The Byzantine Empire
Donald MacGillivray Nicol: KoraŽs Professor Emeritus of Byzantine and Modern Greek History, Language, and Literature, King's College, University of London. Director, Gennadius Library, American School of Classical Studies at Athens, 1989Ė92. Author of The Last Centuries of Byzantium and others.
The most brilliant of medieval civilizations was the Eastern Roman Empire. The Roman Empire was divided in AD 395 into two parts. The Western half, ruled from Rome, fell to the tribal Germanic peoples in the 5th century. The Eastern half, known as the Byzantine Empire, lasted for more than 1,000 years. Until the mid-11th century, when it began to decline in power, the Byzantine Empire was one of the leading civilizations in the world.
In 324 Constantine, the first Christian emperor, became sole ruler of the Roman Empire. He set up his Eastern headquarters at the ancient Greek colony of Byzantium in 330. The city, renamed Constantinople after its founder, was also known as the "new Rome." It became the capital of the Byzantines after the Roman Empire was formally divided.
Constantinople was located on the European shore of the Bosporus, midway between the Aegean and Black seas, in what is now the country of Turkey. The city brought together people from the lands of Europe and Asia. In 1453, when the Ottoman Turks conquered the Byzantine Empire, Constantinople became the capital of the new Ottoman Empire. (The city's name was changed to Istanbul in 1930.)
The city of Byzantium grew from an ancient Greek colony founded on the European side of the Bosporus. In AD 330 the Roman emperor Constantine I, in an attempt to strengthen the empire, re-founded Byzantium as Constantinople, the "New Rome" and capital of the eastern half of the empire. At his death in 395 Emperor Theodosius I divided the empire between his two sons, and it was never reunited. Theodosius also made Christianity the sole religion of the empire, and Constantinople assumed preeminence over other Christian centers in the East as Rome did in the West. The fall of Rome to the Ostrogoths in 476 marked the end of the western half of the Roman Empire. The eastern half continued as the Byzantine Empire, with Constantinople as its capital.
The eastern realm differed from the western in many respects. It was heir to the Hellenistic civilization, a blending of Greek and Middle Eastern elements dating back to the conquests of Alexander the Great. It was more commercial, more urban, and richer than the West, and its emperors, who in the Hellenistic tradition combined political and religious functions, had firmer control over all classes of society. They were also more skillful in fending off invaders, through both warfare and diplomacy. With these advantages, the Byzantine emperors, who still considered themselves Romans, long nourished the dream of subduing the barbarian kingdoms of the West and reuniting the empire.
Perhaps the most significant cultural feature of the Byzantine Empire was the type of Christianity developed there. More mystical and more liturgical than Roman Christianity, it was also less unified because of age-old ethnic hostilities in the region, the survival of various heresies among the clergy in Syria, Egypt, and other provinces, and the early use of the demotic (vernacular) languages in religious services. This disunity partly caused the sweeping success of the Arab invasions that began after Muhammad's death in 632. Within 10 years Syria and Palestine, Egypt and North Africa were under Muslim Arab control. Religious disunity continued to weaken the empire throughout the Iconoclastic Controversy (a dispute over the use of religious images, or icons) of the 8th and early 9th centuries, which left the Eastern Orthodox church split into factions and further alienated from Rome. A formal schism between Eastern and Western churches was mutually agreed to in 1054. By that time the Eastern Orthodox church had been revitalized by successful missions among the Russians, Bulgars, and Slavs, some of them directed by the monks Cyril and Methodius, whose invention of Slavonic alphabets (still called Cyrillic) made possible the translation of the Bible and the spread of literacy along with Christianity in Slavic lands.
Although the empire had lost much territory to the Arabs and to the independent kingdoms established in the Balkan Peninsula, its remnants were strengthened by a number of institutional reforms. A new administrative unit, the theme, was introduced along with a system of military land grants and hereditary service that ensured an adequate supply of soldiers. It also laid the foundation for the emergence of great landed families who in later centuries would wage dynastic struggles for the imperial throne. The Byzantine economy was actually strengthened by the loss of territory, as the shrinking empire allowed greater freedom to merchants and agricultural
No matter how centralized their administration or how absolute their power on paper, the emperors were unable to stop the feudalization of the empire and the concentration of land and wealth in a few great families. The rivalry between rural and urban aristocracies led each faction to nominate its own imperial candidates. While they were engaged in civil disputes, new enemies, the Normans and the Seljuq Turks, increased their power around the eastern Mediterranean.
In the late 11th century, Emperor Alexius I reluctantly sought help from the outside. He appealed to Venice, to whom he gave the first of the commercial concessions that helped make it a great maritime power, and to the pope, who in turn appealed to the feudal rulers of the West, many of them, ironically, Normans. These doubtful allies rapidly turned the ensuing Crusades into a series of plundering expeditions not only against the Turks but also against the heart of the Byzantine Empire. The Fourth Crusade resulted in the fall of Constantinople to Venetians and crusaders in 1204 and the establishment of a line of Latin emperors. The empire was recaptured by Byzantine exiles in 1261, but under the final Palaeologus dynasty it was little more than a large city-state besieged from all sides. In the 14th century the Ottoman Turks replaced the Seljuqs as the major enemy in the east. Almost the entire Balkan Peninsula fell to them, but their siege of Constantinople, begun in 1395, was prolonged by the city's near-impregnable strategic position and by Turkish factionalism. It ended in 1453, when the last emperor, also named Constantine, died fighting on the walls and the Turks took the city. The final stronghold of Greek power, Trapezus (modern Trabzon, Turkey), fell to the Turks in 1461.
The latter term is derived from the name Byzantium, borne by a colony of ancient Greek foundation on the European side of the Bosporus, midway between the Mediterranean and the Black Sea; the city was, by virtue of its location, a natural transit point between Europe and Asia Minor (Anatolia). Re-founded as the "new Rome" by the emperor Constantine in 330, it was endowed by him with the name Constantinople, the city of Constantine. The derivation from Byzantium is suggestive in that it emphasizes a central aspect of Byzantine civilization: the degree to which the empire's administrative and intellectual life found a focus at Constantinople from 330 to 1453, the year of the city's last and unsuccessful defense under the 11th (or 12th) Constantine. The circumstances of the last defense are suggestive, too, for in 1453 the ancient, medieval, and modern worlds seemed briefly to meet. The last Constantine fell in defense of the new Rome built by the first Constantine. Walls that had held firm in the early Middle Ages against German, Hun, Avar, Slav, and Arab were breached finally by modern artillery, in the mysteries of which European technicians had instructed the most successful of the Central Asian invaders: the Ottoman Turks.
The fortunes of the empire thus were intimately entwined with those of peoples whose achievements and failures constitute the medieval history of both Europe and Asia. Nor did hostility always characterize the relations between Byzantines and those whom they considered "barbarian." Even though the Byzantine intellectual firmly believed that civilization ended with the boundaries of his world, he opened it to the barbarian, provided that the latter (with his kin) would accept Baptism and render loyalty to the emperor. Thanks to the settlements that resulted from such policies, many a name, seemingly Greek, disguises another of different origin: Slavic, perhaps, or Turkish. Barbarian illiteracy, in consequence, obscures the early generations of more than one family destined to rise to prominence in the empire's military or civil service. Byzantium was a melting-pot society, characterized during its earlier centuries by a degree of social mobility that belies the stereotype, often applied to it, of an immobile, caste-ridden society.
