The Revival of the Eastern Empire under Justinian
IN the East, a long war with the Persians kept the Emperors occupied while the Germanic kings established their realms in the West. A serious revolt of military officers, led by Gaïnas in 399, hamstrung the eastern rulers on the eve of the Visigothic invasion of Italy. After the accession of Theodosius II (408-450) the East began to recover from the cataclysm of 378. The army was reorganized under a series of highly competent civilian administrators. Theodosius opted for a smaller force, and preferred to use diplomacy to resolve differences with his neighbors. In addition, the post of magister militum was largely abolished, and after the death of Gaïnas, never again would so much power be concentrated in the hands of any one officer. The law was codified (Theodosian Code) and the administration of the Empire reorganized. The Council of Chalcedon in 451 settled many of the theological disputes which rent the unity of the church, firmly establishing the Nicene Creed (with some amendments) as the basic confession of Christian orthodoxy. The East remained wealthy and relatively peaceful until the end of the fifth century.
Zeno died without an heir in 491. In the years that followed, several emperors were raised, but with the exception of Anastasius I, most of these are shadowy figures. During the uncertainty, two major political factions arose and vied for power. The “Blues” were landowners, members of the Greco-Roman aristocracy and staunchly orthodox. The “Greens” represented trade, industry, the civil service, and the monophysite heresy, which argued that God and Christ shared a common physical nature. The conflicts between these groups made or broke emperors during the early years of the sixth century.
In 518, after some intrigue, Justin I, an obscure army officer of peasant origins was chosen as Emperor, largely with the support of the Blues. He had no sons but several nephews. He adopted the ablest of these and gave him the name Justinian. Justinian served first as commander of the army, and then succeeded his uncle as Emperor in 527. His Empress, Theodora, had been a courtesan and was much disliked. Still, both people, of the lowest origins, would restore the power of the Roman Empire in the East.
In 532 Justinian faced his first challenge, the Nike Rebellion. This was an uprising by the Greens against his authority. Justinian ordered the revolt put down with the utmost severity. A whole sale slaughter of members of both factions followed, in which over 30,000 people were killed in Constantinople. The civil service and landowning nobility were chastened and thereafter did not question Justinian’s autocracy. In the same year, he was able to reach a peace settlement with the Persians. The suppression of the revolt and establishment of peace freed Justinian to pursue his ambitions in the West. He began a long project to reconquer the lands of the Empire.
The Vandal kingdom in North Africa fell almost immediately in 535. Italy was another matter, however, and under two generals, Narses and Belisarius, the Byzantines fought the Ostrogothic rulers from 535 to 553 for control of the peninsula. Milan was retaken in 539, followed by Ravenna the following year. But a plague struck the East in 542. Over 300,000 people died in Constantinople, limiting the army’s reserves. The Ostrogothic King Totila was able to revive resistance to the Greeks during this time. A popular leader, Totila liberated slaves, broke up noble estates and redistributed land. He retook Rome in 546 but argued with the papacy, making a peace settlement difficult. A new Imperial offensive was called and at the battle of Taginae in 552, Totila was killed. With his death, the Ostrogothic kingdom collapsed.
In 542, Totila had met with St. Benedict in an episode strangely reminiscent of Odovacer’s putative meeting with St. Severinus a century earlier. The meeting symbolized the failure of accommodation in the Gothic kingdom. Benedict had been a Roman aristocrat, but left school out of disgust for the shallow and morally bereft classical curriculum. He lived as a hermit until establishing his own monastery at Monte Casino. Although of the same generation as Cassiodorus, Boethius and Jordanes, Benedict shared with them the despair of seeing violence and warfare wash away their dreams of peace in the post-Roman world. Withdrawal into the contemplative life, such as that within the monastery, seemed the only hope for finding peace.
In 552, Belisarius led an offensive against Spain. He was aided by disunity and discontent within the Visigothic kingdom. Amalric (511-531), the grandson of Theodoric the Great, had proven to be a terror when he began to rule in his own name in 526. He persecuted Catholic mercilessly, including his own Frankish wife. His treatment of Clothild provoked an invasion by her brother Childibert in 531. Amalric was defeated and fled to Barcelona were he was murdered. His successor Theudis (531-548) was more capable, and tried to support the Vandals in their war against Justinian. He sent Visigothic garrisons to Africa, but these were overrun in 534. The same year the Greeks established a toehold at Gibraltar. The Byzantine invasion proper came in the reign of Agila (549-555). In 550 a nobleman named Athanagild raised a rebellion in Spain. He appealed to Justinian for aid in 551. Of course the emperor was glad to help out, and in early summer 552 Belisarius’ army landed in Spain, joined with Athanagild and defeated Agila. He was assassinated in 555. Athanagild (555-568) had gained the throne, but now realized that the Byzantines were there to stay. He tried to eject them, but to no avail. Southern Spain would remain under Byzantine control for nearly a century.
After 555 the reconquest of the West came to a halt. Justinian had spread his Empire far too thin. Moreover, by destroying the three great Arian kingdoms of the Vandals, Ostrogoths and Visigoths, Justinian unwittingly allowed the Franks to gain hegemony in the West. After the Greek invasion, the Franks began to look for ways to expand into Italy and Spain.
On the surface, it would appear that Justinian’s reconquest marked a liberation of Romans from barbarian interlopers. In fact, it was the opposite. While Theodoric tried to preserve Roman culture, the campaigns of Narses and Belisarius proved thoroughly destructive. The old social, political, and economic order was destroyed. Through the so-called “Pragmatic Sanction” of 554, Justinian reformed the administration of Italy, removing Roman structures that had been preserved by Odovacer and reinvigorated by the Ostrogothic kings. Furthermore, all land taken by Goths or alienated by Romans during the half century of Gothic rule had to be returned to its original owner. Slaves and coloni who had become emancipated, especially those freed by Totila, were to revert to their former masters. A new Senate was set up in Rome, but its importance was purely symbolic. These measures completely upset the social structure that had emerged over the past century. The tax policies of the Eastern Emperor, however, were even more odious. The residents of Italy were expected to pay all the taxes not collected during the twenty years of war. Demanding this after several generations of war, bad harvests, and plague was tyranny of the worst sort. Throughout Italy, Byzantine tax collectors were unwelcome and loathed. The troops the taxes for which the taxes paid represented an army of occupation rather than liberators. Archaeology has revealed substantial continuity from the fourth to the middle of the sixth century, but that after 550, the older social structures were forever demolished. All in all, the effect of the reconquest was to reduce Italy to the same cultural level as the next wave of attackers.
Within the field of religion, Justinian’s efforts to promote orthodoxy and secure an end to the christological controversies still plaguing the Church led to a conflict with the papacy. Justinian tried to reconcile the monophysites and orthodox Christians by condemning various Nestorian theologians. The “Edict of the Three Chapters” was a naive attempt to end theological disputes through legislative enactment. The eastern patriarchs were forced to sign the edict, but not the western clergy, not being under Byzantine political control. Pope Vigilius, who proved not very vigilant, was summoned to Constantinople to hear the Emperor’s case. But Vigilius had already decided to oppose the edict without having either read or understood the theological positions he was supporting. Rather than listen to reason, he excommunicated the patriarch and threatened a schism. When he was finally convinced that the texts were objectionable, he still refused to sign the edict and produced his own independent judgement. The western clergy now felt that Vigilius had failed them, and a council in North Africa deposed and excommunicated the pope. On Vigilius’ advice, Justinian summoned a Council at Constantinople in 553 to resolve the matter once and for all. Even though he himself had called for such a council, Vigilius at first refused to attend. Only reluctantly did he accept the edict, but by that time the damage had been done. The Second Council of Constantinople was rejected by the western bishops starting a new schism. Both Vigilius and his successor Pelagius lost popular support because of their actions during the council. Overall, the western church resented Justinian’s involvement in their affairs.
Justinian’s efforts in Italy had dire consequences for the rest of his empire as well. He was forced to remove troops from the Danube and Persian frontiers. To secure these, he either had to pay tribute to his enemies or hire barbarian mercenaries. To pay for these, taxes were increased to the point where many peasants could no longer afford to pay them. Instead, they turned to brigandage, and the emperor’s resources were further strained in an effort to preserve law and order. Justinian’s concentration of power in the West left the East open to invasions by the Persians and by the Slavs and Avars in the Balkans.
The reconquest of Italy proved, in any case, ephemeral. The last city in Italy to hold out against Justinian, Verona, was finally captured in 562. Only six years later, in 568, the Lombards, another Germanic people, invaded Italy and for several generation fought to ensure their control. The Empire only maintained influence in three areas: southern Italy, Rome and Ravenna, and Venice. Venice gradually developed into an independent republic, while the central region became the Papal State. Byzantine influence in the south continued until the eleventh century.
