The Empire Before Justinian: The Economy and Military Situation

THE STATE OF THE ECONOMY

Foundations of Byzantine Economic Power

From its foundation, the Byzantine economy was based on extensive agricultural cultivation and a highly advanced tax system that, when coupled with Byzantium’s expansive Eurasia trade links, made it the economic superpower of its day. The core of the empire’s financial success came from its land holdings, which encompassed Anatolia, the Levant, and, most importantly, Egypt. This land system of agriculture that powered the economy and food production for the empire held and maintained an important part of society as a whole and was not lost on its many rulers. One tenth-century emperor would say, “Two things are essential to the state: agriculture, which feeds the soldiers, and the art of war, which protects the farmers. All other professions are inferior to these.” This sentiment would hold sway for the lifespan of the Byzantine Empire.

Crucial Role of Egyptian Grain

The importance of the grain output from Egypt alone cannot be understated, as according to some estimates, it amounted to nearly thirty percent of the empire’s total grain production. This grain was vital to Byzantium’s broader strategic approach to empire in that it literally kept the people fed and provided a needed source of economic revenue through trade and taxes, which in turn funded the near-constant military requirements. When combined with the vital port of Alexandria, which was a constant hub of merchant activity and commerce, Egypt was a critical cog in the Byzantine economic machine, so when it fell to the Arabs in the seventh century, its loss was irreplaceable and devastating to the empire’s long-term well-being.

Significance of Byzantine Seaports

As discussed, seaports like those at Alexandria were important commercial hubs for the empire, seeing the importing and exporting of goods such as spices, perfumes, precious metals, and stones. These important seaports ranged from the Anatolian coast with Tarusus and Smyrna to Trebizond on the Black Sea to the multitudes throughout the Greek coast with such ports as Corinth and Negropont, all providing avenues for merchants to sell silk from China or enamelled glass from Syria. This extensive system of trade was a strong, consistent base of revenue as the Byzantines taxed both imports and exports at around ten percent, keeping gold flowing into the coffers steadily.

Byzantine Taxation System

The Byzantine tax system, an inheritance from its Roman roots, allowed for a systematic approach to both its processing and collection. At the core of Byzantium’s tax base, and therefore its biggest source of wealth revenue, was the land tax. This tax was determined based on the land owned by each person, with higher-quality land, such as that of a vineyard, being taxed higher, while others, like pastures, were taxed at around one-third of that.

Economic and Military Synergy in Byzantium

Up until the late fifth-early sixth century, the empire had leveraged a tax on merchants called the chrysargyron, but emperor Anastasius I (491–518) abolished this in addition to other critical tax reforms, such as appointing imperial tax collectors instead of the process being conducted by local officials and structuring regular and timely pay for the military. The combination of a strong agricultural and trade economy with an efficient state-driven taxation and collection system allowed the Byzantium Empire to generate the equivalent of tens of millions of today’s dollars by the time Justinian I rose to power. By dealing with and overcoming rampant tax evasion early in its history, which would never completely go away, the empire’s economic machine was a model for the world at the time, as was evidenced by its grandeur in buildings in Constantinople and the general quality of life for its citizens. Even more so was that wealth was the key ingredient in funding and fielding the military as the bulwark against Byzantium’s numerous threats. If the military was the strong arm of the Byzantine Empire, then the economy was its beating heart, with one not being able to survive without the other.

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Byzantium's Twilight Strategic Failures That Crushed an Empire by Michael G. Stroud
Byzantium's Twilight Strategic Failures That Crushed an Empire by Michael G. Stroud
Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Workers on the field (down) and pay time (up), Byzantine Gospel of 11th century.
Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard. Workers on the field (down) and pay time (up), Byzantine Gospel of 11th century.

MILITARY SITUATION

Strategic Positioning and Defense Posture

The military disposition for Byzantium after the fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 was one of both location and luck. Not as exposed to threats of invasion at the time as was the fallen East, Byzantium’s greatest vulnerability was near the Balkans, which were susceptible to invasion from the Danube frontier, while its Asian lands and those of the economically vital Egypt were fundamentally safe and secure for a time. This allowed the Byzantines to hunker in place with their limited military resources (they did not possess enough military projection of power to send aid to their Western counterparts when they were being invaded from all sides in the late fourth and early fifth centuries) and to hold their border against the pressures from the Sassanid Persians and the Avars, to name but a few.

Philosophy of Military Strength

The “might make right” adage of old Rome was deeply embedded in the Byzantine inheritors of the east, as they knew that their very existence rose and fell based on their military’s ability to secure and defend the empire. This sensibility is directly expressed in Leo VI’s The Taktika: “For, so it seems, as long as the armed forces of the Romans were in good order, the state enjoyed divine assistance for not a few years, and the toil of the most valorous was mingled with discipline and, for the most part, was crowned with the splendour of victory.”

Evolution of Military Tactics

The wars against the Sassanid Persians, Attila and the Huns, and a host of other enemies had made an impression on the military forces of the Byzantines. Having experienced both firsthand and from the reports of their Western brethren, the Byzantines recognized the importance and lethality of horse-mounted missile troops and thus set about an evolution of their military forces to institute just such forces into their armies. These mounted troops were equipped and trained in the use of the deadly composite reflex bow, and by the time Justinian came to power, these same mounted archers would become some of the empire’s most effective units. Evolving its military from just an infantry-based force to one of the unique units, especially around that of mobility, gave the nearly-always undermanned Byzantine military the ability to quickly move its forces around the empire to where the greatest threat was and with speed.

Structure of Byzantine Military Forces

The Byzantine military, as of 527, was organized into five field armies, with numerous lesser regional armies (limitanai) deployed behind the empire’s various frontiers. These five armies referred to as comitatenses were organized to cover regions of the empire, including the Army of the East (Egypt, Levantine, Armenia, and Mesopotamia), the Army of Thrace, the Army of Illyricum, and two imperial guard armies that were tasked with protecting Constantinople. Each of these field armies was in turn commanded by a magister militum or Master of the Soldiers.

Adaptation and Survival of the Byzantine Military

These evolved field armies allowed the constantly pressed Byzantine empire to shift armies where needed with greater speed and efficiency than had been possible with the old, infantry-based armies. This mobile force, while not as versed in the riding skills of those warriors of the steppe, made up for this with their body armour and lance that could be pulled out to mount a charge, breaking enemy formations. These evolved bowmen of the day were described by Prokopios as “going into battle wearing corselets [chest and upper-back armour] and fitted with greaves that extend up to the knee. From the right side hand their arrows, and from the other the sword. And some have a [lance] also.” Having survived the various internal revolts and outside pressures since the fall of its Western counterpart, Byzantium’s military developed and learned from its exposure to those it fought, forging it into a much more efficient and mobile force. By the time Justinian’s reign began in 527, he was a force of experience and lethality, which he would further develop while unleashing it in the name of the empire.

SOURCES

  • Diehl, C. (1957). Byzantium: Greatness and Decline (N. Walford, Trans.). Rutgers University Press.

  • Leo VI. (2010). The Taktika of Leo VI (G. T. Dennis, Trans.). Dumbarton Oaks. (p. 5).

  • Carey, B. T., Allfree, J. B., & Cairns, J. (2012). Road to Manzikert Byzantine and Islamic Warfare, 527-1071. Pen & Sword. (p. 6).

  • Luttwak, E. N. (2011). The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. (p. 57).

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