Byzantium: The Apogee by John Julius Norwich (1991)

By the tenth century to be a eunuch was, for a promising youth about to enter the imperial service, a virtual guarantee of advancement; many an ambitious parent would have a younger son castrated as a matter of course. (p.130)

This is a timeline of Byzantine emperors between 802 and 1081, based on John Julius Norwich’s book, Byzantium: The Apogee (1991).

This book is volume two in his three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, and the first thing you notice is that although the book is a similar length to the first one (389 pages to volume one’s 408), it covers only half the number of years (478 years in volume one, 281 in this volume). The reason is that there are more sources for this later period, and the sources are more complete, and so our histories can be more detailed. Indeed,

thanks to such writers as Liudprand of cremona, St Theophanes and his continuators, George Cedrenus, John Scylitzes and above all the odious but ever-fascinating Michael Psellus, we can enjoy an incomparably nore colourful picture of life in the Imperial Palace of Byzantium in the early middle ages thatn we can of any other court in Europe. (p.xxii)

Permanently embattled

By the time this book starts the Byzantine Empire feels permanently embattled. Muslim armies were constantly attacking in what we now call Syria and Palestine, in Anatolia, but also in faraway Sicily, even invading the Italian Peninsula. The Muslims had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and a new breed of Arab pirates or ‘corsairs’ was attacking Byzantine shipping, and raided the islands of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

As if this wasn’t enough, there was the barbarian threat from the north. The book opens with Constantinople besieged by the mighty armies of Khan Krum of the Bulgars, later replaced by Symeon I. And the Bulgars themselves were later superseded by the ‘Rus’, in the shape of the Khan of Kiev and his armies.

Time and again Constantinople is only saved by the impenetrability of its defensive walls. The Byzantine response to these threats was either a) to buy the attackers off with vast tributes of gold and treasure or b) occasionally to lead counter-attacking armies, and the emperors who are best remembered tend to be the ones who were successful in defeating these foes in battle.

Constant war

All this means that Norwich’s book is overwhelmingly, consistently, about war – describing campaigns, battles and – more dispiritingly – the endless cycle of sieges and sackings of cities, the massacring of inhabitants or their selling off into slavery, the ravaging of countryside, the murder and killing and raping and looting of civilians.

Every year, as spring rolled around, the campaigning season resumed and off the armies went to pillage and kill, the armies of the Bulgars or Muslims or Rus or Greeks. It does, eventually, become a quite depressing chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man. Since Norwich hardly mentions Byzantine art or architecture, what you’re left with is a gloomy cavalcade of men’s infinite capacity for murder and destruction.

Palace intrigues

And that’s before you get to the palace politics, for the book also highlights the endless scheming among the emperor’s immediate family and the higher echelons of the civil service and army. There is a whole succession of generals or top administrators who mount coups and seize ultimate power. Successful or failed, the coups are always accompanied, not just by predictable bloodshed, but by especially cruel punishments, namely the blinding and castration of the loser, and often of all his sons (to prevent them presenting a long-term threat the the winner).

The divisive impact of religion

And then there is the perpetual problem of religion. This comes in two forms:

  1. the Patriarch and ‘home’ church of the Greeks might oppose the wishes or behaviour of the emperor, raise crowds and mobs against him, excommunicate him and so on – which led to the forcible deposition and sometimes imprisonment of unruly religious leaders
  2. the Pope in faraway Rome could be just as much of a problem, acting with what the Byzantine emperors considered was unacceptable independence, and forever poking their noses into Byzantine court business, for example supporting or even harbouring a deposed Patriarch, sending ambassadors to the emperor insisting the latter obey this, that or the other stricture of the church

Iconoclasm

And that’s before you even consider the complexifying impact of the great divide about Iconoclasm – the belief that images of any sort should be banned from religion, a policy issued by an emperor which led to the gleeful destruction of untold amounts of painted icons, statues, mosaics and other art works in the following hundred years or so. But for Norwich, interested primarily in the political impact of everything, what matters is that Iconoclasm split the ruling class, with some emperors, empresses, their senior administrators and the aristocracy, and even generals and the army holding directly contrary views – some in favour of the strictest interpretation of Iconoclasm and the destruction of religious images wherever they were found – others directly opposed to this policy, and reversing it whenever they had the chance.

If you combine all these elements – repeated coups and civil wars, permanent cultural civil war over Iconoclasm, and annual invasions and attacks by at least three distinct groups of enemies (Bulgars, Rus, Muslims) – it makes for Game of Thrones levels of political intrigue, poisonings, blindings and assassinations, all set against the permanent backdrop of vicious and immensely destructive wars.

The cover illustration is of a fabulous golden icon, and my impression of Byzantine and Greek Orthodox culture had been of austere magnificence: but this book undermines that and is hard to read, not only because the details are often confusing, but because the overall impression is of unrelenting low-minded conspiracy, killing and destruction, covering entire centuries.


Emperors of Byzantium 802 – 1081

The Empress Irene

Iconoclasm (the banning of religious images and icons) had been instituted by Leo III the Isaurian in 726. 80 years later it still divided the empire. The empress Irene had dominated her weak husband, Leo IV (775-780) and their son, Constantine VI (780-797) who came to the throne aged just nine and who, when he became a threat to her power, Irene had arrested and blinded, resulting in his death soon afterwards.

So then the wicked Empress Irene reigned by herself for five years, alienating most sections of the empire – by being a woman, by being an icon-supporter, and for the foul murder of her own son.

In 800 Pope Leo II crowned King Charles of the Franks as Holy Roman Emperor in St Peter’s Rome. This astonished the Byzantines who considered it an appalling assault on their power and prerogatives, but to both Pope and new Emperor, Irene, as a woman, simply did not count and so, for them, the throne of Roman emperor was vacant.

To seal the deal Charlemagne, in 802, sent Irene a proposal of marriage. This in fact struck her as a decent exit strategy to escape the gathering number of enemies to her rule. But her leading ministers rebelled. Led by the Logosthete of the Treasury (the minister of finance), they mounted a coup, and exiled Irene.

Nicephorian dynasty (802–813)

Nicephorus I Logothetes (802 – 811)

The leader of the coup against Irene took the name Nicephorus. Irene had cancelled loads of taxes in a bid to be popular with the people and thus brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. The fact that Nicephorus had been finance minister meant he understood how important it was to revitalise the tax base, rebuild the city’s walls, and build up the army. In 803 an Armenian general in the Byzantine army, Bardanes Turcus, rebelled but his revolt was crushed, Bardanes being sent to a monastery where he was, in the traditional style, blinded to prevent him being any more of a threat.

Irene had tried to buy off both the Khan of the Bulgars (in the north) and the Muslim Caliph Harun al-Raschid (in the East) with gold tribute. Nicephorus immediately cancelled both these tributes, sparking war with both (although Raschid died in 809).

He led initially successful campaigns against the Bulgars but was killed at the Battle of Pliska against the mighty leader of the Bulgars, Khan Krum. Initially, Nicephorus had successfully led raids into Bulgar territory and destroyed their capital city, but he and his army were eventually caught in a narrow defile and annihilated. Krum had Nicephorus’s skull encased in silver and used it as a cup for wine-drinking.

Staurakios (July – October 811)

The only son of Nicephoros I, Staurakios automatically succeeded on his father’s death but had been present at the Battle of Pliska and was himself severely wounded, left paralyzed and in constant pain. He was forced to resign within a year, and retired to a monastery where he died soon after.

Michael I Rangabe (811 – 813)

Son-in-law of Nicephorus I, Michael succeeded Staurakios on the latter’s abdication. A spendthrift in everything except defence, he wasted money on high living while Khan Krum devastated various Byzantine towns.

In late 812 Krum offered battle some miles from the capital and in June Michael marched out at the head of an army but, as battle began, the Anatolian wing of the Byzantine army, led by Leo the Armenian, deserted their posts. As a result the Byzantine army was decimated, Michael made it back to Constantinople where he abdicated (retiring to a monastery where he lived quietly for another thirty years), all four of his sons were castrated and his wife and daughters sent to a monastery – while Leo the Armenian returned to the capital and seized the throne.

Non-dynastic

Leo V ‘the Armenian’ (813 – 820)

Born about 775, Leo joined the army and rose to become a general in which capacity he betrayed the army in a confrontation with Khan Krum of the Bulgars, leading to the abdication of Michael I.

Leo still had to deal with Krum and arranged a meeting with the Bulgar at which he treacherously set assassins to kill him. They failed and Krum made off, infuriated, destroyed all the buildings without Constantinople’s city walls – palaces and churches – then systematically destroyed every Byzantine town he could seize, murdering all the men and taking the women and children into slavery. Adrianople was burned to the ground and the entire population sent into slavery beyond the Danube.

Leo, for his part, mounted some sneaky raids into Bulgar territory where, the chroniclers report, his armies had instructions to kill all the children (dashing their heads against rocks and walls, is the precise description). It was a war of extermination on both sides.

