25 Things You May Not Know About The Byzantine Empire

Posted by , Updated on May 21, 2024

The Byzantine Empire signifies the eastern portion of the Roman Empire, where Greek was the primary language during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Despite flourishing for more than a millennium and having a profound impact on art, literature, and education while serving as a military bulwark against Asian invasions for European nations, its extraordinary legacy may not be well-known. Let’s delve into 25 intriguing facts about the Byzantine Empire – from the reign of its longest-serving leader to their unique love for sweet delicacies, which might surprise you.


Byzantium was an ancient Greek city founded by Greek colonists from Megara in 657 BC. The city was rebuilt and re-inaugurated as the new capital of the Byzantine Empire by Emperor Constantine I in 330 AD and subsequently renamed Constantinople in his honor.

Ancient Byzantium

In 476 AD the Western Roman Empire fell and the Eastern Empire survived as what we know today as the Byzantine Empire.

Byzantine Empire

Byzantion is said to be named after Byzas, the leader of the Megarean colonists and founder of the city. The form “Byzantium” is a Latinization of the Greek Byzantion.


However, “Byzantine” is a nineteenth-century term that modern historians applied to this culture. Byzantines, on the other hand, called themselves “Romans” from the beginning of the Byzantine Empire in 330 AD until it fell to the Ottomans in 1453.


The Byzantines were the first to try rosemary to flavor roast lamb. They also were the first to use saffron in cooking. These aromatics, well known in the ancient world, had not previously been thought of as food ingredients.


The Byzantines loved sweets and desserts more than anything. There were dishes that we would recognize as desserts such as grouta, a sort of frumenty, sweetened with honey and studded with carob seeds or raisins, and the Byzantines loved to eat rice pudding served with honey and cinnamon. Since antiquity quince marmalade was known to the Greeks and Romans, but in the Byzantine Empire other jellies and conserves made their appearance as well, 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, and ouzo in modern Greece.


The Byzantines enjoyed seafood, specifically a very popular dish they called “botargo,” which was salted mullet roe. By the twelfth century the Byzantines were familiar with caviar as well.


Certain fruits were pretty much unknown to the ancient European world but the Byzantines became the first to appreciate the aubergine (eggplant), lemons, and oranges.


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.” Apparently, bread was hot stuff to the Byzantines.


Justinian is widely considered the emperor who made the Byzantine Empire a powerful force. He re-conquered parts of the fallen Western Empire in Africa, Italy, and Spain and codified the previous Roman laws into one document. He made Constantinople the most glorious and rich city in the world, with over half a million inhabitants. He was also the emperor who built the Hagia Sofia.

Hagia Sofia

Justinian was also the last emperor to use the title Caesar.


Under the reign of Heraclius from 610 to 641 the empire’s military and administration were restructured and the Empire adopted Greek as its official language instead of Latin. He was also one of the most successful Byzantine emperors and the one who significantly enlarged the empire.


The longest continuously reigning Byzantine monarch was Basil II Bulgaroktonos (976–1025). The most memorable story associated with him is that after decisively defeating the Bulgars and re-conquering Greece from them, he had all of the prisoners blinded, except for sparing one eye of every hundredth man. Each group of ninety-nine was tied together to a one-eyed man, who then led the group back home.

Basil II Bulgaroktonos

Emperor Irene of Athens (797–802), one of the most powerful women of all time, was certainly no paragon of maternal love. To secure the power of the throne, she had her son Constantine VI (780–797) blinded and then imprisoned him for life in the room in which he was born. Irene was the first Greek woman to rule the empire alone and specifically took the title Emperor, not Empress. She ruled at a time of magnificent contemporaries, especially Harun al-Rashid and Charlemagne. Apparently the latter wanted to marry Irene, but she refused.

Irene of Athens

The first Byzantine emperor to lose the throne by violent revolution was Mavrikios Tiberius. He probably ranked in competence with the best, but his strict economizing cost him the crown and his life. He refused to allow troops stationed at the frontier to return home for the winter. Moreover, he insisted they live off the land rather than be sent winter rations. The army, led by Phokas, rebelled and entered the city in collusion with its militia.

Coin of Mavrikios Tiberius

Phokas was probably one of the cruelest of all Byzantine emperors, as well as one of the ugliest. However, it was he who began a fashion followed by almost every adult emperor who succeeded him: wearing a beard. Prior to this time, the emperors were clean-shaven in the classical Roman fashion, except for those who affected the Greek “philosopher’s beard,” like Julian. It is believed that Phokas probably grew his beard to cover a scar.


The longest Byzantine dynasty, almost two hundred years, was also its last. The Palaiologos dynasty began with Michael VIII, who in 1259 blinded and imprisoned his ten-year-old predecessor (John IV Laskaris), and ended with Constantine XI, who died bravely in battle when the Ottomans took Constantinople.


During the eighth and early ninth centuries, Byzantine emperors (beginning with Leo III in 730) spearheaded a movement that denied the holiness of icons, or religious images, and prohibited their worship. Known as iconoclasm—“the smashing of images”—the movement waxed and waned under various rulers, but did not end until 843, when a Church council under Emperor Michael III ruled in favor of displaying religious images.


What many people ignore or don’t realize is that most of the classical literature that survives today was preserved thanks to the Byzantine Empire. The majority of the works of philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, and the historical texts of Greece and Rome, were saved by Byzantine scholars who maintained the ancient traditions of literature and learning. Works that were lost for centuries in the West were reintroduced by the Byzantines.

classical Greek literature

According to many modern historians, Byzantine civilization is very important because without it the modern Western world would not exist. Byzantium preserved and protected the very foundations of Western civilization from the invasion of Islam in many cases. This is why many scholars often refer to it as the Shield of the West.

Emblem of Byzantine Empire

Georgius Gemistus, a Greek scholar of Neoplatonism, was one of the most important thinkers the empire ever produced and is considered one of the early pioneers of the Renaissance in Western Europe. In the last years of the Byzantine Empire, he advocated a return to the Olympian gods since he openly preached that Christianity had severely damaged the ancient Greek spirit. He was also the one who reintroduced Platonic thought to Western Europe during the 1438–39 Council of Florence.

Georgius Gemistus

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.


The Byzantine navy was the first to employ a terrifying liquid in naval battles that they called “Greek Fire.” The liquid was pumped onto enemy ships and troops through large siphons mounted on the Byzantine ships’ prows. It would ignite upon contact with seawater, and could only be extinguished with great difficulty.

Greek Fire

In 1054 the most defining moment in the history of the empire occurred: the Great Schism. The Latin Roman Church and the Greek Orthodox Church broke from each other. The Latins began referring to the Byzantines as “Greeks” and used this term more and more, until the fall of the empire in 1453. This defined the Byzantine Empire’s legacy in that modern historians distinguish it as being clearly oriented toward Greek rather than Latin culture, and characterized by Orthodox Christianity rather than the Latin Roman Church.

Patriarch and Pope