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.

All About Byzantine Food

When we think of foreign dishes, our minds are firmly rooted in the present. We very rarely consider the past as a template for new cuisine choices, and even when we do it’s hard to find good sources of information. How did ancient civilizations prepare food? Was it tasty? Was it healthy? What would the nutritionists of today think if they were to sample a Byzantine platter, for example? Believe it or not, we do have a few ideas of what you might expect if you had a seat at an ancient Byzantine table during supper. Here’s everything you need to know about Byzantine food.

You might think that people in the ancient world had less variety available to them, and for some of the lower classes that may ring true. The more wealth you had, the more ingredients you had to cook with. Local dishes weren’t the only ones you might hope to eat, either. These ancient peoples used local waterways to transport goods from one place to the next, and so they had more to work with than you’d imagine. The variety available to the Byzantines was greater than that available to the Greeks or Romans. In particular, Byzantine people often didn’t bother cooking herbs and vegetables. Instead, they ate a lot of their food raw.

When meat was available, it might come in the form of lamb, pork, chicken, gazelle or donkey. If you’ve never had a gazelle or donkey, then you haven’t lived in the ancient world. Like most cultures during ancient eras, they ate a lot of fish, and fish was plentiful. Ancient Romans used garum, or fish sauce, to flavor much of the foods they ate. The Byzantines did the same.

The Byzantines were the first we know of to use ginger or nutmeg for cooking. Prior to this age, these kinds of spices were only used as healing devices. In particular, they would puree vegetables like carrots and parsnips, and then mash in chopped ginger, cloves, and honey in order to create a tasty meal. They ate eggs. They ate cake. They used wine to cook. A lot of what they did, we continue to do today.

Although we can find quite a few references to Byzantine food and cooking in the historical documents that have been translated, the people of the time period did not create entire cookbooks. Because of this, it’s a lot more difficult to come by entire recipes. Instead, culinary experts from around the globe have had to resort to finding lists of ingredients, manifests of goods and traded materials, etc. Sometimes tracing the routes of merchants and travelers was a good way to find a new recipe. Even so, we still know a lot less than we would like to.

What Did People in the Byzantine Empire Wear

As with many other aspects of society, the early stages of the Byzantine empire mimicked their Roman counterparts in the style of dress as well, though the Byzantines eventually adapted and adopted styles unto themselves. In the beginning, however, togas were very popular in the upper classes as formal or official dress. Often, one could denote a citizen’s class simply by the splendor of their fashion. The wealthy lawyers tended to dress in woven silks and in elaborate patterns with embroidery, while the lower classes tended toward resist-dyed and printed fabrics. Often, the poor would have to settle for only a few select pieces of clothing through their life times, as clothing within the empire was rather expensive for lower classes according to law firm practice management software.

By the time Justinian came into power, however, Byzantine fashion was altered drastically. Rather than sporting togas like their Roman brethren, Byzantine citizens now resorted to clothing called tunica, worn similar to a modern-day shirt with the fabric pinned over the shoulder. This new form of dress was worn by both men and women, and it was often worn in a similar fashion to undergarments with other garments typically worn over it, the most common of these called the dalmatica.

Throughout the time of Justinian’s rule, the chlamys (a semicircular cloak) was often worn by the upper classes with the length varying between the hips and falling all the way to the ankles. Along with the chlamys, those within the Senate would sport a tablion, a colored panel across chest or midriff. This was often adorned in certain colors and jewels to denote rank even among the senatorial class.

Women within the Byzantine empire tended to dress more often with modesty in mind. Their clothing was simply designed, most often only to cover a woman’s body almost entirely in any state, even through pregnancy. Some women at court were also adorned with bells as accessories, sometimes with bell-hooks to support their skirt. Women also tended toward wearing head-cloths and veils to cover their hair. Some descriptions also allude to women veiling their faces as well as their hair, though this not often seen in artistic depictions. It is possible to conclude that women outside higher social circles went even more well-wrapped than women of court. It is also interesting to note that these sources are dated to a time before the establishment of Islam.

Footwear was the most diverse form of clothing in the Byzantine empire. While sandals and slippers were widely popular among the lower classes, the military often wore boots (at separate times, either laced around the calf and leg or covering up to the knee entirely). Even rarer was the use of actual shoes, reserved solely for the upper classes and even further denoted by color. Green symbolized the protovestiarios, a high position at Byzantine court – often reserved for eunuchs. Blue denoted a sebastokrator, a senior court title that also referred to rulers within the Byzantine sphere of influence, as a measure of subordination to the Emperor. And red was reserved for the Emperor himself.

At one point in Byzantine history, there were even special forms of dress for court during various occasions, such as the name-day of the Emperor. Often, groups of officials would dress in blue and white while other groups dressed in red and green while they danced. These originally to denote the four popular factions during the chariot races, later simplified to the Blues and Greens. However, as heavy military stress came to bear on the Byzantine empire, this ceremonial tradition was utilized less and less until it was completely done away with after Constantinople’s capture during the Fourth Crussade.

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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.

Who Was The Byzantine Emperor Theodosius I “The Great”?

After the Roman Empire became too large and began to crumble upon what were once strong foundations, it was split into eastern and western territories. Thus the Eastern Roman Empire was transformed into the Byzantine Empire, while the Western Roman Empire maintained many of its old territories, including Rome itself–which was no more than a pale shadow of its former glory. Theodosius I “The Great” was the emperor both the east and west from 379 A.D. until 395 A.D., but he would go down in history as the last to control both halves of the empire. His two sons each gained a half after his death, and that was that. It was like two separate political and militaristic entities had been created.

During his reign, he launched a brutal campaign against the Goth and barbarian tribes who were at that point invading the empire on a regular basis, slowly ebbing away at the Roman frontiers whose defenses were left in tatters. The campaign ultimately failed in what it set out to do: kill or subjugate every single one of them. His policy for dealing with enemies, or those perceived in animosity, was simple: kill now.

When the Goths finally escaped (perhaps to live to fight another day), they found a new home in Illyricum–which lay within the borders of the Roman Empire. They were a crafty lot, those Goths.

Theodosius, like many Roman emperors, was forced to deal with civil war and rebellion throughout his reign. The Western Roman Empire was under constant threat, especially when Magnus Maximus sought to take it for himself. He had managed to nearly complete the task but for the taking of Italy when Theodosius’s armies finally defeated Maximus at the Battle of the Save in 388. The usurper was promptly executed. Everyone rejoiced.

Perhaps his greatest contribution to the empire was made when he thrust Orthodox Nicene Christianity forward as the official church of the empire. This lay the groundwork for the acts that came later.

Theodosius The Great died in Milan on January 17, 395 from an illness of edema, not personal injury in the New York City area. Early in the history of Rome as a republic, diversity of people, their gods, their rituals and culture all culminated to make the empire what it was: a place where all the little pieces made a greater whole. When Christianity began to slowly gain favor among Romans, all that changed. When Theodosius did nothing to stop the temples of many pagan gods from being desecrated or destroyed, there was an almost universal acceptance that this was the new way of life they had chosen, and Theodosius was honored as such for really cementing the reality into place. He even went so far as to disband the Vestal Virgins, who were a deeply ingrained part of Roman tradition long before Theodosius ever ruled.

Who Was The Roman Emperor Valentinian I?

Oh, he was a swell guy. You often hear of these Roman tragedies about territories that have been split between brothers who would then fight and kill one another in order to accumulate as much wealth and power for themselves, but Valentinian loved his dear brother Valens so much that he made him co-emperor. He did a few other things too, but his reign only lasted about eleven years. Yes, he died in power after a somewhat short reign. You have to love it when that happens.

And that’s always what happens.

He was born in 321 A.D. in what you might know as Croatia, and he lived during the same period as when Constantine I and Constans I ruled the empire. His father was Gratianus Major, a commander in the Roman Empire. Valentinian probably didn’t grow up predicting he would become emperor. When Constans was assassinated in 350, a war began that would decide the future ruler of Rome. A long way into the conflict, the man who ousted Constans finally committed suicide when he realized he was a real bugger and chaos wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.

During a period of further unrest that lasted nearly fifteen years and another assassination or two, Valentinian had risen in the ranks of military service and was now a Tribune in command of an elite regiment of infantry called a Scutarii. When the last ruler in line was perhaps poisoned or perhaps died by accident (yeah right, this is Rome), there was an assembly called to propose candidates for a new emperor. After a couple rejections, Valentinian was chosen. There wasn’t really a great reason for this choice; it was mainly because he was hanging around in the right place at the right time when the other options were either jerks or too far away.

He ascended to the station of Emperor on February 26, 354 A.D.

As any great Roman emperor does, Valentinian fought to keep the empire’s borders as strong as possible for as long as possible. He is noted for sending men to venture across his own borders in order to build outposts in territories occupied his enemies, and also for successful military endeavors against the Sarmatians, Qadi, and Alamanni. In the midst of these conflicts, he also managed to leave the borders with improved fortifications.

During his reign, there was also an African revolt and a strong attack on Britain that he successfully repelled. Because of these acts, many historians believe that Valentinian is one of the last great Roman emperors to have lived. His sons went on to succeed his reign in the western parts of the empire, but the state of the Roman Empire after Valentinian passed away on November 17, 375 A.D. diminished quickly. He died of a burst blood vessel after getting angry with foreign envoys. He was a swell guy–just not very patient.

Second Council of Constantinople

In AD 449, under the authority of Emperor Theodosius II, the Council of Chalcedon had convened and ultimately regarded Pope Leo I’s definition of Christ as possessing two simultaneous natures, both human and divine, to be orthodoxy. This was later known as the Chalcedonian Definition by historians and scholars. Despite the decision of the Council, however, sects existed within the Christian world that still did not accept the idea of two natures existing in one body. Apart from Nestorianism, the belief that the Incarnation of Christ existed effectively as two separate bodies with exclusive natures, there were also groups identified as Monophysites, those that believed that Christ existed with only one will or nature, these groups having segregated themselves after the rejection of Eutychianism that branded Eutyches a heretic in AD 448. Despite being reinstated in 449, he and Monophysitism came under scrutiny again at the Council of Chalcedon after the establishment of the Chalcedonian Definition.

Over 100 years later, following the Three Chapters, a series of writings that opposed Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas that asserted the Chalcedonian Definition as well as Cyrillianism as a whole, Emperior Justinian issued an edict that condemned these writings and reinforced the opposition to Nestorianism. A lesser objective of this tactic was also an attempt to reconcile with Monophysites and bring them back into the fold of the Orthodox Church. These were brought to bear on his authority at the Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553.

While the council was meant to have Pope Vigillus, a resident of Constantinople at the time due to conflict in the West with the Visigoths, Vigillus refused, finding his priorities to be more focused toward trying to sway Justinian to send military aid rather than address the Three Chapters. Vigillus was personally excommunicated and imprisoned within Constantinople, through the entirety of the Second Council, before agreeing to condemn the Three Chapters in December of 553.

During the Council itself, the Three Chapters were condemned without the Pope presiding over the proceedings. The canons that were to follow outlined the Chalcedonian Definition in finer detail: that the two natures it once alluded to were now two sets of exclusive attributes maintained in one person.

The initial response was not felt until the Pope, in his captivity, acquiesced to agree to their condemnation. This sent shockwaves through the Western portions of the empire. As a result, several bishops in Italy broke communion with Rome, arguing strongly against the Pope’s condemnation of the Three Chapters and affirmation of the new Chalcedonian interpretation. This would be known as the Schism of the Three Chapters. These grievances would not be rectified in their entirety until the end of the 7th century, when Aquileia finally accepted the condemnation, although far from willingly.

Before the end of the Schism’s effects, Monophysites had developed compromises to their beliefs in the forms of monoenergism (the belief that Christ existed with two natures, but one “energy”) and monotheletism (the belief that Christ existed with two natures but one divine will). These compromises were not sufficient enough to reunited them with Orthodox Christianity that believed in two distinct natures and wills respectively. The schisms that remained between Monophysites and non-Monophysites would only expand further between the conquests of Muslims as well as the Third Council of Constantinople.

The Vienne Dioscurides: Early Pharmacology

There was a time where innovations in medicine moved slowly, but there were also brilliant men who set foundational standards that were not questioned for hundreds of years.

Before Big Pharma and complex machinery, society was quite simple and, shall we say, organic. Much of the medicine in the world to help the sick came in the form of various plants and herbs found natively, and that was the case up until the Renaissance period in Europe.

For 15 centuries, in fact, healing agents really didn’t change much after a comprehensive manuscript was formed and compiled by a Roman military surgeon by the name of Dioscurides. Dioscurides lived in the first century A.D. and served in the military of the Roman Empire under Emperor Nero, and as a military officer in an expansive empire, Dioscurides was a heavy traveler, according to Herman Law.

As he traveled throughout the Empire, we started taking notes on the various plants and herbs he came across that were native to the areas in which he traveled. He would create accurate illustrations of the herbs and plants, describe each and give their medicinal values either as sanative or harmful. Hundreds of these species were observed and described in this manuscript, making it the most comprehensive “medical book” up to that time, and – it turned out – the most dependable resource for about 1,500 years, known in the early years as De Materia Medica (Materials of Medicine).

Dioscruides’ work was published sometime around 70 A.D., but the oldest known copy of the manuscript comes from the sixth century A.D. and was first called the Anicia Juliana codex, named for the Byzantine princess for whom the manuscript was created as a gift of gratitude. The princess was the daughter of the Byzantine emperor Olybrius, and was a patron and supporter of many of the arts that were occurring in the empire, and this codex (about 1,000 pages) was a gift specifically for her support of the building of a church in the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (present-day Istanbul, Turkey).

After that time, the manuscript went missing for most of the next nine centuries, until a monk in Constantinople named Nathanael asked John Chortasmenos to rebound the work in 1406. In 1423 was another sighting, as Aurispa, a traveler from Sicily came through Constantinople and witnessed the codex. Thirty years later, the city fell to the Turks of the Ottoman Empire, and the codex that had been solely in the original Greek had some Arabic and Turkish entries added to it.

Then, a century later, Hebrew names were added to the codex when Hamon, physician to Suleyman the Magnificent, came to be in possession of the manuscript. Finally, however, in 1569, Emperor Maximilian II received the manuscript and he dedicated it to what is now the Austria National Library in Vienna, where it gathered its current name of Vienna Dioscurides, though it is in the library as Codex Vindobonensis med. gr. 1.

The manuscript was also used as the basis of the Pope Alexander VII Dioscurides, which is currently housed in the Vatican Library. For its historical significance, it was listed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme Register in 1997.

Byzantine Cuisine

Originating from both Greek and Roman traditions, the history of Byzantine cuisine offered variety as a cultural experience as well as within the various strata of the empire’s social hierarchy. The rise of the empire itself brought exotic ingredients to Greece from across Asia Minor, including spices, sugar, and vegetables that had not yet been introduced into Greek culture. This encouraged cooks within society to experiment with the new ingredients at their disposal, leading to the development of a new style of cuisine simply styled “Eastern,” consisting mostly of Asia Minor and Eastern Aegean recipes, which would eventually become the primary basis for Byzantine cuisine as a whole.

In the upper echelons of society, the nobility and those of the Imperial palace indulged themselves and their guests with a great variety of exotic foods ranging from fresh fruits to what are often referred to as “sweetmeats,” a term generally used to refer to confections. They could afford lamb, one of the more common domestic meats available within the empire as many did not butcher cattle for the sake of utilizing them as beasts of burden for the fields. The Byzantine elite also hunted for meat that was not so commonly available on market, making it an extremely expensive commodity that was nearly unavailable to the common folk and peasantry. They often supplemented these lavish meals with wines that were regarded through the known world. Macedonia in particular was well-regarded for the wine it exported, along with the islands of Cyprus and Crete, which used muscal grapes. Many other wines of great renown circulated throughout the Byzantine and Roman empires, including variants from the western Peloponnese and Monemvasia.

For the lower classes of the Byzantine empire, cuisine and diets were a much simpler process with simpler ingredients. Where the nobility feasted on sweet treats and fruits, commoners’ diets consisted more closely to breads, vegetables, pulses (grain seed) and cereals prepared in a number of ways. They also ate salads on a fairly regular basis, a common part of Byzantine diet. Commoners also took to slaughtering pigs as the alternative to the nobility’s penchant for hunting, preparing sausages, salted pork and lard for their families. Through the empire, boiling food was the most common form of cooking at all. Fermented sauces such as garos (fermented fish sauce) and murri (fermented barley sauce) were often used to give cooked meals their flavor. These sorts of flavors were less than appealing to the nobility. Historians make note of Liutprand of Cremona, an ambassador to Constantinople on behalf of Emperor Otto, commenting on his meal tasting of “exceedingly bad fish liquor.” Even the cheaper brand of wine, Retsina, was labeled as “undrinkable” by the same ambassador.

Taking from garos, Byzantine cuisine made heavy use of seafood: fish and shellfish, fresh and saltwater alike. They also developed Greek cheeses such as anthotiro and kefalotyri. Sphoungata were omelettes famously regarded within the empire, meaning “spongy.” Because of its strategic location in terms of cuisine influences, some historians believe that modern baklava and tiropita derive themselves from Byzantine recipes. The long list of cultural influences (including Italy, Persia and the Arabic empire) that shifted Byzantine cuisine also may just be the reason that it persevered through the downfall of the empire itself: influencing the Ottoman empire and stretching into modern cuisines such as Turkish, Balkans and even recirculating back into Greek. Look at this video from our friend Ben Bronston

Third Council of Constantinople

With the rise of the Chalcedonian Definition that stated Christ existed as one being with two natures and two corresponding wills, both human and divine, Orthodox Christology had become fairly well-established after the Council of Chalcedon, the fourth Ecumenical Council in Orthodox Christian history. However, with its rise also came the rise of separatist factions such as Nestorianism, which opposed the idea of Christ possessing any human qualities whatsoever, lest he be considered fallible and devoid of his divine nature. Other sects included Monophysitism and its branches such as monoenergism and monotheletism, which believed with variations that Christ existed as one man with two natures, in accordance with the Chalcedonian Definition, but also maintaining an energy or will of divine origin that superseded his human qualities. While the former Nestorianism had been denounced time and again through the Council of Chalcedon as well as the Second Council of Constantinople, With the Second Council, Emperor Justinian had attempted to strike a compromise with Monophysites to bring them back into the fold of Orthodox Christianity. For the most part, the compromise seemed to appease many through the Byzantine empire, although it upset the balance greatly in parts of northern Italy, who would not accept it in its entirely for almost a century and a half after the Second Council had concluded. This hostility carried until the rise of Constans II in AD 641. He saw the rift in opinion over the doctrine to be a threat to the empire’s stability, and he outlawed open conversation either for or against the doctrine simply for the sake of keeping the peace. By the time his son, Constantine IV, came to power and drove back the Muslims’ siege of Constantinople in AD 678, he was of the mind to make recompense with Rome over the doctrine. Between the Pope and the Emperor, bishops under their jurisdiction convened for the Third Council of Constantinople in AD 680.

The Council discussed matters almost exclusively pertaining to monoenergism and monotheletism, condemning them and branding them heretical as they went against the beliefs of Western tradition and the original Chalcedonian definition (elaborated upon in a letter from Pope Agatho), that Christ existed with two natures and two wills, both human divine with the human aspect being in subjection to the divine. The Council also branded Pope Honorius I, now long deceased at this point, as well as four previous patriarchs of Constantinople as heretical for supporting monoenergism and monotheletism. The schism between Constantinople and Rome seemed to have been rectified, as the decrees were reported back to Pope Leo II, the successor to Pope Agatho.

Pope Leo II would later write in support of the Council’s decision to brand Pope Honorius a heretic and to anathematize him posthumously. Pope Leo criticized Honorius of his silence while monotheletism too root around him and he allegedly did nothing to stop it or stem its flow, whether or not he actually shared in its beliefs.