Saturday, November 4, 2017

Story of Monarchy: The Byzantine Empire

Although it is a subject of great interest to me, I have been put off from talking about the Byzantine Empire because, in the past, it has invariably aroused bitter partisan vitriol that is completely unhelpful at best and detrimental at worst. Nonetheless, I can refrain no longer because this is an extremely important subject that people really need to know more about. Obviously, this post will only be a very general overview of the Byzantine Empire but I think it is necessary and anyone can look up particular items in greater detail on your own. Western civilization would likely not exist at all were it not for the Byzantine Empire and an important point to make at the outset is to emphasize that the Byzantine Empire is simply another word for the continuation of the East Roman Empire and the Roman Empire is absolutely essential and foundational for the entirety of western civilization. Certainly, Eastern Europe owes the most to the Byzantine Empire but Western Europe likewise owes an immense debt to the Eastern Roman Empire and neither would be what they are today without it.

Byzantine throne room
The Byzantine Empire, formally the East Roman Empire, was also known as the Later Roman Empire and, occasionally, the Greek Empire but it is important to note that the Byzantines themselves did not refer to themselves as “Byzantines” but as “Romans”. The name comes from the city of Byzantium on the Bosporus which dates to the 500’s BC. Originally Greek, when it was conquered by the Romans in the 100’s BC it became a relatively prosperous trading center until it was leveled and partially rebuilt by Emperor Septimius Severus. One could date the birth of the Byzantine Empire as far back as 293 AD when Emperor Diocletian first divided the Roman Empire into eastern and western halves, making his capital in the east at Nicomedia in Asia Minor (modern Turkey). However, the “Founding Father” of the Byzantine Empire is not usually considered to be Diocletian but Emperor Constantine the Great, the first Christian Roman emperor, who moved the imperial capital to Byzantium, renaming it Constantinople. Although the city of Rome would remain important for some time to come, from this point on Rome was eclipsed by Constantinople as the center of Roman wealth and power.

Tim Curry as Emperor Theodosius II
Emperor Constantine I ruled the entire Roman Empire and was succeeded by his three sons but the division between east and west returned. However, Emperor Theodosius I again ruled the whole empire himself, the last monarch to do so. It was also Emperor Theodosius who made Christianity the sole and official religion of the empire. After his death, Emperor Honorius ruled the west and Emperor Arcadius ruled the east. During this period, the West Roman Empire was repeatedly attacked by barbarian tribes, Alaric the Goth sacking Rome itself in 410 but the East Roman Empire carried on secure and prosperous by comparison. Emperor Arcadius was not the best monarch one could hope for but he was succeeded by a more able man, his son Emperor Theodosius II. From 408 to 450 Emperor Theodosius II ruled and ruled quite well, all things considered. He had wars in the east and rampaging Huns to deal with but he built immensely strong fortifications around Constantinople that proved invaluable, built a university there and established the Theodosian Code by reforming the existing laws. In his reign the East Roman Empire began to look like the united Roman Empire of old and seemed the more worthy successor to it than the battered west. Not long after his time, in 476, the West Roman Empire ceased to exist altogether, leaving the Byzantine Empire as the last Roman Empire standing.

This is important to remember, particularly for people in the west, because so many of the east-west, Catholic-Orthodox problems really date back to this point in history. People in the west need to understand, setting aside the religious disputes, that it was at this point that the Pope in Rome became much more significant and eventually a political as well as religious figure. However, all too often religion was used as cover for what were basically political disputes and the fact is that the Byzantine Emperors understandably considered themselves the legitimate rulers of the entire Roman world once the last Western Roman Emperor was forced from power. The religious differences between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches are what they are but people in the west really should understand that it was not an illegitimate or unreasonable position for the Eastern Roman Emperor to consider himself the rightful monarch of the west as well once the west no longer had an emperor at all (in fact the Byzantines regarded Julius Nepos as the last Western Emperor as they had never recognized Romulus Augustulus). Many of the east-west tensions really come down to this basic, political and non-religious point; that there were people in the west with newly conquered lands and subjects who did not want the Emperor in Constantinople telling them what to do.

Emperor Justinian
The final, east-west religious break would not happen for some time, which is well enough as the religious situation was, by all accounts, frankly, a confusing mess with both sides having plenty of fashionable heresies to deal with. However, what is generally recognized as the “Golden Age” of the Byzantine Empire came with the ambitious reign of Emperor Justinian I, starting in 527. He was an able man and determined to see the Roman Empire restored to its former glory even if that mean reconquering the west entirely. It helped that he was an able military leader and it helped even more that he had one of the greatest military geniuses of the time to call upon in the person of his general Belisarius. Ever present threats remained to the east such as the Persians and the Arabs but Emperor Justinian fought battles to re-take the western empire, winning against the Vandals in Africa, the Ostrogoths in Italy and the Visigoths in Spain. Emperor Justinian had just about made the Mediterranean a ‘Roman lake’ once again while at the same time driving back the Persians on the eastern frontier.

Justinian & Theodora
Emperor Justinian had his problems with the Church of course but, in all fairness, the Church was having plenty of problems with itself at this time, the empire was wealthy and prosperous and the Emperor published a new, more complete, edition of the Roman law code which has since been known as the Justinian Code. The Emperor also oversaw the construction of the magnificent Church of Saint Sophia or Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which was one of the architectural wonders of Christendom. It may not seem quite so impressive from the outside but the interior, particularly in its former glory days, was astonishingly magnificent. There had never been a church like it before. Unfortunately, such building projects and unending military campaigns also left the Byzantine treasury basically empty by the end of the reign of Justinian. His passing was, in a way, the end of an era as he was the last Byzantine emperor to speak Latin and this, as well as his preservation of many old, Roman traditions, has caused some in the east to take a rather negative view of him as their hatred for anything western, Latin and/or Roman dominates their entire thinking. Justinian was not perfect as no mere mortal can be but he undoubtedly came closer than any other Eastern Emperor to restoring the entirety of the Western Roman Empire to Byzantine rule. Nonetheless, by the time he died, the government was bankrupt and the public rather put off, particularly regarding the many schemes of his ambitious wife Empress Theodora.

Emperor Maurice
The period which followed was one of seemingly constant crisis for the Empire. From 565 to 578 Emperor Justin II had to deal with barbarian invasions from practically every direction. The Germans were invading in the west, the Lombards were charging into Italy, the Avars, Slavs and Bulgars were attacking into the Balkans while in the east the Persians were back on the offensive as well. However, internal power struggles would remain a problem and this is why the very word “Byzantine” has become synonymous with devious plots and palace intrigue. Emperor Maurice, for example, had great success in fighting back against the Persians and against the Avars in the Balkans, pushing beyond the Danube for the first time in centuries and took steps to maintain footholds in Italy and Africa. However, he was assassinated in 602 along with all six of his sons by an ambitious general after which disastrous war with Persia broke out anew. They made repeated advances until finally being stopped by Emperor Heraclius who reigned from 610 to 641. However, a new threat arose which changed everything when Islam sprang up among the Arabs and a wave of Muslim conquests assailed the Byzantine Empire. Palestine and Syria fell in 636, Egypt in 640 and Armenia in 654. Muslim forces besieged Constantinople itself from 673 to 678 and from 717 to 718 but were held off thanks to the immense fortifications ringing the city which previous emperors had wisely invested in. Around Constantinople, however, Muslim conquests continued with Crete and Sicily falling in the 820’s.

St Olga enters the Church of Holy Wisdom
Constantinople remained the center of classical culture but these setbacks have also given rise to some confusion with many of the medical, scientific and other advances often attributed to the Arabs actually being the product of classical Greek and Roman scholars preserved by the Byzantines but seized by the Muslims during their conquests of East Roman centers of learning such as Alexandria, Egypt. Even in these troubled times, the Byzantine Empire also still had a civilizing, cultural influence in the east, just as the West Roman Empire had done on barbarians in their neighborhood. Christianity as today practiced in the Eastern Orthodox Churches was the most visible part of the East Roman culture spread by the Byzantine Empire throughout Eastern Europe. The South Slavs and Bulgarians were converted but the most significant was the conversion of Russia in the 800’s. St Olga, Princess and Regent of the Kievan-Rus converted to Christianity and was received into the church in Constantinople during the reign of Emperor Constantine VII. She took the faith back to her home and her grandson, Vladimir the Great, would make Christianity the official religion of the Russians which it remained up until the downfall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.

