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Byzantium: The Apogee

This is volume II of III of the history of the Byzantine Empire. This volume, unlike the first one, covers a relatively short period of time: from the year 800 with the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Western Empire to Easter Day 1081, when Alexius Comnenus takes the reins of Byzantium.

The Empire in this period defends and expands its frontiers against a series of kingdoms, tribes, and other empires in every direction. North Africa, the Caucasus, the Middle East. The Russians make their debut as a force from the northeast, descending from the Black Sea to the bosphorus, but leaving without attacking Constantinople. Also in the northeast, the insatiable Pechenegs, of whom emperor Michael VII wrote that “it is… to our advantage to keep the peace with the Pecheneg nation…”, to give them whatever they ask for and in good grace. Then there are Bulgars, Slavs, Saracens, Avars, Normans, Lombards, many others and, of course, Turks.

Volume II continues the glorious voyage of the first book, it’s a trip of wonderment, amazement, and learning. It is very much centered on the personas of Emperors and senior officers, and not much on social or economical tides that affected and shaped the empire. This is just an observation, and not a criticism like the one barked by W. E. Lecky’s in History of European Morals (1869):

“The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.”

Hard to understand how the word “monotonous” can survive in the previous sentence!

Apogee, and beginning of the end

Byzantium and its empire reached its zenith with the reign of Basil II. After three decades of war, he annihilates the Bulgars and extends the dominion of the Empire from Iberia (eastern shore of the Black Sea) to the Adriatic. The Byzantine army was the finest fighting machine of the civilized world. He also instituted the Varangian Guard, an elite unit of the army comprised of mercenaries from the Varangian Sea (nowadays known as the Baltic Sea), they were to become the Emperor’s personal bodyguard.

Sadly, despite all his achievements, Basil II made the mistake of never having a wife or woman, and therefore he did not leave a son to rule the Empire. This was a fatal mistake, and the very day after Basil’s death, the decline began.

A succession of grotesque characters ruled Constantinople for the next 50 years and, on August 26, 1071, Manzikert happened. 

In one day, the Empire lost three quarters of Asia Minor, Emperor Romanus IV was captured, and the Seljuk Turks began the multi-century avalanche that ended on 29 May 1453 when Mehmet II entered Constantinople and closed behind him the door of the Middle Ages.

Manzikert is most upsetting when one learns that the Turks had no intention to fight the Empire, “whose existence had always been accepted by the rulers of Islam… the idea of annihilating Byzantium would have struck the Seljuk Sultans as completely unrealistic, even ridiculous.” (Norwich). Their eyes instead were set on the Fatimid Caliphate of Egypt. However, due to the incompetence of Byzantium’s rulers and their diplomatic and military blunders, the Turks were left with no choice but to target the Empire.

Manzikert sent a thundering message to the world: Byzantine army, finest fighting machine no more.

Ten years after this harrowing defeat, the Empire saw the rise of general Alexius Comnenus to the throne. A ruler that would restore the name and reputation of Byzantium among nations, and prepare Constantinople to “play its part in the great drama that was to begin to unfold even before the end of that turbulent century: the Crusades.”

Acceptance of the Emperor of the West

  • In 811, after the death of Emperor Nicephorus in battle against the army of Krum, the Bulgar Khan, Michael I was crowned basileus. He was the first emperor with a name that was neither Greek nor Roman, but Hebrew.
  • Michael I continued the approach for peace with Charlemagne that Nicephorus had , what was to be known as the Pax Nicephori.
    • It marked the acceptance, for the first time, of two simultaneous Roman Emperors yet genuinely independent of each other
  • Constantinople was the New Rome, but it had become Greek through and through, and very different from the new Europe that was emerging west of the Adriatic, nor did it wield any power in those regions.

Thomas The Slav, civil war, and Arabs in the Mediterranean

  • Thomas The Slav, an old enemy of emperor Michael II (The Stammerer), with a remarkably heterogeneous army of different barbarian peoples, the support of the Abbasid caliph, and the promise to suppress iconoclasm, conquers and obtains the support of many of the eastern towns of the Empire.
  • Thomas lays siege to Constantinople but, as several times in the past, the besieger leaves defeated
  • This civil war, however, left the Empire in a weak position and, in the Mediterranean, a fleet of forty ships of Arabs sails from Spain to Alexandria, and from there to Crete, where they settle and make of the island a refuge for pirates.Then another company of Arabs invaded the island of Sicily, a better springboard than Crete for people bent on conquest and piracy.

Theophilus, the Emperor of the People

  • He succeeded his father Michael II, and was known for dressing as a poor man and wandering incognito through the streets of Constantinople.
  • Once a week, he would ride from the Great Palace to Blachernae, a diagonal path from one side of the city to the other, and encourage the people who had complaints to lay their case before him.

War with the Saracens resumes

  • Theophilus reignites hostilities (had been on halt for over 15 years) with the Saracens by assigning a new theme to the Hurramites, a sect that had caused wide spread insurrection in the caliphate.
  • In 838 Mutasim conquers the city of Amorium, home of the Emperor’s family and the second city of the empire. Only 42 people survive a seven-year journey to the Saracen capital of Samarra, where they are given the choice of conversion to Islam or death. All 42 chose death and were decapitated on the banks of the Tigris. Known in the history of the Greek Orthodox Church as the Forty-Two Martyrs of Amorium.

First encounter with the Russians

  • In the summer of 860, a fleet of Russians (or Rus people) descended from the Black Sea to the bosphorus, plundering the monasteries and pillaging every town they passed. They soon left without attacking Constantinople.
  • Later, a mission from the Prince of Moravia arrived at Constantinople and asked if the Emperor could send a group of trustworthy missionaries to convert his subjects to Christianity.
    • This is why religion in Russia today is of Orthodox Christianity.
    • The political motive was, in reality, to alert Byzantium of a dangerous alliance being formed in the northwest between the Franks and the Bulgars.

Byzantine conquests

  • In the later years of the 9th century, with Basil The Macedonian, the Empire sets East and conquests (or reconquests?) Zapetra and Samosata, together with several other strongholds in the Euphrates Valley. On the West, the Byzantines reconquest South Italy.
  • The imperial navy, under Basil and later his son and grandson, was to become the most efficient and highly trained that the world had ever seen

Basil the Macedonian

  • Greatest Emperor since Justinian: restored and embellished the principal buildings of Constantinople, built his own great church, the Nea. Embarked on a project (anacatharsis) to overhaul the legal code. The Photian schism was over. In the geopolitical front: the Saracens were in retreat in both east and west, the Paulicians had been crushed, the Serbs and Bulgars converted to Orthodox Christianity.
  • Falls into depression after the death of his favorite son, Constantine.

Leo The Wise

  • Leo The Wise was able, toward the end of his reign, to persuade the Church to recognize his fourth marriage as legitimate and, therefore, legitimize the succesion rights of his son Constantine. To do this, he appealed to the approval of the Pope in Rome, thus deepening further the divide between the Eastern and Western churches. It was a small price to pay to secure that the power remains in the Macedonian house.
  • The 10th century (the 900s) saw the rise of an increasingly powerful social class: immensely rich families or clans which possessed extensive estates all over Asia Minor and who showed little loyalty to the crown.
    • Case in point: Andronicus Ducas, local military governor or Attaleia, who revolted against the Empire for the simple reason that the Emperor, in pursuit of the Saracens, had sent a commander whom he considered his inferior.

Eunuchs in Constantinople

  • Eunuchs in Constantinople were respected members of society and holders of many of the most distinguished offices of Church and State.
    • Only a few offices were denied to eunuchs: Prefect of the City, Domestic of the four imperial regiments, and Emperor
  • To be a eunuch was a career competitive advantage, and it was not uncommon for families to castrate one of their sons, typically the youngest son.
    • Eunuchs, with no wives or families, tended to be more industrious and dedicated than their endowed colleagues.
  • Since they had no children, there was no tendency for posts to become hereditary.
  • The risk of plots against the Emperor was also lower, given that eunuchs could not make a bid for the throne.

Romanus Lecapenus – The Gentle Usurper

  • Romanus was an Armenian of humble origins, and rose to a position of prominence in the military.
  • Through cunning and deceit, he manages to become regent of Constantine Porphyrogenitus (Leo The Wise’s son) by marrying his daughter to Constantine and pushing aside his aristocratic rival Leo Phocas.
  • The people of Constantinople remembered him for his accession to the throne rather than for his effective government and non-violent nature. He chose exile rather than death for his enemies.
  • Through tactful diplomacy, he had solved the two problems that afflicted his immediate predecessors: the Church and the Bulgars. This allowed to use the Empire’s military might to advance on the Eastern frontier, where diplomacy was of not much use. It was, since the rise of Islam, the first time that the Christian forces were on the offensive.
  • He had named his three sons co-Emperors, alongside himself and Constantine, but in his deathbed, he decreed that his successor be Constantine.

Nicephorus Phocas

  • One of the greatest generals Byzantium had ever seen. Reconquered Crete for the Empire, and virtually annihilated the Saracen threat in the East.
  • He was extremely popular as a general, and this hero popularity spurred him to take the throne.
  • He lacked diplomacy and good looks, and consequently, was not very popular as a ruler.
    • “supremely ungifted in the arts of peace”
  • Killed by his former companion-in-arms, John Tzimisces as part of a plot in which the Empress Theophano was a key element

John Tzimisces

  • During his short reign of six years, he conquered the Russians, the Bulgars, and the Caliphs of Baghdad and Cairo.
  • In 975 he campaigns in the East and captures most of Palestine, Syria, and the Lebanon -“regions where no Emperor had set foot since the days of Heraclius.”
  • He was poisoned (not clear, could have been an illness caught in the East) on his return to Constantinople. All his personal wealth he left to the poor and the sick.
  • “His radiant personality, like his golden armour, leaves us dazzled. Yet it can never quite blind us to another, darker vision: that of a pitiful, misshapen heap lying huddled on a palace floor, while another figure -spare, sinewy and immensely strong- gazes contemptuously down, and kicks.”