A source of strength in the early Middle Ages, Byzantium's central geographical position served it ill after the 10th century. The conquests of that age presented new problems of organization and assimilation, and these the emperors had to confront at precisely the time when older questions of economic and social policy pressed for answers in a new and acute form. Satisfactory solutions were never found. Bitter ethnic and religious hostility marked the history of the empire's later centuries, weakening Byzantium in the face of new enemies descending upon it from east and west. The empire finally collapsed when its administrative structures could no longer support the burden of leadership thrust upon it by military conquests.
The Roman formula of combating fortune with reason and therewith assuring unity throughout the Mediterranean world worked surprisingly well in view of the pressures for disunity that time was to multiply. Conquest had brought regions of diverse background under Roman rule. The Eastern provinces were ancient and populous centers of that urban life that for millennia had defined the character of Mediterranean civilization. The Western provinces had only lately entered upon their own course of urban development under the not always tender ministrations of their Roman masters.
Each of the aspects of unity enumerated above had its other side. Not everyone understood or spoke Latin. Paralleling and sometimes influencing Roman law were local customs and practices, understandably tenacious by reason of their antiquity. Pagan temples, Jewish synagogues, and Christian baptisteries attest to the range of organized religions with which the official forms of the Roman state, including those of emperor worship, could not always peacefully coexist. And far from unifying the Roman world, economic growth often created self-sufficient units in the several regions, provinces, or great estates.
Given the obstacles against which the masters of the Roman state struggled, it is altogether remarkable that Roman patriotism was ever more than an empty formula, that cultivated gentlemen from the Pillars of Hercules to the Black Sea were aware that they had "something" in common. This "something" might be defined as the Greco-Roman civic tradition in the widest sense of its institutional, intellectual, and emotional implications. Grateful for the conditions of peace that fostered it, men of wealth and culture dedicated their time and resources to glorifying that tradition through adornment of the cities that exemplified it and through education of the young who they hoped might perpetuate it.
Upon this world the barbarians descended after about AD 150. To protect the frontier against them, warrior emperors devoted whatever energies they could spare from the constant struggle to reassert control over provinces where local regimes emerged. In view of the ensuing warfare, the widespread incidence of disease, and the rapid turnover among the occupants of the imperial throne, it would be easy to assume that little was left of either the traditional fabric of Greco-Roman society or the bureaucratic structure designed to support it.
Neither assumption is accurate. Devastation was haphazard, and some regions suffered while others did not. In fact, the economy and society of the empire as a whole during that period was more diverse than it had ever been. Impelled by necessity or lured by profit, people moved from province to province. Social disorder opened avenues to eminence and wealth that the more stable order of an earlier age had closed to the talented and the ambitious. For personal and dynastic reasons, emperors favored certain towns and provinces at the expense of others, and the erratic course of succession to the throne, coupled with a resulting constant change among the top administrative officials, largely deprived economic and social policies of recognizable consistency.
The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine
Contrasts in other areas of imperial policy are equally striking. Diocletian persecuted Christians and sought to revive the ancestral religion. Constantine, a convert to the new faith, raised it to the status of a "permitted religion." Diocletian established his headquarters at Nicomedia, a city that never rose above the status of a provincial centre during the Middle Ages, while Constantinople, the city of Constantine's foundation, flourished mightily. Diocletian sought to bring order into the economy by controlling wages and prices and by initiating a currency reform based upon a new gold piece, the aureus, struck at the rate of 60 to the pound of gold. The controls failed and the aureus vanished, to be succeeded by Constantine's gold solidus. The latter piece, struck at the lighter weight of 72 to the gold pound, remained the standard for centuries. For whatever reason, in summary, Constantine's policies proved extraordinarily fruitful. Some of them--notably hereditary succession, the recognition of Christianity, the currency reform, and the foundation of the capital--determined in a lasting way the several aspects of Byzantine civilization with which they are associated.
Yet it would be a mistake to consider Constantine a revolutionary or to overlook those areas in which, rather than innovating, he followed precedent. Earlier emperors had sought to constrain groups of men to perform certain tasks that were deemed vital to the survival of the state but that proved un-remunerative or repellent to those forced to assume the burden. Such tasks included the tillage of the soil, which was the work of the peasant, or colonus; the transport of cheap bulky goods to the metropolitan centers of Rome or Constantinople, which was the work of the shipmaster, or navicularius; and services rendered by the curiales, members of the municipal senate charged with the assessment and collection of local taxes. Constantine's laws in many instances extended or even rendered hereditary these enforced responsibilities, thus laying the foundations for the system of collegia, or hereditary state guilds, that was to be so noteworthy a feature of late-Roman social life. Of particular importance, he required the colonus (peasant) to remain in the locality to which the tax lists ascribed him.
The empire's economy had prospered in a spotty fashion. Certain provinces, or parts of provinces such as northern Italy, flourished commercially as well as agriculturally. Constantinople, in particular, influenced urban growth and the exploitation of agricultural frontiers. Balkan towns along the roads leading to the great city prospered, while others not so favored languished and even disappeared. Untilled land in the hilly regions of northern Syria fell under the plow to supply foodstuffs for the masses of Constantinople. As the 4th century progressed, not only did Constantine's solidus remain indeed solid gold, but evidence drawn from a wide range of sources suggests that gold in any form was far more abundant than it had been for at least two centuries. It may be that new sources of supply for the precious metal had been discovered: these perhaps were in spoils plundered from pagan temples; or perhaps were from mines newly exploited in western Africa and newly available to the lands of the empire, thanks to the appearance of camel-driving nomads who transported the gold across the Sahara to the Mediterranean coastline of North Africa.
The extreme social mobility noted in the late 3rd and early 4th centuries seems less characteristic of the second half of the latter century. Certainly the emperors continued their efforts to bind men collectively to their socially necessary tasks, but the repetition of laws tying the colonus to his estate, the navicularius to his ship, and the curialis to his municipal senate suggests that these edicts had little effect. Indeed, it would be a mistake to conclude from such legislation that Roman society was universally and uniformly organized in castes determined in response to imperial orders. There was always a distinction between what an emperor wanted and what he could obtain, and, as the foregoing survey has suggested, there were distinctions among the provinces as well.
Even before the end of the first quarter of the 5th century, these provincial differences were visible; and, in no small degree, they help to explain the survival of imperial government and Greco-Roman civilization in the East while both eventually perished in the West. Throughout the Eastern provinces, population levels seem to have remained higher, and the emperors in Constantinople never had to search (at least until the 6th century) for men to fill the ranks of their armies. As might be expected in those eastern lands in which urban civilization was several centuries old, cities persisted and, with them, a merchant class and a monetary economy. Eastern merchants, known in the sources as Syrians, assumed the carrying trade between East and West, often establishing colonies in the beleaguered cities of the latter region.
