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SECTION I: THE ISAURIAN DYNASTY. A.D. 717-797 | Hellenismos.com


Posted March 17th, 2007 by webmaster






The Institutions of Imperial Rome had long thwarted the great law of man's existence which impels him to better his condition, when the accession of Leo the Isaurian to the throne of Constantinople suddenly opened a new era in the history of the Eastern Empire. Both the material and intellectual progress of society had been deliberately opposed by imperial legislation. A spirit of conservatism persuaded the legislators of the Roman Empire that its power could not decline, if each order and profession of its citizens was fixed irrevocably in the sphere of their own peculiar duties by hereditary succession. An attempt was really made to divide the population into castes. But the political laws which were adopted to maintain mankind in a state of stationary prosperity by these trammels, depopulated and impoverished the empire, and threatened to dissolve the very elements of society. The Western Empire, under their operation, fell a prey to small tribes of northern nations; the Eastern was so depopulated that it was placed on the eve of being repeopled by Sclavonian colonists, and conquered by Saracens invaders.

Leo III. mounted the throne and under his government the empire not only ceased to decline, but even began to regain much of its early vigour. Reformed modifications of the old Roman authority developed new energy in the empire. Great political reforms, and still greater changes in the condition of the people, mark the eighth century as an epoch of transition in Roman history, though the improved condition of the mass of the population is in some degree concealed by the prominence given to the disputes concerning image-worship in the records of this period. But the increased strength of the empire and the energy infused into the administration, are forcibly displayed by the fact that the Byzantine armies began from this time to oppose a firm barrier to the progress of the invaders of the empire.

When Leo III, was proclaimed emperor, it seemed as if no human power could save Constantinople from falling as Rome had fallen. The Saracens considered the sovereignty of every land in which any remains of Roman civilisation survived, as within their grasp. Leo, an Isaurian, and an Iconoclast, consequently a foreigner and a heretic, ascended the throne of Constantine and arrested the victorious career of the Mohammedans. He then reorganised the whole administration so completely in accordance with the new exigencies of Eastern society, that the reformed empire outlived for many centuries every government contemporary with its establishement.

The Eastern Roman Empire, thus reformed, is called by modern historians the Byzantine Empire; and the term is well devised to mark the changes effected in the government after the extinction of the last traces of the military monarchy of ancient Rome. The social condition of the inhabitants of the Eastern Empire had already undergone a considerable change during the century which elapsed from the accession of Heraclius to that of Leo, from the influence of causes to be noticed in the following pages; and this change in society created a new phase in the Roman empire. The gradual progress of this change has led some writers to date the commencement of the Byzantine Empire as early as the reigns of Zeno and Anastasius, and others to descend so late as the times of Maurice and Heraclius.[1] But as the Byzantine Empire was only a continuation of the Roman government under a reformed system, it seems most correct to date its commencement from the period when the new social and political modifications produced a visible effect on the fate of the Eastern Empire. This period is marked by the accession of Leo the Isaurian.

The administrative system of Rome, as modified by Constantine, continued in operation, though subjected to frequent reforms, until Constantinople was stormed by the Crusaders, and the Greek church enslaved by papal domination. The General Council of Nicæa, and the dedication of the imperial city, with their concomitant legislative, administrative and judicial institutions, engendered a succession of political measures whose direct relations were uninterrupted until terminated by foreign conquest. The government of Great Britain has undergone greater changes during the last three centuries than that of the Eastern Empire during the nine centuries which elapsed from the foundation of Constantinople in 330, to its conquest in 1204.

Yet Leo III has strong claims to be regarded as the first of a new series od emperors. He was the founder of a dynasty, the saviour of Constantinople and a reformer of the church and state. He was the first Christian sovereign who arrested the torrent of Mohammedan conquest; he improved the condition of his subjects: he attempted to purify their religion from the superstitious reminiscences of Hellenism, with which it was still debased, and to stop the development of a quasi-idolatry in the orthodox church. Nothing can prove more decidedly the right of the empire to assume a new name than the contrast presented by the condition of its inhabitants to that of the subjects of the preceding dynasty. Under the successors of Heraclius, the Roman Empire presents the spectacle of a declining society, and its thinly-peopled provinces were exposed to the intrusion of foreign colonists and hostile invaders. But, under Leo, society offers an aspect of improvement and prosperity; the old population revives from its lethargy, and soon increases, both in number and strength, to such a degree as to drive back all intruders on its territories. In the records of human civilisation, Leo the Isaurian must always occupy a high position, as a type of what the central power in a state can effect even in a declining empire.

