Post-classical history



‘In prosperity the destroyer shall come’ JOB XV, 21

In the middle of the eleventh century the tranquillity of the cast Mediterranean world seemed assured for many years to come. Its two great powers, Fatimid Egypt and Byzantium, were on good terms with each other. Neither was aggressive, and both wished to keep in check the Moslem states further to the east, where Turkish adventurers were stirring up trouble, without, however, seriously alarming the governments of Constantinople or Cairo. The Fatimids were friendly towards the Christians. Since Hakim’s death there had been no persecution; and they were opening their ports to merchants from Byzantium and from Italy. Traders and pilgrims alike enjoyed their goodwill.

This goodwill was guaranteed by the power of Byzantium. Thanks to a series of great warrior Emperors the Empire now stretched from the Lebanon to the Danube and from Naples to the Caspian Sea. Despite occasional corruption and an occasional riot, it was better administered than any contemporary kingdom. Constantinople had never before been so wealthy. It was the unrivalled financial and commercial capital of the world. Traders from far and wide, from Italy and Germany, from Russia, from Egypt and the East, came crowding there to buy the luxuries produced by its factories and to exchange their own rougher wares. The bustling life of the vast city, far more extensive and populous than even Cairo or Baghdad, never failed to amaze the traveller with its crowded harbour, its full bazaars, its wide suburbs and its tremendous churches and palaces. The imperial court, dominated though it was at present by two wildly eccentric, elderly princesses, seemed to him the centre of the universe.

If art is the mirror of civilization, Byzantine civilization stood high. Its eleventh-century artists showed all the restraint and balance of their classical ancestors; but they added two qualities derived from Oriental tradition, the rich decorative formalism of the Iranians and the mystical intensity of the ancient East. The works of the age that survive, whether they be small ivories or great mosaic panels or provincial churches, such as those of Daphne or Holy Luke in Greece, all display the same triumphant synthesis of traditions merged into a perfect whole. The literature of the time, though more hampered by the overstrong memory of classical achievement, shows a variety all of excellent standard. We have the polished history of John Diaconus, the delicate lyrics of Christopher of Mitylene, the sweeping popular epic of Digenis Akritas, the rough, common-sense aphorisms of the soldier Cecaumenus and the witty, cynical court memoirs of Michael Psellus. The atmosphere almost has the complacency of the eighteenth century, but for an other-worldliness and a pessimism from which Byzantium never was freed.

The Greek has a subtle and difficult character, not to be recognized in the picture that popular students of the fifth century B.C. like to paint. The Byzantine complicated this character with the strains of eastern blood in him. The result was full of paradox. He was highly practical, with an aptitude for business and a taste for worldly honours; yet he was always ready to renounce the world for a life of monastic contemplation. He believed fervently in the divine mission of the Empire and the divine authority of the Emperor; yet he was an individualist, quick to rebel against a government that displeased him. He had a horror of heresy; yet his religion, most mystical of all the established forms of Christianity, allowed him, priest and layman alike, great philosophical latitude. He despised all his neighbours as barbarians; yet he easily adopted their habits and their ideas. Despite his sophistication and his pride his nerve was unsteady. Disaster had so often nearly overwhelmed Byzantium that his confidence in things was sapped. In a sudden crisis he would panic and would indulge in savagery that in his calmer moments he disdained. The present might be peaceful and brilliant; but countless prophecies warned him that some day his city would perish, and he believed them to be true. Happiness and tranquillity could not be found in this dark transitory world, but only in the kingdom of Heaven.

