Jeremy Rees 200511754

PageReligious
|1

Conflict & State Weakness: a study of
Byzantium during the Muslim Invasions 663-660

The following essay will consider the role played by religious conflict in
generating state weakness. In particular, I will focus on the role that the
persecution of religious minorities played in the loss of the Byzantine territories
in the Levant, Egypt and Armenia during the Muslim invasions from the period
633-660. Whilst the majority of the essay focuses on the role of the
Monophysites, other sects and religious minorities will be mentioned when
appropriate, as will various compromise dogmas that were propounded by both
secular and religious authorities in order to promote religious unity. Below I will
firstly detail briefly the history of Monophysitism and its doctrines. Next, I will
consider the effects of religious persecution prior and during the Muslim
invasions, and how these may have affected support for the Byzantine Empire.
Finally, I will consider other possible causes of state weakness in the Byzantine
Empire that could provide alternative explanations for its weakness in the face of
an external threat. The evidence presented in this essay suggests that whilst
internal religious conflict in the Byzantine Empire is insufficient to explain its
sudden defeat by the invading Muslim armies, it nevertheless contributed in a
significant way to the failure of the Empire to maintain control of those lands in
which non-Chalcedonian Christians and other religious minorities formed a
majority or a substantial minority.
Monophysitism originally emerged in the 5 th century with the preaching of the
monk Eutyches. Eutyches asserted that Christ was of one nature, in which the
divine nature had subsumed the human nature, a natural progression from

Jeremy Rees 200511754
Apollinarianist
thought.1 The Emperor Theodosius II inclined toward Eutyches
Page | 2
position.2 The Council of Ephesus in 449 supported Eutyches teachings, under
the leadership of Dioscurus Bishop of Alexandria, and acquitted Eutyches of the
accusation of heresy levelled by Theodoret of Cyrrhus. 3 However, given the
conduct of the synod, which used force on the participants, the Council of
Ephesus was discredited. Hence, with the death of Theodosius II, a new council
was called, the Council of Chalcedon in 451. The Council declared that Christ
possessed two natures, without confusion or change but without division or
separation, each nature (φύσις) concurring into one person (ὑπόστασις). 4
Monophysitism was patronised by the usurper emperor Basiliscus (475-476). The
Emperor Zeno (474-491) attempted to placate the Monophysites and in 481
issued a letter to the Church of Egypt, known as the Henoticon (unifier), which no
longer required the findings of Chalcedon to be accepted. 5 It was again favoured
by the Emperor Anastasius I (491-518), and again by the Empress Theodora
during the reign of Justinian I until her death in 548. Jacob Baradaeus, the Bishop
of Edessa, organised the Syrian Monophysites into a separate church, which soon
won the allegiance of the majority of Syrians. 6 In Egypt the Monophysites too,
1 For a full discussion of the origins of Monophysitism see J. N. D. Kelly, Early
Christian Doctrines (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1960), 441-446.
2 Alexander Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, trans. Lydia
W. Kesich (London: Harvill Press, 1963), 133.
3 Schmemann, The Historical Road of Eastern Orthodoxy, 132.
4 Definition of the Faith, 4th Ecumenical Council (Council of Chalcedon), available
online at http://www.legionofmarytidewater.com/faith/ECUM04.HTM.
5 Steven Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 1977), 42.
6 Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy, 52.

Jeremy Rees 200511754
moved
the creation of a separate Coptic Church. Justinian I attempted to
Page towards
|3
compromise by granting his approval to Aphthartodocetism, a dogma that had
been proposed by Julian of Halicarnassus, which declared that Christ’s body was
incorruptible from the moment that it was entered by the logos.7 The Emperor
Maurice (582-602) showed tolerance towards the Monophysites realising their
strategic importance in war with Persia. 8 The Persian general Shahrvarāz had
previously taken advantage of Byzantine weakness in the Levant, caused by
Bonosus’ brutal campaign against the Monophysites of the Orient during the
reign of Phocas.9 Following the Persian conquer of Egypt, Syria and Armenia;
Shahrvarāz had put Monophysites firmly in control of these churches, further
aggravating their schism with Constantinople. 10
The emperor Heraclius attempted to find a compromise between Monophysites
and Chalcedonians, through developing a doctrine known as Monoenergism. This
doctrine accepted the Chalcedonian formula that Christ had two natures, but
held that he was of one energy (energeia), a vague term approximating
‘motivation’. The patriarch of Constantinople Sergius (himself from a Syrian
Monophysite family) favoured the compromise, as did the Monophysite patriarch
of Antioch Athanasius. In 631 Heraclius chose Cyrus of Phasis as the new
patriarch (and prefect) of Alexandrian, who likewise endorsed Monoenergism.
With these endorsements, the Armenian, Egyptian and Syrian churches, all

7 Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy, 49.
8 Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy, 53.
9 Irfan Shahīd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century (Washington:
Dumbarton Oaks, 1995), Vol. 1, part 1, 635.
10 Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (Stanford:
Stanford University Press, 1997), 300.

Jeremy Rees 200511754
accepted
Page | 4 Monoenergism
opposition

to

and

Monoenergism

temporarily
emerged

ended

among

the

the

schism. 11

Egyptian

However,

and

Syrian

Monophysites and the Palestinian Chalcedonians. Sergius eventually abandoned
Monoenergism on advice from Pope Honorius, and the doctrine officially was
abandoned in 634.12 In response to this, the Emperor Heraclius issued an
exposition of faith prepared by Sergius titled the Ecthesis. This document
reaffirmed the dual nature of Christ as defined by the Council of Chalcedon, and
forbade further discussion of Christ’s energies. Instead, it declared, by way of
compromise to the Monophysites, that Christ was of one will (thelēma). The
doctrine was permitted by Pope Honorius, and ratified by a church council under
the new patriarch Pyrrhus in 638. However, by 641 a new Pope, John IV, held a
council which condemned the Ecthesis. Therefore, the doctrine, intended as a
compromise to ensure the continued unity of the church, had failed to appease
the Monophysites, and was viewed warily by many Chalcedonians. 13 In due
course, the Third Council of Chalcedon condemned both Monoenergism and
Monotheletism as heretical in 680-681. It defined Christ as having two energies
and two wills, both divine and human. 14
By the early seventh century, Monophysites formed a majority in Egypt, and a
significant minority in Syria and Armenia. 15 Muslim attacks on the Byzantine
Empire began in the autumn of 633 when Abū Bakr sent four Arab armies
11 Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 301-302.
12 Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 303.
13 Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 306.
14 Exposition of Faith, 6th Ecumenical Council (Third Council of Chalcedon),
available online at http://www.legionofmarytidewater.com/faith/ECUM06.HTM.
15 Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 262.

Jeremy Rees 200511754
16
totalling
Byzantine
Page | 5approximately 24,000 soldiers into southern Palestine.

forces under Heraclius’ brother Theodore were defeated in battle between Gaza
and Jerusalem in 634. Damascus and Emesa surrendered to the Arab armies;
eventually the Arab armies resoundingly defeated the Byzantines at Yarmūk in
636. Heraclius then concentrated his efforts on saving Egypt, but this too was
conquered in 642.17

During the century preceding the Muslim conquests Byzantium had been growing
ever more intolerant of its religious minorities. Jews, 18 Samaritans19 and
Monophysites were targeted.20 The Emperor Justin II (565-578), with the
encouragement of the Patriarch of Constantinople, John of Sirimis, annulled the
orders of Monophysite priests and closed monasteries that were suspected of
16 Philip Mayerson, ‘The First Muslim Attacks on Southern Palestine (A.D. 633634)’, Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. 95, 1964, 155199.
17 See the accounts of the conquest by Sawirus ibn al-Muqaffa and al-Balādhurī
in the Fordham University Sourcebook, available at
http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/642Egypt-conq2.asp.
18 H. W. Haussig, A History of Byzantine Civilization, trans. J. M. Hussey (London:
Thames & Hudson, 1971), 105; J. F. Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century
(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 345-347.
19 For a discussion of the Samaritan revolt of 529 in Palestine see the passage in
Shahīd quoting John Malalas’ description of the revolt in his Chronicle; Irfan
Shahīd, Byzantium and the Arabs in the Sixth Century, 82-83. Also see Alan D.
Crown, ‘The Samaritans in the Byzantine Orbit’, Bulletin of the John Rylands
University of Manchester 69 (1986), 96-138.
20 John C. Lamoreaux, ‘Early Eastern Christian Responses to Islam’, Medieval
Christian Perceptions of Islam, John Victor Tolan (ed.), (New York: Garlands,
1996), 4.

