Nothing is as approved as mediocrity, the majority has established it and it fixes it fangs on whatever gets beyond it either way. — Pascal

Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman


Two thousand five hundred and fifty-eight years ago a little fleet of galleys toiled painfully against the current up the long strait of the Hellespont, rowed across the broad Propontis, and came to anchor in the smooth waters of the first inlet which cuts into the European shore of the Bosphorus. There a long crescent-shaped creek, which after-ages were to know as the Golden Horn, strikes inland for seven miles, forming a quiet backwater from the rapid stream which runs outside. On the headland, enclosed between this inlet and the open sea, a few hundred colonists disembarked, and hastily secured themselves from the wild tribes of the inland, by running some rough sort of a stockade across the ground from beach to beach. Thus was founded the city of Byzantium.

The settlers were Greeks of the Dorian race, natives of the thriving seaport-state of Megara, one of the most enterprising of all the cities of Hellas in the time of colonial and commercial expansion which was then at its height. Wherever a Greek prow had cut its way into unknown waters, there Megarian seamen were soon found following in its wake. One band of these venturesome traders pushed far to the West to plant colonies in Sicily, but the larger share of the attention of Megara was turned towards the sun-rising, towards the mist-enshrouded entrance of the Black Sea and the fabulous lands that lay beyond. There as legends told, was to be found the realm of the Golden Fleece, the Eldorado of the ancient world, where kings of untold wealth reigned over the tribes of Colchis: there dwelt, by the banks of the river Thermodon, the Amazons, the warlike women who had once vexed far-off Greece by their inroads: there, too, was to be found, if one could but struggle far enough up its northern shore, the land of the Hyperboreans, the blessed folk who dwell behind the North Wind and know nothing of storm and winter. To seek these fabled wonders the Greeks sailed ever North and East till they had come to the extreme limits of the sea. The riches of the Golden Fleece they did not find, nor the country of the Hyperboreans, nor the tribes of the Amazons; but they did discover many lands well worth the knowing, and grew rich on the profits which they drew from the metals of Colchis and the forests of Paphlagonia, from the rich corn lands by the banks of the Dnieper and Bug, and the fisheries of the Bosphorus and the Maeotic Lake. Presently the whole coastland of the sea, which the Greeks, on their first coming, called Axeinos—"the Inhospitable"—became fringed with trading settlements, and its name was changed to Euxeinos—"the Hospitable"—in recognition of its friendly ports. It was in a similar spirit that, two thousand years later, the seamen who led the next great impulse of exploration that rose in Europe, turned the name of the "Cape of Storms" into that of the "Cape of Good Hope."

The Megarians, almost more than any other Greeks, devoted their attention to the Euxine, and the foundation of Byzantium was but one of their many achievements. Already, seventeen years before Byzantium came into being, another band of Megarian colonists had established themselves at Chalcedon, on the opposite Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus. The settlers who were destined to found the greater city applied to the oracle of Delphi to give them advice as to the site of their new home, and Apollo, we are told, bade them "build their town over against the city of the blind." They therefore pitched upon the headland by the Golden Horn, reasoning that the Chalcedonians were truly blind to have neglected the more eligible site on the Thracian shore, in order to found a colony on the far less inviting Bithynian side of the strait.

From the first its situation marked out Byzantium as destined for a great future. Alike from the military and from the commercial point of view no city could have been better placed. Looking out from the easternmost headland of Thrace, with all Europe behind it and all Asia before, it was equally well suited to be the frontier fortress to defend the border of the one, or the basis of operations for an invasion from the other. As fortresses went in those early days it was almost impregnable two sides protected by the water, the third by a strong wall not commanded by any neighbouring heights. In all its early history Byzantium never fell by storm: famine or treachery accounted for the few occasions on which it fell into the hands of an enemy. In its commercial aspect the place was even more favourably situated. It completely commanded the whole Black Sea trade: every vessel that went forth from Greece or Ionia to traffic with Scythia or Colchis, the lands by the Danube mouth or the shores of the Maeotic Lake, had to pass close under its walls, so that the prosperity of a hundred Hellenic towns on the Euxine was always at the mercy of the masters of Byzantium. The Greek loved short stages and frequent stoppages, and as a half-way house alone Byzantium would have been prosperous: but it had also a flourishing local trade of its own with the tribes of the neighbouring Thracian inland, and drew much profit from its fisheries: so much so that the city badge its coat of arms as we should call it comprised a tunny-fish as well as the famous ox whose form alluded to the legend of the naming of the Bosphorus.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman

As an independent state Byzantium had a long and eventful history. For thirty years it was in the hands of the kings of Persia, but with that short exception it maintained its freedom during the first three hundred years that followed its foundation. Many stirring scenes took place beneath its walls: it was close to them that the great Darius threw across the Bosphorus his bridge of boats, which served as a model for the more famous structure on which his son Xerxes crossed the Hellespont. Fifteen years later, when Byzantium in common with all its neighbours made an ineffectual attempt to throw off the Persian yoke, in the rising called the "Ionic Revolt," it was held for a time by the arch-rebel Histiaeus, who—as much to enrich himself as to pay his seamen—invented strait dues. He forced every ship passing up or down the Bosphorus to pay a heavy toll, and won no small unpopularity thereby for the cause of freedom which he professed to champion. Ere long Byzantium fell back again into the hands of Persia, but she was finally freed from the Oriental yoke seventeen years later, when the victorious Greeks, fresh from the triumph of Salamis and Mycale, sailed up to her walls and after a long leaguer starved out the obstinate garrison [B.C. 479]. The fleet wintered there, and it was at Byzantium that the first foundations of the naval empire of Athens were laid, when all the Greek states of Asia placed their ships at the disposal of the Athenian admirals Cimon and Aristides.

During the fifth century Byzantium twice declared war on Athens, now the mistress of the seas, and on each occasion fell into the hands of the enemy once by voluntary surrender in 439 B.C., once by treachery from within, in 408 B.C. But the Athenians, except in one or two disgraceful cases, did not deal hardly with their conquered enemies, and the Byzantines escaped anything harder than the payment of a heavy war indemnity. In a few years their commercial gains repaired all the losses of war, and the state was itself again.

We know comparatively little about the internal history of these early centuries of the life of Byzantium. Some odd fragments of information survive here and there: we know, for example, that they used iron instead of copper for small money, a peculiarity shared by no other ancient state save Sparta. Their alphabet rejoiced in an abnormally shaped B, which puzzled all other Greeks, for it resembled a p with an extra limb. The chief gods of the city were those that we might have expected Poseidon the ruler of the sea, whose blessing gave Byzantium its chief wealth; and Demeter, the goddess who presided over the Thracian and Scythian corn lands which formed its second source of prosperity.

The Byzantines were, if ancient chroniclers tell us the truth, a luxurious as well as a busy race: they spent too much time in their numerous inns, where the excellent wines of Maronea and other neighbouring places offered great temptations. They were gluttons too as well as tipplers: on one occasion, we are assured, the whole civic militia struck work in the height of a siege, till their commander consented to allow restaurants to be erected at convenient distances round the ramparts. One comic writer informs us that the Byzantines were eating young tunny-fish their favourite dish so constantly, that their whole bodies had become well-nigh gelatinous, and it was thought they might melt if exposed to too great heat! Probably these tales are the scandals of neighbours who envied Byzantine prosperity, for it is at any rate certain that the city showed all through its history great energy and love of independence, and never shrank from war as we should have expected a nation of epicures to do.

It was not till the rise of Philip of Macedon and his greater son Alexander that Byzantium fell for the fifth time into the hands of an enemy. The elder king was repulsed from the city's walls after a long siege culminating in an attempt at an escalade by night, which was frustrated owing to the sudden appearance of a light in heaven, which revealed the advancing enemy and was taken by the Byzantines as a token of special divine aid [B.C. 339]. In commemoration of it they assumed as one of their civic badges the blazing crescent and star, which has descended to our own days and is still used as an emblem by the present owners of the city the Ottoman Sultans. But after repulsing Philip the Byzantines had to submit some years later to Alexander. They formed under him part of the enormous Macedonian empire, and passed on his decease through the hands of his successors

Demetrius Poliorcetes, and Lysimachus. After the depth of the latter in battle, however, they recovered a precarious freedom, and were again an independent community for a hundred years, till the power of Rome invaded the regions of Thrace and the Hellespont.

Byzantium was one of the cities which took the wise course of making an early, alliance with the Romans, and obtained good and easy terms in consequence. During the wars of Rome with Macedon and Antiochus the Great it proved such a faithful assistant that the Senate gave it the status of a civitas libera et foederata, "a free and confederate city," and it was not taken under direct Roman government, but allowed complete liberty in everything save the control of its foreign relations and the payment of a tribute to Rome. It was not till the Roman Republic had long passed away, that the Emperor Vespasian stripped it of these privileges, and threw it into the province of Thrace, to exist for the future as an ordinary provincial town [A.D. 73].

