Meet the People: Imperial Court and Aristocracy

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The Byzantine Empire was an autocracy: In principle the Emperor maintained complete control over all branches of government, finance and administration, the judiciary and armed forces, as well as wielding enormous influence over the Orthodox church and the financial life of the empire.

The office of Emperor (known by the Greek word for 'King': Basileus) was inviolable, no Byzantine ever seriously thought about any other form of government until the Empire's last days. But there was a very real difference between theories about the Basileus in general and the actual position of individual emperors. Byzantium continued with the Roman idea of an elective monarchy: Emperors were subject to the Empire's laws and even the Emperor Justinian I, an arch-autocrat, recognised in his legal codes that the people had in fact simply transferred their sovereignty to the Emperor - he did not rule in his own right.

Although several families managed to establish ruling dynasties, Byzantium did not fully develop the notion of hereditary rule. Many able and ambitious men (and at least one woman) from very humble beginnings managed to rise to the top over those who had a 'better' claim in terms of their family background. The Byzantine idea that the Emperor was ultimately selected by God also, perversely, helped successful rebels and usurpers: If you were able to depose the existing Emperor and rule in his place you obviously had God's approval - otherwise He would never have allowed you to succeed.

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