The Social Structure of the Byzantine Countryside in the First Half of the Xth Century

The Social Structure of the Byzantine Countryside in the First Half of the Xth Century

By Nikos Oikonomides


Introduction: The Xth century is a period of social transformation in the Byzantine empire. According to the prevailing theory, the population oi the provinces, mainly made up of small landowners, was then undergoing a change, due to the proliferation of big estates of aristocratic families or of ecclesiastical institutions: in their insatiable desire to increase their domains and their revenues, the ‘powerful’ Byzantines put pressure upon their neighbours in order to acquire their land – preferably land that was already cultivated and did not require investments in order to become productive. From their side, the small landowners who decided to sell, had little choice but to stay on the same piece of land and cultivate it as paroikoi, i.e. as dependent tenant peasants. The catastrophic winter of 927/28 abruptly accelerated this process.

Becoming the paroikos of a big landowner was not necessarily a bad arrangement for a peasant, at least in the short run. Lay and ecclesiastic landowners protected their men in all manner of adversity, and sometimes offered them reasonably good working conditions thanks to their fiscal privileges. But this transformation of the peasantry had important consequences for the State finances: it meant that the independent taxpayers, who used to pay up all their taxes in the past, were now sheltered by the big landowners’ privileges, and did not pay them any more. The decrease of the fiscal revenue was felt in Constantinople and the Xth century emperors issued a series of novellae, the purpose of which was to stop the wealthy from acquiring land belonging to the free small peasantry.

The fact that many laws have subsequently been issued on the same subject, shows that the legislation did not attain its goal right away. And we do not know to which point the small free property system was corroded and the State revenues had fallen at the beginnings of this legislative effort against the big landowners. The present paper is concerned with this last question.

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