Constantine IV » Zvartnots Cathedral » Byzantine Monasticism » Origins and History

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  • Constantine IV » Who was
  • Zvartnots Cathedral » Origins
  • Byzantine Monasticism » Origins

Ancient civilizations » Historical places, and their characters

Constantine IV » Who was

Definition and Origins

Author: Mark Cartwright

Constantine IV ruled as emperor of the Byzantine empire from 668 to 685 CE. His reign is best remembered today for the five-year Arab siege of Constantinople from 674 CE, which the Byzantines resisted thanks to their strong fortifications and the secret weapon of Greek Fire. Although not hugely successful in other theatres, the reign of Constantine would at least stabilize the Empire, perpetuate the rule of Christianity in the East, and permit something of a revival of Byzantine fortunes under subsequent emperors.


Constantine was the eldest son of Constans II (r. 641-668 CE) and he had been crowned co-emperor, as was customary for the chosen heir, in 654 CE. Constans was unpopular with the Church for his failure to reconcile the two sides of the raging debate on dogma and on whether Christ had one will and one energy, or two of both. He did not win any admirers for his military record, either, as the Arab Caliphate inflicted a series of defeats on Byzantine armies throughout his reign. When the emperor relocated to Syracuse on Sicilyfor greater safety it was the last straw for the Byzantine aristocracy who envisaged their abandonment in Constantinople, the capital. It was no surprise, then, that Constans was assassinated - the deed done, while he took his bath, by one of his own military entourage on 15 September 668 CE, with a soap dish as the inglorious weapon.


Constantine IV at first ruled alongside his brothers Herakleios and Tiberios as co-emperors. Constantine travelled to Sicily where he put down the rebellion led by Mizizios, one of the conspirators who had murdered his father. It was in the east, though, with the now annual incursions of Byzantine Asia Minor by the Arab Caliphate, that the empire was most threatened. Fortunately for the Byzantines, Constantine would prove to be,

…a wise statesman and born leader of men, the first decade of whose reign marked a watershed in the history of Christendom: the moment when, for the first time, the armies of the Crescent were turned and put to flight by those of the Cross.
(Norwich, 101)


One of the most persistent attacks in Constantinople’s long history came with the Arab siege of 674-678 CE. Muawiya (r. 661-680 CE), the caliph and founder of the Umayyad Caliphate, had already enjoyed victories against Byzantine armies during the reign of Constans II and in 670 CE the Muslim fleet took Cyprus, Rhodes and Kos, and then moved into the northern Aegean. Next, they attacked Kyzikos (Cyzicus) on the south coast of the Sea of Marmara. Now possessing a handy peninsula from which to launch attacks, Constantinople was the next major target in 674 CE. The city’s legendary fortifications, the Theodosian Walls, and the Byzantine secret incendiary weapon of Greek Fire (a highly inflammable liquid sprayed from ships) meant that, ultimately, the five-year siege was unsuccessful.


Greek Fire

During the siege, every summer the city resisted siege engines and artillery fire from huge catapults, to the frustration of the army of Muawiya. Meanwhile, the Caliphate’s armies in Asia Minor had been suffering setbacks - for example, there were attacks by the Mardaites tribesmen of Lebanon (encouraged by Constantine) - and so when his fleet was torched by Greek Fire, the caliph was forced to sign a 30-year truce with Byzantium. It was the first major defeat the Arabs had suffered since the rise of Islam. In 679 CE Muawiya was obliged to give up the Aegean islands he had conquered and pay an annual tribute which included 3,000 gold coins, 50 slaves and 50 thoroughbred horses.
Constantine had preserved Christendom. If the capital had fallen then the Caliphate would have pushed on through the unprotected Balkans, across central Europe and probably even captured Rome. Consequently, Europe may very well have had a different religion if the 7th century CE siege of Constantinople had been as successful as that of the 15th century CE when the armies of Islam had sacked the jewel of the old Eastern Roman Empire.


