Waverley Self-Educator. Mediaeval History—Lesson 2: ‘Byzantium and the Moslem Menace’

From the book Practical Knowledge For All: A Comprehensive Self-Educator in Five Volumes, Volume 1, (I estimate it was published between 1956 and 1959), The Waverley Book Company, London,  edited by Gordon Stowell.

Byzantium and the Moslem Menace 

THOUGH Justinian (A.D. 483 – 565) attempted to reassert the imperial authority in the West by destroying the Ostrogothic power in Italy, the power recovered by Byzantium was shadowy. The reunion of East and West had ceased to be practicable. In his reign the Eastern empire was a its height, and he is commemorated in the West by mosaics in the churches at Ravenna. Here also, in the church of San Vitale, his empress Theodora is depicted in gorgeous robes with her court ladies. Formerly an actress of notorious reputation, Theodora was a woman of forceful character, whose loyalty to her husband and influence over him never waned after her marriage. While capable of courage and energy, she was also self-indulgent and extravagant.


In the age of Justinian, Constantinople was adorned with many new buildings, of which the most famous and impressive was the cathedral of St. Sophia. Many churches were erected, and palaces were enlarged; residential quarters of Constantinople must have looked much like those in a modern city, with fine houses for the wealthy, and for the workers blocks of flats, with shops on the ground floors. An elaborate system of drainage was installed. Huge underground cisterns for water supply were constructed within the city. One of the largest of these was the famous “Palace of Waters,” an underground hall, the roof supported by 420 pillars set in rows. A parallel has been drawn between Justinian and Louis XIV of France. Both were magnificent builders and patrons of the arts; both were much influenced by priests and women; both attempted impressive conquests, and ended by bringing their states to bankruptcy.


Apart from the obliteration of the Vandal kingdom by Belisarius, his heroic general, the extensive military operations of Justinian’s reign were grandiose but not of much value. Justinian’s enduring fame rests upon his great work of codifying and giving permanent shape to the vast mass of laws and precedents accumulated over hundreds of years by the Roman legal system. The Code of Justinian became the basis of practically every legal system in Europe, with the one notable exception of England.

For half a century after Justinian’s death the restiveness of Slavonic and Mongolian barbarians on the Danube, and Persian aggression in Asia, kept Eastern emperors busy. Between 613 and 620 the Persians practically conquered Syria and Egypt, overran Asia Minor, captured and sacked Jerusalem, and threatened Constantinople, which was at the same time threatened from the north by the Mongolian Avars. Nevertheless, in the heroic fashion displayed at intervals by the Romans of the Eastern empire, armies continued to be raised; in a series of brilliant campaigns between 622 and 628 the Emperor Heraclius drove the Persians behind the Tigris. But a new danger was threatening.

Arabia had never come under the influence of neighbour civilizations—Egyptian, Syrian, Greek, or Roman. The Arabians were still nomads or primitive agriculturists. Traditionally, they claimed descent from the father of the Hebrew race through Ishmal; but in the 6th century their religion was a conglomerate of fetish worship and demon worship, with borrowings from Judaism, Christianity, and other Eastern religions. In the city of Mecca a temple and a stone called the Kaaba were general objects of veneration traditionally associated with Adam and Abraham.

Rise of Mahomedanism

In these unpromising surroundings the prophet Mahomet (c. 570-632) became possessed by the idea that he must undertake a mission of regeneration; the archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision. Mahomet began to preach moral and religious doctrines at variance with anything to which the Arabs had been accustomed. He was met first with scoffings, then with persecution, and in 622 he was obliged to take flight from Mecca; this year of the Prophet’s flight, which is called the Hijra, or Hegira, is reckoned as the first in the Mahomedan era, as is A.D. 1 in the Christian era.

The Spread of Islam

But the Prophet found followers; they grew in numbers. Their leader claimed, and they believed, that his pronouncements were inspired. They made war upon and were victorious over the unbelieving Meccans; the Kaaba was converted into the sacred shrine of the new faith. The Prophet and his followers set themselves to compel submission to his authority at the sword’s point. Whe the Emperor Heraclius (c. 575-642) was at war with the Persian emperor Chosroes II, both of them received letters inviting them to recognize and submit to the Prophet of Allah—letters which the Persian received with contumely and Heraclius with contempt. Neither imagined that an Arabian was about to turn the world upside-down.

