Byzantium, the Underappreciated Empire I: Introduction

by northernbeholder

Ahh, Byzantium.  Here is an ancient civilization near and dear to my heart, mostly because I love an underdog. For those of you that haven’t devoted years of your life to studying the cultures of old, the Byzantine Empire (Byzantium to its friends) was the successor to Rome.  (Dedicated historians avert your eyes now; I am about to gloss over a lot of detail for the sake of brevity.)

The Roman Empire eventually grew so large that it became unwieldy to administer solely from one location, and was divided roughly in half, east and west.  The western empire slowly collapsed through corruption, unrest, and barbarian migrations. Its death is typically pegged to 476 AD, with the overthrowing of Emperor Romulus Augustus by Odoacer, though it had largely ceased to function as a cohesive entity decades before that point.  The eastern empire, however, based in the massive fortress-city of Constantinople, would live on for over seven hundred years, until it was sacked in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. (Although the city was eventually re-taken and the Byzantine Empire partially re-formed, it was at that point little more than a large Greek kingdom, and fell to the Turks in 1453).

During its span, Byzantium grew to encompass the Mediterranean, withered away to the walls of Constantinople itself, and grew back again, clinging tenaciously to life.  Its survivability was due in large part to its soldiers, who underwent intense training – often lasting a year or more before they were considered fit for full service – and were lavishly equipped.  They were, arguably, the finest soldiers in their part of the world, and they were also well-led by officers tutored in strategy and tactics (some of their military manuals have survived to this day – anyone interested in Byzantine military tactics should find themselves a copy of Maurice’s Strategikon).

Despite this, Byzantium has no games dedicated to it (at least, none that I’ve encountered), no host of films celebrating its glory, no legacy of imitators.  Byzantium, in short, has terrible PR, and that’s partly due to how they used their elite forces – or rather, how they didn’t.  Next time, we look at why Byzantium’s mighty arms are so poorly remembered.