1902 Encyclopedia > Greece > Greek History: Period of Byzantine Decline: from Isaac I to the taking of Constantinople by the Latins, 1057-1204 A.D.

(Part 13)



IV: Period of Byzantine Decline: from Isaac I to the taking of Constantinople by the Latins, 1057-1204 A.D.

The At the commencement of the preceding period there was Comneni. a prevailing fear among the inhabitants of the empire that its extinction was imminent, and we have seen how this was followed by an age of unexampled prosperity. The feeling of the time on which we now enter was completely the opposite of this, and yet it was a period of decline. The long duration of the empire, notwithstanding numerous vicissitudes, its superiority to contemporary nations in power and wealth, and its apparent security from foreign enemies, inspired the people with a belief in its permanency, and blinded them to the seeds of disease that were already working. Yet before the end of the 11th century the Seljuk Turks had occupied all the inland part of Asia Minor, and had established their capital at Nicsea, in the immediate neighbourhood of Constantinople. It would, however, be a mistake to suppose that, in its external relations at all events, the whole of the Comnenian period was a time of decay. On the contrary, during a consider-able period it witnessed a remarkable revival; and the three great emperors of that dynasty, Alexius, John, and Manuel Comnenus, whose long reigns extend over an entire century (1081-1180), were men who would be conspicu-ous figures in any age. All of them were distinguished by personal courage and skill in war, by literary culture, and by sagacity in politics ; but in other respects they represented very different types. The first, Alexius, was indefatigable in business, patient in maturing his schemes, and active in carrying them out, but vainglorious, unprincipled, and fond of artifice. From this Ulyssean phase of Greek character we turn to a true Achilles, his son John, the most amiable character that ever occupied the Byzantine throne—a man irreproachable in morals, open-hearted, generous in action, prudent in council, and pious without superstition. The last of the three, Manuel, presents us with a nature spoiled by the early possession of absolute power, but gifted with most of the features admired by his contemporaries—handsome in person, tall of stature, and so powerful that, at a tournament at Antioch in which the chivalry of the West took part, he unhorsed every antagonist—but passionate in temper and ill-regulated in mind. In an age which produced men like these it may well be inquired, What were the sources of decline 1
In the first place, the emperors were almost the only Causes of capable men. This was the natural effect of the central- decline, ization of the system. The neglect of the education of persons intended to be employed in the administration, and the employment of creatures of the court for offices of trust, were now bearing their fruit. Everything depended on the existing sovereign; and it only required the vices of a thoroughly profligate man like Andronicus Comnenus, the last of his dynasty, to ruin the state. As might be expected also under these circumstances, disorder soon crept into every branch of the public service. The census, which for eleven centuries had been carefully compiled, was now neglected; justice, which more than anything else had united the provinces to the empire, was more imperfectly administered; and the army became inferior to those of Western nations. This last change was produced partly by the degeneracy of the nobles in military spirit, owing to the growth of luxury, partly by the officers being appointed by favouritism, and the habit of disbanding troops at the end of a campaign, in order to save money to defray the expenses of the court. At the same time the great diminu-tion of the middle class, owing to the extension of the large
I properties, lessened the number of those who were willing to defend their liberties against invaders. The privileges also, in respect of trade, which were conceded by Alexius I. to the Venetians and by Manuel to the Genoese and Pisans, to the detriment of the native merchants, commenced the decline of Greek commerce; and this was accelerated by the piracy that arose, when the money that had been contributed by the commercial communities for the main-tenance of local squadrons of galleys was ordered to be re-mitted to Constantinople. To all this must be added the influence of the higher Greek clergy, whose subserviency to the state had increased since the separation from the
| Western Church, and the conservatism of whose ideas discouraged all attempts at progress on the part of the
| people.

