Political Sociology: A Reader

By S. N. Eisenstadt | Go to book overview

41
The Aristocracy in Byzantium in the
Thirteenth Century

Peter Charanis

From the very beginning the large estate had been a feature of Byzantine society. The complicated and burdensome fiscal administration effected by the reorganization of the Empire following the political and economic crisis of the third century worked in such a way as to give impetus to the growth of the large estates. The society revealed by the papyri and the great legislative monuments of the fifth and the sixth centuries is a society dominated by these estates. Coloni, reduced into serfs, composed the vast majority of the agrarian population, although the free peasant proprietors did not disappear completely.

The situation changed in the seventh century. The military reorganization of the Empire, more especially the establishment of a system of military estates, designed to check the advance of the Saracens and the incursion of the barbarians, was chiefly responsible for this change. These military estates, small in size and granted to soldiers in return for military service, became the opening wedge in the formation of a new class of small peasant proprietors. The soldiers themselves constituted the nucleus of this class, but others gradually were added. For while the eldest son of a soldier inherited his father's plot together with the obligation of military service, the rest of the family were free to reclaim and cultivate the land that was vacant. 1

The new peasantry thus developed was not only numerous, but also seems to have been the dominant element of Byzantine agrarian society during the eighth and ninth centuries. In the course of the ninth and tenth centuries, however, the landed aristocracy forged forward and began to extend its holdings at

an alarming rate. 2 In the tenth century a serious attempt was made to check the growth of the large estates, but the various laws enacted by the socially minded emperors of that century ended in failure. 3 These laws with one exception, that of the law of the allelengyon, which had been issued by Basil II, were never repealed, but neither were they enforced. Basil II was the last emperor who seriously tried to check the growth of the large estates. With his death all checks to this growth ceased to operate. It is true that during the eleventh century the struggle between the central government and the provincial aristocracy still raged, but it had lost its social aspect and it became wholly political in nature. The aim of the central government was no longer to prevent the growth of the large estates because they threatened to absorb all the landed property of the Empire and thus to eliminate completely the small peasant proprietors, but to remove the military from the key positions in the administration. 4 It was a struggle for the demilitarization of the political life of the Empire. The attempt was made to replace the aristocracy which had been nurtured in the great military tradition of the Empire by a new body of functionaries trained in law and in philosophy. The profession of the soldier, which in the great days of Byzantium carried with it prestige, honor, and position, was made to have no longer any value, and so, as Scylitzes puts it, "the soldiers put aside their arms and became lawyers or jurists." 5

But this effort against the aristocracy as a military class was no more successful than had been the efforts of the emperors of the tenth century against the same aristocracy as a landed class. In both cases it was the aristocracy which finally triumphed. The accession of Alexius Comnenus to the throne in 1081 usually is considered as marking the final and complete ascendency of the landed aristocracy in the political, economic, and social life of the Empire. The provincial aristocracy became henceforth the

____________________
From Peter Charanis, "The Aristocracy in Byzantium in the Thirteenth Century," in P. R. Coleman-Norton, ed., Studies in Roman Economic and Social History in Honor of A. C. Johnson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951), pp. 336-341, 345-346, 349-355. Reprinted by permission of Princeton University Press. Copyright 1951 by Princeton University Press.

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