What Was Byzantine Life Like Under The Doukas Dynasty?

The Doukas Dynasty enjoyed a short rule between the years 1059 and 1081 AD. Somehow, they squeezed six emperors into this 22-year period, so you might say they didn’t do a bang-up job. Emperor Constantine X Doukas reigned between 1059 and 1067. After him, there was his brother John Doukas (Caesar Romanos IV Diogenes) from 1068 to 1071, his son Michael VII Doukas from 1071-1078 (whose own son co-ruled with him), and lastly Nikephoros III Botaneiates. 

Although the last of the bunch was a Doukas, he decided to rule under the Botaneiates name and claimed the Phokas family as his own.

The decline of the Byzantine Empire was quite apparent during Doukas rule, as the Seljuk Turks were successfully battling back Byzantine forces. Much of the empire’s territory in Asia Minor disappeared after the decimation of Byzantine forces at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 AD. Territory also evaporated in the Balkans — and even back in Italy after an incursion by the Normans. How embarrassing is that?

Subsequent to Doukas rule, the empire continued to be pared away by outside forces — especially the Ottoman Empire.

Alexios Komnenos ascended to emperorship in 1077, when his marriage to Irene Doukaina and fame as a Byzantine general allowed him to take over without shedding a drop of blood. He didn’t warm the seat for long, though, because the following year both Nikephoros Bryennios and Nikephoros Botaneiates — generals — revolted and marched on Nicea and Constantinople. 

The “election” of this man (who had proclaimed himself emperor, as so many emperors are wont to do), was “ratified” by members of the clergy and aristocracy. A great many conspiracies, violent uprisings, and foreign incursions followed, and soon enough a man named Alexios Komnenos bribed the Constantinople garrison to crown himself king, which resulted in the establishment of the Komnenos dynasty. The previous emperor was out of time at the time. Whoops.

The Roadways Of The Byzantine Empire

Take a look at any of today’s roads, interstates, or highways, and you might be forgiven for forgetting that cars themselves are barely more than a century old. And certainly, there were no massive roadways designed for side-by-side travel of dozens of vehicles a hundred years ago. But we have the old Roman Empire — and eventually its continuation, the Byzantine Empire — to thank for the idea of a government spending a fortune to ensure its people have the ability to cover great distances on a single path. 

Byzantine roads were hardly like California superhighways, but they were certainly some of the best in the world.

The Romans were also famous for naming their paths. The Via Egnatia, for example, was built sometime in the second century BC. And it was massive. The undertaking must has cost the Roman Empire a pretty penny, lots of manpower, and many years of work. It spanned Illyricum, Macedonia, and Thracia — or modern day Albania, North Macedonia, Greece, and Turkey when its name became the Via Appia, one of Rome’s most famous roads.

One of the reasons that the Via Egnatia was such a tremendous undertaking was because its path wasn’t over flat terrain. This route was twisted and tangled, closely following the Genusus River before wending through the Candaviae Mountains, and up into the Lake Ohrid highlands. It continued even farther toward the Aegean Sea and then all the way to Byzantium (which would eventually become the capital city of the Byzantine Empire and have its name changed to Constantinople). 

The length of this impressive road? Around 1,120 Km. 

But these roads were probably more impressive than you think. They weren’t your typical hiking path through the woods and over the mountains. In fact, we may have overstepped by suggesting they were hardly comparable to California’s superhighways — because the Via Egnatia was a whopping six meters (or 19.6 feet) across, and paved in stone and hard sand. By comparison, a single U.S. Interstate Highway lane is a standardized 12 feet. Certainly bigger when you have at least four of them side by side, but still — the Romans gave us the right idea.

These roads were also notable for their straight continuity — i.e. one end is usually directly across from the other. They rarely “wind” like many of ours do. This made it easier to navigate in the ancient world, even if you were an ordinary citizen.

