Byzantine Bureaucracy

After reading about 21st century space tourists, it seemed like a natural progression to go back and finish reading about Roman bureaucrats in the 6th century. Ruling the Later Roman Empire is largely based on a memoir of a bureaucrat named John Lydus who worked in Constantinople and it details how the imperial government was organized and how it functioned.

There seems to be a good reason why the word ‘byzantine‘ means highly complicated, intricate and involved (although which bureauracies aren’t?). The book makes a good case though for why things were set up they way they were. A couple of the reasons were that people and messages traveled slowly over the enormous distances of the empire and there was no efficient way to store and retrieve all of the information generated by the government.

The solution to these problems was to structure the bureaucracy to prevent most people from using its services. The obstacles put up by the government ranged from incomprehensible formalities and obscure technical language to fines and even the possibility of exile for people who pursued appeals and then lost their case.

I’m not sure how much can be generalized from this example, but I think it is helpful to be reminded that even things that appear to be set up in a bizarre fashion can be perfectly rational when seen from a different perspective.

Next up: Back to the 20th century with Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot.

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