Byzantium: its internal history and relations with the Muslim World

Speros Vryonis Jr.


Internal History



(THE TRANSFORMATION OF THE ROMAN WORLD, ed. L. White. University of California Press (Berkeley-Los Angeles, 1966))



THE TITLE "Hellas Resurgent” will seem to some a euphemism, or perhaps a device intended to provoke a critical audience. Is it justified in the light of all that has been said about the chaos of the third century, that chaos which exposed classical civilization to a thunderous series of political, economic, spiritual, and intellectual shocks? Even superficial perusal of Gibbon leaves not the slightest doubt that he would have objected most emphatically, if not cholerically, to "Hellas Resurgent” as a label for Byzantine civilization. [1]



1. The only quandary in one’s mind arises in determining whether scholars today will be more outraged by the first half of the title than Gibbon would have been by the second. The term "Hellas” is used in this chapter to indicate the Greek cultural tradition which remained strongest in classical and medieval times among the Greek and Hellenized populations of Greece, Anatolia, and a few isolated spots in Egypt, Syria, southern Italy, and Sicily. Whether the polyglot Byzantine empire was possessed of a culture that may be characterized as Greek has been occasionally and passionately debated. In terms of literary production, there is little question in this matter. The literary language was Greek, and the models of education and literary production were both classical and Christian. At the same time, disparate elements from various non-classical traditions were absorbed into Byzantine culture. The single most important was the Christian religion, by origin Semitic and Monotheistic. By virtue, however, of the Christianization of the pagan world of the eastern Mediterranean, Christianity was itself Hellenized (see W. Jaeger, Early Christianity and Greek Paideia [Cambridge, 1961], p. 5). And so it was with many other cultural phenomena. Though it is true that the Byzantine Empire, like the Roman Empire, was multinational, within the heartland of the Empire, the Greek peninsula and Anatolia, the predominating element was that of the Greek speakers.







There is no mistaking Gibbon’s sentiments: there was no resurgence of Hellas or, indeed, of anything else. Gibbon’s evaluation of Byzantine civilization becomes apparent, line after line, paragraph after paragraph, page after page, throughout his seventy-one chapters. He sees it as the story of a profound and unrelenting political and cultural decline, inseparably associated with a degenerate, orientalized, Christianized Greek nation.


In the preface of the first volume which appeared in February, 1776, Gibbon remarks:


"The memorable series of revolutions, which, in the course of about thirteen centuries, gradually undermined, and at length destroyed, the solid fabric of human greatness, may, with some propriety, be divided into the three following periods.” [2]


These three periods are: (1) From Trajan to the sixth century; (2) from Justinian to 800; and (3) from 800 to 1453. From this periodization, one perceives that his history is one of colossal decline with a final and inexorable vengeance. Gibbon devoted three ponderous tomes to the events of the first four centuries and one to the remaining 900 years. The reason for this seeming geometric disproportion he exposes at the beginning of chapter 48 :


I have now deduced from Trajan to Constantine, from Constantine to Heraclius, the regular series of the Roman emperors; and faithfully exposed the prosperous and adverse fortunes of their reigns. Five centuries of the decline and fall of the empire have already elapsed; but a period of more than eight hundred years still separates me from the term of my labours, the taking of Constantinople by the Turks. Should I persevere in the same course, should I observe the same measure, a prolix and slender thread



2. Decline and Fall, Preface: I, v-vi.





would be spun through many a volume, nor would the patient reader find an adequate reward of instruction or amusement. At every step, as we sink deeper in the decline and fall of the Eastern Empire, the annals of each succeeding reign would impose a more ungrateful and melancholy task. These annals must continue to repeat a tedious and uniform tale of weakness and misery. . . . The fate of the Greek empire has been compared to that of the Rhine, which loses itself in the sands before its waters can mingle with the ocean. The scale of dominion is diminished to our view by the distance of time and place; nor is the loss of external splendour compensated by the nobler gifts of virtue and genius. [3]


After comparing these latter day Greeks with their classical ancestors, much to the disadvantage of the former, he returns to the Byzantine Greeks:


The subjects of the Byzantine empire, who assume and dishonor the names both of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity nor animated by the vigour of memorable crimes. . . . From these considerations, I should have abandoned, without regret, the Greek slaves and their servile historians, had I not reflected that the fate of the Byzantine monarchy is passively connected with the most splendid and important revolutions which have changed the state of the world. [4]


Gibbon presents us with what he considers to be the unmistakable causes for and manifestations of this decline, some of which have already been described in the preceding chapters. Preeminence among these causes and manifestations Gibbon assigns to the triumph of Christianity: Christianity absorbed and distracted society with its useless and endless theological squabbles; it was responsible for the rise of superstition so clearly visible in those eminently Greek phenomena within Christianity,



3. Ibid., ch. 48:V, 169.


4. In ibid., ch. 48:V. 170-171, Gibbon has italicized the word "passively.”





iconolatry and hagiolatry, and this superstition debased the spiritual and intellectual standard of society; Christianity contributed to the degeneracy of the Greek nation by teaching it abasement and passivity. Monasticism was complementary to this process, for it caused men and women to renounce not only the pleasures but also the business of this world. Thus, the world was deprived of the energies of these "monastic saints, who,” Gibbon writes, "excite only the contempt and pity of a philosopher.” [5] Christianity created a state within a state and so helped to consume the Empire in a parasitic manner.


