The Founding of Byzantion
Once upon a time (c. 700 – 546 BCE) there was a people known as the Lydians who controlled much of what is today western Turkey. One of their major towns was Miletus, on the Aegean coast. Although the Lydians spoke a now-extinct language of the now-extinct Anatolian language family, residents of Miletus spoke a distantly-related early Greek.
Miletus was a prosperous port that expanded trade by forming satellite colonies throughout the Greek world, especially around the Sea of Marmara and the Black sea. One of those colonies was named Bizantion (or Byzantion).
Meanwhile on the Greek mainland a town called Megara formed an alliance with Miletus. Legend has it that Byzantion was actually named and founded by king Byzas in 667 or 656 BC, the leader of the Megarian colonists who populated the new town. It is also possible the name Byzantion is derived from the Thracian name Byzas, which means “he-goat”. Byzantion is located in Thrace.
Byzantium becomes Constantinople
Byzantion continued for another 1000 years as just another of many Greek seafront cities – nothing special – until it was singled out by a Roman Emperor. The strategic and highly defensible location of Byzantium (straddling Europe and Asia, surrounded by water on three sides) attracted Roman Emperor Constantine I who, in AD 330, re-founded it as an imperial residence and capitol of the new Eastern Roman Empire, inspired by Rome itself. Constantine named it Nova Roma. After his death the city was called Constantinople (Greek Κωνσταντινούπολις, Konstantinoupolis, “city of Constantine”). Here’s why Greeks still call it Constantinople, even though, when the Ottoman Turks captured it in 1453, they renamed it Istanbul.
The city built by Constantine may have been modeled after Rome, but it surpassed it in many ways, some of which are detailed in the YouTubes below. I present three – each a general history, but each with a different emphasis. This first ‘rise and fall’ YouTube gives a general introduction, and explains how the Eastern Roman Empire came to be known as Byazntium the Latin word for the Greek name Byzantion. Ironically, most people dwelling within Byazntium considered it THE Roman Empire, (even though most of the court eventually spoke mostly Greek).
The ‘Rise and Fall…Eastern Roman Empire’ YouTube is a chronological account.
The ‘Explained’ YouTube highlights the the effect of the Crusades on weakening Byzantium, leading to it’s eventual fall, while stimulating the Renaissance in Western Europe.
Byzantium and Kievan Rus’
Meanwhile in faraway Scandinavia, according to Wikipedia, a semi-legendary Norseman, one of the Rus’ people, named Oleg of Novgorod “is credited by Rus’ Chronicles with moving from either Staraya Ladoga (Old Norse: Aldeigjuborg) or Novgorod, and seizing power in Kyiv (Kiev) from Askold and Dir, and, by doing so, laying the foundation of the powerful state of Kievan Rus’. He also launched an attack on Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire. According to East Slavic chronicles, Oleg was the supreme ruler of the Rus’ from 882 to 912.”
The Rus’, with their highly versatile and portable viking ships, had been exploring Russian rivers and trading all the way to Byzantium for many years. Along the way they built strong fortified trading posts, the strongest being Kyiv (Kiev). Several times, beginning in the 860’s they tried unsuccessfully, to capture the amazing riches of Constantinople. Relations between the Rus’ and Byzantines became more complex after Oleg took control over Kiev, reflecting commercial, cultural, and military concerns. The wealth and income of the Rus’ depended heavily upon trade with Byzantium.
Constantine Porphyrogenitus described the annual course of the princes of Kiev, collecting tribute (in furs, beeswax, honey, and slaves) from client tribes, assembling the product into a flotilla of hundreds of boats, conducting them down the Dnieper to the Black Sea, and sailing to the estuary of the Dniester, the Danube delta, and on to Constantinople. On their return trip they would carry silk fabrics, spices, wine, and fruit.
The importance of this trade relationship led to military action when disputes arose. The Primary Chronicle reports that the Rus’ attacked Constantinople again in 907, probably to secure trade access. The Chronicle glorifies the military prowess and shrewdness of Oleg, an account imbued with legendary detail. Byzantine sources do not mention the attack, but a pair of treaties in 907 and 911 set forth a trade agreement with the Rus’, the terms suggesting pressure on the Byzantines, who granted the Rus’ quarters and supplies for their merchants and tax-free trading privileges in Constantinople.
