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History of the Byzantine empire
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The attitude toward Arabs, Bulgarians, and Slavs.
At the time of Leo’s accession to the throne the Byzantine Empire was experiencing one of the most critical periods in its history. In addition to the frightful internal anarchy caused by the Emperor’s struggle with the representatives of the Byzantine aristocracy, which had become particularly aggressive since the time of the first deposition of Justinian II, there was the Arabian menace in the East, which was coming closer to the capital. The period resembled the seventies of the seventh century under Constantine IV, and seemed even more critical in many respects.
The Arabian forces on land passed through all of Asia Minor to the west, even during the reign of the two predecessors of Leo, and occupied Sardis and Pergamus, near the shores of the Aegean Sea. At the head of the Arabian troops stood a distinguished general, Maslamah. Only a few months after Leo’s entry into Constantinople in 717, the Arabs moved on northward from Pergamus, reaching Abydos on the Hellespont, and upon crossing to the European shore, soon found themselves at the walls of the capital. At the same time a strong Arabian fleet consisting of 1,800 vessels of different types, according to the chronicle of Theophanes, sailed through the Hellespont and the Propontis and surrounded the capital by sea. A real siege of Constantinople ensued. Leo demonstrated his brilliant military ability, however, by preparing the capital for the siege in an excellent manner. Once more the skillful use of “Greek fire” caused severe damage in the Arabian fleet, while hunger and the extremely severe winter of 717-18 completed the final defeat of the Muslim army. By force of an agreement with Leo III, as well as in self-defense, the Bulgarians also were fighting against the Arabs on Thracian territory and caused heavy losses in their army. Slightly more than a year after the beginning of the siege, the Arabs departed from the capital, which was thus saved by the genius and energy of Leo III. The first mention of the chain which barred the way into the Golden Horn to the enemy ships was made in connection with this siege.
Historians attach very great significance to this failure of the Muslims to occupy Constantinople. It is justly claimed that by his successful resistance Leo saved, not only the Byzantine Empire and the eastern Christian world, but also all of western European civilization. The English scholar Bury calls the year 718 “an ecumenical date.” The Greek historian Lampros compares these events to the Persian wars of ancient Greece and calls Leo the Miltiades of medieval Hellenism. If Constantine IV halted the Arabs under Constantinople, Leo III definitely forced them back. This was the last attack of the Arabs upon the “God-guarded” city. Viewed from this standpoint, Leo’s victory assumes universal historical significance. The expedition of the Arabs against Constantinople, as well as the name of Maslamah, have left a considerable trace in the later Muhammedan legendary tradition; the name of the latter is also connected with a mosque, which, tradition says, he constructed at Constantinople.
And yet this was one of the most brilliant epochs in the history of the early caliphate. Powerful Calif Walid I (705-15), a contemporary of the period of anarchy in the Byzantine Empire, could vie with the emperors in his construction achievements. A mosque was erected in Damascus which, like St. Sophia for the Christians, remained for a long time the most magnificent structure of the Muslim world. Muhammed’s grave at Medina was as splendid as the Holy Sepulcher at Jerusalem. It is interesting to note that among the Muslims these buildings were associated with legends relating not only to Muhammed but also to Christ. The first call of Jesus when he returns to earth, declares Muslim tradition, will come from one of the minarets of the mosque of Damascus, and the free space next to Muhammed’s grave at Medina will serve for the grave of Jesus when he dies after his second advent.
Gradually the struggle between the Empire and the caliphate assumed the character of a sacred war. The results were satisfactory to neither Greeks nor Arabs, for the Greeks did not gain Jerusalem and the Arabs did not gain Constantinople. “Under the influence of this outcome,” said V. Barthold, “among the Christians as well as among the Muslims, the idea of the triumphant state changed to the idea of repentance, and both were expecting the end of the world. It seemed to both that only just before the end of the world could the final aims of their states be attained. In the Latin, as well as in the Greek, world a legend became current to the effect that before the end of the universe the Christian ruler (the Frankish king or the Byzantine emperor) would enter Jerusalem and hand over his earthly crown to the Saviour, while the Muslims expected the end of the world to be preceded by the fall of Constantinople. It was not accidental that the reign of the ‘sole pious’ Umayyad calif, Omar II (717-20), came about the year 100 of the hegira (about the year 720), when the end of the Muslim state, and at the same time the end of the world, were expected after the unsuccessful siege of Constantinople in the time of the preceding calif, Suleiman.”
Fourteen years after the siege, in the year 732, the Arabian advance from Spain into western Europe was successfully arrested at Poitiers by Charles Martel, the all-powerful major-domo of the weak Frankish king.
After their defeat in the year 718 the Arabs did not undertake any more serious military actions against the Empire in the time of Leo III, especially since they were apparently menaced in the north by the Khazars. Leo III had arranged the marriage of his son and successor, Constantine, with the daughter of the Khagan of the Khazars, and he began to support his new kinsman. Thus, in his struggle with the Arabs Leo found two allies: first the Bulgarians, and later the Khazars. The Arabs did not remain quiet, however, but continued their attacks upon Asia Minor and penetrated frequently far into the west, reaching even Nicaea, i.e., almost touching the shores of the Propontis. At the end of his reign Leo succeeded in defeating the Arabs at Acroïnon in Phrygia (present-day Afiun-Qara-Hisar on the railroad to Konia). This defeat forced the Arabs to clear the western part of Asia Minor and retreat to the east. With the battle at Acroïnon the Muslims connected the legend of the Turkish national hero, Saiyid Battal Ghazi, the champion of Islam, whose grave is shown even today in one of the villages south of Eskishehr (medieval Dorylaeum). The historical figure personifying this hero was the champion of Muhammedanism, Abdallah al-Battal, who fell in the battle of Acroïnon. The problem of the Arabian struggle, then, was brilliantly solved by Leo III.
