Monday, 9 February 2004

Byzantine Studies, Kilkenny, 2004:
3: A brief history of Byzantium
and the Byzantine Empire

Patrick Comerford

Liberal Studies Group,

Maynooth University Campus

Saint Kieran’s College, Kilkenny,

Monday, 9 February 2004

3, A brief history of Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire


Recap of last week’s introduction:

Last week we had an introduction to Byzantium as a great civilisation:

1, It is often depicted as the El Dorado of the East, the Tír na nÓg of the Classical world, the Hidden Gateway to the Orient, a civilisation and empire that lasted for 11 centuries.

2, It is the cultural bedrock for many of our new immigrants, including Russians, Belarussians, Romanians and Bulgarians, and the new member states of the EU.

3, It is the world view that shaped and formed the paintings of El Greco, the writings of Dostoevsky, or in today’s world the music of John Tavener.

Refer to handouts (map, reading list, outline history). Any questions?

3, A brief history of Byzantium and the Byzantine Empire:


When we speak of the fall of the Roman Empire, we should not forget that only the western portion of the empire succumbed to the Germanic invaders. In the Greek-speaking east, the eastern Roman, or Byzantine Empire stood for over 1,000 years as a citadel against the threat of expansion firstly by the Persians and then by the Muslims – Arabs, and later Turks.

During those 11 centuries, the Byzantine Empire made great contributions to civilisation:

• Greek language and learning were preserved for posterity;

• The Roman imperial system was continued and Roman law codified;

• The Greek Orthodox Church converted the Slavic peoples, especially the Russians;

• And Orthodoxy fostered the development of a splendid new art dedicated to the glorification of the Christian religion.

Situated at the crossroads of east and west, Constantinople acted as the disseminator of culture for all peoples who came in contact with the empire.

Called with justification ‘The City,’ this rich and turbulent metropolis was to the early Middle Ages what Athens and Rome had been to classical times. By the time the empire collapsed in 1453, its religious mission and political concepts had borne fruit among the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe, and especially among the Russians. The Russians were to lay claim to the Byzantine tradition and to call Moscow the ‘Third Rome.’

The beginnings of Byzantium

Historians disagree about the real date at which we can begin to introduce Byzantine studies. The end, in 1453, is less contentious date – although it marked only the end of Byzantium as the capital of an empire and not the end of Byzantine culture.

But what point marks the transition from the later Roman to the Byzantine Empire? Of course, the Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire in the east, and Romanians and Greeks both see themselves today as continuing the culture of Rome in the East.

I suppose a good starting point comes soon after Constantine the Great finally gained sole authority as Roman Emperor when he defeated Licinius in 324. Constantine’s dramatic conversion to Christianity ended the period of persecution of Christians in the Empire, and marks the beginning of both the Orthodox Church and the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantine Empire

At the southern extremity of the Bosphorus stands a promontory that juts out from Europe toward Asia, with the Sea of Marmares to the south and a long harbour known as the Golden Horn to the north. On this peninsula, the Hellaspont, stood the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which Constantine the Great enlarged considerably and formally named the ‘New Rome’ in AD 330.

Constantine’s decision to found an administrative capital, or ‘New Rome,’ at the site of the ancient city of Byzantion shifted the centre of gravity eastwards in the empire. Constantine had chosen the site for his new capital with care and appears to have been motivated by a number of ideas:

• He placed Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey) on the frontier of Europe and Asia, dominating the waterway connecting the Mediterranean and Black seas, so that Constantinople represented a link between all the territories of the Roman world.

• Nature protected the site on three sides with cliffs, and on the fourth side, the emperors fortified the city with an impenetrable three-wall network, so that during the fourth and fifth centuries Visigoths, Huns, and Ostrogoths unsuccessfully threatened the city. In the seventh, eighth, and ninth centuries, first Persians, then Arab forces, and finally the Bulgarians besieged – but failed to take – Constantinople. Until 1453, with the exception of the Fourth Crusade’s treachery, the city withstood all attacks.

• Constantine probably saw political advantages in distancing himself from the power structures and traditions of the Old Rome. In the New Rome he was able to establish a new order, with a newly-appointed senate and administration.

Henceforth, Constantinople would represent the centre of the largely Greek-speaking, Eastern Roman Empire, which slowly and inexorably became separated, both culturally and politically from the Latin West.

But the security and wealth provided by its setting helped Byzantium survive for more than 1,000 years. Constantinople was a state-controlled, world trade centre that enjoyed the continuous use of a money economy – in contrast to the localised systems found in the west.