Before reviewing the history of Leo's reign, and recording his brilliant exploits, it is necessary to sketch the condition to which the Roman administrative system had reduced the empire. It would be an instructive lesson to trace the progress of the moral and mental decline of the Greeks, from the age of Plato and Aristotle to the time of the sixth ecumenical council, in the reign of Justinian II; for the moral evils nourished in Greek society degraded the nation, before the oppressive government of the Romans impoverished and depopulated Greece. When the imperial authority was fully established, we easily trace the manner in which the intercommunication of different provinces and orders of society became gradually restricted to the operations of material interests, and how the limitation of ideas arose from this want of communication, until at length civilisation decayed. Good roads and commodious passage-boats have a more direct connection with the development of popular education, as we see it reflected in the works of Phidias and the writings of Sophocles, than is generally believed. Under the jealous system of the imperial government, the isolation of place and class became so complete, that even the highest members of the aristocracy received their ideas from the inferior domestics with whom they habitually associated in their owh households – not from transitory intercourse they held with able and experienced men of their own class, or with philosophic and religious teachers. Nurses and slaves implanted in their ignorant superstitions in the households where the rulers of the empire and the provinces were reared; and no public assemblies existed, where discussion could efface such prejudices. Family education became a more influential feature in society than public instruction; and though family education, from the fourth to the seventh century, appears to have improved the morality of the population, it certainly increased their superstition and limited their understandings. Emperors, senators, landlords and merchants were alike educated under these influences; and though the church and the law opened a more enlarged circle of ideas, from creating a deeper sense of responsibility, still the prejudices of early education circumscribed the sense of duty more and more in each successive generation. The military class, which was the most powerful in society, consisted almost entirely of mere barbarians. The mental degradation, resulting from superstition, bigotry and ignorance, which forms the marked social feature of the period between the reigns of Justinian I and Leo III., brought the Eastern Empire to the state of depopulation and weakness that had delivered the Western a prey to small tribes of invaders.

The fiscal causes of the depopulation of the Roman empire have been noticed in a prior volume, as well as the extent to which immigrants had introduced themselves on the soil of Greece.[2] The corruption of the ancient language took place at the same time, and arose out of the causes which disseminated ignorance. At the accession of Leo, the disorder in the central administration, the anarchy in the provincial government and the ravages of the Sclavonians and Saracens, had rendered the conditiom of the people intolerable. The Roman government seemed incapable of upholding legal order in society, amd its extinction was regarded as a proximate event.[3] All the provinces between the shores of the Adriatic and the banks of the Danube had been abandoned to Sclavonian tribes. Powerful colonies of Sclavonians had been planted by Justinian II., in Macedonia and Bythinia, in the rich valleys of the Strymon and the Artanas.[4] Greece was filled with pastoral and agricultural hordes of the same race, who became in many districts the sole cultivators of the soil, and effaced the memory of the names of mountains and streams, which will be immortal in the world's literature.[5] The Bulgarians plundered all Thrace to the walls of Constantinople.[6] Thessalonica was repeatedly besieged by Sclavonians.[7] The Saracens had inundated Asia Minor with their armies, and were preparing to extirpate Christianity in the East. Such was the crisis at which Leo was proclaimed emperor by the army, in Amorium A.D. 716.

