THIRD MILLENNIUM LIBRARY
 

CAMBRIDGE MEDIEVAL HISTORY-VOL.IV- THE EASTERN ROMAN EMPIRE (717—1453)

CHAPTER XXIII.

THE GOVERNMENT AND ADMINISTRATION

OF THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE.

 

Few States, even in the Middle Ages, possessed so absolute a conception of monarchical authority as the Byzantine Empire. The Emperor, or Basileus as he was officially termed after the beginning of the seventh century, always regarded himself as the legitimate heir and successor of the Roman Caesars; like them he was the Imperator, that is, both the supreme war-lord and the unimpeachable legislator, the living incarnation and infallible mouthpiece of the law. Since his contact with the Asiatic East, he had become something more, the master (despotes), the autocrat (autokrator), the absolute sovereign below whom there existed, not subjects, but, as they humbly styled themselves, slaves; the greatest personages only approached him after prostrating themselves in an actual act of adoration. Finally, Christianity had bestowed a crowning attribute on him. He was the elect of God, His Vicar in earth, and, as was said in Byzantium, a prince equal to the apostles (isapostolos); by right of which he was regarded as the supreme head and defender of religion, at once king and priest, absolute, and infallible in the spiritual order as he was in temporal matters. And from the combination of these various elements there resulted a despotic and sacred power, whose exercise, at least theoretically, knew no bounds, an authority not only based on political investiture but also consecrated and adorned with matchless luster by God and the Church.

The Roman tradition as accepted in Byzantium placed the Emperor above the law. He thus exercised absolute authority over inanimate objects as well as people, and his competence was universal. “All things depend on the care and administration of the imperial majesty”, declared Leo VI in one of his Novels. The Basileus exercised military power, either when he appeared personally at the head of his armies, or when his generals earned off victories in his name. In him was vested the legislative power; he enacted and repealed laws at will. Indeed all the Byzantine Emperors from Justinian to the Comneni were great legislators. He kept a close supervision over administrative affairs, appointing and dismissing officials at his pleasure, and advancing them in the complicated hierarchy of dignities according to his caprice. He was the supreme judge; the imperial courts of justice, at which he not infrequently presided in person, both tried criminal cases and heard appeals. He watched the financial administration, so essential to the welfare of the Empire, with constant care. His authority extended to morals, which he supervised, and to fashion, inasmuch as he laid down sumptuary laws and imposed limits on extravagance.

The Basileus governed the Church as well as the State. He nominated the bishops to be elected, and conferred investiture on them. He made the laws in religious as in civil matters. He convoked councils, directed their discussions, confirmed their canons, and enforced their decisions. He interfered in theological quarrels, and, priding himself on his skill as a theologian, did not shrink from defining and imposing dogmas. He was the defender of the Church, and it was his duty not only to combat heresy, but to spread the Orthodox faith throughout all the inhabited globe, over which God had promised him dominion as a reward for his pious zeal. “Nothing should be done in Holy Church contrary to the opinion and will of the Emperor”, declared a Patriarch of the sixth century. “The Basileus”, said a prelate in the twelfth century, “is the supreme arbiter of faith in the Churches”.

Outward appearances and external forms were carefully designed to increase this absolute power and express the character of this imperial majesty. In Byzantium ostentation was always one of the favorite instruments of diplomacy, magnificence one of the common tricks of politics. For this reason were attached to the name of the Emperor in official language sonorous titles and pompous epithets, originally borrowed from the magnificent titles of the older Roman Emperors, but replaced later by this shorter formula: “N., the Emperor faithful in Christ our God, and autocrat of the Romans”. To this end were designed the display of countless and extravagant costumes donned by the Emperor on various ceremonial occasions, the splendor of the imperial insignia, the privilege of wearing purple buskins, and, above all, the ostentatious and somewhat childish ceremonial which in the “Sacred Palace” encompassed the ruler with dazzling magnificence, and which, by isolating him from common mortals, caused the imperial majesty to be regarded with more profound respect. “By beautiful ceremonial”, wrote Constantine Porphyrogenitus who in the tenth century took special pleasure in codifying Court ritual, “the imperial power appears more resplendent and surrounded with greater glory; and thereby it inspires alike foreigners and subjects of the Empire with admiration”. It was to this end that round the Emperor there were endless processions and a countless retinue, audiences and banquets, strange and magnificent festivals, in the midst of which he led a life of outward show, yet hollow and unsatisfying, from which the great Emperors of Byzantium often succeeded in escaping, but whose purpose was very significant: to present the Basileus in an effulgence, an apotheosis, wherein he seemed not so much a man as an emanation of the Divinity. And to attain this end everything that he touched was “sacred”, in works of art his head was surrounded by the nimbus of the saints, the Church allowed him to pass with the clergy beyond the sacred barrier of the iconastasis, and on the day of his accession the Patriarch solemnly anointed him in the ambo of St Sophia. And to this end the official proclamations announced that he reigned by Christ, that by Christ he triumphed, that his person “proceeded from God and not from man”, and that to these Emperors, “supreme masters of the universe, absolute obedience was due from all”.

Such were the character and the extent of imperial power in Byzantium, and thence it derived its strength. But there were also inherent weaknesses.