The city’s wealth and taxes paid for a strong military force and financed an effective government. Excellent sewage and water systems supported an extremely high standard of living. Food was abundant, with grain from Egypt and Anatolia and fish from the Aegean. Constantinople could support a population of a million, at a time when it was difficult to find a city in Europe that could sustain more than 50,000.

Unlike Rome, Constantinople had several industries producing luxury goods, military supplies, hardware, and textiles. After silkworms were smuggled out of China about AD 550, silk production flourished and became a profitable state monopoly. The state paid close attention to business, controlling the economy: A system of guilds to which all tradesmen and members of the professions belonged, set wages, profits, work hours, and prices and organised bankers and doctors into compulsory corporations. Security and wealth encouraged an active political, cultural, and intellectual life. The widespread literacy and education among men and women of various segments of society would not be matched in Europe until, perhaps, eighteenth-century France.

Until its fall in 1453, the Byzantine Empire remained a shining fortress, attracting both invaders and merchants.

Constantinople after Constantine

The Christianisation of the Roman Empire continued after the death of Constantine. Laws that date back to Constantine’s successors, such as his son Constantius, reveal increasing restrictions on pagans and more favourable conditions for Christians. The conversion of the masses to Christianity did not happen immediately, however, and the Emperor Julian, known as Julian the Apostate (361-363), initiated a brief return to paganism as the official state religion.

By the end of the fourth century, and with the return of Christian rulers, legislation in favour of Christianity became increasingly pronounced. The Codex Theodosianus, published between 429 and 438, but incorporating laws promulgated during the reign of Constantine the Great and his successors, reveals an ever-increasing attempt on the part of the emperors to promote Christianity and eradicate paganism. Sundays and important Christian feast days were declared holidays, with the prohibition of secular lawsuits and business transactions.

The Latin Phase

Constantine and his successors had struggled to renew the Empire. Rome collapsed under the pressure of the Germanic invaders in 476. Thanks to its greater military and economic strength, Constantinople survived for almost another 1,000 years, despite revolutions, wars, and religious controversy.

Justinian (527-565) was the last emperor to attempt seriously to return the Roman Empire to its first-century grandeur. Aided by his forceful wife Theodora and a corps of competent assistants, he made lasting contributions to Western civilisation and gained short-term successes in his foreign policy.

The damage caused by devastating earthquakes – a perennial problem in the area – in the 520s and 530s gave Justinian the opportunity he needed to carry out a massive project of empire-wide urban renewal.

The ruler as builder was one of the oldest ideals of a sovereign. Public buildings and other structures were, in principle, gifts to be used by the ruler's subjects, but also monuments of the greatness of the ruler. Justinian strove hard to realize this ideal. The greatest buildings he erected or rebuilt were in Constantinople, the city that was now the embodiment of the civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire.

Numerous magnificent and artistically beautiful structures were constructed or rebuilt during his reign. They included statues, churches and various other monuments. His crowning achievement was the building of Aghia Sophia, the Church of Holy Wisdom.

[How many of you saw Christy Kennealy’s programme on television last night, where Aghia Sophia was the ‘eighth wonder of the world’?]

This building was considered by many an architectural wonder of the Middle Ages, and is still standing strong today. Its design, size, artwork, name and its significance made it a building that symbolised the religious and philosophical epicentre of Constantinople and Byzantine civilisation.

Even before he came to power, during his uncle’s reign, Justinian had already set about to rehabilitate and rebuild many churches in Constantinople and its suburbs. This work began mostly in a private capacity and reflected the piety that was to show itself further when Justinian became emperor.

The reign of Justinian would have been incomplete if it had not brought with it some new monuments to the glory of the empire, and Justinian was eager to have a permanent literary record of his building achievements. To this end Justinian had at his disposal the famous historian Procopius who wrote, at the Emperor’s command in the years 559-560, the famous panegyrical treatise On the Buildings of the Emperor Justinian.

Far from being displays of megalomania, Justinian’s works constituted a well-balanced plan. First, he wished to provide the people of the capital with much needed public buildings. Second, to create a new architectural setting for the institutions that represented the chief political and spiritual resources of the empire and its civilisation. Justinian surpassed the work of Constantine, who up to that point had been the greatest builder among the Christian emperors of the Empire.