The age of the Comneni is the time of the crusades,
crusades. Those famous expeditions will produce a very different im-pression on the mind according as they are regarded from the point of view of the East or the West. From the latter point of view they may be regarded as bringing to a focus the religious and martial enthusiasm of the time, as forming a safety-valve for restlessness, as enlarging the ideas and elevating the spirit of the people. But to the great mass of the Easterns they appeared as hardly better than maraud-ing expeditions, and as producing unmitigated evil. Though the first crusade (1095) was partly undertaken in conse-quence of the solicitations of Alexius for aid against the Seljuks, yet as soon as the first undisciplined bands entered the country they pillaged the natives ; and when the more organized companies followed, though many of their leaders, like Godfrey and Tancred, were men of the highest char-acter, yet it required all the address of the Byzantine monarch to transmit these armies into Asia without some irreparable injury being done to his capital. No doubt the faults were not all on one side, for the suspicion and falsity of Alexius gave just ground of complaint to the crusaders. But he had a very difficult part to play. Had he placed himself, as was proposed, at the head of the crusade, he had no reason to expect obedience on the part of the feudal nobles, while at the same time he left his kingdom exposed to the danger of rivals at home and fresh bands from abroad. Accordingly he chose the ignoble part, and followed in their footsteps with the view of regaining what he could to his dominions. The second and third of these expedi-tions passed through the empire with comparatively little injury, though in the latter of the two the island of Cyprus was lost to Richard of England; but the ill-will that was manifested by the Greeks on those occasions ripened in the minds of the Westerns those seeds of hatred which at last bore fruit in the great buccaneering expedition which is commonly called the fourth crusade (1204). This event, of which a narrative has been left us from both sides, by the Greek historian Nicetas and the Frank chronicler Villehardouin, is certainly one of the most disgraceful trans-actions in history. A certain lustre has been shed over it by the age and blindness of the doge Dándolo, who was one of the principal leaders; but that a Christian force assembled for the purpose of fighting the infidels should turn its arms against the most important Christian city of the time is an act of unparalleled baseness; nor can any-thing be conceived more deliberately mean than the treaty by which the spoil of the empire was partitioned beforehand between the nations who took part in the attack. From this blow Constantinople never recovered, though it is fair to add that hardly less injury had been caused by the storm and plunder of the city during the rebellion which set Alexius Comnenus on the throne. The Sel- In Asia this period opens with a great disaster, the defeat juks. 0f Romanus IV. by Alp Arslan, in the battle of Manzikert in Armenia (1071). Gibbon has eloquently described the 3cene, in which the Seljuk sultan, after placing his foot on the neck of the captive emperor, spares his life, and hospitably entertains him. The Seljuk race of Tuiko were already masters of a great part of western Asia, and in the reign of Malekshah, Alp Arslan's successor, their dominions extended from the banks of the Jaxartes to the Mediter-ranean. The empire had now entered on the third great struggle of four centuries' duration, which it maintained in the East—first with the Persians, next with the Saracens, and finally with the Turks, whether Seljuk or Ottoman. But the present contest was commenced under altered circumstances. It was soon felt how fatal was the policy which had denuded the Armenian frontier of its native defenders, and how few obstacles were presented in Asia Minor to an invading force when a large portion of the free
population had disappeared. And the character of the invaders also had changed; for, whereas the Persians and Saracens had felt an interest in civilization, the Turkish hordes were composed of nomad barbarians, whose object in war was plunder, and who occupied the countries they con-quered as pastoral tribes. Hence their system of warfare consisted in exterminating the agricultural population by successive inroads, until one district after another lay open for their permanent settlement. Within three years after the battle of Manzikert, the Seljuk power extended over the greater part of Asia Minor; and when, in the year 1080, Nicaea fell into their hands, that place became the capital of a separate kingdom, which was called the sultanate of Roum, that is, of Rome. From thence they were driven back by the crusaders at the time of the first crusade, and transferred their seat of government to Iconium, in a more remote position in the south-east of the country. After this they carried on a succession of wars with the Byzantine Government, the most remarkable event in which was the great battle at Myriocephalus, on the borders of Phrygia, in which the emperor Manuel was signally defeated. During the distractions that prevailed at Constantinople shortly before the fourth crusade, it might have been in the power of the Seljuks to seize that city, and so to anticipate the Latins; but at this time the kingdom was divided between the ten sons of the sultan, Kilidji-Arslan II., and thenceforward the power of the Seljuks was less formidable.

Meanwhile the European dominions of the emperors had Wars been assailed by a variety of foes, among whom the Nor- Europ mans were the most conspicuous. In the year 1071 Robert Guiscard succeeded in expelling the Byzantines from their remaining possessions in southern Italy, and fired by the am-bition of rivalling his great compatriot, who four years and a half before this had made himself master of England, he conceived the design of conquering the Byzantine empire. With the object of carrying this into execution, he laid siege to Dyrrhachium, the most important Greek city on the Adriatic, and after defeating Alexius Comnenus, who had come to its relief, succeeded in making himself master of the place. Being forced to quit the country, he entrusted the campaign to his son Bohemund, who was de-feated by the emperor, and withdrew into Italy. Fortune, however, ordained that these two chieftains should once more be brought into collision in Syria, and hence arose another Norman war, in which Bohemund was foiled by the strength of Dyrrhachium. At a later period, in the reign of Manuel, Greece was invaded by King Roger, who had received an affront from that emperor, and the cities of Thebes and Corinth were sacked in the most barbarous manner. But the most famous of these inroads was in 1185, and resulted in the siege of Thessalonica, which place was taken by the Normans, and treated with a cruelty that almost rivalled that of the Saracens in the former siege. Besides these wars, there were others with the Patzinaks, the Hungarians, the Servians, and the Venetians. But towards the end of this period the empire received a Bulga blow from the revolt of a people who on this one occasion Walla appear prominently in history—the Wallachians. This ?hlan race, who, like the Greeks, claimed the name of Romans or Roumans, were the descendants of the Roman colonists in Dacia, whom the emperor Aurelian transplanted to the southern side of the Danube. There it is probable they intermingled with the natives, but they retained the Latin tongue, from which the modern language is derived. About the 13th century, it would seem, the great body of the nation once more migrated northward to the seats they now occupy; but those of whom we are speaking here were settled on the Balkan, where they had maintained them' selves in their mountain fastnesses, owning an allegiance more or less qualified to Constantinople. In the reign of

Isaac Angslus (1186), however, when they were heavily taxed, robbed of their cattle, and misused in other ways, they rose under the leadership of three brothers, Peter, Asan,, and John, and having made a league with the Bulgarians, raised the standard of revolt, and established what is called the Bulgaro-Wallachian kingdom. Its suc-cessive rulers contended with varied fortune against the Byzantine Government, but succeeded in maintaining their position in Thrace and Macedonia, to which countries for a time Thessaly also was added, forming, however, an inde-pendent province, with a governor of its own. The emperor Baldwin, the first of the Latin emperors of Constantinople, was captured by them in battle, and put to death. The kingdom continued to exist until the Turks made their ap-pearance on the scene, when, in common with the other in-dependent sovereignties in these regions, it was finally overthrown.
State of The period from the end of the 9th century to the fourth Greece, crusade was to Greece a time of prosperity. Though its inhabitants were looked down upon as provincials by the people of Constantinople, and the country itself was treated , with neglect (Basil II. was the only emperor who for sev-eral ages visited Athens), yet in material well-being it was one of the most flourishing parts of the empire. Though barbarian inroads were still not wholly unknown,—one of the Uzes in particular is mentioned in 1065,—yet security generally prevailed, and from the middle of the 11th century the coasts had nothing to fear from Saracen corsairs. The land produced corn in abundance, so that it even supplied the capital in a time of dearth. The silk manufactures of Thebes, Athens, and Corinth were a source of great wealth, and much of the commerce of the time was in the hands of the people of Greece. The port of Monemvasia, in eastern Laconia, which gave its name to the Malmsey wine, was especially famous as a mediaeval emporium. How far Hellenic feeling and Hellenic traditions survived among the Greeks we have no means of discovering, but the proba-bility is that these to a great extent perished, along with the Hellenic names, at the time of the great Slavonic im-migration. The whole population had become Christian, though as late as the 9th century paganism existed among the inhabitants of the mountainous regions of Laconia. But in the latter half of the 12th century decline was ready to set in. Their commerce was passing into the hands of the Western traders ; the silk manufacture was transferred by the Norman Boger to Palermo; and the profits of in-dustry were absorbed by taxation, so that no surplus remained to be invested in works of public utility. The writings of Michael Acominatus, the noble and learned archbishop of Athens at the time of the fourth crusade, give clear evidence that in that city the decay had already commenced.
The It is during the 12 th century that we first meet with
modern compositions in the popular Greek tongue, among the knguage eariiest Specimens being poems by a monk called Ptochopro-litera- dromus, addressed to the emperor Manuel Comnenus. The tare. literary language of this time was still the same which had been used throughout the Byzantine period—the "com-mon" dialect of the Macedonian Greeks, as it had been transmitted with various modifications by the later Greek writers and the fathers of the church. The Byzantine histories and other works which were composed in it are usually stilted and pedantic in style, and conventional in their ideas and their treatment of events ; but it is possible to treat them too slightingly. Some of the writers, like Michael Psellus and Eustathius of Thessalonica, were men of undoubted ability and learning; and, besides this, it was the taste for these subjects, however faulty, which main-tained the high level of cultivation that distinguished the Byzantines from the people of all other contemporary states during the Middle Ages, and caused the ancient literature to be preserved. This language was also that spoken at court, so that it is not till the time of the Palaeologi that we find the highest circles and polite composition invaded by the vulgar tongue. But from the 4th century after Christ, if not earlier, there had been a divergence between the written and the spoken language, so that the two formed, so to speak, an upper and a lower stratum. Until the time of the iconoclasts, in all probability, the ancient speech was generally intelligible, but from the end of the 9th century it was a dead language to the great bulk of the nation. The change which the popular idiom was passing through, as might be expected, was twofold, arising, first, from the usual tendency of speech to become more analytical and of words to modify their meaning, and, secondly, from the loss of vocabulary, the mutilation of grammatical forms, and the confusion of syntax, which is produced by want of cultivation. At the same time it passed through no such violent process of disintegration as befell Latin in its change into the Romance languages, so that its historical continuity was never broken. But when it emerges to view in the compositions of the 12 th century it is already a modern language, and its forms differ little from those of the Romaic of the present century, though of course the voca-bulary was as yet free from the intrusive elements—Italian, Albanian, and Turkish—which subsequently crept into it. The metre in which these poems were composed was regu-lated entirely by accent, and not by the quantity of the syllables, and the verse usually employed was the so-called "political," i.e., popular verse, which corresponds to some of our longer ballad metres. The favourite subject was romances, and in the treatment of these, as well as to some extent in the stories themselves, subsequently to the Frankish occupation the influence of the French romances is clearly traceable.

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