Some Thoughts on the role of Holy War and Providence in Seventh-Century Byzantium



The recent rise of militant Islam, and in particular Isis, has led to an increased focus on the original confrontation between Muslims and Christian Byzantines in the seventh century. A hot topic of debate is the notion of “holy war’ in Byzantium and early Islam. Though much of this discussion in popular media is anachronistic, more serious  scholarly research too has looked at the ways seventh-century Byzantium dealt with what one scholar describes as the “Muslim War ethic’ in the face of what he sees as a more pacifist approach in Byzantium. Certainly Byzantium displayed a nuanced attitude towards the role that God played in ‘slaughtering’ His enemies. So where Heraclian and other Byzantine propaganda could promote the slaying of the Empire’s non- Christian enemies as a sure path to heaven, some Byzantine intellectuals promoted the idea that God could not sanction the ‘the destruction of human life.’  I would, however, be careful to take this pacifist stain in Byzantine thought as representing the dominant line of thinking amongst the majority of Byzantines .

Certainly much counter-evidence can be cited.  The emperor Heraclius’ (ruled 610-641) fondness for militant Christian themes in his propaganda campaign against the Persians and the Arab Muslims has long attracted scholarly attention.  Such attention is deserved. Not only was he the first Roman emperor to lead his soldiers into battle since Theodosius I at the close of the fourth century, 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.

Some of this Byzantine militaristic propaganda may have been instituted to refute non-Christian propaganda. As Johannes Koder and Ioannis Stouratis lucidly explain, from the fifth century, Byzantine Emperors attempts to expand or reclaim the Empire’s lost territories needed to be conducted via an ideological framework, one that promoted and combined the notion of a “just war” with the ultimate aim of restoring peace. We see such an example in the sixth-century Emperor Justinian’s reconquests of North Africa and Italy, whereby writers like Procopius go to great lengths to show that the entire campaign was undertaken on “legal” grounds to write the injustice of particular Vandalic and Gothic rulers. Though in these sources war continues to be glorious, the ultimate aim of warfare was restoring the Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”). Indeed, there is very little expansionist ideology to seek out “virgin” territories to conquer. Warfare was therefore largely seen as a necessary evil, (see full discussion in “Byzantine Approaches to Warfare”, 10-15). Though as these same sources show, once a campaign began, Byzantine armies fought as savagely and mercilessly as their worst “barbarian” foes. Indeed, a devout Christian society like Byzantium could say one thing and do the opposite. For instance, no one doubts the sixth-century Byzantine emperor Justinian’s devotion to Christian precepts, but this did not keep him from destroying his enemies or having his armies slaughter fellow Christians in his military campaigns. So too does on find the sentiment in Late Roman and later Byzantine authors that too much peace “eviscerated” Roman men (for just one example of many see Ennodius’ description of the Eastern Roman soldiery in the late fifth century, : Their minds eviscerated through too much peace ‘et evisceratas diuturna quiete mentes occasionis pabulo subiugavit’ [PanTh 12, trans. Arnold].

Such a need for justification in its war ideology did not apply generally to the Empire’s enemies. Our sources show us that Rome’s enemies were perplexed by such an approach and a Christian religion that held in high regard an individual who “passively” went to his death. We have evidence that non-Christians criticized the religion for what they perceived to be the unmanly death of its saviour (as Colleen Conway shows in Behold the Man, this was a similar view of non-Christian Romans in the first and second centuries). The seventh-century Armenian historian, Sebeos, for example, has a Muslim commander accepting the surrender of parts of the Eastern Roman Empire scoff at the protective power of Christ and the cross. The historian wrote:

‘I shall provide you with as many soldiers as you wish, and take tribute from you as much as you are able to give. But if you do not, that Jesus whom you call Christ, since he was unable to save himself from the Jews, how can he save you?’

So too did the Persian King Khusrau II use similar emotive rhetoric during a seventh-century war with the Byzantines, writing in a letter to the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (ruled 610-641): “Let not your vain hope deceive you. For that Christ who was not able to save himself from the Jews- but they killed him by hanging him from a cross-how can the same save you from me?”

