Category: eastern roman empire

The Plague of Justinian

The reign of the Emperor Justinian signaled the peak of Byzantine power.  Trade and commerce thrived while a number of conquests ordered by Justinian reconquered territories such as North Africa, Italy, and parts of Spain. Under Justinian’s leadership, the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire came very close re-uniting the ancient Roman Empire.  But then, out of nowhere a deadly plague arrived from the east which would devastate the empire, and become the fourth deadliest pandemic in history.

Based upon genetic testing, it is believed that the Justinian Plague originated from Central Asia.  The disease itself was a strain of the bacteria Yersinia pestis, the same bacterium responsible for the Black Death in the late Middle Ages.  The Plague first shows up in the historical record in 540 AD in Egypt, mostly likely carried by traders, merchants, and travelers. By 542 the plague had spread across the Mediterranean, causing hundreds of thousands of deaths as it traveled.  Entire towns and villages were wiped out. Crops were left to rot in the fields. The army was often used to dig mass graves for the thousands upon thousands of bodies who needed buried.  According to the historian Procopius, ten thousand people a day were dying in Constantinople, until the city’s popular was reduced by half.  People died so fast that bodies were simply stacked in the streets and left to rot.  Even the emperor himself was affected as he too fell ill, and although he survived his health was never the same afterwards.  


The timing of the plague was extremely unfortunate as well.  By then the Imperial treasury was nearly empty due to a number of Justinian’s building projects and wars.  As result, there was little left to fund relief efforts to aid the sick and the dying. Altogether the Justinian Plague resulted in the deaths of 30-50 million people, reducing the population of Europe by 1/3rd to ½.  The Eastern Roman Empire itself was devastated and left extremely weakened after Justinian’s reign, leaving the empire vulnerable to a series of invasions by the Arabs, Turks, Persians, and Slavic peoples. The empire would remain in a state of decline (with some periodic renewals) until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The plague itself would periodically return until the 8th century.

The Varangian Guard — The Eastern Roman Empire’s elite Viking soldiers

In the mid 8th century AD viking raiders from Sweden began raiding lands to the east in what is now Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. After several decades these Norsemen began to conquer plots of land, form permanent settlements, and intermarry with the Slavic peoples in the region. In 882 Prince Oleg began to unite the various Slavic, Norse, and Finnic tribes into a federated state called the Kievan Rus. The Kievan Rus would grow to dominate much of Eastern Europe from the 10th century until the Mongol invasions in the 13th century.

After the founding of Kievan Rus it wasn’t long before they made contact with the Eastern Roman Empire, or as it is called by historians, “the Byzantine Empire”. In 988 the Byzantine Empire was facing tumultuous times, not only having to deal with foreign invaders but a large rebellion which threatened to fracture the empire. The Byzantine Emperor, Basil II, made a request from Vladimir I of Kiev for 6,000 soldiers in return for his sister’s hand in marriage. Vladimir accepted the offer and sent 6,000 hardy Norsemen to fight as mercenaries in the Byzantine Army. The Norsemen fought so well that he made them his elite shock troops as well as his personal bodyguard. The word “Varangian” itself comes from the Old Norse words “var” (to pledge or swear) and “gengi” (companions). With the Varangian Guard at the head of the Byzantine Army, Basil II was able to crush the rebels, drive back enemy invaders, and stabilize the empire. He made the Varangian Guard an official institution of the empire, much like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome, and sent out a call for men from all over Scandinavia to fill in his ranks and expand the guard. Armed with a sword, a large double handed axe called a Dane Axe, mail or lemellar armor, a shield, and a helmet, the Varangians would see combat all over the empire including in the Balkans, Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the Middle East. Rewards for service included large cash payments and land.

One of the most important Varangians in Medieval history was a Norwegian noble named Harold Sigurdsson. After losing a battle to his family rivals he was exiled to Kievan Rus in 1031. A few years later he joined the Byzantine Army, earning a reputation as a brave soldier and brilliant military leader, until eventually he was promoted as commander of the Varangian Guard. After a successful career as a Varangian, Harold returned to Norway and reclaimed his throne, taking the title King Harold III.  In 1066 he invaded England in an attempt to take the English throne, but was defeated and killed at the Battle of Stamford bridge by the army of Anglo Saxon King Harold Godwinson. History would forever remember him as Harold “Hardrada”, the stern ruler.

Speaking of 1066, after the defeat of Harold Hardrada in 1066, Godwinson and his army was forced to march south to do battle with another army, a Norman invasion led by William the Bastard, later known as William the Conqueror. Godwinson would be defeated by William the Conqueror resulting in the Norman conquest of England.  This would have profound effects on the Varangian Guard. By the mid 11th century Scandinavian peoples no longer sought to go-a-viking like their ancestors had done, preferring to settle down and become farmers and merchants. Harold Hardrada is often called “the last Viking”, and his death in 1066 is commonly used as a closing point of the Viking Age. As a result, fewer and fewer Norsemen volunteered for the Varangian Guard.  However, the Norman conquest resulted in many Anglo-Saxon refugees fleeing from England. Many of these English expats would join the Byzantine Army and fill in the empty ranks of the Varangian Guard until by the 12th century the guard was completely dominated by Anglo-Saxons.

