The notion of aristocracy in Byzantium remains unclear, in the absence of a precise legal definition. However, the sources focus on a group of people, who revolved around the emperor, held high offices, and had economic power and social influence. They are mentioned with various names, depending on the aspect, which the source stresses: , ekkritoi, logades, oi en telei.
The early Byzantine aristocrats were assimilated first and foremost in the Senate, which had been weakened considerably during the crisis of the 7th century. This transformation probably occurred in varying degrees within the Empire. There are good reasons to believe that, in Constantinople, the old aristocracy retained its position, relying on its safety within the City’s walls; on the contrary, in Asia Minor, the landed elite was ruined, due to the constant Persian and subsequently Arab threat.1 Of course, certain prominent provincial families managed to survive the turmoil: the of Armeniakon and future emperor Nikephoros I was a descendant of the Ghassanid Gabalas, a refugee in Cappadocia after the destruction of Yarmouk.2
2. The war as a mould for the new aristocracy
8th-century sources are scarce. Therefore, in order to comprehend the formation of this new aristocracy, we are forced to rely on later sources, which discuss the heroes during the wars against the Arabs.
Under the Isaurian dynasty, who finally managed to contain and even repel the Arabs, certain officials emerge, surrounding the local populations. They offered their support to the iconoclastic emperors, often even marrying into their families. Constantine V – on his third marriage – was wed to Eudokia, whose sister had married a Melissenos,3 one of the first families to emerge from obscurity. At the end of the 8th century and the beginning of the 9th, new names appear in the sources. During the reign of Nikephoros I, a certain Leo, from Armenia, liberated the Peloponnese from the rebelling Slavs.4 The number of Armenians serving the Empire is, in effect, at its peak at that time. From the 8th century, Armenians, due to threats from the Arab caliphate, joined the imperial army in large numbers.5 Their leaders emerge from among the largest landowners of the area, the most famous of whom was the family of Mamikonian; the most distinctive names among its members were Artabasdos or Bardan. The emperor Philippikos-Vardanes was one of them. The Mosele were also descended from another branch of the same family. Alexios, son-in-law of Emperor Theophilos, did not become his successor. Theodora, wife of Theophilos,6 was also a member of an Armenian family, established in the theme of Armeniakon.
The members of this new aristocracy obtained the highest offices and established themselves in the frontier provinces. They gradually split into two groups, at the time when the enfeebled Caliphate laid the issue of jihad onto the hands of the emirates, along the border with Byzantium, to Melitene, Tarsos and Aleppo. Some families from Paphlagonia and Chaldia turn against the emirate of Melitene and Mesopotamia. Other families, firmly established in the theme of Anatolikon, and then in Cappadocia and in the theme of Charsianon, attack the Arabs of Cilicia and Antioch. During the 10th century, prominent among the first group are the Doukai, Argyroi, Kourkoues, and in the second group the Melissenoi, Phokades, Maleinoi, Skleroi. In this aristocracy Armenians continue to integrate, especially in the second half of the 10th century, when the Armenian principalities are incorporated into the Byzantine Empire. Thus the families of Tornikioi and Taronites also enter the imperial service. It was not unusual for a mere buccaneer to establish a lineage for himself. Melias (Mleh), followed only by a few hundred men, managed to establish himself in the previously deserted area of Lykandos and construct fortresses for the control of raids, with the consent of Leo VI.7
Therefore, a successful lineage depends on the transmission of the same functions and offices from one member to the other through several generations. The lists of the or the strategoi of the theme of Anatolikon are very eloquent in this regard, as there are in them the names of Doukas, Argyros, Diogenes, Phocas, Maleïnos, Tzimiskes ... The most successful of these families was that of Phokas, whose rise to power was in line with that of the first Macedonian emperors. Under Constantine VII, the Phokades, who shared their hatred of the Lekapenoi with the Macedonians, held the office of domestikos ton Scholon – it was in the hands of Bardas Phokas – and the positions of strategos of Anatolikon, of Cappadocia and of Seleukeia, held by his three sons, Nikephoros, Leo and Constantine respectively. This was without a doubt an exception to the norm, since it was later condemned by Basil II in his agaist the dynatoi, which was enacted after his difficult victory over the rebellion of Bardas Phokas the Younger.
