You are on page 1of 35

The Past and Present Society

The Other Transition: From the Ancient World to Feudalism

Author(s): Chris Wickham
Source: Past & Present, No. 103 (May, 1984), pp. 3-36
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of The Past and Present Society
Stable URL: .
Accessed: 03/08/2013 10:05

Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at .

JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of
content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new forms
of scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact

Oxford University Press and The Past and Present Society are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve
and extend access to Past &Present.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
knownas the "end of the ancientworldin the west" - or some
similarname- has been harmedby considerablelack of clarityas
to what is actuallymeant by the phrase. The conceptof the end
of antiquityof course means different thingsto differentsortsof
historians,but many speak of it as if these different thingsall
coexistedequally, intermingledin some giant classical bran-tub:
Graeco-Romanpaganism(and/orstate Christianity), secularLatin
literature,temples,the emperor,the senate,slavery,togas. These
separatephenomenamayeach be thekeyto antiquityforsomeone,
but theirhistoriesare not the same, and an attemptto describe
theirsimultaneousdestructionby some singlecause is not helpful,
howeveroftenattempted.Even Marxists,whoat leastknowthatthey
shouldbe lookingat theunderlying structures
and contradictions of
society,have usuallyfoundtheirfocusslippingas theblurrededges
ofthevastculturaland politicalsuperstructureoftheRomanempire
swimintotheirvision:so Daniele Foraboschican accusepeoplewho
ignorethe "spiritualcrisis" and the impactof Christianity on late
Rome of economism;or PerryAndersoncan discussthecollapseof
the statein the westwithoutkeyingit in morethannominallywith
theunderlying economicchangesof thethirdto sixthcenturiesthat
theMarxistproblematicrecognizesas beingprior. Alternative, and
moretraditional,analysesdo not get further thanthe reductionism
ofEngels'sOriginoftheFamily:theobsolescenceand unprofitability
of slavery,the tyrannyof the late Roman state,the supersessionof
theancientslave-basedeconomyby morevitalGermanicbarbarism,
movingquickly to the feudal mode of production;such analyses
* I would like to thankAndreaCarandini,
WendyDavies, JohnEdwards,Martin
Goodman, Michael Hendy, Rodney Hilton, Ian Wood and PatrickWormaldfor
criticizing textand offering new suggestionsand insights;it is more necessary
than usual to say thattheyare not responsibleforits errors.
1 D. Foraboschi, "Fattori economicinella transizionedall'antichitaal feudalesi-
mo", Studistorici,xviino. 4 (1976), pp. 65-Ioo, at p. 94; P. Anderson,Passagesfrom
Antiquityto Feudalism(London, I974), pp. 76-I03. I mustadd at the startthatthe
primaryand secondaryworkson all the topicstouchedon in thisarticleare endless
and I cannotreferto themall; indeed, in not all cases have I read them.Omission
does notmean thata workis notrelevant.Most ofthosecitedincludebibliographies.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

oftendifferabout whentheslavemode of productionis replacedby

feudalism(thethirdcentury? thesixth?theeighth?),butlittlemore.2
I wantto reanalysetheproblemofwhatunderliesthe"end of the
ancientworld"in economicterms,and howthesetermscan be fitted
into the Marxistproblematicof transition.I will thus concentrate
on theeconomicprocessof change;whatI have to discusshas little
directrelationshipwith,forexample,problemsof culturalhistory,
whichhave preoccupiedothers.It does, however,have to do with
the state, which was ultimatelypart of the structureof the late
empire,and the "fall of the state" does have a major place in my
analysis,as in Anderson's,thoughfordifferent reasons.It seemsto
me thatan understanding of thehistoryof thelate Romanwestcan
onlybe obtainedthroughan accuratedescription ofthenatureofits
economicstructure,thatis of its modes of production,and thata
greatnumberof Marxistanalysesare vitiatedbecause theyhave got
thesedescriptionswrong.This is not just an exercisein typological
description,of "butterfly-collecting"as Edmund Leach called it in
a different context;such discussionhelps to focusour analyseson
realcausal relationships.3Labelling,whetherMarxistor not,is after
all totallyuseless withoutsuch a focus (an affirmation that may
relieve non-Marxistreaders). What followsis intendedto be a
realignment in the placingof a numberof reasonablywell-known
phenomena,not the productionof a new (or final)undiscovered
explanation;by now thereare probablynone of theseleft.
* * *

The standardinterpretation of the economicchangesof late Rome

is thattheslavemode of productiongiveswayto thefeudalmodeof
production:slaveryis replaced by serfdom.The classic modern
formulation of this (in non-Marxistterms)is that of Marc Bloch
in his posthumousarticle"Commentet pourquoi finitl'esclavage
antique", which dominatedthe attitudesof medievalistsfor two
decades and more- no mean achievementfora 25-pagesummary
2 F.
Engels, "The Originof the Family,PrivatePropertyand the State", in K.
Marx and F. Engels, SelectedWorks(London, 1968 edn.), pp. 568-76. Engels's
analysiswas brilliantforits time,but has been a strait-jacket
since,even forthebest
historians.See, forexample,E. M. Schtajerman,Die KrisederSklavenhalterordnung
im Westendes romischen Reiches,trans.W. Seyfarth(Berlin,I964).
3 E. R. Leach, RethinkingAnthropology(London, 1961),p. 2. A modeofproduction
is generallytaken to be an analyticalcombinationof productiveforces(such as
technology or the development of labour power)withthe social relationsof produc-
tion: in particular,forour purposes,who controlsthe labourprocess,how surplus
is extracted(throughslaveor servileor wagelabour,forexample),and whatunderlies
the powerto extractthe surplus- forexamplewhatsortof coerciveforce,or what
sortof agreement.To be moreexactwould take pages: fortwo recentanalyses,see
B. Hindess and P. Q. Hirst,Pre-Capitalist ModesofProduction (London, 1975), pp.
I-20; G. A. Cohen,Karl Marx's Theory ofHistory:A Defence(Oxford,1978), pp. 28-
II4, I34-74.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
articlewithoutnotes.Bloch pointedout the tremendousincreasein
the numbersof slaves duringthe greatwars of the fifthto sixth
centuriesA.D., but showedhow theywerenot enrolledin thetradi-
tionalslave plantationscharacteristicofAugustanItaly;theseslaves
becametenants.At somepointtheplantationshad brokendownand
slaves were put out in tenantplots; as the positionof freetenants
declined, serfdomwas born fromthe fusionof these two social
groups;feudalismensued.Broadly,thisanalysisis quitecorrect;but
it presents,or seems to present,some problems.In particularthe
wholepatternkeysin verybadlywithwhatis knownand generally
accepted about the rest of late Roman history.If feudal social
relationshipsalreadyexistedby A.D. 300, then what was the late
Romanstate?If thelatterwas notfeudal,as it does notseemto have
been, thenwhatfilledthe gap, and how? Moses Finley,who ought
to knowifanyonedoes, has declaredhimselfdefeated:"I am unable
to fitlate antiquityintoanyneatseriesof stages",he saysat theend
ofhis mostrecentbook, but "slave societydid notimmediately give
wayto feudalsociety".4Finley'spictureof theslow crisisof slavery
fitsin interestinglywithrecentItalianworkon theslavemode(often
posed in explicitoppositionto him) to providea firmpictureof one
side oftheproblem,namelywhathappenedto slaveryin thesecond
to thirdcenturiesA.D.; but we cannotlook at thishere. The most
importantresultforus is insteadthattheslavemode can be leftout
of our arguments;thereis no reason to regardit as havingbeen
greatlyprominentin the late empireat all.5 For what replacedit,
what is principallyneeded is a tighteranalysisof the modes of
productionof the ancientworld.
Definitionsofmodesofproductionare endless,particularly in the
vastarrayof revisionismsthathave markedthe last two decades of
Marxistdebate, focusedlargelyon the so-calledFormenin Marx's
Grundnisse of 1857-8.The mostusefultendsurprisingly oftento be
foundin the workof writersin the Althusseriantradition,despite
theirflathostilityto any formof historicalanalysis;I would single
4 M. Bloch, "Comment et
pourquoi finitl'esclavage antique" (1947), in his
Melangeshistoriques, 2 vols. (Paris, I963), i, pp. 261-85, M. Bloch, Slavery
and Serfdomin theMiddleAges,trans.W. R. Beer (Berkeley,I975), pp. I-3I; M. I.
Finley,AncientSlaveryand ModemIdeology(London, 1980), pp. I49. See also, most
recentlyand eccentrically,P. Dockes, Medieval Slaveryand Liberation,trans. A.
Goldhammer(Chicago, 1982).
5 As a briefbibliography,see Finley,AncientSlaveryand ModernIdeology;K.
Hopkins,Conquerors and Slaves (Cambridge,1978); A. Carandini,introduction to J.
Kolendo, L'agricolturanell'Italia romana,trans. C. Zawadzka (Rome, I980); A.
Carandini, L'anatomia della scimmia (Turin, I979); themonumental 1979 conference
published as A. Giardina and A. Schiavone (eds.), Societc romanae produzione
3 vols. (Bari, 1981); the discussion of Finley,Ancient SlaveryandModem
Ideology,in Opus [Rome], i pt. I (1981), esp. pp. II5-46, 161-79, 20I-II. Dockes,
MedievalSlaveryand Liberation,pp. II9-41, I99-233, is factuallyerraticbut stimu-

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

outthatofBarryHindessand Paul Hirstin theirbook,Pre-Capitalist

ModesofProduction. These two authorsdrawa distinction between
the ancientmode of productionand the slave mode whichwe will
finduseful,and theyalso widen some standarddefinitions of the
feudalmode. The ancientmode, in its most traditionalideal type
(in the mythicalearly Roman republic, for example), was non-
exploitative,and characterized by thecontrolof a city-basedcitizen
body over the immediatecountryside;the citizenswere private
owners,but theyco-operatedin theircontrolof the public landed
wealthof thecity.As Rome expanded,twodevelopments occurred.
The theoreticalegalitarianism of the citybrokedown and the slave
mode began to displacethe free-owning peasantry,reachingby the
late republic its classic form,the plantationslaveryof Cato and
Columellawhichdominatesthe sourcesforthe agrarianhistoryof
thesecondcenturyB.C. to thesecondcenturyA.D. But also, as Rome
conqueredthecountryside and citiesofItalyand theMediterranean,
the ancientmode itselfchangedin type,becomingan exploitative
mode; the public wealthof the city,initiallyin land, came to be in
tributeor taxtakenfromproprietors in thesubjectcountryside and,
in the case of Rome itself,other subject cities. This gradually
developed into a wholesale taxationnetwork,with the old city/
countryrelationshipas its innerstructure, as we shallsee. It is this
networkthatI will call theancientmode in its class form.It willbe
a key to my analysisof late Rome.
The feudalmode, the otherone thatconcernsus, has in much
traditionalMarxistanalysisbeen seen as based on serfdomand the
coercivepoliticalauthority overtenantsconstituted bytheseigneurie;
Hindess and Hirst regardthisas too narrow,and show, rightlyin
my view, that feudal relationsare representedsimplyby tenants
payingrentto (or doinglabourservicefor)a monopolistic landowner
class; such landownerswill always,whilethe systemis stable,have
thenon-economic coercivepowersnecessaryto enforcetheircontrol,
whetherinformallyor throughtheircontrolof public or private
justice,but thesepowersdo not have to be formally codifiedin the
seigneurieto exist. (The authorspresentall thisas a revolutionary
insight,thoughit has long been perfectly well knownto medieval-
ists.) It should not be necessaryto add that feudalismhere has
nothingto do withmilitaryobligations,vassalageor the fief.6
6 Hindess and Modes of Production,
Hirst,Pre-Capitalist esp. pp. I8-I9, 79-108,
on the ancientmode. Hindess and Hirst laterrejectedthis analysisforits lack of
rigour,in myview mistakenly:B. Hindess and P. Q. Hirst,Mode ofProduction and
Social Formation(London, 1977), pp. 38-4I. Cf. the vast commentary on Marx's
Formenin Carandini,Anatomiadellascimmia,esp. pp. 128-37;and theFormenitself,
translatedmost fullyin K. Marx, Grundrisse, trans.M. Nicolaus (London, I973),
pp. 459-514, or otherwise(with Eric Hobsbawm's introduction)in K. Marx, Pre-
CapitalistEconomicFormations, trans.J.Cohen(London, 1964). Criticisms ofHindess
and Hirstare verynumerous,but usefulones forus are containedin the reviewsby
S. Cook in Jl. Peasant Studies,iv (1976-7), pp. 360-89,and by A. Carandiniin his
(cont.onp. 7)

