Decline and fall of the eastern empire

Chris Gray concludes his series on the Roman empire by analysing the reasons for its survival in the east

People make their own history, but they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” - K Marx The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte

There may still be a reluctance in some educated quarters to delve at all into the history of the eastern Roman empire - seen as a somewhat boring appendage to the high drama of Rome from the republic to Attila. In this view, the eastern empire appears as a monotonous recital of barbarian invasions, ecclesiastical controversies and palace intrigues, which have bestowed an ill flavour upon the adjective ‘Byzantine’.

In Britain such attitudes tend to be accompanied by a dismissal of the role of the east in the development of the continent, in which Constantinople, for all its architectural and artistic splendours, is viewed as the capital of an essentially backward region. While such a point of view is not without a certain accuracy, it is surely in its own way ‘provincial’: it needs emphasising that people lived in this empire for around a thousand years, and many of them prospered, and that the eastern Roman empire exercised - and possibly continues to exercise - an influence in subsequent history and politics, an influence not confined to the impetus imparted to the western European renaissance.

The effects in the east were also long-lasting. If you had asked a Greek their nationality 100 years ago - possibly even 50 years ago - you would most likely have received the reply, Romaios eimai (literally ‘I am a Roman’ - the revival of the designation ‘Hellene’ is a product of the movement for Greek independence). Similarly the empire itself laid its imprint upon nationalist movements in the Balkans - most obviously the Greek one, which was heavily influenced by the idea of the creation of a latter-day, Greek-dominated empire (the megale idea or ‘great idea’), but also those of Serbia and Bulgaria.1

All that should make the eastern empire a fit subject for study: after all, as the Roman playwright, Publius Terentius Afer (Terence), expressed it, we are human beings, so nothing human is alien from us.2

This brief survey of the history of the eastern Roman empire - I refrain from using the word ‘Byzantine’ because this, strictly speaking, refers to the name of the original Greek city preceding Constantine’s foundation in 330CE - divides into the following periods:

In 468 the emperor Leo I was left staring at his empty treasury, the result of his having used up the eastern reserve in order to finance an ill-fated attack on the Vandals in north Africa. In the circumstances his only recourse was confiscation of wealthy citizens’ property - hardly an adequate solution.

Two emperors

Fortunately the next two emperors handled the situation adroitly. Zeno (474-91) was faced with two recalcitrant groups of Goths within the imperial frontiers, who needed dealing with: a solution was found under which the two groups, united under Theodoric the Amal, were sent off to conquer Italy and rule it in the name of the emperor. Zeno’s successor, Anastasius (491-518), carefully rebuilt the treasury reserve by regulating official fees, curbing bribery and keeping a close watch on military payrolls. He also introduced a new copper coinage that did its job very effectively. Where possible, however, payments to the state were to be made in gold. These policies were so successful that on his death Anastasius left a gold reserve of some 23 million nomismata - more than three times that left by Marcianus in 457.3

These successes formed the background of the grandiose plans of imperial reconquest formed by Justinianus (527-65), which he proceeded to put into action. Part of the emperor’s motivation was a desire to help his catholic co-religionists languishing under Arian regimes, but he also clearly wanted to restore the Roman empire to its classic extent, as far as possible. He was lucky in being able to call on the services of a very talented general, Belisarius, who made short work of the conquest of north Africa. This success misled the emperor into believing that a similar operation could be carried out in Italy on the cheap:

“Without detailed knowledge of western conditions, the eastern government tended to underestimate the costs of reconquering the west. Expecting Africa to pay for its own defence immediately out of current revenue, Justinian had let its soldiers go unpaid until they mutinied. Seeing that Belisarius could conquer Africa in a year with 18,000 men, Justinian assumed he could conquer Italy with less than half as many. Although later the emperor tried to correct both mistakes, travel between east and west was dangerous in winter and slow even in summer. Germanus finished suppressing the African mutiny only in 537. By then only a few reinforcements could be sent to Belisarius before winter made sea travel unsafe.”4

In the event the attempted conquest of Italy took 26 years (535-61). Justinianus even found it worthwhile to send an expedition to Spain in the 550s, whose resources might have been better employed in Italy. As it was, he was never able to enlarge the belt of territory his armies won in the southern part of the Iberian peninsula. While all this was going on, the Romans were also obliged to ward off attacks by Bulgars and Persians, but Justinianus was able to meet all these challenges thanks to imperial cash reserves and the treasure seized in Africa, which also funded his extensive building programme. But the empire was ravaged by an outbreak of bubonic plague in 541, which probably caused the deaths of about 25% of the population.

All in all, it is doubtful whether the results of the invasion of Italy justified the efforts and expenditure of resources involved:

“The cost of this expansionist politics was very great. Minor reforms of the fiscal apparatus meant greater exactions from the producing population of the empire; Italy itself was devastated, its rural and urban economy shattered; the army was neither adequately resourced nor its ranks filled, on the one hand; yet neither could the revenues of the state support a greater demand from this quarter, on the other … And within 10 years of the final reconquest of Italy, the invasion of the Lombards (from 568) had destroyed what little peace the peninsula had enjoyed.”5

Avars, Slavs and Arabs

Justinianus’s immediate successors found themselves occupied in dealing with Slav incursions in the Balkans and a war of attrition against Persia. A further foreign nation, the Avars, a Turkic people, also made its appearance at this time. The climax came in the reign of Herakleios (Heraclius: 610-41CE).

“In the Balkans the local garrison army still held the main strongholds near the Danube frontier, but between and behind them the Slavs had conquered the greater part of Illyricum, including most of Epirus, Thessaly and central Greece. They even took to the sea in canoes to attack the Cyclades. Although the Slavs belonged to different tribes, several of these united in an unsuccessful attempt to storm Thessalonika by land and sea, probably in 615.

“Around the same time, the Avars opened a general offensive to the empire’s north, taking Salona, Naissus and Serdica. Not long afterward, they deported many of the local Byzantines to Avar territory near Sirmium. After the Avars had shown their strength, the Slavs resumed cooperating with them against Byzantium.

“By 615, the empire had lost nearly all of Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Cilicia to the Persians, and most of Illyricum and much of Thrace to the Avars and Slavs. About 615 the Visigoths also conquered most of the rest of Byzantine Spain. The only major Byzantine possessions that survived more or less intact were Africa, Egypt and Anatolia, and the latter two faced imminent Persian invasion.”6

By 626 the capital was under siege, with an Avar-Slav army on the north and a Persian army across the straits on the east. Slav canoes attempted to ferry Persian soldiers across to join in an assault on the formidable walls, but the imperial fleet successfully dealt with this threat. Then the defenders intercepted a message from the Persian emperor accusing his general, Shahrwaraz, of treason: the general, not surprisingly, withdrew his forces in high dudgeon, and retired to Egypt. The siege ended. A year later there was a widespread anti-Avar-Slav uprising.

At this point a new force arose that quickly made its mark on the politics of the east - islam. Mohammed, who, unlike Jesus, was a very successful politician, succeeded in creating a reform movement in Arabia whose aim was to defend the original solidarity of the tribe in a commercialised society. This movement, as well as being a new religion, was dedicated to the protection of the poorer and weaker members of the community, such as widows and orphans.7 In 622CE Mohammed and his followers established an independent community in Medina; in 630 they seized control of the important city of Mecca, and, soon after, they managed to unite all Arabia under their banner.

The east Roman and Persian empires had by this time exhausted themselves in mutual combat and were ripe for attack. In 634 the Arabs took Damascus and in July 636 they defeated the Romans on the Yarmuk river, seizing control of all Syria except Caesarea and Jerusalem. In 640 they took Egypt.8 There is some evidence that the subordinate classes within the conquered territories welcomed the new Arab rulers.

For example: “Since the Egyptian prefect and patriarch Cyrus had intensified his persecution of the Monophysites [a christian sect comprising a majority of the Egyptian population] to force them to accept Monotheletism [the doctrine that Jesus had a single will - human and divine combined], a number of Egyptians were ready to cooperate with the invaders.”9

They may well have become less enthusiastic, however, on discovering that the new authorities levied heavier taxes.10

The succeeding emperor, Constans II (641-68), appears to have reorganised the empire’s defences by giving the soldiers grants of land in various new administrative divisions called themata (‘themes’). Supporting themselves on these, the troops were able to buy arms and equipment, including cavalry horses and fodder for the same. This made it possible to reduce their regular pay. The reform does seem to have strengthened the imperial defences, although it also made it easier to stage rebellions.

At any rate the major thrust of the Arab conquests was over by about 643.11 Arab naval power became a growing threat, but the east Romans countered this with their own fleet, which acquired a powerful new weapon in the shape of ‘Greek fire’ (a mixture of quicklime, naphtha and pitch from sulphur and petroleum, fired from catapults, which set enemy shipping ablaze).

The Arabs checked

The Arab onslaught resumed at the end of the 7th century: in 697 they seized Carthage, eventually overrunning the whole north African littoral, at which point Vizigothic Spain became a target. By 717 the capital was in danger again:

“The Arabs’ plan in 717 was not to raid in force, as in 674, but to take Constantinople outright. The Caliph Sulayman had said as much. The army and navy on their way to the city were led by the Arabs’ best general, Maslamah, and are said to have reached staggering totals of 120,000 men and 1,800 ships. These forces outnumbered the entire army and navy of the empire, and were more than enough to blockade Constantinople completely. If the Arabs could take the centre of Byzantine resistance at the capital, their way would be clear to complete the conquest of Anatolia that they had already begun.”12

The east Romans made an alliance with the Bulgars and prepared for the inevitable. The Arab fleet attempted to impose a blockade by sea as the finishing touch to a thorough siege on the landward side, but once again the sinister ‘Greek fire’ wrought havoc, and it withdrew. This proved decisive, as the defenders could bring in supplies by sea, but the besiegers were prevented from foraging by the Bulgars and began to run short of food themselves. Finally a combination of disease and losses inflicted by the Bulgars forced an Arab withdrawal.

We are now in a position to assess the reasons for the survival of the eastern part of the Roman empire in conditions where the west was lost. It is true that the richest parts of the empire were in the east, but the decisive factor was imperial control of the straits, which prevented the invaders from debouching into Anatolia. Here the fleet and ‘Greek fire’ played their part. Despite Arab conquests in Syria, Egypt and north Africa, Anatolia remained relatively unscathed.13 As we saw in the previous article, the aristocracy in the east was less fractious.

The revolt of Thomas

Constantinople had to endure yet another siege, this time as the result of a social upheaval within the empire in the reign of Michael II, (820-29) founder of the so-called ‘Amorian dynasty’:

“The central event of home politics during Michael’s reign was the severe civil war provoked by Thomas, a Slav from Asia Minor and an old fellow soldier of the emperor. Actively supported by the Arabs, Thomas had got together a large and heterogeneous following in the eastern frontier districts during the reign of Leo V [around 820]. Arabs, Persians, Armenians, Iberians and other Caucasian peoples placed themselves under his standard …

“It is particularly significant that the revolt offered something in the nature of a social revolution: Thomas appeared as the protector of the poor, whose burdens he promised to lighten. In this way he drew into the movement the masses who were embittered by economic want, crushing taxation and the arbitrary exactions of government officials …

“The rebellion, relying on racial, religious and social antagonisms, soon spread over most of Asia Minor … Thomas was crowned emperor by the Patriarch of Antioch, which could not have happened without the consent of the Caliph. The support of the Cibyraeot theme secured him the command of the fleet and gave him the means of crossing to Europe …

“The siege of Constantinople, which began in December 821, lasted more than a year and it finally broke the power of the usurper. The superior military leadership of the emperor of Constantinople prevailed over the badly organised mass movement. Above all, Michael II owed his salvation to the help of the khan of the Bulgars. Just as Tervel [Bulgarian khan c701-18] had once come to the rescue of Leo III against the Arabs, so Omurtag, the son of Byzantium’s bitterest foe, now supported Michael II against Thomas and scattered the rebel’s forces. In the spring of 823 Thomas had to raise the siege and the movement collapsed.

“It was not until October that Thomas, who had entrenched himself in Arcadiopolis [in Thrace] with a small following, fell into the hands of the emperor and was put to death after terrible tortures.”14

The eastern empire at its zenith

Having come through all these trials and tribulations, the empire eventually found itself once more on an upward curve. The culmination of this process was a series of military victories won by a trio of emperors - Nikephoros II Phokas (963-69), Ioannis Tzimiskes (969-76) and Basil II Bulgaroktonos (‘the Bulgar-slayer’) (976-1025). At this point the empire still held the southern extremity of Italy, most of Yugoslavia and the Balkans south of the Danube, and almost the whole of modern Turkey, together with Crete, Cyprus and the southern portion of the Crimea. But Basil was a cruel ruler: in 1014 he won a decisive victory over the Bulgars and took a large number of prisoners:

“Basil the Bulgaroktonos celebrated his victory in a terrible fashion. The captives - allegedly numbering 14,000 - were blinded, and were then despatched in batches of 100 men, each group having a one-eyed man as a guide, to their tsar at Prilep.”15

Stagnation and decline 1025-1204

Once again there was a relapse. Surveying the succeeding reigns to 1081, Treadgold writes: “… a mere 56 years of misgovernment had squandered half the empire’s territory, nearly all of its huge army and ample treasury, and a long tradition of growing security and stability.”16

In 1071 came the decisive battle of Manzikert, following which the Turks established themselves on the central plateau of Anatolia.

During this period also we have the emergence of the pronoia grant system, whereby the state made grants into administration (eis pronoian), giving the recipient the use of the tax revenue of the land in question. This has been seen by some as incipient feudalism, but its parallels are rather with certain grants under the tributary mode of production in Asia.17 The pronoia system was only a step towards feudalism in so far as it may have aided the creation of a landed aristocratic class (a feature of the 11th century) and weakened the state, which lost revenue as a result. Later on, pronoia grants were combined with military service obligations - tempting initial economies as far as the government was concerned, but the military benefits were dubious.

The emerging rural aristocracy began to flex its muscles politically under the Komnenos dynasty (1081-1185). There was a recurrence of the familiar phenomena - familiar from the Roman empire of the 3rd century) of coinage debasement and military revolts, coupled with something new: namely commercial privileges given to Italian cities - Venice, and then Genoa and Pisa.

By the late 11th century the Norman rulers of Sicily were casting greedy eyes on the empire, and, clearly, they were not the only ones. The crisis finally arrived with the fourth crusade, when Alexios, son of the deposed emperor, Isaac II Angelos, offered the crusaders and the Venetians a huge sum - 200,000 marks - in return for putting him and his father back in power in Constantinople. Alexios miscalculated badly: the empire could no longer afford such an amount. The crusaders foreclosed on the deal by sacking the capital. Pope Innocent III was horrified, and protested, but found himself short of divisions, so to speak.

Aftermath of the fourth crusade

The crusaders decided to set up a Latin empire in place of the old Greco-Roman one, but they failed to do the job properly. The former territory of the empire became a patchwork of independent states, of which the Latin empire was only one. The most successful of the emergent Greek states was the so-called ‘empire of Nicaea’. Its fifth ruler was Michael Palaiologos, who managed to defeat all attempts by Charles of Anjou, ruler of Sicily and brother of the king of France, to take over the empire. Unfortunately his dynastic successors were less able. A disastrous civil war began in 1342 when the ‘Grand Domestikos’ (Great Chamberlain), Ioannis Kantakouzenos, who had been the power behind the throne for some years, declared himself emperor in 1341.

The Commune of Salonika

The civil war was accompanied by two revolts of the lower orders: in Thrace a peasant uprising broke out against the landlords there; meanwhile the governor of Thessalonika sent word to Kantakouzenos offering to support him if he would come there with his army. The citizens, enraged by this, threw out the governor and installed a popular regime, led by a party known as the Zealots. This was an example of European urban revolution in the 14th century, as described by CLR James:

“… in the last half of the 14th century, these revolutions swept from one end of Europe to another. In Salonika the sailors and artisans ruled the rich, the landowners, the commercial magnates and the clergy for 10 years … In Bologna, in Genoa, in Sienna, the masses sought to obtain absolute mastery of municipal power. In Florence, under the leadership of Michael Lando, they organised the celebrated revolt of the Ciompi and established the dictatorship of the proletariat, whom they called ‘god’s people’. Rome and other towns saw similar battles.

“But it was in the Lowlands, in the towns of Ghent, Ypres and Bruges that the workers made the most desperate efforts to establish their own dictatorship. Revolutionary history badly needs a study of the incidents which centre around the van Artevelde family …

“In the German towns of Cologne, Strasbourg, Aix-la-Chapelle, Luebeck, Stettin and many others, in Barcelona, Valencia and other towns of Spain, the same desperate battles took place. The working class and its allies closest to it fought for 50 years all over Europe to establish proletarian democracy. Why they failed to achieve substantial successes was due not only to the low level of production, but to the fact that they fought only as members of isolated municipalities. Some of them indeed aimed boldly at an international proletarian revolution. But their time was not yet.”18

In Salonika, estates belonging to the magnates and the church were expropriated.19 The movement only concluded when the Serbs, under Stefan Dushan, advanced, whereupon the Zealot majority opted to support Kantakouzenos against them; even then a minority expressed their willingness to try their luck with the Serbs.

The eastern Roman dilemma

Around the middle of the 14th century it became clear that the ancient Roman empire was living on borrowed time and was scarcely likely to survive.

It is impossible to disagree with the broad thrust of the assessment put forward by Perry Anderson in Passages from antiquity to feudalism, in which he declared that the eastern Roman empire “survived through the dark ages of the west, with a shrunken territory but with virtually the whole superstructural panoply of classical antiquity intact. There was no drastic cessation of urban life; luxury manufactures were maintained; shipping if anything slightly improved; above all, centralised administration and uniform taxation by the imperial state subsisted … Coinage furnished the clearest index of this success: the Byzantine gold bezant became the most universal standard of the time in the Mediterranean.

“Yet a crippling price was paid for this revival. The Byzantine empire, in effect, unloaded enough of the burden of antiquity to survive into a new epoch, but not enough to develop dynamically across it. It remained transfixed between slave and feudal modes of production, unable either to return to the one or advance to the other.”20

The basic reason for this was the military organisation of the state, which required that the interests of the large landowners as taxpayers be subordinated to the defence interest of the state, which required adequate remuneration for its soldiers, if necessary in the form of land.

Hence, as Chris Wickham writes, “… the 7th to 8th centuries in Byzantium appear to show an eclipse of aristocratic power. The state patronised generals and their armies, at the expense of the local civil aristocracies; the latter thus lost their independent role to new state subordinates, who were initially more reliable, and indeed more useful. The old noble families disappear from our sources; it is not until the 9th and 10th centuries that they (or, more likely, the new military landowning families) return in the texts to trouble the smooth functioning of the mechanisms of government.”21

The fall of Constantinople

With the rise of the dynasty of the Komnenoi in the 12th century, a pro-aristocratic shift was discernible, but the fourth crusade threw everything into the melting pot and precipitated a naked power struggle, in which the native aristocrats found themselves squeezed between a western feudal threat (exemplified by Charles of Anjou) on the one hand and the Turks on the other.

The Turkish advance was comparatively slow, but relentless. Having been invited onto European soil by the east Romans to fight the Serbs, the Turks stayed, establishing their capital at Adrianople (modern Edirne) shortly after 1360. In 1389 they won a decisive victory over the Serbian monarchy at Kosovo Polje - a date forever etched in the Serb historical memory. In 1393 they occupied Thessaly. Sultan Bayazid would probably have taken Constantinople in 1402 if he had not had his army destroyed by the Mongols at the battle of Ancyra (Ankora). The Mongols only delayed the inevitable. By 1425 the empire was reduced to just three, fairly small scraps of territory - the environs of Constantinople itself, a portion of Thrace to the north and part of the Peloponnesus. On the Black Sea the rival Greek empire of Trebizond (Trapezos) also held out.

In 1451 the imperial government at Constantinople asked the Turks to double the annual subsidy they were giving to ensure the detention of a pretender to the Turkish sultanate. Sultan Mehmed (the Conqueror) used this as an excuse to abrogate the treaty between himself and Constantinople. He ordered the construction of a fleet and hired a Hungarian engineer to forge some extra-strong cannon.

The empire issued a desperate appeal for christian reinforcements: all they got were some 700 Genoese and 300 Venetians, plus 200 Neapolitans. This pushed the defence numbers up to some 5,000 imperial troops plus about 3,000 foreigners - these forces included the famous Varangian Guard, originally a Russian unit acquired as bodyguard by Basil Bulgaroctonos, which in later years comprised Scandinavians, Normans and English. Against these the Turks could field around 80,000.

On May 29 1453 Sultan Mehmed ordered a massive assault, which succeeded in penetrating the defences. The last emperor, appropriately named Constantine, fell fighting somewhere in the city streets. The Varangian Guard went down with him. The Turks took possession of the city, “in the name of Allah, the compassionate, the merciful”.


1. See W Treadgold A history of the Byzantine state and society Stanford 1997, p851.
2. Homo sum, nihil humanum a me alienum puto - ‘I am a human being; I consider nothing human alien from me’ (Heauton Timoroumenos 25).
3. W Treadgold A history of the Byzantine state and society Stanford 1997, p172.
4. Ibid p189.
5. J Haldon The state and the tributary mode of production London 1993, p113.
6. W Treadgold A history of the Byzantine state and society Stanford 1997, p290.
7. See R Aslan No god but god: the origins, evolution and future of islam London 2005.
8. B Lewis The Arabs in history London 1966, pp53-54.
9. W Treadgold A history of the Byzantine state and society Stanford 1997, p305.
10. Ibid p312.
11. Ibid p372.
12. Ibid p346.
13. See P Heather The fall of the Roman empire London 2005, p444; B Ward-Perkins The fall of Rome Oxford 2005, p130.
14. G Ostrogorsky History of the Byzantine state Oxford 1968, pp204-05.
15. Ibid p310.
16. W Treadgold A history of the Byzantine state and society Stanford 1997, p611.
17. See C Wickham, ‘The uniqueness of the east’ Journal of Peasant Studies No12, parts 2-3, 1985, pp166-96.
18. CLR James, ‘Dialectical materialism and the fate of humanity’ Spheres of existence London 1980, p89.
19. See R Clogg A short history of modern Greece Cambridge 1979, p9; also P Anderson Passages from antiquity to feudalism London 1974, p283.
20. P Anderson Passages from antiquity to feudalism London 1974, p270.
21. C Wickham, ‘The other transition’ Past and Present No103, 1984, p33.