Then, just as Krum was supervising the siege engines rumbling up to the walls of Constantinople for a final siege, he dropped dead of apoplexy. To everyone’s surprise, peace had come.

Leo devoted the remainder of his rule to reviving Iconoclasm. The previous three ill-fated emperors had been icon-supporters and their reigns had coincided with financial and military disasters. Leo hoped to revive support for his rule by falling in line with the majority of the upper class, the army and many of the Eastern refugees (who now thronged the city, having fled the armies of the Arabs) who were all deep-rooted iconoclasts. (Iconoclasm feeling became stronger the further east you went.) In 815 Leo promulgated an edict against images which led to an orgy of destruction across the empire. So much beauty and art, silken vestments, gold icons, priceless statues – destroyed forever.

Something – the chronicles are unclear – led to a rift with his one-time good friend Michael from Armoria, who began speaking openly against the emperor and who Leo had imprisoned and ordered to be thrown into a burning furnace. Before this order could be carried out, Michael was freed by accomplices who went with him to the imperial chapel on Christmas Day 820, where they struck down Leo, first cutting off his sword arm, then his head. Leo’s corpse was paraded in ignominy around the Hippodrome. Leo’s four sons were castrated (one died during the procedure) and sent, along with his wife and daughters, into exile.

Amorian dynasty (820–867)

Michael II ‘the Amorian’ (820 – 829)

Michael was an illiterate boor who made his son co-emperor in a bid to establish a settled dynasty. Almost immediately he faced a rebellion which evolved into a civil war, led by Thomas the Slav, a Byzantine general, who besieged Constantinople. However Thomas’s army was unexpectedly attacked from the north by the Bulgars and massacred. The survivors retreated to a walled town, and Michael now felt confident enough to lead a Byzantine army to besiege them. Michael quickly persuaded the rebels to surrender with a promise of mercy, and to give up Thomas – who promptly had his hands and feet chopped off and his body impaled on a stake.

During Michael’s reign the empire lost Crete to Arab pirates, who ravaged all the towns and converted the entire population into slavery. Another band of Arab adventurers began the Muslim conquest of Sicily. Both islands became the home for Arab corsairs who preyed on shipping all over the eastern Mediterranean, despite Michael sending numerous fleets to try and stop them.

Michael died peacefully in his bed, the first emperor in a sequence of six to do so.

Theophilus (829 – 842)

Born in 813, Theophilus was the only son of Michael II, the illiterate Armorian. Co-emperor since 821, he succeeded on his father’s death aged 25 and was, according to Norwich, ‘magnificently qualified to take on the responsibilities of emperor’.

Theophilus had to deal with the aggressive campaigns from the Muslim East of Caliph Mutasim, who besieged and sacked Armoria, the second city in the empire: when some of the inhabitants took refuge in the town church, Mutasim burned them alive in it, the rest of the population was put in chains and taken back across the desert towards Syria but, when water ran short on this long trek, almost all of them were executed. Only 42 made it alive to Muslim territory. Years later the 42 were offered a final choice between converting to Islam or martyrdom. All 42 chose death and were beheaded on the banks of the River Tigris, thus entering the canon of saints of the Byzantine church. Burning, murdering, death.

Theophilus continued the iconoclastic policies of his father, but rather half-heartedly (with some notably brutal exceptions: he had two Christian writers who refused to renounce icons, tattooed across their faces with a long iconoclastic poem, and he had the greatest icon painter of the time, Lazarus, scourged and branded on the palms of his hands with red hot nails). Nonetheless, in Norwich’s opinion, when Theophilus died, aged just 29, from dysentery, ‘the age of iconoclasm died with him’ (p.52).

Interestingly, in response to the Muslim seizure of Crete and Sicily, Theophilus appealed to the son of Charlemagne, Lewis the Pious, to join forces and drive the Muslims from the Mediterranean. Interesting because, as Norwich points out, if Lewis had done so, the age of the crusades (i.e. armed Western Christian knights interfering in the Muslim Mediterranean world) would have come two and a half centuries early and, if it had become a sustained campaign uniting the Western and Eastern Christians, might have seized back more of the Mediterranean littoral.

Michael III ‘the Drunkard’ (842 – 867)

Born in 840, Michael succeeded on Theophilus was succeeded by his son Michael, born in 840 and so just two years old, with the result that the empire was ruled by his mother, Theodora, until 856. She called a Church Council in 845 which anathematised Iconoclasm, not without the usual fierce ecclesiastical in-fighting. (The fierceness of language and actual bodily violence involved in these Church disputes has to be read to be believed. Senior Christian opponents to imperial policy were often arrested, tortured, scourged and whipped, branded, blinded and exiled.)

The Logothete and eunuch Theoctistus manoeuvred his way to becoming co-ruler with Theodora. (Logothete: An administrative title originating in the eastern Roman Empire. In the middle and late Byzantine Empire, it became a senior administrative title, equivalent to minister or secretary of state.)

Theoctistus led a fleet which managed to recapture Crete, and another Byzantine fleet attacked and ravaged the Muslim naval base at Damietta. In other words, this period saw the start of a significant fightback against Muslim domination of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Theoctistus and the Empress adopted the ruinous policy the pair adopted of the systematic persecution of the heretics known as Paulicians. The Paulicians were Christians of a sort, but rejected large parts of the Old and New Testament and many of the practices of the Church. They were based in Armenia, a mountainous region far to the east of Anatolia. They were ordered to renounce their beliefs but refused, and so a vast military army set out to the East and, if the chroniclers are to be believed, massacred up to 100,000 of the Paulician community – by hanging, drowning, putting to the sword and even crucifixion. Not only was this a foul atrocity in itself, but strategically short-sighted in that it drove the entire community into alliance with the Muslim regime based in Baghdad.

Map showing the spread of the Muslim empire and how surrounded and embattled the Byzantine Empire became (and how foolish it was to drive the Armenians into alliance with the Muslims)

The Empress Theodora’s brother (Michael’s uncle) Bardas, overthrew Theoctistus, confronting him in the palace with a group of soldiers and the young emperor himself, who ran him through with a sword. That was in 855.

Bardas was raised to Caesar in 862. Norwich considers Bardas’s ten year-rule (855-865) one of unparalleled success, notable for his military victories over the Bulgars to the north and the negotiation of their conversion to Christianity, for the growing confidence and distinctness of the Eastern Church, and for Bardas’s personal sponsorship of learning – setting up schools and a university – and the arts.

In the last years of Bardas’s rule the monks and scholars, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, were invited by the Khan of the Bulgars to help convert his Slavic people to Christianity. (Formerly it was believed that Cyril, forced to invent new letters to convey Slavic speech sounds, invented the Cyrillic script which is named after him. Nowadays it is thought he and Methodius invented the Glagolitic script, and that Cyrillic was developed later by their students and followers.)

This story didn’t end well, though, because the Khan of the Bulgars wrote a long letter to the emperor complaining about the endless squabbles among the Byzantine Christian missionaries, and asking for clarification on various points of theology. The emperor Michael made the mistake of arrogantly dismissing it, with the result that the Khan turned to the Pope, who gave him a clear, thorough and polite response. The result was the Khan of the Bulgars gave his allegiance to the Pope in Rome and expelled all the Byzantine missionaries.

Meanwhile, Emperor Michael declined into alcoholism. In his last years he took a favourite, Basil, a strong, illiterate peasant from Armenia, talented with horses, and raised him to the level of Court Chamberlain. All kind of speculation floats around him, including the possibility that he was Michael’s gay lover. Michael ordered Basil to marry a young woman who was almost certainly Michael’s mistress, in order to give his mistress free access to the palace (and Michael), without scandalising the clergy. It is possible, then, that when Basil’s wife bore him children, they were in fact the children of the emperor…

Whatever the details, Basil tightened his grip on Michael’s affections, becoming a serious rival to Michael’s uncle, Bardas. On 21 April 866, on the eve of a naval expedition which he was meant to be leading to liberate Crete from the Muslims, Bardas was sitting next to Michael in the imperial pavilion, when Bardas stepped forward and assassinated him. The emperor was obviously in on the coup because he issued a statement declaring Bardas a traitor and exonerating Basil.

Macedonian dynasty (867–1056)

Basil I ‘the Macedonian’ (867 – 886)

Having assassinated Michael’s uncle, Bardas, in 866, 18 months later, on 24 September 867, Basil and seven followers killed the emperor Michael as he lay in a drunken stupor in his bedchamber. Basil had himself proclaimed basileus.

Basil led successful wars in the East against the Arabs and the Paulicians, and seized back the entire Dalmatian coast, Bari, and all southern Italy for the Empire. He initiated a major review and digest of the laws (on the model of Justinian’s code) and also commissioned the building of new churches and palaces. He had four sons but one, young Constantine, was the apple of his eye. When Constantine died suddenly in 879, Basil went into a decline, becoming surly, reclusive and unbalanced. A later legend says he was killed by a stag while out hunting. We’ll never know for sure.