Yet there were peculiar features in the condition of the surviving population, and an inherent vigour in the principles of the Roman administration, that still operated powerfully in resisting foreign domination. The people felt the necessity of defending te administration of the law, and of upholding commercial intercourse. The ties of interest consequently ranged a large body of the inhabitants of every province round the central administration at this hour of difficulty. The very circumstences which weakened the power of the court of Constantinople, conferred on the people an increase of authority, and enabled them to take effectual measures for their own defence. This new energy may be traced in the resistance which Ravenna and Cherson offered to the tyranny of Justinian II. The orthodox church, also, served as an additional bond of union amomg the poeple, throughout the wide extent of the imperial dominions, its influences connected the local feelings of the parish with the general interests of the church and the empire.These misfortunes, which brought the state to the verge of ruin, relieved commerce from much fiscal oppression and many monopolies. Facilities were thus given to trade, which affored to the population of the towns additional sources of employment. The commerce of the Eastern Empire had already gained by the conquests of the barbarians in the West, for the ruling classes in the countries conquered by the Goths and Franks rarely engaged in trade or accumulated capital.[8] The advantage of possessing a systematic administration of justice, enforced by a fixed legal procedure, attached the commercial classes and the town population to the person of the emperor, whose authority was considered the fountain of legal order and judicial impartiality. A fixed legislation and an uninterrupted administration of justice, prevented the political anarchy that prevailed under the successors of Heraclius from ruining society in the Roman empire; while the arbitrary judicial power of provincial governors in the dominions of the caliphs, rendered property insecure, and undermined national wealth.

There was likewise another feature in the Eastern Empire which deserves notice. The number of towns was very great, and they were generally more populous than the political state of the country would lead us to expect. Indeed, to estimate the density of the urban population, in comparison with the extent of territory from which it apparently derived its supplies, we must compare it with the actual condition of Malta and Guernsey, or with the state of Lombardy and Tuscany in the middle ages. This density of population, joined to the great difference in the price of the produce of the soil in various places, afforded the Roman government the power of collecting from its subjects an amount of taxation unparalleled in modern times, except in Egypt.[9] The whole surplus profits of society were annually drawn into the coffers of the state, leaving the inhabitants only a bare sufficiency for perpetuating the race of tax-payers. History, indeed, shows that the agricultural classes, from the labourer to the landlord, were unable to retain possession of the savings required to replace that depreciation which time is constantly producing in all vested capital, and that their numbers gradually diminished.

After the accession of Leo III., a new condition of society is soon apparent; and though many old political evils continued to exist, it becomes evident that a greater degree of personal liberty, as well as greater security for prosperity, was henceforth guaranteed to the mass of the inhabitants of the empire. Indeed, no other government of which history has preserved the records, unless it be that of China, has secured equal advantages to its subjects for so long a period. The empires of the caliphs and of Charlemagne, though historians have celebrated their praises loudly, cannot, in their best days, compete with the administration organised by Leo on this point; and both sank into ruin while the Byzantine empire continued to flourish in full vigour. It must be confessed that eminent historians present a totally different picture of Byzantine history to their readers. Voltaire speaks of it as a worthless repertory of declamation and miracles, disgraceful to the human mind.[10] Even the sagacious Gibbon, after enumerating with just pride te extent of his labours, adds: "From these considerations I should have abandoned without regret the Greek slaves and their servile historians, had I not reflected that the fate of the Byzantine monarchy is passively connected with the most splendid and important revolutions which have changed the state of the world."[11] The view of Byzantine history, unfolded in the following pages, are frequently in direct opposition to these great authorities. The defects and vices of the political system will be carefully noticed, but the splendid achievements of the emperors, and the great merits of the judicial and ecclesiastical establishments, will be contrasted with their faults.

The history of the Byzantine empire divides itself into three periods, strongly marked by distinct characteristics.

The first period commences with the reign of Leo III., in 716, and terminates with that of Michael III in 867. It comprises the whole history of the predominance of the Iconoclasts in the established church, and of the reaction which reinstated the orthodox in power. It opens with the efforts by which Leo and the people of the empire saved the Roman law and the Christian religion from the conquering Saracens. It embraces a long and violent struggle between the government and the people, the emperors seeking to increase the central power by annihilating every local franchise, and even the right of private opinion among their subjects. The contest concerning image-worship from the prevalence of ecclesiastical ideas, became the expression of this struggle. Its object was as much to consolidate the supremacy of the imperial authority, as to purify the practice of the church. The emperors wished to constitute themselves the fountains of ecclesiastical as completely as of civil legisation.