Such derision helps to explain why Christian missionaries made a point of emphasizing Christ’s triumph to potential converts among the warlike foreign Peoples who would have had a difficult time accepting the pacifist Christ of the New Testament. Indeed, the God of the Early Medieval Christian missionaries was often not the generally gentle saviour of the New Testament (as we see in this mosaic below, Revelation is a notable exception), but the vengeful God of the Old Testament.


So too as we discussed above, did Heraclius prefer to focus on a militant Christianity in his propaganda. Panegyrists praising his regime frequently compared Heraclius with King David or the seminal militant Christian Roman emperor Constantine I (ruled 306-337) The pacifist strains found in the New Testament certainly took a back seat to the more militant themes seen throughout the Old Testament. According  Heraclian propaganda that has come down to us, death in battle represented the easiest path to heaven for Byzantine soldiers. One Byzantine historian recounting Heraclius’ militant propaganda and enthusiastic whipping up of religious fervour during his climatic struggle with the Zoroastrian Persians wrote: “Let us revenge the rape of virgins. Having seen the mutilated members of our soldiers let us labour with our hearts. Danger is not unrequited, but the way to eternal life. Let us stand courageously, and the Lord God will help us destroy our enemies.”

Such a militaristic world had little place for the promotion of a passive saviour. As Walter Kaegi warns, however, we should not see Heraclius’ military campaigns as purely religious crusades. He points out that ‘It was Heraclius and his panegyrists, not the Patriarch or bishop, who are creating any crusade-like features and whipping up religious enthusiasm (Kaegi, Heraclius 126).’ Yet it also important to remember that in this period the emperor and most of his subjects perceived him to be the foremost Christian authority in the Empire, not the Patriarch. Moreover, as we will see at the close of today’s blog we do have evidence that bishops were involved in whipping up militaristic fervour.

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 resisting 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 from 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 failures or successes. 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 some argue, 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 mid sixth-century historian Agathias explained, times of crisis inevitably led to an increased religiosity of Constantinople’s citizens. The historian described the reaction after a terrible earthquake: ‘The ideals to which people constantly pay lip service but rarely put into practice were then eagerly pursued.’ A religiosity, however, that Agathias declared could wane once the crisis had passed (8.32.22-30, 5.5. 1-6). He explained that ‘All of these good deeds, for a limited time, as long as the terror was fresh on people’s minds.’

I would suggest that most soldiers left such religious debates to the theologians. Providence serves on the periphery. So where Procopius attributed victories over the Goths to Providence (Wars 8.33.1), his didactic narrative shows that the primary immediate cause of the Goths’ defeat was, in fact, straight forward; Procopius attributed the trouncing to Totila’s “folly” in risking his men in battle when the Byzantines held all the material and tactical advantages ( Wars 8.32.22-30 . To put it another way, Providence for many byzantine historians 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 theme in classical  historians and military manuals that believe in 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.

We see this sentiment expressed in 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.

And to close here is an excerpt from a draft for the final chapter of The Soldier’s Life:

Why did you assume you were addressing an assembly of women, insulting our nature as well as our race? With words you misrepresent deeds, bringing shame on the council. Did you not realize that you were pouring forth disgraceful words in the presence of men [ἀρρένων]? Or do you not see an assembly of Roman people, proud of their zeal, vigorous in arms, knowledgeable in their experience of danger and providence for future advantage?

Theophylact Simocatta, History 2.14.3 (trans. Whitby).

The excerpt above comes from what would prove to be the last Greek history composed in the grand classical style for more than three centuries. The Egyptian Theophylact published his work in the euphoric period surrounding the Emperor Heraclius’ emphatic victory over the Persians in 628—a brief interlude of triumphant calm before the sudden emergence of the Arab threat in the 630s that saw the near snuffing out of the Byzantine Empire. The sudden disappearance after 640 of many genres of secular literature, as well as the emergence of the Muslims as a new religious and political rival in this period, demarcated the dawning of a new age.

I have chosen Theophylact’s history to open this closing chapter for these reasons, as well as the obvious martial aspect and gendered implications of the excerpt. The set-speech from which this quotation is drawn certainly touches on two of my new monograph’s primary themes: the primacy of military matters and the manliness of war. In the anecdote, which describes the Roman response to an Avar invasion of Thrace in 587, the historian constructed a debate between two Roman soldiers, one a tribune, and the other a grizzled veteran. The debate provided his readers with both the standard commentary on the fine lines between courage and rashness and the familiar linking of traditional martial virtues to masculinity. The tribune suggested that it was best to avoid a direct confrontation with the Avars, whilst the veteran advocated a more aggressive approach. The older soldier appeared to win the debate with his refrain that Rome’s rise to world dominance had been due to its men’s embrace of the rigours and courageous virtues of the soldier’s life (Theophylact, History 2.14.6). His assertion from the rhetorical opening of the speech that bold action on the battlefield helped to prove that Roman soldiers’ souls were “masculine” [ἄρρενας] like their bodies serves as an important final reminder for my readers of how conceptualisations of the soldier’s life remained linked intimately to masculine ideology (Theophylact, History 2.14.6.). According to Theophylact, “courage” in battle represented a sure sign of “manliness”, whereas “cowardice’ in the face of conflict indicated that one had fallen into the realm of “effeminacy”, ‘Men of Rome, unless you would belie the name by your actions; men, that is if your souls [ψυχάς] are masculine [ἄρρενας] like your body. Even though the tribune is expert at high-flown talk and at confusing the issue, nevertheless deeds are more vigorous than words and do not tolerate empty sounds’.

Such motifs are common in Roman and Byzantine historiography. Indeed, the emotive rhetoric associating traditional Roman codes of masculinity with idealised visions of the soldier’s life is so common in the ancient Roman and the early Byzantine sources that the modern reader is tempted to skip over such bombastic speeches to get to the “relevant” parts. Ancient and modern scholars have, I think quite rightly, criticised Theophylact, in particular, for his heavy reliance on “extravagant metaphors, sententious artistry, and ornate rhetoric”. Yet, as I have suggested throughout this study, an exploration of these standard themes helps one to understand these early Byzantine texts and the society that produced them. While such anecdote’s heavy reliance on standard rhetoric and stock heroes and villains may tell one very little about the “real” personalities of the combatants, or the actual debates among the Roman soldiers before battle, they provide important insights into wider attitudes towards gender and masculinity. The episode above, for instance, relied on the traditional appeal of the manly Roman soldier and on the conventional disdain for the cowardly and effeminate man.

What I argue is that martial virtues and images of the soldier’s life continued to represent an essential aspect of hegemonic masculinity in the early Byzantine period. This is not to say that the masculinity of soldiers represented the only type of heroic manliness in this period.

I have taken this stance, in part, to balance the heavy reliance by recent studies on Roman masculinity on ancient writings created from a theological perspective. In this study, I was interested primarily in seeing how disparate ancient writers connected martial virtues to long-held codes of ideal manly conduct. It is important to note that military affairs were not a primary concern in a variety of literary genres or even in some historical writing that has come down to us from the age. Alternative pathways to achieving “true” manliness had long been a feature of masculine ideology in the Late Roman and the early Byzantine period. Extreme ascetics, courageous martyrs, fearless philosophers, and powerful political and Church leaders were all, at times, compared favourably to military heroes. Moreover, Christian historiographical concepts like providence played a role in the classicising histories of Procopius, Menander, and Theophylact.

Traditional hegemonic masculinity secured in acts of masculine brave Traditional hegemonic masculinity secured in acts of masculine bravery in warfare, however, proved resilient in the early Byzantine period. Certainly, one need not serve in the military to perceive the soldier’s life as an exemplar of the manly life. Civilian elites admired the manliness of war and the masculine deeds of the Empire’s soldiers. As Theophylact had the Bishop Domitianus of Melitene explain to a group of soldiers headed off to fight the Persians:

‘Let no one receive a scar on his back: the back is incapable of seeing victory. In the contest be united in spirit more than body, comrades in toils but not in cowardice. Let him who has not taken up the inheritance of danger be disowned. In death reach out for victory. Trophies are bought with wounds and blows. Sloth brings no glory. There is nothing sweeter than death in war, for if there is no advantage in growing old and being struck down by wasting disease, assuredly it is more appropriate for you heroes to die in the battle-line while you are young, reaping glory in your tombs.’

As a realm dominated by “real” men, the field of battle continued to provide one of the easiest places for men in the early Byzantium.

Okay that is it for now. I will keep working on this…stay tuned.


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