Kievan Rus’ becomes Christian
Wikipedia: “After the Rus’ attack on Constantinople in 860, the Byzantine Patriarch Photius sent missionaries north to convert the Rus’ and the Slavs to Christianity. Prince Rastislav of Moravia had requested the Emperor to provide teachers to interpret the holy scriptures, so in 863 the brothers Cyril and Methodius were sent as missionaries, due to their knowledge of the Slavonic language. The Slavs had no written language, so the brothers devised the Glagolitic alphabet, later replaced by Cyrillic (developed in the First Bulgarian Empire) and standardized the language of the Slavs, later known as Old Church Slavonic. They translated portions of the Bible and drafted the first Slavic civil code and other documents, and the language and texts spread throughout Slavic territories, including Kievan Rus’. The mission of Cyril and Methodius served both evangelical and diplomatic purposes, spreading Byzantine cultural influence in support of imperial foreign policy. In 867 the Patriarch announced that the Rus’ had accepted a bishop, and in 874 he speaks of an “Archbishop of the Rus’.”
When Oleg died, control of Kyiv (Kiev) passed to a young relative, Igor, then his son Sviatoslav, and in 980, his son Vladimir. “When Oleg died, control of Kyiv (Kiev) passed to a young relative, Igor, then his son Sviatoslav, and in 980, his son Vladimir,
Wikipedia: “As Prince of Kiev, Vladimir’s most notable achievement was the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, a process that began in 988. The Primary Chronicle states that when Vladimir had decided to accept a new faith instead of the traditional idol-worship (paganism) of the Slavs, he sent out some of his most valued advisors and warriors as emissaries to different parts of Europe. They visited the Christians of the Latin Rite, the Jews, and the Muslims before finally arriving in Constantinople. They rejected Islam because, among other things, it prohibited the consumption of alcohol, and Judaism because the god of the Jews had permitted his chosen people to be deprived of their country.
They found the ceremonies in the Roman church to be dull. But at Constantinople, they were so astounded by the beauty of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia and the liturgical service held there that they made up their minds there and then about the faith they would like to follow. Upon their arrival home, they convinced Vladimir that the faith of the Byzantine Rite was the best choice of all, upon which Vladimir made a journey to Constantinople and arranged to marry Princess Anna, the sister of Byzantine emperor Basil II.
Vladimir’s choice of Eastern Christianity may also have reflected his close personal ties with Constantinople, which dominated the Black Sea and hence trade on Kiev’s most vital commercial route, the Dnieper River. Adherence to the Eastern Church had long-range political, cultural, and religious consequences. The church had a liturgy written in Cyrillic and a corpus of translations from Greek that had been produced for the Slavic peoples. This literature facilitated the conversion to Christianity of the Eastern Slavs and introduced them to rudimentary Greek philosophy, science, and historiography without the necessity of learning Greek (there were some merchants who did business with Greeks and likely had an understanding of contemporary business Greek).
In contrast, educated people in medieval Western and Central Europe learned Latin. Enjoying independence from the Roman authority and free from tenets of Latin learning, the East Slavs developed their own literature and fine arts, quite distinct from those of other Eastern Orthodox countries. (See Old East Slavic language and Architecture of Kievan Rus for details). Following the Great Schism of 1054, the Rus’ church maintained communion with both Rome and Constantinople for some time, but along with most of the Eastern churches it eventually split to follow the Eastern Orthodox. That being said, unlike other parts of the Greek world, Kievan Rus’ did not have a strong hostility to the Western world.”
Thee Varangian Guard
The Byzantine court was a hotbed of political intrigue. In order to ensure the emperor a modicum of stability, Basil II recruited Norse warriors, known as the Varangian Guard to be his personal bodyguards.
The Guard was first formally constituted under Emperor Basil II in 988, following the Christianization of Kievan Rus’ by Vladimir I of Kiev. Vladimir, who had recently usurped power in Kiev with an army of Varangian warriors, sent 6,000 men to Basil as part of a military assistance agreement. Basil’s distrust of the native Byzantine guardsmen, whose loyalties often shifted with fatal consequences, as well as the proven loyalty of the Varangians, many of whom had previously served in Byzantium, led the Emperor to employ them as his personal guardsmen.
Thus, between the conversion of Kievan Rus’ to Christianity and the constant employment of Varangian guards, Byzantium had a profound influence on the formation of Ukrainian and Russian culture and orientation. Indeed, centuries later, when Moscow became the center of Russian power and Byzantium had fallen to the Turks, the Tsar (Russian for Caesar, the Roman ruler) declared Moscow to be the Third Rome (after Rome itself and Constantinople); defender of the True Faith (Orthodox Christianity).