I've heard various arguments that the Byzantines were dealt the mortal wound at Manzikert in 1071 which allowed the Turks to claim most of Anatolia and set the stage for the later sacking of Constantinople by the Latin Crusaders. I've also heard that the it was the sacking itself that set the Empire on a course to its ultimate end. With the fall of Constantinople in 1453 being generally accepted as the end of the Byzantine Empire proper; when did the slope toward that end begin?
The fourth crusade was the turning point. The crusade was high-jacked by Venice to take revenge on the Byzantines for past deeds: imprisonments, break of contract, etc… The crusade was aimed to land in Egypt originally, as it was seen as the main threat to taking Jerusalem back. However, since the crusaders could not pay for the large Venetian feet, it was arranged that they would do a few missions for Venice first. Not all crusaders agreed, but the majority saw no choice. Even the Pope was unhappy with this state of affairs.
So, once Venice took control of Constantinople, a series of civil wars and coup happened. This weakened Byzantium to the point where it could not recover. From there on, it was just a matter of time before another power took control.
As a side note, the Byzantine fleet was in great part responsible for the might of the empire. Once the Empire gave this to Venice to build and use, it was just a matter of time before the fleet degraded beyond the local ability to rebuild it. An example of why out-sourcing is bad.
Source: John Julius Norwich: History of Venice, History of Byzantine Empire.
I don't think it is possible to idenitify a single point in history as beginning the "slope toward the end". Such thinking results from the simplistic model of an empire's history as consisting of two segements: "growth" and "decline". In reality, the history of the Byzantine empire is a complex sequence of alternating growth and decline.
I'd say that the first high point of the empire was the end of Justinian's rule, when the borders of the Byzantine empire bore some resemblance to the old Roman empire. A large numbers of events weakened the empire from this high point. They include the loss of much of the Italy to the Lombards in the 6th century and the gradual loss of Levant, Mesopotamia and North Africa to Muslim Arabs starting from the rise of the Umayyad Caliphate in the 7th century.
The Emperor Basil II's rule marked a strengthening of the empire, when the First Bulgarian Empire was destroyed in 1014 and Kievan Rus' accepted Byzantine-style Christianity.
In 1054 the Byzantine Church formally split with the Church of Rome, after a long period of growing tensions. The cause of the tensions was a combination of political rivalry between the Byzantine Emperor and the Pope and religious divergence due to movements such as Monophysitism, Monothelitism and Iconoclasm within the Byzantine Empire. This eventually contributed to the demise of the Empire due to its religious and therefore political isolation. Territorial decline continued with the loss of of remaining Italy to the Normans in the 11th and 12th century and the gradual Seljuk takeover of Anatolia starting in the 11th century.
Another high point was the Komnenian restoration in the 12th century, during which much of Anatolia was temporarily recovered. After that, there was return to severe dynastic strife which was another major factor in Byzantine decline.
During the Fourth Crusade, Constantinople was taken by the (Roman Catholic) crusaders in 1203. The key role in this event belonged to the naval-commercial rivalry between the Byzantine Empire the Republic of Venice. The crusaders couldn't pay for the fleet Venice supplied them and agreed to attack Constantinople as a compensation. The fall of Constantinople caused the split of the Empire into three parts: Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond and the Despotate of Epirus. The crusaders created their own state: the Latin Empire.
The Empire of Nicaea under Michael VIII Palaiologos managed to restore the Byzantine Empire by taking back Constantinople in 1261. This caused the demise of the Latin Empire, in what is probably the last high point in Byzantine history. The rise of the Ottoman Empire in 1299 caused the gradual eclipse of the Byzantine, with Constantinople falling again in 1453 and remaining "mainstream" Byzantine territory in Morea (Peloponnese peninsula) falling in 1460. The Empire of Trebizond fell in 1461 and the Despotate of Epirus lingered on until 1479 when it also was taken over by the Ottoman Turks.
A prior article mentions the empire of Justinian (and Leo, by extension), but I would argue that these are 'Roman' empires which are terminated by the eruption of Islam over much of the East Roman Empire.
This was a pretty traumatic event which led to some serious results. Among them, the abandonment of Latin, abandonment (with some exceptions) of universal pretensions in the western Mediterranean, acceptance of defence against the Muslim and recovery of the Holy Places.
And then there was iconoclasm on the cultural front. If you look carefully, there is a discernible shift in Weltanschauing in the 8th century in the lands ruled from Byzantium which may be called the birth of the Byzantine Empire and civilization and civilizing efforts through the Balkans and beyond Now, I am aware that my comments mimic those of Arnold Toynbee, but this is one case where his old thesis does strike true.
Of course, the Byzantine state enjoyed considerable success under generals like Nicephorus Phocas and Johm Tzimisces and others long before the time of Basil II (Bulgaroctes) But was it already becoming a feudal state? Surviving records from the maritime Themes show central control, but what was happening in the 'wild west'? Doesn't the epic poem Digines Akrites portray a feudal society on the frontier?
Anyway, I reckon that a feudal army went to Manzikert in 1079 and the rot set in. The Commneni had a very faint chance a hundred years later. Byzantium was still the strongest regional power at the time of the first crusade. But feudalism, both Byzantine and western, prevented any combined effort. Then the battle of Myriokephalon (various spellings) destroyed forever any Byzantine pretensions to power forever.
The empire limped on a for a few more centuries and the civilization may have a few sparks of life left, but I nominate Myriokefalum as the death knell of Byzantiu
From what I recall from historical texts that I've read in my travels, the event that seems to have started the irreversible decline was the Fourth Crusade, when instead of heading to free Jerusalem, the crusading armies attacked and sacked Constantinople. With large parts of the Empire fragmented into Latin states by the armies that had attacked them, it helped the Seljuk Turks (and later the Ottomans) hold the Anatolia area of Asia Minor and strengthened their position for furthur conquests as those states fell.
References: Wikipedia's article on the Fourth Crusade
Personally, for me, the turning point was Manzikert. It wiped out a good portion of the fighting men of the empire, and caused the Seljuks to take the eastern part of Asia Minor, which was a large source of manpower for the emperors under the theme system. So with the threat of a Seljuk invasion, Empire responded with a plea for help to the West, launching the Crusades. The final blow to the Byzantine dominance was the sack of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade, from which the Empire never really recovered.
The thing that really started the fatal downward skid for the Byzantine Empire was the arrival of the Turks from central Asia. They were the best warriors in the area, and just as importantly, were dedicated pastoralists. The best land in the area for their purposes was in central Anatolia, which just happened to be smack dab in the middle of the Byzantine Empire.
For the Byzantines the wealthy coastal areas were more important, but whoever held that central anatolian plain could attack any point on the coast at will. Once the Turks showed up, nearly every military effort of theirs (that wasn't spent on internectine warfare) was spent trying to get that good grazing land in the heart of the empire. The Byzantines could slow them down, sometimes even stop them, but they couldn't turn the situation around.
The Crusades started out as a desparate attempt by the Byzantines to get some help kicking the Turks out of anatolia. Some of these worked better than others. As mentioned by others, the Fourth Crusade backfired completely. But it still took a couple of hundred years (and the invention of cannon) before the Turks finally took Constantinople and extinguished the empire for good.
i would date the "irreversibility" of Turkish power to the Sack of Constantinople in 1204. This resulted in the division of the former Byzantine Empire into the Latin Empire, the Kingdom of Nicea, and several "splinter" groups (e.g. Epirus and Trebizond), with Constantinople a "football" between the first two. Without access to "Latin" mercentaries, the ultimate "winner," Nicea, could field armies only a fraction of the size of Byzantine armies a century earlier.
It's true, as T.E.D. pointed out that the Turks became a threat to the Byzantine Empire by the mid-11th century. Yet the rise of the Komnenos Dynasty, 1081-1185 involved A "rollback" (or "reversal") of Turkish power out of much of western Turkey during thaT period.
The Ottoman Empire was one of the mightiest and longest-lasting dynasties in world history. This Islamic-run superpower ruled large areas of the Middle East, Eastern Europe and North Africa for more than 600 years. The chief leader, known as the Sultan, was given absolute religious and political authority over his people. While Western Europeans generally viewed them as a threat, many historians regard the Ottoman Empire as a source of great regional stability and security, as well as important achievements in the arts, science, religion and culture.
The Fall of Constantinople: A Turning Point in Modern History?
The city of Constantinople revived under Ottoman rule, and once again became a center of authority, trade, and commerce. (Image: Ivan Aivazovsky/Public domain)
Apart from the fall of Constantinople itself, its effects, especially on how it was viewed by contemporaries, were shattering. Contemporaries had become used to the notion that Constantinople was always under threat, perpetually in crisis, and yet it had always somehow survived.
There were three clear results of the fall of Constantinople, which proved to be a turning point in modern history. The consequences continue to endure to the present day.
The Fall of Constantinople Created a Vacuum
The first result was that after the final fall of the Roman Empire, with the fall of Constantinople, much of the world would be haunted by the ghost of the memory of what Rome had been, what it had once achieved, and represented.
Rome had been a universal authority, the archetype of what an empire was and should be. Indeed, it still is the archetype: Think of the Roman neoclassical architecture of government buildings in Washington D.C.
In this earlier age, thinking about the implications of the fall of Constantinople was based on a medieval concept, that of translatio imperii, the transfer of rule or authority, as an organizing principle of history. This transfer of empire resembled the Confucian ideal of the mandate of heaven, which we saw with the Ming dynasty in our previous lecture.
European scholars looking out at the world at the time concluded that all of history was based on a succession of empires, one following on the other based on divine favor and divine will. When an empire had played out its role or had lost what in Chinese tradition would have been called the mandate of heaven, by misrule, a new empire would arise to take its place.
In this scheme of history, the empire of Babylon had given way to Persia, Persia had given way to Greece, and Greece gave way to Rome. Now that Rome was gone, what new power would follow? The gap, the vacuum left by the fall of Rome as Constantinople fell in 1453, was the turning point.
The Fall of Constantinople Prompted Successive Bids to become the Universal Empire
The second result of this moment was the recurring bids to inherit the universal empire. Most strikingly, the Ottoman Turkish sultans saw themselves as new Roman emperors, the legitimate inheritors of Rum. Indeed, they called themselves the ‘Sultans of Rum’ to announce this claim.
Sultan Mehmet II, who is also known as ‘Mehmet the Conquerer’, was the commander of the Ottoman army that attacked Constantinople and captured the city in 1453. (Image: Gentile Bellini, National Gallery/Public domain)
In fact, Mehmet the Conqueror, after he had captured Constantinople, next made plans to capture Rome in Italy, to complete his victories. As it turned out, he could not capture Rome in the West and finish this continuity it was just too big an ambition.
In a way, for the city of Constantinople, the eagerness of the new Ottoman rulers to assert the fundamental continuity with what went before was lucky. Instead of just fading into oblivion as a heap of ruins, the city actually and dramatically revived under Ottoman rule, again becoming a center of authority, trade, and commerce, and assuming once again a pivotal position.
Eventually, the city came to be popularly known as ‘Istanbul’, which may be a Turkish rendering of a Greek phrase meaning ‘to the city’ (eis tin polin), but officially it still retained its name of ‘Konstantiniyye’ until the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. It only officially became Istanbul in 1930.
This is a transcript from the video series Turning Points in Modern History. Watch it now, Wondrium.
Russia, the Third Rome?
The longstanding dream of inheriting the empire also was deeply influential in Russian history, for Russia had received its Orthodox faith from Constantinople. This spiritual and historic link was expressed in the potent idea of Russia as the ‘Third Rome’.
As Constantinople fell, Russian monks announced to the Tsar—or Emperor—of Moscow, that the first Rome had fallen (the actual city of Rome in Italy), and now Constantinople the second Rome had fallen as well. This meant that now the power of Muscovy would be the third, eternal Rome.
The marriage of Tsar Ivan III to a niece of the last Byzantine emperor was also intended to strengthen this claim. The idea of the Third Rome soon took on a messianic fervor and endured for centuries. The Russian coat of arms, of the Russian empire or of the Russian federation today, shows a double-headed eagle, which had earlier been the emblem of the Byzantine Empire.
That desire to be the Third Rome led to a durable impulse in Russian foreign policy, striving to capture Constantinople, or as it was called in Russian, Tsargrad, or ‘Caesar City’. Over the centuries, Tsars and Tsarinas (especially Catherine the Great) would make this goal one that they would pursue, a spur to the expansionist impulse that has compelled Russian foreign policy to grow in the following centuries.
The Tsars of Russia were not the only ones moved by the dream of standing at the end of the line of succession of the Roman Empire. Many others would find this to be an ambition that deeply stirred them as well. In the German lands, the Holy Roman Empire as it was called in the Middle Ages, claimed to be the successor to Rome.
Later, in the 19 th century, the French leader Napoleon, as he swept across Europe, set about creating a Grand Empire, also outfitted with Roman symbols. In a way, it was perfectly apt that Napoleon thought about how he could capture Constantinople as well.
When Russia suggested to Napoleon that they could trade some territories, and Russia could take over Constantinople from the Turkish Empire, Napoleon refused. He announced that whoever holds that city of Constantinople has the key to global power: ‘It is the empire of the world’, he said, adding, ‘Ultimately, the question is always this—who shall have Constantinople’? He wanted it for himself.
It was a geopolitical pivot point of great strategic power. As late as the 20 th century, the dream of Rome endured. The German dictator Adolf Hitler, in his attempt at a world empire, also looked back at Roman models.
His Nazi storm troopers stretched out their arms to give the Roman salute. His Nazi empire, which was expected to last a thousand years, also was outfitted with neoclassical architecture that evoked those days of Roman power. Ultimately, the memory of Roman glories has been a spur to many different ambitious leaders and groups throughout modern times.
Fall of Constantinople Prompts the World’s Political Map to Be Redrawn
Finally, the third result of the fall of Constantinople was the redrawing of the world maps in the minds of men. The decline and fall of that great imperial city contributed to a movement that was already taking place in Europe, the Renaissance.
Older history textbooks used to claim a simple formula, that Greek-speaking scholars, writers, and intellectuals had fled Constantinople as it fell, taking with them their most treasured possessions, ancient classical texts, and that these texts fired the Renaissance, that passionate movement to revive classical models and humanistic learning.
