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The Medieval Roman Empire of the East as spatial phenomenon:
Selected aspects (300-1200 CE)
Johannes Preiser-Kapeller, June 2015*
Draft for the Workshop “Comparative Studies in Imperial History (Part I) All under Heaven?
The Empire’s Spatial Dimensions”, Eisenach, June 30th-July 2nd 2015, organised by Prof.
Michal Biran (The Hebrew University) and Prof. Eva Cancik-Kirschbaum (Freie Universität
Berlin), cf.
The aim of this paper is (of course) not a comprehensive analysis of the Medieval Roman
Empire of the East, commonly called the “Byzantine Empire”1 as spatial phenomenon;
especially in the “Vienna School of Byzantine Studies”, entire books (Johannes Koder´s
“Lebensraum”) have been written about this and a fundamental long-term project (Tabula
imperii Byzantini) is devoted to the historical geography of Byzantium.2 I will discuss some
general principles of spatial organisation and perception as can be reconstructed from Byzantine
sources, furthermore the definition and dynamics of frontiers and finally the significance of the
centre (Constantinople) and its demands for the spatial framework of imperial politics. The
chronological focus will be on the centuries from the inauguration of Constantinople as new
capital (330 CE) up to Fourth Crusade in 1204 CE (and within this period, even more on the
6th-11th centuries); after that time, the permanent political fragmentation of the former core
sphere of the Byzantine Empire provided a very different spatial framework (with which I have
also dealt in an earlier study3). Furthermore, I will deal more with the frontiers and relations of
Byzantium to the East, where also Byzantine authors identified (competing) polities of a similar
imperial quality, than with the connections to and conflicts with medieval Western Europe. I
hope to be able to demonstrate how specific aspects of Byzantium´s spatial dynamics can be
integrated in a more general comparative discussion of empires as spatial phenomena; in the
conclusion I will try to raise some questions which may be of relevance in this regard.
Borders and territories
In his contribution to the Eisenach-Workshop, Greg Woolf recollects that in his school atlas the
(former) territories of the British Empire were still coloured in pink. The cartographers of my
historical atlas in the Gymnasium used the same colour for the “Britische Weltreich”; but for
the period before Britannia ruled the waves, pink was reserved on the maps of medieval Europe
* Institute for Medieval Research, Division of Byzantine Research, Austrian Academy of Sciences – RömischGermanisches
On the terms “Roman” and “Byzantine” cf. esp. now I. Stouraitis, Roman identity in Byzantium: a critical
approach. Byzantinische Zeitschrift 107/1 (2014) 175-220. Throughout the paper, I use both terms.
J. Koder, Der Lebensraum der Byzantiner. Historisch-geographischer Abriß ihres mittelalterlichen Staates im
östlichen Mittelmeerraum (Byzantinische Geschichtsschreiber Ergänzungsband 1). Nachdruck mit
bibliographischen Nachträgen, Vienna 2001; Tabula Imperii Byzantini (TIB), ed. H. Hunger, J. Koder, C. Rapp.
Vienna 1976ff. (cf. A very insightful analysis of the spatial dimensions
of Byzantine history is also provided in: M. Whittow, The Making of Byzantium, 600-1025. Berkeley – Los
Angeles 1996, esp. 15-37 on the strategic geography of the Near East.
J. Preiser-Kapeller, Complex historical dynamics of crisis: the case of Byzantium, in: S. Jalkotzy-Deger - A.
Suppan (eds.), Krise und Transformation. Vienna 2012, 69-127. Cf. also G. Prinzing, Das Byzantinische Kaisertum
im Umbruch – Zwischen regionaler Aufspaltung und erneuter Zentrierung in den Jahren 1204-1282, in: R.
Gundlach – H. Weber, Legitimation und Funktion des Herrschers: vom ägyptischen Pharao zum neuzeitlichen
Diktator (Schriften der Mainzer Philosophischen Fakultätsgesellschaft 13). Stuttgart 1992, 129–183; A. Laiou,
Byzantium and the Neighboring Powers: Small-state Policies and Complexities, in: S. T. Brooks (ed.): Byzantium:
Faith and Power (1261–1557). Perspectives on Late Byzantine Art and Culture. New York – New Haven – London
2006, 42-53.
for the (so-called) Byzantine Empire (maybe as homage to its “purple-born” emperors). Based
on these maps, it is (supposedly) possible to follow the developments of the Medieval Roman
Empire of the East as spatial phenomenon with clear-cut borders and even to calculate its “state
territory” as for modern-day polities. If we plot such figures on a graph [see fig. 1], despite all
ups and downs we detect a general downwards trend, somehow in accord with the image of
Byzantium´s history as a long and painful decline from the height of the Imperium Romanum
as established by Edward Gibbon (1737-1794).4 As a matter of fact, the Byzantine Empire faced
severe crises and dramatic losses of territories in the 7th and in the 11th century (especially due
to Arab and later Turkish conquest)5; periods of territorial expansion were mostly
“Reconquista” of former provinces of the Empire (and therefore, within the imperial ideological
framework, always “bella iusta” for the protection or restoration of the territories of the
“divinely protected Roman Empire”) [see fig. 2].6 In general, there existed a notion of an
integrity of a (considerable) territorial complex inherited from the Roman Empire around the
Eastern Mediterranean from the Danube to the Nile and from the Adriatic Sea to the Euphrates
River. Emperor Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118), who restored Byzantine power after the
almost-collapse of the 11th century (and the temporary loss of almost entire Asia Minor) is
lauded for the reconstruction of the extent of the Empire between the Adriatic Sea in the West
and the Euphrates and Tigris in the East in the historiographical work of his daughter Anna
Komnene; he even would have restored the Empire´s entire former, says Anna, if not
circumstances had hindered him to do so. Similar pretensions we find in a treaty between
Emperor Alexios I and the City of Pisa from the year 1111, in which the Pisans promise never
to support an attack on the Byzantine Empire neither within its current nor its future extent;
these “potential” imperial territories include the entire Balkans starting from Croatia and
Dalmatia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and even Egypt with Alexandria. Such notions on the
“legitimate” extent of the Empire and even more claims on a universal rule over the Ecumene
during most of Byzantine history very much collided with the actual range and potentials of
imperial authority and resources.7
In many cases, the borders of the Empire were neither very secure nor well-defined. The Late
Roman Empire in the East somehow tried to establish “natural” borders towards the Barbaricum
as the course of the Lower Danube; but especially this frontier proved to be the most porous
one from the 4th to the 7th century CE.8 Later, other topographical features served as
E. Gerland, Das Studium der Byzantinischen Geschichte vom Humanismus bis zur Jetztzeit (Texte und
Forschungen zur byzantinisch-neugriechischen Philologie. Zwanglose Beihefte zu den ByzantinischNeugriechischen Jahrbüchern 12). Athens 1934.
For an overview cf. L. Brubaker – J. Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: a history. Cambridge
2011; M. Angold, The Byzantine Empire 1025–1204. London – New York ²1997.
Cf. I. Stouraitis, Krieg und Frieden in der politischen und ideologischen Wahrnehmung in Byzanz, 7.–11.
Jahrhundert (Byzantinische Geschichtsschreiber, Ergänzungsband 4). Vienna 2009, and I. Stouraitis, ‘Just War’
and ‘Holy War’ in the Middle Ages. Rethinking Theory through the Byzantine Case-Study. Jahrbuch der
Österreichischen Byzantinistik 62 (2012) 227-264, esp. 239-240. On “just wars” and other elements of imperial
thinkings cf. also M. Hardt – A. Negri, Empire. Cambridge, Mass. – London 2000, esp. 7-21.
Anna Komnene VI 11,3 (ed. Reinsch – Kambylis 193, 7-24); F. Dölger – P. Wirth, Regesten der Kaiserurkunden
des oströmischen Reiches, 2. Teil. München 1995, Nr. 1255; R. J. Lilie, Byzanz und die Kreuzzüge. Berlin 2004,
46; Stouraitis, ‘Just War’ and ‘Holy War’ in the Middle Ages 250-256; M. T. Fögen, Das politische Denken der
Byzantiner, in: Pipers Handbuch der politischen Ideen, Vol. 2: Mittelalter. Munich 1993, 49-50; J. Koder, Die
räumlichen Vorstellungen der Byzantiner von der Ökumene (4.-12. Jahrhundert). Anzeiger der phil.-hist. Klasse
der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften 137 (2002) 15–34, esp. 20-21 (on the limits of the Roman
Ecumene) and 27-31. On the scale and limits of the state´s resources cf. esp. M. F. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine
Monetary Economy c. 300-1450. Cambridge 1985. For similar concepts in the Ottoman Empire with regard to the
Danube frontier for instance cf. V. Panaite, The Ottoman Law of War and Peace. The Ottoman Empire and Tribute
Payers. New York 2000, 77-79 and 84-86.
Cf. F. Curta, The Making of the Slavs: History and Archaeology of the Lower Danube Region, c.500-700
(Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought). Cambridge 2001; idem, Southeastern Europe in the Middle
Ages 500–1250 (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks). Cambridge 2006, esp. 53-69.
approximate frontier and defence zones such as the Balkan Mountains towards the Bulgarian
Khanate or the Taurus Mountains towards the Arab Caliphate.9 We also encounter attempts to
mark (and control) frontiers in the landscape in the absence of such features (on attempts of
“frontier-making” in the East, see below). One example is the so-called “Old Bulgarian
boundary wall” (now known under its Turkish name Erkesija), most probably erected in the
aftermath of the Byzantine-Bulgarian treaty of 815/816, which had determined the border
between the two empires after a long period of war. In this case, the Bulgarians secured their
frontier against the Byzantines over a distance of more than 130 km from the Black-Sea-coast
near modern-day Burgas to the river Maritza (near modern-day Simeonovgrad) with a series of
earth walls and ditches; most of the Erkesija was still visible until the end of the 19 th century
and was delineated in the maps of a modern project of imperial organisation of space, the
“Franzisco-Josephinische Landesaufnahme” of the Austrian-Hungarian Monarchy (18691887).10
Mental maps and spatial organisation
In general, the ‘maps in the minds’ of ancient and medieval authors, their approach to put
objects in spatial relation to each other, have little connection to modern-day scaled maps, as
scholars such as Kai Brodersen have shown.11 Research on “mental maps,” “maps in minds” or
“cognitive mapping” has illustrated that humans used (and use) non-cartographic modes of the
imagination and depiction of space for the “collection, organisation, storing, recalling, and
manipulation of information about the spatial environment.” In ancient texts and “maps” (such
as the Tabula Peutingeriana [see fig. 3]) we mostly encounter “topological” representations of
the relative position of localities, connected through routes, not their absolute position in space
as indicated by coordinates in modern day cartography. Points (landmarks) and routes (paths)
are essential elements of these spatial concepts, which also could be combined into relatively
complex spatial relational systems in order to transmit knowledge of what is there and how to
travel between places.12 Central for the survey, description or depiction of spaces was the
definition and naming of landmarks, which stood out due to their visibility and significance;
this could be larger cities, but also sites of religious relevance. With the indication and naming
of such landmarks, for instance, “map drawing and naming of physical features” became “an
act of appropriation,” of integrating space within one’s cultural framework.13
9 D. Angelov – Y. Batsaki – S. Bazzaz, Introduction. Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space, in:
S. Bazzaz – Y. Batsaki – D. Angelov (eds.), Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space. Cambridge,
Mass. – London 2013, 4.
10 P. Soustal, Thrakien (Thrake, Rhodope und Haimimontos) (Tabula Imperii Byzantini 6). Vienna 1991, 261–
262; Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 278. For a general overview of such fortification systems in ancient and
medieval Eurasia cf. now P. Spring, Great Walls and Linear Barriers. Barnsley 2015, 154-155, also on the Erkesijawall and the possible constructions of parts of it already after the Byzantine-Bulgarian treaty of 716. Cf. also P.
Lorge, The Great Ditch of China and the Song-Liao Border, in: D. J. Wyatt (ed.), Battlefronts real and imagined.
War, Border, and Identity in the Chinese Middle Period. New York 2008, 59-74.
11 K. Brodersen, Terra Cognita. Studien zur römischen Raumerfassung (Spudasmata 59). Hildesheim – Zurich –
New York. 2003, 33-35.
12 M. Downs – D. Stea, Maps in Minds. Reflections on Cognitive Mapping. New York – Hagerstown – San
Francisco – London 1977, esp. 6-28; P. Gould – R. White, Mental Maps. 2nd ed., London – Sydney 1986, esp. 130; Brodersen, Terra Cognita 33-35, 44-48, 191; R. J. A. Talbert, Rome's world. The Peutinger map reconsidered.
Cambridge 2010; P. Blanchard – D. Volchenkov, Mathematical Analysis of Urban Spatial Networks. Berlin –
Heidelberg 2009, 19-24; cf. also P. M. Strässle, Krieg und Kriegführung in Byzanz. Die Kriege Kaiser Basileios´
II. gegen die Bulgaren (976–1019). Cologne 2006, 127-134, for the military strategic implications of such a mode
of perception of space.
13 Downs –Stea, Maps in Minds 41-47, 108-119; Gould – White, Mental Maps 12-13; D. Woodward, Medieval
Mappaemundi, in: J. B. Harley – D. Woodward (eds.), The History of Cartography, Volume 1: Cartography in
Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. Chicago 1987, 286-370. esp. 330-335;
Brodersen, Terra Cognita 50-53, 111-126.
The second important element for “mental mapping” is the indication of routes, depicted as
chains of landmarks; if one followed them in the indicated order, one was on the “right track”.
Thereby the topological structure, the relative position of points to each other was documented.
As “people are supposed to be sensitive to the costs of overcoming distance,” also sometimes
the duration of a journey from one point to the next was indicated. Such information was
transmitted in texts (itineraria, periploi) or in diagrams (such as the Tabula Peutingeriana [see
fig. 3] or late medieval portolans). This was the pre-dominant form of description of spaces
until the early modern period: a sequence of landmarks, which were also described, along a
route, while spaces between them were seldom characterized in greater detail. Space thus was
appropriated as a sum of landmarks, of significant points, whose sequence for a specific purpose
was defined in texts and images.14
Along these lines, also Byzantine authors depicted and “organised” their empire; the 6th century
Synekdemos of Hierokles from the time of Emperor Justinian for instance is a register of 923
cities, arranged in 64 provinces as they existed since the administrative re-organization under
the Emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great at the turn from the 3rd to the 4th cent. CE.15
An even more impressive example of spatial organisation is the Notitia Dignitatum from the
early 5th century CE, a hierarchical list of all civil and military officials for the (then still
existing) Western and Eastern half of the Imperium Romanum, which also registered all
provinces and cities in the area of responsibility of each official respectively all military units
and their places of garrison under each army commander (also depicted in accompanying
graphical visualisations [see fig. 4]).16 Along similar lines, Byzantine officials in the 9th and
10th century compiled hierarchical lists (in Greek called taktikon from “taxis” – “order,
arrangement”) of the civil and especially functionaries of their time, with their respective
(geographical) areas of responsibility (and their court rank).17
Equally the spatial organisation of the Church since the 4th century was based on the Late
Roman imperial administrative divisions – with a hierarchy of Patriarchs (since the 5th century,
five, in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem), metropolitans (for every
province) and bishops (for every civitas/polis) [see fig. 5]. This ecclesiastical hierarchy was
understood as effigy of the celestial one and written down in lists (equally called “taxis”)
registering the metropolitan sees according to their rank, and below each metropolitan see its
suffragan bishoprics, in return according to their rank within the metropolitan province. Thus,
ecclesiastical space was also organized in lists of landmarks (episcopal sees), which were
connected through ‘routes’ of hierarchy one had to follow for questions of jurisdiction or
appellation. 18
14 Downs –Stea, Maps in Minds 47-55, 77, 119-144; T. Campbell, Portolan Charts from the Late Thirteenth
Century to 1500, in: J. B. Harley – D. Woodward (eds.), The History of Cartography, Volume 1: Cartography in
Prehistoric, Ancient, and Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean. Chicago 1987, 371-463. esp. 376-378, 439446; A. Ramin, Symbolische Raumorientierung und kulturelle Identität. Leitlinien der Entwicklung in erzählenden
Texten vom Mittelalter bis zur Neuzeit. Munich 1994, 37, 50-52; Brodersen, Terra Cognita 54-58, 94, 165-180;
A. Landwehr, Historische Diskursanalyse. Frankfurt – New York 2008, 111, 116-117, 121.
15 E. Honigmann, Le Synecdèmos d'Hiéroclès et l'opuscule géographique de Georges de Chypre. Brussels 1939.
Cf. also On the spatial organisation of the Empire in the East
from the 4th to the 6th cent. cf. esp. D. P. Drakoulis, E periphereiake organose ton oikismon tes Anatolikes Romaïkes
Autokratorias kata ten proime Byzantine period (4os-6os aionas). 2 Vol.s, Thessalonike 2010.
16 C. Neira Faleira, La Notitia dignitatum. Nueva edición crítica y comentario histórico. Madrid 2005. Cf. also
17 N. Oikonomides, Les listes de préséance byzantines des IXe et Xe siècles. Paris 1972.
18 J. Darrouzès, Notitiae episcopatuum Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae: texte critique, introduction et notes. Paris
1981; W. Selb, Orientalisches Kirchenrecht, Band I: Die Geschichte des Kirchenrechts der Nestorianer (von den
Anfängen bis zur Mongolenzeit). Vienna 1981, 58-59, 118-134, 192-203; W. Selb, Orientalisches Kirchenrecht,
Band II: Die Geschichte des Kirchenrechts der Westsyrer (von den Anfängen bis zur Mongolenzeit). Vienna 1989,
189-190, 198-200, 211-219, 227-235; J. Preiser-Kapeller, Der Episkopat im späten Byzanz. Ein Verzeichnis der
Metropoliten und Bischöfe des Patriarchats von Konstantinopel in der Zeit von 1204 bis 1453. Saarbrücken 2008,
IX-X, XII-XVIII (with sources).
Socio-spatial arrangements
But both the imperial taktika of the 9th and 10th century or the ecclesiastical lists were less about
geographical, but social relations. They were mainly used to document differences of rank
among state and church dignitaries in official encounters at the imperial court or in ecclesiastical
assemblies; in return, these differences had a twofold spatial dimension: the position of rank
allocated to a dignitary partly depended on the relative significance of the province or city in
his area of responsibility within the framework of the empire or the church. On the other hand,
this rank became manifest in the relative spatial proximity of the dignitary to the emperor in
court ceremonials or to the patriarch during liturgy, for instance (and of course, state and church
hierarchies intermingled on many occasions, again with specific rules).19 In contrast to the ideal
of the stability of the imperial and ecclesiastical order of the world (and maybe also in contrast
to the modern image of stagnation often connected with notions of “Byzantinism”20) the
existence of several of these lists (four imperial taktika from the years 842 [or 812/813], 899,
934/944 and 971/975; 21 lists of bishoprics between the 7th and 15th century) indicates the
dynamics of these socio-spatial arrangements. And even at the time of their compilation these
lists were not set in stone; actual individual influence and hierarchical position of officials
depended on the politics of respective emperors and the strength of networks of patronage and
support (see also below).21
Up to a certain degree, also the relations between the Empire and neighbouring polities within
the general ideological framework of imperial domination of the known and habitable world
(the “Oikoumene”) were organised along these lines.22 Franz Dölger and other scholars have
established the notion of a “family of kings” centred onto the Roman/Byzantine Emperor as
head of the Ecumene and pater familias of the (lesser) princes of various people and regions,
whose rank within the world order was expressed in graded termini of kinship towards the
emperor (“son” (teknon), [younger] “brother” (adelphos) or “friend” (philos), the later terminus
for non-Christian rulers).23 Constellations of fictitious kinship relations had been used since
early antiquity, equally to symbolize the precedence among rulers; Roman Emperors and the
Great Kings of Persia (the only neighbouring monarch considered on [more or less] equal,
“imperial” level with the Emperor in Rome or Constantinople) for example called each other
brothers (see also below).24 The concept of a “family of kings” as something like a foreignpolicy “doctrine” Dölger mainly derived from a list of addressees of the emperor integrated by
Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (913-959) in his compilation on the Ceremonies
(De Cer. II 48) at the imperial court [see fig. 6]. But also this text is – similar to the imperial
and ecclesiastical taktika or later so-called “handbooks” of ecclesiastical diplomacy (the
Cf. O. Treitinger, Die oströmische Kaiser- und Reichsidee nach ihrer Gestaltung im höfischen Zeremoniell. Jena
1938 (Reprint Darmstadt 1956); N. Oikonomides, Title and Income at the Byzantine Court, in: H. Maguire (ed.),
Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204. Washington, D. C. 1997, 199–215.
Cf. E. W.Said, Orientalism. Western Conceptions of the Orient. London 1978; D. G. Angelov, The Making of
Oikonomides, Les listes de préséance; Darrouzès, Notitiae episcopatuum; Treitinger, Die oströmische Kaiserund Reichsidee.
