Byzantine bureaucracy and aristocracy

Painting of Emperor Basil II in triumphal garb, exemplifying the Imperial Crown handed down by Angels.

The Byzantine Empire had a complex system of aristocracy and bureaucracy, which was inherited from the Roman Empire. At the apex of the hierarchy stood the emperor, who was the sole ruler (autokrator) and who was considered to be divinely ordained. Beneath him, a multitude of officials and court functionaries operated the complex administrative machinery that was necessary to run the empire. In addition to those officials, a large number of honorific titles existed, which the emperor awarded to his subjects or to friendly foreign rulers.

Over the more than thousand 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. However, by the time that Heraclius was emperor (610641), many of the titles had become obsolete. By the time of Alexios I reign (10821118), many of the positions were either new or drastically changed. However, from that time on they remained essentially the same until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.

Background history

In the early Byzantine period (4th to early 7th century) the system of government followed the model established in late Roman times under Diocletian and Constantine the Great, with a strict separation between civil and military offices and a scale of titles corresponding to office, where membership or not in the Senate was the major distinguishing characteristic.[1] Following the transformation of the Byzantine state during the 7th century on account of massive territorial loss to the Muslim conquests, this system vanished, and during the "classic" or middle period of the Byzantine state (8th-late 11th centuries), a new, court-centered system emerged. In this, the new titles derived from older, now obsolete, public offices, and dignities of a certain level were awarded with each office. A senatorial class remained in place, which incorporated a large part of the upper officialdom as every official from the rank of protospatharios (Literally "first sword-bearer;" originally the head of the Emperor's bodyguards) was considered a member of it.[1] During this period, many families remained important for several centuries, and several Emperors rose from the aristocracy. Two groups can be distinguished: a metropolitan civil nobility and a provincial military one, the latter remaining regionally based and having large land-holdings, but apparently no military forces of their own, in contrast to contemporary Western Europe.

The 10th and 11th centuries saw a rise in importance of the aristocracy, and an increased number of new families entering it. The catastrophic losses in the latter 11th century again prompted a reorganization of the imperial administrative system, at the hands of the new Komnenos dynasty: the older offices and titles fell gradually into disuse, while an array of new honorifics emerged, which signified primarily the closeness of their recipient's familial relationship to the Emperor.[1] The Komnenian-led Empire, and later their Palaiologan successors, were based primarily on the landed aristocracy, keeping the governance of state tightly controlled by a limited number of intermarrying aristocratic families. In the 11th and 12th century for instance, some 80 civil and 64 military noble families have been identified, a very small number for so large a state.[2] Finally, in the Palaiologan system as reported by pseudo-Kodinos one can discern the accumulated nomenclature of centuries, with formerly high ranks having been devalued and others taken their place, and the old distinction between office and dignity had vanished.[1]

Imperial titles

These were the highest titles, usually limited to members of the imperial family or to a few very select foreign rulers, whose friendship the Emperor desired.

Titles used by the emperors

The back of this coin by Manuel I Comnenus bears his title, porphyrogennetos.

Titles used by the imperial family

Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos with his family: empress Helena Dragaš (right), and three of their sons, John, Andronikos and Theodore. John, as his father's heir and co-emperor, wears an exact replica of his imperial costume.

Court titles from the 8th to 11th centuries

Emperor Nikephoros III flanked by personifications of Truth and Justice, and by his senior court dignitaries, from an illuminated manuscript dating to the 1070s. From left: the proedros and epi tou kanikleiou, the prōtoproedros and prōtovestiarios (a eunuch, since he is beardless), the emperor, the proedros and dekanos, and the proedros and megas primikērios.[3]

In the 8th–11th centuries, according to information provided by the Taktikon Uspensky, the Klētorologion of Philotheos (899) and the writings of Constantine Porphyrogennetos, below the imperial titles, the Byzantines distinguished two distinct categories of dignities (ἀξίαι): the "dignities by award" (διὰ βραβείων ἀξίαι), which were purely honorific court titles and were conferred by the award of a symbol of rank, and the "dignities by proclamation" (διὰ λόγου ἀξίαι), which were offices of the state and were conferred by imperial pronouncement. The former were further divided into three subcategories, depending on who was eligible for them: different sets of titles existed for the "Bearded Ones" (βαρβάτοι from Latin barbati, i.e. not eunuchs), the eunuchs (ἐκτομίαι) and women. State officials usually combined titles from both main categories, so that a high official would be both magistros (an "awarded" title) and logothetēs tou dromou (a "proclaimed" office).

Titles for the "Bearded Ones"

The "by award" titles for the "Bearded Ones" (non-eunuchs[4]) were, in descending order of precedence:

Titles for the eunuchs

By descending order of precedence, the "by award" titles for the eunuchs were:

There is also a single special title reserved for women, that of zōstē patrikia (ζωστὴ πατρικία, "Girded patrikia"). This title was given to the empress' ladies of honour, and, according to Philotheos, ranked very high in hierarchy, above even the magistros and proedros and just below the kouropalates. The title is known from the early 9th century, and disappeared in the 11th century.[16] Otherwise women bore the female forms of their husbands' titles.

Palace offices

Military offices



Other military titles

Administrative offices

Emperor Theophilos flanked by courtiers. From the Skylitzes Chronicle.

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. Like the Church and the military, they wore elaborately differentiated dress, often including huge hats. These are some of the more common ones, including non-nobles who also directly served the emperor.

Logothetes originally had some influence on the emperor, but they eventually became honorary posts. In the later empire the Grand Logothete was replaced by the mesazōn ("mediator").

Other administrators included:

The protasekretis, logothetes, prefect, praetor, quaestor, magister, and sakellarios, among others, were members of the senate.

Court life

At the peaceful height of Middle Byzantium, court life "passed in a sort of ballet",[19] with precise ceremonies prescribed for every occasion, to show that "Imperial power could be exercised in harmony and order", and "the Empire could thus reflect the motion of the Universe as it was made by the Creator", according to the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who wrote a Book of Ceremonies describing in enormous detail the annual round of the Court. Special forms of dress for many classes of people on particular occasions are set down; at the name-day dinner for the Emperor or Empress various groups of high officials performed ceremonial "dances", one group wearing " a blue and white garment, with short sleeves, and gold bands, and rings on their ankles. In their hands they hold what are called phengia". The second group do just the same, but wearing "a garment of green and red, split, with gold bands". These colours were the marks of the old chariot-racing factions, the four now merged to just the Blues and the Greens, and incorporated into the official hierarchy. As in the Versailles of Louis XIV, elaborate dress and court ritual probably were at least partly an attempt to smother and distract from political tensions.

Eunuchs also participated in court life, typically serving as attendants to noble women or assisting the emperor when he took part in religious ceremonies or removed his crown. Eunuchs in the early Byzantine Empire were usually foreigners, and they were often seen as having a low status. This changed in the 10th century, when the social status of eunuchs increased and members of the educated Byzantine upper class began to become eunuchs.[20]

However, even by the time of Anna Comnena, with the Emperor away on military campaigns for much of the time, this way of life had changed considerably, and after the Crusader occupation it virtually vanished. A French visitor was shocked to see the Empress going to church far less well attended than the Queen of France would have been. The Imperial family largely abandoned the Great Palace for the relatively compact Palace of Blachernae.

See also


  1. 1 2 3 4 Kazhdan (1991), p. 623
  2. Robin Cormack, "Writing in Gold, Byzantine Society and its Icons", 1985, George Philip, London, p180, using Kazhdan A.P. , 1974 (in Russian) ISBN 0-540-01085-5
  3. Spatharakis, Iohannis (1976). The portrait in Byzantine illuminated manuscripts. Brill Archive. p. 110. ISBN 978-90-04-04783-9.
  4. The Eunuch in Byzantine History and Society; Shaun Tougher; page 22
  5. 1 2 Kazhdan (1991), p. 1727
  6. Bury (1911), p. 21
  7. Kazhdan (1991), p. 1267
  8. 1 2 3 4 Kazhdan (1991), p. 2162
  9. Kazhdan (1991), p. 1600
  10. 1 2 Bury (1911), p. 27
  11. Bury (1911), p. 26
  12. Bury (1911), p. 25
  13. Bury (1911), pp. 21, 23–24
  14. Ringrose 2003, p. 234 (Note #86).
  15. Bury 1911, p. 121.
  16. Kazhdan (1991), p. 2231
  17. Mark C. Bartusis, "The Kavallarioi of Byzantium" in Speculum, Vol. 63, No. 2 (Apr., 1988), pp. 343–350
  18. Bury (1911), p. 32
  19. Steven Runciman, Byzantine Style and Civilization (London: Penguin, 1975)
  20. Rosenwein, Barbara (2009). A Short History of the Middle Ages (3rd ed.). University of Toronto Press.


External links

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