Sunday, October 24, 2021

When Did the Byzantines Stop Being Romans?

Were Byzantines Actually Roman?

The Deposition of Phocas
"The deposition of Phocas 610 AD." As discussed below, this forgotten event marked the end of the Roman Empire and the birth of the Byzantine Empire. Source: A. C. Weatherstone (1888–1929), "Hutchinson's History of the Nations," 1915.

The question of when Byzantines stopped considering themselves Roman is both extremely easy and equally difficult to answer. No matter how you answer this question decisively, you must leave out a perfectly acceptable answer that is directly contrary to the one you give.

This is because there is a difference between form and reality. In the law, it is the distinction between de jure and de facto. Byzantium was the legal heir to the Roman Empire (or at least the eastern half of it, as the rest that is a much murkier question). In form, the Byzantines never stopped being Roman. In reality, though, they stopped being Roman fairly early in the Byzantine Empire's history. The only real and interesting question is to pinpoint exactly when the break occurred.

And that is what I am going to do below.

Let me begin by saying I understand some of you reading this probably disagree with me. That's fine, because there is no definite answer to this question such as, "the freezing temperature of water is 32 degrees Celsius" unless you intentionally and decisively take one of the two routes I outlined just above. 

So, rather than just give you half the story, I'm going to go through both explanations. It's pretty clear which one I believe is more realistic. However, if you believe the opposite, that's okay. There will be plenty of people who think this answer is cut-and-dried, not open for debate, and completely agree with you.
Byzantine double-headed eagle on tapestry,
Textile Fragment with Double-Headed Eagles Islamic (Spain), 12th century. Silk. 29Í19 cm Achat à Chamonton, 1906. Inv. 28003. Musée des Tissus, Lyon.

The Easy Answer Is That The Byzantines Never Stopped Being Roman

The simplest answer is sometimes the best one, but not in this case: the Byzantines never stopped identifying as Romans. This will likely get you a solid "B" grade on your final, maybe even a B+ if you flesh it out well.

Incidentally, let me preface this by saying that no Byzantine would even recognize the term “Byzantine.” They called themselves Romans. Not Greeks, not Latins, not Byzantines - Romans. However, it is handy for us to call them Byzantines because we are in the communication business here, not “let us be historically correct to the point of incomprehensibility” game.

I've gone through why we call them Byzantines here, so I won't repeat myself. To be brief, we call them Byzantines because that refers to the name of the town that the Romans converted into Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The name "Byzantine" began to be used in the Middle Ages because it was a good way to differentiate between the classical Roman Empire based in Rome and the much different Empire based in Constantinople.

And that's the same reason why I use the term.

Right up to the last day of the Eastern Empire, the Byzantines considered themselves Roman. Thus, emperors such as Justinian I and the Comneni of the 12th Century engaged in repeated attempts to reconquer the lost Western Empire, which they considered rightfully theirs. This continued up until Michael VIII Palaiologos in the 13th Century, the last great Byzantine Emperor.

In fact, a pathetic Byzantine decree late in the Eastern Empire’s life gave England - by then a major world power - its independence. The Byzantines had never controlled any part of the British Isles even under the most favorable interpretation, since even at the point of Byzantium's founding the Western Emperor would have possessed it. We may laugh at the Byzantines' presumption now (as people surely did then), but the Byzantines took their hereditary claims very seriously.

The Byzantine repeated and failed attempts at religious unification with the Papacy that continued until the final years of the Byzantine Empire built upon this belief that the East and West were all just part of the same family. In fact, the Byzantines believed that the Patriarch of Constantinople was superior in authority to the Roman Pope even as Byzantine fortunes hit rock bottom. The Byzantine desire to “set things right” and return to a position of respect and even dominance in the boundaries of the former Western Empire never ended.

There's an obvious flaw in the Byzantine reasoning on this that you've likely already spotted. Imagining yourself to be a dog does not make you a dog even if you like to bark. Likewise, viewing yourself as Roman does not make you Roman.

If you live in Albuquerque and have never even been to Italy but consider yourself to be Roman, well, God bless you. That's just fine. It may be a bit awkward at times wearing a toga to the grocery store, but it's probably comfortable attire for you. Simply considering yourself to be Roman doesn't make you Roman even if your ancestors 2000 years ago were citizens of the Roman Empire. 

While the language of the court remained Latin, the population of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire quickly (in Roman terms, we're talking about a 2000 year history) reverted to the local language, Greek. As time went on, Greek words began replacing or assuming prominence over ancient Latin terms such as "Caesar." That rank did remain, but was superseded by the Greek term "Basileus"  (Greek: βασιλεύς).

If the leader of the nation has a rank using a Greek term, that's a pretty clear indication that Greek is the primary language.
Emperor Justinian
Emperor Justinian, a mosaic made during his lifetime and his only known contemporaneous image that has survived to modern times.

The Nuanced Answer: Eastern Romans Became Byzantines As Their Culture Adapted To Their Surroundings

Now, this is in my view the correct way to answer this question even though it rubs a lot of people the wrong way. There's something about the prestige of calling yourself Roman that exists today and also existed during the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantines retained the form and illusion of being Roman while actually becoming something completely different. It's analogous to a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Is a butterfly still a caterpillar just because it considers itself to still be a caterpillar? You decide.

In fact, there is a particular turning point that marks the dividing line between the Roman and Greek (Byzantine) empires. This is the view provided by Byzantine historian George Ostrogorsky in his "The History of the Byzantine State" and I fully subscribe to it.

The process of turning from Roman to Greek peaked during the reign of Heraclius, the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 610 to 641. Heraclius is one of those pivotal figures in world history who is all but forgotten. He should be remembered because he had more impact on history than any other Byzantine emperor and most of the Roman ones, too.

Heraclius did amazing things and faced monumental challenges that changed the political landscape forever. He finally defeated the creaking old Persian Empire, a goal of Rome for centuries. You'd think he'd be a world-famous leader for having done this, but there was a fly in the ointment.

The problem for Heraclius' reputation is that, after finally eliminating the Persians, Heraclius also failed to adequately defend the Empire from the resulting Arab Muslim invasion. It is impossible to overestimate the impact of these two things - the defeat of the Persians and the rise of the Arabs Muslims - on the politics of post-classical Middle Eastern history.

But there's more to the Heraclius story! Even those two dramatic things were not the main epochal shift that occurred during his reign. He also began the development of the Byzantine Themes. 

Now, you may not be familiar with Themes outside of how you create websites, but the development of the Themes was one of the most influential political strategies in history. They are the true legacy of Heraclius and one of the prime legacies of the entire Byzantine state.