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
Thereareobviouslyproblemswiththesedefinitions. Not everyone
willagreewiththem.I defendmyuse of theabove definition of the
feudalmode elsewhere;it would be inappropriateto get involved
here in what, to manyhistorians,is a somewhatabstrusedebate.
Similarly,the term"ancientmode" mayor maynot be considered
appropriate forthecity-based taxationoftheempire;butthequestion
here is merelyone of words. Modes of productionare ideal con-
structs;the justification for particulardefinitions,as long as they
havean internallogicand thusmakesense,mustbe theirusefulness,
and I hope to show thattheseones are useful.7
It is moretrickyto determinehow theseideal constructs actually
workon the groundand how theyarticulatewiththe "superstruc-
tural"aspectsof society,such as class-consciousness (or itsabsence)
and the state. Some analysesby Althusserianscan be used again
here,forit is thesetheoristswho have done mostto developMarx's
conceptofthe"socio-economic"or "social formation". This concept
is important, forit is an attemptto categorizerealsocietyas a system
of differentstructurallevels. One of these, the economic base,
consistsof one or more modes of productionin a hierarchyof
dominance;varioussuperstructures (politics,ideology,thestate)are
organizedin an intricaterelationship to it.8In factMarxhimselfwas
less botheredby such intricacies;he used "social formation"and
"mode of production"more or less as synonyms,and so do many
people writingtoday. This is understandable:the feudal social
formation correspondsto thefeudalmode ofproduction,and so on.
However,it can oftenmislead,above all in the crucialand rather
commoncase wheremorethanone mode of productioncoexistsin
the same social formation.
It is thislast point thatis relevantforus here. It is empirically
fairlyevident that societies(as I shall myselfusually call social
formations forgreaterease) can oftenhave morethanone mode in
them:capitalismand slaverycoexistingwithintheAmericanSouth
in I860, forexample.But an important partof theforceof Marxist
(n. 6 cont.)
Archeologiae culturamateriale,2nd edn. (Bari, 1979), pp. 354-75; see also E. P.
Thompsonon Althusserin his The Povertyof Theory(London, I978), pp. I93-3I4.
The feudalmode has fartoo manyanalysesto list; a well workedout versionof its
economicdynamicin one area is W. Kula, An EconomicTheory oftheFeudal System,
trans. L. Garner(London, I976); for a convenientset of definitions(with a late
medievalfocus), see also G. Bois, Crisedu feodalisme (Paris, 1976), pp. 35I-6. For
vassalage,see p. 29 below.
C. J. Wickham, "The Uniqueness of the East", forthcoming in J1. Peasant
Studies,discussesthesedefinitions, as well as the not unrelatedproblemof how far
a systembased on taxationis a mode ofproduction,as I wouldmaintain,ratherthan
merelya mode of surplusappropriation(no one would doubt it was at least this).
By contemporary standardsthisformulation vergeson thesimplistic,but it is all
that we need here. For elaborationthe most succinctAlthusserianversionis N.
Poulantzas,PoliticalPower and Social Classes,trans.T. O'Hagan (London, I973),
pp. 13-16,althoughI findhis fullmodel unnecessarily over-articulated.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

economicanalysesin historylies in thefactthattheyemphasizethe

existenceof totallydifferent economicsystems,each witha different
internallogic, thatare incompatibleand antagonisticin the sense
thattheycannotbe mixed.Betweenone mode and anotherthereis
a break; somethingcannotbe half-feudal and half-capitalist;
economicprocessesactuallywork differently fromcapitalistones.
But iftwomodescoexistin one society,theywillhavesomeinfluence
on each other,and, further, one will be dominant:thatis, one will
determinethegroundrulesforthewholesocialformation; otherwise
the formationwould not be an economic whole. Normallythe
dominantmodeofproductionis thatwhichhas theclosestlinkswith
thestate;ifanothermodeis comingto be dominantin theformation,
and has not yet takenover the state- as withcapitalismin (say)
earlyseventeenth-century England- it will tendto undermineit,
and thestateformwill tendeventuallyto changeaccordingly, often
violently,as a resultof class struggle.Our terminalpointin thelate
Romantraditionis not,then,simplythefeudalmodeofproduction,
buta societydominated bythefeudalmodeofproduction,the"feudal
social formation",the point wherewesternEuropean stateswere
feudal, not just theireconomies; and the feudal state became a
naturalconsequenceof social developmentafterthe pointwhenin
the arrayof modes existingin the late empire,the feudal mode
became dominant.9
* * *

The starting-pointforour analysesis the late empire,the so-called

the finaltriumph,of the Roman state. We start,that is to say,
whenthe slave plantationsof thefirstcenturyhad alreadyvirtually
disappeared,thoughsome may have continuedhere and there.10
Instead, dependentcultivationwas by now carriedout through
9 PerryAnderson'sfailureto maintainthe mode of production/social formation
distinctionis whatliesbehindhiscuriousdenialthatthefeudalmodeexistedanywhere
betweenthe Euphratesand the Sea of Japan;it did exist,but it did not dominate in
any social formation:P. Anderson,Lineagesof theAbsolutist State (London, I974),
PP. 397-431; cf. the criticismsby P. Q. Hirst, "The Uniqueness of the West",
Economyand Society,iv (1975), pp. 446-75 (an articleof Hirst'swhichforonce, as
should be evident,I agree withalmosttotally),and by Wickham,"Uniqueness of
the East".
10Finley,AncientSlaveryand ModemIdeology,pp. 123-49;Carandini,Anatomia
della scimmia,pp. I28-35; Kolendo, Agricoltura nell'Italia romana,introduction,
pp. xliv ff.,liv-lv;M. Corbier,"ProprietAe gestionedella terra:grandeproprieti
fondiariaed economiacontadina",in Giardinaand Schiavone(eds.), Societaromana
e produzione i, pp. 427-44, and iii, pp. 236-7, 262-4. The majorrecent
surveysof the crisisof the thirdcenturyand the slave mode
movingto the(feudal)colonateare Schtajerman, KrisederSklavenhalterordnung, esp.
pp. 23-134, and M. Mazza, Lottesocialie restaurazione autoritaria, 2nd edn. (Bari,
1973), pp. II9-216. Dockes, Medieval Slaveryand Liberation,pp. 77-90, puts the
whole process too late.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
tenants,thatis organizedthroughthe feudalmode of production.
There were certainlystill verymany slaves, but those slaves had
been turnedintotenants,and thuscontrolledtheland and theirown
workprocess.In addition,we beginto encounterfreetenants(coloni)
in the textsmore and more, oftenat levels of veryconsiderable
personaldependence;the giantlandownersof the fourthand fifth
centuriesincreasingly reliedon them.1 But thefeudalmodedid not
dominatesociety. The dominantsourceof surplusextraction in the
late empirewas not rent,but tax.
The weightoftaxationin thelateempireis wellknown,and often
used as a standardformulain discussionsof whythe empirefell.
But taxationwas not just heavyand extremely burdensome;it was
the basis of the stateand the key elementin the whole economic
system,theinstitution thatdetermined thedirectionoftheeconomy
and definedthe dominantmode of production,whichcan stillbe
called the ancientmode. It has been said that the ancientmode
dominatedthe groupingof modes currentin thelate republic,only
to be displacedbytheslavemodein theperiodfromthefirstcentury
B.C. to thesecondcentury A.D.; ifso, itnowdominated again.Indeed,
as we shallsee shortly,despitethecentralizing tendenciesofthelate
empire,tax was stillraisedthroughindividualcities.But tax-raising
in complex societies can rarelyexist in a vacuum; other modes
of exploitationtend to coexist and theircorrelationis of crucial
importance.The correlationand its dominanceby tax in late Rome
can and mustbe analysedin a numberof ways,forwe have to see
how the late Roman social formation was constructedfromit if we
wantto understandhow it fell.
The importanceof tax-raising was bothquantitativeand qualita-
tive,and I shalldiscussthesein turn.The institutional detailsofthe
late Roman tax systemsare incrediblycomplexand do not concern
us here (the exact mechanismsare also still disputed). The basic
elementwas a land tax, oftentermedannonaor (in termsof assess-
ment) iugatio/capitatio, essentiallyassessed on the area of land a
man possessed. Other taxes, particularlythe collatiolustralison
merchants'propertyand a varietyof tolls and customs,were in
themselveshighbutproduceda tinyproportion ofimperialrevenues
(Jones made a famous calculation based on the tax returnsof three
widely different cities in various years around A.D. 500 that the
collatiolustralistook some 5 per cent of the amount taken in
annona- thestatisticsare shoddy,buttheestimateconvincing);my
1 For coloni,A. H. M. Jones,TheLaterRomanEmpire,284-602(Oxford,1964),
pp. 781-823,is basic; see also A. H. M. Jones,TheRomanEconomy(Oxford,1974),
chs. 14, 21. For the growthof private(quasi-seigneurial)powersoverpeasants,see
n. 24 below. Even Jonesmayoverplaytheimportanceof slaves: thereis littlereason
to think,forexample,thatMelania's slave villages(Jones,LaterRomanEmpire,pp.
793 ff.)were not all tenants.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

argumentswill all be based on the land tax.12The land tax seems

to have been leviedevenlyon all landed property, whetherlargeor
small, thoughtherewere considerableregionalvariationsin inci-
dence, and in some provincesaccount may have been taken of
fertility.It was certainly
nota progressive tax; indeed,as senatorial,
bureaucraticand ecclesiasticallandownerswere immunefromthe
frequentsupplementary levies(or superindictions),
site is true. The annonawas levied in kind, unlikeearlyimperial
taxes(thoughsometimesassessedin termsof money),at leastuntil
the earlyfifthcenturywhenits organizationalteredand it began to
be largelytaken in gold again.13The land tax was at firsttaken
directlyfromall free cultivators,or fromtheirlandlordsif the
cultivatorswere slaves. The institutional processwas thus totally
distinctfromthatof rent-taking, even wherethe cultivatorwas a
tenant.Only fromthe 370s, perhaps,did tenantsbeginto pay tax
throughtheirlandlordsiftheyownedno land independently; in the
fifthcenturysuchtax-paying throughowners,ratherthanpossessors,
of land became generalized.
What concernsus here in our assessmentof the heavinessof
taxationis not its absolute weight,togetherwith a calculationof
whatharmthisdid to the productiveness of theeconomy,whichis
whatis usuallydone (and it was high,and it probablydid do harm,
ifless thanJonesthought),but whattherelativeweightof taxation
to rent-paying was. The firstpoint is that tax was levied on all
landowners, and theydid not pay rent.Peasantproprietors are an
undiscoverableproportionof the empire,but theywereprobablya
considerablepercentage,maybe in some marginalprovincesstill
numerically dominant- a morethantrivialsectorofthepopulation
even in Italy,wherelarge estateswere probablystrongest.Where
peasantshad to pay tax and rent,theproportional relationbetween
thetwois, needlessto say,difficult toestimate,butwe do surprisingly
enoughhave some figures.The mostdetailedtwo are forthe sixth
century,whichallow us to workout almostexactproportions, one
12 For detailsand see Jones,LaterRomanEmpire,pp. 411-69,819-23
(p. 465 forthe collatiolustraliscalculation),whichsums up all previousknowledge.
The best analysisof the role of taxationin the earlyempireis K. Hopkins, "Taxes
and Trade in the Roman Empire",Jl. RomanStudies,lxx (1980), pp. 101-25. For
further explorationand bibliography, see A. Cerati,Caractereannonaireetassiette de
l'imp6tfoncierau bas-empire (Paris, I975), withreviewby A. Chastagnolin Latomus,
xxx (1971), pp. 495-501. W. Goffart, Caput and Colonate:Towards a Historyof Late
Roman Taxation(Phoenixsupplementary vols., xii, Toronto, I974), reassessesthe
development of tax The
liability. state was a landowner on a giant scale too, it must
be remembered.
13 Jones,Later Roman Empire,p. 460; Cerati, Caractereannonaire et assiettede
l'imp6tfoncier,pp. 81-94. The returnto gold is veryodd; theamountof commercial
transactions therewould have to have been to getthemoneyto pay taxesis certainly
not reflectedin our evidence.Possible incompleteexplanationsincludeforcedsales
to the state and de facto paymentsin kind, but the problemdoes some harm to
argumentsin Hopkins. "Taxes and Trade in the Roman Empire", esp. pp. I23-4.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

