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

Monday, December 18, 2017

The Decline of the Roman Army before Manzikert

Byzantine warrior - Davd Mele wearing his construction of an 11th C klivanion.

A Power Struggle in the Empire

This comes under the category "You can find anything on the Internet".

By accident I found a paper from Leiden University in the Netherlands dealing with the conflict between the Eastern Roman Emperor and his landed nobility. Mixed with that conflict was a weakening of the Byzantine economy, coinage, corruption, invasions and attacks on the independent Farmer-Soldier who made up the backbone of the Roman Army.

By the 11th century the Roman Empire was again at the height of its power following campaigns in the East that restored much territory lost to the Arabs in the seventh and eighth century.

Following the Arab conquests the Roman Empire was greatly reduced in size and less secure than before. The main economic unit had become the independent farmer who lived in small communities and paid their taxes based on the land they owned. The civil aristocracy of the Roman period had mostly disappeared, but a new elite was forming on the fringes of the empire. They held military functions in the provinces where they enjoyed great power thanks to the thematic organisation of the empire; their military function was combined with civil duties and authority.

During the ninth century this elite became more and more prominent, they increasingly found their positions within the bureaucracy to be more or less hereditary since the emperors relied on these military men.  To prevent these aristocrats from endangering the fiscal backbone of the empire (the independent farmer) by acquiring their land the state started legislating against these aristocrats. The struggle over land ownership was one not fought out over a decade but rather over centuries, during a period of great change for the Byzantine Empire.

The land legislation uses the term dynatoi (δυνατοί) which literally means “powerful”. The emperors, at least in theory, tried to defend others groups from these dynatoi.

Land in the possession of farmers was needed by the state in order to receive the gold, through taxes, needed to effectively run the state. If this system was endangered it could mean disaster for the state when it could no longer meet its obligations.

This is a scholarly work and very detailed. But it gives us a feel for a "swirl of anarchy" that was developing within the Empire before the disaster of Manzikert in 1071.

Below is a portion of the much longer paper.

Prof. Dr. P. Stephenson and Prof. Dr. P.C.M. Hoppenbrouwers 
History, University of Leiden

The conquests made by the Byzantines during the 10th century, and especially by the last three emperors, would be the last conquests made for a long time. Haldon estimates the total number of soldiers during the 10th century to have been around 110,000. This number would be brought down during the 11th century as emperors after Basil II preferred to use diplomacy, tribute and intimidation rather than military strength.

During the reign of Basil II buffer states were created to stabilize the borders, which would be part of the policy followed by his successors. The army slowly moved away from the thematic organisation and became a local undertaking. This meant that larger threats could only be countered from Constantinople. There was a realisation among the 11th century emperors that an army the size of Basil II’s army was too expensive to maintain on a permanent basis and preference was given to mercenaries who could be maintained for shorter periods of time without the additional training cost.

We get a glimpse of the state of the army just before the battle of Manzikert (1071) which was a decisive defeat for the Byzantines. John Zonaras comments that: “It was not easy to give strength to the army, which had been neglected for such a long time”.

A few lines down he also writes that the Sultan was fearful of the Roman army, especially since it was led by the emperor in person, which gives the impression that the Roman army was not in such a deplorable state as has been assumed.

Manuel I Comnenus gold hyperpyron.
In 1034 we saw to start of the debasement of the Byzantine gold hyperpyron coins. The debasement was gradual at first, but then accelerated rapidly. about 21 carats (87.5% pure) during the reign of Constantine IX (1042–1055), 18 carats (75%) under Constantine X (1059–1067), 16 carats (66.7%) under Romanus IV (1068–1071), 14 carats (58%) under Michael VII (1071–1078), 8 carats (33%) under Nicephorus III (1078–1081) and 0 to 8 carats during the first eleven years of the reign of Alexius I (1081–1118).  More . . . .

A major economic theme during the eleventh century that affected the state and the aristocracy was certainly the debasement of the (golden) coinage and changes in the tax system. Both had great effects for the state economy however more importantly they were intertwined and had numerous side effects. The simple need for more money in order to pay expenses, both civil and military, was a problem seen before and debasement had not been the solution or preferred method then.

The solution often preferred and used by emperors was to simply cut expenses of either the military or civil apparatus. This was done by Heraklios, Isaac I, Nikephoros III, Alexios I and Andronikos II. A more drastic alternative lay in confiscation, either from the populace or the Church, the latter being used by Isaac I and Michael VII in the period here discussed.

Michael IV was the first emperor to debase his coinage (a 4% loss in gold content) and while he had the previously mentioned alternatives available he did not use them, but rather resorted to debasement. He might have been familiar with the practice through his profession as money-changer. The rapid debasement was stopped when Alexios I came to power in 1081 and had military successes on all fronts, reformed the coinage, restructured the financial administration and reformed the tax system. This chapter will describe not only the debasement but also the combination with newer forms of taxation and how that effected the relation between the aristocracy and the state.

With the end of Basil II’s reign there is also an end to land legislation as far as we know. It seems unlikely that stricter laws were written and enacted when looking at the policy of many of the eleventh century emperors. On the other hand it seems even more unlikely that legislation was not used when it suited the emperor or his administration. . . .  Even if the state no longer had the power it had during the reign of Basil II the land legislation was still a valuable piece of propaganda. However it should also be noted that the insertion of new text also included texts that actually helped magnates to gain more land.

Other traces of the land legislation can be found in the histories, like Psellos or Skylitzes, however most are favorable to the dynatoi rather than opposing them. Romanos III Argyros (1028 – 1034) abolished a law that was written by Basil II concerning something called allelengyon by Skylitzes. Its function was to return great landowners to existing fiscal units so that they could not escape the shared fiscal obligation active in village communities, rather than function autonomously and creating their own fiscal unit. That this measure was unpopular with the great landowners and perhaps more importantly, the church, is evident. Romanos lent them a sympathetic ear and abolished this law.

As stated before Michael IV was the first emperor who debased his coinage, a process that continued until the Komnenian reform of 1091. During the reign of Constantine IX we see the first significant debasement, with coins of 18 carats from the latter part of his rule. Modern day historians have two main explanations. The first being that of a fiscal disaster (mostly linked to military defeat) and subsequent emergency debasements to increase the state’s ability to spend. The second is that of “expansionism” which states that debasement was an effect of the expanding economy, more coins were needed for use in the market.

Costas Kaplanis has recently argued that the debasement first started under Constantine IX and was a response to the Pecheneg invasion in 1046/1047. The general debasement up to that point was hardly noticeable and was conducted over a period of nearly a hundred years. The severity of the Pecheneg invasion has up to this point been underestimated; it left the empire bankrupt and vulnerable to invasions in the East (which indeed then happened under the Seljuk Turks). Kaplanis’ reasoning is a realistic explanation, one backed up by Hendy, Angold and to some extent Harvey. One need not assume an advanced economical knowledge in the Byzantine Empire

The expansionist explanation was first put forward by Morrison and is supported by Oikonomides and Lemerle. It describes the debasement as a method of increasing coins in circulation (with a lower gold content so more coins can be struck) in order to meet economic growth. One of the key arguments is that the debasement was gradual and was not really noticed by contemporaries. It is not until the 1070’s that we see a rapid debasement that was certainly linked to crisis (following the loss of Bari in 1071, the defeat of Manzikert and the internal chaos that followed). Though the expansionist view is rather sophisticated and for it to work a lot has to be assumed concerning demographics, increase in trade and economic expansion can be seen in a broader context, as Oikonomides has done.  He shows that the need for gold (mostly in coins) was not something that first started after 1046/1047, when we assume the first debasement was made in reaction to the Pecheneg wars. The Peira shows an increase in interest rates, certainly before 1045, from 6% to 8,33% which is an indication that money was in short supply.

The Senate from HBO's Rome
Selling The Post of Senator

the sixth century the Senate had ceased to meet in its own building and instead assembled in the Palace of Constantinople under the watchful eye of the Emperor. The power of the Senate progressively decreased over the centuries. By this point becoming a Senator was little more than social status and had become just another fundraising tool for the Empire's annual budget.  (Senate)

Though not necessarily linked with the increased interest rate, the return of investment on honorary titles decreased, due to a price increase. For example the title of protospatharios now cost 20 litrai of gold instead of 18.

Constantine IX Monomachos and Constantine X Doukas opened the doors of the senate for the “noveaux riches”. Psellos notes during the reign of Constantine IX:

  • The doors of the Senate were thrown open to nearly all the rascally vagabonds of the market, and the honor was bestowed not on two or three, nor on a mere handful, but the whole gang was elevated to the highest offices of state by a single decree, immediately after he became emperor.” 

And on the reign of Constantine X:

  • “The government officials, their deputies, the minor dignitaries, even the manual workers, all received something. In the case of the last-named, he actually raised their social status. Until his time there had been a sharp distinction between the class of ordinary citizens and the Senate, but Constantine did away with it. Henceforth no discrimination was made between worker and Senator, and they were merged in one body.” 

This new influx of senators generated revenue for the treasury as they indubitably had to buy their offices and high honors. It also shows that honors at court were still very much in demand and popular even if it was unlikely you would regain your investment.

