You’d see a lot of changes when looking at a map of present day Europe and comparing it to a 30 year old one. Belarus, Moldova, Ukraine and the Baltic States were all part of the USSR. Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia were still states. Go back even further and the map looks even stranger. Putting all those different people under the same banner and keeping them that way was and still is next to impossible. Many have tried and most have failed, but the first to even come close were the Romans. Their inheritors, the Byzantines, managed to keep it together for over 1100 years, thus creating the longest-living Empire on the continent. Here’s how they did it.
10. Location, Location, Location
When talking about an empire, its location kind of becomes redundant after a while because you’re pretty much everywhere and you have your hands in all the cookie jars. Nevertheless, knowing where to put your capital city is essential no matter how big you are.
For the Byzantines it all started in 330 AD, when the Roman Emperor Constantine I moved the state’s capital from Rome to the newly founded city of, you guessed it, New Rome, later to be named Constantinople and what is now present day Istanbul. Its location was excellent! It’s right on top of the strait of Bosphorus, which connects the Black Sea to the Mediterranean and separates Europe from Asia. From here you can literally keep an eye on what goes in and out of the empire, what others transport to and from their kingdoms through your backyard, and how much you can tax them for doing so.
Besides its economic advantages, having the capital in the east was a major plus because the east was where all the good fighting was going on. With the Bulgarians to the north and the Persians and later all the Islamic Caliphates to the east, keeping these wealthier provinces safe was essential and by no means easy. Having the capital so close to danger would seem counter-intuitive, but back then sending messages back and forth between the capital and the frontline would take weeks or even months and shortening that time was strategically crucial. Information is power!
9. Safety, Security and Self-defense
Defending your capital from would-be invaders is a great example of forward thinking. And what better way to do so than by building the largest wall Europe had ever seen? The west end of Constantinople had no natural protection from invasion, so Emperor Constantine the Great started building one in 324 AD. Not even a hundred years later, Constantinople outgrew its boundaries and Emperor Theodosius II started construction on a second wall one mile west of the old one, which spans from the Sea of Marmara to the Golden Horn.
But disaster struck on November 6, 447, when a powerful earthquake destroyed large parts of the wall and none other than Attila the Hun was looking for some easy pickings. Luckily, the urban prefect Kyros of Floras managed to not only rebuild but also add a second outer wall and a moat, and all within 60 days. It was just in time to properly greet poor old Attila, who had to go back to pillaging the rest of Europe. These walls stand to this day as a testament to Byzantine engineering and are known as the Theodosian Walls.
Constantinople also had sea walls that completely surrounded the city. These weren’t as big or as fortified as the main walls, but access to the Golden Horn was restricted by a heavy chain and strong currents on the Marmara coast made an effective attack by a fleet next to impossible.
Constantinople also suffered from a lack of fresh water. The Valens Aqueduct, which was built by Emperor Valens in the late 4th century and still stands today, was 1061 yards long and the main source of water for the capital. The entire system of aqueducts and canals spanned a total distance of over 155 miles, making it the longest ever built in Antiquity. Together with over one hundred underground cisterns, which could house over one million cubic meters of water, Constantinople was an almost impenetrable bastion that could hold out against a siege indefinitely.
8. Super-Powers and Super-Weapons
Like most great powers past and present, the Byzantine Empire made use of advanced weapons. Being a dominant force in the region has the advantage of producing the brightest minds around, and what better way to profit from those minds than by consolidating your power even further?
One such example was Kallinikos from Heliopolis, who in 673 AD discovered Greek Fire. A weapon of terrible power which could set ablaze entire ships and armies and continue to burn even on water, it was so terrifying and demoralizing to the enemy one could compare it to the appearance of nuclear weapons on the 20th century stage.
It was introduced not a moment too soon — in only one generation the Empire lost Egypt, Palestine and Syria to the Arabs, and they were setting their sights on Constantinople. With the help of their new weapon, the Byzantines managed to repel two Arab sieges of the city. The fire was also used in a number of wars against the Bulgarians, the Rus and in some internal revolts, all ending in success.
Another super-weapon was the counterweight trebuchet. An earlier design, the traction trebuchet, was invented by the Chinese, but the Byzantines improved upon it by making use of gravitational energy instead of muscle power. Emperor Alexios I Komnenos first introduced it at the Siege of Nicaea in 1097 when helping the Western crusaders attack the city. Unlike its predecessor, the counterweight trebuchet fires larger projectiles at a greater distance without the need of 30 or 40 men pulling ropes, making it easier to operate and much more accurate.
Last but not least was the Theodosian Wall itself. With towers guarding it every 165 feet, together with the outer wall and the moat, it made Constantinople an almost impenetrable fortress. Only in 1453 with the appearance of another super-weapon, the bombard used by Sultan Mehmed II of the Ottoman Empire, did the walls fall and become obsolete, taking the Byzantine Empire with it.
7. “Perfect Servants”
Nothing brings an empire down faster than internal strife. This was a problem many European kingdoms had to deal with at one point or another. As feudal lords within a realm gained more and more influence through title inheritance and nepotism, so did their desire to seize control grow with each generation.