Gibbon sees "orientalization,” whatever this may have meant to him, as a further contributing factor to this degeneracy. In chapter 17 it is the vanity of the East manifest in court forms and ceremonies, and it has vanquished Roman manly virtue. In speaking of the new "oriental” forms of civil and military administration which Diocletian and Constantine introduced, he remarks that their mere discussion will illustrate the Empire’s rapid decay. In the civil war between Constantine’s two sons, Constans is supported by the "martial nations of Europe” whereas Constantius is at the head of the "effeminate troops of Asia.” Let me add that it was the latter, not the former, who finally won. Gibbon’s work bristles with literary shafts hurled at the effeminacy of Greeks, at the malevolence of eunuchs, and at the heroic hypocrisy of bishops. [6]


In chapter 53 he describes the state of the Empire in the tenth century and presents a symptomatic comparison between the Greek character, on the one hand, and that of the Latins and Arabs on the other:



5. Ibid., ch. 37:IV, 74.


6. Ibid., ch. 22:II, 396. Gibbon begins this chapter: "While the Romans languished under the ignominious tyranny of eunuchs and bishops. . . .”





Whatever titles a despot may assume, whatever claims he may assert, it is on the sword that he must ultimately depend to guard him against his foreign and domestic enemies. From the age of Charlemagne to that of the Crusades, the world (for I overlook the remote monarchy of China) was occupied and disputed by the three great empires or nations of the Greeks, the Saracens, and the Franks. Their military strength may be ascertained by a comparison of their courage, their arts and riches, and their obedience to a supreme head, who might call into action all the energies of the state. The Greeks, far inferior to their rivals in the first, were superior to the Franks, and at least equal to the Saracens, in the second and third of these warlike qualifications. . . . Whatever authority could enact was accomplished, at least in theory, by the camps and marches, the exercizes and evolutions, the edicts and books, of the Byzantine monarch. Whatever art could produce from the forge, the loom, or the laboratory, was abundantly supplied by the richness of the prince and the industry of his numerous workmen. But neither authority nor art could frame the most important machine, the soldier himself. . . . Notwithstanding some transient success, the Greeks were sunk in their own esteem and that of their neighbours. A cold hand and a loquacious tongue was the vulgar description of the nation. . . . What spirit their government and character denied, might have been inspired in some degree by the influence of religion; but the religion of the Greeks could only teach them to suffer and to yield. [7]


Though Gibbon reiterates the theme of Eastern martial degeneracy, he is quite ready to admit that the Empire’s scientific skill, economic capacity, and the centralization of authority enabled it to compete successfully with both Latins and Arabs. The former are braver, but more anarchic in the arrangement of their energies. The latter are better than the Latins in ordering these same energies, but are still inferior to the Greeks whom they imitate.



7. Ibid., ch. 53:VI, 91, 95.





Gibbon continued the theme of orientalization as a factor in Byzantine decay in chapter 55, where he states that the conversion of the Slavs meant an advance for them from barbarism to civilization, but in a qualified sort of way:


"It should appear that Russia might have derived an early and rapid improvement from her peculiar connection with the church and state of Constantinople which in that age so justly despised the ignorance of the Latins. But the Byzantine nation was servile, solitary, and verging to an hasty decline.” [8]


This oriental character is also present at the final siege of Constantinople by the Turks (a nation far more “oriental” than the one it vanquished!) in 1453. In describing the events of that dramatic battle, Gibbon cannot refrain from lavishing praise upon the greatly outnumbered Christian defenders, but he does so only after uttering the customary anathema upon the latter:


"The nation was indeed pusillanimous and base; but the last Constantine deserves the name of an hero; his noble band of volunteers was inspired with Roman virtue; and the foreign auxiliaries supported the honor of western chivalry.” [9]


These examples are only a few from the detailed catalogue of causes and manifestations of the Empire’s decline which Gibbon presents. But he realized that though its decay was always in progress, it took a millennium for the Empire to fall. Therefore, he was on occasion forced to give reasons for the uncalled-for survival of Byzantium. More often than not, Gibbon’s explanation of this longevity is negative. In the East it was the decadence of the Arab Caliphate and in the West the feudal chaos and anarchy, which, among other factors, brought respite to the Greek Empire. That is to say, Byzantium did not fall sooner because its internal decline was not so advanced as that of the



8. Ibid., ch. 55:VI, 166.


9. Ibid., ch. 68:VII, 177-178.





Arabs, and because its state of civilization was not so primitive as that of the West. But certainly this docs not explain why it was that the Caliphate was more affected by internal decline, or why Byzantium was not in the state of chaos which the West experienced. It would be unfair to Gibbon to state categorically that he was not conscious of the necessity of supplying more positive reasons for Byzantine longevity. He recognizes the importance of the gifted individual in history, and such a person he considers Basil the Macedonian to have been. He comprehends the significance of technology and attributes the salvation of Constantinople from the Arabs to the invention of Greek fire. He comes closest, perhaps, to a positive explanation of Byzantium’s endurance in chapter 53 where he speaks of centralized government, economic wealth, industry, and skills which the Greek Orient possessed in abundance. But by and large, Gibbon failed to come to grips with the problem of the unique length of the "decline.”