New capital was found as these new senators had been outside of the rogai system, but the social fabric of court was also affected. The opening of the senate has mostly been explained in a fiscal sense, which was undoubtedly the main reason behind it, it can however also be seen in a political sense. By opening the senate to groups that had previously been banned from participation in the political elite both emperors created a new aristocracy of noveaux riches. But perhaps more importantly these new senators were representatives of the increasingly richer people of Constantinople rather than cultured courtiers or provincial aristocracy.

Michael V made the mistake of going against the wishes of the populace of Constantinople by banning Zoë and Theodora, the last living heirs of the Macedonian line and the nieces of Basil II. He even tried to ally himself with the people; his proclamation was read out loud at the forum of Constantine the Great to the citizens. He promised them: ‘as for you, my people, if you maintain your favorable disposition towards me, you will acquire great honours and benefits, living an untroubled life. ‘.

The citizens were not impressed by these words and took offence that someone like Michael V (of relatively lowly birth) would oust the nieces of Basil II and last representatives of the Macedonian dynasty. They replied: ‘we don’t want a cross-trampling caulker for emperor, but the original and hereditary ruler: our mother Zoe!’ Constantine IX and X both gave out honors to the representatives of the people, mostly through the guilds, when they established their rule, no doubt in part to gain their support.

We can also find other clues that gold had become scarce early on in the eleventh century and that the state had to devise ways of acquiring it. John the Orphanotrophos was a shrewd politician and devised several ways to increase taxation and state income. Skylitzes mentions John’s tax-regime on multiple occasions:

  • “He added this over and above the public taxes: that every village should pay an aerikon tax, each one according to its ability: one village four pieces of gold, another six and so on up to twenty, plus other shameful tolls to generate income which it would be a disgrace to mention. John put the official’s appointment up for sale and gave everybody his head in wrongdoing, filling the world with ten thousand woes. Judges were levying taxes on the people with impunity and nobody cared a farthing for what was going on. . . . they rebelled and threw off the Roman yoke as on account of the Orphanotrophos’ greed and insatiate desire for riches.”

The first mentioned aerikon tax was a tax that had existed during Justinian’s reign in the sixth century and was still in existence in the eleventh. It is unclear what it was a tax on, most likely cattle or other animals that were needed for the army (since it is mentioned in Leo VI’s Taktika as a tax paid by soldiers). This tax was not invented but increased by John the Orphanotrophos and is a prime example of the increase in secondary taxes.

Emperor Constantine IX
With one hand the Emperor organized an allied army to face a Turkish invasion. But with the other hand he deliberately disbanded the eastern frontier border forces in order to raise quick cash. 

One of his most notorious measures was to start taxing Bulgaria in gold rather than in kind as had been the case since Basil II conquered Bulgaria (which the last quote alludes to). The belief that this caused the rebellion of Deljan has recently been refuted, however unpopular such changes may have been. Other increases of secondary taxes were employed, especially through the possibility to buy out military service and other special corvées. These special corvées were named angareiai and could be anything from road, bridge or fortification building right up to the cutting of wood and even ship building.

Constantine IX Monomachos even disbanded the 5,000 soldiers of the Iberian theme, which was the main defensive line against invasions from the East like Seljuk Turks. He made it mandatory for them to pay ‘heavy taxes’ instead of serving the army.

(EDITOR - This portion of the paper is so important. The Emperor was so consumed with the need for gold coin that he foolishly and deliberately weakened the Roman Army in Anatolia facing invasion by the Turks.)

Perhaps the most well known measure John the Orphanotrophos took is the increase in taxfarming (the second from the above quotes mentions tax farming). This was not in itself a new phenomenon; tax-farming was done until the seventh century. The Isaurian emperors put a hold to this practice (which is in line with their fiscal policy and other centralizing initiatives). It slowly returned during the 10th century, but it was still an exception, by the 11th century the practice had become quite common. John the Orphanotrophos began selling offices on a larger scale during the reign of Michael IV when he was basically in command of the empire.

Though the accounts are biased against John the Orphanotrophos it is still clear that his regime added to the growing tax pressure in the provinces, were there was little to no control over the taxfarmers. In this case he sold the office of provincial judge but gave them the right to levy taxes, which was meant that it was also very hard to do anything in legal terms. One way or the other this increased  the tax in the provinces as these judges strove to make a profit (legally or illegally). Being part of the financial administration of the empire could be lucrative as Kekaumenos tells us it was believed that by the eleventh century all major mansions in Constantinople were build by those who had ran the financial administration or worked for that department. He also adds a warning, one John Maios who was a strategos ended up with a deficit of 60 pounds of gold when he was responsible for the tax collection in the tax district of Arabissos.

