Tuesday, January 07, 2003

25 - How He Robbed His Own Officials

From: “The Secret History” – by Pocopius of Caesarea

25 - How He Robbed His Own Officials

I will next describe another way in which he robbed his subjects. Those who serve the Emperor and the magistrates in Constantinople, either as guards or as secretaries or what not, are inscribed last in the list of officials. As time goes on, their rank advances as their superiors die or retire and they replace them, until they reach the topmost dignity. Those who attained this highest rank, according to the long-established rule, were paid more than one hundred gold centenaries a year, so as to have a competence for their old age, and that they might be able to discharge their many debts: which resulted in the affairs of state being competently and smoothly managed. But this Emperor deprived them of nearly all this money, to the great harm of these officials and everybody else. For poverty, attacking them first, soon spread to the others who formerly shared their solvency. And if one could calculate the sums of money thus lost during thirty-two years, he would know of how great a total they were thus deprived. This is how the tyrant used his military aides.

What he did to merchants and sailors, artisans and shop-keepers, and through them to everybody else, I will now relate. There are two straits on either side of Constantinople: one in the Hellespont between Sestos and Abydus, the other at the mouth of the Euxine Sea, where the Church of the Holy Mother is situated. Now in the Hellespontine strait there had been no customhouse, though an officer was stationed by the Emperor at Abydus, to see that no ship carrying a cargo of arms should pass to Constantinople without orders from the Emperor, and that no one should set sail from Constantinople without papers signed by the proper officials; for no ship was allowed to leave Constantinople without permission of the bureau of the Master of Offices. The toll exacted from the ship owners, however, had been inconsequential. The officer stationed at the other strait received a regular salary from the Emperor, and his duty was exactly the same, to see that nothing was transported to the barbarians dwelling beyond the Euxine that was not permitted to be sent from Roman to hostile territory; but he was not allowed to collect any duties from navigators at this point.

But as soon as Justinian became Emperor, he stationed a customhouse at either strait, under two salaried officials, to whom he gave full power to collect as much money as they found possible. Eager to show their zeal, they made the mariners pay such tributes 'on everything as pirates might have exacted. And this was done at both straits.

At Constantinople, he concocted the following scheme. He appointed one of his intimates, a Syrian named Addeus, in charge of the port, with orders to collect duty from the ships anchoring there. And he, accordingly, never allowed any of the vessels putting in to Constantinople to leave until their owners either paid clearance fees or submitted to taking a cargo for Libya or Italy. Some of the ship owners, however, refused to submit to this compulsion, preferring to burn their boats rather than sail at such a price; and considered themselves lucky to escape with this sacrifice. Those who had to continue sailing in order to live, on the other hand, charged merchants three times the former rate for carrying their wares: so that the merchants had to recoup these losses by selling their stuff to individual purchasers at a correspondingly high price, with the result that the Romans nearly died of starvation.

This was the state of affairs throughout the Empire.

I must not omit, I suppose, mention of what the rulers did to the petty coinage. Formerly the money changers had customarily given two hundred and ten obols, or "folles," for one gold stater; but Justinian and Theodora, as a scheme for their private profit, ordered that only one hundred and eighty obols should be given for a stater. In this way they clipped off one sixth of each gold coin possessed by the people.

By licensing monopolies of nearly all kinds of wares, these rulers daily oppressed the purchasers; the sale of clothes was the only thing they left untouched, and even in this case they contrived the following scheme. Cloaks of silk had long been made in Berytus and Tyre, in Phoenicia. Merchants who dwelt in these, and all the artisans and workers connected with the trade, had settled there in early times, and from these cities this trade had spread throughout the earth. But during the reign of Justinian, those in this business at Constantinople and in the other cities, raised the price of these garments: claiming that the price for such stuffs had been raised by the Persians, and that the import duties to Roman territory were also higher.

The Emperor, pretending to be incensed at this, proclaimed by edict that such clothing could not be sold for more than eight gold coins a pound; and the punishment for disobeying this law was the confiscation of the transgressor's property. This seemed to everybody impossible and futile. For it was not practicable for the merchants who imported silk at a higher price, to sell it to their customers for less. Consequently they decided to stop dealing in it at all, and privately got rid of their present stock as best they could, selling it to such notables as took pleasure in throwing away their money for such finery, or thought they had to wear it.

The Empress, hearing what was going on through her whispering spies, without stopping to verify the rumor, immediately confiscated these persons' wares, fining them a centenary in addition. Now the imperial treasurer is to be in charge of all matters connected with this trade. So when Peter Barsyames was given that office, they soon left it to him to do their unholy deeds. He ruled that all should obey the letter of the law, while he ordered the silk makers to work for himself. And this was no secret, for he sold colored silk in the Forum at six gold pieces an ounce, while for the imperial dye, which is known as holovere, he charged more than twenty-four.

In this way he got much money for the Emperor and more, quietly, for himself; and the custom he started continues to this day, the treasurer being admittedly the sole silk merchant and controller of this trade.

The former dealers in silk in Constantinople and every other city, by sea and by land, were naturally heavily damaged. Almost the whole populace in the cities mentioned were suddenly made beggars. Artisans and mechanics were forced to struggle against famine, and many consequently left the country and fled to Persia. Only the imperial treasurer could transact this business, giving a share of the profits aforesaid to the Emperor, and himself taking most of them, fattening on the public calamity. And so much for that.

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