The ideal Emperor and foreign ruler in the Strategikon by Kekaumenos

May 15th, 2018

Disclaimer

The article below was originally written in the form of an undergraduate assignment for the Greek Open University in 2003, during a period when the author’s academic skills were still under development. Although the quality of this article does not match the quality of later examples of the same author’s work, it is written in a thorough manner and contains useful information to nowadays students and other readers with non-specialised knowledge; therefore, it has been proudly included on this website.

The reader needs to be warned that the original assignment, on which this article was based on, was written in Greek and was intended to be read by specialised academic historians. Despite the author’s best intentions to present his essay in the clearest way possible, some points and arguments might still be lost in translation. The author recommends that for any unknown words or specialised vocabulary, the readers should refer to the web for additional information.

The author admits that the bibliography for this article is limited, matching the requirements of an undergraduate assignment of this level. The author did not include any additional bibliography during the translation of his work in English due to time and access limitations. It must also be noted that the original bibliography for this article was studied from translated copies in Greek; therefore, the page numbers suggested in the citations below match the page numbers of the translated copies and not the original volumes.

Introduction

This article discusses the profile of the ideal Byzantine Emperor (Autokrator) and the ideal foreign ruler (Toparches), as these are presented in the Strategikon by Kekaumenos. The author of the book lives sometime between the second and third quarter of the 11th century AD; the actual Strategikon, however, is most likely written between AD 1075 and 1078 (Strategikon, 16-16). This is an important transitional period for the Byzantine Empire, which is characterised by great controversy in relation to the handling of state affairs (Strategikon, 9).

Even though this specific book belongs to a category of practical manuals on military tactics, which are commonly written throughout the Middle Byzantine period and are called Taktika (Tactics) or Strategika (Strategics), Kekaumenos does not confine his discussion and advice on military issues (Strategikon, 12-13). By contrast, he wishes to produce a text that offers useful advice to his children (Strategikon, 240); therefore, next to some practical advice of military nature, he writes about private life and household affairs, and between paragraphs 7 and 91 he offers advice to the Byzantine Emperors and foreign rulers.

To address the characteristics of the ideal Emperor and foreign ruler, this article is divided in five sections. The first section discusses the changes that the Byzantine imperial ideal underwent during the 10th and 11th centuries AD, and the reasons why such changes took place. The second section discusses some of the historical events that preceded the writing of the Strategikon, which are useful in order to understand the socio-political context of the 11th century AD. The third section discusses the qualities Kekaumenos believeed they should characterise an ideal Emperor and an ideal foreign ruler; it also discusses the deviation between these qualities and what was happening in reality during his time. The third section addresses the nature of the social values projected by Kekaumenos as ideal, and the chronological framework that these belong to. The fourth section presents the reasons why Kekaumenos supported such values and explains the expected aims of his Strategikon. In the final section, there is a brief mention of the historical events that followed the period after Kekaumenos, including a short discussion on the changes that the Byzantine ruling class underwent at the beginning of the 12th century AD.

Important changes in the Imperial ideal before the 11th century AD

In the Byzantine Empire, one of the most popular perceptions was the that power of the Emperor derived directly from God. Ordinary people were thought to be unable to choose their own rulers, while hereditary rule was thought to bring in power those who were inexperienced and incompetent. For this reason, it was believed that the Emperor was sent by God as a unique human being, brought to life with one and only cause: to rule. Such human being was not expected be influenced by ‘earthly matters’ and was supposed to rule as a sole monarch under divine consent. In case a ruler made bad decisions, it was believed that he would have only been judged by God himself according the standards of the power God trusted him with (Guillou 1996, 119-20).

The notion that the imperial power had divine origins started to decline after the 9th century AD. After Emperor Theophilos convicted the murderers of his predecessor and grandfather, Leon the Armenian, in AD 829, the legal term ‘rule by hereditary right’ appeared for the first time in the Byzantine chronicles. This institution was further transformed during the period of the Macedonian Dynasty (AD 867-1056), when the imperial power was legitimised through the ruling family’s consent (Guillou 1996, 122).

