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Book Review "Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian"

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(This is my first real book review)


Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian

Translated by Peter N. Bell




I noted this source in my research for John Malalas http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Malalas , and furthermore saw the text mentioned in "The Byzantine Republic" http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/d/B00SFH463M?ie=UTF8&redirectFromSS=1&pc_redir=T1&noEncodingTag=1&fp=1 , and became immediately fascinated with it's middle text, "Dialogue on Political Science", as it purportedly was the sole work from Roman antiquity which explored a method to stabalize the office of Emperor and legitimize it, via elections and checks and balances against the office of the emperor, Wow!




So, it does indeed do this, but badly, from an American viewpoint, in which we are used to a tripartite division of executive, judicial, and legislative checks and balances. I naturally didn't expect this exact construct. There exists only checks against the Emperor, who is much reduced in scope and powers to the point of being little more than a elected Ayatollah. The phrase Ayatollah fits better than any term I could think of, much better Emperor.




In this work in particular, there is no concept of separating Church and State, which didn't arise until the 12th century in a calculated tactic on the Pope's part to check the power of the princes over the bishops.




If anything, this text remolds the Emperor almost into a Daoist Sage, Baroque in his qualities for selection, who's primary responsibility appears to be to go on introspective journeys into Neo-Platonic heaven and return with broad principles of government and justice http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Neoplatonism#Demiurge_or_Nous , and who's second responsibility was to pass this on to the Optimates (Senatorial Class), and under no circumstance shake the Optimates self confidence or ability to pursue their perogatives, which includes not taxing them or disabusing them of their narrow minded prejudices, as they would have been specially isolated and breed for their role in society (funded somehow as well)... Which produces a class that is of course hypocritical, meddlesome and aloof, whos offices are received on a hereditary basis, in just one branch of government.... And by "branch" I mean more of a Echelon, meddling in the work of magistrates below more or less in charge of the same thing, such as those in charge of munitions production, farming, or clothing. The word guilds is never mentioned, but I can't help but suspect this is what he was getting at.




The Optimates are a secluded lot, living together communally but NOT communistically (they have their own houses and wives and money, not Plato's Communist Elite). They live together isolated from everyone else, on the acropolis. This isolation from society of course makes them all the more qualified to meddle judiciously in the affairs of more down to earth magistrates dealing with real people, real problems. Why? Nous, Optimates has Nous, all thanks to the Emperor, who is the closest model to heavenly perfection men can get to, much like their Iranian counterpart.


The High Priests, who may or may not be Bishops (Christianity was merging with Neo-Platonism at this time, not quite finished in this process yet when this text was written) had a strong hand to play in the election. The three orders of society would each choose from among the landed and well breed Optimates a candidate for Emperor, and from among these three the priests would "supervise" the drawling of lots so God could have a say.... at best a random selection of three candidates, at worst a Medici like election rigging by the high priests.... The same priests in charge of presiding over and validating oaths....


The text was originally six books long, but only parts of book 4 and much of 5 survives. The military writings swings between deep insights and foolishness. His idea of emphasizing the infantry echoes Vegetius as well as our modern era. His idea of using red dye on training swords in mock combat parallels the modern use of Red and Blue painted Sim Rounds inside of M4s/M16 rifles by the US Army.


However, his ideas on awards and punishment is utterly worthless, as he recommends executing men for cowardness in training battles.... He clearly never been in a training battle, for if he had been, he would know there are no cowards in training, quite the opposite. It's one of the worst issues of peace time promotion, is that the worst cowards are promoted for acting like lions, as they know they won't die and act superficially the part. What follows is a grizzly execution contest, as the emperor and his military officers call out and question the officers in public as to who was awesome, and who was a disappointment. Winners take prizes, losers demoted or die. This is work in modern times given to Majors, who have a empirical and scientific approach aimed at remedy and preservation of force via training and education.... Rewards and punishments are not neglected, but.... Somehow modern militaries have developed a better sense of "Nous" and Hierarchies than the Neo Platonists of antiquity did, and I think its better to just ignore this author on this subject. He's bad, but not nearly as bad as say, Wei Liao Tzu, who advocated murdering half your army in training PRIOR to campaigns.