Most important, the emperor in the East never lost access to, or control over, his sources of manpower and money. An older and probably more wealthy senatorial class, or aristocracy, in the West consolidated its great estates and assumed a form of protection or patronage over the laboring rural classes, depriving the state of desperately needed military and financial services. The senatorial class in the East seems to have been of more recent origin, its beginnings to be found among those favorites or parvenus who had followed Constantine to his new capital. By the early 5th century, their wealth seems to have been, individually, much less than the resources at the disposal of their Western counterparts; their estates were far more scattered and their rural dependents less numerous. They were thus less able to challenge the imperial will and less able to interpose themselves between the state, on the one hand, and its potential soldiers or taxpayers, on the other.
Neither in West nor East did Theodosius' policy of accommodation and alliance prove popular. The Goths, like most Germanic peoples with the exception of the Franks and the Lombards, had been converted to Arian Christianity, which the Catholic, or Orthodox, Romans considered a dangerous heresy. The warlike ways of the Germans found little favour with a senatorial aristocracy essentially pacifist in its outlook, and the early 5th century is marked in both halves of the empire by reactions against Germanic leaders in high office. At Constantinople in 400, for example, the citizens rose against the senior officer of the imperial guard (magister militum), Gainas, slaughtering him together with his Gothic followers. Although this particular revolt was, in many respects, less productive of immediate results than similar episodes in the West, and the Germanic leaders later reappeared in roles of command throughout the East, the latter acted thenceforth as individuals without the support of those nearly autonomous groups of soldiers that western barbarian commanders continued to enjoy.
Furthermore, the East made good use of its resources in gold, in native manpower, and in diplomacy, while quickly learning how best to play off one enemy against another. In the reign of Theodosius II (408-450), the Huns under their chieftain Attila received subsidies of gold that both kept them in a state of uneasy peace with the Eastern Empire and may have proved profitable to those merchants of Constantinople who traded with the barbarians. When Marcian (ruled 450-457) refused to continue the subsidies, Attila was diverted from revenge by the prospect of conquests in the West. He never returned to challenge the Eastern Empire, and, with his death in 453, his Hunnic empire fell apart. Both Marcian and his successor, Leo I (ruled 457-474), had ruled under the tutelage of Flavius Ardaburius, Aspar; but Leo resolved to challenge Aspar's pre-eminence and the influence of the Goths elsewhere in the empire by favoring the warlike Isaurians and their chieftain, Tarasicodissa, whom he married to the imperial princess, Ariadne. The Isaurian followers of Tarasicodissa, who was to survive a stormy reign as the Emperor Zeno (474-491), were rough mountain folk from southern Anatolia and culturally probably even more barbarous than the Goths or the other Germans. Yet, in that they were the subjects of the Roman emperor in the East, they were undoubtedly Romans and proved an effective instrument to counter the Gothic challenge at Constantinople. In the prefecture of Illyricum, Zeno ended the menace of Theodoric the Amal by persuading him (488) to venture with his Ostrogoths into Italy. The latter province lay in the hands of the German chieftain Odoacer, who in 476 had deposed Romulus Augustulus, the last Roman emperor in the West. Thus, by suggesting that Theodoric conquer Italy as his Ostrogothic kingdom, Zeno maintained at least a nominal supremacy in that western land while ridding the Eastern Empire of an unruly subordinate.
With Zeno's death and the accession of the Roman civil servant Anastasius I (ruled 491-518), Isaurian occupation of the imperial office ended, but it was not until 498 that the forces of the new emperor effectively took the measure of Isaurian resistance. After the victory of that year, the loyal subject of the Eastern Roman emperor could breathe easily: Isaurians had been used to beat Germans, but the wild mountain folk had, in their turn, failed to take permanent possession of the imperial office. Imperial authority had maintained its integrity in the East while the Western Empire had dissolved into a number of successor states: the Angles and Saxons had invaded Britain as early as 410; the Visigoths had possessed portions of Spain since 417, and the Vandals had entered Africa in 429; the Franks, under Clovis I, had begun their conquest of central and southern Gaul in 481; and Theodoric was destined to rule in Italy until 526.
If the Fathers of the 4th century quarreled over the relations between God the Father and God the Son, those of the 5th century faced the problem of defining the relationship of the two natures--the human and the divine--within God the Son, Christ Jesus. The theologians of Alexandria generally held that the divine and human natures were united indistinguishably, whereas those of Antioch taught that two natures coexisted separately in Christ, the latter being "the chosen vessel of the Godhead . . . the man born of Mary." In the course of the 5th century, these two contrasting theological positions became the subject of a struggle for supremacy among the rival sees of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Rome. Nestorius, patriarch of Constantinople in 428, adopted the Antiochene formula, which, in his hands, came to stress the human nature of Christ to the neglect of the divine. His opponents (first the Alexandrian patriarch, Cyril, and later Cyril's followers, Dioscorus and Eutyches) in reaction emphasized the single divine nature of Christ, the result of the Incarnation. Their belief in Monophysitism, or the one nature of Christ as God the Son, became extraordinarily popular throughout the provinces of Egypt and Syria. Rome, in the person of Pope Leo I, declared in contrast for Dyophysitism, a creed teaching that two natures, perfect and perfectly distinct, existed in the single person of Christ. At the Council of Chalcedon (451), the latter view triumphed thanks to the support of Constantinople, which changed its position and condemned both Nestorianism, or the emphasis on the human nature of Christ, and Monophysitism, or the belief in the single divine nature.
More important for the purposes of military and political history than the theological details of the conflict was the impact Monophysitism produced on the several regions of the Mediterranean world. Partly because it provided a formula to express resistance to Constantinople's imperial rule, Monophysitism persisted in Egypt and Syria. Until these two provinces were lost to Islam in the 7th century, each Eastern emperor had somehow to cope with their separatist tendencies as expressed in the heresy. He had either to take arms against Monophysitism and attempt to extirpate it by force, to formulate a creed that would somehow blend it with Dyophysitism, or frankly to adopt the heresy as his own belief. None of these three alternatives proved successful, and religious hostility was not the least of the disaffections that led Egypt and Syria to yield, rather readily, to the Arab conqueror. If ever the East Roman emperor was to reassert his authority in the West, he necessarily had to discover a formula that would satisfy Western orthodoxy while not alienating Eastern Monophysitism.
The empire at the end of the 5th century
Anastasius' economic policies were far more successful; if they did not provide the basis for the noteworthy achievements of the 6th century in military affairs and the gentler arts of civilization, they at least explain why the Eastern Empire prospered in those respects during the period in question. An inflation of the copper currency, prevailing since the age of Constantine, finally ended with welcome results for those members of the lower classes who conducted their operations in the base metal. Responsibility for the collection of municipal taxes was taken from the members of the local senate and assigned to agents of the praetorian prefect. Trade and industry were probably stimulated by the termination of the chrysargyron, a tax in gold paid by the urban classes. If, by way of compensating for the resulting loss to the state, the rural classes had then to pay the land tax in money rather than kind, the mere fact that gold could be presumed to be available in the countryside is a striking index of rural prosperity. In the East, the economic resurgence of the 4th century had persisted, and it is not surprising that Anastasius enriched the treasury to the extent of 320,000 pounds of gold during the course of his reign.
