• Elliott Holley

Was the decline and fall of the Roman Empire inevitable?

By the time of the Ottoman dynasty emerged in 1299, one could be forgiven for thinking the Eastern Roman Empire was already beyond all hope. It was the last remnant of the old Roman Empire, but it would fall when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1453.

Many historians have argued about whether this outcome was inevitable. What were the causes of the Empire's final decline? And could anything have been done to stop it, even at this late stage?

The Eastern Roman Empire had, by the 13th century, been reduced to the land immediately around the Aegean Sea and the Black Sea. Yet it could trace its history back all the way to 395 AD, when the Emperor Theodosius had divided the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western halves.

While the Western Roman Empire had fallen to the invading Germanic barbarians in the 5th century, the Eastern Roman Empire (often called the "Byzantine Empire" after this point) had endured. But that's not to say the East was without problems. By the 14th century, the problems of the empire had built up to the point where it would have been very difficult for even the most dedicated emperor to fix them.

  1. The empire was bankrupt

  2. It had no real military system, relying mainly on ad hoc recruitment of mercenaries and levies

  3. The empire was torn by religious divisions

  4. The Palaiologos dynasty had usurped the throne and was seen as illegitimate by much of the population

  5. The empire was surrounded by aggressive enemies on all sides

  6. It had very little territory left, no great cities (Constantinople was a ruin compared to what it once had been), its trade was in the hands of foreign Italian merchants, and its nobles were corrupt and often did not serve in the army nor pay taxes

If we are to imagine any hope, therefore, of the Byzantines stopping the Ottomans (and therefore averting their own destruction), they would need to do three things above all, and quickly:

  1. Recover the Empire’s finances

  2. Reform the Empire’s military

  3. Restore religious unity

Now let us look at how that might have been achieved.

Step one - dealing with the empire’s finances - was perhaps the most important of all. And the hardest.

Unfortunately, the Byzantine emperors had given trade concessions to the Italian city states, including Venice, Genoa and Pisa. These offered exemptions from tax, in exchange for naval support. This had proved disastrous. By the 14th century, only thirteen percent of custom dues passing through the Bosporus strait were going to the Empire. The remaining 87 percent was collected by the Genoese from their colony of Galata.

Venetian fleet of Chioggia, 1380, by John Grevembroch

Obviously, it was vital that the empire should regain control over its own revenue sources. Therefore, the concessions should be revoked. The problem is, though, that was easier said than done. Doing so would almost certainly spark a war - one that the empire could not afford, and which it was totally unprepared to fight.

  • John II Komnenos had attempted to revoke the concessions in the 12th century; the result had been the Venetians raided the Aegean at will, until eventually John decided to back down and reinstate the concessions.

  • Manuel I Komnenos ordered the arrest of all Venetians across the empire in the 1170s and the confiscation of their property, but this merely damaged the empire’s relations with one of its most important allies, created resentment in the west, and contributed to the Sack of Constantinople in 1204.

  • Andronikos I Komnenos in the 1180s encouraged a general massacre of western merchants in Constantinople, which further blackened Byzantium’s reputation and contributed to the disaster of 1204.

Byzantine gold coin of Manuel I Komnenos. Manuel scored a naval victory over a Venetian fleet, but his successors were less competent and the dispute left a bitter legacy

A Byzantine fleet tried to fight back against the Genoese in 1348–49, but suffered a disastrous defeat at sea due to the inexperienced crews of their ships panicking. The Byzantines were saved when a delegation directly from Genoa agreed a peace on generous terms (to the dismay of the Genoese in Constantinople, who knew they could’ve got better terms), but the trade concessions remained in place.

Thus, the empire needed to overturn powerful vested interests to regain control over its finances, but despite repeated attempts, it was never able to do so.

Realistically, the empire would’ve needed to first build up a powerful fleet of its own, and then revoke the concessions. But doing so was expensive, fraught with risk, and the empire often had more pressing emergencies and wars to deal with.

The second point was the need for military reform.

The Byzantine empire needed to rely less on unreliable mercenaries, and build up a more effective, organised military system. The old theme system (in which soldiers were given land to farm in exchange for military service), had been a key strength of the empire for centuries in its heyday, but had long since fallen into disuse.

Under the theme system, each region was responsible for its own defence and was well-organised, with large numbers of men able to be called up for service. There was a good system of watch towers and forts, local commanders were empowered to meet threats, and the system worked well, regardless of whoever was on the throne. Unfortunately, that system had been allowed to decay in prior centuries, and by the 13th century was long since gone. Armies by this point were instead more disorganised, ad-hoc affairs, thrown together by local nobles gathering their followers and combined with hired mercenaries, often of dubious loyalty.

The old Byzantine themes had been mostly in Anatolia, large parts of which had been lost by the 13th century. But the empire could still have overhauled its remaining territories and put the theme system back in place, or developed something like it.

In the late empire, the system of Pronoia had developed - soldiers were given the right to tax an area of land in exchange for service. But the problem is, by the late empire the Pronoia terms were rarely enforced. In practice, it meant that more and more land was no longer paying any tax, while the Pronoia holders increasingly didn’t render the military service they owed.

Originally, Pronoia had been meant as an individual agreement with the holder, but by the later empire it had become hereditary. This was disastrous.

By now it should be clear the extent to which the Byzantine Empire was falling because the state had rotted away from the inside.

The Byzantine army needed to be reorganised and placed on a sound financial and legal footing by the 14th century, yet the political will doesn’t seem to have been there for the necessary reforms

Religious divisions also weakened the empire. Emperor Michael VIII, under threat of western invasion, was desperate to appease the Pope. At the Council of Lyons in 1274, he proclaimed the Union of the Churches, with the Greek Orthodox Church formally submitting to the authority of the Pope in Rome.

This deeply unpopular policy, which was seen as a betrayal of God, a betrayal of the true religion, an abandonment of their cultural heritage, and a craven surrender to the empire’s hated western enemies, predictably caused deep divisions within the empire and promoted rebellion, insurrection, arrests, resentment, protest and violence.

The policy was a catastrophe. The prisons were soon full of priests, monks and other holy men who refused to abandon their faith. Men of conscience, moral authority, and good standing in their communities, were thrown into jail. Many were persecuted. Some were executed; others had their tongues cut out. In 1277, an anti-unionist council of eight bishops, a few abbots, and one hundred monks condemned the Emperor and the Pope as heretics. Even Michael’s own sister fled court and joined the rebels opposing him.

To make matters worse, the enforced surrender of the Greek Orthodox Church to the Catholic Church in Rome didn’t even work. The empire’s western enemies, especially the Kingdom of Sicily, continued to attack the empire anyway, and a new Pope eventually excommunicated Michael VIII, while many of his own people turned against him.

Adding to that, discontent in Anatolia over Michael’s usurpation of the throne in 1261 from the rightful Laskarid royal family created resentment and rebelliousness, particularly in the Anatolian territories. The deep unrest and demoralisation caused by the religious dispute contributed to the empire’s crisis and the loss of the whole region to the Turks by the early 1300s. Many people in Anatolia went over to the Turks, rather than live under the tyranny of the Emperor and the Pope.

While Andronikos II Palaiologos immediately abandoned the unpopular Church union with Rome on coming to power in 1282, arguably the damage had already been done. By about 1300 or shortly thereafter, all the territories in the western part of Anatolia were lost. Only a small coastal enclave remained, in the northwest corner.

It would have been a Herculean feat to save the empire, not just from the Ottomans, but from the whole concoction of problems it faced. But only by tackling deep-seated, entrenched vested interests, could there be any hope.

A final point perhaps worth bearing in mind is that emperors tended to come from the very class that were responsible for much of the mismanagement, and had to rely on these same nobles (who often benefited from the status quo, at least in the short term) to rule.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that they failed.