Mahomet’s death was a shock to his faithful followers; but the ablest of his disciples, Abu Bekr, was chosen as the first caliph, or successor of the Prophet. rivals naturally sprang up and were suppressed; the devotees of the new faith had first established it by the sword and were fanatically resolved to spread it by the same means. The Moslems, organized after Abu Bekr by the great Omar, advanced first to the East, offering to all opponents the three alternatives conversion, submission and tribute, or death; they carried their victorious arms across the Euphrates and across the Tigris, and turned upon Syria, which was a portion of what was still called the Roman Empire. Having absorbed Syria into their dominion, they burst into Egypt, and in 641 captured Alexandria.


The extent and rapidity of Moslem conquests are illustrated in this map. Within 16 years of the Hegira, Syria was overrun, two years later Egypt. Then began the march of conquest along the north African coast. In 711 a Saracen host crossed the Strait of Gibraltar. Soon the whole Iberian peninsula was occupied. The invaders moved northward across the Pyrenees, and were hurled back again after their defeat near Poitiers by the Franks under Charles Martel.

The progress of Islam was rapid in Africa as it had been in Asia; in no part of his dominions overseas could Heraclius from Constantinople offer an adequate resistance. His successors proved no better able to deal with the situation. Presently outside of Europe little remained to the empire except Asia Minor. The Saracens, as the followers of the Prophet began to be called, built fleets which dominated the Mediterranean, carried their faith westward among the Berber tribes on the African coast, flung themselves upon Sicily, and at the end of the century were on the point of invading Spain.

The Ommayad Dynasty

The caliphate, combined religious and military leadership of Islam, had fallen into the hands of a family called the Ommayads. Under them the Saracen dominion had spread over the East to the farther confines of the Persian empire. Early in the 8th century Arab invaders entered the Punjab, although they did not then establish a permanent dominion in India.

The house of Heraclius had failed to defend Africa and Asia east of the Taurus mountains against the Moslem deluge; but Constans, grandson of Heraclius, held the Saracens in check, though he failed to recover lost territory. The vigour of their attack was weakened by dissension among the faithful and struggles for possession of the caliphate. A great number of Moslems maintained that the true succession lay with the house of Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet, husband of his daughter Fatima; this faction came to be called the Shiites or Fatimites. Opposed to the Shiites were the more orthodox Sunnites, who accepted as their rule not only the Koran but the Sunna, i.e collections of traditional sayings and doings of Mahomet put together in the 9th century. For a time, therefore, the attack upon the Roman Empire was relaxed.

With the establishment of the Ommayad dynasty in 661 Damascus became the seat of the caliphate. In the reign of Walid (705-715) the Great Mosque was built there (in its present form).

Constans II used his opportunity to recover a partial and temporary supremacy in Italy. While he was in the West, the Saracen attack was renewed. Constans was assassinated (668), and was succeeded by his young son Constantine IV, called Pogonatus, the Bearded, This time the Saracens pierced the Taurus, overran Asia Minor, and threatened Constantinople itself. Constantine shattered their fleet, routed their land forces, and drove them back out of Asia Minor, but was unable to counter-attack beyond the Taurus. Justinian II, whose remarkable abilities were counterbalanced by ungovernable passions and a singularly cruel and capricious disposition, was killed in a military revolt; and once more there was a brief succession of emperors raised to the purple by one military faction only to be overthrown by another one. At about this time the Mongol Bulgars effected their settlement in the Danube valley. Slavonic tribes of “Aryan” stock had also long been spreading themselves over the Balkan peninsula. The Bulgars were dominant, and gave their name to what is now known as Bulgaria; but the adaptable Mongol stock mingled with, and became absorbed in, the Slavonic, so that before long the Bulgarians were not so much Mongols as Slavs.


Office clerk.

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