Lasting for over a millennium, the Byzantine Empire was Europe’s longest continuously existing political entity, however, memories of Byzantium remain largely absent from western historical consciousness. This is unfortunate, as Byzantium’s startling longevity cannot fail to be of interest to students of international politics. Although the Byzantine political economy was significantly different from the market based economies of today, social and political forces operate in much the same manner regardless of time and place, so the lessons of the past still have relevance today. This essay analyses the decline of Byzantium at its root cause as an analogy for the decline of the American Empire.
Two interlinked factors were critical to the wellbeing of the Byzantine Empire – international trade and defence. Situated at the junction of Europe, Asia and Africa, Byzantium capitalised on entrepot trade. Traders from all around the world flocked to Constantinople. However, trade was not free. On the contrary, every facet of the economy was massively regulated, from price control right down to the licensing of street vendors. Modern market economy theorists would remark that such a system is inefficient and would stifle competition; and yet the traders made fortunes and the government was able to claim sufficient duties to manage an extensive empire and furnish the capital with wealth and luxury the like of which Western Europe could never dream of.
The trade that bought Byzantium its wealth, also bought its share of enemies. A well maintained army was required to police the frontier, garrison its cities and protect the state. The backbone of the Byzantine army was the freehold soldier-farmer. As in Roman times, soldiers were allocated state land as an incentive to settle and protect the borders of the Empire. It was a beneficial relationship for both parties. The soldiers and their families were provided with security and a livelihood outside of the military. They farmed the land and sold the produce back to the state at a guaranteed price and the state on-sold their produce for a profit. Ties to the land ensured the soldier-tenants motivation and loyalty of the state.
From the ninth century, the principal expression of social conflict in Byzantium was manifested in the longstanding struggling between the wealthy landowners and the small-hold solider-farmers. The super rich were always keen to subsume the lands of the small-holders into their own estates. When the emperor Basil II (976-1025) travelled through Syria in 996 he was astonished to find that most of the country was owned as the private estate of the relatives of a earlier emperor. Like several of his predecessors, Basil legislated massive socio-political reform. At a stroke he dispossessed the wealthy landholders and returning the land to those small-holders who could prove previous title to their land. Many of Byzantium’s wealthiest families were bankrupted.
Basil was a strong ruler and was able to cope with the social and economic disorder this act caused. But the event marked a watershed moment in Byzantine history. The aristocracy would neither forget nor forgive their humiliation. As soon as Basil was dead his lacklustre successors placed class loyalty above loyalty to the state and allowed the aristocracy to reseize their lost estates. As the power of the aristocracy grew, the power of the central government correspondingly declined. The inevitable symptoms of decline followed – corruption, extravagance, and economic mismanagement drained the resources of the empire.
The small-hold soldier-farmers were not only the backbone of the army, they were also the basis of the tax base. As the central government was no longer able to enforce its taxes on the aristocracy, the taxation burden increasingly fell on the remaining small holders, effectively pauperising the middle classes. This only accelerated the inevitable collapse of the remaining small holders as a political and economic force. Several reformist emperors attempted to radically break the power of the aristocracy: Michael V (1041), Isaac I Comnenus (1057-59), Romanus IV (1068-71) and Andronicus I (1183-85). All met an unfortunate end.
As the eleventh century progressed, the state became increasingly desperate for cash, depleting its enormous cash reserves on maintaining the appearance of imperial strength. With no agricultural base left to tax, the empire turned to its other source of revenue – trade. However, without sufficient capital reserves to maintain the necessary ships, ports and warehouses to meet demand, the empire opted to privatise trade. The foreign traders who took over Byzantine trade quickly disabled their native competition, and although there were occasional licensing wars between the competitors, the control of trade increasingly slipped through Byzantium’s fingers. By the fourteenth century Byzantine tax receipts amounted to only 15% of that going through Venetian hands. It was the empire’s economic collapse that sealed its fate.
Christian Crusaders sacked Constantinople in 1204, disabling the Byzantine state. The aristocracy was largely dispossessed in the process. The new rump state – the Empire of Nicea – established in what is now western Turkey used the opportunity to effect a land redistribution. During the reign of John IV Lascaris (1258-1261), the Empire was restored to economic prosperity. Frugality was the order of the day – the emperor himself farmed chickens and the profits went directly to the state. But only twenty years later, under Andronicus II Paleologus (1282-1328), the aristocracy again dominated the state. By the mid Fourteenth Century, economic mismanagement and unbearable taxation had so disillusioned the citizenry that virtually all the remaining provinces of Asia willingly switched allegiance to the lower taxing Ottoman Turks. What is most shocking about this turn of events was that the aristocracy in Constantinople remained extraordinarily wealthy, right up until the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but almost to a man they steadfastly refused to pay their taxes or contribute their own wealth towards the defence of their own state.
The parallels to the situation of world’s current imperial power are obvious. Since the nineteenth century a wealthy aristocracy has ruthlessly diverted wealth and power into its own hands and pursued policies that weaken the central government. Periodic attempts at economic or social reform, such as the New Deal in the 1930’s or the civil rights movement in the 1960’s, went some small way towards righting the economic and social imbalances. However, like the Byzantine aristocracy, the threat or fear of change or loss of power only increased the determination of the American aristocracy to seize all power for itself and rollback these reforms. The rich contribute virtually nothing towards the protection of the state, except to use war and defence as a means of contract profiteering. The burden of taxation has been largely transferred onto the poor and middle classes, while the rich give themselves massive tax breaks. The imbalance between receipts and the massive, irresponsible drawings from the public purse have pauperised the state and virtually disabled the economy. Infrastructure (education, health, transport) are permitted to decline, while resources are wasted on unaudited, unaccountable contracts for speculative and/or useless weaponry. Domestic industry is collapsing under the combined pressures of increasing tax burden, declining domestic demand and deregulation. Against all public interest, international competitors – in the name of free trade – are allowed to pillage and destroy the nation’s unprotected economy. This is not economic management – it is a roadmap for economic collapse.
History is important; it allows to glimpse possible futures from the legacy of the past. Turning points of history are rarely so definitively marked. For Byzantium, it would be almost a generation before their historians began looking back to the death of Basil II as the point where everything began to go wrong. In America, things have been wrong for while, but there is nothing necessarily fatal in that. Byzantium bounced back from the brink of collapse on many occasions. It would take a concerted effort by a selected, self interested class to subvert the state to their own purposes and destroy the empire.
In 1041, Constantine IX married his way to the throne. He had no real qualifications for the role, except privilege and ambition. Constantine was not necessarily evil. In the manner of the day, he was religious; he donated money to the church. His donation is immortalised in a mosaic on the walls of Aya Sofia in Istanbul. Constantine was also immortalised in the history of the famous Byzantine politician and orator, Michael Psellus. Constantine’s "idea was to exhaust the treasury of its money, so that not a [cent] was left …. The doors of [power] were thrown open to nearly all the rascally vagabonds of the market… [and] the whole gang was elevated to the highest offices of state." Psellus’ description of Constantine could equally be written of George Bush.
Perhaps even more of a warning is contained Psellus’ description of the reaction of the public to Constantine’s mismanagement; "for the truth is, folk who live in .. luxury .. have little conception of government, and those who do understand such matters neglect their duties, so long as their desires are satisfied." An analogy and a warning for the sleepwalking American public, no doubt.