Who are the Byzantines?

Zach – Welcome back to History HQ and another episode of Minimum Wage Historian!
Anna Komnene – We’re working on expanding the History HQ every day. We’re researching new topics and looking for those dusty corners of history that have been forgotten by others.

I have more Imperial blood and more fashion than you do, so listen up.

Buffalo Calf Road – And we have a new kitchen! (takes a bite out of a microwaved burrito)
Caesar – Which means more Hot Pockets for Caesar!
Mulan – And more room for Mountain Dew.
Jane Austen – And an expansive reading library.
Napoleon – Reading library? Pah! You have a Kindle! You need no library!
Matilda of Tuscany – And a shooting range behind the HQ. I’m still working on getting a better shot group than Joan D’Arc. She’s cheating though; she has that new Broadsword by Crusader Weaponry. That thing is too accurate to be natural.
Buffalo – Figures she’d use a gun called a Broadsword made by a company called ‘Crusader.’ I prefer my Henry Lever action and Beretta Px4 in 9mm.
Charles Martel – I like my Russian SVD.
Henry VIII – And the game room! We must not leave out the game room.
Zach – Yes, yes, we have expanded a great deal. I won’t bore the readers with how we did it.
Napoleon – By selling antiques we bring with us from our times.
Zach – Shut up, short stuff. Remember that whole ‘don’t tell about…’ Never mind.
Napoleon – I am not short! Tomoe is shorter than me!
Tomoe Gozen – But I carry a very large sword.
Zach – Hey! We have a panel here. Everyone not involved, please go find something else to do.
Tomoe – I’m trying out this ‘hot tub’ with the hopes that it is as relaxing as the hot springs of Japan. I’ll go see if Empress Theodora is here. She seldom is, but I’ll ask if she would care to join me.
Jane Austen – I shall join you as I read.
Napoleon – Um…I too shall join you!
Tomoe – Girls only.
Napoleon – But Genghis is hoarding the X-Box.
Zach – That’s what Genghis does; he hoards.
(All leave except for Anna Komemne, Mulan, Charles Martel, Buffalo Calf Road, and Julius Caesar.)
Caesar – So, what’s today’s topic again?
Zach – You were supposed to read up on this.
Caesar – Caesar was occupied.
Mulan – He was playing Saints Row 3 on your X-box.
Caesar – That is a horrible accusation! I demand that you take it back!
Anna – No, you were definitely playing that all day.
Buffalo – Today’s topic, Caesar, is… Maybe Anna should introduce this one.
Anna – Today’s topic is (drum roll) The Byzantine Empire!
Zach – Yes, indeed! You’ve heard of the Byzantine Empire many times from me in the past. It’s time we get down to it and finally discuss just what it is.
Martel – I’m still waiting on your third installment of the Venetian history.
Zach – Oh, yeah. I’ll get to it eventually. So, the Byzantine Empire. By raise of hands, who has heard of it? (besides from me) Then, raise your hands if you know a little about its history. Now, raise your hands if you’re wondering WTF is a Byzantine Empire?
Anna – This makes me very sad and very confused.
Zach – Well, western historians have basically ignored the Byzantine Empire for hundreds of years. It’s the German’s fault. How can there be a Holy Roman Empire if the Eastern Roman Empire was still around? So, they invented the term “Byzantine” and treated it like a separate and unrelated empire.
Buffalo – Those lousy Germans.
Anna – As Zach mentioned, the Byzantine Empire, my home, was the eastern half of the Roman Empire. When the Western half fell (see previous post about that) the eastern half continued on for another thousand years. That’s quite an achievement by anyone’s standard!

Here’s a map of the Empire around Anna’s time.

Mulan – Meh.
Caesar – Mulan, remember, your Chinese government was not continuous.
Mulan – (Shrugs.) Depends what you mean by continuous, I guess.
Zach – The Eastern Roman Empire was mostly Greek speaking, with Greek being the language of trade and eventually the government. They were strongly connected with their ancient Greek past and the classics of Plato, Aristotle, Thucydides and especially Homer.
Anna – Oh! I love Homer! “Words are potent in debate, deeds in war decide your fate.”
Zach – And it wasn’t just Ancient Greece they followed, they were also very well connected with their more recent Roman heritage. When Constantine recreated the small Greek town of Byzantion into Constantinople, the capital of the Roman Empire and largest city in the world for centuries, he brought in Roman noble families, and even Roman street people to fill the streets with an authentic Roman vibe.
Mulan – That’s one way to do Feng Shui.
Anna – Caesar, you’d be interested to know that our generals read your works over and over again. Our armies trained from Roman military manuals.
Zach – Constantine moved the capital from Rome to Constantinople for a few reasons.
Mulan – One; to get away from paganism. He wanted a new capitol free from old, corrupt influences. Another was that he wanted a capitol that was actually in an important place. Rome is no where important so once the government moved away, Rome became a backwater. Constantinople was set at an important place between Europe, Asia and the Mideast. It straddled the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
Caesar – Yes, yes, that’s all well and good, but a city alone doesn’t decide the fate of an empire. What about their legions?
Martel – My armies that I used to defeat the Moors were inspired by the Legions, but I’m afraid the legions vanished from Byzantium.
Caesar – Then how did they wage war?
Martel – They fought very different than the western Romans. They had heavy infantry, but that wasn’t their main fighting arm. That was their cavalry. They got stirrups from the Sarmatians and Western Europe got stirrups from Byzantium. (See previous post about Byzantine cavalry.)

