<<To you I appeal, oh soul, not already read, erudite, wise, studious; but simple, rude, uncultivated, illiterate,
soul of the people, of the vulgus, of the peasant. I need your unskilfulness, because of the experts no one knows>>
When speaking of the Byzantine Empire, we start from the mistake of calling a people that considered itself Roman by another name, that was governed by their laws and that dreamed all their existence with the reunification of all territory that was once under the rule of the Caesars. This aspiration mostly became reality on the time of Justinian (6th century), considerated the last greatest Roman Emperor, at least on the old way to call it. In any case, in essence this is false, since Rome continued living while the Eastern part survived.
The term Byzantine Empire was never used on its time. Belongs to an invention of modern scholars arosing long after its fall to designate the part of the Eastern Roman Empire and that, really, conceptually could be used from the emperor Heraclius I (7th century), since it was under his government where important changes were made that broke with tradition: adoption of Greek as the official language, replacement of the Imperial title augustus by the Greek term basileus (emperor or king) and reorganization of the army.
These historians, basically francophones and anglo-saxons, have the sad merit of having left this historical mistake legacy, amputating the Roman homeland of the soul of the Eastern Romans, bathing a glorious past in a sea of conspiracies, internal wars, decadence and excessive eastern luxuries, to the point of using contemptuously the expression “Byzantine discussion”; probably inspired by the large number of religious councils and religious debates.
The origins, like those of any legendary city worthy of the name also connect with mythology. Originally it was a Greek polis founded by Megarians in 667 BC. honoring its king Byzas. This polis that provided the rest of Greece with abundant resources was strategically located in the Bosphorus Strait, a meeting point between Europe and Asia, and in its beginnings it controlled, among other things, the trade of the precios pontic wheat. This explains the interest of Persia, Athens and Sparta for their dominance.
In its first steps in history, this Megarinan polis had to deal with the barbarous Thracians peoples that surrounded and besieged it. It was invaded by the Persians in the 5th century BC, and soon freed by the Spartan general Pausanias (479 BC). Later, in the context of the Wars of the Peloponnese was the subject of a dispute between Sparta and Athens.
Byzantium enjoyed a relative independence until it was incorporated into the Roman Republic in 100 BC. only interrupted by the period of Macedonian domain, when Alexander the Great conquered the world for the Hellenic (336-323 BC), and also when it was invaded by the Celts in 279 BC.
Once assimilated to the Roman world, it achieves great importance with the administrative division, not political, of the Roman Empire, carried out by Diocletian in the year 285 to improve the management of the entire territory, which occupied a very extensive perimeter. In 330, Constantine I the Great, refound the city as New Rome or Constantinopolis in his honour (that is, Constantinople, the name with which it was known throughout the world until the 20th century) and establishes the capital of the Empire temporarily. But the birth of Byzantium (actually Eastern Roman Empire) as an independent state, does not occur until the death of Theodosius (395), which divided the empire into two parts, distributing inheritance among its children: Honorius (the West) and Arcadius (East).
If this «de facto» separation could be based in some way, it was in the language of the popular classes, which was not Latin but Greek, as a cultural heritage of the colossal Hellenizing campaign of Alexander the Great many centuries ago.
In any case, Greek was the cultured language at the time of the triumphant legions, and was seen as a sign of erudition and distinction between the upper classes of the ancient empire, and it was never seen as a dividing symbol, rather enriching for the glory of Rome. The current language of Greece and the non-invaded Cyprus area (in the “Attila operation” of the 1970s) by the Turks, hardly differs from that spoken in the Byzantine provinces during the Middle Ages.
It is paradoxical to contemplate in present times, how it is possible that Turkey intends to claim more Greek territories, like Morocco does with the Spaniards Ceuta, Melilla, and the Canary Islands. But let these claims be left to imperialists who do not know what it is to open a history book.
Returning precisely to history, the capital was located in the New Rome: Constantinople, and from there its emperors always had the aspiration to recover the whole territory after the fall of the Western Empire, reaching to reunify under his dominion, and during different time intervals, much of the ancient Roman Empire. It should be noted that in the days of Justinian, Rome and the whole Italic península, southern Hispania and North Africa were reconquered: the Mediterranean was almost entirely a Roman sea.
Regarding the type of government, it consisted of a formula halfway between the Eastern monarchies (like Persia) and the very later absolutisms of the rest of Europe: the emperors concentrated all the power, exercising it in numerous occasions of despotic form and relying on powerful armies, a very broad bureaucracy inherited from Rome, and a diplomacy with experience. In the twelve dynasties that managed the Empire, episodes of treachery, usurpation, revolts and sedition took place, which gradually weakened the nation, while external pressures continued, especially by Persians and Avars at the beginning, and Arabs and Turks at the end.
The brightest and most important stage corresponds to the existence in the power of the best emperor that had the Byzantine Empire: Justinian I (482-565), which ruled from the year 527 up to his death. He had at his orders great generals: Solomon, Germanus, Narses and especially Belisarius, the best of his millenary history. He entrusted them with the mission of reunifying the whole Empire.
In addition, Justinian, known as «the one who never sleeps» for his devotion to the service of the nation, was surrounded by very capable ministers-chancellors, such as: Tribonian and John the Cappadocian.
But this era was not limited only to expansionist aspects, since the greatest legal project of history was undertaken, giving rise to the impressive «Corpus Juris Civilis» (553), a monumental compilation and codification of all Roman law, both private and public. This work and its influences are totally recognizable in the current law. Also it was tried to unify the Church under the catholic doctrine by means of councils and theological discussions, but the distances increased with respect to the monophysitists and Nestorians ones and all this was the embryo of the future schism of East, giving rise to the Orthodox churches that today we know.
