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Little Known Facts About the Byzantine Empire

Byzantine Empire
Eugene Delacroix, entry of Crusades in Constantinople. A dark moment in the history of the Byzantine Empire. Credit: Saiko / wikimedia commons CC-BY-3.0

The contribution of the Byzantine Empire to Western civilization was of great importance, as it preserved ancient Greek knowledge in philosophy and science while blending it with Christianity. It also contributed to the development of the legal system, the arts, and architecture.

Furthermore, Byzantium was the stronghold of the West against the barbaric tribes of the East and North which had come to plunder and dominate. Until the middle of the fifteenth century, when it fell to the Ottomans, the Byzantine Empire was the beacon of civilization. Its light was so strong that it illuminated the Western world for centuries after.

The history of the Byzantine Empire is widely known among those who have had the chance to explore it, but there are fascinating aspects that many people may not be aware of.

It was not called Byzantium Empire until centuries after its fall

The term Byzantine Empire is a term that historians adopted from the eighteenth century onwards. It was used to distinguish the eastern part of the empire from the Roman Empire, which was the western part of the vast dominion. The name actually refers to Byzantium, an ancient Greek city that was later renamed Constantinople and served as the seat of the empire.

In fact, people of the Eastern Roman Empire did not call themselves Byzantines but Romans or Romaioi (Greek, plural of Romaios). While the Eastern Roman Empire lasted for more than 1,100 years, the Western Roman Empire had a comparatively shorter existence, enduring for about four to five hundred years until the event of Rome’s sacking. This is the main reason historians use the term Byzantine Empire.

Linguistically, the official language until the seventh century was Latin, and it was still used in parts of the empire. However, thereafter, Greek dominated as the language of Byzantium. Moreover, other languages, such as Egyptian, Hebrew, Phrygian, Germanic, and Iberian, among others, were spoken in various parts of the empire.

Byzantine Empire: The Nika Revolt
The Nika Revolt that shook the Byzantine Empire was one of the bloodiest sports riots in history. Credit: Victor Michailovich Semernev / CC BY-SA 4.0 / Wikimedia Commons

The chariot-racing hooligans who threatened the emperor

On January 13, 532, two rival factions of chariot-racing fans joined forces and incited a riot against Emperor Justinian that resulted in the death of thousands and the burning of parts of Constantinople.

Three days before that date, some members of the rival groups, the Blues and the Greens, were arrested and condemned to hanging for disturbances caused in the city. On the day of the chariot races, they gathered at the Hippodrome and began chanting to Justinian, who was watching the games, to pardon and release the prisoners.

They started chanting “Nika!” This was a prompt usually addressed to the game contenders, meaning “Win!” in Greek. Justinian turned a deaf ear to the crowd’s demands. Infuriated, the Blues and the Greens started a bloody insurrection that was later called the “Nika Riot.”

Raging fans ran amok in Constantinople burning buildings and clashing with the army. The riot lasted for several days with Justinian almost ready to flee the city. Empress Theodora convinced him to stand and fight for his throne. Justinian called the mercenaries who attacked the rioters, and a massacre ensued. The Nika Riot was the bloodiest insurrection in antiquity, leaving thirty thousand people dead.

Byzantine empire rulers
Byzantine emperors used to blind their rivals. A 13th century depiction of the blinding of Leo Phokas the Elder for rebelling against Romanos Lekapenos. Public Domain.

Byzantine emperors blinded and mutilated their rivals

In antiquity, it was common for a ruler to eliminate his rivals. Byzantine emperors, however, were Christians, and one would expect them to be merciful. However, this was not so.

Blinding or castrating a political rival was a safety measure for a Byzantine ruler to maintain his seating on the throne. A blind emperor could not lead the army to war, as expected of Byzantine rulers.

Similarly, a castrated contender to the throne would not stand a chance to rule if he was unable to leave offspring in his place. Hence, castration and blinding of political opponents were standard measures taken by Byzantine emperors to keep them on the throne.

The Crusaders sacked Constantinople

Many barbaric tribes coveted the riches of Constantinople and sieged the city unsuccessfully. This included Islamist tribes, Bulgars, Hungarians, Serbs, Goths, and Vikings. None of them succeeded due to its impenetrable fortified walls. It remained the defender of the eastern part of the empire and, for centuries, a bastion of Christendom.

Yet, in 1204—exactly 150 years after the Great Schism—an unexpected enemy appeared from the western half of the empire. The Byzantines were considered decadent and untrustworthy while their religious practices were suspect.

The Fourth Crusade was launched by Pope Innocent III with the purpose of reclaiming Jerusalem for Christendom after its fall in 1187 to Sultan Saladin of Egypt. However, because of a lack of funds as well as the scrupulous interests of the Pope, the Venetian traders who provided the ships, and the Crusaders themselves, the mission turned towards Constantinople.

The Crusaders sacked and burned Constantinople. They slaughtered thousands while carting off much of its treasures, art, books, manuscripts, and religious relics. The Byzantine Empire was split between the Venetians and their allies, and Baldwin of Flanders was installed as Emperor Baldwin I.

The Byzantines preserved precious ancient Greek manuscripts

The Greek-speaking literati of the Byzantine Empire preserved the entire body of Platonic dialogues and retained folk knowledge on Julius Caesar. The writings of other Greek thinkers, such as Aristotle, Ptolemy, and Galen, might have been lost to history if not for the Byzantine Empire.

Regardless of the fact that Christianized Byzantines thought of ancient Greek culture as “pagan,” Byzantine scribes copied decaying Greek manuscripts. Constantinople’s libraries safeguarded Greek and Roman texts that were beginning to disappear in the West. It has been estimated that of all of the ancient Greek manuscripts that survive today, more than two-thirds were handed down by the Byzantines.

Even though many ancient Greek texts were removed by the Ottomans following the fall of Constantinople, they were later studied and copied by Arab scholars. They then reached Europe to be translated from Arabic.

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