One of Justinian’s best-known benefactions was the rebuilding of a hospital for the poor, which had been constructed in the early days of Constantinople. Well outside Constantinople, at a place called Argyronium, on the shore of the Bosphorus, there had been a free hospital for people with incurable diseases. This hospital had been neglected until Justinian rebuilt it. Procopius tells us of three other hospitals reconstructed by the Justinian and the Empress Theodora, acting together.

Justinian improved numerous other public works. For example, work was done for the water supply into the city. The most difficult problem was to maintain an adequate supply of water in the city year round. In the area of the Augustaeum, general repairs were undertaken of the colonnades, which lined the main street leading from the Augustaeum to the palace of Constantine. The public bath of Zeuxippus was embellished. In Justinian’s day this bath, going back to the Greco-Roman days of Byzantium, was one of the show places of the city. It had a collection of eighty classical statues, which were described by poets and copied by various artists.

In the suburbs, a general programme of development was carried out at Hebdomon, on the shore of the Sea of Marmara. A market place, public baths, and colonnades – some of the chief needs of municipal life in a city very much in contact with its classical roots – were built.

As well, the emperor had an artificial harbour built at Hebdomon, which, along with the artificial harbours of Julian and Theodosius, provided refuge to ships in stormy weather.

Great as all these building operations were they still were small in comparison to Justinian;s churches. Architecturally, Justinian’s churches illustrate the final development of a design in church building that was to be typical of Greek Christianity. In none of the churches of Constantinople could the mind reach a greater sense of spiritual depth and nobility than in the ‘Great Church’ of Aghia Sophia. This was almost certainly Justinian's greatest architectural achievement.

Near Aghia Sophia stood Aghia Eirene, representing the peace of God. Like Aghia Sophia, Aghia Eirene was built originally by Constantine the Great. It is highly indicative of the Eastern Roman Empire’s connection with its Classical Greek roots, that when both Aghia Sophia and Aghia Eirene were burnt down and rebuilt, Wisdom was given first place.

Just as Justinian had found skilled legal scholars (Tribonian) to recodify the laws, as well as skilled generals to recapture lost lands (Belisarius), so too he was fortunate enough to have found two builders of the highest talents to build Aghia Sophia. They were Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Melitus.

As well as builders they were also noted mathematicians, which was to be of basic importance in the accomplishing the task Justinian set for them. When the building was consecrated, Justinian entered the building alone and walked to the pulpit, where he stretched his hands to heaven and cried, ‘Glory be to God, who has thought me worthy to finish this work! Solomon, I have surpassed thee!’

Justinian and the Law

Perhaps the most lasting monument of Justinian’s reign was his codification of Roman law. By this time, it had become necessary to rewrite many of the laws as they had become obsolete since their last codification by Theodosius is 348. In an absolute monarchy the people ceased to be the source of the laws. It was now the monarch, by virtue of his office, who was responsible for putting into effect a new law, as well as the way in which it was interpreted and enforced.

The heritage of Roman law represented an unbroken tradition that continued down to the time of Justinian. Preservation and renewal of the laws, Justinian felt, offered the possibility of emphasising one of major roots of the empire’s strength. This immense accomplishment far outlasted the Byzantine Empire and survived to form the basis of European jurisprudence.

On 13 February 528, Justinian appointed 10 jurists to compile a new codification of the statute law. The commission appointed to the task of compiling the new code included two men of particular significance: Tribonian, a jurist in the civil service; and Theophilus, a professor of law at the university of Constantinople. Under their diligent supervision, the new Codex Iustinianus was published in little over one year, on 7 April 529. With the writing of this code, the administration of the law was put on a new basis.

However, no sooner was this work completed than an even more ambitious undertaking was begun. This was the compilation of a digest of the jurisprudence of the great Roman lawyers of the second and third centuries AD, something never before attempted on such a scale.

The order to start work on the Digest was given on 15 December 530. In December 533, the Digest, the Digesta Iustiniani Augusti was completed. It was expected to take 10 years but was finished in less than three. Its writing involved the reading of 2,000 books, representing 39 authors. The final code was reduced from 3 million to 150,000 lines. Many of the authors read came from Tribonian’s private library.

With both law and jurisprudence now established, any further commentary on the law was forbidden. The Code and the Digest represented the whole of the valid law, along with its interpretation – with the exception of imperial legislation.

The old teaching manuals, now obsolete, were replaced by new ones. While the Digest was being compiled Tribonian started work on an introductory manual, the Institutes, which was to take the place of the classic manual of Gaius. The new manual was published on 21 November 533, and came into effect on the same day as the Digest, 30 December 533.

