News, Opinion

Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire circa 540 AD
Byzantine or Eastern Roman Empire circa 540 AD

Selected Books Turkey in Europe & Europe in Turkey

by Turgut Ozal

The following is an extract from Turkey in Europe and Europe in Turkey by the late Turgut Ozal (1991).

The Eastern Roman Empire

"Alas! O unhappy and long suffering race of mortals! From what conflicts, from what Iamentations you are born."
Empedocles of Agrigentum.

Constantine became Emperor in 306, after a period of considerable upheaval. He adopted Christianity in 312, and in 330 established at Byzantium the city which would carry his name, Constantinople.

Constantine was born at Naissus, a town situated not far from Byzantium. He first considered using Troy or Nicomedia as his capital, but, for reasons still obscure to this day, his final choice fell upon the large village situated between the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. After very rapid development (its population soon reached five hundred thousand people), Constantinople merited the title of `the New Rome'.

Having become sole Emperor, Constantine rendered the title hereditary, in an endeavour to spare his people the crises which would erupt at each succession. He created a new coinage, the solidus, and introduced various measures to encourage farmers, merchants, and artisans. He reformed the civil administration by separating the military and political powers. He thus gave the Empire a longheaded period of stability.

Although he did not make Christianity the State religion but merely one of the religions tolerated by the State, it is true to say that he `Christianized' the legal system.

It was during the reign of Theodosius I in 391 that a decree made Christianity the official State religion, thus opening the era of religious empires which would continue with the Germanic Holy Roman Empire, established by Charlemagne in 800, and the Ottoman Empire created in 1299.

Though they had aspects in common, the two religious empires presented important differences. Whereas in the Eastern Roman Empire only one religion was officially recognized and others discouraged, among the Ottomans a special regime (the system of `nations') not only protected the rights of the faithful of other religions, but also tolerated a variety of Islamic sects and orders.

In 395 Theodosius divided the Empire between his two sons, from which date there were two Roman Empires. Both had to repel repeated invasions coming from the north and the east, but the Eastern Roman Empire succeeded better in this struggle than the Western Empire.

There were various reasons for this. Firstly, Anatolia was much more densely populated, was to a large extent urbanized, and had become affluent through long established industry and commerce. Constantine's reforms, although they had not been applied in their totality, had accelerated economic development. In the sixth century the East was much more skilled than the West in employing tools and other techniques in agriculture, the fundamental sector of economic growth. The West did not attain a comparable level until the tenth century.

Secondly, in addition to demographic and economic superiority, the East also enjoyed a more effective sociopolitical structure. In the West, a very powerful class of senators came between the Emperor and the people, and also between the workers and the sources of production. This class had accumulated into its hands all the natural resources. It had also gained control of the labour force, which it guarded against the demands of the Emperor for soldiers.

It had no intention of sharing its wealth.

In the East, the Emperor had free access to men and money. During the seventh century Emperor Heraclius introduced the division of the Empire into provinces or `themes', the administration of which he entrusted to the commanders-in-chief of the armies. Conquered lands were distributed to the soldiers in perpetuity, in exchange for the hereditary obligation of military service. A class of peasant-soldiers or officer-proprietors was thus established.

In peacetime they cultivated their land; in wartime they served in the army with their men. The cultivator of the land and its defender were one and the same. Later the system was extended to the inhabitants of Anatolia and, under the reign of the Ottomans, it became the basis of the land-owning system. It was not until the period of the decline of the Eastern Roman Empire that the feudal lords, having become powerful, began to exploit the workers and other resources for their own profit. This same phenomenon occurred again during the decline of the Ottoman Empire.

Thirdly, the Black Sea to the north of Anatolia was an effective front line of defence for the centre of gravity of the Empire against attacks from the north, whereas Italy is dominated by the Alps.

For this reason, a little-known Germanic tribe, the Herules, was able to invade Italy in 476 and occupy Rome, unconquered for the previous eight centuries. It was the end of the Western Roman Empire. Admittedly it was re-established, but not until much later, and then in a form which the East considered barbaric, namely as the Germanic Holy Roman Empire with Charlemagne in the year 800, and Otto I in 962. Many would say that it had become neither Holy, nor Roman, nor an Empire.

