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History of the Byzantine empire
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The Persian wars and the campaigns of Avars and Slavs.
Heraclius, a very gifted and active emperor, seemed practically a model ruler after the tyrannical Phocas. He proclaimed that “power must shine more in love than in terror,” reported the poet George of Pisidia, a contemporary, who described in good verse the emperor’s Persian campaigns and the invasion of the Avars. “Heraclius was the creator of Mediaeval Byzantium,” Ostrogorsky said, “whose state conception is Roman, whose language and culture are Greek, whose faith is Christian.” Heraclius’ achievements are the more noteworthy because at the time of his accession the position of the Empire was extremely dangerous. The Persians were menacing it from the east, the Avars and Slavs from the north, and internal affairs, after the unfortunate reign of Phocas, were in a state of complete anarchy. The new Emperor had neither money nor sufficient military force, and profound disturbances shook the Empire during the early part of his reign.
In the year 611 the Persians undertook to conquer Syria and they occupied Antioch, the main city of the eastern Byzantine provinces. Soon after they seized Damascus. Upon completing the conquest of Syria, they moved on to Palestine, and in the year 614 began the siege of Jerusalem, which lasted for twenty days. Then the Persian towers and battering-rams broke through the city wall, and, as one source put it, “the evil enemies entered the city with a rage which resembled that of infuriated beasts and irritated dragons.” They pillaged the city and destroyed the Christian sanctuaries. The Church of the Holy Sepulcher, erected by Constantine the Great and Helen, was robbed of its treasures and set on fire. The Christians were exposed to merciless violence and slaughter. The Jews of Jerusalem sided with the Persians and took active part in the massacres, during which, according to some sources, 60,000 Christians perished. Many treasures from the sacred city were transported to Persia, and one of the dearest relics of Christendom, the Holy Cross, was taken to Ctesiphon. Numerous prisoners were sent to Persia, including the Patriarch of Jerusalem, Zacharias.
This devastating Persian conquest of Palestine and the pillage of Jerusalem represent a turning point in the history of this province.
This was a disaster unheard of since the occupation of Jerusalem in the reign of Titus, but this time the calamity could not be remedied. Never again did this city have an era similar to the brilliant epoch under Constantine, and the magnificent buildings within its walls, such as the Mosque of Omar, never again created an epoch in history. From now on the city and its buildings constantly declined, step by step, and even the Crusades, so abounding in results and various spoils for Europe, caused only trouble, confusion, and degeneration in the life of Jerusalem. The Persian invasion immediately removed the effects of the imported artificial Graeco-Roman civilization in Palestine. It ruined agriculture, depopulated the cities, destroyed temporarily or permanently many monasteries and lauras, and stopped all trade development. This invasion freed the marauding Arabian tribes from the ties of association and the fear which had controlled them, and they began to form the unity which made possible their general attacks of a later period. From now on the cultural development of the country is ended. Palestine enters upon that troubled period which might very naturally be called the period of the Middle Ages, were it not for the fact that it has lasted to our own times.
The ease with which the Persians conquered Syria and Palestine may be explained partly by the religious conditions in these provinces. The majority of the population, particularly in Syria, did not adhere to the official orthodox faith supported by the central government. The Nestorians, and later the Monophysites, of these provinces were greatly oppressed by the Byzantine government; hence they quite naturally preferred the domination of the Persian fire-worshipers, in whose land the Nestorians enjoyed comparative religious freedom.
The Persian invasion was not limited to Syria and Palestine. Part of the Persian army, after crossing all of Asia Minor and conquering Chalcedon on the Sea of Marmora near the Bosphorus, encamped near Chrysopolis (present-day Scutari), opposite Constantinople, while another Persian army set out to conquer Egypt. Alexandria fell, probably in the year 618 or 619. In Egypt, just as in Syria and Palestine, the Monophysitic population heartily preferred Persian to Byzantine domination. The loss of Egypt was a heavy blow to the Byzantine Empire, for Egypt was the granary of Constantinople. Stoppage of the supply of Egyptian grain had heavy repercussions on economic conditions in the capital.
With the heavy losses in the south and east caused by the Persian wars, there appeared another great menace to the Byzantine Empire from the north. The Avaro-Slavonic hordes of the Balkan peninsula, headed by the Khagan of the Avars, moved southward, pillaging and destroying the northern provinces and reaching as far as Constantinople, where they broke through the city walls. This expedition was not a campaign, but rather a series of raids, which furnished the Khagan with numerous captives and rich spoils which he carried off to the north. These invaders are mentioned in the writings of Heraclius’ western contemporary, Isidore, bishop of Seville, who remarked in his chronicle that “Heraclius entered upon the sixteenth (fifth) year of his reign, at the beginning of which the Slavs took Greece from the Romans, and the Persians took Syria, Egypt, and many provinces.” At about this time (624) Byzantium was losing its last possessions in Spain, where the Visigoths’ conquest was completed by King Suinthila (Swinthila). The Balearic Islands remained in the hands of Heraclius.
After some hesitation the Emperor decided to begin war with Persia. In view of the exhaustion of the treasury, Heraclius had recourse to the valuables of the churches in the capital and the provinces, and ordered a large amount of gold and silver coins to be made from them. As he had anticipated, he was able to remove the menace of the Khagan of the Avars in the north by sending him distinguished hostages and a large sum of money. In the spring of 622 Heraclius crossed to Asia Minor, where he recruited a large number of soldiers and trained them for several months. The Persian campaign, which incidentally aimed at recovering the Holy Cross and the sacred city of Jerusalem, assumed the form of a crusade.
Modern historians think it probable that Heraclius conducted three Persian campaigns between the years 622 and 628. All three were brilliantly successful. A contemporary poet, George of Pisidia, composed an Epinikion (Song of Victory) for the occasion, entitled the Heraclias; and in another poem, the Hexaemeron (“The Six Days”), on the creation of the world, he alluded to the six-year war in which Heraclius vanquished the Persians. A twentieth-century historian, Th. I. Uspensky, compared Heraclius’ war with the glorious campaigns of Alexander the Great. Heraclius secured the aid of the Caucasian tribes and formed an alliance with the Khazars. The northern Persian provinces bordering the Caucasus formed one of the main arenas of military action for this reign.
While the Emperor was absent leading the army in distant campaigns, the capital became exposed to very serious danger. The Khagan of the Avars broke the agreement with the Emperor and in the year 626 advanced toward Constantinople with huge hordes of Avars and Slavs. He also formed an agreement with the Persians, who immediately sent part of their army to Chalcedon. The Avaro-Slavonic hordes besieged Constantinople to the extreme apprehension of the population, but the garrison of Constantinople was successful in repelling the attack and putting the enemy to flight. As soon as the Persians heard of this repulse, they withdrew their army from Chalcedon and directed it to Syria. The Byzantine victory over the Avars before Constantinople in 626 was one of the main causes of the weakening of the wild Avar kingdom.
