The western half of the Roman Empire collapsed in 476, but the Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, survived for almost another millennium. During that long stretch, the Byzantines demonstrated a remarkable resilience that allowed them survive numerous setbacks. Each time – except for the final setback in 1453 – the Byzantines adapted to changed circumstances, survived, and continued on. Following are forty things about some fascinating Byzantine Empire facts.
40. They Byzantines Did Not Refer to Themselves as “Byzantine”
The Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire, whose western half collapsed in 476. It lasted from late antiquity, through the darkest days of the Dark Ages, into medieval Europe and the early Renaissance. Its power waxing and waning over centuries, the Byzantine Empire endured and bounced back from repeated calamities, surviving until 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered its capital and final stronghold, Constantinople.
Interestingly, contemporary Byzantines did not refer to themselves as such. Instead, they referred to their state as the Roman Empire, or Romania, and to themselves as Romans.
39. The Term “Byzantine Empire” Was Coined Generations After the Empire Had Ceased to Exist
The word “Byzantine” is derived from the ancient city of Byzantium, on the European side of the Bosporus Strait separating Balkan Europe from Asia’s Anatolian Peninsula. In 330, Roman Emperor Constantine the Great chose the site of Byzantium to found a new capital city, which he named after himself, Constantinople.
Generations after the Byzantine Empire’s demise, sixteenth century German writer Hieronymus Wolf titled his collection of sources on the vanished empire “Corpus Historiae Byzantinae“, thus introducing the term into scholarship. The term gained acceptance in the West, and eventually “Byzantine” replaced “Roman”, the term the Byzantines used when describing themselves and their state.
38. The Byzantines Got an Undeservedly Bad Rap in the West
For centuries, the Byzantine Empire was treated with disdain, and at times even with hostility, by Western scholars and historians. When they deigned to refer to them as Roman at all, Western scholars distinguished the Byzantines as “Eastern Romans”. With its Greek culture and Christian religion – and the “wrong” kind of Christianity at that – the Orthodox Greek Eastern Romans was not seen as “real” Romans, like the Classical Age Romans.
That hostility peaked with Edward Gibbon, the eighteenth century author whose influential The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire viewed the Byzantines as degenerate travesties of the Romans. According to Gibbon and those who followed his lead, the Byzantine Empire was a mishmash of incompetence, cowardice, conspiracy, venality, intrigue, assassination, low cultural achievement, and religious superstition. According to that view, the Byzantine Empire somehow muddled through for centuries longer than it deserved to exist, until it was finally put out of its misery in 1453. As seen below, that was an undeservedly bad rap.
37. The Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire Was More Resilient Than the Western Roman Empire
The fact of the matter is that the Byzantines performed well in the acid test of history, in which fitter states survive while the rest go under. In the crucible of adversity, the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire proved itself sturdier than the Western Roman Empire venerated by scholars such as Edward Gibbon.
Under mounting pressures, the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the fifth century. By contrast, the Byzantine Empire withstood the various pressures it faced, was more resilient and adaptable, and managed to survive for almost another thousand years until the fifteenth century.
36. The Religious Squabble Behind the West’s Disdain of the Byzantines
Religion played no small part in the West’s disdain of the Byzantine Empire. As the popes in Rome increasingly asserted their independence from the emperors in Constantinople, a fissure began to emerge between Western and Eastern Christianity.
That eventually led to the Great Schism in 1054, a final break between the Roman Catholic Church in the West, and the Greek Orthodox Church in the east. One of history’s ironies is that it is highly unlikely that either the Catholic Church, or the West for that matter, would have survived without the Byzantines.
35. The West Owed its Survival to the Byzantine Empire
The decline and eventual collapse of the Western Roman Empire left behind a jumble of weak, fragmented, and often feuding states in Rome’s former Western and Central European provinces. When Islam arose and the Arab conquests began in the seventh and eighth centuries, the main factor that saved a fragmented Europe from going under was that Byzantine Empire. While the Byzantines did not set out to save Europe out of a sense of benevolence, their struggle for survival absorbed most of an expansionist Islam’s military energy and effort for centuries.
