“The army is the glory of the Emperor”; evolution of military power in the Roman East (Part 1)

Don’t allow your army to be broken up or to become poor, or you will become poor yourself, and consider yourself very wretched. The army is the glory of the Emperor, and the power of the palace. For, if there is no army, the state (Treasury) cannot stand firm, but anyone who wants to will by all means oppose you. Endeavour, at all times, (to see) that the fleet grows, and that you have it at full strength; for the fleet is the glory of the Roman realm”. (lines from the late 11th century so-called Strategikon of Kekaumenos)


Kekaumenos’ solid belief in the continuity of the Roman imperial order in the 11th century demonstrates that “Byzantium” as a terminus technicus is – as with any other periodicizing concept – de facto arbitrary and, therefore, has very little historical value, irrespective of its analytical purpose.

The conceptualization suggested here, of eastern Roman military affairs from the 4th to the 12th centuries as Byzantine is intended to serve concrete analytical goals in the context of our topic. It focuses on the role of military power and warfare in the endurance of the centralized imperial rule of Constantinople over a fluctuating realm from the foundation of the city by Constantine I in 330 up to the irreversible political disintegration of the eastern Roman world in the wake of the Fourth Crusade (1204).

Kekaumenos’ utterances are useful because they spotlight the crucial role of military power in the longevity of the Roman imperial system in the East. In an insightful manner, the Byzantine general presents the existence of the high-medieval East Roman state, i.e. the fluctuating borders of the imperial power’s enforceable authority, as relying on the emperor’s ability to maintain firm control over a strong army that secured his advantage against anyone willing to resist his power. That this statement was equally meant to refer to the army’s role in defending the frontiers of the empire as well as in circumscribing the relationship between the imperial centre and the provinces in the interior is made evident by two things:

• Kekaumenos employs the word demosios to allude to the state. This term literally translates as fiscal authority, i.e. the Treasury, in Byzantine terminology, and its use here pinpoints the interdependence between the imperial office’s concentrated military power and centralized control over tax revenues.

• In another part of the text, the provincial magnate demonstrates his awareness that a rebellion against the emperor was difficult to succeed due to the evident military superiority of the imperial office. This awareness fully corresponds with the fact that the majority of internal armed conflicts in the imperial realm in the period between the 4th and the late 11th century was predominately caused by rebels aiming at the usurpation of the imperial office, and had ended with the reigning emperor as the winner of the conflict.

In this respect, Kekaumenos’ approach to the role of organized military power in his own society provides a straightforward answer to the socio-historical question as to whether the eastern Roman social order could have endured as a politically united social order without standing imperial armies, paid for and controlled by the centre of imperial power. If the Roman Empire had come into being due to the capacity of its legions to re-organize socio-political structures in newly occupied territories, the longevity of the imperial system was grounded on two basic features that had crystallized during the time of the Principate. The first was the integration of provincial elites into the Roman political order, i.e. the process of full-scale Romanization of leading elements of the subjugated populations. The second was the imperial office’s monopoly of control over military power. This was crucial not only for the defence of its frontiers against foreign threats, but also for preventing provincial secession from centralized rule. These basic features of the Roman system of territorial empire, i.e. of a vast Roman imperial state, from the 1st century CE onwards, continued to underline its function in the medieval eastern Roman Empire after the 5th-century collapse of centralized rule in the Western parts, where the process of migration of Germanic peoples led to the gradual emergence of a post-Roman world of ethnic regna.

The extensive territorial contraction of the east Roman realm in the period between roughly the late 6th and the late 7th century transformed it into a mini-empire compared to the Roman realm under the autocratic rule of Constantine I or to Justinian I’s restored empire of the mid-6th century. Even in its outmost territorial expansion during the early 11th century, the medieval realm of Constantinople would never come anywhere near close to past glories regarding its territorial size. Moreover, the medieval Roman elite underwent a transformation into mainly being an elite of service highly dependent upon the imperial office for titles and revenues. Even though the basic structure of a hierarchical and centripetal imperial community was maintained, one could plausibly argue that, if the Late Roman Empire had mainly been an agglomeration of self-governed cities, in the wake of the radical transformation of the late-antique urban landscape, the imperial realm of Constantinople was transformed into an agglomeration of large territorialized military commands by the early 8th century. In the initial phase, these were large areas of assignment (strategiai) of the military forces of a strategos (general) in Anatolia, along with some smaller commands in the few remaining Western outposts. From roughly the early 9th century onwards, these developed into themata, smaller administrative and military units under a military commander. From the late 10th century on, the latter were subordinated to larger commands named doukata or katepanata. These underwent significant changes after the radical territorial contraction in the East in the late 11th century.

The transition to an apparently more militarized model of society has plausibly been associated with the urgent need to confront the swift expansion of Islam in the course of the 7th century. For roughly one century (640s to 740s), the Muslim armies threatened the very existence of Constantinople’s realm, whereas the Caliphate continued to represent the empire’s major rival up to the late 10th century, thus playing an important role in the configuration of its medieval image. Nonetheless, the socio-political traits of the process of militarization in the interior need to be revisited in the light of the latest research findings regarding the so-called themata-system.

Current wisdom emphasizes the continuation of the late Roman military and administrative structures during the period of the Muslim expansion, and points to a process of gradual change in eastern Roman military structures. This process was triggered by the shock of defeat and the territorial contraction in the East in the mid-7th century. Nonetheless, it was informed by the principles of Roman statecraft, i.e. of centralized imperial authority, when it took the form of well-directed reform measures by the emperors from roughly the mid-8th century onwards. These measures reveal the imperial power’s concern to maintain control over standing field armies of full-time (professional) recruits. This means that, if the 7th-century process of militarization refers primarily to the revived role of the army and highranking military officers, the strategoi – as the main bearers of imperial authority in the provinces – in political affairs, it cannot be simply explained as the outcome of an emergency reaction to Islamic expansionism. It also needs to be analysed in the broader context of the function of military power as a central organizational means in the system of empire.

If one looks at the development of the 7th-century crisis from the late 630s onwards, the localization of defence as well as the localization of recruitment in the areas of assignment of the magistri militum with their armies in Asia Minor were processes that went along with an evident regression of Byzantine efficiency on the battlefield. The radical regression of state revenues due to the loss of Egypt and the eastern provinces seems to have had a negative impact on the quality of equipment and the efficiency of a significant part of the provincial forces in the period from the late 7th to the late 8th centuries. More importantly, though, these processes led to a tendency towards decentralization of power within the imperial system in the context of regionally-focused defence. They de facto provided the generals that commanded the regional armies with much more space for autonomy in regard to both control over their forces as well as over the revenues of the latter’s regions of assignment, and in part also of their warring activity.


Why this did not cause the collapse of the imperial system in the face of tremendous external pressure from the Muslim foe roughly between the mid-7th and the mid-8th centuries?

The first answer that comes to mind is, of course, the complete ideological adherence of the Romanized provincial elites of Asia Minor to the vision of empire, which had been decisively underpinned by the homogenizing religious discourse of Christian monotheism since the late 4th century. Despite the evident decentralization of military power between the mid-7th and the mid-8th centuries, the loyalty of the Anatolian military elite to the imperial office of Constantinople led the generals to make use of their soldiers’ loyalty to their person only to reproduce the system of empire by rebelling as usurpers against the reigning emperor – not to seek the system’s disintegration through secession.

What seems to have played an equally – if not even more – important role is the very nature of the enemy that threatened the existence of the imperial system from without. The character of the Muslim offensive, which was incrementally informed by an apocalyptic religious ideology of “holy war” and which is usually regarded as one of the principal reasons that should have caused the empire to collapse, should be seen as one of the main reasons that forced the military elites in Anatolia to stick together and maintain their loyalty to the centralized rule of the imperial city-state of Constantinople.

The infiltration of migrating peoples in the 5th-century West and Turkish groups in 11th-century Anatolia respectively – albeit with their evident differences – equally refer to phenomena of penetration and destabilization, both in military-territorial as well as politico-cultural terms, of two imperial orders that were witnessing internal structural tensions. Thus, the collapse of centralized imperial rule was brought about rather as a process of transformation which – as violent as it may have been – occurred as the combined result of the imperial office’s diminishing military power as well as of the enemy’s ability to permeate the established order and create conditions of coexistence and/or fusion with existing power structures at a regional level. This process left space for local bearers of power to be partly accommodated either within the emerging new power structures or beside them in a new power-political context.

Conversely, the Muslim offensive of the 7th century – especially in its form after the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty from 661 onwards – referred to a rising imperial power’s endeavour to eliminate the Christian-Roman order in order to replace it. The vision of imposing the Koran’s uncompromising monotheism under the centralized rule of the successor of the Prophet, the Caliph, dictated a process of subjugation and substitution, instead of penetration and transformation, of existing orders as the swift conquest and disintegration of the Sassanid Empire had made evident. Even though the early “Community of the Believers” had a tolerant attitude towards other monotheistic populations, thus facilitating the swift accommodation of the eastern – largely Monophysite – Christian monotheists under the rule of the first three so-called orthodox Caliphs, its territorial expansion was a process of violent military conquest aiming at the elimination of neighbouring political orders. Integration into the early Muslim political order meant that the members of the local elites in the conquered provinces should either abandon their places, or stay and – as a rule – accept accommodation in the new religious-political system with a marginal or subordinate social and political position.

If the latter process was facilitated in the eastern provinces by the recent experience of Persian rule, which had contributed to the regression of the local elites’ belief in the inevitability of Roman rule and had caused a renegotiation of their bonds with the political centre of Constantinople, the case was not the same with the elites of Asia Minor. These had longstanding vested interests in the centralized Roman imperial system and were predominately Trinitarian Christians, that is, bearers of a monotheistic identity that was even less compatible than that of Monophysites or Jews with uncompromising Muslim monotheism. Moreover, the conditions of the military clash after the mid-7th century between two centralizing systems of rule with superior military power made any attempt at provincial secession from Constantinopolitan authority on the Anatolian periphery doomed to fail. This reality left the members of provincial elites – especially the military elite – in the empire’s Anatolian territorial core with little alternative but to remain loyal and seek to defend their status by defending the empire.

Therefore, for the Byzantine success in stopping the Muslim advance in Asia Minor, besides other factors – such as issues of changing military tactics on the Byzantine side as well as political dissension within the Caliphate roughly from the mid-7th century onwards –one needs to consider the role of the nature of the Muslim threat in eliciting a higher level of socio-political cohesion and loyalty in the course of the conflict, thus contributing to the preservation of Constantinopolitan control over Asia Minor. It follows that the nature of the Muslim offensive should be seen as both a cause for the emerging decentralization of military power within the imperial system between the mid-7th and the mid-8th centuries, and a crucial factor that counterbalanced this intrasystemic tension. In this period, provincial elites –in particular the generals of the settled provincial armies – may have found themselves in an advantageous position compared to the power elite in Constantinople in terms of political and military power within the system of empire, but the Muslim threat led them to use this advantage almost exclusively towards the defence and reproduction of this system.

By comparison, the process of regression of centralized control over the largest part of Anatolia in the late 11th century was the combined result of two things: on the one hand, internal political-military dissension and tendencies of decentralization impaired the imperial power’s potential to reorganize properly its military forces and maintain a centralized hold on the territory and its revenues, in particular after 1071. On the other, it needs to be related to the nature of the Turkish penetration, the primary phase of which had begun already since the 1140s on the eastern frontier. The Turkish settlement was not the result of a frontal offensive by a rival centralized imperial order that aimed to knock down the empire of Constantinople. The various Turkish groups – even though they were under the nominal overlordship of the Seljuk sultan – penetrated Anatolia individually, partly also as allies of Byzantine magnates in the latter’s conflicts over the throne, and took advantage of the central power’s military weakness in order to establish a number of autonomous principalities there.

As a result, the Seljuk settlement became one of the main factors that contributed to the escalation of the phenomenon of provincialism and separatism in the course of the long 12th century. The role of this process in depriving the imperial office of important revenues and human resources – as the main means for maintaining strong field armies – pinpoints the interrelation between centralized control over superior military power and the maintenance of provincial loyalty to the imperial office of Constantinople, i.e. to the system of empire. In this period, the incremental tendency of Byzantine provincial magnates to defy the rule of Constantinople and create semi-autonomous or autonomous regimes in their regions was facilitated by the mediocre military strength of both the imperial office as well as the Turkish principalities, its main enemy in Anatolia.

The comparison attempted here between the Arab-Muslim and the Seljuk invasions on a macro-structural level – even though it hardly does justice to the complexity of these diverse and multifaceted historical phenomena – is intended to spotlight the dialectic relationship between military power, intrasystemic contradictions and external pressures in a medieval social order circumscribed by the political discourse of empire. It is in this context that one should seek to approach the development of medieval Roman military structures from roughly the mid-8th century onwards. The first well-directed military reform of this period, the reorganization of the imperial regiments (basilika tagmata) under Constantine V (741-775) sometime around the mid-8th century, was principally associated with internal affairs and had little to do with the war against the Muslims. The emperor’s initiative to reinstitute an elite force of two regiments (scholae, excubitores) under his direct command and to divide the opsikion, the military command in Constantinople’s Asiatic hinterland, into three minor commands was the first response of the imperial office to the aforementioned process of decentralization of military power since the mid-7th century. This process had nearly cost Constantine V his throne due to the revolt of the military commander of the Opsikion Artabasdos shortly after he had succeeded his father Leo III.

(Source: “Military Power in the Christian Roman Empire, c.300-1204”, by Yannis Stouraitis)


Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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