Sunday, December 29, 2019

The Last Great Byzantine Emperor: Michael VIII

Michael VIII Gave the Empire One Last, Glorious Moment

Michael VIII
Michael VIII Palaiologos (Unknown artist, miniature from the manuscript of Pachymeres' Historia, 14th century. Munich, Bayerische Staatsbibliothek).

My candidate for the last great Byzantine Emperor would be Michael VIII Palaiologos, who lived from 1223 - 1282. In addition to being one of the longer-lasting emperors, Michael VIII was the last Byzantine Emperor to really affect matters beyond the Empire’s borders. In fact, Michael VIII greatly expanded the Empire and was the last Emperor to do that. The reign of Michael VIII was of great interest to Europeans because it marked the true end of the period of successful Crusades in the East. He began a dynasty that lasted until the end of the Empire and was the longest-lasting in Byzantine history.
Michael VIII coronation
Michael VIII Palaiologos coronation in 1261 by the artist Rosen Toshev.

Michael VIII, often simply called the Emperor of Nicaea in western sources once he took over in 1259, restored the Empire of Nicaea to its true inheritance. It was one of the rump states leftover from the dismemberment of the Byzantine Empire in 1204, into a restored Byzantine Empire. He did this by reconquering Constantinople from the Latins and focusing on rebuilding the army and navy. His general, Alexius Strategopulos, easily entered Constantinople and overthrew the last Latin Emperor, Baldwin II, 25 July 1261. Having great generals is a mark of a great emperor. Michael VIII also restored the University of Constantinople, which played a big role in the artistic renaissance that flourished in the 13th century up until the empire’s demise in 1453. This became one of the empire’s most lasting legacies.

The Sicilian Vespers of Michael VIII
The Sicilian Vespers Rebellion (I Vespri Siciliani) by Erulo Eroli, 1890. Showcased for the first time at the National Expo in Palermo (1891), it depicts the Easter Monday rebellion of 1282 in which the people fought against the rule of Angevin Charles I.

You’ve probably heard of the “Sicilian Vespers.” This was an incident in which Michael VIII arranged for the inhabitants of Sicily to launch an uprising against Charles of Anjou, who was planning on invading and perhaps conquering the Byzantine Empire in a sort of pseudo-Crusade. Beginning on 30 March 1282, it led to the deaths of about 13,000 people who were killed by the local inhabitants. The role of Michael VIII in the Sicilian Vespers is controversial and disputed. However, Michael VIII was spreading his gold around the Mediterranean to stir up revolts elsewhere (Crete) that furthered his interests, so the Sicilian Vespers was his modus operandi. As Michael VIII himself wrote shortly before his own death:
Should I dare to claim that I was God's instrument to bring freedom to the Sicilians, then I should only be stating the truth.
So, Michael VIII did claim credit for the Sicilian Vespers, and sometimes you have to pat yourself on the back because nobody else will. Later Emperors didn’t influence events in places as far away as Sicily at all and were focused instead solely on survival. Michael VIII was like the Justinian of the late Empire.

Michael VIII's restored empire in 1263
While the Byzantine Empire was vastly reduced from its former magnificence by 1263, Michael VIII joined its two halves together again and gave it a chance for survival. His reign allowed Byzantium to end in some sort of dignity.

Lots of writers focus on Michael VIII’s faults, such as that he focused too much on the West as opposed to the East and so forth. However, he did amazing things for only one reign. His “faults” could have been rectified had he lived (or had a better heir). And that brings us to the big worst aspect of Michael VIII's reign - his successor. As with many other great Byzantine leaders such as Basil II, Michael VIII was followed by a nonentity. How much fault can be ascribed to Michael for that is debatable, but it led to the unwinding of much that he had accomplished.
Andronicus II
Michael VIII's successor, Andronicus II, didn't lose Constantinople, but he lost just about everything else that Michael VIII had achieved (Fresco in Iera Moni Ioannou Prodromou, depicting the emperor Andronicos Palaiologos presenting the monastery some privileges (near Serres, Greece)).

Unfortunately, the typical Byzantine pattern asserted itself with Michael VIII: an amazing emperor like Michael VIII was almost always followed by real dullards who squandered their opportunities. Weak emperors at regular intervals were the real reason the Byzantine Empire dwindled and disappeared. In this case, it was Andronicus II, a total nonentity who presided over the empire’s erosion for over 40 years and whose every move was ineffective or downright counterproductive.

Michael VIII
Michael VIII was one of the last of the true warrior emperors - or at least the successful ones.

In sum, Michael VIII took a fragmented and basically dying empire, reunited it, and made it into a power player in the Mediterranean for the last time. That is indisputable. Reading about Michael VIII’s reign is completely different than reading about anyone who followed him and most who preceded him, though there were some exciting and inspirational figures both before and later as well (though not many, as a group the Byzantine Emperors were very lame).


Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Why Constantinople Became the Second Rome

Why Byzantium Prospered with its Capital on the Bosphorus

Byzantines fire-fishing
The fishing was easy near Constantinople. Here, Byzantines "fire-fish," in which a burning fire basket was mounted onto the end of the boat at night. The light would attract the fish closer to the surface of the water allowing the fisherman to see their catch more easily This is a miniature from Cynegetica, by Oppian of Apamea (or Pella) (active 3rd century AD), manuscript Venice, Marc. Gr. Z 479. Greece, 11th century.
The nondescript town of Byzantium, a Greek colony of Megara (Dorian city), was founded before 3000 B.C. Byzantium was an important center for trade on the Black Sea and was not typically thought of as having importance in Mediterranean affairs. Though it was of little importance in the Roman Empire, for which trade on the Pontus Euxine was a sideshow, it became a major world center during the Middle Ages. It remains a world capital, now renamed Istanbul. This is because the ancient Romans specifically chose it as their new home as the situation in Italy deteriorated. There were several reasons why Byzantium was a good location for a second (and ultimately only) capital of the Roman Empire.

