The Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire takes its name from the small fishing town of Byzantion, whose name was later Latinized to Byzantium. Itís most important geographical asset was itís location on an easily defensible peninsula and a large harbor known as the Golden Horn. The town sat on the edge of the Strait of Bosporus, which led from the Black Sea to the Sea of Marmara and thence to the Mediterranean. By controlling the narrow strait, it was in a position to control shipping between East and West. Its location provided convenient access to Anatolia, Southwest Asia, and Southeast Europe. It was literally the cross roads of the European/Asian trade routes.

The Roman Emperor Constantine chose Byzantium for the new capital of the Empire because it was located in the wealthier and more productive part of the Empire, and because it allowed him to maintain a close watch on the Sassanid Empire of Persia and the German tribes on the lower Danube River. He named the city Constantinople after himself. After it became the capital of the Empire, the city soon grew into a large metropolis. It became the military and political center of the empire and the dominant economic center of the Eastern Mediterranean until 1453 when it fell to the Turks. The fall of Constantinople (which the Turks renamed "Istanbul" from a corruption of the Greek, "the city") marked the end of the Eastern Roman Empire.

With the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Eastern (Byzantine) Empire continued with roads, lines of authority, and legal institutions inherited from their Roman predecessors. One important distinction was that the language of Byzantium was Greek, rather than Roman. Constantine built the city on lavish standards with libraries, museums, etc. There were marble palaces, baths, churches, etc. in an effort to create a Ďsecond Rome."

The primary challenge facing Byzantine Emperors were the Sassanid Emperors who hoped to rebuild the old Achaemenid Empire. They remained a threat until the collapse of that Empire in the seventh century C.E. The Germanic tribes who spread into the Western Empire did not present a serious threat to the East. Roman rulers had concentrated their defense on the Eastern portion of the Empire, since it was the wealthier half; so that the Germanic tribes were seldom a serious threat. The city of Constantinople itself was surrounded by water on three sides and had a huge wall on its land side, so thick that a team of horses pulling a cart could be turned around on its surface.

Byzantine Emperors concentrated power in themselves. Constantine had not claimed divinity as had some of his predecessors, but as the first Christian Emperor, he clamed that God had favored his rule. He often intervened in theological disputes. Over time, Byzantine Emperors became more and more exalted; practically above the law. They exercised absolute authority in all matters political, judicial, financial, and religious. They controlled an extensive, complex bureaucracy. Their rather ostentatious rule and administration gave rise to the adjective "byzantine," meaning unnecessarily complex and convoluted.

Court etiquette and dress pointed to the lofty, exalted state of Byzantine Emperors. They wore crowns which were heavily jeweled, wore magnificent silk robes dyed in purple, a color forbidden to anyone who was not a member of the royal household. High officials referred to themselves as the Emperorís "slaves" rather than his subjects. When he was approached, those doing so prostrated themselves to the floor three times and then kissed his hands and feet before speaking.

Over time, the Emperorís court became more and more ostentatious. A series of mechanical devices were devised that had mechanical birds singing and lions roaring and swishing their tails, to impress visitors. At times, the throne upon which the Emperor sat would move up and down to emphasize the Emperorís and his Empireís splendor.

The most important of the Byzantine Emperors was Justinian, who was aided and supported by his very capable wife, Theodora. Both came from somewhat humble origins: he from a peasant Macedonian family and she the daughter of a circus bear keeper who had worked as a striptease artist before meeting her future husband. Both were intelligent and strong willed. Justinian received a fine education and worked in the imperial bureaucracy. Theodora was his chief advisor.

Riots against high taxes had destroyed much of Constantinople in the early years of Justinianís rule; but Theodora advised Justinian to crush the revolt with the Imperial army. He then rebuilt the city on a magnificent scale. Its most notable building was the Hagia Sophia, church of the Holy Wisdom, which still exists, although it is now a Mosque.

Justinianís most important accomplishment was to order a review of the Roman law more thoroughly than had ever been done before. His review led to the publication of the Corpus iuris Civilis ("Body of the Civil Law") which was soon recognized as the most definitive codification of Roman Law. It has influenced civil law throughout Western Civilization. It is from Justinianís name that the word "Justice" is derived."

