The Byzantine Empire was actually the Roman Empire, just further East. It existed from the year 330 AD all the way until 1453. Constantinople was the capital, serving as the head of Roman interest in their Easter lands because the Empire had spread so far it needed another base of operations. Travelling by land from Rome to Constantinople, or modern-day Istanbul, is over 1,300 miles.
For all the Roman influences, the Byzantine Empire did do things its own way sometimes. And some ways things were back then can be pretty shocking.
10. Political Mutilations
One way that modern society can separate itself from ancient society is how we punish criminals. In most of modern Western society we either imprison those convicted of crimes are, in a very few cases, they will be imprisoned and then executed for their crimes. Back in the day, punishing crime was like an exercise in creative sadism. The more bizarre, horrible, and unique ways you could come up with making someone pay for something, the better it seemed The Byzantine Empire was no different.
Mutilation was a favourite method of punishing criminals back in the day. However, it was also a method of settling political rivalries as well. Imagine if instead of having an election, presidential candidates went out of their way to see who could cause the most pain and suffering to the other one’s body as a method not of killing them, but just stopping them from getting in their way.
Blinding political enemies was fairly commonplace because a blind enemy certainly couldn’t lead armies. If that didn’t work, castration was also a choice. Not just for the obvious reasons, but also because they considered castration the ultimate injustice a man could suffer. It made them no longer a man, and it also prevented you from having heirs.
John Athalarichos tried to overthrow his father, the emperor Heraclius In the year 637. It didn’t go very well for him and he had his nose and hands amputated.Constantine Diogenes was accused of plotting against the emperor and was blinded before he ended up committing suicide.
9. Chariot Racing Was Huge
You can’t deny that people love to watch sports. According to Wikipedia, of the 24 most watched broadcasts in world history have all been sports-related. That includes many Olympic Games broadcasts, World Cup soccer, and even two Muhammad Ali boxing matches. Both the London and the Rio Summer Games share a record of about 3.6 billion viewers. So it’s not surprising to learn that, during the Byzantine Empire, sports and competition were just as popular.
Roman-style chariot races were one of the biggest sports of the Byzantine Empire. And remember, chariot racing differed from a modern foot race, or even a NASCAR race. Sure there was high speed, but the potential for death and Mayhem was extremely high. Chariot Racers could be smashed against the stone pillars or dragged to death behind their horses.
The appeal of racing for the fans seems to be the adrenaline, bloodshed, and money to be made gambling. For the racers, it was the potential for fortune and freedom. Many of these charioteers were slaves, but they had the chance to win as much as 15 bags of gold for winning a single race.
The most famous charioteer in history was Diocles, and it is said that he earned 36 million sesterces over his career, which could have fed the entire city of Rome for a year. For some context, a Roman soldier might have earned about 1,200 sesterces in a year.
They were four teams in Byzantine Chariot racing, the Whites, the Greens, the Blues, and the Reds. Eventually these teams merged and became just the Greens and the Blues. And fans were so passionate about the sport and that when they weren’t throwing nail studded tablets under the track to sabotage their opponents, they were breaking into bloody riots to support their own team. At one point the Greens ambushed the Blues and killed 3,000 of them.
8. They Created Greek Fire
If you’ve never heard of Greek fire before, or maybe you at least heard of wildfire from the show Game of Thrones. Essentially a mysterious and alchemical kind of napalm, it’s fire that burns even on water. Pretty cool in a fantasy-based TV series, and also inspired by the legends of Greek fire.
Historians believe it was invented in the 7th Century in the Byzantine Empire. Greek fire could be shot out of a tube like a flamethrower or thrown in clay pots. Just like napalm or Wildfire from Game of Thrones, it was sticky and couldn’t be extinguished out with water.
Famously, Greek fire was used to defend Constantinople from an Arab fleet in the 670s. Weirdly enough, Greek Fire disappeared from history in the 15th century. It’s believed that a Jewish refugee named Callinicus of Heliopolis created it. They kept the recipe a strict secret, and then it seems to have been lost completely.
These days we can make educated guesses about what Greek Fire probably was, most likely included petroleum, naphtha, quicklime and sulphur, But they are just that, guesses.
7. They Created Their Own Silk Industry
Prior to the 6th century, if you were interested in getting anything made of silk in the world, you were going to China to get it. It’s hard to conceptualize just how important and valuable silk was back in the day by today’s standards but the fact that the major trade road across the world was known as The Silk Road ought to give you some sign of how highly prized this commodity was.
Keeping the Silk Road open was a constant struggle, especially since it traveled through Persia and Persia would not allow trade during times of War. In the 6th century the Byzantine emperor Justinian became frustrated with the inconsistent silk trade and came up with a solution.
Under instructions from Emperor Justinian, two monks went to China and nabbed some silkworm eggs, which they smuggled back to the Empire hidden in their canes. Before the monks went to China, no one even knew really where silk came from. The Byzantines actually thought it came from India. The entire journey took the monks two years. And it also paid off.
They started silk factories in Constantinople and in other cities throughout the empire. They toppled the Chinese and Persian silk monopolies, and the Byzantine Empire started their own across Europe. This was a cornerstone of the entire Byzantine economy for well over half a millennium. They still produce silk throughout Turkey and Greece today.
6. The Nika Riots
As big a deal as chariot races were in Byzantium, you can’t really get an appreciation for how seriously people took them without talking about the Nika riots. The riots took place for a solid week of the year 532 AD. In modern times we’ve seen riots on television and the potential chaos that ensues when common people clash with law enforcement or groups of others with opposing viewpoints, nothing in modern history comes close to what went down to release riots. or, to put it another way, 30,000 people died, and they burned half the city to the ground in that one week.
By the time that they had separated the Chariot teams into two groups, the Greens and the Blues, loyalty to one faction or another was seriously scary stuff. The Emperor would often choose a side not because he particularly supported one came over the other, but to ensure that one team supported him so that both couldn’t join together and overthrow the empire.
Unfortunately for Emperor Justinian, he didn’t feel the need to support one faction over the other. He was trying to eliminate partisan politics from how society worked, but the general population didn’t see it that way. Along with some civil unrest because of his unpopular policies and a war in Persia, everything blended together to create a state of chaos.
Members of the Blues and Greens plead with Justinian at a race to have mercy on some of their teammates, who were set to be executed for a previous riot. Justinian declined, and the crowd shouted ‘Nika,’ which meant victory and was chanted typically at charioteers. The fuse was lit, and the riot began.
Rioters released all the prisoners from a local jail and began burning down the city. They trapped Justinian inside of his palace and both factions teamed together to declare a new emperor. It was only through the clever machinations of three of Justinian’s generals, all of whom were barbarians and had no loyalty to either faction, that they were able to sow discord between the Greens and Blues and slaughter anyone who dissented.
Ten percent of the City’s population was thought to have been killed by the time the riot was over and the would-be Emperor propped up by the Blues on the Greens was killed for his trouble.
5. Adulterers Lost Their Noses
It wasn’t just criminals or political rivals who suffered meaning in the Byzantine Empire. As part of the reforms to the legal system administered by Emperor Leo III, he put laws regarding personal relationships into place. Violating these rules could prove to be exceptionally painful.
Under Leo’s rule, a married man who committed adultery was to be corrected by a flogging of 12 lashes. There was also going to be a fine to be paid. If an unmarried man was caught fornicating, they were going to get six lashes.
If a person was found to have carnal knowledge of a nun, they were going to have their nose cut off. If a husband knew that his wife was having an affair and not doing anything about it, he was going to be flogged and exiled. However, the wife and the person she was having the affair with would both have their noses cut off.
4. The Justinian Plague
Anyone who got through the year 2020 in one piece knows what it’s like to live in a pandemic. That’s with modern technology and modern communication to help get us all through it. During the year 541 to 542 amidst the Justinian plague, things were a little different.
The plague itself ravaged the world for about 225 years but didn’t hit Constantinople until 542. Travelling thanks to rats and fleas, it moved along trade routes wherever humans travelled with goods and commodities. People migrating to escape cold weather make the situation worse, and the plague was able to spread and kill literally millions of people.
The Bubonic plague is thought to have killed about half of the population of Europe or around 50 million people when it reappeared in the 14th century. The writer and historian Procopius blamed Justinian for the plague and declared that he might actually be a devil, or at least being punished by God.
The plague spread in Constantinople for four months. Emperor Justinian caught the disease but didn’t die. The streets were said to have been filled with corpses while graveyards and tombs overflowed such that they dug trenches to handle the excess bodies. They dumped some into the sea, some were stored in empty buildings.
Those who couldn’t afford to see doctors, or couldn’t find one because they were so busy, tried to treat the disease at home with cold baths, magic trinkets and blessings. Estimates put the death toll at 5000 to 10000 per day in Constantinople alone. Around 25% of the entire Empire was believed to have died, anywhere from 25 to 50 million people.
3. They May Have Invented Bagpipes
If someone asked you to list the things you think of when you hear Scotland, there’s a good chance your list would include things like the Loch Ness monster, haggis, and bagpipes. While the first two are certainly popular in Scotland, and there’s no denying that bagpipes are profoundly Scottish in the modern world, there’s evidence to suggest that the Byzantine Empire invented them first.
The Director of the Centre for Byzantine Research at Oxford believes Persia is where you should look if you want to find the historical origins of the bagpipe. He believes that Persia’s much longer history of shepherding is a good point in favour of this as bagpipes have long been an instrument of shepherds, and that the Middle East actually seems to be the origin for most instruments that became popular throughout Europe including the lute and the guitar.
2. The First New England Was There
These days when someone references New England you know that they’re most likely talking about the Northeast United States, places like Massachusetts. That New England is not the first New England to be founded, however. The Byzantine Empire also had its own New England once, when a group of English immigrants settled there in the year 1075.
Over 4,000 English immigrants settled in the area, including a majority of them in a place they renamed Nova Anglia which means New England.
Byzantines hired English soldiers to fill out their ranks at the time, along with Scandinavians soldiers as well. English mercenaries for well-regarded by Byzantine forces. The founding of this New England happened shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066, and many of these English people would have been refugees from the war.
Normans were now at war with the Byzantine Empire, so the English would have had even more reason to side with Byzantium and have a chance to fight their enemies once again. As for that location of the Byzantine New England, that’s a mystery. Documents show that many of the English joined the armies of Constantinople, but where they may have settled has been lost to history.
1. Constantinople Fell to a Massive Cannon
There’s never been one single thing that toppled an Empire. The Byzantine Empire is no different. Many factors from economic to political and so on led to the fall of the once mighty Empire. But, when it comes to how Constantinople itself fell, you can put a heavy amount of blame on one piece of military equipment, the massive cannon commissioned by Sultan Mehmed II.
In 1,000 years the city of Constantinople had been attacked 23 times and not a single army had made it through the walls. Constantinople was already on a downturn, economically crippled and losing ground on all sides. The sultan commissioned the biggest cannon the world had ever seen to help break down the walls. What he got was a 27-foot long bronze cannon with eight inch thick walls and a barrel that was 30 in in diameter so that a man could actually crawl inside of it.
The cannon fired cannonballs that weighed about half a ton. It took 200 men and 60 oxen to drag the cannon across the countryside, 140 miles to Constantinople. They manage progress of two-and-a-half miles per day.
When the cannon finally arrived, it lived up to its promise and more. The devastation was unseen in the world before. It tore defensive walls that had stood for literally thousands of years to shreds. One single weapon had laid waste to the powerful defenses of the previously unconquerable city. Even though the massive cannon could only be fired seven times a day, the psychological impact was more than enough.