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7-08-2015, 20:05

Law and justice

Something of the way in which peasant-proprietorswere expected to resolve issues of property-ownership, animal husbandry, theft, injury or damage emerges from the Farmer’s law (or Nomos georgikos), a text whose date of composition and status remain open to discussion. At any rate, the Farmer’s law seems to have long been a working document, laying down norms for dispute settlement within local communities. The prescriptions are detailed and presuppose regular taxation, implying governance that was loose-meshed but under the authorities’ ultimate oversight. The text was later translated into Slavonic.48 It is in key with procedures set out in two tax-collectors’ handbooks, and is not inconsistent with the texts concerning methods of measuring land for purposes of tax assessment. The latter seem to have been at their most accurate in measuring smaller plots.49 The handbooks imply that the individual contributions towards the tax burden imposed on a fiscal unit were ultimately for its members to determine among themselves. The government’s concern was that the tax be paid, due allowances being made for lands devastated by enemy raids and abandoned by their owners: these were eventually – usually after some thirty years of non-payment of taxes – declared klasmata and they could be reallocated by the state, through sale, renting-out or gift. The productive value of these lands was reviewed from time to time, keeping the central administration abreast of changes – and potential gains for its coffers: klasma-land could be sold by the state to new, tax-paying proprietors.50 The texts relating to taxation offer the viewpoint of officialdom, but the dynamics of the middle Byzantine economy and society glimmer through their assertions and prescriptions. The quality of justice and the workings of the law in Byzantium are no less murky, but modern studies shed some light.51 Here, too, affairs in the capital are far better illuminated than elsewhere, and while the Basilika project of revising Justinian’s corpus of laws begun inBasil I’s reign laid down markers for the entire empire, some novellae issued by Leo VI were primarily concerned with Constantinople, as was the Book of the eparch (see below, pp. 301–2, 497–8). That written rulings were being issued by senior officials according to principles of Romano-Byzantine law in distant borderlands is indicated from southern Italian materials, and Athonite beneficiaries of tax exemptions and other imperial privileges were, in the eleventh century, taking care to have them confirmed by successive new regimes.52 How disputes were settled among peasants at grass-roots, and the redress available to them in the event of unlawful actions by the well-connected ‘powerful’, are harder to track down. This bears on the general question of the mesh of imperial administration at grass-roots.53 There is reason to think that in some borderlands and newly acquired regions in the tenth and eleventh centuries power structures were left largely intact, with local elites or administrators raising exactions and resolving disputes with few departures frompast practice.54 Adegree of devolution was customary in the Greek-speaking zones of the empire, too, and diverse rivalries were played out among members of local elites. The already well-connected could pull strings at provincial level or in the imperial court in Constantinople; the newly well-to-do could purchase them, with an eye to further enhancing their local position. Or the rights and possessions of lesser folk could be overridden roughshod, without judges or other officials lifting a finger.55 Loose-meshed as local self-governance may have been, courts of justice and other embodiments of imperial solicitousness were not invariably beyond the reach of provincial smallholders with a grievance or under unlawful pressure. The fertile lands of the western AsiaMinor theme of the Thrakesioi long remained largely the preserve of smaller proprietors, and the prosperous region of Thebes, while partly in the hands of substantial landowners, still accommodated proprietors of more modest means in the eleventh century (see below, p. 489). We lack direct evidence that this was due to legal process and regard for the spirit of the laws. But where archival evidence survives, in the form of the deeds involvingMount Athos’ monasteries, there are indications that communities of peasants did not always complain in vain.56 The Athonite monks became major landowners in eastern Macedonia from the tenth century onwards, enjoying direct access to imperial circles. Yet the tax exemptions and other privileges for their properties which emperors issued did not spare them judicial investigations and hearings, conducted by local judges or at Constantinople. Findings did not always favour the well-connected.57 Comparable patterns may emerge from further investigation of the eleventh-century Peira. Peasants and other unprivileged persons are depicted as vulnerable to encroachments and unlawful seizure of their lands, animals or chattels from the ‘powerful’. But the judge Eustathios Rhomaios’ rulings document how he sought to adjudicate disputes over crops and boundaries between what were sometimes quite small-scale proprietors, applying principles of Romano-Byzantine law to current circumstances. The well-connected or well-to-do had the advantage, but the courts could redress the balance.58 The Peira’s rulings were expected by its compiler to apply throughout the empire and the text seems to have been much consulted. This may corroborate the impression that reports of the demise of peasant-proprietors are much exaggerated; novellae declaring the worth of a prosperous peasantry to fisc and army were not necessarily dead letters.59 These issues are material not just to legal or economic history, but also to the empire’s capacity to continue raising taxes on lands and possessions through thick and thin. The unchronicled majority of the population, peasant-proprietors raising livestock and growing wheat and other crops, were the source – by way of land taxes – of the greater part of the state’s regular incomes. Equally, chronicles and saints’ Lives depict fertile regions like, for example, AsiaMinor’s Aegean coastal areas as vulnerable to external raiders in the earlier tenth century, while Thessaly’s plains and other ‘hotspots’ underwent Hungarian and Bulgarian incursions through the later years of that century. And yet, as Rosemary Morris observes, ‘Byzantine bureaucrats in Constantinople and their provincial representatives soldiered on’,60 tax assessments were negotiated, and revenue streams trickled in. The unarticulated nexuses of local pride, peer-group pressure and religious belief accompanying this anomaly underpinned the empire and those who – voluntarily, habitually or perforce – maintained them made up Byzantium’s ‘silent majority’. They are not treated in detail here, but their existence underlies the chapters that follow.