Historical Fiction You Should Read If Interested In The Byzantine Empire

Not everyone can sit down to read through a fact-filled historical textbook. And that’s okay. Some authors of historical fiction have taken pains to make their stories as historically accurate as they possibly can. They also tend to point out when they took liberties to change certain historical events to better the plot. So which novels are best if you would like to learn more about the history of the Byzantine Empire?

Ben Kane. If you would like to start from the beginning — before the fall of the Western Roman Empire — then Ben Kane’s The Forgotten Legion series is a great place to begin. It tells the fictitious story of an actual legion that vanished after battle, but you learn a lot about the world during the first few centuries A.D. Kane has also written a number of interesting novels retelling the story of Hannibal’s attack on Rome.

Cecilia Holland. She has written quite a lot of historical fiction novels, but readers of Byzantine history might find The Angel and the Sword of particular interest. A young Spanish princess runs away only to fend off the Vikings during a siege on Paris. There are several references to the Byzantine Empire throughout Holland’s novels, and she visits the region several times.

Stephen R. Lawhead. His novel, Byzantium, follows a scribe living in an Irish Monastery who eventually travels to Byzantium with a number of monks. Learn about the city itself and the Golden Court.

Robert Graves. Those familiar with his work will recognize his love of mythology and history. Count Belisarius is one of his greatest achievements. It takes place beginning in the sixth century while the rest of the world is still struggling to rebuild after Rome fell. Belisarius was a general of Emperor Justinian, and Graves provides a wonderful picture of this long-forgotten time period.

Gordon Doherty. Strategos: Born in the Borderlands takes place beginning in 1046 A.D. during a period of time when the Byzantine Empire is on the brink of war. This story is set in Eastern Anatolia, where the Seljuk Sultanate routinely mounts incursions into the Empire. It’s a great option for those who want a grittier view of the era.

Tom Vetter. Call to Crusade (Siege Master #1) is set in 1070 during the First Holy Crusade and is told from the perspective of a knight who fights in the war for Jerusalem, among others — yet another war that the Byzantine Empire could not hope to avoid.

How Did The Residents Of The Byzantine Empire Prepare Their Food?

It should come as little surprise that the food you ate was highly dependent on the social class you belonged to in the Byzantine Empire. While the aristocracy was capable of paying cooks to prepare luxurious dishes and desserts three times a day — like syrup-soaked meats (many animals they had likely hunted themselves) and sweet cakes, the poor could not be expected to meet the same standards. 

Unsurprisingly, “poor” was the golden standard in society for most of the years during which the Byzantine Empire thrived. Few could expect to reach any manner of wealth, and there really was no middle class as we might recognize it today. 

Believe it or not, in the days of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, the poor were actually more likely to go out to eat. It was cheaper than dining in or cooking for yourself yourself. Local restaurants were small establishments called “tavernas,” where owners would often quickly and cheaply cook food by boiling. 

Fish sauce and fermented barley sauce were commonly used to make the meager offerings more palatable to the masses. They even had another product similar to our modern day version of soy sauce!

Thankfully, trade routes were well established in that part of the world and it was much easier to come by extra ingredients and different types of food. While much of it may have been bland fare provided to the poor, at the very least there was a bit of variety due to relationships built with the Persian and Arabic Empires. This is why modern day Balkans, Greek, and Turkish cuisine are so similar.

Many of the dishes we enjoy today — like baklava — are even thought to be descended from similar Ancient Byzantine recipes!

While meat was an uncommon ingredient for much of the Byzantine population (save for fish), there were a number of other staples in their diet. These included bread, fruit, nuts, eggs, legumes, olives, milk, and cheese. 

If you lived in the Byzantine region, you could be expected to drink a lot of wine, no matter your class or standing in life. Much of the food was cooked in wine or vinegar. If you were lucky enough to enjoy meat on occasion, then a common recipe was rabbit simmered in red wine with cloves, served with a dressing called “mytton” that was made from garlic, olive oil, and black olive paste.

Hen was often roasted inside a sealed clay pot (and an oven), that was filled with wine, bread crumbs, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, pine nuts, mushrooms, etc. 