Themes were regional groupings somewhat akin to modern counties or parishes but on a much larger scale. In England, they are called civil parishes. They are used for local administrative control because the government of the entire nation has great trouble focusing on local issues. It is like the difference between your school board and Congress or Parliament or whatever your national legislative body is called. Sure, laws passed in Congress are paramount and apply to all the counties/parishes. However, your local county is what takes care of the streets and parks and trash collection and million things of immediate impact on you and your family.

Themes were even more important than your local County government. Their local leaders raised troops, collected taxes, and had a great deal of influence on the makeup of the national government. The Byzantine Empire desperately needed this innovation because central control was falling apart due to the repeated and devastating invasions by nearby hostile powers.

This internal reorganization strengthened the Eastern Empire and enabled it to survive for another 800 years despite repeated invasions. Themes weren't perfect - their leaders could be quite troublesome for the national government at times - but they quickly became the backbone of the Byzantine state and transformed it into something new.

Oh, above I mentioned that a major sign that Byzantium became its own separate empire apart from the Roman Empire was the adoption of the Greek word "Basileus" as the title for its leaders. Guess which Byzantine Emperor was the first to adopt that title? If you guessed Heraclius, you win the gold prize.

Heraclius was the dividing line between classical civilization and the Middle Ages. 
Young Basil II
Young Basil II of the Macedonian dynasty, by JFoliveras (source Deviantart).

Justinian, Phocas, and Basil II Demonstrate The Differences Between The Late Roman and Byzantine Periods

Sometimes, a change becomes more obvious when you compare and contrast conditions before the change and after. You can slip on ice but drown in water. That's a pretty big difference. There were similar big differences in Byzantium before the reign of Heraclius and afterward.

Justinian, who ruled decades before Heraclius, was a great Emperor but had a backward-looking frame of reference. His dreams were not to create something new, but to restore the greatness that had been. He accomplished great things, amazing things, but his dreams of reviving and restoring the classical Roman Empire were impossible to achieve or sustain.

Emperor Phocas, who reigned in Constantinople from 602 to 610 A.D. and directly preceded Heraclius, retained this Roman orientation. Apparently, he wasn't much of an emperor and his subjects hated him. However, Phocas marks a dramatic turning point in world history from the classical world that is overlooked.

If you ever visit Rome, you'll likely visit the Roman Forum. I highly recommend it. You'll have a great, sentimental walk through all the old ruins, the monuments, the buildings, the brothels, and the temples. The most recent addition to the Forum is a monumental column that is known as the Column of Phocas. He erected it after declaring Rome "the head of all churches." Most people don't pay it much mind, but it's one of the most significant items there.

Erecting a monument in the Roman Forum is something no true Byzantine Emperor would ever consider doing. The Byzantine Emperors jealously guarded the preeminence of their own throne and their Patriarch. In fact, that's what ultimately led to the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the 11th Century. Nobody after Phocas lavished so much attention on Rome or dreamed of glorifying himself in the Roman Forum.

For me, the Column of Phocas is the saddest monument in Rome. There it stands, defiantly pointing toward the heavens, marking the actual end of the Roman Empire.

Another great Byzantine Emperor who followed Heraclius by several hundred years illustrates the difference. Basil II, who reigned from 960-1025 A.D., had no illusions such as those held by Justinian. He did not dream of restoring the glory of Rome. Instead, he focused on the issues of the Byzantine State and did a great job, about as good as Justinian at trying to fulfill his dreams.

For instance, Basil II eliminated once and for all the threat posed by the Bulgarian Empire in the Balkans by defeating its armies and eliminating its troops. It was Basil II who ordered the famous blinding of 15,000 Bulgarian troops that caused their king to have a stroke and drop dead on his throne. Basil II also pushed back the invaders from the East while making only mild efforts to the West.

These differences make Justinian a Roman-style Emperor and Basil II a true Byzantine Emperor. The dividing line between them was Heraclius and the events that happened during his pivotal reign.
The Column of Phocas
The Column of Phocas in the Roman Forum.


So, to sum up, the easy and glib answer is that the Byzantines never stopped identifying as Romans. The more subtle and correct answer is that at some point the Eastern Roman Empire evolved into a Greek Empire (I resist the term “Hellenization,” which suggests a return to classical roots which did not happen). This was a gradual process that lasted for centuries, indeed for the entire life of the Empire. The change had its most decisive moments occur during the reign of Heraclius.

We can quibble about whether the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire in the 5th Century or the 7th Century or the 9th Century or the 10th Century or even later. There is no “bright line” to signify the change because the Byzantines themselves did not provide us with one. They clung to their tradition, their grand and glorious, their romantic and historical connection with the Rome of Augustus and Hadrian. They did this long after those men and their language and culture and titles and territory had become distant memories.

In my view, based on my studies, the Byzantines essentially stopped being Romans during the reign of Heraclius. At that point, around 620 A.D., the Byzantine state became the medieval Greek empire  - the Byzantine Empire - that we remember and that left Rome behind.
The Fall of Constantinople 1453
The Fall of Constantinople 1453.


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Who Was the Best Byzantine Emperor?

Justinian vs. Basil II, Head to Head

Constantine the Great at Haghia Sophia
Roman Emperor Constantine the Great presents his city, Constantinople, to God as depicted in a mosaic at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

We are going to take a close look here at which Byzantine Emperor was the greatest.

There were 94 Byzantine Emperors, beginning with Constantine the Great (324-337 A.D.) and ending with Constantine XI (1449-1453). This number includes Empresses. There were nine times when co-Emperors served at the same time, though five of these instances involved one Empress, Zoe, who never served alone.

While Byzantium had quite a few bad and ineffectual emperors, it also had its share of brilliant and capable leaders. Generally, those two qualities go hand-in-hand, but that's not always the case with emperors. One can have grand plans but be ineffectual or misguided in trying to realize them. On the other hand, having modest and realistic aims but fulfilling them brilliantly makes for a superb emperor.

Constantine the Great was more of a Roman Emperor than a Byzantine one. Although he earned the sobriquet "Great," Constantine was only technically a Byzantine emperor. Constantine belongs in a separate category and needs to be compared with his peers such as Trajan and Augustus who ruled over the full Roman Empire, not with emperors that ruled only over the Eastern Roman Empire. The latter had vastly fewer resources and different issues to resolve than Roman Emperors.

Emperor Theodosius split the Roman Empire between his two sons, and that is when fair comparisons begin. Thus, only the Eastern Roman - or Byzantine - emperors following Theodosius are considered here.

As to why I call the Eastern Roman Empire "Byzantine," I've explained the derivation of that word elsewhere. Suffice to say here that it is primarily to avoid confusion and the intent is not to inflame anyone who is dead set on calling Byzantium The Eastern Roman Empire out of sentimentality or because that's what their old Latin teacher called it.

