Book Review: The Empire That Would Not Die
The Paradox of Eastern Roman Survival, 640-740
by John Haldon
Harvard University Press, 2016
By centering on a surprising survival story, Princeton University history professor John Haldon has written a remarkable new history of the eastern Roman Empire in his new book The Empire That Wouldn’t Die. He paints a picture of a rapid, almost catastrophic decline that stubbornly refused to end in a fall: the eastern Roman Empire of the sixth century was the predominant power in western Eurasia, and by AD 700 it had lost three-quarters of its territory and was clinging to the territories around Constantinople. Haldon looks at this tenacious rump state and asks some simple questions:
Taxes continued to be collected: gold coins of a surprisingly high degree of purity continued to be minted, and in quantity; roads and bridges continued to be maintained; weapons and military equipment continued to be produced and soldiers continued to be recruited, trained, and equipped. But how was all this possible? Other state systems under comparable pressure have failed: the Western empire itself, indeed, is an obvious example …
There’s a legitimate doubt as to whether the Western empire ever faced a pressure comparable to the main one faced by the Eastern empire, namely the rise and sweeping military conquests of the Islamic caliphate, which drove Christian armies back wherever it encountered them and slaughtered or enslaved Christian populations in vast swaths of what had once been Roman territories. It was the caliphate that drove the forces of the Eastern empire back, both into a tight and rugged ring of land and into a strongly centralized (“sacralized,” as Haldon puts it) theocracy.
Haldon’s research ranges with a very pleasing energy; changes in social and economic practices, agricultural innovations, even changes in climate, are all factored into a much more dynamic picture of Constantinople’s waning years than historians usually paint. In seeking to answer questions about the state’s continuing hardscrabble vitality, he often confronts a lack of the kinds of sources he’d ideally like, especially in terms of assessing the mind frame of the very social classes who were most directly tasked with maintaining that vitality:
Apathy, either real or potential, to the greater cause of empire may have existed among rural and urban populations most directly affected by warfare (even if we have very little evidence for such). There was certainly hostility to the fiscal officials of the government and to the oppressive appropriations of landlords although it is almost impossible to measure. But as long as the provincial ruling elites – the “rural gentry” who led the armies and who staffed the fiscal apparatus of the center – remained loyal, the state stood a good chance of surviving.
The state did survive, despite facing, as Haldon points out, an enemy more formidable than the Mongol hordes or the forces of Alexander the Great. The gritty mechanics of that survival have never been laid bare quite as effectively as they are in The Empire That Would Not Die; this is an account of 7th century Byzantium that even readers well-versed in the familiar subject shouldn’t miss.