Did the Byzantine Empire See a Revival Under the Comnenian Emperors?

Did the Byzantine Empire See a Revival Under the Comnenian Emperors?

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By the end of the 11th century, the power of Byzantium was fading. Controlling an Empire surrounded by a variety of nations with differing cultures and military techniques, but shared hostility to the Empire, became increasingly difficult, rendering the Empire in a ‘state of weakness’ by the time of Alexios I.

Nevertheless, during the Comnenian Period it is argued that there does appear to be a reversal of fortune for Byzantium.

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New tactics and changing fortunes

In terms of military policy, the Comnenian dynasty did temporarily reverse Byzantine misfortune. In particular it appears the military policy of the first two Comneni Emperors was very successful. Alexios I Comnenus realised that the Byzantine army needed reform when he came to power in 1081.

Byzantium fought a variety of army styles due to differing cultures. For example, whereas the Patzinaks (or Scythians) preferred to fight skirmishes, the Normans preferred pitched battles.

Alexios’ war with the Patzinaks made him learn that fighting pitched battles, risked the possibility of an army’s annihilation which was not necessary to defeat other nations such as the Sicilians.

Portrait of the Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos.

As a result, when Alexios faced the Normans from 1105-1108, rather than risk a field battle with the heavier armoured and mounted Normans, Alexios disrupted their access to supplies by blocking the passes around Dyrrachium.

This military reform did prove successful. It allowed Byzantium to repel invaders such as the Turks and Sicilians, superior in fighting pitched battles, by fighting with this new style. This tactic was continued by Alexios’ son John II and it allowed John to extend the Empire even further.

John restored territories in Asia Minor long lost to the Turks such as Armenia Minor and Cilicia, as well as receiving the submission of the Latin Crusader state Antioch. This new military policy by the early Comnenian emperors significantly reversed Byzantine decline.

John II directs the Siege of Shaizar while his allies sit inactive in their camp, French manuscript 1338.

The fact that Comnenian Emperors Alexios, John II and Manuel were military leaders contributed to the reversal of Byzantine military decline.

The Byzantine army consisted of both native Byzantine troops and foreign troop contingents such as the Varangian Guard. Therefore experienced military leaders were needed to navigate this issue, a role the Comnenian Emperors were able to fill.

Before a battle against the Patzinaks, it has been recorded that Alexios encouraged and motivated his soldiers, raising morale. Clearly Alexios appears not only a capable emperor, but also a skilled military leader.

Subsequent victories on the battlefield show that Byzantine military decline was halted during this period because of their effective leadership.

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Unfortunately, Byzantium’s fortunes were not permanently reversed. Whilst Alexios and John II were largely successful in their military operations, Manuel was not. Manuel appears to have abandoned Alexios’ and John’s reformed tactic of avoiding pitched battles.

Manuel fought many pitched battles where the victories were without gain and the defeats crushing. In particular, the disastrous battle of Myriokephalon in 1176 destroyed Byzantium’s last hope of defeating the Turks and driving them out of Asia Minor.

By 1185, the work Alexios and John II had done to reverse Byzantium’s military decline had been undone.

Byzantine Empire

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Byzantine Empire, the eastern half of the Roman Empire, which survived for a thousand years after the western half had crumbled into various feudal kingdoms and which finally fell to Ottoman Turkish onslaughts in 1453.

When did the Byzantine Empire exist?

The Byzantine Empire existed from approximately 395 CE—when the Roman Empire was split—to 1453. It became one of the leading civilizations in the world before falling to an Ottoman Turkish onslaught in the 15th century.

How was the Byzantine Empire different from the Roman Empire?

The Byzantine Empire was the eastern half of the Roman Empire, and it survived over a thousand years after the western half dissolved. A series of regional traumas—including pestilence, warfare, social upheaval, and the Arab Muslim assault of the 630s—marked its cultural and institutional transformation from the Eastern Roman Empire to the Byzantine Empire.

How did the Byzantine Empire get its name?

Modern historians use the term Byzantine Empire to distinguish the state from the western portion of the Roman Empire. The name refers to Byzantium, an ancient Greek colony and transit point that became the location of the Byzantine Empire’s capital city, Constantinople. Inhabitants of the Byzantine Empire would have self-identified as Romaioi, or Romans.

Where was the Byzantine Empire?

At its greatest extent, the Byzantine Empire covered much of the land surrounding the Mediterranean Sea, including what is now Italy, Greece, and Turkey along with portions of North Africa and the Middle East. It peaked in size in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I but was significantly diminished by the 11th century following internal conflict and invasions from outsiders, including the Seljuq Turks and the Normans.

Did the Byzantine Empire practice Christianity?

Citizens of the Byzantine Empire strongly identified as Christians, just as they identified as Romans. Emperors, seeking to unite their realm under one faith, recognized Christianity as the state religion and endowed the church with political and legal power. Under some emperors, pagans were ordered to attend church and be baptized, and Jews and Samaritans were barred from receiving dowries or inheritances unless they converted.

The very name Byzantine illustrates the misconceptions to which the empire’s history has often been subject, for its inhabitants would hardly have considered the term appropriate to themselves or to their state. Theirs was, in their view, none other than the Roman Empire, founded shortly before the beginning of the Christian era by God’s grace to unify his people in preparation for the coming of his Son. Proud of that Christian and Roman heritage, convinced that their earthly empire so nearly resembled the heavenly pattern that it could never change, they called themselves Romaioi, or Romans. Modern historians agree with them only in part. The term East Rome accurately described the political unit embracing the Eastern provinces of the old Roman Empire until 476, while there were yet two emperors. The same term may even be used until the last half of the 6th century, as long as men continued to act and think according to patterns not unlike those prevailing in an earlier Roman Empire. During those same centuries, nonetheless, there were changes so profound in their cumulative effect that after the 7th century state and society in the East differed markedly from their earlier forms. In an effort to recognize that distinction, historians traditionally have described the medieval empire as Byzantine.

The latter term is derived from the name Byzantium, borne by a colony of ancient Greek foundation on the European side of the Bosporus, midway between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The city was, by virtue of its location, a natural transit point between Europe and Asia Minor (Anatolia). Refounded as the “new Rome” by the emperor Constantine I in 330, it was endowed by him with the name Constantinople, the city of Constantine. The derivation from Byzantium is suggestive in that it emphasizes a central aspect of Byzantine civilization: the degree to which the empire’s administrative and intellectual life found a focus at Constantinople from 330 to 1453, the year of the city’s last and unsuccessful defense under the 11th (or 12th) Constantine. The circumstances of the last defense are suggestive too, for in 1453 the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds seemed briefly to meet. The last Constantine fell in defense of the new Rome built by the first Constantine. Walls that had held firm in the early Middle Ages against German, Hun, Avar, Slav, and Arab were breached finally by modern artillery, in the mysteries of which European technicians had instructed the most successful of the Central Asian invaders: the Ottoman Turks.

The fortunes of the empire were thus intimately entwined with those of peoples whose achievements and failures constitute the medieval history of both Europe and Asia. Nor did hostility always characterize the relations between Byzantines and those whom they considered “barbarian.” Even though the Byzantine intellectual firmly believed that civilization ended with the boundaries of his world, he opened it to the barbarian, provided that the latter (with his kin) would accept baptism and render loyalty to the emperor. Thanks to the settlements that resulted from such policies, many a name, seemingly Greek, disguises another of different origin: Slavic, perhaps, or Turkish. Barbarian illiteracy, in consequence, obscures the early generations of more than one family destined to rise to prominence in the empire’s military or civil service. Byzantium was a melting-pot society, characterized during its earlier centuries by a degree of social mobility that belies the stereotype, often applied to it, of an immobile caste-ridden society.

A source of strength in the early Middle Ages, Byzantium’s central geographical position served it ill after the 10th century. The conquests of that age presented new problems of organization and assimilation, and those the emperors had to confront at precisely the time when older questions of economic and social policy pressed for answers in a new and acute form. Satisfactory solutions were never found. Bitter ethnic and religious hostility marked the history of the empire’s later centuries, weakening Byzantium in the face of new enemies descending upon it from east and west. The empire finally collapsed when its administrative structures could no longer support the burden of leadership thrust upon it by military conquests.



The Byzantine Empire had a major influence upon Orthodox Christianity. This was embodied in the Byzantine version of Christianity, which spread Orthodoxy and eventually led to the creation of the "Byzantine commonwealth" (a term coined by 20th-century historians) throughout Eastern Europe. Early Byzantine missionary work spread Orthodox Christianity to various Slavic peoples, where it still is a predominant religion. Such modern-day countries are Bulgaria, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Russia, Serbia, Romania, and Ukraine of course, it has also remained the official religion of the Greeks via the uninterrupted continuity of the Greek Orthodox Church. Less well known is the influence of the Byzantine religious sensibility on the millions of Christians in Ethiopia, the Coptic Christians of Egypt, and the Christians of Armenia, though they all belong to the Oriental Orthodox (as opposed to the Byzantine Eastern Orthodox) faith.

Robert Byron, one of the first 20th century Philhellenes, argued that the greatness of Byzantium lay in what he described as "the Triple Fusion": that of a Roman body, a Greek mind and an oriental, mystical soul.

Art, architecture, and literature

Byzantine Art and Byzantine Architecture were largely based around the Christian story and its heralds, and the importance of icons in Orthodox society. In terms of architecture, Byzantines emphasized the Dome, the arch and the Grecian cross lay out. It is evidenced today in countless examples of old Byzantine Churches with their traditional mosaics depicting Saints and figures from the Bible. Its impact was such that it spawned a Neo-Byzantine architectural revival in later years. Byzantine Art was also important in this respect, its impact on Orthodoxy can be witnessed across southeast Europe, Russia, the Holy Land and parts of the Middle East, but also in those areas of Turkey where it was allowed to survive.

The finest Byzantine literary works were Hymns and devotionals. The other area where the Byzantines excelled was in practical writing. While rarely works of genius, a series of competent, diligent writers, both male and female, produced many works of practical value in the fields of public administration, military affairs, and the practical sciences. The early theological work of the Byzantines was important in the development of western thought. Historiography influenced later Russian chroniclers.

Most of the writing was in classical Greek. Vernacular literature developed much more slowly than in the west. There was little fiction, the best-known work being the epic poem Digenis Acritas, written in something approaching the vernacular. Much of the writing of the day was history, theology, biography, and hagiography. Many letters have survived, some work-a-day correspondence, a few minor masterpieces, as well as a few large encyclopedic works, such as the huge Suda. Perhaps the Byzantine empire's greatest contribution to literature was their careful preservation of the best works of the ancient world, as well as compilations of works on certain subjects, with certain revisions, most specifically in the fields of medicine and history.

Arrival of new enemies

The new enemies that emerged in the 11th century, unlike the Arabs or the Bulgars, had no cause to respect that reputation. They appeared almost simultaneously on the northern, the eastern, and the western frontiers. It was nothing new for the Byzantines to have to fight on two fronts at once, but the task required a soldier on the throne. The Pechenegs, a Turkic tribe, had long been known as the northern neighbours of the Bulgars. Constantine VII had thought them to be valuable allies against the Bulgars, Magyars, and Russians. But after the conquest of Bulgaria, the Pechenegs began to raid across the Danube into what was then Byzantine territory. Constantine IX allowed them to settle south of the river, where their numbers and their ambitions increased. By the mid-11th century they were a constant menace to the peace in Thrace and Macedonia, and they encouraged the spirit of revolt in Bulgaria among the Bogomils, who had been denounced as heretics. It was left to Alexius I to avert a crisis by defeating the Pechenegs in battle in 1091.

The new arrivals on the eastern frontier were the Seljuq Turks, whose conquests were to change the whole shape of the Muslim and Byzantine worlds. In 1055, having conquered Persia, they entered Baghdad, and their prince assumed the title of sultan and protector of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate. Before long they asserted their authority to the borders of Fāṭimid Egypt and Byzantine Anatolia. They made their first explorations across the Byzantine frontier into Armenia in 1065 and, in 1067, as far west as Caesarea in central Anatolia. The raiders were inspired by the Muslim idea of jihad (holy war), and there was at first nothing systematic about their invasion. They found it surprisingly easy, however, to plunder the countryside and isolate the cities, owing to the long neglect of the eastern frontier defenses by the emperors in Constantinople. The emergency lent weight to the military aristocracy in Anatolia who, in 1068, finally secured the election of one of their own number, Romanus IV Diogenes, as emperor. Romanus assembled an army to deal with what he saw as a large-scale military operation. It was a sign of the times that his army was mainly composed of foreign mercenaries. In August 1071 it was defeated at Manzikert, near Lake Van in Armenia. Romanus was taken prisoner by the Seljuq sultan, Alp-Arslan. He was allowed to buy his freedom after signing a treaty, but the opposition in Constantinople refused to have him back as emperor and installed their own candidate, Michael VII. Romanus was treacherously blinded. The Seljuqs were thus justified in continuing their raids and were even encouraged to do so. Michael VII invited Alp-Arslan to help him against his rivals, Nicephorus Bryennius and Nicephorus Botaneiates, each of whom proclaimed himself emperor at Adrianople in 1077 and at Nicaea in 1078. In the four years of ensuing civil war there were no troops to defend the eastern frontier. By 1081 the Turks had reached Nicaea. The heart of the empire’s military and economic strength, which the Arabs had never mastered, was now under Turkish rule.

The new enemies in the West were the Normans, who began their conquest of South Italy early in the 11th century. Basil II’s project of recovering Sicily from the Arabs had been almost realized in 1042 by the one great general of the post-Macedonian era, George Maniaces, who was recalled by Constantine IX and killed as a pretender to the throne. The Normans thereafter made steady progress in Italy. Led by Robert Guiscard, they carried all before them in April 1071, Bari, the last remaining Byzantine stronghold, fell after a three-year siege. Byzantine rule in Italy and the hope of a reconquest of Sicily were at an end.

The disasters at Manzikert and at Bari, in the same year 1071, at opposite extremes of the empire, graphically illustrate the decline of Byzantine power. The final loss of Italy seemed to underline the fact of the permanent division between the Greek East and the Latin West, which was now not only geographical and political but also increasingly cultural and ecclesiastical. In 1054 a state of schism had been declared between the churches of Rome and Constantinople. The political context of the event was the Norman invasion of Italy, which at the time was a matter of as much concern to the papacy as it was to Byzantium. But the event itself, the excommunication of the patriarch Michael Cerularius by Cardinal Humbert in Constantinople, symbolized an irreconcilable difference in ideology. The reform movement in the Roman Church had emphasized an ideal of the universal role of the papacy that was wholly incompatible with Byzantine tradition. Both sides also deliberately aggravated their differences by reviving all the disputed points of theology and ritual that had become battle cries during the Photian Schism in the 9th century. The schism of 1054 passed unnoticed by contemporary Byzantine historians its significance as a turning point in East-West relations was fully realized only later.

How did Byzantine Empire avoid feudalization

In fact, in France they had pretty much the same problem. In 17th century they even kidnapped Swedish miners or chemical specialists, as far as I remember.


Mostly. It is not entirely clear when feudalization of Byzantine Empire actually began at earliest, it began in late 10th and early 11th century, as civilian and military aristocracy alike began gaining prominence. But at that point, service in/to the Empire was still connected to offices of civilian and military bureocracy, and not to wealth or personal loyalties. I believe that Komnenian dynasty in particular was based on bonds of personal loyalties, which is a distinctly feudal mode of operation. That process is one of causes of Empire's decline, and it definitely accelerated after 1204. and fall of Constantinople, when Empire actually split into several successor states (Nicaea, Epirus, Trebizond, Morea). Even then, however, there are significant differences from Western European feudalism, at least until 1204.