As it was, Western Europe barely survived the fraction of Islamic military force sent its way by the Caliphate at its height. That small fraction conquered Spain, and came close to overrunning France. Europe would have faced greater Islamic resources and armies, with untold history-altering consequences, if those resources and armies had not been busy dealing with the Byzantines.
34. The Byzantine Empire’s Capital Was Besieged Dozens of Times
A key factor allowing the Byzantine Empire to last for as long as it did was the strength of the defensive walls surrounding its capital, Constantinople. The city grew rich from its strategic location at a crossroads of land and sea trade routes linking east to west and north to south. A seaside city, Constantinople was immune from getting starved out by land siege, so long as the Byzantine navy kept the sea supply routes open.
On the land side, the Byzantine capital was protected from assault by some of history’s most powerful defensive walls. Barring treachery inside the city, when Constantinople’s walls were well manned, the city was well nigh impregnable to any medieval besieger. Goths, Avars, Persians, Arabs, Bulgars, Slavs, Vikings, and Rus, all had a go at Constantinople, some of them multiple times, without success. The few who managed to enter the city only did so with the aid of fifth columnists inside the city, who helped the besiegers gain entry. It was not until the invention of gunpowder that Constantinople’s walls were finally breached in the face of determined resistance, in 1453.
33. The Medieval Napalm That Saved the Byzantine Empire
In the 670s, the Byzantines developed Greek Fire, an incendiary weapon to set enemy ships ablaze. Stored in a container and pumped out at high pressure through a nozzle, the weapon was a medieval flamethrower that directed a stream of fire at opposing ships’ wooden hulls. Like napalm, the incendiary produced an intense fire that burned on almost any surface, including water. That made it highly effective in naval warfare.
Some limitations kept Greek Fire from revolutionizing warfare like gunpowder would centuries later. It had a short effective range, of about only thirty feet, so ships had to be very close. Conditions also had to be ideal: strong winds would make targeting impossible, and so would rough seas. However, when ideal conditions of no wind and calm seas were met, Greek Fire was devastating. That happened during the 717-718 Arab Siege of Constantinople, when a naval assault was annihilated by Greek Fire in a close range sea battle that saved the city.
32. The Byzantine Empire’s Founder Killed His Own Son
Constantine the Great had many admirers in his day. Especially Christians, grateful to him for taking Christianity out of the catacombs and into the palace. He also gave the Roman Empire a new lease on life when he relocated the capital from Rome to the newly built Constantinople, and laid the foundations for the Byzantine.
However, his admirers seldom mentioned his shortcomings. One such was the mercurial temper that led him to kill his eldest son, Cripus (circa 299 – 326) – a dutiful and capable son who would have made any father proud.
While Crispus was still in his teens, his father, Constantine the Great, appointed him commander in Gaul. The son delivered, winning victories in 318, 320, and 323, that secured the province and the Germanic frontier. In a civil war against a challenger, Licinius, Crispus commanded Constantine’s navy and led it to a decisive victory over a far larger fleet. He also played a key role in a subsequent battle that secured his father’s triumph over Licinius.
Things were going great for Crispus, until 326, when his life came to a sudden end. His step mother, Flavia Maxima Fausta, was eager to remove an obstacle to her own sons’ succession to the throne. So she falsely accused Crispus of having tried to rape her. An enraged Constantine had Crispus tried and convicted before a local court, then ordered him executed by hanging.
Flavia Maxima Fausta (289 – 326) was the daughter of Roman Emperor Maximianus. In 307, she was married to Constantine the Great in order to seal an alliance between him and her father. She bore Constantine three sons, but her stepson Crispus, Constantine’s eldest from a previous marriage, stood between her sons and the throne.
In 326, Crispus was at the height of his power and the odds-on favorite to succeed Constantine, having played a key role in defeating a recent challenger to his father. By contrast, Fausta’s sons were in no position to don the purple, the eldest of them being only ten years old at the time. In order for any of Fausta’s sons to succeed Constantine, something would have to happen to Crispus. So Fausta saw to it that something did.
