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16.11.21, Haldon, The Empire That Would Not Die

16.11.21, Haldon, The Empire That Would Not Die

Squeezed between first the Persians and then the Muslims from the east and the south, the Slavs, the Balkan tribes, and the peoples of the steppe from the north, and the increasingly hostile Catholic Christians from the west, the eastern Roman empire, popularly known under its modern name of Byzantium, survived for more than a thousand years before its final demise in the mid-fifteenth century. It found itself on the brink of collapse several times, and each time, save the last one, it came back to life. The reasons behind Byzantium's longevity and resilience have become an academic subject of their own. Haldon's new book focuses on details and the mechanics of Byzantium's survival in the period from the rise and spread of Islam, when Byzantium lost three-quarters of its territory, to the decisive defeat of the Arabs by Byzantine emperors a hundred years later, which stopped Muslim incursions, recovered some of the lost lands, and paved the way for Byzantium's subsequent revival.

The introduction (1-25) critically evaluates modern theories that explain systemic collapses as either the results of a system's increasing complexity or the interactions of systems and sub-systems over a period of time. Such theories, notes Haldon, essentially pass over the mentalities, attitudes, and beliefs of the system's individual agents and entities, although they constitute an important element of the system's cohesion and resilience. Uncovering Byzantine mentalities, attitudes, and beliefs is a challenging task for several reasons, however, and Haldon points to the often modernized perception of mentality and ideology, while rejecting the Eurocentric- and Enlightenment-minded approaches. Religious beliefs, social attitudes, moral norms, and political ideologies of social groups and individuals maintained the cohesion and unity of Byzantium at the time of its loss of physical territory, decline of revenues and military force, and economic exhaustion. Haldon establishes "ideas" (ideology, beliefs), "spaces" (spatial dimensions, with a focus on geography, ecology, and communication, among other topics), and "praxis" (in the form of practical actions and responses from individuals and groups) as his book's three main premises when examining the survival of Byzantium during that century of crisis. One wonders whether it was actually Byzantine society (with all its complexities and internal contradictions) that overcame destabilizing factors and preserved the integrity of the eastern Roman empire, rather than the Byzantine state, which was, after all, a product of this society's beliefs, ideas, and attitudes.

Chapter 1 (26-78), which is the longest in the book, supplies an overall background of the history of Byzantium and its eastern neighbors in the period from the sixth to the eighth century. In addition to rendering the usual story of political, religious, military, and social events and developments during that time, Haldon points to the importance of geographical and climatic factors, with reference to the role of the Taurus mountain range as a natural barrier to Arab expansion, and the impact of the Late Antique Little Ice Age on the survival of Byzantium. He also provides extensive information on the financial, logistical, and political challenges faced by Muslim rulers, which alleviated some of the pressure on the eastern Roman empire.

Chapter 2 (79-119) illustrates the role of religious beliefs and moral norms for individual involvement in a collective mentality, and adherence to spiritual, cultural, and social uniformity. Among other things, Haldon's discussion of religious controversies during this period aims to show the emergence of the new Byzantine mentality, which was different from late Roman religious perceptions, and the development of new forms of interaction between religion and the state. At the same time, the evidence collected in this chapter reveals that the survival of the Byzantine state depended, to a large extent, on the "shared moral universe" (103) of its people, who adhered to largely the same religious beliefs and social norms. Haldon also raises important questions about the extent of the religious influence of central Christian authorities on the population in the countryside, and of the religious homogeny of Byzantine society. While levels of religious uniformity and conformity differed geographically, individuals and communities identified themselves as Orthodox, and explained political and military power in the same religious terms.

Chapters 3 (120-158) and 4 (159-192) develop some of the same themes in more detail, focusing on the Byzantines' shared and divided interests in the field of religion (whose importance extended far beyond the boundaries of personal belief), and in administrative and societal organization, respectively. Chapter 3 deals with the unifying role of secular and canon law, and, more broadly, with the close relationship between secular and religious authority. Haldon sees this situation as conducive to the "penetrative authority of the state," and to the strengthening of the "imperial church" as the structuring element in "Byzantine notions of empire and imperial rule at the humblest level of village society" (127), giving priority to institutional forms over shared societal values and beliefs. One of the outcomes of this development was the growing religious role of the emperor, who combined secular and Christian power in his hands, representing a unifying authority in both fields. The Byzantines' gradual realization that Islam was not a heresy but a separate religion also furthered their Christian identity, just as Arab attacks brought the Byzantines together politically and militarily. Provinces, therefore, were represented by soldiers and clergy who constituted local authority, as juxtaposed with the central authority of the emperor and imperial bureaucracy. Both sides co-operated within a "ruling ideology" (155) or the "official doctrine" that brought together cities and rural hinterlands (158).

Chapter 4 ascribes the key role in the survival of the eastern Roman empire to the Byzantine elites, focusing on their overlapping and conflicting social and political interests: "the role of members of the old senatorial establishment in the provinces--most of whom held high imperial office or titles of one sort or another--was one important facet of the glue that held the empire together" (161). The local authority of provincial elites depended on their loyalty to the central power, while provincial potentates created the pool of candidates to fill important positions in central and local administration. The loss of a large part of the Byzantine territory to the Muslims further strengthened the loyalty of the remaining provincial elites to the central authority. Corresponding changes included the mounting militarization of provincial society, the reconfiguration of the system of titles (with a growing emphasis on military positions), and the rising dependence of office holders on the ruler. The most important development, however, was the creation of the new elite, from (i) the nobles who fled from the territories lost by the Byzantine empire in the east; (ii) various ethnic non-Roman groups (as Haldon notes, Armenian, Turkic, Slavic, Iranian, and Semitic names "begin to appear in greater numbers than hitherto in chronicles, histories and on lead seals" [171]); (iii) well-established local land-owning families that connected themselves with the government at Constantinople through occupying military positions in provinces; and, finally, (iv) the people who rose from humble origins via vertical mobility, often beginning as part of the retinue of local potentates. The creation of this new imperial elite was also necessitated by the disappearance of cities with their administrative, economic, and social functions, and their role as intermediaries between provinces and the central authority. While pointing to the evidence about various forms of oppression of provincials by the local and central authorities, and about local responses--in the form of rebellion, banditry, and flight--Haldon concludes that "provincial populations had no obvious ideological alternative than to identify with their empire" (186). Horizontal divisions did not preclude "vertical solidarities" (187), especially in critical moments when the provincials' only defense was the imperial army, which itself was "led and officered by provincials" (189). Common interests played more a important role in maintaining unity and offering resistance to the enemy's incursions than coercion from the capital.

Chapter 5 (193-214) develops the topic of the replacement of the old senatorial elite with the new service elite with heterogenic ethnic, social, and cultural origins. While the old Roman culture became extinct, as Haldon argues, literary culture did not completely vanish, and the knowledge of Greek letters and literature was a necessary condition of social and administrative advancement. This social uniformity was also furthered by coercion, sanctions, and the policy of granting titles and honors, which created reciprocal relations between the central authority and provincial elites.

Chapter 6 (215-248) evaluates environmental factors, with the focus on climate, landscape, and agricultural production, and illustrates how territorial rearrangements and natural factors, like "changes in the broader climate" (216), affected the ways through which the Byzantine government managed its resources and, in particular, brought about a new administrative apparatus. Synthesizing different kinds of evidence (including archaeological finds, pollen data, records on solar activity, tree rings, and sea-surface temperatures, among others) allowed Haldon to suggest that the established agricultural pattern across the southern Balkans and much of Anatolia changed, beginning in the middle of the sixth century. Against the overall decline in human activity (with a marked reduction in the cultivation of vines, olives, and nut trees in some areas), cereal production and stock-raising grew significantly, prompting Haldon to speak about a "simplified and more regionally diverse agropastoral regime" from the later sixth or seventh century (227). The simplification of agricultural production was paralleled by a dramatic decline in settlement density and numbers. Haldon is cautious, though, to stress both regional diversity and the problematic nature of directly connecting shifts in agricultural and pastoral patterns with climate changes and/or political and military developments. Still, the decline in agricultural output coupled with the eventual loss of Egypt, and the unreliable supply from Sicily and North Africa led the Byzantine government to make administrative adjustments and reorient the supply of Constantinople and provincial armies, with the Pontic region and Anatolia playing a more important role.

Chapter 7 (249-282) details how administrative rearrangements introduced by the Byzantine government contributed to the cohesion and survival of Byzantium. Haldon goes over mint and coin reform by the emperor Heraclius, and related activities by his successors, pointing to the growing centralization in this field and to a "real shift in the dynamics of coin use and circulation over many decades," which suggests "changes in the degree and nature of day-to-day market exchange relationships and thus of the nature of economic activity more broadly" (254-5). The sigillographic documentation illustrates the rise in importance of the kommerkiarioi during this period, whose responsibilities were overtaken by the dioiketai in the 730s, when Byzantium's economic situation became stabilized. Critically evaluating the "farmer-soldier" theory, Haldon emphasizes the role of the Byzantine state in maintaining and financing the military. He believes that the state responded to the crisis remarkably well, by adjusting the central and provincial administration, the financial system, the system of tax collection (with a shift to "raising a much greater proportion of the resources required for the armies in kind" [275]), and by using various means to impact the "agricultural strategies employed by landowners and farmers" to better reflect the needs of the empire (282).

The conclusion (283-294) reinforces Haldon's opinion that the Byzantine government effectively responded to the drastic reduction of territory, revenues, and material resources by introducing reforms and adjustments in various fields, from ideology to financial administration, and capitalizing on existing conditions. Haldon's view is that the empire survived due to the close combination of five factors: the prevalence of common beliefs and identity; the creation of a new elite, whose interests coincided with the concerns of the imperial court; the use of strategic geography for protecting the empire's reduced territory; the role of climate and environment in securing Byzantium's economic and military needs in the time of crisis; and "organizational factors" (288).

By integrating extensive and diverse material, Haldon's book explains Byzantium's survival in a much more detailed and nuanced fashion than any previous study. It presents this survival in the form of a transformation and places the history of Byzantium during this century of crisis in a much broader framework, not only thematically, by adducing evidence about ideology, personal and group mentality, geography, administration, political history, and environment and climate, among other fields, but also geographically, by paying attention to regional diversity, offering consistent comparisons with the situation in the Byzantine-controlled territories in the west, and analyzing the developments in the lands that had been conquered by the Muslims.