The configuration of an elite force directly attached to the imperial office had many implications. Given that this was initially an arithmetically rather small corps and, therefore, could not campaign individually against the enemies of the empire, its primary purpose was to circumscribe the loyalty of the provincial armies. By creating an armed force under the direct control of the imperial office, the emperor ensured that, if one of his generals decided to attempt a rebellion of usurpation, he would not be exclusively dependent on the interests and loyalty of the other generals and their armies in order to defend Constantinople and his regime. Nevertheless, if this reform originally stemmed from Constantine V’s need to readjust the internal political scene in terms of dynastic stability (i.e. to discourage movements of usurpation against him), in the long run it was meant to have a major impact on the endurance of the eastern Roman imperial system.
The timing of the reform coincided with the end of the so-called “jihad-state” in the Caliphate through the transition of power from the Umayyad to the Abbasid dynasty and the transfer of the capital from Damascus to Bagdad. By ending the period of Muslim onslaughts against Constantinople – a conducive development for the transition of the clash between the Empire and the Caliphate from a war of annihilation to a frontier conflict of attrition – the fall of the Umayyads triggered a process that gradually led to the decentralization of power within the vast Caliphate. It follows that Constantine V set in motion a policy that aimed to restore the imperial office’s centralized control over superior military power in the interior, when the intensity of the Muslim offensive began to wane and a process of destabilization of centralized rule in the Caliphate was about to set in. From that time onwards, the gradual regression of Muslim superiority on the battlefield would go along with military measures that aimed at reinstating the military supremacy of the imperial office within the imperial system.
The imperial tagmata, apart from their leading role in the implementation of imperial policies in the interior, acquired incrementally the role of an elite force on the battlefield. The rising importance of these units is reflected in the effort of the emperors that succeeded Constantine V to maintain firm control over them by adding new units to the initial two. In this context, it is of particular importance that emperor Nikephoros I (802-811) who introduced a fourth unit (Hikanatoi), thus giving the imperial regiments their final shape, was the emperor who founded the so-called thematic system. A better understanding of the qualitative traits of the military reform that this emperor instigated needs to take into account that he was keen on having his power rely on elite units of full-time recruits. This is further demonstrated by the relocation of the regiment of the foederatoi from the command of the Anatolikon to the capital during his reign.
Nikephoros I – an experienced court official before his rise to the throne – introduced a fiscal measure that made the community of the village, as a fiscal unit, collectively responsible for supporting its recruited members that could not bear the cost of military equipment. This reform was obviously intended to deal with the problem of providing the army with well-equipped recruits – a persistent problem since the 7th-century crisis that had influenced the efficiency of the provincial armies on the battlefield. It follows that the emergence of the so-called theme-system in the course of the 9th century was the product of a well-directed fiscal reform concerning the system of centrally controlled recruitment. The principal motive behind this reform was not to create an army model of part-time peasant militia bound to the defence of their region. It was rather to ensure the financial viability of well-equipped recruits in the provincial armies. This is made evident by the instructions concerning recruitment to the thematic forces provided in the Tactica of Leo VI. This military treatise was written at the start of the 10th century when the thematic system had taken its full shape after a series of consequent actions in this direction by successive emperors during the course of the 9th century. According to the author of the text, the general of the thema should recruit his men only from well-off households registered for military service, because these men would be capable of devoting themselves full-time to soldiering.
The consistent reorganization of imperial territories into themata by the emperors of the 9th century, which multiplied the number of generals and commands in Asia Minor in comparison to the older system of the strategiai, points to another important power-political aspect of this reform. The upgrading of the administrative role of the general in the region under his military jurisdiction concluded the process of the imperial administration’s militarization. At the same time, however, it decisively reduced the individual military power of the commanders of the provincial armies. Constantine V’s initiative against the tendency of decentralization of military power in the mid-8th century was taken a step further by the emperors of the 9th century and was completed through the fragmentation of all large military commands (strategiai) into smaller themata. These were now administrative units in which the general disposed political authority as well.
In light of this, one could plausibly argue that the 9th-century thematic reform was the climax of a reforming process that had started in the mid-8th century. The main political rationale behind this process was to increase the imperial army’s efficiency on the battlefield as well as to restore the imperial office’s strong hold on superior military power within the system of empire, as the main organizational means that circumscribed its coherence. By shrinking the individual military power of provincial generals in the course of the 9th century, the imperial power consolidated the leading role of the imperial tagmata and other emerging elite units under the direct control of the power elite in Constantinople. This meant that the charismatic power of the imperial office was once again guaranteed from within the system of the empire in a period when the process of disintegration of centralized Muslim rule in the vast Caliphate was reaching its climax. At the same time, a class of landowning magnates was taking its full shape out of the Byzantine elite of service in the provinces.
As a result of these developments, the empire was stable and militarily strong enough again from the late 9th century onwards to antagonize and gradually to supersede its Muslim rival as the dominant military power in the Eastern Mediterranean. In the interior, the leaders of the imperial tagmata – usually the domestikoi of the scholai who often headed the whole imperial field army on behalf of the emperor – became main bearers of political power alongside the leading officers of the imperial fleet. These high-ranking officers were mostly members of the provincial landowning families that claimed a share in the hegemonic Roman power discourse through their leading positions in the army.
The fact that access to military power was mainly a matter of proximity to the emperor and the court in Constantinople circumscribed the relationship between the imperial office and the landowning provincial elite. This is made evident if one takes a look at the large-scale civil wars caused by members of the landowning military aristocracy during the 10th century. These were mainly aimed at the usurpation of imperial rule, not at secession from the imperial state. Τhe rebels were able to materialize their plans only due to their offices that provided them with access to the imperial system’s military resources, the standing field armies; not as independent warlords relying on their own economic power and human resources.
Within this framework, 10th-century imperial legislation for the protection of small landowners – in particular those with a hereditary obligation of military service – pinpoints the emergence of a new intrasystemic threat to the system’s balance. The concentration of landed property in the hands of provincial magnates, many of whom were members of the elite of service, did not provide them with individual means – in particular personal military retinues – that could counterbalance the military resources of the imperial system. Nonetheless, it threatened potentially to undermine the fiscal foundations of centralized recruitment. The so-called powerful (dynatoi) that usually enjoyed a privileged status of tax exemptions were in position to buy off the land of small independent peasants. Moreover, such impoverished peasants often sought the protection of a landlord in order to avoid the heavy burdens of centralized taxation. In the long term, this threatened to reduce the economic resources through which the imperial power was able to finance standing imperial armies of full-time recruits and foreign mercenaries.
The normative aspect of the legislation for the protection of small landholders reflects, therefore, a developing stand-off between the landowning elite of service and the imperial office, which threatened the preservation of centralized control over the extraction of surplus. The recurrent promulgation of relevant laws in the course of the 10th century indicates that the imperial power was hardly in a position to implement such legislation effectively. It follows that it was not legislative measures but rather expansionary warfare that provided a temporary solution to this emerging intrasystemic tension. The revenues of reconquered areas in the East and the Balkans widened the central government’s base of tax-resources. The case of the kouratores in the eastern provinces points to the imperial power’s concern to secure direct control over the revenues of newly acquired regions.
The imperial office’s thriving economic resources continued to guarantee the loyalty of standing armies of full-time indigenous and foreign recruits and, as a result, to circumscribe the imperial throne’s charismatic appeal to the powerful members of the military elite. The large-scale civil war between the leading army officer Bardas Phokas and emperor Basil II (987-989) is indicative. The rebel was clearly in command of the largest and stronger part of the indigenous field army units and controlled a large part of Anatolia, when he set out to occupy Constantinople and the imperial throne. The emperor was in a position, however, to use the resources of the imperial treasury to hire a strong mercenary force of Varangians. This action proved crucial for the final outcome of the civil war in his favour. Thereafter, the Varangian guard became the imperial office’s main elite force – an imperial guard of foreign mercenaries loyal to their employer, the emperor of Constantinople.
It is in this light that the slow process of disintegration of the imperial system that set in from roughly the mid-11th century onwards should be examined. The older mainstream thesis attributed the loss of Anatolia to the Turks to the deterioration of the thematic armies of part-time peasant militia and their replacement by standing field armies of mercenaries (mainly foreign, but also indigenous). This approach overlooked the fact that mercenaries, i.e. full-time recruits, were in principle more efficient than peasant-militia on the battlefield. Moreover, it hardly appreciated the evidence showing that it was the re-organization of standing armies of full-time recruits that had made the empire militarily powerful again in the previous centuries, thus facilitating the large-scale expansion of the 10th century. All this indicates that the loss of Anatolia in the aftermath of Mantzikert (1071) to various Turkish groups cannot be attributed to the decline of the army-model of peasant-soldiers. In the same way that the conspicuous failure of the Arab armies to accomplish the same goal four centuries earlier had nothing to do with a centrally-directed reform that created such an army model.
In this regard, the role of the so-called thematic system as the alleged backbone of the empire’s survival and revival in the Middle Ages needs to be re-evaluated soberly. In the 7th century, the well-directed withdrawal and dispersal of the imperial armies in Anatolia by the emperors of the Heraclian dynasty created a solid military network of in-depth defence, which in combination with other factors eventually stopped the Muslim advance. The establishment of the themata in the course of the 9th century maintained and strengthened the in-depth aspect of the military organization by institutionalizing the system of regional/local recruitment. It was out of this reform that the standing field units of the provincial tagmata emerged from the early 10th century onwards. By the end of this century, the new military administrative units of doukata or katepanata relied on joined field armies from the imperial and the provincial tagmata. This system adopted an outward (offensive) focus by removing the bulk of the empire’s military forces to a broad frontier zone. The result of these developments was a growing military marginalisation of the thematic units in the empire’s interior that led to the negligence of the structures of local recruitment there. Moreover, the new system relied more on the individual ability of the head of the army and his subordinates for the successful defence against large invading armies.
In this context, the civil war over the throne that followed the battle of Mantzikert (1071) was conducive for Constantinople’s failure to reorganize its standing forces and concentrate them on regional defence in the aftermath of a defeat that had by no means disintegrated the imperial army. As a result, the imperial office gradually lost control over a large part of the Anatolian core territory, its revenues and human resources. This gave birth to a vicious circle in the years to come, since the reduced military power of Constantinople did not allow for a rash restoration of imperial control over the lost core areas. This determined the moderate military potential of the imperial city-state of Constantinople throughout the 12th century. The main bulk of the Komnenian imperial armies were elite units of foreign mercenaries. The latter were incrementally complemented by some indigenous units from the late reign of Alexios I Komnenos onwards as well as by the retinues of the imperial family’s relatives and clients. The imperial office’s need to retrieve the necessary military power in order to face the Turkish danger triggered the emergence of the crusading movement in western Europe. Alexios I’s diplomatic quest for contingents of foreign knights that would help him repulse the increasing Turkish pressure and restore control over Asia Minor unleashed an expansionary vision of “holy war” in the West, which proved a major threat to the Byzantine imperial system in the long-term.
The inherent contradiction of priorities between the Byzantine political vision of restoring imperial authority in Asia Minor and the Crusader vision of re-conquering Christianity’s Holy Land determined the course of the First Crusade and the emergence of the so-called Crusader States in the East. Even though the empire took advantage of Crusader advancement in Anatolia in order to recover its authority over parts of western and southern Asia Minor, the re-stabilization of the imperial system took place in a new geopolitical context, in which the mini-empire of Constantinople was constantly under pressure from both the Turks in the East and the Normans in the West. The recurrent Crusades to the Holy Land posed a threat to the empire’s security while the Crusader States undermined the Byzantine emperor’s position as supreme Christian ruler in the East.
Within this framework, the consolidation of the so-called Komnenian system enabled the Constantinopolitan power elite to remain faithful to the Roman imperial tradition that determined the priorities of its internal and foreign policies. The creation of a new ruling elite consisting of the relatives and the clients of the Komnenoi family counterbalanced the fact that, contrary to the previous period, imperial rogai stopped being the main means that bound the members of the ruling elite to the imperial office. The extended Komnenian network of kinship alongside the imperial office’s control over standing forces of foreign mercenaries secured temporarily the relative cohesion of the imperial system insofar as a competent warrior-emperor held the throne. The first three Komnenian emperors managed to keep movements of provincial secession under control due to their ability to lead the army personally to success on the battlefield. Moreover, they conducted small-scale expansionary warfare in East and West, which was equally directed against Christian and non-Christian enemies. It was reasons of imperial ideology and power politics that second-ranked the goal of re-conquering the whole of Anatolia from the infidel Turks.
The short power vacuum after Manuel I’s death (1180) and the consequent turmoil caused by Andronikos I Komnenos’ short reign were conducive for the further weakening of the imperial office’s diminishing military power and charismatic appeal. This triggered the culmination of the phenomenon of provincial secession in the last quarter of the 12th century. The Angeloi emperors did not manage to keep the centrifugal forces under control in the face of increasing pressures from both the Turks in Asia Minor as well as the Normans and the Crusaders from the West. The sack of Constantinople by the armies of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 was the climax of a long and multifaceted process that determined the imperial system’s irreversible disintegration. It may rightfully be asserted that this event marked the end of imperial Roman-ness as an operative ideology that had circumscribed the political unity of large parts of the Eastern Mediterranean under the centralized rule of the Roman imperial office since the time of Augustus.
(Source: “Military Power in the Christian Roman Empire, c.300-1204”, by Yannis Stouraitis)
Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus