Byzantine Empire

views updated May 17 2018


Jewish communities existed in the Byzantine Empire throughout its history, from the foundation of *Constantinople in 330 to the Ottoman conquest of the city in 1453. The centers of Jewish population and the status of the Jews there underwent drastic changes throughout this long period and shifted under the impact of events within and outside the empire. The history of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire can therefore be divided into three major sections.

From Constantine to the Iconoclastic Period (c. 720).

legal and social status

Numerous Jewish communities were located in the eastern Mediterranean region, including the Balkans, present-day Greece, Asia Minor, Constantinople, Syria, Ereẓ Israel (which alone had 43 communities), and Egypt. The legal status accorded to the Jewish faith within the Roman Empire as a religio licita (a religion permitted by law) was not changed explicitly. However, the attitude of the Byzantine rulers and society in practice, the methods employed by the Church, the language of official documents and legislation on details combined to humiliate the Jews and narrow the confines of Jewish society and religion and the opportunities open to Jews. Almost at the beginning of his legislative activity *Constantine described the Jewish religion as "baleful," and warned Jews, under threat of capital punishment, not to molest converts to Christianity. The second part of the law containing this injunction made it a crime to become a Jew: a Jew who circumcised his slave forfeited ownership of the slave (Cod. Theod. 16:8 (4, 1, 5)). Constantine and his mother Helena inspired a movement to Christianize Ereẓ Israel. His son Constantius added to his father's legislation a prohibition on marriage between Jews and Christians. An abortive revolt by the Jews in Ereẓ Israel against the provincial commander Gallus during his reign was suppressed in 351. The benign interlude of the reign of Emperor *Julian the Apostate only resulted in increased enmity on the Christian side and disappointment to the Jews.

The failure of Julian's plans to revive the pagan empire and its tolerance of the Jewish religion contributed to the breakdown of the old concepts and existent attitudes among religions and people. The consistent fanaticism prevailing in Byzantine Christendom covers the long span from Julian's death until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. >Emperor *Theodosius I revived missionary activity and prohibited Jewish parents from disinheriting children who had apostatized to Christianity. However, the burning of the synagogue in Callinicum (Mesopotamia) in 388 led to a clash between the imperial traditions and the aims of the Church. The emperor still tried to uphold the imperial tradition of law and order for all, including the Jews. He therefore ordered that the perpetrators of the outrage in Callinicum should be punished and the synagogue reconstructed at their expense. *Ambrose, the

bishop of Milan, viewed the emperor's order as sacrilegious and succeeded in compelling him to annul it. Thus toward the end of the fourth century the humiliation of the Jews and ascendancy of ecclesiastical ideas in regulating their affairs became established in the Byzantine Empire in both theory and practice. The temporary expulsion of the Jews from *Alexandria by the patriarch Cyril in 415 also marked a victory for the hatred stirred up by the Church among the populace with assistance from the authorities. The code of *Theodosius ii (438) summed up the former anti-Jewish legislation, and included a prohibition on building new synagogues, permitting structural repairs only if absolutely necessary. Certain Purim celebrations were forbidden. In spirit and language this fifth-century codification crystallizes the atmosphere prevailing in the Byzantine Empire in the fourth century. A Church rent by internal struggles, bent on heresy hunting with the help of the imperial authority, and using increasingly violent and uncouth language toward its Christian adversaries, developed over the fourth century a vitriolic anti-Jewish polemic literature. Both writers and preachers seemingly vied with one another in their acrimony toward, and vilification of, the Jews and Judaism. In the eight sermons delivered by John Chrysostom from his pulpit in Antioch in 387, every imaginable evil is ascribed to the Jews. The venom embodied in these writings and sermons to a large degree lies at the root of medieval Jew-hatred, spreading beyond the boundaries of the Byzantine Empire and its culture.

In the sixth century the reign of *Justinian i inaugurated a hardening of attitudes toward the Jews and a departure for the worse in their treatment. The Jewish-Arab kingdom of *Ḥimyar in southern Arabia was destroyed on Byzantine instigation. Justinian attempted to regulate internal Jewish life and modes of worship in accordance with what he considered necessary and right from a Christian point of view through a number of laws and practical actions. In his famous novella 146, of the year 553, he even attempted to dictate to the Jews concerning their divine worship and forbade the use of the deuterosis (Mishnah) for understanding the Torah; he also took it upon himself to lay down which biblical translation (*Targum) they might use. This gross interference in Jewish religious practice is justified in the novella by hints that there was a division within Jewish society on these matters. However, while it is known that Greek was then beginning to be used in the Byzantine communities, which developed the "Romaniot" rite of prayer, it is also certain that no professing Jews would have asked for an imperial order to use translations which were mainly Christological. Justinian's tendency to resort to coercion found its severest expression in his novella 37, of 535, prohibiting the practice of Judaism in the reconquered territories in North Africa. All these measures were included in his Corpus juris civilis, with other anti-Jewish legislation. The first half of the sixth century saw a severely enforced but short-lived attempt by the emperor to abolish formally the last shreds left to Judaism of its status as a religio licita. Under assault from enemies from both within and without, the emperors of the weak empire of the second half of the sixth and first half of the seventh centuries permitted anti-Jewish riots and forced conversions of the Jews, such as ordered by Emperor Phocas in 608. The Jews reacted by revolts in self-defense. In the uprising near Antioch in 608 the patriarch was killed. The clashes of opposing forces and violence came to a head under Emperor *Heraclius, when the Jews, notable among them *Benjamin of Tiberias, allied themselves with the invading Persians during their capture of Jerusalem. On its recapture in 629, Heraclius avenged himself on the Jewish population by a series of massacres.

The appearance of Islam and the Muslim conquests deprived the Byzantine Empire of Ereẓ Israel and Egypt among other territories and awakened messianic expectations among the Jews (see *Messianic movements). In the remnant left to the Byzantine Empire the prevailing attitude toward the Jews was not relaxed. A council presided over by Emperor Justinian ii in 692 prohibited Jews and Christians from bathing together in public places, and Christians from consulting Jewish physicians.

social and cultural life

At the beginning of this period, the Jews formed part and parcel of civic life in the towns. Like others, they refused to serve in the decurionate; Constantine's enforcement of their obligation to do so reflected the general reluctance of the citizenry to undertake this onerous municipal function and a specifically anti-Jewish bias on the part of the emperor. The Jews gradually withdrew from, or were forced out of, civic life, although they still continued to be active in the *circus parties for a long time. The abolition of the Jewish patriarchate (see *Nasi) in Ereẓ Israel in 425 threw back Jewish communal life onto the local leadership, already well established before this troubled time. The community's elders (presbyteroi), *archipherecites, and leaders with other titles led Jewish society in the various localities in all aspects of life. Apparently birth and wealth, in addition to scholarship, were major factors in attaining these leading positions. In the economic sphere, the Jews were only gradually ousted from their professions and positions of wealth, and from their places of residence in the cities (see *Constantinople). Many of them engaged in overland and maritime commerce. In a number of areas, such as Ereẓ Israel and Egypt, there was still a solid Jewish peasant population. In the sixth century *dyeing is mentioned as a major Jewish industry, remaining so down to the end of the Byzantine Empire.

In the cultural sphere, the center in Ereẓ Israel and its institutions led creative endeavor within the Byzantine communities in every field, even after the Arab incursions. Ereẓ Israel was the main source of Hebrew liturgical poetry, its leading poets including *Yose b. Yose, *Yannai, and Eleazar *Kallir. The monk Romanos, an apostate from Judaism, had a formative influence on Byzantine hymnology, transposing the mode of religious expression and worship used by the paytanim to the Byzantine liturgy and cultural expression. The violent changes at the end of the seventh and beginning of the eighth centuries aroused visions of an apocalyptic nature (see *Apocalypse) among Byzantine Jewry.

From the Iconoclastic Period to the Fourth Crusade (1204)

legal and social status

Throughout this period Jews were living in the major cities in the territories still remaining under Byzantine rule. The situation of the Jews in the Byzantine domains of southern Italy is well documented through the contacts they had with Ereẓ Israel as well as with countries under Christian rule, and by information given in the chronicle of *Ahimaaz. Main centers were *Bari, *Oria, and *Otranto. *Benjamin of Tudela in the mid-12th century describes many communities in the Balkans and Asia Minor, and in Constantinople, with their varied economy. The very nature of the Iconoclastic movement made its adherents suspicious of possible Jewish influences. The actual degree of such influence, if any, on the emperors and priests who rejected icon worship is still very much in dispute. Their opponents, the icon worshipers, regarded this influence as a certainty, and the iconoclasts were branded in sermons and tales circulating at the time as "Jews." The final restoration of icon worship in 843 was accompanied by renewed violent anti-Jewish manifestations. *Basil i issued a decree ordering the forcible conversion of his Jewish subjects in 873–74, and in the Ahimaaz chronicle he is depicted as the archenemy of Judaism and the Jews. The decree was rescinded by Leo vi. In 943 *Romanus i Lecapenus made another attempt at forcible conversion. There are reports of Jews who fled to Khazaria from these persecutions. Byzantine Jewry in the 11th and 12th centuries apparently lived under a regime of absolute humiliation although assured of relative safety for their lives and property.