29. Constantine the Great Killed His Wife Soon After Killing His Son
Fausta reportedly tried to seduce Crispus, but he balked, and hurriedly left the palace. Undaunted, she told Constantine that Crispus did not respect his father, since he was in love with and had tried to rape his father’s wife. Constantine believed her, and had his eldest son executed.
A few months later, however, Constantine discovered how his wife had manipulated him into killing Crispus, and had her executed by tossing her into boiling water. He then issued a damnatio memoriae (“condemnation of memory”) to erase her from official accounts – a form of dishonor issued against traitors and those who brought discredit to the Roman state.
28. The Rioting That Almost Brought Down a Byzantine Emperor
The Nika Riots of 532 AD were an urban rebellion in Constantinople, against Byzantine Emperor Justinian. They started as sports riots by rival chariot teams’ fans, but took on political overtones and became an outlet for expressing class and political resentments. By the time they were over, tens of thousands had been killed, and half of Constantinople had been burned to the ground.
Chariot racing was the biggest sporting spectacle in the Roman world, and in Constantinople, the biggest chariot racing teams were the Blues and the Greens. Rooting for a particular team often went beyond simple sporting preference, and became a stand-in for expressing class and political identity. Emperor Justinian was a fan of the Blues, so his opponents rooted for the Greens.
27. Disaster Ensued When Rival Byzantine Sports Fans Came Together
The Byzantine capitol’s chariot racing teams had associations, or fan clubs, which often became vessels for airing political and social issues for which no other outlet existed. The fan clubs became a combination of sports hooligans, street gangs, and political parties. They often tried to influence policy by shouting their views during chariot races, letting the emperor know the popular mood. In early 532, the Byzantine Empire was seething with resentment over high taxes. Amidst that tension, two members of the Blues and Greens, arrested for murders in a previous riot, escaped and sought sanctuary in a church. There, they were protected by a mob.
Emperor Justinian commuted their sentences to imprisonment, in an attempt to diffuse the situation. However, the restive mob demanded an outright pardon. At the next races held in the 100,000-seat-capacity Hippodrome, next to the imperial palace, fans began hurling insults at Justinian. Halfway through the race, their cheers changed from the competing “GREENS!“, or “BLUES!” to a unified “NIKA!” – Greek for “victory”, hence the uprising’s name.
Once they had sufficiently riled themselves up in the Hippodrome, the crowd broke out and attacked the imperial palace, besieging it for the next five days. The rioters went on a rampage in which hundreds were killed. They started fires that grew out of control, and eventually burned half the Byzantine capital. Political elites opposed to the emperor steered the rioters into demanding his abdication. Amidst the anarchy, Justinian prepared to abdicate, but was shamed by his strong-willed wife, Theodora, into manning up. A plan was then hatched to restore order.
A eunuch employed by the emperor braved the crowds to enter the Hippodrome, epicenter of the uprising, with a bag of gold. There, he met the leaders of the Blues, reminded them that Justinian was a Blues fan, and bribed them. The Greens were soon stunned when, at a signal from their leaders, the Blues stormed out of the Hippodrome. Before the Greens knew what was happening, thousands of soldiers stormed into the Hippodrome, and began massacring its occupants. By the time they were done, over 30,000 had been killed, and the flames of riot were doused with a river of blood.
25. A Byzantine Pandemic that Rivaled the Black Death
The Black Death, history’s most famous pandemic, was also its deadliest. However, Justinian’s Plague, 541 – 542 AD, gives it a run for its money in lethality and consequences. It was named after Emperor Justinian I, during whose reign it and the aforementioned Nika Riots occurred. Justinian actually came down with the plague named after him, but survived.
It is history’s first recorded pandemic, because it swept across three continents, Europe, Asia, and Africa. Like the Black Death, Justinian’s Plague was caused by the Yersinia pestis bacterium. It was also transmitted by infected fleas, carried by black rats. Also like the Black Death, Justinian’s Plague struck with a devastating initial outbreak, followed by several recurrences in succeeding years. By the time the last recurrence ended, the plague had killed an estimated 25 million to 100 million people.