Jeremy Rees 200511754
Monophysite
sympathies. Prominent Monophysites were imprisoned unless they
Page | 6
agreed to recant. Later the tyrant Phocas (602-610) revived the persecution of
Monophysites and the forced conversion of Syrian Jews to Christianity 21 (as did
Heraclius in 634 prior to the Arab invasion) 22 and hence the Persians, when they
arrived, were outwardly hailed as liberators by the Jews. 23 This increasing
intolerance only further encouraged Monophysite separatism (as had the
previous persecutions of Nestorians encouraged them to move to the Sassanid
Empire24). Moreover, the Monophysite (Jacobite) church in the Levant better
assimilated the Syro-Palestinian culture, using Syriac rather than Greek for
liturgical purposes, whereas the Chalcedonian (Melkite) church used Greek, and
represented the urbanised, Hellenised elite. 25 Whilst the Byzantine army still put
up fierce resistance to the Muslim invaders; 26 other than the cities of Caesarea,
Damascus and Alexandria, little effort appears to have been made at all to
defend against the Arabs, although they had little expertise or equipment
21 Runciman, The Byzantine Theocracy, 54.
22 Lamoreaux, ‘Early Eastern Christian Responses to Islam’, 11.
23 See the account of the sack of Jerusalem in 614 by the Persians by the monk
Antiochus Strategos from St Sabas monastery in Jerusalem. Available online in
the Fordham University Sourcebook at
http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/strategos1.asp.
24 Aubrey R. Vine, The Nestorian Churches (London: Independent Press, 1937),
42.
25 Lamoreaux, ‘Early Eastern Christian Responses to Islam’, 4.
26 Whilst the Byzantine field army had probably fallen from approximately
150,000 men in 602, to 109,000 men in 641, it still constituted a formidable, and
well-trained fighting force. Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and
Society, 411. Arabic sources (Azdī, Ibn ʿAsākir) claim that the Byzantine army
was numerically superior, quoted in Walter E. Kaegi, Byzantium and the early
Islamic conquests (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 14-15.

Jeremy Rees 200511754
27
designed
Page | 7for siege warfare. This then suggests that the local Monophysite

population did not resist the invaders, and saw them as an improvement to the
dyophysite government of Constantinople. In Armenia, Constans II found that for
religious and ethnic reasons, many in Monophysite Armenia preferred Muslim
rule.28 Archaeological evidence for church destruction is virtually non-existent 29
and administrative papyri from Egypt dating from within a few years of the
conquest give evidence for a remarkable degree of bureaucratic continuity being
maintained during the transition from Byzantine to Islamic rule. 30 Moreover,
Islamic rule did not curb the amount of writing in Greek or the involvement of
eastern Christians in the religious controversies of the time. 31 Only later was
there a decline in the conquered areas and greater pressure to convert under the
Caliph ʿAbd al-Malik, when the official state language of the conquered Byzantine
lands was changed from Greek to Arabic. 32 In Egypt the Nile, and in Anatolia the
Taurus Mountains and the Cilician Gates, presented major obstacles to the Arab
invaders. Yet in Egypt in particular, the persecution of Monophysites who refused

27 Lamoreaux, ‘Early Eastern Christian Responses to Islam’, 5.
28 Kaegi, Byzantium and the early Islamic conquests, 199-200.
29 Orthodox building activity actually increased in the years 635-640.
Lamoreaux, ‘Early Eastern Christian Responses to Islam’, 6.
30 Adolf Grohmann, ‘Greek Papyri of the Early Islamic Period in the Collection of
Archduke Rainer’, Études de papyrology 8 (1957), 5-40.
31 Averil Cameron, Changing Cultures in Early Byzantium (Aldershot: Variorum,
1996), 297-298.
32 Cameron, Changing Cultures in Early Byzantium, 259. By 750, Christians in
the former Byzantine areas were using only half the amount of churches as they
had been in 600, indicating the rough level of decline that occurred to the
Christian population during this period. Lamoreaux, ‘Early Eastern Christian
Responses to Islam’, 8-9.

Jeremy Rees 200511754
to Page
accept
| 8Monotheletism under Cyrus made many ready to cooperate with the
invaders.33
The Arab conquests cannot simply be explained by religious factionalism
weakening the unity of the Byzantine Empire. Only a few years previously had
Byzantium been able to defeat the formidable Sassanid Empire, and recapture
those lands lost previously. This feat was accomplished during similar periods of
religious discord, yet Byzantium had managed to rise, phoenix-like, from the
ashes of defeat. Therefore, it is necessary to consider other causes of weakness
in the Byzantine state, besides religious disunity. Some scholars have contended
that the Byzantine Empire had become financially34 and militarily weaker during
the 5th and 6th centuries35 following economic depression and the ravages of the
plague from 540.36 Moreover, it may have been suffering from overreach
following the reconquests under Justinian, and exhaustion following the wars with
Persia and the Avars.37 The multi-ethnic character of the Empire likely only
compounded the problems of internal division. Much of the Aramaic communities
of the Levant and northern Mesopotamia may have preferred the rule of fellow
Semites, the Arabs, than the Greeks, whose culture was only superficially

33 Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 305.
34 For instance, military pay was cut by 25% in 588, despite the fact that the
Empire was facing persistent Slav, Avar and Lombard attacks. Peter Sarris, ‘The
Eastern Empire from Constantine to Heraclius (306-641)’, The Oxford History of
Byzanitum, Cyril Mango (ed.), (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002) 51.
35 Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century, 48.
36 Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 282.
37 Fred Donner, Early Islamic Conquests (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1981), available online in the Fordham University Sourcebook at
http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/med/donner.asp.

Jeremy Rees 200511754
adopted
by the rural population. 38 It is also likely that other internal divisions
Page | 9
played a decisive role the weakening Byzantium. Internecine conflicts amongst
the Byzantine elites resulted in valuable resources being used for the
suppression of internal revolts and coronation donatives 39 and there were
significant internal divisions between landowners and the peasantry. 40 Likewise,
Byzantine military incompetence and the Arab military supremacy, demonstrated
by their undeniable success (both in Byzantine lands and in Persia, North Africa,
and the Iberian Peninsula), for whatever reason, 41 suggest that Byzantium may
have been facing a superior foe. However, what cannot be denied is that
“imperial ideology made unity in orthodoxy an essential and urgent matter of
practical state politics”.42 This insistence of orthodoxy thus alienated certain
significant groups within the Empire. Ultimately this weakened the state by
giving communities such as the Monophysites less stake in the Empire, and
hence less reason to contribute to its maintenance. 43 For instance, the Coptic
38 Cf. Cameron, Changing Cultures in Early Byzantium, 290. This linguistic divide
would have only been accentuated by the Muslim conquests, as many Greekspeaking Christians fled to lands still held by Christians. Lamoreaux, ‘Early
Eastern Christian Responses to Islam’, 7.
39 Consider for instance the various attempted usurpations and palace intrigue
in the years 641-650 during the reigns of Heraclius Constantine (Constantine III),
Heraclonas, and Constans II, by the Empress Martina, the General Valentine, the
exarch of Italy Olympius, the exarch of Africa Gregory. See Treadgold, A History
of the Byzantine State and Society, 307-312.
40 Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century, 50, quoting F. Winkelmann.
41 There have been numerous explanations as to why the Arabs had such
sudden and such striking military success, such as religious fervour, a warrior
culture, good lines of communication, and disaffected populations.
42 Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century, 48.
43 It is interesting to note that the first Nestorian monasteries built in Palestine;
Tell Masos sometime prior to 700, and another on the Mt of Olives, first attested

Jeremy Rees 200511754
chronicler
Page | 10John of Nikiu wrote towards the end of the seventh century that the
conquests were allowed by God for the sake of his persecuted people (viz. the
Monophysites).44 Similarly, the twelfth century historian Michael the Syrian
recounts the underlying tensions that existed between Monophysite and
Chalcedonian Christians during the Arab invasions. 45 Al-Balādhurī, the 9th century
Persian historian, records that the inhabitants of Ḥomṣ (Emesa) declared "We like
your rule and justice far better than the state of oppression and tyranny in which
we were. The army of Heraclius we shall indeed, with your 'amil's' help, repulse
from the city" and that the Christians and Jews of many other cities in Syria
likewise celebrated the Muslim victory and welcomed the Arabs into their cities. 46
Ironically, whilst the Byzantine Empire saw itself in later centuries as a bulwark
of Christianity and a defender of the faith, its own insistence on doctrinal unity
and orthodoxy contributed to it being the catalyst for the loss of the eastern
provinces and the consequent decline in Christianity in those areas subsequently
under Muslim rule. The fact that the commander Manuel, sent by Constans II,
was hailed as a liberator when he sailed into Alexandria toward the end of 645,
demonstrates that much of the population preferred Byzantine rule once they

in 739, were first allowed only under Muslim rule. Lamoreaux, ‘Early Eastern
Christian Responses to Islam’, 7, 13.
44 See Chronicle, chapter CXXI.2; available online at
http://www.tertullian.org/fathers/nikiu2_chronicle.htm.
45 See the Chronicle, §122-124; available online at
http://rbedrosian.com/Msyr/msyr16.htm#Deaths.
46 Although his account that they willing paid kharaj (tribute) is perhaps too
much to accept. Taken from Kitāb Futūh al-Buldha of Ahmad ibn-Jabir alBalādhurī, trans. by P. K. Hitti and F. C. Murgotten, Studies in History, Economics
and Public Law, LXVIII (New York, Columbia University Press, 1916 and 1924),
available online in the Fordham University sourcebook at
http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/yarmuk.asp.

Jeremy Rees 200511754
47
found
Pagethat
| 11 the caliphate levied heavier taxes than the empire, showed less

respect for Monophysites, and enforced corvée from Christian artisans to build a
navy and public buildings.48 Had greater freedom of worship been permitted by
the orthodox, rather than insisting on compromises unacceptable to all parties
involved (such as Monotheletism), than it is possible that a greater amount of the
Empire could have been kept from falling to the Muslims.
The Muslim armies, whilst facing an Empire already greatly weakened by years of
war and internal strife, nonetheless face an enemy that was debilitated by
somewhat arcane internal religious conflicts, and whose focus was dominated by
considerations of maintaining peace between competing religious communities,
whilst continuing in communion with Rome. Thus, the Monophysite dispute, and
successor dogmatic compromises, ultimately contributed the ambivalent attitude
of the inhabitants of Egypt, Syria and Armenia towards Greek-dominated
government in Constantinople, and their lack of vigour in repelling the Muslim
invaders.

47 Aṭ-Ṭabarī, recounts that the governor of Egypt wrote to the Caliph ʿUmar II
(717-720) informing him that Christians there were converting to Islam to avoid
the heavy tax burdens. Quoted by Lamoreaux, ‘Early Eastern Christian
Responses to Islam’, 14.
48 Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 312.

Jeremy Rees 200511754

Page | 12

Bibliography:
Al-Balādhurī, Ahmad ibn-Jabir, Kitāb Futūh al-Buldha, trans. by P. K. Hitti and F. C.
Murgotten, Studies in History, Economics and Public Law, LXVIII (New York,
Columbia University Press, 1916 and 1924), available online in the Fordham
University
sourcebook
at
available
at
http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/642Egypt-conq2.asp
http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/yarmuk.asp.
Cameron, Averil, Changing Cultures in Early Byzantium (Aldershot: Variorum,
1996).
Crown, Alan D., ‘The Samaritans in the Byzantine Orbit’, Bulletin of the John
Rylands University of Manchester 69 (1986).
Donner, Fred, Early Islamic Conquests (Princeton: Princeton University Press,
1981), available online in the Fordham University Sourcebook at
http://legacy.fordham.edu/halsall/med/donner.asp.
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Archduke Rainer’, Études de papyrology 8 (1957).
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Thames & Hudson, 1971.
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University
Sourcebook,
available
at
http://legacy.fordham.edu/Halsall/source/642Egypt-conq2.asp.
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of
Nikiu,
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online

at

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Christian Perceptions of Islam, John Victor Tolan (ed.), (New York: Garlands,
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Jeremy Rees 200511754
Mayerson,
Page | 13Philip, ‘The First Muslim Attacks on Southern Palestine (A.D. 633-634)’,
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available

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at

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