Wonderful how this aristocratic breeding works!


Immigration and the unemployed are closely monitored by the Optimates, and political factions are utterly ignored, which seems ludicrous, but you gotta remember the author lived through the Nike Riots and found proof an Emperor really didn't have to deal with the whims of the masses if he didn't have to.


The text reads like a Nietzschean fairy tale. Iran and Nietzsche were the two models that sat formost in my mind as I read this. I guess this shouldn't be surprising, as this work is not just based on Cicero's Republic, but was actually attached to the surviving portions of the recovered work discovered in the 1800s. It would of been a relatively new text for a philologist to review, and so it's no surprise we find so many of Nietzsche's parallel formulas in this text. Likewise, Iran propped itself up on the idea perfected men leading as inspired Islamic role models was not incomparable with Islam or Republicanism. It does contradict, but that's a different subject. For both the author of this work, and the Iranians, it does not.


This is a fascinating text for exposing senatorial prejudices against the emperor when the status quo was transgressed, how they struggled balancing a meritocracy with landed, hereditary elitism.... Not to mention how clueless and out of touch several well known contemporary historians were with struggling to maintain and recover lands pressed by barbarians.


As a funny sidenote, the theory of electing emperors fall apart at the end of the text, when the author recommends either forced retirements at 60, or by the emperor choosing himself a successor to understudy after 60 till he dies.... clearly no abuse could arise here....


Several unknown quotes from authors such as Livy and Frontinus occur (I have severe doubts about the Frontinus claim). Parts attributed to lost philosophers, as well as Cicero not found elsewhere also abound.


My biggest complaint about the commentary is that the professor carries on a really bad bias that Christian culture was distinct, and in contradiction to classical roman civilization, which isn't generally the case, and not any more than Neo-Platonism, which he doesn't negatively bias as well, which he should. Neither would of been tolerated in the republic, Rome was heavily prejudiced against Egyptian cults, despite the Greek intellectual strata inherit in them. Quite frankly, the christian religion already had a heavy dose of Platonism in it from it's earliest era. It was a rivalry between the two movements, oftentimes bloody, but they were more similar than dissimular, and its really bad to lump every pagan religion against Christianity. Christianity carried a lot of republican sentiment in opposition to imperial deification, they were the final repository of this opposition that began prior to Christ. Likewise, by this period many pagans were little more than sun worshippers. You have to look at every era, and count the balances of competing elements, and the give and takes between eras. Thus commentator carries the poison inherited from the 19th century that is inexcusably anti-christian, and tries to get away with it. He fails, and brings scrutiny on his role in the British-Irish troubles due to his knee jerk prejudices. Can you imagine this kind of prejudice existing with historians touching on partisan issues of Islam/Christianity, or Zoroastrianism/Hellenic Religion, Vedic/Shiavism, Confucian/Buddhist religion, blantedly taking lopsided biases, making one group authentic, and the other upsurpers? Most pagans in the 6th century were NOT Neo-Platonists, I can guarantee you this. It's a very intellectual religion. Most would of worshipped something else. Very few would of been involved in a classical pagan cult, and of those still around, I would hold in suspect the correctness of their beliefs balanced against the earlier varients of their religion several centuries earlier. It's a shameful academic bias to hold to, and has no place in 21st century history writing. He might as well of subscribed to the idea giants in antiquity built the pyramids. Christian culture didn't automatically make you less classically Roman than other Romans. They got their start under Tiberius, from WITHIN the Roman Empire, organically grew within the larger Roman Dialectic, and were always involved in Roman life for the 1400 years Rome continued on. It's like making a division between true Iranians and the Baha'i living in Iran, or True Germans vs German Jews.

Edited by Onasander

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Wow!  I hardly know how to respond to such a stunning display of knowledge!  I had to "goggle-search" my way through your review to try to keep up with you.  You've written a master piece of analysis.  Calling it a "Book Review" doesn't do it justice.  It's a stand-alone history lesson that challenges the reader's curiosity.  Congratulation!  Exceedingly well done.

