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“The Byzantine Republic” and the Chinese Empire: Some similarities?
Review of Anthony Kaldellis' book
Several years ago, Anthony Kaldellis, professor of classics, published a book with an intriguing title “The Byzantine Republic”. The book attracted my attention, not the least because of its title, when I saw it at my publisher’s offices; for my refereeing services I was paid in kind—by that book.
I liked the book although I was not convinced by its main theses. What are they? Kaldellis argues that the Eastern Roman Empire (often known as the Byzantine Empire) does not naturally follow ideologically from the “troubled century” of civil wars and defeats of Romans where most of the links to the “old” Roman empire were broken. It does not represent a shift towards a new Christian and autocratic government. According to Kaldellis, on the contrary, when the Roman Empire was stabilized thanks to Constantine in the 4th century, it went back to the seemingly “republican” rule that existed not only in Republican Rome but also during the Principate. Kaldellis uses the term “republic” not in its current meaning of non-monarchical rule, but in its etymological meaning of the rule of the people. Thus defined republic is indeed, as Kaldellis writes, invoking among others Cicero, Cassius Dio and Rousseau (“la volonté générale”), compatible with monarchical rule. In such terminology, the Netherlands is a republic, but North Korea is not. (Note that the idea survives in today’s United States when people quote Benjamin Franklin by saying—especially during the Trump era to remind the then-president--“we are living in a republic”. They do not thereby mean a trivial fact that the US is not a monarchy, but a more substantive one that it is ruled by people.) In fact, to the term “republic”, Kaldellis prefers its Greek equivalent “politeia”.
Terminology is the easy part of Kaldellis thesis. A more difficult part is to argue for a continuity between the Principate and the Empire after year 313. And the most difficult part is to argue that Eastern Roman emperors were constrained by popular will. Continuity is hard to prove, and also counter-intuitive given the enormous revolutions that occurred during the chaos of the 3rd century and under the “oriental-despotic” Dominate. Unlike the definition of the Byzantine Empire which sees it as “Christian by religion, Greek by language, and Roman by government”, Kaldellis insists on its Roman (Latin) character—by pointing out to the official use of Latin well into the 11th century, and the population’s self-description as “Romanoi”.
The second part of the thesis (popular mandate) is demonstrated by Kaldellis by the frequency of imperial changes (often violent), and the attention that was at least verbally proffered by the emperors for their subjects’ feelings or opinions. Here, in the absence of any formal mechanism which made emperors subject to popular will, Kaldellis’ approach seems to me the weakest. One could argue that similar “checks and balances” in the form of rulers being killed or overthrown, or rulers claiming a popular mandate, were the “bread and butter” of every autocratic rule. It is difficult to see—despite Kaldellis’ best effort—how it was different in the Byzantine Empire.
But I would rather defer to other, more competent and knowledgeable, critiques such as here and here. The book is certainly iconoclastic (may one use the term in this context without sounding a bit silly?) and has attracted, and will attract, lots of attention.
What the book made me think however is the similarity between Byzantium and China in both (1) Keldellis’ idea of a politeia and the “mandate of heaven” and (2) social structures. Now, the Byzantine Empire lasted for at least 900 years, and the Chinese Empire for more than 2 millennia. So what exactly to compare? It may be useful, perhaps, to focus on the Byzantine Empire under the Macedonian dynasty, and especially at its peak under Basil II (around the year 1000) and on China under the Sung dynasty. How similar/different were Constantinople and Hangzhou?
I have written about Basil II Byzantium here, creating the first social table for Byzantium and trying to calculate the subsistence basket, overall real income and to estimate income inequality. The table on p. 465 gives the social structure of Byzantium. Let me summarize it. In urban areas (around 10% of overall population and a quarter of total income): (1) beggars and “marginals”, (2) unskilled workers, (3) qualified workers, professional solders and craftsmen, and (4) important officials, judges, “strategoi” (high military officials) and wealthy merchants. Group (4) that accounted for about ½ of a percent of the total population included civilian and military nobility that were constantly vying for power with emperors (and this leads us to Kaldellis’ hypothesis). Their per capita incomes were some 50 times the estimated mean income; for comparison today’s top ½ percent in the US has an average (after-tax) income that is nine times greater than the mean.
In rural areas (90% of total population), there were (1) small landholders (most numerous but decreasing in numbers), (2) tenant-farmers, (3) owners of latifundias, (4) wage workers on latifundias, and (5) slaves. The social structure in rural areas was, in the 10th and 11th centuries, rapidly changing in favor of large landholders. Because of excessively high taxes peasant-owners were abandoning their farms to become tenants on large estates. Landholders were taxed on their land, but once they became tenants they were tax-free; although obviously they had to pay land-rent. But it seems that for many small farmers this was cheaper than paying taxes. There were even laws that prevented, or tried to reverse, the trend toward land concentration.
This was a very unequal social structure—such that practically the entire surplus above the subsistence was appropriated by high income classes. But this structure is, I think, fairly similar to China’s under Sung. The emperor on the top, surrounded by civilian and military nobility (exactly like in Byzantium), a mandarinate (again similar in its function to bureaucracy in Byzantium), and lots of small land-owning peasantry interspersed with merchants and large landowners. In neither society was there the standard structure of West European feudalism: serfdom (that is, very few land-owning peasants) and a nobility relatively independent of the ruler. Bureaucracy which emanates from the emperor and rules the realm was, probably, much stronger in both Byzantium and China than in Western Europe (e.g., France or Spain). This is somewhat contested in the case of Byzantium by authors who believe that the Empire was “feudal” or was moving in that direction.
As I argued here, there were probably no endogenous forces of capitalist development in Byzantium—or for that matter in the Roman Empire (a point argued more or less forcefully by Moses Finley, Michael Rostovtzeff, Walter Scheidel, Bob Allen, and Aldo Schiavone but disputed by Peter Temin). If there were, a millennium would have been, one guesses, a sufficient time for them to emerge. By analogy one may wonder if such forces existed in medieval China. But beyond that question, a more thorough comparative study of China and Byzantium would be, I believe, highly useful and might yield new insights.