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New Roads, New Rome: A Byzantine Playbook for Modern Politics

By Noah Ricketts

Byzantium is a slur in modern political language. Bogged down by orientalism and dogmatism, it makes for perfect ammunition when highlighting indecision and an allergy to progress. An innocent mistake, if like “Orwellian” and “Machiavellian”, its popular usage still falls in the correct pejorative ballpark. However, it is another matter entirely when a millennium of history is inexplicably tied to such a negligent invective.

I am referring to the history of the Eastern Roman Empire, which, thanks to innovative institutions and a bottomless strategic playbook, endured beyond the fall of the West in 476 and right to the cusp of Early Modernity. It is this story, that Professor Anthony Kaldellis elegantly recounts in The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium.


The book opens with the reign of Constantine I, the Emperor of a unified Roman Empire and a political innovator. Not one for incremental change, he initiated a project of renewal, sponsoring Christianity and hauling the political and economic infrastructure east to the “Nova Roma”, Constantinople. In doing so, he heralded a period of divergent fortunes, which culminated in the 476 AD when the structurally and intellectually impoverished west formally fell under the yolk of its Gothic generalissimos.

Despite the climactic rupture of the Roman polity, Kaldellis begins a full century before the envelopment of the western half. This is because, to be “Byzantine” is to be both many things and almost nothing, as although the population of Constantinople referred to themselves as Byzantines, the “Byzantine Empire” was the creature of 16th century Humanism. Before and after the fall of the West, the citizens of the East, identified as Romans (Ῥωμαῖοι), inhabiting the state of Romania and living within institutions and culture, fostered when the empire was whole.


But whether by medieval monarchs or enlightenment luminaries, the inheritance of Rome has always been doggedly pursued, and to acquire it, the surviving Eastern half needed to be delegitimised. Kaldellis charts the origins of this spin campaign, a gradual process of ethnoreligious condemnation, belligerently promulgated by a Frankish-Papal double act. This birthed a rival Holy Roman Empire and a revanchist crusading movement to ensure that the twin legacies of Christianity and Rome flowed upstream to their doors.

Ironically, despite the deconstruction of Byzantine “otherness”, the true achievement of the New Roman Empire is its breakdown of the radical differences between Byzantium, the medieval world and the antique empire it built upon.

Unlike the dynastic, venal polities that dominated Europe up to the French Revolution, the Byzantine Empire was a premodern miracle, with its centralised state, monetary economy, meritocratic civil service and intellectualised public sphere operating a world apart from its patchwork peers. It is the deconstruction of the Byzantine system, at home and abroad, which acts as the central thesis of the book and challenges us to reconsider the meaning of “Byzantine Politics”.

Novelty began at the top, with the typical Byzantine Emperor operating more like a President than a traditional King. This was a product of a brand of sovereignty, which was forged from popular acclimation rather than sole genealogy, a quasi-democratic process, inherited from the Roman Republic and its conception of representative government.


These Republican genetics, ensured that the Emperor/Empress only acted as a Steward of the polity, charged with strengthening and maintaining its institutions in the name of the Res Publica. This could be dismissed as the rhetorical sleight of hand, of Authoritarianism, yet in Kaldellis’ assessment of Byzantine government, it was (more often than not) only those Emperors successful in maintaining Roman institutions (the army for protection, the economy for enrichment and the church for salvation) that kept their jobs.

And just as the polity could give power, it could also take it away, with regime change being entirely dependent on Constantinople throwing open its gates. This functioned as a medieval equivalent to popular referenda, as the success of would-be emperors depended on past achievements and future promises, over murky genealogies and big army diplomacy. This reveals a whole new language of power politics, resting on an appeal to “collective benefit”, as just as Byzantium was a polity of Citizens over subjects, it was also comprised of shareholders over dependants.

This principle, combining Antique Republicanism with Christian kingship, required the labour of all citizens to nourish the organs of the empire. In return for its health, the state would guarantee the population’s livelihood, whilst its direction remained accountable to their interests, a system of negative feedback achieved via a matrix of popular ceremonies (triumphs, liturgies and festivals) and a voluminous legal tradition, which to this day acts as the bedrock of western legal theory.


But beyond theory, Byzantine government was as much by the people as for them. Precocious provincials were swept up by the organs of the state, trained at the various universities and assigned salaried positions across the empire. This endured as an arrangement which maximised the faculties of the best and brightest while establishing rich incentives for the powerful to keep faith with the state, as failure from above ensured opportunity from below, a truly dynamic experiment in big government.

This has given posterity some of its greatest rags-to-riches stories; as in Eastern Rome, talent truly could come from anywhere. For Kaldellis, it was this deviation from the meritocratic consensus that initiated the true decline and fall of the Roman Empire, as a shift towards more overt kingship in the late 12th century drove Byzantium away from tried and tested formulas and towards secessionist infighting.

But where Eastern Rome (and the book) truly shines is in the international sphere, where its abnormal lifespan ensured a front-row seat for a millennium of geopolitical turmoil.

Contrary to Ancient Rome, which like Achilles strode unchallenged across the continent, Byzantium inhabited a significantly more violent, multipolar world, thanks to an explosion of organised polities across Europe and the Middle East.


In contrast, the rivals of the ancient empire (bar Persia) were hopelessly outmatched, often numerically and always technologically and structurally, with the State’s only fair fight coming in its trilogy with Carthage, where Rome experienced monumental losses and still delivered a knockout blow.

The Byzantines lacked those luxuries, and so whilst Ancient Rome died as Achilles, Byzantium endured as Odysseus, outwitting stronger opponents thanks to the deepest geo-strategic playbook in premodernity, which at its height, shielded Byzantium from the forces which had swallowed the west.

This playbook is not a document, it’s a monument, to the concept of “Smart Power”, a badge of honour in international relations which Byzantium deservedly holds. Militarily, Byzantium cultivated a rich intellectual tradition (standouts being Maurice’s Strategikon and Leo VI’s Problemata), which formulated contingencies to the tactics of the medieval world. Enthralling legacies of this tradition include an empire-wide telegraphic beacon system and Greek Fire, a type of medieval napalm capable of burning on water.

But, in a multipolar world, conflict was expensive, with a singular defeat promising disaster. Therefore, to achieve its goals, Byzantium became the first medieval state to creatively exercise its economic power. Gift networks, the auctioning of trading contracts and strategic bribery were all employed to engineer conflict and competition amongst its enemies, a policy which for a millennium, struck a balance between European and Asian threats. This was expedited by an extensive espionage network, which coupled with permanent embassies, gave Byzantium an acute grasp of foreign power dynamics.

Culture could also be weaponised, and when done properly, it won bloodless victories. In Bulgaria, Armenia and Kyiv, the prestigious Orthodox church and its roster of relics and texts was leveraged for bouts of peace, an undeniably successful policy, as the religious makeup of Eastern Europe still bears the stamp of the Byzantine cultural hemisphere.

In the West, Imperial wealth was put on display for those that ventured to Constantinople. The Italian ambassador and fervent critic of Byzantium, Liutprand of Cremona, described the throne room as packed with golden automata, whilst the throne “was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air.”  A spectacular, intricately choreographed tableau.

Finally, in its old age, Byzantium could fall back on its prestigious classical curriculum. In return for military support, it fuelled the burgeoning Renaissance of late medieval Europe, a principled strategy of supply and demand, theorised in the writings of the Palaiologan Emperors.

These complex models ultimately did not prevent the gutting of the state in 1204 by the Fourth Crusade and the gradual slide into oblivion by 1453. But no system survives forever, our own liberal democracies are in their infancy in comparison.

So, it is high time that Byzantium received its flowers. Kaldellis’ account certainly ensures this, while also staking a claim to the modern meaning of “Byzantine”. Flexibility abroad and consensus at home is the conclusion, a formula that produced near-unmatched prosperity and longevity for the polity of the Romans.

Noah Ricketts studies at the University of Oxford.


The New Roman Empire: A History of Byzantium, by Anthony Kaldellis, is published by Oxford University Press. You can also buy it on | |