social and cultural life

The economic structure of the Jews in the Byzantine Empire remained substantially the same in this period. Benjamin of Tudela found Jews in the Balkans engaged in agriculture, besides being occupied in the silk weaving and cloth dyeing industries which were widespread Jewish occupations throughout the Byzantine communities. According to his descriptions of the communal leadership, the smaller communities were headed by two elders and the larger by five. He seems to indicate that the *Karaites had a separate communal organization and leadership. The most flourishing area of Byzantine Jewish cultural life at the time was to be found in southern Italy. The stories in the Ahimaaz chronicle describe the strong ties of the Jews there with the center of learning in Ereẓ Israel and denote that a good knowledge of Hebrew was widespread, as well as showing the imprint of mystical and even magical elements on Jewish society in this area. Members of the upper circles of Jewish society are pictured as living a warm and diversified family life. The *Josippon chronicle, which was compiled in southern Italy in this period, reflects in many places the influence of Byzantine views and chronographical techniques. Southern Italy in the 9th to 11th centuries produced a considerable number of paytanim. Through its contacts with the north, it became the fountainhead of the Jewish culture of *Ashkenaz and the matrix of the Ashkenazi prayer rite. The Karaite communities also had a rich and variegated cultural life from the second half of the 11th century, centering around Constantinople. Prominent Karaite scholars of Byzantium were *Jacob b. Reuben, Judah *Hadassi, and *Tobias b. Moses. In some of the writings of this period apocalyptic ideas continue to find expression, as in the Vision of *Daniel. The First Crusade of 1096 gave rise to a messianic movement in Salonika.

From the Fourth Crusade to the Capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453

legal and social status

The Fourth Crusade (1204) disrupted the Byzantine Empire and placed its Jewish communities under the various administrations set up by the Latin (i.e., Western European) countries which had taken part in the crusade. The Jewish quarter in Constantinople, Pera, was burned down and pillaged during the sack of the city by the Latins. After the Latin rule ended in 1261 Jews lived both in Pera and outside the area, including parts of the city where the Venetians had been given special rights and commercial privileges. The existence of a Jewish quarter outside Pera elicited a complaint from the patriarch Athanasius to Emperor Andronicus ii (1282–1328), who before 1319 assigned the Jews a quarter near that of the Venetians, although they were not restricted to that area. Many engaged in tanning, and the majority apparently were wealthy. Neither the native dynasty nor the Latin rulers made basic changes in the status of the Jews. In the parts of Greece and the Balkans, however, which fell to various Greek rulers and minor royalty (often referred to as "despots"), proscriptions of Judaism were issued at times, as in Epirus and Salonika under Theodore i Angelus (1214–1230), and in Nicaea under John iii Vatatzes (1222–1254). Other former imperial lands, such as Chalcis, Rhodes, Patras, and Cyprus, were ruled by the Genoese, the Venetians, the Knights of Malta, the Veronese, and the Turks. The Jews continued to pursue their previous occupations, particularly the silk trade and commerce.

Social and Cultural Life

Jews in all these areas continued to follow the Romaniot rite which developed specific features. Among the Karaites there was extensive cultural activity, represented by such scholars as *Aaron b. Joseph ha-Rofe, the *Bashyazi family, and Caleb b. Elijah *Afendopolo. The year 1453 marked the end of the Byzantine Empire. For the Jews its downfall, after a short period of disruption, brought a renewed lease on life in the *Ottoman Empire in much improved conditions. Less than half a century later, the Jews exiled from Spain and Portugal found communities in the former Byzantine Empire ready and able to shoulder the burden of absorbing the refugees economically, and capable of integrating their social and cultural life. Although little information is available about conditions in the communities in this period, scholars and leaders of the stature of Elijah b. Abraham *Mizraḥi and Moses b. Elijah *Capsali, with their diversified scholarship, creative abilities, and well-developed methods of leadership, could not have arisen out of a void. That the conditions existed in which they were able to flourish shows that in the period before the Ottoman conquest, Byzantine Romaniot Jewry had large reserves of intellectual ability and social cohesion, continuing a situation which still prevailed after the troubles of 1204.


