(EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE – continued)

home | 6th-15th centuries

EUROPE: 501 to 1000 CE (6 of 10)

previous | next

The Byzantine Empire, 650 to 726 CE

Greek Fire

Defending the Byzantine Empire with "Greek fire." Enlarged and described on Wikipedia.

Byzantine Empire 717

Byzantine Empire, 717. Striped area northwest of Antioch suffered frequent raids. Just before 705 the empire lost control of southern Crimea, to which Justinian II had been exiled.

After the mid-600s, Byzantium's Christian emperor at Constantinople continued to see his position as representing the authority of Rome. He saw himself as the authority over the Church's patriarch in Constantinople and bishops throughout the empire, including the Bishop of Rome, otherwise known as the Pope. With the coming of the Lombard in the late 500s, Constantinople had lost control over much of Italy which was not to be unified again until the 1800s. But Constantinople still saw itself as in control of Rome, and the Popes, during what is called the Byzantine papacy, considered the Byzantine emperor as having authority over them. Rome's bishops needed the approval of Constantinople's emperor before they were confirmed. Religious authority was still tied to political authority, which was tied to military power.

In Constantinople use of Latin of old Rome had been or was being replaced by Greek. Historians were to describe Byzantium as a "Greek civilization." This was a civilization with a lot of eunuchs at the emperor's court – similar to China but unlike the papacy in Rome.

Regarding this "civilization" the historian Will Durant would write:

Like every other civilization, it rested on the backs of serfs or slaves, and the gold and marble of its shrines and places were the transmuted sweat of workers toiling on or in the earth...There was something about it, a veneer of aristocratic refinement covering a mass of popular superstition, fanaticism , and literate ignorance... No science, no philosophy, was allowed to develop in conflict with that ignorance; and for a thousand years no addition was made by a Greek civilization to man's knowledge of the world. No work of Byzantine literature has caught the imagination of mankind, or won the suffrages of time. note16

Constantinople had a hero emperor in Constantine IV, whose reign began in 668, the year that the Umayyad Caliph Mu'awiyah sent an army against Constantinople's empire. The Muslims besieged Constantinople for four years, beginning in 674. Constantine inspired his subjects in their war against Islam, and he won an enhanced popularity and prestige.

Constantinople's victory came with its naval power and its use of "Greek fire," an invention with naphtha as its main component and resins probably added as a thickener, creating what was called "sticky fire."

The victory that Constantine led allowed the survival of the Byzantine state. Constantinople was the nerve center of the Byzantine state and had it fallen it is unlikely that the empire's remaining provinces would have held together, making them easier prey.

Having defeated the Arab Muslims, Constantine turned his attention to the Christian Church, which was torn between Monothelitism and Orthodoxy. In 680 he convened the Sixth Ecumenical Council, presiding in person surrounded by his court officials without making any theological pronouncements. The Council declared that Jesus Christ had two wills, one divine and one human. The idea that he had one will – Monpthelitism – was made a heresy. Incorrect texts were ordered burned, except for examples to be locked away in the patriarchal library of heresies.

Constantine was succeeded by his son, Emperor Justinian II in 685, who wanted to restore the empire to its former glory. Justinian created a few hundred new laws during his reign. A "Farmer's Law" was created. Historians are not sure when, but it appears to have reduced the power that had belonged to the great landowners. Byzantine society was predominantly agricultural, and peasants were organized into "communities" as a single fiscal unit, with taxes levied on the community rather than on individuals. There were a host of laws concerning individual responsibility regarding property damage, and theft and retribution. For example, if someone was responsible for someone else's loss of a crop he had to replace that loss double. The Farmer's Law, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica would have "an impact on legal developments among the south and east Slavs, particularly in Serbia."

Justinian II was determined to leave his mark on ecclesiastical affairs as well. In 691 he summoned an assembly of 165 bishops. Various canons (Church laws) were agreed on.

