Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy

Byzantine aristocracy and bureaucracy

The Byzantine Empire had a complex system of aristocracy and bureaucracy, which was inherited from the Roman Empire. At the apex of the pyramid stood the Emperor, sole ruler and divinely ordained, but beneath him a multitude of officials and court functionaries operated the administrative machinery of the Byzantine state. In addition, a large number of honorific titles existed, which the emperor awarded to his subjects or to friendly foreign rulers.

Over the more than 1000 years of the empire's existence, different titles were adopted and discarded, and many lost or gained prestige. At first the various titles of the empire were the same as those in the late Roman Empire, as the Byzantine Empire was not yet distinguished from Rome. By the time of Heraclius in the 7th century many of the titles had become obsolete; by the time of Alexius I, many of the positions were either new or drastically changed, but they remained basically the same from Alexius' reign to the fall of the Empire in 1453.


A senatorial class remained in place, which at times incorporated a large part of the upper officialdom. Many families remained important for several centuries, and several Emperors rose from the aristocracy. Two groups can be distinguished: a metropolitan civil nobility and a provincial military one, the latter remaining regionally based and having large land-holdings, but apparently no military forces of their own, in the way of Medieval Europe. The Monomachi were an example of the former, and the Comneni of the latter. The Comnenian dynasty was notorious for keeping a great number of the important offices within their kin-group. In the 11th and 12th century some 80 civil and 64 military noble families have been identified, a very small number for so large a state. [Robin Cormack, "Writing in Gold, Byzantine Society and its Icons", 1985, George Philip, London, p180, using Kazhdan A.P. , 1974 (in Russian) ISBN 054001085-5]

The 10th century saw a rise in importance of the aristocracy, and an increased number of new families entering it. In the provinces aristocratic absorption of small farmers landholdings into large estates was becoming a problem, before the Turkish incursions largely removed that concern. After the crises of the Turkish and Crusader depredations of the Empire, the aristocracy increased in power and wealth relative to the weakened imperial power, and for example became of equal importance in artistic patronage with the monarch in the last centuries.

Aristocratic titles

Below the rank of Emperor, the Byzantines distinguished two distinct categories of dignities ("ἀξίαι"): the "dignities by prize" ("διά βραβείων ἀξίαι"), which were purely honorific court titles and were conferred by the award of a symbol of rank, and the "dignities by proclamation" ("διά λόγου ἀξίαι"), which were offices of the state and were conferred by imperial pronouncement. The former were further divided into three categories, depending on who was eligible for them: different sets of titles existed for the "Bearded Ones" ("Βαρβάτοι", i.e. not eunuchs), the eunuchs ("Ἐκτομίαι") and women. State officials usually combined titles from the two categories, so that a high official would be both "Magistros" (an "awarded" title) and "Logothetes tou dromou" (a "decreed" office).

Imperial titles

These were the highest titles, usually limited to members of the imperial family or to a few very select foreign rulers, whose friendship the Emperor desired.

Titles used by the emperors

* "Basileus" ("Βασιλεύς"): the Greek word for "sovereign" which originally referred to any king in the Greek-speaking areas of the Roman Empire. It also referred to the emperors of Persia. Heraclius adopted it to replace the old Latin title of Augustus (Augoustos) in 629, and it became the Greek word for "emperor." Heraclius also used the titles "autokrator" ("αυτοκράτωρ" — "autocrat," "self-ruler") and "kyrios" ("κύριος" — "lord"). The Byzantines reserved the term "basileus" among Christian rulers exclusively for the emperor in Constantinople, and referred to Western European kings as "rēgas", a Hellenized form of the Latin word "rex" (=king). The feminine form "basilissa" referred to an empress. Empresses were addressed as "Eusebestatē Avgousta" (=Most Pious Augusta), and were also called "Kyria" (=Lady) or "Despoina" (the female form of "despotes", see below). One has to bear in mind that primogeniture, or indeed heredity itself, was never legally established in Byzantine imperial succession, because in principle the Roman emperor was selected by common acclamation of the Senate, the People and the Army. This was rooted firmly in the Roman "republican" tradition, whereby hereditary kingship was rejected and the emperor was nominally the convergence of several offices of the Republic onto one person. Many emperors, anxious to safeguard their firstborn son's right to the throne, had them crowned as co-emperors when they were still children, thus assuring that upon their own death the throne would not be even momentarily vacant. In such a case the need for an imperial selection never arose. In several cases the new emperor ascended the throne after marrying the previous emperor's widow, or indeed after forcing the previous emperor to abdicate and become a monk. Several emperors were also deposed because of perceived inadequacy, "e.g.", after a military defeat, and some were murdered. This explains why a basileopator ("i.e.", the emperor's father or father-in-law) might not have been an emperor himself.

* "Porphyrogennētos" ("πορφυρογέννητος") — "born-in-the-purple": Emperors wanting to emphasize the legitimacy of their ascent to the throne appended this title to their names, meaning they were born in the delivery room of the imperial palace (called the Porphyra because it was paneled with slabs of purple marble), to a reigning emperor, and were therefore legitimate beyond any claim to the contrary whatsoever. Example (with more context): Constantine VII

* "Autokratōr" ("Αυτοκράτωρ") — "self-ruler": this title was originally equivalent to Imperator, and was used by the emperors.

Titles used by the imperial family

* "Basileopatōr" ("Βασιλεοπάτωρ"): an exceptional title, created to describe the "father" of an emperor, although a "basileopatōr" was not necessarily the emperor's actual father. The first "basileopatōr" was Stylianos Zautzes, a nobleman under Leo VI the Wise; Romanus I Lecapenus also used the term when he was regent for Constantine VII. It ranked first among the "decreed" offices, and often entailed wide-ranging administrative duties.

* "Despotēs" ("Δεσπότης") – "Lord": This title was used by the emperors themselves since the time of Justinian, and was an honorific address for the sons of reigning emperors. It was extensively featured in coins, in lieu of "Basileus". In the 12th century, Manuel I Comnenus made it a separate title, the highest "awarded" title after the emperor. The first "despotes" was actually a foreigner, Bela III of Hungary, signifying that Hungary was considered a Byzantine tributary state. In later times, a despot could be the holder of a despotate; for example, the Despotate of Morea, centred at Mistra, was held by the heir to the Byzantine throne after 1261. The feminine form, "despoina", referred to a female despot or the wife of a despot, but it was also used to address the Empress.

* "Sebastokratōr" ("Σεβαστοκράτωρ") – "Venerable Ruler": a title created by Alexius I as a combination of "autokrator" and "sebastos" (see below). The first "sebastokrator" was Alexius' brother Isaacius. It was essentially a meaningless title, which signified only a close relationship with the emperor, but ranked immediately after the "Despotēs". The feminine form was "sebastokratorissa". The first foreigner to be called "sebastokrator" was Stefan Nemanja of Serbia, who was given the title in 1191. A Bulgarian aristocrat by the name Kaloyan also used the title.

* "Kaisar" ("Καίσαρ") – "Caesar": originally, as in the late Roman Empire, it was used for a subordinate co-emperor or the heir apparent, and was first among the "awarded" dignities. The office enjoyed extensive privileges, great prestige and power. When Alexius I created "sebastokratōr", "kaisar" became third in importance, and fourth after Manuel I created "despotēs". The feminine form was "kaisarissa". It remained however an office of great importance, and was awarded to a few high-ranking and distinguished officials, and was only rarely awarded to foreigners. Justinian II named Tervel, khan of the Bulgars, "kaisar" in 705; the title then developed into the Slavic term tsar or czar (from Latin through Bulgarian and then into Russian, Serbian etc.). Andronicus II Palaeologus also named Roger de Flor, leader of the Catalan Grand Company, "kaisar" in 1304.