How are Gibbon’s evaluation and judgment of the Byzantine Empire to be explained? The remarks of Andrew Lossky and Gerhart Ladner have indicated the general nature of the answer. Though Gibbon was perhaps something more than a child of the Enlightenment, to the degree that he was its intellectual and emotional offspring, he was imbued with a corresponding distrust of and contemptuous disdain for organized hierarchical religions. This so prejudiced his view of history that he could not fully appreciate the historical role of religion in a period wherein religion dominated and colored every phase of life. His personal experience with religion, as well as with much of the literature that he read, contributed to the acerbity of his criticism of the Church. The unfortunate effect of Gibbon’s blindness to the historical and cultural importance of religious matters was heavily compounded by his limited view of the historical unity of the subject he treated.





He saw only two elements of continuity in his epic: the threadbare existence of that Empire that "dishonored the name of both Greeks and Romans,” and, second, its uninterrupted millennial decline. He paid little attention to, and perhaps was incapable of comprehending, the larger historical process within which occurred the transmission of Greco-Roman civilization and its mutation into the Christian cultures of Byzantium and the West, entities simultaneously old and new, conservative and yet creative. As his history advanced through the centuries, Gibbon increasingly restricted the narrative to the surface of the Empire’s life: the dark intrigues of the court and the bloody seditions of the armies. Rarely did he pierce beneath these superficial phenomena to the inner meaning of these events. There are times when, in the latter part of his narrative, Gibbon managed to break through this exterior and succeeded in finding something essential, indeed perhaps something he considered worthwhile. Invariably, this involved him in inconsistencies and outright contradictions until his personal tastes finally overcame his logic in the matter. [10]


The consequence of Gibbon's work for the study of Byzantium can be overestimated only with ingenuity.



10. Gibbon condemned the administrative reforms of Diocletian because they placed affairs in the hands of the eunuchs and courtiers and so relaxed the vigor of the state. A mere description of these institutions, Gibbon states, demonstrates the Empire’s decay. But, at the very end of the same chapter (17), he suddenly reverses himself and declares that these reforms in government enabled the Empire to survive the barbarian invasions, to restrain the license of the soldiery, and to enjoy a continuity of its cultural life. In another realm, he traces the rise of superstition in the early Middle Ages to the spread of Christianity. Again, in one and the same chapter (28), he proclaims that the victors (Christians) were vanquished by the arts of their vanquished rivals (pagans). Thus he recognizes that much of Christian superstition already existed in the pagan world and simply penetrated the new religion as the latter absorbed the pagans. In spite of his insight into this matter, he continues to charge Christianity with the rise and spread of superstition.





The Decline and Fall long placed the kiss of death upon Byzantine studies, even though these had already made remarkable progress in the seventeenth century. In fact, Gibbon’s history, for much of the Byzantine period at least, would have been impossible without the earlier editions of the basic Byzantine historical texts and the remarkable works of Ducange. That it would take another century for Byzantine scholarship to revive is an unfortunate measure of Gibbon’s greatness. [11] Contributing factors in the fame of the work were his greatness as a scholar, albeit one marred by heavy prejudice, and his superb style. His erudition and prejudice were rendered palatable not merely by his literary style; for even if one writes in the crispest fashion, nevertheless a wholesale narrative of wars, rebellions, court intrigues, and obscure religious controversies, compacted and squeezed into 2,500 pages, would soon exhaust the interest of the most scholarly reader. It is one particular element in his literary style, namely his ironic and sarcastic wit, which so greatly flavors the narrative as to relieve first the pain and then the exhausting fatigue of the reader’s almost endless journey to 1453. Felicitous though this may be as literary anesthesia, the sarcasm and irony contribute seriously to the distortion of the picture of a whole society which Gibbon presents.


The morbid effects that Gibbon’s pronouncements had on Byzantine studies are still discernable today among a very few of his more recent compatriots. It was the most distinguished of modern English Byzantinists, J. B. Bury, who published the critical edition of the Decline and Fall. In his edition, Bury takes more than sixty pages in the preface to indicate how outdated and insufficient Gibbon was on such basic matters as Justinian’s reign, Constantinopolitan topography,



11. G. Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State (New Brunswick, 1957). pp. 5-6.





vernacular Greek, the Slavs, and so forth. Nevertheless, by his own explicit admission, Bury fell under the Gibbonian spell:


"To attempt to deny a general truth in Gibbon’s point of view is vain; and it is feeble to deprecate his sneer. We may spare more sympathy than he for the warriors and the churchmen; but all that has since been added to his knowledge of facts has neither reversed nor blunted the point of the Decline and Fall.” [12]


Because of his belief in the validity of Gibbon’s point of view, Bury felt that the whole work could be brought up to date by the simple insertion of footnotes and appendices at the proper places, without changing the "point of view.” More striking perhaps is the remark of Hugh Trevor-Roper, Regius professor of history at Oxford, in his preface to a recent paperback edition of an excerpted version of the Decline and Fall:


"It remains a remarkable fact that anyone who wishes to study the later Roman or Byzantine Empire will still find Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire the best, as well as the most readable narrative of it. . . . Gibbon is the first great historian of a remote past whom the work of later centuries has not driven from the field.” [13]


Though the Gibbonian judgment on Byzantium is still discussed, though many feel that Gibbon cannot be avoided, and there are even those who still feel that Gibbon was right, the results of scholarly research in the past three-quarters of a century have largely invalidated Gibbon, Trevor-Roper to the contrary notwithstanding. This is the result largely of a new scholarship inspired by the critical method of German classical philologists.



12. Decline and Fall, Introduction: I, xxxviii.


13. H. R. Trevor-Roper, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Other Selections from the Writings of Edward Gibbon (New York, 1963), p. vii. Those who concur might even emend Trevor-Roper’s last sentence to read: "Gibbon is the first great historian of a remote past who has driven from the field the work of later centuries”!





This modern approach, which gradually spread throughout Europe and to the United States, has disagreed with Gibbon in no uncertain terms. It has found that Byzantium was conservative, but that it was also creative. Indeed, it manifested innovative powers that left their indelible mark upon European civilization. Among the reasons for its conservatism were the burden and privilege of an illustrious inheritance. This inheritance, whether literary or political, had been canonized in late Antiquity, and one could do no better than to imitate this perfection. On the other hand, pressing necessity as well as new opportunities often forced or induced the Byzantines to seek new formulations and solutions. Thus, modern scholarship has revised the Gibbonian view in favor of a more nearly accurate judgment on Byzantine civilization. [14]


By examining the principal aspects of Byzantine civilization, that civilization which resulted from the fusion of Greek culture, Roman legal and administrative institutions, and Christian eschatology and ethics, one can discern to what extent there was a resurgence of Hellas. In the political realm, certainly one of the most important events of the late third and early fourth centuries was the removal of the imperial capital first to Nicomedia and then to Byzantium, both Greek cities in regions which had been Hellenized. The seat of imperium abandoned the Latin West and migrated to the Greek East even before the barbarian cataclysm of the fourth and fifth centuries. Following Rome’s reduction of the Hellenistic monarchies, the Greek Orient had been subordinated in a provincial relationship to Rome, but as a result of the disorders of the third century, which the East was better equipped to resist, the situation of provincial subordination was suddenly reversed.



14. Ostrogorsky, op. cit., pp. 1—20, gives a brief and convenient survey of the history of Byzantine studies.





The vitality of the East is further demonstrated in the fact that the eastern half of the Empire survived the Germanic invasions, whereas the Latin West succumbed in the fifth and sixth centuries. This indicates that the East was now the more vital portion of the imperial organism, because, when the German crisis first burst, it came from the Gothic nation in southeast Europe. The Goths attempted, first in the third and then again in the late fourth and fifth centuries, to take over the Balkans, Constantinople, and parts of Asia Minor. But the effort proved beyond their capacities, and it was only after this failure that they were forced to move westward. The failure of the West to resist them is all too well known. It was a period in which there arose urban militias made up of citizens who effectively fought off barbarian attacks on their city walls. [15] In Constantinople, it was an aroused citizenry that helped to chase the Gothic soldiery from the city, killing many of them in the process. Simultaneously, a Greek intellectual from the province of Cyrene came to Constantinople and harangued the emperor on the evils of bringing Germans into the armies. Synesius warned the emperor that offices should be reserved for the citizens of the Empire, else one would be introducing wolves into the sheep fold. In Asia Minor the peasantry rose to defeat and slaughter the Gothic tribes when the latter had escaped the imperial troops as a result of the treachery of German officers. Then when the remnants of these Gothic tribes were settled in Asia Minor, they were eventually absorbed by Christianization and Hellenization, and so disappeared. [16] Is this not proof that there was a will to resist?



15. G. Manojlović, “Le peuple de Constantinople,” Byzantion, XI (1936), 617-716.



·       E. Stein, Histoire du Bas-Empire (Paris, 1939), I, 234—237;

·       H. M. Jones, The Later Roman Empire, 284-602, (Oxford, 1964), I, 178-179;

·       P. Charanis, "On the Ethnic Composition of Asia Minor,” in Prosfora eis S. P. Kyriakiden (Thessalonica, 1953), p. 141.





It is not mere chance that when once more the floods of Slavic tribal migrations and Arab military conquests threatened to destroy the Byzantine state, it survived. In the case of the former, it was the Latin-speaking parts of the Balkans, that is, the central and northern Balkans, which were permanently wrested from the Byzantines by the Slavs. In the East the Arabs were successful largely in the Armenian, Syrian, Egyptian, and African regions. Thus the Slavic and Arab high tides were reached when they washed against the Hellenized regions of the Balkans and Asia Minor. The Greek-speaking parts of the southern Balkans and Asia Minor displayed a remarkable vigor in surviving these great storms of the period of late Antiquity and of the early medieval world. [17] Given the magnitude of the threatening forces, this fact deserves careful attention and explanation. Moreover, under Justinian I the East destroyed both the Ostrogothic and Vandalic states; less than a century later, Heraclius virtually destroyed the Persian empire; and in the tenth century the Macedonian dynasty began the reconquest of large parts of the Slavic Balkans as well as parts of Muslim Mesopotamia, northern Syria, Crete, and Cyprus.


It is often the administrative or governmental institutions of a state which hold the balance of the state’s fate, for it is through these institutions that the energies and resources of the state are mobilized. It is perhaps here, more than in any other respect, that Gibbon the political historian has failed to present a satisfactory analysis of Byzantine civilization. The successful modulation of flexible administrative institutions played a critical role in the Empire’s ability to resist her powerful foes and then often to vanquish them. A state of such complexity and size



17. W. M. Ramsay, "The Attempt of the Arabs to Conquer Asia Minor (641-694 A.D.) and the Causes of Its Failure,” Bulletin de la section historique de l’Académie Roumaine, XI (1924).





