The Byzantine Empire
FREE Catholic Classes
The ancient Roman Empire having been divided into two parts, an Eastern and a Western, the Eastern remained subject to successors of Constantine, whose capital was at Byzantium or Constantinople. The term Byzantine is therefore employed to designate this Eastern survival of the ancient Roman Empire. The subject will be here treated under the following divisions:
I. Byzantine Civilization;
II. Dynastic History.
The latter division of the article will be subdivided into six heads in chronological order.
I. BYZANTINE CIVILIZATION
At the distance of many centuries and thousands of miles, the civilization of the Byzantine Empire presents an appearance of unity. Examined at closer range, however, firstly the geographical content of the empire resolves itself into various local and national divisions, and secondly the growth of the people in civilization reveals several clearly distinguishable periods. Taking root on Eastern soil, flanked on all sides by the most widely dissimilar peoples — Orientals, Finnic-Ugrians and Slavs — some of them dangerous neighbours just beyond the border, others settled on Byzantine territory, the empire was loosely connected on the west with the other half of the old Roman Empire. And so the development of Byzantine civilization resulted from three influences: the first Alexandrian-Hellenic, a native product, the second Roman, the third Oriental.
- The first period of the empire, which embraces the dynasties of Theodosius, Leo I, Justinian, and Tiberius, is politically still under Roman influence.
- In the second period the dynasty of Heraclius in conflict with Islam, succeeds in creating a distinctively Byzantine State.
- The third period, that of the Syrian (Isaurian) emperors and of Iconoclasm, is marked by the attempt to avoid the struggle with Islam by completely orientalizing the land.
- The fourth period exhibits a happy equilibrium. The Armenian dynasty, which was Macedonian by origin, was able to extend its sway east and west, and there were indications that the zenith of Byzantine power was close at hand.
- In the fifth period the centrifugal forces, which had long been at work, produced their inevitable effect, the aristocracy of birth, which had been forming in all parts of the empire, and gaining political influence, at last achieved its firm establishment on the throne with the dynasties of the Comneni and Angeli.
- The sixth period is that of decline; the capture of Constantinople by the Crusaders had disrupted the empire into several new political units; even after the restoration, the empire of the Palaeologi is only one member of this group of states. The expansion of the power of the Osmanli Turks prepares the annihilation of the Byzantine Empire.
Geographically and ethnographically, the Roman Empire was never a unit. In the western section comprising Italy and the adjacent islands, Spain, and Africa, the Latin language and Latin culture were predominant. Of these territories, only Africa, Sicily, and certain parts of Italy were ever under Byzantine control for any length of time. To the southeast, the Coptic and Syriac and, if the name is permitted, the Palestinian nation assumed growing importance and finally, under the leadership of the Arabs, broke the bonds that held it to the empire. In the East proper ( Asia Minor and Armenia ) lay the heart of the empire. In the southeast of Asia Minor and on the southern spurs of the Armenian mountains the population was Syrian. The Armenian settlements extended from their native mountains far into Asia Minor , and even into Europe. Armenian colonies are found on Mount Ida in Asia Minor, in Thrace, and Macedonia. The coast lands of Asia Minor are thoroughly Greek. The European part of the empire was the scene of an ethnographic evolution. From ancient times the mountains of Epirus and Illyria had been inhabited by Albanians, from the beginning of the fifteenth century they spread over what is now Greece, down towards southern Italy and Sicily. Since the days of the Roman power, the Rumanians (or Wallachians) had established themselves on both sides as well of the Balkan as of the Pindus mountains. This people was divided into two parts by the invasion of the Finnic-Ugrian Bulgars, and the expansion of the Slavs. They lived as wandering shepherds, in summer on the mountains, in winter on the plains. In the fifth century the Slavs began to spread over the Balkan Peninsula. At the beginning of the eighth century Cynuria in the eastern part of the Peloponnesus, was called a "Slavic land". A reaction, however, which set in towards the end of the eighth century, resulted in the total extermination of the Slavs in southern Thessaly and central Greece, and left but few in the Peloponnesus. On the other hand, the northern part of the Balkan Peninsula remained open to Slavic inroads. Here the Bulgars gradually became incorporated with the Slavs, and spread from Haemus far to the west, and into southern Macedonia. The valleys of the Vardar and the Morava offered the Serbs tempting means of access to the Byzantine Empire. After the Greeks and Armenians, the Slavs have exercised most influence on the inner configuration of the empire. The Greeks of the islands best preserved their national characteristics. Moreover, they settled in compact groups in the capital of the empire, and on all the coast lands even to those of the Black Sea. They gained ground by hellenizing the Slavs, and by emigrating to Sicily and lower Italy.