With such financial resources at their disposal, the Emperor's successors could reasonably hope to reassert Roman authority among the western Germanic successor states, provided they could accomplish two objectives: first, they must heal the religious discord among their subjects; second, they must protect the eastern frontier against the threat of Sasanian Persia. Since there was, in fact, to be concurrent warfare on both fronts during the 6th century, some knowledge of the age-old rivalry between Rome and Persia is essential to an understanding of the problems confronted by the greatest among Anastasius' successors, Justinian I (ruled 527-565), as he undertook the conquest of the West.
The 6th century: from East Rome to Byzantium
After 550, it is possible to begin to speak of a medieval Byzantine, rather than an ancient East Roman, empire. Of the four traumas that eventually transformed the one into the other--namely, pestilence, warfare, social upheaval, and the Arab Muslim assault of the 630s--the first two were features of Justinian's reign.
The years of achievement to 540
The reign opened with external warfare and internal strife. From Lazica to the Arabian Desert, the Persian frontier blazed with action in a series of campaigns in which many of the generals later destined for fame in the West first demonstrated their capacities. The strength of the East Roman armies is revealed in the fact that, while containing Persian might, Justinian could nonetheless dispatch troops to attack the Huns in the Crimea and to maintain the Danubian frontier against a host of enemies. In 532 Justinian decided to abandon military operations in favour of diplomacy. He negotiated, at the cost of considerable tribute, an "Endless Peace" with the Persian king, Khosrow, which freed the Roman's hands for operations in another quarter of the globe. Thus Justinian succeeded in attaining the first of the objectives needed for reconquest in the West: peace in the East.
Even before his accession, Justinian had aided in the attainment of the second. Shortly after his proclamation as emperor, Justin had summoned a council of bishops at Constantinople. The council reversed the policies of Anastasius, accepted the orthodox formula of Chalcedon, and called for negotiations with the pope. Justinian had personally participated in the ensuing discussions, which restored communion between Rome and all the Eastern churches save Egypt. No longer could a barbarian king hope to maintain the loyalties of his Catholic subjects by persuading them that a Monophysite emperor ruled in the East.
In the same year of 532, Justinian survived a revolt in Constantinople, stemming from the Nika riot, which initially threatened his life no less than his throne but, in the event, only strengthened his position. To understand the course of events, it is essential to remember that Constantinople, like other great East Roman cities, had often to depend upon its urban militia, or demes, to defend its walls. Coinciding with divisions within the demes were factions organized to support rival charioteers competing in the horse races: the Blues and the Greens. It was originally thought that these two factions were divided by differing political and religious views and that these views were aired to the Emperor during the races. More recent scholarship has shown that the factions were seldom motivated by anything higher than partisan fanaticism for their respective charioteers. The Nika riot--"Nika!" ("Conquer!" or "Win!") being the slogan shouted during the races--of 532, however, was one of the rare occasions when the factions voiced political opposition to the imperial government. Angered at the severity with which the urban prefect had suppressed a riot, the Blues and Greens first united and freed their leaders from prison; they insisted then that Justinian dismiss from the office two of his most unpopular officials: John of Cappadocia and Tribonian. Even though the Emperor yielded to their demands, the crowd was not appeased, converted its riot into a revolt, and proclaimed a nephew of Anastasius as emperor. Justinian was saved only because the empress, Theodora, refused to yield. Justinian's able general, Belisarius, sequestered the rebels in the Hippodrome and slaughtered them to the number of 30,000. The leaders were executed, and their estates passed, at least temporarily, into the Emperor's hands.
After 532 Justinian ruled more firmly than ever before. With the subsequent proclamation of the "Endless Peace," he could hope to use his earlier won reputation as a champion of Chalcedonian orthodoxy and appeal to those Western Romans who preferred the rule of a Catholic Roman emperor to that of an Arian German kinglet. In these early years of the 530s, Justinian could indeed pose as the pattern of a Roman and Christian emperor. Latin was his language, and his knowledge of Roman history and antiquities was profound.
In 529 his officials had completed a major collection of the emperors' laws and decrees promulgated since the reign of Hadrian. Called the Codex Constitutionum and partly founded upon the 5th-century Theodosian Code, it comprised the first of four works compiled between 529 and 565 called the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), commonly known as the Code of Justinian. This first collection of imperial edicts, however, pales before the Digesta completed under Tribonian's direction in 533. In the latter work, order and system were found in (or forced upon) the contradictory rulings of the great Roman jurists; to facilitate instruction in the schools of law, a textbook, the Institutiones (533), was designed to accompany the Digesta. The fourth book, the Novellae Constitutiones Post Codicem (commonly called the Novels), consists of collections of Justinian's edicts promulgated between 534 and 565.
Meanwhile, architects and builders worked apace to complete the new Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, designed to replace an older church destroyed in the course of the Nika revolt. In five years they had constructed the edifice, and it stands today as one of the major monuments of architectural history.
In 533 the moment had clearly come to reassert Christian Roman authority in the West, and Vandal North Africa seemed the most promising theatre of operations. Although a major expedition mounted under Leo I had failed to win back the province, political conditions in the Vandal monarchy had altered to the Eastern emperor's favour. When King Hilderich was deposed and replaced, Justinian could rightfully protest this action taken against a monarch who had ceased persecution of North African Catholics and had allied himself with Constantinople. The Eastern merchants favoured military action in the West, but Justinian's generals were reluctant; possibly for that reason, only a small force was dispatched under Belisarius. Success came with surprising ease after two engagements, and in 534 Justinian set about organizing this new addition to the provinces of the Roman Empire.
These were, in fact, years of major provincial reorganization, and not in North Africa alone. A series of edicts dated in 535 and 536, clearly conceived as part of a master plan by the prefect John of Cappadocia, altered administrative, judicial, and military structures in Thrace and Asia Minor. In general, John sought to provide a simplified and economical administrative structure in which overlapping jurisdictions were abolished, civil and military functions were sometimes combined in violation of Constantinian principles, and a reduced number of officials were provided with greater salaries to secure better personnel and to end the lure of bribery.
In the prefaces to his edicts, Justinian boasted of his reconstituted authority in North Africa, hinted at greater conquests to come, and--in return for the benefits his decrees were to provide--urged his subjects to pay their taxes promptly so that there might be "one harmony between ruler and ruled." Quite clearly the Emperor was organizing the state for the most strenuous military effort, and, later (possibly in 539), reforms were extended to Egypt, whence the export of grain was absolutely essential for the support of expeditionary armies and Constantinople.
In 535, as in 533, a small, tentative expedition sent to the West--in this instance, to Sicily--met with easy success. At first the Goths negotiated; then they stiffened their resistance, deposed their king, Theodahad, in favour of a stronger man, Witigis, and attempted to block Belisarius' armies as they entered the Italian peninsula. There the progress of East Roman arms proved slower, and victory did not come until 540 when Belisarius captured Ravenna, the last major stronghold in the north, and, with it, King Witigis, a number of Gothic nobles, and the royal treasure.