could not attain satisfactory efficiency without centralization of authority and a great bureaucracy obedient to the will of the supreme ruler. Byzantium could not have been run as was Athens, Republican Rome, or feudal Germany. Inasmuch as Gibbon hated these institutions because he felt that they had destroyed freedom, he gave insufficient attention to the administrative reforms of Diocletian and Constantine, and almost completely ignored the equally important institutional arrangements of the seventh-century rulers. By way of example, he despised the Diocletianic separation of military and civil power (a separation deemed worthwhile in our day) in the provinces as the artifice of eunuchs and courtiers who feared that provincial generals might march on the capital and so deprive them of their sinecures. His obsession with eunuchs blinded Gibbon to the basic fact that the principal danger to the state in the late third century was not the barbarian threat, but the a11-powerful and covetous Roman generals in the provinces. Quite rightly, Diocletian and Constantine, men of more immediate experience in matters concerning both eunuchs and ambitious generals, whittled down the amount of power in any one man’s hand. Civil and military functions were henceforth exercized by separate civil and military officials, and the provinces were cut down in size so that the effective power yielded by one man was decreased. So efficacious was this institutional reform that Byzantium did not experience another third century for many generations to come.


Even more glaring is Gibbon’s failure to note adequately the great administrative changes of the seventh century, upon which the very fate of much of Europe depended when, as a result of the invasions of the Slavs and Arabs, prompt action was needed to save the state. Here again, in the face of necessity, Byzantine statecraft devised a solution. Civil and military power were reunited in the hands





of the provincial generals, and their provinces were increased in size and decreased in number. The local peasantry was given plots of land, salaries, and tax exemptions in return for which it was to perform military service, and so henceforth a free peasantry came to constitute the backbone of the Byzantine military strength. It was this army of free peasant soldiers which saved the Empire from Arabs and Slavs and then went over to the offensive in the tenth century. [18]


The Byzantine institutions, which Gibbon so richly despised and so poorly comprehended, played a primary role in the political tenacity and periodic resurgence of Byzantium for eight centuries. In view of the overall political performance of Byzantium, Gibbon’s judgment seems unfair. The Greek East attained a remarkable political achievement when in the late third and fourth centuries it donned the ponderous armor of the Roman Imperium, an armor which the Latin West could no longer support, and wore it successfully for so long.


The recuperative powers of medieval Hellenism are perhaps nowhere demonstrated so strikingly as in the important position Byzantium held in the economic life of the medieval world until the Crusades. As we have seen, the third century was a time of extensive economic woes. It' was pointed out that the economy of ancient society was unable to sustain the shocks of this period, but the situation was worse in the West than in the East. Though the West declined economically to a state where a selfsufficient, natural economy played an increasingly great but not exclusive role, the East displayed remarkable economic recuperative powers.



18. G. Ostrogorsky, “Agrarian Conditions in the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages,” in Cambridge Economic History, I (Cambridge, 1941), 196; P. Charanis, "Some Remarks on the Changes in Byzantium in the Seventh Century,” Zbornik radova vizantoloshkog instituta, VIII (1963), 71-76.





The troubles of the third century and later did not reduce its economy to the rude level of the economy of Western Europe. Its economy revived and developed in a comparatively vigorous fashion for almost 800 years. [19]


Though the manifestations of this economic vitality are clearly discernible, the causes are more tenebrous. Certainly one important factor in the economic stamina of the East was its survival of the barbarian invasions, though this is a circular argument inasmuch as its political survival cannot be separated from its economic strength. Conditions that favored industrial production and money economy included large population and a developed urban society. [20] As to size of population, the most recent study of ancient demography would have us believe that the eastern provinces were more heavily populated than the western. [21] The importance of towns for industry, commerce, and indeed for civilization as a whole is even philologically self-evident.



19. The reader will find a very informative account in R. Lopez, "The Trade of Medieval Europe: The South,” in Cambridge Economic History, II (Cambridge, 1952), 257 ff.


20. F. Lot, The End of the Ancient World (London, 1931), pp. 69 ff.


21. The most recent and detailed treatment of the population question is that of J. C. Russell, Late Ancient and Medieval Population, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. XLVIII, pt. 3 (Philadelphia, 1958). His conclusions (pp. 71-87) on the populations of the Empire in the period prior to the great plague of 543, estimated in millions, are:



Italy 4.0

Iberia 3 to 4

Gaul 5.0

Britain 0.5


15 to 16



Greece and Balkans 5.0

Egypt 3.0

North Africa 2.5

Asia Minor 11.6

Syria 4.3




Russell’s figures are in keeping with the conservative estimates of J. Beloch, Die Bevölkerung der greichisch-römischen Welt (Berlin, 1886).





By and large, the East seems to have been possessed of larger numbers of towns and more vital cities, Asia Minor being perhaps the single most important province in this respect. Because of economic factors and its security from barbarian invasions, its towns continued a vital existence down to the eleventh and twelfth centuries at which time the Turkish invasions brought a partial disruption to their good fortune. [22] This urban vitality was crucial to the East’s ability to withstand the economic and political vicissitudes of the transitional period. Urban continuity was important not only as a material factor: it was also essential to the survival of Christian Hellenism or Byzantine civilization. Without these cities the East would likewise have gone down.


The crafts, industry, and commerce had older and better established traditions in the East. Perhaps related to this are the findings of the pseudoscience of ethnic psychology, according to which Syrians, Greeks, Jews, and Armenians found commerce and the crafts more congenial than did the inhabitants of the Latin West in this early period of history.



22. A. H. M. Jones, The Greek City from Alexander to Justinian (Oxford, 1940), deals masterfully with the history of the towns in the eastern Mediterranean during the first six centuries of the Christian era. The problem of the continuity of towns in Byzantium between the seventh and ninth centuries is presently the subject of debate. It seems highly probable that the continuity of urban centers in much of Asia Minor and the southern Balkans was not interrupted (G. Ostrogorsky, "Byzantine Cities in the Early Middle Ages,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XIII [1959], 47-66; S. Vryonis, "An Attic Hoard of Byzantine Gold Coins (668-741) from the Thomas Whittemore Collection and the Numismatic Evidence for the Urban History of Byzantium,” Zbornik radova vizantoloshkog instituta, VIII [1963], 291-300). A. P. Každan, Derevnia i gorod v Vizantii IX-X vv. (Moscow, 1960), has maintained that these cities suffered a severe decline between the seventh and ninth centuries and then recovered. Of general interest is the fact that Russell’s study, as well as that of Ostrogorsky, "Die Steuersystem in byzantinischen Altertum und Mittelalter,” Byzantium, VI (1931), 233, indicates that population was expanding during this period.





This is another way of saying that historical and other environmental experiences had accustomed these Eastern peoples to commerce and artisanal enterprise. Much of classical Greek and Phoenician colonialism prior to the age of Alexander was commercial rather than imperial, and, in later times, the word "Greek” in central Europe very often came to connote any merchant from the Ottoman Empire. The capacity that Jews, Syrians, and Armenians have displayed in modern commerce is commonplace knowledge.


It is impossible to state precisely the causes for the economic superiority and revival of the East, but one can focus upon the manifestations of this vigor much more sharply. Though the examples of this stamina are both numerous and striking, a few cases will suffice to evoke a general picture. One of the most remarkable physical survivals of this prosperity is the still extensive number of Byzantine gold coins found today in museums, private collections, and also in the stalls of the money changers and jewelers in the streets of Athens, Thessalonica, and Istanbul. When Constantine the Great instituted the gold coin known as the solidus in the early fourth century, he inaugurated what has recently and felicitously been baptized the "dollar of the Middle Ages.” [23] This gold coin remained relatively constant in weight and purity until the decline of the eleventh century. Down to the eighth century it was the principal money of international exchange, and after that time it shared the field only with the Arab gold dinar, itself inspired by and modeled on the solidus.



23. R. S. Lopez, "The Dollar of the Middle Ages,” Journal of Economic History, XI (1951), 209-234. On Byzantine money, see P. Grierson, "Coinage and Money in the Byzantine Empire, 498-c. 1090,” Settimane di studio del Centro di Studi sull’ Alto Evo, VIII, Moneta e scambi nell’ Alto Medievo (Spoleto, 1961), 411-453.





Cosmas Indicopleustes, a sixth-century merchant from Egypt, noted the importance of this gold coin in the emporia of southern India, and recent archaeological excavations have uncovered the Byzantine solidus in Chinese tombs of the sixth and seventh centuries. [24] That this was no mere occasional coinage intended solely to flatter the prestige of the emperors emerges from the incidental information that around the year 800 the government paid to the indigenous soldiery of Anatolia as their annual salary some i million gold solidi. The peasantry paid a portion of its taxes in gold, and salaries and fines in the legal codes were often reckoned in cash. [25]


To Latin and Muslim travelers, however, the most striking proof of the economic sinews of Byzantium was Constantinople itself. [26] Constantinople, like the solidus, was the creation of a monarch of genius, and it remained the largest and wealthiest city of Christendom for eight centuries. It was an international emporium governing the carrying trade of east and west, north and south, and a cosmopolis in the streets of which were to be heard not only the Greek, but the Italian, Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Slavic tongues as well. [27] The harbor areas were full of trading vessels, bickering merchants, and imperious customs officials. It has been customary to think of the Eastern Empire as a one-town affair, that town, of course, being Constantinople.



24. E. Winstedt, The Christian Topography of Cosmas Indicopleustes (Cambridge, 1909), p. 323; S. Nai, “Zolotaia vizantiĭskaia moneta, naidennaia v mogile perioda dinastii Sui,” Vizantiĭskiĭ Vremennik, XXI (1962), 178-182.


25. Vryonis, op. cit., pp. 297-300.


26. Among the most graphic descriptions are those from the hands of the twelfth-century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela and the Latin Villehardouin.


27. The Constantinopolitan poet John Tzetzes boasts that he can address people in seven languages. For this and other literary references to the cosmopolitan nature of the city, see S. Vryonis, “Byzantine Demokratia and the Guilds in the Eleventh Century,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XVII (1963), 291—292.





But its provincial urban centers were also important: Thessalonica, Thebes, Corinth, Ephesus, Nicaea, Caesarea, Trebizond, and others. These, then, were some of the manifestations of the Empire’s economic strength.


The medieval resurgence of Hellas took both dynamic and conservative form in the cultural life of the Byzantine Empire. To Gibbon, this culture consisted of a rich base of crass superstitution among the masses overlaid with a thick frosting of meaningless theology and lifeless literary compilations at the level of the intellectuals. Let us listen to Gibbon himself:


In the revolution of ten centuries, not a single discovery was made to exalt the dignity or promote the happiness of mankind. Not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity, and a succession of patient disciples became in their turn the dogmatic teachers of the next servile generation. Not a single composition of history, philosophy, or literature has been saved from oblivion by the intrinsic beauties of style or sentiment, of original fancy, or even of successful imitation. . . . Their prose is soaring to the viscious affectation of poetry: their poetry is sinking below the flatness and insipidity of prose. The tragic, epic, and lyric muses were silent and inglorious; the bards of Constantinople seldom rose above a riddle or epigram, a panegyric or tale; they forgot even the rules of prosody; and, with the melody of Homer yet sounding in their ears, they confound all measure of feet and syllables in the impotent strains which have received the name of political or city verses. The minds of the Greeks were bound in the fetters of a base and imperious superstition, which extends her dominion round the circle of profane science. Their understandings were bewildered in metaphysical controversy; in the belief of visions and miracles, they had lost all principles of moral evidence; and their taste was vitiated by the homelies of the monks, an absurd medley of declamation and scripture. Even these contemptible studies were no longer dignified by the abuse





of superior talents; the leaders of the Greek church were humbly content to admire and copy the oracles of antiquity, nor did the schools or pulpit produce any rivals of the fame of Athanasius and Chrysostom. [28]


As is so often the case, there is an element of truth in Gibbon’s remarks on Byzantine culture, but again it is not the whole truth. Greek culture had experienced its greatest flowering in classical times and its greatest expansion in the Hellenistic era. But this Greek culture, for a variety of reasons which become more apparent in Miriam Lichtheim’s chapter, remained a surface phenomenon in much of the Near East. In this latter area, it was strongest in the towns and weakest in the countryside of Syria, Egypt, and Armenia, where local traditions remained largely unchanged in the face of Greco-Roman political domination for the better part of a millennium. Greek culture proved to be most dynamic, or resurgent, in Anatolia. In this large peninsula the Greek language and eventually Greek Christianity presided over the extinction of both the local languages (Phrygian, Lydian, Lycian, Cappadocian, etc.) and the local religious cults. The process was long but was largely complete by the end of the sixth century of the Christian era. [29] Thus, the failure of Hellenization in Egypt, Syria, and Armenia was counterbalanced by its remarkable success in Anatolia. This phenomenon, along with the foundation of Constantinople, resulted in the displacement of the heartland of Greek culture northward and eastward from the original homeland of Hellas. At the same time, however, the linguistic tenacity of the older homeland is illustrated in the medieval Balkans. When the Slavic invasions of the early Middle Ages swept through



28. Decline and Fall, ch. 53:VI, 107—108.


29. K. Holl, "Das Fortleben der Volksprachen in Kleinasien in nachchristlicher Zeit,” Hermes, XLIII (1908), 240-254; P. Charanis, "Ethnic Changes in the Byzantine Empire during the Seventh Century,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XIII (1954), 26.





the Balkans, large numbers of Slavs settled not only in the northern half of the peninsula but in the southern half as well. In spite of the fact that these invaders largely Slavonized the Latin-speaking northern half of the area, they left very scant linguistic traces in the Greek language. In the Peloponnese they were Hellenized and left behind them as the only evidence of their existence the great numbers of Slavic placenames in the Peloponnesian countryside. [30]


The Christianization of the Russians, Serbs, and Bulgars was one of the more dramatic expressions of Hellas Resurgent. In this respect, the Byzantine church did for these peoples what the Latin church did for the Germanic barbarians. Byzantium thus indelibly colored a very important portion of future Europe. This Christianization included not only religion, but the elements of civilization itself—alphabet, literature, art, and so forth. The victory of Byzantine culture here is all the more indicative of strength in that the Greek East won these areas not merely by default but after rather stiff competition with the Papal West. [31]


In the intellectual realm, we saw that Gibbon condemned the thinkers of Byzantium because



30. The question of the Slavic settlement in Greece is in many ways the "Homeric Question” of Byzantine studies. The controversy, centering on the descent of the modern Greeks, threatens to blossom once more with the announced republication of the work of J. Fallmereyer, Geschichte der Halbinsel Morea während des Mittelalters (Stuttgart, 1830-1836). That the Slavs came into Greece in large numbers during the sixth and seventh centuries is no longer doubted by serious scholars, a conclusion made abundantly obvious by the study of place names (M. Vasmer, Die Slaven in Griechenland, in Abhandlungen der Preuss. Akademie der Wissenschaften, Philosophische-historische Klasse, XII [1941]). The Slavs in Greece were largely absorbed through Christianization and Hellenization (Ostrogorsky, History of the Byzantine State, p. 85; F. Dvornik, The Slavs: Their Early History and Civilization [Boston, 1956], pp. 116-117).


31. Dvornik, op. cit., pp. 218 if., and Les Slaves Byzance et Rome au IXe siècle (Paris, 1926).





“not a single idea has been added to the speculative systems of antiquity.” It is true that Byzantium produced no Platos and Aristotles; few societies have. Pagan society itself was not able to do so for the six hundred years that separate the age of Aristotle from that of Constantine. To this one may perhaps retort that at least the late pagan world produced certain lesser figures, such as Plotinus, who worked the older body of philosophical material and gave it a new twist. The vapid ideas of late Hellenistic and Roman philosophers, however, were already the products and instruments of the ossification of the ancient philosophical tradition.


What the Christians did was to create theology, or a Christian philosophy. The love of metaphysical speculation which is so characteristic of the pagan intellectual world did not die with the victory of Christianity. Pagan philosophy had already come to a dead end before the triumph of Christianity. The Christian intellectuals, the Church Fathers, and authors such as Origen and the Cappadocians who were educated in the classics, opened new channels for this Greek predisposition to indulge in metaphysical speculation. [32] Christianity was grafted onto Greek philosophy, and, by a cultural metamorphosis, the pagan love of philosophical discussion was transformed into a passion for theological speculation. The result was the philosophical or theological definition of the Christian faith, one of the great intellectual monuments of Western civilization. This was, to a great extent, the work of the Greek East, where the first seven ecumenical councils took place. It is true, at the same time, that after this extraordinary manifestation of theological energy, theology became conservative, and the church henceforth considered it a sacred duty to preserve the results of these councils unaltered and unchanged. This philosophical definition of Christianity was



32. This theme is incisively developed in Jaeger, op cit.





something Gibbon did not appreciate, mainly for the same reasons that modern society largely ignores it. Gibbon was a modern man and, as such, was the product of a series of evolutions and revolutions which finally caused interest in theology to dwindle. In the Decline and Fall he repeatedly justifies the discussion of any theological issue purely on the grounds that it affected the political history of the times, but he never bothers to explain why an etherial matter should so frequently and so violently affect political history. He does not conceive of theology as something which has an existence, importance, and interest of its own and as an intellectual discipline which in medieval times was considered to be the queen of the sciences.


Byzantine art likewise represents the sublimation of an expressive form of pagan Antiquity into something new. The art of the ancient world had run its own course and then began to decline in originality and vigor when the Byzantines took it, transformed it, and created a new art. [33] The examples of philosophy and theology, on the one hand, and of pagan and Byzantine art, on the other, are quite parallel in this respect. Because they were religious (that is to say, related to a hierarchically structured religion) and therefore quite different from classical art and philosophy, Gibbon despised both Byzantine theology and art. In our own day, however, the originality, the importance, and even the beauty of Byzantine art have finally been recognized.


Yet, because it does contain a part of the truth, once more one must consider Gibbon and his pejorative judgment of Byzantine culture. Its conservatism was so powerful and so pervasive that it successfully obscured the more creative aspects of this civilization.



33. For elements of continuity, see E. Kitzinger, "The Hellenistic Heritage in Byzantine Art,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, XVII (1963), 97-116.





Byzantium was the child of Antiquity, a most obedient child that was never able to destroy completely the father image. Its literary and linguistic inheritance was particularly rich, for the parent was one of genius. If the Byzantines worshiped Homer, Aristotle, Polybius, and Thucydides, their taste has been vindicated by the taste of the modern world. The pagan world had already bestowed the canonization of perfection on these great figures and their works. Thus the late pagan world was as Byzantine as the Byzantines themselves in their faithful imitation of and enslavement to these works. This aspect of the Byzantine tradition certainly did not provide the optimum conditions for the freeing of new rivulets of literary experimentation and creation. It did result, however, in the preservation of many of the Greek classics until the West was ready to receive this priceless treasure and to reevaluate it under the powerful renaissance light of Humanism. [34] Byzantine monks toiled endlessly in copying the texts, Byzantine professors and bishops wrote copious commentaries on them, and the bureaucrats and men of letters all studied these writings as the basis of their education. But, as Gibbon remarks, they often studied the form rather than the content. At the same time, the preservation of this body of literature assured the Byzantines a higher level of civilization than that of the West in the earlier centuries of the Middle Ages. The barbarians, strangers to this tradition, were forced to resort to their imaginations, and the felicitous results of this fact would not become apparent until the West faced the East in the period of the Crusades. It is this circumstance that Gibbon underlines when he remarks that while Byzantium was absorbed with theology, the Latins developed something called technology.



34. The literary inheritance is traced by R. Jenkins, "The Hellenistic Origins of Byzantine Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers. XVII (1963), 37-52.





Byzantine technology has not yet been investigated, but it is quite possible that Gibbon’s view in this particular matter will be partially vindicated once such an investigation is carried out. One is struck by the comparative frequency with which the Byzantines copied and used the classical manuals on agriculture, warfare and tactics, hunting, fishing, and so forth. Their continued use would indicate that the methods and technics worked out in them satisfactorily fulfilled the needs of society in the eastern Mediterranean. So long as a particular arrangement in society fulfills its function, it is not likely to change easily. It is only when it is forced to compete or face a new challenge that the old arrangement or order must change. On the other hand, one must acknowledge that it was Byzantine conservatism that aided the Empire in the utilization of its energies in the most economical manner and thus enabled it to survive the storms of the early Middle Ages.


Lest it appear that I have fallen victim to the Gibbonian view on Byzantine culture, it should be added that Byzantine literature had a newer, more creative strain in addition to that which Gibbon ascribed to it. It developed a new religious poetry of great beauty, truly worthy of its classical predecessor. Hagiography, in spite of Gibbon, was a living genre, largely devoid of the artificiality of the atticizers. Vernacular poetry and literature also appeared and developed. Finally, one should note that those servile Byzantine historians, as Gibbon referred to them, at least maintained the standard of excellence of their ancient models, even though they did not create something new. Their historiographical production was superior to its contemporary counterparts in the West; they recorded for later ages the greatness of this millennial state in almost unbroken succession from Constantine to the fall in 1453. They are also far more objective than Gibbon would have us believe when he speaks of them as “servile”:





they do not hide the weakness or shortcomings of Byzantium, and they fully acknowledge the prowess of both Latins and Muslims. This is more than their Western and Muslim counterparts did.


It may seem that this chapter has been nothing more nor less than a running criticism of what is rightly considered to be one of the classics of modern historiography. But such has been the fate of many great histories. In spite of the fact that Gibbon distorted the picture of an entire civilization, and did so with considerable prejudice, biting malice, and obvious pleasure, his work will abide as an object of contemplation.


[Previous] [Next]

[Back to Index]