During of period of history when Western Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages, Constantinople-based Byzantium in southeast Europe and the Middle East flourished: Christianity was introduced to the world for the first time on a grand scale from here and great frescoes and mosaics were produced to honor the religion.

Although the Byzantine period lasted for more than a thousand tears and was influential and made advances like other civilizations it is usually given a short shift by historians, compared to say, the Renaissance or ancient Rome. The historian Edward Gibbon dismissed the era as "a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery." The word Byzantine has came to mean overly complex and scheming.

Books: Byzantium by John Julius Norwich; Short History of Byzantium by John Julius Norwich

Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire

Constantinople, the capital of Byzantium, was one of great cities of the world. Famous for its purple cloth and gold objects and filled with products brought from the East by the Silk Road, Constantinople lay at the crossroads between east and west. Silk from China, spices from India and gold from Africa all passed through the great city on their way to Europe. The Byzantine empire financed the trade and a class of hereditary bureaucratic families grew wealthy from the taxes the empire collected. Art and architecture prospered and Constantinople's 13 miles of walls and the great chain across the Golden Horn repelled invasions by Goths, Huns, Slaves, Bulgars, Avars, Arabs and Vikings.↕

Constantinople was considered "the center of civilization in Christendom." It was the richest city in the world for about 800 years—from the fall of Rome in 5th century AD and the sack of the Crusades in 1204. It was so rich in ancient religious relics that when it sacked by Crusaders in 1204, they brought back two heads of John the Baptist.☼

Cordoba in Spain, Constantinople, Baghdad, Kaifeng in China, Angkor Wat in Indochina, and Tollán in Mexico were the greatest cities in the world around the year 1000. Largest cities in the world in the year 1000 (estimated population): 1) Cordoba, Spain (450,000); 2) Kaifeng, China (400,000); 3) Constantinople (300,000); 4) Angkor, Cambodia (200,000); 5) Kyoto, Japan (175,000); 6) Cairo (135,000); 7) Baghdad (125,000); 8) Neyshabur, Persia (125,000); 9) Al Hasa, Arabia (110,000); 10) Anhilvada, India; 11) Rayy, near modern-day Tehran (100,000); 12) Isfahan, Persia (100,000); 13) Seville, Spain (90,000); 14) Dali, China (90,000); 15) Thanjavur, India (90,000).

Ibn Battuta in Constantinople

Between 1330 and 1333, the great Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta took the long route on the Silk Road between the Middle East and India by traveling through modern-day Turkey, Iran, Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Ibn Battuta befriended one of the wives of the khan of the Golden Horde— the daughter of a Byzantine emperor—and was given an introduction to meet the Byzantine emperor. He made a 2,500 mile detour to Constantinople, where he met the Byzantine Emperor Andronicus.

The Emperor gave him a robe of honor and a horse. Ibn Battuta wrote: "Anyone who wears the king's robe of paraded through the city bazaars with trumpets, fifes, and that they may not be molested; so they paraded me."

Ibn Battuta stayed in Constantinople for five weeks. On Hagia Sofia he wrote, "They allow no person to enter it until he prostrates himself to the huge cross...set in a golden frame...Inside is another church exclusively for women, containing more than a thousand virgins consecrated to religious devotions." This was a reference to a nunnery. As a Muslim he thought this was a strange concept."

Byzantine Military and Government

The Byzantine Empire was divided into provinces that were protected by armies that relied more on the cavalry than Roman armies. The size of the army remained constant at 150,000 troops (half cavalry, half infantry) between the second and tenth century and it was supported by taxes from a productive peasantry. [Source: "History of Warfare" by John Keegan, Vintage Books]

The Byzantine government "regulated all aspects of life, from wages to religious rites.” Heresy was equated with treason. Their political and legal traditions came from ancient Rome. They maintained Roman law but ultimately they probably were influenced more by Greek culture than Latin culture.

The Byzantines practiced Roman Law at a time when guilt in Western Europe was determined by a red hot iron (defendants were innocent if their hand didn't burn).

Byzantine Cruelty

The Byzantine Empire endured for more that 1,100 years, according to National Geographic historian Merle Severy, despite one of the cruelest emperorships on record. Of the 88 emperors that ruled the empire 30 died violently—poisoned, blinded, bludgeoned, dismembered or decapitated. The skull of Nicephorus ended up as a silver-lined goblet from which Khan Krum of the Bulgars toasted his boyars. Empress Irene blinded her own son to keep him from gaining power and even Constantine the Great had his eldest son slain and his wife suffocated while she was taking a bath.☼

Byzantine revenge was also something that no one wanted to experience. Tsar Samuel of Bulgaria battled the Byzantine emperor Basil II in the Balkans for several decades. Once the tsar's army was trapped by Basil and over 15,000 prisoners were taken. Basil blinded the 15,000 men, sparing only one in a hundred so that they could lead the army home. According to Severy, Samuel watched in horror as his once proud army returned, "eye sockets vacant, shuffling, stumbling, clutching one another, each hundred lead by a one-eyed soldier. The sight killed him and his empire was soon swallowed up by Byzantium. Basil the Bulgar-slayer was one name the Bulgarians would never forget."☼

The Byzantine Emperor Constantine the Fifth like to see the noses of his victims piled before him on a plate. Blinding was a common practice for political rival, heretics, traitors and magicians. Slaves were the booty of battles. Slaves were found everywhere: in houses, in fields, in workshops.

