Justinian’s Reversal Reversed: Victory and Plague I

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Sabbatius Iustinianus, our Justinian I or Justinian the Great, St Justinian the Emperor of the Orthodox Church, was born a peasant’s child in what is now Macedonia, yet came easily to the throne, having long served as assistant, understudy, co‐emperor, and increasingly the effective ruler for his uncle Justin I (518–527). When he was formally enthroned in 527, seventy‐seven years had passed since the end of the reign of Theodosios II, and its strategic innovations had been absorbed, consolidated, and institutionalized to good effect.

The empire was much stronger than it had been in 450, but still needed the Long Wall and the Theodosian Wall to protect Constantinople, not against large‐scale invasions but rather against plunder raids from across the Danube.

The Sassanian empire of Persia remained the permanent strategic threat, undiminished by mutual respect, frequent negotiations, and formal treaties, including the ‘endless peace’ of 532. Persistent vigilance and a readiness to deploy reinforcements quickly were always necessary, if often insufficient, to contain Sassanian power in the Caucasus, across contested Armenia and the entire eastern front down to southern Syria. On the other hand, there was no longer any rival power north of Constantinople or beyond the Danube, while across the Adriatic the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy desired good relations with the empire; at least some of its elite even wanted reunion under the empire. The Vandals and Alans who had conquered Africa in the last century were still there, but no longer threatened naval expeditions against Egypt. As for the dangers of the great Eurasian steppe, the nearest warlike nomads were the Turkic Kutrigurs in what is now Ukraine, at worst a nuisance rather than an irresistible force as Attila’s Huns had been.

More powerful steppe enemies were on their way, so it was more important that by the time of Justinian the warriors of the steppe had irreversibly lost their tactical superiority. The imperial army had undergone its tactical revolution, mastering the difficult technique of mounted archery with powerful composite reflex bows while retaining close‐combat skills with sword and thrusting lance. Even if their archery could not quite match the best that the Hun mercenaries with them could exhibit, Byzantine troopers could no longer be outclassed tactically. The steppe warriors had also lost much of their operational superiority, because the imperial army had adopted agile cavalry tactics, and what individual riders may have lacked in virtuoso horsemanship could be compensated by the greater resilience of their disciplined and cohesive units.

This also meant, of course, that the imperial army now had tactical and operational superiority over the Vandals and Alans of Africa and the Ostrogoths of Italy. The Alans were primarily horsemen; Vandals and Goths were formidable fighters at close quarters, fully capable of organizing major expeditions and not unskilled in sieges, but all now found themselves lacking in missile capability and battlefield mobility. Prokopios of Caesarea, who was there, reports how Belisarios, Justinian’s celebrated commander, explained the difference that made:

practically all the Romans and their allies, the Huns [Onogur mercenaries], are good mounted bowmen, but not a man among the Goths has had practice in this branch, for their horsemen are accustomed to use only spears and swords, while their archers enter battle on foot and under cover of the heavy‐armed men [to ward off cavalry charges]. So the horsemen, unless the engagement is at close quarters, have no means of defending themselves against opponents who use the bow, and therefore can easily be reached by the arrows and destroyed; and as for the foot‐soldiers, they can never be strong enough to make sallies against men on horseback.

This was only tactics, not strategy, but without this advantage it may be doubted whether Justinian would have embarked on his plan of reconquest, first of North Africa in 533–534 and then of Italy from 535.

Modern historians almost unanimously assert that he was excessively ambitious and that his conquests overextended the empire—true enough in retrospect, though only because of unforeseeable catastrophe. Not even his harshest critics consider Justinian a fool, or irrational, or incapable of sober calculation, but he was severely constrained by logistics. The inescapable fact was the impossibility of sending large armies by sea. In the biggest expedition, Belisarios set out from Constantinople to what is now Tunisia in the summer of 533 with some 10,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry carried in 500 transport ships manned by 30,000 crewmen and escorted by ninety‐two war galleys. It was certainly a most impressive armada, but 18,000 soldiers were not enough to take on the Vandals and Alans in North Africa, let alone the Ostrogoths, whose fighting manpower was sustained by the resources of the whole of Italy.

It could only be done, and then only just, with the tactical and operational advantages of manoeuvre with forces of mounted bowmen: it also required a successful theatre strategy, and good generalship overall. Justinian was famously well served by talented field commanders, especially the eunuch Narses, who was perhaps the better tactician, and the more celebrated Belisarios of the many stratagems and ingenuities. Belisarios is still remembered today by unlettered Romans for his improvised floating mills powered by the current of the Tiber that ground corn into flour during the siege of 537–538. Successful stratagems are the classic force multipliers, and it was with Belisarios that they first became a Byzantine speciality, along with his systematic avoidance of attrition and maximum exploitation of manoeuvre.

In the record of both the Vandal and the Gothic wars left by his secretary Prokopios, an admirer but not uncritical, we read how Belisarios would undertake long marches on more perilous routes to avoid the expected direction, and reach instead the enemy’s flank or, better, his rear, and we read how he was willing to hazard the most risky stratagems to avoid direct assaults. To win with few against many, he replaced the mass he lacked with high‐pay‐off, high‐risk manoeuvres and bold surprise actions, coups de main that all would praise in the successful aftermath, but which were gambles indeed.

Stratagems aside, it was mostly its archery as well as good tactics that enabled the Byzantine army to defeat enemies with larger numbers quite regularly. In an authoritative reconstruction of two major battles of the Italian campaign, at Tadinae, or Busta Gallorum, on the Via Flaminia in what is now Umbria in 552, and at the River Casilinus, now Volturno, near Naples in 554, the Byzantine forces commanded by Narses included assorted foreign contingents of Lombards, Heruls, and even Persians. In both cases, it was the bowmen of the imperial army who made the critical difference in the crucial phase of the fight with their volleys of powerfully lethal arrows.

In sum, the army’s tactical and operational superiority was the sufficient condition for the two campaigns of North Africa and Italy; the necessary condition was the negotiated peace with the Sassanian Persians. Italy was hardly restored to a better condition (in melius convertere) by being liberated from the Ostrogoths in fighting that lasted until 552 through many destructive vicissitudes. From 568 the Lombard invasion started a new round of destructive fighting, which began only after Justinian’s death in 565, and long after the unforeseeable catastrophe that invalidated all his strategic plans.

Whatever the future held, Justinian achieved his ambitions almost in full. His forces conquered North Africa from Tunis through coastal Algeria to what is now the northern tip of Morocco, thus reaching the Atlantic; and, across the straits, a coastal slice of the Iberian peninsula in what is now south‐east Spain; all the islands of the western Mediterranean—the Balearics, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily; and all of Italy. Except for a tract of the Iberian coast and the southern coast of Gaul, where no rival naval power existed in any case, the entire Mediterranean was once again a Mare Nostrum, with none to contest the Byzantine navy.