Basil II – The Bulgar Slayer

  • With Basil II, the Empire reached its apogee.
  • After three decades of war, he anihilates the Bulgars and extends the dominion of the Empire from Iberia (eastern shore of the Black Sea) to the Adriatic. The Byzantine army was the finest fighting machine of the civilized world.
  • Gibbon narrates a particularly gruesome episode of vengeance over 15,000 Bulgar captives. They were all blinded, except one of every one hundred, who was left with one eye to conduct his blind century to the presence of their king.
  • Despite all his achievements, Basil II made the fatal mistake of never having a wife or woman, and therefore he did not leave a son to rule the Empire. This was a fatal mistake, and the very day after Basil’s death, the decline began.

Constantine VIII, Zoe, and Romanus

  • Upon Basil II’s death, his brother Constantine found himself as sole emperor. His reign lasted three years and was considered an unmitigated disaster. He lacked spine. Fast to believe every rumor, he administered cruel punishment left and right. He also appointed his cronies to high posts of state. Only one class welcomed the weakness of the Emperor: the Anatolian aristocracy. The Emperor was unable to resist their demands, and the laws enacted by Basil II to restrict the abusive power of the aristocracy were quickly annulled. “Once more, Asia Minor became a country of latifundia – vast estates owned more often than not by absentee landlords and worked by serfs.”
  • Constantine had three daughters, of which the second, Zoe, already in her fifties was to continue the Empire by finding a husband in an old senator: Romanus Argyrus.
  • Romanus was “cordially disliked” by the people. He exacted unbearable taxes on the population to build monuments for himself. He reigned a little over five years. Foul play is suspected in his death.

Michael IV

  • While Romanus was still alive, Zoe had taken a lover in Michael, a boy 40 years her junior. Michael was of humble origins, uneducated, most likely a coin forger from Paphlagonia. He also was epileptic.
  • The day after Romanus’s death, Zoe makes the patriarch of Constantinople proclaim Michael emperor.
  • If the Empress was counting on having a junior slave Emperor, she was promptly proved wrong. Michael confined her to the gynaeceum of the palace and took control of the Empire.
  • He was more adept at government than most expected. In J.J. Norwich’s words:
    • “Within months of his assumption of effective power he was ruling the Empire with a sure and steady hand. His advisers marvelled at his industry, his quickness of perception, his sure political instinct and, despite his epilepsy, his emotional balance: he never lost his temper or raised his voice – which was, we are told, unusually resonant — but spoke evenly and rapidly, with a ready wit and a natural ease of expression. In his presence, the baseness of his origins and his shameful path to the throne were alike forgotten. Men were conscious only of his intelligence, his gentleness of manner and his obviously genuine desire to serve his Empire to the best of his ability; and those who knew him well had nothing but admiration for the courage with which he struggled against his two cruellest handicaps – his health and his family.”
  • Michael was a truly tragic figure. In addition to epilepsy, in his mid twenties, he developed a severe case of edema which was to hideously disfigure him and ultimately kill him at the age of 30. Long gone were the looks that so captivated the Empress and gained him the throne.
    • While dying, his legs swollen with gangrene, he mustered the courage to lead his army in battle against the Bulgars in Thessalonica and return triumphant to the capital.
    • When the final time arrived, he had himself carried to his own Monastery of SS Cosmas and Damian, stripped off his imperial clothes and diadem, and donned the robes of a simple monk.

Michael Psellus, writer, politician, historian

  • King of modesty 🙂
    • “The Celts and the Arabs are now our prisoners. From East and West alike my reputation brings them flocking to our city. The Nile may water the land of the Egyptians, but it is my golden words that nourish their spirit. Ask the Persians and the Ethiopians: they will tell you that they know me, that they admire me and seek me out. Only recently there arrived a Babylonian, impelled by an insurmountable desire to drink at the fountain of my eloquence.”
    • About one of the worst basileus the Empire ever saw, Constantine Ducas, but who happened to be Psellus’ good friend, he wrote: “Others may speak of his many splendid successes, but for me there is one overriding consideration: the fact that this man, as admirable in reality as he was in appearance, should place more confidence in my judgment than in the scheming of my rivals. Whether he had discerned more evidence of wisdom in my opinions than in those of the others, or whether it was because he admired my character, I cannot tell; but so greatly was he attached to me, so much did he love me more than the rest, that he listened intently to every word that I uttered, depended on me absolutely for spiritual advice and entrusted his most precious possessions to my personal care.”