Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy

The Byzantine Empire had a complex system of aristocracy and bureaucracy. Most of the offices and titles were honorifics only, as the emperor was the sole ruler. Over the more than 1000 years of the empire's existence, different titles were adopted and discarded, and many lost or gained prestige. At first the various titles of the empire were the same as those in the late Roman Empire, as the Byzantine Empire was not yet distinguished from Rome. By the time of Heraclius in the 7th century many of the titles had become obsolete; by the time of Alexius I, many of the positions were either new or drastically changed, but they remained basically the same from Alexius' reign to the fall of the Empire in 1453.

Aristocratic titles

  • Basileus (Βασιλεύς)– the Greek word for "sovereign" which originally referred to any king in the Greek-speaking areas of the Roman Empire, such as Herod in Judea. It also referred to the emperors of Persia. Heraclius adopted it to replace the old Latin title of Augustus (Augoustos) in 629, and it became the Greek word for "emperor." Heraclius also used the titles autokrator (αυτοκράτωρ - "autocrat," "self-ruler") and kyrios (κύριος - "lord"). The Byzantines reserved the term "basileus" among Christian rulers exclusively for the emperor in Constantinople, and referred to Western European kings as "rigas", a Hellenized form of the Latin word "rex" (=king). The feminine form basilissa referred to an empress. Empresses were addressed as "Eusebestati Augousta" (=Most Pious Augusta), and were also called Kyria (=Lady) or Despoina (the female form of "despotes", see below). Basileopator was a honorific to describe the "father" of an emperor, although a basileopator was not necessarily the emperor's actual father. The first basileopator was Zautzes, a nobleman under Leo VI; Romanus I Lecapenus also used the term when he was regent for Constantine VII. One has to bear in mind that primogeniture, or indeed heredity itself, was never legally established in Byzantine imperial succession, because in principle the Roman emperor was selected by the Senate, the People and the Army. This was rooted firmly in the Roman "republican" tradition, whereby hereditary kingship was rejected and the emperor was nominally the convergence of several offices of the Republic onto one person. Many emperors, anxious to safeguard their firstborn son's right to the throne, had them crowned as co-emperors when they were still children, thus assuring that upon their own death the throne would not be even momentarily vacant. In such a case the need for an imperial selection never arose. In several cases the new emperor ascended the throne e.g. after marrying the previous emperor's widow, or indeed after forcing the previous emperor to abdicate and become a monk. Several emperors were also deposed because of perceived inadequacy, e.g. after a military defeat, and some were murdered. This explains why a basileopator (i.e. the emperor's father or father-in-law) had not been an emperor himself.
  • Porphyrogenitos (πορφυρογέννητος) - "born-in-the-purple": Emperors wanting to emphasize the legitimacy of their ascent to the throne appended this title to their names, meaning they were born in the delivery room of the imperial palace (called the Porphyra because it was panelled with slabs of purple marble), to a reigning emperor, and were therefore legitimate. Example (with more context): Constantine VII
  • Autocrator (Αυτοκράτωρ) – "Emperor," this title was originally equivalent to Imperator, and was used by the emperors.
  • Sebastos (ο Σεβαστός) – "Majesty," this title is the literal Greek translation of the Latin term Augustus or Augoustos, and was used by the emperors. Under Alexius I it became less important after the creation of Protosebastos. The feminine form was sebaste ("η Σεβαστή").
  • Despotes (Δεσπότης) – This title ("despot") was created by Manuel I Comnenus in the 12th century, as the highest title after the emperor. A despot could be the holder of a despotate; for example, the Despotate of Morea, centred at Mistra, was held by the heir to the Byzantine throne after 1261. The feminine form, despoina, referred to a female despot or the wife of a despot.
  • Sebastokrator (Σεβαστοκράτωρ) – "Venerable Ruler," a title created by Alexius I as a combination of autokrator and sebastos. The first sebastokrator was Alexius' brother Isaac; it was essentially a meaningless title, which signified only a close relationship with the emperor. The feminine form was sebastokratorissa.
  • Kaisar (Καίσαρ) – Caesar (title), originally as in the late Roman Empire it was used for a subordinate co-emperor or the heir apparent. When Alexius I created sebastokrator, kaisar became third in importance, and fourth after Manuel I created despotes. The feminine form was kaisarissa.
  • Panhypersebastos (Πανυπερσέβαστος), and Protosebastos (Πρωτοσέβαστος) – developed from sebastos ("majesty"). Alexius and later emperors could create a large number of titles by adding pan ("all"), hyper ("above"), proto ("first"), and other prefixes to basic titles, such as sebastos in these cases.

Despotes, sebastokrator, kaisar, panhypersebastos, and protosebastos were normally reserved for members of the imperial family, and were distinguished by different clothes and different crowns. However, they could also be given to foreigners. The first despotes was actually a foreigner, Bela III of Hungary, signifying that Hungary was considered a Byzantine tributary state. The first foreigner to be called sebastokrator was Stefan Nemanja of Serbia, who was given the title in 1191. Kaloyan of Bulgaria also used the title. Justinian II named Tervel, khan of the Bulgars, kaisar in 705; the title then developed into the Slavic term tsar or czar (from Latin through Russian). Andronicus II also named Roger de Flor, leader of the Catalan Grand Company, kaisar in 1304. Protosebastos was also given to Enrico Dandolo, Doge of Venice, before his involvement in the Fourth Crusade.

Especially in the later centuries of the empire, Byzantine emperors were also referred to as khronokrator (χρονοκράτωρ) and kosmokrator (κοσμοκράτωρ) - literally, "ruler of time" and "ruler of the world."

Court titles



  • Pansebastohypertatos, panoikeiotatos, protoproedros – examples of the lengthy titles created by adding prefixes. These titles were held by members of the imperial family after Alexius I, signifying a close relationship with the emperor, but they held no real power.
  • Protovestiarios - usually a minor relative of the emperor, who took care of the emperor’s personal wardrobe, especially on military campaigns. He was also sometimes responsible for other members of the imperial household, and the emperor’s personal finances. The older term, from before the time of Justinian I, was curopalata (or kouropalates in Greek). This was derived from kourator (curator), an earlier official responsible for financial matters. The vestiarios was a subordinate official. The protovestiaria and vestiaria performed the same functions for the empress.

The Byzantines also had aristocratic titles for lesser members of the royal family and lesser nobles, adopted from Latin terms and somewhat equivalent to the similar terms in Western Europe (derived from the same Latin terms). These were prinkeps (prince), doux (duke), and komes (count). They also had kleisourarka, apokomes, and akrita, equivalent to lower nobles such as marquesses, viscounts, earls, and barons.

Various lesser nobles also held titles in the imperial residence, such as parakoimomenos (a bodyguard) and pankernes (a cupbearer), and megas konostaulos ("grand constable," in charge of the emperor’s stables).

Military titles

Army

  • Exarchos - The exarchs were governors of remote parts of the empire such as Italy or Africa. They enjoyed a greater degree of independence than other provincial governors, combining both civil and military authority, practically acting as viceroys.
  • Domestikos – the domestikoi were originally imperial guards, who became generals in the themes. They included:
    • Megas Domestikos (Grand Domestic) - the overall commander of the army.
    • Domestikos ton Scholon (Domestic of the Scholae) – the commander the Scholae, originally a prestigious army division, later a theme that provided troops for the division. This was a very prestigious title, which held a lot of power, unlike many of the other titles.
    • Domestikos tou thematos (Domestic of the Themes) – the commander and organizer of the military themes; there was one for the European themes and one for Asian themes.
  • Strategos – a military commander of a theme, who often also had the title of doux. The term is basically equivalent to "general" or "admiral", as it was used in both branches of service
  • Hypatos - the ruler of a Tyrrhenian city-state, usually translated into Latin as consul.
  • Tourmarches – the commander of a tourma, an army division.
  • Protospatharios – a senior officer in the imperial guard. The spatharios was his subordinate.
  • Protostrator – initially the Emperor's stable master, later the term was used for the commander of the army.
  • Stratopedarches (Master of the Camp) – a commander of the army in the field, who also possibly had legal powers.
  • Protokentarchos and kentarchos - commanders of a smaller division of the army in the field. The name was derived from the Latin centurion.
  • Merarches - a commander of a cavalry division (meros) in the army.

Navy

  • Megas Doux – the Megaduke or Grand Duke, was the basic equivalent of the modern Lord High Admiral, and organized the Byzantine naval themes. He was very likely one of the few who knew the secret of the composition of Greek fire. By the end of the Palaeologos dynasty the megaduke was head of the government and bureaucracy, not just the navy.
    • Megas Drungarios - a subordinate of the megas doux, who was in charge of the naval officers.
    • Drungarios - a naval officer as well as an army officer. A somewhat higher version of the drungarios was the drungarokomes.
  • Katepano – the governor of a naval theme, such as the Catapan of Italy, a title developed in the 9th century.

Other military titles

  • Kontostaulos - Greek form of "constable," the chief of the Frankish mercenaries
  • Hetairiarches – the chief of the barbarian mercenaries, the Hetaireia
  • Akolouthos - "Acolyte," the chief of the Varangian Guard
  • Spatharokandidatos – another Varangian title
  • Manglavites – another Varangian title

Administrative titles

The vast Byzantine bureaucracy had many titles, and varied more than aristocratic and military titles. In Constantinople there were normally hundreds, if not thousands, of bureaucrats at any time. These are some of the more common ones, including non-nobles who also directly served the emperor.

Praetorian prefect – The Praetorian prefect was originally an old Roman office used for the commander of the army in the Eastern and Western portions of the Empire. It was abolished in the 7th century when it had become useless (as there was by then no Western portion of the Empire). The title evolved into the domestikos. After Diocletian's reforms, the functions of the Prefect embraced a wide sphere; they were administrative, financial, judicial, and even legislative. The provincial governors were appointed at his recommendation, and with him rested their dismissal, subject to the Emperor's approval. He received regular reports of the administration from the governors of the provinces. He had treasuries of his own, and the payment and the food supplies of the army devolved upon him. He was also a supreme judge of appeal; in cases which were brought before his court from a lower tribunal there was no further appeal to the Emperor. He could issue, on his own authority, praetorian edicts, but they concerned only matters of detail.

  • Protoasecretes - an earlier title for the head of the chancery, responsible for keeping official government records. The asecretes was a subordinate. Other subordinates included the chartoularios (in charge of imperial documents), the kastrinsios (a chamberlain in the palace), the mystikos (a private secretary), and the eidikos (a treasury official).
  • Logothetes - a secretary in the extensive bureaucracy, who did various jobs depending on the exact position. Logothetes were some of the most important bureaucrats. They included:
    • Megas logothetes (Grand Logothete) – the head of the logothetes, personally responsible for the legal system and treasury, somewhat like a chancellor in western Europe.
    • Logothetes tou dromou (Postal Logothete) – the head of diplomacy and the postal service.
    • Logothetes ton oikeiakon (Domestic Logothete) – head of domestic affairs, such as the security of Constantinople and the local economy.
    • Logothetes tou genikou (General Logothete) – responsible for taxation.
    • Logothetes tou stratiotikou (Military Logothete) – a civilian, in charge of distributing pay to the army.

Logothetes originally had some influence on the emperor, but they eventually became honorary posts. In the later empire the Grand Logothete became the mesazon ("manager" or, more literally, "middle-man").

Other administrators included:

  • Prefect – a lower official in Constantinople, involved in local government.
  • Quaestor – originally a legal and financial official, which lost power after the development of the logothetes.
  • Tribounos – equivalent to the Roman tribune; responsible for maintenance of roads, monuments, and buildings in Constantinople.
  • Magister (magister officiorum, magister militum, "maistor" in Greek) – an old Roman term, master of offices and master of the army; by the time of Heraclius, these had become honorary and were eventually discarded.
  • Sacellarios – under Heraclius, an honorary supervisor of the other palace administrators, logothetes, etc.
  • Praetor – originally an administrator of Constantinople, in charge of taxation; after Alexius, a civil governor of a theme.
  • Kephale - "head," the civil governor of a Byzantine town. (“Head”)
  • Dragoman – a Turkish title, which was applied to interpreters and ambassadors.
  • Horeiarios – in charge of distributing food from the state granaries.

The protoasecretes, logothetes, prefect, praetor, quaestor, magister, and sacellarios, among others, were members of the senate, until this became an increasingly unused aspect of the Empire after Heraclius.

Sources

  • Warren T. Treadgold. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8047-2630-2
  • H.R. Ellis Davidson. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1976. ISBN 0049400495
  • Michael Angold. The Byzantine Aristocracy: IX to XIII Centuries. Oxford: BAR International Series, 1984. ISBN 0860542831.
  • Deno John Geanakoplos. Emperor Michael Palaeologus and the West, 1258-1282: A Study in Byzantine-Latin Relations. Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1973. ISBN 1208013105.
  • Alexiad of Anna Comnena, http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/AnnaComnena-Alexiad.html
  • Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon, http://www.ccel.org/g/gibbon/decline/
  • Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents from Dumbarton Oaks

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