History of the Byzantine Empire

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The religious policy of Anastasius. The rebellion of Vitalian. Internal reforms — In spite of the promise of the Patriarch of Constantinople not to introduce any ecclesiastical innovations, Anastasius in his religious policy favored Monophysitism; somewhat later, he openly sided with the Monophysites. This act was greeted with joy in Egypt and Syria, where Monophysitism was widespread. In the capital, however, the Monophysitic leanings of the Emperor aroused great confusion and when Anastasius, following the example of Antioch, ordered that the Trisagion (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts”) be chanted with the addition of the words “who wast crucified for us,” (that is, “Holy God, Holy Strong One, Holy Immortal One, crucified for us, be merciful to us”), great disturbances took place in Constantinople and almost brought about the deposition of the Emperor.

This religious policy of Anastasius led to the rebellion of Vitalian in Thrace. At the head of a large army composed of Huns, Bulgarians, and perhaps Slavs, and aided by a large fleet, Vitalian advanced toward the capital. His aim was political; he wished to depose the Emperor. But to the world he announced that he rose to defend the oppressed orthodox church. After a long and strenuous struggle the rebellion was finally suppressed. This revolt was of no little importance in history. “By three times bringing his heterogeneous troops close to Constantinople and by obtaining from the government enormous sums of money,” said Th. I. Uspensky, “Vitalian revealed to the barbarians the weakness of the Empire and the great riches of Constantinople, and taught them something about combined movement on land and sea.”[150]

The internal policy of Anastasius, not yet sufficiently studied or evaluated in historical literature, was marked by intense activity and affected important economic and financial problems of the Empire.

One of his very important financial reforms was the abolition of the hated chrysargyron, a tax paid in gold and silver (in Latin it was called lustralis collatio, or sometimes by a fuller name, lustralis auri argentive collatio). This tax, from as far back as the early part of the fourth century, applied to all the handicrafts and professions in the Empire, even to servants, beggars, and prostitutes. It was levied, perhaps, even on the tools and livestock of the farmers, such as horses, mules, donkeys, and dogs. The poor classes suffered particularly from the burden of the chrysargyron. Officially, this tax was supposed to be collected only once in five years, but in reality the date for its collection was set by the administration arbitrarily and unexpectedly, and these frequent collections at times drove the population to despair.[151] In spite of the large income poured into the government treasury from this tax, Anastasius definitely abolished it and publicly burned all the documents connected with it. The population greeted the abolition of the tax with great joy; to describe this imperial favor, according to one historian of the sixth century, one “needs the eloquence of Thucydides or something still more lofty and graceful,”[152] A Syriac source of the sixth century described the joy with which the edict of abolition was received in the city of Edessa:

The whole city rejoiced, and they all put on white garments, both small and great, and carried lighted tapers and censers full of burning incense, and went forth with psalms and hymns, giving thanks to God and praising the emperor, to the church of St. Sergius and St. Simeon, where they celebrated the eucharist. They then re-entered the city and kept a glad and merry festival during the whole week, and enacted that they should celebrate this festival every year. All the artisans were reclining and enjoying themselves, bathing and feasting in the court of the great Church and in all the porticos of the city.
The amount raised by the chrysargyron at Edessa was 140 pounds of gold every four years.[153] The abolition of this tax gave special satisfaction to the church, because, by participating in the earnings of prostitutes, the tax implicitly gave legal sanction to vice.[154]

Of course the abolition of the chrysargyron deprived the exchequer of considerable revenue but this loss was very soon made good by the introduction of a new tax, the chrysoteleia (χρυσοτελεια), a “gold tax,” or “a tax in gold,” or a tax in cash instead of kind. It was apparently a land tax, which Anastasius applied to the support of the army. This also weighed heavily on the poorer classes, so that the whole financial reform had in view a more regular distribution of tax burdens rather than a real diminution of them.[155] Perhaps the most important financial reform of Anastasius was the abolition, upon the advice of his trusted praetorian prefect, the Syrian Marinus, of the system under which the town corporations (curiae) were responsible for collecting the taxes of the municipalities; Anastasius assigned this task to officials named vindices, who probably were appointed by the praetorian prefect. Although this new system of collecting the taxes increased the revenue considerably, it was modified in following reigns. Under Anastasius the problem of sterile lands seems to have become more acute than ever. The burden of additional taxation fell on persons unable to pay, as well as on the unproductive land. The owners of productive land thus became responsible for the full payment of taxes to the government. This additional assessment, called in Greek “epibole” (επιβολη) that is, “increase,” “surcharge,” was a very old institution going back to Ptolemaic Egypt. It was enacted with particular firmness during the reign of Justinian the Great.[156] Anastasius also decreed that a free peasant-tenant, who had lived in the same place for thirty years, became a colonus, a man attached to the soil, but he did not lose his personal freedom and right to own property.

The time of Anastasius I was marked also by the great currency reform. In the year 498 the large bronze follis with its smaller denominations was introduced. The new coinage was welcome, especially to the poorer citizens, for the copper money in circulation had become scarce, was bad in quality, and had no marks of value. The new coins were struck at the three mints which were in operation under Anastasius, at Constantinople, Nicomedia, and Antioch. The bronze coinage introduced by Anastasius remained the model of imperial currency until about the second half of the seventh century.[157]

To his list of humanitarian reforms Anastasius added a decree forbidding fights between men and beasts in the circus.

Although Anastasius often granted tax reductions to many provinces and cities, especially those in the East devastated by the Persian War, and although he carried out a building program including the Long Wall, aqueducts, the lighthouse of Alexandria, and other projects, the government toward the end of his reign still possessed a large reserve which the historian Procopius estimated, perhaps with some exaggeration, at 320 thousand pounds of gold, equivalent to about $65,000,000 or $70,000,000.[158] The economy of Anastasius was of great importance to the abundant activities of his second successor, Justinian the Great. The time of Anastasius was a splendid introduction to the Justinian epoch.

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