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F - 104 : Legacies of Byzantium II

Updated: May 9, 2022

A good two months ago, I wrote about the legacies of the first Christian Empire, Byzantium. During my research, I found many more topics than I could cover. This is my sequel.


Never thought that crowns had their origin in Constantinople and that the first emperor to wear one was Constantine the Great. Most of us remember that Olympian athletes in Ancient Greece got a laurel wreath when winning. Later, Roman Emperors used golden laurel wreaths for public parades to show that they were victorious military leaders. The inspiration for crowns though came from Persia, where rulers wore a golden diadem.

Swedish Crown from Badeboda from the 14th Cenetury

Being politically savvy, Constantine never admitted being a Christian. At the beginning of his reign, 90% of the Roman population were gentiles. He was baptized only on his deathbed in 337 AD. In private though, he assumed the role as head of the Christian church (Council of Nicaea) and shaped first his new capital, then his empire into a Christian society.

Baptism of Constantine the Great attributed to Raphael, 1524 (Vatican Museum)

In public, he paid tribute to the established Greek and Roman Gods. He honored the old deities with a twist though. As emperor, he was the God of Gods and thus could choose his own image. He picked Helios, the Sun God who drove the sun with his Quadriga (four horses) through the sky. Given the popularity of horse racing, this was a smart move. BTW, the Quadriga on San Marco Square in Venice is another Byzantine legacy.

Gold Solidus from 313 AD with Constantine in front wearing a

lautel wreath and Helios with the spiked Crown at the Back

Constantine then altered the diadem and added golden spikes as symbols for the sun rays – just as we see on the Statue of Liberty in New York. Of course the crown had to be of gold, the color of the sun. Who would have thought that this tactical trick would morph into crown jags? After Constantine, all emperors wore a crown. The new symbol of power spread quickly to Western Europe.

Allegedly Constantine's mother Helen ordered the "Iron Crown

of Lombardy" for her son. It is a golden diadem wraped around

an iron nail from Jesus' cross - today in the Cathedral of Monza

Sometimes I wonder whether the Halos of the Saints have the same origin. From early on, Constantine was perceived as God’s ruler on earth and painted with a Halo around his head. Was the Halo originally a symbol for the sun? Have no proof but it makes kind of sense.

Emperor Constantine chairing the Council of Nicaea - crowned and with a Halo


We are used to see mosques with minarets and domes. But hardly anybody knows why mosques look this way. We again look at a Byzantine legacy. Domes have a long history. They originate from areas where wood was scarce and ceilings had to be built with bricks. We find the first small domes in China and Mesopotamia already around 1’000 BC. From Mesopotamia domes made it into Persia and became a key architectural element.

The magnificent Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, built in 1557

But domes had their heydays with the Romans who built them on a massive scale. Domes were built for villas, tombs and public baths where space is essential to feel comfortable in hot and humid air. Domes were also built for palaces where space was used to impress the emperor’s subjects. Only powerful men could afford huge, covered spaces. The more space, the more powerful. The Romans had a trick up their sleeves. They used concrete made from pumice and volcanic ash to build light domes. They could thus build much larger domes. The best example is the Roman Patheon which is with 43.3 m still the largest un-reinforced dome in the world.

The Pantheon in Rome with its revolutionary Dome

Constantine was brought up in the same architectural tradition. When he decided to allow only churches but no other temples in his new capital, he initiated a large church building program. His first was the Hagia Irene, devoted to peace. Of course, God was the most powerful being thus the church had to be spacious. The original Hagia Irene burnt down and I do not know whether it had a dome. But Emperor Justinian, the builder of Hagia Sophia in 537 AD (devoted to wisdom), rebuilt the Hagia Irene a decade later. It has a dome 15 m wide, 35 m high and 20 windows and now stands inside the Topkapi Palace walls.

Under Ottoman rule, the Hagia Irene was for centuries an arsenal. Thanks to this it survived and is now one of Istanbul's premier places for cultural events

The Hagia Sophia's Brick-and-Mortar dome is 32.6 m wide and 55 m high. The plasticity of the material used ensured that the Hagia Sophia survive the many earth quakes in its history.

When the Arabs conquered the Levant, Egypt, Northern Africa and Eastern Anatolia by the middle of the 7thcentury, they encountered everywhere a Christian population and churches with domes. Conversion to Islam was not a priority for the Arab rulers. They let the Christian people to themselves. But as Arab rule became permanent and the conversion to Islam brought tax advantages, many people converted. Of course they also converted their old churches, the symbol of spirituality. The domes became a permanent feature of mosques as did the towers where the bell was replaced by a platform for the muezzin to call people to their prayers.

