By Stelios Orphanides
The bad shape of the empire’s finances following decades of successful defensive wars against the western powers and the less successful efforts to reconquer areas of the empire lost to the crusaders in 1204 which led to the re-conquest of Constantinople, forced emperor Andronicos II to take drastic fiscal measures.
He scrapped the empire’s navy and cut down the size of the armies, which in the times of his predecessors consisted mainly of a large number of mercenaries.
As a result, the empire’s defensive capabilities became even smaller as its army ended up in the times of Andronicos II to comprise entirely of mercenaries.
The ‘pronoia’ system, under which revenue from the exploitation of land, other natural resources, duties and other taxes, was transferred to individual nobles or clerical institutions in exchange to an implied military service, reached its limits, and exhausted from looting it could hardly contribute to the empire’s defence. Andronicos sought to address the situation by increasing the tax burden, which of course did not affect the beneficiaries of pronoia, who enjoyed the so called “atelia” or “excusia”, i.e. a complete exemption from the obligation to pay taxes.
After Andronicos resorted to the devaluation of the empire’s currency and later he also attempted to restore his empire’s military power and the increased revenue which had to cover grants to neighbouring rulers in an attempt to buy peace, also had to cover the maintenance cost for 20 triremes an a regular army of 3,000 horsemen.
Historian Nicephorus Gregoras likened this to a person who attempts to buy the friendship of wolves by offering them to drink his own blood. All this brought misery to the people.
The emperor’s plan was doomed to fail. By 1300, the empire gradually lost control of all its possessions in Asia Minor to Turkish tribes which were conquering one city after another without meeting any organised resistance.
The emperor sought to remedy the situation with an alliance with the Alans who agreed to invade Asia Minor and settle there as subjects of Andronicos.
Their force was crushed. While the situation was becoming even more desperate, a deus ex machina showed up. Andronicos entered a similar agreement with the Great Company of some 6,000 well-trained Catalan mercenaries under Roger de Flor in 1303.
Their campaign in Asia Minor was very successful and they conquered a large number of cities defeating numerically superior armies. The success of de Flor’s who was also granted the title of grand duke and married Maria Asesina, Andronicos’s niece, demonstrated that a small number of a well-trained troops could help him restore the power of his empire. The problem however, was that Andronicos could not afford even that.
The more de Flor succeeded in his campaign, the more suspicious Andronicos and his son and co-emperor Michael became that the Catalan mercenary leader was not aiming at Andronicos regain control of lost swathes of land he earlier lost to the Turks but was instead aiming to usurp his throne.
De Flor was ultimately assassinated in 1305 in Michael’s camp. This triggered the revenge of the Catalans and their troops defeated those of Michael and started to savagely loot Macedonia and Thrace for years before establishing a small dominion in southern Hellas.
Andronicos’s reign offers lessons to leaders of countries which urgently need reforms and instead seek the easy solution of heaping further tax burdens on the shoulders of the weakest parts of society and sparing privileged classes in the hope that this type of remedy is sufficient to help address challenges caused by the very system.
This type of remedy exacerbates existing problems even more. While the use of foreign help can assist in addressing a bad situation if chosen wisely, it ultimately comes to the leader’s ability to acknowledge the situation and address the actual problems rather than seeking a way around them in order to avoid tough decisions.
After all, rulers are managing countries and management is about ‘doing the right things right’.
Faced with a similar situation, Alexis Tsipras, the current ruler of Greece, also has a number of tough decisions to take. However, he does not seem willing to do so and has instead requested foreign assistance in order to preserve a system that exempts some at the expense of others.
Foreign creditors are unlikely to offer him a ‘cheque blanche’. He is therefore well advised not to attempt to betray them. He should be aware that even as in some parts of Greece and Bulgaria the word ‘Catalan’ is still used as an insult, it was after all Andronicos who invited them to the country in the first place.