What was the difference between the Carolingian Empire formally established by Charlemagne through his coronation in Rome in the year 800, and the Byzantine Empire centred around Constantinople (modern Istanbul)?
The ideological and cultural aspects of this enormous question have been abundantly studied for these two heirs of the ancient Roman Empire, but the issue is perhaps less clearly understood when it comes to the exercise of power. Historians have plenty of sources at their disposal for both these political units, but these sources are culturally embedded in such a way as to make direct comparison difficult, especially when it comes to thinking about how power worked at an everyday level, and how rulers controlled their territories.
There is however one source that not just allows but encourages us to think comparatively about how these two empires actually worked, and that is the Rižana Dispute (sometimes also known as the Plea of Rižana). You can read a full English translation, but here is a brief summary:
Around 804, Charlemagne sent three legates to Istria, a peninsula to the north-east of Italy, to resolve a dispute that had broken out there.
Istria was a region that had previously been under Byzantine control, but Charlemagne had conquered it in 788, and annexed it to the kingdom of Italy (which he had also conquered a few years earlier, in 774). This conquest had brought with it some changes in how Istria was governed: and it was to these changes that people in Istria were objecting in 804.
The source is a record of the meeting that Charlemagne’s legates arranged to sort things out in Rižana, now a small settlement in modern-day Slovenia, a couple of kilometres from the Italian border. To do this, they summoned 172 leaders from cities and fortified settlements in the Istrian region to hear what the issue was: and these people did not hold their punches.
First of all, the Istrian witnesses complained that since the Frankish conquest, the church had started to throw its weight around much more. They began by accusing the Patriarch of Grado, the most senior churchman of the area, of evading his financial responsibilities. Then they moved onto the other bishops, who they said had been dodging their obligations, evicting people from church lands wrongfully, and generally bullying the local free population.
But their real anger was reserved for Duke John, the main secular agent appointed by the Franks. John, they said, had appropriated the revenues meant for the imperial court for his own purposes, and had also taken over a great deal of property. And that was just the start of it! He’d abolished the traditional hierarchy of offices held by regional leaders, along with the cherished privileges that went with them; he’d demanded extra humiliating services, such as feeding his dogs and onerous long-distance transport duties; and he’d raised tax demands considerably. Getting direct access to the centre of power was much harder than it had been, the Istrian leaders claimed, under the Greeks.
What does this account tell us about the Carolingian and Byzantine empires? Both were obviously agrarian empires, getting their revenues from an overwhelmingly agricultural economy. Rights over grazing livestock were particularly important in this region. So to some extent, the new rulers of Istria simply stepped into the shoes of the old, in focusing their demands for revenue on these resources.
But the differences are striking, too. Power in Carolingian Istria was organised and exercised in new ways. The Carolingian regime had apparently empowered bishops at the expense of what seems like the relics of a Roman-style city-based administration maintained by the Byzantines. The Carolingian administrative apparatus was also far less elaborated: instead of a series of grand-sounding titles and offices, each with their own administrative privileges, rituals and customs designed to boost egos, there was just the duke and his all-purposes “sheriffs” (centenarii), together with his own extended family. And, as already mentioned, the new emperor was harder to reach than the old one. To get to the court, and thus to reach Charlemagne’s attention, the Istrians had to go through mediators whom they didn’t altogether trust, whether it was a duke or a church patriarch.
The new Carolingian regime may seem therefore less sophisticated than the Byzantine administration had been. Yet despite our modern preconceptions, and as Matthew Innes has pointed out, that doesn’t mean that it was less effective at flexing its muscles. In fact, judging from the complaints, it was actually more successful at extracting revenues from the region than the Byzantine rulers had been, even if not all of the proceeds ended up at the imperial centre any more.
And, as Stefan Esders has noted, the new regime was also just as literate. The Rižana record itself demonstrates that, since it was probably the first time that the customs of the region had been written down, in this case under the auspices of the Patriarch of Grado (in some ways as much a representative of Frankish authority in Istria as Duke John).
So, a relatively unelaborated and informal apparatus of government posed no barrier to efficient and effective rule. Carolingian Istria seems to have been just as controlled, and just as exploited, as Byzantine Istria, even though (as Rachel Stone has also argued) the Carolingian Empire was organised very differently.
Can we securely draw sweeping conclusions about how power worked in two empires just on the basis of a single document? Of course not. Matters in Istria were complicated by its recent conquest: this was a frontier zone between two empires, so things may well have been very different elsewhere. But the Rižana Dispute at least gives us a glimpse into how the Carolingian and Byzantine empires were ‘experienced’ differently by the same regional community – and that’s a precious insight which we should make the most of.
For more discussion (in English) of the Rizana (sometimes also spelled Risano or Riziano) dispute, see
- J. Davis, Charlemagne’s Practice of Empire (Cambridge, 2015), esp. pp. 102-4 and 274-277.
- M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.
Image: the Rizana dispute charter (Wikipedia)
 M. Innes, ‘Framing the Carolingian Economy’, Journal of Agrarian Change 9 (2009), 42-58.
 Stefan Esders, ‘Regionale Selbstbehauptung zwischen Byzanz und dem Frankenreich: Die inquisitio der Rechtsgewohnheiten Istriens durch die Sendboten Karls des Großen und Pippins von Italien’, in Eid und Wahrheitssuche. Studien zu rechtlichen Befragungspraktiken in Mittelalter und früher Neuzeit, ed. S. Esders (Frankfurt, 1999), 49-112.