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8-08-2015, 00:00

Constantinople and the provinces

The Byzantine state was one of the most centralised in the medieval world, and never more so than in the period 1081–1180, when the loss of central and eastern Anatolia forced the empire’s military elite, as well as its bureaucratic elite, to identify with the capital as never before. Territorial contraction thus accentuated the already marked tendency of the Byzantine aristocracy to think fiscally rather than territorially, to invest in office-holding rather than land-holding. Indeed, it is possible to see a correlation between the centralised structure of the Komnenian empire and its territorial limits, which were essentially those of the area within which expeditionary forces mobilised from Constantinople could operate without allied help, and within which the emperor could safely absent himself from Constantinople. By these criteria, the Danube and the Adriatic were within the range of imperial government from Constantinople, but southern Italy, Ikonion and Egypt were not, and the empire was overextended in Dalmatia, Cilicia and Syria. Thus the empire consisted of those territories which a secure, mobile, military emperor could control from Constantinople. Those territories corresponded by and large to the limits of Greek linguistic culture and orthodox Christianity. The main exceptions were, first, in the Balkan interior, where Slavonic, Vlach and Albanian speakers predominated, along with a sizeable, non-integrated Armenian population, and, secondly, in the areas of southern Italy and AsiaMinor which had been lost to the empire in the late eleventh century, and in whichGreek-speaking orthodox Christians were numerous. Looked at another way Byzantium – or Romania as its inhabitants termed it – corresponded to the area needed to support a large standing army and navy, an expensive international diplomacy and an enormous capital city. There was an outer frontier zone, broad in the Balkans, thin in AsiaMinor, which was partly protective shield and partly forward base for imperial operations in Italy and Syria. In this zone, direct imperial administration was limited to a fewkey strongholds, and local resourceswere either unexploited (to starve invading forces), untaxed (to secure local loyalties) or used to pay for regional defence and diplomacy (notably the case in Cyprus). Surrounded by this zone, in an area consisting essentially of the Aegean and southern Black Sea hinterland, the core Komnenian empire existed largely to maintain the safety, the opulence and the population of Constantinople. The pull of Constantinople was due not only to its role as the administrative capital, but also to its status as the ‘reigning city’ of New Rome, an unrivalled showcase of holy relics, glittering treasures, ancient public monuments and magnificent buildings, a megalopolis with a population somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000 which appears to have been growing steadily throughout the eleventh and twelfth centuries, even as the empire contracted overall in territorial extent. By the late twelfth century, the relationship between the ‘reigning city’ and the provinces was seen, on both sides, as that of a metropolis to its satellite tributaries, which were inhabited by culturally inferior second-class citizens. Ownership of the empire’s prime agricultural land was overwhelmingly concentrated in Constantinople (see above, p. 490).27 In the ‘outer territories’, as opposed to Constantinople, heretics abounded, ignorance of the law was standard, uncanonical, semi-pagan religious customs were practised, people spoke bad Greek and there was no protection against corrupt and brutal officials. Yet this unequal relationship obviously depended on the productivity of the suppliers, on the ability of provincial communities to provide the metropolis not only with money, foodstuffs, manpower and raw materials, but also, increasingly, with manufactured goods, such as silks from Thebes and knives from Thessaloniki. It is abundantly clear that Constantinople was not the only place where urban society was expanding.28 It is also clear, although documentation is patchy, that revenue could not have been raised or military defence organised in the localities without the cooperation and participation of the local aristocracy, the archontes. In frontier cities, such as Dyrrachium, Philadelphia or Trebizond, their loyalty was crucial in keeping invaders out. Equally, in those parts of AsiaMinor which had come under Turkish rule, the attitude of the local notables was crucial in the empire’s failure to recover lost territory. The administration of the pronoia system, the conditional allocation of state lands and revenues as livings to mounted soldiers, which was greatly extended by Manuel I, must have created opportunities for patronage at the local level.29 Thus, as Constantinople became more and more selfimportant, self-centred and exclusive of the ‘outer territories’, it became increasingly noticeable that Constantinople needed the ‘outer territories’ more than the latter needed Constantinople. The perception may have existed before 1180, but it found expression in the following years – for the first time in the middle ages – as central government proved less and less capable of protecting the provinces from raiders and invaders. The period 1180–1204 also saw the resurgence of the Constantinopolitan populace as a political factor for the first time since 1082: in changes of regime, in