Meanwhile, at the end of 627 Heraclius completely routed the Persians in a battle which took place near the ruins of ancient Nineveh (in the neighborhood of modern Mosul on the Tigris), and advanced into the central Persian provinces, collecting rich spoils. He sent to Constantinople a long and triumphant manifesto, describing his successes against the Persians and announcing the end of the war and his brilliant victory. “In 629 Heraclius’ glory was complete; the sun of his genius had dissipated the darkness which hung over the Empire, and now to the eyes of all a glorious era of peace and grandeur seemed opening. The eternal and dreaded Persian enemy was prostrated forever; on the Danube the might of the Avars was rapidly declining. Who could then resist the Byzantine armies? Who could menace the Empire?” At this time the Persian king Chosroes was dethroned and killed, and his successor, Kawad Sheroe, opened peace negotiations with Heraclius. According to their agreement the Persians returned to the Byzantine Empire the conquered provinces of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, and the relic of the Holy Cross. Heraclius returned to the capital in great triumph, and in 630, with his wife Martina, he left for Jerusalem, where the Holy Cross was restored to its former place to the great joy of the entire Christian world. The contemporary Armenian historian Sebeos gave an account of this occasion:
There was much joy at their entrance to Jerusalem: sounds of weeping and sighs, abundant tears, burning flames in hearts, extreme exaltation of the emperor, of the princes, of all [he soldiers and inhabitants of the city; and nobody could sing the hymns of our Lord on account of the great and poignant emotion of the emperor and of the whole multitude. The emperor restored [the Cross] to its place and returned all the church objects, each to its place; he distributed gifts to all the churches and to the inhabitants of the city and money for incense.
It is interesting to note that Heraclius’ victory over the Persians is mentioned in the Koran. “The Greeks have been overcome by the Persians in the nearest part of the land; but after their defeat, they shall overcome the others in their turn, within a few years.”
The significance of the Persian campaigns of Heraclius. — This Persian war marks a very significant epoch in the history of the Byzantine Empire. Of the two main world powers of the early Middle Ages, the Byzantine Empire, and Persia, the second definitely lost its former significance and became a weak state soon to cease its political existence because of the attacks of the Arabs. The victorious Byzantine Empire dealt the death blow to its constant enemy, reclaimed all the lost eastern provinces of the Empire, restored the Holy Cross to the Christian world, and at the same time freed its capital of the formidable menace of the Avaro-Slavonic hordes. The Byzantine Empire seemed to be at the height of its glory and power. The sovereign of India sent his congratulations to Heraclius on his victory over the Persians, together with a great quantity of precious stones. The king of the Franks, Dagobert, sent special ambassadors to make a perpetual peace with the Empire. Finally in 630 the queen of the Persians, Borane, apparently also sent a special envoy to Heraclius and made formal peace.
Heraclius officially assumed the name basileus for the first time after the successful outcome of the Persian war, in the year 629. This name had been in use for centuries in the East, particularly in Egypt, and with the fourth century it became current in the Greek-speaking parts of the empire, but it had not previously been accepted as an official title. Up to the seventh century the Greek equivalent of the Latin “emperor” (imperator) was the term “autocrator” (αυτοκρατωρ), that is, an autocrat, which does not correspond etymologically to imperator. The only foreign ruler to whom the Byzantine emperor consented to give the title of basileus (with the exception of the distant king of Abyssinia) was the king of Persia. Bury wrote: “So long as there was a great independent Basileus outside the Roman Empire, the emperors refrained from adopting a title which would be shared by another monarch. But as soon as that monarch was reduced to the condition of a dependent vassal and there was no longer a concurrence, the Emperor signified the events by assuming officially the title which had for several centuries been applied to him unofficially.”
The reclaimed provinces of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt with their predominating Monophysttic population again brought to the fore the painful and highly significant question of the government’s attitude toward the Monophysites. The lasting and persistent struggle of Heraclius with the Persians, in spite of the brilliant final outcome, was bound to weaken temporarily the military power of the Byzantine Empire because of the heavy losses in man power and the exceedingly heavy financial strain. But the Empire did not get the much-needed period of rest because, soon after the end of the Persian war, there appeared a formidable menace, entirely unexpected and at first not fully appreciated: the Arabs. They opened up a new era in the world’s history by their attacks upon the Byzantine Empire and Persia.
Gibbon spoke of their advance as follows; “While the Emperor triumphed at Constantinople or Jerusalem, an obscure town on the confines of Syria was pillaged by the Saracens, and they cut in pieces some troops who advanced to its relief; an ordinary and trifling occurrence, had it not been the prelude of a mighty revolution. These robbers were the apostles of Mahomet; their fanatic valor had emerged from the desert; and m the last eight years of his reign Heraclius lost to the Arabs the same provinces which he had rescued from the Persians.”
Long before the Christian era the Arabs, a people of Semitic origin, occupied the Arabian peninsula and the Syrian desert which lies to the north of it and stretches as far as the Euphrates River. The peninsula of Arabia, embracing an area equal to approximately one-fourth of Europe, is surrounded by the Persian Gulf on the east, the Indian Ocean on the south, and the Red Sea on the west; in the north it runs gradually into the Syrian desert. Historically, the best-known provinces of the peninsula were (1) Nedjd, on the central plateau; (2) Yemen, or Fortunate Arabia, in the southwest of the peninsula; and (3) Hidjaz, the narrow strip along the coast of the Red Sea, extending from the north of the peninsula to Yemen. The arid land was not everywhere habitable, and the Arabs, who were a nomadic people, occupied chiefly central and northern Arabia. The Bedouins, who were nomads, considered themselves the pure and genuine representatives of the Arabian race and the true bearers of personal dignity and valor. They treated with arrogance and even with contempt the settled inhabitants of the few cities and hamlets.
The Roman Empire was inevitably bound to come into collision with the Arabian tribes on its eastern Syrian border, which it was forced to protect. For this purpose the Roman emperors erected a line of border fortifications, so-called Syrian limes which resembled, on a small scale, of course, the famous limes romanus on the Danubian border, erected for defense against Germanic attacks. Some ruins of the principal Roman fortifications along the Syrian border survive at present.
As early as the second century B.C. independent states began to form among the Arabs of Syria. They were strongly influenced by the Aramean and Greek civilizations; hence they are sometimes referred to as the Arabo-Aramean Hellenistic kingdoms. Among the cities, Petra became particularly wealthy and important because of its advantageous position at the crossing of great commercial routes. The magnificent ruins of this city attract the attention of historians and archeologists even today.
From a cultural and political point of view the most important of all Syrian-Arabic kingdoms in the epoch of the Roman Empire was Palmyra, whose valiant queen, the Hellenistically educated Zenobia, as the Roman and Greek writers call her, formed a large state in the second half of the third century A.D. by conquering Egypt and the major part of Asia Minor. According to B. A. Turaev, this was the first manifestation of the reaction of the East and the first breaking up of the Empire into two parts, eastern and western. The Emperor Aurelian restored the unity of the Empire, and in the year 273 the conquered queen had to follow the triumphal chariot of the conqueror when he entered Rome. Rebellious Palmyra was destroyed. Its imposing ruins, however, like those of Petra, still attract scholars and tourists. The famous epigraphic monument of Palmyra, the tariff of Palmyra, engraved on a stone of enormous size and containing very valuable information about the trade and finance of the city, has been transferred to Russia and is now at the Hermitage in Leningrad.
