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.

What Were The Key Locations In The Byzantine Empire?

The locations of various settlements and cities can completely change the outlook of a civilization. History can be determined by the strategic tenability of a particular city. Is it close to key resources that few allies or adversaries possess? Is it defensible? Are the people wealthy or poor? Is there a port for increased commerce and economic prosperity? All of these aspects matter, and more.

Ephesus was one such key location of the Byzantine Empire. It was an important bastion of tourism for centuries before the empire even came to be. The Temple of Artemis was built there. Because of what it represented to the western Romans — prestige, power, etc. — many foreign powers sought to dominate it. It was finally taken by Arabs in 668 A.D. and burned to the ground. They continued onto Constantinople.

Constantinople was always destined to become the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. An imperial palace was built there to house the emperors. Wealthy citizens of the empire sought to live there. It was surrounded by tall walls that would become the target of attack for centuries — but they managed to stay standing for around 800 years. It was sacked during the Fourth Crusade in 1204 A.D. before being brought back into the empire in 1261. It was once again stormed and destroyed — for the last time — by the Ottomans in 1453.

Alexander the Great built Alexandria around 330 B.C., and would remain important to the Mediterranean region for a thousand years. Some believe that it was the most populous city to reach over 100,000 people. Alexandria was very important to Christians while the religion was still in its first stages. Alexander was entombed there, and many pilgrims visited his burial site. Alexandria’s importance declined when Paganism was outlawed by Theodosius in 391 A.D.

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.