Actually, historians point out now, the picture is far more complicated. Canny and realistic intellectuals had actually been leaving Constantinople long before 1453 and the disaster of that year. They’d been transferring texts and their personal knowledge for a long time. It’s estimated that of the 55,000 texts of ancient Greek writings that we possess now, about 40,000 of them come to us by way of Constantinople.
The texts that Byzantine scholars brought with them to the West didn’t so much cause the Renaissance, which had already been going on and earlier had emphasized Roman literature. What their Greek texts did was to feed the second wave of Renaissance activity, which was based on the rediscovery of Greek texts. Most important of all was that the Greek scholars who arrived in the West taught the Greek language to the Italian humanists and enriched their understanding.
Further, the fall of Constantinople presented a geographic problem for Europeans. Trade routes with the Orient, which had run through the Byzantine Empire, were now in the hands of the Ottoman Turks.
These routes were not entirely closed, because trade continued, in part helped by the merchants of Venice and Genoa trading with the Turks. But the desire of Europeans to outflank the Turks and to find alternate routes for the trade would spur European voyages of discovery, including the voyage which led Columbus to what was for him a new world.
This drive to outflank the Turks also had a strategic and religious dimension, which recalled the Crusades. The key geopolitical location of earlier authority, Constantinople, had been lost, and the religious and political imperative was to find a way around that fact, the end of the Roman Empire. The loss of Rome had created a gap in the mental map of the world, and that gap was the turning point.
Common Questions about the Impact of the Fall of Constantinople
At the time, European scholars believed that all of history was based on a succession of empires. So, the empire of Babylon had given way to Persia, Persia had given way to Greece, and Greece gave way to Rome. However, with the fall of Constantinople , the last remnants of the eastern Roman Empire were gone, and there was no clear vision of the power that would follow.
The fall of Constantinople in the hands of the Ottoman Turks in itself isn’t a surprise. However, this historic event had a domino effect on several other issues, including creating a power vacuum in Europe, prompting a succession of desperate bids by various empires to present themselves as the next universal empire, and permanently altering the political map of this region.
One of the key impacts of the fall of Constantinople was that trade routes with the east, which had run through the Byzantine Empire, were now in the hands of the Ottoman Turks. While these routes were not entirely closed, because trade continued, in part helped by the merchants of Venice and Genoa trading with the Turks, it did present a major geographic problem for Europeans.
Since the trade routes with the Orient were under the control of the Ottoman Turks, after the fall of Constantinople , the Europeans were in a quandary. They wanted to outflank the Turks and find alternate routes for trade, which sparked off the various famous European voyages of discovery, including the voyage which led Columbus to what was for him a new world.
At what point was the Byzantine Empire's decline irreversible? - History
Russian winter landscape. A church. A snowstorm.
Narrator. Hello. In 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell. Let us now take a look at how this happened.
Islamic chant weaves into the gusts of freezing wind.
Instanbul. The muezzin continues his prayer, amplified by a loudspeaker. The noise of a market place in a Middle Eastern city. Turkish conversation.
Narrator. This city was once called Constantinople six centuries ago it was the capital city of what was without exaggeration one of the greatest civilizations in world history&mdashthe Byzantine Empire.
A rule by law, something we now take for granted, was created here, based upon the Roman codes, in Byzantium, 1500 years ago. A legal system which was to become the basic foundation of all types of laws in most modern governments was the monumental creation of Byzantine jurisprudence during the reign of Emperor Justinian. The system of elementary and higher education first developed in Byzantium it was here, in the fifth century, that the first university appeared. The most stable financial system in the history of mankind was created in Byzantium, and existed in a nearly unaltered form for over one thousand years. Modern diplomacy with its basic principles, rules of conduct, and etiquette was created and refined here, in Byzantium. Byzantine engineering and architectural arts were unrivalled. Even today, such famous works by Byzantine masters as the domes of the Hagia Sophia amaze the world with their technological perfection.
No other empire in human history lasted as long as Byzantium. It existed for 1123 years. In comparison: the great Roman Empire collapsed 800 after its establishment the Ottoman Empire fell apart after 500 years the Chinese Qing (or Manchu) Empire, after 300 years. The Russian Empire lasted 200 the British, 150 the Austro-Hungarian empire lasted around 100 years. During its height, Byzantium was home to one sixth of the entire world population. The Empire stretched from Gibraltar to the Euphrates and Arabia. It encompassed the territories of modern Greece and Turkey, Israel and Egypt, Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania, Tunis, Algiers and Morocco, part of Italy, Spain, and Portugal. There were around one thousand cities in Byzantium&mdashnearly as many as in modern Russia.
The capital city's incalculable wealth, its beauty and elegance, amazed all the European peoples, who were still barbarians at the time when the Byzantine Empire was in its apogee. One can only imagine&mdashindeed, history records it as such&mdashhow crude, ignorant Scandinavians, Germans, Franks, and Anglo-Saxons, whose chief occupation at the time was primitive sacking and pillage, after arriving from some town like Paris or London (which had populations of some tens of thousands) to this megalopolis of millions, a city of enlightened citizens, scholars, and elegantly dressed youths crowding imperial universities, dreamt of only one thing: invading and robbing, robbing and invading. In fact, when this was actually accomplished in 1204 by an army of Europeans calling themselves Crusaders, who, instead of freeing the Holy Land treacherously sacked the most beautiful city in the world, , Byzantine treasures were carried away in an uninterrupted flow over the course of fifty years. Hundreds of tons of precious coin alone were carried away at a time when the annual budget of the wealthiest European countries was no more than two tons of gold.
Venice. The Cathedral of St. Mark. All the columns, marble, and precious adornments were stolen at that very time. By the way, those horses are from the imperial quadriga, carried away from Constantinople by the Crusaders.
Priceless holy relics and works of art were looted, but even more taken by barbarians from Brussels, London, Nuremburg, and Paris were simply destroyed&mdashmelted down into coin or thrown away like refuse. To this day, the museums of Europe are bursting with stolen Byzantine treasures. But let us take into consideration that only a small portion was actually preserved.
It was during this period of looting that the monstrous modern lending system was created using treasures stolen from Constantinople. This average sized city in Italy&mdashVenice&mdashwas the New York of the thirteenth century. The financial fate of nations was decided here. At first most of the booty was easily taken by sea to Venice and Lombardy (the Russian word for &ldquopawn shop&rdquo to this day is &ldquoLombard&rdquo). The first European banks began to spring up like mushrooms after a good rain. The English and Dutch, more reserved than their contemporary Italians and Germans, joined the activity a little later, and, with the help of Byzantine riches pouring in, developed that famous capitalism with its inevitable lust for profits, which is essentially a sort of genetic continuation of the sport of military plunder. The first significant Jewish capital was a result of speculation in Byzantine relics.
An unprecedented flow of free money caused the Western European cities to grow wildly, and became the decisive catalyst in the development of craft, science, and the arts. The barbaric West became the civilized West only after it had taken over, stolen, destroyed, and swallowed up the Byzantine Empire.
We must admit that our own Slavic forebears were no more well-mannered, and also succumbed to the barbaric temptation to get rich quick at the expense of Constantinople's seemingly inexhaustible wealth. However, to their credit, and fortunately for us, their lust for the spoils of war did not eclipse the most important thing: Russians comprehended Byzantium's greatest treasure! This was neither gold, nor expensive textiles, nor even art and sciences. The greatest treasure of Byzantium was God.
Having traveled the world over in search of the truth and God, Prince Vladimir's ambassadors experienced only in Byzantium that a true relationship between God and man exists that it is possible for us to have living contact with another world. &ldquoWe did not know whether we were in heaven or on earth,&rdquo said the ancestors of present-day Russians, astounded by their experience of Divine Liturgy in the Empire's most important cathedral, the Hagia Sophia. They understood just what kind of treasure can be obtained in Byzantium. It was upon this treasure that our great forebears founded not banks, nor capital, nor even museums and pawn shops. They founded Rus', Russia, the spiritual successor of Byzantium.
So what made it possible for a nation so great in the arena of world history, with such extraordinary capabilities, to so suddenly begin to lose its life force? What is most interesting is that the problems Byzantium met during its period of decline&mdashaggression from foreign nations, natural disasters, economic and political crises&mdashwere nothing new for this over a thousand-year-old government with its proven mechanism for getting out of the most difficult situations. After all, the empire had experienced all these things before, and had overcome them.
Yes, there were many envious enemies both east and west, there were earthquakes, there were plagues but it was not these which crushed Byzantium. All of these problems could have been overcome if only the Byzantines had been able to overcome themselves.
Today we will talk about that inner enemy which appeared within the spiritual bowels of Byzantine society, and broke the spirit of that great nation, turning it into a helpless victim of those historical calls&mdashcalls which Byzantium was no longer able to answer.
Nowadays we generally assess a society's well-being according to its economy. Although the word &ldquoeconomics,&rdquo and even the science of economics itself hales from Byzantium, the Byzantines themselves never gave it much attention. The Byzantine financial-economic system underwent several serious crises during the course of history, but the effectiveness of the Empire's industry and agriculture generally enabled it to weather the storms. It suffices to say that for a thousand years, all international trade was based upon the Byzantine gold coin.
But Byzantium could not solve the problem of its government's loss of control over its own finances and the huge, ungovernable process of capital flow towards the West, to developing Europe, and this is what finally destroyed its economy. The government dropped all levers of trade and industry, and in the end gave all its trade and industrial resources over to foreign entrepreneurs.
It happened like this: An important financial resource in the country was not gas and oil, as it is now, but customs obtained from the enormous international trade in the Bosphorus and Dardenelles. The Byzantines, who earlier relied solely upon their own capability to govern the country's economics, suddenly began heated discussions about, and finally decided upon, consigning the problems of international trade to their foreign friends, who were more resourceful, and ready to take responsibility for the expense of complex transport, armed guards along trade routes, the construction of new ports, and the intensification and development of commercial activities. Western specialists were called in from Venice and Genoa, towns which had grown large on several centuries of Byzantine trade. They were granted duty-free trade, and entrusted with the patrol of sea routes along the Empire's territory.
The West began by hook or by crook to lure Byzantium into the formative prototype of unified European trade organizations and, taking advantage of one of the most complicated periods in the life of the Empire, succeeded in reaching its aim: Emperor Alexios Komnenos signed an international trade agreement to the Empire's great disadvantage, called the &ldquoGolden Bulla.&rdquo This agreement was in actuality deceitful, and profitable only to the West.
At first everyone was pleased: the government saved a lot of money that formerly went to its trade and military fleets, trade increased, and the city's shops and markets overflowed with European and Asian products they had never seen before. But this did not come without a price. After just a few decades, domestic industry and agriculture degraded sharply.
All the Byzantine traders either went bankrupt or became dependent upon foreigners. When the country finally realized what was happening, it was too late. The &ldquoGolden Bulla&rdquo was annulled, and Emperor Andronikos tried to reverse the flow of money back towards his empire. He confiscated all foreign commercial enterprises, which were draining the government of its last resources. Both he and the country paid dearly for this. He himself was brutally murdered as for his country&hellip The republic of Venice, which had by that time become a huge financial oligarchy, hired a whole crusade, and sent it to sack Constantinople instead of Jerusalem. The Byzantines, who had up until then considered the crusaders to be in general brothers in the faith and military allies, were so unprepared for such an underhanded blow that it was unable to organize sufficient defense. In 1204, French, German, and Italian contingents of the Western union advanced upon Constantinople and took it over. The city was mercilessly pillaged and put to the torch.
At the same time Venice, considered then to be the stronghold of free enterprise, announced to the whole Western world that it was only restoring disdained law and order and the rights of a free international market and mainly, it was warring with a regime which denies all European values. This was the moment when the West began to create an image of Byzantium as a heretical &ldquoevil empire.&rdquo As time went by, this image would continually be pulled out for use from Western ideological arsenals.
Although Constantinople was recovered sixty years later, Byzantium would never recover from the blow. Meanwhile, foreign traders would retain complete control over both the economy and the Byzantine market.
Another unresolved problem in Byzantium was corruption and oligarchy. The government warred with them continually, and was for a long time was effective. Bureaucrats and financial schemers who had gone too far were punished and exiled, their possessions completely confiscated and given to the treasury. However, the authorities never really had the strength and resolve to sever this evil systematically. Oligarchs gathered entire armies under the pretext of servants and guards, and plunged the government into the thick of civil wars.
How did these oligarchs emerge in Byzantium, and why did they become uncontrollable? Byzantium had always been a strictly centralized bureaucratic government however, this was by no means its weakness, but rather its historical strength. All efforts to combine authority with personal interests were cut off firmly and decisively. However, during one moment in the period of political and administrative reforms, the temptation arose to exchange the old and seemingly awkward bureaucratic machinery for something more effective and flexible, in which the government's role would be limited, and relegated to that of an overseer of formal legalities. To put it simply, the government, out of good intentions and with its eye upon European experience, in fact willingly relinquished a portion of its strategic monopolistic functions, handing them over to small circle of families.
However, contrary to the government's expectations, this new aristocracy it was feeding did not remain long under the control of the bureaucratic apparatus. Resistance continued with alternating success, and ended in a serious political crisis, out of which the government could escape only at the price of irreversible concessions to foreigners. We know what happened after this. The oligarchic corruption of the government continued up until the very takeover of Constantinople by the Turks.
Incidentally, the oligarchs not only failed to provide the government with money or arms during this final invasion by the Turks, but even grabbed what little was left in the treasury. When the young Sultan Mehmed met took the city, he was shocked at the exorbitant wealth of some citizens while the city's army was completely lacking. He summoned the richest citizens and asked them a simple question: why they did not provide any money for the city's protection from the enemy? &ldquoWe were saving these funds for your Sultanic Majesty,&rdquo was their flattering answer. Mehmed had them punished immediately in the cruelest manner: their heads were chopped off, and their bodies thrown to the dogs. Those oligarchs who fled to the West hoping to hide their capital were mercilessly fleeced by their Western &ldquofriends,&rdquo and ended their lives in poverty.