The Byzantine Empire had seen such disputes, but it managed to avoid implosion. This was, in large part, thanks to the empire’s use of eunuchs in key administrative and religious positions. Since they were unable to produce heirs and monopolize power within their own family, they were the preferred choice for many posts. They weren’t allowed to be emperors, but many other important seats were up for grabs. The famous general Narses was a eunuch, and so was Basil Lekapenos, the chief administrator of the empire for 40 years and the bastard son of Emperor Romanos I. Another eunuch son of his, Theophilact of Constantinople, was the patriarch for 23 years. Middle class castrations weren’t as common as upper class, but a eunuch doctor, for example, could broaden his clientele by practicing medicine in a woman’s hospital or near a nunnery.
In any case, being a eunuch in those days had no stigma attached to it. Quite the contrary — they were considered by the church to “transcend the real world and operate in realms denied to whole men.” But even so… ouch!
6. “The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety”
Since the beginning of time, man has loved to hate his fellow man. There’s no place on Earth today where you can find a diverse community of people without some of them despising the others simply because they’re different. But the Byzantines, despite their incredible diversity, were able to overcome this problem.
Modern day historians can’t agree on what kind of people lived in the Byzantine Empire. Some say they were Greek, some Roman and others say they were a mix of many cultures. But what truly matters here is what that society thought of itself. After the Empire’s demise in the 15th century, the western Catholic powers didn’t want Rome’s former glory to be inherited by the east and began distancing the “Roman idea” from Constantinople. The label “Byzantine” is a modern term dating from the 17th century. Its actual name used by its citizens was “Basileia ton Romaion” (Empire of the Romans) and they identified themselves as “romaioi” (Romans).
Genetically speaking, the empire was made up of many diverse nationalities such as Illyrians, Thracians, Macedonians, Slavs, Romans, Carcians, Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Persians, Cilicians, etc. The emperors weren’t all Greek or Roman either. The Amorian dynasty was Armenian, the Makedons were Macedonian and, thanks to them, the empire was brought out of its own “Dark Ages.” Even the official language eventually changed from Latin to Greek, but the people still considered themselves descendants of ancient Rome. Being Roman in the Byzantine Empire was a way of life. It had nothing to do with nationality, ethnicity or place of birth. It was a matter of personal pride and essential to every “True Roman.”
Religion, like only a few other forces on Earth, has the power to both unite and divide entire nations. True faith in the divine and an afterlife can make some people do what most of us can only imagine. Spiritual belief has the potential to transform an ordinary man into a martyr, a saint or a tyrant. Make an Empire believe in the same God and you can rule the world through faith alone!
Emperor Constantine had seen the potential of what Christianity could bring. With the help of “divine power” and his advisor Lactantius he managed to defeat Maxentius, his rival to the throne. Then, in 325 AD, the first council of Nicaea was summoned and a standardized Christian religion was created.
The Emperor was seen as God’s representation on Earth and sometimes played an active role in the affairs of the church. However, both the priesthood and the imperial power had their own autonomy, with no one completely ruling over the other. They were seen as a single organism, working in perfect harmony for the greater good.
In 537 AD Emperor Justinian I finished the most grandiose church in the world, the Hagia Sophia. Christians and pagans alike would stand in awe, marveling at this imposing monument. The inside was no less striking either! The walls were all covered in golden mosaics and the dome towered 183 feet from the ground as if it was hovering in mid-air. It would take almost a thousand years for another church, Il Duomo di Firenze, to even come close to this one!
4. Foreign Affairs
Many say that Christianity is the greatest legacy that the Byzantine Empire has left us, while others think that it was their diplomacy. What’s certain is that the art of making friends with the neighbors was the one of the reasons why they managed to last for 1123 years. They made use of different techniques gathered from all across the empire. From Greece came rhetoric as a tool for public diplomacy. Rome contributed with divide and conquer tactics which were used to assist other states with civil engineering projects, and from Egypt the Empire adopted dynastic marriages and sophisticated ceremonies to impress foreign officials.
The Byzantines were particularly good at the last one. The Emperor received dignitaries in the throne room, surrounded by mechanical golden lions that roared and golden birds that tweeted. Together with the marvelous and extremely wealthy Constantinople itself, and the exchange of excessively generous gifts, it made for a pleasurable and lucrative visit for foreign representatives.
The Byzantine Empire was the first to create a “Bureau of Barbarians” and use it to great effect. It gathered information from all neighboring states (ruler’s personality, power struggles, local customs, etc.), it analyzed reports arriving from envoys, it organized visits for foreign diplomats to Constantinople, and did almost everything else that a modern Ministry of Foreign Affairs does today. Many of these diplomatic strategies were passed onto the modern era through Venice and later France.
Another key factor for their diplomatic success was the close relation between state and church. Through missionary priests sent north, the Empire was able to transform foe to friend by converting the Slavs to Christianity. Saints Cyril and Methodius began the development of the Cyrillic alphabet and introduced church liturgies in Slavic languages. They are regarded today as the Apostles of the Slavs. Thanks to its longevity and skilled diplomacy, the Empire acted as a buffer between Europe and the Muslim world, giving the continent time to develop into a world dominating force.
3. Use the Vikings!
Known for their seafaring ways, the Norsemen traveled all across Europe on their small, slender vessels. They navigated around the coasts and upstream rivers, pillaging towns and villages along the way. Establishing trade routes on the riverbanks of present day Belarus, Ukraine and Western Russia, these marauders subdued the local Slavs and founded the Rus state. The term “Rus” (origin of Russia) means “Swedes” in the Finnish language, or “The men who row.” Its center of power was in Kiev and from here, down the Dnieper River and across the Black Sea, the Vikings encountered the Byzantines in the 9th century.
They came through the Bosphorus with 200 ships, besieged the city of Constantinople, pillaged its outskirts and slaughtered the locals, but were unable to breach the walls. Following the Norse’s “if you can’t beat them, barter with them” policy and the unwillingness of the Byzantines to go to war, the Vikings exchanged raid for trade.
As a Norseman seeing Constantinople for the first time, its magnitude and immense riches inspired many to give their swords and axes for hire. These mercenaries were very appreciated for their loyalty, courage and, above all, height. They were regarded as a type of super-soldier and soon became the Emperor’s personal guard, known as The Varangian Guard.
The Guard took care of the Emperor and his interests. Halvdan, a member of the Guard, even engraved his words in the marble railings of the Hagia Sophia. Another famous member was Harald Sigurdsson, who later came to be known as Harald Hardrada or The King of Norway from 1046-1066.
The Varangians proved their worth time and time again, winning many battles for the Empire. They were the ones who crushed the Lombards and the Normans in Southern Italy in 1018 AD, and they defeated the Pechenegs in 1122 at the Battle of Beroia. The Greek princess Anna Comnena, an important source of Byzantine history, talked about Norse loyalty, saying that they passed it down from generation to generation like a sacred legacy.
2. It’s Not What You Do, But How You Do It
The Byzantine Empire was notably different from other Medieval states at the time, particularly in matters of administration. It was the first to implement a centralized form of government and remained the only state to have one up until the 13th century. At the very top of the pyramid was the Emperor. Regarded as the emissary of God on Earth, he had absolute power over everything. He controlled the state, the justice system, the financial system, the army, the church, and all objects and people everywhere. He personally appointed each minister, bishop and the patriarch, titles that couldn’t be passed down from one generation to the next.
Not even the position of Emperor was exempt from the rule of non-inheritance. Theoretically, any one could become an Emperor if they had the support of the people and the army. Justinian I, for example, started his life as a simple Macedonian peasant and so did Basil I. The Makedon dynasty however, was the first to introduce the idea of a legitimate heir “in order to provide imperial authority.”
Under the Emperor were the Logothetes, who functioned as modern day ministers. There was the Logothete of the Dromos, who later became Minister of Home Affairs and the Police, Chief of the Bureau of Barbarians and also High Chancellor of the Empire. After the 10th century he became the Grand Logothete, a sort of Prime Minister. There was also a Logothete of the Treasury, another for the Military and the Logthete in charge of the Empire’s Flocks. Underneath them was an entire legion of public servants and advisors, all living in Constantinople and working at the Great Palace.
The rest of the Empire was structured in Themes. These forms of organization revolved around the army garrisons stationed in each province. They took over all administrative issues in the area, and were also responsible for safeguarding the region and recruiting new soldiers. The army itself was never large enough to protect the entire Empire from attacks, but it was highly organized and very well trained. In the case of major attacks the Emperor could always make use of mercenary bands, which he often did. The whole elaborate web of Byzantine bureaucracy, together with the army, were a tremendous drain on the Empire’s resources, but they were also essential for the state’s survival.
1. Going to School
Education in Medieval times wasn’t seen as an obligation like it is by most students today, but rather as a great privilege. Only a handful of people knew how to read and write, and most of them were monks living in secluded monasteries.
When most of Europe was living in squalor and had to deal like plagues, plunderers and famine, the Byzantine Empire was at its cultural height. Around 30% of its population was literate, a rate the rest of Europe was only able to reach around the 18th century. Antioch, Gaza, Nisibis, Caesarea, Syracuse and Rome were all renowned for their schools. The University of Alexandria was acclaimed for its studies in philosophy, medicine, law, geometry and astronomy. Beirut and Athens were known for their law schools, but none surpassed the University of Constantinople in fame and knowledge, which was founded in 425 AD by Emperor Theodosius II.
Learning was open to everyone, but it wasn’t free so the majority of the students were upper or middle class. Even women could study in the late centuries of the Empire. Because of the state’s centralized form of government learned people were in high demand, especially in the fields of law and administration. All state jobs across the Empire came with an exam and only the best would get them. Nothing we’ve talked about up to this point could have happened if the Byzantine state hadn’t considered the education of its citizens a top priority.