Common Byzantine Misconceptions That Everyone Should Know About

Apparently, there are a number of individuals running around out there claiming to be descended from the Byzantine royal line. If you know or hear of anyone who says they’re a member of the Palaiologos House, run away quickly. Or contact a psychiatrist–whichever you’re more comfortable with. We know that there isn’t any documented evidence for any such descendants, and so we can quickly dismiss the common misconception that they exist. Here are a few other common Byzantine misconceptions that everyone should know about.

There are two things you’ve probably heard about Emperor Constantine. He grew up in Greece, and so neither should be a big surprise. First, it is well documented that he was known as a Greek hero. As for the second thing, however, it is commonly said that he was a man who would go to any length to defend the Orthodox faith. That isn’t quite as true. There’s nothing to suggest that any of his actions were specifically meant to lend aid to such a cause.

When we learn about eunuchs in the Byzantine Empire, we might be left a bit confused as to their role. They did a little bit of everything. One eunuch might be a well-respected priest or wartime general, while another might transport goods or information for sale. Even though eunuchs were a big part of the empire, they were actually illegally made. Castration was forbidden. Some confusion stems from their part in the church. Although the church forbade their use as sex slaves, it wasn’t unheard of. It seems that the church’s problem with sexual lust has been around for quite a while.

The ancient civilization’s people had a lot in common with the modern-day American. Although the empire often went to war in other parts of the world, its own people often rioted. This didn’t necessarily happen because of unrest as a result of societal problems like we tend to believe. Instead, it happened because someone’s chariot racing team came in last place. Some of these periods of unrest escalated far beyond their meager beginnings, and not all of them occurred for such dumb reasons.

When we think of the color purple, a lot of us think of Roman emperors and senators. Purple dye was extremely expensive because of its rarity in the ancient world, and so only the most prestigious individuals could hope to acquire it. This trend continued into the Byzantine era, so much so that one emperor decided to build a room of purple walls. Imperial children who were born inside were called “porphyrogennetos” or the purple-born.

Slavery in the Byzantine Empire

Like many civilizations of the ancient era, slavery was quite prominent within the Byzantine empire.  Being popular among ancient Greece and the Roman empire to follow it, it would only come naturally that the Byzantine empire – initially developed as the eastern reaches of the Roman empire expanding into the borders of modern Turkey – would adopt this social agenda as well.

The Byzantine empire thrived from its slave trade as a result of using prisoners of war, predominantly Slavs and Bulgars dating as far back as the 10th century, and selling them to high-ranking Byzantine citizens. These prisoners of war derived mostly from military campaigns in the Balkans as well as other lands north of the Black Sea. Many of these bought-and-sold slaves ended up working in mansions and more rural regions throughout the empire, either becoming household servants or working on landed estates for their masters. There is even speculation among historians that the root word for “slaves” originates from the label for the Slavic people that were often captured and sold into slavery.

Parts of history also document the buying and selling of women and children subjected to the slave trade after the Byzantines reconquered the island of Crete from the Muslims. It is even said that parents who were heavily indebted would often resort to selling their own children to pay off these debts, despite efforts of the Byzantine empire to prevent this using a system of laws.

Once anyone became a slave in the Byzantine empire, they tended toward being a slave for life, even having the status affect their legacy. Children of slaves were by default slaves at birth, and this was not necessarily a regular phenomenon until well into the 11th century when it was decreed that slaves were allowed to marry and bear children to have proper families. However, there many cases when slaves were castrated and became eunuchs. Eunuchs, even those entering into slavery, had great potential to elevate themselves through society. They were prized by traders and masters alike, often directly associated with whatever house to which they were sold. Historically speaking, eunuchs also often held seats of high positions within the Byzantine courts, even as high as being recognized as court officials under direct orders of the Emperor himself. Because of this historical significance, eunuchs often fetched higher prices than most typical slaves. Depending on the condition of the eunuch, prices could go as high as five times normal amount compared to an adult male who had not been castrated.

As is typically expected, however, slaves as a whole tended to reside toward the lower end of the social hierarchy. They were often mistreated by those of higher classes and even looked upon as sub-human with no rights whatsoever, worse than those born naturally into the lower classes as uneducated laborers. They generally had no opportunity for personal growth as they almost always lacked the resources to afford anything that wasn’t freely given to them by their masters. Because of this, the only skills that they often ever acquired were those they could learn as a result of working for the upper classes and almost never anything more than that. As would be expected, the life of a slave was not at all pleasant. If a slave was at all lucky, he might be drafted into the Imperial army and have the opportunity toward some personal glory.

