Archive for the 'Emperor' Category

Secrets from the Stacks

Jan 03 2013 Published by under Byzantine,Emperor,Nicephorus Phocas,Stacks,Theophano

Today I happened upon a copy of the Synopsis of Histories, an 11th century chronicle by the monk John Skylitzes.  In it was the full inscription that the bishop of Melitene wrote on the sarcophagus of the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas.  (Usually only the final line is given- a reference to Phocas’ wife Theophano who betrayed him)  It’s quite a beautiful little poem, and judging from the end, was probably placed there several decades after the emperor’s grisly murder.

There is a nice symmetry to the poem.  It begins and ends with betrayal; in between it’s a kind of Byzantine Ozymandius- a wistful musing about greatness and the inevitable fate of man.  Most striking to me is when the tone changes to one of agonized pleading; begging the great emperor to either rise from the dead or make room in his grave.  It’s well worth the read.  I give it here in its entirety:

“Who once sliced men more sharply than the sword

Is the victim of a woman and a glaive.

Who once retained the whole world in his power

Now small, is housed in but a yard of earth.

Whom once it seemed by wild beasts was revered

His wife has slain as though he were a sheep.

Who chose to sleep but little in the night

Now sleeps the lasting slumber of the tomb.

A bitter sight; good ruler, rouse yourself!

Take footmen, horsemen, archers to the fight,

The regiments and units of your host

For Russians, fully armed, assail our ports,

The scythes are anxious to be slaughtering

While every people does your city harm

Who once was frightened by your graven face

Before the gates of your Byzantium.

Do not ignore these things; cast off the stone

Which now detains you here and stone the beasts,

Repel the gentiles; give us built in stone

A firm foundation, solid and secure.

Or if you would not leave your tomb a while,

At least cry out from earth against the foe

For that alone might scatter them in flight.

If not, make room for us there in your tomb

For death, as you well know, is safety and

Salvation for th’entire Christian folk,

Nicephorus, who vanquished all but Eve.”

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How hard was it to see a Byzantine emperor in person?

Jul 17 2012 Published by under Bureaucracy,Byzantine,Emperor,Protocol

Almost impossible.  The emperors were removed from the masses both as a security measure and a means to emphasize their distinct and sacred nature.  For the select few, however, it was possible.  The emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913-59) left us a detailed description of protocol called the De Cerimoniis.  From it- and from the writings of the visiting diplomat Liutprand of Cremona- we can piece together a “normal” visit to Constantinople’s throne room.

Liutprand was of very important rank (though not quite so high as he thought) and so was seen rather quickly.  He arrived in a pouring rainstorm and only had to wait several hours outside the Chalke- the massive bronze entrance gate to the Great Palace complex- before being admitted.  He was quartered in a large mansion (he complains that it was too drafty) and was left there for six days before being summoned.  He met with the imperial chancellor- in this case the emperor’s brother- who instructed him how to address the emperor, where to stand, and when to kneel, etc.  A day later he was led by two eunuchs into the Chrysotriklinos- a palace containing the main throne room.  As he approached, the famous mechanical birds and golden lions began to sing and roar- a psychological maneuver calculated to awe the unsuspecting diplomat.  But Liutprand had been informed of this part of the spectacle and cooly knelt before the emperor without betraying any surprise.  After the customary three bows he looked up and was stunned to find that the emperor’s throne had risen up to the ceiling and its occupant was now wearing a completely different set of robes.

The emperor then addressed Liutprand at length after which he was allowed to deliver his message.  Liutprand and his entire party was then invited to a banquet.  This was in effect the closing ceremonies where you could gauge how highly you were in the emperor’s favor by how physically near to him you were positioned.  Liutprand as usual was offended- he complained that he was 15 tables away and without such basics as a tablecloth.  The meal itself, however, was a true spectacle.  The golden dining room was lit by great chandeliers, glittering imperial regalia, and relics from various churches scattered throughout the room.  Music was provided by the choirs of the Hagia Sophia and the Holy Apostles, accompanied by music from two silver and golden organs.

Liutprand’s only comment about all of this?  The food was too oily.

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How did the Byzantine army change over 1000 years?

Listener Detlef asked if I could give a brief overview of the Byzantine army and describe the changes it went through during the history of the empire.  The operative word here is brief but 1.) we’re talking about a millennium and 2.) I’m a former teacher.  I’ll try to be concise but you’ve been warned.

Nearly every emperor who reigned longer than a few years made some minor changes to the army and a few- Heraclius, Justinian, Basil II, etc- virtually remade it from the ground up.  Usually these significant changes were made in response to some crisis or catastrophe, and they give a nice ‘snapshot’ view of how Rome’s legions became the polyglot mercenaries of Constantinople.

Imperial Rome depended mostly on massive, infantry-heavy legions to do their conquering for them, but by the third century the borders had stopped expanding and the empire shifted to defense in order to keep those pesky barbarian tribes out.  It had a hard time doing this because raids came from multiple fronts and the army could only be in one place at a time.  Diocletian solved this by reforming the traditional legions into two parts.  “Border” units were stationed in forts along the frontier at various choke points to stop or slow down invading forces while more sophisticated, mobile “field” units could be quickly shunted to trouble spots.  About a fourth of these field units were cavalry- somewhat of a novelty for the Romans- both heavily armed cataphracts and horse archers for supporting actions.  In total, Diocletian’s armies probably numbered about 300,000, spread out along the eastern and northern frontiers.

This basic system remained in place until the fifth century when Justinian reformed the field army.  The basic unit was reduced in size to make it more mobile and the army in general began to be much more diverse.  In addition to the native troops there were ‘Foederati’- usually barbarian cavalry commanded by a Roman general- and ‘Allies’- groups of Huns or Goths bound by a treaty with the empire to provide service.  Unlike the foederati, the allies were commanded by their own officers and fought in their own styles.  Justinian also reduced the overall size of the army to cut costs.  The total strength of the imperial forces at the end of his reign was probably around 150,000 men despite having more than doubled the empire’s land area.

In the 7th century pressure from the Persians and the Caliphate caused Justinian’s successors- probably Heraclius or his grandson Constans II- to drastically transform the military.  The field army was decreased to about 80,000 men (now called tagmata), and instead of border troops in forts, veterans were settled on frontier land.  This was called the ‘Theme’ system and it was remarkably successful.  The empire no longer had to bear the cost of border troops, but invading armies still had to contend with experienced, battle-hardened soldiers on the frontier.

The Theme system worked so well that the Macedonian emperors were able to go on the offensive and push back the Caliphate.  By Basil II’s death in 1025 the field army was probably around 250,000 men, and was far more effective than anything in Western Europe or the Muslim East.  Ironically this period also saw the decay of the Themes.  Wealthy aristocrats bought up land on the frontiers, and small farmers were increasingly forced out.  This process accelerated after Basil’s death and by the 11th century vast estates had replaced soldier communities, completely destroying the Theme system.

The empire filled in the gap by hiring mercenaries- an unhealthy habit that was for the moment backed up by the formidable imperial gold reserves.  Meanwhile, civil war and political instability destroyed the Bulgar-Slayer’s magnificent field army, reducing it to a collection of militias, personal entourages, and of course mercenaries.  By the time the capable Comneni emperors arrived in the 12th century the army was ruined, and they had to start over.  Over several decades they trained a professional, disciplined military roughly 40,000 strong, composed of native troops, levies from the various provinces, and foreign units like the Varangians.  It was highly centralized and performed well, but it depended on a competent and strong emperor.

Under the Angeli this type of leadership was conspicuously absent, and the new army was allowed to decay as the treasury was exhausted in lavish spending.  When soldiers were needed, mercenaries were brought in or expensive and humiliating truces were purchased.  The loss of Asia Minor led to a shortage of men and the Angeli dependence on mercenaries extended to the near suicidal action of disbanding the imperial navy and trusting naval defense to the Italian sea-Republics of Venice and Genoa.  The later Angeli desperately gave land grants in return for military service, but abuse of the practice led to feudalization.  Provinces started looking to local strongmen for protection and central authority collapsed.

After the 4th Crusade the empire had neither the population to furnish an army nor the money to buy mercenaries, so they relied largely on diplomacy (or a humiliating vassal status) to ward off the coup de grace.  When the final end came in 1453, the empire could only muster about 7,000 troops, and a large part of that was the equivalent of Constantinople’s police force.  It was a far cry from the 300,000 of a millennium before, but as they so superbly showed, heroism does not depend on numerical strength.

3 responses so far

Why did the Byzantines mutilate so much?

Reader Karen asked why the emperors seemed so fond of mutilation.  Believe it or not this was actually seen as a more humane practice of dealing with potential usurpers than the standard treatment of execution.  By longstanding tradition only someone of unblemished physical appearance was fit to rule, so a little mutilation (usually blinding, cutting off the nose or splitting the tongue) was an easy way to remove a threat without killing anyone.  This held true till the reign of the monstrous Justinian II who was deposed in 695 and sent into exile without his nose.  The resourceful man had a gold replacement made and managed to storm Constantinople, taking terrible vengeance on the usurpers.  He was given the nickname “Rinotmetos” (the Slit-nosed) and since mutilation obviously hadn’t kept him from the throne, it thankfully fell out of favor.  The practice wasn’t completely abandoned, however.  Deposed rulers were still occasionally blinded and some emperors- Basil the Bulgar-Slayer comes to mind- mutilated on a mass scale as a way of intimidating their enemies.

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Who was the last emperor to visit Rome?

Listener Allison asked which emperor had the distinction of being the last Roman sovereign to set foot in the ancient capital city.  It was the uninspiring John VIII who visited in 1423 to beg for help against the Ottoman Turks.  His stay in the Eternal City was quite a contrast from the previous imperial visit.  That had been in 663 when the emperor Constans II had visited for 12 days.  Despite a stay of less than two weeks, Constans managed to annoy the entire population by stripping everything of value (including the bronze from the roof of the Pantheon) to fund his war against the Arabs.  Rumor had it that his tax collectors were so severe that husbands were sold into slavery and wives were forced into prostitution to meet the sums demanded.  Fortunately for John VIII, seven centuries tend to dim those kind of memories.  He was given a warm welcome and Renaissance artists, taken by his exotic dress left several realistic portraits.  Thanks to that Roman trip, he remains the one Byzantine emperor to be realistically painted- a notoriety he certainly didn’t deserve!

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