The Decline of Byzantine Economy

His fears were justified. The foundations of Byzantine power were insufficiently sure. The great Empire had been organized for defence. The provinces were governed by military officials, themselves controlled by the civil administration at Constantinople. This system provided an efficient local militia that could defend its district in times of invasion and which could supplement the main imperial army on its great campaigns. But, with the danger of invasion over, it gave too much power to the provincial governor, especially if he were rich enough to ignore his paymaster at the capital. Moreover, prosperity was ruining the agrarian organization of Asia Minor. The backbone of Byzantium had been its communities of free peasants, holding their land directly from the State, often in return for military services. But, there as elsewhere in the Middle Ages, land was the only safe investment for wealth. Every rich man sought to acquire land. The Church persuaded its devotees to bequeath it land. Land was the usual reward given to successful generals or deserving ministers of state. So long as the Empire was winning back land from the enemy or repopulating areas emptied by raids and devastation, all seemed well; but its very success created a land-hunger. Magnates and monasteries could only increase their estates by buying out peasants that were in need of cash or by taking over whole villages, either as a gift from the state or by undertaking the responsibility for paying the taxes of the community. The wiser Emperors sought to prevent them, partly because the new landlord seldom resisted the temptation to turn his land into a sheep-ranch, and still more because the transference of peasant-soldiers’ holdings gave to the landlord the power to raise a private army and weakened the army of the state. But their legislation failed. In the course of the tenth century there arose in Byzantium a hereditary land-owning aristocracy, rich and powerful enough to defy the central government. The Emperor Basil II, the greatest of the Macedonian dynasty, had with difficulty suppressed a revolt by members of this aristocracy early in his reign. He triumphed; and his prestige lasted on till his dynasty ended in 1056, at the death of his niece, Theodora. Had the Macedonian line produced male heirs, the hereditary principle might well have been established for the imperial throne, and Byzantium would have possessed a force capable of curbing the hereditary nobility. But, though loyalty to the dynasty enabled the Empress Zoe and her successive husbands to reign on in profligate insouciance for nearly thirty years and the aged Empress Theodora to rule alone, disruptive forces were growing all the while. When Theodora died, two parties in Byzantium faced each other in bitter opposition, the court clique which controlled the central administration and the noble families who controlled the army; while the Church, with a foot in both camps, attempted to hold the balance.

Hardly had the septuagenarian Empress, trusting till the end in a prophecy that offered her a reign of many years, sunk into her final coma before the court had pushed on to the throne an elderly civil servant, Michael Stratioticus. The army refused to accept the new Emperor. It marched on Constantinople determined that its commander should succeed. Michael retired without a struggle; and the general, Isaac Comnenus, became Emperor. The military aristocracy had won the first round.

Comnenus and Ducas

Isaac Comnenus, like many of his fellow-Byzantine noblemen, was an aristocrat of only the second generation. His father was a Thracian soldier, probably a Vlach, who had caught the fancy of Basil II and had been given by the Emperor lands in Paphlagonia, where he built a great castle known as Castra Comnenon, and still to-day called Kastamuni. Isaac and his brother John inherited their father’s lands and his military prowess, and both had married into the Byzantine aristocracy. Isaac’s wife was a princess of the former royal house of Bulgaria, John’s an heiress of the great family of the Dalasseni. But despite his wealth and his high command and the support of the army, Isaac found his government continually thwarted by the ill will of the civil service. After two years he gave up the struggle and retired to a monastery. He had no son; so he nominated as his successor Constantine Ducas. His sister-in-law, Anna Dalassena, never forgave him.

Constantine Ducas was head of probably the oldest and richest family of the Byzantine aristocracy; but he had made his career at court. Isaac hoped that he would therefore be acceptable to both parties. But he soon showed that his leanings were away from his caste. His treasury was empty; and the army was dangerously powerful. His solution was to reduce the armed forces. As a measure of internal policy this could be defended. But at no time in Byzantine history would it have been safe to weaken the Empire’s defensive power; and at this moment such an action was fatal. Storm clouds were blowing up from the East; and in the West a storm had broken.

For some decades past, the state of southern Italy had been turbulent and confused. The frontier of the Byzantine Empire officially ran from Terracina on the Tyrrhenian coast to Termoli on the Adriatic. But within that line only the provinces of Apulia and Calabria were under the direct rule of Byzantium. There the population was mainly Greek. On the west coast were the three merchant city-states of Gaeta, Naples and Amalfi. All three were nominally the vassals of the Emperor. The Amalfitans, who by now had a considerable trade with the Moslem East, found the Emperor’s goodwill useful in their negotiations with the Fatimid authorities; and they kept a permanent consul at Constantinople. The Neapolitans and the Gaetans, though equally ready to trade with the infidel, were less punctilious towards the Emperor. The interior of the country was held by the Lombard princes of Benevento and Salerno, acknowledging alternately the suzerainty of the eastern and the western emperor and equally disrespectful to both. Sicily was still held by the Moslems, despite many Byzantine attempts to reconquer the island; and raids along the Italian coasts from there and from Africa added to the chaos of the country.

