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High Middle Ages (1000-1200)

Byzantium Triumphant, Byzantium Faltering: 960-1071

Getting There: Byzantium, 650-870

Germany, 920-1075: The Saxon Empire to the Investiture Controversy


The century from the definitive capture of Crete (960) to the defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert (1071) illustrates the glorious apogee and beginning of decline of the Byzantine state. Up to the 920s, Byzantium was served by excellent generals and warrior emperors. The First was Nicephorus Phocas, who directed the conquest of Crete and capture of Candia, its capital. In the same years, Nicephorus' brother, Leo Phocas, was active in the East. Sayf al-Dawla, the Abbasid-Buyid Amir of Mosul, had captured Aleppo in Syria in 945, and had expanded to Damascus, Emesa, and Antioch. In 960, he sent a major expedition into Byzantine lands, at the same time as most Byzantine forces were in Crete. Leo allowed the Amir's forces to advance and take prisoners and plunder in Byzantine lands, while the Byzantines set up their forces at the key passes through the Taurus mountains that Sayf would need to return through. In November 961, Leo and Sayf's forces met, the latter being pulled into a well- planned Greek ambush. Sayf's forces were routed, and the Byzantine eastern frontier had been restored. In early 962, Leo led an offensive that regained fifty-five walled towns in southeastern Anatolia. In the spring, his forces went south into Syria, leaving nothing unburned or unplundered. Aleppo was eventually sacked and plundered, but left un-occupied, its Arab garrison deemed too small to be of danger. At this point, the Emperor Romanus II died, and in a protracted contest among various imperial claimants, Nicephorus Phocas emerged as Emperor by 963. He raised Leo to Imperial Court Marshal, and another prominent general, John Tzimisces, became commander-in-chief of Anatolian forces.

Nicephorus was occupied on three fronts: 1) the Eastern, Islamic; 2) the Northern, Bulgar-Russian; and 3) the internal front, comprising the Church, the Anatolian landed aristocracy, and the smallholding peasant-soldier class. He had the best success against the Turco-Arab Muslims. In 965, Byzantines recovered Tarsus, which Muslims had been using as a base for Cilician incursions. In the same year, he set his sights on Cyprus. For nearly 300 years, Caliphate and Byzantium had jointly occupied it. In 965, Nicephorus' armies occupied it totally, forming it into a Theme. Two years later Sayf al- Dawla died, and in 969 the holy city of Antioch returned to Byzantine possession after 332 years.

The northern front gave mixed results. In 965, Bulgar ambassadors arrived requesting the tribute that had been delivered to them ever since the late 920s when the Bulgar Czar at that time had married into the Byzantine family and furthered Christianization, in the process making his state an effective buffer against Magyars and Russians. Nicephorus refused the tribute, abused the ambassadors, and then advanced to the Bulgarian frontier, capturing several border towns. Not wanting to deplete troop numbers in the east, however, he elected not to invade Bulgaria himself. Instead, he made an agreement with the Viking-Russian Prince of Kiev Sviatoslav. In return for a cash gift, Sviatslov would subdue the Bulgars. Sviatoslav did this quite effectively, crumpling the Bulgar state and replacing it on the Byzantine border. By 969, when Bulgar Czar Peter died, the Russians were amassing forces right up against the Thracian border.

Nicephorus eventually lost his throne, due mostly to internal problems. A member of the Anatolian landholding aristocracy and a general, Nicephorus Phocas patronized these two groups at the expense of all other segments in the Empire, including the Church and the rural-urban masses. Regarding the former, though Nicephorus was rigorously puritanical, he was incensed by the large tracts of Anatolian land monasteries and churches controlled in such a way as to put them beyond state, Theme, and landholder access. He thus proscribed additional transfers of land to the Church. Further, in a particularly Byzantine foreshadowing of the Investiture Controversy, the Emperor decreed that new bishops would have to receive his personal approval for their appointments to be valid.

As regards the masses, though the backbone of the Themes was the mass of smallholding peasant soldiers, Nicephorus actually facilitated the large Anatolian landholders' expansion of their holdings in his effort to help the state treasury. When a tract came up for sale, first preference was given to the owners of the adjacent tract, after which the highest bidder was allowed access. The highest bidders, of course, were the already large landed gentry. Nicephorus also implemented harsh taxes to finance the military. The army in turn, especially in Constantinople, increasingly antagonized the urban populace through their uncouth behavior. Ultimately, though, it was not a general urban revolt, but a plot that ended Nicephorus' rule. Nicephorus' beautiful, conniving wife Theophano convinced him to recall to the capital John Tzimisces, an old boon companion recently fallen under a cloud. After his return, Theophano and John conspired to usurp the throne. On December 10, 969, John himself slipped into the palace and murdered the Emperor, assuming the purple the next day and ridding himself of Theophano to placate public and clerical opinion. Like his predecessor, John Tzimisces major concern were his neighbors to the north and east. In 970, Sviatoslav of the Russians went on the offensive, coming south of the Danube. Byzantine forces did not engage the enemy until they reached Arcadiopolis. After ambushing an advance guard of Pechenegs, the Imperial forces went on to utterly defeat the Russians. In the intervening two years, John dealt with internal revolts and claims to the throne on the behalf of the slain Nicephorus' relatives in the Phocas family as well as other prominent generals. In 972, however, John himself led armies to the old Bulgarian capital of Preslav and engaged the Russians in a fierce battle. Ultimately, the Russians broke under the thrusts of John's own elite forces, and so Preslav was later occupied by Greek forces around Easter 972. Sviatoslav fled and was finally defeated at Dristra on the Danube, in July 972. Bulgaria had been totally secured for Byzantium. The Bulgar Czar abdicated, its patriarchate was reduced to an archbishopric, and the region was absorbed as a province.

In 975, John turned his full attention to the East, where the Fatimid state had expanded its influence past Egypt into Syria. Tzimisces' campaigns here would represent the furthest extent of Byzantine reconquest in the Empire's history. By the fall of that year, most of Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon were under Byzantine control, for the first time since Heraclius in the 630s. By this time, however, John was sick, and he died on January 10, 976.

His successor was Basil II, who may have poisoned him. Basil was the son of Romanus II, and was not a proven general or a member of the Anatolian aristocracy, as had been Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces. As a result, he had tremendous difficulty suppressing revolts and challenges to his throne. The effort to establish his throne took eleven years, and culminated with resort to Vladimir of Rus, Sviatoslav's son. In return for the Emperor's sister's hand in marriage, Vladimir provided 6,000 Varangian warriors. In 989, Basil was able to finally meet his chief nemesis, Bardas Phocas, whose forces were ultimately destroyed. The latter challenged Basil to a duel, but died of a stroke in the midst of his own charge. By 989, then, Basil had outfought his internal opponents, and had stewarded over Vladimir's marriage to Princess Anna, as well as Vladimir's entry into the Orthodox Christian fold, an event with tremendous cultural significance. From 990, Basil was able to concentrate on three things: 1) punishing and destroying of the re-emergent Bulgar state; 2) further securing of the Eastern border; and 3) clipping the wings of the Anatolian aristocracy and reinvigorating of the Theme armies' demographic basis.

During the years of civil unrest in Byzantium, a certain Samuel had proclaimed himself Bulgar Czar. Starting from 980, he invaded Thessaly every year, in 986 capturing its capital Larissa. Basil countered by leading an army in person to meet Samuel. He was ambushed by the Bulgars, however, at Trajan's gate pass, and lost most of his forces. In 991, Basil returned to discipline the Bulgars definitively. Through 995, Basil's forces ranged through Thessaly. Though not winning any shocking victories, the methodical advances, rigorous discipline and planning, and careful precautions brought several cities and regions back to Byzantium. Forced to fight in the East for the next few years, Basil saw to the increased prestige and power of his client the Republic of Venice. It was now to guard the Dalmatian coast and protect the Greek-speaking cities from Samuel. From 1000-1014, Basil II undertook continuous campaigns in the Eastern Balkans. Advancing the whole time, in 1014, there was a momentous battle, at the narrow passes of Cimbalongus near the upper Struma River. The Bulgars were surprised and annihilated, with 15,000 taken prisoner. In an act earning him the name Bulgar-Slayer, or Bulgaroctonus, Basil sent these prisoners home in groups of 100--ninety-nine of each group were blinded, while their leader was left with one eye to guide them. Czar Samuel died upon seeing his returning army. In 1018, the Bulgars were finally eliminated as a political entity, and Basil personally occupied their capital. The entirety of the Balkan Peninsula was once more Byzantine.