In point of civilization, the Greeks were the predominant race in the empire. From the second half of the sixth century, Latin had ceased to be the language of the Government. The legislation eventually became thoroughly Greek, both in language and spirit. Beside the Greeks, only the Armenians had developed a civilization of their own. The Slavs, it is true, had acquired a significant influence over the internal and external affairs of the empire, but had not established a Slavic civilization on Byzantine soil, and the dream of a Roman Empire under Slavic rule remained a mere fantasy.
In the breaking of the empire on ethnographic lines of cleavage, it was an important feat that at least the Greeks were more solidly united than in former centuries. The dialects of ancient Greece had for the most part disappeared, and the Koiné of the Hellenic period formed a point of departure for new dialects, as well as the basis of a literary language which was preserved with incredible tenacity and gained the ascendancy in literature as well as in official usage. Another movement, in the sixth century, was directed towards a general and literary revival of the language, and, this having gradually spent itself without any lasting results, the dialects unfortunately, became the occasion of a further split in the nation. As the later literary language, with its classic tendencies, was stiff and unwieldy, as well as unsuited to meet all the exigencies of a colloquial language, it perforce helped to widen the breach between the literary and the humbler classes the latter having already begun to use the new dialects. The social schism which had rent the nation, since the establishment of a distinctively Byzantine landed interest and the rise of a provincial nobility, was aggravated by the prevalence of the literary language among the governing classes, civil and ecclesiastical. Even the western invasion could not close this breach; on the contrary, while it confirmed the influence of the popular tongue as such, it left the social structure of the nation untouched. The linguistic division of the Greek nation thus begun has persisted down to the present time.
The Middle Ages never created a great centralized economic system. The lack of a highly organized apparatus of transportation for goods in large quantities made each district a separate economic unit. This difficulty was not overcome even by a coastline naturally favourable for navigation, since the earring capacity of medieval vessels was too small to make them important factors in the problem of freight-transportation as we now apprehend it. Even less effectual were the means of conveyance employed on the roads of the empire. These roads, it is true, were a splendid legacy from the old Roman Empire, and were not yet in the dilapidated state to which they were later reduced under the Turkish domination. Even today, for example, there are remains of the Via Egnatia, connecting Constantinople with the Adriatic Sea through Thessalonica, and of the great military roads through Asia Minor , from Chalcedon past Nicomedia, Ancyra and Caesarea, to Armenia, as well as of that from Nicaea through Dorylaeum and Iconium to Tarsus and Antioch. These roads were of supreme importance for the transportation of troops and the conveyance of dispatches; but for the interchange of goods of any bulk, they were out of the question. The inland commerce of Byzantium, like most medieval commerce was confined generally to such commodities, of not excessive weight, as could be packed into a small space, and would represent great values, both intrinsically and on account of their importation from a distance — such as gems, jewelry, rich textiles and furs, aromatic spices, and drugs. But food stuffs, such as cereals, fresh vegetables, wine oil, dried meat, as well as dried fish and fruits, could be conveyed any distance only by water. Indeed, a grave problem presented itself in the provisioning of the capital, the population of which approached probably, that of a great modern city. It is now known that Alexandria at first supplied Constantinople with grain, under State supervision. After the loss of Egypt, Thrace and the lands of Pontus were drawn upon for supplies. Of the establishment of an economic centre however for all parts of the empire, of a centralized system of trade routes radiating from Constantinople, there was no conception. Moreover, Byzantine commerce strange to say, shows a marked tendency to develop in a sense opposite to this ideal. At first there was great commercial activity; the Byzantines offered to India Persia, and Central and Eastern Asia a channel of communication with the West. Various districts of the empire strove to promote the export of industrial articles, Syria and Egypt, in particular, upholding their ancient positions as industrial sections of importance, their activity expressing itself chiefly in weaving and dyeing and the manufacture of metals and glass. The Slavonic