In Byzantium, as in Rome, according to the constitutional fiction the imperial dignity was conferred by election. Theoretically the choice of the sovereign rested with the Senate, which presented its elect for the approval of the people and the army. But in the first place the principle of election was often in practice replaced by the hereditary principle, when the reigning Emperor by an act of his will admitted his son, whether by birth or adoption, to share his throne, and announced this decision to the Senate, people, and army. Moreover, the absence of any fixed rule regarding the right of succession paved the way for all kinds of usurpation. For a considerable time there might be in Byzantium neither a reigning family nor blood royal. Anyone might aspire to ascend the throne, and such ambitions were encouraged by soothsayers and astrologers. After the end of the ninth century, however, we notice a growing tendency in favor or the idea of a legitimate heir. This was the work of the Emperors of the Macedonian family, “in order to provide imperial authority”, as was said by Constantine VII, “with stronger roots, so that magnificent branches of the dynasty may issue therefrom”. The title of Porphyrogenitus (born in the purple) described and hallowed the members of the reigning family, and public opinion professed a loyal and constantly increasing devotion to the dynasty. In spite of many obstacles the house of Macedon maintained itself on the throne for over a century and a half; that of the Comneni lasted for more than a century without a revolution; and in the eleventh century usurpation was regarded as a folly as well as a crime, because, says a writer of that period, “he who reigns in Constantinople is always victorious in the end”. It is none the less true that between 395 and 1453 out of 107 Byzantine Emperors only 34 died in their beds; while eight perished in the course of war, or accidentally, all the others abdicated, or met with violent deaths, as the result of Q5 revolutions in the camp or the palace.

Limitations of imperial authority

This power, already so uncertain in origin and stability, was further limited by institutions and custom. As in pagan Rome, there were the Senate and the People over against the Emperor. No doubt in course of time the Senate had become a Council of State, a somewhat limited assembly of high officials, generally devoted to the monarch. It nevertheless retained an important position in the State, and it was the rallying-point of the administrative aristocracy which was still called, as in Rome during the fourth century, the senatorial order, that civil bureaucracy which often derived means of resisting the Emperor from the very offices wherein it served him. The people indeed, who were officially represented, so to speak, by the demes or factions in the circus, were now only a domesticated rabble, content if it were fed and amused. But these factions, always turbulent and disaffected, often broke out into bloodthirsty riots or formidable revolutions.

Yet another power was the Church. Although so subservient to imperial authority, in the Patriarch it possessed a leader who more than once imposed his will on the Basileus; once at least in the ninth century it sought to claim its liberty, and Byzantium only just escaped a quarrel similar to that of the Investitures in the West. Finally and above all, to keep imperial authority in check there was the army, only too ready to support the ambitions of its generals and constantly showing its might by insurrections. So that it may fairly be said that imperial power in Byzantium was an autocracy tempered by revolution and assassination.

 

II.

The twofold hierarchy of rank and office

 

Round the person of the Emperor there revolved a whole world of court dignitaries and high officials, who formed the court and composed the members of the central government. Until towards the close of the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire had retained the Roman administrative system. A small number of high officials, to whom all the services were subordinated, were at the head of affairs, and, after the example of Rome, the Byzantine Empire had maintained the old separation of civil and military powers and kept the territorial subdivisions due to Diocletian and Constantine. But during the course of the seventh and eighth centuries the administration of the Byzantine monarchy underwent a slow evolution. Civil and military powers became united in the same hands, but in new districts, the themes, which superseded the old territorial divisions. The high officials in charge of the central government became multiplied, while at the same time their individual competence was diminished. And, simultaneously, personal responsibility towards the Emperor increased. It is hard to say by what gradual process of modification this great change took place. The new system made its first appearance in the time of the Heraclian dynasty, and the Isaurian Emperors probably did much to establish it definitely.

In the tenth century, in any case, the administration of the Empire in no way resembled the system which prevailed in the days of Justinian. Henceforward in Byzantium a twofold and carefully graded hierarchy, the details of which are recorded for us at the beginning of the tenth century by the Notitia of Philotheus, determined the rank of all individuals who had anything to do with the court or with public administration. Eighteen dignities, whose titles were derived from the civil or military services of the palace, formed the grades of a kind of administrative aristocracy, a sort of Byzantine Chin, in which advancement from one grade to another depended on the will of the Emperor. Of these honorary titles the highest, except those of Caesar, Nobilissimus, and Curopalates, which were reserved for the princes of the imperial family, were those of Magister, Anthypatus, Patrician, Protospatharius, Dishypatus, Spatharocandidatus, Spatharius, and so on. Eight other dignities were specially reserved for eunuchs, of whom there were many in the Byzantine court and society. Certain active duties, similarly classified according to a strict hierarchy, were generally attached to these dignities, the insignia of which were presented to the holders by the Emperor. Such were in the first place the high offices at court, whose holders, the praepositus or Grand Master of Ceremonies, the parakoimomenos or High Chamberlain, the protovestiarios or Grand Master of the Wardrobe, and so on, were in charge of the various services of the imperial household and of all that vast body of subordinates, cubicularii, vestiarii, koitonitai, chartularii, stratores (grooms), etc., whose numbers made the palace seem like a city within a city. Such were also the sixty holders of the great offices of public administration, who occupied the posts of central government and the high military or administrative commands, either in Constantinople or in the provinces, each of whom had a large number of subordinates. Appointed by imperial decree and subject to dismissal at the Emperor’s pleasure, they advanced in their career of honors by favor of the ruler. And advancement in the various grades of the hierarchy of dignities generally coincided exactly with promotion to higher administrative office. In order to understand the mechanism of the imperial administration, it must be borne in mind that in Byzantium every official had two titles, one honorary, marking his rank in the administrative nobility, the other indicating the actual office with which he had been invested. And as both dignity and office, and advancement in either, depended entirely on the good will of the Emperor, the zeal of the administrative body was always sustained by the hope of high office, and by the expectation of some promotion which would place the recipient one step higher in the ranks of the Empire’s nobility. Never in consequence was any administrative body more completely in the master's hands, more strongly centralized, or more skillfully organized, than that of the Byzantine government.

