Lessons from Byzantium


George Ostrogorsky in his magisterial History of the Byzantine State shows how the people of Byzantium rose time and again to create wealth, cultivate their intellectual capital, and achieve military success. Ultimately, though, they could not overcome the bad policy decisions that, made over the course of generations, ran counter to the proven path of political strength, cultural vigor, and economic growth. By the time Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the empire was but a shell of its former glory. For Orthodox Christians in Europe, it remained a symbol of the church, or religious commonwealth on earth, but the desolated city that greeted Sultan Mehmet II told a more sobering story of squandered wealth and misguided politics.

Source: National Review Online | Michael Auslin

The empire fell but didn’t have to.

The Byzantine Empire’s long run — 1,100 years — may seem remote from the 21st century, but a reading of its history offers at least three timeless lessons. Understanding some of the fatal weaknesses in the Eastern Roman Empire may help clarify the political and economic problems that America faces today and the choices we have in responding to them.

Founded in 330 by the emperor Constantine, the eastern half of the Roman Empire was centered in Constantinople, the New Rome. By the fourth century, the empire had endured more than a century of instability, internecine warfare, and economic decline. In that context Rome’s eastern lands, arcing around Asia Minor, the Levant, and northern Africa, were especially attractive, being richer and more settled than the comparatively backward parts of western Europe. It was in part to assure continued access to these sources of wealth that Constantine relocated his capital. By A.D. 476, Rome had been overrun by barbarian tribes, and before long only Constantinople in the East had a seat for the emperors.

The first lesson for America to take from the history of Byzantium is about individualism and freedom. While it was no democracy, nonetheless Byzantium flourished when it allowed its citizens, and particularly its soldiers, greater individual freedom and responsibility. Beginning in the early 7th century, Emperor Heraclius moved from the traditional reliance on the provinces and their civilian governors and instead established large military zones, or “themes,” in Asia Minor, which was now the backbone of the empire. Centralization was maintained through the appointment of a single official with both civil and military responsibilities, but the real innovation of the themes was how the land was settled by imperial troops.

In essence, the soldiers became permanent farmers who could be called on for military service yet would be self-sustaining. They relieved the empire of the necessity of recruiting and paying expensive and often unreliable foreign mercenaries. Moreover, while becoming the most effective frontier defense the state had ever known, as individual landholders they added enormously to the productive capacity and wealth of the empire by cultivating their tracts of farmland.

Byzantium’s strength was fatally undermined when the government lost control of the countryside and either acquiesced in or abetted the formation of private landed estates. The farmer-soldiers were steadily alienated from their land, often owing to exorbitant government taxes, and became instead tenant farmers under increasingly independent feudal chieftains. This destroyed the effectiveness of the Byzantine army and also led to a drop in productivity and in tax receipts to the central government. In crushing the entrepreneurial spirit and independence of the small farmers, Byzantium weakened its economy and hollowed out its military. Eventually, politics in the Byzantine state became a competition between what we would recognize as private-interest groups, aristocrats and feudal landlords, who reduced state policy to the padding of their pockets and the settling of personal disputes.

The second lesson from Byzantium is monetary. In addition to establishing his new capital, Constantine the Great created a currency of unparalleled stability. The gold solidus, or nomisma, maintained its value and was the primary international currency in Eurasia until the 11th century.

The strength of the nomisma contributed mightily to ensuring that Byzantium was the center of world trade for nearly a millennium. It promoted economic activity within the empire. As a currency of first and last resort, it globalized the medieval world economy. Even in times of economic weakness, the government strove to maintain the value of the nomisma, which redounded to Constantinople’s political influence in moments of crisis. However, as the great feudal lords began to deprive Constantinople of land, taxes, and citizens, the government’s finances began to collapse. By the 1040s, circumstances forced the empire to devalue the nomisma. Over succeeding decades, it increasingly added base metal.

The result was devastating to the economy. Byzantium’s currency quickly lost its value and international status. As inflation flared up throughout the empire, the government introduced new coins in an effort to stabilize the monetary system. Taxes steadily increased, in part to make up for the shortfall from reduced economic activity caused by the worthless money. Merchants and taxpayers alike were gradually impoverished. For the last several hundred years of its life, the Byzantine Empire lacked both a stable fisc and a growing trade sector, which in turn led to greater competition among its increasingly powerful interest groups.

These examples lead to a final political lesson for the United States. Despite the dismissive view of historians such as Edward Gibbon, Byzantine society remained vibrant and capable of reinvigorating itself even after centuries of disorder. What doomed it was decades of bad political decisions. Specific choices by emperors and feudal leaders weakened the economy, undercut the military, and sapped the empire’s cultural energy.

George Ostrogorsky in his magisterial History of the Byzantine State shows how the people of Byzantium rose time and again to create wealth, cultivate their intellectual capital, and achieve military success. Ultimately, though, they could not overcome the bad policy decisions that, made over the course of generations, ran counter to the proven path of political strength, cultural vigor, and economic growth. By the time Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the empire was but a shell of its former glory. For Orthodox Christians in Europe, it remained a symbol of the church, or religious commonwealth on earth, but the desolated city that greeted Sultan Mehmet II told a more sobering story of squandered wealth and misguided politics.

Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.


  1. cynthia curran says

    I read also the rise of small farmers was the 6th century plague that made property cheaper and also the plague caused a labor shortage. In the age of Justinian there was a lot of foreigners in the wars in the west and Belisarius had to begged money from Justinian and the troops were not always paid, one reason why the war in Italy lasted 18 years and probably the Byzantines lost a lot of land in Italy after Justinian’s death to the Lombards. The crusader sack was also a result of the Byzantines going back to foreign soldiers to fight their wars. The feudal decline theme is also in Peter Sarris Economy in the age of Justinian and a discussion of the colony which resemle wage earners and maybe serfs.. The Apion family a wealthly landowning family is discussed in the book since we have actual records of their business tranactions found in Egypt around the late 19th century. Historians debate the fall of Byzantium like they do Rome. Personality, the earlier period is the greatest achievement since from the earlier Byzantine empire we have Valens Aquaduct and Hagia Sophia and Justinian’s cistern and so forth. The Plague decreased the wealth of the Empire and it took centuries even in the east to reach back to the level of the 6th century in terms of wealth and military power.

  2. cynthia curran says

    I’m amased of how long Byzantium last from 330 to 1453, and how much of the old Roman Empire influnece lasted, for example the preator which was second to consuls in the Roman Republic was created again by Justinian and was more of a head of police and morals office and lasted into middle ages. The Republic language was used in the Justianian Code. Justinian changed the law that private citizens could no longer be consuls since it was a cost, consuls held the games like chariot racing and theatre and so forth. The consuls existence even in Italy in the 6th century and eventually when the Senate was banned in Italy the consuls disappear too. Chariot racing I believe survive into the 900’s when a lot less interest. maybe a little later.

  3. cynthia curran says

    My least thing I read of the throne room of the emperors have birds singing and lions roaming and the emperor coming down, some use of hyrodractics.

  4. cynthia curran says

    My last thing about the Byzantines was the throne room mention above,

  5. cynthia curran says

    Islam and the Dark Age of Byzantium
    by John J. O’Neill

    In his 1936 book, Mohammed et Charlemagne, Belgian historian Henri Pirenne argued in great detail that the Dark Ages of Europe began rather suddenly in the middle of the seventh century; and that this sudden and catastrophic decline in civilization was due to Islam’s blockade of the Mediterranean. Up to that time, Pirenne showed, there was no evidence of a decline in Classical culture. True, the Western Roman Empire as a political entity had disappeared in 476, but the literate, prosperous and urban civilization which we call “Classical” continued virtually uninterrupted. The Goths and other “Barbarian” peoples who ruled the provinces of the West after 467 did not try to destroy Roman civilization and civil society. Indeed, as Pirenne showed in great detail, they did everything in their power to preserve it. They adopted the Latin language, accepted Imperial titles from the Emperor in Constantinople, and minted gold coins with the image of the Eastern Emperor emblazoned upon them.
    Yet this thriving Late Classical culture came to a rather sudden end in the seventh century: city life declined, as did trade; a barter economy replaced the earlier monetary system, and what coins were issued were minted in silver rather than gold; literacy declined as papyrus from Egypt disappeared and expensive parchment took its place; and the power of kings waned, as local strongmen or “barons” seized the reigns of power in the provinces. The Middle Ages had begun.
    Pirenne’s great book, which was published posthumously, received a mixed reception. On the whole, it was conceded that he seemed to be on to something of great importance. Yet there was criticism, and this criticism only increased over the years.
    One of the most telling arguments against Pirenne was the question of Byzantium. Historians were quick to point out that, whilst the regions of the West may have experienced a Dark Age between the seventh and tenth centuries, those of the East did not. There was no decline, they said, in Byzantium. If the Arab blockade of the Mediterranean had strangled classical urban civilization in the West, why did it not have the same effect in the East? This was a question to which there seemed no easy answer. Even Pirenne believed that Byzantium had somehow coped better with the Arabs than the West. In his time it was generally assumed that Classical Civilization survived in the East, and that the region was less “medievalised” than the West. We are, or have been until recently, informed by historians that the eighth, ninth and tenth centuries in Byzantium were, in the words of Sidney Painter, “three centuries of glory,” and that during this time “The Byzantine Empire was the richest state in Europe, the strongest military power, and by far the most cultivated.”(Sidney Painter, A History of the Middle Ages, 284-1500) We are further informed that, “During these three centuries while Western Europe was a land of partly tamed barbarians, the Byzantine Empire was a highly civilized state where a most felicitous merger of Christianity and Hellenism produced a fascinating culture.”(Ibid.)
    The above opinions, common till the latter half of the twentieth century, were partly prompted by Byzantine propaganda, which always sought to portray Constantinople as the “New Rome” and the successor, in an unbroken line of authority, of the first Christian Emperor, Constantine. Yet over the past half century the science of archaeology has proved that picture to be a fabrication. As a matter of fact, we now know that the once-proud Eastern Rome was devastated by the Arab assaults. The same poverty and illiteracy that we find in the West we now find also in the East. Cities decline and the science and philosophy of the Greeks and Romans disappear. Indeed, just as in the West, a “dark age” descends. In the words of Cyril Mango; “One can hardly overestimate the catastrophic break that occurred in the seventh century. Anyone who reads the narrative of events will not fail to be struck by the calamities that befell the Empire, starting with the Persian invasion at the very beginning of the century and going on to the Arab expansion some thirty years later – a series of reverses that deprived the Empire of some of its most prosperous provinces, namely, Syria, Palestine, Egypt and, later, North Africa – and so reduced it to less than half its former size both in area and in population. But a reading of the narrative sources gives only a faint idea of the profound transformation that accompanied these events. … It marked for the Byzantine lands the end of a way of life – the urban civilization of Antiquity – and the beginning of a very different and distinctly medieval world.”(Cyril Mango, Byzantium, the Empire of New Rome, p. 4) Mango remarked on the virtual abandonment of the Byzantine cities after the mid-seventh century, and the archaeology of these settlements usually reveals “a dramatic rupture in the seventh century, sometimes in the form of virtual abandonment.”(Ibid. p. 8) With the cities and with the papyrus supply from Egypt went the intellectual class, who after the seventh century were reduced to a “small clique.”(Ibid. p. 9) The evidence, as Mango sees it, is unmistakable: the “catastrophe” (as he names it) of the seventh century, “is the central event of Byzantine history.”(Ibid.)
    Constantinople herself, the mighty million-strong capital of the East, was reduced, by the middle of the eighth century, to a veritable ruin. Mango quotes a document of the period which evokes a picture of “abandonment and ruination. Time and again we are told that various monuments – statues, palaces, baths – had once existed but were destroyed. What is more, the remaining monuments, many of which must have dated from the fourth and fifth centuries, were no longer understood for what they were. They had acquired a magical and generally ominous connotation.”(Ibid. p. 80)
    So great was the destruction that even bronze coinage, the everyday lubricant of commercial life, disappeared. According to Mango, “In sites that have been systematically excavated, such as Athens, Corinth, Sardis and others, it has been ascertained that bronze coinage, the small change used for everyday transactions, was plentiful throughout the sixth century and (depending on local circumstances) until some time in the seventh, after which it almost disappeared, then showed a slight increase in the ninth, and did not become abundant again until the latter part of the tenth.”(Ibid. pp. 72-3). Yet even the statement that some coins appeared in the ninth century has to be treated with caution. Mango notes that at Sardis the period between 491 and 616 is represented by 1,011 bronze coins, the rest of the seventh century by about 90, “and the eighth and ninth centuries combined by no more than 9.”(Ibid. p. 73) And, “similar results have been obtained from nearly all provincial Byzantine cities.” Even such paltry samples as have survived from the eighth and ninth centuries (nine) are usually of questionable provenance, a fact noted by Mango himself, who remarked that often, upon closer inspection, these turn out to originate either from before the dark age, or after it.
    When archaeology again appears, in the middle of the tenth century, the civilization it reveals has been radically altered: The old Byzantium of Late Antiquity is gone, and we find an impoverished and semi-literate rump; a Medieval Byzantium strikingly like the Medieval France, Germany and Italy with which it was contemporary. Here we find too a barter or semi-barter economy; a decline in population and literacy; and an intolerant and theocratic state. And the break-off point in Byzantium, as in the West, is the first half of the seventh century – precisely corresponding to the arrival on the scene of the Arabs and of Islam.
    Archaeology has thus come dramatically to the support of Pirenne, long after his death, and answered for him a question he could not. The impact of Islam was devastating for all of Christendom, both East and West. It was the event that terminated Classical civilization. The destruction of Classical culture in Europe was due to largely, though not completely, to the economic blockade of the Mediterranean by Muslim piracy. Yet the termination of that culture in regions such as Egypt and Syria (formally great centers of Classical and Hellenistic civilization) which came under the control of Islam, was produced by the new faith’s utter contempt for the cultures and histories of the peoples it came to dominate. Right from the start, the Caliphal government in Egypt established a commission whose purpose was to seek out pharaohnic age tombs, for plundering. So complete was the destruction that, perhaps little more than a century after the Islamic Conquest, no one in Egypt had any idea who built the Great Pyramid – this in spite of the fact that very substantial histories of this monument and the pharaoh who erected it were contained in the works of many Classical authors, most notably Herodotus and Diodorus Siculus. Immediately prior to the Muslim invasion the libraries and academies of Egypt, Syria, and Babylonia, were packed with the works of these authors. Their disappearance and the disappearance of the knowledge they contained can only mean, as Christian polemicists argued for centuries, that the Muslims had deliberately destroyed a great quantity of Classical literature.
    In the West of Europe and in the East, in North Africa and the Middle East, Classical civilization came to an end in the mid-seventh century; and the reason for its demise can be summed up in one word: Islam.

