The effectiveness of Roman Emperor Alexios I Komnenos’ fiscal policy

Most of the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) was marked by a considerable amount of confusion in the rural economy with far reaching inconsistencies in the operation of the Byzantine taxation system. This was caused by a severe fiscal crisis which affected the empire from the 1070s. While there is a reasonable amount of evidence illustrating the general outline of this period of crisis, evidence of the impact of the financial pressure in specific regions is very limited. The archives of the monasteries of Mount Athos give valuable detail of the activities of the state’s fiscal officials in eastern Macedonia. There is also useful information for the lands of the church of Ochrid in western Macedonia, due to the survival of several letters of its archbishop, Theophylakt, relating his difficulties with tax-officials. Theophylakt was writing at a time when the conflict between the fiscal administration and landowners was at its most intense.

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This financial crisis confronting the empire was not the result of either decline or stagnation in its economy. It was the product of the state’s pressing need for revenues to pay for its military campaigns and the dislocation inflicted on its finances by the loss of territory after the Turkish penetration into Asia Minor in the 1070s. The situation was aggravated by frequent incursions by the Petchenegs into the eastern Balkan provinces culminating in an attack on Constantinople itself during 1090-91. In the 1080s the Norman ruler Robert Guiscard launched an attack on the empire, capturing Dyrrachion and advancing far into imperial territory. Nothing ever put a greater strain on the empire’s finances than a period of prolonged warfare. The greater role played by mercenaries in the Byzantine army during the eleventh century added to the expense.

The state’s revenues were too inflexible to cope with any sudden and dramatic increase in expenditure. The Byzantine economy was overwhelmingly agrarian and any intensification in production was necessarily piecemeal. Although landowners could make some gains through spending on irrigation and also by working the land more intensively if sufficient labour was available, the most significant increases in output were achieved by extending the area under cultivation. This depended on population trends which could make a considerable impact, but such change in the agrarian economy was a protracted process and the state’s need for revenues was always immediate. When this need coincided with a sharp reduction in the territory under the empire’s control, the strain on imperial resources became even more pronounced.

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At the same time the authority of successive emperors was weakened by the circumstances in which they gained the throne. Michael VII Doukas had succeeded Romanos IV, whose defeat by the Seljuk Turks at Manzikert in 1071 was partly due to the disloyalty of the Doukas family. Nikephoros Botaneiates and Alexios Komnenos both came to the throne by military coups. As their rule lacked legitimacy, they needed to win the support of powerful individuals and institutions to bolster their vulnerable position. The generous grants, which were made to some landowners at a time of financial crisis, might seem superficially to be instances of the state undermining its own financial position when its situation was desperate, but in fact they were necessary gestures by emperors seeking legitimacy. Fiscal concessions by the state to prominent landowners were part of the fabric of Byzantine political life, but in the 1070s and the 1080s these concessions were more extensive in scope than those which had occurred in previous decades. Most of the earlier fiscal grants which survive in the monastic archives had allowed landowners to install additional peasants on their estates, provided that they were not already recorded in the state’s tax-registers. Given the comprehensive nature of the Byzantine system of land taxation, this meant that these peasants had to be landless. They were obtained as a result of the steady increase in population which made rural labour more plentiful to both the state and private landowners. The effect of this was to increase the resources available to both, a trend accompanied by an upsurge in the quantity of money which the state was minting and putting into circulation. However, this was a gradual process which did not safeguard the imperial administration from the consequences of an abrupt increase in military expenditure due to the crisis of the later eleventh century. Many of the privileges issued to landowners during the 1070s and 1080s consisted of the rights to revenues from state properties and their effect was, naturally, to reduce the revenues available to the state. Alexios Komnenos faced the additional difficulty that the landed wealth of his own family needed to be increased owing to the loss of properties following the Turkish occupation of much of Asia Minor. He attempted to restrict the issue of extensive privileges to a limited circle of his most important supporters and the effects of these concessions of fiscal revenues was offset by the confiscation of properties of other landowners. He was accused by the historian Zonaras of favouring the members of his own family and other close associates at the expense of the senatorial aristocracy. Certainly, during Alexios’s reign the most powerful positions were concentrated in the hands of members of the imperial family and related families, while the civil aristocracy of the capital played a subordinate role.

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An expedient to which the state resorted increasingly at this time was the debasement of the coinage. By the early years of Alexios’s reign the gold nomisma was worth in real terms only a third of its full nominal value. This brought great confusion to the taxation system, as powerful landowners insisted on paying their taxes in the most heavily debased coinage, effectively paying less in real terms than their full obligation. It was common for the collection of taxes to be farmed out to individuals who were obliged to meet their targets in full. What they could not obtain from one landowner, they attempted to make up by exacting more from others.

The imperial administration had reacted to the debasement by making new tax assessments which had led to a general increase in the amount owed to the state. The disorder in the rural economy persisted after Alexios reformed the coinage in 1092. The problems were resolved only in 1106-9 when the system of taxation was reformed and the higher rate of payment, which previously had been exacted from some tax-payers, was extended to all but the limited number of landowners who had obtained special privileges.

One of the complaints made by Theophylakt against the tax-collectors was that they often ignored privileges which the church’s properties had been granted by the state. These fiscal privileges were generally covered by the term exkousseia, which indicated that the state would not exact certain payments from the peasants installed on the properties; instead these payments were transferred to the landowner who could claim them from the peasants. Not only was the range of obligations covered by the exkousseia carefully stipulated, but also the number of peasants to whom it applied. If a landowner had more than the prescribed number on his properties, the state was entitled to claim payments from the additional peasants.

Theophylakt’s most bitter and complicated dispute with the fiscal administration  involved a paroikos Lazaros who had denounced the archbishop. The details of the affair are very murky and we have only Theophylakt’s version of the events, but his letters give some indication of the fiscal status of the property involved. He refers to the dispute in letters to both Adrian Komnenos, the emperor’s brother, and Nikephoros Bryennios.

In letters to Adrian Komnenos he claimed that Lazaros and other peasants who had abandoned the village at the centre of the controversy had collaborated with the praktor and succeeded in nullifying the effect of an imperial prostaxis, possibly a document he had obtained through the intervention of Nikephoros Bryennios. The village at issue and the claims on the paroikoi installed there were obtained by the church as the result of an exchange in which it had conceded some mountain pastures to the treasury. The exchange had been confirmed by a chrysobull and an imperial semeioma and Theophylakt asserted that the terms of these documents were being violated.

The affair is described at length in a letter to Nikephoros Bryennios, which gives Theophylakt’s most detailed account of the machinations of the fiscal officials. The main feature of the controversy surrounding the paroikos Lazaros is that it was essentially a dispute between the archbishop and the tax-official who was using Lazaros as a means to discredit Theophylakt. Theophylakt accused Lazaros of seeking out all those who were hostile to him. These malcontents included heretics who had been condemned by the archbishop, and those who had made illegal marriages. According to Theophylakt they claimed that they were from Ochrid and their fields and vineyards had been seized by the archbishop.

In the letter Theophylakt summarises the fiscal status of his lands and his relations with the tax-officials. Except for one property he had never held any land belonging to the state. This seems to be a reference to the property featured in the exchange with the treasury mentioned in two letters to Adrian Komnenos. He then refers to the denunciations of a tax-collector, implying that Theophylakt was being accused of illegally holding state land. Given the confusion into which the system of taxation had fallen by the early part of Alexios’s reign, this is not improbable. The general practice of farming out the taxes put great pressure on the tax-collector to meet his quota. The penalty for failing to do so was the sequestration of his property, so he would go to great lengths to ensure that they exacted the full amount of the payment if not more. Theophylakt defended himself against the charge that he was not paying the full amount of the tax on the church’s properties.

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Theophylakt asserted that his paroikoi on this property had also suffered from excessive impositions of other obligations. According to the archbishop his klerikoi had to pay the tax on the mills at double the rate that the laity paid. He made a similar claim over the payment they had to make for their fishing rights. He also had complaints about the payments exacted directly from him; taxes were imposed on mills which had long been out of use and for those which were in use he was charged at double the rate which the local population had to pay. A fishing place with a small catch was taxed at thirteen trikephala nomismata and again he asserted that other tax-payers were charged much less for similar properties.

The tax-officials also followed another allegedly incorrect procedure by not attributing to the church the excess peasants (perissoi) on the property, even though the church was liable to pay tax on them according to an imperial prostaxis. When a tax-official visited a property he compared the existing landholding with the previous tax-register and, if there were any additional peasants whose names were not recorded in the register, he had to assess the obligations for which they were liable. This was a fairly straightforward process if the peasants were independent farmers cultivating their own land; in this case they would be liable to make their payments directly to the state. Where they were paroikoi installed on the property of a landowner, it could be more complicated. Then the revenues from the direct producers could be claimed by the state or instead the state might concede some or all of the dues to the landowner. The church was certainly liable to make a tax-payment on these excess paroikoi, but it is possible that the prostaxis to which Theophylakt refers did make some concessions to the church allowing it to claim some dues from the paroikoi found newly installed on the property. The standard procedure for such a transfer of revenues was for the tax-official to make a new assessment of the estate and to hand over to the archbishop a praktikon, which consisted of a detailed list of the paroikoi living there and the range of payments which they were obliged to make to the archbishop.

Theophylakt also claimed that tax-officials were making unfair assessments of the peasants on the church’s property by recording peasants who were aktemones (peasants without oxen) as zeugaratoi (peasants with two oxen). This was an important detail because zeugaratoi usually had to make significantly higher payments due to their greater wealth. According to the archbishop not only were the payments of the paroikoi belonging to the church unjustly increased, but the church was not allowed to exact these payments itself.

Another incident gives a good indication of the way the taxation system was operating in the 1090s. An unnamed chorion which Theophylakt claimed the church had held for many years was appropriated by the state because it was not recorded in the state’s tax-register as belonging to the church. Although the church was deprived of the land, it was still forced to pay the zeugologion. Theophylakt asked why the church had been deprived of land long regarded as its own, but, as he himself admits, it was in fact treated no differently than many other landowners. A comprehensive fiscal survey had been conducted and many archontes had also had land confiscated by the state. Usually surveys were carried out at regular intervals to take into account any changes in the exploitation of the land which had occurred since the previous survey was completed. If a landowner was found cultivating more than the larid to which he was entitled either by his tax-payment or by imperial privileges, the state could either increase the tax-payment or take possession of the surplus land. This procedure would have coped with any extension in the area under cultivation resulting from any increase in population. However, it is clear from the content of Theophylakt’s letter that this was no routine revision of the tax-register. The operation was carried out on imperial instructions and, although the technical detail of the procedure is not described in the letter, it was most likely the same as that of the fiscal reassessments in the Chalkidike during the 1080s and 1090s. There, a new rate of epibole was imposed on Alexios’s instructions. As a result of this change landowners found that the tax payments which they had previously made for their entire property were now imposed only on part of their property, which they were allowed to retain, and the remainder was considered as surplus land and confiscated by the state. Theophylakt is emphatic that the state’s actions affected not only the church but all the landowners in the region. The most efficient way for the state to make such extensive confiscations was to alter the rate of taxation and then to claim the surplus land.

Byzantine society was overwhelmingly agrarian and the great bulk of the state’s revenues depended on agricultural production. Given the static nature of Byzantine agricultural technology, the most significant increase in these revenues could only come from an increase in the number of direct producers. In the European provinces of the empire at least the population grew steadily during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, although in Asia Minor the situation was less clear cut and there may have been a temporary reversal of the upward trend in the late eleventh and early twelfth century. At the same time the state was minting and putting into circulation larger quantities of coinage. The increased demands in taxation make sense only against this background of economic expansion. Not only was the level of the basic land-tax raised, but there was a clear tendency in the eleventh century for some services and obligations in kind to be commuted into cash payments. The higher levels of cash exacted in tax-payments reflected the greater quantity of cash in circulation. Consequently, Alexios was able to institutionalise the higher rates at which the land-tax was exacted in his reform of the fiscal system of 1106-9 which brought about a much needed stability. In Macedonia the succession of fiscal reviews at short intervals came to an end and it is no coincidence that in the archives of the monasteries of Mount Athos documents dealing with privileges granted by the state to landowners are much rarer for the decades immediately after the reform than they are for the period preceding it. During the years of Theophylakt’s episcopate the pressure of fiscal demands affected all but the most highly privileged landowners.

It is indicative of the strength of the pressure which the administration was able to impose on landowners that even someone as well connected as Theophylakt had a great deal of difficulty with tax-officials. The big problem confronting Theophylakt was that it was clearly imperial policy to exact higher levels of taxation from the provinces. Personal contacts could be very useful in dealing with isolated officials who abused their position, but faced with the effects of imperial policy his chances of success were limited.

That a landowner as well connected as Theophylakt had so much difficulty with tax officials was indicative of the general effectiveness of imperial fiscal policy, which enabled Alexios to secure his rule and withstand the external threats to the empire.

(Source: “The land and taxation in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos: the evidence of Theophylakt of Ochrid”, by Alan Harvey)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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