The Dark Ages - Book II of III - Charles Oman - ebook

Sir Charles William Chadwick Oman KBE (1860-1946) was a British military historian.His reconstructions of medieval battles from the fragmentary and distorted accounts left by chroniclers were pioneering. Occasionally his interpretations have been challenged, especially his widely copied thesis that British troops defeated their Napoleonic opponents by firepower alone. Paddy Griffith, among modern historians, claims that the British infantry's discipline and willingness to attack were equally important.

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Charles Oman


Book II of III

Copyright © Charles Oman

The Dark Ages


Arcadia Press 2017


Book II of III


The forty years which followed the death of Justinian were a period of rapid decline and decay for the Eastern Roman world. The empire was paying, by exhaustion within and the loss of provinces without, for the spasmodic outburst of energy into which it had been galvanized by the great Emperor. He left to his heirs broad and dangerous frontiers in his newly-acquired provinces, with an army which had got somewhat out of hand, and a civil population shorn to the skin by the excessive taxation of the last twenty years.

Justinian's heirs were, unhappily for the empire, princes who tried to maintain their great predecessor's ambitious policy, at a moment when the less brilliant, but more cautious and economical, rule of a second Anastasius would have been the best thing for the Eastern Roman world. The Emperor's nephew, Justin I, son of his sister Vigilantia, mounted the throne on his decease without meeting with any opposition. He had served his uncle as Curopalata, or Master of the Palace, for the last ten years, and had been able to make things ready for his own peaceful succession, though Justinian had never consented to allow him to be crowned as his colleague as long he lived. Justin was married to Sophia, the niece of the empress Theodora, a lady who resembled her aunt in her masterful spirit, but was far from rivaling her abilities. Justin and his wife had led a somewhat repressed and constrained existence during the old Emperor's life, and were set upon asserting their individuality the moment that Justinian was buried. Justin had high ideas of the dignity of the imperial name and the majesty of the empire, and had determined to inaugurate a spirited foreign policy when he seized the helm of affairs. His first measure was to refuse to continue any of the comparatively trifling subsidies to barbarian princes on the frontier, which Justinian had been content to pay in order to keep them from petty raids – much as the Indian Government to-day subsidizes the chiefs of the Khyber Pass. This involved him in a long and ultimately dangerous war with the Chagan of the Avars, a Tartar tribe newly established on the north bank of the lower Danube, whom Justinian had paid to keep off the Huns and other troublesome neighbors.

The Avars, originally a race of no great importance, obtained at this moment a great extension of power and territory by allying themselves with the Lombards, in order to destroy the Gepidae, the Gothic tribe who dwelt north of Sirmium on the middle Danube. After exterminating their Teutonic neighbors, the Lombards passed on to invade Italy, and left the Avars in possession of the whole line of the Danube, from Vienna to its mouth. Thenceforth the Avars were a scourge to the already half-desolate provinces of Moesia and lllyricum. They ranged over the whole territory up to the Balkans, in spite of the innumerable fortresses which Justinian had built and garrisoned to defend the Danube bank. This trouble was continually growing worse all through the reign of Justin II, and became an actual source of danger, as well as of mere annoyance, in the time of his successors.

Another refusal of Justin to make a payment of money, which he considered degrading to his majesty, was destined to bring on a struggle even more ruinous than that with the Avars. It will be remembered that the peace between Justinian and Khosrau of Persia, concluded in 562, had stipulated for some payments from the Eastern Romans to the King., In 5 7 1 Justin refused to fulfill his obligations, and plunged the empire into a wholly unnecessary war with his great Oriental neighbor. Several causes conspired to induce Justin to undertake this struggle. He was implored by the Christian population of Persian Armenia to deliver them from the fire-worshipping Sassanids, and the Turks of the Oxus had sent an embassy to promise him help from the East if he would assault Khosrau. Dizabul, their great Khan, engaged to distract the forces of the enemy by crossing the Oxus and invading northern Persia, while Justin's generals were to cross the Tigris and attack Media.

