Sassanid War (602-628)


Another thing the Byzantines used to make things go their way in times of war were spies, in fact they had spies everywhere adding a bit of the “Cold War” element long before the actual Cold War between the USA and Soviet Union happened. Spies were used as a way to obtain information from the enemy to let the Byzantines know the enemy’s weakness. According to the Secret History by Procopius, the Byzantines had spies disguised as merchants in order to enter the palace of the Persians and while inside they would carefully investigate everything and then would reveal all the secrets of the Persians including the layout of the palace to Byzantine magistrates when they returned. When the Sassanid Persians overran most of the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire, which was Asia Minor, according to the chronicler St. Theophanes the Confessor, the Persian general Shahrbaraz was suspected by their king, Chosroes II for being disloyal causing the king to place an order to kill this general. The letter ordering the general’s death however fell into Byzantine hands, thus the Byzantines revealed the king’s plot to kill him making Shahrbaraz switch sides to Emperor Heraclius. Shahrbaraz then later changed the contents of the letter marking 400 other Persian commanders marked for dead by Chosroes II, thus summoning these commanders to Constantinople where they would eventually change sides, thus depriving the Persian king of strong commanders. Shahrbaraz would eventually become the Sassanid king in 630, 2 years after the execution of Chosroes II. In the 9th century, the Byzantines came up with a military manual devoted to spies saying that their spies should work with associates in foreign lands and pose as merchants working in a public place or better off be the same race as the enemy but a friend to the Byzantines, must be fluent in the language of the enemy and know their customs very well, but must definitely should avoid being seen by the Byzantine prisoners kept by the enemy. This policy on spies according to the chronicler Leo the Deacon was thus in a way put into action in 970 when Emperor John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976)  in his war against the Rus sent bilingual Byzantines dressed as the Rus to the enemy’s military camp in order to uncover their plans in which they reported back to the emperor. However, there was one case where a Byzantine defected to the enemy, which was the secretary Antoninus working for the Roman governor of Mesopotamia- who according to the soldier-writer Ammianus Marcellinus- after being in debt sold their state secrets to the Sassanid Persians but to not be noticed he bought a farm beside the Tigris River where his servants would swim across it and deliver the secrets to the Persians, then one night he and his entire household swam over and defected.

Cold War cartoon

Watch this for more information on the Byzantine- Sassanid Wars.

Another thing the Byzantines were good at to make things go their way in war was subterfuge or deception which made them basically what can be called “assholes”. In fact, the westerners when referring to the Byzantines thought of them as cowards because they would rather use deception as a means of gaining victory over their enemy rather than fighting with courage. According to the Histories of Agathias, Byzantine generals like Narses in the 6th century would fake violent methods by pretending to do them as a way to threaten the enemy. During the Justinian’s war to recapture Italy from previous invaders, the eunuch general Narses known as the “Hammer of the Goths” besieged the city of Lucca brought out his hostages from the city- being the city’s most prominent men- outside the walls but before executing them as the people watched from the walls, Narses offered that they would be spared as long as the city would surrender to Byzantium, which it did, and they were spared. The Byzantines would later use deception after ending the war with the Bulgarian Empire in 1018 where the Bulgars fell under Byzantine rule but one of their nobles named Ivats still resisted and during a function he held on August 15 of that year, the Byzantine general and governor of Ohrid, Daphnomeles pretended to go to it to discuss peace terms from Emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer so the 2 talked in private but as they spoke, Daphnomeles pinned down Ivats and blinded him. Ivats was then hidden in the 2nd floor of his mansion where Daphnomeles would address the angry crowd to come into terms with Basil II saying that what he did was nothing personal but just imperial orders and at this moment the 35-year war between Byzantium and Bulgaria came to an end. Many years after the war with Bulgaria came to an end, according to the Alexiad by Anna Komnene, the general and future emperor Alexios Komnenos had arrested the Norman mercenary Roussel de Bailleul and pretended to blind him making the captured mercenary scream so that his allies in Asia Minor would not free him. Since the Norman was thought to be blind, no one came to his rescue and when he reached Constantinople, his bloody bandages were removed from his eyes.


Discipline and Caution in the Army


When in war, the Byzantine army was very strategic and exercised a great deal of caution in order to succeed in their campaigns, but also in order to be a successful and formidable army, their soldiers too had to be disciplined, meaning their generals had to be tough and ruthless to their own men and not just to the enemy. For the Byzantines, strategy was the most important part of battle and at most times they avoided heading out into battle heroically like what most barbarians did, rather they thought victory was better obtained through diplomacy or bribing the enemy but if they had to fight, generals were instructed to use delaying tactics against the enemy as well as ambushes and harassment. If a soldier or commander rushed into battle ahead of everyone, they would be punished; in fact, even Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) before becoming emperor was flogged by his father, Emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) for rushing out before everyone else did. According to Leo the Deacon, during the campaign of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas and his brother Leo against Tarsus from 964-65, he saw a soldier drop his shield out of exhaustion from the rough terrain; the emperor then summoned the soldier and his captain to his presence and berated them both. Nikephoros ordered the captain to flog the soldier, cut off his nose, and parade him through the camp but the next day he saw that the captain didn’t follow his orders so the emperor himself imposed the same punishment on the captain which was carried out in front of him. On the other hand, the military manual of Nikephoros II Phokas advised generals to not only avoid an enemy force of superior strength but also one of equal strength unless the one of equal strength has already been defeated 3 times. Avoiding stronger enemies showed that the Byzantines were cautious when it came to heading into battle but it also meant delay for them as the enemy could become even stronger as they prepare. Another Byzantine strategy in battle was to avoid attacking neighboring states engaged in a civil war for they will make peace and join together against the attacker. According to the Strategikon or military manual of Emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) written in 600, high ranking officers such as generals should be stationed in safe positions rather than in front so they would not be killed when charging against the enemy, for this will demoralize the soldiers. This military manual also says that “bravery” for the Byzantines in battle did not mean charging out heroically but staying in formation and keeping the standard safe, otherwise it will mean defeat. This system of staying in formation in battle the Byzantine army had was adopted from the battle strategies of their predecessor, the Roman legions where they went to battle in defensive positions rather than the Western medieval knights who would charge into battle heroically. The army of the Byzantines in size on the other hand compared to the size of the Roman legions before them was much smaller making it easier to manage the formations and for commanders to notice everything that happens. According to the Chronographia of Michael Psellos, the emperor Basil II the Bulgar-Slayer (r. 976-1025) known to be the greatest Byzantine conqueror would always be there to inspect his troops in battle no matter what. Basil II made sure that his troops always remained loyal to him and that commanders won’t turn against him, so he had to be in battle at all times. Basil II knew very well how to manage his army as he noticed everything that went on at camp and during battle; mostly he made sure that all soldiers stayed within formation and if a soldier would rush out heroically, he would not reward them for their courage but instead punish them by discharging them from the army.

Drawing of one of the many Byzantine civil wars

Watch this for more information on the Late Roman and Early Byzantine infantrymen.


Weapons and Wounds


Spies were one of Byzantium’s most effective weapons in war, but if not for their spies they also had some of the most powerful weapons of their time including liquid fire known as Greek Fire as well as heavy armored horsemen known as Cataphracts and massive foreign soldiers or Varangian Guards. In the Byzantine Empire, the state monopolized the manufacture of weapons by law, which meant that all weapons for the army were made equally and were mass produced by the state as it was part of the law of Emperor Justinian I which also said that selling weapons to barbarians or outsiders was forbidden for the manufacture of their weapons were a state secret just as Greek Fire was. The code of laws of Justinian does not allow private citizens to carry weapons except for small knives and clubs for domestic use such as hunting but weapons of war such as swords, axes, maces, and spears could not be carried by private citizens for they could use it against others when they become violent. Soldiers on the other hand- particularly the Limitanei in charge of guarding cities- when not war were only allowed to carry one sword with them for defense and also to make sure citizens paid their taxes. However, people of the empire have complained about this law because what if barbarians would attack them, and yet they have nothing strong enough to defend them. At the end of the 9th century, Emperor Leo VI the Wise altered this law saying that he wanted everyone in country towns and villages to at least have a bow as a means to protect themselves from wild animals or invaders. On the other hand, the Byzantines were very skilled with weapons in more crafty ways as it has been told in some stories. In one story from the Chronicle of John Malalas, when the Huns invaded the Balkans in 528 and defeated the Byzantine generals under Justinian I and lassoed them but Godilas, one of the generals managed to escape being captured by the lasso by using his sword to cut the rope and run away escaping while the others were captured. Several years later in 548, when the province of Carthage was taken over by the Vandal rebel Gontharis, some pro-imperial conspirators loyal to Justinian I planned to assassinate the rebel leader at a banquet he held. Artasires, one of the conspirators used the defensive strategy of placing arrows inside the sleeve of his tunic which he used to stab Gontharis and while the guards tried to strike Artasires, he deflected their blows with the arrows kept inside his tunic which he later used to kill the guards. In another story, depicted in the drawings of John Skylitzes, a priest named Themel in Asia Minor defended himself against the Saracens attacking his village only by using a single semantron, the large wooden stick used to ring the bells. Apparently, Byzantines such as Themel the priest were quick thinking when it came to finding means to defend themselves, though Themel ended up killing a lot more Saracens and routing the rest, which made his bishop not forgive him for this act of violence, so he fled to the Arabs, converted to Islam, and eventually led raiding parties into Byzantine territory.

Byzantine archers and bows during a siege, Madrid Skylitzes
Themel the priest kills Saracens with a SemantronMadrid Skylitzes
Byzantine era Carthage


If some Byzantines were apparently skilled in handling weapons whether they did or did not have proper training, other Byzantines managed to fight bravely in battle and surviving the course of it when fatally wounded. During the Siege of Rome from the Goths in 537 as documented by Procopius- part of Justinian I’s wars to recapture Italy- 2 soldiers survived till the end of battle despite having serious injuries. The first one was Koutilas who was struck in the middle of his head by a javelin but kept on pursuing with it on his head until the Goths were cleared from the city. The second one was Arzes, one of the guards of the general Belisarius who was hit with an arrow in his head which went all the way behind his neck did not show weakness and continued to ride on. The rest of the army was amazed to see how both soldiers could continue to ride despite their wounds. In the same Siege of Rome in 537, Procopius also documents that another soldier named Traianos was shot in the head by a Goth with an arrow and that the arrow’s tip completely disappeared into his head while the rest of it fell out. Only 4 years later did the arrow’s tip begin protruding out of his head, and 3 years after in 544, the arrow’s head would finally fall off, but it is unclear whether Traianos survived or not. Also during this siege- the same one where Belisarius created the ship mills- according also to Procopius, one of Belisarius’ soldiers fell into a hole that once stored grain and did not dare to call for help as the Goths were all over and would capture him, although the next day a Goth soldier fell in as well. Both soldiers agreed that they would call for help pledging to save each other’s life if it was his own people who found them. At the end, they were both rescued by the Goths and the Byzantine soldier was spared returning to his unit. Several years later in 586, during the Roman-Persian wars of Emperor Maurice, a Byzantine unit saw one of their soldiers dying from his wounds caused by Persian arrows that penetrated his helmet and his skull making his head all pierced with arrows while 2 spears struck his left and right side and before dying, all he wanted to know was that if their side had won.

Watch this for the whole story of Belisarius’ Siege of Rome. 


Emperors and their SkillsPalaiologos_Dynasty_emblem1

In the 1,100-year history of Byzantium, emperors did as well have some time spent fighting in wars, some had the great skill fighting in it themselves, and 4 of these emperors died in battle. First, Emperor Julian was fatally wounded in the Battle of Ctesiphon against the Sassanid Persians in 363 dying shortly afterwards. Just a few years later, the emperor Valens was killed in the Battle of Adrianople by the Goths and his body was never found. In 811, in the Battle of Pliska against the Bulgarians, Emperor Nikephoros I was killed and his skull was turned into the drinking cup of the Bulgarian khan, Krum. Lastly, at the Siege of Constantinople in 1453, the last Byzantine emperor Constantine XI died in battle against the Ottomans and like Valens, his body was never found, some say he didn’t actually die but just disappeared from battle. Many emperors of the Macedonian Dynasty ruling from 867-1056 were great soldiers and military leaders including Nikephoros II Phokas, John I Tzimiskes, and Basil II the Bulgar Slayer. Before becoming emperor in 963, Nikephoros Phokas as a general during the Byzantine siege of Arab held Chandax in Crete from 960-61, he used other tactics to scare off his enemy, first by catapulting a lame but living donkey into the city, and then catapulting the heads of decapitated Arabs from the countryside to scare of the townspeople as they would notice their relatives’ heads. John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976), who was emperor after Nikephoros II, according to the chronicler Leo the Deacon, despite being short was strong enough to leap from horse to horse while the horses were running, he could also shoot an arrow through a ring, and strike a leather ball into a cup without damaging it as he was riding at full speed. The emperor who apparently had great skill in battle was Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) according to the Alexiad by his daughter Anna Komnene, during the Battle of Dyrrachion on October 18, 1081 was defeated by the Norman forces of Robert Guiscard but was able to escape battle with his life even if being surrounded by the enemy. Alexios was able to defend himself by severing the arm of one assailant and then leaning back against his horse’s saddle as one Norman tried to strike his head which only cut the strap of his helmet, then as they threw spears at him, he leaped up to a rock and jumped to his horse making his escape. 10 years later, Alexios I defeated and nearly wiped out the northern horse-riding barbarians known as the Pechenegs- known as Scythians to the Byzantines- in the Northern Balkans on the last day of April leading to the famous saying among the Constantinopolitans: “But for one day, the Scythians didn’t see the month of May”. In the 13th century, the philosopher Nikephoros Blemmydes questions the usefulness of war related games like Polo which trainers of the sport believe that the sport made soldiers more dexterous, but aside from Polo, trainers believed that the Byzantine version of the Ancient Greek game Askoliasmos helped in increasing soldiers’ balance as they had to jump around standing on inflated sacks with only one leg.

Byzantine siege weapons
Byzantines face off Normans at the Battle of Dyrrachion, October 18, 1081


When Luck or the Supernatural Saves the Day


When it came to war, the Byzantines excelled in more sophisticated ways of fighting including strategy, defensive techniques, espionage, and intimidation to turn the tide of wars towards them. However, there were times when the odds were impossible with the enemy being too large in number and strength which meant that only a great stroke of luck or divine intervention could save the day. In 626, when Constantinople was besieged by the Persians, Avars, and Slavs combined and the odds for success for Byzantium were very low, suddenly they were saved by a miracle, which the Byzantines claim that the Mother of God known to them as Theotokos came to their aid sinking the Slavic ships, using invisible swords, and throwing fire from above, which is why they honor her as their “chief general”. Meanwhile, the walls of Constantinople, known as the Walls of Theodosius built in the 5thcentury itself were very difficult to breach that in 626, the combined armies were not able to make their way in; in fact, the first time it was not breached until the 4th Crusade of 1204. The only way possibly to sneak into the walls was through the aqueduct that cut through it, which was used in 705 for the slit-nosed emperor Justinian II to sneak into the city and reclaim the throne. When the walls were breached for the first time in 1204 by an invading army being the western crusaders of the 4th Crusade, they nearly destroyed the whole city and killed about half the population before making it the capital of their newly established Latin Empire. Although 57 years later in 1261, it happened by luck that the Byzantines in exile from the Empire of Nicaea were able to recapture Constantinople restoring the Byzantine Empire. The Empire of Nicaea however had actually had advantage over the weakened Latin Empire before they were able to recapture their old capital, but what really helped in the summer of 1261 was that the main Latin army of the city departed on a raid in the Black Sea leaving the city defenseless as was told to Alexios Strategopoulos, the Byzantine general from Nicaea sent by the co-emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos. With the right opportunity, Alexios and his men including Cuman mercenaries sneaked into the walls and attacked the Latins from inside, in one night successfully driving them out as the Latin emperor Baldwin II was evacuated by a Venetian fleet. The Byzantines regained their empire and Constantinople as their capital but it did not last long as by 1394, the empire had only been reduced to Constantinople, the Morea and small parts of Greece, and islands as most of their land has been captured by the Ottoman Turks. The Ottoman sultan Bayezid I blockaded Constantinople for 8 years ready to end the Byzantine Empire once and for all until the tide turned to the Byzantine’s side out of luck preventing an earlier Ottoman victory. In 1402, while Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) was away in Europe, the Mongols of Timur appeared out of the blue and crushed Bayezid’s Ottoman army at the Battle of Ankara, thus capturing the sultan and putting him in a cage giving 50 more years for Byzantium to live. Eventually, the Byzantine Empire would come to its end on May 29, 1453 as the Ottomans grew stronger again enough to once more breach the walls of Constantinople- with the help of a massive cannon- and nothing would save them this time.

Scene of the Mother of God saving Constantinople
The Reconquest of Constantinople from the Latin Empire, 1261
Byzantine Empire (yellow) restored in 1261
1453, farewell to Byzantium

Watch this to learn more about the Battle of Ankara in 1402.

Watch this for more about the final siege of Constantinople in 1453. 


Living through 1,100 years, the Byzantines underwent constant wars in order to survive and going through a millennium of war, they developed new strategies to defend themselves. The Byzantines lived in a time where the numbers of soldiers in battle decreased in size but when small scale invasions were common, which meant army sizes had to be minimized. It was part of Byzantine war strategy to make sure they don’t go against an enemy larger than them in number, which means they need a lot of time to gather up strength. However, as Byzantine imperial territory shrunk, less men could be recruited in the army which meant the Byzantines had to find other way to turn the tide of war in their favor, which included espionage, intimidation, and bribing other people to help them fight their enemy. Overall, strategy was the most important element in the development of the Byzantine army especially because their enemies fought differently, mostly with courage and swiftly charging while the armies of Byzantium fought more defensively and most all had to stay in formation. Their defensive tactics and strategy in battle are one of the many things the Byzantines inherited from their predecessors, the Romans even if Roman uniforms, weapons, and formations evolved in Byzantine times but their courage and precision came from the Romans before them. Although even continuing Roman tactics in war, the armies of the Byzantine army were no match to the superpower of the Roman legions leaving them to be a cheap rip-off of the classic. The Byzantines being more peaceful people in their time just as the emperor Leo VI said in his Tactica, did not always think fighting in hot war was the best idea, rather they preferred the “Cold War” methods of making threats against the enemy or attacking through assassination giving the enemy the impression that the Byzantines were weak that way for not choosing to fight with courage the way they do. Where the Byzantines were really skilled at was defensive warfare as for centuries since the war with the Sassanid Persians in the beginning of the 7th century up until the Macedonian emperors of the 10thcentury, the Byzantium was always fighting on the defensive side until they were able to push off their enemies and turned to the offensive side with the help of strategist emperors like Nikephoros II Phokas and Basil II the Bulgar Slayer. Many may think the Byzantines were just mostly people of art and philosophy but really, their intellectual nature made them skilled in using creative ways to defend themselves such as the conspirator in Carthage and Themel the priest and in battle, soldiers showed great discipline and endurance such as the soldiers who survived great wounds. Discipline was another thing that made the Byzantine army powerful because this way soldiers were obedient to their commanders or face harsh punishment but at many times, commanders were rebellious enough to want the throne for themselves and overthrow the emperor. The well-organized legal code of Byzantium too put discipline in the army by not allowing soldiers to use heavy weapons when patrolling cities for they could mutiny with them. Using formations in battle as well as other means to gain victory shows that Byzantium had a different approach to war as Medieval Western Europe did as the west basically preferred offensive tactics over defensive ones. With the changing of warfare over the centuries, the Byzantines were able to adapt by developing their tactics until the final centuries when the army of Byzantium never improved and foreign mercenaries became more common but the development of their tactics was one way their empire lasted for more than 1000 years. This chapter from “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis about war has taught me a lot especially that warfare in Byzantium was not all about colorful armies, mounted Cataphracts, massive sized Varangian Guards, and advanced weapons such as Greek Fire which I always thought of before when the Byzantine army comes to my mind. Behind all that, the secret weapon of the Byzantine army to success was discipline and strategy which was what the point of this article was about, to show a different and hidden side to Byzantine warfare. Now, I guess this has been a very long article for all of you, but I hope you learned a lot more about Byzantine warfare… well then, thanks for viewing!

