Chapter 9 Persia, Byzantium and the Rus

In an age when many empires were being overrun by invaders, Persia and Byzantium managed to transform and keep alive the concept of imperial civilization and eventually transmitted its values and cultural heritage to new peoples. The slow erosion of these empires in an environment of religious rivalries and nomadic migrations marks the end of one historical era and the foundation of another.


Politics and Law: How and why were monarchy and aristocratic social classes essential features of Persian and Byzantine society? To what extent were they in conflict with each other?

Religion: Why did the empires of late antiquity try to promote particular religions and what problems did this cause?

Cross-Cultural Interaction: What new peoples interacted with Persia and Byzantium and how did they affect each other?


226                  Foundation of the Sasanid Empire

324                  Foundation of Constantinople

531-579            Reign of Khusrau Anushirvan

651                  Death of last Sasanid King

867-1056            Macedonian Dynasty and Zenith of Byzantine Empire

980-1015            Reign of Vladimir of Kiev

1453                Fall of Constantinople and End of Byzantine Empire



Chapter Introduction

During the third to the sixth centuries AD, numerous nomadic or tribal invaders swept all across Eurasia, often spreading much destruction in their wake. They included the Germans and Huns in Western Europe and North Africa, the Slavic and Turkic peoples in Eastern Europe, the Hephthalites in Central and South Asia, and the Xiongnu and Toba Tatars in East Asia. These great migrations severely disrupted or destroyed contemporary sedentary societies in Europe, India, and China. In two places, however, the forces of imperial civilization remained strong and relatively intact. The Byzantine, or East Roman, Empire (ca. 324-1453) and the Sasanid, or Neo-Persian, Empire (226-651) have been aptly described as islands of civilized society in a rising “sea of barbarism.”

            The Byzantine and Sasanid empires were always political rivals and economic competitors, and they were frequently at war with each other. At the same time, they had much in common. Both were autocratic, aristocratic, and rather militaristic states which valued a hierarchical social order. Both emphasized a powerful monarchy as the best guarantor of order and stability in a turbulent world and thus made kingship the primary institution of government and administration. Both believed in the harmony and mutual support of state and religion, viewed themselves as the protectors of true religion in the world, and were intensely suspicious of religious dissent and non-conformity among their subjects. Each wanted to preserve an older imperial heritage and its cultural tradition. Both therefore considered it a duty to hold back the “barbarians” on their borders and, if possible, to “civilize” them. Finally, both played vital roles in passing on elements of learning and culture, their own and that of the classical world, to other, newer peoples appearing on the stage of history.

Section 1

Sasanid Persia

Around 226 A.D., the Sasanid dynasty replaced the Parthian rulers of Persia. In many ways, the Sasanids, who came from the same part of Persia as Cyrus the Great, revived the traditions of the Achaemenid Empire. They emphasized sacred kingship, centralized the empire, and resisted foreign enemies. Agriculture and commerce flourished, so that their era was probably the most prosperous in the pre-modern history of Mesopotamia and Iran. Their empire was finally destroyed by the Arabs in 651, but their concepts of state religion, kingship, government, and justice profoundly affected the Arabs and through them all of Islamic civilization.

The Rise of the Sasanid Empire

By the beginning of the third century AD, the Arsacid (Parthian) dynasty, which had ruled the Iranian plateau and adjacent territories for over four hundred years, was under great strain. Although the last of its periodic wars with Rome had ended with an advantageous peace treaty in 218, the years of fighting had clearly sapped its strength and depleted its resources. The Sakas and Kushans had eroded its territory in the east. Precious metals for coinage were in short supply, and outbreaks of plague and disease further crippled the state. The Arsacid dynasty itself seems to have been increasingly unpopular, perhaps because of its relative openness to foreign cultural influences as well as its apparent ineffectiveness. All of these difficulties simply brought out into the open its most fundamental weakness: the Parthian Empire was less a true centralized empire than a confederation of powerful noble families and regional rulers held together in a precarious balance by the Arsacid kings whose authority could be challenged the moment they appeared vulnerable.

            Just such a revolt against the last Arsacid king broke out as early as 205 in a southwestern province called Persis, which had been the homeland of the Achaemenid dynasty and gave its name to the Persian Empire. The origins and exact nature of the upheaval there are not clear, but it seems to have been inspired and directed by a commander of one of the local military garrisons named Ardashir who was probably the younger son of Papak, the priest-king of Persis. During the period when the last Parthian kings were distracted by war with the Romans, Ardashir became ruler of Persis and was able to annex several districts on the fringes of the province from their pro-Parthian vassals. It was not long before Ardashir’s tactical successes and increasing popularity enabled him to confront Artabanus V, the Parthian king, directly. The decisive battle was fought around 224 and resulted in the defeat of the Parthians and the death of Artabanus.

            Ardashir moved immediately after his victory over Artabanus to secure the submission or defeat of the other noble families and local rulers and to establish his control over the whole of what had been the Parthian Empire. By 226, he had captured the capital city Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia and was crowned as the new King of Kings (Shahanshah). To emphasize the legitimacy of his right to rule, Ardashir proclaimed his descent from the ancient rulers of Iran through an ancestor named Sasan, whose exact identity is unclear. The dynasty of rulers he founded thus came to be known as the Sasanids and would last until 651. 

The legendary stories that purport to recount the career of Ardashir emphasize that he wished to restore the grandeur of the Persian Empire as it had existed before its destruction by Alexander and the weak and corrupt government of the Parthian “tribal chiefs.” To do so, he would wreak vengeance on Alexander’s heirs, the Romans; restore the former borders of the empire; bring justice and prosperity to his realm; and uphold Magianism, the true religion of Zoroaster. Such accounts no doubt grew out of Sasanid propaganda, and they exaggerate the differences between the Parthians and Sasanids in order to justify Ardashir’s usurpation of power. It is also unlikely that Ardashir and the more than thirty Sasanid kings who succeeded him had any clear historical memory of the Achaemenids, who had originated in the same geographical area and founded the first Persian Empire. Nonetheless, there are indeed many ways in which the Sasanids emulated the policies of their predecessors and could be seen as attempting to revive the ancient Persian Empire. Certainly, the most obvious accomplishment of the early Sasanid rulers, notably Ardashir (226-240), Shapur I (240-271), and Shapur II (309-379), was a vigorous effort to defend and expand the territory under their control.

            In the east, the Oxus and the Indus could be regarded as the natural borders of Iran, and Ardashir is supposed to have advanced to the banks of both rivers. The territories along the Oxus—Khiva, Marv, Balkh—were probably conquered, and the Kushan rulers in Bactria and the Punjab at least forced to recognize some kind of subordinate status to the Sasanids. This effectively restored the boundaries of the Achaemenid Empire in the east. The frontier with India was thereafter generally quiet, but Central Asia required constant attention to prevent incursions by the nomadic tribes beyond the Oxus. There, Shahpur II successfully resisted the attempted invasion of the Chionites and was able to incorporate some of them into his army. His successors faced a more formidable adversary in the Hephthalites, who were a thorn in the side of the Sasanids down to 554 when they were finally subjugated.

            Mesopotamia was the political center, breadbasket, and greatest financial resource of the Sasanids. It was thus essential to guard it against any assault, including one from the sedentary and nomadic Arabs living in the area stretching from Hatra to the littoral of the Persian Gulf. The ability of the Arabs, with or without foreign backing, to threaten the Sasanid heartland had been demonstrated as early as 260-263 when the Odenathus, the king of Palmyra, was able to harass the Persian forces, defeat Shapur I and besiege Ctesiphon. Gulf Arabs also raided Mesopotamia and briefly captured Ctesiphon during the reign of Shapur II. He retaliated with a successful naval expedition against them. To discourage future raids, he had holes bored through the shoulders of the prisoners and tied them together with ropes, thus earning himself the name among Arabs of Dhu’l-Aktaf, “He of the Shoulders.” The general policy of later Sasanid rulers was to prevent destructive incursions by Arab nomads by establishing a buffer state ruled by a friendly and loyal Arab dynasty, the Lakhmids, on this border.

            To the north, Armenia was a prime area of concern for the Sasanids. It was not strictly speaking part of Iran, but the Sasanids could not ignore it for several reasons. For one thing, it was then ruled by members of the Arsacid family who naturally tended to be hostile to the Sasanids. The Sasanids also feared that Armenia would be, as it often had been in the past, a sphere of Roman influence that could be used to put pressure on Mesopotamia. In 252, taking advantage of his successes against the Romans, Shapur I invaded Armenia and installed his own son as its king. The Sasanids retained direct control over Armenia down to about 279 when Roman pressure led to the restoration of an Arsacid monarchy. The Sasanids continued to try to expand their influence over Armenia, if not by direct attack then through methods such as plotting the murder of its ruler or encouraging the conversion of the population to the Zoroastrian religion. The reaction to this Sasanid pressure produced perhaps the most important event in the history of Armenia, its official conversion to Christianity in 301. In 364, Shapur II took advantage of Roman weakness to kill the Armenian king, devastate the countryside, and turn Armenia into a Persian province. The Emperor Theodosius and Shapur III subsequently decided in 387 to partition Armenia into two vassal states under Arsacid kings, one aligned with Rome and the other with Persia. In 428, the Sasanids, at the urging of some of the Armenian nobility, took direct control of the area. Yazdgard II (440-457) tried to impose Zoroastrianism on the population and increased taxes. Dissident noblemen, church leaders, peasants, joining forces with other peoples of the Caucasus, revolted against the Sasanids in 450, but they were crushed at the battle of Avarayr in 451. Another revolt in 481-483 was also suppressed but led to some improvements such as the right of freedom of religion for the Armenians. There was a third partition of Armenia in 591, followed by attempts to deport many of the inhabitants or otherwise depopulate the region. Despite these calamities and the misfortune of being caught on a battlefield between the Romans and Persians, the Armenian people survived with their sense of national identity, social structure, and religion intact.