Speaking of Latin teachers, unless you've read up on Byzantium, the only Byzantine emperor they probably ever mentioned to you was Justinian (527-565 A.D.). Justinian is perhaps the only Byzantine emperor who ascends to true celebrity status, still a household name like "Cher" or "Elton." It's not exaggerating much to say that many people probably think that Justinian was the only Byzantine emperor.

Well, Justinian (who also gets called "the Great," but not as often as Constantine) deserves the respect he gets. He oversaw a lot of phenomenal things, some of which still matter today (such as the construction of the Haghia Sophia church in Constantinople/ Istanbul). If this were a contest of celebrity, Justinian is the clear winner, even likely beating Constantine.

But it's not. We're going to go through several categories and test Justinian's actual accomplishments and legacy against the challenger I have selected: Basil II (976-1025 A.D.). Students of Byzantium should be nodding their heads at this point, as Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty is the only medieval Byzantine emperor who ascends above the clutter of background noise to achieve some celebrity of his own. I'm not even going to discuss any other possible challengers here because I believe this pair of emperors stands head and shoulders above the rest.

While you may not recognize the name Basil II because you're not a Byzantine scholar, you almost certainly have heard of something he did that has echoed down the ages. Once you realize he's the one that did it, you'll hopefully nod your head in recognition that this was an important emperor. We'll get to that below.

Without further ado, let's get on with it.

Emperor Justinian
Emperor Justinian in the only known depiction of him from his lifetime, in an Italian church.

Justinian and Basil II Origins: Tie

You may not think that how an emperor ascended to the throne is significant, but legitimacy matters. There were emperors who personally killed their predecessors, and this left a stain over their entire reign. On the other hand, there were emperors who earned their way onto the throne through military valor and similar deeds.

The people of Constantinople paid close attention to matters like this. It was a very gossipy city. In many ways, it was like Rome during the bread-and-circuses days. An emperor who had Constantinople's masses behind him eliminated a large source of problems and generally had a better chance of ruling successfully.

Justinian was made co-emperor by Emperor Justin, an old man by the end of his reign, on 1 April 527. This was only a few months before Justin died, leaving Justinian as the sole emperor. Justinian apparently was the son of Justin's sister. Justin had sent for him from his native lands in latter-day Yugoslavia and groomed him to become a leader. Justin and Justinian got on well, and there is a suspicion that Justinian served as Justin's de facto regent during the last years of his life.
Under Byzantine precedent and custom, this means Justinian was a legitimate emperor even though he wasn't "born in the purple."

Basil II, however, was "born into the purple" to Emperor Romanos II. His father made Basil II co-emperor in 960, though he was only about two years old then. As the eldest son, Basil II was a natural successor, though things didn't necessarily work that way in Byzantium. His younger brother (and eventual successor), Constantine VIII, similarly was crowned a couple of years later.

While various palace intrigues typical of Byzantium then followed, Basil II had clear legitimacy when John I (John Tzimisces) died on 10 January 976 (a general, Nikephoros Phokas, had staged a coup and then tried to legitimize it by marrying Basil II's mother Theophano, but she and Tzimisces murdered Phokas before Tzimisces conveniently died).

So, since both Justinian and Basil II were legitimate emperors, this category is a tie with perhaps a very marginal edge to Basil II.

Emperor Basil II
Emperor Basil II.

Basil II and Justinian Popularity: Edge to Basil II

An emperor's popularity was vitally important in Byzantium. There were cases when an emperor literally was attacked in the street by a mob and lost the throne. Legitimacy was one reason an emperor could become unpopular, but there were many others.

Justinian, despite his later fame, was not particularly popular with the citizens of Constantinople. He closely associated himself with the "Blues," one of two political parties apparently deriving from chariot races. This automatically meant that he was not as popular with the other political party, the "Greens."

Due to Justinian's imperial connections and his association with them, the Blues enjoyed a certain immunity from reprisal by city authorities. The Greens, meanwhile, were repressed and couldn't get away with anything. This rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, in particular Justinian's real-time biographer Procopius. The "Secret History" of Procopius has a lot to say about Justinian, and none of it is good.

However, bad as the things Procopius wrote about Justinian were, they paled in comparison to the portrait painted of Justinian's wife, Theodora. Procopius' allegations about her are some of the most savage in all of biographical history. Think of the worst things that you could possibly say about any woman, and that's what Procopius wrote about Theodora.

Obviously, there was a market for what Procopius wrote. He undoubtedly was not the only one to think ill of the emperor. Things came to a head in January 532, when the Greens gathered in the Hippodrome and began loudly expressing their dislike for Justinian and everything associated with him. This led to a gradual escalation of violence in subsequent days.

Justinian's support among the Blues then unexpectedly collapsed. Apparently, there was resentment on both sides about some crackdowns the government had been imposing. Everybody began chanting "Nika" ("win") together and a huge riot broke out that lasted for days.

Justinian, with help from Theodora and some sympathetic generals, eventually suppressed the very dangerous Nika Riot. However, it is fair to say that he was never particularly liked by the populace, and this situation did not show much improvement over time,

Basil II, on the other hand, was fairly popular. He lowered taxes for country farmers and followed the popular (and politically wise) strategy of reducing the privileges and wealth of large landowners. Among other measures, he instituted a special tax (the allelengyon tax) to be paid by the large landowners. In effect, Basil II made the rich "pay their fair share" as the current saying goes. This proved quite popular with the masses and also quite beneficial to the treasury, though the aristocracy bided its time and got Basil II's successor to reverse many of these changes.

In terms of popularity, Basil II is the clear winner over Justinian.

Byzantine tax collector
A Byzantine tax collector at work.

Basil II and Justinian's Fiscal Policy: Edge to Basil II

Fiscal policy may seem like a tedious subject. It certainly is not as gripping as reading about military battles where someone wins and someone else has his head cut off. But Byzantine fiscal policy was of tremendous importance to the fate of the empire. In fact, there are theories that suggest Muslim advances were actually encouraged by many landowners who hated paying high taxes every year.

The Byzantine treasury was full when Justinian took over and basically empty when he left. His fanciful projects required the expenditure of vast sums of money, and that required efficient (or, to put it less delicately, onerous) tax collection.

Justinian found just the man he needed to be his tax collector. He plucked John of Cappodocia out of obscurity and installed him as Praetorian Prefect. While this may sound like a military position, it actually encompassed a much wider scope that included tax collections. In essence, John of Cappodocia became the head of the Byzantine IRS. He was famous for being incorruptible and also was quite brutal in his methods.

John was hated by just about everyone. The Nika rioters demanded his dismissal, and Justinian complied - only to quietly rehire him a few months later. By 540, Antonina, the wife of the great general Belisarius, had had quite enough of John. She set him up by inducing him to attend a meeting at which a treasonous plot to replace Justinian with Belisarius was discussed - and then arranged to have the authorities arrest everyone who was there. This led eventually to John's downfall at the insistence of Theodora, who also hated him.

