The empire that Basil II left behind him was indeed glorious, stretching from the Danube in the west to the Euphrates in the east. No power in western Europe or the Middle East could approach it; its gold coin, the nomisma, was the standard currency of trade—and had been for centuries—and its Islamic enemies were cowed and crumbling. The Christian powers of Europe looked up to it as their great protector, and more than one German emperor traveled to southern Italy, where the imperial borders touched, to seek recognition of their titles.* Those from western Europe who traveled to the imperial markets or cities found a world drastically different from the one they had left behind. Medieval Europe was locked in feudalism, with little chance to escape grinding poverty. Peasants spent their lifetimes toiling on land they didn’t own, and medicine offered “cures” to the sick that were often as lethal as the disease. The poor subsisted on a diet of coarse, dark bread and cheese, and were lucky to reach the age of thirty-five. Communication between cities was slow, travel was dangerous, and writing was restricted to the rich and powerful. The church provided what little education was available, but only if a literate priest could be found.
In the East, by contrast, wealth poured into the imperial treasury, the population boomed, and famine seemed to be a thing of the past. Men flush with the excitement of new fortunes seemed to be everywhere, carried about in their sedan chairs, endowing lavish public buildings, and playing polo on the broad public avenues. Confidence was in the air, and it was contagious. The addition of the Bulgarians, the Serbs, and the Russians to the cultural mix had added layers of diversity, but society—and the church—had never been more unified. Iconoclasm, the last great heresy to afflict the Byzantine church, had been settled for nearly two centuries, and the church and the state were infused with a spirit of cooperation. Education once again became a way for ambitious young men to advance, and vast libraries became a status symbol.
There had always been a guarded respect for the pagan classics of antiquity, but with paganism long dead and no longer a threat, there was a new appreciation of the secular classics. A spirit of humanism swept through the empire, and scholars began to consciously emulate the styles of antiquity. Copies of the literature of ancient Greece and Rome became highly valued, and clergy and laymen alike began to dutifully reproduce the dazzling masterpieces. This was among the finest gifts that the empire bequeathed to posterity. Since Egypt—and the source of papyrus—had long been lost to the empire, the crumbling old manuscripts were copied onto more durable and readily available parchment. This in turn enabled the literature to survive. Despite the general destruction that followed the collapse of the empire, most of the Greek classics that are extant today come down to us through Byzantine copies of this period.
The emperors, of course, had always had access to the peerless imperial libraries, but now they began to see a general promotion of schooling as one of their roles. By the time of Basil II’s death, Constantinople was home to brilliant poets, jurists, and historians—a glittering collection of literati that wouldn’t be equaled in the West until the last days of the Renaissance.
It was a pity that Basil II didn’t leave anyone worthy of receiving such a glorious inheritance, but, unfortunately for Byzantium, the cultural flowering that had given the empire such a splendid educated class had also made its court arrogant and insulated, utterly convinced that they knew how to govern the empire better than anyone else. Basil’s death left power unexpectedly in their hands, and they deliberately chose weak and pliable emperors, interested more in keeping their newfound power than in what was best for the state. Ironically enough, this shortsighted policy of putting such mediocrities on the throne guaranteed their own decline. Ruthless taxation once again fell on the poor without burdening the rich, and the land laws of the Macedonian emperors were abandoned, leaving the peasants at the mercy of their predatory neighbors. The rich gobbled up virtually all of the land in their vast estates, while their contacts at court ensured that it was held tax free. Foolish emperors, confronted with a virtually independent aristocracy and now seriously short of funds, exacerbated the problem by devaluing their gold coins—a step the empire had managed to avoid for nearly seven hundred years. The value of the currency collapsed, sending inflation spiraling, and Byzantium’s prestige plummeted as international merchants abandoned the worthless coins.
Small farmers were virtually driven to extinction, frequently ending up as serfs on their own lands, and since military veterans could no longer afford to farm, the entire system of the peasant-soldier collapsed.* The Byzantine army, now dangerously weakened, was forced to rely on mercenaries, and important commands were given to worthless political appointments. Foreign wars and political chaos fell like hammer blows on the rudderless empire, striking against both its spiritual and temporal strength. In the short space of fifty years, it was rocked by two tragedies that sapped its strength and undermined its foundations. Though the empire lasted for another four centuries, it never fully recovered from the impact of these twin disasters.