Basil's activities in the East were mostly defensive. In 995, the Fatimids put Aleppo under siege. It was now a Byzantine protectorate, so its amir appealed to Basil. Putting his entire army on mule-back, Basil rushed to Aleppo's defense. The Fatimids were defeated, and fled back to Damascus. To drive home his superiority, Basil sacked Emesa, and raided as far south as Tripoli before heading back west to face Bulgar issues. Returning to the region in 1023, he established eight new Themes, continuing northeast of Antioch. Byzantine dominance stretched to Azerbayjan, and at his death in 1025, Basil was planning an invasion of Sicily. One group was glad of his death. While in the east in 990-s, Basil was angered by the degree of large landholder control in the area. Their estates had expanded both onto imperial lands as well as onto the local village communes--those centers on which Theme soldiers depended for support. Thus, while individual Byzantine elites, and even generals, were enriched, the state and army ran the risk of impoverishment. On January 1, 996, Basil decreed that for a claim to land to be valid, it had to go back to Romanus I Lecapanus, sixty-one years before. Thus, much of the Anatolian aristocracy were immediately deprived of their lands--the Phocas family, having produced Nicephorus the emperor, lost almost all their estates, while other families were reduced to beggary. The peasants, and small holders, however, were now empowered to regain lost lands. When Basil died and his inadequate brother Constantine VIII became emperor, the land laws were forgotten. The Anatolian landholders reacquired their properties, and the region returned to a country of estates, with the Theme armies damaged, and tax revenues lessened.

With Constantine, the Byzantine decline begins. Constantine was of no use to the empire. Aside from ending a regulation requiring the Anatolian and Constantinople Aristocrats to pay the peasants' tax arrears, he bequeathed the empire to his daughter Zoe, who came to rule in 1028, sharing the Imperial crown with a series of non-entity emperors for the next thirty years. Capital and provincial elites manipulated the sovereigns. Romanus III ended the laws protecting Asia Minor peasants before being killed on Zoe's orders. The military began to lose numerical strength. One of Romanus' murderers became her co-emperor as Michael IV. An epileptic, he began gross financial mismanagement. Under Romanus, the number of government jobs increased as a means for aristocratic self-aggrandizement. This meant that state funds became scarce. Michael responded by farming out the taxes, which had with harsh consequences for the non-elite tax-payers, and debased the coinage, which caused mounting hording and decreased buying power for those on inelastic incomes. In 1041, Constantine IX Monomachus became Emperor. Fearing for Byzantium's declining military posture, important generals attempted a coup. Monomachus barely survived, and, as a result, took an aggressively negative approach to the army. He starved it for funds and man-power, allowing peasants to buy their way out. The old Byzantine army based on Theme soldiers and officers rising through the ranks and long years of training disappeared; emperors came to rely on foreign mercenaries of doubtful loyalty. Thus, between 1040 and the late 1060s, the civil aristocracy of Constantinople saw to the demilitarization of the Empire, while Asia Minor elites focused on increasing their holdings.