            As the history of Armenia makes clear, the great foreign adversary of the Sasanid Empire was Rome. The Sasanids thought of themselves not only as the King of Kings of Iran, the territory from Mesopotamia to the Oxus, but also of non-Iran, which could have included the former possessions of the Achaemenid Empire as far as the Aegean sea. In practice, the Sasanids did not attempt to annex those territories but regarded them as fair targets for raids. The Romans, however, certainly feared that the Sasanids intended to recreate the Achaemenid Empire. Any Sasanid movement to the west would thus produce conflict with Rome, as would any Roman attempt to encroach on Armenia or Mesopotamia. This situation led to at least ten major wars and numerous minor skirmishes between the two great empires with neither side ever achieving a decisive victory.

            In the early years of their on-going rivalry with Rome, the Sasanids tended to have the upper hand. Ardashir initiated the struggle by seizing parts of northern Mesopotamia and Anatolia. Shapur I launched a major war in 241-244, advancing as far as Antioch in Syria before being driven back to the Euphrates by the Emperor Gordian. In the second phase of the war, 258-260, Shapur again advanced to Antioch and the central part of Anatolia. There, he not only defeated but captured the Emperor Valerian, whose utter humiliation was depicted in a magnificent rock-carving on the cliff at Nakhsh-i Rustam in the heart of the Sasanid homeland. These victories, and the subsequent wars, were an important factor in forcing the Roman rulers to focus more on defending the eastern half of their empire and thus contributed to the formation of the Late Roman, or Byzantine, Empire.

            During the fifth century, the Sasanid struggle with Rome subsided because of severe internal problems that were beginning to affect the empire—religious controversies, the difficulty of controlling Armenia, and above all the appearance of the Hephthalites, warlike pastoral nomads, on the eastern frontier. Bahram Gur (420-440) crossed the Oxus, defeated them, and forced them to agree to a peace treaty. They soon returned, however, defeating Persian armies and sometimes forcing the payment of tribute during the reigns of Yazdgard II (440-457), Peroz (459-483), and Balash (483-485). They even began to play a role in Sasanid politics as they helped put Peroz on the throne and twice assisted Kavad (485-498 and 501-531) in his efforts to become king.

            The reign of Kavad was something of a watershed in Sasanid history, not only because of the Hephthalite problem but even more because of the religious upheaval led by a priest named Mazdak. Mazdak’s teachings are known only through the reports of his enemies and have undoubtedly been distorted in order to present him in the worst possible light. His basic goal seems to have been to improve the conditions of the rural poor and to protect them from oppression and exploitation by the powerful aristocratic families which had amassed huge estates and large harems. He thus taught that God had meant for land, material goods, and women to be distributed equally; evil arose from competition for these resources and their inequitable distribution. It was therefore necessary to correct the balance by taking from the rich and giving to the poor. Exactly how Mazdak proposed to do this is unclear but it most likely involved breaking up estates and distributing land to peasants, giving handouts of food and other goods from the state treasury and temple stores, and liberating women from the harems. Oddly enough, Kavad supported Mazdak in his reforms, perhaps in order to break the power of the aristocratic families and win the support of the peasantry for the monarchy. Naturally, the aristocrats and the orthodox clergy were horrified at the appearance of Mazdakism and resisted it with all their resources. They eventually forced Kavad to turn against Mazdak.


Bio The task of rebuilding the Sasanid empire after the crisis of the fifth and early sixth century fell to Khusrau Anushirvan (531-579), perhaps the greatest and surely the most famous of the Sasanid rulers. Kavad had named Khusrau as his successor but this was contested by other members of the family. To remove any chance of challenges to his authority, Khusrau killed all his brothers and their male children except one who escaped. He then turned with a vengeance on the Mazdakites, executing Mazdak himself and thousands of his followers. While securing his throne, he had agreed to a peace with Rome, but he was concerned about the apparent revival of Roman power under the Emperor Justinian., In 540, he launched a surprise attack and raided as far as Antioch; he even attempted to establish a Persian colony on the Black Sea in order to build up a navy and attack his enemy by sea. The war dragged on until 562 when the two parties concluded another peace on more or less equal terms. Khusrau then turned on the Hephthalites. In alliance with the Turks, whose power had just been established in Central Asia, he crushed the Hephthalites and re-established the Oxus as the border of the empire. He was also able to achieve something of a strategic success against the Byzantines by defeating the Khazars north of the Caucasus and by expelling the Ethiopians from Yemen, transforming southern Arabia into a Persian protectorate. This would have prevented the Byzantines from establishing their own trade links with East Asia either overland to the north or by sea to the south. Fear of being enveloped in this way was probably the reason the Byzantines broke the peace treaty and engaged in a new and inconclusive war against Khusrau during the last years of his reign.

            Although Khusrau’s military exploits and foreign policy were impressive, his fame really rested on his handling of internal affairs. The chaos of the Mazdakite period was resolved by undertaking a complete land survey and census. The collection of taxes was reformed and regularized. Instead of paying with part of the crop, peasants paid a fixed rate in cash after the harvest. Common people, but not the privileged classes, also paid a poll tax. With the new, predictable revenues, Khusrau could finance beneficial public works, especially irrigation projects to open up more land for cultivation. He thoroughly reformed the administrative structure of the empire, dividing it into four large provinces each under the control of a governor responsible to him. The military was also changed in ways which undercut the power and private armies of the great families. Some soldiers were paid a salary, but Khusrau especially encouraged the use of dihqans, soldier-peasants in charge of a village, as the backbone of the army and the main line of defense in frontier areas. Khusrau also took measures to promote learning, establish justice, and protect religious minorities.

            In later tradition, Anushirvan and his prime minister Vuzurgmihr came to represent the epitome of ideal rulers and wise government. Many maxims and sage proverbs about government and administration were attributed to them. They are perhaps best summarized in the twelve rules of conduct Vuzurgmihr gave Anushirvan and which he is supposed to have inscribed in golden letters: Fear God; be trustworthy and loyal; seek the advise of wise men; honor scholars, the nobles, and the officials; supervise judges and tax collectors strictly; check on the condition of prisoners; assure the safety of roads and markets; punish the guilty according to their crime; provision the army; respect the family; defend the borders; and watch government officials closely to remove the disloyal and incompetent.[1]


Religion, State, and Society in Sasanid Persia

Sacred Kingship in Sasanid Persia: To the Sasanids, the ideal society was one which could maintain stability and order, and the necessary instrument for this was a strong monarchy. Perhaps the most striking difference between the Parthian and Sasanid periods is this emphasis on kingship and centralized government. According to the “Letter of Tansar,” supposedly written by the chief Zoroastrian priest under Ardashir, people were theoretically divided into four classes—the priests, the soldiers, the scholars and the artisans. Membership in a class was generally determined by birth although it was possible for an exceptional individual to move to another class on the basis of merit. The ideal was for all people to remain within their class and engage only in the activities appropriate to it. The function of the king was to be above all the classes and insure that each class remained within its proper boundaries, so that the strong did not oppress the weak nor the weak the strong. To maintain this social equilibrium was the essence of royal justice, and its effective functioning depended on the glorification of the monarchy above all other classes. Thus kingship was regarded as sacred; the king was chosen by God who conferred on him the visible aura of royal authority and glory (called farr). Kingly glory was further communicated to the subjects by emphasizing the illustrious ancestry of the rulers from ancient kings and divinities, the use of magnificent crowns and palaces and court ceremonies, erecting monumental carvings and inscriptions, and employing grandiose titles. Shapur I called himself “I, the Mazda worshipper, the god Shapur, King of Kings of Iranians and Non-Iranians, of the race of gods, son of the Mazda worshipper, of the god Ardashir, King of Kings of the Iranians, of the race of gods, grandson of Papak, king; of the Empire of Iran, I am the sovereign.”[2] In a famous letter to the Roman emperor, Shapur II styled himself “king of kings, partner of the stars, brother of the sun and moon.”[3] The same sentiments were proclaimed in the rock carvings which depicted Sasanid kings in the presence of their divine ancestors and receiving the emblem of royalty from Ohrmazd (Ahura Mazda) himself and on the imperial crowns which bore symbols of the sun and moon. Royal authority was also buttressed by linking it to both religious and national sentiments. Special fire temples in honor of the Sasanid house were established, and kings were venerated as deities after their death. Playing on the coincidence that the word for Aryan, er, also meant humble, Tansar said “we are called ‘the Iranian people,’ and there is no quality or trait of excellence or nobility which we hold dearer than this, that we have ever showed humility and lowliness and humbleness in the service of kings, and have chosen obedience and loyalty, devotion and fidelity.”[4]

The Sasanid Aristocracy: Despite the emphasis on monarchy, the Sasanid Empire remained a very aristocratic state, and in practice its real division was not into four classes but into a privileged class of the seven great noble families and the masses of ordinary people. As Tansar said, the king “has established a visible and general distinction between men of noble birth and common people with regard to horses and clothes, houses and gardens, women and servants. Furthermore he has set differences among the nobles themselves...according to the dignity of each man’s rank; that they may look after their own households and know the privileges and places appropriate to themselves. So no commoner may share sources of enjoyment of life with the nobles, and alliance and marriage between the two groups is forbidden.”[5] The separation of the nobility from commoners, and the desire to keep wealth concentrated in the tight-knit great families, even received a religious sanction through the Zoroastrian practice of encouraging next-of-kin marriages (father-daughter, brother-sister) which most societies would regard as incestuous. Since the nobility and the aristocratic ideal were so entrenched, the rulers sought to co-opt, not destroy, the noble families and local rulers through the granting of titles and privileges which would attach them to the court and make them dependent on the King of Kings. This led to the establishment of a complex, highly structured system of administration for the clergy, military, and bureaucracy headed respectively by a chief priest, commander-in-chief (later four spahbads or generals), and prime minister. Many subordinate ranks in each division extended down to the district level. Particularly important governorships were often held by members of the royal family itself.