The Via Egnatia was also given historical significance when the Apostate Paul used it as a means to travel from Phillippi to Thessalonica during his second missionary pilgrimage. Paul wasn’t the only important figure to travel this stretch: Julius Caesar and Pompey both used it during the civil war of Caesar’s making. Mark Antony and Octavian used the road to follow Cassius and Brutus until they met at the Battle of Philippi.  

When the Roman Empire fell, the Byzantine Empire provided some much-needed improvements to the failing infrastructure and used the road to trade with most of Europe. Armies also used the road to travel from place to place during the Crusades.

How Many Languages Were Spoken In the Byzantine Empire?

The Roman and Byzantine Empires were used by the American Founding Fathers to set a framework for a new (or more aptly “updated”) form of government after the Revolution. Although the United States was always called a melting pot, many of our citizens have never really embraced the idea that we’re stronger through our diverse cultures, many languages, and innumerable ethnicities. The Roman Empire certainly experienced its fair share of racism — but they also embraced other cultures much more easily than we do. 

Because the building of these extraordinary empires occurred on the premise of assimilation — but not total assimilation, as conquered territories were originally allowed to keep their own customs and religions — there were also many languages commonly spoken across the Byzantine territories. These included aging Latin, Koine Greek, and Medieval Greek.

The Byzantine Empire continued to embrace much of what made the Roman Empire strong, but one of its great failings was the lack of religious diversity. Christianity was a mainstay of traditional beliefs, which ultimately reduced diversity and fomented distrust of outsiders (sound familiar?). Latin was already spoken in fewer regions, and most Byzantine territories relied on Greek. We associate Latin with the Catholic Church, but in fact Greek was most commonly used there as well. 

Greek was eventually associated with scholars, artistic endeavors, and the language of trade. What English is today, Greek was yesterday. Of course, there were innumerable dialects spoken over a massive space. Koine and Medieval Greek became the most commonly spoken. Before Koine came along, Attic Greek pervaded.

It is widely considered possible that Emperor Justinian I may have been the last to speak Latin. His Corpus Juris Civilis was written in Latin, and he believed it was an important language that should be taught and used. Shortly after his time as emperor, it fell out of use entirely. Latin was revived several times throughout Byzantine history, though, especially during the 10th and 11th centuries.

Could A Byzantine Citizen Sue Someone For Damages?

If someone’s negligence results in injury or financial damages in the United States, we have a relatively simple solution: sue the jerk. But it’s important to recognize that the ability to receive that sort of compensation isn’t pervasive in other countries (even in the developed world) and that many people have the view that accidents will always happen. What about the legal process in the Byzantine Empire? Could one citizen sue another?

We acquired many of our “rights” from the original Roman Empire. There was a latin concept coined as “lus conubii,” which represented a person’s right to a lawful marriage. This was generally a legal concept between two Roman citizens based on traditional Roman principles. But Romans also enjoyed citizenship rights, the right to run for office, and the right to vote or make legal contracts (dependent on who you were). But they also had the right to sue for damages!

What is personal injury? It’s a form of law in which a person who was physically or financially harmed by a person or organization can recoup proportional damages. The Byzantine Empire was an extension of the Old Western Roman Empire, and thus assimilated many of its laws and traditions. The right to sue was one such tradition.

Many of these laws were predictably acquired through a heavily Christian influence, which was the official religion of the Byzantine Empire. Byzantine law is generally assumed to be a continuation of Roman traditions that had begun in the sixth century. They collapsed when Constinople was sacked in the fifteenth century.

Byzantine also had a number of “codes” to determine what was legal and illegal. The Sea Laws, for example, provided seafaring travelers with a set of maritime laws. Not only were Byzantine landmasses subject to regulation by the Empire, but so were the seas! One of the earliest sea laws was simply called “Naval Law.”

Other laws were intended to help oversee how certain professions could do business. A set of “Farmer’s Laws” to regulate the mostly agricultural society that thrived inside Byzantine’s borders. The Nomos Georgikos (sometimes called the Lex Rustica or Farmer’s Law) has been researched for a long time because the relevant texts are some of the most routinely discovered. Farmer’s Law was heavily influenced by the Slavs, who immigrated into the Empire in very large numbers during the first days when these laws were established.

