The Turning Point

This is from an article I wrote for Byzantine Times magazine last year.

The Eastern Roman Empire lasted for over a thousand years before finally expiring in 1453. The turning point in its history – the point at which it began its long decline – is often considered to be the Battle of Manzikert in August 1071. In my opinion, Manzikert, while a significant battle, only demonstrated the disastrous impact of policies begun over twenty-five years earlier under the rule of Constantine IX Monomachos.

Monomachos came from a family of wealthy bureaucrats in Constantinople. His father had fallen out of favor with Basil II, depriving the handsome young Constantine of any high official honors. Still, he caught the eye of Empress Zoe and following the death of her second husband, Michael IV, and abdication of Michael V Calaphates, she settled on Monomachos as her third and final husband.

Monomachos thus came to the throne with neither military nor administrative experience. According to the historian Michael Psellus, the new emperor saw the throne as a “safe harbor”, a place of rest, and behaved as though it involved no responsibility for him. Psellus, John Skylitzes, and Michael Attaleiates all commented extensively in their histories on the profligate spending of Monomachos. These included:

Vast sums of money and gifts for his mistresses and their families. Cash sent out of the empire to support the building or reconstruction of Greek churches. The Empresses Zoe and Theodora had their every whim indulged. Putting down a number of rebellions, some of which (Maniakes and Tornikios, in particular) resulted from Monomachos’s poor decisions. Michael Psellus refers to Monomachos’s many building projects, of which the largest appears to have been the elaborate St. George Mangano church. The building of the complex at St. George Mangana. The old existing church in this spot was first torn down. A replacement building with a gold leaf roof and gem encrusted mosaics was built, but torn down when almost complete due to Monomachos’s opinion that it was inadequate. Finally, an even grander church and complex built.

Michael Psellus, who expresses some fondness for Monomachos in his history, observed that the emperor treated money as though it came from a never-ending spring. The empire’s taxes and trade revenues were sizable, but still inadequate to meet the emperor’s demands.

The results of this over-spending included:

The debasement of the gold nomisma – which had held its value for centuries – began in 1050. In 1053 Monomachos began oppressive tax collection, imprisoning people as a way to squeeze more revenues from them. Also in 1053, he decommissioned 50,000 troops on the empire’s eastern borders in Anatolia since he did not have the money to pay them. In 1054 the papal legate visited Constantinople to smooth relations between the pope and patriarch. Monomachos hoped to gain the pope’s support to drive the Normans out of Byzantine territories in southern Italy, giving the legate many generous gifts. Instead, the personalities of the patriarch and legate clashed and the Great Schism between Catholic and Orthodox churches began. In 1055 Constantine IX Monomachos died. That year is also when the Turks began their most severe incursions into Anatolia, attacking individual towns and cities – raping, pillaging, killing and enslaving tens of thousands.

Over the following thirty-one months the throne was held first by Empress Theodora, the elderly sister of Empress Zoe, and then by Michael VI Stratiotikos. Isaac I Comnenus rebelled against Michael VI, becoming emperor on September 1, 1057. By then the treasury was almost empty and he was forced to impose new taxes to refill it to have the money to push back the enemies nibbling at the empire’s edges. Ill health forced his abdication about two years later, with a string of poor or politically weak rulers following him. Unfortunately, the empire, even under Alexios I Comnenus, was never able to recover either the financial or military strengths it had before Constantine IX Monomachos began, as Michael Psellus said, to “exhaust the treasury of its money, so that not a single obol was to be left there”.

Also in 1053, he decommissioned 50,000 troops on the empire’s eastern borders in Anatolia since he did not have the money to pay them. In 1054 the papal legate visited Constantinople to smooth relations between the pope and patriarch. Monomachos hoped to gain the pope’s support to drive the Normans out of Byzantine territories in southern Italy, giving the legate many generous gifts. Instead, the personalities of the patriarch and legate clashed and the Great Schism between Catholic and Orthodox churches began. In 1055 Constantine IX Monomachos died. That year is also when the Turks began their most severe incursions into Anatolia, attacking individual towns and cities – raping, pillaging, killing and enslaving tens of thousands.

Over the following thirty-one months the throne was held first by Empress Theodora, the elderly sister of Empress Zoe, and then by Michael VI Stratiotikos. Isaac I Comnenus rebelled against Michael VI, becoming emperor on September 1, 1057. By then the treasury was almost empty and he was forced to impose new taxes to refill it to have the money to push back the enemies nibbling at the empire’s edges. Ill health forced his abdication about two years later, with a string of poor or politically weak rulers following him. Unfortunately, the empire, even under Alexios I Comnenus, was never able to recover either the financial or military strengths it had before Constantine IX Monomachos began, as Michael Psellus said, to “exhaust the treasury of its money, so that not a single obol was to be left there”.

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Eileen Stephenson

Eileen Stephenson

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