The teaching of law was also overhauled. To ensure better control of instruction, the teaching of law was allowed only at the universities in Constantinople and Beyrouth and the schools at Alexandria and Caesarea were closed, their teaching declared unsatisfactory.

By the end of 533, it was apparent that the original Code of April 533 had already been rendered obsolete by the publication of a large amount of legislation. As a result, Tribonian and his colleagues were once again summoned, after the completion of the Digest, to compile a new Code.

This work was to be done by Tribonian, Dorotheus of Beyrouth and three lawyers, all of whom had been engaged on the Digest. The work was published on 16 November 534 and went into effect of 30 December of the same year. This edition of the Code is divided into 12 books. Book I deals with ecclesiastical law; the sources of the law; and the duties of higher officials. Ecclesiastical law was given a place of honour it did not have in the Code of Theodosius. Books 2-8 deal with private law, Book 9 with criminal law, and Books 10-12 with administrative law. There are 4,652 laws in total in this collection.

Following this, any new legislation, when needed, was from that point onward issued in the form of ‘New Constitutions,’ known as ‘Novels.’ These dealt with such issues as ecclesiastical and public affairs, private law, and one very long Novel in particular constitutes a code of Christian marriage law.

A sign of the change between the Roman Empire of old and the Eastern Roman Empire at the time of Justinian was the fact that all Novels were now written in Greek. While the Codes were in Latin, the traditional language of the law, this was not the natural language of judges, lawyers, litigants, and the general populace in the Eastern Roman Empire.

Also, while Justinian was guided by old tradition in the recodifying of the law, he saw that he could not automatically perpetuate all laws of the old Roman Empire. Many Roman laws had never been popular in the Greek East, and local preferences, both Hellenic and oriental in origin, were now brought within the new legal system to replace old Roman doctrines.

The influence of Greek philosophical thought, which was at the heart of the educational system, was manifest in many of the classifications and reasonings of Justinian’s legislation. A definite Hellenic and oriental shade in the new legislation can also be seen in the laws concerning family, inheritance and dowry. The power of the father, traditional in old Roman thought, was now considerably weakened.

Also attesting to the difference in the times was the fact that the new laws had a definite Christian sense about them. There was a desire to make the laws more humane in some ways, in line with the emperor’s current emphasis on the concept of Philanthropia, or love of mankind. There was a marked increase in laws aiming to protect persons of weaker social position against persons whose position gave them increased power. Justinian’s law, for instance, favoured slave against master, debtor against creditor and wife against husband.

Of course, there still existed laws that seem, by today’s standards quite cruel, and there were still laws that differentiated between different classes of society, but it was a definite advance in the legal system since the days of the old Roman Empire.

Justinian’s Expansion

Justinian’s expensive and ambitious projects triggered outbreaks of protest among the political gangs of Constantinople, the circus crowds of the Greens and Blues. Much like contemporary urban gangs, members of the circus factions moved about in groups and congregated at public events.

In Constantinople, the Circus took place in the Hippodrome, a structure that could hold 80,000 spectators at contests of various types, including chariot races. The Blues and Greens backed opposing drivers and usually neutralised each other’s efforts. In 532, however, the Blues and Greens united to try to force Justinian from the throne.

The so-called Nike rebellion, named after the victory cry of the rioters, nearly succeeded. In his Secret Histories, Procopius relates that Justinian was on the verge of running away, until Theodora stopped him and told the frightened emperor: ‘I do not choose to flee. Those who have worn the crown should never survive its loss. Never shall I see the day when I am not saluted as empress. If you mean to flee, Caesar, well and good. You have the money, the ships are ready, the sea is open. As for me, I shall stay.’

Assisted by his generals, the emperor remained and put down the rebellion.

Justinian momentarily achieved his dream of re-establishing the Mediterranean rim of the Roman Empire. To carry out his plan for regaining the lost half of the empire from the Germanic invaders, he first had to buy the neutrality of the Persian kings who threatened not only Constantinople but also Syria and Asia Minor. After securing his eastern flank through diplomacy and bribery, he took North Africa in 533 and the islands of the western Mediterranean from the Vandals.

The next phase of the conquest was much more exhausting, and Justinian had a difficult time taking the Italian peninsula. After 20 years, he gained his prize from the Ostrogoths, but at the cost of draining his treasury and ruining Rome and Ravenna. Justinian’s generals also reclaimed the southern part of Spain from the Visigoths, but no serious attempt was ever made to recover Gaul, Britain, or southern Germany.

