Tag Archives: Byzantine

How do you run an empire once you have one?

What would you do if a handful of kingdoms—inhabited by tribes who fought with each other a lot—were thrown together and styled “The Holy Roman Empire” and you were put in charge? How would you get the empire up and running? Here are your main problems:

Communication. Each of those tribes is speaking some weird variation of Latin and other languages so they don’t understand each other too well. The economy. There’s been a constant, dreary, never-ending state of war for the past few centuries. Unless they sell swords, it’s been tough for regular shmoes to make a living. Farmers might sell their crops if (apart from the usual worry of late frost or early frost or too much rain or drought) a battalion of soldiers doesn’t march through your field. Banking, finance and the stock market haven’t been invented yet so wealth accumulation isn’t something that most serfs do. Culture. Forget about being a writer or an artist or a musician: those sensitive plants have been drafted into the army. Hardly anybody reads—even Charlemagne has to sound out the letters. Except for a few monks in monasteries, nobody writes. Architecture is mostly about fortifications. There may have been music but nobody wrote down any tunes. So, not much culture. Religion. Not every tribe in the Holy Roman Empire is Christian. Do we force those non-Christians to get with the program?

The Holy Roman Empire is a hot mess. Those countries have been conquered, all right, because Charlemagne came from a family that’s good at commanding a large military. He was great at it. But how was Charlemagne going to run this empire in peacetime?

What would you do?

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The die is cast! Part IV

Charlemagne is crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day, ad 800

(continued from the previous post) …in spite of the non-stop mayhem of Justinian’s rule he manages to achieve the ripe old age of 83 even surviving his beautiful young wife Theodora so the next emperor is his nephew Justin II then Tiberius then Maurice then Phocas who has Maurice and his whole family killed so you can guess Phocas is a pretty violent ruler and the eastern Byzantine Empire continues along the same lines for the next six or so centuries it’s run by despots and becomes a giant complicated overregulated corrupt slow-moving bureaucracy with a population attached so let’s switch back to the western half after all this is supposed to be a history of Western Civ okay since the 400s the Frankish Merovingian kings and Theodoric the Ostrogoth keep France, Italy, Germany & Spain running more or less the same way they had during the Empire one big unifying force is the Christian Church so as these kingdoms and duchies are turning into countries they have Christianity in common in France the Carolingian Dynasty gets started with Charles Martel who slaps down an Arab invasion next is his son Pepin and after him is Charlemagne—Pope Leo III crowns Charlemagne emperor of the Holy Roman Empire (as they’re calling themselves by now) from ad 800-814 Charlemagne rules over France, Spain, Italy, Germany, & Hungary and oversees a mini cultural renaissance (more about that in a minute)…

Whew! Time out. Let’s give Gibbon a rest here—after 4 Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® posts of Decline & Fall it may be possible that I’m losing the room. My goal at any rate was to make the jump from the Roman Empire to the Middle Ages. So here we are! Mission accomplished, gang!

https://www.pallasweb.com/deesis/daily-life-in-constantinople.html
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Okph9wt8I0A
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vtu8CveFBGw
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BNURBs091pk
https://courses.lumenlearning.com/boundless-worldhistory/chapter/the-holy-roman-empire/
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/09/18/may-we-be-frank/
https://www.instagram.com/p/B3-HCj-gCVs/
https://johnmanders.wordpress.com/2019/10/24/charlemagne-pope-leo-iii-from-yesterday/
https://www.studentsofhistory.com/charlemagne-the-holy-roman-empire

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The die is cast! Part III

(I’m still giving Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire my patented Western-Lit-In-Only-One-Sentence ® treatment! Continued from the previous post)

The Byzantine power couple: Justinian & Theodora (or maybe it’s Boris & Natasha, or Gomez & Morticia…)

…so even though Romulus Augustulus surrendered his crown to Odoacer the barbarian it doesn’t mean Odoacer’s the new emperor in the west because let’s face it: the western Empire is over, kaput, yesterday’s news, stick a fork in it—there’s no imperial law enforced by imperial military any longer so Odoacer is king of a handful of kingdoms that will one day become Italy and Dalmatia the Vandals take over the African parts of the old Empire the Huns are still pillaging villages and killing everyone, the Visigoths, Goths, Burgundians and Franks are duking it out over Gaul, in the British Isles the Celtic Britons (like King Arthur) are trying to keep out the Angles and the Saxons but the Saxons take over so the Celtic Britons head for the frontiers (what are today Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and northern France), Visigoths take over Spain, the Lombards (long-beards!) conquer northern Italy then from 493-526 Theodoric the Ostrogoth reclaims a big chunk of the old western Empire by invading Italy then forming alliances with the Goths and Visigoths (during this time the philosopher Boethius is imprisoned and writes A Confederacy of Dunces*) meanwhile in the east we got Emperors Anastasius, Justin I, then in 482 Justin I’s nephew Justinian who more or less shares the throne with his wife the actress, Theodora (before Justinian it was illegal to marry actresses so good news for Hollywood) there’s violent rioting by sports fans who really really support their chariot race teams he builds a new beautiful cathedral, the Hagia Sophia, where an old one had burned down Justinian’s generals Belisarius and Narses fight the Persians, the Vandals in Africa, and the Moors Belisarius also gets back Sicily and Naples from the Goths—Rome too the Franks invade Italy and Belisarius fights them then fights the Persians in Syria Ethiopians ally with Justinian then the Goths revolt and re-recapture Rome until Narses beats them the Franks and Alemanni invade Italy again but get beat again Belisarius keeps out the Bulgarians there are comets and an earthquake a tsunami possibly a volcano whose smoke dimmed the Sun for awhile the bubonic plague famine Justinian codifies the Law everybody in the eastern half decides to speak only Greek except for the government who stick with Latin…**