A huge problem of the Byzantine government during the period of decline was its frequent change in political direction, which could be called a lack of stability and succession in governmental powers. With each change of emperors, the empire's direction would often change drastically. This weakened the country severely, and cruelly exhausted the population.
Political stability is one of the most important conditions for a strong state. This was the testament of the great Byzantine emperors. However, they began to disregard this testament. There was a period when a new emperor was in power every four years on the average. Could it have been possible under such conditions for the country to undergo a revival, or complete any large-scale state projects&mdashprojects which would have required many years of systematic effort?
Of course, there were also very strong emperors in Byzantium. One example was Basil II, who was, by the way, Grand Prince Vladimir's godfather. He took on the Empire's rule after a serious crisis: the country had been practically privatized by oligarchs. First of all, he took tough measures to enforce a vertical power structure, quelled all separatist movements in outlying territories, and suppressed rebellious governors and oligarchs, who were preparing to dismember the empire. Then he &ldquopurged&rdquo the government, and confiscated huge sums of stolen money.
Basil II's strict measures allowed him to build the state treasury to unprecedented sums&mdashthe Empire's annual income was ninety tons of gold during his reign. As a comparison, Russia reached such levels only towards the beginning of the 19th century.
Basil significantly weakened the mighty regional oligarch-magnates. These local sovereigns' influence and power were at times incomparably greater than that of the official governors. Once, during a military campaign, the Asia Minor magnate Eustaphios Maleinos demonstratively invited Emperor Basil and his troops to rest at his estate, and was easily able to accommodate this huge army until they had sufficiently recuperated. This oligarch seriously hoped to influence the country's fate. He began his intrigues, then moved his own puppet candidate forward to the upper levels of authority. Later he would pay dearly for this. All of his vast property was confiscated, and he himself was sent to one of the most distant prisons in the Empire.
After the rebellion of another magnate, Bardos Skleros, was put down, Skleros even advised Basil II in a candid discussion to exhaust the magnates with taxes, special tasks, and governmental service, so that they would not have time to get so rich and powerful.
Having restored the verticality of authority in the country, Basil left a sort of &ldquostabilization fund&rdquo to his successor which was so large, that, in the words of Michael Psellos, he had to dig new labyrinths in the underground treasury stores. This national reserve was designated first of all for military reforms and the organization of a professional, capable army. Basil's successors, however, ineptly squandered this reserve.
Byzantium in general had quite a problem with her &ldquosuccessors,&rdquo although the Byzantines were the greatest specialists in the world in the area of royal succession. They did not have the principle of inheritance to the throne. Wishing to ensure that power succeed to a worthy heir, the emperors usually chose one or two candidates, and actively drew them into governmental affairs, delegated high and responsible positions in the government to them, and observed them. There was even a system whereby the country would have at one time an emperor and so-called junior emperors, the heirs. This was all very reasonable, but no matter how well they honed this system of succession, in the final analysis it became clear that it was simply the luck of the draw.
Basil II was unlucky. Too occupied with governmental affairs, he was unable to prepare a worthy successor, and the throne passed to his natural brother Constantine VIII. When the new emperor began to feel free, powerful, and fabulously wealthy, he dedicated himself not to governmental affairs, but rather to ecstatic daydreams about accomplishments and glory which were supposed to eclipse those of his brother. The results were sorrowful: under the aegis of the dreamer in porphyry, the cynical ruling elite quickly lost the obedience and discipline cultivated by Basil II, and immersed themselves in power struggles with renewed vigor.
Although the oligarchs quickly achieved their aim, it came with a price. If Basil II punished insubordination by confiscation of property, or, in extreme cases, by blinding (a punishment not uncommon during the Middle Ages), his successor, the hysterical Constantine, during fits of anger, castrated half of his contemporary Byzantine administrative elite. Furthermore, his extravagance eclipsed even that of one of the most dissolute emperors of the country's period of decline, whose nickname was &ldquoThe Drunkard,&rdquo and like him, in a state of inebriation, entertained the rabble at the city hippodrome, three times larger than this Roman Coliseum.
The next successor also failed to fulfill expectations. The vertical, central power structure began to collapse. The result of a new uprising amongst the clans and elite and the continual re-shifting of property was predictably deplorable&mdashwithin fifty years the Empire found itself on the brink of destruction.
The large stabilizing fund, in the hands of inept sovereigns, caused more harm than good&mdashthis money gained without effort began to work against the country by corrupting society. The same historian, Michael Psellos, remarked bitterly that the empire &ldquogrew sick&rdquo from the misuse and plunder of this money set aside by Basil. &ldquoThe government's body,&rdquo he wrote, &ldquobecame bloated. Some were glutted with money others were stuffed to the gills with ranks, and their lifestyle became unhealthy and destructive.
Thus, succession of power was a matter of life and death for the Empire. When there is stability in succession and development, the country has a future without stability&mdashcollapse. But the people did not fully understand this, and kept demanding various changes. Opportunists and run-away oligarchs also played on these popular moods. They would usually hide somewhere abroad and support various intrigues with the aim of overthrowing this or that emperor who did not suit them, providing for their own man and new re-assignments of property. Such an individual was a certain Bessarion, a mediocre scholar, unprincipled politician, and ingenious intriguer of the 15th century, who fled Byzantium for Rome and received there political asylum. Bessarion coordinated the entire opposition in Constantinople and caused no small headache to the government. He went on further to become a Catholic cardinal. He bought himself a house in Rome. After his death, his Western protectors even named a small street on the edge of town after him.
Another serious and incurable disease never before a problem in Byzantium also developed: the question of nationality.
The fact of the matter is that nationality problems in Byzantium really had not existed for many centuries. As the historical, lawful descendants of ancient Rome, which was destroyed by barbarians in the fifth century, the inhabitants of Byzantium called themselves Romans. In a vast empire divided into many nationalities there was one faith&mdashOrthodox Christianity. The Byzantines literally fulfilled the Christian teaching of a new humanity living in a Divine spirit, where &ldquothere is neither Greek, nor Jew, nor Scythe,&rdquo as the Apostle Paul wrote. This hope preserved the country from the destructive storm of ethnic conflict. It was enough for any pagan or foreigner to accept the Orthodox Faith, and confirm it in deed, in order to become a full member of society. On the Byzantine throne, for example, were almost as many Armenians as there were Greeks there were also citizens of Syrian, Arabian, Slavic, and Germanic origin. Amongst the higher ranks of government were representatives of all peoples in the Empire&mdashthe main requirements were their competence and dedication to the Orthodox Faith. This provided Byzantine civilization with incomparable cultural wealth.
The only foreign elements for the Byzantines were people who were strange to Orthodox morals and to the ancient Byzantine culture and perception of the world. For example, coarse, ignorant, money-grubbing Western Europeans of the time were considered barbarian by the Romans. Emperor Constantine VII, &ldquoThe Purple-born,&rdquo instructed his son when choosing a bride, &ldquoInasmuch as every nation has its own traditions, laws, and customs, one should unite in matrimony only with one from amongst his own people.&rdquo
In order to understand the emperor's thoughts correctly, we must recall that his great grandfather was a Scandinavian by the name of Inger, his grandfather was the son of an Armenian man and Slavic woman from Macedonia, his wife was the daughter of an Armenian man and a Greek woman, and his daughter-in-law was the daughter of an Italian king. His granddaughter, Anna, became the wife of the Russian Prince Vladimir, just after the latter was baptized.
The very idea of a &ldquonation&rdquo was actually a European concept which later in Byzantium evolved into an idea of their own national superiority (or more precisely, of that of the Greeks, around whom Byzantium had grown). Europeans lived in smaller states built upon ethnic principles for example, France, Germanic countries, and Italian republics. National custom was good and correct for them but the fact of the matter was that Byzantium was not an ethnic state, but rather a multi-national empire, and this was an essential difference. For one hundred years the Byzantines warred with this temptation and did not allow themselves to be broken. &ldquoWe are all Romans&mdashOrthodox citizens of the New Rome,&rdquo they proclaimed.
It must be noted that this all unfolded at the very beginning of the epoch called by historians the &ldquoRenaissance&rdquo&mdashthe world-wide creation of a nationalistic, Hellenic-Greek, pagan ideal. It was understandably difficult for the Greeks not to be tempted by this Western European renaissance, and the European fascination with the culture of their great, ancient Greek ancestors.
The first to give in were the intelligentsia. The enlightened Byzantines began to sense their Greekness. Nationalistic movements began, then the denial of Christian traditions, and finally, during the reign of the Paleologi, the imperial ideal gave way to a narrow, ethnically Greek nationalism. However this betrayal of the imperial ideal was costly&mdashthe nationalistic fever tore the empire apart, and it was then quickly swallowed up by the neighboring Moslem empire.
One apologist for Hellenic nationalism, the liberal scholar Plethon, arrogantly wrote to Emperor Manuel II, &ldquoWe, the people whom you command and govern, are Greeks by descent, as our language and educational heritage testify!&rdquo Such words would have been unthinkable even a century earlier. However, Plethon wrote them on the eve of the fall of Constantinople, in which were living people no longer Roman, but rather Greeks, Armenians, Slavs, Arabs, and Italians, in enmity with one another.
Greek arrogance led to the discrediting of Slavs in the Empire. Byzantium thereby estranged the Serbs and Bulgarians, who could have provided real help in the struggle with the Turks. The result was that the peoples of the once united Byzantium began to be at enmity with one another.
The West did not miss the chance to take advantage of this new problem: it began to forcefully convince the Serbs and Bulgarians that the Greeks have been suppressing their national identity for centuries. Several real revolutions were provoked, and finally, with the help of economic and military forces, the West insisted upon the Serbs' and Bulgarians' separation from Byzantium and unification with Latin Europe. These nationalities took the bait, exclaiming suddenly, &ldquoWe are also Europeans!&rdquo The West promised them material and military aide, but of course, deceived them, instead throwing them cynically before themselves as a buffer along the warpath of the Turkish hordes. The Balkan states, so loyal to the West, found themselves under the cruel Turkish yoke for many long centuries. And Byzantium was no longer able to help. National arrogance thus played a wicked role for the empire.
Another great problem was the gradual loss of control over the far-flung provinces. The contrast between the provinces and the satiated, wealthy capital, Constantinople, which lived for the most part at the expense of these impoverished areas, became very sharp. At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Byzantine writer Micheal Choniates wrote to the capital's inhabitants in bitter reproach, &ldquoDo not all riches flow into the city as rivers into the sea? But you do not wish to take a look at the towns around you, who await some fairness from you. You send them one tax collector after another with brutish teeth, in order to devour their last morsels. You yourselves remain in your city to enjoy your peace, and extract the riches.&rdquo
Even the capital city's chief administrator, the eparch of Constantinople, enjoyed a particular status in the country, and his contemporaries often compared his power with that of the Emperor, &ldquoonly without the purple,&rdquo as they would say. One such eparch once became so feverishly involved in the building of high-rise buildings in the capital that he could only be stopped by a special imperial order forbidding the construction of buildings over ten stories.
All political, cultural and social life essentially took place in Constantinople. The government did not wish to notice that a serious imbalance was developing, and the forsaken provinces were becoming more and more decayed. Gradually, the tendency to flee to the center became increasingly marked.
Governors of these distant territories also played their deceitful games. Money budgeted and sent to the provinces was shamelessly expropriated. It would not have been half so bad if this stolen money had gone only towards the enrichment of governors and their proteges. But the money was often used to create real armies under the guise of peace officers. These battalions were often more capable in battle than the regular army.
When the government weakened, the provinces separated. The government watched this process unfold almost helplessly. But the rebellious governors, having freed themselves of central authority, were not long to remain captivated by their own high hopes. Together with their hapless population, they almost immediately fell prey to the cruel authority of the non-Orthodox. When this happened, the local population was usually destroyed completely, and the region re-settled by Turks and Persians.
The demographic problem was one of the most serious problems in Byzantium. The Empire was gradually inhabited by peoples of a foreign spirit, who firmly supplanted the native Orthodox population. The country's ethnic composition changed visibly. This was in some ways an irreversible process, for the birth rate in Byzantium was decreasing. But this was not the worst thing. Something similar had earlier occurred periodically. The catastrophe was that the peoples who were pouring into the Empire were no longer becoming Romans, as they once had done, but remained permanently foreign, aggressive, and enemy. Now the newcomers treated Byzantium not as their new homeland, but only as potential property which should sooner or latter come into their own hands.
This happened also because the Empire refused to educate the people&mdasha concession it had made to the new, renaissance-era demagogy declaring state ideology to be a violation of the individual. However, nature abhors a vacuum. Having voluntarily renounced their thousand-year ideological function of educating and cultivating the people, the Byzantines made way for influences upon the minds and souls of their citizens influences which were not so much a promotion of independent and free thinking as they were a form of intentional ideological aggression, aimed at destroying the foundations of state and society.
But the Byzantines had amazing, incomparable experience! The best leaders of the Empire were capable of using their vast inheritance&mdasha wealth of experience in governance and subordination. As a result of this acumen, cruel barbarians, after partaking of the great Christian culture, became the most reliable allies, received grandiose titles and vast estates, were numbered amongst the highest ranks of government service, and fought for the interests of the Empire in the furthest stretches of its territory.
As for demographic issues, and the eternal headache of any empire&mdashseparatism in the outlying areas&mdashthe best Byzantine Emperors left as an inheritance proven methods of solving these issues for example, creating conditions for the massive resettlement of the inhabitants of centralized areas to the outlying provinces. This would quickly spark an explosion in the birth rate, and effectuate an extraordinary adaptability to the new locality in the second generation.
However, this wealth of experience was cruelly mocked and criminally disregarded in favor of foreign opinion and, finally, it was irretrievably lost!
But just what was this invasive opinion? Whose views did the Byzantines begin to value? Who was able to so influence their minds that they began to commit such suicidal mistakes, one after another? It is hard to believe that such enormous reverence and dependence could have developed with regard to that same once barbaric West, which had for centuries so enviously and greedily looked upon Byzantium's wealth, and then coldly and systematically grew fat upon its gradual dissolution.
