A HISTORY OF THE LATER ROMAN EMPIRE
FROM ARCADIUS TO IRENE
J. B. BURY
THE HOUSE OF JUSTIN
There is no period of history which has been so much obscured by incorrect and misleading titles as the period of the later Roman Empire. It is, I believe, more due to improper names than one might at first be disposed to admit, that the import of that period is so constantly misunderstood and its character so often misrepresented. For the first step towards grasping the history of those centuries through which the ancient evolved into the modern world is the comprehension of the fact that the old roman empire did not cease to exist until de year 1453. The line of roman emperors continued in unbroken succession from Octavius Augustus to Constantine Palaeologus.
Now this essential fact is obscured as far as language is able to obscure it by applying the name “Byzantine” or the name “Greek” to the Empire in its later stages. Historians who use the phrase “Byzantine Emperor” are not very consistent or very precise as to the date at which the “Roman Empire” ends and the “Byzantine Empire” begins. Sometimes the line is drawn to the foundation of Constantinople by Constantine the Great, sometimes at the death of Theodosius the Great, sometimes at the reign of Justinian, sometimes (as by Finlay) at the accession of Leo the Isaurian; and the historian who adopts one line of division cannot assert that the historian who adopts a different line is wrong. For all such lines are purely arbitrary. No “Byzantine Empire” ever began to exist; the Roman Empire did not come to an end until 1453.
But, it may be objected, it is not true that the Roman Empire in the days of Constantine VII, who reigned in the tenth century, was completely different from what it was in the days of Constantine I, who reigned in the fourth century? and having in view this great difference in character, is it not permissible for historians, as a mere matter of convenience, to distinguish the later period by some confessedly appropriate word like “Byzantine” or “Graeco-Roman”? Such a use may be of course convenient and harmless in conversation among those who are fully aware that it is only a phrase of convenience; and there is no objection to “Byzantine art” or “Graeco-Roman law”. But in writing or lecturing, such expressions as Byzantine, Greek, or Romaic Empire are highly objectionable, because they tend to obscure an important fact and perpetuate a serious error.
It seems especially unfortunate to adopt one of these names as the title of a book, and thus help to stereotype as a separate unity what is really a part of a continuous series. Every century of the Roman Empire differed from the preceding and from the succeeding, but the development was continuous; the Empire was still the Roman Empire, and I am not aware that it is usual to give a man a new name when he enters upon a new decade of life. We designate a man as young and old; and so we may speak of the earlier and later ages of a kingdom or an empire. But Byzantine is a proper adjective, and is too apparently precise not to be misleading. Gibbon perhaps is almost the only modern historian who, in treating this subject, has not done injustice to the continuity of history by the title of his work; but unfortunately in reading the later chapters one is apt to forget what that title is.
Moved by these considerations, I have avoided speaking of a Byzantine, a Greek, or a Graeco-Roman Empire, and have carefully restricted myself to the only correct appellation. For the sake of distinction the word "later" has been added on the title-page; and no further distinction is required, at least till the year 800, which marks the termination of my work.
This brings us to another unfortunate use of words, which similarly tends to perpetuate an erroneous impression. A rival Roman Empire was founded in the West by the coronation of Charles the Great in 800; and it is evidently very convenient to distinguish the rival Empires by prefixing the adjectives Western and Eastern. And this nomenclature is not only convenient, but quite justifiable; for it suggest no historical error, while it express succinctly the European situation.
But unhappily the phrase Eastern Roman Empire is not confined to this legitimate use. We hear of a Western and a Eastern Roman Empire in the fifth century; we hear of a Fall of the Western Empire n the 476. Such language, though it has the sanction of high names, is both incorrect in itself and leads to a further confusion. In the first place, it is incorrect. The Roman Empire was one and undivided in the fifth century; though there were generally more emperors than one, there were never two empires. To speak of two empires in the fifth century--and if such applies also to the fourth--is to misrepresent in the grossest manner the theory of the imperial constitution. No one talks about two empires in the days of Constantius and Constans; yet the relation of Arcadius and Honorius, the relation of Theodosius II and Valentinian III, the relation of Leo I and Anthemius, were exactly the same as the political relation which existed between the sons of Constantine. However independent one of another, or even hostile, the rulers from time to time may have been, theoretically the unity of the Empire which they ruled were unaffected. No Empire fell on 476; that year only marks a stage, and not even the most important stage, in the process of disintegration which was going on during the whole century. The resignation of Romulus Augustulus did not even shake the Roman Empire, far less did it cause an Empire to fall. It is unfortunate, therefore, that Gibbon spoke of the Fall of the Western Empire, and that many modern writers have given their sanction to the phrase. Notwithstanding all that Mr freeman has said on the matter on sundry places, it will be probably a long time before the inveterate error of assigning a wrong importance to the year 476 AD has been finally eradicated.