For a general overview cf. J. Shepard, Byzantium´s Overlapping Circles, in: E. Jeffreys (ed.), Proceedings of
the 21st International Congress of Byzantine Studies, London, 21-26 August, 2006. Aldershot 2006, 15-55.
23 F. Dölger, Die „Familie der Könige“ im Mittelalter, in: idem, Byzanz und die europäische Staatenwelt.
Darmstadt ²1976, 34–69; Cf. also G. Ostrogorsky, Die byzantinische Staatenhierarchie. Seminarium
Kondakovianum 8 (1936) 41–61; A. Beihammer, Die Kraft der Zeichen: symbolische Kommunikation in der
byzantinischen-arabischen Diplomatie des 10. Und 10. Jahrhunderts. Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik
54 (2004) 159-189, esp. 166-167.
24 B. Dignas – E. Winter, Rome and Persia in Late Antiquity: Neighbours and Rivals. Cambridge 2007, 148–149,
with n. 149; cf. R. Cohen – R. Westbrook (eds.), Amarna Diplomacy. The Beginnings of International Relations.
Baltimore, London 2000, esp. K. Avruch, Reciprocity, Equality, and Status-Anxiety in the Amarna Letters (154–
164), and Ch. Jönsson, Diplomatic Signaling in the Amarna-Letters (191–204); G. Schmalzbauer, Überlegungen
zur Idee der Oikumene in Byzanz, in: Wiener Byzantinistik und Neogräzistik, ed. W. Hörandner et al. Vienna
2004, 408-419; Koder, Die räumlichen Vorstellungen der Byzantiner von der Ökumene 15–34.
Ekthesis nea from 1386) – a snap-shot of an attempt of “bookkeeping” of the customs of the
imperial chancellery at a specific time under specific geo-political circumstances.25 More stable
than actual hierarchies were the underlying principles of socio-spatial arrangements: again, the
degree of fictitious kinship allocated to a prince very much depended on the relative
significance of his realm for the imperial politics at that time (in the list of Constantine VII the
highest-ranking “sons” of the emperor were the most powerful Christian rulers nearest to the
imperial borders: the Emperor of Bulgaria, the King of Greater Armenia and the Prince of the
Alans in the north-western Caucasus). The rank of these rulers became equally manifest in the
relative spatial proximity of their representatives to the emperor in court ceremonials, as
Liutprand of Cremona as ambassador of Emperor Otto I had to learn when the envoys of the
Bulgarian Emperor were allotted places at the table nearer to Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas
(963-969) than him.26
The dynamic social framework of spatial arrangements becomes equally visible in another work
written by Emperor Constantine VII, the so-called “De administrando imperio”, where the
“primary focus is on peoples rather than territories, or peoples as the identifiers of the territories
they occupy” (thus following ancient traditions of geography often equalling ethnography27).
Even more, the text is an advice to his son and successor (Romanos II) on which “nations are
useful and dangerous to the empire, and how to use them against each other”, thus how to
establish and maintain social relations with these peoples and their rulers and how to manipulate
them for the benefit of the empire. As Paul Magdalino has analysed, the emphasis on the
“potential for imperial intervention and domination” also very much determined the selection
of people and regions described in the text. Thus for the Balkans one can find for instance longer
passages on the Serbs and the Croatians, but very few reference to the much more important
and powerful (and therefore less susceptible to Byzantine intervention) Bulgarians; the same
holds true for the relatively long chapters on the “smaller” Armenian princedoms at the Eastern
frontier in contrast to the still threatening Islamic polities in Iraq, Syria and Egypt. This selective
perspective of “De administrando imperio” has even led some scholars to the assumption that
the Byzantine Empire in the time of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos had renounced the
Roman imperial agenda of dominion over the entire habitable world in favour of a “limited
Ecumene”, especially with regard to the former Roman territories of the Western Mediterranean
(which are equally not very present in the text). But “De administrando imperio” should be read
(together with other strategic “handbooks” of the time) more as a further piece of evidence of
the pragmatic and dynamic handling of current political and geo-spatial conditions by
Byzantine imperial politics, which at least theoretically did not negate the traditional concept
of an imperium sine fine.28 When circumstances changed in the second half of the 10th century,
25 Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies in 2 volumes transl. by A. Moffatt – M. Tall, with the
Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorium Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829). Canberra 2012, II 48: 686-692. Cf.
also B. Martin-Hisard, Constantinople et les archontes caucasiens dans le Livre de cérémonies, II, 48. Travaux et
Mémoires 13 (2000) 359–530, and J. Preiser-Kapeller, Eine „Familie der Könige“? Anrede und Bezeichnung von
sowie Verhandlungen mit ausländischen Machthabern in den Urkunden des Patriarchatsregisters von
Konstantinopel im 14. Jh., in: Ch. Gastgeber – E. Mitsiou – J. Preiser-Kapeller (eds.), The Register of the
Patriarchate of Constantinople. A central source to the History and Church in Late Byzantium. Vienna 2013, 253–
285; O. Kresten, Der „Anredestreit“ zwischen Manuel I. Komnenos und Friedrich I. Barbarossa nach der Schlacht
von Myriokephalon. Römisch-Historische Mitteilungen 34/35 (1992/1993 [1993]) 65–110; Beihammer, Die Kraft
der Zeichen 166-167.
26 Liutprandi Episcopi Cremonensis Opera, ed. J. Becker. Hannover – Leipzig 1915 (reprint 1993), Legatio XVIIIXIX: 185-186. For an English translation:
27 Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperii, ed. by G. Moravcsik, trad. R. J. H. Jenkins (Corpus
Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 1). Washington, D.C., 1967 (Reprint Washington, D.C., 1985). Cf. K. E. Müller,
Geschichte der antiken Ethnographie und ethnologischen Theoriebildung von den Anfängen bis auf die
byzantinischen Historiographen (Studien zur Kulturkunde 29). I–II. Wiesbaden 1972–1980.
28 B. Kutaba-Deliboria, O geographikos kosmos Konstantinou tou Porphyrogennetou. 2 Vols., Athens 1993; P.
Magdalino, Constantine VII and the Historical Geography of Empire, in: S. Bazzaz – Y. Batsaki – D. Angelov
for instance, the emperors mobilized enormous military and diplomatic resources to “reintegrate” the (temporarily competing) Empire of the Bulgarians into the Basileia ton
Authorities, networks and peripheries
The spatial extent and the density of imperial power thus very much depended on the range,
quality and quantity of the social networks established, maintained and modified between the
imperial centre (the Emperor, his entourage and the central administrative apparatus) and the
holders of power at the “periphery” (and from an Byzantine point of view, this periphery started
right beyond the city walls of Constantinople, see below) across the Ecumene. Karen Barkey
has highlighted this as a general aspect of imperial frameworks in the pre-modern period in her
book on the Ottomans:
“Empire (…) is about political authority relations (as well as many other transactions)
between a central power and many diverse and differentiated entities. (…) the imperial
state does not have complete monopoly of power in the territory under control. It shares
control with a variety of intermediate organizations and with local elites, religious and
local governing bodies, and numerous other privileged institutions. To rule over vast
expanses of territory, as well as to ensure military and administrative cooperation,
imperial states negotiate and willingly relinquish some degree of autonomy. No matter
how strong an empire is, it has to work with peripheries, local elites, and frontier groups
to maintain compliance, resources, tribute, and military cooperation, and to ensure
political coherence and durability.”30
Thus, even within the territories coloured in pink on our maps, we have to reckon with different
strengths and qualities of imperial networks and different densities of imperial power; the actual
presence and authority of the imperial regime depended on regional conditions with regard to
socio-economic frameworks as well as to topographies and ecologies – and on imperial
decisions and strategies how and how much power could or should be exerted, also on the basis
of a cost-benefit-analysis (e. g., if it was worth the effort to try to forcibly integrate
independently-minded transhumant groups in remote, unproductive and at the same time uncontrollable mountain or semi-desert areas, as Byzantium could find them at its frontiers in the
Near East as well as within core regions in the Balkans or in Anatolia, into the full framework
of imperial taxation and administration).31 And even within the administrative system, various
and sometimes competing networks were at work, as John Haldon has stated; it
(eds.), Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space. Cambridge, Mass. – London 2013, 23–42; D.
Angelov, “Asia and Europe Commonly called East and West”. Constantinople and Geographical Imagination in
Byzantium, in: S. Bazzaz – Y. Batsaki – D. Angelov (eds.), Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman
Space. Cambridge, Mass. – London 2013, 45; Koder, Die räumlichen Vorstellungen der Byzantiner von der
Ökumene (also on the debate on a “limited Ecumene”); T. G. Lounghis, Die byzantinische Ideologie der
“begrenzten Ökumene” und die römische Frage im ausgehenden 10. Jahrhundert, in: Stephanos. Studia byzantine
ac slavica Vladimíro Vavřinek ad annnum sexagesimum quantum dedicate (= Byzantinoslavica 56). Prague 1995,
117-128. For the citation cf. Virgil, Aeneid I, 278-279.
Cf. Strässle, Krieg und Kriegführung in Byzanz; P. M. Strässle, Krieg und Frieden in Byzanz. Österreichische
Militärische Zeitschrift 6/2006; Shepard, Byzantium´s Overlapping Circles 20-21, also on the ideological
implications of the conquest of the Bulgarian Empire.
30 K. Barkey, Empire of Difference The Ottomans in Comparative Perspective. Cambridge 2008, 9–10.
31 For such considerations in imperial Rome cf. S. James, Rome and the Sword. How warriors and weapons
shaped Roman History. London 2011, 144-145. Cf. also L- Neville, Authority in Byzantine Provincial Society,
950-1100. Cambridge 2004. For the imperial politics towards the inhabitants of the mountainous region of Isauria
in south-eastern Asia Minor cf. for instance K. Feld, Barbarische Bürger. Die Isaurier und das Römische Reich.
Berlin 2005. For the Balkans cf. P. Stephenson, Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier. A Political Study of the Northern
Balkans, 900–1204. Cambridge 2000. In general on such “cost-benefit-analyses” with regard to further imperial
expansion cf. also U. Menzel, Die Ordnung der Welt. Imperium oder Hegemonie in der Hierarchie der Staatenwelt.
Berlin 2015, 43 and 63; H. Münkler, Imperien. Die Logik der Weltherrschaft – vom Alten Rom bis zu den
“was a patrimonial network of concentric circles of clientage and patronage,
concentrated around the imperial court and, more importantly, around the person of the
emperors and their immediate family or entourage. Efforts to understand Byzantine
ranks as represented in official titles, for example, will not grasp the dynamics of this
set of relationships until the paramount role of the individual emperors in selecting or
rejecting imperial officials, and of individual office-holders and their personal and
family ties and networks, has been grasped. Attempts to build up a “logical” system of
precedence, in which each position is neatly related to those above and below it
according to modern notions of order and system, are doomed to misrepresent the
realities of Byzantine culture and patterns of social power.”32
Yet, such networks were not only limiting imperial power; ties of patronage, spiritual kinship
or authority based on religion or ideology could range far beyond the pink territories. For a
comparative case, Jonathan Karam Skaff has highlighted in his book on “Sui-Tang China and
its Turko-Mongol neighbors that “patrons, clients, and allies of various ethnicities could engage
in informal, mutually acceptable, reciprocal relationships because there were widely shared
values and expectations regarding political networking throughout Eastern Eurasia (…) it
offered the utilitarian advantage of extending a Sui-Tang emperor´s power to spaces within a
large multi-ethnic empire that were beyond the reach of bureaucratic control.”33 We will see
below how similar how similar mechanisms were used at the Byzantine frontier in the East
especially vis-à-vis the Armenians, for instance.
Finally, Charles S. Maier has summed up the significance of socio-spatial arrangements and the
dynamics between centre and periphery for any imperial framework – with a focus on the
inherent inequalities of such arrangements:
„Empires thus are about inequality across a spatial domain; call this horizontal
domination. Empires are large enough to have differentiated territories that include a
center and a perimeter, metropole and periphery. But empire is also about vertical
domination. It helps keep certain groups wealthy and powerful, and it recruits others by
birth or talent to become wealthy and powerful. And it helps assure this inequality within
each territorial component. An empire is thus an arrangement, whether negotiated
voluntarily or by force, in which elites in the so-called periphery accept the ultimate
control of elites in the metropole in return for securing their own local domination. The
security sought can be against outside rivals and domestic subversives, or both
simultaneously. Empires thus rest on collaborators, but they are not alliances of equals,
but rather structures of inequality, both inside their homeland and within the imperial
structure as a whole.”34
Thus, the spatial extent and intensity of imperial rule depended on the range and stability of
networks of patronage, authority and loyalty across various scales from the local up to the
“global” level within and beyond “official” borders; on all these levels, elite groups had
(depending on the scale of the engagement of the imperial centre, more or less) room to
negotiate the actual quantity and quality of their integration into the imperial project.
Vereinigten Staaten. Berlin 2005, 112-117 and 172-183 (see also the English translation: H. Münkler, Empires:
The Logic of World Domination from Ancient Rome to the United States. Cambridge 2007).
32 Brubaker – Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era 724. For a comparative entanglement of administration,
spatial organisation and networks cf. R. Ostern, “Dividing the Realm in Order to Govern”. The Spatial
Organisation of the Song State (960-1276 CE). Cambridge, Mass. – London 2011, esp. 4-7.
33 J. K. Skaff, Sui-Tang China and its Turko-Mongol neighbors. Culture, power, and connections, 580-800.
Oxford 2012, 75 and 104.
C. S. Maier, America among Empires? Imperial Analogues and Imperial Syndrome. GHI Bulletin 41 (2007) 2131, the citation from p. 24.
Competing imperial claims and spheres
The already discussed “Family of kings” illustrates the potential for the establishment of a
wider-ranging sphere of imperial prestige and impact. The “appeal” of Byzantium could reach
widely via diplomatic and commercial activities and the diffusion of objects communicating
imperial glory (silk garments or gold coins [sometimes called the “dollar of the Middle Ages”]
with the image of the emperor, for instance) across entire Afro-Eurasia [see fig. 7].35 In the
empire´s more “immediate” neighbourhood this potential was closely connected with the
imperial role as most important and God-installed patron of the Universal Christian Church as
established under Emperor Constantine the Great.36 This Christian Ecumene grew from the 4th
to the 6th century with the adaption of this “portable religion” in Armenia, Georgia, Caucasian
Albania, Axum (modern-day Ethiopia) or Nubia, often with active support from the Empire
[see fig. 8].37 Yet this universality was challenged especially during the 5th-7th century, when
the debate on the relationship between divine and human nature in Jesus Christ led to the
emergence of ecclesiastical communities distinct from the imperial “orthodox” mainstream
especially in the richest provinces in the East (Syria, Egypt) and in Armenia. But in contrast to
the texts of various zealots on both sides, we have ample evidence that even after the loss of all
these territories to the Arabs in the 7th cent., Christians beyond the frontiers of the Empire were
referring to the Emperor in Constantinople as most important Christian ruler on earth; and those
communities still in dogmatic agreement with the Byzantine Church were even called the
followers of the emperor (or “king” = Arab. malik; the “Melkites”). Garth Fowden has proposed
(in a development of earlier concepts of Dimiter Obolensky, see below) to call this “group of
politically discrete but related” communities and polities (from Axum in East Africa to the
Caucasus) with a “shared culture and history” a “Commonwealth”, in which Byzantium served
as model of a Christian polity and as attractor and propagator of Christian learning; this includes
elements of “soft power”, which could compensate for a lack of “hard power” (in terms of
military or economic muscle). But while Fowden lets this “First Byzantine Commonwealth”
end with the Arab conquests of the 7th century, the appeal of the Christian Roman Empire also
beyond the new borders in the Near East (“for most of the conquered Christians still the
legitimate political entity, the centre out there with which they had not entirely severed their
Cf. for instance M. P. Canepa, Distant Displays of Power. Understanding Cross-Cultural Interaction among the
Elites of Rome, Sasanian Iran, and Sui–Tang China. Ars Orientalis 38 (2010) 121–154; A. Cutler, Gifts and Gift
Exchange as Aspects of the Byzantine, Arab, and Related Economies. Dumbarton Oaks Papers 55 (2001) 247278; F. Daim, Byzantine belts and Avar birds. Diplomacy, trade and cultural transfer in the eighth Century, in:
Pohl, W. – Wood, I. – Reimitz, H. (eds.), The Transformation of Frontiers. Leiden 2001, 143–188; D. Jacoby, Silk
Economics and Cross-Cultural Artistic Interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West.
Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004) 197-240; J. Preiser-Kapeller, Peaches to Samarkand. Long distanceconnectivity, small worlds and socio-cultural dynamics across Afro-Eurasia, 300-800 CE. Working paper for the
workshop “Linking the Mediterranean. Regional and Trans-Regional Interactions in Times of Fragmentation (300800 CE)”, Vienna, 11th-13th December 2014 (online:;
with further literature). On the prestige connected to the quality of the Byzantine gold coins (“nomisma”) up to the
11th century, when a severe debasement occurred cf. Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy, esp.
506-510 (on the debasement); C. Morrison, Byzantine Money: Its Production and Circulation, in: A. E. Laiou
(ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium. 3 Vols., Washington, D.C. 2002, esp. 931–933; C. Caplanis, The
Debasement of the “Dollar of the Middle Ages”. The Journal of Economic History 63/3 (2003) 768–801, als on
the differentiation between “devaluations of expansion” (due to economic growth and the increased demand in
coinage) and those that result from a crisis.
Cf. G. Dagron, Emperor and Priest. The Imperial Office in Byzantium. Cambridge 2003.
Cf. for instance E. H. Seland, Trade and Christianity in the Indian Ocean during Late Antiquity. Journal of Late
Antiquity 5, 1 (Spring 2012) 72-86; J. Signes Codoñer, New Alphabets for the Christian Nations: frontier strategies
in the Byzantine Commonwealth between the 4th and 10th centuries, in: in A. de Francisco Heredero - D. Hernández
de la Fuente (eds.), New Perspectives on the Late Roman Eastern Empire. Newcastle upon Tyne 2014, 116-163,
also on the significance of the emergence of “Christian” alphabets and Christian literatures among the peoples in
this sphere
mental bonds”) may allow us to claim its continued existence, although Byzantium lost its
political hegemony within this sphere.38
Imperial politics and missionary work led to the rise of further Christian people of Byzantine
traditions especially in the Slavic world of South-eastern and Eastern Europe from the 9th
century onwards, who – despite all political conflicts (as between Byzantium and Bulgaria, for
instance) maintained strong spiritual and ideological connections to the political and
ecclesiastical centre in Constantinople. D. Obolensky has called this new emerging sphere of
impact and influence the “Byzantine Commonwealth”, which in Fowden´s interpretation would
be a “Second Byzantine Commonwealth”39 [see fig. 8]; in any case, in later centuries the
reference to these people and territories under the spiritual (and partly also still political)
guidance of Emperor and Patriarch served as a proof for the “ecumenical” importance of the
imperial person (in compensation for the shrinking territorial extent of full imperial power) also
in the confrontation with the Papacy and the renewed Empire of Rome in the West. “Soft
power” thus had replaced “hard power” – although the almost total lack of the latter affected
also the efficiency of the first, as the often cited example of the cancellation of the name of the
Byzantine emperor from commemoration in the liturgy by Great Prince Vasilij I of Moscow in
1393, when the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans seemed to be immediate, illustrates).
Finally, from this circle of Byzantium´s sphere of influence would also emerge an Empire
somehow considering itself the legitimate successor of the Christian New Rome: the Russian
After the deposition of the last Roman Emperor in Italy in 476 by the Germanic general
Odoacer, the western territories of the Imperium Roman theoretically fell under the authority
of the remaining emperor in Constantinople; this was also formally acknowledged by Odoacer
himself and other rulers of the emerging new kingdoms.41 With the “re-conquest” under
Emperor Justinian in the 530-550s, Italy, North Africa and Southern Spain came under actual
control of the Empire once more. Although large parts of Italy were lost to the Lombards soon
after Justinian’s death (565) and North Africa in its entirety to the Arabs in the late 7th century,
Byzantium´s presence in Italy (Ravenna, Rome, Naples, Sicily – and Venice) remained strong.
Equally, until the 8th century the emperor remained the highest-ranking political point of
reference both for the Pope in Rome and the Christian kings of the West (a further “Byzantine
Commonwealth”, maybe).42 Only with the loss of Ravenna and the control over Rome in the
For an overview cf. Ph. Wood, Christians in the Middle East, 600-1000: Conquest, Competition and Conversion,
in: A. C. S. Peacock – B. De Nicola – S. Nur Yıldız (eds.), Islam and Christianity in Medieval Anatolia. Farnham
2015, 23–50; A. Papaconstantinou, Between Umma and Dhimma. The Christians in the Middle East under the
Umayyads. Annales islamologiques 42 (2008) 127-156, esp. 143 (for the citation). For the concepts of
Commonwealth cf. G. Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth: Consequences of Monotheism in Late Antiquity.