This war, which the Emperor undertook with such a light heart, was destined to last no less than nineteen years (572- 591), and to drag on into the reigns of two of his successors. It was quite as inconclusive, and quite as costly in men and money, as had been the previous struggle in the Persian war reign of Justinian. On the whole, the Romans of Justin, lost no territory during its course. Their farthest frontier stronghold of Daras was the only place of importance that fell into Persian hands in the earlier years of the war, and the secondary fortress of Martyropolis, in the Armenian Highlands, the only loss of its later years. Both were destined to be recovered, and the second Roman line of defense, based on Edessa and Amida, held good. If the armies of Khosrau once succeeded in penetrating into Syria, it is only fair to add that the imperial troops made several incursions into the Persian border-lands of Arzanene and Corduene. It was not so much by the loss of fortresses or the ravaging of territory that the war was harmful to the empire, as by the long, fruitless drain of taxation that it brought about. Where the tax-gatherer of Justinian's time had shorn the population close, the tax- gatherer of Justin's was obliged to flay them, in order to wring out the necessary solidi. Having begun the war at his own pleasure, Justin found that he could not conclude it in a similar way. The Persians hoped to win by exhausting the empire's resources, and were set on protracting the weary game.

In the ninth year after his succession to the throne, Justin was seized with suicidal mania, and had to be placed in close restraint for all the rest of his life. On his first lucid interval he nominated as his colleague, and crowned as Caesar, a respectable military officer, named Tiberius Constantinus, who, in conjunction with the empress Sophia, acted as regent for the demented Emperor till 578. Sophia, a proud and restless woman, kept most of the power in her own hands, for Tiberius was not of a pushing or ambitious disposition. His accession to power made little or no difference in the policy of the court, which was still guided by the empress.

While Justin saw the Balkan peninsula ravaged by the Avars, and the Mesopotamian frontier beset by the Persians, he was destined to suffer a still more grievous loss in another region of his empire. The Lombards, emigrating from the middle Danube, followed the track that the Ostrogoths had taken eighty years before, and threw themselves on the newly- recovered province of Italy, only fifteen years after it had been finally secured to the empire by the victories of Narses at Taginae and Casilinum. Their fortunes will be described in another chapter. Here it must suffice to say that ere the end of the reign of Justin II they had torn two-thirds of the peninsula from the grasp of the Eastern Roman governors.

In 578, four years after he had fallen into a state of lunacy, Justin II died, and his colleague, Tiberius Constantinus, became sole ruler of the empire. Tiberius II was a thoroughly upright and well-intentioned man, who had been chosen as heir by his predecessor solely on the ground of his merits, and in spite of the fact that Justin had a son-in-law and several cousins to whom he might have left the legacy of power. Like Titus in an earlier age, Tiberius II was the darling and hope of the whole population of the empire, and, like Titus, he was cut off in the flower of his years after a very short reign. He had time, however, to give some earnest of his good intentions by cutting down the grinding taxation of Justin II by a fourth, and remitting all arrears owed to the state. But he was unable to do away with the cause which made taxation so heavy, the wretched lingering Persian war, and, till the empire could obtain peace within and without, the remission of taxation only meant the inadequate performance of the duties of the state, and the rapid accumulation of public debt. Tiberius succeeded, however, in making a truce with the Avars, though to obtain it he had to give up the great border-fortress of Sirmium, the central point for the defense of the line of the Danube and Save, and also to promise to make one of those payments of money which his predecessor had regarded as degrading the majesty of the empire. Being free from war in the Balkans, Tiberius concentrated no less than 200,000 men on the Persian frontier, and his troops, under the general Maurice, won many successes, and invaded Media. But the obstinate King Hormisdas, who had now succeeded Khosrau on the throne, refused to listen to any proposals for peace, and the war dragged on.

In the fourth year of his reign Tiberius was suddenly stricken down by disease, and died while only on the threshold of middle age. Like his predecessor, he chose as his heir not any relative, but the best man that he knew. Eight days before his death he invested with the royal diadem his general Maurice, who had lately distinguished himself by a great victory in Mesopotamia, and was universally respected for his sterling merit and modesty. Maurice immediately married his benefactor's daughter, Constantina, and ascended the vacant throne in peace.

Like Tiberius Constantinus, Maurice was an eminently well-meaning ruler, and a man not destitute of ability, but the times were too hard for him, and his very virtues often conspired to lead him into unfortunate actions. His reign of twenty years (582-602), though not wanting in successes, was still a continuation of the unhappy period of decline and decay which had set in since the year of the great plague of 542. The worst of the troubles of Maurice was the complete exhaustion of the imperial finances. The liberality of Tiberius II had drained out the last solidus from the already depleted treasury, and the new Emperor started with a deficit, which remained as a perpetual nightmare to him all through his reign. Maurice was of a prudent and economical disposition; the adverse balance cut him to the heart, and he adopted all sorts of schemes – wise and unwise – to make receipts and expenditure balance. The war expenses were, of course, the main disturbing element, and Maurice went so far in his zeal for retrenchment that while hostilities were still in progress he endeavored, on more than one occasion, to cut down the soldiers' pay, and economize the expenditure of provisions and military stores. This policy had the most disastrous results. Several times it led to mutiny, and at last it cost Maurice his throne and life.

The Persian war continued through the first nine years of Maurice's reign, as long as the reckless and obstinate King Hormisdas remained in power. On the whole it was fortunately conducted. Two able officers, named Heraclius and Philippicus, obtained the mastery over the Persians, and won several battles. They would have done even more if Maurice's policy of ‘economy at any price ‘ had not led to mutinies among the soldiery, who struck work, and retired behind the border when they heard that their pay was to be reduced. It is hard to conceive how Maurice could be so unwise; for he had considerable military experience, and wrote an excellent book on tactics. The Strategicon, which served for three hundred years as the manual of all Eastern Roman officers. Apparently the economist prevailed over the soldier in his composition.

Luckily the mutiny of 588 did not ruin the empire; the troops returned to duty when their grievance was removed, and won more victories over the Persians. Hormisdas grew unpopular with his subjects, and was deposed and slain by a usurper named Varahnes. His young son, Khosrau, fled to the Roman camp, and threw himself on the mercy of his hereditary foe. This led to the end of the war; Maurice lent the young prince supplies and auxiliaries to start a rebellion against Varahnes. The rising succeeded, and the grateful Khosrau made peace with the empire the moment Persian war that he was restored to his father's throne (591). The terms, like those of the peace [agreements] of 532 and 562, amounted to little more than the restoration of the state of things which had preceded hostilities. Maurice recovered the lost fortresses of Daras and Martyropolis, and gained the Christian districts of Persarmenia, a new acquisition to the empire, but not one of much importance.

But the troubles of Maurice, military and financial alike, did not cease with the end of the Persian war. The faithless Avars, disregarding the terms of peace which they had sworn to Tiberius II in 581, were once more ravaging the Balkan peninsula. In the second year of Maurice's reign they burst over the Danube, and seized the fortresses of Singidunum and Viminacium, whose garrisons had been reduced by the needs of the Persian war. Unable to raise a new army, Maurice sent them a subsidy which kept them quiet for two years, but in 585 the Tartar horde took arms once more, and threw themselves upon Thrace. Nor was it only with the wild Avars that Maurice had to deal. We now hear of the Slavs as becoming for the first time a serious danger to the empire. Their tribes had for some time dwelt in obscurity along the lower Danube and in the South-Russian plains, having flooded in to occupy the void space left by the migration of the Goths in the fourth century. At the accession of Maurice some of them were subject to the Avars, others were still independent, but all showed a tendency to move southward over the Danube. The Slavs were individually not very dangerous enemies to the empire; they were in the very lowest stage of civilization, hardly yet accustomed to till the soil, and living the precarious life of fishers and hunters. They did not fight in the open field, but lurked in forests and morasses, issuing forth to plunder by night, and only attacking their foes when they could take them by surprise. It is said that they practiced the curious stratagem of lying hid in shallow pools, showing nothing above the surface of the water save the point of a hollow reed, through which they breathed. The story sounds improbable, but Eastern Roman authors quote several occasions on which it was actually used.

