It was common for regions to try to break away and go it alone. In such cases, the causes were familiar and repeating ones: they normally came at a time of economic contraction, where the central government was easy to characterise as distant, self-interested and unfair in its distributions of expenditure; these anguished cries usually went hand in hand with complaints about over-taxation at a time when resources were already stretched.
Such scenarios leant themselves perfectly to the emergence of a charismatic figure with strong local connections who would typically rouse the community to think in terms of independence. With no TV debates or media scrutiny a thousand years ago, questions about what currency or laws would be used after separation were not asked, at least as far as we know; either way, they were bridges to be crossed in the future – details. The point at hand was that the capital had ignored the provinces for too long; it was time for practical solutions.
In such cases, the Byzantines themselves tended to take a more relaxed attitude than their modern peers. For one thing, it was normal to take a long view of the world. The Empire had been around a long time, and had had its ups and downs; revolts and uprisings did not need to be resolved quickly – though they did need to be resolved. Timing in politics, as in comedy, was everything.
For the inhabitants of Constantinople looking on as events unfolded (which they did on several occasions in the western provinces in the 10th and 11th centuries), attempts to detach from the empire were almost quaint. The idea of provincial towns wanting to make themselves into capital cities was charmingly quaint. Talent, trade and money flocked to Constantinople. There was no way that places like Adrianople, Sofia or Dyrrakhion would ever compete – lovely enough as they were in springtime; it was almost amusing to think they would even try.
‘What are they going to do’, Alex Salmond said last week, as Cameron, Miliband and Clegg arrived in Scotland; ‘invade?’ As the Byzantines knew, shows of force were risky. There was a danger that attempting to restore order would backfire and make the government even less popular that it already was, and solidify support behind the rebels in the process; for another, there was the chance that those sent to calm things would be taken on and defeated – which likewise boosted the credibility of the early medieval equivalent of the Yes campaign. In Byzantium, as in Britain, it was a lose-lose scenario.
Often, though, revolts would fizzle out. But the way to win these battles was to appeal to the local population. Sometimes the carrot worked, as in the revolt of Roussel Balliol – the Alex Salmond of the 1070s. On this occasion, we are told, some of the rebels were won over by arguments, gifts and promises.
More often, though, it was the threat of the stick that was decisive. The situation is not ideal, admitted the general sent to bring matters to a conclusion, when he addressed the locals. Personal ambition and visions of independence had cost time and money. But this is how things were going to work from now on:
Fed up with trying to use reason, the moment had come to deal with things once and for all, he told an 11th century version of the Question Time audience. The government is out of pocket, and as a result of your truculence, you are going to be hit where it hurts – in the pocket. Playing high stakes with the central government had consequences. You are going to be hit with a one-off and expensive tax to teach you a lesson.
The crowd he was talking to were not happy about this, hissing at him furiously (think lots of versions of Jim Sillars on a bad day – well, on any day). But then, as a contemporary author put it, just as a pot might land face up or face down when it falls, the mood changed, people changed their minds and went home. Independence was all very well – until you realised you had to pay for it.
Still, they did better than others had done a few decades earlier. On that occasion, Basil II, a gnarled tough man with few airs or graces, eventually snapped at the persistent attempts for much of the western provinces to go their own way. Fed up with endless campaigning (military, rather than political), he forced a show down with the Pro-Independence movement.
Some would say this Basil’s intervention was a little on the dramatic side – though the story gained much in the telling. The Byzantines also understood that it was a nifty thing to have examples in the historical locker to wheel out as examples in the future.
So maybe if politicians and celebrities want to Britain Stay Together, they should not be on bended knees begging Scotland to hang on, but spell out what happens if they don’t. Just don’t mention the Bulgars or Basil – owner of one of the great nicknames in history: the Bulgar Slayer.