How Complicated Was the Byzantine Empire?

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Oct. 20 2011 5:25 PM

How Complicated Was the Byzantine Empire?

Right-wingers are always complaining about the "Byzantine" tax code.

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images and courtesy of djjewell/Flickr.

The Republican candidates for president debated Herman Cain’s 9-9-9 tax plan in Las Vegas on Tuesday. Cain’s flat rate for income, corporate, and sales tax would replace the Byzantine U.S. income tax code, which, according to many conservative groups and newspaper reports, runs to more than 72,000 pages. (Actually, it's nowhere near that long.)* Critics often refer to the complicated politics of Constantinople (which used to be Byzantium and is now Istanbul) when discussing American tax laws. Was the Byzantine system of government especially complex?

Only compared to those of medieval Europe. Ceremony and ritual were important features of the imperial court at Constantinople. Guests at royal banquets were assigned titles that denoted where they could sit in relation to the emperor, whom they could talk to, and what they were allowed to discuss. Eventually, the rituals became so complex that treatises were written to help outsiders understand proper etiquette, and the emperor employed officials to teach newbies how to behave. During this period, Western Europeans had lost a taste for the pomp and circumstance of empire. Their leaders were little more than feudal lords who more closely resembled generals than true emperors, although they sometimes carried that title. Ambassadors to Constantinople complained loudly about the formality of the court: For example, in the late 10th century, Liutprand of Cremona, who traveled twice to Byzantium as an ambassador of German emperor Otto, wrote a book in which he bemoaned the overly choreographed Byzantine court ceremonies. Still, Byzantium was far less complicated than any modern government.

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The crusaders, too, found the rituals confusing, and they were baffled by Byzantine diplomacy. Constantinople provided financial and military support to the crusaders in some situations but not others. The emperor may even have passed intelligence to the crusaders’ Muslim opponents. As a result, the crusaders viewed Byzantine diplomacy as complex and inscrutable. This partially explains why modern use of the word Byzantine refers not just to things that are complex but also to those that are deviously convoluted—i.e., intentionally designed to be incomprehensible.

Modern historians are quick to point out that modern contempt for Byzantine government is based more on bias than on fact. They blame Byzantium’s bad reputation largely on 18th-century English historian Edward Gibbon. In his influential multi-volume work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Gibbon caricatured the history of the Byzantine Empire as little more than a series of shady backroom deals, backstabbing, and power grabs. (In fact, the same could easily be said of Ancient Rome—which Gibbon glorified—or the Islamic societies nearby.) Later historians seized on Gibbon’s portrait of the complexity of Constantinople’s ever-shifting political alliances and its reliance on rituals to maintain power distinctions. French scholar Jules Michelet was the first to use the adjective Byzantine to describe something excessively complex or subtle in his 1846 work Le Peuple, and the term had spread to nonpolitical contexts by the 1880s. (Louis Pasteur complained about Byzantine medical discussions in 1882.)

According to William Safire's Political Dictionary, the modern use didn’t enter the English political lexicon until 1937, when Arthur Koestler—who spoke French and spent some years living in Paris—described the structure of the Spanish army as “Byzantine.”

Bonus Explainer: Was Byzantium’s tax code Byzantine? Not at all. Byzantium’s two-pronged system would have made Steve Forbes proud. There was a flat tax on all citizens. Farmers paid an additional tax based on the size and quality of their land and their annual production. While the equation was straightforward, putting it to work was not. The Byzantines used alphabetic, rather than Arabic, numerals that were notoriously difficult to crunch.

Got a question about today’s news? Ask the Explainer.

Explainer thanks Jerry Brotton of Queen Mary, University of London, John Haldon and Jelena Trkulja of Princeton University, Matthew T. Herbst of UC San Diego, Catherine Holmes of the University of Oxford, and Ben Zimmer, executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com.

Correction, April 15, 2014: This article originally repeated the myth that the U.S. income tax code is more than 72,000 pages long. This is a myth. It's nowhere near that long. (Return.)

Brian Palmer writes about science, medicine, and the environment for Slate and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Email him at explainerbrian@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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