Sunday, December 12, 2021

Five Fundamental Reasons Why the Roman Empire Fell

The Roman Empire Was Doomed

The Fall of Rome by Thomas Cole
"The Fall of Rome." Thomas Cole (February 1, 1801 – February 11, 1848).

Why did the Roman Empire fall? 

The Roman Empire lasted for about 1500 years and, if you count the beginning of the Roman culture from Rome's founding, about 2000 years. There is a wealth of information, first-hand accounts, and histories of the Empire. However, despite this, the causes for the Roman Empire's ultimate collapse remain controversial.

I believe there are five obvious reasons why the Roman Empire could not last. While I could write for days on this topic, I am going to spare you and only write briefly on each contributing factor.

This article will take an unusual approach compared to almost every other historian that approaches the decline and fall of the Roman Empire. Instead of focusing just on the classical Empire, the one with Trajan and Nero and Marcus Aurelius and so on, here we also are going to look at similarities with the Byzantine Empire that lasted for another thousand years. The Eastern Roman Empire had the same flaws and vulnerabilities as the classical empire and perished for eerily similar reasons.

While the Roman system changed substantially between the time of the founding of the Republic and then on to Augustus and the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the same core factors contributed to its ultimate failure regardless of which epoch you choose to focus on. The system did evolve, but the underlying authoritarian ethos remained intact all the way through, like a historic house that just gets a new coat of paint or aluminum siding. 

I am going to list my five reasons for the decline and fall of the Roman Empire in no particular order because they all intertwined and contributed to each other. There are just capsule summaries with minimal examples because I am not trying to prove anything here. Nobody is ever going to prove anything regarding the decline of the Roman system, there are just too many factors, theories, and opinions. Instead, I am trying to make this as readable and enjoyable as I can. 

I could give you ten more different examples for each point, though.

Edward Gibbon (The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,) spent his life on this topic and today his main theory - that the Roman civilization fell due to growing decadence - is largely ignored or derided. However, Gibbon's theory has a germ of truth, though not in the moralistic way he apparently meant. I will get to that below. But the main point is that simply spending time and writing endlessly on this is not the answer. You can have ten citations on every page like Gibbon and still not solve this. The causes are too complex and conclusions shift according to the writer's own judgments (Gibbon had very definite ideas about religion and morality and a parochial attitude based on his allegiance to the British Empire). There is no "answer," there are only lessons to answer questions that you, the reader, have facing today's world.

There should be just enough in this article, though, to make you think about this topic from a new perspective and help you to draw your own conclusions. Life is for the living, the future is what matters.

Bust believed to be of Hannibal Barca
Hannibal Barca of Carthage. Rome found it easier to defeat Carthage than endless bands of migrants coming across its borders at random (marble bust found at the ancient city-state of Capua in Italy).

The Types of Rome's Enemies Changed To The Empire's Disadvantage

When you look at the history of Rome's conquest of the Mediterranean basin and then later areas somewhat removed from it, certain things stand out. Competing civilizations at that time were based on the same basic model of a central government, associated cities, heavy taxation to fund large armies or armies of virtual slaves, and integrated economic systems. The "barbarian nations" of 200 B.C. were vastly different than those of 700 A.D.

Rome's major early adversaries all featured this pattern. Rome's first large-scale opponent for control of the Mediterranean was Carthage. Yes, it was a hard-fought series of wars, but once Hannibal Barca was defeated for the final time at the Battle of Zama, resistance was over. Roman soldiers destroyed the capital city and salted its fields and that was that. Roman control of the Mediterranean was never again seriously challenged. The same pattern asserted itself in Egypt, Greece, and Gaul. Fight the enemy's main armies, defeat them, and after that live happily ever after.

The same pattern held true for the Byzantines. Heraclius could defeat the Sassanids, Basil II the Bulgars, and these ended specific threats. However, ultimately the Byzantines ran into essentially nationless crusading barons from the West and hordes of loosely amalgamated Arab tribes from the East that swarmed the frontier. No matter how many of these attackers the Byzantines defeated, they were constantly replaced by others of a similar mindset. Capture one city and another enemy sprang up somewhere else. There was no Carthage to conquer and end matters once and for all.

Society in the Roman Empire and its remnants also was changing. Rome was an empire of cities. Over time, for various reasons, cities went into decline. For a society that revolved around cities connected by limitless roads, this was cataclysmic. Rome's enemies were far ahead in this trend, largely eschewing cities that Rome could conquer and thereby end their threats. If the Roman legions subdued one barbarian village, there were a hundred others of roughly equal size left.

The nature of Rome's enemies thus changed as time went by. They increased in number and changed in form. Adversaries stopped being far-flung empires where you could capture the capital, defeat the king, and end all resistance or impose an enforceable peace and demand tribute. Formal armies turned into roving bands of nomads and wanderers, forest people who had no obvious capital and really not even a form of government aside from tribal leaders. A band of them would cross a river here, another band there, and do whatever damage they could. The Roman defenses could not police every square inch of the frontier and thus breakthroughs became endemic. The invaders of 450 A.D. more resembled the partisan of 1943 than the Carthaginian armies of elephants of 200 B.C.

The result was endless warfare. Frontier battles never ended and drained wealth and manpower. Search and destroy missions into Germania or the Balkans never erased threats, only temporarily minimized them. The Roman frontier became like a basket full of water that had numerous leaks. No matter how many holes they plugged up, there were others elsewhere growing larger.

Alexius I
Painting of Alexius I, from a Greek manuscript in the Vatican library. Alexius instigated the First Crusade, which arguably helped Byzantium. However, he also began the economic alliance with Venice in 1082 that led to dire economic consequences for the Empire.

The Roman Economy Collapsed

Economic collapse of the Roman economy is a favorite of historians because it has a lot of merit and some proof based on historical records. The most obvious data historians point to is inflation, which took off during the Third Century. However, in my view, Roman inflation was the result of other underlying factors. Inflation was a symptom, not a cause.

When you write "economic collapse" it comes across as a sudden thing, like a house that suddenly explodes. Rome's economic collapse in both the Eastern and Western Empires was a slow, grinding, gradual process that lasted for centuries in each case. There were insidious factors that were never corrected because they were not recognized as problems - in fact, in some cases (like Byzantium's treaties with Venice and Genoa), they were actually seen as positives (as the situation deteriorated, any contact with the powerful western nations as prized even though they were strangling the Empire by cutting off the Empire's revenue and vigor). The Roman Empire's economic collapse was not like a balloon being punctured with a pin. Instead,  it was more like a slow leak where the balloon is tied together that is invisible but inexorable.

The early (and most successful) Roman economy was built on slavery. This is not something anyone wants to hear today, because slavery is bad and nobody wants to say anything positive about it in any way, shape, or form. But slavery was the boon and then curse of the Roman economy.

Slavery is an inefficient economic system. Much better is freedom and positive incentive, which brings innovation, entrepreneurship, and satisfaction. However, as an expansionary power, Rome secured a steady supply of slaves by defeating rivals and this sustained its early growth. 

Why Rome was able to expand in its early days is a completely separate topic, but let me address it briefly. Essentially, Rome was in a favorable location where it could defeat smaller adversaries, and the adversaries only gradually became bigger over time. As each small enemy was defeated, it provided a supply of slaves who could build weapons and fortifications and ships that would enable Rome to defeat the next, slightly larger, adversary. This has some similarities to the Third Reich's conquest of smaller nations in 1939-1941 that gave it economic power and enabled it to finally take on the big dogs of the USSR and the USA.

There is a fundamental problem with this growth model. What happens when you run out of new slaves from conquests? Rome found out the answer to this the hard way when it stopped expanding and stopped getting new supplies of slaves. The answer is economic stagnation. In Rome's case, the decline did not set in immediately after Emperor Trajan took the empire to its greatest extent ca. 117 A.D. The economy was good enough to keep things going for a long time after that. However, by the Third Century a hundred years later, the economic stagnation due to the lack of new conquests to feed the slavery machine was in full swing. That also happens to be when Roman inflation skyrocketed.

The cause of Byzantium's economic decline is slightly different but arose from the same fundamental problems of relying on others to do the dirty work. While never a particularly expansionary power, Byzantium relied heavily on trade and certain key industries (such as agriculture in Egypt, silkworms, agriculture, and customs dues from trade) for its income.

Well, Egypt was lost early on during the Arab invasions and silkworms alone could not take up the slack. Byzantium was never a big exporter of agriculture, most of its production being needed for internal needs and the endless civil wars continually laying waste to valuable cropland. That leaves customs dues, which actually provided a pretty good revenue stream. However, it, too, eventually dried up, and here is where we see the beginning of the true decline of the Byzantine state.

We even have a specific villain: Venice, and to a much lesser extent Genoa. The first economic treaty between Constantinople and Venice was made in 1082 by Emperor Alexius I Komnenos. He had his reasons, and they were good ones. Alexius covered current needs (a feared invasion from the West) by enlisting a powerful Western ally. This economic alliance worked out fairly well, at least at first. Venice became virtually an economic partner to Byzantium, supplying ships in exchange for reduced customs dues and other special privileges (eventually, Venetians weren't even subject to Byzantine law any longer).

Alexius had no way of knowing these agreements would become the cancer eating away at the soul of his kingdom. The whole mindset of the Byzantines, however, was that what was established in the past was the best way. So, as time went on, the increasingly onerous treaties with Venice were seen almost as obligatory and part of the national identity, like calling themselves Romans.

We all know how that turned out. The Venetians got a taste of Byzantine wealth derived from trade revenues and decided they'd like to have all that income for themselves. This led to the Fourth Crusade, in which crass Venetian leaders cleverly manipulated a Crusade begun with high-minded initial motives into a vulgar and unprovoked invasion of Byzantium.

Byzantium ultimately recovered to one extent or another from the Fourth Crusade, but its leaders did not learn their lessons. Incredible as it may seem, the Byzantine Emperors quickly returned to the practice of disadvantageous trade treaties with Venice, the very invader that had almost destroyed the Empire in 1204. These treaties sapped the Empire of absolutely critical revenue and led to the collapse of the Byzantine navy and merchant fleet. Why build ships when the Venetians were taking care of that now? This accelerated the economic stagnation mentioned above in multiple ways. Much as the car industry generated huge swathes of employment in the US economy of the 1950s, the shipping industry had powered a large part of the Byzantine economy. Now, it was basically gone.

By the time of Andronicus II ca. 1300, the process of essentially paying Venice to take care of all shipping needs was irreversible. It led to the increasing impoverishment of the Empire. By the mid-1300s, the Imperial Court was reduced to eating off of wooden plates. An empress hocked the crown jewels to - you guessed it - Venice. The Venetians almost defeated the Empire in 1204, but they finally did destroy it through one-sided trade agreements.

Economic collapse is the saddest way for an empire to disintegrate, but it is a common feature of history. Just look at Spain in the 1700s or the Ottoman Empire in the 1800s. While the specific causes were unique to the classical Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire, the process of destruction from within was the same.

Migratory patterns during the late Western Roman Empire
Migrations from the East were continuous and unstoppable, both during the classical Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire (Modified from World History: Ancient Civilizations, 2006, pp. 503).

Migratory Patterns Were Unstoppable

All students of Rome are familiar with the frontier fortresses along major rivers (Rhine and Danube primarily) and in Anatolia that ultimately failed. Their failure, however, was only symptomatic of the larger cause: unstoppable migratory patterns out of Asia. This vulnerability was common to both the classical Empire and the Byzantine Empire. Really, the only difference was who was invading.

These migrations are known quaintly as the "barbarian invasions." It is a term favored by the Romans themselves. It makes the process sound as though a bunch of cavemen just suddenly decided to head west for no particular reason aside from plunder and conquest. The more modern term is "the migration period," which is a more accurate description.

The most famous of these migratory invasions in the classical period was by Attila the Hun, who ultimately was at the Battle of the Catalaunian Plans but caused immense damage. The later Ottoman invasion that led to the defining endpoint to the process in 1453 also is well known. Attila and the Ottomans were simply part of a larger movement from east to west that began roughly in 300 A.D. and pretty much ended, strangely enough, around the time of the fall of Constantinople in 1453 (the Ottomans kept trying to expand west for another 200 years, but failed). The Roman Empire - both classical and medieval - was supremely unlucky to face this endless threat throughout its existence.

Was this migration just a bunch of predatory tribes bent on looting Roman civilization? Absolutely not. The process was too sustained and too painful for it to have been generated solely by predatory instincts for lands and booty (though, at times, that surely was a motivation for certain invaders). It was a movement of people for far larger reasons than mere avarice.
Almost everything about these migratory patterns is debatable aside from their effect, but that is clear-cut. They overwhelmed the Roman and Byzantine defenses like a flood breaking through a levee. Whether the migration was due to disease or oppression in the east or whether the decline of the Roman Empire was an independent factor that actually spurred on the migration is ripe for discussion.

My own view is that a changing climate was a key culprit in these migratory waves. The benign Mediterranean climate of the Republic and early Empire gradually got colder and less moist. The climatic changes culminated in the "Late Antique Little Ice Age," spurred on by various volcanic eruptions. This climate change brought about plagues (the Antonine Plague marked the high point and beginning of the decline of Roman civilization, the Plague of Cyprian in the Third Century accelerated the decline, and the Bubonic Plague in the Sixth Century eliminated the final attempt by Justinian to put the broken Empire back together again. In Byzantium, the Black Death of the 14th Century (said to have arrived in Constantinople on a ship of dying men) was really the final nail in the coffin of the struggling Byzantine Empire.

If you believe that climate change is too abstract and gradual to account for the collapse of a mighty civilization, a similar process appears to have destroyed the Sumerian civilization. Their crops failed, wheat fields had to be replaced with less useful barley, and eventually, their cities became uninhabitable. Cities once on the coast and with farmland all around are now in the middle of barren deserts. This made the Sumerians vulnerable to attacks from the "barbarian" hill people to the north. The sequence was slightly different ("history does not repeat, it rhymes") but the outcome was an even more total collapse. The Romans and Byzantines actually held on fairly well in comparison.

The thing about the climate is that it is always changing. Always has and always will. Humans either adapt or their societies vanish.

While Rome and Byzantium rebounded from these successive disasters, they had a cumulatively destructive effect. The rebounds were successively weaker and diminished by rampant unhappiness that led to coup attempts and disunity. The change was most pronounced and had the most effect on Roman civilization in the northern areas of the Empire such as Gaul and Latin Britannia. For instance, Roman crops did worse as time went on and Roman villas became less comfortable. Note that more and more revolts began in those areas as time went on (most successfully with Constantine the Great). Climate change clearly spurred on the unstoppable migratory patterns from the coldness of the steppes that had the most noticeable and dynamic impact on Roman social infrastructure. 

The changing climate had a variety of negative effects and seems the most obvious watershed between classical civilization and the Middle Ages. However, I am not going to try and solve that ancient historical question here. The migrations happened, and they led to Rome's and Constantinople's downfall. The factors underlying the migrations are irrelevant to our analysis here.

The bottom line is that both the Roman and Byzantine empires found themselves confronted with an irresistible force, and they turned out not to be immovable objects. You can try to stand on the beach and sweep back the tide with a broom, but you are doomed to failure.

Andronicus III and Anna of Savoy
Andronicus III and his wife, Anna of Savoy. Andronicus III engaged in civil wars during the 14th Century, and Anna pawned the Byzantine crown jewels to Venice in 1343 to finance her own civil war (Wurttemberg State Library).

Rome Never Solved Its Succession Problem, Leading to Coups and Endless Civil Wars

When you read through Gibbon's history of Rome and consult other sources, you quickly realize that there were an awful lot of civil wars in Roman history. One after another, somewhere there was always a general or a wealthy landowner who figured he (or sometimes she) could run things better than the existing government or was entitled to succeed a deceased emperor. There were various causes for these wars, but one enduring problem led to the worst of them: royal succession.

Civil wars and coups began early in Rome's history and never stopped. Caesar and Pompey, Brutus and Marc Antony, Praetorians deciding the next emperor supposedly by rolling dice, one Byzantine general killing another in his bed - there was just one conflict after another related to succession.

The Romans tried various formulations to solve this. The most successful was the system of "adoption" during the Second Century. In this formulation, one emperor "adopted" someone worthwhile. Everyone who mattered accepted the adoptee as the lawful successor and things proceeded smoothly thereafter. This led to a century of peace, the high tide of Roman culture.

This system broke down, however, as generals remembered they could use their military forces to make themselves emperor rather than just accepting the current emperor's choice. This factor is interwined with the migratory patterns discussed above and the changing nature of Rome's enemies because larger and larger garrisons had to be maintained far from the central government. This gave remote generals a ready power base, such as Constantine the Great in the British Isles. Civil wars contributed greatly to the crisis of the Third Century. The same type of thinking led directly to the collapse of the Western Empire in the Fifth Century with the assassination in 461 of the last "good" emperor, Majorian, in a classic power grab. 

The Byzantines ultimately settled on hereditary succession, and to some extent, this worked out better than the chaotic classical solution. The downside was that this resulted in a lot of very incompetent emperors (such as Andronicus II), as opposed to in Rome where the winners were usually competent generals. It's difficult to judge which system was more devastating to the sustainability of the empire, but at least incompetent Byzantine emperors didn't lay waste to valuable economic regions.

However, civil wars continued long past the time when the empire could survive them. These included the battles waged by Andronicus III in the 1300s as he tired of waiting for his ineffective father to die. These civil wars sapped the Empire of much-needed strength at critical points when it needed to focus on rebuilding rather than infighting. The coup against Majorian, for instance, basically sealed the Western Empire's fate. One can easily theorize a vastly different outcome of the Empire without the constant self-destruction caused by succession issues.

Greek fire during the first Arab invasion 7th Century
Byzantines use Greek Fire during the first Arab siege of Constantinople(674-678AD). For some reason, the Byzantines lost knowledge of or simply stopped using this effective weapon, a sign of a retrograde civilization.

Romans Stopped Innovating

Of all the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire, failure to continue innovating is the least obvious but most pernicious. Very few historians put this on their lists, but it absolutely was a top reason for the decline and fall of Roman civilization. Put simply, the Roman Empire stopped moving forward and became a retrograde civilization.

Nobody can deny Roman engineering advances. They built aqueducts, laid down permanent roads throughout Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East, invented concrete, and perfected architectural techniques that culminated in the magnificent Haghia Sophia. Their achievements were stunning and can still be seen all across the Roman sphere of influence. But just because progress is made at one point during a civilization does not mean that it continues. Curiously, Roman technical advances simply stopped and actually in some ways reversed themselves.

I can easily make the case that world civilization as a whole was in a retrograde phase up until the rise of the Roman Empire. The Chinese Empire, for instance, became inward-looking and non-expansionary. The heights of western civilization achieved during the ancient Egyptian Empire were followed by the Bronze Age collapse. If you look for great, enduring achievements between the building of the pyramids and the great Greek revival, you aren't going to find much. There was no hint of a cultural resurgence at least until the Greek and Roman civilizations hit their strides 2000 years after the Pyramids were built (and perhaps it was much more than 2000 years depending on how you view certain evidence about the Pyramids' history).

Once the Roman Empire had conquered its main enemies, it also became inward-looking. Basically, Rome became satisfied with what it had and "sat back on its laurels." Gibbon calls it decadence, but that is a misleading characterization that casts moral blame in the wrong direction. It was more like senility, though they both would have had the same result. Instead of the pursuit of pleasure at the expense of industry, the growing sickness in Roman civilization was a sort of oppressive lethargy, perhaps complacency, perhaps dissatisfaction due to constant taxes and a constantly diminishing future, perhaps partly due to not making education more of a priority. The synapses stopped functioning as they had when Caesar took his legions across the English Channel in an audacious gambit that astonished his contemporaries.

I'm going to wrench a comparison way out of context here because it may help you understand my point. In mid-1944, the German line in the USSR had been pushed back in the south but the front further north was still exactly where it had been in late 1941. An oppressive complacency settled over the German high command. They decided - without regard to what was actually happening on the Soviet side - that the next attack would come in the south because, well, it just had to. They wouldn't even consider that it might be a massive thrust in the center toward Minsk because such a thing was inconceivable. It was almost as though they could not force their brains to function any longer to recognize the real threat. The Red Army then struck with savage fury and success precisely where the Germans projected it could never happen. The years of war had dulled their minds to the possibilities and they marched to their doom with blinders on.

The Byzantines stopped thinking just like that. Their old customs were comfortable and they had to be followed to the letter until the end. And, the end came a lot quicker for them precisely because of their slavish devotion to what they thought was their only way of living - following the ways of the glorious past.

While there was heavy Roman trade with India and other Asian areas, there was a lack of exploration for exploration's sake. Basic science that had characterized Greek civilization was minimized. Rome was more interested in amassing wealth through trade and conquest than in innovating and expanding its economic possibilities through inventions and scientific advancements. Roman academics stopped making technical advances that could contribute to its survival and prosperity. The armies were still using the same old roads built during the Republic during the Empire's final days, shipbuilding stagnated, Rome's unique and efficient military equipment more and more began to resemble that of the uneducated barbarians. Progress just stopped.

The Byzantine civilization increasingly showed the same retrograde tendencies as the centuries rolled by. It experienced a brief cultural resurgence during the age of Justinian, who was profoundly hated by the people because he did the things that a growing empire required. He taxed people and businesses heavily, he gave them few comforts, he kept his eye on far-flung affairs rather than improving the lot of ordinary citizens. Justinian's focus was on the future, but his (Roman, or more accurately Roman descendants) citizens had had enough of the government's grandiose plans. While Justinian's reign accomplished great and enduring feats of architecture and culture in general, its achievements could not last because the Roman system did not foster continuing creativity.

There was one last brief cultural resurgence in the 1300s, and one can still see some of the traces of this final flowering of culture in Istanbul churches. However, even this focused on impractical things like church construction and artistic achievements. New weapons? New, effective military tactics? Not a hint of them. A growing obsession with religion, exemplified by Andronicus II consulting with astrologers before making his decisions, sapped brainpower that could have been used to figure out ways to restore the Empire.

The Byzantines were still following the old Roman military playbook in the 11th Century. This featured huge armies marching in long columns under crusading warlords. But the world had changed. The old tactics led directly to the disaster at Manzikert because Byzantine enemies were not standing still. The Seljuks and later Turks even used some of the old Roman tactics, such as forming a crescent defensive line, to entrap the Byzantine formations. Classical Romans had used these tactics successfully, but the Byzantines adopted the old Roman forms without understanding the substance that led to victory. The Byzantines simply fell into the same traps that Roman enemies once did because Byzantine society was in a retrograde phase where old lessons were forgotten.

