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7-08-2015, 23:50

Political instability after basil i i ’s reign

Basil II never married. The understanding was that the succession would pass to his younger brother Constantine VIII, but he never produced a male heir, only daughters – of whom Zoe was Basil II’s favourite. It was clear for many years before his death that succession to the throne would go with the hand of Zoe. Basil considered various matches, but all were rejected, and when he died Zoe was in her early forties, still a spinster and unlikely to bear children. Why Basil II was so negligent about the succession is hard to fathom. It may be that the short-term advantages of leaving the succession in doubt were too tempting. Constantine VIII (1025–8) seemed in no more of a hurry than his brother to marry Zoe off, and it was only on Constantine’s deathbed that Zoe was married to Romanos Argyros (1028– 34), who then succeeded in the right of his new wife.However, Argyros was already somewhat elderly and unlikely to satisfy Zoe’s hopes for children; increasingly frustrated, Zoe took a young lover,Michael the Paphlagonian, who happened to be the brother of John the Orphanotrophos, one of Basil II’s eunuch ministers. When Romanos died in his bath in suspicious circumstances, Michael married Zoe and duly succeeded to the throne. Michael IV (1034–41) was remembered as an effective emperor, but he soon fell sick and his brother John sought to keep the throne within the family by persuading Zoe to adopt one of his nephews, also calledMichael, as her son. Michael V came to power in 1041 with no intention of being beholden to his uncle; rather, he wished to rule as an autocrat in the style of Basil II. He drove out John the Orphanotrophos and other members of his family, before packing Zoe off to a convent. This produced a spontaneous uprising on the part of the people of Constantinople, who did not want to be deprived of their ‘Mother’, as they calledZoe; the emperor was cornered and blinded, and Zoe brought back in triumph to the capital. For a few months in 1042 she ruled jointly with her younger sister Theodora, who had been at the centre of opposition to Michael V’s coup. Zoe then married again, this time to Constantine Monomachos, who as Constantine IX (1042–55) became the new emperor. Zoe died around 1050, so Theodora succeeded on Constantine IX Monomachos’ death in 1055. Upon Theodora’s death in the following year the Macedonian line came to an end, complicating the succession still further. There is no prima facie reason for supposing that a troubled succession would necessarily weaken the fabric of the Byzantine state. After all, the succession was in doubt on many occasions in the tenth century, but this did not prevent Byzantium from going from strength to strength. It might be argued that frequent change of the imperial regime was a positive benefit because it made for a greater flexibility and ability to meet critical situations. The rise to power of Romanos I Lekapenos (920–44) against a background of the threat from the Bulgarian tsar Symeon or the spectacle ofNikephoros II Phokas (963–9) and of John I Tzimiskes (969–76) holding the throne in trust for the young Basil II are cases in point. They gave clear direction to imperial government, as did Basil (see above, pp. 520–2). Basil II’s death, however, was followed by a spate of conspiracies. The uncertainty of the succession provides only a partial answer. The conspiracies had more to do with a rapidly changing elite, and the tensions created found some release in plots against the throne. In the early tenth century the Byzantine elite was a less complicated social group than it was to become. It was divided into a military and a civilian establishment. The former was dominated by the great military families of Anatolia, while the latter could boast a handful of civil service families whose members had held office for generations. The great military families went into decline from the end of the tenth century. The Phokas family, for example, virtually disappears, but others were more fortunate; the Skleroi kept estates in Anatolia, but transferred their centre of operations to Constantinople and gradually abandoned their military traditions. Basil II relied on other families for his commanders, such as the Diogenes, Dalassenoi and Komnenoi. The fortunes of these families were made under him. The military aristocracy was becoming wider and more diffuse. The same could be said of the civilian elite. Alongside the old civil service families, there were others which had made their fortunes in trade, but had converted their wealth into status through education and the purchase of honours. There were many interests to be satisfied. Conspiracy and revolt might become necessary to satisfy supporters and clients or might simply be a gesture of political credibility.9 Thus instability came to be built