Why we need more sixth century historians

“All this has happened before, and all of it will happen again.”  – Battlestar Galactica

Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University, Patrick Johnston, caused a furore this week with his comments claiming that “society does not need a 21-year-old that’s a sixth century historian”. Instead, he opined that “It needs a 21-year-old who really understands how to analyse things, understands the tenets of leadership and contributing to society, who is a thinker and someone who has the potential to help society drive forward.”

It is difficult to know where one might start attempting to refute these astonishingly absurd comments. Many of the issues that bedevilled sixth century rulers will be very familiar to their modern counterparts, such as economic inequality, taxation, monetary policy, and even how to handle refugees and those fleeing religious persecution.

So let us attempt to drive society forward through thought, and contribute to society by understanding the tenets of leadership. In other words, let’s analyse sixth century things.

Justinian I, Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565, spent much of his reign attempting to regain the lost western half of the Roman Empire. However, his efforts to “Make the Byzantine Empire Great Again!” were to prove a heavy drain on the empire’s coffers. It has been estimated that the Byzantine Empire collected 6m solidi per year in tax revenue (1 solidus was originally made with 4.48g of gold), and incurred about 5m solidi in annual expenditures on non-military spending.

However, Justinian’s various adventures in Italy and elsewhere would have cost more than 35m solidi, which would have put the treasury under considerable strain. The difficulties of maintaining domestic spending on top of the cost of financing military adventures is evidently not a new problem.

Therefore Justinian did what would prove to be a popular option for rulers who found themselves short of money – he made some more of it. The imperial mint in Constantinople gradually started reducing the amount of gold in the solidus, allowing the solidi received in tax revenues to be stretched further. As the modern world struggles with questions of monetary policy, it is useful to remember bear in mind that our ancestors dabbled with a spot of unconventional monetary policy from time to time as well.

Many of Justinian’s woes were due to the expense of both fighting and paying tribute to the Sasanian Empire, situated to the east of the Byzantine Empire in and around modern day Iran. The Sasanian Empire spent much of the sixth century under the rule of Emperor Khosrow I.

Khosrow I, amongst many other achievements, is often remembered for his tax reforms. He introduced a system of taxation based upon the productive value of land, with varying rates for land which produced grain, olive trees and so on, and the tax was collected three times per year. He also clamped down on corruption by tax collectors. Tax revenues became both higher and more predictable as a result of Khosrow’s reforms.

It has been inferred that Khosrow gained the inspiration for many of his reforms from the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who reigned as Emperor between 284 and 305. Diocletian found his economic record under scrutiny in the runup to the 2012 US Presidential Election, when Republican candidate Ron Paul claimed that the United States could find itself meeting a similar fate to the Roman Empire if it embarked upon the policy of Quantitative Easing, citing Diocletian’s economic policies including debasement of the Roman currency.

However it is not Diocletian’s fiscal record that caused the Roman Empire’s subsequent problems, academics argue, nor the debasement of the currency under his watch. “What eventually did afflict the Roman state very seriously, as Republicans would no doubt hate to hear, was that it failed to tax the rich sufficiently.”

Not all sixth century rulers were as wise as Khosrau I in matters of taxation. The short lived Sui Dynasty in China (581-618) brought in a form of taxation that charged a flat tax on all households, regardless of their income. This represented an enormous burden on ordinary peasants, whilst princes and high officials were exempt from taxation altogether. This, together with widespread popular discontentment with the extravagant lifestyle of contemporary elites, sparked popular protests that led to Emperor Yang being murdered by one of his own officials.

However, the Sui Dynasty did see a Government restructure that saw the number of ministries cut by three, when they moved from the Three Lords and Nine Ministers system to the Three Departments and Six Ministries system. So it is nice to see Northern Ireland following international best practice.

In summary, the modern world is struggling with government coffers being put under severe strain, controversies over monetary policies, conflict in the Middle East, widespread anger with elites and the difficulties of getting the wealthiest to pay their fair share in taxes.

There is only one group of people who can help us in our hour of need.

We need more sixth century historians.

A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy

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