The most lasting achievement of Justinian was his codification of Roman law. An early codification had been undertaken by Theodosius II and published in 438, but Justinian’s project was intended to supersede all preceding codes and additions. All obsolete laws were eliminated and the laws which remained in force were drastically abbreviated and amended. The new code was published in 529, less than fourteen months after the project began. The next step was to summarize the works of the jurists, which appeared in the Digest in 533. It is said that over 2,000 legal treatises and 3 million court decisions were reviewed and condensed into the Digest’s fifty volumes. A legal textbook, entitled the Institutes, appeared at the same time. A second edition of the Code, Digest and Institutes, was published in 534.
Justinian also resurrected the image of the monarchy through an impressive building program. The most fitting symbol of this project is Hagia Sophia, the great church he built in Constantinople. Nonetheless, by embarking on such ambitious building projects while waging endless wars, Justinian severely strained his resources. After his death, Italy fell to the Lombards, and Slavs and Avars occupied most of the Balkans. Within a half a century of his death in 565, Justinian’s Empire was on the brink of complete collapse.
The Invasions of the Slavs and Lombards
IN the last years of Justinian’s reign and in the decades following his death, the empire was faced a series of invasions by barbarian peoples. In the Balkans, the Slavs make their first appearance. In Italy, the Lombards overwhelmed the Byzantine forces and divided the peninsula into myriad semi-autonomous states. Southern Europe was shattered, and in the Balkans in particular, the last remnants of the old Roman order were swept away.
The Slavs are people who speak one of the Slavic family of languages. There are three main groupings in this family: west Slavic (Czech, Polish, Slovakian, and Sorbish); east Slavic (Russian, Ukrainian, White Russian); and south Slavic (Slovenian, Serbian, Croatian, Bulgarian, and Macedonian). The origins of the Slavs has been the subject of considerable controversy. One significant problem facing Slavic studies has been the ideological and political hegemony of Soviet Marxism in eastern Europe during this century. Joseph Stalin, despite having no qualifications as a linguist, published a trite little pamphlet on language which had to be incorporated into any scholar’s research. That and the requirement that all scholarship follow the Marxist-Leninist vision of history severely limited the possibility for responsible scholarship. Still, scholars on both side of the Iron Curtain continued to study the problem, and two main theories emerged.
The older orthodoxy placed the original homeland of the Slavs in north and west. The Polish scholar T. Lehra identified with Slavs with the Lusatian culture of the late Bronze Age and early Iron Age. Most Slavic scholars, however, argue against this, citing numerous similarities between Slavic and Iranian languages. The number of important Iranian loan words in common Slavonic argues for a “prolonged period of very close inter-ethnic relations.” This would place the original Slavic homeland further east, between the Bug and middle Dneiper rivers. The point at which the Slavic languages would have emerged as distinct from the older Indo-European koine would have been around 500 BC, quite late when compared with other European languages. The homeland would correspond roughly to modern eastern Poland and Belarus, with the Carpathian mountains as the southern border.
The earliest verifiable historical reference to a Slavic people comes from Pliny, who describes a group of people called Spali or Spori in this same region. The name Spori is clearly related to the names of two later Slavic groups, the Sorbs of Lusatia and the Serbs. In his Deeds of the Goths, the sixth century Gothic historian Jordanes states that during the second century AD, during their migration from the Baltic to the Black Sea, the Goths encountered and defeated the Spali after crossing the Vistula. Our next notice is from the Byzantine historian Procopius, who describes two Slavic peoples along the Balkan frontiers. The first of these are called Sklaveni and lived along the lower Danube in modern day Romania. The Antes lived further to the east, on the Pontic Steppes. These three groups might well represent the core of the three branches of the Slavic family, identifying the Spali/Spori with the Western Slavs, the Sklaveni with the Balkan Slavs, and the Antes with the Russians and Ukrainians.
The Sklaveni and Antes began raiding into the Balkans during the reign of Justin I, but it was under Justinian that their attacks became a serious problem. The Slavs tended to act in concert with Turkic peoples of the steps, in the first place the Kutirgurs. A Slavic and Kutirgur force raided deep into the Balkans in 540, destroying thirty-two fortresses in Illyricum and plundering up to the walls of Constantinople. For the next twelve years, there was relative calm, but between 552 and 558 their attacks became a regular occurrence. In 559 came a massive assault and a siege of Constantinople, but the Byzantine fleet was able to cut off the barbarian’s retreat, and they sued for peace.
As was the case on the Germanic frontier, Justinian recruited large numbers of Slavs into his army. Chilbudius, the commander of the Danube frontier in the 530s and 540s, was a Slav, and a feodus was signed with the Antes in 545. This was all part of Justinian’s plan to secure the Danubian defenses. The frontier army was increased in size, largely through barbarian levies, while a number of forts were built along the Danube. The invasion route through the steps would, it was hoped, be guarded by the Antes, acting as Roman feoderati. Since Justinian believed that the Kutrigurs posed the most serious threat, he also bought off another Turkic tribe, the Utigurs, and stirred up a war between the two peoples. Both were decimated, and Justinian’s policy merely opened up a void which another Turkic people was able to fill. After Justinian’s death in 565, his successor Justin II found himself faced with a new threat from the Avars.
The Avars had, like the other Turkic peoples, migrated west from Mongolia following the path forged by the Huns a century earlier. The sent ambassadors to Justin II’s court to ask for tribute, but Justin preferred to overawe them with a show of wealth and pomp. He refused to pay further tribute, virtually inviting an attack. The Avars advanced into the lands of the Skalveni and then made contacts with the Lombards. Together they defeated the Gepids, the last remnant of the Ostrogoths in Pannonia, and seized their lands. This placed two hostile peoples — the Lombards and the Avars — in possession of the central Danube. In 568 the Lombards fell into Italy; the same year the Avars moved into the now vacant Pannonian basin. Justin II now realized he had to negotiate with the Avars, and in 574 made a treaty with the Avar Khagan Bayan.
Bayan was a clever diplomat and an ambitious politician. He nearly lured the emperor Tiberius II into giving him his daughter. His goal was to acquire lands across the Danube, but he played it cool for about five years. During that time, with Roman help, he attacked the Sklaveni who had tired of their Avar overlords. During this campaign, Bayan liberated a large number of Greek cities that the Skalveni had taken, and seemed to be genuinely working in Constantinople’s best interests. But in 580 he revealed his true colors, and mounted a large scale attack against Sirmium. As Byzantine forces tried to turn back his assault, the Sklaveni descended into the Balkans en masse. By 586 they had penetrated as far south as the Peloponnesus. For the next ten years, Byzantine forces appeared unable to dislodge either the Avars or the Slavs. It was only in 602 that the emperor Maurice was able to turn the tide. Sirmium was relieved and Bayan was forced to retreat back across the Danube. The Romans followed and he was soundly defeated: “not since the days of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius had Roman power asserted itself so effectively north of the Danube.”
Maurice’s success, however, could not prevent the Sklaveni from occupying much of the Danube during the chaotic reign of Phocas. Fifty years of constant fighting had demolished much of Roman civilization in the region. It is noteworthy that hardly any of Justinian’s fortresses survived the onslaught — scholars still are uncertain where the majority of them were located. Byzantine defensive strategy in the Balkans proved insufficient to check the advance of the Slavs, and by he middle the seventh century, the Balkans had become part of the Slavic world.
Mention has already been made of a Germanic people who, in collusion with the Avars, carved out a piece of Justinian’s empire for themselves. The Lombards (Langobardi) were a western Germanic people. They are first identified as a distinct group in the late fifth century, living along the Danube in what is now Lower Austria. During the sixth century they appear to have reorganized themselves into a new coalition. Their first known king, Wacho (ca. 510-540) maintained close ties with Byzantium as well as with the Frankish kings. It is possible that the Wacho saw such ties as necessary to maintain the independence of his people in light of Ostrogothic expansion into the upper Danube region. Wacho’s successor, Audoin, maintained this policy, entering into a foedus with Justinian I sometime after 540 and settling in Pannonia. During the last Byzantine campaign in Italy Lombards served as auxiliaries in the Byzantine army.
This service set the stage for the next major event in Lombard history. In 568 the Lombards invaded Italy under the leadership of Audoin’s son Albouin. Although they were unable to push the Byzantines out of key strategic positions, the Lombards were able to establish themselves in two regions of Italy. In the north, the Lombards settled in the Po valley, giving the name Lombardy to that region. In the south, Lombard duchies were established in Benevento and Spoleto. Such duchies came to be the hallmarks of Lombard political organization. The duchies might be thought of as sub-kingdoms, for the dukes maintained a high degree of autonomy. The kingdom itself was fundamentally a confederation of some thirty-five duchies, presided over by the Lombard king. After the assassination of Albouin in 572, there was no single Lombard king until 584. Only with the accession of Authari in 584 was the kingdom restored.
