Pandemics During The Byzantine Empire

It’s easy to forget that the world has been dealing with dangerous pandemics throughout human history. We’re not the first ones. Sadly, though, we should be the best prepared. If the last few weeks have shown us anything at all, it’s that even the biggest empires with the supposed best protective measures can fall the fastest. America was ranked highest for its potential pandemic defenses only to allow the novel coronavirus to run rampant for no reason.

Did the Byzantine Empire experience similar decline during noteworthy pandemics during the height of its power?

One of the most noteworthy was the Plague of Justinian from 541 to 542 AD. It ripped through the entirety of the Eastern Roman Empire but mainly affected Constantinople. Other parts of the world were also at the mercy of the plague. Although this plague is relatively unknown, it presumably killed about the same number of people as the Spanish flu: 25 to 100 million people died. This was about half of Europe’s population.

By comparison, the “Black Death” killed up to 200 million people — or about a third of the world’s population at the time. But it was also spread out over a longer period of time, occurring primarily during the years from 1347 to 1351. Technically, the Plague of Justinian became endemic, popping up until the eighth century much like our seasonal flu. Both plagues would have a great impact on the Byzantine Empire.

It’s also worth noting that these were still considered pandemics even though they could not cross the Atlantic Ocean to strike the New World — which would not be “discovered” by Columbus (wink wink: he didn’t actually discover the New World) until 1492.

Shockingly, the Black Death actually had environmental ramifications much like those we’re seeing today. Because so many people died, mankind’s carbon footprint was greatly reduced, as was his impact on the world at large. Reforestation occurred. Some scientists even believe it was this plague that resulted in the Little Ice Age. Coronavirus, by comparison, has resulted in smog-free cities for the first time in many years.

Both of these ancient pandemics were caused by Yersinia pestis, a bacterium. 

The Plague of Justinian, who was emperor at the time it first appeared, killed off perhaps 40 percent of Constantinople’s population. This would greatly diminish the economy.

These plagues were hardly the only two that affected the world during the long-lived Byzantine Empire, but they affected it the most. Others struck other parts of the world such as farther away in the Middle East or African countries.

Was The Byzantine Legal System Fair And Just?

The Byzantine Empire was what persisted after the fall of the Western Roman Empire. But it certainly hasn’t made as flashy a historical remembrance as its other half. For example, the American justice system — and its government, in general — was very much modeled from the old Roman Republic, which fell for a number of reasons, including wealth inequality alongside the rise of Christianity (a discussion which we’ll leave for another day).

Roman law, therefore, is something that you would find familiar. For example, civil litigation began with a plaintiff accusing a defendant of a crime or personal injury, and the defendant would either answer the summons or be forcibly brought to court. A judge would be appointed during a preliminary hearing, should a praetor decide the issue at hand was reasonable. Afterward, there would be a trial with evidence and witnesses and lawyers and all the other nonsense one would expect.

What happened after a trial is where the system deviated greatly. You see, even if a judge concluded that a plaintiff’s arguments were valid, and provided a favorable verdict, it was up to the plaintiff to execute the judgement! 

Byzantine law was somewhat similar — and therefore may have had a greater influence on our own legal authorities than you might realize. But whereas the Ancient Roman Empire’s system was based squared on the law as “man” wrote it, the new system would evolve to include Christian influences. And that means that the laws became more religiously motivated. 

But the law still evolved over the many centuries of the Byzantine Empire.

For example, the decline of the empire after Justinian’s reign, coupled with Arab conquests, put great pressure on the legal system. Legal scholars, in particular, became much harder to find. Knowledge of latin waned. But none of that was necessarily a bad thing when it came to the actual practicing of law, which began to focus more on pragmatism and less on idealism.

Leo III the Isaurian implemented the “Ecloga” in 726, for example, was a compilation of Byzantine law. One of the reasons it has a lasting influence on history is because it was written in Greek instead of Latin. That mattered because more people within the empire’s borders understood Greek than Latin, especially as the centuries wore on.

And it was surprisingly great for women and children, whose rights increased! The Ecloga was surprisingly modern. Believe it or not, the Ecloga said that the primary justification for capital punishment was treason! Instead, you were more likely to be mutilated for committing a serious crime. Social class also had less to do with eventual punishment than ever before. Fairness became a real concept in law under the Byzantine Empire.