Byzantine peasants were themselves organized into groupings called communities, but only for the purpose of collecting taxes every so often. The entire community of a certain region was responsible for making sure those taxes were paid. If they were not paid, then the entire community was liable for a sort of “personal injury” against the Empire itself. In turn Farmer’s Law influenced Slavic countries like Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia.

Emperor Leo III the Isaurian ratified an important set of laws called the Ecloga, which regulated civil and criminal law. These were the laws that provided citizens with the right to marry or file lawsuits and, notably, provided them with equality in the eyes of Byzantine legal system.

Were There Contested “Elections” In The Byzantine Empire?

The word “contested” has taken on somewhat of a dark connotation as of late, defined by most of us as signifying a contest many participants consider stolen or false. Our current presidential election is but one example of this kind of contested outcome. But a contest all by itself is simply a pairing off of two or more distinct parties. In this way, a “contested” event could signify something as benign as a race in which all participants are equally matched.

The archaeological remains of the city of Pompeii showcase ancient Roman elections. Graffiti inscriptions from the city seem to show that its citizens took various back and forth positions on elections that had occurred in or around the year 79 A.D. 

Not everyone had the authority to cast a vote in Ancient Rome, or its succeeding empire — the Byzantine Empire in the east. But those who did certainly found themselves in contentious positions. One ruler might have been desired while another found himself in the position of emperor after all the votes were cast. Sometimes, these events were “contested” as we’ve come to know the word.

Not surprisingly, these events were more contentious when the papacy was at stake. The emperor was important, but no one was more important than the supreme servant of God — who we still today know as the pope. For example, the deaths of Pope John V and Pope Conon led to respective elections that were inevitably contested.

Pope John died in 686 A.D., which led to a division between the clergy, which preferred Archpriest Peter, and the army, which supported a different priest. Although the army’s input was heavily weighed in the emperor’s succession, the clergy had the ultimate say in this case.

Pope Conon was barely in office for a single year before his death, which set off a heated dispute — again between the clergy and army. His death marked the last and most significant contested election of a pope.

Did The Byzantine Government Help Disabled Workers?

You probably already know that the Roman Empire was eventually divided into East and West — and that the Western Roman Empire fell into chaos and disintegrated much earlier. But at its height, the emperors of the Roman Empire provided the plebeian “mob” with grain to keep them fed. The government of any body of people bases its existence on protecting those people, which is why systems like helping the poor worked so well. But how did these ancient societies help out those who couldn’t work at all?

You might be shocked to hear they did anything at all! But providing these disabled workers with help is how most scholars begin discussing the history of workers compensation.

The U.S. National Library of Medicine acknowledges the modern failures of workers compensation and likens our own inability to make it work to those civilizations that came long before us failing to accomplish exactly the same thing. 

The NLM said: “The history of compensation for bodily injury begins shortly after the advent of written history itself. The Nippur Tablet No. 3191 from ancient Sumeria in the fertile crescent outlines the law of Ur-Nammu, king of the city-state of Ur.”

The Code of Hammurabi set out compensation for injuries and impairments circa 1750 B.C. — in addition to perpetrating many of those injuries on those accused of many crimes. The NLM continued: “Ancient Greek, Roman, Arab, and Chinese law provided sets of compensation schedules, with precise payments for the loss of a body part. For example, under ancient Arab law, loss of a joint of the thumb was worth one-half the value of a finger.”

Perhaps more comically, a similar law compensated a severed penis proportional to how long the member was.

The point is this: most ancient civilizations were socially advanced enough to offer “benefits” or “entitlements” to those who needed them to survive. These benefits are still controversial today, but they are as old as time itself. The laws surround compensation were much more documented by the Middle Ages (ironically a time when we usually consider nothing to have happened, it was filled with young scribes who copied down many texts on the basis of religion).