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines- Part2- “Byzantium VS the West”

Posted by Powee Celdran

I would rather see a Turkish turban in the midst of the city than the Latin mitre.” -Loukas Notaras, Byzantine Grand Admiral, 1453


Welcome to part 2 on Foreign Lands and People according to the Byzantines from The Byzantium Blogger! As I have promised the last time, I will make a 2nd article on Foreign lands and people according to the Byzantines, in which part 2 will be about the western world, being Western Europe and its people and how the Byzantines viewed them. My last article– which was quite a long read- was basically about faraway lands as far as Ethiopia, India, and China in which the Byzantines made their mark in and basically also about how well the Byzantines knew the known world and how far they went across it, which shows they’ve travelled to very distant places even if they haven’t sailed across the oceans to discover new continents, but if the Byzantine Empire would have lived past 1453, they might have been able to sail to lands farther away such as the New World or around Africa. Anyway, back to the subject matter, the Byzantine Empire lived on for 1,100 years (330-1453) and within this millennium, the east being Byzantium have always had usually troubled relationships with Western Europe, but at times Byzantium and the west would have good relations trading with each other. The Byzantine Empire in the east however has been a world power much longer than the kingdoms of Western Europe have, as Byzantium was the continuation of the Roman Empire, which in the west ended in the 5th century. Long before the Roman Empire’s capital moved east to Constantinople, Rome basically ruled most of the known world, both east and west from Britain to Egypt, from Portugal to Iraq. In 330, the Roman emperor Constantine I the Great moved the capital of the empire east to Constantinople, and from then on, the Roman Empire paid attention to the east more while the western parts began to decline with the ongoing raids of barbarian tribes from outside the borders. In 395, the Roman Empire was fully divided between east and west; the east grew more powerful while the empire in the west gradually declined with the constant loss of territories including France to the Franks, Britain to the Saxons and other Germanic tribes, Spain to the Visigoths, and North Africa to the Vandals. By 476, the Western Roman Empire was gone as Italy fell to the Ostrogoths while the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople became what was left of the Roman Empire, and at this point it had become known to most historians as the “Byzantine Empire”. It took the west a couple of centuries to progress while the Byzantine Empire in the east continued to grow in territory and culture preserving Roman and Greek culture of the past as the west lost most of its Roman heritage turning to their barbarian ways. It was only in 800 when the west became powerful again with the coronation of Charlemagne as “Roman Emperor” after unifying the Franks and other Germanic tribes into an empire. The Byzantines on the other hand had always considered the people of Western Europe- known to them as the Latins– as unsophisticated and illiterate barbarians while the west considered the Byzantines as effeminate, superstitious, and sneaky troublemakers. The Byzantines and the westerners particularly Franks, Germans, and Italians would interact a lot with each other during the period of the crusades beginning in 1096. At one point, the west got their revenge capturing Constantinople in the 4th Crusade of 1204, temporarily ending the Byzantine Empire, establishing the Latin Empire, but the Byzantines still came back for revenge in 1261 recapturing their capital from the Latins. Byzantium would last until Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 while Western Europe had already rediscovered Ancient Greek and Roman knowledge kept by the Byzantines beginning the Renaissance era, thus making them as sophisticated and educated as the Byzantines were. The Byzantines have also looked down on the west for crowning a Roman emperor without having any connection to Rome as the Byzantines did being the successor of the original Roman Empire, but at the same time, the west did not consider the Byzantines as “Roman” but rather “Greek” as a way to insult them. This article will cover the many differences between the Byzantine east and the Latin west including the biggest difference of the Orthodox doctrines of the east and the Catholic doctrines of the west, the customs both had, and basically about how well the Byzantines knew the west and its people. I will begin this article with the Varangians, the people of Europe (though not overall westerners) who have always been at the service of the empire, then moving on to Byzantium’s views and stereotypes on the Franks, Germans, Venetians, and other western Latins, and then to the 4th Crusade and its aftermath featuring stories of westerners who have visited Byzantium and vice-versa. Like my previous few articles, this one is also based on the fascinating book, “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis as well as a couple of chapters from “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” by Judith Herrin and will be written in the style of different paragraphs based on categories on the different types of people according to the Byzantines with maps before a paragraph starts. Now enjoy reading the rest of the article on Byzantium’s continued cosmopolitan society, which is not complete without the westerners.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
Map of the Roman Empire at its height, 117
Map of the Byzantine Empire at its height, 555

Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians from the era of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). It also contains some cultural stereotypes dating to Byzantine times, so be prepared.

Memes from: Brilliant Byzantine Memes 


Other Byzantine articles from the Byzantium Blogger: 

Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines Part1

Crime, Punishment, Heresy, and Medical Practice in Byzantium 

Byzantine Science and Technology

The 94 Emperors 

The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium 

Byzantine Military Figures and Military History 

Early Middle Ages, The Basics 

A summary of Byzantium and its relations with the west



Map of the Varangians- from Scandinavia to Constantinople

As I said in my previous article, I will continue to mention the Varangian people in detail when I have in the last time mentioned about Scandinavia and its people as they were one of the most famous foreigners in Byzantine society. The Byzantines have had early interactions with Scandinavia in the 6th century before the Norsemen or Vikings of the area began raiding and exploring Europe. Sometime in the 8th century, Scandinavia became overpopulated and farmland was scare leading to the Danish Vikings to sail west and conquer England while the Swedish Vikings travelled east inland into Russia eventually founding the city-states of Novgorod and Kiev. In 988, the Byzantine Empire under Basil II would encounter these Norsemen again as it was in a time of crisis with an ongoing civil war and enemies such as the Bulgarians threatening from the north and the Fatimid Caliphate from the south. In Kiev, the prince Vladimir (r. 978-1015) saw this as an opportunity to take Byzantium until Basil II made an alliance with him by marrying his sister Anna Porphyrogenita to Vladimir in exchange for 6,000 men to put down the civil war led by the rebel general Bardas Phokas. Anna was reluctant to leave Constantinople for what she called the “Scythian wasteland” and marry a barbarian prince thinking like if she was going to captivity but her brothers Basil II and the later emperor Constantine VIII protested that the Rus people of Kiev needed to repent, which was by accepting the faith of Christianity. Because of this marriage, the people of the Rus (mostly descendants of the Norsemen) were converted to Christianity and 6,000 men from the lands of Kiev and even from Scandinavia itself were sent over to Byzantium to serve as an elite bodyguard unit for the emperor known as the “Varangian Guard”. The Varangian Guard was first put into action when facing off Bardas Phokas and his rebels in battle, which caused Phokas to allegedly die of heart attack after seeing these massive Varangians. These Varangian guardsmen were initially used as soldiers to quell the civil wars of Byzantium but because of their bravery and strength in battle, in addition to their exotic look of being over 6ft in height, a large structure, and blond hair, the emperor made these men his personal bodyguard in charge for the palace which included guarding the bedchambers and prisons as well as accompanying the emperor in battle. The name Varangians were initially composed of Scandinavians including Danes, Swedes, Norwegians, Finns, Rus from Russia, and even Icelandic people. Because of adventure and a high pay of 200 gold coins a year, these people from the far north were driven to serve the Byzantine Empire even if it meant being away for a service of 10 years. The name “Varangian” was what the Byzantines and Russians called the Scandinavians which probably comes from the ancient Norwegian word “var” meaning “commitment” and true enough these men were committed to fight and were fiercely loyal as long as they were paid. Aside for their loyalty, these men were known to be honorable as it is seen in one story depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes of a Varangian unit stationed in Asia Minor in 1034. Here, one of them tried to abduct a local woman who killed him while he grabbed her, afterwards the other Varangians from his unit instead of fighter her back gave all the possessions of the man she killed to her and dumped his body as if he were a common criminal. After Basil II concluded the Byzantine civil wars, the Varangians became a permanent institution in the empire and in the following years, more men from Russia and Scandinavia travelled to Constantinople, known to them as Miklagardto be in this bodyguard unit; the Varangians later helped Basil II defeat the Bulgarian Empire by 1018 and for the next 3 centuries, they would serve the following emperors both in their palace and in fighting off the Arabs, Normans, Lombards, Pechenegs, and Turks in the frontlines. The Varangians however were not always effective such as in the Battle of Dyrrachion in 1081 while protecting the emperor Alexios I Komnenos, they were decimated by the Normans then when the 4thCrusade attacked Constantinople in 1204, the Varangians still courageously defeated the Latin invaders but because of the multiple shifts in Byzantine emperors, there was not enough money in the treasury to pay them, leading the Varangians to abandon their posts and flee.

The Varangian Guards are said to be identified by a ruby on their ear but also more notably by the large and heavy Nordic battle-axe they carry with them to strike fear in the enemy, while for secondary weapons they carried a round Nordic shield, a dagger, and a Scandinavian broadsword. For their armor however, they wore the Byzantine uniform of plated armor over chain mail and a conical helmet and while being in the service of the Byzantine emperor, they had to understand and speak a bit of Greek. In one story of the 11th century monk John Xiphilinos, a Varangian was thought to be deaf as he could not hear the commands or communicate with his company, although he just could not understand the language so he had to talk with nods and gestures until he saw the shrine of St. Eugenios and went to it to pray for the saint’s help and he was then cured and could clearly speak and understand Greek. Most of these men were ethnically Scandinavian until 1066 when the Anglo-Saxons in Britain were defeated by the Normans led by the Norman duke William the Conqueror at the Battle of Hastings leading the defeated Saxons to flee resulting in many of them arriving in Constantinople serving in the Varangian Guard. From that point, many of the Varangians were ethnically Anglo-Saxon from England- as well as Germans too- and when it came to fighting of the Normans in Italy, the old enemy of the Saxons, they were very driven out of revenge. Among the Nordic people who have served in the Varangian Guard, the most famous one was Harald Hardrada, king of Norway (1046-1066) who served from 1034-1042 under Emperor Michael IV. Harald after losing a battle in Scandinavia against King Cnut of Denmark was sent into exile first as a mercenary for the Kievan Rus and then to Constantinople where he would serve for a couple of years battling in Italy, Asia Minor, and even as far as Mesopotamia. Harald would later return to Scandinavia in 1042 with a massive amount of wealth and by 1046, he was able to claim the Norwegian throne. Decades after Harald Hardrada, another Norwegian king, Sigurd I (r. 1103-1130) who after the crusades in the Holy Land briefly served in the Varangian Guard with his 6,000 men in 1111 and before heading home to Norway, he left behind a gift of Viking-style long ships with gilded dragon heads included for the emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118). Other than Harald Hardrada and Sigurd I of Norway, other notable Varangians Guardsmen are the two who carved runic inscriptions as a form of graffiti inside the Hagia Sophia in 2 different times; however only one of these runes can be deciphered which is the one presumably carved by someone with the name “Halfdan” meaning “Half-Dane”. Meanwhile in Scandinavia, there are about 30 surviving runic inscriptions, mostly in Sweden from the 11th century mentioning men who went to Greece known to them as “Grikkland” to serve the emperor in “Miklagard” or “The Great City” which was Constantinople, and there these men were known as Grikkfari or “Greece-farers”. The Varangians in Constantinople however did not really integrate with the locals as they came mainly to serve the emperor and return usually after 10 years with riches, and this is mentioned in the Icelandic Sagas of heroes such as Bolli Bollason from the Laxdæla saga who went to Byzantium to serve in the Varangian Guard coming home rich. Back in his native Iceland, Bolli after returning from Byzantium would only dress in silk or scarlet and use gilded weapons causing the women there to stare at his ornaments. Overall, the stories of the Varangians show that the Vikings did not only raid and attack countries but served as professional mercenaries in Byzantium returning home cultured and more civilized than they were before.

