Gondor, Byzantium, and feudalism

A reader on LiveJournal, who goes by the name of ‘dirigibletrance’, asks:

How exactly is Byzantine politics different from feudalism, other than taking place earlier and not in Western Europe? How are the politics we see of Gondor outside of the bounds of what we know as feudalism, both the narrow and broader definitions?

As it happens, Mr. or Ms. Trance is in a certain amount of luck: Byzantium and Tolkien are two of the subjects I have studied in some detail. However, I shall approach the matter in my own way, which means answering a lot of questions that were not asked, but that may, when answered, give meaningful context to the answer that was asked for.

To begin with, Tolkien at various points made both explicit and implicit comparisons of Gondor with Byzantium. The terms ‘North-kingdom’ and ‘South-kingdom’ for Arnor and Gondor are deliberate echoes of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire. In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien no. 131), Tolkien writes:

In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.

In a letter to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer (Letters no. 294), he touches on the historical analogy again:

The progress of the tale ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome than anything that would be devised by a ‘Nordic’.

There are other parallels between later Roman history and the history of Gondor. The story of Eorl the Young and the founding of Rohan is a sort of alternate history of the Goths, somewhat sanitized, and with the bitter tragedy left out. Allow me to set the scene:

In the third century A.D., the Roman Empire fell into a rather bad way. A series of civil wars, which became more or less continuous after the assassination of Alexander Severus in 235, ravaged the economy, depleted the treasury, and depopulated significant areas of the empire. Plague, which had been a recurrent problem since the time of Marcus Aurelius, further reduced the population; and the Romans, who had gradually come to imitate the habit of family limitation that had been de rigueur among the aristocracy since the reign of Augustus, were no longer breeding fast enough to restore their population to its old level. Population and production both went into a serious and prolonged decline.

In the poisonous political atmosphere of the time, literally dozens of men proclaimed themselves emperors, almost one per year on average, climbing over the bodies of their predecessors, and sometimes not even waiting until the predecessors were dead. By the 260s, an ‘Empire of the Gauls’ had established its de facto independence in the west; in the east, the Syrian potentate Odaenathus of Palmyra, and then his widow Zenobia, ruled Egypt and the Asian provinces with scarcely more than a symbolic nod to the authority of Rome. The currency was hopelessly debased, the government corrupt, the armies more interested in plundering the provinces than protecting them; many people believed the dissolution of the empire was at hand.

Two great external threats hung over the empire: the Germanic tribes of the north, chiefly the Alemanni and Goths, and the Persians in the east. Odaenathus and Zenobia held the Persians at bay, but the Alemanni penetrated into Italy itself before Aurelian defeated them and drove them out. He then reconquered the eastern provinces, taking Zenobia prisoner, and made a deal with Tetricus, emperor of Gaul, that resulted in the reunification of the whole empire. With the Goths he took a different tack, making an alliance with them and giving them the largely deserted province of Dacia. This reduced the empire’s northern border to a shorter and more defensible line along the Rhine and Danube, and delegated the defence of the Balkans to the Goths.

In Tolkien’s version of the story, the Goths become the Éothéod, the ancestors of the Rohirrim. Their earliest recorded leader, in fact, was called Vidugavia, a name Tolkien derived from the Gothic Widugawi. At that time they lived in eastern Rhovanion, between Mirkwood and the River Running. Under pressure from the Easterlings, they removed to the headwaters of the Anduin west of Mirkwood, and later moved south. In the time of Cirion, steward of Gondor, they helped the Men of Gondor rout a great invasion of the Easterlings at the Field of Celebrant. As a reward, he pledged perpetual alliance with them, and gave them the largely deserted northern province of Calenardhon, which became the kingdom of Rohan. By the time of The Lord of the Rings, their alliance had endured for over 500 years.

The Goths did not do so well, though their alliance with Rome lasted, with lamentable interruptions, for more than a century. The Huns, moving in great force over the Ukrainian steppes, conquered Dacia, sending a flood of Gothic refugees across the Danube. There was immediate strife between the Romans and the desperate Goths, who supported themselves by raid and pillage. At last their leader Fritigern met a huge Roman army in battle outside Adrianople. Valens, the Roman emperor, was killed, and his army slaughtered. The whole northern boundary lay open to the dreaded Huns.

Aurelian’s end, too, was unhappier than Cirion’s. Scarcely a year after he reunited the empire, he was murdered by his own officers. Although he brought all the former Roman territories (except Dacia) under one rule again, he failed to deal with the two most pressing problems of the empire. One, as his assassination showed, was the lack of discipline in the army, and its distressing tendency to mutiny. The other, closely related, was the decline of the currency. The silver antoninianus, which had first been coined to replace the debaseddenarius, was itself debased until it was made of pure copper with a thin silver wash. Aurelian called in the old coinage and issued newantoniniani containing 5 percent silver. By itself, this move might have restored confidence in the economy. But he made a fatal mistake. Corrupt as the old coins were, they were in principle redeemable in gold at a fixed rate, so prices did not go up nearly as fast as the currency was debased. Aurelian’s new coins were not redeemable at a fixed rate; in effect, he took Rome off the gold standard. Records from Egypt show that prices went up eightfold in a few years. Between the trouble with the coinage and the general economic decline, the empire began to have enormous difficulty paying its troops — which made discipline in the army even worse.

The earliest roots of feudalism can be found in the empire’s attempt to deal with these problems. Diocletian, a brilliant but eccentric politician whose many reforms tended to smell of the lamp, took another stab at reforming the currency, but for the most part he evaded the issue by making taxes collectable in kind. Another ‘reform’ made all occupations hereditary: every Roman had to take up his father’s trade, and remain in the district where he grew up. Social and geographic mobility were at an end. Under Diocletian’s successors, the upper and middle classes managed to evade most of these restrictions, but much of the peasantry remained glebae adscripti, bound to the land: in fact, they became the first European serfs. When the empire fell and the barbarians took over the West, the serfs changed hands; instead of being owned by rich Romans, they were owned by men who spoke a different language and thought of themselves as a superior caste.

But this is to get ahead of the story. Valens lay dead on the field of Adrianople, and Fritigern the Goth had the only organized body of troops between the Huns and Rome. The new emperor, Valentinian I, inherited the worst position in the history of the empire. He needed to recruit tens of thousands of new troops, and he had no money to pay them. In this emergency he did what many a ruler and CEO has done: he hired cheap foreign labour. Valentinian renewed Rome’s alliance with the Goths, recruiting them en masse to form a new Roman army. Rome had often recruited Germanic soldiers before. But where the Germans had formerly been incorporated into Roman legions under Roman generals, Valentinian let the Goths keep their own leaders and their own command structure, fighting as foederati— allies rather than citizens. In exchange he gave them lands along the Danube frontier, and such payments in cash as the treasury could afford. (Valentinian did not invent this technique. Some years earlier, Julian the Apostate had recruited Franks as foederati to help defend the Rhine. But Valentinian was the first to hire foederati on such a large scale.)

This filled the empire’s immediate need for an army, but in the long run it was disastrous. The old legions might pillage towns and farms to supplement their pay, but at least they were Romans, loyal to the empire in principle, and sharing a bond of blood and culture with the people who occasionally suffered under them. The foederati were men of jealously separate nations, never Romanized, and felt no bond of kinship with the peoples of the provinces. Most of them did not even hold the Roman citizenship. A generation after Adrianople, the Goths living in the Balkans, being cruelly mistreated by their Roman neighbours, rebelled; they did enormous damage to the country before the Eastern emperor paid them a huge bribe to go away. They did: they invaded the Western Empire instead, under a brilliant military leader whose name remains famous to this day: Alaric. For a while they were held at bay by the Roman general Stilicho, who was himself the son of a Vandal foederatus. But the Western emperor Honorius, one of the most idiotic men ever to sit a throne, had Stilicho executed on trumped-up charges. Alaric promptly invaded Italy, and in 410 he sacked Rome. Neither Honorius nor his feeble successors ever restored the Rhine and Danube frontiers; the foederati took over direct rule of the territories where they had been stationed, and gradually overran the whole of the West.

The barbarian kingdoms that succeeded the Western Empire laid the groundwork for feudalism, though the legal theory of the feudal state did not fully emerge until feudalism itself had begun to unravel. The essence of feudalism was that it based tenure of land on military service. A local magnate would be given control over a territory in exchange for a promise to supply a certain number of troops at the king’s command; and he would distribute parcels of land to lesser captains, or to the individual warriors who formed his retinue. At the bottom of the system, of course, were the Roman peasants, already reduced by their own laws to the status of serfs. This was on the whole a workable system. It had the enormous disadvantage of giving too much power to the local magnates. The king, in theory supreme, was in practice merely the largest of many armed landowners, and could not hope to enforce his will upon his vassals if they combined against him. But the system also had one great advantage: it worked without any large payments of cash. If the king did not have direct authority over the feudal domains, he also did not have to tax them. And since none of the barbarian kings were any better at maintaining a solid currency than the later Romans had been, a system that did not require money was worth adopting no matter what defects it had.