into the political structure. Some modern historians would like to see this as a struggle between the military and civilian elites. There is some contemporary support for this interpretation, but it was a matter of continuing to apply the political divisions of a previous age, which had largely disappeared. The politics of the eleventh century were instead dominated by families that transcended these divisions. They drew their support from the whole spectrum of political society. They were often old military families that had transferred their centre of operation to Constantinople. It comes as no surprise that Romanos Argyros emerged as the successful claimant for Zoe’s hand and the imperial throne. His age apart, he was eminently well qualified. He came from one of the most ancient of the Anatolian military families, but one which had long been resident in Constantinople. Romanos Argyros made a career and a name for himself within the capital, becoming the City prefect. He was also related to many of the great families of the capital, including the Monomachoi. Constantine IX Monomachos came from a very similar background to Romanos Argyros and was an obvious candidate for the hand of Zoe and the imperial office.He had already plotted to seize the throne fromMichael IV, who was regarded as an upstart, being one of those newcomers who had recently risen to prominence. One ofMichael’s brothers had been a trusted agent of Basil II and a sister married into the new wealth of Constantinople, her husband having made a fortune out of shipbuilding. It was their son who succeeded as Michael V: indeed, he was known contemptuously as the ‘Caulker’ in reference to his father’s activities. The snobbery of the Constantinopolitan crowd told against Michael V. The citizens of Constantinople brought about his downfall and, although their rising may have been spontaneous, it showed howpowerful a force they were. Thereafter emperors had to placate Constantinopolitan opinion. This was another factor making for political instability in the eleventh century. In the tenth century internal tensions could be absorbed through a policy of conquest and expansion. This became less easy after Basil’s death. Basil II’s immediate successors attempted to pursue his policy of expansion and annexation, but with little success. Large and expensive expeditions were mounted against Sicily, Syria and even Egypt. All there was to show for this costly effort was the annexation of Edessa in 1032 by the military commander George Maniakes. Against this, there was a serious revolt by the Bulgarians in 1040. Although it was suppressed, it suggested that Basil II’s conquest was not that securely based. It was a watershed; the period of expansion was over. The empire was beginning to turn in on itself and in these circumstances internal divisions would only be magnified. Keeping the empire on a war footing may explain why the imperial government was faced with increasing financial difficulties after Basil II’s death. Tax revolts were a feature of this phase of Byzantine history.10 Basil must bear some of the blame; at the end of his life, as an act of charity, he remitted two whole years’ taxation and his generosity was more than his brother could afford. The new emperor had to rescind the measure and collected five years’ taxation within the space of three years. This caused hardship and sparked off at least one tax revolt. The next emperor Romanos Argyros instituted a laxer and more humane fiscal regime. The opening years of his reign coincided with drought and a plague of locusts in Anatolia, forcing the peasants off their land and towards Constantinople. To get them to return to their native villages Romanos Argyros provided each with a donative of three nomismata, the rough equivalent of the tax on a substantial peasant holding.He also abandoned Basil II’s practice of forcing the ‘powerful’ landowners to pay any arrears of taxation. Instead he farmed these out, which hints at financial difficulties. His successor Michael IV seemed equally in need of ready cash: he forced the Bulgarians to pay their taxes in coin, despite Basil II’s promise that they would be taxed in kind, and this action sparked off the Bulgarian revolt (see below, p. 670). Michael IV was also accused of tampering with the currency, while his brother John the Orphanotrophos exploited the state’s right of monopoly over the corn trade. Modern numismatists have reluctantly exonerated Michael IV from the charge of debasement. It was left to Constantine IXMonomachos to carry out a controlled debasement of the Byzantine gold coinage. It was done quite openly and deliberately. The fineness of the gold coinage was lowered by stages from twenty-four carats to eighteen. Each stage of the debasement was clearly signposted by the issue of different types of coin. This debasement of the coinage is a feature of the history of eleventh-century Byzantium