Luxury and Corruption in the Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) State under the Angeloi Emperors

Modern historians generally hold Isaac II Angelos (1185–95) and his brother Alexios III (1195–1203) in very low esteem on account of the image Niketas Choniates paints of them in his History, and especially in the version written after the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

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The historian’s depiction of the two emperors is not simply influenced by this event; the way he describes the brothers constitutes the core of his explanation for the catastrophe. Isaac II and Alexios III are presented as inefficient and indolent administrators who were largely indifferent to public affairs and rather keen on enjoying the luxuries of Constantinople and the green villages along the Propontis and the Bosphoros. In the words of the historian, the government of the Romans was reduced to nothing else but carousing and drunkenness and Byzantis had become another Sybaris, the city celebrated for its voluptuousness. The southern Italian city of Sybaris, famous in antiquity for its wealth, had become in the literature of the imperial period the paradigm of excessive luxury and insouciance that in the end led to the city’s sacking and occupation by its neighbours.

Choniates’ views are similar for both emperors, although Alexios III appears in a more negative light than Isaac II. The two emperors are usually described as indifferent and lazy, especially Alexios III. For example, Isaac II is criticized for accepting to pay tribute to the Turks so as to avoid leaving Constantinople to fight against them or for cutting a campaign short in order to return to the capital. Alexios III was much less often on campaign and, when he was, he was always in a hurry to return to Constantinople.

The historian repeatedly refers to the fondness of the Angeloi for extravagant enjoyments. He tells us that the emperors erected palaces, held sybarite banquets, organized horse races and other games, maintained courtesans, employed jesters and singers, and enjoyed frequent excursions and hunting in the countryside surrounding the capital.

According to Choniates, the Angeloi gave away money with both hands. Isaac II made cash distributions to the populace and undertook considerable charitable work. He showed munificence towards individuals, churches, monasteries, and awarded tax exemptions to whole cities. At the beginning of his reign, Alexios III donated money and lands, conceded fiscal revenues, and awarded dignities. Much of the generosity of the Angeloi is said to have been directed towards their ‘useless relatives’.

At the same time, the emperors are accused of loving money obsessively, and of trying to obtain it by any means, legitimate or illegitimate. Both Isaac II and Alexios III are said to have taxed heavily and unjustly. New demands were invented under Isaac II who debased the ‘silver coinage’ and sold the imperial offices to anyone willing to pay. For Choniates, the greediness of Isaac II was the result of his profligate spending. The Latin merchants were also taxed heavily, especially the Venetians, who suffered additional financial damages on account of the emperors. Alexios III is even said to have confiscated the wealth of prominent individuals and to have had the ships of foreign merchants plundered.

The History indicates that it was not only the emperors who were addicted to luxury but also the people close to them, their associates and relatives. According to Choniates, whilst on campaign in Macedonia against the rebel Dobromir Chrysos in the summer of 1199, the eunuch chamberlains and servants of the emperor opposed the strategy of destroying the enemy in a piecemeal fashion as suggested by those with more experience. They convinced Alexios III to attack the rebel’s main stronghold directly, thus adopting the strategy that guarantied the quickest return to Constantinople.

The individuals close to the emperors were also keen on getting wealthy. According to Choniates, after the death of Manuel I Komnenos (1143–80), the associates and relatives of the latter, that is, the most powerful people in the empire, showed little concern for public affairs or for the education of Manuel’s son and successor, the young Alexios II (1180–3). In fact, they were interested in one of two things: usurping the throne, in particular by wooing the widowed empress, or enriching themselves by purloining public money.

The historian reports several occasions during the reigns of the Angeloi when confiscated money or other goods that ought to have been given over to the public treasury were immediately donated to the emperor’s friends.

The History also contains specific examples of high-ranking officials exploiting their position for personal gain. The financial ministers Theodore Kastamonites, who served under Isaac II, and Constantine Mesopotamites, who served under both Isaac II and Alexios III, are said to have made enormous profits, receiving gifts to grant audiences with the emperor and pocketing the money from the sale of offices.

According to Choniates, the sale of offices was an important method of enrichment for the greedy relatives of Alexios III, and for this reason they undermined the emperor’s attempts to abolish the practice.

Apart from Kastamonites and Mesopotamites, one more official, Michael Stryphnos, stands out in the History as someone who tried to obtain wealth at the expense of the common good. Stryphnos was epi tou vestiariou under Isaac II and megas doux of the fleet and syggambros of Alexios III. The History indicates that as megas doux Stryphnos robbed or overtaxed the Genoese merchant Gafforio, thus turning him into the pirate who plundered the coasts of the Aegean. It is also reported that Constantine Mesopotamites, not a model of integrity himself, accused the ‘potbellied’ Stryphnos of being the greediest of all and a purloiner of public money. According to the History, the megas doux was also responsible for the pitiable state of the Byzantine fleet in 1203 since he had been selling the equipment of the ships—anchors, sails, etc.—obviously in order to pocket the cash.

Despite this harsh critique, Choniates credits the Angeloi emperors with efforts to restore justice and good administration. Isaac II, he says, sometimes sent to the provinces judges chosen for their integrity who did not keep for themselves everything they collected but surrendered to the fisc its due. Alexios III ordered the abolition of the sale of offices upon his accession to the throne but the measure was never implemented. The emperor is also said to have regretted his early days of profligate spending at a later stage.

Regarding the Angeloi and their administration, there exist few contemporary documents from monastic and Italian archives as well as a non-negligible amount of literary texts, speeches and letters, most notably those authored by the metropolitan of Athens, Michael Choniates, the brother of Niketas. Finally, there is also the numismatic evidence. These sources allow us to check to a significant extent what Choniates says in his History. In general, they corroborate the image he presents.

The munificence and frequent donations of the Angeloi seem confirmed by the documentary evidence. There is a sudden surge in the number of known concessions of lands and tax exemptions to all kinds of beneficiaries.

The concession of privileges to cities is known independently from Choniates’ History. From Niketas’ brother, Michael, we learn that Athens, Corinth, Thebes, and Euripos enjoyed privileges awarded to them by Alexios II Komnenos, Isaac II or Alexios III.

Τexts referring to the time of the Latin conquest suggest that Thessaloniki and Adrianople also enjoyed some sort of privileged status in 1204.

It was not simply that obtaining tax exemptions was now easier thanks to the emperors’ greater willingness to grant them. It was also becoming a necessity given the apparent tendency of the tax burden to grow and of the abuses to become more frequent. The writings of Michael Choniates speak of the plundering of the empire’s cities by tax officials.

One of the best documented cases of abusive taxation comes from the archives of Lavra. Before 1196, the officials collecting the trade taxes in Constantinople demanded a kommerkion on the wine transported to the city on the monastery’s boats. Although the boats were exempt from this obligation, the officials pretended that they were not, since Lavra’s chrysobull did not specifically mention the dekateia oinarion, that is, the kommerkion on wine. A simple case of malicious misinterpretation, it nevertheless obliged Lavra to petition the emperor, who had the affair judged by a court presided by the head of the financial administration and included several senior judges, heads of fiscal departments, and other high-ranking imperial officials.

The rapaciousness of high-ranking imperial officials can also be seen in the documents issued to the Republics of Genoa and Pisa in 1192. According to these texts, the Italians claimed that Theodore Choumnos, a close associate of Andronikos I(1183–5) and Isaac II, along with the already mentioned Michael Stryphnos and Theodore Kastamonites had exacted undue kommerkia from Genoese and Pisan merchants.

Moreover, in a speech addressed to Stryphnos, who was at the time visiting Athens in an official capacity, Michael Choniates urges him to prefer good reputation in posterity over wealth in the present life, and to follow the model of an earlier megas doux, Alexios Komnenos, who was famous for his justice and who opposed, in particular, the robbing of the deceased and the exactions of fiscal officials.

In view of what we already know about Stryphnos, the exhortations of Michael Choniates seem to betray apprehension at the impending administration of Greece by the megas doux. In truth, Stryphnos was already quite affluent. A letter addressed to him by Michael Choniates refers to the money, estates, and slaves God had granted him.