Agilulf (590-616) continued to revitalize the monarchy. One important factor for his plan was his conversion from Arianism to Catholicism. The force behind the conversion was Queen Theudelinda, a Bavarian princes who married two Lombard kings. Her close association with Pope Gregory the Great eliminated one of the major sources of conflict between Lombards and the papacy. Moreover, conversion allowed for a full assimilation of the Germanic Lombard nobles into Italian society. Still, the dukes retained much of their power. Throughout the early Middle Ages, a power struggle between the Lombards, the papacy, and the Byzantine exarchs at Ravenna provided the defining dynamic of Italian history.
The Visigothic Kingdom of Spain
THE Visigoths in Spain were the last surviving Arian kingdom after the fall of the Ostrogoths and Visigoths. As in Italy, an uneasy truce existed between the Hispano-Roman Catholic population and the Arian Goths. This tension, however, along with Gothic hostility towards Constantinople, helped contribute to the development of a unique political and religious culture during the sixth and seventh centuries. Athanagild had left Spain in ruins. There is evidence of a widespread economic crisis, and rebellions were brewing everywhere. The Byzantines were in control of the southern part of Spain and showed no signs of budging. After Athanagild’s death, the throne was empty for five months, until the nobles elevated Liuva as king. Liuva (568-572) and his brother Leovigild (572-586) restored the kingdom. Leovigild suppressed rebellions in Cordoba and in the north west at the beginning of his reign. Between 585 and 586 he conquered the Suevic kingdom of Galicia.
One of the key events of Leovigild’s reign was the revolt of his oldest son Hermanagild in 579. The rebellion had strong religious overtones. Hermanagild had married Ingundis, the daughter of Brunichildis, the daughter of Athanagild, and the Frankish king Sigisbert I. Ingundis had been raised a Catholic, and in cahoots with bishop Leander of Seville, Hermanagild converted. He attracted to his cause Catholic Hispano-Romans, as well as some Gothic converts, but ultimately failed. His appeals to the Franks and to Byzantium went unheard, and he was killed in 585.
The religious issues that Hermanagild’s rebellion revealed a growing problem in the Visigothic kingdom. The Catholic church, though marginalized, was growing ever more self-conscious. It retained contacts with the east, but was repelled by the theological disputes that plagued the Greek church. Hence they sought their own way, and in nine synods between 509 and 549, the Spanish church began to derive its own theological and liturgical identity. Catholic synods were banned by king Agila in 549, presumably because too many Goths were converting. The Seuves had embraced Catholicism in the 550s, and sponsored a council in 572, where St. Martin of Braga roundly condemned Arianism. Everywhere the Arian faith appeared to be on the wane. Leovigild himself, while remaining Arian, actually began moving towards the Catholic tradition. He accepted the equality of the Father and Son, but still denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. This position, known as Macedonianism in the east, was a compromise, but one that admitted the failure of Arianism.
Leovigild was succeeded by his younger son Reccared (586-601). The new king was Arian at the time of his succession, but quickly announced his conversion to Catholic orthodoxy. On the second anniversary of his brother Hermanagild’s death, he reconsecrated the main Arian church in Toledo as a Catholic cathedral. There, in 589, he convened a council. Reccared presided over the council himself, consciously following the example of Constantine the Great at Nicaea. He declared his allegiance to orthodoxy, as laid out in the creed as read at the councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon. He condemned Arianisn and proposed a series of canons concerning the reform of the clergy. What is most striking about this event is not the king’s conversion, but the way in which the council of Toledo marked a complete reversal of traditional Visigothic practice. Reccared had established Catholic supremacy, but also his own authority over the church. He assumed the power to appoint bishops from a short list prepared by the clergy. He also confirmed the kings’ authority over church discipline.
The kings that followed Reccared were nothing to write home about. With the exception of Sisebut (612-621), who nearly drove the Byzantines out of Spain, none of the kings did much but suffer bloody deaths. The main figure of the early seventh century is Isidore, bishop of Seville from 600 to 636. His chronicle provides our main source for the history of the Spanish Visigothic kings, while his most important work, the Etymologies, a compilation of works by ancient authors, along with commentary, which formed the core of the curriculum taught in the West during the early Middle Ages.
In his writings, Isidore developed a new political theory, the first comprehensive understanding of what it meant to be a Christian sovereign. In the east, Byzantine theory maintained that the emperor was semi-divine, ruling as a reflection of God (mimesis theou). This notion clearly derived from pre-Christian Roman political theory, such as that suggested by Caracalla, and later developed under Aurelian and Diocletian. Isidore rejected this view, arguing that all are limbs (membra) of the body of Christ. No limb can be regarded as innately superior than another. So the Roman Emperor ex officio cannot be considered more important than the Gothic king.
The true measure of a king’s authority lay in his orthodoxy, and Isidore saw in Constantinople a corrupt, heretical, diseased stump where once had been a vibrant and growing membra of the mystical body of Christ. In particular he condemned Justinian for his heretical opinions. Justinian’s willingness to use force, as during the controversy surrounding the “Edict of the Three Chapters,” was bad enough; but his belief that the physical body of Christ was eternally incorruptible, a position known by the jaw-breaking moniker “aphthartodocetism,” showed the emperor to be not only a supreme heretic, but an idiot as well.
Isidore’s long-term contribution was two-fold. He perfected the Mozarabic liturgy and developed a revised calendar for the Spanish church. The Mozarabic liturgy became a defining aspect of Spanish Catholicism, and informed the development of a distinctive piety in Iberia that withstood the Islamic invasions of the eighth century. Second, while his works were little known in the east, they were transmitted to Ireland through maritime contacts between Galicia and the Celtic world. From there, they spread to England, where Isidore’s Etymologies as well as his famous Moralia in Iobbecame part of the standard monastic curriculum. From Gothic Septimania, Isidore’s works spread through southern Gaul and into Germany. By the eighth century, Isidore was one of the two or three most well known and well respected authors of the Latin West.
After 630, anarchy and rebellion became the norm. Chindasuinth (642-653) issued a series of laws in an attempt to maintain order, but his violence towards the clergy led to extended conflicts with the church. Reccesuinth (653-672) was slightly more congenial, though not much so. He reformed the laws of Leovigild, including some rather draconian legislation directed against the Jews. He rescinded the old Roman laws that had given the Jews legal immunity with regards to the Sabbath and lawsuits, and supported a policy of forced conversions. Wamba (672-683) is chiefly important for his coronation. He was the first king to be anointed with holy oil, following the practice outlined in I Samuel. This marked a sacralization of kingship, following Isidore’s conception that the authority of a king ought to be likened to that of a bishop.
Overall, our picture of the seventh century suggests a gradual breakdown of law and order, despite legislative actions on the part of the kings. Conflicts between the crown and the church, and between the Hispano-Roman population and their Gothic rulers also increased. The distinctions, preserved in the law, between the Gothic ruling elite and their “Roman” subjects must have become increasingly absurd during that century. The Gothic language died out fairly quickly; its last refuge appears to have been in the Arian churches, and these were closed after the reign of Reccared and the Gothic books burnt. Such was the condition of the kingdom when the Arabs landed on Spanish shores in 711, bringing an end to the Visigothic kingdom founded some two centuries before.
The Byzantine Empire under Heraclius
JUSTIN II proved to be a mere shadow of his uncle Justinian, and after an ineffectual reign, went mad in 574. His successor Tiberius undertook a military reorganization of the Empire in an effort to correct some of the problems that had emerged at the end of Justinian’s reign. Military and civil authority in the more distant provinces, such as North Africa and Italy, was centralized under new officials called exarchs. The effect was to ensure the predominance of military over civil government. Tiberius was followed by a string of fairly useless rulers. During the reign of the usurper Phocas (602-610) the Empire reached the lowest point since Adrianople. It was at this point that Heraclius, the exarch of North Africa, seized power. Phocas was removed from office, chopped into pieces, and fed to the dogs.
If Justinian was, as is often said, the last Roman Emperor, then Heraclius (610-641) may be counted as the first Byzantine Emperor. During his reign, the basic outlines of Byzantine (as opposed to Roman) civilization emerge. The Eastern Empire was characterized by (1) Roman political concepts, administration, law and military organization, (2) Greek language and culture, and (3) Greek Orthodox Christianity. The two dominant figures were the Emperor, now referred to by the Greek term basileus rather than the Latin Imperator, and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Unlike the West, where the papacy was to emerge as a largely independent religion force, the Byzantine emperors maintained a great deal of control over religious affairs, often leading scholars to describe their system as caesaro-papism.
