Eleventh-Century Byzantine Crisis II



Boukleon Harbour, 10th-11th centuries

The presence of the people of the capital – local merchants, craftsmen and residents – was becoming more pronounced and is noted by contemporaries. In 1042, for instance, when Michael V exiled Zoe from the palace, a crowd of local Byzantines marched off to the Petrion monastery where Theodora lived, demanding that she be released and Zoe recalled. In highly unusual scenes, women appeared in the streets mourning the exile of their rightful empresses, and even foreign troops attached to the court expressed their indignation. As a result of this mobilization, the porphyrogennetoi empresses were restored. When Constantine IX died in 1055, the same popular pressure ensured that Theodora inherited her rightful position as the last representative of the Macedonian dynasty.

Psellos calls these supporters of the imperial sisters ‘a citizen army’, though others identified them as a mob and denounced their activities as demokratia, rule by the demos (people). By the eleventh century, horse racing in the Hippodrome had become much less frequent, and the circus factions (demes) of the Greens and the Blues had lost much of their power over the populace. Although their leaders, the demarchs, still participated in court ceremonial, identified by special costumes in their respective colours, a different sort of urban crowd introduced a new force into the political spectrum of Byzantium. For the first time, inhabitants of Constantinople who lived close enough to the centre of the empire to mobilize easily played a critical part in the imperial succession. Their power may be related to the novel confidence and growing wealth of those who were not well-born but who contributed to the well-being of the imperial capital. And it is significant that they claimed no power for themselves, merely the right to restore Zoe and Theodora to the throne.

Of course, in the hierarchical monarchy of Byzantium neither the state nor the Church authorities could ever tolerate any suggestion of demokratia. But the crowd had entered political life in a new way, quite distinct from urban participation in the rituals that invoked the Theotokos, she who bore God, in the city’s protection against hostile forces, as in 626. And it continued to play an important part. This was clear from the way in which the Patriarch Michael Keroularios used the crowd to whip up local support against an embassy from Rome in 1054. Pope Leo X had sent the legates, led by Cardinal Humbert, to discuss ecclesiastical matters. The Byzantines’ hostility played a small but significant role that summer, when Cardinal Humbert and the patriarch excommunicated each other. Keroularios was able to draw on a noisy crowd to reinforce his own opposition to Rome, and in this way the Byzantinoi began to understand their new and influential role.

They also began to make their own vernacular speech better known among courtiers who used only the high-style Attic Greek. A further innovation of the eleventh century is the growth of literature written in this spoken, vernacular Greek. Its association with the demos is immediately apparent from the term used to describe it: demotic. The lower level of Greek used on the streets, in the ports and in trading agreements with foreigners had probably existed for centuries. Merchants from all over the Mediterranean and Black Sea who came to trade in Constantinople used this simpler form of Greek. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, demotic began to influence literary output. Versions of the verse epic of Digenes Akrites, which had previously circulated orally, were written down in the fifteen-syllable metre known from political acclamations. This encouraged other compositions in a mixed literary medium with strong vernacular elements. Using the same metre of imperial acclamations chanted by the Greens and Blues, satirical verses, animal fables and eventually verse romances were created, such as that devoted to the sixth-century general Belisarius. Although most examples of Byzantine secular music, songs and dances are lost, it seems likely that vernacular Greek songs were first written down at this time. In certain musical manuscripts, the scribe has noted, ‘to be sung to the tune of X’, suggesting that a well-known melody was reused for Christian purposes. The earliest documents with neumes – musical signs in red painted above the words to indicate pitch – also date from the eleventh century.

Linguistic innovation was matched in other fields, indicating that the old empire of Byzantium could overcome the straitjacket of its inherited traditions and adapt to new forces. As we saw, some eleventh-century judges recorded minority decisions in the courts of Constantinople, thus demonstrating a much greater interpretative freedom and reliance on legal precedent to mount new arguments. The Peira of Eustathios Romaios contains particularly striking examples of flexible adjustments to novel circumstances, for example, when a grandmother had concluded an engagement for her grandson, who reneged on it when he came of age. Such court cases suggest that Byzantine high court judges felt confident in reforming the ancient system, based on Justinianic law, to take account of medieval realities. The change may not have been universally accepted but it continued to influence legal developments.

In the field of medicine, another major innovation of this period was the growth of dissection, previously banned. While certain surgical operations recorded in the late antique textbook of Paul of Aegina continued to be practised – the survival of surgical instruments confirms their use – the study of anatomy and internal organs depended on investigation of cadavers. Normally, the Church forbade such activity, but in the eleventh and twelfth centuries it resumed. A twelfth-century intellectual, George Tornikes, noted the importance of dissection for advancing Byzantine medical knowledge. In the West, a similar trend is observed in the medical school at Salerno, which preserved and developed ancient Greek traditions. Michael Psellos wrote on a number of medical issues and his contemporary Symeon Seth composed a treatise on diet and the advantages and disadvantages of particular foods. Although Kekaumenos condemned all doctors as more interested in fees than cures, others began to distinguish between good and bad medical practice, praising those who operated with skill and saved lives. The provision of quite advanced medical care, at least for members of the imperial family and elderly monks, is documented in the detailed description of the Pantokrator monastery, founded by John II in 1136. It had a sophisticated hospital where imperial women could be treated by a female doctor, men and monks by male doctors, and a leprosarion for lepers.

