Middle Byzantium as an 'Early Modern State'

Jan 2016
1,140
Victoria, Canada
Could middle Byzantine Rome be considered, outside of being temporally confined to the middle ages, an early modern state? Oftentimes I've seen figures such as Frederick II Hohenstaufen be called the "first [early] modern ruler" (as in the Wiki article), and remarks be made such as "England at the height of the 100 years war was beginning to become something approaching an early modern state" (as in Tides of History), which have piqued my interests in regards to what actually falls under that umbrella. The most generally accepted requirements for a state fitting such a description seem to be:

1: The heavy centralization of power, sovereignty, and institutions, either in one person or one place

2: The bureaucratization of state functions and the establishment of a state monopoly on taxation

3: The alignment of aristocratic and state interests, particularly in regards to the establishment of a dependent aristocracy of service

4: The professionalization of the military and the establishment of a state monopoly on violence

5: The proliferation of legalism, particularly in regards to Roman or Romanizing law

6: The general conceptualization of the state as such, as opposed to a network of personal connections

7: The existence of a defined citizenry, as opposed to shifting levels and layers of personal subjection

8: The (at least partial) domination of the religious establishment by the secular state, and

9 (bonus but not a requirement): The association of the state with a specific nation and vice-versa, as self-defined, creating a nation-state


The Roman polity of the 10th century, it turns out, could claim all of these in full abundance.

The imperial state maintained an enormous professional, meritocratic bureaucracy which managed legal matters, the public post, public infrastructure, domestic and military logistics, the state treasury, and taxation, upon which not just the government but Constantinople itself maintained an unchallenged monopoly; managed its territories through civil and military governors, legally bound in responsibilities and power, and sent out from the capital in set rotation; could call on a professional, meritocratic military centralized in capital-based offices, deeply connected with and dependent on the state bureaucracy, and which maintained an unchallenged monopoly on armed force; actively prevented the accumulation of significant private estates, and aligned those wealthy elites not already dependent on state employ with its interests through titles and salaries; utterly dominated its domestic religious establishment, almost itself a state branch; flatly imposed a sophisticated and continually updated Roman legal code on its provinces; represented a clearly defined Roman citizenry with clearly defined rights, as distinct from slaves and foreigners, making a concerted effort to protect this class from illegal elite oppression; and, as the "Empire of the Romans", consciously represented, and drew legitimacy largely from the support of, a Roman nation defined by language, customs, and birth, thus making it an early nation-state.

It seems to me, therefore, that, even while England was being raided by Vikings and Frankish emperors were giving their realms away to their sons piecemeal, Byzantine Rome pretty snugly fit the established academic definition of an "early modern state", more than ranking among the likes of Henry VIII's England, Francis I's France, and Suleiman I's Ottoman Empire, but I'm curious to see what others think, especially those that have in-depth knowledge on the early modern period itself; is there a key aspect I'm missing here that fundamentally sets them apart? Were banking, mercantilism, or printing inseparable on some level from the workings of early modern states? Do technological and social differences underlying such similar state structures and dynamics belie productive comparison? My impression is no, but again, I'm interested to see what other members think.
 
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Oct 2017
186
United States
I think that's a bit of a reach personally, Byzantium more or less operated under the pretense of a modern state because of well, there's the joke, it's intense bureaucracy, and yet modern states these days have done everything in their power to resist the label of being heavily bureaucratic, making it seem as so it's not the best metric...


More likely I would just view it as the Byzantine Empire, a unique entity which hasn't really seen a paralell since..
 
Aug 2009
527
Hm.. this topic reminds me of the time differences in the states structure and organization in the East and the West.

All of these items were valid for Byzantium (with the exception of 9.) and for Bulgaria (with the exception of 4.). The power consolidation in the hands of the monarch made these states strong and resistant to the attacks of Asian invaders.

It was the feudal disintegration from the 14-15th c. that lead to the comparatively easy Ottoman conquest of the Balkans.

Western European states became strong when they consolidated the power in the hands of the monarch, which started during that time.
 
