‘Stratiotika ktemata’ (military landholdings) – The Novel of Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas

Throughout its long history, the Byzantine Empire, with its monetary economy, was normally able to pay its soldiers cash wages when they were on campaign. However, the government did not normally pay for their equipment, or look after them when they were not on active service. It was therefore up to them to support themselves on a regular basis from the rural economy. There were basically two ways open to them. They could either live on the land, as integral members of the farming population, or they could live off the land, as beneficiaries of the dues and services which the peasant producers owed to the state. The two modes must always have co-existed to some extent, and they may even have coincided in the case of many a cavalry soldier conscripted from a rural community, but there can be no doubt that the period covered by this volume saw a shift from the first, «contributory» mode of support to the second, «tributary» mode, a shift represented by the two institutions which figure in the title of this paper. The beginning of the process is marked by the Novel of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus which defines the minimum values of military landholdings (στρατιωτικά κτήματα), that is properties carrying the obligation of military service (strateia), and stipulates that the property was not transferable without the obligation. The end of the process is marked, two hundred years later, in the reign of Manuel I, by the widespread allocation of state lands to the «care» (pronoia) of soldiers who were thus entitled to collect the dues and services which the tenantfarmers, the paroikoi, owed to the fisc.


(…) The Novel of Nikephoros II Phokas

All printed collections of middle Byzantine legislation, from Leunclavius to Svoronos’ posthumous edition of the imperial land legislation, include under the name of the emperor Nikephoros II Phokas a short text concerning the sale of lands by landowners subject to military service. The text, which is undated, is in the form of a rescript drafted in response to a problem referred to the emperor by the master of petitions, the protospatharios Basil. The problem was that property sold by men in military service was being restored to them without the refund of the purchase price, regardless of the size of their fortune. The ruling is in two parts, the first with retrospective application to transfers that have already taken place, and the second to apply in future. In respect of past transactions, a soldier had the pre-emptive right to reclaim land that he had sold, but had to repay the purchase price if this land was not part of his military holding valued at 41b of gold. For the future, however, the legislator rules that «since there has been an increase in klibanophoroi and epilorikophoroi» (επεί τα των κλιβανοφόρων και των επιλωρικοφόρων κίνησιν έλαβε), the minimum value of a military holding is henceforth raised to 121b, and any land alienated from such a property may be recovered without compensation.

(…) The tenth century saw intense military activity coupled with unprecedented movement in the land market. As the empire went on the offensive in Asia Minor, the central cavalry units, the tagmata, gained in importance as a mobile expeditionary force. As the eastern provinces became more secure from invasion, and as booty, captives and conquered lands accumulated, new opportunities and incentives opened up for investment in agricultural land. The situation, and the government’s response to it, evolved rapidly. The emperor Leo VI, in his military manual, the Taktika, inaugurated a more systematic and dogmatic approach to military reform. A generation later, Romanos I initiated a radical and aggressive strategy for the protection and the expansion of the state’s fiscal base which continued into the twelfth century. His Novels imposing restrictions on the purchase of peasant landholdings by the «powerful» were interventionist as well as protective measures, which effectively secured for the state a quasi-proprietary right over a vast category of private property. A Novel of Constantine VII extended this right to another category of land, the landholdings of the theme soldiers. The novelty of this policy needs stressing. Although the Novel justifies its provisions as the confirmation of custom, it was a significant innovation in the Roman law of property. By formally defining soldiers’ property as stratiotika ktemata, the Novel was effectively revoking their private status, and by attaching the burden of military service, the strateia, to land rather than to the families who owned it, the Novel opened the way for the fiscalisation of the strateia, the commutation of the service obligation to a
tax. In other words, the Novel had implications both for private litigation and for
government policy, which, whether foreseen or unforeseen, were likely to require further legislation. Accordingly the emperor Romanos II was prompted to issue an edict in March 962 regulating the liability of those who had acquired military property in contravention of his father’s Novel, and who had taken indigent soldiers into their service. The text with which we are concerned also begins by addressing the problem of liability and compensation, and it deals with an aspect of the problem which had not been precisely settled by Romanos.

(…) Nikephoros was strongly committed to maintaining and enhancing the economic well-being and the privileged fiscal status of soldiers within society. The commitment was something of a Phokas family tradition. Nikephoros’ grandfather and namesake had certainly influenced the military thinking of Leo VI, whose Taktika had raised the question of soldiers’ prosperity, and his father, Bardas Phokas, had stood high in the favour of Constantine VII, who had legislated to protect military holdings. Nikephoros himself almost certainly wrote or commissioned the treatise On guerilla warfare, which contains an impassioned plea for soldiers to receive regular wages and allowances and generous bonuses, and, «most important of all, to enjoy the complete tax-exemption which has been granted to them from the beginning, as enjoined by the holy and blessed emperors of old in their tactical books» -a clear, if distorted, allusion to the Taktika of Leo VI. Nikephoros clearly took his militarism much further than his father and grandfather. The emperor notoriously spared no effort or resources to improve the size and the morale of the armed forces, and made himself very unpopular with the civilian population by making them pay the extra cost of his grand expeditions to the east. On this point, all the sources are agreed.

(…) Basil II was no less concerned than Nikephoros II to protect and augment the army’s fiscal base, and tacitly endorsed earlier legislation forbidding the alienation of military holdings, which as an institution survived into the eleventh century. However, Basil’s famous Novel of 996 does not specifically refer to any of this legislation, as opposed to the earlier Novel of Romanos I, which is its only point of reference, and Basil correspondingly does not distinguish military land from other categories of land that had been illegally acquired by the dynatoi. All that we know about Basil suggests that this reflected a real change in priorities. There is evidence that he took every opportunity to bring large tracts of land under the direct ownership of the fisc. At the same time, Basil had every reason to discourage the close relationship between the army and the land which had produced powerful military magnate families like those of Phokas, Skleros and Kourkouas. For almost thirty years the power of these families threatened to exclude him and his dynasty from the throne, first in the reigns of Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes, and then in the rebellions of Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros. It was in order to combat Bardas Phokas that Basil engaged the services of six thousand Rus soldiers supplied by Prince Vladimir of Kiev. He thus inaugurated the steady recruitment of foreign troops which, by the end of the eleventh century, transformed the Byzantine field army into a largely foreign mercenary force.

(Source: “From Stratiotikon Ktema to Military Pronoia“, by Paul Magdalino. From the edition “Byzantium at war (9th – 12th c.)“, National Hellenic research foundation, Institute for Byzantine research, International Symposium 4)

Research-Selection: Anastasius Philoponus






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