The first, and more damaging, blow fell in 1054 and severely impaired relations with the West. The crisis that culminated that year had been building to a head for decades, and was by now nearly inevitable. Underneath the thin veneer of Christian unity that joined the lands of the old Roman Empire lay the deep divisions of an East and a West that had been drifting apart for centuries. Of the five great patriarchs of the Christian Church, four were in the East, and there the Greek love of disputation had kept the church somewhat decentralized. The patriarch of Constantinople may have been the closest to imperial power, but he was also the youngest of the patriarchs, and the older, more prestigious bishops in Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem zealously guarded their autonomy. Important decisions were made—as they always had been—by means of a council in which the whole voice of the church could be expressed. In the West, where the only patriarch was that of Rome, the pontiff had grown weary of the endless eastern speculation and heresy, and had begun to see himself as the final authority in Christendom. After all, hadn’t Christ himself “handed the keys of heaven” to Peter, the first pope, with the words “on this rock I will build my Church”? Clearly, the pope was not merely the “first among equals” as the easterners taught, but the undisputed head of the church.
The crisis was precipitated when the stubborn patriarch Michael Cerularius wrote a letter to Pope Leo IX, addressing him as “brother” instead of “father” and comparing him to Judas for adding the word fitioque to the Nicene Creed. This was an old—and rather intemperate—argument that had split the church for generations. According to the original version of the creed—the central statement of Christianity—the Holy Spirit emanated from God the Father. So it had remained until the late sixth century when the word filioque (“and the son”) was added by the Spanish church in an attempt to emphasize Christ’s divinity to their Arian, Visigothic overlords. The Eastern Church could, of course, sympathize with the spirit of the Spanish addition (they had after all fought the same battle against the Arians), but to their minds only the authority of a full council could alter the creed, and this arbitrary addition was therefore a vile heresy made all the more shocking when the pope officially endorsed it.* The Scriptures are mostly silent on the topic of the Trinity, making it virtually impossible to resolve an argument about the relationship of its members. Both sides dug in their heels on the issue, and now the patriarch’s letter to the pope ripped aside the church’s veil of unity to expose its deep-seated divisions for the entire world to see.†
It was at this moment of rancor that the Byzantine emperor Constantine IX invited the pope to send some legates to Constantinople to discuss a military alliance against their mutual enemies. The pope accepted the invitation, but, unfortunately for everyone involved, he chose a virulently anti-Greek cardinal named Humbert to act as his representative. Humbert arrived in Constantinople ready to be insulted, and was soon given ample opportunity when the equally insufferable Patriarch Cerularius refused to see him. Annoyed by the oily Greek food, drafty accommodations, and poor hospitality, Humbert spent his time castigating his hosts for the eastern practices of allowing priests to marry, using leavened bread in the Eucharist, and eating meat during Lent. Tempers were soured further when news arrived in late April that the pope had died, depriving Humbert of what little authority he had, and making his entire infuriating mission pointless. Demanding an audience with the patriarch, the cardinal requested permission to leave, but Cerularius gleefully refused, keeping the enraged Humbert under virtual house arrest. For two months, the papal legate fumed in Constantinople, but by July 16, 1054, with no end to his containment in sight, he had had enough. Marching into the Hagia Sophia, Humbert solemnly placed a note of excommunication on the high altar. Turning around, he shook the dust symbolically off his feet and left the building, vowing never to return. The damage done in that moment was equaled only by its tragically unnecessary circumstances. Christendom would never be united again, and it was the disgruntled representative of a dead pope without a single shred of authority who had dealt the blow.
A few weeks later, the patriarch returned the favor by convening a council that excommunicated the West right back. Each side hoped the other would back down, but it was too late—relations were permanently sundered. The pope maintained that the Latin Church was the “Catholic” or “universal” one, while the patriarch made the same claim, arguing that the Greek rite was “Orthodox” or “true.”
Christendom had been ripped in half, and Byzantium was now dangerously and terrifyingly alone. From now on, the powers to its west would offer no succor, and the empire would have to face the enemies to its east with only its own diminishing resources.
The weakened empire still had its army, but it was no longer the peerless fighting force that had made it the superpower of the Mediterranean. Years of neglect since Basil II’s death had reduced it to virtual impotence, and the court, terrified of a military uprising, did its best to weaken it further—even taking the insane step of disbanding the local militias that guarded the frontiers. Outwardly, the empire may have looked glorious, but on the inside it was rotten and hollow, waiting for an enemy to break the brittle shell. Trapped in the firm grip of squabbling aristocrats, the throne was unlikely to produce a figure capable of undoing the damage, and Byzantium was given no chance to recover its strength.
While the empire was still reeling from its struggle with the papacy, a new and devastating enemy made its military weakness all too apparent. The Seljuk Turks had already taken the Muslim world by surprise. Originally a central Asian nomadic tribe, they spread over Iran and Iraq, managing to seize Baghdad in 1055, replacing the weak and crumbling Abbasid caliphate. After crossing the undefended Byzantine frontiers, by 1067 they were looting their way through Armenia virtually unopposed. Combining the hunger of nomads in search of plunder and pastureland with the predatory aggression of jihadists, the Seljuks were unlike anything the Byzantines had seen before. Their mounted raiders struck fast and without warning, making it difficult to know where to concentrate the defenses. The unwieldy empire was used to dealing with states and armies, not roving bands slashing across their borders. In any case, the humiliated, demoralized imperial army could no longer offer much resistance.
Emperor Romanus Diogenes was a determined if not a gifted general, and when the Seljuks crossed the border in strength during his reign, he somehow managed to push them back across the Euphrates. Unfortunately for the empire, the small victory awakened all the aristocratic courtiers’ old fears that a strong emperor would restrict their privileges. By the time the Turks returned the next year and seized a small Armenian fortress in the town of Manzikert, support for the emperor had begun to dangerously erode.
Oblivious to the mounting dissension, Romanus marched out with his army, determined to evict the Turks from Christian lands once and for all. On August 26, 1071, the two armies met, and the most fateful battle in Byzantine history began. Despite massive defections from his unreliable mercenaries, the emperor managed to push the Turks back, but at a critical moment his scheming nobles betrayed him and withdrew. The cream of the army was slaughtered on the spot, and Romanus Diogenes was captured and forced to kiss the ground while the sultan, Alp Arslan, rested a boot on his neck.
The humiliation of an emperor groveling in the dust seemed to many later Byzantines as the awful moment when everything started to go wrong, but if it marked the beginning of their final decline, then it was the Byzantines themselves who were to blame. The battle could easily have been avoided. At Manzikert, the sultan had tried to come to terms, but the petty nobles had refused his offers and insisted on being the authors of their own destruction. And while the loss of prestige and manpower after the battle were bad enough, they could have been recovered from. It was the behavior of the aristocrats afterward that truly wrecked Byzantium. After fleeing from the scene of their defeat, the nobility escaped to spread chaos throughout the empire, unleashing civil war in their vain attempts to seize control of the sinking Byzantine ship. Rival claimants to the throne rose up in a bewildering succession and were overthrown just as quickly by yet another general with imperial dreams.
Now that the facade had cracked, the frontiers of the empire collapsed with alarming speed. In Italy, the Norman adventurer Robert Guiscard conquered Bari, ending more than five centuries of Byzantine rule in its ancestral land. In the East, the Turks came pouring into Asia Minor, and instead of trying to stop them, ambitious generals tried to use them as mercenaries in their own bids for power. Unreliable troops switched sides with alarming frequency, and famine followed in the wake of armies that trampled fields and seized crops. Within ten years, the Turks had overrun thirty thousand square miles of Asia Minor virtually unopposed, robbing the empire of the source of most of its manpower and grain. Except for thin strips along the Black Sea coast and the Mediterranean, Anatolia was lost forever, along with any hope of a long-term recovery for the empire as a whole. Even if a strong emperor came along, there were no longer any reserves of men or material to draw upon. The empire was dying, and instead of helping, foolish men insisted on fighting over its corpse.
When the Turks broke into Chrysopolis on the Asian side of the Bosporus in 1078 and burned it to the ground, the end of the empire seemed at hand. The army was shattered and broken, and the government was in the hands of privileged, arrogant men who had jealously guarded their own interests, undermining any emperor who showed a glimmer of ability. In only fifty-three years, these men had nearly wrecked the empire with their irresponsibility and greed, squandering a bursting treasury and sitting idly by while the empire lost more than half its territory. The only hope of deliverance now for the impoverished and miserable citizens was that one of the squabbling generals would emerge a clear victor and at least bring order to the disintegrating state.
It would take a man of rare abilities to restore some measure of life to the sad and shattered Byzantium, but on Easter Sunday of 1081, that man arrived. After pausing long enough to enjoy the acclamations of the crowd, a thirty-three-year-old general named Alexius Comnenus walked into the Hagia Sophia and received the crown from the patriarch. The task ahead of him was nearly insurmountable, but Alexius was energetic and shrewd, and he would prove to be among the greatest men ever to sit on the Byzantine throne.
*They were also deeply impressed by its sophistication. In 1004, a Byzantine aristocrat named Maria sparked enormous interest in Venice by eating with an ancient Roman double-pronged golden instrument. Touted as the latest word in sophistication, the device became enormously popular, and soon the fork was common throughout the West.
*The normal Byzantine practice was to settle veterans on the frontier who would provide a well-trained militia in exchange for land. This had the great advantage of lowering the cost of defense without seriously degrading the empire’s safety and had worked magnificently for years.
*The western church certainly took its time in adopting the Spanish version. As late as the ninth century, Pope Leo III posted the original wording of the creed outside the entrance to Saint Peter’s, and in 880 John VIII had remained completely silent when Constantinople had condemned the addition.
†This split between Rome and Constantinople can most plainly be seen in modern Serbia and Croatia. Though both are Slavic countries that speak the same language, they had the misfortune to fall into opposing religious camps. Croatia allied itself with Rome and became a Catholic power, writing the common language in the Latin alphabet, while Serbia joined the Orthodox orbit and uses Cyrillic.