Tue 30 Oct, 2012 09:20 am
In what ways were the Byzantine Empire, Medieval Europe and the Islamic Caliphates heirs to the Roman Empire?
Jeeze . . . you'd have to get a 50 page essay just to hit the high points.
The Byzantine Empire was the Roman Empire. As far as the emperors and officials of the empire were concerned, Constantimpole continued to be the capital of the empire even after Rome was sacked by the Goths, and even after the Lombards, Vandals and Visigoths had taken over Italy. The people the Europeans call Gypsies were called the Rom or Roma by people in the Balkans and the middle east precisely because they had formerly been a part of the Roman Empire. Calling the empire the Byzantine Empire is an academic exercise after the fact. Everyone in Europe and the middle east understood, six and seven hundred years ago, that Constantinople was the capital of the remnant of the Roman Empire. The Russians called Moscow the third Rome. By that, they meant that there had been Rome, then Constantinople, which they considered the second Rome, and then Moscow, which they called the third Rome.
The institutions of the Roman Empire survived in Constantinople. The laws which governed that empire were called the Justinian Code. The emperor Justinian, more than a century after Alaric sacked Rome, ordered his "Justice Minister" to collect and codify Roman law. This was accomplished in 529 CE. Only we call it the Byzantine Empire, the people who lived then and there knew it as the Roman Empire.
Nothing which survives remains static, unchanging. Of course the empire in the east changed over time. But the Roman Empire changed throughout its history before the Balkans, Italy, France and Spain were lost. The Roman Empire survived for over 2000 years precisely because it was adaptive and its institutions were flexible. When Constantinople finally fell to the Osmanli Turks in the spring of 1453, the Roman Empire finally fell. It didn't fall in 408 CE, except in the fevered imaginations of people with only a shallow understanding.
In the west, in what we now think of as Europe (a good deal of Europe remained under the control of the Roman Empire with its capital at Constantinople), the institutions of the empire did collapse. The collapse was admnistrative, military and economic. The Romans, with their wonderful adaptability, had for centuries co-opted the threat of "barbarians" by federating them. A tribe or collection of tribes would threaten the empire, so they would admit them as foederati. This dates back to the earliest days of Rome. Only the Latins (the Latini) were considered "blood allies," all others were foederati, tribes admitted as allies, but not immediately granted citizenship. The Vandals had been federated, and so, when Alaraic invaded what we call Italy, the supreme Roman commander who confronted him was Stilicho. Stilicho's father was a Vandal, and his mother was a Roman. No one thought of Stilicho as a Geramn, he was a Roman as far as everyone else was concerned. Even Alaric had once been a Roman officer, and his invasion was based on claim that the Visigoths had been cheated by the Romans, and that he was just attempting to enforce their claims.
When Attila invaded what we call France in 451 CE, he was opposed by Flavius Aetius, who was born in what we call Bulgaria, whose father was a Scythian, and whose mother was either Roman or of Roman descent (little is known of her). He was able to defeat the Huns because he formed an alliance with the Franks. The Franks were a confederation of German tribes which had formed for self-defense after being crushed between the Romans and other German tribes migrating into central Europe. They "paid their dues" for admission into the Empire with their part in the defeat of the Huns. Tacitus, in his book the Germania, tells us that the German tribes did not have kings. In time of national emergency, they would elect a king from a "royal family," or, if they did not trust that family, they would appoint a Graf. At the time of the Hunnic invasion, the "royal family" of the Franks were the Mervings, and so the Latin writers describe the leader of the Franks as Merovius. This is the origin of the name for the first Frankish dynasty as the Merovingian.
J. B. Bury, the great Irish scholar of the later Roman Empire (who, by the way, explicitly denied that there was any Byzantine Empire), gave a series of lectures which were later combined into a book entitled The Barbarian Invaions of Europe. He states that Roman authority in the west collapsed with the Lombard invasion, when they demaned, and got, two thirds of the land they undertook to defend militarily. By that time, the Vandals and Visigoths had overrun northern Africa, and what we call Spain. Italy had been overrun by the Visigoths and the Lombards. The northern part of what we call France and the western and south central part of what we call Germany had been overrun by the Franks. Southern France, northwestern Italy and little of eastern Spain were the Occitan reagion--a romance language which us "oc" as the word for "yes," and most of which was known as Languedoc. There was a blend of Germans, Kelts and Romans in that region, which maintained its independence until the 13th century. The northeastern part of Spain was much the same, but spoke the Catalan language. Thanks to the endurance of Roman civilization in Languedoc and Catalonia, until the Church crushed them in the 13th century, Languedoc and Catalonia were the industrial heartland of Europe.
