IF now we turn from the Oriental side of the endless duel between East and West, we are soon moved with sympathy for a great empire harassed at once with internal discord and, on every side, external attack. Avars and Slavs were crossing the Danube and taking possession of imperial lands and towns; Persians were preparing to overrun Western Asia; Spain was lost to the Visigoths; and the Lombards, three years after Justinian’s death, conquered half of Italy (568). Plague swept the Empire in 542 and again in 566; famine in 569; poverty, barbarism, and war broke down communications, discouraged commerce, stifled literature and art.
Justinian’s successors were men of ability, but only a century of Napoleons could have coped with their problems. Justin II (565—78) fought vigorously against an expanding Persia. Tiberius II (578—82), favored by the gods with almost every virtue, was taken by them after a brief and just reign. Maurice (582-602) attacked the invading Avars with courage and skill, but received little support from the nation; thousands entered monasteries to escape military service; and when Maurice forbade the monasteries to receive new members until the danger was over, the monks clamored for his fall.1 The centurion Phocas led a revolution of the army and the populace against the aristocracy and the government (602); the five sons of Maurice were butchered before his eyes; the old Emperor refused to let the nurse of his youngest child save it by substituting for it her own; he himself was beheaded; the six heads were hung up as a spectacle for the people, and the bodies were cast into the sea. The Empress Constantina and her three daughters, and many of the aristocracy, were slain, usually with torture, with or without trial; eyes were pierced, tongues were torn out, limbs were amputated;2 once more the scenes of the French Revolution were rehearsed.
Khosru II took advantage of the disorder, and renewed the old war of Persia against Greece. Phocas made peace with the Arabs, and transported the entire Byzantine army into Asia; he was everywhere defeated by the Persians, while the Avars, unresisted, seized nearly all the agricultural hinterland of Constantinople. The aristocracy of the capital appealed to Heraclius, the Greek governor of Africa, to come to the rescue of the Empire and their property. He excused himself on the ground of age, but sent them his son. The younger Heraclius fitted out a fleet, sailed into the Bosporus, overthrew Phocas, exhibited the mutilated corpse of the usurper to the populace, and was hailed as emperor (610).
Heraclius deserved his title and his name. With almost the energy of Heracles he set himself to reorganize the shattered state. He spent ten years in rebuilding the morale of the people, the strength of the army, and the resources of the treasury. He gave land to peasants on condition that the eldest son in each family should render military service. Meanwhile the Persians captured Jerusalem (614), and advanced to Chalcedon (615); only the Byzantine navy, still controlling the waters, saved the capital and Europe. Soon afterward the Avar hordes marched up to the Golden Horn, raided the suburbs, and took thousands of Greeks into slavery. The loss of the hinterland and of Egypt cut off the city’s supply of grain, and compelled abolition of the dole (618). Heraclius, desperate, thought of transporting his army to Carthage and thence attempting to retake Egypt; the people and the clergy refused to let him go, and the Patriarch Sergius agreed to lend him the wealth of the Greek Church, at interest, to finance a holy war for the recapture of Jerusalem.3 Heraclius made peace with the Avars, and at last (622) set out against the Persians.
The campaigns that followed were masterpieces of conception and execution. For six years Heraclius carried the war to the enemy, and repeatedly defeated Khosru. In his absence a Persian army and a host of Avars, Bulgars, and Slavs laid siege to Constantinople (626); an army despatched by Heraclius defeated the Persians at Chalcedon, and the garrison and populace of the capital, roused by the Patriarch, scattered the barbarian horde. Heraclius marched to the gates of Ctesiphon; Khosru II fell; Persia pled for peace, and surrendered all that Khosru had taken from the Greek Empire. After seven years’ absence, Heraclius returned in triumph to Constantinople.
He hardly deserved the fate that shamed his old age. Weakened by disease, he was devoting his last energies to strengthening the civil administration when suddenly wild Arab tribes poured into Syria (634), defeated an exhausted Greek army, and captured Jerusalem (638); and even as the Emperor lay on his deathbed Egypt fell (641). Persia and Byzantium had fought each other to a common ruin. Under Constans II (642—68) the Arab victories continued; thinking the Empire beyond saving, Constans spent his last years in the West, and was killed in Syracuse. His son Constantine IV Pogonatus was abler or luckier. When through five crucial years (673—8) the Moslems made another effort to take Constantinople, “Greek fire,” now mentioned for the first time, saved Europe. The new weapon, allegedly invented by Callinicus of Syria, was akin to our flame throwers, an incendiary mixture of naphtha, quicklime, sulphur, and pitch; it was thrown against enemy ships or troops on flaming arrows, or blown against them through tubes, or shot on iron balls bearing flax and tow soaked in oil; or it was loaded and fired on small boats which were set adrift against the foe. The composition of the mixture was a secret successfully guarded for two centuries by the Byzantine government; to reveal any knowledge of it was treason and sacrilege. The Saracens finally discovered the formula, and used “Saracen fire” against the Crusaders. Until the invention of gunpowder it was the most talked-of weapon in the medieval world.
The Moslems made another assault upon the Greek capital in 717. An army of 80,000 Arabs and Persians under Moslema crossed the Hellespont at Abydos, and besieged Constantinople from the rear. At the same time the Arabs fitted out a fleet of 1800 vessels, presumably small; this armada entered the Bosporus, overshadowing the straits, said a chronicler, like a moving forest. It was the good fortune of the Greeks that in this crisis an able general, Leo “the Isaurian,” replaced the incompetent Theodosius III on the throne, and assumed the organization of defense. He disposed the small Byzantine navy with tactical skill, and saw to it that every ship was well supplied with Greek fire. In a little while the Arab vessels were aflame, and nearly every ship in the great fleet was destroyed. The Greek army made a sortie upon the besiegers, and won so decisive a victory that Moslema withdrew to Syria.