J. Starr, The Jews in the Byzantine Empire 641–1204 (1939, repr. 1969); idem, Romania: The Jewries of the Levant after the Fourth Crusade (1949); idem, in: Speculum 8 (1933), 500–3; idem, in: jpos, 15 (1935), 280–93; idem, in: htr, 29 (1936), 93–107; idem, in: rej, 102 (1937), 81–92; idem, in: Byzantinisch-neugriechische Jahrbuecher, 16 (1940), 192–6; A. Scharf, Jews in Byzantium (1970); H. Lewy, Olamot Nifgashim (1962), 221f.; Baron, Social2, index; Hirschberg, Afrikah, 1 (1965), 30–39; K. Hilkowitz, in: Zion, 4 (1939), 307–16; Y. Even-Shemuel (Kaufmann), Midreshei Ge'ullah (1957), 16–252; Juster, Juifs, index; Z. Ankori, Karaites in Byzantium (1959); S. Assaf, in: Sefer ha-Yovel… S. Krauss (1937), 169–77; A. Galanté, Les Juifs de Constantinople sous Byzance (1940); R.S. Lopez, in: Speculum, 20 (1945), 22ff.; M.N. Adler (ed.), Itinerary of Benjamin of Tudela (1907); B. Klar (ed.), Megillat Aḥima'aẓ (1944); M. Salzman (ed. and tr.), Chronicle of Ahimaaz (1924); D. Flusser, in: Zion, 18 (1953), 109–26; Alon, Toledot2, 1 (1958), 19–24; S. Simonsohn, in: Dat ve-Ḥevrah, ed. by Ha-Ḥevrah ha-Historit ha-Yisre'elit (1964), 81–92. add. bibliography: S. Bowman, The Jews of Byzantium: 1204–1453 (1985), 277.

[Andrew Sharf]

Byzantine Empire

views updated May 23 2018

Byzantine Empire

Type of Government

The Byzantine Empire once ruled over a large swath of the Mediterranean world from its base in the city of Byzantium (modern-day Istanbul). Its emperors were absolute, hereditary rulers who relied on a small army of bureaucrats to administer their realm. Out of this emerged a remarkably complex system of government, but that same centralized administration is cited by historians as one of the major flaws that brought about the decline of the Byzantine Empire.


There are varying dates for the founding of the Byzantine Empire; it was never formally established but arose out of the remnants of the Roman Empire, when the Italian peninsula was overtaken by Germanic tribes. The city where it was based was originally called Byzantion, after its king, Byzas, who founded it in 667 BC as a colony of ancient Greece. The Roman emperor who converted to Christianity, Constantine I (d. 337), declared the city to be the “New Rome” and formally moved his capital there in 330. His successors attempted a return to power in Rome, but granted a co-emperor in Byzantium equal powers with them. Out of this rose an imperial court and army that defended the capital—renamed Constantinople in Constantine’s honor—from marauding Huns and other enemies, and then began to conquer surrounding lands.

Government Structure

There was no written constitution that governed the Byzantine Empire because its leaders considered their authority to be divinely bestowed, as summarized in a line written by the emperor Constantine VII (905–959) in the tenth century, “God sets Emperors on the throne and gives them lordship over all,” in his book De Administrando Imperio (On Administering the Empire).

The history of the Byzantine Empire is generally divided into three periods, and significant changes in its governance occurred during each. The Early Byzantine era began with Constantine, when Byzantium became the capital of the Roman Empire. This early period endured until the early seventh century and included several changes implemented by local authorities that were designed to prevent the eastern empire from disintegrating in the way that its Roman counterpart had by 450. These reforms created a stable core bureaucracy that would prevent the empire from decline in the case of a weak or incompetent emperor.

The Middle Byzantine era began in 610 with the ascension of Heraclius (c. 575–641), whose father had been the governor of Byzantine-controlled Africa. He came to power at a time when the Persian army came so close to seizing the capital that residents of Constantinople could see nightly bonfires from the Persian encampments across the Bosporus. Heraclius instituted the themata system, which endured for hundreds of years beyond his rule: the Byzantine Empire was divided into four themes (military districts), each with its own army. They were governed locally by a strategos (military governor), who also had civil duties as well, such as tax collection. The revenues came from farmlands granted to soldiers as part of the themata strategy. The soldiers did not own the land outright—it was considered the property of the emperor and empire—but were granted its use in exchange for a promise that their descendants would serve in the army. This plan served as a bulwark against invaders and guaranteed a permanent standing army for the Byzantine Empire. The individual themes were further subdivided over time, but the first four were Anatolikon (in Anatolia), Armeniakon (Armenia), Thracesion (Thrace), and Opsikion (which provided troops for emperor’s househhold, court, personal army.)

