The beginning of the mediaeval Byzantine Empire

I my last post about the Eastern Roman Empire I briefly mentioned the accession of Heraclius.

In this post, I shall discuss the situation of the empire in 610, when he assumed the purple, and look at some of the challenges and the administrative changes that were put in place to meet these challenges.

Firstly, a brief overview of the empire.

The situation was extremely severe in 610. The administration was no longer fully-functioning and unable to manage the situation; the exchequer was empty and the economic system was exhausted and effectively at a standstill.

The organisation of the military had also broken down. Reduced to the recruitment of mercenaries, there was no money available to hire soldiers. The traditional sources of recruitment were unavailable, due to the loss of much of the empire to the Persians, Avars and Slavs. Much of the interior of the Balkan peninsula was under Slav control, to such an extent that the Romans were now calling the region Sclavinia.

In the East, the Persians had occupied most of the Levant and, in 619 invaded Egypt, the richest province of the empire and the bread basket of Constantinople.

However, enfeebled and vulnerable as the empire had become, the situation was not irreversibly beyond salvation.

During these years, the East Roman began to undertake a remarkable series of reorganisations that we can say are the true beginnings of the Byzantine Empire of the mediaeval period.

The most important of these reforms was the creation of the Themes. These were large military zones in the remaining imperial lands. The themes were self-managing administrative divisions, replacing the older provinces and headed by a military figure, the strategos, who was the supreme military and civil authority in the theme.

Based upon the earlier Exarchate model employed in North Africa, Spain and Italy, each theme incorporated one or more provinces and, although the old civil administrations continued in existence for a period of time, were clearly firmly under military rule.

The themes were organised so that each one could produce a steady and reliable number of troops. Hereditary land grants to soldiers were made, in a development of the earlier model that supplied the limitanei of the Roman Empire of the 4th and 5th centuries. Because the old limes had collapsed under pressure from the Slavs and Avars, troops were resettled in the themes, at first mainly in Asia Minor, alongside the remaining elite units of the old field armies.

This reorganisation meant that each region of the empire was able to call upon a core of seasoned troops, each of whom was required to muster fully armed, supplied and mounted. This gave the Empire a source of native troops, reducing the reliance on expensive and often unreliable mercenaries, who were in any case, not equal to the needs of defending the empire against the incoming barbarians and Persians.

In addition to these new thematic units and the imperial elite regiments, there was also a substantial resettlement of Slavs to Asia Minor from the Balkans as more and more of Sclavinia came again under imperial control.These Slavs were later to be used to supplement the thematic armies as stratiotai, in the main light cavalry who would be capable of resisting small-scale incursions even if not able to contain a major attack alone.

The thematic armies of settled soldier-farmers created a more stable economic basis for the imperial treasury. As each theme was theoretically able to support its own troops and create a tax surplus for the central treasury, this allowed the imperial exchequer to rebuild its reserves.

The reliance upon soldier-farmers also strengthened the position of the rural peasantry and small farmers and free-holders.

There were also administrative changes in the model of government. We see a reduction in the powers of the old praetorian prefecture, powers now shifting to the thematic governors, to such an extent that the post eventually ceased to exist even as a figure-head. The organisation of the imperial finances changes, a number of new bodies coming into existence, taking over the powers of the praetorian prefecture and its financial offices. These new independent bodies were headed by officials known as logothetes, a sign that Greek was finally replacing Latin as the language of government and administration.

The adoption of Greek as the official language of the Empire was merely the culmination of centuries of Hellenisation of the Roman Empire. Justinian had been the last native Latin-speaking emperor and by the time of Heraclius, Latin was an anachronism. With the loss of the Latin West, the Roman Empire had become fully Greek.

This recognition of Greekness was the third part of the change from the empire of Late Antiquity to that of the Mediaeval. Finally, the concept of Romanitas became an identification with the Greek culture of the East. As Romaioi, the Greeks of the Empire were now the dominant culture. Although there were other ethnic groups in the empire, it was Greek culture and language that became the representative collective identity of the mediaeval Byzantine Empire.

Along with this cultural dominance, we see the increased importance of the Orthodox Church in the life of the empire, with its influence becoming all pervasive and even spreading to lands outside of the imperial borders. To quote George Ostrogorsky (speaking of a later period);

The Patriarchate of Constantinople remained the centre of the Orthodox world, with subordinate metropolitan sees and archbishoprics in the territory of Asia Minor and the Balkans, now lost to Byzantium, as well as in Caucasus, Russia and Lithuania. The Church remained the most stable element in the Byzantine Empire.

Separate from the Papacy in the West, the Byzantine Church developed a distinctive model, subordinate to the law of the Empire and to the person of the Emperor, the church was the rock on which the new empire would grow and continue to survive and flourish for the next few centuries.


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