Memories of Ravenna: Late Byzantine Period and Exarch Isaac the Armenian

This article is dedicated to all the martyrs who died during the 1915 Armenian Genocide. They are commemorated on April 24, 2022.

Life in Late Byzantine Ravenna in its last 200 years, after Belisarius’ reconquest of Italy, lasted until AD 751. A governor/military commander ruled under the Byzantine Emperor of Constantinople. The Greek language dominated. Byzantine Italy with its capital at Ravenna was not ruled by an incoming and ethnically distinct group. The church had more political power. and it gave more political space to the church. The popes and archbishops of Ravenna played an important role in the government. Their images are seen in churches. A militarized landed aristocracy is growing, ready to go to war to protect society.

Byzantine exarchs or military rulers were of Greek and Armenian ethnicity. Roman landowners who wanted political influence became militarized and “Byzantine”. The Armenian role is never fully explained. Their history is part of Byzantine identity and domination. “Our Armenian youth must learn their identity,” said researcher Mardiros Anastasian. The Greeks and Armenians tried to preserve Roman/Byzantine eastern Italy with its capital Ravenna as best they could in the face of barbarian tribes and a plague-depleted Roman population

The Italian exarchate was centered in Ravenna and Rome. The exarch carried out orders from Constantinople and transmitted information in Greek. The assumption in Constantinople was that everyone should remain ready for battle: a well-trained and equipped army that practiced maneuvers and tactics. The army was well paid, with booty and plunder as additional sources. Greek was the language of communication with Constantinople in Ravenna in the 6th century. Latin was used for local affairs, civil taxes, daily life, and with Western rulers. There was a gap. Official business was in Greek. Local Affairs in Latin. It was a weakness. Very few in the West read, spoke or understood Greek. Ravenna and Naples were two of the few places outside of Sicily and southern Italy where witnesses preferred to write their names in Greek letters. Exarch’s work was disadvantaged by using Greek. The past 200 years have been a lifetime of war and military control.

In the early seventh century, a series of competent exarchs in Ravenna consolidated control of the Italian provinces, ensuring the payment of local taxes in Constantinople. They attempted to enforce the official theology adopted in the eastern capital (Constantinople). Ravenna’s maritime connections with the East facilitated the movement of envoys, pilgrims, merchants and soldiers, who continued to travel throughout the Mediterranean world with the port of Ravenna de Classis.

The Byzantine Emperor Heraclius, son of the Exarch of North Africa, saved the Empire from Persian domination, from 610 to 641. He reigned for 30 years. Heraclius was of Armenian descent. He named Isaac the Armenian who was one of the most able exarchs. Isaac held the position of exarch longer than any other ruler from AD 625 to 643. It was a sign that he was a reliable and dependable supporter of the Emperor of Constantinople, Heraclius.

Who was Isaac the Armenian? He is from the Kamsarakan clan, an Armenian noble family. The Kamsarakans were known to follow a largely pro-Byzantine policy. They actively participated in the political life of the empire. as well. Three brothers from the Kamsarakan family served as generals for Justinian I (r. 527–565); Narses, Isaac the Armenian (Sahak), and another Isaac (Sahak), who was executed by the king of the Ostrogoths, Totila, in 546. A Kamsarakan later, [Narses II Kamsarakan]]served as Prince President of Armenia for the Byzantine Emperor in the late 7th century.

Armenian military might, for some scholars, was the basis of Byzantium’s stability and longevity. A strong army was needed. Armenia was the source. From the 5th century, Armenians were considered the main constituent of the Byzantine army.

During this critical period of war, bankruptcy and foreign invasions, Emperor Heraclius asked the Patriarch of Constantinople for help. In a state of emergency, the patriarch immediately reacted. He placed all of the church’s wealth in the state, which included large amounts of gold and silver plates. The Patriarch temporarily solved the Empire’s financial problems. Such cooperation would have been impossible in the West. Cooperation between church and state contributed to the longevity of the Byzantine Empire for over 1100 years. Church and state have worked together in confidence.

Isaac had to pay his military forces and impose imperial theology. It is difficult for us to understand a rule of Church and State, united by established theology, in America. Isaac and one of his subordinates broke into the papal residence in Rome called the Lateran Palace. Isaac took away the treasury to pay his army and support Heraclius in Constantinople by sending the wealth. Isaac’s diplomacy was to pit the Lombard forces against each other with gold. The empire was divided on theology. Lombard military threats existed from 620 to 652 AD Isaac sent forces to deal with the Lombard invasion of the duchies of Venetiae, north of Ravenna and northwest Italy of Tuscany.

The Lombard king fought a battle with the troops of the Exarchate on the banks of the Panaro 643 AD 8,000 soldiers fell, ending in defeat for the Eastern Romans, with several thousand soldiers killed. Issac died in 644 AD The inhabitants of Oderzo and Altino fled to the islands at the head of the Adriatic, where they founded the colonies of Cittanova, which later became the nucleus of Venice and Torcello.

“Visit Torcello,” said Reverend Nicolas Madaro of St. George’s Greek Orthodox Church in Venice. “The cathedral has beautiful mosaics.” We visited Torcello on a recent trip to Venice in Northern Italy, to see our Byzantine heritage, which was destroyed in Western Anatolia and North Africa. What an experience! Issac the Armenian has been credited with founding the Church of Santa Maria Assunta. None of these ancient churches exist in Western Anatolia. All destroyed, wiped off the map.

Bishop Maurus of Torcello recorded (basilica di Santa Maria Assunta) in a basilica church on the island of Torcello, Venice, Northern Italy in 639 this inscription: By order of the pious and Lord Isaac, Most Excellent Exarch and patrician, for his benefit and that of his army, it was built from its foundations by Mauricius, the glorious master of the soldiers of the province of Venetia.

Isaac may also have intervened during an invasion by the Bulgarians. They were settled in central Italy by the Lombard Duke of Benevento. Others reached the Pentapolis, under Isaac’s control. In both regions, their presence is reflected in the names of places and people

Isaac had a prior rebellion for his death by Commander Mauricius. He suppressed the rebellion, killed Mauricius, whose head was exposed on a pole in the circus of Ravenna. It was a typical punishment for a rebel. Isaac died with his troops or of a stroke in 643 AD.

Theology dominated the politics of this time. The Roman “Book of the Pontiffs” records his death as divine punishment for a theological doctrine imposed on Rome.

His widow, Susanna, acquired a late antique sarcophagus for his tomb.

On the lid of the tomb she had her life and accomplishments recorded in Greek. He said he kept Rome in the West safe for serene rulers and praised his Armenian background and unusually long tenure. This magnificent sarcophagus can be admired outside the Church of San Vitale. The three kings presenting their offerings to the Virgin and Child are engraved. The bishops of Ravenna were all buried in these impressive sculpted sarcophagi. Susanna paid the author to skillfully carve the Greek script without any Latin inscriptions. A Latin translation has been added to the Renaissance on the other side of the lid. In the use of Greek, Susanna showed her appreciation for the language employed at the highest levels of government. She identified Isaac as a governor who belonged to the cultural milieu of Imperial Constantinople.

He was trilingual Greek, Latin and Armenian, reflecting the mixed population of the Eastern Empire in the Western Exarchates. Skillful military commanders and experienced administrators could make careers. Educated people always wanted to understand and expand their knowledge of Greek. Ravenna was the kind of place where such bilingual knowledge was preserved, reinforced by the regular arrival of officials appointed from Constantinople and by the study of medical, liturgical and geographical texts.

Judith Herrin, author of “Ravenna, capital of the Empire, crucible of Europe”, believes that the Byzantines saved Western Europe. They dispersed a massive Arab mobilization that would have brought the Mediterranean under their control. In 732 AD, Charles Martel halted Arab expansion in Poitiers, France. But it was not a total military effort on land and sea. They wanted Constantinople! They missed. Constantinople, the queen city lasted from AD 700 to AD 1453, another 800 years.

Constantinople was more than an outward military shield. The imperial culture was transmitted to the west by the Gothic king Theodoric and the military governors of the exarchs. The Byzantine capital of Ravenna perpetuated effective government by law in the West. Hostile enemies respected the culture and law of Ravenna. In Italy, a loyalty to Constantinople persisted throughout the sixth century and beyond. The influence of Byzantium spread, especially through rural Ravenna.

Ravenna acted as a catalyst in the development of a society. Charlemagne did not act alone. Ravenna whose sovereigns, exarchs, bishops, scholars, doctors, lawyers, mosaicists, merchants, Romans and Gothics, then Greeks and Lombards forged the first European city.

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