Fall-o-N-Rome-art - 9/18/02 "The Causes for the Fall of (New) Rome" by Baron Hrolf Herjolffsen OP.
NOTE: See also the files: Byzantine-msg, Greece-msg, cl-Byzantine-msg, fd-Byzantine-msg, commerce-msg, p-spice-trade-msg.
While the Roman Empire did not finally fall until 1453, the seeds for its destruction were planted well before, and were indeed inherent in its structure for most of the Middle Ages. Much as they hurt the old empire, the devastation wrought upon it by the barbarians of the west merely showed how tough the system was and how well it was able to rebuild and continue to survive against the odds.
The start of its fall stemmed from several major roots. The first is linguistic / religious, the second is foreign war and the third is the decline in Constantinople's ability to control the Mediterranean Sea. These feed into each other in several ways.
The linguistic / religious issue is a complex one. What we today call Byzantium was called Romanie (or Rome) by its inhabitants. The name 'Byzantium' being a construct as a part of the modern re-construction of history as it was necessary (for Western pride) for the Roman Empire to have fallen (and not been finally destroyed by the West itself) and for the Dark Ages to occur.
The inhabitants of the central part of Romanie spoke Latin. Some parts of the Empire (especially Egypt) spoke other tongues (Greek) and had local Church customs that varied from those of the official Orthodox Church. Seeing that Bishops were appointed by the Metropolitan in Constantinople, and he had a habit of appointing Latin speaking Orthodox Bishops to oversee Greek-speaking Monophysites, there was a build up of resentment against the central government.
This explains why, when the Muslims came, they were greeted as liberators by the populace, who were allowed to keep their religion by the conquerors.
In 603 Chosroes II invaded the Empire and was not driven out until 622. This Persian invasion conquered most of Palestine and Egypt, depriving Constantinople of the grain, timber for its fleet and much of its revenue. This was closely followed by an Avar invasion in 626 which reached the walls of the city. When the various invaders were driven off, using control of the sea to outmaneuver them, Romanie was left with greatly depleted resources and much weaker in manpower for its armies. A typical battle involved 100 - 200,000 troops.
The Muslim campaign of 635 followed closely on these earlier attacks and gave the Empire no time to recover. By 645 Palestine, Syria and the most productive parts of Africa were lost to the Muslims. This speed of collapse was partly due to the welcome extended by the different religious groups and partly due to Romania, which relied on small professional armies transported by sea and backed by levies and had no answer for the overwhelming land-based armies of the Muslims.
Even despite these setbacks, the power of Romanie continued to control the Mediterranean basin (with a fair amount of fluctuation in fortune), as Imperial fleets raided Muslim settlements forcing the administrative centres to be placed far from the sea (Damascus and Cairo rather than Caesarea and Alexandria). This naval control was made possible with the introduction in 673 of Greek fire. It was only through the use of this weapon that the numerically inferior Empire was able to continue its maritime struggle against the Muslims, making raids and landing armies as far away as Spain for the next few centuries and keeping the Arabs from the vulnerable southern shores of Europe. It was during this time that Greek gradually gained ascendancy as the language of Court.
It was only with the gradual loss of the provinces that supplied timber to the fleet that Roman naval power was reduced. Of course, once started, this was a downward slide and Romanie grew unable to protect Sicily, Cyprus, Sardinia and its provinces in Italy and its more vulnerable lands in Africa (Spain had been finally lost to the Visigoths during the Persian wars).
Lewis, Archibald R. (1951) Naval Power and Trade in the Mediterranean AD 500-1100
Mango, Cyril (1994) Byzantium: The Empire of New Rome
Moorhead, John (1981) "The Monophysite Response to the Arab Invasions" Byazantion 51.
Whittow, Mark (1996) The Making of Byzantium 600-1025
Copyright 2002 by Cary J Lenehan, 16 Maweena Pl, Kingston, Tasmania, 7050, Australia. . Permission is granted for republication in SCA-related publications, provided the author is credited and receives a copy.
If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.