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Byzantine Aristocracy of Constantinople

Author(s) : Merianos Gerasimos (9/20/2007)
Translation : Loumakis Spyridon

For citation: Merianos Gerasimos, "Byzantine Aristocracy of Constantinople",
Encyclopaedia of the Hellenic World, Constantinople
URL: <http://www.ehw.gr/l.aspx?id=11814>

Αριστοκρατία της Βυζαντινής Κωνσταντινούπολης (1/25/2012 v.1) Byzantine Aristocracy of Constantinople (1/25/2012 v.1) 
 

1. Some introductory remarks on the term "Byzantine aristocracy”

The meaning of the term “aristocracy” at Byzantium is very obscure, being used by the contemporaries in order to define the social group just below the emperor; the ambiguity of the term, however, has often led to the depiction of the specific group in many different ways.1 "Aristocracy" designates the supremacy of the most excellent, but how these are defined at Byzantium? We often conclude to the somehow circular argument that those in possession of the power, are the best, the most proper to exercise it. Thus, however, the meaning of “aristocracy” at Byzantium is often interrelated with the meaning of «ruling class».2 The problem lies on the fact that at Byzantium the noble lineage – that permits the bequeath of the social status from generation to generation –, although always enjoyed a high esteem, did not stand as an obstacle to the constant renewal of the Byzantine “aristocracy”. The possibility of moving upwards or downwards in social hierarchy was an unquestionable reality.3 This was due highly to the fact that Constantinople was open to people with capabilities, who by faithfully serving the emperor were receiving in exchange revenues and a place in court hierarchy. Thus at Byzantium, besides noble birth, education and the skills were resources able to open the way towards the ruling class. Consequently, as Hans-Georg Beck has observed, it is proper to name this class as “the aristocracy”, as long as we bear in mind that it is a term with many meanings and we do not possess a better one.4

The Constantinopolitan aristocracy naturally formed the highest strata not only of the capital city, but also of the Byzantine aristocracy in general. In every state, where the power of a dignitary was depended on a relation as close as possible with the imperial environment, living in the capital offered clear advantages. As a consequence, the Byzantine aristocracy was closely tied (even was assimilated) to the imperial court.5

2. The “senatorial aristocracy” during the early Byzantine period

During the early Byzantine period, the class of the senators possessed the highest place of the social hierarchy of Byzantium, as they did in the Roman society. The senate of Constantinople was founded by Constantine the Great (324-337)6 and was mainly populated by members of the Roman senate who followed the emperor as far as the new capital; to these the imperial officials of the three highest classes - illustres (=illustrious), spectabiles (=prominent ones) and clarissimi (=the most excellent) were added.At the beginning, the new senate was believed to be inferior to the Roman one. During the reign of Constantius II (337-361), however, the senate of New Rome became equal to the Roman one, the number of its members was increased (by the end of the 4th century it reached 2.000 members),7 and a senatorial class was legally etablished and consolidated in the East.8

The senators were mainly landowners,9 since the possession of land-property was an essential criterion for the admission to the senate.10 Nevertheless, most of the senators lived in their estates in the country, and the active part of senate was constituted by the few illustres, mainly the highest civil dignitaries on active service with the city of Constantinople as their permanent residence.11

Thus, the senate of Constantinople was composed mainly of the highest court dignitaries and the highest civil officials and was filled with those appointed by the emperor himself. The senate was, however, exposed to the arbitrary will of the emperor. For example, after a change on the throne, the new emperor usually appointed in high offices those that had already helped him ascend the throne; therefore, dismissals of the highest state functionaries from their duties as soon as their emperor was dead or dethroned, was a repeated phenomenon.12

To sum up, during the early Byzantine period the senate of Constantinople formed a class with few members, depended to a degree on the will of the emperor, a fact that explains the continuous renewal of the early Byzantine aristocracy. Consequently, few families were kept to the highest offices for more than three generations.13

From the 7th century onwards the Arab conquerors, in combination with the barbarian invasions in the Balkans, seems to have eliminated the leading families of the previous period. In addition, the emperors Phocas (602-610) and – especially – Justinian II (685-695, 705-711) persecuted the members of the highest class of their days, by confiscating their properties or by going even further and exterminating them. The senatorial aristocracy was in decline, because of the heavy blows inflicted upon its members,14 although the institution of the senate was not wiped out.

