Login *:
Password *:


8-08-2015, 00:31

The realities of government

Despite ideologically driven claims of an all-powerful emperor, in reality government became increasingly weak, and its authority and prerogatives fragmented. In the fourteenth century, the business of government was primarily connected with the collection of taxes, the army and justice. State finances were being eroded by the high cost of pervasive warfare and dwindling resources. For one thing, imperial territories were much more restricted than during the twelfth century, and Asia Minor was lost during this period, so revenues from the land tax were commensurately reduced. War, invasions and inclement weather sometimes made it impossible to collect taxes. Secondly, this was a state and a society administered by privilege. The privileges granted to the aristocracy further eroded the tax base, while treaties with Italian city-states involved commercial privileges for their merchants that considerably reduced the benefits accruing to the state from the very active commercial exchanges in this part of the Mediterranean (see below, pp. 841–4). Some Byzantine merchants, namely those of Ioannina and Monemvasia, were successful in obtaining similar privileges, which worked to their benefit, but had a detrimental effect on the state treasury.8 The government made some effort to overcome these fiscal difficulties; after 1283, a series of new and extraordinary taxes was introduced, although the hard-pressed peasantry was not always able to pay them. Excise taxes on salt and iron were also levied, in the early fourteenth century, and were much resented. Heavy taxation resulted in annual revenues of 1,000,000 gold coins by 1321: a small sum (Michael VIII had seven times that much), and also a deceptive one, since a civil war, which started in 1321, made the collection of taxes problematic indeed. Other measures were also taken; in order to help pay the high fees of Catalan mercenaries, Andronikos II temporarily stopped the payment of palace officials and soldiers, while in 1343, during the first stages of the great civil war, the empress and regent Anne of Savoy mortgaged the crown jewels to Venice for a loan of 30,000 ducats. The jewels then became a pawn in diplomatic games, as the Venetians tried to negotiate their return against political concessions of some magnitude.9 The devaluation of the coinage was in part the result of the same fiscal problems, and also a short-term remedy for the emptiness of imperial coffers. The successive deterioration of the gold coin (from 17 carats in 1230–60 to less than 11 carats by the mid-fourteenth century) has been linked to specific fiscal crises, occasioned in turn by military problems.10 Sometimes, indeed, the emperors could not meet their military expenses in coin and had to use unminted gold.11 The issue of gold coins stopped for good at some point between 1354 and 1366, partly, perhaps, because of a general movement of gold toward western Europe, but undoubtedly also because the state could no longer sustain a gold coinage. Venetian ducats as well as silver coins appear frequently in Byzantine documents of the late Palaiologan period; it is likely that people preferred them to Byzantine issues. The Palaiologan armed forces, especially native troops, were quite small in number. In 1285 the navy was dismantled, since it was expensive and the death of Charles of Anjou seemed to reduce the threat from the sea. This was a disastrous measure, much deplored by perceptive contemporaries and by people writing in the middle of the fourteenth century.12 While small fleets were built again in the 1330s and 1340s, the fact remains that for all intents and purposes the Byzantines had abandoned the fleet, and with it the possibility of guaranteeing the security of the seas in the Aegean or even around Constantinople itself; as for the Black Sea, for centuries a closed preserve of the Byzantines, it was dominated by the Italians. Their fleets sailed freely in all these waters (see also below, p. 834). By 1348 the city of Constantinople itself was wide open to attack by the Genoese, and it took a special levy to create a fleet for its defence; not a very successful defence either. Piracy also went unchecked. The piratical expeditions of the Seljuq maritime emirates could not be countered by the Byzantines, nor could the detrimental effects on the islands of the Aegean.13 When, in the 1330s, the Byzantines discussed with western powers a response to these raids in the guise of a crusade, the Byzantines took a good deal of time to arm twenty ships which, however, never participated in the enterprise, for reasons unknown.14 As for the army, native forces were small, while recourse to other expedients was very expensive. The native forceswere in part composed of pronoiaholders. The pronoia is an institution which goes back to the eleventh century, and consists of the grant of land and its revenues in return for service, especially military service since the time of the Komnenoi. Michael VIII, in his efforts to gather support for himself, allowed some pronoia-lands to become hereditary, and also gave such lands to members of the senate. By the fourteenth century, one can find military pronoia-lands in the hands of two quite distinct groups: the aristocracy, who might have some of their holdings in pronoia-land, and soldiers of a lower social and economic level, who, at the lowest strata, might even hold these revenues collectively.15 The civil wars of the 1320s and the 1340s increased the number of pronoia-grants, as rival emperors competed for supporters; the emperors also increasingly gave these lands, or part of them, in hereditary possession, which undermined the military effectiveness of the restored empire. Other troops were paid in cash. These can no longer be considered as constituting a standing army, since they served occasionally, and on particular campaigns. There may have been an unsuccessful effort to create a standing army in 1321, to