Administrative system in byzantine Asia Minor

1. Introduction

1.1. Early Byzantine period

Since the reform of Diocletian, the Byzantine Asia Minor was divided into several dioceses, pertaining to the praetorian prefecture of Oriens. To the west was the diocese of Asiana, while to the north and east was the diocese of Pontica, its frontiers covering the Hellespont, Phrygia, Pisidia, Lycaonia in Asia, Bithynia in Galatia and Cappadocia in the Pontos. Finally, the regions of Isauria and Cilicia were included in the diocese of Oriens. The metropolitan sees and bishoprics of Asia and the Pontos were attached to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, after the latter was established, while the provinces within the diocese of Oriens were dependent from the Patriarchate of Antioch.

2. The origins of the themes and their initial nature

The Arab invasions rapidly brought about profound military reforms, but civil administration remained unchanged at least until the 8th century. The issue of the apparition of the themes remains controversial, even though scholars appear to have reached a certain consensus; the theory that Heraclius reformed the army and created the themes has now been abandoned. The armies that withdrew from the lost eastern provinces or remained in their place lost were installed in groups of provinces still run by governors, mentioned in the sources under the title of archontes.

The question is, at what time did the theme of Anatolikon stop being a body of troops and began to designate the administrative region from which the soldiers were being recruited. The existence of strategoi (generals) of Anatolikon does not constitute proof for the existence of a theme as an administrative unit, since the strategoi were initially associated with the soldiers and not the administration of the region.

There is little evidence that contributes to understanding the origins and establishment of the system of the themes. The jussio of Justinian II (687) provides a list of active military units on that date,1 reflecting the dowgrading of Africa and the creation of the theme of the Karavesianoi, the only fleet available to the Empire that recruited sailors mainly from Asia Minor and the southern Balkans. As there is no indication that the Karavesianoi have had a territorial basis, we can not conclude that other similar units mentioned are the forerunners of the future regional themes. The evidence suggests that the theme administration is not yet existent at the time, since the exarchates do not evolve into themes, but seem to disappear; that of Africa dissolves shortly after the final fall of Carthage in 698 and that of Ravenna after the occupation of the city by the Lombards in 751.

Substantial evidence suggests that in the mid-8th century, the themes constitute the basis of the middle byzantine administration system. At that time the seals of the kommerkiarioi cease to mention the traditional provinces, referring only to the themes. The designation «kommerkion of a strategia» (the administrative division under a strategos), as in the case of the kommerkion of the strategia of the Thrakesion from a seal dated in 740/741 and another dated in 744/745,2 also disappears. Also during this period, Constantine V divided the existing themes, creating several new ones, while restoring an army organised in tagmata; thus, the thematic armies appeared to be considered regional armies at that time.

3. Chronology of the apparition of themes in Asia Minor

The two original themes were those of Anatolikon and Armeniakon. This attribute offered their strategoi a certain precedence over the strategoi of the other themes, until the 10th century. The theme of Opsikion, formed at the same time, had a different structure, since it comprised elite troops and was ruled by a comes not a strategos. Initially the comes often also commanded the Thracian army, charged with the defence of the capital. The fourth theme of Asia Minor, that of the Thrakesion, was named after the Thracesian army. The date of its formation has been disputed. The first strategos attested in narrative sources was Sisinnios,3 who fought alongside Constantine V in his war against his brother-in-law Artabasdos, since 742. In several instances, the troops of Thrace have been moved, as in 645 when the Byzantines attempted to no avail to re-conquer Egypt from the Arabs; the latter had just conquered the region, which was quickly recovered by the Byzantines. In 687 a reference to the exercitus Tracisianus also applies to Thrace. In 711 a tourmarchof the Thrakesion is mentioned.4 Soldiers were stationed to the western Asia Minor from 687 until 711 in order to face the rising threat of a maritime or terrestrial Arab attack against Constantinople.

The last large theme to be created was the maritime theme of Kibyrrhaiotai in the south-eastern Asia Minor. The first mention of its strategos is in 732, but it is also known that since 698 the Kibyrraioton was under the authority of a droungarios, who was possibly dependent from the strategos of the Karavisianoi.5 Its capital was Attaleia, from where the fleet directed its attacks towards the Arabs.