invasion, moreover, had not entirely extinguished the industrial talents of the Greeks. In the tenth and eleventh centuries weaving, embroidery, and the fabrication of carpets were of considerable importance at Thebes and Patrae. In the capital itself, with government aid in the form of a monopoly, a new industrial enterprise was organized which confined itself chiefly to shipbuilding and the manufacture of arms in the imperial arsenals but also took up the preparation of silk fabrics. The Byzantines themselves, in the earlier periods, carried these wares to the West. There they enjoyed a commercial supremacy for which their only rivals were the Arabs and which is most clearly evidenced by the universal currency of the Byzantine gold solidus . Gradually, however, a change came about: the empire lost its maritime character and at last became almost exclusively territorial, as appears in the decline of the imperial navy. At the time of the Arabian conflicts it was the navy that did the best work, at a later period, however, it was counted inferior to the land forces. Similarly there was a transformation in the mental attitude and the occupations of the people. The Greek merchant allowed himself to be crowded out in his own country by his Italian rival. The population even of an island so well adapted for maritime pursuits as Crete seemed, in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, veritably afraid of the water. What wrought this change is still an unsolved problem. Here too, possibly, the provincial aristocracy showed its effects, through the extension of its power over the inhabitants of the country districts and its increasing influence on the imperial Government.
The decline of the Byzantine Empire is strikingly exhibited in the depreciation of currency during the reigns of the Comneni. At that period the gold solidus lost its high currency value and its commercial pre-eminence It is noteworthy that at the same time we perceive the beginnings of large finance ( Geldwirtschaft ). For at an earlier period the Byzantine Empire, like the states of Western Europe, appears to have followed the system of barter, or exchange of commodities in kind. Nevertheless, as ground-rents were already paid in money during the Comneni period, some uncertainty remains as to whether the beginnings of finance and of capital as a distinct power in the civilized world, should be sought in Byzantium or rather in the highly developed fiscal system of the Roman Curia and the mercantile activity of Italian seaports.
It will be seen from all this that the development of the Byzantine Empire was by no means uniform in point either of time or of place. Why is it then that the word Byzantine conveys a definite and self consistent idea ? Was there not something which through all those centuries remained characteristic of Byzantines in contrast with the neighbouring peoples? To this it must be replied that such was certainly the ease, and that the difference lay, first of all, in the more advanced civilization of Byzantium. Many small but significant details are recorded — as early as the sixth century Constantinople had a system of street-lighting; sports, equestrian games or polo-playing, and above all races in the circus attained a high national and political importance; Byzantine princesses married to Venetians introduced the use of table forks in the West. More striking are the facts that as early as the eighth and ninth centuries, the Byzantines, in their wars with the Arabs, used gunpowder — the so-called Greek fire — and that a German emperor like Otto III preferred to be a Roman of Byzantium rather than a German. This Byzantine civilization, it is true suffered from a serious and incurable disease, a worm gnawing at its core — the utter absence of originality. But here again, we should beware of unwarranted generalization. A change in this respect is to be noted from age to age, in the first centuries, before the complete severing of the political and ecclesiastical ties uniting them with the Eastern nations the Greek mind still retained its gift of receptivity, and ancient Greek art traditions, in combination with Persian, Syrian, and other Oriental motives, produced the original plan of the true Byzantine church — a type which left its impression on architecture, sculpture painting, and the minor arts. And yet so complete was the isolation of the empire, separated from other nations by the character of its government, the strictness of its court etiquette, the refinement of its material civilization, and, not least, by the peculiar development of the national Church, that a kind of numbness crept over both the language and the intellectual life of the people. The nations of the West were indeed barbarians in comparison with the cultured Byzantines, but the West had something for the lack of which no learning, no technical skill could compensate — the creative force of an imagination in harmony with the laws of nature.