Is it? I understood that it was a stream of income granted by the state. Seeing how income was granted to the individual, not family, could not be inherited nor extended beyond individual's lifespan, and could always be revoked by the Emperor, I always saw early form of pronoia as kind of successor of original theme system (although not a direct evolution of it). The major difference is that whereas thematic soldier is granted income from the land on which he lives (on which he may or may not have worked personally - heavy-cavalry kataphraktoi were definitely rich enough to not have to work the land), pronoia was not necessarily a land grant - it could include road and bridge taxes, mills etc., and pronoiar did not necessarily live on the land he owned. OTOH, late pronoia, which could be inherited, was definitely a pseudo-feudal mode of operation.

Land and Privilege in Byzantium

The Late Byzantine Army

The Late Byzantine Army


Fact is that early Medieval kingdoms - Merovingian France, for example - were not feudal. Neither was Byzantine Empire, until 1204. at least. But somewhere after 7th century, and especially in 8th-9th centuries, there is extensive process of feudalization - which reaches e.g. Croatia by 12th century (previously, army and society were both based on tribal, not feudal, model). So how did Western Europe feudalize and Eastern Europe did not?

I have found several arguments for how and why Western Europe feudalized:
1) Arab conquest of shores of Mediterranean cut off trade (particularly parchment) which then caused adjustments in administration. State could no longer administer large areas directly (as Byzantine Empire did with thematic system), thus requiring extensive and very steep pyramid of authority (whereas Byzantine governmental pyramid was relatively much flatter).
2) Lack of gold coins, and particularly standardization of gold coins, meant that each area had its own economy, monetary system and government. It also meant that it was much easier to invest into land and land-based economy than into monetary economy - which in Roman (Byzantine) Empire did contract, but never to the extent it did in Western Europe.
3) Invasions (Vikings etc) meant that numerous fortifications were built, which allowed local lords to defy central government. This is kinda problematic as Byzantine Empire also had numerous fortifications - but maybe nature of fortifications was different.

Last possibility is that barbarian warband chiefs rewarded their followers with lands taken from Roman landowners, but this would contradict the whole timeline of development of feudalism.

I think that these arguments in itself are not wrong, but they don't explain anything. Feudalism developed first and foremost in the Frankish lands and in particular current northern France.

To point 1) Ever since the Franks settled their administration was a joke. That had nothing to do with Arabs cutting off trade, but had everything to do with them having a culture and history where administration was just a word with too many syllables. Taxation was similar to current racketeering. Just read some of Gregory of Tours stories on how the various areas were ruled.
To point 2) That statement would contradict their own timeline. From the 6th century onwards, money became more common, not less.
To point 3) You already give the problem with this line of reasoning.

What I do know of feudalism in the area of France (I know much less about other areas of Europe, let alone other areas where similar structures were adopted such as in China) is that you have various tribal newcomers, who get mixed with Romans (or rather Romanized people). The tribal newcomers had a very different view of society. Typically a chieftain/king would announce his plans for war, his underlings would swear fealty for the campaign and would reap the rewards if everything went well. They also had a rather different concept of freedom and ownership (just check the myth of the Vase of Soissons). So an able bodied man was essentially his own man. However he could freely swear loyalty, but in order to give his loyalty he would need something in return like land, loot or protection. That meant that the bond between the man and his lord was a personal bond. He had sworn to the lord and received land in return (or rather not the ownership, but the use). That lord would then get some of the proceeds of the land as otherwise he would starve. This system worked its way up to the point of the king, but the link from top to bottom wasn't there since it was all based on personal loyalty. And the links were working up to the point that the top man could enforce it. Charlemagne had huge prestige, but even he traveled the land to ensure loyalty and sent duos of controllers to all the areas of the empire. (That is one of the reasons the church was so well liked. You just appointed a bishop, who had sworn direct loyalty, give him some lands anywhere in the country and you had an entirely loyal city who could check the more disloyal underlings.) Any king/lord that wasn't as prestiguous as Charlemagne (ie the rest) would have problems in this chain of loyalty. So you would get counties that were typically the average size where a count could command the loyalty of his underlings. Whenever a count/king/lord would acquire too much power the process was typically stopped by the Frankish custom of splitting the inheritance and/or the underlying idea that vassals who had sworn loyalty could break that loyalty if the lord didn't keep his part of the deal. Clovis conquered swats of territories, but they were split after his death, basically the same for Charlemagne. William the Conqueror gave England to one son and the more important Normandy to his oldest son.

So you have an area where administration is only very slowly improving and the structure entirely dependent on personal loyalty. Any lord with ambition could try to establish his own county bound to him by personal loyalty. If the overlord was incompetent or lacked personal loyalty (ie when they had just inherited) they could try and make themselves semi-independent.

So what I am missing in most of the explanations about feudalism is that it was a 2-way-street. You would swear personal loyalty, but the lord also swore to do stuff for you. As administrational possibilities grew (by reintroduction of Roman ways by the church) this 2-way-street became less personal and more formal, leading to the whole feudal structure where a king would actually have a say in what happened in villages like Abingdon-on-Thames, Villeneuve-d'Ascq or Fürstengeismar.

How did the Byzantines help to preserve Greco Roman culture?

Protection of Europe The Byzantine Empire had kept Greek and Roman culture alive for nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the west. It had preserved this cultural heritage until it was taken up in the west during the Renaissance.

Furthermore, what methods did the Byzantines use to hold off their enemies? bribes, diplomacy, political marriages, military power, strategic location, large walls and fleets of military ships.

Moreover, how did the Byzantine Empire led to a modern Russian empire?

The influence of the Eastern Roman Empire was complex and enduring. The Russian people stayed remarkably loyal to the Orthodox faith and the Church played a very important role during the long and dark years of Mongol rule. The Russians continued to revere the Byzantine heritage, that was transmitted by their Church.

How did the Byzantine Empire preserve Roman culture?

The Byzantine Empire survived for nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Roman Empire in the West. As a continuation of the Roman Empire, it preserved the form of Roman Government and Roman Law.

Although the Byzantine Empire lasted over a millennium, it was riddled with crises almost from the very beginning. A combination of in-fighting, disease, and natural disaster served to prevent the empire from expanding, weaken it and ultimately cause its decline at various stages. It was an extraordinarily resilient empire, but the accumulation of issues ultimately led to its demise.

The empire was flourishing under the rule of Justinian I when a terrible plague in 540 wiped out a large proportion of its population. It impacted the army and weakened it to a point where Justinian had to accept a humiliating peace treaty with the Persians. The Byzantines ultimately subdued the Persians, but both empires were weakened by a 25-year war and were ripe for the marauding Arab invaders of the 7th century. The Arabs destroyed the Persian Empire and almost took Constantinople on a couple of occasions. The Byzantines held firm but lost territories such as Palestine and Egypt. The latter was of extreme importance since the Egyptian province of Aegyptus provided the empire with a vast proportion of its goods and natural resources.

The Byzantine Empire was also the architect of its downfall. It was routinely hurt by vicious in-fighting which often happened at times when the empire needed to establish a united front. This internal conflict occurred during the Arab invasions of the 7th century, the Turk invasion of the 11th century and in the 14th and 15th centuries when grandfathers fought grandsons! Rather than standing together against a common enemy, nobles squabbled over power and territory.

After the Arab invasions, there was a period of stability in the 8th century. Alas, the nobles feasted their greedy eyes on the farmlands of the free peasantry which were worth a lot more during times of peace. The government depended on the peasants for taxes and soldiers, but the nobles caused problems by trying to take this land and turn its inhabitants into serfs. The government sought to help the farmers, Basil II, in particular, did all he could, but the power of the nobles was too strong.

After Basil II died with no male heirs in 1025, the issue of greedy governors was to cost the empire dearly. His nieces married a series of men and elevated them to powerful positions. At this time, governors were able to rule almost independently of the government as they controlled the military forces of their themes and collected taxes. They had a nasty habit of imposing excessive taxes on farmers which caused widespread dissatisfaction. These charges led to a rebellion amongst the Bulgars.

The short-sighted action of the governors also resulted in the decline of the free peasantry and along with it, the strength of the theme system as it no longer supplied men to the army in the numbers it did previously. The state increased the taxes on peasants because it needed to pay for foreign mercenaries and this vicious cycle significantly weakened the empire as it got to the point where it could no longer afford a navy. It was aided by the Venetians and Genoese fleets but had to remove the 10% import toll. These merchants could undercut their Byzantine counterparts which reduced government income from trade! All of the above resulted in the weakened military which ensured the empire entered a permanent downward spiral.

There was a long tradition of urban life in the Hellenistic and Roman East, but it is clear that during the Byzantine period, the nature of urbanism changed from the city-state model of Classical Antiquity.

One of the problems for East Roman provincial cities in Later Antiquity was that power became centralised around the imperial court and family and therefore it was incredibly important for powerful figures to be close to the power and patronage of the court.

Therefore there developed a clear distinction between the elites of the provinces and the elite around the presence of the emperor.

Because in the early mediaeval period, following the loss of the Levant to the Arabs, there was a decline in the population of the provincial cities, this accelerated the drift of the rich and powerful to the centre. The traditional aristocracy gradually lost power and needed patronage and imperial titles, plus the salaries that came with them, to retain their positions in the ruling elite. The administrative changes of the early emperors, culminating with the reforms of Justinian I, made the shift away from the traditional ruling elite complete and henceforth the elites became more and more dependent on imperial patronage and salaried positions.

This led to Constantinople becoming and even more dominant factor in the life of the empire, increasing in importance and population throughout Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

However, at no time did any more than around 10% of the total population of the empire live in cities, and some formerly large cities dwindled fairly dramatically in the 7th and 8th centuries, with them becoming basically walled enclosures for a group of villages, with a central administrative district, often clustered around a church or an administrative building. These were known as kastra, and these kastrons were to become a permanent feature of urban locations from the 8th century onwards.

From the end of the 9th century onwards we see a revival of urbanism in the empire, with rebuilding and even new foundations in previously non-urban settings.

As I mentioned before, the cities had separate localised elites that were linked to the elites of the capital, but with their own networks, often based around the governors, tax officials and bishops. They were not as independent as cities in the West, but the empire was a far more regulated and closely administered political entity than any western nation during the mediaeval period.

It was really only after 1261, under the Palaiologoi that you see cities with truly independent and separate status to Constantinople Trebozond, Mistra, Adrianople etc, but many of these were not directly under imperial rule anyway by that time.

“The question of the continuity of civic institutions and the nature of the polis in the late antique and early Byzantine world have become a vexed question, for a variety of reasons. Students of this subject continue to contend with scholars of earlier periods who adhere to a much-outdated vision of late antiquity as a decadent decline into impoverished fragmentation. The cities of late-antique Greece displayed a marked degree of continuity. Scenarios of barbarian destruction, civic decay, and manorialization simply do not fit. In fact, the city as an institution appears to have prospered in Greece during this period. It was not until the end of the 6th century (and maybe not even then) that the dissolution of the city became a problem in Greece. If the early sixth century Syndekmos of Hierokles is taken at face value, late-antique Greece was highly urbanized and contained approximately eighty cities. This extreme prosperity is born out by recent archaeological surveys in the Aegean. For late-antique Greece, a paradigm of prosperity and transformation is more accurate and useful than a paradigm of decline and fall.”

Richard M. Rothaus, Corinth: The First City of Greece. Brill, 2000. ISBN 9004109226

That is an interesting summary of urban life in the East in Late Antiquity, and one that needs to be seen in contrast to the position in Italy.

No longer the most important city of the Roman Empire, Rome’s population had probably begun to decline in the late 2nd century. The economic and political problems of the 3rd century did nothing to help Rome recover. In the 270s the walls built by the emperor Aurelian were defences against the danger of barbarian attack rather than a sign of any restoration of Rome’s imperial past.

By the time Diocletian had reformed the imperial government under the Tetrarchy and ushered in a period of relative prosperity and peace, Rome was no longer the administrative capital of the empire. The founding of Constantinople merely confirmed Rome’s loss of status. However, under Constantine there was a degree of restoration of the buildings and monuments of Rome, even though he removed many ancient statues and works of art to Constantinople, to reinforce his new City’s status as an imperial capital. In addition, under Constantine and his successors, the growth of Rome’s previously small Christian community led to the development of the Papal Rome of the medieval period.

Rome in the 4th and 5th centuries had remained a largely pagan city dominated by the traditional senatorial families, even though these families had lost their role in the government of the empire. When the Visigoths of Alaric had first threatened the city in 408, the Senate and the praetorian prefect still had a role to play in negotiating with the barbarians, they were still a force in the city, if not elsewhere in Italy. However, in 410 Alaric captured Rome and allowed his troops to sack and pillage the city much treasure was removed, and many of the Roman population fled the city.

It is unlikely that the buildings and monuments of Rome suffered extensive damage and the churches, in the main, were spared. Even the longer, 14-day sack of Rome by the Vandals in 455 did less damage than the local population themselves. The Romans treated the city itself as a source of building materials and during the 4th and 5th centuries, the western emperors repeatedly tried to legislate against those who were stripping buildings and monuments for their materials. The population of Rome continued to decline and by the mid-5th century, had fallen to fewer than 250,000 people.

The Gothic Wars of the 6th century did nothing to reverse the long-term decline and Rome gradually dwindled into a backwater, with Ravenna becoming the seat of government in the West, first under the Ostrogoths and then the Byzantines, once they had regained control over Italy.

Now, a brief overview of taxation in the Byzantine empire.

Regardless of the relative decline or regrowth of urban life in the empire, the main generator of wealth was agriculture.

At least 80% of all tax revenues were raised from taxation of the village units or coloni who represented the agricultural base of the empire.

The village was the demographic unit of taxation, which were broadly speaking land taxes, towns and cities were not treated any different, they were assessed for taxation on the same basis. Indeed most cities and towns were also involved in agricultural production to some degree, with a proportion of urban populations cultivating land either inside the urban boundaries or outside but close to the cities and towns.

The other main source of tax revenue was the hearth tax, basically a poll tax and there were various other taxes, such as inheritance taxes and taxes in trade and what we might call customs duties.

Tax collection was incredibly efficient and imperial tax collectors were able to generate huge amounts of money for the imperial treasuries. Agricultural land was assessed on the basis of productivity, and there were different rates of taxation for higher and lower producing areas.

Obviously, things were not static, the imperial bureaucracy was remarkably resilient and flexible and over the centuries there were different ways that taxes were assessed and collected.

With the administrative changes to the structure of the empire, with the creation of the thematic system, we see a devolution of some power and of tax collection to the theme governors.

However, it was not really until the 11th century that we see a change in the provincial balance of power and a growth and expansion of large provincial landowning families. Under the Macedonian dynasty, land grants were made increasingly, under the pronoia system, whereby, instead of paying salaries to high-ranking aristocrats and officials, the right to tax farm was granted.

The pronoia system was expanded in the 12th century by the Komnenoi and following the period of the Latin Empire, the pronoia grants became increasingly hereditary.

Land grants were also made to the Church and from the 12th century onwards there was a transfer of land from the emperor to the great families and the Church. This led to a reduction in the amount of money available to the Exchequer and resulted in a debasement of the currency and dramatic price inflation.

Trade in the empire was generally mainly an internal affair, between towns and provinces or inwards to Constantinople. The elites derived their power and income from their estates and from their imperial salaries, they did not engage in trade.