Cambridge, Mass. – London 1994; Signes Codoñer, New Alphabets for the Christian Nations 116-163; Shepard,
Byzantium´s Overlapping Circles. On the significance of “soft power” and concepts of hegemony cf. Menzel, Die
Ordnung der Welt 51-54, 58-59.
D. Obolensky, The Byzantine Commonwealth. Eastern Europe 500–1453. London 2000 (originally published
in 1971); Shepard, Byzantium´s Overlapping Circles 17-28 (speaking about Byzantium´s “First Circle”); Fowden,
Empire to Commonwealth; Signes Codoñer, New Alphabets for the Christian Nations
Shepard, Byzantium´s Overlapping Circles; Preiser-Kapeller, Familie der Könige. On the affair of the
commemoration of the emperor in Moscow cf. Miklosisch-Müller II, 191, nr. 447; Darrouzès, Reg. Nr. 2931; J.
Meyendorff, Byzantium and the Rise of Russia. A Study of Byzantino-Russian Relations in the Fourteenth
Century. New York 1989, 254-257. On the actual complexity of the development of imperial concepts in Moscow
see D. Ostrowski, Muscovy and the Mongols. Cross-Cultural Influences on the Steppe Frontier, 1304–1589.
Cambridge 1999, and idem, "Moscow the Third Rome" as Historical Ghost, in: H. C. Evans (ed.), Byzantium:
faith and power (1261-1557). New Haven, Conn. 2004, 170-179.
T. C. Lounghis, Les ambassades byzantines en Occident depuis la fondation des états barbares jusquʼ aux
Croisades (407–1096). Athen´s 1980; Shepard, Byzantium´s Overlapping Circles 40-53.
Th. F. X. Noble, The Republic of St. Peter: The Birth of the Papal State, 680–825. Philadelphia 1984; A. J.
Ekonomou, Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes: Eastern Influences on Rome and the Papacy from Gregory the
mid-8th century and the rise of the power of the Franks under the Carolingians, Byzantium´s
position in the West was significantly weakened and finally challenged in an unprecedented
way with the coronation of Charlemagne as Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in 800
[see fig. 9].43 Constantinople sometimes (and again pragmatically) was prepared to accept the
use of the imperial title as personal rank attribute by Charlemagne and succeeding “emperors”
in the West with regard to their allowedly significant power as rulers over several people (as
later in the case of Simeon of Bulgaria [893-927]44; in Constantine VII´s “De administrando
imperio” we read: “This Charles was sole ruler (monokrator) over all kingdoms (rhegata) and
ruled like an emperor (ebasileuse) over the big realm of the Franks (megale Phrangia). At this
time, no one of the other kings (rheges) dared to call himself King (rhex), but all were his vasalls
(hypospondoi).” But it was beyond the pale to accept him as “Emperor of the Romans” at an
equal level with the emperor in Constantinople and with the same share in the management of
the Christian Ecumene.45 Relying on the same basis of Roman-Christian traditions46, the
ideological conflict between the Roman Emperors in Constantinople and their counterparts in
the “Holy Roman Empire” of the West simmered until the very end of Byzantium (and even
beyond).47 It was even more intensified when the disputes over the jurisdictional spheres (in
Southern Italy and South-eastern and Central Europe) as well as dogmatic issues between the
Papacy and the Byzantine Church led to an increasing alienation, culminating in the so-called
“Schism of 1054” (which had less definite character for the contemporaries than for later
commentators) and especially in the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 by the army of the
Fourth Crusade.48
“The two eyes of the earth”: diplomacy and confrontation in the East
On the contrast to the conflict with the “re-vitalised” Empire in the West, we have several
examples through the centuries that at least some members of the Roman/Byzantine elites if not
Great to Zacharias, A.D. 590–752. Lanham, MD 2007; Cl. Gantner, Freunde Roms und Völker der Finsternis. Die
Konstruktion von Anderen im päpstlichen Rom des 8. und 9. Jahrhunderts. Vienna – Cologne – Weimar 2014.
W. Norden, Das Papsttum und Byzanz. Die Trennung der beiden Mächte und das Problem der
Wiedervereinigung bis zum Untergang des byzantinischen Reichs. Berlin 1903; P. Classen, Karl der Große, das
Papsttum und Byzanz. Die Begründung des karolingischen Kaisertums. Nach dem Handexemplar des Verfassers
ed. H. Fuhrmann – C. Märtl (Beiträge zur Geschichte und Quellenkunde des Mittelalters 9). Sigmaringen 1985; J.
Fried. Karl der Große. Gewalt und Glaube. Munich ³2014, 462-495 and 508-516, also on Charlemagne´s exchange
of embassies with the Caliphate.
D. Nerlich, Diplomatische Gesandtschaften zwischen Ost- und Westkaisern 756–1002. Bern et al. 1999.
Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperii (ed. Moravcsik – Jenkins) c. 26, lns. 5-8: 108-109;
Nerlich, Diplomatische Gesandtschaften.
Cf. R. Folz, L’idée d’empire en occident du Ve au XIVe siècle. Aubier 1953; H.-W. Goetz, Art. Kaiser,
Kaisertum, I. Westen. Lexikon des Mittelalters 5, 851-853.
R.-J. Lilie, Das „Zweikaiserproblem“ und sein Einfluß auf die Außenpolitik der Komnenen. Byzantinische
Forschungen 9 (1985) 219–243; Kresten, Der “Anredestreit” zwischen Manuel I. Komnenos und Friedrich I.
Barbarossa. On the continuation of these disputes into the Ottoman period cf. for instance M. Köhbach, Çasar oder
imperator? – Zur Titulatur der römischen Kaiser durch die Osmanen nach dem Vertrag von Zsitvatorok (1606).
Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 82 (1992) 223–234.
A. Bayer, Spaltung der Christenheit: das sogenannte Morgenländische Schisma von 1054. Cologne – Vienna
2002; H. Chadwick, East and West: The Making of a Rift in the Church. From Apostolic Times until the Council
of Florence (Oxford History of the Christian Church). Oxford 2003; T. M. Kolbaba, The Byzantine Lists – Errors
of the Latins (Illinois Medieval Studies). Urbana–Chicago 2000; Shepard, Byzantium´s Overlapping Circles 4953; idem, , Aspects of Byzantine Attitudes and Policy towards the West in the Tenth and Eleventh Century, in: J.
Howard-Johnston (Hrsg.), Proceedings of the XVIIIth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies (Byzantinische
Forschungen 13). Amsterdam 1988, 67–118. Cf. also H. Hunger, Graecus perfidus – Italos itamos. Il senso
dell’alterità nei rapporti greco-romani ed italo-bizantini. Rome 1987; E. Kislinger, Von Drachen und anderem
wilden Getier. Fremdenfeindlichkeit in Byzanz?, in: Laetae segetes iterum, ed. Radová. Brno 2008, 389-404; J.
Koder, Zum Bild des „Westens“ bei den Byzantinern in der frühen Komnenenzeit, in: E.-D. Hehl – H. Seibert –
F. Staab (eds.), Deus qui mutat tempora. Menschen und Institutionen im Wandel des Mittelalters. Sigmaringen
1987, 191–201.
the imperial centre itself were prepared to perceive their imperial rivals to the East as empires
on an (more or less) equal footing. Already Tacitus referred to the Iranian Empire of the
Parthians as second “maximum imperium” and Flavius Josephus wrote about the “two greatest
dominions under the sun”.49 Later authors developed this into a model of special responsibility
of these two empires for the maintenance of the order of the world. The 6th century author Petros
Patrikios has a Persian ambassador on the occasion of the Roman-Persian peace negotiations in
299 say: “It is obvious for all mankind that the Roman and the Persian Empires are just like
two lamps; and it is necessary that, like eyes, the one is brightened by the light of the other and
that they do not angrily strive for each other’s destruction.”50 Theophylaktos Simokattes (7th
cent.) transmits the following passage from a letter of the Sasanian Great King Xusrō II. to
Emperor Maurikios, to be dated to the year 589: “God saw to it that the whole world would be
lit up from above and from the beginning by two eyes, namely by the most powerful Roman
Empire and by the wisest rulers of the Persian state. For by these greatest powers the
disobedient and bellicose nations are winnowed, and man’s way of life is well ordered and
always guided.”; and the Great King´s ambassadors added: “For one power alone is not able to
shoulder the immense burden of taking care of the organisation of the universe and one man’s
pulse is not able to steer everything created under the sun.” 51 Interesting enough, both
Byzantine authors put these ideas into the mouth of representatives of the Persian Empire, as if
it were more acceptable to hear such potentially disturbing thoughts about a co-existence of two
empires from the other side. With similar metaphors the Constantinopolitan Patriarch Nikolaos
I Mystikos in 913/914 tried to propose an ideological basis for a co-existence of both the
Empires of the Romans and of the Arabs in a letter to Caliph al-Muqtadir (913/914): „I mean,
that there are two lordships, that of the Saracens and that of the Romans, which stand above
all lordship on earth, and shine out like the two mighty beacons in the firmament. They ought,
for this very reason alone, to be in contact and brotherhood and not, because we differ in our
lives and habits and religion, remain alien in all ways to each other.”52 Although we have not
proof neither that such words were actually used by the Persian ambassadors in the 3rd or 6th
century nor that the letter of Patriarch Nikolaos I was sent to Baghdad in the form transmitted
to us, the habit that Emperor and Great King in the 4th-7th century called each other “brother”
in diplomatic exchange at least hints at notions of an equality of rank.53 Also in his letter to the
Abbasid Caliph Patriarch Nikolaos I writes about the Emperor and the Caliph as “brothers
superior to and preferred above their brethren, and entrusted with the administration of the
greatest rules and authorities”.54 Yet, as we have seen, in the addresses to foreign potentates
collected in the “Book of Ceremonies” at a slightly later time, we find metaphors of kinship in
the 10th century applied exclusively on rulers of Christian believe, while Muslim potentates are
only called “friends” of the emperor.55 However, within the Christian “family of kings” there
was place also only for one “pater familias” – the emperor. On the contrast, beyond this
For the limits of Roman expansion towards the Parthian and later Sasanian realm cf. also James, Rome and the
Sword 141-143 and 204-211; B. H. Isaac, The limits of empire: the Roman army in the East. Oxford 2000.
50 Peter the Patrician, frg. 13–14; transl. Dignas – Winter, Rome and Persia 122-123. On these concepts cf. now
esp. M. P. Canepa, Two Eyes of the Earth: Competition and Exchange in the Art and Ritual of Kingship between
Rome and Sasanian Iran. Berkeley – Los Angeles 2010.
51 Theophylact Simocatta iv.11.2–4 and iv.13.7; transl. Dignas – Winter, Rome and Persia 238-239.
52 Nicholas I Patriarch of Constantinople, Letters, ed. and transl. R. J. H. Jenkins – L. G. Westerink (Corpus
Fontium Historiae Byzantinae VI). Washington D. C. 1973, Letter I: 2, lns. 16-21 and 3 (transl.); Beihammer, Die
Kraft der Zeichen 164-165.
53 Dignas – Winter, Rome and Persia 232-241. From the Arab literature one gets the impression that some Caliphs
considered themselves the heirs and replacement of all world empires such as Rome, Persia, the Turkish Khanate,
China or India, cf. El-Cheikh, Byzantium viewed by the Arabs 85-86.
54 Nicholas I, Letters (ed. Jenkins – Westerink), Letter I: 2, lns. 14-15 and 3 (transl.); Shepard, Byzantium´s
Overlapping Circles 33.
Beihammer, Die Kraft der Zeichen 170-171. Cf. also A. Beihammer, Reiner Christlicher König – Pistos en
Christō Basileus. Byzantinische Zeitschrift 95 (2002) 1-34.
immediate Christian Ecumene, “a Sasanian ‘King of kings’ [or an Arab “Caliph of the Prophet
Mohammed” and “Commander of the Believers” of Islam] could be acknowledged and
respected by a Roman emperor as a much honoured equal, and this status was not” a threat to
the universal claims of the world power Rome”56 as it was by another self-styled Emperor of
the Romans in the West (a “third eye of the earth”?57) [see fig. 9].
Again, the letter of Nikolaos I was written under specific circumstances – the Caliphate was no
longer the mortal threat to very existence of the Byzantine Empire as in the 7th and 8th century,
when Arab armies tried twice to conquer Constantinople and to annihilate the Empire of the
Romans, which received “a unique place in Islamic demonology”, as last step towards a
realisation of the promise given to the Prophet Muhammad that all mankind would be integrated
into the umma of the Islam.58 Also the Christian Empire expected a unification of humanity
under the sign of the Cross; the Empire was equated with the chosen people, Constantinople
became not only the New Rome, but since the beginning of the 6th century also the New
Jerusalem.59 Within the Byzantine “Reichseschatologie”, as Podskalsky has called it, the
Roman Empire was normally identified with the fourth beast and equated with the katechon,
“the withholding power” from the second letter to the Thessalonians (2 Thess 2, 7); accordingly,
the Imperium Romanum would be the only Empire which would exist until the Last Judgement.
As it became clear that for the time being Constantinople and the Empire would not fall into
the hands of the Muslims, this interpretation again became popular, as we can see in the
Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, composed in Syriac in the last decade of the 7th century. In
that text this apocalyptic interpretation was combined with the hope that a Roman Emperor
from the West (“the King of the Greeks” as he is also called in the Syriac text of PseudoMethodius60) would defeat the Muslims and liberate the Christians of the East.61 When his
armies in turn were on advance in the east, Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas in 966/967 in a letter
threatened the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad not only to re-conquer all former Roman territories
56 Dignas – Winter, Rome and Persia 241; cf. also A. Papacconstantinou, Confrontation, interaction, and the
formation of the early Islamic Oikumene. Revue des études byzantines 63 (2005) 167-181.
Cf. Fried. Karl der Große, 462-495 and 508-516, on Charlemagne´s exchange of embassies with the Caliphate,
which may hint at an attempt of compete with Constantinople for the position of the “Christian” eye of the earth,
see also M. McCormick, Charlemagne's Survey of the Holy Land. Wealth, Personnel, and Buildings of a
Mediterranean Church between Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Harvard 2011.
N. M El-Cheikh, Byzantium viewed by the Arabs (Harvard Middle Eastern Monographs 36). Cambridge, Mass.
– London 2004, 60-71; Shepard, Byzantium´s Overlapping Circles 31 (for the citation); Papaconstantinou,
Between Umma and Dhimma 141-142.
59 Cf. Dagron, Emperor and Priest 4 and 97; P. Magdalino, The Year 1000 in Byzantium, in: idem (ed.), Byzantium
in the Year 1000 (The Medieval Mediterranean. Peoples, Economies and Cultures 400-1500, Vol. 45), Leiden –
Boston 2003: 233–270, esp. 243 and 255, also on the “apocalyptic” relevance of Constantinople. Cf. also A.
Külzer, Konstantinopel in der apokalyptischen Literatur der Byzantiner. Jahrbuch der Österreichischen
Byzantinistik 50 (2000) 51-76.
60 W. Brandes, Die Belagerung Konstantinopels 717/718 als apokalyptisches Ereignis. Zu einer Interpolation im
griechischen Text der Pseudo-Methodios-Apokalypse, in: K. Belke – E. Kislinger – A. Külzer – M. A.
Stassinopoulou (eds.), Byzantina Mediterranea. Festschrift für Johannes Koder zum 65. Geburtstag, Vienna –
Cologne – Weimar 2007: 65–91, esp. 72–73. See also O. Heilo, Seeing Eye to Eye: Islamic Universalism in the
Roman and Byzantine Worlds, 7th to 10th Centuries. Dissertation, University of Vienna 2010.
61 Apocalypse – Pseudo-Methodius An Alexandrian World Chronicle, ed. and transl B. Garstadt (Dumbarton
Oaks Medieval Library 14). Cambridge, Mass. – London 2012. Cf. in general G. Podskalsky, Byzantinische
Reichseschatologie. Die Periodisierung der Weltgeschichte in den vier Großreichen (Daniel 2 und 7) und dem
Tausendjährigen Friedensreich (Apok. 20). Eine motivgeschichtliche Untersuchung. Munich 1972, esp. 4–76; G.
J. Reinink, Heraclius, the New Alexander. Apocalyptic Prophecies during the Reign of Heraclius, in: G. J. Reinink
- B. H. Stolte (ed.), The Reign of Heraclius (610–641): Crisis and Confrontation (Groningen Studies in Cultural
Change 2), Leuven – Paris – Dudley, MA 2002, 81–94, esp. 82–83; On the Ps.-Methodius apocalypse see: H.
Möhring, Der Weltkaiser der Endzeit. Entstehung, Wandel und Wirkung einer tausendjährigen Weissagung
(Mittelalter-Forschung 3), Stuttgart 2000. 58–92 (also on the circumstances of the genesis of the Ps.-Methodius
apocalypse); Magdalino, The Year 1000, 240 and 253; Brandes, Die Belagerung Konstantinopels 81; R. G.
Hoyland, Seeing Islam As Others Saw It: A Survey and Evaluation of Christian, Jewish and Zoroastrian Writings
on Early Islam. Princeton 1997, 263–267, 294–299.
in the Near East (Syria, Egypt), but also to capture Baghdad and to devastate the Arab peninsula
including Mecca up to Yemen in order to “propagate everywhere the religion of the cross”. The
authenticity of this text is controversial, but if the emperor sent a message along these lines, he
maybe was reflecting these earlier apocalyptic expectations (in a time, when the year 1000 after
the birth of Christ was near).62
Yet despite all phantasies of annihilation, also Nikephoros II Phokas, often depicted as a grim
crusader (avant la lettre) and as an exception of the usual Byzantine refusal of any notion of
“holy war”63, followed the more pragmatic traditions of politics when circumstances made it
necessary; around the same time in 967, a Byzantine fleet was defeated by an Arab one near
Sicily. In order to stabilise the front there, the emperor had to sue for a peace treaty with the
(Shiite-Ismaelite) Fatimid Caliph al-Mu῾izz (whose claim on the Caliphate denied the rights of
the Sunni Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad), who at that time ruled over North Africa. With his
embassy, Nikephoros II sent a sword which allegedly had been owned by the Prophet
Mohammed, thus suggesting that he was prepared to acknowledge the supreme leadership of
al-Mu῾izz over the Islamic umma – and providing an advantageous entry for his envoys at the
Fatimid court.64 The Fatimids became even more important neighbours when in 969 the troops
of al-Mu῾izz conquered Egypt and he re-located his residence to the Nile, where al-Qahira ("The
Victorious" = Cairo) was founded as new imperial capital. In their further advance towards the
east, Fatimid troops also clashed with Byzantine ones in Syria, but despite several conflicts a
modus vivendi (Jonathan Shepard speaks about a “détente”) was established (also since the
Fatimids were more interested to eliminate the competing Abbasid Caliphate in Baghdad).
Again, the Byzantines were prepared to accept the superiority of the Fatimid claim also in
symbolic terms; in a peace treaty in 988 it was stipulated that in the mosque in Constantinople
the name of the Fatimid Caliph (al-‛Azīz, 975-996) should be mentioned during the Friday
prayer instead of the name of the Abbasid Caliph (as has been the case until then). The existence
of this mosque (whose beginnings can be traced back to the aftermath of the Arab siege of
717/718) within the capital of the Christian Empire was based on the principle of reciprocity,
as became evident when the Fatimid Caliph al-Hākim (996-1021) in 1009 decreed the
destruction of several churches, among these the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem,
and several measures against the Christian (and Jewish) communities in his realm. In return,
the mosque in Constantinople was closed down. Only in 1027, when a new treaty was closed
between the successor of al-Hākim, az-Zāhir, and Emperor Constantine VIII (1025-1028), the
mosque was re-opened in return for the reconstruction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and
the permission for those Christian who had compulsory had converted to Islam to return to their
former faith. The Friday prayer in Constantinople continued in the name of the Fatimid Caliph
until 1055/1056, when the Seljuks captured Baghdad and destroyed the geo-political
equilibrium between Byzantium and the Fatimids to the disadvantage of both established
62 F. Dölger, Regesten der Kaiserurkunden des oströmischen Reiches, 1. Teil, 2. Halbband. 2nd ed. new by A. E.
Müller, with A. Beihammer. Munich 2003, nr. 707i. Cf. also El-Cheikh, Byzantium viewed by the Arabs 173-178,
also for Arab reactions; Magdalino, The Year 1000 in Byzantium; Stouraitis, ‘Just War’ and ‘Holy War’ in the
Middle Ages 241. But see also Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 356-357 for a similar propagandistic letter of
Phokas´ successor John I Tzimiskes sent to the Armenian King Ašot III which aimed at a mobilisation of the
Christian rulers of the Near East for warfare against the Muslims.