which has attracted a great deal of attention from modern historians, because it seems to provide a key to the economic developments of the time. There are two major interpretations. The first is straightforward: debasement was a solution to a budget deficit and was a way out of the long-standing financial difficulties of the Byzantine state. The other interpretation is more sophisticated; it sees debasement as a reaction to the problems of rapid economic growth which the Byzantine empire was supposed to be experiencing in the early eleventh century.11 The argument goes that the Byzantine economy was consequently facing a liquidity crisis: not enough coinage was in circulation to meet demand. Given the inelasticity of the supply of precious metals, the only solution was to debase. The second of these interpretation has its merits, and indeed someByzantine civil servants did show a surprisingly advanced grasp of economics. However, even if they had an inkling that an inelastic money supply was a barrier to economic growth, they were not likely to consider this sufficient justification for debasing a coinage that had remained more or less unchanged since the days of Constantine the Great. Budgetary difficulties are surely the only explanation for the debasement carried out by Constantine IXMonomachos. The emperor could cite as a precedent the temporary debasement carried out by Nikephoros Phokas in the tenth century. However unpopular at the time, it had eased a period of financial embarrassment. Even if budgetary difficulties are the explanation, debasement may still have helped to ease a liquidity problem. But was there economic growth in the early eleventh century on a scale sufficient to create a liquidity problem? There are certainly signs of economic growth, but they mostly relate to the Greek lands, where towns were prospering and becoming centres of trade and manufactures. Thebes, for example, became a major producer of silk, which in the tenth century had been a monopoly of the capital. There are indications that coastal trade round the Aegean was prospering and that the population of the region was growing. But this scarcely represents growth of such an order that it would have induced the imperial government to debase the gold coinage in order to increase the circulation of coinage. In any case, it would be hard to square the financial difficulties that the imperial government faced from the death of Basil II onwards with rapid economic growth. Would the state not have been the chief beneficiary, given that it imposed a value-added tax of 10 per cent on every commercial transaction? This ought to have gone some way towards balancing the budget. Admittedly, the continuing growth of population was not matched by a corresponding increase in the basic tax yield. The agrarian legislation of the tenth century was applied less stringently. As significant was the extension of tax exemptions for the great estates. Blanket immunities were probably less important than preferential rates of taxation, such as those enjoyed in the eleventh century by the Athonite monasteries for their estates. This was all part of the creation of a dependent peasantry, which paid taxes and owed labour services to a lord. Ostrogorsky connected this manorialisation of rural society with economic decline. He was certainly wrong, but he was correct to see it as a drain on imperial revenues (see also above, pp. 488–91). It seems safe to assume that there was economic and demographic growth in the early eleventh century, but scarcely on a scale to create liquidity problems. Debasement was a response to the government’s financial problems. Tax exemptions were partly to blame, but these were symptomatic of financial mismanagement on the part of the imperial government.Michael Psellos blamed the government’s financial difficulties on the extravagance of Zoe and her consorts. This may have been a little unfair on Zoe. Dabbling in perfumes and alchemy may have been unnecessary, but was unlikely to bankrupt the state. It was at best a reflection of lax government. Zoe was not a great builder, unlike her husbands who expended colossal sums on their building activities. Romanos Argyros erected the monastery of the Peribleptos to serve as his last resting place and a memorial of his reign.Michael IV was a patron of the monastery of Sts Cosmas and Damian at Kosmidion, outside the walls of Constantinople, which he rebuilt on a lavish scale. Constantine IX Monomachos added the church of St George and other buildings to theMangana complex. Accounts by later travellers provide an impression of the magnificence and scale of these churches, but none of them survives.Only StGeorge of theMangana has been partially excavated: its dimensions were imposing, with a dome of approximately ten metres in diameter, thus rivalling some of the Justinianic foundations in size.12 One of ConstantineMonomachos’ foundations