Diagram of the Varangian Guards
Varangians march into battle led by the emperor

Watch this for more info on the Varangian Guards. 


Expansion of Frankish Territory in Western Europe

By the 6th century, Gaul (France) was conquered by a Germanic people known as the Franks, thus beginning the 1st kingdom of France under Clovis I, its first king from 481-511 establishing the first dynasty of French kings, the Merovingians; and because of these people, France got its name. Almost 3 centuries after the kingdom of France was founded, the Franks controlled almost all of Western Europe and in 800, Charlemagne, the king of the Franks was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor by the pope for somewhat restoring the glory of the Roman Empire in the west, even if the Roman Empire continued to live as Byzantium in the east. The Franks have spread almost everywhere in Western Europe, mostly France making them the ancestors of the French and to the Byzantines, most people from Western Europe were known as Franks. The military manual called the Strategikon written in 600 attributed to the Byzantine emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) calls the Franks, Lombards, and other Germanic people of the west as the blond nations. Aside from describing the Franks as blond, the Tactica of Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912) written by the emperor himself in 895 describes the personality of the Franks as extremely greedy and easily corrupted by money as it seen by those who come to Constantinople from Italy to immediately take up some position. Even Emperor Constantine VII (r. 913-959), the son of Leo VI says the same about the Franks and other westerners as it was written in a manual for foreign policy for his son and heir Romanos II (r. 959-963). The Macedonian dynasty emperor Constantine VII instructs his son that the Franks and particularly westerners have it in their nature to be insatiably greedy for money and ask for so much for doing so little. As emperor, Romanos II was instructed by his father that the west always ask the Byzantines for Greek Fire, imperial regalia including crowns and silk, and imperial brides and as emperor of the Romans, Romanos II should never make marriage alliances with alien people especially if they are not Christians or speak an alien language, although with the Franks it can be possible to make an alliance as they have some similarities with the Byzantines, being that there have been many marriage alliances between Byzantines and Franks before.

In the Middle Ages, it was believed that there could only be one Roman emperor at a time in which the westerners believed with the coronation of Charlemagne as Holy Roman Emperor in 800 being considered as “emperor of the Romans” because at the same time, the ruler of the Byzantine Empire was a woman, Irene of Athens (r. 797-802), who for the west obviously did not count as emperor; and by 802, Irene was deposed by a palace revolt led by her finance minister becoming Emperor Nikephoros I (r. 802-811). Irene was in fact supposed to marry Charlemagne but declined after finding out she had to travel all the way to Aachen in Germany to marry him. After 800, the westerners- especially working for the Holy Roman emperors and the Papacy- refused to call the Byzantines Romans but instead as “Greeks” not because of their ethnicity but as an insult. In 968, the Italian Liutprand of Cremona was sent on his 2nddiplomatic mission to Constantinople by the Holy Roman emperor Otto I (r. 962-973) which outraged the Byzantine emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) and his court when the Byzantine emperor was addressed to as “emperor of the Greeks” instead of “emperor of the Romans”. Nikephoros II responded to this saying “doesn’t that idiot of a pope know, that Constantine the Great transferred the imperial capital and senate to Constantinople, and left behind in Rome only slaves, plebeians, and common types?”, Nikephoros II also addressed Otto I back as only “king” and not “emperor”. When encountering Nikephoros II, Liutprand of Cremona describes him as “a monstrosity of a man, a pygmy, fat-headed and like a mole in the smallness of his eyes, disgusting with his short, broad, and thick beard and short neck; in color like an Ethiopian, with a big belly, lean of loin, and long of hip considering his short stature; clad in a garment costly but too old, and foul-smelling and faded through age”. For the Lombards- the Germanic people of Italy on the other hand, they had the option to ally with the Byzantines to escape Charlemagne’s grip or fall under the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne; in this case, the Lombard duke of Benevento in Southern Italy, Arechis II in the 770s wanted to escape from Charlemagne’s grip so he planned to side with the Byzantines promising Emperor Constantine V (r. 741-775) that his people would cut their hair and dress like the Byzantines.

Byzantine Empire (light pink), Frankish Kingdom (dark pink)

Watch this for more on story where Liutprand of Cremona meets Nikephoros II in 968. 



Map of the Norman conquests of France, England, and Italy

Like the Varangians, the Norman people have also originated in the Nordic countries before sailing down to the north coast of France in the 10th century permanently settling there in this part which became known as Normandy, in which they founded as their own duchy with the Viking Rollo as its first duke. When they have settled there, the race of the Normans was born after these Norsemen intermarried with the local Frankish and Gallo-Roman people of France; these people in the next centuries were famed for their martial spirit and skills in battle, Catholic piety, and impressive Romanesque architecture seen in many monasteries and cathedrals in Southern Italy and England, the most famous Norman building being the Tower of London. In 1066, the duke of Normandy William I, a descendant of Rollo set out across the English Channel to conquer England where he defeated the Anglo-Saxons and their king Harold Godwinson in the Battle of Hastings, thus William I became the first Norman king of England and gained the title “William the Conqueror”.   Some years later, the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard, who had previously taken Sicily took all of Southern Italy from the Byzantines in 1071 and 10 years later, the Normans would cross over to the Balkans attack Byzantine territory becoming one of Byzantium’s major enemies. After the defeat of the Anglo-Saxons in England in 1066, many of them had fled to Byzantium in the thousands joining the Varangian Guard, some of them being veterans of the Battle of Hastings and a few years later, in 1081 they once again met the Normans in the Battle of Dyrrachion when Robert Guiscard decided to move his forces across the Ionian Sea from Italy to the Byzantine Empire. The Alexiad written by Anna Komnene mentions these Anglo-Saxon Varangians serving Byzantium and when fighting the Normans in Dyrrachion defending the emperor Alexios I Komnenos, they fought with such determination as it was against their old enemy, the Byzantines then held these Englishmen in great esteem, but at the end many of them were killed as the survivors fled to a church above a hill which was set on fire by the Normans. By 1086 however, Alexios I defeated the Normans from Southern Italy that had invaded Byzantium and at this time, the body of William the Conqueror’s father, Duke Robert I “the Devil” of Normandy who died in Byzantium in 1035 after returning from a pilgrimage to Jerusalem was buried in Nicaea. William the Conqueror, then already king of England ordered that his father’s body had to be moved from Nicaea in Asia Minor to the Norman held Apulia in Southern Italy; William happens to be Robert I’s illegitimate son with his mistress. Even as late as the high Middle Ages, the Normans even after taking part in the crusades were still savage in nature according to the Byzantines as seen in the capture of Thessaloniki in 1185; here the Normans plundered the city having no conception of the value of perfumed oils, distilled aromas, medicines, and for pleasure and painting that the Byzantines did, instead they used scented woods for kindling, believed spiced resins were coal, and did not understand the use of rose water; what they actually wanted were iron rings, nails, and knives.

Battle of Hastings, 1066



12th century- Map of the Holy Roman Empire (outlined), Byzantine Empire (light pink)  

In the Middle Ages, the Germans ruled a massive empire known as the Holy Roman Empire controlling a lot of Western Europe making them have an arrogant attitude and among the westerners, the Germans were one of those who looked down on the Byzantines the most. When the first wife of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180), the German Bertha of Sulzbach died in 1159, Basil of Ohrid praised her for her piety and humility in contrast to her people, the Germans who he says are haughty, arrogant, and simply don’t know how to yield or compromise. In the epitaph made by Basil of Ohrid for the empress he also says that “it is obvious that among all the nations between Italy and the outer Ocean, the Germans (Holy Roman Empire) rule over all the others, and cannot bear to be ruled”. When she was still alive, Empress Bertha-Eirene refused to wear any makeup and was so opinionated that her husband, the emperor Manuel I chose to sleep with other women instead, but in her funeral, he was still in great grief. In another story about Manuel I, this time revolving Hungary and his planned invasion in 1167 as told by the Histories of Niketas Choniates says that in the Forum of Constantine in Constantinople where the 2 female statues of the “Roman” and the “Hungarian” stood, the Roman one happened to fall in which Manuel saw as a terrible omen, so he ordered that the Roman statue be restored and the Hungarian taken down to reverse the outcome of war. Back to the subject of the Germans in Byzantine history, in Christmas of 1196, the Holy Roman Emperor in Germany, Heinrich VI (r. 1191-1197) forced the Byzantine emperor Alexios III Angelos (r. 1195-1203) to pay him a tribute of 5,000 pounds or face invasion. Alexios III thought of creating a tax for his subjects known as the “German tax” (To Alamanikon in Greek), but this idea was rejected, so instead the emperor resorted to plundering the tombs of the past Byzantine emperors, although Heinrich VI died before the money could paid, so the Byzantines didn’t have to pay the Germans after all.

Forum of Constantine, Constantinople


Venice and the 4th Crusade

Map of the 4th Crusade, Venice to Constantinople, 1204

Since the emergence of the Republic of Venice in the late 7th century, they have become an ally of Byzantium when it came to providing the Byzantines’ ships in their conquests against the Normans and Arabs in Southern Italy. It was through Venice that the fork and other Byzantine luxuries were introduced to Western Europe, and because of the use of the fork and luxuries, the westerners- mostly bishops- were convinced to tell the people that the Byzantines have been corrupting them with their luxuries leading to growing hostilities between Byzantium and the west, according to the chapter Venice and the Fork in “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire” by Judith Herrin. In 1171, Venice would all of a sudden turn on Byzantium starting a war between 2 powers, which started after the Venetians refused to help the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Komenos in an invasion of Southern Italy. Previously, Manuel I assigned quarters to the Italian maritime traders of the Republics of Genoa, Pisa, and Venice in the Pera district across the Golden Horn in Constantinople, thought the Venetians being rivals with the Genoese and Pisans constantly fought them resulting in killing some Genoese and Pisans, thus showing disobedience to imperial order. Because of their disobedience, Manuel I considered Venice to no longer be an ally choosing Genoa instead and to put this in action, the emperor sent secret letters throughout the empire with orders to provincial governors that they should arrest all Venetians on the same day, which was March 12, 1171 and that they should all be placed in prison with their property impounded to the imperial treasury. On March 12, 1171 about 20,000 Venetians were arrested: 10,000 in the capital and 10,000 in the provinces, this though led to more war with Venice and it was here where the future Venetian doge Enrico Dandolo was blinded. In another story during the Byzantine-Venetian war according to Niketas Choniates, the Venetians captured Manuel I’s imperial barge and took an Ethiopian dressing him up like the emperor and paraded him as a way to mock Manuel I for his dark skin and for not having blond hair. The Byzantines would later win this war, but the Venetians would get their revenge in the beginning of the 13th century by orchestrating the 4th Crusade.