* "Nobelissimos" ("Νοβελίσσιμος") - "most noble", from the Latin "Nobilissimus": originally a title given to close relatives of the Emperor, subordinate only to the "kaisar". During the Comnenian period, the title was awarded to officials and foreign dignitaries, diluting its status. The title "Prōtonobelissimos" was created in its stead, until it too started to decline, only to be replaced by a further augmented form: "Prōtonobelissimohypertatos". By the late Palaeologan era, the former had vanished, while the latter was a provincial official.

* "Kouropalatēs" ("Κουροπαλάτης") - from the Latin "cura palatii", "in charge of the palace": First attested in the time of Justinian, it was the official in charge of the running of the imperial palace. However, the great authority and wealth deriving from this position, as well as the close proximity to the Emperor, meant that it accumulated great prestige. It was awarded to important members of the imperial family, but from the 11th century onwards, it declined, and was usually awarded to the vassal rulers of Armenia and Caucasian Iberia.

* "Sebastos" ("Σεβαστός") – "August One" this title is the literal Greek translation of the Latin term "Augustus" or Augoustos, was sometimes used by the emperors. As a separate title it appeared in the latter half of the 11th century, and was extensively awarded by Alexios I Komnenos to his brothers and relations. The female version of the title was "sebastē". The special title "Prōtosebastos" ("First Venerable One") was created for Hadrianos, Alexios' second brother, and awarded also to the Doge of Venice and the Sultan of Iconium. During the 12th century. it remained in use for the Emperor's and the Sebastokratōr's children, and senior foreign dignitaries. However, the parallel processes of proliferation and devaluation of titles during the 12th century resulted in the creation of a bewildering array of often ridiculously large variations, by using the prefixes "pan" ("all"), "hyper" ("above"), "prōto" ("first"): examples include "Pansebastos", "Panhypersebastos", or "Hyperprōtopansebastohypertatos". Few of them actually survived past the 12th century, and all of them rapidly declined in importance.

Court titles

Titles for the "Bearded Ones"

By descending order of precedence, the "by prize" titles for the "Bearded Ones" were:

* "Magistros" ("Μάγιστρος") - in the early Byzantine state, the "magister officiorum" was one of the most senior officials, but as his duties were gradually relegated to other officials, by the 8th century, only the title was left. It remained a high honour, awarded to very few high-ranking officials until the 12th century. Afterwards, the title was more liberally given and diminished, disappearing altogether in the Palaeologan period.
* "Anthypatos" ("Άνθύπατος") - "proconsul": Originally the highest rank for provincial governors, with the creation of the Theme system it too became a purely honorific title. The variant "Prōtanthypatos" was created in the Comnenian period to counter its decline in importance, but both disappeared by the end of the 12th century.
* "Patrikios" ("Πατρίκιος") - "patrician": Established as the highest title of nobility by Constantine the Great, it remained one of the highest dignities until its disappearance in the Comnenian period, awarded to high-ranking officials and foreign rulers. The "patrikioi" had the right to partake in the sessions of the Senate. The spouses of patricians bore the title "patrikia" (not to be confused with "zostē patrikia", see below)
* "Prōtospatharios" ("Πρωτοσπαθάριος") - "first "spatharios": one of the most common high court titles, awarded to senior officials such as the "logothetai", the commanders of the imperial "tagmata" or the "strategoi" in charge of a theme. The office survived until the Palaeologan period, but had declined to the 35th place of the hierarchy.
* "Disypatos" ("Δισύπατος") - "twice consul".
* "Spatharokandidatos" ("Σπαθαροκανδιδάτος")
* "Spatharios" ("Σπαθάριος") - "spatha-bearer": As their name signifies, the "spatharioi" were initially a special corps of imperial guards. They performed specific duties inside the imperial palace. The title survived until the early 12th century.
* "Hypatos" ("Ὕπατος") - "consul": As in the Roman Republic and Empire, the title was initially given each year to two distinguished citizens, until Justinian I halted the practice due to the extraordinary expenditure it involved. The title continued to be assumed by emperors on accession until the end of the 7th century, but thereafter became an honorific title. The title was often conferred to the rulers of south Italian city-states.
* "Stratōr" ("Στράτωρ") - "groom"
* "Kandidatos" ("Κανδιδάτος") - from the Latin "candidatus", so named because of their white tunics. They were originally a select group of guards, drawn from the "Scholae Palatinae". The title disappeared in the Comnenian period.
* "Basilikos Mandatōr" ("Βασιλικός Μανδάτωρ") - "imperial messenger"
* "Vestētōr" ("Βεστήτωρ")
* "Silentiarios" ("Σιλεντιάριος")
* "Stratēlatēs" ("Στρατηλάτης")
* "Apoeparchōn" ("Ἀποεπάρχων")

Titles for the eunuchs

By descending order of precedence, the "by prize" titles for the eunuchs were:

* "Patrikios" - The same as for the "Bearded Ones".
* "Praipositos" ("Πραιπόσιτος") - from the Latin "praepositus", "placed before".
* "Prōtospatharios" - The same as for the "Bearded Ones"
* "Primikērios" ("Πριμικήριος") - from the Latin "primicerius", "first in the list".
* "Ostiarios" ("Ὀστιάριος")
* "Spatharokoubikoularios" ("Σπαθαροκουβικουλάριος")
* "Koubikoularios" ("Κουβικουλάριος") - from the Latin "cubicularius", "chamberlain".

Titles for women

* "Zostē Patrikia" ("Ζωστή Πατρικία") - "Girded "patrikia"

Palace offices

*"Protovestiarios" - usually a minor relative of the emperor, who took care of the emperor’s personal wardrobe, especially on military campaigns. He was also sometimes responsible for other members of the imperial household, and the emperor’s personal finances. The older term, from before the time of Justinian I, was "curopalata" (or "kouropalates" in Greek). This was derived from "kourator" (curator), an earlier official responsible for financial matters. The "vestiarios" was a subordinate official. The "protovestiaria" and "vestiaria" performed the same functions for the empress.
*"Parakoimomenos" - literally, "one who sleeps nearby", was the High Chamberlain who sleeps in the Emperor's bedchamber.
*"Pankernes" - a cupbearer.

Military offices


*"Exarchos" - The exarchs were governors of remote parts of the empire such as Italy or Africa. They enjoyed a greater degree of independence than other provincial governors, combining both civil and military authority, practically acting as viceroys.
*"Domestikos" – the "domestikoi" were originally imperial guards, who later functioned as senior staff officers in the Late Roman army. In the Byzantine period, they were among the highest military offices, and included:
**"Megas Domestikos" (Grand Domestic) - the overall commander of the army.
**"Domestikos tōn Scholōn" (Domestic of the Schools) – the commander of the "Scholai", originally a number of guards units, later a Tagma. This was a very prestigious title, and by the late 9th century, its holder functioned as commander in chief of the army. In ca. 959, the post was divided, with one domestic for the East and one for the West.
**"Domestikos tou thematos" (Domestic of the Themes) – the commander and organizer of the military themes; there was one for the European themes and one for Asian themes.
*"Stratēgos" – a military and later also civil commander of a theme, who often also had the title of "doux". The term is basically equivalent to "general" or "admiral", as it was used in both branches of service.
*"Katepanō" – The governor of a greater area combining two or more themes, such as the Catepan of Italy, a title developed in the 9th century.
*"Tourmarchēs" – the commander of a "tourma", a military unit.
*"Prōtostratōr" – initially the Emperor's stable master, later the term was used for the commander of the army.
*"Stratopedarchēs" (Master of the Camp) – This official was in charge of making sure the army was stocked with food and arms.
*"Hoplitarchēs" or "archēgētēs" - commander of all infantry in a large army.
*"Protokentarchos" and "kentarchos" - commanders of a smaller division of the army in the field. The name was derived from the Latin centurion.
*"Merarchēs" - commander of a division ("meros") of the army. Usually, each army was divided into two to three such commands.
*"Taxiarchēs" or "chiliarchēs" - commander of an infantry regiment ("taxiarchia" or "chiliarchia") in the army.


*"Megas Doux" – The "Megaduke" or "Grand Duke", was the basic equivalent of the modern Lord High Admiral. The office was created by Alexios I Komnenos, when he amalgamated the remnants of the imperial and thematic fleets into a single imperial fleet. By the end of the Palaiologos dynasty the megaduke was head of the government and bureaucracy, not just the navy.
*"Amiralios" - The Greek version of "Admiral". An office founded in the late Palaeologan era, the "Amiralios" was the deputy of the "Megas Doux".
*"Megas Droungarios" - Initially the commander-in-chief of the Byzantine navy, after the creation of the "Megas Doux" his lieutenant, in charge of the naval officers.
*"Droungarios" - The title existed both in the army and the navy. In the navy of the 8th-11th centuries, a "droungarios" headed a fleet, either the central imperial fleet or one of the thematic fleets.
*"Komēs" or "Droungarokomēs" - The commander of a squadron of dromons.
*"Kentarchos" or "Nauarchos" - the captain of a ship.

Other military titles

*"Ethnarches" - the "ethnarch", commander of foreign troops.
*"Kontostaulos" - Greek form of Latin Comes stabuli 'count of the stable' and various European feudal titles such as English "constable" - the chief of the Frankish mercenaries.
*"Hetaireiarches" – the chief of the barbarian mercenaries, the "Hetaireia", successor to the "Foederati". Initially subdivided into Greater ("Megalē"), Middle ("Mesē") and Little ("Mikra") "Hetaireia".
*"Akolouthos" - "Acolyte," the chief of the Varangian Guard during the Palaeologan era.
*"Manglavitai" – A category of palace guards, armed with sword and whip ("manglavion", from the Arabic "mijlab"). Under the command of a "Prōtomanglavitēs".
*"Topoteretes" – meaning "place-holder", "lieutenant". Found at various levels of the hierarchy, as deputies to commanders of the imperial "tagmata", deputy to a "drungarios".

Administrative offices

The vast Byzantine bureaucracy had many titles, and varied more than aristocratic and military titles. In Constantinople there were normally hundreds, if not thousands, of bureaucrats at any time. Like the Church and the military, they wore elaborately differentiated dress, often including huge hats. These are some of the more common ones, including non-nobles who also directly served the emperor.

*"Praetorian prefect" – The Praetorian prefect was originally an old Roman office used for the commander of the army in the Eastern and Western portions of the Empire. It was abolished in the 7th century owing to wide reaching civil and military reforms. The title evolved into the "domestikos". After Diocletian's reforms, the functions of the Prefect embraced a wide sphere; they were administrative, financial, judicial, and even legislative. The provincial governors were appointed at his recommendation, and with him rested their dismissal, subject to the Emperor's approval. He received regular reports of the administration from the governors of the provinces. He had treasuries of his own, and the payment and the food supplies of the army devolved upon him. He was also a supreme judge of appeal; in cases which were brought before his court from a lower tribunal there was no further appeal to the Emperor. He could issue, on his own authority, praetorian edicts, but they concerned only matters of detail.
*"Protoasecretes" - an earlier title for the head of the chancery, responsible for keeping official government records. The "asecretes" was a subordinate. Other subordinates included the "chartoularios" (in charge of imperial documents), the "kastrinsios" (a chamberlain in the palace), the "mystikos" (a private secretary), and the "eidikos" (a treasury official).
*"Logothetes" - a secretary in the extensive bureaucracy, who did various jobs depending on the exact position. Logothetes were some of the most important bureaucrats. They included:
**"Megas logothetes" (Grand Logothete) – the head of the logothetes, personally responsible for the legal system and treasury, somewhat like a chancellor in western Europe.
**"Logothetes tou dromou" (Drome Logothete) – the head of diplomacy and the postal service.
**"Logothetes ton oikeiakon" (Course Logothete) – head of domestic affairs, such as the security of Constantinople and the local economy.
**"Logothetes tou genikou" (General Logothete) – responsible for taxation. Also acts as a secretary in later cases.
**"Logothetes tou stratiotikou" (Military Logothete) – a civilian, in charge of distributing pay to the army.

Logothetes originally had some influence on the emperor, but they eventually became honorary posts. In the later empire the Grand Logothete became the "mesazon" ("manager" or, more literally, "middle-man").

Other administrators included:

*Prefect – a lower official in Constantinople, involved in local government.
*Quaestor – originally a legal and financial official, which lost power after the development of the logothetes.
*"Tribounos" – equivalent to the Roman tribune; responsible for maintenance of roads, monuments, and buildings in Constantinople.
*"Magister" ("magister officiorum", "magister militum", "maistor" in Greek) – an old Roman term, master of offices and master of the army; by the time of Heraclius, these had become honorary and were eventually discarded.
*"Sacellarios" – under Heraclius, an honorary supervisor of the other palace administrators, logothetes, etc.
*Praetor – originally an administrator of Constantinople, in charge of taxation; after Alexius, a civil governor of a theme.
*"Kephale" - "head", the civil governor of a Byzantine town.
*"Dragoman" – a Turkish title, which was applied to interpreters and ambassadors.
*"Horeiarios" – in charge of distributing food from the state granaries.

The "protoasecretes", "logothetes", prefect, praetor, quaestor, "magister", and "sacellarios", among others, were members of the senate, until this became an increasingly unused aspect of the Empire after Heraclius.

Court life

At the peaceful height of Middle Byzantium, court life "passed in a sort of ballet", [Steven Runciman, Byzantine Style and Civilization, 1975, Penguin] with precise ceremonies prescribed for every occasion, to show that "Imperial power could be exercised in harmony and order", and "the Empire could thus reflect the motion of the Universe as it was made by the Creator", according to the Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus, who wrote a "Book of Ceremonies" describing in enormous detail the annual round of the Court. Special forms of dress for many classes of people on particular occasions are set down; at the name-day dinner for the Emperor or Empress various groups of high officials performed ceremonial "dances", one group wearing " a blue and white garment, with short sleeves, and gold bands, and rings on their ankles. In their hands they hold what are called "phengia". The second group do just the same, but wearing "a garment of green and red, split, with gold bands". These colours were the marks of the old chariot-racing factions, the four now merged to just the Blues and the Greens, and incorporated into the official hierarchy. As in the Versailles of Louis XIV, elaborate dress and court ritual probably were at least partly an attempt to smother and distract from political tensions.

However, even by the time of Anna Comnena, with the Emperor away on military campaigns for much of the time, this way of life had changed considerably, and after the Crusader occupation it virtually vanished. A French visitor was shocked to see the Empress going to church far less well attended than the Queen of France would have been. The Imperial family largely abandoned the Great Palace for the relatively compact Palace of Blachernae.

ee also

*Byzantine Navy
*Byzantine battle tactics
*Byzantine army



*Michael Angold. "The Byzantine Aristocracy: IX to XIII Centuries". Oxford: BAR International Series, 1984. ISBN 0-86054-283-1.
*H.R. Ellis Davidson. "The Viking Road to Byzantium". London: George Allen & Unwin Ltd., 1976. ISBN 0-04-940049-5
*Deno John Geanakopoulos. "Emperor Michael Palaeologus and the West, 1258-1282: A Study in Byzantine-Latin Relations". Hamden, Connecticut: Archon Books, 1973. ISBN-13: 978-0208013101 .
*John Haldon. "Warfare, State and Society in the Byzantine World, 565–1204." London: UCL Press, 1999. ISBN 1-85728-495-X
*Warren T. Treadgold. "A History of the Byzantine State and Society". Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997. ISBN 0-8047-2630-2
*" [ The Alexiad] " of Anna Comnena
*" [ The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire] " by Edward Gibbon
* [ Byzantine Monastic Foundation Documents] from Dumbarton Oaks
*Steven Runciman, Byzantine Style and Civilization, 1975, Penguin (Court life section)

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