The crisis of mid-century
The short-term impact of the plague may be seen in several forms of human activity during the 540s. Justinian's legislation of those years is understandably preoccupied with wills and intestate succession. Labour was scarce, and workers demanded wages so high that Justinian sought to control them by edict, as the monarchs of France and England were to do during the plague of the 14th century. In military affairs, above all, the record of those years is one of defeat, stagnation, and missed opportunities. Rather than effective Roman opposition, it was Khosrow's own weariness of an unprofitable war that led him to sign a treaty of peace in 545, accepting tribute from Justinian and preserving Persian conquests in Lazica. Huns, Sclaveni, Antae, and Bulgars ravaged Thrace and Illyricum, meeting only slight opposition from Roman armies. In Africa a garrison diminished by plague nervously faced the threat of Moorish invasion. In Italy, Totila took the offensive, capturing southern Italy and Naples and even forcing his way into Rome (546) despite Belisarius' efforts to relieve the siege. Desperately, Justinian's great general called for reinforcements from the East; if ever they came, they were slow in arriving and proved numerically less than adequate to the task confronting them.
The last years of Justinian I
The treaty also regulated trade between Rome and Persia, since rivalry between the two great powers had always had its economic aspects, focused primarily upon the silk trade. Raw silk reached Constantinople through Persian intermediaries, either by a land route leading from China through Persia or by the agency of Persian merchants in the Indian Ocean. The need to break this Persian monopoly had led Justinian to search for new routes and new peoples to serve as intermediaries: in the south, the Ethiopian merchants of the kingdom of Aksum; in the north, the peoples around the Crimea and in the Caucasian kingdom of Lazica, as well as the Turks of the steppes beyond the Black Sea. Other valuable commodities were exchanged in the Black Sea region, including textiles, jewelry, and wine from East Rome for the furs, leather, and slaves offered by the barbarians; yet, silk remained the commodity of prime interest. It was fortunate, then, that before 561, East Roman agents had smuggled silkworms from China into Constantinople, establishing a silk industry that would liberate the empire from dependence on Persia and become one of medieval Byzantium's most important economic operations.
In the West, Justinian's successes were even more spectacular. By 550 the Moorish threat had ended in North Africa. In 552 the armies of Justinian had intervened in a quarrel among the Visigothic rulers of Spain, and the East Roman troops overstayed the invitation extended them, seizing the opportunity to occupy on a more permanent basis certain towns in the southeastern corner of the Iberian Peninsula. Most important of all, Italy was recovered. Early in the 550s, Justinian assembled a vast army composed not only of Romans but also of barbarians, including Lombards, Heruli, and Gepids, as well as Persian deserters. Command of this host eventually was given to an unlikely but, as events were to prove, able commander: the eunuch and chamberlain Narses. In two decisive battles (Busta Gallorum and Mons Lactarius), the East Roman general defeated first Totila and then his successor, Teias. The Goths agreed to leave Italy. Despite the continued resistance of certain Gothic garrisons, coupled with the intervention of Franks and Alamanni, after 554 the land was essentially a province of the East Roman Empire.
As long as the financial resources remained adequate, diplomacy proved the most satisfactory weapon in an age when military manpower was a scarce and precious commodity. Justinian's subordinates were to perfect it in their relationships with Balkan and south Russian peoples. For, if the Central Asian lands constituted a great reservoir of people, whence a new menace constantly emerged, the very proliferation of enemies meant that one might be used against another through skillful combination of bribery, treaty, and perfidy. East Roman relations in the late 6th century with the Avars, a Mongol people seeking refuge from the Turks, provide an excellent example of this "defensive imperialism." The Avar ambassadors reached Constantinople in 557, and, although they did not receive the lands they demanded, they were loaded with precious gifts and allied by treaty with the empire. The Avars moved westward from south Russia, subjugating Utigurs, Kutrigurs, and Slavic peoples to the profit of the empire. At the end of Justinian's reign, they stood on the Danube, a nomadic people hungry for lands and additional subsidies and by no means unskilled themselves in a sort of perfidious diplomacy that would help them pursue their objectives.
No summary of the quiet, but ominous, last years of Justinian's reign would be complete without some notice of the continuing attacks of bubonic plague and the impact they were to continue to produce until the 8th century. As have other societies subjected to devastation from warfare or disease, East Roman society might have compensated for its losses of the 540s had the survivors married early and produced more children in the succeeding generations. Two developments prevented recovery. Monasticism, with its demands for celibacy, grew apace in the 6th century, and the plague returned sporadically to attack those infants who might have replaced fallen members of the older generations.
The resulting shortage of manpower affected several aspects of a state and society that perceptibly were losing their Roman character and assuming their Byzantine. The construction of new churches, so noteworthy a feature of the earlier years, ceased as men did little more than rebuild or add to existing structures. An increasing need for taxes, together with a decreasing number of taxpayers, evoked stringent laws that forced members of a village tax group to assume collective responsibility for vacant or unproductive lands. This, contemporary sources avow, was a burden difficult to assume, in view of the shortage of agricultural workers after the plague. Finally, the armies that won the victories described above in east and west were largely victorious only because Justinian manned them as never before with barbarians: Goths, Armenians, Heruli, Gepids, Saracens, and Persians--to name only the most prominent. It was far from easy to maintain discipline among so motley an army; yet, once the unruly barbarian accepted the quieter life of the garrison soldier, he tended to lose his fighting capacity and prove, once the test came, of little value against the still warlike barbarian facing him beyond the frontier. The army, in short, was a creation of war and kept its quality only by participating in battlefield action, but further expansive warfare could hardly be undertaken by a society chronically short of men and money.
Christian culture of the Byzantine Empire
Justinian regulated the size of churches and monasteries, forbade them to profit from the sale of property, and complained of those priests and bishops who were unlearned in the forms of the liturgy. His efforts to improve the quality of the secular clergy, or those who conducted the affairs of the church in the world, were most opportune. The best possible men were needed, for, in most East Roman cities during the 6th century, imperial and civic officials gradually resigned many of their functions to the bishop, or patriarch. The latter collected taxes, dispensed justice, provided charity, organized commerce, negotiated with barbarians, and even mustered the soldiers. By the early 7th century, the typical Byzantine city, viewed from without, actually or potentially resembled a fortress; viewed from within, it was essentially a religious community under ecclesiastical leadership. Nor did Justinian neglect the monastic clergy, or those who had removed themselves from the world. Drawing upon the regulations to be found in the writings of the 4th-century Church Father St. Basil of Caesarea, as well as the acts of 4th- and 5th-century church councils, he ordered the cenobitic (or collective) form of monastic life in a fashion so minute that later codes, including the rule of St. Theodore the Studite in the 9th century, only develop the Justinianic foundation.
Probably the least successful of Justinian's ecclesiastical policies were those adopted in an attempt to reconcile Monophysites and orthodox Chalcedonians. After the success of negotiations that had done so much to conciliate the West during the reign of Justin I, Justinian attempted to win over the moderate Monophysites, separating them from the extremists. Of the complicated series of events that ensued, only the results need be noted. In developing a creed acceptable to the moderate Monophysites of the East, Justinian alienated the Chalcedonians of the West and thus sacrificed his earlier gains in that quarter. The extreme Monophysites refused to yield. Reacting against Justinian's persecutions, they strengthened their own ecclesiastical organization, with the result that many of the fortress cities noted above, especially those of Egypt and Syria, owed allegiance to Monophysite ecclesiastical leadership. To his successors, then, Justinian bequeathed the same religious problem he had inherited from Anastasius.
If, in contrast, his regulation of the Christian life proved successful, it was largely because his subjects themselves were ready to accept it. Traditional Greco-Roman culture was, to be sure, surprisingly tenacious and even productive during the 6th century and was always to remain the treasured possession of an intellectual elite in Byzantium; but the same century witnessed the growth of a Christian culture to rival it. Magnificent hymns written by St. Romanos Melodos mark the striking development of the liturgy during Justinian's reign, a development that was not without its social implications. Whereas traditional pagan culture was literary and its pursuit or enjoyment thereby limited to the leisured and wealthy, the Christian liturgical celebration and its musical component were available to all, regardless of place or position. Biography, too, became both markedly Christian and markedly popular. Throughout the countryside and the city, holy men appeared in legend or in fact, exorcising demons, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and warding off the invader. Following the pattern used in the 4th century by Athanasius to write the life of St. Anthony, hagiographers recorded the deeds of these extraordinary men, creating in the saint's life a form of literature that began to flower in the 6th and 7th centuries.
The vitality and pervasiveness of popular Christian culture manifested themselves most strongly in the veneration increasingly accorded the icon, an abstract and simplified image of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints. Notable for the timeless quality that its setting suggested and for the power expressed in the eyes of its subject, the icon seemingly violated the Second Commandment's explicit injunction against the veneration of any religious images. Since many in the early centuries of the church so believed, and in the 8th century the image breakers, or iconoclasts, were to adopt similar views, hostility toward images was nearly as tenacious an aspect of Christianity as it had been of Judaism before it.
Men of the 4th century were encouraged to take such a step, influenced as they were by the analogous veneration that the Romans had long accorded the image of the emperor. Although the first Christians rejected this practice of their pagan contemporaries and refused to adore the image of a pagan emperor, their successors of the 4th century were less hesitant to render such honour to the images of the Christian emperors following Constantine. Since the emperor was God's vicegerent on Earth and his empire reflected the heavenly realm, the Christian must venerate, to an equal or greater degree, Christ and his saints. Thus the Second Commandment finally lost much of its force. Icons appeared in both private and public use during the last half of the 6th century: as a channel of divinity for the individual and as a talisman to guarantee success in battle. During the dark years following the end of Justinian I's reign, no other element of popular Christian belief better stimulated that high morale without which the Byzantine Empire would not have survived.
The accession of Maurice in 582 inaugurated a reign of 20 years marked by success against Persia, a reorganization of Byzantine government in the West, and the practice of economies during his Balkan campaigns that, however unavoidable, would destroy him in 602. Byzantine efforts against Sasanian Persia were rewarded in 591 by a fortunate accident. The lawful claimant to the Persian throne, Khosrow II, appealed to Maurice for aid against the rebels who had challenged his succession. In gratitude for this support, Khosrow abandoned the frontier cities and the claims to Armenia, the two major sources of contention between Byzantium and Persia. The terms of the treaty gave Byzantium access, in Armenia, to a land rich in the soldiers it desperately needed and, equally important, an opportunity to concentrate on other frontiers where the situation had worsened.
Confronted by a Visigothic resurgence in Spain and by the results of a Lombard invasion of Italy (568), which was steadily confining Byzantine power to Ravenna, Venice, and Calabria-Sicily in the south, Maurice developed a form of military government throughout the relatively secure province of North Africa and in whatever regions were left in Italy. He abandoned the old principle of separating civil from military powers, placing both in the hands of the generals, or exarchs, located, respectively, at Carthage and Ravenna. Their provinces, or exarchates, were subdivided into duchies composed of garrison centres that were manned not by professional soldiers but by conscript local landholders. The exarchate system of military government seems to have worked well: North Africa was generally quiet despite Moorish threats; and in 597 the ailing Maurice had intended to install his second son as emperor throughout those western possessions in which he had clearly not lost interest.
But the major thrust of his efforts during the last years of his reign was to be found in the Balkans, where, by dint of constant campaigning, his armies had forced the Avars back across the Danube by 602. In the course of these military operations, Maurice made two mistakes: the first weakened him; the second destroyed him together with his dynasty. Rather than constantly accompanying his armies in the field, as his 7th- and 8th-century successors were to do, Maurice remained for the most part in Constantinople, losing an opportunity to engage the personal loyalty of his troops. He could not count on their obedience when he issued unwelcome commands from afar that decreased their pay in 588, ordered them to accept uniforms and weapons in kind rather than in cash equivalents, and, in 602, required the soldiers to establish winter quarters in enemy lands across the Danube, lest their requirements prove too great a strain on the agricultural and financial resources of the empire's provinces south of the river. Exasperated by this last demand, the soldiers rose in revolt, put a junior officer named Phocas at their head, and marched on Constantinople. Again becoming politically active, the Blues and Greens united against Maurice, and the aged emperor watched as his five sons were slaughtered before he himself met a barbarous death.
The ensuing reign of Phocas (602-610) may be described as a disaster. Khosrow seized the opportunity offered him by the murder of his benefactor, Maurice, to initiate a war of revenge that led Persian armies into the Anatolian heartland. Subsidies again failed to restrain the barbarians north of the Danube; after 602 the frontier crumbled, not to be restored save at the cost of centuries of warfare. Lacking a legitimate title, holding his crown only by right of conquest, Phocas found himself confronted by constant revolt and rebellion. To contemporaries, the coincidence of pestilence, endemic warfare, and social upheaval seemed to herald the coming of the Antichrist, the resurrection of the dead, and the end of the world.
But it was a human savior who appeared, albeit under divine auspices. Heraclius, son of the Exarch of Africa, set sail from the western extremes of the empire, placing his fleet under the protection of an icon of the Virgin against Phocas, stigmatized in the sources as the "corrupter of virgins." In the course of his voyage along the northern shores of the Mediterranean, Heraclius added to his forces and arrived at Constantinople in October 610 to be hailed as a saviour. With the warm support of the Green faction, he quickly bested his enemy, decapitating Phocas and, with him, those Phocas had advanced to high civil and military office. There were, in consequence, few experienced counselors to aid Heraclius, for, among the men of prominence under Phocas--and earlier under Maurice--few survived to greet the new emperor.
The 7th century: the Heraclians and the challenge of Islam
Three sources of strength enabled Heraclius to turn defeat into victory. The first was the pattern of military government as he and the nucleus of his army would have known it in the exarchates of North Africa or Ravenna. As it had been in the West, so it now was in the East. Civil problems were inseparable from the military: Heraclius could not hope to dispense justice, collect taxes, protect the church, and assure the future to his dynasty unless military power reinforced his orders. A system of military government, the exarchate, had accomplished these objectives so well in the West that, in a moment of despair, Heraclius sought to return to the land of his origins. In all likelihood, he applied similar principles of military rule to his possessions throughout Asia Minor, granting his generals (strategoi) both civil and military authority over those lands that they occupied with their "themes," as the army groups, or corps, were called in the first years of the 7th century.
Second, during the social upheaval of the previous decade, the imperial treasury had doubtless seized the estates of prominent individuals who had been executed either during Phocas' reign of terror or after his death. In consequence, though the treasury lacked money, it nonetheless possessed land in abundance, and Heraclius could easily have supported with grants of land those cavalry soldiers whose expenses in horses and armament he could not hope to meet with cash. If this hypothesis is correct, then, even before 622, themes, or army groups--including the guards (Opsikioi), the Armenians (Armeniakoi), and the Easterners (Anatolikoi)--were given lands and settled throughout Asia Minor in so permanent a fashion that, before the century was out, the lands occupied by these themes were identified by the names of those who occupied them. The Opsikioi were to be found in the Opsikion theme, the Armeniakoi in the Armeniakon, and the Anatolikoi in the Anatolikon. The term theme ceased thereafter to identify an army group and described instead the medieval Byzantine unit of local administration, the theme under the authority of the themal commander, the general (strategos).
When Heraclius "went out into the lands of the themes" in 622, thereby undertaking a struggle of seven years' duration against the Persians, he utilized the third of his sources of strength: religion. The warfare that ensued was nothing less than a holy war: it was partly financed by the treasure placed by the church at the disposal of the state; the Emperor's soldiers called upon God to aid them as they charged into battle; and they took comfort in the miraculous image of Christ that preceded them in their line of march. A brief summary of the campaign unfortunately gives no idea of the difficulties Heraclius encountered as he liberated Asia Minor (622); fought in Armenia with allies found among the Christian Caucasian peoples, the Lazi, the Abasgi, and the Iberians (624); and struggled in far-distant Lazica while Constantinople withstood a combined siege of Avars and Persians (626). An alliance with the Khazars, a Turkic people from north of the Caucasus, proved of material assistance in those years and of lasting import in Byzantine diplomacy. Heraclius finally destroyed the main Persian host at Nineveh in 627 and, after occupying Dastagird in 628, savoured the full flavour of triumph when his enemy, Khosrow, was deposed and murdered. The Byzantine emperor might well have believed that, if the earlier success of the Persians signalized the resurrection of the Achaemenid Empire, his own successes had realized the dreams of Caesar, Augustus, and Trajan.
Yet this was a war fought by medieval Byzantium and not by ancient Rome. Its spirit was manifest in 630, when Heraclius triumphantly restored the True Cross to Jerusalem, whence the Persians had stolen it, and--even more--when Constantinople resisted the Avar-Persian assault of 626. During the attack, the patriarch Sergius maintained the morale of the valiant garrison by proceeding about the walls, bearing the image of Christ to ward off fire, and by painting upon the gates of the western walls images of the Virgin and child to ward off attacks launched by the Avars--the "breed of darkness." The Avars withdrew when Byzantine ships defeated the canoes manned by Slavs, upon whom the nomad Avars depended for their naval strength. The latter never recovered from their defeat. As their empire crumbled, new peoples from the Black Sea to the Balkans emerged to seize power: the Bulgars of Kuvrat, the Slavs under Samo, and the Serbs and Croats whom Heraclius permitted to settle in the northwest Balkans once they had accepted Christianity.
As for the Byzantine defenders of Constantinople, they celebrated their victory by singing Romanos' great hymn "Akathistos," with choir and crowd alternating in the chant of the "Alleluia." The hymn, still sung in a Lenten service, commemorates those days when Constantinople survived as a fortress under ecclesiastical leadership, its defenders protected by the icons and united by their liturgy. This they sang in Greek, as befitted a people whose culture was now Greek and no longer Latin.
The aging Heraclius was unequal to the task of containing this new menace, and it was left to his successors--Constantine III (ruled February to May 641), Constans II (641-668), Constantine IV (668-685), and Justinian II (685-695, 705-711)--to do so. This bare list of emperors obscures the family conflicts that often imperiled the succession, but gradually the principle was established that, even if brothers ruled as coemperors, the senior's authority would prevail. Although strife between Blues and Greens persisted throughout the century, internal revolt failed to imperil the dynasty until the reign of Justinian II. The latter was deposed and mutilated in 695. With the aid of the Bulgars, he returned in 705 to reassume rule and wreak a vengeance so terrible that his second deposition, and death, in 711 is surprising only in its delay of six years. From 711 until 717 the fortunes of the empire foundered; in that year, Leo, strategos of the Anatolikon theme, arrived as a second Heraclius to found a dynasty that would rescue the empire from its new enemies, the Arab Muslims and the Bulgars.
Three features distinguish the military history of the years 641-717: first, an increasing use of sea power on the part of the Arabs; second, a renewed threat in the Balkans occasioned by the appearance of the Onogur Huns, known in contemporary sources as the Bulgars; third, a persisting interest among the emperors in their western possessions, despite the gradual attrition of Byzantine authority in the exarchates of Carthage and Ravenna. Thanks to the control that the Arabs gradually asserted over the sea routes to Constantinople, they climaxed their earlier assaults on Armenia and Asia Minor with a four years' siege of the great city itself (674-678). Defeated in this last attempt by the use of Greek fire, a flammable liquid of uncertain composition, the Arabs signed a 30 years' truce, according to which they agreed to pay tribute in money, men, and horses. Lured by the unsettled conditions following Justinian's second deposition, they renewed their assaults by land and sea, and in 717 the Arabs were again besieging Constantinople.
On the Balkan frontier, meanwhile, the Bulgars assumed the role abdicated by the Avars after 626. A pagan people whom the Khazars had forced toward the Danube Delta in the latter part of the 7th century, they eluded Constantine IV's attempts to defeat them in 681. By virtue of a treaty signed in that year, as well as others dating from 705 and 716, the Bulgars were recognized as an independent kingdom, occupying (to the humiliation of Byzantium) lands south of the Danube into the Thracian plain. While the Bulgars had thus deprived the empire of control in the north and central Balkans, the Byzantines could take comfort in the expeditions of 658 and 688/689 launched, respectively, by Constans II and Justinian II into Macedonia and in the formation of the themes of Thrace (687) and Hellas (695); these moves were evidence that Byzantine authority was beginning to prevail along the peninsular coastline and in certain parts of Greece where Slavs had penetrated.