Was The Byzantine Empire Responsible For Lasting Advances In Technology?

When we think of cultural influences, none is greater than the Roman Empire. Then again, we usually attribute a great number of technological advancements to the Romans too, when perhaps the Byzantine Empire (or the Eastern Holy Roman Empire after the western half fell into disarray and disintegrated completely) had a greater lasting influence on modern-day technology. 

The resourcefulness of the ancient Byzantines was nothing short of astounding.

We rarely give them credit for inventions in warfare, which continued to help the empire remain dominant for many centuries. They devised a counterweight trebuchet, which was used during the siege of Zevgminon in 1165. It was likely used nearly a century earlier, perhaps invented during the reign of Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.

The hand-trebuchet allowed individuals to sling small projectiles at the enemy. Similar units were used by many eastern countries against those who lived in Ancient Rome for many years, but the Byzantines perfected the device to make these attacks more easily manipulated — and far more destructive. The Byzantines may have used this device as early as the 10th century.

Not much is known about Greek fire, save for that it was likely the inspiration behind Game of Thrones’s Wildfire, which was used during the imaginative Battle of Blackwater Bay. In real life, Greek fire was routinely known as “sea fire,” “liquid fire,” and a variety of other names. Scholars believe it was primarily used in naval warfare, but we do know that the devices used to expel the flammable weapon could be carried by individual soldiers on the field as well.

The modern-day hospital was first conceived by the Byzantines, although they were much different back then. They were likely sanctuaries for the poor or injured, or a literal death bed, most likely provided by churches. Eventually, they were built to offer actual medical care.

The Byzantines were also known to have used cisterns for storing water. These cisterns were enormous! One such storage container is now used as a soccer stadium, which should give you some idea of the scale to which these were built. 

Icons were important to those who lived in the empire. Christianity spread throughout the Byzantine Empire. Had you ventured there at the height of its glory, you would have experienced a colorful world, indeed. Mosaics, eccentric men of the cloth, eunuchs, wealth and gold. At the peak of it all, Roman engineering led to the creation of the Hagia Sophia in modern-day Istanbul. It was built in 537 AD. 

Certainly, the advancements of the Byzantine societies were worthy of being remembered.

The Byzantine Empire Ruled Through Economic Might As Well As Military

Rome was a military powerhouse. Certainly, the old empire was an economic power in the world during the height of its prosperity, but historians will never forget that the ever-widening gap between rich and poor eventually (and inevitably) helped to bring it to its knees. Especially when compared to Rome’s age-old enemy, Carthage, which acquired power and influence through business and economy.

Byzantine was different.

The eastern empire was a force with which to be reckoned both militarily and economically, which helped set it apart from those earlier civilizations. Constantinople was hailed as the “hub” for much of the trade done throughout the empire for centuries. Those networks extended through much of the known world — almost all of Eurasia was included, and even some parts of North Africa.

The economy was so advanced that basic forms of credit were used for some purchases. Banking practices seem to be much more advanced than scholars once believed. The monetary system, which was based on coinage, lasted for more than a millennia. The emperor was responsible for supervising the minting of these coins, but the government in general controlled the money.

Trade was the most important factor in growing the empire’s economy. It wasn’t unheard of for Byzantine products to make their way to far-away locations like Norway, Livonia, Bulgaria, etc. Grain was an important commodity because an insane amount was needed to feed the people who lived and thrived within the empire’s borders. Silk was equally important because it helped play a role in diplomatic ventures. 

Silk would routinely be purchased from China before being distributed all over the world. Silk comes from silkworms, though — and those were inevitably smuggled into the borders of the Byzantine Empire. 

At that point, there was little reason to purchase silk from China. Because the trading of silk no longer required the use of those long-distance trade routes to China, it was easier for the empire to control and monopolize. Afterward, it essentially became a state-owned product. The empire only sold it to those it wanted.

Oil and wine were popular commodities as well. Oil was used both for cooking and personal grooming. And of course wine was a beverage of choice for many citizens of the empire. Other products included fish, meat, salt, vegetables, wax, and timber. 

Wealthier residents might be able to afford the aforementioned silk, or commodities such as perfume and spices. Slaves weren’t as important as they were in Ancient Rome, but they were still important to Byzantine’s economy.

The wealth of the empire slowly deteriorated over time — mostly due to the many wars in the east that slowly eroded its fortunes.

The Byzantine Empire Had Hospitals: What Were They Like?

The Romans were mostly known for their military might and the ability to conquer and pacify their neighbors for long periods of time. While they made significant strides in medicine as well, much of this work occurred on the battlefield during war. The Byzantine Empire took medicine off the field of battle and put it into the hands of the everyday citizen by constructing hospitals and advancing the science behind these treatments to the next level.

But of course Byzantine hospitals were much different than our own.

Technically, they weren’t for the public at large. Instead, churches created hospitals as a place where those who were destitute might go to find access to amenities that they couldn’t find anywhere else. Men and women were segregated. Historians believe that these humble beginnings paved the way to the hospitals that treat us today — even though archaeologists have yet to find physical evidence that this is the case.

Most of what we know is derived from texts.

The “first” hospital was supposedly put together by Leonitius of Antioch sometime between 344 and 358 AD. We know that they probably weren’t a means for anyone to recover from serious illness. Instead, they were probably more like Hospice care — a means to make the transition to death more comfortable for those living in poverty or migrants who were traveling from one place to the next when they fell ill. 

It wasn’t long before these organizations began to pop up all over the Byzantine Empire. Only a century later, they could be found among the ashes of the old Roman Empire (in the west) as well. Some scholars believe they had spread as far as Egypt and Syria.

The spread began to slow down by the sixth century. That’s because they were already a basic part of Byzantine society in many of the empire’s larger cities, offering medicine and shelter to their patients. Constantinople had more than a few. 

Byzantine physicians practiced Hippocratic principles when treating patients. That means they believed that the body was made up of four basic “humors.” These were blood, phlegm, black bile, and yellow bile; all were directly connected to the season of the year.

Diagnostic procedures more directly parallel the practices of today’s physicians. They would check pulse and breathing, analyze urine and excrement, and pay attention to speech patterns. These procedures are probably more complex than you might think. For example, John Zacharias Aktouarios was able to separate a person’s urine into at least eleven distinct components inside a vile. By analyzing those components, he was able to determine whether or not a person was suffering from infection. 

Although medicine made strides, it would be centuries before hospitals transitioned into larger, more organized institutions.

How Was The Byzantine Military Machine Structured?

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire — and it survived for many centuries after the western half of the empire crumbled to dust. While most of us think of it as an entirely different entity — that perhaps the heart and soul of the Roman Empire was lost when Rome itself fell to both domestic and outside forces — it really wasn’t all that different in the beginning. Over time, though, it became a unique empire with a heart and soul all its own.

It’s military, for example, evolved quite differently than Rome’s did. 

The cataphracts (a word meaning completely armored) were heavy cavalry meant to check the military might of the Persians, who were devastating to Byzantine soldiers when encountered in the field. These soldiers were among the most disciplined that were fielded all the way through the High Middle Ages. Even the horse was heavily armored. Riders would carry a number of weapons, including lances, maces, or bow and arrow.

Although the cataphracts were the result of outside forces, the Byzantine military almost always included well-trained infantry men — which was the direct result of having been a part of the Roman Empire for so long before. Most of these men would carry a sword, axe, or spear. Some would arm themselves with lead-weighted darts called plumbata. They would wear a shield shaped like either an oval or triangle. Some would wear chain mail. Those of lesser means could be found equipped with leather armor. 

Around the twelfth century, Byzantine began including units of pronoiars, who were paid in land. Although they didn’t directly collect wages, part of their job was that of a glorified tax collector. Sometimes they kept some of the monies collected. Because of their power, they were considered somewhat like western knights. Although they were soldiers with a great number of expectations placed on them, they also had wealth and titles.

The akritoi soldiers were found along the Anatolian borders, although their initial appearance as part of the Byzantine military is not well documented. The akritoi were mostly Greek farmers. They mostly carried a bow and arrow or javelins. These light soldiers would be used for quick encounters to soften an enemy before the rest of the army swooped in, but they could also be trusted to act defensively.

In addition to a military of its own citizens, Byzantine relied heavily on units made up of mercenaries and foreign soldiers. Whereas the Western Roman Empire was known for quickly raising legions from within its own cities, it could be said that the Eastern Roman Empire was known for quickly raising new armies from within its own coffers. Byzantine was an empire of vast wealth — and it knew how to put that wealth to use.

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.