chapter  19
18 Pages

Western Christendom and the Wider World

Byzantium and Islam dominated the Mediterranean world in the early middle ages. The Byzantines had survived the barbarian invasions of the fourth and fifth centuries and, under Justinian between the 530s and the 560s, had even tried to regain control of north Africa, Italy and Spain. Although after Justinian the attempt to recreate the Roman Empire could not be sustained, the conviction that the world could be properly reconstructed and ordered only under Byzantine aegis remained fundamental to rulers of Constantinople. Byzantine survival in the face of the determined threats of first the Persians, who were overcome by Heraclius during the 620s, and then the new power of Islam, which began to expand outside the Arabian Peninsula after the death of the Prophet in 632, did much to justify and deepen this conviction. The rise of Islam was spectacular and permanent; during the 630s the Persian Empire was engulfed and the Byzantines so decisively beaten in battle that they lost Palestine, most of Syria and Egypt. During the remainder of the seventh century Islam, despite schisms within itself, spread across north Africa, and in 711 crossed to the northern shore and began a conquest which was to encompass most of Iberia. Although this effort could not be consolidated outside the peninsula, Islamic power was able to make its presence felt in the Frankish lands, in the islands of the western Mediterranean and along the Italian coast, until the early years of the eleventh century. It was a measure of Byzantine resilience and depth that despite two prolonged and determined attempts to capture Constantinople-between 668 and 676 and 717 and 718-Islam was unable to complete its Mediterranean expansion by toppling Byzantium. In the early eleventh century the Byzantines could, with justice, still see themselves as the true heirs of the Christian Roman Empire.