A History of the Byzantine State and Society

A History of the Byzantine State and Society

by Warren Treadgold

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ISBN-13: 9780804779371
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 11/01/1997
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 1044
File size: 154 MB
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About the Author

Warren Treadgold is Professor of History at Florida International University. He is the author of, most recently, Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081 (Stanford, 1995).

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A History of the Byzantine State and Society

By Warren Treadgold


Copyright © 1997 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-7937-1


The Refoundation of the Empire, 284-337

In 283, during a war against the Persians in Mesopotamia, the emperor Carus was killed, allegedly by a thunderbolt but more probably by assassination. The Roman army proclaimed Carus's son Numerian emperor. Soon it abandoned the Persian war and slowly withdrew into Anatolia. When the army reached Nicomedia in 284, Diocles, the commander of the imperial bodyguard, announced that Numerian himself had been murdered. After executing the supposed assassin, Diocles had himself proclaimed emperor. His claims were rejected by Carus's surviving son, Carinus, who had been ruling at Rome and now led an army against Diocles. A civil war began, and early the next year the forces of the two emperors clashed at the Margus River in the middle of the Balkans. The battle went well for Carinus until he too was assassinated, leaving Diocles the temporarily undisputed ruler of the Roman Empire.


Like most of his predecessors over the past fifty years, Diocles was a capable career officer from an obscure family in Illyricum. In comparison with similar emperors, he was a middling general but an excellent manager, with an education slightly better than average. He appears to have been around forty years old at his accession. According to plausible reports, he had been born at Salona on the Illyrian coast, to a father who was a freedman and a scribe. Appropriately for a scribe's son, he showed a liking for records and numbers, and wrote without literary pretensions. Salona was in Latin-speaking territory, but his Greek name of Diocles suggests Greek origins, and he was equally at ease speaking Latin or Greek. Although in 285 he Latinized his Greek name to Diocletianus, he was the nearest thing that the empire had yet had to an emperor of Greek stock.

Diocletian had no son, but decided he needed another emperor to share his powers and the dangers he faced. A preference for the Greek East may lie behind his decision to retain control over it and to entrust the Latin West to someone else. At Milan, in July 285, Diocletian adopted as his son one of his Illyrian comrades in arms, Maximian, giving him the rank of Caesar, or junior emperor. Henceforth the defense of the provinces west of Illyricum became the primary responsibility of Maximian, while the defense of Illyricum and the East remained that of Diocletian. The next year, when Maximian faced a usurping emperor in Britain, Diocletian strengthened his colleague's hand by promoting him to Augustus, the highest imperial rank.

Diocletian still kept a formal precedence over Maximian. As an expression of their relationship, Diocletian styled himself Jovius, claiming the patronage of Jupiter, king of the gods, and titled Maximian Herculius, assigning him the patronage of Jupiter's son Hercules. In practice Maximian continued to defer to his senior colleague's judgment. But each emperor maintained his own court and ran his own army and administration, with a separate praetorian prefect (in Latin, praefectus praetorio) as his chief lieutenant. Although the empire remained juridically one, and on occasion was ruled by a single emperor again, after 285 its eastern and western parts always had different prefects and separate administrations. From this time forward, we can follow the history of the East with only occasional attention to the West.

Before Diocletian, jurisdiction over the eastern and western parts of the empire had sometimes been separated for a time, either by a rebellion in the East, like Diocletian's own, or as an emergency measure, like Carus's entrusting the West to his son Carinus before departing for Persia. But Diocletian's arrangement was more systematic than those temporary divisions. Although for an emperor without a son to adopt an heir and tide him Caesar had long been standard practice, Diocletian meant Maximian, who was only a few years his junior, to be a colleague rather than an heir. Diocletian plainly realized that, at a time when internal rebellions and external invasions had become endemic, the empire was too big for one emperor to rule and defend.

What remains striking is that Diocletian took as his own portion not the Latin West but the Greek East, to which he attached Latin-speaking Illyricum, his own homeland. Although his motives cannot be reliably reconstructed, he evidently believed that the East, with Illyricum, was at least as important a part of the empire as the West, and an appropriate domain for the senior ruler. Given the threat that the empire faced from foreign invasions and military rebellions, part of his reason was surely that the larger part of the army was stationed in the East — twenty — three of thirty-four legions as of the early third century — where it faced the empire's single strongest adversary, Persia. The East as Diocletian defined it also included the empire's best recruiting ground, in Illyricum, and its richest farmland, in Egypt.

Leaving Maximian to defend the West, Diocletian concentrated first on strengthening the frontiers in the East. He began recruiting more troops. In two campaigns he drove some Sarmatian raiders back across the Danube frontier, and built new fortifications to keep them out. In 287 he negotiated a peace with Persia, establishing a Roman protectorate over Armenia and securing the Mesopotamian border, which he defended with more fortifications. He established his principal residence at Nicomedia, where he had first taken power. On the coast of Asia Minor but facing Europe, Nicomedia was in the middle of Diocletian's eastern domains and midway on the road between the Balkan and Mesopotamian frontiers.

Diocletian hardly supposed that naming a permanent colleague would be enough to solve the problem of the empire's security. He felt that the empire, including its western part, needed a bigger army and more fortifications, and more revenue to pay for them. Probably in 287, he introduced a new system for taxation and the requisition of supplies, which also applied to the western provinces ruled by Maximian. For centuries the Romans had levied taxes of different kinds all over the empire, at widely different rates. The inflation of the previous century had slowly rendered monetary taxes almost worthless, so that the government increasingly met its expenses by requisitions of labor or goods, such as uniforms for the soldiers and grain for city dwellers. Originally such requisitions had been paid for in money at fixed rates, but as inflation made the value of the payments nugatory they had gradually ceased to be made. Under this makeshift system assessment was inefficient and burdensome, and raising taxes was difficult.

Diocletian realized that the best way of maximizing receipts while minimizing economic dislocation was to standardize the taxes and requisitions according to his subjects' ability to pay. Collecting taxes or requisitions that fell equally on each man, household, or measure of land had the obvious disadvantage that some men and households could afford to pay much more than others, and some land was far more productive than other land. Uniform rates that the rich could pay easily would ruin the poor, and rates that the poor could pay would be absurdly low for the rich and yield little revenue. Yet any assessment of land and other property according to their monetary value would rapidly become obsolete as the coinage continued to inflate.

To make a reliable assessment possible, Diocletian defined two standard units to measure tax liability. One was the caput — literally meaning "head," but better translated as "heading" because it was a theoretical unit for varying numbers of taxpayers. It was supposed to stand for a set amount of wealth, which happened to be well above that of the average taxpayer; it could represent the resources of many poor households, the property of several middling ones, or a fraction of the fortune of a rich man. Seemingly the wealth taken into account was limited to real estate. The second unit was the jugum ("yoke"), representing a set acreage of first-class plowland; apparently it could also be a larger portion of worse land or a smaller portion of better land, so that each jugum would be of approximately the same value. The juga seem to have been designed to assess requisitions of grain, and the capita to assess other taxes, in coin or in kind. Evidently regions that produced a large surplus of grain, notably Egypt, were assigned more juga and fewer capita than others. The quantity of grain levied per jugum; and tax per caput, could vary from year to year according to the government's needs. Yet the intent appears to have been that in a given year an equal quantity of grain should be levied per jugum and an equal amount of tax per caput, at least within the jurisdiction of each emperor.

This system must have taken some time to put into effect. Each city was assigned a quota of capita and juga for its territory, and the city councils, which had always been responsible for collecting taxes and requisitions, now had to collect the taxes and requisitions that corresponded to their cities' quotas. When the system began, the quotas must have been assigned somewhat arbitrarily, on the basis of current records. But the system at least allowed an accurate census to be made, and Diocletian seems to have planned for a regular revision of assessments in five-year cycles beginning in 287, with the beginning of a thoroughgoing reassessment perhaps scheduled for 292. His plans for a reform of the coinage and of provincial administration may also have begun this early.

Although Diocletian was now primarily ruler of the East, he continued to be aware of the problems of the West. He twice conferred with Maximian at the boundary between Illyricum and Italy, where their jurisdictions met. Once the two rulers campaigned together against the Germans there. Maximian, who had taken Milan as his headquarters, maintained or restored order in most of the West, though he was unable to suppress the rebellion in Britain, which had spread to northwestern Gaul. The record of the two Augusti was by no means a bad one, particularly by the standards of the past century of disasters, but it failed to satisfy Diocletian. He therefore made another major change.

In 293 he arranged with Maximian to proclaim two junior emperors, so that each Augustus received a Caesar, sharing his epithet of Jovius or Herculius, to help rule his part of the empire. Maximian's Caesar was Constantius, his son-in-law and former praetorian prefect, while Diocletian's Caesar was his own son-in-law Galerius, who may also have been his former praetorian prefect. Like both Augusti, the new Caesars were experienced officers from Illyricum. Constantius was given the task of putting down the rebellion in Britain and Gaul, where he took Trier as his headquarters. At this time, Galerius's main headquarters seems to have been Antioch, and his main assignment to guard Syria and Egypt against the Persians, while Diocletian finished strengthening the Danube frontier.

These Caesars, despite having praetorian prefects of their own, were subject to their Augusti even within their assigned regions, which in any case were not permanently fixed. Furthermore, though Constantius and Galerius were not much younger than Diocletian and Maximian, the Caesars were designated heirs to the Augusti, perpetuating the artificial dynasties of the Jovii in the East and the Herculii in the West. This system of four emperors has since been called the tetrarchy. In fact, it simply applied the familiar practice of appointing junior emperors to the existing dyarchy. It therefore tended to confirm rather than to confuse the twofold division of the empire.