While it is standard practice for those discussing Justinian to point to the map of his conquests, the Byzantine public never saw such maps during Justinian's lifetime. All they saw were grinding campaigns that seemed to be leading nowhere, endless expeditions to this or that far-flung place, and onerous taxes. A lot of the tax money collected was given to northern enemies as bribes to keep them quiet while Belisarius won victories in remote areas that did not affect daily life. It is no wonder that Justinian was unpopular, the wonder is that he managed to remain in power at all.

Byzantine taxes during Justinian's reign were calculated in a "top-down" fashion. This means that government expenses for the year were calculated, and then taxes were set accordingly. Justinian's government never had to "live within its means." Instead, whatever crazy project he decided to embark upon, the people had to fund regardless of a good or bad harvest. This "top-down" system did not disappear until the middle of the 7th Century with the adoption of the Themes.

Justinian also economized at the expense of civilians. For instance, he restricted the public Post, reduced government pensions, curtailed public amusements, and reduced the distribution of corn. Basically, Justinian taxed people heavily and took away their bread and circuses.

This is not to say that Justinian wasted all of his taxes. In fact, he financed some of the marvels of all time, such as the Haghia Sophia church in Constantinople that remains the greatest architectural achievement of antiquity. However, the money went out as fast as it came in, and a lack of funds prevented his successors from building upon or even preserving many of his achievements.

Basil II did not share Justinian's grand military plans. As noted above, he raised funds in ways that were popular with the masses. Among his other innovations was a treaty with Venice reducing their tariffs in exchange for the transport of Byzantine troops to southern Italy. Because of such shrewd tactics, there were adequate funds left in the treasury for an expedition to recover Sicily that did not take place until after his death. All of this Basil II accomplished despite his forces, like Justinian's, also being in a state of almost constant war.

In terms of fiscal policies, Basil II is the clear winner.

Justinian's Basilica Cistern in Istanbul
Justinian's Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.

Basil II and Justinian Cultural Success: Edge to Justinian

Justinian is known for the map of his conquests, but that actually wasn't his greatest achievement. Instead, he - or rather, his administration - created cultural achievements that endure to today.

Justinian's most obvious cultural success was the construction of the remarkable Haghia Sophia church. Designed by Anthemius of Tralles, the dome of the church had no precedent in ancient architecture and required remarkable mathematical skill (the dome later collapsed and had to be rebuilt by Isidore of Militus, and that dome is the one that still stands today). Anthemius also experimented with solar power, concentrating the sun's rays using mirrors for military purposes.

Another innovation that helped assure Constantinople was Justinian's construction of the Basilica Cistern. This can still be visited today. Justinian also funded massive fortifications in vulnerable spots along the border and bridges where necessary.

Justinian's legacy was not just in bricks and mortar. He oversaw a rewriting of Roman law to make it applicable to contemporary situations. This Corpus Juris Civilis formed the basis of modern law in many places. Quaestor of the Sacred Palaces Tribonian oversaw this process and also the drafting of legislation (the Novels) that characterized the first half of Justinian's reign.

Basil II had nothing to compare with Justinian's great cultural achievements. He was a warrior who left his mark on the battlefield. There is no question that Justinian is the clear winner over Basil II in the area of cultural advancement.
The extent of Justinian's conquests
The extent of Justinian's conquests.

Justinian and Basil II Military Success: Tie

The first thing that everyone learns about Justinian is that he recovered vast lands once held but lost by the Roman Empire. His plan was simple in concept but breathtaking in scope: renovatio imperii, or "restoration of the Empire" An old dream of any Roman patriot, it reflected Justinian's backward glance to the glories that once were rather than a truly forward look to the realities and possibilities of the future.

This was Justinian's main claim to fame for posterity, and it is a good one because of the degree of success he had. A look at the map of Justinian's conquests shows an extraordinary recovery of lost land in Italy, North Africa, and elsewhere.

However, military success is only worthwhile if it is useful to some larger purpose. Justinian's campaigns led by Belisarius and other brilliant generals including Narses and Sittas were flashy successes to posterity but only minimally worthwhile in the long run. In a nutshell, they overextended the Byzantine Empire.

For instance, Justinian conquered Italy. There is no question at all about this, and the Byzantine Empire never again possessed the entire Italian peninsula. This was an epic achievement.
Post-Justinian Byzantine territory
The Byzantine Empire ca. 600 A.D. (purple, at right), showing the loss of most of Italy and other Justinian conquests by the end of the Sixth Century.

Unfortunately, though, the conquest of Italy meant very little for the future of the empire. Most of the gains in Italy were soon reversed. While the Byzantine Empire did hold outposts in Italy until the 12th Century, they did little for the health of the empire. The Italian possessions required constant expenditures of time, money, and effort for little or no return. They eventually served as little more than a lightning rod for Western adventurers to attack Byzantium.

Basil II has never received the military acclaim that Justinian did. However, in some ways, his military successes were more meaningful. His orientation was not to the west, like Justinian, but to the north and east. There, he had brilliant successes and extended the borders of the empire to their greatest territorial extent since the Muslim conquests four centuries earlier.

However, reversing the losses in the east was far from Basil II's greatest achievement. He earned the title "Bulgar Slayer" by finally, once and for all, ending the persistent threat from the north that had plagued the empire for centuries. Once and for all, he decapitated the medieval Bulgar empire, which never again posed a serious threat to Byzantine power. He also formed the famous Varangian Guard that served as the emperor's bodyguards for the next several hundred years.

To this point, I've painted a picture where Justinian dangerously overstretched his empire, leading to quick losses, while Basil II was all-conquering and shrewd. Most historians stop there and crown Basil II the better commander.

Not so fast. Basil II also overstretched Byzantine territory. However, unlike Justiniana, he did it to the east. Byzantium simply did not have the resources to defend lands east of Lake Van. The attempt to do so less than 50 years after Basil II's passing led to the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071.

This Byzantine defeat led to the permanent and irrevocable loss of even more important territory than the losses following Justinian's reign. That is because Anatolia formed the very heart of Byzantine power and resources, while Italy, Spain, and North Africa - lost after Justinian's passing - were almost irrelevant to Byzantine survival.

When we look at Justinian and Basil II, we see they made the same fatal mistake: overstretch. Imperial overstretch led to the loss of many of their gains before the end of their respective centuries. Extremely hard work saved the situation both times, but the lands lost were never recovered. It is said that victory sows the seeds of its own defeat, and Byzantine history in the ages of Justinian and Basil II are eerily similar in proving that point. The subsequent territorial losses weren't their fault, but Justinian and Basil II set the table for them.

