In 285 AD, the Emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire in two because it had grown so large that a single capital was no longer sufficient. Rome continued to administer the western portion, while Byzantium held sway over the eastern half. When Rome fell in 476, Byzantium lived on, struggling to maintain a territory that kept dwindling because of constant invasions and internal strife. The Crusades then devastated it further still.
By the time it fell to the Ottoman Empire in 1453, it had endured for more than 1,100 years; even the British Empire never came close to matching its Byzantine predecessor. There are ten factors which can explain Byzantium’s success.
The city of Byzantium was founded by Greek colonists in 671 BC, a name it kept even when the Romans conquered them. By the 3rd century AD, Rome had expanded too far east and could no longer effectively control the flow of people and goods along its eastern frontier. In an attempt to consolidate his grip, the Roman Emperor Constantine I made Byzantium the New Rome by consecrating it as his new capital on 11 May 330. The city was then renamed after him as Constantinople.
It was the right thing to do. The city lay along the Bosphorus Strait which straddles Europe and Asia, connecting the Black Sea to the Mediterranean. From Constantinople, Rome could expand its trade and influence with even more diverse regions and peoples. To the north were the Bulgarians and the Persians, while to the East were the Arabs.
From its strategic position, Constantinople could monitor Rome’s eastern border more effectively. It could also relay information faster to Rome in the west. While this also made it vulnerable to attack, the Roman Empire was still a powerful and confident nation at the time Constantinople was founded.
2. Natural and Manmade Defenses
As a major sea port even today, Constantinople was protected by water. Separating it from Europe is the Golden Horn (today’s Halic) — the major waterway which pours out into the Bosphorus. To prevent an attack from this inlet, they placed heavy chains in it which could be lowered for ships in peacetime, but raised to block them in war. To the south is the Marmara Sea, renowned for its strong currents which made a naval attack risky for invaders.
It was not enough, of course. To the west of the city is open land, so the Emperor Constantine ordered a defensive wall on that side in 324 AD. Barely a century after, the city outgrew its western boundary, so Emperor Theodosius II ordered another wall built a mile further west. Stretching from the Marmara Sea to the Golden Horn, it was one of the biggest walls in antiquity.
On 6 November 447, a major quake brought down portions of this new wall. To make things worse, Attila the Hun was making his way to the city. Kyros Floras, the city’s prefect, rebuilt that wall, added a second exterior wall, and added a moat within two months. The Huns were repelled and the Theodosian Walls still awe tourists today.
To ensure the city had enough potable water to survive a siege, the Emperor Valens ordered the creation of an aqueduct in the late 4th century. Water was stored in vast underground cisterns which could store over a million cubic meters. Both the aqueduct and the cisterns still survive — a testament to the genius of those ancient engineers.
3. Advanced Weapons Technology
As a major crossroads and economic powerhouse, Constantinople attracted the greatest minds of its day. One of those who made it to the city was Kallinikos, a Greek from Heliopolis. In 673 AD, he discovered Greek Fire.
Not much is known about this substance because the Byzantines were very secretive about it lest it be used against them. Records describe it as a liquid which burned hotter than ordinary fire and could not be put out with water. An entire fleet of ships could be destroyed by this substance, making Byzantium a leader in weapons technology.
Its strategic position also allowed it to have access to the knowledge of lands further east. It was the Chinese who invented the traction trebuchet which later made its way to Byzantium. The problem with this device was that it required several men to pull on ropes to create the tension needed to hurl projectiles.
The Byzantines modified it to rely on gravitational energy instead. This not only required fewer men to operate, it also made it more accurate to aim and easier to use. This improved model was first used in 1097 when Emperor Alexios I Komnenos lay siege to the city of Nicaea.
The problem with hereditary rule lies in the threat of usurpation, resulting in chaos and instability. Byzantium was not immune to this problem, but it did have a unique solution: they used eunuchs.
Since eunuchs cannot produce children, they had no way to create a dynasty. Byzantine emperors trusted their eunuchs, therefore, for such men did not benefit if their masters died or were assassinated. Quite the opposite, since the death of their masters meant they lost their job. As such, eunuchs became the preferred choice when it came to filling important administrative and religious posts.
These usually came from the lower and middle classes, but not always. Emperor Romanos Lekapenos I had his bastard sons Basil and Theophylact castrated to protect his legitimate son and successor, the Emperor Constantine VII. Despite this, Basil served five consecutive emperors over a span of 40 years as head of the imperial administration. Theophylact served as patriarch for 23 years with the blessings of Pope John XI.
Becoming a eunuch allowed lower class men to rise in the imperial order with the support of the Christian authorities. As far as the latter were concerned, eunuchs were elevated somehow because their sexual instincts were curbed for obvious reasons.
5. Unity in Diversity
Byzantium was the New York City and London of its day, a hodge-podge of many peoples and cultures living side by side. In the city were Armenians, Greeks, Persians, Romans, and so many more.
Since the city and surrounding region was Greek-speaking before the Romans conquered them, Latin and Greek became the dominant languages spoken. It must be understood that the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great preceded the Roman Empire; so when Rome rose, it looked to Hellenic culture as its inspiration.
Roman aristocrats and the educated even spoke Greek to demonstrate their learning and status. In Byzantium, a Greek dialect known as Romaika was the vernacular, though Latin remained the language of administration and the courts.
Byzantines, regardless of their ethnic origins, called their country Basiliea ton Romaion (Empire of the Romans) and called themselves Romaioi (Romans) even after Rome’s fall in the 5th century AD. Justinian I became emperor in 527 and under him, Koine (a form of Greek) became the vernacular.
To the Byzantines, their home defined them, not where their ancestors came from. Despite their incredible diversity, they saw themselves as Romans and lived accordingly. It was only much later that the Catholic Church in Rome began distancing itself from Constantinople. This was a political move to show that they in the West, not those in the East, inherited the glory of ancient Rome.
6. Union of Church and State
Byzantium’s first Roman emperor-in-residence was not born a Christian. Constantine I originally worshipped the Roman pantheon at a time when Christianity was an illegal faith for its refusal to accept the divinity of the Roman emperors. One day, however, he allegedly received a vision which made him convert. Believing he was now on god’s side, he defeated his rival, Maxentius, on 28 October 312 at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. He then moved his capital to Byzantium and made Christianity the official religion.
Without Constantine, Christianity might have died out, and for this, he is known today as Constantine the Great and as St. Constantine. In truth, Constantine ruled as his predecessors did by combining their secular and sectarian powers. The Romans believed that their emperors were appointed by their gods. The Byzantine Christians thought Constantine was appointed by god, a tradition carried on by later emperors.
This attitude not only ensured their legitimacy, it also guaranteed obedience. In this world view, opposing the emperor was not only an act of civil disobedience, it was also an act of heresy; for to disobey the emperor was to disobey god.
7. Foreign Diplomacy
Byzantium made use of many different techniques to deal with its neighbors, methods that reflected the diversity of its own citizens. As the eastern extension of the Roman Empire, it used its superior technology and military tactics to divide and conquer those who resisted them. It was not above using more peaceful means, however, such as using engineers to develop a region’s infrastructure.
The Greek talent for rhetoric was also used in diplomatic negotiations. The same went for the use of the Egyptian practice of marrying into noble families and making use of elaborate rituals to impress foreign ambassadors. Byzantine emperors would greet the latter in a throne room filled with mechanical animals to display the empire’s technical advances. Lavish gifts also made it clear that dealing with the empire was a profitable venture.
The state also used what it called a “Bureau of Barbarians,” barbarians being anyone who wasn’t Roman. This was an office that collected information on Byzantium’s neighbors. Information gathered included foreign customs and beliefs, their political situation, what their leaders were like, and so on.
Finally, since the Byzantine Empire was essentially a theocracy, it used missionaries to convert foreign peoples and make them more sympathetic to Byzantium’s interests. This can still be seen today in how Catholics the world over revere Rome and influence local politics according to the Church’s dictates (such as the denigration of contraception).
8. Viking Guards and Mercenaries
The Vikings were originally seafarers who made a habit of raiding their neighbors. They were not above commerce, however, and set up trading centers in what is today Russia. In time, they dominated the locals and founded Rus, which is the Finnish term for “the men who row.” It was from these Vikings that the Russian nation was eventually born.
As they migrated further east toward the Black Sea, it was only inevitable that they’d reach Byzantium eventually, and in the 9th century, that’s exactly what happened. In keeping with their character, they raided the region, slaughtered its people, but were unable to breach Constantinople’s defensive walls.
The solution was to trade, instead. Up until the early medieval period, they enslaved the people of the British Isles and sold them on Constantinople’s slave markets. Some Vikings even hired themselves out to the Byzantines and became prized for their size, for their martial skills, and for their loyalty.
A number even became bodyguards to the emperor, an elite group that became known as the Varangian Guard. These would prove their worth several times over, defeating the Lombards, the Normans, and many others.
9. Centralized Bureaucracy
Like Rome, Byzantium ran a centralized bureaucracy that was very different from many of its neighbors. The early Byzantine emperors did not inherit their title, however, at least in theory. Only those who had the support of the public and the military could ascend to that position; though such would change during the Makedon dynasty from 867 to 1056.
At the top of their social and political structure was the emperor whose power over secular and sectarian matters was absolute. Beneath him were the ministers called logothetes who were in charge of various offices such as the Bureau of Barbarians, the Treasury, the Military, and so forth. Beneath them was an entire bureaucracy in charge of everything else.
Beyond the walls of Constantinople were the themes which administered the provinces. Themes were military garrisons that protected their provinces by recruiting and training soldiers, provided police services, and handled administrative duties such as taxation.
This elaborate system is something we take for granted today, but vanished from Western Europe following the collapse of Rome. As today, Byzantium’s bureaucracy was also very expensive to maintain, but it was necessary to keep the empire together.
Byzantium prized education, and historians estimate that about 30% of its people were literate. Considering the fact that Western Europeans only achieved a similar level in the 18th century, then it must have been quite an achievement for the Byzantines.
The University of Constantinople was the most famous institute, open to Byzantines and foreigners alike. Schools were not just limited to the capital at Constantinople, however. Antioch (now ruins in modern Turkey), Caesarea (in Israel), Gaza, Nisibis (in Syria), Rome, and Syracuse (in Sicily) all had famous schools, as well. The most revered of these was the University of Alexandria (in Egypt), which gained fame for its math, medicine, astronomy, law, and philosophy courses.
Though anyone could study at these universities, they weren’t free, so education was limited to only those who could afford them. Most surprising of all was that women were allowed to enroll in them. In America, universities only opened to women in 1833. The UK followed suit in 1849, while modern Turkey only granted women that right in 1914.
Graduates of these Byzantine colleges could also take state exams which, if they passed, allowed them to work as a civil servant. In many ways, the Byzantines were a very modern people.