Furthermore, during the reign of Nikephoros Phokas (AD 963-969), there appeared another change in the understanding of imperial status. Until that time, the Byzantine Emperor of the previous centuries was projected as a chosen-by-God peacekeeping ruler, who was characterised by feelings of righteousness, charity, generosity, purity, loyalty and piety. From the end of the 10th century AD, however, this notion started to change. The Emperor began to stand out for his military virtue, his prowess in battle and his aristocratic descent. This notion was gradually rooted in the minds of the Byzantine people during the 11th century AD, a period characterised by severe pressure from the Empire’s external enemies. Furthermore, due to their increasing political powers, it was the rural military aristocracy of the 11th century who imposed the model of the Warrior-Emperor (Penna 1999, 46-7).

The historical events of the 11th century AD and the internal crisis

The Strategikon by Kekaumenos presents the typical image of the Byzantine Empire of the 11th century AD. The profile of the Warrior-Emperor matches that of Basil II the Porphyrogenitus (AD 967-1025), who is the most influential personality of the 11th century. By continuing the military victories of his two predecessors, Nikephoros II Phokas (AD 963-969) and Ioannis Tsimiskis (AD 969-976), Basil II manages to consolidate the power of the Byzantine Empire and to secure its frontiers from enemy attacks. Basil II subdues the Bulgarians in 1018; he conquers North Syria and Armenia; and finally, he signs important peace treaties with the Serbians and the Croats (Strategikon, 9-10)

His internal affairs focus on supporting the farmers. He forces the wealthy landlords to pay the delayed taxes of the poor farmers, while his administration moves away from supporting the urban populations and focuses on the Empire’s rural areas, the so called Themata (θέματα). The reason this shift takes place is because the rural Themata supply the government with sufficient military personnel and pay the largest percentage of the state’s taxation (Angold 1997, 60-3).

Unfortunately, the style of government practised by Basil II is so peculiar, that only he can control the state in such an effective manner. He successors face great difficulty in maintaining progress, and therefore, after Basil’s death the Empire’s decline begins rapidly (Angold 1997, 61).

In 56 years, there are eleven different emperors recorded on the Byzantine throne and none of them manages to maintain the political stability that was achieved by Basil II. Political power gradually passes on to the hands of a highly educated minority, who are members of the imperial bureaucracy based at the Empire’s capital. The army units that are stationed in the rural districts are gradually neglected, and at the same time, an increasing number of foreign mercenaries is introduced in the Byzantine army. The maintenance of foreign mercenaries increases the state’s budget, which results to an increase in the taxation of the rural areas. At the same time, the Empire’s external enemies raid from all directions, causing severe devastation to the agricultural economy (Strategikon, 10-12).

The period between AD 1050 and 1075 is characterised by catastrophic military defeats and territorial losses. The Seljuks invade from the East and at AD 1071 they defeat the army of Romanos IV Diogenes at Manzikert. The same year, the Norman army of Robert Guiscard conquers the Byzantine territories of Southern Italy. Finally, invaders from the North manage to reach as far as the walls of Constantinople (Kazdan & Warton-Epstein 1997, 60).

The ideal Emperor of Kekaumenos

The period between AD 1075 and 1078, during which the Strategikon is written, is characterised by an administrative crisis and by a lack of stability in the Byzantine Empire. The large number of Emperors and the continuous successions on the Byzantine throne are primarily responsible for the existing situation. Internal political rivalries at Constantinople result in the undermining and dissolution of the rural Themata, in a way that hey soon become an easy target of foreign invaders. Living in such an environment, Kekaumenos writes a series of practical advice to be read by his children, though such advice is also addressed to the Emperor and other foreign rulers.

According to Kekaumenos, the first principle characterising an ideal Emperor is to rule in justice. He suggests that the Emperor is the law itself; therefore, all people must obey his commands. In return, the Emperor is subject to the divine laws of God just as all humans; therefore, he cannot rule without piety and cannot introduce laws that are disrespectful to his people (Strategikon, 224). Kekaumenos supports the idea that an Emperor’s deeds must reflect gratitude, truth and justice. Such characteristics associate with the Emperors of the previous periods, who ruled before Nikephoros Phokas, in a time when the model of the Warrior-Emperor had not been established.

The investigation of false accusations and the rewarding of truth are additional characteristics, which support the judicial role of an Emperor and promote his righteous government. Even when the throne is under threat, the Emperor must conduct his investigations secretly, and lead the conspirators to trial only when his evidence against them are strong (Strategikon, 246). Bearing in mind that during previous periods the Byzantine throne had passed on to the hands of eleven different Emperors, it is evident that the questioning and undermining of rulers, conspiracies and attempts to dethrone them were common phenomena of that period.

