Episode 87 – The Byzantine Republic with Anthony Kaldellis

The Byzantine Republic by Anthony Kaldellis

The Byzantine Republic by Anthony Kaldellis

Professor Anthony Kaldellis

Professor Anthony Kaldellis

An interview with Professor Anthony Kaldellis about his book “The Byzantine Republic.” It’s a fascinating discussion about Byzantine political culture. He explores what the Romans really thought about their government and what all those rebellions really say about them.

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Categories: Podcast | 14 Comments

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14 thoughts on “Episode 87 – The Byzantine Republic with Anthony Kaldellis

  1. David

    A fascinating subject, Robin!

    Thanks for engaging Professor Kaldellis–though I’ll have to say that academes can be tediously thorough and cautious, tentatively stepping forward only an inch at a time, apparently looking constantly about, worried that some other academe will pounce with a picky challenge. I sensed you prodding about, trying to get him to specify more about just what WAS motivating Romans (old and new) in their own minds to embrace or dump their emperors. We heard how important res publica was for framing people’s rationale, but he didn’t talk about what the “res” was.

    In listening to your podcast, I’d presumed that people saw the hands of the gods, and then later the hand of the Christian God, in everything, and that the people of Constantinople, therefore, would be justifying their displeasure with Emperor X based on the latest heavenly indication of how God was feeling: the army had lost a battle, a plague of some sort had come about, some new disruptive tribe had intruded, a drought had ensued, corruption and malfeasance (perhaps as manifested in a tax increase) in and around the emperor had become evident, and so on. The “res,” in other words, was the individually and collectively doing of God’s will, the proof of which was the prosperity and happiness of the polis.

    I also though your point was well-taken: Constantinople, unlike Rome, was run more by the populace than by armies because of the sea and the massive, impregnable walls that endured until gun powder.

    This is a great series, and I so enjoy your presentations!

  2. I have not yet listened to this episode, but I wanted to tell you I’m really appreciating this podcast so far. I’m a history student now mastering on the Roman empire and its impact on the medieval world, but unfortunately the Byzantine history is mostly ignored in our course. Your fine work is really helping me to fill in the blanks. So thank you for your excellent podcast!

  3. Shawn

    I enjoyed this one greatly. Professor Kaidellis offered a unique take on the scope and shape of the mechanisms that conferred legitimacy on a Byzantine emperor (or empress). Well done!

  4. I really enjoyed the conversation overall but I’d like to (slightly) dispute Professor Kadellis’ statistics regarding modern American politics. At 58:26, he says: “In the U.S., I think all members of Congress are millionaires and I think some of them are multimillionaires, and the rate at which incumbents are returned to office is somewhere in the nineties percent.”

    First, with respect to net worth, only a bare majority (50.8%) are millionaires, far from “all.” (source: http://www.opensecrets.org/news/2015/01/one-member-of-congress-18-american-households-lawmakers-personal-finances-far-from-average/)

    Secondly, with respect to the rate of reelection (a point on which he is numerically correct), it is important to note that the rate at which incumbents *who seek reelection* are reelected is not a complete representation of the security of an incumbent in office. One factor overlooked by this statistic is the small but non-trivial number of incumbents who do not seek re-election precisely because they expect to a high chance of losing reelection. They retire from public life rather than facing a humiliating election. A common euphemism for this behavior, directly from the mouth of politicians who engage in it, is choosing “to spend more time with my family.” This is a face-saving statement that is usually translated with little difficulty to its true meaning (“I’m going to lose next election”) by political commentators who can assess the circumstances on the ground. This behavior is most common when politicians anticipate a “wave election” in which popular sentiment decisively swings against the party to which the politician in question belongs.

    A much better measure of the safety of an incumbent’s seat and the competitiveness of American elections generally is how often offices switch party control, regardless of the circumstances of the incumbent. For example, in 2010, 66 seats in the House of Representatives switched party control (for a Republican net gain of 63)(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_House_of_Representatives_elections,_2010). This is 15% of the 435 seats. In the Senate, 6 of 37 seats up for reelection changed party control (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/United_States_Senate_elections,_2010), or 16%.

    Separate from changes in party control, there are always a few cases where an incumbent loses renomination by his party to run in the general election. These are increasingly common in the Republican Party, most shockingly when the 2nd most powerful Republican party leader in the House of Representatives lost his renomination election in 2014. This rarely results in a change of party control, as these kinds of intraparty fights tend only to occur in seriously uncompetitive districts that favor one party over another.

    2010 was, of course, an exception to the rule in that there was a large and decisive swing from one party to another (from Democrats to Republicans, in this case). And yet the magnitude of even that swing is still quite small. In general, most elections result in very few defeats for incumbents and very few seats change party control, so Professor Kaldelli’s characterization of the American Congress as an oligarchy seems reasonable from that perspective, and changes of a mere 15% are only trivially larger than changes of 5 to 10%.

    However, I’d argue that the reelection patterns we’re observing do not (in and of themselves) reflect an oligarchical political system. Rather, they tell an entirely different story. A few points:
    (a) Voters hold very persistent political preferences – they persist over periods of time much longer than 2 years.
    (b) Voters are geographically located (for various conscious and subconscious reasons) in such a manner that people with similar opinions tend to live in close to each other.
    (c) Modern American political incumbents are really good at exploiting A&B by voting on bills and making policy statements that align closely with the political preferences of the districts they represent in such a way as to be consistently reelected.
    This behavior in C includes taking money from interest groups who seek to benefit from how the politician votes, and using that money to buy advertisements, which presumably most everyone hates and ignores but somehow “money buys elections” anyways. Sure, money buys elections in American politics, but only to the extent that voters are actually influenced by political advertisements. That extent is tiny. Political campaigns are so expensive precisely because political advertisements are so ineffective, moving the minds of only the least attentive and least ideologically committed of voters. But in close elections, in districts without strong leans toward one party or another, a change in a few percentage points is all you need to win in a first-past-the-post electoral system.

    Full disclosure: I am an American. My only qualification to make this comment is a bachelor’s degree in political science. I obviously have a bias toward defending the honor of American democracy. To be clear, I’m not satisfied with it in many ways, including the slavish obsession of politicians with fundraising from special interests in order to finance their political campaigns, and the fact that only the rich can afford to take time off from their busy lives to actually participate in running for and holding political office. But it is not an oligarchy or a plutocracy in the same sense that the Roman Senate was an oligarchy and plutocracy, whereby Senate membership was *literally* determined by the Censor’s accounting of one’s wealth. American elections do genuinely reflect whom voters want in office. Conservative districts elect Republican candidates who generally vote for conservative policies and liberal districts elect Democratic candidates who generally vote for liberal policies. This fact is still a regular feature of American politics. Sure, not every vote of the Congress reflects the preferences of the majority of Americans’ – yes many terrible laws are on the books thanks to the undue influence of special interests – but America is not a direct democracy.

    Again, I really enjoyed the interview overall and mean no disrespect to Professor Kaldellis by this comment. I may be placing his book on my wish list to Santa Claus. Thanks for arranging this, Robin!

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  6. For those of you who live in the DC area or will be luckily passing through on March 3, 2016, Anthony Kaldellis will be giving a lecture on the role of Hellenistic art in the Byzantine Era. It’s not on his book discussed in the podcast, but worth checkinout nonetheless.


  7. William

    Very interesting – both on the part of Kaldellis and Pierson. The insight about the effect of Constantinople’s location/defenses on the effectiveness of its urban populism is a very clever insight. Kaldellis seemed to treat it like an intriguing new idea, and as one he wants to explore more rigorously, which leads me to the question:

    Is the subject of Byzantium so infrequently studied that there remain many brilliant, but easy to understand, insights that no one has come up with yet?

    • I hope so! It would make my job easier. I actually met Professor Kaldellis in person and asked him about the interview. He was obviously very receptive and his attitude was that there are so few people studying Byzantium that of course he was willing to help. While obviously there are enough people studying it to keep me busy it’s true that the literature on most topics is far thinner than some comparable rulers. For example Charlemagne has a ton of books written about him whereas I can barely find one about most middle Byzantine Emperors. Though this also has to do with our lack of sources…

  8. This is a fascinating episode. An English word that captures the Roman meaning of res publica is commonwealth. This was in fact the word used by many 16th- and 17th-century writers and translators, Hobbes not the least of them.

  9. Philip Marsh

    So… what you’re saying is… supreme executive power does indeed derive from a mandate from the masses?

  10. Nathan Daniels

    Sir, I really enjoyed this interview! I’ve been listening to the episodes sequentially, and this may be my favorite thus far. I get the sense from Mr. Kaldellis’ explanation of the meaning of res publica and its Greek translation that the Byzantine populace very much understood themselves to be part of this system…..which seems to be corroborated by the way in which they often took to the hippodrome and even the streets to voice their displeasure.

    Additionally, this seems to provide a more complete perspective as to the way in which the people and the emperor understood what it meant to be “God’s Regent on earth”. We in modern times tend to read that to mean the emperor felt they had carte blanche to do as they wished. It seems apparent, however, that in the Byzantine Empire, both people and emperor understood that God’s Regent had the responsibility to do God’s will, and the people had the duty of making sure the emperor was doing his job.

  11. PawelS

    Very interesting. The official name for Poland is Rzeczpospolita https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rzeczpospolita and is a calgue of res publica so it also literraly means Common Thing whether it is the first one from 16 c. with elected kings, or subsequent ones without them.

  12. Dolmande

    Great episode ! That was a very interesting discussion. Wondering how the civilian part of society “won back” some of the political influence in the Empire over the military after the crises of the 3rd and 5th centuries. As Anthony Kaldellis was describing the phenomenon of a Byzantine Republic I thought much the same as you: for this “civilian” power to grow and exert influence, the geography and infrastructure was key. I have thought a bit about that hypothesis. To me it seems like that civilian republic can be maintained in an Empire only if three main conditions are true: the capital must be a huge city, it must be secure, and it must be ideally situated to send orders and armies to the rest of the Empire or the borders. I have thought about the evolution of political power in Rome through its history and depending on its capitals. Obviously the republic began when Rome was just a city state, as it was common in the mediterranean at the time. The crux was to conserve that system when it became a large Empire. The system had to reform and Emperors ascended but under the principate the city of Rome and its elites would still have an influence over matters of state. Rome remained the center of the Empire for a time, it had the legitimacy thanks to its huge population that dwarfed the demographics of the other cities of the Empire. A city like Ravenna for example would never be the center of a civilian power, a civilian aristocracy from a tiny city would not have the legitimacy to dictate the matters of State policy to the stronger elites of far bigger cities. Also sometimes you need huge mobs to threaten an emperor or kill a general like Valentine, meaning tens of thousands of inhabitants at least. And lastly Rome was secure because its “walls” were really its undefeated and numerous legions. That changed with the crisis of the third century. Rome was not very well situated to react to the invasions of the frontier. And its geography did not make it a more easily defendable city than the average. More importantly, the armies that had been professionnal (ie not civilian anymore) for centuries discovered how easy it was to march on Rome and dethrone the Emperor. It was doubly bad because the relative vulnerability of Rome meant that a huge military was indispensable to protect it from the barbarians, making the political power of the army nearly absolute, while they could also easily march and take Rome themselves if they did not fancy the sitting emperor. Thus the civilian society of Rome lost its power and eventually Rome itself was replaced as the residence of Emperors by “military” capitals such as Sirmium, Milan, Cologne, Antioch. Those cities were not huge, not all particularily easy to defend but they were ideally placed to react on the frontier against the local invasions of barbarians and Sassanids. Eventually the army was overwhelmed too and in the West the Emperors had to hide in Ravenna. It was not very populated, it was not well situated to keep an eye on the borders, but it was more secure. The renaissance of a certain civilian republic in the East owes to, I think, the visionnary choice of Constantine when he chose the spot on which to build the New Rome. There were the thracian plains with farmlands nearby and the sea to receive the grain from Egypt. The population of Constantinople would soon dwarf that of any city in the Roman east. The golden horn and the Theodosian walls made it very hard to take the city by force. Even a Roman army would think twice before trying to march on the city to install an obscure general. It was right on the crossway between Europe and Asia, between the Aegean and the Black Sea, making it ideal for trade and to receive news and send fleets or armies in a timely manner if a threat arose. If I try to compare it in a simplistic way to the three italian capitals: Rome had the huge population, Milan had the strategic location, Ravenna had the security, while Constantinople had all of the three. A testimony to these qualities I think is that no matter how bleak the situation was, no matter how much their territory shrunk, the Byzantines always believed the city of Constantinople should remain the heart of their Empire, until they fell to the Turks.

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