Updated: Jul 25, 2022
The world of Ancient Byzantium is a fascinating place to get lost in and is the principal setting for my new historical fiction trilogy Double-Edged Sword.
Maybe you already know that the Byzantine Empire rose up out of the capital that Emperor Constantine I built in Constantinople around the old Greek port of Byzantium. Maybe you already know that it was captured by the Ottomans in 1453. But do you know much about what happened between those dates?
Here are 10 things that you probably didn't know about the Byzantine Empire
1) The people of Byzantium did not call themselves Byzantine.
They thought of themselves as fully Roman, as in the empire that rose up from the city of Rome in central Italy. They used Roman law (until it was thoroughly modernized by Justinian I) and ascribed themselves to Roman culture. However, because the capital city was built by Constantine, the Emperor was largely Christian and had no links to the Roman gods. The Empire came to be called Byzantine after its fall in the 1400s, and the name only started to be used in common practise after the 1800s.
2) Constantinople was first called, Nova Roma, or "New Rome"
Emperor Constantine had decided to rebuild the then Greek city of Byzantion and create a glorious palace capital in his name. When the city was finished being remodeled in 330 AD Emperor Constantine originally called it "New Rome" but shortly after renamed it Constantinople.
3) Emperor Justinian came from a family in relative poverty.
One of the most famous Emperors of the Byzantine Era was Emperor Justinian I, otherwise known as Justinian the Great. He was born in 482 in the Balkans and spent his early years in squalor and was indistinguishable from the mob. He was chosen by his uncle Justin (legend said he was a swineherder before he went into the military) who had risen up in the military ranks to become Emperor. When his uncle's health was failing in 527 AD, he was made heir to the throne.
4) Byzantine emperors often preferred to have castrated men as counselors.
Emperors of the day did not like to feel threatened by their counselors and military generals, so they ensured that those men around them were castrated and or blinded. Those with physical impediments were often barred from Imperial power, ie., they couldn't be Emperors. That meant that men could be fully trusted by emperors like Justinian who were always wondering who would be the next to inspire a revolt.
5) Emperor Justinian created the law code from which most modern legal codes are taken.
Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora recognized that the law code that they had imported from ancient Roman society was outdated and needed a serious revamp. So together they created the Corpus Julis Civilis, or The Code of Justinian. The code included greater rights and freedoms for women, slaves, and children and a redefinition of the marriage relationship, inheritance laws, and property rights. The code also included several protections for Christians, and imperial encouragement to become one if you weren't already.
6. The official language of Byzantium was Greek, not Latin.
Even though they considered themselves Roman, after Justinian, they used Greek as their official language in all matters of state and commerce.
7) The Byzantines preserved many of the writings of Ancient Greece.
The writings of Greek thinkers such as Plato, Ptolemy, and Galen might have been lost to history if not for the Byzantine Empire. Though often hostile toward so-called “pagan” ideas, Byzantine scribes judiciously copied the decaying manuscripts of the ancients, and Constantinople’s libraries safeguarded Greek and Roman texts that were slowly vanishing in the West. It has been estimated that of all the ancient Greek manuscripts that survive today, more than two-thirds were handed down by the Byzantines.
8) The Empire gave rise to the Eastern Orthodox Church.
The Eastern empire had always been Christian, having been founded by Constantine the Great. Because of the distance between Constantinople and Rome, it was deemed necessary to have another major bishop to rival the pope, in Constantinople. He was charged with serving the eastern empire in a way that would be relevant to them. And that is where the rivalry between the Eastern and Western bishops began.
Justinian recognized the Bishop of Rome as the first among equals. Byzantium's first bishop was Saint Andrew, the brother of Saint Peter, if the tradition is correct. So the bishop there predates Constantine's move by three centuries. For the first six centuries, there was general uniformity among the Eastern and Western churches, though each struggled with different heresies (the West had Arianism that overemphasized Christ's humanity, and the East had Monophysitism that underemphasized it). Justinian considered the Bishop of Rome's opinion indispensable for an ecumenical council, and when Pope Vigilius refused to "bless" all the council's doctrines, he had the Pope dragged to Constantinople. The Pope only approved some of the council's decisions, and that gave rise to the importance of "the bishops in union with Rome" when it came to know that the doctrines espoused by the ecumenical councils were not heretical. The divide really started ca 752 when the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy was lost, and their contact with the pope more or less ended. At that point, Rome was a backwater, and Constantinople didn't like barbarians telling them what to do. It was more political than theological. Liturgically, the West used Latin, and the East used Greek, Syriac, or later Slavonic, but the liturgies were derived from common ancient sources. Official contact ended in 1054 after the Patriarch and Pope excommunicated each other over the filioque and other minor disputes. Those mutual ex-communications were lifted in 1963.
In Justinian's day, the emperor was very well apprised of theological debates of the day and made it his duty to intervene and ensure that solid Christian doctrines were not being mingled with heresy. It was also the emperor's duty to encourage unity between the two sides of Christendom. But often unity was a lofty concept when both sides were accusing the other of heresy and blasphemy.
Eventually, the differences between West and East would lead to the Great Schism of 1054.
9) Christian Venetians played a part in causing the decline of the Byzantine Empire
This is quite a sad story. In 1204, Venetian warriors were ready to board ships to regain Jerusalem from the Arab Turks. But they had some funding issues. Constantinople refused to pay the Venetians for shipping the mercenaries, and the rival emperor promised to pay them once his treasury became available to him. so they were persuaded by a de-throned Emperor of Byzantium, to make a stop at Constantinople and help him to reclaim his throne. Instead of primarily doing this, the Venetians looted the entire city and burned it to the ground. They took their loot as payment for many ships that they had built for the Byzantines without payment. About fifty years later the Byzantines were able to take back their capital, but the Empire was never able to recover.
10) The invention of the cannon helped bring about the Empire’s fall.
Constantinople’s towering city walls kept invading "Goths, Persians, Arabs, Bulgarians, and Kievian Rus at bay for centuries, but they proved to be no match for changing military technology. In the spring of 1453, having already conquered most of the Byzantine frontier, Ottoman Turks under Sultan Mehmed II laid siege to the capital with a collection of cannons specially designed by a Hungarian engineer. At the center of the arsenal was a 27-foot gun so heavy that a team of 60 oxen was required to transport it. After bombarding Constantinople’s defences for several weeks, the Ottomans blasted a breach in the walls on May 29, allowing scores of Islamic soldiers to pour into the city and put its inhabitants to the sword. Among the many killed was the last Byzantine emperor, Constantine XI, who supposedly stripped off his royal regalia and cried out “the city is lost, but I live!” before charging into battle. With the fall of its once-mighty capital, the Byzantine Empire crumbled after more than 1,100 years in existence.