in a completetax registerfromAntaeopolisin Egyptforperhaps

527, theotherfroma stategrantto thechurchofRavennafromcirca
555. The Antaeopolisfiguresshow us tax assessmentsin kind and
moneytotallingbetweena quarterand a thirdofaveragegrossyields,
and thusbetweenhalfand two-thirds of thewholesurplusnormally
due fromtenantsin Egypt(50 per centbeingthe commonestrent,
the landownerpayingthe taxesout of it). Tax is thusequivalentto
up to twiceas muchas rent.At Ravennathetax:rentratiois explicit
in thetext,forthelandlordhad to collectbothand pass thetax on;
theratiocomes to 57:43. This is a lot of tax. Landlordsin the sixth
centurywere gettingto keep under halfthe surplus.Exactlyhow
representative thefiguresare we of coursecannotsay,but Italyand
Egyptare certainlynot amongtheprovinceswhererentis regarded
as havingbeen light;eveniftaxwas higherin Egyptthanelsewhere,
as is possible,the relationshipbetweentax and rentshouldnot be
regardedas unusual. The quantitativedominanceof tax-collecting
in theempire,even whereit was in oppositionto rent,is as clearas
it is ever likelyto be, giventhe figuresusuallyat our disposalfor
thelateempire.Independentpeasantspaid at leasttheratesoutlined
in these texts(the Antaeopolisfiguresare forownersand tenants
alike) and oftenmore,fortheRavennatextis forpartiallyprivileged
churchland. At such levels,overa quarterof grossyieldswill have
gone in tax - at a guess, oftenover halfthe surplus(thatis, after
seed and subsistence),and certainlyover Ioo per centin bad years.
The figuresare exceptional,but thereis no reasonnot to takethem
seriously;some taxmayneverhave been paid, but,equally,corrupt
collectorsin otherplaces are knownto have extractedmorethanthe
theoretical norm.However,we mustask whenthesetaxlevelscame
in. The Antaeopolisregister,if the date is right,precedesthe tax
riseswhichwere intendedto pay forthe wars of Justinian'sreign,
and probablyrepresentsa tax level typicalforsome time. On the
otherhand, earlyfourth-century tax levels,at least in Egypt,were
probablysomewhatlower. The rise of an alreadyhighland tax to
theseremarkablelevels almostcertainlybegan to occurin thelater
fourthcenturywiththe beginningof the wars, and in the case of
Egypt,thegrowthin thepopulationofConstantinople; perhapsonly
thendid tax begin actuallyto surpassrent.14
For figuresand analysis,see Jones,LaterRomanEmpire,pp. 464, 819-23;Jones,
RomanEconomy,chs. 4, 8. The Antaeopolisfiguremay be forcorn land only; that
forRavennais in money,and a global calculation.The Antaeopolisfigureis recently
underattackfromC. R. Whittaker, "Inflationand theEconomyin theFourthCentury
A.D.", in C. E. King (ed.), ImperialRevenue,Expenditure and Monetary Policyin
theFourthCentury A.D. (Brit.Archaeol.Reports,Internat.ser.,lxxvi,Oxford,1980),
pp. 7-9, citingA. C. Johnsonand L. C. West, ByzantineEgypt:EconomicStudies
(Princeton,1949). Johnsonand West (pp. 234-40,275-80) presenttheirevidencein
a confusingmanner,but thelow ratesWhittaker citesare forkind-taxalone; Johnson
and West (p. 280), afterexcludingsome special levies thatJonesdoes not exclude,
agreeon global tax figuresclose to Jones's,and the "betweena quarterand a third"
ofmytextrepresentsa rangethatincludesboth.JonesattackstheJohnsonand West
(cont.onp. 12)

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The relativequantityof taxationvaried,thoughafterDiocletian
it was alwayshigh. But the quantitativedominanceor near-domin-
ance of taxationas a mode of appropriation of the surplusmustby
itselfhave integratedthe late empireintoa singlesocial formation,
despite considerableregionaldifferences. Taxation coexistedwith
othermodes,certainly - we havejustseenitsclosecoexistencewith
rent,the feudalmode - but it soon outweighedthem.And thisis
seen even moreclearlyin qualitativeterms;tax, and throughit the
state,came to dominatethe whole structureof the economy.The
social relationsof productionwerealignednot withtheinterestsof
the landlordbut withthoseof the state.This is best shownby the
state'sconcernto tie peasantsto the land. Landlordshad triedto
subjecttenantsin thiswayin theearlyempire,throughdebtbondage
and forcedrenewalof leases, probablywith some success despite
the intermittent hostilityof the state. (The hostilitywas perhaps
surprising since thesame problemoftenaroseon statelands.) When
it was in the state'sinterestto forcepeasantsto remainwherethey
were and get taxed, it did so throughmassivebouts of legislation.
Not thatpeasantproprietors and moreindependentcoloniwereoften
in practiceboundbysuchlaws; as withthesimilarlawstyingartisans
to theirprofessions,therewas widespreadevasion.But thereis no
doubtabouttheseriousnessoftheattemptmadebythestate,at least
at itsheight,to exercisecontroloverthemostsubjectpeasantstrata.
It mayevenbe thatthefourth-century statesometimes exercisedmore
themselves.Exactlyhow thiswould have affectedthework-process
is less easy to determine.The statecertainlyexactedlabourservice,
which was only veryrarelyrequiredby landlordsin the Roman
world.But in generaltheeffectmayhavebeen slight.It is important
to rememberthat,apart fromthe slave mode, all exploitativepre-
capitalistmodes are based on peasantagriculture;theworkprocess
ofthepeasantry, and eventheirproductiveforces,arenotnecessarily
affectedby changesin the appropriationof the surplus(and thus
the social relationsof production),althoughthe whole mode of
productionwill be different if thesedo so change.As we shall see,
(n. 14 cont.)
figuresprettyconvincingly in a review:Jl. HellenicStudies,lxxi (1951), pp. 27I-2.
There are, however,muchlowerfiguresforearlyto midfourth-century Egypt,with,
if I understandit right,less certainevidence:Johnsonand West,ByzantineEgypt,
pp. 234-5; A. K. Bowman, "The of
Economy Egypt in theEarlierFourth Century",
in King (ed.), ImperialRevenue,pp. 28-31. (I have to confessthatEgyptianpapyri
are quite beyond me; it would be nice to have all this more clearlyanalysed.)
Whittakeris tryingto show thattax did not by itselfdestroythe Roman economy
("Inflationand Economy", pp. 1-22); thispartof his argumentis fairenough.Cf.
also his "Agrideserti",in M. I. Finley(ed.), Studiesin RomanProperty (Cambridge,
1975), pp. 137-63,withGoffart, Caput and Colonate,pp. 67 n., 137 n. Foraboschi,
"Fattorieconomici",pp. 94-5, makesthe nice pointthatthe economicproductivity
that tax is underpinningis successfulwarfareby the state, and that tax is only
unproductivewhen this stops.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

peasants certainlyintervenein the struggleforhow much of the

surplustheyare obligedto surrender,and to whom,but landlords
and thestateseldomhavemuchdirecteffect on howpeasantsactually
organize the of
farming land, untilthe onset of agrariancapitalism
(though they can sometimes controlthe location of labour - as
in demesne farming- typesof crop, and so on, which in some
circumstancescan producetechnicaladvance).15
Taxationdominatedtheeconomyandwas theeconomicfoundation
forthe state.Nothingin the late Roman economicsystemescaped
the state's embraces. Long-distancecommerce,for example,was
verylargelydependenton the stateas a customer,as well as being
stronglyconditionedby regulationsand oftenby requisitionsthat
servedthe state'sinterests.Jonesshowedthisveryclearly,and his
analysis,thoughunderestimating thesize of late Romancommerce,
still stands. Commerceand the state continuedto keep a close
relationship, thatis to sayof statedominance,up to theCarolingian
periodand well beyond;statepatronagecould alwaysbringa mer-
chant fargreaterwealththan anythingas ordinaryas commercial
The stateneeded all themoney(or food)it tookin taxes.It had a
lot to spend it on: the army,firstand mostobviously,particularly
withthebeginningofthemajorperiodofGermanicinvasionsin the
late fourthcentury;thevastcentraland provincialbureaucracytoo;
also the provisioningof the great cities of the empire(especially
Rome and Constantinople);manypublic works(decorativeas well
as military);and extrassuch as the corn reservesforfaminerelief
maintainedby mostresponsiblegovernments, like thatoftheOstro-
gothsin Italy. The statewas the basis forwealthand powerin the
late empire. Even the fabulouslyrich Italian senatorsof the fifth
Earlyimperialtying:see, forexample,Finley,AncientSlavery,pp. I43-4. Late
Rome: Jones,LaterRomanEmpire,pp. 796-803,withJones,RomanEconomy,ch.
2I. Roman labour service: see p. 31 below. For an ideologicalaspect of the state
controlof the social system,the Roman preoccupationwithstratification, see, for
example,K. Hopkins, "Elite Mobilityin theRomanEmpire",Past and Present,no.
32 (Dec. 1965), pp. 12-26, and p. 23 below. On peasants,see forexampleR. H.
Hilton,Bond Men Made Free (London, 1973), pp. 25-62; R. H. Hilton,TheEnglish
Peasantryin theLaterMiddleAges(Oxford,1975), pp. 3-I9. Peasantstabilityhas led
people, under Chayanov's influence,to say that whetherlandlordsor the state
appropriated thesurplusis irrelevant(see E. Patlagean,Pauvreteeconomique
sociale i Byzance,4e-7esiecles(Paris, 1977), pp. 271-96,and n. 36 below); thisdoes
notseem to me to be helpful.Nor does thevogueamongMarxistsfora Chayanovian
"peasant mode of production"(forexampleCook, reviewcitedn. 6 above, pp. 376-
86, forreferences),at least as currently formulated.See Wickham,"Uniqueness of
the East", forfurtherdiscussion.
16 Jones,LaterRoman Empire,pp. 824-72. For commerce,cf. the vast Mediter-
ranean availabilityof AfricanRed Slip potteryin the late empire(Jones always
ignoredarchaeology):J. W. Hayes, Late RomanPottery (London, 1972),pp. 414-27,
fora survey.On post-Romanstatecontrol,see, forexample,G. Duby, The Early
GrowthoftheEuropeanEconomy:Warriors and PeasantsfromtheSeventhtotheTwelfth
Centuries, trans.H. B. Clarke (London, 1974), pp. 57-70, 97 ff.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

centurycould not ignoreits patronageand the potentialfor the

corruptexploitation ofitsresources;thewholearistocratic hierarchy
was structured roundit,and therewas no socialpositionindependent
ofit. Its fundsdependedon thegoodwillofno power-group, at least
at first;theywere collecteddirectly.Its moneyunderpinnedevery
culturalactivity- learning,religion,rhetoric,theleisurenecessary
forthe belles-lettrescultureof Ausoniusand his circle,the gigantic
buildings of the late empire.If thereis any unifyingfactorin late
Roman historyit is here, in the state; the only culturaltraditions
thatsurviveditsfallwerethosethatcouldstillcarryon on themoney
takenfromlandowning.It is notsurprising thatmostearlymedieval
elite cultureresidedin the orbitof the church,alreadythe largest
land-owninginstitutionin the west afterthe state itself(and the
church,unlikethepost-Romanstate,wouldnotbe prodigalwithits
Despite theweightand centralization of thestate,it did notexist
on itsown as thesole focusofpublicpowerand wealth;itwas firmly
anchoredin the citiesof theempire.The empirehad alwaysbeen a
cellularstructurebased on citiesand theirterritories (and creating
them where necessary,in Gaul or Britain,for example). Early
imperialmunicipiawere in theorysovereign,withtheirown local
senates (or curiae)and tax-collecting mechanisms,and with their
own local aristocraciesand public buildingprogrammesand local
patriotism.These citiesand theirelitesdominatedtheirruralterrit-
ories in the economicas well as politicalaspects thatformedthe
ancientmode of production.All Diocletianand his successorsdid
was to partiallyregularizeand vastlyincreasethe taxes thatsuch
urbanelitestook,sometimesat theexpenseof theelitesthemselves.
The membersof the curia, the curialesor decuriones, were still
responsiblefortax-collecting (exceptforcentralgovernment superin-
dictions),and had to underwrite uncollectedtaxes.Theycomplained
often;and moderntearshave oftenbeen shed at the plightof the
curiales,grounddownwithrelentlesstaxation.Such tearsare out of
place; manycurialesactuallydid quite well out of tax-collecting, in
whichtheopportunities forself-enrichment wereso vast,despitethe
dangersposed bythecentralgovernment tax-collectors,whocoerced
themand cut intotheirprofits.But the centralcollectorswerefew.
The empirewas large; the statecould not collectmosttaxesexcept
throughcivic officials.And thoughcitieshad lost theirpositionof
financialand politicalindependence,an ultimatelysuperstructural
change,theywere stillthefinancialexploitersand fociof theirown
territories,and much money stayed in cities as a resultof tax-
collecting,both unofficially It is thisurbanfocusfor
and officially.
surplusextractionthatis theclearestsignthatit is stillusefulto call
the taxationprocessthe ancientmode of production.Each citywas

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
the statein microcosm.Though civic officehad formanyreasons
lost its attraction,the cityas an institution was stillstrong.Even
provincialsenators,technically officialsof Rome, notof theirnative
city,feltideologicallybound to theirown municipium; patriameant
both the empireand one's own local city.To the ideologuesof the
late empire,citylifeand culturewas the onlypossiblecivilization.
When the statefell,conflictsexpressedthemselvesas oftenon the
level of the local stateas on the level of centralgovernment.Cities
were in fact in ideological termseven more lastingthan central
government, at leastin theMediterranean west;thestatein theend
survivedonlyon the level of the city,as we shall see.17

