History Summarized: Byzantine Beginnings

History Summarized: Byzantine Beginnings


Blue: You ever lie awake at night, thinking wistfully about the Roman Empire? Or is that just a me thing? *sigh* This is so sad. Okay. Alexa, play ‘Roman Empire 2’. Oh, HELL yeah, this is my jam! You see, the big plot twist of the fall of Rome is that it didn’t. While the West was off collapsing and turning into medieval Europe, the East carried on being ‘The Roman Empire’ for another thousand years. First question, how? And two, a millennium is a long time – what traits stuck to the classical roots and what innovations came in during the medieval period? To see how we got from point ‘R’ to point ‘B’, let’s do some history. This video is brought to you by: nobody. I just kinda wanted to say, ‘Hi’ and that I hope you’re having a good day. Hope you enjoy my fun history video. Subtitler: Blue, you’re such a sweet pea. Blue: Our story begins in the early 300s AD, with a barely-standing Roman Empire now split into four administrative regions in the hopes of easing the govern- oh, no, they’re already fighting each other. Ugh, gross. Alright, look away kids, this is messy. Flash forward two decades, Constantine re-conquers everything, picks up Christianity along the way and decides that the Empire really needs a new capital. So he picked the ancient site of Byzantium at the north-east corner of the Aegean Sea, as it stood at the crossroads of the Black Sea and the Mediterranean and was closer to the rich and well-urbanised provinces of the East. So it would be the perfect spot for a new imperial city. After six years of whirlwind and kind of shoddy construction, Constantine consecrated the city in 330 as the ‘New Rome’. Much to the annoyance of the Romans in, ya know, the first Rome. But reunifying an empire and introducing an entirely new religion comes with some challenges, and Constantine soon found Christians fiercely debating the nuances of Trinitarian theology. Academic discussion about church doctrine is all well and good until the Alexandrians started rioting about it. So Constantine exerted some imperial authority to keep Christianity under control. Instead of the tried-and-true method of lions, he held the church-wide Council of Nicaea for bishops to negotiate a universal and legally-binding Orthodoxy of the Empire. Now, this being the Romans we’re talking about, pretty much nothing can stop these people from finding a single excuse to throttle each other. But, broadly speaking, the Council of Nicaea did the trick and established a consistent theological and political framework for Roman Christianity. These two changes marked the start of the East’s geographical and religious divergence from the old Empire but things really accelerated in the century after. We’ve talked about this before so I’ll breeze through most of it, but after Constantine’s three sons got into a civil war with each other no surprise there the world’s most tragic introvert Julian got dragged kicking and screaming into being the Roman Emperor. Whereupon he spent two years, trying and failing, to
re-convert the Empire to paganism before being speared to death while on a poorly-organised campaign in Persia. Then a series of unremarkable emperors took turns doing absolutely nothing to solve the serious problems the Empire still faced after Constantine such as wars, weak administration and a wimpier army than Rome was used to having. Sure, Constantine pulled the hard carry to give the Empire another century of life but things were still looking mighty grim. In comes Theodosius, an emperor who had the wildcard idea to permanently bisect the Empire into an independent eastern and western half. So it’s here in 395 that the Byzantine Empire officially gets going, but that’s technically a misnomer, as nobody called the eastern Empire ‘Byzantine’ until the 1500s. As far as every single one of its inhabitants was concerned, they were Romaioi just as Roman as their forebears like Caesar and Constantine and the rest. But back to the western imperial collapse at hand, this split effectively doomed the West, though it put the East in a position to stay strong, productive and cohesive for centuries. So if Theodosius implicitly sentenced Western Rome to death, then his successors plunged the knives by responding to the perilous threat of Gauls by just paying them to go west instead. How noble. Meanwhile, the Western emperors were too feckless to stop very simple problems from boiling over into Rome getting sacked – twice. But the Byzantine defence strategy was more than just making everything Italy’s problem. At the turn of the 5th century, Constantinople outgrew its first fortifications and began building the Theodosian walls a massive set of three-tiered ramparts that defended the city for the next thousand years. But even the strongest walls couldn’t save the Byzantine Empire from its greatest danger yet. Sports. See, the Byzantines loved their chariot races. They were fanatics about it, and they aligned themselves with either the ‘Blue’ or the ‘Green’ team. Ah yes, I see no way in which this rabid tribalism could possibly ever go wrong. But this, unsurprisingly, rapidly spun out of control as the Blues and the Greens began butting heads on politics and religion and then started throwing hands about it in the middle of church. It’s like a big medieval Kingsman fight up in there. But by far the worst riots broke out during the reign of the Emperor Justinian. For context, he and his father Justin came from humble beginnings and rose through the military ranks to rule the Empire in one of history’s rare few reverse regencies where the younger Justinian was the power behind his father’s throne. While he wasn’t pulling the imperial strings, Justinian was falling in love with famous actress Theodora and they together would become the ultimate power couple of the 6th century. So, back to the riots, Emperor Justinian tried to curb the influence of the Blues and Greens in politics and succeeded only in irritating both of them so badly that they teamed up in an open revolt. These wily sports fans shouted victory chants and poured out of the chariot stadium to light Constantinople on fire for five straight days. Justinian was ready to hop on a ship and bail the hell out of there, but Empress Theodora told him to face his fate with honour and live, or die, as an Emperor. And that is part of why she is the biggest badass this side of Cleopatra! I really wish I had more time to talk about Theodora, but suffice to say she is absolutely worth reading up about. The Nicaea Riots ultimately fell to the blade during a bloody massacre in the stadium and Justinian was left to pick up the charred pieces of his ruined city. So he immediately set about rebuilding Constantinople even shiner than before, and that meant a new centerpiece church: The Hagia Sophia. In an evolution from your standard Roman temples, this one’s got a dome! (We all know how much Blue likes his domes) In a doubly-brilliant move, the dome is ringed with windows, which cast an ever-changing light onto the gold mosaics and the halo effect makes the dome look like it’s damn near floating! When Justinian entered the completed church for the first time, he is said to have muttered, “Solomon, I have surpassed thee”. We’re extremely lucky to still have this masterpiece of a church around today, albeit in a different form, and you can see the influence of its design all throughout the eastern Mediterranean and well beyond the Empire’s lifetime. Good. Dome. Meanwhile, Justinian was also hard at work codifying hundreds of years of Roman laws into one standardised book. The Corpus Juris Civilis remains the basis of most European law codes to this day. Justinian liked big ideas: One Law, One Church, and One Empire. But this last one was a bit of a sticking point, because the Roman Empire had been missing its Rome for over 50 years. So Justinian put Belisarius in charge of re-taking the West. And retake he did, because Belisarius is a freaking boss! For his first act, he reclaimed Carthage and the North African coast from the vandals, of all people, with minimal casualties in just under a year. To celebrate his spectacular victory, Justinian awarded Belisarius with a triumph, an honour no general had received since Caesar. With this amazing foothold in the west, Belisarius launched his conquest of Italy. This would prove trickier, but with careful progression up the peninsula and inventive tactics like storming Naples by aqueduct, Belisarius pushed all the way to Rome and made Hannibal look like a chump. As history will have you know, marching on Rome is a right reserved only to Roman generals, thank you very much. The Ostrogoths put up a fierce counterattack and surrounded the city of Rome for nearly a year, but Belisarius held out and continued up to Milan and the political capital of Ravenna. But the problem with investing manpower into the West is that the East lay severely exposed, and when the Persian King Khosrow heard word that the Byzantines were distracted, he invaded Mesopotamia. So now Justinian found himself split between two very distant fronts, with the Ostrogoths still carving out pockets of resistance over in Italy. All of this was made far worse by the sudden guest appearance of, surprise, the Black Death! Which ravaged the Byzantines and the Persians alike. The Empire would have surely collapsed if not for the Herculean efforts of Theodora, who kept it all in one piece while Justinian was busy recovering from a plague coma. In the middle of all of this, Ostrogoths sacked and destroyed Rome, leaving the city a complete ghost town and forcing Belisarius to re-reconquer Italy from the boot to the Alps. This being Belisarius, of course, he did,
’cause he’s the coolest dude, but it took a really long time and what was left of Italy was eh… pretty busted up. The one bright spot amid all this mess