The long and bloody wars of this period and the vehement character of the sovereigns who filled the throne, attract the attention of those who love to dwell on the romantic facts of history. Unfortunately, the biographical sketches and individual characters of the heroes of these ages lie concealed in the dullest chronicles. But the true historical features of this memorable period is the aspect of a declining empire, saved by the moral vigour developed in society and of the central authority struggling to restore national prosperity. Never was such a succession of able sovereigns seen following one another on any other throne. The stern Iconoclasts, Leo the Isaurian, opens the line as the second founder of the Eastern Empire. His son, the fiery Constantine, who was said to prefer the odour of the stable to the perfumes of his palaces, replanted the Christian standards on the bank of the Euphrates. Irene, the beautiful Athenian, presents a strange combination of talent, heartlessness and orthodoxy. The finance minister, Nicephoras, perishes on the field of battle like an old Roman. The Armenian Leo falls at the altar of his private chapel, murdered as he is singing psalms with his deep voice, before day-dawn. Michael the Amorian, who stammered Greek with his native Phrygian accent, became the founder of an imperial dynasty, destined to be extinguished by a Sclavonian groom. The accomplished Theophilus lived in an age of romance, both in action and literature. His son, Michael, the last of the Amorian family, was the only contemptible prince of this period, and he was certainly the most despicable buffoon that ever occupied the throne.

The second period commences with the reign of Basil I. in 867, and terminates with the deposition of Michael VI. in 1057. During these two centuries the imperial scepter was retained by members of the Basilian family, or held by those who shared their throne as guardians or husbands. At this time the Byzantine empire attained its highest pitch of external prosperity. The Saracens were pursued into the plains of Syria. Antioch and Edessa were reunited to the empire. The Bulgarian monarchy was conquered, and the Danube became again the northern frontier. The Sclavonians in Greece were almost exterminated. Byzantine commerce filled the whole Mediterranean and legitimated the claim of the emperor of Constantinople to the title of Autocrat of the Mediterranean sea.[12] Respect for the administration of justice pervaded society more generally than it had ever done at any preceding period of history of the world – a fact which our greatest historians have overlooked, though it is all-important in the history of human civilisation.

The third period extends from the accession of Isaac I. (Comnenus) in 1057, to the conquest of the Byzantine empire by the Cruisadrers in 1204. This is the true period of the decline and fall of the Eastern Empire. It commenced by a rebellion of the great nobles of Asia, who effected an internal revolution in the Byzantine empire by wrenching the administration out of the hands of well-trained officials, and destroying the responsibility created by systematic procedure. A despotism supported by personal influence soon ruined the scientific fabric which had previously upheld the imperial power. The people were ground to the earth by a fiscal rapacity over which the spledour of the house of Comnenus throws a thin veil. The wealth of the empire was dissipated, its prosperity destroyed, the administration of justice corrupted, and the central authority lost all control over the population, when a band of 20,000 adventurers, masked as crusaders, put an end to the Roman empire of the East.

In the eighth and ninth centuries the Byzantine empire continued to embrace many nations differing from the Greeks in language and manners. Even in religion there was a strong tendency to separation, and many of the heresies noticed in history assumed a national character, while the orthodox church circumscribed itself more and more within the nationality of the Greeks and forfeited its ecumenical characteristics. The empire still included within its limits Romans, Greeks, Armenians, Isaurians, Lycaonians, Phrygians, Syrians and Gallo-Grecians. But the great Thracian race, which had once been inferior in number only to the Indian, and which, in the first century of our era had excited the attention of Vespasian by the extent of the territory it occupied, was now exterminated.[13] The country it had formerly inhabited was peopled by Sclavonian tribes, a diminished Roman and Greek population only retaining possession of the towns, and the Bulgarians, a Turkish tribe, ruling as the dominant race from Mount Hemus to the Danube. The range of Mount Hemus generally formed the Byzantine frontier to the north, and its mountain passes were guarded by imperial garrisons.[14] Sclavonian colonies had established themselves over all the European provinces, and had even penetrated into the Peloponnesus. The military government of Strymon, above the passes in the plain of Heraclea Sintica, was formed to prevent the country to the south of Mount Orbelos and Skomios from becoming an independent Sclavonian province.