In the middle of the eighth century serious internal troubles arose in the Arab caliphate in connection with the change of dynasties, when the Umayyads (Omayyads) were deposed by the Abbasids. The latter transferred the capital and the center of their government from Damascus to Bagdad on the Tigris, far removed from the Byzantine border. This made it possible for the successor of Leo III, Constantine V, to move the imperial border farther east along the entire boundary of Asia Minor by means of a number of successful expeditions.
But in the time of Irene, under the Caliph al-Mahdi, the Arabs again initiated a successful offensive movement into Asia Minor, and in the year 782-83 the Empress was forced to beg for peace. The resulting agreement, concluded for three years, was very humiliating for the Empire. The Empress assumed the obligation of paying the Arabs a yearly tribute of ninety or seventy thousand dinars (denarii) in semiannual instalments. It is very likely that the troops sent by Irene to Macedonia, Greece, and the Peloponnesus in the same year (783) to quell the Slavonic revolt were taken from the eastern front, thus weakening the Byzantine position in Asia Minor. In the year 798, after the successful operations of the Arab army under the Caliph Harun-ar-Rashid, a new peace agreement was concluded with the Byzantine Empire, which was to pay a tribute, as in the time of al-Mahdi.
Very active relations existed between the emperors of the Isaurian dynasty and the Bulgarians. The latter, having recently gained a stronghold on the Lower Danube, were forced above all to defend their political existence against the Byzantine attempts to destroy the achievements of Asparuch. Internal conditions in the Bulgarian kingdom of the eighth century were very intricate. The Bulgarian chiefs competed with each other for the supreme rank of khan and initiated many dynastic disturbances, and, as new conquerors, the Bulgarians were forced to struggle with the conquered Slavs of the peninsula. The Bulgarian khans of the late seventh and early eighth centuries showed great ingenuity in handling relations with their most dangerous enemy, the Byzantine Empire. The Bulgarians had aided Justinian II in reclaiming the throne and rendered active assistance to Leo III in his drive to force the Arabs away from Constantinople. After this, for a period of over thirty years, the Byzantine writers say nothing about the Bulgarians. During the reign of Leo III the Bulgarian kingdom succeeded in maintaining peace with the Empire.
In the reign of Constantine V relations with the Byzantine Empire became strained. With the aid of the Syrians and Armenians, who had been transported from the eastern border and made to settle in Thrace, the Emperor constructed a number of fortifications along the Bulgarian border. Constantine treated with contempt the Bulgarian ambassador to Constantinople. Following this the Bulgarians began military operations. Constantine conducted eight or nine campaigns against the Bulgarians both on land and on sea, with the aim of annihilating the Bulgarian kingdom. These expeditions continued with varying results. In the end Constantine failed to attain his goal, but some historians call him “the first Bulgar-slayer” (Bulgaroctonus),” because of his energetic struggle against the Bulgarians and because of the numerous fortresses he constructed against them.
Within Bulgaria dynastic troubles ceased at the end of the eighth century, and the sharp antagonism between the Bulgarians and the Slavs became less pronounced. In short, there came about the gradual formation of the Bulgaria of the ninth century, Slavonized and transformed into a powerful state with definite offensive projects as regards the Byzantine Empire. This offensive policy became evident in the late eighth century, in the time of Constantine VI and his mother Irene, when the Byzantine Empire after its military failures was forced to agree to pay tribute to the Bulgarians.
In the military collisions between the Empire and the Bulgarians of the eighth century, the Bulgarian forces included also the Slavs, who formed part of their kingdom. The occupation of the Balkan peninsula by the Slavs also continued in the eighth century. One western pilgrim to the Holy Places, a contemporary of Leo III, visited the Peloponnesian city of Monembasia and wrote that it was situated in Slavonic (Slavinian) land (in Slawinia terrae). There are references to the presence of Slavs in Dyrrachium and in Athens in the eighth century. The following well-known lines (quoted also in an earlier part of this work) in the work of Constantine Porphyrogenitus, On the Themes, refer also to the days of Constantine V: “The whole of the Peloponnesus became slavonized and barbarian when the plague spread through the entire universe.” The reference here is to the formidable epidemic of 746-47, imported from Italy, which especially devastated the south of Greece and Constantinople. In an attempt to rehabilitate the capital after the epidemic, Constantine transported to Constantinople people from various provinces. Even in the opinion of the population, the Peloponnesus was Slavonized as early as the middle of the eighth century; to the same period must be referred the influx of new settlements in Greece established in place of those communities whose population was either extinguished by the epidemic or taken to the capital when the effort was being made to rehabilitate it. At the end of the eighth century the Empress Irene sent a special expedition “against the Slavonic tribes,” to Greece, Thessalonica, and the Peloponnesus. Later these Greek Slavs took an active part in the plot against Irene. This indicates clearly that in the eighth century the Slavs in the Balkan peninsula, including all of Greece, were not only definitely and strongly established, but even participated in the political life of the Empire. By the ninth century the Bulgarians and the Slavs became two very serious enemies of the Byzantine Empire.