Dedicated to the military history and civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (330 to 1453)

"Time in its irresistible and ceaseless flow carries along on its flood all created things and drowns them in the depths of obscurity."

- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Controlling The Population of Constantinople

Chariot races and games at Constantinople's Hippodrome
were the center of social and political life in the city.

Controlling the People of Constantinople

No information has come down to us of a proper census, but the population of Constantinople ranged between 500,000 and 800,000 people in 800s and 900s. By comparison the population of Paris in the 700s to 1,000 AD was 20,000 people.

Keeping control over such a large and always hungry population was a major political task. A few political missteps could easily trigger riots and/or a revolt by a general.

In AD 203 the Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city and expanded its walls, endowing it with a hippodrome, an arena for chariot races and other entertainment. The Hippodrome of Constantinople provided entertainment, but also brought together the many factions of the city into one place.

The Roman empire had well-developed associations, known as demes, which supported the different factions (or teams) under which competitors in certain sporting events took part; this was particularly true of chariot racing

There were initially four major factional teams of chariot racing, differentiated by the color of the uniform in which they competed; the colors were also worn by their supporters. These were the Blues, the Greens, the Reds, and the Whites, although by the Byzantine era the only teams with any influence were the Blues and Greens. Emperor Justinian I was a supporter of the Blues.

The team associations had become a focus for various social and political issues for which the general Byzantine population lacked other forms of outlet. They combined aspects of street gangs and political parties, taking positions on current issues, notably theological problems or claimants to the throne. They frequently tried to affect the policy of the emperors by shouting political demands between races. 

The "Bread and Circuses" of the East took 
place at Constantinople's Hippodrome.

The imperial forces and guards in the city could not keep order without the cooperation of the circus factions which were in turn backed by the aristocratic families of the city; these included some families who believed they had a more rightful claim to the throne than Justinian.

In 531 some members of the Blues and Greens had been arrested for murder in connection with deaths that occurred during rioting after a recent chariot race.Relatively limited riots were not unknown at chariot races, similar to the football hooliganism that occasionally erupts after association football matches in modern times. The murderers were to be hanged, and most of them were. But on January 10, 532, two of them, a Blue and a Green, escaped and were taking refuge in the sanctuary of a church surrounded by an angry mob.

These events snowballed into the most violent riot in the history of Constantinople, with nearly half the city being burned or destroyed and tens of thousands of people killed.

The resulting Nika Revolt nearly overthrew the government. 

Once the revolt was put down Justinian started enacting assorted "reforms". Some might have been genuine attempts at bringing justice to government. But if the Secret History of Procopius is to be believed the reforms of Justinian (like those of modern politicians) also served to protect the leader and his supporters from their own citizens.

The Reforms of Emperor Justinian
J.B. Bury's account below shows the Emperor Justinian enacting 
"reforms" right after the Nika Riots that could easily be interpreted 
as acts self preservation to tamp down the discontent of the 
citizens of the Empire and to control their actions against him.

The second Prefecture of John the Cappadocian (A.D. 533‑540) was marked by a series of reforms in the administration of the Eastern provinces, and it would be interesting to know how far he was responsible for instigating them. Administrative laws affecting the provinces were probably, as a result, evoked by reports of the Praetorian Prefects calling attention to abuses or anomalies and suggesting changes. If half of what the writers of the time tell us of John's character is true, we should not expect to find him promoting legislation designed to relieve the lot of the provincial taxpayers. But we observe that, while the legislator is earnestly professing his sincere solicitude for the welfare of his subjects, he always has his eye on the interests of the revenue, and does not pretend to disguise it. 

The removal of abuses which diminished the power of the subjects to pay the taxes was in the interest of the treasury, and it was a capital blunder of the fiscal administration of the later Empire that this obvious truth was not kept steadily in view and made a governing principle of policy. It was fitfully recognised when the excessive burdens of the cultivators of the land led to an accumulation of arrears and the danger of bankruptcy, or when some glaring abuse came to light. John, clever as he was, could not extract money from an empty purse, and there is no reason to suppose that he may not have promoted some of the remedial laws which the Emperor directed him to administer.

. . . . . good intentions were frustrated by defects of the fiscal system which they had inherited, and by the corruption of the vast army of officials who administered it.
Emperor Justinian I
(Reign 527 - 565AD)

We do not know how far Justinian's enactments may have been successful, but they teach us the abuses which existed. There was none perhaps which he himself regarded as more important — if we may judge from his language — than the law which forbade the practice of buying the post of a provincial governor.

It had long been the custom to require the payment of considerable sums (suffragia) from those who received appointments as governors of provinces, and these sums went partly to the Emperor, partly to the Praetorian Prefect. Men who aspired to these posts were often obliged to borrow the money. The official salary was not sufficient to recompense them for the expense of obtaining the post, and they calculated on reimbursing themselves by irregular means at the cost of the provincials. 

The Emperor states that they used to extract from the taxpayers three or even ten times the amount they had paid for the office, and he shows how the system caused loss to the treasury, and led to the sale of justice and to general demoralisation in the provinces. The law abolishes the system of suffragia. Henceforward the governor must live on his salary, and when he is appointed he will only have to pay certain fixed fees for the ensigns and diploma of his office. Before he enters on his post he has to swear — the form of oath is prescribed — that he has paid no man any money as a suffragium and severe penalties 
are provided if the Prefect or any of his staff or any other person should be convicted of having received such bribes.

The governor who has paid for his appointment or who receives bribes during his administration is liable to exile, confiscation of property, and corporal punishment. Justinian takes the opportunity of exhorting his subjects to pay their taxes loyally, "inasmuch as the military preparations and the offensive measures against the enemy which are now engaging us are urgent and cannot be carried on without money; for we cannot allow Roman territory to be diminished, and having recovered Africa from the Vandals, we have greater acquisitions in view."

Several other laws were passed in this period to protect the people from mal-administration. The confirmation of the old rule that a governor should remain in his province for fifty days after vacating his office, in order to answer any charges against his actions, may specially be mentioned. 

The office of Defensor Civitatis had become practically useless as a safeguard against injustice because it had come to be filled by persons of no standing or influence, who could not assume an independent attitude towards the governors. Justinian sought to restore its usefulness by a reform which can hardly have been welcomed by the municipalities. He ordained that the leading citizens in each town should fill the office for two years in rotation; and he imposed on the Defensor, in addition to his former functions, the duty of deciding lawsuits not involving more than 300 nomismata and of judging in minor criminal cases. 

The work of the governor's court was thus lightened. We may suspect that the bishops who were authorised to intervene were more efficacious in defending the rights of the provincials because they were more independent of the governor's goodwill.

Constantinople Recreation
Follow the link to view the video

Constantinople and the Hippodrome

Among the restrictions which the Roman autocrats placed upon the liberty of their subjects there is none perhaps that would appear more intolerable to a modern freeman than those which hindered freedom of movement. 

It was the desire of the Emperors to keep the provincials in their own native places and to discourage their changing their homes or visiting the 
capital. This policy was dictated by requirements of the system of taxation, and by the danger and inconvenience of increasing the proletariat of Constantinople. Impoverished provincials had played a great part in the Nika sedition, and the duties of the Prefect of the City were rendered more difficult and onerous by the arrival of multitudes of unemployed persons to seek a living by beggary or crime. 

Justinian created a new ministry of police for the special purpose of dealing with this problem. The function of the Quaesitor, as the minister was called, was to inquire into the circumstances and business of all persons who came from the provinces to take up their quarters in the capital, to assist those who came for legitimate reasons to get their business transacted quickly and speed them back to their homes, and to send back to the provinces those who had no valid excuse for having left their native soil. 

He was also empowered to deal with the unemployed class in the capital, and to force those who were physically fit into the service of some public industry (such as the bakeries), on pain of being expelled from the city if they refused to work. Judicial functions were also entrusted to him, and his court dealt with certain classes of crime, for instance forgery.

The Prefect of the City was further relieved of a part of his large responsibilities by the creation of another minister, who, like the quaesitor, was both a judge and a chief of police. The Praefectus Vigilum, who was subordinate to the Prefect, was abolished, and his place was taken by an independent official who was named the Praetor of the Demes and whose most important duty was to catch and punish thieves and robbers.

J.B. Bury
History of the Later Roman Empire  (1889)

Chariot Race at the Hippodrome

A street scene in old Constantinople.



Anonymous said...

Pretty nice piece Gary.
It sounds like Trump policies are been founded on those ancient times .
( i`m joking ... but it looks like doom goes on Constantinople as soon as eastern empire expand on borrow Money and fiscal extortion by Justinian )
Those fiscal conundrus of the Polis started soon , as that efford , foolish one , to stop migration from the most empowerish provinces to the capital , as so those effords to put idle citizens in the capital to work .
This piece sounds like "music to Trump ears ... if he was not the hired buffoon .. that the New World Order hired to changes things down to botton on America , and World Affairs )
Neverdeless a good piece .
Funny as even near 2.000 years before this time , things seem as similar to this our now times of today .

Anonymous said...

Neverdeless it was a sound good sense policie , cause the plague that soon happen , on the empire , carve down on human suffering and death , as the empire been depleted of population ... and so manpower for work and fight as soldiers , or fiscal resouces too .
Than the empire must cope with that on others peoples help , to close the gaps on borders , some times without need , as with Justinean STUPID treaties with the avars and others , that they cannot hold alliegance from them , as payments fall short on then too . And to rely on foreign soldiers to close rank on the army and navy .
That goes dead wrong as then things never came down as before , on numbers of the native population .
Alien people don`t feel members of the empire , if inside borders , they stay fierce commited to their tribal masters and alliegences .

Anonymous said...

As not only Manzikert treasons from inside aristocrats , or allied foreign troops run out of battle , or even change sides in it too .
I`m i wrong Gary ?

Gary said...

The Emperor always has to watch his back.

Anonymous said...

In the case of Justinean , is overeaction was foolish and counterproductive .
He gave foreign tribes a sense of weakness , that they notice , and reacted as soon as they fell the Empire was going inward , and on military downgrading on borders .
He went the wrong way .

Anonymous said...

Emperor Staline on that note that you write it down , gary , went crazed, and as a psycopath he was kill millions , and encarcerated other millions .
As others so call Emperors without popular vote that we all know about in history .