Constantine still faced problems elsewhere, though. The Empire had fast been crumbling at the edges throughout the first half of the 7th century CE. Now the Arabs in North Africa were steadily increasing their territory at the expense of the empire and the Bulgars, led by Asparuch, were also flexing their military muscle south of the Danube. On top of that, the Slavs had attacked Thessaloniki, the empire’s second most important city. Thessaloniki was successfully defended but, after a failed Byzantine naval mission in 680 CE, the Bulgar kingdom became the first in Byzantine territory which an emperor was obliged to recognise as independent. Constantine, preferring to concentrate his armies in Asia, was constrained to sign a treaty in 681 CE which necessitated the emperor paying a handsome annual tribute to the Bulgars as a price for peace. Constantine, in any case, created a new military province (theme) in Thrace, to create a buffer defence against any future Bulgar incursions.
In Italy, meanwhile, Constantine was obliged to sign a peace treaty with the ambitious Lombards who had captured Byzantine territory in the south. A similar treaty was signed with the Avars in central Europe. Greater success was enjoyed in Cilicia in 684 CE and most of the lands of the Armenians became a Byzantine protectorate at their own request. The empire had found its military feet again and stopped the rot after half a century of serious setbacks but it was still far from being secure against all-comers.


The Byzantine Empire, c. 650 CE.


Another notable event of Constantine’s reign was the Sixth Ecumenical Council of 680-681 CE. Constantine had communicated with Pope Agatho (678-681 CE) who enthusiastically agreed that a decision needed to be made on the Christian Church’s fundamental principles regarding the two natures of Jesus Christ, the embodiment of both the human and divine spirit. Accordingly, 174 delegates representing the Church from all parts of the empire gathered in the Domed Hall of the royal palace in Constantinople. The Council, meeting 18 times over ten months and presided over by the emperor himself, condemned both Monotheletism (the idea that Jesus Christ had a single will) and Monoenergism (that Christ had a single energy or force). Anyone who had or still disagreed with that view was condemned as a heretic. Fortunately, since the empire’s loss of Armenia and eastern territories, there were few adherents to the mono-position left anyway. The decree of the council finally reconciled the long-standing rift between the eastern and western churches.


Constantine died of dysentery aged just 33 in 685 CE and was succeeded by his son and chosen heir Justinian II (r. 685-695 CE). Constantine left the empire in the best state it had been in for the whole of the 7th century CE. The new emperor was only 16 but, nevertheless, he enjoyed some military success during his reign. Then the usurper Leontios (r. 695-698 CE), an ambitious general backed by a wave of popular discontent at Justinian’s heavy taxes, slit the nose of the young emperor, exiled him and grabbed the throne for himself. Justinian would return, though, in 705 CE after besieging Constantinople and so ending the reign of Tiberios III. The emperor’s second spell of rule (705-711 CE) revealed him as a nasty tyrant and he proved ineffective in stopping the Arabs overrunning much of Asia Minor.

Zvartnots Cathedral » Origins

Definition and Origins

Author: James Blake Wiener

The ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral are located on a flat plain within the Ararat Plateau between the cities of Yerevan and Etchmiadzin in Armenia’s Armavir province near Zvartnots International Airport. Built in the middle of the 7th century CE, under the instructions of the Catholicos Nerses III (r. 641-661 CE), Zvartnots is the oldest and largest aisled tetraconch church in historical Armenia. Its design strongly influenced later constructions of other Armenian churches with central-domed cross-halls, leaving an enduring architectural and artistic mark in what is present-day Armenia, Georgia, Azerbaijan, and eastern Turkey. Although largely destroyed in an earthquake in the 10th century CE, Zvartnots Cathedral was excavated and rediscovered between 1900-1907 CE. It was partially reconstructed in the 1940s CE - based on the research of the Armenian architectural historian Toros Toramanian (1864-1934 CE) - and Zvartnots’ ruins can be visited today. UNESCO added the ruins of Zvartnots Cathedral to its World Heritage List in 2000 CE.


