1902 Encyclopedia > Greece > Period of Byzantine Prosperity: from Leo III to Isaac I (Comnenus), 716-1057 A.D.

(Part 12)



III: Period of Byzantine Prosperity: from Leo III to Isaac I (Comnenus), 716-1057 A.D.

The By- Considerable difference of opinion has existed as to the tantine precise time at which the Roman empire of the east may empire. sa^ tQ nave en(jeij; an(j tne Byzantine empire to have commenced. Gibbon remarks that "Tiberius by the Arabs, and Maurice by the Italians, are distinguished as the first of the Greek Caesars, as the founders of a new dynasty and empire." The question turns on modifications of the old Roman system of administration, and the introduction of a new order of things, which lasted until the overthrow of the state. These commenced, no doubt, shortly after the death of Heraclius, and were closely connected with the victorious advance of the Saracens, which necessitated a reform, and at the same time concentrated the empire, and confined it more and more within the districts inhabited by Greeks. But the altered state of things did not become apparent, nor were the changes systematized, until the time of Leo III., and therefore he may most rightly be regarded as having inaugurated the Byzantine empire. The first cen-tury and a half of the present period embraces the icono-clastic controversy, while the two remaining centuries coincide with the rule of the Basilian dynasty. It was a time of great men and great achievements, both in govern-ment and war, and the events it contains amply suffice to defend the Byzantine empire from the imputation of feeble-ness and decrepitude; and those who delight to find in history strongly marked characters and stirring incidents will be amply rewarded here. Few personages stand out in stronger relief than the ruthless, yet ascetic, warrior Basil, the slayer of the Bulgarians; and few occurrences are more romantic than the death of Leo the Armenian, who defends himself with the crucifix in his chapel, where he was chanting the prayers in the early morning, while his successor lies in fetters in the neighbouring dungeon. Reforms We must first notice the reforms, which caused the reign of Leo 0f Leo III. to be an era in the history of the empire. These extended to almost every branch of the administra-tion. In respect of the army, he reorganized the military establishment by placing the various bodies of soldiers in the different "themes," or departments, each with a general of its own, thereby providing for local defence, and avoiding the danger of rendering the military commanders too influ-ential—a system which defended the empire for five cen-turies. The geographical arrangement in themes was intro-duced by Heraclius, but reorganized by Leo, and bore somewhat the same relation to the previous division into provinces that the departments in France bear to the earlier distribution of that country. In respect of finance, he brought the taxation immediately under the emperor's cognizance, so that thenceforth the emperors were their own finance ministers. All local agencies for collecting the taxes were abolished, and their functions transferred to the im-perial officers, who took census regularly. By this means he raised more money than his predecessors, but the increased prosperity of the people showed that the burden did not fall so heavily. In respect of justice, in order to obviate the difficulties which had arisen in the administration of Justinian's elaborate laws, especially since the facilities for communication throughout the empire had decreased, he published in Greek an abridged manual called the Ecloga, and codified the military, agricultural, and maritime laws. In respect of religion, he aimed at counteracting the ele-ment of superstition which had crept into the church, and through it was corrupting the public mind. But this last point calls for separate consideration, since the worship or prohibition of images became the burning question of the age.
The history of iconoclasm is the history of Constantinople Ioono-during the 8th century and the first half of the 9th, and clasm. involved a great part of the empire in its distractions. There can be little doubt that, in his opposition to image worship, Leo represented the opinion of a large part of the enlightened laymen of his time, while the great body of the clergy, but especially the monks, together with the mass of the population, were passionately attached to the statues and pictures, as objects of reverence, not to say of adoration. But the fact that the stronghold of iconoclasm was Asia Minor, and especially that part of it which bordered on the countries occupied by the Saracens, suggests that it was in part owing to the spread of Mahometanism, the rigidly guarded spirituality of which creed was a stand ing protest against more material conceptions of religion. Nor should we overlook the deeply rooted feeling in the mind of Orientals of the opposition between spirit and matter, which would naturally cause them to be alive to such questions of controversy. The emperors of this time were those of the Isaurian, Armenian, and Amorian dynas-ties, all which names remind us that they came from the Asiatic provinces; whereas the great restorer of images, the empress Irene, during whose regency the second council of Nicsea in their favour was held (787 A.D.), was an Athenian. But the matter was complicated by a further issue; the question of images was closely connected in the minds of the emperors, and especially of Leo III. and his hard-handed son Constantine Copronymus, with that of their supremacy in matters of religion. They viewed with jealousy the independent power of the church, and were glad of the opportunity this controversy afforded of strength-ening their control over this department, and claiming to the full those ecclesiastical rights which, from the time of Constantine the Great onward, had attached to the im-perial authority. As this move was only part of a system of centralization, the monks and others who supported image worship were from one point of view the assertors of liberty against aggression, and they were recognized as such by a certain number of thinking men, who watched with anxiety the growth of despotism. As toleration was un-known to the age, persecution was carried on by both sides with equal fierceness, and the contest swayed to and fro, until it was brought to an end by the final restoration of images under Michael III., the last of the Amorian line (842). Its effects on society had been remarkable. At first its influence was bracing, as was shown by the re-newed vigour which pervaded the empire; for both sides were thoroughly in earnest, and among the iconoclasts in particular an element of Puritan energy was evolved. But in its later stages, when the people at large were weary of the strife, and the struggle was felt to be in reality one between church and state, the prevalent hypocrisy generated disrespect for religion, and this was followed by genera! immorality. It further caused the loss to the empire of its dominions in central Italy. So great was the alienation produced by this movement in the minds of the popes Gregory II. and III. that thenceforward the holy see was for the most part either active in its opposition to the Byzantine power or lukewarm in support of it. At last, in 751, Ravenna was captured by the Lombards, and the Greek exarch retired to Naples.

The subsequent ecclesiastical affairs of this period must Suhse-be briefly dismissed, though they exercised an important quent influence on the fortunes of the Greeks. The final separa- ^^ai" tion of the Eastern and Western Churches took place in affairs, 1053, though events had long before been leading up to it. Already in the middle of the 9th century, when the pope

interfered between the rival patriarchs Ignatius and Photius, a rupture was very nearly occurring; and at last, though the formal causes of division were theological, yet the assumptions of the see of Rome and political antagonisms were in reality more influential motives. The bitterness thus created culminated in the capture of Constantiuople by the Latins at the time of the fourth crusade; and the subsequent refusal of aid by the Western nations to the Greeks greatly facilitated the success of the Ottomans. From this, the greatest breach in the Christian world, we turn with thankfulness to the missionary efforts of this age. In the middle of the 9th century two brothers, Cyril and Methodius, preached the gospel to the southern Slavonians, and converted them to Christianity. By Cyril the alphabet called Cyrillic was invented, which was generally adopted by the Slavonic peoples. About the same time the Bulgarians renounced their paganism, through the influence of a sister of their king, Bogoris, who had been educated as a prisoner at Constantinople, and afterwards restored to her native country. The rest of the nation had been prepared for this change by the numerous Christian slaves who had previously been carried off by them in war. A century later Christianity was introduced by Greek influence among the Russians, whose capital was now at Kieff, and who were among the most dreaded foes of the Eastern empire. If the missionary spirit is the best evidence of the vitality of a church, it is clear that that of Constantinople, however much corrupted by formalism, was still animated by the spirit of true religion. Saracen The Persian monarchy, which for 400 years had been the Wars. rival of the Roman power in Asia, had now succumbed to the victorious arms of the Saracens; and that people again, during the next four centuries, were engaged in almost con-tinual war with the Byzantine empire. In the reign of Constantine Pogonatus, the caliph Moawyah besieged Constantinople for seven years by land and sea, the invaders retiring to Cyzicus for the winter (672-9); but, owing in great measure to the newly invented Greek fire, he was obliged at last to desist from the attempt, and almost the whole of his force was destroyed. Notwithstanding this reverse, the attempt was renewed within a year after Leo III.'s accession by Moslemah, brother of the caliph Suleiman, with an enormous host; but the skill of the Byzantines in military defence, which was equal to that of the Romans in their best days, baffled his attempts, and a winter of extraordinary severity ensuing ruined the attack-ing army. The importance of this result was incalculable to Europe—far greater than that of the victory of Charles Martel at Tours. The Saracen empire was now at its height, and reached from the Indus to the Atlantic; and it was the full brunt of this power, now in full tide of conquest, which was resisted at Constantinople. Had that city fallen, there was no power that could have prevented it from overrunning Europe. After this, Asia Minor con-tinued for ages to be the battle-ground of the two opposing empires, until it was so devastated and depopulated by suc-cessive campaigns as to be fit only for the occupation of the nomad tribes who were to succeed. In the midst of these struggles the invasions of Haroun al Rashid, the splendour of whose court obtained for him a reputation in the West which he did not enjoy among his contemporaries in the East, appear hardly more than plundering incursions. The Byzantine nobles, who were trained in this school of war, were distinguished for their military spirit and personal prowess; and the troops of which the armies were composed were so powerful and well-disciplined that the Saracens would never meet them in the field except