Topics in Middle East History

Chapter 5: The Byzantine Empire from 400 to 650

Copyright ©2010, 2011by T. Pavlidis

The Birth of the Byzantine Empire

Theodosius was succeeded in the eastern part of the Roman Empire by his eldest son Arcadius and in the western part by his younger son Honorius. The western part did not fare well because of the invasions of Germanic tribes and Rome was sacked in 410 and eventually, in 476, it came under the rule of the German king Odoacer. The Wikipedia article on the Decline of the Roman Empire details these events and also contains an informative map of Europe in 476. The Roman empire held onto the lands of the Balkans south of the Danube river, Asia Minor, the lands west of modern Iraq, Egypt, and part of modern Libya. It had lost permanently the lands of modern England, France, and Spain.

The empire continued to be called Roman, even though it no longer included Rome. A major feature of the empire is that it had not only a state religion but also a state imposed orthodoxy. That in turn added thought control to the power of the emperor and this arrangement was probably inspired by Persian Sassanid practice. The fact that the official religion was Christianity (rather than, say, Zoroastrianism) was secondary and one may argue (as Protestants did a millennium later) that the imperial favor corrupted Christianity into a form that was very far from its form in the Gospels. (You can find several difference between church practice and what is attributed to Jesus by reading just a small part of the Gospels, such as Mathew 6.)

It is worth mentioning that for thought control, the state imposed orthodoxy need not be based on religion. Any ideology would do as the modern examples of thought control in the Soviet Union and Maoist China that were based on Marxism. The persecution of the science of Genetics under Stalin matches the persecution of any heresis under the Roman emperors.

The territorial as well as the religious changes resulted in a state was quite different from the empire of 200 years earlier and historians use the appellation Byzantine Empire to refer to it. There are differences of opinion on when it is appropriate to start applying the term because the empire continued to change. For example, in the seventh century Latin was replaced by Greek as the official language.

Even though there was an official orthodoxy, or maybe because of it, there were bitter religious disputes that we discuss in the next section. Then we discuss two emperors, Justinian the Great and Heraclius. The former tried to recapture the Western lands but succeeded only temporarily. The latter fought and defeated the Persian empire, only to see his gains lost to the Arab advance.

Religious Disputes

Christianity may have become the sole religion of the empire and Arianism may have been defeated but new issues arose. Most of them focused on the nature of Jesus. Was he divine, human, or both? From a modern viewpoint these appear to be subtle theological issues and it is difficult to see how they would excite so much civil strife. It is possible that behind the theological differences there were regional or other mundane issues. A power struggle between the new patriarchate of Constantinople and the old patriarchate of Alexandria seems a plausible cause behind the disputes. Or, maybe, in that era people could get really excited about theological issues. Gibbon has a long chapter [EG, Chapter XLVII, vol. 5, pp. 1-71] that details the various disputes and I provide only a few highlights here.

The first major controversy involved whether the Virgin Mary should be called "Mother of God" or just :"Mother of Christ". The Syrian born patriarch of Constantinople Nestorius advocated the latter and he was bitterly opposed by the patriarch of Alexandria Cyril. Cyril won in the synod of Ephesus that took place in 431 and Nestorius was declared a heretic. However his creed survived in the lands of the Persian empire. The Persian kings supported Christians that followed the creed of Nestorius because such Christians were unlikely to support the Byzantine empire. Eventually Nestorianism spread to different parts of Asia and Africa and the Nestorian church is very much alive today and there is an "unofficial" Nestorian web site That site offers some interesting material about the political motivation behind the theological disputes (The Lynching of Nestorius).

Less than 20 years after the condemnation of Nestorius a second synod was convened in Ephesus (in 449) to deal with the issue of whether Jesus had one nature or two (divine and human). The proponents of one nature (monophysites) won. Gibbon [ibid, p. 27] provides a quote from the decision that shows the extend of the passions raised by the issue: "May those who divide Christ be divided with the sword, may they be hewn in pieces, may they be burned alive". Gibbon also provides the Greek original in a footnote and, because of the terseness of ancient Greek, it is more forceful than the translation. The monophysite doctrine had been advocated by the Alexandrian clergy and they repeated their earlier victory against the views of the Constantinople clergy, but this time the results of the synod were dispute by Leo, the pope of Rome. On his insistence a new synod was convened in Chalcedon, near Constantinople (starting on October 8, 451) and it reversed the decisions of the Ephesus synod. In addition, the patriarch of Alexandria Dioscurus was stripped from his office.

A sign of the times is that Dioscurus was accused of entertaining prostitutes in his episcopal palace. According to Gibbon [ibid, p. 30] one of them was named Irene (it means Peace in Greek) and the local wits had made a pun with the episcopal blessing "Peace be to all."

Dioscurus was replaced by Proterius who was guarded by 2,000 soldiers because the people of Alexandria were still adhering to the monophysite doctrine. In five years Proterius was murdered in the cathedral. A contemporary writer quoted by Gibbon [ibid, p. 33] writes " ... the people of Alexandria and all Egypt, were seized with a strange and diabolical frenzy: great and small, slaves and freedmen, ... who opposed the synod of Chalcedon, lost their speech and reason, ..."

One hundred years later there was a new twist. A bishop was appointed to ferret out crypto-pagans and he succeeded in identifying several prominent citizens in the capital, including lawyers, physicians, and city officials who "still cherished the superstition of the Greeks" [ibid, p. 39]. One of them committed suicide, the rest submitted to baptism. The inquisition extended to Asia Minor where 70,000 pagans were detected and converted to Christianity. (These events were taking place more than 150 years after the decree of Theodosius [Chapter 4].) Next came the turn of the Jews who were forced to observe Passover on the same day as the Christian Easter. The Samaritans were asked to convert into Christianity but they rebelled and over 20,000 of them were killed while the imperial army suppressed their rebellion.

One result of the heavy handed imposition of religious orthodoxy was the extinguishing of intellectual life outside the church (see Chapter 2). The other was the alienation of the population of Egypt that eventual led to the loss of large of the empire to the Arabs.

Emperor Justinian

The next important emperor after Theodosius is Justinian (ruled 527-565) and he was the last emperor who made a serious effort to recapture the western parts of the empire. Justinian's uncle Justin was of peasant stock from the Balkans and he became emperor after rising through the army ranks. He had no children and in his old age appointed his nephew as co-emperor. Upon his uncle's death Justinian became the sole emperor.

Justinian's wife Theodora was a fascinating character. She had been what we would call today a burlesque performer and a prostitute. Gibbon [EG, Chapter XI, vol. 4, pp 153-155] quotes (in the original Greek) contemporary writers with descriptions of her activities that are too raunchy even for our permissive times. In one show she would be naked and lie flat on her back on stage and a servant would throw grains of barley over her private parts. Then geese would come and eat the barley. (Even though Christianity had become the state religion, Roman licentiousness seem to have continued unabated.) It was against the law for a Roman nobleman (much less an emperor) to marry a woman of "loose morals" so around 522 the law was changed. "A glorious repentance was left open for the unhappy females ..." [ibid, p. 156].

As an empress Theodora exercised power in her own right and even had a special prison for those who displeased her. In one case she had a nobleman whipped when he claimed that his wife, a favorite of Theodora, was not found to be a virgin at their wedding night [ibid, p. 158]. Since Theodora was "street-wise" her council served Justinian well. The most memorable case occurred early in their reign.

The Roman practice of chariot races as mass entertainment was alive and well in new Rome and so were the four racing factions: whites, reds, greens, and blues. In 532, Constantinople experienced a riot pitting the blues against the greens that soon developed into a full scale insurrection and burning of many buildings. The scenes described by Gibbon (based on accounts of contemporary authors) [ibid, pp. 164-167] make modern soccer or other sport riots pale in comparison. There were widespread killings and forced replacement of officials. It seemed to be an anarchic reaction to official corruption and mismanagement. When people feel powerless towards the government a riot seemed to be the only way to make themselves heard. This is true now as it was in 532. Gibbon writes "The peaceful murmurs of the people would have been disregarded; they were heard with respect when the city was in flames;" {ibid, p. 165]. At one point Justinian lost his nerve and was preparing to escape by sea to a place distant from the burning capital. But in the midst of a council where the escape was planned Theodora rose and said that she would rather die on the throne than survive by flight. Her courage carried the day and a counter-attack was planned. First they manage to revive the split between the blues and the greens and have the blues "come to their senses". The greens were left in the hippodrome where 30,000 of them were slaughtered by Justinian's soldiers.

Justinian's general Belisarius led a successful campaign to recapture North Africa from the Vandals. (The region recovered corresponds roughly to the modern states of Algeria and Tunis.) Because of the great distance from the capital the administration of the recovered provinces was entrusted to a governor who had both civil and military authority. Such governors came to be known as Exarchs. Belisarius returned to Constantinople where he was honored with a triumphal procession. However, "there was a fly in the ointment". Gibbon writes that both Belisarius and the captive Vandal king Gelimer had to perform the "customary adoration" of Justinian and Theodora by falling flat on the ground and touching "the footstool of a prince who had not unsheathed the sword, and of a prostitute who had danced on the theatre" [ibid, p. 233].