The independent evidence on Stryphnos and Kastamonites therefore suggests that what Niketas Choniates says about them is not pure defamation.

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At the same time, however, our sources reveal instances of imperial efforts to restore justice and good administration. Isaac II is praised by Michael Choniates for censuring greedy and unjust tax collectors in Hellas.

The same emperor issued a law forbidding the confiscation or over-taxation of the properties of churches whose bishop had died by government officials or other powerful individuals. Very similar laws protecting church properties from confiscation had already been issued by John II and Manuel I. The law of Isaac II, however, includes some new and rather interesting elements. Whereas the previous novels refer simply to officials, governors, judges, and various fiscal agents as people liable to take over church properties, Isaac’s law provides a different list of possible plunderers, adding in particular sebastokratores and caesars, other relatives of the emperor, and also his oikeioi.

As for Alexios III, we have already seen that in 1196 he offered his protection to Lavra against the abuses of the high-ranking officials of the bureau of the sea. We also know that before November 1197 he issued a law annulling all boat privileges ‘because these had multiplied causing great damage to the fisc’. This fits well with Niketas Choniates’ claim that Alexios III had regretted his early prodigality and suggests that the emperor’s liberality did not last very long.

As in the era of the Angeloi, taxation was heavy under the Komnenoi, as suggested by the frequent complaints, but there was no fiscal laxity. With the possible exception of the first years of Manuel, the control of state finances appears to have been rather strict, and this applies to the reign of Andronikos I as well. Although Niketas Choniates accuses Manuel of prodigality, his concessions and expenses apparently remained within reasonable limits with the exception of those serving military and diplomatic pursuits. The Komnenoi were able to follow a policy of relative fiscal austerity because for most of their reigns their position was strong and uncontested.

Nevertheless, even the Komnenoi could not check the corruption and abuses of imperial officials. According to Niketas Choniates, John of Poutza, a financial minister of Manuel I, was greedy and corrupt.

We have already seen the apparently unsuccessful attempts of John II and Manuel I to curb the tendency of governors and other administrators to plunder bishoprics that had lost their prelates. Michael Choniates reports that in the period before Andronikos I private households suffered a similar dispossession by the praitores of Hellas when the man in a family died.

Further evidence of abuses by officials is provided in a document of 1174 listing the losses that the Genoese merchants had suffered in the empire in previous years. It was not only the unjustified or excessive requests of the kommerkion. On several occasions, local officials, often doukes, seized cash and goods from merchants or entire cargos of shipwrecked boats. The imperial orders that were sometimes issued in favour of the merchants had little effect. Several of those named as perpetrators of these injustices can be identified, with greater or lesser certainty, as individuals close to the emperor, including a cousin and an uncle of Manuel I, and Theodore Mavrozomes, his chief minister.

One of the abuses reported in 1174, the pillage of shipwrecks, was forbidden by Andronikos I, as it had been by the emperors before him. According to Niketas Choniates, this time around the law proved effective. The way Andronikos ensured the respect of the law is interesting. In front of an assembly that included his relatives, associates, members of the aristocracy and officials, he announced that terrible punishments would be meted out not to the actual plunderers of shipwrecks but to the governors or owners of the coastal lands where the crime had been committed. Immediately, we are told, those who heard this sent letters to the people who exercised public authority in their stead or to the managers of their estates, warning them to make sure that no such plundering took place.

Choniates’ account suggests that not only the owners of estates neighbouring the coast but also the governors of the provinces, or at least many of them, were based in Constantinople and exercised their authority through local representatives. We actually know several specific cases of such delegation of authority from the reigns of Manuel I and Andronikos I. This, of course, reminds us of the officials who preferred the comfort of Constantinople and refused to go the provinces.

So the greed, abuses, and love of luxury of the officials we see in the era of the Angeloi were very much present under the Komnenoi. There is nothing really new here. What seems to be different is that, under the Komnenoi, such problems remained within tolerable limits and were not entirely beyond the emperor’s control. Under Isaac II and Alexios III, on the contrary, the group of relatives and high-ranking officials appear little restrained by the rulers and resemble a criminal organization that devoured public resources with impunity.

