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A.A. Vasiliev
History of the Byzantine empire

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Relations with Italy and western Europe.

            The Italian developments of this period consisted primarily of the successful Arabian campaigns in Sicily and southern Italy. By the middle of the ninth century the republic of St. Mark (Venice) freed itself completely of Byzantine power and became an independent state. The Empire and this new state treated each other like independent governments in all the negotiations which arose later, for example, in the time of Basil I. In the ninth century their interests coincided in many points in so far as the aggressive movement of the western Arabs and the Adriatic Slavs were concerned.

            From the time of Basil I an interesting correspondence with Louis II exists. It appears from the letters exchanged by these two rulers that they were engaged in a heated dispute regarding the illegal adoption of the imperial title by Louis II. Thus, even in the second half of the ninth century the results of the coronation of 800 were still in evidence. Although some historians have asserted that the letter of Louis II to Basil is spurious,[71] recent historians do not support this opinion.[72] Basil’s attempt to form an alliance with Louis II failed. The Byzantine occupation of Bari and Tarentum and the successful operations of Nicephorus Phocas against the Arabs in southern Italy raised Byzantine influence in Italy toward the end of Basil’s reign. The smaller Italian possessions, such as the duchies of Naples, Beneventum, Spoleto, the principality of Salerno, and others, frequently changed their attitude toward the Byzantine Empire in correspondence with the course of the Byzantine campaign against the Arabs. Disregarding the recent break with the eastern church, Pope John VIII began active negotiations with Basil I, for he fully appreciated the extent of the Arabian menace to Rome. In striving to form a political alliance with the Eastern Empire the pope showed his readiness to make many concessions. Some scholars go so far as to attribute the absence of an emperor in the West for three and a half years after the death of Charles the Bold (877) to the fact that John VIII purposely delayed the coronation of a western ruler in order to avoid hurting the feelings of the Byzantine Emperor, whose aid was so much needed by Rome.[73]

            In the time of Leo VI, Byzantine possessions in Italy were divided into two themes: Calabria and Longobardia. The Calabrian theme was all that was left of the vast Sicilian theme because, through the fall of Syracuse and Taormina, Sicily was entirely in the hands of the Arabs. As a result of the success of Byzantine arms in Italy Leo VI definitely separated Longobardia from the theme of Kephallenia, or the Ionian Islands, and made it an independent theme with its own strategus. Because of the incessant warfare, during which Byzantine forces were not always victorious, the borders of Calabria and Longobardia changed frequently. With the increase of Byzantine influence in southern Italy in the tenth century there was also a noticeable growth in the number of Greek monasteries and churches, some of which later became important cultural centers.

            In the same century the Byzantine Empire and Italy witnessed the rise of a strong rival in the person of the German ruler, Otto I, crowned with the imperial crown in Rome by Pope John XII in 962. He is known in history as the founder of “The Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation.” Upon assuming the imperial title, Otto strove to become master of all Italy. This was, of course, a direct infringement upon Byzantine interests, especially in Longobardia. Negotiations between Otto and the eastern Emperor, Nicephorus Phocas, who was at this time probably dreaming of an offensive alliance with the German ruler against the Muslims, progressed very slowly, and Otto suddenly made an unsuccessful inroad into the Byzantine provinces of southern Italy.

            For new negotiations with the eastern Emperor the German ruler sent to Constantinople his legate, Liudprand, the bishop of Cremona, who had been once before ambassador to the Byzantine court in the time of Constantine Porphyrogenitus. The population on the shores of the Bosphorus did not greet him with due respect, and he was exposed to great humiliation and many insults. He later wrote an account of his second sojourn at the Constantinopolitan court in the form of a malicious libel, which was in sharp contrast to his reverent description of his first visit to the eastern capital. From this second account, usually known as the Relation on the Constantinopolitan Legation (Relatio de legatione constantinopolitana), it appears that the Byzantine Empire continued the old disputes about the title of basileus assumed by the western ruler. Liudprand accused the Byzantines of being weak and inactive, and justified the claims of his sovereign. In one part of this work he wrote, “Whom does Rome serve, about whose liberation you make so much noise? To whom does the city pay taxes? And did not this ancient city formerly serve courtesans? And then, in a time when all men were asleep and even in a state of impotence, my sovereign, the most august emperor, freed Rome of that shameful servitude.”[74] When Liudprand became aware of the fact that the Greeks were prolonging the negotiations intentionally in order to gain time for the organization of an Italian campaign, forbidding him meanwhile to hold any communications with his Emperor, he made every effort to depart from Constantinople, succeeding only after much trouble and prolonged delay.

