Factionalism in the Byzantine Empire: Thoughts by Montesquieu

Factionalism in the Byzantine Empire: Thoughts by Montesquieu
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Factionalism, i.e., the development and subsequent infighting of political parties, has long been recognized as poisonous by many of history's celebrated thinkers and writers. For example, Madison, in Federalist 10, outlined the causes and effects of factionalism, and what he believed to be the only way to control them. Washington, in his famous Farewell Address, implored the Union not to fall prey to the negative effects of party.

Within this context, what Montesquieu observed about factionalism in the Byzantine Empire under Justinian is both interesting and relevant. Can any body politic avoid being destroyed by factions?

Read on and ruminate on that question.

 August Glen-James, editor

The blues did not fear the laws, because the emperor protected them against the laws; the greens stopped respecting the laws, because the laws could no longer protect them.

The people of Constantinople had always been divided into two factions: the blues and the greens. These originated from a partiality formed in the theaters for some actors over others. In circus games, the chariots whose drivers were dressed in green vied with those dressed in blue, and everyone took an interest in them approaching frenzy.

These two factions were spread out in all the cities of the empire, and the frenzy animating them grew in proportion to the size of the cities—that is, to the idleness of a large part of the people.

But the dissensions that are always necessary for maintaining republican government must be fatal to imperial rule, their only effect being a change of sovereign rather than the reestablishment of laws and the cessation of abuses.

Justinian, who favored the blues and refused all justice to the greens, embittered relations between the two factions and consequently strengthened both.

They went so far as to destroy the authority of the magistrates. The blues did not fear the laws, because the emperor protected them against the laws; the greens stopped respecting the laws, because the laws could no longer protect them.

All the bonds of friendship, kinship, duty, and gratitude were stripped away. Families destroyed themselves; every scoundrel who wanted to commit a crime belonged to the faction of the blues, and every man who was robbed or murdered belonged to the greens.

This government was even more cruel than it was unintelligent. Not content with doing a general injustice to his subjects by overwhelming them with excessive taxes, the emperor desolated them in their private affairs by all sorts of tyrannical acts.

But what did the most harm to the political condition of the government was his scheme for reducing all men to the same opinion in matters of religion, in circumstances which made his zeal entirely indiscreet.

Just as the old Romans strengthened their empire by permitting every kind of religion in it, so was it subsequently reduced to nothing by amputating, one after other, the sects which were not dominant.

These sects were entire nations. After being conquered by the Romans, some, like the Samaritans and Jews, had preserved their old old religion. Others had spread out, like the sectarians of Montana’s into Phrygia, or the Manichaeans, Sabbatarians, and Arians into other provinces. Besides, a larger number of the rural population were still idolators obstinately attached to a religion as crude as themselves.

Justinian destroyed these sects by the sword and by his laws; forcing them to revolt, he was forced to exterminate them, with the result that many provinces were left uncultivated. He believed he had increased the number of the faithful; he had only diminished the number of men.

Procopius tells us that with the destruction of the Samaritans, Palestine became deserted. And what makes this a striking fact is that the empire was weakened by this zeal for religion in the very place where, some reigns later, the Arabs penetrated and destroyed it.

Source: Montesquieu, Trans. David Lowenthal, Considerations on the Causes of the Greatness of the Romans and Their Decline. Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. Indianapolis, pp. 189-191.