Bloody shovel

Don't call it a spade

Constantinople’s suicide

I apologise for the frivolous intermede, and now continue with more serious matters.

Following up with the first post, I’ll explain how big, rich and important Anatolia (Asia Minor) was for the Empire, and how the Empire basically let the Turks in by sheer incompetence.

The first chapter in the book is dedicated to bust the myth that Asia Minor wasn’t Greek to begin with. It’s been written often that the loss of Asia Minor was analogue to that of Syria or Egypt: the people were ethnically distinct from their rulers, and as a result didn’t care being ruled by the Turks. Vryonis asserts with strong evidence that the population of Asia Minor, if originally distinct, had long been Hellenised, and by the 6th century was majority Greek speaking, Orthodox Christian up to Cappadocia (up to Sebasteia, modern Sivas). Further east the Syrian, Armenian or Kurdish element was more prevalent. Asia Minor had been spared the multiple invasions that Greece had suffered, such as the Germanic and Slavic invasions in the 5th and 6th centuries. Besides some Arab raids after the rise of the Caliphate, Asia Minor had enjoyed a long peace, and was by far the richest part of the Byzantine Empire.

It also was the “spiritual reservoir”(Vryonis’ words) of the Empire. Asia Minor was one of the earliest areas to be Christianised, and was “strewn with sanctuaries and cults of numerous saints”. In the tenth century, of the first 27 metropolitanates (the highest division of the church administration), 25 were in Asia Minor and only 2 in Europe. There were 371 bishoprics in Asia Minor, while only 99 in Europe, 18 in the Aegean Islands and 16 in Calabria. That should give a good measure of the size and wealth of the eastern part of the empire.

So what happened anyway?

 – The political mess –

Byzantium gets admiration for its integration between Church and State, the Church being little less than the welfare/PR department of the imperial bureaucracy, and the Emperor being the head of it all. A Commander of the Faithful, sort of.

And in the same way that happens in Islamic countries, being the ostensible leader of the faithful did little to ensure the obedience of the populace. Which should remind us that most people, past and present, don’t really give a shit about religion. Byzantium’s court was perhaps the most treacherous and intrigue-plagued in human history. It didn’t help that they had a very messy succession system, unreformed since the early Roman times. In fact it didn’t have a system at all. It was a constant struggle between the Constantinople-based bureaucratic noble families who actually ran the country,  and the army leaders from the provinces who ensured there was a country to run.

The army tended to win, which means there was a sort of tradition of ambitious generals revolting and seizing the throne for themselves. The establishment of the Macedonian dynasty by Basil I in 867 brought a new emphasis on the military, recovering much land and strength. Which is great, but in a country where generals revolting is the national sport, a strengthened army could only mean trouble.

The army depended mostly on levies from each theme (province), which were led by the strategos (governor). This generals also tended to be big landowners, and their landholdings greatly increased during that era, giving them a dangerous amount of resources and manpower at their command. They also could bargain tax breaks that free peasants could not, straining the center’s finances. During the reign of Basil II (976-1025) two Anatolian magnates, Skleros and Phokas, went all in, and were only barely suppressed by the loyalist armies. After Basil II’s death, it was all over again. I quote from the book (pp72):

As a result of Basil’s successful opposition to the political designs of the generals, the bureaucrats were able to keep the generals from political power for thirty-two years after the death of Basil I1 (1025-57).

(…) During this thirty-two year period of civilian preponderance in the capital, the sources record thirty major rebellions, or about one every year, and the list of the generals who were exiled, executed, or blinded is a long and monotonous one, Rebellion became such a commonplace occurrence that the shrewd general Cecaurnenus included in his Strategicona chapter on the conduct of a prudent man during the outbreak of rebellions

What did the court do? Of course fight back with bureaucratic means. That is, dismissing armies, cutting funding, basically screwing with the military as much as they could. The armies that still stood were summoned from the provinces to either attack or defend the capital from rebellions and foreign raids from the Pontic steppe nomads (the Pechenegs), while foreign mercenaries were increasingly relied on. The pressure on the treasury led to the first ever debasement of the solidus, the best currency of the medieval world.

To summarise, the periods of bureaucratic vs military rule were:

Bureaucrats: Empress Zoe, husbands and friends: 1028 – 1057

General: Isaac II Comnenus: 1057-1059

Bureaucrat: Constantine X Doukas: 1059-1067

Bureaucrat: Michael VII Doukas: 1067 – 1069

General: Romanos IV Diogenes: 1069 – 1071

Bureaucrat: Michael VII Doukas again: 1071-1078

It’s funny that  instead of name + ordinal, it’s name + ordinal + family name. Byzantine politics were little else than a Venezuelan soap opera-ish family struggle, but they felt the need to appear as a traditional monarchy.

So we see that infighting was ravaging the very structure of the Byzantine state. And precisely in this unfortunate time will they meet the fiercest of enemies: the Seljuq Turks.

The Seljuqs were yet another odd tribe of Central Asian nomadic Turks who invaded Persia 1040s. In Persia they converted to Islam, learned the Persian language, styled themselves as Sultans and enjoyed the life of a settled monarch. But of course nomad armies work by wandering around with their yurts and plundering settled society, so a successful conquest is little prize for them. Garrisoning a town is little fun. The Sultan didn’t want them around either, so what they did was keep on going, raiding the borders of Byzantine territory. The loot and slaves taken would be sold in settled Persia, so it was a win-win.

In 1057 an army of 3000 Turks stormed the eastern frontier, and what did the provincial army do? What of course, revolt against Constantinople! And actually won this time, making Isaac I emperor. Meanwhile the Turks had made themselves comfortable in Armenia, using it as a base to raid Byzantine cities. In 1058 they besieged Melitene, looting, killing and enslaving much of the population.  The result was chaos:

The bureaucratic fear of the armies and financial difficulties of the state caused the final disappearance of the locally levied troops as effective military units. The ethnic groups of Byzantine Anatolia-Greeks, Syrians, and Armenians-were at the throats of one another as separatist movements among the Armenians commenced, and open warfare broke out between Greeks and Armenians, Armenians and Syrians, and Greeks and Syrians. In such a situation the mercenary units began to disregard the commands of the government and to act as free agents (pp 88).

What did the government do? First expel the damn rebel Isaac I in 1059, then proceed to further dismantle the army so no further rebellions would happen.  9 years later, in 1068, Romanos IV, a new general seized the government and sought to defend the eastern borders. But it was too late for the imperial army:

These were bent over by poverty and distress and were deprived of armour. Instead of swords and other military weapons. ..they were bearing hunting spears and scythes,and this not during a period of peace, and they were without war horse and other equipment. Inasmuch as no emperor had taken the field for many years, they were for this reason unprofitable and useless, and their salary and the customary provisions had been stripped away. They were cowardly and unwarlike and appeared to be unserviceable for anything brave. The very standards spoke out taciturnly, having a squalid appearance as if darkened by thick smoke, and they had few and poor followers. These things being observed by those present, they were filled with despondency as they reckoned how low the armies of the Rhomaioi had fallen, and by what manner and from what moneys and how long it would take to bring them back to their former condition. For the older and experienced were without horse and without armour, and the fresh detachments were without military experience and unaccustomed to the military struggles. Whereas the enemy was very bold in warfare, persevering, experienced, and suitable

Thus Byzantium was without an army in front of the worse threat to its territory since the 7th century. All it could do was scramble a mercenary army and see what happens.

 – The ethnic mess –

Starting on the late 900s Byzantium had this great idea of expanding south and east, annexing easy land from their weakened Arab and Armenian neighbours. The Armenian element was particular big, as in exchange for their kingdom, which after decades of decay finally fell in 1045. A big chunk of the Armenian aristocracy and their clients swarmed into Byzantine territory, purchasing big tracts of land and colonizing whole areas in the  immediate vicinities and in the southeast (Cilicia). Armenians were not Chalcedonian, i.e. they disagreed in some stupid trivia about the nature of Christ, and so were heretics in the eyes of Constantinople. So you have a foreign nation, perhaps the most stubborn in human history (they’re still around!), spiteful about their lost freedom, feeling discriminated for some theological crap, just moving into your country. Sounds like trouble, and that’s what it was.

During the periods of military rule, Greeks, Armenians and Syrians who lived together in the eastern themes kept a semblance of order, but the Turk onslaught broke all hell loose. The bureaucratic government sought to establish order in its own way:

The state, in a policy recalling events of the sixth and seventh centuries, attempted to force ecclesiastical union and the Chalcedonian creed on both Syrians and Armenians. In 1063 all who did not accept the Chalcedonian creed in Melitene were to be expelled from the city, and one year later the Syrian patriarch was arrested and the leading Syrian clergymen were brought to Constantinople. Charged with spreading their own religious doctrines and having refused to accept Chalcedon, the Syrian ecclesiastical leader (the metropolitan of Melitene) was exiled to Macedonia. The Armenians similarly experienced considerable imperial pressure in this matter, as the Armenian catholicus and many of his bishops were summoned to Constantinople and held virtual prisoners (1060-63).Two years later (1065) they were once more ordered to appear in Constantinople, but this time the Bagratid and Ardzrouni princes were also summoned.

With predictable consequences:

When Kakig, the Bagratid prince, returned to his lands in the province of Cappadocia he instigated what amounted to open warfare against the Greeks in his vicinity. (…) The outrage of the Armenians was such, Matthew remarks,that Kakig intended to desert to the Turks, but he was eventually slain by the Greeks in the Taurus before he could do so.

This is not by any means any attempt to paint the Armenians as victims. The Greeks had plenty of reasons to hate the Armenians:

Greek inhabitants complained to him that when Sebasteia had been sacked by the Turks (1059),the Armenians had been more violent and unpitying toward the Greeks than had the Turks themselves!

– The Fight –

So that was the wonderful condition in the ground when Romanos Diogenes, emperor from 1068, decides to march east and actually do something about the Turks. As we see he didn’t have much of an army, so he relied mostly on mercenaries. Which has its own problems:

The mercenaries, upon whom the Byzantines were forced to rely, began to demonstrate clearly that their loyalty depended directly on, and was proportionate to, the strength of the central and provincial governments and their pay. When the central and provincial administration became weak in this period, and as the government no longer had sufficient funds to live up to its terms of hire, the mercenaries showed themselves to be independent agents. This twelve-year period, then, witnessed an intensification of the unruly conduct of the foreign soldiery. The Muslim military leader, Amertices, who had served Byzantium, deserted to the Turks because his pay had been withheld, and then played a major role in the raids in Anatolia and around Anti0ch (…) The rebellion of the Frankish leader Crispin in 1069 was of a major dimension. Having considered his reward from the emperor as unsatisfactory, he returned to the Armeniac theme and there raised the Latins in revolt. The tax collectors and the land were plundered, and when Samuel Alusianus (the general of the five western tagmata encamped in that area, took the field, Crispin defeated him and inflicted severe losses on these western forces. All this having occurred as Romanus was setting out on his second Turkish campaign, it seemed as if the whole military expedition against the Turks would have to be redirected to stay the rapacity of the Franks who were ravishing the very provinces they had been hired to defend, Crispin finally made his submission, but in the end had to be imprisoned, retaliation, the Latins then proceeded to ravage the regions of Byzantine Mesopotamia at the same time that the emperor was forced to proceed to Caesareia to meet a serious Turkish raid.

A broken army, seditious Armenians, rampaging mercenaries. It’s a marvel that the Emperor actually got to wage war at all. But he did, and was doing nicely when he finally caught up with the Turk sultan, Alp Arslan himself, in the vicinity of Manzikert, in 1071. The Emperor actually had the upper hand, and captured the Seljuq camp with little difficulty. The Turk cavalry fled, and Romanos pursued. It became dark, and the Emperor decided to halt the pursuit, returning to camp, lest he be ambushed. But the rear army was led by Andronicus Doukas, a nephew of the bureaucrat Emperor than Romanos had deposed. On seeing the Emperor retreating, he spread the rumor that the battle was lost, and fled with his troops. The Turks couldn’t believe it. With the Byzantine army confused and undermanned, the Turks surrounded it, destroyed it, and captured the emperor alive. Afterwards this famous conversation ensued:

Alp Arslan: “What would you do if I were brought before you as a prisoner?”Romanos: “Perhaps I’d kill you, or exhibit you in the streets of Constantinople.”Alp Arslan: “My punishment is far heavier. I forgive you, and set you free.”

Heavy indeed was the punishment because on returning to Constantinople, the Doukas family arrested him, blinded him and let him to die in some island. Perhaps the Turks knew all along.

What happened then was that tens of thousands of blood-thirsty, loot-loving and slave-trading steppe nomads sarmed into a 750.000km² area of rich and populous land, with predictable consequences.

Next chapter will end this series with the story of how the Turks killed, bullied and persuaded their way into ethnically transforming Asia Minor, forever.

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11 responses to “Constantinople’s suicide

  1. Alrenous June 6, 2012 at 03:33

    I still don’t see how this has much to do with Christianity, though.

    In other news, notes.

    • spandrell June 6, 2012 at 08:46

      Well it shows how Byzantines weren’t the epitomes of Christian virtue.
      Being a priest-king didn’t save the emperors from being killed every couple of weeks, and they didn’t give a shit about their Christian brethren when they were being massacred and enslaved by the thousands.

      The next chapter will be about the mass conversion of Christians to Islam.

      • Alrenous June 6, 2012 at 21:29

        Ah, yeah I agree.
        Supposedly, Byzantines were Christian. If I disregarded their profession of Christianity, I would never know. As per my notes, they act almost the same as hyper-liberalized or outright atheistic American politicians.

  2. Handle June 6, 2012 at 06:09

    Luttwak also has a great book on the Byzantines.

  3. asdf June 6, 2012 at 12:10

    Mercenary armies from other ethnicities aren’t loyal to the emporer or kingdom. Sounds like the same thing that happened to the western empire.

    • spandrell June 6, 2012 at 12:36

      People never learn, do they?

      It was arguably worse, as it wasn’t tamed mercenaries keeping the kingdom for themselves. They got the gold and ran, leaving the people defenceless against bloodthirsty nomads.

      It’s as if the Goths instead of fighting with Aetius against the Huns, had packed and left Italy to be plundered by Attila.

      • asdf June 6, 2012 at 13:22

        Yeah, but that’s life I suppose. This cycle repeats over and over again. I’m sure people figured this stuff out before there just aren’t a lot of solutions. Once the trend is going against you even the wisest ruler can only buy your empire a single lifetime.

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  6. james wilson June 10, 2012 at 20:26

    Religion and government will both exist in greater purity the less they are mixed together–
    Hamilton

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