When the legions left Britannia at the end of the 4th century, a large proportion of the population were Christians, but by no means all of them. The Keltic chieftans of the British tribes, many of whom were at least nominally Christian, still had a Druid for at least ceremonial purposes, and very likely as a trusted advisor. The Saxons, Angeln and Jutes who subsequently invaded Britain, and eventually succeeded in overruning much of the island, were pagans. They were later converted to Christianity by missionaries sent by Rome, rather than by the Insular Church, the Christians who had survived the departure of the legions.
So, essentially, the beneficiary of the legacy of the Roman Empire was the Christian Church. The marvelous engineering did not survive--people used Roman roads, but they could no longer build them. They used Roman aqueducts, but they could not build them. Their law codes were based on the tribal law and customs which survived from their ancestors who had first entered the empire, not on Roman code. Smart "barbarian" leaders converted to Christianity, because of the authority it gave them over their people, along with the fiction that they had, therefore, a Roman heritage. Only the shell of Roman law remained, although later in the middle ages a sincere effort was made to incorporate Roman code in their customary law.
What the Romans gave the barbarians of Europe was unintentional, and that was feudalism. Because most of these tribes had entered the empire as foederati, at least ostensibly, they did not come as conquerors. Although slavery survived, the basic equation was not one of enslaving a conquered population. The lowest, most miserable serf in feudal Europe still had recognized legal rights, and rights in property under the feudal system. The original simplistic formula was that the barbarian tribes took over the land on the condition of military service. Therefore, the equation of the nobility to the serf, which was more real than fictional, was that the nobility, the armed men who ruled the lives of the serfs, protected them, in return for which the serfs worked the land. One of the tradition of the barbarians, which survived for more than a thousand years, was that a vassal owed his lord one third of what ever booty he plundered or whatever his land produced (perhaps realted to the Roman foederati formula of one third of the land?--i don't know). On that basis, the serf owed his lord one third of what he produced. But the church was not far behind hand, and they demanded one third, too. So the miserable peasant was paying out two thirds of what he produced for the protection of his body (often a dubious proposition) by the nobility, and the protection of his soul by the Church. Nevertheless, he had legal rights and rights in property. It was possible, and it did frequently happen that a serf could work hard enough and save enough to buy his own land, pay off his feudal lord and become a free man. The family name Franklin used in England means eaactly that, a man who has gained his freedom.
When academics call the hierarchical systems of China or Japan or the middle east feudalism, they are being imprecise. Amin Maloof, in his book The Crusades through Arab Eyes discusses exactly this condition. He recounts the comments of Ibn Kaldun (not the great Tunisian theologian, but an Andalusian Muslim who wrote a travelogue in the 13th century, having traveled from Spain to Cairo, and then across the Muslim world to what we call Indonesia). Ibn Kaldun could not understand how the peasants of the middle east could prefer to live under the rule of the ugly, dirty (literally, as in they rarely bathed) barbarian Franj--the Arabic name for the Franks--the Turks called them the ferengi. Maloof supplies the answer. Under their Arab or Turkish master, the peasants had nothing. The overlord took whatever he wanted, rook all they had if that was his whim. Under the Franj, they at least had some legal rights and some rights in proptery--at least one third of all they produced was theirs to keep. Under Muslim rulers, their share might well be nothing, with starvation and disease their prospect. European feudalism created an order which had something for everyone, even if it were not very much at the lowest level. This is part of the reason that Europeans evolved societies which were able to conquer most of the world.
I can't say that i think the Roman Empire had much influence on the Muslim societies which replaced them in the middle east. The holy warriors of Islam who erupted out of Arabia in the 7th century overran the Sassanid Empire, a Persian empire which had been built on the wreck of Roman authority. When those holy warriors attempted to drive into Anatolia, the then still healthy Roman Empire turned them back easily. The Arabs then made a sharp left and overran North Africa, eventually reaching what we call Spain, and even attempted to overrun Languedoc, until Charles Martel, Charles the Hammer, defeated them at Tours in the 8th century, a century after the death of the Prophet, in fact.
Even under the Romans, the middle east had been an essentially Hellenistic region--which means it was influenced by the Greek culture which was imported in the wake of the army of Alexander the Great. Upon his death, this "empire" quicly broke up into small, warring states, and there was no stability there until the Romans partially conquered the area. Under the Romans, the common language of culture, commerce and scholarship was Greek. Even the Roman Empire with its headquarters at Constantinople became Hellenistic, and Greek became their common language, even though their institutions remained Roman.
What the Muslims overran in the middle east was a Hellenistic civiliation, not a Roman one. What they overran in North Africa and Spain was only nominally a Roman civilization--they overran the petty kingdoms of Visigoths and Vandals, far more German than Roman.
Perhaps someone with a better knowldedge of the middle east could show how the Roman Empire affected the Muslims. For my part, i don't see any significant influence.