The ancientmode mayhave seemedall powerfulin its Diocletianic
form,but it was actuallyin manyways fairlyfragile,and between
circa400 and circa600 it collapsedin thewesternpartsoftheempire;
thiscollapse is the crux of my article.It mustneverbe forgotten,
however,thatthe empiredid not fall in the east, and in my final
sectionI willpose thecontrasting historyofByzantium,in inevitably
summary fashion.
The particularvulnerability oftheancientmodelayin itsrelation-
ship to privatelanded property,in this instancethe feudalmode,
thoughthe same problemshad posed themselvesless drasticallyin
theperiodof theriseof theslavemode. The stategave considerable
wealth to those who controlledit, thanksto taxation,but in an
economicsystemas undevelopedas the ancientworld even at its
height,therewas not much that could be done with this wealth
exceptput it into land. As the rich obtainedland, however,they
also obtainedtaxliability.Theirprivateinterests as landownerswere
thusin contradiction withtheirinterestsas rulersand clientsof the
state. If theirlands were large, theirprivateinterestsoutweighed
theirpublic ones. And althoughthe financialresourcesof the state
werestilla powerfulfocusof loyaltythroughtheirpotentialities for
enrichment, thedirectcommitment to privateownershipofproperty
tendedto be a firmerforcethan the more mediatedopportunities
offered bycontroloverstateresources.The richbegansystematically
to evade taxation.The structures of the feudalmode were,in other
words,moresolid thantherivalstructures of theancientmode, for
On late Rome as the ancientmode: Hindess and Hirst,Pre-Capitalist Modesof
Production,pp. io6-8; Carandini,Anatomiadella scimmia,pp. I34-7. I differfrom
bothofthesein myanalyses.On citiesand taxation:Jones,LaterRomanEmpire,pp.
456-8, 732-57, and, for a major legal text from458, Novellae Maioriani, ii (in
the basic edn. of the Theodosian Code, Theodosianilibrixvi cum constitutionibus
sirmondianis, ed. T. Mommsen,2 vols, Berlin,I905, ii pp. I57-9). For Late Roman
urbanideology,classic instancesare Ausonius,Ordo nobiliumurbium:Burdigala,or
SidoniusApollinaris,Epistolae,v. 20, vii. 9, 15, viii. 8, etc.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

thosewiththe chance to choose betweenthem.What happenedin

the fifthcentury,to be schematic,was thatthe barbarianinvasions
gave the westernaristocracyforthe firsttimethispoliticalchoice,
betweenthe two poles of the contradictions: on the one hand, the
Romanstateand itspatronage,whichwas becomingmoreand more
expensiveas morearmieswerethrownagainstthebarbarianthreat,
and less worthwhileas the armieslost ground;on the otherhand,
the possibilityof goingit alone on the basis of property-owning in
the contextof the newlyformingGermanicsuccessor-states. They
chose the latter. These states were cruder,but in that measure
less capable of maintainingthe financialstructureof the empire;
aristocratsmay also have expectedthem to interfere less in local
affairs.Not that manyof themwould have seen it consciouslyin
theseterms;thechoicewas theend resultofactionsmoreoftenmade
to avoid conflictand taxation- war and taxationbeingthe major
aspectsof the empire,however.
Marxists,whatevertheir standpoints,never doubt that major
changesin the economicstructureof societyare mediatedthrough
class struggle,betweenthe classes dependenton the old structure
and thosedependenton thenew. Tax-evadingaristocrats are notthe
mostinstantly sympathetic heroesof such struggle.Such aristocrats
were indeed protagonists,but not the only ones. Their interests
would have been only marginalbut for the intervention of the
peasantry.The peasantrycannothave had much love forthe late
Romanstate,ofcourse.But itwas as yetimpossibleforthemto have
much conceptionof whatlifemightbe like withoutit. There were
relativelyfewunambiguouspeasantrevoltsin the late empire;all,
tookplace in northern
interestingly, Gaul and northern Spain,where
an independentpeasantry(perhapswith some survivingcollective
organization)was probablyrelatively strong.Such revolts,stagedby
groupsthatthe Romans usuallytermedBacaudae, occurredat the
weak pointsof statecontrol,at the end of the periodof the third-
centuryinvasions,and fromcirca 410 onwards,when the state
apparatuswas disruptedby the invasionof Gaul by the Vandal
confederacy.We know littleabout theiraims, and it is far from
certainthatall Bacaudae were peasants,but thereare hintsthatat
theheightoftheirsuccessin theearlyfifth century(theBacaudae of
thecirca41o Gallicrisingwerenotfullycrusheduntilthe440s) they
mayhaveorganizedsomeformofrelatively non-hierarchical political
apparatus.18Outside parts of Gaul and Spain, however,peasants
18 On a
varietyofmoreor less mediatedclass strugglesin lateRome, see G. E. M.
de Ste. Croix, The Class Strugglein theAncientGreekWorld(London, 1981), pp.
474-88; Dockes, Medieval Slaveryand Liberation,pp. 199-233, and passim. The
Romansseem to have runa consciousconspiracyof silenceabout theBacaudae, and
we knowalmostnothingaboutthem.See E. A. Thompson,"PeasantRevoltsin Late
RomanGaul and Spain", Past andPresent,no. 2 (Nov. 1952), pp. I1-23. For medieval
parallels,see Hilton,Bond Men Made Free. For modernparallels,E. J. Hobsbawm,
PrimitiveRebels(Manchester,I959), pp. 57-92; and (forCanudos, AntonioConsel-
(cont.onp. 17)

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
who rejectedthe state did so in a less autonomousmanner;they
ended up in the hands of the aristocracy.
The key to thisis containedin the growthof privatepatronage,
patrocinium. Patronagewas an old relationshipeverywhere in the
Mediterranean, but as a seriousproblem for thelate Roman state it
beginsto cropup in our textsfromthe 360s onwards,in Egyptand
Syria,and thenin the440s in Gaul. Peasantswerebeginningto enter
the clientelesof richneighboursin orderto avoid havingto pay the
ever-increasing taxes.A wholesectionoftheTheodosianCode deals
withthisprocess;landownersoffering suchpatronageareto be liable
fortheunpaidtaxes,and therelationship is madevoid. This we read
in six laws datingfrom360 to 4I5; thelast (a law forEgypt)finally
concedes the realityof patronage,but, a littlehopelessly,insists
on tax-payingnonetheless.An orationof Libanius fromthe 380s
describesvillagersin Syriaactivelyseekingout militaryprotectors
to avoid tax-paying (and in factin thecase of Libanius' own tenants,
to avoid payingrent too, thoughthis is a different process, the
supersessionofone aristocratic elitebyanother).These areall eastern
examples,not western;theyshow thatthisparticularcrisiswas not
confinedto thewest.For thewestwe haveSalvian,writing a religious
tractagainstthe timesin the 440s in Gaul. Salvianrails,in striking
rhetoric,againstthe inequalitiesof taxation.The poor have to face
moresupplementary taxes thanthe rich,and are thelast to benefit
fromrebatesand the cancellationof arrears.Taxationforcesmen,
eventheeducated,to fleeto thebarbariansor to theBacaudae. And,
stillmore, it forcesthe poor to give theirpropertyto the rich in
exchangeforpatrocinium, protectionagainsttax-paying, and receive
it back as tenants;worse yet, theythen findtheyare still liable
forthe taxes. This text is not the less clear forbeing rhetorical:
independentpeasantsare preparedto become tenantsratherthan
pay taxes. They do so, presumably,on the assumptionthattheir
patrons/landlords are goingto be powerfulenough,whetherinside
the stateor outsideit, to evade thesetaxes. When thisis not true,
thepeasants'hopes are greatlydeceived,fortheyend up payingtax
as well as rent,but thislast twistis less importantthanthe major
point:thatrent-paying is to manypeasantspreferable to tax-paying.
This is not surprisingif Jones'stax:rentratiosare applicablehere
(as by the fifthcenturytheyprobablyare), fortax actuallytakes
morethanrent.But at theleastit meansthatat a momentofrelative
crisisin Gaul (for therewas war in Gaul throughoutthis period,
thoughnot going too badly for the empire),peasants as well as
(n. I8 cont.)
heiro'segalitarianstatein Brazil of the I89os), M. I. Pereirade Quieroz, "Messiahs
in Brazil", Past and Present,no. 31 (July 1965), pp. 62-86; R. Faco, Cangaceirose
fandticos:genesee lutas(Rio de Janeiro,1963), pp. 4I-7I, 90-122, a referenceI owe
to Paulo Farias.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

landlordswerepreparedto choosefeudalsocialrelationsratherthan
the ancientrelationsexpressedthroughtax. Benefitsfromthe state
had neverjustifiedthe weightof taxesin the eyesof peasants,and
nor did they any longer for landlords. Tax evasion spread; the
imperialmachinebegan to be starvedof funds.Large-scalelanded
property increasedtoo,partlyindeedthroughtheextensionofpatron-
age, thusincreasingthe possibilitiesof tax evasion.A viciouscircle
ensued, a fatalinvolutionof the state.19
Contradictions do not necessarilyget pushed to the pointwhere
something breaks.Tax evasionin theeastdid notlead to thecollapse
ofthestate.The difference in thewestwas provided,as I have said,
by the Germanic invasions. These were essentiallyan external,
almostcontingent force;but theycrackedthestructure ofthestate.
Indeed, theydefeatedit militarily,at least in the Vandal conquest
of Africaafter429 and the Visigothic-Frankish take-overof Gaul
and Spain afterthe 460s. The fifth-century wars kept the army
sufficientlyoccupied to make mass tax evasiona politicallypractic-
able activitytoo. But initiallythe barbarianscaused a crisis of
ideologicalhegemony, fromwhichmuchof thereststemmed.In the
earlyfifthcentury,writersforthefirsttimebeginto givetheimpres-
sion thatthe durationof the Roman empiremightbe finite;hardly
ever,even in the third-century invasions,had theydone that.The
sack of Rome in 4I0 by the Visigoths,thougha trivialdetailin the
militaryhistoryof the fifthcentury,gave manypeople (including
Augustineof Hippo) a sense of thepossibleend of theempire.The
settlementof the defeatedVisigothsin Aquitainein 418, though
perhapsa strategicvictoryfortheRomanstate(and byno meansthe
firstadmissionof barbariansettlers),introducedforthefirsttimea
stable semi-independent foreignbody into the "civilized" world.
The possibilityof alternativepolitiesbecame more than a mirage.
The third-century invasionshad producedlocal secessions- theso-
called "Gallic" empirebeingthe mostimportant - but thesewere
faithfulscale models of the empire,and controlledby men who
were,at leastin principle,aimingat universalrule. This was incon-
ceivable to the German kings, the occasional pipe-dreamapart;
howeverRoman theycould make theirstates,thesewere not the
empire.It is sometimesevenpossiblethatlocal aristocrats, alienated
by the rigidand rapaciousfiscal-administrative of the
19TheodosianCode, xi. 24.I-6 (ed. Mommsen,i, pp. 613-15);Libanius,Orationes,
xlvii.4-17 (thestandardcommentary forbothoftheseis F. de Zulueta,De Patrociniis
vicorum, Oxford,I909); Salvian,De guberationedei,iv. 20-I, 30-I, v. 17-45(ed. G.
Lagarrigue,Sourceschretiennes, ccxx,Paris, 1975); cf.NovellaeMaioriani,ii. 4 (ed.
Mommsen,ii, p. I59). Secondaryworks:Patlagean,Pauvreteeconomique etpauvrete
sociale,pp. 287-96 (by farthe most sensitiveanalysis);Jones,LaterRomanEmpire,
pp. 773-81; Foraboschi,"Fattorieconomici",pp. 73-83; Whittaker,"Inflationand
the Economy",pp. I3-I4.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

empire,mayhave foundthe new Germanpolitiesa moreattractive

prospect,the crisis in hegemonyhere producinga crisis in the
legitimacyof the empire.There is evidence,at least in Gaul in the
460s, of actual politicaldisloyaltyby some major politicalfigures.
(Peasantstoo made thischoiceoftenenoughforit to becomea cliche
of the period.) More often,however,the same resultwas produced
less consciously,throughthe unintendedconsequenceof regional
self-interest and throughthesurrender
and factionalizing ofpolitical
leadersto whatnow seemedthe inevitableGermanvictoryin order
to protecttheirprivateinterests.None ofthesereactionswouldhave
helpedthepreparednessofthearistocracy to pay tax. The stategrew
weakerby the same measure.It was shortof moneyfromthe very
startofthefifth century,butmattersgotworse.In 444-5,Valentinian
III, in one of the mostindicativelaws of the late empire,confessed
that the "exhausted circumstancesand afflictedconditionof the
state"made it impossibleforhim to pay the army,and thathe felt
it impossibleto increasethelandtax- he puta taxon sales,instead,
thoughhow muchit raisedis moredoubtful.The Vandalswerenow
totallyin command of Africa,the west's principalgranary,and
Valentinian'sproblemslargelystemmedfromthis,but thedevelop-
mentsdescribedby Salvianmusthave pushed themout of control.
Majorianin 458 admitteddefeatso fullythathe remitted all outstand-
ingarrearsin taxationon thenominalgroundsofprovincialpoverty.
By the 470s, each regionof the west had its own barbarianrulers;
the unitarywesternstatehad ceased to exist.20
The new Germanicstateswere not yet feudal. The controlling
oligarchyin each of the successor-states sought to maintainthe
financialmechanismsoftheempireas faras theycould. This at least
shows thatno aristocratwho accepted Germanrule, more or less
reluctantly, could have done so withtheexpectationthatthisalone
wouldhave meanttheend ofthetax-gathering functions ofthestate.
Nearlyall thestatesin thewestin A.D. 500 leviedtaxes:theVandals
in Africa,theVisigothsin Spain and southernGaul, theOstrogoths
in Italy, the Burgundiansand Franks in south-eastand northern
Gaul. (By now we knownothingabout Britain.)Such taxationwas
successfulaccordingto the measureof the internalstrengthof the
20 Some
approachesto thecrisisofhegemonyin F. Paschoud,Romaaeterna(Rome,
1967); cf. G. Alfoldy,"The CrisisoftheThirdCenturyas Seen byContemporaries",
Greek,Roman and ByzantineStudies,xv (1974), pp. 89-III. The immeasurably
convolutedpoliticsof the fifthcenturyare best seen in E. Stein, Histoiredu bas-
empire, 2 vols. (Bruges,1949-59), thoughthegroundrulesare now laid downbestin
J. Matthews,Western Aristocraciesand ImperialCourt,A.D. 364-425(Oxford,I975).
Laws: Novellae Valentiniani, xv (ed. Mommsen,ii, pp. 99-oo00; translation
Pharr, The TheodosianCode, Princeton,1952, p. 529); Novellae Maioriani,ii (ed.
Mommsen,ii, pp. I57-9). Ironically,Valentinian'snew tax,thesiliquaticum, was one
of thefewto surviveintotheearlymiddleages, in a packageof tollsthatstillexisted
in the twelfthcentury.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

kingdomsconcerned.The Ostrogoths, whosegovernmental mechan-

isms are well documented,were apparentlyrathermore successful
in Italy than any emperorsince the fourthcentury.We cannot,
however,expectthe same effectiveness in manyotherplaces. And
therewas now one crucialdifference: thefinancialbasisofthearmy.
The armyformedthemajoritemof expenditureforthelate Roman
state,and outside Italy (whereRome and the centralbureaucracy
were anchored)almostthe only reallysizeable item. The political
settlement of each Germanicstateassumed,however,thatthe Ger-
mans formedthe army,and these new armieswere based on the
land- thatis to say,on landowning.The majorexpenseofthestate
was removedat one blow. Taxationwas hereimmediately replaced
by rent: the logical conclusionof the refusalsand evasionsof the
past century.The Germanstookfromone-thirdto two-thirds ofthe
land, as it seems; thoughtheycannotpossiblyhave occupiedall the
lands of the empire (in Italy unsettledestatespaid tax instead),
the settlement was certainlynot necessarilysomethingthatRoman
aristocratsgreatlybenefitedfrom.Nonetheless,the balance of the
economyshifted.It is probably,as we shall see, by thispointthat
feudal relationshad become more importantthan ancient ones;
Germanswereless easy to evade thanimperialtaxes.And although
taxationcontinued,its scale was inevitablyrathersmaller.21
Taxation remainedessential to the early Germanicsuccessor-
states.The whole conceptionof statehoodavailableto the German
kingsof the fifthto sixthcenturiesinvolvedthe abilityto tax; the
firstmajor Germanicstate to exclude it did not appear until the
Lombardstook mostof Italyafter568. Ostrogothicand Visigothic
laws and administrative documentsshowthecontinuing importance
and organizationalcomplexityof the tax mechanisms.But withthe
armyseparatedfromcentralgovernmenttax-raising,the process
21 All this is opposed by W. Goffart,Barbariansand Romans,A.D. 418-584
(Princeton,I980), buthis basic argumentmustI thinkbe rejected.Goffart maintains
thatthe Goths and Burgundians,at least, maintainedtax levels,and gave to their
soldiersshares in the taxation-rights over individualproperties,not sharesin the
propertiesthemselves.But thetroubleis thatratherfewtextsevenhave a primafacie
readingto supportthis, no textsays it explicitly(and surelysome oughtto), and
severalexplicitlyoppose it - thus,forItaly,see Cassiodorus,Variae,ii. i6 (ed. T.
Mommsen,MonumentaGermaniaeHistorica[hereafter M.G.H.], Auctoresantiquis-
simi, 15 vols., Berlin, 1877-I9I5, xii, pp. 55-6). Goffart'sstrongestargument,the
curiouspassivityof the Romanswhentheirlands are expropriated, is bestexplained
by a generalfallin tax levels. The tax systemwas much weaker,and the Germanic
settlement was immeasurably morecomplexand disorganized,thanGoffart allows.
(Actually,even if Goffartwere right,it would not affectthe main argumentabove,
foreitherway theGermanicsettlement and
subtractedfunding responsibility forthe
armyfromthe statein favourof men who ended up as privatelandowners:Goffart,
Barbariansand Romans,pp. 206-30.) I am gratefulin thesemattersto discussions
withIan Wood.
It must be added thatthe levelof taxationin the Germanickingdomsis usually
totallyspeculative.The Ravenna figurecited above (p. iI) is fromthe periodafter
theByzantinereconquestofItaly,and reflects east Romanrates.But see n. 22 below.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

becamemoremarginal.This is best seen by lookingat thetaxation

of the successor-peoples in the west and the onlyone thathappens
to show an unbrokencontinuityof historicaldevelopmentinto a
period when tax was not seriouslyexacted. Frankishevidenceis
moreilluminating too, forunlikethatforthe Gothickingdomsit is
not restrictedto administrative idealizations;we have an idea of
people's reactionsto it.
There is no doubt thatthe Merovingiankingsleviedtheland tax
fora long time. Taxation and its problemsare a commonmotifin
Gregoryof Tours's worksin thelatersixthcentury,and in seventh-
centurysaints'lives. TheudebertI's tax-collector, the Roman Par-
thenius,was killed by the Trier mob at his king's death in 548.
ChilpericI's attemptsto exactnew and increasedtaxesbroughthim
an uprisingin Limoges in 579 and (Gregorysays) his children's
deathsfromplague in 580. Gregoryhimselfin 589 defendedthetax
exemptionof Tours thathis predecessorswon forthe city,but the
bishop of Poitiersin the same year foundit necessaryto get the
Poitierstax registersrevisedto rectifythe over-taxation of widows
and orphans.Tax was, then, still perceivedas heavy. It was also
universally unpopular.Bishopstriedtogetexemptionfortheircities,
and abbots did likewisefortheirmonasteries,usuallysuccessfully.
The seventh-century saints'lives underlinethis:not onlyincreased
taxationexcites the wrathof the saints, but any taxationat all.
Already,however,the sketchyindicationswe have indicatethattax
levelshad fallendramaticallyfromthe Roman period,to under 10
per centof crop. Globally,theeconomicdominanceof taxationhad
vanished.And popularassumptionsaboutthelegitimacy oftaxation
were utterlychangedtoo; even a tax level as relativelylightas this
was unacceptable.The Merovingianswerestrongand taxedas long
as theycould,whichis to saythroughout mostoftheseventhcentury
at least. But theycould nothide thefactthattaxationno longerhad
any purpose except the exaggeratedenrichmentof the kings; this
mustindeedexplainitsever-decreasing Therewas barely
anythingto spend it on any longer. The armywas landed; the
administration (exceptthetaxcollectionmechanismitself)was rudi-
mentaryby Roman standards;the vastfiscallands whichthekings
controlledwere enough for theireverydayneeds. The only thing
thatthetaxsystemwas good forwas to giveawayin gifts,particularly
as exemptionsto thechurch,forshort-(or long-)termpoliticalgain.
But in doing this, the Merovingianswere already speaking the
languageof feudalsocial relations.The land tax becamesimplyone
partoftheresourcesofthefisc,likean estateora toll;theMerovingi-
ans gave themawayindifferently. By theCarolingianperiodall that
was leftoftheland tax was a setoffragments withdifferent

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

names,like thetaxon cattle(inferenda)owed in seventh-and eighth-

centuryMaine and Poitou, or the osterstopha(an annualtribute)of
Alemanniaand the Rhineland,or the "tax of one fortieth",the
quadragesimale in (ex-Visigothic)
originswere lost to memory.22
* * *

What we have just looked at, in effect,are the main lines of the
historyof late Roman taxationin thewest.In therestofthissection
I shall tryto step back and describewhat has happenedin more
general,structuralterms,beforelayingout an impressionof the
initialpatternsof the feudal social formationthatemergedin the
The firstpointto be emphasizedis thatwe are not dealingwith
the simplereplacementof one mode of productionby another.The
ancientmode coexistedwiththe feudalmode in 300 and 700: that
is, surplusextractionwas takenin separableprocessesin both tax
and rent,theone goingto a distantpublicpower(mediatedthrough
thecitiesat leastwhiletheempirelasted),theothergoingto a more
immediate,thoughoftenabsentee,landlord.The relationshipsof
the cultivatorto the stateand to the landlordwere fundamentally
different,thedifferencebeingstilldescribablein termsoftheopposi-
tionbetweenpublic and private,on thelevelsof bothproperty and
finance,and also of loyalty,interestand obligation.Both modes,
then,coexisted- antagonistically - in the same social formation.
22 In
general,on Germantaxation,see F. Thibault'sstillusefularticlesin Nouvelle
revuehistorique de droitfrancaiset etranger,3rd ser., xxv (I901), pp. 698-728,xxvi
(I902), pp. 32-48, xxviii(I904), pp. 53-79, 165-96,xxxi(1907), pp. 49-71, 205-36.
For the Visigoths,see P. D. King, Law and Societyin the Visigothic Kingdom
(Cambridge,I972), pp. 62-77 (stateexpensesstillincludedsome garrisons),withC.
Sanchez-Albornoz,"El tributumquadrigesimale",in Melangesd'histoire du moyen
dge dediesa la memoire de Louis Halphen(Paris, 1951), pp. 645-58. For Franks,F.
Lot, L'imp6tfoncieret la capitation personellesousle bas-empire et a l'epoquefranque
(Bibliothequede l'Ecole des hautes etudes, Sciences historiqueset philologiques,
ccliii,Paris, I928), pp. 83-II8, is stillthemastersurvey.See also (fortheinferenda)
F. Lot, "Un granddomainea l'6poque franque:Ardinen Poitou", Cinquantenaire de
l'Ecole pratiquedes hautesetudes,2 vols. (Bibliothequede l'Ecole des hautesetudes,
Sciences historiqueset philologiques,ccxxx, Paris, I92I), ii, pp. I09-29, and the
instructive recentdiscussionof someof thewaystaxationbrokedownin W. Goffart,
"Old and New in MerovingianTaxation",Past and Present,no. 96 (Aug. I982), pp.
3-21. Gregoryof Tours, Historiafrancorum, iii.36, iv.2, v.28, 34, vii. 5, 23, ix.30,
x.7 (ed. B. Kruschand W. Levison,M.G.H., ScriptoresrerumMerovingicarum i.i,
Hanover,I885, pp. I3I-2, I36, 233-4,239-4I, 336-7,343-4,448-9,488). The io per
cent figurederivesfromLot's calculations(Impotfoncieret capitation pp.
85-6) of Chilperic'sattemptedtaxationof Limoges,if thefiguresare accurate(but is
ChlotarI reallytheninsistingon a thirdof churchrevenuesin the 54os?: Historia
francorum, iv.2). Tolls: F. L. Ganshof,"A proposdu tonlieusous les merovingiens",
Studiin onoredi Amintore Fanfani,6 vols. (Milan, I962), i, pp. 293-3I5. For theland
taxin LombardItaly,see references in C. J. Wickham,EarlyMedievalItaly:Central
Government and Local Society,400-Iooo (London, I98I), p. 40.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

Whathappened,as I have said, was simplythatthebalanceshifted;

the dominantmode shiftedfromancientto feudal.
We have to ask when thisoccurredand, indeed, how we would
know it had occurred.Since the whole forceof the shiftlies in its
effecton social structures, it is throughchangesin thesestructures
thatwe can see it happening.The changewas certainly notpurelya
quantitativeone, thatof the relativeweightof tax and rent;such a
claim would be extremely mechanistic,reducinga wholesystemto
a reflectionof a set of (undiscoverable)statisticalrelationships.
That tax came to be less economicallyimportantthanrentagain is
obviouslycrucial,but the key to the change-overlies mostof all in
how this came to be, and what it shows us about the relationship
betweenlandownersand the state. On the otherhand it would be
equallymisleadingto look forthe pointof changethroughanalysis
of the intentionsor ideologyof the stateitself,forthat,as we shall
see, continuedin as Roman a formas possibleuntilthe fallof the
Carolingians.We can see the change best throughthe controlthe
statehad over social relations.
The dominanceof the state as the ancientmode was directly
expressedthroughits organizationof social stratification. The ex-
ploitativeforcein theRoman statewas thepublicpower;statuswas
important preciselyin thatit regulatedaccessto thispowerand thus,
in its upper levels,to the resourcesof taxation- as well as, at the
otherend, the obligationto pay it. We have alreadyseen the state
controlling thelatterthroughthetyingofthepeasantry;thiscertainly
slipped out ofthecontrolof theGermanicstates.But thestate'sloss
of controlover aristocratic statusmakes the processclearer.In the
fourthcentury,hierarchyand status were legallytaut concepts,
linkedat theirupper levels directlyto stateoffice-holding (or else
senatorialoffice-holding, theoreticallypart of the state,but already
perhapspartiallydriftingout of governmental control).The cate-
gories most directlylinked to wealth on its own were extremely
vague (for example,honestior and humilior);it was the networkof
officialtitles,the categoriesmostusefulto the state,thatstratified
aristocraticsociety.In the sixthcentury,outsideOstrogothicItaly
perhaps,theydid not. The complicatedterminology forlateRoman
office-holding and senatorialhierarchy had disappeared.Gregoryof
Tours uses the wordsenatorforanymajorRoman landowner.Even
the veryRoman-lookingrivalriesforcityofficethathe describesin
his historiesare expressedlargelyin termsof the power-relations
and patronageoflandowners.23 Landownerswereseekingofficeand
23 Stratification:
Hopkins,"Elite Mobilityin theRomanEmpire",and Jones,Later
RomanEmpire,pp. 523-606,forthe empire;forFrankishGaul, Gregoryof Tours,
Historiafrancorum,passim,withK. F. Stroheker, Der senatorische
Adel imspatantiken
Gallien (Tiibingen, I948), pp. 112-I5.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

