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7-08-2015, 22:09

Introduction: coexistence with the caliphate

As earlier chapters have shown, the empire’s military situation was alleviated by political upheavals in the Muslim world and the abatement of hammer blows directed by the Abbasid leadership. The caliphate itself had more recourse to diplomacy, recognising Ashot I Bagratuni (‘theGreat’) (884–90) as paramount prince among the Armenians and bestowing a crown on him. Soon afterwards, Basil I (867–86) responded with d´emarches of his own towards Ashot.1 The later ninth century probably saw the elaboration of the basileus’ diplomatic web eastwards, drawing in political elites in central and eastern Caucasia such as ‘the chiefs of Azia’, lords of the Caspian Gates.2 By the reign of Leo VI (886–912) the court was maintaining well-to-do Turks from the Fergana valley as well as Khazars, and these young men were making substantial down payments of gold in order to receive annual rogai as members of a unit of the imperial bodyguard.3 The chinks in Muslim power were shown up in other forms, such as the prisoners-of-war kept at court. The more prominent among them were enrobed in the white garments of catechumens at the emperor’s Christmas and Easter banquets, as if to affirm willingness to adopt the religion of the Christians.4 Triumphal parades of Basil I, as of Theophilos (829–42), celebrated with spectacular props the emperors’ occasional forays intoMuslim-held regions, and a poet could write of Basil as a new David, who with God’s help will vanquish the enemy hosts.5 A triumphalist note is likewise sounded by orators such as Arethas in his praises for Basil’s son Leo VI at the turn of the ninth century. However, there is little talk of outright reconquest of lands from the Muslims. Arethas’ accent is, rather, on the benefits bestowed by Leo on the city of Constantinople through translation there of the relics of St Lazaros, from the border-zone island of Cyprus.6 The humbling of the barbarians was refracted through Constantinopolitan lenses, presenting Basil and his son as, respectively, generals and masters of strategy, gaining spoils and additional supernatural protectors for the City. But in fact Leo was hard-pressed to cope with the repercussions for the border regions of the Abbasids’ internal political problems. In many ways the vigorous jihad waged by the ghazis of the Tarsus region,7 like the burgeoning piratical fleets operating from Syrian and Cretan ports, were signs of the increased wealth and military capability available to freebooters and true believers of various stripes at the interface between the imperial and Islamic dominions. The dislocation of the resource-rich Abbasid caliphate was, in short, a mixed blessing for Byzantium. Oft-quoted is the declaration of Patriarch Nicholas I Mystikos (901–7, 912–25): ‘there are two lordships, that of the Saracens and that of the Romans, which stand above all lordship on earth, shining out like the two mighty beacons in the firmament.’8 This is a figure of speech, but its context is suggestive. Nicholas was writing to Caliph al-Muqtadir (908–32), urging him in effect to disown the measures taken against the civilian population of Cyprus by Damian, an apostate Christian who had gathered a large fleet and operated semi-autonomously, albeit notionally on the caliph’s behalf. Byzantium’s state of co-existence with the caliphate was neither peaceful nor wholly stable. But the emperor could exchange embassies, gifts and courtesies with the caliph, thereby maintaining dignity. The numerous humiliating if petty challenges to his authority from pirate fleets could be as politically debilitating as any caliphal hammer blow. From this perspective, there was Realpolitik in PatriarchNicholas’ rhetoric concerning ‘lordships’. The events of the mid-tenth century tend to bear out the unarticulated grounds for imperial statesmen’s caution in exploiting Abbasid disarray. The jihad waged by an ambitious amir intent on legitimising his new regime in Aleppo would eventually overturn the underlying equilibrium, and equilibrium was the best that palace-based emperors could realistically hope for.