European visitors to the Byzantine court remarked on the wondrous mechanical creations that they observed in the Eastern Emperor's palace ca. 800-900 A.D. This was during a time when their own countries were in a retrograde phase following the collapse of the Western Empire. Most famous of all, the Byzantines developed the famous Greek Fire that won them many critical sea battles. There were mechanical birds that chirped and jumped around, a throne that ascended to the ceiling - these were marvels of the day. Perhaps they were remnants from antiquity, but there is no record of them in the classical records so it appears that Byzantium did have a period of creativity.

Unfortunately, the Byzantines at some undetermined point stopped moving forward just as the earlier Romans in the Western Empire (broadly speaking) had. Basil II, who reigned ca. 1000 A.D., is often cited as the best Byzantine Emperor. However, his achievements were solely military. There was no technological innovation, no great buildings were built, no great works of art created. Aside from military advances, the reign of Basil II was as barren as any other during the Eastern Empire.

A symptom of this stagnation was the Byzantines' enduring commitment to being "Roman" right up until the end. They could never admit nor accept that they had formed a new civilization that had to develop in its own new direction, which was obvious to everyone but themselves. They honored the past at the expense of the future. The technical advances that characterized their early years, such as the aforementioned Greek fire, stopped and were sometimes even forgotten for unknown reasons. 

And that is one of the odder and more telling aspects of Byzantine civilization. The late Byzantine courtiers arrived at the point where they did not even understand the purpose of court formalities established centuries earlier (and Byzantium had a lot of court formalities). The Byzantines followed the form and not the substance because the inspiration that generated the substance had been forgotten over the endless centuries. The old forms were followed anyway because nobody any longer had the inspiration to create new forms and "we're Romans, this is what we do, this is our heritage, this is what sets us apart." there was no thought of establishing new norms, a more modern government, an economy based on science and new technology. This is a classic sign of a retrograde civilization.

Here's the clearest example. Byzantine emperors were considered the supreme authority on earth, just as the Constantinople Patriarch was considered the highest religious authority. These forms could not be deviated from without calling into question the entire foundation of the Byzantine state, its purpose and function on earth. Even as the empire shrank to the walls of Constantinople itself and the cemeteries just outside the walls, these fictions and beliefs were followed, much to the amusement and bemusement of outsiders, because there was nothing else to be done. There was no alternative, the state had been put on cruise control a thousand years earlier and the controlling mechanism was broken. 

There's a story that may be apocryphal that a bunch of Hollywood old-timers was playing poker one night when the subject turned to what they wished they still had from their youths. There were various answers along the lines of strength, love, health, and so forth. The last to answer was director John Huston, who simply frowned and said, "I wish I still cared." And that was the disease that afflicted late Roman and Byzantine society. Society was not moving forward, everyone could see it, the future was limited and increasingly bleak, and the mass of people simply stopped caring any longer.

That was the "decadence" Gibbon was groping toward but couldn't quite see. The power and dynamism left the Roman culture. It wasn't so much a moral failing as a rational conclusion drawn by many, many people independently that it was now "every man for himself" and thus abstractions like patriotism and self-sacrifice for the good of the state were obsolete. Gibbon was right, but it was not moral weakness or gluttony that led to the collapse in first the West and then the East. It was a rational response to a dying, outmoded system.

The stagnant, obsolete Roman model survived throughout the Middle Ages through a combination of luck, national pride, heroic efforts by unknown warriors, clever (at times) leadership, brutality, political double-dealing, and fortunate location. Its initial enemies such as the Sassanids were similar derelict remnants of the past and could be overcome because they were in even worse shape. Once Byzantium came to grips with rising, dynamic, energetic powers such as the Seljuks and then the Ottomans, however, it had more than met its match. It lost one region, then another, then another, occasionally counterattacking but always on the strategic defensive.

And so, the Empire stumbled along, relying on the brilliant investments of the past such as the sturdy (and thousand-year-old) walls of Constantinople. Byzantium lasted far longer than it should have. The old methods did work, they just were gradually superseded by newer and better systems.

It may seem confusing to ascribe the same causes of decline first to the Western Empire and then the Eastern Empire because the respective downfalls were so widely separated in time. If they used the same system and it was flawed, why did the problems not afflict both at the same time ca 500 A.D.? Why did the Byzantine half of the Empire last for another thousand years?

The key is to understanding (which the Byzantines themselves were unable to do) is that the Eastern Empire was a new civilization that went through roughly the same life cycle as its predecessor. The age of Justinian was like the earlier age of Augustus, for instance, and the reign of Basil II was comparable to that of Constantine the Great. They bookended the greatness of Byzantium. Basil II was the last gasp of dignity and his gallant attempt to reverse the tide only failed because - you guessed it - his terrible successors almost immediately squandered all the resources built up over the preceding thousand years. 

Compare Rome and Constantinople to offspring that have the same inherent affliction as their parents. It only manifests itself late in life, perhaps when people are in their 50s or 60s. The inherent defects gradually took down Byzantium just as they had Rome. The last vestiges of the inner mojo was gone by the time of Honorius in the West and Andronicus II in the East (likely much earlier than that in each case, but it was absolutely and completely gone by then). The respective empires could not be rejuvenated any more than today someone with Parkinson's can be completely cured. It is in the bones, in the blood, in the muscles and arteries. The inner disease lingered and manifested itself subtly and gradually, with good days and bad. Finally, it kills you, and death is almost a welcome release from the unceasing torment.

There may be a lesson in there for the present day, both for national and local governments.

If a society is not moving forward, it is moving backward. This sad tendency displayed itself throughout the two phases of Roman civilization, namely, during the classical era and the Byzantine epoch. While completely overlooked by most students of history, it was probably the most important cause of the decline of Roman society.

The fall of Constantinople 1453
The Fall of Constantinople, 1453. Failure to handle the issues listed above led to this.


There are many lists of the reasons for the fall of the Roman Empire. Generally, they include things like invasions and civil wars, and these certainly contributed to the decline. This topic has been the life's work of famous historians such as Edward Gibbon but there is no consensus. It is a great topic because there will never be definite answers, just hypotheses that can never be proven or disproven.

What I have done here is set forth a series of fundamental problems that Roman civilization faced but could not surmount. Migratory patterns, civil wars due to lack of clear rules of succession, the changing nature of enemies, economic collapse, and a growing inability to innovate and move forward. These are all issues we can appreciate today.

Whether one of these factors was more important than another is beside the point. They all contributed to the collapse of the Roman Empire because they lay at the heat of the Roman and Byzantine systems. Solving any one of them would not have been enough, though solving any of them certainly would have helped matters substantially. Given all the handicaps it faced and internal inefficiencies, the wonder is not that the Roman Empire fell when it did, but that it lasted as long as it did.


Sunday, October 24, 2021

When Did the Byzantines Stop Being Romans?

Were Byzantines Actually Roman?

The Deposition of Phocas
"The deposition of Phocas 610 AD." As discussed below, this forgotten event marked the end of the Roman Empire and the birth of the Byzantine Empire. Source: A. C. Weatherstone (1888–1929), "Hutchinson's History of the Nations," 1915.

The question of when Byzantines stopped considering themselves Roman is both extremely easy and equally difficult to answer. No matter how you answer this question decisively, you must leave out a perfectly acceptable answer that is directly contrary to the one you give.

This is because there is a difference between form and reality. In the law, it is the distinction between de jure and de facto. Byzantium was the legal heir to the Roman Empire (or at least the eastern half of it, as the rest that is a much murkier question). In form, the Byzantines never stopped being Roman. In reality, though, they stopped being Roman fairly early in the Byzantine Empire's history. The only real and interesting question is to pinpoint exactly when the break occurred.

And that is what I am going to do below.

Let me begin by saying I understand some of you reading this probably disagree with me. That's fine, because there is no definite answer to this question such as, "the freezing temperature of water is 32 degrees Celsius" unless you intentionally and decisively take one of the two routes I outlined just above. 

So, rather than just give you half the story, I'm going to go through both explanations. It's pretty clear which one I believe is more realistic. However, if you believe the opposite, that's okay. There will be plenty of people who think this answer is cut-and-dried, not open for debate, and completely agree with you.
Byzantine double-headed eagle on tapestry,
Textile Fragment with Double-Headed Eagles Islamic (Spain), 12th century. Silk. 29Í19 cm Achat à Chamonton, 1906. Inv. 28003. Musée des Tissus, Lyon.

The Easy Answer Is That The Byzantines Never Stopped Being Roman

The simplest answer is sometimes the best one, but not in this case: the Byzantines never stopped identifying as Romans. This will likely get you a solid "B" grade on your final, maybe even a B+ if you flesh it out well.

Incidentally, let me preface this by saying that no Byzantine would even recognize the term “Byzantine.” They called themselves Romans. Not Greeks, not Latins, not Byzantines - Romans. However, it is handy for us to call them Byzantines because we are in the communication business here, not “let us be historically correct to the point of incomprehensibility” game.

I've gone through why we call them Byzantines here, so I won't repeat myself. To be brief, we call them Byzantines because that refers to the name of the town that the Romans converted into Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. The name "Byzantine" began to be used in the Middle Ages because it was a good way to differentiate between the classical Roman Empire based in Rome and the much different Empire based in Constantinople.

And that's the same reason why I use the term.

Right up to the last day of the Eastern Empire, the Byzantines considered themselves Roman. Thus, emperors such as Justinian I and the Comneni of the 12th Century engaged in repeated attempts to reconquer the lost Western Empire, which they considered rightfully theirs. This continued up until Michael VIII Palaiologos in the 13th Century, the last great Byzantine Emperor.

In fact, a pathetic Byzantine decree late in the Eastern Empire’s life gave England - by then a major world power - its independence. The Byzantines had never controlled any part of the British Isles even under the most favorable interpretation, since even at the point of Byzantium's founding the Western Emperor would have possessed it. We may laugh at the Byzantines' presumption now (as people surely did then), but the Byzantines took their hereditary claims very seriously.

The Byzantine repeated and failed attempts at religious unification with the Papacy that continued until the final years of the Byzantine Empire built upon this belief that the East and West were all just part of the same family. In fact, the Byzantines believed that the Patriarch of Constantinople was superior in authority to the Roman Pope even as Byzantine fortunes hit rock bottom. The Byzantine desire to “set things right” and return to a position of respect and even dominance in the boundaries of the former Western Empire never ended.

There's an obvious flaw in the Byzantine reasoning on this that you've likely already spotted. Imagining yourself to be a dog does not make you a dog even if you like to bark. Likewise, viewing yourself as Roman does not make you Roman.

If you live in Albuquerque and have never even been to Italy but consider yourself to be Roman, well, God bless you. That's just fine. It may be a bit awkward at times wearing a toga to the grocery store, but it's probably comfortable attire for you. Simply considering yourself to be Roman doesn't make you Roman even if your ancestors 2000 years ago were citizens of the Roman Empire. 

While the language of the court remained Latin, the population of Constantinople and the rest of the Byzantine Empire quickly (in Roman terms, we're talking about a 2000 year history) reverted to the local language, Greek. As time went on, Greek words began replacing or assuming prominence over ancient Latin terms such as "Caesar." That rank did remain, but was superseded by the Greek term "Basileus"  (Greek: βασιλεύς).

If the leader of the nation has a rank using a Greek term, that's a pretty clear indication that Greek is the primary language.
Emperor Justinian
Emperor Justinian, a mosaic made during his lifetime and his only known contemporaneous image that has survived to modern times.

The Nuanced Answer: Eastern Romans Became Byzantines As Their Culture Adapted To Their Surroundings

Now, this is in my view the correct way to answer this question even though it rubs a lot of people the wrong way. There's something about the prestige of calling yourself Roman that exists today and also existed during the Byzantine Empire.

The Byzantines retained the form and illusion of being Roman while actually becoming something completely different. It's analogous to a caterpillar turning into a butterfly. Is a butterfly still a caterpillar just because it considers itself to still be a caterpillar? You decide.

In fact, there is a particular turning point that marks the dividing line between the Roman and Greek (Byzantine) empires. This is the view provided by Byzantine historian George Ostrogorsky in his "The History of the Byzantine State" and I fully subscribe to it.

The process of turning from Roman to Greek peaked during the reign of Heraclius, the Emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 610 to 641. Heraclius is one of those pivotal figures in world history who is all but forgotten. He should be remembered because he had more impact on history than any other Byzantine emperor and most of the Roman ones, too.

Heraclius did amazing things and faced monumental challenges that changed the political landscape forever. He finally defeated the creaking old Persian Empire, a goal of Rome for centuries. You'd think he'd be a world-famous leader for having done this, but there was a fly in the ointment.

The problem for Heraclius' reputation is that, after finally eliminating the Persians, Heraclius also failed to adequately defend the Empire from the resulting Arab Muslim invasion. It is impossible to overestimate the impact of these two things - the defeat of the Persians and the rise of the Arabs Muslims - on the politics of post-classical Middle Eastern history.

But there's more to the Heraclius story! Even those two dramatic things were not the main epochal shift that occurred during his reign. He also began the development of the Byzantine Themes. 

Now, you may not be familiar with Themes outside of how you create websites, but the development of the Themes was one of the most influential political strategies in history. They are the true legacy of Heraclius and one of the prime legacies of the entire Byzantine state.

Themes were regional groupings somewhat akin to modern counties or parishes but on a much larger scale. In England, they are called civil parishes. They are used for local administrative control because the government of the entire nation has great trouble focusing on local issues. It is like the difference between your school board and Congress or Parliament or whatever your national legislative body is called. Sure, laws passed in Congress are paramount and apply to all the counties/parishes. However, your local county is what takes care of the streets and parks and trash collection and million things of immediate impact on you and your family.

Themes were even more important than your local County government. Their local leaders raised troops, collected taxes, and had a great deal of influence on the makeup of the national government. The Byzantine Empire desperately needed this innovation because central control was falling apart due to the repeated and devastating invasions by nearby hostile powers.

This internal reorganization strengthened the Eastern Empire and enabled it to survive for another 800 years despite repeated invasions. Themes weren't perfect - their leaders could be quite troublesome for the national government at times - but they quickly became the backbone of the Byzantine state and transformed it into something new.

Oh, above I mentioned that a major sign that Byzantium became its own separate empire apart from the Roman Empire was the adoption of the Greek word "Basileus" as the title for its leaders. Guess which Byzantine Emperor was the first to adopt that title? If you guessed Heraclius, you win the gold prize.

The world at large recognized Constantinople as leading a Greek empire following the reign of Heraclius. After the Arabs reached the Mediterranean, they took to calling it the "Greek Sea." This became the common way to refer to it, not "Mare Nostrum" as the Romans called it. Thus, it is not some latter-day corruption or misinformation to characterize the medieval Byzantine state as Greek in orientation.

Heraclius was the dividing line between classical civilization and the Middle Ages. 
Young Basil II
Young Basil II of the Macedonian dynasty, by JFoliveras (source Deviantart).

Justinian, Phocas, and Basil II Demonstrate The Differences Between The Late Roman and Byzantine Periods

Sometimes, a change becomes more obvious when you compare and contrast conditions before the change and after. You can slip on ice but drown in water. That's a pretty big difference. There were similar big differences in Byzantium before the reign of Heraclius and afterward.

Justinian, who ruled decades before Heraclius, was a great Emperor but had a backward-looking frame of reference. His dreams were not to create something new, but to restore the greatness that had been. He accomplished great things, amazing things, but his dreams of reviving and restoring the classical Roman Empire were impossible to achieve or sustain.