Many Slav tribes, seeking refuge from the domination of the Avars, crossed the Danube in their light canoes, and established themselves in the wooded slopes of the Balkans, or the marshes of the Dobrudscha, where they found the cover that they loved. The Moesian provincials had been so thinned by two hundred years of raiding suffered at the hands of Goth, Hun, and Avar, that the Slavs found the land almost wholly uninhabited. Outside the great Danube fortresses, and the large towns like Naissus or Sardica, the population had almost entirely disappeared. Avoiding battles with the garrisons of the towns, the Slavs slipped between them, and spread over deserted land, pitching their huts in the most secluded spots that they could. They were not only intruders, but enemies, for they were keenly set on plunder, waylaid every party of travelers that strove to pass from town to town, and laid ambuscades for every body of soldiers that was not too numerous for them to cope with.

From 585 to the very end of his reign Maurice was engaged in a desperate struggle against Slav and Avar, which raged over the whole of the Balkan peninsula. The invaders gradually pressed southwards, though they suffered many defeats, and though whole tribes of Slavs were sometimes exterminated. The enemy, though individually contemptible, seemed to draw on endless reserves of strength, as horde after horde slipped across the Danube, and threw itself into the glens of the Balkans. The effect of these invasions is well described by a contemporary chronicler, John of Ephesus:

‘The first years of Maurice were famous for the invasion of the accursed people called Slavonians, who overran Greece and all the lands about Thessalonica and Thrace, plundering many towns, and devastating and burning, and reducing the people to slavery. They have made themselves masters of the whole country, and settled in it by main force, and dwell in it as though it were their own. Four years have now passed, and still they live at their ease in the land, and spread themselves abroad, as far as God permits them, and ravage and burn and take captive, and still they encamp and dwell there.’

Ever since the Persian war ended, the reign of Maurice had been one unbroken series of misfortunes; the only remedy that the Emperor could find for the evil times was an economy that verged on avarice. This foible at last caused his ruin.

In 599 the Chagan of the Avars demanded of him ransom- money for 12,000 Roman prisoners who had fallen into his hands; the Emperor refused to pay it, though he had the required sum of solidi ready at hand. The Chagan thereupon massacred the whole body of prisoners. The Roman world raised a cry of horror, and threw the blame upon the avarice of Maurice, not the savagery of the Avars. Henceforth his throne was unsafe; but the crowning blow to his power was given by another piece of unwise economy. After a successful campaign against the Slavs in 601, the army of the Balkans had pursued them across the Danube. Maurice sent orders that the victorious troops should winter in the open field, upon the bleak town-less plains of Wallachia, in order to save supplies.

Instead of obeying, the soldiery drove away their generals, placed a Thracian centurion named Phocas at their head, and marched on Constantinople, loudly proclaiming that they were coming to depose the Emperor. So unpopular had Maurice made himself with the army, that he found that he could not trust even his household troops, and in despair armed the Blue and Green factions, and set them to guard the city walls.

But the factions were a broken reed when disciplined troops had to be faced, and Maurice soon found himself deserted by everyone. He fled to Chalcedon, hoping to raise aid in the Asiatic provinces, where he was less unpopular than in Europe. Meanwhile, the army entered the capital, and proclaimed Phocas as Emperor, though he was but a rough uncultured boor, who had headed the mutineers simply in virtue of having louder lungs and a heavier hand than his comrades. The usurper sent officers to seize his unfortunate predecessor, and caused him to be beheaded, along with his four sons, the youngest of whom was a mere infant in arms. Maurice met his death with a courage and dignity that moved the hearts of those who had so lately reviled him. ‘Just art Thou, O Lord God, and just are Thy judgments,’ he exclaimed as the executioner raised his sword, and died with a prayer on his lips.

