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Byzantium: The Early Centuries

“Our civilization has never adequately acknowledged the debt it owes to the Empire of the East”, writes John Julius Norwich in the introduction of this magnificent book. In very rare occasions, historians rise to the level of the history they are narrating. This is one of those occasions. We jump on the glorious vessel captained by Norwich and he takes us to the eastern Mediterranean, the Sea of Marmara, then up the Golden Horn and the Bosphorus. The journey is the reward as I never really wanted the book to end. Fortunately, this was just the first volume of three.

For the last 200 years, the Byzantine Empire had been the victim of a conspiracy of silence. Norwich recalls that he hadn’t heard or read anything about it until he went to Oxford. What little was known of the Empire of the East had been filtered through the opaque lens of Edward Gibbon who saw Byzantium as the decadence of all that was noble in Ancient Greece and Rome. And it wasn’t until the middle of the 20th century when travel to the Levant became more accessible that the Byzantine Empire was recognized for what it had been: a worthy and mighty successor and carrier of the Greek and Roman traditions.

The quote from Norwich at the beginning of this post is important. Byzantium was the stronghold of Christendom and Greek and Latin culture that kept great empires from the East from invading Europe. What chance would the smaller kingdoms and tribes of Europe would have had against the Persians in the seventh century or the Saracens in the eighth? Constantinople, though sieged several times by the forces of the East or barbarians from the north or west, resisted and ultimately prevailed due to the strength of its emperor and the unity of its people, who drew strength from “a single, unshakeable article of faith: that the Roman Empire was one and indivisible, its ruler chosen by God as His Vice-Gerent on earth.”

Culturally, too, we owe much to the Empire. After the fall of Rome, cultural progress stalled in Western Europe, and it was in Constantinople that the classical heritage was preserved. Greek and Latin literature, philosophy, Roman Law, would have been lost forever if it had not been for the scholars and copyists of Byzantium.

Book beginning and ending points

Volume I of III covers the first 500 years of the Empire, it begins with Constantine’s rise to power and his subsequent inauguration of the new capital in the East; and the volume ends with the deposition of Irene, the first official Empress of the Empire, lest she marries that barbarian and illiterate Frankish ruler who has just been proclaimed Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire by none other than the pope himself: Charlemagne. 

It’s Christmas Day, year 800. 

Never before in the past five centuries has any of the other Princes of Christendom had called himself Emperor. The old order has now been altered. The world will never be the same again.

Constantine The Great

  • His mother, Helena, a convert to Christianity, later in life (in her 70s) travelled to the Holy Land and found the True Cross. Saint Helena.
  • His father, Constantius Chlorus, was one of the Caesars appointed by Diocletian and was in charge of Gaul.

Universal Council of the Church at Nicaea (325 AD)

  • Constantine presides the council where a theological dispute between Arians (with most followers in the East) and westerners about the nature of the Son (Arians considered Jesus to be of human nature and not at the same level as the father, Westerners postulated that Father and Son were one and the same).
    • The council resolved that Father and Son were homoousios, consubstantial.
    • Constantine noting that the word was to be interpreted in its ‘divine and mystical sense’, in other words, it could mean anything.
  • It is also agreed that calculations of the date of Easter each year would be conducted in Alexandria and that the entire empire would follow such calendar.

“What decided him to make it the capital of his Empire was, almost certainly, his second visit to Rome… [disillusionment]: its republican and pagan traditions could clearly have no place in the new Christian Empire that he was so carefully shaping. Intellectually… the Roman academies and libraries were no longer any match for those of Alexandria, Antioch or Pergamum… [also economically] the incomparable greater economic resources of what was known as the pars orientalis constituted an attraction which no government could afford to ignore.”

  • The focus of the Empire and of the civilized world had shifted to the East.
  • None of Diocletian’s tetrarchs resided in Rome.

On his silver jubilee, Constantine celebrated for forty days and, in the last one, he attended mass in St. Eirene. It is with this mass that Constantinople was formally dedicated to the God of the Christians, and it is then that the history of Constantinople and the Byzantine Empire really begins. 11 May 330.Julian The Apostate, called by Constantine’s son Constantius to assume control of the western part of the empire (circa 355 AD).

  • Described as an unattractive man, a nerd, socially awkward.
  • Attempted to restore paganism by repealing decrees by which pagan temples had been closed, their properties confiscated, and their sacrifices declared illegal.
    • Also, amnesty for orthodox Christians that had been sent to exile by the pro-Arian government of Constantius.
    • “He had found by experience that no wild beasts are so hostile to men as are Christian sects in general to one another.” (Ammianus Marcellinus).
  • Killed in battle by the Persians as the romans were retreating from a failed siege of Ctesiphon (Persian capital).
  • “Perhaps, had he lived, Julian would have overcome both these faults [religious fanaticism and lack of definition in his thinking, ambivalence] and proved himself one of the greatest of all the Roman Emperors. But he did not live. He died, in the most characteristic way he could have died, bravely but unnecessarily, leaving the world with nothing but the ineffaceable memory of a marvelous, misguided young visionary who attempted to change the world and failed, his talents and high qualities betrayed, his promise unfulfilled.” (P. 82)

Theodosius I orders the massacre at Thessalonica, were 7000 people were killed for revolting against Germanic soldiers in the army.

  • Subsequent to the massacre, he repents and submits to the authority of the church, embodied in Ambrose, bishop of Milan. This was the first time that an Emperor publicly acknowledged the superiority of the spiritual power represented by the Church.
  • Created the “catholic” designation (adherence to the Nicene Creed of consubstantiality of the Trinity).
  • Allowed criminals a 30-day grace period to put their affairs in order before sentencing, ordered that a portion of his (the criminal’s) worldly goods be passed on to his children, upon whom no fault from their father must be visited, among other considerations for the humblest of his subjects.
  • Theodosius’ most important legacy was the transformation of the Goths from an implacable enemy to a peaceful community within the empire.
    • Without this, the empire could have fractured, succumbed to the Goths invasions, or at a minimum, stall all its progress.
  • Last emperor to rule over a united Roman Empire before the collapse of the west.

Fall of Rome

  • By this time, the emperor of the West had established his location in Ravenna.
  • In the summer of 401, Alaric the Goth invaded Italy and was contained by Stilicho, general of the armed forces of the Western Empire.
  • Alaric had been granted the title of magister milicum and he “fought not to overthrow the Empire, but to establish a permanent home for his people within it. If only the Western Emperor and the Roman Senate could have understood this simple fact, they might still have averted the final catastrophe. By their lack of comprehension they made it inevitable.”
  • By 407 the relationship between East and West was at a low point, particularly a result of the mistreatment of an envoy of senior bishops sent by the Pope to Constantinople.
  • In 408, Stilicho is tried for treason (unjustly), found guilty and put to death. He was a Vandal and his death perhaps arouse the hatred of the Roman for the barbarian. In garrison after garrison throughout the empire, the Roman legionaries fell upon the Gothic, Hunnish and Vandal auxiliaries. Those barbarians who escaped, banded together and found their way to Alaric. “Previously loyal to the Empire, they had now become its implacable enemies, determined not to rest until they had taken vengeance on the murderers of their brothers, wives, and children.”
  • Alaric begins the siege of Rome in September 408. Undernourishment led to cannibalism, disease began to spread. By Christmas, an embassy was dispatched to Alaric and a ransom was agreed. Alaric receded.
  • But Alaric still wanted a home for his people. He proposed that the Emperor make available the provinces of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum to the Goths, and also provide annual subsidies of money and corn to maintain his people under arms. Alaric could moderate his demands if he was offered the title of magister utriusque militiae – ‘Master of Both Militias’
    • Emperor Honorius refused bluntly, it was such an inopportune time to show defiance, as the Western Empire could not reliably count on the assistance of the East (in a state of turmoil as the throne was recently succeeded by a 7-year old), his own troops were demoralized, and, to the west, the provinces of Gaul, Britain, and Spain were in the hands of a usurper who could, at ny moment, march into Italy.
  • Alaric marches on Rome once again but this time requests the senate to depose Honorius and open the gates of the city. The Senate promptly complies with his demand and appoints Attalus as new emperor.
    • But Alaric found himself attacking Rome for a third time due to political ineptitude of the new emperor in dealing with the leader of North Africa, where the grain supply came from and who had cut shipments as he had sided with the deposed Honorius.
  • Alaric dies at age 40. “His followers carried his body to the river Busento, which they dammed and temporarily deflected from its usual channel. There, in the stream’s dry bed, they buried their leader; then they broke the dam, and the waters came surging back and covered him.”

Athenais, Empress of the East

  • She was the daughter of a professor at the university of Athens.
  • She was cultured, of Greek tradition, secular upbringing.
  • Theodosius married her in 421.

Attila after conquering all the cities of the Veneto, marches on Rome but then, inexplicably turns away.

  • His resting place has remained unknown to this day.

In 476, the Germanic element in the Roman army of the West demanded a country of their own: one third of the land of Italy. Orestes, the father of Emperor Romulus Augustulus and effectively the ruler of the West, refused to negotiate and was killed by the barbarians. The leader of the troops, Odoacer, forces Romulus Augustulus abdicate, marking thus the end of the Roman Empire in the West.

  • Odoacer decided not to replace Romulus Augustulus with another Emperor. “It would be two and a quarter centuries before another emperor appeared in the West; when he did, his capital would be in Germany rather than in Italy, and he would be a rival rather than a colleague – not a Roman but a Frank.”
  • The lack of any imperial representative in Rome created a political vacuum, and the people raised the Bishop of Rome and invested him with “much of the pomp and semi-mystical ceremonial formerly reserved for the Emperors. The age of the medieval papacy had begun.”


  • Reigned initially in eminence grise style through his uncle Justin; in 519 reunited the churches of the West and the East after a 35 year schism.
  • Married Theodora, an actress, and ruled together with her.
  • Killed 30,000 people in The Nika Revolt, after which, he solidified his position as a strongman.
    • Rebuilt and redesigned the church of St Sophia after its destruction by the mob. It was to be infinitely larger than the previous church, the largest building in the Christian world. Its beauty “surpassed all powers of description.” Among its “furniture”, the True Cross, the table of Jesus’s Last Supper, and the chains of Saint Peter.


  • Belisarius was Justinian’s best general and was sent to North Africa to deliver Carthage from the Vandals. He succeeded.
  • Later he was in charge of the reconquest of Italy. This mission being of the utmost importance to Justinian, who believed that a Roman Empire without Rome was anathema and shameful.
    • Belisarius conquests Rome and then marches north retaking other cities and towns along the way, but, due to a growing hostility between him and Narses (trusted lieutenant of Justinian) fails to send his troops in time to defend Milan. The city had opened its gates to the Byzantines and was immediately sieged by the Goths.
      • When the Goths reconquered Milan in 539, as punishment for its betrayal, they killed every single male citizen, sent the women to slavery, and left not a single house standing.

Totila the Goth

  • In early 551, Totila the Goth enters the city of Rome, this time not as an invader, but with plans to establish himself there.
  • Justinian sends an army larger than the one sent years before under Belisarius, this time under the command of the eunuch Narses (old, in his seventies).
  • Totila and Narses met at Taginae “for what was to prove the decisive encounter of the entire war.”
    • The Byzantine empire prevailed, Totila was killed, and Narses marched south and, town after town opened its gates to the conquerors. Rome also fell and changed hands for the fifth time since the beginning of Justinian’s time.
    • A battle beneath Vesuvius marked the coup de grace, the Goths fought bravely under the command of Teia, one of Totila’s generals, but were annihilated.
    • Justinian’s grandest ambition was realized at last.

Justinian dies in 565, the last of Roman Emperor to occupy the throne of Byzantium.

  • He was born a Latin, and was cast in a Latin mould, and throughout his life, he devoted his energy to the restoration of the old Roman Empire.
  • Just three years after his death, Rome falls again.

Phocas, Heraclius

  • The usurper Phocas takes the Empire from Maurice in 602, and in 608 initiates an all-out campaign for the persecution and forcible conversion of the Jews.
  • Phocas is dethroned by Heraclius and, by this time, the Persians had and were reconquering Asia (Antioch, Damascus, Jerusalem) helped in part by the Jews.
    • In 614, the Christians of Jerusalem slaughtered Jews and Persians, only to bring upon themselves a massacre by the Persians a month later. The city was destroyed, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre burnt to ashes. The True Cross taken away.
  • The Persians later capture Egypt (corn supply to Constantinople), the Slavs had seized the Greek peninsula, and the wheat fields in Thrace had fallen in Avar hands. Famine and pestilence overshadowed the City.
  • Heraclius rallies his army for the reconquest of the Levant, not only in the name of Byzantium, but in that of Christendom. This is the early seventh century, thus making Heraclius the first crusader.
    • He defeats the Persians and, after 18 years, returns to Constantinople bearing the True Cross.
      • Side note: the year in which Heraclius launched his Persian expedition, 622, was also the year in which Mohammed escaped from Mecca and found refuge in Mecca. The Muslim era was born.
    • “The years of anxiety and hardship had taken their toll: though still only in his middle fifties he looked old and ill, his body prematurely stooping, his once-glorious mane of blond hair now reduced to a fresh grey strands. But if he had worn himself out, he had done so in the service of the Empire. Thanks to him Sassanid Persia… would never again prove a threat to Byzantium.”

The Arab Muslims, seemingly come out of nowhere and occupy the Levant, then Persia and Afghanistan, and North Africa.

  • When they invade Rhodes in 654, they break up the 900-year-old Colossus and sell it for scrap.

Constantine IV

  • Defends the city for five years against the Saracen siege and ultimately strikes peace with them.
    • He had inspired his subjects to withstand a force hitherto considered irresistible.
  • The Arabs would have to enter the European continent through Gibraltar, too far removed to establish permanent conquests beyond the Pyrenees.
  • Had Constantine IV not contained the Arabs, Europe in its entirety might be Muslim today.

Justinian II – the Emperor who lost his nose

  • Succeeds Constantine IV, appeared to have suffered hereditary mental disorders.
  • He was overthrown and his nose mutilated, but returned to the throne after a few years in exile in the Crimea.
  • Killed by the forces of the usurper Philippicus Bardanes.
  • His son, only six years old, took refuge with his grandmother in the Church of the Virgin at Blachernae, but two agents of Philippicus found them.
    • The terrified boy was clutching the altar with one hand and a fragment of the True Cross with the other. One of the agents, John Strouthos ‘the Sparrow’, “wrenching the fragment from Tiberius’s [the boy] grasp, he reverently laid it upon the altar. Next he untied a box of other saintly relics from the Prince’s neck and transferred it to his own. Only then did he drag his small prisoner to the porch of a neighboring church, where he stripped him of his clothing and… slaughtered him like a sheep. Thus, with the cold-blooded murder of a little boy… was the Heraclian line extinguished for ever.”

Leo III, Iconoclasts and the birth of Venetia

  • “Is art the ally of religion, or its insidious defying enemy?” Can the nature of the gods be depicted on a piece of wood? For some religions (Islam, Judaism), certainly it cannot. For others (Buddhism, Hinduism), certainly it can. 
  • For Christianity, the answer was ambiguous, and Emperor Leo III destroyed perhaps the most visible icon of Constantinople, a golden icon of Christ. He followed this action with an edict mandating that all holy images be destroyed. Protests and rebellion ensued in both the East and the West. Some regions in the West used this affront by the Emperor to declare independence from the Empire, one of such regions, the Exarchate of Ravenna, with the support of the Pope, rebelled and declared independence. Thus the republic of Venice was born.
  • Population economics: part of the intention of the iconoclast movement pursued by Leo III and his successor, Constantine Copronymus, may have been the weakening of the Church and monasteries and the reassignment of segments of the population back into productive activities.
    • In the years before iconoclasm, the number of monasteries had increased quite significantly, with more and more people opting for a childless and unproductive life.


  • Around the year 800, Charlemagne had raised the kingdom of the Franks to conquer the Lombards in Italy, the Saxons and Bavarians in Germany, the Avars in Hungary and Upper Austria. He had assembled a large political unit not seen since the times of imperial Rome, and he had the support of the papacy.
    • Pope Leo laid the imperial crown over Charlemagne’s head, making him Emperor of the West and also, for the first time, granting the papacy implicit superiority over the Emperor it had just created… question: what authority did the pope have to bestow imperial powers? None. So they had to come up with a legend: the Donation of Constantine.
  • Charlemagne proposes marriage to Irene, Empress of Byzantium.
    • She was intrigued by the idea, but it was not meant to be. Her subjects were horrified at the prospect of her marrying a boorish barbarian who couldn’t even sign his name. She was deposed and banished to Lesbos, where she died shortly after.