Justinian sought to reconquer most of the western Roman lands from the Germanic tribes and reestablish Roman authority throughout the Mediterranean. In 533, he sent troops under the command of a brilliant general, Belisarius who reconquered Italy, Sicily, Northwest Africa and southern Spain. He had reconstituted much of the old Empire by the time of his death; however his accomplishments did not survive long after his death. Byzantium did not have the resources to maintain the former Empire; and even Rome itself was under Byzantine control for only a short time. The city of Ravenna became Byzantine headquarters in the West. Justinianís failed attempts to restore the old Empire demonstrated that it was beyond restoration.

After the seventh century, C.E., Islam emerged as a new and powerful force in the Middle East and threatened Byzantium. Arab people, armed with their new faith, conquered the Sassanid Empire and overran large portions of the Byzantine Empire also. Syria, Palestine, Egypt and north Africa were soon under Islamic control. They also frequently attacked Constantinople itself. The city was able to resist attack, largely because of its military technology, including a device known as "Greek fire." It was an incendiary device consisting of sulphur, lime and petroleum. It was launched at fleets and ground forces, and burned even when it floated on the water. It was difficult to extinguish, and many soldiers burned to death as a result.

The Empire shrank somewhat under invasion, and as a result became more compact and manageable. One of its more innovative changes was the theme system, by which a province ("theme") was placed under the jurisdiction of a general who was responsible for civil administration and military defense. Generals were appointed by the Imperial government and were closely supervised. They recruited armies from free peasants who received allotments of land in exchange for military service. As a result, the armies were effective, the class of free peasants was strengthened, and Byzantiumís agricultural base was solidified. Soldiers could be mobilized quickly and supported the political and social order for many years.

Between the eighth and ninth centuries, by reason of the theme system, Byzantium extended its influence by reconquering Syria. The emperor Basil II, known as Basil the Bulgar-Slayer, Byzantine armies crushed the Bulgarians at the Battle of Kleidion. Reportedly, Basil commanded his troops to blind over fourteen thousand Bulgarian survivors, although a few were allowed to keep one eye to lead the others home. Further Byzantine expansion was so profitable that Basil was able to waive the collection of taxes for two years.

Relations between Byzantium and Western Europe were not good. The church of Constantinople conducted its affairs in Greek and submitted to the will of the Emperor; whereas churches in the West conducted affairs in Latin and resisted claims of temporal rulers to intervene in church matters. Byzantine church leaders considered Western Christians to be poorly educated and uncouth. Western Christians considered Eastern church people to be learned, but insincere, careless about heresy, and a bit effeminate. Political relations were no better. German princes established successor states in the former Western Empire while Byzantium could do little more than watch, even though the Byzantine Emperors considered those lands their rightful inheritance.

An example of the issues which the Byzantines resented was the crowning of Charlemagne as "Emperor of the Romans" by Pope Leo III on Christmas Day, 800; and later the crowning of Otto of Saxony as Otto the Great, Holy Roman Emperor. The state of relations between East and West is indicated by the report of Liuprand of Cremona, an ambassador sent by Otto to Constantinople on a diplomatic mission in 968. He described the Byzantine emperor in less than complementary terms. He was, according to Liuprand, "a monstrocity of a man, a dwarf, fat-headed, and with tiny moleís eyes; disfigured by a short, broad, thick beard half going gray; disgraced by a neck scarcely an inch long, piglike by reason of the big close bristles on his head." He called Byzantine food terrible and Byzantine scholars slippery, scheming liars.

Byzantine Economy and Society: For most of its existence, Constantinople claimed a population of one million people or more. To feed this enormous populace, the Byzantine Empire originally depended upon Egypt as its major source of grain; however when that area was overrun by Arabs, Anatolia and the lower Danube River basin became the Empireís major breadbasket.

The economy performed best when it was supported by a large class of free peasants. Over time, however, wealthy groups accumulated more land at the expense of the free peasants. Wealthy farms had estates worked by peasants who were not slaves, but were not entirely free. They were frequently bound to the land, forbidden to leave without the landlordís permission. At times they worked under sharecropping arrangements whereby landlords contracted landless peasants to farm their lands in exchange for a portion of the yield. The percentage earned by the peasant was seldom enough for him to buy his own land and become economically independent. Several efforts were made to break up this system, particularly under the theme system; however none succeeded, and by the thirteenth century, free peasants were a very small portion of the population.

Large estate holders normally held enough influence to avoid payment of taxes, and as a result tax collections diminished as the number of large estates grew. The number of peasants available for military service also declined, as estate holders created private armies which they deployed for their own purposes before they were committed to state causes. As large estates grew in size and number, economic and military difficulties for the state multiplied.

Industry and Trade: Despite its difficulties with land holdings, Byzantium remained wealthy, primarily from its trading centers. Constantinople was noted for craftsmen skilled in glassware, linen, woolen textiles, gems, jewelry, silverware and gold ware. High quality silk textiles were produced in sufficient quantity to make Byzantium the principle supplier to the Mediterranean basin. It was so important that the government supervised every step of its production. Regulations prohibited any one individual from engaging in more than one activity for silk textile production. One might weave, dye, or sell silks, but only one such function. The purpose of this regulation was to prevent the development of monopolies.

According to the Byzantine historian Procopius, two Christian missionaries had visited China and saw silk production there. China was not the only producer of silk, but its silk was of a superior quality to that produced elsewhere, produced from carefully bred silkworms. The Chinese closely guarded this economic asset. Presumably, when the two monks left China, they hollowed out their staffs and filled them with silkworm eggs which they smuggled out of China and into Byzantium. Most scholars discount this story as an oversimplification.

Merchants from Constantinople maintained commercial links with merchants of the East and West, even Muslim merchants. Byzantium dominated trade to such an extent that the Byzantine gold coin, the bezant, was the standard currency in the Mediterranean basin for over five hundred years. Tremendous wealth accumulated both from trade and from duties levied on merchandise passing through the area. It served as the western anchor of the silk roads of previous days.

Banks and business partnerships also developed which augmented business. Banks made loans to those wishing to launch business ventures when individuals did not have the money themselves. Merchants formed partnerships to pool their resources and limit risk. Neither banking nor partnerships were new; however Byzantine businessmen made more use of it than previous societies.

Urban Life in Byzantium: The city of Constantinople was without equal. It was so magnificent and opulent that people of the empire referred to it simply as "the city." It was the corruption of this term in Greek. ("istimpolim") that led to the cityís present name: Istanbul. Fashioned after Imperial Rome, the city had baths which provided places of relaxation as well as for bathing; and taverns and restaurants for social gatherings where people played checkers, chess, and dice. There were theaters which offered song, dance, and even striptease.

The most important center of entertainment was a large arena known as the Hippodrome. It was the site of circuses, wild animal acts, athletic matches, but most importantly chariot races. The public passion for chariot races was so high that violence often resulted. Two factions were formed; the Blues and Greens, who often carried their rivalry into the streets after matches. They also were not above attempting to bribe officials. On one occasion in 532, they joined together and revolted against high taxes imposed by Justinian. They seized the Hippodrome and proclaimed a new emperor. The revolt was put down by Belasarius, but several thousand people were killed and much of the city was destroyed. Justinian rebuilt it on a far more lavish scale than before. The rivalry between Blues and Greens faded in time, and the parties took on the role of civic societies. Members of the groups became respected court officials.

Rich aristocrats in Constantinople lived in magnificent palaces that had reception halls, libraries, chapels, and room for extended family, servants and slaves. Women lived in separate apartments from men, and did not receive male visitors who were not members of the household. They did not participate in banquets or parties, particularly if there was heavy drinking or other events in which her honor might be compromised.

Merchants and craftsmen often lived in rooms above their shops. Clerks and government officials lived in multistory apartment buildings. Poor people and workers lived in tenements which were ramshackle and dangerous. They were often forced to share sanitary facilities and kitchens with their neighbors. Even so, rich and poor were allowed to attend the cityís pastimes.