In this article we look at the Christian Roman State (‘Byzantine’ Empire) in terms of Culture, Religion and Diplomacy, just before the first Arab-Roman war.
Probably the most important aspect of Byzantine culture at this time is that it was Roman. In fact, “to the Byzantines, their empire was none other than the Roman Empire, perfected through Christianity, and they admitted no distinction or discontinuity from antiquity”. This sense of continuity with ancient Rome pervaded every aspect of their culture. They continue to write in Latin, prize military prowess and build on a grand scale with Roman style decoration. They had a millennium of cultural and political dominance to revere and contemplate. With the growth of Christianity, they also had a unifying religion, which admited no other god is equal to theirs. They believed they were superior culturally, militarily, intellectually and morally.
This sense of superiority was so engrained to their culture that “the Byzantines persisted in regarding themselves as the only civilized nation” and called all non-Byzantine people “barbarians”. This self-confidence was well placed, but “they continued to treat the rest of the world with condescension” which on occasion led to diplomatic and military blunders.
While the empire included many people who were not Christian or Roman, these did not have a large impact on the culture of the Empire as a whole. At the other end of the spectrum, the people of Anatolia were very patriotic, considered themselves Romans, Orthodox Christians and defenders of both the state and religion. It was their empire, their culture and their art to which the rest of the world looked in wonder.
When Heraclius entered Jerusalem with the True Cross, he was not only basking in the glory of his military triumphs, he was also fulfilling his responsibility as the religious leader of the world. The fact that “the Emperor was not only a prince; he was also the head of the Christian Church” is frequently forgotten in our society with a strong separation of church and state, but in the Byzantine Empire the state and the church were like different departments in the same agency, with the emperor the leader of both.
This unity of church and state made the issues of heresy and religious schism very important topics for the emperors. In theory, all of Christendom was Orthodox and under Roman suzerainty. Reality was quite a bit different. The barbarians in the west still claimed Roman heritage, but lived in feudal communities and followed the Pope in Rome on religious matters. Areas of the Balkans and Crimea shifted political control and were largely followers of the Arian heresy, who did not believe Christ was divine. Much of Africa followed the Nestorian version of Christianity and the leadership of the Patriarch of Alexandria. Most of Egypt and Syria followed a Monophysite philosophy. Traditionally, the Empire was pragmatically tolerant of all forms of Christianity.
During the 6th century this tolerance began to diminish. Emperors began to believe that they needed a strong, centralized religion to unite the diverse peoples of the Empire. Various councils were appointed to reconcile the various sects, but on the whole these were unsuccessful.
Frustrated by this lack of success, imperial policy changed. In 571, the Emperor Justin “abandoned his earlier policy of guarded toleration in favor of open persecutions”. Many Egyptians were unhappy with the elimination of Nestorianism (their preferred version of Christianity) and the ascendancy of Constantinople as religious center over Alexandria. The rift widened rather than closed between the two sects.
Relations with Rome were icier yet. The eastern and western churches were locked in a constant power struggle, based more on worldly issues than spiritual ones. The Pope continued to claim supremacy in all matters theological, while the Emperor and Patriarch of Constantinople considered their theology more lawful. The rift greatly widened under Maurice and Pope Gregory “the Great”; apparently these two powerful personalities were irreconcilable.
The largest of the religious problems was the Monophysite debate. The Monophysite theology, claiming there was only one nature of Christ, was in direct contradiction with the Orthodox belief in two natures (divine and human). This doctrine was the dominant belief in Egypt, Syria and most of the borderlands with Persia. Emperor Zeno tried reconciliation in 491 AD, which managed to anger the Pope, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the masses of Monophysites in the East. By 511 AD the Monophysites were mounting a low level insurgency in Syria and even marched on the Imperial Palace in Constantinople, a full-scale revolt was narrowly avoided. The controversy even plagued the brilliant Justinian, who issued numerous edicts condemning other sects but feared to address the Monophysite while engaged in the renovation of the Empire. His successor, Justin, confiscated Monophysite churches and drove their monks from the convents. The debate would continue unresolved until Jerusalem, one of the centers Monophysite faith fell under the Persian invasion in 608 AD.
