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History of the Byzantine empire
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In Byzantine history the organization of the themes is usually connected with the epoch of the Heraclian dynasty. The organization of the themes means that peculiar provincial organization, prompted by the conditions of the times, whose distinguishing feature was the growth of the military power of the provincial governors, and finally their complete superiority over the civil authorities. This process was not sudden but gradual. For a long time the Greek word theme (το θεμα) meant a military corps stationed in a province, and only later, probably in the eighth century, was it applied not only to the military detachment, but also to the province where it was stationed. Thus it began to be applied to the administrative divisions of the Empire.
The main Byzantine source on the problem of the themes is the work On Themes, written by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, the emperor of the tenth century, and hence dating from a period much later than the epoch of the Heraclian dynasty. This work has also the disadvantage of being based in some places on geographical works of the fifth and sixth centuries, used very superficially or copied verbatim. But although this work does not give much information on theme organization in the seventh century, it does connect the beginning of the system with the name of Heraclius. The Emperor said: “Since the reign of Heraclius the Libyan (i.e. African), the Roman Empire has become reduced in size and mutilated both from the east and from the west.” Very interesting, though not yet fully explained, material on this problem is found in the works of the Arabian geographers Ibn-Khurdadhbah (Khordadhbeh), of the first half of the ninth century, and Kudama, of the early tenth century, though these men, of course, were not contemporaries of the Heraclian epoch. For the study of the earlier period of the theme system, historians have made use of occasional remarks of chroniclers and especially of the Latin message of Justinian II to the pope, dating from the year 687, regarding the confirmation of the Sixth Ecumenical Council. This epistle contains a list of the military districts of that period, not yet referred to as themes, but denoted by the Latin word exercitus (army). In historical sources of that time the Latin word exercitus and the Greek word στρατος or sometimes στρατευμα were often used in the sense of a territory or province with military administration.
The true precursors of the theme organization were the exarchates of Ravenna and Carthage (Africa), established at the end of the sixth century. The attacks of the Lombards caused the drastic change in the administration of Italy, as those of the Berbers (Moors) caused in North Africa. The central government, with a view toward creating a more efficient defense against its enemies, attempted to form large territorial units with strong military authorities in its border provinces. The Persian, and later the Arabian, conquests of the seventh century, which deprived the Byzantine Empire of its eastern provinces, completely changed conditions in Asia Minor. From a land which practically never needed any serious defense it became transformed into a territory constantly and strongly menaced by its Muslim neighbors. The Byzantine government was forced to undertake decisive measures on its eastern border: military forces were regrouped and new administrative divisions were established, giving predominance to the military authorities, whose services at this time were of extreme importance. Equally great was the menace from the newly constructed Arabian fleet, which was almost master of the Mediterranean Sea as early as the seventh century, and threatened the shores of Asia Minor, the islands of the Archipelago, and even the shores of Italy and Sicily. In the northwest of the Empire the Slavs occupied a considerable part of the Balkan peninsula and penetrated far into Greece, including the Peloponnesus. On the northern border rose the Bulgarian kingdom (in the second half of the seventh century). These altered conditions forced the Empire to resort in the most insecure provinces to the establishment of extensive districts ruled by strong military power, similar to the exarchates. The Empire was militarized.
The fact that the themes were not the result of one legislative act meant that each theme had its own history, sometimes a rather long one. The problem of the origin of themes can be solved only by special research on each individual theme. Kulakovsky’s writings are of interest in this connection. The military measures taken by Heraclius after his victory over Persia were, he believed, the point of departure of the new administrative regime. Bréhier supported Kulakovsky in this view. Armenia may be an example of the militarization of the empire under pressure of the Persian danger, for when Heraclius reorganized Armenia, he appointed no civil administrator. The authority was purely military. The theme system, then, was merely the application to other provinces of the regime instituted in Armenia. Th. Uspensky called attention to the Slavs. When they inundated the Balkan peninsula about the time of the theme formation, he said, they “contributed to the formation of the theme organization in Asia Minor by supplying a considerable number of volunteers for the colonization of Bithynia.” This statement is to be taken with caution, however, for there is no evidence of a mass Slav immigration into Asia Minor before the transporting of 80,000 Slavs to Opsikion under Justinian II at the end of the seventh century.
