10 Inventions You Should Know That Came From the Byzantine Empire

Posted by Powee Celdran

Pewton Foundation copy
Byzantine Time Traveller logo

Welcome back to another article from the Byzantium Blogger! This time, it is time again for a bit of break from extremely long and highly researched articles and stories spanning the entire 1,100-year history of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453), therefore time for a quick yet entertaining top 10 list, this time on Byzantine inventions. Now, the Byzantine Empire among the many things it was known for, was known to have come up with a series of spectacular inventions including items we know very well up to this day, however not many know these items date back to the Byzantine era and were created by the Byzantines themselves. Some inventions in the Middle Ages including Greek Fire would immediately be associated with Byzantium when first hearing about especially when one is familiar with Byzantine history, however there is more than just Greek Fire when it comes to items the Byzantines created throughout the existence of their empire. These spectacular creations include larger than life architectural styles such as the pendentive dome and simple everyday items like the fork, and other than that, a lot of civil laws, scientific theories like the Theory of Impetus and that of the round earth and time zones, religious doctrines and icons, and the Cyrillic Alphabet can be attributed to Byzantium too. This article however will be only limited to the material inventions of the Byzantine Empire whether they were for architectural, warfare, or daily life purposes, therefore we will not include Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis or “Body of Civil Laws”, spiritual innovations of the Byzantines which would include religious icons, political innovations like the Thematic System, and scientific theories despite them being of great importance even up to this day. Now if you remember from 2 years ago, I did a similar article to this (check out Forgotten but Significant Byzantine Science and Technology), however this previous one was more related to science as it included not only inventions but scientific theories made by the Byzantines in their history, while this one will basically be limited only to material inventions. Although just like that previous article, this one will also be heavily inspired by the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis, and since a lot of these inventions were discussed in the 12 chapters of my recent Byzantine Alternate History series, these chapters will be linked as well in the list of these inventions. Before starting off, I would like to remind you all that this article would seem rather amateur and less researched than the previous ones I made, mainly because this one was just a spontaneous piece I just suddenly thought of writing for now.

95t3yr5xvfyy
Flag of the Byzantine Empire

Follow me, the Byzantium Blogger on Social Media:

Instagram: @byzantine_time_traveller

Facebook: Byzantine Time Traveller

Youtube: No Budget Films

Twitter: @ByzantineTime

Deviantart: Byzantium-blogger55

Art Station: Powee Celdran Porphyrogennetos

Patreon: Byzantine Time Traveller

Byzantine-Empire
Map of the Byzantine Empire at 3 different eras; greatest extent in the 6th century (red line), in 1025 (pink), and by 1360 (red)

I. Pendentive Dome         

20110225 Aya Sofia Dome
Pendentive dome of the Hagia Sophia from the interior

Possibly the most famous landmark from the Byzantine Empire which still exists up to this day is the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which is famous for its massive and high dome, and this type of dome design is known as the Pendentive Dome.

architecture-pendentives-141483172-crop-5aeb381ca18d9e0037f65635
Pendentive dome design of the Hagia Sophia

The pendentive dome now is a construction solution that allows a circular dome to be built above a rectangular floor plan, and although the Romans before the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople in 4th century had already come up with a number of early designs of this kind of construction plan in which known examples of this include the Pantheon in Rome built in the 1st century, these Ancient Roman pendentive domes were only prototypes and not as high and large as the dome of the Hagia Sophia itself. Shortly after Constantinople’s founding in 330, the original structure of the Hagia Sophia was already present, however it was a much smaller church without a dome and following the Nika Riot of 532 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), most of the city including the original Hagia Sophia was burned down, thus Justinian sought to rebuild it from scratch into a much larger structure with a dome higher than everything else.

71378_1000_650
Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, architects of the Hagia Sophia

To build this cathedral, Justinian left the job to two brilliant architects being Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, and in only less than 6 years (532-537), the entire church with the dome included was completed due to having thousands of workers constructing the building day and night and lots of wealth brought back to Constantinople as war spoils from the Byzantine conquest of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa (533-534). The dome of the Hagia Sophia looked as if it was suspended in midair without any pillar to support it by connecting its middle part to the ground, instead its architects used a solution of building 4 semi-domes or pendentives on the 4 corners below the main dome in order to hold it up. Though no matter how impressive the structure was, the dome itself when completed was unstable that the historian of the 6th century Procopius of Caesarea who saw the cathedral built with his own eyes writes “the piers on top of which the structure was being built, unable to bear the mass that was pressing down on them, somehow or suddenly started to break away and seemed to be on the point of collapsing”.