The provincial divisions of the Eastern Empire had fallen into oblivion. A new geographical arrangement into Themes appears to have been established by Heraclius, when he recovered the Asiatic provinces from the Persians: it was recognised by Leo and endured as long as the Byzantine government.[15] The number of themes varied at different periods. The Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, writing about the middle of the tenth century, counts sixteen in the Asiatic portion of the empire, and twelve in the European.

Seven great themes are particularly prominent in Asia Minor,[16] Optimaton, Opsikion, the Thrakesian, the Anatolic, the Bukellarion, the Kibyrraiot and the Armeniac. In each of these a large military force was permanently maintained, under the command of a general of the province; and in Opsikion, the Thrakesian and the Kibyrraiot, a naval force was likewise stationed undet its own officers. The commanders of the troops were called Strategoi, those of the navy Drungarioi. Several subordinate territorial divisions existed, called Tourms, and separate military commands were frequently established for the defence of important passes, traversed by great lines of communication, called Kleisouras. Several of the ancient nations on Asia Minor still continued to preserve their national peculiarities, and this circumstance has induced the Byzantine writers frequently to mention their country as recognised geographical divisions of the empire.

The European provinces were divided into eight continental and five insular or transmarine themes, until the loss of the exarchate of Ravenna reduced the number to twelve. Venice and Naples, though they acknowledged the suzerainty of the Eastern Empire, acted generally as independent cities. Sardinia was lost about the time of Leo's accession, and the circumstances attending its conquest by the Saracens are unknown.

The ecclesiastical divisions of the empire underwent frequent modifications; but after the provinces of Epirus, Greece and Sicily were withdrawn from the jusisdiction of the Pope, and placed under that of the Patriarch of Constatinople by Leo III., that patriarchate embraced the whole Byzantine empire. It was then divided into 52 metropolitan dioceses, which were subdivided into 649 suffragan bishopricks, and 13 archbishopricks, in which the prelates were independent (aujtokevfaloi) but without any suffragans. There were, moreover, 34 titular archbishops.[17]

[1]Clinton, Fasti Romani, Int. xiii, says: "The empire of Rome, properly so called, ends at A.D. 476", which is the third year of Zeno. Numismatists place the commencement of the Byzantine empire in the reign of Anastasius I. – Saulcy, Essai de Classification des Suites Monétaires Byzantines. Gibbon tells us: "Tiberius by the Arabs, and Maurice by the Italians, are distinguished as the first of the Greek Cæsars, as the founders of a new dynasty and empire. The silent revolution was accomplished before the death of Heraclius." Decline and Fall, vol. x, chap. liii, p. 154.

[2]Greece under the Romans, 60, 70, 238.

[3]This feeling can be traced as early as the reign of Maurice. Theophylactus Simocatta records that an angel appeared in a dream to the Emperor Tiberius II, and uttered these words: "The Lord announces to thee, O emperor, that in thy reign the days of anarchy shall not commence."– P. II, edit. Par.

[4]Constant. Porphyr., De Them. ii. 2, edit. Band. Theophanes, 304, 305, 364. Nicephorus, P. C. 44, edit. Par.

[5]Constant. Porphyr., De Them., ii. 25. Strabonis Epit. tom. iii. 386, edit. Coray.

"Their place of birth alone is mute

To sounds which echo farther west,

Than their sires' islands of the blest."

[6]Theophanes, 320.

[7]Tafel, De Thessalonica ejusque Agro, prol. xciv.

[8]This fact explains the increase in the numbers of the Jews, and their commercial importance in the seventh century. The conquered Romans were bound to their corporations by their own law, to which they clung, and almost to the trades of their fathers; for the Romans were serfs of their corporations before serfdom was extended by their conquerors to the soil. Compare Cod. Theodos. lib. x. t. 20, l. 10, with Cod. Justin. lib. xi t. 8, and lib. xi. x. 3. One of the three ambassadors sent by Charlemagne to Haroun Al Rashid was a Jew. He was doubtless charged with the commercial business.

