In this series of short posts I hope to demonstrate that Byzantium is both not what it has traditionally been described to be and why some of these ideas exist. In philosophy it would be a logical fallacy to argue that an idea is false merely because you can show its origins. The same holds true in history, logic is logic, after all. The origin of the idea is important because it is a form of source material itself for people who study the period where the idea came from, and is a critical part of the historiography of your own field. I study Byzantine history, in the event that my field of study is not obvious by this point. Every field has its popular perceptions, and Byzantine Studies is no exception. So in each one of these posts (and I aim for short, something that usually does not work) I am going to tackle a different popular perception of Byzantium and examine the validity of the idea.
This post’s topic is decline. A few years back in a university course on late antique and early medieval Christianity, the instructor said that Byzantium declined after Justinian until it was no more many centuries later. Territorially, this is a valid conclusion on the grand scale although it hardly does justice to Byzantine history in several respects. It is true to state that under Justinian (ca. 527-565), the empire reached its greatest territorial extent. Africa was taken in a lightning campaign, Sicily fell quickly, Italy was re-conquered, largely lost and then re-conquered again after many grueling campaigns. Imperial troops took Sardinia, Corsica, the Balaeric Islands, and even parts of southern Spain. Imperial territory would never reach such heights again. Parts of Italy fell to the Lombards within a few years, although the popes would continue to look east for another couple of centuries. The coincidence of the rise of Islam and the end of the last great war between Rome and Sassanid Persia (if the Muslims hadn’t destroyed Persia, there certainly would have been more wars. Despite many treaties, Rome and Persia had been staring at each other nervously in northern Mesopotamia since the rise of the Sassanids in the early third century and war after war had broken out) sheared off large parts of imperial territory. Syria, with the great city of Antioch, was lost. Egypt fell a few years later. Byzantine Africa was gone by the end of the seventh century. By this point, power in Italy was growing increasingly fragile, and much of the Balkans had been lost to Slavs, Avars, and Bulgars. Constantinople itself was besieged four times in just under a century (626, 654, 674, 717) and this demonstrates just how much territory had been lost. Ancient logistics were a fragile thing, and Constantinople was well-defended and rather out of the way. The fact that multiple major expeditions could be launched with reasonable belief that they would finally eliminate the Roman Empire suggests the desperation of the time. The emperor Herakleios even issued coins with the rather depressing and desperate DEUS ADIUTA ROMANIS (“May God help the Romans”) stamped on them. Byzantium was no longer holding the barbarians back in Mesopotamia or the European river frontiers (the Rhine and Danube had been the limes in Europe); Byzantium was desperately trying to keep the barbarians off the walls of its capital city.
This was not the end, however. The Arab conquests had taken Egypt and Syria, and Arab raiders regularly crossed the Taruros Mountains to attack Byzantine territory. Italy was largely gone, and in 751 pope Zacharias I in Rome turned to Pipin, the maior domus of the Merovingian Franks for aid against the Lombards. Rome had spent the previous two centuries looking east, but the east was in no position to provide aid. Sicily still held out at this time, and although some Balkan territory had been retaken, much of that was still beyond imperial control. In response to the crisis, Byzantium reinvigorated itself along lines that extended beyond territory. Byzantium continued to assert its identity as the leader of the Christian world, and thus it had citizens beyond its own borders. One of the most famous is John of Damascus. Despite never setting foot once in his life in imperial territory, he was considered one of the most influential Byzantine theologians. The Armenians were heavily influenced by Byzantine culture and style, and sought to emulate them. Even the Muslim Arabs imitated Byzantine institutions, and produced coins very much like the Byzantine ones, surprisingly enough, with pictures of people! (Tradition Islamic art is aniconic and figural, for the belief is that on judgement day Allah will ask the artist to breathe life into his work. When he fails, he will Allah will destroy him for doing what is Allah’s prerogative alone. Still, this clearly didn’t bother the early Umayyads, who decorated their palaces with nude female figures. I guess the Taliban missed this little detail, since this is the era they desire to return to.) Both the Bulgars and the Rus would be brought into the Byzantine orbit by the mystique of ancient power that the Byzantines worked very hard to maintain.
Territorially, a century after the shock of the Arab conquests the recovery began. Parts of the Balkans were retaken, and Asia Minor was repopulated. In the ninth and tenth centuries, serious conquest was undertaken. Crete was recovered, the Balkans were finally pacified in the early eleventh century by the wonderfully titled Basil the Bulgar-slayer, Armenia fell into the Byzantine territorial orbit, and parts of Syria and Mesopotamia were recovered. The recovery of Jerusalem was considered (it likely could have been taken with little trouble) and the conquest of Baghdad was also a possibility (holding it would have been difficult.) The imperial presence in Italy was strengthened. This period alone disproves that Byzantium simply declined territorially until it was no more.