* Please forgive my lame gag. Arianism—the heresy that says Jesus wasn’t really divine—had rattled Christianity and people were touchy about it. Boethius wrote using his knowledge of Greek philosophy and logic to explain the existence of G-d and the divinity of Christ. When he was (innocently) caught up in political intrigue, Boethius was imprisoned and later executed. While serving his sentence Boethius wrote his masterwork, The Consolation of Philosophy (which book is one character’s obsession in the zany novel A Confederacy of Dunces). https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anicius-Manlius-Severinus-Boethius
https://groveatlantic.com/book/a-confederacy-of-dunces/

** Even by the standards of the other emperors Justinian seems to have a whole lot of war and mayhem going on—Procopius wrote about it in his tell-all biography:
http://byzantinemilitary.blogspot.com/2016/05/procopius-how-justinian-ruined-his.html
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ius
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Justinian_I
https://nefchronicles.wordpress.com/2015/05/24/justinian-theodora-rise-of-a-farmer-a-striptease/

https://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/12/arts/television/sam-denoff-tv-writer-is-dead-at-83.html

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That old wheel of fortune

The Hagia Sophia. This style of church is called a basilica: an enormous dome set on a square base. I drew it as it was in its heyday, before being goombah’d up with minarets.

You see how this went? Christianity, which had been oppressed and persecuted 500 years earlier, grew popular within the Roman Empire until the Church came to be in charge and so now it squashed down the other religions. It’s never a bad idea to be aware of this stuff—what they call a ‘cultural shift.’ Which religion (or ideology) is in charge now? Where is it promoted? How is it promoted? Which religion or ideology is being discouraged? An easy way to tell is: look at what ideology you can make fun of—and what you’re not allowed to make fun of. If you mock a way of thinking and scorn is heaped upon your head, or your opinion gets you in trouble, or your opinion gets blocked on social media—the ideology you’re mocking is in charge.

I’m a Christian, which means Jesus is my Savior. You can expect me to champion Christianity’s indispensable role in shaping our great civilization. Nevertheless, I try to stay clear-eyed about Christianity’s past. All human beings are flawed. We Christians regularly fail at being Christ-like. Not only that, we live in a fallen, constantly-changing world. Religions and ideologies gain and lose their influence. Justinian built what may be the most magnificent Christian church human beings had ever seen—the Hagia Sophia. Fifteen hundred years later, it’s a mosque—a Muslim house of worship. https://www.history.com/topics/ancient-greece/hagia-sophia

If you’d like to learn more about Justinian, try this fascinating book: Justinian’s Flea by William Rosen. It covers everything about that place and time but its focus is the bubonic plague. This year seems like a good time to read it. Highly recommended by me! http://www.justiniansflea.com/

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The Ottoman Empire

Well, this stinks.

By the 1300-1400s ad the Ottoman Empire, starting in Turkey, conquered lands to their east and west. The Ottomans wanted to create an empire to spread the religion of Islam. They fought the Byzantine half of the Roman Empire and won. The capitol city Constantinople was renamed Istanbul. In ad 1453 the Ottomans stopped trade with the west and closed that section of the Silk Road. That put an end to Europe’s trade with China. The problem was people in Western Europe liked Chinese silks and spices—and they still wanted to buy them. But how to get to China if not by land?

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How big was it?

The Roman Empire was so big, its belly-button had an echo.

As time went by, the Roman Empire grew bigger and bigger. How big? When it sat around the Mediterranean Sea, it SAT AROUND the Mediterranean Sea. It extended north into the British Isles; west as far as the coast of Spain; south to include Egypt and east as far as Mesopotamia. The space it took up was 2.2 million square miles. One hundred and twenty million people lived in the Roman Empire.

That’s huge. There weren’t cell phones, tv or radio for one end of the empire to instantly communicate with the other. You could send a letter, which had to be carried by someone walking or riding a horse. Managing such a big area—especially guarding the borders from Rome’s enemies—was really difficult. There were roads and bridges and waterways that needed to be built and maintained. It was becoming too much of a headache for just one emperor.

The Romans tried having more than one emperor at the same time, which sorta kinda worked for a while. By ad 285 the Emperor Diocletian decided it was too big and split the empire into two halves. The city of Rome continued to be the capital of the western half. Byzantium became the capital of the eastern half. Together they were still called The Roman Empire. Separately each half began to take on a distinct and different character.

https://www.ancient.eu/Western_Roman_Empire/
https://www.quora.com/How-big-was-the-Roman-Empire
http://reifshistoryclasses.weebly.com/the-beginning-of-the-byzantine-empire-map-activity.html

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