with far superior numbers. By sea, however, the empire was less successful than by land. During the first half of the 9th century both Crete and Sicily were conquered by these enemies, and in the year 904 occurred the memorable sack of Thessalonica. A Saracen fleet appeared before that city, and, after storm-ing the sea-wall, pillaged the whole place and butchered the citizens without respect of sex or age. The most famous successes were those of Nicephorus Phocas and his successor John Zimisces. The former of these great commanders, who- before he became emperor had reconquered the island of Crete, at the end of a brilliant campaign in Syria obtained possession of Antioch (968) after it had been in the hands of the Mahometans for 328 years. Five years later Zimisces carried his victorious arms even to the banks of the Tigris. But while the disorganized state of the caliphate of Baghdad, in the early part of the 11th century, removed all fears from that quarter, a new enemy began to appear on the eastern frontier of the empire—the Seljuk Turks. Unfortunately, at this critical conjuncture, a fatal mistake was made. The safety of that frontier had long been guaranteed by the Armenian kingdom of the Bagra-tians, whose country was admirably adapted for defence, and whose population were a hardy race of Christian mountaineers. In the year 1045 the emperor Constantine IX. destroyed this kingdom, and thereby laid his dominions open to the invaders.
In Europe, at the same time, the empire was exposed to Bulgari: the attacks of a foe hardly less formidable, and in closer wars-proximity—the Bulgarians. After the extinction of the Avars, this people, who had long been in subjection to them, had founded an important monarchy in the ancient Mcesia at the end of the 7th century; and henceforward the Byzan-tines had to defend their European possessions, not as before against a succession of migratory tribes, but against the concentrated force of a single nation. In the time of Con-stantine Copronymus we find that it required all the energy and military talents of that emperor to keep them at bay, and on one occasion they carried their ravages up to the neighbourhood of the capital. In the beginning of the 9 th century their king, Crumn, defeated and slew the emperor Nicephorus I., who had invaded his territory, in a night attack on his camp, and converted his skull into a drinking-cup for his table. We have already noticed how, later in that century, the nation embraced Christianity, and at the same time a tract of country on the southern side of the Balkan range was ceded to them, and received from them the name of Zagora. By this time also they had imper-ceptibly changed their nationality and their language, for by intermingling with the more numerous Slavonian tribes of the countries in which they settled, they lost the traces of their Hunnish origin, and became to all intents and pur-poses a Slavonic race. By the neighbourhood of Constan-tinople, and the trade between that city and the German and Scandinavian peoples which passed through their country, they became a commercial nation, and advanced in the arts of life. But the rapacity of the Greeks in im-posing heavy customs on their traders involved them again in war with the empire, and when peace was re-established, the treaty between Romanus I. and their king, Simeon, was made under the very walls of Constantinople (923). In the reign of Nicephorus Phocas the Russians, who had not long before appeared on the scene of action, were invited by the Greeks to invade Bulgaria, and they so effectually crushed the Bulgarians (968) that his successor, John Zimisces, was obliged to come to their aid, in order to save his own territory from falling a prey to the new comers. It was shortly after this that the great and final struggle commenced. Under their chief, Samuel, a man of great vigour and ability, they extended their conquests over Macedonia and Thessaly, and made plundering incursions into Greece and the Peloponnesus. But finding that the plains of Bulgaria were unfavourable to him as a seat of war, on account of the superior discipline of the imperial

