History has shown that it is the destiny of all empires to fall and the 1,000 year old Byzantine Empire was no exception. Born from the Eastern Roman Empire, it later survived the fall of the West after 476. After the barbarian king Odoacer deposed the last Emperor of Western Rome, the Eastern Empire continued to thrive until 1453 when its capital city of Constantinople, or Byzantium (Modern day Istanbul), was sacked by the Ottoman Turks. Whether it is 476, 1453, or 1991 when the Soviet Union fell, these dates and events do not tell us the whole story. Empires do not simply fall because their enemies managed to breach their walls and are thus defeated by foreigners. Instead, every empire or government must first defeat themselves before they can be weakened enough to be destroyed by their ambitious rivals. The causes for Byzantium’s fall did not ensue over night, as is the case with any great empire. Usually the purpose of an empire’s decline are the result of many years of structural weaknesses that manifest themselves over a long period of time till the halls of government become completely inadequate to deal with a particular crisis when it occurs. Many historians study these reasons or causes that lead to an empire’s fall and make a science of it; offering their own hypothesis as to what caused empires such as Byzantium to decline. Thus, the question emerges: what caused the fall of the Byzantine Empire? And what does this say about state power?
Without a stable economy, every brick on which a state is built on suffers in one form or another. Peasants and even soldiers begin to starve and revolt as a result of a failing economy. At its peak, the Byzantine Empire had one of the most thriving economies in the world. One of the keys to Byzantium’s success was always its geographic location between Europe and Asia. Its merchants were able to trade textiles and other rare commodities from Asia to the Mediterranean world. Byzantium was also in control of very important real-estate. Such valuable territories included Egypt and Asia Minor where Byzantium received its vital grain supplies to feed its populace. In the 7th century, the Empire would permanently lose Egypt to the rise of Islamic invasions. Although this dealt a significant blow to Byzantium, the empire would still hold strong for another eight centuries only to be a shadow of its former dominance. Further territorial loses in Asia Minor during the 11th century would lead Emperor Alexius I to make rash decisions out of desperation. He granted the Italian city state of Venice numerous trade concessions to gain their military assistance against the Normans and the Turks during the Crusades. As a result, ultimately, Venice would eventually become an economic power that rivaled that of Byzantium. This would lead to the Empire giving Genoa trading concessions as well in an attempt to enlist their aid to counter the increasing power of Venice. Alexius I’s diplomatic decision of giving Venice these huge trade concessions was a strategic success at the time; however, it was only a temporary solution to the Empire’s need for military assistance. This brought long term consequences that would have both Venice and Genoa dominating trade in the Aegean and the rest of the Mediterranean. The loss of this vital income would lead to Byzantium’s failure to afford a significant army or naval force to safeguard its borders.
Cultural and Religious Identity
Perhaps the most controversial and troublesome in today’s climate, ‘culture’ is a very important aspect for many states. Such categories of culture consist of religion, language, ethnicity, and traditions; all of which are vital for holding a society together. Without cultural unity, states begin to divide into rival factions that cease to cooperate with one another for the good of the state, but rather for the good of their faction. This can be seen over and over again with the USSR, Iraq, Syria, and now Ukraine. For the Byzantine Empire, the one thing that united its people, other than the Greek language, was the state religion—Christianity; however, Christianity itself was far from unified. The cultural division that had the greatest impact on Byzantine’s decline was the religious schism of 1054 between the Catholic West and the Orthodox East. This cultural tie with the west was broken because of disagreements over matters of doctrine, religious practice, and papal authority. The division would later cause the lack of much needed support Byzantium required from the west to defend its territories from the Islamic Turks. Although the Catholic Pontiff responded to Byzantium’s cries for help in the actions of the Crusades, many of these ‘Crusaders’ (particularly during the Fourth Crusade) were very hostile towards their Christian neighbors in the east, and in 1204, these Latin counterparts actually sacked Constantinople, like they would any other infidel. This event had horrific consequences on the Byzantine economy, as shops and cathedrals alike were looted by the Venetian sailors and other Crusaders from the west. Additional quarrels with the west, such as that with the Normans, left a weak and uncooperative force to face the Islamic enemy during the Crusades. For more on how the Great Schism affected the Byzantine Empire, read Jonathan Phillips’ The Fourth Crusade and the Sack of Constantinople.
Furthermore, the cultural division between the Eastern and Western Churches was even more passionate towards the very end. Instead of unifying the two Churches of Christendom, the Crusades only resulted in each side sharing an increased bitterness towards one another. The last emperors of Byzantium again appealed to the west for help just a few short years before the final fall of Constantinople. However, the Pope would only ‘consider’ sending aid in return for a reunion of the Eastern Orthodox Church with the See of Rome. Of course the Orthodox citizenry and clergy intensely resented Roman authority and the Latin Rite. This unsuccessful unity with the west at the start of the crusades would fail to drive back Islamic conquerors such as the Ottoman Turks from becoming a greater threat to the Empire.At the very end, the cultural distinction between the east and west was so powerful that not even the sight of the Ottoman Turks at the city walls was enough to overcome their differences.
Cultural Traditions and Ethnic Lines
Not only was cultural division apparent between Byzantium and its allies but far worse were its internal cultural and ethnic divisions. One commonly known cliché coined by Benjamin Franklin is that “a house divided amongst itself cannot stand.” Thus a government cannot stand strong if there is no unity to hold it together. The Byzantine Empire experienced numerous internal conflicts and civil wars that continued to stress its unity, particularly during its later history. These conflicts consisted of disputed successors to the imperial throne, as well as peasant and military rebellions. In order to put an end to the barbarian pillages from its northern frontiers, Byzantium conquered the Slavic and Germanic territories of Bulgaria and Serbia. This newly acquired territory consisted of people with a pagan culture. When these peoples became part of the empire they never fully assimilated into Byzantine society. Therefore, whenever central authority demonstrated signs of weakness, the Bulgars and Serbs began to factionalize and rebel against Byzantium. Meanwhile, as the lower classes continued to experience high inflation and higher taxes, the peasantry began to resent the empire. Peasant revolt was at its peak after the rule of the Latins following the sack of Constantinople in 1204. In order to avoid the Latins from retaking the city, Emperor Michael VIII forced the Orthodox Church to submit to Rome; again a temporary solution that angered the peasantry. As a result of all these variables mentioned, civil war would rack the empire throughout the 14th century from all factions. It was during these rampant civil wars that the Turkish armies were able to gain the most territory from the Empire.
Political Decline and Class Warfare
Economic and societal issues can only become a problem on a large scale for so long. It is the responsibility of government to correct such economic ills and stabilize social order. However, Byzantium’s political infrastructure was incapable of sustaining itself due to numerous problems within its bureaucracies. Perhaps the greatest defect in Byzantine government was the monarchy’s constant conflict with its aristocracy. The Emperor was the sole and absolute ruler, and his power was regarded as having divine origins. Offices of the bureaucracy were arranged around the emperor and held by members of the aristocracy. The aristocracy and emperor were always at odds for greater decision making in matters of state. This conflict was good in some ways in that it created checks and balances in government. However, this competition exploded into civil war when Emperor Andronikos III’s successor was far too young to rule and the resulting regency’s rivalry strained the empire politically in the 14th century. The Byzantine elite’s desire for greater power would eventually become so great that they would exploit the bureaucratic system which they controlled. In response to the ever increasing challenge to Imperial authority by the social elite, it was never the interest of many emperors to completely expel the Turks from Asia Minor; for the empire’s expansion back into Asia Minor would have meant sharing more power with feudal lords, thus weakening the power of the emperor.
Further bureaucratic decline can be witnessed in the disintegration of Byzantine’s traditional military structure. A strong military is always essential for any empire’s existence. It protects and safeguards a society from any foreign entity that wishes harm or exploitation of its populace. Since its birth, the Byzantine Empire had been completely surrounded by enemy invaders from all directions. Byzantium was able to defend itself against constant invasion by creating a decentralized fighting force known as the ‘theme system’. Since Byzantium’s military forces held greater independence from central command, they were able to deal with threats quickly and efficiently at the local level. However, eventually the theme system would be viewed as a threat to the emperor’s authority. Since it consisted of decentralized power, challengers to imperial authority could easily manipulate the theme system during civil war. The emperor’s disbandment of the theme system meant that armies became more expensive in the long run, which reduced the number of troops that the emperors could afford to supply. It also meant that the Byzantine military became more reliant on the competence of a single individual emperor than the commanders on the field. Frequent civil war also caused many emperors to fear a powerful military. As a result, royalty of the late empire began to rely more on mercenaries than native troops. According to Machiavelli’s The Prince, it is a fatal mistake for any state to rely heavily on mercenaries to fight wars for them. Machiavelli (1513) states that “mercenaries…are useless and dangerous…for they are disunited, ambitious and without discipline, unfaithful, valiant before friends,” but “cowardly before enemies” (p. 55). On top of being ineffective, these mercenaries were also expensive and quick to turn on the empire if they were not paid to their satisfaction. The fall of the empire’s traditional theme system would ensure Turkish advantage in the final battles to come.
Summary and Today’s Relevance
As demonstrated, the decline of Byzantium involved the decline of the many characteristics that made up its society. Like most world leaders today, Byzantium’s societal ills were created by emperors who found temporary solutions to the problems of their time that would eventually prove harmful to the empire in the long run. None of these problems were obvious at the time, but instead took centuries to manifest themselves and slowly rot out the heart of one of the greatest empires on earth. The outcome of these poor decisions impacted the empire’s economy, cultural unity, and political bureaucracies. Much like the US’s power shift to China, the empire sold out its own economic strength to Venetian merchants. Much like Ukraine, its society was too divided culturally because of too many unassimilated Bulgars and Serbs who were only too eager to exploit the weakness of central authority. The competition between the bureaucratic elites and imperial authority would distract both governing parties from their duties to the empire and defense against foreign invaders. In the end, the Ottoman Turks would find little difficulty in finishing off an empire already dying after weakening itself.
As for today’s political climate, Ukraine’s current civil strife has mostly to do with disunity along ethnic, political, linguistic, and regional lines; and an encroaching power ready to exploit its weakness. Although many states around the world are stable with demographic diversity, history teaches us that when these cultural differences are limited to specific regions, it is the most dangerous. As would occur in Byzantine Bulgaria, the Bulgars were quick to take advantage of disruptions in central authority for greater autonomy. This would also prove true in the Balkans after the fall of the Ottoman Empire and again under the Soviet Union. Many states such as USA, China, and Russia have corrected this problem through violence, cultural re-education, or regional colonization. China has encouraged ethnic Hans to settle in such provinces as Tibet and Xinjian to minimize the regional identities there, while Czarist Russia has sent ethnic Russians to various strategic regions throughout its empire for the same reason. Hence an inescapable truth emerges: for empires to exist, violence or cultural identity is typically sacrificed for the sake of conformity. Methods of conformity can take on many forms: propaganda, nationalism, religion, or violence. These four forces are as frequent today as they have ever been. When the first three methods fail, then the latter is sure to follow.