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How the Byzantine Empire Would Have Dealt With Scottish Independence

15/09/2014 13:41 BST | Updated 14/11/2014 10:59 GMT

These are dangerous times, declare politicians and press alike, as the fate of Great Britain hangs in the balance. We are warned that there could be trouble ahead should the 'Yes' vote prevail.

Such is the crisis that last week David Cameron and Ed Miliband not only agreed to cancel Prime Minister's Question Time, but to head north (along with Nick Clegg). It's that serious.

They could take some solace - and learn some lessons - from the Byzantine Empire. Much maligned and long ignored (the word 'Byzantine' is highly pejorative), Byzantium was a highly successful state that survived more than a thousand years.

Above all, it was one of the world's great commonwealths, uniting people living in vastly different climates, geographies and regions - and using a wide range of languages. Its success lay in being able to keep everyone happy all the time. Predictably, there were hiccups along the way.

It was common for regions to try to break away and go it alone. In such cases, the causes were familiar and repeating ones: they normally came at a time of economic contraction, where the central government was easy to characterize as distant, self-interested and unfair in its distributions of expenditure; these anguished cries usually went hand in hand with complaints about over-taxation at a time when resources were already stretched.

Such scenarios lent themselves perfectly to the emergence of a charismatic figure with strong local connections who would typically rouse the community to think in terms of independence. With no TV debates or media scrutiny a thousand years ago, questions about what currency or laws would be used after separation were not asked, at least as far as we know; either way, they were bridges to be crossed in the future - details. The point at hand was that the capital had ignored the provinces for too long; it was time for practical solutions.

In such cases, the Byzantines themselves tended to take a more relaxed attitude than their modern peers. For one thing, it was normal to take a long view of the world. The Empire had been around a long time, and had had its ups and downs; revolts and uprisings did not need to be resolved quickly - though they did need to be resolved. Timing in politics, as in comedy, was everything.

For the inhabitants of Constantinople looking on as events unfolded (which they did on several occasions in the western provinces in the 10th and 11th centuries), attempts to detach from the empire were almost quaint. The idea of provincial towns wanting to make themselves into capital cities was charmingly quaint. Talent, trade and money flocked to Constantinople. There was no way that places like Adrianople, Sofia or Dyrrakhion would ever compete - lovely enough as they were in springtime; it was almost amusing to think they would even try.

For the government, on the other hand, revolts were bad news. They offered limitless opportunities for attacks from domestic rivals and up and coming politicians, eager to point out how out of touch and lazy the current regime had become. It was embarrassing too when dealing with foreign dignitaries at home and abroad: diplomats to Baghdad would face awkward questions from well-informed neighbours about trouble back at home, and have to put up with knowing glances and insincere offers to provide help if needed.

'What are they going to do', Alex Salmond said last week, as Cameron, Miliband and Clegg arrived in Scotland; 'invade?' As the Byzantines knew, shows of force were risky. There was a danger that attempting to restore order would backfire and make the government even less popular that it already was, and solidify support behind the rebels in the process; for another, there was the chance that those sent to calm things would be taken on and defeated - which likewise boosted the credibility of the early medieval equivalent of the Yes campaign. In Byzantium, as in Britain, it was a lose-lose scenario.

Often, though, revolts would fizzle out. But the way to win these battles was to appeal to the local population. Sometimes the carrot worked, as in the revolt of Roussel Balliol - the Alex Salmond of the 1070s. On this occasion, we are told, some of the rebels were won over by arguments, gifts and promises.

More often, though, it was the threat of the stick that was decisive. The situation is not ideal, admitted the general sent to bring matters to a conclusion, when he addressed the locals. Personal ambition and visions of independence had cost time and money. But this is how things were going to work from now on:

Fed up with trying to use reason, the moment had come to deal with things once and for all, he told an 11th century version of the Question Time audience. The government is out of pocket, and as a result of your truculence, you are going to be hit where it hurts - in the pocket. Playing high stakes with the central government had consequences. You are going to be hit with a one-off and expensive tax to teach you a lesson.

The crowd he was talking to were not happy about this, hissing at him furiously (think Jim Sillars on a bad day - well, on any day). But then, as a contemporary author put it, just as a pot might land face up or face down when it falls, the mood changed, people changed their minds and went home. Independence was all very well - until you realized you had to pay for it.

Still, they did better than others had done a few decades earlier. On that occasion, Basil II, a gnarled tough man with few airs or graces, eventually snapped at the persistent attempts for much of the western provinces to go their own way. Fed up with endless campaigning (military, rather than political), he forced a show down with the Pro-Independence movement.

Instead of almost weeping while sitting on a stool imploring the locals not to hurt the commonwealth, he dealt with them ruthlessly. Supposedly, nearly 15,000 men were blinded. One in each hundred was left with their sight so they could explain what had happened to their families. Defying the government was not something to consider lightly.

Some would say this Basil's intervention was a little on the dramatic side - though the story gained much in the telling. The Byzantines also understood that it was a nifty thing to have examples in the historical locker to wheel out as examples in the future.

So maybe if politicians and celebrities want to Britain Stay Together, they should not be on bended knees begging Scotland to hang on, but spell out what happens if they don't. Just don't mention the Bulgars or Basil - owner of one of the great nicknames in history: the Bulgar Slayer