Rewarding and promoting those who are capable servants is another advice that Kekaumenos considers important. According to him, the mistresses and hypocrites surrounding the Emperor are not supposed to be offered public offices. Such offices are supposed to be given to capable men instead, who gain the respect of their employees and who maintain discipline within the office’s hierarchy (Strategikon, 246-8). This suggestion raises questions regarding the ineffectiveness of the Byzantine state’s mechanisms, where people without skills, who were favouritised by the right officials, occupied positions that should have never been entrusted to them in the first place.

Accepting critique and appreciating honesty from those who dare to speak the truth to the Emperor is another positive characteristic of the ideal ruler. The ruler should not only avoid those who offer him flattering words, but he should prefer friends who offer him constructive critique (Strategikon, 264-68).

Caring for the soldiers and resolving the army’s administrative problems in fair manner are two important tasks, which guarantee the loyalty of the troops to the Emperor. In exchange, the Emperor should not deprive the Roman and foreign (mercenary) soldiers of any necessary supplies; he should provide sufficient food for all men and their animals and pay them their salaries in full, so that they will always be satisfied and carry on serving him (Strategikon, 248). Additionally, foreign mercenaries should never be offered higher positions in the army. Even those who are the most qualified among them, should be offered positions with restricted powers, as any excessive generosity is likely to make them greedy (Strategikon, 250-6).

Although Kekaumenos claims that “the navy is the glory of Romania” (Romania or Ρωμανία refers to the name of the Eastern Roman Empire), he admits cases of bribery among the higher ranks of naval officers. Later on, he mentions the incompetence of naval commanders and speaks about cases of pillaging and piracy related to the inefficiency of the Byzantine navy (Strategikon, 268-72).

It can be noted that Kekaumenos places a lot of importance on how the Emperor is managing the armed forces, particularly because he lives in a period of continuous wars and external threats. From the 10th century AD onwards, the Byzantine army is heavily depended on foreign mercenaries and other professional troops, such as the heavy cavalry of the Kataphraktoi (Κατάφρακτοι) (Kazdan & Warton-Epstein 1997, 121-2). Kekaumenos believes that the coexistence of domestic and foreign troops in the army makes sense only if both are treated as professional soldiers and are paid the same salary. The small numbers of conscripted domestic troops, the so-called national army, and their incapability of protecting the Empire’s boarders, led to the introduction of mercenaries and to a greater diversity in the army during the 11th century AD (Kazdan & Warton-Epstein 1997, 265-6).

The author of the Strategikon neither refers to the participation of the Emperor in battles, nor speaks about his military courage, which is an essential characteristic of leaders during his time (Kazdan & Warton-Epstein 1997, 181). Despite his descent from a military family, Kekaumenos believes that the Emperor should rule in justice, internal purity and logical thought, rejecting the role-model of the Warrior-Emperor, which was popular during the 11th century AD.

The author’s references to the navy suggest that during the 11th century AD, the administration, maintenance and equipment of the fleet was not one of the state’s first priorities any more. In fact, the state’s greatest efforts were placed on accommodating the needs of the army, probably because all of the assaults faced by the Byzantine Empire during this period were from land. Furthermore, the undermining of the navy was the main reason for the rise of the rural military aristocracy during the end of the century, which was primarily associated with the army.

Another piece of advice offered to the Emperor is that he should not deceive towns, foreign regions and the army itself. Every person in the Empire needs to feel the Emperor as a father, and in return, the Emperor needs to act under the fear of God. Kekaumenos points out the extent of unfair taxation, the continuously rising taxes and the newly introduced contributions, which he describes as strange and unprecedented inventions aiming in gathering more and more money for the state (Strategikon, 256-8). Such practices were quite common for increasing the state’s income during that time, and Kekaumenos is constantly bringing up the issue of excessive and unfair taxation in different chapters of his volume (1).

The tax-collectors of the 10th and 11th century were private individuals, who bought their office and title from the state in exchange of money, and held it for a specific period. They collected the legal taxes for the state, on top of which they added their own fees. For Kekaumenos, tax-collectors try to make as much profit as possible by forcing the tax-payers to pay large sums of money, a significant fraction of which ends up in their own chests (Strategikon, 194). According to Kekaumenos, the Emperor is obliged to control the tax-collectors and to limit their profiteering by protecting its own citizens from such injustice.

Controlling and combating injustice is not supposed to be limited to the senior state officials. The author goes even further, urging the Emperor to ensure that neither his relatives nor his friends have the liberty of harming other citizens (Strategikon, 258-62). He portrays the Emperor as an example for all, and reminds him that in order to govern properly, he has to develop four basic qualities: mental prowess, justice, wisdom and prudence (Strategikon, 262) (2).

Based on the persistence of Kekaumenos in writing advice associated with a fair rule and a battle against injustice and corruption, one can imagine that the state’s mechanisms during the 11th century AD operated without any control. The Emperors had probably lost full control over the state, which resulted to the collapse of the traditional monarchy that existed a few centuries earlier.

Kekaumenos suggests that the Emperor should make sure that the capital city is prepared to face any dangers. There should be enough food supplies, weapons and siege engines to be used in case of external threat (Strategikon, 264). It is interesting that during the time the Strategikon is written, Constantinople has never faced siege from a foreign enemy. It is possible that Kekaumenos predicts a potential attack against the capital by a powerful enemy in the future, although there is another explanation for this kind of advice. The example of Michael V, who was violently removed from the throne, in conjunction with advice that the Emperor must never trust his powers and authority so much (Strategikon, 264), all point out that Kekaumenos is perhaps afraid of an internal revolt in the future, and the siege of the capital city by friendly troops. Internal threats were a reality that bothered all rulers of the 11th century. Even in earlier periods, Basil II faced a revolt at Asia Minor in AD 989, which was planned by the aristocratic families of Skleros and Phokas (Angold 1997, 56).

Finally, Kekaumenos points out that the rural areas of the Byzantine Empire are significantly neglected; therefore, the Emperor is obliged to visit the citizens of isolated areas, listen to them, resolve their problems, and preserve a peaceful life for them (Strategikon, 272-5). This is a strong projection of the role-model of the peace-keeping Emperor. During the time when the Strategikon was written, many rural areas were cut off from the central government. This isolation invited enemies to the boarders of the Empire and also generated internal political imbalance.

The ideal foreign ruler (Toparches)

Kekaumenos is using the term Toparches in order to define any foreign ruler who commands a territory bordering with the Byzantine Empire (Strategikon, 98). In his opinion, the ideal foreign ruler must always keep his territory under his own personal rule. This means that instead of allowing the Byzantine Emperor to buy his land in exchange of money, he must be able to establish his own authority and not allow himself and his people to become the Emperor’s slaves (Strategikon, 278-280).

He encourages him not to visit the Emperor frequently and not to seek for his gifts. Many Emperors take advantage of such behaviour, and when they are given the right opportunity, they take control of the foreign rulers’ countries (Strategikon, 276-280).

According to Kekaumenos, it is normal for a foreign ruler to visit the Byzantine capital city “to kneel” in front of its churches and in front of the Emperor (Strategikon, 276-280). Here, the verb “to kneel” is used with a dual meaning: firstly, it states the act of religious worship, during which a foreign Christian ruler is expected to visit Constantinople’s churches, and to kneel in front of the holy building, or more likely in front of its holy icons. Secondly, it is used to describe the respect and submission that is expressed by kneeling in front of the Byzantine Emperor, who is believed to be chosen by God. In any case, this statement carries the popular Byzantine belief that their own Emperor is by far superior to any other ruler of any other nation. Kekaumenos chooses his words carefully and purposely stresses the different status of an Emperor and a Toparches.

As his final advice, Kekaumenos suggests that a foreign ruler should maintain peaceful relationships with all his neighbouring foreign rulers, probably referring to other foreign Toparches. He advises him to offer his hospitality to them, but at the same time to protect his own country to enjoy peace (Strategikon, 284-6). Such advice would have had a practical effect on the Byzantine Empire too, as in many occasions the Empire's foreign neighbours acted as protective shields against other invaders from further inland.

All of Kekaumenos’ admonitions to the foreign ruler match a miniature profile of his ideal Byzantine Emperor. It can be noted that even though Kekaumenos is trying to advise the foreign ruler as a person standing outside the Empire (Strategikon, 276), in reality he is only projecting the basic attributes of an ideal ruler according to how the Byzantines viewed their own rulers.

The promotion of the Byzantine Imperial ideals

Kekaumenos lives and writes at a time of subsequent and rapid changes. The Byzantine Empire’s boarders are continuously shrinking, while there is a constant ascension to the throne of different Emperors who only rule for a short period of time. This fragile situation does not remind him at all the security and stability that the imperial status offered to the Byzantine people in previous years. Incapacity in state administration, injustice, indiscretion, social inequalities, unrest, and loss of faith in the army are the most common daily problems of the Byzantium during the 11th century AD.