Tolkien mirrored this development, rather loosely, in the sketchy chronicle of the breakup of Arnor. In the North-kingdom, we are told, the Dúnedain were relatively few, just as the West was the less populous part of the Roman Empire. Arnor eventually broke up into three separate principalities, just as the empire of the Franks (theoretically a revival of the Western Roman Empire) broke up into the three realms of Neustria, Austrasia, and Lotharingia. The royal house of the Dúnedain died out in Cardolan and Rhudaur, and they fell under the rule of lesser Men; Rhudaur eventually allied itself with the Witch-king, who, as we know, was the Lord of the Nazgûl incognito. Arthedain must have had feudalism of a sort, for King Argeleb II granted lands to the Hobbits, under their leaders Marcho and Blanco, in exchange for such military service as they could offer. It was said in the Shire that a troop of Hobbit archers went to fight for Arthedain in the final war against the Witch-king, but none came back from the battle, and the Dúnedain made no record of their presence.

The Shire seems to have been somewhat feudal itself at one stage. Not only was it divided into the four Farthings, it was further divided into the ‘folklands’ of the twelve principal Hobbit families, Took, Baggins, Oldbuck, and so forth. (The Oldbucks crossed the Brandywine into Buckland, and became known as the Brandybucks.) Much of the land seems to have belonged to the various branches or septs of those families, and farmed by tenants: Bilbo Baggins, as head of the Baggins family, seems to have got most of his income (pre-Smaug) in this way. The Thain of the Shire was originally an Oldbuck, but the office passed into the Took family; in The Lord of the Rings, Pippin Took was the son of the Thain, and later became Thain himself. The title of Thain is of course a variant spelling of thane, a title used by the Anglo-Saxon nobility. There was no such fixed system of precedence as among the modern English aristocracy, but a thane was generally inferior to an earl, and about equivalent to a baron on the Continent.

But it will not do to press the analogy too closely. The Shire was Tolkien’s analogue of England in this scheme; Marcho and Blanco correspond to Hengest and Horsa, the leaders who first brought the Jutes across the North Sea to settle in Kent. (All four of these names derive from various Germanic words for ‘horse’.) Hengest and Horsa were invited, according to tradition, by the Romano-Britons themselves, after Honorius withdrew the legions from the island and left them defenceless against the Picts and Scots. The Jutes were followed by larger contingents of Angles and Saxons, just as the Fallohides, the least numerous variety of Hobbits, were followed by larger contingents of Stoors and Harfoots. The Angles came from a territory known as Angeln, ‘the Angle’ or ‘the Narrows’, in Schleswig; just as the Stoors came from ‘the Angle’ between the rivers Hoarwell and Loudwater. Clearly, anything we say about the early social structure of the Shire must be conditioned by what we know (and what Tolkien knew) about Anglo-Saxon England.

For England was never a feudal state in quite the Continental sense. It long preserved the older Germanic tradition of personal military service, not directly linked to tenure of land, but to kinship and the (presumably) dominant and eminent personality of the leader. After the Norman Conquest the land was divided into feudal domains on the French model, but the canny Norman kings kept their vassals on a short leash and never permitted them to rival the power of the Crown as they had done in France. The Wars of the Roses largely broke the power of the Norman aristocracy, and the Tudors supplemented them with a new aristocracy, created by royal fiat, and enriched by grants of land taken from the Church by Henry VIII. Under this new system, most of the land was held by local squires, among whom the titled nobility were the most revered and respectable but not necessarily the largest landowners. (So, too, ‘the Tooks were not as respectable as the Bagginses, though they were undoubtedly richer.’) A minority of the peasants owned their own land, but most were tenants, renting farms from squires or nobles. It is this ‘squirearchy’ that most resembles the situation in the Shire at the time of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. It was indeed the condition of rural England in Tolkien’s childhood, for which he was always nostalgic, and to which he would have liked England to return. ‘Tipping your cap to the Squire may be dam’ bad for the Squire but it’s dam’ good for you,’ he once said.

The South-kingdom, as I have said, was patterned deliberately after Byzantium, though without the pervasive influence of the Orthodox Church. Most of the Men of the Third Age were ‘virtuous pagans’; those of Númenorean descent, and their subjects, were strict monotheists of a rather colourless and non-sacerdotal type, having neither temples nor priests, but showing their worship of Eru chiefly by resisting Sauron with all their might. Whether this is a realistic model for the religious life of a human society is a question I shall leave on one side. The point is that it limits the degree of resemblance to Byzantium, where the Church had wealth and influence even greater than in mediaeval Italy or Christian Spain. But within these limits we can draw some parallels between Byzantine and Gondorian society.

The Eastern Empire survived where the West was destroyed, partly because it was much less exposed to the barbarians, but also because it evolved its own solutions to the two desperate problems that brought about the fall of the West. Constantine is famed for being the first Christian emperor, and for founding the city of Constantinople, which quickly became the Eastern capital; and the Church and the City were two pillars of the Eastern Empire until 1453. It is less often remembered that he built a third pillar, almost as important as the other two: he issued a new gold coin, called the solidus in Latin and the nomisma in Greek, which remained the basis of Byzantine coinage for 700 years. As far as possible, he abandoned Diocletian’s practice of collecting taxes in kind, requiring instead that they be paid in gold; and with this gold he paid his troops. But there was not enough gold in the treasury to pay the number of soldiers the empire needed, as Valentinian discovered at the start of his reign. Until the middle of the fifth century, the East, like the West, depended upon barbarian foederati for its defence.

But this system, so obviously unworkable in the West, was abandoned in the East as soon as an alternative could be found. At first the Eastern emperors recruited large numbers of Isaurians, a people who lived in the Taurus mountains of eastern Anatolia. These were mostly pastoral people, uneducated and desperately poor; we would probably call them hillbillies. Even at the low wages the empire could afford to pay, the army was an attractive career for them. But this was not nearly enough. Gradually the Byzantine emperors raised the pay of the troops, until under Justinian they were earning as much as they had under the early empire — twenty nomismata per year for a common soldier. To raise this money, Justinian increased taxes to new heights, and the burden grew even greater after a fresh outbreak of plague killed as much as a quarter of the population. His immediate successors teetered on the verge of insolvency, desperately needing the soldiers but unable to cut their wages without inducing mass mutiny. Then the Arabs came.

More than half the territory of the Eastern Empire fell to the heirs of Muhammad in just a few years, and out of an active field army of perhaps 150,000, no more than 80,000 were safely evacuated to secure quarters in Anatolia and Greece. This surviving remnant of the empire was what Tolkien meant by the ‘proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium’; it is this that corresponds to the Gondor of the Stewards. And it was in no way a feudal kingdom. The emperor retained full control of the bureaucracy and the army, and every province was ruled by officials appointed by the emperor and recallable at will. There were great landowning families, but their wealth did not automatically mean high political office, as it did for the dukes and counts of the feudal West. Byzantium had its dukes and counts, but these were military ranks, bestowed by the emperor and not inheritable. The great landowners tended to monopolize these positions, because they could afford to give their sons the advanced education required for a career in high public service; but there was always some room for a talented parvenu, and the emperor always retained the authority to sack his generals and banish them to their private estates. He did not always retain the power; but that generally meant that the rebellious general deposed the emperor and took the throne for himself, rather than becoming a quasi-independent ruler as in the West.

Constans II, who came to the throne in 641, abolished the old provinces and divided the empire into military districts called themata — ‘themes’ in English. Each theme held a certain body of troops, derived from the field armies of an earlier day, commanded by a strategosor general. The pay of a common soldier was cut to a mere five nomismata, which the empire could comfortably afford to pay even after losing so much territory and wealth. To compensate for the pay cut, each soldier was given a grant of land, which he could pass on to his son along with his place in the army rolls. Since some parts of the empire were very rich indeed, while others were scarcely arable, the grant was not a fixed acreage, but land of a certain market value. A cavalryman received land worth 288 nomismata, or four pounds of pure gold: enough to require three or four tenant families to farm it, which indeed meant that he did not have to worry about neglecting his land while he was away at the wars. An infantryman received only half as much, and probably had to do a large share of the farming himself; but the thematic infantry were seldom called out on campaigns far from home. They were chiefly intended to defend their own territories against Arab raids.

This system had one striking resemblance to feudalism: each soldier held his land on the condition of military service. But there was also a striking difference: there was no subinfeudation. It was not the strategos who gave lands to the troops, but the emperor himself; and there were no intermediate layers of vassals between the emperor and the soldier. Later on, when the thematic system broke down under the Turkish invasions, soldiers were given a kind of tax concession, called pronoia; this, being collected entirely in cash, resembled feudalism even less.

How does this match up with what we know about Gondor? Tolkien makes several references to the ‘fiefs’ of Gondor, a definitely feudal term. But it is not at all clear that these were really fiefs in the Western sense. In the time of Denethor, the leading noble of Gondor was Imrahil, Prince of Dol Amroth. Now Dol Amroth was in the fief of Belfalas; but Imrahil was not called the Prince of Belfalas. He was a very important and august nobleman, descended from the ancient Númenorean aristocracy, and clearly a rich man; but he was not the hereditary ruler of Belfalas. There seems to have been no such person; if there were, obviously, he would have been Imrahil’s superior, and we should have heard of him instead. In Byzantine terms, we could say that Imrahil was the principal landowner in Belfalas, the head of its leading family, and strategos of the district; but he was strategos at the gift of the Ruling Steward, who could in principle revoke his gift.

The men of the themes were expected to stay at home and guard their territories; as I have said, they were not usually called out on foreign campaigns, except temporarily and in small numbers. This seems to have been true in Gondor as well. When the host of Mordor moved to attack Minas Tirith, the leaders of the various fiefs sent only a small part of their forces to reinforce the city; the rest were kept at home to defend against the black fleet of Umbar. Here is how Tolkien describes the matter in The Return of the King:

‘Forlong! Forlong!’ Pippin heard men calling. ‘What do they say?’ he asked.

‘Forlong has come,’ Bergil answered; ‘old Forlong the Fat, the Lord of Lossarnach. That is where my grandsire lives. Hurrah! Here he is. Good old Forlong!’ . . . .

‘Forlong!’ men shouted. ‘True heart, true friend! Forlong!’ But when the men of Lossarnach had passed, they muttered: ‘So few! Two hundreds, what are they? We hoped for ten times the number. That will be the new tidings of the black fleet. They are sparing only a tithe of their strength. Still every little is a gain.’

He goes on to mention ‘the men of Ringló Vale behind the son of their lord,’ and ‘tall Duinhir with his sons’ from ‘the uplands of Morthond’, and so forth; and last of all, Imrahil with ‘a company of knights in full harness’ and seven hundred men at arms. This could easily be a list of feudal lords with their vassals and retainers. But it is worth noticing that none of these leaders commanded a very large force, and none is referred to as the vassal or liegeman of another. They were all the lords of fairly small districts (as you can confirm from the map of Gondor in the book), none much bigger than another, except for the large fief of Belfalas and the remote and thinly populated Anfalas, ‘the Langstrand far away’; and they all seemed to be tenants in chief of the Steward himself. This is at best a highly modified feudalism; and I would argue that it fits as well or better with the Byzantine model, where these would be the strategoi of the themes (or their officer sons, as in the case of Ringló Vale) leading a portion of their men out on campaign.

What, then, of Imrahil’s knights? That at least sounds like a definitely feudal term. But in fact there were knights before feudalism, and after it was gone. The term ‘knight’ is often applied to the Ordo Equester of republican Rome, where it meant simply those citizens of the First Class who were expected to equip themselves as cavalry for the legions. This usage is a frank (and not entirely accurate) imitation of the mediaeval usage, of course. But in that mediaeval usage, a knight was simply an armoured cavalryman. He had to be a man of some wealth and substance, for it was no trivial expense to maintain a heavy warhorse and its armour; but this was equally true of a Byzantine cavalryman, who served under a strategos, but had technically no liege lord except the emperor. It is true that Western knights served in the context of a feudal system; but feudalism was not what made them knights.

Indeed, there were Byzantine troops who resembled Western knights very closely. When Justinian sent an army under Belisarius to reconquer the West, his shock troops were cataphracti, heavy cavalry on the Persian model, men and horses both armoured from head to foot. The Goths and Vandals had no force that could withstand them or make much impression on them, and they must have had some influence on the later development of heavy cavalry among the Franks. The cataphracti were largely abandoned during the Arab invasions, for they were easily outmanoeuvred and defeated by the light Arab cavalry on their swift and nimble horses. But in later times, the Byzantines developed a special striking force independent of the themes, divided into units called tagmata. Each tagma was stationed in a particular area near Constantinople itself; they were highly trained, highly paid, and in return they were expected to accompany the emperor or his general on any foreign campaign. Some tagmata were composed entirely of heavy cavalry, and in the later Byzantine period these units were armed and equipped on the pattern of Western knights. It was these heavy troops, backed up by the lighter cavalry of the themes, that broke the power of the Arab caliphate in the 10th century and advanced, according to one account, to a point within sight of Jerusalem. They were Crusaders before the Crusades; and what could you call them, in any western European language, except knights? I rather fancy that the knights of Dol Amroth were troops of this sort.

In the end, of course, the Stewards of Gondor submitted to the rule of King Elessar, the Heir of Isildur returned from the North. For all that Byzantium maintained the legal fiction of a united Roman Empire, it never submitted to an emperor out of the barbarous West. Yet something like that did almost happen once; and this, too, has a parallel in Tolkien. We are told that there was a dispute over the kingship of Gondor once, the direct line of Anárion having died out; and Arvedui, then crown prince of Arthedain, came down from the North to claim the kingship of Gondor. His claim was rejected, for the Men of Gondor regarded Arthedain as a place of little account and Arvedui as an uncouth upstart, despite his ancestry. There was a real counterpart to Arvedui, and you have almost certainly heard of him: his name was Charlemagne.

In 780, Constantine VI became Byzantine emperor at the age of nine, with his mother Irene as regent. They fought frequently once Constantine grew up enough to oppose his will to hers, and in the end he stripped her of her offices and banished her from the court. But he was not a particularly strong emperor, and did rather poorly at running the empire on his own; and after a while he gave in to her importunities, recalled her, and restored to her nearly all the powers she had held as regent. Their next dispute was fatal to him and fateful in history. In 797, Irene deposed and blinded her son; he may have lived on some time as a prisoner, but probably died of his wounds. Constantine had no heir, so Irene did something without precedent in Roman history: she had herself crowned, not as empress, but as emperor.

At this time, Charlemagne was busy expanding the Frankish kingdom to its greatest extent, stretching from Catalonia to Saxony; and he was eagerly seeking some unprecedented eminence with which to awe and control his divers and polyglot subjects. Irene’s usurpation was a godsend to him. He began negotiations with the pope, who agreed that since there was now no Eastern emperor (women having hitherto been ineligible for the throne), it would be quite proper to crown a new one in the West. Traditionally, of course, it was the patriarch of Constantinople who crowned emperors, but the pope claimed to be superior to the patriarch, and therefore ought to have that power as well. So Charlemagne was duly crowned Emperor of the Romans on Christmas Day of 800, with endless consequences for European history.

At first, Irene reacted with fury; then with resignation; then with a bold and crafty stroke of diplomacy. She had at one point declared war against the Franks, though the two empires were hundreds of miles apart and there was really no place where they could meet and fight. Now she sent an embassy to Charlemagne’s court at Aachen, offering terms of peace and alliance. She needed both, for the Byzantines were growing restive under her rule, and many of them had never accepted the idea of a female emperor. Charlemagne answered her embassy in the most enthusiastic terms. He actually proposed to Irene by proxy; the two emperors would marry, and the two empires would be legally united. Since Irene had no children and was past childbearing age, Charlemagne’s heirs would have reigned at Constantinople. The Frankish knights and the Byzantine themes would have fought side by side against the Moors and Arabs, and who knows? The Roman Empire of old might have been restored, four hundred years after it was finally divided and three hundred years after the Western Empire fell.

But the Byzantines, who disliked the rule of a woman, were even more offended at the prospect of being ruled by a barbarian. Irene’s court rose against her, deposed her, and forced her into a convent. Nicephorus, the general logothete (i.e., the imperial treasurer), became emperor, and the prospect of union was dead.

One more resemblance between Byzantium and Gondor is worth remarking upon. When the Men of Gondor rejected the barbarian Arvedui’s claim to the throne, as the Byzantines rejected Charlemagne, they chose Eärnil as their king. Eärnur, his son, was captured by the Lord of Minas Morgul, and the line of kings came to an end; but not the state of Gondor. The Stewards ruled in the King’s place for a thousand years, until Aragorn came to renew the kingship. The Byzantines, who never considered their monarchy the property of a particular family, called their rulers emperors until the end; but for all that, they had something of the Gondorian reverence for legitimacy, and it grew stronger as the centuries passed. Faramir recounts a telling conversation:

‘And this I remember of Boromir as a boy, when we together learned the tale of our sires and the history of our city, that always it displeased him that his father was not king. “How many hundreds of years needs it to make a steward a king, if the king returns not?” he asked. “Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty,” my father answered. “In Gondor ten thousand years would not suffice.” Alas! poor Boromir. Does that not tell you something of him?’

In 867, Basil the Macedonian (who, despite his name, seems to have been an ethnic Armenian) became emperor and founded the Macedonian dynasty. His descendants reigned over the empire until 1056, though they did not always rule. It was a peculiarity of this period that for much of the time, there were two emperors: one of the Macedonian house, who inherited the title and was ruler de jure; the other, a successful general, who acted as ruler de facto. The greatest Byzantine emperor of all, Basil II, inherited the throne at the age of five, and had two co-emperors, both magnificently gifted military men, before taking up active rule at 18. After his death and his brother’s, his niece Zoë became ruler de jure, and her assorted husbands and favourites were rulers de facto. None of them could establish themselves without the legitimacy conferred by marriage to a Macedonian. After Zoë’s death, the people of Constantinople actually stormed the convent where her sister Theodora was living as a nun, and forced her to become empress at the age of 75 — so deep was the Byzantine people’s attachment to the dynasty.

Later still, after the Crusader kingdom of Constantinople was swept away and Byzantine rule restored, the Palaeologus dynasty took the same place in popular affection. In the 14th century, John V Palaeologus, a vacillating nitwit, appointed the capable John VI Cantacuzenus as his co-emperor; and when Cantacuzenus tried to take over sole control of the state, he precipitated such a ferocious civil war that the empire was finally ruined and became a mere dependency of the Turks. The Palaeologi reigned in ghostly supremacy over the shreds and tatters of Byzantium until the Turks seized Constantinople in 1453. If you had asked a Byzantine how long it would take to accept an emperor from outside the ruling family, he might well have answered: ‘Few years, maybe, in other places of less royalty. In Constantinople ten thousand years would not suffice.’

We do not know what was the ultimate fate of Gondor. No doubt the glory of Minas Tirith passed away and was forgotten, like the Elves and Hobbits; for they are not in the world today, and Tolkien meant Middle-earth to stand for our own earth in the remotest antiquity. But we may be sure that Gondor stood by the heirs of Isildur as long as the kingdom lasted. No Byzantine could do less.


  1. More locally, it was the kings of pre-Norman England who passed their rule down in an unbroken line of descent. Only after England became Great Britain “in a quite unnecessary desire for a common name” did it come to be ruled by the Stewards, who being Scottish spelled their name “Stuart”, and whose descendant (through several female connections, to be sure) sits on the throne today.

    • Talk about completely backward. The Stuarts came first, and the unification as a consequence.

      • The coming of Stuarts to the throne of England was effectively simultaneous with the Union of the Crowns. Of course, the Stuarts had been kings of Scotland before that.

        • It was not the United Kingdom until some time after that. Prior to then, it was two kingdoms that happened to have the same sovereign.

          • To be precise, James VI of Scotland became James I of England in 1603 (while still retaining his separate title as King of Scotland). Scotland continued to have its own Parliament, its own laws, and its own Established Church until the Acts of Union in 1707; and while it joined in all the English wars during that period, it retained the right and the ability to raise its own separate armies. (The Scottish army was one of the great imponderables of the English Civil War: neither King nor Parliament could ever quite rely on its support.)

            That 104-year gap, I should say, convicts Mr. Cowan of a mighty loose usage of the phrase ‘effectively simultaneous’.

  2. The More You Know says:

    Gondor’s not connected to Byzantine Empire. Minas Tirith literally means Belgrade (Serbia). Lookup Siege of Belgrade during 15th century and it becomes clear.
    Boromir and Faramir are names similar to Radomir and Milomir, typical for the Serbian region. It was also unveiled that Tolkien wrote about Belgrade in his map works alongside the Italian city of Ravena.

Speak Your Mind