By the late 1050s, though, the eastern frontier was newly threatened. Muslim Turks had been migrating through the Islamic World from Iran westwards since the early 1000s. A Turkic Islamic state ruled by the Seljuk dynasty had occupied Baghdad in 1040s, and offshoots of it, as well as less disciplined, semi-nomadic Turcoman tribes, had begun incursions into Byzantine lands from the mid 1060s. The leaders in Constantinople belatedly realized that they had to strengthen their eastern defenses, and consented to the ascent of a military leader as emperor. Romanus IV Diogenes came to power in 1068, and gathered a mercenary army of Bulgars, Franks, Normans and others. He took it east to garrison the forts, but was ambushed in east-central Anatolia by Seljuk forces under Alp Arslan. The Byzantine forces were totally defeated. Romanus himself was taken into captivity, where he died. There was absolutely no Anatolian Byzantine army, and Turcoman tribesmen ranged freely and widely in Eastern and Central Anatolia for the rest of the century and beyond.


Byzantium had seemed a self-sustaining entity beginning in the late 700s. What is conspicuous about the period from 950-1025 is that the Empire could make such strides forward while still hemmed in by opponents on all sides, including a Latin West increasingly disassociated from it culturally, religiously, and politically. What conditions, in short, allowed the tremendous successes of Nicephorus Phocas and John Tzimisces? Political elites at the center were no more unified than before, and imperial reigns were short, until the period of Basil II. As usual, some of the reasons are internal, while much involves the disposition of Byzantium's neighbors. Internally speaking, Byzantium had at no time lost the far-ranging trade connections going as far north as Russia and as far east as Central Asia. This permitted the state to enjoy a wealth that Western polities could not yet imagine. Also, in spite of the enervating struggles at the center among generals and emperors, the civil-military bureaucracy of the middle echelons was well established, professional, and continually loyal to the state and regime as a whole, as an incarnation of a specifically Christian civilization. On the provincial level, the Theme armies were also maintained during this period, though in the 970s the Anatolian aristocracy began to undercut their demographic and agricultural basis. Still, what emerges is a pattern of a healthy Theme system providing imperial strength, as long as the creeping Anatolian aristocracy's annexations were kept at bay. Even these latter were often able to provide military muscle, and several brilliant generals came from their ranks, such as the Phocas brothers, Sclerus, and Tzimisces.

On the external front, matters were also turning in Byzantium's favor. In the north, Bulgars and Russians remained recalcitrant, yet had passed through a process of sedentarization. In both cases, but even more so in the case of the Bulgars, they had settled into mostly unitary states, with an interest in a modus vivendi. At the least, they had lost some degree of martial vigor, and that they were sedentary meant that it was easier to fight them on the terms with which Byzantium--itself a sedentary state--was familiar. As well, the Orthodox Christianization of these regions contributed intangibly to a lessening of the civilizational gap.

This is not to mention the southeastern front, Islam. From the mid 800s, the Islamic world was politically riven by rival states. Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad were increasingly unable to exert control over outlying governors, and by the 950s, were rulers only in name. Under the protection of Turco-Persian Buyid Amirs in their own capital, Abbasid territories no longer extended past Iraq. By 970, a rival polity emerged in North Africa. The Fatimids were a Shi'i political dynasty who soon occupied Egypt and moved into Syria as well. Thus, a political conflict carried heavy undertones of confessional strife between Sunnis and Shi'is. An upshot was that the Abbasid forces, or the forces of their protectors, were no longer as able, or inclined, to pursue sustained offensives against Byzantium. Indeed, both the Fatimids and Buyids at times requested Byzantine assistance in their conflicts, and it was because of the political vacuum in the southeastern Anatolia-Syria-Lebanon region--the seam between Abbasids and Fatimids--that John Tzimisces was able to recapture areas such as Antioch.

These favorable external conditions did not persist, especially in the East. Ever since the 900s, the Turks had been looming on the eastern fringes of the Islamic world. Mahmud of Ghazna had established the first Turco-Islamic state in Khurasan in the 940s. In the early 1000s, though, a more serious Turkish migration into Islamic lands began. Based on armies of mounted light cavalry able to fire arrows while at a gallop, they bested the armies put against them. Under the Seljuk dynasty originating in Iran, they came through the Abbasid heartlands in the 1040s, reigning supreme in Baghdad by 1050. Now, there was a strong Sunni state to rival the Shi'ites in Egypt and Syria. Along with this polity came less disciplined Turcoman tribes, who the Seljuk sultans had trouble restraining. Indeed, the Seljuk sultan Alp Arslan had pursued peaceful relations with the Byzantines in the 1050s and 1060s so that he could shore up his position in Mesopotamia and go on the offensive against the Fatimids in Syria. The tribes, however, began plundering and pasturing in Asia Minor from the late 1050s. At times, segments of Turkic tribes were brought further into Anatolia when they were hired as mercenary soldiers by Byzantine generals. When these somewhat Islamized Turkic groups began to capture Byantine posts and plunder Greek population centers, the Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan was eventually forced to defend these kinsmen who now came under Byzantine military pressure.

