Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The Literary Emperors and Their Time

(A.D. 886-963.)

The eighty years which followed the death of Basil the Macedonian were the most uneventful and monotonous in the whole history of the empire. They are entirely taken up by the two long reigns of Leo the Wise and Constantine Porphyrogenitus, the son and grandson of the founder of the dynasty. Basil had been a mere adventurer, an ignorant and uneducated but capable upstart. His successors—strange issue from such a stock were a pair of mild, easy-going, and inoffensive men of literature. They wrote no annals with their sword, though the times were not unpropitious for military enterprise, but devoted themselves to the pen, and have left behind them some of the most useful and interesting works in Byzantine literature.

If the times had been harder it is doubtful whether Leo VI. and Constantine VII. would have been strong enough to protect their throne. But the period 880-960 was less troubled by foreign wars than any other corresponding period in the history of the East-Roman state. The empire of the Caliphs was breaking up in the East—the empire of Charles the Great had already broken up in the West—the Bulgarians and other neighbours of the realm on the north were being converted to Christianity, and settling down into quiet. The only troubles to which the East-Roman realm was exposed were piratical raids of the Russians on the north and the Saracens of Africa on the south. These were vexatious; but not dangerous. An active and warlike emperor would probably have found the time propitious for conquest from his neighbours, but Leo and Constantine were quiet, unenterprising men, who dwelt contentedly in the palace, and seldom or never took the field.

Leo's reign of twenty-six years was only diversified by an unfortunate invasion of Bulgaria, which failed through the mismanagement of the generals, and for a great raid of Saracen pirates on Thessalonica in 904. The capture of the second city of the empire by a fleet of African adventurers was an incident disgraceful to the administration of Leo, and caused much outcry and sensation. But it is fair to say that it was taken almost by surprise, and stormed from the side of the sea where no attack had been expected. The armies and fleet of the empire would have availed to rescue the town if only its fall had been delayed a few weeks. When they had taken it the Saracens fled with their booty, and made no attempt to hold its walls.

Constantine Porphyrogenitus, the offspring of the fourth wife of Leo the Wise, and the child of his old age, was only seven when his heritage fell to him. For many years he was under the tutelage of guardians; first his father's brother Alexander ruled as his colleague, and became emperor-regent. Some years after Alexander had died an ambitious admiral named Romanus Lecapenus usurped the same position, declared himself emperor, and administered the realm. The life of Romanus was protracted into extreme old age, long after Constantine had reached his majority; but the ambitious veteran held tight to the scepter, and kept the rightful heir in the back= ground. Constantine consoled himself by writing books and painting pictures; it was not till he was nearly that he came to his own. Even then his success was not owing to his own energy; the sons of the aged Romanus had resolved to succeed their parent on the throne, in despite of the rights of Constantine. But when they declared themselves emperors and made their old father abdicate, an outburst of popular wrath was provoked. The mob and the guards joined to sweep away the presumptuous Stephen Lecapenus and his brother. They were immured in monasteries, and Constantine emerged from his seclusion to administer the empire for twenty years. He was somewhat weak and ineffective, but neither obstinate nor tyrannical; many abler men made worse rulers.

The chief achievements of both Leo and Constantine were their hanks. Those of Leo consist of a manual on the Art of War, some theological treatises, and a book of prophecies, a collection of political enigmas, which were long the puzzle and admiration of the East. The first-named work is most valuable and interesting, bringing down the history of military organization, tactics, and strategy to Leo's own time, and giving us a perfect picture of the Byzantine army and its tactics, as well as incidental sketches of all the enemies with which it had to contend.

The backbone of the force was still the "themes" or "turmae" of heavy cavalry, of which every province had one. The number of the provinces had been much increased since the days of the emperors of the house of Heraclius, and this implied a corresponding increase in the troops. They were raised from subjects of the empire and officered by the Byzantine nobility, for as Leo observed, "There was no difficulty in obtaining officers of good birth and private means, whose origin made them respected by the soldiery, while their money enabled them to win the good graces of their men by many gifts of small creature comforts, over and above their pay." The names of some of the great noble houses are found for generation after generation in the imperial muster rolls, such as those of Ducas, Phocas, Comnenus, Bryennius, Kerkuas, Diogenes, and many more. The pages of Leo's work breathe an entire confidence in the power of the army to deal with any foe; against Saracen, Turk, Hungarian, and Slav, instant and decisive action is advised; when caught, they should be fought and beaten. It is only when dealing with the men of the West, the Franks and Lombards, that Leo recommends caution and deprecates any rash engagement in a general action, preferring to wear the enemy down by cutting off his supplies and harassing his marches.

We gather a very favourable impression of the Byzantine army from Leo's book; it was organized, armed, and supplied in a manner that has no parallel till modern times. Each regiment possessed its special uniform, and was equipped with regularity. There was none of that variety in arms and organizations which was the bane of mediaeval armies. The regiments had each attached to them an elaborate military train, a small body of engineers, and a provision of surgeons and ambulances. To encourage the saving of wounded men, Leo tells us that the bearer company was given a gold piece for every disabled soldier whom it brought off the field after a lost battle. It would be hard to find any similar care shown for the wounded till the days of our own century.

The Byzantine fleet, as Leo describes it, had for its chief object the maintenance of the police of the seas in the Aegean, Levant, and South Italian waters. Its enemies were the Saracens of the Syrian and African coasts, and more especially the troublesome Corsairs of Crete, who were often beaten but never subdued till Nicephorus Phocas exterminated them in 961. The empire maintained three fleets, small ones in the Black Sea and in Western waters; but the largest in the Aegean. This was composed of sixty "dromonds," or war-vessels of the largest rating; their great depot was in the arsenal at Constantinople, but they could also be refitted at Samos, Thessalonica, and several other ports. Owing to their superior size, and still more to their employment of the celebrated Greek fire, the imperial fleets generally had the better of the Saracen, but though they checked his larger squadrons, they could never suppress the petty piracy by isolated sea-robbers, which rendered all mediaeval commerce so dangerous.