By a decade after Justinian’s death, most of the reconquest had been lost. The Moors in Africa, Germanic peoples across Europe, and waves of Asiatic nomadic tribes threatened the imperial boundaries. Ancient enemies such as the Persians, who had been bribed into a peaceful relationship, returned to threaten Constantinople when the money ran out.

In addition, the full weight of the Slavic migrations came to be felt. Peaceful though they may have been, the primitive Slavs severely strained and sometimes broke the administrative links of the empire. Finally, the empire was split by debates over Christian doctrine. Two of Justinian’s successors succumbed to madness under the stress of trying to maintain order in the empire.

Heraclius: The Empire Redefined

Salvation appeared from the west when Heraclius (610-641), the Byzantine governor of North Africa, returned to Constantinople to overthrow the mad emperor Phocas. Conditions were so dismal, and the future appeared so perilous when Heraclius arrived in the capital, that he considered moving the government from Constantinople to Carthage in North Africa.

The situation did not improve soon. The Persians marched through Syria, took Jerusalem – capturing the ‘True Cross’ – and entered Egypt. When Egypt fell to the Persians, the Byzantine Empire lost a large part of its grain supply. Two Asiatic invaders, the Avars and the Bulgars, pushed against the empire from the north. Pirates controlled the sea-lanes and the Slavs cut land communication across the Balkans. At this moment of ultimate peril, the emperor decided to throw out the state structure that had been in place since the time of Diocletian and Constantine.

Heraclius created a new system that strengthened his army, tapped the support of the church and people, and erected a more efficient, streamlined administration. He determined that the foundation for the redefined empire would be Anatolia (present-day Turkey) and that the main supply of soldiers for his army would be the free peasants living there, rather than mercenaries. In place of the sprawling realm passed on by Justinian, Heraclius designed a compact state and administration to deal simultaneously with the needs of government and the challenges of defence.

Heraclius’ system, known as the theme system, had been tested when the emperor had ruled North Africa. Acting on the lessons of the previous four centuries, he assumed that defence was a constant need and that free peasant soldiers living in the theme (district) they were defending would be the most effective and efficient force. He installed the system first in Anatolia, and his successors spread it throughout the empire for the next two centuries.

Heraclius’ scheme provided sound administration and effective defence for half of the cost formerly required. As long as the theme system with its self-supporting, land-owning, free peasantry endured, Byzantium remained strong. When the theme system and its free peasantry were abandoned in the 11th century, the empire became weak and vulnerable.

Heraclius fought history’s first holy war to reclaim Jerusalem from the Persians. By 626 he stood poised to strike the final blow and refused to be distracted by the Avar siege of Constantinople. He defeated the Persians at Nineveh, marched on to Ctesiphon, and finally reclaimed the ‘True Cross’ and returned it to Jerusalem in 630.

Heraclius was unable to savour his victory for long, because the Muslim advance posed an even greater threat to Byzantium. The Muslims took Syria and Palestine at the battle of Yarmuk in 636. Persia fell the following year, and Egypt in 640. Constantinople's walls and the redefined Byzantine state withstood the challenge, enduring two sieges in 674-678 and in 717.

When Byzantium faced a three-sided invasion from the Arabs, Avars, and Bulgarians in 717, the powerful Leo the Isaurian (717-741) came forward to save the empire. The Byzantines triumphed by using new techniques such as Greek fire, a sort of medieval equivalent of napalm. The substance, a powerful chemical mixture whose main ingredient was saltpetre, caught fire on contact with water and stuck to the hulls of the Arabs’ wooden ships.

Over the next 10 years, Leo rebuilt those areas ruined by war and strengthened the theme system. He reformed the law, limiting capital punishment to crimes involving treason. He decreed the use of mutilation for a wide range of common crimes, a harsh but still less extreme punishment than execution.

The Iconoclastic Controversy

From the beginning, the Byzantine emperors played active roles in the calling of church councils and the formation of Christian doctrine. Leo the Isaurian took seriously his role as religious leader of the empire. He vigorously persecuted heretics and Jews, ordering that the latter must be baptised.

In 726, he launched a theological crusade against the use of icons, images or representations of Christ and other religious figures. The emperor was concerned that icons played too prominent a role in Byzantine life and that their common use as godparents, witnesses at weddings, and objects of adoration violated the Old Testament prohibition of the worship of graven images. Accordingly, the emperor ordered the army to destroy all icons.