The strain of Yersinia pestis bacterium responsible for Justinian’s Plague originated near the Tian Shan Mountains in Central Asia, along the border between China and Kyrgyzstan. Like the Black Death, Justinian’s Plague was mainly bubonic, felling its victims with all the bubonic plague’s horrors. The pandemic first struck China and northern India, made its way via trade routes to the Great Lakes region of Africa, then down the Nile to Egypt.
Egypt was the Byzantine Empire’s granary, and from its seaports, ships laden with grain – and also rats hosting infected fleas – sailed across the Mediterranean. From Egypt, the plague rapidly spread to the rest of the Middle East, the Eastern Mediterranean, and Constantinople, which served as both capitol and commercial center for the Byzantine Empire. From Constantinople, the pandemic rapidly spread through the rest of Europe.
23. Justinian’s Plague Killed the Classical Age and Birthed the Feudal Era
Justinian’s Plague devastated more than just the Byzantine Empire. Europe as a whole lost an estimated 40% to 50% of its population. However, the pandemic followed the established trade routes, so ports and cities were especially hard hit. The countryside and the parts of Europe off the established trade routes got off relatively lightly.
That lopsided death toll, heavy in the cities and relatively light in the countryside, marked a transitional point for Europe. It ended what was left of the Classical Age, and ushered in the Feudal Era. Urban culture was a hallmark of the Classical Age. Justinian’s Plague – on top of Justinian’s many wars – put paid to that, devastating the cities and an economy built around sustaining urban life. The center of power shifted from the cities to the countryside, and rural strong men emerged as the founders of feudalism. One era and way of life ended, and another one began.
The Middle Ages’ greatest hoax, and one with a major historic impact, was the so-called “Donation of Constantine”. It was a document recording a generous gift from the Byzantine Empire’s founder, Constantine the Great, transferring authority over Rome and the entire Western Roman Empire to Pope Sylvester I (reigned 314 – 315) and his successors. The donation of such vast territories elevated popes from mere priests and religious leaders, to independent princes and sovereign rulers of territory in their own right.
In reality, the Donation was forged in the eighth century by some unknown monks, hundreds of years after both Constantine the Great and Sylvester I had died. The forgery had little impact when it was concocted, but centuries later, during a period of political upheavals that wracked Medieval Europe, the Donation played a huge role in shaping Christendom and the West.
21. A Fraud Whose Impact Lasted Long After the West Broke With the Byzantine Empire
The Donation of Constantine describes how Pope Sylvester I miraculously cured Constantine the Great from leprosy, which convinced the emperor to convert to Christianity. The emperor demonstrated his gratitude by making the Pope supreme over all other bishops, and “over all the churches of God in the whole earth“. Vast landed estates throughout the Roman Empire were also granted, for the upkeep of the churches of Saint Paul and Saint Peter. To top it off, the Holy Father and his successors were granted imperial regalia, a crown, the city of Rome, and all of the Western Roman Empire.
After it was created, the forgery was stashed away and forgotten for hundreds of years. Then Pope Leo IX dusted it off in the mid-eleventh century, and cited it as evidence to assert his authority over secular rulers. Surprisingly, the Donation was widely accepted as authentic, and almost nobody questioned its legitimacy. For centuries thereafter, long after the Catholic Church had irrevocably broken with the Byzantine Empire and its Orthodox Christianity, the Donation of Constantine continued to carry significant weight in the West whenever a pope pulled it out to figuratively wave in the face of secular rulers.
The Donation of Constantine’s authenticity was finally challenged during the Renaissance, after secular humanism began to spread. With the revival of Classical scholarship and textual criticism, scholars took a fresh look at the document. It quickly became clear that the text could not possibly have dated to the days of Constantine the Great and Pope Sylvester I.
One hint was the use of language and terms that had not existed in the fourth century, but only came into use hundreds of years later. The document also contained dating errors that a person writing at the time could not have made. The Popes did not officially renounce the document, but from the mid-fifteenth-century onwards, they stopped referencing it in their Bulls and pronouncements.