The Sasanid State Religion. Religion clearly constituted one of the main foundations of the new royal authority in the Sasanid empire. The Parthian rulers had also been Zoroastrian in religion, but they tended to follow very tolerant religious policies and to allow numerous regional cults and shrines to be maintained by their vassals. This approach was not at all compatible with the kind of centralized, monarchical state that the Sasanids wished to build. They wished rather to create a single, unified Zoroastrian state church under their own control. Ardashir himself is supposed to have begun the process of destroying the regional religious cults and temples that had appeared under the Parthians and suppressing, by force if necessary, unauthorized religious activity such as the worship of images of deities. He was particularly concerned to prevent the maintenance of the sacred fires established by local authorities in Parthian times and allow only the regnal fires associated with his dynasty. In addition, the orthodox Magian priesthood was restored and reorganized in a hierarchical system headed by a chief priest appointed by the king. Tansar and Kartir were the first two of these chief priests, and both authored writings that reflect clearly the thrust of Sasanid religious policy. Tansar defended Ardashir’s actions on the grounds that he was restoring the true religion and emphasized the harmony of interests between the monarchy and the established church: “Church and State were born of the one womb, joined together and never to be sundered.”[6] Kartir recorded how he was made “absolute in authority over the order of priests at court and in every province and place throughout the empire” and boasted that “religious activities were increased, many Vahram fires were founded, and many priests became happy and prosperous.” In his words, he had “made the Mazda-worshipping religion and the good priests exalted and honored in the land.”[7]

            One of the most important consequences of the Sasanid religious policy was that the hymns and teachings of Zoroastrianism, which previously existed in oral form, were collected together in official written versions. The most important of these texts was the Avesta, containing the oldest and basic scriptures of Zoroastrianism such as the Gathas (hymns of Zoroaster), the Yasna (various prayers and the Zoroastrian articles of faith), and the Yasht (hymns in honor of various deities.) At least three editions of the Avesta were prepared under the auspices of the Sasanid rulers, the last and most authoritative being completed during the reign of Khusrau Anushirvan. The texts of the Avesta were recorded in a special script which preserved the sounds of the ancient Iranian dialect in which they had been composed. Other religious writings, such as the commentary on the Avesta known as the Zand, were set down in the Sasanid vernacular language known as Middle Persian or Pahlavi. This can be seen as a deliberate policy formulated by the Sasanid rulers to insured that their tongue would be the language of the whole empire, and that they, rather than previous rulers such as the Parthians, would receive full credit for fostering religious knowledge. The Sasanid encouragement of literary scholarship also extended to non-religious learning. Other writings prepared under court and priestly supervision included works on history, notably the Book of Kings.

Sasanid Economic and Legal Policies. The Sasanid monarchs employed many other methods besides royal propaganda and the establishment of a state church to strengthen their hold on the empire. They also took concrete steps to win the loyalty and obedience of their subjects by attending to their material and social needs. They were very active in undertaking new irrigation works that would make more land available for agricultural production. They also sought to expand the urban life of the empire through the foundation of new cities. Ardashir alone is supposed to have founded eight cities, and both Shapur I and Khusrau Anushirvan established cities which they populated with prisoners taken during their wars. These projects not only had the effect of stimulating agricultural production, promoting trade and commerce, and increasing government revenues, they also expanded the numbers of people and the amount of land under the direct control of the monarchy rather than the noble families.

            Perhaps the most effective rationale for the Sasanid concept of monarchy was the function of the king as the guarantor of law and justice in society. The Sasanids established courts throughout their empire, from the largest cities to the smallest rural districts. They also maintained that, at least in theory, even the humblest subject could appeal directly to the monarch to right a wrong. In practice, the administration of the law was largely in the hands of the Zoroastrian clergy. The law itself was based heavily on the religious principles of Zoroastrianism, royal decrees, and precedents set in earlier cases. A fairly comprehensive manual of the law, known as the “Book of a Thousand Legal Decisions,” was compiled during the reign of Khusrau Parviz. The concern of the Sasanid rulers for their duty of insuring justice is reflected in many of the legendary stories told about them in later Iranian and Islamic tradition. As Khusrau Anushirvan is supposed to have said, “The throne depends on the army, the army on revenue, revenue on agriculture, and agriculture on justice” and “The prosperity of the people is more important than a large army, and royal justice is more beneficial than times of abundance.”[8]


Decline and Fall of Sasanid Persia

Despite Khusrau Anushirvan’s accomplishments, the Sasanid empire went into rapid decline after his death. One factor was widespread discontent among the military nobility, especially in northeastern Iran. This manifested itself in the revolt of Bahram Chubin, a general descended from an old Parthian family, who came very close to overthrowing the Sasanid dynasty. Khusrau Parviz (591-628) defeated Bahram and retained his throne largely because of assistance from the Byzantine emperor Maurice. When his benefactor Maurice was himself overthrown in a similar revolt by disgruntled elements of his army in 602, Khusrau launched another war against the Byzantines. The Persian forces were actually able to take Jerusalem in 614 and Alexandria in 619, and these initial successes apparently caused Khusrau Parviz to nourish the illusion that he was destined to rule the world from the Mediterranean to China. In actuality, the wars and the extravagant luxury of his court severely overextended his resources. He also made a serious mistake when he deposed, largely because of a personal grudge, Nu’man, the king of the Lakhmid Arab buffer state, in 602. This ultimately produced an Arab revolt and the defeat of a Sasanid army at Dhu Qar in 611. By 627, the Persians were being badly beaten by the Byzantines. A new revolt, in which some of Khusrau’s own sons were involved, then broke out; Khusrau was deposed and murdered. The remaining years of the dynasty were marked by internal strife, frequent change of rulers; neglect and disruption of the crucial irrigation systems in Mesopotamia; and serious outbreaks of. disease and famine. Weakened and bitterly divided, the empire was unable to resist the attacks of the Arabs, who seized the capital in 637 and defeated the imperial army in its last stand at Nihavand in 642. The last Sasanid king, Yazdgard III, fled to eastern Iran and tried in vain to rally resistance to the Arabs. He was killed by one of his own subjects in 651.

            With the flight and murder of Yazdgard III, the Sasanid Empire came to a pathetic end, but it left behind a brilliant cultural legacy. Its conception of monarchy and court life, its institutions of government and administration, its integration of state and religion, its social structure and laws, and its arts and architecture would all profoundly affect the Arab and Islamic civilization which arose out of its ruins.

Section 2: The Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine developed gradually out of what had been the eastern portions of the Roman Empire and survived in one form or another until 1453. The Byzantines successfully blended the traditions and institutions of imperial Rome with Christianity and Greek culture into a distinct and influential civilization. They kept alive concepts of Roman law, helped define Christianity as a religion, protected the eastern borders of Europe, and preserved much of classical Greek literature and learning.

It is difficult to say when the history of the Byzantine Empire began because there never was an empire which called itself Byzantium or whose inhabitants identified themselves as Byzantines. “Byzantine” was really a name devised by others to describe the state which developed out of the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Even worse, it was often intended to suggest that this state was inferior to its predecessor, and it is still too frequently used in a pejorative way to imply decadence, deviousness, and untrustworthiness. The name has become too firmly established to ignore, but it should be remembered that until this empire was destroyed in 1453 its people always called themselves “Romans” and had no doubt that their empire was still the Roman Empire.

            The event that most conveniently marks the beginning of the transition from a “Roman” to a “Byzantine” Empire was the establishment by the Emperor Constantine of a new city, which came to be called Constantinople (modern Istanbul), during the period 324-330. This “Second Rome” was built at a site carefully chosen for its defensibility and strategic location across the main lines of communication between Europe and Asia, the Black Sea and the Mediterranean. It quickly became one of the greatest cities in the world with a population of perhaps a million people. Constantine’s move to the new city was necessitated primarily because of the threats to the eastern parts of the empire from the Goths who were pushing across the Danube into the Balkans and the Sasanid Persians who were vigorously challenging Roman authority in Syria and Asia Minor. It also made sense in view of the increasing Christianization of the Empire and the declining prosperity of its western provinces. However, Constantine never intended that his new city should completely replace Rome. Rather, he intended it to serve as a strongly fortified military city, a commercial center, and an alternative residence for rulers who increasingly had to spend much of their time in the east. In practice, there were often co-emperors based in the dual capitals down to 476 when the last emperor in the West abdicated. By that time, however, real authority in the West lay in the hands of Germanic invaders such as the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals.

            Despite the events of 476, the emperors in the East did not relinquish their claim to authority over the West. One last, determined effort to restore the unity of the old Roman imperium was made by the Emperor Justinian (527-565). Despite renewed conflict with the Sasanids, Justinian’s generals, notably the famous Belisarius, were able to recover much of Italy, North Africa, and Spain and restore Byzantine naval supremacy in the Mediterranean. The costs of these wars, coupled with those of Justinian’s other programs such as the construction of the magnificent basilica of St. Sophia, were enormous, and the exorbitant taxes he levied to pay for them somewhat tarnished the prestige his victories brought. It also became increasingly apparent that the interests of the populations in the two halves of the empire were not entirely compatible; religious issues in particular tended to drive them apart.

            What Justinian’s wars ultimately made clear was that the empire simply no longer had the strength or the resources to maintain its position in both the western Mediterranean and the East. His successors had to face grave threats from attacks by the Avars and the Slavs as well as the Sasanids. Under the double assault, the very survival of the empire depended on concentrating its defenses on the eastern territories rather than trying to hold on to the western provinces, which gradually slipped away.

At this moment of crisis, the Emperor Heraclius (610-641) managed to rally and reorganize the empire. He drove the Persians back to the gates of their capital, and established Byzantine authority over the Slavs who had poured into the Balkans. Then a new, unexpected, and even more formidable threat appeared in the form of the Arabs. United under the banner of their religion, Islam, and assisted by widespread dissatisfaction among the population of Egypt and Syria, Arab armies defeated the Byzantines at the fierce battle of Yarmuk (636) and pushed them back in the north to a border more or less fixed along the line of the Taurus Mountains in Asia Minor. By 647, the Arabs had conquered Egypt, and in 697, with the fall of Carthage, they deprived the Byzantines of their hold on North Africa. These losses reduced the empire to a core of territory from the Adriatic to Armenia, which would constitute its effective limits for most of its history.

            Even this vastly truncated empire was still in danger. Raids by the Arabs in 677 and the Bulgars in 679 reached the very walls of Constantinople. In 717, one of the better Byzantine generals, Leo the Isaurian, managed to make himself emperor. In addition to founding the so-called Isaurian dynasty, Leo III (717-740) was able to drive back a major Arab assault on Constantinople (717-718), defeat the Bulgars, and perfect a system of administration and defense referred to as the theme system. There is no consensus among historians about exactly when the theme system was instituted, how it operated, or whether its effects were beneficial or harmful. In general, the theme system organized the empire into a number of provinces (themata), each under the command of a military governor (strategos) and garrisoned by troops permanently quartered in the province. In exchange for their military service, the troops were given grants of tax-exempt farmland to help support themselves; the estate and associated military duty could be inherited. The idea seems to have been that this would provide a kind of provincial militia that could respond quickly to an invasion or raid. The soldiers would also be highly motivated to fight well since they would, in a sense, be defending their homes.

The theme system may have been of critical importance in defending what was left of the empire and laying the foundation for a revival of imperial power. However, it also meant that the centralized civilian administration was giving up its authority in the provinces to military administrators. At least in theory, the provincial military governors served at the pleasure of the emperor, and the civilian central government retained a degree of control by appointing some tax collectors and fiscal officials. In practice, however, the theme system tended to militarize the provinces, creating a provincial landed aristocracy, armies under individual control, and potential centers for revolts. Equally controversial was the religious policy of the Isaurians. Leo III endorsed a movement called Iconoclasm, which rejected the veneration of religious images (icons). Iconoclasm was extremely unpopular among the Byzantine monks and Latin Christians including the Pope and was finally abandoned. All of this had the effect of increasing the authority of the emperor over the Eastern Church while further alienating much of western Christianity.

            Not surprisingly, a century of devastating wars, internal upheavals, and erosion of territory produced fundamental changes in the character of the empire. Its high culture became more uniformly Greek, and its Latin elements less important. It tended to emphasize the collection and protection of traditional knowledge rather than the creation of new works. (This was perhaps fortunate, since many of those works might otherwise have been lost, and Byzantine scholars could not have passed on the classical Greek learning that was so influential in Western Europe during the Renaissance.) Eastern, Greek Orthodox, Christianity developed differently from western, Latin Catholic, Christianity. Not least, the urban style of life practiced in numerous cities, which had characterized the classical world, was impossible against a background of war and insecurity.

As insecurity levels rose in the Empire, towns typically declined in size or were abandoned altogether as their populations sought refuge on fortified hills. As they abandoned town life, many turned from trade to agriculture as their primary means of living. These developments, however, only increased the importance of the remaining great city, Constantinople, as the clear center of the empire. The emperor and the court aristocracy in the capital became, if anything, even more authoritarian and hierarchical in nature. At the same time, the military and a hereditary landed aristocracy played more important roles in politics and society. If these changes made for a different kind of empire, they also made for a stronger and more cohesive one.

            The revival of this now fully “Byzantine” empire coincided with the rule of a dynasty of emperors known as the Macedonians (867-1056). The Macedonian emperors gradually reformed the administration and finances of the empire, stimulated the economy, improved the conditions of the peasantry, emphasized policies based on concepts of law and order, increased their authority over the church, controlled the aristocracy while maintaining its loyalty to the crown, promoted arts and letters, and enhanced the prestige of the monarchy through elaborate court rituals and etiquette. They also revived a heavily armored cavalry as the backbone of the Byzantine army. This produced many military successes and territorial gains, including the recovery of parts of Syria from the Arabs and the destruction and annexation of the Bulgarian kingdom. The Macedonian period was in many ways the golden age of Byzantine history.

            After the death of Basil II (976-1025), the empire entered another period of crisis and decline. This was partly due to internal struggles among rivals for the crown, renewed growth of large landed estates, the political intrigues of a few very powerful aristocratic families, and a decisive break with the western church. The decisive blow, however, was the appearance of new rival powers in the form of the European Crusaders and the Seljuk Turks. The Turks took over the role that had been played by the Arabs as the great menace to the eastern borders of the empire. In 1071, the Turkish Sultan Alp Arslan defeated the imperial army and captured the emperor Romanus at the Battle of Manzikert. This enabled the Turks to occupy most of Asia Minor, and a last desperate effort by the Byzantines to recover the territory was crushed at the Battle of Myriocephalon (1176). Meanwhile, the Crusaders had arrived, ostensibly to assist the Byzantines against their new Muslim enemy. They soon proved to be an even greater threat than the Turks, nibbling away at Byzantine territory, establishing their own principalities, and in 1204 using the Fourth Crusade to conquer Constantinople itself. In 1261, Michael VIII Palaeologus recovered Constantinople and founded the last of the Byzantine dynasties. The empire ruled by the House of Palaeologus, however, was a sad shadow of its former self. Despite the best efforts of the Palaeologians, who as often as not were their own worst enemies, the small amount of territory under Byzantine control continued to shrink until only the city of Constantinople was left. It fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 and the empire came to an end.


Byzantine State and Society

The Office of Emperor. Throughout Byzantine history, the office of emperor was an institution of critical importance. It combined features drawn both from the Roman imperial tradition and from Christianity. On the one hand, the emperor was regarded as the successor of the Roman Augustus, essentially a commander-in-chief of the army and head of administration elected by the Senate, People and Army to rule. The formalities of this ancient election process were carefully observed, and there were many occasions when one or more of the electoral bodies exercised the ability to make and unmake emperors. However, the dynastic ideal was also strong since the emperor could name a co-emperor, usually a son, who would likely be confirmed as his successor. The concept that an emperor needed to come from a legitimate royal lineage eventually became an essential qualification for holding the office.

            At the same time, the emperor was regarded as a sacred priest-king, a notion that was reinforced by Christian doctrine. The early Christians had been told “Be subject for the Lord’s sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to praise those who do right.”[9] If Christians were supposed to honor a pagan emperor, it could be argued that they owed an even greater degree of obedience to emperors who had become Christians and were acting as champions of the Christian church. From this point of view, the Byzantine emperor was indeed the deputy of Christ on earth, holding the sovereignty on His behalf until His return. He was thus the only legitimate ruler in the world, the head of both church and state, with full authority over both secular and religious affairs. This combination of religious and temporal power in one autocratic ruler is called caesaropapism.

            The elevated, almost superhuman, status of the emperor above all his subjects was indicated in many ways—his coronation, his separation and seclusion from ordinary people through his life in the palace, the use of purple and gold in the robes and ornaments of royalty, the elaborate ceremonies and rituals which surrounded court life, and the largesse which he dispensed in public works and philanthropy. The grandeur of the office, for example, might be emphasized through prokypsis (a ceremony which involved seating the emperor on a raised platform behind a curtain, which was then drawn back to reveal him bathed in a brilliant light); the status of the emperor was symbolized through proskynesis (bowing, kneeling or otherwise showing reverence when coming before the emperor).

            The Byzantine conception of monarchy was also reflected in its art: Portraits of the emperor would not only show him in magnificent imperial attire and holding the regalia of office, he would be depicted with a halo as if he were a saint or apostle. The emperor would also often be depicted prostrate and humble or bearing gifts before an enthroned Christ. The proper attitude of the subject to the emperor should resemble that of the emperor to Christ, whose temporarily vacant throne he was holding.

Byzantine Law. The emperor was especially responsible for the establishment of justice and order in society. Indeed, the Byzantine emperor was both the chief administrator of existing law and the “living law” with authority to issue new legislation. Although technically above the law and free to change it at will, the emperors displayed remarkable restraint and preferred to act as preservers and upholders of earlier law. One way that this was done was by preparing written codes which would combine and harmonize all the laws of the empire that had developed over the centuries.

            Many emperors commissioned such codifications of the law, but by far the greatest and most influential was that prepared on the orders of Justinian during the period 530-533. Known as the Corpus Juris Civilis, this codification served as the textbook for the great schools of law in Constantinople and Beirut. It included four parts: the Institutes (a handbook of civil law), the Digest (excerpts of classical Roman law arranged by subject), the Codex Justinianus (a collection of laws issued by emperors since the time of Hadrian), and the Novels (new laws issued by Justinian).

            Byzantine law as revealed in the Corpus was thoroughly Roman in conception and content, with some modifications to accommodate the needs of the Byzantine socio-political system and its Christian religion. Although updated and emended in codifications ordered by later emperors, the law code prepared by Justinian remained the basic framework of Byzantine law. It also served as the model for the implementation of Roman law in Europe and thus remains the foundation for many of the legal systems in use in the world today.

The Byzantine Aristocracy. Byzantine society was essentially aristocratic and hierarchical in nature. The law codes, for example, distinguished sharply between rich and poor, the nobility and common people. By law, punishments for criminals of noble status were far less harsh than those for commoners and slaves—where the ordinary person would be hung or burned alive, the nobleman would simply be sent into exile. This distinction on the basis of class, which eroded the legal protections once accorded to all free citizens, had begun much earlier but was exaggerated in Byzantine times by the increasing militarization of society and the hierarchical structure of the autocracy and the church.

            While there was no question that a privileged aristocratic class should dominate Byzantine society, there was considerable tension about who should constitute the aristocracy. Unlike some other aristocratic societies, the Byzantine social structure was neither completely closed nor static. At times, “nobility” might be defined primarily by rank and reputation which had been conferred by the emperor on the basis of merit more than simply birth. There are many examples of Byzantine aristocrats who rose from lower classes to the highest levels of society—the Empress Theodora, wife of Justinian, had been a circus performer; Basil, founder of the Macedonian dynasty, had been a peasant.