Jan 2016
1,140
Victoria, Canada
I think that's a bit of a reach personally, Byzantium more or less operated under the pretense of a modern state because of well, there's the joke, it's intense bureaucracy, and yet modern states these days have done everything in their power to resist the label of being heavily bureaucratic, making it seem as so it's not the best metric...
Modern states are insanely bureaucratized compared to anything from before the 20th century, but early modern states were really entirely different beasts from the current states from which they are now some half a millennium removed, working within very different parameters, with different standards, and facing very different problems. Centralization, legalization, and bureaucratization were the counterweights and antitheses to the messy, resource-draining, ruralizing, and utterly nepotistic and corrupt feudal hierarchies of the western European middle ages; they weren't yet stigmatized as restrictive and stifling forces, as they would become in certain places over the 19th century, and, in the context of medieval society, they really shouldn't be. In 1300 a French peasant not in the royal demesne was subject without recourse to the near-arbitrary laws and regulations of his hereditary lord, invariably ruling in favour of himself, but a french peasant in 1600 had a well-defined and better enforced set of rights as a subject of the French king, and could appeal to impartial (well, less partial) royal justice if he felt those rights were being infringed on by a lord (by then much less powerful) or anyone else, among other things.

The premise of this thread is essentially that the Roman Empire of the early middle ages had already developed the institutions and characteristics considered quintessentially "early modern" a great number of centuries before western Europe; 10th century Romans didn't have to wait until the 16th century to be able to appeal to a central imperial justice, have defined rights as free citizens, be administered by central governors instead of feudal lords, be protected by a fully professional military armed, maintained, and supplied by the state, or associate themselves with a nation-state existing to protect and advance their collective interests as a people. Transport the Roman Empire of 1000 AD to 1400 and give it contemporary technology and the consolidating polities of Europe would be playing catch-up, not leading the way out of the medieval period.

More likely I would just view it as the Byzantine Empire, a unique entity which hasn't really seen a paralell since..
Not in its time, certainly, at least outside of China (which is a whole separate discussion), but a surprisingly huge amount of parallels can be found in early modern Europe, which is what prompted the creation of this thread in the first place.
 
Jan 2016
1,140
Victoria, Canada
Hm.. this topic reminds me of the time differences in the states structure and organization in the East and the West.

All of these items were valid for Byzantium (with the exception of 9.) and for Bulgaria (with the exception of 4.). The power consolidation in the hands of the monarch made these states strong and resistant to the attacks of Asian invaders.

It was the feudal disintegration from the 14-15th c. that lead to the comparatively easy Ottoman conquest of the Balkans.

Western European states became strong when they consolidated the power in the hands of the monarch, which started during that time.
An intensely centralizing and Romanizing Bulgaria under Simeon came relatively close, but I don't think we can really compare Bulgaria to the great European powers of the 16th century in the same way we can contemporary Rome, for a variety of Reasons. Bulgaria did not have a monetized economy, a state monopoly on taxation, a bureaucratized state, a largely professional military, or a state monopoly on armed force, all rather key aspects of early modern states which the Romans did have, though that isn't to say that it wasn't one of the most centralized polities of medieval Europe, which it most certainly was.

Also, I'm personally a pretty strong proponent of the idea, advanced by Anthony Kaldellis and Leonora Neville, that middle Byzantium was, in essence, a Roman nation-state, which consciously represented, and could claim the loyalty of, a self-defined Roman nation distinguished by language, customs, and birth, so I would suggest Byzantine Rome fits into the definition of 9 pretty fully as well.
 

Bart Dale

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
7,095
Could middle Byzantine Rome be considered, outside of being temporally confined to the middle ages, an early modern state? Oftentimes I've seen figures such as Frederick II Hohenstaufen be called the "first [early] modern ruler" (as in the Wiki article), and remarks be made such as "England at the height of the 100 years war was beginning to become something approaching an early modern state" (as in Tides of History), which have piqued my interests in regards to what actually falls under that umbrella. The most generally accepted requirements for a state fitting such a description seem to be:

1: The heavy centralization of power, sovereignty, and institutions, either in one person or one place

2: The bureaucratization of state functions and the establishment of a state monopoly on taxation

3: The alignment of aristocratic and state interests, particularly in regards to the establishment of a dependent aristocracy of service

4: The professionalization of the military and the establishment of a state monopoly on violence

5: The proliferation of legalism, particularly in regards to Roman or Romanizing law

6: The general conceptualization of the state as such, as opposed to a network of personal connections

7: The existence of a defined citizenry, as opposed to shifting levels and layers of personal subjection

8: The (at least partial) domination of the religious establishment by the secular state, and

9 (bonus but not a requirement): The association of the state with a specific nation and vice-versa, as self-defined, creating a nation-state


The Roman polity of the 10th century, it turns out, could claim all of these in full abundance.

