Byzantines Did It First!

Byzantine fork, Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, DC

Byzantine fork, Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, DC

I was recently reading a book about the city of Paris and the author mentioned that a particular hospital was the “first hospital in Europe”. I had to shake my head at his ignorance of the history of the Byzantines, but it inspired me to make a list of a few things I know of that the Byzantines did long before the rest of Europe did.

Hospitals – Beginning in the 5th century, hospitals, or as they were called in Constantinople, “xenon” were first established in that city by wealthy individuals for charitable reasons, and eventually by the state. They were not necessarily large establishments with hundreds of beds, sometimes just a dozen or so, but often particular xenon became known for treating specific illnesses. They cared for the sick, had physicians on staff, and used their facilities to train young physicians.

Female Physicians – Long before Elizabeth Blackwell, there were female physicians in the Byzantine empire working in the hospitals there. They were expected to work twice as many hours as the male physicians, and paid half as much. Some things never change!

Dinner Forks – The Byzantines were the first to use forks to eat meals. An example of a Byzantine fork that I saw a few years ago at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington, DC looked more like what we would call a cocktail fork – not too long and with two prongs on it (see above example). A Byzantine princess, Theodora Ducaena (daughter of Constantine X Ducas) was sent off to marry the Venetian doge (Domenico Selvo) in 1075 and brought her forks with her. She was thought ridiculously pretentious for using them but they eventually caught on.

Literacy – Education was highly valued in the Eastern Roman Empire. By the 11th century it was common for men and even women down into the middle classes to be taught to read. This level of literacy did not make it into western Europe until perhaps the 18th century.

Universities – While not exactly comparable to the universities founded later in Italy and France, Constantinople did have its schools of higher education teaching grammar, rhetoric, mathematics, astronomy, law, and music. Some were established as early as the 5th century, others later in the 9th century, long before the University of Bologna was founded in 1088. Unfortunately, the devastation wrought by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 spelled the end of the Byzantine university.

Female Historian – Europe’s first female historian was none other than Anna Comnena (please see the last story in my book, Tales of Byzantium ( to learn more about Anna). She was the educated daughter of the Emperor Alexios I Comnenus. Anna, as her father’s first-born child, was promised the throne of the Eastern Roman Empire at birth, and then denied it later in favor of her younger brother, John. Sad as that may have been for Anna, her legacy as the author of her father’s biography, Alexiad, has far outlasted what legacy her brother, a much better than average emperor, left behind.

These are a sampling of some of the things the Byzantines did first. There are others I could go into such as napalm (known as Greek fire – see earlier blog) and industrial espionage (silk worms smuggled from China by monks during the 6th century reign of Justinian & Theodora), but those are topics for other blogs.


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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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