257424989_2703486683279268_191912534609225056_n
Emperor Justinian I the Great of Byzantium (r. 527-565), acrylic painting, art by myself

True enough, following the great earthquake in Constantinople in 557 when the Justinian I was still ruling, the foundation of the Hagia Sophia was weakened, and in the following year (558), the dome itself collapsed. In 563, the dome was rebuilt by the architect Isidore the Younger who was a nephew of its original architect Isidore, and by the time Justinian I died in 565, he at least saw the dome of his cathedral that he put a lot of attention into making completed. Back in the Byzantine era, the dome itself was not only impressive from the outside but from the inside as well, as its interiors were filled with gold mosaics while its base had 40 windows forming a circle that let light in, and the dome was in fact so impressive that people from all over the world were in awe when coming to Constantinople basically because of it. In the 10th century, ambassadors from the Kievan Rus’ Empire (includes today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) sent by their Grand Prince Vladimir I the Great (r. 980-1015) when seeing the dome, suggested to Vladimir that he and his people must convert to Orthodox Christianity as it was their faith that had the most spectacular place of worship being the Hagia Sophia with its dome. The dome meanwhile had a diameter of 33m and a height of 55m from the ground, and for about a thousand years until the 15th century, it would be the world’s largest dome until the one of the Cathedral of Florence which is the Santa Maria de Fiore was completed in the 1430s. The style of the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople’s dome meanwhile would also be the basis for the architectural plans for many Greek Orthodox churches in the centuries to come, and after the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople from the Byzantines and took over the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia with its pendentive dome would be the basis for the architectural plans for many of their mosques as well.

241750117_1496220277423684_1109642967277871651_n
Cross-section of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, interior and exterior
1-giantsalzenberg-1
The Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- 6th Century.

II. Cross-in-Square         

quincunx-church-Perspective-drawing-type-plan-Golden
Cross-in-square Byzantine church plan

Other than the pendentive dome, another architectural style especially used for churches that can be attributed to the Byzantines was the Cross-in-Square plan, in which many Orthodoxy churches use this kind of style. This kind of plan consisted of a basic square shape with 4 halls in the middle of it being the naves intersecting each other forming a cross while above the intersection area at the middle was the church’s main dome, while the 4 different corners of the square sometimes had their own domes as well, thus this kind of church architecture would usually have 5 domes in total, however there are many variations to this design, therefore not all churches in this cross-in-square plan have this said plan, but this said plan was the standard design for these churches. This kind of style was developed by the Byzantines from the 9th to 10th centuries which took the place of the former long Basilica style of churches which consisted of a great hall with an apse at the end, and as I recall from the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, in one of its earlier episodes it is said that this kind of compact style of churches was more preferred in the Eastern Roman Empire as a lot of their churches were built over tombs of early Christian martyrs, therefore it had this kind of style while churches in the western world such as in Italy and other parts of Western Europe used the long rectangular Basilica as they were based on the Ancient Roman Basilica structures as the western world on the other hand too did not have that much tombs of early Christian martyrs compared to the east. In the Byzantine world, the cross-in-square style of church was first introduced with the Church of the Nea Ekklesia built between 876 and 880 by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) which was part of the Imperial Palace Complex of Constantinople, however this structure does not exist anymore today as in 1490 when Constantinople was under the Ottomans who used this former church as a gunpowder storage room, it exploded when it was struck by lightning. However, the earliest cross-in-square style church in Constantinople that still exists up to this day is the Church of the Theotokos dating back to 907/908 constructed under Basil I’s son and successor Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912). At this day, this kind of plan can be seen in many Orthodox churches whether dating back to the Middle Ages or to more recent times all over the Orthodox world especially in countries like Greece, Macedonia Serbia, and Bulgaria.      