From 1202-1204, the Byzantine and western worlds would clash in the conflict known as the 4th Crusade. The original plan for this crusade was to battle the Ayyubid Sultanate of Egypt and recapture Jerusalem for the Christians but some economic and political issues diverted the crusade to the Byzantine Empire. First of all, the pro-western Byzantine prince Alexios Angelos requested the help mainly from the Frankish (Latin) crusaders to oust his uncle, Emperor Alexios III Angelos out of Constantinople to restore his deposed and blinded father, Isaac II Angelos as emperor. For the westerners (mostly Franks), attacking the Byzantines was justified because they envied Byzantium for its sophisticated culture and luxuries but also because church leaders including Pope Innocent III made attacking the Byzantines for turning against the Church of Rome a valid reason. Meanwhile because of being defeated previously by the Byzantines, the Venetians had this as their reason for starting this crusade. In 1203, the 4th Crusade made its way to Constantinople causing Alexios III to flee as the people released his younger brother Isaac II from prison and even if blind, they proclaimed him emperor again together with his son Alexios IV. Before this, according to the Chronicle of Halberstadt, when the army of the 4th Crusade arrived in the island of Corfu in Western Greece, the local bishop invited their commander to lunch where the subject became about the issue of papal supremacy, where the pope or bishop of Rome is the head of the entire Church. The local bishop did not see why the bishop of Rome was the head of the entire Church and why Rome had to rule the Church, the only reason for the Byzantines sarcastically being that it was the Roman soldiers that had crucified Christ, the Byzantines also pointed out that it was St. Peter, the first bishop of Rome that was first to deny Christ. Back in Constantinople, Alexios IV did not have the funds he promised he would pay the crusaders which was needed to pay the Venetians for their overtime use of their ships and at the same time, a revolution of the people was rising to overthrow Alexios IV and his father. In the beginning of 1204, Alexios IV was overthrown and put to death by the new emperor Alexios V while Isaac II died of shock, and by April of 1204, the Crusaders launched their attack and captured Constantinople, the “Queen of Cities”. The western crusaders did not only capture the city, they massacred half its population, desecrated holy sites and relics, and looted its relics and treasures bringing the loot they kept back to the west, mostly to Venice while in Constantinople, the Latin Empire, also known as the “Empire of Romania” was established. The ruined chapels in the capital were turned into horse stables and when sacking the cathedral of the Hagia Sophia they brought in donkeys to cart out their plunder while these donkeys urinated and defecated inside; the crusaders did not care because they believed these churches to not be those of their faith but of the faith of traitors. Apart from this, the crusaders even mocked the liturgy of the Byzantines by making a common whore pretend to conduct the Mass blessing the people present as she danced her way out and at the same time, the crusaders mocked the Byzantines as a “nation of secretaries” by dressing up in their robes and pretending to write things according to Niketas Choniates’ Histories which also says that after capturing the city, the Crusaders reveled and indulged themselves all day long. The most notable plunder taken from the 4th Crusade include the 4 bronzes in St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice still seen today (though the original ones found inside) which once stood over Constantinople’s Hippodrome; other notable loot in Venice include the elaborate Pillars of Acre, and the porphyry statue of the 4 original Roman Tetrarchs- Diocletian, Maximian, Galerius, and Constantius I embracing each other. Other relics were taken by the armies of the other leaders including the French count Louis de Blois to churches in small towns in France, Germany, Italy, and Belgium. Years later during the Florence-Ferrara Council (1438-39), the Byzantine delegation arriving in Venice once again saw the precious loot taken from Constantinople on display in Venice as they took the tour of Venice. The Venetians told the Byzantines that these icons and relics came from the Hagia Sophia, however the Byzantines read the inscriptions and found out that they were instead from the Pantokrator monastery telling the Venetians that it was only 2nd rate plunder.

Medieval illustration of the capture of Constantinople (1204)

Watch this for more info on the Byzantines’ cooperation with the crusaders. 


Ways of the Byzantines vs the ways of the Latins

Division of Byzantium after the 4th Crusade, 13th century       

The more common word the Byzantines refer to the westerners as are “Latins”, this is because they were Roman Catholics and spoke Latin as the official language while the Byzantines used Greek. The Byzantines themselves thought they were the direct continuation of the Roman Empire despite speaking Greek giving a conflicted attitude to the Latin language. To the Byzantines, Latin was their “ancestral language” but they thought it to be inferior to Greek as it was hard to explain things in Latin according to the Church Fathers, the language was also too thin for the Greeks; Latin was spoken during Justinian I’s reign from 527-565 until Greek replaced it during the reign of Heraclius (610-641). The names “Catholic” for the western Church and “Orthodox” for the eastern one is actually confusing and conflicting because both claims to be Catholic meaning “found everywhere” and Orthodox meaning “traditional”. To differentiate, the Western Church became called “Roman Catholic” as it is based in Rome, to the Byzantines the western Church was known as “the Church of Latins”, but the west the Byzantine Church was “the Church of the Greeks” which the Byzantines felt offended when being called that. Through imperial marriages between western emperors and princes to Byzantine princesses such as Maria Argyra to a Venetian prince and Theophano to Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, sophisticated Byzantine way of life including the use of the fork were introduced to the west. Church leaders of the west thought that the behavior of the Byzantines using a fork to eat, using perfume, wearing silk, and lavishly taking a bath were scandalous and in fact sinful and overly materialistic. Western writers of the 12th and 13th centuries call the Byzantines “effeminate people” who have “degenerated entirely into women” as they were unwarlike and relied more on tricks than on the force arms the way the Latins did; the Byzantines too were described as soft and effeminate, tricky and talkative, cowardly and devious. The Byzantines true enough relied more on tricks and schemes to achieve their goals as well as diplomacy to solve international issues unlike the Latins who thought of war as a better solution, but this attitude of tricks show that the Byzantines are a more intellectual people. However, westerners- particularly the French- thought Byzantine women were far more beautiful than their own. The conflicts between the Latins and Byzantines worsened in 1182 when the Byzantine people of Constantinople massacred the Latins- particularly the Italian maritime traders of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa- for their growing wealth and influence. This massacre barely spared anyone and included killing Latin women, children, the sick, and wounded which would later be one of the reasons for the west to strike Byzantium in the 4th Crusade.

Meanwhile, the Byzantines believed that the Latins were so violent and bestial that they were unable to control their impulses, and this could be used against them in war. According to Nikephoros Gregoras, in a battle between the forces of the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos (r. 1261-1282) and Charles of Anjou, the Latin army of Charles of Anjou who were well armed with a numerical advantage charged in an uncoordinated rage but the Byzantines had long known about how the Latins would fight and engaged them with tricks. Back in the 9th century, the Byzantine emperor Michael III wrote in a letter to Pope Nicholas I referring Latin as a “barbarous and Scythian language”, the pope responded to this letter asking the emperor, “how then can you call yourself a Roman?” Since the 11th century, the Byzantines have been making lists called Errors of the Latins which was about everything the Latins (Catholics) did wrong in their daily lives and culture in contrast to the Byzantine way of life. The most entertaining of these lists was produced by Constantine Stilbes after the 4th Crusade’s sack of Constantinople in 1204. In this list, the errors of the Latins included not using actual bread the way Byzantines use for communion as Christ instructed instead using an unleavened wafer, when they elect a new pope the new one has to place the hand of the dead one on his neck considering it an anointing, and also that the pope and his clergy sell indulgences for serious crimes like murder even if it hasn’t yet been committed. Other than that, the Byzantines were shocked to see that the Latins do the sign of the cross using 5 fingers, that Latin bishops fight in wars mounted on horses and staining their hands with the blood of the men they’ve killed, bishops shave their chins and body hair making them look like women, and worse they allow dogs to enter churches during the liturgy and sometimes even bears. The Byzantines also noticed that the Latins did not honor Constantine the Great as a saint because he built New Rome that is Constantinople; also that some Latins would even bathe in their own urine and sometimes even drink it and when it came to eating, the Latins would eat animals that have drowned, were dying, that have been killed by other animals, as well as eating animal blood and offal too. Stilbes also mentions that the Latins ate bears, jackals, turtles, hedgehogs, beavers, crows, seagulls, dolphins, flies, and even filthier things and that they eat with dogs and tamed bears at the table allowing them to lick the dishes clean in order to use them for their next meals. With the Latins having the habit of shaving, the Byzantines began to wonder if they were in fact men and not women or eunuchs. In the years after 1204, when the Byzantine state was exiled to Nicaea and the Latin Empire or “Empire of Romania” ruled from Constantinople, hatred among the Latins was at its height especially because the capital was lost. The patriarch in exile Germanos II prayed that “God might arm his hands with a bow, learn to fight, and send the evil Latins packing, so that they can no longer lap up the Byzantine’s bodies like the dogs the Latins are”. The patriarch also prays that their emperor John III Doukas Vatatzes of Nicaea (r. 1222-1254) will rebaptize them in their own blood. It was probably because the hate for the Latins by the Byzantines was so high that the Byzantines began to describe the Latins in the most hostile and disgusting of ways, but in contrast to the filthy ways of life the Latins had, they shaved off their beards and facial hair.