The Eastern Roman Empire, on the other hand, would endure for almost another thousand years during which, having become the major world power, it would play a triple role, politico-military, civilising, and religious. Constantinople, Antioch, and Alexandria would prevail for centuries over Naples and Rome.

The characteristically Roman direction of history-the progression from West to East-reversed, and the centre of the Empire shifted towards the eastern Mediterranean.

Few states have engaged in as many wars as the East Romans. Most of them resulted from the geostrategic characteristics of Anatolia. Most of the invasions came from the north-west, such as those of the Ouz, the Bulgars, the Slavs, and the Petchenegs. As they gradually established themselves in the Balkans, they pushed back towards the west the populations who were already inhabiting the two Roman Empires.

Then, after these Empires had collapsed, they fought or harried the Papacy.

The Eastern Roman Empire also had to defend itself on another front: Persia. There the Sassanids had imposed Zoroastrianism as the official religion. Although this had triggered extensive internal troubles, it did not prevent the Sassanids from having an aggressive policy towards the West.

The struggle between the two most powerful states of the time was long and devastating. The East Romans, menaced from the west, had also to withstand attacks from the rear. Whenever the Emperor massed his defences to the east, the Balkan tribes immediately tried to take advantage of the situation. It is therefore not surprising that the eastern frontier of Anatolia was altered many times during the four centuries of Sassanid dominance (third to seventh centuries).

Towards the middle of the seventh century, the Arab menace arose in the south-east. The Arabs invaded Egypt and Syria, who at the time were in religious conflict with the Empire. These two countries preferred Arab domination, and the religious tolerance it allowed, to the incessant interference of an authority narrowly punctilious about religious beliefs. After conquering Egypt and Syria, the Arabs repeatedly stormed the Anatolian frontiers and arrived at the gates of Constantinople.

The frontier of the south-east, however, remained fairly constant at this time, with the exception of minor changes which took place on the south coast of the Taurus, and around Antioch.

To the east, Sassanian power being in decline, the Empire fortunately only had to defend itself on two fronts, not three. (We leave aside the defence of southern Italy and north Africa, which had only a minor influence on Anatolia, the heart of the Empire.)

The Ottomans would similarly have to fight on two fronts in the middle of the seventeenth century.

The enormous area of both Empires rendered war on two fronts extremely costly in men, money, and materials. Furthermore, the difficulties of movement and transport jeopardised the very existence of the country, since while the army was at war on one front the other was necessarily left undefended. To conclude hostilities in progress on one front and then to hurry to the opposite front was an undertaking scarcely achievable in a single season. Yet the maintenance of two separate armies was beyond the economic means of the Empire.

The prospect of one day having to fight on two fronts at the same time was therefore always the nightmare of Eastern Rome. In this respect their situation was worse than that of the Ottomans, who had succeeded in warding off the Persian threat by means of a treaty drawn up towards the middle of the seventeenth century. The Ottomans would not again be menaced by the Arabs, whereas the Romans of Anatolia had to struggle on all fronts to the end.

This situation explains why, even at those times when they were powerful, foreign armies were able to reach the gates of Constantinople. The Ottoman Empire experienced similar dangers only rarely, and then only in the darkest hours of its decline.

It is easy for us to imagine the climate of anxiety in which the leaders and people of this Empire had to live.

The epidemic of bubonic plague which occurred in eastern Anatolia around AD 550 caused tremendous devastation throughout the Empire. This illness (which on a much smaller scale resurfaced even during the twentieth century) killed a third, perhaps half, of the population of Constantinople, leaving an insufficient number of peasants and soldiers. Since the risk of war was undiminished, the leaders had no recourse other than to diplomacy, and to seek allies against a possible aggressor. The imperial Governments became so skilful at these manoeuvres that the expression `Byzantine intrigues' became commonplace.

It is worth noting that, during the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the population of Anatolia was similarly stricken by another scourge, this time malaria.

The Eastern Roman Empire experienced its golden age from the ninth to the eleventh centuries under the Macedonian dynasty. Its frontiers during that period corresponded more or less to those of the original Roman Empire before the division.

The Arab invasion had been halted, and the frontier with the Abbasids defined and stabilised. Bulgars and Slavs were embracing Orthodox Christianity, a success which was due to the invention of the Slav alphabet and the teaching of the Gospels in the Slav language, whereas the Papacy had always insisted on the use of Latin.

Internally the administration had been centralised and bureaucratized and, the Senate having been abolished, the power of the Emperor was limited only by that of the Orthodox Church.

The agro-military system instigated by Heraclius, without equal in the West, began to decline at the time the Empire reached its apogee. As commerce and industry were often controlled in the public interest, the most profitable object of investment was land. However, frequent famines obliged peasant-soldiers to sell their land if they could not pay their debts.

The Government tried hard to check this dangerous development by legislation, but from 1025 the military aristocracy, which also constituted the class of great landowners, was beyond control. Thus the peasant-soldiers, who had been the backbone of the Empire, sank into destitution. History repeated itself in exactly the same way with the Ottoman Empire between the sixteenth and the eighteenth centuries.

It was at this time that the Seljuks penetrated Anatolia from the east, while the Petchenegs were attacking from the west. The advance of the Seljuks into Anatolia after the battle of Malazgirt (1071) resulted in great losses to the Empire, both of peasant-soldiers and of territories.

In the same year the Normans invaded southern Italy. The Empire therefore requested the assistance of Venice against the Normans. Venice agreed, but only on condition that it received in exchange certain commercial concessions. These were the first Capitulations.

The concessions enabled the Venetians to eliminate the competition which they had experienced from the local trade, and laid the foundations of Venetian commercial domination in the eastern Mediterranean. There is here another similarity between the East Romans and the Ottomans.

Then the first crusade took place. One might think that it was intended to save the Orthodox Christian Empire from the Seljuks.

On the contrary, it reclaimed for the Franks Jerusalem and the Holy Land which the Seljuks had captured in 1077! This was partly because the final division of the two Churches, the outcome of a lengthy process, had been an established fact since 1054, and partly because the Papacy and Europe had little interest in the fate of the Eastern Empire except as a matter of form.

The most simple geopolitics reasoning would have concluded that the `liberation' of Jerusalem, and its defence once `delivered', required Eastern Rome to be a stable and powerful State. It was moreover agreed that the crusaders would hand back to it whatever territories they won from the Seljuks. In fact, having taken Nicaea, they did return it, though there was a change of heart when they captured Antioch.

Nevertheless, the first crusade was not without benefit for the Eastern Roman Empire: the frontier with the Seljuks was pushed back to the centre of Anatolia.

The second crusade in 1147 ended in failure, for which the West held Eastern Rome responsible. In 1176 the Seljuks, as at Malazgirt, again encircled and destroyed the Eastern Roman army.

The third crusade was organised in 1187 to retake Jerusalem, which had been captured by Saladin.

Richard the Lion-heart occupied Cyprus in passing, and the island was never returned to the Empire. It should be remembered that in 1878 the British took Cyprus on lease, in exchange for the aid they had provided the Ottomans, and that the island was never returned! For the British, Cyprus was the object of a strange cupidity.

The failure of this third crusade, again blamed on the Empire, engendered in the West the idea of capturing Constantinople. The fourth crusade achieved the taking of the town in 1204. It was burned, pillaged, sacked; the soldiers even destroyed copies of Greek classics, some of which were unique.

Venice had played an important role in the organisation of these crusades, allowing them to retake or to acquire numerous warehouses and almost all the islands, including Rhodes, Create, and Euboea, where she had been able to establish her commercial empire in the Mediterranean.

The occupation of Constantinople by the Latins lasted until 1261. Even though the East Romans succeeded in retaking the town, most of the Aegean islands and a large part of Crete remained in the hands of the Franks and the Italians.

The Latin occupation was the most serious threat to the chances of survival of the Empire. The Christian West, which should have been its ally, delivered blows that it had been spared by its Seljuk enemies.

The Empire then began to disintegrate, and every attempt that the emperors made to save it only hastened its downfall. To rescue its trade, which had been monopolised by Venice, the concessions were annulled, but Venice then formed alliances again with the western enemies of the Empire. When the Empire tried to improve its relations with the Papacy, the people showed their disapproval.