By the mid-8th century, the large themes had been established, subdivided into tourmes. However, the number of themes constantly increased for two main reasons: Firstly, as a means to limit the power of the strategoi of the larger themes, who were powerful enough to usurp the throne. There are several examples of strategoi of Anatolikon, who managed to become emperors: Leontios, Leo III, Leo V. Secondly, it helped the organisation of the frontier regions of the empire, especially after the recovery of lost territories in the East from the second half of the 9th century onward. The strategoi of the themes were integrated into court hierarchy, according to the order in which their themes were created.

The first large-scale reorganisation of the themes took place after the civil war that failed to dethrone Constantine V. The emperor managed to weaken the Opsikion them, one of his main adversaries, situated very close to Constantinople, by creating the theme of Boukellarion. Later he detached another part that formed the theme of Optimaton. This was ruled by a domestikos and was completely demilitarised in the 10th century; it was the theme providing the empire with mules and travelling animals. The chronology of creation of thosethemes is not known. Usually the first reference to a strategos provides us with a date ante quem. Before the mid-9th century, several themes were created, such as that of Cappadocia, detached from the Anatolikon, that of Paphlagonia, created from part of Armeniakon, and those of Chaldia and Aegean, created from parts of Thrakesion and Opsikion; finally, the themes of Coloneia, Sebasteia, Seleukeia, Lykandos, Samos were in place before the death of Leo VI (911).

After the recovery of the eastern territories, from Euphrates to Caucasus, several new themes were created; their full list was included in the Taktikon Escorial, during the reign of John I Tzimiskes. These themes differed greatly from the older ones, especially in size; some were only constituted by an important fortress and its environs. In order to distinguish the old themes from the new ones, the Byzantines used the terms ‘Roman themes’ and ‘Armenian themes’ – since they were protected by Armenian armies – respectively. Due to their small size, the Armenian themes did not have individual administrations, but they were governed collectively. Several seals of krites (judges) of the Armenian themes survive today.6

4. The evolution of the administration in the Eastern themes

The theme was governed by a strategos, who was appointed by the emperor himself. The strategos had full military power, while, after the administrational provinces disappeared, he assumed the power of the officers in charge of the state finances and justice. Therefore, the strategos was the representative of the emperor in the theme. Members of the local aristocracy, such as the families of Mosele, Maleinos, Phokas, Kourkouas, Skleros, Doukas, Argyros, usually obtained the office of strategos in the most coveted themes like the Anatolikon, Armeniakon, Cappadocia, Charsianou.

Today we know how the large themes were organised: three or four tourmarchs, also called merarchoi, were second in command after the strategos. The strategos was also being assisted by a komes tes kortes and a domestikos; the latter was in charge of the permanent guard of the theme. The tourmarch were in charge of the droungarioi, who, in turn, commanded the comites; their envoys were called mandatores. Some themes, such as the Mardaïton in Attaleia, also had a fleet, under the command of a katepano.

Not much is known about the administration before the strategoi, apart from the information that we possess on the kommerkiarioi, who held the monopoly on silk trade. Their office evolved, as observed in their seals that increased in number from the second half of the 7th century onward. The obverse depicts the emperor, while on the reverse the indiction was written until the first half of the 9th century. N. Oikonomides has observed that the production of silk was very popular in Asia Minor, compared to other areas. This is an interesting observation, in light of the economic situation in Asia Minor, after centuries of war, even though it appears that, at the time, silk had substituted the then rare gold coinage. M. Hendy, followed by other historians, has suggested that with the devaluation of currency and, consequently, the augmentation of taxes, the kommerkiarioi, who frequented the court and often held high offices, managed to hoard foods that they, in turn, distributed to the soldiers of the themes. N. Oikonomides rightly responds that no source links the kommerkiarioi to the army.7 The present state of research on that issue does not provide a satisfactory theory that links the presence of that particular type of kommerkiarios to the provisioning of the army. What is more, that type of kommerkiarios ceased to exist at the same time as the revaluation of the currency by Constantine V; it also preceded the protonotarioi of the theme, who assumed that responsibility after the 9th century. The kommerkiarioi of the cities or of themes, such as that of Attaleia, Nicaea or Chaldia, where officials, who collected a 10% tax from all trading activities, while the protonotarioi were under orders from the capital to make the necessary arrangements for the provisioning of the army.