The rise to power of new people was always possible. In 960, a high ranked strategos, holding the title of , participated in the rebellion of Bardas Phokas against John Tzimiskes. His name was Ampelas and it derived – according to the chronicler Leo the Deacon – from his first occupation, that of winemaker.8
3. The provincial roots
The major aristocratic families draw their power from their established status on a local level. In Cappadocia, there were some of the most illustrious of these families: Argyroi, Phocades, Maleinoi and Diogenai. The latter owned large land areas, where the heads of the family could withdraw, when they did not exercise their higher state offices. From there they also drew the income necessary to maintain the standards of living in their homes. These areas were transmitted by inheritance. Usually, the females received movable goods as dowry, while the land was passed on to the sons.9 Through their marriages but also through imperial donations rewarding their services to the state, the most prominent of them amassed a large fortune, as did John Tzimiskes in Paphlagonia. Therefore, they were surrounded by numerous relatives, friends (philoi, oikeioi) and servants (hyperetai, douloi).10 The officers and soldiers of their regiments were often recruited from their own province. Social influence added to the existing official authority, which could explain the loyalty these troops showed towards their officers, when they rebelled against the central government. Thus, Nikephoros Phokas was proclaimed emperor in 963 in Caesarea of Cappadocia, where the Maleinoi lived; his nephew Bardas Phokas was also proclaimed emperor in the same area in 987. But other provinces also provided members of major family lines in various periods: In Trebizond there were the Gabras; in Phrygia the Botaneiates, the Synadenoi, the Palaiologoi.
4. A singular culture
This military elite often built churches, dedicated to military saints, such as George, Michael, Eustathios… We know of mainly the ones in Cappadocia. Nikephoros Phokas was depicted with his wife, his father and the infant Basil II.11 The soldiers desired recognition for the value of their sacrifice, when they confronted the Muslims; the latter were transported to heaven, if they lost their life during the ‘‘holy war’’ (jihad). Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas demanded that the soldiers killed in combat be recognised as martyrs by the Patriarch of Constantinople.12 The Church remained faithful to the ancient Christian tradition that abhorred bloodshed; what is more, its higher dignitaries came mainly from the Constantinopolitan elite, less sensitive to military dangers. Therefore, they denied Nikephoros’ demands, focusing on the spiritual distance between the people of Anatolia and those of the capital. Military valour was also praised in songs, called akritic, which sang the wars against the Arabs. These songs were also popular during the Komnenian era, especially the epic of Digenes Akritas, undoubtedly inspired by the population of the East, driven away by the Turks, and by the nostalgia for the lost glory of the area. The hero, a model byzantine aristocrat, was the product of a mixed marriage, a common occurrence among the most prominent families of Asia Minor. He lived in a glorious palace, near the border, where he received a fictitious emperor. He also possessed large fields, reserves of money, jewellery, fabrics, numerous servants and slaves. This slightly inflated description did reflect reality to a great extent.
5. The aristocracy of Asia Minor and the imperial power
The large families of Asia Minor the main military opposition against the Arabs for many centuries. The emperors tried not to alienate them, but at the same time not to let them obtain too much power that could threaten the imperial throne. They were successful for the most part, even though there were occasions when just the suspicions against the domestikoi ton Scholon or the strategoi prompted them to seek refuge to enemy territory, even Bagdad, like Manuel during the reign of Theophilos, or Constantine Doukas under Leo VI. The emperors quickly negotiated with them and offered them pardon, not desiring to alienate those who commanded the armies of the East and had extensive networks of influence, sometimes stretching beyond the borders, as revealed the rebellions of Bardas Phokas and Bardas Skleros during the reign of Basil II. The officials, even those from the most illustrious families, did not have significant private armies. The most powerful among them, such as the domestikoi ton Scholon, only commanded a few hundred men, enough to exert influence over a province but not to confront the imperial army. However, they were able to inspire the troops under their command. The soldiers fought alongside them, bringing success in the name of the emperor, while in fact they supported the strategoi and the domestikoi.
6. The great revolts
In 976, with the death of John Tzimiskes, the ambitions of the strategoi in Asia Minor were exacerbated by the creation of the regency. Bardas Skleros was the first to rebel, supported by numerous Armenian troops and his Arab allies. He was only defeated with the intervention of his great rival, Bardas Phokas, and his personal allies, the Iberians. A few years later, when Basil II personally assumed the government of the Empire, he found that the aristocracy of Asia Minor held too much influence at court. He therefore excluded the Phokades and their allies from his group of advisers.
