Ancient/Medieval Civilizations: Byzantium


Figure 1.-- This modern recreation shows a Byzantine Emperor with a page. It was done by Braun & Schneider (c.1861-1880).

Byzantium is relatively little known in the popular mind. This is somewhat surprosing given its longevity (more than a millenium) and had such a powerful influence on other civilizations from the Scandonavian Rus to the Ottomon Turks. Byzantium is somewhat difficult to place. It is of course the Eastern Roman Empire which broke off from the Western Empire in a gradual procress beginning in the 4th century AD. But as it survived the Barbarian invasions, its history continues into the Medieval era until ovewealmed by the Turks in the 15th century. Thus it is both an Ancient and Medieval civilization with stronger Asian influences that the Western Empire. The Emperor Theodosum I divided the Roman empire when he entrusted his son Arcadius with the Eastern provinces and his other son Honorius with the Western priovinces (395 AD), although a temporary split occurred even earlier. The Western Empire headed by Honorius was soon to be overwealmed by Germanic Barbarians and Huns. The Eastern Empire while sorely pressed first by the Germans and Huns and later by Islam was to endure and often prosper over an amazing span of 1,000 years until it was finally overwealmed by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453. Much of the Byzantine history is not well studied by Western historians. Byzantium played, however, a crucial role in Western European history. For centuries Byzantium stopped the spread of Islam into Eastern Europe ar a time when the Western Christian kingdoms might have had difficult containing it. The Byzantines were also largely responsible for the adoption of Christinaity by the Russians. The Eastern Empire is now known as Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire after its capital Byzantium. The name of the city was, however, soon changed to Constantinople in honor of its founder, the Emperor Constantine. The Byzantines, however, never used that term themselves. They saw themselves as the Roman Empire and referred to themselves as the Nation of Rome. Even in its deaththroes, however, the Byzantine Empire played an important role in sparking the Renaissance which so transformed Western Europe.

Chronology

Byzantium is somewhat difficult to place. It is of course the Eastern Roman Empire which broke off from the Western Empire in a gradual procress beginning in the 4th century AD. But as it survived the Barbarian invasions, its history continues into the Medieval era until ovewealmed by the Turks in the 15th century. Thus it is both an Ancient and Medieval civilization with stronger Asian influences that the Western Empire. The Emperor Theodosum I divided the Roman empire when he entrusted his son Arcadius with the Eastern provinces and his other son Honorius with the Western priovinces (395 AD), although a temporary split occurred even earlier. The Western Empire headed by Honorius was soon to be overwealmed by Germanic Barbarians and Huns. The Eastern Empire while sorely pressed first by the Germans and Huns and later by Islam was to endure and often prosper over an amazing span of 1,000 years until it was finally overwealmed by the Ottoman Sultan Mehmet II in 1453.

Terminology

The Eastern Empire is now known as Byzantium or the Byzantine Empire after its capital Byzantium. The name of the city was, however, soon changed to Constantinople in honor of its founder, the Emperor Constantine. It was also sometimes known as New Rome and of course is now Istambul. The Byzantines, however, never used that term themselves. They saw themselves as the Roman Empire and referred to themselves as the Nation of Rome. To them they were always the Romans and their civilization a continuation of the classical Roman tradition. While for many years they continued to use Latin as the official language, they eventually lapsed into Greek. The called the Italians Latins. The term Byzantium is a creation of a scholar in the 16th century after Constantinople had fallen to the Turks. The scholar apparently liked the Greek sound of the term.

Economy

The eastern provinces of the Roman Empire were by far the most wealthy and thus more culturally sophisticated area of the Roman Empire. The reason for this was that they were more economically developed than their western counterparts. Eastern provinces like Egypt, Asia (Anatolia), Syria, Mesopotamia, and Dacia represented areas of agricultural bounty a huge source of revenue for the Empire. These provinces played a crucial economic role into the Byzantine era. Much of the West was undeveloped lands where agriculture was not yet as developed or as productive. Large areas were still covered by forests like the Teutobergerwald where the Germans destroyed Augustus' Legions. Bread was central to the Roman diet. The Eastern province of Egypt was especially important in providing wheat to Rome for its bread. As Rome grew it became more and more dependent on food, spcially wheat, imports. One source reports that shipments of Egyptian wheat may have amounted to 20 million modii or more annually. [Epitome de Caesaribus] Twenty million modii of wheat was apparantly more than half of Rome's requirement. Most Roman provinces were self sufficent in food production. But Rome itself was a special case. Byzantium began as a small fishing village where Constantine chose as his capital. Its location on the Bosporous made it a valuable strategic and commecial site and the western terminus of the Silk Road. After the Islamic outburst from Arabia and the Turkish incursion into anatolia, the Byzantines lost much of theur rich agriculturl lands. The economy thus shifted to trade and commerce and the city protected by powerful navy and massive defensive walls--the most successful fortification of the Medieval era.