Into these districts had come large numbers of Norman adventurers from northern France, pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem or to visit their favourite shrine of St Michael on Monte Gargano, many of them soldiers of fortune who stayed on to serve the Lombard princes. There was a land-hunger in Normandy, whose thickly populated estates offered no scope for ambitious and restless younger sons and landless knights. This impulse for expansion, which was soon to make them undertake the conquest of England, turned their eyes towards the East and all its riches; and they saw southern Italy as the key to a Mediterranean empire. Its confusion gave them their opportunity.

The Sons of Tancred de Hauteville

In 1040 six brothers, the sons of a petty Norman knight, Tancred de Hauteville, seized the town of Melfi in the Apulian hills and founded there a principality. The local Byzantine authorities did not take them seriously; but the western emperor, Henry III, eager to control a province for which the two empires had long contended, and the German Pope whom he had nominated, resentful that the Patriarch of Constantinople should rule over any Italian see, both gave the Normans their support. Within twelve years the sons of Tancred had established a mastery over the Lombard principalities. They had driven the Byzantines into the tip of Calabria and to the Apulian coast. They were threatening the cities of the west coast; and they were sending raids through Campania northward to the neighbourhood of Rome. The Byzantine government was alarmed. The governor of Apulia, Marianus Argyrus, was summoned home to report and sent out again with fuller powers to repair the situation. Militarily, Marianus achieved nothing. The Normans easily repulsed his small army. Diplomatically he was more successful; for the Pope, the Lorrainer Leo IX, was equally nervous. The Norman successes were greater than he or Henry III had envisaged. Henry was now occupied with a Hungarian campaign; but he sent help to the Pope. In the summer of 1053 Leo set out southward with an army of Germans and Italians, proclaiming that this was a holy war. A Byzantine contingent was to have joined him; but as he awaited it outside the little Apulian town of Civitate the Normans attacked him. His army was routed and he himself made prisoner. To obtain his release he disavowed his whole policy.

This was the last serious attempt to curb the sons of Tancred. Henry III died in 1056. His successor was the child Henry IV; and the regent, Agnes of Poitou, was too busy in Germany to concern herself with the south. The Papacy decided to be realist. In 1059, at the Council of Melfi, Pope Nicholas II recognized Robert Guiscard, ‘Robert the Weasel’, the eldest survivor of Tancred’s sons, as ‘Duke of Apulia and Calabria, by the grace of God and Saint Peter, and, by their help, of Sicily’. This recognition, considered by Rome but not by Robert to involve vassaldom to Saint Peter’s heir, enabled the Normans easily to finish off their conquest. The maritime republics soon submitted to them; and by 1060 all that was left to the Byzantines in Italy was their capital, the coastal fortress of Bari. Meanwhile Robert’s younger brother Roger began the slow but successful conquest of Sicily from the Arabs.

So long as Bari held out, the Byzantines kept some check on further Norman expansion to the east. But the political troubles in Italy had inevitably led to religious troubles. The arrival of Latin conquerors in southern Italy brought up the question of the Greek Church in the province and the ancient dispute between Constantinople and Rome over its ecclesiastical allegiance. Reforms at Rome had resulted in the Papacy’s determination to allow no compromise over any of its claims; while the Patriarchal see of Constantinople was now occupied by one of the most aggressive and ambitious of Greek Church statesmen, Michael Cerularius. The unhappy story of the visit of Pope Leo IX’s legates to Constantinople in 1054 should be told in connection with the whole sequence of the relations between the eastern and western Churches. It ended in scenes of mutual excommunication, in spite of the Emperor’s attempt to secure a compromise; and it made impossible any sincere co-operation between Rome and Constantinople as far as the immediate needs of Italy were concerned. But it did not cause the final schism which later historians have attributed to it. Political relations between the imperial courts were strained but unbroken. Cerularius soon lost his influence. Snubbed by the Empress Theodora, whom he had tried to exclude from her heritage, and deposed by the Emperor Isaac, he died an impotent exile. But in the end he triumphed. To subsequent generations of Byzantium he was seen as a champion of their independence; and, even at a moment when the Emperor and the Pope wrote to each other with renewed cordiality, the Empress Eudocia Macrembolitissa, his niece and the consort of Constantine Ducas, secured his canonization.

To judge from the contemporary historians of Byzantium the quarrel was barely noticed by the rulers of the Empire. Trouble in the West was overshadowed in their eyes by the problems arising in the East.