The Byzantine Empire stands as rather persuasive proof that the fall of the Western Roman Empire was not inevitable as the Eastern Roman Empire carried on, seemed more than once on the brink of collapse but revived again. This occurred in the 800’s as the Byzantine Empire started to recover its old prosperity, fighting spirit and began to take back her conquered territories. The Muslim invaders were driven back, the Balkans was brought back under imperial rule and Constantinople was once again the center of great wealth and opportunity. Trade boomed and Italian merchants began making alliances with the Byzantine Empire because friendship and trade with them was so much more profitable than in the west. The peak was probably reached under Emperor Basil II, known as “the Bulgar-Slayer” who made a marriage alliance with the Russians, conquered Bulgaria, recovered Armenia and halted Muslim incursions. Art, religion, learning all seemed to have their best flowerings in Constantinople during this time. It was a sad occasion when Basil II passed away in 1025. Leadership problems followed, fights over the throne and this, of course, gave an opportunity for the enemies of the empire to advance. Some measure of stability was recovered with the rise of the Komnenos Dynasty but they had huge problems to deal with.

Godfrey de Bouillon pledges allegiance to Emp. Alexius
A major new problem, that ultimately would never go away, was the appearance of the Seljuk Turks riding in from central Asia. They quickly surpassed the Arabs as the primary Islamic threat to the Byzantine Empire. In 1071 at the pivotal Battle of Manzikert the Byzantine army was smashed by the Turks and Asia Minor completely laid open to them. Faced with overwhelming enemy forces, Emperor Alexius decided to look to the west and call on the Latin Christians for help. Pope Urban II answered by calling the First Crusade for the knights of western Europe to rush to the defense of Christendom against the Muslim invaders. The primary leader of the First Crusade was Godfrey de Bouillon and, while passing through Constantinople, Emperor Alexius had Godfrey and the leaders of the other crusader armies as they came, pledge allegiance to him and to reiterate than all lands they took back from the Muslims would belong to the Byzantine Empire. Not all of the Crusaders took kindly to this, which is understandable as they did the fighting and so expected to receive something in return for their efforts. The result was the establishment of Crusader states, primarily the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem, who might nominally do obeisance to the Byzantine Emperor and who tended to adopt Byzantine style for their court life but who basically operated according to the western, feudal system as masters of their own lands with plenty of acrimony and accusations between the Latin Crusaders and their nominal Byzantine overseers.

Emp. John II & Irene of Hungary
The truth is that neither side was perfect in keeping their agreements but this period did see the most east-west cooperation in years. Emperor Alexius was succeeded, in 1118, by his son Emperor John II who married Princess Irene of Hungary. His reign was dominated with trying to repair the damage inflicted on the empire since the disaster at Manzikert. He dealt with the Serbs and Hungarians to the north, part of the settlement of which was his marriage to Irene who converted to the Orthodox Church and has since been recognized as a saint. He was known for his patronage of the church and for taking to the field himself to deal with the Turkish threat from the east, fighting and winning many battles and establishing fortified towns and outposts along the way to prevent future incursions. He succeeded in taking back the initiative in this war, reaching as far as Tarsus. The empire prospered during his reign and the population grew remarkably. However, when he determined to march into the Islamic occupied area of Syria he met only frustration as cooperation with the western Crusader forces failed to materialize. He also had problems with the Italians of Venice and all of these problems were to reemerge as far larger problems in the future.

