THE STATE: Byzantine Statehood – The Emperor, The Senate, and the People of Rome

Section Author: Aleksandar Jovanović, University of the Fraser Valley

Learning Objectives

  • Explain the interconnections among the people, the elites, and the emperors in the governance of the medieval Christian Roman Empire (known as Byzantium)
  • Identify the traits of emperorship and civil administration that are unique to the Byzantine Empire
  • Identify the role of the people of Constantinople in imperial elections and other affairs.
  • Recognize the transformations in the governing practices of the empire
  • Explain how these governing transformations contributed to the empire’s longevity

On May 11, 330 CE, Constantine, emperor of the Romans, established a new capital city of the Roman Empire – Constantinople – that had been in existence since Octavian Augustus established the principate in 27 BCE. Constantine was certainly not the first emperor to move the capital city to a place other than Rome, but his transition from the traditional capital to the city on the straits of the Bosporus had long term consequences on the history of the empire. Originally named New Rome by Constantine, the city was soon after renamed Constantinople in honour of the new capital’s founder. However, Constantine’s idea to name the city New Rome was a clear sign that this capital was not supposed to be a transitory one, but instead a permanent seat of the Roman Empire. Truly, the city on the Bosporus remained the centre of the Roman state until its split into Eastern and Western empires in 395 CE and then of the Eastern Roman Empire until May 29, 1453 CE, when the city fell to the Ottoman Turks.

Some scholars have reached a consensus that the foundation of Constantinople marks the beginning of the Byzantine Empire. Others, on the other hand, take the year 395 CE – the split of the Roman Empire into Eastern and Western empires – as the beginning of Byzantium. A few researchers take the year 313 CE, when Constantine officially allowed Christians to worship freely in the empire, as the starting point of Byzantium. You might wonder at this point, why is there no clear consensus about when the Roman Empire stops, and Byzantium begins? The answer to this question is both simple and complex. Simply put, the term Byzantium was never used by the people we refer to as the Byzantines. Rather, they saw themselves as the Romans of the Roman Empire that was in existence from Augustus’ reign in the 1st century BCE to Konstantinos XI’s death in 1453 CE. The terms Byzantium and Byzantines would then come as a complete surprise to the medieval Romans. Why do we use the term Byzantium then? In short, the term was coined after 1453 by scholars from Western Europe who sought to appropriate the name Roman and associate the Western Roman Empire’s legacy exclusively with Western European historical memory. The need to detach Roman history from its medieval rendering was the main reason for finding a new term for the Eastern Roman Empire and its people. In contemporary scholarship, both terms Byzantium and (medieval or Eastern) Roman Empire are in use to designate the Christian Roman Empire, which was centered at Constantinople, and after the 7th century CE, used Greek as its primary language.

Having clarified the naming issue, we can now shift our attention to the questions of continuity and transformations that happened in the governing system of the Roman state from Augustus to Konstantinos XI. As you can imagine, every country, together with its society, changes over time due to internal and external factors. We can look at Canada over the past 150 years of its existence and the transformations through which the country has gone from being a settler colony of the British Empire to being a liberal multicultural country striving to acknowledge and deal with the burden of its unflattering legacy, much of which was a result of racist legislation and state-organized projects. Now, we can multiply the number 150 by 10 to really get a sense of the longevity of the Roman Empire, the empire which existed for 1500 years. Within these 1500 years, the empire underwent several major societal, political, and cultural transformations: Christianity became the official religion of the empire in the late 4th century CE and, by the mid-7th century, Greek has taken over Latin as the official language of the state – both were in wide use before.

The primary sources available in this section attempt to shed light on both the continuities and transformations of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire by looking at the roles played by emperors, the senate, and the people of the empire in governing the state. Both the senate and the people of Rome were the staples of Roman political culture since the days of the Republic, which ended with Augustus. Ever since Octavian Augustus established himself as the leader of the Roman state, emperors occupied the central role in governing the empire and by the end of the 3rd century CE, the role of the Roman emperors was further strengthened via-a-vis the empire’s elites, many of whom were members of the senate. The legitimacy of the emperors depended on the support of the citizens of the empire, which became widely spread in 212 CE when the emperor Caracalla issued the citizenship law granting Roman citizenship to all the inhabitants of the empire. The role of the inhabitants of the empire’s capital city – first Rome, then Constantinople – was particularly important as these people lived in proximity to the emperor and his administration in the palace.

The Byzantine (Roman) Empire is oftentimes associated with expansive bureaucracy, though we should keep in mind that it was quite different from modern states’ administration, as one official could jump between positions in a very ad hoc manner: for example, one day a person could be a tax collector, the next he could be a judge. Despite the quick transitions in functions, the empire’s bureaucrats were the ones who administered the city of Constantinople, as well as the provinces, and oversaw maintenance of justice throughout the empire and conducted regular censuses to tax people according to their income and property. While the system was far from perfect, it was arguably the most complex one in the wider European and Mediterranean worlds, rivaled only by the Abbasid Caliphate. Unlike the Abbasside Caliphate, though, the Byzantine state endured for over a millennium. Thus, the elites of the empire traditionally gained influence in the state by serving in the civil or military administration. Some civil servants managed to accumulate enough power that they even became emperors.

Speaking of becoming an emperor, let us focus on the issue of succession. The Roman Empire from Augustus to Konstantinos XI never really developed a firm system of succession as Western European dynastic monarchies did. The imperial office was open to anybody who was worthy of it – a very loose definition that caused the Romans many pains at times – and while the crown was sometimes passed from a father to a son or an adoptee, at other times it was passed to a leading member of the armies or civil administration. The imperial office remained open to any man, so much so that an imperial stableboy in the late 9th century succeeded in becoming an emperor, establishing a family that ruled the empire (with some interruptions) for about 150 years. By contrast to the stableboy, a major nobleman in the late 11th century established himself on the throne and managed to tie the majority of the empire’s elites to himself through marriage and other alliances; from the 12th century until the end of the empire, members of his wider family and circles continued occupying the imperial office.

As we see, the continuities and transformations of the Byzantine Empire were caused by the very people who lived in it and who belonged to all walks of life. Thanks to the adaptability of its rich legacy, the Byzantine Roman state was to be remembered in contemporary scholarship as “the empire that would not die.”

Questions for Consideration

  1. What do the continuities and the changes in the governing system tell us about the longevity of the Byzantine state?
  2. Do you think we should use the term Byzantium and Byzantines to denote the empire and its inhabitants even though the people living in the empire self-identified solely as Romans and thought of their state as Roman?


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The Ancient and Medieval World Copyright © by Adrianna Bakos; Barrie Brill; Niall Christie; Jessica Hemming; Aleksandar Jovanović; and Tracey J. Kinney is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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