How a Byzantine (Roman) sees the rest of the world east and west vs how a normal person does


The West in the 14th and 15th centuries

Europe in the 14th century, Byzantium surrounded by the Ottomans

After the 4th Crusade and their capture of Constantinople in 1204, the Byzantines’ hate and distrust for the west was at its peak. The Byzantines of Nicaea would eventually recapture Constantinople in 1261 followed by the coronation of Michael VIII Palaiologos as the restored Byzantine emperor destroying the Latin Empire. However, even if the Byzantines regained Constantinople, a new threat was growing in the east, this was that of the newly emerged Ottoman Turks, so in order to combat them, the Byzantines who have already been weakened in military strength needed new mercenaries to fight for them. Michael VIII’s son and successor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) once again requested for and hired an army from the west, this army was the Grand Catalan Company, which then took the place of the once renowned Varangian Guard that had ceased to exist. The Catalan Company consisting of Christian Spanish soldiers from Aragon known as the Almogavars led by the Italian general Roger de Flor arrived in Constantinople in 1302 and from then on continuously fought battles against the Turks led by the first Ottoman Sultan, Osman I (r. 1299-1324) to regain parts of Asia Minor the Byzantines have previously lost. The Catalan Company despite being poorly equipped and armored with only a few armor pads and old-fashioned javelins succeeded in defeating the Turks but unlike the Varangians, they were not as loyal to their emperor. Their leader, Roger de Flor was given the Byzantine title of Megas Doux or commander-in-chief of the army which made him grow more ambitious to the point where he had plans to overthrow the emperor. His ambitions were however stopped when Andronikos II’s son and supposed heir Michael IX had his Alan mercenaries assassinate De Flor in Adrianople in 1305, but the Catalans still fought back by plundering the regions of Macedonia and Thrace in an act known as the “Catalan Vengeance”. Out of all the westerners, the ones to remain loyal allies to the Byzantines till the end were the Genoese from the Republic of Genoa in Italy; which is seen in the final days of Byzantium in 1453 where the Genoese army led by their general Giovanni Giustiniani helped the last emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos in almost driving away the Ottoman Turks from capturing the city. At the end however, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks but the Venetians who were once Byzantium’s mortal enemy still helped the Byzantines defend their capital from the final siege.

In the final days of Byzantium, trusting the westerners had grown more difficult but their assistance was needed more than ever to help their dying empire defend against the growing threat of the Turks, even though this meant the difficult task of uniting the Eastern Orthodox and Western Catholic Churches; though the end they were never formally united. Before concluding the article on the west according to the Byzantines, one people I haven’t mentioned yet that the Byzantines did encounter are the British, and surprisingly they did make contact with the British Isles. In 1400, the Byzantine emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (r. 1391-1425) made a visit to the court of King Henry IV in England among other kingdoms in Western Europe such as France, Aragon, Denmark, and the Holy Roman Empire, but his visit to England made him to first and last Byzantine emperor to ever visit England ever since Constantine the Great who was made Roman emperor in England in 306. According to the 15th century Byzantine historian Laonikos Chalkokondyles, the British dress the same way and have the same customs as their neighbors like the French but they speak a language that sounds nothing like that of the Germans or French, showing that the Byzantines had an idea what the earlier version of English- similar to Shakespeare’s English- sounded like. Other than that, it was said that the English have a rather casual attitude when it comes to women and children that the host’s wife would greet the invited friend of her husband with a kiss and in the streets the men would present their own wives to their friends. As it turns out, even if English may be hard to learn for non-English speakers nowadays, it was 10 times more difficult back then for the Byzantines thinking the medieval English was an alien language. At the same time, the presence Ottoman Turks of Anatolia, who have originated centuries ago have been threatening the Byzantines, though at times they were at good terms to the point where the Byzantine emperor John V Palaiologos (r. 1341-1376/ 1379-1391) agreed to make Byzantium a vassal state of the Ottomans. The Byzantines however found the Turks to be excellent acrobats as I have mentioned previously but when it came to Greek and Italian women, the 15th century Byzantine historian Doukas says the Turks are very sexually depraved and that they despise their own women as if they were bears or hyenas. The Byzantines at the end would rather have their empire fall to the Turks than the western Latins after the trauma they had from the desecrations of the 4th Crusade.

Catalan Company of Roger de Flor arrives in Constantinople, 1302
The Siege of Constantinople, 1453
How Byzantium faces its enemies (the Hydra)


Alright, so once again I will conclude another extremely long but hopefully interesting article. Now the 2 articles I promised on Byzantium’s cosmopolitan society have been concluded and the Byzantine cosmopolitan society isn’t that complete without mentioning the westerners in Byzantium and how well the Byzantines knew about the western world. The lifetime of the Byzantine Empire was long enough to see Western Europe emerge from the barbarians that have taken Roman territory away to become powerful kingdoms and empires of their own developing a system of trade up in the north while the trade in the Mediterranean has been taken over by the Muslim Arabs. In the beginning however, the west and eastern worlds that became the worlds of the Latins and Byzantines were one when the Roman Empire ruled over both but as the empire was divided and barbarians took over the west and began to appreciate Roman culture while in the east, people began speaking Greek more losing their old Roman traditions, differences between the east and west became so big. Where differences between the east and west could never really be settled was in religious doctrine as the Orthodox Byzantines in the east stuck to the old-school Christian traditions while the Catholic Latins in the west could not understand some of the beliefs of the east but the east also did not understand some of theirs such as the primacy of the pope as the leader of the Church in the west. While the west slowly began to grow militarily and culturally, especially after Charlemagne established the Holy Roman Empire in 800, the Byzantines have already had a strong culture and national identity which they spread to the west by introducing silks and the fork, which westerners did not understand at first. Relations between Byzantium and the west were however not always hostile since the Varangians- not entirely westerners though have been loyal protectors to the emperors while the Venetians have been great allies until a falling out happened, and Genoa had also been good allies to Byzantium. With other people of the west however such as the Spanish Catalan Company and the 4th Crusade could not be trusted while the Franks, Germans, and Normans could not be fully understood by the Byzantines. If the western Latins could not understand the effeminate, deceitful, mysterious, and overall intellectual life of the Byzantines thinking them as cowards, the Byzantines on the other hand did not also understand the somewhat barbaric and filthy way of life the west had in contrast to their clean appearances. The equally strange contrasts between Byzantium and their western counterparts show a classic “east vs west story” but at times the Byzantines and western Latins would cooperate with each other against a common enemy like the Arabs and Turks in the time of the crusades, but at the end the west could not always be trusted. After the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the 4th Crusade, the west would forever give a bad reputation for the Byzantines that trusting the west in helping Byzantium would be hard. In the end however, the west still helped the Byzantines defend their capital against the siege of the Ottomans in 1453 even if it ended with the final end of the Roman Empire. The Byzantines though had admitted that it would be better for them to fall to the Turks rather than the west because the Ottomans at least still showed some respect for them when they passed Byzantium in their way to invade Europe while the westerners would steal Byzantium’s treasures out of greed and desecrate their holy sites, which is why the last Byzantine grand admiral Loukas Notaras said he’d rather prefer that Byzantium would rather fall under the Turkish turban than the Latin mitre. Truly, without Byzantium’s constant efforts in defending their empire, Europe would have been taken over by Islam earlier on, which is why the Byzantines deserve more recognition than they have. Because Byzantium has encountered both the eastern and western world, it was the empire where cultures from all parts of the known world met together and where some cultures in these parts were influenced from. As I have been writing both articles on Byzantium’s interactions with east and west, it turns out the Byzantines had the most interactions with the east and south (Asia and Africa) during the reign of Justinian I (527-565) but it was during the reign of Manuel I Komnenos (1143-1180) and the Komnenos emperors (1081-1185) when the Byzantines interacted most with the west, basically because this was when the west was emerging especially with the crusades. Well, this is now about it for how much the Byzantines knew about the world around them, both east and west; with the east, things were fascinating for them but with the west things were more complicated. In the last article, I have covered Byzantium’s relations and thoughts on far away lands in Africa, Asia, and Europe while this one basically sums up almost everyone in the western world and other parts including the French, Germans, Italians, Spanish, British, Scandinavians, as well as Russians (Rus), and a bit about the Hungarians and even Turks; although there is nothing much said about how the Byzantines saw other westerners such as the Portuguese, Irish, and smaller European states. For me honestly, what I like most about Byzantine history is their views on the world around them because it is interesting to know how far they made their mark in the world which I think could even be more improved if they had been able to sail across the Atlantic if they survived after 1453. Whatever I did not mention in this article, I will in an upcoming one I will write about “Turning Points in Byzantine History”. Anyway, this hell of a long article is done and I hope it was an enjoyable read- especially with the memes- so, thanks again for viewing!


Foreign Lands and People According to the Byzantines- Part1- “Where the World Meets”

Posted by Powee Celdran

You will find me a Scythian among the Scythians and a Latin among the Latins, and in general, among all other people you will find me to be one of them.” -John Tzetzes, 12th century


Welcome once again to another article by the Byzantium Blogger! Recently, I have tackled several interesting topics of Byzantine life from the emperors, to their inventions and science, and their methods of torture and punishment according to one of the most fascinating books on Byzantine life, “A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities” by Anthony Kaldellis. This article will once again cover a chapter- if not a set of chapters- from the same book and that part of the book covers the topic I’ve always wanted to write about. This topic is about different foreign lands, far and near including their people and how the Byzantines viewed them; which in fact was the topic I’ve always wanted to write about- basically about how well the Byzantines knew about the world around them. The Byzantine Empire (Eastern Roman Empire) lasted for 1,100 years (330-1453) which means there was a great amount of time for them to encounter all sorts of races and powers either from lands surrounding them or lands far away. The different people the Byzantines encountered throughout these 1,100 years included Jews, Persians, Arabs, Egyptians, Ethiopians, Scythians, Armenians, Huns, Vandals, Goths, Vikings, Rus, Slavs, Vlachs, and of course the Franks, Latins, and Germans (which will be my next article). The Byzantines encountered all sorts of people either by travelling to very distant places such as India, China, and Ethiopia or by those people settling in Constantinople therefore having the Byzantines have some stereotypes about them. With all these people from different parts of the world settling down in Constantinople, the capital was surely a “Cosmopolitan Society” like today’s New York, London, and Paris and also like Coruscant from Star Wars, and this fact of Byzantium’s cosmopolitan society was something I’ve always wanted to write about after reading a chapter from Judith Herrin’s “Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire“. Meanwhile, some of these foreigners the Byzantines encountered have had some hostile views towards them just as the Byzantines viewed them in a hostile way but some of these foreigners looked up to the Byzantines as the successors of the Roman Empire. This topic on far away foreign lands has always been something of great interest because the Byzantines long before explorers such as Marco Polo, Vasco de Gama, and Christopher Columbus discovered distant lands had already reached the far reaches of Asia including India and China but of course the Byzantines did not go as far as building large ships that enabled them to sail around Africa to reach Asia or across the Atlantic Ocean to the New World. This article will feature descriptions of foreign lands including the people, animals, customs, food, and how the Byzantines saw them from as early as the beginnings of the Eastern Roman Empire in the 4th century up until its final days in the 15th century. This is definitely GOING TO BE A VERY LONG READ and instead of just mentioning Byzantine history like I always do, this has some zoology, geography, anthropology, and a bit of cultural stereotypes blended into it. For the Byzantines, the farthest they’ve reached and heard about east was China, to the south it was Ethiopia, and to the north it was Scandinavia but as it turns out, the people and lands the Byzantines were most fascinated about were the lands in the east which were rich in resources and exotic. Like my other articles based on the same book, this will be written in many different paragraphs categorized by the different people and lands the Byzantines encountered.  Out of the many interesting chapters in A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities, the one about foreign lands, people, and stereotypes was one of the best parts to read about and of course this article is not it yet as I will post a sequel to this on Byzantines vs Latins (Westerners) showing how both were different and how they viewed each other. Anyway, let’s begin with the article.