    Holy Warriors: Islam and the Demise of Classical Civilization, is published by Felibri Publications (August, 2009)
    Posted by Robert on January 21, 2010 5:30 AM| 10 Comments
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  6. cynthia curran says

    This thesis might not be 100 percent correct, granted some of Islam later produce doctors, philosophers, and math experts but this is an interesting and different approch than that the dark ages was all the result of Germanic tribes ocnquering in the east, the Plague of the 6th century or Jusinian’s war in Italy with the Goths.

  7. Dean Calvert says

    Hi everyone,

    Christ is Risen! Christos Anesti! Il Messieh Qam! Christos Voskrese!

    Something jelled during the recent “Too Big to Fail” and now the various “occupy” movements. I was reminded of the various Byzantine commentaries, which seemed to begin around the time of Basil II, and continued throughout the life of the empire.

    Obama was recently described as a “corporatist” by the Ed Klein, author of the recent book “The Amateur”. I was also told recently that Chase Bank contributed $28 million to the Obama campaign.

    In what I can only describe as a “gestalt” moment, I began to wonder if the entire debate in America is not being framed properly, i.e. is it REALLY liberal vs conservative, or is it more properly Statists vs individualists?

    Throughout the middle and late Byzantine periods, a concentration of power began, as large estates in Anatolia devoured the smaller independent farms. I’m not sure anyone understands the cause of it, but the military needs of the state after Manzikert (drawing from a much reduced territory) certainly seemed to exacerbate this problem. As you may or may not know, the idea of a “serf” was really a Western idea, something that never existed in Byzantium until much later.

    Is it possible that we are playing out EXACTLY the same dynamic which plagued the Byzantines from the 9th century on, i.e. the encroachment of what they called the “dynatoi” (strong, powerful) at the expense of the common folk?

    Think about it, “too big to fail banks” in league with big government democrats. What’s the difference? On the other hand, small government conservatives, allied with Tea Partyiers – all allies of small business.

    Could this be the real fault line?

    Just a thought.


    PS Auslin’s article was awesome…read it on NRO a few weeks ago.

  8. Cynthia Curran says

    This is talking about early Byzantium and Rome prior to the 7th century in the east and the late 5th century in the West the development into the dark ages Ward-Perkins: I believe the Western Empire
    was brought down by a specific military crisis—Germanic invasion, made more serious
    by the arrival in the West of an Asiatic people,
    the Huns, and exacerbated by civil wars within the empire—rather than by any irreversible
    internal decline. The Eastern Empire was then
    very nearly destroyed some two centuries later
    by the rise of Arab Islamic power. Probably
    with a bit of good luck and perhaps some better leadership both crises could have been
    reversed (as had happened in the 3rd century,
    when the whole empire was saved from a
    seemingly fatal spiral of invasion and civil
    war). But all great powers (so far) have at
    some point or another declined, or been
    brought low, so it is reasonable to assume that
    Roman power would not have gone on forever!
    What is so striking about the fall of Rome
    is the collapse of material sophistication that
    ensued. This happened, I believe, precisely
    because the Roman world was not entirely dissimilar to our own: complex economies are
    very fragile because they rely on hugely
    sophisticated networks of production and distribution. If these are seriously disrupted,
    widely and over a long period of time, the
    entire house of cards can collapse. Although I
    have a great deal of respect for the new Late
    Antiquity, it does seriously worry me that it
    smoothes over the very real crisis


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