Ancient History & Civilisation

Religious Transformations

One of the crucial achievements of the early seventh-century Roman Empire was to extract sufficient revenues from its dwindling territories to sustain the military effort against an enemy with greater resources at its disposal. Before the end of the sixth century Rome had left the exarchies of Africa and Italy to their own devices, and drew no more taxes or levies from the western Mediterranean. Throughout the 620s, moreover, the Sassanians appear to have been strengthening their own economic position by using the existing administrative structures in the territory that they had taken from Rome, especially in Egypt, to divert tax income and compulsory services to their own benefit.34 Heraclius and his officials compensated, in part, by drawing on the wealth of the church. Church properties had increased substantially during the sixth century, especially since the reign of Justinian, and archaeological and textual evidence suggests that ecclesiastical silver was one of the most important areas of stored wealth in Syria and Asia Minor during the late sixth and seventh centuries.35 The scale of this wealth is illustrated by the fact that the Persians seized 112,000 pounds of silver plate from Edessa in the 620s (Palmer, West-Syrian Chronicles, 133–4.). Despite Persian attacks on Asia Minor, the wealth of the Anatolian churches will have been relatively protected and available for the war effort. It seems probable that it was as much the demands of Heraclius as the depredations of the Sassanians that impoverished Asia Minor's cities from this period. They, more than any other communities of the Roman world, paid the price for the survival of the Byzantine Empire.

The church would only put its wealth at the state's disposal if its interests and those of the Roman rulers were aligned with one another. Since the accession of Justinian, Rome's ideology of rulership rested on the central proposition that the empire flourished as an explicit expression of God's will and providence. The religious beliefs that underpinned this concept had intensified as a consequence of the travails of the 540s and the example of piety and submission to the divine will that Justinian himself displayed in his later years. Justinian's example was closely followed by Justin II and his empress Sophia. Their religious devotion, especially to the cult of Mary, was emphasized at length in Corippus' panegyric written for Justin's inauguration (Corippus, In Praise of Justin I, 30–65). Heraclius had placed pictures of the Virgin on the mastheads of his ships when he had sailed to depose Phocas in 608. The Marian cult and the reverence for her image and the talismanic icon of the Virgin's robe reached a high point during the siege of Constantinople in 626. Images of Mary were placed above the city gates, and the departure of the Avar host surely sealed the inhabitants' conviction that their survival was due to her protection.36

The Marian cult at Constantinople was one of the most conspicuous aspects of a religious transformation in the Roman Empire of the later sixth and seventh centuries. It was linked to two other phenomena, which are attested throughout the empire in this period. One was the increasing role and prominence of icons, which were identified as a source of protection, healing, or salvation for communities at times of danger or distress. Images of local saints and holy men, of the Virgin Mary, of the Holy Cross, and of Christ himself dominate many of the narratives of critical moments in the lives of communities, such as the celebrated stories of Apamea, protected in 540 by a wooden relic of the Cross; and Edessa, saved from the Persians in 544 by its famous image, “not made by human hand (acheiropoetos),” of the risen Christ. The popularity and efficacy of such talismans are illustrated by the traditions surrounding an image of Christ, also “not made by hand,” which had come to light in the Cappadocian village of Kamulianai (Ps-Zachariah 12.4). According to different traditions this icon had been preserved in three separate locations before it was transported to Constantinople by Justin II.37

A parallel phenomenon to the reverence for images was the emergence of mass processions as the most powerful expression of community religious feeling, either to commemorate specific moments in the ritual calendar or as a spontaneous response to a crisis. Such processions had become more frequent and important in community life since the outbreak of the plague in Constantinople. They were promoted by the huge number of sixth-century church foundations, especially during the reign of Justinian, which created a new sacral topography in the cities of the empire, and especially in Constantinople. The processions articulated connections between the major centers of cult. Their function was to unite the entire community, rulers and subjects, in a common religious purpose, which was focused on a specific goal.38 The Life of St Theodore of Sykeon, which provides a vivid panorama of life in early seventh-century Anatolia, demonstrates that such processions were not an exclusively urban or metropolitan phenomenon, but typical also of village life. When the saint conducted his major exorcisms, he would do so by leading a procession of the entire population between the village church and the source of religious defilement.39

In their attitudes to Christian icons and Christian rituals the rulers of the seventh-century Roman world were at one with their subjects and also with the perspective of the organized church. There was no conflict between sacred and secular aims. It is characteristic of the age of Heraclius that the main source of authority in Constantinople in the emperor's absence was the patriarch Sergius, who played a major role in organizing the defense of the city under attack and provided continuous political as well as religious and doctrinal leadership in support of the emperor. In this his contribution matched that of the bishops of the cities of Syria and Mesopotamia, who had long since been the leaders of their communities against the Sassanian threat. This sense of unified purpose enabled the emperor to conduct the struggle with Persia not as a fight for territory, or for prestige, but as a crusade, a holy war. In 625 Heraclius addressed his troops in a speech that foreshadows the rhetoric of modern fundamentalism:

Be not disturbed, o my brothers, by the multitude of the enemy. For when God wills it, one man will rout a thousand. So let us sacrifice ourselves to God for the salvation of our brothers. May we win the crown of martyrdom that we may be praised in future and receive our recompense from God. (Theophanes, Chron. 442–43)

The fall of Jerusalem and the loss of the Cross, Christendom's holiest relic and icon, had spurred the Roman sense of purpose. The devastation of the fire-temple at Takht-e Suleyman should be seen as a reprisal. In these circumstances the church did not hesitate to place its wealth at the empire's disposal. After 615 the Roman state began to issue a series of heavy silver coins, hexagrams, which were used both as military pay and as a form of subsidy to the crucial allies that Rome needed to win the war in Transcaucasia (Chron. Pasch. 615). No doubt the bullion from which they were minted had been obtained by melting down church silver. These issues carried the Latin legend, Deus adiuta Romanis, “God, help the Romans!” Even more eloquent – since few of those who handled the coins would have understood the language – the reverse emblem was the Cross, standing on three steps, above a globe. World domination was a Roman right, guaranteed by God's power (Plate 12.1).40 The design of these coins struck a chord beyond Rome's boundaries and resonated more than half a century later in AD 695–6, when the Muslim caliph Abd al-Malikh struck gold dinars in Syria which displayed a column standing on a plinth and supporting a globe on the reverse, while the obverse showed a standing figure, usually identified as the caliph Abd al-Malikh, but perhaps representing the prophet Muhammad himself, with the Arabic legend “in the name of God. There is no god but God alone. Muhammad is the messenger of God.”41 No sources better convey the religious underpinnings of the conflict between Rome, the Sassanians, and the rising power of Islam. The Roman Empire of the early seventh century had been transformed by its rulers to confront challenges that could not have been imagined even a century earlier, but it remained, recognizably, the imperial power that had been forged six centuries before by Augustus.


Plate 12.1    Silver hexagram depicting Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine, enveloped by protective crosses (obverse). The reverse shows the cross, placed on a globe and a three-stepped plinth, legend DEUS ADIUTA ROMANIS (The Ashmolean Museum)

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