Russian Flag

Looking at this picture of President Putin, you may be thinking of many things but probably not that he is sitting in front of the coat of arm of Byzantium. It is his presidential flag.

Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Russian Tsars claimed to be the true successors of the Roman Empire. They would build the 3rd Rome which would never fall – to be seen. It thus seemed natural that Tsar Ivan IV adopted the Byzantine two-headed eagle in 1472 as his official seal. In one claw the eagle keeps the imperial apple, in the other the imperial scepter.

Russia's Presidential Flag since 1996

For centuries, the Tsar’s claim had no impact. They were too weak and too far to the north. The Ottoman Empire who ruled the Crimean and Southern Ukraine was far too strong. But things changed when Catherina the Great became Tsarina. Ruling Russia from 1762 to 1796, she did not hide her intention to resurrect the Byzantine Empire – as her client state – and put her nephew Konstantin on the throne. She fought two wars with the Ottoman Empire and won the Sea of Azov, the Crimean and the area around Odessa.

The Expansion of the Russian Empire - Kiev became Russian in 1667, the Crimea in 1783

Later Tsars followed in her footsteps. Conquering Constantinople was a strategic goal for Russia throughout the 19thcentury. When the Communist came to power in 1917, they abolished the old symbols but kept the imperial policies of the Tsars. With the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, the old symbols were restored.

The Byzantine Two-Headed Eagle - 14th Century

Byzantium adopted the double-headed eagle late in its history. Roman Emperors and the Roman Legions used single headed eagles. The crusades may have changed it. The knights from the Holy Roman Empire, the Franks as they were called, used single headed eagles in their heraldry. Possibly, Byzantium wanted to show it was different and adapted the two-headed eagle which was used by the Hittites 2’000 years earlier and by the Seljuk Turks in the 12th century. It became the Empire’s symbol in the 14th century only. Serbia, Albania and Montenegro also adopted the two-headed eagle in their coat of arms.

Armoured Knights

If anything represents Europe’s medieval time, it must be the shiny, armored knights on their powerful horses. European warfare was for centuries based around them. Today, there are still orders like the French Chevalier d’Honneur or the English Knights of the Garter who remind us of this tradition.

European Knights as we imagine them - Plate Armour became only available in 14th Century

But heavy cavalry or knights were not invented in Europe. Putting an armored rider on a horse was impossible before there were stirrups. A heavy man would easily lose balance and fall from the horse. For this simple reason, Romans had only light cavalry. Stirrups were invented in the 4th century in China. They reached the Middle East in the 6th or 7th century. After bridals and saddles, they were the 3rd major revolution in horsemanship. People immediately understood their usefulness. Some, like people from the Asian steppes (Turks, Mongols), created highly mobile archer units. The stable platform allowed them to fire even on the move and shower adversaries with deadly salvoes from a safe distance. Others, like the Sassanid Persians and the Byzantines created armored shock troops which could break up enemy formation by sheer kinetic energy. Heavily armed cavalry, protected against missiles, would thunder right into the center of the opposing infantry.

Persian Cataphracts, as early heavy Cavalry was called, in an attack - Relief from Iran

Western Europeans were always eager learners from the Byzantine Empire By the 10th century, Constantinople was still Europe’s biggest town. Its 400’000 people dwarfed any other European city by an order of magnitude.

Byzantine Cataphract (Knight) during a Re-enactment

The Normand nobles were particularly eager apprentices. They developed the concept further. By the time they arrived in Southern Italy (see my blog E - 185: How Vikings got to Sicily), they outmatched the Byzantines. Improved saddle and shield designs plus vigorous training – keeping 100 horses in line for a charge is challenging – made the Normans superior soldiers.

Attacking Norman Cavalry wearing Chain Mail not Plate Armour - Tapestry of Bayeux, 1080

They replaced Byzantium as rulers in Southern Italy. Their castles still stand on the hills and the shores of Sicily, Calabria and Puglia. We visited in 2020.

A French Medieval Knight wearing Equipments as during the Crusades (11th & 12th Century)

Again, I wrote far more than planned and have not covered the Cyrillic alphabet, our church ceremonies or the papal dress code. It will have to wait for sequel III.

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