Byzantium and the Pontus Euxine
Byzantium was considered part of the Black Sea (Pontus Euxine) sphere, not the Mediterranean.
Rome was not very defensible. It was a problem of the region, not just the city itself. At the height of the Roman Empire, the idea of invaders capturing and sacking Rome was absurd. However, this changed as Rome's foes accumulated just across the border (and, in many cases, within the borders). The western Romans themselves realized this and eventually moved the true (military) capital to Ravenna, which was more easily defensible. The first major recognition of this was when Emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305), who ruled before Constantine and began the process of dividing the Empire, chose to rule the eastern half for reasons which we'll get to below. However, he chose Nicomedia as his capital before retiring to his palace near his Salona birthplace in the seaside town of Aspalathos (now Split, Croatia). Thus, there were different options for the new capital, some of them at the time arguably as good as Byzantium. However, the inherent benefits of Byzantium prevailed.

Statue of Constantine the Great
Constantine the Great chose Byzantium as Rome's new capital.

The Advantages of the East

The emperor Constantine (r. 324–337) chose the Byzantium as the new capital for a reason. The eastern half of the empire, which eventually became the Eastern Roman Empire, had various advantages in general over the Western Roman Empire. The pars orientalis had been a major center of civilizations long before Italy. Thus, it had densely populated, wealthy, and more ancient cities (e.g., Cairo, Damascus, Aleppo, Edessa, Jerusalem, Ephesus, Smyrna, Nicaea, Alexandria, Antioch, Caesarea) than the western regions.

Byzantine and Roman defenses on the Rhine and Danube
The Rhine-Danube corner in the Roman frontier (ziegelbrenner).
Of course, not all was sweetness and light in the east. The new Sassanian dynasty was more aggressive than the Parthians and had become a major distraction for the later Roman emperors. The barbarian tribes from the steppes were pressing against the Limes Transalutanus, Limes Rhaetia, and Limes Moesiae on the Danube frontier and the frontier defenses had become inadequate. In addition, the predominant language in the region was Greek, not Latin. All of these problems could be overcome, however, through various methods.

After pondering the matter at length, Constantine put aside other options such as Troy and perhaps Chrysopolis. One of the major deciding factors for Constantine's decision had nothing to do with geography or military considerations. In his later years, Constantine was a deeply religious man (for most of his life a pagan, Constantine believed that he owed his victory at the Battle of the Milvian Bridge to Christian divine intervention). It was no secret that the new Christian religion had taken hold to a much deeper degree in the east than in the west. This made the populations of the east more reliable and less likely to switch allegiances based on considerations such as money or prestige. In a word, the population was more controllable.

Geography of Constantinople
This map shows the location of Constantinople at the lower left, with the Golden Horn directly above it and the route to the Black Sea heading off to the upper right (Kaidor).

Natural Advantages of Byzantium

Let's go through ten reasons why Byzantium was prime real estate throughout the Middle Ages.

First, being situated at the crossroads of two continents—Europe and Asia—and two seas—the Black Sea and the Mediterranean Sea—gave Constantinople major advantages. it was located on the trade routes from the East. Whether they came by land or via the Black Sea, goods from the East were going to have to pass through Constantinople. That meant an assured stream of customs revenue.

Theodosian Walls
The Theodosian Walls stopped invaders for a thousand years. The only time they were breached, in 1204, was by a naval attack.
Second, the location of the city itself on a peninsula made it naturally defensible. Constantinople could only be approached on land from the north and west. This area funneled down to a very narrow area that was soon fortified. You can say many negative things about the Romans and Byzantines, but you can't say they were bad wall builders. In fact, the Byzantines were probably the best military wall builders of all time. The defenses were amplified by closing off the Golden Horn and building the Theodosian Wall along the neck of the city. The Bosphorus always proved handy to slow down the routine invasions from the East because invaders from that direction often did not have a fleet. To capture Constantinople, an enemy had to have both an army and a superior fleet - a rarity in the middle ages. Attackers who had only an army - such as the Arabs - or a navy - such as the Venetians - could do little against Constantinople's walls.

Third, the East was the source of much of the Roman Empire’s wealth. Trade routes from the Pacific and Indian Oceans converged on Constantinople. There were gold mines, spices, fertile lands in Asia Minor, all sorts of natural wealth in the East. Egypt was the granary of the Roman Empire, although it was lost fairly early on in the life of the Eastern Empire.

Fourth, at least at the time of its founding, most Roman enemies were far away. The Germanic tribes were heading toward Gaul, not particularly toward Asia Minor. The Persian Empire (Sassanian era) was in the East, but the Romans always had a handle on it and the Persians had an awfully long march just to get to the Bosphorus. Of course, over time that situation changed drastically until it seemed as though enemies in Europe and Asia always were attacking Constantinople, but that’s where success gets you.

Fifth, the priority at the time of Constantinople's found had become solid defenses. Following the cataclysmic issues of the Third Century, the Romans weren’t going to choose somewhere they couldn’t easily defend. That ruled out an awful lot of choices. There were many nascent power centers developing in Gaul and northern Italy which weren’t going away, walled towns each with its budding Caesar. By contrast, the tribes of the Balkans were technologically backward and at Constantinople, there weren’t any nearby power centers - and most of those were far away on the other side of the Bosphorus. The Romans could leave the little satraps in Pisa or Genoa or Milan in the rearview mirror forever by moving to Constantinople.

Map of the key Byzantine port of Abydos
Abydos controlled access between the Black (Euxine) Sea and the Aegean.
Sixth, simply controlling crossings across the Bosphorus, regardless of trade, gave Constantinople natural political and economic leverage. This came in very handy during the early and late Crusades, for instance (not so much the Fourth Crusade, though). The ports and customs of Abydos (Hellespont) and Hieron, south and north of Constantinople respectively, were a source of continual revenue. Of course, at times this trade caused problems - such as when the Black Death arrived, which savaged Byzantium and later all of Europe - but overall thriving trade was a major reason for the Eastern Empire's survival.

Seventh, centering on the border of Europe and Asia kept the Romans’ hand in both pots. It “kept their options open.” While it is common to think of the Byzantines as fops wearing lots of gaily colored silks, at many times, such as during the reign of the Comneni in the 12th Century, the Byzantines were extremely western in their orientation and positively warlike. They had jousting tournaments and falconry and all that stuff just like in Merry old England.

Eighth, Constantinople had a very mild climate. There were nice sea breezes, it never got too cold, you didn’t get cooped up in drafty castles all winter, it wasn’t in the desert - such as Jerusalem or Edessa or Antioch or the other cities in the East. It was pleasant. That counts for a lot.

Ninth, in terms of its location, Constantinople was a central spot in the east. An army encamped at Constantinople could just as easily head north to battle the Bulgars or south to battle the Persians or west to battle invading Italians. The Romans built an efficient military road network that still exists in many places. A central location amplifies your military resources.

Byzantine fishermen
Byzantine fishermen using a net. This is a miniature from a Lectionary, 13th century. © Instituto Ellenico di Studi Bizantini e Postbizantini di Venezia.
Tenth, the Golden Horn was bountiful for fishing. You literally had an inexhaustible food source that was practically under your nose and which nobody could ever take away from you. The Byzantines were excellent fishermen and perfected techniques for preserving fish. Putting a chain across the mouth of the Golden Horn protected the fishing boats that fed the city from any invader. The River Lycus provided fresh water. The Byzantines need never succumb to a siege, and their enemies knew it.

So, there were many reasons to create a second capital at Constantinople rather than somewhere else, and probably many more beyond the ones I’ve listed. One can’t fault the choice, the Eastern Empire did, after all, last for a full 1000 years.


Monday, December 23, 2019

Basil II Blinds 15,000 Bulgarian Soldiers

One of the Most Savage Reprisals in History

Symeon I of Bulgaria
Emperor Symeon I of Bulgaria (Sofia Cathedral).
Byzantine history is full of memorable moments that almost seem unimaginable to modern readers. One of the oddest was the savage punishment meted out by Emperor Basil II to one of the Empire's arch-enemies, the Bulgars. The dominant historical position, adopted by scholars including Edward Gibbon, George Ostrogorsky, and John Julius Norwich, is that this incident did, in fact, occur. This view derives from the writings of contemporary historian John Skylitzes. There is a minority position held by some such as historian Mark Whittow that there isn't enough evidence to prove it actually happened. We're going with the weight of authority that Basil II earned his title "The Bulgar Slayer" from the events described below: the blinding of 14,000 Bulgarian soldiers by Emperor Basil II in 1014 A.D.
Symeon I of Bulgaria
Bulgarian Emperor Symeon I (Madrid collection via Кардам).

Why Bulgaria Was the Byzantine Empire's Mortal Enemy For Many Years

While the Romans chose the location of Constantinople based in part on its strategic and defensible position, the Byzantine Empire acquired a variety of deadly enemies over the centuries. One of these was the Bulgarian Empire. Relations between the Byzantines and the Bulgars ebbed and flowed, but when things got hot, they got very hot indeed.

The Byzantines did a very good job of proselytizing their Christian faith to the Bulgars. However, religion caused a lot of dissension amongst the Bulgars, with many preferring the "old ways" of paganism. The first Christian ruler was Boris-Michael, who was forced to abdicate in 889, had two sons, Vladimir and Symeon. As the eldest, Vladimir succeeded Boris, but he turned out to prefer paganism. This upset the pious Boris, who had retired to a monastery. Boris came storming out of retirement, reclaimed his authority, and had Vladimir imprisoned and blinded. We're going to see that blinding is a theme in this article.

The old man didn't want to really rule anymore, so he turned things over to his younger son, Symeon (sometimes spelled Simeon) who ruled from 893-927. Symeon soon picked a quarrel with Constantinople about trade practices (Constantinople increased tariffs and removed Bulgarian merchants from the capital to Thessaloniki). Symeon promptly invaded Byzantine territory in 894 The Byzantines then pulled one of their typical crafty moves and called in the Magyars to attack Bulgaria from the rear. The Byzantines and Magyars then squeezed Bulgaria between them, Magyars in the north and Byzantines in the south. Symeon knew how to play this game, however. He concluded a truce with the Byzantines and then called in his own allies, the Patzinaks, to attack the Magyars from their rear. After defeating the Magyars, Symeon then resumed the war against Byzantium and defeated them at Bulgarophygon in 896. The Byzantines under Leo VI sued for peace and had to pay tribute.
Map of Symeon I of Bulgaria's empire
Map of the Bulgarian Empire under Symeon at its greatest extent (credit to Todor Bozhinov).
Things stayed quiet until a new Byzantine emperor, Alexander, decided to stop paying the tribute in 912. Symeon quickly invaded again. The Byzantine position was weakened by the fact that Alexander promptly died (913) and the rightful successor, Constantine, was only seven years old. A committee led by the Patriarch, Nicholas Mysticus, wound up running things against the bitter opposition of Alexander's widow, Zoe. All of this led to a disastrous Byzantine defeat, with the Bulgarians only stopped by Constantinople's walls. Symeon was power-mad and wanted to take over the entire Byzantine Empire and rule it himself, somewhat audacious for a Balkan ruler. The Theodosian Walls of Constantinople finally stifled this ambition, however, and he had to accept the consolation prize of being crowned Emperor of Bulgaria. He also forced the Byzantines to marry the boy Emperor, Constantine, to his daughter. This, he thought, would eventually make him the de facto Emperor of Byzantium.

After Symeon marched back to Bulgaria, however, the Byzantines essentially repudiated the deal. Zoe used the Patriarch's concessions to Symeon to grab power from Mysticus and she forbade any marriage to some Balkan princess. Symeon was enraged and invaded Byzantine territory again, taking Adrianople in 924 and basically occupying all of the Balkan portions of Byzantium (Thrace). The new war went back and forth, with devastating Byzantine defeats at Achelous (near Anchialus) and Catasyrtae. Symeon even invaded Greece all the way down to the Gulf of Corinth. Everyone knew that Constantinople could only be captured if blockaded by both land and sea, and Symeon had no fleet. Since Empress Zoe proved to be completely incompetent, the master of the Byzantine fleet, Romanus Lecapenus, wound up as co-emperor. Symeon once again invested Constantinople in 924, but failed again. He had to content himself with the empty title of Emperor of Bulgaria, and Symeon soon was distracted by a war against the Serbs.

After Symeon's death in 927, things quieted down again. However, the Byzantines deeply resented the idea that there was another emperor in Bulgaria. The whole idea of being an emperor in the Eastern Emperor was soaked in a religious justification that the emperor was God's sole representative on earth. There really couldn't be two emperors under this reasoning - why would God need two? The idea that some minor king in the Balkans was posing as an emperor was too much for the Byzantines. However, being masterful diplomats, the Byzantines placated the Bulgarian kings by calling them emperor, but inwardly they seethed.

Things remained basically unchanged for the next sixty years. The Byzantines focused on various adventures to the south, while the Bulgarians had internal issues to deal with. Things did not change until Basil II came on the scene.

Emperor Basil II
Basil II the Bulgar Slayer.

Emperor Basil II

Basil II (765-925) was one of the most capable of Byzantine Emperors. After disposing of some rivals to the throne, Basil II attacked Bulgaria. Now, Bulgaria was far from innocent, as it had been taking advantage of Byzantium's internal issues for some time. After the death of Basil II's predecessor John Tzimisces, the entire Macedonian region broke out in revolt. All of this led to the elevation of Samuel, who helped things along by killing one of his own brothers.
Emperor Samuel of Bulgaria
Facial reconstruction of Emperor Samuel of Bulgaria based on his remains (courtesy Shakko).
Samuel, like Symeon, had vast pretensions. He formed again his own Patriarchate (a previous one had been abolished by Tzimisces), a calculated affront to the Byzantines. His kingdom was based at Ochrida, which, in the grand scheme of things, was uncomfortably close to Constantinople. Samuel began raiding Byzantine territory, attacking Thessaloniki and other areas attacked by Symeon. Basically, it was the Symeon situation all over again. Everybody knew that Samuel had to be dealt with and the Bulgarians put in their place once and for all. This was up to Basil II.

However, nobody in Byzantium really thought that Basill II had it in him. Revolts broke out, and Basil II had to resort to an old Byzantine trick. He called in the Russians, specifically Prince of Kiev Vladimir, who arrived in 988 with the famous Varangian Druzina (almost always just called Varangian Guard). The Varangians like the Byzantines and Basil II and stuck around as his personal guard. They quickly dealt with the rebels, and Basil II now had a crack military and a free hand.

By this point, Basil II was sick of all the revolts and foreign states taking advantage of his empire. This made him mean and hardened. Nowadays, that may seem like a bad thing, but around 1000 A.D. that was exactly what you needed to be like in order to succeed. An emperor had to be cold and pitiless or his kingdom would not last very long and his people would become slaves. Basil II decided to pay back some of the people who had been making his life miserable, and chief among them were the Bulgarians, who were considered the Empire's most dangerous enemies anyway. And, as it turned out, he had a vivid imagination as to how to do that.

So, Basil II set about not just defeating the Bulgarians, but eliminating them. They had made his accession to the throne miserable and their leader fancied himself his equal. The Byzantines had had enough. It was high time to swat down these insolent upstarts and return things to the way they ought to be - with the Emperor of Constantinople the only emperor and master of God's kingdom on earth. Basil II, it turned out, was the right man for the job.

The takeaway from all this is that Basil II both personally and as a patriot deeply resented the Bulgars and was determined to end their threat permanently. What followed was a devastating war of annihilation which went back and forth at times, but with the Byzantines generally gaining the upper hand. The war was constant, with no breaks for winter as was customary at the time, perhaps the first time in history this was done. Anyone who doubts the quality of the Byzantine military can study these campaigns in detail to reorient their thinking in the proper direction.
Blinding of Samuel's army by Basil II
The blinding of Samuel's army and their return to Prilep.

The Blinding of the Bulgarian Army

This has been a lengthy and involved leadup to the topic of this article, but it was necessary. It is important to understand the depth of hate and resentment felt by the Byzantines in general and Basil II in particular toward the Bulgars to appreciate what happened next.

As Basil II made inroads on Samuel's kingdom, Samuel's supporters started to become scarce. Basil II recovered long-lost Byzantine possessions such as Dyrrachium on the Adriatic and gradually squeezed the Bulgars into a mountain stronghold. In July 1014, Basil II surrounded Samuel's remaining army in the Belasica mounts (the Battle of Kleidion) near the upper Struma River. The army was captured largely intact in a valley. Samuel escaped to Prilep, but the Bulgarian army did not. There were about 14,000 or 15,000 Bulgarian survivors - accounts differ. Having defeated the Bulgars, Basil II now adopted the title Bulgaroctonus, or Bulgar-Slayer. However, what he did next is what went down into history.

Basil II ordered that the captured Bulgars be blinded and then put into groups of one hundred men each. Each of these groups was given a single one-eyed man as a guide and sent back to Prilep to see Samuel. According to the historical accounts, when Samuel saw the blinded men approaching, he had a stroke or similar ailment and died two days later (6 October 914).

A natural question is why Basil II blinded the soldiers and didn't just make them slaves or even recruit them into Imperial service. Of course, that depends on what he was thinking, and we will never know that. There are various theories. One is that Basil II was retaliating for the loss of one of his favorite generals, Theophylact Botaneiates, and his son in an ambush right after the victory at the Battle of Kleidion. The circumstances of Botaneiates' death were murky, but one account said that Samuel's own son ran him through with a spear. Another theory is that blinding was just a typical punishment of the times according to this theory. However, while some barbaric punishments including the cutting off of noses were in fashion at the time, blinding was not generally carried out on prisoners except in rare cases where royalty was involved.

My own view is that Basil II decided that he wanted to send a very clear and unmistakable message to Samuel, and Western Union wasn't available.
Walls of Constantinople
The real star of our story is not Emperor Basil II, Symeon, nor Samuel. It is the walls of Constantinople, which humbled the most powerful people in the world for a thousand years. 


Due to the events described in this article, Basil II is a very controversial figure among students of history. He is not particularly beloved in Bulgaria and other Balkan nations. There are some who simply don't like what Basil II did and try to find creative ways to demean him or deny what he did entirely. You might think that the politics of events disappear after a thousand years, but they don't. That is just how things work when there isn't video or photographic proof and few reliable written sources. But, as noted above, this article takes the mainstream position that Basil II did defeat the Bulgars, blind its captured soldiers, and thereby end the Bulgarian Empire.

Basil II virtually ended the Bulgars as a threat to his kingdom. It was one of the decisive defeats of the Middle Ages, completely wiping out what had been considered the main threat to the Byzantine state. The Bulgarian Empire ceased to exist within a few years, and Basil II treated the conquered people magnanimously. All of this cemented his victory.  Never again did the Bulgars threaten Constantinople. Instead, they became just another minor player in the Balkans. However, they did retain their Patriarch and continued their acceptance of Eastern Orthodoxy as their enduring religion.


Saturday, December 21, 2019

Which Byzantine Cities Were Important Besides Constantinople

There Was More to Byzantium Than Constantinople

Thessaloniki White Tower
The White Tower in Thessaloniki (Felix J. Koch, 1905).

Everybody who is familiar with Byzantium knows that its capital, except for a brief period after the Fourth Crusade in 1204, was Constantinople. Constantinople was hand-picked by the Romans as their "second capital," and it was one of the wisest choices they ever made. However, the Empire was more than just one city. In a sense, this is a bit like distinguishing between London and England - while London is of huge international importance, England has a lot more to offer than just one city. Let's look at some other important Byzantine cities besides Constantinople.

First Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.
Nicaea was an important religious center in addition to being a fortress. Shown is a fresco of the First Council of Nicaea held in 325. This is in the Basilica of St. Nicholas in modern Demre, Turkey.

The Byzantine Empire lasted for about a thousand years. During that time, areas of importance changed. Think of it in terms of the United States. In 1790, the most important cities could be said to have been Boston and Philadelphia. In 1890, New York and Chicago. In 1990, New York and Los Angeles. Looking at the Byzantine state as a static, unchanging painting is to completely misunderstand it, because different regions within it rose and declined in importance just as quickly and regularly.

As an example, Alexandria in Egypt was a very important city in the early years of the Empire. However, it was lost for good in 645 A.D. during the invasions of the 7th Century and never recovered.

Another example is Ravenna in Italy. It was a hugely important outpost for Emperor Justinian and the Byzantine capital in Italy (Exarchate of Ravenna) from 540-751. In fact, the only surviving image of Justinian made during his life remains to this day in a Ravenna church. However, the Lombards eventually captured Ravenna, and it ceased to play a role in Byzantine life for the next 700 years.

Jerusalem was the center of Byzantine life in the Middle East during the early years of the Empire, through the Fifth Century. However, it became a pawn in the struggles between the empires of the East and West, changing hands numerous times. Its importance as a religious center never diminished despite whoever controlled it at any particular time. The Byzantines were still attempting to control it in the Tenth Century, and one of the goals of requesting aid from the Crusaders was to recover it permanently. That never happened, and eventually, even the Crusaders couldn't hold it. Agreements were made to permit pilgrims to enter the city even after it was lost for good, reflecting its continuing importance for cultural reasons.

Now let's turn to cities with more lasting importance. Nicaea in Bithynia at least arguably was the most important city in the Empire after Constantinople for most of the Empire's history. Nicaea was important in Roman times, being honored by a visit of Emperor Hadrian. For whatever reason, he and other Emperors took a special interest in Nicaea that extended into Byzantine times. Now, we can argue whether that was justified, but it’s very hard to dispute that was the case. During the 7th Century, the Empire reorganized around themes, which are akin to modern counties or parishes.

Map of Byzantium in 900 A.D.
Map of the central portion of the Byzantine Empire circa 900 A.D. This was during a temporary surge in power by the Bulgarian Empire that faded not long after.

The Byzantines placed huge importance on Nicaea. It was the capital of the Opsikian Theme, the very foundation of the Empire during its heyday. It became the center of their resistance after the terrible events of the Fourth Crusade. Its loss to the invaders in 1331 basically signaled the end of effective resistance in Anatolia, though the Byzantines fought valiantly after that (mostly among themselves). Most tellingly, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, exiled from Constantinople, moved there after 1204 when he basically could have gone anywhere else in the Empire. Anyone who knows anything about Byzantium knows that the Patriarch was where the action was. Nicaea faded in importance a bit after the recapture of Constantinople in 1261 but was always considered a vital power center.

Sea walls of Thessaloniki
The Byzantine sea walls at Thessaloniki were still impressive in the 1860s when Abdullah Freres took this photo. The wall was demolished not very long after this photo was taken (Hungarian State Archives).

Next in importance was Thessaloniki. This was another ancient city that was the capital of the Roman province of Macedonia. It was where Paul the Apostle visited, and all Christians know or should know the importance of the Epistles to the Thessalonians. Again, the Byzantines themselves considered Thessaloniki of immense importance to the empire as a center of trade and power. In its latter stages, Thessaloniki at times became virtually a separate kingdom. There was a long history of Empresses running there when they got upset, closing the gates, and basically telling the Emperor to bugger off. One of the last Byzantine military successes was the recapture of Thessaloniki by Manuel II after some, er, Byzantine negotiations with the Ottomans. Thessaloniki was more important very early in the Empire and toward the end, while Nicaea was of much greater importance in the middle era when the Empire truly flourished.

After those two biggies, it gets a bit murkier, and this is when the time period really does make a difference. Basically, there were several cities of about equal importance after the Big Three of Constantinople, Nicaea, and Thessaloniki. So, let's name a few in no particular order of importance.

Madaba map of Jerusalem
The Madaba Map of Jerusalem. This was found on the floor of a Byzantine cathedral in Madaba, Jordan. Installed in the middle of the 6th century, it is believed to be the oldest map of the city. Its creation illustrates the importance that Byzantines placed on Jerusalem.

Mistra in the Peloponnese was critical in the last two hundred or so years of the Empire as a base of resistance and nascent resurgence. Before then, though, it was nothing special, just a regional center.

Map of Peloponnesus
Mistra and Monemvasia in the southern Peloponnesus became very important in the later stages of the Byzantine Empire. Just as the same area held out against the Persians a thousand years earlier, southern Greece held out for years after the rest of the Empire had been conquered by the Ottomans. 

Trebizond was very important as a base of operations for the wars in the East, but it split off and became a separate kingdom around the time of the Fourth Crusade. From a military perspective,

Dyrrachium on the Adriatic was of huge importance because that was where European adventurers always landed and either were beaten or headed along the Via Egnatia to attack Thessaloniki and Constantinople. It was the Byzantine gateway to Western Europe, and it’s unfortunate that its history is largely forgotten. 

As mentioned above, Jerusalem was always at the top of Byzantine priorities for religious reasons and the focus of several campaigns (and the initiation of the Crusades), but it was hard to hold for long.

Adrianople (Edirne) was important as a base of operations in the Balkans and was impressive enough for the Ottomans to make it their own capital until they seized Constantinople itself in 1453.

Via Egnatiai
The Via Egnatia was a Roman military road built in the 2nd Century B.C. It connected Dyrrachium, the main Byzantine port on the Adriatic, with Constantinople. It was used by Byzantine troops heading to points such as Italy - or Latin troops heading east.

So, the important takeaway is that the Byzantine Empire was more than just Constantinople. It was a web of power centers with Constantinople at its center. Excellent Roman roads connected Byzantine centers together and greatly aided Byzantine armies, just as they had aided Roman armies before them. Nicaea, Thessaloniki, and Dyrrachium were extremely important cities, but there were many others besides them.

Byzantine fresco in Dyrrachium
The ruins of Dyrrachium, in Durres, Albania, are not the easiest place in the world to visit. Here are some Byzantine frescos preserved in a chapel in an amphitheater there.


Friday, December 20, 2019

How Did the Byzantine Empire Last So Long?

Map of Constantinople during the Middle Ages.

Why the Eastern Roman Empire lasted for so long is a huge question, and the implications of its survival an even broader one. I couldn’t possibly really address both completely in one post. However, this is an important question because the longevity of Constantinople was important for the development of Western Civilization. So, I will attempt to answer it in a sort of broad-strokes fashion.

"Greek Fire" was the Byzantine Navy's secret weapon.

Why the Eastern Empire Was Able to Survive For So Long

The Byzantine State lasted for over a thousand years, which isn’t too shabby. There were several main reasons:
  • It had a strong economy
  • It always had a very competent military
  • It was in a great location.
These three main attributes all interacted with each other and flowed from the Empire’s founding. The Eastern Empire inherited the Roman Empire’s most productive lands and a well-developed system of maritime commerce. The Roman Empire was never particularly renowned for its navy - it was functional and won when it needed to - but the Romans didn't have much competition after it defeated the Carthaginians. The Byzantines, however, focused on its navy and made some advances (such as "Greek fire") that to this day are still not completely understood.

The Arabs took to calling the Mediterranean the “Greek Sea” because of how well the Byzantines used and controlled it. Trade was vital to the Byzantine economy, and it gave the Byzantines an edge over its less-developed neighbors. The Bulgars were warlike, for instance, but did not have the sort of commerce controlled by Constantinople. The capital’s location right at the intersection of all the most important trade routes certainly didn’t hurt.

Byzantine society was not static, as many may think. Edward Gibbon in "The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire" paints a picture of a society in constant decline, anchored to old ways of doing things that became increasingly archaic and irrelevant. That may have been true for some periods of Byzantine history, but not all. For instance, Emperor Heraclius, who reigned from 610-641 A.D., for instance, instituted reforms such as the Themes that reinvigorated the Byzantine state. Emperor Basil II (976-1025) instituted popular tax reforms that marked a high point in Byzantine fortunes

Emperor Michael VIII is a prime example of the regenerative powers of Byzantine society. After the Fourth Crusade in 1204 fragmented Byzantine society by taking Constantinople, which easily could have been the end of the road. However, Byzantines persevered in secondary power centers, holding off both the Arabs and the Latins while they rebuilt their strength. Michael in 1261 finally put the necessary pieces together to mount a comeback and retake Constantinople. This enabled the Empire to survive as a unified whole for another 200 years. The Byzantines kept reinventing themselves and adapting to changing circumstances right up to the end.
Basil II, who reigned from 10 January 976 – 15 December 1025.

The Byzantine military is constantly underrated by casual observers. The Byzantines inherited the Roman military structures and strategies and enhanced them. Military strategy was always considered of utmost importance and was a favorite topic of the emperors themselves. Emperor Maurice published the Strategikon, Leo the Wise published The Problemata and the Tactica, and Basil II oversaw The Tactica of Nikephoros Ouranos. These were all instructional manuals for the military, showing how much importance the government placed on military science.

In fact, the Byzantines came very near to being obsessed with the military, particularly during the age of the Comneni, but it paid off. The military, despite countless defeats along the way which have given the Byzantine military a poorer reputation than it deserves, sustained the Byzantine State through continual crises and even produced a renaissance in Byzantine fortunes from around 900–1050 A.D.

The Varangian Guard was representative of the very high standard of the Byzantine military. It was formed as a personal guard for the Byzantine emperor Basil in the 9th Century (formally, in the late 10th Century). It was comprised of Norse mercenaries, many of them Swedish. There is ample historical evidence of their presence and origin, including the "Greek Runestones” carved in the 11th Century that can still be seen today on the balcony of the Haghia Sophia in Istanbul. These Greek Runestones were epitaphs of the Norsemen who went to Greece.
Constantinople, at the extreme left of this map of ancient trade routes, was the western terminus of a vast network that extended to the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

The Eastern Empire was in a fantastic location that has hosted empires throughout the millennia. Among other things, it was a major crossroads for trade routes, which provided a steady stream of revenue until the last days of the Empire. Before the Byzantines, Anatolia was the center of the Hittite Empire, then it formed a huge portion of the Roman Empire, then the Eastern Empire, and finally the Ottoman Empire. It’s just a great location for defensive purposes and, at least in the past, was considered hugely productive economically. Constantinople itself was a superb defensive spot, and it was fortified with the accumulated wisdom of a millennium of Roman ideas and techniques. It had everything - food, freshwater, the most imposing walls (the Theodosian Walls) of the middle ages. Only when the technology of its enemies finally caught up with it did the Byzantine State enter a period of crisis, and even then it lasted for another 250 years.
There was a high sense of justice in the Byzantine Ages that was unusual enough for the age to be recorded for posterity. In this illustration from the Skylitzes Chronicles, a Thracian woman kills a Varangian who had tried to rape her (left). Afterward, his fellow soldiers praised her and allowed her to have his possessions.{Bibliotica Nacional de Espana}.

Implications of the Survival of the Eastern Empire

As for the implications of the survival of the Eastern Empire, it served as a sort of lifeboat for classical civilization. Roman law continued and developed much further. Life could continue as always for Romans who left the Western Empire and relocated to the fertile East. This enabled a continued evolution of classical civilization that the Byzantines could bestow upon surrounding regions. It was widely understood throughout the Middle Ages that the Byzantine Empire stood head and shoulders above rougher states which surrounded it. That is why, for instance, Scandinavians came down to learn from the Byzantines. Eastern Roman academics spread out as time went on and educated people in surrounding areas. They were especially successful at converting neighboring regions to the Eastern Orthodox religion, which remains a dominant force in Russia to this day because of Byzantine proselytizers.

The construction methods used in the Haghia Sophia (Church of the Holy Wisdom), completed during the reign of Justinian, represented the apotheosis of Roman construction methods.

It’s not as if the Western Roman Empire did nothing in this regard, of course. While Rome “fell,” its influence also continued throughout the middle ages. Building methods certainly did not advance after Rome's fall, however, in the lands taken over by the infiltrating tribes. Roman building techniques matured only in Constantinople, where artisans had adequate protection and patronage, resulting in advances even beyond the Roman architecture in monumental structures such as the Hagia Sofia. Byzantine art also flourished and is one of many sources for the eventual Renaissance in Italy. The Byzantines also established new administrative techniques, such as the development of the themes, that continue to this day in the form if not substance in such government entitles as “states” and “counties.”

The Byzantines preserved literature and artwork from the classical era. Many of the most revered monuments in Venice, for instance, came directly from Constantinople, including the Quadriga in St. Mark’s Place. The timing of the sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the “Crusaders” and the development of the Italian Renaissance immediately thereafter is probably not a coincidence. Having the masterworks of antiquity to review and build upon was a massive contribution to European development from 1200–1500.

The unsuccessful 717-718 siege of Constantinople was one of several times that the city stood directly in the way of assaults on Europe from the southeast.

The Byzantine military also did more than just preserve the Eastern Empire. It served as a sturdy roadblock for aggressive powers in the East. These included the aging Persian Empire, the Arabs expanding at the time of Mohammed, and the growing Ottoman Empire. The Byzantines protected Europe’s flank for a thousand years. Stymied, the Arabs were forced to try end-runs around the Byzantine Empire, such as expanding along the southern Mediterranean coast and then entering Europe through Spain. However, these adventures attenuated their power and proved unsuccessful. Though they finally bypassed Constantinople in the 1300s, the Ottomans couldn’t generate a strong thrust into Eastern Europe until they consolidated their power at the Greek capital after 1453. This gave Western European powers time to develop and finally unite when the Turks reached Vienna and turn them back. History could have turned out much differently without the Byzantines standing guard on the Bosphorus.

The ancient streets of Istanbul helped to save Western civilization (author's photo).


Thursday, December 19, 2019

Was the Byzantine Army Weak?

Tough, Hard Warriors

Byzantine archers
Victorious Byzantine archers.
There are all sorts of misconceptions about the Byzantine state. One of the most pernicious is that the Byzantines were sort of weak cast-offs from the Roman Empire. According to this view, they couldn't win any battles and constantly gave ground until finally overwhelmed by the Turks. In fact, people seem to think that Byzantine soldiers were vaguely effeminate. Let's take a look at the performance of the Byzantine armies in comparison with Rome's famed legions.

Byzantine troops are undeservedly smeared because of how the Empire ended. The truth is that Byzantine armies were by far the best of the Middle Ages. Many of their successes are completely overlooked, such as the dramatic victories of John I Tzimiskes and the many successes of Basil II. If you look these guys up in standard texts you would think they were non-entities - dig a little deeper and you see that they were brilliant generals with hardened troops who were a class above all other armies of the time.

