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History of the Byzantine empire
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The internal policy of Justinian.
The Nika revolt. — At the time of Justinian’s accession to the throne the internal life of the Empire was in a state of disorder and disturbance. Poverty was widespread, especially in the provinces; taxes were not paid regularly. The factions of the circus, the large landowners, the relatives of Anastasius, robbed of their right to the throne, and finally, the dissenting religious groups increased the internal troubles and created an alarming situation.
When he mounted the throne, Justinian understood clearly that the internal life of the Empire was greatly in need of wide reforms, and he attacked this problem courageously. The main sources of information on this phase of Justinian’s activity are his Novels, the treatise of John the Lydian, On the Administration (Magistrates) of the Roman State, and The Secret History of his contemporary, Procopius. In recent times much valuable material has been found also in the papyri.
At the very beginning of his reign Justinian witnessed a frightful rebellion in the capital which nearly deprived him of the throne. The central quarter in Constantinople was the circus or the Hippodrome, the favorite gathering place of the inhabitants of the capital, so fond of chariot races. A new emperor, after his coronation, usually appeared at this Hippodrome in the imperial box, the Kathisma, to receive the first greetings of the mob. The charioteers wore robes of four colors: green, blue, white, and red. The chariot races had remained the favorite spectacle at the circus since the time when the early Christian church had prohibited gladiatorial combats. Well-organized factions were formed around the charioteers of each color. These groups had their own treasury for financing the charioteers, their horses and chariots, and always competed and struggled with the parties of other colors. They soon became known under the names of Green, Blue, White, and Red. The circus and the races, as well as the circus factions, came to the Byzantine Empire from the Roman Empire, and later literary tradition attributes their origin to the mythical times of Romulus and Remus. The original meaning of the names of the four parties is not very clear. The sources of the sixth century, Justinian’s period, claim that these names corresponded to the four elements: the earth (green), water (blue), air (white), and fire (red). The circus festivities were distinguished by extreme splendor and the number of spectators sometimes reached 50,000.
The circus factions, designated in the Byzantine period as demes, gradually changed into political parties expressing various political, social, or religious tendencies. The voice of the mob in the circus became a sort of public opinion and voice of the nation. “In the absence of the printing press,” said Th. I. Uspensky, “the Hippodrome became the only place for a free expression of public opinion, which at times imposed its will upon the government.” The emperor himself was sometimes obliged to appear in the circus to offer the people explanation of his actions.
In the sixth century the most influential factions were the Blues (Venetoi), who stood for orthodoxy, hence also called Chalcedonians, adherents of the Council of Chalcedon; and the Greens (Prasinoi), who stood for Monophysitism. In the time of Anastasius a rebellion had arisen against the Greens, whom the Monophysite emperor favored. After terrible raids and destruction the orthodox party proclaimed a new emperor and rushed to the Hippodrome, where the frightened Anastasius appeared without his diadem and ordered the heralds to announce to the people that he was ready to renounce his title. The mob, mollified at seeing the emperor in such a pitiful state, calmed down and the revolt subsided. But the episode illustrates the influence exerted by the Hippodrome and the mob of the capital upon the government and even the emperor himself. With the accession of Justin and Justinian orthodoxy prevailed, and the Blues triumphed. Theodora, however, favored the Greens, so that even on the imperial throne itself there was division.
It is almost certain that the demes represented not only political and religious tendencies, but also different class interests. The Blues may be regarded as the party of the upper classes, the Greens of the lower. If this is true, the Byzantine factions acquire a new and very important significance as a social element.
An interesting recurrence of pattern is to be found in the fact that early in the sixth century in Rome under Theodoric the Great two rival parties, the Greens and the Blues, continued to fight, the Blues representing the upper classes and the Greens the lower.
An important new approach to this question has recently been emphasized and discussed. A Russian scholar, the late A. Dyakonov, pointed out “the error in method” of Rambaud, Manojlović, and others who fail to differentiate between the demes and the factions, which of course are not identical at all and must be dealt with separately. The object of Dyakonov’s study was not to solve the problem, but to raise it again, so that this new approach may be considered in future more highly specialized works.
