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Byzantine decline and subjection to Western influences: 1025 - 1260

The Byzantine Empire in 1025

Basil II never married. But after his death his relatives remained in possession of the throne until 1056, less because of their efficiency than because of a general feeling among the Byzantine people that the prosperity of the empire was connected with the continuity of the Macedonian dynasty. When Basil's brother Constantine VIII died in 1028, the line was continued in his two daughters, Zoe and Theodora. Zoe was married three times: to Romanus III Argyrus (ruled 1028 - 34), to Michael IV (1034 - 41), and to Constantine IX Monomachus (1042 - 55), who outlived her. When Constantine IX died in 1055, Zoe's sister, Theodora, reigned alone as empress until her death a year later.

The great emperors of the golden age, not all of them members of the Macedonian family, molded the history of that age. The successors of Basil II were rather the creatures of circumstances, because they did not make and seldom molded. In the 56 years from 1025 to 1081, there were 13 emperors. An attempt made by Constantine X Ducas to found a new dynasty was disastrously unsuccessful. Not until the rise of Alexius I Comnenus to power, in 1081, was stability restored by an ensured succession in the Comnenus family, who ruled for more than 100 years (1081 - 1185).

11th-century weakness

The state of the Byzantine Empire in the 11th century may be compared to that of the Roman Empire in the 3rd century, when, after a long period of secure prosperity, new pressures from beyond the frontiers aggravated the latent tensions in society. The brief reigns of Basil II's heirs reflected, and were often the product of, a division in the Byzantine ruling class, a conflict between the military aristocracy of the provinces and the civilian aristocracy, or bureaucracy, of Constantinople. Each faction put up rival emperors. The sophisticated urban aristocracy favoured rulers who would reverse the militaristic trend of the empire and who would expand the civil service and supply them and their families with lucrative offices and decorative titles. The military families, whose wealth lay not in the capital but in the provinces and who had been penalized by Basil II's legislation, favoured emperors who were soldiers and not civil servants. In this they were more realistic, for in the latter part of the 11th century it became ever clearer that the empire's military strength was no longer sufficient to hold back its enemies. The landowners in the provinces appreciated the dangers more readily than the government in Constantinople, and they made those dangers an excuse to enlarge their estates in defiance of all the laws passed in the 10th century. The theme system in Anatolia, which had been the basis of the empire's defensive and offensive power, was rapidly breaking down at the very moment when its new enemies were gathering their strength.

On the other hand, the urban aristocracy of Constantinople, reacting against the brutalization of war, strove to make the city a centre of culture and sophistication. The university was endowed with a new charter by Constantine IX in 1045, partly to ensure a steady flow of educated civil servants for the bureaucracy. The law school was revived under the jurist John Xiphilinus; the school of philosophy was chaired by Michael Psellus, whose researches into every field of knowledge earned him a reputation for omniscience and a great following of brilliant pupils. Psellus - courtier, statesman, philosopher, and historian - is in himself an advertisement for the liveliness of Byzantine society in the 11th century. What he and others like him failed to take into account was that their empire was more and more expending the resources and living on the reputation built up by the Macedonian emperors.

 

Byzantine History

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