In 634, Arab tribal armies fired up by Islamic zeal erupted from the sparsely populated Arabian Peninsula to simultaneously attack the day’s two superpowers, the Sassanid Persian Empire to the east, and the Byzantine Empire to the west and north. Within two years, the outnumbered Arabs had won a series of brilliant victories that permanently reshaped the Middle East.
The Sassanid Empire fell, while the Byzantine Empire lost its possessions in Syria, Egypt, and North Africa, and got pushed back to today’s Turkey. Of the Arab victories over the Byzantine forces between 634 – 636, the most decisive occurred in August, 636. It was fought along the Yarmouk River, southeast of the Golan Heights, near the intersection of the borders of today’s Syria, Jordan, and Israel.
In 634, the Arabs launched simultaneous attacks against the Persians in Mesopotamia, and against the Byzantine Empire in Syria. However, the forces attacking Syria proved too small for the task. Accordingly, reinforcements were diverted from the Persian front, where things were going smoother, under Khalid ibn al Walid, who assumed command in Syria. In July, 634, Khalid routed the Byzantines at the Battle of Ajnadayn and seized Damascus. He won another victory soon thereafter at the Battle of Fahl, and seized Palestine.
The Byzantines set out to recover their lost lands, and assembled an army of 80,000-150,000 men according to modern estimates. It significantly outnumbered the Muslim army of 25,000-40,000 men. The Byzantine army marched in five grand divisions to the Yarmouk, where it met an Arab army broken into 36 infantry and 4 cavalry regiments. An elite cavalry force was held back as a mobile reserve. Khalid assembled his army along a 7.5 mile front facing west, with his left flank anchored on the Yarmouk River, and his right on heights to the north.
17. A Byzantine Defeat That Shaped the Middle East to This Day
The Byzantine and Arab armies spent months camped across from each other, while their leaders engaged in negotiations. Fighting finally began on August 15th,, 636. It lasted for five days of attritional warfare, during which the Arab armies remained on the defensive, and withstood repeated, but often poorly coordinated, attacks. Finally, on the sixth day, Khalid drew his opponents into a large scale pitched battle that ended with the Byzantines retreating in disarray. Retreat turned into rout when Khalid unleashed his cavalry reserve, who charged with a fortuitous sandstorm at their back, and many panicked Byzantines fell to their death over a steep ravine.
The Byzantines lost an estimated 40,000 men, while the Arabs lost about 5,000. Nearly a Millennium of Greco-Roman rule and influence of the Eastern Mediterranean and North Africa came to an end, as the successors of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar were replaced by the successors of Muhammad. Syria was forever lost to the Byzantines, followed soon thereafter by Egypt and North Africa. Those territories eventually formed the core of the Arab and Islamic world. The Byzantines ended up confined to today’s Turkey and the Balkans.
16. The Only Woman Who Ruled the Byzantine Empire as Sole Empress
Nowadays, the finer points of Christian doctrine seldom raise a kerfuffle beyond the walls of seminaries, or betwixt professors of theology, clerics, or the such. Centuries ago, however, and to an extent that is difficult to grasp today, theological debates riled up your average Christian on the street more than almost anything can rile us up today.
Today’s heated social media passions and internet flame wars don’t hold a candle to how worked up people got over religious argument back in the days. Worked up enough for mothers to mutilate their offspring to death. That is what the Byzantine Empress Irene (circa 752 – 803) – the only woman to rule the Byzantine Empire openly as sole empress – did to her son.
Sinner are punished in the Bible. So when Islam suddenly erupted out of nowhere to sweep the Byzantines out of the Middle East and Africa, and reduce their empire to a reeling rump, many assumed that they were being punished for their sins. However, which sins? Some pinned the blame on Christians violating the Second Commandment – the one about graven images. Churches were full of religious paintings, leading Christians, so the argument went, to worship idols. How was making offerings to saints or revering their images different from worshiping Ba’al?
That line of reasoning led to a backlash against icons, known as iconoclasm, that kicked off decades of religious turmoil. Icons’ opponents, known as Iconoclasts, reasoned that Muslims had been successful because they strictly obeyed the Second Commandment’s prohibition of graven images.
