Lecture 9: Inheriting Rome, Part I: Byzantium, 330-1453

The last lecture ended with Rome’s supposed fall. As the story goes, during the third and fourth centuries, the empire’s domestic and foreign troubles grew until it could no longer withstand the pressure. In AD 476, the Germanic king Odovacer deposed the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, and with that the world bid farewell to antiquity. This narrative is half-right at best, for Roman imperial traditions and ideas persisted in the Empire’s eastern half. In 326, the Emperor Constantine I turned a small fishing village name Byzantion into his new capital, which he naturally renamed Constantinople after himself. In 330, the city was consecrated and by 340, it was the capital of Rome’s eastern half. With this city’s rise began another 1000-year period in Roman history, in which Rome lived on, though not without undergoing significant transformations. The end of this Roman Empire finally came in 1453, when the Ottoman Turks took Constantinople and renamed it Istanbul.
Rome did not fall in AD 476, in large measure because the empire’s center had long since shifted to the east. In order to understand this process we need to go back to the Tetrarchy, which began under Diocletian. You will recall from the last lecture that Diocletian split the empire in half, the better to manage each part. Now there were two co-emperors, each of whom was assisted by a vice-emperor. Diocletian ruled the east, making Nicomedia in Anatolia his capital, while Galerius, his deputy, resided in Sirmium. The co-emperor Maximilian took the western half, making Milan his capital, and his deputy, Constantine Chlorus, set up shop in Trier. It is a measure of how much had changed in the Roman Empire that each capital city was chosen for its strategic location. As a result, the vice-emperors guarded separate frontier regions, with an emperor in reserve. Rome was still the empire’s center, of course, and none of these new capitals pretended to replace it in the common imperial imagination. Nonetheless, that Diocletian put his own capital on the Bosporus highlights the fundamental theme of the day: no matter what people living in the empire may have thought, the empire’s center of gravity had moved eastward.
This general shift to the east was made official by Constantine I. Constantine was Constantius Chlorus’ son, and had served as his father’s assistant in Britain, when the latter had been posted there. In 306, Constantine’s father died, and he was proclaimed emperor by his troops. The problem was that there was one other emperor and two vice emperors who disagreed. A civil war ensued that lasted until 324, when Licinus, the last of the western Emperors was defeated in battle. Constantine ruled the empire alone until 337, and his reign was of great significance for the empire’s future. First, Constantine gave the empire a new capital city, which was conveniently situated on the Bosporus. This strategic location made the city easy to defend and immensely rich, as for the next thousand years it served as the trading point between east and west. The second legacy was the inauguration of a theme that ran right through the Middle Ages, namely the marriage between the Roman Empire and the Jewish heresy now know as Christianity.
Constantine’s personal relationship to Christianity was fundamental to Byzantium’s future. It began in 312, when Constantine put the Christian cross on his standard before a crucial battle against an imperial rival at Milvian Bridge. Constantine and his troops were outnumbered but managed to win anyway through better leadership. Constantine took the victory as evidence of God’s favor and responded the following year with a tolerance edict, which was matched by Rome’s western emperor, Licinus. This was a momentous event. Whereas the emperor Diocletian had persecuted Christians in the name of old Roman virtues, Constantine favored Christianity over the traditional cults, even coming to see himself as responsible for this religion’s welfare. This shift in the emperor’s attitude was a crucial to the Empire’s future. From this point forward, Rome’s political leaders, whether east or west, claimed the right and duty to oversee religious matters.
Constantine was both a traditionalist and an innovator. His traditionalism was evident in the continuation of Diocletian’s reform policies. For example, like Diocletian, Constantine kept military and civil administration separate. (The lessons of third century had been well learned.) In addition, he also reformed the coinage, seeking to put the economy on a new foundation. His innovations lay in the new capital and in the new religion. If you are to understand anything about Byzantine history, you must understand that Constantine’s capital city was “Rome.” It inherited the imperial ideology and conservative traditions of old Rome. A new Senate was built in Constantinople, for example, and many of Rome’s senators were forcibly transplanted there. Moreover, the citizens of Byzantium called themselves Romaioi, or Romans. Thus, although the city of Rome was no longer the center of the civilized world, “Rome” perdured in the east. To this we must add, however, a troubling innovation, the joining of an exclusive religion with a rigid state.
The early Christian Church was full of competing religious interpretations that are now called heresies. In AD 325, Constantine presided over a church council in Nicea, in order to deal with the heresy known as Arianism. We will touch on theological issues a little later. For now, you need to understand only that the emperor and the church joined to declare an alternate religious interpretation heretical. This pattern repeated itself for at least the next millennium in the Christian world, as the state was empowered to enforce the purity of belief.
Now, however, we must take leave of Constantinople and consider some broader problems that the transplanted Roman Empire would confront. Byzantium faced three great challenges. The first was the repeated arrival of barbarian tribes, first, in Western and then, later, in Eastern Europe. Beginning in the second century, but increasingly in the fifth century, Germanic tribes migrated from somewhere in Asia to settle in places such as Spain, Italy, Germany, and France. To this migration was then added, in the seventh century, another major move by a people called the Bulgars, who settled in the Balkans before making mischief elsewhere. The second challenge came from the Sassanid Empire in Persia, the successors to the Parthian regime that had caused the Romans so much trouble. The Byzantines eventually won the conflict between these two powers, but at a terrible cost, as we will see. The final challenge came from Islam, which poured out of the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century and remade the political and religious map of what we now call the Middle East. Against this backdrop, we will now consider Byzantium’s thousand-year reign.
Although Constantine reorganized the Roman Empire it remained too unwieldy to manage and defend adequately. As I noted in the last lecture, Germanic migration eventually overwhelmed the western empire’s defenses. In 378, the Visigoths destroyed a Roman army at Adrianople, opening the west to repeated invasion and plunder. At the end of the fourth century the emperor Theodosius, the last “Roman” emperor to rule over the entire empire, tried to rescue the empire by dividing it anew into eastern and western halves. At his death in 395, the empire passed into the hands of his two sons Honorius and Arkadios. This division was not so much fateful as it was a first sign of the inevitable. With Theodosius’ death the dam broke, as waves of tribes passed over the Rhine and Danube frontiers. The old Rome retreated, pulling its troops from Britain and suffering uprisings in Gaul. New tribes moved rapidly into the vacuum. By 409 a tribe called the Vandals had moved across Europe into Spain. By 439 they were in Carthage and had set up their own kingdom. In 410, the Ostrogoths sacked Rome. In 455, a troop of Vandals sacked it again. At the same time a tribe called the Franks settled in the area that would one day be France and part of Germany, while the Visigoths occupied northwestern Spain and southwestern France. Also, during this period, a tribe called the Huns moved through Europe, spreading chaos wherever they went. In 451, they were defeated for the first time in the Battle of the Catalunian Plains in Spain. In 453, their leader Attila died and this warlike group of tribes dissolved. Thus, when the Visigothic king Odovacer finally deposed the last western Emperor, the Empire’s western half was already exhausted and no longer worth defending.
The Germanic invasion in Western Europe inspired a period of retrenchment and reform in the east. The emperors in Constantinople substituted diplomacy and bribery for the force that they could no longer muster. In 493, the Emperor Anastasios I encouraged the Ostrogoths to oust the Visigoths and recognized their king Theoderic as Italy’s rightful ruler. In addition, he also officially recognized the new Vandal kingdom in North Africa, though this brought little, as the Vandals knew that the emperor could not tell them what to do. Thus, for the next thirty years, the sole Roman emperors tried to come to terms with the loss of their western empire and engaged in a process of internal reform that strengthened the areas still left to them. This was a large and wealthy area, as it included not only Anatolia, but also Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. In the sixth century, the Byzantines put the wealth derived from this eastern empire to military use.
In 527, Justinian I, one of Byzantium’s most important emperors came to the throne. Justinian is important for us on a number of levels. First, he was the last emperor to rule over the entire old empire. Second, he reveals again the persistent problem that the Byzantines had with religion, as he created tension by refusing to tolerate religious dissent. Finally, his reign shows us that Byzantium, for all its wealth, was not strong enough to keep the old Rome together. With his death in 565, the empire’s two halves finally broke apart for good.
Justinian’s reign almost did not reach the heights for which he is remembered. Although he came to the throne as a reformer, and achieved much in this capacity, much of his court was corrupt, and this led to an uprising in 532. At first, Justinian did not take violence too seriously. However, after the rioters destroyed the Hagia Sophia and called a rival claimant to the throne, Justinian almost fled the city. The empress Theodora, however, encouraged her husband to remain and fight, and the great general Belisarius put down the rebellion in an awful bloodbath. After this scare, Justinian pursued his domestic reform program vigorously, including the codification of ancient Roman law in the Corpus Iuris and the thorough reform of the tax system. He also became active in foreign affairs. In 533, he sent Belisarius to North Africa to subdue the Vandals, and by 534, that kingdom was destroyed. In 536, Justinian sent Belisarius to defeat the Ostrogoths; this feat was, however, not accomplished until 552. He also sent troops against the Persians, seeking to regain the city of Antioch. This action only ended in defeat and with expensive truce. By Justinian’s death the old Roman Empire seemed to have been resurrected. Unfortunately, Byzantium’s hold on these far-flung regions was tenuous at best, as subsequent events would show.
For all its efforts, Byzantium’s invasions did more harm to its own fortunes than good. This is true on a number of levels. The first was the military occupation of Italy, for in 567 another Germanic tribe, the Langobards, arrived in Italy and set up a northern Italian kingdom that lasted until 774. After this onslaught the Byzantines only held the city of Ravenna on the Italian peninsula. Moreover, the Persian wars continued, costing the empire men and money until 591, when Byzantine armies defeated the Persians and installed a rival of the ruling family on the Persian throne. Persia remained a thorn in Byzantium’s side, nonetheless, until final victory was achieved in 628. But by then, however, another powerful kingdom was growing in the Middle East that would forever change the strategic situation. In addition, a new people, the Bulgars, appeared in the Balkans. They settled in the sparsely populated region and set up a powerful kingdom that menaced the empire from the north. A Bulgar army even stood before Constantinople’s walls in 559.
It is in this context of strife that we need to look to tax and religious policy. As the wars continued the government needed more revenue and more soldiers. The taxes fell heavily on the Empire’s eastern regions, especially Syria and Egypt. In addition, small farmers, who could not avoid taxes, were hit the hardest, virtually eliminating them as a group from the empire. The end result was increasing dissatisfaction with the empire in Syria and Egypt and the disappearance of small farms. This exacerbated the revenue problem, since it was more difficult to collect taxes from large farms, and surly subjects in Egypt and Syria paid grudgingly at best. A drop in economic activity was the result, and this weakened the empire even further.
To this picture of economic and political weakness we must add religious strife. As I noted earlier, Byzantine emperors enforced religious orthodoxy. The problem was, however, that different regions cultivated their own Christian traditions, making religious disagreements political problems. Already in 325, the Emperor Constantine declared the heterodox ideas of the monk Arius heretical. The fundamental question behind these religious debates was the true nature of Jesus. Was he wholly man, wholly God, or a bit of both? Arians believed that Jesus was wholly man. (This will be important to us in a later lecture, as the first wave of Germanic tribes converted to Arianism.) Other groups, such as the Nestorians believed that Jesus was both man and God, but that these two natures were kept separate within him. To this mix we can add the Monophysites, who believed that Jesus was wholly God. This approach took root in Egypt, Syria, and Armenia, where in effect national churches soon opposed to Byzantine interference.
