Beyond Constantinople: Life In the Byzantine Empire

The Byzantine Empire is often associated with wars, conquests and trivia surrounding the throne’s occupant. But what was living there like for the average person?

Dec 31, 2020By Giorgos Panagiotopoulos, BA & LLB Political Science
byzantine empire
Detail of a Mosaic of Empress Theodora, 6th century AD; with detail of a Mosaic featuring Emperor Justinian I (center), one of the greatest reformers of the Byzantine state, early 20th century (original 6th century); and detail from a Mural depicting Christ pulling Adam from the grave, from the demolished temple of Hagia Fotida, Greece, 1400


By our standards, living in antiquity was full of hardships regardless of where you look. In its almost 1000 years some periods were significantly better than others, but the Byzantine Empire generally wasn’t an exception. Onto the expected problems, some peculiar ones were added by the Byzantine church. While the latter did not reach the dark totalitarianism of its western counterpart, it also didn’t manage to abstain from adding struggle to the people’s lives. The reality of the average citizen is very often neglected when studying Byzantium. In this article, we’ll take a look at some of the fundamental aspects of being then and there.


Themes Of The Byzantine Empire 

justinian i mosaic
Mosaic featuring Emperor Justinian I (center), one of the greatest reformers of the Byzantine state, early 20th century (original 6th century), via the Metropolitan Museum, New York


Akin to Roman times, every citizen outside the walls of Constantinople was living in a province. Under the longest-lived administrative system, the Byzantine Empire was composed of several themes (thémata) with a single general (strategos) in charge of each. The state allowed soldiers to farm the land in exchange for their services and the obligation that their descendants serve as well. The strategos was not only the military commander but oversaw all civil authorities in his domain.


The themes greatly reduced the cost of standing armies as the fee for using state-owned land was taken out of soldiers’ pay. It also provided emperors with a means to avoid wildly unpopular conscription since many were being born into the military, though military estates became fewer with time. This unique characteristic of the themes helped maintain control in provinces far from the Byzantine Empire’s center, as well as proved an excellent vehicle for securing and settling newly conquered lands.


mosaic floor south wind shell
Mosaic floor depicting the South Wind blowing a shell, 1st half of the 5th century, via the Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki


If one was not born inheriting such an obligation, chances are they had it worse. The majority of the people worked in ever-growing farms owned by elites (the strong, as their contemporaries called them) or owned very small stretches of land. Those working at the large estates were often paroikoi. They were bound to the land they cultivated insofar as they were not allowed to abandon it but neither be forcibly removed from there. Protection from expulsion wasn’t given lightly, as it only came after 40 years of one staying put. Financially though, the paroikoi were probably in better shape than small landowners whose numbers were dwindling under the predatory practices of the strong. To no one’s surprise, one of the biggest landholders was the Byzantine church. As its power grew, the donations its monasteries and metropoles received, by both emperors and commonfolk, became ever more numerous.

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There were some emperors who tried to protect the impoverished rural class by granting them special rights. Most notably, Romanus I Lacapenus in 922 prohibited the strong from purchasing land in territories where they didn’t already own any. Basil II Bulgaroktonos (“Bulgar-slayer”) complimented that extremely effective measure in 996 by mandating that the poor reserved the right to re-purchase their land from the strong indefinitely.


Personal Status of Men, Women And Children

mural christ pulling adam
Mural depicting Christ pulling Adam from the grave, from the demolished temple of Hagia Fotida, Greece, 1400, via the Byzantine Museum of Veria


With the world still a long way from the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, the fundamental division of the ancient world between free men and slaves persisted in the Byzantine Empire. However, under the influence of Christianity, the Byzantines appeared more humanitarian than their predecessors. Abandonment and severe forms of abuse of slaves (such as emasculation and mandatory circumcision) resulted in their liberation. In case of any dispute regarding the freedom of a person, the ecclesiastical courts of the Byzantine church enjoyed sole jurisdiction. To its credit, the Byzantine church also provided a special procedure to exit slavery since the time of Constantine the Great (manumissio in ecclesia).


It should be clarified that the paroikoi, although limited to the land they worked in, were free citizens. They could own property and be legally married whereas slaves could not. Moreover, the geographical confinement that makes their lives look suffocating to the modern eye was eventually combined with the aforementioned protection from expulsion. A guaranteed job was not something to give up lightheartedly in antiquity.


Women were still not allowed to hold public office but were able to be legal custodians of their children and grandchildren. The epicenter of their financial lives was their dowry. Although it was at their husbands’ disposal, gradually various restrictions on its use were legislated to protect women, notably the need for their informed consent on relevant transactions. Any possessions they came by with during the marriage (gifts, inheritance) were also controlled by the husband but secured in the same way as the dowry.


mosaic empress theodora
Mosaic of Empress Theodora, 6th century AD, in the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy


Women spent most of their time at home maintaining the household, but there were exceptions. Especially when a family was struggling financially, women would support it by exiting the house and working as servants, sales assistants (in the cities), actresses and even as prostitutes. That said, the Byzantine Empire did have women stand at its helm, even if that was through marriage to emperors, empress Theodora being a beloved example. Starting as an actress (and perhaps a prostitute), she was declared Augusta and had her own imperial seal after her husband Justinian I ascended to the throne.


Children lived under the rule of their father although not in the almost literal sense of Roman times. The end of paternal authority (patria potestas) came either with the death of the father, the rise of the child to public office or its emancipation (from the latin e-man-cipio, “leaving from under the manus/hand”), a legal procedure dating to the republic. The Byzantine church “lobbied” an extra reason into law: becoming a monk. Weirdly enough, marriage wasn’t an event that inherently ended the father’s rule for either sex but it would frequently be cause for emancipation proceedings.