Two Arabian dynasties stand out very distinctly during the Byzantine period. One, the dynasty of the Ghassanids in Syria, Monophysitic in its religious tendencies and dependent upon the Byzantine emperors, became particularly powerful in the sixth century under Justinian, when it aided the Byzantine Empire in its military undertakings in the East. This dynasty probably ceased to exist in the early seventh century, when the Persians conquered Syria and Palestine. The second Arabian dynasty, the Lakhmids, centered in the city of Hira on the Euphrates. Because of its vassal relations with the Persian Sassanids it was hostile to the Ghassanids. It also ceased at the beginning of the seventh century. In the city of Hira Christianity, in its Nestorian form, had a body of adherents, and even some members of the Lakhmid dynasty accepted it. Both dynasties had to defend the borders of their kingdom, the Ghassanids on the Byzantine side and the Lakhmids on the Persian. Apparently both vassal states disappeared at the beginning of the seventh century, so that at the time of Muhammed’s advance there was not a single political organization within the confines of the Arabian peninsula and the Syrian desert which could be called a state. There had existed in Yemen since the end of the second century B.C. the kingdom of the Sabaeans-Himyarites (Homerites). But in about the year 570 Yemen was conquered by the Persians.
Before the time of Muhammed the ancient Arabs lived in tribal organizations. Blood relationship was the only basis for common interests, which were confined almost exclusively to loyalty, protection, aid, and revenge upon enemies for insults suffered by the tribe. The least occasion sufficed for starting lasting and bloody struggle between tribes. References to these ancient times and customs have been preserved in old Arabic poetry, as well as in prose tradition. Animosity and arrogance were the two predominant elements in the mutual relations of different tribes of ancient Arabia.
The religious conceptions of the ancient Arabs were primitive. The tribes had their own gods and sacred objects, such as stones, trees, and springs, through which they aspired to divine the future. In some parts of Arabia the worship of stars prevailed. According to one expert in Arabic antiquity, the ancient Arabs in their religious experiences hardly rose above the feelings of a fetishist before the worshiped object. They believed in the existence of friendly, and, more frequently, unfriendly, forces which they called djinn (demons). Among the Arabs the conception of the higher invisible power of Allah was vague. Prayer as a form of worship was apparently unknown to them, and when they turned to the deity, their invocation was usually an appeal for aid in revenging some injury or injustice suffered from an enemy. Goldziher asserted also that “the surviving pre-Islamic poems do not contain any allusions to a striving toward the divine even on the part of the more sublime souls, and give only slight indications about their attitude to the religious traditions of their people.”
The nomadic life of the Bedouins was naturally unfavorable to the development of distinct permanent places for the performance of religious worship, even of a very primitive form. But there were, besides the Bedouins, the settled inhabitants of cities and hamlets which sprang up and developed along the trade routes, mainly on the caravan road leading from the south to the north, from Yemen to Palestine, Syria, and the Sinaitic peninsula. The richest among the cities along this route was Mecca (Macoraba, in ancient writings), famous long before Muhammed’s appearance. Second in importance was the city of Yathrib, the future Medina, situated farther north. These cities were convenient stopping points for the trade caravans traveling from the north and south. There were many Jews among the merchants of Mecca and Yathrib, as well as among the population of other portions of the peninsula, such as northern Hidjaz and Yemen. From the Romano-Byzantine provinces of Palestine and Syria in the north, and from Abyssinia through Yemen in the south, many Christians penetrated into the peninsula. Mecca became the central gathering point for the mixed population of the peninsula. From remote times there existed in Mecca the sanctuary Kaaba (the Cube) which was originally distinctly non-Arabic. It was a cube-shaped stone building, about thirty-five feet high, concealing the main object of worship, the black stone. Tradition claimed that this stone had been sent down from heaven, and associated the erection of the sanctuary with the name of Abraham. Because of its advantageous commercial position, Mecca was visited by merchants from all Arabian tribes. Some legends affirm that, in order to attract more visitors to the city, idols of various tribes were placed within the Kaaba, so that representatives of each tribe could worship their favorite deity during their stay in Mecca. The number of pilgrims increased constantly, being particularly great during the sacred period of the “Peace of God,” an observance which more or less guaranteed the territorial inviolability of the tribes who sent representatives to Mecca. The time of religious festivals coincided with the great fair at Mecca, where the Arabs and foreign merchants carried out trade transactions which gave Mecca enormous profits. The city was rapidly growing very wealthy. About the fifth century A.D. a distinguished tribe of Kuraish began to dominate in the city. The material interests of the money-loving Meccans were not neglected, and the sacred gatherings were often utilized by the citizens for the promotion of their own selfish interests. According to one scholar, “with the dominance of the nobility, charged with performing the traditional ceremonies, the city assumed a materialistic, arrogantly plutocratic character, and deep religious satisfaction could not be found there.”
Under the influence of Judaism and Christianity, with which the Arabs had ample opportunity to become acquainted in Mecca, there appeared even before Muhammed isolated individuals truly inspired by religious ideals distinctly different from the dry ritual of the old religious customs. An aspiration toward monotheism and the acceptance of the ascetic form of living were the distinguishing ideals of these modest apostles. They found gratification in their personal experiences but did not influence or convert the people about them. The man who unified the Arabs and founded a world religion was Muhammed, who, from a modest preacher of penitence, became at first a prophet, and later the chief of a political community.
Muhammed was born about 570. He was a member of the Hashimite clan, one of the poorest clans of the Kuraish tribe. His parents died while he was still very young, and he had to earn his own living by acting as a driver of camels in the trade caravans of the rich widow Khadidja. His material condition improved greatly when he married her. He was of a sensitive, sickly disposition from early childhood, and under the influence of his contact with the Jews and Christians began to meditate more and more upon the religious organization of Mecca. The doubts which frequently arose in his mind caused him many moments of despair and endless suffering, and he became subject to nervous attacks. During his solitary wanderings on the outskirts of Mecca he was troubled by visions, and within him strengthened the conviction that God had sent him to save His people who had followed the wrong path.
Muhammed was forty years old when he determined to express his views openly, at first as a modest preacher of morality in his own family. Later he began to preach to a small group of people from the lower classes, and shortly after to some distinguished citizens. The chiefs of Kuraish, however, were openly against Muhammed and made it impossible for him to remain in Mecca. He secretly departed with his followers from his native city in the year 622, and went northward to the city of Yathrib, whose population, including the Jews, had frequently urged him to come to their city, promising him more favorable living conditions. They received him and his followers very warmly and later changed the name of their city to Medina, meaning “the city of the prophet.”
The year of the migration or, as it is more frequently but incorrectly called, the year of the flight (hidjra in Arabic, distorted by Europeans into hegira) of Muhammed from Mecca to Medina marks the Muhammedan era. Beginning with the year 622, the Arabs and all other Muslim peoples count their chronology by using as a unit the lunar year, which is somewhat shorter than the solar year. The Muhammedans usually consider Friday, July 16, of the year 622 the beginning of the first year of the hegira. This chronology, however, was introduced only during the sixteenth year counting from 622.
The original sources bearing on Muhammedanism are unsatisfactory; there is almost no authentic information about the early Meccan period of Muhammed’s life. At that time his teaching was of such a vague, almost chaotic, nature that it was not yet possible to call it a new religion.
In Medina Muhammed became the head of a large community and began to lay the foundations for a political state on a religious basis. Having developed the main principles of his religion, introduced certain religious ceremonies, and strengthened his political position, he set out to conquer Mecca in the year 630. Upon entering the city he immediately destroyed its idols and all survivals of polytheism. The cult of an only God — Allah — was the basis of the new religion. Muhammed granted a sort of amnesty to all his enemies, and allowed no murder or robbery. From that time Muhammed and his followers freely made their pilgrimages to Mecca and practiced their new rites. Muhammed died in the year 632.
