The Byzantine Empire, also known as Byzantium, is hardly one of the “key topics” covered in basic history education in the United States. It is a rarity for the term to even be learned, let alone learn anything substantive about the empire.
Whenever I told anyone I was studying Byzantine history as an undergrad I usually received blank stares and feeble guesses of “business history.” The English connotations of the word hardly help. Merriam-Webster defines the term as “devious,” “intricate,” and “complex.” Although this definition might make one think “The Byzantines” could be the next Netflix original series, it doesn’t exactly encourage understanding, just a host of tricky generalizations.
Despite the fact that they are unknown to many, the Byzantines are actually one of the most important civilizations in world history, especially for Europe, the Middle East, and even the Americas. Here are just a few of their most important contributions.
- Europe’s Great Defense
The Byzantine Empire straddled Southeastern Europe and present-day Turkey, meaning that any force moving on foot from the Middle East into Europe, or vice-versa, would have to go through it first. Constantinople, Byzantium’s double-walled capital, was located at one of the two main crossing points from Asia to Europe and was also the most impregnable city in the medieval world. Byzantine forces kept several great foes from the east (Persians, Arabs, and Seljuk Turks) from invading Europe. This defense was during the same period that most of Europe was in what has been termed the Dark Ages; the relatively weak barbarian kingdoms, with a few rare exceptions, wouldn’t have stood a chance against the powerful Middle Eastern armies, but Byzantium inadvertently protected them. When Constantinople finally fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, Europe was stunned—the empire that had existed for over a millennium between east and west was no more.
- Preservation of the Classics
While most of Europe descended into the Dark Ages, Byzantium maintained itself as a center of learning and culture. Secular centers of education existed as well as the monasteries, and many works of classical Greece and Rome were preserved through the work of the Byzantines. Cultural contact, and especially the emigration from Byzantium to Italy and other parts of Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries, resulted in these works spreading across the known world. It is the Byzantines you have to thank for being able to read the works of Homer and others, both back in high school and now.
- Champion of the Church
Constantine I is usually considered the first Byzantine emperor. He and many of his successors held church councils to help unify the Christians, with mixed success, and made the church prosper through official support and donations. The Byzantines were a major force in making Christianity a world religion in the first place and keeping it there, defending against internal dissension in the church and external threats.
- Light of Rome, Voice of Greece
While the Roman Empire might have fallen in the west back in 476 AD, the Roman Empire continued for another millennium through the Byzantine Empire. Byzantines never considered themselves as such, instead referring to themselves as Romans, seeing direct continuity from the early days of Rome to their own time. They kept alive many aspects of the old Roman Empire, especially in the political realm. They used Latin for administration for the first few centuries, but by the seventh century they had switched to Greek, which has survived as a spoken language up to today, unlike Latin, which became an effectively dead language centuries ago.
- Multicultural Hub
The Byzantine Empire, and especially Constantinople, was full of people from a variety of ethnic backgrounds. Greeks, Armenians, Slavs, Italians, Russians, Arabs, and more lived in what was one of the most cosmopolitan states on Earth at this time. Perhaps most surprisingly, these different groups also got along for the most part inside the empire. High-ranking officials and even emperors came from a variety of backgrounds, by no means just the Greek majority.
- Architectural Giant
One of the major hallmarks of an emperor’s reign was what he had built. To this end, most emperors tried to build grand edifices and churches across their empire, especially in Constantinople. Today some of the top sights to see in Istanbul (today’s Constantinople) are Byzantine; in fact, the Hagia Sophia is perhaps the number one tourist site in the city. Byzantine architectural prowess also influences neighboring civilizations, such as the Venetians and Russians, whose works bears an undeniable Byzantine mark.
- The Fork
Although forks existed before the Byzantines, they were primarily used as serving utensils. It was under the Byzantine Empire that the fork began to be used as a personal utensil. When a Byzantine noblewoman became the wife of the German Holy Roman Emperor, she introduced the custom to the west. It has since become the most conspicuous, yet under-recognized, contribution of Byzantium.
Although silk is most synonymous with China, it was Byzantium that first produced silk in Europe. Two monks, working for the Byzantine emperor Justinian, smuggled silkworms out of China in the 550s AD, bringing this treasured secret back to the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines quickly established silk factories in several cities and commanded the silk trade in Europe for centuries, before the knowledge eventually spread to other emerging European states.
- World Currency
Emperor Constantine established the solidus, a gold coin, as the major currency of the Byzantine Empire back in the early 4th century. The value of the coin remained practically constant for over 700 years and became one of the most recognized currencies in the known world. Examples of the solidus have been found from England to Iraq, and although the emperor tried to limit its circulation outside the empire it was a popular and widely accepted coin. It influenced the production of Islamic coins and the names of coins in several European countries.
- Medieval Bridge
Perhaps the greatest importance of the Byzantine Empire was its continuity. For anyone in the Middle Ages, Byzantium was constant. Practically no other empire or kingdom on earth lasted for the entire period, and from 330 to 1453, Byzantium was there. It is perhaps fitting that traditional dates for the start and end of the Middle Ages are 476 and 1453, the fall of the Roman and Byzantine Empires, respectively. Byzantium had carried many aspects of the Roman Empire into the medieval period, and Europe carried many aspects of Byzantium into the modern era. Although the Byzantine bridge that spanned the Middle Ages crumbled, its legacy continues.