Lars Brownworth answers your questions from the 12 Byzantine Rulers, Lost to the West and Norman Centuries projects.

How did the outnumbered Muslims manage to hold on to Byzantine lands?

Mar 15 2011

Manny asks how the initial Islamic conquerors of the 7th century were able to rule as a numerical minority.

The Byzantine empire in 636- when the first Muslim army arrived- was a remarkably fragile thing.  It was militarily exhausted from the bruising war with Persia, and more importantly it had deep internal divisions.  Thanks to the interference of Theodora a generation before, the Monophysite heresy had flourished- especially in the provinces of Syria and Egypt which were now filled with religious separatists who viewed the central government of Constantinople as a foreign oppressor.  They resented the distant capital for its heavy taxes (trying to recoup the outlays of the previous war) and interfering religious policies.  When the Muslims arrived they were seen as preferable for a number of reasons.  They were at least fellow Semites, and their religion (initially believed to be a new kind of Christian heresy) was not seen as a threat.  Alexandria- one of the 5 great Patriarchates of the Church- voluntarily surrendered, and Jerusalem offered only 3 days of token resistance.

For their part, the Muslims were more than happy to initially rule with a light touch.  The subjugated Christians were viewed as a tax base to fund further conquests and there were therefore few pushes for conversion.  To most citizens the Islamic victory probably would have changed remarkably little at first.  A local Arab governor took the place of the distant emperor but the machinery of government was left in place and literate ‘Greeks’ (the only ones who had the requisite experience) ran the bureaucracy.  In some cases the business of administration was carried out in Greek for more than a century after the Arab takeover.  The end result for those first centuries was more effective direct rule and lower taxes- and a general unwillingness to return to the empire.

Only after the conquests started to slow did things start to change for the worse for the original Byzantines.  Muslim education had caught up to the point where non-Muslims were no longer needed to run the state, and local governments began to focus on conversion.  Non-Muslims were second class citizens at best- there were increasingly heavier taxes to pay for the luxury of getting harassed and excluded from many public sector jobs.  (A particularly terrible harassment during Ottoman times involved Christian families surrendering one son to be forcibly converted to Islam and enlisted in a special branch of the army)  As the burdens got more onerous many took the easy way out and converted.  By the time Byzantium recovered in the 10th century and went on the offensive again Islam was too entrenched to expel.

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Byzantium on the Volga

Mar 13 2011

St. Sophia of Kiev

Jack asks how close early Russian culture was to Byzantine culture.

The Rus had contact with Constantinople at least as early as the 830’s, but the close ties began with the Rus adoption of Christianity in 989.  As always with Byzantine policy, Christianity was the main vehicle for the transmission of culture.  The first cathedrals in Russia were built by imported Byzantine architects and they were decorated by imperial artisans.  St. Sophia of Kiev, the premier Rus architectural achievement of the 11th century, was modeled on the Hagia Sophia and its metropolitan was subordinated to the Patriarch of Constantinople.  By the 1040’s a Byzantine traveler to Kiev would have found it at least visually familiar.

But Russian culture was never a simple copy of Byzantium.  It took centuries for Christianity to spread across the vast Rus lands and only a select part of Byzantium was absorbed.  For instance, although the Bible was rendered into Old Church Slavonic there is no evidence that any of the Greek treatises on philosophy, mathematics, or science were translated.  In other words, the Rus were only interested in some aspects of imperial culture- mostly the magnificent pageantry.  The divine liturgy was imported along with the dress and trappings of the court, but the literature was passed up.  By the end of the 11th century Constantinople’s pull was beginning to wane and then in 1236 with the invasion of the Golden Horde Russia was wrenched firmly into the Mongolian orbit.

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Did the Byzantines consider themselves Greek?

Mar 07 2011

Rob points out that Edward Gibbon referred to the Byzantines as ‘Greeks’ and asks if they saw themselves as Greek.

Belonging to Byzantium was never really a matter of blood.  It was a ‘commonwealth’, a racially mixed group of what we would today call Slavs, Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks, Thracians, etc. Greek wasn’t the only language spoken though it was by far the dominant one.

