Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

Social and Religious Life

(A.D. 320-620.)

The reign of Heraclius forms the best dividing point in the history of the empire between what may roughly be called Ancient History and the Middle Ages. There is no break at all between Constantine and Heraclius, though the area, character, social life, and religion of the empire had been greatly modified in the three hundred years that separated them. The new order of things, which commenced when Constantine established his capital on the Bosphorus, had a peaceable and orderly development. The first prominent fact that strikes the eye in the history of the three centuries is that the scepter passed from sovereign to sovereign in quiet and undisturbed devolution. From the death of Valens onward there is no instance of a military usurper breaking the line of succession till the crowning of Phocas in 6o2. The emperors were either designated by their predecessors or less frequently chosen by the high officials and the senate. The regularity of their sequence is all the more astonishing when we realize that only in three cases in the whole period was father succeeded by son. Saving Constantine himself, Theodosius I., and Arcadius, not a single emperor left male issue; yet the hereditary instinct had grown so strong in the empire that nephews, sons-in-law, and brothers-in-law of sovereigns were gladly received as their legitimate heirs. Considering this tendency, it is extraordinary to note that the whole three hundred years did not produce a single unmitigated , tyrant. Constantius II. was gloomy and sometimes cruel, Valens was stupid and avaricious, Arcadius utterly weak and inept, Justinian hard and thankless; but the general average of the emperors were men of respectable ability, and in moral character they will compare favourably with any list of sovereigns of similar length that any country can produce.

The chief modifications which must be marked in the character of the empire between 320 and 620 depend on two processes of gradual change which were going on throughout the three centuries. The first was the gradual de-Romanization (if we may coin the uncouth word) alike of the governing classes and the masses of population. In the fourth century the Roman impress was still strong in the East; the Latin language was habitually spoken by every educated man, and nearly all the machinery of the administration was worked in Latin phraseology. All law terms are habitually Latin, all titles of officers, all names of taxes and institutions. Writers born and bred in Greece or Asia still wrote in Latin as often as in the Greek which must have been more familiar to them. Ammianus Marcellinus may serve as a fair example: born in Greece, he wrote in the tongue of the ruling race rather than in his own idiom. Moreover there was still in the lands east of the Adriatic a very large body of Latin-speaking population comprising all the inhabitants of the inland of the Balkan peninsula, for, except Greece proper, Macedonia, and a scattered line of cities along the Thracian coast, the whole land had learnt to speak the tongue of its conquerors.

By the seventh century this Roman element was rapidly vanishing. It is true that the Emperor was still hailed as the "Pius, Felix, Perpetuus, Augustus": it was not till about A.D. 800 that he dropped the old style and called himself "'E? X??st? p?st?? as??e?? t?? '??a???."  Nor were the old Roman official titles yet disused: men were still tribunes and patricians, counts and praetors, but little more than the names survived. Already in the sixth century a knowledge of Latin was growing unusual even among educated men. The author Johannes Lydus tells us that he owed his rise in the civil service mainly to this rare accomplishment. Procopius, the best writer of the day and a man of real merit and discernment, was absolutely ignorant of the rudiments of Latin, and blunders when he tries to translate the simplest phrase. Justinian was the last emperor who spoke Latin as his mother tongue, all his successors were better skilled in Greek.

The gradual disuse of Latin has its origin in the practical though not formal—solution of the continuity between Rome and the East, which began with the division of the empire between the sons of Constantine and became more complete after Odoacer made himself King of Italy in 476. In the course of a century and a half the Latin element in the East, cut off from the Latin-speaking West, was bound to yield before the predominant Greek. But the process would have been slower if the Eastern provinces which spoke Latin had not been those which suffered most from the barbarians. The Visigoths and Ostrogoths harassed and decimated the Thracians, Illyrians, and Moesians, but the Slavs a century later almost exterminated them. In A.D. 400 probably a quarter of the provincials east of the Adriatic spoke Latin; in A.D. 620 not a tenth. The Romanized lands of the Balkan peninsula had now become Slavonic principalities: only the Dalmatian seaports and a few scattered survivors in the Balkans still used the old tongue. The only districts where a considerable Latin-speaking population obeyed the Emperor were Africa and the Italian Exarchate, now reunited to Constantinople by the conquests of Justinian. But they seem to have been too remote from the centre of life and government to have exercised any influence or delayed the de-Romanizing of the East. The last notable author, who being a subject of the empire wrote in Latin as his native tongue, was the poet Flavius Corippus who addressed a long panegyric to Justinus II.: as might have been expected, he was an African.