Nor was this the achievement of a military adventurer, but merely the military dimension of even broader ambitions. Justinian was notoriously indefatigable, demonstrably very intelligent, unchallenged by rivals, and quite unfettered by conventions—he married a woman with the social status of an ex‐prostitute. He also had two more attributes that empowered him greatly: a full treasury at his accession, and a particular talent in finding the especially talented to serve him. Thus, Justinian could have been an even more successful version of Anastasios, who ruled for twenty‐seven years, built a great deal including the Long Wall and the fortress city of Dara, lost no wars, reduced taxes, yet supposedly left 320,000 pounds of gold in the treasury for his successor, Justin.

But Justinian had much larger aims. In the legal sphere, he set out to codify all the extant costitutiones, imperial pronouncements with the force of law. Theodosios II had also issued a codification, but it was incomplete, while Justinian’s code, already published in 529, which implies that it was started as soon as he gained the throne, collated all the costitutiones in the Theodosian code with those in two unofficial collections, adding more recent laws including his own to produce the Codex Iustinianus, in twelve books. The lawyer Tribonian was in charge, another of Justinian’s highly talented appointments. Tribonian was also the chief author of the Pandectae, Pandektes, or Digesta, the jurisprudential treatise that followed the Codex, which contains in fifty books the legal opinions on all manner of cases of thirty‐nine legal experts, notably Ulpian and Paulus. Once issued with official authority, the Digest became in effect an additional code of jurist‐made law, not dissimilar from the body of English common law—except that Romans were involved, hence the code is organized. Tribonian and his colleagues next produced a much shorter work, the Institutiones, in four books, a manual of legal training. By 534 the Codex Iustinianus was issued in a new edition with corrections and additions, including Justinian’s laws issued in the interim, and 168 new laws, novellae, mostly in Greek, were added by the time Justinian died in 565.

The sum total has been known since the sixteenth century as the Corpus Iuris Civilis. Long before then, by the end of the eleventh century, it was rediscovered in Italy and came to form the foundation of canon law, of secular legal studies at Bologna and of the first real university along with them, and of the Western jurisprudence that now extends worldwide. The continued use of untranslated Latin in English and even more in American courts—sine die, nolle prosequi, ad litem, res iudicata, etc.—symbolizes a much deeper persistence; these phrases all come from the Digesta of the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

Equally vast and equally successful was Justinian’s ambition in the realm of public works. Prokopios wrote an entire book, Peri Ktismaton (‘On Buildings’), to describe the churches, fortresses, and all else that Justinian built or enhanced—sometimes attributing to him the edifices of other emperors. But we know that under Justinian dozens of fortresses and other fortifications were built, or substantially rebuilt, in many parts of the empire, and that thirty‐nine churches were built or rebuilt in Constantinople alone, including the great church of Hagia Sophia, whose immense floating dome still amazes visitors, and whose design is reproduced with varying degrees of fidelity and felicity in thousands of churches all over the world. From the detailed description in Prokopios of how Hagia Sophia was built, we learn that the men chosen by Justinian in person to build a radically innovative building, Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, used mathematical engineering to calculate the statics of the delicately counter‐weighted dome. Once again the talented Justinian had found exceptional talents to realize his inordinate ambitions, and the evidence remains intact in Istanbul to prove that he was highly successful, just as it does in his ambitious jurisprudential project, whose influence is even wider now than it was at his death in 565.

So why were Justinian’s military ambitions different? That they were not grossly unrealistic we know from the simple fact that the maritime expedition sent in 533 to conquer Africa was neither shipwrecked nor defeated on arrival, so that what is now Tunisia and coastal Algeria were duly conquered. The conquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths, which started in 535, was a much more demanding undertaking, but it too was successfully completed in May 540, when Belisarios entered the Ostrogothic capital and last refuge of Ravenna to accept the surrender of King Witiges, or Vitigis, and his wife, Mathesuentha.

As noted, most modern historians hold that Justinian’s military ambitions were unrealistic, because they exceeded the capacity of the empire to sustain them. One year after Belisarios ceremoniously concluded his Italian war in May 540, because no powerful garrison remained in Italy to control them, the Goths were able to start fighting again, and with increasing success once Totila became their king. One established explanation is that Justinian did not reinforce Belisarios and his army because he was ‘afraid of the threat that a mighty general could pose’. Even Rome was lost in 546 to the Gothic counter‐offensive that persisted until 552. And because Sassanian Persia had repudiated the ‘endless peace’ treaty to resume fighting in 540, continuing with interruptions until 562, the empire had to sustain simultaneously two large‐scale wars on widely separated fronts, so that in 559 hardly any troops were left in Constantinople to fight off an incursion of Kutrigurs and Slavs. That was certainly evidence of overextension, and presaged an inability to defend the Danubian frontier and the Balkan peninsula with it, and therefore Greece also, from Avar invasions and Slav occupations.

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Justinian’s Reversal Reversed: Victory and Plague II

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General Belisarius under the walls of Rome, c. 538 AD.

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The charge of overextension therefore implies a charge of strategic incompetence, or more simply a lack of ordinary common sense: having himself inherited a war with the perpetually aggressive Sassanians when he came to the throne, Justinian had to know that the Persian front had to be well guarded at all times, in peace as in war. What military strength was left would be needed for the ‘northern front’ of the empire, from Dalmatia to the Danube, which was not under attack in 533 but which was bound to be attacked sooner or later, as the turbulence of peoples continued beyond the imperial frontiers. That northern front was indeed the primary defence perimeter of the empire; it protected the valuable sub‐Danubian lands all the way to the Adriatic, and shielded Greece as well as Thrace and therefore Constantinople itself. The northern front also contained prime recruiting grounds for the imperial army, including the village near the fort of Bederiana where Justinian himself was born and lived his first years when he was still called Sabbatius.

To launch expeditions far away, even to conquer the rich grain fields of Africa and the hallowed first Rome, while neglecting the defence of the very hinterland of the imperial capital, was therefore a strategic error so gross that it betokens a foolish mind—not the mind of the Justinian we know. It is true, of course, that history is the record of the crimes and follies of mankind, and many a foolish war of conquest has been launched since 553.

But there is an altogether different explanation, based on evidence in part very old and in part very new—so new that it is not yet incorporated in the broader research on Justinian and his wars, let alone more general histories. Entirely new historical evidence of large significance is very rare, and almost always the product of fortunate digging. That is true in this case also, even if the evidence itself is neither epigraphic nor numismatic, or conventionally archaeological, for it consists of skeletal DNA and ice cores.

