Post-classical history

The East Roman Empire

Hurl your javelins and arrows against them… so that they know that they are fighting… with the descendants of the Greeks and the Romans.

Emperor Constantine XI Palaiologos addressing his forces

on 28 May 1453, Chronicle of Pseudo-Sphrantzes

The expansion of Rome’s empire and the spread of Roman culture to Britain, North Africa, the Balkans, Egypt, central Europe and the Near East is still an astonishing phenomenon. With its capacity to extract taxation from all its provinces to finance further military activity and to maintain the central bureaucracy, Roman administration achieved a previously unimaginable control over territories of very different natures. The empire’s strength lay in the system which allowed it to integrate conquered regions so that they added to its power. It mastered the art of recruiting local talent from the provinces to its own causes, while reducing the regions to subordinate status.

While Latin was used throughout the West, Greek remained the lingua franca of all the eastern regions. Until the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire employed both ancient languages. Administrators sent from the West to the eastern half of the empire were often issued with wordbooks giving the Greek equivalent of Latin words and explaining local terminology. Translation from Greek to Latin was largely the work of Christian scholars who wanted to make the Scriptures and theological writings available to westerners. Much less Latin literature was rendered into Greek. Most of Cicero, Ovid, Virgil and Horace, for instance, remained unknown to monoglot Greek speakers. Most well-educated men, however, were bilingual. Ammianus Marcellinus (c. 330–92 or later), a native of Antioch who identified himself as a Greek and a soldier, wrote a history of his times in Latin which documents the campaigns of Emperor Julian. He also brilliantly evoked the beauty of ancient sites, such as the temple of Sarapis in Alexandria, levelled by Christians in 391, or the Forum of Trajan in Rome.

While emperors tried to maintain the unity of this vast empire, they recognized the difficulties of imposing a uniform government throughout its far-flung regions. The solution devised by Diocletian (284–305) divided the empire into two halves, each ruled by an emperor and an assistant junior emperor. The two senior emperors were to act in concert, issuing laws to be observed in both halves of the Roman world, while defending their own territories. This ‘rule of four’ (tetrarchy) was intended to stabilize civilian administration and military defence. It functioned well enough to allow Diocletian and his senior colleague to retire after twenty years of service, when their junior colleagues became emperors. But as we saw in chapter 1, Constantine overturned this system by his determination to become sole ruler, and this restored the monarchy.

Monarchy, however, was no more successful than the tetrarchy in solving the Roman Empire’s problems during the fourth century. Constantine’s descendants were challenged by two contrasting types of military threat. In the East, the Romans had to contain Persia, always considered the ‘other eye’ of the face of the known world. In the north and west, Germanic tribes were ever anxious to invade and occupy Roman territory. With no written language, no coinage, no law or recognizable system of government, they were traditionally considered unsophisticated barbarians. Yet Julian (361–3) was obliged to campaign against the Alemanni east of the Rhine before he became emperor, as well as the Persians beyond the Euphrates. No emperor could defend all the borders of this extended empire simultaneously.

In 395, Theodosius I imposed a different solution with the formal division of the empire between his two sons: Honorius was acclaimed emperor in the West and Arcadius in the East. But since both the young emperors needed guardians and advisers, military generals took advantage of the situation. Stilicho (half-Vandal, half-Roman) gained control of the West, while Eutropios, an emancipated slave and eunuch, took charge in the East. They represented the recruitment of non-Roman forces, especially Goths, into the army, which allowed barbarian soldiers to attain the highest military positions. While this process occurred in both halves of the empire, barbarian influence was much more dangerous in the West. A rebellion in Britain forced the withdrawal of imperial troops in 406, which coincided with a major incursion of Vandals, Sueves and Alans across the frozen Rhine, who then advanced through Gaul and into Spain. This marked the beginning of the end of the western half of the Roman Empire.