It is definitely known that for defense against the oncoming danger there were established in the East in the seventh century the following four large military districts, later called themes: 1) Armeniaci (Armeniakoi) in northeast Asia Minor bordering on Armenia; 2) Anatolici (Anatolikoi, from the Greek word Anatoli, ανατολη, “the east”); 3) “the imperial God-guarded Opsikton” (Greek οψικιον, Latin, obsequium), in Asia Minor near the Sea of Marmora; and 4) the maritime thema Caravisionorum, called later, perhaps in the eighth century, Cibyrrhaeot (Cibyraiot), on the southern shore of Asia Minor and in the neighboring islands. The first two, occupying the entire middle portion of Asia Minor from the borders of Cilicia in the east to the shores of the Aegean Sea in the west were intended to serve as a protection against the Arabs. The third was to shield the capital from external enemies. The fourth, the maritime theme, was intended as a defense against the Arabian fleet.
A striking analogy exists between this theme organization and the militarization of the Persian Empire of the Sassanids, under the kings Kawadh and Chosroes Nushirvan, in the sixth century. In Persia also the whole territory of the empire was divided among four military commands. The analogy is so complete and so close that Stein explained it as a deliberate intention on the part of the Emperor to adopt the Persian reform. The sources, he said, give reason to believe that Heraclius studied the reforms of both Persian monarchs and perhaps even had access to some material from the Persian archives. “To learn from one’s enemy has always been the desire of all true statesmen.”
In the Balkan peninsula the district of Thrace was created against the Slavs and Bulgarians, and later, perhaps at the end of the seventh century, the Greek military district of Hellas or Helladici (Helladikoi) was formed against Slavonic irruptions into Greece. About the same time, probably, the district of Sicily was organized against the maritime attacks of the Arabs, who were beginning to threaten the western part of the Mediterranean Sea. With very few exceptions these districts or themes were governed by strategi (strategoi). The ruler of the Cibyraiot (Cibyrrhaeot) theme was called the drungarius (vice-admiral), and the governor of Opsikion bore the title of comes.
The organization of the themes, then, may be traced back to Heraclius’ attempt to militarize the Empire under pressure of the Persian danger. He succeeded in accomplishing, however, as far as is known, the reorganization only of Armenia. The brilliant victory over Persia which led to the recovery of Syria, Palestine, and Egypt, created an urgent need for reorganization in those provinces. Heraclius, however, had no time to accomplish this task because he speedily lost them again to the Arabs. The Persian danger had been eliminated, but a new, more menacing, Arab danger arose in its stead. Heraclius’ successors, following his lead, created military districts (later called themes) against the Arabs. Simultaneously the emperors were led by the growing Slavonic and Bulgarian menace in the north of the Empire to extend these methods of defense and protection in the Balkan peninsula and in Greece.
In these military districts and in the exarchates the civil authorities did not immediately give way to military rulers. The civil administration, the civil provinces (eparchies), continued to exist under the new order in the majority of districts. The military authorities, however, invested with full powers in view of external dangers, steadily made themselves felt more and more strongly in civil administration. “Heraclius’ seed,” Stein remarked, “has marvelously grown.”
Heraclius has left some trace in Byzantine legislation. In the published collection of Novels his period is represented by four which deal with various questions referring to the clergy and are dated from 612 to 629. There are some indications of other laws of Heraclius which have not been preserved in their entirety but of which there are traces; and it is possible to prove that some of these laws were accepted and introduced into legislation in the West by the Germans and in the East by the Arabs. This can be proved at least for some laws dealing with forgery of coins, official seals, and public documents.
