The Roman Empire may have been one of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world, but that still didn’t protect it from collapse. And although Roman culture managed to live on within the Byzantine Empire, this mighty kingdom would also go on to eventually crumble. So, what’s stopping our societies from succumbing to the same fate? Well, according to scientists, not much. Apparently, the same threat that’s believed to have destroyed the Byzantines may still exist today.
The fall of Rome
Perhaps we should learn some lessons from history before the worst happens. Take, for example, the fall of Rome, which was partly a victim of its own success. You see, the empire had become too large to govern easily, so it was ultimately split in two. The western half had its capital in Italy, while the eastern section – also known as the Byzantine Empire – spanned parts of Africa, the present-day Balkans and Asia. Crucially, though, this separation fostered a new rivalry.
The source of division
Emperor Diocletian was responsible for the division, and he ruled the east while appointing Maximian to govern the west. That was a canny move, as the Western Roman Empire ultimately proved to be doomed. It was ravaged by attacks by tribes such as the Visigoths until, in 476 A.D., its final emperor was overthrown.
This makes the achievements of the Byzantine Empire even more impressive, as it would live through its counterpart’s fall and continue into the beginning of the modern age. In fact, no other state west of China would manage such a feat. And the empire’s riches and relative political cohesion allowed it to not only survive, but also to expand.
Centered at the gateway
In case you were wondering, the Byzantine Empire took its name from the Greek city Byzantium, which was named after its founder Byzas. This colony was built on the edge of the Bosphorus strait and provided a perfect gateway between Europe and Asia. And while Emperor Constantine would rename the city Constantinople when it became the capital of his “New Rome,” today we know it as Istanbul.
What was life like in the Byzantine Empire? Well, while Latin may have been the official language of Rome, Greek was widely spoken there. Curiously enough, though, that didn’t stop citizens from considering themselves as both Roman and Christian, as Constantine had made Christianity the official religion of Rome. The Byzantines considered themselves Rome’s successors, in fact, despite their Greek cultural influences.
No elections happening here
The Byzantine people were also ruled by an all-powerful emperor who commanded the army and church as well as the government. Then there was an influential senate, composed mainly of successful military figures. Being a wealthy landowner or a favorite of the emperor was the best way to obtain power, especially as there were no elections.
Figurehead of the religion
And Christianity would shape many aspects of Byzantine culture. In the east, the religion’s figurehead was the Patriarch of Constantinople, who was seen as a rival to the Pope. Squabbles over which man was the most important culminated in the Schism of 1054, which divided the eastern and western church forever.
Planting the seeds
And the Byzantine Empire thrived, expanding into what had once been Western Rome. Byzantines spread throughout the Mediterranean, from Europe to the Middle East and North Africa. But as the empire grew to become the greatest power in Europe, some of the seeds of its destruction were already being planted.
A myriad of issues...
The expansion was not without its difficulties, you see. For one, Emperor Justinian racked up huge debts that his people had to pay through onerous taxes. It was also becoming increasingly difficult for the Byzantine army to guard all the empire’s new territories from other ambitious civilizations. And that was all before a new religion called Islam started to spread.
The ravages of war
The Islamic army swept through the Middle East and North Africa during the 7th century A.D. and dramatically shrank Byzantine territory. That wasn’t the end of it, either. In the 11th century Emperor Alexius I was left appealing to Western Europe for aid in defending his now smaller empire against an invasion of Islamic Turks. This move marked the beginning of the Crusades and centuries of war between Islam and Christianity.
Growing steadily weaker
Then, in the years that followed, the Byzantine Empire would grow weaker and weaker until eventually Constantinople itself fell to Ottoman Turks in 1453. How did an empire that was once so strong become so vulnerable? Well, it’s not all to do with those invasions. Now, scientists believe that some very real threats – ones we still face today – could be to blame.
Comparing is difficult
There’s always a temptation to measure life today against the civilizations of the past. And this could be a good thing in certain respects. Knowing how great empires fell means we can avoid making the same mistakes, after all – even if it means sifting through the remnants of a garbage dump.
A telling event
Yes, you read that right, as researchers have come to some alarming conclusions by digging around in trash in the Byzantine settlement of Elusa. Elusa stood in what is now Israel, and in ancient times it had a coordinated garbage disposal system. In around the 6th century, however, this waste-removal process seemed to come to a halt. And the reason why may tell us a lot about not only Elusa, but also the Eastern Roman Empire as a whole.
Welcome to Palestina Salutaris
Elusa was the capital city of a province called Palestina Salutaris. Naturally, then, it produced its fair share of garbage. That’s even before you look at the many farms dotted around the area as well as the nearby settlements. And modern-day archaeologists have estimated that Elusa and its citizens were responsible for creating an impressive 212,000 cubic feet of trash every year. That’s not too different from the amount made by cities in the 21st century.
East meets west
But Elusa wasn’t always a big, garbage-collecting metropolis. It had its origins in a village that existed over 2,000 years ago, and it probably grew because of its water supply, which is vital in the otherwise arid Negev desert. It helped, too, that Elusa was at the intersection of two important trade routes: the Incense Road and the Way of Shur. Basically, it was a place where East met West.
Impressive in comparison
Clever farming techniques allowed settlements to be built in the desert, but Elusa is impressive even when compared to its neighbors. Some of the largest streets measured up at 26 feet wide. There were also nine churches, a theater and an unusually large bathhouse, while people traveled from distant lands to study at Elusa’s school of rhetoric.
Identifying ruins is tricky
How do we know all this? It can be difficult to identify ancient ruins, after all, as they don’t usually come with labels, leaving archaeologists having to guess based on maps and descriptions from the time period. But there’s no such problem with Elusa, as a sign boasting the city’s name was discovered in a 2019 excavation. And the site on which the ancient metropolis once stood is now a national park, although the surrounding area is controlled by the Israeli army.
University of Haifa
Even so, archaeologists still flock to the old city to find out more. In 2019 one such investigation was led by researchers from Israel’s University of Haifa, and the team focused on arguably one of the most revealing aspects of Elusa: its garbage dumps. That way, they could explore layers and layers of untouched history.
Excavating the dumps
Why look at the dumps instead of something more, er, attractive? Well, buildings can be ruined by invaders or natural disasters, which can in turn make it hard to trace the history of a city’s architecture. Landfill sites, by contrast, just pile up more and more trash, with new waste stacked on the old. And digging down through these sheets of garbage can therefore give archaeologists vital insight into Elusa and how its people lived.
Four trash heaps were explored in total, with each full of exciting waste. There was pottery unearthed, for example, as well as coins and pieces of glassware. Seeds appeared, too, including the burnt remains of grapes that had been grown in the local area. This fruit may have been used to produce wine that could have been exported as far away as France and Britain.
Talking of transportation, some foodstuffs uncovered in the trash mounds had seemingly been imported from the Nile and Red Sea. That means they were probably expensive and highly sought after by locals. And, altogether, radiocarbon dating indicates that the garbage was produced relatively early on in Elusa’s history.
A complex system
As we mentioned earlier, the trash-removal system apparently stopped in around the 6th century A.D. This suggests that Elusa’s wider infrastructure was imploding. But on the face of it, that shouldn’t be. We’re talking about a time at the height of the Byzantine Empire’s power, when life in the region was relatively steady and conflict-free. There were still 100 years to go before the Muslim invasion, too. So, what was the problem?
Two major problems
Well, experts actually believe that there were two problems. Horrifically, at the time a disease known as the Plague of Justinian was causing millions of deaths across the empire. The Northern Hemisphere was also experiencing some radical climate shifts that would come to be known as the Late Antique Little Ice Age. This pair of interconnected catastrophes may have contributed to the ultimate downfall of the Byzantine Empire.
The beginning of a new age
The Late Antique Little Ice Age began in 536 A.D., and its origins were dramatic. Three volcanoes exploded so violently that their ash blocked sunlight from reaching the Earth. And while one of the eruptions occurred further towards the Arctic — possibly in Alaska or Iceland — its impact was still felt in the Byzantine Empire. For 150 years, in fact, the weather was notably cooler across the Northern Hemisphere.
Can't underestimate geography
So, although historians have largely focused on the geography and politics of the Byzantine Empire as contributors to its downfall, the natural world may also have been to blame. And while we often associate climate change with the innovations of the Industrial Revolution, it has existed in different forms on a smaller scale throughout history.
Using weather to their advantage
Some civilizations may have even used weather conditions to their advantage. During the beginnings of the Roman Empire, for example, crops thrived in the warm but not hot European climate. This in turn produced an economic boom in the region, and the resultant wealth was exceedingly handy when it came to building and keeping hold of territories.
Hard to measure
Yet climate change is not a regular topic of discussion in studies of ancient civilizations, and that’s partly because its impact is so hard to measure. Renovations in old cities were common, and archaeologists don’t always know whether these adaptations were a response to shifts in climate or something else. All in all, then, that makes the Elusan garbage heaps a surprisingly invaluable source of information.
Don't forget the plague
And we shouldn’t discount the impact of the bubonic plague pandemic during the Late Antique Little Ice Age. Infectious diseases were already a leading cause of death for a population that often didn’t live past its twenties, and a tight-knit empire made it easy for microbes to spread through bustling cities.
Leprosy and tuberculosis were among the diseases that took advantage of Rome’s crowded cities and long highways. Gastrointestinal conditions such as shigellosis and paratyphoid also struck when water and food were contaminated. Then the climate started to change, and things seemingly got even worse. To start with, there was the Antonine Plague, which may have been the first time smallpox devastated a population.
Losing its presence
There was no going back once the plague had hit, either, and Byzantine society began to lose some of its commanding presence. Other lethal pandemics followed, too. The origins of the Plague of Cyprian are still a mystery, but it ripped through the empire in the 3rd century.
The infamous Black Death
Then came the bubonic plague, which would be a forerunner of Europe’s Black Death. While Justinian was growing his territory, hoping that it would become larger and more powerful than ever, around half of his subjects were succumbing to a tiny bacterium called Yersinia pestis. The cause of the outbreak probably traveled into the empire along one of its major trading routes.
Found where rodents live
Yersina pestis first emerged around 4,000 years ago and is known for being prevalent in rodent colonies. Animals such as gerbils and marmots can carry the bacterium, although it is most associated with the black rats that can so often infest human dwellings. And as fleas on the rats scatter, so, too, does disease.
Carried across distances
The series of accidents and coincidences that must have been involved in one bacterium being carried from China to the Mediterranean is astonishing. And while we may know more about germ theory today, we can still learn from this collision of man and nature.
Grip on power
How did this all lead to the end of the Byzantine Empire? Well, as people died and the economy suffered, it’s no wonder that the region’s grip on power began to weaken. Yes, it seems that the Byzantines were losing control even before the devastating Islamic invasion. Disease and climate change were threats that even the most mighty couldn’t escape.
Limit to resilience
Be warned, though, that we still don’t have one perfect solution to the Byzantine Empire’s decline. One professor at the University of Jerusalem – who wasn’t actually involved in the garbage heap study – has suggested that the Elusa archaeologists’ findings merely provide evidence of the “limit to resilience” that civilizations experience.
Threat of climate change
Basically, Elusa may have been weakened by climate change to the point that it couldn’t defend itself against other threats. That meant the Muslim armies weren’t invading a mighty city with a powerful infrastructure but the already fading outpost of a dying empire. And the city’s ultimate fate acts as a sharp warning that even the most powerful civilizations are not infallible.
Complexity of the ancient world
What’s fascinating about this theory is how it shows the complexity of the ancient world. Elusa was much further south than the areas experiencing the truly freezing winters of the Late Antique Little Ice Age, but it did trade with those north European countries. It just goes to show how the Byzantine Empire followed Rome’s example by connecting different parts of the globe.
Struggles of ancient people
Now, scientists want to highlight how our modern world may be able to learn from the struggles of the Byzantines. Climate change is one of the most debated and controversial subjects discussed today, and countries are interlinked with each other like never before. So, something that impacts a distant corner of the world could eventually reverberate here — just as it did in Elusa.