The works of Constantine Porphyrogenitus are even more interesting than those of his father. His treatise called "On the Themes" is invaluable to the historian, as it gives a complete list of the Themes, their boundaries, inhabitants, characteristics, and resources, with some other incidental notices of value. Still more important is the book, "On the Administration of the Empire," which contains directions for the foreign policy of the realm, and sketches the condition and resources of the various nations with whom the Constantinopolitan government had dealings. Constantine also wrote a biography of his grandfather, Basil the Macedonian, couched in terms of respect which that hardy usurper was far from deserving. But his longest and most ambitious work was on Court Ceremonies, a manual of etiquette and precedence, describing the official hierarchy of the empire, its duties and privileges, and containing elaborate directions for the conduct of state ceremonials and the interior economy of the royal household. On this comparatively trifling topic Constantine spent far more pains than on the works of larger interest which he composed. His books show him to have been a man of no great originative faculty, but gifted with the powers of a careful and methodical compiler, who loved details and never shirked trouble. His care for court pageants was very characteristic of the peaceful emperor, who had long been kept at home by his guardian, and forced to compensate himself by ceremonial for the want of real power.

The fact that two successive emperors devoted themselves to literary work is a sufficient sign that by the end of the ninth century the times of intellectual dearth and destitution which had so long prevailed were near at an end. From the death of Justinian to the end of the Heraclian dynasty matters grew gradually worse; from the rise of Leo the Isaurian onward they began slowly to improve. The darkest age in Byzantine literary history was from about boo to 750, a period in which we have hardly any contemporary annalists, no poetry save the lost Heracliad of George of Pisidia, and very little even of theology. Literature seemed absolutely dead at the accession of the Isaurians, but the quickening influence of the reforms of the great Leo seems to have been felt in that province as in every other. By the end of the eighth century writers were far more numerous, though many of them were only anti-Iconoclastic controversialists, like Theodore Studita. By the ninth century we can trace the existence of a much larger literary class, and find a few really first-rate authors, such as the patriarch Photius (857-869), whose learning and width of culture was astonishing, and whose library-catalogue is the envy of modern scholars.

Perhaps the most interesting development of Byzantine literature were the epics, or Romances of Chivalry as we feel more inclined to call them, which were written toward the end of the times of the Macedonian dynasty. The epic of Digenes Akritas, a work of the end of the tenth century, celebrating the praises of a hero who lived in the reigns of Nicephorus Phocas and John Zimisces [963-980], may serve as a type of the class. It tells of the adventures in love and war of Basil Digenes Akritas, warden of the Cilician Marches, or "Clissurarch of Taurus," as his official title would have run. He was a mighty hunter, both of bears and of Saracens, put down the Apelates (or moss-troopers, to use a modern analogy) who infested the border, and led many a foray into Syria. He is even credited, with the slaying of an occasional dragon by his admiring bard.) But perhaps the most interesting episode is the story of his elopement with the fair Eudocia Ducas, daughter of the general of the Cappadocian theme, whom he carried off in despite of her father and seven brethren. Pursued by the irate family, he rode them down one by one at vantage points in the passes, but spared their lives, and was reconciled to them at the intercession of his bride. "Digenes Akritas" is the best as well as the earliest of the class which it represents.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


Art followed much the same course as literature in the period 600-900. It was in a state of decay for the first century and a half, and the surviving works of that time are often grotesquely rude. For sheer bad drawing and bad execution nothing can be worse than a coin of Constans II. or Constantine V.; a Frankish or Visigoth piece could not be much more unsightly. The few manuscripts which survive from that period display a corresponding, though not an equally great, decline in art. Mosaic work perhaps showed less decline than other branches of the decoration, but even here seventh and eighth century work is very rare.

In the ninth century everything improves wonderfully. It is most astonishing to see how the old classical tradition of painting revive in the best manuscript illumination of the period; many of them might have been executed in the fifth or even the fourth century, so closely do they reproduce the old Roman style. It seems that the Iconoclastic controversy stimulated painting; persecuted by the emperors, the art of sacred portraiture became respected above all others by the multitude. Several of the most prominent "Iconodule" martyrs were painters, of whom it is recorded that their works were no less beautiful than edifying: those of Lazarus, whom the Emperor Theophilus tortured, are especially cited as triumphs of art as well as sanctity.

Though a persecutor of painters, Theophilus deserves a word of mention as the first great builder since Justinian, and as a patron of the minor arts of jewelry, silver work, and mosaic. There is good evidence that these were all in a very flourishing condition in his time [829-842].

There is one more point in the history of the empire in the ninth century to which attention must be called. This is the unique commercial importance of Constantinople during this and the two succeeding centuries. All other commerce than that of the empire had been swept off the seas by the Saracen pirates in the preceding hundred years, and the only touch between Eastern and Western Christendom was kept up under the protection of the imperial navy. The Eastern products which found their way to Italy or France were all passed through the warehouses of the Bosphorus. It was East-Roman ships that carried all the trade; save a few Italian ports, such as Amalphi and the new city of Venice, no place seems even to have possessed merchant ships. This monopoly of the commerce of Europe was one of the greatest elements in the strength of the empire. So much money and goods passed through it that a rather harsh and unwise system of taxation did no permanent harm.