Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

Eastern Rome from Marcian to Justin: Doorstep of Byzantium (450-527)

For the rest of his reign, Zeno had no rest. He had Harmatius murdered so as to avert what could have been a threat to his rule. In 479, he had Verinus imprisoned for similar reasons. Another Marcian then revolted, and got as far as storming the palace before Illus brought in Isaurian contingents. Ironically, Illus himself revolted again from 483. Partly, this was due to the many attempts on the latter's life emanating from close to the throne. In 477, an imperial slave had tried to kill him; in 478 an agent of Verina was similarly found. In 482, Ariadne sent a would-be assassin as well. Also, Zeno was in danger as long as another powerful general was near. In 484 the Emperor denounced Illus after he quarreled with Zeno's brother in Syria as to how to put down a rebellion. Illus then joined the rebel, moving to Tarsus. At this point, Zeno elected to use the Ostrogoths, who had been intermittently raiding Thrace and the Balkans. Their leader Theodoric agreed to lead an army against Illus. Defeated at Antioch, the rebels retreated to Isauria and were eliminated by 488. Zeno was then able to convince Theodoric to take his Goths out of the Eastern lands entirely, and go to Italy to unseat Odovacar who had been ruling in the Emperor's name since 476.

The final years of Zeno's rule were filled with religious problems. His attempt to affect a Monophysite-Orthodox compromise failed, as saying that Christ was both God and man, without referring to his actual constitution, satisfied no one. The Pope Felix III was particularly offended when the Emperor and his patriarch Acacia consented to a Monophysite's appointment to the Patriarchate of Alexandria. The Pope excommunicated Acacia, who returned the favor, beginning a schism that lasted the next thirty-five years.

In 491, Anastasia became Emperor. Five points are worth noting: 1) He was an exceedingly thrifty ruler, who while leaving the imperial fisc in better shape than he found it, bored and disaffected the populace with his dour, puritanical attitudes; 2) though appearing Orthodox at first, his Monophysitism became more pronounced, especially after 510. This widened the schism with Rome, and caused threatening street-brawls in the capital between partisans of the two creeds. 3) Zeno's brother, Longinus, felt passed over for the throne, and thus caused trouble by gathering a large group of mostly Isaurian supporters who also caused street riots. In 492, Anastasius had Longinus exiled to Egypt, whereupon full-scale civil war started in Constantinople. While peace returned here the next year, only in 496 did Anatolia quiet down. 4) The populace began to divide more and more into two factions, the Blues and Greens, based originally on charioteer teams in the capital. The groups had important urban defensive roles, such as policing and guarding the walls in major cities. Blues were somewhat allied with Greco-Roman landholding aristocrats and supported the Chalcedon doctrine on Christ's nature. The Greens found support among urban traders and the civil service, and contained Monopysite sympathies. From the mid-490s they began to riot against each other, with the Emperor often entangled. This at times linked up with the religious controversies. 5) From the 510s, foreign threats resurged. The Sassanians began a three-year war during which they took several important eastern defenses, while the Bulgars began to penetrate Thrace and raid during the same years. In 518, the Thracian peasant and general Justin succeeded Anastasius. Aside from sending initial expeditions against the Ostrogoths in Italy, he ended the Rome-Constantinople schism, and was scrupulously Orthodox. He also continued to suffer the Blue- Green disturbances, advocating for the Blues. His guide in all things was his nephew Justinian, whom he made Master of Soldiers.


This period, witnessing the fall of Rome in the West, also presented trends that would come to characterize Eastern Roman political life, such that a particularly 'Byzantine' formation was emerging. First was the incessant descent upon Byzantium's Danubian borders of Barbarian masses no longer interested in becoming part of the Empire, but in either plundering it or colonizing it. Ostrogoths were ephemeral in this respect, and would be replaced by Avars, Bulgars, and Slavs into the tenth century.

Second, Constantinople would very rarely witness smooth imperial succession. A dynamic emerged whereby A) an external crisis would combine with B) a politicized population and C) individual elite's ambitions stoked by D) royal family members (often female) to cause at times dizzying successions of would-be rulers. In every case, however, an experienced administrator or general would jump into the breech, preventing total decomposition. In this context there evolved an elite circulation, not of design, but of necessity. This is the third issue. Gradually, Eastern Rome was becoming less Roman in leadership and more representative of its multi-ethnic population, including Isuarians, Greeks, Armenians, and Balkan masses. Of course, underneath it all, Byzantine bureaucracy and administration would provide governing continuity, so that repeatedly, state and society would find the resources to continue.

A fourth characteristic is the state's involvement in determining theological policy. Eastern Roman emperors styled themselves after Constantine (r. 313-337). He had patronized and managed the Church, embodying the state-society- religion unity so dear to the Roman mind. Later emperors would try to do the same. It was almost impossible for the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, or even Jerusalem, to establish an autonomous space, in terms of theology, administration, or even in fiscal matters. Only monasteries were somewhat untrammeled, and in the eighth century, they too would find it difficult to remain beyond state monitoring. The consequences of such an approach were mixed. On the one hand the religious aspect would at times grant added legitimacy to emperors. At times, external conflicts could be portrayed, with no dissimulation, as wars for the survival of Christianity as represented by the state. As well, being able to avail themselves of the Church's administrative powers was quite helpful, just as in later times the Church's held could entail a welcome financial windfall.

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