Most of the these ancient societies — Byzantine Empire included — would not give a worker any form of compensation if his own negligence was the reason the injury was sustained. This clause of “contributory” negligence was something that has persisted even to this very day.

It should be noted that impairments were not defined in ancient societies, and that they differ from what we traditionally consider a disability. The former means loss of function, while the latter means loss of ability to perform a function — more or less. That made it just as difficult for an Ancient Byzantine citizen to acquire workers compensation as it would be for a worker in the United States today.

Curious how the Byzantine and Roman Empires differ? Check out this video for a few examples.

Were There Voters In The Byzantine Empire?

The Byzantine Empire is another name for the “Eastern Roman Empire,” which continued to survive and thrive after the Western Roman Empire fell — and most people know that at least a few rungs of society had voting rights during the heights of the Roman Empire. So did those voting rights continue during the Byzantine Empire? The answer is complicated. The short answer is “yes,” because it inherited most of its structure from the west.

The Byzantine Empire was sometimes described as a Republican Absolute Monarchy. What exactly does that mean? Well, it doesn’t mean anything. It’s simply a combination of other forms of government that have meaning. For example, a Republican government — like the United States — occurs when a country’s people, lands, and wealth is not the property of its rulers but of its people. Republican is just another way of saying that the public has a stake in their government.

And that’s where it gets confusing when we add the words “absolute monarchy,” which describes a government controlled almost entirely by a single person. That means that there are no checks and balances to keep this one person from acquiring too much power — because he (or rarely, she) already has all of it at his fingertips. Kings (or monarchs) are almost never elected. Mostly, they acquire power through dynasty or bloodline.

However, in the case of the Byzantine Empire — “emperors” were still technically elected. But voting rights were granted only to those serving in the Senate and the Army. The decline in the Senate’s power pretty much handed all elective authority over to the Army. Because emperors had all the power of an absolute monarch, though, they usually managed to sway the “voters” into making the decision they desired — which meant that one emperor had a lot of say in the line of succession, and family members almost always succeeded the throne.

Were Couples Allowed To Legally Divorce During The Byzantine Empire?

Marriage has been an institution associated with almost every advanced society in written history, and some extreme thinkers even believe that the breakdown of that institution directly relates to the destruction of those societies (hint: they have little to do with one another, as the Native Americans can teach us). Obviously, the Christian faith grew during the years of the Byzantine Empire — but does that mean divorce was legal, or illegal?

First, it’s important to realize that the Byzantine Empire — or the Eastern Roman Empire, much like the Western Roman Empire before it — was divided into many different cultural regions that held their own beliefs and customs. That meant that marriage and divorce, along with religious practices, would sometimes be distinct depending on where a citizen lived. But much of the empire was rooted in Christianity, so that’s where we will focus.

Byzantine women performed different roles than men, although many shared business interests and aspirations. She held a certain amount of power because of this, but in the church she was usually relegated to a minor role like clerk. Some would become nuns. Women married young and were even sometimes considered the “head” of the Byzantine family — which is certainly different from the Puritan American values most of us know. Byzantine women were also granted access to basic education. 

One might think that the prospect of divorce in the ancient world was impossible, or at least penalized much in the same way as it is in countries located in the Middle East — where divorce is only granted for reasons like adultery, when the wife is most often accused and put to death as a result. In the Byzantine Empire, adultery was still a primary reason for divorce. But the punishments were very different. The adulterer wasn’t necessarily put to death. Instead, the adulterer might be tarred, lashed, or humiliated.

For a man to be successfully accused of adultery by his wife, the act had to be committed with a married woman. This was a difficult thing to prove — it’s not like these women had access to the modern day divorce attorney, although a trial system did exist.

Another question arises when we consider the somewhat more common occurrence of widowhood in the ancient world. Were women allowed to remarry? Technically, yes — but if she did, she would lose access to her dead husband’s estate in many circumstances. In cases where the woman was young when the husband died, she might return to her father’s home without inheritance. 

