In Roman history, both Byzantine and ancient, the narrative can be followed essentially by going from history to history. This is how the Romans told history themselves in primary sources as well. Emperors provide the focal point for narrative histories, they were the focal point of the power the state possessed as well.
According to Paul Magdalino: “With time, Byzantium became more and more of an oriental despotism, but the Byzantine court remained encased in the husks of Roman civic tradition. At its core was a secretive private house hold screened and staffed by eunuchs, but on the outside it was a hierarchy of public officials which ramified beyond the imperial palace, and whose upper ranks, at least, were always known as the Senate.” I would argue there was not much new here and that that process of becoming oriental despots occurred under Diocletian, not in the Eastern Roman Empire. Nonetheless, it is true that there was a duality to the imperial court and imperial office. There was a civic administration, and an imperial office which held supreme power. But, there were limits to the power of Emperors, because their power was both supreme yet also fragile.
In Byzantine politics, an Emperor could rise or fall quickly. This can be do to a variety of factors or a combination of them – uncontrollable outside events, to high taxes, military defeats, unpopular religious policy, or sheer opportunism, etc. Some see it is a weakness that the Emperor could be toppled. Steven Runciman described how it was also a strength: “Few states have been organized in a manner so well suited to the times and so carefully directed to prevent power remaining in the hands of the incompetent…fundamentally it was a heritage from the Roman past, but continually it had been adapted and supplemented throughout the centuries to suit their varying requirements.”
It is easy to pinpoint some incompetent Emperors, of course, over a period spanning over a millennium. But, the position of the Emperor was in fact vulnerable. It required support from three areas of society to be fully secure in rule: the army, the Senate (essentially the aristocracy), and the people of Constantinople. Runciman said that “though there was no constitutional check on his power, the Emperors autocracy was nonetheless limited. He always recognized his obligation to respect the fundamental laws of the Roman people; and deep down, there lingered the idea that the sovereignty was the people’s, and the people had only delegated power to the Emperor.” This delegation is exactly the sentiment Augustus cultivated. The Roman continuity is there in this sense. Anthony Kaldellis pushes this argument to it’s limits in the Byzantine Republic.
Of course, it seems clear the Byzantines didn’t truly have a republic, but they did have a de facto checks and balances. Because if the Emperor went too far against the army, aristocracy, the people, or most dangerously a combination of these elements, they could overthrow him. This is why Emperors were always desperate for legitimacy if they were lacking it. Popular riots in the streets overthrew many Emperors, even if Justinian found a way out of it, he was an exceptional character as was his wife Theodora.
Byzantine Emperors typically have fascinating stories, and I will post about the most interesting Emperors to me here. You can use the menu drop-box to click on individual Emperors, or click the links to those articles below.
Byzantine Civilization – Steven Runciman
Court and Capital in Byzantium – Paul Magdalino