I’m starting a series of blog posts about common misconceptions in the SCA about Byzantium. Think of this as Byzantine history as applies to the lens that is the SCA. I’ve listed the misconception first, and the explanation second.
1) Anything Byzantine automatically equals Middle Eastern.
In all actuality, the Byzantine Empire was much closer in polity, policy, and structure to the rest of Western Europe than the Middle East (bibliography time: check out The Byzantines, edited by Guglielmo Cavallo for a bit of insight). And while modern-day Turkey is far closer to being Middle Eastern today, this was not the case in period, as the Byzantine Empire was far more influenced by Rome than Baghdad, especially in the early years of the Empire. Not to mention, Byzantine art is much closer to Western European art than Middle Eastern art. Arabic art is highly influenced by Islamic law, and often does not feature figurative art (Persian art seems to run against this, but different cultures and all).
Which leads me to my next point:
2) The Byzantines weren’t Roman.
This we blame on a whole bunch of historians, starting with Edward Gibbon. Many early historians insisted that the pagan Greeks corrupted the glory of Rome to make the Byzantine Empire, and used the name of the region (Byzantium) in the name. In period, members of the Empire considered themselves Romans, and in fact, the Tetrarchy was even put in place by Emperor Diocletian, and helped spur the growth of the Eastern half of the Empire, thus making the Byzantines, in fact, Roman. I personally have a preference for referring to the Byzantine Empire as the Eastern Roman Empire, however, like many misconceptions, this has not corrected itself in popular culture.
3) Anything Byzantine shouldn’t be considered medieval.
Justinian Code is the basis of law for many places after the Early Middle Ages (and now, actually). While England, France, Italy, and Germany were being ravaged by the Black Plague, Constantinople held the fort down culturally, and thrived through the 6th-11th centuries until the Fourth Crusade, when Italy started to create drama of its own.
4) Byzantines were not a member of Christendom.
When Constantine essentially decriminalized Christianity with the Edict of Milan in 313 (which set the stage for the Edict of Thessalonica in 380 to make Christianity the state religion of the Empire), he made it easier for Christians (and non-Christians, at that!) to worship as they wanted. While this type of Christianity (Arianism or even Monophysitism) bears little resemblance to modern-day Christianity, the Edict of Thessalonica made Christianity the forefront of Eastern Roman life, even past the Great Schism of 1054, which divided the Eastern and Western Churches. The Church was a part of everyday life and ritual from the peasantry all the way to the Emperor and his family.
5) The Roman Empire fell in 476.
Not quite. Going back to the whole, “the Byzantines weren’t Roman,” the Eastern Roman Empire (still Roman!) didn’t fall until 1453. So, 27 BC – 476 AD as the span for the Western half, and then 330 AD – 1453 AD for the Eastern half, and we’re looking at an empire that lasted a millennium. Not even the Holy Roman Empire can touch that.