Though deprived of a liberty which had for long years been almost nominal, Byzantium could not be deprived of its unrivalled position for commerce. It continued to flourish under the Pax Romana, the long-continued peace which all the inner countries of the empire enjoyed during the first two centuries of the imperial regime, and is mentioned again and again as one of the most important cities of the middle regions of the Roman world.

But an evil time for Byzantium, as for all the other parts of the civilized world, began when the golden age of the Antonines ceased, and the epoch of the military emperors followed. In 192 A.D., Commodus, the unworthy son of the great and good Marcus Aurelius, was murdered, and ere long three military usurpers were wrangling for his blood-stained diadem. Most unhappily for itself Byzantium lay on the line of division between the eastern provinces, where Pescennius Niger had been proclaimed, and the Illyrian provinces, where Severus had assumed the imperial style. The city was seized by the army of Syria, and strengthened in haste. Presently Severus appeared from the west, after he had made himself master of Rome and Italy, and fell upon the forces of his rival Pescennius. Victory followed the arms of the Illyrian legions; the east was subdued, and the Syrian emperor out to death. But when all his other adherents had yielded, the garrison of Byzantium refused to submit. For more than two years they maintained the impregnable city against the lieutenants of Severus, and it was not till A.D. 196 that they were forced to yield. The emperor appeared in person to punish the long-protracted resistance of the town: not only the garrison, but the civil magistrates of Byzantium were slain before his eyes. The massive walls "so firmly built with great square stones, clamped together with bolts of iron, that the whole seemed but one block." were laboriously cast down. The property of the citizens was confiscated, and the town itself deprived of all municipal privileges and handed over to be governed like a dependent village by its neighbours of Perinthus.

Caracalla, the son of Severus, gave back to the Byzantines the right to govern themselves, but the town had received a hard blow, and would have required a long spell of peace to recover its prosperity. Peace however it was not destined to see. All through the middle years of the third century it was vexed by the incursions of the Goths, who harried mercilessly the countries on the Black Sea whose commerce sustained its trade. Under Gallienus in A.D. 263 it was again seized by an usurping emperor, and shared the fate of his adherents. The soldiers of Gallienus sacked Byzantium from cellar to garret, and made such a slaughter of its inhabitants that it is said that the old Megarian race who had so long possessed it were absolutely exterminated. But the irresistible attraction of the site was too great to allow its ruins to remain desolate. Within ten years after its sack by the army of Gallienus, we find Byzantium again a populous town, and its inhabitants are specially praised by the historian Trebellius Pollio for the courage with which they repelled a Gothic raid in the reign of Claudius II.

The strong Illyrian emperors, who staved off from the Roman Empire the ruin which appeared about to overwhelm it in the third quarter of the third century, gave Byzantium time and peace to recover its ancient prosperity. It profited especially from the constant neighbourhood of the imperial court, after Diocletian fixed his residence at Nicomedia, only sixty miles away, on the Bithynian side of the Propontis. But the military importance of Byzantium was always interfering with its commercial greatness. After the abdication of Diocletian the empire was for twenty years vexed by constant partitions of territory between the colleagues whom he left behind him. Byzantium after a while found itself the border fortress of Licinius, the emperor who ruled in the Balkan Peninsula, while Maximinus Daza was governing the Asiatic provinces. While Licinius was absent in Italy, Maximinus treacherously attacked his rival's dominions without declaration of war, and took Byzantium by surprise. But the Illyrian emperor returned in haste, defeated his grasping neighbour not far from the walls of the city, and recovered his great frontier fortress after it had been only a few months out of his hands [A.D. 314]. The town must have suffered severely by changing masters twice in the same year; it does not, however, seem to have been sacked or burnt, as was so often the case with a captured city in those dismal days. But Licinius when he had recovered the place set to work to render it impregnable. Though it was not his capital he made it the chief fortress of his realm, which, since the defeat of Maximinus, embraced the whole eastern half of the Roman world.

It was accordingly at Byzantium that Licinius made his last desperate stand, when in A.D, 323 he found himself engaged in an unsuccessful war with his brother-in-law Constantine, the Emperor of the West. For many months the war stood still beneath the walls of the city; but Constantine persevered in the siege, raising great mounds which overlooked the walls, and sweeping away the defenders by a constant stream of missiles, launched from dozens of military engines which he had erected on these artificial heights. At last the city surrendered, and the cause of Licinius was lost. Constantine, the last of his rivals subdued, became the sole emperor of the Roman world, and stood a victor on the ramparts which were ever afterwards to bear his name.