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GreekReporter.comHistory10 Byzantine Inventions Still Used Today

10 Byzantine Inventions Still Used Today

Illumination from the Poliorcetica of Hero of Byzantium.
The cheirosiphōn (“hand-siphōn”), a portable flamethrower spewing Greek Fire, a Byzantine invention, used from atop a flying bridge against a castle. Public Domain

The Byzantine Empire has made numerous useful contributions to the world. From the fourth to the fifteenth century, in the vast territory ruled by the Byzantines, science, technology, and human ingenuity produced remarkable inventions that shaped various aspects of life.

From advanced military technology to simple utensils, the Byzantines certainly left their mark. Μany Byzantine inventions were in fact destructible weapons, created at a time when the Empire was almost continuously at war with invaders on all sides.

Byzantine Military Inventions

Nothing was more fearsome in the seventh century than the famous Greek fire. It was used on the battlefield and primarily at sea and was a super weapon like no other.

The Greek fire was a mysterious mixture of incendiary materials, including crude oil. Its composition was regarded a state secret. The flaming concoction was shot from large, cannon-like siphon tubes when used in naval battles. Alternatively, it was also a hand-held, shorter, more narrow tube similar to a modern flamethrower.

Reconstruction of Byzantine flamethrower shooting Greek Fire
Arbalest flamethrower for Greek fire, a Byzantine Empire invention reconstruction exhibited at the Thessaloniki Technology Museum. Credit: Gts-tg – Own work Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 4.0

Once the liquid fire flame stuck on ships, fortifications, shields, or even people, it burned and was impossible to extinguish. Water could not extinguish it, and that was one of the reasons it was so effective in war at sea. Some historians have said it could be ignited upon contact with water.

Hand grenades were also used to hurl the fire. These were in the form of ceramic inkpot-sized vessels containing the incendiary liquid that a Byzantine soldier could throw at the enemy. The grenades had a grip for short-range throws. They were also hurled long-distance using catapults or trebuchets, ignited before launch, or by fire arrows on impact.

To this day, researchers and scientists have not been able to determine how exactly Greek fire was produced, but it was an efficiently destructive weapon. It most likely contained naphtha and quicklime, but no one has been able to reproduce it since.

Another Byzantine invention for war, and especially for sieges, was the counterweight trebuchet. In its simplest form, the particular siege weapon had appeared centuries ago. However, the counterweight trebuchet, much more powerful than the traction version, is a Byzantine invention.

The first written record of it appears in the work of the twelfth century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates. He describes a new kind of trebuchet later used by Andronikos I Komnenos, a Byzantine emperor, at the siege of Zevgminon in 1165.

The counterweight trebuchet was equipped with a windlass, an apparatus which was required neither for traction nor hybrid trebuchets to launch missiles. The trebuchet is actually two things—a lever and a sling. A lever is a simple machine with a mechanical advantage when given a fulcrum, or pivot point. It is often used to move heavy loads with less effort. Contemporary historian Paul Chevedden dates the invention of the new artillery to the Siege of Nicaea in 1097.

The Byzantine emperor of the time, Alexios I Komnenos, who was allied with the besieging crusaders, was reported to have invented new pieces of heavy artillery which were different from the known design. Just about everyone found those impressive.

The First Public Hospitals

The Byzantines invented the concept of public hospitals. Army clinics for the wounded were abundant centuries ago, but the idea of establishing hospitals for civilians belongs to them. The hospitals were initially intended for the poor and needy. They were first established by the church and later funded by philanthropy and were the precursors of modern day healthcare institutions.

Patriarch Leontius of Antioch, who served from 344 until 358, established the first hospital for the poor within that period. Later on, a deacon named Marathonius visualized hospitals as buildings that would improve the functionality and aesthetics of Byzantine cities.

Hospitals became commonplace in Byzantium and, by the twelfth century, researchers estimate there were 169 hospitals across the Byzantine Empire, most of them in Constantinople.

Byzantine Communication Beacons

The beacon communication system was the idea of Leo the Mathematician (790-869). The system was reportedly devised in the reign of Emperor Theophilos (ruled 829–842). This Byzantine invention was a series of fire beacons placed on the Taurus mountain range with the purpose of warning Constantinople of an Arab invasion into Asia Minor.

The first signal station was at the fort of Loulon, just north of the Cilician Gates. There were twelve specific messages, each of which required lighting the first beacon at the particular hour associated with the intended message.

The main line of beacons stretched over 450 miles (720 km). In the open spaces of central Asia Minor, the stations were placed over 60 miles (97 km) apart. The message was received at the final signal station, located in the Great Palace in Constantinople. The main line was complemented by secondary branches that transmitted the messages to other locations, as well as along the frontier itself.

Based on modern experiments, a message could be transmitted the entire length of the line within an hour.

Pendentive Dome Architecture

The imaginative Byzantine invention of the pendentive dome construction is most evident in the emblematic Hagia Sophia. Pendentives literally revolutionized dome construction. A pendentive is a triangular segment of a sphere that permits a circular dome to sit atop a square room. This game-changer in architecture replaced earlier methods, such as corbelling and squinches.

Pendentives distribute the dome’s weight to the building’s four corners, making larger and more stable domes possible. In 537 AD, the Hagia Sophia became a shining example of this innovation. With its colossal dome, it set the tone for architectural possibilities for centuries to come.

Byzantine Inventions for the Table

Other than revolutionizing warfare, the Byzantines invented a table utensil that no one had thought of previously. For millennia, kings and slaves ate with their hands—that is, until the Byzantines produced the table fork. Before that, long forks had been used for cooking.

Byzantine spoon and fork of the fourth century
Byzantine spoon and fork of the fourth century displayed at the Clevelanc Museum of Art. Credit: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons CC0

The fork was a utensil for royalty and nobility in Byzantium. It is said that when a Byzantine nobleman presented it to Venetian nobility who were still eating with their hands, they found it almost heretic.

Another culinary invention of the Byzantines was feta cheese. It is a cheese of ancient Greek origin that was consumed in the city-states. It was not produced in other parts of the ancient world, and the cheese ultimately gained popularity during Byzantine times.

Known as “prósphatos” in ancient texts, the tangy, white, crumbly cheese was massively produced on Crete and in Thessaly in Byzantine times. It is made from sheep and goat milk. Thanks to the Byzantines, it became wildly popular throughout the Empire.

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