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7-08-2015, 20:42

Introduction

Most centuries can be said to have been, in one way or another, a watershed for Byzantium, but the case for the seventh century is particularly strong. At the beginning of the century, the Byzantine empire formed part of a political configuration that had been familiar for centuries: it was a world centred on the Mediterranean and bounded to the east by the Persian empire, in which most of the regions surrounding mare nostrum formed a single political entity – the Roman (or Byzantine) empire. It was a world whose basic economic unit was still the city and its hinterland; although it had lost much of its political significance, the city retained the social, economic and cultural high ground. By the beginning of the seventh century, this traditional configuration was already being eroded: much of Italy was under Lombard rule, Gaul was in Frankish hands and the coastal regions of Spain, the final acquisition of Justinian’s reconquest, were soon to fall to the Visigoths. By the end of the century this traditional configuration was gone altogether, to be replaced by another which would be dominant for centuries and still marks the region today. The boundary that separated the Mediterranean world from the Persian empire was swept away: after the Arab conquest of the eastern provinces in the 630s and 640s, that boundary – the Tigris–Euphrates valley – became one of the arteries of a new empire, with its capital first in Damascus (661–750) and then in Baghdad (from 750). By the mid-eighth century this empire stretched from Spain in the west to the valleys of the Oxus and the Indus in the east, far larger than Justinian’s Byzantine empire or even the Roman empire had ever been, and hugely richer than any of its neighbours. The new empire caused Europe, East Asia and North Africa to be reconfigured around it, forcing the Byzantine empire – and the emergent Frankish kingdoms – into virtual satellite status. This radical upheaval, together with the persistent aggression of the Arabs against the remaining Byzantine lands and the incursion of Slavs and peoples hailing from the central Eurasian steppe into the Balkans, accelerated the transition of the cities of the easternMediterranean world that was already well under way. By the end of the century the cities had lost much of their social and cultural significance, and survived as fortified enclaves, if often as market centres, too.1 The only place approximating to the traditional city was Constantinople, and that largely because of the presence of the imperial court; but even Constantinople barely survived, and did so in much reduced circumstances.2 This dramatic transition caused something of a crisis of confidence and even identity for Byzantium. At least twice the emperor entertained the notion of deserting Constantinople and re-establishing the capital of the empire closer to its traditional centre in Rome: in 618 Heraclius (610– 41) thought of moving to Carthage, and in the 660s Constans II (641– 68) settled in Sicily. In both cases we can see how the traditional idea of a Mediterranean empire still haunted the imagination of the Byzantine rulers. In fact, despite the dramatic and permanent changes witnessed by the seventh century, Byzantine reactions can be seen as attempts to preserve what was perceived as traditional. But as always with the Byzantines, one must be careful not to be deceived by their rhetoric. This rhetoric – and, as we shall see, administrative changes that were more than rhetorical – spoke in terms of centralisation, an increasing focus on the figure of the emperor and the court, and a growing influence of the patriarch and clergy of the Great Church of St Sophia in religious matters. In reality, however, events and persons on the periphery were often more important than what was going on at the centre. The transition that started in the seventh century was not completed in that century: not until the late eighth and ninth centuries, when Arab pressure on the Byzantine empire eased after the capital of the caliphate moved eastwards from Damascus to Baghdad, did Byzantium finally complete the transition begun in the seventh. What emerged was an empire and culture focused on emperor and capital; but much of what the centre now stood for was, in fact, worked out not in Constantinople itself, but at the periphery. The history of the Byzantine empire in the seventh century is difficult to reconstruct. Traditional sources are sparse and mostly late.3 We can draw on Theophylact Simocatta’sHistory and the Paschal chronicle, both of which were probably written at the court of Patriarch Sergius around 630 during the euphoria caused by Heraclius’ triumph over the Persians. The celebrations of Heraclius’ Persian victories by George of Pisidia also belong to this period but history writing in Byzantium stops thereafter until the end of the eighth century. For the political history of the seventh century our principal sources are thus two later works: Nikephoros I, patriarch of Constantinople’s Brief history, composed in the late eighth century and intended as a continuation of Theophylact Simocatta; and the early ninth-century Chronicle ascribed to Theophanes the Confessor. To some extent the dearth of writing from the period 630–790 may be seen to be a consequence of the collapse of much of traditional Mediterranean society. The demise of the ancient city meant the collapse of the educational system’s traditional base: there were fewer and fewer people to write for.4 There was also less to write about: details of the fall of the Byzantine eastern provinces to the Arabs and subsequent defeats and losses would not be welcome material for Byzantine writers, and are either omitted by Nikephoros and Theophanes, or drawn from Syriac or Arab sources. Like these Byzantine historians, we can supplement our sparse resources with oriental historical material. There is an anonymous history of Heraclius ascribed to the Armenian bishop Sebeos and dated to the latter half of the seventh century (see above, n. 1, p. 157). There is also a world chronicle, written in Egypt at the end of the century by Bishop John of Nikiu; however, this only survives in mutilated form in an Ethiopic translation. There are in addition several contemporary and later Syriac chronicles: besides anonymous works, there are those compiled by Elias bar Shinaya, the eleventh-century metropolitan of Nisibis, and Michael the Syrian, the twelfth-century Jacobite patriarch of Antioch, both using earlier sources. Legal sources are also sparse for this period, but the Farmer’s law (Nomos georgikos) probably belongs to the seventh or eighth century, as may the Rhodian sea-law (Nomos Rodion nautikos). Traditionally, therefore, the seventh and eighth centuries have been regarded as the Byzantine ‘dark ages’, though historians have begun to recognise that it is only in respect of traditional historical literary material that one can speak of a paucity of sources for the period. For in fact it was an immensely fruitful period for Byzantine theology, dominated by the figure of Maximus the Confessor, perhaps the greatest theologian of the orthodox east and certainly the greatest Byzantine theologian.5 To make full use of these ‘untraditional’ sources would, however, involve writing a different kind of history, beginning not from the institutional and political, but rather working outwards from the deeply-considered worldview to be found in such writings.6 But one should note that there is a notable lacuna in the theological sources themselves. They are all from the periphery: Maximus writing mostly from North Africa, Anastasius of Sinai and John Klimakos (‘of the Ladder’) from Sinai. Elsewhere, Cyprus and Palestine were homes to a good deal of writing, polemical and hagiographical for the most part.We know almost nothing of theology in Constantinople between the middle of the sixth century, such as came from the circle of Justinian, Leontius of Byzantium and Leontius of Jerusalem, and the ninth-century revival of learning – that of the iconodule theologians Nikephoros I, patriarch of Constantinople, Theodore the Stoudite, Patriarch Photios and others. The only exceptions are the Constantinopolitan opponent of iconoclasm, Patriarch Germanos I, and some traces of the theology of the iconoclasts preserved by their opponents. Virtually all the theology that survives from this period of transition belongs to the periphery. This chapter will firstly give an outline of the political history of the period, and will follow this with some account of the transition that the seventh century witnessed. To do otherwise would be nearly impossible, as the elements of the transition – the transformation of the city, the administrative and the religious changes – are not easily datable, and consequently would find no natural place in the narrative history.

 

 

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