In 711, the year the Muslims invaded Spain, a new Byzantine ruler, Leo the Isaurian, ascended the throne in Constantinople. A few years later, the Muslim Caliph ordered the destruction of every Christian image in the Islamic world: every statue, mosaic, and painting, of Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Christians appealed to Leo for help, but his response astonished many: he decided to emulate the Caliph, and destroy every Christian icon in his own empire as well.
Leo’s agents spread throughout what was left of the Byzantine Empire, invading churches to root out and destroy images and icons. That kicked off half a century of Iconoclasm, as Leo’s son and successor, Constantine V, went about smashing icons as enthusiastically as his father had done. However, while Iconoclasm had plenty of support, it also had plenty of opposition: many loved their icons, and hated Iconoclasts. One opponent was Emperor Constantine V’s daughter in law, Irene of Athens. She bided her time, until the moment came for her to undo Iconoclasm. Unfortunately, that also entailed undoing her own son.
13. An Emperor Discovers That Crossing His Mother Was a Bad Idea
Irene’s husband became Emperor Leo IV, but died soon thereafter. He left the empire to his son, the child Emperor Constantine VI, with Irene as regent. After consolidating her power, Irene set about undoing the preceding decades of Iconoclasm, with all the tenacity and enthusiasm of a religious zealot. In her determination to let nothing stand in the way of her religious mission, Irene rode roughshod over the Iconoclasts – including her own son.
In 786, Irene called a church council, and packed it with opponents of Iconoclasm. Unsurprisingly, they council concluded that Iconoclasm had been a huge mistake. That kicked off a Byzantine counter-reformation against the Iconoclasts, who resisted the return of religious imagery just as vehemently as their opponents had resisted the destruction of icons. When Constantine VI finally came of age, he declared himself an Iconoclast. Irene demonstrated the strength of her faith by overthrowing him, and in 797, ordered her son’s mutilation by gouging out his eyes. He was maimed so severely, that he died of his wounds soon thereafter. Irene then proclaimed herself empress, and continued her quest to undo Iconoclasm and reintroduce religious imagery.
Mercenary units are usually ad hoc affairs of adventurers from all over, gathered together under a captain for a specific mission, campaign, or war. As such, mercenary units seldom last for more than a few years before they are disbanded, once the conflict that gave rise to their creation is concluded.
The Byzantine emperors’ Varangian Guard, composed of Vikings, were an exception to that rule. Their history as a mercenary unit lasted for hundreds of years, stretching from the early tenth to the fourteenth centuries.
In the ninth century, Swedish Vikings penetrated deep into today’s Russia and the Ukraine. By 850, they had formed their own principalities in Kiev and Novgorod. From there, they dominated the surrounding Slavs as a ruling caste of a new civilization that came to be known as Kievan Rus. The princes of Rus tended to hire new fighters from Scandinavia, who were known as Varangians – a term meaning a stranger who had taken military service, or a member of a union of traders and warriors.
By the early 900s, some of these Varangian Vikings had ventured further south, sailed across the Black Sea, and raided Constantinople and the Byzantine lands. Some, however, took service with the Byzantine emperors as mercenaries. As early as 902, contemporary records describe a force of about 700 Varangians taking part in a Byzantine expedition against Crete.
10. The Privilege of Looting an Emperor’s Possessions After His Death
In 988, Byzantine Emperor Basil II sought military aid from his ally, Prince Vladimir I of Kiev. The Rus ruler sent 6000 of his most unruly warriors, whom he was having trouble paying anyhow. The emperor put Vladimir’s discards to good use against his enemies, then organized them into what became the nucleus of the Varangian Guard. As foreigners, the Vikings had no local ties, and thus few political links that could tangle them in the Byzantine court’s intrigues and cabals. That made them suitable as bodyguards. They were not just palace soldiers, however, but accompanied the emperor on campaign, and formed the Byzantine army’s shock infantry.
The Varangians proved themselves in battle time after time, and their unit became an elite outfit whose members received higher pay than the rest of the army. In addition to higher pay, they were often granted the privilege of being the first to loot after victory. Another informal privilege, which fell into their lap as the main armed force in the imperial palace, was the privilege of plundering the emperor’s possessions after his death.