8974
Example of a Middle Byzantine era cross-in-square style church
560px-Fethiye_Museum_9625
Church of the Theotokos, Constantinople

III. Pointed Arch Bridge          

0
Byzantine era Karamagara Bridge, Turkey, built in either the 5th or 6th centuries

When it comes to bridge building, the Byzantines too apparently had made innovations to it as well, and one style they had created for bridges was the pointed arch bridge, which as basically a long bridge over a river or other kind of body of water with arches supporting it that are not just a regular semi-circle arches, but arches that narrow at the top forming a point. Now the reason why we conclude that the pointed arch bridge was invented by the Byzantines is because the earliest known pointed arch bridge is in the region of Cappadocia dating back to either the 5th or 6th century where Cappadocia at that time was under the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. This bridge in Cappadocia was the Karamagara Bridge which however unfortunately became submerged with the completion of the Keban Dam in 1975, but before that, it was an impressive bridge crossing the Euphrates River with just a single pointed arch over the river spanning 17m yet holding up the entire bridge without any mortar between the stones that was used in creating the arch. When this bridge was completed in either the 5th or 6th century as part of the Roman road to the city of Melitene in Asia Minor, an inscription was written on the eastern edge of the arch in Greek which is a passage from Psalm 21, verse 8 from the Bible which says “The Lord may guard your entrance and your exit from now and unto all time, amen, amen, amen”, and although this inscription may have nothing really to do with the bridge, it shows that in this part of the empire, Greek was the mainly spoken language. Of course, in the centuries to come, the pointed arch bridge style would become more and more common, and there are many notable ones you can find that still exist such as the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia built by the Ottomans, and apparently the pointed arch design for bridges had happened to be one of the many things the Ottomans had carried over from the Byzantines before them.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
Example of a Byzantine era pointed arch stone bridge

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- 5th Century.

IV. Ship Mill          

13901382_10154048774474215_7752160287027155185_n
Medieval ship mills, original one created by the Byzantines during the 536-537 Siege of Rome

The ship mill, as a means to create milled wheat for flour in order to make bread by the use of a boat on a body of water is credited to the 6th century Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius (505-565) as recorded by the same historian Procopius mentioned earlier who was a secretary of Belisarius.

90401b0ef1c33014a8507be1d236ab84
Flavius Belisarius (505-565), Byzantine general in Justinian I’s reign, art by Amelianvs

Now Belisarius who was the famous general that served Emperor Justinian I was a military genius not only in the battlefield but in coming up with creative means in order to win including digging trenches to slow down the enemy cavalry as seen with him during the Battle of Dara in 530 against the Sassanid Empire, lighting up campfires across the hills to scare off the enemy to make it seem the Byzantines had a larger army as seen in his campaigns against the Ostrogoths in Italy in the late 530s, and by beating trees in order to release giant gas clouds to scare off the enemy as well in his last battle in 559 fought against the Kutrigur Huns. Another genius solution Belisarius came up with was the ship mill in which he created in 537 after taking over Rome from the Ostrogoths, however the Ostrogoth army led by their king Vitiges attempted to recapture Rome while Belisarius and his army were within, and in order to starve out Rome’s population and Belisarius’ Byzantine army, the Ostrogoths cut off the aqueducts supplying water to Rome, which not only cut the water supply but disabled the mills to create flour as the water from the aqueducts powered the mills too.

belisarius-and-captains
Belisarius and his army

To not make the people starve and to keep his troops strong, Belisarius had the mill wheels of Rome moved to where the current of the Tiber River was the strongest, and here he stretched two ropes across the river as tight as possible attaching them to many boats with the wheels attached to them. This invention then proved successful as the river’s current was strong enough to power the wheels in order to grind the wheat creating flour, and thus the population of Rome and the army had a sufficient food supply despite the city being blocked off by the Ostrogoths’ siege. The Ostrogoths however fought back by tossing logs and the bodies of their dead soldiers into the river which made it into the walls of Rome jamming the mill wheels. Belisarius in return hung chains stretched tightly across the arches of a bridge which then proved successful in stopping the debris and dead bodies thrown by the Ostrogoths, thus resuming the operations of the mills allowing the population to continue being fed, and by late 537, the Ostrogoths lifted their siege of Rome as Belisarius and his army chased them away to the north. Following the success of the ship mill used in Rome, this invention would later spread across Europe as a new way for creating flour that not too long after it reached Paris in 556, Geneva in 563, and Dijon in 575. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, ship mills too became a popular means of milling wheat in the Arab world and common in the rest of Europe as well, although little did they know that this effective means of milling wheat came from the mind of a brilliant Byzantine general.

EEgSxgTWkAEgWBE
Belisarius at the 536-537 Siege of Rome, art by Amelianvs

V. Greek Fire         

1592724
Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Arab fleet, 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

When hearing of the Byzantine Empire, usually the naval superweapon of Greek Fire would be one of the first things that comes into a lot of people’s minds, and true enough this was one of the most cutting-edge innovative things the Byzantines had created that only they, and no one else had made, as true enough this weapon was a heavily guarded state secret as it was the secret weapon that saved the empire from ultimate destruction a number of times.

8a2f830642f740ee369fb93a7a973595
Emperor Constantine IV of Byzantium (r. 668-685)

Greek Fire (Hygron Pyr in Greek) first came into use during the 674-678 Umayyad Arab Siege of Constantinople where the Syrian refugee Kallinikos made it right in time for the event during the reign of Emperor Constantine IV (668-685), and although this Arab siege basically consisted of on-and-off attacks by the Arab army and fleet, it was with Greek Fire used for the first time on the ship of the emperor Constantine IV himself that was able to relieve Constantinople from the siege. Greek Fire was basically an incendiary weapon that served as a kind of flame-thrower blowing out a sticky kind of fire that could even stick to the water which is why some Byzantine chroniclers call it “sea fire” or “liquid fire”. This weapon not only destroyed enemy ships by burning them but struck fear into the enemies that the enemy armies fighting against the Byzantines at sea when seeing Greek Fire would jump to the sea in fear and would not die really from the fire but by drowning. The fire then came from a liquid mixture which was heated in a brazier, pressurized by a pump, and lastly ejected through a large siphon against the enemy. The Greek Fire now wasn’t entirely this mechanism but the liquid fire formula the mechanism used, however the formula of Greek Fire being kept as a heavily guarded secret remains to be a mystery, but it is most probably a mixture of petroleum, pitch, sulfur, pine or cedar resin, lime, and bitumen, while some even speculate that it even had gunpowder in it due to how the fire could explode.

1*kICrSxpHy3pp3LUvbDT9UA
Greek Fire operated by the Byzantine navy

The operators of this weapon would then be a very elite force of the imperial guard and only this unit could operate it as the weapon was overall meant to be a secret, however the operation process was a difficult one as the cannon that fired the liquid fire was heavy and unwieldy while the range of the fire was very short, therefore when the weapon was mounted on a ship it needed to be up close to the enemy ship in order for it to be fully effective, and at the same time the weapon was only very effective when being used on a ship when the sea was calm and the wind blew from behind the ship. Although the weapon may have been difficult to use, it defended Constantinople a number of times including against the more massive Umayyad Arab siege from 717-718 and in a massive naval battle near Constantinople against the fleet of the Kievan Rus’ navy in 941. On the other hand, there were many variations of the Greek Fire weapon as well, as long as it used the same formula, and these included Greek Fire that could be stored in grenade jars and thrown at the enemy or hand-held cannons ejecting the same kind of fire known as a Cheirosiphon which was mostly used during sieges as a medieval version of the modern flamethrower. Now it is unclear when the Byzantines discontinued the use of Greek Fire or if they never discontinued it at all, although one theory says that the secret of Greek Fire was lost before the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, though Greek Fire could have also been used in 1453 in the defense of the city before it fell to the Ottomans.

GreekFireMethod-1
Operation process of Greek Fire
8a3521f5338d9daecb7d3588af8e1cbd
Greek Fire used for the first time at the 674-678 Arab Siege of Constantinople
main-qimg-667c7dd5a1cec9de75cd89f3a4c6a261
Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941
medieval_roman_empire_flags_battle_standards_by_amelianvs_dasy5r6-pre
Hand-held Greek Fire (Cheirosiphon), art by Amelianvs

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IV- 7th Century.