The Late Byzantine era began in 1081 with the emperor Alexius I Comnenus (1048–1118). He came from one of the wealthy landowning families that rose to prominence as a result of the themata system and led military excursions to recover lands lost to the empire’s persistent external enemies. He, too, instituted reforms designed to strengthen the empire from within, most importantly by giving other noble families a greater role at court as a way to reduce the threat these politically active families posed; the century before Alexius’s rule had been marked by tremendous instability on the throne. These other elite families were essentially made members of the royal family by the granting of titles such as sebastokrator (venerable rulers) and panhypersebastos (derived from Greek roots for “all,” “above,” and “majesty”). Until the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453, every emperor after Alexius was connected to the Comnenus family.

Alexius, Heraclius, and the eighty-plus other emperors ruled as absolute monarchs who inherited their titles through the fortune of their birth. The emperors before Heraclius were called “Augustus,” a continuation of the Roman honorific meaning “majestic.” When Heraclius became emperor, the empire was beginning to shed its Latin terminology; as a result, the emperors carried the title “Basileus” (Greek for “king”). All legislative, executive, and judicial power rested with the emperor.

Christianity was the official state religion, and those outside the church were not considered citizens. These included Jews, who were barred from holding public office.

The imperial court in the Byzantine Empire was called the Comitatus. In the early period of Byzantine history, the court included a senate—again, a holdover from its Roman roots—comprising men from the wealthiest families attached to the emperor, but this had no real legislative function. Senior officials at court also included the master of offices, who had several tasks. He was responsible for supervision of the imperial arsenals, oversaw the many translators employed by the court, and began to carry out diplomatic missions on behalf of the emperor as the middle era approached. The sakellarios was the main treasury official, who oversaw disbursements to the armies and to charitable works as decided by the emperor. The city of Constantinople itself was ruled by a city prefect.

The supreme judicial authority in the Byzantine Empire was the emperor, but the rulers delegated those duties to various officials, including the quaestor (head of judiciary) and the minister for petitions. Justinian I (483–565) organized an impressive scholarly effort to compile all known existing laws into the Corpus Juris Civilis, also known as the Codex Justinianus. It collated all existing Roman law, including the decrees of all emperors dating back to Hadrian (76–138).

The Byzantine Empire evolved into a rich, diverse territory that was constantly at war on one of its frontiers. Their foes included the Persian Empire, the Abbasids in Baghdad, the Bulgars in the Black Sea region, and the Pechenegs and other tribes from the Russian steppe. In the relative safety of the capital, the majesty and splendor of the empire was regularly demonstrated through elaborate public pageants and ceremonies involving the emperor and the imperial court. Great works of architecture, such as the Hagia Sophia cathedral, served as the physical embodiment of the empire’s power. To finance the wars, the vast court, artistic patronage, and intensive public-infrastructure projects in the capital and elsewhere, a complex system of taxation evolved over the years, along with a bureaucracy to administer it. In the early period, for example, there was the infamous chrysargyron (gold and silver tax), levied every four years on everyone in the realm, even slaves and animals. Parents were often forced to sell one or more of their children into slavery to meet the obligation, which was finally rescinded by Anastasius I (430?–518) near the end of the fifth century. After that, revenue was derived from the property taxes levied on landowners.

Political Parties and Factions

Byzantine emperors inherited their title, and after the heirs of Constantine lost power, a series of other dynasties ruled in Constantinople until the final one, the Palaeologus family. Many of these dynasties boasted at least one formidable female empress, which made the Byzantine Empire a rare world power that allowed women to attain such positions. They included Irene (c. 752–802), who was placed in charge by decree of her husband, Leo IV (749–780), before his death. She attempted to reconcile the Eastern Orthodox Church with its western counterpart in Rome. There were also two Theodoras, one who ruled by similar circumstance between 842 and 855 and her namesake two centuries later, who seized power on her own after having been crowned co-empress. Her death in 1056 ended what had been known as the Macedonian dynasty.

The Byzantine Empire was largely an agricultural economy, and cities other than Constantinople, the capital, failed to develop into centers of any importance. As a result, landowning families rose to power in the provinces and emerged as challengers to the throne. These nobles included the aforementioned Comnenus and Palaeologus clans, as well as the Lascaris family, each of which enjoyed periods of imperial rule.

