Monday, September 25, 2017

The First . . . Homesteader?

Everybody knows — or should know — that Abraham Lincoln was the one who put through the first Homestead Act in 1862 . . . right?

Do you really need to be told who this is?
Not exactly.  Lincoln is credited with the Homestead Act, but there were other Acts previously.  The problem was that all previous initiatives had required a cash outlay, and even ¼¢ per acre discouraged a lot of people.  What Lincoln’s Act did was make the land available at no cost . . . which still caused a problem when people lacked cash or credit to develop the land adequately, but that’s another story.
What we’re looking at today is the initiative by the Emperor Heraclius in the early seventh century that probably saved the Byzantine Empire for the next three centuries or so.
The fact is, Roman history, Latin or Greek, demonstrates the importance of widespread ownership to national security — and the inevitable tendency of the rich and powerful to concentrate ownership, whether privately (capitalism) or publicly (socialism) to the detriment of national wellbeing, even disaster — and there were some might big disasters, such as when in the early seventh century the Avars, Persians, Arabs, and everybody and his brother was out to grab a piece of the once-mighty Roman Empire, weakened almost fatally by the efforts of Justinian the Great to reunite both the Eastern and Western Empires a generation before, using up resources that were desperately needed to keep enemies at bay, not bring (alleged) friends back together.
Tiberius Gracchus being murdered for saying ordinary people should own
People have known about the political as well as economic importance of widespread capital ownership pretty much forever. As Plutarch had Tiberius Gracchus declare in a speech in his Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (the classic John Dryden translation, that makes even made up speeches sound pretty good),
He told them that the commanders were guilty of a ridiculous error, when, at the head of their armies, they exhorted the common soldiers to fight for their sepulchers and altars; when not any amongst so many Romans is possessed of either altar or monument, neither have they any houses of their own, or hearths of their ancestors to defend. They fought indeed and were slain, but it was to maintain the luxury and the wealth of other men. They were styled the masters of the world, but in the meantime had not one foot of ground which they could call their own.
Heraclius & Son
In the year 610 Heraclius, whom the historian John Julius Norwich called “the First Crusader” (and we are calling “the First Homesteader”) became “Basileus” or ruler of Byzantium (“emperor” was a military honor, not a civil or political office).  Heraclius had usurped the throne (to much rejoicing) from Phocas, a bloodthirsty tyrant (and that’s not just a way of saying nobody liked him; he really was a murdering S.O.B.), who had brought the Empire to the very edge of total disaster.
Greece had been lost to the Slavs, while the Persians were rampaging throughout Asia Minor. Jerusalem had fallen, and the True Cross and other sacred relics of the Crucifixion had been carried off. A number of shrines, including the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, had been pillaged and burned. Chaos reigned.
Instead of rushing headlong into battle and dying with great glory and even greater futility — at which many subsequent historians expressed complete bafflement — Heraclius set about completely reorganizing the Imperial government and the economy. Faced with an empty treasury, a demoralized army, and a hopelessly corrupt bureaucracy, his was a daunting task.
Sound familiar, yet?
Heraclius’s first act was to divide the territory remaining to him into “Themes,” a term previously used for a division of troops. In place of the former complete centralization, power was devolved, with each Theme being semi-autonomous under a Strategos (from which we get the term “strategy” and “stratagem,” obviously), who served as both civil governor and military commander, while riding his hippo (horse) to the potamus (river).
Byzantine Cataphracti (Heavy Cavalry)
Large numbers of new villages were established, colonized by soldiers and potential soldiers. These received what amounted to freehold grants of land, subject only to hereditary military service by the landowner or his eldest son whenever demanded. Each received a small stipend, which helped defray the cost of arms, armor, and the horses and mules — essential to campaigning over great distances — which each man was expected to maintain.
At one stroke, Heraclius created a solid national army of native, land-owning, battle-ready reservists who could be called up at any time and who, simultaneously, began a restoration of the tax base. This replaced the haphazard use of conscripts and mercenaries, both notoriously uncertain in number and unreliable in battle as well as untrained in organized warfare.
Persian coin showing the Sacred Fire
The economic benefits were not immediately realized, however, and Heraclius still had to raise money for his campaign to drive out the Persians and conquer the Slavs. Increased taxes, forced loans, advances from rich relatives and friends, and heavy fines on corrupt bureaucrats provided some funding.
The primary source of cash, however, came from the Orthodox Church. Somewhat apocalyptically, the Patriarch Sergius considered the war the final conflict between the holy armies of Christ and the fire-worshipping Zoroastrians.
Sergius overlooked certain irregularities in Heraclius’s private life (he married his own niece after his first wife died) and patriotically put the financial resources of the entire Church, from the smallest parish up to the largest monastery and archdiocese, at the disposal of the Basileus.
Finally, after twelve years and a series of adventures that sound like the plot of a bad historical novel (Norwich gives an exciting outline in his book, Byzantium: The Early Centuries), Heraclius was ready. He carefully selected as training ground an area only a few stadia (and guess what word we get from "stadia"!) from where Alexander the Great had landed in his campaign against the Persians.
Heraclius recovering the True Cross
There the Basileus spent the entire summer of 622 engaged in intensive training and morale building. He told his soldiers repeatedly that they were God’s Chosen Instruments against the forces of Antichrist. The Lord of Hosts would Himself ensure their victory.
Modern skeptics might be tempted to argue or sneer, but the appeal to faith and patriotism, although not actually an exhortation to "holy war" à la the Crusades or Jihad, was effective. Heraclius succeeded, although the war that began that autumn was long and difficult.
Heraclius’s reforms saved the Empire, but even they could be improved. During his reign, despite the reorganization, a few great magnates still controlled most of the land. A century later, as reflected in “the Farmers’ Law” of the late seventh or early eighth century, small holdings had proliferated, thanks to Heraclius’s colonization program, a sort of medieval Homestead Act.
This created a great and growing reserve army for the Empire composed of provincial militia whose strength derived from the economic power of widespread capital ownership. This social arrangement maintained the security of the state until the bureaucratic party, envious of the economic independence of the common people and fearful of the military, began undermining both by destroying small ownership and concentrating power in the hands of the government administration that they controlled.
Maybe today’s politicians could take a page or two from Heraclius’s book, and have a Capital Homestead Act for peace, instead of a land program for war.
It sure beats anything else around.

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