Monday, March 20, 2017

The Byzantine Homestead Act


Roman history, whether Latin or Greek, graphically illustrates the importance of widespread ownership to national security — and the inevitable tendency of the rich and powerful to concentrate ownership, whether privately (capitalism) or publicly (socialism) to the detriment of national wellbeing, even disaster.
Basileus ("Emperor"...sort of) Heraclius ... maybe.
The political as well as economic importance of widespread ownership of the means of production has been recognized from the earliest times.  As Plutarch had Tiberius Gracchus declare in a speech in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (the classic John Dryden translation),
He told them that the commanders were guilty of a ridiculous error, when, at the head of their armies, they exhorted the common soldiers to fight for their sepulchers and altars; when not any amongst so many Romans is possessed of either altar or monument, neither have they any houses of their own, or hearths of their ancestors to defend.  They fought indeed and were slain, but it was to maintain the luxury and the wealth of other men.  They were styled the masters of the world, but in the meantime had not one foot of ground which they could call their own.
Not surprisingly, it was widespread ownership of landed capital that secured the economic and military might of Byzantium from the seventh to the eleventh centuries.  This covered the period from the restoration of the Empire by Heraclius, to the disaster of Manzikert.
Heraclius, Blessed Virgin, and Consort
It was in the year 610 that Heraclius, whom Lord John Julius Norwich called (with a great deal of justice) “the First Crusader,” became Basileus.  All signs pointed to the very real possibility that he would be the last.  The Empire was dissolving before his eyes.
Greece had been lost to the Slavs, while the Persians were rampaging throughout Asia Minor.  Jerusalem had fallen, the True Cross and other sacred relics of the Crucifixion had been carried off, and a number of shrines, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, had been pillaged and burned.  Chaos reigned.
Instead of rushing headlong into battle and dying with great glory and even greater futility — at which many subsequent historians expressed complete bafflement — Heraclius set about completely reorganizing the Imperial government and the economy.  Faced with an empty treasury, a demoralized army, and a hopelessly corrupt bureaucracy, it was a daunting task.
Heraclius’s first act was to divide the territory remaining to him into “Themes,” a term previously used for a division of troops.  In place of the former complete centralization, power was devolved, with each Theme being semi-autonomous under a Strategos, who served as both civil governor and military commander.
Heraclius, Consort, and 1/72 Roman pound of gold.
Large numbers of new villages were established, colonized by soldiers and potential soldiers.  These received what amounted to freehold grants of land, subject only to hereditary military service by the landowner or his eldest son whenever demanded.  Each received a small stipend, which helped defray the cost of arms, armor, and the horses and mules essential to campaigning over great distances each man was expected to maintain.
At one stroke, Heraclius created a solid national army of native, land-owning, battle-ready reservists who could be called up at any time and who, simultaneously, began a restoration of the tax base.  This replaced the haphazard use of conscripts and mercenaries, both notoriously uncertain in number and unreliable in battle as well as untrained in organized warfare.
The economic benefits were not immediately realized, however, and Heraclius still had to raise money for his campaign to drive out the Persians and conquer the Slavs.  Increased taxes, forced loans, advances from rich relatives and friends, and heavy fines on corrupt bureaucrats provided some funding.
The primary source of cash, however, came from the Orthodox Church.  Somewhat apocalyptically, the Patriarch Sergius considered the war the final conflict between the holy armies of Christ and the fire-worshipping Zoroastrians.
Heraclius receiving envoys.
Sergius overlooked certain irregularities in Heraclius’s private life and patriotically put the financial resources of the entire Church, from the smallest parish up to the largest monastery and archdiocese, at the disposal of the Basileus.  Heraclius accepted gratefully.
Finally, after twelve years and a series of adventures that sound like the plot of a bad historical novel, Heraclius was ready.  He carefully selected as training ground an area only a few stadia from where Alexander the Great had landed in his campaign against the Persians.
There the Basileus spent the entire summer of 622 engaged in intensive training and morale-building, telling his soldiers repeatedly that they were God’s Chosen Instruments against the forces of Antichrist, and that the Lord of Hosts would Himself ensure their victory.  Modern skeptics might be tempted to argue or sneer, but the appeal to faith and patriotism was effective, and Heraclius succeeded, although the war that began that autumn was long and difficult.
Heraclius’s reforms saved the Empire, but even they could be improved.  During his reign, despite the reorganization, a few great magnates controlled most of the land.  A century later, as reflected in “the Farmers’ Law” of the late seventh or early eighth century, small holdings had proliferated, thanks to Heraclius’s colonization program, a sort of Medieval Homestead Act.
This created a great and growing reserve army for the Empire composed of provincial militia whose strength derived from the economic power of widespread capital ownership.  This maintained the security of the state until the bureaucratic party, envious of the economic independence of the common people and fearful of the military, began undermining both by destroying small ownership and concentrating power in the hands of the government administration that they controlled.
#30#

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