Leo VI ‘the Wise’ (886 – 912)

Instead of Basil’s favourite son, Constantine, it was his next eldest son, Leo, who succeeded, aged twenty. Already he has acquired the nickname ‘the wise’ for his scholarship, grace and deportment. But Leo VI’s reign saw an increase in Muslim naval raids, culminating in the Sack of Thessalonica, and was marked by unsuccessful wars against the Bulgarians under Symeon I.

Leo sparked a far-ranging religious dispute because he married a succession of wives, who all managed to die of illness or in childbirth. He kept at it because he was desperate for a male heir but when he married for the fourth time, to Zoe ‘Carbonopsina’ (of the black eyes), the church was outraged.

Orthodox theology disapproved of even one remarriage, only reluctantly admitted two – so long as the partners spent a good deal of time repenting and praying – but to remarry for a third time was completely forbidden and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nicholas, was not slow to criticise and anathematise the emperor. So Leo had Nicholas exiled and appointed a new Patriarch who carried out his wishes. But Nicholas’s dismissal and the scandal of the four marriages split the church into fiercely opposing factions.

Alexander (912 – 913)

Leo had sidelined his brother, Alexander, during his reign. When Leo finally died his brother inherited and promptly set about undoing much of his brother’s work, starting by banishing Leo’s wife, Zoe, and ignoring Leo’s careful diplomacy with the ever-threatening Bulgars. He restored the troublesome patriarch, Nicholas, who Leo had dismissed and who returned from exile furious and determined to take his revenge on everyone in the hierarchy who had condoned Leo’s marriage.

Alexander was an alcoholic and died of exhaustion after a polo game, leaving the throne to Leo’s young son, Constantine, born in 905 and so aged just seven.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913 – 959)

At Alexander’s death there is a scrabble for power. When Zoe learned that Alexander lay dying she rushed back to the palace to protect her and Leo’s son, Constantine. On his deathbed Alexander confirmed Constantine as heir, but appointed a Regency Council led by Nicholas. And the first thing Nicholas did was order the empress to have her hair shorn and be sent to a nunnery, where she was renamed Sister Anna.

Within days the leader of the army, Constantine Ducas, mounted a coup against the regency Council, but as he snuck into the city, he and his conspirators (including his eldest son, Gregory) were caught and killed. Almost certainly Nicholas was in league with Ducas but, after the coup failed, it gave Nicholas the pretext he needed to launch a drastic reign of terror.

Whole companies were massacred, their bodies impaled along the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus; others were flogged or blinded…. Ducas’s widow was exiled… his younger son… was castrated. (p.127)

Leo VI had wisely paid a tribute or bribe to Symeon the Great, Khan of the Bulgars, to stop him ravaging Thrace (the area to the north of Constantinople).

Constantine rashly stopped the payment with the result that Symeon led a Bulgar army right up to the walls of Constantinople. At this point the Patriarch Nicholas went out to see Symeon and did some kind of deal, so that the Bulgars went away.

But 1. Nicholas’s brutal treatment of the empress and 2. his brutal treatment of the army and 3. the rumour that he had sold out to the Bulgars, led to the collapse of the Regency Council. This triggered the swift return of ‘Sister Anna’, who reclaimed the role of Augusta and Regent and her true name of Zoe.

The next thing that happened was a coup organised by the admiral Romanus Lecapenos. He overthrew the empress (and sent her back to the convent again, hair shorn, Sister Anna once more) and quickly wedded his daughter to Constantine, thus becoming the young emperor’s father-in-law. Romanus worked to make himself invaluable and to seize all the levers of state. Eventually he got himself crowned senior emperor in 920.

Constantine was sidelined during the Lecapenos regime, but asserted his control by deposing Romanus’s sons in early 945. Byzantine forces helped an Armenian king against the Muslims in the East and destroyed an advancing Muslim army in south Italy, restoring a lot of the empire’s prestige. The Byzantines then caught an attacking army of Bulgars under Symeon I unprepared, forcing it to retire back over the Danube.

Constantine’s long reign also saw a flourishing of the arts known as the ‘Macedonian Renaissance’, with the emperor sponsoring encyclopaedic works and histories. He was a prolific writer himself, best remembered for the manuals on statecraft (De administrando imperio) and ceremonies (De ceremoniis) which he compiled for his son, Romanus II.

Romanus I Lecapenos (920 – 944)

This is the admiral, mentioned above, who seized power in 920 and ruled as the emperor Constantine’s ‘father-in-law’. After becoming the emperor’s father-in-law, he successively assumed higher offices until he crowned himself senior emperor. Like a previous Armenian emperor, Basil I, Romanus was keen to create a family dynasty.

His reign was marked by the end of warfare with Bulgaria and the great conquests of John Kourkouas in the East. Romanus promoted his sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine as co-emperors over Constantine VII. Eventually Constantine VII threw off his rule and sent him to an island as a monk. He died there on 15 June 948.

Romanus II ‘the Purple-born ‘ (959 – 963)

The only surviving son of Constantine VII, Romanus was born on 15 March 938 and succeeded his father on the latter’s death in 959. He ruled for four years, although the government was led mostly by the eunuch Joseph Bringas. His reign was marked by successful warfare in the East against Sayf al-Dawla and the recovery of Crete by general Nicephorus Phocas.

Nicephorus Phocas (963 – 969)

The most successful general of his generation who restored Byzantine fortunes in the West and East, Nicephorus II was born around 912 to the powerful Phocas clan. The Phocas family were one of the leading powers in the state, having already produced several generals, including Nicephorus’ father Bardas Phocas, his brother Leo Phocas, and grandfather Nicephorus Phocas the Elder.

On the ascension of Emperor Romanus II in 959, Nicephoros and his younger brother Leo Phocas had been placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies respectively. In 960, 27,000 oarsmen and marines were assembled to man a fleet of 308 ships carrying 50,000 troops in a campaign against the Muslim Emirate of Crete. They besieged the capital, Chandax, till it fell in 961, and took back the island after 130 years of Muslim occupation. Meanwhile, another Byzantine force recovered Cyprus in 965.

Nicephorus was recalled to Constantinople by Constantine and sent to the East, where he defeated the governor of Tarsus, ibn al-Zayyat in open battle, before taking the major Muslim city of Aleppo. From 964 to 965, he led an army of 40,000 men which liberated Cilicia and raided in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. Then Nicephorus led Byzantine forces which besieged and took Tarsus. In 968, Nicephorus conducted a raid through Syria into Palestine which reached the city of Tripoli, raiding and sacking most of the fortresses along his path and which finally managed to take the city of Antioch. It was a high summer for the empire.

However, to finance these wars Nicephorus had increased taxes both on the people and on the church at a time of poor harvests and general dearth, while maintaining unpopular theological positions and alienating many of his most powerful allies. This combination of policies led to a series of riots in Constantinople. These involved his nephew, John Tzimiskes, who, despite having played a key role in many of his military victories, Nicephorus banished to Asia Minor on suspicion of disloyalty.

Tzimiskes was a popular general and, rallying his supporters, was smuggled back to Constantinople. Fellow conspirators let him into the palace, where he and a gang of collaborators murdered Nicephorus in his sleep. Thus ended the life of one of the most successful emperor-generals in Byzantine history.

John I Tzimiskes (969 – 976)

Tzimiskes took over as regent for the young sons of Romanus II. As ruler, Tzimiskes crushed the Rus in Bulgaria and ended the Bulgarian tsardom, before going on to campaign in the East.

According to Norwich, travelling through Anatolia John was appalled to discover the vast extent of the lands acquired by the Imperial chamberlain Basil Lecapenos. Basil got to hear about the emperor’s anger and, fearing that he was about to lose his lands and position, paid servants to administer a poison to Tzimiskes. Taken very ill, John just about made it back to Constantinople before dying. He was, in Norwich’s opinion:

One of the greatest of Byzantine emperors (p.230)

Basil II ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ (976 – 1025)

Basil was the eldest son Romanus II, born in 958 and, with Tzimiskes’ death, he now inherited the throne aged just 18. He was to have a long and successful reign but the first half was a struggle to establish his own personal rule.

The first decade of his reign was marked by rivalry with the powerful Imperial chamberlain, the eunuch Basil Lecapenos, who he eventually managed to overthrow, confiscating all his estates and having him banished. Then there was a prolonged attempt by two rival generals  – Bardas Phocas and Bardas Sclerus – to overthrow him, though the generals spent as much time fighting each other as the emperor. Both eventually failed, though not after prolonged unrest and military campaigns.

Threatened by the rise of Thomas the Slav who revived the kingdom of the Bulgarians, Basil found it wise to form an alliance with Vladimir I of Kiev whose entry into the Church (the baptism of him and his court) Basil supervised, as well as marrying off his sister, Anna, to the new convert. Vladimir would, in time, be made into a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church, for his zeal in building churches, monasteries, and converting his people.

In his campaigns in the East against the Muslims, Basil had seen for himself the immense estates built up by the class of ‘nobles’ or ‘those with power’, and he determined to break their influence, confiscating all large estates, reducing much of the aristocracy to poverty, rejuvenating the peasant communities which the empire depended on for its manpower, and reverting large tracts of land to the emperor.