From his point of view, the author does not criticise the Emperor’s decisions. True to earlier social standards, he believes that if the Empire’s enemies are prospering while the Byzantine people are suffering, this is only happening because it is the will of God and not because of the Emperor’s own mistakes (Strategikon, 136).

One could argue that through his advisory text, Kekaumenos has no apparent reason for addressing an Emperor or a foreign ruler. In fact, it is highly unlikely that such people would have had a chance to read his work. If this is so, then could it be possible that Kekaumenos aspired to see his sons in such political positions? Although this could be the case, it is more likely that the author incorporated such political advice in his Strategikon by expecting them to be passed on to one of the future rulers, who would have been willing to preserve the imperial ideas that prevailed during previous centuries.

Through his advice, Kekaumenos is trying to revert the imperial ideal towards a role-model that existed prior to the 10th century AD. The loss of prosperous rural lands that once belonged to the Empire, in conjunction with the financial cost of the wars, only proved to him that the role-model of the Warrior-Emperor made no sense any more. By contrast, the state needed a charismatic ruler, who was meant to be just, kind and generous, and whose divine authority was to be appreciated by everybody, including foreign leaders. Such an Emperor would have used his judgement correctly to fight against injustice, restore peace, and normalise the turbulent course of the Empire.

Epilogue

Despite Kekaumenos’ honest advice and the positive effects he would have expected them to have on the Byzantine administration, the reality of the following years is completely different. During the late 11th century AD, urban political elements infiltrate the Empire’s government. In reaction, the highest military elites from the rural areas of the Byzantium consolidate their position in the government by all available means. They formulate a group of powerful family alliances, bound together through arranged marriages, and they build a faction around the Komnenian Dynasty. The Komnenian faction monopolises the highest military and administrative positions in the government. The consolidation to power of a small yet dominant group consisting of powerful landlords and high-ranking military officers excludes from the government several power groups that played an important role in the past, such as the eunuchs and the mercenaries. The lower-ranking members of the state’s bureaucracy, the Senators and the older political elite are now treated as socially inferior (Kazdan & Warton-Epstein 1997, 116-8).

The Komnenian Dynasty manages to get rid of every unwanted official who has political influence and who once stood next to the previous Emperors. Unfortunately, the ideal image of the God-chosen and just Emperor promoted by Kekaumenos never appears again. Instead, the new imperial model is based on hereditary succession and is exclusively controlled by the military aristocracy and the Komnenian faction.

The 12th century AD, which follows the above events, is regarded as a period of social and political decay for the Byzantine Empire. This decay leads to several of the greatest defeats in Byzantine history, which damage the Empire’s prestige for ever. In 1178 the Seljuks defeat the Byzantines at the battle of Myriokephalon; in 1184 the Normans conquer Dyrrachion and Thessaloniki; and the Bulgarians revolt during the decade following 1180. The tragic epilogue of this decay is the fall of Constantinople to the hands of the ‘Latin’ troops of the 4th Crusade in 1204 (Kazdan & Warton-Epstein 1997, 59).

Notes

  1. Of course, the same unfair taxation practices still carry on until today; therefore, this piece of information is unlikely to surprise any of the readers of the Strategikon.
  2. Even though wisdom and prudence often appear as synonyms in English, in the original Strategikon that was written in medieval Greek, these two words have small differences in their meaning.

Bibliography

Angold, M., 1997, The Byzantine Empire between 1025 and 1204, translated by Kargianioti, E., Athens: Papadimas.
Penna, B., 1999, ‘Byzantine institutions’, in Penna, B. (ed.) Hellenic History, Volume 2, Byzantium and Hellenism, Patra: Greek Open University, 21-70.
Guillou, A., 1996, The Byzantine Civilisation, translated by Ontoricco, P. & Tsochandaridou, S., Athens: Ellinika Grammata.
Kazdan, A.P. & Warton-Epstein, P., 1997, The Changes in the Byzantine Civilisation during the 11th and 12th Centuries, translated by Pappas, A., Athens: Morphotiko Idryma Ethnikis Trapezis.
Tsougarakis, D. (ed.), 1996, Kekaumenos: Strategikon, Athens: Kanakis.