Popular Participation in Byzantine Politics By João Vicente de Medeiros Publio Dias

hagia-sophia-255596.jpg

In 1047, an uprising broke in Byzantium under the leadership of Leo Tornikes, seeking to depose the emperor Constantine IX Monomachos (1042-1055). The rebels were able to achieve a major victory over the imperial forces before the walls of Constantinople. The city was vulnerable and ready to be taken over, but instead of entering in the city with his troops and deposing Constantine by force, Tornikes waited for an invitation by the inhabitants. This gave the emperor time to reinforce his position and eventually defeat the rebel. How can we explain this hesitation?

Zoe, the childless daughter of Constantine VIII (1025-1028) and the last member of the “Macedonian” Dynasty, chose Constantine Monomachos as husband and emperor. Therefore, Constantine IX had the legitimacy granted by his connection with the dynasty. This does not completely explain Tornikes’ actions; he could have simply ignored the people’s wishes and taken the city by force. This action, however, would be dangerous, considering what the citizens did some years before with another emperor who chose to ignore their attachment to the dynasty. Yet before speaking about this episode, it is important to present some elements concerning popular participation in Byzantine politics.

Early Byzantine Uprisings & Unrest

The Roman imperial office was originally a patchwork solution to justify the highly irregular hegemony of Octavian (later known as Augustus) over Roman politics. Since the imperial authority had no “constitutional” basis, succession was not regulated. However an acclamatory tradition was rapidly developed, according to which any group that formed Roman society - soldiers, palace guards, senators, courtesans, people and bishops - had sovereignty to acclaim emperors. Moreover, the imperial position needed to be confirmed by constant acclamations. In normal conditions, those acclamations were merely ceremonial, but, in exceptional conditions, they were moments in which the emperor’s popularity were tested. Rebellions often arose. An example was the so-called Nika in 532.

When Constantine established Byzantium as his new capital city and renamed it Constantinople, he did not only establish a New Rome architecturally, but also socially, and politically. The same institutions of Rome were replicated in Constantinople such as the Senate and the Circus Factions. Hence, the hippodrome in Constantinople became the main setting for politics in the city. Since the fifth century, the new emperors were acclaimed and even elected by the assembled people there. It was the main venue where emperors and the city population met one another. During horse races, the emperor presented himself in his lodge and the circus factions of the Greens and the Blues - a mixture of ultras, gangsters and political parties - in the grandstand acclaimed the emperor. Those were moments of exposure when things could go wrong. In 532, during a horse race, the factions, instead of making the traditional acclamations to Justinian as emperor, started an uprising.

The emperor appeared in his lodge in an attempt to calm things down, but the rebellious mob had already chosen another to be emperor. Justinian could only keep his authority by repressing the rebellion with extreme violence causing the death of thousands. After this, the influence of the factions and of the hippodrome gradually decreased, for the emperors tried to “tame” politics by making the ceremonial more complex and more limited to the palace. Yet this does not mean that the people of Constantinople disappeared from politics. They often sanctioned the authority of the emperor and, more rarely, participated in revolts. However, as the factions and the hippodrome lost political importance, it is difficult to understand how the popular political participation worked. The sources normally use general terms such as “mob”, “rabble” or simply “people” to describe popular action. There are two reasons for this: first, the lack of representative instances and, second, the authors’ aristocratic contempt, for most historians belonged to the Byzantine elite.

Miniature from the so-called Skylitzes Matritensis (12th century). This image depicts people attacking the imperial palace during the uprising against Michael V in 1042.  (Source: https://dl.wdl.org/10625/service/10625.pdf).

Miniature from the so-called Skylitzes Matritensis (12th century). This image depicts people attacking the imperial palace during the uprising against Michael V in 1042.

(Source: https://dl.wdl.org/10625/service/10625.pdf).

Later Political Uprisings

In the eleventh century, an increase of popular action in Byzantine politics is noticeable. One explanation is the end of the Macedonian Dynasty. Although Byzantium did not have an established dynastic tradition, the members of this dynasty were able to assemble a strong support among the people. One reason for this is that the period in which the Macedonian dynasty ruled was a time of increasing prosperity and military expansion. Another reason is that dynastic successions brought stability and avoided civil war, which always deeply affected the poorest, who had to provide soldiers and resources to finance the contenders.

In the eleventh century, an increase of popular action in Byzantine politics is noticeable. One explanation is the end of the Macedonian Dynasty. Although Byzantium did not have an established dynastic tradition, the members of this dynasty were able to assemble a strong support among the people. One reason for this is that the period in which the Macedonian dynasty ruled was a time of increasing prosperity and military expansion. Another reason is that dynastic successions brought stability and avoided civil war, which always deeply affected the poorest, who had to provide soldiers and resources to finance the contenders.

Yet they lacked social recognition because of the Byzantine aristocratic dislike inherited from the Romans towards merchant activities. In need of support, the eleventh century emperors granted them senatorial titles, providing the social recognition they did not have. The historian Michael Attaleiates describes how imperial generosity flowed from the courtiers to the poorest members of the Constantinopolitan society. He said that, when the senators and courtesans received their salary from the emperor, the poor who stayed under the colonnades of the city encircled and praised them, and the emperor. In exchange, the poor received donations called “Christ’s gift”. Eventually, this policy brought the state to the brink of bankruptcy and created the conditions for the ascension of Alexios Komnenos in 1081, an aristocratic reformer who banned the “policy of open generosity”, substituting it with the establishment of monastic communities in Constantinople linked to the imperial family, which provided services for the city’s poor. This gradually created a patronage relationship between the citizens and the imperial family.

These measures probably explain the century pause in which the city population was politically active. This changed with the instability brought by the violent rule of Andronikos I Komnenos (1182-1185), who was deposed and lynched by an angry mob. The decades up until the Fourth Crusade of 1204, were unstable and marked by political unrest in which the people of the city were involved. However, as in many other aspects of Byzantine society, the sack of Constantinople represented a break in political tradition. The Palaiologan restauration in 1261 did not result in a revival of the civic politics in Constantinople.

THIS ARTICLE WAS ORIGINALLY FEATURED IN ISSUE 112, PEASANT REVOLT.

IF YOU LIKE THIS AND WANT MORE, SUBSCRIBE BELOW!



About the Author

João is a PhD Candidate in Byzantine Studies at the Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz, in Germany, and likes all things Byzantine. Author of the blog Byzantinistica (in Portuguese). You can follow his work on academia.edu