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SECTION II - part 2: REIGN OF LEO III. (THE ISAURIAN) A.D. 717-741 | Hellenismos.com


Posted March 17th, 2007 by webmaster



Unortunately, it is almost as difficult to ascertain the precise legislative and executive acts by which Leo reformed the military, financial, and legal administration, as it is to obtain an impartial account of his ecclesiastical measures.

The military establishment of the empire had gradually lost its national character, from the impossibility of recruiting the army from among Roman citizens. In vain the soldier's son was fettered to his father's profession, as the artisan was bound to his corporation, and the proprietor to his estate. Yet the superiority of the Roman armies seems to have suffered little from the loss of national spirit, as long as strict discipline was maintained in their ranks. For many centuries the majority of the imperial forces consisted of conscripts drawn from the lowest ranks of society, from the rude mountaineers of almost independent provinces, or from foreigners hired as mercenaries; yet the armies of all invaders, from the Goths to the Saracens, were repeatedly defeated in pitched battles. The state maxims which separated the servants of the emperor from the people, survived in the Eastern provinces after the loss of the Western, and served as the basis of the military policy of the Byzantine empeire, when reformed by Leo. The conditions of soldier and citizen were deemed incompatible. The law prevented the citizen from assuming the position of a soldier, and watched with jealousy any attempt of the soldier to acquire the rights and feelings of a citizen. An impassible barrier was placed between the proprietor of the soil, who was the tax-payer and the defender of the state, who was an agent of the imperial power. It is true that, after the loss of the Western provinces, the Roman armies were recruited from the native subjects of the empire to a much greater degree than formerly; and that, after the time of Heraclius, it became impossible to enforce the fiscal arrangements to which the separation of the citizen from the soldier owed its origin, at least with the previous strictness. Still the old imperial maxims were cherished in the reign of Leo, and the numerous colonies of Sclavonians, and other foreigners, established in the empire, owed their foundation to the supposed necessity of seeking for recruits as little as possible from among the native population of agriculturists. These colonies were governed by peculiar regulations, and their most important service was supplying a number of troops for the imperial army. Isauria and other mountainous districts, where it was difficult to collect any revenue by a land-tax, also supplied a fixed military contingent.

Whatever modifications Leo made in the military system, and however great were the reforms he effected in the organisation of the army and the discipline of the troops, the mass of the population continued in the Byzantine empire to be excluded from the use of arms, as they had been in the Roman times; and this circumstance was the cause of that unwarlike disposition, which is made a standing reproach from the days of the Goths to those of the Crusaders. The state of society engendered by this policy opened the Western Empire to the northern nations, and the empire of Charlemagne to the Normans. Leo's great merit was, that without any violent political change he infused new energy into the Byzantine military establishment, and organised a force that for five centuries defended the empire without acquiring the power of domineering in the state. As the army was destitute of patriotic feeling, it was necessary to lessen the influence of its commanders. This was done by dividing the provinces into themes, appointing a general of division for each theme, and grouping together in different stations the various corps of conscripts, subject nations, and hired mercenaries. The adoption likewise of different arms, armour, and manoeuvres in the various corps, and their seclusion from close intercommunication with the native legions, guarded against the danger of those rebellious movements which in reality destroyed the Western Empire. As much caution was displayed in the Byzantine empire to prevent the army from endangering the government by its seditions, as to render it formidable to the enemy by its strength.

The finances are soon felt to be the basis of government in all civilised states. Augustus experienced the truth of this as much as Louis XIV. The progress of society and the accumulation of wealth have a tendency to sink governments into the position of brokers of human intelligence, wealth, and labour; and the finances form the symbol indicating the quantity of these which the central authority can command. The reforms, therefore, which it was in the power of Leo III. to effect in the financial administration, must have proceeded from the force of circumstances rather than from the mind of the emperor. To this cause we must attribute the durability of the fabric he constructed. He confined himself to arranging prudently the materials accumulated to his mind. But no sovereign, and indeed no central executive authority, can form a correct estimate of the taxable capacity of the people. Want of knowledge increases the insatiable covetousness suggested by their position; and the wisest statesman is as likely to impose ruinous burdens on the people, if vested with despotic power, as the most rapacious tyrant. The people alone can find ways of levying on themselves an amount of taxation exceeding any burdens that the boldest despot could hope to impose; for the people can perceive what taxes will have the least effect in arresting the increase of the national wealth.

Leo, who felt the importance of the financial administration as deeply as Augustus, reserved to himself the immediate superintendence of the treasury; and this special control over the finances was retained by his successors, so that, during the whole duration of the Byzantine empire, the emperors may be regarded as their own ministers of finance. The grand Logothetes, who was the official minister, was in reality nothing more than the emperor's private secretary for the department. Leo unquestionably improved the central administration, while the invasions of the Saracens and Bulgarians made him extremely cautious in imposing heavy fiscal burdens on the distant cities and provinces of his dominions. But his reforms were certainly intended to circumscribe the authority of municipal and provincial institutions. The free cities and municipalities which had once been entrusted with the duty of apportioning their quota of the land-tax, and collecting the public burdens of their district, were now deprived of this authority. All fiscal business was transferred to the imperial officers. Each province had its own collectors of the revenue, its own officials charged to complete the registers of the public burdens, and to verify all statistical details. The traditions of imperial Rome still required that this mass of information should be regularly transmitted to the cabinet of the Byzantine emperors, as at the birth of our Saviour (Luke, chap. ii, v.).

The financial acts of Leo's reign, though they show that he increased the direct amount of taxation levied from his subjects, prove, nevertheless, by the general improvement which took place in the condition of the people, that his reformed system of financial administration really lightened the weight of the public burdens. Still, there can be no doubt that the stringency of the measures adopted in Greece and Italy, for rendering the census more productive, was one of the causes of the rebellions in those countries, for which his Iconoclastic decrees served as a more honourable war-cry. In Calabria and Sicily he added one-third to the capitation; he confiscated to the profit of the treasury a tribute of three talents and a half of gold which had been remitted annually to Rome, and at the same time he ordered a correct register to be kept of all the males born in his dominions. This last regulation excites a burst of indignation from the orthodox historian and confessor Theophanes, who allows neither his reason nor his memory to restrain his bigotry when reckoning the acts of the first Iconoclast emperor. He likens Leo's edict to Pharaoh's conduct to the children of Israel, and adds that the Saracens, Leo's teachers in wickedness, had never exercised the like oppression – forgetting, in his zeal against taxation, that the Caliph Abdelmelik had established the haratch or capitation of Christians as early as the commencement of the reign of Justinian II,. A.D. 692.

An earthquake that ruined the walls of Constantinople, and many cities in Thrace and Bithynia, induced Leo to adopt measures for supplying the treasury with a special fund for restoring them, and keeping their fortifications constantly in a state to resist the Bulgarians and Sacarcens. The municipal revenues which had once served for this purpose had been encroached upon by Justinian I., and the policy of Leo led him to diminish in every way the sphere of action of all local authorities.

The care of the fortifications was undoubtedly a duty to which the central government required to give its direct attention; and to meet the extraordinary expenditure caused by the calamitous earthquake of 740, an addition of one-twelfth was made to the census. This tax was called the dikeraton, because the payment appears to have been generally made in the silver coins called keratia, two of which were equal to a miliaresion, the coin which represented one-twelfth of the nomisma, or gold Byzant. Thus a calamity which diminished the public resources increased the public urdens. In such a contingency it seems that a paternal government and a wise despot ought to have felt the necessity of diminishing the pomp of the court, of curtailing the expenses of ecclesiastical pageants, and of reforming the extravagance of the popular amusements of the hippodrome, before imposing new burdens on the suffering population of the empire. Courtiers, saints, and charioteers out to have been shorn of their splendour, before the groans of the provinces were increased. Yet Leo was neither a luxurious nor an avaricious prince; but, as has been said already, no despotic monarch can wisely measure the burden of taxation.