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Most centuries can be said to have been, in one way or another, a watershed for Byzantium, but the case for the seventh century is particularly strong. At the beginning of the century, the Byzantine empire formed part of a political configuration that had been familiar for centuries: it was a world centred on the Mediterranean and bounded to the east by the Persian empire, in which most of the regions surrounding mare nostrum formed a single political entity – the Roman (or Byzantine) empire. It was a world whose basic economic unit was still the city and its hinterland; although it had lost much of its political significance, the city retained the social, economic and cultural high ground.
The beginning of the sixth century saw Anastasius (491–518) on the imperial throne, ruling an empire that was still thought of as essentially the Roman empire, coextensive with the world of the Mediterranean. Although Anastasius ruled from Constantinople over what we call the eastern empire, the western empire having been carved up into the ‘barbarian kingdoms’, this perspective is ours, not theirs. Through the conferring of titles in the gift of the emperor, and the purchasing of alliances with the wealth of the empire – wealth that was to dwarf the monetary resources of the west for centuries to come – the barbarian kings could be regarded as client kings, acknowledging the suzerainty of the emperor in New Rome, and indeed the barbarian kings were frequently happy to regard themselves in this light (see below, p. 198). The discontinuation of the series of emperors in the west, with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476, was regarded by very few contemporaries as a significant event; the notion that east and west should each have their own emperor was barely of a century’s standing, and the reality of barbarian military power in the west, manipulated from Constantinople, continued, unaffected by the loss of an ‘emperor’ based in the west.