The Byzantine Empire

Meanwhile, in the part of the Roman Empire that survived… The Byzantine Empire.

(Listen to the entire episode here!)

the roman empire is split

So let’s rewind a little bit. Before Rome fell, it was in decline. And during this period of decline a few emperors did somethings to try to prevent a complete collapse. It worked halfway.

First, a guy named Diocletian saw how big and unwieldy the empire had become and so he divided the empire into two halves. He would rule the empire in the east in an ancient city called Byzantium (that’s where the name Byzantine comes from) and another guy would rule the western half from Rome. So at this point there are two Roman emperors. This helps stave off crisis for a little while longer.

Just a few decades later, a guy named Constantine becomes emperor and rebuilds and fortifies the eastern city of Byzantium, takes a page out of Alexander’s book and names it Constantinople. And when Rome fell, this city and the eastern half of the empire that it controlled did not fall.

origins of the byzantine empire

Constantinople was much more protected by its geography – the city itself (Istanbul today – you know the song) is surrounded by water on almost every side. The Germanic tribes never made it that far, they had enough land to conquer as it was with the western half. So the eastern Roman Empire continues to exist.

Now this is confusing but important: we now call this empire the Byzantine Empire. But that’s wrong, because they still viewed themselves as the Roman Empire. They were the one that survived, which kind of makes them the better one.

So all this time that we’re talking about the Franks reuniting Europe and then Charlemagne being crowned Holy Roman Emperor is all really frustrating over in the the east. They’re like, what the hell, man? This Frankish dude unites some land you crown him Roman Emperor. We’ve been here this whole time.

This is one of many reasons that western and eastern Europe diverge – later their differences are going to become so great that the Church splits into two (Roman Catholicism in the West and Eastern or Greek Orthodox in the east.)

emperor JUstinian I

The most important guy you might want to know from the Byzantine Empire is Justinian. He did a lot, maybe because he was a great ruler or maybe because he ruled in this unique moment – the 500s – when there were power vacuums in both Europe (this is 300 years before Charlemagne) and the Middle East so there weren’t a ton of threats to his power.

He did a few things that impact your life today – the biggest of which is his law code. So he compiled all of the Roman laws that were still in practice and added some of his own to compile the Body of Civil Law, or Justinian’s Code. He preserved Roman laws so that they could become the foundation of the modern western legal system today – ideas like precedence (or earlier court decisions informing future ones) and the belief that all humans have some basic natural rights that cannot be taken away. Pretty important stuff.

The Byzantine Empire | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog By Antoine Taveneaux [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul/Constantinople Photo by Antoine Taveneaux [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Justinian also built the Hagia Sophia, which is still standing today in Istanbul. It was originally a church, then a mosque, and now it’s basically a tourist attraction.


The reason I love Justinian is because of his badass wife: enter Theodora. Theodora grew up as part of the lower class in Byzantium, her father was a bear keeper in their version of the Coliseum – called the Hippodrome. She became an actress when she was young – which in this society probably meant that she was also a prostitute.

By the time Justinian met her she had given up that career and joined a religious group. All reports tell us that she was incredibly bright, Justinian falls in love, and wants to marry her. Their union was such a big deal they actually had to pass new legislation allowing actresses and high-ranking politicians to get married.

She basically ruled alongside Justinian and passed laws outlawing sex trafficking and protecting basic women’s rights. Go Theodora!

the nika riots

At one point Justinian was facing revolts in Constantinople. There were two rival street gangs that had started as fan groups for the sports and spectacles in the Hippodrome but had grown into political parties.  It would be like if Real Madrid and F.C. Barcelona got into politics. They were called the Blues and the Greens and I typically snap my fingers and do a little West Side Story dance at this point in my lecture. *dunununununu*

The Blues and the Greens were mad about a lot of things but what sparked the riots was the conviction of a few chariot racing fans convicted of hooliganism. They were sentenced to death, and even though Justinian commuted their sentence to imprisonment, their buddies were not happy.

This was also just an opportunity to try to put one of their own guys on the throne, so they revolted and it sparked the Nika Riots, which would eventually burn down half of Constantinople and kills tens of thousands of people.

The story goes that Justinian was ready to flee the city and assemble his army somewhere else. All of his advisors were ready to board ships when Theodora showed up to give them a passive aggressive lecture only a wife could give. I’m going to read it in full because I love it.

The Byzantine Empire | Anti-Social Studies: A History Podcast + Blog Source: photo by Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
Empress Theodora, Basilica of San Vitale, photo by Petar Milošević [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons
theodora’s speech to justinian

“My lords, the present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man’s council.  Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions”.

Translation: Basically, I know I shouldn’t be talking because I’m a woman but things are getting crazy out there!

“In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety.  It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die; but for one who has reigned it is intolerable to be a fugitive.  May I never be deprived of this purple robe, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress”.

Translation: “Y’all need to stay here and fight because there’s no way you could survive on the run. Also, what’s the point of living if you can’t rule an empire?” So true, Theodora.

“If you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty.  We are rich; over there is the sea, and yonder are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death.  As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud”.

Translation: “You can save yourself if you want to. But I’m not afraid of death – I would rather die than live as a coward.” Mic drop.

Justinian replies, “Yes dear” and stays. The rebellion is put down and he stays in power. So really – behind every powerful man is a woman who’s rolling her eyes.

threats to the byzantine empire

This high point of the Byzantine Empire is going to face a new threat from the south. Just five years after Justinian died, a boy was born in modern-day Saudi Arabia who would change the world forever. His name was Muhammad.

We’re going to talk about the rise of Islam next episode, but for now just know that Islam rose in the Middle East. A few hundred years after Justinian, the Byzantine Empire was threatened by the spread of Islam into the Holy Land and encroaching on its borders for centuries now. Eventually, they can’t hold them off anymore and so the Byzantine Emperor asks the Pope for help.

the crusades

In 1095 Pope Urban II orders the First Crusade by issuing a call to all Christians to reclaim the Holy Land crying “God wills it!” Apparently God willed it… but for the other side, because after hundreds of years of sporadic Crusades, the Holy Land is still controlled by the Muslims. In the Third Crusade there was an English prince and commander named Richard the Lionheart who faced off against the famous Muslim general Saladin.

Even though they were enemies, throughout the fighting, they exchanged letters. One of them highlights the unwillingness of both sides to give in, which really foreshadows almost every other east-west interaction in the Middle East up until today.

Richard writes a letter to Saladin explaining that he wants three things:

  1. Control of Jerusalem (He writes Saladin that “it is our place of worship and we will never agree to renounce it, even if we have to fight to the last man”. Yeah good luck with that)
  2. More territory in the Holy Land west of the Jordan River and
  3. The True Cross. You see, it was believed that the true cross – the wood on which Jesus was crucified – had been discovered earlier on and that the Muslims had come to possess it. He argues, “for you it is merely a piece of wood, whereas for us its value is inestimable.”

Saladin responds with his own letter, in which he counters that Jerusalem is holy to Muslims, too and that the True Cross is too useful as a bargaining chip to be given away. But the part of the letter that highlights the crux of the issue is about the land in general. Saladin writes, “as for the land, it was ours to begin with, and you invaded it.”

the fight for the holy land

Now, I’m going to try to avoid getting too far down the rabbit hole that is the conflict between Muslims, Christians, and Jews in the Holy Land. But I just want to point out that the situation can look way different depending on your scope of history. If we were to zoom in to just Saladin’s lifetime, then he’s correct. The Muslims were living in the Holy Land peacefully until the Crusaders came in and invaded.

But if we zoom out a little more, to around the time of Justinian, then the Byzantines controlled the Holy Land and it was taken from them by the Muslims.

But, wait! Because if we zoom back even further to the ancient era, then the Jews have a claim because they lived there before they were kicked out in the Jewish diaspora. *sigh*

So who is right and who is wrong in this debate depends totally on your perspective and how large or small your view of history is. Needless to say, this problem has not gone away with time. For now, let’s get out of this quagmire and go back to western Europe as they try to dig themselves out of the mud…