First the old evidence. In book 2, chapter 22, of the History of the Wars of Prokopios, we read:

During these times [from 541] there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. Now in the case of all other scourges sent from Heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men…But for this calamity it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation…For it did not come in a part of the world nor upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world…

It started from the Aegyptians who dwell in Pelusium. Then it divided and moved…And in the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring, where it happened that I was staying at the time.…With the majority it came about that they were seized by the disease without becoming aware of what was coming.…They had a sudden fever…And the body showed no change from its previous color, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever, nor did any inflammation set in…It was natural, therefore, that not one of those who had contracted the disease expected to die from it. But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed…not only in [the groin]…but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears…. there ensued for some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium…Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days, and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued…and straightaway brought death…

We come to the demographic consequences:

Now the disease in Byzantium ran a course of four months, and its greatest virulence lasted about three. And at first the deaths were a little more than the normal, then the mortality rose still higher, and afterwards [the number of] dead reached five thousand each day, and again it even came to ten thousand and still more than that…

Three months, or ninety days, of the greatest virulence at 5,000 a day comes to 450,000; if we take the 10,000 estimate, we reach 900,000, and Prokopios mentions a still‐higher daily mortality, yielding seemingly impossible numbers. When writing as a historian and not as a polemicist, Prokopios is generally deemed a trustworthy source by his modern colleagues, but on the subject of the pandemic he was wrongly suspected, for two different reasons. First, in an age without statistics there were no mortality figures to peruse and incorporate in a text, while impressionistic assessments of the effects of epidemics are notoriously misleading—anyone who read prose accounts of the early years of AIDS in the United States would never guess that it had insignificant demographic effects. The second reason acquired greater resonance with the advent of structuralist approaches to the study of texts. Like any sane person, Prokopios immensely admired Thucydides, and tried to write in his prose, by then a millennium removed from the common Greek of his day. Thucydides famously wrote of the plague of his own days most poignantly (in (p.75) book 2, as now edited) and Prokopios clearly strove to echo his prose. Hence his testimony is wrongly discounted.

Of course, it is universally accepted that there was a pandemic, and a very severe one, not only because Prokopios was trusted that far, but also because other extant contemporary texts concur. One such is by Evagrius Scholasticus of Antioch; he too refers to Thucydides. But uncontaminated sources also depict an unprecedented catastrophe, notably the Chronicle of Pseudo‐Dionysius of Tel‐Mahre, which was written in Syriac (late eastern Aramaic), in eighth‐century Mesopotamia, but which preserves a lost contemporary text on the pandemic specifically written by the prelate and historian John of Ephesus. Under the Seleucid year 855 (= 543/4) the text reads, ‘there was a great and mighty plague in the whole world in the days of the emperor Justinian’. The chronicler then lists the affected provinces of the empire: all the Egyptian provinces and Palestine as far as the Red Sea, Cilicia, Mysia, Syria, Iconium (Konya, central Anatolia), Bithynia, Asia (western Anatolia), Galatia, and Cappadocia.

This is no mere literary emulation but rather the recollection of a demographic catastrophe. And it would also have been an institutional catastrophe: when half the soldiers of cohesive army units become casualties, those units do not lose half their combat capability but all of it, or almost. All components of the imperial military system—tax collection offices, central administrative commands, weapons workshops, supply depots, fortress construction teams, warships and fleets, and army units everywhere—would have been in the same predicament, with their surviving personnel much more likely to have scattered to flee the pandemic or to tend to sick survivors, or simply shocked into immobility, or weakened by the disease, or just demoralized, so that 50 per cent mortality would have caused more than 50 per cent incapacitation.

The old narrative evidence would thus immediately explain why Justinian’s military capabilities declined so drastically from 541, irremediably ruining his ambitious plans. But that evidence could not be conclusive because it was devoid of credible, comprehensive figures. Hence it has been said that Prokopios exaggerated. In the account of Justinian in the latest edition of the most authoritative survey of late antiquity, the principal evidence is presented—including fiscal legislation necessitated by the death of many taxpayers—but the implication is that it was just another disaster (‘there were other disasters, notably earthquakes, one of which destroyed the famous law school at Berytus’) whose consequences were incremental: ‘Justinian’s difficulties were increased by a severe outbreak of bubonic plague…’.

The new evidence, which comes in two parts, definitely proves that Prokopios was accurate: it was not just another outbreak of disease, not just another disaster soon assuaged, it was a historically unprecedented pandemic that may well have killed even more than one‐third of the population, radically altering the strategic situation.

First, a study published in 2005 contains the first definitive DNA evidence that the disease of Justinian’s pandemic was caused by an exceptionally virulent and exceptionally lethal biovar of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague.38 That is an entirely different disease from the plague narrated by Thucydides or any other malady known until then. When Yersinia pestis reappeared as the agent of the Black Death from c.1334 in China and from 1347 in Europe, some residual acquired immunity would have persisted, but for the populations of the empire in 541 it was an entirely new pathogen against which none had acquired any immunity, as opposed to much less prevalent natural resistance.

Hence the pathogen was exceptionally virulent; that is, its ability to cause the disease was very high—a single bite from a flea carrying Yersinia pestis in 541 was enough to infect, which is certainly not the case with established pathogens, because many people have acquired immunities against them. Infection rates of 90 per cent or more were therefore possible for people in contact with fleas, which meant practically everyone in antiquity. Justinian contracted the disease, as did our witness Evagrius among other survivors. To be sure, virulence is one thing, lethality another. Actually, for obvious reasons, highly virulent diseases are not usually highly lethal: common influenza biovars kill minimal numbers of their many victims. But that was not true of the biovar of Yersinia pestis in 541 because it was entirely new for the affected population—a lethality of 30 per cent or even as much as 50 per cent was thus very likely, at least in well‐connected parts of the empire, though not in remote backwaters of course.

A second stream of new evidence indicates that what could have happened, did in fact happen. Climatology is now infected by partisan polemics, but ice‐core studies that show rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over the last 10,000 years are undisputed. According to an ‘anthropogenic’ explanation offered by an eminent climatologist with much persuasive evidence, agricultural deforestation, which replaces natural greenery with bare planted fields and increasing livestock herds, especially methane‐producing cattle, has measurably contributed to rising levels of carbon dioxide over the last several thousand years. In any case, carbon dioxide levels in the ice show two abrupt and drastic declines, one of which correlates with c.541, providing independent evidence of an unprecedented demographic collapse, which would have caused the widespread reversion of cleared fields to natural greenery, and the predation of abandoned cattle—imperial territories still had populations of wolves, bears, lions, and cheetahs, and also Caspian tigers in eastern Anatolia. The climatological evidence is more decisive than the archaeological evidence, but the latter is perfectly consistent. A recent overview concludes: ‘the expansion of settlement that had characterized much of rural and urban Syria in the fifth and early sixth centuries came to an abrupt end after the middle of the sixth century. There is evidence that housing starts almost ceased.’