The imperial state maintained an enormous professional, meritocratic bureaucracy which managed legal matters, the public post, public infrastructure, domestic and military logistics, the state treasury, and taxation, upon which not just the government but Constantinople itself maintained an unchallenged monopoly; managed its territories through civil and military governors, legally bound in responsibilities and power, and sent out from the capital in set rotation; could call on a professional, meritocratic military centralized in capital-based offices, deeply connected with and dependent on the state bureaucracy, and which maintained an unchallenged monopoly on armed force; actively prevented the accumulation of significant private estates, and aligned those wealthy elites not already dependent on state employ with its interests through titles and salaries; utterly dominated its domestic religious establishment, almost itself a state branch; flatly imposed a sophisticated and continually updated Roman legal code on its provinces; represented a clearly defined Roman citizenry with clearly defined rights, as distinct from slaves and foreigners, making a concerted effort to protect this class from illegal elite oppression; and, as the "Empire of the Romans", consciously represented, and drew legitimacy largely from the support of, a Roman nation defined by language, customs, and birth, thus making it an early nation-state.

It seems to me, therefore, that, even while England was being raided by Vikings and Frankish emperors were giving their realms away to their sons piecemeal, Byzantine Rome pretty snugly fit the established academic definition of an "early modern state", more than ranking among the likes of Henry VIII's England, Francis I's France, and Suleiman I's Ottoman Empire, but I'm curious to see what others think, especially those that have in-depth knowledge on the early modern period itself; is there a key aspect I'm missing here that fundamentally sets them apart? Were banking, mercantilism, or printing inseparable on some level from the workings of early modern states? Do technological and social differences underlying such similar state structures and dynamics belie productive comparison? My impression is no, but again, I'm interested to see what other members think.
Most of the features you claim for the Byzantine empire was true of the earlier Roman empire.

The bureacracy might have been less professional during Roman.times, but I suspect connections played a role as well.as merit in Byzantine bureacracy. Certainly the Roman army was as professional.

And the Byzantine empire was composed of many ethnic groups, not all were Greek, there were Armenians and others. I not see a national identity so much as an Imperialone for the Byzantine, centered around a single city, Constantinople.

I.wonder how independent the Byzantine courts were - I may be wrong, but I don't see the Byzantine feeling the need to formally try traitors and such in a formal.court of law, as is done in modern nation's.
 
Aug 2009
527
An intensely centralizing and Romanizing Bulgaria under Simeon came relatively close, but I don't think we can really compare Bulgaria to the great European powers of the 16th century in the same way we can contemporary Rome, for a variety of Reasons. 1) Bulgaria did not have a monetized economy, 2) a state monopoly on taxation, 3) a bureaucratized state, 4) a largely professional military, or 5) a state monopoly on armed force, all rather key aspects of early modern states which the Romans did have, though that isn't to say that it wasn't one of the most centralized polities of medieval Europe, which it most certainly was.

Also, I'm personally a pretty strong proponent of the idea, advanced by Anthony Kaldellis and Leonora Neville, that middle Byzantium was, in essence, a Roman nation-state, which consciously represented, and could claim the loyalty of, a self-defined Roman nation distinguished by language, customs, and birth, so I would suggest Byzantine Rome fits into the definition of 9 pretty fully as well.
Well, now you are adding more criteria. :)

1) and 4) were not applicable, but the rest were. About 3), I am not sure.

Regarding the "Roman nation", there was no such thing in Byzantium.
 
Jan 2016
1,140
Victoria, Canada
Most of the features you claim for the Byzantine empire was true of the earlier Roman empire.
I think the classical Roman Empire operated in too different a way in too different a context for the label to really mean anything; it was a unique combination of a republican cursus honorum and a professional military complimented by the Princeps and the meandering authority of his immediate household. There was, at least in large part, no real separation drawn between what "bureaucracy" there was and the political sphere, nor was there any real separation between religion and secular administration. Slaves also made up a massive portion of the realm's population, among other insurmountable societal gaps between the classical world and early modern Europe. It was a system that worked very well for what it was, but there are far, far more differences than similarities between the state structures and dynamics of classical Rome, and, say, 16th century France or England.

The bureacracy might have been less professional during Roman.times, but I suspect connections played a role as well.as merit in Byzantine bureacracy.
Oh certainly, as they did in all early modern states and still do now, but having connections in medieval Rome almost invariably meant being a member of the dozens of aristocratic and upper-middle-class families whose wealth depended on continued imperial employ, both in the capital and in the provinces, which meant having a familial administrative tradition and thorough education, which meant being more qualified from the outset than 95% of non-aristocrats for a middling or higher bureaucratic office. The Roman government essentially fostered and maintained a meritorious aristocracy of service which possessed the very, very rare skills needed to actually run a functioning bureaucracy on such a monumental scale, an educational-political-economic complex which would later get it labelled a "nation of secretaries" by medieval westerners - disdainfully at the time but which can be taken as quite a positive assessment now.

Of course none of that is to say that being born in the wrong place to parents with the wrong connections would invariably put a stop to your administrative career before it even began; the government, especially the conquering government of the 10th and 11th centuries, was always looking for functionaries, and if you had the skills and managed to talk to the right people you could probably get a job somewhere. In that sense middle Byzantium could actually enable more social and political mobility than classical Rome. A number of our most prominent Roman historians of the period were from provincial cities, including Michael Attaleiates (from Attaleia) and Niketas Choniates (from Chonai), who were sent to the capital by their families to pursue general educations and government careers, and many emperors similarly had provincial and sometimes quite lowly origins.

And the Byzantine empire was composed of many ethnic groups, not all were Greek, there were Armenians and others.
Armenians, Georgians, Slavs, and others weren't Romans and didn't consider themselves Romans. The Empire of the Romans, as implied by the name, was governed for and by the Romans, defined as Greek-speaking Christians who were born to Roman or Romanized parents, identified as Roman, and practiced Roman customs. While ambiguous Armenians and quasi-Armenians, always Orthodox, sometimes show up in the administration, that doesn't change the fact that it was the Romans with which the government identified itself and the Roman government with which the Romans identified themselves. Armenians at large were considered foreigners and heretics and disdained as semi-barbarians. When they sought employ in the Roman government they were expected to conform to Roman cultural, linguistic, and religious standards, and even then they were distrusted. Thus Kekaumenos in his mirror of a prince:

"Do not raise foreigners to high offices nor entrust great responsibilities to them, unless they belong to the royal line of their lands, because by doing so you shall surely render yourself and your Roman officials ineffectual. For whenever you honor a foreigner coming from the herd as primicerius or general, what can you give to a Roman as a worthy position of command? You shall make him your enemy in every way. And in [the foreigner's] own land, when people hear that this man has attained such a worthy position of rule, they shall all laugh and say: Here we consider this fellow to be a nobody. But upon entering Romania, our friend happened upon such a office and, so it seems, was promoted precisely because there was no one fit for the job. If the Romans were themselves capable, they would not have elevated this man to such a high position. And heaven forbid that your majesty should say: I benefitted this fellow so that when the others saw it, they would come forward, too. This is not a good objective. For, if you wish, [by just promising them] a bite to eat and a cloak I can bring you as many of these foreigners as you like. My lord, it is most expedient for Romania not to honor foreigners with great offices. For if they serve for just a cloak and some bread, rest assured that they shall serve you faithfully and with all their hearts, looking to your hands to receive some small change and bread."

This is not the attitude of a so-called "multi-ethnic empire" - a thoroughly outdated concept only popularized because scholars refused to recognize the breadth, depth, and implications of medieval Roman identity - it's the behavior of a nation-state which tentatively utilizes foreign talent if it conforms and stays in second place to native candidates.

I not see a national identity so much as an Imperialone for the Byzantine, centered around a single city, Constantinople.
Constantinople was certainly important, especially in regards to abstract configurations of legitimate Romanitas and Translatio Imperii sometimes important on a political and diplomatic level, but it did not serve as the foundation of Roman identity. Imperial legitimacy, identity, and branding came from all levels in medieval Rome, not just the top; The Empire of the Romans believed itself to be such because it was run and populated by the Romans, as much in 1000 AD as in 100, not because an emperor changed the capital centuries ago, even if that had become an important plot point in the national origin story.

The idea that Roman identity in "Byzantium" was a function of a single city is the result of a massive misunderstanding and underestimation of medieval Roman identity. Remember that the "Byzantines" didn't believe their polity to be the "Byzantine Empire" or even the "Eastern Roman Empire", they believed it to be the "Res Publica of the Romans", which had Christianized and relocated from Rome in the middle of its history, not the beginning. New Rome was venerated by the Romans as the "Imperial City" as old Rome had been in the ancient past, but this veneration was a continuous elevation of the city to the center of the Roman world by the Romans, not some desperate worship of the item which defined their Romanitas. After 1204 both Nicaea and Trebizond would be similarly praised and venerated as surrogate "Imperial Cities" while Constantinople was occupied, though of course not as strongly or intensely in light of Roman disunity and shame.

I.wonder how independent the Byzantine courts were - I may be wrong, but I don't see the Byzantine feeling the need to formally try traitors and such in a formal.court of law, as is done in modern nation's.
It was done, if not always. Oftentimes you hear of a traitor or criminal being "handed over to the courts" by the emperor to be judged according to the laws, sometimes accompanied by an imperial pardon or lessening of a sentence after a verdict had been given out as a show of benefaction, but more often not. The Roman legal system was extremely sophisticated and handled most affairs completely independently of the imperial court, with most exceptions having to do with higher treason or some crime inflicted on the imperial family or its affiliates, though some emperors and empresses also took an express interest in legal participation.
 
Aug 2009
527
Armenians, Georgians, Slavs, and others weren't Romans and didn't consider themselves Romans. The Empire of the Romans, as implied by the name, was governed for and by the Romans, defined as Greek-speaking Christians who were born to Roman or Romanized parents, identified as Roman, and practiced Roman customs. While ambiguous Armenians and quasi-Armenians, always Orthodox, sometimes show up in the administration, that doesn't change the fact that it was the Romans with which the government identified itself and the Roman government with which the Romans identified themselves. Armenians at large were considered foreigners and heretics and disdained as semi-barbarians. When they sought employ in the Roman government they were expected to conform to Roman cultural, linguistic, and religious standards, and even then they were distrusted. Thus Kekaumenos in his mirror of a prince:

"Do not raise foreigners to high offices nor entrust great responsibilities to them, unless they belong to the royal line of their lands, because by doing so you shall surely render yourself and your Roman officials ineffectual. For whenever you honor a foreigner coming from the herd as primicerius or general, what can you give to a Roman as a worthy position of command? You shall make him your enemy in every way. And in [the foreigner's] own land, when people hear that this man has attained such a worthy position of rule, they shall all laugh and say: Here we consider this fellow to be a nobody. But upon entering Romania, our friend happened upon such a office and, so it seems, was promoted precisely because there was no one fit for the job. If the Romans were themselves capable, they would not have elevated this man to such a high position. And heaven forbid that your majesty should say: I benefitted this fellow so that when the others saw it, they would come forward, too. This is not a good objective. For, if you wish, [by just promising them] a bite to eat and a cloak I can bring you as many of these foreigners as you like. My lord, it is most expedient for Romania not to honor foreigners with great offices. For if they serve for just a cloak and some bread, rest assured that they shall serve you faithfully and with all their hearts, looking to your hands to receive some small change and bread."

This is not the attitude of a so-called "multi-ethnic empire" - a thoroughly outdated concept only popularized because scholars refused to recognize the breadth, depth, and implications of medieval Roman identity - it's the behavior of a nation-state which tentatively utilizes foreign talent if it conforms and stays in second place to native candidates.
The name of the empire and its subjects was kept for mostly political reasons. In practice, there was almost nothing left to be Roman, nationwise, in the empire of Constantinople. If it weren't true, they would not change the official language.

The oppinion you quoted above, is to be considered as such - an oppinion. In practice, we have numeorous high-ranking officals in the empire's administration, including emperors, who did not have a Roman nationality. They were Orthodox Christians who knew the official language. Period.
 

Kirialax

Ad Honorem
Dec 2009
4,886
Blachernai
The oppinion you quoted above, is to be considered as such - an oppinion. In practice, we have numeorous high-ranking officals in the empire's administration, including emperors, who did not have a Roman nationality. They were Orthodox Christians who knew the official language. Period.

Opinions matter when they're the opinion of highly-educated, peer-reviewed scholars. From Rapp, Claudia. “A medieval cosmopolis: Constantinople and its foreign inhabitants.” In Alexander’s Revenge: Hellenistic Culture though the Centuries, edited by John Ma Asgeirson and Nancy van Deusen, 153–71. Reykjavík: University of Iceland Press, 2002, p. 154:





Byzantium is poison. Half a dozen posts in and we're already back to the identity question.