Truth be told, some Byzantine recipes sound better than most of the things we eat today!

Why Did The Byzantine Empire Finally Fall To Outside Forces?

It’s a testament to Roman ingenuity that the eastern half of its empire persisted for about a thousand years after the western half crumbled. The Roman Empire as we know it fell for a number of reasons: most prominent among them was change from within. Many people believe that it fell into decline because of “barbarian” incursions from the north, but this is only a fragment of the truth.

Christianity breathed new life into the empire for a while, but it also destroyed the core values that had held the empire strong for so long. Eventually the first great melting pot experiment became a den of debauchery filled with ever-increasing racism, wealth inequality, greed, and religious persecution. (Sound familiar?) There were other factors, of course, but these were the primary contributions.

Even when the Western Roman Empire fell into decline and eventually disappeared, the Eastern Roman Empire (also known as the Byzantine Empire) continued to survive — with Christianity as its faith. Why?

Part of the power was derived from location. It was quite literally situated in the center of the known world, which left it as a crossroads for some of the greatest and most famous trade routes ever known. It’s economy and military stood above all others, and it was able to adapt to outside forces faster than the western half of the empire once did.

But all things come to an end. Change is the great constant, and times changed.

The Ottoman Turks finally destroyed the last remaining crumbs of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. How? Constantinople was sacked in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, which led to a division of its assets. This was the beginning of the end, and it made the task of destroying what remained much easier for Byzantine’s enemies — and it had many of those.

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the remaining territories (which were separated into mere city-states) were slowly assimilated into the Ottoman Empire during a series of bloody wars. Even before the Ottoman invasions, the struggling Byzantine leftovers were subject to Serbian incursions after a civil war that left the empire’s people decimated. 

Constantine XI was emperor during the 1453 Ottoman siege of Constantinople, which pitted 80,000 Ottomans against a mere 7,000 Byzantine soldiers, many of whom were foreign. Constantine XI didn’t take the defeat lightly — he was last seen engaging in hand-to-hand combat after the city had already fallen. Believe it or not, Rome arguably survived as the “Third Rome” until it finally fell during the Russian Revolution in the early 1900s.

Wildfire in “Game of Thrones” Was Probably Inspired By A Byzantine Super Weapon

If you’ve read George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire or watched the immensely popular television adaptation Game of Thrones, then you’re probably familiar with a weapon used during the Battle of Blackwater Bay during the frenetic defense of King’s Landing. The recipe for wildfire is super secret, it’s green, it melts anything it touches, and it’s oh-so-beautiful on the big 4K television screens. Did you know it was most likely inspired by “Greek fire,” a powerful weapon used by the Byzantine Empire from around 672 AD?

Much like the Battle of Blackwater Bay, Greek fire was often used in naval warfare.

According to historical texts, Greek fire was discovered and first unleashed on unsuspecting Byzantine enemies when the Greeks were under siege in Constantinople. The fun part? Historians have no idea at all what Greek fire actually was or why it was so potent. It was described as an enduring stream of fire that could stay lit even on water (much like wildfire).

Some scientists even believe Greek fire was ignited on contact with water, which would mean its active ingredients were likely naphtha and quicklime. Historians credit this oddball super weapon for many crucial Byzantine victories that would change the course of history (one of them being the survival of Constantinople during a couple of Arab sieges, which means the Byzantine Empire wouldn’t even have survived without Greek fire).

Greek fire is the most popular nickname for the weapon in the modern era, but it has also gone by a number of others: Roman fire, sea fire, war fire, liquid fire, sticky fire, and manufactured fire (to name a few). Fire, fire, fire. They liked their new weapon, we’re sure.

There were a number of methods for the delivery of Greek fire over a given battlefield. On the ocean or during sieges, it might be funneled into and projected through a strong tube. Eventually a portable projector was invented as well. Can you imagine individual soldiers running around with ancient flamethrowers when all you had was a sword, shield, and heavy armor to defend yourself? Scary! Much like in Game of Thrones, Greek fire was also delivered using jars via catapult. Out on the ocean, cranes might drop Greek fire on the enemy from afar.