That is why this category is a tie.

Oh, yes, I mentioned above that even if you don't know anything about Byzantine history that you've heard of something that Basil II did. Many people have heard the medieval legend of the columns of blind men marching down the road with their hands on each other's shoulders for guidance, with only a few men left with one eye to lead them. Many people probably think it's just a "moral lesson" or something like that with no basis in reality.

That's not a legend. Basil II did that to the Bulgar army after their final defeat. He sent about 15,000 enemy soldiers back to their kingdom blinded. One man was left with one eye per 100 men as a guide. You've probably heard of the phrases "the blind leading the blind" and "in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Well, you can thank Basil II indirectly for those sayings.

It caused the Bulgar leader to have a stroke and die when he saw them. That basically ended the medieval Bulgar kingdom. It was one of the most notorious incidents in all of military history, and it succeeded completely in ending the wars between the two powers.
Byzantine Empire after the reign of Basil II byzantium.
The Byzantine Empire after the reign of Basil II.


I have methodically compared the Byzantine Emperors Justinian and Basil II using a variety of easily understood criteria. While other categories could be used, such as their impact on religion (extremely important in Byzantium) and their succession (neither man had any success with that), these categories reflect the clearest similarities and differences between the two men.

Overall, Basil II scores higher in several categories such as fiscal policy and popularity. I personally feel that Basil II was the greatest Byzantine Emperor because he left the empire on a sounder footing when he left than when he found it (though his incompetent successors squandered this gift in a record time). Justinian did not. Those are hard but inescapable truths.

But Basil II's win is not completely clear-cut. Justinian clearly wins in cultural achievement, and that is by a wide margin. Constructing enduring monuments such as the Haghia Sophia and regenerating Roman law had more impact on the world than winning some battles, Justinian left gifts to posterity that still echo today. These lasting gifts are why he is remembered by ordinary people while Basil II is forgotten except by historians. In terms of their overall effect on the future of the empire, Basil II did a slightly better job, but both emperors achieved some of the greatest successes of the middle ages. 
Basil II territorial expansion
Territory added by Basil II to the Byzantine Empire is shown in yellow.


Monday, March 8, 2021

Eight Key Facts About the Byzantine Empire

Theodosian Walls
Remains of the Theodosian Walls in Istanbul (author's photo).

The Byzantine Empire is famous for being the only government west of China to survive intact from ancient to medieval times. Its capture in 1453 became one of the defining moments of the Middle Ages. However, many basic facts about the Empire are not well known. Here, we present eight key facts about the Byzantine Empire that everyone interested in the topic should know.

1. Why Do We Call the Eastern Roman Empire the Byzantine Empire?

Not everybody likes the term "Byzantine Empire," considering it inaccurate in its description of the late Roman Empire. However, there is a clear historical reason for using it.

With events as ancient as the founding of Byzantium, there almost inevitably are elements of both fact and myth mixed into the "history." Below is the commonly accepted genesis of the name Byzantium. The more you study ancient history, though, the more you find that there are variations in these types of "facts" depending on what sources you follow and there is no "one story."

In 667 B.C., a man called Byzas founded a small Greek colony on the European side of the Bosporus (the strait linking the Black Sea to the Mediterranean). Byzas was the son of King Nisos of the Dorian city-state Megara, a municipality in West Attica, Greece, in the general vicinity of Athens. According to legend, the oracle of Delphi suggested to King Nisos that he send his son in search of "the land opposite the city of the blind." Byzas chose the spot because the people of Chalcedon, located directly across the Bosphorus, had not settled in that spot despite its proximity and thus were blind to its possibilities.

Byzas named his new city Byzantion after himself. Over time, this name was corrupted to Byzantium. This location became increasingly important with time because it served as a transit and trade point between Europe and Asia. This trade grew steadily over the centuries. 

In 324 A.D., Roman Emperor Constantine, often called Constantine the Great, chose Byzantium as the site of "New Rome." He renamed Byzantium Constantinople (Kōnstantinoupolis, or the City of Constantine) after himself. The city was formally designated as Constantine's new capital on 11 May 330. In practice, this divided the classical Roman Empire in half, as henceforth there were two thrones and two Emperors, one in Rome and the other in Constantinople. These two separate empires theoretically were equals and operated more or less in harmony.  However, in practice, they increasingly operated independently until the Western Empire, as it became known, was overrun and conquered during the Fifth Century.

Some scholars don't like to use the term Byzantine Empire. They feel the more accurate term is "Eastern Roman Empire." While some people are emotionally invested in emphasizing that the Byzantine Empire actually was a continuation of the Roman Empire, and the citizens of that empire always considered themselves Romans, the terms "Byzantine Empire" and "Eastern Roman Empire" really are interchangeable in modern usage and both are considered acceptable in virtually all academic circles.

Stylistically, I prefer to use "Byzantine Empire" because it helps to give this offshoot of the ancient Roman Empire, which over time developed new institutions and practices, its own identity. In a formal, classical sense, calling it the "Eastern Roman Empire" is more technically accurate. however, everybody understands what you mean when you say "Byzantine Empire" and it is not derogatory so that term serves its purpose.
Constantine the Great
Statue of Constantine the Great.

2. Why Did Constantine Choose Constantinople as the New Rome?

Constantine was an expert in the economic and military conditions of the western half of the Roman Empire. He saw that it was becoming increasingly vulnerable to attack and that its economy was stagnating. He further recognized that the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire - those located east of the Adriatic - had prospered and had different defensive needs (against the Persians) than the western provinces. Thus, Constantine decided the center of gravity of the Empire had shifted east and the Roman capital should be moved to reflect this geopolitical fact.

Mosaic in Haghia Sophia
A mosaic in the southwestern entrance to the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. The Virgin Mary stands in the middle, holding the Christ child on her lap. On her right side (our left) stands emperor Justinian I, offering a model of the Hagia Sophia. On her left, Emperor Constantine I presents a model of the city (author's photo).

3. How Did the Byzantine Empire Adopt Christianity?

Christianity was made the de facto state religion of the Roman Empire by Theodosius the Great. While Constantine the Great decades earlier had issued the Edict of Milan in 313 A.D., it only wanted Christians religious toleration. Paganism remained the faith of a large proportion of the population and experienced a brief revival during the reign of Emperor Julian (361 - 363). On 27 February 380, Theodosius and his co-emperors issued the Edict of Thessalonica (also known as Cunctos populous). This finally made Nicene Christianity the state religion of the Roman Empire. Paganism quickly died out (Theodosius dissolved the order of the Vestal Virgins and allowed Christians to persecute Pagans) and Christian heretics increasingly were persecuted.