is the city of Ravenna, which soon became home to some splendid and miraculously preserved feats of Byzantine art and architecture. As early as the 500s, Byzantines had already gotten their golden aesthetic and talent for mosaics to near-perfection. Over the course of his four decades in power, Justinian rebuilt Constantinople, codified the laws, standardised the Church hierarchy,
survived a plague and re-conquered the West, or at least, what was left of it. For better and worst, Justinian’s reign was a
massive step in the evolution of the Byzantine Empire, and for all his efforts to reclaim Rome, Justinian’s lasting legacy proved the Empire no longer really needed it, and it’s just as well, because three very short years after Justinian died, the Lombards came across the Alps, and by the end of the century, they had swiped two-thirds of Italy. Oops. Meanwhile, back in Constantinople, things were
going somewhere between ‘ehh’ and ‘oof’. Emperor Maurice was deposed by the army in favour of the completely incompetent Phocas, so the Persians used this as a perfect excuse for war and pushed all the way in to Anatolia before diverting south to capture the Levant in Egypt. This was really bad, and probably would have been a total game-over, if not for the miraculous arrival of Heraclius,
the son of North Africa’s governor. He showed up, booted Phocas right on out
of there and assumed control of the Empire. By combining civil and military authority, his government was flexible and better able to repel the Persian threat. After a long and hard-fought campaign
that nearly bankrupted the Empire, Heraclius pushed into the heart of Sassanid, Persia and brokered a piece of – wait for it – status quo antebellum. After seven centuries of Romano-Persian wars going back to the Republic and the Parthians in 53BC, both empires now stood battered to within an inch of their life, ending with the exact same borders that they started with. Yeesh… But the longer-term consequences of this would become all too clear all too soon, as the new-found Muslim caliphate began expanding out of Arabia, and neither Persia nor the Byzantines had the means to stop them. In eight short years, the Rashidun caliphate conquered the entire Levant, and within another ten they had Egypt and Persia as well. Constantinople itself nearly fell to an Arab siege but they held out thanks to a neat little trick called ‘basically napalm’. By the end of the century, the Byzantine Empire found itself firmly shut out of the entire southern Mediterranean for good, meanwhile the other front wasn’t looking that much better. What other front you ask? Well, you see, Slavic forces had pushed down into the Peloponnese, splitting Greece in half and leaving the Empire looking like a checkerboard. Surprise! It’s at least refreshing to see that the time-honoured Roman tradition of spectacular teritorial implosion is still alive and well. So there’s that… It’s perhaps no coincidence that this chapter in Byzantine history is considered the beginning of the Dark Ages, but we’ve still got over 700 years left on the clock. Amid all that land getting yoinked, it’s easy to miss what else has changed and easy to forget what continuity is still there – the Empire in 300 was pagan, bilingual in Greek and Latin, and spread out over the whole Mediterranean. The Empire now maintained the same core laws and form of government that Augustus had first established, but territorially and culturally the Empire was becoming far more Greek. Its borders much more closely reflected the Classical Greek world, Greek had become the official language, and the Empire’s strongest literary legacy at this point was its preservation of ancient scholarship. Some two-thirds of all the ancient Greek texts we have today come to us from the Byzantines. Forget the Library of Alexandria! In the long run, it’s the Library of Constantinople that really did the hard carry. On the other hand, all of this Greekness lets historians take potshots, saying that the Byzantine Empire isn’t really the ‘Authentic Roman Empire’. * judgmental noise * But we’ll see how the Byzantines maintained that fundamentally Roman capacity to adapt and evolve to survive in changing circumstances. Both literally and figuratively, the Byzantine Golden Age was just over the horizon. My God, like so much gold mosaic, it’s honestly kind of insane. But oh man, is it pretty. Thank you so much for watching. I’ve been wanting to do this video for a very long time so I’m super jazzed to finally be starting this series. You may call that historical narrative bias but I call it an innocent excitement to talk about a massively underappreciated aspect of Greek and Roman history. In any case, for the next video we will be diving into some Italian history and dare I say, making some history, so I for one am HYPED. I’ll see ya then.

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