But the most serious challenge to imperial power came from the Visigoths (West Goths), whose leader Alaric was appointed magister militum per Illyricum (master of the soldiers in the eastern province of Illyricum, a large region of the Balkans). By 410 he led the Visigoths into Italy, blockaded Rome and refused the Senate’s negotiations and offer of gold. In August of that year Rome, the eternal city, capital of the greatest empire of the ancient world, was sacked by his dissatisfied troops. The disaster prompted St Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in North Africa, to write his City of God, to warn Christians in the West of setting any store in earthly glory.

The sack of Rome was followed by increased barbarian conquests, notably by Attila the Hun, the second sack of Rome, by Vandals from North Africa in 455, and the deposition of the last Roman emperor based in Rome itself, Romulus Augustulus, in 476. After this, the western half of the Roman world was divided up among barbarian rulers. Some, like Alaric and Theoderic the Ostrogoth (East Goth), were encouraged by eastern emperors to go west and leave Constantinople in peace. Others, like the Burgundians and Franks, crossed the Rhine to settle in what had been central and northern Gaul. The few officials who represented the remnants of Roman rule fell back on Arles in the south of what is now France and negotiated the best possible arrangements with the newcomers. Many of senatorial status sought refuge in the Church.

The eastern half of the empire, however, did not decline and fall. On the contrary, it survived for over a millennium based in its strong metropolis, Constantinople, and supported by the rich provinces of the Near East. It controlled the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, roughly east of a line passing from Singidunum on the Danube (modern Belgrade), through the Adriatic and south to Cyrene in North Africa (modern Libya) (see map 2). Most of the Balkans, Greece, the Aegean islands and all of modern Turkey, lay within its northern half, and all of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Libya in the eastern and southern sectors. Across the Black Sea, Roman power retained a small settlement in the Crimea, and navigation across the Euxine or ‘friendly’ sea continued. In the Mediterranean, Crete, Cyprus and Sicily constituted key points on naval routes, and the ports of Alexandria, Gaza, Caesarea and Antioch maintained their trade under the authority of Constantinople. Until the seventh century, international commerce also extended to western centres like Carthage in North Africa and Cartagena and Seville in southern Spain.

This eastern half of the Roman Empire is Byzantium. That name was not given to it until the sixteenth century, when humanist scholars tried to find a way of identifying what remained after the collapse of Old Rome in the West. Although they coined a term which has been used ever since, it is important to remember that the inhabitants of the empire called themselves Romans (in Greek, Romaioi), and saw themselves as such. Their claim on Roman qualities was not a vanity or snobbishness. From 330 to 619 Byzantium enjoyed imperial realities as well as ideology, above all in ‘bread and circuses’, a shorthand for the principle of providing basic food supplies plus public entertainment free to all the inhabitants of the eastern capital.

As we have seen, Constantine I insisted on the bread dole for all those who built new houses in Constantinople. Organizing sufficient grain imports from Egypt was a major state undertaking, which provided employment for shippers who owned the grain ships, sailors and naval captains who made the annual journey to Alexandria, and hauliers who disembarked the cargo on the island of Tenedos, at the entrance to the Dardanelles, where it was stored in vast silos until favourable winds allowed it to be taken to the capital. There it was distributed to guilds of millers and bakers who made sure that bread was available every day. Those who could document their residence in the city were issued with a bronze token which had to be shown before they could receive their loaf of free bread at distribution points marked by steps. Free bread was not made available on the basis of need; rather it was a privilege for those who could prove they were Byzantines, that is, they lived in the city.

After the Persian occupation of Egypt in 619, the grain fleet no longer arrived, but the provision of bread continued. Alternative sources of grain, primarily from Thrace, ensured supplies which were baked into loaves. But from this date onwards inhabitants had to pay for their bread. Although there were riots whenever the quality declined and the eparch (prefect) of the city was attacked for any shortages, the principle of supplying the most basic foodstuff of antiquity to the leading city of the time was maintained for centuries. Even when the population of Constantinople expanded to its greatest extent, perhaps as high as half a million under Justinian prior to the plague, and around 400,000 in the twelfth century, sufficient bread was baked to satisfy it.