Zvartnots Cathedral was constructed at a time of much chaos in Near East. After decades of intermittent warfare between the Sasanians and Byzantines, Arab invaders carrying the Islamic faith had surged out of the Arabian Peninsula, taking control of Jerusalem and Alexandria from the Byzantines, and vanquishing the formidable Sasanian Empire in what is now Iraq and Iran. As Armenia lies in the Caucasus and functioned as a geographical bulwark on the Byzantine Empire’s eastern frontier, it quickly became a contested region between the Arabs and Byzantines. The first Arab invasion of Armenia occurred in 640 CE, and the Arabs massacred thousands of Armenians at the ancient capital of Dvin in 642 CE. From 643-656 CE, the Arabs launched a full-scale invasion of the Caucasus only to be halted temporarily by the armies of the Byzantine Emperor Constans II (r. 641-668 CE). While many Armenians were grateful for Byzantine aid, many were worried about increasing religious influence and interference from Byzantium.


Armenians were divided in the 7th century CE between those who wished for the Armenian Apostolic Church to accept decisions made at the Council of Chalcedon in 451 CE, which condemned the belief of one incarnate nature of Christ, and those who did not and wished to maintain the separation between the Eastern Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic Churches. Things became more divisive when due to the presence of Byzantine troops on Armenian soil, the Armenian Apostolic Church was placed under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 647 CE by Constans II. (This was subsequently rejected by an Armenian Apostolic Church council a year later.) Nerses III “the Builder” had been elected as the Catholicos of the Armenian Apostolic Church in 640 CE just as the Arab armies arrived in Armenia. During this era, the Armenian Catholicos - the head of the Armenian Apostolic Church - held both temporal and spiritual power over the Armenian people, and so Nerses III exercised and wielded considerable political might.


Zvartnots Cathedral

Constans II visited Nerses III in Armenia in 652 CE in order to expand Byzantine influence in matters concerning religion as well as in the development a mutual, common defense against the Muslim Arabs. Nerses III was pro-Byzantine in both his religious and political views; he was fluent in Greek, served in the Byzantine army, and even visited Constans II’s court in Constantinople in 654 CE. Constans II found Nerses III to be a most useful and much-needed ally due to his fear of further Arab invasions as well as potential clashes between Byzantine and Armenian soldiers over their religious differences.


According to the History of Heraclius, widely attributed to the Armenian bishop Sebeos (fl. 7th century CE), the construction of Zvartnots Cathedral began c. 645 CE and continued with occasional interruptions due to Arab razzias into the 650s CE. Armenian legends hold that Constans II was in attendance at Zvartnots’ consecration, but there is no historical evidence of this. Sebeos attests that Zvartnots Cathedral was built “to the glory of God.” “Zvartnots” means “heavenly host” in Armenian, which in turn might be a pun derived from the Greek “egregoros,” which means translates as “powers of angels” or heavenly host.” Some scholars contend that the Armenian root word “Zawr” relates to the military and that “Zvartnots” could even be translated as “celestial militia.” The church was designed for congregational worship, but there is a consensus among historians that Nerses III intended Zvartnots Cathedral to be a monument to Armenian-Byzantine ties in addition to functioning as a projection of his own power as an intermediary between Byzantium and Armenia.


