Gibbon, Part 11: The Byzantine Empire for the Next 600 Years

Heraclius reigned from 610 to 641. By this time, the Roman Empire was more aptly called (as it is by modern historians) as the Byzantine empire, only owning small slivers of Italy and with its court mainly speaking Greek instead of Latin. After the greatness of Justinian and the thrilling victories of Heraclius, the Eastern Empire never experienced a major resurgence and continued to steadily decline. Constantinople continued to be a thriving and opulent city, perhaps one of the greatest in the world, and the Byzantine empire still possessed territories in Italy, Greece, and the eastern tip of Africa. However, the past continent-wide military glory of the Roman empire was never to be captured again.

From the time of Heraclius, the Byzantine theatre is contracted and darkened; the line of empire, which had been defined by the laws of Justinian and the arms of Belisarius, recedes on all sides from our view; the Roman name, the proper subject of our inquiries, is reduced to a narrow corner of Europe, to the lonely suburbs of Constantinople; and the fate of the Greek empire has been compared to that of the Rhine, which loses itself in the sands before its waters can mingle with the ocean.
(Chapter XLVIII)

In chapter 48, the final chapter of volume II of The Decline and Fall, Gibbon narrates the several dynasties of emperors that came after Heraclius in rapid succession. The particulars of the reigns are no longer important, as we witness a succession of ambitious individuals contend for the throne, possibly setup a dynasty that lasts for a few generations, before their descendants are consumed in a bloodbath of a power struggle to be replaced by the next dynasty. A few emperors were competent, even excellent rulers, faintly capturing the glories of Constantine and Justinian, but the vast majority were tyrannical, decadent, and cruel after the example of Commodus and Caracalla. The cruelty of this period stuck out to me: there are many mentions of treason being punished by the amputation of the nose or tongue. It’s not clear to me if this is merely a result of Gibbon or the historical sources from those eras taking special note what had already been common for centuries before. But it’s instructive to see the cruelty of humanity increase even as the prize they fought for, the throne and leadership of the Byzantine Empire, became weaker over time.

The Heraclian Dynasty

Heraclius’s eldest son was Constantine III, whose mother was Eudocia, Heraclius’ first wife. As Constantine was of a sickly constitution, his younger stepbrother, Heracleonas (from Heraclius’ second marriage with his niece Martina) was appointed as his colleague and guardian, effectively dividing up the empire. Heraclius decreed the brothers as co-emperors, with Martina as “their mother and their sovereign.” The people disliked Martina, however,  and forced her to retire from the court. She is suspected of poisoning Constantine after only a reign of a hundred days. As Heracleonas was still a teenager, Martina became de facto emperor after Constantine’s death. She was abhorred by the people, and Heracleonas himself fought for the right of Constantine’s sons to succeed him. The eldest, Constans II, was proclaimed as emperor with Heracleonas’ support. The senate and the people supported Constans, but both the guilty Martinas and the innocent Heracleonas were caught up in the punishment of the Imperial conspirators afterwards: they were sentenced to amputation.

Constans’ greatest fear was his brother, Theodosius, usurping his power, so he contrived to assassinate him. He himself was assassinated by one of his servants in Syracuse, and succeeded by his son Constantine IV, who defeated and punished the rebellion at Sicily which killed his father. His brothers obstinately tried to rebel against the throne and were ultimately punished with amputation of their noses. He was succeeded by his son Justinian II, a decadent ruler after the spirit of Commodus and Caracalla. His general Leontius led a successful rebellion, deposed, amputated, and banished him to the land of the Chersonites in the Crimean peninsula. Leontius himself was crowned as emperor, only to be quickly dethroned by another usurper, Apsimar, who ruled as Tiberius III. Meanwhile, Justinian, fleeing from the inhospitability of the Chersonites, gained the sympathy of the Chozars and married the khan’s daughter, but they betrayed him, being tempted by the opulence of Constantinople. Justinian escaped and gained the alliance of Terbelis, a Bulgarian king. They besieged Constantinople. At this point it had been a decade since his banishment, and the people had forgotten his crimes and hated the rule of Apsimar. Justinian was promptly welcomed into the city and restored as emperor.

Justinian harshly and cruelly punished Leontius and Apsimar and sent an army to take revenge on the Chersonites for their behavior towards him during his exile, but the expedition failed miserably, and instead turned against him: the Chersonites declared a man named Bardanes as their new emperor, Justinian’s own troops mutinied, and they went back to Constantinople and killed him and his young son Tiberius. The Heraclian dynasty was thus demolished.

The Isaurian Dynasty

The next few emperors were unmemorable: Bardanes was murdered and replaced by his secretary Artemis, who ruled as Anastasius II, succeeded shortly in turn by Theodosius III and after that Leo III, an Isaurian who founded a new dynasty characterized by their abhorrence of devotional icons in the church. The conflict that raged regarding the images and icons during this time is detailed by Gibbon in Chapter 49, but in my opinion is not as interesting even compared to the monophysite controversy, and of smaller consequence to the progress of the Byzantine Empire. It is noted however, that regarding Leo’s religious reforms, even the traditional Catholics “are obliged to confess that they were undertaken with temper and conducted with firmness.”