Faced with large scale invasions from the Slavs, Avars, and Bulgars in the Balkans, the Byzantine emperors from Heraclius onward developed a number of diplomatic techniques for keeping the invaders at bay. An intelligence service was formed to collect information on the various tribes. Byzantine agents usually tried to buy peace or arrange alliances with the barbarians by paying tribute. They also granted titles of honor to Barbarian chieftains and granted them territories. Generally, these were lands already lost to the Empire, often occupied by another barbarian group. In this way, the emperors played one group against another. Within the various tribes Byzantine agents, usually through bribes, built up pro-Byzantine factions among the nobles. The most effective means of controlling the barbarians was through religion. If they could be convinced to accept Christianity, their church was placed under the control of the Orthodox hierarchy and the Emperor.
Heraclius reorganized the internal structure of the Empire. Although many lands had been lost, he worked to stabilized the core provinces. Two exarchates, one in Africa and the other in Italy centered in Ravenna, became largely self-governing. Within Anatolia and the Balkans, Heraclius established new administrative districts called Themes. Each Theme was administered by a military governor, the Strategos who served as the field commander for the army in that province. On the frontiers, land grants were given to soldiers. These grants were inalienable, but retention was contingent on the leaseholder providing military service to the Strategos. Most of these grants appear to have gone to mounted warriors, hence the system might appear more akin to western feudalism than the Limitanei of the late Empire. Over time, these estates became hereditary, creating a military caste in the Themes. These reforms lay the foundation of the general policy of the Heraclian dynasty throughout the seventh and early eight centuries. The challenge they sought to overcome was the need to pay for an army without resort to taxation while at the same time create a service nobility to replace the older landholding aristocracy. As might be expected, it was the older aristocracy who opposed these reforms and posed the greatest threat to the security of the Heraclian emperors.
The internal organization of the Empire was also streamlined under Heraclius. Ruthless centralization of the fiscal administration made it more efficient. A new office, that of grand Logothete, was created to serve as a capstone for the administrative structure. The bureaucracy was well on its way to evolving into a service nobility, a process completed in the tenth century. The centralized bureaucracy and service elite helped to keep the feudal elite in the provinces in check and prevent a privatization of the army and provincial administration.
The greatest threat to the security of the Byzantine state during the reign of Heraclius came from Persia. When Heraclius assumed the purple, the Persians were at war with Byzantium. Although they had been defeated in 591, the reign of Phocas had allowed the Persians to regain their strength. In 613 Damascus fell, and in 614 Jerusalem was taken and sacked. A three day massacre of Christians followed. The holy shrines of the city were pillaged and the churches burnt. At this same time the Avars and their Slavic clients began pressing deeper into Imperial territory. By 620 all of Greece had been lost to the Slavs and Avars, and Syria, Palestine and Egypt were in Persian hands.
After securing peace in the Balkans, Heraclius began a campaign against the Persians in 622. It was the first time since the reign of Theodosius the Great that an emperor had personally led his troops into battle. By exploiting Byzantium’s control of the sea, Heraclius launched an invasion of Persia through Armenia and Azerbaijan. The latter was the Holy Land of the Zoroastrian Persians, and in the course of his campaigns, Heraclius systematically destroyed the shrines and monuments, including the birthplace of Zoroaster himself. Although he defeated three Persian armies in 624, Heraclius suffered a serious setback in 625. The following year the Persians attempted to besiege Constantinople with the assistance of a combined barbarian force of Slavs, Avars and Bulgars. This last ditch effort to defeat the Byzantines failed, and the retreating armies were annihilated in the course of Heraclius’ campaigns of 627 and 628. The Persian king, Chosroes II, fled to his capital Ctesiphon, but was overthrown by his generals. Chosroes was deposed and slowly shot to death with arrows.
Heraclius’ war with Persia was seen in the Middle Ages as the first crusade, the first Holy War undertaken by Christendom to retake Jerusalem from foreign invaders. William of Tyre included a description of Heraclius’ campaigns in his medieval history of the crusades, a work translated into old French as L’Estroie de Eracles. But despite the success of his Holy War, Heraclius’ victory did not necessarily ensure widespread support from the reconquered regions. He had only been able to pay for the war through a massive loan from the church and now had to levy crushing taxes in Egypt and Syria to pay back the Patriarch of Constantinople. The churches in Syria and Egypt were at odds with Constantinople over doctrinal issues, and hence resented that their revenues were going to support what, from their perspective, constituted heresy. In short, although the Persians had not been considered a blessing, the Byzantine emperors rapidly squandered the support they initially mustered as liberators.
The Rise of Islam
THERE is a story, no doubt apocryphal, that in 629, while receiving various letters of congratulation from the rulers of India and Francia for his defeat of the Persians, Heraclius also got a letter from some Arab claiming to be a prophet from God. The author of this supposed letter would of course be Muhammad, the Prophet and founder of Islam. The sudden emergence of this new and intense religion was perhaps the most important event of the seventh century.
Islam arose in Arabia, a land of bedouins. “`Arab” is the term that camel bedouins used to refer to themselves, and they occupied the desert between three agricultural regions: Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Urban life was limited to a few small trading towns along the Red Sea coast. While these had arisen and prospered under the older Persian kingdoms, Hellenistic monarchies and early Roman Empire, with the collapse of the Roman economy in the third century these cities had become isolated. Still, they were not fully cut off from the intellectual and religious life of late antiquity. Close linguistic, cultural and political ties connected the Arabs with the other great Semitic people of the near East — the Jews. The royal house of Judaea in the first century A.D. was connected to the leading clans of Arabia, and Judaism was adopted by many residents of Medina and other trading cities. Christianity made inroads in Arabia early on, primarily in Mecca and other cities trading with the Christians of Egypt, Nubia, and the Abyssinian kingdom of Axum. But the sort of Christianity that thrived in Arabia was not wholly orthodox. Rather, many heretical groups, in particular the Nestorians and some Jewish Christian groups, took refuge in Arabia after the establishment of Orthodoxy under Constantine. These heretical communities tended to view Jesus as not divine, but merely God’s chosen prophet. In any event, most of the bedouins in the interior were animists, polytheists and idol worshipers. Nonetheless, Arabia was surrounded by monotheism — Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism — and this could not help but have a profound influence on their religious sensibilities.
Pre-Islamic religion was essentially animistic. The Arabs believed that they lived in a world inhabited by a host of minor spirit beings, known as jinn. Some of these could be helpful, but most were malevolent, to be feared and respected. There were some higher deities, the protectors of particular tribes, each associated with a cultic shrine which served as the religious center of that tribe’s territory. Beyond all these was Allâh, “the god,” who had created the world. There was no general worship of Allâh, however. Rather, he was considered to serve as an arbitrator between the tribal gods, who provided the primary focus of religious observance.
One aspect of Arabic religion was what has been called the “Meccan system.” Mecca was an important trading town in western Arabia. It was equidistant from the trading centers of Iraq, Egypt, Yemen, and east Africa, and the site of a number of fairs. The fairs were held in conjunction with religious celebrations, so the process of coming to market became linked to the religious obligation of a pilgrimage. The fairs were held once every three months, during which time the tribes agreed to make peace with each other. One result of this custom was that the Meccan calendar became the standard accepted throughout the Arab world. The religious observances centered on the ka`bah, a large cubic building which housed the cultic statues of tribal deities, all at peace under the overlordship of Allah. The Ka`bah, then, stood for a form of religious solidarity in the face of tribal divisions. The care of the Ka`bah was in the hands of the Quraysh tribe, who dominated economic, political, and religious affairs in Mecca.
Muhammad and later Muslims refer to the early period of their history as Jahiliyah, a time of ignorance or barbarism. Nonetheless, many aspects of this period had a powerful influence on Islam. First of all we should consider the importance of the clan within Bedouin society. The clan was an extended kin group which protected its members. A man’s position within the tribe and bedouin society in general was determined by his relationship to his clan. Persons from outside the kindred could be brought into the clan, and others might be placed under its general protection as clients. On the other hand, to be without clan or tribe was the worst fate that could befall one in the desert, since access to water was largely determined according to clan affiliation. The glue that held the clan together was absolute and unconditional loyalty, a notion that figured large in the identity of dar al islam, the house of obedience, the community of the Muslim faithful.
A second factor of pre-Islamic culture that was important for Islam was the poetic tradition of the Semitic peoples. For Arabs as well as Jews, the graphic arts were essentially nonexistent. For these cultures, the primary art form was language, and poetry in particular. Poetry provided both a means of expression and a record of history, tradition, law, and belief. The particular nature of the language of the Qur’an derives from pre-Islamic poetic traditions. In this sense, one can draw parallels with the Germanic peoples of the West, whose cultural identity was largely preserved in the oral culture of myth and legend. Islam, like Christianity, provided a vehicle for transforming a fundamentally oral culture, like that of the Arab bedouins, into a written culture.
Classical Arabic poetry, mudarî, had its origins among the Yamanis and was carried throughout the peninsula by professional reciters. Mudarî poetry provided the vehicle for preserving clan history and legends. Another type of poetry was that of the kâhim, soothsayers inspired by a jinn. Their poetry, known as shi’r, was a form of rhyming verse, containing revelations from the spirit world, composed — really, shouted out — by the kâhim after the jinn had taken control of his body. The early parts of the Qu`ran are very similar to shi`r, although Muslim authors from Muhammad on have consistently and categorically denied that the Qu`ran is poetry in an technical sense, but a work apart from the older tradition.