Basil then did a deal whereby Venice was awarded the coast of Dalmatia to rule under Byzantine suzerainty: this suited the Venetians for the area was rich in wood and grain, and they also wanted to campaign against Croatian pirates; and suited Basil because it left him free for his life’s work, a sustained campaign against Bulgaria. It took twenty years but he eventually defeated Thomas the Slav and his son, and the usurper who murdered the son. All Bulgarian territory and cities were seized, and all survivors of the royal family taken prisoner off to Constantinople. In fact Basil ruled wisely, keeping taxes deliberately low and assimilating leading Bulgar aristocrats into the Byzantine administration.

Basil II’s reign is widely considered the apogee of medieval Byzantium.

Map of the Byzantine Empire in the year 1025 – most of present-day Turkey, Greece, the southern Balkans and south Italy

Constantine VIII (1025 – 1028)

The second son of Romanus II, Constantine was born in 960 and raised to co-emperor in March 962. During the rule of Basil II, he spent his time in dissipation. He was 65 when he came to power and managed, in three short years, to fritter away almost all of his brother’s achievements. Unsure of his powers, he became paranoid, suspicious of courtiers and plots, and hundreds of men arrested, tortured and blinded on trumped-up charges.

Only on his death-bed, aged 68, did he worry about the succession. He had three daughters, themselves now relatively old (in their 40s and 50s) and decided that the most presentable of them, Zoe, should be married off to continue the line. After some squabbling about who the lucky man should be, his civil service settled on Romanus Argyros to be Zoe’s husband. The fact that Romanus was already married was not a barrier, since Constantine said, Marry my daughter or I will blind you and your wife. So Romanus’s wife willingly divorced him, took the veil and disappeared to a convent. Next day Romanus married Zoe. Next day the emperor was dead.

Zoe (1028 – 1050)

The daughter of Constantine VIII, Zoe succeeded on her father’s death, as the only surviving member of the Macedonian dynasty. She had three husbands – Romanus III (1028–1034), Michael IV (1034–1041) and Constantine IX (1042–1050) – who ruled in quick succession alongside her.

Zoe’s first husband: Romanus III Argyros (1028 – 1034)

Romanus was an ageing aristocrat, judge and administrator when he was chosen by Constantine VIII on his deathbed to become Zoe’s husband. He was educated but had an inflated opinion of his own abilities and led his army into a disastrous defeat against the Muslims in Syria. Realising his limitations he decided to make a name for himself by building an enormous church to Mary Mother of God, but taxed the population of Constantinople to the hilt to build it with the result that he became very unpopular.

Contemporary chroniclers also claim he had alienated his wife once he realised they were never going to conceive a child (despite both parties spending lots of money on amulets and charms and potions to restore fertility). He had her confined to her quarters and cut her spending allowance.

Gossip had it that Zoe took a young, handsome Greek lover, Michael, related to the most powerful figure at the court, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos. The chronicler Michael Psellus suggests the couple poisoned Romanus who was discovered expiring by an imperial swimming pool.

Zoe’s second husband: Michael IV ‘the Paphlagonian’ (1034 – 1041)

Within hours of Romanus’s death, Zoe arranged to be enthroned alongside her 18-year-old lover Michael.

Michael quickly came to despise his aging wife and, once again, had her confined to her quarters. He was an epileptic when they married and his condition rapidly worsened, so that he had a curtain installed around the throne which could be quickly drawn by servants at the first sign of a fresh attack.

Aided by his older brother, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos, Michael’s reign was moderately successful against internal rebellions, but his massed attempt to recover Sicily from the Muslims totally failed, not least because it was put under the command of John the Orphanotrophos’s sister’s husband, Stephen.

As he grew iller, Michael spent more time building churches and having masses said for his soul. His older brother, the by-now all-powerful John the Orphanotrophos, could see he was dying and cast around for ways to preserve the dynasty. His other brothers were eunuchs, so John’s search alighted on the son of his sister, Maria, and her husband Stephen, Michael.

Basil II had wisely decreed the defeated Bulgarians should only pay tax in kind. John the Orphanotrophos unwisely revoked this and imposed tax demands in gold. This, plus the imposition of an unpopular Greek to rule their church, led to a revolt of the Bulgars. Michael amazed everyone by taking to his horse and leading the Byzantine army which successfully put the revolt down. He then returned to the capital and died.

Zoe’s son: Michael V Calaphates (‘the Caulker’) (1041 – 1042)

In the last stages of terminal illness, Michael IV was persuaded to adopt Stephen’s son (his nephew), also named Michael, as his own son and heir. Michael IV duly died, aged just 25, and was succeeded by this nephew and namesake, who became Michael V.

In time Michael would be nicknamed calaphates or ‘the caulker’ because this had been the humble shipyard profession of his father, Stephen, before John the Orphanotrophos had wangled him a job as admiral on the ill-fated expedition to reclaim Sicily. He certainly had a very tenuous claim to the throne.

No emperor in the whole history of Byzantium had less title to the throne than Michael Calaphates. (Norwich p.292)

Michael V immediately 1. mounted an assault on the court civil service, making widespread changes 2. removed John the Orphanotrophos from power, confiscating his property and sending him to a monastery. Next he tried to sideline Zoe, having her shaven and send to a convent, but, unexpectedly, this sparked a popular revolt which led to days of mass rioting – resulting in the largest casualties from civic strife the capital had seen since the Nika riots. Michael was forced to recall her and restore her as empress on 19 April 1042, along with her sister Theodora but this wasn’t enough. Norwich quotes the eye witness account of Michael Psellus who went with the mob to the palace chapel where Michael and his uncle, Constantine, were hiding, describes them being persuaded to leave, escorted by the City Prefect through a jeering mob, and then met by the public executioner sent by Zoe, who proceeded to blind them both in front of the baying mob. They were both sent to separate monasteries, Michael dying later that year.

Michael had managed to get himself deposed after a pitiful four months and 11 days on the throne,

Zoe had hoped the riots were solely in her favour but it became apparent that the city didn’t trust her, associating her too much with the ancient regime, and began clamouring for her sister, Theodora who had, fifty years earlier, been consigned to a convent where she had spent most of her life.

Zoe’s sister: Theodora (1042 – 1056)

Born in 984, Theodora was therefore 58 when she was raised as co-ruler on 19 April 1042. However, it quickly became clear that the sisters didn’t get on and that, worse, the court, civil administration, the army and so on were liable to divide into sects supporting one or other woman. The solution was to bring a man in to rule. Theodora, still a highly religious virgin, refused absolutely to be married, but Zoe, now 64, accepted with relish. (It is symptomatic of the name shortage in Byzantium that all three of the candidates which were considered for her hand were named Constantine.)

Zoe’s third husband: Constantine IX Monomachos (1042 – 1055)

Wikipedia tells the story:

Constantine Monomachos was the son of Theodosius Monomachos, an important bureaucrat under Basil II and Constantine VIII. At some point, Theodosius had been suspected of conspiracy and his son’s career suffered accordingly. Constantine’s position improved after he married his second wife, a niece of Emperor Romanus III Argyros. After catching the eye of the Empress Zoe, Constantine was exiled to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos by Zoe’s second husband, Michael IV.

The death of Michael IV and the overthrow of Michael V in 1042 led to Constantine being recalled from his place of exile and appointed as a judge in Greece. However, prior to commencing his appointment, Constantine was summoned to Constantinople, where the fragile working relationship between Michael V’s successors, the empresses Zoe and Theodora, was breaking down. After two months of increasing acrimony between the two, Zoe decided to search for a new husband, thereby hoping to prevent her sister from increasing her popularity and authority.

After her first preference displayed contempt for the empress and her second died under mysterious circumstances, Zoe remembered the handsome and urbane Constantine. The pair were married on 11 June 1042, without the participation of Patriarch Alexius I of Constantinople, who refused to officiate over a third marriage (for both spouses). On the following day, Constantine was formally proclaimed emperor together with Zoe and her sister Theodora.

During his thirteen-year rule Constantine supported the mercantile classes and favoured the company of intellectuals, thereby alienating the military aristocracy. A pleasure-loving ruler, he installed his long-term mistress, Maria, grand-daughter of the rebel Bardas Sclerus, in the palace with the apparent approval of the old empress, although this scandalised public opinion. He endowed a number of monasteries, chiefly the Nea Moni of Chios and the Mangana Monastery.

He had to cope with two major military revolts, of George Maniakes, the empire’s leading general who was rampaging across southern Italy in combat with the new power in the region, the Normans, and who, when recalled to the capital, was so angry that he had himself declared emperor by his troops in 1042 and marched on Constantinople, ending up killed in a skirmish with loyal troops in Thessalonica in 1043; and three years later by Leo Tornikios, who raised an army in Thrace and marched on the capital, which he besieged. After two failed assaults Leo withdrew, his army deserted him and he was captured. At Christmas 1047, he was blinded and no more is known of him.