            At other times, noble status was acquired primarily by birth into one of the powerful aristocratic families which had developed out of the theme system. These families tended to possess huge amounts of land, monopolize military commands on a hereditary basis, emphasize the importance of ancestry and lineage, and protect their property holdings by marrying only within their own class. The outlook of this type of aristocrat is well illustrated in the famous epic poem about the frontier warrior Digenes Akritas where religious zeal, military valor, family connections, and the hereditary possession of land are prized values.

            Various emperors tried to control this class by maintaining a non-hereditary civilian court aristocracy based on rank and merit and by protecting the smaller and weaker landowners. By the end of the Macedonian period, however, a more or less permanent, hereditary aristocracy composed of the royal family itself, families holding government offices, and landed provincial families thoroughly dominated Byzantine society.

Women in Byzantine Society. The status of women in the Byzantine Empire is of special interest. Byzantine society certainly reflected both the Roman idea that women should be subject to the authority of men and the Christian notion that women, as daughters of Eve, were a source of temptation and trouble and should be strictly supervised. Ideally, women should protect their chastity and virtue, perhaps by entering a convent; otherwise, they should stay at home, raise children, manage the household, and engage in appropriate female occupations such as weaving, sewing, and cooking.

            While it is clear enough that Byzantine women were hardly the equals of men, they were certainly better off in many respects than women in other contemporary societies. The laws of Justinian protected the property rights of women and even gave them the right of divorce despite the strong opposition to this from the church. The Ecloga issued in 741 by Leo III and Constantine V also confirmed the equal share of wife and husband in their property. Daughters and sons shared equally in the division of an estate.

            It may be that many of the legal protections afforded women—permitting divorce, protecting their share of an estate, outlawing practices such as marriage of second cousins—were intended to inhibit the concentration of wealth in aristocratic families or to assert imperial authority over the church. Nonetheless, it is clear that the laws did afford Byzantine women some important benefits. At least among the aristocracy, women tended to be well educated and had the potential to play very prominent roles in politics, religious life, and intellectual life. Theodora, wife of Justinian and a powerful empress, and Anna Comnena, daughter of Alexius III and author of a history of his reign, are two good examples.

            Another important and strong-willed Byzantine woman was the Empress Zoe. Zoe (978-1042) was the beautiful, talented and popular daughter of Constantine VIII. Constantine had no sons and did not want the Macedonian line of emperors to end. On his deathbed, he therefore arranged a marriage between Zoe and the nobleman Romanus Argyrus.

            Romanus’ wife was tricked into entering a convent. Romanus went to the palace and, in the words of the Byzantine historian Psellus, “The most beautiful of Constantine’s daughters was no sooner in his sight than she was made his bride. So her father, having survived just long enough to see the marriage ceremony performed, passed away and left the Empire to his kinsman, Romanus.”[10] It was purely a marriage of convenience; the legitimacy of the rule of Romanus III (1028-34) was based on this relation to the Macedonians by virtue of his marriage to Zoe. Zoe, fifty years old and unable to have children, cared little for the elderly Romanus and soon began a love affair with a handsome young courtier, Michael the Paphlagonian. She persuaded Michael to have Romanus drowned while taking a bath and then had Michael proclaimed emperor.

            Michael IV (1034-41) proved ungrateful, pushing Zoe aside, having her watched by spies, and compelling her to adopt his nephew and intended heir, Michael the Caulker. When he came to the throne as Michael V (1041-42), he hoped to get rid of Zoe and packed her off to live in a convent on an island in the Sea of Marmara. This led to riots in the city of Constantinople and the eventual fall from power of Michael V.

            Zoe and her sister Theodora acted as ruler until she married her third husband and emperor, Constantine Monomachus (1042-1055), shortly before she died. A vivid account of the rule of the sisters was given by Psellus. Although shocked at the idea that women were now rulers and quite critical of their faults, he admitted that “both the civilian population and the military caste were working in harmony under empresses, and more obedient to them than to any proud overlord issuing arrogant commands.”[11]

            To many historians, Zoe was just a pretty and pious woman kept as a palace decoration for the dynastic legitimacy she conferred and whose rule marked the beginning of Byzantine decline. Even in Psellus’ account, however, there are ways in which she could be seen as an intelligent, generous (perhaps overly generous), and diligent ruler. A famous mosaic portrait of Zoe next to one of her husbands exists on the walls of St. Sophia church.

Christianity in the Byzantine Empire

Christianity was at first the favored religion of most of the early Byzantine emperors; by the time of Justinian it was the official and only truly acceptable religion. Justinian’s law code began with the premise that all the subjects of the empire should “practice the religion which the divine Peter the Apostle transmitted to the Romans” and those who followed other religions or heresies treaded on dangerous legal grounds. Christianity, along with Roman tradition and Greek learning, was an absolutely essential element in Byzantine culture, and the church, alongside the monarchy and the aristocracy, was the third great pillar of Byzantine society. The importance of the Christian faith in shaping Byzantine civilization cannot be overstated. In general three very distinctive features marked the Byzantine form of Christianity—its conception of the organization of the church, its great concern with the suppression of heresy and the maintenance of a uniform orthodox faith, and its practice of monasticism.

            In Byzantine Christianity, the church was organized in much the same hierarchical fashion as any other department of the state. Byzantine Christianity unambiguously affirmed that the emperor was the head of the church and should be since he was the individual most directly responsible for its defense and its growth. Below the emperor came the other ranks and grades of church officials from the patriarchs of the major Christian cities (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem) to the various other metropolitans, archbishops, bishops and diocesan officials down to the local priests. In the early periods, there was obvious rivalry and friction among the top church officials. While the Byzantines generally acknowledged that the Bishop of Rome or Pope had special prestige and status, they did not allow that he had any absolute or infallible authority over religious matters. They tended to vest such authority in councils where church officials would meet and settle any controversy. Since Rome was not often under Byzantine control after 476 and Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were eventually conquered by the Arabs, the Patriarch of Constantinople became the de facto leader of the entire Orthodox Church subject only to the authority of the emperor. In practice, the emperors tended to leave church matters in the hands of the patriarchs whom they nominated to office.

            As Justinian put it, nothing was more pleasing to God than unanimity of faith among the believers. Much of Byzantine religious activity was aimed at defining and enforcing that uniformity of belief. For the Byzantines, orthodoxy in religion was determined by the decisions of the seven great ecumenical councils convened under imperial auspices and attended by the leading representatives of the church. These councils dealt with many issues from the date of Easter to the size of the diocese of Constantinople, but the recurrent problem they faced was that of “Christology,” trying to define how, through the miracle of the Incarnation, two seemingly incompatible natures—human and divine—had been combined in the one person of Jesus Christ.

The Emperor Constantine had convened the First Council at Nicaea in 325. It condemned the teachings of Arius, a popular preacher in Alexandria, that Christ was not fully divine and produced the statement of belief known as the Nicaean Creed, which is followed by virtually all Christian churches. The Third Council at Ephesus (431) condemned Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople, for teaching that the human and divine natures of Christ were separate and that Mary should not therefore be referred to as “Mother of God”; his followers seceded and formed their own Nestorian church under Persian protection. The Fourth Council at Chalcedon (451) condemned Dioscorus, Patriarch of Alexandria, for following the teaching of Eutychius that the two natures of Christ had become one after the Incarnation. The Council of Chalcedon produced the definitive Byzantine view that after the Incarnation Christ continued to have two indivisible natures existing in one person. This alienated many of the Egyptian and Syrian Christians who preferred the Monophysite idea of one nature that was both perfectly human and divine. Subsequent councils failed to come up with an acceptable compromise on this question. The Seventh Council at Nicaea in 787 condemned Iconoclasm, the last of the major religious controversies in the Byzantine Empire.

The theological issues involved in these councils were complex and subtle, and it is difficult for many people today to understand why they were so important. It is clear, however, that the Byzantines took such matters very seriously, arguing fiercely about them at every level of society. For one thing, incorrect faith was not just an individual error that endangered one’s soul or one’s place in the church; it was a crime against the state and could be punished as such. The theological debates also tended to be mixed up with other political, social, economic, and ethnic divisions and could have far-reaching consequences—the Monophysite controversy, for example, certainly contributed to dissatisfaction in Syria and Egypt which facilitated the Arab conquests and led to the breakup of churches there into Orthodox (Melkite) and Monophysite (Coptic, Jacobite) divisions.

            Monasticism began in Egypt among Christians like St. Antony (251-356) who wished to withdraw from the world and live a life of austere piety. From this developed two types of Byzantine monasticism, eremetic (hermits living in solitude and practicing a severe asceticism) and cenobitic (a community of monks or nuns living together in an agreed upon way). There were a good many of the eremetic monks during the early Byzantine period, beginning with St. Antony himself. One of the best known was St. Symeon Stylites (d. 459) who spent most of his life on top of a stone column that was eventually raised over forty feet high, praying and preaching to the masses of people who flocked to be near the holy man.

Despite, or perhaps because, of its popular appeal, eremetic monasticism was viewed with suspicion by both the church and the government. St. Basil the Great (329-379) much preferred that monks and nuns live in organized communities and wrote an influential set of rules for governing them. He also thought that monks should not practice extreme asceticism, that they should work and strive for economic self-sufficiency, and that monasteries could be founded in cities as well as in the wilderness. Many such monasteries were founded throughout the Byzantine Empire and in all periods of its history, but they were never institutionalized into “orders” nor completely subjected to the authority of the regular clergy. They served many functions as a place where its members could try to live a Christian life, as a place of asylum or exile for those in political or social disfavor, and as a source of assistance to people in need. They were supported by donations of property from the emperors, private gifts, and their own income. Some became quite rich and had extensive land-holdings. The greatest center of Byzantine monasticism was Mt. Athos, home to dozens of monasteries (all male since women were and still are strictly excluded from entry to the Holy Mountain.)