be composed of 1,000 horse in Bithynia and 2,000 inMacedonia and Thrace; the small numbers are noteworthy.16 For the rest, the soldiers paid in cash were mostly mercenaries.17 Occasionally, they were Greek-speakers, such as the Cretan mercenaries in Asia Minor in the late thirteenth century. Much more often they were foreign troops, sometimes already formed into units. The use of foreign mercenaries, known since the eleventh century, became more frequent in the Palaiologan period. Italians, Alans, Catalans and others served in the Byzantine army. The dangers inherent in using such foreign mercenary troops were realised in Byzantium no less than in fourteenth-century western Europe. What did not frequently occur was an effort on the part of leaders of mercenaries to take over the government, as was to happen in Italian cities. Only once did a comparable situation develop. To deal with the disastrous affairs of AsiaMinor, Andronikos II called in a group of Catalan mercenaries, under Roger de Flor, to fight against the Turks (see below, p. 835). Soon, the Catalans developed an interest in acquiring territory, and formed ties with the kings of Sicily and Aragon, and later with Charles de Valois, husband of Catherine of Courtenay, the titular Latin empress of Constantinople, and claimant to its throne. They posed a great threat to the Byzantine state, but eventually they moved on, conquered Thebes and Athens (in 1311), and set up a Catalan duchy, which lasted until 1388. When all else failed, and stakes were high, the emperors had recourse to a much more dangerous expedient: the use not of mercenaries, but of the troops of allied foreign rulers. The first half of the fourteenth century saw two civil wars, which involved a contest for power between two rival emperors: one from 1321 to 1328 and the other from 1341 to 1354. Both sides appealed to foreign troops: Serbs and Bulgarians on the first occasion, Serbs and Turks on the second. The results were catastrophic. The administration of justice had always been an imperial prerogative in Byzantium. Unlike medieval western Europe, where judicial authority had been fragmented and passed, variously, to the church, seigneurial lords or towns, in Byzantium until the Fourth Crusade, justice was in the hands of the state, and was administered in imperial courts. The emperor functioned not only as the legislator but also as the ultimate judicial authority, guaranteeing good justice and acting as a judge, both on appeal and sometimes in the first instance. True, Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) had given ecclesiastical courts the right to judge all matters involving marriage.18 True, also, the principles of imperial justice were eroded in the late twelfth century, because of privileges granted to western merchants. Still, the real changes came after the Fourth Crusade, in the despotate of Epiros, and in the Palaiologan period. The emperor retained his legislative role, although occasionally we find synodical or patriarchal decisions being issued as imperial legislation.19 Justice, however, although ostensibly in imperial hands, became considerably fragmented and decentralised in the course of the fourteenth century. The Italian city-states, primarily Venice and Genoa, sought and received extra-territorial privileges which gave them the right to be judged by their own courts, even in cases involving Byzantine subjects, if the defendants were Italian.20 In another development, patriarchal courts judged all manner of cases involving laymen, especially before 1330 and after 1394, when imperial tribunals malfunctioned; by the end of the century, it was quite common for the patriarchal tribunal to judge even cases involving commercial law. No wonder that, along with a manual of civil law compiled by a learned jurist in Thessaloniki in the 1340s (the Hexabiblos of Constantine Harmenopoulos), we also have a compendium of civil and canon law together (the Syntagma ofMathew Blastares, compiled in Thessaloniki in 1335). The role of clergymen in the judicial system is indicated also by their participation in the highest tribunal of the Palaiologan period, that of the ‘general judges of the Romans’. Established by Andronikos III in 1329, it was an imperial court, originally consisting of three laymen and a bishop, and was invested with its authority in a solemn ceremony in the Great Church of St Sophia. Characteristically, although originally the tribunal sat in Constantinople and its authority extended throughout the empire, soon there were ‘general judges of the Romans’ in the provinces; in Thessaloniki as early as the 1340s, perhaps in Lemnos in 1395, certainly in Serres during the Serbian occupation, in the Morea, as well as in the empire of Trebizond.21 Developments in finances, justice and the army show a dynamic between the state, in the traditional Byzantine sense of a central government, and regional forces or particular groups which were agents of decentralisation. The central government retained its formal right to levy taxes, appoint army commanders, reform justice and appoint judges. At the same time, taxes tended to disappear into the hands of regional governors, while army commanders often acted on their own, easily sliding into open rebellion; the pronoia-holders, although they held their privileges from the emperor, were not easy to control, and their very privileges resulted from and fostered a particularisation of finances and of military power. As for justice, this too was in some ways decentralised. If one compares the situation to western Europe, it is much closer to the eleventh or twelfth centuries, not to the fourteenth when states were in the process of recovering a control long lost over finances, the army and justice. In important ways, then, the government in the Byzantine empire was undergoing a transformation quite different from that of parts at least of western Europe. It would not necessarily have been negative, had not external circumstances intervened.