does survive, however: the monastery of Nea Moni on the island of Chios. Its intricate planning and rich mosaics give some idea of the care and money lavished on these imperial foundations. But the costs did not end with construction and Nea Moni, like St George of the Mangana, was generously endowed by the emperor. There had not been building on this scale in the Byzantine empire since the sixth century. Emperors had mostly been content to restore the public monuments and churches inherited from the fifth and sixth centuries and to add to the Great Palace of the emperors. Basil II’s main contribution had been the repair of St Sophia in 989 after it had suffered damage in an earthquake. The emperors of the eleventh century in good aristocratic fashion wanted to leave their mark on the capital through their monuments and used state revenues to this end. Again building even on this grand scale was unlikely by itself to bankrupt the state, but taken in conjunction with an extravagant court life it placed a substantial extra burden on the state’s revenues. They were in any case likely to be declining because of Romanos Argyros’ decision to abandon Basil II’s strict control over the arrears of taxation. Government expenditure was rising for quite another reason: the civil list was increasing dramatically as more and more honours were granted out. Michael Psellos was of the opinion that the honours system had been one of Byzantium’s strengths, but was nowbeing abused. This he singled out as one of the fundamental causes of the decline of the Byzantine state. Byzantium had developed a complicated system of honours with a double hierarchy of office and dignity. Both brought with them pensions and salaries. While sale of office was rare, sale of dignities was an accepted part of the system. If a dignity was purchased, then the holder received a pension at a standard rate. It has been calculated that this brought a return of around 3 per cent, but it was also possible to purchase at an augmented rate which brought a rather higher rate of up to 6 per cent. The state was creating a system of annuities. It almost certainly worked very well while it was properly supervised. The potential cost to the state was also limited by the relatively restricted number of dignities on offer. But this changed rapidly in the eleventh century as new orders of dignities were created to meet a growing demand. It was also the case that they might pass under the control of individuals who could distribute them as they saw fit. They were regarded as an investment which a father might make for his sons. Imperial largesse to monasteries sometimes took the form of a grant in perpetuity of the pensions attached to dignities. It is tempting to connect the debasement of the coinage with the inflation of honours, all the more so because of contemporary criticism of Nikephoros Phokas’ earlier debasement of the coinage. One of his purposes was apparently to pay salaries and pensions in debased currency and to collect taxation in the old coinage. The temptation to debase would be all the stronger in the eleventh century as the honours system got out of hand. However, it is difficult, if not impossible, to establish such a connection on a valid statistical basis. Our evidence is anecdotal. Jean-Claude Cheynet discounts such evidence as unreliable.13He contends that the rate of pension for each dignity is a better guide to the costs of the honours system. The very highest dignities were always granted out sparingly. The inflation of honours affected the lesser dignities from spatharokandidatos to vestarch¯es, their pensions ranging from 36 nomismata to 1,008 nomismata or 14 pounds of gold in weight, which was a considerable sum. But here the argument breaks down; there is simply no way of computing the numbers of office holders. All that remains is the anecdotal evidence. Contemporaries were adamant that by the reign of Nikephoros III Botaneiates (1078–81) the honours system had broken down, because the state was unable to meet the cost of the pensions involved. The honours system had bankrupted the state. Alexios I Komnenos’ reform of the honours system was equally seen as an essential step towards restoring soundness to the body politic. It has to be admitted, however, that complaints about the failure of the honours system coincide with, rather than antedate, the debasement of the coinage. The two worked together to undermine the fabric of the state: the inflation of honours combined with other items of unnecessary expenditure and with various fiscal measures to cause budgetary difficulties, leading to debasement under Constantine Monomachos. Thereafter the combination of debasement and a galloping inflation of honours ensured that the financial position would continue to deteriorate andwell-conceived measures of reform had little chance of success.

 

 

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