Greek Fire and Flame Throwers

The Byzantines discovered that by adding sulphur or quicklime and saltpeter to naptha they could create a material capable of spontaneous combustion and produce bombs that could be thrown at enemies that would explode on impact. This napalm-like "Greek fire" was used in A.D. 673 and 678 to fend off attacks on Constantinople by Arabs.

In 10th century the Byzantines invented the flame thrower, a powerful secret weapon that changed the nature of warfare. The devise used Greek fire that was preheated under pressure and discharged in liquid form with pump-powered, syringe-like bronze tubes. It was used primarily in sea battles, when it incinerated wooden ships and their crews and even spread fire on the water. Russia's Prince Igo purportedly lost 10,000 vessels to Greek fire in a battle in 941.☼

Fire weapons made Byzantine ships masters of the sea for centuries. Byzantine war ships were outfit with catapults used to fire "Greek fire" grenades and cannons. Greek Fire was also used on land: pressurized siphons were fired at forts, squirt guns and ceramic hand grenades were used at close range in hand-to-hand battles,

The recipe for Greek Fire was a carefully guarded secret. It is believed that early versions were devised by Callinicus, a A.D. seventh-century engineer from Syria, where people had been using flammable petrochemicals for some time. Scholars are still not sure of the ingredients. It was likely a highly combustible mixture of quicklime, sulphur, naptha and saltpeter. It was particularly nasty because it clung to whatever it touched and was not quenched by water. Clothing and ship sails were often ignited and people could not put out the fires by jumping into the sea.

The use of Greek Fire was regarded with horror and moral disgust. There is no mention of it from A.D. 800 and 1000 and some scholars believed it may have been banned because it was "too murderous."

Byzantine Life and Culture

The Byzantines helped keep the Greek languages, literature and philosophy alive. Byzantines spoke Greek and prized Greek literature and education.

During Byzantine times people believed the world was round, and occupying the southern hemisphere was a land known as Antipodes, where " men's feet were higher than there heads, trees grew upside-down, and rain fell upwards." Debates were held among scholars on whether or not it was possible for the creatures on Noah's Ark to reach it.∞

The Byzantines popularized the fork. When it was first introduced to Europe in the 11th century by a Byzantine princess at a dinner in Venice, the guests were scandalized. The court of a German emperor was equally shocked by the princess's sister who introduced them to baths.☼

In the 7th century Constantinople had public baths and street lights. Taverns closed at 8:00pm and people entering the city required passports. Wealthy citizens endowed psychiatric clinics, homes for repentant prostitutes and even a reformatory for fallen woman aristocrats.☼

Byzantine nobles wore silken robes made in imperial-controlled factories. Fashions were often defined by the 10th century Book of Ceremonies. One noblemen wrote in 968, "As we surpass all other nations in wealth and wisdom so it is height that we should also surpass them in dress."

Byzantine Eunuchs

Eunuchs rose to high positions in the Byzantine court. Unable to produce heirs, they were viewed with less suspicion than courtiers who could. Many noble families castrated their sons in hopes of improving their chances to become influential generals, civil servants or church patriarchs. One of the most adept Byzantine military leaders was the Eunuch general, Narses.

The word eunuch comes from the Greek word for bed watcher. Eunuchs were used in China, the Byzantine Empire, Ottoman Turkey and many other places by monarchs as "keepers of the couch." "The eunuchs detailed to attend on the women of the harem" wrote historian Daniel Boorstin, were "no menace to the purity of the imperial line or to the chastity of the royal consorts.”

“They became a privileged class. Knowledge of the daily habits and personal tastes of the emperor gave eunuchs a peculiar opportunity to anticipate the monarch's whims. In the arbitrary governments of the East, this meant an opportunity to seize power. China's greatest explorer, Chêng Ho, was an eunuch as were several brilliant Byzantine and Ottoman military leaders. High ranking eunuchs were so common in Egypt that the word "eunuch" became a term for describing any officer of the court and the court itself was sometimes describes as "eunarchy." [Source: "The Discoverers" by Daniel Boorstin]

Byzantine Economics and Trade

The Byzantine rulers encouraged self-sufficiency and a degree of isolationism. Commerce was strictly controlled and Byzantine merchants were discouraged from leaving the empire. Constantinople was at a major crossroads and foreign merchants brought in spices, perfumes, and gems from the Islamic world and slaves, furs and wax from Russia. Gold came from Egypt and Sudan.