9. The Warrior Princess Who Tormented the Byzantine Empire
Sichelgaita of Salerno (circa 1040 – 1090) was a Lombard warrior princess and Duchess of Apulia in southern Italy, who gave the Byzantine Empire all it could and handle and more. A six foot Amazon, she met and married Robert Guiscard, a Norman adventurer who turned southern Italy and Sicily into a Norman domain. Armed and armored and going into combat at Guiscard’s side, or leading men into battle on her own, Sichelgaita and her husband roiled the Mediterranean world during the second half of the eleventh century.
She was born into the ruling family of the Duchy of Salerno, and from an early age, Sichelgaita exhibited a passion for swordsmanship and horseback riding. When her father, the Duke of Salerno, was murdered in a palace coup, she helped her brother regain the duchy, while she regained her place as the duchy’s most privileged woman. Brother and sister then had to deal with encroachments from Normans to their south, who had settled in Italy following a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
In 1058, Sichelgaita met the Normans’ leader, Robert Guiscard. It was love at first sight. Impressed by the six foot Amazon who went into battle, armed and armored at his side, Guiscard divorced his wife and married Sichelgaita. For the next eighteen years, she was Guiscard’s constant companion, on and off the battlefield, helping consolidate his and her family’s hold on southern Italy. In addition to fighting at her husband’s side, Sichelgaita also led men on her own in independent commands.
In 1076, clad in shining armor and mounted astride a stallion, she rode up to the walls of Salerno, which was ruled by her brother, and demanded the city’s submission. When her brother refused, she besieged and starved him into surrender, seized the city, and sent him into exile. She and her husband then tried to take over the Byzantine Empire by marrying one of their children into the imperial household. A palace coup in Constantinople foiled those plans, however, so they decided to take over Byzantium the hard way, by conquering it.
Sichelgaita’s greatest exploit occurred at the Battle of Durazzo on the Albanian coast, in October, 1081. She led an advance force ahead of the main body, which encountered a powerful Byzantine army that offered fierce resistance. Sichelgaita determined to press the attack and keep the Byzantines pinned in place until Guiscard arrived with reinforcements. However, her men faltered, and some fled.
As described by near contemporaries: “Directly Sichelgaita, Robert’s wife (who was riding at his side and was a second Pallas, if not an Athene) saw these soldiers running away. She looked fiercely after them and in a very powerful voice called out to them in her own language an equivalent to Homer’s words “How far will ye flee? Stand and fight like men!” And when she saw that they continued to run, she grasped a long spear and at full gallop rushed after the fugitives; and on seeing this they recovered themselves and returned to the fight.”
Sichelgaita was badly wounded at the Battle of Durazzo, but held part of the battlefield until reinforcements arrived to turn the tide and win the hard-fought engagement against the Byzantine army. Despite the victory, the plans for conquering Byzantium were discarded because of developments back in Italy, when a conflict broke out between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor.
In 1084, the power couple resumed the attempted conquest of Byzantium. They won some initial victories, including a ferocious naval battle against a combined Venetian-Byzantine fleet. That gained them the islands of Corfu and Cefalonia. Soon thereafter, however, Guiscard took ill and died in 1085, and the campaign died with him. Sichelgaita retired to Salerno, where she died five years later, in 1090. The sighs of relief were probably audible all the way from Constantinople.
For a while in the ninth and tenth centuries, it seemed as if the Byzantine Empire had caught a break when its chief rival, the Arab Abbasid Caliphate, went into decline. During this period, the Byzantines experienced a revival, and reached a medieval peak of cultural and military might during the reign of Emperor Basil II (circa 958 – 1025). Unfortunately for the Byzantines, the decline of the Muslim Arabs presaged the rise of the Muslim Turks, who eventually put an end to the Byzantine Empire.
The Turks had been subjugated by the Arabs in the eighth century, but they eventually supplanted their overlords as the dominant power in the Islamic world. In the eleventh century, a branch of the Turks established the Seljuk Empire. Reducing the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad to a figurehead puppet, Seljuk sultans ruled a vast Islamic state that absorbed other Turkic principalities, and dominated the heart of the Muslim Middle East.
4. The Defeat That Spelled the Beginning of the End of the Byzantine Empire
With the bow and arrow as their symbol of authority, the Seljuk Turks extended their rule over Persia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. Then in 1071, they crushed the Byzantine army at the Battle of Manzikert. Over the long term, that proved to be one of the most catastrophic defeats in the history of the Byzantine Empire.
In the seventh century, the Byzantines had been faced with extinction after the Arabs overran roughly two thirds of their empire, and seized the Levant, Egypt, and North Africa. The Byzantines survived, with Anatolia forming their new heartland and source of their manpower. After their victory at Manzikert, the Seljuk Turks overran much of that Byzantine heartland, fatally weakening the Empire and setting it on a path of inevitable decline and extinction.
3. Unfortunately for the Byzantines, Their New Turk Enemies Proved Different From Most Nomads
At its greatest extent, Seljuk dominion stretched from western Anatolia and the Levant to the Hindu Kush in the east, and from Central Asia in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. The Turks were thus established in the Middle East, and began their transition from Steppe nomads to a settled state. The Seljuks differed from most nomadic conquerors throughout history, such as the Huns, Avars, and Mongols, whose states proved short-lived and ephemeral. Instead, the Seljuks pulled off the rare feat of managing a successful transition from a nomadic lifestyle to a sedentary one. They went from shepherds and Steppe warriors to urban dwellers, taking up new occupations such as farmers, administrators, merchants, manufacturers, and artisans. They built roads, mosques, schools, hospitals, and caravansaries.
Emulating the Persians and Arabs who wielded power before them, the Seljuks came to appreciate and encourage scholarship, such as the literature, arts, philosophy, and the sciences. By the time their state went into decline and collapsed, the Seljuks had established a foundation of a Turkic culture and identity, which other Turks – chiefly the Ottoman Turks – would build upon to create even greater states.
2. The Byzantine Empire’s Final Foe Began as a Religious Order
It would not be the Seljuk Turks who would finally finish off the Byzantine Empire. Instead, that task fell to their successors, the Ottoman Turks. Even as the Seljuks governed a settled empire, other independent Turks continued to roam the Steppe. Allied to other nomads, some of them still pagan, the still-nomadic Turks formed warrior groups that continued to raid into settled lands. They became a constant headache for the Seljuks. Most dominant among them were bands of what came to be known as “Ghazis” – religious orders of holy warriors.
Ghazis were a motley lot of volunteers, many of them vagabonds, malcontents, fugitives, and unemployed seeking subsistence. They assigned themselves the task of fighting infidels – and plundering as much as they could lay their hands on while they were at it. Their chief targets were the Byzantine Empire and the Christian states of the Caucasus. By the late thirteenth century, one Ghazi chieftain, Osman I, a religious leader who founded the Ottoman dynasty, came to rule a territory directly bordering what was left of the Byzantine Empire in Anatolia.
1. The Byzantine Empire’s Executioners Burst on the Scene
The fledgling state of Osman I experienced an explosive growth during the fourteenth century. Osman’s son Orhan captured the northwestern Anatolian town of Bursa in 1326, and made it the capital of the Ottoman state. In 1354, an earthquake devastated the Gallipoli Peninsula across the Dardanelles Strait from Anatolia, and wrecked its Byzantine forts. The Ottoman Turks quickly seized and occupied the peninsula, establishing a foothold in Europe.
In 1387, Ottoman forces seized the city of Thessaloniki in Greece. In 1389, an Ottoman army crushed the Serbs at the Battle of Kosovo, and made the Ottoman Empire the dominant power in the Balkans. In 1396, at the Battle of Nicopolis, Ottoman Sultan Bayezid I routed the last large-scale Crusade of the Middle Ages, which had set out to halt Ottoman expansion. The Ottoman state suffered a humiliating but short-lived setback in the early fifteenth century, when it was defeated by Tamerlane. The dynasty bounced back quickly, however, and in 1453, made its greatest conquest by capturing Constantinople, the Byzantine capital and final stronghold, bringing that long-lived state to an end.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading