The Byzantine Republic

I recently finished reading a book on an aspect of the Classical world that neither I, nor many other Classicists likely have thought much about. The book is Anthony Kaldellis’ The Byzantine Republic, which deals with the Eastern Roman Empire (called by modern scholars “Byzantine”) which ruled a fluctuating area centred on Anatolia and the Balkans from the fall of Rome to the Goths in 476 CE until the final capture of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453 CE. Kaldellis’ work represents an intriguing attempt to reconnect the Byzantines to their Roman heritage, something which he argues has all-too-often been ignored and/or denied by scholars.

While the Byzantine Empire was historically continuous with the eastern Roman Empire of late antiquity, and the inhabitants never called themselves anything but ‘Romans’, Kaldellis argues that for many decades, if not centuries, scholarship has sought to paint this empire as an entirely distinct thing from the earlier Roman state. One of the ways in which this has happened, he say, is the promotion by scholars of what is termed the ‘imperial idea’: namely, that the Byzantine Emperor (called by his own subjects the Basileus, the Greek word for king or ruler) was seen as the representative of God on Earth, exercising unquestionable autocratic power by divine right. Implicitly or explicitly, Kaldellis argues, this image of despotism (often in 19th and early 20th century textsprefixed with ‘oriental’) served to separate the Byzantines from the earlier Roman Empire, where emperors, for all their power, were at least formally seen as appointed by and responsible to the Roman State.

Kaldellis dedicates his book to refuting this view of Byzantine imperial theocracy. On the contrary, he argues, there is clear evidence from Byzantine legal thought that the Emperor continued to be thought of as both appointed by, and charged with serving the political community – res publica in Latin, politeia in the Greek that was the empire’s standard langauge. Encompassing all the institutions of the Empire, from Emperors to Senate to army to common farmers, the politeia, Kaldellis argues, was seen by the Byzantines as the primary source of political legitimacy. In practice, the politeia was most commonly represented by the people of Constantinople, the imperial capital. Almost every imperial coronation involved the presentation of the new Emperor to the gathered populace, who would cry out Axios! – ‘he is worthy!’, signifying that they had granted the Emperor the right to rule.


This ceremony could, of course, be seen as little more than a symbolic gesture, akin to the ‘elections’ held in totalitarian states in which rulers receive 99.9% of the vote; but Kaldellis argues that it was rendered meaningful by the fact that the people could and often did revoke their consent to be governed by any particular Emperor. Kaldellis quotes numerous records of the people of Constantinople either rising up against an Emperor, or throwing their support behind a rival candidate; in either case, the sitting Emperor almost invariably lost his throne, either abdicating, fleeing into exile, or, in extreme cases, being killed by the rebellious people. Moreover, Kaldellis shows that the language and actions taken by the people when revolting – gathering in the streets, opening the prison, shouting Anaxios! (‘unworthy!’) and ‘dig up his bones!’ – remained consistent over many centuries. This implies that the people were for generations well aware of their status as the final arbiters of imperial power, and handed down traditions of how to go about rebelling if an Emperor should disappoint them.

Kaldellis concludes by turning to those texts which do seem to support the idea that the Emperor ruled by divine right. These certainly do exist, and, strikingly, are sometimes written by the same authors who at other times use the ‘republican’ language of the Emperor as servant of the people. Kaldellis argues that these two images of the Emperor – as popularly-chosen ruler and as vicar of God – co-existed in Byzantine thought without ever being fully reconciled. Different people at different times could emphasize one or the other depending on the rhetorical needs of the moment. An insecure Emperor, for example, might well wish to emphasize his divine appointment as a way of deflecting questions as to his (or her – the Byzatines saw several female sole rulers) legitimacy; on the other hand, a popular Emperor might well be happy to be seen as the loyal servant of the politeia.

The monarchical republic that emerges from Kaldellis’ book differs from the earlier Roman Empire, and the Roman Republic that preceded it, in its lack of institutionalization of the relationship between rulers and people. There were no formal elections, no terms of office, no clearly-defined constitutional relationships. Rather, in Kaldellis’ view, political life in Byzantine society was governed by semi-articulated traditions and ideologies. Emperors existed to serve the politeia, and if they didn’t, the politeia could reject them by rising up. This was a messy, confused and often violent process, to be sure; but it also represented a dynamic and broad-based political system in which Emperor and people were in constant and creative tension.

I found this book very readable, and broadly convincing. Not being a Byzantinist, I am not in any position to evaluate how representative Kaldellis’ sources are, but they do seem to make the case that a ‘republican’ understanding of imperial politics was definitely present in the Byzantine world. A few small criticisms do occur to me: first, I would have liked to see more about the role of the Imperial army in Byzantine politics. If an Emperor possessed the loyalty of the troops, for example, then might he not be able to compel the people to acclaim him, regardless of their personal views? This is not to reject the ‘republican’ vision entirely – the army were after all part of the politeia, and could even in a sense be seen as representing the people under arms; but it would be interesting nuance to add to the picture. I also found Kaldellis’ repeated criticisms of the prevailing views of Byzantine society somewhat wearing: though I gather he is going very much against the current, I felt that he spent rather too much time emphasizing how one-sided other scholars’ views were, which at timesgave what was an otherwise extremely engaging style a somewhat carping tone.

Kaldellis’ project is in fact part of a broader trend that has been going on in the study of Ancient Politics, which sees increasingly looks at politics not simply in terms of formal institutions, but of dynamic relationships between social actors. In particular, greater emphasis has been given to the role of ‘unofficial’ political actions like popular protest or revolt. For my part, I was struck by how much Kaldellis’ picture of the tensions in Byzantine politics reminded me of the situation presented in the Homeric epics, at the very other end of antiquity.

In the Iliad for example, we likewise see a collision between images of political authority. On the one hand, we frequently hear it suggested that Homeric kings (basilees – essentially the same word that the Byzantines applied to their Emperors) owe their position to the gift of Zeus and the other gods, and that their words must be obeyed without question. Consider, for example, Odysseus rebuking the men of the army in Iliad 2:

My man, stand still and hear the words of others, men who are better than you. You are unwarlike and feeble, of no account in war or in council.  We cannot all be king here, we Achaeans:  many rulers is not good. Let there be one ruler, one king, to whom the son of Crooked Minded Kronos gave the sceptre and the laws, by which he may take council.


On the other hand, elsewhere in the Iliad we see suggestions that kings only hold offices through the goodwill of the men who follow them, and that those men can even rise up and overthrow their kings and leaders. So, for example, when angered by Agamemnon, Achilles considers whether he should ‘make the people rise up’ and kill the king (1.191); when prevented by Athena from doing this, he nevertheless continues to taunt Agamemnon with the possibility that the people might cease to obey him: ‘you are a king who devours his people’ he tells him, ‘since you rule over nobodies: otherwise, son of Atreus, this is the last time you would have insulted anyone’ (1.231-232). The implication seems clear: had the Achaean army been bolder, they would have forcibly overthrown their arrogant king. The most trenchant articulation of Homeric kings deriving their legitimacy from the people, however, comes in the famous speech by King Sarpedon of Lycia to his fellow ruler Glaukos:

Glaukos, why in Lycia do we receive especial honor as regards our place at table? Why are the choicest portions served us and our cups kept brimming, and why do men look up to us as though we were gods? Moreover we hold a large estate by the banks of the river Xanthos, fair with orchard lawns and wheat-growing land; it becomes us, therefore, to take our stand at the head of all the Lycians and bear the brunt of the fight, that one may say to another, ‘Our princes in Lycia eat the fat of the land and drink best of wine, but they are fine men; they fight well and are ever at the front in battle.’


Here, there is no mention of Zeus giving the king his power, or of the people’s absolute obedience. Instead, kings enjoy their power and privileges because they act on behalf of the community and lead the people in battle.

As in Kaldellis’ vision of the Byzantine republic, these two visions of Homeric kingship co-exist uneasily, without ever being explicitly reconciled. I would argue that the clash between these ideas of kingship in fact represents one of the triggers for the conflict between Agamemnon and Achilles that defines the Iliad.

As to why Byzantine political tensions resemble those seen in Homer more than 1000 years earlier, I couldn’t say for sure – perhaps the tension between different modes of authority has rumbled on continuously throughout Classical thought ever since; or perhaps these are the kinds of debates you get whenever a monarchic system is coupled with a self-confident populace. Whatever the case, as my excursion into Homeric politics has shown, Kaldellis’ thoughtful studycan serve to stimulate reflection about political society for a range of contexts outside the Byzantine world, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone interested in ancient politics and society.


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