Alongside supplies of bread, the state also guaranteed public entertainment, which took place in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, renovated by Constantine I. This racing arena was designed to seat the entire population of the city, senators and dignitaries on the marble seats nearest the track, with the rest seated on wooden benches above, and even women and children packed into the standing room at the top. The Byzantines were passionate enthusiasts for horse and chariot racing and very partisan in their support for teams identified by colour. The Reds, Whites, Greens and Blues, imported from Rome, were organized by professional corporations. By the sixth century, only the Greens and Blues were significant, but they had become large, powerful bodies with full responsibility not only for racing but also for displays of gymnastics, athletics, boxing, wild animals, pantomime, dancing and singing, which filled the entractes between the races.

Thanks to the history of Procopius we have a detailed description of one famous public entertainer: Theodora, born in about 497. Some historians consider it an unfounded account intended to damn her, but since the emperor had to change the law to make her his wife, she must have come from a family of low status, even if she did not perform in the way Procopius insists. His account reveals something of the way the Greens and Blues organized popular entertainment, documenting the different tasks which their members had to perform: Theodora’s father, Akakios, appears as the bear-keeper, who made the bear dance or fight in particular displays; after his death, her mother tried to make a new alliance with the equivalent figure in the Blue faction but without success. She then put her three daughters on the stage and thus got the family re-employed.

Theodora is said to have had no particular skills as a dancer or flute-player (roles depicted on the base of the obelisk in the Hippodrome) but she became a famous circus artist, appreciated for her sexy acts and knock-about comedy. This type of entertainment was quite different from the theatrical dancers who re-created stories from the ancient Greek myths in mime to musical accompaniment. Theodora excelled at a cruder style of entertainment and that is how she attracted the emperor’s nephew, Justinian, who seems to have shared her taste. Once the law had been changed to allow Justinian to marry her, Theodora became his consort and in due course empress. Later I shall discuss her role and her famous portrait in Ravenna.

The Roman policy of bread and circuses gradually evolved into a Christian one of soup and salvation, as the Church tried to curb popular enthusiasm for racing, betting and what it considered indecent entertainment. Theatrical performances of ancient Greek plays declined and the theatres and odeons, such a prominent feature of ancient cities, became quarries for building material. As they fell into ruins, these sites were often associated with evil spirits; prophetic powers were attributed to certain ancient statues; both were considered dangerous for Christians. In its attacks on urban traditions such as the baths, and rural ones like the celebration of the wine harvest, the Church also tried to check immoral and inappropriate behaviour. But it could never wean the Byzantines from their passion for Hippodrome entertainment.

The Blues and the Greens who organized the races also had more serious duties: they acclaimed the emperor whenever he sat in the imperial box in the Hippodrome, which he could enter directly from within the palace. From this responsibility a political dimension developed, as individuals or groups used the factions to express their anger. Through staged interventions following the obligatory acclamations, the Greens or Blues might chant critical remarks, for example about high prices. In a sixth-century debate, the condemnation of particular practices is recorded, as well as the emperor’s response, given via the chief chamberlain (praipositos). Some potential for political dissent was brought into the shared space of the Hippodrome, where it could be controlled. Grievances against corrupt officials and excessive taxation could thus be aired. Nevertheless, the Hippodrome did not constitute a space for real deliberation or serious debate, which the autocratic nature of Byzantine rule never admitted.

It did provide a place of exciting public entertainment shared by all classes in Byzantium, including the emperor. On occasions, the ruler even participated in the chariot racing: in the ninth century, the factions were instructed to allow Emperor Theophilos (829–42) wearing the colours of the Blues to win. The factions also provided private entertainment for imperial guests inside the palace, together with the choirs of the city churches. In the tenth century, long banquets were enlivened by dances performed to the sound of organs operated by waterpower. Displays of gymnastics, acrobatics and other circus entertainment, sometimes on camels or high wires suspended above the Hippodrome, which delighted visitors to Constantinople, were also the responsibility of the factions.

