Divisions of The Byzantine History

The history of the Byzantine Empire divides itself into three periods, strongly marked by distinct characteristics.

The first period commences with the reign of Leo III in 716, and terminates with that of Michael III in 867. It comprises the whole history of the predominance of the Iconoclasts in the established church, and of the reaction which reinstated the orthodox in power. It opens with the efforts by which Leo and the people of the empire saved the Roman law and the Christian religion from the conquering Saracens. It embraces a long and violent struggle between the government and the people, the emperors seeking to increase the central power by annihilating every local franchise, and even the right of private opinion, among their subjects. The contest concerning image-worship, from the prevalence of ecclesiastical ideas, became the expression of this struggle. Its object was as much to consolidate the supremacy of the imperial authority, as to purify the practice of the church. The emperors wished to constitute themselves the fountains of ecclesiastical as completely as of civil legislation.

The long and bloody wars of this period, and the vehement character of the sovereigns who filled the throne, attract the attention of those who love to dwell on the romantic facts of history. Unfortunately, the biographical sketches and individual characters of the heroes of these ages lie concealed in the dullest chronicles. But the true historical feature of this memorable period is the aspect of a declining empire, saved by the moral vigour developed in society, and of the central authority struggling to restore national prosperity. Never was such a succession of able sovereigns seen following one another on any other throne. The stern Iconoclast, Leo the Isaurian, opens the line as the second founder of the Eastern Empire. His son, the fiery Constantino, who was said to prefer the odour of the stable to the perfumes of his palaces, replanted the Christian standards on the banks of the Euphrates. Irene, the beautiful Athenian, presents a strange combination of talent, heartlessness, and orthodoxy. The finance minister, Nicephoras, perishes on the field of battle like an old Roman. The Armenian Leo falls at the altar of his private chapel, murdered as he is singing psalms with his deep voice, before day-dawn. Michael the Amorian, who stammered Greek with his native Phrygian accent, became the founder of an imperial dynasty, destined to be extinguished by a Sclavonian groom. The accomplished Theophilus lived in an age of romance, both in action and literature. His son, Michael, the last of the Amorian family, was the only contemptible prince of this period, and he was certainly the most despicable buffoon that ever occupied a throne.

The second period commences with the reign of Basil I in 867, and terminates with the deposition of Michael VI in 1057. During these two centuries the imperial sceptre was retained by members of the Basilian family, or held by those who shared their throne as guardians or husbands. At this time the Byzantine empire attained its highest pitch of external power and internal prosperity. The Saracens were pursued into the plains of Syria. Antioch and Edessa were reunited to the empire. The Bulgarian monarchy was conquered, and the Danube became again the northern frontier. The Sclavonians in Greece were almost exterminated. Byzantine commerce filled the whole Mediterranean, and legitimated the claim of the emperor of Constantinople to the title of Autocrat of the Mediterranean sea. But the real glory of this period consists in the power of the law. Respect for the administration of justice pervaded society more generally than it had ever done at any preceding period of the history of the world a fact which our greatest historians have overlooked, though it is all-important in the history of human civilisation.

The third period extends from the accession of Isaac I (Comnenus) in 1057, to the conquest of the Byzantine Empire by the Crusaders, in 1204. This is the true period of the decline and fall of the Eastern Empire. It commenced by a rebellion of the great nobles of Asia, who effected an internal revolution in the Byzantine empire by wrenching the administration out of the hands of well-trained of officials and destroying the responsibility created by systematic procedure. A despotism supported by personal influence soon ruined the scientific fabric which had previously upheld the imperial power. The people were ground to the earth by a fiscal rapacity, over which the splendour of the house of Comnenus throws a thin veil. The wealth of the empire was dissipated, its prosperity destroyed, the administration of justice corrupted, and the central authority lost all control over the population, when a band of 20,000 adventurers, masked as crusaders, put an end to the Roman empire of the East.

In the eighth and ninth centuries the Byzantine empire continued to embrace many nations differing from the Greeks in language and manners. Even in religion there was a strong tendency to separation, and many of the heresies noticed in history assumed a national character, while the orthodox church circumscribed itself more and more within the nationality of the Greeks, and forfeited its ecumenical characteristics. The empire still included within its limits Romans, Greeks, Armenians, Isaurians, Lycaonians, Phrygians, Syrians, and Gallo-Grecians. But the great Thracian race, which had once been inferior in number only to the Indian, and which, in the first century of our era, had excited the attention of Vespasian by the extent of the territory it occupied, was now exterminated. The country it had formerly inhabited was peopled by Sclavonian tribes, a diminished Roman and Greek population only retaining possession of the towns, and the Bulgarians, a Turkish tribe, ruling as the dominant race from Mount Hemus to the Danube. The range of Mount Hemus generally formed the Byzantine frontier to the north, and its mountain passes were guarded by imperial garrisons. Sclavonian colonies had established themselves over all the European provinces, and had even penetrated into the Peloponnesus. The military government of Strymon, above the passes in the plain of Heraclea Sintica, was formed to prevent the country to the south of Mounts Orbelos and Skomios from becoming an independent Sclavonian province.