Eleventh-Century Byzantine Crisis I

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Battle of Mantzikert

States that last as long as the Byzantine or the Chinese inevitably experience periods of crisis which appear to threaten their survival. For Byzantium, the challenge of Islam in the seventh century launched one of those moments and resulted in novel imperial structures over a smaller territory. The crisis of the eleventh century was perceived by those who lived through it as another turning point in Byzantine development.

The most striking sign of this crisis occurred in the summer of 1071, when Byzantium suffered two military defeats by new opponents. In the far east, north of Lake Van, Seljuk Turks defeated and captured Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes at the battle of Mantzikert. This was the first appearance of a new Muslim enemy. At the same time in the West, the Normans captured the city of Bari in southern Italy. The Turks were a steppe people, possibly of Mongol origin from Central Asia, identified by their ancestor, Seljuk. During their march westwards, they had successfully conquered all who opposed them, and as recent converts to Islam they took their understanding of jihad, holy war, seriously. In the West, Robert Guiscard had been fighting for over a decade against the Byzantines in Calabria and Apulia, and his campaign culminated in the successful siege of Bari.

As a result of this coincidence, Byzantium had to face two very different enemies on remote frontiers, separated by thousands of kilometres. Handbooks of military strategy strongly advised against allowing this situation to arise. But the failure to deal with these threats earlier was itself part of a deeper crisis, to which the Seljuks added a further humiliation by their capture of Romanos IV. The defeats of 1071 have to be set in the broader context of a range of problems dating back to the second quarter of the eleventh century. The first was a chronic political instability that followed the death in 1028 of Constantine VIII. A rapid turnover of emperors was compounded by the second: internal revolts and invasions from north of the Danube, led by a non-Christian tribal people, the Pechenegs. When the regular Byzantine armed forces proved inadequate and additional mercenary troops were needed, Constantine IX (1042–55) minted new lightweight coins of less than 24-carat gold to finance their expenses and maintain their loyalty. It was the first serious debasement of the gold solidus for over seven hundred years. This constituted the third problem, which combined with military weakness and dynastic insecurity in a most damaging way.

The two porphyrogennetoi sisters, Zoe and Theodora, daughters of Constantine VIII, were the last representatives of the Macedonian dynasty. Their influence on Byzantine political leadership between 1034 and 1056 was not entirely beneficial. None of Zoe’s four consorts devoted sufficient attention to military affairs or brought a clear direction to imperial politics. This allowed the court a dominant role, with its coterie of civilian officials and masters of rhetoric who had little experience of military matters. When she died in 1050, Zoe left her last husband, Constantine IX Monomachos, and his Georgian mistress on the throne. Her sister Theodora outlived the emperor and was restored to imperial power in 1055. One year later, on her deathbed, she was persuaded to nominate Michael, nicknamed the Aged, as her successor, which only prolonged the period of unsettled leadership. Thus, only twenty-five years after Basil II’s exceptional reign, an unprecedented internal decomposition of Byzantine authority began to unravel imperial traditions.

The lack of firm government in Constantinople provoked a series of external attacks and internal revolts which came to a head early in the reign of Constantine IX (1042–55). In southern Italy Frankish mercenaries, protesting against the lack of pay, called on the Normans led by Guiscard for help; in the Caucasus, disaffected local leaders led the provinces of Iberia, Abkhasia and frontier areas around Ani in revolt; the governor of Cyprus tried to seize power, the Bulgars rebelled, the Russians attacked Constantinople and the Seljuk Turks overran the eastern frontiers of the empire. But the most severe military challenge came from the Pechenegs, who crossed the frozen Danube during the winter of 1046/7 and initiated a six-year war in the Balkans (1048–53).

Although Constantine IX had experienced commanders, like George Maniakes and Katakalon Kekaumenos, he frequently appointed his friends – court officials – to manage military campaigns. In the 1042 expedition against the Bulgars, Michael, archon of Dyrrachion, led seven strategoi and supposedly 40,000 men to their deaths. On several occasions, the emperor also rejected sound military advice with disastrous results. He disbanded the army of the eastern theme of Iberia and commuted some military duties into cash payments. As Skylitzes comments with obvious disapproval, throughout his reign he continued to spend large sums on his grand building projects: the monastery and palace of Mangana in the capital, and the New Monastery on Chios; numerous donations to churches and philanthropic institutions; celebrated mosaics in Hagia Sophia, at Kiev and Bethlehem. He collected a small zoo of unusual animals and paraded his giraffe and elephant in the Hippodrome for public entertainment.

In order to defeat the Pechenegs, Constantine IX had to increase the empire’s money supply so that he could pay additional military forces. That is why he minted a lightweight gold coin, the tetarteron, which was already used to pay mercenary troops and was treated as equivalent to the nomisma. The emperor also continued the devaluation of the nomisma, the traditional gold coin, to which Constantine VIII (1025–8) and Michael IV (1034–41) had added a small quantity of silver, reducing its gold content to below 95%. The emperors thus began to undermine the gold standard established in the fourth century by Constantine I, which had been maintained down the centuries. Under Constantine IX the process accelerated and proved difficult to control: four different gold coins were issued, increasing the devaluation to 81%. The tetarteron was also debased at an even greater rate to 73% of its original gold content. Later emperors continued to add melted down silver coins to the gold until the 1080s when a nomisma contained only 10% gold. Everyone could see the difference between these coins and those of Basil II and rejected the devalued money; they demanded payment in the good old coins.

No historical text mentions the devaluation; it was discovered by numismatists (coin specialists), who analysed the ever-lighter weight of gold coins minted in the eleventh century and measured the steady increase of silver alloy used. The decision to undermine the reliability of one of the empire’s greatest assets remains perplexing. How could the rulers of Byzantium not realize what devaluing the nomisma would do to the authority of the empire, both at home and abroad? It seems that once the process had begun, emperors could not prevent it from accelerating. And after the defeat at Mantzikert in 1071, this became more obvious as military and economic problems increased. More coinage was minted but it did not command the same respect. Troops refused payment in the strange-looking gold tetartera and nomismata, while merchants rejected Byzantine coin in favour of Arab gold dinars or even silver pennies struck in European cities. Byzantium’s imperial status suffered.

While we can now appreciate the dangers of devaluation, it is difficult to assess how Byzantine emperors understood and controlled the overall economics of their state. They probably could not gauge the long-term effects of reducing the gold content. Constantine IX seems to have authorized successive devaluations as the only method of paying mercenaries to defend the empire against the Pechenegs. Other factors such as a reduction in tax revenues through inefficient or corrupt collection, and through grants of land made by emperors to individuals, who thus gained control of the basic land tax, contributed to his lack of monetary resources. In the short run the policy worked. The violent Pecheneg attacks were beaten off. But in the process, Constantine abandoned a feature of Byzantine civilization that had lasted for eight hundred years. By the early twelfth century, Alexios I Komnenos realized that he had to repair the damage and in 1092 he issued a nomisma of 20.5-carat gold which replaced the worthless coins. Although the new coin was curved rather than flat and never gained quite the same status as the old one, the empire restored a reliable gold currency and recovered even from the damaging policy of devaluation.

The eleventh-century crisis thus linked issues of dynastic stability, provincial fighting power, the economy and imperial image in a novel fashion. Its military challenge was primarily due to unfamiliar enemies, who attacked the enormously long frontiers of Byzantium at two points simultaneously: Seljuks from the east and Normans from the west, adding to the already perceived danger of Pechenegs in the Balkans. Unfortunately, in the mid-eleventh century the imperial court was dominated by civilian officials and intellectuals, who encouraged cultural and artistic investments and paid insufficient attention to military problems. Theme forces were unable to prevent the Turks from plundering Ikonion in Central Asia Minor in 1069. Through the eyes of the philosopher and historian Michael Psellos, we can observe how the courtiers became partly responsible for a more general political failure.

Psellos was born in Constantinople in 1018 and had the great fortune to be taught by a celebrated teacher, John Mauropous, later Metropolitan of Euchaita. Among his fellow students were a group of friends who went on to attain the highest positions in the civilian spheres of law, philosophy and court rhetoric. Psellos distinguished himself from them by his mastery of advanced scientific as well as humanistic subjects. He was a true polymath, a brilliant writer, whose letters, speeches and Chronicle of fourteen emperors (976–1078) capture the times in which he lived with amusing personal details and a developed sense of his own importance. Due to his fame as a philosopher, when Constantine IX set up two new schools, Psellos was appointed to head the one devoted to Philosophy while his friend John Xiphilinos was nominated to the one for Law. His abiding passions become clear as one reads his exhilarating Chronicle, which is centred on Constantinople and the court almost to the exclusion of other aspects of empire. Yet we know from the letters he wrote to support his students and friends when they were posted out to the provinces that he was well informed about different regions and tried to make their experience of ‘exile’ from the capital less painful.

In his account of the debacle of 1071, Psellos notes a significant, additional element: aristocratic rivalry. Factions at court were mirrored by rivalry among the high-born families, who competed for positions, salaries and honorific titles. Despite Basil II’s defeat of the Skleros and Phokas clans in the late tenth century, others such as Constantine Dalassenos plotted to capture the imperial throne under Romanos III. In 1057, the Komnenos family promoted its general Isaac as emperor, but he was rapidly overthrown by a Doukas, who was then replaced by a Diogenes. And when Romanos IV was captured by the Turks, his rival Andronikos Doukas promoted another Doukas as Emperor Michael VII. Since Psellos had been Michael’s tutor, his lyrical account of this reign is highly partisan and unreliable. But clearly it represented a victory for the imperial court of office holders and intellectuals, who continued to neglect military matters.

Amid the crisis of leadership, stoked by family rivalry, there is nonetheless a definite vitality, also manifested in certain eleventh-century innovations. In a break with tradition, Constantine IX, who came from the distinguished family of Monomachos, admitted some men of non-aristocratic birth to the Senate of Constantinople. Although the Senate was no longer a constitutionally powerful body, it still had a role in legal appeals and disputed successions. It is not clear why the emperor promoted this social development: because insufficient numbers of traditional senatorial families were willing to serve, or because he felt that new blood was necessary. Most Byzantine writers were terrible snobs when they discussed a person’s origins. Being well-born (eugenes) was considered a necessary distinction, although there was no aristocracy as such. But careers in the military, the administration and even the Church had always been open to talent, and people of foreign or lowly birth like Basil I had risen through the ranks, often to influential positions. And since the merchant classes sustained life in Constantinople, some realization of their worth (literally as well as socially) may have influenced Constantine IX.

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