This image-breaking, or iconoclastic, policy sparked a violent reaction in the western part of the empire, especially in the monasteries. The government responded by mercilessly persecuting those opposed to the policy. The eastern part of the empire, centred at Anatolia, supported the breaking of the images. By trying to remove what he considered an abuse, Leo split his empire in two.

In Byzantium’s single-centred society, this religious conflict had far-reaching cultural, political, and social implications. In 731, Pope Gregory II condemned iconoclasm. Leo's decision to destroy icons stressed the fracture lines that had existed between east and west for the past four centuries, expressed in the linguistic differences between the Latin West and the Greek East.

Leo’s successors continued his religious and political policies, and in 754 Pope Stephen II turned to the north and struck an alliance with the Frankish king Pepin. This was the first step in a process that half a century later would lead to the birth of the Holy Roman Empire and the formal political split of Europe into the east and west.

There was a brief attempt under the regent, later empress, Irene (797-802), in 787, to restore icons. Irene became the first woman to rule the empire in her own name, but as she spent the treasury into bankruptcy, her enemies increased. Finally, in 802, they deposed her and exiled her to the island of Lesbos.

The conflict over iconoclasm and Irene's ineptitude placed the empire in jeopardy once again. Her successor, Nicepherous (802-811), after struggling to restore the bases of Byzantine power, was captured in battle with the Bulgarians in 811. The Khan Krum beheaded him and had his skull made into a drinking mug. Soon the iconoclasts made a comeback, but this phase of image-breaking lacked the vigour of the first, and by 842 the policy had been abandoned.

The iconoclastic controversy marked a period when the split between east and west became final. Eastern emperors were strongly impressed by Islamic culture, with its prohibition of images. The Emperor Theophilus (829-842), for example, was a student of Muslim art and culture, and Constantinople’s painting, architecture, and universities benefited from the vigour of Islamic culture. This focus on the east may have led to the final split with the west, but it also produced an eastern state with its theological house finally in order and its borders fairly secure by the middle of the ninth century.

The Golden Age: 842-1071

For two centuries, roughly coinciding with the reign of the Macedonian dynasty (867-1056), Byzantium enjoyed political and cultural superiority over its western and eastern foes. Western Europe staggered under the blows dealt by the Saracens, Vikings, and Magyars. The Arabs lost the momentum that had carried them forward for two centuries. Constantinople enjoyed the relative calm, wealth, and balance bequeathed by the theme system and promoted by a series of powerful rulers. The time was marked by the flowering of artists, scholars and theologians as much as it was by the presence of great warriors. It was during this golden age that Constantinople made its major contributions to Eastern Europe and Russia.

Missionaries from Constantinople set out in the 860s to convert the Bulgarian and Slavic peoples and in the process organized their language, laws, aesthetics, political patterns, and ethics, as well as their religion. But such transformation did not take place without struggle. Conflict marked the relationship between the Roman and Byzantine churches. The most significant indication of this competition was seen in the contest between the Patriarch Photius and Pope Nicholas I in the middle of the ninth century.

Photius excelled both as a scholar and religious leader. He made impressive contributions to universities throughout the Byzantine Empire and worked to increase the area of Orthodoxy’s influence. Nicholas was his equal in ambition, ego, and intellect. They collided in their attempts to convert peoples such as the Bulgarians, who were caught between their spheres of influence.

The Bulgarian Khan Boris, as cunning and shrewd as either Photius or Nicholas, saw the trend toward conversion to Christianity that had been developing in Europe since the sixth century and realised the increased power he could gain by the heavenly approval of his rule. He wanted his own patriarch and church and dealt with the side that gave him the better bargain.

Between 864 and 866, Boris changed his mind three times over the issue of which holy city to turn to. Finally, the Byzantines gave the Bulgarians the equivalent of an autonomous church, and in return the Bulgarians entered the Byzantine cultural orbit. The resulting schism between the churches set off a sputtering sequence of Christian warfare that went on for centuries.

The work of the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius was more important than Bulgarian ambitions or churchly competition. The two brothers were natives of Thessaloniki, a city at the mouth of the Vardar-Morava waterway that gave access to the Slavic lands. They learned the Slavic language and led a mission to Moravia, which was ruled by King Rastislav. The king no doubt wanted to convert to Orthodoxy and enter the Byzantine orbit in order to preserve as much independence for his land as he could in the face of pressure from his powerful German neighbours.