The Turks move Westward

The decline of the Abbasid Caliphate had not proved entirely beneficial to Byzantium. The growing impoverishment of Iraq began to alter the trade routes of the world. The far eastern merchant no longer brought his goods to the markets of Baghdad, from which much was carried on into the Empire, to be transhipped from the ports of Asia Minor or from Constantinople itself to the West. He preferred now to go by the Red Sea route to Egypt; and from Egypt his goods were taken to Europe by Italian merchant ships. Byzantium no longer lay across the route. Moreover, lawlessness in the outlying provinces of the Abbasid empire caused the closing down of the old caravan route from China that ran through Turkestan and northern Persia to Armenia and the sea at Trebizond. The alternative route, going to the north of the Caspian, was never secure for long. For the whole Mediterranean world, politically as well as commercially, the Abbasid power had been a benefactor, in providing an outer defence against the barbarians of central Asia.

The defences now were down. Central Asia was able once again to burst out over the lands of ancient civilization. The Turks had long played an important role in history. The Turkish empire of the sixth century had during its short life been a civilizing and stabilizing force in Asia. Outlying Turkish peoples, such as the Judaistic Khazars of the Volga or the Nestorian Christian Ouigours, later established on the frontier of China, showed themselves adaptable and capable of cultural progress. But in Turkestan itself there had been no advance since the seventh century. A few cities had grown up along the caravan routes, but the population of Turcomans remained for the most part pastoral and semi-nomadic; and its growing numbers gave it a continual desire to migrate beyond its boundaries. In the tenth century Turkestan was ruled by the Persian dynasty of the Samanids, whose chief role in history was their conversion of the Turks of central Asia to Islam. Henceforward the eyes of the Turks were directed towards the lands of south-western Asia and the eastern Mediterranean.

The Samanids were displaced by the first great Moslem Turk, Mahmud the Ghaznavid, who during the first decades of the eleventh century built up a great empire stretching from Ispahan to Bokhara and Lahore. Meanwhile Turkish soldiers of fortune were penetrating the whole Moslem world, much as the Normans were penetrating Christian Europe. Turkish regiments were maintained by the Caliph at Baghdad and by many other Moslem rulers. Amongst the subjects of the Ghaznavids was a clan of Ghuzz Turks from the Aral steppes, called from the name of a semi-mythical ancestor the Seldjuks. The Seldjuk princes formed a group of adventurers, jealous of each other but uniting to secure the advancement of the family, not unlike the sons of Tancred de Hauteville. But, luckier than the Normans whose compatriots were few, they could call upon the support of the vast, restless hordes of Turcomans. After Mahmud’s death in 1030 they rose against the Ghaznavids and by 1040 had driven them to take refuge in their Indian domains. In 1050 Tughril Bey, the senior prince of the house, entered Ispahan and made it the capital of a state comprising Persia and Khorassan, while his brothers and cousins established themselves on his northern borders, forming a loose confederation that acknowledged his overlordship and freely raiding the countries around. In 1055, on the invitation of the Abbasid Caliph, who had been terrified by the intrigues of his Turkish minister Basasiri with the Fatimids, Tughril entered Baghdad as the champion of Sunni Islam, and was made king of the East and the West, with supreme temporal power over all the lands that owed spiritual allegiance to the Caliph.

The End of Armenia

There had been Turkish raids into Armenia as far back as the reign of Basil II, while the Seldjuks were still under Ghaznavid rule; and it was to protect his empire against the Turks that Basil had inaugurated the policy of the piecemeal annexation of Armenia. After the Seldjuk conquest of Persia the raids became more frequent. Tughril Bey himself only once took part, in 1054, when he devastated the country round Lake Van but failed to take the fortress of Manzikert. The raiding armies were usually led by his cousins, Asan and Ibrahim Inal. In 1047 they had been defeated by the Byzantines before Erzerum, and during the next years they concentrated on attacking the Georgian allies of the Empire. In 1052 they ravaged Kars; in 1056 and 1057 they were again in Armenia. In 1057 Melitene was sacked. In 1059 Turkish troops advanced for the first time into the heart of imperial territory, to the town of Sebastea.