Soon after the triumph Belisarius led a campaign to recapture Italy from the Goths. He succeeded in that task and Rome was back in Roman hands. Belisarius wife Antonina had a "colorful" past like the empress Theodora and she took active part in politics. She accused the pope of Rome that he conspired with the Goths and had him dismissed and exiled to the East after been reduced to the rank of a simple monk [ibid, p. 259]. There was a lot of political intrigue and Justinian sent a second army to Italy under the command of the eunuch Narses [ibid, p. 265].

The next assignment for Belisarius was fighting the Persians in the east. He was successful again but in the meantime incurred the displeasure of Theodora and Justinian, probably because they feared the popularity of a successful general. He was tried for corruption and then he was pardoned by Theodora, supposedly as a favor to Antonina!

Most of the reconquered provinces were lost again and historians think that in the long run Justinian's policy was detrimental to the Byzantine empire. Before we leave the subject it is worth repeating a quote of Belisarius in reprimanding his troops for mistreating the local population: "When I first accepted the commission of subduing Africa, I depended much less on the numbers, or upon the bravery of my troops, than upon the friendly disposition of the natives, and their immortal hatred to the Vandals" [ibid, p. 220].

Justinian's most important legacies are in the codification of the laws (Justinian civil law was still valid in Greece until around 1950) and his building program that included the famous church of Holy Wisdom (Aya Sofia). It is said that when he entered the church for the first time he exclaimed "I have beaten you Solomon", implying that the new edifice was better than the Temple built by Solomon.

Figure 1: Roman Empire in 564CE at the end of the reign of Justinian the Great.

A Digression on the Status of Women in the Ancient Greek World

The story of Theodora and her friends may leave a reader with the impression that women enjoyed a certain freedom in Byzantine times. Unfortunately, this is a false impression. Theodora was a courtesan and the ancients made a strong distinction between different "kinds of women". A good place to start is to look at the attitude in ancient Athens, a place that is seen as the beacon of civilization of liberal thought. The famous orator Demosthenes (384BCE - 322BCE) stated: "We have three kinds of women: wives to give us legitimate children, hetaere for the pleasure of the mind, and concubines for the daily needs of our body" [1]. In ancient Athens wives were kept under virtual house arrest and, as a rule, were also illiterate. Concubines were female slaves, so they had no rights of any kind.

Who were the heterae? Their closest modern counterpart are the Japanese Geishas who are entertainers that know how to sing, dance, play an instrument, but also make interesting conversation with men in bars. (Until the end of WW II Japanese treatment of women was quite similar to that of ancient Athens.) In English the words Entertainer and Courtesan have broader meanings but each includes women that act as heterae. The de facto distinction of the class has persisted in the West into modern times. A famous example is Marie Duplessis (1824-1847) who served as the model for the heroine of La Dame aux Camelias by Alexander Dumas the younger and also as the model for the heroine of La Traviata by Verdi.

In short, women were confined in their homes and kept illiterate and the only exception were the courtesans. We should keep this in mind when we discuss Islam in the next chapter. The status of women in Islam was no different than that in other societies at those times.

  1. I have written the above quote from memory, from the ancient Greek text. The quote appears in slightly different form in There are several other quotes there.

Emperor Heraclius and the last Roman/Persian War

The Roman and Persians empire had been in almost continuous state of war for over 500 years with occasional interludes of peace. We will focus here in the last major war that ended up in weakening both empires and paving the road for the rise of Islam. In the latter part of the sixth century the Persian empire had been in turmoil and the Romans interfered in its internal affairs by supporting a the grandson of a previous king to reclaim the throne from an usurper. Chosroe became king in 591 and ceded Armenia and what is now Georgia to the Romans in exchange for their support. It is even said that Chosroe may have favored Christianity. Gibbon provides a full account of these affairs [EG, Chapter XLVI, vol. 4, pp. 488-493] and I rely on his account in the rest of this section.

When emperor Maurice who had supported Chosroe was murdered by Phocas in 602, Chosroe used this event as a pretext to attack the Byzantines and captured most of what we call now Middle East. Maurice was the last emperor of the Justinian dynasty and Phocas proved to be quite a bloodthirsty tyrant, according to Gibbon, "the worthy rival of the Caligulas and Domitians of the first age of the empire" [ibid, p. 506]. In 610 Phocas was replaced by Heraclius, the son of the Exarch of Africa. Heraclius is credited with introducing Greek as the official language of the empire, replacing Latin and for several reforms, including the system of soldier-farmers. Men were given land to cultivate in exchange for the obligation to serve in the army in time of war. (We should keep in mind that in those days there was no conscription or draft.) This system provided manpower for the armies of the empire and stayed in place for several centuries until it was undermined by major landowners who took over the small farms reducing the previous owners to the status of tenant farmers and the same time releasing them from their military obligations. We will discuss these consequences in Chapter 11.

Figure 2: Roman Empire in 623CE under Heraclius after the Avar and Persian conquests. The polygonal line with the arrow shows the route of Heraclius when he attacked the Persians in their backyard.

However, the first priority of Heraclius was the Persian threat. By the time he ascended to the throne the Persian armies had captured Damascus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Caesaria (modern Kayseri in Turkey), the capital of Cappadocia. A few years later the Persians captured Alexandria, at that time the second largest city of the empire. The capture of Jerusalem was particularly painful to the Byzantines because Chosroe took the relic of the true cross to Persia. Eventually the Persians advanced across the straight of Bosporus from the Byzantine capital by capturing Chalcedon, effectively laying siege to Constantinople. The Persians also tried to promote Zoroastrianism in the lands they had conquered and this resulted in popular resentment [ibid, pp. 510-512]. Figure 2 shows the empire at is low ebb.

While the Zoroastrians were fighting the Christians, a new religion was rising, not too far away, in the Arabian peninsula. The prophet Mohammed had started preaching in Mecca and he wrote to Chosroe asking him to embrace the new faith. Chosroe tore Mohammed's letter and threw the pieces in the river that was near his encampment. It is reported that when Mohammed heard Chosroe's reaction the prophet exclaimed "it is thus that God will tear the kingdom and reject the supplications of Chosroe" [ibid, p. 514]. This sentiment comes forth in the 30th surah of the Quran that is titled "The Romans" and contains the verses "The Roman Empire has been defeated- In a land close by; but they, (even) after (this) defeat of theirs, will soon be victorious- Within a few years. With Allah is the Decision, in the past and in the Future: on that Day shall the Believers rejoice-" (verses 2-4) [Quran].

Indeed, the Persian conquests did not last long. Heraclius made a bold move by loading his troops on boats and sailing around Asia Minor to the gulf of Iskanderun, in what is now southern Turkey, just north of the Syrian border. Map of the Campaign. This was a very astute choice and Heraclius pitched his camp near Issus, the place of one of Alexander's victories over the Persians. Gibbon [ibid, pp. 520-534] provides a detailed account of the war that ended with a decisive victory of the Romans. In 629 he entered Jerusalem and restored the relic of the true cross in its rightful place. The map of Figure 3 shows the extent of the empire after Heraclius' reconquests.

Figure 3: Lands of the Roman Empire circa 633. Most of them did not remain for long under Roman rule. Adapted from

Following the humiliation of their defeat, the Persian nobles revolted against Chosroe and installed in the throne one of his sons, Siroes. Chosroe was thrown into a dungeon where he died after a few days. Siroes signed a treaty with the Romans returning their captives and ceding back to them Syria and Egypt. Heraclius return to Constantinople and "entered the capital in a chariot drawn by four elephants" [ibid, p. 533].

However the victor was not in much better shape than the loser. Gibbon [ibid, p. 533-534] provides an estimate that the Romans lost 200,000 soldiers during the war. In addition, the agriculture had been disrupted and the empire was financially exhausted. Heraclius was also aware about the divisive effects of the religious disputes and the alienation of Egypt where people still favored the monophysite doctrine. He managed to obtain an opinion from the bishops that while Christ may have had two natures, he had one will, the monothelite doctrine. He had hoped that this would be a conciliatory gesture towards the Egyptians but it was not meant to be. The new doctrine was opposed first by the patriarch of Jerusalem and then by the pope of Rome.

The split between the patriarchates of Alexandria and Constantinople proved to have ominous consequences when the wars with the Arabs came. Mobilized by the new religion of Islam, Arab armies started invading the lands of the Roman empire. The first such foray actually occurred during Heraclius triumph in Constantinople.

The Arab Advance

By the time Heraclius died in 641, the lands recovered from Persia had been lost and Persia itself had been conquered by the Arabs. The Arab advance against the Romans was stopped at the Taurus mountains (in what is now southeastern Turkey) but the Roman (Byzantine) empire had lost all its African and Asian territories except for Asia Minor. These territories included the ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. This loss resulted in increasing the importance of the patriarch of Constantinople and the pope of Rome [Hu61, p. 26].

We will discuss the rise of Islam and the Arab conquests in Chapter 6 and in Chapter 7 but it is worth pointing out two factors that made the Arab advance easier. The first is the alienation of the people of Syria and Egypt from the capital of the empire as a result of the religious disputes. Islam allowed people to follow their own religion as long as they paid a tax, therefore for Nestorians or Monophysites, a Muslim ruler was less oppressive than the Roman emperor. The second factor is the exhaustion of the Roman and Persian empires after nearly 30 years of mutually destructive warfare.

First Posted: January 11, 2010. Latest Revision: October 31, 2011.

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