Byzantine Nobility

Sep 18, 2017 | Noble Titles, Royal Titles


Premises of the Nobility of Byzantium

The period of reference is that of the last Byzantine age, the epoch of the Palaeologus dynasty (1261-1453).

In spite of the heavy defeats, despite the heavy territorial mutilations, mainly due to the invasion of the Anatolian and Balkan territories, and the Turkish expansion and constant warfare against the empire, the Court of Constantinople retained, as if nothing at all happened, the brilliant ceremonial of the past.

The emperor was always the basileus of the romans (basileus thon rhomaion). Indeed, in some acts, he was defined as the great basileus (megas basileus). Michele VIII Palaeologus reconquered Byzantium in 1261 (after the ephemeral rule of the Western Powers, represented above all by the fragile so-called Latin Empire of the Orient). Therefore, Byzantium continued to fulfil for two more centuries its historical function of eastern bastion of Greek- Roman-Christian Europe.

The Palaeologus emperors who sat in the throne of Constantinople never doubted that they were the authentic irreducible epigones of the first Roman-Christian Emperor Constantine the Great. The Monarch, the people and the nobility of Byzantium were mostly of Greek related roots, practiced the Orthodox faith, and enjoyed centuries of glorious past.

"Although Constantinople was no longer one of the centres of European politics, it was still one of the most beautiful and illustrious cities in the world, the metropolis of orthodoxy and Hellenism, the home of a magnificent literary and artistic revival that covered with light and glory this magnificently decadent city. In this period, the decisive accentuation of human motives is witnessed in the spirit of Byzantine men. They are becoming more and more the precursors of Western humanism (think of the cultural circle of Ioan Cantacuzino or the world of university). In this city that had for long boasted of being the guardian of the culture of the ancient Roman traditions, an extraordinary revival of myths and history is coupled with the birth of a new Greek patriotism that, if on the eve of the catastrophe it may seem like a vain illusion, it already expressed the future idea of the Greek renaissance in the nineteenth century. "

No one came to mind that the opponents – Turks, Serbs, Bulgarians, and Western Catholics – could have reasons to be right. The granitic faith of their imperial beliefs persists until the tragic days of the end of the empire, when the last emperor, Constantine XI Palaeologus Dragazes, is immolated as a simple officer among his soldiers, fighting against the Turkish profaners at the very doors of Constantinople.

The Eastern Roman Empire survived for a thousand years after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (476) because it had assimilated the sense of state, the value of hierarchy and the military organization from the republican and imperial eras of Rome. And that in the Byzantine army there were no more soldiers who had the blood of Caesar, Mark Antony and Octavius Augustus. True that there were more and more mercenaries, Slavic people, Normans, and even Bulgarians or Turks. It is equally true, however, that those who worked under the imperial banners (usually adorned with Christ’s face) recognized the Emperor, in his role of political, military and religious leader as the only authority. No one ever questioned, in thousands of years of history, the necessity of an absolute sovereign. In the case of obvious incompetence or unworthiness, the emperor could be removed, putting in his place a more worthy ruler. No one ever thinks that it was necessary to restore the ancient Roman republic, perhaps for the historical experience of its political fragility.

A certain historiographical tradition, in the light of enlightenment, defines the Byzantine age as a negative period in human history, full of hypocrisy, bigotry, cruelty, falsity and power intrigues: "The Byzantine empire is the verdict of history and unanimous: it constitutes, without exception, the most vile and despicable form that civilization has hitherto assumed (…). No other long-lasting civilization has been so wholly deprived of any form and element of greatness … His vices were the sins of men who had ceased to be heroic without having learned to be virtuous … (…) They were conscientious slaves in acts and In thoughts, immersed in sensuality and the most frivolous pleasures. The Byzantines emerged from their indolence only when some theological subtlety could be discussed until futility and absurdity, or some impudence in the horses and chariot races led them to violent riots … The history of the Empire was always a monotonous tale of intrigues of priests, eunuchs and women, of poisoning, of conspiracy, of continuous ingratitude, and of perpetual fratricides. "(W.E. H. Lecky, History of European Morals, London 1869).

These negative historical aspects are evident to those who have ventured through the history of Byzantium.

However, it is indeed true though that they were sublime and refined people in the field of thought, of philosophy, study of the classical Greek antiquity, of mysticism, of sanctified asceticism, (even recognized by the Muslims). This can be enough to counterbalance the negative aspects reported in Lecky’s above mentioned statement.

Honours and Dignities of the Nobility of Byzantium

The noble titles conferred by the Byzantine emperors, received the legal consideration of dignities and honours called "Axiai".

