Archive for the 'Lost to the West' Category

Did the Crusaders destroy the Byzantine Empire?

Oct 13 2010 Published by under Fourth Crusade,Lost to the West

Justin asks how crippling the Fourth Crusade was for the Byzantine Empire.

Many historians view it (with good reason) as having destroyed the empire- or at least started it on its final decline.  The most obvious impact was economic.  During the initial three days of plundering a vast amount of loot was seized- enough for the Crusaders to breathlessly report that they had captured one fourth of all the wealth in the world.  The pillaging, however, didn’t stop with the initial assault.  For the duration of the Latin kingdom of Constantinople  (roughly sixty years) relics and artwork continued to stream out of the city as hidden caches were found and houses, palaces, and churches were stripped bare.  The more prestigious articles ended up in the reliquaries of western Europe- many in cathedrals established specifically to accommodate them. (Notre Dame was built to house the head of John the Baptist)  The exodus of wealth left Constantinople impoverished and by the end of the occupation, the Latin emperors were reduced to stripping the lead off of the roofs of the imperial palaces.

When Michael VIII recovered the city in 1261 he found it in a sad, dilapidated condition- ‘shrunken like an old man in the clothes of his youth’.  Deserted houses were still sagging from the fires that had damaged them more than half a century before, and vast stretches of land were given over to weeds.  Even worse than the physical destruction was the psychological damage.  The unity of the empire was permanently shattered.  Where there had been one Orthodox Empire there were now three successor states- Nicaea, Trebizond, and Epirus- all claiming to be the same thing.  Epirus eventually succumbed to the restored power of Constantinople but Trebizond never did.  In the view of most Byzantines the relationship with the West- both moral and diplomatic- had been irrevocably sundered.  When the final end came, they would famously say ‘better the Sultan’s turban than the Pope’s mitre.’

But despite the tremendous physical and mental impact of the Fourth Crusade, is it really fair to say that it destroyed the Byzantine Empire?  In the years leading up to the Crusade Byzantium was decaying from the inside, plagued by foolish leaders, aristocratic greed, and military incompetence.  It was a very sick patient by 1204 and its illness went much deeper than a weak army or neglected defenses.  It was dying a slow death before the first Crusader showed up, and it lingered on for another 249 years after the sack.  Did the Fourth Crusade weaken the empire? Certainly.  Did it hasten its demise? Probably.  But did it destroy Byzantium? No.

3 responses so far

What are the sources for Belisarius?

Listener Steve asked what (excluding Procopius) are the sources- Byzantine or otherwise- for the life and career of Belisarius?

The good news is that there were a lot of historians and chroniclers active during Belisarius’ lifetime, and most of them were aware that they were living through significant times.  Procopius stopped writing in 552 and was continued by Agathias Scholasticus till the year 588.  He was in turn followed by a man named Menander Protector who decided to write history after he had blown his life savings having a good time.  This was evidently a smart career choice as Menander was soon joined by a crowd of writers.  If you fancied Justinian’s reign you could pick up bestsellers from Evagrius, John of Epiphaneia, John Malalas, and Marcellinus Comes.

The bad news, however, is that most of these are only partially translated today- or worse exist only in fragments.  Unless you know someone at Dumbarton Oaks, you’re probably not going to be able to read them anytime soon.  The only commercially available, non-Procopius source is Jordanes.  He was a 6th century Roman bureaucrat who had a book collection and the rare gift (as he put it) of being concise.  A friend who wanted to read a history of the Goths asked to borrow a copy of Cassiodorus’ (now lost) work, but when he saw its size (12 volumes) he asked Jordanes to sum it up for him.  The result is the Getica, which concludes with Belisarius’ brilliant defeat of the Goths in 540.

4 responses so far

Who was the last Roman Patrician?

Aug 19 2010 Published by under book,Byzantine,Lost to the West,Patrician,Reader Question

Reader Evan asked who was the last person from the original Roman patrician families to play a significant role in Byzantine history.

The last mention I can find is the Emperor Nicephorus III (1078-1081) who claimed to be descended from the ancient Fabii.  This may have been wishful thinking on his part, but it does hint at the intriguing possibility that genealogical records survived the Byzantine ‘dark’ ages.  The main problem with finding a descendant of the early families is that so many records were destroyed in the chaos of the 7th – 9th centuries, and many traditions were not maintained.  And of course many patrician families had fallen on hard times even by Julius Caesar’s day (the Julii for example were impoverished) and the rank of Patrician became a mere political plaything during the empire.  By the time of Augustus’ death (14 AD) only 15 families were left, and a century later that number had dropped to just 6.  Constantine supplied new blood by opening the rolls to anyone in the imperial court (he was trying to lure as many patricians as possible to Constantinople to increase its prestige, and when that failed he just created new ones).  Justinian further diluted it by making everyone of Senatorial rank a patrician.  This was an easy (inexpensive) way of rewarding followers and it started an imperial trend of granting the rank in greater and greater numbers.  By the 11th century it had been so extensively handed out that it meant little, and by the 12th century it disappeared completely.