As to the share which Byzantine ecclesiastical development had in this isolation, it must be conceded that the constitution of the Eastern Church was rather imperial than universal. Its administration was seriously influenced by the polities of the empire the boundaries of the empire bounded the Church's aspirations and activities. In the West, the obliteration of those boundaries by the Germanic peoples and the outburst of vigorous missionary activity on all sides furthered very notably the idea of a universal Church, embracing all nations, and unfettered by political or territorial limits. In the East the development was quite different. Here, indeed, missionary work met with considerable success. From the Syrian and Egyptian Church sprang the Ethiopian, the Indian, the Mesopotamian, and the Armenian Churches. Constantinople sent apostles to the Slavonic and Finnic-Ugrian races. Still, these Oriental Churches show, from the very beginning, a peculiar national structure. Whether this was a legacy from the ancient Eastern religions, or whether it was the reaction against Greek civilization which had been imposed upon the people of the Orient from the time of Alexander the Great, the adoption of Christianity went hand in hand with nationalism. Opposed to this nationalism in many important respects was the Greek imperial Church. Precisely because it was only an imperial Church, it had not yet grasped the concept of a universal Church. As the imperial Church, constituting a department of the state-administration, its opposition to the national Churches among the Oriental peoples was always very emphatic. Thus it is that the dogmatic disputes of these Churches are above all, expressions of politico-national struggles. In the course of these contests Egypt, and Syria, and finally Armenia also were lost to the Greek Church. The Byzantine imperial Church at last found itself almost exclusively confined to the Greek nation and its subjects. In the end it became, in its own turn, a national Church, and definitively severed all bonds of rite and dogma linking it with the West. The schism between the Eastern and Western Churches thus reveals a fundamental opposition of viewpoints: the mutually antagonistic ideas of the universal Church and of independent national churches — an antagonism which both caused the schism and constitutes the insurmountable impediment to reunion.
DYNASTIC HISTORY 1A. Roman Period: Dynasties of Theodocius and Leo I (A.D. 395-518)
A glance at the above genealogies shows that the law governing the succession in the Roman Empire persisted in the Byzantine. On one hand, a certain law of descent is observed: the fact of belonging to the reigning house, whether by birth or marriage, gives a strong claim to the throne. On the other hand, the people is not entirely excluded as a political factor. The popular co-operation in the government was not regulated by set forms. The high civil and military officials took part in the enthronement of a new monarch, often by means of a palace or military revolution. Legally, the people participated in the government only through the Church. From the time of Marcianus, the Byzantine emperors were crowned by the Patriarchs of Constantinople.
Of the emperors of this period, Arcadius (395-408) and Theodosius II (408-50) received the throne by right of inheritance. The old senator Marcanius (450-57) came to the throne through his marriage with the sister of Theodosius II, Pulcheria who for years previously had been an inmate of a convent. The Thracian Leo I the Great (457-74), owed his power to Aspar the Alan, Magister Militum per Orientem , who, as an Arian, was debarred from the imperial dignity, and who therefore installed the orthodox Leo. Leo, it is true, soon became refractory, and in 471 Aspar was executed by imperial command. On Leo's death the throne was transmitted through his daughter Ariadne, who had been united in marriage to the leader of the Isaurian bodyguard, and had a son by him, Leo II. The sudden death of Leo, however, after he had raised his father to the rank of coregent placed the reins of power in the hands of Zeno (474-91), who was obliged to defend his authority against repeated insurrections. All these movements were instigated by his mother-in-law, Verina, who first proclaimed her brother Basiliscus emperor, and later Leontius, the leader of the Thraecian army. Victory, however, rested with Zeno, at whose death Ariadne once more decided the succession by bestowing her hand on Anastasius Silentiarius (491-518) who had risen through the grades of the civil service.
This brief résumé shows the important part played by women in the imperial history of Byzantium. Nor was female influence restricted to the imperial family. The development of Roman law exhibits a growing realization of woman's importance in the family and society. Theodora, whose greatness is not eclipsed by that of her celebrated consort, Justinian, is a typical example of the solicitude of a woman of high station for the interests of the lowliest and the most unworthy of her sisters — from whose ranks perhaps she herself had risen. Byzantine civilization produced a succession of typical women of middle class who are a proof, first, of the high esteem in which women were held in social life and, secondly, of the sacredness of family life, which even now distinguishes the Greek people. To this same tendency is probably to be ascribed the suppression by Anastasius of the bloody exhibitions of the circus called venationes . We must not forget, however, that under the successor of Anastasius, Justin, the so-called circus factions kept bears for spectacles in the circus, and the Empress Theodora was the daughter of a bear-baiter. Still the fact remains that cultured circles at that time began to deplore this gruesome amusement, and that the venationes , and with them the political significance of the circus, disappeared in the course of Byzantine history.
One may be amazed at the assertion that the Byzantine was humane, and refined in feeling, even to the point of sensitiveness. Too many bloody crimes stain the pages of Byzantine history — not as extraordinary occurrences but as regularly established institutions. Blinding, mutilation, and death by torture had their place in the Byzantine penal system. In the Middle Ages such horrors were not, it is true, unknown in Western Europe, and yet the fierce crusaders thought the Byzantines exquisitely cruel. In reading the history of this people, one has to accustom oneself to a Janus-like national character — genuine Christian self-sacrifice, unworldliness, and spirituality, side by side with avarice, cunning, and the refinement of cruelty. It is, indeed, easy to detect this idiosyncrasy in both the ancient and the modern Greeks. Greek cruelty, however, may have been aggravated by the circumstances that savage races not only remained as foes on the frontier, but often became incorporated in the body politic, only veiling their barbaric origin under a thin cloak of Hellenism. The whole of Byzantine history is the record of struggles between a civilized state and wild, or half-civilized, neighbouring tribes. Again and again was the Byzantine Empire de facto reduced to the limits of the capital city, which Anastasius had transformed into an unrivaled fortress; and often, too, was the victory over its foes gained by troops before whose ferocity its own citizens trembled.
Twice in the period just considered, Byzantium was on the point of falling into the hands of the Goths :
- first, when, under the Emperor Arcadius, shortly after Alaric the Visigoth had pillaged Greece, the German Gainas, being in control of Constantinople simultaneously stirred up the East Goths and the Gruthungi, who had settled in Phrygia,
- a second time, when the East Goths , before their withdrawal to Italy, threatened Constantinople.
The same period is marked by the beginning of the Slavic and Bulgar migrations. The fact has already been mentioned that these races gradually possessed themselves of the whole Balkan Peninsula the Slavs meanwhile absorbing the Finnic-Ugrian Bulgars. The admixture of Greek blood, which was denied the Germanic races, was reserved for the Slavs. To how great a degree this mingling of races took place, will never be exactly ascertained. On the other hand, the extent of Slavic influence on the interior developments of the Byzantine Empire, especially on that of the landed interests, is one of the great unsolved questions of Byzantine history. In all these struggles, the Byzantine polity shows itself the genuine heir of the ancient Roman Empire. The same is true of the contest over the eastern boundary, the centuries of strife with the Persians. In this contest the Byzantine Greeks now found allies. The Persians had never given up their native fire-worship, Mazdeism. Whenever a border nation was converted to Christianity, it joined the Byzantine alliance. The Persians, realizing this, sought to neutralize the Greek influence by favouring the various sects in turn. To this motive is to be attributed the favour they showed to the Nestorians who at last became the recognized representatives of Christianity in the Persian Empire. To meet this policy of their adversaries, the Greeks for a long time favoured the Syrian Monophysites, bitter enemies of the Nestorians. Upon this motive, the Emperor Zeno closed the Nestorian school at Edessa, in 489 and it was a part of the same policy that induced the successors of Constantine the Great to support the leaders of the Christian clerical party, the Mamikonians, in opposition to the Mazdeistic nobility. Theodosius II resumed this policy after his grandfather, Theodosius the Great, had, by a treaty with Persia (387), sacrificed the greater part of Armenia. Only Karin in the valley of the Western Euphrates, thence forth called Theodosiopolis, then remained a Roman possession. Theodosius II initiated a different policy. He encouraged, as far as lay in his power, the diffusion of Christianity in Armenia, invited Mesrob and Sahak, the founders of Armenian Christian literature into Roman territory, and gave them pecuniary assistance for the prosecution of the work they had undertaken, of translating Holy Scripture into Armenian. Anastasius followed the same shrewd policy. On the one hand, he carried on a relentless war with the Persians (502-06) and, on the other hand, lost no opportunity of encouraging the Monophysite sect which was then predominant in Egypt, Syria and Armenia. It is true that he met with great difficulties from the irreconcilable factions, as had those of his predecessors who had followed the policy of religious indifference in dealing with the sects. The Eastern Churches in these centuries were torn by theological controversies so fierce as to have been with good reason compared with the sixteenth century disputes of Western Christendom . All the warring elements of the period — national, local, economic, social, even personal — group themselves around the prevalent theological questions, so that it is practically impossible to say, in any given case, whether the dominant motives of the parties to the quarrel were spiritual or temporal. In all this hurlyburly of beliefs and parties three historical points have to be kept clearly before the mind, in order to understand the further development of the empire:
- first, the decline of Alexandrian power,
- secondly, the determination of the mutual relations of Rome and Constantinople;
- thirdly, the triumph of the civil over the ecclesiastical authority.
The second point, the rivalry between Constantinople and Rome, can be discussed more briefly. Naturally, Rome had the advantage in every respect. But for the division of the empire the whole question would never have arisen. But Theodosius I, as early as the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople (381), had the decision made that New Rome should take precedence immediately after old Rome. This was the first expression of the theory that Constantinople should be supreme among the Churches of the East. The first to attempt to translate this thought into action was John. As he undertook the campaign against Alexandria, so he was also able to bring the still independent Church of Asia Minor under the authority of Constantinople. On a missionary journey he made the See of Ephesus, founded by St. John the Apostle, a suffragan of his patriarchate. We can now understand why the war against the Alexandrians was prosecuted with such bitterness. The defeat of Alexandria at the Council of Chalcedon established the supremacy of Constantinople. To be sure, this supremacy was only theoretical, as it is a matter of history that from this time forward the Oriental Churches assumed a hostile attitude towards the Byzantine imperial Church. As for Rome, protests had already been made at Chalcedon against the twenty-first canon of the Eighth General Council which set forth the spiritual precedence of Constantinople. This protest was maintained until the capture of Constantinople by the crusaders put an end to the pretensions of the Greek Church. Pope Innocent III (1215) confirmed the grant to the Patriarch of Constantinople of the place of honour after Rome.
We now come to the third point: the contest between ecclesiastical and civil authority. In this particular, also, the defeat of Alexandria was signal. Since the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon it had been decided that in the East (it was otherwise in the West) the old Roman custom, by which the emperor had the final decision in ecclesiastical matters, should continue. That was the end of the matter at Byzantium, and we need not be surprised to find that before long dogmatic disputes were decided by arbitrary imperial decrees, that laymen princes, and men who had held high state offices were promoted to ecclesiastical offices, and that spiritual affairs were treated as a department of the Government. But it must not be supposed that the Byzantine Church was therefore silenced. The popular will found a means of asserting itself most emphatically, concurrently with the official administration of ecclesiastical affairs. The monks in particular showed the greatest fearlessness in opposing their ecclesiastical superiors as well as the civil authority.1B. Dynasties of Justinian and Tiberius (518-610)
This period saw the reigns of two renowned and influential Byzantine empresses. As the world once held its breath at the quarrel between Eudoxia, the wanton wife of the Emperor Arcadius, and the great patriarch, John Chrysostom , and at the rivalry of the sisters-in-law, Pulcheria and Athenais-Eudocia, the latter the daughter of an Athenian philosopher, so Theodora, the dancer of the Byzantine circus, and her niece Sophia succeeded in obtaining extraordinary influence by reason of their genius, wit, and political cleverness. Theodora died of cancer (548), seventeen years before her husband. No serious discord ever marred this singular union, from which, however, there was no issue. The death of this remarkable woman proved an irreparable loss to her consort, who grieved profoundly for her during the remainder of his life. Her niece, Sophia, who approached her in ambition and political cunning, though not in intellect, had a less fortunate ending. Her life was darkened by a bitter disappointment. With the help of Tiberius commander of the palace guard, a Thracian famed for his personal attractions, she placed on the throne her husband, Justin II (565-78), who suffered from temporary attacks of insanity. Soon Sophia and Tiberius became the real rulers of the empire. In 574 the empress succeeded in inducing her husband to adopt Tiberius as Caesar and coregent. The death of Justin (578), however, did not bring about the hoped-for consummation of her relations with Tiberius. Tiberius II (578-82) had a wife in his native village, and now for the first time presented her in the capital. After his accession to the throne, he revered the Empress Sophia as a mother, and even when the disappointed woman began to place obstacles in his path, he was forbearing, and treated her with respect while keeping her a prisoner.