Byzantine Imperial flag and symbols
The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent- reign of Justinian I
The known world according to the Byzantines


Note: This article’s information comes from various Byzantine historians from the era of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453). It also contains some cultural stereotypes dating to Byzantine times, so be prepared.


Other Byzantine Articles from the Byzantium Blogger: 

Crime, Punishment, Heresy, and Medical Practice in Byzantium 

Byzantine Science and Technology 

The 94 Emperors 

The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire 

7 Reasons to be Interested in Byzantium 


Provincials (Asia Minor and Armenia)

Map of the Byzantine Themes of Asia Minor

Where else to begin writing this article on the multi-ethnic Byzantine world but with provincials of the Byzantine Empire itself. These provincials of the empire include people from the Themes or provinces which were mostly in Asia Minor (Turkey) which all had their own customs and stereotypes which the Byzantines of Constantinople had towards them and in fact the people of Constantinople had some condescending views towards the provincials. One example of how the Byzantines of Constantinople viewed the provincials talks about the Cappadocians, the people from the Asia Minor region of Cappadocia: “a poisonous snake once bit a Cappadocian, and died from tasting his tainted blood” saying that the person did not die but the snake because of the Cappadocian’s blood. It was also in Cappadocia (or if not Armenia) where the conjoined twins of the 10th century came from, as I have mentioned in my previous article which are depicted in the Madrid Skylitzes. Meanwhile, the Byzantines called the Paphlagonians, the people from the region of Asia Minor of Paphlagonia as “pig-assed” (choirokoloi in Greek)  but also it was also in Paphlagonia where a certain type of cheese was made wherein cheese-makers blew air into the milk they were curdling to give it holes creating the Byzantine version of Swiss cheese. When it came to the people from the island of Cyprus, the 12th century Byzantine writer Constantine Manasses describes that one day in church, a man from Cyprus came in with a smell of wine and reeking garlic that he couldn’t stand the smell all the way to the point where he had to punch the man from Cyprus in the jaw. In the 9th century, the poet and hymnographer, St. Kassiane- who would have been the wife of the emperor Theophilos (r. 829-842)- wrote a discriminating poem on the Armenians:

The terrible race of Armenians is deceitful and extremely vile,

fanatical, deranged, and malignant, puffed up with hot air and full of slyness.

A wise man said correctly about them that Armenians are vile when they live in obscurity, even more when they become famous, and most vile in all ways when they become rich.

When they become filthy rich and honored, then to all they seem as vileness heaped upon vileness.

Apart from these hostile views towards the Armenians, they were also good and strong soldiers in the Byzantine army and many of them rose above the ranks becoming great generals, although it was said that when they become rich and famous, they become viler.

Colored map of Byzantine Asia Minor
Present day Cappadocia, Turkey



Map of the travels of the Spanish Jew, Benjamin of Tuleda, 12th century

Apparently, there was a large number of Jews that lived in Constantinople and in the Byzantine Empire ever since the early days of the Eastern Roman Empire when the Jews began to scatter around the Mediterranean and other parts of the world. The Byzantines were usually tolerant towards the Jews living in the empire but really, they found the Jews mysterious especially since they always lived beside each other and only interact with each other. According to the Jewish Spanish traveler Benjamin of Tuleda in the 12th century who visited Constantinople, the rival Jewish sects of the Rabanites (population of 2,000) and the Karaites (population of 500) were forced to live in the district of Pera across the Golden Horn despite hating each other, which meant they had to build a wall between their communities. Benjamin of Tuleda also said that the Byzantines would beat up Jews in the streets for not seeing eye to eye with each other and that Jews were not allowed to ride a horse in the city except for one, who was the physician of the emperor Manuel I Komnenos. Another thing Benjamin writes about was the wild beast show in the Hippodrome during Christmas sometime in the 1160’s which featured lions, bears, leopards, wild donkeys, and birds that would fight each other for public amusement in which Benjamin said “no entertainment like it can be found in any other land”, and here the emperor Manuel I was present as well watching the show. Meanwhile, the Byzantine poet John Tzetzes who lived during the same time as Benjamin of Tuleda has more insulting things to say about the Jews as seen in his poem on how to greet a Jew: “You blind house, full of evil magic, mouth like a gorge sucking up flies” followed by “You Jew, thick as a brick, the Lord did come, lightning upon your head”. In other words, some Byzantines insult the Jews for not accepting the Christian faith when they had the chance to and instead stuck to their old religion.

Another story the Byzantine Greeks have about the Jews takes place back in 401 in a letter of the philosopher and bishop of Cyrene, Synesios was on his way back to Cyrene from Alexandria and the captain and more than half of the ship crew were Jews believing that it was an act of piety to kill as many Greeks as possible but it turned out the captain and the crew were strict orthodox Jews and they refused to pilot the ship during a storm on the Sabbath and all the captain would do was read his scroll until an Arab soldier on the ship threatened him with a sword. More than a century later in 534, the artifacts of the Jewish Temple of Jerusalem, particularly the Menorah was recovered in Carthage once the Romans reclaimed it under Emperor Justinian I. In 70AD, the 2nd Temple of Jerusalem was destroyed when the Romans took Jerusalem and many pieces from the temple were taken to Rome as spoils of war including the menorah until 455 when Rome was captured by the Vandals under King Geiseric (r. 428-477) who took many spoils including the menorah to Carthage, which was their capital. After the Romans (Byzantines) reclaimed Carthage in 534, the general Belisarius sent the menorah to Constantinople where a Jew saw it and told Justinian that no city could keep the artifact safe but Jerusalem so Justinian shipped it to Jerusalem together with other artifacts and scattered it various churches as in that time the Jews were no longer a dominant population in the area. In 614, the Sassanid Persians captured Jerusalem taking the relics and from then they were never seen again. Overall, the Byzantines were more tolerant to the Jews compared to the Western Europeans of the middle ages even if they isolate the Jewish communities in a district in Constantinople but they allowed them to progress commercially and relied on their skills in trade, mathematics, and medicine; although only if they would cause problems, the Byzantines would take action against them.

Present day Pera district



Map of Roman Egypt (Aegyptus)

 When the Roman Empire was fully divided after the death of Emperor Theodosius I in 395, Egypt fell under the more powerful and progressive Eastern Empire based in Constantinople and up until the Muslim conquest in 641, the both fertile and mostly dessert filled Egypt remained a Roman province providing the grain supply for the empire. The Roman soldier and travel writer Ammianus Marcellinus from the 4th century describes that the Egyptians are dark and swarthy with a sad look about them, also easily animated in their gestures, quarrelsome and persistent, and are not ashamed to show any lash marks on their body from refusing to pay taxes, and at the same time any torture would not be hard enough to reveal the name of a hardened criminal from Egypt. In Constantinople, which had all sorts of races living all over, there was a type of police unit focused on catching Egyptians and Syrians who have migrated to the capital for invalid reasons, this was similar to racial profiling.

The Egyptians however have grown accustomed to Greek culture and the Greek alphabet ever since Egypt fell under Greek rule in the 4th century BC from Alexander the Great’s conquest. Hieroglyphics on the other hand were last seen in the Island of Philae along the Nile in the year 394 recording the name of the priest, date, and the god being the son of the Egyptian god Horus that was being honored. After that, hieroglyphics became totally not understandable to those who lived in the empire, including Egyptians which is seen when a monk named Jacob entered the tomb of the pharaoh Ramses IV in the Valley of Kings writing graffiti on the wall saying he could not understand the picture alphabet of the Ancient Egyptians. It was mentioned by the Ancient Greek historian Diodoros that ancient Egyptians would sacrifice the rare red-headed men to their gods; when this was found out by the reddish-haired Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates in the late 12th century, he said that he was already old when he found out about this so he wouldn’t have to worry about this custom anymore because his hair turned gray. It was also in Egypt where the Plague of Justinian in 541 was first recorded which spread all over the Mediterranean from the ports of the north coast of Egypt; the fleas on the rats that caused the plague were so small that they were invisible to the Byzantines. Fast-forward to the 11th century, Egypt was no longer under Byzantine control but a diplomatic gift of a giraffe in which the Byzantines called a “camel-leopard” was given to the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (r. 1042-1055) which was paraded in the capital.

Alexandria from Assassin’s Creed Origins (2017)
Tomb of Ramses IV, Valley of Kings, Luxor
Map of the Plague of Justinian (541-542)


Ethiopians and Nubians

Map of the ancient Kingdom of Axum (Ethiopia)

To the south of Egypt in the far reaches of the dessert was the region of Nubia (now in Southern Egypt and Northern Sudan) where its people look different from the Egyptians being darker in skin. Below Nubia farther south into Africa was the land of Ethiopia where the desserts start to fade and the land becomes elevated while one part of it is along the Red Sea. Europeans knew very little about Ethiopia up until the 19th century but the Byzantines back in the 6th century or earlier knew some things about this far away land, but not too much about it as it was very far away from Constantinople. One thing the Byzantines knew about Ethiopia was that its people had very dark skin leaving them to think they were not human beings seeing their blackness as a sign of evil. In one story, a monk named Pachon from Egypt was tormented by the memory of an Ethiopian girl he had once seen working in the fields in his younger days and in the lives of the dessert ascetics, the devil would appear to them in the form of a black man, woman, child, or beast to test them. Despite their blackness seen by the Byzantines as an omen of evil, Ethiopians were actually tolerated by the Byzantines and some even have positive views about them as exotic people. From 530-31, a Byzantine named Nonossos was sent by Emperor Justinian I on an embassy to Ethiopia and Arabia and while in the Kingdom of Axum in Ethiopia, he wrote a memorable description of their king named Ella Asbeha that he barely clothed except for gold-threaded linen hanging from his belt to his loins and decorated with jewelry all over his body including a golden torque around his neck and he stood over 4 elephants yoked together on a tall carriage adorned with gold leaves while his senate stood beneath him accompanied by flute players in the procession.

In The Conquest of Constantinople by the French knight and chronicler Robert de Clari in the 12th century, he writes that a Nubian prince was branded with a cross on his forehead went on a pilgrimage to Constantinople, the city that brought Christianity to his country in Africa many centuries ago. It is explained that the journey from Nubia to Jerusalem took about 100 days; he set out with 60 men and by the time he reached Jerusalem he was only left with 10 and when he reached Constantinople, he only had 2. Christianity possibly came to Nubia in the 6th century when the empress Theodora, the wife of Justinian I sent the missionary Julian to convert the Nubians from 537-39 but because of the heat of the dessert, Julian could not endure it so throughout these 2 years, he would lecture the people and convert them in a pool inside a cave wearing only a loincloth. The Byzantines overall mostly viewed the Africans of Nubia and Ethiopia as a rare sight not only because of their color but because they came from very distant places.