Legacy of Byzantium

Although much of Byzantine art and architecture has been lost, enough survives to give a clear impression of its magnificence. The Byzantine emphasis on the value of education resulted in the preservation of many of the great literary and intellectual works of the Hellenistic world which would have otherwise been lost. Most scholars agree that the eventual transmission of this Greek learning to Western Europe was instrumental in inspiring the Renaissance. Although the empire fell, its tradition has continued to live on in the form of the legal systems going back to the code of Justinian and the Greek Orthodox Church, which has had such powerful influence over much of Eastern Europe. In all these ways, the achievements of Byzantine civilization have had an immense and lasting impact on history.

Section 3

The Rise of Russia

The people known as the Rus took possession of an area from Novgorod to Kiev and began the process of building up a powerful new state in Eastern Europe. The Kievan rulers were heavily influenced by Byzantium, especially in religious matters. As Kievan Russia weakened and finally fell to nomadic invaders, the center of power shifted to the trading centers of the north, setting the stage for the emergence of Moscow as a “Third Rome” and successor to the Byzantine Empire.


Origins of the Rus

One of the most fateful encounters of the Byzantines with a foreign nation, and one which was to have far-reaching historical consequences, was that with the people known as the Rus. The first appearance of the Rus came in the form of a naval attack on the city of Constantinople itself, in the year 860. The Rus attackers had appeared suddenly and unexpectedly from the north with a flotilla of some 200 vessels. By chance or design, they struck at a moment when both the Byzantine army and fleet were away on another campaign. Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, described the results in one of his sermons:

      [This] does not resemble other inroads of barbarians; but the unexpectedness of the incursion and its extraordinary speed, the mercilessness of the barbarous race and the harshness of their temper and the savagery of their habits, prove that this blow has been sent from heaven like a thunderbolt....They despoiled the surroundings and plundered the suburbs, cruelly massacred captives and safely established themselves around all this (city), showing in their greed for our wealth such conceit and arrogance that the inhabitants did not even dare to look on them....[12]

The Rus did little more than pillage the environs of the city since they were utterly unable to break through the massive sea and land walls protecting Constantinople itself, and they eventually withdrew.

            But who were these Rus, after whom the Russian nation would eventually be named? According to one school of thought, the Rus were Scandinavian in origin, and their attack on Constantinople was simply another example of the Viking or Norman raids which were devastating much of Europe and the Mediterranean world during the ninth century. Other scholars, especially those in Russia and the Soviet Union, have rejected this theory, pointing to some evidence which suggests that the Rus were a Slavic people who had been long established in the area north of the Black Sea.

            Certainly, by the time of the raid on Constantinople, Slavic speaking peoples had spread across most of Eastern Europe—the Western Slavs in what would become Poland and Czechoslovakia; the Southern Slavs throughout the Balkans, and the Eastern Slavs all along the plain of the Dnieper River as far west as the Danube and as far east as the upper Volga. The corridor from the Baltic to the Black Sea inhabited by the Eastern Slavs was an important trade route for both the Byzantines and the Muslims who wished to import slaves, furs, amber, wax, metal, and various foodstuffs from the region. It was also an unsettled, rather chaotic, and often dangerous area for merchants: An anonymous Persian geographer, for example, reported that a town produced excellent swords but “strangers are killed whenever they visit it.”[13]

            Against this background, it does appear that a group of Scandinavian people, perhaps known as the Rus, were able to insinuate themselves as the ruling elite in the area. As explained in a medieval text known as the Russian Primary Chronicle, the Rus, like the Swedes, Normans, or Angles, were Varangians (Scandinavian traders or warriors who had taken an oath of loyalty to each other). The Slavs and other people living along the Dnieper River “said to the people of Rus’, ‘Our land is great and rich, but there is no order in it. Come to rule and reign over us.’ They thus selected three brothers, with their kinsfolk, who took with them all the Russes and migrated.”[14] The oldest of the brothers, Rurik, established himself in the fortified trading center on the upper Dnieper known as Novgorod, while two of his nobles (boyars) took control of Kiev, on the middle Dnieper, launching the attack on Constantinople from there. A few years later, Rurik’s successor Oleg took over Smolensk, Lyubech, and Kiev, which he made his capital (the traditional date is 882.) The size of the Varangian population and the extent of its cultural influence on the Slavs may be open to question, but there is little reason to doubt its importance in the founding of Kievan Russia.


Kievan Russia

Under the leadership of the Kievan rulers, the Rus confederation rapidly grew in size and power. A number of Slavic tribes were either forced or persuaded to recognize the authority of Oleg and his successors. Sviatoslav (962-972) continued to subjugate various Finnic and Slavic areas, sacked the capital of the Volga Bulgars, and, in the most impressive campaign, smashed the Khazar army and penetrated deep into their territory as far as the Caspian Sea. After successful campaigns against the Danubian Bulgars and the nomadic Pechenegs, Sviatoslav renewed the Russian offensive against Constantinople. It was his misfortune that this period coincided with the resurgence of Byzantine military strength under the Macedonian emperors. John Tzimisces crushed the Russian invasion in 969 and extracted a peace treaty from Sviatoslav in 971 that recognized Byzantine authority in the Balkans and the Crimea. Sviatoslav was then attacked and killed by the Pechenegs while on his way back to Kiev.

            The initial encounters between the Rus and the Byzantines were thus hostile ones. They made clear, however, that Byzantium was by far the superior power—the surprise attack in 860, subsequent raids in 907 and 941, and the disastrous offensive of 969 all proved to be more of a nuisance than a threat to the Byzantines. At the same time, the Byzantines wisely perceived that there was much to be gained from trying to cooperate with the Russians.

A number of circumstances tended to bring the two peoples together. One factor was mutual trading interests. After the various raids, in 866, 911, and 944, the Byzantines agreed to treaties which accorded considerable commercial advantages to the Rus and which demonstrated the economic benefits to be derived from peaceful relations. In addition, the Byzantines sent gifts to the Kievan rulers and permitted Russians to serve in the Byzantine army (where some eventually made up the Varangian Guard, an elite imperial bodyguard.) Another factor was the appearance of common enemies such as the Bulgars and Pechenegs. Here, too, the Byzantines demonstrated that they were willing to work in alliance with the Russians as evidenced by Nicephorus Phocas’ invitation of Sviatoslav to attack the Danubian Bulgars.

The third, and perhaps most critical, factor in transforming the Russian-Byzantine relationship was religion. The Patriarch Photius had immediately realized the benefits that would be gained if the pagan Russians could be converted to Orthodox Christianity and started missionary activities towards that end. The influence of Christianity on the Russians was also encouraged by the presence of Christian communities in the trading cities of the Crimean peninsula and the acceptance of Christianity by Boris, king of the Bulgarians, around 864. No later than 867, there must have been numerous Russian conversions to Christianity, for it was then that Photius wrote a letter stating that the Russians had ceased their destructive activities and “their desires and attachments to the faith have become so burning that they have accepted a bishop...and embraced the beliefs of Christians.”[15]  By 944, a church had been established in Kiev. Around 954, the Grand Princess Olga, mother of Sviatoslav, visited Byzantium, was greatly honored by the Emperor Leo, and agreed to be baptized.

All of these factors drawing Kievan Russia and Byzantium together culminated during the reign of Vladimir (980-1015), who abandoned earlier aggressive policies and sought improved relations with Byzantium. He made an alliance with the Emperor Basil II, sent troops to help Basil put down a rebellion, and assisted in Byzantine attacks on the Bulgars. Eventually, he even married Basil’s sister Anna. The marriage with Anna, however, required that Vladimir change his religion.

Most of the Russians, including Vladimir himself, were still pagans, worshipping idols and practicing human sacrifice. In light of his closer association with Byzantium, Vladimir formulated a new religious policy. Traditional accounts claim that he considered converting to Judaism, Islam, or Latin Christianity but found the rituals and ideas of Orthodox Christianity as practiced in Byzantium more appealing. In any case, around the year 988, he was baptized, followed by the Kievan population, and the Russian church was officially established. For this decision, Vladimir was regarded as a saint and “the equal of the Apostles.”

The Russian church used its own language rather than Greek and like other orthodox national churches was technically self-governing (autocephalous) under the Metropolitan of Kiev. Nevertheless, it drew heavily on the Byzantine example of Christianity. This had the effect of opening the way for Byzantine influence to affect virtually every aspect of the culture of Kievan Russian, particularly during the reign of Yaroslav the Wise (1019-1054). Sumptuous new churches were constructed, notably the Church of St. Sophia in Kiev inspired by the example of St. Sophia in Constantinople. With the example of Mt. Athos in mind, Yaroslav also founded many monasteries, the most famous of which was the Cave Monastery near Kiev.

In addition to sponsoring the construction of religious buildings and patronizing priests and monks, Yaroslav also promoted learning and scholarship, a task made easier by the development of a written language using a new script for writing Old Church Slavonic that had been devised by the Byzantine missionaries Cyril and Methodius. Education was in the hands of the church, and the literature thus produced was largely religious and derivative as it focused on translating religious texts from Greek into Slavonic. However, it also laid the foundations for secular literature and facilitated other work such as drawing up a codification of Russian law patterned after Justinian’s Corpus. Over time, this religious policy gave a remarkable unity and sense of identity to the Kievan state; because of its Byzantine orientation, however, it also tended to separate Russian culture from that of Western Europe.


Decline of Kievan Russia

Kievan Russia began a slow decline after the death of Yaroslav. Changes in the international system of trade routes certainly contributed to this. Since Byzantium and the Middle Eastern states were also weakening, they did not constitute such strong markets, as had previously been the case. With the arrival of the Crusaders, merchants from Western Europe, especially Genoa and Venice, began to dominate the avenues of trade.

Recurrent political instability was another major factor in the decline. The rulers of Kiev never really became Byzantine style emperors or absolute autocrats. Rather, the Grand Prince of Kiev had to take into account the interests of other members of his family, his company of personal retainers (the druzhina), the princes and nobility of other cities, and the assemblies of free men. Quarrels and fighting among members of the aristocratic elite were almost unending. The development of regional tensions and rivalries, especially between Kiev and Novgorod, further complicated this internal strife. Novgorod tended to follow a more and more independent course since it had its own prince, powerful nobility, and political assembly; it was also much less affected by the changes in trade and the economy than Kiev. In 1136, the nobles of Novgorod expelled the prince appointed from Kiev, and in 1156 Novgorod also obtained the right to elect its own archbishop. Gradually, the political and economic center of Russia was shifting from Kiev in the south to Novgorod and eventually Moscow in the north.

            The final factor in the fall of Kievan Russia was the arrival of new invaders. The first of these were a nomadic Turkic people known as the Cumans or Polovtsy who began raiding Russian territory around 1061 and continued to be a problem for over a century. In the north, there were attacks by Swedes and the Teutonic Knights, both of which were driven back by Alexander Nevsky (1236-1263), prince of Novgorod and Vladimir. The greatest calamity, however, was the invasion of the Mongols. In 1223, an advance force of the army of Chengis Khan, under the general Subetai, crushed both the Russians and Polovtsy at the Battle of the Kalka River (1223). That campaign was interrupted by the death of Chengis Khan, but the Mongols returned under Batu Khan, demolishing the city of Kiev in 1240.

Section 4

Religious Rivalries and Nomadic Invasions

There are two themes which run throughout discussions of Sasanid, Byzantine, or early Russian history. One centers on the efforts of those empires to promote an official state religion in close association with a monarchical government. The other involves their attempts to resist the attacks of “barbarian” invaders. This was clearly an age of religious rivalries and nomadic invasions, and both these phenomena deserve closer attention.


Religious Rivalries

From the very beginning, both the Byzantine and Sasanid rulers used religion—distinctive forms of Christianity and Zoroastrianism respectively—to legitimize their authority, and they often pursued policies aimed at imposing a high degree of religious uniformity among their subjects. This may be attributed at least in part to their desire to achieve the degree of unity and social order necessary for survival in a precarious world. Unfortunately, the promotion of one official religion also implied that religious non-conformists could be viewed as political subversives or potential traitors. This inevitably resulted in intense religious rivalries, a high degree of religious intolerance, and on occasion outright religious persecution.

Religion in the Byzantine Empire

At first, the Byzantine emperors simply removed restrictions from Christians and treated Christianity as a favored religion among several that could be practiced in the Byzantine Empire. During the reign of Theodosius I (379-395), however, the policy definitely became one of promoting an official version of Christianity and discouraging or punishing those who did not accept it. As Justinian, following the decree of Theodosius, put it in his law code, such nonconformists were “demented and insane” and could be treated accordingly. Three main groups within the empire were particular targets of suspicion: Christian heretics, Jews, and pagans.

            In the case of Christians, the Byzantines used the early church councils to define what it was permissible to believe. Proponents of non-orthodox doctrines were labeled heretics and expelled from the church. Justinian held that their meeting places should not be called churches and that they would be punished by divine vengeance and imperial retribution. Adherents to some heresies, such as Paulicians and Bogomils, could be (and sometimes were) put to death.

            In one sense, the Byzantine effort to impose religious conformity among its Christian subjects succeeded. The church councils defined what constituted orthodox belief and there was little doctrinal dispute within the Greek Church thereafter. However, the Byzantines paid a high price for this. On the one hand, they alienated many of their Christian subjects such as those in Egypt and Syria who followed the teachings condemned at the councils, and this contributed to the loss of those provinces. On the other hand, their efforts to define doctrine also precipitated a conflict with the churches in the western provinces of the empire, especially those that looked for guidance to the bishop of Rome, the Pope. Eventually, the growing conflict over doctrine and lines of spiritual authority between the Byzantine church and the Papacy would result in a bitter schism between the Latin and Greek churches.

Jews. Jews would also have been among those judged “demented and insane” by Justinian because of their obstinate refusal to accept Christianity. There was one major period of actual persecution of Jews that took place in the context of the struggle with the Sasanids. Dhu Nuwas, the pro-Persian king of Yemen, converted to Judaism and cut off trade with the Byzantines. In response, there were attacks on Yemen by the Christian king of Abyssinia in 517 and 519. In 523, Dhu Nuwas massacred the Christians at Najran, allegedly in retaliation for the persecution of Jews in Byzantium. The Emperor Justin I (518-27) backed the King of Abyssinia and encouraged further attacks on Yemen, which resulted in its temporary conquest by the Abyssinians. There was then a counterattack and occupation by the Persians.

            The religious dimension of this geopolitical struggle extended into Byzantium itself. There was a major Jewish revolt in 555, when the empire was at war with the Sasanids, and Jews enthusiastically collaborated with the Persians during their occupation of Syria and Palestine (611-622), burning churches, robbing monasteries, and reportedly slaughtering as many as 60,000 Christians. After Heraclius defeated the Persians (622-628) and pushed them out of Byzantine territory, there were retaliatory massacres of Jews. Some synagogues were destroyed, the reading of the Old Testament in Hebrew was forbidden, Jews were banned from Jerusalem, and Heraclius even planned to force them to be baptized. However, the Arab conquests removed much of the Jewish population from Byzantine control, and other Jews simply fled the empire. Thereafter, as before, Jews were generally tolerated but regarded as inferior or second-class citizens and subjected to a wide range of discriminatory practices.

Pagans. Paganism was gradually eliminated from the Byzantine Empire. In 392, Theodosius issued an edict prohibiting the performance of pagan religious rituals throughout the empire and prescribing harsh penalties for engaging in them. Temples were closed, pagan shrines dismantled or looted, and activities such as the Olympic games terminated. The final blow to paganism came in 592 when Justinian ordered the school of philosophy in Athens, the last bastion of paganism, to be closed and its property confiscated. Some of the pagan intellectuals emigrated to Persia where they were welcomed by Khusrau Anushirvan. Any pagans who remained simply lived as quietly and inconspicuously as possible.

            As for pagans outside the Byzantine Empire, church leaders, such as the Patriarch Photius, quickly realized that there were opportunities for converting them. One consequence of Photius’ policy was the sending of two brothers, Methodius and Constantine (later known as Cyril) as missionaries to the Slavs. They wanted to preach to potential converts in their local language and to provide religious texts and a translation of the Bible in the vernacular languages. This led them to develop new scripts which came to be used for writing Slavic languages, and their mission had great success. The conversion of the Bulgarians and Russians are two significant examples of the Byzantine success at spreading Christianity throughout Eastern Europe.


Religious Rivalries in Sasanid Persia

It is likely that the ancestors of the Sasanid kings were high priests at the temple of the Zoroastrian goddess of water, Anahita, near Persepolis, and the Sasanid rulers continued to act as both priest and king. By following the principle that “religion is the foundation of kingship and kingship is the protector of religion,” the Sasanids, like the Byzantines, had to deal with the problem of religious nonconformity among their subjects.

            The worst period of general persecution probably occurred during the first decades of the new dynasty and especially during the long tenure of the chief priest Kartir. He not only used his inscriptions to tell of how he had promoted the official religion, he boasted how he had destroyed rival Zoroastrian shrines and temples and how he had “beaten” Jews, Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, and other “heretics.” The kings were rarely as zealous as Kartir was, and they vacillated in practice between periods of intense persecution and relative tolerance. There were even times when the rulers, perhaps fearful of the power acquired by the Zoroastrian clergy, actually favored the minority religions.

Jews and Christians. Jews and Christians were the religious minorities that came under the closest scrutiny since adherents of other religions were either few in number or far removed from the core provinces of the Sasanid Empire. Jewish religious leaders quickly made it clear to the Sasanids that they were loyal to the Persian government, would pay their taxes, and would respect Persian law. After that, Jewish-Sasanid relations were quite cordial, and there were only a few periods of intolerance and persecution. One, the motivation for which is unclear, was in the middle of the fifth century; the last and most serious came after some Jews made the mistake of siding with Bahram Chubin in his revolt against Khusrau Anushirvan.

            The situation for Christians was similar to that of Jews until the Byzantines made Christianity the official religion of their empire and claimed the right to protect Christians outside their own borders. This immediately raised the question of whether the Persian Christians, who were particularly numerous in the strategically important western provinces of the Sasanid Empire, might be potential traitors who would act as a “fifth column” to assist the Byzantines. Shahpur II (309-379) severely persecuted Christians for almost forty years, urged on by Zoroastrian clergy who denounced Christians for not worshipping the sun and fire, for polluting water, for valuing chastity and celibacy, and for refusing to fight on behalf of the king. In this great persecution, Shahpur came close to exterminating Christianity in his empire completely.

            Later rulers moderated this harsh policy, sometimes in the context of trying to improve relations with the Byzantines. They also came to realize that many Christians belonged to the Monophysite or Nestorian branches of Christianity that the Byzantines had begun to denounce as heretical. There was little reason to suspect these subjects of being sympathetic to Byzantium, and such Christians were often given welcome places of refuge in Persian territory.

Manichaeism. As an alternative to persecution or forced conversion, some Sasanid rulers seem to have been intrigued by the possibility of creating a new religion based on a blending of the various existing religions and philosophies. When Shahpur I ordered the compilation of the text of the Avesta, for example, he is supposed to have also encouraged the acquisition of religious, philosophical and scientific works from India and Byzantium to see if they could all be merged into a uniform system.

            Perhaps the most interesting and significant expression of this tendency can be seen in the rise of the Manichaean religion. Its founder, Mani (216-277) claimed to have learned a new religion of light and truth from a heavenly being or “spiritual twin.” He traveled throughout the Persian Empire teaching this religion and sent out missionaries to more distant lands. Shahpur I supported Mani, either to use him against the Zoroastrian clergy or in the hope of achieving greater religious unity among his subjects and spreading his influence through Manichaeism to an even larger area. Under pressure from the Zoroastrian clergy, and perhaps worried that Mani, who was descended from one of the noble Parthian families, might have political ambitions, Bahram I arrested Mani and executed him.

