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In order to obtain a clear understanding of Byzantine civilization, to visualize the mode of life and the dominant tastes in this vanished society, and to realize the mentality of the Greeks in the Middle Ages, we must therefore begin by studying Constantinople. And moreover it is about her that we have most information. At every stage of her history there are valuable documents which describe for us admirably the buildings of the great city, and the appearance she presented: for the fifth century we have the Notitia of 450; for the sixth century the book of Edifices by Procopius, the poem of Paul the Silentiary, and the description of the church of the Holy Apostles by Nicholas Mesarites; for the tenth century the poem of Constantine the Rhodian on the seven wonders of the capital and the Ceremonies of Constantine Porphyrogenitus; finally the narratives of countless travelers,—French, Italians, Spaniards, Russians, and Arabs,—who visited Constantinople from the twelfth to the fifteenth century. Moreover Byzantine literature reflects, as in a magic mirror, the ideas which were familiar and precious to the inhabitants of the capital, and the great currents of thought which prevailed in her. But Constantinople was not the Empire. In contrast to the capital which was luxurious, refined, and elegant, and also turbulent, cruel, and corrupt, there was another Byzantium, simpler and ruder, more robust and more serious, the Byzantium of the provinces, about which we know less than the other, but whose aspect we must nevertheless attempt to reconstruct; for the strength and stability of the monarchy was derived therefrom, no less than from Constantinople, and its study is indispensable if we wish to understand the character of Byzantine civilization. In this vanished world, Constantinople and the provinces seem like the two opposite leaves of a diptych, and, in spite of the deep contrast offered by these two Byzantiums, it was their union which formed the power and greatness of the Empire...
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Copyright © 2016 by Charles Diehl
Published by Perennial Press
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THE GOVERNMENT AND ADMINISTRATION OF THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
FEW STATES, EVEN IN THE Middle Ages, possessed so absolute a conception of monarchical authority as the Byzantine Empire. The Emperor, or Basileus as he was officially termed after the beginning of the seventh century, always regarded himself as the legitimate heir and successor of the Roman Caesars; like them he was the Imperator, that is, both the supreme war-lord and the unimpeachable legislator, the living incarnation and infallible mouthpiece of the law. Since his contact with the Asiatic East, he had become something more, the master (despotes), the autocrat (autokrator), the absolute sovereign below whom there existed, not subjects, but, as they humbly styled themselves, slaves; the greatest personages only approached him after prostrating themselves in an actual act of adoration. Finally, Christianity had bestowed a crowning attribute on him. He was the elect of God, His Vicar in earth, and, as was said in Byzantium, a prince equal to the apostles (isapostolos); by right of which he was regarded as the supreme head and defender of religion, at once king and priest, absolute, and infallible in the spiritual order as he was in temporal matters. And from the combination of these various elements there resulted a despotic and sacred power, whose exercise, at least theoretically, knew no bounds, an authority not only based on political investiture but also consecrated and adorned with matchless luster by God and the Church.
The Roman tradition as accepted in Byzantium placed the Emperor above the law. He thus exercised absolute authority over inanimate objects as well as people, and his competence was universal. “All things depend on the care and administration of the imperial majesty”, declared Leo VI in one of his Novels. The Basileus exercised military power, either when he appeared personally at the head of his armies, or when his generals earned off victories in his name. In him was vested the legislative power; he enacted and repealed laws at will. Indeed all the Byzantine Emperors from Justinian to the Comneni were great legislators. He kept a close supervision over administrative affairs, appointing and dismissing officials at his pleasure, and advancing them in the complicated hierarchy of dignities according to his caprice. He was the supreme judge; the imperial courts of justice, at which he not infrequently presided in person, both tried criminal cases and heard appeals. He watched the financial administration, so essential to the welfare of the Empire, with constant care. His authority extended to morals, which he supervised, and to fashion, inasmuch as he laid down sumptuary laws and imposed limits on extravagance.
The Basileus governed the Church as well as the State. He nominated the bishops to be elected, and conferred investiture on them. He made the laws in religious as in civil matters. He convoked councils, directed their discussions, confirmed their canons, and enforced their decisions. He interfered in theological quarrels, and, priding himself on his skill as a theologian, did not shrink from defining and imposing dogmas. He was the defender of the Church, and it was his duty not only to combat heresy, but to spread the Orthodox faith throughout all the inhabited globe, over which God had promised him dominion as a reward for his pious zeal. “Nothing should be done in Holy Church contrary to the opinion and will of the Emperor”, declared a Patriarch of the sixth century. “The Basileus”, said a prelate in the twelfth century, “is the supreme arbiter of faith in the Churches”.
Outward appearances and external forms were carefully designed to increase this absolute power and express the character of this imperial majesty. In Byzantium ostentation was always one of the favorite instruments of diplomacy, magnificence one of the common tricks of politics. For this reason were attached to the name of the Emperor in official language sonorous titles and pompous epithets, originally borrowed from the magnificent titles of the older Roman Emperors, but replaced later by this shorter formula: “N., the Emperor faithful in Christ our God, and autocrat of the Romans”. To this end were designed the display of countless and extravagant costumes donned by the Emperor on various ceremonial occasions, the splendor of the imperial insignia, the privilege of wearing purple buskins, and, above all, the ostentatious and somewhat childish ceremonial which in the “Sacred Palace” encompassed the ruler with dazzling magnificence, and which, by isolating him from common mortals, caused the imperial majesty to be regarded with more profound respect. “By beautiful ceremonial”, wrote Constantine Porphyrogenitus who in the tenth century took special pleasure in codifying Court ritual, “the imperial power appears more resplendent and surrounded with greater glory; and thereby it inspires alike foreigners and subjects of the Empire with admiration”. It was to this end that round the Emperor there were endless processions and a countless retinue, audiences and banquets, strange and magnificent festivals, in the midst of which he led a life of outward show, yet hollow and unsatisfying, from which the great Emperors of Byzantium often succeeded in escaping, but whose purpose was very significant: to present the Basileus in an effulgence, an apotheosis, wherein he seemed not so much a man as an emanation of the Divinity. And to attain this end everything that he touched was “sacred”, in works of art his head was surrounded by the nimbus of the saints, the Church allowed him to pass with the clergy beyond the sacred barrier of the iconastasis, and on the day of his accession the Patriarch solemnly anointed him in the ambo of St Sophia. And to this end the official proclamations announced that he reigned by Christ, that by Christ he triumphed, that his person “proceeded from God and not from man”, and that to these Emperors, “supreme masters of the universe, absolute obedience was due from all”.
Such were the character and the extent of imperial power in Byzantium, and thence it derived its strength. But there were also inherent weaknesses.
In Byzantium, as in Rome, according to the constitutional fiction the imperial dignity was conferred by election. Theoretically the choice of the sovereign rested with the Senate, which presented its elect for the approval of the people and the army. But in the first place the principle of election was often in practice replaced by the hereditary principle, when the reigning Emperor by an act of his will admitted his son, whether by birth or adoption, to share his throne, and announced this decision to the Senate, people, and army. Moreover, the absence of any fixed rule regarding the right of succession paved the way for all kinds of usurpation. For a considerable time there might be in Byzantium neither a reigning family nor blood royal. Anyone might aspire to ascend the throne, and such ambitions were encouraged by soothsayers and astrologers. After the end of the ninth century, however, we notice a growing tendency in favor or the idea of a legitimate heir. This was the work of the Emperors of the Macedonian family, “in order to provide imperial authority”, as was said by Constantine VII, “with stronger roots, so that magnificent branches of the dynasty may issue therefrom”. The title of Porphyrogenitus (born in the purple) described and hallowed the members of the reigning family, and public opinion professed a loyal and constantly increasing devotion to the dynasty. In spite of many obstacles the house of Macedon maintained itself on the throne for over a century and a half; that of the Comneni lasted for more than a century without a revolution; and in the eleventh century usurpation was regarded as a folly as well as a crime, because, says a writer of that period, “he who reigns in Constantinople is always victorious in the end”. It is none the less true that between 395 and 1453 out of 107 Byzantine Emperors only 34 died in their beds; while eight perished in the course of war, or accidentally, all the others abdicated, or met with violent deaths, as the result of Q5 revolutions in the camp or the palace.
Limitations of imperial authority
This power, already so uncertain in origin and stability, was further limited by institutions and custom. As in pagan Rome, there were the Senate and the People over against the Emperor. No doubt in course of time the Senate had become a Council of State, a somewhat limited assembly of high officials, generally devoted to the monarch. It nevertheless retained an important position in the State, and it was the rallying-point of the administrative aristocracy which was still called, as in Rome during the fourth century, the senatorial order, that civil bureaucracy which often derived means of resisting the Emperor from the very offices wherein it served him. The people indeed, who were officially represented, so to speak, by the demes or factions in the circus, were now only a domesticated rabble, content if it were fed and amused. But these factions, always turbulent and disaffected, often broke out into bloodthirsty riots or formidable revolutions.
Yet another power was the Church. Although so subservient to imperial authority, in the Patriarch it possessed a leader who more than once imposed his will on the Basileus; once at least in the ninth century it sought to claim its liberty, and Byzantium only just escaped a quarrel similar to that of the Investitures in the West. Finally and above all, to keep imperial authority in check there was the army, only too ready to support the ambitions of its generals and constantly showing its might by insurrections. So that it may fairly be said that imperial power in Byzantium was an autocracy tempered by revolution and assassination.
The twofold hierarchy of rank and office
Round the person of the Emperor there revolved a whole world of court dignitaries and high officials, who formed the court and composed the members of the central government. Until towards the close of the sixth century, the Byzantine Empire had retained the Roman administrative system. A small number of high officials, to whom all the services were subordinated, were at the head of affairs, and, after the example of Rome, the Byzantine Empire had maintained the old separation of civil and military powers and kept the territorial subdivisions due to Diocletian and Constantine. But during the course of the seventh and eighth centuries the administration of the Byzantine monarchy underwent a slow evolution. Civil and military powers became united in the same hands, but in new districts, the themes, which superseded the old territorial divisions. The high officials in charge of the central government became multiplied, while at the same time their individual competence was diminished. And, simultaneously, personal responsibility towards the Emperor increased. It is hard to say by what gradual process of modification this great change took place. The new system made its first appearance in the time of the Heraclian dynasty, and the Isaurian Emperors probably did much to establish it definitely.
In the tenth century, in any case, the administration of the Empire in no way resembled the system which prevailed in the days of Justinian. Henceforward in Byzantium a twofold and carefully graded hierarchy, the details of which are recorded for us at the beginning of the tenth century by the Notitia of Philotheus, determined the rank of all individuals who had anything to do with the court or with public administration. Eighteen dignities, whose titles were derived from the civil or military services of the palace, formed the grades of a kind of administrative aristocracy, a sort of Byzantine Chin, in which advancement from one grade to another depended on the will of the Emperor. Of these honorary titles the highest, except those of Caesar, Nobilissimus, and Curopalates, which were reserved for the princes of the imperial family, were those of Magister, Anthypatus, Patrician, Protospatharius, Dishypatus, Spatharocandidatus, Spatharius, and so on. Eight other dignities were specially reserved for eunuchs, of whom there were many in the Byzantine court and society. Certain active duties, similarly classified according to a strict hierarchy, were generally attached to these dignities, the insignia of which were presented to the holders by the Emperor. Such were in the first place the high offices at court, whose holders, the praepositus or Grand Master of Ceremonies, the parakoimomenos or High Chamberlain, the protovestiarios or Grand Master of the Wardrobe, and so on, were in charge of the various services of the imperial household and of all that vast body of subordinates, cubicularii, vestiarii, koitonitai, chartularii, stratores (grooms), etc., whose numbers made the palace seem like a city within a city. Such were also the sixty holders of the great offices of public administration, who occupied the posts of central government and the high military or administrative commands, either in Constantinople or in the provinces, each of whom had a large number of subordinates. Appointed by imperial decree and subject to dismissal at the Emperor’s pleasure, they advanced in their career of honors by favor of the ruler. And advancement in the various grades of the hierarchy of dignities generally coincided exactly with promotion to higher administrative office. In order to understand the mechanism of the imperial administration, it must be borne in mind that in Byzantium every official had two titles, one honorary, marking his rank in the administrative nobility, the other indicating the actual office with which he had been invested. And as both dignity and office, and advancement in either, depended entirely on the good will of the Emperor, the zeal of the administrative body was always sustained by the hope of high office, and by the expectation of some promotion which would place the recipient one step higher in the ranks of the Empire’s nobility. Never in consequence was any administrative body more completely in the master’s hands, more strongly centralized, or more skillfully organized, than that of the Byzantine government.
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