Archive for the 'Byzantine' Category

Do the lost gold mines of Byzantium exist?

Feb 25 2011 Published by under Byzantine,gold mines,Rus,Theophilus

Joshua asks if the Rus contributed to the economic rise of Byzantium in the 9th and 10th centuries.

One of the great mysteries in Byzantine history is where exactly the empire got its wealth in the 9th century.  As early as the reign of Justinian it was chronically short of funds and even sensible attempts to cut costs got more than one emperor dethroned.  By the 8th century Byzantium was clearly heading towards a financial collapse.  Plagues and wars had crippled the economy reducing some areas to the barter system and the Islamic invasions had stripped away its most profitable territories.

But as the 9th century rolled around, instead of bankruptcy, the imperial treasury started flinging gold around like it was going out of style.  The emperor Theophilus (829-842) built a grand new throne room complete with golden throne, golden lion statues (who could roar at the pull of a lever), and a golden, jewel encrusted tree complete with mechanical birds.  When it came time to conclude a truce with the Saracens, he offered 100,000 gold coins- then to impress the Caliph he had his diplomats scatter 36,000 more in the streets of Baghdad.

So where did all this wealth come from?  The traditional answer is that new gold mines were discovered- the fabled lost mines of Theophilus.  Even though no surviving records mention any such thing, it could certainly be true- mining is a rather dull activity to report on and we have relatively few contemporary sources.  But I think there is a case to be made that the Black Sea trade was able to offset the loss of Egypt and North Africa.

The problem is that the Byzantines are frustratingly quiet when it comes to the Rus.  Going by Constantinople you would hardly even know they had any dealings with the Russians at all.  In the Greek sources there is a grand total of one mention of trade with the Rus- Leo the Deacon reported that in 971 they demanded increased trading rights in exchange for peace.  Fortunately for us the Russians kept records- The Russian Primary Chronicle- and it reveals a rich exchange.  The general pattern was for the Rus to attack every time they wanted to renegotiate a treaty.  In 907, 945, 971, and 988 Constantinople was attacked to force an increase in rights.  By the end of the 10th century Rus merchants could stay inside the city for 6 months (instead of the traditional 3) during which time they were given free board, access to baths, and a small stipend courtesy of the emperor.

The main value of the Rus was not what they could directly supply- mostly wax, furs, and slaves- it was their access to the lucrative trade routes through Central Asia, Iran, and Mesopotamia via the Don and Volga rivers.  During periods of hostility between the empire and the Caliphate, Asian goods (glassworks and silks) could still reach Constantinople via the Black Sea- during the peak times in Spring and Summer a ship could cross from the Crimea to the Hellespont in 24 hours.  Imperial tax collectors took a ten percent toll of everything that entered Constantinople, a massive economic windfall that showed no sign of slowing for several centuries.

No wonder the Byzantines were so reluctant to concede more privileges to the Rus without a war- or to discuss it afterwards!

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Did the Byzantines speak bad Greek?

Jan 27 2011 Published by under Byzantine,Greek,Voltaire

Brian asks why the Enlightenment scholar Voltaire famously quipped that the Byzantines spoke bad Greek.

He was referring to the convoluted style of writing that the Byzantines preferred.  They considered the classical Greek authors to be the gold standard and did their best to ape the style.  Not only would they constantly reference snippets of Homer or Aeschylus to prove their erudition, but they tried to jam medieval Greek into the metrical and grammatical schemes of ancient Greek.  The result was an appropriately ‘byzantine’ mess of often tortured prose. (presumably like that last sentence)

Voltaire was also engaging in a bit of dripping condescension toward the spoken word.  Medieval Greek had changed in the thousand years since Polybius was writing and frankly it didn’t measure up to his standards- much the way King James English or Shakespeare sounds more majestic than our own vernacular.

Someone should have pointed out how barbaric his version of Latin sounded.

10 responses so far

When did Turkey become Turkish?

Jan 21 2011 Published by under Byzantine,Ionian,Turkish

Joost asks when exactly Turkey became Turkish.  Or to put it another way, when did Byzantine (Greek) culture vanish from Asia Minor?

It’s hard to emphasize just how deeply Hellenic roots run in Anatolia.  Ionian settlers reached the western coast of Turkey as early as the 9th Century BC and made up a sort of Magna Graecia in Asia.  Some of the most famous names in Greek history and mythology are associated with this area in what is now Turkey.  Homer was supposedly born in Smyrna (Izmir), Herodotus was born in Halicarnassus (Bodrum), and Jason’s pursuit of the Golden Fleece took place on the Turkish coast of the Black Sea.  These Ionian cities were instrumental in sparking the Persian Wars which ultimately resulted in Alexander the Great welding everything between the Balkans and India into a massive Hellenistic state.  In 133 BC king Attalus of Pergamum (one of the last splinter kingdoms of Alexander’s empire) willed his territory to Rome and Anatolia entered the Roman Empire.  It stayed in imperial hands from the 2nd century BC till the 11th AD without a serious break.  In 1071, when the Byzantine army suffered a catastrophic defeat  at Manzikert, parts of Asia Minor had been Greek for nearly two thousand years.

The most Hellenized regions were the coasts, and Byzantium recovered enough to retain control of them but the interior was officially abandoned.  Once it was clear that the Crusades wouldn’t change the situation, the emperor Alexius Comnenus agreed to a treaty with the Seljuks allowing Christians to peacefully emigrate to imperial territory.  This ensured the effective end of the Greek presence in the interior and its ultimate Turkification and Islamification.

The change, however, was relatively gradual- a slow eroding over the centuries.  The Muslim authorities in Asia Minor referred to the Greek population as ‘the emperor’s church’ and as late as the fifteenth century were afraid that it would act as a fifth column in a Byzantine counterattack.  Thriving Greek communities with their own schools, churches, and customs dating back to when Xenophon was marching ‘up country’ remained in place throughout the Ottoman Empire.  What finally extinguished them was the great population exchange of 1923.  Half a million Turks who had settled in Greece during Ottoman times were relocated to Turkey, and in exchange 1.5 million Greeks from Asia were transplanted in Greece.  (Many of the homes they inhabited are still ghost towns today as the Turks refuse to live in them).  We are in the very end stages of the complete disappearance of Greek traces from one of its ancient heartlands.

Istanbul was still a cosmopolitan city because it was exempted from the exchange, but in 1955 there were terrible racial pogroms that drove most of the Greeks away.  In 1924 there were 200,000 Greeks living in the city and the last time a census was attempted (2006) there were barely 2,500.  (Interestingly enough the opposite is true in Greece.  The Turkish population of Thrace has had a growth rate of about 2.8% since 1951)

There is still one remnant holding on though.  They are a group of ethnic Greeks living on the Black Sea coast near the Byzantine city of Trebizond.  As Muslims they were exempted from the population exchange and they still speak an archaic form of Greek.  It has the structure and grammar of medieval Greek- in other words it’s the one place on earth you can still hear the language of fourteenth century Byzantium.  Ben Atlas provided a youtube clip:

7 responses so far

Are the ‘Sons of the Eagles’ Byzantine?

Dec 30 2010 Published by under Albanian,Byzantine,Dacian,Illyrian,Skanderbeg,Thracian

Boris asks if the Albanian people have their roots in Byzantium.

The Albanian flag prominently displays the Byzantine double-eagle and Albanians refer to themselves as “Shqiptaret” which means “Sons of the Eagles”.  So at first blush it would seem natural to assume that the Albanians- like so many peoples in the Balkans- draw their cultural identity from Byzantium.  But is it ever really that simple?

There are hints that the Albanians are quite a bit older than they seem.  They speak an Indo-European language that is based on an ancient Balkan tongue.  Aside from Greek, it is the only modern survivor- though no one seems exactly sure which paleo-Balkan language it comes from.  The problem is that Balkan history is notorious for its invasions.  The Romans called the original inhabitants Illyrians, and they were joined by waves of Dacians, Thracians,  Slavs, and Greeks among others.

So who are the modern Albanians descended from?  This is where politics enter the mix.  The communist government after World War Two pushed the Illyrian connection to increase its prestige.  Unfortunately for the communists there are some problems with this pedigree.  The Roman writer Polybius claims there was a city called ‘Albonopolis’ in Illyria (hence the name ‘Albania’), but the original inhabitants were extinct by the time of Justinian.  The first mention we have of ‘modern’ Albanians is in 1079 when a Byzantine author referred to certain ‘Albanoi’ who took part in a revolt.  Anna Comnena mentions them rioting again during the early part of her father’s reign, and says that they were under the control of the nearby city of Dürres.

Written Albanian doesn’t appear until 1462, and appears to be more influenced by eastern Romance languages than classical Latin- meaning that the earliest it could have come into the area is late antiquity.

Of course as with any charged debate, there are plenty of dissenting voices.  Some linguists believe modern Albanian has loanwords from the time of Augustus- 85 of which don’t appear in any other Romance language.  The truth is that modern Albanians probably don’t have a single origin but are a mix of things- a microcosm of Balkan history itself.

In a way their flag is a perfect symbol.  Its Byzantine imagery hints at a deep Orthodox history but it’s really a glorification of something else entirely.  In 1443 the national hero Skanderbeg adopted it as his coat of arms and briefly managed to throw off the Ottoman yoke.  When the modern nation repeated the feat permanently in 1912, they could think of no finer symbol for their freedom.

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Did the Byzantines invent lacrosse?

Strictly speaking no.  The term ‘lacrosse’ was coined in 1637 by a French Jesuit missionary named Jean de Brébeuf who was watching some Iroquois play a tribal game.  What he described, however, had very little in common with the sport played today.  Games could last several days, were played on fields that could be several miles long (and wide), and some matches had teams numbering in the hundreds.  The game was started by throwing the ball against the official’s head- an interesting choice considering the balls were large objects made of deerskin, clay, wood, and occasionally stone.  The modern rules for the game weren’t applied till 1867 when a Canadian dentist named William George Beers founded the first official club and standardized the game.

So what’s the Byzantine connection?  In the 5th century the emperor Theodosius II brought the game of ‘Tyzkanion’ to Constantinople.  This unpronounceable sport was soon all the rage among the upper crust.  It was played on horseback by two small teams of equal size each carrying a wooden stick with a net on the end.  A small leather ball the size of an apple was placed at the center of a field and each team would have to scoop it up and throw it toward the opposing goal.  Basil I was such a devotee that he built an official course on the grounds of the imperial palace and several emperors personally competed (one even died falling off his horse).  In the 12th century visiting French Crusaders caught the tyzakanion fever and brought it back to France.  They didn’t see the need for horses, so they modified it to be played on foot and changed the name to ‘chicane’.  This slowly evolved into the game ‘la soule’ or ‘choule’ which French settlers brought with them to Canada.  In 1867 William George Beers mixed the Native American and European sports and the modern game was born.

It’s not a straight line, but I think it’s fair to say that if lacrosse has an Iroquois mother, it may also have a Byzantine father.

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If Basil I was illiterate how good could Byzantine education be?

Nov 01 2010 Published by under 12 Byzantine Rulers,Byzantine,Byzantine education

Nick asks how good the Byzantine educational system really was if the founder (Basil I) of its most illustrious dynasty was illiterate.

The average literacy rate for Byzantium probably averaged around 30%- which may not seem particularly high by contemporary standards, but for comparison’s sake is higher than 18th century France.  Of course there were the inevitable ups and downs- the 7th and 8th centuries are known as the ‘Byzantine dark ages’ where the literacy rate probably plunged well below 30%- but on the whole imperial subjects were better educated than their western brethren.

The fact that several emperors (Basil I and Justin I) were illiterate is not surprising considering the class they came from.  They were both peasants  (a swineherd and a shepherd), and as such had little time or money for school.  Once they gained the throne, however, they made sure their successors had the finest education available- and the remarkable thing is just how good that education was.  Justin was followed by Justinian and Basil by Leo the Wise, both famous for their scholarship and considered among the most erudite of rulers.

The fact that a good education was available was due in large part to the excellent university of Constantinople.  When it was founded in the 5th century it had 31 chairs: 10 each for Greek and Latin grammar, 2 for law, 1 for philosophy and 8 for rhetoric.  It was underwritten by the state and provided instant access to education for both genders of the nobility- during the latter half of the Macedonian Dynasty literacy among the aristocratic class probably was nearly universal.

The middle classes could also expect a practical education.  Byzantine clerks, notaries, and accountants had several years of training and government officials could measure land with a small margin of error.  Workmen routinely constructed items which were considered miraculous in the west- Thophilus’ famous elevated throne and golden lions that roared, a 9th century system of fire beacons that relied on synchronized clocks, buildings like the Hagia Sophia, aqueducts, silks, glass, and ceramics, as well as the famous silk industry.  None of this would have been possible without a widespread specialized education.

The real question is how much the poor had access to any of this.  The University of Constantinople was funded by the state even through the troubled ‘dark age’, but the vast majority of the imperial citizens lived outside the capital.  In fact the lack of education in the countryside became somewhat of an issue for the imperial government.  In their law codes both Leo VI and Justinian complain about the woeful state of ‘knowledge’ among peasants, and they authorized wills to be witnessed by ‘ignorant’ people if a literate one couldn’t be found.  In 867 Basil I (who could certainly sympathize) ordered that fiscal documents should write out the fractions to be more easily understood by peasants.

It’s tempting to think that the poor were all uneducated- and the vast majority of them most likely were- but there are a few hints that this might not be universally so.  Saints’ lives- which were popular throughout imperial history- frequently mention in passing the schooling that even impoverished holy men received before entering the church.  In addition, important imperial proclamations were posted in public (implying that someone could read them) and archeological sites have turned up thousands of stone slabs, wooden tablets, potsherds, and papyri, covered by inscriptions, signatures, transactions, accounts and contracts.  These combined with the inevitable graffiti that appeared on public walls down through the centuries testifies to the essential role of writing- even during the dark times- in Byzantine daily life.

The illiteracy of Basil I (and Justin) was seen as embarrassing by the court- and was considered rare enough that it needed to be pointed out.  Basil’s great grandson Constantine VII (a prolific author in his own right) went to great lengths to excuse his ancestor’s intellectual inadequacies, while making sure his offspring didn’t share it.

In the end, if Basil’s illiteracy represents a failure of the Byzantine educational system, by its very rarity it also brings into sharp relief how many times that same system succeeded.

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Did a descendant of Bardas Sclerus bring down Maniakes?

Listener Shane asks if Romanus Sclerus- the man who brought down George Maniakes- was related to the Bardas Sclerus who tried to seize the throne from Basil II.

Romanus was indeed the great-grandson of the general Bardas.  The Sclerus family was an old aristocratic one that claimed dynastic ties to Basil I, and was constantly trying to inch closer to the throne.  The real ambitious one in the family- and arguably the most successful- was Romanus’ sister Maria.  She fell in love with Constantine Monomachus, an up and coming nobleman who was on a very short list to marry the reigning empress Zoë.  When Constantine was outmaneuvered and banished to the island of Lesbos, Maria followed, trusting that fate would offer them a second chance at the throne.  Seven years later the political winds had changed and Zoë summoned Constantine to the capital to become her husband.  At their very first meeting together, Constantine brazenly demanded that the empress should bring Maria to Constantinople- and give her suitable titles as well.  Zoë, now 64 and interested only in the trappings of power, philosophically agreed.  Maria was brought to the capital with great pomp and installed into the imperial palace next to Constantine.  Now, if Zoë wanted to see her husband, she had to go through the awkward process of clearing it with Maria first.

It was at this point- with nary an objection from the compliant empress- that the two lovers realized they could get away with virtually anything.  Why should Maria be content with the designation of ‘official mistress’?  She was after all a member of an old and dignified family.  Constantine drew up a document officially giving her the title ‘Augusta’, Zoë obligingly signed it, and the entire Senate was called in to ratify it.  There were now three empresses (Zoë’s sister was also an empress) and a total of four heads of state.  Oddly enough, Zoë doesn’t appear to have minded the bizarre arrangement.  As long as she had access to the treasury Constantine could do as he liked.

The imperial ménage a trios may have been ok with the court, but it nearly got Constantine lynched.  The population of Constantinople was scandalized and tried to rush the emperor as he was mounting his horse at the imperial gates.  Screaming that they didn’t want Maria for empress- only a pure Macedonian- they overpowered the guards, and would have killed Constantine if not for the sudden appearance of Zoë gesticulating wildly from a balcony.  From then on Constantine only appeared in public with Zoë safely at his side- and Maria following a distance behind.  He probably still intended to somehow make her the senior empress, and given enough time perhaps he could have, but she died suddenly in 1045.  A decade later Constantine expired as well, and in a final posthumous slap at Zoë, chose to have himself interred next to his beloved Maria.  The old rebel Bardas Sclerus would have been pleased.

One response so far

Who was the last Roman Patrician?

Aug 19 2010 Published by under book,Byzantine,Lost to the West,Patrician,Reader Question

Reader Evan asked who was the last person from the original Roman patrician families to play a significant role in Byzantine history.

The last mention I can find is the Emperor Nicephorus III (1078-1081) who claimed to be descended from the ancient Fabii.  This may have been wishful thinking on his part, but it does hint at the intriguing possibility that genealogical records survived the Byzantine ‘dark’ ages.  The main problem with finding a descendant of the early families is that so many records were destroyed in the chaos of the 7th – 9th centuries, and many traditions were not maintained.  And of course many patrician families had fallen on hard times even by Julius Caesar’s day (the Julii for example were impoverished) and the rank of Patrician became a mere political plaything during the empire.  By the time of Augustus’ death (14 AD) only 15 families were left, and a century later that number had dropped to just 6.  Constantine supplied new blood by opening the rolls to anyone in the imperial court (he was trying to lure as many patricians as possible to Constantinople to increase its prestige, and when that failed he just created new ones).  Justinian further diluted it by making everyone of Senatorial rank a patrician.  This was an easy (inexpensive) way of rewarding followers and it started an imperial trend of granting the rank in greater and greater numbers.  By the 11th century it had been so extensively handed out that it meant little, and by the 12th century it disappeared completely.

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Who were the Varangians?

Listener William asked who the Varangians were and why they figured so prominently in Byzantine military affairs. 

The Varangians were the elite forces of the Byzantine army- much like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome or the Ottoman Janissaries.  They were originally made up exclusively of Vikings (which the empire had been hiring as mercenaries since the 9th century), but after the Norman Conquest of England a rush of exiled Anglo-Saxons were added to the mix.  By the 12th century there were so many English that it was commonly being referred to as the ‘Anglo-Varangian’ Guard.  As the empire declined, the Varangians also fell on hard times.  By the middle of the 14th century they had largely ceased to function and the last mention of them is in the first decade of the 15th century. 

They appeared relatively late in Byzantine history.  In 988, the emperor Basil II, facing a serious revolt, asked the Viking prince of Kiev for some help.  In exchange for an imperial bride, the prince sent along 6,000 warriors and Basil was so pleased by their effectiveness that he made them his permanent bodyguard.  Their oaths were to him personally- a fact that the court was uncomfortably aware of- and they were housed in the Bucoleon Palace where they could keep an eye on things.  Basil made sure they were given a generous salary and he called them ‘Varangians’- literally ‘men of the pledge’. 

Since they were professional fighters they were the most valuable troops in an army made up mostly of mercenaries or levies.  Usually taller and fiercer than their Mediterranean hosts/opponents, they also made good use as propaganda tools to overawe rebellious subjects or frighten opposing armies.  In times of peace they could act as a police force in Constantinople or for ceremonial functions.  In war they were usually held in reserve until the critical phase of the battle- then sent where the fighting was thickest.  Even the Byzantines seem to have been slightly terrified of their berserker rages. 

The opportunities for wealth ensured a steady stream of recruits, and few returned home empty-handed.  At the death of an emperor they had the curious right to raid the treasury and take away whatever they could carry unassisted.  Perhaps because of this they gained a reputation for fierce loyalty to the office- but not necessarily the occupant- of the throne. 

At times the temptations of power were too much to resist and they would lord it over the population of Constantinople- usually in the local wine shops.  Their drinking bouts were almost as legendary as their fighting skills and a visiting Danish king in the 11th century was embarrassed enough to publicly lecture them about their behavior. 

His words do not appear to have had the desired effect.  A century later some brave soul referred to the Varangians as the ‘Emperor’s wine-bags’.

15 responses so far

Did Justinian have Belisarius blinded?

Reader Bryan asked what I thought of the legend that Belisarius was blinded by Justinian.  According to the story, a jealous and fearful Justinian arrested Belisarius after his final victory and had him tried for treason.  The loyal general’s eyes were put out, his estates confiscated, and he was forced to wander the streets of Constantinople begging for bread while contemplating the vicissitudes of fortune.

Belisarius did briefly fall out of favor late in Justinian’s reign, but was publicly rehabilitated.  The story of his blinding originated in the 12th century with the monk John Tzetzes who was trying to criticize the political figures of his own day.  It made for a good morality tale, and was pressed into service in the 18th century by Europeans (mostly French) who saw a parallel between the tyranny of Justinian and their own autocratic societies. (see the spectacular painting by Jacques-Louis David and the play ‘Bélisaire’ by Jean-François Marmontel)

Some scholars still argue that the legend does have some basis in fact (Justinian was certainly capable of it), but there are several reasons not to accept it.  The Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204 mentioned several large statues of Belisarius still standing.  Had he been blinded and disgraced these surely would have been torn down.  Along the same lines there was also a great cycle of mosaics detailing the victories of Justinian and Belisarius above the gate to the imperial palace.  These were made during Justinian’s lifetime and were still in place a thousand years later.  Finally, there are the writings of the contemporary historian Procopius.  In his ‘Secret History’ he makes no mention of the emperor humiliating his general, despite the fact that he clearly hated Justinian and was trying to blacken his name.  He accuses Justinian of being a devil in the shape of a man, of being responsible for the deaths of a trillion people, and of having a head that would routinely disappear- but not of harming Belisarius.

Nevertheless the legend persists- perhaps because its lesson still resonates.  As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed it up neatly in his poem about the great general:

“Ah! Vainest of all things

Is the gratitude of kings.”

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