Emperor Phocas, who reigned in Constantinople from 602 to 610 A.D. and directly preceded Heraclius, retained this Roman orientation. Apparently, he wasn't much of an emperor and his subjects hated him. However, Phocas marks a dramatic turning point in world history from the classical world that is overlooked.

If you ever visit Rome, you'll likely visit the Roman Forum. I highly recommend it. You'll have a great, sentimental walk through all the old ruins, the monuments, the buildings, the brothels, and the temples. The most recent addition to the Forum is a monumental column that is known as the Column of Phocas. He erected it after declaring Rome "the head of all churches." Most people don't pay it much mind, but it's one of the most significant items there.

Erecting a monument in the Roman Forum is something no true Byzantine Emperor would ever consider doing. The Byzantine Emperors jealously guarded the preeminence of their own throne and their Patriarch. In fact, that's what ultimately led to the Great Schism between the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches in the 11th Century. Nobody after Phocas lavished so much attention on Rome or dreamed of glorifying himself in the Roman Forum.

For me, the Column of Phocas is the saddest monument in Rome. There it stands, defiantly pointing toward the heavens, marking the actual end of the Roman Empire.

Another great Byzantine Emperor who followed Heraclius by several hundred years illustrates the difference. Basil II, who reigned from 960-1025 A.D., had no illusions such as those held by Justinian. He did not dream of restoring the glory of Rome. Instead, he focused on the issues of the Byzantine State and did a great job, about as good as Justinian at trying to fulfill his dreams.

For instance, Basil II eliminated once and for all the threat posed by the Bulgarian Empire in the Balkans by defeating its armies and eliminating its troops. It was Basil II who ordered the famous blinding of 15,000 Bulgarian troops that caused their king to have a stroke and drop dead on his throne. Basil II also pushed back the invaders from the East while making only mild efforts to the West.

These differences make Justinian a Roman-style Emperor and Basil II a true Byzantine Emperor. The dividing line between them was Heraclius and the events that happened during his pivotal reign.
The Column of Phocas
The Column of Phocas in the Roman Forum.


So, to sum up, the easy and glib answer is that the Byzantines never stopped identifying as Romans. The more subtle and correct answer is that at some point the Eastern Roman Empire evolved into a Greek Empire (I resist the term “Hellenization,” which suggests a return to classical roots which did not happen). This was a gradual process that lasted for centuries, indeed for the entire life of the Empire. The change had its most decisive moments occur during the reign of Heraclius.

We can quibble about whether the Eastern Roman Empire became the Byzantine Empire in the 5th Century or the 7th Century or the 9th Century or the 10th Century or even later. There is no “bright line” to signify the change because the Byzantines themselves did not provide us with one. They clung to their tradition, their grand and glorious, their romantic and historical connection with the Rome of Augustus and Hadrian. They did this long after those men and their language and culture and titles and territory had become distant memories.

In my view, based on my studies, the Byzantines essentially stopped being Romans during the reign of Heraclius. At that point, around 620 A.D., the Byzantine state became the medieval Greek empire  - the Byzantine Empire - that we remember and that left Rome behind.
The Fall of Constantinople 1453
The Fall of Constantinople 1453.


Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Who Was the Best Byzantine Emperor?

Justinian vs. Basil II, Head to Head

Constantine the Great at Haghia Sophia
Roman Emperor Constantine the Great presents his city, Constantinople, to God as depicted in a mosaic at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

We are going to take a close look here at which Byzantine Emperor was the greatest.

There were 94 Byzantine Emperors, beginning with Constantine the Great (324-337 A.D.) and ending with Constantine XI (1449-1453). This number includes Empresses. There were nine times when co-Emperors served at the same time, though five of these instances involved one Empress, Zoe, who never served alone.

While Byzantium had quite a few bad and ineffectual emperors, it also had its share of brilliant and capable leaders. Generally, those two qualities go hand-in-hand, but that's not always the case with emperors. One can have grand plans but be ineffectual or misguided in trying to realize them. On the other hand, having modest and realistic aims but fulfilling them brilliantly makes for a superb emperor.

Constantine the Great was more of a Roman Emperor than a Byzantine one. Although he earned the sobriquet "Great," Constantine was only technically a Byzantine emperor. Constantine belongs in a separate category and needs to be compared with his peers such as Trajan and Augustus who ruled over the full Roman Empire, not with emperors that ruled only over the Eastern Roman Empire. The latter had vastly fewer resources and different issues to resolve than Roman Emperors.

Emperor Theodosius split the Roman Empire between his two sons, and that is when fair comparisons begin. Thus, only the Eastern Roman - or Byzantine - emperors following Theodosius are considered here.

As to why I call the Eastern Roman Empire "Byzantine," I've explained the derivation of that word elsewhere. Suffice to say here that it is primarily to avoid confusion and the intent is not to inflame anyone who is dead set on calling Byzantium The Eastern Roman Empire out of sentimentality or because that's what their old Latin teacher called it.

Speaking of Latin teachers, unless you've read up on Byzantium, the only Byzantine emperor they probably ever mentioned to you was Justinian (527-565 A.D.). Justinian is perhaps the only Byzantine emperor who ascends to true celebrity status, still a household name like "Cher" or "Elton." It's not exaggerating much to say that many people probably think that Justinian was the only Byzantine emperor.

Well, Justinian (who also gets called "the Great," but not as often as Constantine) deserves the respect he gets. He oversaw a lot of phenomenal things, some of which still matter today (such as the construction of the Haghia Sophia church in Constantinople/ Istanbul). If this were a contest of celebrity, Justinian is the clear winner, even likely beating Constantine.

But it's not. We're going to go through several categories and test Justinian's actual accomplishments and legacy against the challenger I have selected: Basil II (976-1025 A.D.). Students of Byzantium should be nodding their heads at this point, as Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty is the only medieval Byzantine emperor who ascends above the clutter of background noise to achieve some celebrity of his own. I'm not even going to discuss any other possible challengers here because I believe this pair of emperors stands head and shoulders above the rest.

While you may not recognize the name Basil II because you're not a Byzantine scholar, you almost certainly have heard of something he did that has echoed down the ages. Once you realize he's the one that did it, you'll hopefully nod your head in recognition that this was an important emperor. We'll get to that below.

Without further ado, let's get on with it.

Emperor Justinian
Emperor Justinian in the only known depiction of him from his lifetime, in an Italian church.

Justinian and Basil II Origins: Tie

You may not think that how an emperor ascended to the throne is significant, but legitimacy matters. There were emperors who personally killed their predecessors, and this left a stain over their entire reign. On the other hand, there were emperors who earned their way onto the throne through military valor and similar deeds.

The people of Constantinople paid close attention to matters like this. It was a very gossipy city. In many ways, it was like Rome during the bread-and-circuses days. An emperor who had Constantinople's masses behind him eliminated a large source of problems and generally had a better chance of ruling successfully.

Justinian was made co-emperor by Emperor Justin, an old man by the end of his reign, on 1 April 527. This was only a few months before Justin died, leaving Justinian as the sole emperor. Justinian apparently was the son of Justin's sister. Justin had sent for him from his native lands in latter-day Yugoslavia and groomed him to become a leader. Justin and Justinian got on well, and there is a suspicion that Justinian served as Justin's de facto regent during the last years of his life.
Under Byzantine precedent and custom, this means Justinian was a legitimate emperor even though he wasn't "born in the purple."

Basil II, however, was "born into the purple" to Emperor Romanos II. His father made Basil II co-emperor in 960, though he was only about two years old then. As the eldest son, Basil II was a natural successor, though things didn't necessarily work that way in Byzantium. His younger brother (and eventual successor), Constantine VIII, similarly was crowned a couple of years later.