Constructive adaptation of legal and medical traditions was related to a heightened awareness of the importance of education and the classical past. Constantine IX was a generous patron of scholarship and funded the two specialist schools of philosophy and law. Since the study of ancient Greek philosophy had never ceased in Byzantium, by the eleventh century numerous medieval commentaries and additions had enriched this tradition. Michael Psellos had been well trained by John Mauropous, whose appreciation of Plato and Plutarch led him to compose a prayer begging God to admit them to heaven because they were good men who had lived before the Christian revelation. Using a large number of ancient texts preserved in Byzantine copies, Psellos extended his philosophical interests far beyond the study of Plato and Aristotle to the Chaldean Oracles – fragmentary records concerned with the dualistic world of good/white and bad/black forces. He claimed that he could practise theurgy, the art of summoning up ancient spirits, which was strictly forbidden by the Byzantine Church. He also wrote a treatise on alchemy, the transformation of normal metals into gold, and practised astrology. Other, unidentified scholars compared ancient texts of Ptolemy with their own astronomical knowledge, which may have derived from Arabic advances in the field. Greek versions of Arabic works of astrology were included in eleventh- and twelfth-century compendia and encouraged Manuel I Komnenos (1143–80) in his interests. As observation of the stars and prediction of fortune were intertwined, the two fields progressed together and feature prominently in the books of dream interpretation popular in Byzantium.

Profound interest in the eternity of the world, the existence of matter, or the laws of nature, manifested in commentaries on ancient writings, extended to the spherical structure of the world and natural phenomena. Symeon Seth provided an explanation for the delay in hearing thunder after seeing lightning: ‘sound requires time for its transmission while sight is independent of time’, though Psellos considered the hollowness of the ear as opposed to the bulging of the eye to be responsible for the difference. Attaleiates ridiculed the idea that thunder was generated by a huge dragon, but he could not explain what caused it. Rational scientific study led perhaps inevitably to conflict with the Christian authorities. Psellos’ successor in the newly founded Chair of Philosophy, John Italos, was brought to trial for applying logic to the theology of the Incarnation and the miracles performed by Christ, and for denying the immortality of the soul and the resurrection of the body. In 1082, he was condemned for heresy and paganism and later some of his own students shared his fate. However, their study of ancient philosophical texts, including works of physics, astronomy, mathematics and logic, strengthened a tradition which continued until the end of the empire. Despite moments of tension, it usually managed to coexist with Christian belief, although at Mistras the scholar Plethon abandoned any loyalty to the Church and wrote complete liturgies in honour of Zeus and Apollo.

In addition to their profound knowledge of ancient philosophy, Psellos and others created new ways of writing history. His Chronicle may exaggerate his own contributions to political developments, but the narrative is based on direct observation and personal involvement in court events. He observed how Empress Theodora’s intimate friends planned a succession that would protect their interests, ‘seeing with my own eyes and hearing with my own ears how they played fast and loose with the Empire, like men playing at dice’.

His language, while based on the Attic Greek used by the ancient authors he so greatly admired, displays irony, humour and psychological insight. Here he gives a colourful description of Constantine X Doukas (1059–67):

Constantine had a hearty contempt for offices of great dignity and preferred to live in retirement. He used to dress in a rather careless fashion, going about like a country yokel. Lovely women, of course, enhance their beauty by the wearing of simple clothes: the veil with which they conceal it only serves to make more evident their radiant glory and a garment carelessly worn is just as effective when they wear it as the most carefully prepared make-up. So it was with Constantine. The clothes he threw round him, far from hiding his secret beauties, only rendered them more conspicuous.

Not many followed him in writing with such flair, though many copied his exciting and innovative features, such as offering first-person opinions.


Byzantine Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118)

The crisis of the eleventh century was eventually resolved by the usurpation of Alexios I in 1081, who united two competing families, the Komnenos and the Doukas, by marriage alliances. Together they struggled to defeat the empire’s enemies – Norman, Pecheneg and Seljuk – and to overcome the negative effects of the currency devaluation. Alexios I managed to establish his own dynasty, which ruled Byzantium for a century. Yet John Skylitzes recorded an ‘extreme weakness’ in the late eleventh century; the crisis had left distinct traces. Some modern historians have singled out this period as a stage in the ‘feudalization’ of the empire; others note the decline of Byzantium from an empire with ancient claims to world domination to a smaller medieval state administered by one family, the Komnenos. All point to the increased power of Italian trading cities – Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa and Venice – and the growth of distinct identities, particularly among Balkan peoples previously ruled from Constantinople. These new republican and separatist forces within the Mediterranean world were bound to affect Byzantine claims to imperial hegemony, though they also contributed to the exploration of novel forms of expression in a variety of fields of learning. Beyond all this, the drumbeat of Turkish expansion can be heard, still distant and underestimated, but announcing what would become the final displacement of Byzantine rule.


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