Post-classical history

Eleventh-Century Crisis

But what it is necessary to say, I will say: it is from the time of this emperor [Constantine IX], because of his prodigality and his ostentatious magnificence, that the affairs of the Romans began to be endangered, and since then down to our own days little by little they have deteriorated to arrive at an extreme weakness.

John Skylitzes, Chronicle, eleventh century, on the failures of

Constantine IX (1042–55)

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.

As we have seen in chapter 17, 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.

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 thedemos 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.

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. As we shall see in the next chapter, Alexios I managed to establish his own dynasty, which ruled Byzantium for a century. Yet John Skylitzes recorded an ‘extreme weakness’ in the late eleventh century; the crisis had left distinct traces. Some modern historians have singled out this period as a stage in the ‘feudalization’ of the empire; others note the decline of Byzantium from an empire with ancient claims to world domination to a smaller medieval state administered by one family, the Komnenos. All point to the increased power of Italian trading cities – Amalfi, Pisa, Genoa and Venice – and the growth of distinct identities, particularly among Balkan peoples previously ruled from Constantinople. These new republican and separatist forces within the Mediterranean world were bound to affect Byzantine claims to imperial hegemony, though they also contributed to the exploration of novel forms of expression in a variety of fields of learning. Beyond all this, the drumbeat of Turkish expansion can be heard, still distant and underestimated, but announcing what would become the final displacement of Byzantine rule.

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