Emperor Manuel I
For the time being, however, things seemed to be going much better. John II was succeeded by his youngest son Emperor Manuel I in 1143. He made an alliance with the Pope, oversaw the passage of the Second Crusade, joined them in an invasion of Egypt, managed to keep control of the Balkans and made Hungary and the Crusader states Byzantine protectorates. In that regard, he had succeeded where his father had failed, was referred to as “Manuel the Great” by the Greek population and even earned considerable praise from the Latin west as the “most blessed emperor of Constantinople”. This is, again, important to keep in mind because it shows that the Byzantine Empire was not just hanging by a thread or stumbling toward its inevitable doom after the western collapse. It had its periods of crisis but, under able leadership, was shown repeatedly to be capable of coming back and rising again to prominence. The reign of Emperor Manuel also shows that the introduction of the Crusaders into the equation was not something that was completely unmanageable and that the Latins and the Byzantines were capable of putting aside their differences and making common cause for the greater good of Christendom. Emperor Manuel took advantage of the rebellions against the Normans in Sicily to launch an invasion of southern Italy which initially had great success despite being too late to take part in a joint venture with German Emperor Frederick Barbarossa as he had planned. He made an alliance with Pope Adrian IV against the Normans and for a time saw hope of restoring the old Roman Empire, reuniting east and west. Unfortunately, this did not happen as the Emperor would not agree to accept papal supremacy over the eastern Christians nor would the Pope accept imperial political control over the west.

Divine Liturgy in Hagia Sophia
By the time of his death, the Byzantine Empire was prosperous, larger than before, more respected than before and one of the major world powers of the time. However, factions and conspiracies at court remained, enemies on the frontier looked for their chance and relations with Venice, the most important Byzantine ally in the west, had again broken down. It would take a strong monarch to carry on and, unfortunately, his son was a minor when raised to the throne, the regency was unpopular and soon court intrigue brought about the downfall of the boy and another period of political instability followed. The next seven emperors all met unhappy ends, six being murdered and one dying in captivity. Everything came to ruin with the Fourth Crusade of 1203, called by Pope Innocent III who wanted to invade Egypt, seeing it as the ‘soft underbelly’ of the Islamic domains. However, the Crusaders were diverted to retake a city on the Adriatic by the Republic of Venice as payment for ferrying them to Africa. Unfortunately, they never made it to Africa as they met with the deposed Byzantine Emperor Alexius IV Angelus who promised to pay for their ships, religiously reunite east and west and contribute large forces to the Crusade if they would restore him to his throne. They agreed and instead of going to Egypt attacked Constantinople.

This turned out to be a very brutal affair, partly because of the earlier “Massacre of the Latins”, longstanding east-west disputes and the discovery that none of the money or men the Crusaders had been promised existed. In 1204 Constantinople was ransacked on a large scale and quite devastated. Baldwin of Flanders was chosen to be Latin Emperor of the East by his fellow Crusaders, the east-west schism was declared over and the lands of Asia Minor were divided among various Greek rulers with the Crusaders becoming feudal lords of the more choice remnants of the Byzantine Empire. This was a very traumatic event and something that many if not most Eastern Orthodox Christians have yet to get over. The Latin Empire of Constantinople did not last too long with the Greeks, Turks and Bulgars all rising up against it on various fronts. It is, frankly, rather remarkable that it lasted for 57 years under such circumstances. The ideal of the Byzantine Empire as it had been was also not forgotten and in 1261 the last Imperial Dynasty came to power when Michael Palaeologus, a general and imperial relative in the employ of the Greek ruler at Nicaea, overthrew the Latin Empire and reclaimed Constantinople, banning all Latin and restoring the previous Byzantine traditions and ceremonies. Efforts by the Crusaders to restore their domains failed and the Byzantine Empire was once again a force to be reckoned with.

Emperor Constantine XI
Unfortunately, though Emperor Michael VIII, began to rebuild and repopulate Constantinople, the Byzantine Empire, having been broken up, was hard to put back together and would never be as strong as it had been before. Likewise, once the western enemy was gone, the eastern Christians soon began warring against each other again as well, all of which served the interests of the Turks quite nicely. In Asia Minor the Turks were on the advance while in the Balkans the Serbians were attacking and taking ground. The fact that the Christians did not stick together allowed the Turks to gain their own foothold in the Balkans and soon the city of Constantinople was an island in a Turkish sea. It was only thanks to the impressive, monumental, double fortifications around the city and her ingenious naval defenses that kept Constantinople out of enemy hands even though, eventually, the Byzantine Empire included very little beyond the walls of the city itself. There was also a sense of apathy that seemed to take hold of the populace as when the city was again besieged by massive Islamic armies led by Sultan Mehmed II, nicknamed “the Blood Drinker” which doesn’t make him sound like the nicest fellow, only 5,000 men, about 5% of the population could bestir themselves to take up arms in their own defense. This meant that nearly half of the defenders, about 3,000 of them, were western mercenaries, predominately Italian and Spanish with Giovanni Giustiniani (an Italian obviously) named top military commander by Emperor Constantine XI.