There were some imperial monopolies, silk production, for example, but trade and manufacturing seems to have not generated enough wealth to allow speculative trade ventures outside the empire, even where this was allowed by law.

Trade was heavily regulated and tradespeople, in Constantinople at least, were organised into guilds and the guilds were subject to regulation by the City prefect.

As I said earlier, trade was internal and much trade flowed into the centre.

Clearly in the themes, there was small scale local trade, but because of the extreme (for the mediaeval period) centralisation of the state, it was trade with the centre that mattered most. Trade was taxed at a rate of 10% of the value of transactions.

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  • The first period of the empire, which embraces the dynasties of Theodosius, Leo I, Justinian, and Tiberius, is politically still under Roman influence.
  • In the second period the dynasty of Heraclius in conflict with Islam, succeeds in creating a distinctively Byzantine State.
  • The third period, that of the Syrian (Isaurian) emperors and of Iconoclasm, is marked by the attempt to avoid the struggle with Islam by completely orientalizing the land.
  • The fourth period exhibits a happy equilibrium. The Armenian dynasty, which was Macedonian by origin, was able to extend its sway east and west, and there were indications that the zenith of Byzantine power was close at hand.
  • In the fifth period the centrifugal forces, which had long been at work, produced their inevitable effect, the aristocracy of birth, which had been forming in all parts of the empire, and gaining political influence, at last achieved its firm establishment on the throne with the dynasties of the Comneni and Angeli.
  • The sixth period is that of decline the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders had disrupted the empire into several new political units even after the restoration, the empire of the Palaeologi is only one member of this group of states. The expansion of the power of the Osmanli Turks prepares the annihilation of the Byzantine Empire.

Geographically and ethnographically, the Roman Empire was never a unit. In the western section comprising Italy and the adjacent islands, Spain, and Africa, the Latin language and Latin culture were predominant. Of these territories, only Africa, Sicily, and certain parts of Italy were ever under Byzantine control for any length of time. To the southeast, the Coptic and Syriac and, if the name is permitted, the Palestinian nation assumed growing importance and finally, under the leadership of the Arabs, broke the bonds that held it to the empire. In the East proper ( Asia Minor and Armenia ) lay the heart of the empire. In the southeast of Asia Minor and on the southern spurs of the Armenian mountains the population was Syrian. The Armenian settlements extended from their native mountains far into Asia Minor , and even into Europe. Armenian colonies are found on Mount Ida in Asia Minor, in Thrace, and Macedonia. The coast lands of Asia Minor are thoroughly Greek. The European part of the empire was the scene of an ethnographic evolution. From ancient times the mountains of Epirus and Illyria had been inhabited by Albanians, from the beginning of the fifteenth century they spread over what is now Greece, down towards southern Italy and Sicily. Since the days of the Roman power, the Rumanians (or Wallachians) had established themselves on both sides as well of the Balkan as of the Pindus mountains. This people was divided into two parts by the invasion of the Finnic-Ugrian Bulgars, and the expansion of the Slavs. They lived as wandering shepherds, in summer on the mountains, in winter on the plains. In the fifth century the Slavs began to spread over the Balkan Peninsula. At the beginning of the eighth century Cynuria in the eastern part of the Peloponnesus, was called a "Slavic land". A reaction, however, which set in towards the end of the eighth century, resulted in the total extermination of the Slavs in southern Thessaly and central Greece, and left but few in the Peloponnesus. On the other hand, the northern part of the Balkan Peninsula remained open to Slavic inroads. Here the Bulgars gradually became incorporated with the Slavs, and spread from Haemus far to the west, and into southern Macedonia. The valleys of the Vardar and the Morava offered the Serbs tempting means of access to the Byzantine Empire. After the Greeks and Armenians, the Slavs have exercised most influence on the inner configuration of the empire. The Greeks of the islands best preserved their national characteristics. Moreover, they settled in compact groups in the capital of the empire, and on all the coast lands even to those of the Black Sea. They gained ground by hellenizing the Slavs, and by emigrating to Sicily and lower Italy.

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In point of civilization, the Greeks were the predominant race in the empire. From the second half of the sixth century, Latin had ceased to be the language of the Government. The legislation eventually became thoroughly Greek, both in language and spirit. Beside the Greeks, only the Armenians had developed a civilization of their own. The Slavs, it is true, had acquired a significant influence over the internal and external affairs of the empire, but had not established a Slavic civilization on Byzantine soil, and the dream of a Roman Empire under Slavic rule remained a mere fantasy.

In the breaking of the empire on ethnographic lines of cleavage, it was an important feat that at least the Greeks were more solidly united than in former centuries. The dialects of ancient Greece had for the most part disappeared, and the Koiné of the Hellenic period formed a point of departure for new dialects, as well as the basis of a literary language which was preserved with incredible tenacity and gained the ascendancy in literature as well as in official usage. Another movement, in the sixth century, was directed towards a general and literary revival of the language, and, this having gradually spent itself without any lasting results, the dialects unfortunately, became the occasion of a further split in the nation. As the later literary language, with its classic tendencies, was stiff and unwieldy, as well as unsuited to meet all the exigencies of a colloquial language, it perforce helped to widen the breach between the literary and the humbler classes the latter having already begun to use the new dialects. The social schism which had rent the nation, since the establishment of a distinctively Byzantine landed interest and the rise of a provincial nobility, was aggravated by the prevalence of the literary language among the governing classes, civil and ecclesiastical. Even the western invasion could not close this breach on the contrary, while it confirmed the influence of the popular tongue as such, it left the social structure of the nation untouched. The linguistic division of the Greek nation thus begun has persisted down to the present time.

The Middle Ages never created a great centralized economic system. The lack of a highly organized apparatus of transportation for goods in large quantities made each district a separate economic unit. This difficulty was not overcome even by a coastline naturally favourable for navigation, since the earring capacity of medieval vessels was too small to make them important factors in the problem of freight-transportation as we now apprehend it. Even less effectual were the means of conveyance employed on the roads of the empire. These roads, it is true, were a splendid legacy from the old Roman Empire, and were not yet in the dilapidated state to which they were later reduced under the Turkish domination. Even today, for example, there are remains of the Via Egnatia, connecting Constantinople with the Adriatic Sea through Thessalonica, and of the great military roads through Asia Minor , from Chalcedon past Nicomedia, Ancyra and Caesarea, to Armenia, as well as of that from Nicaea through Dorylaeum and Iconium to Tarsus and Antioch. These roads were of supreme importance for the transportation of troops and the conveyance of dispatches but for the interchange of goods of any bulk, they were out of the question. The inland commerce of Byzantium, like most medieval commerce was confined generally to such commodities, of not excessive weight, as could be packed into a small space, and would represent great values, both intrinsically and on account of their importation from a distance &mdash such as gems, jewelry, rich textiles and furs, aromatic spices, and drugs. But food stuffs, such as cereals, fresh vegetables, wine oil, dried meat, as well as dried fish and fruits, could be conveyed any distance only by water. Indeed, a grave problem presented itself in the provisioning of the capital, the population of which approached probably, that of a great modern city. It is now known that Alexandria at first supplied Constantinople with grain, under State supervision. After the loss of Egypt, Thrace and the lands of Pontus were drawn upon for supplies. Of the establishment of an economic centre however for all parts of the empire, of a centralized system of trade routes radiating from Constantinople, there was no conception. Moreover, Byzantine commerce strange to say, shows a marked tendency to develop in a sense opposite to this ideal. At first there was great commercial activity the Byzantines offered to India Persia, and Central and Eastern Asia a channel of communication with the West. Various districts of the empire strove to promote the export of industrial articles, Syria and Egypt, in particular, upholding their ancient positions as industrial sections of importance, their activity expressing itself chiefly in weaving and dyeing and the manufacture of metals and glass. The Slavonic invasion, moreover, had not entirely extinguished the industrial talents of the Greeks. In the tenth and eleventh centuries weaving, embroidery, and the fabrication of carpets were of considerable importance at Thebes and Patrae. In the capital itself, with government aid in the form of a monopoly, a new industrial enterprise was organized which confined itself chiefly to shipbuilding and the manufacture of arms in the imperial arsenals but also took up the preparation of silk fabrics. The Byzantines themselves, in the earlier periods, carried these wares to the West. There they enjoyed a commercial supremacy for which their only rivals were the Arabs and which is most clearly evidenced by the universal currency of the Byzantine gold solidus . Gradually, however, a change came about: the empire lost its maritime character and at last became almost exclusively territorial, as appears in the decline of the imperial navy. At the time of the Arabian conflicts it was the navy that did the best work, at a later period, however, it was counted inferior to the land forces. Similarly there was a transformation in the mental attitude and the occupations of the people. The Greek merchant allowed himself to be crowded out in his own country by his Italian rival. The population even of an island so well adapted for maritime pursuits as Crete seemed, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, veritably afraid of the water. What wrought this change is still an unsolved problem. Here too, possibly, the provincial aristocracy showed its effects, through the extension of its power over the inhabitants of the country districts and its increasing influence on the imperial Government.

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The decline of the Byzantine Empire is strikingly exhibited in the depreciation of currency during the reigns of the Comneni. At that period the gold solidus lost its high currency value and its commercial pre-eminence It is noteworthy that at the same time we perceive the beginnings of large finance ( Geldwirtschaft ). For at an earlier period the Byzantine Empire, like the states of Western Europe, appears to have followed the system of barter, or exchange of commodities in kind. Nevertheless, as ground-rents were already paid in money during the Comneni period, some uncertainty remains as to whether the beginnings of finance and of capital as a distinct power in the civilized world, should be sought in Byzantium or rather in the highly developed fiscal system of the Roman Curia and the mercantile activity of Italian seaports.

It will be seen from all this that the development of the Byzantine Empire was by no means uniform in point either of time or of place. Why is it then that the word Byzantine conveys a definite and self consistent idea ? Was there not something which through all those centuries remained characteristic of Byzantines in contrast with the neighbouring peoples? To this it must be replied that such was certainly the ease, and that the difference lay, first of all, in the more advanced civilization of Byzantium. Many small but significant details are recorded &mdash as early as the sixth century Constantinople had a system of street-lighting sports, equestrian games or polo-playing, and above all races in the circus attained a high national and political importance Byzantine princesses married to Venetians introduced the use of table forks in the West. More striking are the facts that as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, the Byzantines, in their wars with the Arabs, used gunpowder &mdash the so-called Greek fire &mdash and that a German emperor like Otto III preferred to be a Roman of Byzantium rather than a German. This Byzantine civilization, it is true suffered from a serious and incurable disease, a worm gnawing at its core &mdash the utter absence of originality. But here again, we should beware of unwarranted generalization. A change in this respect is to be noted from age to age, in the first centuries, before the complete severing of the political and ecclesiastical ties uniting them with the Eastern nations the Greek mind still retained its gift of receptivity, and ancient Greek art traditions, in combination with Persian, Syrian, and other Oriental motives, produced the original plan of the true Byzantine church &mdash a type which left its impression on architecture, sculpture painting, and the minor arts. And yet so complete was the isolation of the empire, separated from other nations by the character of its government, the strictness of its court etiquette, the refinement of its material civilization, and, not least, by the peculiar development of the national Church, that a kind of numbness crept over both the language and the intellectual life of the people. The nations of the West were indeed barbarians in comparison with the cultured Byzantines, but the West had something for the lack of which no learning, no technical skill could compensate &mdash the creative force of an imagination in harmony with the laws of nature.

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As to the share which Byzantine ecclesiastical development had in this isolation, it must be conceded that the constitution of the Eastern Church was rather imperial than universal. Its administration was seriously influenced by the polities of the empire the boundaries of the empire bounded the Church's aspirations and activities. In the West, the obliteration of those boundaries by the Germanic peoples and the outburst of vigorous missionary activity on all sides furthered very notably the idea of a universal Church, embracing all nations, and unfettered by political or territorial limits. In the East the development was quite different. Here, indeed, missionary work met with considerable success. From the Syrian and Egyptian Church sprang the Ethiopian, the Indian, the Mesopotamian, and the Armenian Churches. Constantinople sent apostles to the Slavonic and Finnic-Ugrian races. Still, these Oriental Churches show, from the very beginning, a peculiar national structure. Whether this was a legacy from the ancient Eastern religions, or whether it was the reaction against Greek civilization which had been imposed upon the people of the Orient from the time of Alexander the Great, the adoption of Christianity went hand in hand with nationalism. Opposed to this nationalism in many important respects was the Greek imperial Church. Precisely because it was only an imperial Church, it had not yet grasped the concept of a universal Church. As the imperial Church, constituting a department of the state-administration, its opposition to the national Churches among the Oriental peoples was always very emphatic. Thus it is that the dogmatic disputes of these Churches are above all, expressions of politico-national struggles. In the course of these contests Egypt, and Syria, and finally Armenia also were lost to the Greek Church. The Byzantine imperial Church at last found itself almost exclusively confined to the Greek nation and its subjects. In the end it became, in its own turn, a national Church, and definitively severed all bonds of rite and dogma linking it with the West. The schism between the Eastern and Western Churches thus reveals a fundamental opposition of viewpoints: the mutually antagonistic ideas of the universal Church and of independent national churches &mdash an antagonism which both caused the schism and constitutes the insurmountable impediment to reunion.


A glance at the above genealogies shows that the law governing the succession in the Roman Empire persisted in the Byzantine. On one hand, a certain law of descent is observed: the fact of belonging to the reigning house, whether by birth or marriage, gives a strong claim to the throne. On the other hand, the people is not entirely excluded as a political factor. The popular co-operation in the government was not regulated by set forms. The high civil and military officials took part in the enthronement of a new monarch, often by means of a palace or military revolution. Legally, the people participated in the government only through the Church. From the time of Marcianus, the Byzantine emperors were crowned by the Patriarchs of Constantinople.

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Of the emperors of this period, Arcadius (395-408) and Theodosius II (408-50) received the throne by right of inheritance. The old senator Marcanius (450-57) came to the throne through his marriage with the sister of Theodosius II, Pulcheria who for years previously had been an inmate of a convent. The Thracian Leo I the Great (457-74), owed his power to Aspar the Alan, Magister Militum per Orientem , who, as an Arian, was debarred from the imperial dignity, and who therefore installed the orthodox Leo. Leo, it is true, soon became refractory, and in 471 Aspar was executed by imperial command. On Leo's death the throne was transmitted through his daughter Ariadne, who had been united in marriage to the leader of the Isaurian bodyguard, and had a son by him, Leo II. The sudden death of Leo, however, after he had raised his father to the rank of coregent placed the reins of power in the hands of Zeno (474-91), who was obliged to defend his authority against repeated insurrections. All these movements were instigated by his mother-in-law, Verina, who first proclaimed her brother Basiliscus emperor, and later Leontius, the leader of the Thraecian army. Victory, however, rested with Zeno, at whose death Ariadne once more decided the succession by bestowing her hand on Anastasius Silentiarius (491-518) who had risen through the grades of the civil service.

This brief résumé shows the important part played by women in the imperial history of Byzantium. Nor was female influence restricted to the imperial family. The development of Roman law exhibits a growing realization of woman's importance in the family and society. Theodora, whose greatness is not eclipsed by that of her celebrated consort, Justinian, is a typical example of the solicitude of a woman of high station for the interests of the lowliest and the most unworthy of her sisters &mdash from whose ranks perhaps she herself had risen. Byzantine civilization produced a succession of typical women of middle class who are a proof, first, of the high esteem in which women were held in social life and, secondly, of the sacredness of family life, which even now distinguishes the Greek people. To this same tendency is probably to be ascribed the suppression by Anastasius of the bloody exhibitions of the circus called venationes . We must not forget, however, that under the successor of Anastasius, Justin, the so-called circus factions kept bears for spectacles in the circus, and the Empress Theodora was the daughter of a bear-baiter. Still the fact remains that cultured circles at that time began to deplore this gruesome amusement, and that the venationes , and with them the political significance of the circus, disappeared in the course of Byzantine history.

One may be amazed at the assertion that the Byzantine was humane, and refined in feeling, even to the point of sensitiveness. Too many bloody crimes stain the pages of Byzantine history &mdash not as extraordinary occurrences but as regularly established institutions. Blinding, mutilation, and death by torture had their place in the Byzantine penal system. In the Middle Ages such horrors were not, it is true, unknown in Western Europe, and yet the fierce crusaders thought the Byzantines exquisitely cruel. In reading the history of this people, one has to accustom oneself to a Janus-like national character &mdash genuine Christian self-sacrifice, unworldliness, and spirituality, side by side with avarice, cunning, and the refinement of cruelty. It is, indeed, easy to detect this idiosyncrasy in both the ancient and the modern Greeks. Greek cruelty, however, may have been aggravated by the circumstances that savage races not only remained as foes on the frontier, but often became incorporated in the body politic, only veiling their barbaric origin under a thin cloak of Hellenism. The whole of Byzantine history is the record of struggles between a civilized state and wild, or half-civilized, neighbouring tribes. Again and again was the Byzantine Empire de facto reduced to the limits of the capital city, which Anastasius had transformed into an unrivaled fortress and often, too, was the victory over its foes gained by troops before whose ferocity its own citizens trembled.

Twice in the period just considered, Byzantium was on the point of falling into the hands of the Goths :

  • first, when, under the Emperor Arcadius, shortly after Alaric the Visigoth had pillaged Greece, the German Gainas, being in control of Constantinople simultaneously stirred up the East Goths and the Gruthungi, who had settled in Phrygia,
  • a second time, when the East Goths , before their withdrawal to Italy, threatened Constantinople.

The same period is marked by the beginning of the Slavic and Bulgar migrations. The fact has already been mentioned that these races gradually possessed themselves of the whole Balkan Peninsula the Slavs meanwhile absorbing the Finnic-Ugrian Bulgars. The admixture of Greek blood, which was denied the Germanic races, was reserved for the Slavs. To how great a degree this mingling of races took place, will never be exactly ascertained. On the other hand, the extent of Slavic influence on the interior developments of the Byzantine Empire, especially on that of the landed interests, is one of the great unsolved questions of Byzantine history. In all these struggles, the Byzantine polity shows itself the genuine heir of the ancient Roman Empire. The same is true of the contest over the eastern boundary, the centuries of strife with the Persians. In this contest the Byzantine Greeks now found allies. The Persians had never given up their native fire-worship, Mazdeism. Whenever a border nation was converted to Christianity, it joined the Byzantine alliance. The Persians, realizing this, sought to neutralize the Greek influence by favouring the various sects in turn. To this motive is to be attributed the favour they showed to the Nestorians who at last became the recognized representatives of Christianity in the Persian Empire. To meet this policy of their adversaries, the Greeks for a long time favoured the Syrian Monophysites, bitter enemies of the Nestorians. Upon this motive, the Emperor Zeno closed the Nestorian school at Edessa, in 489 and it was a part of the same policy that induced the successors of Constantine the Great to support the leaders of the Christian clerical party, the Mamikonians, in opposition to the Mazdeistic nobility. Theodosius II resumed this policy after his grandfather, Theodosius the Great, had, by a treaty with Persia (387), sacrificed the greater part of Armenia. Only Karin in the valley of the Western Euphrates, thence forth called Theodosiopolis, then remained a Roman possession. Theodosius II initiated a different policy. He encouraged, as far as lay in his power, the diffusion of Christianity in Armenia, invited Mesrob and Sahak, the founders of Armenian Christian literature into Roman territory, and gave them pecuniary assistance for the prosecution of the work they had undertaken, of translating Holy Scripture into Armenian. Anastasius followed the same shrewd policy. On the one hand, he carried on a relentless war with the Persians (502-06) and, on the other hand, lost no opportunity of encouraging the Monophysite sect which was then predominant in Egypt, Syria and Armenia. It is true that he met with great difficulties from the irreconcilable factions, as had those of his predecessors who had followed the policy of religious indifference in dealing with the sects. The Eastern Churches in these centuries were torn by theological controversies so fierce as to have been with good reason compared with the sixteenth century disputes of Western Christendom . All the warring elements of the period &mdash national, local, economic, social, even personal &mdash group themselves around the prevalent theological questions, so that it is practically impossible to say, in any given case, whether the dominant motives of the parties to the quarrel were spiritual or temporal. In all this hurlyburly of beliefs and parties three historical points have to be kept clearly before the mind, in order to understand the further development of the empire:

  • first, the decline of Alexandrian power,
  • secondly, the determination of the mutual relations of Rome and Constantinople
  • thirdly, the triumph of the civil over the ecclesiastical authority.

The second point, the rivalry between Constantinople and Rome, can be discussed more briefly. Naturally, Rome had the advantage in every respect. But for the division of the empire the whole question would never have arisen. But Theodosius I, as early as the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (381), had the decision made that New Rome should take precedence immediately after old Rome. This was the first expression of the theory that Constantinople should be supreme among the Churches of the East. The first to attempt to translate this thought into action was John. As he undertook the campaign against Alexandria, so he was also able to bring the still independent Church of Asia Minor under the authority of Constantinople. On a missionary journey he made the See of Ephesus, founded by St. John the Apostle, a suffragan of his patriarchate. We can now understand why the war against the Alexandrians was prosecuted with such bitterness. The defeat of Alexandria at the Council of Chalcedon established the supremacy of Constantinople. To be sure, this supremacy was only theoretical, as it is a matter of history that from this time forward the Oriental Churches assumed a hostile attitude towards the Byzantine imperial Church. As for Rome, protests had already been made at Chalcedon against the twenty-first canon of the Eighth General Council which set forth the spiritual precedence of Constantinople. This protest was maintained until the capture of Constantinople by the crusaders put an end to the pretensions of the Greek Church. Pope Innocent III (1215) confirmed the grant to the Patriarch of Constantinople of the place of honour after Rome.

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We now come to the third point: the contest between ecclesiastical and civil authority. In this particular, also, the defeat of Alexandria was signal. Since the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon it had been decided that in the East (it was otherwise in the West) the old Roman custom, by which the emperor had the final decision in ecclesiastical matters, should continue. That was the end of the matter at Byzantium, and we need not be surprised to find that before long dogmatic disputes were decided by arbitrary imperial decrees, that laymen princes, and men who had held high state offices were promoted to ecclesiastical offices, and that spiritual affairs were treated as a department of the Government. But it must not be supposed that the Byzantine Church was therefore silenced. The popular will found a means of asserting itself most emphatically, concurrently with the official administration of ecclesiastical affairs. The monks in particular showed the greatest fearlessness in opposing their ecclesiastical superiors as well as the civil authority.

1B. Dynasties of Justinian and Tiberius (518-610)

This period saw the reigns of two renowned and influential Byzantine empresses. As the world once held its breath at the quarrel between Eudoxia, the wanton wife of the Emperor Arcadius, and the great patriarch, John Chrysostom , and at the rivalry of the sisters-in-law, Pulcheria and Athenais-Eudocia, the latter the daughter of an Athenian philosopher, so Theodora, the dancer of the Byzantine circus, and her niece Sophia succeeded in obtaining extraordinary influence by reason of their genius, wit, and political cleverness. Theodora died of cancer (548), seventeen years before her husband. No serious discord ever marred this singular union, from which, however, there was no issue. The death of this remarkable woman proved an irreparable loss to her consort, who grieved profoundly for her during the remainder of his life. Her niece, Sophia, who approached her in ambition and political cunning, though not in intellect, had a less fortunate ending. Her life was darkened by a bitter disappointment. With the help of Tiberius commander of the palace guard, a Thracian famed for his personal attractions, she placed on the throne her husband, Justin II (565-78), who suffered from temporary attacks of insanity. Soon Sophia and Tiberius became the real rulers of the empire. In 574 the empress succeeded in inducing her husband to adopt Tiberius as Caesar and coregent. The death of Justin (578), however, did not bring about the hoped-for consummation of her relations with Tiberius. Tiberius II (578-82) had a wife in his native village, and now for the first time presented her in the capital. After his accession to the throne, he revered the Empress Sophia as a mother, and even when the disappointed woman began to place obstacles in his path, he was forbearing, and treated her with respect while keeping her a prisoner.

The dynasty of Justin originated in Illyria. At the death of the Emperor Anastasius, Justin I (518-27), like his successor Tiberius, commander of the palace guard, by shrewdly availing himself of his opportunities succeeded in seizing the reins of power. Even during the reign of Justin, Justinian, his nephew, and heir-presumptive to the throne, played an important role in affairs. He was by nature peculiar and slow. Unlike his uncle, he had received an excellent education. He might justly be called a scholar at the same time he was a man of boundless activity. As absolute monarch, like Philip II of Spain , he developed an almost incredible capacity for work. He endeavoured to master all the departments of civil life, to gather in his hands all the reins of government. The number of rescripts drawn up by Justinian is enormous. They deal with all subjects, though towards the end by preference with dogmatic questions, as the emperor fancied that he could put an end to religious quarrels by means of bureaucratic regulations. He certainly took his vocation seriously. On sleepless nights he was frequently seen pacing his apartments absorbed in thought. His whole concept of life was serious to the point of being pedantic. We might therefore wonder that such a man should choose as his consort a woman of the demi monde. No doubt Procopius, "a chamberlain removed from the atmosphere of the court, unheeded and venomous in his sullen old age", is not veracious in all his statements concerning the previous life of Theodora. It is certain, however, that a daughter was born to her before she became acquainted with the crown prince, and it is equally certain that before she married the pedantic monarch, she had led a dissolute life. However she filled her new role admirably. Her subsequent faultless, her influence great, but not obtrusive. Her extravagance and vindictiveness &mdash for she had enemies, among them John the Cappadocian the great financial minister so indispensable to Justinian &mdash may well have cost the emperor many an uneasy hour, but there was never any lasting breach.

Theodora, after captivating the Crown-Prince Justinian by her genius and witty conversation, proved herself worthy of her position at the critical moment. It was in the year 532, five years after Justinian's accession. Once more the people of Constantinople, through its circus factions, sought to oppose the despotic rule then beginning. It resulted in the frightful uprising which had taken its name from the well-known watchword of the circus parties: Nika "Conquer". In the palace everything was given up for lost, and himself, the heroic chief of the mercenaries, advised flight. At this crisis Theodora saved the empire for her husband by her words: "The purple is a good winding-sheet". The Government was firm the opposing party weakened, the circus factions were shorn of their political influence and the despotic government of Justinian remained assured for the future.

It is well known what the reign of Justinian (527-65) meant for the external and internal development of the empire. The boundaries of the empire were extended, Africa was reconquered for a century and a half, all Italy for some decades. The Byzantine power was established, for a time, even in some cities of the Spanish coast. Less successful were his Eastern wars. Under Justin and the aged Kavadh, war with Persia had again broken out. On the accession of the great Chosroes I, Nushirvan (531-79), in spite of the peace of 532, which Justinian hoped would secure for him liberty of action in the West, Chosroes allowed him no respite. Syria suffered terribly from pillaging incursions, Lazistan (the ancient Colchis) was taken by the Persians and a road thereby opened to the Black Sea. Only after the Greeks resumed the war more vigorously (549) did they succeed in recapturing Lazistan, and in 562 peace was concluded.

Nevertheless the Persian War was transmitted as an unwelcome legacy to the successors of Justinian. In 571 strife broke out anew in Christian Armenia owing to the activity of the Mazdeistic Persians. While the Romans gained many brilliant victories their opponents also obtained a few important successes. Suddenly affairs took an unexpected turn. Hormizdas, the son and successor of Chosroes I (579-90), lost both life and crown in an uprising. His son, Chosroes II, Parvez (590-628), took refuge with the Romans. Mauritius, who was then emperor (582-602) received the fugitive and by the campaign of 591 reestablished him on the throne of his fathers. Thus the relations of the empire with the Persians seemed at last peaceful. Soon, however Mauritius himself was deposed and murdered on the occasion of a military sedition. The centurion Phocas (602-10) seized the helm of the Byzantine state. Chosroes, ostensibly to avenge his friend, the murdered emperor, forthwith resumed the offensive. The administration of Phocas proved thoroughly inefficient. The empire seemed to swerve out of its old grooves, the energetic action of some patriots, however, under the leadership of nobles high in the Government, and the call of Heraclius, saved the situation, and after a fearful conflict with the powers of the East, lasting over a hundred years, Byzantium rose again to renewed splendour.

It is a noteworthy feet that Lombard and Syrian chroniclers call the Emperor Mauritius the first "Greek" emperor. The transformation of the Roman State, with Latin as the official language, into a Greek State had become manifest. During the reign of Mauritius the rest of Justinian's conquests in Italy and Africa were placed under the civil administration of military governors or exarchs. This is symptomatic. The separation of civil and military power, which had been inaugurated in the happier and more peaceful days at the end of the third century, had outlived its usefulness. During the period of the Arabian conflicts under the Heraclean dynasty, the old Roman system of combining civil and military power was established in a new form. The commander of a thema (regiment) was charged with the supervision of the civil authorities in his military district. The old diocesan and provincial divisions disappeared, and military departments became administrative districts.

It is manifest that Justinian's policy of restoration ended in a miserable failure. The time for a Roman Empire in the old sense of the term, with the old administrative system, was past. It is unfortunate that the rivers of blood which brought destruction upon two Germanic states, the robber Vandals and the noble East Goths, and the enormous financial sacrifice of the eastern half of the empire had no better outcome. If despite all this, the name of Justinian is inscribed in brilliant letters in the annals of the world's history, it is owing to other achievements: his codification of the laws and his enterprise as a builder. It was the fortune of this emperor to be contemporary with the artistic movement which, rising in Persia, gained the ascendancy in Syria and spread over Asia Minor and thence to Constantinople and the West. It was the merit of Justinian that he furnished the pecuniary means, often enormous for the realization of these artistic aspirations. His fame will endure so long as Saint Sophia at Constantinople endures, and so long as hundreds of pilgrims annually visit the churches of Ravenna. This is not the place to enumerate the architectural achievements of Justinian, ecclesiastical and secular, bridges, forts, and palaces. Nor shall we dwell upon his measures against the last vestiges of heathenism, or his suppression of the University of Athens (529). On the other hand, there is one phase of his activity as a ruler to which reference must be made here, and which was the necessary counterpart of his policy of conquest in the West and issued in as great a failure. The Emperors Zeno and Anastasius had sought remedies for the difficulties raised by the Council of Chalcedon. It was Zeno who commissioned Acacius the great Patriarch of Constantinople &mdash the first, perhaps, who took the title of Ecumenical Patriarch &mdash to draft the formula of union known as the "Henoticon" (482). This formula cleverly evaded the Chalcedon decisions, and made it possible for the Monophysites to return to the imperial Church. But the gain on one side proved a loss on the other. Under existing conditions, it did not matter much that Rome protested, and again and again demanded the erasure of the name of Acacius from the diptychs. It was much more important that the capital and Europe as well as the chief Greek cities, showed hostility to the Henoticon. The Greeks, moreover, were attached to their national


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