[9]The peculiarities in Egypt, which enabled the government of Mehemet Ali to extract about two millions sterling annually from a population of two millions of paupers, were the following: the surplus in the produce of the country makes the price of the immense quantity produced in Upper Egypt very low. Government can, consequently, either impose a tax on the produce of the upper country equal to the difference of price at Siout and Alexandria, less the expense of transport, or it can constitute itself the sole master of the transport on the Nile and make a monopoly both of the right of purchase and of freight. The expense of transport is trifling, as the stream carries a loaded boat steadily down the river, while the north wind drives an empty one up against the current, almost with the regularity of a locomotive enigine. The Nile offers, in this manner, all the advantages of a railway, nature having constructed the road, and supplied the locomotive power; while a monopoly of their use is vested in the hands of every tyrant who rules the country. Mehemet Ali, not content with this, created an almost universal monopoly in favour of his government. The whole procuce of the country was purchased at a tariff price, the cultivator being only allowed to retain the means of perpetuating his class. The number of towns and the density of population in the Byzantine empire arose from the immense amount of capital which ages of security had expended in improving the soil, and from its cultivation as gardenland with the spade and mattock. Both these facts are easily proved.

[10]Le Pyrrhonisme de l'Histoire,chap. xv, note 1. With this remark, the records of an empire, which witnessed the rise and fall of the Caliphs and the Carlovingians, are dismissed by one who exclaimed: "J'ôterai aux nations le bandeau de l'erreur."

[11]Decline and Fall, chap. xlviii.

[12]Constant. Porphyr. De Them., ii. 27 – Dia; to; to;n Aujtokravtora Kwnstantinoupovlew" qalassokratei'n mevcri tw'n JHraklevo" sphlw'n kai; pavsh" oJmou' th'" w\de qalavssh".

[13]Herodotus, v. 3. Eustathius Thess., Comm. in Dionys. Perigetem, v. 323.

[14]The country within Mount Hemus, called Zagora, was only ceded to the Bulgarians in the reign of Michael III. Cont., Script. post Theoph., 102. Symeon Log., 440. Cedrenus, i. 446; ii, 541.

[15]The term thema was first applied to the Roman legion. The military districts, garrisoned by legions, were then called themata, and ultimately the word was used merely to indicate geographical administrative divisions. – Ducange, Glossarium med.

[16]The Asiatic themess were – 1. Anatolikon, including parts of Phrygia, Lycaonia, Isauria, Pamphylia and Pisidia. 2. The Armeniac, including Pontus and Cappadocia. 3. The Thrakesian, part of Phrygia, Lydia and Ionia. 4. Opsikion, Mysia and part of Bithynia and Phrygia. 5. Optimaton, the part of Bithynia towards the Bosphorus. Bukellarion, Galatia. 7. Paphlagonia. 8. Chaldia, the country about Trebizond. 9. Mesopotamia, the trifling possessions of the empire on the Mesopotamian frontier. 10. Koloneia, the country between Pontus and Armenia Minor, through which the Lycus flows, near Neocaesarea. 11. Sebasteia, the second Armenia. – Scrip. post Theoph. 112. 12. Lycandos, a theme formed by Leo VI. (the Wise) on the borders of Armenia. 13. The Kibyrraiot, Caria, Lycia and the coast of Cilicia. 14. Cyprus. 16. The Aegean. Cappadocia is mentioned as a theme. – Scrip. post. Theoph. 112; and Charsiania, Genesius, 46. They had formed part of the Armeniac theme.

The twelve European themes were – 1. Thrace. 2. Macedonia. 3. Strymon. 4. Thessalonica. 5. Hellas. 6. Peloponnesus. 7. Cephallenia. 8. Nicopolis. 9. Dyrrachium. 10. Sicily. 11. Longibardia (Calabria). 12. Cherson. The islands of the Archipelago, which formed the 16th Asiatic theme, were the usual station of the European naval squadron, under the command of a Drungarios. They are often called Dodekannesos, and their admiral was an officer of consideration at the end of the eighth century. – Theophanes, 383. The list of the themes given by Constantine Porphyrogenitus is a traditional, not an official document. Cyprus and Sicily had been conquered by the Arabs long before he wrote.

[17] Compare Codinus, Notitiae Graecorum Episcopatum, with the index to the first volume of Lequien, Oriens Christianus.