The Mediaeval Roman Empire: An Unlikely Emergence and Survival (2018), by Sean Gabb

The Mediaeval Roman Empire:
An Unlikely Emergence and Survival
Sean Gabb

Speech Given to the Property and Freedom Society,
Bodrum, 14th September 2018

As ever, I will begin by thanking Professor Hoppe and his wife Gulçin for their great kindness in asking me once again to speak to the Property and Freedom Society here in Bodrum. I will also thank them for the honour they have shown me, for the second year running, of asking me to speak first.

On the face of it, the subject I have been given for this year is both obscure in itself and of little relevance to the overall purpose of an organisation set up to advance the restoration of a free and prosperous civilisation. I have been asked to speak about the Emergence and Survival of the Byzantine Empire. I believe that the subject is entirely relevant. Properly considered, the history of what I will from now call not the Byzantine Empire, but the Mediaeval Roman Empire, is perhaps the most astonishing instance of how courage and determination can keep civilisation alive in the face of the most forbidding and apparently overpowering challenges. In setting out my argument, I hope you will forgive me if I begin with an introduction covering much that many of your will know at least as well as I do, but that may not be so familiar to those reading the text or watching the speech on YouTube.

If you look at the first of the maps that I have put on your tables, you will see the Roman Empire as it was in the year 395 AD. This shows the Empire at something close it its greatest extent. The conquests that Trajan made to the north of the Danube and east of the Euphrates have been given up. But it includes the whole of the Mediterranean World and its various hinterlands – an area stretching from the North of England to Upper Egypt, from Casablanca to Trebizond. In that year, however, nearly a century of political experiments is formally ended with the division of the Empire into two administrative zones. There is the Western or the red Empire, ruled by an Emperor in Rome or Milan or Ravenna. There is the Eastern or the purple Empire, ruled by an Emperor in Constantinople.

If you look at the second map, dated roughly 650 AD, you will see that the Western Empire has disappeared. Excepting North Africa and parts of Italy, now ruled from Constantinople, the whole of the Western Empire has disappeared – replaced by a set of barbarian kingdoms from which modern Europe takes its origin. The Eastern Empire itself has lost both Syria and Egypt to the Arabs.

If you look at the third map, dated roughly 867 AD, you will see that the Empire has suffered the further loss of Cyprus and North Africa and most of Sicily. Nevertheless, what we have in that year should undeniably be called the Mediaeval Roman Empire. It has weathered the storm of the Early Middle Ages. It is the richest and most powerful state in the Mediterranean World. Indeed, during the next few centuries, it will expand. It has already reconquered Greece. It will conquer the Bulgarian Kingdom and re-establish its ancient frontier on the Danube. It will even retake Antioch and make Egypt for a while its economic and diplomatic client.[1]

After 1071, the Empire falls on evil days. In that year, the Turks deprive it of its Anatolian heartland. But this loss is stabilised and in part reversed by a skilful handling of the Crusades. There is another disaster in 1204, when the Venetians take and plunder Constantinople. But this is not the end. The Empire is restored in large parts in 1261; and, even if as little more than a city-state based around Constantinople, it continues to the final Turkish conquest of 1453. Indeed, the formal extinction of the Empire comes nearly a decade after 1453, with the annexation of its last territories in Southern Greece.

There was a time when school textbooks in England dated the fall of the Roman Empire to 476 AD. Its continued survival for a thousand years after then had to be explained, where admitted, by taking a contemptuous view of what was called the Byzantine Empire. See, for example, W.E.H. Lecky:

Of that Byzantine empire, the universal verdict of history is that it constitutes, without a single exception, the most thoroughly base and despicable form that civilization has yet assumed. There has been no other enduring civilization so absolutely destitute of all forms and elements of greatness, and none to which the epithet “mean” may be so emphatically applied…The history of the empire is a monotonous story of the intrigues of priests, eunuchs, and women, of poisonings, of conspiracies, of uniform ingratitude.[2]

Lecky is one of my favourite historians. But, if you look even at the mediaeval Greek and Italian historians of the Empire, you will see that this is a bizarre judgement. Undoubtedly, these historians tended to focus on intrigues in and about the Imperial Palace. But they also record much else. They record the story of a rich and powerful empire, directed with high military and diplomatic ability – an empire in which slavery and the death penalty have been almost abolished, where people lived, and knew that they lived, under a set of divinely-ordained laws that protected life, liberty and property to a degree unknown in any other mediaeval state.

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Undoubtedly, the Mediaeval Romans – now exclusively Greek in their language – made little effort to be original in their literature. They had virtually the whole body of Classical Greek literature in their libraries and in their heads. For them, this was both a wonderful possession and a fetter on the imagination. It was in their language, and not in their language. Any educated person could understand it. But the language had moved on – changes of pronunciation and dynamics and vocabulary. The classics were the accepted model for composition. But to write like the ancients was furiously hard. Imagine a world in which we spoke Standard English, but felt compelled, for everything above a short e-mail, to write in the language of Shakespeare and the Authorised Version of the Bible. Some of us might manage a good pastiche. Most of us would simply memorise the whole of the Bible, and, overlooking its actual content, write by adapting and rearranging remembered clauses. It would encourage an original literature. Because Latin soon became a completely foreign language in the West – and because we in England were so barbarous, we had to write in our own language – Western Mediaeval literature is often a fine thing. The Mediaeval Romans never had a dark age in our sense. Their historians in the fifteenth century wrote up the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in the same language as Thucydides. Poor Greeks.[3]

But you really need to be blind not to see beauty in their architecture and their iconography. Though little has survived, they were even capable of an original reworking of classical realism in their arts.

Above all, they survived And, if you look only at the maps I have supplied, you must agree that an empire that includes the Balkans and the whole of modern Turkey is unlikely to have survived so long as some kind of zombie state.

All this being said, let me explain what I believe happened in the Mediterranean World between about 100 and 700 AD. Parts of this are an actual or emerging scholarly consensus. Parts are simply what I believe from my own reading of the primary and secondary sources.

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Before about 1800, the tendency of populations was to stabilise close to their Malthusian ceiling. This is to say that human numbers grew to the point where output per head was just enough to keep people alive. Inequalities of wealth and occasional good fortune meant that some people had living standards above this level. But this explains my statement that populations tended to stabilise below the Malthusian ceiling. In any event, the fortunate classes were always a small or smallish minority. Now and again, circumstances – a change of climate, for example, or the settling of a new territory, or the introduction of some new agricultural or transport technology – would raise this ceiling. The result was an age of general plenty, or a golden age. Now and again, circumstances would turn unfavourable. The result here was a sudden and sharp collapse of population – often a collapse somewhat below the new ceiling.

To put it mildly, the study of climatic change is both a new and an unsettled science. At the same time, there are studies of local and regional climate over the past few thousand years that have been conducted without any apparent political bias, and that are based on what strike me as reasonable inferences from the data. These data include tree ring measurements, the analysis of ice cores, carbon dating, the height of the Dead Sea, and records of Nile flooding between 100 BC and 299 AD. They also include contemporary written material and statements of later historians who had access to material since lost.[4]

What we are presently able to draw from the data is that the Mediterranean World passed, between about 100 BC and at the latest 200 AD, though a period of benign stability in its climate. Both Western and Eastern halves of the Empire were warm and reasonably wet. In consequence, it was possible for the Empire to enjoy three centuries of rising prosperity. After about 150 AD, the climate entered a long though intermittent phase of cooling and less advantageous patterns of rainfall. In particular, the Egyptian harvests became less abundant and less reliable; and, given the very different costs of land and sea transport, it appears that most large Mediterranean cities had become dependent on the supply of Egyptian grain.

If we had nothing but the climatic evidence, we could surmise the following:

  • A fall throughout the Empire of agricultural productivity;
  • A fall of living standards and general status among the poorer classes;
  • The emergence of new diseases to thin the number of the hungry poor;
  • The movement of pastoral, and therefore mobile, nations from suddenly colder regions into the still temperate Mediterranean World;
  • The appearance of political instability and a general breakdown of institutions under new and unexpected strains.

We know that, in fact, all of this happened. After about 150 AD, a series of pandemics burned through the Empire – possibly smallpox or measles. We cannot say anything for sure about its incidence or mortality. But at least one Emperor died of it, and many cities were depopulated. If I say that between a quarter and a third of the Empire’s population was carried away by the first appearance of the Antonine Plague, I may not be short of the truth. There was increased pressure on the northern and eastern frontiers of the Empire – the Persians from the east, the Goths and other barbarians from the north. This required a larger military presence along the Rhine and Danube and Euphrates. There was not the tax money to pay for it, and the currency was debased to cover the deficit. There was a shortage of recruits for the Army, and the practice began of hiring barbarian mercenaries. It is difficult to count the number of rival Emperors thrown up by military revolts and the number of civil wars.

I am not stating a general thesis of climatic determinism. Bad ways and institutions are able to throw away the benefits of a benign climate. Good ways and institutions can reduce the effects of a reasonably unfavourable climate. Certainly, the response of the Roman State to the crises of the third century tended to make these crises worse. For example, Morris Silver has shown how Imperial regulation of the grain trade led to sudden fluctuations in price. These caused householders to store unusually large amounts of grain in less than optimal conditions. Rats appear to have nested in these grain hoards, and this led to an outbreak, in the early third century, of what may have been bubonic plague.[5]

If it provides tendencies, climate does not exclusively determine. We have a good fit between the available climate data and the crisis of the Roman Empire in the third century. There is another good fit between the return of a more benign climate in the fourth century and the military and institutional recovery of the Empire. There is an arguable fit between the different fate, after about 400 AD, of the Western and Eastern parts of the Empire. A return to cooling seems to have had its worst effects in the West. An unusually cold winter in 406 allowed a mass-crossing of the Rhine. A combination of bad luck and military incompetence meant that the barbarians were not driven out again, but settled every Western Province, until the Western Empire had vanished as a political organisation. The Eastern Provinces appear to have been affected to a lesser extent by the cooling, and their fifth century was an age of apparently unbroken prosperity.

But there is less of a fit between the climate data and the history of the next two centuries. Or, so far as the one has influence on the other, it shows the reservation I have made about the effect of good or better ways and institutions.

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After about 500 AD, continued cooling was joined by reduced rainfall. This affected both halves of the Mediterranean World, but seems to have been worse in the more naturally dry Eastern half. We then have both climatic and written evidence that 536 was a year without a summer. The sun is said to have been hidden behind a continual haze that covered all the sky. Crops failed everywhere, and yields may have been low for several years thereafter. We do not know the cause of this event. It may have been a small asteroid impact. It may have been a volcanic eruption in the southern hemisphere. If the latter, we can suppose the same kind of effect, over the next half dozen years, as the eruption of the Icelandic volcano in 1784 – four years, I mention without elaborating, before the financial collapse of the French Monarchy. Around this time, a particularly savage race of barbarians called the Avars appeared from the north, and harried the Danubian Provinces, raiding and burning as far south as Corinth. In 542 came the first undeniable appearance of the bubonic plague. According to Procopius, this killed ten thousand people a day for a hundred days in Constantinople, and may have killed a third of the population throughout the world as a whole – we are extrapolating here from the next great pandemic in the fourteenth century.[6]

If you were at the 2007 conference of the Property and Freedom Society, you will remember how I described the demographic effects of this plague. It eliminated the Greek ruling classes from the cities of Syria and Egypt, allowing the emergence in their place of Semitic and non-Greek Orthodox ruling classes that did little to resist first the Persian and then the Arab invasions. It enabled the permanent loss of territories that you can see in the maps I have given out.

This is what I meant earlier in my speech when I spoke of the storm of the Early Middle Ages. The Empire was faced by a triple threat to its existence. There were the northern barbarians. There was militant Islam in the south. There was an internal collapse of population. Each of these had been brought on by changes in the climate that no one at the time could have understood had they been noticed. It would not be until after 800 that the climate would turn benign again. In the meantime, any state to which even a shadow of Lecky’s dismissal applied would have crumpled in six months. Only the most courageous and determined action, only the most radical changes of its structure, could save the Empire. And saved the Empire most definitely was.

The reason for this is that the Mediaeval Roman State was directed by creative pragmatists. Look for one moment beneath its glittering surface, and the Ancient Roman Empire was a ghastly place for most of the people who lived in it. The Emperors at the top were often vicious incompetents. They ruled through an immense and parasitic bureaucracy. They were supreme governors of an army too large to be controlled. They protected a landed aristocracy that was a repository of culture, but that was ruthless in its exaction of rent. Most ordinary people were disarmed tax-slaves, where not chattel slaves or serfs.

The contemporary historians themselves are disappointingly vague about the seventh and eighth centuries. Our only evidence for what happened comes from the description of established facts in the tenth century. As early as the seventh century, though, the Mediaeval Roman State pulled off the miracle of reforming itself internally while fighting a war of survival on every frontier. Much of the bureaucracy was shut down. Taxes were cut. The silver coinage was stabilised.[7] Above all, the senatorial estates were broken up and given to those who worked on them, in return for service in local militias. Though never abolished, chattel slavery became far less pervasive. The civil law was simplified, and the criminal law humanised – after the seventh century, as said, the death penalty was rarely used.

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The Mediaeval Roman Empire survived because of a revolutionary transformation in which ordinary people became armed stakeholders. The inhabitants of Roman Gaul and Italy and Spain barely looked up from their ploughs as the Barbarians swirled round them. The citizens of Mediaeval Rome fought like tigers in defence of their country and their Orthodox faith. Time and again, the armies of the Caliph smashed against a wall of armed freeholders. This was a transformation pushed through in a century and a half of recurrent crises during which Constantinople itself was repeatedly under siege. Alone among the ancient empires in its path, Mediaeval Rome faced down the Arabs, and kept Islam at bay for nearly five centuries. Would it be superfluous to say that no one does this by accident?[8]

Jack England, the celebrated novelist of the Persian Wars, is in this audience. I will agree that his theme of Ancient Greek endurance and victory is one of the most inspiring stories on record. I will also maintain that another author – also present this morning, though too celebrated to require naming – has no less inspiring a theme in the survival of the Mediaeval Roman Empire. Climate is often destiny. Demography is often destiny. Rarely, though not impossibly, destiny lies in the courage and determination to see the world as it is, and to make the necessary adaptations. It saved one civilisation. Why not another?


[1] For the odd story of Egypt’s dependence on the Empire for grain, see John L. Teall, “The Grain Supply of the Byzantine Empire, 330-1025,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 13 (1959), pp. 87-139

[2] William Edward Hartpole Lecky, A History of European Morals from Augustus to Charlemagne, (1869) Volume II, 13f.

[3] For more on the literary culture of the Mediaeval Roman Empire, see Romilly J. H. Jenkins, “The Hellenistic Origins of Byzantine Literature,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers, Vol. 17 (1963), pp. 37+39-52

[4] Unless said otherwise, all climatic data in this speech are taken from: Michael McCormick et al, “Climate Change during and after the Roman Empire: Reconstructing the Past from Scientific and Historical Evidence,” The Journal of Interdisciplinary History, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Autumn 2012), pp. 169-220

[5] Morris Silver, “The Plague under Commodus as an Unintended Consequence of Roman Grain Market Regulation,” The Classical World, Vol. 105, No. 2 (WINTER 2012), pp. 199-225

[6] For this plague, see J.-N. Biraben, J. Le Goff, “La Peste dans le Haut Moyen Age,” Annales. Histoire, Sciences Sociales, 24e Année, No. 6, Histoire Biologique et Société (Nov. – Dec., 1969), pp. 1484-1510. For a more recent and more synoptic view, see Dionysios Ch. Stathakopoulos, Famine and Pestilence in the Late Roman and Early Byzantine Empire: a Systematic Survey of Subsistence Crises and Epidemics. Aldershot and Burlington, VT: Ashgate (Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs vol. 9), 2004. Pp. xii, 417.

[7] For the currency stabilisation of 615 AD, see Robert Sabatino Lopez, “The Dollar of the Middle Ages,” The Journal of Economic History, Vol. 11, No. 3, Part 1 (Summer, 1951), pp. 209-234

[8] For a modern account of this transformation, see Angeliki E. Laiou, ed.. The Economic History of Byzantium from the seventh through the fifteenth century. 3 vols. Washington DC, Dumbarton Oaks, 2002.

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