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How did the once mighty Byzantine Navy decline?

Jul 30 2010 Published by under Byzantine Navy,Lost to the West,Navy,Reader Question

Reader Jeroen  asked what happened to the once mighty Byzantine navy that forced them to become so reliant on Genoese or Venetian sea power?

The Byzantine navy was in a way a victim of its own success- coupled with a complete lack of vision.  By the end of the Macedonian dynasty, it was the preeminent force in the eastern Mediterranean.  Major seaborne invasions were carried out against targets as far away as Sicily, and Sardinia, and the traditional naval powers of the Caliphate and the Russians were a receding threat.   The last serious Arab attack had come in 1035 and the last Russian one a decade later, and they both had been beaten back with ease.  There seemed no reason to pay for a huge navy with no one to fight, so Constantine IX (1042-55) had the fleet broken up into smaller units.  These detachments spent most of their time chasing after pirates, and quickly faded from the imperial attention.  Neglect and incompetence did the rest and by the end of the 11th century the fleet was in a deplorable position.  Other navies sprang up to fill the vacuum and the aging, ill-equipped Byzantines were routinely defeated by Turkish, Italian, and even Norman ships.  This humiliating state forced Alexius Comnenus (1081-1118) to sign an agreement with Venice exchanging trade concessions for naval support.  To his credit he recognized the danger and did his best to build up the imperial navy with the meager resources available.  By the time of his death he handed over a small but serviceable fleet to his successors, which was still strong enough to fend off the Venetians two decades later (at the steep cost of one of Enrico Dandolo’s eyes).

Alexius’ son and grandson, however, discovered that fleets are very expensive, and since they were more interested in land campaigns they transferred most of the funding to the army.  The next dynasty (Angelus 1185-1204) was a good deal worse, dropping even the pretense of upkeep.  They depended on trade concessions with Sicily, Venice, and Genoa to keep their coasts secure, and concentrated on having a good time.  One particularly pathetic emperor (Alexius III Angelus) even allowed one of his generals to sell off the warships for personal profit, virtually abolishing the navy.  By the time of the 4th Crusade there were only 20 ships left, 3 of which were seaworthy.  The other 17 were loaded down with Greek Fire and pushed in the direction of the Crusader’s navy.  Basil II must have been spinning in his grave.

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Who were the Varangians?

Listener William asked who the Varangians were and why they figured so prominently in Byzantine military affairs. 

The Varangians were the elite forces of the Byzantine army- much like the Praetorian Guard of ancient Rome or the Ottoman Janissaries.  They were originally made up exclusively of Vikings (which the empire had been hiring as mercenaries since the 9th century), but after the Norman Conquest of England a rush of exiled Anglo-Saxons were added to the mix.  By the 12th century there were so many English that it was commonly being referred to as the ‘Anglo-Varangian’ Guard.  As the empire declined, the Varangians also fell on hard times.  By the middle of the 14th century they had largely ceased to function and the last mention of them is in the first decade of the 15th century. 

They appeared relatively late in Byzantine history.  In 988, the emperor Basil II, facing a serious revolt, asked the Viking prince of Kiev for some help.  In exchange for an imperial bride, the prince sent along 6,000 warriors and Basil was so pleased by their effectiveness that he made them his permanent bodyguard.  Their oaths were to him personally- a fact that the court was uncomfortably aware of- and they were housed in the Bucoleon Palace where they could keep an eye on things.  Basil made sure they were given a generous salary and he called them ‘Varangians’- literally ‘men of the pledge’. 

Since they were professional fighters they were the most valuable troops in an army made up mostly of mercenaries or levies.  Usually taller and fiercer than their Mediterranean hosts/opponents, they also made good use as propaganda tools to overawe rebellious subjects or frighten opposing armies.  In times of peace they could act as a police force in Constantinople or for ceremonial functions.  In war they were usually held in reserve until the critical phase of the battle- then sent where the fighting was thickest.  Even the Byzantines seem to have been slightly terrified of their berserker rages. 

The opportunities for wealth ensured a steady stream of recruits, and few returned home empty-handed.  At the death of an emperor they had the curious right to raid the treasury and take away whatever they could carry unassisted.  Perhaps because of this they gained a reputation for fierce loyalty to the office- but not necessarily the occupant- of the throne. 

At times the temptations of power were too much to resist and they would lord it over the population of Constantinople- usually in the local wine shops.  Their drinking bouts were almost as legendary as their fighting skills and a visiting Danish king in the 11th century was embarrassed enough to publicly lecture them about their behavior. 

His words do not appear to have had the desired effect.  A century later some brave soul referred to the Varangians as the ‘Emperor’s wine-bags’.

13 responses so far

Did Justinian have Belisarius blinded?

Reader Bryan asked what I thought of the legend that Belisarius was blinded by Justinian.  According to the story, a jealous and fearful Justinian arrested Belisarius after his final victory and had him tried for treason.  The loyal general’s eyes were put out, his estates confiscated, and he was forced to wander the streets of Constantinople begging for bread while contemplating the vicissitudes of fortune.

Belisarius did briefly fall out of favor late in Justinian’s reign, but was publicly rehabilitated.  The story of his blinding originated in the 12th century with the monk John Tzetzes who was trying to criticize the political figures of his own day.  It made for a good morality tale, and was pressed into service in the 18th century by Europeans (mostly French) who saw a parallel between the tyranny of Justinian and their own autocratic societies. (see the spectacular painting by Jacques-Louis David and the play ‘Bélisaire’ by Jean-François Marmontel)

Some scholars still argue that the legend does have some basis in fact (Justinian was certainly capable of it), but there are several reasons not to accept it.  The Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204 mentioned several large statues of Belisarius still standing.  Had he been blinded and disgraced these surely would have been torn down.  Along the same lines there was also a great cycle of mosaics detailing the victories of Justinian and Belisarius above the gate to the imperial palace.  These were made during Justinian’s lifetime and were still in place a thousand years later.  Finally, there are the writings of the contemporary historian Procopius.  In his ‘Secret History’ he makes no mention of the emperor humiliating his general, despite the fact that he clearly hated Justinian and was trying to blacken his name.  He accuses Justinian of being a devil in the shape of a man, of being responsible for the deaths of a trillion people, and of having a head that would routinely disappear- but not of harming Belisarius.

Nevertheless the legend persists- perhaps because its lesson still resonates.  As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed it up neatly in his poem about the great general:

“Ah! Vainest of all things

Is the gratitude of kings.”

3 responses so far

What if Urban had built his super cannon for the Byzantines?

Reader Patricia asks if the Byzantine defeat in 1453 can really be blamed on ‘modern weapons’ since the Byzantines also had access to them.  Was it really a matter of simply not having enough money to build them?

I think the Ottomans would have eventually been able to take the city in any case.  It was far too exposed, depopulated, completely cut off from friendly Christian powers, and vastly outnumbered.  But for all that, it still took 48 days of continuous bombardment.  Given the tensions within the Ottoman army and the loss of face associated with each unsuccessful day, would Mehmed have been able to maintain discipline and morale if he had to wait on traditional siege machines?  There were already serious challenges to his authority brewing by the time he broke in- and that was with the aid of ‘super’ weapons that could punch their way through walls. Constantine XI was fully capable of rallying his troops and did quite well with his limited forces.  It’s always dangerous to speculate but I think he could have held the city against one or two standard Ottoman attempts.

So firepower was clearly important, but as Patricia correctly pointed out, it wasn’t just a simple matter of technology.  The Byzantines actually did have a few guns- though they were smaller than the Ottoman’s and frequently damaged their own walls with the recoil.  What they really lacked was the infrastructure needed to sustain the technology.  Enough money couldn’t be scraped up to retain Urban much less pay for the powder, projectiles, and the specialists needed to fire and repair them.  The Ottomans could afford to fully integrate massive new cannons into their army; for the impoverished Byzantines- even if Urban had built his great gun for free- they had to remain a curiosity.

6 responses so far

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.

3 responses so far

Why didn’t the Pope lead the Crusade himself?

Listener John asked why Urban II didn’t lead the Crusade since he seemed to be using it to increase Papal prestige.  There were many reasons for his non-participation.  He could have used the valid excuse of too many other responsibilities- every crowned head of Europe begged off involvement with this one- but a far better justification was safety.  The Crusading army was going to have to walk on foot from Western Europe to Jerusalem, fighting hostile forces nearly every step of the way.  The probability of success was remote, the possibility of death or capture was nearly certain, and the thought of the Vicar of Christ as a prisoner of Islam was horrendous.   Had the Pope been captured and then forcibly converted the symbolic damage would have been immense.

This isn’t to say, however, that it wasn’t contemplated.  The idea of a Crusade had first occurred to Pope Urban’s predecessor Gregory VII.  His original plan was to lead it in person and leave the German Emperor Henry IV home to take care of the Church.  The irony of course is that the investiture controversy almost immediately erupted: the emperor called the Pope a few choice names, the Pope excommunicated (and deposed) the emperor and it was war from then on.

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