Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts
Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts

Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts

Khalid Elhassan - September 11, 2020

Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts
Seljuk Turks. About History

5. The Byzantine Empire’s Turkish Nemeses

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.

Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts
Defeated Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes brought before the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arsalan after the Battle of Manzikert. The Economist

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.

Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts
Seljuk Turks. Imgur

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.

Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts
Thirteenth century Seljuk Turks. Pintrest

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.

Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts
Osman I, first of the Ottoman Turk Dynasty. Pintrest

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.

Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts
The 1453 Siege of Constantinople. Flickr

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.

Lesser Known Byzantine Empire Facts
Ottoman Sultan Mehmed the Conqueror entering Constantinople in 1453. Wikimedia

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

Akram, A. I. – The Sword of Allah: Khalid bin al Waleed, His Life and Campaigns

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Donation of Constantine

Ancient History Encyclopedia – Justinian’s Plague (541-542 CE)

Ancient Origins – Vikings in Byzantium: The Varangians and Their Fearless Conquests

Blondal, Sigfus – Varangians of Byzantium: An Aspect of Byzantine Military History (1978)

Browning, Robert – The Byzantine Empire (1992)

Catholic Encyclopedia – Donation of Constantine

Commena, Anna – The Alexiad

Davies, Norman – Europe: A History (1996)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Irene, Byzantine Empress

Encyclopedia Britannica – Nika Riots

Freely, John – Istanbul: The Imperial City (1998)

Gibbon, Edward – The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

Gloria Romanorum – Constantine’s Execution of Crispus and Fausta

Glubb, John Bagot – The Great Arab Conquests

Gonick, Larry – The Cartoon History of the Universe III (2002)

Kinross, Lord – The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire (1977)

Listverse – 10 Dark Secrets of the Byzantine Empire

Listverse – 10 Scary Facts About the Justinian Plague

McNeil, William H. – Plagues and People (1976)

Medievalists Net – Yersinia Pestis and the Plague of Justinian 541-543 AD: A Genomic Analysis

Order of Medieval Women – Sikelgaita, Heiress of Salerno

ThoughtCo – Irene of Athens: Controversial Byzantine Empress

Wikipedia – Varangian Guard

Wikipedia – Walls of Constantinople