Offended, Bardas Phokas unsuccessfully attempted to seize the throne in 987, immediately turning his army towards Asia Minor. He was finally defeated in 989, having held the area for almost two years. Basil II retained two major assets: the impregnable walls of Constantinople and the imperial treasury, which allowed him to appoint officers, who could confront the rebels, and to buy the alliance of the Rus; they were the 6000 Varangians, who prevailed during the final two battles. Furthermore, the internal rivalries between the large families enabled him to turn them against each other, as in the case of the Skleroi and the Phokades. After 989, Emperor Basil II and his brother Constantine VIII punished the Phokas family, eliminating their last representatives with real or fictitious conspiracy charges or confiscating their property, as in the case of Eustathios Maleinos, the richest man of his time, and turning these territories into or imperial episkepseis.
7. The transformation of the eleventh century
This direct confrontation of the aristocracy caused decisive changes. The aristocracy of Asia Minor was under increasing pressure to send its sons to the Palace, where they were educated and taught how to exercise their future office, especially within the hetairies; at the same time they were serving as collateral for their parents’ loyalty. The large families of the East were extremely useful to Constantinople. Basil II promoted new family lines, such as the Komnenoi, who resided mostly in the capital, the Dalassenoi, who maintained ties to Paphlagonia, and the Vatatzai, a member of whom betrayed him to Samuel of Bulgaria. The Palaiologoi, who came from Phrygia, are not mentioned in the time of Nikephoros III Botaneiates. Basil II and his heirs introduced to Cappadocia new families of Armenian or Bulgarian descent, in order to renew the local aristocracy by controlling the marriages.13 The descendants of the last tsar of Bulgaria were given to marriage to aristocrats of the East: the future emperor Isaac Komnenos married Catherine of Bulgaria, and Romanos Diogenes, another future emperor, married the sister of Samuel Alousianos. Several Bulgarians, such as a certain Prousianos or Aaron, held high military positions in Asia Minor. The former kings of the Armenian principalities established themselves in Cappadocia due to their military houses. This amalgam of old and new aristocracy did not have the time to evolve, due to the Turkish invasions at the end of the eleventh century.14
This increasing centralization had the effect of weakening the Anatolian aristocracy, which controlled the population, shaping its views concerning the central government, redistributing the wealth provided by the emperors, and in fact forming the backbone of Anatolian society; it can also partly explain the rapid weakening of imperial authority, when faced with the Turks. In addition, their confrontation with the Armenians, caused by the Armenians’ disappointment by the Byzantines’ behaviour in matters of religion, did not emerge on its own, contrary to the opinion of many modern historians. When Alexios Komnenos rose to the throne, the Empire was under threat from all sides. The emperor chose to defend the Balkans, which, since Basil II and the previous Bulgarian wars, had become the most dynamic area of the Empire. The Anatolian aristocrats, disappointed by Alexios’ idleness vis-à-vis the Turks, conspired against him, supporting mainly Nikephoros Diogenes, son of the deposed emperor.
8. Increasing autonomy
After the re-conquest of part of Asia Minor thanks to the First Crusade, the prominent families of the area were able to restore their landed property, often in the form of , which made them owners of this land for a generation or two at most. By keeping their residence in Constantinople, these aristocrats, with the exception of the Vatatzai, did not manage to restore their bonds with the local population, who were justly regarded as the providers of their income. This failure facilitated the emergence of local archontes, who took advantage of the enrichment of the region and gave the people some assurance to oppose the orders from Constantinople. During the strife for power in the end of the twelfth century, the provinces of the East often entered the dispute. They supported John Komnenos Vatatzes en masse against the emperor Andronikos Komnenos, with the exceptions of the Pontos and Paphlagonia. The same emperor was later compelled to quell a revolt in the cities of Bithynia, which supported the Angeloi in 1184. A few years later, the local aristocrats themselves rebelled, the most infamous among them being Theodore Mangaphas of Philadelphia, who came from a century old family. On two occasions, in 1189 and 1203, he became master of his city, capital of the theme of Thrakesion, with the support of the local population. He did not, unlike previous rebels, aspire to take the place of the emperor in Constantinople, but to create an independent state on the margins of the Empire. His relatively quick failure in both cases marked the limits of such an endeavour.15
The first fall of Constantinople and the expulsion of Emperor Alexios III Angelos caused an increase in autonomous territories under the guidance of local leaders: Mangaphas, Sabas Asidenos, Manuel Maurozomes. These discords also occurred in the West, as show the ambitions of Leon Sgouros and others.
