Monthly Archives: November 2015

Eschatological and apocalyptical Christian belief in the Age of Heraclius


Historians have long admired the seventh and eighth-century Byzantines for their resilience in the face of near extinction at the hands of a seemingly relentless Muslim foe. These perilous circumstances have long shaped opinions of the age as one of doom and gloom. James Howard-Johnston echoes the voice 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 an army might suddenly plummet or that a whole province might submit once there was no prospect of help from field forces. There was also 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.[1]

There is certainly some truth in this view. Yet, we should not place all of the ebbs and flows of Byzantine fortunes at the feet of eschatological and apocalyptical Christian belief. If apocalyptic paralysis represented the primary factor behind the Muslim’s triumphs and the Byzantines’ failures in the second half of the seventh century, it does little to explain Byzantine resilience in the second half of the seventh century and at the siege of Constantinople in 717-718. Surely if the majority of the Byzantines believed whole heartedly that the long-line of Arab victories and territorial conquests served as a ‘true’ sign that God had turned against them, Constantinople’s citizens and its armies would have bowed down to the inevitable. On the contrary, they innovated, resisted and survived.

As is well known, the seventh-century Byzantines’ ability to adopt political reforms and adapt ‘new’ military technologies helped them to survive the initial shock of the rapid Muslim advance. The use of the incendiary compound we call ‘Greek-fire’ represented a crucial factor in the Byzantine’s capacity to resist the Muslim naval attacks on Constantinople.[2] So too did the resettlement of Slavs during Constans II’s reign into areas of Anatolia depopulated by the Arab invasions play a part in Byzantium’s defense. Moreover, Constan’s refinement of the basic elements of what would become by the eighth and the ninth centuries the themata (a division of Roman territory into separate military provinces, whereby a general [stratēgos] held civilian and military power) assisted in ensuring the East Romans’ long-term survival.[3] Such practical tactical and organisational innovations show that political and military leaders did not place Byzantium’s survival purely in the hands of God, but continued to seek practical solutions to the military problems they faced.

Lingering Romanitas offers a further explanation of Byzantine endurance in the face of extinction.  Romans—Christian and pagan—had a long record of overcoming foreign foes in dire situations. One cannot help but to suspect that a combination of a continued belief in the resilience of Roman military virtues and the practical need to survive, represent the primary factors behind the ‘Romans’ continued resistance and century-long battle back to relevance.

We find evidence of this classical sentiment in later Byzantine historians. Anguishing over his contemporaries’ failure to live up to the martial masculine prowess and ideals of his Republican Roman forbears, the eleventh-century Byzantine aristocrat and historian Michael Attaleiates encapsulates the lingering appeal of the connection between martial virtues, manly Romanitas, and the prosperity of the Roman state. When explaining the reasons behind his Roman forbearer’s greatness, he opined:

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.[4]

The sentiments expressed above, reveals the extent that a later Byzantine, like Michael, could identify with his non-Christian Roman past. Michael sees himself as one of the ‘modern Romans’ [Τοῖς δὲ νῦν Ῥωμαίοις] admiring the manly martial virtues of his pagan ‘Roman ancestors’ [οἱ πάλαι Ῥωμαῖοι].[5]His Republican ancestors may not have shared all of Michael’s Christian values, but they embraced the manly and martial virtues that represented a fundamental facet of their shared Romanitas.

To conclude, I suspect that for the early Byzantines, defeat at the hands of their enemies did little to shake the idea that ‘Roman’ greatness had been earned by the manly blood of its soldiers. As is repeatedly demonstrated in the Byzantine sources , the battlefield continued to provide one of the easiest places for men in Byzantine civilisation to prove not only their courage, but also to express their enduring manly Romanitas.





[1] Howard-Johnston, Witness to a World Crisis, p. 473. Cf. F. M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers: At the Origins of Islam (Cambridge MA, 2010), pp. 14-17, G. J. Reinink, ‘Pseudo-Methodius: A Concept of History in Response to the Rise of Islam’, in The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East, ed A. Cameron and L. Conrad (Princeton, 1992), pp. 149–87.

[2]On the current debates surrounding the development and effectiveness of this weapon, see J. Haldon, ‘“Greek fire” Revisited: Recent and Current Research’, in Byzantine Style, Religion and Civilization: In Honour of Sir Steven Runciman, ed E. Jeffreys (Cambridge, 2006), pp. 290–325.

[3] The literature on the origins and extent of the implementation of the thematic administration in the seventh century is vast. For good introductions, see R. J. Lilie, ‘Die zweihundertjährige Reform: zu den Anfängen der Themenorganisation im 7. Und 8. Jahrhundert’, Byzantinoslavica 45 (1984), pp. 27-39, 190-201; J. F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge, 1997), pp. 208-53.

[4] Michael Attaleiates, History 27.11, trans. A. Kaldellis and D. Krallis, The History, DOML (Cambridge MA, 2012) : Οὐ γὰρ πρὸς ἀργυρίου καὶ πλούτου ἐπίκτησιν οί εὐγενέστατοι Ῥωμαῖοι τοῦ κατ’ κεῖνο καιροῦ ἠγωνίζοντο, ἀλλὰ δι’εὔκλειαν μόνην καὶ ἀνδρείας ἐπίδειξιν καὶ τῆς ἰδίας πατρίδος σωτηρίαν τε καὶ λαμπρότητα.

[5] For this theme in Michael’s history, see A. Kaldellis, ‘A Byzantine Argument for the Equivalence of All Religions: Michael Attaleiates on Ancient and Modern Romans’, International Journal of the Classical Tradition 14. 1/2 (2007), pp. 1-22.