Taken together, the new biological evidence and the climatological theory compel a reassessment of the realism of Justinian’s ambitions. He could have been as successful in his military ambitions as he was in his jurisprudential and architectural ambitions. It was not overextension but Yersinia pestis that wrecked the empire, drastically diminishing its military strength as compared to that of enemies less affected. The invaders were less infected because they were less urbanized, or simply less organized to begin with, hence less vulnerable to institutional breakdown.

Quite suddenly, with frontiers denuded of their defenders (the post‐541 disappearance of coinage from Byzantine military sites on the frontiers of Syria and Arabia has long been attested, if misunderstood), with strongholds abandoned, once prosperous provinces desolate, and its own administrative machinery greatly enfeebled, the empire found itself in a drastically altered world, in which the nomads of the steppe and the desert were greatly favoured as compared to empires, and in which the less urbanized Persian empire was relatively favoured also.

Still, what Justinian did would not have been done by his successors. It was his policy to destroy totally the power of the Vandal conquerors of Africa, and he succeeded. Therefore, when the native tribes started raiding from the desert and the hills of the Aurès, there was no pliant Vandal militia to resist them, let alone a functioning Vandal client state, so the overburdened imperial army had to fight them instead. Likewise, there were promising opportunities for a negotiated acquisition of Italy instead of an invasion followed by all‐out war to destroy the Ostrogothic power. The landing of Byzantine troops from reconquered Sicily to the mainland of Italy in 535 was preceded by secret negotiations with King Theodahad. One proposal would have retained him as client ruler of a dependent state, another would have seen him off with the award of landed estates yielding 86,400 solidi a year, the income of 43,200 poor men. Justinian’s successors would have found such a compromise solution, but he rejected all compromise—before the pandemic. After it, Justinian too had no other choice but to revert to the embryonic Theodosian strategy of avoiding war by paying off enemies if necessary.

When the Turkic Kutrigurs of the Pontic steppe under their leader Zabergan mounted raids in 558 that penetrated Greece and approached Constantinople, indulging in the usual outrages that allowed Agathias Scholasticus to indulge himself and his readers (‘well‐born women of chaste life were most cruelly carried off to undergo the worst of all misfortunes, and minister to the unbridled lust of the barbarians’, etc. etc.), Justinian called out Belisarios from retirement (he was 53) to repel them with ceremonial palace guards, 300 veterans, and a mob of volunteers, but then took more decisive action by enlisting the aid of the leader of the Utrigurs. The alternative of waging war could be very successful tactically and operationally, but even in total victory the only definite result would be the cost of it, while the benefit would only be temporary, as the demise of one enemy merely made room for another. It is hard to imagine that the empire could have overcome the ensuing century of acute internal crises and devastating invasions without its new strategy. It generated disproportionate power by magnifying the strength obtainable from greatly diminished forces, and by combining that military strength with varied means and techniques of persuasion.

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.

Eleventh-Century Byzantine Crisis II

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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.

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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.

Father and Son Save Byzantium in the 8th Century

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Avar and Bulgar warriors, eastern Europe, 8th century AD.

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Leo III (717–741)

Leo III, like Herakleios, intervened in Byzantine politics at a decisive moment, and he set the state on a sound basis, militarily and politically. His first problem was an Arab siege of Constantinople, which began almost immediately after he seized the throne. After withstanding the siege, Leo began to carry the war to the Arab armies and he succeeded, by the end of his reign, in freeing western Asia Minor from Arab raids. In domestic matters he is best known for his codification of law, the Ekloga, and his policy of Iconoclasm. The investigation of the latter is particularly difficult because the Iconophile sources are universal in their condemnation of the emperor, and there are virtually no extant Iconclast sources.

Leo’s family had come from Syria and was settled in Thrace as part of Justinian II’s policy of population transfers. The appellation “Isaurian” for Leo and his dynasty is thus probably a misnomer. Leo had come to the attention of Justinian II when he helped the emperor regain his throne in 705, and he rose to prominence in the army. He became strategos of the Anatolikon theme under Anastasios II, and during the reign of Theodosios III Leo allied with Ardavasdos, strategos of Armeniakon, and seized the throne in 717. He found the capital in a situation of some distress after 30 years of political instability.

Because of the confusion in Constantinople since the death of Constantine IV, the Arabs had made considerable headway in Asia Minor, and the Arab general Maslama (brother of the caliphs Walid, Sulayman, and Yazid (705–24)) planned another direct attack on the capital. The siege of Constantinople began in August of 717, supported by Sulayman’s navy. Leo won a victory in Asia Minor and attacked the Arabs from the rear, while his Bulgar allies (under Tervel) attacked from the west, and Greek Fire again did its work on the Arab fleet. As a result, Maslama withdrew in August of 718 after absorbing heavy losses.

The theme system was now fully operational and it provided considerable strength in the face of continued Arab raids. Thus, when the caliph al-Malik (723–42) pushed deep into Byzantine territory, Leo won signal victories at Nicaea in 726 and Akroinon in 740 (Map 9.1), so that by the end of his reign western Asia Minor was relatively secure against Arab incursions. In part, Leo’s successes against the Arabs were the result of his alliance with the Georgians and Khazars. As we have seen, the Khazars, a semi-nomadic Turkic people who lived north of the Black Sea, could attack the Arabs from the rear, and they had been involved in Byzantine policy at least since the marriage of Justinian II to the khan’s daughter. Leo cemented his own alliance with the Khazars by marrying his son Constantine to a Khazar princess.

Just like his predecessors, Leo had to face several revolts, especially at the beginning of his reign, most of them led by theme commanders. Leo understood the problems with this system, since he had himself come to power in this way, and he responded by providing greater central control and perhaps also by dividing up several of the larger themes into smaller entities, thereby diminishing the power of any individual theme commander. This is not to say that the fear of revolts was the only reason for the division of the themes; in part it was an indication that the military situation, especially in Asia Minor, had improved from the catastrophic years of the seventh century, and that the administrative system of the themes was working well generally.

Leo was a careful administrator and an autocrat. Both of these characteristics are shown in the Ekloga, a legal codification, issued probably in 726 (or possibly 741). According to the preface of the text, God had entrusted the emperor with the promotion of justice throughout the world, and the new code was part of the emperor’s attempt to promote just that. In his view, the current codifications of law were confusing and largely incomprehensible (in part because they were contradictory and still largely in Latin). Judges and lawyers, not only (according to the Ekloga) in the provinces, but also in the “God-protected city” (Constantinople) were ignorant of what the law said. The Ekloga was a practical handbook designed for everyday use, rather than a treatise that provided a theoretical base for the law. It restricted the right of divorce and provided a long list of sexual crimes. The Ekloga also introduced a new system of punishment, including judicial mutilation, but practically did away with capital punishment.

