The so-called Byzantine Empire; or Byzantium, was one of the longest-lived and most successful polities in human history. Yet we often ignore the Byzantines important contributions to human civilization.
To explain, the only human states that lasted longer than Byzantium are China and the Papacy. In fact, historians usually date the Byzantine Empire as lasting 1,123 years; roughly 330 A.D. to 1453 A.D.
Strangely, the Byzantines did not think of themselves as Byzantine. Instead, the Byzantines thought of themselves as Greeks or Romans. To clarify, the state was officially the Eastern Roman Empire or Roman Empire, and its people were Greek.
Yet the Byzantines survived the collapse of the Western Roman Empire by nearly 1,000 years. Moreover, Byzantium preserved classical Greek and Roman culture and shaped Christianity by inventing theology.
What We Can Learn From Byzantium
Thus studying the Byzantines is a good idea for those who want to create long-lasting institutions. Some lessons we can from Byzantium include:
1. Reject hegemony and concentrate on survival
One reason why Western Rome collapsed was that the Empire’s leaders insisted on trying to maintain universal authority or hegemony over everything around them.
In contrast, the Byzantines surrendered most of their Empire’s historic territory to the Arabs. Thus they could maintain a rump Greco-Roman state in Greece and Asia Minor for over 700 years.
Originally, the Byzantine Empire contained most of the Middle East but it proved indefensible. Eventually, the Byzantines withdrew to the easily defensible areas around their nearly impregnable capital of Constantinople.
In addition, the Byzantines adopted a foreign policy of pitting enemies against each other. For instance, in 718 A.D. when the armies of the Umayyad Caliphate (Arab Empire) besieged Constantinople. The Byzantines made a deal with another archenemy the Bulgars to attack the Arabs from the rear. The Arab Siege failed and left Constantinople Christian and Greek for another 700 years.
By rejecting the Roman practice of universal hegemony the Byzantines survived and thrived. For instance, Constantinople became an important trading center and the gateway between Europe and the Islamic World.
Few empires since have learned the Byzantines’ lesson. The Ottoman Turks, Spanish, Austro-Hungarians, British, French, and Soviets fought to maintain their hegemony to the bitter end. All those empires collapsed in war and bloodshed.
2. Fight Defensive Warfare
One reason why the Byzantines survived was their willingness to fight defensively; unlike their enemies the Arabs, Crusaders, and Turks.
Defensive warfare requires far less manpower and money, so it was better suited to the Byzantines’ limited resources. For instance, offensive warfare i required an expensive and highly trained professional army. Partially trained, or untrained Byzantine citizen volunteers could defend the walls of Constantinople, on the other hand.
Moreover, siege warfare neutralized the advantages of the Byzantines’ enemies. For instance, the Arabs’ feared cavalry was useless before the walls of Constantinople. Plus, the Byzantines could stop Arab fleets by stretching a chain across the Golden Horn, the entrance to Constantinople’s harbor.
By emphasizing defense, the Byzantines made themselves too expensive for the Arabs to conquer. So the Arabs eventually left the Byzantines alone and moved onto easier plunder elsewhere.
3. Don’t Mix Faith and Politics
The Byzantines’ greatest strength.Their intense Christian faith, was also their greatest weakness.
For example, an argument over the display of relics and images in churches or Iconoclasm became a major political controversy in the 8th and 9th centuries A.D. The Emperor Leo III triggered a major political and social upheaval by banning icons or images from churches.
Leo’s prohibition led to a civil war in which Iconoclasts; literally “icon breakers,” fought icon worshipers. Iconoclasm became class warfare as common people who believed in icons fought educated elitists who regarded the icons as sinful. In addition, the Emperor and his lackeys used Iconoclasm as a pretext to seize money and lands from monasteries, which made the icons.
By having no boundaries between church and state, the Byzantines turned a theological argument into a deadly political conflict.
4. Beware of Your Friends
Enemies eventually destroyed the Byzantine Empire and sacked Constantinople sacked, but they were not Moslem. Instead, the Byzantines’ supposed friends; the Christian adventurers of the Fourth Crusade, pillaged and conquered Constantinople.
In 1202 A.D. the armies of the Fourth Crusade set out to reconquer Jerusalem from the Sultan of Egypt. The Crusaders quickly found they had a problem, they did not have enough money to finance an expedition to the Holy Land.
The leader of the Republic of Venice, Doge Enrico Dandolo, had a solution to the Crusaders’ dilemma: loot the rich Christian city of Constantinople. The Venetian fleet even hauled the Fourth Crusade to Constantinople.
Donadolo wanted to eliminate Constantinople because it was Venice’s main competitor in trade with the Arabs. The Doge also wanted to divert the Crusaders from attacking his trading partners – the Arabs.
In June 1203, the Crusaders arrived at Constantinople intending to restore former Byzantine Emperor Isaac Angelos II to the throne. Angelos and his son Alexios IV Angelos promised to finance the crusade, in exchange for a return to the throne.
Oddly, the Crusaders easily overwhelmed Constantinople’s defenses, captured the city and restored the Angelos to power. Once back on the throne, the Angelos tried to doublecross the Crusaders by refusing to turn the Eastern Orthodox Church over to the Pope.
Eventually, the two were overthrown and executed by a general called Alexios V Doukas who declared himself emperor. Doukas began organizing active resistance to the Catholic Crusade, which provoked an all out attack.
On 12 April 1204, the Crusaders smashed their way into Constantinople. Once in the city, the Crusaders went wild; they raped women, looted churches, and slaughtered civilians. The Crusaders stole vast amounts of loot including coins, manuscripts, gold, statues, marble, and religious relics.
To add insult to injury, the Crusaders broke the empire up into Catholic puppet states ruled by European adventurers. For instance, they proclaimed Baldwin of Flanders Latin Emperor of Constantinople.
By trusting the Crusaders, Alexios IV Angelos opened the door to the Empire’s destruction. However, in 1261 Byzantines in exile from the Empire of Nicaea retook Constantinople and reestablished the Empire.
The new “Byzantine Empire,” however, was a petty city state centered on Constantinople. Venice dominated the Mediterranean and trade and reduced the Byzantines to a third-rate power.
In 1453, Sultan Mehmed II blasted through the Walls of Constantinople and took the city for his Turkish Ottoman Empire. Thus an ill-conceived alliance led to the destruction of an empire was over 1,000 years old.
Modern political leaders who let foreign conquerors and adventurers in to shore up their power, are well-advised to study the Fourth Crusade. The Byzantines’ Christian allies proved far more dangerous than their Islamic enemies.
There is much the modern world can learn from the Byzantines. Unfortunately, modern historians and storytellers usually neglect the Byzantines and focus their attention on the more glamorous Romans instead. For instance, there have been dozens of movies and TV shows about Ancient Rome but few about Byzantium.