Upper-class women had additional rights. For example, they were required to wait a full year before remarrying to properly mourn the deaths of their husbands, but they could indeed remarry. 

The takeaways? Both divorce and remarrying were legally allowed, but there was a social stigma attached. That stigma exists today, of course, but it was certainly much stronger back in the many centuries during which the Byzantine Empire thrived.

What Was The Literacy Rate For Residents Of The Byzantine Empire?

We all know that literacy rates among the human population never really grew until more modern eras — say, the 1700s and onward. It only really started to grow exponentially from the 1800s and onward, even though, by then, the printing press was an “old” invention. That’s because the aristocracy still ruled the peasants in most parts of the world. Although we spend much time devoted to teaching people about all the great, modern aspects of the Byzantine Empire, this was one area in which it failed to deliver anything that could be construed as modern practice.

The low literacy rates of the Byzantine Empire were compounded by the momentous strife that occurred in regions where it dominated the economy sphere. Libraries were important sanctuaries for the wealthy, but many were destroyed or burned down — especially in Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade, for example.

The author of Scholars of Byzantium wrote: “Although there is some evidence, principally from the lives of saints, that elementary education was widely available, the impression must remain that literacy was less widespread and the average level of culture less high than had been the case in the ancient world. It is hard to imagine, for instance, a Byzantine province producing evidence of readers with such diverse and learned interests as those provided by the finds of papyri from the country districts of Greco-Roman Egypt.”

What this boils down to is that even old world Roman plebeians, as uneducated as they likely were, probably had more of a basic understanding of reading and writing than the Byzantines. 

Ultimately, though, these were enormous empires with enormous reach. They were inhabited by many different types of people who made up subsets of a larger community. They had their own distinct cultures even though Rome had its own. It’s one of the reasons the Roman Empire was so successful — each conquered people was allowed to “keep” the attributes that made them unique. So literacy was likely dependent on region, culture, etc.

Living With Disabilities in The Byzantine Empire

What is a disability? These are most often defined as physical, emotional, or psychological limitations that could prevent an individual living a normal life. These conditions make it much more difficult to integrate with other members of society, some of whom might not even accept that the disability exists.

Have you ever thought about what it might be like to live with a disability in a big city like New York, Los Angeles, or Houston? Those of us who don’t have one can hardly imagine the obstacles that these people have to endure. Long lines, the doubt, and social stigma are only a few. Now imagine what it must be like to live with a disability in an ancient society like Carthage or Rome. How did treatment toward those with disabilities change throughout time? How about when the Western Roman Empire fell and the Byzantine Empire slowly took its place?

Believe it or not, but it might have been easier to live with a disability in those ancient times than it was today — mentally at least. That’s because many historians noted in their texts that nearly every citizen had some sort of limitation that technically constituted a disability. Physical and psychological impairments were common, but the means to repair them were not. This was not an era of high medicine. 

What might surprise you even more is that Roman and Byzantine law was quite accommodating toward those who suffered from disability.

It did, however, depend on your lot in life. For example, being hobbled as a plebeian meant you were in for a rough time, but being hobbled as a patrician was more a burden for your slaves — since they were the ones forced to drag you from place to place even if you were healthy. Plebeians who could not move or lift might also have more trouble finding work, which could mean additional trouble for those who had families.

There were exceptions as well. Those who suffered from extreme deformity were more likely to find work in more demeaning situations, such as theater or in arenas, where they might be tasked with entertaining the mob before the main events. Think about it: Even today, we use little people in TV and movies more often in non-serious roles. This is especially true when we use them to portray what life was once like in the Middle Ages.

Those who were born or suffered these deformities were often bullied, and it was socially acceptable to be on the giving end. 

There were other exceptions. The earlier in history you start looking, the worse the laws become. For example, it was perfectly legal to have children who were born with hideous deformities put to death (by stoning, because how else would you kill a child?). These laws changed over time. Rome was known for its civilization — and not without reason. In the third century AD, a new law mandated that parents must take care of any children born with a disability.