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(Edit: I've been adding notes to the review and this post, will continue for a few days as I realised most people wouldn't immediately grasp my references. I guess this book review thus becomes a guide to understanding nuances and references in the text itself. My ticked off style in criticizing blends in poorly with the constant link references, so I apologize, as I'm adding them after the text has been written.)


I'm still stumped on a few issues in the book.


Photius said it was a unique work that laid outside the traditional Kyklos Cycle

http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kyklos , which is your basic Machiavellian transitions between Monarchy, Republics, Oligarchs, etc.... we still deal with variants to thus day, such as in Marxist theory....


In this case, he is supposed to be using, as per Photius.... some concept inherited by

Dicaearchus of Messana http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dicaearchus


He was a philosopher of Aristotle's school, and had a ideological divide with Aristotle's successor, Theophrastus.... Theophrastus took a more abstract ideal as the true good, whereas Dicaearchus was 'more real' in regards to making a ideal state.


Cicero is known to of been influenced by Dicaearchus, but were not quite sure how. This work in particular is supposed to be a Dicaearchan constitution.... but I'm scratching my head at this comment, as the author doesn't seem to of read his theory on how history evolves.... he assumes everything a state does produces unpredictable future conditions that may underline a state's ability to function under it's status quo. A example would be, if I make a highly efficient farm, capable of feeding 1 million people, I can keep 1 million people from starving for a time, but they will have 2-4 million kids. The repercussions of this is starvation, and perhaps militanism and even war.


Unfortunately, our author doesn't seem any what aware that his clever system stinks. It encourages stagnation and complacency, and severely limits the intelligentsia beneath the senatorial class. He doesn't outright ban recruiting smart lower class individuals from within society or even foreign.... but it's limited to the scope of what the upper class can even detect as a worthy person to promote.... the lack of freedom in such a stagnant society would drive such people into cynical isolation and depression, whereas in a more free society with greater flexibility to markets (market flexibility allowing innovation) or ability to express their ideas an individual can do a lot to promote themselves and climb up to a higher station on their own. But not in this silly little society. I think you would have to either go into exile, or kill each and every last optimate.


He structures the various trades the optimates supervise (they supervise the magistrates, not the people from what I gather) into Centuries.


During the Roman republic, voting was done by an individual's economic wealth. The richest had the first votes in the first Century, then the slightly poorer in the next, down till you hit the Proletarii.... who were dead broke and rarely got to make a meaningful vote, as apparently the upper classes votes decided things.


After Gaius Marius opened up the legions to the proletarii.... They flooded the republic's army, and created a army loyal to the local general. After Caesar in Augustus, the plebeians more or less got sidelined.... Whereas before they could make binding votes on all romans, after the emperors came around I just cease to hear of them.


In our authors system, he appears to NOT include them in any century. He seems to of merged the republic's Senatorial advisory capacity with that if the tribunes.... I actually think the powers they have are more plebian. Does this mean no longer bicameral? Yes.... purely from how he structures the Centuries. It looks like the people have no say, excluded.


Yet, however.... He also says there are three classes, and seems to include the 'people' as eligible for putting forth a vote for a candidate for emperor (selected from the senatorial class).


So does this mean the plebeians have political offices? I don't know. It could be the magistrates, but I'm guessing here. What are the three classes? I don't know. He is aware the Equestrians existed just beneath the Senators in the republic, but I'm doubtful anyone could be equestrian in said society.... Their economy would stagnate into socialist ruin fast from a Austrian Economics standpoint fast, especially if the chief economic engine was aristocratic nous of all things. Could on of the classes be the priesthood? Perhaps. Army? Perhaps.


The optimates are divided by trades/functions they oversee, into groups of ten.... Not economic status like for the voting centuries in the republic.


He divides the state into ten rough offices, but we don't have a complete listing. It appears he tries to organize the state via a decimal system, like how the army does by S-Shops and G-Shops. Does this mean each rung has ten? I dunno.


The Emperor does appear rather ceremonial, a spiritually perfected individual who talks of wide governing principles, but also appears to of retained some commander-in-chief abilities. I've been stumped on this.... As the author himself is aware the eastern roman empire isn't a city-state anymore, but a larger entity. He likes to think in terms that any society could adopt this system.


