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.

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.

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.

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!

Things You May Not Know About the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire dominated Eastern Europe for some time. The empire ruled over many people of different backgrounds and religions. While you may have learned about the Byzantine Empire at some point in your life, it’s likely you did not earn about every event in detail. With help from, we were able to put together a list of facts that you may not have learned about in school.  Check out the list below.

Things You Didn’t Know About the Byzantine Empire

  • It wasn’t called the Byzantine Empire
    • Yes, that’s right, the Byzantine Empire wasn’t actually called the Byzantine Empire in its heyday. As you may already know, the Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire. The major difference was that the capital moved from Rome to Constantinople. The community largely spoke Greek and was Chrisitan.
  • Constantinople: An Imperial Capital
    • Constantinople was not the original capital of the Byzantine Empire. After Constantine claimed the throne, he decided to abandon the old capital, Rome. He moved the capital to Constantinople, which was located on the Bosporus strait diving Europe from Asia. He brought the port city from rubbish to riches in just six years.
  • Justinian was the most Influential Emperor
    • Justantinia was born around 482 and was the son of a peasant. His uncle, Justin I, was a soldier and he took him under his wing at an early age. Justinian proceeded his uncle on the throne. He ruled for over 40 years, during which he conquered lost Roman territory and launched an abundance of construction projects. One of which was the rebuilding of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, a domed church. The church is considered one of the greatest architectural pieces in the history of the world.
  • A Group of Hooligans Almost Brought Down an Empire
    • As with today, different groups of people are fans of different sports teams. The same goes for the Byzantine Empire. The empire had the Blues and the Greens, named after the chariot teams they supported. The groups were known to hate each other, often leading to violent situations at sporting events. This even happens today when people mix alcohol and emotions. Thankfully, there were no cars in the Byzantine Empire or they would have needed a Gwinnett County DUI attorney.  The group banded together to riot over taxation they felt was unfair. After days of building s being torched, Justinian had enough. He sent mercenary troops to the groups’ headquarters to fight for the safety of the city. Nearly 30,000 people died during these battles.
  • Byzantine Rulers were Ruthless
    • Byzantine rulers had a reputation for being ruthless. On many accounts, Byzantine politicians would have captured leaders blinded or castrated to prevent them from leading troops or having children.

Byzantine Social Classes

Throughout human existence, empires have risen, fallen, and risen again. The Byzantine Empire was located the Mediterranean portion Eastern Europe. Just as any other empire, the Byzantine had a system of social classes. The Byzantine broke social classes down into three broad categories: the Upper Class, the Middle Class, and the Lower Class. The structure was loose, not rigid. In other words, there was social mobility. While it was very hard to go from the bottom of the social pyramid to the top, it could be done. The social classes were based on a number of components including education, income, property, and other factors.

The Social Classes

The Upper Class:

The upper class was the highest tier of people. This class began with the emperor and trickled down to other wealthy owning families. If your family was in the upper class, you generally received more respect, more power, and owned most of the land. Top tier citizens enjoyed all of the spoils and benefits the Byzantine Empire had to offer.  

The Middle Class:

The middle class was the second tier of citizens. These citizens had the most potential for upward movement. Middle class citizens were just that, in the middle. They did not have as much wealth as upper class families, but did not have as little wealth as lower class families. Second tier citizens were merchants, artisans, government employees, or other highly skilled workers. Generally, it was easier to move from the middle class to the upper class because middle class citizens were able to get an education and learn other skills necessary to perform at the top of their profession.

The Lower Class:

The lower class is quite self-explanatory; it’s the lowest tier of citizens in the Byzantine Empire. This social category was made up of slaves and other physical laborers. Often, these citizens had little rights, lacked an identity, and were constantly disrespected by members of higher classes. The citizens in this tier were unpaid and they did not own property, but they were given a bunk and food rations from their employer. It was very difficult for citizens of this class to move up as they didn’t have access to education or the apprenticeships necessary to become skilled workers.   

The Byzantine Empire was not the first empire to have social classes and they certainly were not the last. In fact, social classes still exist today. In some countries, it is nearly impossible to increase your social status, while others have a more fluid system in terms of social mobility. At the end of the day, hard work is the best method to increase your social status and wealth.

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. Calm down, no need to call a criminal defense lawyer Phoenix

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.