What really felled Byzantium?


I’ve just finished reading Ostrogorsky’s History of the Byzantine State. I don’t think you could find a better record of the deleterious effects of unchecked greed from both internal and external sources than the preserved history of what is commonly called the Byzantine Empire, but which was then known as what it was: the Empire of the Romans. Greed destroyed their empire. This is especially clear after having just previously read Kenneth Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Having Luttwak’s book freshly in mind, and then reading the more general overview of Ostrogorsky, the failures of the ruling class were all the more astonishing and gut-wrenching. At some point in the book, I began to think, “Okay, new emperor! What is the worst of his options? Because that’s what he’s going to do!”

Various forms of greed from external sources are partly responsible. Two of these are particularly acute: the desire for the rich agricultural lands and famous cities of the empire, which the Muslims of various sorts benefited from the most, but the Slavs also enjoyed; and control of trade in the empire, which the West (particularly Venice and Genoa) coveted, gained, and tenaciously held even as the empire crumbled around their duty-free shipments. None of this externally-sourced greed should be minimized, particularly the inexcusable Fourth Crusade and the subsequent partitioning of the Empire amongst various inbred and unwashed Frankish barbarians.

But it was the greed of the Romans themselves that was at greatest fault, particularly of the artistocracy. No one needs a reminder of the kinds of wealth that Constantinople formerly commanded, particularly prior to the Muslim irruption. But the complete depletion of that wealth and its consequences are the responsibility of a selfish, greedy, caste-conscious aristocracy that slit the throat of the empire for a short life of ease. The smallholders, many of whom were border soldiers, were deprived of their lands which had been amalgamated into large landowners’ estates, which began as government grants. So, the smallholders (whose holdings provided them earnings directly and indirectly as they permitted or required their enlistment in the army or navy) lost their income, and came utterly under the power of these estates as serfs in all but name. And yet, these estates, through the well-known and unexaggerated corruption of the Byzantine system (de facto, if not de jure) were generally exempt from taxes, which the smallholders had paid. So, the tax revenues were simply gone altogether. Foolishness! With this practice, the empire was deprived of defense: no soldiers, no money to pay mercenaries, no moeny to bribe enemies: their defense wasgone. The greater the landholders’ properties, the smaller the army, and the poorer the state. And this was a state that could not afford to be poor, as its survival required a well-trained standing army and navy, as well as the ability to bribe parties (or, for the squeamish: “make campaign contributions”) toward another course of action than violent invasion. It’s this selfish greed on the part of landowners that is ultimately to blame for the collapse of the empire. By the time that the Emperor had to turn to them for contributions toward outfitting a fleet or paying for some mercenaries, it was much too late. And they all lost in the end. It was all for nothing.

Now, really, how stupid was that?