Leo’s reign of 24 years was succeeded by the 34 years of Constantine V Copronymus, who more zealously espoused the cause of the iconoclasts, and personally assisted in the persecution and execution of his religious enemies. He is condemned by Gibbon in probably the strongest terms up to this point in the book:

In his religion, the Iconoclast was an Heretic, a Jew, a Mahometan, a Pagan, and an Atheist; and his belief of an invisible power could be discovered only in his magic rites, human victims, and nocturnal sacrifices to Venus and the dæmons of antiquity. His life was stained with the most opposite vices, and the ulcers which covered his body anticipated before his death the sentiment of hell-tortures.

After Constantine V came the weakly Leo IV, who married Irene. Irene was an Athenian orphan “whose sole fortune must have consisted in her personal accomplishments,” and due to her sickly husband she was declared as the guardian and regent of their son Constantine VI. As a regent, she initially ruled well but could not bear to release her power upon the maturity of her son. Mother and son were embroiled in a power struggle which resulted in the assassination of the latter. Irene emerged and ruled tyrannically as empress, before her subjects rebelled and appointed her treasurer Nicephorus as a new emperor. Irene was forced to retreat.

The Nicephorian and Amorian Dynasties

Nicephorus turned to be just as bad an emperor, as Gibbon flatly describes him: “Many tyrants have reigned undoubtedly more criminal than Nicephorus, but none perhaps have more deeply incurred the universal abhorrence of their people.” Nicephorus was incompetent (losing battles against the Saracens and Bulgarians). Killed in battle, he was succeeded by his son Stauracius, who also died in battle a few months after. The throne devolved to the husband of Nicephorus’ daughter Procopia, Michael I. Procopia’s military ambitions insulted the army and led to the disposal of her husband’s rule. They appointed the military commander Leo V the Armenian as emperor, who reigned as Leo V. Leo introduced military discipline and restored the iconoclastic movement in his government. His own colleague and co-commander in the military, Michael, despite being invested with many honors, could not resist fighting for the throne as well, and Leo was assassinated after a reign of seven years. Michael ruled as Michael II, and prevented the third person of the military triumvirate, Thomas, from usurping the throne.

Michael’s first wife died, and the senate requested Michael to marry Euphrosyne, daughter of Constantine VI, who had devoted herself to the monastic life. But their union failed to produce a son, and Michael was succeeded by his son from his first wife, Theophilus. Gibbon characterizes Theophilus as an emperor whose justice was fashioned after the cruelty and tyranny of Oriental despots. He was succeeded by his luxurious son Michael III, whom Gibbon denounces as the most degenerate emperor since Nero and Elagabalus. He wasted millions of the Imperial treasury, became obsessed with the hippodrome, and made a mockery of his own religion. He was murdered by Basil the Macedonian, who started a new dynasty.

The Macedonian Dynasty

Basil I was a humble farmer who came into the service of Theophilus’ cousin and ascended to become chamberlain of Michael III’s palace. He was a relatively successful ruler:

The evils which had been sanctified by time and example were corrected by his master-hand; and he revived, if not the national spirit, at least the order and majesty of the Roman empire.

He led military victories in persons against the Saracens and suppressed the rebellion of the Manichaeans. Basil also revised the (by then) obsolete jurisprudence of Justinian – his new code was called the Basilics. After his death, he was succeeded by his two sons Leo and Alexander, but it was the elder who truly exercised power as Leo VI. Leo was famous with the title “the philosopher”, but Gibbon does not regard his effeminate conduct and superstitious mind to be worthy of it. His religious conduct was scandalous, in that he abolished concubinage and condemned third marriages, but he himself ended up violating his own laws, marrying four times. His successor, Constantine VII, was born from his union with his fourth wife, Zoe. Constantine’s rule began with a series of regencies: first by his mother, Zoe, whose councilors were selfish and avaricious, and then Romanus Lecapenus, an admiral of the navy who was initially appointed as “guardian of the emperor” but came to be elevated as full Augustus himself. Romanus appointed his three sons as co-emperors, degrading the “rightful” heir. His reign was ended by the quarrel between his two younger sons and their plot to dethrone their father and assassinate Constantine VII, which resulted in them being exiled to the same island that they had exiled their father. Constantine VII then ruled the Byzantine Empire unopposed in his 40th year (945). The sympathetic story of his victory over his rivals excused him from his administrative weaknesses and love for pleasure. His son Romanus II was similarly weak and leisurely, the reins of the government being controlled mostly by his wife Theophano.

After his death, Theophano sought to retain her power by marrying and supporting one of her favorites, the soldier Nicephorus Phocas, to be crowned as emperor. He came to be just as avaricious and hypocritical as the first Nicephorus, and was assassinated by John Zimisces, one of the lovers of the empress, who then was crowned as emperor himself. John obtained military victories against the Russians and Saracens which he led himself in the field, but he died prematurely and Basil II, the more competent of the two sons of Romanus II, was crowned emperor. Basil achieved the destruction of the kingdom of Bulgaria, which according to Gibbon was “the most important triumph of Roman arms” since the days of Belisarius. He was succeeded by his brother Constantine VIII (whom Gibbon calls Constantine IX probably because one of Romanus I’s sons being named Constantine as well; we will follow the modern historical numbering) for a short time. Constantine did not have an heir and the empire was passed on to the husband of his daughter Zoe, Romanus III Argyrus. Zoe assassinated her husband and replaced him with her lover Michael IV the Paphlagonianwho was afflicted with epileptic fits and died soon after. He was replaced in turn by his nephew Michael V, who was adopted by Zoe. Michael V was an ungrateful, tyrannical emperor who exiled Zoe and oppressed the people. The people turned against him and recalled Zoe and her sister Theodora, crowning them as co-empresses, the first time ever in Roman history (and perhaps in any kingdom). Unfortunately, this only lasted for two months, as the sisters’ relationship devolved and finally the elderly Zoe married Constantine IX Monomachus, who was invested with power. After he died, Theodora regained her power and ruled as sole empress for 19 months. She was the last of the Macedonian dynasty, to which Gibbon bluntly concludes:

I have hastily reviewed, and gladly dismiss, this shameful and destructive period of twenty-eight years, in which the Greeks, degraded below the common level of servitude, were transferred like a herd of cattle by the choice or caprice of two impotent females.

The Comneni Dynasty

The Comneni were a Roman family who came from Castamona (Kastamonu in modern Turkey), at the southern coast of the Black Sea. Their first notable member was Manuel, who served as a successful general under Basil II. Michael VI, another general, had been appointed as Theodora’s successor, but he was considered less deserving than other generals. The house of Comneni led a successful coup which resulted in the elevation of Manuel’s son Isaac Comnenus as emperor. He offered the succession to his brother John, who refused, and the throne passed on to Constantine X Doukas, a friend of the Comneni. Constantine immediately appointed his three sons as co-emperors, but upon his death, his widow elevated her lover, the soldier Romanus IV Diogenes. Romanus was decisively defeated by the Turks and was taken captive. (This was at the famous Battle of Manzikert (1071), which is not recorded by Gibbon.) He was declared an enemy of the republic and the eldest son of Constantine, Michael VII, succeeded him, although he was weak and resigned his scepter to the rebellious general Botaniates.

Botaniates’ rule was cut short by the resurgence of the true Comneni, led by the most able son of John, Alexius, who ruled for 37 years, restoring order and enlarging the borders of the empire. He was followed by his son John the Handsome, who reigned for a quarter of a century and abolished the death penalty. John was a chaste, temperate, severe emperor (recalling the virtues of Julian) who purposefully restricted the luxury of the Byzantine court. John’s son, Manuel, was perhaps the most militaristic emperor in Roman history, whom Gibbon compares to Richard I of England and Charles XII of Sweden. He was singularly skilled in single combat and personally led his armies fearlessly against the Turks. However, “he did not unite the skill or prudence of a general; his victories were not productive of any permanent or useful conquest.” In peaceful times he was absolutely effeminate and incompetent. After his death, he was officially succeeded by his son Alexius II, but he was still a young boy who was powerless to prevent the power struggle ignited by his mother and sister. During the tumult of civil war, the people called for the deliverance of Andronicus, son of John’s younger brother Isaac (who had been invested with the lesser title of Sebastocrator under John but later fell out of favor).

Andronicus’ rise to fame in the service of his cousin Manuel is colorful and fascinating, involving many lovers, several treasonous attempts, condemnations, and restorations, and Gibbon devotes several pages to it. Officially, Andronicus was the guardian of Alexius II, but he could not resist the allure of being sole ruler, and executed both the young emperor and his mother. He conducted a bipolar rule of “a singular contrast of vice and virtue” for 3 years. He is the last emperor that Gibbon covers in this chapter, ending his reign in 1185 AD.

Concluding Remarks

Gibbon’s narrative of the Byzantine emperors remains incredibly attentive to detail and full of fascinating stories. But as I have noted in the beginning, at this point the chronicles of the Roman Empire are no longer as interesting as it was when it was the greatest empire in the ancient world. The Comneni led a moderate resurgence of Roman power, but it was ultimately futile – the mantle of greatness had passed to the Turks, Muslims, and the former barbarians of Europe. The intrigues, plots, treason, and assassinations of the court in Constantinople remained as intense, violent, and cruel as ever, although one notices the tiresome repetitiveness of the undulations over the years. At the end of the Comneni, the Empire had been way past its halflife, and what is left to narrate is the last 400 years before the final destruction of the Byzantine Empire. But in the meantime, Gibbon embarks on telling what happened in the rest of the world: the rise of the Muslims, Bulgarians, Turks, Mongols, and so on. These narratives do not seem as critical to understanding the decline of the Roman empire, and I will recap them more sparsely in the posts to come, although Gibbon’s prose is as entertaining as ever.

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