While various palace intrigues typical of Byzantium then followed, Basil II had clear legitimacy when John I (John Tzimisces) died on 10 January 976 (a general, Nikephoros Phokas, had staged a coup and then tried to legitimize it by marrying Basil II's mother Theophano, but she and Tzimisces murdered Phokas before Tzimisces conveniently died).

So, since both Justinian and Basil II were legitimate emperors, this category is a tie with perhaps a very marginal edge to Basil II.

Emperor Basil II
Emperor Basil II.

Basil II and Justinian Popularity: Edge to Basil II

An emperor's popularity was vitally important in Byzantium. There were cases when an emperor literally was attacked in the street by a mob and lost the throne. Legitimacy was one reason an emperor could become unpopular, but there were many others.

Justinian, despite his later fame, was not particularly popular with the citizens of Constantinople. He closely associated himself with the "Blues," one of two political parties apparently deriving from chariot races. This automatically meant that he was not as popular with the other political party, the "Greens."

Due to Justinian's imperial connections and his association with them, the Blues enjoyed a certain immunity from reprisal by city authorities. The Greens, meanwhile, were repressed and couldn't get away with anything. This rubbed a lot of people the wrong way, in particular Justinian's real-time biographer Procopius. The "Secret History" of Procopius has a lot to say about Justinian, and none of it is good.

However, bad as the things Procopius wrote about Justinian were, they paled in comparison to the portrait painted of Justinian's wife, Theodora. Procopius' allegations about her are some of the most savage in all of biographical history. Think of the worst things that you could possibly say about any woman, and that's what Procopius wrote about Theodora.

Obviously, there was a market for what Procopius wrote. He undoubtedly was not the only one to think ill of the emperor. Things came to a head in January 532, when the Greens gathered in the Hippodrome and began loudly expressing their dislike for Justinian and everything associated with him. This led to a gradual escalation of violence in subsequent days.

Justinian's support among the Blues then unexpectedly collapsed. Apparently, there was resentment on both sides about some crackdowns the government had been imposing. Everybody began chanting "Nika" ("win") together and a huge riot broke out that lasted for days.

Justinian, with help from Theodora and some sympathetic generals, eventually suppressed the very dangerous Nika Riot. However, it is fair to say that he was never particularly liked by the populace, and this situation did not show much improvement over time,

Basil II, on the other hand, was fairly popular. He lowered taxes for country farmers and followed the popular (and politically wise) strategy of reducing the privileges and wealth of large landowners. Among other measures, he instituted a special tax (the allelengyon tax) to be paid by the large landowners. In effect, Basil II made the rich "pay their fair share" as the current saying goes. This proved quite popular with the masses and also quite beneficial to the treasury, though the aristocracy bided its time and got Basil II's successor to reverse many of these changes.

In terms of popularity, Basil II is the clear winner over Justinian.

Byzantine tax collector
A Byzantine tax collector at work.

Basil II and Justinian's Fiscal Policy: Edge to Basil II

Fiscal policy may seem like a tedious subject. It certainly is not as gripping as reading about military battles where someone wins and someone else has his head cut off. But Byzantine fiscal policy was of tremendous importance to the fate of the empire. In fact, there are theories that suggest Muslim advances were actually encouraged by many landowners who hated paying high taxes every year.

The Byzantine treasury was full when Justinian took over and basically empty when he left. His fanciful projects required the expenditure of vast sums of money, and that required efficient (or, to put it less delicately, onerous) tax collection.

Justinian found just the man he needed to be his tax collector. He plucked John of Cappodocia out of obscurity and installed him as Praetorian Prefect. While this may sound like a military position, it actually encompassed a much wider scope that included tax collections. In essence, John of Cappodocia became the head of the Byzantine IRS. He was famous for being incorruptible and also was quite brutal in his methods.

John was hated by just about everyone. The Nika rioters demanded his dismissal, and Justinian complied - only to quietly rehire him a few months later. By 540, Antonina, the wife of the great general Belisarius, had had quite enough of John. She set him up by inducing him to attend a meeting at which a treasonous plot to replace Justinian with Belisarius was discussed - and then arranged to have the authorities arrest everyone who was there. This led eventually to John's downfall at the insistence of Theodora, who also hated him.

While it is standard practice for those discussing Justinian to point to the map of his conquests, the Byzantine public never saw such maps during Justinian's lifetime. All they saw were grinding campaigns that seemed to be leading nowhere, endless expeditions to this or that far-flung place, and onerous taxes. A lot of the tax money collected was given to northern enemies as bribes to keep them quiet while Belisarius won victories in remote areas that did not affect daily life. It is no wonder that Justinian was unpopular, the wonder is that he managed to remain in power at all.

Byzantine taxes during Justinian's reign were calculated in a "top-down" fashion. This means that government expenses for the year were calculated, and then taxes were set accordingly. Justinian's government never had to "live within its means." Instead, whatever crazy project he decided to embark upon, the people had to fund regardless of a good or bad harvest. This "top-down" system did not disappear until the middle of the 7th Century with the adoption of the Themes.

Justinian also economized at the expense of civilians. For instance, he restricted the public Post, reduced government pensions, curtailed public amusements, and reduced the distribution of corn. Basically, Justinian taxed people heavily and took away their bread and circuses.

This is not to say that Justinian wasted all of his taxes. In fact, he financed some of the marvels of all time, such as the Haghia Sophia church in Constantinople that remains the greatest architectural achievement of antiquity. However, the money went out as fast as it came in, and a lack of funds prevented his successors from building upon or even preserving many of his achievements.

Basil II did not share Justinian's grand military plans. As noted above, he raised funds in ways that were popular with the masses. Among his other innovations was a treaty with Venice reducing their tariffs in exchange for the transport of Byzantine troops to southern Italy. Because of such shrewd tactics, there were adequate funds left in the treasury for an expedition to recover Sicily that did not take place until after his death. All of this Basil II accomplished despite his forces, like Justinian's, also being in a state of almost constant war.

In terms of fiscal policies, Basil II is the clear winner.

Justinian's Basilica Cistern in Istanbul
Justinian's Basilica Cistern in Istanbul.

Basil II and Justinian Cultural Success: Edge to Justinian

Justinian is known for the map of his conquests, but that actually wasn't his greatest achievement. Instead, he - or rather, his administration - created cultural achievements that endure to today.

Justinian's most obvious cultural success was the construction of the remarkable Haghia Sophia church. Designed by Anthemius of Tralles, the dome of the church had no precedent in ancient architecture and required remarkable mathematical skill (the dome later collapsed and had to be rebuilt by Isidore of Militus, and that dome is the one that still stands today). Anthemius also experimented with solar power, concentrating the sun's rays using mirrors for military purposes.

Another innovation that helped assure Constantinople was Justinian's construction of the Basilica Cistern. This can still be visited today. Justinian also funded massive fortifications in vulnerable spots along the border and bridges where necessary.

Justinian's legacy was not just in bricks and mortar. He oversaw a rewriting of Roman law to make it applicable to contemporary situations. This Corpus Juris Civilis formed the basis of modern law in many places. Quaestor of the Sacred Palaces Tribonian oversaw this process and also the drafting of legislation (the Novels) that characterized the first half of Justinian's reign.

Basil II had nothing to compare with Justinian's great cultural achievements. He was a warrior who left his mark on the battlefield. There is no question that Justinian is the clear winner over Basil II in the area of cultural advancement.
The extent of Justinian's conquests
The extent of Justinian's conquests.

Justinian and Basil II Military Success: Tie

The first thing that everyone learns about Justinian is that he recovered vast lands once held but lost by the Roman Empire. His plan was simple in concept but breathtaking in scope: renovatio imperii, or "restoration of the Empire" An old dream of any Roman patriot, it reflected Justinian's backward glance to the glories that once were rather than a truly forward look to the realities and possibilities of the future.

This was Justinian's main claim to fame for posterity, and it is a good one because of the degree of success he had. A look at the map of Justinian's conquests shows an extraordinary recovery of lost land in Italy, North Africa, and elsewhere.

However, military success is only worthwhile if it is useful to some larger purpose. Justinian's campaigns led by Belisarius and other brilliant generals including Narses and Sittas were flashy successes to posterity but only minimally worthwhile in the long run. In a nutshell, they overextended the Byzantine Empire.

For instance, Justinian conquered Italy. There is no question at all about this, and the Byzantine Empire never again possessed the entire Italian peninsula. This was an epic achievement.
Post-Justinian Byzantine territory
The Byzantine Empire ca. 600 A.D. (purple, at right), showing the loss of most of Italy and other Justinian conquests by the end of the Sixth Century.

Unfortunately, though, the conquest of Italy meant very little for the future of the empire. Most of the gains in Italy were soon reversed. While the Byzantine Empire did hold outposts in Italy until the 12th Century, they did little for the health of the empire. The Italian possessions required constant expenditures of time, money, and effort for little or no return. They eventually served as little more than a lightning rod for Western adventurers to attack Byzantium.

Basil II has never received the military acclaim that Justinian did. However, in some ways, his military successes were more meaningful. His orientation was not to the west, like Justinian, but to the north and east. There, he had brilliant successes and extended the borders of the empire to their greatest territorial extent since the Muslim conquests four centuries earlier.

The main difference between the two Emperors was in their style of leadership. Justinian remained in his palace on the Bosphorus (for the most part) and acted as a string-puller. This may sound weak, but Justinian had some of the best strings to pull in all of history, and that is to his credit. Belisarius, Narses, and his other generals were the best generals of the entire Middle Ages.

Justinian was right to just leave the fighting to the Belisarius and the others, supporting them adequately as necessary. His methods worked, and whether they made him look "heroic" or not is irrelevant. As a military amateur in the presence of truly great military leaders, Justinian was right to not insert himself into campaigns which he could only mess up while risking his own life. As a successful grand strategist, Justinian has had few peers.

Basil II's leadership style was 180 degrees opposite to Justinian's style. He personally led campaigns, marched with the troops, and was there, on the spot, to make instant decisions. We could say that Basil II "led from the front," though there weren't "fronts" then in the 20th Century sense.

At times, this made a huge difference in outcomes. Basil II riding his horse through storms and icy cold conditions to achieve his ends may sound leaps and bounds better than Justinian's style, but both were successful in their own ways. We can admire the picture of Basil II eating with the troops, riding his horse down dusty roads with them, and risking his life with the men, but the important thing is not the image (which the general populace wouldn't have known much about anyway due to the media realities of the time). Instead, it is results and nothing but results. 

If Basil II had to lead from the front, it's also an indication that he didn't develop truly great generals like Justinian. You may say, well, that was just the hand he was dealt, and there is truth in that. However, Basil II also had issues with finding quality people in other areas, most notably in grooming a successor. Michael Bourtzes is a case in point. A reasonably competent general, he had some successes but ultimately failed and had highly questionable ethics. The bottom line is that Basil II was a dynamic leader who was forced to risk his life in campaigns because he was unable - for whatever reasons, which, yes, may have been outside of his control - to develop a good "bench." That is not necessarily a failing of Basil II but puts Justinian in a better light because he did develop and support talent.

Again, there's no reason to hold the low quality of supporting players against Basil II. His results are what matter, and those results in the military arena were outstanding. That is what we are comparing here, results.

As an illustration of Basil II's leadership style making a difference, perhaps his greatest military achievement was saving Aleppo in the winter of 994-995. Manju Takin (Manjutakin), a Fatimid slave-general under al-Aziz, was besieging the city, and Basil was on one of his expeditions into Bulgaria. Knowing that speed was of the essence, Basil had his entire army mounted on horses and mules and force-marched down to Syria. This was accomplished in a month, an incredibly short time for the era. Basil II then completely restored the situation in the East, with a few minor exceptions such as not retaking Tripolis.

However, reversing the losses in the east was far from Basil II's greatest achievement. He earned the title "Bulgar Slayer" by finally, once and for all, ending the persistent threat from the north that had plagued the empire for centuries. Once and for all, he decapitated the medieval Bulgar empire, which never again posed a serious threat to Byzantine power. He also formed the famous Varangian Guard that served as the emperor's bodyguards for the next several hundred years.

To this point, I've painted a picture where Justinian dangerously overstretched his empire, leading to quick losses, while Basil II was all-conquering and shrewd. Most historians stop there and crown Basil II the better commander.

Not so fast. Basil II also overstretched Byzantine territory. However, unlike Justiniana, he did it to the east. Byzantium simply did not have the resources to defend lands east of Lake Van. The attempt to do so less than 50 years after Basil II's passing led to the catastrophic Battle of Manzikert in 1071.

This Byzantine defeat led to the permanent and irrevocable loss of even more important territory than the losses following Justinian's reign. That is because Anatolia formed the very heart of Byzantine power and resources, while Italy, Spain, and North Africa - lost after Justinian's passing - were almost irrelevant to Byzantine survival.

When we look at Justinian and Basil II, we see they made the same fatal mistake: overstretch. Imperial overstretch led to the loss of many of their gains before the end of their respective centuries. Extremely hard work saved the situation both times, but the lands lost were never recovered. It is said that victory sows the seeds of its own defeat, and Byzantine history in the ages of Justinian and Basil II are eerily similar in proving that point. The subsequent territorial losses weren't their fault, but Justinian and Basil II set the table for them.

That is why this category is a tie.

Oh, yes, I mentioned above that even if you don't know anything about Byzantine history that you've heard of something that Basil II did. Many people have heard the medieval legend of the columns of blind men marching down the road with their hands on each other's shoulders for guidance, with only a few men left with one eye to lead them. Many people probably think it's just a "moral lesson" or something like that with no basis in reality.

That's not a legend. Basil II did that to the Bulgar army after their final defeat. He sent about 15,000 enemy soldiers back to their kingdom blinded. One man was left with one eye per 100 men as a guide. You've probably heard of the phrases "the blind leading the blind" and "in the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is king." Well, you can thank Basil II indirectly for those sayings.

It caused the Bulgar leader to have a stroke and die when he saw them. That basically ended the medieval Bulgar kingdom. It was one of the most notorious incidents in all of military history, and it succeeded completely in ending the wars between the two powers.
Byzantine Empire after the reign of Basil II byzantium.
The Byzantine Empire after the reign of Basil II.


I have methodically compared the Byzantine Emperors Justinian and Basil II using a variety of easily understood criteria. While other categories could be used, such as their impact on religion (extremely important in Byzantium) and their succession (neither man had any success with that), these categories reflect the clearest similarities and differences between the two men.

Overall, Basil II scores higher in several categories such as fiscal policy and popularity. I personally feel that Basil II was the greatest Byzantine Emperor because he left the empire on a sounder footing when he left than when he found it (though his incompetent successors squandered this gift in a record time). Justinian did not. Those are hard but inescapable truths.

But Basil II's win is not completely clear-cut. Justinian clearly wins in cultural achievement, and that is by a wide margin. Constructing enduring monuments such as the Haghia Sophia and regenerating Roman law had more impact on the world than winning some battles, Justinian left gifts to posterity that still echo today. These lasting gifts are why he is remembered by ordinary people while Basil II is forgotten except by historians. In terms of their overall effect on the future of the empire, Basil II did a slightly better job, but both emperors achieved some of the greatest successes of the middle ages. 
Basil II territorial expansion
Territory added by Basil II to the Byzantine Empire is shown in yellow.