The ministers

In the capital near the sovereign, the heads of the great departments, the Ministers, if they may be so called, directed the government from above and transmitted the will of the Emperor throughout all the realm. Since the seventh century the Byzantine Empire had gradually become Hellenized, and the Latin titles which were still borne by officials in the days of Justinian had assumed a purely Greek form : the praefectus had become the eparch, the rationalis the logothete, and so on. Among these high officials there were first the four logothetes. The Logothete of the Dromos was originally entrusted with the service of transport and the post (dromos is the translation of the Latin cursus publicus), but gradually became the Minister of Home Affairs and of Police, the Secretary for Foreign Affairs, and the High Chancellor of the Empire; finally after the tenth century he was simply known as the Grand Logothete, and became a sort of Prime Minister. Next to him came the Logothete of the Public Treasury who managed financial affairs; the Logothete of the Military Chest who was Paymaster-General of the Army; and the Logothete of the Flocks who managed the studs and crown estates. Other high offices of the financial administration were held by the chariulary of the sakellion, who dealt with the patrimony and private fortune of the Emperor, by the eidikos, who was in charge of manufactures and arsenals, and above all by the sacellarius, who was a kind of Comptroller-General. The quaestor, who alone of all these officials retained his Latin title, was Minister of Justice; the Domestic of the Scholae, or Grand Domestic, was Commander-in-chief of the army; the Grand Drungarius was Minister of the Navy. Finally the Eparch, or Prefect of Constantinople, had the onerous task of governing the capital and maintaining order in it; he had to supervise the gilds among which Byzantine industries were distributed and to keep an eye on the factions of the circus (demes), who officially represented the people; he controlled the city police and the prisons, and had power to try any case affecting public order; finally, he had charge of the food supplies of the capital. All these duties rendered him a person of very great importance, and secured him the foremost rank among civil dignitaries. In the list of the sixty great officials he was eighteenth, while the Sacellarius was only thirty-second, and the Logothete of the Dromos only thirty-seventh. And with regard to this it must be remembered that in the Byzantine Empire, as in all states in the Middle Ages, military officials definitely took precedence of the civil ones; the Domestic of the Scholar, or Commander-in-chief of the army, was fifth on the list of great officials, the strategic who were both governors of provinces and commanders of army corps, were placed above the ministers, and the most important of them, the Strategus of the Anatolics, was fourth on the list.

Under the orders of the ministers there existed a large body of employees. These formed the innumerable bureaux which were known as secreta or logothesia; prominent among them were those of the imperial chancery controlled in the Palace by the First Secretary (protoasecretis) and the master of petitions, and those of the various ministers. It was this skillfully organized bureaucracy which, in Byzantium as in Rome, really assured the firm government and solid foundation of the monarchy; it was this large body of obscure secritikí studying affairs in detail, preparing decisions, and conveying to all parts the sovereign pleasure, that supplied the support and strong framework which gave life and endurance to the Byzantine Empire. And at certain periods, as for instance in the eleventh century, this bureaucracy was strong enough even to direct the general policy of the monarchy.

 

III.

Institution of the themes

 

It is obvious that between the fifth and eighth centuries great changes were introduced into the government of the provinces by the administrative reforms of Justinian and his successors. Contrary to the Roman tradition, in some districts the civil and military powers had been amalgamated; soon the necessity of establishing the defence of the territory on a firmer basis led to the appointment of those who held high military command to be civil administrators of the districts in which their troops were stationed. Thus at the end of the sixth century the exarchates of Africa and Italy were created in the West, and during the course of the seventh century the themes of the Anatolics, the Armeniacs, the Opsician, the Thracesian, and that of the “sailors” (Carabisiani), in the East. Gradually the civil administration became subordinated to the great military chiefs, and finally lost all importance and nearly disappeared, while the civil provinces, the eparchies, into which Rome divided the Empire, were superseded by the themes, so called from a word which originally meant army corps and afterwards came to be applied to the district occupied by an army corps. During the course of the eighth century the new system became universal, and was improved by the subdivision of those themes which were too large and by the creation of new themes. This remained the basis of the Byzantine administrative system until the fall of the Empire.

At the beginning of the tenth century there were twenty-six themes, a little later thirty-one. They were divided between the two great departments which existed in the logothesion of the dromos, that of the East and that of the West. Neither the boundaries nor the chief towns are precisely known; and their extent, and even their number, were in the course of centuries modified by somewhat frequent re-adjustments. But we know that until the eleventh century those of the East were the most important; they were indeed the richest and most prosperous districts, fertile and populous, those which, as has been said, “really constituted the Roman Empire”. In the hierarchy of officials their governors occupied a much higher position than did those of the provinces in Europe, and their emoluments were much greater. From Asia Minor the Empire drew its best soldiers, its finest sailors, and the treasury derived thence its most certain revenue. It was the strength of the monarchy, and the occupation of its greater part by the Seljuq Turks at the end of the eleventh century was a terrible blow from which Byzantium never recovered.