Zvartnots Cathedral Plan

Nerses III built his church on the site where it was believed according to local tradition that St. Gregory “the Illuminator” (c. 257 – c. 331) converted King Tiridates III of Armenia (r. 287–330 CE) to Christianity. Its design as an aisled tetraconch church recalls similar structures across the Roman Mediterranean in what is now Italy (San Lorenzo in Milan), Egypt (Abu Mena), and Syria (Bosra, Rusafah, and Apamaea). Of those, Zvartnots Cathedral resembles most the structures from Syria, which date from the second half of the 5th century CE.
Zvartnots was constructed largely from basalt quarried nearby, along with tufa, pumice, and obsidian. The cathedral contained four W-shaped piers to support its large dome, which in turn divided the cathedral’s interior and exterior spaces. Zvartnots' dome reached a height of about 45 m (148 ft), and the entire structure of the cathedral sits on a stone platform that is 5 m (16 ft) tall. The cathedral’s core was dominated by a circular ambulatory and a large chamber with an unknown function. There once existed an ambo to the southeast of the cathedral apse as well. The cathedral was sumptuously ornamented with mosaics and well furnished. From the ruins, scholars have deduced that the cathedral’s exterior was richly decorated with carvings of pomegranates, grapevines, as well as figural ornaments and graced blind arcades. Nerses III built a small palace for himself directly adjacent to Zvartnots with elegant colonnaded porches.


Zvartnots Cathedral

Unlike earlier Armenian churches or religious structures, Zvartnots contains columns with Ionic capitals, which were not common in Armenian architecture in the 7th century CE. Columnar exedrae placed between the piers of the cathedral contained Nerses III’s personal monograms in Greek rather than Armenian. Capitals with monograms or personal devices were virtually unknown in ancient Armenia, but they were common throughout the Roman and Byzantine Empires with the best examples being those of the Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565 CE) and Empress Theodora (c. 500-548 CE) at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Four column capitals decorated with eagles once stood in front of the cathedral’s four main piers, facing the ambulatory. The eagle with outstretched wings was a potent symbol of imperial Byzantine power. A unique sundial with an Armenian inscription found by archaeologists likely occupied a position somewhere on the southern façade of the cathedral; additionally, a Urartian stele found within the premises of the cathedral was likely reused either for decor or for some structural purpose.


Zvartnots Cathedral provided the architectural blueprint for many fine churches throughout the Caucasus and Eastern Anatolia, including a ruined church in Bana, Turkey; a ruined Armenian church in Lekit, Azerbaijan; and the Church of St. Gregory in Ani, Turkey. The modern Holy Trinity Church in Yerevan, Armenia is also modeled on Zvartnots Cathedral. Historians believe that Zvartnots Cathedral collapsed following an earthquake in the 10th century CE. It was largely forgotten until it was excavated in 1900-1901 CE.
This article was made possible with generous support from the National Association for Armenian Studies and Research and the Knights of Vartan Fund for Armenian Studies.

Byzantine Monasticism » Origins

Ancient Civilizations

Author: Mark Cartwright

Monasticism, that is individuals devoting themselves to an ascetic life in a monastery for devotional purposes, was an ever-present feature of the Byzantine empire. Monasteries became powerful landowners and a voice to be listened to in imperial politics. From fanatical ascetics to much-appreciated wine-producers, men and women who devoted their lives to a monastic life were an important part of the community with monasteries offering all manner of services to the poor and needy, out-of-favour nobles, weary travellers, and avid bookworms. Many Byzantine monasteries are still in use, and their impressive architecture enhances views today from Athens to Sinai.


St. Catherine's Monastery, Sinai


Leading a life of asceticism, when one denied oneself of basic comforts, was a concept seen in the Jewish faith and, of course, by Jesus himself when he had spent time in solitude in the wilderness, and in the lives of his followers such as John the Baptist. The idea was that shorn of all distractions an individual could be closer to God. In the 3rd century CE, the deserts of Egypt were a particular hotspot for wandering ascetics (aka anchorites or eremites) who lived hermit lives of self-denial, the most famous being Saint Anthony (c. 251-356 CE). Most ascetic hermits were men, but there were some women, notably the reformed prostitute Saint Mary of Egypt (c. 344 - c. 421 CE) who spent 17 years in the desert.
Monasticism developed in the 4th century CE and became more widespread from the 5th century CE when monks began to move from their lonely desert retreats and live together in monasteries closer to or actually in towns and cities. One of the earliest ascetics to begin organising monasteries for his followers was Pachomios (c. 290-346 CE), an Egyptian and former soldier who, perhaps inspired by the efficiency of Roman army camps, founded nine monasteries for men and two for women at Tabennisi in Egypt. These first communal (cenobitic) monasteries were administered following a list of rules compiled by Pachomios, and this style of communal living (koinobion), where monks lived, worked, and worshipped together in a daily routine, with all property held in common, and an abbot (hegoumenos) administering them, became the common model in the Byzantine period.


A variant on, and indeed precursor of, the communal monastery was the lavra which permitted individual monks to pursue their own independent asceticism. As opposed to the communal monasteries, in the lavra the monks lived, worked, and worshipped in their own private cells. The monks were not fully independent as they remained answerable to an archimandrite or administrator and they did join their fellow monks in occasional services in a common church. In later times the term lavrawas also applied to some ordinary communal monasteries, most famously the Great Lavra on Mount Athos (see below), founded c. 962 CE.
The most prominent early supporter of Byzantine monasteries during the 4th century CE was Basil of Caesarea (aka Saint Basil or Basil the Great) who had seen for himself the monasteries in Egypt in Syria. Basil believed that monks should not only work together for common goals but also contribute to the wider community, and he set up monasteries to that effect in Asia Minor. The monks were often supported by devout aristocrats who provided them with vacant villas so that their accommodation was not always as austere as one might imagine. There were, though, urban monasteries which did follow the principles of asceticism to the letter, following the example of the classic monasteries in remote geographical locations.
The first monastery in Constantinople was the Dalmatos, founded in the late 4th century CE, and by the mid-6th century CE, the capital had nearly 30 monasteries. In the Byzantine Empire, monasteries were largely independent affairs, and there were no specific and mutually administered orders as in the Western Church. A typical Byzantine monastery could have many facilities within its walls: a church, chapel, baths, cemetery, refectory, kitchens, accommodation, storerooms, stables, and an inn for visitors.


Iviron Monastery, Mount Athos

Mountains seemed to attract monks more than any other location, and in turn, pilgrims visited their monasteries to feel closer to their God and, in many cases, to seek miraculous interventions. Mount Sinai, Mount Auxentios, Meteora, and Mount Olympos in Bithynia with its 50 monasteries were the most celebrated monastic sites. Most monasteries were independent of each other even when in the same location, but there were sometimes monasteries which were tied together by one abbot or first monk (protos) overseeing a confederation. Perhaps the most famous of all monastic sites was on Mount Athos, east of Thessaloniki, which was probably founded in the 9th century CE, if not earlier, and which includes monasteries founded by foreign monks from Bulgaria, Armenia, Serbia, and Russia, to name a few. Mount Athos remains an important site of monasticism today and, thanks to its avoidance of destructive invasions over the centuries, is a well-preserved example of Byzantine monastic life.
Always self-sufficient by working their own land, from the 10th century CE Byzantine monasteries became even larger and wealthier, their income derived from the often vast landholdings given to them by emperors and private individuals over time, and from their preferential tax treatment by the state. Quite often a monastery's lands had no geographical connection to the monastery itself, and revenue was gained from the rent of plots or sale of smallholdings. Monasteries produced such staples as wheat, barley, pulses, wine, and oil, but they could also own potteries and mills. Profits from surpluses were ploughed back into the monastery or distributed to the poor.


Another form of monastic existence, and certainly the most bizarre, was the stylite movement. The ascetic lifestyle to beat all others, it involved a single devoted monk climbing to the top of a column (stylos) and staying there, preferably standing, for months or even years exposed to all weather and, one imagines, an equal dose of awe and ridicule from passerby. Ordinary folk were well-used to monks and nuns abstaining from life’s comforts and pleasures, and they had even seen them wearing chains or heard of ascetics locking themselves in cages, but the column stance was guaranteed to get one noticed.


The first proponent of this extreme devotion to God was said to have been Symeon the Stylite the Elder (c. 389-459 CE). The former shepherd had already been expelled from a monastery for his extreme asceticism, and he practised for his column routine by living for a while in a disused cistern with one leg chained to a heavy stone. Symeon selected a three-metre-high column in the Syrian desert near Antioch, and there he stood day in, day out, eventually attracting such a crowd that the noise caused him to build his column higher, bringing him closer to God and 16 metres off the ground. Symeon managed to live like this for 30 years, and many other monks began to follow his example so that a whole stylite movement developed which was still going strong in the 11th century CE. When Symeon died, the site of Qal’at Sem’an became one of pilgrimage, with an octagonal church, monastery, and four basilicas built around the original column.
One the most famous Symeon imitators was Daniel the Stylite (d. 493 CE). Daniel set himself up near Constantinople but did not let his precarious position stop him contributing to ecclesiastical debates, and he even advised bishops and emperor Leo I (r. 457-474 CE). A branch of the stylite movement (literally) was the dendrites who were monks who decided to live in a tree instead of on a column. These movements were part of the trend of apophatic theology which proposed that one could come to know and understand God through personal experience provided all worldly distractions were removed.


The monasteries, and the monks who worked and worshipped in them, eventually became a useful means for bishops to exert pressure on their ecclesiastical rivals. Fanatically loyal monks were organised into groups to intimidate anyone who did not adhere to a bishop’s favoured dogma. Mob violence over political and religious issues was often fuelled by monks. The bishops of Alexandria were particularly noted for using monks and other such devotees as the parabalani, semi-clerical workers often misleadingly referred to as “bath attendants,” to add muscle on the streets to their sermons from the pulpit.


Theodora & Michael III

Byzantine emperors could be both friend and foe to monasteries. Many emperors gave land grants and tax privileges, but others also persecuted them, especially the iconoclast emperors. These latter were responsible for the iconoclasm movement of the 8th and 9th century CE which sought to end the veneration of icons and relics and destroy them. The monasteries, being the main producers and sponsors of such items, were targeted too. In 755 CE, for example, the Pelekete monastery on Mt. Olympus was burnt down. Many others suffered a similar fate or had land and property confiscated while monks were persecuted and paraded in ceremonies of public ridicule. The 14th century CE saw another wave of persecution, this time over the issue of Hesychasm, that is the practice of monks repeating a prayer to achieve mystical communion with God.
Although religiously independent, there is evidence that Byzantine monasteries and their residents were subject to civil law like everyone else. Local judges conducted legal investigations, and monks could even be called before the courts in Constantinople.
Emperors were well aware of the influence monasteries had on local populations. For example, rulers selected the abbots of such important monasteries as those on Mount Athos, a duty taken on by the bishop of Constantinople from the 14th century CE. Another problem was that as the number of monasteries increased so the tax revenue of the state decreased. The situation moved emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944 CE) to forbid the founding of new monasteries to protect the land of ordinary villagers, but it proved only a temporary stop to the seemingly inevitable spread of monasteries, such was their success and use to society as a whole.


Although it was not their primary purpose of existence, monks and monasteries did give back to the community in which they lived by helping the poor and providing hospitals, orphanages, public baths, and homes for the aged. Even retired aristocrats and out of favour politicians and imperial relations were welcomed. Travellers were another group who could find a room when needed. In education, too, monasteries played a prominent role, notably building up large libraries and spreading Byzantine culture when monks travelled across and outside the empire. Some (but not many) also provided schools. Monasteries looked after pilgrim sites and were great patrons of the arts, not only producing their own icons and illuminated manuscripts but also sponsoring artists and architects to embellish their buildings and those of the community with images and texts to spread the Christian message. Finally, many monks were important contributors to the study of history, especially with their collections of letters and biographies (vitae) of saints, famous people, and emperors.
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