He was not a logical thinker; hence his religious teaching can hardly be presented in a systematic way. This teaching was not an original creation; it had developed under the influence of other religions — Christianity, Judaism, and to some extent Parsism (Zoroastrianism), the religion of the Persian kingdom of the Sassanids of that time. Modern historians have reached the conclusion that “the original Muhammedan community, contrary to earlier opinion, was more closely related to Christianity than to Judaism.” Muhammed had become acquainted with other religions in his youth during his travels with the caravans, and later in Mecca and Yathrib (Medina). The distinctive feature of his teaching is a realization of the complete dependence of man upon God and a blind resignation to His will. The faith is strictly monotheistic, and God is considered unlimited in his power over His creatures. The Muhammedan religion assumed the name of Islam, which means “resignation or submission to God,” and the followers of Islam are called Muslims, or Muhammedans. At the basis of this religion lies the distinct idea of a single God, Allah. The statement “There is only one God and Muhammed is his apostle” is one of the fundamental principles of Islam. Both Moses and Jesus Christ were recognized as prophets, Christ being the penultimate prophet; but the new teaching claimed that neither was as great as Muhammed. During his sojourn in Medina Muhammed declared that his religious teaching represented a pure restoration of the religion of Abraham, corrupted by the Christians and Jews. One of Muhammed’s first problems was to lead the Arabs out of their state of barbarism (Djahiliyya in Arabic), and inculcate in them higher moral principles. Instead of the widely spread cruel custom of revenge, he preached to his people peace, love, and self-control. He was responsible for putting an end to the custom which prevailed among certain Arabian tribes of burying alive newly born girls. He also attempted to regulate marital relations and limit polygamy by reducing the legally permissible number of wives to four, allowing more freedom in this respect to himself alone. In place of the old tribal conceptions, he advanced the idea of personal rights, including the right of inheritance. Muhammed introduced some directions regarding prayer and fasting; it was necessary to face in the direction of the Kaaba during prayer, and the great fasting period was set in the ninth month, called Ramadan. The weekly holiday was set on Friday. The new teaching prohibited the use of blood, wine, pork, and the flesh of animals which died a natural death or which had served as sacrifices for pagan idols. Gambling was also prohibited. Belief in angels and the devil was compulsory for all Muslims, and the conceptions of heaven and hell, of the Resurrection, and the Last Judgment were distinctly materialistic. The basic elements of these conceptions can be found in the Jewish-Christian apocryphal literature. Muhammed included in his teaching the mercy of God, the repentance of sinners, and the advocacy of good deeds. Modern religious rules and regulations developed gradually, some after the death of Muhammed. Thus, for example, prayer at a set time had not yet been strictly established, even in the time of the Umayyads (Omayyads, Ommiads). The prescribed requirements can be reduced to five: (1) the profession of faith in an only God, Allah, and his prophet, Muhammed; (2) the performance of a definite prayer at a set time with the strict observance of prescribed rituals; (3) the contribution of a certain sum of money toward meeting the military and charitable expenses of the Muhammedan community; (4) fasting during the month of Ramadan; and (5) the pilgrimage to the Kaaba in Mecca (in Arabic such a pilgrimage is called hadj). All the basic principles and regulations of the Muhammedan faith are laid down in a sacred book of revelations of Muhammed, the Koran, which is subdivided into 114 chapters (Sura in Arabic). The tales of Mu-hammed’s teachings and deeds, collected later in various books, bear the name of Sunna.
The history of early Islam in the time of Muhammed is obscure and debatable because of the present condition of sources bearing upon this period. And yet for the history of the Byzantine Empire during the seventh century this problem is of extreme significance, since its adequate solution may affect greatly the explanation of the unusual and rapid military success of the Arabs, who took from the Byzantine Empire its eastern and southern provinces: Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa.
The observations of three profound students illustrate the prevalence of contradictory opinions among scholars with regard to Islam. Goldziher wrote, “There is no doubt that Muhammed thought of spreading his religion beyond the borders of Arabia and of transforming his teaching, originally communicated only to his nearest relatives, into a force which would dominate the entire world.” Grimme stated that on the basis of the Koran one is led to believe that the final aim of Islam was “the complete possession of Arabia.” Caetani wrote that the prophet never dreamed of converting the entire land of Arabia and all the Arabs.
In Muhammed’s litetime not all of Arabia came under his sway. It may be said generally that Arabia, during all of its existence, never recognized a sole ruler for the entire land. In reality Muhammed dominated a territory which occupied perhaps less than a third of the peninsula. This area became strongly influenced by the new ideas of Islam, but the remaining part of Arabia persisted under a political and religious organization differing very little from that which had existed before the appearance of Muhammed. Christianity prevailed in the southwest of the peninsula, in Yemen. The tribes of northeastern Arabia also adopted the Christian faith, which soon became the predominating religion in Mesopotamia and in the Arabian provinces along the Euphrates River, Meanwhile, the official Persian religion was constantly and rapidly declining. Thus, at the time of his death Muhammed was neither the political ruler of all Arabia nor its religious leader.
It is interesting to note that at first the Byzantine Empire viewed Islam as a kind of Arianism and placed it on a level with other Christian sects. Byzantine apologetic and polemic literature argues against Islam in the same manner as it did against the Monophysites, the Monotheletes, and the adherents of other heretical teachings. Thus John Damascene, a member of a Saracen family, who lived at the Muhammedan court in the eighth century, did not regard Islam as a new religion, but considered it only an instance of secession from the true Christian faith similar in nature to other earlier heresies. The Byzantine historians also showed very little interest in the rise of Muhammed and the political movement which he initiated. The first chronicler who records some facts about the life of Muhammed, “the ruler of the Saracens and the pseudo-prophet,” was Theophanes, who wrote in the early part of the ninth century. In the conception of medieval western Europe Islam was not a distinct religion, but a Christian sect, akin in its dogmas to Arianism; and even in the later part of the Middle Ages Dante, in his Divine Comedy, considered Muhammed a heretic and calls him a “sower of scandal and schism” (Seminator di scandalo e di scisma [Inferno, XXVIII, 31-36]).
Causes of the Arabian conquest in the seventh century. — It is customary to point out the religious enthusiasm of the Muslims, which frequently rose to a state of religious fanaticism and absolute intolerance, as one of the main causes for the striking military success of the Arabs in their combat with Persia and the Byzantine Empire in the seventh century. The Arabs are supposed to have rushed upon the Asiatic and African provinces with a determination to carry out the will of their prophet, who had prescribed the conversion of the entire world to the new faith. The victories of the Arabs are ordinarily explained by the religious enthusiasm which prepared the fanatical Muslims to regard death with disdain and made them invincible.
