Episode 239 – The New Aristocracy

When Alexios Komnenos came to power his family decided to marry their way out of the civil wars which threatened the state. By Manuel’s day this meant that a new aristocracy had grown up who dominated the organs of the Byzantine state.

We discuss this development and how Manuel managed his family. As well as those who resented this innovation.

Period: 1143-61

Pic: Manuel Komnenos (Manuscript miniature, Vatican Library)

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Categories: Podcast | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Episode 239 – The New Aristocracy

  1. Marcel

    I just wanted to leave a wholehearted “thank you!”, Robin.

    We are so lucky to have such a dedicated and qualified (in topic and delivery) person to take on this relatively obscure and underappreciated topic and keep the project up for years on a very high quality level. I am so glad this podcast exists.

    I still remember Dr. Anthony Kaldellis thanking you on behalf of his field in the episode about the Byzantine Republic. I think this means a lot. Thank you from an interested layperson outside of the field!

  2. Flavio

    I echo Marcel’s words, Robin, thanks for the great work! Also, I’m already dreading the moment of the sack of Constantinople.

  3. PawelS

    I have an impression that Roman’s leaders had surprisingly few children so “adoptions” in some periods were so common. When Komnenians made a state affair from marriage, did it affect a number of children or just chronicels paid more attention to it?
    Thanks for this great podcast

    • Thank you. Could you elaborate more on your question? As far as I know none of the marriages I mentioned in this episode involved adoptions.

      • PawelS

        By “adoptions” I mean adoptions by ancient Roman emperors, but Byzantine ones haven’t seemed to me to be much more fertile, until Komnenians.

  4. Yeah it does depend on the Emperor. Heraclius had many children. As did Leo III. But you’re right that many of the Macedonians did not.

  5. Mystikos

    I think PawelS is asking – did the Komnenian focus on arranging marriages for the purposes of state increase their fertility? As in, they cared more about propagating their extended family, so they made sure to have many biological children.

    This seems counterintuitive to our idea of arranged marriages ~ “Fine, I’ll marry my rich cousin or this random Hungarian prince, but I’m not going to spend much time in bed with them, thank you very much!” But in practice such defiance seems relatively rare.

    My speculation – that appears true long-term. The Komnenoi managed to survive for many generations (especially in Trebizond). And the Palaiologoi similarly had a long-lived dynasty (presumably having kept the same attitude as the Komnenoi).

    By contrast, the tendency for Ancient Roman and earlier Eastern Roman dynasties was to die out. Many failed to reproduce – the later Leonids, the Justinians, Justinian the Slit-Nosed, Irene, Michael the Drunkard, the final Macedonians, various usurpers… Many fell victim to violence, to be fair, but you’d think the dynasties that lasted a few generations would have more cousins that would stand to inherit.

    Perhaps the Orthodox disapproval of additional marriages and encouragement of celibacy (Basil and his nieces come to mind) played a role. Or maybe it was the Byzantine “republicanism” that created inherent instability.

    Other European dynasties (e.g, the Capetians, the Habsburgs, the Rurikids) seemed much more stable – lasting centuries and rarely dying out due to infertility. Maybe the Komnenoi and the Palaiologoi adopted the same stabilizing blood-aristocracy customs under the increasing influence of the West via the crusaders?

    • There are many aspects to this. There certainly were cultural shifts towards big or small families at various times in Roman history. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on with the Komnenoi. As we are seeing with Manuel – some people just didn’t have a lot of legitimate children out of bad luck.

      The reason the Komnenoi could marry off so many children is the extended nature of the Imperial family. As in they allowed all their relatives to share in the power and dignity of the Imperial office. If Basil II had tried to marry off his cousins daughter to a foreign power they would have responded ‘who is this nobody?’ But the Komnenoi were able to argue that all these brides and grooms were the children of high ranking members of the court whose relationship to the Emperor guaranteed them both status and access to power.

      As a result of this families began to include famous names above their own in their ancestry. As in future grooms will actually take on the name Komnenos or Palaiologos over their own family name in order to be associated with power. Hence the survival of those dynasties. This brought Byzantium more into line with the other long-lived European dynasties you mentioned. Aristocratic states encourage powerful families to join them rather than supplant them. Whereas pre-Komnenoi Byzantium encouraged office holding rather than inter-marriage as the route to power and wealth.

      • Mystikos

        You’ve clarified and summed this up *beautifully*!! The perfect addendum to the episode. Thanks so much for your work, Robin!

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