What really felled Byzantium?

Greed.

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?

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20 Responses to What really felled Byzantium?

  1. Peter A. Papoutsis says:

    kevin, I believe your overall assessment is correct, but the impact of the Fourth Crusade, which was ultimately the evil brainchild of the Doge of Venice, I assert caused the greatest damage and recked the deadliest blow to the Empire than its internal corruption and Greed that was killing it slowly anyway.

    The immense physical and psychological impact of the Fourth Crusade in concert with the internal and external greed and the Empire’s corruption ultimately led to its down fall. The true fall of the Empire was not in 1543, but at the time of the Fourth Crusade.

    Peter

    • Peter A. Papoutsis says:

      Oops! I meant 1453.
      Peter

    • I agree that the Fourth Crusade was a major factor. However, the Nicaean Empire implemented a number of older practices which built up their strength and should have been maintained once the City was retaken. Instead, these excellent practices were dropped and the Nicaean territories were almost immediately absorbed by the Ottoman Turks, then in Bithynia. If instead the economic practices of the Nicaean period had been maintained there and applied everywhere else, the Empire would at the very least lasted longer, and certainly not in its ignominious form of the late Palaeologan period. But this is a case of 20/20 hindsight, spilled milk, barn door, etc. Sadly!

      • Peter A. Papoutsis says:

        I somewhat agree, but I see the recapture of Constandinople andthe re-establishment of the Empire in terms of trying to revive a patient from a near-fatal heart attack. The patient survived, but is now in a weakened state (i.e Spirit is Broken). The Nicean Empire, IMHO, was never the once glorious (Eastern) Roman Empire of old, and after they restored it they were too tired to keep it going.

        Emperor Michael Paleologos VIII raised a grand army, but as you stated could not maintain the programs and structure needed to sustain the Empire and its Army. In retaking The City Emperor Michael VIII raised and shortly maintained an army 20,000 strong, but said army could not be maintained in the long run.

        Now, by the Byzantines previously losing the Anatolian hinterland, at the batlle of Manzikert in 1071, they ultimately lost their main source of wealth and bread-basket. The Seljuk-Turks were a constant threat, and incrementally taking and invading Byzantine terrirory, but could have been contained. However, when the Fourth Crusade occured it was over, even Emperor Michael’s “restoration” could not bring this dying man back to life.

        I believe this is ultimately why the practices of the Niceans did not take. This new Empire had a Good Army, but was not on the scale as the Komnenian Army that quickly disintergrated under the Angeloi, but was temporarily restored by Michael VIII, but could not be maintained.

        Like you said before Greed did them in, but what led to the Greed? Their spirit was broken by the Fourth Crusade, they fought tooth and nail to restore what they had lost from the Latins, their own co-religionists, and the in fighting among the Greeks of Trebizod, Epirus and Thessaly just made matters worse. So, at the end of the day, they just wanted the money to survive, and to hell with the Empire, the Church and the Army.
        They just did not want it anymore.

        This makes the last stand of Emperor Constantine Paleologos the XI so much more tragic and full of sorrow, and Mehmet’s triumph so much more humiliating to us.

        Peter

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  4. Yes, Peter, that’s how it went. But Michael’s successful army was a direct result of his policies while in Nicaea, which did manage to stabilize the border with the Ottomans and Seljuks. He raised and supported an army and had a flourishing economy starting from basically nothing, all based upon wise and stringent economic policies, agriculture, and a restoration of the limes. These were shortsightedly abandoned. Had he and all his successors maintained them and then implemented them throughout all the territories coming under his power (including dispossessing the wealthy of their massive holdings gained at the expense of the state!), the situation might have led to a complete turnaround. Michael was the strongest ruler in the area for a brief time. And the recovered Empire might have gone from strength to strength, instead of the imminently depressing failure that it was.

    But this is just an exercise in supposition, really. The Serbs and Bulgarians are equally to blame. And the foolish attempts at ecclesiastical union with the Latins led to the alienation of the one force that might have saved the Empire: the Russians. The Fourth Crusade is a stain not only on the papacy, but on the entire feudal system of the west, all its participants, and all who benefited from it.

    What is very interesting is that in precisely this depressing period of the collapse of dignity and power in the Imperial majesty and the Empire’s reputation, the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Church went from strength to strength, their reputation spreading well beyond all political borders into all Orthodox nations. I don’t think the two developments are separate. While the monasteries were beneficiaries of lands, they were not mercantile, but self-sustaining. And this is the period of the Hesychastic Controversy, when the last heresies were banished. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. It was in fact necessary for the survival of Orthodoxy throughout the coming centuries of the Turkish Yoke. Obviously Providence was at work.

    Still, it was very sad reading. It was exasperating to read of so much good thrown away. All for greed.

  5. Peter A. Papoutsis says:

    Yeah. I know.

    PS. Not much has changed in regards to so much good thrown away. All for greed. Just read the news.

    Peter

  6. Yes, the contemporary situation was continually in mind: wealthy sucking up everything like gigantic vacuum cleaners, and the masses growing every poorer. The devalutation of currency, inflation, economic depression, stupid import/export laws, agrarian conglomeration, disenfranchisement of the masses, and foolish military expeditions. What’s different? No Church growing in strength to provide hope and help for the people, just a void, for most have turned their backs on the Church. The coming fall is not going to be as pretty as that of the Roman Empire (which is saying a lot!), and will result in no lasting legacy whatsoever. A selfish, hedonistic, ignorant, unfaithful civilization will fall and those to come will simply say, “Good riddance to bad trash.”

  7. Mark James says:

    If a single crusade could take down the Byzantine empire, doesn’t that show it was weakened already, perhaps weakened from aristocratic greed? It reminds me of the United States–the rich paying only 29% under Reagan, and 33% under Bush, when it seems today’s civilizations demand a 50% tax rate on the rich, or else everything goes to pot.

    • Well, Mark, it wasn’t just a single crusade, but a long and drawn-out decline (due to the greed of the artistocracy!) that led to a state of weakness which was taken advantage of by western traders (especially the Venetians) and subsequently by those involved in the Fourth Crusade. Had the economy and state been healthy, then of course it would not have had to worry about the Fourth Crusade at all.

      The greatest problem was this: the tax burden was too great for the masses. The profligacy, corruption, and greed of the aristocracy led to increased burdens on the backbone of the state: the smallholder farmers, which were also the source for the military ranks. In order to escape the increasingly impossible tax burden, lands were effectively sold to aristocratic landowners, who then managed to avoid tax responsibilities (through corruption, mostly), and the smallholders were then free from taxes and free from military duty. Problem solved! Not! Again, it was the aristocracy who won in the short term (money galore, and the land, too, as a bonus), and the smallholder who lost basically everything, including the ability to fight off any longer anyone going for his stuff, these guys formerly being part of the border or community forces intended to supply local defense. So, there we go. End of story.

      An increase from 29% to 50% tax on the rich would only be unjust if the percentage of wealth accumulated by them had remained static over the last decades, which it surely has not. I think, in fact, they were getting off relatively easy even then. Again, creative accounting and legal wrangling of the powerful for the powerful effectively creates a situation where the vastly wealthy become more vastly wealthy and taxes on their wealth are avoided. If anyone suggests that today’s wealthy are somehow more righteous than those in the past, I would suggest we meet so that I may laugh in such a person’s face for, say, at least half an hour. At the conclusion of which, I will remind them of the cutting words of the Saviour of the world:

      “I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

  8. Peter A. Papoutsis says:

    I wholeheartly agree with Kevin’s assessment. I can tell you from personal experience as an attorney, who has prosecuted many a lucrative business venture, or litigated disputes between partners, or dealt with the Dept. of Labor over wages not being properly paid that the rule for these businesses is always have “Two” sets of accounting books: One the government sees and one the government does NOT see. Vast amounts of money are hidden and exemted by “creative” accounting, denying immigrant workers their full pay and benefits, not providing certain benefits, as small business owners are exempt, and/or transfering money, albeit legally and some times ambiguously legally, overseas where the US government never gets it and never sees it.

    Our country is struggling, and the people that profited the most from the recent economic collapse are the very same people that caused it and took advanatge of people’s stupidity, greed, and even their common decency to just be a middle-class home-owner and stucked them and our country dry.

    This happend in Byzantium, Greed led to the Fourth Crusade on the part of the Venitians, the Crusaders and the Papacy, which initially condemed the Fourth Crusade, but once all the riched came back to Rome, especiall the religious relics of our Saints, Like the Great St. John Chrysostom, which were only recently returned by the Vatican under the Pontificate of Pope John Paul II to the Holy See of Constandinople, Rome forgave and forgot.

    The Greeks, like Kevin said, just wanted to get their share and forgot the common farmer that made up the backbone of the Byzantine Empire, funded the Hellenistic successor states of Alexander the Great and were again the very bedrock of even Classical Greece. Which, by the way, is the very same way our Republic is (Theoretically) set up.

    So Rome, Byzantium, The varied European Empires and Dynasties, and Great Britain have all fallen because of their greed. Remember the stock-market crash of 1929? Remember the savings and loan scandal? Remeber Iran-Contra? Now our ficticious and costly war in Iraq and our stupid war in Afganistan. Greed, greed, greed.

    Please tell me where Kevin is wrong?

    Peter

  9. Mark James says:

    Thanks for your comments, Kevin. I used to vote Republican until last year when the Republicans were defending the barely regulated banks, and the Payday Loan businesses in my state. The Democrats wanted to limit the interest rate they could levy to no more than 36%, and the Republicans wanted no restrictions. Then I recalled that the abortion rate was lowest when Clinton was in office, and also I read about how the inequality of wealth in the US is now worse than most countries. The divide started with the Reagan tax cuts where the richest paid only 29% and even right now they only pay 33%. See:

    http://www.visualizingeconomics.com/2008/07/13/income-gap-and-marginal-tax-rate-1917-2006/

    http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/01/Gini_since_WWII.svg

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gini_coefficient

  10. Alan says:

    Greed of the Romans? You mean greed of the Byzantines took down the empire. Time to get your facts straight. It was the Byzantine emperor who invited the crusades, and it was the popes who answered their pleas. It was the byzantine emperors who decided not support the west in any major military engagements(except with a token force in some minor battles). The emperor lied when he said he would lead the armies. He also lied when he said he would support them. Instead he decided to demand control of all cities that were paid for with western blood, threatening the supply line with byzantine soldiers at their backs. As a soldier, there is nothing worse than putting forth a sacrifice so great, only to be stabbed in the back. Things got worse in the 2/3/4 crusade where the byzantine emperor was colluding with the Mohammedans against the crusaders. And it kept on happening afterwards. How about the Latins who were being massacred en masse in Constantinople in the years leading up to the sacking. Western military commanders still had a memory of the treachery of the Byzantines, no doubt. Interesting that you Byzantine revisionists forget that Alexius Comnenus allowed Constantinople to be pillaged of its wealth in 1081 by his mercenaries years before the sacking by the latins. In 1182 the emperor incited mobs to attack all latins in the city, “killing thousands, including women and children and the aged were massacred”. Many more than occurred during the sacking by the west. Not a mention of the treachery of the Byzantines in the first three crusades that had cost of tens of thousands of lives by not reinforcing the crusaders when they said they would (thinking Antioch). Or how about that deposed byzantine emperor who said he was the rightful heir to the throne who convinced the latins to sack the city which was giving them no supplies or aid. Or how about when the emperor was still feigning his friendship with the west and promised a score of ships for the crusaders to flee being masscred in Tyre, yet they recieved only 1 (on purpose). You need to dig a little deeper into history.