If you have his emperor, in the field instructing and micromanaging troops, with the officer corps by your side, everyone within hearing shot.... and yet expects the emperor to run everywhere up and down the lines, forward and back.... You would expect him to have a bodyguard unit with Facses to do the punishing in training (or combat?). How wide apart are these formations? Why not just pick a good vantage point easy to defend, and use runners to communicate with subordinate officers? Or different horns and drums?


Likewise, if he is with the Army.... and they have to fight a two front war, what keeps whoever is in command of Army B from proclaiming themselves Emperor, being undoubtedly a optimate, if Army A falls, or the emperor dies. Are you really going to hold elections, then move to fight off the enemies on two fronts? Yeah.... Likewise what just outright stops anyone from declaring themselves Emperor even if the old one isn't dead?


Problem is, I'm not even certain if this guy thought about two front wars, or if the empire would just be under a legion lead by 1 emperor. Only time you would have two emperors legitimately would be when the senior emperor would be between 57-60 years old. You really want this old guy squinting, running his horse around in battles?



I'm very intrigued by this book. He seems aware of the republican era institutions, he is trying to adapt it to an era where that system devolved under the various monarchies that ruled since Caesar..... but he doesn't convince me in the least that the Senators are in a position of possessing the awareness necessary to lead.


I assume the author is a petite senator, clearly not within Emperor Justinian's administration .... or even rubbing shoulders with it. Is somewhat aware of the happenings, but is also isolated and fed a little too much of his own bull, with few people to offer him a serious counterpoint and call him on it.


So I'm doubting a neo-platonic philosopher teaching locally, but rather an aristocrat on an estate (where?) living on his ancestors estate, visiting other lower ranking senators who are no longer invited to decide on issues, kindly asked to stay home. They bumpkin senators would know how things really ought to be, like in the old days.


He was very much against circus and political factions. Seems remarkably oblivious to their power being independent of his system. I don't think Nous is going to calm a crowd informed chariot games are not happening from now. He thinks his system will make everything more stable, whereas if it was influenced by Dicaearchus, you think he would know it would rapidly fall apart. Even if wildly successful, you quickly end up within a few generations of their breeding program with a who lit of Optimates, and only so much Acropolis to house them on. You inevitably end up having to boot them into the lower orders, or start a optimate colony.... which brings up issues on voting and organization, as well as synchronization of policies. Eastern and Western Roman Empire had these issues. More likely though, the breeding stock would rapidly diminish from starvation due to bad policies resulting from Nous'in around all the time, and general attrition from illness, plague, sterility, battlefield deaths, horrific inbreeding, etc. Same for everyone else being bred for their station in life.


The text bothers me, but it's very interesting. Worth reading. He resurrects the idea of checks to power (won't call it checks and balances, as only his precious, undoubtedly largely ignorant by our standards optimates win) and tries to fit the emperor into a constitution.


He becomes a counterpart to the nobles who selfishly forced the Magna Carta to be signed, I think a good comparison could be made. He effectively beats The Holy Roman Empire in figuring out the need to constitutionally stabilize and elect an emperor, instead of letting anyone try for the spot. His system of selecting ten men reminds me of the Han Eunuch councils




It has firm roots in the Republican system, but doesn't seem very well thought out. It seems like a constitutional monarchy in all honesty, and perhaps without a Parliament even beyond electing the emperor or evicting a fellow optimate from his status/role.


His understanding of basic military tactics, especially calvary, is horrible too. He thinks all they do is fan out from either wing and looks for ambushes, but the infantry.... which his army is primarily built on, just stays still. This is a really stupid strategy to use against the Persians and huns. I hope he included strong point defenses, like holding the high ground in the list part of the book, but even then, eventually a army of mounted archers are gonna call your bluff and NOT storm that hill, they WILL shadow you, they will mess with your lines of communications back to the rear, they will destroy your resupply, they will kill your men foraging, they will hareass and pick your men off day and night. It will end badly if they decide not to storm a impossible position, which is more or less what the infantry of this era needed to fight of a mobile calvary archer army. All those cav he sent off to look for ambush? Dead, cause they successfully found it, and died, and now no calvary defend the infantry flanks and rear. Meh.... Defeat.

Edited by Onasander

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