Cyril and Methodios went north, teaching their faith in the vernacular Slavic language. Cyril devised an alphabet for the Slavs, adapting Greek letters. The two brothers translated the liturgy and many religious books into Slavic. Although Germanic missionaries eventually converted the Moravians by sheer force, the efforts of Cyril and Methodius profoundly affected all the Slavic peoples, whose languages are rooted in the work of the two brothers.

Byzantium continued its military as well as its theological intensity. Arab armies made continual thrusts, including one at Thessaloniki in 904 that led to the Byzantine loss of 22,000 people through death or slavery. But during the tenth century the combination of the decline in Muslim combativeness and the solidarity of Byzantine defences brought an end to that conflict.

Basil II (963-1025), surnamed Bulgaroctonus, or Bulgar-slayer, stopped the Bulgarians at the battle of Balathista in 1014. At the same time, the Macedonian emperors dealt from a position of strength with western European powers, especially in Italy, where their interests clashed. Western diplomats visiting the Byzantine court expressed outrage at the benign contempt with which the eastern emperors treated them, but this conduct merely reflected Constantinople’s understanding of its role in the world.

By the 11th century, succession to the Byzantine throne had degenerated into a power struggle between the civil and military aristocracies. On the other hand, the secular and theological universities flourished despite the political instability, and the emperors proved to be generous patrons of the arts. Basil I (867-886) and Leo VI (886-912) oversaw the collection and reform of the law codes.

Leo, the most prolific lawgiver since Justinian, sponsored the greatest collection of laws of the medieval Byzantine Empire, a work that would affect jurisprudence throughout Europe. Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (912-959) excelled as a military leader, lover of books, promoter of an encyclopaedia, and surveyor of the empire's provinces. At a time when scholarship in Western Europe was almost nonexistent, Byzantine society featured a rich cultural life and widespread literacy among men and women of different classes.

The greatest contribution to Western civilisation made during the golden age was the preservation of ancient learning, especially in the areas of law, Greek science, Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy, and Greek literature. Unlike the West, where the church maintained scholarship, the civil servants of Constantinople perpetuated the Greek tradition in philosophy, literature, and science. Byzantine monasteries produced many saints and mystics but showed little interest in learning and teaching.

Decline and Crusades

As long as Constantinople strengthened the foundations laid by Heraclius – the theme system and reliance on the free peasant-soldier – the empire withstood the military attacks of the strongest armies. When the Byzantine leaders abandoned the pillars of their success, the empire began to falter.

Inflation and narrow ambition ate away at the Heraclian structure. Too much money chased too few goods during the golden age. Land came to be the most profitable investment for the rich, and the landowning magnates needed labour. As prices went up, taxes followed. The peasant villages were collectively responsible for paying taxes, and the rising tax burden overwhelmed them. In many parts of the empire, villagers sought relief by placing themselves under the control of large landowners, thus taking themselves out of the tax pool and lowering the number of peasant-soldiers.

Both the state treasury and the army suffered. Until the time of Basil II, the Macedonian emperors tried to protect the peasantry through legislation, but the problem was not corrected. Even though the free peasantry never entirely disappeared, and each free person was still theoretically a citizen of the empire, economic and social pressures effectively destroyed the theme system. Exacerbating the problem was the growth of the church's holdings and the large percentage of the population entering church service, thus becoming exempt from taxation.

In the 50 years after the death of Basil II in 1025, the illusion that eternal peace had been achieved encouraged the opportunistic civil aristocracy, which controlled the state, to weaken the army and ignore the provinces. When danger next appeared, no strong leader emerged to save Byzantium. Perhaps this was because no enemies appeared dramatically before the walls of Constantinople.

Instead, a new foe arose, moving haphazardly across the empire. Around the sixth century, the first in a series of waves of Turkish bands appeared in southwest Asia. These nomads converted to Islam and fought with, then against, the Persians, Byzantines, and Arabs. When the Seljuk Turk leader Alp Arslan (‘Victorious Lion’) made a tentative probe into the empire’s eastern perimeter near Lake Van in 1071, the multilingual mercenary army from Constantinople fell apart even before fighting began at the battle of Manzikert. With the disintegration of the army, the only limit to the Turks’ march for the next decade was the extent of their own ambition and energy.

Byzantium lost the heart of its empire, and with it the reserves of soldiers, leaders, taxes, and food that had enabled it to survive for the past four centuries. From its weakened position, the empire confronted Venice, a powerful commercial and later political rival. By the end of the 11th century, the Venetians took undisputed trading supremacy in the Adriatic Sea and turned their attention to the eastern Mediterranean. The Byzantines also faced the challenges of the Normans, led by Robert Guiscard, who took the last Byzantine stronghold in Italy.