3. The formation of a new aristocracy

The lack of evidence does not allow any clear and absolute distinction between the families established under Herakleios (610-641) and the new Byzantine aristocracy that probably began to form under the Isaurians (717-802). This aristocracy was reinforced during the next centuries, but until the 11th century it was under the control of the imperial authority, stripping its province-residing members of any autonomy. Already by the 9th century this aristocracy had obtained many of the attributes that would characterize it until the end of the Empire. It possessed large estates and its wealth was increasing due to tax-exemption and the annual wages (roga) that the dignitaries and the owners of honorary titles received.15During the 9th and 10th century the highest civil functionaries of Constantinople constituted the ruling class of the Empire and formed the senate. The titles possessed by them were not hereditary, but they had been granted by the emperor, and in certain cases were bought off.16

According to Alexander Kazhdan, social mobility upwards remained a characteristic element of the Byzantine society up until the 11th century.17 The sense of nobility with a legal content did not exist and the movement within the social hierarchy from beneath upwards or vice-versa was totally possible. The lower aristocracy was mainly composed of the provincial landowners of middle income level; imperial aristocracy was the higher one, receiving the court titles and partaking to the exercise of the state power.18

During the 11th century, the highest aristocracy was divided into two basic groups, military or civil.19 The first group, the military aristocracy of landowners, was composed of families that possessed large estates and held the most important military offices, whereas they also fulfilled administrative functions in the imperial apparatus. These families were mainly originating from Asia Minor and the Balkans.20 In spite of the similarities with the barons of the Western Europe, this group did not possess any autonomy: its members were imperial functionaries who could be liable to dismissal, confiscation of their property and exile. Thus, the Byzantine aristocracy was closely connected to Constantinople and to the imperial court,21 and it was perhaps only in the late 12th century that a substantial stratum of provincial aristocracy was formed, which, although not at the immediate service of the emperor, was receiving the highest imperial titles.22

The second group, the bureaucratic aristocracy, was formed by the aristocratic families at imperial service, who held their dignities from generation to generation. These dignitaries were mainly head of the secretariats, judges and tax collectors; that means all these that exercised the civil services (juridical and fiscal) of the state apparatus. The families that formed the functionary aristocracy were originating mainly from Constantinople, mainland Greece, the islands of the Aegean Sea and the maritime cities of Asia Minor. Within the bureaucratic aristocracy were included persons with exceptional education, orators, jurists and theologians, who manned the highest clergy, the bishops of the provinces and the deacons of Hagia Sophia surrounding the patriarch.23

In the middle of the 11th century the upright mobility was in full operation and the participation of urban elements (mainly of Constantinople) in the administration of the empire was encouraged.24 Many foreigners and merchants of Constantinople entered that way into the classes of the senators.25

In the 11th century the civil and military aristocracy were not separated by any unbridgeable gap.26 Nevertheless, the situation within the aristocracy was transformed from the end of that century due to the ascent of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118) to the power: the highest military aristocracy was distinguished as the dominant class of the Empire, forming a wide alliance of powerful families (Komnenoi, Doukai, Palaiologoi, Melissenoi and others) connected to each other with inter-marriages.27 These families shaped a kind of clan around the Komnenoi dynasty, by monopolizing the highest military and administrative dignities.28 From the beginnings of the 12th century the old titles were replaced by new ones (based on the title of sebastos), bestowed by the criterion of the descent of relationship and accentuated the family relationship with the emperor.29 These changes emphasize the radical alteration under which the nature of the Byzantine hierarchy was: the highest dignities of the court were exclusively bestowed to the members of the wider imperial family.30 The faction of the Komnenoi constituted a group with special position within the hierarchy, placed beyond and above the senate.31 Thus, the ties of blood were of primordial importance for defining the highest aristocracy.32