The political administration was also primarily economic in nature. Taxes were collected by the dioiketes (governors), who belonged to the jurisdiction of the logothesion tou genikou. Their area of jurisdiction initially corresponded to the maps of the old provinces, but gradually it was adapted to the structure of the themes,which consisted of several dioikeseis. There are also a few mid-7th century reports that mention a governor of all the eastern provinces. Constantinople also dispatched inventory-takers (anagrapheis), revisers of the land register and chartoularioi, who played a military role and were under the command of the logotheteston stratiotikon (of the army). During the 10th century, the judges increased in significance and were more autonomous than the strategoi, who expressed their displeasure for the decreasing power over their own soldiers.

The ecclesiastical administration was more stable. Isauria, isolated from Antioch due to Arab conquests, was reattached to the Patriarch of Constantinople until the recapture of Antioch in 969. The notitiae episcopatuum and seals indicate that a certain number of bishoprics, now corresponding to mere villages, belonged to the jurisdiction of the nearest city. New bishoprics, some even being promoted to metropolitan sees, were created according to demographic conditions. 8

5. The reforms of 10th – 11th centuries

There were great reforms in Asia Minor from the reign of Nikephoros II Phokas (963-969) until the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (1081-1118). After a remarkable expansion towards the west, the Turks almost completely swept the Byzantine presence in Asia Minor; that was until Alexios I recovered the eastern territories and part of the coasts in the north and south.

During that period of expansion, the small frontier themes that did not have sufficient military administration, were reorganised in doukata (duchies) covering the entire eastern border, under the command of a dux or a katepano: doukaton of Antioch, Edessa, Mesopotamia, Iberia and Great Armenia. The central themes were demilitarised, while the judge became the main official of the theme. After the recovery of the territories, the importance of state finances and of the throne had significantly increased. The area of Melitine, initially a curatorium, later evolved into a theme. Basil Lakapenos, regent of the underage Basil II, commanded the imperial territories (episkepseis) in Cilicia. Any rebel from Asia Minor had his property and fortune confiscated and added to the episkepseis, ruled by procuratores(pronoetai or episkeptitai9); these procuratores were connected to important offices in the capital, such as the sekreton of oikeiakon that increased in importance under Basil II or that of charitable establishments, such as the monastery of Mangana. These fiscal and judicial offices were a great source of profit; thus they attracted primarily members of prominent Constantinopolitan families: among the names of the judges or governors in the eastern themes there are those of Xeros, Serblias, Promoundenos, Kataphloros, Chrysoberges…

6. The period of the Komnenoi and the Angeloi

The Turkish conquest greatly reshaped Asia Minor. The most isolated areas, such as Trebizond, Attaleia, some areas in Bithynia, retained the Byzantine administration system; however, the great eastern themes disappeared completely. The theme system never recovered, even after the reconquest of territories in 1097. The large eastern themes were replaced gradually by smaller ones, under the command of a doukas; these were centred around a fortress, aiming at dealing with the Turkish threats, and could only be found in the east. Only during the reign of John II Komnenos and Manuel – who consistently strived to ensure the inhabitants’ safety – can we detect a clearer administrational system. The main theme was that of Thrakesion; its capital, Philadelphia, was a fortress looking toward the Turks. The themes Opsikiou, Optimaton, Boukellarion, Paphlagonia and Chaldia were also reconstructed, even though a large part of their regions had been lost. Two new themes also appeared. Mylasa-Melanoudion, named after its two main cities, is first mentioned in 1143. It incorporated areas from the old theme of Thrakesion and parts of the theme of Kibyrraioton, still under Byzantine rule. The theme Neokastra, bordering Opsikion and Thrakesion, was named after the fortresses that Manuel reconstructed in the previously abandoned areas: Adramyttion, Chliara and Pergamon. The area of Cilicia, which had great ties to Cyprus, was under the command of a Byzantine dux, whenever the latter was not threatened by the Rupenid Armenians. The themes were usually ruled by a doukas, often a member of the imperial family, who had authority over all the officials, including the fiscal ones. The domesticate ton Scholon was once again divided into two parts, East and West; however, some domestikoi, such as John Axouch, close associate of John II, held both offices.

Under the Angeloi, the themes were divided further into smaller regions. Two documents describe this new situation: Firstly, the chrysobull of Alexios II listing Venetian privileges includes a full list of cities and provinces, where Venetian trade was allowed. Secondly, the Partitio Romanie of 1204, the document that divided the imperial territory among the Crusaders; based on administrative documents found in the sekreta of the capital, it presents an outline - incomplete though, as it doesn't include the dissident regions towards the capital at the time - of the Byzantine administrative system just before the fall of Constantinople. According to that document, Asia Minor fell under the jurisdiction of the Latin emperor and was organised in themes (provinciae) and episkepseis (pertinentiai). Among the regions mentioned are those of: Optimaton, Nicomedia, Tarsos, Plousia, Metabole, Paphlagonia, Boukellarion, Oinoe, Sinope and Vavra, Pilai, Pithia and Keramon, Malagina, Adramyttion, Chliara and Pergamon, Neokastra, Mylasa-Melanoudion, Laodikeia and Meander. In some cases, two themes were merged together, such as Boukellarion and Paphlagonia, since the majority of their territories had fallen in the hands of the Turks. In other cases, as in the theme of Neokastra, their territories were further divided. Within a theme, the episkepseis were reckoned only in part, as they were usually under the control of members of the imperial family, such as the Kontostephanoi and the Kamytzai in the prosperous valley of Meander; they had probably received that area as a pronoia.

In conclusion, the Komnenoi managed to restore effectively the military and political administration in Asia Minor, which had been greatly put under the test by the wars against the Turks and the Latins of Constantinople. As soon as the external danger was removed, the Laskarids, taking advantage of the established conditions in the area, managed to found their Empire in Asia Minor, and they began preparing for the recapture of Constantinople.

1. Acta Consiliorum Oecumenicorum ser. II, II, 2 ed. R. Riedinger (Berlin 1992), p. 886.

2. Zacos G. - Veglery A., Byzantine Lead Seals I, Bâle 1972, no 261 or Seibt W. - Zarnitz M.-L., Das byzantinische Bleisiegel als Kunstwerke. Katalog zur Austellung (Vienne 1997), no 1.3.8.

3. Theophanis Chronographia 1-2, ed. C. de Boor (Leipzig 1883-1885), p. 419.

4. Theophanis, p. 378.

5. On Apsimar, Theophanis, op. cit., p. 370 (698) ; on Manes, ibid., p. 410 (732).

6. Seibt W., «Armenika themata als terminus technicus der byzantinischen Verwaltungsgeschichte des 11. Jahrhunderts», in Byzantium and its Neighbours, from the mid-9th till the 12th centuties, [= Byzantinoslavica 54/1] (1993), pp.134-141.

7. Oikonomides N., «Le marchand byzantin des provinces (IXe-Xe s.)» in Mercati e mercanti nell’alto Medioevo : l’area euroasiatica e l’area mediterranea (23-29 aprile 1992), Spoleto 1993, repr. idem, Social and Economic Life in Byzantium (Aldershot 2004), no XII, p. 640, esp. n. 13.

8. For example the metropolis of Nicaea incorporated the bishoprics of Noumerica, Taia, Maximianai, before the reign of Basil I (Darrouzès, Notices, σ. 40). Amorion, the capital of the theme of Anatolikon, and Smyrna, the port that partly replaced Ephesos, were both promoted to metropolitan sees (ibid., p. 71).

9. Cheynet J.-Cl., «Épiskeptitai et autres gestionnaires des biens publics (d'après les sceaux de L'IFEB)», Studies in Byzantine Sigillography 7 (2002), pp. 87-117, repr. in idem, La société byzantine. L’apport des sceaux, (Bilans de recherche 3) (Paris 2008), ν. 9.