The decline of commerce in Arabia during the third century brought about a realignment of forces. Of great importance was the rise of a militant state in Abyssinia, the kingdom of Axum. Under King Ezanes (320-360) Axum became a Christian state. During the early fourth century, Axum attempted to penetrate Arabia, and the kingdom of Himyar in the south of Arabia became an Axumite client state. In the fifth and sixth century, Himyar became a bone of contention between Axum, Persia, and Byzantium. The last king of Himyar, Dhu-Nuwar, embraced Judaism and began persecuting Christians. Roman, Greek, and Axumite merchants were killed. The Martyrs of Najran (523) were revered by many Eastern Christians. With help from Constantinople, Abraha of Axum (535-570) reconquered Himyar, killing Dhu-Nuwar. Under Abraha, Axum was pulled into the conflict between the Byzantine Emperor Justin I and the Persians. Eventually Abraha was defeated, and with Persian help, the Arabs pushed Axum out of Arabia. The significance of this conflict for the coming of Islam is profound:
Had Abraha taken Mecca, the whole peninsula would have been thrown open to Christian and Byzantine penetration; the Cross would have been raised on the Kaaba, and Muhammad might have died a priest or a monk. As it was, paganism gained a new lease of life, and Christianity was discredited by Abraha’s defeat and its association with Axumite enemy.
The Prophet of Islam, Abu-l-Qâsim Muhammad ibn `Abd-Allah, was born in 571 of our era, the year after Abraha’s defeat. Tradition lays down that he was a shepherd boy who entered the service of a rich widowed cousin fifteen years his senior. He married her when he was about 25. Both were from the powerful Quraysh tribe, hereditary custodians of the sacred shrine of the Ka`bah in the city of Mecca. But while the more important Quraysh clans constituted the aristocracy of the commercial republic of Mecca, Muhammad was a member of an inferior clan, the Hashim. During childhood he suffered from seizures and would often go into the hills and meditate. Once while deep in meditation, he had a vision of the angel Gabriel who came down and commanded him to preach, saying:
“Read in the name of your Lord who created man from an embryo; read, for your Lord is most beneficent, who taught by the pen, Taught man what he did not know. And yet, but yet man is rebellious, for he thinks he is sufficient in himself. Surely your returning is to your lord. (Qur’an, 96:1-8)”
He became filled with the vision of the one, eternal God and began to preach against the multitude of deities worshiped in Mecca. Muhammad gained some supporters from within the Quraysh tribe, notably his wife, his cousin Ali, and a distant relative named Abu Bekr. But the elders of the tribe resisted, and began to persecute Muhammad and his followers. Still, he continued to have visions and preach, gaining more converts. Among these was Umar who would later become the leader of the Muslim world and compiler of the Qur’an.
Muhammad religious revolution had two primary concerns: monotheism and personal moral responsibility. Muhammad was dissatisfied with the personal morality of the clan, wherein one weighed one’s actions on the scale of tribal or familial tradition, or even personal gain. He sought an overarching universal moral principle that all men must obey. He found this in awe before Allah, the creator who stood above all other deities. For Muhammad, there could be no half measures: either one could submit fully to the will of Allah, or become obsessed by private desires and the needs of the moment, seeking immediate rewards from various lesser gods. If one submitted to Allah, then Allah would, out of his infinite mercy, guide the faithful and make them upright and pure. The disobedient, however, would become fully absorbed in the cares of this world, turning into angry, bitter, resentful, and petty people. This choice, to turn away from kufr, “ingratitude” towards God, and embrace islâm, “obedience” to God, determined the course of one’s life. The Qu’ran relates this principle in detail:
Those who disbelieve and obstruct others from the way of God will have wasted their deeds. But those who believe and do the right and believe what has been revealed to Muhammad, which is the truth from their Lord, will have their faults condoned by Him and their state improved. That is because those who refuse to believe only follow what is false; but those who believe follow the truth from their Lord … O you who believe, if you help in the cause of God He will surely come to your aid, and firmly plant your feet. As for the unbelievers, they will suffer misfortunes, and their deeds will be rendered ineffective. That is so as they were averse to what has been revealed by God, and their actions will be nullified. (47:1-3, 7-9)
It is worth noting that initially, Muhammad felt the need to try and relate his new religion to the older cults of Mecca. In particular, he sought a way to include the cult of the three goddesses — Allât, al’`Uzza, and Manât — into his system. They appeared in the Qu`ran as angelic beings who served as intermediaries between Allah and man. Later, after his ejection from Mecca, Muhammad repudiated these verses. he claimed that they had been inspired not by Allah or his angels, but by Satan in disguise. This condemnation fell on other parts of the Qu`ran, known to later generations as the Satanic Verses.
On September 24, 622, Muhammad and some 200 of his followers arrived at Mecca, having slipped past the Quraysh. A deputation of Medinans had invited Muhammad earlier, and his flight to Medina marks both the beginning of the Muslim calendar and his turn from seer to statesman. In Medina, Muhammad soon emerged as a political and military leader, raising an army of 1,400 faithful. The Meccans attacked Medina in 627, but failed to defeat Muhammad’s forces. During the siege, Muhammad and some of his followers believed that the Jews of Medina were acting in collusion with the Meccans. What followed was a massacre, where the Jewish men of Medina were put to death and the women and children sold into slavery. This event, more than any other, poisoned the heretofore good relations between Jews and Muslims.
Muhammad confrontation with the Jews of Medina forced him to rethink some of his older positions. Much of the language and imagery that defines the central part of the Qu`ran derives from Biblical and Talmudic sources, interpreted within the context of Muhammad revelations. After Medina, however, Muhammad began to stress the independence of Islam from Judaism and Christianity. He argued that they represented parallel religious traditions. Abraham was the father of both the Jews and the Arabs. But whereas the Jews claimed that Isaac was the legitimate son of Abraham, Muhammad argued that in fact Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs, was the eldest son and legitimate heir of Abraham. It was he, not Isaac, that Abraham was asked to sacrifice, and it was he who carried with him the spirit of prophecy which had first descended on Adam. Jesus provided a model for one who had submitted to the will of Allah,
We sent Our apostles, and succeeding them Jesus, son of Mary, and gave him the Gospel, and put into the hearts of his followers compassion and kindness. (57:27)
But his followers, by making him a god, had misunderstood and corrupted his message. Worse yet, the Christians had lapsed into polytheism with their nonsense concerning the Trinity.
Muhammad marched on Mecca in 628 and forced the Quraysh to treat Meccans and Medinans equally, allowing his followers to worship without molestation. The conquest of Mecca was completed in 630 when Muhammad entered the Kaaba and smashed the idols. In the following years, the tribes of Arabia came under Muhammad’s rule and adopted his faith. Christians and Jews were under the protection of Muhammad so long as they agreed to pay a special tax, the jizyah. The legal status of these “peoples of the book” was analogous to the position of the clients of a clan or tribe within bedouin society. Meanwhile, Muhammad declared himself to be the ultimate in a line of prophets, beginning with Abraham, with Jesus as the penultimate prophet.
Muhammad died in 632. His revelations were assembled into the Qur’an, “recitation”, of which the Prophet said “Let the Qur’an ever be your guide. Do what it commands or permits; shun what it forbids.” It was arranged into chapters (sûrahs) and edited by his various successors, the final version appearing under the Caliph Othman (644-656). A second set of writings was the Hadith, a collection of the sayings of the prophet and anecdotes about his life. Each saying or story is presaged by a list of authorities, the isaad, indicating who had heard the Prophet and how the story had been transmitted. The form of the Hadith later formed the basis for Muslim historical writing. Finally, there is the sira, the formal biography of the Prophet. The religion divides the world into two parts: Dar al islam, the house or dwelling of obedience; Dar al harb, the house of war. The obedient are required to push back the boundaries of the house of war, and bring it into obedience. In a sense, Dar al Islam is a great clan, bringing together the faithful into a common kindred and excluding utterly those who are not of the clan. The Jews and Christians, people of the Book, were to be treated with respect and given some measure of protection, just as the clans protected some outsiders who were considered clients of the tribe,
The stark simplicity of Islam, in conjunction with the fervor of its disciples allowed it to spread quickly and easily. The long war between the Sassanid Persians and Byzantium left both states bankrupt and demoralized. After the wars against Heraclius, the Zoroastrian religion of the Persians suffered a major blow, as its holy places were destroyed. In the Byzantine empire, the rise of Islam coincided with another outbreak of theological squabbling which severely undermined the unity of the church. The great powers of the East were politically, militarily, and spiritually paralyzed when Islam appeared.