status,true, and this was in the giftof kings,but officewas not

soughtbecauseit carriedwithit an intrinsic to thestate;
itsvalue layratherin theland it broughtwithit. Increasingly, status
became almostmeaninglesswhen separatedfromlandowning,and
landowningbroughtstatusindependently ofroyalintervention.Only
the most powerfulof the Carolingianscould give men officeand
power withoutgivingthem land, and even then only in central
government.The directstateinvolvementin and controlof status
was by now losteven to thestrongest government. The shiftcan be
simplyexpressedin materialterms:a fourth-century unless
exceptionallyand personallyrich, did in factgain more fromhis
officein termsof wealthand statusthanhe did fromlandowning.
From the sixthcentury,however,this was only true in so faras
officesbroughtland; in the long run thesetwo becamethe same.
For most of the west, this keeps the point of shiftin the fifth
century,whichis not surprising,althoughit is inconvenient, forit
is by fartheobscurestofthelateRomancenturies.The fifth century
was the pointin whichthe powerof the stateover the relationsof
productionwas broken,at least in Gaul. (In Italythe changecame
later,withthewarsof 535-605.)Privatelandowningwas henceforth
no longerthe means to the obtainingof power;it was itselfpower.
We have seen thatlandownersevaded tax and thatthiscaused the
resources,and thustheattraction, ofthestateto dryup; a timecame
whentheysoughtto do thisnot onlythroughtheirmanipulation of
theirpositionsin the state, but directlythroughtheirpositionas
landowners.The exactmomentforthisis irrecoverable- historians
have been lookingforover a centuryfor the equivalentmoment
betweenfeudalismand capitalism,withoutsuccess- but I thinkit
could be regardedas implicitin Valentinian's444 decreeand Salvi-
an's perorations, whichsignificantly, unlikethoseofLibanius,cease
to mentionoffice-holding when they move fromthe subject of
taxationto thatof its evasion. Closer thanthatwe cannotget.24
At this point we have to returnto the problemof underlying
causes. It is clear thatthe changewas not inevitable,forit did not
happen in the east. Large-scalelanded propertywas, it is true,
probablymoreextensivein thewestthanin theeast,and extending
itselfindependentlyof the problemsof taxation,as landowning
peasantsresignedtheirlands whenmisfortune struckin theformof
bad harvestsor war; the balance between the state and private
landownership was less in thestate'sfavour.On theotherhand,the
major aristocraticfamilieswere more powerfulin the statein the
24 See et pauvretesociale,pp. 29I-6, foreastern
patronageas stillinsidethecontextofoffice-holding,and J. C. Percival,"Seigneurial
Aspects of Late Roman Estate Management",Eng. Hist. Rev., lxxxiv(1969), pp.
449-73, forthe "seigneurialization"of landlord-tenantrelations.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
fourthand fifth centuriesin thewestthanin theeast; theyhad more
ofa stakein it,evenifthisstakewas increasingly used in theirprivate
interests.To repeatpointsmade earlier:thewarstippedthebalance
by challengingthe statehead on; the statewas less advantageousto
thearistocracy as a protector
and a sourceofprofit, and itsideological
hegemony,as the naturaland inevitablefocusof politicalactivity,
was put intoquestion.As landowning(the feudalmode) was always
thereas the most solid elementin Roman society,the aristocracy
could retreatinto it. With even the aristocracywavering,the
peasantryhad theopportunity to reactas well, underpinning aristo-
craticactionsand inactions.By the timethe Germanicsettlement
eventuallycame, the dominanceof tax-raising was breakingup. It
must,however,be emphasizedthatthis is not an explanationfor
whytheempirewas replacedby Germanicsuccessor-states; thatwas
primarilya political and militaryproblem (though the revenues
availablefortheRomanarmy,as well as thepreparednessofRoman
peasants to serve, had somethingto do with it). It is, rather,an
explanationfor why, when this did happen, the successor-states
failedto take the formof Roman statesin microcosm,as in theory
they could easily have done and as OstrogothicItaly for a time
perhaps did.25 The Germanichierarchiesin each kingdomwere
certainlyromanizedenough(in social,ifnotculturalterms)to have
acceptedsuch a system.It is because thetax-raising mechanismsof
the empire,the basis of the ancientmode, werealreadyfailingthat
theGermanicarmiesendedup on theland. The Germanaristocracies
excludedmanymembersoftheRomanaristocracy fromstatepower,
and therefore oftenreplacedthemas patrons;buttheytooestablished
themselvesas a result,notas officialsbutas landowners.The impact
ofwarhad exposedthecontradictions existingin theheartofRoman
societyin thewest,and one mode gaineddominanceovertheother.
The motorsofsucha conjuncturearenotunknownelsewhere:Russia
in I917 has parallels.
One pointin conclusion,shouldbe veryapparentfromthisanaly-
sis: I do not considerthe feudal mode, or even the feudal social
formation,to be a "synthesis"betweenRoman and German,as
Andersonand otherswouldsay,and indeedas bothMarxand Engels
said morethanonce. Earlymedievalcultureand valueswereheavily
influencedby theGermans- theideologyoflordship,forexample,
ending up as vassalage; but that is a differentmatterentirely.
Feudalismwas alreadypresentin theRomanempireas a subsidiary
economicsystemlong beforethe Germanscame, and indeed in so
25 The tax
maynotyethave collapsedso farin Italy,whichstillhad
to feedRome and fundthecentralgovernment bureaucracies.The Ostrogothssettled
on the land, but Theoderic was able to re-establisha fairlyeffectivenetworkof
taxation,perhapsforthe firsttimein halfa centuryor more.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

faras the Germaninvadershad such thingsas a landedaristocracy,

these largelyresultedfromRoman influence.TraditionalGerman
societyhad once been quasi-egalitarian, with communalelements
thatlongpersisted;Marxsometimescalledthisa "Germanicmode",
and it was certainlya definablemode inside Marx's inadequately
analysedcongeriesof non-hierarchical systemsthat he called the
"primitivecommunist"mode,thoughto call itGermanicis probably
too restricting- indeed, the moremarginalcommunities of much
ofsouth-west Europemaintaineda similarquasi-egalitarian structure
focusedon somecommunalproperty wellintothemedievalperiod.26
But the feudalmode of production,and feudalsocial relations,did
not stem fromthis; only some of the institutional aspects of the
feudalstateand its ideologyderivedsome influencefromit - the
relationbetweenthe stateand thefreepeasantry,forexample.The
economicsurvivalof the "Germanic"mode in partsof the empire
where Germanpeasants seem to have settleden masse- Anglo-
Saxon England,theRhinelandand (probably)Bavaria- onlyadded
a subsidiarymode to thefeudalsocial formation, whichwas already
supremein all thoseareas by 500 or soon after;and fromthe firm
territorialbase of the formerRoman provincesfeudalismslowly
spread into the old "free Germany"(east Francia, Saxony) and
eventually(but muchless fullyand withgenuineindependentdevel-
opment) Scandinavia. All that the victoryof feudalismand the
end of taxationmeantin thiscontextwas thateverywhere peasant
communities withoutsignificant largelandownership (communities,
thatis, whichhad formerly paid taxand so formedpartoftheancient
mode) returnedto pre-existing non-exploitative economicsystems;
thesesystems,lackingany formof dependenttenure,werenot yet
englobedby the feudalmode of production.Peasant communities
suchas these,bothGermanand non-German, survivedalongsidethe
feudalmode,thoughsubordinateto itin theoverallsocialformation,
as longas theyhad thelocal strengthto do so, and thistheycontinued
to have formanycenturies.27
Anderson,PassagesfromAntiquity toFeudalism,pp. I07-42; Engels, "Originof
the Family",pp. 574-6; Engels, "Appendixon the Mark", in his Socialism,Utopian
trans.E. Aveling(London, 1892), pp. 96-103.On theGermanicmode,
and Scientific,
see Marx,Grundrisse, pp. 477-85. Exactlythesame basicpatternsexistedin theearly
medievalcentralAppenninesand in northernSpain, neitherof themloci formuch
Germanicsettlement:C. J. Wickham,Studi sulla societddegliAppennininell'alto
medioevo:contadini, signorie insediamentonel territorio
di Valva (Bologna, 1982), pp.
34-42,I00-3; R. Pastor,Resistencias y luchascampesinasen la epocadel crecimiento y
consolidaci6n de la formaci6n feudal Castillay Leon: siglosX-XIII (Madrid, 1980),
pp. 51-2, a referenceI owe to JohnEdwards.
27 This
interpretationis stillcontroversial;ideologicalconsiderations rundeep in
thehistoriography. For a good statement ofa contrary position,see A. I. Njeussychin,
Die Entstehung derabhdngigen Bauernschaft, trans.B. Topfer(Berlin, I96I). For the
Anglo-Saxons,see forexampleAgrarianHistoryof Englandand Wales,i pt. 2, ed.
H. P. R. Finberg(Cambridge,1972), pp. 400-I, and passim. Anderson is good on
Scandinavia:PassagesfromAntiquity toFeudalism,pp. 173-81;see also T. Lindkvist,
Landbora i Nordenunderaldremedeltid (Uppsala,I979), to whomI am gratefulfor
much stimulatingdiscussion. For the subordinationof the "Germanic" mode to
(cont.onp. 27)

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
The empiricalbasis oftheforegoing is wellknownto thosewhohave
studiedtheperiodevensuperficially, non-Marxist and Marxistalike.
What I have been concernedto do is to focus the debate on the
crucialimportanceof the surplus-extractive, tax-raisingpowersof
the stateforthe characterization of the whole social and economic
structureof the period. In this respectit is literallytrue thatthe
crisisof the stateis the crisisof the ancientworld. When the tax
mechanismswere pulled apart, the columns gave way and the
pedimentcracked and fell; we can barelysee the fifthand sixth
centuriesfordust. The statesthatfollowedwhichwerenotbased on
tax, such as the Lombard statein Italyand theCarolingianstatein
Francia, were totallydifferent,essentiallybased on landowning
ratherthan tax-raising,with cruciallydifferent relationshipswith
theiraristocraciesand peasantries.The absence of tax broke the
wholecontinuity of statefunctionsfromtheRoman period;all that
remainedwere values and imagery.I have discussed some of the
Italianimplicationselsewhere;28here,as earlier,I will tendto rely
more on Frankishexamples.
The inheritanceof the empireis mostclearlyseen in the history
of the ideologyof the stateup to the eleventhcentury,on thelocal
as well as the nationallevel. On the local level thisis represented
bestby thehistoryof thecity.The cityundertheempirewas a real
forceofattraction because ofitstax-raising role,and thelateRoman
urban focus of the aristocracyand of aristocraticvalues resulted
therefrom. Whentaxationended,citiesactedas focionlyforideologi-
cal reasons. Bishops, consciousinheritorsof the Roman tradition,
livedin themeverywhere; thisat leastresultedin a certainpersistence
of administrative activity.Aristocratstoo could choose to continue
to live in citiesand centretheirpoliticalrivalryon an urbanstage;if
theydid, citiesretainedtheirpolitical-administrative and commercial
importance(or much of it), oftenrightthroughto the commercial
upturnofthetenthand eleventhcenturies.Butaristocrats onlychose
to do so in somepartsofthewest- in Italy,southernGaul, southern
and easternSpain. Such a choiceis moreor less exactlyan indexof
thecompletenessoftheromanization ofan area: neverfullyachieved
northof the Loire, almostnon-existent northof the Alps and in
Britain,but in areas wherethe memoryof Rome was an important
touchstonein self-identification, nearlycomplete.29The possibility
(n. 27 cont.)
feudal society, see Pastor, Resistenciasy luchas campesinas,pp. 3-4, 9; Engels,
"Appendix on the Mark".
Wickham,Early Medieval Italy, pp. 38-42, 87-8, 124-45, I72-9, I9I-3.
Ibid., pp. 80-92; for France, see, for example, A. Dupont, Les citesde la
Narbonnaisepremiere depuisles invasionsgermaniques
jusqu'a l'apparitiondu Consulat
(Nimes, I942); M. Rouche, L'Aquitainedes Wisigoths aux Arabes(Paris, 1979), pp.
261-300; E. James,The Originsof France: From Clovis to theCapetians,5oo-iooo
(London, I982), pp. 43-63; forSpain, forexample,R. J. H. Collins, "Merida and
Toledo", in E. James(ed.), Visigothic Spain (Oxford,I980), pp. I89-2I9.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

of making or unmakinga whole urban societyby such choices

underlinesthe factof theirultimatelyideologicalaspect,thoughit
also showshow much institutional weightideologycan oftenhave.
The institutional weightof ideologyshowed itselfmost grandly
on the level of centralgovernment. There is no doubtof thepublic
commitmentand ambitionsof the Carolingianstate, and of the
widelydiffusedhegemonyof thiscentralcommitment at its height
underCharlemagneand fora timeunderhis son Louis thePious in
thelate eighthand earlyninthcenturies,emphasizedby thestriking
educativeand propagandaimpactoftheCarolingianrenaissanceand
fuelled,it maybe added, by thealmostRomanwealthof thekings
at thepointoftheirgreatestmilitary success.This commitment, the
sense of the public natureof the state,of officialdom, of political
responsibility, is almost purelyRoman, and it says much forthe
residualauthorityof the Merovingiansand the memoryof sixth-
centuryFrankishroyalpower(as well as theforceof Romanvalues
in the church) that it could have survivedin Romano-Germanic
northernGaul, of all places, and even extendedits influenceto
Anglo-SaxonEngland. (The Lombardshad maintainedit too with
littledifficulty,and in all theCarolingianempireit was mostfirmly
rootedin Italy.) The onlyGermanicfeatureof the stateitself(and
even thishad Roman elements)was its consciouslinkswithall the
freemen of thekingdom,nominallythedescendantsof thewarrior
settlersof thefifthto sixthcenturies;thiswas certainly a keyto the
state's legitimacy,but not to its conceptionof its functions.The
Carolingianstateobtaineda widemeasureofconsentfromitsaristoc-
raciesat thepointof its maximumsuccessand forsurprisingly long
after.30But thissuccess dependeddirectlyon such consent.When
the late Roman statelost consent,it eventuallycrumbled,but the
process was long drawn out and highlymediated,for the state
was based on a directeconomicprocessof surplusextraction.The
Carolingianstate,however,was based on land, as were the upper
classes; a Carolingiannoble's personaleconomicpower was thus
foundedon exactlythe same basis as his king's. The onlyway the
kings could exertpower was throughobtainingand trustingthe
loyaltyof theiraristocrats;theyhad to buy it. Initiallytheycould
do thisin exchangeforoffices,whichstillbroughta lot of statusfor
aristocrats,along with land; but increasingly, when the incessant
wars of the eighthto tenthcenturiesonce again underminedthe

30 For all
this,see, forexample,H. Fichtenau,The CarolingianEmpire,trans.P.
Munz (Oxford, 1957); J. M. Wallace-Hadrill,Early GermanicKingship(Oxford,
I97I); R. McKitterick,The FrankishChurchand theCarolingian Reforms (London,
I977); P. J. Fouracre,"The CareerofEbroin"(Univ. ofLondon Ph.D. thesis,1981).
I am gratefulto Paul Fouracreformuch help and discussionon theseand related
matters.For peasantsand the state,see n. 33 below.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

hegemonyofthekings,withland above all. In northern Franciathis

was held conditionally,"feudally",withtightpersonalobligations
attachedwhichhad genuinemoralforce;in Italyand elsewherethe
land was oftengivenoutrightor leased - the distinctionis not an
importantone forus here. But the statelost moreand moreland,
and thusmoreand morepower.One mayadd thatitlostat thesame
timeits linkswiththe peasantry,since militaryobligationstended
to be restrictedto aristocraticclienteles.When the aristocracy lost
interestin the state,it simplydisappeared.At thefinalcrisisof the
state,say in the eleventhcenturyin France, public dissolvedinto
privateat the political-ideologicalas well as at the economiclevel.
The Roman-Carolingian traditionof thepowersand responsibilities
of the state eitherdisappearedor was transmutedinto something
new: theprivatizedor contractualsystembased on personallordship
whichis traditionally called "feudo-vassalic",or simply"feudal".
We cannotpursuethesethemeshere,but it mustbe notedthatit
is veryeasyto be misledintoseeingall theseprocessesas teleological,
viewing"fullyformed"military feudalismand theseigneuriesas the
logical and inevitableresult of the economic relationsof private
property(with the usual addition of the supposed similarityin
structurebetweentwo separaterelationships of dependence,vassal-
age and serfdom). I believe even Bloch thoughtthis,and Anderson
fallsintothetrapwhenhe identifies northern Franceas thefocusof
the "balanced synthesis",which"generatedfeudalismmostrapidly
and completelyand providedits classic form".31"Classic" or not,
the experienceof northernFrance was far fromuniversal.The
Italians,who saw their"national" statevanisheven more quickly
thandid the Frenchintoa worldof privateloyalties,maintainedits
publicideologyin theircitiesup to theirflowering in theCommunal
period.And thoughit is verylikely,as JanDhondtpointedout,that
thefeudalmode could not ultimately supportsuch a geographically
extendedpoliticalunitas theCarolingianempire,it certainly did not
requiretheextinction ofall politicalpower;Normandyand Norman
England,as "feudo-vassalic"as any society,showan undiminished
politicalpower that certainlyhad Carolingian(and Anglo-Saxon)
roots,thoughthe modes of expressionhad changed. The point I
would preferto emphasize is, however, different.Each of the
numeroustinypoliticalunitsof the post-Carolingian periodhad a
different balanceofideologyand power- publicor private,Roman-
Carolingianor contractual, - and each
centralizedor seigneurialized
M. Bloch, Feudal Society,trans. L. A. Manyon (London, 1961); Anderson,
Passages fromAntiquityto Feudalism,pp. 154-7, and very explicitly,Anderson,
Lineagesof theAbsolutistState, pp. 402-12. Anderson'sconsciousprivilegingof the
stateis responsibleforthis; see Hirst,"Uniquenessof theWest". His descriptionof
the feudal social formationsis, however,most useful: Anderson,Passages from
Antiquity to Feudalism,pp. I54-96.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

has to be explained;but ultimatelythe differences betweenthem,

and indeed betweenthemand any of theothersystemsof medieval
ChristianwesternEurope, are a matterof superstructure. By the
definitionsused in this article,all were feudal,for theywere all
based on thepoliticsand economicsof landowning,expressedin its
different ways.32
It is possible,evenlikely,thatthechiefsocialgroupthatbenefited
fromthefallof the Roman stateand thetransition to feudalsociety
was the peasantry.It was not, at any rate,the Roman aristocracy;
the new Germanicstateshad theirown ethnicaristocracies.Some
Roman familieschangedtheirnames and began to commandarm-
ies - that is to say, became German; but most othersbecame
politicallymarginalized,withthe noteworthy exceptionof thosein
states,wheretheRomanaristocracies maintainedtheirhegemony for
many centuries. The end of the Roman state was in the long-term
interestsof the aristocracyas a class; but not alwaysin thoseof the
individualfamiliesinvolvedin itsbreakup.The peasantry, however,
werealmostcertainly betteroff;themechanisms ofsurplusextraction
were in the seventhto eighthcenturiesless efficient thantheyhad
been in the fourth.Rent-takingin the empirewas conditionedby
the factthattax took much of the surplus;the aristocracy needed
time to catch up withthe possibilitiesengenderedby its absence.
This assertionis, it must be said, totallyspeculative;but it would
go a longway to explaintheapparentpovertyof theearlymedieval
aristocracy - and even, sometimes,of kings.People builtsmaller
and cruderbuildings,wore simplerclothing,boughtfewerluxuries
fromtheeast. I do notthinkthiscan be explained,as it oftenis, by
the idea that peasantsproduced smallersurplusesthan under the
empire;no economicor socialmechanismhas everexistedwhichcan
explainwhypoliticalchangescan producea permanentproductive
decline on the part of a subsistencepeasantry.What must have
happenedis thatpeasantskept moreof it forthemselves.And the
notinsignificant classofpeasantownerswhichhad survivedthewars
and patronageagreementsof the fifthcenturywill have foundthat
verylittlesurpluswas demandedof themat all; instead,theFranks
and Visigoths,at least, expectedthemto servein the armythem-
J. Dhondt, Etudessurla naissancedesprincipautes en France,IXe-Xe
siecle(Ghent,1948), pp. 253-8. For discussionof theshiftfrompublicto private,see
Bloch, Feudal Society,passim;fora recentmodel surveyof the problem(based on
southernFrance and northernSpain), see P. Bonnassie,"Genese et modalitesdu
regimefeodal", in Structures dansI'occident
mediterraneen (Ecole
franqaisede Rome, Rome, I980), pp. 17-44; cf. the articleson Italy in the same
volumeby G. Tabacco, R. Bordoneand G. Sergi(pp. 219-6I). Some of thesestates,
notablylate Saxon England, even taxed, thoughthis developmentwas a new and
differentlybased socio-economic and
development, relatively economicallymarginal
(except to kings).

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
selves. Such peasants survivednext door to or oftenamong the
tenantsof the feudalestatesof the sixthto eighthcenturies.It may
have only been in the Carolingianperiod - in fact a period of
widespreadaffirmation of aristocratic
power,alongsidea weakening
of peasantinvolvement in the armywhichwas thelatter'sstrongest
politicaldefence- thatthe major step was takenin the extension
of feudalsocial relationsto nearlyeveryonein society,in thelarge-
scale subjectionand expropriation of peasantsby the aristocracy.33
It was in theCarolingianperiodtoo thatmostofEuropewitnessed
a majorweakeningof whatremainedof the old conceptof slavery.
The problematicof thetransition fromslaveryto demesneserfdom,
via the practiceof labour service,has traditionally been seen as a
basic featureof theoriginsof thefeudalmode; as shouldby now be
clear,it seemsto me to be marginal.The feudalmode englobedall
earlymedievaltenants,whetherfreeor unfree,payingrentor doing
labour service(whichis reallysimplya formof rent,thoughmore
underthe controlof the landownerthanis rentin kindor money).
But in fact the idea of labour service as a semi-servilehalfway
institutionbetweenthe slave plantationand feudalrent-paying is
not,it is now clear,even empiricallyvalid. Its historicallogichas a
certaininekorablebeauty;unfortunately, it did nothappenlikethat.
When the Romans abandoned the slave mode, theywent straight
over to rent-payingtenants.(Referencesto corvees are to trivial
duties,and restrictedto Africa;theywere perhapsversionsof the
public corveesrequiredby the state.) Only one earlytextrefersto
heavy labour service, a papyrus frommid-sixth-century Padua;
labour servicesurvivedin parts of northernItaly until the tenth
century,and hence, or otherwise,it came to parts of southern
Germanyin the earlyeighthcenturyand to northernFrance, the
home of the classic bipartite"manorialsystem"of the polyptychs,
in the late eighthto earlyninthcenturies.Elsewhere,throughout
theearlymedievalperiod,labourwas rareand usuallyinsignificant,
as a numberofrecentstudiesofsouthernFrancehaveshown.There
were by thenquite a lot of slaves on the land again, thanksto the
fifth-and sixth-centurywars,but mostof themweresimplytenants
and did not owe labour serviceeither.Only one majorproblemof
analysisremainsto be resolvedin this context:the fact that the
binarydivisionbetweendemesne(r6serve) and tenantplotsseemsto
pre-datelabour service.Merovingianvillas of the sixthto seventh
centurieshave thus been said to have demesnescultivateddirectly
by slaves, separatefromfreerent-paying tenants.(So indeed did
33A. R. Bridbury,"The Dark Ages", Econ. Hist. Rev., 2nd ser., xxii(I969), pp.
526-37,esp. pp. 532-3,putssimilarideas verynicely.For thefallofthefreepeasantry
undertheCarolingians(despitetheattemptsofkingsto protectthem),see E. Muller-
Mertens,Karl dergrosse, Ludwigderfromme, unddieFreien(Berlin,1963); G. Tabacco,
I liberidel re nell'Italia carolingiae postcarolingia
(Spoleto, I966).