In 1081, the Comnenus family claimed the Byzantine throne. In an earlier time, with the empire in its strength, this politically astute family might have accomplished great things. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, though, the best they could do was play a balance-of-power game between east and west. Fifteen years later, in 1096, the first crusaders appeared, partially in response to the Council of Clermont, partially in response to the opportunity for gold and glory.

Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118) had appealed to Pope Urban II for help against the Turks, but the emperor had not bargained on finding a host of crusaders, including the dreaded Normans, on his doorstep. Alexius sent them quickly across the Dardanelles where they won some battles and permitted the Byzantines to reclaim some of their losses in Asia Minor. Subsequent crusades, however, failed to bring good relations between east and west, whose churches had excommunicated each other in 1054.

By the time of the Fourth Crusade, the combination of envy, hatred, and frustration that had been building up for some time led to an atrocity. The Venetians controlled the ships and money for this crusade and persuaded the fighters to attack the Christian city of Zara in Dalmatia – a commercial rival of Venice – and Constantinople before going on to the Holy Land. Venice wanted a trade monopoly in the eastern Mediterranean more than a fight with the Muslims. Constantinople was paralysed by factional strife, and for the first time, an invading force captured the city and devastated it far more than the Turks would 250 years later.

A French noble described the scene: ‘The fire ... continued to rage for a whole week and no one could put it out ... What damage was done, or what riches and possessions were destroyed in the flames was beyond the power of man to calculate ... The army ... gained much booty; so much, indeed, that no one could estimate its amount or its value. It included gold and silver, table-services and precious stones, satin and silk, mantles of squirrel fur, ermine and miniver, and every choicest thing to be found on this earth ... so much booty had never been gained in any city since the creation of the world.’

The Venetians made sure they got their share of the spoils, such as the bronze horses now found at Saint Mark’s Cathedral in Venice, and played a key role in placing a new emperor on the throne. The invaders ruled Constantinople until 1261. The Venetians put a stranglehold on commerce in the region and then turned their hostility toward the Genoese, who threatened their monopoly.

Decline and fall

The Paleologos Dynasty (1261-1453), which ruled the empire during its final two centuries, saw the formerly glorious realm become a pawn in a new game. Greeks may have regained control of the church and the state, but there was little strength left to carry on the ancient traditions. The free peasant became ever rarer, as a form of feudalism developed in which nobles resisted the authority of the emperor and the imperial bureaucracy. The solidus, the Byzantine coin that had resisted debasement from the fourth through the eleventh century, now fell victim to inflation.

The Church, once a major support for the state, became embroiled in continual doctrinal disputes. Slavic peoples such as the Serbs, who had posed no danger to the empire in its former strength, became threats. After the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century destroyed the exhausted Seljuk Turks, a new, more formidable threat appeared – the Ottoman, or Osmanli, Turks.

Blessed after 1296 with a strong line of male successors and good fortune, the Ottomans rapidly expanded their power through the Balkans. They crossed the Straits into Europe in 1354 and moved up the Vardar-Morava valleys to take Serres (1383), Sofia (1385), Nish (1386), Thessaloniki (1387), and finally Kosovo from the South Slavs in 1389. The Turks won their victories by virtue of their overwhelming superiority in both infantry and cavalry. But their administrative effectiveness, which combined strength and flexibility, solidified their rule in areas they conquered.

In contrast to the Christians, both Roman and Byzantine, who were intolerant of religious differences, the Turks allowed monotheists, or any of the believers in a ‘religion of the book’ (the Bible, Torah, or Koran), to retain their faith and be ruled by a religious superior through the millet system, a network of religious ghettoes.

In response to the Ottoman advance, the west mounted a poorly conceived and ill-fated crusade against the Turks at Nicopolis on the Danube in 1396 that led to the capture and slaughter of 10,000 knights and their attendants. Only the overwhelming force of Tamerlane (Timur the Lame), a Turko-Mongol ruler who devastated the Ottoman army in 1402, gave Constantinople and Europe some breathing space.

The end came finally in May 1453. The last emperor, Constantine XI, led his forces of 9,000, half of whom were Genoese, to hold off the 160,000 Turks for seven weeks. Finally, the Ottomans, with the help of Hungarian artillerymen, breached the walls of the beleaguered city. After 1123 years, the Christian capital fell.

Next: 4, Heroes, anti-heroes and the women of Byzantium: some biographical sketches.

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