The Byzantine Reputation

The Byzantine Reputation

The Byzantine Reputation

The eastern Roman empire, commonly known as the Byzantine Empire, has had the reputation of being sneaky, conniving, and downright nefarious among western Europeans for centuries. However, few western Europeans aside from Italian traders had any personal knowledge of the Byzantines prior to the Crusades, so it seems likely that the misunderstandings between east and west (earlier religious differences aside) probably started at about that time.

If we look at the state of western Europe in about 1100, and compare it to the Byzantine Empire at the same time, we can begin to see how this may have happened. Western Europe about 1100 was not particularly prosperous, had little centralized authority, and many individual fiefdoms. Few outside of a monastery could read, medical care was rudimentary, and populations were low in the west. The largest city in Europe at that time was Venice with about 60,000 inhabitants, which coincidentally had the most interactions with Constantinople. Rome and London shuffled along with about 20,000 each, while Paris had about 50,000.

Constantinople, on the other hand, could claim between 200,000 to 250,000 residents. Literacy was common down into the middle classes and included women. Constantinople had many hospitals, some of which were known for a particular specialty, and there were female physicians – paid less than the men and expected to work more hours, but nonetheless employed in their chosen professions. Power was centralized in the hands of the emperor and although the empire had suffered some declines over the previous hundred years, it remained affluent, particularly when compared to western Europe.

So in 1095 these European knights made their way to the golden city of Constantinople and saw a wealthy, sophisticated, educated, and well-organized city beyond anything they could have imagined. The Byzantines instead saw a coarse, crude, and dangerous group of men camping on their doorstep. This was a classic case of country bumpkins coming up against their polished city cousins, looking down at their unwashed bodies clad in rough wool or wrinkled linen garments, and then at the dazzling silk robes, gold and gems of their hosts and feeling embarrassed. This had to be mutual culture shock on an epic level.

The two groups did fight together in the First Crusade. The European knights, however, were dismayed when the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I chose to negotiate with a Turk to win back the city of Nicaea, rather than continue the siege and sack the city for its booty. The knights found that rather sneaky, not thinking, as the Byzantines did, of the inevitable loss of valuable soldiers such a siege would cause, as well as what it would cost the Nicaeans, who were, after all, Alexios’ subjects.

Nonetheless, those coarse European knights went on to reconquer Jerusalem and establish the Crusader states that managed to last about 200 years. Their military success allowed them to think that, for all their own rough ways, they were better than those devious and cunning Byzantines, spreading stories about their deceitful ways, and starting rumors that persist to this day.

And yet, today those Crusaders’ descendants in Europe now occupy that same pinnacle of wealth, education, and political power that the Byzantines held 900 years ago. I wonder where history’s wheel will spin us next?

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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