Tughril Bey died in 1063. He himself had not taken much interest in his north-western frontier. But his nephew and successor, Alp Arslan, nervous of a possible alliance between the Byzantines and the Fatimids, sought to protect himself from the former by the conquest of Armenia before he pursued his main objective against the latter. Raids into the Empire were intensified. In 1064 the old Armenian capital of Ani was destroyed; and the prince of Kars, the last independent Armenian ruler, gladly handed over his lands to the Emperor in return for estates in the Taurus mountains. Large numbers of Armenians accompanied him to his new home. From 1065 onwards the great frontier-fortress of Edessa was yearly attacked; but the Turks were as yet inexpert in siege warfare. In 1066 they occupied the passes of the Amanus mountains, and next spring they sacked the Cappadocian metropolis, Caesarea. Next winter Byzantine armies were defeated at Melitene and at Sebastea. These victories gave the Turks full control of Armenia. During the following years they raided far into the Empire, to Neocaesarea and Amorium in 1068, to Iconium in 1069, and in 1070 to Chonae, close to the Aegean coast.

The imperial government was forced to take action. Constantine X, whose policy of reducing the armed forces was largely responsible for the serious situation, had died in 1067, leaving a young son, Michael VII, under the regency of the Empress-mother, Eudocia. Next year Eudocia married the commander-in-chief, Romanus Diogenes, and raised him to the throne. Romanus was a distinguished soldier and a sincere patriot; but the task before him required a man of genius. He saw that the safety of the Empire demanded the reconquest of Armenia. But the Byzantine army was no longer the magnificent force it had been fifty years before. The provincial troops were inadequate to protect their own districts against the raiders; they could spare no troops for the Emperor’s campaign. The noble families, who could have raised men from their estates, were suspicious and held aloof. The cavalry regiments, sixty thousand strong, that had patrolled the Syrian frontier till the middle of the century, were now disbanded. The imperial guards, hand-picked and highly trained Anatolians, were far below their old strength. The bulk of the army consisted now of foreign mercenaries, the Norsemen of the Varangian Guard, Normans and Franks from western Europe, Slavs from the north, and Turks from the steppes of southern Russia, Petcheneg, Cuman and Ghuzz. Out of these elements Romanus collected a force of nearly a hundred thousand men, of which perhaps half were Byzantine-born, but only a very few of these were professional soldiers and none was well-equipped. Of the mercenaries, the largest contingent was that of the Cuman Turks, under the leadership of the Turkish-born Joseph Tarchaniotes. The corps d’elite was the Frankish and Norman heavy cavalry, under the Norman, Roussel of Bailleul. The former Frankish commanders of the corps, Herve and Crispin, had each in turn been deposed for open treachery; but the men would only serve under a compatriot. The chief Byzantine commander under the Emperor was Andronicus Ducas, the late Emperor’s nephew and, like all his family, a bitter enemy of Romanus, who did not dare to leave him behind at Constantinople. With this large but untrustworthy army Romanus set out in the spring of 1071 to reconquer Armenia. As he was leaving the capital the news came through from Italy that Bari, the last Byzantine possession in the peninsula, had fallen to the Normans.

The Battle of Manzikert

The chroniclers tell in tragic detail of the Emperor’s march eastward along the great Byzantine military road. His intention was to capture and garrison the Armenian fortresses before the Turkish army should come up from the south. Alp Arslan was in Syria, near Aleppo, when he heard of the Byzantine advance. He realized how vital was the challenge; and he hurried northward to meet the Emperor. Romanus entered Armenia along the southern branch of the upper Euphrates. Near Manzikert he divided his forces. He himself went on to Manzikert itself, while he sent his Franks and Cumans to secure the fortress of Akhlat, on the shores of Lake Van. At Manzikert he received news that Alp Arslan was approaching; and he swung to the south-west to reunite the army before the Turks should be on him. But, forgetful of the first principle of Byzantine tactics, he neglected to send out scouts. On Friday, 19 August, as he lay in a valley on the Akhlat road, awaiting his mercenaries, Alp Arslan fell on him. His mercenaries never came to his rescue. The Cumans, remembering that they were Turks and in arrears with their pay, had gone over in a body on the previous night to join the enemy; and Roussel and his Franks decided to take no part in the battle. The issue of the battle was not long in doubt. Romanus himself fought bravely; but Andronicus Ducas, seeing that his cause was lost and guessing that the next act of the drama would be played at Constantinople, drew the reserve troops under his command away from the battlefield and marched them westward, leaving the Emperor to his fate. By evening the Byzantine army was destroyed and Romanus wounded and a prisoner.

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