Lazarus Rising: Nikephoros Phokas and the Tenth Century Byzantine Military Renaissance
By James Gilmer
Master’s Thesis, American Public University System, 2012
Abstract: What follows is a discussion of the internal reasons for the “Byzantine Military Renaissance”, a period of rapid expansion from the middle of the tenth century AD to the end of the first quarter of the eleventh. This paper examines how the Byzantine Empire accomplished this drastic change in fortunes, shifting from a defensive position to one of conquest. This paper examines the sources of Byzantine strength, as well as internal motives for undertaking wars of conquest and concludes that the Byzantine Empire expanded during this period primarily as a result of internal factors. This paper culminates with a discussion of the Battle of Manzikert, and examines whether this fateful battle represented a failure of leadership or a failure of the Byzantine military system. It is the purpose of this paper to demonstrate that the rapid expansion of the Byzantine Empire during the latter half of the tenth century and first half of the eleventh was a direct result of a series of institutional reforms undertaken in the first half of the tenth century; we shall further demonstrate that the collapse of these institutions was the direct result of mismanagement during the middle of the eleventh century.
Introduction: To an observer at Constantinople in 863, it would have seemed that the Byzantine Empire was holding its ground admirably well against the monolithic power of the Abbasid Caliphate. Although the Byzantines had been humiliatingly and emphatically defeated just a generation before, the Abbasids had been unable to make good their advantage. They never could. The thematic levies guaranteed that Constantinople was protected by a veritable ocean of decently trained militiamen, each one the proud and fiercely independent owner of a sizeable plot of land – a literal stake in the political order of the Byzantine state.
In 863, however, it must have seemed that the frontier would never change. There would always be jihadis pouring over the frontier to find martyrdom in Byzantine Anatolia, and perhaps a few heads of cattle to take home with them if martyrdom was not forthcoming. There would always be the akritai – Byzantium’s Christian version of the Muslim jihadi – just as willing to find martyrdom, or a few head of cattle in expeditions into Muslim lands. But 863 proved to be a turning point in the history of Byzantium’s long struggle with the Arabs.