Notes on the genesis of Byzantium

I wrote this yesterday for two reasons. Someone asked me a question on a forum that deserved a good reply, and I was teaching my thesis supervisor’s class the next day, so I thought that it would be useful. I’ve preserved it here in its unedited form. The reason that I did not post it last night was in observation of the anti-SOPA blackout day. I did not actually black the blog out, despite probably receiving just a few less visitors than Wikipedia’s 160-odd million. This did help me arrange some of my thoughts, and the feedback I received from today’s lecture has been extremely positive. It was my first time teaching a university class, and it was a lot of fun. If only I could have gone into iconoclasm. Anyhow, here’s the ramblings:

In brief, I think we see the genesis of what we define as Byzantium appearing over many centuries. Some of the military reforms, concepts of emperorship, and religion can be directly tied back to Diocletian. Constantine was an extremely important part of the formation of Byzantium through the toleration of Christianity, and so was Theodosius I for making it the state religion. Eusebius of Caesarea’s ideas of the connection between the divine realm and the state and the re-writing of Roman history to make the Romans God’s Chosen People are absolutely indispensable to the process. In the west this died out due to the lack of centralized authority and the high place given to the writings of Augustine, but in the east, if anything, the state became even more closely allied to the church during the crisis period. Under Justinian we saw the weakening of the landholders and the senatorial class. He re-arranged the elite to centre them firmly on Constantinople and away from the provinces, which helped to solidify the power of the emperor as the dispenser of all imperial titles and ensure the primacy of Constantinople.

I don’t see any fundamental break with Rome, but rather gradual change that started at the end of the third century. The state was thoroughly “Byzantine” in our loaded sense of the term by the death of Herakleios, but this transformation was a long process, and is certainly less rapid and less marked than the transition from the Roman Republic to the Principate under Augustus. In the same way, Byzantium was never static: iconoclasm became an important part of its identity even long after that period had ended, and we see significant changes in how the empire was ruled under the Komnenoi in the late eleventh and twelfth centuries.

Towards the end of Justinian’s reign, the Empire begins to enter a period of crisis. The state seems to have had a hard time paying their soldiers, unrest breaks out, and the frontiers on the Danube collapse. Keeping in mind that the fifth and sixth centuries were periods of peaceful transitions of power, we have to look at Herakleios and Phokas in this concept. As military usurpers, they had to justify themselves. We don’t know what Phokas did, if anything. The record slanders him excessively, so any sort of certainly is impossible. However, we have a very judicious sample of Herakleios’ propaganda, and this is one that strongly emphasizes the connection between God and the state and brings up Old Testament images frequently. This is the point, moreso than before, where we really begin to see a transition of the identity and the culture into one centred very strongly on God and the state, and concerned very much with their own survival (which looked bleak throughout much of the seventh and eighth centuries). If any single event sums up the change, it was probably Herakleios’ spectacular victory over Persia in 628. Only two years before, the Persians had attacked Constantinople with the aid of the Avars. The story was that the Virgin Mary’s robe had saved the city (acting in a manner very similar to that of the Roman palladia), and the regime actively promoted this idea. When the Persian government collapsed, all of the ideology about the Romans being God’s Chosen People was confirmed. They had been on the brink of destruction, and yet they had been delivered in a move so spectacular that it must have appeared divine to many people (and was actively promoted that way by Herakleios’ government). This helped to solidify the worldview that the Empire’s fortunes hinged on God’s favour, which was contingent with the sinfulness or lack thereof of the people and its rulers. This further meshed politics and orthodoxy together, and was a major component in the beginning of iconoclasm.

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