Gondor, Byzantium and Feudalism

Oct 2011
202
Croatia
#1
Found this good piece:
Gondor, Byzantium, and feudalism

Summa summarum:

Tolkien did not go into details on social and political structure of Gondor. Terminology he uses is definitely Western - feudal (fiefs etc.). However, closer look shows that actual structural inspiration for the system of Gondor is that of a middle Byzantine Empire. Tolkien mirrored feudal breakup of the Western Roman Empire in Arnor, which got divided into three weakening kingdoms. Arthedain was feudalistic, as king granted hobbits land in a fief of sorts, though it could also have been a foederati-like setup.

But Gondor is not a feudal society, despite Tolkien using decidedly feudal terminology. It is based on Byzantine Empire, with Gondor of the Stewards corresponding to post-7th century Roman (Byzantine) Empire. In Byzantine Empire of the time, Emperor retained full control of the bureocracy, and each province was ruled by an official (general, strategos) who, while having wide powers, could be recalled at will. Great wealth did not automatically mean high state offices, and there were cases of peasants becoming emperors through merit. Byzantine dukes and counts were military ranks, and were not inherited. While aristocracy monopolized these positions thanks to greater access to education, there was always space for talent from below, and emperor could always sack rebellious generals. Even a successful rebellion meant that a general would take a throne, rather than becoming a quasi-independent ruler as was the case in the West. Thematic troops received land in exchange for service, but land was given directly by the Emperor, who also reserved the right to withdraw the land grant. There was no subinfeudation: land was granted by the Emperor and could be taken away by the Emperor; it was not granted to feudal lord, from lord to a knight, and from knight to a tennant; there were no layers of vassals.

While fief is a feudal term, its function in Gondor is not feudal. Imrahil is Prince of Dol Amroth, not Prince of Belfalas. There appears to be no hereditary ruler of Belfalas. While Imrahil may have been a large landowner, he is primarily the strategos of Belfalas, which is a state office. And just like the men of the themes could be called onto a campaign but principally stayed to guard their own homes, so did various fiefs of Gondor only send a small portion of forces to defend the capital. There is no indication of any leader of any one of forces led to Minas Tirith having a vassal, and their territories are both fairly small and of similar size to one another. Likewise, knight is merely a general term for an armoured cavalryman. Byzantines had such cavalry - cataphracti - and in the later period they were equipped after the pattern of Western knights.
 
Mar 2016
1,116
Australia
#2
I think he certainly took inspiration for part of Gondor from Byzantium, but it definitely isn't a 1/1 comparison and I don't think he intended them to be overly similar beyond a certain point. Pretty much every fantasy author ever takes direct inspiration from history, and especially the medieval era. He borrowed some aesthetics and details from Byzantium, but overlaid it on top of his own fictional creation.
 
Sep 2017
709
United States
#3
Parallels go a bit deeper too. Gondor could be considered the East if Arnor was the West; Arnor was originally the chief of the two until it fell to infighting, Orcs, and barbarians much like the WRE (minus the Orcs).

Gondor’s traditional opponents are eastern, literally and culturally. Harad especially, as it is somewhat akin to desert cultures like the Arabs and Turks.

Gondor was once very powerful, but eventually dwindled to basically a city-state with some other territories outside. The Byzantines were ditto in their twilight.

Civil war plagued both.

Both had (more) professional armies than their contemporaries, but struggled with recruiting and maintaining a large enough force.

Minas Tirith’s first level had never been breached. Neither had Constantinople’s Theodosian Walls.

Both relied on other entities to provide troops, especially cavalry (Alan/Steppe Riders for Byzantium and Rohirrim for Gondor).

And, to top it off, in the movies the architecture of Minas Tirith and especially Osgiliath show Byzantine influence.
 
Oct 2011
202
Croatia
#4
I think he certainly took inspiration for part of Gondor from Byzantium, but it definitely isn't a 1/1 comparison and I don't think he intended them to be overly similar beyond a certain point. Pretty much every fantasy author ever takes direct inspiration from history, and especially the medieval era. He borrowed some aesthetics and details from Byzantium, but overlaid it on top of his own fictional creation.
It definitely is not 1/1 comparison, but I do believe he did not intend Gondor to be a typical feudal society.
 
Likes: Spike117

Similar History Discussions