310. Purple Prose: Byzantine Political Philosophy

Posted on 21 October 2018

Byzantine political thought from the time of Justinian down to the Palaiologos dynasty wrestles with the nature and scope of imperial power.

Further Reading

• P.N. Bell (trans.), Three Political Voices from the Age of Justinian (Liverpool: 2009).


• D. Angelov, “Plato, Aristotle, and ‘Byzantine Political Philosophy,’” Mélanges de l’Université Saint-Joseph 57 (2004), 499-523.

• D. Angelov, Imperial Ideology and Political Thought in Byzantium, 1204-1330 (Cambridge: 2007).

• E. Barker, Social and Political Thought in Byzantium from Justinian I to the Last Palaeologus (Oxford: 1957).

• J. García-Huidobro, “Michael of Ephesus and the Byzantine Reception of the Aristotelian Doctrine of Natural Justice,” Archiv für Geschichte der Philosophie 94 (2012), 274-95.

• D.J. O’Meara, “Political Philosophy in Michael Psellos: the Chronographia Read in Relation to his Philosphical Work,” in B. Bydén and K. Ierodiakonou (eds), The Many Faces of Byzantine Philosophy (Athens: 2012), 153-70.

• T. Shawcross, “‘Do Thou Nothing without Counsel’: Political Assemblies and the Ideal of Good Government in the Thought of Theodore Palaeologus and Theodore Metochites,” Al-Masāq 20 (2008), 89-118.

• P. Wood, “We Have No King but Christ”: Christian Political Thought in Greater Syria on the Eve of the Arab conquest (c. 400-585) (Oxford: 2010).

The cheeseburger sketch from Saturday Night Live


Hermes 22 October 2018

It is kind of surprising that this otherwise informative segment does not draw on the latest work on the practice and thinking Byzantine politics, The Byzantine Republic by Anthony Kaldellis. Highly recommended. 

Oh actually that is coming right up - I talk about this issue in an episode about Byzantine historians, in the context of discussing their attitude towards ancient Rome (will be episode 312). But maybe I should add it to the bibliography here too, thanks!

I can see why you say that but the book referred to above, which I have only glancing familiarity with, is actually making a pretty subtle argument that one shouldn't just discard. The idea is not (of course) that the Byzantine government was republican in character. It is rather that the emperor was constantly under pressure from "democratic" forces which manifested in, e.g. riots and less overt forms of pressure, and which looked back to ideals of republicanism from earlier Roman history. So actually I think the thesis is quite plausible and worth taking seriously; of course Kaldellis is a leading Byzantine historian so that is hardly a surprise.

I understand your point, but as far as I know his entire concept is still quite debatable with major flaws that Treadgold himself came to point out among them:

"Yet his own explanation fits the historical evidence badly in other ways. First, he does not explain plausibly how a traditional ideology that the people could overthrow the emperor could have been transmitted from second-century Rome to fifth-century Constantinople, through gaps of thousands of miles and hundreds of years."

Yes, that is a good objection. The intellectual elite might well have been aware of the republican history of Rome but it's hard to see how the rioters in the street would have been.

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