Byzantine emperors tried repeatedly to maintain one form of belief, believing that it was necessary for political stability. In 451, at the Council of Chalcedon Monophysitism was officially condemned. The official position was that Jesus had two natures that were unmixed, but not separate, as they worked together within the Son. This position became orthodox, particularly in Constantinople, though the Bishop of Rome concurred with the decision, making it western dogma as well. The problem was that not everyone accepted it, and neither side was willing to let the other be. For the orthodox, the Monopysites were heretics, while the reverse held true for the other side as well. The two sides fought constantly and the debate only ended when Muslim armies conquered Monophysite regions. It should be noted that these regions often welcomed the new regime, since they were tired of paying high taxes to heretics.
Islam’s explosion onto the world scene, a process that we will discuss in a future lecture, was Byzantium’s biggest threat. Weakened by war and theological disputes Byzantium mounted a desperate defense against the new religion. Soon after the prophet Mohammed’s death in 632 Muslim Arab armies attacked their neighbors and built a new empire. In 635, Muslim armies took Damascus. In 638, they conquered Jerusalem and Antioch. In 640, Egypt fell. In 642, they had conquered what was left of Persia. From here the Arabs turned on Anatolia, Italy, and a host of Mediterranean Islands, including Cyprus, Crete, and Sicily. In 711, they crossed into Spain and headed into France, only to be turned back by Frankish armies at the Battle of Tours in 732. Islam’s aggression inaugurated an 800-year-long death match between the Christian East and the Muslim world. Muslim armies stood before the Constantinople’s gates from 673 to 678 and again from 717 to 718, while Muslim raiding parties entered the Anatolian peninsula, burning and stealing with impunity. The battle between these two great religious powers ebbed and flowed, depending on which side was more politically stable. With the fall of the Umayyad Caliphate in 750 Byzantium gained a short-term advantage, but only as a result of its enemies’ disunity. When the Turks began their rise within the Muslim world at the end of the eleventh century, Byzantium’s final defeat was assured. Of course, that process took another 400 years, and so we will have to cover some of it in another lecture.
Still, in spite of all the violence, the period from the eighth through the eleventh centuries marked Byzantium’s apex. Having lost Justinian’s empire, Byzantium became compact and manageable, which allowed Byzantine emperors took institute significant reforms. The most important change was the theme system, in which a theme or province was put under the command of a general, who ran both the civil and military administration. If this has a familiar ring to it, it is because something similar happened in Ancient Rome. Still, the militarization of civil life seemed to work, as generals raised armies quickly to defend against Muslim raids. In fact, the system allowed Byzantium to extend its influence during the eleventh century. Basil II, for example, used Byzantium’s new power to defeat, finally, the Bulgars. The end was vicious; “Basil the Bulgar-Slayer,” as he is now called, took fifteen thousand prisoners, had them blinded, and sent them back to their king as a warning. It is said that the Bulgar king died of shock at the sight. With this victory Byzantium extended its influence into the Balkans, gaining additional strength for more wars.
Byzantine strength persisted over the next few centuries, but the Muslims were not the only predators that lurked. Although we will discuss the rise of Western Europe in another lecture, it is important to note than a rivalry emerged between East and West in the ninth century, as the old Roman Empire re-emerged under the leadership of the Germanic tribe the Franks. A Frankish King name Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, which led to the creation of a kingdom that asserted its interests in Italy. The new Europe of which this empire was but one part became the source for seven crusades to the Holy Land. I note the crusades, since one of them, the fourth, never actually made it to the Holy Land, but was diverted by Venetian merchants to Constantinople. (The Venetians wanted to steal Byzantium’s share of the eastern trade.) The crusaders sacked the city in 1204 and maintained control of it until 1261. Byzantium recovered from this brutal betrayal, but then the Ottoman Turks renewed the Muslim assault on the empire, and it was only a matter of time until Constantinople and the Empire fell. That day came in 1453, when a thousand-year old empire and a two-thousand year old tradition finally ended. Rome was gone for good.