The secret to Byzantium’s success

  • Themes: History

The Eastern Roman polity worked effectively because both rulers and ruled took seriously the idea of the empire as a res publica.

15th century illustration of Byzantium.
15th century illustration of Byzantium. Credit: Science History Images / Alamy Stock Photo

The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium, Anthony Kaldellis, Oxford University Press, £34.99

When I was first introduced to Byzantine history at university in the early 1990s, the book to which we were initially directed remained the English translation of the History of the Byzantine State, written by the great Russian and Yugoslav Byzantinist George Ostrogorsky, first published in German in 1940.

Ostrogorsky’s approach to the Byzantine Empire was totalising, emphasising what he described as ‘the essential interdependence of events at home and abroad, political, ecclesiastical, and cultural’. It was also broadly Marxist. Devotees of Byzantine art or Orthodox theology were never permitted to forget that ‘the wealth of the empire and the high level of its culture were bought at the expense of the masses who lived in misery without means of redress and without freedom’. As a result, the history of the empire, Ostrogorsky sought to explain, was punctuated by a series of internal political struggles, often informed by deep-rooted social and economic tensions. In 1997, by contrast, the US historian of Byzantium, Warren Treadgold, published his own History of the Byzantine State and Society. With his focus firmly fixed on military and cultural developments, with this 1,000-page tome Treadgold sought to displace Ostrogorsky, consciously eschewing as he did so ‘modern ideologies like Marxism, post-structuralism, or nationalism’.

To what extent Treadgold ever managed to supplant Ostrogorsky’s magnum opus with his own is hard to tell: the days are long gone when one could set undergraduate students a 1,000-page book as a mere part of their initial reading for a course. The therapy dogs would be summoned before you even had time to dictate the name Constantine Porphyrogenitus. With the publication of The New Roman Empire: The History of Byzantium, we now have a new 1,000-page history written by the US-based Greek scholar Anthony Kaldellis.

Kaldellis is without doubt one of the most original and productive scholars currently working in the field of Byzantine studies. In a series of sometimes brilliant books and articles, he has challenged how we should think about the political identity, intellectual culture, and literary output that we associate with the Greek-speaking, Christian Roman Empire of the East, which for more than a thousand years was ruled from the great city of Constantinople or ‘New Rome’ (as the Emperor Constantine had dubbed it), and which most of its subjects almost always referred to simply as Romania – ‘the Roman realm’ (the concept of ‘Byzantium’ or the ‘Byzantine Empire’ being a later western scholarly and political confection). With this book, we finally have Kaldellis’ take on the history of that empire as a whole, from the inauguration of Constantinople in the year 330 to its conquest by the Ottoman Turks in 1453. The approach is largely narrative, but with significant and often highly informative excursuses on religious and literary culture. Indeed, the sections on intellectual and literary developments in late antiquity, the tenth century, and the Comenian and Palaeologan periods from the 11th to 14th centuries are among the highlights of this excellent book. Beyond the realm of the intellect and that of belief, the concentration is primarily upon high politics and the ways in which the fate of the empire was intricately bound up with the emergence, disintegration, and re-emergence of military and political rivals and foes along the empire’s frontiers: Huns and Goths; Persians and Arabs; Normans and Turks.

The Eastern Roman Empire of Byzantium managed to contain, outmanoeuvre, and outlive almost all of these competing powers. From the 11th century onwards, however, it began to be ensnared by a series of simultaneous threats posed by the papacy, the lords and princes of the Latin West, and the Turks in both their Seljuk and ultimately Ottoman form. The sack of Constantinople by the knights of the Fourth Crusade in 1204 and the imposition of brief-lived Latin rule was a blow from which the empire was never able to fully recover. Kaldellis’ account of this period of Byzantine history is particularly incisive and informative, but rather than being a study of crisis and decline, Kaldellis’ emphasis throughout is on the resilience of the East Roman state and its ability not just to survive, but often to flourish, providing an imperial model which rivals to both East and West struggled to emulate.

Like others before him, Kaldellis identifies the key constituent parts of East Roman civilisation to have been a fusion of Roman political culture, Greek intellectual culture, Christian faith, and a political focus on Constantinople and the office of the emperor who ruled there. Many individual emperors would be deposed, but none of those who deposed them seriously questioned the cultural, ideological, or political parameters of the world in which they operated. By virtue of the way in which, over many centuries, Greek culture, then Roman identity, and then Christian faith had become embedded in what would emerge as the core territories of medieval Byzantium, a formidably integrative civilisation emerged which bound together ruler and ruled far more effectively than in any other state in medieval Western Eurasia (with the possible exception, one might suggest, of England). Indeed, for much of its medieval history, Kaldellis argues, Byzantium was not an empire at all: it was effectively a nation state of predominantly Greek-speaking Christian Romans.