The Early Islamic Caliphate
MUHAMMED’S immediate successor was Abu Bekr (632-634) who led an invasion of Syria in 633. Although the urban elites recognized Abu Bekr’s accession, the bedouins did not and rejected his claims to worldly authority. What followed were the Riddah (apostasy) wars against the bedouins who had fallen away from Muhammad teachings. Umar (634-44) assumed control of the movement after Abu Bekr’s death and was given the title of Caliph (Khalîfah), meaning “representative of the Prophet.” This title was used by later rulers, although Umar apparently preferred to be addressed as amîr al-mu’minîn, “commander of the faithful.” At the battle of Yarmuk in 636, an Arab army under Umar decisively defeated the Byzantine army. Two years later, in 638, the Caliph entered Jerusalem. After the death of Heraclius in 641, his successor, Constans II, proved unable to prevent further defeats. The Byzantines abandoned Alexandria in 642, and after a brief counter-offensive in 646 were forced to admit the loss of Egypt. Damascus became the capital of the Arabs in the East, and in Egypt they established a new capital on the Nile at Cairo. The Caliphate prospered, in part because of an economic revival of China under the T’ang dynasty. This resurrected the trade in the Indian ocean and along the Silk road, making Iraq the center of a world-wide trade network as it had been under the Achaemenid Empire centuries before.
Within Islam, two options for the faithful quickly arose during the early Caliphate. One was sûfi, an ascetic and quasi-monastic form of piety. Sûfi Islam was characterized by mysticism, and may have been influence by contacts with Indian Buddhism. At the other extreme were the `Sharî’ah-minded, those who sought to conform to the strictest letter of `sharî’ah law. This law was contained within the `ilm (learning) of the `ulamâ (the learned), a caste of special religious scholars. They made their decisions based on the Qu’ran and the sunnah, the practice of Muhammad the Prophet. Muhammad actions were recorded in the Hadith tradition, and supported by analogies from the Qu’ran and the precedents set by earlier `ulamâ. The judgements of holy men, known as faqîh or “fakirs”, an Indian term, were known as fiqh, and these fiqh comprised the way of the faithful, the `sharî’ah. Sharî’ah-minded legalism derived from the law of the market, and represents a continuity with pre-Islamic society. It certainly broadened the range of possible behaviors, based on different traditions about the Prophet and his actions, but also extended the reach of Islamic moral concerns to every aspect of daily life.
After the Arab victories in Palestine and Egypt, Umar began to press into Asia Minor. After the death of Heraclius, conflicts over the succession robbed Byzantium of effective leadership at this critical moment. Although Constans II emerged as the victor in the succession crisis, he was faced with revolts in the exarchates of North Africa and Ravenna in 647 and 649 respectively. The first revolt could only be put down with the help of Arab bedouins; while in the course of the latter Pope Martin I was arrested, deposed and sent into exile. As a result of these problems in the West, Constans was unable to prevent the Arabs from seizing Phrygia in 647 and savaging Rhodes in 654. The low point of Byzantine fortunes came in 655 when the Byzantine fleet was destroyed by the Arabs. At this critical juncture, however, the Eastern Empire was saved by the timely death of Umar.
After the death of Umar the succession of the caliphate became the focus of intense conflict. First, there was a dispute over the succession between Othman and Ali, the husband of Muhammad’s daughter Fatima. Second, the bedouins rose up against Othman as they had opposed Abu Bekr. One group of Muslims, centered in modern Iraq, the Kharijites, rejected the Caliph’s claims to worldly authority. During the reign of Othman (644-656) the believers gradually split into two parties, the loyalists and the “piety-minded” who questioned the religious authority of the caliphs. A signal problem was that the Arabs had no tradition of monarchical rule, much less of empire. The Caliphs thus had no alternative, distinctly Islamic method of administration to apply in the newly conquered lands. So although Arabic became the language of administration, the institutions, taxes, and theories of government in the Caliphate were fundamentally those that they had inherited from the Greeks and Persians whose empires they had conquered. This was odious to many Muslims, and perceived as a betrayal of Islam.
After a reign marked by corruption and luxury, Othman was assassinated in 656, and succeeded by Ali. Othman’s assassination had revealed that the caliphate was not a sacred office, and murder soon became a fundamental part of the political process. Although he was able to crush the bedouin resistance, Ali was himself assassinated in 661. For the next several years, conflicts between the Fatimids (the followers of Ali) and other groups brought the expansion to an end. Ali’s son Husayn led a brief revolt, but was defeated and killed by the caliph Yazid in 680. Husayn’s son Jafar al-Sâdiq and his heirs became the focus of later Fatimid devotion, and his “special followers,” shî`ah, gave their name to a new religious movement, the Shî’ites. The Shî’ites believed that the `ilm (knowledge) needed to interpret the Qu`ran was inherited, passed down through the line of Muhammad through Fatima, Ali, and Husayn. Husayn’s death became a religious holiday for the Shi’ites. What emerged out of these disputes were two movements, one largely political, the other essentially religious, which have divided the Islamic world to the present day.
Under Ali’s immediate successor, Muawiya, the Arabs again pressed the attack against the Byzantine empire. Muawiya believed that a Holy War would bind the caliphate back together and launched a new offensive in 663. By 672, the Arabs were at the walls of Constantinople. But the continued infighting within the ranks of the Muslim leadership allowed the Byzantines to reorganize their armies, make peace with their enemies in Italy and the Balkans, and thus devote all their energies to defeating the Muslims. Christian guerilla groups in Syria and Anatolia helped cut the Arab supply lines. After several successful Byzantine counter attacks led by the new Emperor Constantine IV the offensive collapsed. For four years, from 674 to 678, the Arabs unsuccessfully tried to take Constantinople until they were forced to admit complete defeat. Until the rise of the Moslem Turks in the twelfth century, Islam did not pose a serious threat to Byzantium.
Under Abd al Malik (685-705) unity was restored in the caliphate. His authority was initially not recognized outside Syria and Egypt. Under the leadership of Abdallah, Shi’ites, Kharijites, and other groups hostile to the Caliph staged an insurrection. In 692, however, Abdallah was defeated and beheaded. The Shi’ites and Fatimids were crushed and forced underground. The Arabs began pressing across Africa, conquering Carthage and the Byzantine exarchate of Africa in 698. A new Arab coinage based on silver was introduced. Under Walid I (705-715) the Ommayid caliphate of Damascus reached its height. The Visigothic kingdom of Spain was conquered in 711, and at his death Walid ruled an empire that stretched from India to the Atlantic.
The `Abbasid Revolution
DESPITE the apparent success of Abd al-Malik and Walid, there were serious threats to Ommayid power. First of all, there were internal threats. The Arab Muslims saw themselves as a privileged minority, and converts stood little chance of achieving any prominence in Islamic society. This fueled the fires of ethnic conflict, particularly between Arabs and their subjects in Iran, Iraq, and North Africa. A large scale Berber revolt occurred between 739 and 742. The failure of later offensives against the Franks (732) and Byzantium and a Byzantine counter-offensive undermined the image of the caliphs. A new dynasty arose from Iraq to threaten the Ommayid caliphs. In 750, the last Ommayid Caliph of Damascus, Marwa II, was defeated and killed by Abu al-Abbas al Suffah at the battle on the Greater Zab river. The Abbasid revolution resulted in a redefinition of the role of the caliphate. According to one historian, “it was no coup d’état or palace intrigue but a massive social and political upheaval whose objectives went beyond the setting up of a new dynasty to the reforming and purifying of society according to the laws of Islam.”
The `Abbasid dynasty came from Khurâsân, the high plateau of north eastern Iran. This had been the homeland of the Parthians and since the days of the Achaemenid empire, Khurâsân had served as the frontier, protecting Iran and Iraq from attacks by Turkic peoples in central Asia. Khurâsân was the last part of the old Parthian empire to retain its identity and sense of destiny as the heir to the world empires of the Achaemenid and Sassanian Persians. The Khurâsâniyya developed a reputation as formidable fighters, and formed the backbone of the early `Abbasid army. The `Abbasi were also able to draw support from other corners. They had good relations with the Qays, the northern Arabs who lived along the Byzantine frontier. They also attracted the support of the Yamanis, traditionally rivals of the Qays and a military power in their own right. The `Abbasi were able, then, to forge a coalition of powerful military groups from the extreme limits of the Arab world, overcoming older rivalries to create a new unity.
Initially that unity included many supporters of Ali. The `Abbasids claimed descent from Muhammad uncle, al-`Abbâs, and were seen by many as the long-awaited imâms for the family of the Prophet who would have sufficient `ilm to reorder society according to the Qu’ran and the Sunnah. Although first hailed as the avengers of Husayn, the Shî’ite love-affair with the `Abbasids wore off quickly. Two revolts by descendants of `Ali broke out in 762 and 763. Both were crushed, but the Shî’ite problem refused to go away.