In the West, the situation was less reassuring. Monothelitism had evoked a hostile reception among the churches of North Africa and Italy, and the resulting disaffection had encouraged the exarchs of both Carthage (646) and Ravenna (652) to revolt. By the end of the century, Africa had been largely lost to Muslim conquerors who would, in 711, seize the last outpost at Septem. For the moment Sicily and the scattered Italian possessions remained secure. Constans undertook operations against the Lombards, and he apparently intended to move his capital to Sicily, before his assassination ended the career of the last Eastern emperor to venture into the West. In summary, Leo III in 717 ruled over an empire humiliated by the presence of pagan barbarians upon Balkan soil rightfully considered "Roman," threatened by an attack upon its Anatolian heartland and its capital, and reduced, finally, in the West to Sicily and the remnants of the Ravenna exarchate.
However dismal the military record, institutional and economic developments had permitted the empire to survive and were to provide foundations for greater success in the centuries to come. The themal system had taken root and, with it, probably the institution of soldiers' properties. Military service was a hereditary occupation: the eldest son assumed the burden of service, supported primarily by revenues from other members of the family who worked the land in the villages. This last was a task easier to accomplish at the end of the 7th century thanks to the colonies of Slavs and other peoples brought into the empire and settled in the rural areas by Heraclius, Constantine IV, and Justinian II. In the 8th and 9th centuries, other emperors, including Leo III, Constantine V, and Nicephorus I, were to continue the practice, thus ending the population decline that had long eroded the ranks of Byzantine society. There are unmistakable signs of agricultural expansion even before 800; and, at about that time, urban life, which had never vanished in Asia Minor, began to flourish and expand in the Balkans. To judge from the evidence of the Farmer's Law, dated in the 7th century, the technological base of Byzantine society was more advanced than that of contemporary western Europe: iron tools could be found in the villages; water mills dotted the landscape; and field-sown beans provided a diet rich in protein. None of these advances was to characterize western European agriculture until the 10th century. Byzantine agriculture enjoyed the further advantage of a highly developed tradition of careful farming that persisted even in the darkest days, enabling the peasant to make the most of the soil upon which he worked. The invasions had even provided a form of stimulus to development: having lost first its Egyptian granary and, later, its North African and Sicilian resources, the empire had to live essentially, although not totally, from whatever it could produce in the lands remaining to it. The invasions had also, in all probability, broken up many a large estate, and the small peasant holding seems to have been the "normal" form of rural organization in this period. Although collective village organization persisted in the form of the rural commune and, with it, certain collective agricultural practices, the state seems to have made little or no attempt to bind the peasant to the soil upon which the tax registers had inscribed him. While Byzantium remained a slave-owning society, the colonus of the later Roman Empire had vanished, and a greater degree of freedom and mobility characterized agricultural relationships during the 7th and 8th centuries.
So it was, too, in trade and commerce. After the loss of Egypt and North Africa, the grain fleets manned by hereditary shipmasters disappeared; in their place there emerged the independent merchant, of sufficient importance to call forth a code of customary law, the Rhodian Sea Law, to regulate his practices. Military and religious hostilities failed to check him as he traded with the Bulgars in Thrace and, through Cyprus, with the Arabs. Despite constant warfare, this was, in short, a healthier society than the late Roman, and its chances of survival were further increased when the sixth general council (680-681) condemned Monothelitism and anathematized its adherents. With Egypt and Syria under Muslim rule, it was no longer necessary to placate Eastern Monophysitism, and it seemed that doctrinal discord would no longer separate Constantinople from the West. Events were to prove otherwise.
The age of Iconoclasm: 717-867
The reigns of Leo III (the Isaurian) and Constantine V
In later centuries, the folk of Constantinople would stand by his tomb, seeking his aid against whatever enemy imperiled the city's defenses.
Constantine's weak successors
In the face of the Bulgar menace, none of the following three emperors succeeded in founding a dynasty. Nicephorus I (ruled 802-811), the able finance minister who succeeded Irene, reimposed the taxes that the Empress had remitted and instituted other reforms that provide some insight into the financial administration of the empire during the early 9th century. In the tradition of Constantine V, Nicephorus strengthened the fortifications of Thrace by settling, in that theme, colonists from Asia Minor.
Taking arms himself, he led his troops against the new and vigorous Bulgar khan, Krum, only to meet defeat and death at the latter's hands. His successor, Michael I Rhangabe (811-813), fared little better; internal dissensions broke up his army as it faced Krum near Adrianople, and the resulting defeat cost Michael his throne. In only one respect does he occupy an important place in the annals of the Byzantine Empire. The first emperor to bear a family name, Michael's use of the patronymic, Rhangabe, bears witness to the emergence of the great families, whose accumulation of landed properties would soon threaten the integrity of those smallholders upon whom the empire depended for its taxes and its military service. The name Rhangabe seems to be a Hellenized form of a Slav original (rokavu), and, if so, Michael's ethnic origin and that of his successor, Leo V the Armenian (ruled 813-820), provide evidence enough of the degree to which Byzantium in the 9th century had become not only a melting-pot society but, further, a society in which even the highest office lay open to the man with the wits and stamina to seize it. Leo fell victim to assassination, but before his death events beyond his control had improved the empire's situation. Krum died suddenly in 814 as he was preparing an attack upon Constantinople, and his son, Omortag, arranged a peace with the Byzantine Empire in order to protect the western frontiers of his Bulgar empire against the pressures exerted by Frankish expansion under Charlemagne and his successors. Since the death of the fifth caliph, Harun ar-Rashid, had resulted in civil war in the Muslim world, hostilities from that quarter ceased. Leo used the breathing space to reconstruct those Thracian cities that the Bulgars had earlier destroyed. His work indicates the degree of gradual Byzantine penetration into the coastal fringes of the Balkan Peninsula, as does the number of themes organized in that same region during the early 9th century: those of Macedonia, Thessalonica, Dyrrhachium, Dalmatia, and the Strymon.
The new emperor, Michael II, was indeed able to establish a dynasty--the Amorian, or Phrygian--his son Theophilus (829-842) and his grandson Michael III (842-867) each occupying the throne in turn, but none would have forecast so happy a future during Michael II's first years. Thomas the Slavonian, Michael's former comrade in arms, gave himself out to be the unfortunate Constantine VI and secured his coronation at the hands of the Patriarch of Antioch; this was accomplished with the willing permission of the Muslim caliph under whose jurisdiction Antioch lay. Thomas thereupon marched to Constantinople at the head of a motley force of Caucasian peoples whose sole bonds were to be found in their devotion to iconodule doctrine and their hatred of Michael's Iconoclasm. Assisted by Omortag and relying upon the defenses of Constantinople, Michael defeated his enemy, but the episode suggests the tensions beneath the surface of Byzantine society: the social malaise, the ethnic hostility, and the persisting discord created by Iconoclasm. All these may explain the weakness displayed throughout Theophilus' reign, when a Muslim army defeated the Emperor himself (838) as a prelude to the capture of the fortress of Amorium in Asia Minor. It may also explain the concurrent decline of Byzantine strength in the Mediterranean, manifest in the capture of Crete by the Arabs (826 or 827) and in the initiation of attacks upon Sicily that finally secured the island for the world of Islam. Iconoclasm certainly played its part in the further alienation of East from West, and a closer examination of its doctrines will suggest why this may have been.