According to several (maybe reputable?) first-hand accounts, there was often a rushing and roaring sound whenever the fire was shot. Some sources also suggest that the Greek fire was heated using a furnace before it could be discharged at the enemy.

Though Greek Fire was a super weapon of sorts, that didn’t mean the Byzantines were invulnerable. The weapon’s range on the water was very limited, and it couldn’t be used effectively if the winds were blowing in the wrong direction or when the waves were choppy. A good tactician could use their undue influence and goad the Byzantines toward defeat.

Byzantine Emperor: Heraclius

Heraclius was the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 610 to 614. He made Greek the official Byzantine Language. He is known for his many military campaigns as the empire was being threatened on multiple frontiers. He successfully pushed the Persians out of Asia Minor in the Battle of Nineveh bringing peace between the two empires. However, that was short lived as he soon faced threats from Muslims losing Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Egypt. He also attempted to fix the schism in the Catholic Church but ultimately failed.

Despite ultimately losing territory, Heraclius is considered one of the greatest Roman rulers. He reduced corruption and reorganized the military. His most important legacy comes the recovery of “The True Cross” from the Persians. The True Cross is the remanents of the cross in which Jesus was sacrificed. Heraclius returned the cross to Jerusalem in 629 (or 630). He was labeled the first crusader. However historical accuracy of this tale has been widely debated amongst scholars claiming that the True Cross was lost and the cross that Heraclius brought back to Jerusalem was a mistake.

Heraclius was married twice, once to Fabia Eudokia and then to his niece Martina. He had two children with Fabia and then nine children with Martina. Two of his sons became Emperor – one from Fabia (Heraclius Constantine [Constantine III]) and one from Martina (Constantine Heraclius [Heraklonas]). When Heraclius was dying he left the empire to be ruled by both sons with Martina as Empress. In 641, 11-year-old Constans II, son of Constantine III took over as Emperor.

Everything You Didn’t Know About The Byzantine Empire

It’s one of the most successful empires in history, and yet there’s so much we don’t know about it. Or at least there’s so much that isn’t common knowledge, when it should be. The Byzantine Empire was strong, influential, and fascinating, and we should strive to learn as much about it as we can in order to understand how it rose and fell. Here are the facts you didn’t know about the Byzantine Empire.

  1. Historians only began to refer to it as the “Byzantine” Empire during the Renaissance, after the empire fell. In reality, it was simply the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which had split down the middle before the western half fell. In other words, the common notion that the Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century AD is inherently false.

  2. The eastern half thrived for another thousands years–albeit under a different name imposed by historians later. It was the Roman Empire, however. Its residents called themselves Romans because they were Roman. So were the empire’s practices, principles, and traditions.

  3. Its name stems from an ancient Greek city called Byzantium after it was founded in 657 BC. Emperor Constantine I renamed the city Constantinople (because narcissism was always a thing) in 330 AD. It would become the new capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.

  4. The empire fell in 1453 when it was devastated by the Ottoman Empire. There’s always a bigger fish.

  5. The residents of the empire influenced modern cooking. They used rosemary to flavor lamb, and as far as we know they were the first to do so. They used saffron to cook as well.

  6. They paved the way for morbid obesity. Or the falling price of sugar did. The empire’s citizens definitely had a sweet tooth, and they loved rice pudding and a sugary dish called grouta. They used marmalade, jellies, fruit conserves, and rose sugar to make desserts just a little bit better.

  7. The diet was also made up of fish, which was easy to find. They ate caviar!

  8. They drank wine, but the beverage started to evolve to become more flavored. They even started to drink a number of beverages that led to the flavoring of alcoholic favorites today: absinthe and vermouth among them.

  9. They were the first to use eggplant, and citrus fruits like lemons and oranges in cooking.

Hierarchy Of Living In The Eastern Roman Empire

Society in the Eastern Roman Empire wasn’t as far-removed from our own as you might think. Sure, they had a class of rich and a class of poor. There were others who lived comfortably without the luxuries of the super-rich. These Romans had a different kind of government, but you might be surprised why they chose to be ruled the way they did.

Long before the Roman Empire split into east and western halves, it was a kingdom ruled by kings. The monarchy eventually toppled when its people stopped believing in a king’s ability to lead them. The kingdom evolved into a republic, in which certain kinds of citizens were allowed to vote. During one period, consuls held the highest authority but were only voted in for a year at a time, ensuring that no one could easily grasp too much power. To be called a king was a supreme insult.

When the Roman Empire split, emperors continued to rule in the East. Perhaps they weren’t so different from kings. Perhaps they were. In order to keep a dynasty up and running, each successive ruler had to prove legitimacy, and that was determined by ability. If an emperor couldn’t handle the job, down he went. Even plebeians and warriors were sometimes elevated to this position–and that’s all it was, a position–although it was rare.

This was a society in which you could potentially work your way up the ladder no matter who you were, even though it was as seemingly difficult or sometimes impossible as it is today. Anything was possible, but the point is that birth did not guarantee your place in the social hierarchy.

A great number of slaves were used to conduct all sorts of labor. Slaves might be sold to a cruel master or a generous one. It was even possible that a slave could be freed after years of service. Liberated slaves were often accepted as part of society.

At the very top of the social structure were the aristocrats and government officials. Below them were the wealthy merchants and some landowners. On the bottom rung were the poor. The clergy didn’t reside on the same social structure as everyone else, but they might be privy to privileges only enjoyed by those on the upper rungs of the ladder. It was a mostly respected profession like a criminal defense lawyer Miami.

A Brief Chronology of Important Events in the Byzantine Empire

Rome was sacked in the year 410 by the Visigoths and again in 455 by the Vandals. Its last emperor was deposed in the year 476. These events helped propel the rest of the world into a new age–a dark age–while the Roman Empire in the East continued to survive and even thrive at some points for another millenium.

In the five years between 532 and 537, the emperor Justinian had the Church of Hagia Sophia built. This church was a powerful symbol of the new empire that was formed. Justinian took the idea of a unified empire seriously, and he put a lot of effort into retaking land that had been lost when the western half collapsed under wave after wave of invasion. Unfortunately, this was also a period of Islamic expansion that threatened to unravel everything Justinian strived to achieve.

During the period between 610 and 641, the modern-day areas of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt were taken by Muslim invaders. By the 690s they had taken Byzantine in North Africa. From 717 through 718, Constantinople itself was under siege. The invasion failed, but it was an example that the Byzantine Empire was not invincible–even if it was a force with which to be reckoned.

Over the next centuries, the Roman church continued to gain power and influence. The Byzantine Empire was ruled by the Macedonian dynasty, founded by Basil I. This dynasty ruled from 867 until 1056 and ushered in the Macedonian Renaissance, which led to a transformational period for Christian artwork and scholarship in general.

The decline of this eastern empire began around 1050. This was the age of the Crusades, which tore through surrounding lands between 1096 and 1291. The Byzantines were smashed by Seljuk Turks in 1071, and then Constantinople was lost to Crusaders with the Fourth Crusade in 1204. It took nearly sixty years until Constantinople could be liberated, an event that occurred in 1261.

Constantinople finally fell for the last time in 1453 after a massive force of Ottoman Turks ruined the city with a barrage from heavy artillery and infantry. This would change everything. The city would be forced to live under new Islamic rule with unfamiliar Muslim laws. Christians were not allowed to own weapons, although they were not barred from practicing. The city was renamed Istanbul, and the rest is history!

The Empress Theodora of the Byzantine Empire

Theodora (500-548), Byzantine Empress and Wife of Emperor Justinian I, Detail of Byzantine Mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)

The Empress Theodora was the wife of Justinian I, the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire. In the 500s AD, she ruled along with him and as a partner in this power, she had a tremendous influence in the advancement of the Byzantine Empire, more so than New Jersey Employment Attorneys.

There were three famous Empresses named Theodora but the most famous was the one who started out as a courtesan and ended up marrying the crowned Emperor. She was known for being a co-ruler along with him. She was born in 497 AD and died in 548 AD. This Empress Theodora became the most powerful woman in all of the Byzantine Empire, but not much is known about her early life.

According to Encyclopedia Brittanica online, she was believed to have been born from a family where her father raised circus bears for the Hippodrome. She had an early career as an actress and then as a wool spinner. She was not the most reputable person having spent some time as a prostitute and having had one child out of wedlock. But when she met Justinian, he fell for her and made her his mistress because she proved to be a witty and intelligent woman.

It took special efforts to allow Justinian, a man of senatorial rank to marry her in 525 but by the time he took the throne a few years later, she was regarded as a virtual co-ruler even though she technically never had this role.

During her marriage to the Emperor, many laws were passed which contained her name. She was influential in foreign affairs. She wrote to many leaders and had relationships with them which peaked when there was a revolt in Byzantine between two Constantinople factions. These factions worked to set up a government led by their own chosen emperor. Justinian was told to leave and allow this to take place but Theodora insisted that he stay and fight.

The general, Belisarius, was sent to drive the two factions to the Hippodrome where they were slain and Justinian’s rule as well as the Empire’s, was saved. During the rest of his reign, Theodora helped pass laws that allowed women to inherit property and allowed rapists to be punished by death. With Justinian, she helped build over 25 churches, aqueducts, and bridges.

Upon her death, her body was buried in one of the churches that she helped Justinian to build. It was called the Church of the Holy Apostle in Constantinople. He never achieved any greater success or passed any significant laws following her death.

One of her greatest influences on Justinian was on religion. The two bridged the gap between Monophysitism, a belief in Jesus as wholly divine, and Orthodox Christianity which holds that Jesus is both divine and human.

One of her most beautiful likenesses is a mosaic that exists to this day in the Church of San Vitale at Ravenna in Italy. She is still the most powerful woman of the Byzantine Empire as well as Eastern Europe and the Middle East.


The Roman and Byzantine eras were grounded in discovery, innovation and great enlightenment. Many old beliefs were challenged religiously, politically and scientifically. Iconoclasm runs rampant but was the hallmark of the era.

One would think, having grown up in an iconoclastic society, that Irene of Athens would have additionally embraced the concept and continued to challenge past beliefs and traditions. But you would be wrong, it turns out.

When it comes to Irene of Athens, who ruled the Byzantine Empire at the turn of the 9th century, iconoclasm was fine as long as it wasn’t for religious reasons. For what she thought was for the safety and protection of her family as royalty, she put an end (albeit temporarily) to the concept of inconclasm when it comes to images and idols dedicated to Jesus Christ and saints as held by the Roman Catholic Church.

Irene became close to the Catholic Church – making her one of the first rulers so aligned – when her husband has his ascent to the throne challenged by a half-brother. Irene worked out an agreement with the Pope to have the half-brother and an associate ordained as priests, which would then have officially ruled them out from ascending to the throne. That started a long relationship between Irene and the Church in Vatican City, and as she ascended to the throne herself, her alignment with the church became more pronounced, so much so that it caused a divide in the empire and led to an incursion and an eventual civil war between her loyalists and part of the military who were opposed to her budding autocratic (and in some ways, theocratic) leadership.

As she ascended to power, she essentially gave thanks to the Catholic Church by all but eliminating iconoclasm through the Byzantine Empire, severely punishing those who did not pay sufficient homage to the various symbols and idols dedicated to Christ and the saints of the Church. She also mandated that all monasteries of the Roman Catholic Church remain open and operational, which went against the common practice of the time to de-emphasize influence of the Catholic Church, and Christianity in general, within the Empire.

Rumors and conjectures abounded (8mostly from Western Europe, not from the Byzantine Empire of the East, of which she ruled) that Irene of Athens was canonized by the Church for her unwavering support and fidelity to the Church. The truth was that Irene was never canonized into a saint, but the rumor just showed how predominant her fealty was and how much it was believed that it shaped her reign on the throne and caused fractures in the Empire because of the religious bent to her rule, which was not supported by tradition (it was believed that the church and state would be separate, explaining why priests could never ruler be placed in such powerful upper-level positions in the government).

Irene was eventually deposed from the throne and exiled to the island of Lsbos, where she died a year after arrival.  – an ignominious end to one of the Byzantine Empire’s more controversial reigns.