This is the first post in an occasional series about how Byzantine history continues to inform our contemporary culture. Relevant or applicable or germane—these adjectives all apply. What matters is that Byzantine history and culture continues to surface in a variety of ways and contexts. Eventually I’ll settle on a title for this series: possibilities are Byzantium Today, Relevant Byzantium, Relevantastic Byzantium. Thoughts? Opinions? (I’m currently leaning heavily toward Relevantastic Byzantium…)
This opinion piece from the Guardian newspaper (10 March 2013) uses the general theory that we study history in order to make better decisions today. In some cases we can learn from history and avoid making the same mistakes; and in others we can use aspects of history to solve “new” problems.
The commentator makes a comparison between the EU and the Byzantine Empire as entities who share cultural, linguistic, and ethic diversities across diverse lands, climates, and economies. In both cases, unity is predicated on sharing a single currency. In the 1070s, an economic crisis resulted in dramatically lowering of standards of living and protests against government officials. While this is not the most notable economic crisis or public display of dissatisfaction with the empire’s leadership (the Nike Revolt comes to mind), it is an important moment of transition and reform. The crisis created a vacuum in which a strong leader with new ideas could influence economic policy. His idea to mint more coins while also reducing its precious metal content was a disaster and failed to resolve the problems of collapsing revenues and increasing spending on the military and other essential services. A new generation of leaders followed and these suggested further radical measures including asking the Germans to bolster the Byzantine economy while food supplies dwindled and anxiety increased.
Eventually the tide turned and new economic policies were put into place that helped revive the economy. In fact, the new period of prosperity is sometimes called the Komnenian Renaissance referring to the cultural and economic flourishing as a result of the reforms under Emperor Alexios Komnenos. The solution included 1) replacing the old currency with a new one, 2) auditing assets and revising the tax code to reflect these revenue sources, and 3) promoting trade and commerce especially with outside capital.
Neither the commentator nor I advocate for implementing these specific policies. But, studying how older civilizations dealt with complicated social pressures tied to economic policies helps put our current issues into a broader historical context. (Nothing frustrates me more than cultural commentators who flatten history.) This is not the best (or most useful) comparison between today’s economic concerns and Byzantine history, but it does remind us that making interpretations of any moment—past or present—requires thorough study of documents and artifacts.
Perhaps the historical perspective and context to our economic concerns helps dilute the sting of living on less? We know many others have gone through similar difficult adjustments. The comparison points us to consider human nature, social development, and organization. How did the Byzantines in the eleventh century deal with economic difficulties? The commentator argues that the Byzantine economic and political leadership maintained an efficient taxation system. But remember, they ran an empire, not a democracy, and by its nature, democratic systems are very, very messy.