The Empire of “Corruption”
|The Late Byzantine Empire|
c. 1280 C.E.
The Byzantine Empire is one of those historical oddities that defy easy explanation and in the end refute simplistic notions about how societies work. Traditionally portrayed in much of literature has hopelessly corrupt, weak and ineffectual its very longevity refutes indeed confounds the naysayers.
For the empire did indeed last a longtime. If the date is selected from the reign of Constantine the Great (Died 337 C.E.), than the empire lasted over 1,100 years (324-1453 C.E.), or if you take the time period to be from the definite division of the Roman Empire in 395 C.E to 1453 C.E. Further it outlasted the Western Roman Empire, (Fall 476 C.E.), by over 900 years.1
Such longevity requires an explanation and common conceit in the past of decrying the empire for its corruption and decadence does not help in explaining its longevity but in fact make its survival inexplicable and incomprehensible. So too did diatribes like the following:
Of that Byzantine Empire the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilisation has yet assumed . . . There has been no other enduring civilisation so absolutely destitute of all the forms and elements of greatness ... Its vices were the vices of men who had ceased to be brave without learning to be virtuous . . . Slaves, and willing slaves, in both their actions and their thoughts, immersed in sensuality and in the most frivolous pleasures, the people only emerged from their listlessness when some theological subtlety, or some chivalry in the chariot races, stimulated them to frantic riots . . . The history of the Empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude, of perpetual fratricides.2
Such hysterical moralizing is from a historical point of view worthless and do not in the slightest help us to understand the Empire’s survival.
Since it would seem that such a long survival of a political state would seem to indicate that the state had certain strengths it is obvious that the common old image of the empire as a corrupt cesspool whose survival was “accidental" is simply wrong.
So what can we say about the nature of the empire? Well perhaps the most important thing we can say about the nature of the Empire was that it was “Greek”. By this I do not mean “Greek” ethnically for except near the end most of the population of the empire was in fact non-Greek ethnically. What I mean is that the predominate cultural tone of the Empire was a Hellenized one. Now it wasn’t so much the classical culture of Greece has the Hellenized culture created by Hellenistic states in the aftermath of the career of Alexander the Great.
In other words it was a strongly Orientalized Hellenistic culture. In fact the defining attribute of that “Oriental” influence was the massive impact of Christianity which was ultimately derived from the Middle Eastern culture of the Jews. And of course Christianity was not the only “Oriental” influence that the Empire took over. In many ways the political system duplicated that of the Zoroastrian Empire of Persia.3
The “loss” of the Western Roman Empire meant the loss of the Latin based culture of the West in the East. The Roman Empire had been the creation of the Romans who although they admired greatly the Hellenistic Greek culture tended to keep non-Romans in their “place”. In the West Latin became the Lingua Franca, whereas in the East Greek had since Alexander the Great had become the Lingua Franca. Despite the Roman domination this practice continued under the Romans whereby Latin and Greek were used together in the East, with, in everyday terms Greek dominating. Still Latin dominated administration and the highest governing elites tended to be Latin speakers from the west, especially Italy.4
What happened was the gradual transformation in the East of the Roman Empire into a Greek “Roman” Empire. For it should not be forgotten that the Byzantines considered themselves and their Empire to be fundamentally “Roman”. This then is one of the secrets of the survival of the Byzantine state. The state survived by transforming itself from a “Latin” “Roman” based culture to one that was fundamentally “Greek” “Hellenistic”.
Part of that transformation was the Orientalizing effect of the adoption of Christianity, which helped to make the state if anything even more different from the early Roman Empire. In fact one of the most telling indications of the transformation is how when the Western Roman Empire collapsed in the 5th century C.E., how superficial and indeed still “pagan” was much of the Empire. In the East by 600 C.E., Christianity had permeated politics, and culture down to the most basic ground root level. The Empire was not just officially Christian it was organically Christian.5
The same is true of the gradual dominance of an Orientalized Hellenism. It simply wasn’t just the gradual spread of Greek into the top reaches of power until it became the sole Lingua Franca, but the concurrent eclipse and disappearance of Latin. And it wasn’t just Latin speech that had disappeared it was the Latin literary culture. For the Greek speakers of the east had little interest in the large corpus of classical Latin literature and little interest in reading it. To them “true” literature was Greek and perhaps Coptic and Syriac writings. The large Latin literature of the West was of little interest to them and such interest got less and less has time went by.6
The result was a ‘Greek” Empire with significant “Oriental” features.
In other words the Empire was transformed from the Latin based, “Roman” model into a “Greek” one. In fact an example of the transformation was the so called “crisis” of the Empire that began c. 600 C.E., and did not end until nearly 800 C.E. During this period the Empire lost the great majority of the Balkans including most of Greece; all of Syria, Palestine and Egypt and also Armenia. The Empire was nearly destroyed by the Persian Empire and then by the emerging Muslim Caliphate. During this period the capital Constantinople was besieged numerous times including three great sieges in 626, 672-677, 717-718 C.E. During this time period the Empires cities seriously declined in population and were largely abandoned, further the population of the Empire declined significantly even in areas that remained under the Empire’s control.7
Astoundingly the Empire survived and was even able to have a revival. That was due to the efficiency of its military and the Imperial bureaucracy, which despite corruption was the glue that held the Empire together. Basically the survival of the Empire was due to the fact that the state was able to marshal the administrative, financial and military resources to survive and that in the end depended on a relatively efficient bureaucracy. And that bureaucracy worked surprisingly well right to the end.8
Culturally the Empire is often dismissed as conservative and uncreative. Certainly Byzantine scholarship can seem pretty pedantic and dull. And actual “living” Byzantine literature, with its endless Saints lives and dull as dishwater theological treatises is definitely not for everyone. Still Byzantines produced some fine historical works and maintained a living and vibrant historical tradition right to the end. A lot of belief in the “deadness” of Byzantine literature is in fact simply an indication of lack of familiarity, which is reinforced by the serious lack of modern editions of many of the works unlike the Classics from antiquity.9
When the Empire emerged from the so-called Byzantine Dark Age it was no longer the Ancient Roman Empire with its classical urban centres. It was instead a semi-feudal, bureaucratic Christian Empire. Instead of being urban centred like the old Roman, it was rural centred and the aristocracy was no longer the old class of urban dwellers, but a collection of bureaucrats and rural landowners. The state was Medieval. By being able to transform itself it was able to survive.10
The transformation was enough of a success that the state was able to survive until 1453.
As for culture; in the past the art of the Empire was often disparaged for being “crude”, “primitive” and “conservative”. Certainly it is quite different from the art of the classical period and high Roman Empire, (30 B.C.E. – 200 C.E.). The art of the Byzantine Empire especially its high style however displays a vitality that can be appreciated if you pay attention to the conventions of the style and how one worked within it. Certainly the art of the Byzantine Empire did not display the degeneration that afflicted the Roman Empire after 200 C.E. and even affected the eastern part until the transformation into the Byzantine Empire transpired.11
Perhaps the best indication of the curious vitality of the Empire culturally in what happened during its last phase. Despite severe economic problems and general political decay. Constantinople remained a place of Scholarship and further in the last two centuries of the Empire a sort of artistic renaissance took place with some of the best of Byzantine art, scholarship and historical writings.
In the Greek Peloponnese, The Byzantines maintained right to the end a small province. There in the capital of Mistra flourished, art architecture, and yes scholarship. Some of the very best of Byzantine mosaics and icons were produced for Mistra’s many churches. As it was dying the Empire was having one last cultural flowering.13
In the end the Empire we call Byzantine; the Byzantines themselves never used the name, exhibited to the end a curious sort of vitality, amidst, the rigid rules, the stifling orthodoxy and corruption. It was perhaps the fact that beneath the surface, the basis was sound that enabled the state to survive. After all few realms have lived 1,100 years. So that rather than wondering how such a supposedly corrupt state and system could survive perhaps it might be better to look at and for the sources of strength that enabled the state to survive. And has mentioned above the state was able in the face of incredibly formidable challenges to transform itself fundamentally. That is in and of itself is remarkable.
I mentioned the existence of a centralized bureaucracy has one of the factors that enabled the Empire to survive and an essential factor it was. It was large enough and centralized enough to prevent the different parts of the Empire from going off on their own. In the West the gradual decentralization of the state caused a decrease in the ability of the central government to control the provinces and gradually they slipped outside of Rome’s ambit and thus fell under Barbarian Control. The local Aristocracy having broken all links to the central authority and was thus perfectly willing to accept the control of Barbarians who promised security which the central government no longer could. This did not happen in the Eastern part of the Empire. A process of decentralization did not lead to the disintegration of central authority. The bureaucracy was able to make itself felt throughout the Empire and thus to preserve what was left of it.14
So it is perhaps fitting that the Byzantine Empire perished not with a whimper like the Western Roman Empire, in 476 C.E., but with a bang when in 1453 Constantinople fell to the Turks.
1. For histories of the Byzantine Empire see Treadgold, Warren, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Stanford University Press, Stanford CA, 1997, and Norwich, John Julius, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, Penguin Books, London, 1988, Byzantium: The Apogee, 1991, Byzantium: Decline and Fall, 1995.
2. Lecky, W. E. H., from his History of European Morals, (1869), quoted by Norwich in Byzantium: The Early Centuries, in the Introduction, (Electronic Edition s. 11.5)
3. Treadgold, pp. 126-136.
4. IBID, pp. 103-147, Jenkins, Romilly, Byzantium: The Imperial Centuries AD 610 - 1071, University of Toronto Press, 1987, pp. 1-14.
5. IBID, Treadgold, pp. 534-581, Jenkins, pp. 375-387.
6. Diehl, Charles, Byzantium: Greatness and Decline, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick NJ, 1957, pp. 227-260.
7. This is the so called Byzantine dark ages. It is covered in the following books, Treadgold, 1997, pp. 286-416, and in Treadgold, Warren, The Byzantine Revival, Stanford University Press, Stanford NJ, 1988, pp. 1-58, Norwich, 1988, (Electronic Edition 638.7-936), Jenkins, pp. 15-105. The best near contemporary source describing the “dark age” is by Theophanes, see The Chronicle of Theophanes, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1997, pp. 372-663. See also The Chronicle of Theophanes, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadephia PA, 1982. (This volume only has the part of Theophanes that covers the “dark age” period.)
8. Diehl, pp. 64-78.
9. IBID, 227-258.
10. Treadgold, pp. 371-416.
11. Footnote 8.
13. See Runciman, Steven, Lost Capital of Byzantium, TTP, London, 1980.
14. See Grant, Michael, The Fall of the Roman Empire, The Annenberg School Press, Radnor PA, 1976, pp. 324-325.