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Constantine V (741–775)

Under Leo III’s son and successor, the Isaurian dynasty reached the height of its power, and Iconoclast policy hardened into outright persecution of the Iconophiles (or Iconodoules, as they are sometimes called).

Constantine V is one of the most interesting of all Byzantine emperors. His rule was generally successful and he was intelligent and determined; yet the Iconophile sources viewed him as their greatest enemy, so his reputation has been blackened beyond that of almost any other emperor. Constantine was born in 718 and the Iconophile sources say that when he was being baptized he defecated in the baptismal font, giving rise to his nickname of Kopronymos (“Dung-name”). He was crowned as co-emperor in 720 and in 732 he was married to Irene, the daughter of the Khazar khan; after her death, he married twice.

Athough Leo III had clearly designated Constantine to succeed him, a revolt broke out immediately in 741, led by his brother-in-law Artabasdos, who apparently opposed Leo’s Iconoclasm. Artabasdos initially defeated Constantine, gained control of Constantinople, and sought to establish a dynasty of his own. Constantine, however, defeated him in 743 and regained control of the capital, blinding Artabasdos and his sons.

Once established firmly on the throne, Constantine V continued the successful military policy of his father and was able to take the offensive in Asia Minor. The Arabs were weakened by their own political problems, which led to the collapse of the Umayyad dynasty and its replacement by the Abbasid dynasty in 750. The Arab capital was moved from Damascus (in Syria) to Baghdad (in Iraq) and the Abbasids were generally less concerned with their western frontier (and warfare with Byzantium) than the Umayyads had been.

Just as the Arab threat began to abate, however, there was a new danger from Bulgaria. Constantine pursued an aggressive policy against the Bulgars and dealt them a crushing blow at the Battle of Anchialos in 763. At the same time Constantine V almost completely ignored the situation in Italy, in part because he realized that his support for Iconoclasm prevented any rapprochement with the papacy, and this led to a considerable change in the political equilibrium in Italy. Since 726 the papacy had disagreed with Byzantine policy on Iconoclasm and it now saw little difference between the “schismatic” Greeks and the Germanic Lombards who had threatened papal possessions over the past two centuries. Previously, the papacy had looked to the Byzantine emperor as a military protector, but Iconoclasm and the lack of interest of the Isaurian emperors led to the collapse of this bond and to major changes in relations between Byzantium and the papacy. In 751 Ravenna fell to the Lombards and the Exarchate of Ravenna ceased to exist. It was probably in this general context (although some scholars put the event earlier, under Leo III) that Constantine V removed southern Italy, Sicily, and the southern Balkans (including Greece) from the ecclesiastical authority of the papacy and placed it under that of the patriarch of Constantinople. Leo had already quarreled with the pope about the payment of taxes and other matters in Italy, and the religious dispute over Iconoclasm made the break final. From this time forward, these areas remained under the ecclesiastical authority of Constantinople, in the case of Italy until it fell out of Byzantine military control (the last bit in AD 1071), while Greece has, of course, remained part of the eastern Christian sphere up to the present.

Constantine V was the most ferocious of the Iconoclast emperors. He apparently believed strongly in Iconoclast doctrine and composed theological tracts himself. While Leo III seems to have supported Iconoclasm as a result of his fairly basic belief in Biblical prohibitions of “graven images,” his son was a sophisticated thinker, who had a real grasp of the philosophical and theological issues involved. As a result, an Iconoclast theology was formed, and Christological arguments came to play a dominant role in the controversy. Under Constantine V, Iconoclast theologians began to see connections with the theological disputes of the past 400 years: they argued that images, in fact, raised once again the Christological problems of the fifth century. In their view, if one accepted the veneration of ikons of Christ, one was guilty of either saying that the painting was a representation of God himself (thus merging the human and the divine elements of Christ into one) or, alternatively, maintaining that the ikon depicted Christ’s human form alone (thus separating the human and the divine elements of Christ) – neither of which was acceptable. Thus, under Constantine V, the Iconoclastic controversy, which had originally been a debate about church usage and principles of public veneration, suddenly raised again all the difficult theological issues of the past.

Constantine V summoned a church council, which he naturally packed with supporters of Iconoclasm. This met at the imperial palace of Hiera on the Asiatic shore of the Bosphoros in 754 and proclaimed Iconoclast theology as orthodox, despite the opposition of important theologians such as the former patriarch Germanos, John of Damascus, and Stephen of Mount Auxentios. Although most of the treatises written by the Iconoclasts have not survived, the decisions of the Council of Hiera are preserved, since they were read into and condemned by the later Iconophile Council of Nicaea. Armed with this decision, Constantine instituted a persecution of Iconophiles. He sought to root them out of the bureaucracy and the army, and he struck especially at the monasteries, which were the centers of ikon veneration. In his zeal, Constantine went beyond the teachings of the Council of Hiera and condemned the cult of saints and relics (except, interestingly, those of the True Cross). He is even said to have personally scraped holy pictures from the walls of churches in Constantinople. Although Constantine V was reviled by the Iconophile tradition as the worst of the persecuting Iconoclasts, he was a remarkably successful general and his memory survived among those who continued to respect his military prowess. There is also good reason to believe that Constantine was enormously popular in Constantinople itself, not least because he improved the standard of living within the city and provided its inhabitants with plentiful, inexpensive food. He died in 775 while leading his troops against the Bulgars.

A Naval Engagement In The Bosphorus

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Venetian “Galley of Flanders.” Illustration of a 15th-century trade galley from a manuscript by Michael of Rhodes (1401–1445) written in 1434.

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For Byzantine Emperor Constantine XI a successful defense of the city depended on relief from Christian Europe. The endless round of diplomatic missions that preceded the siege had all been undertaken to beg or borrow men and resources for the cause of Christendom. Daily the population looked in the direction of the setting sun for another fleet – a squadron of Venetian or Genoese war galleys, their beaked prows surging up the Marmara to the beating of drums, the rallying of war trumpets, the lion flags of St. Mark’s or the gonfalons of Genoa cracking in the salt wind. But the sea remained ominously empty.

In effect the fate of the city hung on the complex internal politics of the Italian city-states. As early as the end of 1451 Constantine had sent messengers to Venice to report that the city would fall without help. The matter had been debated by the Venetian Senate at length; it was the subject of prevarication in Genoa; in Rome the pope was concerned but required evidence that the union of the churches had been fully implemented. In any case he lacked practical resources to intervene without the Venetians. Genoa and Venice eyed each other in cold commercial rivalry and did nothing.