4. The Palaiologan period

During the 13th and 14th century the main elements of the Komnenian system were preserved. The alliance of the families that had created the faction of the Komnenoi kept its role as the aristocracy par excellence, no mater if there was another dynasty that had ascended on the throne.33 The highest places of the Palaiologan aristocracy were occupied by a small group of families, rich enough and active in governing, connected to each other with intermarriages;34 they were essentially ruling the provinces, especially there where they had economic power, creating thus centers of power outside the capital.35

It is of special importance that in the 14th century and especially in the 15th century the aristocracy of Constantinople was occupied with commerce, due to the loss of its lands because of the Ottoman expansion. It displayed, thus, a different financial behavior just before the Fall of Constantinople, compared to the previous centuries, and a remarkable adaptability.36

1. Antonopoulou, I.A., "La question de l’«aristocratie» byzantine. Remarques sur l’ambivalence du terme «aristocratie» dans la recherche historique contemporaine", Σύμμεικτα 15: Μνήμη Νίκου Οικονομίδη (2002), pp. 257-264.

2. Angold, M., “Introduction”, in Angold, M. (ed.), The Byzantine Aristocracy, IX-XIII Centuries (British Archaeological Reports, International Series 221, Oxford 1984), p. 1. As “ruling class” could be defined a legally and financially multiform group that possesses real power, whereas with the term “aristocracy” someone describes a legally defined, theoretically hereditary social stratum that possesses certain privileges. See. Kazhdan, A.P., - McCormick, M., “The Social World of the Byzantine Court”, in Maguire, H.(ed.), Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204 (Washinton, D.C. 1997), p. 167.

3. Καζντάν, Α., “Κεντρομόλες και κεντρόφυγες τάσεις στο βυζαντινό κόσμο (1081-1261). Η δομή της βυζαντινής κοινωνίας”, trans. Τ.Κ. Λουγγής, Βυζαντιακά 3 (1983), p. 98.

4. Beck, H.-G., Η βυζαντινή χιλιετία, trans. Δ. Κούρτοβικ (Athens2 1992), p. 327.

5. See. Kazhdan, A.P.- McCormick, M., “The Social World of the Byzantine Court”, in Maguire, H.,(ed.), Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204 (Washinton, D.C. 1997), pp. 167-197.

6. Among many sources that refer to the establishment of the senate of Constantinople, see in general Σωζομενός, κκλησιαστικ στορία, ΙΙ.3.6, French trans. A.-J. Festugière with the Greek text of the edition of J. Bidez, Sozomène, Histoire ecclésiastique, livres I-II (Sources chrétiennes 306, Paris 1983), pp. 238-240. For the senate of Constantinople, see Χριστοφιλοπούλου, Αι., σύγκλητος ες τ βυζαντινν κράτος (Athens 1949)· Beck, H.-G., “Senat und Volk von Konstantinopel. Probleme der byzantinischen Verfassungsgeschichte”, Sitzungsberichte der Bayerischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, philosophisch-historische Klasse, 1966, 6 (München 1966).

7. Καραγιαννόπουλος, Ι.Ε., Η πολιτική θεωρία των Βυζαντινών (Thessaloniki 1992), p. 48.

8. Dagron, G., Η γέννηση μιας πρωτεύουσας. Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, trans. Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), pp. 137-155· Καραγιαννόπουλος, Ι.Ε., Η πολιτική θεωρία των Βυζαντινών (Thessaloniki 1992), pp. 47-48.

9. Dagron, G., Η γέννηση μιας πρωτεύουσας. Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, trans. Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), p. 204 f.