The Abbasid rulers developed an alternative theory of the succession of the Caliphs. There were several theories of succession. First of all, there was the bedouin notion of kinship and clan. The caliph ought to be chosen generally from the Quraysh, the Prophet’s tribe and traditional holy family of Mecca, based not only on their piety, but also upon their ability as a ruler. More radical groups, such as the Fatimids, argued that the caliph ought to be from the Prophet’s immediate family. Muhammad had been bestowed with special spiritual powers by God, and those powers were invested in his family who possessed a monopoly on interpreting the Qu’ran. On a broader level, it was believed by some that one could become caliph through the designation of the previous caliph. The Abbasids combined these ideas, arguing that succession came not merely through heredity or designation, but involved a metaphysical transformation. A “soul of prophecy,” akin to the Christian notion of the Holy Spirit, had been first invested in Adam, and all successive prophets received this soul from their predecessors. The Abbasid claim to power was based on (1) “adoption” into the family of the Prophet through designation and (2) the descent of the prophetic spirit onto their house after the demise of that family.
While the Abbasid’s initially were brought to power through the support of radical and extremist elements, as well as discontented ethnic groups, they moderated their position. Key to Abbasid rule was the culture of Islam. The Arabic language, as the language of religion, provided a focus for unity among all Muslims, Arab and non-Arab alike. This cultural unity, expressed in part through Muslim fundamentalism, provided the basis for political unity. At the same time, Iranians and non-Arab Iraqis, in particular Kurds, held a special place in the `Abbasid caliphate. Among the Iranians, the Barmakid family held first rank. They had once been a family of Buddhist divines, but had converted to Islam in the eighth century. Under the `Abbasids they came to control of office of wazîr, the head of the caliph’s household and prime minister.
Under al-Mansur (754-775), the capital of the caliphate was moved from Damascus to Iraq. A new capital city, Baghdad, was built as a model Muslim city. Throughout his reign, there was tension between the army and civil administration, led by the Barmakids. The Abbasid caliphate reached its height under Harun al’Rashid (786-809). He seized power from his brother in a coup d’ état supported by the Barmakids. With their help, he centralized the government of the caliphate. His campaigns against the Byzantine Empire helped to reaffirm the Caliph’s role as the leader of Muslims against the unbelievers. Moreover, this endemic border war inspired a relentless policy of expropriation, increasing the financial resources of the state. At the time of his death Harun divided the caliphate between his sons, ostensibly to resolve the problem of governing so great an empire. His idea was that while the caliphate would be ruled by a common dynasty, different parts would be administered by different members of the family. The result of this was civil war, as one Arab poet explained.
I say to the perplexity in the soul of me,
While tears of my eye pursue each other uninterruptedly,
Take now supplies for dread in resolution:
You shall encounter what will deny you of sleep,
For you, if you survive, shall see a reign
That will prolong your sorrows and your wakefulness.
The cultivated king has conceived an evil idea
By his division of the Caliphate and the lands,
To do what must — would he but consider with knowledge —
Surely whiten by its divisions the black.
And thus he sought to cut off among his sons
Their quarrels, and produce among them common love!
Yet he has planted hostility without family,
And occasioned battles for their company,
And caused repeated wars between them,
And strung to their avoidance chains.
The civil war lasted from 809 to 833. Harun’s eldest son, al-Amîn was defeated by his brother al-Ma’mûn in 811. He took Baghdad with the support of non-arab Muslims in the city. Although al-Amîn tried to negotiate, he was executed by the commander of al-Ma’mûn’s forces. Fighting continued for two decades, largely because of the horror which the new Caliph’s fratricide invoked. Africa was lost; so was Spain. The unity of Islam was forever broken.
The reign of al-Ma’mûn’s younger brother marked a change in the direction of Islam that would have dire and long-term consequences. Abû Ishâq al-Mu`tasim (833-842) had stood on the sidelines during the civil wars. In 813 he began to buy slaves and train them as soldiers in his personal army. Among those he bought was a Khazar cook, who turned out to be a prince of Samarqand, the chief city of Turkistan. Through his newly established connection with Samarqand, he began to import Turkish slaves directly from central Asia. By the time he acceded to the throne in 833, al-Mu`tasim had a formidable army, made up primarily of Turks, Armenians, and Berbers — the “barbarians” on the fringes of the Islamic world. Although remembered as one of the great warrior-caliphs, al-Mu`tasim’s regime saw the militarization of the administration, and the growing dominance over the military of Turkish officers.
Little is known about the reign of al-Mu`tasim’s son, Hârûn al-Wâthiq (842-847) except that he named no one to succeed him. A council of religious and political leaders was held, and elected his brother Jafar as caliph. Ja’far, better known as al-Mutawakkil, was chosen because the council thought he would be a puppet, a figure head. They chose the wrong man. Al-Mutawakkil used assassination as a weapon against his opponents, destroying much of the older administrative system. In 858 he moved the capital back to Damascus, much to the dismay of the Iraqis and Turks. In 861 al-Mutawakkil was assassinated by a conspiracy of Turkish officers. What followed was nine years of anarchy and civil war. Turkish generals fought with one another in competition for recruits and supplies, raising their own candidates to the caliphate.
Although order was restored by al-Muwaffaq (877-892) the anarchy had severely undermined the unity of the caliphate. In Morocco, the Idrisid dynasty arose in 788, followed by the Alghalabids in Tunisia and Algeria in 801. Renewed Shi’ite uprisings again questioned the spiritual powers of the Caliphs. Worst was the loss of Egypt. Ahmad ibn Tûlûn was governor of Egypt for the `Abbasids from 868 to 884. During the anarchy he built up a substantial army which he used to take control of Palestine and Syria. He established an independent dynasty that continued until 908. Although Caliph al-Muktafi (902-908) was able to reconquer Tulunid Egypt it was lost to a Fatimid dynasty within a generation. Raids by bedouin groups, known as theqaramiti severely weakened the Iraqi heartland. The agricultural system of Iraq, based on irrigation, collapsed and farmland returned to desert. The tenth century saw the gradual collapse of the caliphate, and its division into a host of successor states, dominated by military dynasties vying with one another for power.
Byzantium in the Late Seventh and Eighth Centuries
BYZANTIUM was clearly under siege at the end of the seventh century. Although Heraclius had defeated the Persians, his successor Constans II was unable to prevent the Arabs from overrunning Egypt and Palestine. With the victory of Constantine IV in 678, however, the tide seemed to turn once again in Byzantium’s favor. The significance of that victory cannot be overestimated. Not only was this the first real check on the Arab advance, but through his victory, Constantine restored the image of Constantinople as the center of Christendom.
After the Arabs’ defeat, Constantine called a new council at Constantinople in 680 to restore orthodoxy and condemn Monothelitism. Three patriarchs and Pope Honorius I were excommunicated after the council. The Emperor then turned to his own household and undertook a remorseless purge of his own family. New laws restricted the right of succession to the eldest son, ensuring the creation of a true hereditary monarchy.
Constantine’s successor and the last member of the Heraclian dynasty was the enigmatic Justinian II (685-95, 705-11). Historians generally discuss the two reigns of Justinian II: the first lasting until his deposition in 695; the second beginning after his return to power in 705. During his first reign, Justinian II tried to emulate his namesake through improving the laws and administration of the realm. He also reorganized the administration of the Empire, establishing new Themes in Thrace (687) and Greece (687/695) and southern Italy. He reconquered much of Asia Minor, and in 688 he led a fairly successful campaign in the Balkans against the Slavs and Bulgars
At this stage it is necessary to say something about the situation in the Balkans prior to Justinian’s campaign. The Slavs had entered the Balkans at the end of the sixth century, and by the seventh century, had settled most of the interior of Greece and the Balkans. The Slavs, however, do not seem to have had any significant form of political organization and soon came under the leadership of a Turkic tribe, the Avars. Avar princes and elites commanded military forces and exacted tribute from their Slavic subjects. Until the 620’s, the Avars were the dominant group in the Balkans. After 630, however, they were largely supplanted by the Bulgars.
The Bulgars were a Turkic tribe from central Asia who first made their appearance in the early seventh century. Until 626 they appear to have been subjects of the Avars, but according to one chronicler, rose up against the Avars in 635, following the latter’s defeat by the Greeks. The short history of Nikephoros reports:
At about this same time (ca. 626/635) Koubratos (Kuvrat) the nephew of Organas and lord of the Onogundurs, rose up against the Khagan of the Avars and, after abusing the army he had from the latter, drove them out of his land. He sent an embassy to Heraclius and concluded a peace treaty which they observed until the end of their lives. [Heraclius] sent him gifts and honored him with the title of patrician.
Most likely, Heraclius gave these gifts in order to ensure Kuvrat’s support for his own campaigns against the Avars and Slavs. Up to this point, the Bulgars were happy to remain north of the Danube. In the chaos following the assassination of Constans II in 668, however, a group of Bulgars led by Asperuch (or Isperikh) crossed the Danube and settled in Thrace. Asperuch established a capital at Pliska, an extended fortified camp, and made raids into Byzantine territory. Constantine IV was unable to defeat them. Rather, the Bulgars set down for a long stay.
Asperuch and his successors were, like Kuvrat, members of the house of Dulo, the dynasty of Attila the Hun. Bulgar society was organized according to clans, each headed by a Khan. The clan of Dulo was the most venerable, and its leader was known as the “Sublime Khan.” The Sublime Khan was aided by a variety of provincial administrators, some of them drawn from the remnant Greek population, as well as the great nobles of the clans, known as Boyars.
By 681, the Emperors had legally surrendered claims to much of Thrace to the Bulgars, but Justinian II hoped to undo this. His campaigns in the Balkans were largely successful, and large numbers of Slavs were resettled to other parts of the Empire, many as stratiotai in the Themes of Anatolia. In this sense, Justinian II was following a traditional Heraclian policy of making free farmer-soldiers both the fiscal and military foundation of the state. To this end he issued the Farmers Law, a revision of old land law which allowed greater fiscal autonomy to peasant villages. Justinian’s reforms basically reversed the taxation policies of Diocletian, which had tied the peasants to the land, in favor of allowing them greater liberty while spreading the tax burdens more equally across society. The nobility looked upon these measures first with suspicion, then with hostility. Hence, as a prize for his success, Justinian II was deposed after an aristocratic conspiracy. His nose was cut off, since it was argued that a physical disability ought to prevent someone from becoming emperor. The nobles appointed Tiberius II as the new emperor while Justinian was banished to Cherson in the Crimea.
Tiberius II, like all usurpers, soon found himself at loggerheads with the same people who put him into office. On the frontiers, the Arabs overran the North African Theme and again began pressing into Asia Minor. Justinian II, for his part, had no intention of remaining in forced retirement, and was able to escape from Cherson. First he went to the Khazars. The Khazar Khan received him with honor, and to the horror of many Greeks, Justinian II married the Khan’s sister after her conversion to Christianity. When Tiberius II was able to convince the Khazars to return the deposed emperor to his captors, Justinian sought refuge among the Bulgars. He was welcomed by the new Bulgar Khan, Asperuch’s successor (son or grandson) Terval. In 705, Justinian and Terval led a joint expedition against Constantinople. Unable to breach the walls, Justinian crawled into the city through a sewer pipe and, with a few pick men, was able to stir up such a panic that Tiberius fled, leaving the city to his rival.
Now restored to office, Justinian heaped favor on his ally. Terval was invested with the imperial mantle and proclaimed “Caesar.” While the title is significant, it also was viewed by the Emperor and the Khan in different ways. From Justinian’s perspective, this made the Khan his subject, a junior emperor ruling a distant part of the empire. For Terval, however, the title gave him official recognition and stature within the community of “civilized” nations. Aside from one small war, Terval remained largely loyal to Justinian, even when the latter did not merit it. Until Justinian’s murder by the usurper Phillippicus-Bardanes, Terval consistently sent troops to aid the Emperor in his campaigns.
Phillippicus-Bardanes proved a hopeless hedonist and only capable of resurrecting old theological controversies after openly declaring himself a heretic. After Terval led a campaign through Thrace, ostensibly to avenge the murder of Justinian, Phillippicus-Bardanes was deposed and blinded by his own troops in 713. His successors, Anastasius II and Theodosius III, each lasted only two years. By this point, Byzantium had been ruled by some six emperors in the past twenty years. Only with the accession of Leo III (717-741) and the coming of the Isaurian dynasty was some semblance of order restored. Leo initially had to deal with a resurgent Arab threat. When the Arabs attacked Constantinople in 717, Terval sent a large army to help defend the city. Thereafter, Leo was able to maintain good relations with the Arabs. He undertook a reform of law, producing a summary handbook of law for use by local judges.
After securing his power base at home, Leo undertook a radical reform of religion. The center of the conflict was the cult of icons. Since the reign of Justinian II, the veneration of sacred icons — depictions of the saints and members of the Holy Family — had become a central component of Byzantine piety. Justinian’s coinage introduced the practice of showing Christ on the obverse of each coin, placing the Emperor’s image on the reverse. There were, however, critics of this practice, who argued that Christianity was a purely spiritual religion and that the cult of icons elevated the profane arts over the mysteries of faith. Some of the opponents of the cult of icons, known as iconoclasts, may have been influenced by Jewish and Muslim suspicions of graven images. Certainly the supporters of icons, or iconodules, believed that Leo’s policy was derived from Jewish or even Moslem sympathies. Among the most prominent iconodules were Pope Gregory II and St. John of Damascus as well as the Patriarch of Constantinople, Germanus. Leo at first undertook to win over them through diplomatic means, but when these measures failed he turned to force. In 730 a new law banned icons. Germanus was deposed and the iconodules were subject to vehement persecution. Italy was beyond Leo’s reach, however, and the draconian measures he resorted to in an effort to exterminate the cult of icons caused Italians to rally around the Pope in opposition to Byzantine rule. In the end, Leo’s policy only created dissension within the Empire and isolated it from the Christian states of the West.
Leo III left a mixed legacy to his son and heir Constantine V (741-75). While he was well positioned to retake eastern provinces lost to the Arabs, a conspiracy of iconodules broke out immediately following his accession. The uprising failed, revealing popular support in the eastern provinces for iconoclasm. The chief rebels were blinded or otherwise mutilated, while lesser figures got off with hanging. Thereafter Constantine showed no mercy on unrepentant iconodules. Once his position at home was secure, he undertook a new campaign against the Arabs, reconquering Syria in 746. He then turned his attention towards the Bulgars. The house of Dulo had died out in 739, and thereafter various boyar factions struggled for dominance within the Bulgar Empire. From 739 to 756 a boyar named Kormorish was able to maintain his position as Tsar (from Caesar) only with Byzantine support. When Constantine threatened to withdraw his aid in 755, Kormorish invaded Thrace but was defeated. Constantine then led a campaign against the Bulgars and in 757 destroyed the Bulgar army. Kormorish’s son and the rest of his family were subsequently massacred. In the years that followed various boyars attempted to defeat the Byzantine forces but without success. Constantine successfully played the succession of new khans against the boyars until Bulgaria sunk into anarchy. In the end, only Constantine V’s death in 775 saved Bulgaria from complete destruction at the hands of the Greeks.
Constantine V may have been a skilled warrior, but he was universally hated for his cruel persecution of iconodules. After his death there was a brief respite under his son Leo IV (775-780) who, while still an iconoclast, was not nearly as harsh as his father. Leo’s early death, however, presented a new set of problems. The new Emperor, Constantine VI, was only ten years old. Real power lay in the hand of the regent, the formidable Empress Irene (775-802). Irene was the first woman in the history of the empire to hold absolute power, and it was a pity that she did not rule better. Herself an iconodule, she tried to end the practice of iconoclasm by summoning a council in 786. Despite numerous controversies, the iconodule party triumphed and the decrees of 754 banning the veneration of icons were rescinded. Nonetheless, there were still some very powerful iconoclasts, particularly in the monasteries. Moreover, Irene’s enemies found in her son the tool for her destruction. Constantine VI had as his closest advisor a zealous iconoclast who, with some members of the aristocracy, worked to convince the young Emperor to throw off his mother’s tyranny and rule in his own name. The deciding vote was cast by the army, who led an uprising against the Empress. Irene was driven out of the palace from 790 to 792.
Constantine VI proved a disappointment to all. He led a failed campaign against the Bulgars which only served to ensure their distrust of Byzantium and to reveal the depths of Constantine’s cowardice. He proved incapable of government, and even Irene’s opponents realized the need for her guidance. Even after she returned to the palace, however, Constantine continued to engage in savage cruelty and adultery. Finally, with the support of the army and the iconoclasts, Irene had her son deposed and blinded in 797. It was too little too late, however. Irene was now faced with a serious Arab incursion led by Harun al Rashid as well as a renewed Bulgarian threat. She alienated her supporters through her plots and intrigues until 802 when a palace revolution removed her from office.
The period from the reign of Constantine IV to the deposition of Irene saw Byzantium struggle to regain its position as the leading power in the Christian world. Although Byzantine arms were generally successful at keeping the Arabs and Bulgars at bay and despite numerous useful legal and administrative reform programs, the continued theological disputes in the East severely undermined the stature of the Emperor. The turn to iconoclasm and resulting break with Rome opened the doors for the Papacy to supersede the emperors as the spiritual heads of the Christian West. Moreover, the reign of Irene, perceived by many as a de facto vacancy on the throne on account of her sex, allowed a western barbarian to claim the title of Roman Emperor at long last. That barbarian was Charlemagne.