antigovernment and anti-Latin riots and in opposition to imperial demands for money to buy off Henry VI and the Fourth Crusade. UnderManuel I Komnenos’ successors, the empire’s provinces were lost to imperial control or became centres of opposition to the government in Constantinople. The process began, predictably, in areas of the frontier zone where the empire’s hold had been short or shaky, and administration largely in the hands of local potentates. Soon afterManuel’s death, B´ela III of Hungary seized Byzantine Dalmatia and Sirmium, which he considered to be his own patrimony. Next to secede were the Serbs of Raˇska and the Armenians of Cilicia, whose princes – respectively, Stefan Nemanja (c. 1165/68–96) and Rupen III (1175–87) – had always been unwilling vassals of the emperor. In the process, Rupen took possession of the last Byzantine cities in Cilicia and captured their governor, Isaac Komnenos.30 Released upon payment of a ransom by Andronikos I, Isaac promptly spent the money – no doubt with the connivance of Rupen and Bohemond III of Antioch – on making himself lord of Cyprus in 1185, where he ruled independently until dispossessed by Richard I and the Third Crusade. At least initially, Isaac had the support of the local aristocracy. The usurpation of Andronikos also provoked rebellions in two major cities of north-western Asia Minor, Nicaea and Prousa, and dissatisfaction with his rule may have contributed to the ease with which the Sicilian army took Dyrrachium in 1185 and advanced to Thessaloniki unopposed. The most serious and damaging centrifugal movement, however, was provoked not by the ‘tyrant’ Andronikos, but by Isaac II Angelos, the emperor who delivered the empire from Andronikos’ tyranny. This was the Vlach revolt started by the brothers Peter and Asen and continued by their brother Kalojan. As it spread, the revolt came to resemble the other ethnic separatist movements, those of the Serbs and Armenians. Like them, it occurred in a mountainous frontier area, it was boosted by the Third Crusade and it resulted in the formation of a national kingdom, whose ruler received a crown from the pope. Yet there were differences: the revolt of Peter and Asen involved two peoples, the Vlachs and the Bulgarians, and the kingdom it created was a conscious resurrection of the first Bulgarian empire of the tenth century. Like its predecessor, it was not marginal to the Byzantine heartland, but encroached significantly on the agricultural hinterland of Constantinople and the northernAegean.Moreover, it originated in what had been, for almost a century, the most trouble-free sector of the frontier zone, where there were no local dynasties with a history of political insubordination, and contacts with the neighbouring nomads, theCumans, took the form of peaceful commerce in the cities of the lower Danube. The revolt resulted largely from the complacency that is evident, first, in Isaac II Angelos’ failure to prevent, punish or recompense the rapacity of his officials who seized Vlach livestock for his marriage feast; secondly, in his rude rejection of Peter and Asen when they requested a modest benefice; thirdly, in his failure to move quickly to deprive the rebels of their military advantages, their mountain strongholds and their Cuman allies.31 Peter and Asen were thus local chieftains politicised by the carelessness of central government. In this, they may have had something in common with Theodore Mangaphas, a Greek magnate in Philadelphia, who used his proximity to the Turkish frontier to declare independence from Isaac II. Although eventually subdued by Isaac, Mangaphas re-emerged at the time of the Fourth Crusade, as one of several ‘dynasts’ who took advantage of the changes of regime in Constantinople to seize power in their localities.32 By then, many other rebels had more or less successfully defied imperial authority from a variety of provincial power bases. It is difficult to generalise about the origins and aims of all these figures. Several were from the Komnenian nobility, and ultimately sought power at the centre.Others such as Ivanko andDobromir Chrysos were by-products of the Vlach–Bulgarian revolt.33 A certain John Spyridonakes, who followed their example, was a Cypriot immigrant who had worked in the treasury of the imperial household and then been posted as administrator of Smolena in the Rhodope mountains. Aldobrandinus, who ruled Antalya in 1204, may have been a Pisan pirate. The others must have originated among the provincial archontes, and notably among the local cadres of military recruitment and defence. They included the least ephemeral of the local lordships to emerge before the formation of the Byzantine successor states: that of Theodore Mangaphas in Philadelphia, the main command centre on the eastern frontier, and those of Leo Sgouros and Leo Chamaretos in the coastal towns of the eastern Peloponnese which contributed contingents to the imperial fleet.34 Whatever the specific origins and aims of these individuals, they all shared the conviction that more was to be gained from opposition to central government than from service, and that they could count on provincial support. The trend they represented received spectacular endorsement in 1203, when it was joined by the emperor Alexios III Angelos. Instead of persisting in the defence of Constantinople against the crusaders, he decided to abandon the City to Alexios IV.He established his court atMosynopolis in Thrace, where he drew on the resources of a rich hinterland extending as far as Thessaloniki.