Emperor Constantine XI did the best he could under the most hopeless of circumstances. When the Turkish artillery finally breached the walls on May 29, 1453 and the end was eminent, he hurled himself into the enemy ranks and was never seen again, giving rise to a popular legend that he was rescued by an angel, turned to stone and hidden away to be brought back to life later and retake the city for Christendom. It is a story reminiscent of those of King Arthur in England or Frederick Barbarossa in Germany and shows just how much of an impact his heroic sacrifice had on his people. Despite repeated calls for a crusade to retake the city by a number of popes, this proved to be the end of the Byzantine Empire. The Turks turned the Hagia Sophia into a mosque and, initially, made the city the capital of their Ottoman Empire. Eventually, the Ottoman Empire would fall as well but the Turks still maintain control of Asia Minor, the “Golden Horn” and the city of Constantine. Today this is so taken for granted that few even think about it.

14th Century Byzantine flag
The Eastern Roman Empire, however, is something everyone should think about, in the west as well as the east. It certainly had many problems and was notorious for its conspiracies and palace intrigues, however, while the Western Roman Empire fell in 476, the Eastern Roman Empire survived until 1453 and that is something that cannot be shrugged off or dismissed out of hand. For Eastern Europe, the Byzantine Empire was the source of faith, culture and, originally at least, royal legitimacy. For the west, it was the bulwark on the frontier of Christendom that kept very powerful and highly organized enemies from ravaging the continent. Does anyone think that the Persians would not have continued on into Greece as their ancient forefathers had done if the Byzantine Empire had not stopped them? The initial Arab Islamic conquests that swept across north Africa could have easily reached Germany, even Britain or Scandinavia if the Byzantines had not stood in the way. The Turks ultimately gained control of much of the Balkans in their conquests but consider how much more they could have gained without Constantinople blocking their path.

Constantinople as an imperial capital
Western Civilization would likely not exist without the Byzantine Empire and not only because it stood as a barrier against invasion. The Christian religion of the empire, the Roman laws, the Greek culture that came together there served as a gateway from the classical world to the modern world. The Eastern Orthodox Churches and those of the Byzantine-rite of the Catholic Church come down to us from the empire, its learning and the learning it preserved was rediscovered during the Renaissance leading to many advances and its famous artistic style was copied early on and into the Italian Renaissance with numerous churches in Ravenna, Italy and St Mark’s Cathedral in Venice as obvious examples. Byzantine art and architecture also had a tremendous impact on Russia which can still be seen today. The Byzantine Empire was one half and the longer lived half of the Roman Empire which was the foundation of European civilization as we know it. As the kingdoms of France, Spain or Germany looked to Rome, so too did those of Serbia, Greece, Bulgaria and Russia look to Constantinople. We cannot allow it to be forgotten.


  1. The Byzantine Empire also had the world's longest-lasting stable currency, which was only debased in the last desperate 200 years of its 1000 year (dating from Constantine) life. Compare that to these republics today, where the question is not "will we inflate the currency", but "how fast and by how much will we do so."

    1. Modern currency isn't even real so the whole view of people on this subject is skewed. People also couldn't comprehend how the old Roman Empire lasted so long without ever having a central bank. Modern man can't imagine such a thing.

    2. Without having a central bank? Shouldn't be surprising they lied about the necessity of a central bank, but still am

  2. Quick tibdit, Constantinople was an informal name for the first century or so. Officially, it was "New Rome" and informally known as "Roma Constantinopolitana" until some point of the reign of Theodosius II, where the name Constantinople is first used in an official fashion.


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