Trends in Byzantine and Ottoman Government Forms

Nathan Gobes


Prof. Kite



Throughout my essays for my COR-330-07 class, Istanbul, I have been examining the governmental structure within Constantinople both during the Byzantine era, and the Ottoman era in which the city was renamed to Istanbul. While the Byzantines and the Ottomans shared similarities in their governmental structures, each culture ruled the city in very different ways. While their two styles of government can be viewed as the shift from the Byzantine era to the Ottoman – the two styles can also be viewed as a piece of the greater timeline on which governments become improved throughout history. Both Byzantine Constantinople and Ottoman Istanbul formed great empires, and the structure of government that was used in each era had a lasting effect on governments that were formed after it – as well as did these structures draw on the forms and styles of previous eras’ government structures. By examining the ways in which these two similar yet dissimilar empires ruled their peoples, we can learn a lot about the forms of government we see around the world today.

At the dawn of the founding of Constantinople, the Byzantines retained much of the customs, traditions, and ideas about government from their Roman heritage. The Roman Empire had only just recently split, and Constantinople had become the seat of the Eastern Roman Empire. However, the people and leaders of newly formed Constantinople also wanted to forge their own customs to distance themselves from their (actively-collapsing) Western Roman neighbors. So from the outset, Byzantine government was formed similar to the structure of the Roman Empire.

When Constantine founded Constantinople, he named himself emperor in Roman style. He was the absolute ruler both by law and by divine right – as Constantine not only had new law written but converted his empire to Christianity and had his rulership was confirmed by God. However, despite the fact that he had all the power in the system, he as one man could not control all aspects of his empire by himself. This became especially true as the Byzantine Empire grew to almost the full size of the Roman Empire at its height, and new tasks that required governmental attention came into view. As such, Constantine, and the emperors who succeeded him, would appoint advisors to different and varying positions that would take charge of a certain facet of Byzantine government. These advisors would form into groups that as a unit could maintain a certain facet, while other advisors oversaw such groups, and others would oversee them. By the middle-to-end of the Byzantine era, Constantinople had a massive amount of advisors, almost all of which would meet with the emperor at a huge court meeting. It is here in Byzantium that we see classical bureaucracy at its peak.

In modern day, we see bureaucracy operating at a moderate level throughout almost all the governments across the world. Even a democracy, with one president elected by the people, needs some bureaucracy to manage tasks at the middle and lower levels. However, it is of the opinion of many modern politicians that bureaucracy to the level that the Byzantines practiced would be utter chaos. It is the belief of many that despite all the modern technology at our disposal, including such a high of a level of bureaucracy as was seen in Constantinople (with that many advisors and groups of advisors all working in conjunction with each other and the emperor) would cause a government to be unmanageable and prone to collapse. However, by examining the Byzantines, we can learn that they managed (and quite well in fact) their entire empire through a government comprised almost entirely of bureaucratic groupings. It would seem we have still much to learn about the formulas of classical bureaucracy that could be extremely applicable in politics today.

The Ottomans too adopted a high level of bureaucracy into their government. They did not have quite as many advisors, groups of advisors, and overseers in their structure as the Byzantines did, but they certainly adopted a similar style. However, what differs so greatly between Byzantine and Ottoman governments is the Ottomans’ implementation of the millet system. When Suleiman the Conqueror brought down the Theodosian walls that kept Constantinople safe for so long in 1453, though he renamed the city to Istanbul in Turkish/Islamic style, many of the people living in the city and the rest of his empire were neither Turkish nor Islamic. While the Byzantines may have faced a similar ethic divisibility issue, the issue expanded exponentially with the dawn of the Ottoman era.

Finding themselves in a city filled with over twenty different races and cultures, the Ottoman sultans created the millet system to allow each culture to regulate themselves. On a small scale, each millet which represented one of the many different cultures inside Istanbul could make decisions for their own people. This allowed each of the cultures to thrive independently and not be forced to follow the rules of another culture. Each millet was self-governed, so long as their rules did not break those laid down by the Sultan. This ingenious method took small/petty/ethnic-clashing issues out of the Ottoman government’s hands, giving them the ability to focus on the big issues that their empire faced such as war, diplomacy, and territory expansion.

Even as far back as the Ottoman era, we can see glimmers of ideas on the rights of the individual and the under-represented. The Millet System is the first time when rights were given to ethnicities that differed from those of the ruling body. In many ancient empires both of those that came before and after the Ottoman, those peoples who wished to carry out cultural practices other than those that aligned with the state’s culture would be persecuted, forced to conform, or killed. In Istanbul, these people would be given the right to rule themselves and practice their culture freely. Both in Constantinople and in Istanbul do we see traces of modern politics but also do we see much we can learn – both from the Byzantines with their unbelievable forms of bureaucracy – and the Ottomans with their surprisingly advanced and successful Millet System.

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