The Byzantine Reputation

The Byzantine Reputation

The Byzantine Reputation

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. 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, we can begin to see how this happened. Western Europe about 1100 was not particularly prosperous, with 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. Coincidentally, it 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 known for a particular specialty. Those hospitals employed some female physicians, even if paid less than the men and expected to work more hours. The emperor held the reins of power. Although the empire had suffered some losses over the previous hundred years, it remained affluent, particularly when compared to western Europe.

The Crusaders Arrive

So in 1095 these European knights made their way to the golden city of Constantinople. They found 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. The Crusaders looked 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. 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. They did not think, as the Byzantines did, of the inevitable loss of valuable soldiers such a siege would cause. Also, the Nicaeans were, after all, Alexios’ subjects.

Nonetheless, those coarse European knights went on to reconquer Jerusalem and establish the Crusader states that lasted 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. The  stories and rumors about the Byzantines’ deceitful ways began and persist, to some degree, 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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