Byzantium was a unique state which differed from both the East and the West. Everyone recognized this fact some were exhilarated by it, others hated this independence, while others felt oppressed by it. Be this as it may, Byzantium's difference from the rest of world was an objective reality. First of all, Byzantium was the only country in the world which stretched over a huge territory between Europe and Asia, and its geography was already a large contributing factor to its uniqueness. It is also a very important fact that Byzantium was a multi-national empire by nature, in which the people felt the state to be one of their highest personal treasures. This was entirely incomprehensible to the Western world, where individualism and personal self-will had already been raised to the status of sacred principle.
Byzantium's soul, and its meaning of existence, was Orthodoxy&mdashthe unspoiled confession of Christianity, in which no dogmas had changed essentially for a thousand years. The West simply could not endure such demonstrative conservatism, called it undynamic, obtuse, and limited it finally began with grim fanaticism to demand that Byzantium modernize her whole life in the Western image&mdashfirst of all in the religious, spiritual spheres, and then in intellectual and material spheres. With respect to the uniqueness and particularity of Byzantium, the West, despite its occasional raptures over Byzantine civilization, pronounced the sentence: it must all be destroyed if necessary, together with Byzantium and her spiritual inheritors.
Not a bad organ. Also invented and created in Byzantium. In the ninth century it was brought here to Western Europe, and from that time on, as you see, it has taken root.
Of course, it is senseless to say that the West was to blame for Byzantium's misfortunes and fall. The West was only pursuing its own interests, which is quite natural. Byzantium's historical blows occurred when the Byzantines themselves betrayed their own principles upon which their empire was established. These great principles were simple, and known to every Byzantine from childhood: faithfulness to God, to His eternal laws preserved in the Orthodox Church, and fearless reliance upon their own internal traditions and strengths.
For hundreds of years, Byzantine emperors both wise and not so wise, successful governors and inept commanders, saints on the throne and bloody tyrants, when faced with a fateful choice, knew that by following these two rules they ensure their Empire's ability to survive.
In the Holy Scriptures, which every Byzantine knew, this is stated very specifically: I call heaven and earth to witness before you this day: I have offered you life and death, blessing and curse. Choose life, that ye might live, and your descendents also (Deut. 30:19).
In Byzantium, after the end of the 13th century, two parties emerged&mdashone called for reliance upon the country's internal strengths&mdashto believe in them unconditionally, and to develop the country's colossal potential. It was prepared to accept Western European experience discriminately, after a serious test of time, but only in those cases where such changes would not touch the fundamental basics of the people's faith and state politics. The other party&mdashpro-Western&mdashwhose representatives pointed to the indubitable fact that Europe is developing more rapidly and successfully, began to proclaim more and more loudly that Byzantium has historically exhausted itself as a political, cultural, and religious phenomenon, and to demand a root-level re-working of all state institutions in the image of Western European countries.
Representatives of the pro-Western party, secretly, or more often, openly supported by European governments, held an undoubted victory over the imperial traditionalists. Under their guidance, a series of important reforms took place, including those economic, military, political, and finally, ideological and religious. All of these reforms ended in total collapse, and lead to such spiritual and material destruction in the Empire that it remained absolutely defenseless before its Eastern neighbor&mdashthe Turkish Sultanate.
First of all, the pro-Western party began to re-evaluate its fatherland's history, culture, and Faith. However, instead of healthy criticism, they offered only destructive self-abnegation. Everything Western was exulted, and everything of their own was held in contempt. Byzantine history was distorted, faith and tradition were mocked, and the army was degraded. The whole of Byzantium began to be painted as a sort of universal monster.
The wealthy Byzantine younger generation no longer studied in its own country, but rather left to study abroad. The best minds of Byzantine science emigrated to the West&mdashthe state ceased to give them the proper attention. Emperor Theodore II foretold, &ldquoRejected science will become our enemy and will take up arms against us. It will either consign us to destruction, or turn us into barbarians. I write this in a state of gloomy melancholy.&rdquo The Emperor's presentiment did not deceive him. During the final, fatal attack on Constantinople, a brilliant metal-casting scholar, a Hungarian named Urban, offered to create for the Emperor large artillery armaments which could sweep away the Turkish troops. But the treasury was empty, and the rich of Constantinople did not give any money. Not having received payment, the insulted Urban offered his services to Sultan Mehmed. The Sultan seized the opportunity which would give him the capability to destroy the city's invincible walls. He provided unlimited funds and began the project. Finally, the canons of Urban, the best student of the Byzantine ballistics school, decided the Empire's fate.
Western reforms in the military along Western lines had begun long before this. In Byzantium there had for many centuries existed a proven, although not always effective system called stratiotes&mdasha national regular army with mandatory service from the age of eighteen. With time, the Byzantine army underwent serious changes. An army of the new type required significant capital. The very stabilization fund of Basil II was earmarked precisely for the creation of an effective army. The fund, as we recall, was squandered, while decisions were made to totally re-vamp the army according the image of a Western professional one. At that time, the Byzantine mind was captivated by the image of Western knights, all nailed into suits of armor&mdashthe latest achievement of contemporary military industry. &ldquoMy Byzantines are like clay pots,&rdquo one emperor commented contemptuously about his warriors, &ldquobut the Western knights are like iron kettles!&rdquo To be brief, as a result of the reforms, they took apart their regular army, but never built the professional one. In the final analysis, they took the course of forming a block with the West within the framework of a new military-political union. In practice this meant that during the most critical periods of war they were forced to resort to a professional army, but not of their own&mdashto a mercenary one. What it means to have a mercenary army, how loyal and capable it is, the Byzantines learned by very bitter experience.
Attempting to rely on the West's experience, the state became more and more ineffective. Even so, they stubbornly sought salvation in a new imitation of Western examples.
The final and most devastating blow to Byzantium was the ecclesiastical union with Rome. Formally, this was the submission of the Orthodox Church to the Roman Pope for purely practically reasons. One after another aggressive attack from foreign nations forced the country to make the choice: either to rely on God and their own strengths, or to concede their age-long principles upon which their state was founded, and receive in return military and economic aide from the Latin West. And the choice was made. In 1274, Emperor Michael Paleologus decided upon a root concession to the West. For the first time in history, ambassadors from the Byzantine Emperor were sent to Lyon to accept the supremacy of the Pope of Rome.
As it turned out, the advantages the Byzantines received in exchange for their ideological concession were negligible. The pro-Western party's calculations not only were unjustified, they collapsed. The union with Rome did not continue for long. The Grecophile Pope Leo IV, who had drawn Byzantium into the Union out of better intentions, died soon after the Union was concluded, and his successor turned out to be of a completely different spirit: the interests of the Latin West were first on his list. He demanded that Byzantium change completely, that it re-make itself in the image and likeness of the West. When these changes did not happen, the Pope excommunicated his newly-baked spiritual son, Emperor Michael Paleologus, and called Europe to a new crusade against Byzantium. The Orthodox converts to Catholicism were pronounced bad Catholics. The Byzantines were supposed to get the point that the West needed only complete and unconditional religious and political submission. Not only the Pope was to be recognized as infallible, but the West itself as well.
Another terrible loss from betrayal of the Faith was the loss of trust amongst the people in the government. The Byzantines were shocked by the betrayal of their highest value&mdashOrthodoxy. They saw that it is possible for the government to play with the most important thing in life&mdashthe truths of the Faith. The meaning of the Byzantines' existence was lost. This was the final and main blow which destroyed the country. And although by far not all accepted the Union, the people's spirit was broken. In place of their former thirst for life and energetic resolve to action, there appeared a terrible general apathy and fatigue. The people no longer wanted to live.
This horror has happened during various periods in history, with various peoples, and with entire civilizations. This is how the ancient Hellenic people died out, amongst whom an inexplicable demographic crisis occurred during the first centuries A.D. People did not want to live they did not want to continue their generation. The rare families that did form often had no children. The children who were born died from a lack of parental care. Abortions became a ubiquitous practice. The darkest occult and Gnostic cults came aggressively to the forefront&mdashcults characterized by hatred for life. Suicide became one of the main causes of death amongst the population. This conscious dying out of a population has been called by science &ldquoendogenous psychosis of the I-III centuries&rdquo&mdasha mass pathology and loss of meaning for continued existence.
Something similar happened in Byzantium after the conclusion of the Union. The crisis in state ideology led to total pessimism. Spiritual and moral decline began to take over, along with unbelief, interest in astrology, and the most primitive superstitions. Alcoholism became a true scourge of the male population. A morbid interest in long-forgotten mysteries of the ancient Greeks arose. An intelligentsia fascinated with neo-paganism consciously and cynically destroyed the foundations of Christian Faith in the people. Processes of depopulation and family crises ensued. Out of the 150 Byzantine intellectuals known to us to have lived during the late 14th, early 15th centuries, only twenty-five had families of their own.
This is only a small part of what came to Byzantium due to the decision amongst the elite to sacrifice higher ideals for the sake of practical advantages. The soul collapsed in a great nation, who had given the world grandiose examples of flights of spirit, now reigned unbridled cynicism and squabbles. One Russian pilgrim wrote bitterly during the mid 14th century, &ldquoGreeks are those who have no love.&rdquo
The best minds of Byzantium watched with sorrow as the Empire gradually died, but no one heeded their warnings. The high profile statesman, Theodore Metochites, who saw no salvation for Byzantium, wept over the former greatness of the &ldquoRomans&rdquo and their &ldquoperished happiness.&rdquo He lamented the Empire &ldquowasted by illnesses, easily succumbing to every attack by its neighbors, and become the helpless victim of fate and eventuality.&rdquo
A new Union signed in Florence, in what was now a completely mad hope for help from the West, did not change a thing. For the Byzantines themselves this was a new moral blow of great magnitude. Now, not only the Emperor, but even the Holy Patriarch shared the faith of the Latins.
However, despite various hierarchs' betrayals, the Orthodox Church stood firm. &ldquoAll were against the Union,&rdquo a Byzantine historian relates.
&ldquoO, piteous Romans!&rdquo monk Gennadios Scholarios wrote prophetically from his reclusion after the signing of the Florentine Union, and fourteen years before the fall of Constantinople. &ldquoWhy have you gone astray from the right path? You have departed from hope in God and begun to hope in the might of the Franks. Together with the city, in which everything will soon be destroyed, have you apostatized from your piety? Be merciful to me, O Lord! I witness before the face of God that I am not guilty of this. Return, wretched citizens, and think about what you are doing! Together with the captivity which will soon befall us, you have apostatized from your fathers' inheritance and begun to confess dishonor. Woe to you, when God's judgment shall come upon you!&rdquo
The words of Gennadios Scholarios came true to the letter. And he himself was to carry the unbearably heavy cross of a bitter patriarchate&mdashhe became the first Orthodox patriarch in Constantinople after its fall to the Turks.
The fatal year of 1453 was approaching. In April, Sultan Mehmed, still a very young man of twenty-one, about the age of a college sophomore in todays' Istanbul, attacked Constantinople. The Sultan was absolutely delirious with the idea of taking the Romans' capital. His elder councilors-viziers, one of whom was a secret agent from Byzantium, persuaded him to cancel the attack, saying that it was too dangerous to battle on two fronts, for all were certain that battalions from Genoa and Venice would arrive any minute. But the Sultan turned out to be a disobedient pupil.
The promised help from Europe, of course, did not arrive. To the party of Westernizers in Constantinople there was also added a pro-Turkish party. Sad as it may be, there was no true Byzantine-imperial party amongst the politicians.
The Turkish party was headed by the first minister and admiral, Grand Duke Notaras. He announced for all to hear that &ldquoIt would be better to see the Turkish chalma cap ruling in the city than the Latin tiara.&rdquo A little later he, the first minister, was to fully experience just what this ruling Turkish chalma cap was actually like. When Sultan Mehmed II took the city, amidst the general pillage and wild mayhem, he decided to appoint this very Notaras as head of the city. However, when he learned that the Grand Duke had a fourteen-year-old son of rare beauty, he demanded that the son be first surrendered to his harem of boys. When the shaken Notaras refused, the Sultan commanded that both he and the boy be beheaded.
The terrible outcome was unfolding inescapably.
O Heavenly King, Comforter, Spirit of Truth, Who art everywhere present and fillest all things, treasury of good gifts and Giver of life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us of all impurity, and save our souls, O Good One.
Narrator. May 29, 1453, after a siege lasting many months and resisted heroically by the city's defense forces, the Turks were able to break through the upper wall. The defense forces, frightened, turned to flight. The last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine Paleologus, remained alone, abandoned by all. Holding his sword and shield, the Emperor exclaimed, &ldquoIs there not a Christian who might take off my head?&rdquo But there was no one to answer. The enemies surrounded him, and after a brief siege, the Turks standing behind the sovereign killed him with a knife in the back.
Modern Istanbul. The streets of the city. The chant of the muezzin.
Narrator: (walking through the city): What more is there to say. Now a completely different people are living here, with different laws and morals. The Byzantine inheritance, foreign to the invaders, was either destroyed or altered at the root. The descendents of those Greeks who were not destroyed by the conquerors were made into second class citizens in their own land, with no rights, for many long centuries.
A Western advertisement in Istanbul.
The West's vengeful hatred of Byzantium and her successors is entirely inexplicable to the West itself it goes to some deep genetic level, and&mdashas paradoxical as this may seem&mdashcontinues even to the present day. Without an understanding of this amazing but undeniable fact, we risk misunderstanding not only distant history, but event historical events of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries .
In Russia, before the revolution, serious research on Byzantium was conducted. However, the necessary conclusions were not drawn from purely theoretical knowledge&hellip. During the first decades of soviet government, research in Byzantology was cut off, and then officially banned. More than that: just in case, the Bolsheviks repressed all Byzantologists remaining in Russia only a few were able to flee abroad.
Research in Byzantology was re-opened in Russia by a decision from the highest governmental levels. In 1943, at Stalin's orders, the Institute of Byzantology was created, and a corresponding cathedra in the Moscow State University was opened. Was there no other time than 1943 to open such an institute? It is simply that the former seminarian, Joseph Dzhugashvili, finally understood from whom they should be studying history.
And the great city of Constantinople, which had oft times forgotten the ancient laws of its fathers, for which forgetfulness it did not even preserve its own name, peforms if only its final service as an instructor, to retell the story of its greatness&mdashand of the monumental fall of a great empire.