The dynasty of Justin originated in Illyria. At the death of the Emperor Anastasius, Justin I (518-27), like his successor Tiberius, commander of the palace guard, by shrewdly availing himself of his opportunities succeeded in seizing the reins of power. Even during the reign of Justin, Justinian, his nephew, and heir-presumptive to the throne, played an important role in affairs. He was by nature peculiar and slow. Unlike his uncle, he had received an excellent education. He might justly be called a scholar; at the same time he was a man of boundless activity. As absolute monarch, like Philip II of Spain , he developed an almost incredible capacity for work. He endeavoured to master all the departments of civil life, to gather in his hands all the reins of government. The number of rescripts drawn up by Justinian is enormous. They deal with all subjects, though towards the end by preference with dogmatic questions, as the emperor fancied that he could put an end to religious quarrels by means of bureaucratic regulations. He certainly took his vocation seriously. On sleepless nights he was frequently seen pacing his apartments absorbed in thought. His whole concept of life was serious to the point of being pedantic. We might therefore wonder that such a man should choose as his consort a woman of the demi monde. No doubt Procopius, "a chamberlain removed from the atmosphere of the court, unheeded and venomous in his sullen old age", is not veracious in all his statements concerning the previous life of Theodora. It is certain, however, that a daughter was born to her before she became acquainted with the crown prince, and it is equally certain that before she married the pedantic monarch, she had led a dissolute life. However she filled her new role admirably. Her subsequent faultless, her influence great, but not obtrusive. Her extravagance and vindictiveness — for she had enemies, among them John the Cappadocian the great financial minister so indispensable to Justinian — may well have cost the emperor many an uneasy hour, but there was never any lasting breach.
Theodora, after captivating the Crown-Prince Justinian by her genius and witty conversation, proved herself worthy of her position at the critical moment. It was in the year 532, five years after Justinian's accession. Once more the people of Constantinople, through its circus factions, sought to oppose the despotic rule then beginning. It resulted in the frightful uprising which had taken its name from the well-known watchword of the circus parties: Nika "Conquer". In the palace everything was given up for lost, and himself, the heroic chief of the mercenaries, advised flight. At this crisis Theodora saved the empire for her husband by her words: "The purple is a good winding-sheet". The Government was firm; the opposing party weakened, the circus factions were shorn of their political influence and the despotic government of Justinian remained assured for the future.
It is well known what the reign of Justinian (527-65) meant for the external and internal development of the empire. The boundaries of the empire were extended, Africa was reconquered for a century and a half, all Italy for some decades. The Byzantine power was established, for a time, even in some cities of the Spanish coast. Less successful were his Eastern wars. Under Justin and the aged Kavadh, war with Persia had again broken out. On the accession of the great Chosroes I, Nushirvan (531-79), in spite of the peace of 532, which Justinian hoped would secure for him liberty of action in the West, Chosroes allowed him no respite. Syria suffered terribly from pillaging incursions, Lazistan (the ancient Colchis) was taken by the Persians and a road thereby opened to the Black Sea. Only after the Greeks resumed the war more vigorously (549) did they succeed in recapturing Lazistan, and in 562 peace was concluded.
Nevertheless the Persian War was transmitted as an unwelcome legacy to the successors of Justinian. In 571 strife broke out anew in Christian Armenia owing to the activity of the Mazdeistic Persians. While the Romans gained many brilliant victories their opponents also obtained a few important successes. Suddenly affairs took an unexpected turn. Hormizdas, the son and successor of Chosroes I (579-90), lost both life and crown in an uprising. His son, Chosroes II, Parvez (590-628), took refuge with the Romans. Mauritius, who was then emperor (582-602) received the fugitive and by the campaign of 591 reestablished him on the throne of his fathers. Thus the relations of the empire with the Persians seemed at last peaceful. Soon, however Mauritius himself was deposed and murdered on the occasion of a military sedition. The centurion Phocas (602-10) seized the helm of the Byzantine state. Chosroes, ostensibly to avenge his friend, the murdered emperor, forthwith resumed the offensive. The administration of Phocas proved thoroughly inefficient. The empire seemed to swerve out of its old grooves, the energetic action of some patriots, however, under the leadership of nobles high in the Government, and the call of Heraclius, saved the situation, and after a fearful conflict with the powers of the East, lasting over a hundred years, Byzantium rose again to renewed splendour.
It is a noteworthy feet that Lombard and Syrian chroniclers call the Emperor Mauritius the first "Greek" emperor. The transformation of the Roman State, with Latin as the official language, into a Greek State had become manifest. During the reign of Mauritius the rest of Justinian's conquests in Italy and Africa were placed under the civil administration of military governors or exarchs. This is symptomatic. The separation of civil and military power, which had been inaugurated in the happier and more peaceful days at the end of the third century, had outlived its usefulness. During the period of the Arabian conflicts under the Heraclean dynasty, the old Roman system of combining civil and military power was established in a new form. The commander of a thema (regiment) was charged with the supervision of the civil authorities in his military district. The old diocesan and provincial divisions disappeared, and military departments became administrative districts.
It is manifest that Justinian's policy of restoration ended in a miserable failure. The time for a Roman Empire in the old sense of the term, with the old administrative system, was past. It is unfortunate that the rivers of blood which brought destruction upon two Germanic states, the robber Vandals and the noble East Goths, and the enormous financial sacrifice of the eastern half of the empire had no better outcome. If despite all this, the name of Justinian is inscribed in brilliant letters in the annals of the world's history, it is owing to other achievements: his codification of the laws and his enterprise as a builder. It was the fortune of this emperor to be contemporary with the artistic movement which, rising in Persia, gained the ascendancy in Syria and spread over Asia Minor and thence to Constantinople and the West. It was the merit of Justinian that he furnished the pecuniary means, often enormous for the realization of these artistic aspirations. His fame will endure so long as Saint Sophia at Constantinople endures, and so long as hundreds of pilgrims annually visit the churches of Ravenna. This is not the place to enumerate the architectural achievements of Justinian, ecclesiastical and secular, bridges, forts, and palaces. Nor shall we dwell upon his measures against the last vestiges of heathenism, or his suppression of the University of Athens (529). On the other hand, there is one phase of his activity as a ruler to which reference must be made here, and which was the necessary counterpart of his policy of conquest in the West and issued in as great a failure. The Emperors Zeno and Anastasius had sought remedies for the difficulties raised by the Council of Chalcedon. It was Zeno who commissioned Acacius the great Patriarch of Constantinople — the first, perhaps, who took the title of Ecumenical Patriarch — to draft the formula of union known as the "Henoticon" (482). This formula cleverly evaded the Chalcedon decisions, and made it possible for the Monophysites to return to the imperial Church. But the gain on one side proved a loss on the other. Under existing conditions, it did not matter much that Rome protested, and again and again demanded the erasure of the name of Acacius from the diptychs. It was much more important that the capital and Europe as well as the chief Greek cities, showed hostility to the Henoticon. The Greeks, moreover, were attached to their national
More Volume: T 528
Click/Touch the sub-volume below to view encyclopedia articles within the sub-volume.
Copyright 2019 Catholic Online. All materials contained on this site, whether written, audible or visual are the exclusive property of Catholic Online and are protected under U.S. and International copyright laws, © Copyright 2019 Catholic Online. Any unauthorized use, without prior written consent of Catholic Online is strictly forbidden and prohibited.
Catholic Online is a Project of Your Catholic Voice Foundation, a Not-for-Profit Corporation. Your Catholic Voice Foundation has been granted a recognition of tax exemption under Section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Federal Tax Identification Number: 81-0596847. Your gift is tax-deductible as allowed by law.