When Theodore Laskaris, son-in-law of Alexios III and his legitimate heir, appeared in spring 1204 before Nicaea, he had to negotiate with the inhabitants, leaving his wife and children, without being able to enter the city himself.
The aristocracy of Asia Minor formed an intermediary between the emperor and the people of Asia Minor. It provided the framework of the army and fought the Arabs successfully. On two occasions, the aristocracy suffered a severe blow in the eastern provinces: Firstly, during the eleventh century, when several families were socially eliminated or were established in Constantinople, after the unsuccessful rebellions against Basil II, and secondly, at the end of the twelfth century, when Andronikos Komnnenos eliminated his political opponents. This was surely not a coincidence, since these events preceded a period of significant decline of the Empire.
1. On the subject of Armenian families or those of Armenian origin, see Settipani, Chr., Continuité des élites à Byzance durant les siècles obscurs : les princes caucasiens et l'Empire du VIe au IXe siècle, (Paris 2006).
2. Shahîd, I., "Sigillography in the Service of History: New Light", στο Novum Millennium. Studies on Byzantine History and Culture dedicated to Paul Speck, Sode Cl., Takács S. (ed.) (Aldershot 2001), pp. 369-377.
3. The prosopography of the Byzantine Empire. I, 641-867, J. Martindale (ed.) (Aldershot 2001), Michael 4; Prosopographie der mittel- byzantinischen Zeit, band 3, R.-J. Lilie et alii (ed.), (Berlin - New York, 1998-2000), "Michael Melissenos", no 5028.
4. The prosopography of the Byzantine Empire. I, 641-867, J. Martindale (ed.) (Aldershot 2001), Leo 17; Prosopographie der mittel-byzantinischen Zeit, band 3, R.-J. Lilie et alii (ed.), (Berlin - New York, 1998-2000), "Leon Skleros", no 4409.
5. On the subject of Armenians in the service of Byzantium at that period see Settipani, Chr., Continuité des élites à Byzance durant les siècles obscurs : les princes caucasiens et l'Empire du VIe au IXe siècle, (Paris 2006), pp. 142-146, 221-224, 326, 339, 390-392; Brousselle, I., "L’intégration des Arméniens dans l’aristocratie byzantine du IXe siècle", in L'Armenie et Byzance. Histoire et Culture, (Paris 1996), Byzantina Sorbonensia 12, pp. 43-54.
6. The prosopography of the Byzantine Empire. I, 641-867, J. Martindale (ed.) (Aldershot 2001), Alexios 2; Prosopographie der mittel-byzantinischen Zeit, band 1, R.-J. Lilie et alii (ed.), (Berlin - New York, 1998-2000), "Alexios Musele", no 195.
7. Dédéyan, G., "Mleh le Grand, stratège de Lycandos", Revue des études arméniennes NS 15 (1981), pp. 73-102.
8. Λέων Διάκονος, Leonis Diaconis, Historiae, (ed.) B.G. Niebuhr, Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonnae 1828), p. 113.
9. Cheynet, J.-Cl., "Aristocratie et héritage (XIe-XIIe s.)" in La transmission du patrimoine, Dagron G. et Beaucamp J. (ed.), (Paris 1998), pp. 53-80, repr. in Idem, The Byzantine Aristocracy and its Military Function (Variorum Reprints), (Aldershot 2006), no IV (english translation).
10. On the ties between the head of an imperial family and the people depending from him see Patlagean, Év., Un Moyen Âge grec. Byzance IXe-XVe siècle (Paris 2007), pp. 163-192.
11. Thierry, N., Haut Moyen Âge en Cappadoce. Les églises de la région de Çavuhin I (Paris 1983), pp. 43-57.
12. On this subject see Dagron, G., "Byzance et le modèle islamique au Xe siècle à propos des Constitutions Tactiques de l'empereur Léon VI", Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1983), pp. 219-242.
13. Cheynet, J.-Cl., "Basil II and Asia Minor", στο P. Magdalino (ed.), Byzantium in the Year 1000 (Leiden - Boston 2003), pp. 71-108.
14. Howard-Johnston, J., "Crown Lands and the Defence of Imperial Authority in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries", Byzantinische. Forschungen 21 (1995), pp. 75-100.
15. Cheynet, J.-Cl., "Philadelphie, un quart de siècle de dissidence, 1182-1206", Philadelphie et autres études (Paris 1984), Byzantina Sorbonensia 5, pp. 39-54.