Russians copied a lot of their sense of style from the Byzantines. (The long sleeves were Turkish style though.)

Anna – That wasn’t all we had. We also had Greek fire!
Zach – Flame throwers! They fended off a Viking invasion with a few barges and flame throwers. Then when the armies of Islam came to the walls of Constantinople, they defeated them again with flamethrowers.

Flame throwers in the Dark Ages? Isn’t that like using a cheat code? What next? Byzantine “God Mode?” Well, their Cataphract cavalry were kinda like juggernauts.

Buffalo – I guess advanced technology gave them an advantage over their enemies. Technology overcoming numerical disadvantage. Go figure.
Mulan – And they were almost always outnumbered. They kept their armies small but well equipped and well trained.
Buffalo – Okay, I have to ask because you Europeans have…funny ideas about women. How did the Byzantines treat their women?
Anna – Well, Wealthy women had access to the best education in Europe. I was taught grammar, rhetoric, the classics, science, and philosophy.
Mulan – But you had limited freedom, yes?
Anna – Well, we generally weren’t allowed in public without an escort. But we did have several women Empresses that ruled on their own. Zoe and Irene are two examples. We also venerated many women saints. Mary was the patron saint of Constantinople.
Caesar – So, what happened to the Eastern Empire after the West fell?
Martel – They tried to get the West back.
Caesar – How did it go? I assume they were not as successful. Shame they did not have a general as genius as I am.
Zach – Actually, they had a general that was more brilliant than you.
Caesar – Impossible!
Zach – His name was Belisarius and they say he’s the most brilliant general since Hannibal. With a small and insufficient force he managed to conquer and permanently wipe off the map the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. But that wasn’t enough. No, sir. He then went and invaded Italy. This was known as the Gothic War. The Goths controlled Italy and had set up a pretty decent kingdom there. They were Romanized barbarians and copied the art, culture and government of the Romans.
Caesar – So, they took back Italy for the Empire?
Zach – Indeed they did, at least, for a short time. It’s a long and very cool story. I’ll do a post about it later on. They fought up and down the Italian peninsula for years. The destruction caused by this war crippled Italy for centuries to come. The aqueducts to Rome were permanently destroyed during this war. Then they set up their Italian HQ in Ravenna.
Buffalo – Oh! That’s where they have all those pretty stone pictures!
Anna – Stone pictures?
Zach – The Mosaics. Yes, I’ve seen the mosaics there. They’re absolutely stunning and that’s not a word I use very often.
Anna – Yes, our Icons were inspiring.

A mosaic in Venice done by craftsmen from Constantinople.

A mosaic portrait of Empress Theodora in Ravenna, the capitol of Byzantine Italy. (This mosaic is breathtaking in real life.)

Byzantines didn’t buy into that “minimalist” crap. This gives you an idea of the sensory overload a typical Byzantine church inspires.

Martel – The West ignored Byzantium until the times of the crusades. The Byzantine emperor…
Anna – My father!
Martel – Yes, Anna’s father, Alexios I, called for some military aid from the West, so the Pope sends an entire crusade!

Is my daughter behaving herself? Tell her to stop texting me every five minutes. I do have an empire to run.

Mulan – The Crusade was a filthy barbarian horde. I hate filthy barbarian hordes.
Buffalo – But what were the people like? Were they like Caesar here?
Anna – No, not really. The Byzantine character was very religious. Common people would debate in the streets about the duel nature of Christ or the role of Icons. We were far more mystical than the rational, practical Latin Romans. We also didn’t enjoy war like the Latins did. Instead we’d buy off our enemies and have them attack other enemies. We preferred to avoid war if it could be avoided and often paid mercenaries to fight for us. We’d rather attend religious ceremonies, read, debate and wonder at the beauty of art.
Martel – And their government relied much more on the person of the Emperor than the West did. For example, Venice, a former Byzantine protectorate, followed the Roman Republican system. They HATED cults of personality and didn’t ever want any one person to gain too much power. Or the Holy Roman Empire was more of a collection of barons that debated and voted than a true Empire.
Zach – That reminds me. We need to get a German on the panel.
Martel – No we don’t. Us Franks and Germans don’t get along very well.
Mulan – I don’t think the Franks get along well with anyone.
Buffalo – The Huron and Iroquois.
Caesar – I’m sure we can find one good German. I mean, what have the barbarians of Germany ever done wrong?
(There’s an awkward silence for a while.)
Caesar – What?
Mulan – Never mind. We’ll, um, we’ll discuss all that later.
Buffalo – A thousand years of history is a lot to talk about. I’m hungry.
Anna – I can talk of this subject all day.
Caesar – You should write a book about it then.
Anna – I did. The Alexiad.
Caesar – Never read it.
Anna – You should. I talk a great deal about war.
Caesar – I’m currently reading the “Golden Cord” by Paul Genesse. What a fantastic read! I want to go hunt dragons now!
Anna – Dragons aren’t real.
Mulan – Says you. I’m reading “Spellbound,” by Larry Correia. Now that’s good stuff.
Martel – I’m reading Carnage and Culture by Victor Davis Hanson.
Buffalo – Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson. I want to jump around like an allomancer! (makes ‘whooshing’ sounds)
Zach – There’s so much Byzantine history that it’s impossible to even do any kind of justice to it in such a short period of time. It’s an Empire that blends, Greek, Roman, Christian, and Eastern influence all into one. Their history is filled with civil wars, rebellions, assassinations, plots, heresy, riots and wars. Also, they had style!
Anna – Yeah, we’re pretty cool.
Zach – But why should we care?
Anna – Why? For numerous reasons. Remember that little thing you westerners call the Renaissance? Well, that was birthed when Byzantines fled the dying empire with copies of all those Ancient Greek classics that had been lost to the west. Those books of learning fueled the westerners to see the world differently and want to learn more.
Next; they saved Western Europe from the invasions of the Islamic Empire. After the death of Muhammad, the Islamic Empire expanded and kept expanding as far as they could reach. Their goal was to surround the Mediterranean completely. Their target in the 700 and 800’s was Europe. They invaded Byzantine territory over and over again but Byzantium held them back, thus allowing Western Europe to grow until it could stabilize and defend itself.
Martel – I stopped them in France!
Anna – But only after they took all of Spain. Europe would be a very different place if Byzantium hadn’t stopped them. Also, we were responsible for Christianizing the Slavs of Eastern Europe and Russia. Moscow was supposed to be a third Rome. Russia looked to Byzantium as their religious forefathers. The Crimean War was fought because Russia wanted to invade the Ottoman Empire and recreate the Byzantine Empire. Catherine the Great had that vision of a unified Eastern Orthodox Empire.

Here’s the Russian saint, Olga, being baptized a Christian. Thank the Byzantines for that…oh, and the Cyrillic alphabet the Ruskies use. Also a Byzantine invention.

Zach – And the stirrup, fork and Justinian’s Code of laws.
1. Renaissance
2. Saved Western Europe from Arab domination
3. fork
4. stirrup
5. Christianization and civilization of Slavs and Russia
6. Unified system of laws
7. Style

Zach – As you can see, they equal out to be pretty dang awesome.

When you have Viking’s working for your Empire wearing armor like this; yeah, you know you’re pretty awesome. (more on Varangians to come!)


7 comments on “Who are the Byzantines?

  1. Desert Rat says:

    Excellent post, Zach. I love the stuff on the Byzantines.

    I was curious, and just did a little reading up on Saint Olga of Kiev. Holy crap! That chick was either a complete lunatic or just a very, very practical tyrant. I can’t make the call either way, but I’m leaning towards lunatic. Only a lunatic could think up and carry out some of the seriously insidious ways she used to beat her enemies.

    • zacharyhill says:

      Hmmm…Maybe I’ll have to invite Olga in for an interview. She is definitely an interesting person. See? The more you learn about history, the more you see how much more you have to learn. i keep stumbling onto super interesting people and events just in the course of my research for other topics. Yeah, Olga’s now added to my list. Also, I wouldn’t call her a lunatic, she’s just Russian.

  2. Joe in PNG says:

    I’m thinking that if you have to have a Germanic voice on the panel, Paul Von Lettow may be a good fit.

  3. cthulhu says:

    Von Clauswitz! He’d be an excelent panel member too.

  4. Dolores says:


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