Major Events

Several significant events defined the Byzantine Empire during its eleven-century-long history, beginning in 476, when the last emperor in Rome, Romulus Augustulus (fl. fifth century), was forced to give up his authority. For the next three hundred years, the emperor in Constantinople was the sole secular ruler in Christendom, until Pope Leo III (d. 816) crowned the Frankish king Charlemagne (742–814) in Rome in 800. In 620 Heraclius declared Greek the official language of the Byzantine Empire, decisively ending the last of its significant links to ancient Rome. A century later, a controversy over the religious images known as icons erupted, and this pitted the Byzantine emperors, and their local ecclesiastical officials, against Rome; the battle eventually evolved into a much larger one over doctrine and led to the Great Schism in 1054, when the eastern church formally separated from the western church in Rome.

The empire was reaching the height of its power by that point, thanks in part to the leadership of Basil II (c. 958–1025). He led decisive military campaigns against the Muslim Arabs in Syria and then the Bulgar kingdom, and famously ordered fifteen thousand captured Bulgarian soldiers to be blinded. The Slavs were then forcibly marched back to their defeated ruler, Samuel (d. 1014), with every one-hundredth man, who had had just one eye taken out, leading the others. The pitiful sight was said to have caused Samuel to faint, and he died of a stroke two days later. Basil also made an important alliance with the leader of Kievan Rus’, Vladimir I of Kiev (c. 956–1015), who married Basil’s sister with the agreement that he would convert to Christianity and order his people to do so as well.

In 1095 Alexius, who was apprehending the rapid disintegration of his realm, informed Pope Urban II (c. 1035–1099) that Eastern Christians making pilgrimages to the Holy Land were being persecuted, which prompted Urban’s call for a holy war against the Muslims. The First Crusade that was launched later that year, and the other military expeditions that followed, transformed western Europe. During the Fourth Crusade, however, Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, an act that triggered centuries of animosity between the Greek-Byzantine world and the rest of Europe. The city became a battleground for the three religious powers—Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Muslim—until 1453, when it was stormed by the Ottoman Turks, who established it as the capital of their powerful empire, which remained intact until 1922.


The Byzantine Empire’s perplexing bureaucracy was so intricately arranged that the word Byzantine became synonymous for something whose inner workings are so complex that they are essentially unknowable to all but a handful of insiders. Despite this pejorative use of the word, the government of the Byzantine Empire served as a crucial bridge between the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome and the modern world. Its laws, cultural institutions, and artistic heritage all borrowed important elements from antiquity and were later refashioned by successor states in Europe and the Middle East; for example, the Codex Justinianus became a core element of civil law, as opposed to religious law. One final legacy of the once-mighty power can be found on the flags of many modern Muslim nations: the Byzantine Empire was the first political entity to use both the crescent moon and a star as its official symbols.

Haldon, John F. Byzantium: A History. Stroud, UK: Tempus, 2000.

Mango, Cyril. Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome. New York: Scribner, 1980.

Wells, Colin. Sailing from Byzantium: How a Lost Empire Shaped the World. New York: Delacorte, 2006.

Byzantine Empire

views updated May 14 2018


BYZANTINE EMPIRE. Constantine I, the first Christian emperor of Rome (reigned 306337), established a new eastern capital in 330 at a site unrivaled for its beauty and unmatched as a center for administration and trade. The Greek colony of Byzantium had prospered on its exports of salted bonito and other seafood. Now renamed Constantinopolis (modern Istanbul), it was destined to be the capital of the later Roman or Byzantine Empire for eleven hundred years.

The civilization of Constantinople is sometimes misunderstood as a poor imitation of classical Greece and Rome. From the perspective of medieval western Europe, however, Constantinople was a city of magic and mystery. Early French epics and romances tell of the wondrous foods, spices, drugs, and precious stones that could be found in the palaces of Constantinople.

Byzantine culture never ceased to develop and to innovate, and this is certainly true of its cuisine. Among favored game were the gazelles of inland Anatolia, and wild asses, of which herds were maintained in imperial parks. The seafood most appreciated by the Byzantines was botargo (salted mullet roe), and by the twelfth century they were familiar with caviar. Fruits largely unknown to the ancient world but appreciated in Constantinople included the aubergine (eggplant), lemons (via Armenia and Georgia), and the orange. The Byzantines were the first to try rosemary as a flavoring for roast lamb; they first used saffron in cookery. These aromatics, well known in the ancient world, had not previously been thought of as food ingredients.

Byzantine cheeses included mizithra (produced by the pastoral Vlachs of Thessaly and Macedonia) and Cretan prosphatos. As for bread, the bakers of Constantinople were in a most favored trade, according to the ninth century Book of the Eparch, a handbook of city administration: "bakers are never liable to be called for any public service, neither themselves nor their animals, to prevent any interruption of the baking of bread." Mastic and anise were among the aromatics used in baking.

The distinctive flavor of Byzantine cookery is best represented by sweets and sweet drinks. There are dishes that we would recognize as desserts: grouta, a sort of frumenty, sweetened with honey and studded with carob seeds or raisins; and rice pudding served with honey. Quince marmalade had been known to the Romans, but other jellies and conserves now made their appearance, based on pear, citron, and lemon. The increasing availability of sugar assisted the confectioner's inventiveness. Rose sugar, a popular medieval confection, may well have originated in Byzantium.

Flavored wines, a variant of the Roman conditum (spiced wine), became popular as did flavored soft drinks, which were consumed on fast days. The versions that were aromatized with mastic, aniseed, rose, and absinthe were especially popular; they are distant ancestors of the mastikha, vermouth, absinthe, ouzo, and pastis of the modern Mediterranean. A remarkable range of aromatics, which were either unknown to earlier Mediterranean peoples or used only as perfumes or in compound drugs, were added to Byzantine spiced wines: spikenard, gentian, yellow flag, stone parsley, spignel, valerian, putchuk, tejpat, storax, ginger grass, chamomile, and violet.

Two influences combined to produce the great range of powerful flavors at the heart of Byzantine cuisine. One was the Orthodox Christian church calendar, with its numerous fast days on which both meat and fish were proscribed: the rich (including rich abbots and ecclesiastics) gave their cooks full rein to produce fast-day dishes as piquant and varied as could be imagined. Byzantine pease pudding, a fast-day staple, was aromatized with nutmeg, an eastern spice unknown to the classical Greeks and Romans.

The second influence was that of dieticians. Ancient Greek and Roman dietary manuals had been addressed to experts. The Byzantine ones, however, were written for nonspecialists. As in classical Greece and Rome, physicians relied on the theory of the "four humors" (blood, phlegm, yellow bile, black bile) and prescribed diets aimed to achieve a proper balance of humors in each individual. The effect of each ingredient on the humors was therefore codified so that the desired balance could be maintained by a correct choice of dish and by a correct adjustment of ingredients, varying for the seasons, the weather, the time of day, and each individual's constitution and state of health. Dieticians sometimes recommended vegetarian meals, eaten with vinegar or other dressing. Spices and seasonings became ubiquitous, used both during the cooking process and at the table to amend the qualities of each dish. Fresh figs, if eaten in July, must be taken with salt. A daily glass of conditum, strong in spikenard, was recommended in March; anisaton, anise wine, was appropriate for April. These Byzantine dietary manuals are important sources of culinary history; botargo is first named in the eleventh century by the dietician Simeon Seth, who notes that it "should be avoided totally." The earliest work in this tradition is Anthimus's On the Observance of Foods, compiled by a Byzantine physician for a gothic monarch in the early sixth century.

The food of the poor of Constantinople was no doubt limited, though a poetic catalog of a poor family's larder (Prodromic Poems 2.3845, probably twelfth century) includes numerous vegetables and locally grown fruits along with a considerable list of flavorings: vinegar, honey, pepper, cinnamon, cumin, caraway, salt, and others. Cheese, olives, and onions perhaps made up for a scarcity of meat. Timarion, a satirical poem of the twelfth century, suggests salt pork and cabbage stew as being a typical poor man's meal, eaten from the bowl with the fingers just as it would have been in contemporary western Europe. The staple of the Byzantine army was cereal foodwheat or barleywhich might be prepared as bread, biscuits, or porridge. Inns and wine shops generally provided only basic fare. However, in the sixth-century Life of St. Theodore of Syceon, a Byzantine text, there is a reference to an inn that attracted customers by the quality of its food.

Annual fairs were a focus for the food trade. Important fairs were held at Thessalonica and Constantinople around St. Demetrius's day. Constantinople was known for specialized food markets. Sheep and cattle were driven to market to Constantinople from pastures far away in the Balkans, and eastern spices followed long-established trade routes through Trebizond, Mosul, and Alexandria. The populist emperor Manuel (11431180) liked to sample the hot street food of the capital, paying for his selection and waiting for change like any other citizen.

Medieval travelers to Byzantium did not always like the strange flavors they encountered. Garos, the fish sauce of the ancient world, which was much used as a flavoring by the Byzantines, was unfamiliar and often unappreciated. Many disliked resinated wine (comparable to modern retsina), which was simply "undrinkable" according to one Italian traveler, Liutprand of Cremona. However, foreigners were seduced by the confectionery, the can-died fruits, and the sweet wines. William of Rubruck, a thirteenth-century diplomat who was looking for presents to take from Constantinople to wild Khazaria, chose dried fruit, muscat wine, and fine biscuits.

The cuisine of the Byzantine Empire had a unique character of its own. It forms a bridge between the ancient world and the food of modern Greece and Turkey. In Constantinople astonishing flavor blends were commonplace. For example, roast pork was basted with honey wine; skate was spiced with caraway; wild duck was prepared with its sauce of wine; there was garos, mustard and cumin-salt, and black-eyed peas served with honey vinegar. Old recipes were adapted to new tastes; whereas ancient cooks had used fig leaves, thria, as edible wrappings for cooked food, during Byzantine times vine leaves were used in recipes, the precursors of modern dolmades.

When the future emperor Justin II (reigned 518527) walked from his Dalmatian homeland to Constantinople in 470 as a penniless young man seeking service in the Imperial guard, we are told that he had nothing but army biscuits to keep him alive on his long march. This paximadion, or barley biscuit, makes the perfect link from the ancient, via the Byzantine, to the modern period. A classical Roman invention, popularized in the Byzantine Empire, it has many modern descendants: the Arabic bashmat, baqsimat, the Turkish beksemad, the Serbo-Croat peksimet, the Romanian pesmet, and the modern Greek paximadi.

Beyond the old boundaries of the Byzantine Empire, Byzantium's greatest legacy to western cookery may be summed up in these four things: the table fork, which entered Europe through Italy; marzipan, which appears to have originated in Armenia (the word is of Armenian origin); the samovar, which moved northward into Russian culture via the Greek Church; and the Cult of St. Nicholas, together with the gingerbread cookies associated with this Christmas saint.

See also Balkan Countries; Greece, Ancient; Mediterranean Diet; Middle East; Rome and the Roman Empire.


Few Byzantine texts relevant to food are available in English translation. They include the following, cited in the text of the article: The Book of the Eparch [text, translation and studies] ed. by I. Dujcev. London: Variorum Reprints, 1970. The Works of Liudprand of Cremona, tr. by F. A. Wright. London: Routledge, 1930. Anthimus, De observatione ciborum: On the Observance of Foods edited and translated by Mark Grant. Totnes, Devon, U.K.: Prospect Books, 1996. Three Byzantine Saints, translated by E. Dawes and N. H. Baynes. Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1977. [Includes the Life of St. Theodore of Syceon.] The following, also cited above, are at present available only in Greek: Poèmes prodromiques en grec vulgaire, edited by D.-C. Hesseling, H. Pernot. Amsterdam: Müller, 1910. Simeonis Sethi syntagma de alimentorum facultatibus, ed. B. Langkavel. Leipzig: Teubner, 1868. Timarion, tr. by Barry Baldwin. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1984. The Mission of Friar William of Rubruck, translated by P. Jackson. London, 1990. For more information see: Dalby, Andrew. Siren Feasts. New York: Routledge, 1996. Chap. 9. Dalby, Andrew. Flavours of Byzantium. Totnes, Devon, U.K.: Prospect Books, 2003. A. Kazhdan, et al. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

Andrew Dalby

Byzantine Empire

views updated May 21 2018

Byzantine Empire Christian, Greek-speaking, Eastern Roman Empire, which outlasted the Roman Empire in the West by nearly 1000 years. Constantinople (Byzantium or Istanbul) was established by the Roman Emperor Constantine I in ad 330. The area of the Byzantine Empire varied greatly, and its history from c.600 was marked by continual military crisis and heroic recovery. At its height, under Justinian I in the 6th century, it controlled, besides Asia Minor and the Balkans, much of the Near East and the Mediterranean coastal regions of Europe and North Africa. Of its many enemies, the most formidable were the Arabs, who overran the Near Eastern provinces in the 7th century; the Slavs and Bulgars, who captured most of the Balkans, and the Seljuk Turks. From 1204 to 1261, it was controlled by usurping Crusaders from w Europe and, although Constantinople was recovered, Byzantine territory shrank under pressure from the West and from the Ottoman Turks, who finally captured Constantinople in 1453, extinguishing the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Generals problem

views updated May 23 2018

Byzantine Generals problem The problem of devising an algorithm that will decide whether a collection of generals, who communicate using messages some of which may be lost due to deficient transmission, agree to carry out an attack on a target. This is a reformulation in familiar terms of a problem that occurs in the design and development of distributed computer systems.