But they certainly didn’t see themselves as Greek- at least not as we use the word today.  ‘Hellene’ had a pagan connotation- they called themselves Romanoi- which meant ‘Roman’ of course, but in a broader sense ‘civilized’.  In other words, someone who had a classical education, dipped their bread in oil, and crossed themselves from right to left.  National identities are very much a modern notion.  Moving outward, most ancient and medieval people would have considered themselves belonging to a family, then a village or town, and then possibly a region.  Beyond that there would probably be a dim view of ‘Christendom’, but certainly not a sense of being ‘a German’ or a ‘Spaniard.  A ‘Byzantine’ would have divided the world into two basic parts- those who had civilization (Romans) and those who didn’t (barbarians).  It was not necessarily a haughty thing- the Persians were viewed as refined, worthy adversaries.  But they were not ‘right-thinking’- in other words they didn’t acknowledge the true emperor (ruler of the civilized world) or the true religion (Orthodoxy).  They were therefore ‘barbarians’ no matter how impressive their society was.

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Do the lost gold mines of Byzantium exist?

Feb 25 2011

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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Thieves lead authorities to lost Byzantine church

Feb 05 2011

This past September the Israeli Antiquities Authority noticed some suspicious activity in the Judean Hills southwest of Jerusalem.  A sting operation managed to catch thieves digging into a deserted mound at Hirbet Madras.  When archeologists arrived a few months later they discovered the remains of a richly decorated basilica complete with 8 marble columns imported from the imperial quarries in Turkey and stunningly preserved mosaic floors with images of lions, foxes, fish, and peacocks (  The building dates from the early sixth century- right in the middle of Emperor Anastasius I’s reign- but its location presented a bit of a mystery.  Why would a Byzantine emperor lavish so much attention to a relatively remote spot in the Judean wilderness?

The answer may be found in the neighboring country of Jordan.  There is a famous mosaic map in the town of Madaba which was made around the year 560 AD.  It provides a unique snapshot of the Byzantine world at the time as it shows every major Biblical site from Lebanon to Egypt.  So what does it show in the rough area of Hirbet Madras?  A church dedicated to the Old Testament prophet Zechariah which was believed to house his relics.  Of course the map isn’t exactly precise, but when the archeologists dug below the floor of the church they found a much older Jewish complex.  A network of tunnels dating back to the Bar Kokhba uprising (132-135 AD) were found along with stone vessels, lamps and pottery from the Second Temple period.  Most intriguingly of all there was one ancient chamber connected to the church-  a small burial cave.

Nearly a millennium separated the death of Zechariah from the building of the Byzantine shrine, but they at least were convinced that they had found his last resting place.  And now thanks to a clumsy group of grave robbers we’ve probably found the lost Church they built to venerate it.

If you want to see it in person, you’re in luck.  Israeli archeologists plan to cover up the remains next week to preserve them and then develop a permanent tourist site.

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Did the Byzantines speak bad Greek?

Jan 27 2011

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.

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When did Turkey become Turkish?

Jan 21 2011

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:

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Did Justinian help Islam to spread?

Jan 08 2011

Matthew asks if Justinian unwittingly aided the spread of Islam by exhausting the resources of the empire with his conquest of Italy.

Byzantium was certainly weaker at Justinian’s death than it had been at the start of his reign, but that was not entirely his fault.  Invasions are expensive, but Justinian had good reason to think that on balance the empire would be enriched with the addition of Italy.  After all the capture of North Africa was lucrative enough to pay for itself within a few years, and it soon became the wealthiest province of the empire.

Italy turned out to be a different proposition- mostly because the emperor couldn’t bring himself to trust Belisarius or fund him appropriately.  This vacillation extended the length of the war but it wasn’t what doomed his conquests- given enough time Italy almost certainly would have become a productive imperial possession.  What destroyed the Justinianic renaissance was the plague which hit in 541 and killed a quarter of the Mediterranean population.  The empire was left reeling with longer boarders, fewer soldiers to patrol them, and fewer taxpayers to pay for it all.

Justinian was forced to depend on his shrinking gold reserves to defend the empire- reducing the ‘bread and circuses’ to buy off the barbarians on every side.  His successor Justin II didn’t understand the political realities of the weakened state and slammed on the spending brakes- causing the collapse of the careful alliances Justinian had built up and triggering waves of invasion.  The disasters unhinged his mind and he spent the rest of his reign being wheeled through the palace in a golden wagon biting anyone who was foolish enough to come within range.  He recovered enough to appoint Tiberius II as successor and (given the circumstances) surprisingly offered him the following bit of wisdom: ‘consult the experience rather than the example of your predecessor.’

Tiberius was more than happy to abandon any hint of austerity.  In a bid to be popular he managed to blow through 29,000 pounds of gold in four years, tactfully exiting the stage just in time to leave his successor with an empty treasury and several wars brewing.  There was little the new emperor Maurice could do other than to raise taxes and divert everything to the army.  He managed to settle most of the wars but his cost cutting made him so unpopular that he was easily overthrown by a soldier named Phocas who promised circuses and free food for everyone.  Of course there was no money to do that so he concentrated on killing everyone who looked at him sideways, using his free time to start a war with Persia- the one enemy that had miraculously been at peace with the empire.  Phocas was thankfully replaced by Heraclius and the new emperor managed to claw his way to victory against Persia after 17 years of a bruising war.

It was at this point with the empire exhausted, demoralized, religiously divided, and impoverished, that the first Muslim army arrived.

Persia and Byzantium were like prize fighters who had knocked each other out.  Just how fatigued they were can be seen by the speed with which they collapsed.  Within four years the last Persian Shah was dead and his kingdom conquered.  Byzantine Jerusalem barely resisted, Alexandria voluntarily opened its gates, and North Africa put up only a sporadic resistance.

So how much is Justinian to blame?  Certainly some- the conquests of Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain were a tremendous short-term drain of resources.  But even if he hadn’t gone west the plague would still have decimated Byzantium.  At his death the empire was stretched, but with capable leaders it could have been preserved.  Instead he was followed by the foolish (and insane) Justin II, the profligate Tiberius II, and the bloodthirsty Phocas.  If Heraclius had followed Maurice instead of Phocas, Byzantium and Persia would have been infinitely stronger.  The armies of Islam would have had to contend with the powerful buffer of Persia and if they had broken through they would have met Heraclius’ able grandson Constans II- who had the makings of a brilliant general.

Islam would have been contained within the Arabian peninsula, North Africa may have resembled Western Europe, and the world would be a much different place.  As it is Constans II was killed in his bath, Persia was submerged under a Muslim tide, and within half a century the Arabs were in Europe and poised to attack Constantinople by both land and sea.

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What’s under the Blue Mosque?

Jan 04 2011

Norman asks what’s buried under the Blue Mosque.

Ever since Indiana Jones found that ‘X’ sometimes does mark the spot, Hollywood- and armchair historians everywhere- have been salivating at the prospect of finding some lost treasure hidden just below the surface.   Most of the time this is just wishful thinking.  Archeology is slow, painstaking work, not treasure hunting.  But Constantinople is more a city of ghosts than most- its modern custodians are the very people who destroyed it, and they show little interest in preserving or exploring an alien past.  So Byzantium keeps its secrets and provides a richer ground for future discovery than perhaps any other ancient megapolis.  The Blue Mosque is a perfect case in point.

Directly beneath it lies the oldest part of the Great Palace of the Byzantine emperors.  It was built by Constantine the Great as his personal residence and was nicknamed the Palace of Daphne because of a famous statue of Apollo’s nymph displayed on the grounds.  Some of the most prominent early Byzantine structures were within its walls- the octagonal bedchamber decorated with a cycle of mosaics of the imperial family, the subterranean walkway and stair to the imperial box in the Hippodrome, and the chapel of St. Stephen where on Christmas Day in 820 one of the most cold-blooded murders in Byzantine history was carried out.  (The previous evening, emperor Leo V had thrown his scheming friend Michael the Amorian into prison for a conspiracy, and sentenced him to die by being bound to an ape and cast into the furnace that heated the imperial baths.  Early Christmas morning Michael’s supporters snuck into St. Stephens disguised as monks, and dismembered their unarmed sovereign)

The Palace of Daphne was also the original coronation hall, and as late as the Macedonian Dynasty was still being used for imperial weddings.  The emperors of the eleventh and twelfth centuries preferred the gentler views of the Blachernae Palace in the nortwestern corner of the city, so Daphne gradually fell into decline.

It was still mostly intact (though partly in ruins) when the city fell to the Turks, but in 1606 after a sharp military defeat, the Ottoman Sultan decided to distract the population by building a huge mosque.  He pulled down a large section of the Hippodrome (including the lavish imperial box), leveled the Palace of Daphne and erected the Blue Mosque.  Only the walls above ground were destroyed, however.  The southern side of the mosque rests completely on the foundations and vaults of the Byzantine Palace.

Given the history of the building, even its ruins would be a gold mine of information.  Don’t count on seeing it anytime soon though.  Even if it wasn’t under a mosque, imperial remains aren’t exactly a high priority.  Justinian’s magnificent Bucoleon Palace was pulled down in 1873 to make way for a railway station, and the surviving part of the Blachernae Palace was converted to a tile factory.  Until Turkey discovers an appreciation of Byzantium we’ll have to settle for this virtual reconstruction from our friends at Byzantium 1200:

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Are the ‘Sons of the Eagles’ Byzantine?

Dec 30 2010

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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