Top 10 Interesting Facts about the Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire- now where have I heard this name before? I’m sure you all must be pondering upon it too. It’s not too uncommon a name but do you know what it actually entails? If my memory serves me right, I first read about this great empire in a few verses of a poem. That  got my mind working and I decided to unravel some information about it. Thank God I did! Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the ancient Roman Empire which survived the fall and disintegration of the western half of the Roman Empire in the 5th century A.D. and was established as the “new Rome” in 330 at a site which was known for its unrivaled beauty. The name “Byzantine” was derived from Byzantium which was an ancient Greek colony founded by a man named Byzas. Quite interesting, isn’t it? This magnificent empire continued to exist for a thousand more years before it fell prey to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. This empire is at times known as the Eastern Roman Empire. It went through several cycles of decline and recovery and slowly and gradually emerged with evolved borders. Here are some of the interesting facts about the Byzantine Empire which, I bet, you didn’t know about before.

10. Genesis.


Byzantium was located at the Bosphorus Strait which connected the Sea of Marmara and the Aegean Sea to the Black Sea. It was a small but an important town which was first colonized by the Greeks in the middle of 600 BC, long before Alexander the Great brought his troops to Anatolia. In fact, the greek culture continued to exert its influence on this region even after it became a part of the Roman Empire. It was only when the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, moved his capitol from Rome to Byzantium did the Byzantine Empire really began. He even renamed the town as Constantinople (presently called Istanbul). This empire survived for another thousand years before it succumbed to the attacks of the Ottoman Turks in 1453 who again renamed the capital to Istanbul.

9. The Namesake.


Ever wondered how this empire acquired it’s magnificent name? If the accepted version is to be believed, a Greek citizen named Byzas in the 660 BC once consulted the oracle of Apollo at Delphi. Byzas wanted to find a site where he could establish a new colony. The mainland of Greece was becoming too populated. It is believed that the oracle whispered. “opposite the blind”. Byzas couldn’t understand the meaning behind the words but still sailed north-east, across the Aegean Sea. When he reached the Bosphorus Strait , he realized what the oracle must have meant. The founders of the Greek city had been blind for they had not seen the superior site on the other side of the Strait. Byzas built his colony on this superior site and named it after himself.

8. Geopolitics and Byzantium.


The Eastern Roman Empire was geographically positioned in such a way that it was hard to conquer it. It was in a way warded off from the external forces. Since Constantinople was situated on a strait, it was difficult to breach the capital’s defenses. In addition to this, The Eastern Roman Empire had a stronger administrative centre and was politically stable. It had also amassed great amount of wealth as compared to the other states of the medieval period. Thus the Eastern empire was able to muster more manpower to combat any kind of invasion. As a result of all these advantages, the Eastern Roman Empire, famously known as the Byzantine Empire was able to survive for so long even after the fall of the rest of Rome.

7. Justinian Rule.

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It has been established that the empire under the rule of Justin I became an all powerful force. He rose to power in 527 and ruled till his death in 565. His armies also conquered the Western Roman Empire, including North Africa. He codified the Roman law which was enforced for centuries and influenced the modern concept of the state. Constantinople, with over a million inhabitants, became one of the richest and prosperous city. Many monuments were built during Justin’s rule, including the domed Church of Holy Wisdom or Hagia Sophia.

6. Christianity.

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It is firmly believed that the Roman world drifted towards Christianity during the fourth century.The Byzantine Empire was definitely a Christian State. However, paganism did not end with the rise of Christianity. It did have many supporters who drew inspiration from it during the beginning of the Byzantine Empire. The Church was mainly led by five patriarchs who resided in Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Constantinople and Rome. In the year 1054, a final separation occurred between the Eastern Christian Churches (led by the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius) and the Western Church (led by Pope Leo IX). The Eastern Christian Church was known as the Orthodox Church and the Western Church as the Roman Catholic Church. Religious, cultural and political differences between the two Churches had been building up for centuries and finally, resulted in the Great Schism. It is also believed that it was because of religion that the Roman Church lost its influence on the Byzantine Church. the Eastern Church too, shifted its center to Moscow.

5. The Greek way or no way!


Contrary to common belief’s, the culture of the Byzantine Empire was rich and affluent and quite modern for it’s time. Most of the historians agree that the Byzantine culture was greatly influenced by the Greeks. However, with Heraclius’ accession to the throne, the empire became Greek not only in culture but in spirit too. Herclius declared Greek as the official language of the empire. By 650 AD, most of the Roman elements had been over-shadowed by the Greek influences. In fact, a majority of the population of the Byzantine Empire had a Greek cultural background and even the armies fought in a style which reflected that of the Athenians and Spartans than that of the Roman Legions.

4. Greek Fire.


Greek Fire was essentially an incendiary weapon that was developed and used by the Byzantine Empire. They mostly used it in naval battles because the Greek Fire had the capability to continue burning while floating on water. Greek Fire was mainly launched through tubes which were mounted on the prows  of the Greek ships; it could catch fire spontaneously and could not be extinguished with water all that easily. As a result, the Byzantine Empire won many battles; the most notable being the two unsuccessful Arab sieges.

The ingredients of the Greek Fire were a secret but the historians agree that they might have used petroleum as a base with other ingredients like naphtha, pitch, sulfur, lithium, potassium, metallic sodium and calcium phosphide.

3. Byzantine Cuisine.


Byzantine cuisine was a mixture of Greek and Roman traditions. They mainly used those ingredients that were indigenous to the lands of the empire like cheese, eggs, olive oil, figs, walnuts, almonds, pears and apples. They were the first ones to use rosemary to flavour roast lamb. They also tended to use saffron in their cooking which had never been done before. It is said that the Byzantines were especially fond of sweets and desserts. They loved gorging on gourta, a type of  frumenty, and rice pudding served with honey and cinnamon. jellies and conserves also made an appearance in the Byzantine Empire.

2. Wine.

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Byzantines were fond of their wines. They flavoured wines with absinthe, aniseed, chamomile, gentian, ginger grass, rose, violet, spignel, spikenard, stone parsley, tejpat, yellow flag et cetera. The “Wine of the Negev” was the most treasured and expensive brew. The exact composition of this wine has sadly, been lost to history. “Phouska” was a common drink imbibed by soldiers.

1. The Decline.


The Byzantines couldn’t resist the westerners for long. The Italians were everywhere and they could not accept the different faiths of the Byzantine empire. The Crusaders plundered the Constantinople in 1204 CE. The monarch of the West ruled the empire for more than a half of the century but they couldn’t govern it completely. The Seljuk turks too couldn’t hold onto their position for long. The Palaiologans managed to capture Constantinople in 1261 CE but by that time, the Byzantine Empire had suffered great degradation. Finally, the Ottoman Empire under the rule of Mehmet II took over Constantinople in 1453 CE.

It has been said that although the empire of the Byzantine declined over the centuries leading up to the Ottoman conquest, it’s culture- literature, art and theology- flourished once again. It greatly influenced the Western intellectual tradition as the scholars of the Italian Renaissance were helped by the Byzantine scholars in translating the Greek pagan and Christian writings. The work of the Byzantines was greatly appreciated by the West who even tried to imitate them. The Byzantine culture continued to influence those countries which practiced Orthodox religion.

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Samridhi Sharma

A student of English and Cultural Studies at Punjab University. An ardent reader and a freelance writer.