            The break between the two empires was accomplished, and Otto I invaded the province of Apulia. However, the new Byzantine Emperor, John Tzimisces, completely altered the Byzantine policy toward Italy. Not only did he conclude a treaty of peace with the German ruler, but he strengthened his relations with him by arranging the marriage of Otto’s son and heir, Otto II, to the Byzantine Princess Theophano. Thus an alliance was finally formed between the two empires. The Arabian attacks on southern Italy, against which the successor of John Tzimisces, Basil II, could do nothing because his attention was claimed by the internal disturbances in the Byzantine Empire, forced the young Emperor Otto II (973-983) to organize a campaign against the Arabs. In one of the battles he was defeated, and died soon after. From this time on German advance into the Byzantine themes of Italy ceased for a long period of time.

            At the end of the tenth century an administrative reform took place in Byzantine Italy. The former strategus of Longobardia was replaced by the catapan of Italy, who resided in Bari. As long as the various Italian kingdoms were engaged in mutual strife, the Byzantine catapan was able to handle the difficult problem of defending the southern coast of Italy against the Saracens.

            The son of the Princess Theophano, Otto III (983-1002), educated in profound reverence for the Byzantine Empire and classical culture, was a contemporary and a relative of Basil II and a pupil of the famous scholar, Gerbert, who later became Pope Sylvester II. Otto III made no secret of his hatred for German coarseness, and dreamed of the restoration of the ancient Empire with Old Rome as the capital. According to James Bryce, “None save he desired to make the seven-hilled city again the city of dominion, reducing Germany and Lombardy and Greece to their rightful place of subject provinces. No one else so forgot the present to live in the light of the ancient order; no other soul was so possessed by that fervid mysticism and that reverence for the glories of the past whereon rested the idea of the Medieval Empire.”[75] Although the prestige of ancient Rome was extremely high in Otto’s imagination, still he was attracted chiefly to eastern Rome, to that court of fairy-like magnificence where his mother had been born and bred. Only in following the footsteps of the Byzantine rulers did Otto III hope to restore the imperial throne in Rome. He called himself imperator romanorum, and referred to the future world-monarchy as Orbis romanus. This young enthusiast, whose illusory schemes promised to introduce disturbance and difficulty into the life of the Byzantine Empire, died suddenly at the very beginning of the eleventh century, at the age of twenty-two (1002).

            While in the early eleventh century Byzantine provinces in southern Italy were made safe from Arabian attacks through the interference of the Venetian fleet, they soon became exposed to danger from a new and formidable enemy, the Normans, who later began to threaten the Eastern Empire. The first large detachment of Normans arrived in Italy at the beginning of the eleventh century at the invitation of Meles, who rose in rebellion against Byzantine domination. The allied forces of Meles and the Normans were defeated, however, near Cannae, so famous in history since the victory of Hannibal during the Second Punic War. Basil II owed part of his success in this battle with the Normans to the Russian soldiers, who served in the ranks of the Byzantine army. The victory at Cannae strengthened the position of Byzantium in southern Italy to such an extent that in the fourth decade of the eleventh century Emperor Michael IV the Paphlagonian equipped an expedition for the reconquest of Sicily from the Arabs. This expedition was led by George Maniaces. In his army were the Scandinavian hero, Harald Haardraade, and the Varangian-Russian Druzhina (Company). Although this campaign was successful, and achieved, among other things, the occupation of Messina, the reconquest of Sicily was not accomplished, mainly because George Maniaces was recalled when he was suspected of having ambitious schemes.[76]

            During the period of strife between Byzantium and Rome which ended in the division of churches in 1054, the Normans sided with Rome and began to advance, slowly but steadily, in Byzantine Italy. By the end of this period, i.e., about the middle of the eleventh century, there arose among the Normans in Italy a very capable and energetic leader, Robert Guiscard, whose major activities developed in the period subsequent to the Macedonian dynasty.



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