The landed estates were seriously neglected, causing the Government to attack the military aristocracy, the great landowners, who it held responsible. The Government was thus itself responsible for destroying the last force capable of supporting it.

The most anodyne measures intended to reinforce the Empire provoked the mistrust and hostility of the Papacy and of the Germanic Holy Roman Empire.

The lion had aged; it was dying. The less powerful, taking advantage of the situation, went on the offensive: the Bulgars revolted, the Slavs proclaimed their independence.

This is an evolution which the Turks know well, for it was a similar series of events that led to the fall of the Ottoman Empire. On reading again the story of Eastern Rome's agony, they cannot avoid experiencing the same feelings of sadness.

These events prove that an allegedly shared religion has little influence on political conflicts, and that barbarism is the monopoly of no one, even in matters of religion. When the disintegration of the Empire was complete,-its `natural friends' would have contributed in no small measure to its collapse. During their own long decline, the Ottomans perhaps had the advantage over their predecessors of not being struck in the back by false friends.

The fate of the Eastern Roman Empire is an obvious lesson of history to those today who insist on the importance of one culture (that is to say, one religion) common to the whole European community. It should be remembered too that, following the fall of Constantinople, the bloodiest religious wars in the history of Europe erupted. At a time when the Ottomans were considered to represent the mortal danger to Europe, it was in fact these other wars, fought mainly between different Christian factions, which cost many more lives than did the battles against the Turks.

Having retaken Constantinople, the Eastern Romans rebuilt it. They came to an understanding with Genoa, an enemy of Venice. However, when the Emperor learned that a new crusade was being prepared, he proposed an alliance with the Pope in order to prevent it, either because the safety of the Empire was more important to him than the defence of Orthodoxy, or because he was tempted by a simple tactical manoeuvre. The popular revolt that broke out at the news of this intention was put down by force.

The Greeks living in Anatolia under Seljuk authority were unaware of this drama. Right to the end they benefited from the religious tolerance of the Turks.

The Pope, however, did not believe the Eastern Romans to be sincere so in 1281 Charles d'Anjou and a coalition of Venetians, Serbs, Bulgars, and Greek separatists invaded the Empire. Had it not been for the revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers in 1282, it is probable that the Latins would have achieved what they set out to do in 1204, namely to gain control of Constantinople and the Empire before the Seljuks and the Ottomans.

A further word on the Capitulations.

In 1296 a naval battle took place on the Bosphorus between Venice and Genoa, while their future victim, Byzantium, looked on. Not long after this event, Genoa started abusing the concessions she had gained to such an extent that the Empire found it necessary to ally itself with the Venetians against the Genoese. This alliance proved to be in vain, for Venice and the New Rome Byzantium lost the contest the customs revenues of the Galata quarter of Constantinople, where the Genoese lived, at that time exceeded the entire imperial revenues.

These precursors of the capitalist system, Venice and Genoa, were henceforward the principal actors on the world political scene. They differed much from the ancient Great Powers and had certain advantages compared to them. The Ottomans, who were no longer evolving in a capitalist direction, would have to struggle not only against these two republics but also against the whole of Europe.

The Seljuk danger gave way to the Ottoman danger from 1299. The Eastern Roman emperors paid visits to several European countries, beginning with the papal States, but they received nothing more than `good advice'.

Finally, on 29 May 1453, all the titles and powers of the Roman Emperor were transferred to Sultan Mehmet the Conqueror, following his entry into Constantinople. He thus became basileus. All the Eastern Roman lands passed under the sovereignty of the Ottoman Empire.

A decree promulgated by the new Sultan made the Patriarch of Istanbul the head of all Orthodox Christians. The Eastern Church was thus, for the first time, given political power.


Rapid though it has been, this overview of the history of the Eastern Roman Empire seems to point to certain conclusions.

Firstly, that the Empire was predominantly an Anatolian State. Anatolia constituted its main territory, just as it was central to the Ottoman Empire. The other territories, including that of Greece, were of only secondary importance.

The Ottomans demonstrated this point again later by reconquering virtually all the old Eastern Roman territories outside Anatolia, whereas the reverse, the conquest of Anatolia itself, has not been possible since Roman times. Head and heart of an empire with immeasurably extended borders, Anatolia was committed to power, and even super-power, in order to compensate for the geo-political weaknesses of that empire.

Secondly, the classical culture, after having survived the original Roman Empire, disappeared during the Eastern Roman Empire under the influence of early Christianity. Neither the Digest nor the Codes of Justinian, nor the humanist movement, nor the conservation of classical texts in libraries constructed for this purpose, nor even the fact that there were again scholars to study them, changed anything. Classical culture had ceased to exist long before the arrival of the Turks in Anatolia.

Thirdly, the fall of Byzantium had been provoked much more by the Papacy and the Catholic West than by the Turks.

Far from uprooting or persecuting Orthodox Christianity, the Turks on the contrary protected it, and encouraged it to thrive. If the Latins (by 'Latins' I mean Western Europe and the Papacy) had captured Anatolia, the Greek Orthodox Church would not exist today. It is because they were conscious of the Catholic menace that the Christians of Anatolia and Rumelia offered the Turks only a token resistance, and in many cases even received them as liberators.

Toynbee in his famous A Study of History lays down the universal laws which govern history. He explains the genesis, growth, breakdown, and disintegration of civilisations. He defines universal states as historical units which slow down the disintegration process but which cannot prevent dissolution indefinitely. His intellectual edifice seems impeccably applicable to almost all civilisations, but hardly to those which appeared in Anatolia, for reasons I cannot yet fully understand.

He classifies both the Empire of Alexander the Great and the Roman Empire as Hellenic universal states whose mission, or rather raison d'etre, was to save the Hellenized peoples from the immense sufferings of the disintegration process. Yet he treats the Eastern Roman Empire as a new civilisation, and dates its suicidal breakdown at ED 977-1019, i.e. the time of the great Romano-Bulgarian war which exhausted both contenders. He then singles out the Ottoman Empire as the universal state of Orthodox Christianity.

If I perceive correctly, part of his problem arises from the fact that he concludes, in line with his theory, that the universal church of Orthodox Christianity, born in the universal state of the Roman Empire, actually changed the nature of the latter into one of genesis and growth, so creating the new civilisation of Byzantium. This new Orthodox Christian civilisation in its turn breaks down at the Romano-Bulgarian war, but is saved from disintegration by the Ottoman Empire. He contends that Byzantium was not the continuation of the Roman Empire, despite its claims.

In reality, all criteria point to the fact that the Eastern Roman Empire was a universal state par excellence, and as such did represent the continuation of the Roman Empire. The reforms initiated and implemented by Constantine were designed to stop the disintegration process in the Roman Empire.

These reforms re-established a centralised order at the expense of social mobility and economic freedoms. They were like a strait-jacket on society, because mobility between occupations, for example between peasants, craftsmen, and tradesmen, was almost frozen, as was geographical mobility between rural areas and towns and cities. Similarly, the Government intervened heavily in the free market with various regulations.

Ownership of land was based on class. The consequence was an increase in production made possible by restored stability in the political and financial spheres, though it did not result from enhanced individual and social creativity which, by definition, is essential to the existence of civilisation.

On the other hand, the Eastern Roman Empire covered almost all the land area of the Roman Empire, with the exception of some parts in the north-west. This resulted in a multi-ethnic society with many different cultural backgrounds. The pax Romana (east), which reigned over this vast area, attained its basic objective which was to prevent internal warfare being triggered by disintegration.

The existence of Christianity as the State religion was the main difference between the Roman and the Eastern Roman Empires, hence the naming of the latter as 'the Christian Roman Empire'. As a rule a universal state brings about a set of conditions necessary for the creation of a universal church. Although this process started in the Roman Empire, its principal development took place during the Eastern Roman Empire.

One of the main functions of the universal church, namely to preserve the germ of the characteristics of the subdued societies as it were in a 'chrysalis', was thoroughly fulfilled during the Eastern Roman Empire and, as we shall see, also during the Ottoman Empire. This was clearly illustrated when Greece became independent, and it was plain that the 'Greekness' of that society had not diminished over almost a millennium.

This fact applies equally to other societies under the rule of the universal state within which religion served as a unifying force, while at the same time respecting the ethnically features of the bodies social included in the empire. Indeed, one god together with one emperor is the driving force behind the quest of the state for universality, hence the attributes 'unique' and 'universal' of the Eastern Roman Empire.

But this attitude of the universal state puts it on a collision course with other powers resisting its claims to universality, or simply making their own counter claims. Therefore, the consequence is that the universal state avoids internal conflicts by replacing them with large-scale external wars which its claims to universality provoke.

Contrary to the growth period of a civilisation, which creates a 'limen' (a broad threshold beyond its frontiers of friendly states influenced peacefully by its civilising radiation), the universal state is surrounded, as in the case of the Eastern Roman Empire, by a 'limes' (hostile external environment) which makes external wars inevitable.

It is obvious that the universal state, whether or not called Hellenic, is a fundamentally different sociopolitical system to the Aegean city-states. The free spirit of the newly born individual of the latter was happily dormant in the former. No longer was he creative but submissive to the Caesar-god of the Roman Empire.

Having sacrificed his classical culture, he was to become subservient to the Christian theocracy in the Eastern Roman Empire. Fratricidal wars between unruly brothers (city-states) had died down, for the eternal father, the emperor, reappeared on the scene of history in the image of god. Wars between empires were waged for the supremacy of a religioideology, not to determine who was best between brother city-states.

Problems which were shelved or frozen, since there was no creative solution available for them, brought about a stagnation in the Empire, in the absence of the deadly struggles of the past between its components. The inhabitants came to feel that the ecumenical state above race, culture, civilisation and so forth was a world by itself, and that it was immortal, even timeless, because of its internal inertia.

I have dwelt at some length on the nature of the Eastern Roman Empire as a universal state, for I believe it prefigures the Ottoman Empire in this respect. Now let us revert to the perennial question of the differentiation between East and West.

In the first centuries of the Christian era the distinction between East and West did not have the political or moral significance which was attributed to it later.

The moral, rather than the geographic, differentiation between East and West, which began with Herodotus, acquired a new dimension with the designation of the Roman Empire as Byzantium. These terms, which initially referred to the respective locations of the two Roman Empires, progressively came to be used to signify two different worlds.

Because of the rivalries between the Eastern Roman Empire and Catholic Europe, the concept of 'the East' gradually became charged with pejorative or negative connotations. However, 'the East' was first applied to the Orthodox Church and the Christian people of Anatolia, who were labeled by Westerners as 'perfidious Greeks', and not to Turco-Islamic Anatolia, as is sometimes assumed today.

In the sight of the Orthodox Christians,.the Franks were 'parvenu', cynically exploiting brute force. On the other hand, the Franks regarded the Byzantines as mandarins whose overweening pretensions were neither justified by merit nor backed by force. To the Greeks the Latins were barbarians, to the Latins the Greeks were on the way to becoming 'Levantines'.

The decline of the Eastern Roman Empire increased in the West the negative feeling behind the terms 'East' or 'Orient'. After the conquest of Anatolia by the Ottomans, these words no longer referred exclusively to the Eastern Roman Empire and the Eastern Church, but also to Eastern civilisation in general.

The expression 'Asia Minor' was similarly imposed during the Roman period. As I mentioned earlier, 'Asia' originally denoted the western part of Anatolia, especially Lydia. When 'Asia' became the normal word in the West to mean the whole continent, the East Romans used the term 'Asia Minor' just for Anatolia, in order to distinguish it from the rest of the continent. Hence two strongly negative qualities became attached to Anatolia: that of 'Eastern', and that of `Asiatic'.

Ever since then, the territory to the north-east of the Mediterranean, though always an integral part of Mediterranean civilisation, has found itself relegated to the background by an artificial separation of the continents, and by the pejorative evolution of the words `East' and `Orient'.

Nevertheless, nothing can alter the fact that it was in this "East", in this "Orient", that civilisation was born; it was there that the fundamentals of science were discovered and developed; and it was there that a monotheistic religion took root and prospered.

From is no longer active.

I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy. Thomas Paine

Excerpts from Will Durant's The Age of Faith Pages 162-186 Pub. 1950