Finally, it is worth highlighting from this stage of prosperity the contribution to art and architecture, creating a very rich style that influenced most of its neighbours, leaving us unrepeatable works such as the magnificent cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, turning the city into one of the cradles of Christendom.
After this period, Byzantium never reached the old Roman imperial glory, going through situations of decline and joining medieval models of civilization.
Another great emperor: Heraclius I, who ruled between 610 and 641, dethroned the usurper Phocas, inheriting a chaotic situation: the Avars (descendants of the Huns of Attila) and the Slavs occupied Dalmatia and a large part of Greece and its islands, the Persians (eternal enemies of Rome) plundered Jerusalem, robbed the Holy Cross (shocking the whole Christendom), and then settled in Egypt (618). It was time to regain or finally lose the dream of a Roman world.
The entire Byzantine world turned to solving this crisis, and Heraclius received the gold of the Patriarch Sergius and created a new army, like the yesteryear ones (infantry and archers basically) leading campains similar to the crusades. He defeated the Persians in Armenia, advanced to the Caucasus recruiting 40,000 khazars to considerably strengthen its auxiliary forces, and went straight to the center of the Persian empire, an unthinkable campaign even in times of maximum Roman glory.
The Persians who did not even know nor suspected and keeping the bulk of their troops away in an offensive in Asia Minor, when they wanted to react they found their palaces and temples destroyed, their lands sacked and the legendary city of Nineveh conquered. They had no choice but to give up.
Heraclius returned to Constantinople holding the Holy Cross, with the recuperated territories, with the dream triumph of many emperors, and the historical enemy wounded to death. After that, Persia never recovered and eventually succumbed to the thrust of the Arab hordes.
On the other hand, the Byzantine armies also reaped victories in the active front against the Avars, and Roman pride once again returned to the spiritual descendants of Romulus. Later, the emperor impelled a great institutional reform that broke with the hereditary schemes of Diocletian and Constantine, dividing the empire into themes, administered in all aspects by a man: the strategos.
In the last years of his life, Heraclius had to face the unstoppable advance of the Arabs, who harassed and ended up occupying Syria and Alexandria. After his death they followed their conquests in Cyprus, Jerusalem, Antioquia, Mesopotamia and Egypt, achieving their first naval victory in front of the prestigious Byzantine navy and, finally, years later, they harassed the capital (already called Byzantium instead of Constantinople).
Approaching the miraculous, because everything seemed lost, they were able to resist heroically and with the help of all the citizens. Shortly after repelling the siege, they managed to defeat the Arab naval force and achieved a very large gold tax, although a lot of the lost territories were not recovered at the moment.
This episode remembers the same character demonstrated in Punic wars when Hannibal was before the Roman walls and it seemed the end of Rome. But here was not the time either. Not yet.
The Slavs eventually turned to Christianity and entered the orbit of the Empire. The struggle between the Latin-Western tradition and the Greco-Eastern was accentuating over time, and it would end up enlarging even more in the expansion of the Carolingian Empire, later known as the Holy Roman Empire, which not only demanded the theological authority, but also claimed, just like Byzantium, the legitimate inheritance of ancient Rome.
After containing the Arabs during long campaigns and by means of peace treaties, the medieval apogee was reached with the Macedonian dynasty (867-1057), the second golden age after the Justinian dynasty. It began with Basil I, who being a slave rose to power through violence. This initial bonanza would not last long, because after the Eastern schism caused by Michael I Cerularius, an unstoppable decay began, dividing the Empire into principalities, being attacked by the Turks in the east and the Crusaders of the Romano-Germanic Occident in the west, who sought to seize its wealth, its commercial routes and its strategic location in the Bosphorus.
After a decade of anarchy, the Emperor Alexios I Komnenos ascended in 1081 and succeeded in returning the Romans to their old greatness, although the dangers of the moment: the Normans and the Turks constantly punished the more and more reduced borders.
When the situation seemed again insurmountable, a new dynasty appeared: the Palaiologos. Michael VIII managed to restore unity, although with a very diminished territorial and economic base, in 1261. The Empire would survive two centuries with heroisms and hard resistance, but Mehmed II in 1453 occupied the capital, among other things, thanks to a Hungarian engineer who could not hire a Byzantium reduced to a single and impoverished city, that sold himself to the Turks and manufactured them a cannon of incredible dimensions capable of destroying the then impenetrable walls of the old Constantinople. The last Eastern Roman emperor, Constantine XI, died fighting with courage, as the legend explains, charging with his last and loyal men against a sea of terrible janissaries.
The Turks were merciless with the last Eastern Christians: before converting into a mosque the Christian jewel that was Hagia Sophia, they put their priests and nuns to the sword, raped them for days at their altar and devoted themselves to extinguish the candles, in a macabre game, with the heads of Roman babies. They destroyed and annihilated their inhabitants, who fought until death, giving an epic and worthy end to a civilization that had begun 2,206 years ago on a simple hill.
Mehmed II established the capital of his Ottoman Empire in Byzantium and proclaimed himself Roman emperor. Only he believed it.
The Byzantines always dreamed of the restoration of the ancient Roman Empire, whose name showed the abbreviations S.P.Q.R. (Senatus Populusque Romanus: the Senate and the People of Rome), emblem of the glorious and invincible legions of the past. They considered themselves legitimate heirs of that legacy and were a dominant Empire for years, flourished when the West was in the obscurantism of the Middle Ages, and were main protagonists throughout the Middle Ages, until Constantinople was plundered by the Crusaders in 1204, and contained the entry of Islam into Eastern Europe. Its fall marked the end of an era and the Modern Age was opened after them. Without their epic and stubborn resistance the current maps of the West would be very different, or simply and literally would not exist. Let’s give them a well deserved tribute.
Author: Eduardo Ortiz Pardina