March 19, 2017

Byzantium, Persia and the rise of Islam

Filed under: History, Middle East, Religion — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At The Declination, Dystopic explains why he’s fascinated by the untold stories of the sudden influx of Muslim armies from the Arabian peninsula that shattered the Persian Empire and nearly toppled the Byzantines in the 7th century:

In the course of perusing my backlinks, I discovered a little-known blog call the House of David. This one is fascinating because the author delves deeply into a topic which has bothered me for most my life: just how was it that Islam conquered Sassanian Persia and most of Byzantium more or less simultaneously? Normally this question is answered in the West, at least, by primarily Greek sources. Those are useful, yes, but only paint part of the picture. The proprietor of House of David seeks to answer the question from Persian and Arabic sources, also.

The strangeness of this event cannot be overstated. As successors to the Romans (or as Romans themselves, depending on how you account them), the Byzantines were masters of siege craft. Certainly the Theodosian walls impress well enough. Being consummate engineers of fortifications, Roman forts and walled cities dotted the empire, and for the most part, the Romans were excellent at defending them. The Byzantines continued the tradition of effective defense throughout most of their history, as they were under near-constant assault from all sides.


In some cases, of course, there was treachery from some of the Byzantines themselves, most notably in Egypt. But in other cases, such as the Exarchate of Africa, local Byzantine resistance was absolutely fierce. The wars in North Africa absolutely devastated the place. It never recovered after this. So complete was this devastation and desolation that Carthage, which bounced back even after the Romans razed it, never recovered from it. Even conquest by the Vandals had not been so terrible.

And still, after the Byzantines themselves lost much of North Africa, the native Christian Berbers continued to resist for some time under a supposed witch-queen named Kahina. And Byzantine resistance remained for a time around Cueta even after Carthage was destroyed, where the possibly-apocryphal Count Julian was said to have finally thrown in with the Muslims in order to avenge himself upon the Visigoths.

Yet the Arab steamroller moved on.

The final triumph of Byzantine siege craft could be seen in the twin Arab sieges of Constantinople, both beaten back effectively by the Byzantines. So why did they lose so completely everywhere else?

May 27, 2015

QotD: The amazing longevity of the Byzantine Empire

Filed under: History, Middle East, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

… I revere Classical Antiquity. But, once your eyes adjust, and you look below the glittering surface, you see that it wasn’t a time any reasonable person would choose to be alive. The Greeks were a collection of ethnocentric tribes who fought and killed each other till they nearly died out. The Roman Empire was held together by a vampire bureaucracy directed more often than in any European state since then by idiots or lunatics. Life was jolly enough for the privileged two or three per cent. But everything they had was got from the enslavement or fiscal exploitation of everyone else.

Now, while the Roman State grew steadily worse until the collapse of its Western half, the Eastern half that remained went into reverse. The more Byzantine the Eastern Roman Empire became, the less awful it was for ordinary people. This is why it lasted another thousand years. The consensus of educated opinion used to be that it survived by accident. Even without looking at the evidence, this doesn’t seem likely. In fact, during the seventh century, the Empire faced three challenges. First, there was the combined assault of the Persians from the east and the Avars and Slavs from the north. Though the Balkans and much of the East were temporarily lost, the Persians were annihilated. Then a few years after the victory celebrations in Jerusalem, Islam burst into the world. Syria and Egypt were overrun at once. North Africa followed. But the Home Provinces — these being roughly the territory of modern Turkey — held firm. The Arabs could sometimes invade, and occasionally devastate. They couldn’t conquer.

One of the few certain lessons that History teaches is that, when it goes on the warpath, you don’t face down Islam by accident. More often than not, you don’t face it down at all. In the 630s, the Arabs took what remained of the Persian Empire in a single campaign. Despite immensely long chains of supply and command, they took Spain within a dozen years. Yet, repeatedly and with their entire force, they beat against the Home Provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Each time, they were thrown back with catastrophic losses. The Byzantines never lost overall control of the sea. Eventually, they hit back, retaking large parts of Syria. More than once, the Caliphs were forced to pay tribute. You don’t manage this by accident.

