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6.4: Byzantium - Crisis and Recovery

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    After their conquest of Egypt, the forces of the caliphate had built a navy and used it to sail up and lay siege to Constantinople itself in two sieges (674 to 678 and from 717 to 718). To the northwest, the Empire faced the threat of the Bulgars, Slavs, and Avars. Indeed, the Avars demanded that the Byzantine state pay a hefty tribute to avoid raids. At the very moment that the Empire was in greatest need of military strength, it was a poorer empire than it had ever been.

    The solution was a reorganization of the military. Instead of having a military that was paid out of a central treasury, the emperors divided the Empire up into regions called themes. Each theme would then equip and pay soldiers, using its agricultural resources to do so. Themes in coastal regions were responsible for the navy. In many ways, the theme was similar to the way that other states would raise soldiers in the absence of a strong bureaucratic apparatus. One might liken it to what we call feudalism in Zhou China, Heian Japan, and later Medieval Europe.

    The greatest crisis faced by the Byzantine Empire was the so-called Iconoclast Controversy. From the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians living in the Eastern Mediterranean region had used icons to aid in worship. (An icon is a highly stylized painting of Christ, the Virgin Mary (his mother), or the saints.) Often icons appeared in churches, with the ceiling painted with a picture of Christ or with an emblem of Christ above the entrance of a church.

    In the Old Testament of the Christian Bible, the Ten Commandments forbid the making of “graven images” and using them in worship (Exodus 20:4-5). Certain Christians believed that to make an image even of Jesus Christ and his mother violated that commandment. To paint such pictures and use them in worship was idolatry, that is, worshiping something other than God. Muslims leveled similar critiques at the Christian use of icons, claiming that it showed Christians had fallen into idolatry.

    Screenshot (855).png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Icon of the Virgin Mary Author: User “Myrabella” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

    Emperor Leo III (r. 717 – 41) accepted these arguments. Consequently, he began to order icons removed (or painted over) first from churches, and then from monasteries and other places of public display. His successors took further action, ordering the destruction of icons. These acts led to nearly a century of controversy between two groups. The iconophiles argued that to use a picture of Christ and the saints in worship was in line with the Christian scriptures so long as the worshiper worshiped God with the icon as a guide. Meanwhile, the icolonoclasts proclaimed that any use of images in Christian worship was forbidden. In general, monks and civilian elites were iconophiles, while iconoclasm was popular with the army.

    The iconophile empress Irene, ruling on behalf of her infant son Constantine V (r. 780 – 797), convoked a new church council to bring an end to the controversy. At the Second Council of Nicaea (787), the Church decreed that icons could be used in worship. Then, in 843, the empress Theodora overturned iconoclastic policies for good upon the death of her husband, the emperor Theophilus (r. 829 – 843). From this point forward, historians usually refer to the Greek-speaking churches of the eastern Mediterranean and those churches following those same patterns of worship as Eastern Orthodox. 3

    Although the iconoclast emperors had made enemies in the Church, they were often effective military commanders and managed to stabilize the frontiers with Arabs, Slavs, and Bulgars. It was during the eighth century that Byzantium increasingly lost control of Italy. The popes in Rome became effectively independent from Byzantium in the 770s, and started to look at another power to secure the city: the Franks.

    3 Modern historians use this label for convenience. At the time, both Churches in the Greek-speaking eastern Mediterranean and those following the pope would have said that they were part of the Catholic Church (the word catholic comes from a Greek word for “universal”). The churches in the eastern Mediterranean and Eastern Europe were coming to differ enough in terms of practice, worship, and thought that we can refer to them as distinct from the Catholic Church of Western Europe.

    This page titled 6.4: Byzantium - Crisis and Recovery is shared under a CC BY-SA license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Andrew Reeves (University System of Georgia via GALILEO Open Learning Materials) .