ISLAM AND THE DARK AGE OF BYZANTIUM
by John J. O’Neill
In his 1936 book, Mohammed et Charlemagne, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne argued in great detail that the Dark Ages of Europe began rather suddenly in the middle of the seventh century; and that this sudden and catastrophic decline in civilization was due to Islam’s blockade of the Mediterranean. Up to that time, Pirenne showed, there was no evidence of a decline in Classical culture. True, the Western Roman Empire as a political entity had disappeared in 476, but the literate, prosperous and urban civilization which we call “Classical” continued virtually uninterrupted. The Goths and other “Barbarian” peoples who ruled the provinces of the West after 467 did not try to destroy Roman civilization and civil society. Indeed, as Pirenne showed in great detail, they did everything in their power to preserve it. They adopted the Latin language, accepted Imperial titles from the Emperor in Constantinople, and minted gold coins with the image of the Eastern Emperor emblazoned upon them.
Yet this thriving Late Classical culture came to a rather sudden end in the seventh century: city life declined, as did trade; a barter economy replaced the earlier monetary system, and what coins were issued were minted in silver rather than gold; literacy declined as papyrus from Egypt disappeared and expensive parchment took its place; and the power of kings waned, as local strongmen or “barons” seized the reigns of power in the provinces. The Middle Ages had begun.
Pirenne’s great book, which was published posthumously, received a mixed reception. On the whole, it was conceded that he seemed to be on to something of great importance. Yet there was criticism, and this criticism only increased over the years.
One of the most telling arguments against Pirenne was the question of Byzantium. Historians were quick to point out that, whilst the regions of the West may have experienced a Dark Age between the seventh and tenth centuries, those of the East did not. There was no decline, they said, in Byzantium. If the Arab blockade of the Mediterranean had strangled classical urban civilization in the West, why did it not have the same effect in the East? This was a question to which there seemed no easy answer. Even Pirenne believed that Byzantium had somehow coped better with the Arabs than the West. In his time it was generally assumed that Classical Civilization survived in the East, and that the region was less “medievalised” than the West. We are, or have been until recently, informed by historians that the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries in Byzantium were, in the words of Sidney Painter, “three centuries of glory,” and that during this time “The Byzantine Empire was the richest state in Europe, the strongest military power, and by far the most cultivated.”(Sidney Painter, A History of the Middle Ages, 284-1500) We are further informed that, “During these three centuries while Western Europe was a land of partly tamed barbarians, the Byzantine Empire was a highly civilized state where a most felicitous merger of Christianity and Hellenism produced a fascinating culture.”(Ibid.)
The above opinions, common till the latter half of the twentieth century, were partly prompted by Byzantine propaganda, which always sought to portray Constantinople as the “New Rome” and the successor, in an unbroken line of authority, of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. Yet over the past half century the science of archaeology has proved that picture to be a fabrication. As a matter of fact, we now know that the once-proud Eastern Rome was devastated by the Arab assaults. The same poverty and illiteracy that we find in the West we now find also in the East. Cities decline and the science and philosophy of the Greeks and Romans disappear. Indeed, just as in the West, a “dark age” descends. In the words of Cyril Mango; “One can hardly overestimate the catastrophic break that occurred in the seventh century. Anyone who reads the narrative of events will not fail to be struck by the calamities that befell the Empire, starting with the Persian invasion at the very beginning of the century and going on to the Arab expansion some thirty years later – a series of reverses that deprived the Empire of some of its most prosperous provinces, namely, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and, later, North Africa – and so reduced it to less than half its former size both in area and in population. But a reading of the narrative sources gives only a faint idea of the profound transformation that accompanied these events. … It marked for the Byzantine lands the end of a way of life – the urban civilization of Antiquity – and the beginning of a very different and distinctly medieval world.”(Cyril Mango, Byzantium, the Empire of New Rome, p. 4) Mango remarked on the virtual abandonment of the Byzantine cities after the mid-seventh century, and the archaeology of these settlements usually reveals “a dramatic rupture in the seventh century, sometimes in the form of virtual abandonment.”(Ibid. p. 8) With the cities and with the papyrus supply from Egypt went the intellectual class, who after the seventh century were reduced to a “small clique.”(Ibid. p. 9) The evidence, as Mango sees it, is unmistakable: the “catastrophe” (as he names it) of the seventh century, “is the central event of Byzantine history.”(Ibid.)