The causes of the formidable rebellion of 532 in the capital were numerous and diverse. The opposition directed against Justinian was threefold: dynastic, public, and religious. The surviving nephews of Anastasius felt that they had been circumvented by Justin’s, and later Justinian’s, accession to the throne, and, supported by the Monophysitical-minded party of the Greens, they aimed to depose Justinian. The public opposition arose from general bitterness against the higher officials, especially against the famous jurist, Tribonian, and the praetorian prefect, John of Cappadocia, who aroused great dissatisfaction among the people by their violation of laws and their shameful extortions and cruelty. Finally, the religious opposition was that of the Monophysites, who had suffered great restrictions during the early years of Justinian’s reign. All these causes together brought about a revolt of the people in the capital and it is interesting to note that the Blues and the Greens, abandoning for a time their religious discrepancies, made common cause against the hated government. The Emperor negotiated with the people through the herald in the Hippodrome, but no settlement was reached. The revolt spread rapidly through the city, and the finest buildings and monuments of art were subjected to destruction and fire. Fire was also set to the basilica of St. Sophia, the site of which was later chosen for the famous cathedral of Sr. Sophia. The rallying cry of the rioters, Nika, meaning “victory” or “vanquish,” has given this uprising the name of the Nika revolt. Justinian’s promise to dismiss Tribonian and John of Cappadocia from their posts and his personal appeal to the mob at the Hippodrome were of no effect. A nephew of Anastasius was proclaimed emperor. Sheltered in the palace, Justinian and his councilors were already contemplating flight when Theodora rose to the occasion. Her exact words appear in The Secret History of Procopius: “It is impossible for a man, when he has come into the world, not to die; but for one who has reigned, it is intolerable to be an exile … If you wish, O Emperor, to save yourself, there is no difficulty: we have ample funds; yonder is the sea, and there are the ships. Yet reflect whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you will not prefer death to safety. I agree with an old saying that the purple is a fair winding sheet.” The Emperor rallied and entrusted to Belisarius the task of crushing the revolt, which had already lasted for six days. The general drove the rioters into the Hippodrome, enclosed them there, and killed from thirty to forty thousand. The revolt was quelled, the nephews of Anastasius were executed, and Justinian once more sat firmly on the throne.
Taxation and financial problems. — One of the distinguishing features of Justinian’s internal policy was his obstinate, still not fully explained, struggle with the large landowners. This strife is discussed in the Novels and the papyri, as well as in The Secret History of Procopius, who, in spite of defending the views of the nobility and in spite of crowding into this libel a number of absurd accusations against Justinian, in his eyes an upstart on the imperial throne, still paints an extremely interesting picture of the social struggle in the sixth century. The government felt that its most dangerous rivals and enemies were the large landowners, who conducted the affairs of their large estates with complete disregard for the central power. One of Justinian’s Novels, blaming the desperate condition of state and private landownership in the provinces upon the unrestrained conduct of local magnates, directed to the Cappadocian proconsul the following significant lines: “News has come to us about such exceedingly great abuses in the provinces that their correction can hardly be accomplished by one person of high authority. And we are even ashamed to tell with how much impropriety the managers of landlords’ estates promenade about, surrounded by body-guards, how they are followed by large mobs of people, and how shamelessly they rob everything… State property has almost entirely gone over into private ownership, for it was robbed and plundered, including all the herds of horses, and not a single man spoke up against it, for all the mouths were stopped with gold,” It appears that the Cappadocian magnates had full authority in their provinces and that they even maintained troops of their own, armed men and bodyguards, and seized private as well as state lands. It is interesting to note also that this Novel was issued four years after the Nika revolt. Similar information about Egypt in the time of Justinian is found in the papyri. A member of a famous Egyptian landowning family, the Apions, possessed in the sixth century vast landed property in various parts of Egypt. Entire villages were part of his possessions. His household was almost regal. He had his secretaries and stewards, his hosts of workmen, his own assessors and tax collectors, his treasurer, his police, even his own postal service. Such magnates had their own prisons and maintained their own troops. Large estates were concentrated also in the hands of the churches and monasteries.
Against these large landowners Justinian waged a merciless struggle. By intervention in problems of heredity, forced and sometimes false donations to the Emperor, confiscation on the basis of false evidence, or the instigation of religious trials tending to deprive the church of its landed property, Justinian consciously and persistently aimed at the destruction of large land-ownership. Particularly numerous confiscations were made after the revolutionary attempt of the year 532. Justinian did not succeed, however, in completely crushing large landownership, and it remained one of the unfailing features of the life of the Empire in later periods.
Justinian saw and understood the defects of the administration expressed in the venality, theft, and extortions which caused so much poverty and ruin, and which inevitably aroused internal troubles. He realized that such a state of things within the Empire had evil effects upon social security, city finance, and agricultural conditions, and that financial disorder introduced general confusion into the life of the Empire. He was truly anxious to remedy the existing situation. He conceived it to be the emperor’s duty to introduce new and great reforms, which he viewed as an obligation of imperial service and an act of gratitude to God, who bestowed upon the emperor all his favors. But as a convinced representative of absolute imperial power, Justinian considered a centralized administration with an improved and completely obedient staff of bureaucrats the only means of ameliorating conditions in the Empire.
His attention turned first of all to the financial situation in the Empire, which very justly inspired extremely serious fears. The military undertakings demanded enormous means, yet taxes were coming into the treasury with constantly increasing difficulties. This fact alarmed the Emperor, and in one of his Novels he wrote that in view of the large war expenses his subjects “must pay the government taxes willingly and in full.” Thus, on the one hand, he was the champion of the inviolability of the rights of the treasury, while on the other hand he proclaimed himself me defender of the taxpayer against the extortions of officials.
Two great Novels of the year 535 are exceedingly important for the study of Justinian’s reforms. They contain the principal foundations of the administrative reforms and the definitions of the new duties of government officials. One Novel orders the rulers “to treat with fatherly consideration all the loyal citizens, to protect the subjects against oppression, to refuse all bribes, to be just in sentences and administrative decisions, to persecute crime, protect the innocent, and punish the guilty according to law, and, on the whole, treat the subjects as a father would treat his own children.” But at the same time officials, “while keeping their hands clean [of bribes] everywhere,” must vigilantly look after the government income, “increasing the state treasury and exerting all possible effort for its benefit.” Taking into consideration the conquest of Africa and the Vandals, as well as the newly contemplated campaigns, says the Novel, “it is imperative that the government taxes be paid in full and willingly at definite dates. Thus, if you will meet the rulers reasonably and help them collect for us the taxes with ease and dispatch, then we will laud the officials for their zeal and you for your wisdom; and beautiful and peaceful harmony will reign everywhere between the rulers and the ruled.” The officials had to take a solemn oath to administer their duties honestly, but were at the same time made responsible for the complete payment of taxes in the provinces entrusted to them. The bishops were supposed to watch the behavior of the officials. Those who were found guilty of offense were subject to severe punishment, while those who carried out their duties honestly were promised promotion. Thus, the duty of government officials and government taxpayers is very simple in Justinian’s conception: the former must be honest men; the latter must pay their taxes willingly, fully, and regularly. In subsequent decrees the Emperor often cited these basic principles of his administrative reforms.
Not all the provinces of the Empire were governed alike. There were some, especially those along the borders, populated by restless natives, which demanded firmer administration than others. The reforms of Diocletian and Constantine increased excessively the provincial division and established a vast staff of bureaucracy, separating very distinctly civil and military authority. In Justinian’s time, in some instances, there was a break with this system and a return to the former pre-Diocletian system. Justinian introduced the practice of combining several small provinces, particularly in the East, into larger units; while in some provinces of Asia Minor, in view of frequent disagreements and conflicts between military and civil authorities, he ordered the combining of the two functions in the hands of one person, a governor, who was called praetor. The Emperor’s particular attention was directed to Egypt, mainly to Alexandria, which supplied Constantinople with corn. According to one Novel, the organization of the trade in Egypt and the delivery of corn to the capital was in great disorder. With the aim of re-establishing this highly important branch of government life, Justinian entrusted a civil official, the Augustalis (vir spectabilis Augustalis), with military authority over the two Egyptian provinces as well as over Alexandria, that densely populated and restless city. But these attempts to centralize territories and power in the provinces were not systematic during his reign.
While carrying out the idea of combining authority in some of the eastern provinces, Justinian retained the former separation of civil and military power in the West, especially in the recently conquered prefectures of North Africa and Italy.
The Emperor hoped that his numerous hasty decrees had corrected all internal shortcomings of the administration and “given the empire, through his brilliant undertakings, a new period of bloom.” He was mistaken. All his decrees couid not change mankind. It is very evident from later novels that rebellions, extortion, and ruin continued. It became necessary to republish constantly imperial decrees to remind the population of their existence, and in some provinces it was occasionally necessary to proclaim martial law.
At times, when the need for money was very urgent, Justinian used the very measures which were prohibited in his decrees. He sold offices at high prices and, regardless of his promise to the contrary, introduced new taxes, though his Novels show clearly that he was fully aware of the incapacity of the population to meet them. Under the pressure of financial difficulties he resorted to the corruption of money and issued debased coin; but the attitude of the populace became so threatening that he was forced almost immediately to revoke his measure. All possible means were used to fill the government treasury, the fisc, “which took the place of a stomach feeding all parts of the body,” as Corippus, a poet of the sixth century, puts it. The strict measures which accompanied the collection of taxes reached their extreme limits and had a disastrous effect upon the exhausted population. One contemporary says that “a foreign invasion seemed less formidable to the taxpayers than the arrival of the officials of the fisc.” Villages became impoverished and deserted because their inhabitants fled from government oppression. The productivity of the land was reduced to nothing. Revolts sprang up in various localities.
Realizing that the Empire was ruined and that economy was the only means of salvation, Justinian resorted to economy in the most dangerous directions. He reduced the army in numbers, and frequently kept back its pay. But the army, consisting mainly of mercenaries, often revolted against this practice and took vengeance on the unprotected people. The reduction of the army had other serious consequences: it left the borders unprotected and the barbarians crossed the Byzantine boundaries freely to carry on their devastating raids. The fortresses constructed by Justinian were not maintained. Unable to oppose the barbarians by force, Justinian had to resort to bribes, which involved very large new expenditures. According to the French scholar, Diehl, this formed a vicious circle. Lack of money forced a decrease of the army; the absence of soldiers necessitated more money to buy off enemies.
When to all this was added the frequent famines, epidemics, and earthquakes which ruined the population and increased the demands for government aid, the state of the Empire at the end of Justinian’s reign was truly lamentable. Among these calamities the devastating plague of 542 must be mentioned. It began near Pelusium, on the borders of Egypt. The suggested Ethiopian origin is vague; there was a sort of ancient and traditional suspicion that disease usually came out of Ethiopia. As Thucydides studied the plague at Athens at the beginning of the Peloponnesian war, so the historian Procopius, who witnessed its course at Constantinople, detailed the nature and effects of the bubonic disease. From Egypt the infection spread northward to Palestine and Syria; in the following year it reached Constantinople, then spread over Asia Minor and through Mesopotamia into Persia. Over the sea it invaded Italy and Sicily. In Constantinople the visitation lasted four months. The mortality was enormous; cities and villages were abandoned, agriculture stopped, and famine, panic, and the flight of large numbers of people away from the infected places threw the Empire into confusion. All court functions were discontinued. The Emperor himself was stricken by the plague, although the attack did not prove fatal. This was only one contributing factor to the gloomy picture reflected in the first Novel of Justin II, where he speaks of “the government treasury overburdened with many debts and reduced to extreme poverty,” and “of an army so desperately in need of all necessaries that the empire was easily and frequently attacked and raided by the barbarians.”
Justinian’s attempts in the field of administrative reform were a complete failure. Financially the Empire stood on the verge of ruin. There was a close connection between the internal and external policies of the Emperor; his sweeping military undertakings in the West, which demanded colossal expenditure, ruined the East and left his successors a troublesome heritage. As evinced by the early Novels, Justinian sincerely intended to bring order into the Empire and to raise the moral standards of government institutions, but these noble intentions gave way to the militarism dictated by his conception of his duties as heir of the Roman Caesars.