In the tenth century the themes of Anatolia were as follows: in the western portion of Asia Minor, the Opsician (capital Nicaea), the Optimatan (capital Nicomedia), the Thracesian (south-west of Anatolia), Samos, the Cibyrrhaeot (south coast of Anatolia), Seleucia, and above all the great theme of the Anatolics. Near the Black Sea were the themes of the Bucellarians, Paphlagonia, the mighty theme of the Armeniacs, and that of Chaldia. Along the eastern frontier there stretched the themes of Charsianum, Lycandus, Mesopotamia, Sebastea, and Colonea. All these marches of the Empire were full of fortresses and soldiers, and in the epic of Digenes Akritas Byzantine popular poetry has finely recorded the active and simple, perilous and heroic, life led by the imperial soldiers in their unending warfare with the infidel.

The Western themes were those of the Balkan peninsula, and until the beginning of the eleventh century, as long as the first Bulgarian empire lasted, they occupied only its outskirts. There was the theme of Thrace which contained Constantinople, and that of Macedonia with its capital Hadrianople, both of them rich enough and important enough to enable their governors to rank close after those of the Asiatic themes, whether as to their place in the hierarchy or their emoluments. Then came, stretching along the shores of the Archipelago, the themes of Strymon, Thessalonica (of great importance because of its capital which was justly regarded as the second city of the Empire in Europe), Hellas, the Peloponnesus, and the Aegean Sea. On the shores of the Ionian Sea and the Adriatic were situated the themes of Nicopolis, Dyrrhachium, Cephalonia, and Dalmatia, and in Southern Italy those of Calabria and Longobardia. Finally, on the Black Sea there was the theme of Cherson. During the tenth century the number of provinces in the Empire was increased by the conquests of the Emperor, either by the creation of certain themes which only survived a short time, such as those of Leontokomes, Chozan, Samosata, etc., or by the establishment of other subdivisions of a more lasting character, such as the duchy of Antioch, the government of Bulgaria, which was entrusted to an officer bearing the title of commissioner, or that of Italy, which combined the two Italian provinces under the authority of a magistrate styled catapan. During the days of the Comneni other themes made their appearance. But, whatever the nature of these changes, the principle which guided this administrative system was always the same: the concentration of every sort of power in the hands of the military governor.

Officials of the themes

At the head of each theme was placed a governor called a strategus, generally honored with the title of patrician, whose salary varied according to the importance of his government, from 40 pounds of gold to five pounds. He was appointed by the Emperor and reported directly to him. He not only commanded the military forces of his district, but exercised within it all administrative power, the government of the territory, and the administration of judicial and financial affairs. He was like a vice-emperor; and, especially in early days when the themes were less numerous and of greater extent, more than one strategus was tempted to abuse his excess of power. Under his orders the theme was divided into turmae, governed by officers bearing the title of turmarchs, while the turma was again subdivided into lieutenancies (topoteresiae) and banda, which were similarly administered by soldiers, drungarii and counts. Furthermore, the strategus was assisted by an adequate number of officials. There were the Domestic of the Theme or Chief of Staff; the Chartulary of the Theme who supervised recruiting, commissariat, and military administration; the count of the tent and the count of the hetairia, the centarch of the spatharii, the protochancellor, and the protomandator. Most important of all was the protonotary, who in addition often bore the title of Judge of the Theme. He was at the head of the civil administration; he attended to judicial and financial affairs; and, although subordinate to the strategus, he had the right of corresponding directly with the Emperor. Thus the central power maintained a representative of civil interests to supervise and hold in check the all-powerful governor.

As a variation of this system the governors of certain provinces bore other titles than that of strategus—Count in the Opsician, Domestic in the Optimatan, Duke at Antioch, Pronoetes in Bulgaria, and Catapan in Italy and elsewhere. Furthermore, at certain strategical points of the frontier there existed, beside the themes, small independent governments centred round some important stronghold; these were called clisuraes (clisura means a mountain pass), and their rulers styled themselves clisurarchs. Many frontier provinces were originally clisurae before their erection into themes; among these were Charsianum, Seleucia, Lycandus, Sebastea, and others. Here again, as in all degrees of this administrative system, most of the power was in the hands of the military chiefs. And thus, although she derived such strength from the Roman tradition, Byzantium had developed into a state of the Middle Ages.

Importance of the bureaucracy

This administrative body, well trained and well disciplined, was generally of excellent quality. The members of the bureaucracy were usually recruited from the ranks of the senatorial nobility, and were trained in those schools of law which were pre-eminently nurseries of officials (it was specially for this purpose that in 1045 Constantine Monomachus reorganised the School of Law in Constantinople). Kept in close and exclusive dependence on the Emperor, who appointed, promoted, and dismissed all officials at his own pleasure, they were very closely supervised by the central power, which frequently sent extraordinary commissions of inquiry to the provinces, invited the bishops to superintend the acts of the administration, and encouraged subjects to bring their grievances before the imperial court. Thus these officials played a part of the first importance in the government of the Empire. No doubt they were only too often amenable to corruption, as happens in most Oriental states, and the sale of offices, which was for long habitual in Byzantium, led them to oppress those under them in the most terrible manner. As regards the collection of taxes, indeed, this administration, anxious to satisfy the demands of the sovereign and the needs of the treasury, frequently showed itself both hard and unreasonable, and consequently often hindered the economic development of the monarchy. But it rendered two great services to the Empire. In the first place it succeeded in securing for the government the financial resources necessary for carrying out the ambitious policy of the Basileus. Nor was this all. The Empire had neither unity of race nor unity of language. It was, as has truly been said by A. Rambaud, “an entirely artificial creation, governing twenty nationalities, and uniting them by this formula: one master, one faith”. If, after the middle of the seventh century owing to the Arab conquest, and after the eighth owing to the loss of the Latin provinces, the Greek-speaking population held a preponderance in the Empire, many other ethnical elements—Syrians, Arabs, Turks, and above all Slavs and Armenians—were intermingled with this dominant element, and imparted a cosmopolitan character to the monarchy. To govern these varied races, often in revolt against imperial authority, to assimilate them gradually, and to bestow cohesion and unity on this State devoid of nationality, such was the task which confronted the imperial government and which devolved on its administrative agents. And the work achieved by this administration is undoubtedly one of the most interesting aspects of the history of Byzantium, one of the most striking proofs of the power of expansion which was for so long possessed by Byzantine civilization.