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

estates in the north-westof Spain in the tenthcentury.)These

demesnesmayeven have showna weak survivalof theslavemode,
englobedin the relationshipscharacteristic of feudalism.Increas-
ingly,however,it seemsthatthesize orevensometimestheexistence
of thesedemesneshas been exaggerated;thosethatwerenot small
enoughto be cultivatedbya fewslavehouseholdsas a sortof"home
farm"mayoftenin realityhave been dividedintoserviletenures.In
the areas, predominantly in southernEurope, wherelabourservice
was rareor unknown,thestatusof slavewas alreadya legalcategory
alone, thoughcarryingwith it heavierrents; by the Carolingian
period it was unnecessary,and disappearedduringthe ninthand
tenthcenturies.In zones, mostlyin thenorth(thoughincludingthe
Po plain) wherelabourservicewas important, thechangingconcept
of serviledependencecame to have some linkswithlabourservice,
and the principlethatserfswerelegallyunfreecontinuedto last as
longas labourdid, sometimes(in England)intothelatemiddleages,
or (in easternEurope) well beyond.It is thiswhichhas led to the
of the two by historians;but the link is a
new featureand cannotbe seen beforeabouttheninthcentury.The
tenantsof earlymedievalEurope mustin facthave descendedfrom
lateRomancoloniand freepeasantsfarmoreoftenthanfromslaves.34
The manorialsystemis not, however,entirelyirrelevantto the
concernsof this article.The system,in its firstgreatage in the
monasteriesof the Carolingianempire,is the clearestsignyetthat
34 For late Rome, see Finley, AncientSlaveryand ModernIdeology,pp. 123-7;
Bloch, Slaveryand Serfdom,pp. I-3I; Jones,LaterRomanEmpire,pp. 803-8 (pace
King, Law and Societyin theVisigothic Kingdom,pp. I64-70). C. Verlinden,L'esclav-
age dans l'Europe medievale,2 vols. (Ghent, I955-77) is surprisingly unhelpful,
regardingslaveryalmost exclusivelyas a legal category.France: F. L. Ganshof,
"Quelques aspects principauxde la vie economiquedans la monarchiefranqueau
VII' siecle",Settimane di studio,v (1958), pp. 74-9I: R. Latouche,TheBirthofWestern
Economy,trans. E. M. Wilkinson(London, 1961), pp. 64-84; G. Fournier,Le
peuplement ruralen basseAuvergne (Paris, 1962), pp. 201-16; A. Verhulst,"La genese
du regimedomanialclassiqueen Franceau hautmoyenage", Settimane di studio,xiii
(I966), pp. 135-60;all ofthesetendto stressdirectslavecultivation ofearlydemesnes.
No demesnesare visibleon theestatesof St. MartinofTours in theseventhcentury:
Documentscomptablesde Saint-Martinde Tours a l'epoque merovingienne, ed. P.
Gasnaultand J. Vezin (Paris, I975), a referenceI owe to Paul Fouracre;thereare
few or no corveesor demesnesin the farsouthin the ninthcentury:E. Magnou-
Nortier,La societelaique et I'eglisedans la provinceecclesiastique de Narbonne(Toul-
ouse, 1974), pp. I38-43; J.-P. Poly, "Regime domanialet rapportsde production
feodalistesdans le Midi de la France, VIII'-Xe siecles", in Structures feodaleset
feodalisme, pp. 57-67. Michel Rouche generalizesGasnaultand sees everyonein the
seventhcentury,slavesand colonialike,as rent-payers, withmoreevidence:Rouche,
L'Aquitainedes Wisigoths aux Arabes,pp. 210-14; cf. also his "Geographieruraledu
royaumede Charlesle Chauve", in M. Gibsonand J. Nelson (eds.), CharlestheBald
(Brit. Archaeol. Reports, Internat.ser., ci, Oxford, 1981), pp. 193-211. Italy:
Wickham, Early Medieval Italy, pp. 99-112, for references.For Spain, see C.
Sanchez-Albernoz,Viejosy nuevosestudiossobrelas instituciones medievales espaiiolas,
3 vols. (Madrid, 1978-80),iii, pp. I365-I405, 1553-74;he puts emphasison skilled
specialistduties, agrarian or industrial,for slaves in demesnes, a featurealso found
in Italy,Anglo-SaxonEngland, and the France of the polyptychs.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
the non-productive classes of Europe were beginningto rediscover
how to extractall the surplus out of the peasantry.The luxury
commercialupturnof the ninthcentury,reinforced fromthe tenth
centuryonwards, could be seen as one ofitsresults.
We are entering
the periodof "croissance"whichmarksthe "firstfeudalage" - a
period of growthwhich, in so far as it expresseditselfin luxury
expenditure,was often largely achieved at the expense of the

The detailsoftheindividualhistoryofthevariouspartsoftheempire
of course differfromthesemodels,posed forthe mostpartin the
contextof the developmentof France and Italy. We cannotlook
at themall. Byzantium,however,producessome veryinstructive
contrastsin its evolution,and I willfinishby pointingsomeof them
out. As we have seen, thefourthto fifth centuriessaw thegrowthof
the structuraloppositionbetweenstateand landownersin the east
as much as the west; what we know of sixth-century Egypt also
showsconsiderableadvancesby largeownersin one of the firmest
reservesofan independentpeasantryin theempire.But thestatedid
notfall.It did notevenfallin theeasternequivalentofthebarbarian
invasions,theseventh-century occupationof Syriaand Egyptby the
Arabs and of the Balkans by the Slavs. Why not?
The firstproblemthathas to be facedherein makingcomparisons
withthe west is whetherthe two historiesare strictlycomparable.
The fifthcenturysaw theoverrunning of everypartof thewest;the
seventhcenturyin theeast at leastlefttheByzantineswithAnatolia
and theAegean.But, as alreadynoted,thepointabouttheGermanic
statesis not thattheyreplacedthe westernempire;it is thatthey
ultimately failedto reproducethestatepoweroftheirRomanprede-
cessors. The tax-raisingstate continuedin the east both in the
Byzantineand Arab partsof the formerunitaryempire.Not only
this,buttheseventhto eighthcenturiesin Byzantiumappearto show
an eclipse of aristocraticpower. The statepatronizedgeneralsand
theirarmies,at theexpenseof thelocal civilaristocracies;thelatter
thuslost theirindependentroleto new statesubordinateswho were
initiallymore reliable, and indeed more useful. The old noble
familiesdisappearfromoursources;itis notuntiltheninthand tenth
centuriesthat they(or, more likely,the new militarylandowning
families)returnin thetextsto troublethesmoothfunctioning ofthe
mechanismsofgovernment. In thepower-struggle betweenstateand
aristocracyat themomentofcrisis,it was thearistocracy whichlost.
As argued above, the Byzantinearistocracywas perhapsnot so
35 See Duby, Early Growthof theEuropeanEconomy,passim.

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

strongas its westerncounterpart, and thatmustbe one reasonfor

its failure.Some of its richestmemberswere in Egypt,whichthe
Arabshad taken,and theArabsmaintainedthepoliticaland financial
strength, in a newstatelargerthanthatoftheRomansat theirheight,
to dominatethem.The smallernobility,on the otherhand, would
stillhavefoundthehierarchies ofthestateand thecareerattractions
ofbureaucratic officialdomin Constantinople a powerfulfocus,often
exceedingthat of landownership.The peasantry,with a stronger
collectiveorganizationand identitythanin muchof thewest,often
long resistedthe attemptsof aristocratsto becometheirlandlords,
howevergratefulthey were to them for protectingthem against
taxation.All of thesedifferences, essentiallydifferences of degree,
helpedthestateto maintainits forceat themomentofcrisis.So too
did the natureof the crisis; the Persiansand Arabs were external
militaryconquerors,actual or potential,not internalalternatives,
seductivein theirdisorganization, like theearlyGermankingdoms.
The wars lasted a long time,but the periodsof actual conquestin
the earlyseventhcenturywere relativelyshort.Few civilianswere
given the opportunitiesto exploitthe situation;instead,the state
did. In factthisessentiallypoliticalcapacityto exploitthesituation
to its own advantagewas themostevidentreasonfortheByzantine
state's survivalin the east. The militarization of the statedid not
initiallylead to decentralization,
since the armytook some timeto
acquire lands, eitherby replacingor marryinginto the politically
marginalizedcivil aristocracy;and theselands werestilleffectively
taxed. Thus the armywas renewed,but thefinancialweightof the
statedid not at all diminish.This coup shows best of all how the
age of wars,firstin thewestand thenin theeast,represented nota
necessaryturning-point, only the of a
possibility turning-point,
in the balance of modes of production.In the west the balance
changed;in the east it did not. Indeed, the failureof feudalismin
the seventhcenturyin the east set its developmentback formany
centuries.It was onlyperhapsin thetwelfth century(and stillmore
afterthe conquestof Constantinople in 1204) thatit reallybeganto
replace the tax-raisingstate as the dominantmode in Byzantine
society;it was a slow development,however,and masked by the
vast and organizedideologicalstructureof the Byzantineimperial
36 For arePatlagean,Pauvreteeconomique
Byzantium,goodintroductions etpauvrete
sociale,pp. 236-96,and herimportant analysis,againfroma Chayanovianstandpoint,
"'Economie paysanne'et 'feodalitebyzantine"',Annales.E.S.C., xxx (I975), pp.
I37I-96. There were othermodes in Byzantiumas well, of course; tradewas not
insignificant,and sometimesmore independentthan it had been underRome. For
the seventhcenturyconjuncture,I am gratefulto discussionswithand advice from
Michael Hendy and JohnHaldon; cf. J. F. Haldon and H. Kennedy,"The Arab-
ByzantineFrontierin the Eighthand Ninth Centuries:MilitaryOrganisationand
Societyin the Borderlands",ZbornikradovaVizantoloshkog xix (I980), pp.
79-I I6, and J. F. Haldon, "Considerationson ByzantineSocietyand Economyin the
Seventh Century", in J. F. Haldon and J. Koumoulides (eds.), Perspectives in
(cont.onp. 35)

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
It is evidentfromthis briefcharacterization thatthe Byzantine
empiremanaged to preservethe dominanceof the ancientmode,
despitethe continuedexistenceof the feudalmode, untilwell after
Iooo. The onlyproblemthatarisesis one of categorization. One of
the keys to the ancientmode is the city/country relationship,with
the citystrengthened by its fiscalpowers. But in the seventhand
eighthcenturiesthe urban societyof the Byzantineeast collapsed.
The exact motorsof thisare almosttotallyobscure,but its collapse
was in large part the price paid forthe survivalof the stateat the
expense of the civil aristocracies,the bases of urban life. Their
survivorsconcentrated themselvesin Constantinople; thestateaban-
donedall pretenceoftaxingthroughcities,and organizedtheprocess
direct,witha centralizationofauthority farsurpassingDiocletian's-
on a rathersmallerscale, however.The empirecould be seen as
havingbecomeone giantcity-state concentrated on Constantinople.
But we mustrecognizethatwe are here touchingthe veryedge of
the arenawithinwhichthe conceptof theancientmode helpsus to
understandhowa societyworks.The tax-raising basisofthecentral-
ized Byzantinestatefitsquite as easilyintoa moreeasternpattern
with the (partiallyimitative)Arab empireof the seventhto tenth
centuriesand, indeed,theSassaniansin Persiabeforeitand consider-
able varietyof statesafterit, reachingthroughthe Ottomansand
Safavidsto the presentday. These states,like thoseof theRomans
and Byzantines,had theproblemofbalancingtax-raising withland-
ownership, but often over very wide areas and withoutthe institu-
tionalmediationofcities.They wereveryoftenquitesuccessfultoo.
The problemofhow thesesystemsfitintothecategoryoftheancient
mode of productionis scarcelyworthposing:theyevidentlydo not.
But the differences betweenthemand, say, the social formation of
the Roman empireseem to be differences in degree,not in type.
I discussthisproblemelsewherein moredetail,but a fewpoints
should perhaps be made here in conclusion.The firstis that to
imagine these easternsystemsas included withinthe traditional
Marxistcategoryof the "Asiatic mode" is totallyunhelpful;the
categoryis hopelesslyinadequate. Besides, to say thatthe eastern
systemsare of a separatemode to thatofRome at all seemsto me to
be too sharp a distinction.Samir Amin has recentlyreformulated
thismode as a "tributarymode", an idea whichhas a considerable
(n. 36 cont.)
ByzantineHistoryand Culture(Amsterdam,forthcoming), foranalysesalongthelines
I have setout. The natureofByzantinefeudalismhas had a lotofMarxistdiscussion,
notall veryconstructive, and muchratherover-schematic, forexamplein Recherches
internationalesa la lumierede Marxisme,lxxix no. 2 (I974). In seventh-to eighth-
centuryByzantineItaly,isolatedfromthe restof the empire,the tax networkseems
to have collapsed ratherearlier: Wickham, Early Medieval Italy, pp. 75-9, and
especiallyT. S. Brown,Gentlemen and Officers:
ImperialAdministration andAristocratic
Power in Italy, 504-800 (London, 1984).

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions

arrayof possibilities;not leastthatit is possibleto regardthemode

as havinga numberof subtypes,one of whichwould be theancient
mode. The bypassingof citieswould thussimplybe accountedfor
bythetransfer fromone subtypeto anotherofthe"tributary" mode.
Are we back to butterfly-collecting? I thinknot, fortwo reasons.
First,because such a formulation re-establishessomethingthatwe
are ratherinclined to forget:that Europe is one end of a large
continentallandmass,withsome evidentlysophisticated societiesin
it. It is unhelpfulto assumethateach one oftheeconomicsystemsof
Eurasia had a completelyindependentmorphology untilcapitalism
sweptthemall away. Amin's "tributarymode" focusesus on one
commondenominatorfromRome to China, thatof tax,which,we
mustrecognize,alwayscoexistedwithwell-rootedand antagonistic
institutions of landownership.Secondly,the formulation givesfull
emphasisto thespecificand crucialfeaturesoftheancientmode: its
dependenceon thestructure ofthecity/country relationship and the
dominanceby the formerover the latter.We have seen the basic
importanceof thisrelationshipforhow theRoman empireworked.
The decentralization oftheempirethroughitscitiesmustfurther be
seenas a basicpresupposition in theanalysisofitsfinaldisintegration,
at leastin thewest,somethingthatin theEurasiancontextseemsto
be actuallyunusual. The empiresof Asia in thisrespectdo have a
morestatelystability, as dynastiesreplaceddynastiesonwardthrough
time.In thewest,Europe was facedwiththedegradations, but also
the possibilities,of feudalism.37
University ChrisWickham

37 Wickham,"Uniqueness of the East"; S. Amin, UnequalDevelopment, trans.B.

Pearce (Hassocks, I976), pp. I3 ff.The bypassingof the citiesas tax-raisingfoci
could also, it can be noted,occur in the west, at least wherecitieswere in retreat
aftertheend of theempireand thedeclineof taxationitself,as in FrankishGaul and

This content downloaded from on Sat, 3 Aug 2013 10:05:58 AM

All use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions