Seminary LIX: technically aristocrats and peasants in Byzantium, but, really, mainly aristocrats

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

6th-century Byzantine ivory of Madonna and child from Thessaly, showing the shepherds bringing gifts

On the 23rd of February, the Earlier Middle Ages seminar at the Institute of Historical Research was given by Peter Sarris, who was speaking to the title “Aristocrats, Peasants and the State in Byzantium c. 600-1100″. This seemed as if it would be worth seeing, so I made it down there despite the teaching preparation. It took a bit of an effort to follow, I will admit: Professor Sarris is a speaker of almost aggressive erudition, and several of the audience agreed with me that we’d had to change up a few gears to avoid being washed away in the flow. The handout included most of a chapter that Professor Sarris has contributed to the Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire, without reading the which, presumably, we couldn’t be expected to understand fully. I am, I should therefore say, proceeding ill-prepared, as I still haven’t.

The meat of the paper was a reappraisal of the relation between the three elements of the title in the light of what we now realise (Professor Sarris said, distinguishing himself explicitly from Chris Wickham in this) to have been a far larger survival of rural slavery in the Eastern Empire than used to be thought. His answer was largely that although the breakup and reduction of Byzantium does, naturally, ruin the super-élite whose importance spanned the Empire, and a second level élite, whose riches were rural but whose position was primarily anchored by their operations at Constantinople, was obviously subject to the vagaries of court politics, a third-level élite existed, whose basis of power was much more regional and rural. These operated in structures of power that survived not only the breaking-off of Western and Eastern Empires but the Muslim conquests. When the Empire was big and successful they were linked to it by larger élites, but without that connection, they were independent enough to survive, or indeed to link to new élites like the Emirs. He argued that the disruption of the seventh century has been exaggerated, because it primarily affects the élite who wrote our sources, much as the same argument has been made for the seriousness of Viking attacks in England and Francia, but agreed that there were some fundamental economic changes, a shift to kind instead of coin, a new pastoralism. Even then, he argued, this was worst at the frontier and nothing like as bad closer into the capital, and even at the frontier, more or less the same sorts of people are in charge before and after. The weakest support for the argument, although a very medieval one in its rhetoric, was probably the one that went, “You know how we now accept much more continuity of power and estate structure and so on in the West than we used to? well, imagine how much continuous it must be in the East where none of your barbarian rubbish happens to kill off the state!” but there were lots of others and I was happy to accept his point.

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Tsar Samuel of the Bulgars defeated by Byzantine soldiery, 1014, from the 14th-century Manasses Chronicle

Indeed, there is no mileage for anyone in arguing with Professor Sarris about evidence for aristocratic power in Byzantium; he has made it all his own. The point where I think he and I do have to part company is where he argued that this élite survival makes a peasant-focused account of events (and here again I think he had Chris Wickham in his sights) useless. He argued that this has been attempted, largely on the basis of the Farmer’s Law, which since it could be dated anywhere between sixth and ninth centuries has been slid around to serve many arguments. I am still not sure that the correct thing to do, however, is to refuse to use it at all, and it did keep coming up, even if mainly to demonstrate how it could mean almost anything. Sarris’s basic pitch was that the aristocracy survive, even in unlikely places (and it was a very fair point well made when he pointed out that several if not all of the so-called cave monasteries (as above) are identified as religious buildings solely because they contain chapels—so, surely, would a secular palace, which is how he would like to see some of these structures), and that this means that slavery survives too, because the social structures that support it are not removed, even if they are updated, including changes of terminology that have helped to obscure its existence (coloni adscripti not being very different from enapographoi georgoi being the same as paroikoi). I admit that to me this last sounded a lot like slaves-to-serfs but with more continuity of law behind it, and I find that in my notes I have marked it as `special pleading’, if only because ‘paroikoi’ appears to have a much broader sense so it’s not as simple as saying that wherever the word comes up we must think of slaves; it’s also ‘parishioner’, if I’ve understood correctly. What I think this tells us is that Byzantine government could accommodate a fair amount of euphemism.

It’s not that I’m not happy to admit that there was a lot of Byzantine rural economic slavery; I’m sure that there was and they did keep leading successful campaigns that must have taken prisoners, every, you know, three emperors or so. It’s just that in all this paper there was no room at all for peasant agency, as if a successful aristocracy could eliminate it. The argument reduced them to chattels, just as does slavery. I don’t want to buy that so totally, and I could mention James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak again if that would help, or just point out that we are here often talking about frontiers, and frontiers are zones of opportunity. Even more so in zones of conquest: don’t like your lord? Have you thought about converting to Islam and taking service with the local governor? and so on. This exploration of the possibilities open to individuals, which makes so much of my own research interesting, was lacking here, as huge system-scale answers jousted in the skies far far above the fields. So I will happily revise my ideas of the Byzantine state and aristocracy according to Professor Sarris’s new standard version, and keep it in mind when I next read up my recent-but-outdated textbooks on the subject for one reason or another. But I do feel that someone could deliver a partner paper in which almost none of what Professor Sarris said here was relevant, because they were actually studying the peasants of his title.