The Byzantine state the Seljuks confronted, though, was not nearly the same as it had been in the period of Basil II. If there was a 'Byzantine system'-- comprising Theme armies based on peasant smallholders in Anatolia, led by generals loyal to their emperors, who in turn restrained the Anatolian aristocracy and remained financially frugal--this system broke down beginning in 1025. The Anatolian elites, along with the Constantinople civil aristocracy, never transcended their self-centered interests, and were content to deplete the army in pursuit of material wealth. And, there was no one to stop them; post- Basil emperors were either the creatures of the incompetent Zoe, or antagonistic towards the army. Thus, the disastrous results of 1071 should not be surprising. Romanus' army was not even Greek in composition, and to the extent that it was coherent, it could not match the mobile, mounted forces of the Turks. Once again, the conflict between a sedentary civilization and a semi- nomadic, migratory one signaled the decline of the settled protagonist. Just as this was reminiscent of the Germanic migrations into the Roman world, the process of de-Hellenization and slamization that inexorably progressed through Anatolia from the 1070s to 1300 constituted a similar civilizational shift, only now, the newcomers did not take on the host- faith, but spread their own. The Turkish period of Islamic history--as distinct from the Arab and Persian one--was fully under way.

As an extremely important footnote, in 1054 there occurred an event of extreme cross-cultural importance. Latin Christianity, whose spiritual leader was the Pope, had for the past two-hundred years taken a very different course from the Greek Orthodox Christianity of the Byzantine Empire. Whereas the Pope articulated a position of autonomy from, and even supremacy over, secular rulers in the West, the Byzantine Church was almost a department of state. Patriarchs were appointed by the Emperor, and carried out state policy, theological or otherwise. Beyond that, the Greek mind did not abjure the kind of philosophical-theological speculation so abhorrent to Latin Christina authorities, just as the Greeks considered their Latin brothers as no more than a continuation of the Barbarian German strain of cultural degradation. In addition, while the Pope saw himself as the vicar of Christ and leader of Christendom on earth, the Patriarch in Constantinople usually considered the Bishop of Rome as little more than a primus inter pares (first among equals). In a quite more concrete manner, Byzantium and the Papacy had conflicting goals in the Italian peninsula. While the Papacy wished to maintain and increase the power and size of the Papal States, Byzantine leaders had never given up on their shrinking possessions on the peninsula. This often brought the two into tension. By the 1050s, though, a new threat emerged, in the form of the Normans who controlled southern Italy. Pope Leo IX actually led an army against them in 1053, and was defeated and captured near Civitate. Supposedly, the Pope should have received Byzantine assistance--an impossibility given the (lack of) military policy at Constantinople. In any event, in 1054, a Papal legation headed by the anti-Greek Cardinal Humbert of Mourmoutiers was sent to Constantinople to deal with a few disagreements in doctrine, as well as the much more important mater of an anti-Norman alliance. The Patriarch, Michael Cerularius, was equally anti-Latin, and treated his colleagues as a superior would treat an irrelevant inferior. This infuriated the legates of God's vicar on earth. Over four months of no progress, relations deteriorated, and on July 16, 1054, Humbert and his followers excommunicated the Patriarch, and, by implication, the entire Eastern Church. Oddly enough, they did this at a time when Leo IX had died and a new Pope had not been elected. Still, though it was not conceived as permanent--excommunications had occurred before--the 1054 Schism remained. The rift continues today.

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