Over time the Varangian Guard would decline along with the Byzantine Empire, slowly being ground down by invaders who attacked from all sides of the empire. By the late 13th century it is thought the Varangians were merely a simple palace guard that was a shadow of their former selves. The last mention of the guard occurs around 1400, and from there they disappeared into history.

The Romans who stole Silk from China

During the 6th century the Eastern Roman Empire (known as the Byzantine Empire by historians) became an important center of politics, culture, and commerce in Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean. What made the empire especially powerful was it’s access to the Silk Road, and thus control of goods from India and China. One of the most popular goods traded from China was silk, a good which China maintained a strict monopoly over. This posed a problem as the Persian Sassanid Empire controlled many of the trade routes to India, and thus could levy high tariffs on the good or cut off supply entirely. The Persians had been longtime enemies of the Roman Empire going back to the days of Julius Caesar, thus the Byzantines needed to find a way to circumvent Persia’s control over the Silk Road


In 552 AD two monks approached the Emperor Justinian I with a plan. The two monks had been part of a mission to spread Christianity to India, and had traveled as far as China. There they learned the secret of Chinese silk making, and had learned that raw silk is produced from a species of worm that fed on mulberry leaves.


The monks planned to steal some of the worms and smuggle them back to Byzantium. Justinian approved the plan and the monks immediately journeyed east. A year later they arrived in China, where they stole silkworm eggs or larvae which they hid in special compartments in their walking canes. It was not long after the monks returned home that the empire set up silk factories in Constantinople, Antioch, Tyre, and Thebes.

Byzantine silk was not as good of quality as Chinese silk, instead what was produced was a lesser grade knockoff. However it was still very popular as it was more affordable than real Chinese silk. The Eastern Roman Empire’s trade in domestically produced silk allowed the Byzantines to undercut the Chinese and Persians, making the empire fabulously wealthy. The Byzantines would dominate the silk market in Europe until their monopoly was broken by Italian traders in the 13th century.

Siege of Constantinople 717-718

from Kings and Generals

The Death of Odoacer and the Rise of Theodoric the Great

In a previous post  I wrote about how in 476 AD the German warlord Odoacer had overthrown the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustus. After the overthrow of Romulus Augustus, the Eastern Roman Emperor Zeno wanted Odoacer to recognize a new Western Roman Emperor, in particular one hand picked by Zeno himself. However Odoacer refused, dispensing with the old Imperial system and declaring himself King of Italy. Zeno was greatly angered by this, but with internal revolts and rampaging Goths tearing apart his empire, there wasn’t anything he could do about it.  Ten years later, the Goths were still rampaging through the Eastern Roman Empire, in fact they had laid siege to Constantinople itself.  Things were going badly for Zeno, while the Byzantines were well defended behind the walls of Constantinople and generous supplies were being shipped into the city, it was only a matter of time before rebellions broke out somewhere in the empire, or foreign powers such as the Huns or the Sassanid Persians took advantage of the situation. For the sake of his empire, he had to do something to get those dang Goths off his back. Likewise for the Ostrogothic King Theodoric, besieging Constantinople was no picnic either. Constantinople was perhaps the mostly heavily fortified city in Europe, and many attempts to sack the city would fail miserably.  Thus, Emperor Zeno approached King Theodoric with an offer, one that would kill two birds with one stone.  Odoacer was still on Zeno’s shit list, thus he told Theodoric, “You know, Italy is ripe for the taking and Italian cities are not nearly as well defended as Constantinople.  Why not go to Italy and become their problem?”  Theodoric was like, “OK, that’s sounds cool bye now 🙂 “

In 488 AD Theodoric and the Ostrogoths crossed the Alps and invaded Italy.  Theodoric won victory after victory against Odoacer. By 491 Theodoric had won control of almost all of Italy, with the exception of the old Imperial capital of Ravenna.  Ravenna had been made capital of the Western Roman Empire in 402 because the city was surrounded by swamps, with only a few available approaches to the city.  Thus the city was easy to defend.  Theodoric found that laying siege to Ravenna was no better than laying siege to Constantinople.  Despite Odoacer being backed into a corner with few loyal troops left, the war dragged on.  On February 25th, 493 the Bishop of Ravenna finally brokered a peace deal between the two kings in which the two rulers would share power. To celebrate the new peace deal, Theodoric invited Odoacer to a grand banquet.  Those who are avid viewers of the show Game of Thrones can probably predict what happened next.


In the midst of the banquet, Theodoric unexpectedly drew his sword and struck Odoacer right through the collar bone.  Odoacer’s entourage were also grabbed and their throats were cut, while his wife was taken away and stoned to death.  As Odoacer was dying he cried out, “Where is God!?” Theodoric, standing over his body responded, “This is what you did to my friends”. When Odoacer was dead Theodoric remarked, “

There certainly wasn’t a bone in this wretched fellow.”


The Emperor Zeno would give Theodoric the title of Viceroy of Italy.  Thus Theodoric was a subject of Zeno and Italy was officially a part of the Roman Empire once again… but not really.  In reality Theodoric was now King of Italy, and his rule would bring a short lived measure of peace and prosperity the likes of which hadn’t been seen for over a century.  Under Theodoric, Italy would undergo a renaissance, with a revival of trade, commerce, and culture.  Today, Theodoric is known posthumously as “Theodoric the Great”.