The Hippodrome was the place where the Byzantines gathered for ceremonial events such as the commemoration of the city’s birthday, always fêted on 11 May; victory celebrations; the death of enemies and condemned criminals; and the birth or crowning of a young co-emperor. The emperor met his people there. In the twelfth century, when the Angelos dynasty decided to celebrate imperial marriages in the privacy of the Blachernai Palace, the populace objected forcefully. Sometimes the circumstances might prove adversarial rather than favourable. Certainly there was plotting and calculating in the subterranean areas of the Hippodrome where Blues and Greens stored their costumes, props and other equipment, while several departments of government functioned in chambers below the seating. The Hippodrome played such a significant role in the life of the city that emperors devoted significant funds to public entertainment.

Imperial ideology sustained all aspects of the Byzantine court with Roman symbols of power and new trappings adopted from Persia. Diocletian was the first emperor to wear a diadem, gold robes and insignia of office – imports from the East – and he expected people to prostrate themselves before him. Fourth-century rulers elaborated these customs from Persia, where the king of kings (Shah an Shah) sat enthroned under golden trees filled with golden birds who could be made to sing, flanked by lions that roared. Theodosius II constructed a polo ground so that Byzantine emperors could play the royal sport, another import from Persia.

In the Byzantine court itself, within the vast palace complex, the symbols and realities of autocratic power met. Imperial authority was demonstrated through technological inventions such as water clocks and astronomical devices. The Byzantines used the principles developed by Hero of Alexandria in the first century AD to develop water-powered automata to impress visitors to the court. In the tenth century, Liutprand of Cremona, sent as an envoy to Constantinople, reported that the immense throne guarded by ‘lions that roared’ rose high into the air. ‘Behold! The man whom just before I had seen sitting on a moderately elevated seat had now changed his raiment and was sitting on the level of the ceiling.’ In the imperial baths and outside in the gardens fountains sprayed water into the air while golden birds sang and organs provided musical entertainment. Like the clocks which accurately measured time and astronomical instruments which could predict eclipses, all this symbolized the power of the emperors, their incomparable prestige and ostentatious grandeur.

The architectural setting for this celebration of imperial supremacy was modelled on the palace of Augustus on the Palatine Hill in Old Rome. Septimius Severus (193–211) built the original palace in ancient Byzantion, to which later rulers added until the complex of the Great Palace covered an extensive area in the first of Constantinople’s fourteen regions. It contained not only the major reception halls, the living quarters of the imperial family and their servants, numerous churches, baths and garrisons, but also many bureaus of the central administration all linked by corridors, gardens laid out with terraces, and fountains supplied by cisterns (see chapter 16). From its position on the acropolis it had spectacular views out over the Bosphoros. In the late seventh century, Justinian II (685–95 and 705–11) surrounded the area with a wall, thus making it the first of many kremlins. Despite this fortification, numerous rebels and assassins got into the palace, for instance in 820, when they disguised themselves as members of the choir due to sing in the Christmas celebrations, and murdered Leo V.

The palace was always a centre of learning, providing education for the imperial children and maintaining a great library. Most emperors promoted scholarship and patronized individual teachers. Basil I, who deposed Photios from the patriarchate, later brought him back to the palace to teach his sons, Constantine, Leo and Alexander. The second boy, who ruled as Leo VI (886–912), became known as ‘Leo the Wise’, which may have been partly a tribute to his teacher. The palace library nurtured some intellectual rulers, like Constantine VII (913–59), and maintained scribes who made de luxe copies of manuscripts to be given to foreign rulers. In 827, they copied the writings of Pseudo-Dionysios the Areopagite in a manuscript which was taken to Louis the Pious, and preserved in the monastery of Saint Denis outside Paris (it is now in the Bibliothèque Nationale). And under Romanos II (959–63) they produced an illustrated copy of the medical and pharmacological text by Dioskorides for the caliph of Cordoba in Spain.

