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!


Published by The Byzantium Blogger

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

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

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