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.

What Is The Archimedes Palimpsest?

Only one of the great “overwrites” in world history.

We all get the look of despair in the computer world when we don’t save a file and it gets overwritten by some other information and we lose the original file. Or if there is a hard drive that crashes, wiping out all of your important photos and documents. That would be considered an “overwrite” into nothing.

But just as technology has greatly mitigated the file overwrite that so terrified us back in the day (thank you AutoSave!), technology has also gone a long way toward restoring the original “file” that is known as the Archimedes Palimpsest.

The Archimedes Palimpsest is one of the most well-known “overwrites” ever. It is a manuscript originally written by Archimedes, the famed Greek mathematician in the 3rd century B.C., and compiled in the 10th century, during the Byzantine Empire. It is a manuscript that is believed to be the only copy of two Archimedean works, known as The Method of Mechanical Theorems and Stomachion.

In the 13th century, however, this manuscript was “overwritten” by some monks who turned it into part of a prayer book.  For centuries, it seemed that some of Archimedes’ work was going to be legend or a full-out myth. That is, until 1906, when a Danish expert on Archimedes’ work, Johan Heiberg, discovered the book and noted some of Archimedes’ writing under the prayer texts – the previous work had only been partially “erased.”  He could only read bits and pieces of the work, and then the prayer book went missing for more than 90 years, until it showed up at a Christie’s auction in 1998.

An anonymous American made a $2 million bid for the book, and a short time later it found its way to a museum in Baltimore, Md., where it has continually been studied and researched. A variety of technologies have been employed to try to extract more and more of the original Archimedean text. Ultraviolet, infrared, raking light as well as X-rays have been used to dig under the Christian prayers to find these original works.

Isidore of Miletus is credited with the first full compilation of Archimedes’ works, but the fu;l Method and Stomachion had been lost over the centuries. What has also been missing was the original Greek copy of On Floating Bodies, another mathematical treatise. The Palimpsest also contains On the Equilibrium of Planes, Measurement of a Circle, Spiral Lines, and On the Sphere and Cylinder.

One of the highlights of the recent scholarly work has been the revelation that Archimedes seems to postulate a concept of what is called actual infinity in math, which was a concept that had only been known in the 19th century, though Archimedes was working 22 centuries earlier on an idea that essentially set the tone for the field of calculus.

The value of the information being culled from this work seems to far outweigh the $2 million bid, and interest in the Palimpsest over the last 15 years has grown within the math world and curiosity has continued to expand in science and in art.