Byzantine Military

Byzantium for most of its history was besieged by aggressive neighbors. Byzantine armies almost always faced superior numbers. It was the massive walls around the city, a well-drilled professional army, and a poweful navy tht made it virtully impossible to stage a syccessful siege that allowed the Empire to survive over 1,000 years.

Army

Byzantine from its foundation had a skilled, professional army. Many of the best unitsof the Roman army remained in the East when the Roman Empire was split (395). The core of the Byzantine army was a powerful shock force of heavy cavalry which would be supported by well-drilled infantry forces, both archers and swordsmen. Officers were formally educated in military matters. Byzantine armies usually faced much larger, but less well drilled armies, but were successful because of their tactisupperiority and discipline. The Byzantines also had an effective spy and diplomatic network.

Navy

The Byzantine navy played a critical role in the Empire's survival. As a commercial trading center, it was important the sea lanes be kep free of porates and hostile shipping. Also the navy made it virtually impossible to conduct a successful siege. The city was besieged many times, but the navy could bring in needed supplies. The use of Greek fire in the 8th century defeated a poweful land-sea attack by the Arabs. The Venetians played a major role in the Byzantine navy.

Early Military Role

The Byzanyines like the Western Empire were hard pressed by the Germanic Tribes, Avars, and Bulgars. The Eastern Empire attempted to work with the Western Empire and provide military support, but was unable to save it. Unlike the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire managed to survive, but lost much of its European territory. Under the Emperor Justinian (527-65) there was a revival of the Eastern Empire. Justinian set out on a major effort to restablish Roman control of the Mediterranean territory of the Western Empire. Justinian managed to win back areas of Italy and North Africa. The Eastern Empire still thought of themselves as Romans. A major asset in this effort was the most powerful navy at the time. Also important was his General Flavius Belisarius (500-65), although Justinian never trusted him or fully supported him. The Byzantines thus played an important role in the early medieval world. This ended with the rise of Islam and conquest of the Levant. The Eastern Empire's effort to centalize ruke and supress divergent Christian churches played a role in the success of Arab armies. From that point as the Eastern Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire, the Empire was fighting for its life and ceased to play a major role in medieval Europe, although it did have an important non-military role with the Rus in the Ukraine.

Importance

Byzantium is relatively little known in the popular mind. This is somewhat surprising given its longevity (more than a millenium) and had such a powerful influence on other civilizations from the Scandinavian Rus to the Ottomon Turks and modern Western civilization. Much of Byzantine history is not well studied by Western historians and virtually unknown to the casual reader. The prevalent impression in the popular mind is one of steady if protracted decline. The very term byantine is one with negative connotations. The Byzantine Empire in fact played an important role affecting: 1) the West, 2) the Slavs, and 3) Islam. Byzantium played a crucial role in Western European history. For centuries Byzantium stopped the spread of Islam into Eastern Europe ar a time when the Western Christian kingdoms might have had difficult containing it. The Byzantines shielded Western Europe from the Persians, Arabs, Selijuk Turks, and for a time the Ottomons. But the Byzantine impact on the West is far more than that just of a shield. The Byzantines were "the medieval heir of ancient Greece and Rome". [Wells] The Christian kingdoms that formed after the fall of Rome did not have the capability of preserving or understnding the cultural heritage of Grece and Rome. This was done by Byzantium. One historian postulates, "Were it not for the small but dynamic group of Byzantine humanist teachers , ancient Greek literature might have been lost foerever when the Turks conquered Constantinople in 1453." [Wells] The Byzantines were also largely responsible for the adoption of Christinaity by the Slavs, especially the Russians. The impact on the Slavs was not just religion, but much more of Byzantine culture was transmitted to the Slavs. The Byzantines helped transmit classical knowledge to the Islamic world. The scientific achievements of the Islamic Caliphate were in large measure sparked bt Greek science acquired through Byzantium. For centuries as a result, it was the Calphiate that was the center of learning and science when Medieval Europe stagnated in the Dark ages. Only later did culture and learning recover in the West so that clasical literature could also be transmitted by Byzantium. Even in its deaththroes, however, the Byzantine Empire played an important role in sparking the Renaissance which so transformed Western Europe. Also Byzantium played a key role in the Medival European economy as a trading center strategically located on the Bosporous between East and West.

Silk Road

Byzantium was one of the most important western terminals of the Silk Road. It was also the single most important commercial center of Europe for much if the Medieval era. Byzantium strategically placed on the Bosporous was the perfect collection point for European goods flowing down the important rivers flowing into the Black Sea as well as goods brought by sea from thrtoughour the Mediterranean. Goods from the East could then flow back these same routes. It was this commercial activity that made Byzantium so wealthy.

Silk

Byzantium was especially noted for luxurious silks. Byzantine silks were known from the British Isles to Central Asia. Byzantium like other countries imported silk from China. During the reign of Justinian I, Christian monks apparently managed to smuggle silk moth cacoons into the Empire over the Silk Road, although the actual circumstances are unknown (553-54). This was enough to establish what was by the 7th century a major industry centered at Constaninople. The city was primarily a trading center. Silk was one of relatively few important indutries of Byzantium. There were both Imprial and private factories. The factories made luxury items, inccluding court and religious vestments, altar cloths, curtains, couch fabrics, wall hangings, and embroideries. The imperial government carefully controlled the silk manufacturing process and commerce. The Imperial Government and guaranteed the quality. The Byzantines used their coveted silks as instrument of foreign policy. They were used as Imperial gifts or payment of tribute.

Provinces

The eastern provinces of Rome were essentially the western part of the empire conquered by Alexander the Great. Rome began its expansion beyond the Italian peninsula with the Punic Wars which led it south (to Sicily and North Africa) and west (to the Iberian Peninsula). Thus at the time of second Punic war, the Mediterranean was divided into two distinct regions. In the West, Rome and Carthage were fighting a prolonged war to the death. In the East were states formed by Alexander's rival military commanders who inherited his empire--the Diadochi. While they formed separate states, Alexander and hey helanized the Eadst, creating an cultural area where Greek art, literature, and philosophy became dominant. Alexander died before he hd time to attempt to build apolitical structure for the vast empire he conquered. Rome would face three fragments formed by the Diadochi. Egypt under the Ptolemies was perhaps the most important because of its vast output of grain. The furthest east was Syria under the Seleucidae which included Mesopotamia. It was potentially the most powerful state that Rome would encounter after the destruction of Carthage. The cloest to Rome was Macedonia under Alexander's direct successors of Alexander. The Macedonian kingdom controlled much of southeastern Europe. The Romans would carve many different provinces out of these rich eastern kingdoms. And this process began even before with the end of the Second Punic War as a result of King Philip's almost open aid to Hanibal. This wouldlead to the great struggle between the Roman Legions and the Greek hoplite phalanxes. For his part, Antiochus III in Syria would invite Roman hostility by giving refuge to Hanibal. The weaker smaller states in the East facing the expanionist energies of Philio and Antiochus turned to Rome for protection. And this include Egypt. While Egypt was rich, it was militarily weak, inviting the attention of both Philip and Antiochus. Thus at the close of the Second Punic War, Ptolemy IV Philopator negotiated a treaty with Rome for protection. Egypt thus became a virtual Roman protectorate and eventially a Roman province. Rome incorporated Phoenicia into their Empire (64 AD). When the Roman Empire split, Phonecia became a part of the Eastern Empire which evolved into Byzantium.

Venice

Venice developed out of a marchy lagoon where refugees from the Barbarian invasions of the 5th and 6th centurues sought refugee. Venice developed as a republic and with a tenuous relationship with Byzantium. As a fledgling state, Byzantium's protection was a benefit. Venize developed as a trading state and played a great role in the Byzantine navy. This made Venice both an ally and a competitor. The Crusades beginning at the end of the 11th century was a major factor in making Venice the dominany naval ppower in the eastern Mefiterrnean. The Venetians turned the 4th Crusade against Byzantium and for a while ruled the city. The fall of Constaniople to the Turks and the Poruguese establishmenbt of direct trade contacts with the East in the 15th cenbtury meant the beginning of the end of Venice as a major force in European affairs. The growing Turlish navy beginning in the 16th century began seizing Venitian colonies.

Art

Byzantium after the break with Rome at the end of the 4th century begins to develop its own destinctive art styles and forms. Byzantine art has a significant influence on Greece, Eastern Europe, and Russia. Byzantine at is strongly influenced by the emperor as much is state supported. As Christianity was the state religion, the Church closely regulated art and much of the art focused on efforts to venerate Christ and the saints. There is much less of the personal art that was common in the Western Empire. The Christian influence is central in Byzantine art, but Greek rationalism and Islam are also important influences. The mot notable movement affecting Byzantine art was the debate over icons. Byzantine art produced beautiful religious icons and strongly influenced the Orthodox Churches of Greece, Russia, and elsewhere. An icon is normally a small work, normally oil on wood, but they were also mosaics, ivories, and other formats. They were primarily venerations of Christ and to a lesser extent saints. Icons in Byzantium, unlike Western devotional images, came to be seen as sacred in themselves. This differing view began to appear as early as the 4th centyury AD. Those opposed to icons as sacred objects or Iconoclasts came to see icons as iols and demnde that thy be destroyed or covered when destruction was impossible. The Iconoclastic controversy dominanted the Byzntine Church in the late 7th and 8th centuries. he Iconoclasts succeed in destroying vast quanties of iconic art. The issue was not resolved until 842. The formal break with the Roman Catholic Churchin the 11th century also affected Byzantine art. Some of the major types of Byzantine art are monumental achitecture, icons, mosaics, and sculptures. The fact that Byzantiine art was so focused on the emperor and religious veneration means that the kind of personal art depicting how people dressed and lived their lives is very limited. Byzantine art looks very static to us today because we are familar with the vibrant realistic art of the Italian Renaisance which began in the 14th century. This of course is an invalid comparison. What the art student should do is compare Byzantie art with that of Medueval Europe. Here we see advances in Byzantine art dealing with light, spatial awarness, human forms, and even emotion that go far beyond medieval Europe. The 13th century resulted in what might be called a Byzantine Renaissance and which made a major contribution to the Italian Renaisance of the following century.

Philosophy

Byzantium was the conduit through which classical culture was transmitted to Western civilization. Classical writing and scholarship was large lost during the Barbarian invasions and early Medieval eran the west. Byzantine education and philosophy not only preserved the classical texts, but actively pursued the classical intellectual traditions. The great classical works of Plato, Aristotle, and others were transmitted to te Islamic scholars and later to the Western world as Europe began to emerge from the Dark Ages. Virtually all classical Greek literature which survive to the modern sworld are texts initially preserved by the Byzantines. Greak works such as the legacy of Homer was virtually unknown in the West. Perhaps the best known Byzantine writer is Anna Comnena who was the daughter of Emperor Alexius. She wrote abiography of her father is one of the greatest works of history to energe from Medieval Europe.

Education

We have been unable to find much information on Byzantine education. We know that Byzantium education stressed an understanding of classical Greek literature. Only boys attended schools, but girls from arisocratic or wealthy families were tutored at home. Important subjects were literature, history, composition, and philosophy. The Church assumed conrol of education in Byzabtium from an early phase. The Church organized and financed the the education system. School was not compulsory in Byzantium, but many children did attend school, especially primary school. Boys began school at age 7. Primary school was called 'holy letters" and was a 3 year program. The program concebtrated on reading and the texts studied were primarily religious texts, especially the Bible (Old and New Testaments), Psalter and other works. The children learned the alphabet, spelling, reading and writing. Schools were initially taught in Latin, byt by the 7th century Greek had become the commonly spoke language. Other subjects were music and history. The teachers were mostly monks. Churches and monasteries provided the facilities. Wealthy parents hired tutors ( Paidagogos ) to teach their children at home. Children began secondary school at age 10 and the program lasted 4-5 years. It was here that the children began studying classsical Greek literature at the ancient Greek language. Other important subjects were history, physics, music, geometry, astronomy and notation. The teachers were trained orators, philosophers, grammarians, and mathematicians at schools supervised by the Church. Only at the tertiary level did the Byantine state take control over education. Emperor Theodosios II founded the University of Constantinople (425). The University offered training in ancient Greek language and literature, Latin literature, oratory, philosophy and law and gradually the "new" sciences (medicine and math) were added to the curriculum. Universities and other important schools were also founded and supervised by the imperial government at Alexandria, Athens, Beirut, Nikaia, Salonica, and other important Byzantine cities.

Race

One interesting aspect of Byzantium was the unimportance of race. In our modern world where race is important, the lack of concern with race is interesting. Byzantium nuch more than Rome was a great center of commerce. This was largely a matter of geography. Traders came from all over the empire and outside the empire, especially from the north. Great rivers flowed into the Black Sea from eastern Europe and the vast Eurasian steppe, the Danube, Don, Volga, and others. With the fall of the Western Empire and cthe declining maintenance of roads, the only way of transporting goods became these rivers and Cpnstantinople located by the Bosperous was where goods from the north (metals, wood, furs, grains, ect) were traded for goods from the south and east (spices, silks. ect). This brought all kinds of people together from all over the known world. Constantinople may have been the most cosmopolitan in the world. After Justinian (527-565) the area of the Empire steadily shrank at times only controlling the area around the capital itself. This meant that the trading activity affected the population of the city significantly more than a capital of n expansive empire. Byzantines were concerned about family, social class wealth, even the favored sports team, but race was not a factor of great concern.

Clothing

We believe that clothing styles in Byzantium of the time of separation with Rome were similar to the styles worn in the West. We have little information at time about subsequent clothing styles or about differentiated styles for children, if any. An ancient clothing specialist tells us, "I have not done a lot of research on children's clothing during the Byzantine period. My impression is that children dressed much as their parents - the few children that I recall seeing in illuminations were dressed in miniature versions of adult's clothing. I have made a dalmatikon and esoforion for my toddler. I simply used the same form as for his father - mostly a t-tunic - and then embellished the dalmatikon. Since male headwear was not common, there isn't the need for that. Which is good, if you've ever tried to keep a hat on an active toddler." [Eirene] Romans in both the Western and Eastern Empire made clothes clothes with linen, animal skin, and wool. Silk obtained over the silk road was enormously coved and very expensive. Anyone who could afford it wanted it. It seemed luxurious in comparison to linnen and wool garments. Silk thus became a symbol of wealth and social status. We note little change in men's clothing over the centuries, but our information is still limited. The basic garment in Byzantium as in the Westrn Empire was the tunica. Other garmnts included the dalmatic, the cloak and shoes or boots. The cut and style of the garments were the same for all classes. The diiferences among social lasses were in the the fabric, quality of weave, and trimming. The tunica was the basic garment worn by men in Byzantium. The working classes wore the tunic as the basic every day garment. The ruling classes also wore the tunica, but only as a basic garment and wore luxurious garments over it. The Byzantine tunica developed from the basic Roman tunica talaris which was an ankle-length tunic. The Byzantines added trim to the sleeves and wore their tunicas with a very loose fit. Those involved in ekmployments which required strenous activity would gird his tunica with a thin belt. Sleeve length varied depending on social class as well as the season. The coptic tunic was designed for more active wear. There were also tunics for workers. Dock workers for example wore a himation, an ancient, inexpensive tunic formed from rectangles of cloth pinned at the shoulders and belted. The dalmatic is the destinctive garment most associated with the Bzantines. It was a kind of robe worn by the ruling classes over their tunica. The dalmatic was if the wearer could afford it made of a luxurious cloth, commonly silk, and richly decorated. Common people might have a dalmactic that they would wear for special occassions. Unlike the tunica, there were changes in the dalmatic over time. An important difference which came to destinguish Byzantium with Rome was pants or breeches. Byzantines did wear leg coverings of varying types. There are breeches makers clearly shown in Diocletian's Edicts of Prices. This means that they were worn from the very beginning of Byzantium. It is unclear, however, how common leg coverings were. This may have varied seasonally. This is not well explained in available texts, but art work provides some glimses of clothing styles. Shepherds are depicted with leg wrappings from ankle to knee. Note the imperial page with leg wrapping to the knee shown here (figure 1). Dock laborers are shown, however, with bare legs. The Emperor Justinian is known to wear hose. The breeches worn by the Germanic tribes seem to have influenced Byzantine dress. Byzantines seemed to have worn these breeches in areas where was extensive contact with the Germans. Acceptance seems to have varied over time. The Byzantines also wore loose fitting trousers which were adopted over time. [Tauna]

Sources

Eireen, E-mail message, September 2, 2003.

Tauna, Black. "A clothing how-to for garments of the Byzantine Empire," website accssed August 31, 2003.

Wells, Colin. Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World (Delta, 2007), 335p.

Epitome de Caesaribus.







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Created: August 28, 2003
Last updated: 12:42 AM 9/6/2016