In the practical administration of the eastern half of the empire, Roman traditions also persisted, notably in matters of taxation. Officials continued both the census of population and evaluation of land quality in order to tax people, property and landed estates. Tax revenue remained essential to imperial expenditure, and its decline through grants of tax-free land, and the adoption of tax farming in the eleventh century, was to cause a major crisis. In the transition from carved inscription and papyrus documents to written records on parchment, Roman recording practice was sustained, with copies of all imperial decisions kept in triplicate. Monumental inscriptions on stone were used, for example, to date repairs to the walls of Constantinople and to record a victory gained at Nicaea in the early eighth century. Parchment, like papyrus, was prone to destruction by fire and looting, so that only a few traces of this mighty bureaucratic organization have survived, mostly in official correspondence such as that with the bishops of Rome, or imperial donations to monasteries.

In the fundamental procedure of proclaiming a new ruler, Byzantium added a Christian element to its Roman inheritance. Acclamation by the Senate, army and people in the Hippodrome was transformed in 457 by the addition of a coronation performed by the patriarch in Hagia Sophia. Leo I was the first emperor to be sanctioned by this Christian ritual. Patriarch Anatolius insisted upon it possibly because Leo was an unknown military figure who stepped into the vacuum left by the death of the last representatives of the Theodosian dynasty. Performance of the ceremony and use of a crown became one of the ways pretenders and usurpers would try to increase their power. But more significantly, coronation symbolized the transformation of Roman imperial traditions in Byzantium into Christian ones.

The medieval Byzantine coronation ritual was to be imitated in courts all over Europe. At the elevation of Charlemagne to the position of emperor in AD 800, Pope Leo III had to find a crown to place on his head, because there could be no coronation without a crown. In addition, he anointed him with holy oil, a western innovation in the ritual. In the medieval West, ‘unction’, as it is called, was normally reserved for bishops and high-ranking clergy. When Leo III used it for the coronation of a monarch, he claimed a vital and superior role for the Church, which popes of Rome, metropolitans of Russia and archbishops of Canterbury became anxious to perpetuate. Napoleon put aside this dependence on the Church when he crowned himself in Paris. Other monarchs in the Old World and the New, however, perpetuated the Byzantine style of coronation and it formed the basis of Queen Elizabeth II’s elevation, the first to be televised, in 1953, fifteen hundred years after Leo I was crowned by Anatolius. The crucial moment of unction, as the bishops gathered round the monarch, however, was still regarded as too holy to be shown to viewers.

Though decorated by Christianity, Byzantium maintained the Roman traditions which had made imperial rule famous, not least the imperial ideology, with its ramifications in law, military organization, medicine, administration, taxation and court ceremonial. The emperor remained a god-like figure on earth, even if his undisputed authority was sanctioned by God. He trained and led his troops in battle, though churchmen blessed the campaign and prayed for the victory which was granted by God. The imperial court remained a site of elaborate pomp and lavish display, even though it mirrored the court of heaven. Justice remained the imperial prerogative and duty, and appeals to the emperor from even poor anonymous subjects were given attention. The ancient temples of Constantinople were not demolished or immediately converted: they survived until the sixth century when they were adapted for secular use. Some ancient works of art were appreciated, even though they depicted naked gods and goddesses.

While feats of Roman engineering were visible in the construction of bridges, roads, fortifications and aqueducts, which continued to be built for centuries, the unseen functions of a paid bureaucratic administration were probably more significant in sustaining Byzantium. When incompetent rebels like Phokas (602–10) seized the throne, the official structure of government carried on its work without change. Yet emperors including Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) could intervene to reform the system. The need for trained functionaries also helped to maintain high standards of education and raised the general level of literacy. And the bureaucrats themselves developed a sense of their own worth and an esprit de corps which is clear from their letters.

As the eastern half of the Roman Empire transformed itself into Christian Byzantium, new traditions of religious belief were welded to older imperial and classical traditions, including a self-conscious preservation of pre-Christian pagan times. The vitality of Byzantium and its survival owe much to this coexistence of conflicting strands. When Constantine XI Palaiologos urged his subjects to defend their capital against the Ottoman Turks, on the day before the final onslaught on 29 May 1453, he called upon them to demonstrate the spirit and strength of their ancestors, the Greeks and Romans. He himself died in the battle in this spirit, less a Christian martyr than a descendant of Caesar and Augustus, Constantine and Justinian.

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