The Byzantines encouraged the use of interest-bearing loans when money lending was considered so sinful in Europe that only Jews were allowed to do it. Eight percent was given on normal accounts in Constantinople while 12 percent was given on maritime loans because they were considered riskier.☼

Byzantium traded with the Vikings via the rivers of Russia. There were two main trade routes used by the Rus that began in the Baltic Sea. One went down the Dnieper River to the Black Sea and Constantinople. The other followed the Volga to the Caspian Sea. The Vikings traded furs, amber, honey, beeswax, weapons and slaves from the north for silks and silver. Most of the goods that made their way between Europe, Russia and the Middle East followed Viking trade routes. Of the 120,000 coins found in Gotland Sweden, 50,000 were of Arabic origin (the rest were mostly English or German).

Byzantine-Viking Trade on the Great Rivers of Russia

The Rus traveled in convoys and flotillas, often with more than more than hundred boats, and built fortified trading posts. They traveled on the inland waterways in shallow-draft boats carved by local residents from tree trunks. They were about 20 feet long and 7 to 10 feet wide. The Varangian guard of the Byzantine emperors was composed of Swedes and Norwegians who followed the 'Rus' trade routes to Constantinople.

The Volga route was the most traveled route. It began on Gulf of Finland (an eastern arm of the Baltic Sea east of present-day Helsinki), where traders ventured on the Neva River to Lake Ladoga. From Lake Ladoga travelers they moved southward on of three small rivers and portaged stretches to two upper arms of the Volga. Along the way, the Rus were forces to pay tribute to Jewish Khazars and Muslim Bulgars, whose territory they passed through.

Until it was blocked by hostile tribes in the 970s, the Volga was the main trade route for Arab silver to Europe. The city of Bulgar and the Khazar port of Itil were the main trade centers. After reaching the Caspian Sea, the Rus sailed to its southern shores, where they met up with Silk Road camel caravans with goods from China, Baghdad and Persia. Ancient coins from China and Samarkand found in Sweden most likely came on this route.

The Muslim traveler and explorer Ibn Battuta traveled in Russia in 14th century. On traveling down the frozen Volga river in the wintertime, he wrote: "I put on three fur coats and two pairs of trousers and on my feet I had woolen boots, with a pair of boots quilted with linen cloth on top of them and on top of these again was a pair of horsehide boots lined with bearskin." He says he was so weighted down he had to be lifted on his horse.

The Dnieper route began in what is now Riga on the Baltic and followed the Western Dvina River to Vitebsk for portage to Smolensk on the Dnieper. An alternative route began in Gulf of Finland. Traders ventured on the Neva River to Lake Ladoga and then headed south on the Lovat Volkhov River to Velikiye Luki to Smolensk. Large ocean-going vessels traveled down the Neva River to Lake Ladoga, where cargo was unloaded and switched to smaller vessels better equipped for traveling the narrower inland waterways.

The journey from Kiev to the Black Sea took about six weeks. When the Rus traders reached the Black Sea they attached sails to their boats. A Viking rune stone was discovered in 1905 on the island of Berzany in the mouth of Dnieper at the Black Sea. A couple rune stones also lie in Haghia Sofia in Istanbul.

Byzantine Silk and Purple Cloth

Silk production first made it way to the West in the 6th century when monks working as spies for Byzantine Emperor Justinian brought silkworm eggs from China to Constantinople in hollowed out canes. Entomologists have said it was possible for the eggs to survive the two year journey back from China if they were kept moist and warm, so they wouldn't hatch. The city of Bursa became a the first center of silk production outside of the Orient. Silk was considered so valuable it was often use instead of currency. Little Byzantine silk remains today. Fragments show repeated images of lion’s paws and dog's heads. There were silk factories in Tyre, Antioch and in Bursa, near Constantinople.

During Byzantine time purple cloth was reserved for royalty. Only the rich and mighty were allowed to wear it, and the phrase "born to the purple" became a fixture." Anyone caught selling could be sentenced to death by impalement, decapitation or drowning in a sack with a hog, a cock, a viper and an ape. Less severe crimes were punished with slit noses and chopped off tongues.☼

The source of the purple die so coveted by Byzantine emperors came from a three inch mollusk known as a murex shell. These sea creatures were captured in box-like traps bated with leaping clams. The dye was first extracted by Phoenicians, who, according to biologist Paul Zahl, "crushed the murex shells, extracted the mantles, and exposed them to the sun for two or three days. The crushed shells were then poured into a kettle and simmered for ten days over a low fire. The result was a clear broth that changed in sunlight to bright yellow, through shades of green to blue, and finally to permanent brilliant magenta...Cloth died with this beautiful and enduring purple cost $10,000 to $12,000 a pound. Only the rich and mighty were allowed to wear it, and the phrase "born to the purple" became a fixture."┭

An even rarer and more expensive fabric was the silky golden thread spun by a mollusk known as the "sea pen." This shimmering cloth was a thousand times more valuable than silk which itself was worth as much, pound for pound, as gold. Purple dye was later made from shrubby, gray lichens scraped off rocks in the Mediterranean and soaked in ammonia-rich stale urine.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Page Top

© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.