Though he survived these threats, Constantine’s rule saw the elimination of the Byzantine presence from Calabria and Sicily, the Seljuk Turks had established themselves in Baghdad and were planning their invasions of Anatolia, and the Danube frontier had been breached by a number of invading tribes – the Pechenegs, the Cumans and the Uz. Which leads Norwich to comment:

The Emperor Constantine IX was more confident than Constantine VIII, more of a realist than Romanus Argyrus, healthier than Michael IV and less headstrong than Michael V. Politically, however, through sheer idleness and irresponsibility, he was to do the Empire more harm than the rest of them put together. (p.307)

Norwich goes into great detail to describe the Great Schism between the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople which climaxed in legates from Rome placing a grand bull of excommunication on the high altar of St Sophia cathedral during the Eucharist. It is a long, sorry, shambolic story of misunderstandings and animosity between bigots on both sides.

This was bad politics because both sides needed to unite to drive the Normans out of Sicily. Their disunity allowed the Normans to seize control of the island and part of southern Italy. Interestingly, Constantine set about restoring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which had been substantially destroyed in 1009 by Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and endowing other churches in Palestine.

During Constantine’s reign, Theodora was again sidelined, but Zoe died in 1050, and Constantine himself followed her in 1055. At which point Theodora briefly assumed full governance of the Empire and reigned until her own death the following year (1056).

As both Theodora and Zoe had no children, the chronicler Michael Psellus describes the panic-stricken meetings in which senior officials cast around for someone to replace her. They finally settled on an elderly patrician and a member of the court bureaucracy, Michael Bringas, who had served as military finance minister (and hence the epithet Stratiotikos often attached to his name). The senior civil servants knew he was one of them, and thought he would be easily managed. The dying Empress was persuaded to nod her head in approval of the choice, just hours before she passed away.

Non-dynastic (1056–1057)

Michael VI Bringas ‘the Old’ (1056 – 1057)

Michael was in his 60s, an ageing bureaucrat who had put up with years of low level abuse from military types. Now, as emperor, he took his revenge, spending money on the civil service and state officials, but underfunding the army. In his first review of the leading generals he amazed them by berating them in violent terms, and followed it up a few days later with more of the same.

They rebelled. A conspiracy of generals persuaded their leading figure, the tall, successful leader Isaac Comnenus, to lead the army of the East against Constantinople. Everywhere they went troops and citizens rallied to his flag, but nonetheless they were forced to fight a hard-fought battle against the army of Europe which Michael had summoned to his defence, just across the Bosphorus near Nicomedi. After a prolonged struggle, the eastern army triumphed and – after negotiations with Michael’s envoys – the emperor abdicated and was allowed to retired to a monastery where he died in 1059.

Comnenid dynasty (1057–1059)

Isaac I Comnenus (1057 – 1059)

Born about 1005, Isaac was the empire’s leading general when he was declared emperor by his troops and led them against Constantinople in 1057. He reigned for just two years, during which he tried to fund and organise the army better, but alienated the church (by arresting Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch who had persuaded Michael VI to abdicate) and much of the population (rigorous collection of taxes, reduction in state salaries, confiscation of property from the mega-rich).

There are two stories about his death: either he simply abdicated, perhaps depressed by the scale of the problems he faced and the obdurate roadblocking of the civil service, and retired to a monastery. In the other version he caught a chill while out hunting which turned into pneumonia.

In both versions of the story Isaac needed to name a successor and ignored his daughter, brother and five nephews to choose Constantine Ducas, the most aristocratic of the group of intellectuals who had helped revive Byzantine learning a few years before.

Doucid dynasty (1059–1081)

Constantine X Ducas (1059 – 1067)

There is no Emperor in the history of the later Roman Empire whose accession had more disastrous consequences. (p.337)

Constantine was a highly educated Greek aristocrat but he was also, in Norwich’s opinion, ‘a hopelessly impractical and woolly-minded bureaucrat’ (p.336) and ‘arguably the most disastrous ruler ever to don the purple buskins’ (p.338).

Why all the blame? Because Constantine wasted the imperial finances on high living and indulged in theological and philosophical speculation. Meanwhile he replaced standing soldiers with mercenaries and left the frontier fortifications unrepaired.

This led to mounting unhappiness within the army and an attempt by some generals to assassinate him in 1061 which was foiled. The result of running down the army was that under his rule the Empire lost most of Byzantine Italy to the Normans under Robert Guiscard, suffered invasions by Alp Arslan in Asia Minor in 1064, resulting in the loss of the Armenian capital, and by the Oghuz Turks in the Balkans in 1065, while Belgrade was lost to the Hungarians.

But it is the rising threat from the Seljuk Turks which Norwich focuses on. He describes the Turks as being a nomadic tribe of warriors, famed for their abilities firing a bow and arrow from the saddle, which originated in Transoxiana, and moved south, converting to Islam and slowly taking over Persia. They finally seized the capital of the old Abbasid Dynasty, Baghdad, in 1055. Meanwhile they also led expeditions against Armenia, which was by way of being a buffer state between the east and the Empire, and then pushed on into Anatolia, raiding as far as Ankara and Caesarea.

It is for Constantine’s systematic and deliberate running down of the Empire’s army and physical defences that Norwich names him worst Byzantine Emperor ever. In the same year that the Turks penetrated as far as Ankyra – with no army or force of any kind sent to prevent them – that Constantine died.

On his deathbed Constantine made his wife swear not to remarry and made all the senior officials sign a pledge that the succession could only go to a member of his family, the Ducases.

By his second wife, Eudocia Macrembolitissa, Constantine had the following sons:

  • Michael VII Ducas, who succeeded as emperor
  • Andronicus Ducas, co-emperor from 1068 to 1078
  • Constantius Ducas, co-emperor from 1060 to 1078

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 1

Born about 1050, Michael was the eldest son of Constantine X and succeeded to the throne aged 17 but showed little interest in ruling, leaving that to his mother, Eudocia, and uncle, John Ducas.

On 1 January 1068, Eudocia, having deceived the leading aristocrats about her intentions in order to get her deathbed promise to Constantine not to marry again annulled, married the general Romanus Diogenes, who now became senior co-emperor alongside Michael VII, and Michael’s brothers Constantius and Andronicus.

Romanus IV Diogenes (1068 – 1071)

If the Ducas family was one of the grandest, oldest and most illustrious parts of the courtly bureaucracy, Romanus hailed from the Anatolian military aristocracy. Eudocia, at least, appeared to realise that, with the pressing threat from the Turks, the Empire needed a strong military leader.

Michael VII had surrounded himself with sycophantic court officials, and was blind to the empire collapsing around him. In dire straits, imperial officials resorted to property confiscations and even expropriated some of the wealth of the church. The underpaid army mutinied, and the Byzantines lost Bari, their last possession in Italy, to the Normans of Robert Guiscard in 1071. Simultaneously, there was a serious revolt in the Balkans, where the Empire faced an attempt at the restoration of the Bulgarian state. Although this revolt was suppressed by the general Nicephorus Bryennius, the Byzantine Empire was unable to recover its losses in Asia Minor.

Struggling against this tide, Romanus immediately began to try and correct all the abuses which had built up around the army, to settle all arrears of pay, negotiate new contracts with mercenary soldiers, raise new levies from peasants in Anatolia, improve equipment and training.

In 1068, 1069, and 1070 he led raids into Turkish territory, seizing towns. The leader of the Turks by this point was Alp Arslan and the two leaders tried to negotiate a truce, but this was constantly broken by the Turcomen, lawless bandits related to the Turks who had not adopted Islam or any central authority.

Finally Romanus set off in the spring of 1071 with the largest army he could muster to crush the Turks. But – to be brief – it was he and the Byzantine army which was crushingly and definitively defeated, at a massive battle near the small fortress of Manzikert in August 1071.

There is reams of speculation about what exactly happened, but it seems certain that, having split his army in two due to uncertainty about the precise location of the Turk army, when Romanus located it and called for the other half, led by Joseph Tarchaniotes, to come to his aid, it didn’t. Speculation why continues to this day. After lining up for an engagement the Turks then retreated systematically, luring Romanus’s army towards mountains at the edge of the plain, where he feared getting trapped, so turned his forces. But some of them interpreted this as flight, rumour spread that the Emperor was killed, the Turks suddenly attacked in force, and the rearguard, led by one of the rival Ducas clan, fled. The remaining army was massacred by the Turks, Romanus fighting to the end, captured and brought before the Turkish leader.

The battle of Manzikert was the greatest disaster suffered by the Empire of Byzantium in the seven and a half centuries of its existence. (p.357)

Alp treated Romanus with respect, concluded a treaty with him, had him dressed, his wounds treated, and escorted back towards Constantinople: it would pay him to have a defeated Emperor in his power who would respect their treaty, rather than a new young buck who would ignore it. But Romanus’s fate was already sealed.

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 2

When rumours of a calamitous defeat reached Constantinople, the initiative was taken by Michael’s uncle John Ducas and his tutor Michael Psellus. They quickly proclaimed Michael VII Senior Emperor and he was crowned as such on October 24, 1071. Eudocia was quickly despatched to a convent.

