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Byzantine Empire: a forgotten glory

In some languages the word “byzantine” has a negative connotation. It is related to secretiveness, treachery and intrigue. Some are not aware the same word is related to flourished domain lasted nearly twelve centuries.

At its peak, the Byzantine Empire cover a vast area: from the Sahara to the Danube, fromthe Caucasus to the Atlantic, from Sinai to the Crimea. according to the information today available, this empire lasted from the 4th century to the 15th century AD. It was to keep alive the Greco-Roman culture. It has even a main role in spread of Christianity. During the Byzantine dominion many political, social, and religious practices were created and codified, some of which are still part of our civilisation.

It's incredible to realise that such a mighty empire has not a clear birth. Actually, it seems more the continuations of Roman Empire. That's why the is no agreement on the date it started. Probably the first Byzantine Emperor was one the following:

  • Diocletian (c. 245–c. 316 AD);
  • Constantine the Great (c. 275-337 AD);
  • Justinian I (483-565 AD).

The most accepted idea is the Empire began to take on the appearance of a distinct entity when Constantine moved the capital of his empire from Rome to Byzantium in 330 AD. Constantine renamed the city after himself: Constantinople (today known as Istanbul).

An other interesting aspect is the use of the term Byzantines come into use after the 14th century. Neither the rulers nor the citizens ever referred to themselves as ” the Byzantines”. They considered themselves to be Romans.

Constantinople - the new Rome

It was located at the crossroads of Europe and Asia: the Bosporus Strait. Remarkable characteristic of Constantinople were:

  • well defensible peninsula
  • a sheltered harbour called the Golden Horn.

The name Byzantium has been given in 657 AD in honour of their legendary leader Byzas. Despite that, for other ten centuries it was still considered the New Rome, a city made of half a million people (during its glorious days from the 6th to the 11th centuries AD).

In the past it became the major center of world trade routes. A great quantity of item from all over the world passed through this metropolis. You could see the harbour was crowded with vessels. In its markets you could easily find spices, silks, furs, perfumed woods, precious stones, carved ivory, gold and silver, decorated jewelry.

Like in the case of Rome, the New Rome was victim of its success. Repeatedly they tried to breach its walls. It has been written about Robert of Clari, a crusader, which considered the plundering of its treasure the greater ever made in history. We remember conquest of the city during the Fourth Crusade.

Today the Byzantine Empire is no more, but not its laws, religious concepts, and ceremonial splendour.

Political a social practices

Its political and social practices, continue to affect the lives of billions today. Think for example to the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), a famous Justinian’s compilation of legal principles. They became the foundation of Roman law in continental Europe. The Empire left behind a fascinating collection of government policies. For example, in order to avoid act of crime, the needy ones were put to work in state bakeries and market gardens.

Architecture

Even the byzantine architectural style has influenced the world for centuries. Byzantine architects learned how to set a large dome over a quadrangular space. This style has inspired the construction of many buildings, even well far way: it can be found as far as Russia.

Habits

According to historians, Byzantines has influenced even the way we eat: the use of forks at the dinner table has been their invention. Not a little one, actually. picture this scene: in Venice (11th-century) a Byzantine princess used a two-pronged fork instead of eating with her fingers. You can imagine the effect of shock of the onlookers!

Popes of Rome also were “victims” of Byzantine influence, wearing a tiara modelled after the Byzantine emperor’s. As far as England the Monarchs too were attracted by the Byzantine style, to the point to copy the emperor’s orb and scepter.

Social Order

In order to contain drunkenness, seen a path leading to disorder and sedition, taverns were closed at 8:00 p.m. Impalement or decapitation were punishments for:

  • incest;
  • homicide;
  • selling royal purple tow private people;
  • teaching shipbuilding to enemies.

Alternative punishments were drowning in a sack with a hog, a cock, a viper, and an ape.

Emperors and wealthy citizens went to great lengths to finance hospitals, poorhouses, and orphanages. Repentant prostitutes were helped by giving a home, even a reformatory for fallen female aristocrats. Such generosity was the result of the prosperity the Empire was enjoying.

Economic system

The prices, wages and rents, were regulated directly by the State. They were prepared for a possible famine: wheat was stockpiled to offset poor harvests.

Shops were regularly inspected by officials inspected. They checked weights and measures, and even the quality of merchandise.

Order was guaranteed by means of severe punishment for smugglers, defrauders, counterfeiters and tax evaders.

The emperor exercised monopolies on minting, armaments and luxury articles. Banking was subject to strict control. The economy was very stable, and the same can be said of the currency of the State: the gold solidus, the coin introduced by Constantine himself, held its value for ten centuries. No other currency has ever resisted so much in history.

During the Byzantine dominion insurance and credit services were developed.

The Decline

The European West began transforming itself through the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment as well as the rise of science. In Byzantium change of any sort was viewed as a crime against the State. Additionally, a division between Rome and Constantinople grew. in 1054, the Greek Orthodox patriarch and the Roman Catholic pope excommunicated each other over theological differences, causing a rift between the Orthodox and Catholic churches that has not completely healed to this day. In 1204 armies of the Fourth Crusade committed a great crime in the name of Christ: burning, pillaging, and raping. Eventually the crusaders destroyed the city.

After 50 years Constantinople was recaptured. By then the empire was a mere shadow of its former self. Then the Byzantine Empire found itself under pressure from the Islamic Ottomans. On April 11, 1453, Sultan Mehmed II laid siege to the capital. The defeat signed the end of Byzantine Empire.


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