In the second place this nomenclature leads to a further confusion. For it the erroneous expression Eastern Roman Empire be admitted into use for the fifth century, the inevitable tendency is identify this false abstraction with the Eastern Roman Empire, rightly so called, of the later days. And this identification unavoidably leads to the idea that a state called the Eastern Roman Empire came into being after the death of Theodosius the Great, in 395 AD, and continued until 1453 AD.
The simplicity of history is thus obscured. Nothing can be easier than to apprehend that the Roman Empire endured, one and undivided, however changed and dismembered, from the first century BC to the fifteenth century AD; and that from the year 800 forward we distinguish it as Eastern, on account of the foundation of a rival Empire, which also called itself Roman, in the West.
I have now explained my title, and I may add that by discarding the word Byzantine an additional advantage has been gained. So many prejudicial associations have grown up round this inauspicious word that it almost involves a petitio principii, like the phrase Bas-Empire in French. This is due to the unhistorical manner in which many eminent authors have treated the later Roman Empire. These writers knew very little about it, and they regarded it as a safe subject for derision. Voltaire, for instance, speaks of Byzantine history "as a worthless repertory of declamation and miracles, disgraceful to the human mind". "With this remark", says Finlay, "the records of an empire, which witnessed the rise and fall of the Caliphs and Carolingians, are dismissed by one who exclaimed: J'ôterai aux nations le bandeau de l’erreur". Gibbon hurried over the history of the Emperors later than the seventh century with contemptuous celerity, and his great authority has much to answer for. The remarks of Hegel in his Philosophie der Geschichte amount to much the same as the remark of Voltaire.
The sins of M. Guizot are of omission rather than of commission. His well-known Histoire de la civilization en Europe is open to two criticisms. In the first place, it is not what it professes to be,—a history of European civilization,—for it only deals with western Europe. But, waiving this, the author entirely ignores one of the most important and essential factors in the development of civilization in western Europe—the influence of the later Roman Empire and New Rome. On this subject I may refer the reader to the concluding chapter of my second volume; I mention it here because M. Guizot's extraordinary omission was clearly due to the inveterate prejudice that the Byzantine Empire' and all things appertaining thereto, may be safely neglected.
In his History of European Morals Mr. Lecky writes: “Of that Byzantine Empire the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, with scarcely an exception the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed”. I am not sure what Mr. Lecky means by "the universal verdict of history"; in recent years, certainly, the Younger Rome has found some staunch and eminent champions. But I am sure that the statement fairly represents the notions generally prevalent on the subject.
All this shows that Byzantine is a dangerous word, when it is used in a political sense. It is convenient and harmless to talk about Byzantine art or even "la vie byzantine", but it is dangerous to talk about a Byzantine Empire; for if we do so we run the risk of provoking universal verdicts of history. It might therefore be advisable, even if this were the only ground for doing so, to abandon the name and elude hard sentences by leading the accused forth under a different appellation. But it is not the only or the most important ground; as we have already seen, the name is improper, and it is therefore not only advisable but necessary to discard it.
I have been obliged to dwell at some length on a matter of nomenclature. I must add a few words on the scope of these two volumes, which, I venture to hope, may have some value as a very modest contribution to the study of a period which is too little known. They cover the four centuries during which the transition from the ancient world to the medieval world may be said to have taken place. Ancient and medieval are vague terms, but, whatever latitude we give them, we can hardly apply the term medieval to the fourth century or the term ancient to the eighth. In the year 395 AD the Empire was intact, but with the fifth century its dismemberment began; and 395 AD is consequently a convenient date to adopt as a starting-point. I propose to trace briefly the history of its dismemberment by the Germans, then more fully its recovery under Justinian, its decline after Justinian, and its redintegration in the eighth century; making the fall of Irene m 802 AD my point of termination, because it happens to be conveniently close in time to the foundation of the rival Roman Empire in 800 AD. The coronation of Charles the Great marks a new departure in European history, and it therefore forms, as Arnold recognized, a suitable end as well as a suitable beginning. After 800 there are two Roman Empires; and the history of the successors of Irene would naturally occupy a separate book, entitled A History of the Eastern Roman Empire.
