A Reminder from Failed States Past: The Byzantine Empire

In 565 CE, Justinian I died. His body was entombed in a specially built mausoleum in the Church of Holy Apostles in Constantinople, where it went undisturbed for six and half centuries. His reign was marked by significant reconquests in North Africa and Italy, a codifying of a disorganized legal code, and the territorial zenith of the eastern empire. Today, his face still adorns the walls of the Basilica of San Vitale, built in one of the northernmost points of his Italian reconquest.

 

Years earlier, in 518, Justinian aided his uncle, Justin, who had adopted Justinian, in gaining power by instructing him to bribe the Senate and consolidate power using his position as leader of the palace guard. This political maneuvering may have been the result of Justinian’s education, for which his uncle had paid. Within a decade, due to his uncle’s senility, Justinian was de facto sovereign of the empire.

 

If the Byzantine method of succession is unclear to you, that’s because there was none. Power was passed from one political manipulator to the next by the seizure of various elements of government: the Senate, the civil service, certain political parties, and especially the army. Without the army, would be emperors could always be ousted by an upstart general prepared to march on Constantinople.

 

While typically a non-factor in Byzantine politics, political groups, like the Blues and the Greens, who took their names from two of the four colors worn by charioteers, had the potential to exercise influence over even the emperor. The Blues and Greens most often gathered in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, which could hold 100,000. Even by today’s standards, 100,000 in one place is a crowd — when this mob assembled, they were heard. And while they usually shouted at each other over the results of the races, they occasionally united as in the Nika Riots.

 

On January 13, 532, the Blues and Greens, most probably under the influence of the aristocracy and the Senate, united against Justinian and burned and pillaged their own city for five days. Senators coming out in support of the rioters, his reign balancing on a knife’s edge, Justinian was able to bribe the leaders of the Blues into dispersing. He then instructed his loyal generals to massacre the remaining rioters. All told, 30,000 rioters were killed and much of the city lay in ruin.

 

The many accomplishments of Justinian are marred by his reliance on force and his inability to provide for the lasting security of the Byzantines. For all his conquests, he neglected his long frontiers and exhausted his empire’s manpower and treasury. For all his codifying of the common law, he failed to provide for a consistently peaceful transfer of power.

 

When we look back, we see the result of a system that centralizes power in an office and then relies on force and intrigue to fill that office. We see what happens when factions go unrepresented in government so their only recourse is force, is riot or civil war. Today, with a government long unresponsive to public opinion, an executive elected by a minority, and the increasing independence of the military, we share more than we should with this great but flawed man, with this medieval failed state.

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