According to the historian John Norwich, canon 3 stated that "second marriages for the clergy are forbidden, and that no man who, after his baptism, has married a widow, a prostitute, a slave or an actress may enter the priesthood." Canon 11 stated that "no priest might consult a Jewish physician or take a bath in company with a Jew... " note17

While trying to preserve the morality of the empire (as had Augustus Caesar), Justinian II was holding on to an exaggerated sense of his power. John Norwich describes Emperor Justinian II as another of those who had inherited power and lacked the qualities of measure useful in political leadership. Norwich describes him as having inherited "a streak of mental imbalance." note18  Justinian demanded taxes from villages that were beyond the village's ability to pay. Among the displeased were the Slavs whom he had made a part of his empire. When new hostilities with the Arabs erupted in 691, some of his 20,000 Slav soldiers deserted to the Arab enemy.

John Norwich describes an enraged Justinian:

He is said to have rounded up all the Slav families in Bithynia – many hundred miles from the scene of the betrayal ... and then to have ordered a general massacre, with men, women and children by the thousand being slain in cold blood and flung into the sea. note19

Justinian attempted to break the power of the urban aristocracy through severe taxation and the appointment of "outsiders" to administrative posts. He made enemies of both aristocrats and common people. A popular rising against him in 695 drove him into exile to the Crimea, with his nose cut off and his tongue cut out. Norwich writes:

His rapacious ministers were less fortunate: tied by the feet to the backs of heavy wagons, they were then dragged down the Mese (the main road) from the Augusteum [city center] to the forum – the modern Aksaraay – and there burnt alive. note20

Justinian acquired a golden nose patch and someone to talk for him, and in ten years he was able to ride the empire's unstable politics and to stage a comeback coup. But Justinian II was to be the last of the Heraclian dynasty, which had acquired power in 610. Justinian ruled tyrannically and until 711, when his enemies rallied and had him arrested and beheaded, his head sent to the rebellion's leader as a trophy.

That man, a former general, became Emperor Philippicus. He was overthrown in 713 by a man who in turn was overthrown in 715, reminiscent of Rome's rapid turnover of emperors centuries before. The real power in the empire rested on approval from those instituted to overwhelm others through violence – the military. The rule of a former bureaucrat Theodosius III, which began in May 715, ended with a military coup. Theodosius saved himself by consenting to his overthrow, receiving assurances that neither he nor his son would be harmed. He abdicated and became a monk.

The military had been watching the approach of the second assault on Constantinople, under the Umayyad Caliph Sulayman. Constantinople's military leaders wanted a competent ruler running the empire and defense. The new emperor Leo III was one of them, and he wasted no time in preparing the city for the coming siege, including storing food.

The Muslims thought they were taking advantage of Constantinople's discord, and in the summer of 1717 an army of 80,000 Arabs and Persians attacked Constantinople, supported by 1800 ships. Again using "Greek fire," they set the Muslim navy aflame. The Muslim army was held off and in the summer of 718 they withdrew.

Having won against the Muslins, Leo moved to consolidate imperial power and administration, which before his rule had become completely disorganized. In 718 he suppressed a rebellion in Sicily. He secured the empire's frontiers by inviting Slavic settlers into the depopulated districts and by restoring the army to efficiency. Leo launched tax reforms. He turned serfs into free tenants and remodeled criminal law, in some cases substituting mutilation for the death penalty, reforms opposed by some nobles and higher clergy. The reforms were embodied in a new code called the Ecloga (Selection), published in 726.

That same year, Leo's advisors interpreted a volcanic eruption in the Aegean Sea as a sign of a divine warning against idolatry and advised Emperor Leo to ban icons from churches and public places. The military tended to be iconoclastic, believing that it had won God's approval in victories against the Muslims – who had been advertising the images issue with their support of the Judaic commandment against the making of "any graven image."

Leo III, by the way, was from what today is the mountainous province of Kahramanmaraş in southern Turkey, near Syria. He had been known as "the Syrian." He had grown up speaking Arabic. Byzantine emperors were a cultural mix similar to what the old Roman emperors had been. The same for patriarchs. The patriarch from 766 to 780 was to be Nicetas I, of Slavic ancestry and a eunuch.


Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.