    The state of Constantinople was due to the corruption, and greed of the Byzantines. Their collusion with infidels. Their murder of latins, and last but not least, their heresy.

  11. Perhaps your reading comprehension is at low ebb!

    But don’t try to whitewash the crusades, the papacy, and western europe for inexcusable behavior by pointing out that someone else sinned, too. It’s childish.

    Read Luttwak. Enough said.

  12. Mark James says:

    Just as Byzantium lost its sovereignty due to greed or corruption, modern Greece has lost a lot of its sovereignty to its debtors, and to the IMF and EU who are bailing them out. The IMF is largely controlled by the US whose taxpayers fund it, so one could say that Mr. Kevin P. Edgecomb is part ruler of Greece right now.

    This time it’s good that Greece lost some of its sovereignty since otherwise it would never turn the corner and end the shockingly rampant corruption that’s carried on with impunity. Read this!:
    11/17/2010
    The ‘Atimorisia’ Illness: Greece’s Toothless Battle against Corruption
    By Manfred Ertel
    http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/0,1518,729492,00.html

  13. It’s safe to say that one cannot trust a German source in this. The Germans are bearing the greatest part of the brunt and likewise making the most — some would say outrageous — demands in the Greek situation. And the fact that it was the EU (dominated by precisely those Germans) who encouraged the falsification of economic numbers for the benefit of unrealistic investments, and who never questioned them, not to mention that the German economic numbers have themselves been similarly cooked in recent years, it just adds up to another heaping helping of German hypocrisy. Greece has no monopoly on corruption either in the EU or the world. It does not deserve to be turned into the playground and weekend home of a bunch of Teutonic barbarians responsible for the entire situation as well as more horror in the twentieth century than anyone else, including at least one other “solution” to a problem with a nation they perceived as backward and corrupt.

    Soon they’ll be demanding resorts and villas on Mount Athos. And they’ll feel justified by this whole furor. It’s a disgusting situation.

    That German writes nothing of the noble way that the majority of Greeks have immediately recognized the need for change and actually accept responsibility for others’ actions and accept stoically the need for austerity measures. It’s unpleasant, but it’s also temporary, as they see it (not if the EU has any say, though!). Yet assorted EU hypocrites will say that’s not enough, too little too late, and continue to demand a few islands and such. Disgusting. They would love to have a Greece that is no longer Greek, rid of this too-Eastern entity on their border, with its weird religion and incomprehensible language, and love for life that chilly Northmen envy but can only dream of even imitating, much less genuinely possessing and expressing.

    Ach! See, you got me started!

  14. Mark James says:

    Many people of Greece don’t see the big picture, nor the view the problem the same way the Germans do. One problem is that the world looks to Germany to lead Europe as though it’s the USA of Europe, but Germany’s economy (19.8%) is not much larger than that of France (15.4%), Britain (15.3%) and Spain (8.8%), whereas the USA’s economy is nearly as large as all of Europe, and the USA has more natural resources to include natural gas. (Europe must import most everything, including natural gas, to produce finished goods whereas the USA’s abundance means it can export both finished goods and many natural resources besides. Nature is the USA Ft. Knox.) Moreover, Greece is the lead domino which could fell all the PIIGS countries in succession, and that would be a quarter of the EU economy up in smoke:
    http://www.investopedia.com/terms/p/piigs.asp

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Economy_of_the_European_Union#Economies_of_member_states

  15. Yes, because, amongst other things, it shows up the charade of all the other tacitly accepted nationally cooked books throughout Europe!

    It’s always so much easier to have a scapegoat, particularly one that is useful in experimenting with sanctions. The EU is a new creature. We’ll see if it can survive the various traumas that the ingrained and institutionalized national practices are going to inflict upon it. Greece is only the first. If the measures to stabilize the economy fail, the whole project is doomed.

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