Although this deficit was quiet large it was a rather limited tax-district meaning large profits could be made when administering larger tax-districts. This increase in tax-farming and the money that could be made by such an enterprise was slowly replacing the rogai system. We can see the first signs of this general decline during the reign of Michael IV when John the Orphanotrophos was looking for ways to increase income. Other signs that the rogai system was in decline come from the rule of Isaak Komnenos who cut “gifts” for the offikion.  Nikephoros III Botaneiates stopped paying his administration altogether because he had been too lavish in his gifts and honors (which he gave out for free). Alexios I Komnenos later abolished the rogai system altogether

This general increase in taxes can be seen in a very clear example in 1082, when the monastery of Vatopedi was obliged to pay 19 nomismata in land tax. The secondary tax which was called kaniskion was also collected. It was usually paid in kind directly to fiscal officials (since it was meant as upkeep for the tax officials) since it seems to refer to a round loaf of bread, a half measure of wine, a modios of barley and a chicken. This kaniskion was set a total of 20 nomismata meaning this supplementary tax could also be bought out.

The secondary tax that had to be paid was now greater than the primary, land tax. One of the effects of this increase, mainly in secondary tax that taxes became increasingly hard to predict especially in combination with tax farming. Hoarding was still a popular practice in the eleventh century and we have two examples of hoards created by high officials. During the reign of Michael IV the archbishop of Thessalonica had hoarded 3,300 lb of gold (237,600 nomismata) which was to be distributed to the poor and the clergy of Thessalonica. In 1043 we learn that on his death the Patriarch Alexios Stoudites had left 2,500 lb of gold (180,000 nomismata) in his monastery (which the Emperor confiscated). For large landowners with hoarded gold the unpredictability of the tax was unpleasant but at least bearable.

Byzantine Skoutatoi Heavy Infantry X Century
Most of the foot-soldiers of the empire were the armored infantry SkutatoiTheir training was very much like that of the legionaries, with the soldiers taught close quarters, melee techniques with their swords and archery was extensively practiced.
Tax policies played an important role in weakening the military theme system which fielded local armies of Farmer-Soldiers to meet invaders. As these loyal citizen independent troops declined the Emperor was forced to spend more and more of his limited tax income on often unreliable foreign mercenary units. 

For the small landowning peasants, however, the increasing tax pressure and its unpredictability became a real problem. This more or less forced them to seek protection of greater landowners who could offer reductions in secondary taxes through privileges such as exkousseia. This meant that it became increasingly attractive to work as a paroikos for an ecclesiastical institution or lay magnate that had to power to acquire exkoussiea or other privilege rights.

An example of a village community searching the protection of a lord, is Michael Psellos. In 1060 the villagers of Atzikome asked Michael Psellos to become their lord so he could protect them and intersect on their behalf with the krites/praitor of the Opsikion theme whom the villagers did not know. Because Psellos was influential at court and knew the system he was much more likely to acquire tax relieve for the villagers than they could acquire by themselves.

This is not to say that the independent farmers disappeared during the eleventh century. The coastal plains and themes close to Constantinople and the conquered themes of the tenth century were still either in imperial hands or at least not in the hands of magnates. However we do see a line that would became clearer during the Komnenian period, paroikoi working the land of great institutions that had developed during the tenth and eleventh century.

Toward the end of the eleventh century (after 1071) we can see the financial crisis deepen. The purity started to deteriorate quickly, 1071 was a year of crisis in the empire as a large army was defeated by the Turks at Manzikert and the emperor captured in battle. What followed was a period of rebellions and general hardship. Gold content in golden coinage fell to 58.1% under Michael VII Doukas (r. 1071 – 1078), 35.8% under Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078 – 1081) and finally to 10.6% under Alexios I pre-reform. Though many historians have blamed this sharp reduction of gold content in the coinage to the battle of Manzikert this is probably not the case.

Byzantium had been defeated in many battles before Manzikert without this drastic action. The difference lies in the ensuing internal unrest, Michael VII was not a strong ruler who was led by his bureaucrats (like Psellos). The rebellions during his reign aimed at re-establishing some sense of order which was finally achieved by Alexios I Komnenos. By that time the Byzantine Empire had changed radically yet again. Power was divided by those who were of the Komnenos clan and their close allies,while the church gained more power yet again and held vast tracts of land that were worked by paroikoi.

Anatolia was never really recovered which meant that the Eastern magnates disappeared, they either came to Constantinople to form the elite around the Komnenian dynasty or they settled in the Balkans were they never acquired quite as much land as they had had in Anatolia.

Eastern border of Byzantium in 1025
The Turks invaded the Byzantine military theme of Iberia during the period of this article. While the Turkish threat grew in the east we see the Emperor cutting border forces in order to raise quick cash for the Treasury.
Read More:
First Contact - Seljuqs vs Byzantines at the Battle of Kapetron

(openaccess.leidenuniv.nl)      (Byzantine battle tactics)