The Byzantine historians themselves are disappointingly vague about the seventh and eight centuries. Our only evidence for what happened comes from the description of established facts in the tenth century. As early as the seventh century, though, the Byzantine State pulled off the miracle of reforming itself internally while fighting a war of survival on every frontier. Large parts of the bureaucracy were scrapped. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the great senatorial estates of the Later Roman Empire were broken up. Land was given to the peasants in return for military service. In the West, the Goths and Franks and Lombards had moved among populations of disarmed tax-slaves. Not surprisingly, no one raised a hand against them. Time and again, the Arabs smashed against a wall of armed freeholders. A few generations after losing Syria and Egypt, the Byzantine Empire was the richest and most powerful state in the known world.

Richard Blake, “The Joys of Writing Byzantine Historical Fiction”, Libertarian Enterprise, 2014-07-27.

March 14, 2015

QotD: The unlikely survival of the Byzantine empire

Filed under: Europe, History, Quotations, Religion — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 01:00

Above all, Byzantine history is a record of survival and even prosperity in the face of terrible odds. Between about 540 and 720, the Byzantines were hit by wave after wave of catastrophe. First, there was the Great Plague of the 540s, that killed around a third of the population. Then, in the first decades of the seventh century, they were attacked on every frontier by the Persians and the Barbarians. They saw off these challenges, but had no time to recover before the first eruption of Islam from the deserts. In almost a single bite, the Arabs swallowed up the remains of the Persian Empire. They conquered vast areas of the East, and, within less than a century, pushing into Southern France. But, if they took Syria and Egypt and North Africa, they never conquered the core territories of the Byzantine Empire.

The reason for this is that the Byzantine State was ruled by creative pragmatists. The Roman Empire was a ghastly place for most of the people who lived in it. The Emperors at the top were often vicious incompetents. They ruled through an immense and parasitic bureaucracy. They were supreme governors of an army too large to be controlled. They protected a landed aristocracy that was a repository of culture, but that was ruthless in its exaction of rent. Most ordinary people were disarmed tax-slaves, where not chattel slaves or serfs.

During the seventh century, the Byzantines scrapped almost the entirety of the Roman heritage. Much of the bureaucracy was shut down. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised. Above all, the landed estates were broken up and given to those who worked on them, in return for service in local militias. Though never abolished, chattel slavery became far less pervasive. The civil law was simplified, and the criminal law humanised – after the seventh century, the death penalty was rarely used.

The Byzantine Empire survived because of a revolutionary transformation in which ordinary people became armed stakeholders. The inhabitants of Roman Gaul and Italy and Spain barely looked up from their ploughs as the Barbarians swirled round them. The citizens of Byzantium fought like tigers in defence of their country. Now, this was a transformation pushed through in a century and a half of recurrent crises during which Constantinople itself was repeatedly under siege. Alone among the ancient empires in its path, Byzantium faced down the Arabs, and kept Islam at bay for nearly five centuries.

Don’t tell me this isn’t an inspiring story. I could have written yet another series of novels around the Persian War or the murder of Julius Caesar. But, if you can take the trouble to master your sources – and never let them master you – I really can’t think of a finer background than the early flowering of the one of the most remarkable, and effectively democratic, civilisations that ever existed.

Richard Blake, interviewed by Jennifer Falkner, 2014-06-23.

August 25, 2013

QotD: Persian and Greek views of abduction

Filed under: Books, History, Quotations — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

Up to this point, there had been abductions only from each other, but after this the Hellenes were largely responsible for offenses. For they began to make war on Asia before their enemies made war on Europe. Now the Persians think that the abduction of women is certainly an act only unjust men would perform, and yet once they have been abducted, it is senseless to make a fuss over seeking vengeance. It is the way of sensible people to have no concern for abducted women; it is quite obvious that the women would not have been abducted if they had not been compliant.

Herodotus, “Book 1”, The Histories, c.450-420 BCE

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