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.