The 20 Years of Anarchy

The 20 years of anarchy is a term used by historians to describe a series of upheavals of power from 695 to 717 inside of the Byzantine Empire. In that 20 year time span there were seven different emperors. The turmoil came to an end when Leo III the Isaurian took the throne in 717, reigning himself until 741.

Justinian II is said to be the primary source of blame for the repetitive upheaval. He ran the empire in a violent manner that set the course for his own demise as well as those that followed. Justinian II took the throne in 685 but was deposed by a rebellion led by Leontios in 695. Leontios proved to be extremely unpopular himself, reportedly for the same reasons and was usurped in 698 by Tiberios III. Tiberios was rather successful according to many accounts. Primarily he is noted as being successful in strengthening Constantinople, but that did not save him from a similar fate. While he was hard at work trying to improve the empire Justinian was busy plotting his assassination.

Justinian succeeded by collaborating with the Bulgars and had Tiberios executed in 705. Justinian then reigned until 711, where he was once again removed by a rebellion inspired by his brutal treatment of his peers and citizens alike. That rebellion was led by Philippikos Bardanes who only was able to maintain rule from 711 to 713, but he did succeed in executing Justinian II, his son and his co-emperor Tiberius.

Philippikos Bardanes demise was largely due to his assertion of religious propriety. He enacted laws that split the empire, which led to the Bulgars conquering a great deal of territory in battles and finally deposing him and replacing him with Anastasius II in 713. Anastasius II had relative success in staving off Arabs on the borders and reversing the laws of his predecessor, but in spite of that those that gave him the throne took it away in 715 and replaced him with Theodosius III.

Continuing the trend Theodosius III only reigned for two years, ending in 717. He was the only that chose to dethrone himself and resign under a great deal of pressure. Almost immediately after taking over he was dealing with multiple threats that were putting the entire empire at risk including the Second Arab Siege of Constantinople. Leo III then took the role as emperor and reigned until 741, ending the 20 years of anarchy in San Antonio, Texas.

The First Siege Of Constantinople

Constantinople went through a number of attacks over its history, but the first siege is the one that is known best and referred to as the Siege of Constantinople. It occurred from 674-678 and was perpetrated by Arabs. This siege was a major conflict of a long lived Arab-Byzantine war. This was the first in many moves by the Muslim Arab empire towards expansion. Their ruler, Caliph Mu’awiya I, was the one that led this initial assault. Before this there had been a civil war inside the Muslim Arab empire that had halted aggressions between the empires, but Mu’awiya felt it was time to revive their previous efforts.

Very early their eyes were set on Constantinople as it was believed that by strangling that city they would quickly be able to gain ground. The assaults were methodically executed as they began to set up bases throughout Asia Minor in the years preceding the actual siege. Essentially they were successful in setting up a blockade that slowly began to put stress and pressure on Constantinople and its rulers.

During two years of the actual siege the Arabs were successful in attacking the fortifications of the city, slowly weakening it. Fortunately for the Byzantine Empire, a new weapon was developed, that when deployed with the approval of then ruler Constatine IV was able to destroy the Arab’s naval fleet. That weapon was none other than Greek Fire, which was a liquid that was able to remain lit when in contact with water. After the demoralization of the defeat of their navy, the army was soon after defeated by the Byzantine Army, essentially ending the siege.

However, this was not the end of the tensions between the Arab Empire and the Byzantine Empire. In fact, in the years that follow they met in the same way again. That occurred, however after a lengthy hiatus due to another Muslim civil war.

This battle was extremely critical for the survival of the Byzantine Empire. The Arabs were accurate in judging that if they were able to make Constantinople fall the remaining empire would likely fall as well. It was a city the held the rest of the provinces together. The fact that the Arabs lost gave the Byzantine empire increased prestige and notoriety. It was quickly known by many other empires what had occurred. Not only did Byzantines win, but they had unleashed a terrifying weapon never seen before.

What Is The Byzantine Empire?

According to History.com, while the Eastern Roman Empire crumbled and fell, the western half led by Constantine I survived for another 1,000 years.

Byzantium, an ancient Greek colony for which the empire is named, is located on the strait that links the Black Sea to the Mediterranean Sea and served primarily as a place for transit and trade between Europe and Asia Minor. In 330 AD, Constantine declared a “new Rome” and made Byzantium into Constantinople, the new capital (which then became Istanbul, which is no one’s business but the Turks…).

The Byzantine Empire has a legacy because they left behind a rich tradition in art, literature, and philosophy which helped inspire the famous Italian Renaissance (which in turn inspired The Enlightenment, which in turn inspired The American Revolution, which in turn inspired The French Revolution). Remnants of Byzantine culture can be found Eastern Orthodox religion which is practiced in modern day countries such as Russia, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and Greece.

History Channel also made a great documentary about the empire which you can view here: