Byzantine’s Transformation In The 700s

Background to the 7th Century: Key Developments and Events

The Landscape during the late 6th Century and early 7th Century

Byzantine’s Transformation: During the late 6th and early 7th centuries, Byzantium remained a powerful empire, similar to the Roman Empire of earlier times. While the Lombards controlled a large portion of Italy, they had been driven out of the Po valley by a joint Byzantine-Frankish attack in 590. Important cities like Ravenna, which was the center of the Western Roman Empire, and Rome, Naples, Calabria, Apulia, and Sicily were still under Byzantine control and provided significant wealth to pay for their own defense.

Africa was a relatively prosperous province, known for its grain production, although it was not as important as Egypt. Despite some issues with revolts by Moors and indications of a decline in the economy, it was able to pay for its own defense. The administration of Africa was similar to that of Italy, where power was held by an Exarch who had both military and civilian authority over the province.

The Balkans, which were facing pressure from Avars and Slavs, had been less wealthy than other provinces, particularly in the north, which had never fully developed urban centers. Additionally, the region was often a path for barbarian invasions, such as by the Goths and Huns, leading to frequent destruction. This resulted in a decline of urban areas and traditional cities in Greece. The fortification and rebuilding of about 400 places by Emperor Justinian, as described by historian Procopius, did not have a significant impact.

Anatolia, Syria-Palestine, and Egypt were the core of the Byzantine East and the foundation of Byzantine power. Despite being affected by the plague and facing invasions by the Persians in Syria, including the destruction of Antioch in 540, these regions remained the economic backbone of Byzantium. It is estimated that Egypt alone provided 30 to 40% of the Byzantine government’s revenue.

The Justinian Plague

The Justinian Plague, named after the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, was a devastating pandemic that occurred in the year 541. The disease, believed to be caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis, spread rapidly throughout the empire, causing widespread death and disruption. The plague is thought to have originated in the region of Egypt and quickly spread through the empire’s major trade routes and ports, reaching Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, in the summer of 541.

The plague is estimated to have killed millions of people, with some estimates suggesting that it may have killed as much as 25-50% of the population in affected areas. The pandemic had a significant impact on the Byzantine Empire, causing economic and social upheaval, as well as weakening the empire’s military capabilities. The plague also contributed to the decline of several major cities, including Alexandria, and had a lasting impact on the empire’s economy and population.

 

Byzantine Emperors of the 7th Century

Mauricius Flavius Tiberius

Maurice, also known as Mauricius Flavius Tiberius, was a highly skilled military leader and emperor who lived in the 6th century. He started his career as a government notary, but quickly rose through the ranks to become the commander of the imperial forces in the East. He gained a reputation for his victories against the Persians and was chosen as the successor of emperor Tiberius II. On August 5, 582, he became the emperor and was engaged to Tiberius’ daughter, Constantina. He was crowned on August 13, the day before Tiberius’ death.

In the East, Maurice led his armies against Persia, achieving a successful peace settlement after supporting Khosrow II’s claim to the Persian throne.

With peace restored, he focused on the North, where nomadic Slavs and Avars were settling in the empire. His campaign had some success, as the Avars switched to the imperial side in 602.

In the West, Maurice is credited for creating a new system of civil administration in war-torn Italy. He appointed military governors for Rome and Ravenna, the exarchate of Ravenna, when he realized that the civil authorities were unable to protect remaining Byzantine territories from the advancing Lombards.

He later established an exarchate at Carthage, in North Africa, as a defense against attacks by Berber tribesmen. The two exarchates were provinces whose civil administration was placed in the hands of military officials. They are considered to have been the foundation of the system of provincial rule (themes) used in the later Byzantine Empire.

Maurice’s military campaigns against the Persians, Slavs, Avars, and Lombards put a strain on the empire’s finances, requiring high taxes to be collected. This led to growing dissatisfaction among the army. When he ordered some troops to set up camp on the opposite side of the Danube River for the winter, a rebellion broke out. The rebellious soldiers rallied behind Phocas, a junior officer among them and marched to Constantinople. The citizens also revolted, Maurice was removed from power, and Phocas was crowned as the new emperor.

 

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Phocas
Bronze steelyard-weight of Emperor Phocas

Bronze steelyard-weight of Emperor Phocas

Phocas, born in 547, was a centurion of humble origins, possibly from Thrace, who rose to become the Byzantine emperor in 602. After an army rebellion against Emperor Maurice in 602, Phocas was sent to Constantinople as a representative. He took advantage of the revolts in the capital to take power, resulting in the execution of Maurice and his son.

Phocas had good relations with Rome and gained praise from Pope Gregory I for recognizing the Pope’s authority in religious matters. He made peace with the Avars by agreeing to pay them increased annual tribute, but faced opposition from Maurice’s ally, Khosrow II of Persia, whose army invaded Asia Minor and reached the Bosporus by 608.

Phocas’ persecution of the Miaphysite Christians and Jews earned him the hatred of the Eastern provinces, and he became increasingly tyrannical in the capital, causing riots in some cities. His unpopularity, combined with fear of the Persians, led to a revolt by the Exarch of Carthage, who sent his son Heraclius to overthrow Phocas, who was executed in October 610. Heraclius was then proclaimed emperor. A column in honor of Phocas still stands in the Roman Forum, the last in a long series of such monuments to the Roman emperors.

 

Heraclius
 Saint Helena & Heraclius taking the Holy Cross to Jerusalem, Museo de Zaragoza

Saint Helena & Heraclius taking the Holy Cross to Jerusalem, Museo de Zaragoza

Heraclius was an Eastern Roman emperor who ruled from 610 to 641. He was born in Cappadocia and his father, who was probably of Armenian descent, was governor of the Roman province of Africa when he received a call from Constantinople to save the Eastern Roman Empire from the tyranny and incompetence of Emperor Phocas. His father equipped an expeditionary force and put his son, Heraclius, in charge of it.

In October 610, Heraclius arrived in Constantinople, overthrew Phocas and was crowned emperor of a state that was in a state of decline and facing invasions, internal dissension and chaos. Slavs had infiltrated the Balkan Peninsula, Persians controlled large parts of Anatolia and Turkic Avars, who ruled over Slavs and other tribes in the region between the Don and the Alps, were demanding tribute.

The empire’s economy was in disarray, administration was disorganized, the army was depleted and demoralized, factions were engaged in civil strife, the peasantry was burdened by excessive taxes, religious dissenters were persecuted and the authority of the empire was challenged by a powerful aristocracy. The empire was not strong enough to drive out invaders and possibly not even to survive.

Second Marriage

In 612, Heraclius’s first wife, Eudocia, passed away. One year later, he married his niece Martina, which offended the religious sensibilities of many of his subjects, who considered his second marriage as incestuous and Martina as a witch.

Martina accompanied him on his campaigns and bore him nine children, indicating that they had a happy marriage.

The Persian Wars

In 614, the Persians seized Syria and Palestine, capturing Jerusalem and what was thought to be the Cross of Christ. In 619, they occupied Egypt and Libya. Heraclius attempted to appease the Avars by meeting them at Heraclea in Thrace (617 or 619). They chased him furiously as he rode frantically back to Constantinople. He finally made peace with them despite their treachery and was able to launch an onslaught against the Persians.

In 622, dressed as a pilgrim and carrying a precious icon of the Virgin Mary, he departed Constantinople as prayers rose from the city’s numerous sanctuaries for triumph over the Persian Zoroastrians, the return of the Cross, and the retaking of Jerusalem.

In essence, he was the leader of the first crusade. In a successful campaign, he maneuvered the Persians out of Anatolia and proposed a cease-fire to the Persian ruler. This offer was rejected with scorn by Khosrow II, who referred to himself as the gods’ favorite and master of the world, to Heraclius as his servile and inept slave, and to Christ as incapable of saving the empire. Heraclius made Khosrow’s remark public, mindful of its propagandistic potential.

He spent the following two years in wars in Armenia, whose manpower was crucial to the empire, and in a destructive invasion of Persia. Heraclius retired to Anatolia in 625. When the Persian armies appeared on the east bank of the river, he was tented on the west bank. Many of his soldiers crossed the bridge hastily, only to be ambushed and slaughtered by the enemy.

Heraclius observed the victorious Persians crossing the bridge as he emerged from his tent. Imperial destiny lay in the balance. Grabbing his sword, he went to the bridge and slew the Persian leader. Behind him, his soldiers formed a line and repelled the enemy.

In 626, the Persians went to the Bosporus in an attempt to help the Avars attack the land defenses of Constantinople. The Romans, on the other hand, sunk the crude Avar fleet that was supposed to bring Persian troops across the Bosphorus and stopped the Avar attack on its own. In December 627, Heraclius marched through the Armenian hills and the Tigris plain to get to the ruins of Nineveh. There, he met the Persians. There, astride his legendary battle horse, he slew three Persian generals in single combat, led his warriors into enemy ranks, slew the Persian commander, and dispersed the Persian army.

After a month, Heraclius entered Dastagird with its extraordinary treasure. Khosrow was ousted by his son, with whom Heraclius made peace, requiring only the return of the Cross, the captives, and the Byzantine territory that had been acquired. On his triumphant return to Constantinople, he was hailed as Moses, Alexander, and Scipio. He restored the Cross to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem in 630.

 

Monothelitism

Since the fourth century, when Roman emperors adopted Christianity, they sought to maintain a consistent theological viewpoint and, particularly in Egypt, Syria, and Armenia, persecuted anyone with divergent Christological beliefs. Heraclius wanted to appease the doubters with the theology of Christ’s one will, as the resulting animosities had helped the Persian invasion (monothelitism). 

Heraclius’s attempt at creating a unifying Christology did not succeed, as his attempts to force monothelitism on the population only resulted in greater hostility between the differing factions, making it much harder for him to protect his eastern territories.

The Arabs

Abu Bakr led the united Arab armies, motivated by religious fervor to spread Islam, in their expansion efforts. They successfully defeated the Byzantine Empire in battles for Palestine in 634-635, and subsequently in Yarmurk and northern clashes. Despite attempts by Heraclius to reclaim Syria in 637/8, the Arabs were successful. They then invaded Egypt and took control of Alexandria in 641, marking the end of Roman/Byzantine rule in the region.

During his last years, Heraclius appears to have suffered from an enlarged prostate gland, urinary retention, and the resulting inflammation. In February 641, he succumbed to violent spasms, leaving the empire to his two eldest sons, the consumptive Constantine III from his first marriage, and Heracleonas, his son with Martina. 

Byzantine’s Transformation

In summary, Heraclius’ reign marked a significant turning point in Byzantine history. The once vast empire of Justinian was greatly reduced, and limited mainly to Anatolia, Greece, parts of Italy and Africa. This period also saw an acceleration of the transformation of Byzantium from an urban to an agrarian society. Economic decline, which had already begun during Maurice’s reign, became more pronounced, resulting in a decrease in trade and monetization.

The smaller empire, under Heraclius’ successor Constans II, would need to militarize and implement the theme system in the 660s in order to survive. This system placed both civil and military responsibilities for a specific area in the hands of a military officer. With this, Byzantium entered its medieval era and the Middle Byzantine period began.

In summary, Heraclius’ reign marked a significant turning point in Byzantine history. The once vast empire of Justinian was greatly reduced, and limited mainly to Anatolia, Greece, parts of Italy and Africa. This period also saw an acceleration of the transformation of Byzantium from an urban to an agrarian society. Economic decline, which had already begun during Maurice’s reign, became more pronounced, resulting in a decrease in trade and monetization.

The smaller empire, under Heraclius’ successor Constans II, would need to militarize and implement the theme system in the 660s in order to survive. This system placed both civil and military responsibilities for a specific area in the hands of a military officer. With this, Byzantium entered its medieval era and the Middle Byzantine period began.

 

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Featured Image

Amirdovlat Amasiatsi
Detail from the fresco cycle of the "Legend of the Holy Cross" in the choir of the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo.

Detail from the fresco cycle of the “Legend of the Holy Cross” in the choir of the Basilica of San Francesco in Arezzo.

The Battle Between Heraclius and Chosroes depicted the story in which King Chosroes of the Zoroaster-faithful Persians had stolen the True Cross in the year 615, and had it encased in his throne. 

There are soldiers dressed in Roman style, with very colourful and fanciful costumes. These soldiers run through their enemies, who are seemingly defenseless in their elegant civilian clothes, not battle dress, and try to protect themselves with very light-weight shields, in vain.

The armoured horsemen coming from the left seem to play a decisive role in the outcome of the battle. Clad in the shining of the quite up-to-date armour, they advance like anonymous western defenders of the faith.

 

Sources

  • Antoniadis, C. (2018, September 30). The Seventh Century Transformation of Byzantium – Christos Antoniadis – Medium. Medium; Medium. https://medium.com/@christoss200/the-seventh-century-transformation-of-byzantium-36f4cb2331f4

  • Maurice | Byzantine emperor | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Maurice-Byzantine-emperor‌

  • Phocas | Emperor, Biography, History, & Facts | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Phocas

  • Heraclius | Byzantine emperor | Britannica. (2023). In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Heraclius-Byzantine-emperor

  • 8. Battle between Heraclius and Chosroes (detail) by PIERO DELLA FRANCESCA. (2023). Www.wga.hu. https://www.wga.hu/html_m/p/piero/2/8/8herac02.html

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