This view should be recognized as unfounded. At the time of Muhammed’s death there were few convinced Muslims, and even this small number remained in Medina until the end of the first great conquests. Very few of the followers of Muhammed fought in Syria and Persia. The great majority of the fighting Arabs consisted of Bedouins who knew of Islam only by hearsay. They were concerned with nothing but material, earthly benefits, and craved spoils and unrestrained license. Religious enthusiasm did not exist among them. Besides, early Islam was tolerant in nature. The Koran states directly that “God will not force anyone beyond his capacity” (II, 257). The indulgent attitude of early Islam toward Christianity and Judaism is well known. The Koran speaks of God’s tolerance of other faiths; “If thy Lord wished, he would make the people as one religious community” (XI, 120). The religious fanaticism and intolerance of the Muslims are later phenomena, alien to the Arabic nation and explainable by the influence of the Muslim proselytes. The victorious conquests of the Arabs in the seventh century cannot be credited to religious enthusiasm and fanaticism.
According to some recent investigations, such as Caetani’s, the real causes of the irrepressible onward rush of the Arabs were materialistic. Arabia, limited in natural resources, could no longer satisfy the physical needs of its population, and threatened by poverty and hunger, the Arabs were forced to make a desperate attempt to free themselves “from the hot prison of the desert.” Unbearable living conditions were responsible for the crushing force with which the Arabs rushed upon the Byzantine Empire and Persia. There was no religious element in this movement.
Though this view is correct to a certain extent, one cannot find a full explanation of the military success of the Arabs in material needs alone. Included also among the causes were internal conditions in the eastern and southern Byzantine provinces so easily occupied by the Arabs, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. Their growing religious dissatisfaction has been repeatedly pointed out. Monophysitic and partly Nestorian in their adherence, they came into conflict continually with the inexorable central government, particularly after the death of Justinian the Great. It was the unyielding policy of the emperors that rendered the provinces of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt ready to secede from the Byzantine Empire and become subjects of the Arabs, who were known for religious tolerance and were interested only in obtaining regular taxes from the conquered provinces. The religious convictions of the conquered peoples concerned the Arabs little.
On the other hand, the orthodox portion of the eastern provinces was also dissatisfied with the policy of the central authorities because of some concessions to the Monophysites, especially in the seventh century. In connection with the Monothelete tendency of Heraclius, Eutychius, the Christian Arabian historian of the tenth century, said that the citizens of Emesa (Hims) called the Emperor a “Maronite (Monothelete) and an enemy of our faith,” and Beladsori, another Arabian historian of the ninth century, said that they then turned to the Arabs, saying, “Your rule and your justice are more agreeable to us than that tyranny and those insults to which we have been subject.” Of course, this is Muhammedan testimony; but it accurately reflects the frame of mind of the orthodox population. The major part of the population of the Byzantine provinces of Syria and Palestine was of Semitic origin and largely of Arabic descent, and that the Arabian conquerors met in the subjected provinces a people of their own race who spoke their own tongue. According to one scholar, “It was, therefore, not a question of conquering a foreign land, whose taxes would constitute the only direct gain, but also of reclaiming part of their own fatherland which was declining under the foreign yoke.” In addition to the general religious dissatisfaction and the kinship to the Arabs, the Byzantine Empire and her army were weakened after the long-continued, though finally successful, campaigns against the Persians, and could not offer the proper resistance to the fresh Arabian forces.
In Egypt there were special causes for the weak resistance to the Arabs. The main reason must be sought in the general conditions prevailing in the Byzantine army. Numerically the troops were perhaps sufficiently strong; but the general organization of the army was poor. It was subdivided into many parts commanded by five different rulers or dukes (duces), entrusted with equal power. There was no unity of action among these governors. Their indifference to the general problems of the province, their personal rivalries, the lack of solidarity and coordination toward a common end, and their military incapacity paralyzed resistance. The soldiers were no better than their leaders. Numerous as the Egyptian army was, its poor leadership and poor training made it very unreliable and created a strong tendency toward defection. “There is no doubt that numerous causes explain the terrifying successes of the Arabs,” Maspero said, “but the main cause of the Byzantine defeat in the valley of the Nile was the poor quality of the army which was intrusted, contrary to all expectations, with the task of defending Egypt.” On the basis of the study of papyri, Gelzer thought that the class of privileged large landowners which arose in Egypt previous to the period of the Arabian conquests became practically independent of the central government and, though it did not create an actual local ruling body, was also one of the main causes for the fall of Byzantine domination. Amélineau, also on the basis of a study of papyri, suggested as another important factor which facilitated the Arabian conquest the inadequate civil administration of Egypt. The English papyrologist H. I. Bell called the conquest of Egypt by the Arabs “no miracle, no example of divine vengeance on erring Christendom; it was merely the inevitable collapse of a structure rotten at the core.” Thus the list of primary causes for Arabian success includes religious conditions in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, the racial kinship of the population of the two first countries to the people of Arabia, the inadequacy of military forces, inefficient military organization and poor civil administration, and class relations in Egypt.
Byzantine as well as the Arabic historical tradition exaggerates very greatly the numerical strength of the troops on both sides. In reality, the armies of the two contending sides were not very large. Some scholars set the number of Arabian soldiers who took part in the Syrian and Palestinian campaigns at 27,000 and even then fear that this figure is an exaggeration of the actual number. The Byzantine army was probably even less numerous. Also, the military operations were carried on, not only by the Arabs of the peninsula, but also by the Arabs of the Syrian desert adjoining the Persian and Byzantine borders.
Closer study of early Islam clearly moves the religious element into the background for the political events of the period. “Islam changed into a political force, because only as such could it triumph over its enemies. Had Islam remained forever a simple moral and religious teaching, its existence would have ceased quickly in skeptical, materialistic Arabia, particularly in the hostile atmosphere of Mecca.” “The champions of Islam had to deal not so much with the conversion of the infidels, as with their subjection.”
Arabian conquests up to the early eighth century. Constantine IV and the siege of Constantinople by the Arabs. Justinian II and the Arabs. — After the death of Muhammed (632), his relative, Abu-Bakr (Abu-Bekr) was elected as the leader of the Muslims with the title of Caliph (Khalifa), meaning “vicar.” The three subsequent caliphs, Omar, Othman, and Ali, were also raised to their position by election, but did not form a dynasty. These four immediate successors of Muhammed are known as the “orthodox caliphs.” The most significant conquests made by the Arabs on Byzantine territory fall in the time of Caliph Omar.
That Muhammed wrote to the rulers of other lands, including Heraclius, proposing that they accept Islam, and that Heraclius responded favorably, is now recognized as a later invention without historical foundation. There are, however, even today scholars who accept this correspondence as a historical fact.
In Muhammed’s lifetime only separate detachments of Bedouins crossed the Byzantine border. But in the time of the second caliph, Omar, events developed rapidly. The chronology of the military events of the thirties and forties of the seventh century is obscure and confused, but probably events developed in the following order: In the year 634 the Arabs took possession of the Byzantine fortress Bothra (Bosra), beyond the Jordan; in 635 the Syrian city of Damascus fell; in 636 the battle on the River Yarmuk led to the Arabian conquest of the entire province of Syria; and in 637 or 638 Jerusalem surrendered after a siege which had lasted for two years. The two leading roles in this siege were played by Caliph Omar on one side and the famous defender of orthodoxy, Patriarch Sophronius of Jerusalem on the other. The text of the agreement upon which Sophronius surrendered Jerusalem to Omar and which established certain religious and social guaranties for the Christian population of the city has survived, with, unfortunately, some later alterations. The Christians had succeeded in removing the Holy Cross from Jerusalem before the Arabs entered the city, and in sending it to Constantinople. The conquest of Mesopotamia and Persia, which happened simultaneously with these Byzantine occupations, terminated the first period of the Arabian conquests in Asia. At the end of the thirties the Arabian chief Amr appeared at the eastern border of Egypt and began its conquest. After the death of Heraclius, in the year 641 or 642, the Arabs occupied Alexandria and the victorious Amr sent this message to Omar in Medina: “I have captured a city from the description of which I shall refrain. Suffice it to say that I have seized therein 4000 villas with 4000 baths, 40,000 poll-tax-paying Jews and four hundred places of entertainment for the royalty.” Toward the end of the forties the Byzantine Empire was forced to abandon Egypt forever. The conquest of Egypt was followed by further advances of the Arabs toward the western shores of North Africa. By the year 650 Syria, a part of Asia Minor and Upper Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, and part of the Byzantine provinces in North Africa, were already under Arabian sway.
The conquests, by bringing the Arabs to the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, put before them new problems of a maritime nature. They had no fleet and were powerless against the numerous Byzantine vessels to which the new Arabian provinces along the seashore were easily accessible. The Arabs recognized the seriousness of the situation very quickly. The Syrian governor and the future caliph, Muawiya (Moawiya), actively began the construction of numerous vessels whose crews had to be gathered at first among the native Greco-Syrian population accustomed to seafaring. Recent studies of papyri reveal the fact that at the end of the seventh century the construction of ships and their equipment with experienced mariners was one of the great problems of the Egyptian administration.
As early as the fifties of the seventh century, in the time of Constans II, the Arabian vessels of Muawiya began their attacks upon Byzantine districts and occupied the important maritime center, the island of Cyprus. Near the coast of Asia Minor they defeated the Byzantine fleet commanded by the Emperor himself, seized the island of Rhodes, destroying there the famous Colossus of Rhodes, and reached as far as Crete and Sicily, menacing the Aegean Sea and apparently heading for the capital of the Empire. The captives taken during these expeditions, particularly those of Sicily, were transported to the Arabian city of Damascus.
The Arabian conquests of the seventh century deprived the Byzantine Empire of its eastern and southern provinces and caused it to lose its important place as the most powerful state in the world. Territorially reduced, the Byzantine Empire became a state with a predominating Greek population, though not so completely as is believed by some scholars. The districts where the Greeks were in the great majority were Asia Minor with the neighboring islands of the Aegean Sea, and Constantinople with its adjoining province. By this time the Balkan peninsula in general, including the Peloponnesus, had changed considerably in its ethnographic composition because of the appearance of large Slavonic settlements. In the West the Byzantine Empire still possessed the separated parts of Italy which were not included in the Lombard kingdom, namely, the southern portion of Italy with Sicily and several other neighboring islands of the Mediterranean Sea, Rome, and the exarchate of Ravenna. The Greek population, which centered primarily in the southern portion of these Byzantine possessions in Italy, increased very greatly in the seventh century, when Italy became the refuge for many inhabitants of Egypt and North Africa who did not wish to become subjects of the Arabian conquerors. It may be said that the Roman Empire was at this period transformed into a Byzantine Empire whose problems became narrower and lost their former sweeping nature. Some historians, for instance, Gelzer, think that the heavy territorial losses were indirectly even beneficial for the Byzantine Empire because they removed the foreign national elements, while “the population of Asia Minor and those parts of the Balkan peninsula which still recognized the authority of the Emperor, formed, by language and faith, a perfectly homogeneous and solidly loyal mass.” From the middle of the seventh century the attention of the Empire had to be directed chiefly to Constantinople, Asia Minor, and the Balkan peninsula. But even these diminished possessions were constantly threatened by the Lombards, Slavs, Bulgarians, and Arabs. L. Bréhier wrote that “this period initiated for Constantinople that historical role of perpetual defense which lasted until the fifteenth century with alternate periods of contraction and expansion.”
In connection with the repercussions of the Arabian conquests, it is extremely important to take into serious consideration the data of the Byzantine hagiographic texts, a source which has hitherto been overlooked or neglected. Byzantine hagiography gives a vivid and striking picture of the mass Byzantine migration from the borderland to the center of the Empire under pressure of Arabian invasions by land and sea, Hagiography confirms, enlarges, and illustrates well those extremely brief indications which historians and chroniclers supply. The paramount significance of the Arabian danger in causing congestion and condensation of the population in the central regions of the Empire may be henceforth considered fully proved.
Further Arabian conquests in North Africa were stopped for a time by the energetic resistance of the Berbers. Military activity on the part of the Arabs was also halted because of the internal struggle which broke out between the last “orthodox caliph” Ali and the Syrian governor Muawiya. This bloody strife ended in the year 661 by the massacre of Ali and the triumph of Muawiya, who ascended the throne, inaugurating thus the new dynasty of the Umayyads (Omayyads). The new caliph made Damascus the capital of his kingdom.
After his success in strengthening his power at home, Muawiya renewed the offensive war against the Byzantine Empire by sending his fleet against the Byzantine capital and by reviving the westward movement on North African territory.
The most trying period for the Byzantine Empire came during the reign of the energetic Constantine IV (668-85), when the Arabian fleet crossed the Aegean Sea and the Hellespont, entered the Propontis, and established itself in the city of Cyzicus. Using this harbor as their base, the Arabs repeatedly though unsuccessfully besieged Constantinople. They made their sieges annually, usually during the summer months. The Arabs did not take the capital, chiefly because the Emperor knew how to prepare the city for offering the necessary resistance. The successful defense carried on by the Byzantine army was due primarily to the use of “Greek fire,” otherwise called “liquid” or “Marine” fire, invented by the architect Callinicus, a Syrian-Greek fugitive. The common name of this invention has led to some misapprehensions. “Greek fire” was a sort of explosive compound, thrust out by special tubes or siphons, which inflamed when it struck against the vessel of the enemy. The Byzantine fleet was equipped with special “siphonophore” vessels which caused terrific confusion among the Arabs. There were also other methods of hurling this “artificial fire” at the enemy. The peculiar quality of this fire was the fact that it burned even on water. For a very considerable period of time the secret of the composition of this fire was vigilantly guarded by the government, because this new weapon aided the success of the Byzantine fleet in numerous instances.
All the attempts of the Arabian vessels to capture Constantinople failed. In the year 677 the hostile fleet departed, sailing toward the Syrian shores. On its way there, off the southern coast of Asia Minor, it was demolished by a severe storm. The military operations on land in Asia Minor were also unsuccessful for the Arabs. The aged Muawiya was forced to negotiate a peace agreement with the Byzantine Emperor on the condition of paying him a definite annual tribute.
By the successful repulse of the Arabs from Constantinople and by the advantageous peace treaty, Constantine performed a great service, not only for his own Empire, but also for western Europe, which was thus shielded from the serious Muslim menace. It is interesting to note that the success of Constantine made a strong impression in the West. According to one chronicler, when the news of Constantine’s accomplishments reached the Khagan of the Avars and other western rulers, “they sent ambassadors with gifts to the Emperor and begged him to establish peaceful and loving relations with them … and there came a time of great peace in the East and in the West.”
During the first reign of Justinian II (685-95), the successor of Constantine IV, an event which was of considerable significance in the further development of Arabo-Byzantine relations occurred on the eastern Arabian border. The mountains of the Syrian Lebanon were inhabited for a long time by the so-called Mardaites, which may be translated “rebels,” “apostates,” or “bandits.” They were organized as an army and served as the rampart of the Byzantine authorities in this district. After the Arabian conquest of Syria the Mardaites retreated northward to the Arabo-Byzantine border and caused the Arabs much trouble and anxiety by their constant raids upon the neighboring districts. According to a chronicle, the Mardaites formed “a brass wall” which protected Asia Minor from Arabian irruptions. By the peace treaty negotiated under Justinian II the Emperor agreed to force the Mardaites to settle in the inner provinces of the Empire, and for this favor the caliph promised to pay a certain tribute. This step on the part of the Emperor “destroyed the brass wall.” In later times the Mardaites are found as seafarers in Pamphylia (Southern Asia Minor), in the Peloponnesus, on the island of Cephalonia (Kephallenia) and in several other districts. Their removal from the Arabian border unquestionably strengthened the position of the Arabs in the newly conquered provinces and facilitated the subsequent Arabian offensive movement into the depth of Asia Minor. There is no sufficient ground for viewing this event, as does Professor Kulakovsky, as an act prompted by “the emperor’s consideration for the Christians who were ruled by men of an alien faith.” The basis for this transmigration of the Mardaites was a purely political one.
In the sixties of the seventh century, simultaneously with the attempts to seize Constantinople in the East, the Arabian army began its westward movement in North Africa. At the close of the seventh century the Arabs took Carthage, the capital of the African exarchate, and at the beginning of the eighth century they occupied Septem (now the Spanish fortress, Ceuta) near the Pillars of Hercules. About the same time the Arabs, under the leadership of their general, Tarik, crossed from Africa to Spain and rapidly conquered from the Visigoths the larger part of the peninsula. From the name of Tarik came the modern Arabic name of Gibraltar, meaning “the mountain of Tarik.” Thus in the early part of the eighth century the Muhammedan menace to western Europe appeared from a different direction, namely, from the Pyrenean peninsula.
It is interesting to note how fast and how deep the Arab language and culture spread over Spain. A large number of urban Christians adopted Arabic culture though they did not adopt Islam; there were enough of them to constitute a social class, called by the epithet of Arab origin Mozarabs, that is, “arabicized,” In the ninth century the bishop of Cordoba, Alvaro, complained in one of his sermons:
Many of my coreligionists read verses and fairy tales of the Arabs, study the works of Muhammedan philosophers and theologians not in order to refute them but to learn to express themselves properly in the Arab language more correctly and more elegantly. Who among them studies the Gospels, and Prophets and Apostles? Alas! All talented Christian young men know only the language and literature of the Arabs, read and assiduously study the Arab books. ... If somebody speaks of Christian books they contemptuously answer that they deserve no attention whatever (quasi vilissima contemnentes). Woe! The Christians have forgotten their own language, and there is hardly one among a thousand to be found who can write to a friend a decent greeting letter in Latin. But there is a numberless multitude who express themselves most elegantly in Arabic and make poetry in this language with more beauty and more art than the Arabs themselves.
A similar process may be noted in Egypt. The year 699, when the Arab language was rendered obligatory in public use, marks the final end of Greek and Egyptian literatures on Egyptian soil. After that date we have the era of translation of Coptic works into Arabic.
The relations established between the Arabs and the population of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt differed greatly from those created in North Africa, in the territories of modern Tripoli, Tunis, Algeria, and Morocco. In Syria, Palestine, and Egypt the Arabs did not meet any strong resistance on the part of the population, but rather commanded the support and sympathy of the conquered people. In response the Arabs treated their new subjects with great tolerance. With a few exceptions, they left the Christians their temples and the right to perform religious services, demanding in return only the regular payment of a definite tax and the assured political loyalty of the Christians to the Arabian rulers. Jerusalem, as one of the most revered places of Christendom, remained open to pilgrims who came to Palestine from distant points of western Europe to worship at the holy places. Jerusalem still kept its hostelries and hospitals for these pilgrims. It must also be remembered that in Syria, Palestine, and Egypt the Arabs came in contact with Byzantine civilization, and that influence soon became apparent among the conquerors. Briefly, in Syria and Palestine the conquerors and the conquered established peaceful relations which lasted for a considerable period of time. Somewhat less satisfactory was the state of affairs in Egypt; but even there the attitude to the Christians was quite tolerant, at least during the early years of the Arabian sway.
After the Arabian conquest the patriarchates of the occupied provinces fell into the hands of the Monophysites. In spite of this, the Muslim rulers granted certain privileges to the orthodox population of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, and after some lapse of time the orthodox patriarchates of Antioch and Alexandria were also restored. These patriarchates still exist. The Arabian historian and geographer of the tenth century, Masudi, said that under the Arabian domination all four sacred mountains — Mount Sinai, Horeb, the Mount of Olives near Jerusalem, and “the Mount of Jordan” (Mount Thabor) — remained in the hands of the orthodox. Only gradually did the Monophysites and other “heretics,” including the Muslims, borrow from the orthodox the cult of Jerusalem and the holy places. Along with Mecca and Medina, Jerusalem was later recognized as a sacred Muslim city. For the Muhammedans the sacred significance of the city was established by the fact that Muawiya assumed the rank of caliph in Jerusalem.
Quite different was the state of affairs in North Africa. There the great majority of the Berber tribes, in spite of the official adoption of Christianity, still remained in their former state of barbarism and offered a very strong resistance to the Arabian armies, which repaid this opposition by terrible raids and devastation in the Berber districts. Thousands of captives were taken east and sold there into slavery. “In the dead cities of Tunis,” said Diehl, “which are today in most cases in the same condition in which they were left by the Arabian invasion, one still finds at every turn some traces of these formidable raids.” When the Arabians finally succeeded in conquering the north African provinces, many of the natives migrated to Italy and Gaul. The African church, once so famous in the annals of Christian history, suffered a very heavy blow. Here is what Diehl says with regard to the events of this period: “For two centuries the Byzantine Empire had conserved in these districts the difficult heritage of Rome; for two centuries the empire made the great and steady progress of these provinces possible by the strong defense of their fortresses; for two centuries it upheld in this part of North Africa the traditions of classical civilization and converted the Berbers to a higher culture by means of religious propaganda. In fifty years the Arabian invasion undid all these achievements.” In spite of the rapid spread of Islam among the Berbers, however, Christianity still continued to exist among them, and even in the fourteenth century we hear of “some small Christian islands” in North Africa.
The Slavonic advance and the origin of the Bulgarian kingdom.
From the second half of the sixth century the Slavs not only continually attacked and pillaged the Balkan possessions of the Byzantine Empire, but they reached as far as the Hellespont, Thessalonica, southern Greece, and the shores of the Adriatic Sea, and settled there in large numbers. The Avaro-Slavonic attack on the capital occurred in the year 626, during the reign of Heraclius; in the period of the Heraclian dynasty the Slavs persistently advanced into the peninsula and began to populate it very densely. Thessalonica became surrounded by Slavonic tribes and found it difficult to seek protection against their attacks even within its strong city walls.
In their vessels the Slavs descended to the Aegean Sea, attacking the Byzantine fleet and frequently cutting off the supply of provisions to the capital. The emperor Constans II was forced to undertake a campaign “against Sclavinia.” From this time dates the migration of large masses of Slavs to Asia Minor and Syria. Under Justinian II a horde of Slavs numbering no less than 80,000, according to V. I. Lamansky, were transported to Opsikion, one of the themes of Asia Minor. One part of them (about 30,000) was mobilized by the Emperor and later took part in the struggle with the Arabs, during which they deserted the Emperor and sided with the Muhammedans. For this terrible offense the remaining Slavs of Opsikion were subjected to formidable massacres. A seal of the Slavonic military colony of Bithynia, a province in the theme of Opsikion, has survived from this period. It is a monument of great value, “a new fragment of Slavonic tribal history,” which affords “a ray of light in the twilight of the great migrations,” as B. A. Panchenko, who published and interpreted this seal, declared. Beginning with the seventh century, the problem of Slavonic settlements in Asia Minor assumes a very profound significance.
The second half of the seventh century was marked also by the formation of the new Bulgarian kingdom on the northern border of the Byzantine Empire along the shore of the lower Danube, a state whose subsequent history was of extreme importance to the fate of the Empire. During this period the reference is to the old Bulgarians, a people of Hunnic (Turkish) origin, closely related to the tribe of Onogurs. Under Constans II a Bulgarian horde headed by Asparuch (Isperich), forced by the Khazars to move westward from the steppes bordering the Sea of Azov, settled at the mouth of the Danube, and later moved farther south, entering the part of Byzantine territory which is now known as Dobrudja. These Bulgarians, as V. N. Zlatarsky asserted, had previously formed an agreement with the Byzantine Empire by which, as allies of the Empire, they were supposed to protect the Danubian border against the attacks of other barbarians. It is difficult to say whether this assertion is correct or not because very little is known about the early history of the Bulgarians. Even if such an agreement really existed, it did not last very long. The Bulgar horde greatly preoccupied the mind of the Emperor, and in the year 679 Constantine IV undertook a campaign against them. The expedition ended in the complete defeat of the Byzantine army, and the Emperor was forced to negotiate a treaty according to which he bound himself to pay the Bulgarians annual tribute and cede to them the land between the Danube and the Balkans, namely, the former provinces of Moesia and Smaller Scythia (now Dobrudja). The mouth of the Danube and part of the Black Sea coast remained in the hands of the Bulgarians. The newly formed kingdom, recognized perforce by the Byzantine Emperor, became a dangerous neighbor.
After becoming politically established, the Bulgarians gradually widened their territorial possessions and collided with the compact Slavonic population of the neighboring provinces. The Bulgarian newcomers introduced military organization and discipline among the Slavs. Acting as a unifying element among the Slavonic tribes of the peninsula who had lived up to this time in separated groups, the Bulgarians gradually developed a powerful state which was, quite naturally, a great menace to the Byzantine Empire. In subsequent periods numerous military campaigns had to be organized by the Byzantine rulers against the Bulgarians and Slavs. Numerically weaker than the Slavs, the Bulgarian horde of Asparuch soon found itself under the great influence of the Slavonic atmosphere. Great racial changes took place among these Bulgarians; they gradually lost their original Hunnic (Turkish) nationality and became almost completely Slavonized by the middle of the ninth century, although even today they still bear their old name of Bulgarians.
In 1899 and 1900 the Russian Archeological Institute at Constantinople undertook to excavate the supposed site of the older Bulgarian seat (aul) and discovered extremely valuable survivals. On the site of the old capital of the Bulgarian kingdom (Pliska, or Pliskova) near the modern village of Aboba in northeastern Bulgaria, somewhat northeast of the city of Shumla (Shumen), the excavators discovered the foundations of the palace of the early Khans of Bulgaria and part of its walls with towers and gates, the foundations of a large church, inscriptions, many artistic and ornamental objects, gold and bronze coins, and lead seals. Unfortunately, these materials cannot be adequately evaluated and explained because the sources referring to this period are very scanty. One must confine himself at present to hypotheses and conjectures. Th. I. Uspensky, who directed the excavations, stated that the “discoveries made by the Institute on the site of the camp near Shumla have brought to light very important data which afford sufficient basis for the formation of a clear idea about the Bulgarian horde which settled in the Balkans, and about the gradual transformations caused by the influence of relations with the Byzantine Empire.” “As evidenced by the earliest monuments of Bulgarian customs and manners, found during the excavation of their old capital,” the same scholar said, “the Bulgarians soon became subject to the cultural influence of Constantinople, and their Khans gradually assumed in their court the customs and ceremonies of the Byzantine court.” The major part of the monuments unearthed during the excavations belong to an epoch later than the time of Asparuch, chiefly to the eighth and ninth centuries. The excavations are far from being completed.
The proposal to move the capital of the Empire. — In the middle of the seventh century the position of Constantinople changed radically. The Arabian conquest of the eastern and southeastern Byzantine provinces, frequent Arabian attacks on the provinces of Asia Minor, the successful expeditions of the Arabian fleet in the Mediterranean and Aegean Seas, and, on the other hand, the rise of the Bulgarian kingdom on the northern border and the gradual advance of the Balkan Slavs toward the capital, the Aegean coast, and into Greece created new and singular conditions in Constantinople, which now no longer felt secure. The capital had always drawn its power from the eastern provinces, and now a part of these had been taken away from the Empire, while the remaining part became exposed to danger and threats on many sides. Only with reference to these new conditions can we properly analyze the desire on the part of Constans II to leave Constantinople and move the capital back to old Rome, or some other point in Italy. The chroniclers explain the Emperor’s departure from the capital by the fact that he was forced to flee by the hatred of the people, aroused by the Emperor’s murder of his brother, but this explanation can hardly be accepted from a historical point of view.
The true reason was that the Emperor no longer considered it safe to remain in Constantinople. Besides, it is very likely that he realized the inevitable approach of the Arabian menace from North Africa to Italy and Sicily, and decided to strengthen the power of the Empire in the western part of the Mediterranean Sea by his presence, which would enable him to take all measures for preventing the Arabs from spreading their conquest beyond the boundaries of Egypt. It is probable that the Emperor did not intend to leave Constantinople forever, but desired only to establish for the Empire a second central point in the West, as had been the case in the fourth century, hoping that it might aid in halting the further advance of the Arabs. In any event, in modern historical literature the westward yearning of Constans II, somewhat puzzling at first glance, is explained by no personal sensitivity of the Emperor, but by political conditions.
Meanwhile, the state of affairs in Italy did not promise peace. The exarchs of Ravenna, having ceased to feel the strong will of the Emperor because of the great distance which separated them from Constantinople and also because of the extreme complexity of conditions in the East, openly tended toward defection. The Lombards were in possession of a large part of Italy. The Emperor’s authority, however, was still recognized in Rome, Naples, Sicily, and the southernmost part of Italy, where the population was predominantly Greek.
Upon leaving Constantinople, Constans II started out for Italy by way of Athens, and, after a sojourn in Rome, Naples, and the southern part of Italy, established himself in the Sicilian city of Syracuse. He spent the last five years of his reign in Italy without succeeding in accomplishing his original projects.
His struggle with the Lombards was not successful. Sicily was still constantly menaced by the Arabs. A plot was formed against the Emperor and he was killed in a pitiful manner in one of the Syracusan bathhouses. After his death the idea of transferring the capital to the West was abandoned, and his son, Constantine IV, remained in Constantinople.