(Twelfth-century representation of the Byzantine victory over the Arabs at the battle of Palphlagonia in 863)
Many historians of Late Antiquity focus on the role that Christianity played in the Later Roman and Byzantine Empires. This is due to two primary factors. First, much of what comes down to us form this era is from devout Christian writers. Indeed, since monks were the primary preservers of ancient texts this propensity should not surprise. While we do have several important secular sources from the seventh century, after 630 classicising history composed in Greek disappears for 150 years and is largely replaced by a blooming of devout Christian literature. This in my mind has created an over-emphasis on the role that Christianity and Christian values played in the early Byzantine world.
Indeed, imagine if everything that we knew about the modern world derived from bishops of the modern Catholic Church. Second, historians like Warren Treadgold believe that the American fascination with religion and 60s type holy men has played a part as well. This helps to explain why secular nations like Great Britain and Australia tend to write and focus on more traditional secular history, whilst America has embraced post-modernism and tended to focus on the role that women and religion played in these ancient societies. I am torn between two worlds educated in both the US and Australia. My first mentor Mathew Kuefler is very much a man at of the vanguard of post-modernism, whilst my PHD chair John Moorhead is cut from more traditional clothe.
This reality has given me a slightly skewed vision of the role that religious faith played in the Byzantine world. My early years were shaped by Kuefler’s innovative methodologies. I still remember the vague look of incomprehension when I told John that many ancient Romans wished to be seen as masculine. Having read everything from Ambrose and Gregory he remarked that notions of manliness and/or virtus and or andreia played little role in these Christian men’s worlds. I think over the years that I managed to show him that this assertion was not completely true. Proof too that one can miss themes when one is not looking for them. On the other hand, he convinced me that Kuefler’s idea that early Christians’ largely rejected militarism was patently flawed. Indeed, I have recently come to believe that Byzantium had increasingly embraced militarism from the fifth century.
This brings me to my first in a series of planned blogs on the emperor Heraclius’ (ruled 610-641) use of militant Christian themes in his propaganda campaign against the Persians and the Arab Muslims. Heraclius has long attracted considerable scholarly attention. Such attention is deserved. Not only was he the first Roman emperor to lead his soldiers into battle since Theodosius I, but his two struggles against the Persians and the Muslims have been seen as representing the true close of the classical world and the beginning of the medieval Byzantine era. The first campaign against the Persians started badly, but ultimately ended with a comprehensive victory over the Persians that few Roman emperors had ever achieved. The second war, however, led to severe defeats and the loss of important Roman territories to the Arabs. As a recent biographer has explained, however, things may not have been as bad as some historians’ insist. Historians’ view of Heraclius’ reign as an unmitigated disaster is largely anachronistic. As Walter Kagei comments (Heraclius, 314):
”Heraclius cannot have regarded his entire life and career as a total failure at the moment of his death. His Empire still stretched from the straits of Gibraltar to the edge of the Caucasus, although his armies had now evacuated Syria. After all, Byzantine armies were still resiting in Egypt and upper Mesopotamia…So however, dire the situation still looked better than it had in 610 or 612. “
Things undoubtedly grew worse in the years after his death. Indeed, Byzantium survived by the thinnest of margins. This circumstance has long shaped opinions of the age as on one of doom and gloom. James Howard-Johnstone echoes the thoughts of modern consensus when he suggests that a long series of military defeats at the hands of the Muslim armies had convinced many Byzantines that the hand of God was against them. He writes:
“Each successive defeat likewise impressed on Christians the plain truth that the Muslims were indeed agents of the Lord and that the end of time was approaching. No wonder then that the morale of the army might suddenly plummet or that a whole province might submit once there was no prospect of help form field forces. There was no point in continuing resistance from the cities, doomed as it was to failure and likely cost their ruling elites all their suburban villas, gardens, and orchards.”
I am unconvinced that the majority of Christians ever completely believed that God had abandoned them or that religious belief was the most important factor behind Byzantine failure or success. Moreover, if the Byzantines truly believed that the end of days was near, then why would they think that submitting to the Arabs would allow them to keep their wealth. In fact, if they were truly as devout as J argues, the arrival of judgement day should have seen increased resistance on the part of Christians convinced they would soon be facing their maker. It is more likely that the majority did not really believe that the end of days was near, but merely wanted to survive. I would agree, however, with Johnston’s further contention (Witness to a World Crisis 463) that “The main dynamic behind its (Arab-Muslims) expansion and its rooting in different habits must be religious, must surely have had its origins in the preaching of the Prophet.” Johnstone also, in my mind rightly, suggest that even after years of warfare the Persian and Byzantine armies remained potent military forces (473). Yet I would caution that not all of the ebbs and flows of Byzantine fortunes can be placed at the feet of eschatological Christian belief. Romanitas as much as fervent Christianity helps to explain Byzantine resilience. Romans both Christian and pagan had a long record of overcoming foreign foes and similar dire situations. Certainly later Byzantine historians tell such a tale.
This is not to say that religious belief did not play an essential part in shaping Byzantine attitudes. As the sixth-century historian Agathias explained, times of crisis inevitably led to an increased religiosity of Constantinople’s citizens. A religiosity, however, that quickly waned once the crisis passed.
I would suggest that most soldiers left such religious debates to the theologians. Providence serves on the periphery. To put it more simply, it is the icing on the cake of victory. Soldiers on the field of battle have always known that men’s deed on the day of battle played the primary factor in determining the victor and the loser. American soldiers are highly religious and inspired by a similar providential rhetoric as the ancient Byzantines and Muslims. Yet they know that the deeds of soldiers in battle represent the true determinate of a victory. I still remember my days in the US Army a sergeant telling me the “commies” did not care if God was on my side. God was not watching over me, he was. One thinks that Byzantine soldiers familiar with the arbitrary nature of all warfare knew this “truth”. Indeed, it is a common them in classicising historians and military manuals that recognize providence but recognize the essential and overriding role that men’s deeds and fate play in determining events on the field of battle.
If religious belief was the only factor in the Muslim’s triumphs and the Byzantines’ failures in the second half of the seventh century it does little to explain the Byzantine resilience in the second half of the seventh century and at the battle of Constantinople in 717-718. No one seemed to have told these Byzantines that their God had abandoned them…. So it was time too meekly give up. Surely if it was true that Arab victories served as a sign that God had turned against the Romans, Constantinople’s citizens and it armies would have cowed down to the inevitable. Instead the opposite is true, they resisted, triumphed, and survived. One suspects that a good old belief in Roman military virtues and the need to survive, and not the whims of providence represent the primary factors behind the “Romans” continued resistance and century-long battle back to relevance.
I will close today’s blog with evidence of this sentiment from the eleventh-century Byzantine history of the soldier and aristocrat Michael Attaleiates (Histories 27.11) who praised the manly virtues of his pagan and Republican Roman ancestors when faced with foreign invaders:
“For the noble Romans of that time did not strive for money and the acquisition of wealth but simply for renown, the demonstration of their manliness, and their country’s safety and splendour.”
I would suggest that similar sentiment helped Byzantines’ facedown the rampaging Arab armies in the Anatolia in the seventh century and outside the gates of Constantinople in 717-718.