Constantinople herself, the mighty million-strong capital of the East, was reduced, by the middle of the eighth century, to a veritable ruin. Mango quotes a document of the period which evokes a picture of “abandonment and ruination. Time and again we are told that various monuments – statues, palaces, baths – had once existed but were destroyed. What is more, the remaining monuments, many of which must have dated from the fourth and fifth centuries, were no longer understood for what they were. They had acquired a magical and generally ominous connotation.”(Ibid. p. 80)
So great was the destruction that even bronze coinage, the everyday lubricant of commercial life, disappeared. According to Mango, “In sites that have been systematically excavated, such as Athens, Corinth, Sardis and others, it has been ascertained that bronze coinage, the small change used for everyday transactions, was plentiful throughout the sixth century and (depending on local circumstances) until some time in the seventh, after which it almost disappeared, then showed a slight increase in the ninth, and did not become abundant again until the latter part of the tenth.”(Ibid. pp. 72-3). Yet even the statement that some coins appeared in the ninth century has to be treated with caution. Mango notes that at Sardis the period between 491 and 616 is represented by 1,011 bronze coins, the rest of the seventh century by about 90, “and the eighth and ninth centuries combined by no more than 9.”(Ibid. p. 73) And, “similar results have been obtained from nearly all provincial Byzantine cities.” Even such paltry samples as have survived from the eighth and ninth centuries (nine) are usually of questionable provenance, a fact noted by Mango himself, who remarked that often, upon closer inspection, these turn out to originate either from before the dark age, or after it.
When archaeology again appears, in the middle of the tenth century, the civilization it reveals has been radically altered: The old Byzantium of Late Antiquity is gone, and we find an impoverished and semi-literate rump; a Medieval Byzantium strikingly like the Medieval France, Germany and Italy with which it was contemporary. Here we find too a barter or semi-barter economy; a decline in population and literacy; and an intolerant and theocratic state. And the break-off point in Byzantium, as in the West, is the first half of the seventh century – precisely corresponding to the arrival on the scene of the Arabs and of Islam.
Archaeology has thus come dramatically to the support of Pirenne, long after his death, and answered for him a question he could not. The impact of Islam was devastating for all of Christendom, both East and West. It was the event that terminated Classical civilization. The destruction of Classical culture in Europe was due to largely, though not completely, to the economic blockade of the Mediterranean by Muslim piracy. Yet the termination of that culture in regions such as Egypt and Syria (formally great centers of Classical and Hellenistic civilization) which came under the control of Islam, was produced by the new faith’s utter contempt for the cultures and histories of the peoples it came to dominate. Right from the start, the Caliphal government in Egypt established a commission whose purpose was to seek out pharaohnic age tombs, for plundering. So complete was the destruction that, perhaps little more than a century after the Islamic Conquest, no one in Egypt had any idea who built the Great Pyramid – this in spite of the fact that very substantial histories of this monument and the pharaoh who erected it were contained in the works of many Classical authors, most notably Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus. Immediately prior to the Muslim invasion the libraries and academies of Egypt, Syria, and Babylonia, were packed with the works of these authors. Their disappearance and the disappearance of the knowledge they contained can only mean, as Christian polemicists argued for centuries, that the Muslims had deliberately destroyed a great quantity of Classical literature.
In the West of Europe and in the East, in North Africa and the Middle East, Classical civilization came to an end in the mid-seventh century; and the reason for its demise can be summed up in one word: Islam.
Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications (August, 2009)