Sailing to Byzantium


I’ve always been a sucker for the Byzantine Empire.  I’ll write a more extensive review of the new book, Lost to the West, soon, but for the moment, I want to focus on one particular emperor, the last of the Macedonian Dynasty, and the last truly great emperor Byzantium produced, Basil II.  Basil took power by overthrowing a regent who wanted the crown for himself, and by putting down rebellion by a couple of successful generals who had similar ideas.  After the second rebellion, Basil met with its leader.  The meeting is recorded by Michael Psellus, in his Chronographia:

After this Basil proceeded to question him, as a man accustomed to command, about his Empire, how it could be preserved free from dissension. Sclerus had an answer to this, although it was not the sort of advice one would expect from a general; in fact, it sounded more like a diabolical plot. ‘Cut down,’ he said, ‘the governors who become overproud. Let no generals on campaign have too many resources. Exhaust them [the aristocracy – ed.] with unjust exactions, to keep them busied with their own affairs. Admit no woman to the imperial councils. Be accessible to no one. Share with few your most intimate plans.’

First, let’s make the obligatory noises about how Obama’s no Byzantine Emperor.  True enough.  Imperial legitimacy came not from the people, but from the blade of a sword.  And women’s relationship to society has – thankfully – changed somewhat since the 10th Century.  But to power politics is power politics, and Sclerus’s advice boils down to this: suppress the institutions that might cause you trouble, and don’t let anyone figure out what you’re up to.

Unfortunately, I can’t remember the posting where I read it, but the author proposed that Obama runs his foreign policy through personal advisers and special envoys – often to the exclusion of the traditional military and foreign policy apparatus – to avoid sharing his overall vision with anyone else.  That this doesn’t require a conspiracy, merely a clever plan by a good politician to avoid opposition to what would be unpopular ideas.

Hey, it’s happened before.