The Byzantine Empire, Part Three

In Maturity, Eighth To Eleventh Centuries

The history of the empire, after the greatest Arab onslaughts had been

faced and their results assimilated, offered a dizzying series of weak and

strong emperors, periods of vigor alternating with seeming decay. Arab

pressure continued. Conquest of the island of Crete in the 9th century allowed

Muslim harassment of Byzantine shipping in the Mediterranean for several

centuries. Slavic kingdoms, especially that of Bulgaria, periodically pressed

Byzantine territory in the Balkans, though at times military success and

marriage alliances brought Byzantine control over the feisty Bulgarian

kingdom. Thus while a Bulgarian king in the 10th century took the title of

tsar, a Slavic version of the word Caesar, steady Byzantine pressure through

war eroded the regional kingdom. In the 11th century the Byzantine emperor

Basil II, known appropriately enough as Bulgaroktonos, or slayer of the

Bulgarians, used the empire's wealth to bribe many Bulgarian nobles and

generals. He defeated the Bulgarian army in 1014, blinding as many as 15,000

captive soldiers - the sight of whom brought on the Bulgarian king's death.

Thus did Bulgaria become part of the empire, its aristocracy settling in

Constantinople and merging with the leading Greek families.

The Empire's Fluctuating Fortunes

Obviously, the Byzantine Empire was a state frequently beleaguered, where

military arrangements continued to command great attention. On balance,

however, the empire flourished until the 11th century. It entered a

particularly stable period during the 9th and 10th centuries, when a new

ruling dynasty managed to avoid the quarrels over succession to the imperial

throne that had bedeviled many heirs before and after Justinian. The result

was growing prosperity and solid political rule. The luxury of the court and

its buildings steadily increased. Elaborate ceremonies and rich imperial

processions created a magnificence designed to dazzle the empire's subjects.

Briefly, at the end of the 10th century, the Byzantine emperor may have been

the most powerful single monarch on earth, with a capital city whose rich

buildings and abundant popular entertainments awed visitors from western

Europe and elsewhere, while giving Eastern rulers a growing confidence in the

validity of their own institutions and values.

Rather than charting the details of specific rulers and some of the

bloody battles the empire won or lost, it is important to emphasize the three

crucial features of Byzantine society before its long but definitive decline:

first, what the main social and political characteristics were - what defined

the Byzantine; second, how the empire moved steadily apart from Western

Christendom; and third, how Byzantine influence spread steadily northward.

Byzantine Society And Politics

The Byzantine political system bore unusual resemblance to the earlier

patterns in China. The emperor was held to be ordained by God, head of church

as well as state. He appointed church bishops and passed religious and secular

laws. The elaborate court rituals symbolized the ideals of a divinely

inspired, all-powerful ruler, though they also often immobilized rulers and

inhibited innovative policy. At key points women held the imperial throne,

while maintaining the ceremonial power of the office.

Supplementing the centralized imperial authority was one of history's

most elaborate bureaucracies. Trained in Greek classics, philosophy, and

science in a secular school system that paralleled but contrasted with church

education for the priesthood, Byzantine bureaucrats could be recruited from

all social classes. As in China, aristocrats predominated, but there was some

openness to talent among this elite of highly educated scholars. Bureaucrats

were specialized into various offices, with officials close to the emperor

being mainly eunuchs. Provincial governors were appointed from the center and

charged with keeping tabs on military authorities. An elaborate system of

spies helped preserve loyalty, while also creating intense distrust even among

friends. It is small wonder that the word Byzantine came to refer to complex

and convoluted institutional arrangements. At the same time, the system was

sufficiently successful to constitute one of the cements that preserved the

longest-lived single government structure the Mediterranean world has ever


Much of the empire's success depended on careful military organization.

Byzantine rulers adapted the later Roman system by recruiting troops locally

and rewarding them with grants of land in return for their military service.

The land could not be sold, but sons inherited its administration in return

for continued military responsibility. Many outsiders, particularly Slavs and

Armenian Christians, were recruited for the army in this fashion.

Increasingly, hereditary military leaders assumed considerable regional power,

displacing more traditional and better-educated aristocrats. One emperor,

Michael II, was a product of this system and was notorious for his hatred of

Greek education and his overall personal ignorance. On the other hand, the

military system had obvious advantages in protecting a state recurrently under

attack from Muslims of various sorts - Persians, Arabs, and later Turks - as

well as nomadic intruders from central Asia. Until the 15th century, the

Byzantine Empire effectively blocked the path to Europe for most of these


Socially and economically the empire depended on Constantinople's control

over the countryside, with the bureaucracy regulating trade and controlling

food prices. The large peasant class was vital in supplying goods and also in

providing the bulk of tax revenues; food prices were kept artificially low -

in order to content the numerous urban lower classes - in a system supported

largely by taxes on the hard-pressed peasantry. Other cities were modest in

size - Athens, for example, dwindled - with the focus on the capital city and

its food needs. The empire developed a far-flung trading network with Asia to

the east and Russia and Scandinavia to the north. Silk production expanded in

the empire - with silk worms and techniques initially imported from China -

and various luxury products, including cloth, carpets, and spices were sent

northward. This gave the empire a favorable trading position with less

sophisticated lands. Only China produced luxury goods of comparable quality.

The empire also traded actively with India, the Arabs, and East Asia, while

receiving simple products from western Europe and Africa. At the same time the

large merchant class never gained significant political power, in part because

of the elaborate network of governmental controls. In this, Byzantium again

resembled China somewhat and differed notably from the looser social and

political networks of the West, where rising merchants gained greater voice.

Byzantine cultural life centered on the secular traditions of Hellenism,

so important in the education of bureaucrats, and on the evolving traditions

of Eastern, or Orthodox, Christianity. While a host of literary and artistic

creations resulted from this climate, there was little fundamental innovation

outside of art and architecture. The Byzantine strength lay in preserving and

commenting on past forms more than in developing new ones. A distinct

Byzantine style had developed fairly early in art and architecture. The

adaptation of Roman domed buildings, the elaboration of powerful and richly

colored religious mosaics, and a tradition of icon painting - paintings of

saints and other religious figures, often richly ornamented - expressed this

artistic impulse and its marriage with Christianity. The blue and gold

backgrounds set with richly dressed religious figures were meant to display on

earth the unchanging brilliance of heaven. The important controversy over

religious art arose in the 8th century, when a new emperor attacked the use of

religious images in worship (probably responding to Muslim claims that

C ristians were idol-worshipers). This attack, called iconoclasm because of

the breaking of images, roused huge p otest from Byzantine monks, which

briefly threatened a split between church and stater After a long and complex

battle, icon use was gradually restored, while the tradition of state control

over church affairs was also reasserted. Cultural issues in Byzantium

reflected strong feelings, in part the fruit of the great diversity of peoples

and cultural habits under the empire's sway, even if major new intellectual

principles did not result. A certain amount of diversity could be accepted,

because of common allegiance to Christianity and the military and

administrative effectiveness of the empire at its best.

The Schism Between East And West

Byzantine culture and politics, as well as its economic orientation

toward Asia and northeastern Europe, helped explain the growing break between

its Eastern version of Christianity and the Western version headed by the pope

in Rome. There were many milestones in this rift. Different rituals opened as

the West translated the Greek Bible into Latin in the 4th century. Later,

Byzantine emperors deeply resented papal attempts to interfere in the

iconoclastic dispute, for the popes, understandably enough, hoped to loosen

state control over the Eastern church in order to make it conform more fully

to their own idea of church-state relations. There was also scornful hostility

to efforts by a Frankish ruler, Charlemagne, to proclaim himself a Roman

emperor in the 9th century - Byzantine officials knew full well that they were

the true heirs of Rome and that Western rulers were crude and unsophisticated.

They did, however, extend some recognition to the "Emperor of the Franks."

Contact between the two branches of Christianity trailed off, though

neither East nor West cared to make a definitive break. Then in 1054 an

ambitious church patriarch in Constantinople raised a host of old issues,

including a quarrel over what kind of bread to use for the celebration of

Christ's last supper in church mass. He also attacked the Roman Catholic

practice, developed some centuries earlier, of insisting on celibacy for its

priests; Eastern Orthodox priests could marry. Delegations of the two churches

discussed these disputes, but this led only to new bitterness. The Roman pope

finally excommunicated the patriarch and his followers - that is, banished

them from Christian fellowship and the sacraments; the patriarch, no slouch,

responded by excommunicating all Roman Catholics. Thus the split between the

Roman Catholic church and Eastern Orthodoxy - the Byzantine or Greek, as well

as the Russian Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, and others - became formal and has

endured to this day.

The East-West split fell short of complete divorce. A common Christianity

with many shared or revived classical traditions and frequent commercial and

cultural contacts continued to enliven the relationship between the two

European civilizations. But the split did represent more than a passing

quarrel or even the numerous differences that had developed in religious

practices. It also reflected significant distinctions in political systems,

most obviously in the principles of church-state relations but also between an

imperial administration and the more divided Western state system. And it

reflected the different patterns of development the two civilizations followed

during the postclassical millennium. Byzantium, for all its ups and downs, was

well aware of its advantages over the West during the early centuries

following Rome's collapse. The East-West split occurred right at the end of

Byzantium's period of greatest glory. By this point, however, the West was

beginning to develop new strengths of its own, and its dynamism would over the

next few centuries eclipse that of most of eastern Europe.

The Empire's Decline

Shortly after the schism between East and West, the Byzantine Empire

entered a long period of decline. Turkish invaders who had converted to Islam

in central Asia began to press on its eastern borders, having already gained

increasing influence in the Muslim caliphate. In the later 11th century,

Turkish troops, the Seljuks, seized almost all the Asiatic provinces of the

empire, thus cutting off the most prosperous sources of tax revenue as well as

the territories that had supplied most of the empire's food. The empire

staggered along for another four centuries, but its doom, at least as a

significant power, was virtually sealed.

Eastern emperors appealed to Western leaders for help against the Turks,

but their requests were largely ignored. The appeal helped motivate Western

Crusades to the Holy Land, but this did not help the Byzantines. At the same

time, Italian cities, blessed with powerful navies, gained in Constantinople

increasing advantages, such as special trading privileges, a sign of the shift

in power balance between East and West. One Western Crusade, in 1204,

ostensibly set up to conquer the Holy Land from the Muslims, actually turned

against Byzantium. Led by greedy Venetian merchants, the Crusade attacked and

conquered Constantinople, briefly unseating the emperor altogether and

weakening the whole imperial structure. But the West was not yet powerful

enough to hold this ground, and a small Byzantine Empire was restored, able

through careful diplomacy to survive for another two centuries. Not only

Western and Turkish pressure but also the creation of new, independent Slavic

kingdoms in the Balkans, such as Serbia, showed the empire's diminished power.

Turkish settlements pressed ever closer to Constantinople in the northern

Middle East - in the area that is now Turkey - and finally, in 1453, a Turkish

sultan brought a powerful army, equipped by artillery purchased from the West,

against the city, which fell after two months. By 1461 the Turks had conquered

remaining pockets of Byzantine control, including most of the Balkans,

bringing Islamic power farther into eastern Europe than ever before. The great

Eastern Empire was no more.

The fall of Byzantium was one of the great events in world history, and

we will deal with its impact in several later chapters. It was a great event

because the Byzantine Empire had been so durable and important, anchoring a

vital corner of the Mediterranean even amid the rapid surge of Islam. The

empire's trading contacts and its ability to preserve and disseminate

classical and Christian learning made it a vital unit during the whole

postclassical period. Its influence e sily survived its demise. The Turks as

well as the major Slavic regions carried on the key Byzantine traditions.

Ottoman Turkish administration, once installed in Constantinople, reproduced

many Byzantine administrative procedures and some of their military

techniques. Turkish architects began to build bigger domed mosques, as they

learned how the Byzantines had built their churches. The Ottoman Empire,

pushed through much of the Middle East, was an Islamic state, and no single

set of traditions defined its operation. Particularly as it functioned in what

is now Turkey and southeastern Europe, however, it carried on many of the

features that had marked its Byzantine predecessor and made it so successful.

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