An Analysis of different power structures between Justinian I, Basil II and Michael VIII
Although the Emperors of Byzantium no doubt each held different levels of power, their spheres in which they asserted their rule show both common and conflicting interests. To define power, it is the capacity or ability to direct or influence the behavior of others or the course of events. Across a varied spectrum, emperor’s impacted areas of civilization such as Administration, Law, the Church, and the overall culture of society. By analyzing the power of three significant emperors, Justinian I, Basil II Bulgaroktonos and Michael VIII Palaiologos , and selectively interpreting certain events that occurred within their reigns, a comparison can be made among them. Evidence suggests that the power of Justinian was influenced by love, Basil II by youth, and Michael by mostly self-interest and foreign states.
To begin with, an evaluation of Justinian I’s power reflects on the early development of the Justinian dynasty, and sets a foundation for the comparison between the 6th century and later eras. Born from humble beginnings, Justinian started as an advisor to his uncle, Justin, before rising to power in 527 AD. With a good education and excellent military training, his ability to influence people and events were already reflected in the amount of impact his advising had on his uncle’s reign. In approximately 520 he met the actress Theodora, and pursued marriage with her even though it was illegal at the time. This is an example of one of his first forays into the field of law, as well as portrays the strength in his authority to change public policy. By 525 he indeed married her, and she ruled as empress by his side till her death in 548. In terms of the amount of power Justinian I possessed, there is no question as to whether or not he had a substantial amount of control, but more so how he dispersed it within his reign;
…on the one hand, this period can be seen as the great flowering of the culture and political power of early Byzantine civilization; on the other it can be viewed as an age of tyranny and fiscal excess that sowed the seeds for collapse in the decades to come.
Perhaps the most convincing evidence of his power was within his reforms, including the tax system administration and the legal system. He strived to transform the empire into a reflection of ancient Roman law, making himself the ultimate judge and legislator, a well as publishing a new law-code in a series of editions such as Digest and Institutes. Furthermore, Justinian I instituted a mass-rebuilding program, that included the rebuilding of the center of Constantinople, as well as the restoration of the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom, St. Sophia.
In regards to his response to certain events, his wife Theodora strongly influenced his decisions. This showed that although Justinian was powerful, Theodora controlled some of that power. In the case of the Nika riots of January 532, where the circus factions (associations that supplied horses and trappings for the chariot races) the Greens and Blues banned together and revolted in response to the empire’s strict fiscal policies. Justinian tried to stop the riots through various bumbled attempts, such as ordering Belsarios and a group of Goths to subdue the mob, but failed to do so, resulting in Constantinople burning for five days. Instead of fleeing like he wanted to, Theodora convinced him to stay and fight. The incident was resolved when Justinian demolished the revolt with the might of the Belsarios and Moundos. Another example of Theodora’s influence was in Justinian’s goal “to achieve a reconciliation between orthodox Chalcedonianism and Monophysite anti-Chalcedonianism….[through the] doctrine of theopaschism.” Although Justinian continued to oppress the Samaritans, a monotheistic group within the empire, by “limiting their right to bequeath property and ordering their synagogues to be destroyed…” he continued to try and find a solution between the two theologies. Unlike Basil II and Michael VIII, Justinian’s power was almost split between his goals, and the happiness of his love, Theodora.
The reign of Basil II Bulgaroktonos is arguably the most literal interpretation of the illusion of power within all of Byzantium. At the young age of eighteen he ascended the throne, with no form of regency. However, almost immediately the previous emperor John I’s relative Bardas Skleros attempted to take the throne in a coup. That, as well as Basil’s immaturity, led to “his great-grandfather Romanos I’s bastard son Basil Lekapenos the parakoimo ̄menos [to] dominate the administration…” During the revolt of the previously conquered Bulgaria, Lekapenos attempted to return to power after his dismissal in 985. By marrying his sister to Prince Vladimir of Kiev, Basil II gained the resources he needed to defeat Samuel of Bulgaria, as well as Skleros. For the rest of his imperial career, Basil strived to abolish established aristocracy as well as engaged in many territory disputes. In response to the instability of land claims during these disputes, another example pertaining to power is his creation of the law of 996. This limited the power of wealthy individuals to take over, as “like his grandfather and the soldier-emperors of the eighth century, presented the provision of justice and security of property for the lowliest of his subjects as an essential duty of the ruler.” This essentially led to the decline in powerful families within the empire, as the law extended the statue of limitations on property purchases. Lastly, Basil II did share the title of emperor with his younger brother Constantine VIII, but no real control ever fell to the sibling. In summary, Basil II fought to establish his power, and over the course of his reign achieved a status of great authority in the empire.
To a great extent, Emperor Michael VII Palaiologos had a powerful impact on the development of the Byzantine Empire during the 15th century. However, an argument can be made that much of his power was not attained by just his strength of persuasion and military attributes, but equally so by fortunate circumstances. Having come from a prosperous family, dating back to the 11th century, Michael possessed an ancestry containing as many as eleven previous emperors. However, at the time the current dynasty was split between the Nicaea and Epirus Empires. With his popularity and charismatic personality, he achieved a swift climb in the social order of the Nicaea Empire, largely due to his excellent history as a soldier and military leader. Although he was highly respected, and eventually married off to the grand niece of the Emperor John Vatazes, he was still held in high suspicion of treason to the empire, and at one point was even jailed. However, his military talents and skill were the only reason he was saved from a worse fate, and was released. Once becoming Grand Constable, he was soon elevated in rank to Grand Duke by the Patriarch Arsenios Autorianos, with the nobility electing him as regent to the infant and future emperor John (IV) Laskaris. ““The choice was hailed by the army, by the church and by the common people,” writes historian Donald Nicol, “for Michael was evidently the man best qualified to defend the Empire of Nicaea against enemies.” Furthermore, this fast promotion of rank was due to a conspiracy where Michael VII was assumed to have been involved, of the murder of George Mouzalon, who was a close friend of the previous Emperor Theodore II Laskarius and original regent. In the same year of 1258, Michael VII was then promoted to Despot, and by December had gained so much support from the Patriarch and bishops that he was crowned alongside John IV as co-Emperors. During the next four years Michael VII used his strength in military leadership to shepherd a new Byzantine Dynasty. With the goal of gaining back Constantinople, he allied himself with the Genoese against the Venetians who were currently occupying Constantinople however, “it was the Genoese themselves who took the initiative in offering their services to the Emperor Michael.” This is the first of many examples of a series of lucky occurrences that led to Michael VII obtaining more power than he might have not otherwise acquired. This alliance subsequently led to the capturing of Constantinople, by General Alexios Strategopoulous and a small army. Originally were sent to the border of Bulgaria to monitor it, but on the way Strategopoulous heard word that the Latin garrisons and the Venetian fleet were on a raiding party in the Black Sea, leaving the city virtually undefended. Taking the chance, with the help of supportive locals, they to secretly gained entry over and under the guarding walls and were able to have a surprise attack. In 1261 Michael and his wife Theodora were crowned Emperor and Empress, starting the dynasty of Palaiologos. In some cases however, it seems like Michael VII made his own luck. Shortly after being crowned Emperor, John IV was blinded and Michael VII was inherently blamed (although he most likely was responsible). Patriarch Arsenios proceeded to excommunicate Michael, which eventually led to his exile and replacement by Germanos III, and then a Joseph the monk in 1267. This is an example of Michael VII using his power over the Church to dictate the future of the dynasty. The significance behind this is not only because the Palailogos dynasty would be the last in the history of the Byzantine Empire, but also connects to the following other challenges he is faced with the Church and national security.
With impending threats from the West such as Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily and Naples, Michael’s ultimate decisions to shape events involving the Church was influenced by the need for border security against his enemies. In 1274 Michael supported the 2nd Council of Lyons, which was the agreement for the union of the Catholic and Orthodox Church. This was a strategy with the papacy, as they would support him and give him resources to fight off his enemies such as Anjou in exchange for his support of the Union. By avoiding the invasion of the Latin Emperor Charles of Anjou, he inherently losses his popularity with his subjects within the empire that strongly disagreed with this change in religious ideology. Another event that displayed Michael VII’s inherent power was in the Sicilian Vespers of 1282. In providing gold to the rebellion factions within Charles of Anjou’s state, Sicily, he was able to instigate an uprising. Along with the alliance he made with Peter III of Aragon, Michael successful changed the course of history by preventing Anjou’s attack on Constantinople. These events are examples of how pressure from foreign states influenced Michael’s use of power, and showcases not only his need to succumb to outside forces, but also his skill and intelligence in resolving said conflicts.
Through exploring the selected events and rulers of the 5th 10th and 15th centuries, it is clear that the definition of power evolved with each ruling emperor. The political climate, background, and personal self-interests played a significant role in the extent of power they sustained. Yet, within the different spheres of influence the themes of the Church play a strong connecting factor between the eras. Upon reflection, the question posed is not so much as how much power they actually had, but about the circumstances and extent they were able to wield it.