While the empire was losing its Roman characteristics, it was at the same time growing more and more Christian at heart. Under Constantine and his immediate successors the machinery of government was only just beginning to be effected by the change of the emperor's religion. Though the sovereign personally was Christian, the system remained what it had been before. Many of the high officials were still pagans, and the form and spirit of all administrative and legal business was unaltered from what it had been in the third century. It is not till forty years after Constantine's death that we find the Christian spirit fully penetrating out of the spiritual into the material sphere of life. Attempts by the State to suppress moral sin no less than legal crime begin with Theodosius I., whose crusade against sexual immorality would have been incomprehensible to even the best of the pagan emperors. The old gladiatorial shows, one of the most characteristic and repulsive features of Roman life, were abolished not long after. They survived for sixty years at Rome, though Christian Constantinople never knew them. But this was not the work of the State, but of a single individual. One day in A.D. 404 the games had begun, and the gladiators were about to engage, when the monk Telemachus leapt down into the arena and threw himself between the combatants, adjuring them not to slay their brethren. There was an angry scuffle, and the good monk was slain. But his death had the effect that his protests might have failed to bring about, and no gladiatorial show was ever given again.

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


In other provinces of social life the work of Christianity was no less marked. It put an end to the detestable practice of infanticide which pervaded the ancient world, resting on the assumption that the father had the right to decide whether or not he would rear the child he had begotten. Constantine made the State assume the charge of feeding and rearing the children of the destitute, lest their parents should be tempted to cast them forth to perish in the old fashion, and Valentinian I. in 374 assimilated infanticide to other forms of murder, and made it a capital offence.

Slavery was also profoundly affected by the teaching of the Church. The ancient world, save a few philosophers, had regarded the slave with such contempt that he was hardly reckoned a moral being or conceived to have rights or virtues. Christianity taught that he was a man with an immortal soul, no less than his own master, and bade slaves and freemen meet on terms of perfect equality around the baptismal font and before the sacred table. It was from the first taught that the man who manumitted his slaves earned the approval of heaven, and all occasions of rejoicing, public and private, were fitly commemorated by the liberation of deserving individuals. Though slavery was not extinguished for centuries, its evils were immensely modified; Justinian's legislation shows that by his time public opinion had condemned the characteristic evils of ancient slavery: he permitted the intermarriage of slaves and free persons, stipulating only for the consent of the owner of the servile partner in the wedlock. He declared the children of such mixed marriages free, and he made the prostitution of a slave by a master a criminal offence. Hereditary slavery became almost unknown, and the institution was only kept up by the introduction of barbarian captives, heathens and enemies, whose position did not appeal so keenly to the mind of their captors.

The improvement of the condition of all the unhappy classes of which we have been speaking—women, infants, slaves, gladiators—can be directly traced back to a single fundamental Christian truth. It was the belief in the importance of the individual human soul in the eyes of God that led the converted Roman to realize his responsibility, and change his attitude towards the helpless beings whom he had before despised and neglected. It is only fair to add that the realization of this central truth did not always operate for good in the Roman world of the fifth and sixth centuries. Some of the developments of the new idea were harmful and even dangerous to the State. They took the form of laying such exclusive stress on the relations between the individual soul and heaven, that the duties of man to the State were half forgotten. Chief among these developments was the ascetic monasticism which, starting from Egypt, spread rapidly all over the empire, more especially over its eastern provinces. When men retire from their duties as citizens, intent on nothing but on saving their own souls, take up a position outside the State, and cease to be of the slightest use to society, the result may be harmless so long as their numbers are small. But at this time the monastic impulse was working on such a large scale that its development was positively dangerous. It was by thousands and ten thousands that the men who ought to have been bearing the burdens of the State, stepped aside into the monastery or the hermit's cave. The ascetics of the fifth century had neither of the justifications which made monasticism precious in a later age, they were neither missionaries nor men of learning. The monastery did not devote itself either to sending out preachers and teachers, or to storing up and cherishing the literary treasures of the ancient world. The first abbot to whom it occurred to turn the vast leisure of his monks to good account by setting them systematically to work at copying manuscripts was Cassiodorus, the ex-secretary to King Theodoric the Goth [A.D. 530-540]. Before his time monks and books had no special connection with each other.