Love (?) And Marriage

wishes of happiness byzantine house entry
Early Christian mosaic on a Byzantine house with inscription wishing happiness to the family living inside, via the Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki


As with every society, marriage stood at the core of the life of the Byzantines. It marked the creation of a new social and financial unit, a family. While the social aspect is obvious, marriage reserved a special economic significance in the Byzantine Empire. The bride’s dowry was at the center of the negotiations. “Which negotiations?” a modern mind might rightfully wonder. People usually didn’t marry for love, at least not the first time.


The families of the couple-to-be went to great lengths to secure the future of their children in a well-thought marital contract (after all, nothing says “romance” like a legally binding document). Since the time of Justinian I, the ancient moral obligation of the father to provide a future bride with dowry became a legal one. The dowry’s size was the most important criterion in choosing a wife as it would fund the newfound household and determine the socioeconomic status of the new family. It’s no surprise that it was fiercely debated.


byzantine golden ring
Golden ring featuring the Virgin and Child, 6th-7th century, via the Metropolitan Museum, New York


The marital contract would also contain other financially performed agreements. Most commonly, a sum that would increase the dowry by as much as half called hypobolon (a dower) was agreed as a contingency plan. This was to secure the fate of the wife and future children in the statistically significant case of a husband’s premature demise. Another usual arrangement was called theoretron and it obliged the groom to reward the bride in case of virginity by a twelfth of the dowry’s size. A special case was esogamvria (“in-grooming”), under which the groom moved into his in-laws’ house and the new couple cohabitated with the bride’s parents in order to inherit them.


This is the only case where a dowry wasn’t mandatory, however, if the young couple for some not-so-unimaginable reason left the house, they could demand it. These understandably seem quite controlling, but in the Byzantine Empire minding a child’s marital future to the last detail was thought of as a fundamental responsibility of a caring father.


This is less strange considering the legal minimum age was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. These numbers were pushed lower in 692 when the Quinisext Ecumenical Council of the Church (it is debated whether the Catholic Church was formally represented but Pope Sergius I didn’t ratify its decisions) equalized betrothal before clergy, which was virtually all engagements, to marriage. This quickly became a problem as the legal limit for a betrothal was the age of 7 since Justinian I. The situation wasn’t fixed until Leo VI, rightfully called “the Wise”, cleverly increased the minimum age for betrothal to 12 for girls and 14 for boys. In doing so, he reached the same result as with the old way without interfering with the Byzantine church’s decision.


Never-Ending Kinship: Byzantine Church Restrictions

golden coin manuel komnenos
A golden coin featuring Manuel I Komnenos on its backside, 1164-67, via the Museum of Byzantine Culture, Thessaloniki


So, if an aspiring couple was of legal age and the families wanted the union to take place, they were free to go forward with the wedding? Well, not exactly. Marriage between blood relatives was unsurprisingly prohibited since the earliest stages of the Roman state. The Quinisext Ecumenical Council expanded the prohibition to include close relatives by affinity (two brothers could not marry two sisters). It also forbade marriage between those who were “spiritually affiliated,” meaning a godparent, who already wasn’t allowed to marry their godchild, now couldn’t marry the godchild’s biological parents or children.


A few years later, Leo III the Isaurian with his legal reforms in the Ecloga repeated the aforementioned bans and took them a step further by not allowing marriage between relatives of the sixth degree of consanguinity (second cousins). The prohibitions managed to survive the reforms of the Macedonian emperors.


In 997, Patriarch Sisinnius II of Constantinople issued his famous tomos that took all aforementioned restrictions to a whole new level. At first glance, the news was that two siblings were now not allowed to marry two cousins, which was bad enough, but the way he structured his rationale had dire consequences. Not wanting to outright ban the union of even more loosely related people and being deliberately vague, Sisinnius declared that it was not just law that marriage should abide by, but also the public’s sense of decency. This opened the floodgates for the Byzantine church to expand the prohibitions; the crescendo being the Act of the Holy Synod in 1166 which forbade the marriage of 7th-degree relatives (child of a second cousin).


Effects On The Byzantine Empire’s Inhabitants

golden cross enamel detail
Golden cross with enamel details, ca. 1100, via the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York


In our time this seems like not that big a deal, perhaps even reasonable. It also seemed so in the major cities of the time and especially in Constantinople, where all these decisions were taken. But for the rural populations scattered across the Byzantine Empire, these restrictions caused extreme social problems. Picture a modern village of a few hundred people up on a mountain somewhere and then subtract cars and Facebook. For many young people, there was simply no one left to marry.


Manuel I Komnenos realized this and attempted to fix the problem in 1175 by mandating that the penalties for marriage in contradiction to the tomos and relevant texts would be solely ecclesiastical in nature. However, his decree was not implemented and the tomos carried on and even survived the fall of the Byzantine Empire. In Ottoman times it was not uncommon in the Christian world for someone to convert to Islam (mostly only on paper) in order to escape the mandates of the church. This was especially true (and peak historical irony) for divorce and subsequent marriages. People would choose the fast-track procedures of the progressive Muslim courts over being chained to someone they openly hated.

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By Giorgos PanagiotopoulosBA & LLB Political ScienceGiorgos is a lawyer specializing in corporate law in Greece. He has an LLB and an BA in political science from the University of Athens (NKUA). In his spare time, he enjoys studying various aspects of ancient and medieval history and trail running.