forces, Samuel transferred his seat of government to Achrida, on the confines of Macedonia and Albania, and thence he extended his kingdom from the Adriatic to the iEgean, so thao the country he ruled was as extensive as the European portion of the Byzantine empire. But these events coincided with the culminating period of Byzantine greatness, and Samuel found a worthy rival in Basil II., who from his subsequent victories obtained the title of " Slayer of the Bulgarians." By him the Bulgarian power was brought to an end; and the whole people submitted to the dominion of the Greeks (1018). The Rus- The third people with whom the empire had to contend sians. at this time was the Russians. In the reign of Michael III., the last of the Amorian dynasty (865), the inhabi-tants of Constantinople were astonished by the appearance in the neighbourhood of the city of a fleet of 200 small vessels, which passed down the Bosphorus from the Black Sea. The enemy contained in these was the Russians, who not long before had established themselves at Kieff on the Dnieper, and whose restless spirit and love of plunder prompted them to attack the strongest city in the world. Their ignorance of the art of war rendered them no formidable foe to the Byzantine forces, but their daring and cruelty produced a profound impression on the civilized and peaceful citizens. Similar attacks were made in 907 by Oleg and in 941 by Igor, but the influence of trade and the introduction of Christianity into Russia gradually promoted more peaceful relations, and the Byzantines em-ployed the powerful tribe of the Patzinaks, who occupied the northern shores of the Black Sea, to counterbalance their opponents. But the campaign of John Zimisces on the Danube in 971, which followed on the negotiations of his predecessor for the subjugation of the Bulgarians, showed how important a military power the Russians had become, for he found in their chief, Swatoslav, an enter-prising and powerful adversary, whom it required all his skill to overcome. Once more, in the time of Constantine IX. (1043), the Scandinavian Varangians, by whom the Russians were mostly represented in their marauding ex-peditions, appeared before Constantinople, but with no better success than before ; and from this period the alliance of that people with the Byzantines was long uninterrupted, and the two nations were bound together more and more by religious sympathy. In the days of the Comneni the Varangians regularly formed the bodyguard of the emperor. Consti- Constitutional changes were usually of slow growth in the tutional Byzantine empire, yet at the end of this period we find con-c anges. gi^gj-ahie alterations to have been effected. Under the early iconoclastic emperors there was a tendency towards the greater concentration of power in the hands of the sovereign, but Basil I, converted the government into a pure despotism. This he effected by abolishing the legislative functions of the senate, which body, though now a shadow of its former self, had existed in one form or another all along, and exercised a certain influence in controlling the absolute power of the emperor. When this restraint was removed, and the senate reduced to an administrative council, no further check remained except the fear of revolu-tion. Basil also tacitly introduced what, strange to say, had never existed in the Roman empire, and even now was only partially recognized—the principle of legitimacy in succession. With a view to this he established the custom that his descendants should be born in the "porphyry chamber," so that the name Porphyrogenitus might become a title of legitimacy. In this way a partial antidote was created to that inveterate disease of the Byzantine empire which a French writer has called la maladie du trone—the ambition to be emperor at all hazards, notwithstanding the risks involved both in the attempt and the possession of the office- The growth of the idea is proved by the loyalty shown a century and a half later to the empress Zoe, an aged, profligate, and incapable woman, on account of the legitimacy of her descent. But the greatest change of all, and one that contributed greatly to the subsequent decline of the empire, was effected at the end of this period. This was the abolition of the system of training officials to con-duct the various departments of the state, and the entrust-ing those offices to eunuchs of the imperial household. The object of this was to lessen the power of the territorial aristocracy, and to diminish the chance of rebellion, by placing the government in the hands of men who could not found a dynasty ; but from this time onward the efficiency of the administration began to wane. It was the disregard of the aristocracy involved in this change that caused the conspiracy of the nobles in Asia Minor which set Isaac Comnenus on the throne. It should also be noticed that few of the emperors throughout this period were Greeks, most of them being either Armenian or Slavonian by extraction. This circumstance accounts for a certain freedom from prejudice and independence of view which may be traced in their actions, but at the same time it caused them to be wanting in sympathy with their subjects.

During a considerable part of this period, notwithstand- Condi-ing the desolating wars which we have described, the pros-tion of perity of the inhabitants of the empire was very great. T5JE PEO" Finlay, who is excellently qualified to judge in a matter of this kind, gives it as his opinion that under the iconoclast emperors their moral condition was superior, not only to that of all contemporary kingdoms, but to that of any equal number of the human race in any preceding period. The society of this time has been too much judged of by the murders and mutilations which were rife in consequence of the struggles for the throne; but it should be remembered that these were confined almost entirely to the court and its surroundings, and did not affect the mass of the people. And their material prosperity was equally great. The emperor Theophilus, notwithstanding his lavish expenditure, is recorded to have left at his death a sum equal to five million sovereigns—an amount of money which could hardly have been extorted from a people otherwise than wealthy. This was the result of the commerce of their immense mercantile marine, which had in its hands the whole of the carrying trade between Asia and western Europe. To this it should be added that, under Basil the Macedonian and his successors, care was taken to moderate the burden of taxation, a policy that accounts in great measure for the duration of his dynasty, which occupied the throne of Constantinople longer than any other. Unfortu-nately the riches thus obtained tended after a time to accu-mulate in the hands of the few, and from the reign of Basil II. the middle class, that element which society can least of all afford to dispense with, began rapidly to diminish. As a consequence of this, in the 11th century manufactures declined in the cities, while in the country the immense estates of the aristocracy were cultivated by Mahometan slaves or Slavonian serfs ; and this higher class itself began to feel the lethargy of wealth, and though still unconscious of coming change, was on the eve of impending decline.
In the year 747, during the reign of Constantine Modem Copronymus, the empire was visited by a fearful pestilence, Greek which, both in the mortality and the demoralization of ^lon" society it produced, must have rivalled, to judge by the accounts left us by the Byzantine historians, those of Florence and London, of which Boccaccio and Defoe have drawn such vivid pictures. As this calamity was the primary cause of the immigration of foreign settlers into Greece, it is intimately connected with the question of modern Greek nationality ; and consequently the present appears a fitting place briefly to discuss this subject, on which great differences of opinion, turning mainly on the

mediaeval history of the country, have prevailed. The controversy originated in the famous thesis of Professor Falimerayer of Munich, that, owing to the great influx first of Slavonian and afterwards of Albanian colonists, not a single drop of Hellenic blood flows in the veins of the Greeks at the present day. The discussion of this point has enlisted much ability and learning on both sides, but the question appears now to have been pretty well set at rest by the abandonment of Fallmerayer's hypothesis. How early barbarian settlements began to take place in Greece it is difficult to determine; but though the occupation of the Peloponnese by Avars and Slavonians at the end of the 6th century, on which much stress has been laid, is doubt-fully historical, yet colonies of those races probably estab-lished themselves in the northern part of Greece. But that the great change in this respect was produced by the pesti-lence is shown by the oblivion of Hellenic names of places which dates from that time. For, though a fair number of ancient names of seaport towns, such as Patrae, Corinth, and Epidaurus, and some names even in a district so ex-tensively occupied by Slavonians as Arcadia, have been pre-served to the present day, yet the great majority of the modern names are now, and have been since the 8th century, either Slavonic or of later Greek origin. Not only was the country greatly depopulated by the plague, but a consider-able portion of the native middle class was induced by the emperor to migrate to the capital, in order to fill up the void in the inhabitants which had been caused by its ravages. The districts which were thus left vacant were soon after occupied by Slavonian tribes, so that until the middle of the 9th century they formed a large part of the population. But in the latter part of that century the Greeks began to recover a numerical superiority, and from this period dates the process of the absorption and Helleniz-ing of the Slavonians, so as to form the mixed race of which the greater part of the population of Greece is now composed. In effecting this change the Greek Church played an important part. The affinity between the ancient and modern Greeks has been traced by several lines of reasoning. It has been pointed out how great is the resem-blance of character between them, and that too in points presenting the sharpest contrast to the character of the Slavonic races. The survival of old beliefs and classical superstitions at the present day has been carefully observed. The language is a lineal descendant of the ancient speech, and contains next to no Slavonic element; and lest it should be thought that this language had been imported into the provinces from one or more great centres, and had not sur-vived in the districts themselves, it is proved that numerous classical words and forms, which have been lost to the language at large, still survive in the local dialects. Thus, though the physical connexion between the modern Greeks and the ancient Hellenes, in certain districts at all events, may be slight, as seems to be implied by the difference of physiognomy, yet in all that really constitutes a people, their character, feelings, and ideas, the former are the lineal descendants of the latter.

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