            Mani saw himself as a religious messenger in the tradition of Zoroaster, Buddha and Jesus who would complete their work and found a new universal religion. His doctrines combined, apparently quite deliberately, aspects of Greek science and philosophy, Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Christianity and Gnosticism. As Manichaeism spread, it continued to incorporate elements of other religions. This makes Manichaeism a difficult religion to describe adequately.

            Mani emphasized the idea of a cosmic conflict between the uncreated and eternal divine principles of Good/Light and Evil/Darkness, from each of which emanated subordinate creatures. The struggle would culminate in the collapse of the universe, the triumph of Light, and the imprisonment of Darkness. To this largely Zoroastrian concept, Mani added ideas such as reincarnation and the role of Buddha and Jesus as special agents of the Light. Human beings combine aspects of the Light, the soul, which is good and the Darkness, the material body, which is evil.

            Through the acquisition of the religious wisdom imparted by teachers such as Jesus and Mani, souls can be reincarnated in ever more perfect forms until finally reaching the Paradise of Light. Manichaeans were thus divided between the Hearers, or ordinary believers, and the Elect, or religious teachers whom the Hearers supported and who would be reincarnated in Paradise. In addition to providing religious instruction, the Elect also wore special white garments and followed stricter religious rules of fasting, vegetarianism, and celibacy.

            Manichaeism spread throughout the Mediterranean world, the Middle East, and Asia, but its followers were persecuted almost everywhere. Only in Central Asia could it be said to have actually flourished. It was eventually eclipsed by other religions and was extinct by the fifteenth century. Its influence on other religions and cultures, however, has been considerable.


Nomadic Invaders

In addition to being a haven for persecuted religious groups, the interior of Eurasia was also the point of origin for most of the nomadic invasions that threatened the medieval empires from Rome to China. Over much of that region, agriculture and thus any densely populated, sedentary civilization was not practical either because of the extreme cold or the lack of water. In the north, which was forested, hunting (including fishing) and gathering could sustain small clans of people scattered over a large area. The excess population from this region tended to move to the south, which consisted of vast open grasslands known as steppes.

            On the vast Eurasian steppes, grazing animals such as cattle, sheep, or goats could support somewhat larger populations. Life for the pastoralists of the steppes was still precarious, however, and not conducive to remaining in one place for long, as drought, disease, or raids could easily wipe out the flocks on which life depended. Security and prosperity depended on having as many animals as possible, and the greater the number of animals, the more land would be needed for feeding them.

            These ecological considerations were the determining factors in the two most obvious traits of all steppe cultures—nomadism, because of the need to move to more or better grazing lands; and superior military skills, because of the constant need to defend the animals and grazing lands against predators and rivals (or to capture them when needed for survival). They may also help explain another important aspect of steppe culture, the occasional tendency, especially in response to some crisis, for large numbers of pastoralists to band together in tribes or tribal confederations.

            As often as not, such a “tribe” would include people from diverse racial and ethnic origins, but who shared a common language and culture, and myths of descent from common ancestors. Despite their differences, strong charismatic leaders were often able to unite them in times of stress by emphasizing their commonalities – and the advantages of cooperation. By uniting under such strong leadership, they were better able to raid neighboring agrarian societies for the resources they needed or, more typically, to seize the pasture lands of rival tribes.

            Wave after wave of these great tribal movements have occurred throughout history, and they were particularly acute in the millennium from the third century, when the Huns began pushing the Goths across the Danube, to the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century. The general tendency was for a tribal confederation to form north of the Ordos bend of the Yellow River, either in Manchuria or, more often, near the Orkhon river in what is now Mongolia. They would attempt to move south into China but if unsuccessful would move west across the steppe belt pushing previously established tribes further west towards the Middle East or Eastern Europe.

            Attempting to follow these nomadic migrations can be a bewildering exercise for many reasons. Historical sources are few and often confused or ill informed, and it is difficult to be certain of the exact identity of a nomadic group. Language and culture, not ethnicity or race, really defined the nomads, and these things could be borrowed or changed. It was not uncommon for defeated tribes to be absorbed by the victorious ones. There are cases where different names were applied to the same people at various times and in different places, and other instances when the same name was applied to quite different people. Thus it is still debated whether there was a connection between the Xiongnu who menaced Han China and the Huns who invaded Europe, or whether the Hephthalites (“White Huns”) who appeared on the borders of eastern Iran were an Indo-European or Turkic people and how they were connected to other invaders.

The Huns. In the time of the Sasanid and Byzantine empires, there were two steppe peoples of particular significance in giving rise to the host of “barbarian invasions” which those empires had to confront. The Huns were the first of these. They appeared in the area of the Caucasus and the Black Sea towards the end of the third century, defeating and absorbing into their coalition some of the existing tribal groups such as the Alans. By 375, they had forced the Germanic people known as the eastern and western Goths (Ostrogoths and Visigoths) from their homeland north of the Black Sea across the Danube. In 395, they raided as far south as Armenia and Syria. Under their ruler Attila (434-453), the Huns advanced into central Europe and threatened the city of Rome itself. The advance of the Huns was clearly responsible for setting off the massive migrations of people all over Europe known as the Völkerwanderungen. It is likely that the Chionites and Hephthalites who menaced eastern Iran and India in the fifth century were related to the same general movement of tribes as produced the Huns in Europe.

The Turks. The other great steppe people during this period were the Turks. Groups speaking Turkic languages had appeared all across Eurasia, perhaps as early as the first century. The first people clearly to call themselves Türk (“Strong”) were the Gök Türks (“Sky Turks”). They appear to have originated in the Altai Mountains where they controlled mines of iron ore that enabled them to manufacture and market metal implements.

            Around 552, under the leadership of Bumin, the Gök Türks defeated and destroyed the Juan-Juan tribal confederation, which had dominated them. The Turks thus took control of a steppe empire reaching from the Oxus River to Manchuria. Bumin died shortly thereafter, and the empire was split into two administrative divisions with the Eastern Turks under a kaghan, Bumin’s son Muhan, and the Western Turks under a yabghu, Bumin’s younger brother Ishtemi.

            The Western Turks allied with the Sasanids from 557-561 to crush the Hephthalites and divide their territory. They also established links with the Byzantines and participated in joint campaigns in the Caucasus in 627. However, after 582 the two halves of the Turkish Empire were also fighting with each other, enabling the Tang Chinese under the Emperor Taizong (627-649) to defeat both and annex most of their territory. The Turks recovered somewhat during the period 691-751, only to suffer further defeats at the hands of the Arabs.

            As the Turkish Empire disintegrated, however, its component groups moved off in various directions, and these Turkic tribes would continue to be of great importance. They included the Kirghiz and Uighurs in East Asia, the various Oghuz tribes in Central Asia and the Middle East, and the Khazars, Pechenegs, and Cumans in Eastern Europe.



Impact of the Nomadic Invasions

The historians of the sedentary societies who wrote about the nomadic peoples emphasized their “barbarism,” their predatory nature, and the aggressive aspects of their migrations. The role of the steppe nomads in history, however, involves much more than just conquest and destruction. Their attacks on the neighboring sedentary societies often occurred because of dire economic necessity or because they were provoked by outside meddling in their affairs.

            The Byzantines and the Sasanids, like the Chinese, did not hesitate to ally themselves with “barbarians” in order to attack a common enemy, and they sometimes deliberately involved such forces in their internal political affairs in order to gain the upper hand in a succession dispute or the like. Moreover, the nomads played a vital part in the economy of Eurasia. They supplied the sedentary societies with products such as felt or other animal products in exchange for items they could not produce for themselves. They also provided crucial transportation for the international trade of the times: The steppes were much like an open ocean; by unifying and pacifying them the nomads could facilitate the movement of good from one end of Eurasia to the other.

            Although the nomads did not have the same kind of institutions and literature as the settled peoples, they were hardly uncultured. Their oral poetry (especially epics), their colorful carpets, and their handicrafts were evidence of their own artistic abilities. Their skill at government, their concern for establishing systems of law and order, and their typical religious tolerance enabled them to hold together and administer vast amounts of territory. They took pride in their own culture, but they were also capable of admiring and emulating the achievements of the sedentary civilizations. By periodically tearing down such older societies and replacing them with newer, more vigorous ones that combined elements of “civilized” and “barbarian” culture, the nomads provided a critically important engine of historical change in pre-modern times.

[1] Paraphrased from Mas‘udi, Muruj al-Dhahab (edited by B. de Meynard and P. de Courteille, Paris, 1914), 2:206-7.

[2] Translated from the royal inscription edited in André Maricq, “Res Gestae Divi Saporis,” Syria 35(1958):295-360.

[3] Ammianus Marcellinus, History, 17.5.

[4] Mary Boyce (tr.), The Letter of Tansar (Rome, 1968), p. 52.

[5] Ibid, p. 44. Tansar further wrote (p. 48) that “the nobles are distinguished from the artisans and tradespeople by their dress and horses and trappings of pomp, and their women by silken garments; also by their lofty dwellings, their trousers, headgear, hunting and whatever else is customary for the noble.”

[6] Ibid, pp. 33-34.

[7] Quoted in Mary Boyce, Zoroastrians: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices (London, 1979), p. 109.

[8] Mas‘udi, Muruj al-Dhahab, 2:210.

[9] 1 Peter 2:13.

[10] E. Sewter (tr.), Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: The Chronographia of Michael Psellus (New York: Penguin, 1966), p. 59.

[11] Ibid, p. 155.

[12] Quoted in Alexander Vasiliev, The Russian Attack on Constantinople in 860 (Cambridge, Mass.: 1946), p. 201.

[13] V. Minorsky (translator), Hudud al-‘Alam: “The Regions of the World,” a Persian Geography (London: 1970), p. 159

[14] Samuel Cross and Olgerd Sherbowitz-Wetzor (translators), The Russian Primary Chronicle, Laurentian Text (Cambridge, Mass.: 1930), p. 59.

[15] The Epistle of Photius in J. P. Migne, Patrologiae cursus completus. Patres Graeca (Paris, 1860), 102:735-738, cited in Serge Zenkovsky, The Nikonian Chronicle (Princeton, 1984), p. lviii.