According to the Kletorologhion of Filoteus (10th century), which was a register of participants in a sort of courtesy of court banquets, there were two modes in which the byzantine nobility titles were bestowed:

A) Dignity conferred by a Naming Decree on Parchment (dia brabeiou) with the symbolic delivery of the office.
B) Dignity conferred by Simple Decree (dia logou).

It was a tradition that the conferral of a dignity was carried out as a result of the formal petition of a high official (Latin, Petitorium), which was examined by councillors of the Basileus and then conveyed to the sacrum cubiculum ("sacred imperial seat") with a positive opinion.

The emperor personally handed over the Letters Patent granting the noble title with a religious formula: "In the name of the Father, The Son, and the Holy Ghost, Our Lord by the grace of God promotes you to the rank and title of…. and welcomes you into the Byzantine Nobility of the Empire…." He then addressed the appointee, requesting him to always exercise justice in his actions. The beneficiary of the Byzantine Title of Nobility humiliated himself with a prostration and kissed the emperor.

The "Axiai" were always nobility titles ad personam, they could not be inherited. They were Life Titles of Nobility.

The noble title of Despot (A Byzantine Title of Nobility with the rank of Prince), which was usually attributed to the son or children of the emperor, did not imply an automatic succession to the throne. The Salic Laws were not of importance in the Empire, and both men and women could succeed to the Imperial throne. . It happened very often that the sovereign was the son of the former emperor, but very frequently the emperor was a relative that mandated the murder of the previous Basileus. As in the late Roman Empire, the Emperor was appointed on the basis of the agreement of the army and of the court. Subsequently, the Patriarch of Constantinople consecrated him.

The appendix to the "Hexabiblos" by Costantino Harmenopulos

In the history of Byzantine jurisprudence, as far as law and philosophy are concerned, the studies began, after the dark ages of the iconoclastic era and the war contingencies of the ninth and twentieth centuries, with the law school rebuilt in 1045 by Emperor Constantine IX Monomaco. With the Arab occupation, it ceased to operate the renowned Law School of Beirut, which in fact was a lighthouse for juridical studies and knowledge of the Latin language in the Near East, very permeated by Greek and Syrian culture. In this era – the so-called age of philosophy of the eleventh century – the historian Michael Attaliate, commissioned by Emperor Michael VII Dukas wrote a legislative treatise (Ponema Nomikon) for the training of teachers and students.

This treaty was replaced, after the restoration of 1261, by the one compiled in 1345 by Costantino Harmenopulos and accompanied by an official table, or list, which describes and grades the totality of the 91 analytical and functional titles of nobility of the Byzantine Empire and all the aulic hierarchy of 1321, under Andronicus II Palaeologus. In this article, we will speak of the 35 more important titles of nobility of the Byzantine Empire.

It is not surprising that there are many Latinisms, being Byzantium a Greek city of origin but a legitimate heir to the "Pars Orientis" of the Roman Empire. The court’s lexicon and the military phrasebook were full of Latin-derived terms, so that they assisted in an inverse phenomenon of what had happened centuries before. "Graecia Capta Ferum Victorem Cepit: Greece, conquered by the fierce Roman winners, captures in turn those who submitted it". Hundreds of Greek terms then went into use in Latin. Now Latin took a small revenge. Latin terms were adopted by the Greek-Byzantine lexicon, and some of them still survive.

Full List of Byzantine Titles of Nobility and Imperial Dignities

The great historian Georg Ostrogorsky speaks of "inflation of nobility titles" in the late Byzantine age: in the Middle-Byzantine period there were three main titles of nobility in addition to the supreme title of Basileus: despot, nobilissimos and kuropalates (Count that cares for the imperial palace).

  1. Despot (Despotes): The despot title was granted to the emperor’s children, but not to all. Sometimes the kinds of emperors were also given. It could match the current "Prince" (Royal / Imperial Height).
  2. Sebastokrator: The title of sebastokrator ("venerable lord") was first granted in the twelfth century by Emperor Alessio I Comnenos (1081-1118) to honour his brother Isaac Comnenos. In 1191 it was assigned by Emperor Isaac II to his son-in-law, Stephen of Serbia, the heir of the famous Stephen Nemanja. Granting this title to a foreign prince, who married Eudocia, the Emperor’s daughter, gave him a position of honour within the court, but at the same time subordinated him to the supreme authority of the Basileus.
  3. Caesar (kaisar): was attributed by Alessio I himself to the former claimant to the throne Nicephorus Melisseno. Caesar was an honorific title of "Junior Emperor" which did not involve the assignment of a part of the empire as it had happened in the 4th century with the tetrarchy designed by Diocletian. The empire was divided between two Augusts (Diocletian and Maximilian) and two Caesars (Galerius and Constantius Chlorus, the father of the future Constantine the Great).
  4. Panipersebastos ("Panhypersebastos"): "all that is more than venerable", "most venerable". This title was also created by Alessio I Comnenos to honour Michel Maronite, who was the husband of a sister.
  5. Protobestiarios: "first dressed". It was a palatine title of nobility established by Michael VII Palaeologus for his nephew Michael Tarcaniota. The beneficiary or titular of this very high noble title wore green clothes, which previously belonged to the Protosebastos.
  6. Grand Duke (Megas Dux): From the XII century it is meant for Grand Duke the title of Great Admiral, who was at the command of the Imperial Byzantine Navy.
  7. Grand Domestic (Megas Domestikos): Ever since the 12th century, there were two great "officers of the imperial household": the Grand Domestic of the East, who commanded the armies and provinces of the Anatolian Front, against the Turks, and the Grand Domestic of the West, commander of the forces against the Balkans and the areas populated by hostile peoples (Norman, Serbian, Bulgarian, Russian, etc). In a way, it would be possible to compare this office to the position occupied by the German Field Marshalls in command of the Western Groups of Armies in World War II, a position that mixed the administration of territories and armies at the same time.
  8. Protostrator: "first squire" .He was the officer who supervised the emperor’s armour and riding horse. "
  9. Megas Logothetes: Grand Chancellor, not to be interpreted as "prime minister", but rather as an "Accountant General of the Byzantine Empire". It was not an honorific post, as the Grand Logothetes actually acted as treasury and budget minister.
  10. Megas Stratopedarches: Senior Officer at the Army’s Camp. In the event of a war, if the Emperor decided to personally take over the command of the troops, he was the intendent and supplier of the Army’s Camp.
  11. Megas Primikerios: "the first whose name was written on the wax tablet", which had the name of the officials. The use of waxed tablets was frequent in ancient times, because it was easy to cut the writing for re-use. The parchment and then the paper were reserved for final and official acts. This Byzantine nobility title was reserved for the head of a department of the administration of the state.
  12. Grand Constable (Megas Konostaulos): Title of nobility derived from the Latin "Come Stabuli", which means Count Superintendent to the Imperial Stables, the dignitary took care of the war issues, with particular reference to the cavalry.
  13. Keeper of the Inkwell: it was the Byzantine noble title destined to the Byzantium official who kept the emperor’s inkwell, whose ink was gold or purple.
  14. Protosebastos: this nobility title meant "the first venerable", and was an honourable dignity, until the time of the Palaeologus, when it was displaced in terms of status by the most prestigious one of Protobestiarios (see above).
  15. Pinkernes: It was the dignitary who took care of the imperial table, with particular reference to the wines "(cupbearer).
  16. Parachimomen of the seal: (Parakoimomenos tes sphendones) Parachimomen was the one who slept in a room adjacent to the emperor’s double bedroom; he was normally a eunuch. This official kept the seal with which the imperial acts were sealed, stamped and legalised.
  17. Parachimomen of the Bridal Room: (Parakoimomenos tu Koitonos): Even this official was normally a eunuch, authorized to sleep in a room adjacent to that of the imperial couple.
  18. Grand Bailiff (Megas Baiulos): This courtly noble title was in the sphere of competence of an administration official.
  19. Kouropalates: "Palatial Curator"" (Curator of the Imperial Palace) was the proxy official of the Byzantine Nobility to deal with the economic issues of the imperial palace. The Imperial Palace (Mega Palation) was located in the adjacent area of ​​the so-called Basilica of Hagia Sophia. From the XII century, with the Comnenos, the imperial residence was moved to the Palace of the "Blachernae" (northwest of the city).
  20. Protobestiarites: it was the nobility title awarded to the dignitary who received the emperor when he was leaving the bridal room. Georgios Sfranze, intimate of the last Emperor Constantine XI, who recorded in his chronicle the tragic events that preceded and followed the fall of 1453, was a titled Protobestiarites.
  21. Domestic (Domestikos): lower than that of a grand household, it was a purely honorific title, but it was clear that it was possible to ascend to some higher rank.
  22. Trustee Superintendent: Functional, non-honorific title of nobility, was the dignitary nominated as superintendent of the Imperial Treasury. It would be a position quite similar or likened to the Governor of the National Bank of the Byzantium.
  23. Logothetes of the family (Logothetes tu Ghenikou): another functional Byzantine nobility title: it had to deal with the imperial family and its needs. A kind of Royal Household Minister.
  24. Grand Butler (Megas Papias): Papias (from Greek "papas") "father", "Pope". It was a dignitary who was a "man of the house": like a butler, in fact.
  25. Prefect (Eparch): Eparch is the equivalent of the Latin Prefects. In the Roman Empire there were: the "praefectus castrorum", the "praefectus equitum" (the commander of the cavalry), the "praefectus militum" (infantry commander). There was also the "praefectus Urbis" (Prefect of Rome). In the late Byzantine Empire, the eparch, unless the official was in charge of a specific function, was an honorary title.
  26. The great imperial watchman: the officer in question took care of the watch of the imperial palace. A sort of security chief.
  27. Grand Commander of the Guard (Megas Hetaireiarches): Etheria was an association, a military company in ancient Greece. The official was subordinate to the 26th rank.
  28. Logothetes of the Stadium (Logothetes tu dromu): in ancient Rome there were horse racing (of the racecourse) and this usage spread throughout the empire and therefore also to Byzantium. In the Byzantine age, this title and dignity of Logothetes of the stadium was only honorific.
  29. The Consul of the Philosophers (Hypatos ton philosophon): The consul of philosophers was, in modern terms, the rector of the state university of Byzantium, where the future leadership cluster was formed, and where the elite studied philosophy (Philosophos was the term to designate a university professor, and Grammaticus the high school teacher), jurisprudence, early elements of medicine, and astronomy. Foreign languages were not studied, as they were considered expressions of barbarian and retrograde civilizations.
  30. Great Archivist: Megas Chartularios: As the noun indicates, the great archivist was the dignitary supervising the imperial archive, where copies of the decrees or imperial deeds destined abroad were kept, as well as the originals of the documents received by other Sovereign states.
  31. Mystikos: does not mean mystic in the modern sense. Mystical was the dignitary who was considered worthy of being "initiated" with the "secrets", not of the pagan religion (as in ancient Greek: mystes), but of the functioning of the internal mechanisms of the imperial court.
  32. First Secretary (Protasekretis): he was the first secretary of the court.
  33. Army Commander: Senior Officer with the task of assisting the army and finding the camp site. Subordinated to the great housekeeper.
  34. Grand Drummer of the Fleet (megas Drungarios tu stylu): the great Drummer was the official inferior in rank to Grand Duke. In modern terms, could be called admiral.
  35. Commander of The Palatine Schools (Domestikos ton Scholon): Constantine the Great, after the Battle of Milvio Bridge or Saxa Rubra (312) dissolved the Corps of the Praetorian Guard, too compromised with his rival Maxentius, and created a new imperial guard. Fifty Candidates, dressed in white, were the personal security personnel of the Emperor, always drawn from the palatine schools. Over time, Palatine schools lost their function as an elite corps by Emperor John I Tzimitskes. The Athanatoi Company of Guards (The Immortals) was founded. The Palatine Schools progressively disappeared. In the 14th century, the Domestic School title was merely an honorific title of nobility.

The reader of the twenty-first century, after reading this list of dignities, so complicated and hollow, remains embittered and puzzled: what twisted and fussy minds may have created a system of positions and offices, some effective, other honorific, which really is a monstrous case, perhaps unique in history.

Yet the Byzantine Court kept very much of these abstruse and for us incomprehensible titles in many cases. The famous rivalry between the two leaders of the moment, intellectuals and humanists, Teodoro Metochita and Nicephorus Cumno. Aside from the exchange of polemical pamphlets concerning rhetoric and style, from 1321 Nicephorus Cumno I do not take part in the ceremonies to give way to his rival Teodoro Metochita: the latter, who held the 9th rank (Gran Logoteta) He was superior to the Cumno hierarchy, who served as the guardian of the calamaio(13th rank).

But even among Western contemporaries, Byzantine titles were not appreciated: it did not include the true hierarchical value. For example: in 1082 Alessio I granted the doge of Venice and his descendants the title of Protosebastos (14th rank) and the patriarchate of grade and its successors that of "Hypertimos" (more than venerable).

"Nevertheless, it was soon to be realized that, with regard to Western despisers, the charm of Greek dignitaries had little to do, and therefore, in an attempt to banish them, it is intended to take the habit of giving them honours that, being totally unrelated to the Byzantine tradition, were rather cunning and very fond of the feudal West." John VI Cantacuzino testifies in his memoirs that on the occasion of his proclamation and investiture (1341) some foreign mercenaries were awarded the dignity of a knight (Kaballarios, rank 87).

The ceremony took place in the church of Saint Georges. For centuries, however, the image of Saint George appeared on the military standards of the Byzantine Empire. It was thus a matter of foreign lay knights. Unlike the case of the Constantinian Order of Saint George, which was founded by Emperor Isaac II Angelo Comnenos in 1190.


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