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.

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.

Read moreLeoba, celebrity saint

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Letters, XXI, p37.

Boniface’s women

There has been much ink spilled and many pixels energized about Saint Boniface. Missionary, bishop, cleanser of the church, correspondent of popes, counselor to kings, saint. A very impressive life. Not as well known was that he was also a friend to many women, in an age when women’s public roles were strictly limited. His correspondence includes a dozen letters with a half-dozen women. These letters offer a fascinating window into Boniface’s own mind and the life of a few English (they are all English) ecclesiastical women.

Many of the letters are of a type: the writer speaks of the pains of his or her life, and then requests something. The single letter from Abbess Egberga written sometime around 716-18 is typical. She calls herself the “least of your disciples,” and then recounts how desolate she has been since her brother died, and her sister became a recluse in Rome. In their absence “I have cherished you in my affection above almost all other men.” But she knows that Boniface is blessed. “So I say: the lord of high Olympus wishes you happiness with joy unspeakable.” Finally she asks for his prayers, or “some little remembrance, perhaps a holy relic or at least a few written words, that so I may always have you with me.” 1.Letters, V, p.12. No reply are recorded.

Read moreBoniface’s women

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Letters, V, p.12.

The base, craven, heretical Maurontus

One of the interesting bits that caught my eye while researching the post on Islam in Francia was the story of Duke Maurontus, and how he “invited” the Arabs of Narbonne to occupy his city of Avignon. That a duke of Christendom would voluntarily surrender his fortified city to the dread Saracens seemed incredible, so naturally I wanted to take a closer look.

Avignon is part of Provence, a region with long ties to the Mediterranean, and one that had an uneasy relationship with the Franks to the north. In the first few decades of the eighth century two great families dominated Provence: the first family was led by a bishop named Abbo, and they controlled the passes into Lombardy; the second family was led by Duke Maurontus, and they controlled the coast, including Avignon and the mouth of the Rhone river. Bishop Abbo allied himself with Charles Martel, which proved to be a deciding factor in the struggle for Provence, and a smart decision by Abbo.

Read moreThe base, craven, heretical Maurontus

Battles of a troubled soul, part 3

When Carloman decided to lay down his worldly cares and take up the contemplative life, he wasn’t able to simply pick up and walk to Rome. He was a duke of the Franks, one of the two Mayors of the Palace that ruled the realm, as well as a father. He, even more than most of us today, had many affairs to put in order first. We should remember that he probably felt that he was leaving in a pretty strong position.

There is a brief, shadowy indication that Carloman, as the older of the two brothers, wielded more power than Pepin. Paul Fouracre quotes a charter from 744 (the year after Childeric III was raised to the throne), in which “Childeric addressed Carloman as the one ‘who placed us upon the throne of the kingdom.’ “1.Fouracre, The Long Shadow of the Merovingians, p.14, in Charlemagne: Empire and Society, ed. Joanna Story. In addition he had demography on his side. Carloman had a son, Drogo, who was probably of age in 747. Pepin was married, but had no children. Their half-brother Grifo was still alive, and we can say, based on later events, that he commanded some significant amount of political support in the kingdom, despite being under a virtual house arrest in Austrasia.

Read moreBattles of a troubled soul, part 3

Footnotes   [ + ]

1. Fouracre, The Long Shadow of the Merovingians, p.14, in Charlemagne: Empire and Society, ed. Joanna Story.