An overview of Ethiopia
Ancient christian wall paintings in an Ethiopian Church, Lake Tana
Byzantine inspired Ethiopian icon art
Nubian Desert



Expansion of Islam from Arabia around the Byzantine Empire (622-750)

The Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula have not become a threat to the Byzantines (Eastern Romans) up until the 7th century when Islam rose leading to the unification of the Arab tribes under the prophet Muhammad which since the 630s began invading Byzantine territory in the Middle East, first during the reign of Heraclius (610-641), who also turns out to be mentioned in the Quran. For centuries, the Byzantines went through a series of conflicts with the Arabs who began ruling most of the Middle East, but at times they would make truces. The Byzantines however never really understood the holy book of Islam or the Quran and its translation in Greek rendered a crucial term describing Allah as entirely encased in metal or entirely hammered into a ball, causing some Byzantines to have a bizarre image of the God of the Muslims, possibly because their were no images of Allah, but instead only his name written in Arabic calligraphy. To make it easier for Muslims to convert to Orthodox Christianity, the emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180) planned to remove Allah from the list of Muslim beliefs they had renounce as the name just meant “God”, although this aroused fierce opposition in the Church. The 7th century writer Anastasius Sinaita questions that “why are there more maimed people, lepers, people with gout, and epileptics among the Byzantines compared to foreigners such as the Arabs?” He answers this by saying that because the Byzantines have a wetter climate, drink wine excessively, and eat heavily while the Arabs have a drier diet and drier climate in the Arabian Peninsula. The Byzantines however were not always hostile towards the Arabs; in fact, one time when the Crusaders of the 4th Crusade arrived in Constantinople in 1203 and attacked and destroyed the mosque at the Pera district, some Byzantines came to aid of the Muslims against the Crusaders as both people had a common enemy in the Crusaders.

2nd Arab Siege of Constantinople, 717-18



Sassanid Persian Empire beside Byzantine Empire (late 6th century)

Ever since the Byzantine Empire was founded by Constantine I the Great in 330, the Sassanid Persian Empire has been a great threat to them and the Byzantines constantly defended their eastern borders from the Persian armies. Even before Constantine the Great, the Romans have always been at war with the Persians, first with the Parthians and then with the Sassanids. The conflict between the Byzantines and Persians concluded in 628 when the Sassanids were defeated by Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) and soon enough the Persians would fall under the rule of the Arabs. In 628, when the Byzantine army captured the Persian palace at Dastagerd outside the Sassanid capital of Ctesiphon in Iraq, they discovered over 300 Roman military standards taken by the Persians over the years of battle with the Romans, together with large quantities of aloes, silk, pepper, sugar, ginger, silks, and Persian carpets but they could not take them back as spoils of war because the quantity was too heavy to carry so instead the Byzantines burned them all.

When encountering the Persians, Ammianus Marcellinus who wrote about the Egyptians describes the Persians as slender, dark-skinned, have intimidating eyes, curved eyebrows that meet in the middle, have trim beards, and long hair. It was also said that the Persians were addicted to sex having as many concubines and wives as they can afford, wear swords in public, are formidable fighters winning through craftiness rather than courage, but they still talk a lot, are arrogant, and make threats easily. Ammianus Marcellinus also describes the Persians during the Battle of Amida in Mesopotamia in 359 saying that when the sun rose, it illuminated the plain full of glittering arms, cavalry, and coats of mail showing that Persians wore shiny silver armor and their king, Shapur II rode a tall horse with helmet having a golden ram’s head. 4 years later in 363, the emperor Julian the Apostate (r. 361-63) at the Battle of Ctesiphon saw the Persian cavalry entirely cased in metal including the horses, while the riders wore steel plates fitted exactly to their limbs and masks sculpted with detailed facial features having only tiny holes for the eyes and nostrils. Next to the cavalry were the archers who had nimble fingers able to pull the bowstring all the way back to their chest and when the arrows were released, a loud hissing noise was made. Behind the archers was a row of massive war elephants like the ones the Carthaginians used several centuries earlier and these elephants also made noises that terrified the Roman horses together with the smell while the drivers of the elephants had knives to stab them in case, they lost control. It was in this battle where Julian met his end and so did the Constantinian dynasty, the first dynasty of Byzantium.

In the 6th century, the historian Agathias comments that in the Persian Zoroastrian funeral rites, dead bodies were disposed and exposed to be dismembered by birds and dogs; if the animals move fast to eat the bodies, it meant that the person was virtuous, but if the animals moved slow, then the person must have been flawed. Sometimes, the Persians had also exposed the terminally ill to be eaten and if they returned looking half-dead, then they were thought ass belonging to the underworld. After the defeat of the Persians in 528, nothing much was written about them by the Byzantines except that the sport of Polo known to the Byzantines as Tzykanisterion (Čaukan in Persian) was introduced to them by the Sassanids and in the 5th century, a polo field was built in the imperial palace by Emperor Theodosius II. This sport became popular among the Byzantine nobility and notable players of this sport included the emperor Alexander who died in 913 of stroke while playing it.

Sassanid Persian shahs
Battle of Ctesiphon, 363
Zoroastrian funeral rite by exposing the dead

Scythians and Huns

Location of Scythia

To the northeast of the Byzantine Empire lived the warlike nomadic tribes of the Steppes of Central Asia such as the Scythians, Huns, Alans, Cumans, Pechenegs, Mongols, and the Turkic tribes. Many of the Asiatic people made their way into Eastern Europe settling there as well as threatening the borders of Byzantium including the Avars, Bulgars, and Turks. The Scythians have been the people living in the area north of the Black Sea and north of Persia for the longest time that the Greek historian Herodotus back in the 5th century BC has something to write about them being horse-riding nomadic pastoralists without cities. The Huns were also similar to the Scythians by having no cities, except that the Huns came from a more distant place (possibly Mongolia) while the Scythians came from what is today Kazakhstan, Southern Russia, and Eastern Ukraine. The Byzantine soldier-writer Ammianus Marcellinus describes the Huns (and the other Asiatic nomadic tribes) being squat and ugly and that they gashed the cheeks of their children so that beard would not grow properly making them look scarier. They also ate the half-raw flesh of any animal cooking it only by rubbing it between their thighs and their horses’ back as they rode, which is possibly the origins of Steak Tartare. True enough, the now French dish of Steak Tartare originates from the Nomadic people of Central Asia who tenderized their meat placing it under their saddles as they rode long distances. These nomadic people wore clothes of linen or sewn mice skins and their shoes were not comfortable probably made of rope so they were not meant for walking, so instead they rode everywhere and in war they used lassos and extremely powerful bows in which they could fire with 2 hands while on horseback.

The Byzantine historian Priscus describes Attila, the king of the Huns (434-453) by saying he loved war but was not bad tempered and also gave good advice as well as being loyal to his allies. Attila the Hun was also described as being short but with a broad chest, a large head, small eyes, a sparse beard, flat nose, and dark skin which gives a description to what the Asiatic steppe people looked like. Before Attila’s death in 453, he tried to invade Constantinople but sometime in March 453, on the night after his wedding to Ildico- his last out of many wives- Priscus writes that Attila drank too much and, in his sleep, died from internal bleeding. Afterwards, Attila was placed in an iron coffin, placed inside a silver one, placed inside a gold one and buried in an unknown location, although it is said that he died in Hungary. If the Byzantines saw the Huns as hideous people living by roaming around having no cities, there was one group of Huns known as the Hephthalites or “White Huns” living in Central Asia that were more civilized and had cities according to the Byzantine historian Procopius. These Huns had defeated the Persians several times, had white faces and bodies, and when a rich man among them dies, up to 20 of his men who’ve shared his wealth are sealed up in a tomb to die with him.

Scythian horsemen


Slavs and the Balkans  

Map of the Byzantine Balkans and the raids of the Slavs, 750

 The people known as the Slavs began to appear in the Balkan territories of the Byzantine Empire north of Constantinople in the 6th century. The 2 Byzantine historians during the reign of Justinian I (527-565), Procopius and Jordanes write that in their times, Slavs have just appeared suddenly raiding their territories and yet they have no idea where they came from, although it said that the Slavs have originated somewhere in Ukraine or Poland. The Byzantines describe the Slavs as mysterious people that are not ruled by one but surprisingly live under a democracy where everything concerning their welfare is a matter of common concern among them. The Byzantines have also written about the Slavic gods, particularly Perun, the god of lightning equivalent to Zeus for the Greeks, Jupiter for the Romans, and Thor for the Norsemen; Perun was the chief god among the Slavic Pantheon and the lord of all things who the Slavs would sacrifice cattle and other victims to. The Slavs also revere rivers and nymphs as well as other spirits making sacrifices to them, at the same time they also worship their gods through totem poles as their version of icons. The Slavs though do not have good conditions of living as they live in hovels far apart from each other and in appearance they are described to be always covered in filth making it hard to notice if their skin is fair or dark and if their hair is dark or blonde, and it is also probably in their heritage that they have the habit of squatting (something I’ve noticed about the Slavs) because back then the ground they walked on was dirty. In the late 6th century, the leader of the Slavs that attacked the city of Corinth in Greece took the gilded canopy over the altar in the cathedral in order to use it as a tent to live in. The Slavs would become Christianized in the 9th century through St. Cyril and St. Methodius, Byzantine Greek missionaries sent to convert the Slavs by learning their native language and creating the Cyrillic alphabet in which most Slavic countries use up till this day including Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, Serbia, Bulgaria, and Macedonia.

At the same time the Slavs began raiding Byzantine territory in the Balkans, the Avars- people from Central Asia- did the same thing too in the Balkans. The king of the Avars or Khan was interested in the animals the Byzantine emperor Maurice (r. 582-602) had. The emperor was eager to please the Avar khan so he sent over his largest elephant but the khan sent it back to Maurice either because the elephant frightened him or he wanted to insult the emperor. Meanwhile, another group of people that lived in the Balkans were the Serbs who also spoke a Slavic language; and according to De Administrando Imperio by Emperor Constantine VII (r. 913-959), the name “Serbs” means “slaves” in Latin which is “servus” and the Serbs are called this because they used to be the slaves of the Roman emperors in the past as well as to the Eastern Roman emperors.

Sample Slavic settlement