Indeed, it is remarkable how much greed and how little patriotism the empire’s elite displayed. Certainly, some of the high-ranking individuals were newcomers motivated by the desire to make a quick profit while conditions were favourable. Nevertheless, a very large proportion of those who were entrusted with high offices were individuals with distinguished lineage and traditions and had serious reasons to desire the permanence and well-being of the empire. They held lucrative positions in the government—some could even aspire to the throne—and they possessed vast properties in the provinces. The estates of certain families—Branas, Kamytzes, Kantakouzenos, Kontostephanos, Raoul—were large enough to be listed alongside entire towns and provinces in the Partitio Romanie (1204).

Tax exactions reduced people to poverty or forced them to flee, corruption channeled public money into private purses, and taken together these problems undermined the health of the state. The writings of Michael Choniates and the History of Niketas Choniates show that contemporaries understood this danger well.

In the long term, it did not make sense for the elite to engage in such practices or to tolerate them. The greed of these people seems short-sighted and irrational. However, reason and preference for long-term benefits do not always prevail over irresponsible short-term profit. Prosperity in Byzantium and especially in Constantinople reached a peak in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. These were the most flourishing times since Antiquity.

The interest in enrichment, already visible in the eleventh century, probably expanded in the twelfth century along with the increased general prosperity. One has the feeling that a fever of greed permeated society, from the Comnenian nobility to the monks criticized by Eustathios of Thessaloniki.

As in the case of the elite, the situation described above did not profit the emperors. It was not in the rulers’ interest to weaken the empire’s tax base through over-taxation and they gained little or nothing from the corruption and exactions that made officials rich. The two Angeloi had every intention to remain on the throne and to found a dynasty. Isaac II believed he would reign for thirty-two years before his son succeeded him. Alexios III and his wife were also planning on a long tenure and were expecting that one of their sons-in-law would succeed to the throne.

But Isaac and Alexios did relatively little to control the injustice and corruption. Their poor performance in the defence and government of the empire did not allow them to overcome the irregularity of their accession to the throne. Isaac II became emperor rather accidentally and Alexios III by means of a repulsive crime. As emperors they remained unconvincing and were therefore forced to tolerate a high level of corruption.

Ιf we go even further back in time and look at the years between the death of Basil II in 1025 and the accession of Alexios I in 1081, we realize that the situation that unraveled in the late twelfth century was not unique.

In that earlier period, a series of short-lived and often weak emperors succeeded one another. Besides spending money on frivolous projects, several of these rulers made donations and conceded privileges on a large scale. Individual privileges thus became widespread in the eleventh century.

Significantly, the first known concessions to cities also date from this era. The corruption and quest for enrichment of high-ranking officials was apparently common while those in the emperor’s favour tended to become rich.

The inefficient government and questionable legitimacy of the Angeloi led to frequent military and diplomatic defeats and obliged the emperors to make concessions to various beneficiaries so that they could remain in power. As a consequence, state resources were squandered, taxation increased, and the population became disaffected with the regime. These are the reasons why revolts aiming to overthrow the emperor multiplied under the Angeloi. The fact that there were many aristocrats with as good a claim to the throne as the Angeloi brothers only made things worse. The revolts and their suppression were costly since they often implied loss of revenue, military mobilization, and further concessions. In one notable case a revolt led to the permanent loss of a province, Cyprus, whose revenue must have been significant.

At the same time, a new phenomenon appeared, the rebellions led by locally powerful men, of Greek or other ethnic background, who did not aim for the imperial throne but at gaining independence from Constantinople. The causes of the phenomenon are disputed.

But there can be no doubt that the economic development of the provinces, which reached a high point in the twelfth century, played a role, as did the inefficiency and rapaciousness of Constantinople. Independently of the reasons, however, these rebellions had similar results to other revolts in addition to the permanent loss of revenue when successful.

(Source: “Sybaris on the Bosphorοs: Luxury, Corruption and the Byzantine State under the Angeloi (1185-1203)”, by Kostis Smyrlis)

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Research-Selection for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

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