The Persians were greatly aided in their invasion by yet another marginalized religious group, the Jews. Jews lived in small numbers in most cities throughout the Empire, but were a large percentage of the population throughout Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia. They were generally treated like other non-Orthodox religions, though there had been occasional persecutions over the centuries. This changed dramatically during the reign of Emperor Phocas (602-610). This paranoid emperor “launched an all out campaign for the persecution and forcible conversion of the Jews.” Why he did this while facing invasion from Persia is inexplicable, but the Jewish reaction was predictable. They revolted in Antioch, Jerusalem and numerous other cities in the East. The Jews massacred Christians wholesale, the Christians responded in kind. Jews across Syria openly allied themselves with the Persian invaders. Cities full of battle-weary, religiously disaffected Monophysites and Jews fell to the Persians in short order.
Perhaps the greatest enduring strength of the Empire was it’s clever and ruthless diplomatic strategies. The Roman Empire had always maintained an influential diplomatic strategy; the Byzantine Empire raised it to an art. The Byzantines admired diplomatically adroit leaders who could bring enemies under the suzerainty of Byzantium without bloodshed, and the emperors understood that even expensive diplomatic coups are cheaper than military victories.
Despite their disdain for foreigners, the Byzantine understood that successful diplomacy requires an understanding of the other party. In fact, “the study of the barbarian world was the constant care of the imperial court. Among the departments of the chancellery was one called the Bureau of Barbarians”. This typically Byzantine bureau studied the weaknesses, strengths and personalities of all the neighboring nations and leaders. It ensured that “notes were kept of the most influential families, what presents pleased them best, which of their sentiments or interests might be most usefully cultivated, and what political or economic relations might be established with them”. In short, it was a standing diplomatic intelligence agency.
Good intelligence was not the only part of the Byzantine diplomatic strategy. Emperors “granted annual subsidies and gave magnificent presents” to neighboring leaders. The strategos granted Roman titles to leaders to appeal to the vanity of those leaders. The primary goal of this largesse was to get neighbors to aid in the defense of the Empire by becoming allied states, providing forces at the fringes of the Empire.
This tactic was remarkably successful when pursued with care. The Empire maintained treaties with Khazars, Ghassinid Arabs, Croats, Serbs, Armenians, Russians, and Pechengs. By creating these alliances, the Empire eliminated potential enemies and gained buffers against other enemies. Most of the Empire’s most stable borders were held by these allied states.
Where the Empire failed to develop allied satellites, it aimed “to divide its opponents, to neutralize them by playing one off against another and to foment jealousies, grudges and clashes between them”. The Empire would subsidize one side and then another or grant titles to both. The Byzantines typically had a much more sophisticated understanding of the internal politics of their adversaries than any of the “barbarians” could hope to have of the Imperial court.
The ceremonies of court were also an instrument of the diplomatic strategy. Byzantium “pursued a policy of pomp and prestige, designed to display the material resources and intellectual superiority of the realm”. Visitors to the court would be awed with feasts, performances and elaborate displays (such as a throne on an elevator and automata worked from precious metals) designed to impress and intimidate. The court itself was a tool in the hands of the diplomatic corps. The Emperor
“kept at his court a whole staff of claimants to all the thrones in the world. The sons of many princes were brought up in Constantinople in the luxurious surroundings of the palace; the victims of civil war were also welcome there: unsuccessful pretenders and vanquished competitors”
This “staff” of claimants gave the emperor a ready resource to foment rebellion in hostile nations and a way to nurture future alliances.
(Source: ARAB-BYZANTINE WAR 629-644 AD, by LCDR David Kunselman)
Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus