Culture and administration
The Iconoclastic Controversy had aggravated the estrangement of the Byzantine Church and Empire from the West. But it helped to define the tenets of Eastern Orthodoxy, and it had an effect on the character of Byzantine society for the future. On the one hand, the church acquired a new unity and vitality: its missionaries spread the Orthodox faith in new quarters of the world, its monasteries proliferated, and its spiritual tradition was carried forward by the sermons and writings of the patriarch Photius in the 9th century and of Symeon the New Theologian in the 10th and 11th centuries. On the other hand, the empire became more aware of its Greco-Roman heritage. Interest in Classical Greek scholarship revived following the reorganization of the University of Constantinople under Michael III. The revival was fostered and patronized particularly by the scholar-emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, who saw to the compilation of three great works on the administration, the court ceremonies, and the provinces of his empire. He also commissioned a history of the age to which he contributed a biography of his grandfather Basil I. The age produced little original research, but lexicons (such as the 10th-century Suda), anthologies, encyclopaedias, and commentaries (such as the Lexicon and Bibliotheca of Photius) were produced in great number. The soldier-emperors of the 10th century were less interested in intellectual pursuits, but scholarship received a new impetus in the 11th century with Michael Psellus.
Social and economic change
The wars of reconquest on the eastern frontier in this period and the general military orientation of imperial policy brought to the fore a new class of aristocracy, whose wealth and power were based on land ownership and who held most of the higher military posts. Trade and industry in the cities were so rigidly controlled by the government that almost the only profitable form of investment for private enterprise was the acquisition of landed property. The military aristocracy, therefore, took to buying up the farms of free peasants and soldiers and reducing their owners to varying forms of dependence. As the empire grew stronger, the rich became richer. Given the system of agriculture prevailing in Anatolia and the Balkans, every failure of crops, every famine, drought, or plague produced a quota of destitute peasant-soldiers willing to turn themselves and their land over to the protection of a prosperous and ambitious landlord. The first emperor to see the danger in this development was Romanus I Lecapenus, who, in 922 and 934, passed laws to defend the small landowners against the acquisitive instincts of the “powerful”; for he realized that the economic as well as the military strength of the empire depended on the maintenance within the theme system of the institution of free, yet tax-paying, soldier-farmers and peasants in village communities. (Only freemen owed military service.)
Successive emperors after Romanus I enforced and extended his agrarian legislation. But the cost of the campaigns of reconquest from the Arabs had to be met by higher taxation, which drove many of the poorer peasants to sell their lands and to seek security as tenant farmers. Nicephorus Phocas, who belonged to one of the aristocratic landowning families of Anatolia, was naturally reluctant to act against members of his own class, though he adhered to the principle that the rights of the poor should be safeguarded. His laws about land tenure were particularly directed toward the creation of a more mobile force of heavy-armed cavalry recruited from those who could afford the equipment, which inevitably brought changes in the social structure of the peasant militia. On the other hand, Nicephorus took a firm line to prevent the accumulation of further land by the church, and he forbade any addition to the number of monasteries, whose estates, already extensive, were unproductive to the economy.
The last emperor to attempt to deal with the problem of land ownership seriously was Basil II, whose rise to the throne had involved the empire in a bitter and costly war against the aristocratic Sclerus and Phocas families. In 996 Basil promulgated comprehensive punitive legislation against the landed families, ordering the restitution of land acquired from the peasantry since 922 and requiring proof of title to other land going back in some cases as far as 1,000 years. Further, the system of collective responsibility for the payment of outstanding taxes known as the allelengyon now devolved not on the rest of the village community but on the nearest large landowner, whether lay or ecclesiastical. Basil’s conquest of Bulgaria somewhat altered the social and economic pattern of the empire, for new themes were created there in which there was no long tradition of a landed aristocracy as in Anatolia.
After his death in 1025 the powerful hit back, and the government in Constantinople was no longer able to check the absorption of small freeholders by the great landowners and the consequent feudalization of the empire.
This process was particularly disastrous for the military establishment. The success and prestige of the Byzantine Empire in the Macedonian era to a large extent depended on the unrivaled efficiency of its army in Anatolia.
A professional force, yet mainly native to the soil and so directly concerned with the defense of that soil, it had no equal in the Western or the Arab world at the time. And yet it was in this institution that the seeds of decay and disintegration took root; for most of the army’s commanders were drawn from the great landowners of Anatolia, who had acquired their riches and their status by undermining the social and economic structure on which its recruitment depended. Basil II had restrained them with such an iron hand that a reaction was inevitable after his death. Indeed, it is doubtful if Byzantine society could have tolerated another Basil II, despite all his triumphs. Soured by long years of civil war at the start of his reign, ascetic and uncultured by nature, Basil embodied the least attractive features of Byzantine autocracy. Some have called him the greatest of all the emperors. But the virtue of philanthropy, which the Byzantines prized and commended in their rulers, was not a part of his greatness; and the qualities that lent refinement to the Byzantine character, among them a love of learning and the arts, were not fostered during his reign. Yet, while Basil was busily earning his title of Bulgaroctonus (“Bulgar Slayer”), St. Symeon the New Theologian was exploring the love of God for man in some of the most poetic homilies in all mystical literature.