In the late eleventh century, territorial losses were again incurred. Much of Italy was lost to an adventurous band of Normans, and the Seljuk Turks took large parts Asia Minor. Things again looked bleak in 1081 when a young and somewhat unsuccessful general by the name of Alexios Komnenos took the throne. The Turks were near the Bosporos, and the Normans were looking hungrily at the Via Egnatia, the road to Constantinople. However, he managed to drive the Normans back to Italy and masterfully use the crusaders to recover large parts of Anatolia. His successors expanded on what he had done, although they never really tried all that hard to retake a large part of Anatolia. When Manuel I Komnenos set out in 1176 to take Ikonion (modern Konya), it was a move to improve his status in the west. There was no real interest in recovering that region because financially it was not worth it. This brings us to another point in the idea of territorial decline: does it really count as decline when a people does not view a part of their own territory as worth holding? Priorities in Byzantium had changed. A chain of Anatolian fortresses was no longer needed to hold the Arabs back. The Turks were too weak and divided to ever threaten Constantinople, the power base of the empire, so why would it be worth the risk and expense of retaking marginal land? The aristocracy had little interest in this land, because unlike in Western Europe, they were not based on that land. Their power came from offices that they held in Constantinople, and although they had estates, that is not where they received their status from. The Phokas family of the tenth and eleventh centuries is a perfect example of this. We know that they had large estates in the east, but once the family was removed from power in the capital due to an attempted coup, they disappear utterly from the sources. Once they no longer held offices they were no longer relevant. It is important to remember that land was not viewed in the same way it was in the west. Power was in the capital, as was civilization. Where the Farnks saw the world in terms of forest and field, the Byzantines saw it in city and countryside. Certain religious concepts were also an important part of the Byzantine mindset. They were, after all, God’s Chosen People. All of the land in the world was His, and it was thus given to them. They may temporarily lose parts of it, but in the end it all would come back to them. The concepts of central power in Constantinople and the religious ideology help to explain why territorial integrity was not of prime importance to the Byzantines. This is important, because it fleshes out the original question and gives us much greater insight into Byzantine life and society as opposed to looking at the empire as a purely territorial entity.
After the death of Manuel Komnenos in 1180, things spiraled out of control. Part of the empire that had never fallen to barbarian incursion before was lost in 1204 when the crusaders took Constantinople. At this point, we can safely say that Byzantium declined territorially until it was no more. The Latin Empire of Constantinople was a sad, sickly entity that managed to lose its first emperor in his first year, and was retaken sixty years later by the Byzantine government-in-exile at Nicaea. But by this point there were several little “empires” and the Turks began to steadily chip away at that territory until in 1453, Turks from the House of Osman, who by that point had become a major military power, took Constantinople.
So when we look back at the stereotype, what do we see? We see that on its most basic level, it is true. Byzantium did decline territorially until it was gone. However, such a statement hardly accounts for the idea of the Byzantine commonwealth and what that land actual means, not to mention the fact that there were several centuries that saw major expansion and consolidation. The idea behind this series of posts is explore some historical concepts that we think we know and demonstrate how we need to challenge those ideas and give them a serious examination before accepting them. We need to look beyond our own ideas regarding how we view the world and how we view a state, and look instead at how the people we are examining viewed their world and their state, which was one where ideas of territorial integrity and sovereignty are not the same as ours. And this, I believe, is one of the major reasons why we study history. The critical thinking and reading skills that it can provide are essential to anyone who wants to take a broader and deeper look at the world. The “facts” should not be accepted as they are: read the sources and think about them, rather than just believing the opinion of someone who claims to have read all of the sources.
So why do we have this idea of decline in Byzantium? Edward Gibbon certainly has to take a large part of the blame. After all, things never improved from the time of the Marcus Aurelius’ death in the second century to the Enlightenment in his eyes. It was a long, terminal decline that was certainly fatal when Constantine accepted Christianity. At that point, the empire became Christian and autocratic, two concepts that Enlightenment thinkers despised. I also suspect that such classifications are a part of human nature. It is much easier to define other groups by simple traits. The ancient Greeks saw everyone who did not speak Greek as a barbarian, and our literature is not all that different. Take Star Trek as an example. What defines the Romulans is that they are sneaky, and the Klingons are angry warriors. To understand or create such diversity takes a lot more effort: Tolkien did not write his works in one day. In the same way, we need to give serious inspection to easy historical classifications. It is easy (and lazy) to call the Merovingian Franks axe-happy based on Gregory of Tours’ descriptions. Real history, on the other hand, looks at why Gregory of Tours might have viewed the Franks in that manner, and other sources to see if the Franks really liked to chop people right down the middle with big axes like Clovis is said to have done. Ogres have layers, and so does human history. To take what we see on the surface as fact is to do an injustice to the complexity of that history and the people who lived it. (And real historians will mock you in their books and classes for being lazy like that.)