The chanting of the muezzin over Constantinople grows louder. The sound of a Russian snowstorm blends into it.
We are again before a snow-covered Russian church. With it in the background is heard the prolonged chanting of the muezzin and the snowstorm. The chanting gradually disappears. The snowstorm.
Archimandrite Tikhon (Shevkunov) 11/02/2008
Archimandrite Tikhon - "The Fall of an Empire - The Lesson of Byzantium"
Russian Greek-Orthodox Archimandrite Tikhon (born 1958 in Moscow Georgi Alexandrovich Shevkunov) studied film production before entering the clergy, and when his first work as a director and narrator was released earlier this year in &ldquoThe fall of an Empire - The Lesson of Byzantium&rdquo documentary (http://vizantia.info/docs/73.htm),it created an uproar! The film deals with the Empire&rsquos degradation and how it lost its &ldquoability to respond to the calls of history.&rdquo A Greek version has already been released and an English version is underway. Due to a reference to the Emperor Constantine as The Drunkard, not a few critics saw in the film a portrayal of the late President&rsquos Yeltsin&rsquos crumbling Russia and considered the documentary an attempt to help President Putin&rsquos hand-picked successor and current President Dmitri Medvedev win the election.
In an electronic (conducted through email) interview with NEO, his first for the Greeks in the US, Tikhon dismissed the allegations. He admitted, however, that &ldquothe analogy with Russian history was more than obvious&rdquo and that &ldquothis film arose out of my pondering over the history of Byzantium and of Russia.&rdquo Tikhon&rsquos advent in the ecclesiastical and political limelight seems to be a natural consequence of a path that has led him to become for some time now one of the most influential people in Russia. Instrumental in the reunification process that brought part of the Orthodox Church outside of Russia back to Moscow and key person in organizing President Putin&rsquos one and only historic visit to Athos (although he himself denies any connection,) Tikhon represents a new breed of leadership within the Russian Greek-Orthodox Church that takes history seriously, especially as it relates to today&rsquos reality. On the hottest point of contention in Orthodoxy today, the status of the Ukrainian Church, he points out to well-founded historical reasons that make the case so sensitive to Russians. &ldquoThis is in fact part of an old Roman Catholic project worked out during the tragic Union of Brest in the Ukraine back in the 16th century.&rdquo
Rev. Tikhon entered the Pskov-Caves Monastery as a novice in 1984 and today he is the Superior of the Moscow Sretensky Monastery, one of the most influential in the country, and Rector of the Sretensky Theological Seminary. Multi-tasked and extremely active, he is Editor-in-Chief of the Sretensky Monastery Publishing House, one of the largest in Russia, Editor-in-Chief of &ldquoPravoslavie.ru,&rdquo one of the leading Orthodox Internet sites in the country, and an Associate Member of the Russian Academy of Natural Sciences. Reminded of the upcoming 39th Biennial Clergy-Laity Congress of the Greek-American Orthodox Church (Washington DC, July 13-18, 2008,) Rev. Tikhon, who has been to the US many times, says he considers this traditional congress a model for something similar in Russia. Energetic and open to new ideas, he sees changes &ldquointo the external spheres of Church life&rdquo as inevitable, but &ldquothey must be conducted in a spiritually talented way, and not superficially, primitively, or basely. Otherwise, the Church will fatally consign itself to cruel divisions and suffering.&rdquo
How did you come up with the idea of this documentary?
When I had the opportunity to visit Constantinople for the first time two years ago, I was amazed by what I saw. Even after these many centuries, the magnitude and grandeur of a Christian empire's fall, shows through. Because the analogy with Russian history was more than obvious, I was exceedingly interested as to how this extraordinarily vital, capable, and enlightened empire, far surpassing all other nations of its time, suddenly lost its life forces and finally collapsed. Why did this great nation, enlightened with the light of the Gospels, lose its historical home to another, more primitive state and people? This film arose out of my pondering over the history of Byzantium and of Russia. Work on this film went on for a year and a half. The idea consisted in showing the process and causes of degradation, how the Empire lost its ability to respond to the calls of history. This was the main subject of my research, and attention was paid first of all to those historical facts connected with this matter.
In this country, during the last decade mostly, we have witnessed the meddling of certain Christian sects in partisan politics putting in danger the separation of Church and state and compromising, sometimes irrevocably, Christianity&rsquos integrity. Is there a similar situation in Russia? In fact, you have been accused of doing so by releasing the film right before the Russian presidential election.
Yes, such accusations were directed at the film. However, some said that the film supported Putin's successor, while others said that it was aimed against him. I pay no attention to such criticism.
There was criticism that the film modernized Byzantine history by introducing such terms as &ldquooligarchs&rdquo and &ldquocorrupt politicians.&rdquo Yes, this is true. History was consciously reconstructed to our contemporary reality, and terminology was used with a large audience in mind. Nevertheless, all the facts presented in the film are absolutely true. Or, for example, there was criticism that nothing was said about the overblown Western concept of &ldquobyzantine deceitfulness.&rdquo There was an obvious attempt by the Western Europeans after the vicious fourth Crusade to accuse their victims, the Greeks, in order to justify themselves. It would be more appropriate to speak of how the motives and behavior of a highly developed Byzantine state were rarely fully understood by the simpler inhabitants of Medieval Western Europe, just as the inhabitants of a large city seem cunning to a simple country boy.
Archbishop Demetrios of America, during his recent visit to Russia, spoke of the &ldquounchurched people&rdquo in the US and in other western societies. Can today&rsquos Orthodoxy appeal to them, is our Church able to &ldquospeak their language,&rdquo to offer a spiritual and yet realistic alternative?
After 80 years of militant atheism, Russians have gained unique experience not only in preserving Orthodoxy under the conditions of a totalitarian state, but also of an active contemporary Orthodox mission within one's own nation, in a society which is often called &ldquopost-Christian.&rdquo The main bearers of Orthodox spirit were the new martyrs and confessors of Russia. Amongst those confessors were those who have lived even to our own days. One of these was my spiritual father, Archimandrite John (Krestiankin), who lived through the Stalinist camps. He remained unbroken, and was an example of the greatest Christian love and faith to the end of his life. He also had an amazing gift of discernment, which the Holy Fathers call the crown of spiritual ascetic life. His remarkable pastoral letters were recently published (they have also been translated into English,) and were distributed throughout Russia by the thousands. The problem of missionary work in the contemporary Russian Church is of the utmost importance. I can say that we are gradually finding the right language of communication with the modern, ecclesiastically uneducated individual, to which the million-fold printings of our missionary apologetic brochures and books can testify. In Sretensky Monastery, which is located in the center of Moscow, half of the parishioners are under 40 years of age. They are high school and elementary school students, government officials, scholars, public servants, workers, and cultural activists. Answering to the last part of your question, I will say that for these people, a spiritual and realistic alternative to the corrupt secular world which is increasingly senseless without God are the Gospels and Holy Fathers, as they have been throughout all times.
Many of those &ldquounchurched people&rdquo and many of the &ldquochurched&rdquo as well, resort to kinds of New Age &ldquospiritual&rdquo options that we thought gone forever. Magicians, astrologists, fortune-tellers, wizards are in vogue, a phenomenon reminiscent of Europe&rsquos Dark Ages. Does there exist a void that established religions are not filling and does the religious version of Orthodoxy fall in the same category?
We ran up against this problem in the beginning of the &lsquo90&rsquos, but in general, this is nothing new. The same thing happened in Byzantium, especially during its period of decline. The spectrum was very broad: from the sophisticated pagan teachings of Gemistos Plithon to the most crude and blasphemous superstitions. In Russia today, we have with God's help been able to convince our flock of the incompatibility of any kind of superstition with life in the Church. Although of course this sickness flares up here and there, it is localized, while the Church as a whole does not suffer from it.
People say that Orthodoxy, with all its beauty and transcendental qualities, is antiquated in many ways. It seems to have stopped developing a couple of centuries ago, resembling the Amish in that sense. On the other hand, efforts to modernize it are greeted with suspicion and hostility. As a new generation clergyman &ndash and a very talented film director, I should add &ndash what are your thoughts on this vital question?
We have firmly assimilated from the great Greek Fathers the teaching of the eternally young Church. Russia is now in a period when a huge number of people are entering the Church, especially young and educated people. The Russian Athonite Elder Silhouan wrote about this back in the 1930's. He spoke of the future of Russia, that there would come a time when mostly educated people would be coming to God.
As for the modernization of Orthodoxy (I will emphasize that this concerns only the ritual side of the Church and not Evangelical and Patristic side,) that life and times are bound to introduce their necessary changes into the external spheres of Church life. The most important thing is that those reforms be truly necessary to life and introduced with love for Orthodoxy, and not with high-minded contempt for &ldquoroutine and Orthodox limitation.&rdquo Another very important point is that these changes be conducted in a spiritually talented way, and not superficially, primitively, or basely. Otherwise, the Church will fatally consign itself to cruel divisions and suffering.
Although you don&rsquot belong to any &ldquoanti-Hellenic&rdquo group within the Russian Greek-Orthodox Church, certain points in your documentary can be rendered as hostile to Hellenism. In your opinion, can there be an Orthodox Catholic and Apostolic Church without the Greek &ndash spirited Church Fathers and the Hellenic tradition in which they and the early church was steeped in?
I must admit that this is the first I have heard of an &ldquoanti-Hellenic&rdquo group in the Russian Church. The vast majority of Russians have always related to the Greek Church as to their spiritual mother, toward whom we feel sincere love and reverence. Greek Holy Fathers and ascetics of piety, from St. John Chrysotom to St. Paisius the Athonite are published in Russian by the hundreds of thousands of copies. Very many students of theological institutions study the ancient and Modern Greek language. The Russian Church is penetrated with Greek spiritual patristic tradition. As for the film, the subject of the sad phenomenon of neo-paganism which arose amongst the Greeks in Byzantium does in fact come up in the context of understanding the many causes underlying the Empire's collapse, especially during the final century of its existence. This is an important subject for Modern Russia, because neo-paganism is raising his ugly head here as well. It is stated that, by force of many factors, Byzantium, in the person of its ruling elite, gradually denied its own governmental and spiritual foundations and traditions, and later its Divine calling. Similar processes have taken place in Russia, and it is very important for us to see the consequences of these processes in history. It is stated in the film that Greek nationalism did a great disservice to the Empire at one point, making enemies out of former friends. This same thing is happening, unfortunately, in Russia. But these sad historical facts should help us to think about our contemporary life. As the Russian historian Kliuchevsky said, &ldquohistory is not a kind, old teacher, but a stern instructor it does not ask about lessons, but it cruelly avenges their negligence.&rdquo
Russian and other eastern European churches have suffered and are suffering from the activities of Uniats, a very treacherous process sanctioned by the Vatican, in which appearances are kept intact while the Faith is essentially compromised. This is one of the major obstacles in the dialogue &ndash really, what kind of a dialogue can you sustain with someone who claims to be infallible &ndash between the schismatic Rome and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. What is your take on that?
I will return once again to the film. Many critics reproach the film as being &ldquoanti-Western.&rdquo This is not true. Two things are very clearly stated about the Roman Catholic West: &ldquoOf course, it is senseless to say that the West was to blame for Byzantium&rsquos misfortunes and fall. The West was only pursuing its own interests, which is quite natural. Byzantium&rsquos historical blows occurred when the Byzantines themselves betrayed their own principles upon which their empire was established . The Byzantines were supposed to get the point that the West needed only complete and unconditional religious and political submission. Not only the Pope was to be recognized as infallible, but the West itself as well.&rdquo These two postulates&mdashthe exclusiveness of their own interests and their infallibility, as it seems to me, remain unchanged in the Vatican's policies even now. It would be naïve at the least not to take these two basics constants of Roman Catholicism into consideration. As for the Uniates, those who now talk today, for example, about autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church, forget that this is in fact part of an old Roman Catholic project worked out during the tragic Union of Brest in the Ukraine back in the 16th century. Later, the leader of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholics, Metropolitan Andrei Sheptitsky, wrote in his letter to Emperor Franz Joseph in 1914 that, in order to make the Ukraine Roman Catholic, it is necessary to separate it from the Russian Church, create a &ldquoKiev-Galich Orthodox Patriarchate&rdquo and then, soon afterwards, transfer it to the &ldquobosom of the Catholic Church&rdquo through the Uniate process. Of course, one could say to me in the words of Heraclitus, that &ldquoyou can't go down the same river twice.&rdquo This is true, of course. But you can easily jump into one and the same puddle.
What message would you like to convey to the American Greek-Orthodox people as this year&rsquos Clergy-Laity Congress is about to commence?
Much of what is important to me and many priests in the Russian Church has already been mentioned in this discussion. I would only like to add that our experience of life and witness of the Church during the era of a totalitarian regime belongs not only to us, but to the entire Orthodox Church. Your experience of the Church's existence in a pluralistic society is very important to us, as is your experience of pastoral service. For example, we do not have such annual conferences of clergy and laypeople as you have in America. It would be extremely interesting and important for us to take on this tradition and experience. Greek Orthodoxy has always been for Russia not only an instructor, but also a special spiritual orientation. Thus do we highly value our spiritual unity in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in His Holy Church.
At what point can we say that Anatolia was forever 'lost' to the Byzantines?
If we can point to a general period in which "turkification" (if it had indeed occured) was set in stone in inner Anatolia so that even if the Byzantine Empire were to retake it from the Turks, it would find that the residents would not speak Greek and practice Orthodox Christianity?
I would assume that at least in times of Alexios I, most of Anatolia must have been "Greek"- but was it irreversible by the time of Manuel Komnenos??
And also an unrelated question, but how much control did the Byzantine Empire have in the Komnenian era of their "reconquests" in coastal Anatolia, Cilicia, Bulgaria and the Balkans? Were they just nominal suzerainty or was it controlled by Constantinople so that a central governor would be sent to the provinces and actually govern them?
There were sizable Greek populations in Anatolia until after World War I, and in 1919 Greece attempted to invade Anatolia and annex most of the coast.
Therefore, while greeks haven't had political sovereignty for a long time in Anatolia, influential Greeks thought they had a serious shot at getting anatolia back as recently as the early 20th century.