The most novel aspect of Kaldellis’ argument – beyond the idea of medieval Romania as a protean nation state – is to be found in terms of the author’s understanding of what was most significant about Roman political culture as it was received and appropriated in the East. The East Roman polity largely worked so effectively, Kaldellis argues, because across the social spectrum rulers and ruled took seriously the idea of the empire as a res publica. The state was a commonwealth in which all were invested, and in which emperors were expected to be responsive to the needs and complaints of their subjects, providing them with defence, mechanisms of justice, and responsive government. Taxation was understood to be for the common good and was set at manageable levels. The basis of legitimate authority was consensus, and emperors who failed to understand that ultimately fell. Coups and usurpations in Constantinople were not a sign of the system failing. Rather, they were a sign that the res publica was running effectively.

This is a compelling and thought-provoking model which builds upon the author’s earlier publications. There is a lot to be said for it: there can be little doubt, for example, that the Christian emperors of Constantinople generally treated their subjects far less as a subjugated mass to be exploited than their Ottoman successors would do, despite the attempts sometimes made by subsequent Ottoman sultans to presents themselves as their East Roman predecessors’ direct heirs.

Inevitably, there are aspects of Kaldellis’ argument with which one could disagree. In placing so much emphasis on the success with which the East Roman polity overcame its external foes across the centuries, for example, the author is perhaps somewhat inclined to understate the internal challenges that emperors periodically faced. The social and economic tensions emphasised by Ostrogorsky in the 1940s and beyond were not simply the product of the author’s historical materialist imagination. In both the sixth century and the tenth, for example, emperors complained in their laws of how growing power on the part of members of the aristocracy made it harder for them to raise the taxes or armies needed to meet the empire’s military requirements. Kaldellis is sceptical of the extent to which the documentary evidence that details how society worked on the ground substantiates such claims, but the secondary literature on which he relies to justify such scepticism is not always as reliable or well-informed as he might think.

The politics of the reign of Justinian in the sixth century, in particular, were largely shaped by conflict between the emperor and members of the senatorial elite, who were constantly scheming and plotting against him, alienated in part by his aggressive fiscal policies which primarily targeted tax evasion on the part of great landowners such as themselves. At one point, Kaldellis suggests that one of Justinian’s major mistakes was that he did not personally visit the territories his generals conquered in Italy in the 530s and 540s. One suspects that had Justinian done so, a new emperor would have been placed on his throne in Constantinople before he had even reached Syracuse.

Likewise, the author’s account of the impact of the bubonic plague that struck the empire in the 540s and recurred down to the eighth century, sapping its population and tax base, relies on a recent secondary literature which has consistently misunderstood the nature of bubonic plague. The documentary evidence we have for the sixth-century pandemic along with the genetic evidence has revealed its close similarity to the Black Death, which Kaldellis accepts to have had a major impact on the empire in the 14th century. Contrary to what seems to be suggested, we have no scientific evidence to believe that the variant of bubonic plague that caused the Black Death was any more deadly than that which caused the Justinianic plague. Nor is it the case (as is claimed) that the impact of the plague on the workings of the East Roman state in the sixth century was any less significant than the impact of the Black Death on the workings of government in the later Middle Ages. In fact, the late medieval English and sixth-century Byzantine sources appear to show two strong states, 800 years apart, responding to a very similar pandemic in very similar ways. Kaldellis is absolutely right that the East Roman Empire was ultimately undone by external threats not internal crises, but that is not to say that the challenges posed by internal social and economic tensions and demographic crisis were not real. That the imperial system was largely able to overcome such challenges does not mean that they played no part in the institutional, ideological, and political evolution of Romania. There is thus still a place for Ostrogorsky’s concept of a more totalising vision of Byzantium alongside Kaldellis’ vision of the responsive res publica largely undone by foreign foes.

Overall, however, Kaldellis should be commended for having written a deeply impressive book, enriched in particular by his mastery of the literary sources. The New Roman Empire provides an excellent introduction to the history of Byzantium for the general reader, while also giving specialists much to ponder and think about.


Peter Sarris