Internal Strife and Unrest in Later Byzantium, XIth-XIIIth Centuries (A.D. 1025-1261). The Case of Urban and Provincial Insurrections (Causes and Effects)
By Alexis G.C. SAVVIDES
Byzantina Symmeikta, Vol.7
Introduction: The late Byzantine period, which is inaugurated with the death of the warrior-emperor Basil II the ‘Bulgarslayer’ on 15 December 1025, was one of steadily accelerating political, economic, administrative and military decline for the Eastern Empire. D. Zakythenos aptly observed that, although in the years following Basil II’s death the Empire seems to have maintained its territorial status, this preservation was in fact superficial, as the Turkish invasions and settlements manifest.
The Empire was literaly ‘impregnated’ with both rebellious and separatist uprisings on the part of eminent representatives of its military aristocracy, especially during the XIth, XIIth and XIIIth centuries. In the course of the former, i.e. rebellious movements, the insurgents attempted to overthrow the Byzantine ruler (of Constantinople until 1204 and of Nicaea following the latter date), whereas in the course of the latter, i.e. separatist or autonomy movements, they usually proclaimed the independence of the areas which they controlled or had been governing under the control of the central government.
The mighty rule of the bellicose sovereigns of the Macedonian dynasty (867-1025), a period during which Byzantium had reached the apex of its power and glory in south-eastern Europe and the Near East, was a thing of the past. Basil IPs decease was ensued by a rapid decline of the Empire’s military and socio-economic foundations, through which the great soldier-emperor, who had foreseen the dangerous growth and upsurge of aristocratic influence, had striven to curb the limitless greed of the nobiles, for the most part consisting the majority of the powerful landowners. In fact, Basil’s ineffective successors, ‘Macedonians’ only by name, offered to the most ambitious members of the military landed aristocracy the opportunity to obtain more privileges, thus contributing to the state of internal corruption and segregation.
In the decades following 1025 the most wealthy and prominent among the magnates were in a position to materialize their aspirations to topple their sovereign and usurp imperial power. It was through the insensible policy of the later Macedonians (1025-57) and their successors, the Comneno-Ducae (1057-81), that various pretenders were eventually enabled to raise arms against their suzerain. The situation of an ‘illusion of a durable peace’ envisaged by P. Lernerle some years ago to explain the fact that Basil’s epigoni did very little to continue the policies of the Macedonian house (which had established a long and uninterrupted pax byzantina), contributed significantly both to the internal disorder in the Empire as well as to its growing inability to oppose its external enemies effectively. It is precisely to this ‘illusion of a durable peace’ that D. Nicol referred to — some years before Lemerle — as “a sense of false security”.