Cf. Stouraitis, ‘Just War’ and ‘Holy War’ in the Middle Ages 241-250, who comes to the conclusion: “The
notion of a “holy war” against infidel enemies for the promotion of religion remained a rival idea with the
Byzantine imperial state´s ruling ideology, the resonance of which was rather marginal and confined to small
groups or individuals in certain periods.” (249).
Dölger- Müller, Regesten I/2, nr 501 a. Cf. Beihammer, Die Kraft der Zeichen 185.
St. W. Reinert, The Muslim Presence in Constantinople, 9th-15th Centuries: Some Preliminary Observations, in:
H. Ahrweiler, A. E. Laiou (eds.) Studies on the Internal Diaspora of the Byzantine Empire. Washington, D. C.
1998, 125-150; G. D. Anderson, Islamic Spaces and Diplomacy in Constantinople (Tenth to Thirteenth Centuries
C.E.). Medieval Encounters. Jewish, Christian and Muslim Culture in Confluence and Dialogue 15 (2009) 86-
Frontier-making and frontier-crossing between Byzantium and its imperial neighbours
in the East (with a focus on Armenia)
The example of the mosque in Constantinople illustrates the potential for a pragmatic
understanding between empires despite all claims on universal and exclusive dominion. The
same is true with regard to the definition of formal borders. Until the late Byzantine period, the
Emperors formally did not conclude treaties, but only granted privileges to groups and
individuals who had begged for it.66 Yet de facto, we encounter various agreements between
the Empire and its rivalling great power (Persia) and formal peace treaties after longer periods
of war in 299, 363, 532, 562, 591 and 629. In these cases, envoys of both parties tried to define
the respective spheres of influence, especially with regard to points of strategic relevance (such
as the important fortress of Dara in northern Mesopotamia in the 6th century) and the suzerainty
over “lesser” polities in between the two empires (such as Armenia, Iberia [Eastern Georgia]
or Lazika [Western Georgia]), but not in the form of a clearly demarcated borderline [see fig.
10, where a drawing of such a line is attempted].67 Again, the focus was on landmarks and
places which allowed for the control over surrounding territories and especially also of the
movements of resources and of people; an agreement of the year 408/409 CE, for instance,
limited trade at the Roman-Persian border to Artaxata (the capital of Persian Armenia) as well
as to the cities of Nisibis and Kallinikon (in Mesopotamia).68 Yet in his book “On the
buildings”, the 6th century historian Procopius describes the usual permeability of the RomanPersian border in Armenia: “On the way from Kitharizon to Theodosio(u)polis and the other
Armenia lies a region called Chorzane; it extends over a march of three days and it is not
separated from Persia by a lake, a river or mountains, which would impede the crossing of a
pass but the borders of the two merge. Because of this the inhabitants, whether subjects of the
Romans or of the Persians, do not fear one another or suspect mutual attacks but even engage
in intermarriage, hold common markets for their daily needs and run their farms together.
Whenever the military commanders on each side lead an army against the other because their
rulers instructed them to do so they find their neighbours unguarded. The densely populated
settlements are very close to each other and from old times there were no mounds anywhere.”
Emperor Justinian tried to secure and control the frontier in this region by the construction of a
fortress, since Persian armies had criss-crossed the area relatively unimpededly in an earlier
Armenia is equally a most illustrative case for the dynamics of frontier-making and frontiercrossing between the Rome/Byzantium and Persia. Since the 1st century BCE, the Armenian
highlands constituted the peripheries of the competing empires and a centre of confrontations
between them; this position also influenced attitudes of observers from imperial elites towards
them. Already Tacitus called the Armenians “ambigua gens,”70 situated between the Roman
and Iranian great powers and sustaining political and cultural connections to both sides. This
113; El-Cheikh, Byzantium viewed by the Arabs 64; J. Preiser-Kapeller, Großkönig, Kaiser und Kalif – Byzanz
im Geflecht der Staatenwelt des Nahen Ostens, 300–1204. Historicum. Zeitschrift für Geschichte. Linz 2012, 2647, also for the later development of the mosque; Dölger – Wirth, Regesten II, nr. 823b; Shepard, Byzantium´s
Overlapping Circles 37-38.
Treitinger, Die oströmische Kaiser- und Reichsidee 211–212; A. Laiou, The Emperor’s Word: Chrysobulls,
Oaths and Synallagmatic Relations in Byzantium (11th–12th c.). Travaux et Mémoires 14 (2002 = Mélanges
Gilbert Dagron) 347–362, esp. 358.
K. Güterbock, Byzanz und Persien in ihren diplomatisch-völkerrechtlichen Beziehungen im Zeitalter Justinians.
Ein Beitrag zur Geschichte des Völkerrechts. Berlin 1906; M. H. Dodgeon – S. N. C. Lieu, The Roman Eastern
Frontier and the Persian Wars AD 226–363. London – New York 1991, 133–134; G. Greatrex – S. N. C. Lieu,
The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars. Part II: A.D. 363–630. A narrative Sourcebook. London – New
York 2002, 1–9, 21–30, 96–97, 131–134, 174–175 and 226–228; Dignas - Winter, Rome and Persia 118–151.
68 Codex Justinianus 4, 63, 4 (ed. Krueger); Dignas – Winter, Rome and Persia 204-207.
69 Proc., De aed. III, 3, 3, 9–12 (ed. Dewing); transl. Dignas – Winter, Rome and Persia 208.
Tacitus, Annales II 56, 1.
dilemma became even stronger when the Armenians started to adopt Christianity since the
beginning of the 4th century and (also in the eyes of the Iranian imperial centre) strengthened
their ties to the new Christian Imperium Romanum of Constantine the Great and his successors
(entering the “Byzantine Commonwealth”),71 whereas the traditional social structure with its
powerful aristocratic houses, which was very similar to that of ancient Iran, was still strong.
The struggle over Armenia lead to the partition of the country between Rome and the Sasanians
in 387 CE [see fig. 10] (establishing a very permeable border, as described above) and the
abolishment of the Armenian kingship over the next decades. Especially the internal framework
of political power allowed Byzantium, Persia or later the Caliphate to exert their influence
within the country or even to divide it into spheres of interest. Neither during the time of
monarchic rule before 390/428 and after 884/885 nor during the period of direct imperial
suzerainty over Armenia’s nobility, the fragmentation of the country’s political structures (also
promoted by the geographical fragmentation of the Armenian highlands) allowed for the
formation of a regional power centre which could compete with the empires on its borders.72
Yet this did not only restrict the chances of collective action of the Armenian aristocracy, but
also the stability of foreign domination; just as the Armenian kings, also the representatives
installed by the imperial overlords were not able to enforce universal allegiance to the
suzerain.73 The “decentralized character” of power equally permitted the adaptation to the
separation between various rulers and spheres of interest of the neighbouring empires and the
existence of multiple layers of authority and loyalty.74 Individual noblemen and clans could
gain a variety of options, and even the aristocracy at large could achieve a certain degree of
autonomy if equilibrium between the neighbouring great powers or a momentary power vacuum
would allow it. However, the number of options declined as soon as one imperial power
achieved predominance in the region; then, individually or at large, the aristocracy sometimes
had to choose between collaboration, resistance, or emigration.
Within this framework, noble mobility towards the neighbouring imperial spheres became an
essential element of the strategies of individuals and of aristocratic houses. As Tim Greenwood
has stated, recurring motives in the depiction of the deeds of Armenian aristocrats are “the
service to an external authority, the titles and material rewards available to the individual
princes and instances of direct contact between Emperor and client.”75 As I demonstrated in an
earlier study, for the “greatest nobles,” their rank within the Armenian aristocracy became
manifest due to its recognition by the Emperor, the Great King (or later the Caliph), performed
in personal encounters either during imperial campaigns in Armenia or in most cases during
receptions in the imperial capital. Especially Armenian sources emphasise that noblemen were
Cf. W. Seibt, Der historische Hintergrund und die Chronologie der Christianisierung Armeniens bzw. der Taufe
König Trdats (ca. 315), in: idem (ed.), Die Christianisierung des Kaukasus. The Christianization of Caucasus
(Armenia, Georgia, Albania). Referate des Internationalen Symposions (Wien, 9.–12. Dezember 1999). Vienna
2002, 125–133.
See Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 195-203. Cf. also J. Preiser-Kapeller, “Kaysr, tun und ‛asabīyya. Der
armenische Adel und das Byzantinische Reich im späten 6. Jh. in der Darstellung des Sebēos zugeschriebenen
Geschichtswerks, in: M. Popović and J. Preiser-Kapeller (eds.), Junge Römer – Neue Griechen. Eine byzantinische
Melange aus Wien. Beiträge von Absolventinnen und Absolventen des Instituts für Byzantinistik und Neogräzistik
der Universität Wien, in Dankbarkeit gewidmet ihren Lehrern Wolfram Hörandner, Johannes Koder, Otto Kresten
und Werner Seibt als Festgabe zum 65. Geburtstag. Vienna 2008, 187–202, esp. 200–201.
N. G. Garsoïan, The Aršakuni Dynasty (A. D. 12–[180?]–428), in: R. G. Hovannisian (ed.), The Armenian
People from ancient to modern Times, Vol. I.: The Dynastic Periods: From Antiquity to the Fourteenth Century.
New York 1997, 79; cf. also C. Toumanoff, Studies in Christian Caucasian History. Washington, D.C., 1963, 147–
259 (on the various aristocratic families); Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 201–203.
Cf. C. Kafadar, Between Two Worlds. The Construction of the Ottoman State. Berkeley – Los Angeles – London
1996, 125–126, for this phenomenon; see also N. G. Garsoïan, Armenia in the fourth Century. An Attempt to ReDefine the Concepts “Armenia” and “Loyalty”. Revue des Études Arméniennes NS 8 (1971) 341–352.
T. E. Greenwood, Sasanian Echoes and Apocalyptic Expectations: A Re–Evaluation of the Armenian History
attributed to Sebeos. Le Muséon 115, Fasc. 1–2 (2002) 323–397, esp. 355.
permitted to stay near the monarch and dine with him and received material rewards from his
hands. As within the court societies in Constantinople, Ctesiphon or Baghdad, “the public
display of proximity to an Emperor mattered.”76 Such elements of an “aristocratic koine” also
provided a common ground for the communication between imperial patron and noble client,
also far beyond the borders of Persia and Byzantium. Recently, this has been highlighted by
Matthew Canepa in his article on the “distant displays of Power among the Elites of Rome,
Sasanian Iran, and Sui–Tang China”, where he analyses the communication of claims of
supremacy between the rulers of these empires respectively within their realms via the usage of
a commonly understandable language of images and rituals.77 This “aristocratic koine” also
served as lubricant for the mobility of members of these elites. As Skaff has highlighted for the
Chinese case (see above), also for the Byzantine Emperor or the Sasanian Great King, this
provided opportunities to establish far-reaching networks with valuable new clients (either
remaining on site or joining the imperial army with their retinue) – but also the challenge to
lose them again quickly, maybe with severe consequences, since the highly flexible Armenian
noblemen, for instance, were able to “fit in” at the courts of Constantinople as well as in
Ctesiphon.78 Imperial authorities of course were anxious to impede such noble mobility when
working against their interest. In the peace treaty of 562, Byzantium and Persia agreed that
“those who in time of peace (between the two empires) defected, or rather fled, from one to the
other shall not be received, but every means shall be used to place them, even against their will,
in the hands of those from whom they have fled.”79 Yet, already soon afterwards, the temptation
to weaken the competing empire by depriving it of important clients was too strong for both
Byzantine-Persian warfare intensified in the 6th century and culminated in two long wars (570591 and 602-628) which left both empires significantly weakened [see fig. 11]; thus, the
emerging Arab Caliphate between 632 and 651 was able to deprive the Byzantine Empire of its
richest provinces in Syria and Egypt and to conquer the Sasanian Empire in its entirety (see also
below). In 653, also the Armenian nobility acknowledged the Arab suzerainty for the first time
after a series of raids; yet until the beginning of the 8th century, the Armenians, reacting to
changes in the balance of power between the Caliphate and Byzantium, switched sides several
times before the Arabs since 700 achieved more permanent dominion in the Armenian
highlands. The relatively beneficial conditions of the treaty of 653 were replaced by a more
strict regime with garrisons especially in the strategically important frontier regions to
Byzantium and an Arab governor (ostikan) residing in the country and enforcing also regular
tax payments.80
J. Preiser-Kapeller, erdumn, ucht, carayut´iwn. Armenian aristocrats as diplomatic partners of Eastern Roman
mperors, 387–884/885 AD. Armenian Review 52 (2010) 139–215; cf. also N. Elias, Die höfische Gesellschaft.
Untersuchungen zur Soziologie des Königtums und der höfischen Aristokratie. Frankfurt am Main, 1969, 145–
161; P. Magdalino, Court Society and Aristocracy, in: J. Haldon (ed.), A Social History of Byzantium. Malden –
Oxford – Chichester 2009, 212–232, esp. 216.
Canepa, Distant Displays of Power. 121–154; cf. also James, Rome and the Sword 60 for similar phenomena in
the centuries BCE in the Mediterranean, fostering the expansion of the Roman Republic.
Preiser-Kapeller, erdumn; Beihammer, Die Kraft der Zeichen 180-182 (for a common communitative ground in
the dealings of Byzantine emperors with Arab Muslim clients). For an overview of the Armenians joining the
Byzantine elite cf. Ch. Settipani, Continuité des élites à Byzance durant les siècles obscurs. Les princes caucasiens
et l’Empire du VIe au IXe siècle. Paris 2006; F. Winkelmann, Quellenstudien zur herrschenden Klasse von Byzanz
im 8. und 9. Jahrhundert. Berlin 1987.
Men. Prot., fr. 6, 1 (Blockley); Güterbock, Byzanz und Persien 81–92; Greatrex – Lieu, Eastern Frontier 132–
133 (translation); Dignas – Winter, Rome and Persia 142 (translation).
J. Laurent, L’Arménie entre Byzance et l’Islam depuis la conquête arabe jusqu’en 886, Nouvelle édition revue
et mise à jour par M. Canard. Lisbon 1980; M. Canard, Armīniya. Encyclopedie de l´Islam, nouvelle edition I.
Paris – Leiden 1961, 655-670.
At around the same time, also a Byzantine-Arab frontier emerged in a more permanent form;
while Arab forces had conquered Syria and Palestine within a few years, they were not able to
permanently occupy the Byzantine territories to the north of the Taurus Mountains (with a
height above 3000 m) in Asia Minor. During the second half of the 7th century, the Byzantine
Empire re-located its remaining field armies into these provinces, were they were able to
establish an increasingly effective system of fortifications and defence. Following the
observations of Ralph-Johannes Lilie and John Haldon, we can state that there emerged an
“inner zone” around Constantinople with the provinces in north-western and western Asia
Minor, which were also of crucial importance for the supply of the capital and the imperial
apparatus (see below). A “middle zone”, which was frequently affected by Arab raids, included
the central provinces of Anatolia, defended by the armies of the Anatolikoi and the Armeniakoi.
The “outer zone” (the “akra”, in Byzantine terminology) finally constituted the immediate
border zone to the Arab Caliphate, which was raided by Arab armies on an almost annual basis;
here, agricultural activity was very much reduced (although these may have retained some
economic significance with regard to animal husbandry and mining sites). The Arab´s advance
and even more their conquests were more and more retarded [see fig. 12 and fig. 13].81 These
limits to Arab expansion were also grounded in topographical and ecological differences; the
interior of Anatolia is characterised by a continental climate with hot and arid summers and
cold winters, which proved an obstacle for permanent Arab occupation. As Amr ibn Bahr alJahiz (d. 868) indicated, also those camels that the Arab troops used as their most important
pack animals suffered from the cold in the “land of the Romans” and died – in contrast to other
races of camels who had lived in Anatolia already in antiquity and those breeds later imported
by the Turkmens from Central Asia in the 11th century.82
These regions along the mountain ranges of the Taurus had been less densely populated already
before (and are still today, if one looks at a map of the density of rural population in Turkey in
1980 [see fig. 14]), some of them such as Isauria (see above) had constituted something like an
“interior barbaricum” of the Empire. Now along the Byzantine-Arab frontier in the 7th and 8th
century there emerged a zone of deserted and depopulated “no-man´s-land”, which should
impede the advance of larger armies, especially of the Arabs towards Byzantine territory. A
Syrian Chronicle from the year 775 describes the formation of this zone on the occasion of an
Arab assault in 716/717: “When a great and innumerable army of Arabs gathered and surged
forwards to invade Roman territory, all the regions of Asia and Cappadocia fled from them, as
did the whole area from the sea and by the Black Mountain and Lebanon as far as Melitene
and by the river Arsanias [Murat Nehri] as far as Inner Armenia [the region of
Theodosiupolis/Erzurum]. All this territory had been graced by the habitations of a numerous
R.-J. Lilie, Die byzantinische Reaktion auf die Ausbreitung der Araber. Studien zur Strukturwandlung des
byzantinischen Staates im 7. und 8. Jhd. (Miscellanea Byzantina Monacensia 22). Munich 1976; Whittow, The
Making of Byzantium 175-181 (especially also on strategy and tactics); Brubaker – Haldon, Byzantium in the
Iconoclast Era 551-554; A. England – W. J. Eastwood - C. N. Roberts – R. Turner – J. Haldon, Historical landscape
change in Cappadocia (central Turkey): a palaeoecological investigation of annually-laminated sediments from
Nar Lake. Holocene 18 (2008) 1229–1245; A. Izdebski, A Rural Economy in Transition. Asia Minor from Late
Antiquity into the Early Middle Ages (Journal of Juristic Papyrology, Supplement vol. 18). Warsaw 2013; A. Asa
Eger, The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier. Interaction and Exchange among Muslim and Christian Communities.
London – New York 2015, esp. 257-263 on the economic resources of the Byzantine borderlands; Stouraitis, ”Just
War” and “Holy War” in the Middle Ages 256-258 on the broader strategic considerations of the imperial centre
in this period.
R. W. Bulliet, Cotton, Climate, and Camels. A Moment in World History, New York 2009; idem, The Camel
and the Wheel. New York 1990, 231-234. On the logistics of Arab armies cf. also H. Kennedy, The Armies of the
Caliphs. Military and Society in the Early Islamic State. London – New York 2001, 85-88, 104-107. For
considerations on limits to Steppe warfare in the more humid areas of Central Europe, the Balkans or Asia Minor
(due to effects on the effectivity of composite bows and archery) cf. C. R. Bowlus, The Battle of Lechfeld and its
Aftermath, August 955. The End of the Age of Migrations in the Latin West. Aldershot 2006, 27-36.
population and thickly planted with vineyards and every kind of gorgeous tree; but since that
time it has been deserted and these regions have not been resettled.”83
As explained, the Arabs did not succeed in permanent conquest beyond these zone, neither
under the caliphate of the Umayyads (661-750), who even twice attempted to capture
Constantinople, nor under the succeeding dynasty of the Abbasids (from 750 onwards), whose
most prominent members such as Harun ar-Rashid (786-809) even campaigned in person
against the Romans.84 Until the 10th century, at least on a small scale, warfare across these
frontier – called al-thugūr (the “openings” or “rifts” after the passes over the Taurus mountains)
in Arabic and akra (the “tops”, the “extreme borders”) in Byzantine sources - was almost
permanent, with annual raids from frontier bases (ribat) by troops of the Caliphate, augmented
with voluntary fighters in the name of Allah, into the Byzantine territories [see fig. 15].85 In the
emerging classical Islamic law, a permanent peace with a non-Muslim polity was also not
envisaged; but temporary truces in the interest of the umma were possible.86 Such short term
agreements were made to organise the exchanges of captives, as they took place regularly
between the 8th and the 10th century at the river Lamos in Cilicia, were sometimes several
thousands of people crossed the frontier in either direction.87 Also otherwise there was frequent
diplomatic exchange between Constantinople and Damascus respectively later Baghdad,
dealing with the payments of tribute or the exchange of presents or craftsmen, for instance; as
between Byzantium and Persia, elaborate and competing ceremonials for the reception of and
communication with envoys of the other imperial power developed.88 But rarely we find details
on territorial delimitations of spheres of influence as negotiated between the Romans and
Persians during this period. Under the specific circumstances of the aftermath of the Arab defeat
before Constantinople in 678 and interior unrest in the Caliphate, 686/687 Emperor Justinian II
and Caliph Abd al-Malik agreed upon a division of the revenues of Armenian, Iberia (Eastern
Georgia) and Cyprus; while Justinian II breached the treaty shortly afterwards with a campaign
into the Caucasus region and the deportation of population from Cyprus, at least the island for
a longer period had the special status of a “Condominium” and “middle ground” between the
two empires.89 On other occasions, (similar to Roman-Persian treaties) specific fortresses in the
J.-B. Chabot, Anonymi auctoris chronicon ad annum Christi 1234 pertinens (CSCO 109). Louvain 1937 (Reprint
1965), 156–157; The Seventh Century in the West-Syrian Chronicles, introd., transl. and annotated by A. Palmer.
