I have a particular fascination with the Byzantine Empire, not least because, on the extremely (EXTREMELY!) rare occasion when it comes up in conversation, very few people know what I’m talking about.
I like that. I like its obscurity. I don’t think it’s right: I think everybody should know of it, at the very least, in same way people know of the Roman Empire (from which it derived) even if they don’t know anything specific about it.
It’ a little bit like having secret knowledge, I guess. But a lot of history is that way, at least in my experience.
At any rate, if you’re here now and you don’t know what I’m going on about, here’s a brief rundown:
The Byzantine Empire (as it is called by modern historians) was a derivative of the Roman Empire of antiquity. When people speak of the Fall of the Roman Empire, what they’re usually referring to is the Fall of the Western Roman Empire – you see, when the Empire of the Romans became too big to administer and control effectively, it was split, first in 285 AD by Diocletian, and finally in 395 AD by Theodosius: thereafter, there were two empires, each ruled by an independent Emperor (Augustus).
The Western Roman Empire lasted until 476AD, when the last (generally accepted) Emperor of Rome (though by this point, the capital had been moved from Rome to Ravenna) Romulus Augustus was deposed by the Herulian (barbarian) Odoacer.
Also by this point, all of the territories of the former Western Roman Empire had been annexed by various barbarian tribes: Saxons in north-west Gaul (France) and Briton, Franks in South-west and Central Gaul, Visigoths in Iberia (Spain) and Vandals in North Africa, to name a few. The Western Romans had been losing ground steadily for a century, and finally, they collapsed.
The Eastern Roman Empire, however, survived – thanks to geography, the wealth afforded by their territories, and canny diplomacy. And for the next 1000 years, until its eventual fall in 1453AD, it continued on, changing and evolving to meet the needs of a medieval world and slowly, but surely, suffering the same sort of decline as its Western counterpart.
This Eastern Roman Empire – called now the Byzantine Empire, because its capital was Byzantium, properly Constantinople – is distinguished from the old Roman Empire of antiquity in many ways, be it religion (Orthodox Christianity) or language (Greek) or administration (themes). But in many ways it was also the same, merely an evolution – that’s what makes it so fascinating to me. That, and the point I’ve been trying to get to, which is:
One of the greatest generals of the Western world that nobody has ever heard of: at the behest of Emperor Justinian in the 6th-century, Flavius Belisarius led any expedition to the Western Mediterranean that returned North Africa and Italy to Roman (Byzantine) rule, at least for a while. And he did it with very little support and while often heavily outnumbered by his opponents. Conclusion? Belisarius = badass.
2) Greek Fire
Obviously the inspiration for Wildfire in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, Greek Fire was a dangerously lethal substance used by the Byzantines – often in naval engagements, but also on land – that helped save the city more than once, and never failed to inspire fear in their enemies. Its exact composition was a state secret, and was so well guarded that even today, we still don’t know exactly what Greek Fire was.
Ever been to Istanbul, Turkey? That’s Constantinople by another (modern) name. Before that, it was Byzantium. And it was one of the most important cities of late antiquity and the middle ages – for trade between the Black Sea and Mediterranean, East and West; for defence, against successive invasion attempts of Europe; and because it was the capital of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. It was one of the first metropolises, and everybody wanted a piece of it. That’s why it had to fall, and in 1453, it did, to the Ottoman Turks under Mehmed the Conqueror.
4) Justinian’s Code
Essentially for basis for all Western civil laws, Justinian’s Code was a refinement of early Roman legal codes that in turn was adapted and added-to over the centuries, becoming the foundation document for the Western legal tradition.
5) The Hagia Sofia
Constructed in the 6th-century on the orders of Emperor Justinian (there he is again!), this massive domed-structure was the largest cathedral in the world for 1000 years, and was/is considered the epitome of Byzantine architecture. In fact, it’s often said to have “changed the history of architecture.” It stills stands to this day – converted into a mosque after the conquest of 1453, it’s now a museum, and an awesome one at that.
6) The Fork
That’s right, that thing you use to shovel food into your mouth – the Byzantines invented that. The table-fork that is. And popularised its use. Think about that next time you sit down to dinner…
7) Court Politics
Traditionally, the term ‘Byzantine’ means any political system that is overly complex and autocratic. That’s an invention of Byzantine-haters though; the Byzantine Empire had one of the most advanced civil and military administrations in the world for the duration of its existence. It also, unfortunately, had a lot of internal infighting that resulted in a lot of bloodshed… You like Game of Thrones, The Tudors, The Sopranos – it was like that, except with more castration. So, yeah…
8) Basil the Bulgar-Slayer
Actually Emperor Basil II who reigned in the 11th-century, he slayed a lot of Bulgars – and basically kicked-ass the entire time until his death, re-establishing the Byzantines as a force to be reckoned with after centuries of decline.
You need to be pretty awesome to suffer centuries of internal conflict over what boils down to a theological debate about whether it’s okay to pray to a statue or not.
10) Roman Empire
This is something I already mentioned in the intro, but the Byzantine Empire was just a continuation of the Roman Empire of antiquity, so it’s granted all the awesomeness that comes with that; there are many connotations built around the Roman Empire, and Byzantium inherited them all.
So that’s it – my Top Ten Reasons Why the Byzantine Empire Was Legen(wait for it)dary. Agree, disagree? Let me know in the comments.
Want to know more? Here’s a link: