===================The Byzantine Empire (AD 1045)
Byzantion (Greek: Βυζάντιον) was the name of a humble city located on the Bosporus, later called Byzantium by the Romans. It had been founded by Dorian Greek colonists from Megara during the seventh century BC to secure Greek shipping routes to and from the Black Sea region. The city achieved some prominence as a trade hub during the heydays of the Roman Empire before being sieged and sacked by the forces of Septimius Severus in 195, as a result of having sided with the usurper Pescennius Niger during the Year of the Five Emperors (193). Although Septimius Severus recognised the city’s potential and rebuilt it, Byzantium was given a far greater destiny in 330 when Constantine the Great (r. 306 – 337) chose the city as his new imperial residence and capital – a decision which altered the course of Roman and indeed European history forever.
Several factors influenced Constantine’s choice: Byzantium’s strategic position at the gateway between two continents, the increasing economic and demographic importance of the Roman Empire’s eastern territories and last but not least, Constantine’s desire to (literally) distance himself and his government from the less than cooperative senatorial elite back in Rome. Constantine and his son Constantius II (r. 337 – 361) did everything in their power to make Byzantium – soon renamed as Nova Roma Constantinopolitana
– into a citadel with all the imperial grandeur of Rome in its days of splendour, combining the fledgling Christian architecture with the established Roman urban culture. At the death of Constantius II, the city’s governmental and ceremonial heart consisted mainly of the Great Palace (Greek: Μέγα Παλάτιον), the Hagia Eirene (Greek: Ἁγία Εἰρήνη, Holy Peace
), the Hippodrome and the Forum of Constantine (Greek: Φόρος Κωνσταντίνου). On top of that, a new Byzantine Senate was established with its own Curia to emphasise Constantinople’s status as the New Rome, free from the corruption and conspiracies of the Roman senators in the west.
The continuous dedication of the Roman – Eastern Roman after the imperial division of 395 – government to the construction of Constantinople caused its population to skyrocket between the fourth and sixth century, in sharp contrast to the decline of Rome in the west. Of the approximately 400,000 people living in Rome at the time of its infamous destruction by the Visigoths in 410, a mere 30,000 remained halfway through the sixth century. Constantinople had by this time become the greatest metropolis of the Mediterranean with over 300,000 inhabitants. Although the city’s population slightly dwindled over subsequent centuries and never outclassed the imperial zenith of Rome, Constantinople was undoubtedly the supreme jewel of Medieval Europe until the forces of the Fourth Crusade desecrated the city in 1204.
The fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 and the disappearance of its last splinter territories by 487 caused the imperial government of Constantinople to begin propagating a revival of Roman power – Renovatio Imperii
. To Constantinople, the fall of the west meant before anything that there was finally a single Roman Empire again. Moreover, that the ‘inferior’ western barbarians had not only toppled Rome’s imperial power but also claimed its legacy was considered an unforgiveable insult. As the sole continuation of the Roman Empire, Constantinople considered itself the rightful ruler of all the former Roman territories in the west, a claim it considered not only possible but also inevitable.
The man who zealously pursued the renovatio
-policy was Justinian the Great (r. 527 – 565). From the moment of his ascension to power, he embarked on an ambitious quest consisting of four objectives: reconquest of the lost western territories, the purification and codification of Roman law, the establishment of religious unity and a military-first economy. Justinian’s multi-front wars of reconquest, massive construction programs (most prominently the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople) and heavy taxation pushed the empire and its people to the limit of their abilities. Despite considerable successes, the ultimate goal of restoring the entire Roman Empire proved unrealistic, all the more because difficulties turned into great calamities as the sixth century progressed. The first plague epidemic hit the Mediterranean hard from 541 onward and the Sassanid Empire – Constantinople’s eastern nemesis – reinitiated hostilities. In the north, barbarian invasions once more breached the imperial frontiers: the Avars and Bulgars entered the Danube Valley, subjugating Slavic peoples along the way and causing Slavic confederations to in turn invade the Balkans in search of a new home. In the west meanwhile, Constantinople’s hard-fought victories in Iberia and Italy were all but undone by the Visigoths and Langobards, though the empire held on to key Italian regions (including Rome and Ravenna).
The catastrophes towards the end of Justinian’s reign and after his death proved to be merely the overture to the storms of the seventh century. The power of Constantinople nevertheless held out well enough at first: Emperor Herakleios (r. 610 – 641) booked a spectacular victory at the Battle of Nineveh (627) which practically shattered the Sassanid Empire, secured the imperial frontiers in the east and allowed Constantinople to begin planning a reconquest of the Balkans.
Fate decided otherwise: less than a decade after Nineveh, Constantinople’s armies were retreating in the face of the Arab tribes, recently united in the new faith of Islam. Shortly after Herakleios’ death in 641, Arab forces had secured the entire Roman Middle East and subsequently conquered Egypt (642). These colossal demographic and territorial losses inflicted an unprecedented internal crisis upon Constantinople’s economy, military apparatus and governmental framework. In response, Herakleios and his successor Constans II (r. 641 – 668) embarked on a campaign of far-reaching reforms to suit the new situation and consolidate what was left of the empire. The result was the emergence of a ‘new’ Greco-Roman state, indeed the immediate continuation of the (Eastern) Roman Empire but one which had been thoroughly altered by decades of catastrophes and the rising significance of its Greek component. From around this time onward, the dominion of Constantinople is popularly known to modern-day people as the ‘Byzantine Empire’. However, both the government and the people stubbornly continued to call themselves and their empire ‘Roman’.
The reforms which shaped the emergence of the Byzantine state were nevertheless huge: the countryside of the empire was given a new taxation framework which called for taxes in the form of gold alone and charged the local leaders of peasant communities with coordinating tax collection. The vital monetary link between the empire’s tax payers and government officials was thus preserved and strengthened. This was indeed of the greatest importance: the loss of inhabitants, resources and territory both required and implied a more efficient micro-management of the remaining empire. As a result, both the imperial army and bureaucracy shrunk significantly during the seventh and eighth century. Whereas Constantinople could summon an army as large as 150,000 soldiers in the days of Justinian the Great, it could count on ‘only’ 80,000 halfway through the eighth century. Likewise, the central government in Constantinople consisted of about 2,500 officials when Justinian came to power, as opposed to a mere 600 at the dawn of the eighth century.
In said situation of severe contraction, Emperor Constans II enforced a complete reorganisation of the Byzantine military apparatus around 660. The new Byzantine army continued to be made up of semi-professional soldiers and enlistment remained voluntary, but its structure was rebuilt around four field armies: the themata
(Greek: (pl.) θέματα), which were all stationed in the empire’s new core-territory of Asia Minor. A fifth thema
was soon established in the Aegean Sea to represent the Byzantine war fleets, followed by the creation of themata
in the remaining Byzantine territories in the Western Mediterranean. The new system was quickly expanded and enhanced under Constans II’s successors and ultimately constituted a new Byzantine administrative framework which replaced that of the Roman Emperors Diocletian and Constantine.
To complement the themata
, prevent a repeat of the Arab sieges of Constantinople (673 – 678 and 717 – 718) and more effectively combat the increasing number of internal conspiracies against the Emperor, Constantine V (r. 741 – 755) created new units with only professional soldiers: the tagmata
(Greek: (pl.) τάγματα), which – at least in theory – numbered altogether 18,000 men. Constantine V thus dramatically increased Constantinople’s defensive capacity and his own ability to crush internal threats to his power. However, the Emperor’s position ultimately came at risk of being challenged or controlled by his own tagmata
-commanders. To solve this, a new force was assembled in the tenth century to serve as the Emperor’s personal bodyguard, one which largely consisted of Scandinavian soldiers: the famous Varangian Guards (Greek: Τάγμα των Βαράγγων).
The downside to assembling the tagmata
was the gradual decline in quality of the themata
. Two main reasons can be brought up for this: firstly, the general preference of cavalrymen to serve in the tagmata
rather than the themata
, not in the least because the former paid better; secondly, the gradually increasing importance of cavalry-heavy armies. Already in the ninth century, the Byzantine military had to order peasant communities all over the empire to assemble a certain number of cavalrymen for service in the themata
As the ninth century progressed, the internally reconsolidated Byzantine Empire could finally prepare its great war of reconquest. Byzantine forces had managed to reclaim the western Peloponnese shortly after 800 – killing or deporting the Slavs and repopulating the area with Greeks – but were hindered in further expansion by internal strife and strong foreign enemies, most notably the Bulgarian Empire. The fall of the Avar Khaganate in 804 had allowed for a remarkable rise in Bulgarian power and prosperity, establishing an empire which roughly encompassed modern-day Bulgaria, all of Macedonia and vast portions of modern-day Serbia and Albania. For centuries, the Byzantine Emperors could do little more than to tolerate the Bulgarian Khans, all the more because Constantinople’s Arab nemesis continued to terrorise the Mediterranean.
By the end of the ninth century, Byzantium achieved new successes by driving the Arabs out of Cilicia and strengthening its hold on southern Italy. The subsequent string of Byzantine victories which happened throughout the tenth and early eleventh centuries were the result of the internal weakening of the hated Arabs in the Middle East and the creation of political stability within the Byzantine government. A kind of balance of power had been established between the hereditary monarchy of the Emperor and the governmental influence of the Byzantine army, which implied that the Byzantine generals agreed to act reservedly in case of troubles within the monarchy but were allowed considerable influence over seating Emperors. Though said balance was indeed the fundament of the tenth century Byzantine reconquests, it turned the imperial court of Constantinople into a grand theatre of hypocrisy, flattery, factionalism and backstage conspiracies where one had to tread lightly to avoid ‘disappearing’ from the stage at the command of either the regime or the military.
Two Emperors defined the Byzantine tenth century: Constantine VII (r. 913 – 959) and his grandson Basil II (r. 963 – 1025 ‘the Bulgar Slayer’). However, Constantine stood initially under the regency of the Patriarch of Constantinople, subsequently ruled alongside his mother Zoe Karbonopsina and then had to tolerate general Romanos Lekapenos as co-emperor until 944. His grandson Basil II ruled consecutively alongside his generals Phokas (until 969) and Tzimiskes (until 976).
The upside to the immense power of these generals was that the Byzantine armies could act decisively on every front, being commanded by men who had no real superior. Lekapenos turned the tables in the Balkans and increased Byzantine pressure on the Bulgarian Empire, which had reached the zenith of its power under Khan Symeon (r. 893 – 927) and his successors, even attempting to siege Constantinople itself (923 – 924). Phokas reestablished firm Byzantine control over Cilicia, reclaimed Crete (961) and Cyprus (965), annexed Armenia and secured the gateway into Syria by reconquering Antioch. Tzimiskes then initiated the annexation of Bulgarian Thrace, reduced the Emirate of Aleppo to a Byzantine vassal and invaded the Middle East, conquering key cities like Edessa, Tripoli, Sidon and Damascus but falling short of Jerusalem itself.
The downside to the Byzantine army’s state-influence became clear upon the death of Tzimiskes in 976: the empire fell into thirteen years of civil war before Basil II managed to regain control of the empire, greatly aided by a military alliance with Vladimir the Great of Kievan Rus’. Once firmly in power, Basil II pushed the military policies of his late co-emperors to the limit. In 1014, Byzantium obliterated the Bulgarian army at the Battle of Kleidon and systematically conquered the Bulgarian Empire. By 1018, Basil II had accomplished the destruction of all remaining Bulgarian resistance. The ruthlessness of the Byzantine armies – even by Medieval standards – gained Basil II the epitaph of ‘Bulgar Slayer’ (Greek: Βουλγαροκτόνος), by which he is known to this very day. Basil subsequently annexed significant territories in the Caucasus before turning west to strengthen Byzantine positions in southern Italy. Throughout his reign, Byzantium’s only military failure was the attempted invasion of Muslim Sicily.
The major wars of reconquest waged by Basil II transformed the Byzantine armies along the general lines of military development going on in both the Latin West and the Islamic world. The importance of cavalry units increased dramatically: heavily armoured cavalrymen were given a more offensive role on the battlefield, whereas infantry units were trained to protect cavalry with carré formations. The new battle tactics stood side by side with a new system of military recruitment and maintenance: Basil II introduced the principal of subsidiary fiscal solidarity, which commanded that rich land owners had to assume the fiscal duties (and not the land) of low-class peasants with financial difficulties. When lands fell to the tax collectors of the government, it was not sold but given in ‘lease’ to richer citizens which then had to pay for the armour, horses and wages of cavalrymen. As such, the Byzantine government both managed to maintain the army as a ‘public institution’ to which all imperial citizens contributed and prevented – at least initially – that local or regional potentates gained too much power and could establish their own autonomous dominions (which was the case all over the Latin West during the Early Middle Ages).
Approximately halfway through the eleventh century, the Byzantine Empire had once again become arguably the strongest state of the Medieval Mediterranean world, having doubled its territory since the eighth century and ruling unopposed from the Straits of Messina to the Caucasus Mountains and the eastern shores of the Black Sea. However, the rapid expansion caused the iron grip of the imperial government to loosen under the rule of Zoe Porphyrogenita and her successive co-rulers (Romanos III, Michael IV, Michael V, her sister Theodora and Constantine IX), causing the powerful families of Asia Minor to gain significant local autonomy and act without orders from Constantinople...© 2013 – 2014 undevicesimus.deviantart.com