Friday, January 16, 2009

Musings on the Byzantine Empire - decline

I continue to really enjoy Warren Treadgold's book on the history of the Byzantine Empire. This week I missed a bus stop as consequence!

I know a fair bit of history, but come to the book from a Western European perspective. I have also read lots of historical novels written from the same perspective. This helps me understand things, but also causes shifts in perspectives.

Once I have finished this book, I am going to move west of the fence so to speak, and look at the Empires west of the Byzantine including the rise of the Ottoman Empire written with them as the centre story.

The history I am reading about just at present sits at the centre of fault lines in some current divides. The Crusades and all that, Christian vs Muslim. Balkan conflicts. History is used, misused, as a weapon in some of the arguments and conflicts around the fault lines.

I had thought that the Byzantine Empire declined far earlier than it did. I also misunderstood the reasons for the decline.

Under the Emperor Basil II, the Empire as the biggest power in Europe and the Middle East had regained a strength not seen for four hundred years. The story from his death in 1025 to the pillaging of Constantinople in 1204 is one of constant if erratic decline.

Byzantium need not have declined, nor was its decline due to external threat. The Empire had been under constant threat from invasion or raid throughout its history.

The decline was not due to collapsing morals - an early popular view about the decline of the Western Empire somehow translated to the East, now was it due to economic decline. To my mind, Treadgold makes an interesting and persuasive case that both population and economic activity actually advanced for much of the period.

The real cause of the Empire's decline was simply bad Government that led, among other things, to reduced social cohesion, a rise in competing forces within the Empire itself and a weakening of central authority. The Empire fell because the state finally weakened to the point that it could no longer manage external challenge in an effective fashion.

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