Including two seventh-century Syriac Apocalyptic Texts, introd., transl. and annotated by S. Brock with added
Annotation and an historical Introduction by R. Hoyland. Liverpool 1993, 62.
Cf. also El-Cheikh, Byzantium viewed by the Arabs 91-92.
J. F. Haldon - H. Kennedy, The Arab-Byzantine Frontier in the eighth and ninth Centuries. Military, rganisation
and Society in the Borderlands. Zbornik Radova Vizantološkog Instituta 19 (1980) 79-116; Asa Eger, The IslamicByzantine Frontier, esp. 246-263 on the Byzantine side of the borderlands.
M. Bonner (ed.), Arab-Byzantine Relations in Early Islamic Times (The Formation of the Classical Islamic
World 8), Aldershot – Burlington 2004.
M. Campagnolo-Pothitou, Les échanges de prisonniers entre Byzance et l’Islam aux IXe et Xe siècles. Journal
of Oriental and African Studies 7 (1995) 1–56.
A. Kaplony, Konstantinopel und Damaskus. Gesandtschaften und Verträge zwischen Kaisern und Kalifen 639–
750. Untersuchungen zum Gewohnheits-Völkerrecht und zur interkulturellen Diplomatie (Islamkundliche
Untersuchungen 208). Berlin 1996; A. Walker, The Emperor and the World. Exotic Elements and the Imaging of
Middle Byzantine Imperial Power, Ninth to Thirteenth Centuries C. E. Cambridge 2012; Beihammer, Die Kraft
der Zeichen, esp. 173-189; El-Cheikh, Byzantium viewed by the Arabs 83-111, 152-162; Shepard, Byzantium´s
Overlapping Circles 30-35.
F. Dölger, Regesten der Kaiserurkunden des oströmischen Reiches, 1. Teil, 1. Halbband. 2nd ed. new by A. E.
Müller, with J. Preiser-Kapeller and A. Riehle. Munich 2009, nr 253a; A. D. Beihammer, Nachrichten zum
byzantinischen Urkundenwesen in arabischen Quellen (565 bis 811) (Poikila byzantina 17). Bonn 2000, nr. 295.
On Cyprus cf. now L. Zavagno, Two hegemonies, one island: Cyprus as a “Middle Ground” between the
Byzantines and the Arabs (650-850 A.D.) Reti Medievali Rivista 14, 2 (2013).
frontier regions are mentioned as objects of exchange or destruction.90 It was beyond the althugūr where the “Land of the Romans” began (also in the description of Arab geographers).
Also after the Arab advance, these areas did not remain deserted, but (as the Roman-Persian
frontier before) served as zone of transfer and refuge for several groups who wished to evade
political or religious authorities. One of these was the dualistic sect of the Paulicians, which
emerged in 6th century Armenia and appeared in the eastern frontier provinces of Byzantium
since the 7th century; in the face of persecutions by the state, they migrated into this “space
between”. Finally since the middle of the 9th century they even created their own polity around
the fortress of Tephrike (today Divriği in Eastern Turkey) and fought the Byzantines as allies
of the Emir of Melitene until their defeat in 871/872. Paulician groups, which included
significant elements of Armenian origin, then in the 9th and 10th century were deported to the
Balkans.91 Byzantium on the contrast tolerated and even encouraged the settlement of Armenian
aristocrats with their retinue in these territories; this process intensified since the early 10th
century and contributed to the restoration of settlement and administrative structures when
Byzantium re-expanded into the East; the newly established, relatively small military districts
then were subsumed under the terminus “mikra armenika themata”.92 On both sides of the
frontiers also regional identities emerged, which manifested themselves in tales of heroic
fighters acting widely independently from the centrals of power and frequently raiding the
regions on the other side, but also acknowledging the bravery of their counterparts. Also
Constantinople was prepared to grant wide-ranging freedoms to these Armenian noblemen,
who, although under official title, often acted as semi-independent (war)lords; the same
phenomenon can be observed for the period of the re-establishment of Byzantine power in the
provinces of Greece and the Southern Balkans towards Slavic and other archontes. Some of
these families also rised high in the imperial hierarchy.93
Benefiting from the fragmentation of political power in Caliphate since the 9th century (whose
universal power over the Islamic umma was also replaced by something like an “Islamic
Commonwealth”94), Byzantine power re-expanded into Cilicia, Northern Syria and
Mesopotamia and Cyprus in the second half of the 10th century. With the Caliphate of the
Fatimids more frequently spheres of suzerainty, with regard to the city of Aleppo for instance,
were defined (see also above). Equally, the establishments of new frontier commands (Dukats
and Katepanats), integrating several of the former “mikra Armenika themata” and disposing
over units of the central imperial army (tagmata) indicated attempts toward increased control
of the centre over the frontier.95
Cf. Dölger – Müller, Regesten I/1, nr 368b (a. 806), 425 (a. 831), 430 (a. 833), 434-435 (a. 838). Cf. also Asa
Eger, The Islamic-Byzantine Frontier.
N. G. Garsoïan, The Paulician Heresy. The study of the origin and development of Paulicianism in Armenia and
the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire. Mouton, Den Haag 1967; C. Ludwig, Wer hat was in welcher
Absicht wie geschrieben? Bemerkungen zur Historika des Petros Sikeliotes über die Paulikianer, in: Varia II
(Poikila Byzantina 6). Bonn 1987, 149–227.
W. Seibt, „Armenika themata“ als terminus technicus der byzantinischen Verwaltungsgeschichte des 11.
Jahrhundert. Byzantinoslavica 54 (1993) 134–141; G. Dédéyan, Reconquête territorial et immigration arménienne
dans l´aire cilicienne sous les empereurs macédoniens (de 867 à 1028); in: M. Balard – A. Ducellier (eds.),
Migrations et diasporas méditerranéennes (Xe-XVIe siècles). Paris 2002, 11–32; G. Dédéyan, Le rôle des
Arméniens en Syrie du Nord pendant la reconquête byzantine (vers 945–1031). Byzantinische Forschungen 25
(1999) 249–284.
Brubaker – Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era 631-633, 756-757; E. Cooper – M. Decker, Life and
Society in Byzantine Cappadocia. Houndsmill – New York 2012. Cf. also D. J. Wyatt (ed.), Battlefronts real and
imagined. War, Border, and Identity in the Chinese Middle Period. New York 2008, for comparative phenomena.
Fowden, Empire to Commonwealth.
Cf. W. Felix, Byzanz und die islamische Welt im früheren 11. Jahrhundert (Byzantina Vindobonensia 14).
Vienna 1981; E. McGeer, Sowing the Dragon´s Teeth: Byzantine Warfare in the Tenth Century. Washington, D.
C. 1995; B. Krsmanović, The Byzantine province in change (on the threshold between the 10th and 11th century).
Athens 2008; M. Miotto, O antagonismos Byzantiou kai Chaliphatou ton Phatimidon sten Engys Anatole kai e
drase ton italikon poleon sten perioche kate ton 10o kai ton 11o aiona. Thessaloniki 2008. For the ideological
The empire´s influence also increased again on the Armenian highlands, were various new
princedoms had emerged since the 9th century; the most important one of the Bagratuni-family
was raised to kingship with the consent of the Caliphate in 885. Also Constantinople
acknowledged the significance of this new regional power; according to De ceremoniis, the
archon ton archonton of the Armenians had to be addressed by the Emperor as pneumatikon
hemon teknon, as “our spiritual son”, thus ranked among the most important members of the
“family of kings”. This new form of address was interpreted in Armenian sources as recognition
of the royal status of the Bagratunis.96 Likewise, an earlier tradition on a pact of friendship
between Constantine the Great and Trdat, the first Christian king of Armenia in the early 4th
century, suggested an almost equal status of these two Christian monarchies. But, to cite Nina
Garsoïan: “For Rome, at least, the inequality of status was self-evident.”97 In his instructions
“On the governing of the Empire” Emperor Constantine VII describes the relationship between
the empire and the Bagratuni “prince of princes” of Armenia as follows: “Since the prince of
princes is the servant of the Emperor of the Romans, being appointed by him and receiving this
rank from him, it is obvious that the cities and townships and territories of which he is lord also
belong to the Emperor of the Romans.”98 We can compare this passage with a quotation from
the Res gestae of Emperor Augustus (30 BCE-14 CE), who stated: “In the case of Greater
Armenia, though I might have made it a province after the assassination of its King Artaxes, I
preferred, following the precedent of our fathers, to hand that kingdom over to Tigranes”.99
Thus, since the beginning of the Roman Empire, Armenia was regarded as an integral part of
its sphere of suzerainty, as object of imperial politics and even potential province. Accordingly,
between 966 and 1064 most of the Armenian princedoms and kingdoms were annexed and
turned into provinces and its ruling elites compensated with titles and possessions in the interior
of Anatolia, after having submitted to a mixture of promises and threats. From a Roman
imperial point of view it could be seen as the implementation of a sovereignty which had already
existed for a millennium [see fig. 16].100 Some groups within the Armenian elites actively
supported the integration into the empire.101 Other sources on the contrast lament the “dark”
sides of the “Roman yoke”, similar to the Caledonian leader Calgacus whom Tacitus in the face
of a Roman invasion has say: “To robbery, slaughter, plunder, they give the lying name of
background and legitimation of this “Reconquista” cf. Stouraitis, ”Just War” and “Holy War” in the Middle Ages
Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies II, 48: 686-687; Martin-Hisard, Constantinople et les
archontes 368, 371, 421–422 and 428; T. W. Greenwood, Armenian Neighbours (600–1045), in: J. Shepard (ed.),
The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c. 500–1492. Cambridge 2008, 333–364.
Garsoïan, Armenia in the fourth century 345–346.
Const. Porph., De admin. imp. c. 44, 45–49: 200–201 (Moravcsik and Jenkins); cf. also . G. Garsoïan, The
Problem of Armenian Integration into the Byzantine Empire, in: H. Ahrweiler – A. E. Laiou (eds.), Studies on the
Internal Diaspora of the Byzantine Empire. Washington, D. C., 1998, 53–124, esp. 117.
Res Gestae Divi Augusti, 27. Ed. E. Weber, 36. Düsseldorf – Zürich, 2004.
For the Roman imperial politics of the annexation of existing client states cf. also James, Rome and the Sword
An impressive example of the use of Byzantine rhetorics on the imperial rule over the Christian Ecumene by
an “outside” in order to mobilise the support of Constantinople is the letter of the Armenian Katholikos Yohannēs
Drasχanakertc‛i (899–929) to Emperor Constantine VII, asking for military aid against an invasion from the
neighbouring Emir of Azerbaijan: “With much assistance from you and by means of your glory and grace we shall
prepare the Armenian nation by turning them first into a people of the Lord, and then by the will of God into your
own people. For the following matter is quite clear to your glorious majesties; should I, who am a humble pastor
of my flock, live under the auspices of the mighty and glorious Holy Cross, and under the tutelage of your imperial
majesties, to what extent would the flock of God, and the inheritance of Christ follow my footsteps? They would
rush in order to join the universal flock of your reasonable sheep congregated in the meadow and pursue their
lives under the aegis of Roman supremacy, just like the people of Italy and all of Asia.” (Yovh. Drasχ. 54, § 6566; transl. Maksoudian 196-197). Cf. also Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 219.
empire; they create desolation, and call it peace”.102 An equal resent can be found among those
groups (such as the retinue of Gagik II Bagratuni, the last King of Ani) which were settled on
new territories in the interior of Asia Minor (esp. Cappadocia). This (together with internal
turmoil within the Byzantine elite, see below) contributed to a destabilisation of imperial rule
at the same time when Turkish groups raised as a new military threat from the East especially
from the 1040s onwards. Soon it became evident that Byzantium was not able to defend the
new territories; in 1064 the Seljuks captured the Armenian capital of Ani, which had become
part of the empire only in 1045. The attempt of Emperor Romanos IV Diogenes to neutralise
this challenge with the mobilisation of all military resource of the empire ended in the defeat at
Manzikert in 1071; the battle as such would not have especially disastrous effects, but it was
the following series of civil wars in the empire which lead to the loss of almost entire Asia
Minor. This internal instability can be connected with a further “cost of success”, as Mark
Whittow has stated, which was based on the fact that “the advances in the east and the new
security these obtained for the rest of Asia Minor created alternative sources of wealth and
status that could counter-balance the authority of Constantinople”. In the second half of the 10th
and in the 11th century, several military families (some of them also establishing competing
network of patronage and friendship among the Armenian and other potentates of the
frontier103) from the areas either succeeded in temporarily establish themselves in power in
Constantinople (the reign of Nikephoros II Phokas, for instance) or challenged the centre in a
series of most dangerous rebellions, which would destabilise the empire up to the defeat against
the Seljuks in Manzikert 1071 and beyond.104
Lifelines of the imperial ecology – a general overview, ca. 300-1100 CE
The “mechanisms and logistics of empire” were another central aspect of spatial organisation
and “mental mapping” in Byzantium, as Paul Magdalino has stated, especially with regard to
the “measurement and evaluation of landed resources, the planning and execution of defensive
and offensive warfare, the management of communications and supplies, the dispatch and
reception of embassies, the gathering of foreign intelligence, the deployment of administrative
personnel in the provinces and the frontier areas, and the referral of decisions from the periphery
to the center: all of these activities required a conception of differences and distances between
spaces and places”.105 Especially the organisation and maintenance of those lifelines for the
Tacitus, Agricola 30; cf. James, Rome and the Sword 157-166, on the “dark sides” of the pax Romana. Cf. also
Garsoïan, The Problem of Armenian Integration 53–124; W. Seibt, Stärken und Schwächen der byzantinischen
Integrationspolitik gegenüber den neuen armenischen Staatsbürgern im 11. Jahrhundert, in: The Empire in
Crisis(?). Byzantium in the 11th Century (1025–1081). Athens 2003, 331–347. For the earlier period of ByzantineArmenian relations cf. J. Preiser-Kapeller, Between New Jerusalem and the Beast in Human Form. The Picture of
the Later Roman and Early Byzantine State in the Armenian Historiography of the 5th to 8th century. Pro Georgia.
Journal of Kartvelological Studies 19 (2009 = Proceedings of the VII. Annual Caucasus-Conference in memoriam
Grigol Peradze, Warsaw, December 4th-8th, 2008) 51–95. Cf. also Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 383-384
for positive and negative reactions in Armenia.
We find an interesting parallel to rebels in imperial China such as An Lushan, himself of Sogdian-Turkic origin,
who as frontier commander was able to establish his own network of clients and followers among the army and
other commanders of foreign background which allowed him the challenge the regime in Chang´an in 755, cf.
Skaff, Sui-Tang China, esp. 226-227.
Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 335-337, and the following chapter with an overview on these
developments, and esp. J. C. Cheynet, Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance (963–1210). Paris 1990, and for a
specific case A. D. Beihammer, Der harte Sturz des Bardas Skleros. Eine Fallstudie zu zwischenstaatlicher
Kommunikation und Konfliktführung in der byzantinisch-arabischen Diplomatie des 10. Jahrhunderts. RömischHistorische Mitteilungen 45 (2003) 21-58.
105 Magdalino, Constantine VII and the Historical Geography of Empire 25.
“particular flow of resources and population directed by the imperial center” on which its
success and survival depended (what Sam White has called the “imperial ecology”) were
Despite the limits set to imperial power by networks also within the borders of the empire,
Byzantium was able to mobilise these resources and manpower for its politics also during
periods of crisis – in contrast to the Western Roman Empire within and beyond the 5th century
CE. Since the richest provinces of the Eastern Empire in Egypt and Syria were beyond the reach
of northern invaders (with the exemption of a Hunnic inroad to Eastern Anatolia and Northern
Syria and Mesopotamia in 395) and at the same time peace was lasting at the frontier to Sasanian
Persia for the most of the 5th century107, the imperial centre in Constantinople could maintain
its lifelines across the Eastern Mediterranean from Egypt and Syria to Constantinople for the
essential provision of the capital (and its defence), imperial apparatus and armies [see fig.
17].108 Historical and archaeological research even indicates a period of economic and
demographic growth in these province in the 5th and early 6th century, which also provided the
means for the partly successful attempts of Emperor Justinian I (527–565) to re-conquer the
provinces in the western Mediterranean (Northern Africa, Italy, Southern Spain).109 Another
such circuit of the imperial metabolism was established by Justinian I in 536 with the foundation
of the Quaestura exercitus as administrative unit which connected the (through to frequent
invasions impoverished) border provinces at the lower Danube (Moesia inferior, Scythia
Minor) with the Aegean islands, Caria (in southwest Asia Minor) and Cyprus, which should
provide the necessary resources for the supply of the frontier troops, again via maritime
transport (from the Aegean to the Black Sea).110
Yet the “(other) age of Justinian”111 also marked the end of this growth period; in the 530s signs
of deteriorating climatic conditions appeared, but the most enduring effect on the demographic
and economic basis of the Empire had the “Justinianic Plague”, which in 541 broke out in
Egypt, in 542 (on board of the grain fleet) reached Constantinople and in the following months
and years reduced the population in all provinces (at a rate of possibly 30 %). As periodic
outbreaks of the plague continued in the following decades until the middle of the 8th century,
demographic recovery was restrained.112 At the same time, also the political environment
For the concept of imperial ecology and an analysis of the circuits of the imperial metabolism centred on
Constantinople in the Ottoman period cf. S. White, The Climate of Rebellion in the Early Modern Ottoman Empire
(Studies in Environment and History). Cambridge 2011, esp. 16-51 (17 for the citation).
107 Greatrex –Lieu, The Roman Eastern Frontier and the Persian Wars. J. Howard-Johnston, The two Great
Powers in Late Antiquity: a Comparison, in: A. Cameron (ed.), The Byzantine and Early Islamic Near East III.
States, Resources and Armies, Princeton 1995, 157–226.
108 St. Williams – G. Friell, The Rome That Did Not Fall. The Survival of the East in the Fifth Century, London
1999; J. Durliat, L´approvisionnement de Constantinople, in: C. Mango – G. Dagron (eds.), Constantinople and
its Hinterland. Papers from the 27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Aldershot 1995, 19-33; Ch.
Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages. Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford 2005, esp. 708-720.
109 M. Maas (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. Cambridge 2005; P. Sarris, Economy and
Society in the Age of Justinian. Cambridge 2006.
A. E. Gkoutzioukostas – X. M. Moniaros, E periphereiake dioiketike anadiorganose tes Byzantines
autokratorias apo ton Ioustiniano A´ (527-565): E periptose tes Quaestura Iustiniana Exercitus. Thessalonike 2009;
F. Curta, Quaestura exercitus Iustiniani: the evidence of seals. Acta Byzantina Fennica n.s.1 (2002) 9-26
111 Cf. M. Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians. Kontingenzerfahrungen und Kontingenzbewältigung im 6.
Jahrhundert n. Chr. Göttingen 2003.
112 W. Behringer, Kulturgeschichte des Klimas. Von der Eiszeit bis zur globalen Erwärmung. Munich 2007, 9497; D. Stathakopoulos, Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire. Aldershot 2004;
L. K. Little, Lester K. (ed.), Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750. Cambridge 2006; A.
Laiou – C. Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy (Cambridge Medieval Textbooks), Cambridge 2007, 39–42; A.
Louth, Justinian and his Legacy (500–600), in: J. Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire,
c. 500–1492, Cambridge 2008, 99-129, esp. 122-123; M. McCormick et al., Climate Change during and after the
Roman Empire: Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence. Journal of Interdisciplinary
History 43, 2 (2012) 169–220; J. F. Haldon et al., The Climate and Environment of Byzantine Anatolia: Integrating
Science, History, and Archaeology. Journal of Interdisciplinary History 45,2 (2014) 113–161.
beyond the Empire´s borders changed to its disadvantage; almost constant warfare with the rival
empire of Sasanian Persia re-occurred in the 6th and early 7th century and damaged Byzantium´s
finances as well as its Eastern provinces. In Europe, after the death of Justinian I the Lombards
occupied wide regions in re-conquered Italy, the Avars established their polity in modern-day
Hungary and plundered the territories to their south, while Slavic groups started to settle in the
interior of the Balkans.113 Internal turmoil after the overthrow of emperor Maurikios in 602
added to the weakness of the Empire, and in the 610s and 620s, when Persian troops conquered
the richest provinces in Syria, Palestine and Egypt and the Empire lost control over the interior
of the Balkans to Avars and Slavs, culminating in the siege of Constantinople in 626, Byzantium
was at the edge of collapse. But the attackers of the capital were repelled, and Emperor
Heraclius (610-641) was able to outmaneuver the Persian armies and forced the Sasanians to
sign a favourable peace.114 This triumph proved to be short-living, since after the death of the
prophet Mohammed in 632, the Arabs started to invade the eastern provinces, where
Byzantium´s position was still weak after the decades of war with Persia; until 642, Syria,
Palestine and Egypt were lost and with them presumably two thirds of the revenues of the
Empire.115 However, while the Sasanian Empire was totally conquered by Arab forces within
20 years116, Byzantium again was able to survive these heavy blows. But it was an Empire not
only on a smaller territorial scale (with its most important provinces now in Asia Minor, whose
permanent occupation the Arabs never could achieve, in the southern and coastal areas of the
Balkans and in Southern Italy and Sicily), but also a “reduced and impoverished” polity, with
most cities “reduced (…) to fortified garrison towns” due to the depopulation and “ruralisation”
of the provinces (because of the plague and constant invasions)117; this downsizing of cities is
evident in archaeological findings, which also indicate a “dwindling of coin circulation between
650 and 850” in the cities.118
Again, the Byzantine Empire did not fall; it was able to hinder the Arabs from permanent
conquest of its new core territories in Asia Minor (see above) and repelled two longer sieges of
Constantinople, which despite a significant loss of population after the Justinianic maximum of
maybe 500,000 inhabitants remained an impressive imperial centre (its relative relevance for
the empire even increased because of the loss of the cities of Antioch and Alexandria to the
Arabs), in the 670s and in 717/718. The imperial centre was able to mobilise new resources and
to establish new lifelines for its purposes; after the loss of Egypt, Western Asia Minor (Bithynia,
Paphlagonia and the provinces towards the Aegean) as well as North Africa and Sicily stepped
in as sources of grain and other supplies for Constantinople (facilitated by the reduction of its
population due to the plague); after the final conquest of Carthago in 698, the significance of
113 W. Pohl, Die Awaren. Ein Steppenvolk in Mitteleuropa 567–822 n. Chr, 2nd ed. Munich 2002; Curta,
Southeastern Europe in the Middle Ages.
114 W. E. Kaegi, Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium, Cambridge 2003.
115 F. M. Donner, The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton 1981; W. E. Kaegi, Byzantium and the early Islamic
Conquest. Cambridge 1992.
116 Cf. P. Pourshariati, Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire. The Sasanian-Parthian Confederacy and the Arab
Conquest of Iran. New York 2008..
117 H. Saradi, Towns and Cities, in: E. Jeffreys – J. F. Haldon – R. Cormack (eds.): The Oxford Handbook of
Byzantine Studies. Oxford 2008, 317-327, esp. 321.
118 For the crises of the 6th to 8th century in general see: J. Koder,“Zeitenwenden”. Zur Periodisierungsfrage aus
byzantinischer Sicht, in: Byzantinische Zeitschrift 84/85, 1991/1992, 409-422, esp. 411; J. F. Haldon, Byzantium
in the Seventh Century. The Transformation of a Culture, 2nd ed. Cambridge 1997; R. J. Lilie, Byzanz. Das zweite
Rom, Berlin 2003, 75-141; A. Louth, Byzantium Transforming (600–700), in: J. Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge
History of the Byzantine Empire, c. 500–1492. Cambridge 2008, 221-248; M.-F. Auzépy, State of Emergency
(700–850), in: J. Shepard (ed.): The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, c. 500–1492. Cambridge 2008,
251-291; M. Whittow, The Middle Byzantine Economy (600–1204) in: J. Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History
of the Byzantine Empire, c. 500–1492. Cambridge 2008, 465-492, esp. 469-486; Brubaker –Haldon, Byzantium
in the Iconoclast Era.
Sicily in the 8th century even increased.119 When in turn the Arab conquest of Sicily started in
827 (lasting until 902), the provinces along the Aegean in Western Asia Minor (augmented by
areas along the Black Sea coast of Anatolia) and in the Southern Balkans sufficiently supplied
the imperial machinery [see fig. 18 and fig. 19].120 The significance of the latter increased with
the stabilisation of Byzantine power in the Balkans in the 9th and 10th century; this together with
more beneficial climatic conditions (the “medieval climate anomaly” between 800/850 and
1250/1300121) favoured demographic and economic growth, and “by the tenth century at latest
it is clear that the Mediterranean economy was reviving and, equally, that the Byzantine world
shared in this process.”122 Also administrative and military framework was bit by bit adapted
to the changing scale of resources and the re-orientation of lifelines, so that by the 10th century
“the empire had metamorphosed into a great Balkano-Anatolian power, administered
coherently and financed through an effective tax system.”123 The economic and demographic
growth of its territories in South-eastern Europe in turn enabled the Empire to survive also the
loss of many of its former core provinces in Asia Minor to the Seljuks and other Turkish groups
after a period of internal crisis (maybe again accompanied by a climatic change towards less
beneficial conditions124) and the Battle of Manzikert in 1071. Under Alexios I (1081-1118) and
his successors John II (1118–1143) and Manuel I (1143–1180) Byzantium even re-emerged as
a great power in the Eastern Mediterranean, in the possession of the most productive areas in
the west and at the coasts of Asia Minor and the major part of South-eastern Europe, where, as
in the rest of Europe, the economic and demographic growth period continued well into the
incipient 14th century. Yet, as we will see below, this growth also brought about an increasing
commercialisation of the flows of goods and a decreasing control of the Byzantine state over
The working of this system in the 10th century, when Byzantium´s armies were increasingly
successful, we can re-construct to a certain degree on the basis of two relatively detailed lists
of the manpower and resources mobilised for two expeditions against the Arab-ruled island of
Crete in the years 911 and 949 (both ultimately a failure); these texts were integrated into
Constantine VII´s Book of Ceremonies (ch. 44 and 45 of book II). For the first campaign in
911, a total of 47,127 soldiers and seamen and more than 130 ships were mobilised, mostly
119 J. Howard-Johnston, The siege of Constantinople in 626, in: C. Mango – G. Dagron (eds.), Constantinople
and its Hinterland. Papers from the 27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Aldershot 1995, 136-137;
Brubaker – Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era 563. On Sicily cf. also E. Vaccaro, Sicily in the Eighth and
Ninth Centuries AD: A Case of Persisting Economic Complexity. Al-Masaq 25, 1 (2013) 34-69. On the
significance of the regions of Western Asia Minor see also Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 31-33.
Cf. J.-Cl. Cheynet, Un aspect du ravitaillement de Constantinople aux Xe/XIe siècles d'après quelques sceaux
d'horreiarioi. Studies in Byzantine Sigillography 6 (1999) 1–26, for the distribution of imperial granaries across
the empire in this period.
121 On the global scale of this phenomenon cf. also V. Lieberman, Strange Parallels. Southeast Asia in Global
Context, c. 800–1830. Vol. 2: Mainland Mirrors: Europe, Japan, China, South Asia, and the Islands. Cambridge
2009, 143. Behringer: Kulturgeschichte des Klimas 103-115.
122 M. Whittow, The Middle Byzantine Economy (600–1204) in: J. Shepard (ed.): The Cambridge History of the
Byzantine Empire, c. 500–1492. Cambridge 2008, 465-492, esp. 473–476; A. Harvey, Economic Expansion in the
Byzantine Empire, 900–1200, Cambridge 1989; Idem, The Byzantine Economy in an International Context.
Historisch Tijdschrift Groniek 39/171, 2006, 163-174; W. Treadgold, The Byzantine Revival 780–842, Stanford
123 Lilie, Die byzantinische Reaktion; Auzépy: State of Emergency 291; cf. also C. Zuckerman, Learning from
the Enemy and More: Studies in „Dark Centuries“ Byzantium. Millennium. Jahrbuch zu Kultur und Geschichte
des ersten Jahrtausends n. Chr. 2 (2005) 79-135..
Cf. R. Ellenblum, The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean. Climate Change and the Decline of the East,
950–1072. Cambridge 2012, and an evaluation of this scenario on the basis of natural scientific, archaeological
and historical data in: J. Preiser-Kapeller, A Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean? New results and theories on
the interplay between climate and societies in Byzantium and the Near East, ca. 1000–1200 AD (forthcoming
paper, currently under review for the Jahrbuch der Österreichischen Byzantinistik).
from the central troops and fleet in Constantinople (including 700 Rus mercenaries), but also
from the provinces on both sides of the Aegean and even from North-eastern Anatolia
(especially Armenian mercenaries), from where they were transported to the capital over the
Black Sea [see fig. 20]. The pay of all these troops amounted to more than 3,700 pounds of
gold. In addition, an enormous amount of weapons, goods and supplies was prepared; the thema
of Thrakesion, which included the fertile river valleys of Western Asia Minor, had to provide
among other things: “20,000 modioi of barley, 40,000 modioi of wheat, biscuit and flour, 30,000
measures of wine, 10,000 animals for slaughter; (…) 10,000 measures of flax fibre (…) 6,000
nails for the nailing” of the warships.125 In this case, logistics were again facilitated by the usage
of maritime transport; in general, despite the larger costs of fleet building and –maintenance,
the potential range of maritime military expeditions across the Mediterranean was generally
larger than for terrestrial campaigns (on averages, fleets could cover a distance of 100 km per
day; still, larger operations demanded regular landfalls especially for the pile-up of supplies of
drinking water) – allowing for the re-conquest of central areas of the Western Mediterranean in
the period of Justinian, for instance.126
Also for expeditions on land we have information for the 10th century from official documents
of the imperial administration, especially for campaigns in Asia Minor. In order to facilitate
provision, troops mobilised in various areas marched separately and met the core army of the
emperor at previously prepared, often permanently installed army bases (aplekton, from Latin
applicatum); there also supplies were collected and prepared following advance orders coming
from Constantinople. According to the sources, such camps were installed at least in a distance
of 400 km between each other, since troops could be expected to carry with them (on pack
animals) supplies for up to 20 days and to march on average 20 km a day (as we also know
from Roman and modern-day manuals on the infantry). John Haldon has calculated that an
army of 15,000 men (a considerable force in the 10th century) needed at least 290,000 kg of
supply goods for a time of three weeks. The preparation of such amounts of goods was certainly
already a challenge within the provinces of the empire, especially in less fertile and passable
regions such as in Eastern Anatolia.127 These calculations also provide hints at the range of
military operations beyond the borders and supply bases of the empire and is also confirmed by
similar analyses for the Ottoman Empire, whose military muscle in the 16th and 17th century
ranged from Constantinople to the Carpathian basin in the west (distance Istanbul – Budapest
1,073 km) and to north-western Iran in the East (distance Istanbul – Tabriz 1,522 km), but
normally not much beyond – similar to Byzantium in the 6th and 7th century (with the campaigns
against the Avars under Maurikios and the – exceptional – expeditions of Herakleios against
the Sasanians) [see fig. 21].128 Also the recent calculations of Walter Scheidel and his team of
the Orbis-project on the costs in term of time and money for transport both on sea and on land
in the Roman Empire confirm these results; in their model, Alexandria in Egypt was “nearer”
125 J. F. Haldon, Theory and Practice in tenth-century Military Administration. Chapters II, 44 and 45 of the Book
of Ceremonies. Travaux et Mémoires 13 (2000) 201-352, esp. 210 and 247-252. Cf. also J. F. Haldon, The
Organisation and Support of an Expeditionary Force: Manpower and Logistics in the Middle Byzantine Period,
in: N. Oikonomides (ed.), Byzantium at war. Athens 1997, 111-151. For the measures see E. Schilbach,
Byzantinische Metrologie. Munich 1970, esp. 95-99; 40,000 (standard thalassioi) modioi of wheat would have
amounted to 512 tons or 690,000 liters of grain, 20,000 modioi of barley to 345,000 liters.
Haldon, Theory and Practice 301; J. H. Pryor, Geography, Technology, and War: Studies in the Maritime
History of the Mediterranean, 649-1571. Cambridge 1992; J. H. Pryor – E. M. Jeffreys, The Age of the Dromon.
The Byzantine Navy, ca 500–1204. Leiden – Boston 2006, esp. 7-122 on the “operational context” of maritime
warfare up to 1204; M. J. Decker, The Byzantine Art of War. Yardley 2013, 180-191.
Cf. also J.F. Haldon (ed.), General Issues in the Study of Medieval Logistics. Sources, Problems and
Methodologies. Leiden–Boston 2006; Strässle, Krieg und Kriegführung in Byzanz 141-143, 336-350.
128 Rh. Murphey, Ottoman Warfare 1500-1700. New Brunswick, New Jersey 1999, esp. 20-25 and 65-103; Cf.
also E. N. Luttwak, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, Cambridge, Mass./London 2009; Decker, The
Byzantine Art of War 98-103. See also Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 317 on the campaigns of John Kurkuas
in Armenia in 927 and 928 which led him up to 500 km from the nearest imperial territory.
to the imperial centre (1,088 km as the bird flies) from a logistical point of view than places
300 km inland from Constantinople in the Balkans or in Anatolia [see fig. 22].129
Constantinople as head and stomach of the empire: the demands and impact of an
imperial capital
This framework of distances and costs was of course also relevant for the provision of
Constantinople, whose supply was of equal relevance for the emperor and the entire Empire as
the logistics of its fleets and armies.130
Since its establishment as new capital, Constantinople was gradually attributed an increasingly
special and central position within the spatial framework of the empire – of course after the
model of the “Old Rome” in the West. Also the “New Rome” received its own praefectus urbi
and thus was excluded from the customary provincial administration; even more, the prefect of
the city already in the 4th century was established as court of appeal of the provinces of Europe,
Thrace and Haimimontos on the Balkans and of Bithynia and Hellespont in Asia Minor, thereby
enlarging the capital´s jurisdictional hinterland.131 Equally, Constantinople´s position as
ecclesiastical centre in an increasingly Christian empire was deliberately developed: the
translation of the relics of the Apostles Andreas, Lukas and Timotheus in the Holy ApostlesChurch was the first of many re-locations of holy objects of venerations into the capital. In 381,
the Second Ecumenical Council was convoked by Emperor Theodosius I in Constantinople,
whose bishop henceforth was no longer subordinated to the Metropolitan of Herakleia and
second in rank only to the Bishop of Rome. On the Council of Chalkedon in 451, he received
equally to the other leading hierarchs of the imperial church (the bishops of Rome, Alexandria,
Antioch and Jerusalem) the title of “Patriarch” and the jurisdiction over the bishoprics in the
dioceses of Thracia (Eastern Balkans) as well as of Asiane and Pontus (Asia Minor; in the 8th
century the emperor also added the Western Balkans and Southern Italy, former under Papal
jurisdiction) [see fig. 5].132 Constantinople became also a point of attraction for monastic life,
which contributed to its religious prestige with its places of spirituality and of veneration,
attracting also more and more pilgrims; in the 6th century in and around the capital there existed
already 92 monasteries.133
Thus Constantinople was established both as “New Rome” in the geography and as “New
Jerusalem” in the “hagio-geography” of the empire, especially after the loss of the actual Holy
City to the Arabs, also in apocalyptical expectations since the 7th and 8th century, as we have
seen.134 Due to a re-orientation of land- and sea routes, the area of Constantinople and the Sea
of Marmara became the “heart of the system of maritime and terrestrial routes” – all ways lead
to New Rome (see fig. 23 and 24). This was even the case although the passage through the
Dardanelles and the Bosporus was not without problems; but this also allowed for a certain
control of maritime access to the heart of the empire, which was organised as distinct custom
zone since the period of Justinian (with custom facilities in Abydos at the Dardanelles and in
Hieron at the northern entry to the Bosporus).135 Already in the 4th century, the Milionmonument (after the model of the Milliarium Aureum on the Forum Romanum) in the heart of
129 W. Scheidel, The shape of the Roman world. Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, April 2013.
130 Durliat, L´approvisionnement de Constantinople 19-33.
131 G. Dagron. Naissance d’une capitale. Constantinople et ses institutions de 330 à 451. Paris ²1984; A. Külzer,
Ostthrakien (Eurōpē) (Tabula Imperii Byzantini 12). Vienna 2008, 80.
132 Külzer, Ostthrakien 80, 174-176. For the later transfer of relics to Constantinople cf. H. A. Klein, Sacred
Relics and Imperial Ceremonies at the Great Palace of Constantinople, in: F. A. Bauer (ed.), Visualisierungen von
Herrschaft (BYZAS 5, 2006) 79-99; Beihammer, Die Kraft der Zeichen 183-184.
133 P. Hatlie, The Monks and Monasteries of Constantinople, ca. 350-850. Cambridge 2007; Külzer, Ostthrakien
134 See also Magdalino, Constantine VII and the Historical Geography of Empire 24–25; Angelov, Asia and
Europe 45.
135 Külzer, Ostthrakien 205-209.
Constantinople marked the centre of the Empire, from which all distances to other places were
to be measured (the “Byzantine Greenwich”, as Dimiter Angelov has written). Constantinople
thus became the “Neue Mitte”, as Herbert Hunger, has called it136, and the “eye”, “midpoint”
and “navel of the Ecumene”, to cite some common metaphors. Many Byzantine authors, of
which the majority worked and lived in the capital, tended to distinguish between
“Constantinople and the outer territories” (hai exo chorai; thus everything outside its walls
could be regarded as periphery and “exotic”) and “to conceive of the East and the West as the
land masses lying to the east and to the west of Constantinople”.137 In general, Empire and City
were equalised: “The city of Constantinople was intimately connected to the imperial identity
of Byzantium. (…) Constantinople inherited the Roman tradition of being seen as the cityturned-empire. The imperial symbolism of Constantinople gained added importance due to the
absence in Byzantium of a developed conceptual vocabulary of empire as state formation and
the carryover of Greek philosophical terminology based on the polis (= city).”138
But his head of the empire had also a stomach which needed to be fed. The population of
Constantinople from the 4th to the 6th century increased to a peak of 500,000 inhabitants in the
time of Emperor Justinian (a number reached again in the 16th century under Ottoman rule); in
addition, the two field armies of the magistri militum praesentales were stationed in Bithynia
and in Thrace with approx. 20-25,000 soldiers each [see fig. 25 and fig. 26].139
In order to survey various aspects of the supply and disposal networks of a city, the conceptual
model of “urban metabolism” has been developed in the field of environmental studies [see fig.
27]; as Dieter Schott states:
“‘Metabolism’ of a society is defined as, ‘the sum of all input and output between the
biosphere/geosphere and society.’ Colonizing interventions are defined ‘as the sum of
all purposive changes made in natural systems that aim to render nature more useful for
society’. The concept looks at resources which are essential for the reproduction of a
city on both the level of physical reproduction of the urban residents (including animals),
i.e. their ‘biological’ metabolism as well as collective reproduction of the city as a social,
economic and cultural system, i.e. the construction and maintenance of houses,
collective buildings such as churches, streets, walls etc., the material production of
goods for the needs of the urban residents themselves or for trade to import necessary
resources from other places. On the input side, food stuff, raw materials, water, energy
and air flow into the city to be consumed, processed and transformed there. On the
output side through biological metabolism and through material production all kinds of
products are set free which—since their purpose was to generate revenue outside the
city, (or) as they were no longer immediately useful or even potentially dangerous for
the city and its residents—have to be discharged to the environment of the city. The
focus of this concept lies on material flows and their transformation over time. The
concept of ‘colonization of nature’ brings further dynamic temporal as well as spatial
dimensions into this relationship: If cities and their population grow (…) they will need
to reach beyond their immediate surroundings in order to fulfill their basic needs. They
will tend to exercise either political dominance by extending the territory they control,
or use market power to attract production surpluses from further distant regions. Thus
H. Hunger, Das Reich der Neuen Mitte. Der christliche Geist der byzantinischen Kultur. Graz 1965.
137 Angelov, Asia and Europe 54-55; Angelov –Batsaki – Bazzaz, Introduction. Imperial Geographies 14 (for the
“Greenwich” analogy); Koder, Die räumlichen Vorstellungen der Byzantiner von der Ökumene 18-19. On a
comparative approach to the imperial organisation of space through the capital in China cf. Ostern, “Dividing the
Realm in Order to Govern” 1-2.
