Gondor, Byzantium, and Feudalism

The often imitated but never duplicated Tom Simon (who fights crime under his secret identity as Superversive) holds forth on the issue all legal scholars, historians and political theorists who happen to be fans of JRR Tolkien have often pondered. What is feudalism and how is the political system in Byzantium different from it? What are the parallels between Byzantium and Gondor?



To begin with, Tolkien at various points made both explicit and implicit comparisons of Gondor with Byzantium. The terms ‘North-kingdom’ and ‘South-kingdom’ for Arnor and Gondor are deliberate echoes of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire. In his famous letter to Milton Waldman (Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien no. 131), Tolkien writes:

In the south Gondor rises to a peak of power, almost reflecting Númenor, and then fades slowly to decayed Middle Age, a kind of proud, venerable, but increasingly impotent Byzantium.

In a letter to Charlotte and Denis Plimmer (Letters no. 294), he touches on the historical analogy again:

The progress of the tale ends in what is far more like the re-establishment of an effective Holy Roman Empire with its seat in Rome than anything that would be devised by a ‘Nordic’.

There are other parallels between later Roman history and the history of Gondor. The story of Eorl the Young and the founding of Rohan is a sort of alternate history of the Goths, somewhat sanitized, and with the bitter tragedy left out. Allow me to set the scene:

In the third century A.D., the Roman Empire fell into a rather bad way. A series of civil wars, which became more or less continuous after the assassination of Alexander Severus in 235, ravaged the economy, depleted the treasury, and depopulated significant areas of the empire. Plague, which had been a recurrent problem since the time of Marcus Aurelius, further reduced the population; and the Romans, who had gradually come to imitate the habit of family limitation that had been de rigueur among the aristocracy since the reign of Augustus, were no longer breeding fast enough to restore their population to its old level. Population and production both went into a serious and prolonged decline.

Read the whole thing.