Romanus seems to have mustered what remained of his army for the return march on Constantinople but was beaten in two consecutive battles with loyalist troops, after the second of which he gave himself up. Despite promises of a safe passage he was blinded and then paraded in rags sitting backwards on a donkey.

After Manzikert, the Byzantine government sent a new army to contain the Seljuk Turks under Isaac Comnenus, a brother of the future emperor Alexius I Comnenus, but this army was defeated and its commander captured in 1073.

The problem was made worse by the desertion of the Byzantines’ western mercenaries, who became the object of the next military expedition in the area, led by the Caesar John Ducas. This campaign also ended in failure, and its commander was likewise captured by the enemy.

The victorious mercenaries now forced John Ducas to stand as pretender to the throne. The government of Michael VII was forced to recognize the conquests of the Seljuks in Asia Minor in 1074, and to seek their support against Ducas. A new army under Alexius Comnenus, reinforced by Seljuk troops sent by Malik Shah I, finally defeated the mercenaries and captured John Ducas in 1074.

The net effect of these years of chaos was that the Turks established enduring control of a vast swathe of Anatolia, previously the main source for the Empire’s grain and manpower. The Turks named it the Sultanate of Rum (derived from ‘Rome’).

The economic upheaval caused by all these defeats added to widespread dissatisfaction and in 1078 two generals, Nicephorus Bryennius and Nicephorus Botaneiates, simultaneously revolted in the Balkans and Anatolia, respectively.

Bryennius raised the standard of revolt in November 1077 in his native city of Adrianople and marched on the capital. But, out east, Botaneiates gained the support of the Seljuk Turks, and he reached Constantinople first. They arrived as rising prices and food shortages led to riots and widespread burning and looting in March 1078. Michael abdicated on March 31, 1078 and retired into the Monastery of Studium.

Nicephorus III Botaneiates (1078 – 1081)

Born in 1001, Nicephorus rose to become the strategos of the Anatolic Theme, rebelled against Michael VII and was welcomed into the capital as a saviour to the ruioting and anarchy. He had his rival Bryennius arrested and blinded.

Botaneiates was in his seventies when he came to power, old and faced with the breakdown of the civil authority (after the leading bureaucrat had been murdered in the riots) and the ongoing weakness of the army on all fronts, which led to uprisings, rebellions and invasions on all borders, Botaneiates struggled and failed to cope.

Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118)

In the nick of time arrived a saviour. Exhausted, Botaneiates abdicated in 1081 and retired to a monastery where he died on 10 December of the same year. He abdicated in favour of an aristocratic young general who was to reign for the next 37 years with a firm hand and give the Empire the stability is so sorely needed.

He was Alexius Comnenus, nephew of Isaac Comnenus. His reign was to be dominated by wars against the Normans and the Seljuk Turks, as well as the arrival of the First Crusade and the establishment of independent Crusader states. But that is the start of a new era, and so here Norwich ends the second volume of his history of the Byzantine Empire.


Thoughts

Same names

I found this book hard going for several reasons. The most obvious is there’s a lot of repetition of names. Quite a few Leos, Michaels, Nicephoruses and Theodosuses recur throughout the narrative and when, on page 265, you find yourself reading about yet another Leo or another Michael, suddenly your mind goes completely blank and you can’t remember whether this is the one who inherited as a baby or was an alcoholic or murdered his brother or what…

And it’s not just the emperors’ names which get confusing. There were roughly two other major figures at any one moment of Byzantine history – the Patriarch of Constantinople – the head of the Eastern Church – and the Logothete or Chamberlain (in fact there were a number of logothetes with specialised roles, but there only ever seems to be one head of the imperial household and/or civil service at a time).

The point is that these other figures, also share just a handful of the same names. There were quite a few patriarchs named Leo or Nicephorus, and the same with the logothetes.

Then there’s the popes. Every Eastern Emperor and Patriarch had a troubled relationship with the Patriarch of Rome who increasingly ran the Western Church and, after Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800, had an increasing say in the running of the new Holy Roman Empire.

There appear to have been no fewer than ten popes named Leo during the three hundred years covered by this book. At the moment I am reading about the overthrow of the emperor Constantine by the Armenian general Romanus who, once he had seized power, had to settle things with his powerful rival Leo Phocas, before turning to turning to settle things with pope Leo. And all this is recorded for us in the chronicle of Leo the Deacon.

There are lots of Leos in this book.

It doesn’t help that Norwich’s standard practice is to introduce a new figure with their full title and number (Leo V, Michael II) but thereafter to omit the number. So you can easily find yourself reading about a Leo conspiring against a Nicephorus while a Basil lurks in the background – and wonder whether you’re in the 8th, 9th or 10th century.

The lack of social history indicates deeper gaps and absences

In fact this confusion about names and people stems from a deeper problem. Norwich, in his preface, candidly admits he isn’t interested in economic or social history. He likes people, and so his book is purely a history of the succession of the emperors, their wives, of troublesome patriarchs and rebellious generals – a history enlivened with plenty of gossip and speculation about the emperors’ sex lives and true parentages and military campaigns and heroic monuments. Fair enough, and all very entertaining.

But the unintended consequence of this VIP-based approach is that nothing ever seems to change.

The empire is permanently threatened by the Muslims in the east and the barbarians from the north. Time and again, one or other of them leads a massive army right up to the walls of Constantinople. Time and again, the emperor has a falling-out with the patriarch, imprisons him, replaces him, and holds an ecumenical council to try and impose his will on the church. Time and again, a rebellious general or jealous colleague assassinates the emperor in the heart of the palace and declares himself basileus.

There is little or no sense of historical change or development. Instead it feels a little like we are trapped in a very ornate version of Groundhog Day.

This is more than just confusing – the absence of economic or social history really profoundly fails to capture the passage of time.

What was the impact of mass destruction? I grew puzzled and frustrated every time I read that the Bulgars razed Adrianople to the ground and took 100,000 citizens off into slavery; or the Muslims razed Armoria to the ground and devastated the entire region, or captured Sicily or Crete.

Because in Norwich’s narrative, events like this are only interesting or relevant insofar as they consolidate or undermine each emperor’s position, as they feed into court intrigues.

But I kept wondering about their effect on the Byzantine Empire as a whole? Surely the utter destruction of its second city, the ravaging of entire areas, and the loss of major islands in the Mediterranean – surely these events changed things: surely trade and the economy were affected, surely the tax base and therefore the ability to pay for civil services and the army were affected. Surely archaeology or letters or books by private citizens might shed light on the impact of these events and what it felt like to live through them.

But none of that is included in Norwich’s narrative, which focuses exclusively on the tiny, tiny number of people right at the pinnacle of the empire and their increasingly squalid and repetitive shenanigans.

This is a highly entertaining account of the colourful lives and conspiracies of the Byzantine emperors, which gives you all the major political and biographical events of the period, but – the more I read it, the more I felt I was missing out on a deeper understanding of the Byzantine Empire, of its economy and trade – was it based on farming (and if so, of what?), or mining, or trade (and if so, with who?).

Writers And of its broader social structure and changes. Were there no poets or chroniclers who give us insight into the lives of ordinary people – farmers, and traders and lawyers – beyond the corrupt and violent emperors and their horrible families?

Art Art is mentioned occasionally, but only in the context of the massive schisms caused by Iconoclasm. I appreciate that there are other, separate books devoted to Byzantine art, but it’s just one of a whole range of social and cultural areas which remain pretty much a blank.

Slavery Slavery is repeatedly mentioned as a fundamental element of the empire and, indeed, of the surrounding societies. We hear again and again that both Muslim and barbarian raiders sold their captives into slavery. But what did that mean? Who ran the slave trade? Which societies had most slaves? What was a slave’s life like? How did you escape from slavery, because there are casual mentions of former slaves who rise to positions of power…

Eunuchs Eunuchs played a key role in Byzantine civilisation, and plenty of sons of deposed emperors were castrated; but not once does Norwich explain what this really meant, I mean not only how the operation was carried out, but there is no exploration of the culture of the court eunuchs, and how this made the Byzantine court different from those of, say, the King of the Franks or the Muslim Caliph in Baghdad.

So this is a great gaudy romp of a book which gives you all the necessary dates and explanations of the political and military history – but I was left wanting to know a lot more about the Byzantine Empire.


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


Related links

Other reviews of late antiquity

The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (1) by Michael Haag (2012)

From its title I expected this book to focus narrowly on the history of the Knights Templars, but it is much more than that.

The Knights Templar

The history of the order can be summarised thus:

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, also known as the Order of Solomon’s Temple, the Knights Templar or simply the Templars, were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 after the First Crusade had seized Jerusalem. The order was recognised by the Pope in 1139 and was active until 1312 when it was suppressed by Pope Clement V.

The Templars became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who formed as much as 90% of the order’s members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.

