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Diminished Sovereignty? Late Byzantine Taxation and State Finances from the Twelfth to the Fifteenth Centuries

Kostis Smyrlis, New York University, Fellow 2011/12

My time at Dumbarton Oaks focused on the taxation system and the way in which fiscal revenues and lands were distributed from the twelfth to the fifteenth centuries. Assessing the material basis of imperial power and understanding how resources were divided between the state and the powerful is crucial for studying the elusive nature of the late Byzantine political system. The main question here is whether the extensive concession of fiscal exemptions and pronoiai in late Byzantium undermined the emperor’s authority and sovereignty. My thesis is that it did not. The state retained its control over the lands it conceded as pronoiai whereas its agents regularly scrutinized the privileges awarded by the emperor. The period extending from the late eleventh to the mid-fourteenth century was in fact one in which the state’s grip over the landed resources of the empire became stronger. Though the main question animating this investigation regards the political system, it is also essential to understand taxation and state finances before dealing with some other very important issues of late Byzantine history. Assessing the tax burden is indispensable for any investigation of the economy, especially when considering the living standards and economic decisions of great landlords or peasants. Questions such as the efficiency of the military and the rapid decline of Byzantine fortunes from the late thirteenth century cannot be seriously addressed without grasping the workings of taxation and the way in which fiscal resources were distributed.

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