The empire to the east

Over the next few weeks I want to review the Byzantine Empire, the third of the great Mediterranean political entities, along with the Franks and the Arabs. As a prelude let’s outline the basic history, some geography, and a list of emperors. That will make it easier to talk about what was happening in the eighth century. There are plenty of histories of Byzantium available, everything from mighty tomes to Wikipedia. Here’s my version.

The Roman empire spanned an immense geographic area, an area so large and diverse that (for a variety of reasons) cracks and fissures inevitably broke out across the realm. Barbarians spilled in from the east, known as Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Franks(!), and others. Political and economic power concentrated in fewer and fewer hands, and eventually fighting for control of Rome became the all-consuming past time of the elite, while the rest of the empire was left to fend for itself.

By the fourth century the locus of power had shifted to the east, and the emperor Constantine established Constantinople as the capitol of the “Eastern Roman Empire” and made Christianity the official religion of the state. The “Latin West” and the “Greek East” maintained an uneasy alliance. By the fifth century the western empire had largely collapsed under barbarian assaults, while Rome remained as the center of western Latin church.

The sixth century saw the reign of Justinian the Great, a Greek ruler who, during his 38 years on the throne, restored the empire to an extent that rivaled the realm of the Caesars. Things began to slide after that, particularly with the rise of the Islamic caliphs in the seventh century. The Arabs seized two of the richest Byzantine provinces, Syria and Egypt, which put a crimp in Constantinople’s grain supply. Muslim expansion culminated in a four-year siege of Constantinople that began in 674. While that attack was eventually repulsed, the effort required a shift of resources from other areas of the empire. Soon the Balkans were being taken over by the Slavs. As the eighth century dawned the empire was being nibbled away.

It’s worth taking a minute to review the geography of the empire as our epoch opens, just to get our bearings. Wikipedia has most helpfully provided a map. Byzantine empire, 650 ADNote that the bulk of the Byzantine empire lay to the east of Italy. There are a few western outliers, including Carthage in north Africa, and all of the big islands in the central Mediterranean. Don’t forget Ravenna, near Venice, which was part of the Lombard-Frankish-Papal disputes of the mid-eighth century. Travel between east and west required either a difficult overland passage, through some very sketchy neighborhoods, or a long sea voyage, with all of those attendant perils. Nonetheless communications between the Franks and the Eastern emperors did occur, with one very surprising example, which we will come to later.

Before we jump into the details of eighth century Byzantine-Frankish relations, let’s outline the emperors. It’s much easier to talk about events in reference to the rulers.

Emperor Reigned Birth Notes
Tiberios III 698-705 The beginning of the “Twenty Years of Anarchy.” Executed by Justinian II
Justinian II 705-11 668, Constantinople Last emperor of the Heraclian Dynasty. A reign marked by exceptional brutality.
Philippikos Bardanes 711-13 A Crimean rebel who seized the throne. Called “unspeakable” in the Liber Pontificalis.
Anastasios II 713-15 Rebuilt the city walls and filled the granaries in anticipation of another Arab siege.
Theodosius III 715-17 A tax collector before the army acclaimed him emperor. End of the Twenty Years of Anarchy.
Leo III the Isaurian 717-41 685, Germanikeia, Syria First of the Isaurian emperors. Initiated the Iconoclast movement in response to perceived military failures. Beginnings of Rome-Byzantine split. Died in bed, which was unusual for the times.
Constantine V 741-775 718, Constantinople Son of Leo III, who named him as co-emperor in 720. Defeated his brother-in-law Artavasdus in a civil war. Intensified the iconoclast campaign. Continued to fight against the Muslims and the Bulgars.
Leo IV the Khazar 775-80  750 Son of Constantine V, who named him as co-emperor in 751. Softened the Iconoclast policies, under the influence of his wife Irene. Died of fever while campaigning against the Bulgars.
Constantine VI 780-97 771 Son of Leo IV, who named him as co-emperor in 776. His mother Irene ruled as regent until 790. Betrothed in 782 to Rotrude, daughter of Charlemagne, but Irene broke it off. Suppressed a family rebellion in 793. Killed by Irene’s supporters.
Irene of Athens 797-802 752 Last of the Isaurian emperors.

Did early medieval medicine ever work?

An unfortunate popular view of the “Dark Ages” is that life was nasty, brutish, and short. A scratch from a scythe was certain death, right? In a couple of earlier posts I looked at both disease and what might be called conventional medicine. While the saint’s lives are full of demonic possessions that look to us a lot like epilepsy, medical practitioners had a reasonable body of knowledge from which to draw. But what about medicine in the real world?

Wooden foot ringIt doesn’t take too much effort to find a few examples of practical medicine which allow us a view into a side of daily life that is often obscured by popular imagination and overlooked by the sources. A few years ago Austrian archaeologists excavated a sixth century Merovingian grave that revealed a medical surprise. The occupant, a middle aged man, had lived for a least a couple of years after somehow losing his foot and ankle, and had gotten around on a prosthetic foot! The artificial foot was made of wood and leather, with a base made of an iron ring of some sort. No, I don’t know what that vicious looking spike coming out of the ring was for.

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Charlemagne’s annus horribilis

In November of 1992 Queen Elizabeth II gave a speech in which she lamented the “annus horribilis” she had endured over the last eleven months. Recently a fire had devastated Windsor Castle, and prior to that her children and near relatives had been the subject of much tabloid gossip and exposure.

One person from whom she would have received no sympathy would be Charlemagne. Elizabeth had been forced to see pictures of Duchess Fergie’s toes being nuzzled by a bald American millionaire while her estranged husband Andrew was away performing his princely duties. Truly enough to make any monarch go weak. But twelve centuries before Elizabeth’s travails King Charlemagne had frantically wielded the strings of power over the span of just a few months while his kingdom almost broke apart. It is possible that he felt God Himself had abandoned him.

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The Summons

Much like a corporate all-hands meeting at the beginning of the first quarter, or the sports team gathering before the start of training camp, so the Carolingians wanted everyone notable to assemble as the campaign season began. What were these assemblies, who attended, what function did they serve, and when did they occur? Who knows?

Fortunately one historian did a lot of work describing Frankish governmental institutions. Francois Louis Ganshof was a Belgian historian who died in 1980. Several of his most influential works have been translated into English, and those are my principal sources for what follows. He called the yearly assembly “one of the central institutions of the monarchy.”1.Ganshof, Frankish Institutions Under Charlemagne, p.21.

Read moreThe Summons

Footnotes   [ + ]

Leoba, celebrity saint

Many of the women who corresponded with Boniface were women of power and influence as abbesses. In that they were already exceptional. But there was another woman who was a step above the extraordinary.

Boniface’s most ‘famous’ correspondent was Saint Leoba. She was English, although her exact place and date of birth are unknown. She and Boniface were related through her mother, and her father and Boniface were good friends. She was also a disciple of Abbess Eadburga of Thanet, whom I mentioned in last week’s post. In a letter dated around 732 Leoba writes to Boniface and asks for his friendship and his prayers, “for there is no other man in my kinship in whom I have such confidence as in you… I eagerly pray, my dear brother, that I may be protected by the shield of your prayers from the poisoned darts of the hidden enemy.” She also offered Boniface some beginner’s lines of poetry. As justification she adds that “I have studied this art under the guidance of Eadburga.”1.Letters, XXI, p37.

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Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Letters, XXI, p37.