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The Forgotten Glory of the Byzantine Empire

The Forgotten Glory of the Byzantine Empire

The Forgotten Glory of the Byzantine Empire


FROM the Caucasus to the Atlantic, from the Crimea to Sinai, from the Danube to the Sahara—that was the realm of the Byzantine Empire at its peak. Many historians say that it lasted from the 4th century to the 15th century C.E. It was an empire that not only preserved the Greco-Roman culture but also had much to do with the spread of so-called Christianity. It was the creator and codifier of political, social, and religious practices that have remained vibrant down to this day.

Nevertheless, this mighty empire had a remarkably unassuming birth. Historically, the Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire in the East. Its date of birth remains debated. Some historians view Diocletian (c. 245–c. 316 C.E.) as the first Byzantine emperor; others Constantine the Great (c. 275-337 C.E.); and still others Justinian I (483-565 C.E.). Most, however, agree that the Byzantine Empire began to take on the appearance of a distinct entity when Emperor Constantine moved the capital of his empire from Rome to Byzantium in 330 C.E. He renamed the city after himself—Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul).

Interestingly, neither the rulers nor the citizens of the empire ever referred to themselves as Byzantines. They considered themselves to be Romans, or Romaioi. The term “Byzantine” did not come into use until after the 14th century.

A Resplendent Capital

One historian describes ancient Constantinople as “rich in renown and richer still in possessions.” Located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia—the Bosporus Strait—Constantinople bestrode both a superbly defensible peninsula and a sheltered harbor, the Golden Horn. In 657 B.C.E., Greek settlers named the place Byzantium after their legendary leader Byzas. More than ten centuries later, it was considered the New Rome, becoming home to half a million people during its glory days between the 6th and the 11th centuries C.E.

Visitors from the West were awed by this metropolis and major center of world trade routes. Its harbor was crowded with vessels. Its markets offered silks, furs, precious stones, perfumed woods, carved ivory, gold, silver, enameled jewelry, and spices. Understandably, Constantinople was the envy of other powers, so they repeatedly tried to breach its walls. Before the Ottoman conquest of 1453, only once did attackers succeed in conquering the city—namely, “Christians” of the Fourth Crusade. “Not since the world was made was there ever seen or won so great a treasure,” exclaimed the crusader Robert of Clari.

A Lasting Legacy

Believe it or not, Byzantine government, laws, religious concepts, and ceremonial splendor continue to affect the lives of billions today. For example, Justinian’s famous compilation of legal principles called the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law) became the foundation of Roman law in continental Europe today. Via the Code Napoléon, Byzantine legal precepts were transmitted to Latin America and other countries, where they still hold sway.

Moreover, Byzantine architects learned how to set a large dome over a quadrangular space—a style that spread as far as Russia. Some even credit the Byzantines with popularizing the use of forks at the dinner table. In Venice in the 11th-century, when a Byzantine princess used a two-pronged fork instead of eating with her fingers, onlookers were shocked! Centuries later, however, the fork began to catch on among the wealthy. Popes of Rome also yielded to Byzantine influence, wearing a tiara modeled after the Byzantine emperor’s. England’s monarchs likewise copied the emperor’s orb and scepter.

Law and Order

The Byzantine Empire also left behind a fascinating collection of government policies. For example, the needy were put to work in state bakeries and market gardens. “Idleness leads to crime,” believed Emperor Leo III (c. 675-741 C.E.). Because it was thought that drunkenness led to disorder and sedition, taverns were closed at 8:00 p.m. According to National Geographic Magazine, “incest, homicide, privately making or selling purple cloth (reserved for royalty alone) or teaching shipbuilding to enemies might bring decapitation, impalement—or drowning in a sack with a hog, a cock, a viper, and an ape. The grocer who gave false measure lost his hand. Arsonists were burned.”

Interestingly, the Byzantine Empire also provided much of the cradle-to-grave care provided by welfare states today. Emperors and wealthy citizens went to great lengths to finance hospitals, poorhouses, and orphanages. There were homes for repentant prostitutes—some of whom became “saints”—and even a reformatory for fallen female aristocrats.

An Empire Built on Trade

Such generosity reflected the prosperity the empire enjoyed. The State controlled prices, wages, and rents. Wheat was stockpiled to offset poor harvests. Officials inspected shops to check weights and measures, ledgers, and the quality of merchandise. Hoarders, smugglers, defrauders, counterfeiters, and tax evaders faced severe punishment.

The emperor himself was the empire’s foremost merchant and manufacturer, with monopolies in minting, in armaments, and in renowned Byzantine luxury articles. Justinian himself founded its famed silk industry with silkworm eggs smuggled out of China.

Insurance and credit services were also developed. Banking was closely audited. The gold solidus, the coin introduced by Constantine, held its value for ten centuries! It was history’s most stable currency.

The Byzantine Court

How, then, did the word “Byzantine” come to be associated with intrigue, secretiveness, and treachery? According to historian William Lecky, behind the Byzantine court’s glittering facade, there was woven “a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.”

Writer Merle Severy notes: “Surrounded by would-be usurpers and assassins, no incompetent emperor remained God’s vicar on earth very long. Of the 88 emperors from Constantine I to XI, 13 took to a monastery. Thirty others died violently—starved, poisoned, blinded, bludgeoned, strangled, stabbed, dismembered, decapitated. The skull of Nicephorus I ended up as a silver-lined goblet from which Khan Krum of the Bulgars toasted his boyars [noblemen].”

Even the “sainted” Constantine the Great had his oldest son slain and his wife suffocated in her bath. The Empress Irene (c. 752-803 C.E.) was so obsessed with retaining power that she had her son blinded and took his title of emperor.

The Path to Decline

But it was not political intrigue that led to the decline of the empire. The European West began transforming itself through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment as well as the rise of science. In Byzantium, however, change of any sort was not only viewed as heresy but also eventually became viewed as a crime against the State.

Additionally, changing political winds began taking their toll. In the seventh century, Islam engulfed Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria. Slavic invasions of the Balkans and Lombard conquests in Italy drove a wedge between Rome and Constantinople. Rome, deprived of imperial support, linked its fortunes to the rising Germanic West. Constantinople’s shrinking empire became increasingly Greek. Then, in 1054, the Greek Orthodox patriarch and the Roman Catholic pope excommunicated each other over theological differences, causing a rift between the Orthodox and Catholic churches that has not healed to this day.

The year 1204 saw further disaster for the empire. On April 12, armies of the Fourth Crusade en route to Jerusalem committed what historian Sir Steven Runciman called “the greatest crime in history”—the sacking of Constantinople. Burning, pillaging, and raping in the name of Christ, the crusaders destroyed the city and took their plunder to Venice, Paris, Turin, and other Western centers.

More than 50 years passed before Constantinople was finally recaptured. By then the empire was a mere shadow of its former self. The Venetians and Genoese had a stranglehold on its trade. And before long the Byzantine Empire found itself under pressure from the Islamic Ottomans.

Such pressure led to the inevitable demise of the empire. On April 11, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II laid siege to the capital, deploying 100,000 troops and a powerful fleet. The scant 8,000 defenders of Constantinople held out for seven weeks. Then, on May 28, invaders poured through a lightly guarded port in the city’s moat. By the next day, the capital had changed hands. Mehmed—now a conqueror—reportedly shed tears and lamented: “What a city we have given over to plunder and destruction!” The Byzantine Empire had fallen. But its influence remains to this day.

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Monasticism was one of the most powerful religious trends in the empire. Monasteries served as centers for copying and storing thousands of Bible manuscripts. Three of the most important and most complete extant Bible manuscripts—the Vatican 1209, the Sinaitic (inset), and the Alexandrine (background)—may have been produced or preserved in the monasteries and religious communities of Byzantium.

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Both manuscripts: Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum

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Commenting on the close ties that existed between Church and State, Norman Davies writes in his book Europe—A History: “The state and the church were fused into one indivisible whole. The Emperor . . . and the Patriarch were seen as the secular and the ecclesiastical pillars of divine authority. The Empire defended the Orthodox Church, and the Church praised the Empire. This ‘Caesaropapism’ had no equal in the West.”


Hagia Sophia, Istanbul—at one time the largest Byzantine church, it was converted into a mosque in 1453 and into a museum in 1935

[Chart on page 14]

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286 Diocletian starts ruling from Nicomedia, Asia Minor

330 Constantine makes Byzantium the capital of the empire, renaming the city Constantinople

395 The Roman Empire is permanently divided into East and West

1054 A religious schism separates the Greek Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church

1204 Armies of the Fourth Crusade sack Constantinople

1453 Constantinople and the empire fall to the Turks

[Map on page 12]

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Shaded area shows the empire at its peak (527-565 C.E.)

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Scholars debate whether the first Byzantine emperor was (1) Diocletian, (2) Constantine the Great, or (3) Justinian I

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Musée du Louvre, Paris

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A painting in a manuscript, depicting the siege of Constantinople in 1204

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© Cliché Bibliothèque nationale de France, Paris

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A gold solidus coin, 321 C.E., shown mounted in the center of a pendant

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Photograph taken by courtesy of the British Museum