138 Angelov, Asia and Europe 53. Cf. also Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 96-97.
139 J. Haldon, Strategies of defence, problems of security: the garrisons of Constantinople in the middle Byzantine
period, in: C. Mango – G. Dagron (eds.), Constantinople and its Hinterland. Papers from the 27th Spring
Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Aldershot 1995, 144-145.
cities mobilize in a variety of ways resources of an ever widening hinterland for their
social metabolism. Doing so they frequently transform even remote ecological systems
of these hinterlands, for instance by lowering the water level through large-scale water
extraction, by deforestation, by polluting rivers and dumping urban wastes on dumps
and sinks at a distance from the city.” 140
The state of source evidence as well as of historical and archaeological research of course
enables only to map or even more to quantify only very partially and fragmentary the sum of
all inputs and outputs of Byzantine Constantinople (and a more detailed survey would need a
special study) if compared to modern urban centres or cities of late Medieval Western
Europe.141 Still, the model of “urban metabolism” can provide a useful framework to reflect on
the demands and impacts of a major imperial urban centre and can also be connected with the
above mentioned concept of “imperial ecology” (as “a particular flow of resources and
population directed by the imperial center” on which its success and survival depended).142
Since the time of Constantine the Great, grain shipments from Egypt were redirected to
Constantinople; in the period of Justinian (who re-organised the provision of the capital in
538/539), these supplies reached a maximum of ca. 163,000 tons per year, which constituted
ca. 1,000 shiploads (ca. 220,000 m³) and an enormous logistical effort. Using calculations of
Johannes Koder, one could estimate that a (well-populated) agrarian hinterland of 16,00021,000 km² was necessary to produce such a surplus.143 Not less resources and planning were
necessary to supply the city with water; already in the second half of the 4th century, earlier
installations were no longer sufficient. And the 500,000 inhabitants of the 6th century may have
needed 15-25 millions of litres of water per day. The answer was the construction of three main
D. Schott, Urban Development and Environment, in: M. Agnoletti - S. Neri Serneri (eds.), The Basic
Environmental History. Heidelberg et al. 2014, 171-198, esp. 172-173 for the citation. Cf. also M. Gonzales de
Molina – V. M. Toledo, The Social Metabolism. A socio-ecological theory of historical change. Heidelberg et al.
2014, 59-85 and 184-189 (on the metabolism of Agrarian Empires).
Cf. J. Galloway – D. Keene – M. Murphy, Fuelling the city: production and distribution of firewood and fuel
in London´s region, 1290-1400. Economic History Review 49/3 (1996) 447-472; Ch. Sonnlechner, Der
„ökologische Fußabdruck“ Wiens im Spätmittelalter – eine Annäherung, in: F. Opll – Ch. Sonnlechner (eds.),
Europäische Städte im Mittelalter. Innsbruck – Vienna – Bozen 2010, 351-364; Fr. Hauer, Die Verzehrungssteuer
1829-1913 als Grundlage einer umwelthistorischen Untersuchung des Metabolismus der Stadt Wien. Klagenfurt
2010 ( For a study on the impact of medieval
Baghdad on its hinterland cf. H. Kennedy, The Feeding of the five Hundred Thousand: Cities and Agriculture in
Early Islamic Mesopotamia. Iraq 73 (2011) 177-199. Another most interesting comparative case is the supply of
imperial capitals in China during the Sui-, Tang-, Song-, or Ming-dynasties, cf. M. Elvin, The Pattern of the
Chinese Past. Stanford 1973, 54-110, and Th. Thilo, Chang´an. Metropole Ostasiens und Weltstadt des Mittelalters
583-904, 2 Vols., Wiesbaden 1997 u. 2006, esp. Vol. II, 185-226; shortages sometimes even forced the Tang
emperors to leave Chang´an for their Eastern capital in Luoyang, which was better situated for the supply via the
canal systems from the Southern provinces.
White, The Climate of Rebellion 16-51.
A. E. Müller, Getreideversorgung und Einwohnerzahl Konstantinopels vom 6. bis zum ausgehenden 8.
Jahrhundert, (Diplomarbeit) Vienna 1991; J. Koder, Gemüse in Byzanz. Die Frischgemüseversorgung
Konstantinopels im Licht der Geoponika (Byzantinische Geschichtsschreiber, Ergänzungsband 3). Vienna 1993,
100–103; J. Koder, Regional Networks in Asia Minor during the Middle Byzantine Period (Seventh-Eleventh
Centuries). An Approach, in: C. Morrisson (ed.), Trade and Markets in Byzantium. Washington, D.C. 2012, 147–
175, esp. 174 (Appendix II). For the flow of grain as well as timber and firewood (on which we have few
information in Byzantine sources) and meat (especially from sheep, of which estimated 1,5 million were consumed
annualy by the city around 1600) to Ottoman Constantinople cf. White, The Climate of Rebellion 28-39. For the
provision of Ottoman Istanbul see also H. İnalcik (ed.), An Economic and Social History of the Ottoman Empire,
Volume I 1300-1600. Cambridge 1990, 179-187. On firewood see also Schott, Urban Development and
Environment 182-185 (in medieval Central Europe, a town of 10,000 inhabitants needed up to 50 cartloads of fuelwood every day). For Byzantium cf. A. Dunn, The exploitation and control of woodland and scrubland in the
Byzantine World. Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies 16 (1992) 235-298, esp. 254-272, for some information
of the flows of wood within the Byzantine Empire and also on the strategic importance of timber for the building
of fleets, for instance.
aqueduct lines in the Thracian hinterland with a total length of 592 km, which brought water
over a distance from more than 120 km afar in to the city; in addition, several large open and
closed cisterns were built during the 5th and 6th century.144
For its input, the metabolistic systems of Constantinople thus increasingly depended on its
connections to other regions within the empire and its more immediate hinterland [see fig. 28],
“which is reflected in the rise of prices reported by the chroniclers during periods when these
are interrupted”. This in turn could lead to social unrest, the outbreak of rebellions and thus
threaten the imperial regime.145 These lifelines needed to be secured and defended in order to
maintain the size and splendour of the capital; this, according to John Haldon, lead to a paradox
“resides in the simple fact that, as capitals, seats of governments or imperial household,
centres of social attraction and wealth, such cities usually hold this position because
they are well situated vis-à-vis communications, accessibility, transport, and, of course,
supplies and provisions, Constantinople would not have become an imperial centre had
this not been the case. (…) On the other hand, however, this very accessibility makes
such centres attractive to aggressors or invaders, both because they are perceived as foci
of political and ideological power, and because they can actually be reached, overland
or by sea, without too much difficulty. They are big, and they are attractive targets.” 146
James Howard-Johnston in turn has highlighted that “Constantinople was excellently
positioned to act as the command centre of an empire in secure control of the Balkans and the
Mediterranean. But once the Danube frontier was breached and hostile powers were established
on the empire´s inner, maritime façade, that position of vantage was transformed into one of
great potential vulnerability”147 Up to the third century CE, the Roman concept “of empire was
a walled polity with garrisons on the perimeter protecting the commonwealth of cities within”;
this ideal definitely ended when Emperor Aurelian provided the city of Rome itself with new
walls in the 270s.148 Also the Empire in the East could never come up to this ideal; already the
defeat of Emperor Valens against the Visigoths in the Battle of Adrianople in 378 “shattered
(…) the confidence that Constantinople could be defended by the Danubian ripa alone”.149 From
then onwards Constantinople frequently had to endure assaults on its immediate hinterland and
even longer lasting sieges during the centuries [see fig. 29].150 Especially in the face of the
Hunnic threat, Constantinople received new monumental city walls under Emperor Theodosius
II (408-450) which closed of the thereby increased area of the city (now ca. 12 km²) from the
hinterland over a length of six km from the Golden Horn to the Sea of Marmara, with 95
towers.151 Emperor Anastasios I (491-518) augmented this defensive system with the so-called
Long Walls 65 km west of Constantinople, across the Peninsula between the Black Sea and the
Sea of Marmara over a length of 45 km, with various forts and towers, in its dimension
144 J. Crow – J. Bardill – R. Bayliss, The Water Supply of Byzantine Constantinople. London 2008; Külzer,
Ostthrakien 222-223.
Brubaker – Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era 563. On unrest in Constantinople due to supply shortfalls
see now R. Pfeilschifter, Der Kaiser und Konstantinopel. Kommunikation und Konfliktaustrag in einer spätantiken
Metropole (Millenium Studies in the culture and history of the first millennium C.E. 44). Berlin – Boston 2013,
146 Haldon, Strategies of defence 143.
147 Howard-Johnston, The siege of Constantinople 131.
148 J. G. Crow, The Long Walls of Thrace, in: C. Mango – G. Dagron (eds.), Constantinople and its Hinterland.
Papers from the 27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Aldershot 1995, 122.
149 Crow, The Long Walls of Thrace 119. Cf. also Külzer, Ostthrakien 82.
150 Haldon, Strategies of defence 143. An overview of the history of Constantinople and its hinterland in: Külzer,
151 N. Asutay-Effenberger, Die Landmauer von Konstantinopel. Historisch-topographische und
baugeschichtliche Untersuchungen. Berlin – New York 2007; Külzer, Ostthrakien 83-84.
comparable only with Hadrian´s Wall [see fig. 28].152 Also for the following period, it became
evident that “the frontier no longer lay on the Danube bank (…) the Long Walls were symbols
that the “last frontier” was within two days´ march of Constantinople itself.” – one could add,
sometimes even at the very edge of the Theodosian Walls, since the Long Walls proved an
ineffective line of defence already in the 6th century.153
Against these developments, once may agree with Cyril Mango´s statement “that Constantine´s
“obvious” decision was in fact quite a gamble. (…) his immediate successors had to pay the
price in the form of immensely expensive works of engineering and a diversion of funds on a
huge scale to make sure that the imperial capital was properly supplied and defended. (…) Once
the investment had been made in the fifty to eighty years after Constantine´s death, it was too
late to change course, i. e. to relocate the capital.”154 These “sunk costs”, both in terms of
resources, but also of prestige and imperial significance allocated to the capital, had set the path
for further efforts to maintain the capital now so closely intertwined with the very existence of
the empire. This link became even stronger with the dramatic losses of territories (and of urban
centres of comparable scale such as Alexandria and Antioch) due to the Persian and later Arab
conquests of the 7th century155; they were comparable only with the loss of the provinces in
Gaul, Spain and Africa by Western Rome in the 5th century. In the latter case, this reduction in
the scale of the empire had also effected a shrinking of the capital; as Peter Baccini and Paul H.
Brunner have stated, imperial Rome was “an example of a system that could only maintain its
size (…) on the basis of a political system that guaranteed the supply flows. The drastic
shrinking was not due to an ecological collapse but to an institutional breakdown. The
metabolism of such large systems is not robust because it cannot maintain itself without a huge
colonized hinterland. It has to reduce its population to a size that is in balance with its
economically and ecologically defined hinterland.”156
The same holds true for Constantinople, especially after the Persian and Arab conquests of
Egypt; but already before, the population had be reduced to a more “manageable” size in the
face of crisis due to unintended consequences of the intensification of the imperial metabolism,
that is the plague transported to Constantinople on-board the grain fleet from Egypt in 542 (see
above). The recurring disease in combination with the political and economic conditions may
have brought about a decrease of the population from 500,000 in the early 6th century to maybe
100,000 in the early 8th century. For this number (which would still demand an agrarian
hinterland of ca. 400,000 hectares), it was possible to establish new lines of grain provision
from Western Asia Minor, from North Africa (up to its final Arab conquest in 698) and from
Sicily (see also above); characteristically, the last wave of plague in 750 reached Constantinople
from Sicily and Southern Italy. The city could also endure the destruction of the main aqueduct
line by the Avars in 626, which was only repaired under Emperor Constantine V in 765/766,
152 Crow, The Long Walls of Thrace; Külzer, Ostthrakien 87; Spring, Great Walls and linear barriers 185-187.
153 Crow, The Long Walls of Thrace 121. One could reflect on the actual purposes of such lines of fortification,
since also linear frontier systems such a Hadrian´s Wall did not serve primarily as fortification but as “policed
lines, primarily intended for surveillance and control of movements of people and goods” as well as “expression
of imperial power”, cf. James, Rome and the Sword 158-159; Spring, Great Walls and linear barriers.
154 C. Mango, Introduction, in: C. Mango – G. Dagron (eds.), Constantinople and its Hinterland. Papers from the
27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Aldershot 1995, 5-6. Cf. also Külzer, Ostthrakien 78-79 on the
considerations of Constantine the Great regarding the selection of the site of his new capital.
Cf. also the considerations of Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 99, that “the Roman empire would have
gone as swiftly as the Persian” in the face of the Arab expansion if its capital had been located in Antioch,
Alexandria or Caesarae in Palestine within the easy reach of the forces of the Caliphate.
P. Baccini – P. H. Brunner, Metabolisms of the Anthroposphere. Analysis, Evaluation, Design. Cambridge,
Mass. – London ²2012, 58.
who for this purpose mobilised a considerable workforce in the provinces of Asia, Pontus and
Greece in addition to 5,000 workers and 200 brick makers from the Thracian hinterland.157
The later example also illustrates how the capital also at a reduced scale remained a considerable
burden for the imperial metabolism and its hinterland158; yet, as already stated, even more its
existence and successful defence against the Arabs in 674/678 and 717/718, for instance, was
fundamental for the self-understanding and “international” prestige of Byzantium as Empire
(reflected also that in various texts the term polis – city – was now reserved almost exclusively
for Constantinople, which became the City159). As we have seen above, the entire defence
system was now re-organised to save the core region around the capital and its most important
supply regions in Western Anatolia from the advance of the Arabs (see above). But while the
invaders were not able to overcome the walls of the God-protected City of Constantine, they
destroyed cities and devastated the landscape in the capital´s hinterland, especially on the
European side of the Bosporus, where, as said above, imperial control often ended at the Long
Walls or even at the Theodosian Walls. The Bulgars under Khan Krum (803-814) for instance
conquered Adrianople and deported its allegedly 40,000 inhabitants to Bulgaria.160
But from the very beginning and also in absence of warfare, the establishment of Constantinople
as capital had effected a relative “decline” of former regional centres in its environs [see fig.
28]. Perinthos-Herakleia in Thrace, for instance, the traditional capital and metropolitan
bishopric of the province of Europe lost its central position within the road network to the
capital, which was excluded from its area of jurisdiction both in terms of state and ecclesiastical
administration; the last remain of the latter one was the right of the Metropolitan of Herakleia
to ordain a newly-elected Patriarch of Constantinople.161 Also in Asia Minor “the focus of
importance for (…) the superregional network of roads was definitively transferred (…) to
Constantinople” to the disadvantage of other places (such as Ephesos).162 Among these was
Nicomedia, the former capital of the Kingdom and also Roman province of Bithynia; Emperor
Diocletian (284-305) even had selected the city as his residence and started to extend its area
and infrastructure. But this investment ended with the foundation of Constantinople; even more,
when severe earthquakes destroyed large areas in 358 and again in the 5th century “money was
not available to rebuild a city whose great size could no longer be justified as the nearby capital
grew”.163 On a reduced scale, Nikomedia like other Bithynian cities such as Nikaia or Malagina
continued its function as regional centre, but now with regard to the needs of the defence and
provision of the capital.164
The special attention of the imperial administration to Constantinople´s hinterland included also
attempts to re-constitute its demographic and economic basis after periods of devastation;
already Emperor Markian (450-457) settled Germanic Rugii in Thrace. Also in the following
157 Crow – Bardill – Bayliss, The Water Supply of Byzantine Constantinople; Külzer, Ostthrakien 222-223;
For the European hinterland, the Tabula Imperii Byzantini now provides a systematic survey with the volumes
of Külzer, Ostthrakien, as well as of Soustal, Thrakien; for the hinterland in north-western Asia Minor the volume
by K. Belke, Bithynien und Hellespontos (TIB 13), is in preparation. On this region cf. also B. Geyer – J. Lefort
(eds.), La Bithynie au Moyen Âge. Paris 2003.
Brubaker – Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era 548. For the complementary Arab view on Constantinople
cf. El-Cheikh, Byzantium viewed by the Arabs 139-152.
Külzer, Ostthrakien 108.
161 Külzer, Ostthrakien 73-74, 79, 194, 201.
162 Koder, Regional Networks in Asia Minor 152-153.
163 C. Foss, Nicomedia and Constantinople, in: C. Mango – G. Dagron (eds.), Constantinople and its Hinterland.
Papers from the 27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Aldershot 1995, 181-190; idem, Nicomedia
(Survey of medieval castles of Anatolia II). Ankara 1996, 1-15; J. Lefort, Les communications entre
Constantinople et la Bithynie, in: C. Mango – G. Dagron (eds.), Constantinople and its Hinterland. Papers from
the 27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Aldershot 1995, 207-218.
164 Foss, Nicomedia 16-22; Haldon, Strategies of defence 154-155.
centuries, deportees or subdued groups were established as agrarian and/or military settlers on
either side of the Bosporus: Justinian II (685-695, 705-711) transferred families from the
Byzantine-Arab frontier in Syria into the Thracian hinterland. Constantine V (741-775)
relocated Armenians, Syrians and Arabs into Thrace and in the other direction allegedly
200,000 Slavs who fled from Bulgarian territories to Bithynia. In 778, allegedly 150,000
Christians from Syria and Cilicia were brought to Thrace [see fig. 30].165 This special imperial
attendance to the demographic potential of the hinterland may have had positive effects on
population growth; but we also learn about resistance to the increasing presence of “nonRoman” and “non-orthodox” groups deported to or attracted by the imperial centre (see below).
Even more, large pre-modern cities due to higher risks of epidemics and other hazardous life
conditions were “population sinks” which depended on a constant inflow of people from other
regions; this in turn also often reduced the growth of settlements in their hinterland whose
“population surplus” would have been attracted by the central place.166
The considerable centre of consumption Constantinople of course provoked an intensification
and modification of agricultural activity and “stimulated production” in the surrounding
regions.167 As Johannes Koder has demonstrated, these effects were strongest in the immediate
hinterland; following van Thünen´s model of regional land use around a central city, he assumes
that concentric zones of varying size were “formed around the capital, each of these being
primarily reserved for one category of product. Accordingly, we find intensive horticulture and
dairy farming in the area immediately surrounding the centre, followed by wine, fruit and olive
growing, possibly also forestry, then extensive agriculture, and, finally, cattle breeding – in part
also nomadic – with its requirement of the largest areas.” [see fig. 31] Koder also presented
evidence especially for the existence of a zone of intensive gardening within and immediately
beyond walls (where larger areas now were without settlement due to the reduction of
population) [see fig. 32]; recent comparative research (on Byzantine Constantinople and cities
of the Maya in Meso-America) has also highlighted the significance of “urban gardening” for
the resilience of settlements. A similar “colonisation” of the hinterland can equally be observed
for other pre-modern urban centres such as London from the 14th to the 18th century.168
Beyond that zone, as already mentioned above, the stabilisation of Byzantine power in the 9th
and 10th century together with more beneficial climatic conditions favoured demographic and
economic growth in the provinces (see also above on the presence of imperial granaries in
various provincial towns); as Angeliki Laiou has stated, “the great consumption centre that was
Constantinople” served as one motor of production and trade. In the 12th century, Metropolitan
Michael Choniates of Athens (1182-1222) could address Constantinople thus: “Are not the
grain-bearing fields of Macedonia and Thrace and Thessaly farmed for your benefit? Is it not
165 H. Ditten, Ethnische Verschiebungen zwischen der Balkanhalbinsel und Kleinasien vom Ende des 6. bis zur
zweiten Hälfte des 9. Jahrhunderts (Berliner Byzantinische Arbeiten 59). Berlin 1993; Külzer, Ostthrakien 85, 100106, 121, 178.
Cf. Schott, Urban Development and Environment 181-182, with the example of the “dampening” effect of Paris
on the growth of towns in the Ile-de-France between 1600 and 1800. See also E. Sakelliarou, Southern Italy in the
Late Middle Ages. Demographic, Institutional and Economic Change in the Kingdom of Naples, c.1440-1530 (The
Medieval Mediterranean. Peoples, Economies and Cultures, 400-1500, Vol. 94). Leiden – Boston 2012, 80-126,
on the impact of Naples on the settlement system in Southern Italy, also with reference to the “rank-size-rule” for
the analysis of the distribution of demographic potentials in a settlement system; for an application on Late
Byzantium cf. J. Preiser-Kapeller - E. Mitsiou, Hierarchies and fractals: ecclesiastical revenues as indicator for the
distribution of relative demographic and economic potential within the cities and regions of the Late Byzantine
Empire in the early 14th century. Byzantina Symmeikta 20 (2010), 245-308 (online:
Brubaker – Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era 562-563.
168 Koder, Fresh vegetables for the capital 49-56; Külzer, Ostthrakien 213; St. Barthel – Ch. Isendahl, Urban
gardens, agriculture, and water management: Sources of resilience for long-term food security in cities. Ecological
Economics 86 (2013) 224–234; Schott, Urban Development and Environment 177-180.
for you that the grapes of Euboea and Pteleos and Chios and Rhodes are trodden into wine?”169
This process started in the 9th century; since then (according to Laiou) “the expansion of
regional trade inland, intensifying in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, was a natural function
of the rise in demand, which one may plausibly suggest developed with the revival of cities and
city functions, as it seems to have occurred since the early ninth century”. In Constantinople´s
Thracian hinterland the ports of Selymbria, Herakleia, Kallipolis, Madytos and especially
Rhaidestos emerged as centres of agricultural production at the coast, the cities of Arkadiupolis,
Bizye, Chariupolis or Tzurulon in the interior.170 Western Asia Minor had provided significant
surpluses since Antiquity and also during the “Dark Ages” of the 7th-9th century until the loss
of many territories to the Turks in the 11th century; these surpluses “went above all to
Constantinople; but central and eastern Anatolia as well depended on this region, at least for
the provisions of military troops located there.” [see fig. 19].171
During the period of most severe crisis from the mid-7th to the mid-8th century, the role of the
centre and the state in the organisation of supplies and logistics for the capital and the armies
was once more pivotal, maybe even more than in the period before; this is reflected in the
activities of the so-called genikoi kommerkiarioi (documented only in their lead-seals) who
between 650 and 730 acted as official “managers” for the provision of campaigns (at the Eastern
Frontier) and of Constantinople (from Sicily, for instance) across several provinces [see fig.
In the 10th-11th century, “the people of Constantinople still expected the world to come to them”,
but state-organised transport and distribution of supplies made room for more commercialised
processes of exchange.173 The so-called “Book of the Eparch” (= prefect) of the city of
Constantinople from the turn of the 9th to the 10th century provides detailed regulations for 19
private guilds active in the capital, including crafts essential for the provisioning of the
population such as the butchers, pork merchants, fishmongers, bakers and inn-holders. The
quality of products, the setting of prices and profit margins were regulated supervised by the
city prefect and his staff; the aim was “to provide goods as cheap, high quality, and plentiful as
possible” – an approach similar to the one of the Ottoman administration of Constantinople in
the 16th-17th century, for which scholarship has developed the term “provisionism”. Yet it also
becomes evident that the transport and trade of goods were now organised privately.174
Evidence from the 11th century demonstrates that “maritime traffic and merchandise entered
the city at several scattered points along the coast, where much buying and selling was
conducted right at the water´s edge” and “that the movement of basic foodstuffs from the
provinces to Constantinople was (now) a commercial process.”175 The loosening of imperial
control over the flows of goods to the capital becomes also evident with regard to trade activities
of foreigners; while their freedom of action used to be very restricted and closely supervised by
Cited after P. Magdalino, The grain supply of Constantinople, ninth-twelfth Centuries, in: C. Mango – G.
Dagron (eds.), Constantinople and its Hinterland. Papers from the 27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies,
Aldershot 1995, 36. Cf. also Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy 44-54 on the grain supply of the
capital in the later period.
170 A. Laiou, Regional Networks in the Balkans in the Middle and Late Byzantine periods, in: C. Morrisson (ed.),
Trade and Markets in Byzantium. Washington, D.C. 2012, 128-130; Külzer, Ostthrakien 214.
171 Koder, Regional Networks in Asia Minor 158.
Cf. the interpretation in Brubaker – Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era 682-695, as well as in W. Brandes,
Finanzverwaltung in Krisenzeiten. Untersuchungen zur byzantinischen Administration im 6.-9. Jahrhundert.
Frankfurt am Main 2002.
Magdalino, The grain supply of Constantinople 36.
Das Eparchenbuch Leons des Weisen, Einführung, Edition, Übersetzung und Indices v. J. Koder (Corpus
Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 32). Vienna 1991; J. Koder, The Authority of the Eparchos in the Markets of
Constantinople (according to the Book of the Eparch), in: P. Armstrong (ed.), Authority in Byzantium. Farnham
2013, 83-108. On the concept of “provisionism” see White, The Climate of Rebellion 21-25.
175 Magdalino, The grain supply of Constantinople 40-43.
state authorities, as both the “Book of the Eparch” and treaties with the Rus document for the
10th century, from the late 11th century onwards Western trade communities such as the
Venetians (1082), the Pisans (1111) or the Genoese (1155) received far-reaching privileges for
free trade both in Constantinople and in the (increasingly attractive) cities in the provinces [see
fig. 34]. In contrast to earlier assumptions, the “Italians” did not establish a monopoly but
contributed to a “multiplicity of merchant communities all involved in the provisioning of
Constantinople, and forming a support system as diffuse and unstructured as the city itself”.176
Yet the increasing number of “Latins” active in the capital effected resentment both in circle of
the elite and among the populace: at the order of Emperor Manuel I in 1171 the Venetians in
Constantinople were put into arrest and their property was confiscated. And during a revolt
against the imperial regime in spring 1182, the population of the capital committed bloody
assaults against the remaining Western communities and killed 1,000s.177 Also on earlier
occasions, the increased presence of “foreigners” due to imperial politics (deportees,
mercenaries) or due to the power of attraction of the capital had provoked popular or statesponsored reactions (the rebellion of the population of Constantinople against their Gothic
troops and their families in 400 or the expulsion of all Armenians, Muslims and Jews not living
in the capital for an minimum of 30 years at the order of Emperor Constantine IX in 1044).178
But the events of the 1170s and 1180s opened the way for an increase in the tensions between
the Byzantine Empire, the Venetians and other “Westerners” culminating in the conquest of
Constantinople by the troops of the Fourth Crusade in 1204.
This “cataclysm” was preceded by 20 years of internal crisis: various members of the
Komnenian family and the related clan of the Angeloi took their turns on the imperial throne,
whose power dwindled away first in more exterior provinces such as Bulgaria (since 1185) or
Cyprus (in 1185) and finally also in core regions such as the Peloponnese or in Western Asia
Minor, where local potentates took over control (Emperor Isaac II alone faced at least 17 revolts
during his reign from 1185 to 1195).179 These “separatism” was also facilitated by the relative
increase of the economic potential of the provinces in comparison to with Constantinople,
whose commercial and also political supremacy within the framework of the empire
But the enlarged economic resources of the periphery made it also possible for the Byzantine
elite to establish new power bases after the fall of Constantinople to the crusaders in 1204 Epiros in Western Greece, Trabzon in North-eastern Asia Minor and especially Nicaea in
Western Asia Minor, from where the re-conquest of the capital succeeded in 1261 [see fig.
35].181 For most contemporaries the recapture of Constantinople in 1261 was the greatest
success of Byzantium for a long time and symbolised the reestablishment of the legitimate
world order within the traditional framework of Eastern Roman political thinking. But
according to the Byzantine historian George Pachymeres (1242-ca.1310), the protasekretis
176 Magdalino, The grain supply of Constantinople 45-47; Külzer, Ostthrakien 129-138, 228. For the scale and
later reduction of state control over commercial activities in the capital under the Tang, especially after the severe
crisis of the mid-8th century (An Lushan-rebellion) cf. Thilo, Chang´an, Vol. 1, 291-303, and Vol. 2, 260-280.
177 Külzer, Ostthrakien 136-137.
178 D. Jacoby, The Jews of Constantinople and their demographic hinterland, in: C. Mango – G. Dagron (eds.),
Constantinople and its Hinterland. Papers from the 27th Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Aldershot 1995,
223-224; Külzer, Ostthrakien 83, 124. For conflicts with regard to the presence of foreigners in the imperial capital
in the case of Chang´an under the Tang cf. Thilo, Chang´an, Vol. 2, 71-92.
Ch. M. Brand: Byzantium confronts the West 1180–1204. Cambridge, Mass. 1968; M. Angold, The Fourth
Crusade. Event and Context. Edinburgh 2003; M. Angold, After the Fourth Crusade: The Greek Rump State and
the Recovery of Byzantium, in: J. Shepard (ed.): The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, c. 500–1492.
Cambridge 2008, 731-758, esp. 731.
Laiou – Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy 130-132.
One could compare these developments with the survival of the Song dynasty in the South of China after the
loss of the northern provinces to the Jin in 1125-1127, cf. D. Kuhn, The Age of Confucian Rule: The Song
Transformation of China. Cambridge, Mass. 2009.
Michael Senacherim upon learning of the re-conquest of Constantinople from the Crusaders by
the forces of the exile empire of Nicaea in 1261 cried out: “Oh, what things I hear! (…) What
sins have we committed, that we should live to see such misfortunes? Let no one harbour any
hopes, since the Romans (= the Byzantines) hold the City (= Constantinople) again.”182 Whether
Senacherim possessed the gift of prophecy or Pachymeres himself commented in this way on
the trajectory of the Byzantine state he had observed in the decades after 1261, the
reestablishment of Byzantine power in Constantinople actually made it necessary to concentrate
all resources on the reconstruction and defence of the capital at the cost of the areas in Western
Asia Minor, which accordingly fell under Turkish rule and became the power basis for the force
which would finally bring the empire to its end in 1453. Ultimately, the demands of an imperial
capital may have proved too big for a polity which had lost its “imperial dimension” in terms
of territory and resources. Between 1280 and 1340, most of what after 1261 had become again
the “extended hinterland” of the capital in north-western Asia Minor was lost the Ottomans183,
who from 1352 onwards also conquered most of the cities in the Thracian hinterland. The
supply of Constantinople was possible on the basis of those commercial ties into the Aegean
and even more now into the Black Sea which had developed since the 10th and 11th century; the
more state-controlled system of the period before now would have failed. Thus, capital and
former hinterland could exist in different political entities, but connected through the economic
networks now under more effective control of the Italian merchant communities;
Constantinople had moved from the centre of its own economic and political sphere to the
periphery of a Late Medieval Mediterranean “World System” now centred on the commercial
cities of northern Italy [see fig. 36]184 – until the Ottomans united Constantinople and its former
imperial core in one empire once again.
According to the proposal on “Comparative studies in imperial history” by the organisers of the
Eisenach-workshop, the Byzantine Empire would fall in the period of “secondary empires”
(roughly 300-1200 CE); as a matter of fact the elites in Constantinople considered their state as
uninterrupted Roman Empire. Still, especially the geo-political and socio-economic challenges
of the 6th-8th century necessitated a considerable reconfiguration of core elements of the
imperial framework. Among these was a considerable reduction of the territorial extent of the
Empire a few generations after the campaigns of Justinian (527-565) suggested the possibility
of a complete re-storation of the Roman Ecumene around the entire Mediterranean. The spatial
dynamics of Byzantium were not characterised by expansion, but by preservation, contraction
and maybe eventual re-conquest (thus, it was an empire beyond the “Augustan threshold”,
which expansionist empire have to pass in order to establish an equilibrium between further
expansion and interior stabilisation185). We can also very much affirm the organiser´s statement
that “practical considerations of military and economic character invariably limit the empire’s
expansion and create a bifurcation between the ideal of universal inclusiveness and practical
needs to fix limits to the empire’s scope. This bifurcation in turn generates perennial tensions
George Pachymeres II, 28 (ed. Failler, 1984, 204-205. Original text in Greek). See also Preiser-Kapeller,
Complex historical dynamics.
Cf. also the analysis of Whittow, The Making of Byzantium 36-37, that the status as great power in the Near
East depended on the control of “one or more of the principial agricultural zones” (Mesopotamia, Egypt or Western
Asia Minor).
Laiou – Morrisson, The Byzantine Economy 201-215; Kl.-P. Matschke, Commerce, Trade, Markets, and
Money: Thirteenth-Fifteenth Century, in: A. Laiou (ed.), The Economic History of Byzantium. From the Seventh
through the Fifteenth Century, Washington, D. C. 2002, 771-806. On the “Late Medieval world system” cf. J. L.
Abu-Lughod, Before European Hegemony. The World System A.D. 1250–1350. New York – Oxford 1989.
On this concept cf. M. Doyle, Empires. Ithaca – London 1984, 93-95; Menzel, Die Ordnung der Welt 43;
Münkler, Imperien 112-117.
between the “inner” and the “outer” realms, between the empire’s core and its periphery,
between ideological dictums and reality on the ground”. For the Byzantine case, Iannis
Stouraitis came to the conclusion:
“This means that the political discourse of the notional limits of the broader Roman
Oecumene, the exact length of which could vary according to the each author´s taste
and geographical knowledge, was not intended to provide real political limits and aims,
but rather to function as an ethically and politically legitimizing point of reference of
the ruling élite´s – at any time – geopolitically realistic aims within the framework of
the continuation of the Roman imperial culture. These realistic aims were constrained
and defined through domestic and foreign socio-political conditions as well as practicalstrategic aspects (space, time, resources) which made the waging of continuous warfare
for the reconquest of the whole former Roman world practically impossible.”186
Still, several scholars consider Justinian´s campaigns for conquest in the Western
Mediterranean a unwise overloading of the empire´s resources – and similar verdicts have been
made with regard to Emperor Manuel I Komnenos´ attempts to regain territory in Italy in the
12th century; thus, also within the limits of the Roman Ecumene, there was potential for an
“imperial overstretch” (as we also have also seen in the case of the expansion into Armenia in
the 11th century, see above).187 In 1421, Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos (d. 1425) according to
the historian Sphrantzes remarked in a debate with his son and successor John VIII about the
politics towards the Ottomans: “Today, as troubles accompany us constantly, our empire needs
not an emperor (basileus) but an administrator/manager (oikonomos).”188 Accordingly,
Manuel II (or Sphrantzes) believed that the Byzantine polity could no longer support imperial
ambitions as in earlier times, but that decision-making had to be based on a more “businesslike” consideration of the state´s interests, resources and limits. Sphrantzes wrote after the fall
of Constantinople to the Ottomans in 1453 and thus had the benefit of hindsight. But we have
seen that 150 years earlier George Pachymeres (1242-ca.1310) had expressed similar doubts
about the ability of a restorated Byzantine Empire to handle the claims and demands of its reconquered capital after 1261. But a Byzantine polity without its centre in the New Rome and
an oikonomos instead of an emperor would have been a different political formation – and
definitely not the Empire of the Romans anymore even in its pretensions. It maybe therefore
useful to ask for comparative cases where elites said “farewell to empire” before the collapse
of the political core – and for the implications of such a “devolution” in terms of ideology (and
the ability to evoke loyalties) and spatial perception (phantom pains in view of former glory
coloured pink on the world map?).
An evaluation of the possibility and feasibility of various trajectories of an empire´s spatial
development requires a thorough analysis of its resource basis and the demands of and
logistical, ecological as well as ideological limits to its administrative and military apparatus.
The latter ones can be as powerful as the “material” ones, especially once “a dense network of
institutions and interests has developed” around a certain system or institutions for the benefit
of specific elite groups, for instance; it often becomes “virtually impossible to switch over” to
a more appropriate practice. A “competitive selection of practices” (or sites for an imperial
Stouraitis, ‘Just War’ and ‘Holy War’ in the Middle Ages 250-256, esp. 255 for the citation.
On this concept cf. P. Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict
from 1500 to 2000. New York 1987; see also Menzel, Die Ordnung der Welt 63; Münkler, Imperien 172-183. For
the Byzantine campaigns in Italy in the 12th century see P. Magdalino, The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 11431180. Cambridge 1993, 53-66; Hendy, Studies in the Byzantine Monetary Economy 222 (the costs for one
unsucessful campaign against the Normans in 1155/1156 amounted to 2,160,000 hyperpyra (30,000 pounds of
Sphrantzes XXII, 7 (ed. Maisano, 1990, 82, 21-22). N. Necipoğlu, Byzantium between the Ottomans and the
Latins. Politics and Society in the Late Empire. Cambridge 2009, 18, 34-35; T. Kiousopoulou, Emperor or
Manager: Power and Political Ideology in Byzantium before 1453. Geneva 2011.
capital, see above) cannot take place any more.189 Well-established practices even influence the
perception of decision-makers, since “actors who operate in a social context of high complexity
and opacity are heavily biased in the way they filter information into existing ‘mental maps’
[see also above for their spatial dimension]. Confirming information tends to be incorporated,
while disconfirming information is filtered out.”190 On the one hand, polities with a higher
degree of systemic integration and complexity such as large scale empires may have a
competitive advantage in comparison with neighbouring less complex groups, on the other hand
“an increasingly complex system will become increasingly ‘path-dependent’ and lose its
adaptive flexibility”.191 Therefore, it will be profitable to analyse how imperial elites and
imperial systems acting against a similar or almost identical spatial or ecological background
faired in comparison with Byzantium (the Roman Empire, the Ottoman Empire), or to compare
Byzantium with those empires which shared borders with and interacted and competed with it
(Sasanian Persia, the Umayyad and Abbasid Caliphate, the Fatimid Caliphate), but also with
imperial formations of different spatial and ecological dynamics such as the “kinetic”
empires192 of the Steppe (Huns, Avars, Bulgars, Khazars, Magyars, Pechenegs – and finally
also the Mongols). And the concepts of “imperial ecology” and “imperial metabolism” invite
for further comparisons basically with all empires facing the challenge to maintain the essential
flows of resources and manpower, also in the face of changing climatic/environmental
conditions193; more specifically one could compare the impacts of the prestige and demands of
an imperial capital, for instance (Chang´an in Sui and Tang China, Abbasid Baghdad, Fatimid
Further comparisons are possible with regard to the significance of various qualities of power,
be they “hard” (military, economic) or “soft” (cultural, religious), for the spatial extent of
imperial authority and impact; this could include an analysis of the structure, range and
resilience of imperial networks both within and beyond the imperial borders, also (if possible
with regard to the evidence) with the help of concepts and tools of quantitative networks
analysis and visualisation.194 More specifically again, one could compare the structure and
P. Pierson, Politics in Time. History, Institutions, and Social Analysis, Princeton – Oxford 2004, 17-53. On the
“theory of the competitive selection of social practices” see W. G. Runciman. A Treatise on Social Theory.
Cambridge 1989, esp. 37-48.
Pierson, Politics in Time 38-39.
K. R. Dark, The Waves of Time. Long-term Change and International Relations, London – New York 1998,
122, 129-131; M. Scheffer, Critical Transitions in Nature and Society (Princeton Studies in Complexity). Princeton
2009, 243-250.
Cf. P. Hämäläinen, What's in a concept? The kinetic empire of the Comanches. History and Theory 52 (1)
(2013) 81-90.
Cf. in addition to studies already cited: I. Morris – W. Scheidel (eds.), The Dynamics of Ancient Empires. State
Power from Assyria to Byzantium. Oxford 2009; F.-H. Mutschler – A. Mittag (eds.), Conceiving the Empire:
China and Rome Compared. Oxford 2009; W. Scheidel (eds.), Rome and China: Comparative Perspectives on
Ancient World Empires (Oxford Studies in Early Empires). Oxford 2009; P. F. Bang, The Roman Bazaar. A
comparative Study of Trade and Markets in a Tributary Empire. Cambridge 2008 (for a comparison of the Roman
Empire and the Mughals in India); M. Elvin, The retreat of the elephants. Am environmental history of China.
New Haven – London 2004; T. Brook, The troubled Empire. China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties. Cambridge
– London 2010; M. Juneja – F. Mauelshagen, Disasters and Pre-industrial Societies: Historiographic Trends and
Comparative Perspectives. The Medieval History Journal 10/1&2 (2007) 1–31; M. McCormick – P. E. Dutton –
P. A. Mayewski, Volcanoes and the Climate Forcing of Carolingian Europe, A. D. 750–950. Speculum 82 (2007)
865–895; I. G. Telelis, Climatic Fluctuations in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East AD 300–1500
from Byzantine Documentary and Proxy Physical Paleoclimatic Evidence – a Comparison. Jahrbuch der
Österreichischen Byzantinistik 58 (2008) 167-207; J. Preiser-Kapeller, (Not so) Distant Mirrors: a complex macrocomparison of polities and political, economic and religious systems in the crisis of the 14th century, Working
Paper for the International Conference „The Angevin Dynasty (14th Century)“ in Targoviste (Romania), 2011
See for instance Preiser-Kapeller, Complex historical dynamics of crisis; idem, Großkönig, Kaiser und Kalif;
idem, Networks of border zones – multiplex relations of power, religion and economy in South-eastern Europe,
1250-1453 CE, in: Proceedings of the 39th Annual Conference of Computer Applications and Quantitative
dynamics of spheres maybe similar to the “Byzantine commonwealth” – the Chinese one in
Easter Asia, for instance, and their role for the resilience of empires and imperial pretensions
even in the absence of equivalent “hard” power.195
In any case, there is a considerable overlap between the spatial dynamics of empires and the
other fields of investigation identified by the organisers of the Eisenach-workshop for their
“Comparative studies in imperial history” (the military and the empire construction,
incorporating diverse elites/diverse populations, Emperors and Empires and spiritual
dimensions in the empire construction) – the Byzantine Empire is just one (hopefully, as I was
trying to demonstrate, illustrative) case for these systemic entanglements.
Methods in Archaeology, "Revive the Past" (CAA) in Beijing, China. Amsterdam 2012, 381-393; Barkey, Empire
of Difference; R. Gramsch, Das Reich als Netzwerk der Fürsten. Politische Strukturen unter dem Doppelkönigtum
Friedrichs II. und Heinrichs (VII.) 1225-1235. Ostfildern 2013; N. Tackett, The Destruction of the Medieval
Chinese Aristocracy. Cambridge, Mass. – London 2014.
Cf. for instance D. C. Kang, East Asia before the West. Five Centuries of Trade and Tribute. New York 2010;
S. A. M. Adshead, T´ang China. The Rise of the East in World History. Houndsmill 2004.