The three accidental rulers, Vardan or Philippicus, Anastasius II, and Theodosius III, who occupied the throne after Justinian II, were deposed in rapid succession. Anarchy and mutiny prevailed throughout the Empire. By favoring Monotheletism, Vardan broke off peaceful relations with Rome. Anastastus, however, succeeded in restoring the former agreement with the pope. In external affairs the Empire was particularly unsuccessful. The Bulgarians, determined to take revenge for the murder of Justinian, who had been friendly towards them, moved southward as far as Constantinople. The Arabs, advancing persistently by land through Asia Minor and by water in the Aegean Sea and the Propontis, also menaced the capital. The Empire was going through a very critical period, similar to the one which had preceded the revolution of the year 610, and once more it was in need of an able, energetic man who could save it from inevitable ruin. Such a man appeared in the person of the strategus of the theme of Anatolici, Leo, a man with a very wide following. The weak Theodosius III, realizing his complete impotence against the approaching menace, renounced his imperial rank, and in the year 717 Leo entered Constantinople in triumphant procession and was crowned emperor by the patriarch in the temple of St. Sophia. He spared the life of Theodosius III. Leo thus rose from a military ruler entrusted with wide power in the theme organization to emperor.
With regard to letters and art, the period from 610 to 717 is the darkest epoch in the entire existence of the Empire. After the abundant activity of the preceding century, intellectual creativeness seemed to have died out completely. The main cause of the sterility of this period must be sought in the political conditions of the Empire, which was forced to direct all its energies toward defense against its external enemies. The Persian, and later the Arabian, conquest of the culturally advanced and intellectually productive eastern provinces of Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa, the Arabian menace to Asia Minor, the islands of the Mediterranean, and even the capital itself, the Avaro-Slavonic menace in the Balkan peninsula — all this created conditions practically prohibitive of any intellectual and artistic activity. Unfavorable conditions prevailed, not only in the provinces torn away from the Empire, but also in those which still formed part of it.
During this entire period the Byzantine Empire had not a single historian. Only the deacon of St. Sophia, George of Pisidia (a province in Asia Minor), who lived in the days of Heraclius, described in harmonious and correct verses the military campaigns of Heraclius against the Persians and the Avars. He left three historical works: (1) On the Expedition of Emperor Heraclius against the Persians, (2) On the Attack of the Avars on Constantinople in the Year 626, and Their Defeat through the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, and (3) Heraclias, a panegyric in honor of the Emperor on the occasion of his final victory over the Persians. Among other works of a polemic, elegiac, and theological nature we might point out the Hexaemeron (Six Days), a kind of philosophical-theological didactic poem on the creation of the universe with allusions to contemporary events. This work, dealing with the favorite subject of Christian writers, spread beyond the borders of the Byzantine Empire; for instance, a Slavo-Russian translation was made in the fourteenth century. The poetical genius of George of Pisidia was appreciated in later centuries, and in the eleventh century the famous Byzantine scholar and philosopher, Michael Psellus, was even asked to solve the problem: “Who was a better writer of verse, Euripides or George of Pisidia?” The modern scholarly world regards George as the best secular poet of the Byzantine period.
Among the chroniclers were John of Antioch and the anonymous author of the Chronicon Paschale (Easter Chronicle). John of Antioch, who lived probably in the time of Heraclius, wrote a universal chronicle including the period from Adam to the death of the Emperor Phocas (610). In view of the fact that this work has survived only in fragments, there have been long disputes among scholars with regard to the identity of the author. Sometimes he has been even identified with John Malalas, also a native of Syrian Antioch. Insofar as the surviving fragments show, the work of John of Antioch should be recognized as much superior to the work of Malalas, for it does not consider world history from the narrow confines of a native of Antioch, and has, therefore, a much broader historical aim. It also exhibits a more skillful use of early sources. It was also in the time of Heraclius that some unknown clergyman composed the so-called Chronicon Paschale (Easter Chronicle) which, although it is nothing but a list of events from Adam until A.D. 629, contains several rather interesting historical remarks. The main value of this unoriginal work lies in the determination of the sources used and in that part which deals with events contemporary with the author.
In the field of theology the Monotheletic disputes of the seventh century, just as the Monophysitic disputes of earlier ages, gave rise to a fairly extensive literature which has not, however, been preserved, having been condemned by the councils of the seventh century and destined to perish early, in a manner similar to that of the Monophysitic writings. This literature must be judged, therefore, almost exclusively on the basis of the acts of the Sixth Ecumenical Council and the works of Maximus Confessor, which quote fragments of these extinguished works in the course of confuting them.
Maximus Confessor was one of the most remarkable Byzantine theologians. As a contemporary of Heraclius and Constans II, he was a convinced defender of orthodoxy during the period of the Monothelete disputes of the seventh century. For his convictions he was sent to prison and, after numerous tortures, exiled to the distant Caucasian province of Lazica, where he remained until the end of his days. In his works dealing with polemics, the exegesis of the Scriptures, asceticism, mysticism, and liturgies he reflected chiefly the influence of the three famous church fathers — Athanasius the Great, Gregory of Nazianzus, and Gregory of Nyssa — as well as the mystical views of the so-called “Dionysius the Areopagite” (Pseudo-Areopagite), widely spread in the Middle Ages. The writings of Maximus were of particular importance in the development of Byzantine mystics. “By combining the dry speculative mysticism of Dionysius the Areopagite,” wrote one of the modern students of Maximus, “with the living ethical problems of contemplative asceticism, the blessed Maximus created a living type of Byzantine mysticism which reappeared in the works of numerous later ascetics. He may thus be considered the creator of Byzantine mysticism in the full sense of the term.” Unfortunately Maximus did not leave a systematic account of his views, and they must be winnowed from his numerous writings. Besides his theological and mystical writings, Maximus left also a large number of interesting letters.
The influence and importance of the writings of Maximus were not confined to the East alone. They found their way into the West and were later reflected in the writings of the famous western thinker of the ninth century, John the Scot Eriugena (Johannes Scotus Eriugena), who was also greatly interested in the works of Dionysius the Areopagite, and later averred that he attained an understanding of the “obscurest” ideas of Dionysius only through the “marvelous manner” in which they were explained by Maximus, whom Eriugena calls “the divine philosopher,” “the all-wise,” “the most distinguished of teachers,” etc. Maximus’ work on Gregory the Theologian was translated by Eriugena into Latin. A younger contemporary of Maximus, Anastasius Sinaita (of Mount Sinai), developed his own polemic and exegetic literary works in a manner similar to that of Maximus, exhibiting, however, much less genius.
In the field of hagiography one might point out the patriarch of Jerusalem, Sophronius, who lived through the Arabian siege of the sacred city and wrote an extensive narrative of the martyrdom and miracles of the Egyptian national saints, Cyrus and Johannes. This work contains much information on geography and on the history of manners and customs. Still greater in interest are the writings of Leontius, bishop of Neapolis in Cyprus, who also lived in the seventh century. He was the author of several “lives,” among which the Life of John the Merciful, archbishop of Alexandria in the seventh century, is particularly valuable for the history of the social and economic life of the period. Leontius of Neapolis differs from the great majority of hagiographs in that he wrote his Lives of Saints for the mass of the population; hence his language reflects a strong influence of the popular spoken language.
In the field of church hymn-writing the seventh century is represented by Andrew (Andreas) of Crete, a native of Damascus, who spent the major part of his life in Syria and Palestine after they had come under Arab sway. He was later appointed archbishop of Crete. As a writer of hymns he is famous chiefly because of his Great Canon, which is read even today in the orthodox church twice during Lent. Some parts of the Canon show the influence of Romanus the Hymn-writer (Melode). The Canon reviews the principal events of the Old Testament, beginning with the fall of Adam, and the words and deeds of the Saviour.
This brief survey of literary events during the dark and trying years of the Heraclian dynasty shows that most of the limited number of Byzantine writers of the period came from the eastern provinces, some already under the new rule of the Muslim conquerors.
In view of the external events of the Heraclian dynasty, it is not surprising that no monuments of art of that period exist today. However, the very small number of surviving monuments of the seventh century speak clearly of the solidity of the foundations laid for the artistic life of Byzantium in the Golden Age of Justinian the Great. And though, beginning with the second half of the sixth century, Byzantine art makes itself felt only very slightly within the Empire, its influence in the seventh century is very clearly marked beyond the borders of the Empire. A number of dated churches of Armenia represent splendid examples of Byzantine influence. Among these are the Cathedral of Edgmiatsin (Etschmiadzin), restored between 611 and 628, and the church of the citadel of Ani (622). The mosque of Omar at Jerusalem, built in 687-90, is a purely Byzantine work. Some frescoes of Santa Maria Antica at Rome belong to the seventh or the beginning of the eighth century.