Constantine’s appeal to the West rested on notions that were religious and medieval, but they were directed at states whose motivations were economic – and surprisingly modern. The Venetians were largely indifferent to whether the Byzantines were unionists or not and had little appetite for the role of defenders of the faith. They were hard-nosed traders, preoccupied with commercial agreements, the security of their sea routes, and the calculation of interest. They worried about pirates more than theology, about commodities rather than creeds. Their merchants studied the price of what could be bought and sold – wheat, fur, slaves, wine, and gold – the supply of manpower for the galley fleets, and the pattern of Mediterranean winds. They lived by trade and the sea, by discount, profit margins, and ready coin. The doge was on excellent terms with the sultan, and trade with Edirne was profitable; furthermore Constantine had considerably damaged Venetian interests in the Peloponnese in the previous twenty years.

It was in this spirit that in August 1452 a minority of senators actually voted to abandon Constantinople to its fate. The lack of concern was modified the following spring as reports trickled in of the throttling of trade routes to the Black Sea and the sinking of Venetian ships. On February 19 the Senate decided to prepare a fleet of two armed transports and fifteen galleys to sail on April 8. The organization of the expedition was entrusted to Alviso Longo with cautious instructions that included a helpful dictat to avoid confrontation with the Ottomans in the straits. He finally departed on April 19, one day after the first major assault on the walls. Others made similarly uncoordinated efforts. On April 13 the government of the Republic of Genoa invited its citizens, merchants, and officials “in the East, in the Black Sea and in Syria” to help with all means the emperor of Constantinople and Demetrios, despot of the Morea. Five days earlier it had been authorizing loans to arm ships against the Venetians. At about the same time the pope had written to the Venetian Senate informing them of his desire to get up five galleys, on loan from the Venetians, for the relief of the city. The Venetians, ever sticklers for a debt, accepted the commission in principle but wrote back reminding the papacy that the cost of galleys for the failed Crusade of Varna in 1444 was still outstanding.

Pope Nicholas had however already undertaken one prompt initiative at his own expense. Fearful of the fate of Constantinople, in March he hired three Genoese merchant ships, provisioned them with food, men, and weapons, and dispatched them to the city. By the start of April they had reached the Genoese island of Chios off the Anatolian coast but could proceed no farther. The north wind that impeded the Ottoman fleet held the Genoese at Chios for a fortnight. On April 15 the wind shifted to the south and the ships set sail. By the 19th they had reached the Dardanelles where they fell in with a heavy imperial transport, laden with a cargo of corn the emperor had purchased from Sicily and commanded by an Italian, Francesco Lecanella. They swept up the Dardanelles and passed the Ottoman naval base at Gallipoli unopposed – the entire fleet had decamped to the Double Columns. The ships were in all likelihood similar to those that had seen off the Ottomans at the boom a few days previously: high-sided sail-powered vessels, probably carracks, described by the Ottoman chronicler Tursun Bey as “cogs.” On the swell of the south wind they made rapid time up the Marmara so that by the morning of April 20 the crews could make out the great dome of St. Sophia forming on their eastern horizon.

The lookout for a relieving fleet was a constant obsession in the city. The ships were seen at about ten in the morning, and the Genoese flags – a red cross on a white background – identified. The news caused an instant stir among the people. Almost simultaneously the ships were also sighted by Ottoman naval patrols, and word was sent to Mehmet in his camp at Maltepe. He galloped down to the Double Columns to deliver clear and peremptory orders to Baltaoglu. Doubtless stung by the failure of his fleet at the boom and the reversal at the land walls, Mehmet gave a message to commander and fleet that was unequivocal: “either to take the sailing ships and bring them to him or never to come back alive.” The galley fleet was hurriedly made ready with a full complement of rowers and crammed with crack troops – heavy infantry, bowmen, and Janissaries from his personal bodyguard. Light cannon were again loaded on board, as well as incendiary materials and “many other weapons: round and rectangular shields, helmets, breast plates, missiles and javelins and long spears, and other things useful for this kind of battle.” The fleet set out down the Bosphorus to confront the intruders. Success was imperative for morale, but this second naval battle was to be fought farther out in the straits where the vagaries of the Bosphorus’s extraordinary winds and local currents were less predictable and the demands on ships could be exacting. The Genoese merchantmen were battering up the straits with the wind astern. The Ottoman fleet, unable to use their sails against the wind, lowered them as they rowed downstream against a choppy sea.

By early afternoon the four ships were off the southeast shore of the city, keeping a steady course for the tower of Demetrios the Great, a prominent landmark on the city’s Acropolis, and well out from the shore, ready to make the turning maneuver into the mouth of the Horn. The huge disparity in numbers filled Baltaoglu’s men “with ambition and hope of success.” They came on steadily, “with a great sounding of castanets and cries towards the four ships, rowing fast, like men wanting victory.” The sound of beating drums and the braying of zornas spread across the water as the galley fleet closed in. With the masts and oars of a hundred ships converging on the four merchantmen, the outcome seemed inevitable. The population of the city crowded to the walls, onto the roofs of houses, or to the Sphendone of the Hippodrome, anywhere that had a wide view of the Marmara and the entrance of the Bosphorus. On the other side of the Horn, beyond the walls of Galata, Mehmet and his retinue watched from the vantage point of an opposing hill. Each side looked on with a mixture of hope and anxiety as Baltaoglu’s trireme drew near to the lead ship. From the poop he peremptorily ordered them to lower their sails. The Genoese kept their course, and Baltaoglu commanded his fleet to lie to and rake the carracks with fire. Stone shot whistled through the air; bolts, javelins, and incendiary arrows were poured up at the ships from all directions but the Genoese did not waver. Again the advantage was with the taller ships: “they fought from high up, and indeed from the yardarms and the wooden turrets they hurled down arrows, javelins, and stones.” The weight of the sea made it hard for the galleys to steady their aim or to maneuver accurately around the carracks still surging forward with the south wind in their sails. The fight developed into a running skirmish, with the Ottoman troops struggling to get close enough in the choppy sea to board or to fire the sails, the Genoese flinging a hail of missiles from their castellated poops.

The small convoy of tall ships reached the point of the Acropolis unscathed and was ready to make the turn into the safety of the Horn when disaster struck. The wind suddenly dropped. The sails hung lifeless from the masts, and the ships, almost within touching distance of the city walls, lost all headway and started to drift helplessly on a perverse countercurrent across the open mouth of the Horn and toward Mehmet and his watching army on the Galata shore. At once the balance shifted from the ships with sails to the galleys with oars. Baltaoglu gathered his larger vessels around the merchantmen at a slight distance and again pelted them with missiles, but with no greater effect than before. The cannon were too light and too low in the water to damage the hulls or disable the masts. The Christian crews were able to put out any fires with barrels of water. Seeing the failure of raking fire, the admiral “shouted in a commanding voice” and ordered the fleet to close in and board.

The swarm of galleys and longboats converged on the cumbersome and disabled carracks. The sea congealed into a struggling mass of interlocking masts and hulls that looked, according to the chronicler Doukas, “like dry land.” Baltaoglu rammed the beak of his trireme into the stern of the imperial galley, the largest and least heavily armed of the Christian ships. Ottoman infantry poured up the boarding bridges trying to get onto the ships with grappling hooks and ladders, to smash their hulls with axes, to set fire to them with flaming torches. Some climbed up anchor cables and ropes; others hurled lances and javelins up at the wooden ramparts. At close quarters the struggle developed into a series of vicious hand-to-hand encounters. From above, the defenders, protected by good armor, smashed the heads of their assailants with clubs as they emerged over the ships’ sides, cut off scrabbling hands with cutlasses, hurled javelins, spears, pikes, and stones down on the seething mass below. From higher up in the yardarms and crow’s nests “they threw missiles from their terrible catapults and a rain of stones hurled down on the close-packed Turkish fleet.” Crossbowmen picked off chosen targets with well-aimed bolts and crewmen deployed cranes to hoist and drop weighty stones and barrels of water through the light hulls of the longboats, damaging and sinking many. The air was a confused mass of sounds: shouts and cries, the roaring of cannon, the splash of armored men falling backward into the water, the snapping of oars, the shattering of stone on wood, steel on steel, the whistling of arrows falling so fast “that the oars couldn’t be pushed down into the water,” the sound of blades on flesh, of crackling fire and human pain. “There was great shouting and confusion on all sides as they encouraged each other,” recorded Kritovoulos, “hitting and being hit, slaughtering and being slaughtered, pushing and being pushed, swearing, cursing, threatening, moaning – it was a terrible din.”

For two hours the Ottoman fleet grappled with its intractable foe in the heat of battle. Its soldiers and sailors fought bravely and with extraordinary passion, “like demons,” recorded Archbishop Leonard begrudgingly. Gradually, and despite heavy losses, the weight of numbers started to tell. One ship was surrounded by five triremes, another by thirty longboats, a third by forty barges filled with soldiers, like swarms of ants trying to down a huge beetle. When one longboat fell back exhausted or was sunk, leaving its armored soldiers to be swept off in the current or clinging to spars, fresh boats rowed forward to tear at their prey. Baltaoglu’s trireme clung tenaciously to the heavier and less well-armed imperial transport, which “defended itself brilliantly, with its captain Francisco Lecanella rushing to help.” In time, however, it became apparent to the captains of the Genoese ships that the transport would be taken without swift intervention. Somehow they managed to bring their ships up alongside in a practiced maneuver and lash the four vessels together, so that they seemed to move, according to an observer, like four towers rising up among the swarming seething confusion of the grappling Ottoman fleet from a surface of wood so dense that “the water could hardly be seen.”

The spectators thronging the city walls and the ships within the boom watched helplessly as the matted raft of ships drifted slowly under the point of the Acropolis and toward the Galata shore. As the battle drew closer, Mehmet galloped down onto the foreshore, shouting excited instructions, threats, and encouragement to his valiantly struggling men, then urging his horse into the shallow water in his desire to command the engagement. Baltaoglu was close enough now to hear and ignore his sultan’s bellowed instructions. The sun was setting. The battle had been raging for three hours. It seemed certain that the Ottomans must win “for they took it in turns to fight, relieving each other, fresh men taking the places of the wounded or killed.” Sooner or later the supply of Christian missiles must give out and their energy would falter. And then something happened to shift the balance back again so suddenly that the watching Christians saw in it only the hand of God. The south wind picked up. Slowly the great square sails of the four towered carracks stirred and swelled and the ships started to move forward again in a block, impelled by the irresistible momentum of the wind. Gathering speed, they crashed through the surrounding wall of frail galleys and surged toward the mouth of the Horn. Mehmet shouted curses at his commander and ships “and tore his garments in his fury,” but by now night was falling and it was too late to pursue the ships farther. Beside himself with rage at the humiliation of the spectacle, Mehmet ordered the fleet to withdraw to the Double Columns.

In the moonless dark, two Venetian galleys were dispatched from behind the boom, sounding two or three trumpets on each galley and with the men shouting wildly to convince their enemies that a force of “at least twenty galleys” was putting to sea and to discourage any further pursuit. The galleys towed the sailing ships into the harbor to the ringing of church bells and the cheering of the citizens. Mehmet was “stunned. In silence, he whipped up his horse and rode away.”

The immediate consequences of the naval engagement in the Bosphorus were profound. A few short hours had tipped the psychological balance of the siege sharply and unexpectedly back to the defenders. The spring sea had provided a huge auditorium for the public humiliation of the Ottoman fleet, watched both by the Greek population thronging the walls and the right wing of the army with Mehmet on the shore opposite.

It was obvious to both sides that the massive new fleet, which had so stunned the Christians when it first appeared in the Straits, could not match the experience of Western seamanship. It had been thwarted by superior skill and equipment, the innate limitations of war galleys – and not a little luck. Without secure control of the sea, the struggle to subdue the city would be hard fought, whatever the sultan’s guns might achieve at the land walls.

Within the city, spirits were suddenly high again: “the ambitions of the Sultan were thrown into confusion and his reputed power diminished, because so many of his triremes couldn’t by any means capture just one ship.” The ships not only brought much needed grain, arms, and manpower, they had given the defenders precious hope. This small flotilla might be merely the precursor of a larger rescue fleet. And if four ships were able to defy the Ottoman navy, what might a dozen well-armed galleys of the Italian republics not do to decide the final outcome? “This unhoped-for result revived their hopes and brought encouragement, and filled them with very favourable hopes, not only about what had happened, but also about their expectations for the future.” In the fevered religious atmosphere of the conflict, such events were never just the practical contest of men and materials or the play of winds, they were clear evidence of the hand of God. “They prayed to their prophet Muhammad in vain,” wrote the surgeon Nicolo Barbaro, “while our Eternal God heard the prayers of us Christians, so that we were victorious in this battle.”

The Recapture of Constantinople

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The Latin Empire, Empire of Nicaea, Empire of Trebizond, and the Despotate of Epirus. The borders are very uncertain.

Between 1254 and 1261, the Latin Empire comes to an end, and the Byzantine Empire is restored

Half a century before, Byzantium had splintered into four mini-kingdoms and faded from sight. For a little less than a millennium, Constantinople had been a pivot point of international politics; now, like Kiev, or Braga, or Krakow, it was of vast importance to its immediate neighbors, but little more.

Constantinople now stood as the capital of the “Latin Empire,” a tiny and penniless realm. Immediately after the conquest of the city by the Fourth Crusade, the Latin Empire, under the Count of Flanders turned Emperor, had stretched from Constantinople into the south of Greece, across the Black Sea to encompass the coast of Asia Minor. But under the count’s nephew Baldwin II, who inherited the throne in 1228 at the age of eleven, the Latin Empire had shrunk. The Bulgarian empire, under the ambitious Ivan Asen, mounted constant attacks on its western border; the Empire of Nicaea, under the ruthless John Vatatzes, assaulted it from the east. Baldwin had few troops, and no money to hire mercenaries. A delegation of Franciscan and Dominican friars who visited the city in 1234 reported that city was “deprived of all protection,” the emperor a pauper: “All the paid knights departed. The ships of the Venetians, Pisans . . . and other nations were ready to leave, and some indeed had already left. When we saw that the land was abandoned, we feared danger because it was surrounded by enemies.”

Baldwin spent much of his reign out of Constantinople, traveling from court to court in Europe and begging each Christian king to help him protect the city that had once been Christianity’s crown jewel in the east. Both Louis IX of France and Henry III of England made small contributions to the Latin treasury, but in its king’s absence Constantinople itself grew shabbier and hungrier. By 1254, Baldwin could claim to rule only the land right around Constantinople’s walls. He had already sold most of the city’s treasures and sacred relics: a fragment of the True Cross, the napkin that Saint Veronica had used to wash the face of Christ as he walked towards Golgotha, the lance that pierced Christ’s side on the cross, the Crown of Thorns itself. (Louis IX bought most of them and built a special chapel in Paris to house the collection.) He had borrowed so much money from the Venetian merchants that he had been forced to send his son Philip to Venice as a hostage pending repayment; he had torn the copper roofs from Constantinople’s domes and melted them down into coins.

While the Latin Empire withered, the Empire of Nicaea grew. John Vatatzes, claiming to be the Byzantine emperor in exile, spent most of his thirty-three-year reign fighting: swallowing most of Constantinople’s land, seizing Thrace from Bulgaria and Thessalonica from the third of the mini-kingdoms, the Despotate of Epirus. (The fourth mini-kingdom, the Empire of Trebizond, never expanded very far away from the shoreline of the Black Sea.) By 1254, the Empire of Nicaea stretched from Asia Minor across to Greece and up north of the Aegean.

In February of that year, the sixty-year-old John Vatatzes suffered a massive epileptic seizure in his bedchamber. He slowly recovered, but seizures continued to plague him. “The attacks began to occur altogether more frequently,” writes the historian George Akropolites, who lived at the Nicaean court. “He had a wasting away of the flesh and . . . no respite from the affliction.” In November, the emperor died; his son Theodore, aged thirty-three, became emperor.

But Theodore II soon sickened with the same illness that had killed his father: “His entire body was reduced to a skeleton,” Akropolites says. He died before the end of his fourth year on the throne, leaving as heir his eight-year-old son John.

John’s rule was promptly co-opted by the ambitious Michael Palaeologus, a well-regarded soldier and aristocrat who was also the great-grandson of the Byzantine emperor Alexius III. With the support of most of the Nicaeans (“They did not think it proper,” says Akropolites, “for the . . . empire, being so great, to be governed by a fruit-picking and dice-playing infant”), Michael first declared himself to be regent and then, in 1259, promoted himself to co-emperor as Michael VIII.

From the moment he took the throne, Michael VIII intended to recover his great-grandfather’s city: “His every effort and whole aim was to rescue it from the hands of the Latins,” writes Akropolites. In the first two years of his reign, he prepared for the attack on Constantinople by making peace on his other borders; he concluded treaties with both Bulgaria and the nearby Il-khanate Mongols.

He also equipped himself with a new alliance. The merchants of Genoa had just suffered a commercial catastrophe. In 1256, they had quarreled sharply with the Venetians over the ownership of a waterfront parcel of land in Acre, the last surviving fragment of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Whoever controlled it could block rival ships from the harbor of Acre, and both of the maritime republics wanted this advantage. “The Christians began to make shameful and wretched war on each other,” says the contemporary chronicle known as the Rothelin Continuation, “both sides being equally aggressive.” The first major sea battle in the war, between a thirty-nine-ship Venetian fleet (reinforced by ships from friendly Pisa) and a fifty-galley Genoan navy, had ended with an embarrassing Genoan loss. Between 1257 and 1258, the conflict ballooned until all of Acre was at war:

And all that year there were at least sixty engines, every one of them throwing down onto the city of Acre, onto houses, towers and turrets, and they smashed and laid level with the ground every building they touched, for ten of these engines could deliver rocks weighing as much as 1500 pounds. . . . [N]early all the towers and strong houses in Acre were destroyed . . . [and] twenty thousand men died in this war on one side or the other. . . . The city of Acre was as utterly devastated by this war as if it had been destroyed in warfare between Christians and Saracens.

The Genoans were the losers. By the end of 1258, they had been forced out of Acre completely; the old Genoese quarter in Acre was entirely pulled apart, and the Venetians and Pisans used the stones to rebuild their own trading posts.

Now Genoa needed another trading base in the eastern Mediterranean. Carefully guarded negotiations between the Genoese statesman Guglielmo Boccanegra and the emperor Michael VIII went on during the winter of 1260, and ended in July of 1261 with the signing of a major treaty: the Treaty of Nymphaion, which promised the Genoese their own tax-free trading quarters in Constantinople, should they help the ambitious emperor to conquer it.

The conquest itself was an anticlimax; Baldwin II was in no shape to resist, and the city was almost defenseless. As soon as the Treaty of Nymphaion was ratified, Michael sent a small detachment to Constantinople to issue a series of threats. The detachment discovered, to its surprise, that most of the remaining Latin army had been sent off to attack a Nicaean-held harbor island near the Bosphorus Strait. Under cover of thick dark, they climbed into the city, quickly overwhelmed the tiny remaining guard, and opened the gates. Baldwin himself, sleeping at the royal palace, woke up at the sounds of their shouts and managed to flee the city, leaving his crown behind him. The Latin Empire was no more.

Michael VIII himself was camped to the north of Thyateira at the time. When news of the capture arrived at his camp, his sister woke him up by shaking him and saying, “Rise up, emperor, for Christ has conferred Constantinople upon you!” According to Akropolites, he answered, “How? I did not even send a worthy army against it.”

Three weeks later, he arrived at the gates of Constantinople himself. He entered the city on August 14 as the first emperor of a restored Byzantium, and found a disastrous mess: “a plain of destruction, full of ruins and mounds.” The royal palace was so filthy and smoke-stained that it had to be scrubbed from top to bottom before he could take up residence in it.

The Genoese, claiming their reward, now had a trade monopoly in Byzantium and held the premier position in the Mediterranean Sea. Baldwin II ended up in Italy, still claiming to be the emperor of the Latins.

Michael’s co-emperor, young John, remained behind in Nicaea. Michael VIII intended to rule the restored Byzantium on his own, founder of a new royal dynasty, without challenge. Four months later, he ordered the boy blinded and imprisoned in a castle on an island in the Sea of Marmara. The sentence was carried out on Christmas Day, 1261, the boy’s eleventh birthday.