Well more specifically they wanted to take Izmir (Smyrna) and the surrounding region, not the interior of Anatolia, which had been more or less "Turkified" since at least the 16th century. Major urban centers might still have had Ottoman Greeks living in them, such as Izmir, but the country side, in Anatolia had become a syncretic mix of Turks and Greeks, and we can see that in the Turkish beyliks that came to control these coastal areas such as Candar, Saruhan, Mentese and later on the ever expanding Ottoman beylik.
If we can point to a general period in which "turkification" (if it had indeed occured) was set in stone in inner Anatolia so that even if the Byzantine Empire were to retake it from the Turks, it would find that the residents would not speak Greek and practice Orthodox Christianity?
The long process of Turkification really began at the death of Emperor Basil II in 1025. During his reign, a grand bulwark of defenses were set up in Armenia to prevent the majority of the Turks from streaming into the heartlands of the Empire. Basil insisted that these borders be heavily manned, or else the Empire was to fall into ruin. Unfortunately, whether due to "incompetence or sloth", his successors failed to follow through with these wise military plans. Although raids from Arab and Turkish riders had been common in centuries past, these were never able to establish any real permanent settlements in historically Roman Asia Minor, and so, Basil's successors never really thought that they were any serious threat to the stability of the heartland of the Empire.
This all changed with Manzikert. When the Imperial army was destroyed in AD 1071, there was virtually no one left to check the Turkish advance. In just 10 years, the Turks overran Anatolia and occupied Chrysopolis, across from Constantinople. During this time, many of the Byzantine people who resided in these lands were either killed, converted, or fled for their lives. This mass depopulation of Byzantine Anatolians, as well as the Turkish desire to emulate the Byzantines by establishing the aptly-named Sultanate of Rûm and the capital at the old Byzantine city of Iconium, was what allowed them to concentrate their power and supplant historically Byzantine Orthodox populations there.
I would assume that at least in times of Alexios I, most of Anatolia must have been "Greek"- but was it irreversible by the time of Manuel Komnenos??
Upon Alexios' accession in AD 1081, almost all of Anatolia had been overrun by the Turks and was in the process of being transformed. Only a select few coastal cities remained firmly in Byzantine hands. Essentially, at this point, the Empire was confined to its historical "Western" provinces in the Aegean and the Balkans. When the Byzantine-Crusader armies arrive over 15 years later, the process of Turkification was already in full swing.
By the time of Manuel I Komnenos, the Komnenian Emperors had succeeded in exerting military control over most of Anatolia, and it is perhaps possible that Byzantine Greeks began returning to the historically Byzantine cities. However, there would have still been fear of Turkish raids, since not all of Anatolia was firmly under Byzantine control. Much of the center of Asia Minor was still in the hands of the Turks, and they made sure not to allow the Komnenians to easily take their lands back.
Overall, though, I wouldn't say that it was irreversible. The Komnenians, especially John, were able to establish a steady history of military success and recolonization, allowing the Empire to regain lost territories. John's untimely death, however, ensured that this was not fully realized. Manuel, while a great leader, seems to have neglected the diminished threat of the Turks in favor of more grandiose plans, such as retaking Italy and Egypt. While he actually might have succeeded with these plans had things gone slightly differently, in the end, these actions weakened the Empire's position. When Manuel finally turned his eyes to the Turks in the 1160s, it was perhaps too late. The Battle of Myriokephalon in AD 1176 was really the last chance for the Empire to decisively drive the Turks from Asia Minor once and for all, but poor scouting and the Emperor's own hubris ensured that what could have been a certain victory was turned into a demoralizing defeat. Manuel's untimely death shortly thereafter in AD 1180 was the nail in the coffin for a true restoration of the old Byzantine Empire under Basil II.
And also an unrelated question, but how much control did the Byzantine Empire have in the Komnenian era of their "reconquests" in coastal Anatolia, Cilicia, Bulgaria and the Balkans? Were they just nominal suzerainty or was it controlled by Constantinople so that a central governor would be sent to the provinces and actually govern them?
Many of Manuel's holdings were fully integrated into the Empire on an administrative level, but they retained much of their cultural identity, and many of them had been gained through marriage alliances. Unfortunately, the Komnenian system, while effective, required the majesty of a powerful Emperor to function, so, when Manuel died in AD 1180, and without a strong heir (Alexios II was only a child) many of the holdings that he controlled rebelled and formed their own independent entities.
Justinian's Plague (541-542 CE)
During the reign of the emperor Justinian I (527-565 CE), one of the worst outbreaks of the plague took place, claiming the lives of millions of people. The plague arrived in Constantinople in 542 CE, almost a year after the disease first made its appearance in the outer provinces of the empire. The outbreak continued to sweep throughout the Mediterranean world for another 225 years, finally disappearing in 750 CE.
Plague Origination & Transmission
Originating in China and northeast India, the plague (Yersinia pestis) was carried to the Great Lakes region of Africa via overland and sea trade routes. The point of origin for Justinian's plague was Egypt. The Byzantine historian Procopius of Caesarea (500-565 CE) identified the beginning of the plague in Pelusium on the Nile River's northern and eastern shores. According to Wendy Orent, author of Plague, the disease spread in two directions: north to Alexandria and east to Palestine.
The means of transmission of the plague was the black rat (Rattus rattus), which traveled on the grain ships and carts sent to Constantinople as tribute. North Africa, in the 8th century CE, was the primary source of grain for the empire, along with a number of different commodities including paper, oil, ivory, and slaves. Stored in vast warehouses, the grain provided a perfect breeding ground for the fleas and rats, crucial to the transmission of plague. William Rosen, in Justinian's Flea, contends that while rats are known to eat just about anything (including vegetable matter and small animals), grain is their favorite meal. Rosen further observes that rats generally do not travel more than 200 meters from their birthplaces over the course of their lifetimes. However, once aboard the grain boats and carts, the rats were carried throughout the empire.
According to historian Colin Barras, Procopius recorded the climatic changes taking place in southern Italy during the period: unusual incidents of snow and frost in the midst of summer below average temperatures and a decrease of sunshine. So began a decades-long cold snap accompanied by social disruptions, war, and the first recorded outbreak of the plague. The colder than usual weather affected crop harvests, leading to food shortages that resulted in the movements of people throughout the region. Accompanying these reluctant migrants were plague-infected, flea-ridden rats. Cold, tired, hungry people on the go, combined with illness and disease in the midst of warfare, as well as an increased rat population carrying a highly infectious disease, created the perfect conditions for an epidemic. And what an epidemic it would be: named after the Byzantine emperor Justinian I (482-565 CE emperorship 527-565 CE), Justinian's plague affected nearly half the population of Europe.
TYPES OF PLAGUE & SYMPTOMS
Based upon DNA analysis of bones found in graves, the type of plague that struck the Byzantine Empire during the reign of Justinian was bubonic (Yersinia pestis), although it was very probable that the other two types of plague, pneumonic and septicemic, were also present. It was also bubonic plague which would devastate 14th-century CE Europe (better known as the Black Death), killing upwards of 50 million people or nearly half the entire population of the continent. Plague was not new to history even in the time of Justinian. Wendy Orent suggests that the first recorded account of bubonic plague is told in the Old Testament in the story of the Philistines who stole the Ark of the Covenant from the Israelites and succumbed to “swellings.”
Procopius, in his Secret History, describes victims as suffering from delusions, nightmares, fevers and swellings in the groin, armpits, and behind their ears. Procopius recounts that, while some sufferers lapsed into comas, others became highly delusional. Many victims suffered for days before death, while others died almost immediately after the onset of symptoms. Procopius' description of the disease almost certainly confirms the presence of bubonic plague as the main culprit of the outbreak. He laid blame for the outbreak on the emperor, declaring Justinian to be either a devil or that the emperor was being punished by God for his evil ways.
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The Spread of the Plague through the Byzantine Empire
War and trade facilitated the spread of the disease throughout the Byzantine Empire. Justinian spent the early years of his reign defeating a variety of enemies: battling Ostrogoths for control over Italy fighting Vandals and Berbers for control in North Africa and fending off Franks, Slavs, Avars, and other barbarian tribes engaged in raids against the empire. Historians have suggested that soldiers, and the supply trains supporting their military efforts, acted as the means of transmission for the rats and fleas carrying the plague. By 542 CE, Justinian had re-conquered most of his empire but, as Wendy Orent points out, peace, prosperity, and commerce also provided appropriate conditions for facilitating a plague outbreak. Constantinople, the political capital of the eastern Roman Empire, doubled as the center of commercial trade for the empire. The capital's location along the Black and Aegean seas made it the perfect crossroads for trade routes from China, the Middle East, and North Africa. Where trade and commerce went, so went rats, fleas, and the plague.
Wendy Orent chronicles the course of the disease. Following the established trade routes of the empire, the plague moved from Ethiopia to Egypt and then throughout the Mediterranean region. The disease penetrated neither northern Europe nor the countryside, suggesting the black rat was the primary carrier of the infected flea as the rats kept close to the ports and ships. The outbreak lasted about four months in Constantinople but would continue to persist for roughly the next three centuries, with the last outbreak reported in 750 CE. There would be no more large-scale outbreaks of plague until the 14th century CE Black Death episode.
The plague was so widespread that no one was safe even the emperor caught the disease, though he did not die. Dead bodies littered the streets of the capital. Justinian ordered troops to assist in the disposal of the dead. Once the graveyards and tombs were filled, burial pits and trenches were dug to handle the overflow. Bodies were disposed of in buildings, dumped into the sea, and placed on boats for burials at sea. And it was not just humans who were affected: animals of all types, including cats and dogs, perished and required proper disposal.
Once affected, people had two courses of action: treatment by medical personnel or home remedies. William Rosen identifies the medical personnel as primarily trained physicians. Many of the physicians engaged in a four-year course of study taught by trained practitioners (iastrophists) at Alexandria, then the premier center for medical training. The education received by the students primarily centered on the teachings of the Greek physician Galen (129-217 CE), who was influenced in his understanding of disease by the concept of humorism, a medical system which relied on the treatment of disease based upon bodily fluids, known as "humors".
Lacking access to one of the types of physicians—court, public, private—people often turned to home remedies. Rosen identifies various approaches people took towards treating the plague including cold-water baths, powders “blessed” by saints, magic amulets & rings, and various drugs, especially alkaloids. Failing all the previous approaches to treatment, people turned to hospitals or found themselves subject to quarantining. Those who did survive were credited, according to Rosen, with “good fortune, strong underlying health and an uncompromised immune system”.
Effects on the Byzantine Empire
The plague episode contributed to a weakening of the Byzantine Empire in political and economic ways. As the disease spread throughout the Mediterranean world, the empire's ability to resist its enemies weakened. By 568 CE, the Lombards successfully invaded northern Italy and defeated the small Byzantine garrison, leading to the fracturing of the Italian peninsula, which remained divided and split until re-unification in the 19th century CE. In the Roman provinces of North Africa and the Near East, the empire was unable to stem the encroachment of Arabs. The decreased size, and the inability of the Byzantine army to resist outside forces, was largely due to its inability to recruit and train new volunteers due to the spread of illness and death. The decrease in the population not only impacted the military and the empire's defenses, but the economic and administrative structures of the empire began to collapse or disappear.
Trade throughout the empire became disrupted. In particular, the agricultural sector was devastated. Less people meant fewer farmers who produced less grain causing prices to soar and tax revenues to decline. The near collapse of the economic system did not dissuade Justinian from demanding the same level of taxes from his decimated population. In his determination to recreate the former might of the Roman Empire, the emperor continued to wage wars against the Goths in Italy and the Vandals at Carthage lest his empire disintegrate. The emperor also remained committed to a series of public work and church construction projects in the capital including the building of the Hagia Sophia.
Procopius reported in his Secret History of nearly 10,000 deaths per day afflicting Constantinople. His accuracy has been questioned by modern historians who estimate 5,000 deaths per day in the capital city. Nonetheless, 20-40% of the inhabitants of Constantinople would eventually perish from the disease. Throughout the rest of the empire, nearly 25% of the population died with estimates ranging from 25-50 million people in total.
Fall of Constantinople
Taking place on May 29, 1453, this turning point in European history marked the final conquest of the Eastern Roman or Byzantine Empire by the Ottoman Turkish Empire, a domain that covered territory in southeastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and North Africa. Since the capture of Constantinople, the ancient capital of the Byzantine Empire, by members of the Fourth Crusade in 1204, the city and the realm had suffered a slow decline as the Ottoman Turks stepped up their attacks on Byzantine cities and ports in the Levant and Asia Minor. By the turn of the fifteenth century the Turks had built a stronghold on the southern side of the Bosporus, the strait dividing Constantinople from Asia Minor proper. The Ottoman sultan, Mehmed II, established another fortress on the European side of the Bosporus to prevent reinforcements from reaching the city from allied Black Sea ports.
As the Turkish siege began, Constantine sent for help to the nations of western Europe. But the division between the Latin and Greek (eastern) Christian churches, dating to the Eastern Schism of 1054, persuaded the pope and many Christian kings to ignore the urgent pleas. Europe had also been weakened by centuries of fighting and civil war, with the Hundred Years'War between England and France still burning in its final years.
Constantinople was protected by a ring of walls on both the land and the seacoast, but its defenders numbered only about ten thousand in the face of an enemy that, by some accounts, had as many as three hundred thousand men as well as a fleet of several hundred ships attacking from the waters of the Bosporus. Mehmed drew up his forces in early April and began a heavy cannonade of the walls on the western side of the city. A large boom placed by the Byzantines across the entrance to the Golden Horn, a waterway on the northern side of Constantinople, prevented Turkish ships from attacking on this front to counter this Mehmed ordered a row of logs set down on which his ships could be rolled forward to block resupply of the city from the north. Meanwhile, Turkish sappers dug tunnels underneath the walls in order to penetrate and sabotage the city defenses the Greeks counterattacked by digging their own tunnels and sending troops into them to fight hand to hand.
The final assault took place on May 29 in several waves of troops that attacked the western wall at its weakest points. The Turks found an unlocked gate and rushed into the city, and in the melee that followed Constantine XI died. The Turks renamed the city Istanbul and converted the Hagia Sophia, the great cathedral built under the Byantine emperor Justinian, into the mosque. The last Byzantine strongholds in Greece were conquered in 1460. Istanbul remained the capital of the Ottoman Empire until this state was dissolved after World War I.
At what point was the Byzantine Empire's decline irreversible? - History
The Byzantine Empire, sometimes referred to as the Eastern Roman Empire, was the continuation of the Roman Empire in the east during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, when its capital city was Constantinople (modern-day Istanbul, originally founded as Byzantium ). It survived the fragmentation and fall of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE, and continued to exist for an additional thousand years until it fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. During most of its existence, the empire was the most powerful economic, cultural, and military force in Europe. Both “Byzantine Empire” and “Eastern Roman Empire” are historiographical terms created after the end of the realm its citizens continued to refer to their empire as the Roman Empire, and thought of themselves as Romans. Although the people living in the Eastern Roman Empire referred to themselves as Romans, they were distinguished by their Greek heritage, Orthodox Christianity, and their regional connections. Over time, the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire transformed. Greek replaced Latin as the language of the empire. Christianity became more important in daily life, although the culture’s pagan Roman past still exerted an influence.
Several signal events from the 4th to 6th centuries mark the period of transition during which the Roman Empire’s Greek east and Latin west divided. Constantine I (r. 324-337) reorganized the empire, made Constantinople the new capital, and legalized Christianity. Under Theodosius I (r. 379-395), Christianity became the empire’s official state religion, and other religious practices were proscribed. Finally, under the reign of Heraclius (r. 610-641), the empire’s military and administration were restructured and adopted Greek for official use instead of Latin. Thus, although the Roman state continued and Roman state traditions were maintained, modern historians distinguish Byzantium from ancient Rome insofar as it was centered on Constantinople, oriented towards Greek rather than Latin culture, and characterized by Orthodox Christianity.
Just as the Byzantine Empire represented the political continuation of the Roman Empire, Byzantine art and culture developed directly out of the art of the Roman Empire, which was itself profoundly influenced by ancient Greek art. Byzantine art never lost sight of this classical heritage. For example, the Byzantine capital, Constantinople, was adorned with a large number of classical sculptures, although they eventually became an object of some puzzlement for its inhabitants. And indeed, the art produced during the Byzantine Empire, although marked by periodic revivals of a classical aesthetic, was above all marked by the development of a new aesthetic. Thus, although the Byzantine Empire had a multi-ethnic character during most of its history, and preserved Romano-Hellenistic traditions, it became identified by its western and northern contemporaries with its increasingly predominant Greek element and its own unique cultural developments.
Map of Constantinople: A map of Constantinople, the capital and founding city of the Byzantine Empire, drawn in 1422 CE by Florentine cartographer Cristoforo Buondelmonti. This is the oldest surviving map of the city and the only one that predates the Turkish conquest of the city in 1453 CE.
The first use of the term “Byzantine” to label the later years of the Roman Empire was in 1557, when the German historian Hieronymus Wolf published his work, Corpus Historiæ Byzantinæ, a collection of historical sources. The term comes from “Byzantium,” the name of the city of Constantinople before it became Constantine’s capital. This older name of the city would rarely be used from this point onward except in historical or poetic contexts. However, it was not until the mid-19th century that the term came into general use in the western world calling it the “Byzantine Empire” helped to emphasize its differences from the earlier Latin-speaking Roman Empire, centered on Rome.
The term “Byzantine” was also useful to the many western European states that also claimed to be the true successors of the Roman Empire, as it was used to delegitimize the claims of the Byzantines as true Romans. In modern times, the term “Byzantine” has also come to have a pejorative sense, used to describe things that are overly complex or arcane. “Byzantine diplomacy” has come to mean excess use of trickery and behind-the-scenes manipulation. These are all based on medieval stereotypes about the Byzantine Empire that developed as western Europeans came into contact with the Byzantines, and were perplexed by their more structured government.
No such distinction existed in the Islamic and Slavic worlds, where the empire was more straightforwardly seen as the continuation of the Roman Empire. In the Islamic world, the Roman Empire was known primarily as Rûm. The name millet-i Rûm, or “Roman nation,” was used by the Ottomans through the 20th century to refer to the former subjects of the Byzantine Empire, that is, the Orthodox Christian community within Ottoman realms.
At what point was the Byzantine Empire's decline irreversible? - History
Byzantium is the name given to both the state and the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire in the middle ages. Both the state and the inhabitants always called themselves Roman, as did most of their neighbors. Western Europeans, who had their own Roman Empire called them Orientals or Greeks, and later following the example of the great French scholar DuCange, Byzantines after the former name of the Empire's capital city, Constantinople.
These names give witness to the composite nature of Byzantium. It was, without any doubt, the continuation of the Roman state, and until the seventh century, preserved the basic structures of Late Roman Mediterranean civic culture: - a large multi-ethnic Christian state, based on a network of urban centers, and defended by a mobile specialized army. After the Arab/Muslim conquest of Egypt and Syria, the nature of the state and culture was transformed. Byzantium became much more a Greek state [perhaps best seen in the emperor Heraklios' adoption of the Greek title Basileus], all the cities except Constantinople faded away to small fortified centers, and the military organization of the empire came to be based on a series of local armies. There is then a persistent ambiguity about the beginning of Byzantine history - between the building of Constantinople by Constantine I and the mid-7th century collapse of late antique urban culture.
The seventh to ninth centuries are generally accounted a low point of Byzantine history. Little literature - even saints' lives - survives, and even less art. The period is studied above all for the history of the struggle over icons. This Iconoclastic Controversy bears witness to a continued intellectual vitality, and the emergence of one of history's most sophisticated analyses of the nature and function of art. Under the Macedonian Dynasty [867-1056], Byzantium's political power reached its apogee as former territories were incorporated in the Empire, and an element of multi-ethnicity was restored. This period is also significant as the time in which Byzantine culture was spread among the Slavs and other Balkan peoples. Following massive Turkish attacks in the late eleventh century, the Empire was able to maintain a lesser but still significant political and military power under the Komnenian Dynasty: the cost was a social transformation which exalted a powerful military aristocracy, and gradually enserfed the previously free peasantry. In 1204, internal Byzantine politics and the resurgent West, effectively ended the imperial pretensions of the Byzantine state. The Fourth Crusade  succeeded in conquering Constantinople and making it a Latin principality for half a century. The Greek political leadership, under the Palaiologan Dynasty regained Constantinople in 1261, but the "empire" was just one state among many in the area for the final 200 years of its existence. Strangely, this period was among the most culturally productive, in art, in theology, and in literature.
It would be wrong then to present the later history of Byzantium as a "thousand year history of decline", leading inevitably to its conquest by the Ottoman Turks on Tuesday 29th May 1453. This perception, promoted disastrously by the English historian Edward Gibbon, reflects the origins in the classical studies of Byzantine studies. The classic periods of ancient cultures [the fifth and fourth centuries BCE in Greece and the late republican/early imperial period in Rome] have long appealed to modern Western sensibilities because - as times of rapid change and innovation in art and literature - echoes and origins of the present have been seen there. In comparison, Byzantine political culture changed slowly, and continuity was valued over change. Furthermore, classical secularism, so attractive to Renaissance and Enlightenment scholars, had no place in Byzantine thought worlds. As a result Byzantine culture was subjected to centuries of abuse as a time of barbarism and superstition.
The counterpart to the dismissal of Byzantine culture was its exaltation by 19th-century Romanticism, and by a substrate of Christian, especially Anglican, intellectuals. [Even now Anglican seminaries are good places to locate books on Byzantine studies.] Byzantium was also "claimed" by some Orthodox Christian intellectuals. The result was that, after having been demeaned by the Enlightenment, Byzantium acquired defenders, but defenders who concentrated equally on the culture's religious aspects. Far from calm scholarship, Byzantine studies has ever been a locus of contestation, of defamers and champions.
A third important strand of Byzantine studies has been the Marxist contribution. Marxist historians are often derided, especially in the United States, for fitting facts to theory [as if they alone were guilty of this!] In Byzantium, especially in the agricultural laws of the tenth century, which were presented at the time as addressing a struggle of the "poor" and the "powerful". Marxists saw a prime example of the beginning of "feudalism". While perhaps pushing some interpretations too hard, the Marxist tradition remains valuable in affirming a secular aspect of Byzantine culture.
Currently, Byzantine studies, reflecting its classical heritage, is still much more dominated by philological and art historical concerns than Western medieval history. Still, there are interesting transformations evident. The French Annales School, represented by such scholars as Helene Ahrweiler and Evelyne Patlagean has applied the specific social, cliometric and "long duree" methodologies to Byzantine studies with some gusto. Purely social history, without a Marxist slant, is now well established, with Angeliki Laiou among the most productive writers. The Russian Byzantinist Alexander Kazhdan was responsible for a whole variety of initiatives, including a willingness to study religious phenomena in secular perspective. Finally, and much later than in other areas of historical study, the history of women is now coming to the fore.
Byzantine civilization constitutes a major world culture. Because of its unique position as the medieval continuation of the Roman State, it has tended to be dismissed by classicists and ignored by Western medievalists. Its internal elite culture was archaicizing and perhaps pessimistic. But we should not be deceived. As the centrally located culture, and by far the most stable state, of the Medieval period, Byzantium is of major interest both in itself, and because the development and late history of Western European, Slavic and Islamic cultures are not comprehensible without taking it into consideration. While few would claim elevated status for much Byzantine literature [although its historiographical tradition is matched only by China's], in its art and architecture, Byzantine culture was genuinely, and despite itself, innovative and capable of producing works of great beauty. As an area of study, as I have tried to indicate here, Byzantine studies is complex, full of conflict, and still open to new questions and methods.
Byzantine Studies Syllabi
Still fairly sparse. If you have a syllabus for a Byzantine related history or art course, please consider letting it be made widely available here.
Byzantine Studies Course Outlines
A page for more extended class by class descriptions of Byzantine studies courses.
Basic Reference Documents on Byzantine Culture
Includes date lists for Byzantine emperors, patriarchs of all five great sees and a guide to the Byzantine historiographical tradition. Now contains Byzantine Sources in Translation - a listing of Byzantine sources translated into Western European languages.
Bibliographic Guides in Byzantine Studies
Extensive bibliographies already available include: Byzantine Sources, the Paleologan Period, Saints Lives in Translation, Byzantium in Modern Fiction, and more. See also the Reference Documents page.
Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Byzantine Sources Page
This a huge collection of full and excerpted texts in translation for Byzantine and Medieval studies. If you have any translations, or non-copyrighted etext versions, of Byzantine sources, please consider letting them be placed here.
Internet Medieval Sourcebook: Saints' Lives
A Specialized text collection of Byzantine and Western saints' Lives, along with other hagiographical resources.
A guide to Byzantine manuscript sources, with examples, images, letter form tables, abbreviation tables, scholarly aides, annotated bibliographies, and links to other paleography sites.
Byzantine Studies Articles
Links to secondary articles in Byzantine studies.
Gallery: Images Available at this and Other Sites
Gallery contains links to an array of Byzantine art, religious and historical images available on the net. The version with inline thumbnail images, which never worked, has been removed.
This page contains links to information about Byzantine music, as well as links to a variety of sound files.
Links to Other Sites
This is a useful link to follow. Now much pruned it links to major Internet sites to do with Byzantine culture as well as and links a very select set of sites useful for Ancient, Late Antique, Western Medieval, and Middle Eastern history and culture.
The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is located at the History Department of Fordham University, New York. The Internet Medieval Sourcebook, and other medieval components of the project, are located at the Fordham University Center for Medieval Studies.The IHSP recognizes the contribution of Fordham University, the Fordham University History Department, and the Fordham Center for Medieval Studies in providing web space and server support for the project. The IHSP is a project independent of Fordham University. Although the IHSP seeks to follow all applicable copyright law, Fordham University is not the institutional owner, and is not liable as the result of any legal action.
© Site Concept and Design: Paul Halsall created 26 Jan 1996: latest revision 20 Janurayl 2021 [CV]
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Great pretender? Barack Obama seems a modern incarnation of a line of ambitious imperatores whose powers are all too mortal.
When did the Roman empire end? It is still possible to find history books that give a very precise answer to this question. The curtain came down on the Roman empire, so it is usually claimed, on 4 September 476, when a young man by the name of Romulus Augustulus was formally stripped of the imperial purple by a Gothic chieftain and packed off to retirement near Naples. The accident of his name, in this particular version of Rome’s fall, provides the perfect bookend to a thousand years and more of the Roman story. Romulus, after all, had been the founder of the Eternal City, Augustus her first emperor. Now, with the deposition of Augustulus – “the little Augustus” – the line of emperors had come to an end. The light-switch had been turned off. Antiquity was over the Dark Ages had begun.
In fact, in almost every way that it can be, dating the fall of the Roman empire to a particular day in 476 is wrong. On the most pedantic level, the title “last Roman emperor of the west” should properly belong not to Romulus Augustulus at all, but to a Balkan warlord, named Julius Nepos, who was murdered in 480. Meanwhile, in Rome itself, life carried on pretty much as normal. Consuls continued to be elected, the senate to sit, chariot races to be held in the Circus Maximus. Most saliently of all, in the eastern half of the Mediterranean, the Roman empire was still strong. Ruled from a city pointedly christened the Second Rome, it remained the greatest power of its day. Constantinople had many centuries of life in it yet as a Roman capital.
It turns out, in short, that the fall of Rome is to human history what the end of the dinosaurs is to natural history: the prime example of an extinction that nevertheless, when one looks at it more closely, turns out to be more complicated than one might have thought. If it is true, after all, that birds are, in a sense, dinosaurs, then it destabilises our notion of the asteroid strike at the end of the Cretaceous era as a guillotine dropping on the neck of the Mesozoic. Likewise, the notion of a Romanitas, a “Roman-ness”, surviving into the Middle Ages, and perhaps beyond, upsets the categorisation of the Roman empire that most of us have as a phenomenon purely of the ancient world.
It is important, of course, not to take revisionism too far. Just as a wren is no tyrannosaur, so was, say, the England of Bede incalculably different from the Roman province of Britannia. “Transformation”, the word favoured by many historians to describe the decline of Roman power, hardly does the process justice. The brute facts of societal collapse are written both in the history of the period and in the material remains. An imperial system that had endured for centuries imploded utterly barbarian kingdoms were planted amid the rubble of what had once been Roman provinces paved roads, central heating and decent drains vanished for a millennium and more. So, it is not unreasonable to characterise the fall of the Roman empire in the west as the nearest thing to an asteroid strike that history has to offer.
One striking measure of this – the degree to which it was indeed, in the words of the historian Aldo Schiavone, “the greatest catastrophe ever experienced in the history of civilisation, a rupture of incalculable proportions” – is that even today it determines how everyone in the west instinctively understands the notion of empire. What rises must fall. This seems to most of us almost as much a law in the field of geopolitics as it is in physics. Every western country that has ever won an empire or a superpower status for itself has lived with a consciousness of its own mortality.
In Britain, which only a century ago ruled the largest agglomeration of territory the world has ever seen, we have particular cause. Back in 1897, at the seeming pinnacle of the empire on which the sun never set, subject peoples from the across the world gathered in London to mark the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria. Rudyard Kipling, the supposed laureate of imperialism, wrote a poem, “Recessional”, to mark the occasion – but it was the very opposite of jingoistic. Instead, it looked to the future in sombre and (as it turned out) prophetic terms:
Far-called our navies melt away
On dune and headland sinks the fire:
Lo, all our pomp of yesterday
Is one with Nineveh and Tyre!
American self-confidence seems to have clawed back at least some lost ground since then. Nevertheless, pessimism remains the default setting at the moment in both the US and the west as a whole. When a country’s capital city boasts a Senate and a Capitol Hill, the example of Rome’s decline and fall is always going to be lurking somewhere at the back of the mind.
Yet those who assume it to be an inevitable fact of nature that all empires, sooner or later, will come to share the fate of Rome need only look at America’s chief rival for the title of 21st-century hegemon to see that it ain’t necessarily so.
The People’s Republic of China, unlike the states of the modern west, stands recognisably in a line of descent from an ancient empire. Three years ago, a professor at the National Defence University in Beijing – a colonel by the name of Liu Mingfu – published a book about China’s future called The China Dream.
The title was an obvious riff on the ideal of the American dream but the Chinese equivalent, it turns out, is as much about drawing sustenance from the past as about looking to the future. Unity at home, projection of strength abroad, the organic fusion of soft and hard power: these, according to the colonel, are in the DNA of Chinese greatness. How does he know this? Why, by looking to ancient history – and specifically to the example of Qin Shi Huangdi, the so-called First Emperor, who back in the 3rd century BC united China, embarked on the Great Wall, and established a template of leadership that even Mao admired.
Wild warrior of Leningrad: Vladmir Putin is undisputed king of Moscow, the "Third Rome". Image: Reuters/Ria Novosti.
It is as though US commentators, trying to plot a course ahead for their country, were to look to Caesar Augustus as an exemplar. The reason they would never do that is obvious. The US, for all that it has a Senate and a Capitol, is self-consciously a young country, planted in a new world. But China is old, and knows that it is old. Dynasties may have come and gone, waves of barbarians may have washed over it again and again, the emperor himself may have been replaced by a general secretary – but no rupture such as separates Barack Obama from ancient Rome divides Xi Jinping from the First Emperor. The “China dream”, in its essence, is simply the dream that the “Middle Kingdom” will regain what many Chinese see as her ancient birthright: a global primacy, at the heart of world affairs.
There is a taste here, perhaps – just the faintest, most tantalising taste – of a counterfactual: one in which Rome did not fall. That China was able to survive conquest by the Mongols and the Manchus demonstrates just how deep the roots of a civilisation can reach. What about the Romans in the heyday of their empire: did they have the same kind of confidence in the permanence of their empire the Chinese have always had? And if they did – what happened to that confidence?
People in antiquity were certainly aware that civilisations could rise and fall. It is, in a sense, the great geopolitical theme of the Bible. In the Book of Daniel, the prophet dreams that he sees four beasts emerge in succession from a raging sea and an angel explains to him that each beast represents a kingdom. The fourth beast, so Daniel is told, symbolises the mightiest empire of all and yet, for all that, it will end up destroyed “and given to the burning flame”. Gold and purple, in the Bible, are cast as merely the winding-sheets of worldly greatness.
The Greeks, too, with the example of the sack of Troy before them, were morbidly aware how impermanent greatness might be. Herodotus, the first man to attempt a narrative of how and why empires succeed one another that did not look primarily to a god for its explanations, bookends his great history with telling passages on the precariousness of civilisations. “Human foundations both great and insignificant will need to be discussed,” he declares at the start of his first book. “Most of those that were great once have since slumped into decline, and those that used to be insignificant have risen, within my own lifetime, to rank as mighty powers. I will pay equal attention to both, for human beings and prosperity never endure side by side for long.”
Then, in the very last paragraph of his history, he provides what is, in essence, the first materialist theory as to why civilisations should succeed and fail. The Persians, having conquered a great empire, want to move from their harsh mountains to a richer land – but Cyrus, their king, forbids it. “Soft lands breed soft men.” It is a perspective that Herodotus has been tracing throughout his account of civilisational vicissitude, using it to explain why the Persians were able to conquer the Lydians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians, only to come to grief against the poverty-stricken but hardy Greeks. Implicit in his narrative, written at a time when Athens was at her peak of glory, is a warning: where other great powers have gone, the Athenians will surely follow.
The Romans signalled their arrival on the international stage by fighting three terrible wars with a rival west Mediterranean people: the Carthaginians. At the end of the third war, in 146BC, they succeeded in capturing Carthage, and levelling it to the ground. This was the great fulfilment of Rome’s military aims. In 216BC Rome had almost been brought to defeat by Hannibal, Carthage’s most formidable general – a brush with civilisational death that her people would never forget.
In these circumstances, the destruction of Rome’s deadliest enemy was an exultant moment. Nevertheless, it is said of the Roman general who torched Carthage that he wept as he watched her burn and quoted lines from Homer on the fall of Troy. Then he turned to a Greek companion. “I have a terrible foreboding,” so he confessed, “that some day the same doom will be pronounced on my country.”
There were many, as the Romans continued to expand their rule across the Mediterranean, who found themselves hoping that the presentiment was an accurate one. Rome was a brutal and domineering mistress, and the increasing number of much older civilisations under her sway unsurprisingly felt much resentment of her autocratic ways. Greek traditions of prophecy began to blend with Jewish ones to foretell the empire’s inevitable doom. “Civil tumults will engulf her people,” so it was foretold, “and everything will collapse.”
A century on from the burning of Carthage, in the mid-1st century BC, it seemed that these oracles had been speaking the truth. Rome and her empire were engulfed by civil war. In one particular bloody campaign, it has been estimated, a quarter of all citizens of military age were fighting on one side or the other. No wonder that, amid such slaughter, even the Romans dared to contemplate the end of their empire. “The Roman state, just like all states, is doomed to die.” So wrote the poet Virgil amid the horrors of the age.
But the Roman state did not die. In the event, the decades of civil war were brought to an end, and a new and universal era of peace was proclaimed. Rome, and the known world with it, were brought under the rule of a single man, Imperator Caesar Augustus: the first man in what was to be a long line of imperatores, “victorious generals” – “emperors”.
Virgil, perhaps because he had gazed into the abyss of civil war and understood what anarchy meant, proved a worthy laureate of the new age. He reminded the Roman people of their god-given destiny: “To impose the works and ways of peace, to spare the vanquished and to overthrow the haughty by means of war.”
By the time that Rome celebrated its millennium in AD248, the presumption that the city’s rule was eternal had come to be taken for granted by the vast majority of her subjects – most of whom, by this point, regarded themselves as Romans. “Everywhere,” as one provincial put it, addressing the Eternal City, “you have made citizens of those who rank as the noblest, most accomplished and powerful of peoples. All the world has been adorned by you as a pleasure garden.”
In the event, the garden would turn to brambles and weeds. Intruders would smash down the fences. New tenants would carve up much of it between themselves.
Yet the dream of Rome did not fade. Its potency was too strong for that. “A Goth on the make wishes to be like a Roman – but only a poor Roman would wish to be like a Goth.” So spoke Theodoric, successor to the king who had deposed Romulus Augustulus: a man who combined a most German-looking moustache with the robes and regalia of a caesar. He was not the first barbarian to find in the memory of Rome – the splendour of its monuments, the vastness of its sway, the sheer conceit of its pretensions – the only conceivable model for an upwardly mobile king to ape.
Indeed, one could say that the whole history of the early-medieval west is understood best as a series of attempts by various warlords to square the grandeur of their Roman ambitions with the paucity of their resources. There was Charlemagne, who not only had himself crowned as emperor in Rome on Christmas Day AD800, but plundered the city of pillars for his own capital back in Aachen. Then there was Otto I, the great warrior king of the Saxons, a hairy-chested lion of a man, who in 962 was also crowned in Rome. The line of emperors that he founded did not expire until 1806, when the Holy Roman empire, as it had first become known in the 13th century, was terminated by Napoleon.
“Neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire,” Voltaire quipped. Yet the joke was not quite fair. There had been a time when it was all three. Otto III, grandson and namesake of the old Saxon king, crowned in 996 and charged with the rule of Christendom during the millennial anniversary of Christ’s birth, was nothing if not a Roman emperor.
He lived on the Palatine Hill, just as Augustus had done a thousand years before him he revived the titles of “consul” and “senator”. He had himself betrothed to a princess from the Second Rome, Constantinople. His death in 1002, before his marriage could serve to join the eastern and western empires, left hanging one of history great “what-ifs”. Otto III’s ambition of reviving the Roman empire had been the great theme of his reign. Tantalising, then, to ponder what might have happened if he had succeeded in joining it to the eastern Roman empire – the empire that, unlike his own, could trace a direct line of descent from ancient Rome.
Today, when we use the adjective “Byzantine” to describe this empire, we risk obscuring the degree to which the people we call “Byzantines” saw themselves as Romaioi – Romans. It was not, however, to the Rome of Julius Caesar and Cicero they looked back, but to that of the great Christian emperors: Constantine, the founder of their capital, and Theodosius the Great, who at the end of the 4th century had been the last man to rule both east and west. In that sense, it was indeed the capital of a Roman empire that fell to Mehmet II, the Turkish sultan, when in 1453 he stormed the great walls built by Theodosius’s grandson a thousand years earlier to gird Constantinople, the “Queen of Cities”. It was indeed the last territorial fragment of the Roman empire that was conquered when, in 1461, the tiny Byzantine statelet of Trebizond was absorbed into the Ottoman empire. At last, a story that had begun more than 2,000 years earlier on a hill beside the Tiber was brought to a definitive end by Turkish guns on the shore of the Black Sea.
Or was it? The Turks were not the first to have laid siege to Constantinople. Back in 941, adventurers known as Rus’, Vikings who had travelled the long river-route down from the Baltic to the Bosphorus, had similarly attacked the city. Their assault had failed but Miklagard, Caesar’s golden capital, continued to haunt their imaginings. In 986, one of their princes sent a fact-finding mission. Volodymyr was the lord of a rough-hewn frontier town named Kyiv – and he had decided that the time had come for him to join the community of nations.
But which community? He had invited Jews to his court but after questioning them said their loss of Jerusalem was a sign they had been abandoned by God. He had invited Muslims but was appalled to learn that their religion would not permit him to eat pork or to drink (as he frankly told them, “drinking is the joy of the Rus’ ”). He had sent envoys to the churches of the west but there, so they reported back, “we saw no beauty”. Only in Constantinople, in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia, had Volodymyr’s ambassadors discovered a spectacle worthy of their master’s ambitions.
“We knew not whether we were on heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty. We only know that God dwells there among men . . . we cannot forget that beauty.”
So began a commitment on the part of the Rus’ to the Orthodox faith of the Second Rome that was to have enduring consequences into the present. Volodymyr had recently captured from the Byzantines the city of Chersonesus in the Crimea, originally founded as a Greek colony way back in the 6th century BC. He restored it to the emperor and in exchange, it is said, received baptism in the city, together with the hand of Caesar’s sister. A momentous step. Never before had a Byzantine princess been given in marriage to a barbarian. The precedent it set was one that the Rus’ would never forget. In 1472, almost two decades after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks, the niece of the last emperor of the Second Rome was married to Ivan III of Muscovy. “Two Romes have fallen.” So a Russian monk, in 1510, would gravely tell their son. “The Third Rome, though, stands – nor will there ever be a Fourth.”
Moscow, to western eyes, does not look very much like Rome. There is no Senate there, no Capitol Hill. No buildings, as they do in Paris or Washington, seek to ape the look of Augustan Rome. Even so, if there is any country in the world where the tug of the Roman ideal can still be felt as a palpable influence on its leader’s policy, it is Russia. In 1783, when Catherine the Great annexed Crimea, it was in pursuit of a decidedly Roman dream: that of restoring the Byzantine empire under the two-headed eagle on her own banner. “You have attached the territories,” Potemkin wrote to her, “which Alexander and Pompey just glanced at, to the baton of Russia, and Chersonesus – the source of our Christianity, and thus of our humanity – is now in the hands of its daughter.” No one, as yet, has written in quite these terms to Putin but if someone did, it would not be entirely a surprise.
Today, here in the west, dreams of restoring a Roman empire are gone for good. The shadows they cast are too grim. The most recent political philosophy to be inspired by them, and which even took its name from the bundle of rods with an axe carried by the bodyguards of Roman magistrates, was developed only in the 20th century: fascism. With Mussolini and Hitler, the millennia-old tradition in the west of looking to the Roman empire for a model reached a hideous climax – and then expired.
Yet if the First Rome is long gone, and the Second Rome, too, the Third, it turns out, retains an unexpected capacity to lurch up out of its grave. Even in the 21st century, the Roman empire clings to a certain ghoulish afterlife yet.
Tom Holland’s translation of Herodotus’s “Histories” is published by Penguin Classics (£25)
Tom Holland is an award-winning historian, biographer and broadcaster. He is the author most recently of Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind.List of site sources >>>