Around the time of the appointment of the new Caesars, Diocletian and his colleagues transformed the provincial administration, which had stayed much the same since the time of Augustus. The former provinces, which had been fewer than fifty and of very different sizes, were replaced by about a hundred new provinces of more nearly uniform extent, population, and resources. Some fifty-five of these provinces were in the eastern empire, which was smaller in area but richer and more densely populated. The former provincial governors, who had commanded whatever troops garrisoned their provinces, were replaced by purely civil governors, while the army became subject to separate military officials.

The new provinces were further grouped into twelve large jurisdictions called dioceses, six of which were in the East. Each diocese was administered by a vicar (vicarius), an official who was the superior of the diocese's civil governors. Each vicar's superior was the praetorian prefect of one of the four emperors. Thus the emperors roughly tripled the number of their major officials, adding new prefectures, dioceses, and provinces and appointing military and civil officials to replace the old provincial governors. The number of lower-ranking bureaucrats also increased.

The introduction of four emperors required approximately quadrupling the imperial court, which consisted of councilors, household servants, and several administrative bureaus. Besides the praetorian prefect, whose department was in charge of the army and the requisitions levied for it, each emperor probably received a public treasurer, whose department handled his monetary revenues and mints, and a private treasurer, whose department managed his imperial estates. Each emperor also had bodyguards, messengers, and several departments to keep government records, all soon put under a master of offices (magister officiorum), an official probably created by Diocletian. By a rough estimate, the civil service doubled from about fifteen thousand men to about thirty thousand, of whom something more than half held posts in the East.

Diocletian and his colleagues also greatly enlarged the army. Although the difficulty of recruiting and supplying soldiers probably forced them to increase it more gradually than the much smaller bureaucracy, most of the army's growth appears to have been rapid. The surviving figures that reflect it are open to some doubt, but the overall picture is clear. Starting with an army totaling some 390,000 soldiers in 285, the four emperors seem to have increased it by about half as much again, to some 581,000. Within the East, the increase seems to have been a good deal less, from about 253,000 men to 311,000, with most of the additions being made on the Persian frontier. The navy also increased, from about 46,000 seamen to about 64,000, with perhaps half of each number belonging to the East.

Although earlier each provincial governor had commanded the soldiers in his province, Diocletian created military commands under dukes (duces). The dukes' commands, sometimes covering two or three of the small provinces created by Diocletian, formed a continuous series along the empire's land frontiers. All these ducates had forces ranging from two thousand to over twenty thousand men, usually both cavalry and infantry, and those on the lower Danube had fleets. Many of these frontier troops were quartered in new and elaborate fortifications. While the emperors could summon the dukes' troops whenever necessary, only relatively small mobile reserves accompanied the emperors at other times.

In the process of making his reforms, Diocletian reduced Italy and the city of Rome virtually to provincial status and subjected both the West and the East to the same administrative system. The Roman senate's remaining authority nearly disappeared, and senators became ineligible for all but a few governorships and other offices. Although the senators retained their wealth and personal privileges, most of the real power in the vast new machinery of government belonged to newcomers, many of them soldiers installed by the soldier-emperors. Now the empire's real capitals were simply wherever the emperors happened to be at the time, and many of their officials followed them on their travels.


Excerpted from A History of the Byzantine State and Society by Warren Treadgold. Copyright © 1997 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Introduction Part I. The Enlarged State and the Burdened Society: 1. The refoundation of the Empire, 284-337 2. The state under strain, 337-395 3. The danger of barbarization, 395-457 4. The formation of Byzantine society, 284-457 Part II. The Interrupted Advance: 5. The eastern recovery, 457-518 6. The reconquests and the plague, 518-565 7. The danger of overextension, 565-610 8. A divided society, 457-610 Part III. The Contained Catastrophe: 9. Two fights for survival, 610-668 10. The war of attrition, 668-717 11. The passing of the crisis, 717-780 12. The shrinking of society, 610-780 Part IV. The Long Revival: 13. Internal reforms, 780-842 14. External gains, 842-912 15. The gains secured, 912-963 16. The great conquests, 963-1025 17. The expansion of society, 780-1025 Part V. The Weak State and the Wealthy Society: 18. Erratic government, 1025-1081 19. Improvised reconstruction, 1081-1143 21. A restless society, 1025-1204 Part VI. The Failed Restoration: 22. The successor states, 1204-1261 23. The restored empire, 1261-1328 24. The breakdown, 1328-1391 25. The end of Byzantine independence, 1391-1461 26. The separation of society from state, 1204-1461 Conclusion Appendix Abbreviations Bibliographical survey Endnotes Index.

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