When a State contains masses of men who devote their whole energies to a repulsively selfish attempt to save their own individual souls, while letting the world around them slide on as best it may, then the body politic is diseased. The Roman Empire in its fight with the barbarians was in no small degree hampered by this attitude of so many of its subjects. The ascetic took the barbarian invasions as judgments from heaven rightly inflicted upon a wicked world, and not as national calamities which called on every citizen to join in the attempt to repel them. Many men complacently interpreted the troubles of the fifth century as the tribulations predicted in the Apocalypse, and watched them develop with something like joy, since they must portend the close approach of the Second Advent of our Lord.

This apathetic attitude of many Christians during the afflictions of the empire was maddening to the heathen minority which still survived among the educated classes. They roundly accused Christianity of being the ruin of the State by its anti-social teaching which led men to neglect every duty of the citizen. The Christian author Orosius felt himself compelled to write a lengthy history to confute this view, aiming his work at the pagan Symmachus whose book had been devoted to tracing all the calamities of the world to the conversion of Constantine.

It was fortunate for the empire that its governing classes continued to preserve the old traditions of Roman statecraft, and fought on doggedly against all the ills of their time barbarian invasion, famine, and pestilence, instead of bowing to the yoke and recognizing in every calamity the righteous judgment of heaven and the indication of the approaching end of the world.

Paganism had practically disappeared by the end of the fifth century as an active force; none save a few philosophers made an open profession of it, and in 5 29 Justinian put a formal end to their teaching, by closing the schools of Athens, the last refuge of the professors of the expiring religion. But if open heathenism was dead, a large measure of indifferentism prevailed among the educated classes: many men who in the fifth century would have been pagans were Christians in name in the sixth, but little affected by Christianity in their lives. This type was extremely common among the literary and official classes. There are plenty of sixth-century authors—Procopius may serve as an example—whose works show no trace of Christian thought, though the writer was undoubtedly a professing member of the Church. Similar examples could be quoted by the dozen from among the administrators, lawyers, and statesmen of the day, but all were now nominally Christian. As time went on, such men grew rarer, and the old stern, non-religious Roman character passed away into the emotional and superstitious mediaeval type of mind. The survival of pre-Christian feeling, which appeared as indifferentism among the educated classes, took a very different shape among the lower strata of society. It revealed itself in a crowd of gross superstitions connected with magic, witchcraft, fortune-telling, charms, and trivial or obscene ceremonies practised in secret. The State highly disapproved of such practices, treated them as impious or heretical, and imposed punishment on those who employed them: but nevertheless these contemptible survivals of heathenism persisted down to the latest days of the empire.

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


It has been usual to include all the Eastern Romans of all the centuries between Constantine I. and Constantine XI. in one sweeping condemnation, as cowardly, corrupt, and effete. The ordinary view of Byzantine life may be summed up in Mr. Lecky's irritating statement that "the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes the most base and despicable form that civilization ever assumed, and that there has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely greatness, none to which the epithet mean may be so emphatically applied. It is a monstrous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women; of poisoning, conspiracies, uniform ingratitude, perpetual fratricide." How Mr. Lecky obtained his universal verdict of history, it is hard to see: certainly that verdict cannot have been arrived at after a study of the evidence bearing on the life of the persons accused. It sounds like a cheap echo of the second-hand historians of fifty years ago, whose staple commodity was Gibbon-and-water.

If we must sum up the characteristics of the East Romans and their civilization, the conclusion at which we arrive will be very different. It is only fair to acknowledge that they had their faults: what else could be expected when we know that the foundations of the Eastern Empire were laid upon the Oriental provinces of the old Roman world, among races that had long been stigmatized by their masters as hopelessly effete and corrupt Syrians, Egyptians, and Hellenized Asiatics, whom even the degenerate Romans of the third century had been wont to despise. The Byzantine Empire displayed from its very cradle a taint of weakness derived from this Oriental origin. It showed features particularly obnoxious to the modern mind of the nineteenth century such as the practice of a degrading and groveling court etiquette, full of prostrations and genuflections, the introduction of eunuchs and slaves into high offices of State, the wholesale and deliberate use of treachery and lying in matters of diplomacy.

