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Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian

de Peter Sarris

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231988,801 (4)3
The reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-65) stands out in late Roman and medieval history. Justinian re-conquered far-flung territories from the barbarians, overhauled the Empire's administrative framework and codified for posterity the inherited tradition of Roman law. This work represents a modern study in English of the social and economic history of the Eastern Roman Empire in the reign of the Emperor Justinian. Drawing upon papyrological, numismatic, legal, literary and archaeological evidence, the study seeks to reconstruct the emergent nature of relations between landowners and peasants, and aristocrats and emperors in the late antique Eastern Empire. It provides a social and economic context in which to situate the Emperor Justinian's mid-sixth-century reform programme, and questions the implications of the Eastern Empire's pattern of social and economic development under Justinian for its subsequent, post-Justinianic history.… (més)
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This is a fine, very useful book detailing the evolution of the Great Estate in the later Roman Empire (or early days of the Byzantine Empire – whichever you prefer) and its impacts on the Empire as a whole. The book utilizes an extensive examination of the Oxyrhynchus papyri of Egypt, in particular those relating to the Apion Estates and uses that evidence, as well as other source documentation, to detail these estates, their evolution and growth and how, ultimately, they contributed (in Sarris’ assessment) to the decline of the Empire.

The book opens with a discussion of why the greater portion of the book focuses on Egypt. Sarris describes how Egypt was the economic heart of the Empire, particularly in the fifth through mid-seventh centuries, and why it deserves such attention. He discusses the role of Egypt both as the breadbasket of the Empire as well as the source of much of its tax revenues.

Sarris traces the Apion family’s identifiable origins to the mid-5th century. He believes that the family came into prominence when the curator of the Oxyrhynchite estates belonging to the wife of the Emperor Theodosius II married the Emperor’s daughter and entered into possession of at least a large portion of the property.p18 By the middle of the 6th century the Apionite holdings had grown to a prodigious size and while they were centered in Oxyrhynchus, extreduce ended to Alexandria, Heracleopolis and even Constantinople. In the area around Oxyrhynchus alone Sarris estimates that in the late fifth century their holdings comprised an estimated 190 square kilometers or 47,000 acres and that these holdings may have doubled in size over the sixth century.p85 The Apiones were well placed in the Empire with family members frequently holding high posts and offices, including in Constantinople, and at times marrying into the Imperial family.

In chapters two through five Sarris dives into the Apion estates. And when I say “dives into,” I mean deeply. He provides an extremely detailed account of how the Apion estates were organized, operated and the relationships both of individuals and offices within the estates as well as the relationship of the Apion holdings with other estates and with Constantinople and the Imperial government. This is an extremely valuable portion of this book – and very dense. Sarris presents a tremendous amount of information in a very dry, almost encyclopedic way. For the academic interested in the presentation of evidence I have a feeling these four chapters are wonderful. For a non-academic such as myself they were very boring. While the examination of evidentiary minutiae is almost never presented in an entertaining style, this is dryer than most. Nevertheless, the evidence is there.

Following the four chapters devoted to the Apion holdings, the book proceeds to discuss how the evidence found in the Oxyrhynchus papyri may be applied to other estates. While no other estate provides so much evidence or depth of detail, Sarris indicates that where such evidence exists, it supports his conclusion that other great estates were administered much as the Apion holdings.

It is here, in Chapter Six and beyond of this book, that the writing style changes. Where chapters two through five are dense and dry, the remaining chapters, while not exactly light, are written in a much more conversational tone. Sarris proceeds to describe how the great estates evolved. He believes that the Diocletianic Reforms, where the Emperor vested much more power into the hands of a civil bureaucracy, led to the concentration of landed wealth into fewer and fewer hands. As these estates grew larger, the estate owners became the true power in the Empire. Through their ability to evade taxation, the fiscal burdens fell increasingly upon small landholders. As this occurred, these smaller landholders either abandoned their lands or voluntarily ceded them to the Great Estates, ultimately resulting in an untenable financial situation throughout the Empire.

Finally Sarris discusses how Justinian attempted to suppress the power of these great landholders by restricting their estate sizes and prohibiting their acquisition of additional property. He also tried to reduce their power and influence over the Imperial Government. Ultimately, while he succeeded in slowing or even halting this progression for a time, his reforms failed through a combination of war-induced imperial impoverishment, landowner resistance and the plague.

This is a very good book. I am not enough of an expert on this period in the Eastern Empire to comment on the accuracy of Sarris’ conclusions. I will say that he provides an impressive amount of evidence in support of his views. If I have one criticism of this book, it is in its ordering. Chapters two through five do indeed read as a Doctoral Dissertation, from whence this work originated. Meanwhile chapters one, and six through eleven, are much more readable. Perhaps the detailed examination of the Apion Estates might have better been placed following the discussion of how the Great Estates evolved and their relationship within the Empire. Had this book been structured in this way then I believe the detailed examination of the estate records would, for me at least, have been much easier to follow.

There is also one item which I consider weak from an evidentiary standpoint. Sarris states that this situation of great landholders impoverishing the central government was also true in the Western Empire. This may be true, however this is his one major assertion for which he provides little evidence. Perhaps this statement should have been omitted.

Ultimately this is a fine book, however dry it is in places. It provides important information regarding a critical aspect of later Roman (or earlier Byzantine) society. And while the great estate may not have played as large of a role in the Empire’s decline as Sarris attributes to it, at the very least future studies will need to address his arguments. ( )
1 vota cemanuel | Sep 15, 2009 |
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Wikipedia en anglès (1)

The reign of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian (527-65) stands out in late Roman and medieval history. Justinian re-conquered far-flung territories from the barbarians, overhauled the Empire's administrative framework and codified for posterity the inherited tradition of Roman law. This work represents a modern study in English of the social and economic history of the Eastern Roman Empire in the reign of the Emperor Justinian. Drawing upon papyrological, numismatic, legal, literary and archaeological evidence, the study seeks to reconstruct the emergent nature of relations between landowners and peasants, and aristocrats and emperors in the late antique Eastern Empire. It provides a social and economic context in which to situate the Emperor Justinian's mid-sixth-century reform programme, and questions the implications of the Eastern Empire's pattern of social and economic development under Justinian for its subsequent, post-Justinianic history.

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