10. Dagron, G., Η γέννηση μιας πρωτεύουσας. Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, trans. Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), p. 151.

11. Dagron, G., Η γέννηση μιας πρωτεύουσας. Η Κωνσταντινούπολη και οι θεσμοί της από το 330 ως το 451, trans. Μ. Λουκάκη (Athens 2000), p. 188-195· Καραγιαννόπουλος, Ι.Ε., Η πολιτική θεωρία των Βυζαντινών (Thessaloniki 1992), p. 48.

12. Beck, H.-G., Η βυζαντινή χιλιετία, trans. Δ. Κούρτοβικ (Athens2 1992), pp. 71-72, 342-343.

13. Cheynet, J.-Cl.,“The Byzantine Aristocracy (8th-13th Centuries) [English translation of ‘L’aristocratie Byzantine (VIIIe-XIIIe siècle)’, Journal des Savants (July-December 2000) pp. 281-322]”, in Cheynet, J.-Cl., The Byzantine Aristocracy and its Military Function (Collected Studies 859, Aldershot 2006) no. I, p. 2.

14. Λουγγής, Τ.Κ.,“Δοκίμιο για την κοινωνική εξέλιξη στη διάρκεια των λεγόμενων «σκοτεινών αιώνων»”, Σύμμεικτα 6 (1985), p.145.

15. Cheynet, J.-Cl.,“The Byzantine Aristocracy (8th-13th Centuries) [English translation of ‘L’aristocratie Byzantine (VIIIe-XIIIe siècle)’, Journal des Savants (July-December 2000), pp. 281-322]”, in Cheynet, J.-Cl., The Byzantine Aristocracy and its Military Function (Collected Studies 859, Aldershot 2006), no. I, pp. 41-42.

16. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), p. 57.

17. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), p. 107. See also, Ostrogorsky, G., “Observations on the Aristocracy in Byzantium”, Dumbarton Oaks Papers 25 (1971), p.3 f.

18. Καζντάν, Α., “Κεντρομόλες και κεντρόφυγες τάσεις στο βυζαντινό κόσμο (1081-1261). Η δομή της βυζαντινής κοινωνίας”, trans. Τ.Κ. Λουγγής, Βυζαντιακά 3 (1983), pp. 98-99.

19. The following outline of the evolution of aristocracy during the 11th century and onwards is owed mainly to the studies of Alexander Kazhdan (see his classical work Social’nyj sostav gospodstvujuščego klassa Vizantii XI-XII vv. [Moskva 1974]. A new, revised and appended edition has been published: Kazhdan, A.P. - Ronchey, S., L’aristocrazia bizantina dal principio dell’XI alla fine del XII secolo [Palermo 1997]). During the last years, historians, like Jean-Claude Cheynet, have revised Kazhdan’s outline. For example, very important are Cheynet's conclusions against the existence of a bipolar military-bureaucratic aristocracy: the perplexity of the marriages among the members of the two “aristocratic groups” prevents us from clearly disticting between the members of the "military" and the "civil" nobility (see Cheynet, J.-Cl., Pouvoir et contestations à Byzance [963-1210] [Byzantina Sorbonensia 9, Paris 1990] pp. 191-198. Cf. Kaegi, W.E., «The Controversy about Bureaucratic and Military Factions», Byzantinische Forschungen 19 [1993] pp. 25-33). Thus, the Kazhdan's outline is revised, mainly by avoiding the oversimplifications.

20. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), pp. 107-108· Καζντάν, Α., “Κεντρομόλες και κεντρόφυγες τάσεις στο βυζαντινό κόσμο (1081-1261). Η δομή της βυζαντινής κοινωνίας”, trans. Τ.Κ. Λουγγής, Βυζαντιακά 3 (1983), p. 99.

21. Ahrweiler, H.,“Recherches sur la société byzantine au XIe siècle: nouvelles hiérarchies et nouvelles solidarités”, Travaux et Mémoires 6 (1976), pp.104-110.

22. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), p. 110.

23. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), pp. 110-111. Καζντάν, Α.,“Κεντρομόλες και κεντρόφυγες τάσεις στο βυζαντινό κόσμο (1081-1261). Η δομή της βυζαντινής κοινωνίας”, trans. Τ.Κ. Λουγγής, Βυζαντιακά 3 (1983), p. 99.

24. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), p. 117.

25. See Μιχαήλ Ατταλειάτης, στορία, ed. W. Brunet de Presle, I. Bekker, Michaelis Attaliotae Historia (Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae, Bonnae 1853), p. 275. 12-22. Cf. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), p. 117.

26. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), p. 118.

27. Angold, Μ., Η Βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μία πολιτική ιστορία, trans. Ε. Καργιανιώτη, supervised by Π.Α. Αγαπητός (Athens2 1997), p. 212· Magdalino, P.,«Aspects of Twelfth-Century Byzantine Kaiserkritik», Speculum 58/2 (1983), p.336. For the values and the ideas of the military aristocracy instructive is the work of Nikephoros Bryennios, λη στορίας, ed. P. Gautier, Nicephori Bryennii Historiarum libri quattuor (Corpus Fontium Historiae Byzantinae 9, Bruxelles 1975), who has been characterized as the “idealist of the military aristocracy during the Comnenian period” (Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς [Athens 1997], p. 171).

28. Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), p. 117.

29. See Kazhdan, A.P. - Epstein, A.W., Αλλαγές στον βυζαντινό πολιτισμό κατά τον 11ο και 12ο αιώνα, trans. Α. Παππάς (Athens 1997), p. 117-118. Angold, Μ., Η Βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μία πολιτική ιστορία, trans. Ε. Καργιανιώτη, supervised by Π.Α. Αγαπητός (Athens2 1997), p. 213· Kazhdan, Α.,“Sebastos”, in Kazhdan, Α., (editor-in-chief), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium 3 (New York - Oxford 1991), pp. 1862-1863· Magdalino, P., The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 (Cambridge 1993), pp. 181-185.

30. Angold, M., Η Βυζαντινή αυτοκρατορία από το 1025 έως το 1204. Μία πολιτική ιστορία, trans. Ε. Καργιανιώτη, supervised by Π.Α. Αγαπητός (Athens2 1997), p. 213.

31. Magdalino, P., «Byzantine Snobbery», in Angold, M.(ed.), The Byzantine Aristocracy, IX-XIII Centuries (British Archaeological Reports, International Series 221, Oxford 1984), p. 64. Magdalino, P., The Empire of Manuel I Komnenos, 1143-1180 (Cambridge 1993), p. 182.

32. Cheynet, J.-Cl., “The Byzantine Aristocracy (8th-13th Centuries) [English translation of ‘L’aristocratie Byzantine (VIIIe-XIIIe siècle)’, Journal des Savants (July-December 2000) p. 281-322]”, in Cheynet, J.-Cl., The Byzantine Aristocracy and its Military Function (Collected Studies 859, Aldershot 2006), no. I, p. 5.

33. Magdalino, P., «Byzantine Snobbery», in Angold, M. (ed.), The Byzantine Aristocracy, IX-XIII Centuries (British Archaeological Reports, International Series 221, Oxford 1984), p. 64.

34. Laiou, A.Ε., “The Byzantine Aristocracy in the Palaeologan Period. A Story of Arrested Development”, Viator 4 (1973), p.139.

35. Λαΐου, Α., “Κοινωνία και οικονομία (1204-1453)”, in Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους Θ΄ (Athens 1980), p. 219.

36. Κιουσοπούλου, Τ., Βασιλεύς ή Οικονόμος. Πολιτική εξουσία και ιδεολογία πριν την Άλωση (Athens 2007), p. 57.

     
 
 
 
 
 

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