“Every nationality” says Constantine Porphyrogenitus, “which possesses characteristic customs and laws, should be allowed to retain its peculiarities”. The Byzantine government did not indeed always apply this rule of perfect toleration to the vanquished; more than once it happened that some small body of people was forcibly removed from one district to another so as to make room for others more amenable to imperial authority. In general, however, it showed more consideration for those who had been annexed by conquest, endeavoring by calculated mildness to gain their affections and encourage them to adopt the manners and customs of Byzantine society. Thus, in conquered Bulgaria, Basil II decreed “that the old order of things should continue”, that taxes should be paid as heretofore in kind, that, subject to the authority of the Byzantine High Commissioner, the country should retain its native officials, and that a Bulgarian prelate should be at the head of the Bulgarian Church, which was to be independent of the Patriarch of Constantinople. By a lavish distribution of titles and honors the Basileus endeavored to conciliate the Bulgarian aristocracy, and sought, by encouraging intermarriage, to establish friendship between the best elements of both nations, thus leavening the Byzantine nobility with the most distinguished of the vanquished. In like manner in Southern Italy the imperial government very skillfully adapted its methods to local conditions, allowing members of the native aristocracy to share in the government of the province, seeking also to attract them by lavishing on them the pompous titles of its courtly hierarchy, and scrupulously respecting the customs of the country. Elsewhere the vanquished were conciliated by reductions in taxation, or by a system of exemption for a more or less extended period. Thus, little by little, was stamped on these alien elements a common character, that of Hellenism, while moreover they were unified by the common profession of the Orthodox religion.

Greek was the language of the administration and the Church. It was inevitable that by slow degrees all the populations of the Empire should come to speak it. In certain districts colonies were established to secure the predominance of Hellenism; such was the case alike in Southern Italy and in the region of the Euphrates, on the confines of the Arab world. In other parts, by the mere influence of her superior civilization Byzantium assimilated and modified those elements which were most refractory. Whether she succeeded in merging the best of the vanquished in her aristocracy by their marriages with wives of noble Greek birth, or whether she attracted them by the lure of high command or great administrative office, by the distribution of the sonorous title of her hierarchy or the bribe of substantial pay, she conciliated all these exotic elements with marvelous ingenuity. The Greek Empire did not shrink from this admixture of barbarian races; by their means it became rejuvenated. Instead of excluding them from political life it threw open to them the army, the administration, the court, and the Church. Byzantium in its time had generals of Armenian, Persian, and Slav origin; Italian, Bulgarian, and Armenian officials; ministers who were converted Arabs or Turks. For all these aliens Greek was the common language in which they could make themselves understood, and thus Greek assumed the spurious appearance of a national language. Speaking the same language, gradually and insensibly adopting the same customs and manners of life and thought, they emerged from the mighty crucible of Constantinople marked with the same character and merged in the unity of the Empire.

Assistance of the Church

It was the great aim of the imperial administration to apply this policy and realize this union by means of Hellenism. The Church helped this work by uniting all the discordant elements which formed the Empire in a common profession of faith. Here again language and race mattered little; it was enough to have been baptized. Baptism admitted the barbarian neophyte to the State as well as to the Church. No doubt this religious propaganda more than once took the form of cruel persecutions, in the ninth century of the Paulicians, in the eleventh of the Armenians, in the twelfth of the Bogomiles. It was generally, however, by showing a more skilful tolerance that Byzantium gained adherents. She evangelized and made Christians of the dissidents, Slavs of Macedonia and the Peloponnesus, the Turks of the Vardar, the pagan mountaineers of Maina, the Muslims of Crete and the Upper Euphrates, who formed part of the Christian Empire or became subject to it by annexation. Conquest was everywhere followed by religious propaganda, and, to incorporate the vanquished territory more completely in the Empire, the Church multiplied the number of Greek bishoprics, whose incumbents, subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople, were the most faithful and efficient agents for the spread of Orthodoxy. In the regions of Anatolia recaptured from the Arabs, as in Southern Italy regained from Lombards or Saracens, and also in Armenia which was annexed at the beginning of the eleventh century, the first work of the imperial government was to create numerous bishoprics of the Greek rite, which by establishing the predominance of Orthodoxy in the country ensured its moral possession by the monarchy. The monks, especially in Southern Italy, were not the least active agents of Hellenisation. In Calabria, the territory of Otranto, and Apulia, their monasteries, chapels, and hermitages were centers round which the people gathered, and where, by association with the monks, they learnt Greek. Thus religion in combination with Hellenism assured the unity of the Byzantine Empire. “Orthodoxy”, says Rambaud, “took the place of nationality”.

 

IV.

The army

 

The administrative organisation of the Byzantine Empire was founded, as we have seen, on military institutions. In Byzantium, indeed, as in all states in the Middle Ages, an essential place was held by the army, which assured the defence of the territory and formed the strength of the monarchy. “The army”, wrote one Emperor, “is to the State what the head is to the body. If great care be not taken thereof the very existence of the Empire will be endangered”. Consequently all the rulers who really considered the greatness of the monarchy, alike the Isaurian Emperors, the great military sovereigns of the tenth century, and the Basileis of the Comnenian family, exercised a constant and watchful care over their soldiers; and as long as the Byzantine army was steadfast and numerous, devoted to its task and to its master, so long the Empire endured in spite of all difficulties.

At all periods of its history the Byzantine army was partly recruited from the inhabitants of the Empire. In theory every Roman citizen was subject to military service, and those men who rendered it, either by conscription or by voluntary enlistment, were even in administrative language regarded as the real soldiers, the true representatives of the national army; they were always called í Romani. Actually these levies were of somewhat unequal quality, and for various reasons the imperial government very soon allowed a military tax to be substituted for actual military service. And it gradually came to rely in greater measure on the services of mercenaries, whom it regarded as superior in quality and more constant in fidelity. Since the Emperor paid handsomely, since to those who enlisted under his flag he made liberal grants of land, actual military fiefs, irrevocable, inalienable, and hereditary, he had no difficulty in securing from the neighboring states a countless number of adventurers ready to barter their services. Thus it was a strange patchwork of nationalities that met under the standards of Byzantium. In Justinian’s day there were Huns and Vandals, Goths and Lombards, Persians, Armenians, African Moors, and Syrian Arabs. In the armies of the tenth and eleventh centuries there appeared Chazars and Patzinaks, Varangians and Russians, Georgians and Slavs, Arabs and Turks, Northmen from Scandinavia and Normans from Italy. In the army of the Comneni there were Latins from all the countries of the West, Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians, Italians and Germans, Frenchmen from France, Normans from Sicily, and representatives of all the races of the East. These aliens were even allowed to enlist in the bodyguard of the Emperor. One of the regiments of this guard, the hetairia, was in the tenth century almost exclusively composed of Russians, Scandinavians, and Chazars. And the famous Varangian guard, originally formed of Russians at the end of the tenth century, was successively recruited from among Russian Scandinavians, Northmen of Norway and Iceland, and Anglo-Saxons. In the tenth century Armenian contingents were numerous and highly esteemed in the imperial army; in the twelfth century the Latins were the best of the Byzantine troops. Many of these foreigners achieved brilliant careers in Byzantium, and attained high command and great military honors.

Quality of the army and its leaders

The army thus constituted possessed great qualities of steadfastness and courage. Inured to the profession of arms, capable of bearing every kind of hardship, fatigue, and privation, constantly engaged in strenuous exercises, strengthened by the frequent improvements that were introduced into its methods of warfare, it was a matchless instrument of war which for over six hundred years rendered brilliant services to the monarchy and crowned its banners with a halo of glory. Nevertheless the army was not without grave and formidable defects. The system of regional recruiting resulted in placing the soldiers in too close a personal relation with their leader, generally one of the feudal nobility of the land, to whom the men were closely attached by many ties of dependence, and whom they more readily obeyed than the distant Emperor; so that the monarchy was constantly disturbed by political insurrections, caused by the ambitions of the generals and supported by the fidelity of their men. On the other hand, the mercenaries, homeless adventurers intent only on earning as much as possible, were no less dangerous servants, owing to their want of discipline and their tendency to mutiny. Their leaders were real condottieri, always ready to sell themselves to the highest bidder or to fight for their own hand; and during the latter part of its existence the Empire suffered terribly, alike from their greed and their insurrections. The efficient control of such soldiers depended entirely on the general commanding them, the influence he exercised, and the confidence he inspired. Fortunately for Byzantium it happened that for centuries the Empire was lucky enough to have eminent generals at the head of its army—Belisarius and Narses in the sixth century, the Isaurian Emperors in the eighth, John Curcuas, the Phocas, Sclerus, Tzimisces, and Basil II in the tenth, and the Emperors of the Comnenian family in the twelfth. All these, and especially those of the tenth century, watched over their soldiers with careful solicitude; they lavished on them rewards and privileges, they surrounded them with consideration and recognition, so as to keep them contented and enthusiastic, and to find them always ready to “risk their lives for the sacred Emperors and the whole of the Christian Community”. By encouraging in them this double sentiment, first that they were the descendants of the invincible Roman legions, and secondly that they were fighting under Christ’s protection for the defence of Christendom, the Basileis inspired their soldiers with patriotism for Byzantium, a patriotism compounded of loyal devotion and pious enthusiasm which for long made them victorious in every field of battle.

The troops forming the Byzantine army were divided into two distinct groups, the tagmata, who garrisoned Constantinople and its suburbs, and the Themata, who were stationed in the provinces. The first group was chiefly composed of the four cavalry regiments of the Guard, the Scholae, Excubitors, Arithmus or Vigla, and Hicanati, and the infantry regiment of the Numeri. Each of these corps, whose strength was generally quoted, perhaps with some exaggeration, at 4000, was commanded by an officer bearing the title of Domestic; in the tenth century the Domestic of the Scholae was Commander-in-chief of the army. The themes, or provincial army corps, whose strength varied from 4000 to 10,000 men according to the importance of the province they defended, had at their head a strategus; each theme was divided into two or three brigades or turmae, each turma into three drungi commanded by a Drungarius, each drungi or regiment into ten banda commanded by a count. These troops are often referred to in the texts as ta Kaballeriká Themata. The cavalry indeed formed their principal part, for cavalry in Byzantium, as in all states in the Middle Ages, was the most esteemed arm; whether it were the heavy cavalry in armor, the cataphracts, or the light cavalry, the trapezitae, it formed an instrument of war of admirable strength and flexibility.

Besides these troops, which constituted the actual army in the field, there was the army of the frontiers, which was formed on the model of the limitanei of the fifth and sixth centuries; it occupied military borderlands along the frontier, where in return for their military service the soldiers received land on which they settled with their families. The duties of these detachments were to defend the limites, hold the fortified posts, castles, and citadels which Byzantium had established in successive lines along the whole extent of the frontier, to occupy strategic points, hold mountain passes, guard roads, keep a close watch on all preparations by the enemy, repel invasion, and be ready with a counter-offensive. A curious tenth-century treatise on tactics has preserved for us a picturesque account of the strenuous life led on the “marches” of the Empire, on the mountains of Taurus, or the borders of Cappadocia, perpetually threatened by an Arab invasion. It was an arduous and exacting warfare, in which the problem was to contain an enterprising and daring enemy by means of weak forces; a war of surprises, ambushes, reconnaissances, and sudden attacks, in which the trapezitae, or light cavalry, excelled. All along the frontier a network of small observation posts was connected with headquarters by a system of signals; as soon as any movement by the enemy was observed, skirmishing parties of cavalry set out, carrying only one day’s rations to ensure greater mobility, and with darkened accoutrements and weapons so as to be less visible. Behind this curtain mobilization proceeded. The infantry occupied the mountain passes, the population of the plains took refuge in the fortresses, and the army concentrated. It is interesting to note in these instructions with what care and forethought nothing is left to chance, either as regards information or supplies, the concentration or movements of troops, night attacks, ambushes, or espionage. Meanwhile the cavalry made daring raids into enemy territory to cause the assailants uneasiness regarding their lines of communication and to attempt a useful diversion, while with his main force the Byzantine strategus sought contact with the enemy and engaged battle, generally by a sudden and unforeseen attack displaying mingled courage and cunning. It was an arduous type of warfare in which it was necessary always to be on the alert to avoid a surprise, to counter blow with blow, raid with raid; a war full of great duels, cruel, chivalrous, and heroic episodes; but a marvelous training for those who took part in it.

The Byzantine epic gives a magnificent picture of the valiant and free life led by these soldiers on the Asiatic marches in the poem of Digenes Akritas, the defender of the frontier, “the model of the brave, the glory of the Greeks, he who established peace in Romania”. Nowhere are the qualities of courage, energy, and patriotism of these Byzantine soldiers more clearly shown than in this poem, wherein also is evident the proud consciousness of independence innate in these hard fighters, great feudal lords, who waged the eternal struggle with the infidel on the frontiers, amid glorious adventures of love and death. “When my cause is just”, says the hero of the poem, “I fear not even the Emperor”. This characteristic feature betrays, even in an epic which exalts into beauty all the sentiments of the age, the inherent weakness from which the Empire was henceforward to suffer—the insurmountable unruliness of the Byzantine army and its leaders.

It is difficult to calculate exactly the strength of the Byzantine army, but we must be careful not to exaggerate its size. In the sixth as in the tenth century, in the tenth as in the twelfth, armies were not of vast numbers—only about 20,000 to 30,000 men, and often much less, although they achieved the most signal victories and conquered or destroyed kingdoms. Against the Arabs in the tenth century the army in Asia attained a total of some 70,000 men. Including the Guard and the regiments of the army in Europe, the grand total of the Byzantine forces does not seem to have amounted to more than 120,000 men. But handled as they were with a tactical skill the rules of which had been carefully laid down by the Emperors themselves, such as Leo VI and Nicephorus Phocas, fortified by a multitude of ingenious engines of war which were preserved in the great arsenal of Mangana, based finally on the network of strongholds which Byzantine engineers constructed with so consummate a science of fortification, this army, steadfast and brave, full of spirit, enthusiasm, and patriotism, was indeed for long almost invincible.

 

V.

The fleet

 

Owing to the great extent of her coast-line, and the necessity of retaining command of the sea, which formed the communication between the different parts of the monarchy, Byzantium was inevitably a great maritime power. Indeed, in the sixth and seventh centuries, and until the beginning of the eighth, the imperial fleet dominated the eastern seas, or rather it was the only Mediterranean fleet until the Arabs made their appearance halfway through the seventh century. It was thus capable of successfully carrying on the struggle when the Umayyad Caliphs of Syria in their turn created a naval power and assailed Byzantium by sea as well as by land; it was actually the fleet which saved the Empire in the seventh century, and which saved Constantinople in the great siege of 717. After this the navy was apparently somewhat neglected. The war with the Caliphs of Baghdad was mainly on land; and the Isaurian Emperors seem moreover to have felt some uneasiness as regards the excessive power of the Grand Admirals. In the ninth century the monarchy paid dearly for this neglect when the Muslim corsairs, who were masters of Crete, for over a century ravaged the coasts of the Archipelago almost with impunity, and when the conquest of Sicily ensured to the Arab navy the supremacy of the Tyrrhenian sea as well as that of the Adriatic. Towards the close of the ninth century it was decided to reorganize the fleet, and once more, until the beginning of the twelfth century, Byzantium was the great sea-power of the Mediterranean. In the tenth century the Emperor of Constantinople boasted that he commanded the seas up to the Pillars of Hercules. Nicephorus Phocas declared that he was the sole possessor of naval power, and even at the end of the eleventh century Cecaumenus wrote: “The fleet is the glory of Romania”. This position was seriously threatened when the Seljuq Turks conquered Asia Minor, because the Empire was thereby deprived of the provinces whence its best crews were drawn. Henceforth Byzantium resorted to the practice of entrusting its naval operations to other navies, those of Pisa, Genoa, and above all Venice; and depending on these allies it neglected naval construction. This was the end of the Byzantine navy. In the thirteenth century the maintenance of a fleet was regarded by the Greeks as a useless expense, and a contemporary writer states with some regret that “the naval power of Byzantium had vanished long ago”.

Originally all the naval forces of the Empire were combined under one command; in the seventh century the fleet was the “theme of the sailors”, whose chief, or strategus, generally held the rank of patrician. The Isaurian Emperors divided this great command, and created the two themes of the Cibyrrhaeots (which included all the south-western coast of Asia Minor) and the Dodecanese, or Aegean Sea, whereto was added in the ninth century the theme of Samos. These were the three pre-eminently maritime themes; but naturally the other coastal provinces—Hellas, Peloponnesus, and above all the themes of the Ionian Sea (Nicopolis, Cephalonia)—also contributed somewhat to the formation of the fleet and the provision of crews.

The Byzantine fleet, like the army, partly recruited its men from the population of the Empire; and in return for their services the Empire assigned to the sailors of the Cibyrrhaeot, Samian, and Aegean themes estates which, as with the land forces, were constituted as inalienable and hereditary fiefs. Another part of the personnel was drawn from the Mardaites of Mount Lebanon, whom the Emperors established in the seventh century, some in the region of Attalia where they possessed a special and almost autonomous form of government under their catapan, others in the coastal provinces of the Ionian Sea. Finally, Varangian sailors, whose skill was highly appreciated, were often engaged to serve in the fleet. As in the land forces, the pay was good; consequently the Empire found no difficulty in securing crews for its ships.

Its organization and equipment

Like the army, the navy was divided into two distinct groups. There was in the first place the imperial fleet, commanded by the Drungarius of the Fleet, whose importance seems to have increased immensely towards the close of the ninth century. This squadron was stationed in the waters of the capital. There was also the provincial fleet, composed of the squadrons from the maritime themes, which was commanded by the strategi of these themes. Generally in great naval expeditions both these fleets were united under the command of the same admiral. It is impossible to compute, from the documents extant, the relative strength of these two fleets. The number of ships assembled for the campaign of 907 shows an imperial fleet of 60 dromons in line as opposed to 42 from the maritime themes, and this fact is enough to show the importance of the squadron entrusted with the defence of the capital.

The Byzantine fleet contained units of various types. There was first the dromon, which was a strong and heavy but swift vessel, with a high wooden turret on deck (the xylokastron) furnished with engines of war. The crew consisted of 300 men, 230 rowers and 70 marines. Originally, the same men were employed for rowing and for fighting, but soon the drawbacks of this system became apparent, and by the reforms of the ninth century the two groups which formed the crew were separated. Subordinate to the dromon there were lighter vessels, the pamphylians, some manned by 160 others by 130 men, and the ousiai, which seem to have been built after the model of the large Russian boats, and to have been attached to the dromons at the rate of two ousiai to each larger vessel. Their crews varied from 108 to 110 men. All vessels other than dromons were often referred to under the general name of chelandia, some belonging to the pamphylian class, others to that of the ousiai.

What rendered these ships particularly formidable was the superiority which they derived from the use of Greek fire. A Syrian engineer of the seventh century, named Callinicus, had imparted to the Byzantines the secret of this “liquid fire”, which could not be extinguished, and which was said to burn even in water. It was thrown on to the enemy ships, either by means of tubes or siphons placed in the prow of the Greek vessels, or by means of hand-grenades. The reputation of this terrible weapon, exaggerated by popular imagination, filled all the adversaries of Byzantium with terror. Igor’s Russians, who were crushed outside Constantinople in 941, declared: “The Greeks have a fire resembling the lightning from heaven, and when they threw it at us they burned us; for this reason we could not overcome them”. In the thirteenth century Joinville speaks of Greek fire with similar emotion. Any man touched by it believed himself to be lost; every ship attacked was devoured by flames. And the Byzantines, conscious of the advantage they derived from this formidable weapon, guarded the secret with jealous care. The Emperors, in their dying recommendations, advised their successors not to reveal it to anyone, and threatened with anathema any impious person who might dare to disclose it.

Like the army, the navy was handled with great tactical skill. In the special treatises of the tenth century which have been preserved, we find the most minute instructions for maneuvering and for boarding, for the use of Greek fire and other weapons of offence, boiling pitch, stones, masses of iron, and the like. There is also evident the same anxiety in maintaining the efficiency of the crews by incessant practice, and the same care with regard to the sailors as to the soldiers. Nevertheless, and in spite of the importance given to the great theme of the Cibyrrhaeots by the proximity of the Arab territory, in spite of the great services rendered by the fleet, in the tenth century the navy was less regarded than the land forces; the strategi of the three maritime themes received much lower salaries (ten pounds of gold) than those of the governors of the great continental themes of Anatolia. But by all these means, by land and sea, Byzantium was a great power; and, by her wise naval and military organization, she remained until the end of the twelfth century a great and powerful military state.