Battle of Kleidion
After the Battle of Kleidion, Basil II ordered the Bulgarian Army blinded and sent home. This earned him the honorific "Basil the Bulgar Slayer."
I bet you’ve heard that story about the army that was defeated and all the soldiers were blinded, with only one left with one eye to lead them home. It’s a famous military story and it’s not a myth or a legend. Basil II actually did that. Does that sound like an incompetent leader and army? The Byzantines were capable and ruthless.

Justinian fresco at San Vitale
In the famous fresco of Justinian in the Church of San Vitale, note the prominent place of the military at the left. This was not by accident, the Byzantine army was considered just as important as the church in the early days of the Empire.
The Byzantines did not just loiter around for a thousand years waiting to be defeated, they fought like lions year after year after year. A few dramatic defeats such as Mantzikert and Yarmouk are blown out of all proportion, but the ancient Romans had their share of defeats, too. The Byzantine armies fought successfully for over a thousand years and there are very, very few armies that can match that record. Because they were stretched tight and faced strong and growing powers, the Byzantines did have to play defensive for much of the Empire's existence. However, that doesn't mean they were weak. It simply means they were facing steep odds and had to be that much tougher to overcome them.

Battle of Zama
Hannibal humiliated several Roman armies before finally being defeated at the Battle of Zama in 202 B.C. (shown).
There is a common misconception that classical Roman armies never broke and ran. That is hardly the case. In fact, Roman armies often struggled. When Hannibal broke into Italy, he absolutely creamed the Roman legions sent against him at the Battles of Lake Trasimene (Lago Trasimeno) and at Cannae. Their commander ran back to Rome and was promptly banished for cowardice. Similar incidents happened early in the Empire, such as in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest (aka the Varian Disaster) in 9 A.D. A key incident in this battle was when Legatus Numenius Vala became terrified and abandoned the main body of troops by riding off with the cavalry, leading to his own troops' deaths and also the remaining troops who were trapped and left defenseless by Vala's cowardice. This ended Roman attempts to conquer the Germanic territories east of the Rhine river, so it was not just some inconsequential battle to shrug off as a fluke. It was a pivotal moment in Rome's history and it was an utter failure.

Some consider the Varian Disaster as the worst defeat in Rome's entire history, in fact, greater than those suffered against Hannibal. But, you rarely hear about it unless you are a true student of Roman or German history. The battle displayed in abundance the worst possible traits of any troops - cowardice, overconfidence, lack of preparation, naivete, and rank incompetence. And these were Roman troops, Roman legions, from the period we like to think of as the height of the Roman Empire. Germanicus came back and restored Roman prestige in the region from 14-16 A.D., but the damage had been done.

Battle of Teutoborg Forest
"Scene from the Varian Disaster" by Kunz Meyer-Waldeck (German, 1859–1953).
This Roman military vulnerability extended throughout the Empire, not just the early years. The trouble of the Third Century was well known but usually just shrugged off as some sort of an aberration. However, Roman military troubles continued afterward, too. Licinius, who revolted against Constantine I, lost battle after battle in the 320s. It’s hilarious reading Gibbon recount how Licinius got defeated, then raised another army, then got defeated, then raised another army, over and over. When Emperor Julian invaded Persia in 363, the Romans got spanked badly and had to agree to humiliating terms (Julian did not survive the campaign). Incidentally, there are a lot of interesting parallels between Julian's invasion of the East and the invasions of Russia by Napoleon and Hitler, but let's not get too far afield on this. The bottom line is that these were all Roman troops that cut and ran.

Invasion of the Barbarians by Ulpiano Checa 1887
"Invasion of the Barbarians or The Huns approaching Rome, " 1887 (Ulpiano Checa  (1860–1916)). While Rome was falling, the Eastern Empire was thriving.
I am by no means trying to imply that Roman armies were weak or incompetent - far from the truth. They were human, with good and bad. Building their reputation up into superhero status, however, does them no favors. The Romans were grinders, tenacious and relentless. They won by outthinking and outworking their opponents, not by being military robots or phony caped crusaders. They were not invincible and lost regularly - just not as regularly as their enemies for most of their existence. Some people seem to mistake the Roman Legions for the Spartans at Thermopylae who fought to the last man, but that stoicism didn't last forever for the Spartans, either. By the 5th Century, the Roman Armies were being beaten regularly and the victories were the rarities. That the Byzantines (Eastern Empire) were winning battles while the Roman (as in, the Western Empire) were losing theirs should tell you something about what direction things were going. The Byzantines adapted better to changing times. However, people try to measure Rome's armies at its height to Eastern Empire armies centuries later when the geopolitical situation had changed drastically from one time to the other, and that is unfair.

Battle of Lalakaon 863
Byzantine troops defeating the Arabs at the Battle of Lalakaon, 863 (unknown painter, 13th Century) (Chronicle of John Skylitzes, cod. Vitr. 26-2, fol. 73va, Madrid National Library). This is just another forgotten victory by Byzantine troops that barred the door to Western Europe by invading Eastern armies.
Losers in that day and age did not wait around to be put to the sword, they cut and ran and lived to fight another day. The Romans just had a very high winning percentage so there is this myth that they were somehow different than everyone else. When they lost, they ran just like anyone else.

In sum, the Byzantines were tough, hard warriors. You have to remember that the Byzantine Empire was essentially half the size of the classical Empire and just did not have the same resources as did, say, Augustus or Hadrian. There is this huge misperception that the Byzantines were too religious or squeamish to fight, and it is just not true. Perhaps it is because their own artwork was not sufficiently heroic by our standards, but that is a fault of their artists, not their warriors. The Byzantines fought well and hard, but they have never gotten good press because they were not considered "Western" at the right time and that is a shame.

Byzantine Cataphract in action against the Bulgarians
Byzantine heavy cavalry (kataphraktoi, or Cataphracts) charging against fleeing Bulgarians (Chronicle of John Skylitzes, XIVth century; Biblioteca Nacional, Madrid, matritensis graecus, Vitr. 26-2, folio 19r).