Theodosius has a feast day of 17 January (the date of his death in 395) in the Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Oriental Orthodox churches due to his support of Christianity.
A Byzantine coin (Solidus) depicting Theodosius the Great.

4. When Did Byzantium Become Its Own Separate Empire?

While Constantine the Great established Constantinople as the New Rome in 330 A.D., that did not create a new empire. It was still one Roman empire, simply divided for administration purposes. The real, permanent separation of Byzantium into its own, independent empire took place in 395 A.D.

Theodosius I (also called Theodosius the Great), the Roman Emperor as 395 began (he died in January), was the last man to rule both halves of the Empire. He did this from Constantinople. Upon his death in 395, the Empire formally was divided between his sons Arcadius (East) and Honorius (West). Before he died, Theodosius commissioned the great walls that protected the city for over a millennium, the Golden Gate in those walls (after which the Golden Gate Bridge in California is named), and numerous other practical structures. Theodosius more than Constantine was the true architect of the Byzantine Empire.
Emperor Justinian
Justinian has become perhaps the most famous Byzantine Emperor, but there were 93 other Emperors.

5. How Many Byzantine Emperors Were There?

There were 94 Byzantine Emperors, beginning with Constantine the Great. This number includes Empresses. There were nine times when co-Emperors served at the same time, though five of these instances involved one Empress, Zoe, who never served alone.
Empress Zoe
Empress Zoe ruled through three separate husbands.

6. How Many Empresses Ruled Byzantium?

The Eastern Roman Empire had three empresses regnant. These were Irene of Athens (April 797–31 October 802), Zoë Porphyrogenita (15 November 1028 –June 1050), and Theodora, Zoe's sister (19 April 1042 – after 31 August 1056). Of these, only Irene and Theodora ruled without having a co-Emperor, and Theodora only for about one year. However, there was no question that each of these ladies actually ruled the Byzantine Empire and were the ones with real power at some point in their reigns.

The true standout was Irene. She had an outsized and lasting influence on world affairs despite her brief official reign, though most of it was indirect. Before her actual reign as Empress, Irene served as regent. She thus was the actual ruler far longer than her reign would indicate, off-and-on from 780 onward. She defied convention and even occasionally styled herself "basileus," or emperor, rather than "basilissa," or empress. Needless to say, this was highly unusual, even unique.

The Latins closely monitored events in the Eastern Roman Empire despite its lack of power in Western Europe because Constantinople retained a great deal of moral and spiritual legitimacy (and this was before the Great Schism, so technically the Byzantine Emperor was still the Pope's boss). They were incensed that a woman was acting as emperor and thus considered the throne vacant. This may have contributed to Pope Leo III's decision to crown Charlemagne as "Augustus," or  Western Emperor, on Christmas Day 800. This flagrant slap at Constantinople inflamed tensions. The coronation began the Holy Roman Empire or First Reich. This Reich would last for a thousand years, long outlive the Byzantine Empire, and be considered a precedent by Adolf Hitler and his Third Reich.
Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos
Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos, the last Emperor of Byzantium.

7. Who Were the First and Last Byzantine Emperors?

Constantine the Great is considered the first Byzantine Emperor upon establishing New Rome (Constantinople) in 330 A.D. A case can be made that Arcadius, the son of Theodosius, actually was the first ruler of Byzantium as an independent Empire beginning in 395 A.D.

Constantine XI Dragases Palaiologos, named after Constantine the Great, was the last Byzantine Emperor. He ruled from 1449 until the fall of Constantinople in 1453. The exact details of how Constantine XI died are murky, but it is generally accepted that he perished, sword in hand, while helping to defend the city against the Ottoman Turks.
Fall of Constantinople

8. When Did the Eastern Empire End?

After a 40-day siege, Muhammed II managed to take Constantinople on 29 May 1453. The Empire died with Roman Emperor Constantine XI, who perished heroically in the fighting. This was a Tuesday, and Tuesdays henceforth have been considered an unlucky day in the Greek Orthodox religion. Some remnants of the Empire survived for a time. Athens held out until 1456, the Morea was taken in 1460, and the final territory under Greek control - the Empire of Trebizond - fell in September 1461. A true Greek will tell you that the Empire never died, it is just resting.
Istanbul (author's photo).


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

How Silkworms Saved the Byzantine Economy

The Economic Revival of the Roman World Was Due to Worms

Byzantine silk trade
Detail from Byzantine silk placed in the tomb of Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne in Aachen (Musée National du Moyen Age, Cluny, Paris). 

The Byzantine Empire had its ups and downs throughout its millennium of existence. At numerous points, it faced a significant crisis but then craftily found a way to surmount it. These methods were so clever and tricky that we still use the word "byzantine" to describe them. In the Sixth Century, right before just such a grave crisis descended upon the empire, the lowly silkworm enabled the Byzantines to dodge an economic sinkhole and continue to finance the military on which the Byzantine state's survival depended.

Byzantine silk trade
Silk was very well known to Romans from the days of the Roman republic onward. Shown is a Roman fresco from Pompeii of a Meanade in a sheer silk dress (Naples National Archaeological Museum).

The Importance of Silk in the Roman World

The Roman Empire and its successor state, the Byzantine Empire, had numerous customs and traditions that reflected their place in the ancient world. For instance, purple dye was a sign of royalty. One of these traditions was the use of silk for certain specific purposes. These included the use of a 3.4 meter-wide silk coronation mantle for Byzantine emperors. Silk was considered so important that it became a constant trading commodity that was a prime source of state revenue. Purple silk was so exclusive that only the Emperor, his family, and his retinue could wear it.

Pliny the Elder
Pliny the Elder was a bit confused but also impressed by silk. He bemoaned the trade imbalance resulting from the purchase of this expensive luxury for women.

Silk, despite its source in far-off places, had been around since roughly the time of Alexander the Great ca. 300 BC. The Romans for many centuries had no idea how it was made and thought it derived from some kind of plant. Pliny the Elder (23/24 AD - 79), for instance, sniffed in The Natural History VI, 54 that silk was a bit fabulous for his tastes: 

The Seres (Chinese), are famous for the woolen substance obtained from their forests; after a soaking in water they comb off the white down of the leaves… So manifold is the labour employed, and so distant is the region of the globe drawn upon, to enable the Roman maiden to flaunt transparent clothing in public.
At roughly the same time as Pliny, Seneca the Younger (3 BC-65 AD) also decried silk as befitting only the lowest class of women (Excerpta Controversiae 2.7):

I can see clothes of silk, if materials that do not hide the body, nor even one's decency, can be called clothes ... Wretched flocks of maids labour so that the adulteress may be visible through her thin dress, so that her husband has no more acquaintance than any outsider or foreigner with his wife's body.