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

11th-century illustration of peasants at work in a Byzantine vineyard

11 responses to “Seminary LIX: technically aristocrats and peasants in Byzantium, but, really, mainly aristocrats

  1. A very interesting post.

    This line:

    “This exploration of the possibilities open to individuals, which makes so much of my own research interesting, was lacking here, as huge system-scale answers jousted in the skies far far above the fields.”

    reminded me of this:

    • Ian Anderson has been a caricature for a long time, huh? One of the things I’m always surprised by by eighties rock is how willingly the performers sonically neutered even pieces as grand and dramatic as this by playing so much of them on the tinny electronic instrument du jour, and I’d quite like to see a recent performance of this piece just to see how much the sound differs. But at least it was this I reminded you of and not `We Used To Know’…

  2. I enjoyed this post. I’ll have to go back and re-read his Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian which I finished a few months ago. In it Sarris examines the Apion family and the Oxyrhynchus Papyri in a fair amount of detail. Granted this is Egypt which obviously isn’t Byzantine by the 8th century but I don’t recall a lot of evidence of pure slavery – more what we would characterize as serfdom with tenant laborers bound to the land and required to pay their taxes through the landowner to the state. To be fair he does talk about the growth of the great estates and the loss of power by others but this appears not to have been an imposition of slavery but of serfdom (which may not have made much difference to the peasant). If slavery wasn’t highly prevalent in the most intensely farmed areas I have a hard time seeing why it would be in Greece and Anatolia later.

    I have Lester Little on my bookshelf and will have to find out what he says but I’d think the plague of 541-750 would have been another factor empowering peasants. I’m drawing a broad parallel with 14th century Western Europe so maybe that’s a flawed comparison but on the surface the presence of fewer people to work agricultural land would seem to provide some opportunities for laborers. OTOH, maybe that dynamic was profoundly different.

  3. Having now had a chance to read more of the relevant chapters of Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages, the obvious questions are 1) what does Peter Sarris mean by slavery? and 2) why does he think the existence of aristocrats precludes the existence of independent peasants? As Alice Rio and others have been pointing out, you need to think fairly hard about how you define slavery as against serfdom (and it may not have mattered much practically most of the time anyhow). As for aristocrats, Chris isn’t denying their existence in the East. What he argues is that they never have as large-scale landowning as some western aristocrats. You don’t see even in the fourth century landowners who have land in numerous regions: even the Apions have land in Egypt and Constantinople, but aren’t known to have it elsewhere, unlike some western senators (and Merovingian/Carolingian aristocrats).

    As well as less powerful aristocrats than in the west, you also have more independent peasants. Chris mentions the Farmers’ Law, but he doesn’t just use that as evidence. He’s also using saints’ lives from sixth century Anatolia, which show peasant communities not controlled by aristocrats, and documentary evidence from sixth to eighth century Egyptian villages, which again show independent peasants and medium landowners. Villages in Palestine where you have a lot of very similar, closely-packed reasonable sized houses also suggest the same thing: it’s not your one big house in the village pattern you get in northern Europe.

    The extra complication in the east is also that there’s still a state that taxes. Some of the aristocratic power comes from being the mediators between that state and villages, but it also allows at least the possibility for peasants of trying to play off the state against the local aristocracy (which you can’t really do with a Carolingian count). And village structures also look a lot more solid than in the west, with formal village heads in some places, for example.

    So I’d say it’s perfectly possible to argue for more aristocratic continuity than has been realised without assuming that these aristocrats are simply lording it over all the peasants. Whether you want to talk about peasants probably depends more on whether you’re interested in political/cultural matters or in economic history.

    • I presume, from the way that Professor Sarris went about things, that there is a more worked-out rebuttal to Chris in process, but I would agree that the breadth of Chris’s general case and his range of evidence will make those points that you adduce hard to overturn. I couldn’t go any further without being Professor Sarris, though, which, perhaps thankfully for us all, I’m not.

  4. cynthia curran

    Sarris also refers to Justinian’s novel 30 that complains about the wealthy expanding their land holdings or workers by having arm retainers and even on the imperial land. The wealthy particulary in the early period tend to have more wealth than usually is in the west at the time since the east was more wealthier. They have found some inscriptions that refer to slaves in the east working on the estates. From the sources, the wealthy from the 4th to the 6th whether east or west are describes as possesing many houses and servants. Maybe because of the plague and the lost of Egypt, Byzantium development more smaller farms. Historians tend to now usually be more romantic about Byzantium than the west these days which is different than it was 200 years ago.

  5. John W. Pierce

    The above link to The Farmer’s Law no longer points to the right page. The correct URL is

  6. John W. Pierce

    Oops… sorry. The article’s link is correct. I have no idea how my browser managed to go to a page with some transcripts of English export licences the first time I selected it.

    • No, you’re right, it’s doing it to me too. It’s only the suffix of the file that’s changed, so why it does that crazy redirect is beyond me, but either way, amended, thankyou for the catch.

  7. Pingback: Seminars CXXVII-CXXIX: the price, the mark and the buildings of early medieval Christianity | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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