From the foundation of Constantinople down to the death of Maurice the Eastern crown had never before been the prize of successful rebellion, nor had any legitimate Emperor fallen by the hands of his subjects. Revolts there had been, but they had never gained permanent success. It was an evil day for the empire when the army found that they could make an Emperor, and the orderly succession of elective Caesars, chosen by their predecessors or by the Senate, came to an end.

The new ruler of Constantinople proved to be a brutal ruffian, beside whose vices the faults of Maurice seemed shining virtues. Ignorant, cruel, licentious, and thriftless, he made his lusts his masters, and soon became the detestation of all his subjects. Phocas showed ability in one thing only, he was most successful in tracking out and frustrating the numerous conspiracies which were ere long framed against his life. All whom he rightly or wrongly suspected were visited with cruel deaths; among others he slew his predecessor's widow, Constantina, and her three little daughters, because he found that their names were often used as a rallying cry by plotters. On mere suspicion he seized and burnt alive Narses, the general of the East, the most distinguished officer in the army. Other objects of his dread were flogged to death, strangled, or cruelly mutilated.

Meanwhile, the reign of terror at home was accompanied by disaster without. The decaying military and financial strength of the empire suddenly collapsed into utter ruin under the rule of the vicious boor who had replaced the economic Maurice. The Slavs and Avars wrought their wicked will unhindered on the European provinces, and pushed their ravages up to the wall of Anastasius. In the East matters fared even worse. The young and able King of Persia made the murder of his benefactor Maurice a casus belli, and took arms to avenge his ‘friend and father.’ From the first opening of the war the Romans fared badly; never had such an unbroken series of disasters met their arms. Early in the struggle Phocas had provoked the Eastern army by recalling and burning alive their commander Narses. They fought feebly, were ill-supplied by the incapable tyrant, and badly led by his creatures who were placed at their head.

In 606 there came a sudden collapse; the great frontier fortress of Daras fell, and from that moment the Persians pushed on without meeting a check. They overran all Mesopotamia, Disastrous ravaged northern Syria, and pushed their incursions into Asia Minor, where no enemy had been seen for a century. The armies of Phocas seem to have dispersed, or shut themselves up within city walls, for we hear of no resistance to the invader. In 608 matters grew worse still; from their base in Mesopotamia and north Syria the Persians struck out boldly towards Constantinople. Overrunning Cappadocia, Galatia, and Bithynia their raiding bands crossed the whole peninsula, and even penetrated to Chalcedon and eyed the imperial city across the Bosphorus. Phocas, instead of hastening to organize new troops, contented himself with ordering a persecution of the Jews, whom he accused of having betrayed to the Persians some of the towns of Syria.

In 609 the enemy once more overran Asia Minor, capturing among other places the great city of Caesarea in Cappadocia. Again they met with little or no opposition; the Emperor's attention was entirely taken up with real or imaginary plots in the capital. It seemed that he would allow the empire to be torn from him piecemeal, without striking a blow.

But relief was at last about to come to the suffering people of New Rome. In Africa there ruled as Exarch Heraclius, the veteran officer whose victories had closed the old Persian wars of the time of Maurice. He was capable and much beloved both by the provincials and by his army; under his able rule Africa, alone among the provinces of the empire, enjoyed peace and prosperity. In 609 Heraclius received emissaries from Priscus, the commander of the imperial guard, one of the innumerable persons who had fallen under the suspicion of Phocas. The messengers bade Heraclius strike boldly at Constantinople, for Phocas was universally detested, and no one would raise an arm in his defense. At the same moment the Exarch learnt that his tyrannical master had already conceived doubts of his loyalty, and had thrown his wife and daughter into prison.

Seeing that he must strike hard or be crushed, Heraclius determined to rebel. He spent the winter of 609-610 in fitting out a fleet, and launched it against Constantinople before Phocas had learnt of his revolt. The command given to his eldest son, who also bore the name of Heraclius, for the Exarch himself was old and ailing. At the same time, to make a diversion, he sent a body of cavalry under his nephew, Nicetas, to invade Egypt by land; they were to follow the line of the long coast-road through Tripoli and Cyrene.

When the fleet of the younger Heraclius reached the Dardanelles it met with no resistance; on the news of its arrival, Priscus brought the imperial guard to join the rebels, and the Emperor found himself deserted by all his soldiery. He strove, like his predecessor Maurice, to arm the factions of the Blues and Greens; but no one would strike a blow in behalf of such a worthless tyrant. Heraclius sailed unopposed to the Bosphorus, and as he arrived off the palace he met a boat containing the wretched Phocas, whom a private enemy had seized and cast into chains. The prisoner was brought on deck and cast at the feet of his conqueror. ‘Is it thus,’ cried Heraclius, ‘that you have governed the empire?’ ‘Will you,’ the fallen tyrant replied, ‘govern it any better?’ Heraclius spurned him with his foot, and promptly consigned him to the headsman.

Thus perished the first, but by no means the last, military usurper who sat on the Constantinopolitan throne, overthrown, as he had been elevated, by an armed rebellion. All the world with singular unanimity testified to the worthlessness of Phocas, save one single adherent; but this was no less a person than Pope Gregory the Great. Much to his discredit the great pontiff had been a supporter, nay, even a flatterer, of the Thracian boor who wore the eastern diadem with such ill grace. But Gregory had been an enemy of the unfortunate Maurice, because that prince – though orthodox in matters of doctrine – had shown scant respect to the See of Rome. He had called some of Gregory's epistles ‘fatuous,’ and had allowed John ‘the Faster,’ Patriarch of Constantinople, to assume the title of ‘ecumenical bishop,’ a style which filled Gregory with horror, and caused him to exclaim that the times of Antichrist were at hand. Gregory therefore looked on Maurice's murderer as the avenger of the outraged dignity of the See of Rome, and did not shrink from heaping upon him epithets of unseemly adulation; the choirs of angels, he said, sang with joy in heaven at the accession of such a worthy Caesar! Truly this was a painful episode in the life of a man who, in spite of all his faults, has been justly hailed as a saint.


After the first eighty years of its existence, the Frankish Kingdom, which under three generations of warlike monarchs had continued to extend its borders so fast and so far, ceased suddenly to grow, and was given up for a century and a half to ruinous civil wars, as objectless as they were tedious and confused. In surrendering their primitive Teutonic freedom to their royal house, in return for the glory and aggrandizement which union under a single despotic hand gave to their hitherto weak and scattered tribes, the Franks had bartered away their future. As long as the house of Clovis were able and active, their subjects could console themselves for submitting to an autocrat by sharing in the power and plunder which a century of successful war brought in to them. But when the Merovings, though still retaining their despotic authority, grew weak and incapable, showing no trace of their ancestor's qualities, save an inveterate tendency to treachery and fratricide, an evil time came upon the Frankish race.

They paid for their early aggrandizement by being condemned to five generations of useless civil wars at home, and powerlessness abroad, while their hereditary monarchs sacrificed everything to their unending family feuds. Nothing more could be hoped for the Franks till they had rid themselves of the nightmare-incubus of this wicked house, whose repulsive annals are, on the whole, the most hopeless and depressing page in the history of Europe. From generation to generation their story reeks with blood; there is nothing that can be compared to it for horror in the records of any nation on this side of the Mediterranean. We have to search the histories of the courts of Mohammedan Asia to discover a parallel. The Franks only found salvation in the growth of checks on the royal power by the development of the great provincial governors, and by the final deposition of the Merovings in favor of the great house of the descendants of St. Arnulf, the Mayors of the Palace, whose strong hand at last stayed the fratricidal wars of the seventh century. And even when the new dynasty had mounted the throne, the Frankish realm showed fatal signs of the demoralization it had suffered under the old royal house. The tendency of the race to acquiesce in the unwise habit of heritage-partition, and the unhappy grudge between the eastern and the western Franks, were direct legacies of the Merovings.