* Eastern Roman Empire Byzantium - early military role

Eastern Roman Empire: Early Military Role

Figure 1.--Here the great French painter, David, who often painted martial scenes and Napoleon as a great commander, depicts a scene in the life of the Eastern Roman Empire General Belisarius. He was the greatest millitary commander of the Eastern Empire. Here he has been reduced to begging. We are not sure who the child is, but he has been placed there because of the legend that Justinian had Belisarius blinded and a blind man needed a child to guide him. Note the Roman soldier, agast to see his former commndrr reduced to begging. Also notice the woman giving alms. This reflects the influence of the Enlightenment which promoted the idea of benevolence.

The Eastern and Western Empire after division did not become rival states, but rather generally cooperated with each other diplomatically and militarily. The Eastern Empire like the Western Empire were hard pressed by the Germanic Tribes, Avars, and Bulgars. The Eastern Empire attempted to work with the Western Empire and provide military support, but was unable to save it. Unlike the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire while hard pressed, managed to survive, but lost much of its European territory. Under the Emperor Justinian (527-65) there was a revival of the Eastern Empire. Justinian set out on a major effort to restablish Roman control of the Mediterranean territory of the Western Empire. Justinian managed to win back areas of Italy and support the Papacy in Rome against the Lombards. And they won back large areas of North Africa. The Eastern Empire at the time of Justinian still thought of themselves as Romans and spoke Latin. A major asset in this effort was the most powerful navy at the time. Also important was his General Flavius Belisarius (500-65), although Justinian never trusted him or fully supported him. The Byzantines thus played an important role in the early medieval world. This ended with the rise of Islam and conquest of the Levant. The Eastern Empire's effort to centalize rule and supress divergent Christian churches played a role in the success of Arab armies. From that point as the Eastern Empire evolved into the Byzantine Empire, the Empire was fighting for its life and ceased to play a major role in medieval Europe, excepr for one. It served as a block to the eastern powers that could have overwhealmed Christian Europe at an eraly stage. The Frankish war leader Charles Martel is famed for stopping the Muslim advance in the West (8th century). The Muslim forces in the East were far more formidable. And here it was the Byzantine Empire and the Great Walls of Constaninople thar blaocked the Muslim advance for centuries. Byzantium also had an important cultural role largely built around the Eastern CVhurch. That influenmce was especially important with the Russians.

Roman Empire

The vaunted Roman Legions suceeded over several centuries under both the Republic and then to a lesser extent under the Empire founded by Augustus, conquered a vast area of different territories centered on the Mediterranean Sea and most of Western Europe north to Britain. Rome was not at first a maritime power, but became so during the Ounic Wars and its stryggle with Carthage. The Empire was a multi-cultural and multi-ethnic empire consiting of a large collection of territories. Theses territories and the people comprisung them were vastly different. They range from highly sophisticated peoples with long histories and literatyre like the Egyptians and Greeks to the more primitive pre-loyerate people like the Germans and North African nomads. The Romans made no effort to Romanize these people andc their culture, but they did insist on taxes and a superficial mloyalty to Rome such as public ceremonies venerating the emperor as a god. This is what set off the Jewish revolt. Ehat is not always understood is that at the time, it was the eastern half of the empire that was the most avanced, urbanozed, and sophisticated. This is because the eastern portion before being conquuered by Rome was united by Alexandr as a kind of Macedonian Empire. And while Alexander died at an early age, the area was subsequently Hellenized creating a Greek cultural area which the Romans admoired and to a degree internalized. The western portion of the empire was very different. It had not been Helenized and was much more diverse and less urbaized and developed. This basic division between a Hellenized East and a Latinized West has persisted into the modern age, although after the medieval era, it was the West which would become more advanced, in large measure because of the evolution of political liberty (democracy) and economic liberty (capitalism) in the West.

Division of the Empire (4th-5th centuries)

Governing the vast Roman Empire with the technology of the day proved a difficult undertaking. The Emperor Diocletian created a new administrative system called the Tetrarchy (293 AD). He began working with a a co-emperor titled Augustus. Under this system, each Augustus was to appoint a younger colleague as an assistant. This individual was given the the title of Caesar. He was to assist the Augustus during his rule and would eventually succeed him. The Eastern areas of the Empire did not experience the Barbarian invasions as masively as the Western Empire because of the nature of the Helenic culture and the tresures of Rome which were a greater lure. Diocletian in the Balkans withdrew south to what was once roughly Yugoslavia (305 AD). When Diocletian abdicated, the Tetrarchy collapsed. The Empire descended into rebellion and civil war for 7 years until Constantine finally prevails (312 AD). Constantine I replaced the Tetrarchy with the dynastic principle of hereditary succession as a way of stabilizing the Empire, avoiding struggles for power after the death of emperors. Constantine also moved the center of governamce from Rome to the still relatively small Greek port of Byzantium. Along with this move, he mandated toleratiomn for Christianity--the Edict of Milan (313 AD). Christinity would soon become the state religion. He also mandated a a series of civil changes to the constitution. He founded Constantinople as a kind of second Rome (330). While Byzantium was a then relatively minor port, he was strategically placed astride the vital trade routes that passed through the Bosporus. This essentially controlled the trade froutes from the Baltic amd Asia to the Mediterranean, linking both the North and East to the Roman Mediterranean world. Constantine united the Eastern and western Empires (324 AD). He chosea Byzantium, a relatively small, but strategically placed Greek colony at the mouth of the Thracian Bosphorous to be his imperial residence (324 AD). It is renamed "Constaninopolis nova Roma". The Germanic Visigoths defeat a Roman army at Adrianople (378). This defeat and the death of Emperor Valens is a defining point in Roman/Bizantine history and is often seen as the dividing point between the ancient and medieval worlds, perhaps more important than the fall of Rome in the 5th cntury. Theodosius suceedes in making allies of the Visigoths (378 AD). Theodosius I is the last Roman emperor to command a united empire. After defeating two rivals, Theodosius founds a dynasty whch endures until 450 AD in the Eastern empire. Theodosius I declares Christianity the sole religion of the Roman Empire (380 AD). The Emperor Theodosum I divided the Roman empire when he entrusted his son Arcadius with the Eastern provinces and his other son Honorius with the Western priovinces (395 AD), although a temporary split occurred even earlier. At the time the Empire was divided in 395, the Eastern Empire included Asian Minor, Syria, Pontus (Asiatic shore of the Black Sea), Egypt, Macedonia, Greece, and Crete.

Struggle for Survival

The Eastern and Western Empire after division did not become rival states, but rather generally cooperated with each other diplomatically and militarily. The Eastern Empire like the Western Empire were hard pressed by the Germanic Tribes, Avars, and Bulgars. The Eastern Empire attempted to work with the Western Empire and provide military support, but was unable to save it. Unlike the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire while hard pressed, managed to survive, but lost much of its European territory. Under the Emperor Justinian (527-65) there was a revival of the Eastern Empire.

Byzantine Wars (5th-15th centuries)

Byzantium was involved in wars as part of the Roman Empire. With the fall of Rome (5th century AD) we can begin to talk about Byzantun wrss. The Empire participated in over a thousand wars of varying inntensity during the millennium that it existed. In the 5th century the first major adversary from the beginning was Sassanid Persia. In the 6th century wars continued with Sassanid Persia. There was also the Vandalic and Mooris wars in North Africa. The Gothic War was fought in the Balkans. The Byzantines intervened in the Visigothic Civil War. Awar was fought over the Po Valley in Italy. Justnian was begunning to recionstityte the Roman Empoire when the plague struck. More fighting ocuured in the Balkans with the Avars abd Skavs. In the 7th century the final war was fought with the Persians. The Avars layed seige to Constantinople, but could not breach the walls. The Wars with he Islamicized Arabs began with stunning defeats on various fronts as the Bzantines were driven back into Anatoilia. Campaigns against the Skavs weee fouught in the Balkans. In the 8th century a war was lost to Bulgaria. There was almost constant war with the Arabs. Notably the Umayyad Caliphate failed in the Second Arab Seige of Constnainople (717-18). This is one of the most imprtant battles of history. It permanenbtly altered the Caliphates strategic outlook. The Caliphate continued to attack Byzantium's borders, but never again struck directly at Constaniople. This would shield Western Christendom for seven centuries. In the 9th century there were more wars fought with the Aeabs and Bulgars. Sicily was lost, the largdest and most importannt Mediterranean island. In the 10th century the Rus raided Constantinoople. More conflict with the Arabs and Bulgars. Crete is recapturedd. In the 11th century wars continued with the Bulgars and Arabs. The Bzantines were confronted by Arab piracy. There was another Rus attack. The first conflict with the Seljuk Turks. The Great Schism split the main faction of Christianity into two divisions, Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox, permanently altering Christianity and the European political landscape (1054). Today, they remain the two largest denominations of Christianity. Another Rus attack occured The Normans enter Italy and several conflicts occur. The First Crusade passes through Byzantium. There are gains in western Anatolia with Crusader aid. In the 12th century, there are contihued war with the Skejuk Turks. War was fought with Venice which raided the Greek coast. War were fought with Hungary and Romania. A Serbian revolt was supressed. The Italian expedition is defeated. The Bulgarian Empire is reestablished. In the 13th century the Fourth crusade results in the becasuse of the split in Christianity, Constninople is occpupied and sackede. Wars are fought wuth the Crusaders. Another war with the Bukgars. A war was fought in Albania. Another war is fought wuth Venice, mostly in the Aegean Sea. In the 14th century the wars with the Turkn continue, now with the Ottomans. And more wars with the Bulgars. Bzyzantuiumn experienced a civil war, an all too common occurance in Byzantium. The Ottomans made major advances in Anatolia. The last major war with the Bulgars was fought. The Serbs advance in the Balkans. A war is fought wuith Genoa and more civil wars occur. In the 15th century there is an unsuceesful Ottoman seige of Constantinople. The Great Walls were finally breached by Mehmed II and his cannons (1453). Notably the cannons were the work of an Hungarian canon master. The Ottoman Army was impressive, more important, however, was the developing techhnology in the West that bhelped make Mehmed's cannons.


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Created: 9:18 AM 9/8/2011
Last updated: 3:11 AM 12/25/2020