But remembering its origins we shall, on the whole, wonder at the good points in Byzantine civilization rather than at its faults. It may fairly be said that Christianity raised the Roman East to a better moral position than it had known for a thousand years. With all their faults the monks and hermits of the fifth century are a good substitute for the priests of Cybele and Mithras of the second. It was something that the Government and the public opinion of the day had concurred to sweep away the orgies of Daphne and Canopus. Church and State united in the reign of Justinian to punish with spiritual and bodily death the unnatural crimes which had been the open practice of emperors themselves in the first centuries of the empire.

The vices of which the East Romans have most commonly been accused are cowardice, frivolity, and treachery. On each of these points they have been grossly wronged. Cowardice was certainly not the chief characteristic of the centuries that produced emperors like Theodosius I. and Heraclius, prelates like Athanasius and Chrysostom, public servants like Belisarius and Priscus. It is not for cowardice that we note the Byzantine populace which routed Gainas and his mercenaries, and raised the Nika sedition, but for turbulence. If military virtue was wanting to the East-Roman armies, how came the Ostrogoth and Vandal to be conquered, the Persian and the Hun to be driven off, how, above all, was the desperate struggle against the fanatical Saracen protracted for four hundred years, till at last the Caliphate broke up?

Frivolity and luxury are an accusation easy to bring against any age. Every moralist, from Jeremiah to Juvenal, and from Juvenal to Mr. Ruskin, has believed his own generation to be the most obnoxious and contemptible in the world's history. We have numerous tirades against the manners of Constantinople preserved in Byzantine literature, and may judge from them something of the faults of the time. It would seem that there was much of the sort of luxury to which ascetic preachers take exception—much splendour of raiment, much ostentatious display of plate and furniture, of horses and chariots. Luxury and evil living often go together, but when we examine all the enormities laid to the charge of the Byzantines, there is less alleged than we might expect. When Chrysostom raged against the contemporaries of Arcadius, his anathemas fell on such crimes as the use of cosmetics and dyes by fashionable dames, on the gambling propensities of their husbands, on the immoral tendencies of the theatre, on the drunken orgies at popular festivals—accusations to which any age—our own included might plead guilty. The races of the Circus played a disproportionate part in social life, and attracted the enthusiastic attention of thousands of votaries; but it is surely hard that our own age, with all its sporting and athletic interests should cast a stone at the sixth century. We have not to look far around us to discover classes for whom horse-racing still presents an inexplicable attraction. When we remember that the Constantinopolitans were excitable Orientals, and had no other form of sport to distract their attention from the Circus, we can easily realize the genesis of the famous riots of the Blues and Greens.

From the darker forms of vice great cities have never been free, and there is no reason to think that Constantinople in the sixth century differed from London in the nineteenth. It is fair to point out that Christian public opinion and the Government strove their best to put down sexual immorality. Theodosius and Justinian are recorded to have entered upon the herculean task of endeavouring to suppress all disorderly houses: the latter made exile the penalty for panders and procuresses, and inflicted death on those guilty of the worst extremes of immorality. We must remember, too, that if Constantinople showed much vice, it also displayed shining examples of the social virtues. The Empress Flaccilla was wont to frequent the hospitals, and tend the beds of the sick. Of the monastic severity which the Empress Pulcheria displayed in the palace we have spoken already.

After cowardice and light morals, it is treachery that is popularly cited as the most prominent vice of the Eastern Empire. There have been other states and epochs more given to plots and revolts, but it is still true that there was too much intrigue at Constantinople. The reason is not far to seek: the "carriere ouverte aux talents" (career open to the talents)   practically existed there, and the army and the civil service were full of poor, able, and ambitious men of all races and classes mixed together. The converted Goth or the renegade Persian, the half-civilized mountaineer from Isauria, the Copt and Syrian and Armenian were all welcomed in the army or civil service, if only they had ability. Both the bureaucracy and the army therefore had elements which lacked patriotism, conscience, and stability, and were prone to seek advancement either by intrigue or military revolt. This being granted, it is perhaps astonishing to have to record that between 350 and 600 the empire never once saw its legitimate ruler dethroned, either by palace intrigue or military revolt. The fact that all the plots—and there were many in the period—failed hopelessly, is, on the whole, a proof that if there was much treachery there was much loyalty among the East Romans. There have certainly been periods in more recent times which show a much worse record. A single instance may suffice—Mediaeval Italy from the thirteenth to the fifteenth century could produce far more shocking examples of conscienceless and unjustifiable plotting than the Byzantine Empire in the whole thousand years of its existence.