The Templars were closely tied to the Crusades so that when the Holy Land was lost, support for the order faded. Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them and erase his debt. In 1307, he had many of the order’s members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. It was under pressure from King Philip that Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312. (Wikipedia)

From that time to the present day rumours have swirled around the Templars, and I have met conspiracy theorists who think that the tentacles of the transnational organisation they founded persist to the present day, and underlie modern banking/wars/global inequality.

Deep history, revisionist history

So much for the order itself. What is surprising about Haag’s book is the extreme thoroughness with which he presents the deep historical background for the crusades themselves, a history so deep it goes back before the founding of Christianity, and covers the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC), the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome to the barbarians, the endurance of the Byzantine empire, the rise of Persian power, and then the eruption of militant Islam into the Middle East in the 630s.

And the reason he goes back to such an early period is because…

Haag presents the entire crusading enterprise in a radically revisionist light.

The politically correct, modern view of the crusades is that they were a racist, orientalist, unjustified, colonial attack by rapacious, cruel and undisciplined European armies, motivated solely by greed and personal aggrandisement, against the peace-loving Muslim world upon whose civilians (and even local Christian populations) they perpetrated grotesque massacres.

By going so very far back into the deep pre-history of the crusades Haag aims to present us with the broadest possible historical context for them, a perspective which then forms the basis of his drastic reinterpretation. Thus he claims that:

1. At the time of the First Crusade the majority of the population of Palestine was Christian – so the crusades weren’t an attack on a majority population of Muslims, but an attempt to rescue the majority population of the area from subjugation by alien oppressors. He quotes a young Islamic scholar Ibn al-Arabi who stayed in Jerusalem from 1093 to 1096 and wrote that, four and a half centuries after the Muslim conquest, Jerusalem was still a predominantly Christian city, as was Palestine generally:

The country is theirs [the Christians’] because it is they who work its soil, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches. (quoted on page 88)

2. Because it was not the Christians, but the Muslims who were the outsiders and conquerors – erupting into the Levant in the 7th century and imposing a violent, racist, imperialist ideology on the native inhabitants of the region over the next few hundred years.

You can see how that is completely opposite to the self-hating, anti-western narrative most of us are used to. Haag goes back to the start of the Christian era to show that:

  1. The entire Mediterranean basin, from the south of Spain through Italy and Greece on to Anatolia and the Levant, then around Egypt and along the whole coastline of North Africa to Ceuta opposite Spain – this entire region was part of the Roman Empire.
  2. Christianity did not spread via the sword; the exact opposite, for its first three centuries (from Jesus’ execution in 33 AD to the Emperor Constantine decriminalising Christianity in 312) Christianity spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean empire despite the violent and cruel attempts of the Empire to crush it. Christianity was not a religion of the sword but of proselytising and persuasion, which despite all efforts to stamp it out had nonetheless become the de facto religion of the Empire by the mid-350s, and was officially made the state religion by the Emperor Theodosius in the 390s.
  3. With the result that, from around 400 to around 700 AD, the entire Mediterranean basin formed one unified Christian civilisation.

The extent of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan in 117 AD

The invaders were the Muslims, who erupted from Arabia in the 650s and quickly overran Persia and the Levant, then spread along North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and pushed up through Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and raiding half way-up France until stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732. From about 718 onwards, various Christian princes and armies began the very long, slow process of reconquering Spain for Christianity – the so-called Reconquista – which was only completed in 1492, over 700 years later.

The spread of Islam 622 – 750

Meanwhile, Muslim armies continued pushing eastwards into Persia and on towards India, and north and west through Anatolia towards the embattled centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, which they were only prevented from capturing by a series of heroic stands by succeeding Byzantine emperors.

During the 800s and 900s Muslims also seized the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Sicily (842) and the Balearic Islands, using them and ports along the North African coast as bases for pirate raids on Christian ships and ports. They even attacked the heart of Christendom in the West, the city of Rome, in 846, when Muslim raiders plundered the outskirts, sacking the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, and were only prevented from entering the city itself by the sturdiness of the Aurelian Wall. In 849 another Arab raid targeted Rome’s port, Ostia, but was repelled.

This, then, was the broad – and often ignored – context for the crusades. Christian Europe was, in effect, under siege from extremely fierce warriors motivated by an ideology which aimed to suppress or wipe out all traces of Christian civilisation.

Haag goes on to make key points about the new Muslim overlords of the conquered areas:

1. The Muslim rulers generally despised agriculture and manual labour. In all the Mediterranean lands they conquered they saw themselves as a warrior élite whose fierce ideology justified them in subjugating the native inhabitants who were overwhelmingly Christian in culture and belief. The native Christians and Jews (in Palestine, particularly) were subject to punitive taxes, unable to worship openly, forbidden to repair their churches or synagogues and, in some periods, forced to wear specific clothes or even branded to indicate their lowly serf status.

2. The call for Christians in France and Italy – the ‘West’ – to come to the aid of their fellow Christians in the newly-occupied lands were not new to the 11th century (when the crusades began). Throughout the 800s, 900s and 1000s came repeated pleas for help from Spain, from the imperiled emperor at Byzantium, from Christian leaders in Alexandria and Jerusalem –  pleas to be liberated from semi-slavery, from the Muslim desecration of Christian holy places, and the destruction of churches and synagogues. From the suppression of the original Christian culture and belief of the native inhabitants.

Of the five original patriarchal seats of the Roman Empire – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – by the 1050s Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had fallen into Muslim hands, and – as mentioned – Constantinople was under permanent threat.

In other words, seen from this deep historical perspective, it is not the Christians who were the aggressors. Christian armies didn’t march on Mecca and Medina and occupy them and tear down their holy places and plunder their treasures and force the native inhabitants to wear special markers on their clothes or even to be branded. Christian armies have never attacked the holy places of Islam.

But Muslim armies had by the 800s:

  • conquered Alexandria, the great centre of Christian learning
  • Jerusalem, where Jesus was tried, executed and rose from the dead
  • Antioch, home of the first Gentile Christian church and where the term ‘Christian’ was first used
  • and Constantinople, explicitly founded as the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire

For Haag, then, the crusades are the precise opposite of a colonial Western attempt to conquer peace-loving Muslims; they were an attempt to recover authentically and originally Christian lands, shrines and holy places which the Muslims had seized and whose majority Christian populations the Muslims were oppressing.

Haag makes further arguments.

Jerusalem not a Muslim holy city By going back into the deep history he shows that Jerusalem was, for centuries, not the Holy City for Muslims which is it now generally seen to be. It is so now because the tradition grew up that the city was the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey. Just to be crystal clear, I’ll quote Wikipedia on the subject of the Night Journey.

The Isra and Mi’raj are the two parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islam, the Islamic prophet Muhammad took during a single night around the year 621. Within Islam it signifies both a physical and spiritual journey. The Quran surah al-Isra contains an outline account, while greater detail is found in the hadith collections of the reports, teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad. In the accounts of the Isra’, Muhammad is said to have traveled on the back of a winged mule-like white beast, called Buraq, to ‘the farthest mosque’. By tradition this mosque, which came to represent the physical world, was identified as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At the mosque, Muhammad is said to have led the other prophets in prayer. His subsequent ascent into the heavens came to be known as the Mi‘raj. Muhammad’s journey and ascent is marked as one of the most celebrated dates in the Islamic calendar.

But Haag points out that the sura in the Koran which is the basis of this belief in no way mentions Jerusalem, but simply refers to ‘the farthest mosque’ or masjid.

Glory to Him Who carried His beloved by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Furthest Masjid, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing![Quran 17:1 (Translated by Tarif Khalidi)]

In Haag’s view, the tradition that Muhammad’s flight took place from Jerusalem was created after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. He describes in detail the career of Muslim warrior Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, who built the al-Aqsah mosque (which became known as the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem in order to promote and aggrandise his achievements, and in deliberate competition with the large Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But, as Haag highlights, the carved inscription inside the al-Aqsah mosque in which al-Malik claims credit for building it (and also threatens Christians and Jews unless they obey their Muslim overlords) which is also one of the earliest written records of a text from the Koran – this inscription nowhere mentions the Night Flight. Thus:

far from commemorating the Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock seems to have generated the tradition. (p.34)

The point of this section is that Haag is seeking to undermine or question what most historians (and ordinary people) tend to take for granted, which is that Jerusalem was a Muslim Holy City at the time of the Crusades.

Not so, claims Haag. It certainly had been a Jewish and then a Christian Holy City – it had been founded by Jews and was the centre of their world for a thousand years before the Romans arrived, and it was where the Jewish heretic and/or Son of God, Jesus, was crucified and rose again and preached to his disciples before ascending into heaven, which makes it pretty obviously holy to Christians, too.

But for the Muslim rulers it was, at least to begin with, just one among numerous ports and trading centres in the Levant, with no particular strategic significance in itself, but with the notable perk that – as a destination for European pilgrims could be heavily taxed – it was a useful profit centre.

Saladin not a Muslim hero In another reversal of the usual story, Haag points out that Saladin (An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the legendary opponent of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189-92), was not an Arab at all, but a Kurd, who spent more time fighting against his fellow Muslims than against Christians.

For years before he finally took Jerusalem, Saladin fought Muslim rivals in Egypt and Syria in his efforts to found a new dynasty, the Ayyubid dynasty. Above all, Saladin aspired to supersede the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad and his seizure of Jerusalem was, for him, a great propaganda coup.

Thus if Saladin fought the Crusaders it wasn’t as part of a high-minded general Muslim resistance; it was as part of his attempts to gain kudos and respect in the Muslim world in order to reach his deeper goal, the establishment of his own dynasty, achieved through what Haag calls ‘an imperialist war.’ In fact, the core of the Muslim world, the caliphate based in Baghdad, hoped the Christians would defeat Saladin and thus remove this troublesome usurper.

Summary of Haag’s argument

In the section about the Night Flight, in his passages about Saladin, and in numerous other ways throughout this book, Haag sets out to counter the politically correct narrative and to show that:

  • the crusades were not a violent attack on the Muslim Holy City of Jerusalem because it was not in fact a genuine Muslim Holy City, not in the same way that Mecca or Medina were
  • the majority population of the Middle East was not Muslim, but Christian and Jewish
  • that the imperialists in the story were not the Europeans, but the conquering Muslims who (as he vividly shows) at various times massacred the native Christians and Jews (who had both been living there far longer than the Muslims) or imposed all kinds of restrictions on them – forbidding them to practice their religion in public, closing churches and synagogues, mulcting them for money, and making them wear special clothes, or even branding their skin

Which leads up to Haag’s claim that the Crusader States, far from being the oppressive intervention of Christian outsiders, were a rare period when the majority Christian population of Palestine had something approaching local rule, representing local interests.

These are the big, thought-provoking points Haag makes before he even gets to the origins of the Templars.

The vital role of Constantinople

It’s not the main focus of Haag’s book but, covering the Dark and Middle Ages in the East as he does, his narrative can’t help bringing out the way that Constantinople/Byzantium again and again and again proved a bulwark protecting the rest of Europe from the marauding Muslims.

Prompting the reader to reflect that, if Constantine had not happened to win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (the battle in which he defeated his main rival to the throne and thus became Emperor of Rome), and if Constantine had not become convinced of the power of Christianity – he would never have decided to create a new capital in the East and commissioned the mighty new city which came to be known as Constantinople. And this city and its outlying territories and warrior population would not have gone on to become Christian Europe’s main bulwark and protection against invading Muslims for eight hundred years (from the 600s until its fall in 1453).

And so, if it had not been for this sequence of fortunate events, might not the whole of Europe – and so its later colonies like America, Australasia and so on – not all now be Muslim?


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Other medieval reviews

Sicily: culture and conquest @ the British Museum

I’m aware of three exhibition spaces at the British Museum: the big Sainsbury space for blockbuster exhibitions at the back of the main hall; the temporary display room 3a, immediately on the right of the main entrance; and the medium-sized space on the first floor of the Rotunda in the main hall.

This exhibition is a medium-sized one in the Rotunda: the ticket collector on the door said it would take an hour to go round and this compactness was confirmed by the lack of audio-guide.

Two eras

I was expecting a comprehensive historical overview of Sicily – the largest island in the Mediterranean, the triangular island at the foot of Italy and only 96 miles from the coast of Tunisia. In the event, the exhibition manages to be so compact because it focuses on just two key eras in the island’s long and chequered history.

1. Classical Greek

First is the classical Greek era, from the earliest colonies founded in the 730s BC, which overlapped with sporadic Phoenician settlement in later centuries, all the way through to the period of the Roman conquest, circa 200 BC. In fact the decisive battle in which Rome won the island was fought on 10 March 241 BC.

The early rooms contain fascinating artefacts from this long period, which taken together show the evolution of Greek sculptural art from abstract designs through stylised human figures and onto the astonishing realism of full classical Greek art. As an example of the earliest artefacts, there is a large stone tomb cover, decorated with a huge abstract carving – fertility symbols, some kind of religious imagery? No one knows.

Representing the middle period is a marvellously preserved terracotta altar, dating to about 500 BC, featuring the standing figures of three fertility goddesses.

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

Terracotta Altar with three women and a panther mauling a bull. Gela, Sicily. C.500 BC. Museo Archeologico Regionale di Gela © Regione Siciliana

There are numerous other statues, including a glass case with 10 or more foot-high figures of Cybele, goddess of fertility, festooned with her distinctive necklace of grapes, hieratic heads from temples, along with numerous coins from this, the earliest period of coin history, before you start to encounter the supremely realistic depictions of human and animal figures which are the glorious achievement of classical Greek art.

For me the outstanding example of this later period was the stunning  terracotta horse’s head from an equestrian group which surmounted a temple in Sicily, c. 480–460 BC.

The flared nostrils and the swollen veins of the horse bring it vividly to life; you can hear the whinnying, the snorting and smell the hot sweaty horse smell.

2. The Normans

Then – surprisingly – the show skips the Romans altogether, along with the reconquest by the Byzantine Empire of Justinian I (530s) and conquest by Muslim forces (820-1020), leaping over 1,000 years forward to the Norman period, starting when the Normans conquered the island in 1061 and continuing through their period of dominance to around 1300.

I found this second section the more interesting of the two, which may be a simple reflection of the fact that we have much more written evidence from this period. Normans (descendants of 9th century Vikings who had settled the area that became ‘Normandy’ in north-west France) had already established bases on mainland Italy and during the 11th century mounted raids on Sicily. Eventually in 1061 they established control over the entire island.

Marble bust of Frederick II, Italy, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Marble bust of King Frederick II of Sicilty, 1220–50 AD. Deutsches Archäologisches Institut, Rome. © H. Behrens, DAI Rom

Due to its long history, sketched above, the island was now home to a checkerboard of communities including Italians, Byzantine Greeks, Muslims, Jewish immigrants and now its Norman rulers. Sicily was ruled by a succession of Norman kings – Roger II, William I and William II – who turned it into a military power base but also created a unique hybrid, multi-cultural court. The exhibition has a room devoted to the amazing Palatine Chapel, commissioned by Roger to sit at the heart of the royal palace at Palermo, which was covered in gorgeous decoration mixing twelfth-century Byzantine-style mosaic with marble and wooden Islamic-influenced architectural decorations.

Sicilian facts

Sicily has always enjoyed an unusually fertile soil created by the regular volcanic eruptions of Mount Etna. This large sloping mountain dominates the island in every direction.

Sicily contains some of the best-preserved classical temples in the Mediterranean and a stunning ancient theatre built on a hillside overlooking a bay with Mount Etna in the background.

Speaking of stunning landscapes, probably the most striking feature of the exhibition is a number of really massive, wall-sized, colour photographs of the Sicilian landscape, along with temples and ruins, which cover many of the walls and really bring the subject to life. It’s a technique the Museum used in the Viking exhibition a few years ago, and it really helps situate the dry artefacts into a living breathing (and very sunny) environment.

My favourites

The show includes some 200 artefacts from its two chosen eras. I went with my son and we each chose our favourite objects. I liked:

Gilded falcon, dating from the early 1200s and harking back towards the winged eagles and birds of prey which formed bowsprits to Viking warships.

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gilded bronze falcon, Bronze, traces of gold, Sicily or southern Italy, 1200–1220 AD © The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Palatine chapel ceiling The chapel stood at the centre of the royal palace in Palermo. It was commissioned by the Norman King Roger II and consecrated on 28 April 1140. For the exhibition the extraordinary ceiling of the chapel has been recreated (admittedly the three-dimensional roof with alcoves and arches has been recreated as a flat two-dimensional photograph) and is suspended low above one of the exhibition rooms. Shame there wasn’t a mat for visitors to lie on and look up and study the highly detailed intermixing of abstract patterns, decorated with Islamic script, among which sit rosettes holding quaint medieval portraits of Christian saints and holy men – all the work of Fatimid woodworkers and painters from North Africa.

My son’s favourites

Bronze rostrum The exhibition includes a direct remnant of the battle in which the Romans conquered Sicily in 241 BC: a bronze battering ram that was fitted on the front of the Roman warships to sink enemy ships, and which was only recently excavated from the waters around the island.

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Bronze rostrum from Roman warship, from the seabed near Levanzo, Sicily. c.240 BC. Soprintendenza del Mare © Regione Siciliana

Tabula Rogeriana The book of maps which King Roger II commissioned from the Arab scholar Al-Idrisi, who took 15 years creating a description of the world and world map, the first one anyone had attempted in a thousand years. The Tabula Rogeriana was completed in 1154 and the exhibition has a splendid 14th century copy of it.

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily - A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

14th Century copy of a map of Sicily – A double page map of Sicily from Al-Idrisi’s Treatise, Unknown, c.1300–1500AD © The Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford

Summary

So the exhibition is far from being a complete overview of Sicilian culture. Instead it’s a collection of many wonderful artefacts from two distinct moments of European history which – along with the dazzling and enormous colour photos of various landscapes of the island – really whet your appetite to go and visit this fascinating and beautiful island.

The trailer

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