The history of the fifth century is better known, and has been more thoroughly worked up than that of its successors. I have therefore treated it with comparative brevity, and omitted many of the details, which the reader may find in the works of Gibbon and Mr. Hodgkin. In fact, I originally intended to treat the dismemberment of the Empire by the Germans and the fortunes of the houses of Theodosius and Leo I as a mere introduction to a history of the subsequent period. But I was carried further than I intended, and the result considerably exceeds the limits of an introduction, while it is something less than a co-ordinate part of the work. The dismemberment of the Empire by the Germans brings us into contact with the nations who dismembered it, and tempts a writer to stray into the domains which have been so fully surveyed by Dahn in his Konige der Germanen. I have been careful not to yield to this temptation; I have avoided episodes and digressions; and have not concerned myself with tracing the doubtful antecedents of the various nations who settled in the Roman provinces. In fact, I have tried to trespass as little as possible on the field occupied by Dahn in Germany and by Mr. Hodgkin in England.
Coming to the sixth century, my account of the reconquest of Italy by Belisarius and Narses is compressed; while I have narrated fully the Persian wars on the Euphrates and in Colchis. As far as I am aware, no complete account of the latter has ever been published in an English form, Gibbon's treatment being nothing more than a sketch; while as to the former, after the brilliant fourth volume of Mr. Hodgkin's Italy and her Invaders, one could not think of rewriting all the details. But, notwithstanding, a critic may charge me with want of proportion, and ask why I occupy considerable space with the details of wars, which, even for special historians, have been almost buried in oblivion, and at the same time content myself with only a general account of the famous Italian campaigns of Belisarius. My reply is that I am concerned with the history of the Roman Empire, and not with the history of Italy or of the West; and the events on the Persian frontier were of vital consequence for the very existence of the Roman Empire, while the events in Italy were, for it, of only secondary importance. Of course Italy was a part of the Empire; but it was outlying—its loss or recovery affected the Roman Republic (strange to say!) in a far less degree than other losses or gains. And just as the historian of modern England may leave the details of Indian affairs to the special historian of India, so a general historian of the Roman Empire may, after the fifth century, leave the details of Italian affairs to the special historian of Italy. It seemed to me that the real want of proportion would have been to reproduce at length the Gothica of Procopius and neglect his Persica.
On the same principle I have given a detailed narrative (I believe for the first time) of the somewhat tedious wars in the Balkan peninsula at the end of the sixth century, described by Theophylactus. Ranke deplored the want of an essay concerning the invasions of Avars and Slaves in the reign of Maurice; the learned and patient Hopf went hopelessly astray over the curious sentences of an "Attic" euphuist; and these facts induce me to hope that some future historian, repelled equally by an ancient language and an affected style, may applaud a predecessor for having reproduced most of the details in bald English.
The Church was so closely connected with the State that the ecclesiastical element cannot be ignored in histories that are not ecclesiastical; but I have endeavoured to encroach on this ground as little as possible. As time went on, the influence of the Greek Church became stronger, and consequently, with each succeeding century, church affairs claim a larger measure of a historian's attention. Hence in the latter part of this work the reader may expect to find more information on ecclesiastical matters than in the earlier.
The short chapters on life and manners consist of jottings, which could not be conveniently introduced into the narrative, and were too characteristic to be omitted; they do not aim at any standard of completeness.
Both historians and classical scholars are divided on the question of the transliteration of Greek names. To be thoroughly consistent in the "new" spelling, one would have to speak not only of Athenai, but of Konstantinupolis and Rhodos. Such apparitions on the pages of a book are intolerable to plain readers; and special difficulties arise in the case of Roman names of Greek-speaking individuals. I determined finally to be consistently Roman rather than either consistently or inconsistently Greek, and use, except in a few cases, the Latin forms, which, justified by the custom of many centuries, are more familiar to the eye. In some obvious cases, of course, it would be pedantic not to use forms which are neither Greek nor Latin, such as Constantine, Rhodes, or Rome. I confess that I was at first tempted to adopt the plausible compromise of Mr. Freeman; but an admirable article in the Fortnightly Review for January 1888, by Mr. E. Y. Tyrrell, confirmed me in the course which I have pursued. On the other hand, I have adopted Mr. Freeman's way of spelling Slave (for Slav). Speaking of Mr. Freeman, I am impelled to add that his brilliant and stimulating essays first taught me in all its bearings the truth that the Roman Empire is the key to European history.
In conclusion, I have to record my thanks to my wife, who contributes a chapter on "Byzantine Art", and to Professor Mahaffy for his assistance in revising the proof-sheets and for valuable suggestions and corrections.
J. B. BURY.