VI. Incendiary Grenades           

1596452897999_4245661
Surviving evidence of Byzantine era grenades

Other than using a large cannon as an incendiary weapon, the Byzantines too had used grenades as another means of using Greek Fire, and shortly after the successful defense of Constantinople against the Umayyad Caliphate Arabs from 717-718 during the reign of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), the soldiers who had defended the city had come to realize that Greek Fire could not be only be projected by flamethrowers, but could be thrown in stone and ceramic jars as well, thus leading to the creation of grenades.

tumblr_nc3obqFDxc1rwjpnyo1_500
Sample of a Byzantine era grenade

Over the years, the Byzantines had developed different versions of this exploding weapon such as in storing the flammable substance that Greek Fire was made of into small or large clay jars and pouches used as grenade shells that could be hurled at the enemy, and over time Byzantine soldiers developed a tactic by loading their catapults with these grenades as a way to besiege walled cities, which true enough proved to be effective. Other than using flammable substance, these grenades also dispersed sharp objects or shrapnel as well as smoke when exploding, and in the following centuries, this kind of weapon was adopted by armies of the Islamic world who also developed different forms of these incendiary grenades, and archaeological evidence as well shows that in the 13th century there was a grenade workshop in Syria showing that by this time, the use of grenades became popular in the Islamic world. Even in the video game Assassin’s Creed Revelations– which I said a number of times was one of the many things that introduced me to Byzantine history- which is set in 16th century Constantinople under the Ottomans, you have the option to craft a large variety of these kinds of grenades when playing it, while in one mission you actually get to operate the superweapon of Greek Fire from a ship.

11naphta thrower (500x458)
Arab armies using the Byzantine warfare tactic of throwing grenades

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter V- 8th Century.

VII. The Fork         

8thCent.Two-pronged.jpg.CROP.original-original.Two-pronged
Byzantine era forks

Now if the Byzantines could create larger than life inventions from large domes without any central support to superweapons that could not be rivalled by anything in its time such as Greek Fire, the Byzantines too had made inventions very small and simple yet very important to our daily lives, and such inventions like this include the fork. Now for those who aren’t familiar with the fork and its origins, it certainly does date back to the Byzantine Empire, and although I’ve written about the fork and its Byzantine origins a number of times, I would like to discuss it again here, as recently I have made new discoveries about the fork’s Byzantine origins. Just recently, I had posted on my Facebook page my photos of the Byzantine Collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC, and part of this collection included a Byzantine fork, and in the comments of this post someone asked if the fork was really a Byzantine invention as it only first appeared in France in 1315 at the royal court, while someone here replied saying that the Byzantines have been eating using a fork ever since the 4th century, thus it took a full thousand years for an item as simple as this to be adopted in other parts of the world. Now the fork has been a utensil used by the Byzantines ever since the beginning while the rest of Europe had no idea about it, thus for a long time everyone else but the Byzantines had been eating with their bare hands and a knife, that also recently I have just heard a saying from Serbia which was also part of the Byzantine sphere of influence that “while a German would still use his fingers to eat, in the middle ages, a Serb picks his food with the fork”. For the longest time- such as in Ancient Rome- the fork was only used to serve dishes, while it was only in the Byzantine era after the 4th century when it became a personal utensil for eating, and it was only in the 10th century when the Byzantines first introduced this item to Western Europe.

kaiserin-theophanu-schwiegertochter-ottos-des-grossen_original
Theophano Sklerina, niece of John I Tzimiskes and wife of the future Holy Roman emperor Otto II

This happened in 972 when the Byzantine princess Theophano Sklerina, the niece of the Byzantine emperor at that time John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) married the future Holy Roman emperor in Germany Otto II, and the people of the imperial court in Germany when seeing the fork for the first time being used by Theophano did not get the idea of it, thinking it was all useless as they already had their hands to do the job of picking up the food and bringing it to their mouths. Another story of the Byzantines introducing the fork to Western Europe happens in 1004 when another Byzantine princess being Maria Argyropoulina married Giovanni Orseolo, the son of the Doge of Venice Pietro II Orseolo, and during their wedding feast Maria used a two-pronged golden fork to eat the food. The Venetians meanwhile who saw her eating with it also did not get its concept thinking it was in fact blasphemous while some members of the clergy there had said “God had provided humans with natural forks being their fingers, therefore it was an insult to substitute them with artificial metal ones for eating”. In 1007, just 3 years after their marriage, both Maria and Giovanni died from a plague in which the Venetians claimed that Maria’s early death was a result of her disrespecting God by eating with a fork. Nowadays, we cannot imagine eating certain things without a fork, and to this we have to thank these Byzantine marriages to rulers in different parts of Europe as over time, these marriages with Byzantium would lead to the spread of the fork across Europe, and from there to the rest of the world.

253213605_212174687696078_2108372200502272161_n
Byzantine spoons and a fork, Dumbarton Oaks collection

Read about my take on the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection here.

VIII. Hand-Trebuchet and Counterweight Trebuchet         

Byzantine_Trebuchet_Skylintzes-450x246
Byzantine army using a trebuchet, Madrid Skylitzes

The Byzantines themselves were adept at siege warfare with weapons like Greek Fire and incendiary grenades, but the other kind of siege weapons they have developed as well and were skilled at were trebuchets, which was a type of catapult used for hurling large stones and missiles during sieges. The unique catapult design of the hand-trebuchet first appeared in the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century, which was Byzantium’s golden age of warfare when they had turned the tide of war against the Arabs from the defensive to the offensive.

nicephorus-phocas-from-rulers-of-the-byzantine-empire-published-by-kibea
Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas of Byzantium (r. 963-969)

This hand-trebuchet (Cheiromangana in Greek) was basically a staff sling mounted on a pole using a lever mechanism to propel projectiles which could be operated by only one man and was first advocated as a siege engine in an open battlefield by the military emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) in 965 during his campaigns against the Arabs in Asia Minor and Syria. This weapon too had been mentioned in the Taktika or military manual of the Byzantine general Nikephoros Ouranos in around 1000. Aside from this small single-man operated trebuchet, the Byzantines not too long after this weapon was invented had also been apparently the first ones to use the much larger and more complex counterweight Trebuchet, which was basically a massive catapult with a heavy weight on the opposite side of the projectile to balance it.

Choniates
Niketas Choniates, Byzantine historian (1155-1217), recreation of the original manuscript depicting Choniates, art by myself

This weapon is first recorded in the work of the 12th century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates (1155-1217) who first mentions the use of this weapon during a siege in 1165 taking place in the area of the Danube River border, and that this weapon here was equipped with a windlass, which was an apparatus used for moving heavy weights that earlier trebuchets such as the traction or hybrid ones did not use when launching missiles. However, this counterweight trebuchet was also said to have appeared even before 1165 being introduced at the Byzantine-Crusader Siege of Nicaea in 1097 during the First Crusade against the Seljuk Empire wherein the Byzantine emperor then Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) was credited for having invented it together with other artillery weapons, and with this weapon he made a deep impression on everyone whether Byzantine or Crusader.

51t3rRpN4NL._AC_SY1000_
Counterweight trebuchet, first recorded in Byzantium in 1165

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- 10th Century.

IX. Hospitals          

byzmed2
Medicine in the Byzantine era

Apparently, even the concept of a hospital was created by the Byzantines, however even way longer before the birth of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th centuries, hospitals were already existent in Ancient Greece, Rome, and in other civilizations, although hospitals back then were only mere places for people to die or for soldiers wounded from battle to be treated. The Byzantines now came up with the concept of hospitals being an institution to offer medical care and possible cures for patients due to the ideals of Christian charity which played a very important role in Byzantine society. In Byzantine Constantinople itself, there were a number of functioning hospitals with one such example being a structure found between the two important churches of the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene that connected them, and this here was the Hospital of St. Sampson in which its structure however does not exist anymore today. Hospitals in Byzantium meanwhile were mostly associated with monasteries; thus, hospitals were usually found within monastery structures with another notable one being the 12th century Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople (today the Zeyrek Mosque) which was founded in 1136 by Emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) and his wife Empress Irene of Hungary, and back then it was one of the most impressive structures of its time with possibly the best medical services in the empire, if not the entire world. This structure contained not only a monastery but a church, library, hospital, and mausoleum for the Komnenos emperors. Its hospital meanwhile had 50 beds and 5 wards with one for women, 2 doctors per ward with a number of assistants, a chief pharmacist, and a female doctor with female nurses for the female ward. Salaries for male and female nurses here were equal, but for doctors the salary for the female ones was half of their male counterparts. The Pantokrator hospital too had a complete set of medical equipment including lancets, cauterizing irons, catheters, forceps, tonsil knives, tooth files, scalpels, rectal speculums, uterine dilators, rib saws, clysters, tweezers, needles, and something called a “skull-breaker” used possibly to break a dead fetus in order to make its extraction easier. With all these kinds of medical equipment as well as in having female doctors, the Byzantines too were an advanced society in medical matters, but one major innovation the Byzantines too had in medical matters was that they were the first to successfully carry out the operation of separating conjoined twins where the first known case of it took place in the 10th century. In this case, a pair of conjoined twins lived in Constantinople for many years and when one twin died, surgeons removed the dead one and its result was partially successful as the one that was alive still continued living for 3 more days, while the next known case of separating conjoined twins happened so many centuries later in 1689 in Germany.

sampson1
Recreation of the Hospital of St. Sampson between the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene, Constantinople
241548219_2680661175561819_164995460710159108_n
12th century Pantokrator Monastery and Hospital in Constantinople, art by myself
Conjoined-twins-byzantium
Separation of the conjoined twins in 10th century Byzantium, Madrid Skylitzes

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- 12th Century.

X. Mechanical Throne, Lions, and Tree          

87039363_172936947484830_4405968372123041792_n
Constantine VII on his throne with the mechanical lions and singing tree, art by Byzantine Tales

The type of self-operating mechanism known as an Automaton had already existed a lot earlier before in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, but it was in Byzantium where this mechanism was the most impressive as it was used to elevate a throne, while the lion sculptures that flanked the throne as well as the golden tree were able to operate on its own. Now before writing this article, I asked for suggestions on Byzantine inventions, and apparently someone mentioned the mechanical throne, and so I decided to put it here. The Byzantine automaton being the mechanical throne was mentioned in 949 when the Italian ambassador Liutprand, the Bishop of Cremona visited the imperial court of Constantinople wherein the Byzantine Empire here was ruled by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959).

187960930_547350640003562_1250936903065672689_n
Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of Byzantium (r. 913-959), art by myself

Here, Liutprand when meeting the emperor Constantine VII had mentioned “lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue, a tree of gilded bronze, it’s branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species, and the emperor’s throne itself which was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air”. What Liutprand here said was that the lion statues on both sides of the emperor’s throne made a roar by itself with the actual sound of the lion, while the birds on the artificial tree next to it sang with the actual sounds of birds, but what was most impressive was that the throne of the emperor itself actually rose up to the air with the emperor as well. This same emperor Constantine VII too confirms in the book he wrote being De Ceremoniis that these mechanical items were present in his throne room at the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. An Ancient Jewish legend however says that King Solomon of Israel using his wisdom designed his throne room to look exactly like this with mechanical animals and a throne that could be elevated, however there is not much proof about this unlike how we have written evidence about Constantine VII’s mechanical throne and sculptures in which its design was definitely inspired by Solomon’s throne room. Now, the big mystery is how the Byzantines were actually able to record the sounds of these animals to make it so exact to fit the artificial animals in the said throne room.

1102009460_univ_lsr_xl
King Solomon’s throne room with mechanical lions

           

Now with all these fascinating cutting-edge inventions, it truly does show that the Byzantines had a lot of creativity as well as the ability to come up with solutions at difficult times, and usually these difficult situations allowed the Byzantines to create powerful inventions like no other including weapons like Greek Fire and incendiary grenades. On other occasions, the Byzantines created such inventions including the pendentive dome and the mechanical throne as a way to assert the power of their empire and Orthodox faith as these domes were built for their churches to emphasize the power of the Orthodox Church, and the mechanical throne for the imperial throne room to assert the authority of its emperor. Other times, the Byzantines created these innovations out of necessity such as the ship mills, other times out of charity such as the concept of hospitals as a place to recover and not plainly to just die, while other times they created such things to make life easier such as the fork. Now no matter how much the Byzantines have created in their empire’s existence and no matter how great these inventions were, Byzantium does not really get the credit they deserve for coming up with these brilliant inventions, and it is for this reason why I suddenly came up with this short article. These days, we usually eat with forks, have hospitals, and have buildings with domes that seem to be floating in the air, but little do most of us know that the Byzantines played a major part in making these things possible, therefore again this article was made to let you viewers know more about Byzantium’s role in these items in which some are still relevant up to this day. On the other hand as well, there could possibly be more inventions made by the Byzantines that we don’t know much about including the beacon system and so much more, and so it is up to you viewers to comment if I missed out on any other inventions. Anyway, this article was rather quick as this was just a spontaneous article wherein an idea to do this just popped out in my head, which is why I just said whatever came to my mind when writing this without much thought or heavy research in the process. Before finishing off, I would like to greet you all viewers Happy Holidays in advance, and again this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler… Thank you 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.

3 thoughts on “10 Inventions You Should Know That Came From the Byzantine Empire

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: