The Byzantines began trading with the Norse in approximately 839 and while relations appeared to have been good, Rus Vikings shocked the empire by attacking it in 860. The Vikings terrorized the countryside surrounding Constantinople and came upon the city by sea but did not succeed in breaching the walls.
In 874, a clause in a treaty signed between the Vikings and Byzantines ensured that the Rus had to give men to the empire for military service. After a brief period of hostilities in the early 10th century, the pact was renewed and by 911, Vikings began to fight regularly for the Byzantines; so much so that they were given the name âThe Varangian Guard’.
These men also served as the Emperor’s personal guard and were renowned for their incredible fighting ability and enormous size. Over the next few centuries, the Varangian Guard was to play a pivotal role in keeping the empire intact and often helped completely transform a battle.
Examples include important assistance in putting down the Lombard Revolt which culminated in a decisive Byzantine victory at Cannae in 1018. Another crucial battle where the Varangian Guard helped the Empire was at Beroia in 1122 when the Pechenegs were defeated. Even in failure, these men conducted themselves with honor such as at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 where they stood by the Emperor until they were all cut down.
Harald Sigurdsson was one of the most famous members of the Varangian Guard as he later became King of Norway for 20 years in the 11th century. Without these mercenaries, it is possible that the Byzantine Empire would have weakened and possibly fallen even sooner than it did.
The Byzantine Empire looked as if it was in dire straits by the 7th century as it lost Egypt, Syria and Palestine to Arab invaders in the space of a generation. Soon, these invaders set their sights on Constantinople but in 673, a man called supposedly called Kallinikos of Heliopolis discovered a weapon capable of incredible devastation. It became known as Greek Fire.
It was a liquid flame that was projected through siphons and it was capable of burning on water. Even today, there are arguments about the composition of this remarkable weapon. Potential ingredients include sulfur, niter, calcium phosphide and pine resin.
Its invention was timely as it was a key factor in warding off the incoming Arabs and helped Constantinople survive two sieges. Some historians compare the impact of Greek Fire to that of nuclear weapons in the 20th century; in both cases, those on the receiving end of these weapons had no idea what had just hit them. Greek Fire also proved useful against the Bulgarians and the Rus Vikings and even helped deal with internal squabbles. Without this weapon, perhaps the Arabs would have been successful during their 7th century invasions of Constantinople?
The counterweight trebuchet, first used during the 1097 Siege of Nicaea, is another prime example of Byzantine weaponry at work. Unlike previous models, this weapon could hurl projectiles without the need to use 30-40 men (who had to pull the ropes). It was easier to operate, more accurate and could toss projectiles further than its predecessor.
Ironically, it was a super-weapon that helped bring down the Byzantine Empire once and for all. In 1453, the Ottomans used the Bombard to finally smash through the walls of Constantinople. While this giant gun could only fire one round an hour, its 1,500 pound stone cannonballs ripped through the âimpenetrable’ Theodosian Walls and reduced them to rubble by the end of the siege.
Historians suggest that countries in the modern era could learn a lot from the diplomacy of the Byzantines. Despite the fact that its own military force apparently never exceeded 140,000 soldiers, the Byzantine Empire managed to expand (at least in the first couple of centuries) and keep possible enemies such as the Goths, Persians, Huns, Bulgars, Slavs, Arabs and Normans at bay. Although they fought many battles and wars, they were also to avoid a substantial amount of bloodshed thanks to their diplomatic abilities.
The Byzantines used different tools gathered from other parts of the empire. Their practice of diplomatic marriages came from Egypt, their divide and conquer tactics came from Rome while their rhetoric came from Greece. Before any diplomatic mission to a foreign country, ambassadors were thoroughly briefed so they fully understood the culture and customs of the place they were visiting. They not only knew the empire’s goal, they were also aware of any developments in the court of the nation they were visiting.
The Byzantines’ so-called âBureau of Barbarians‘ gathered information from nearby states. This data included files on influential people, details of those who could be bribed, the roots of the nation, the things they would be impressed by etc. Thanks to this knowledge, the Byzantines had details of an enemy’s weaknesses and the strengths of their allies.
Their use of grand ceremonies to welcome foreign dignitaries was also a well-known tactic. These individuals would arrive at the imperial palace in Constantinople and be showered with gifts and attention. These visitors would witness the incredible defenses of the city, its remarkable wealth and be completely blown away. Then the Emperor would greet them and make promises of support and wealth if the tribe pledged its support. Very few tribes turned them down. Finally, the Byzantines were not above bribing potential enemies; a suitable amount of gold could prevent a foreign power from declaring war. While the sums involved were enormous, they often stopped conflict so these bribes were actually cost-effective.
This may seem like an odd combination but in the Byzantine Empire, they went hand in hand. Emperor Constantine quickly learned about the power of Christianity and in 325, a standardized Christian religion was created at the first council of Nicaea. The emperor was seen as God’s representative on Earth and was often active in church affairs. Yet the clergy had its own autonomy and the Emperor did not impinge on the authority of the church. Instead, they worked together in harmony.
Since the emperor and church worked so closely together, the imperial leader could call upon the support of the clergy whenever his reign or the empire itself came under threat. This ensured stability at times when the empire needed it most.
As the emperor was practically deified, the people of the empire had complete faith in his abilities and in turn, Byzantine emperors proved their worth. Famous emperors included Justinian I who presided over a Golden Age and Leo III who skillfully led the defense of Constantinople and prevented it from falling during an Arab invasion in 717-718. Even when the city finally fell in 1453, Constantine XI refused to flee and fought to his death surrounded by his people.
The soldiers and citizens of the empire typically stood behind their emperor and would also use religion for motivation and comfort. The Byzantines truly believed that their capital was protected by the Virgin Mary and the myriad of religious relics stored in Constantinople. Whenever the city was under siege, they would display the icon of Mary and this could give the defenders a tremendous boost. Finally, they believed that God would decide who won or lost. This faith in God and their emperor ensured citizens generally remained loyal.
Throughout history, empires have fallen apart due to internal strife. The Byzantines were able to manage the affairs of a large empire extremely effectively due to a number of tactics. A clever innovation was the use of eunuchs as key players in religious and administrative positions. Eunuchs were in many ways, the ideal powerbrokers as they couldn’t produce heirs so there was no chance of them trying to create a family dynasty. While they were not allowed to become emperors, they did hold important roles such as generals and chief administrators.
In terms of how the empire was ruled, it was well ahead of its time. No other Medieval state had a centralized form of government until the 1200s. The emperor was obviously the leader and he had total control of everything; he had the first and last word on the army, finance, the justice system and the church (though as I mentioned earlier, he did not abuse this power when it came to the clergy). He appointed every bishop, minister and patriarch and titles were not allowed to be passed down to the next generation.
In fact, even the title of emperor wasn’t necessarily inherited as it was in other empires. In theory, a man from the street could become the supreme ruler. Justinian I is regarded as one of the greatest Byzantine emperors yet he began life as a Macedonian peasant. Basil I was another respected emperor and he too came from an underprivileged background.
There were also a number of ministers, known as Logothetes who managed a variety of different affairs within the empire. The Byzantines also used a host of advisors, public servants and Themes; these were groups responsible for administrative issues in a given province; they were also charged with protecting the region and hired new soldiers. Byzantine bureaucracy took up a lot of resources but for the most part, it was worth it and the empire was pretty well organized given its size and the constant strain it was under.
Historians generally agree that the Byzantine Empire reached its largest extent in 555 under the rule of Justinian I. From the 7th century onwards, it faced a constant battle to stay together and survived a remarkably long time when you consider the issues it faced. Indeed, Constantinople was considered to be the wealthiest city in Europe until the 13th century. The Byzantines were arguably world leaders in the fields of science, architecture, art and trade.
Even during its Golden Age, the empire was hit with a major crisis in the form of the Plague of Justinian which began in 541 and is believed to have killed almost 25 million people in total. The war with the Sassanid Empire, which began in 602 and lasted for over a quarter of a century, weakened the Byzantines tremendously and made it an easier target for Arab invaders. Large parts of the empire were lost in the 7th century but the Arabs were never able to take Constantinople.
The empire expanded once again during the Macedonian dynasty beginning in the 10th century but was dealt a hammer blow at the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. By now, the Byzantines had lost most of Asia Minor and it appeared as if it would collapse at any time. the Komenian Restoration of the 12th century saw further expansion which came to a grinding halt as Constantinople was successfully sacked for the first time during the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
The Empire of Nicaea managed to reclaim the city in 1261 but it was clear that the empire was in terminal decline. In the middle of the 14th century, a civil war followed by an earthquake at the important fort of Gallipoli devastated the empire. The slow lingering decay and collapse thereafter meant it was at the mercy of the Ottomans who finally took Constantinople in 1453 and ended the Byzantine Empire.
A combination of the other factors mentioned in this article is why the Byzantine Empire was able to continually rebound after disasters. Ultimately, it couldn’t cope over the course of time and like all empires, it was always destined to end. That it lasted over 1,100 years is utterly remarkable and a testament to the ingenuity and determination of the Byzantines.