Administrative institutions in Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Asia Minor on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest

Since the fall of North Africa, Egypt, and the Levant to the Arabs and the occupation of Italy by the Germanic peoples and of much of the Balkans by the Slavs, Byzantium* had been restricted to the southern confines of the Balkan peninsula, Anatolia, the isles, and southern Italy. Of these areas, Anatolia was by far the largest, most populous, and economically the most important. Unfortunately, almost nothing in the way of population statistics for Anatolia has survived, but aside from the factor of its great size, there are other indications that Asia Minor was the most populous region of the empire. So long as Anatolia continued to be an integral part of the empire, Byzantium remained a strong and comparatively prosperous state. Once Anatolia slipped from Byzantine control, the empire became little more than a weak Balkan principality, competing with Serbs and Bulgars on an almost equal footing.

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With the decline of medieval Hellenism* in Anatolia, there arose a Turkish-Muslim society that is at the base of the Seljuk state and Ottoman Empire. This new society differed from those of the Asiatic steppe and from that of the Islamic Middle East because it arose in a Byzantine milieu. Consequently, the related Anatolian phenomena of Byzantine decline and Islamization are essential to a basic understanding of both Turkish and Byzantine societies. For the student of cultural change, the Islamization of Asia Minor has a twofold interest. Specifically it represents the last in a long series of religio-linguistic changes to which Anatolia had been subjected over the centuries. Broadly considered, the Islamization and Turkification of the Anatolians in the later Middle Ages, along with the Christianization and Hispanization of Iberia, constitute one of the last chapters in the history of cultural change in the Mediterranean basin. Since antiquity the inhabitants of the Mediterranean world had been subject to a remarkable variety of transforming cultural forces : Hellenization, Romanization, Arabization, Christianization, and Islamization. To these were now added Turkification.

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Certain political, economic, and religious institutions characterized Anatolian society prior to the drastic upheavals of the eleventh century which caused serious dislocation of this society. These institutions produced an element of homogeneity in the life of the inhabitants of this immense area and at the same time integrated them effectively into a Constantinopolitan-centered organism, The system of the themes, by which the civil administration became subordinate to the thematic strategus, dominated the administrative and military activity of the Anatolians. At the time of the death of Basil II (1025), there existed in Anatolia approximately twenty-five provinces, mostly themes but including also duchies and catepanates, largely under the direct control and administration of the strategoi. Though the administrative apparatus placed the provincial bureaucracy under the tutelage of the military, it also acted as a partial check on the absorption of the free peasantry by the landed magnates and thereby assured the empire of military, social, and fiscal strength. The thematic system served as a vital impetus to and support of the existence of the free peasant society, which in turn not only served as a balance to the landed aristocracy, but fought the Arabs and was a major contributor to the imperial tax collectors.

The strategus, as supreme authority in the theme, was a veritable viceroy. Nothing could be done in his province, save for the assessment and collection of taxes, which were effected by agents directly under Constantinople, without his consent. His most important function was to command the army of the theme. Much has been said about the efficacy and importance of these local armies drawn from the inhabitants of the provinces, but there is little information as to their numbers. The Arab author Abu’l-Faradj Kudama ibn Djafar noted that the levy of the Anatolian themes in the first half of the ninth century was approximately 70,000. By the tenth century, however, there is every indication that the size of Byzantine military forces must have increased markedly. The conquest of new lands in the east witnessed the creation of new provinces and army corps, whereas the intensification of the Byzantine offensive efforts similarly demanded an increase in the size of the armies. Perhaps the remarks of Leo VI, that the armies ought not be too large, is a reflection of this expansion.

Beside the men the government recruited from the local soldiery, there were other sources of military personnel in the provinces. These included a variety of ethnic groups that the emperors settled as distinct military bodies throughout Anatolia. Theophilus, by way of example, settled 2,000 Persians in each theme (though these seem to have been incorporated into the thematic levies); Mardaites were settled around Attaleia, possibly by Justinian II; there were also bodies of Slavs and Armenians. In addition the government stationed tagmata of imperial troops in certain of the Anatolian districts. This superimposition of foreign bodies of soldiers in the provinces increased the military manpower of a given province considerably. With the addition of the Mardaites to the forces of the Cibyrrheote theme, the military strength of the district may have been as large as 10,000.

Other large themes very probably had as large a military force, if not larger, with the consequence that the military manpower stationed in Anatolia during the tenth and early eleventh centuries must have far surpassed the 70,000 thematic levies mentioned by the Arab sources for the early ninth century. The success of Byzantine arms against the Arabs during this period is in part to be explained by the effectiveness of this Anatolian manpower, and the importance of these Anatolian forces emerges from the obvious correlation between thematic decline and the Turkish invasions in the eleventh century. The professional mercenaries who took the place of the indigenous thematic soldiers in this period of crisis were ineffective replacements and were unable to halt the Turks.

The military apparatus in Anatolia had an important role in the provincial economic life. It contributed to the local economy by paying out salaries in gold to the officers and soldiers who lived in Asia Minor, and stimulating local industry, commerce, and agriculture by its expenditures. The government was able to feed into the business life of the Anatolians a comparatively steady and significant sum of coined money in the form of the military roga.

The pay of the thematic soldiers in comparison with that of the officiers was quite small, and yet the overall expenditure on military salaries was very substantial, as emerges from the incidental accounts of the period. In the early ninth century, the military pay chests of the themes of Armeniacon in Anatolia and of Strymon in Europe amounted to 1,300 and 1,100 pounds of gold respectively, or 93,600 and 79,200 gold solidi each. On the basis of these figures it seems likely that the government paid out between 500,000 and 1,000,000 solidi annually to the soldiery of Asia Minor. The soldier was also entitled to part of the spoils of war, and in many instances pensions were given to disabled soldiers and to the widows of the slain.

The army and navy required supplies, armament, and provisions on their frequent expeditions. Though the government undoubtedly acquired many of the necessary items by taxes in kind on the populace, the authorities also paid out cash to artisans and merchants to provide a wide assortment of items and services. Craftsmen were hired to make weapons of every type for the armed forces, to sew the sails for the ships, to caulk the boats; merchants sold the government the cloth for the sails, rope, bronze, wax, lead, tin, oars, foodstuffs, and other necessary materials. The administration saw to it that salaried craftsmen specializing in the production of military weapons were maintained in the principal towns, and their production was quantitatively significant. The military organization of Byzantium, and the passage of armies through the provinces, thereby played a stimulating and significant role in the economic prosperity of Anatolia.

*NovoScriptorium: Historically, there had never been a state called ‘Byzantium’ or ‘Byzantine Empire’. There had only been the Roman Empire, continuing its existence in the East -not even the term ‘Eastern Roman Empire’ is accurate, as there were never two Empires, but only one in History. Additionally, speaking about ‘Hellenism’ in Medieval times is equally not accurate; the inhabitants of the Empire called themselves ‘Romans‘ and nothing else. They did share a common ‘Hellenistic’ background, most of them were native Greek-speakers, but their main bond now was the Christian Roman identity and not the Hellenistic or Hellenic one. Hence, the correct term to describe historical reality would be ‘Romanity’ instead of ‘Hellenism’.

(Source: The Chapter titled “Byzantine Asia Minor on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest“, from the book titled “The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor and the Process of Islamization from the Eleventh through the Fifteenth Century“, by Speros Vryonis, Jr.)

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Research-Selection-Comments for NovoScriptorium: Anastasius Philoponus

One thought on “Administrative institutions in Eastern Roman (‘Byzantine’) Asia Minor on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest

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  1. Thank you for another great article. For some reason I have been interested in the Byzantine Empire because it was so resilient. The defence forces of free peasants were crucial for the survival of the empire.

    Liked by 1 person

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