Pretty much everybody else, though, loved and respected silk's feel and appearance, however. Silk was important not just because it was rare and expensive, but because it was the absolute height of fashion in sophisticated circles. It was a symbol of political authority, required for church events, and an obligatory fashion accessory throughout the aristocracy. In fact, silk use was codified in sumptuary laws. As with all luxury goods, it was prized by people who could pay quite generously for it. Ordinary workers couldn't wear silk (laws prevented that), but the lords and ladies at the villas where they worked might.

Byzantine silk trade
Byzantium controlled the two main routes over which silk could be obtained, the northern overland route and the southern shipping route through Egypt.

If anything, silk was more important in the Byzantine Empire than it had been in the Roman Empire (and here is why we divide the two empires by name, because they were not identical). Whereas men were forbidden by law from wearing silk in the Roman Empire, Byzantine men increasingly preferred silk to the classic Roman woolen toga. Byzantines, in fact, often wore unisex (ungendered) outfits, and they often included at the very least silk trim.

Byzantine emperors (Basilei) controlled the trade in silk. They reserved the right to grant or deny the right to import or export silk to other states. Given Byzantium's geographical control of the trade routes from the East where the finest silk was produced (some silk was made in Syria beginning at least as long ago as the fifth-century using local worms, but this silk was considered inferior). These permits were highly prized and a key source of revenue for the Byzantine state.

Roman outpost in the Farasan Islands
The Roman outpost in the Farasan Islands, which are located at the lower right of the globe where the red line crosses the Red Sea, was the furthest from Rome in the entire Empire. This outpost was there specifically to protect the trade with India for silk and other valuable commodities (Google Earth).

The importance of silk was hardly a secret. It was a common import into the key Byzantine trade ports on the Red Sea and the Black Sea. The sea trade with India was so important that the furthest Roman outpost in the entire Empire was along this route, on the Farasan Islands in the Red Sea. However, the trade routes were always tenuous, depending on what foreign powers controlled the territories over or near which the silk had to travel from the production centers in China and India. The vulnerability of the sea routes is shown by the need for the Romans to station a garrison so far away along this route. These routes could be closed in an instant when hostilities commenced, though they always reopened eventually because the trade was too lucrative to eliminate. It did not take a genius to figure out that it would be extremely beneficial to the Byzantine treasure if the middlemen could be cut out entirely and production of silk moved within the Byzantine Empire itself.

Byzantine silk trade
A trade caravan on the Silk Road (© North Wind Picture Archives).

The roadblock to the Byzantine production of silk was that the people in the major Asian silk centers also prized the silk trade. It was a great source of revenue for them and they had no interest in giving up their monopoly. The only potential customer for silk west of Persia was Byzantium, so keeping the secret out of their hands was critical. Within Byzantium, the only allowed to buy silk legally was one official, the comes commerciorum, a low-ranking kommerkiaros or customs agent who was based in a border town. He had utter control over the entire silk trade and could set trading prices or shut it down completely on his own initiative or as directed by Constantinople. Byzantine power did not extend far enough into the Far East or subcontinent of India to ever contemplate seizing the silkworms that were the foundation of the entire industry. Silkworms also were known to be extremely fragile and unlikely to survive the long, hot, and dry journey overland across deserts either in Asia or Egypt.

Byzantine silk trade
Illustration of Byzantine embassy, most likely from Emperor Constans II, to Tang Taizong in 643 AD.

The Byzantines, however, did have regular contacts with the areas which manufactured silk aside from simple merchants. For instance, Roman political emissaries appeared at the royal court in China from time to time at least as early as 166 AD. The Chinese "Book of the Later Han" records these Romans arriving by sea via Vietnam, which was the obvious travel choice for non-traders. While of historical interest, these diplomatic initiatives accomplished virtually nothing. One other source of contact, however, had more concrete results. These were missionaries who traveled widely, were inconspicuous, and who had a habit of making friends in high and low places.

Justinian is best remembered for his military victories, which overall were magnificent but fleeting. His underappreciated introduction of the silkworm, though, may have saved the Empire.

Justinian's Good Fortune

Two of these missionaries, believed to be monks of the Nestorian Church (a splinter Christian religion), learned about the silk industry at its source and returned to Constantinople in 551 AD. They had a business proposition for Emperor Justinian. Once granted an audience with him, the two monks explained to the bemused emperor how silk was actually made and the process of cultivating silkworms. While we don't know all the details of this arrangement (basically the only source is court official Procopius, who did not go into a lot of detail), the monks promised to steal silkworms and bring them back alive for the Emperor to do with as he pleased. While Justinian was usually preoccupied with his constant wars of conquest, he also was very interested in the silk trade because he knew that the trade benefited the Empire's enemies to the East, Sassanid Persia.

Justinian, in fact, had begun a war with Persia that had destroyed the private silk factories at Berytus and Tyre. The scarcity of silk had forced him to institute price controls for silk, which in turn had dried up the supply from Persia in line with the usual forces of supply and demand. This had produced a shortage of silk in Byzantium, and Justinian had been forced to practice an early form of socialism and nationalize failing silk factories. So, the silk industry was something that Justinian thought about a lot. Probably not believing his good fortune, Justinian quickly agreed to the monks' terms - whatever they were - and sent them on their way.

A typical view of the ancient city of Panjakent, a city in Sogdiana that was prosperous until the Arab (Umayyad) conquest of Transoxiana ca. 722 AD. 

Details about this critically important incident are scarce and have only one account as a primary source, that of Procopius. The common narrative is that the monks had learned about the silk industry during a visit to China in 551. However, this is supposition, and it is just as likely that they learned about the industry while preaching Christianity for the Church of the East in India. In other words, it is highly likely that the "monks" (if that is what they actually were, for why would monks engage in commerce with an emperor?) never visited China in their lives. The sea route to India was much, much easier than any route to China, and it had been used for hundreds of years. In any event, if they did travel to China to get the worms, it would have involved a hazardous route along the Black Sea, through the Transcaucasus, and over the Caspian Sea before a long ride past Sogdiana in modern Uzbekistan. Reflecting the importance of this route, a Turko-Sogdian diplomatic party visited Byzantine Emperor Justin II in Constantinople in 568 AD to confirm their trade route from China.

As an aside, it would have been much easier for the Monks to simply take a merchant ship from Berenice on the Red Sea to an Indian port, or, in the unlikely event that they actually visited China, even all the way to Vietnam as earlier delegations had done. The monks would have been very familiar with the route to India and it could have been done in a few weeks or months, depending on their choice of transportation and sense of urgency. But, whatever route the monks took, they accomplished their goal within about two years.

Byzantine silk trade begins with two monks giving Justinian silkworms
Two monks give Emperor Justinian the silkworms they have smuggled out of China ("The Introduction of the Silkworms" (Vermis Serious) ca. 1595 AD).

The most famous part of the monks' expedition was the way they transported the silkworms, which became legendary. The monks wisely did not take mature silkworms but instead smuggled out silkworm eggs or very young larvae, which is the only form in which they could have survived the journey. These eggs and larvae the monks hid in their bamboo walking sticks. One can imagine the border guards searching the monks as they stood before them, tapping their canes that were full of the most precious cargo of the age.

The monks also arranged separately for the transport of the Mulberry bushes on which the silkworms depended. Within two years, the monks were back in Constantinople and delivered their precious cargo to the aging Justinian. They also brought Chinese slaves who were educated in the ways of sericulture (the production of silk).

Cultivation of silkworms
"The Introduction of the Silkworms" (Vermis Serious) engraving by Karel van Mallery, ca. 1595. This depicts seven women spreading the eggs on cloth (left) and then wrapping them with eggs (right).

Justinian acted quickly. He (and his successors) established royal silk factories in Constantinople, Beirut, Antioch, Tyre, Thebes, Corinth, and Syria. It took decades for the silk industry to really take hold because of the way in which silkworms make silk, but eventually, these factories broke the Chinese, Indian, and Persian silk monopoly.

A Chinese princess smuggles silkworm eggs out of China
A depiction of the Chinese princess who supposedly smuggled silk cocoons out of China in her marriage crown (Dandan-Oilik, 6th Century AD, British Museum collection).

A Note About Procopius

It is always important to be skeptical of ancient sources, especially when there is only one source for important information such as the origins of the Byzantine silk industry. They all have agendas, biases, and a desire to "tell a good story." So, taking everything they say at face value is dangerous.

A good example is Anna Comnenus, the sole source for Emperor Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118), who just so happened to be her father. Everything Alexius did was just magnificent and almost god-like, apparently. Obviously, Anna loved her father.

Procopius, on the other hand, at least in his official writings (leaving aside his "Secret History"), was basically a propagandist for Justinian and his policies. It is doubtful that the tale he told was entirely accurate, and that may not be his fault because he was relying on what he was told by people who may have had an interest in embellishing the facts.

Here is what Procopius actually wrote about the silkworm incident in "On the Wars":

About the same time there came from India certain monks; and when they had satisfied Justinian Augustus that the Romans no longer should buy silk from the Persians, they promised the emperor in an interview that they would provide the materials for making silk so that never should the Romans seek business of this kind from their enemy the Persians, or from any other people whatsoever. They said that they were formerly in Serinda, which they call the region frequented by the people of the Indies, and there they learned perfectly the art of making silk.

Moreover, to the emperor who plied them with many questions as to whether he might have the secret, the monks replied that certain worms were manufacturers of silk, nature itself forcing them to keep always at work; the worms could certainly not be brought here alive, but they could be grown easily and without difficulty; the eggs of single hatchings are innumerable; as soon as they are laid men cover them with dung and keep them warm for as long as it is necessary so that they produce insects. When they had announced these tidings, led on by liberal promises to the emperor to prove the fact, they returned to India. When they had brought the eggs to Byzantium, the method having been learned, as I have said, they changed them by metamorphosis into worms which feed on the leaves of mulberry. Thus began the art of making silk from that time on in the Roman Empire

Just to be clear, there are other theories about how Byzantium received its silkworms that have nothing to do with two monks making a deal with Justinian. One story is that a Chinese princess in 440 AD loved silk so much that she smuggled some silkworms with her when she married a foreign prince (the Prince of Khotan), and that is how they got to Sogdiana in the first place. Another ascribes the theft from China to Japanese spies. Byzantine historian Theophanes, writing at the beginning of the ninth century, tells basically the same tale as Procopius, but instead of two monks going to China, it is a Persian who smuggles the silkworm eggs out of Central Asia in a walking stick. 

In summary, Procopius tells a great story that sounds a little too neat and, despite its threadbare narrative, includes some unlikely events. But Procopius's version has become the accepted one.

Byzantine silk
Byzantine silk depicting an imperial lion hunt, ca. 650 AD.

The Economic Impact of Silk Production

Procopius makes it sound as if the instant the worms hit the dirt within the Byzantine Empire, silk was plentiful. This wasn't the case. It took decades to establish the industry, a distribution network, and develop the types of patterns of fine garments that befit royalty. However, the Byzantines succeeded in becoming among the preeminent silk manufacturers of the Middle Ages. They developed leaving patterns that still exist, such as the tapestry, tabby, damask, twill, and lampas weaves. Byzantine silks were renowned for their vivid colors, gold thread, and elaborate designs. If paintings by the likes of Rembrandt and Michelangelo became the height of medieval European culture, silks were the epitome of Byzantine art. 

Thus, it wasn't just about silkworms, but also about artistry and fashion. It's a little like the auto industry in 20th Century America, which wasn't just about the cars themselves but about building roads and fuel and spare parts and tires and many other entire sub-industries. The silk industry created a revival in late-Roman manufacturing just when it was needed the most.

Byzantine silk
Byzantine silk featuring imperial eagles, ca. 10th Century.

And this economic revival came just in the nick of time. By 646 AD., less than a hundred years later, the economic situation of the Empire had drastically changed for the worse. The sea route to India and points further east was closed from 618-629 when the Sassanid Empire occupied Egypt, and then eliminated for good when the Arab tribe of 'Ak, led by Amr ibn al-As, conquered Egypt. This was a hard military blow to the Byzantine Empire, but an even more devastating economic one. Egypt always provided about 40% of the Imperial Roman Empire budget, and it must have added a much larger fraction of the revenues for the much smaller Byzantine Empire. Losing Egypt blew a major hole in the budget that could have been fatal.

In addition, Egypt for centuries had been the food basket of the empire. Losing the food was bad, but Egypt also was the trade gateway to India and northern Africa via Egyptian ports. There was no way to detour around the Red Sea to Abyssinia or southern India. That trade provided huge custom revenues The new economy founded around the silkworm replaced a large fraction of that. It proved invaluable to the Byzantine Empire, filling the royal coffers for centuries until the silk factories were finally overrun following the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204.

The silk trade was extremely lucrative for Constantinople and supported the lavish spending by many emperors. While Byzantine silk production was at its height, the Byzantine gold nomisma coin served as the world's reserve currency, used for mercantile transactions outside the Empire as well as within it, supplanting the Persian silver coin. This wealth served as the key foundation of Byzantine foreign policy, which often involved buying off enemies. It is only after the Byzantine silk trade collapsed and the Byzantine coin lost its preeminence that the empire entered its terminal phase.

Byzantine silk
Byzantine Nilotic silk (Abegg-Stiftung Textile Museum, Riggisberg, Switzerland).