Michael Auslin: Lessons from Byzantium
Michael Auslin is a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
The Byzantine Empire’s long run — 1,100 years — may seem remote from the 21st century, but a reading of its history offers at least three timeless lessons. Understanding some of the fatal weaknesses in the Eastern Roman Empire may help clarify the political and economic problems that America faces today and the choices we have in responding to them.
Founded in 330 by the emperor Constantine, the eastern half of the Roman Empire was centered in Constantinople, the New Rome. By the fourth century, the empire had endured more than a century of instability, internecine warfare, and economic decline. In that context Rome’s eastern lands, arcing around Asia Minor, the Levant, and northern Africa, were especially attractive, being richer and more settled than the comparatively backward parts of western Europe. It was in part to assure continued access to these sources of wealth that Constantine relocated his capital. By A.D. 476, Rome had been overrun by barbarian tribes, and before long only Constantinople in the East had a seat for the emperors.
The first lesson for America to take from the history of Byzantium is about individualism and freedom. While it was no democracy, nonetheless Byzantium flourished when it allowed its citizens, and particularly its soldiers, greater individual freedom and responsibility. Beginning in the early 7th century, Emperor Heraclius moved from the traditional reliance on the provinces and their civilian governors and instead established large military zones, or “themes,” in Asia Minor, which was now the backbone of the empire. Centralization was maintained through the appointment of a single official with both civil and military responsibilities, but the real innovation of the themes was how the land was settled by imperial troops....
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