BMCR 2005.03.19

Authority in Byzantine Provincial Society, 950-1100

, Authority in Byzantine provincial society, 950-1100. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004. x, 210 pages : illustrations, map ; 24 cm. ISBN 0521838657. $75.00.

The author makes the point in her introduction that “Understanding authority in Byzantine provincial society requires addressing fundamental questions about the organization of society on the level of the family and local communities on the one hand, and the imposition of imperial government on those families and communities on the other” (1). The first two chapters of the book, “Imperial administration and Byzantine political culture” and “Activities of the imperial administration, “are a general survey of the Imperial government. These two chapters provide the necessary background to Neville’s claim that the Imperial government in Constantinople was largely indifferent to what happened in the provinces and chiefly interested in collecting taxes.

With chapter three, “Provincial households,” begins a closer discussion of the book’s theme examining where authority rested in the Byzantine provinces. At the end of the chapter the author comes to the conclusion that “The relationships of services were the ones that created strong vertical links between households. . . .authority was created in part by being associated with people in high places and so such vertical ties could be of great importance” (98).

Chapter four “Provincial households and the imperial administration,” looks at how provincial households interacted with officialdom, and cultivated their relationships with the Imperial administration. As the first two chapters have prepared the reader, it is easy to follow the line of argument. We read that officials were bribed and frequently reminded of ties of friendship and social obligations. If a provincial household had the good fortune of having personal ties with people who had access to the emperor, it would naturally benefit by this. Provincial people are described as manipulating their relationships with both the Imperial administration and their provincial rivals. Neville continues by analysing the options open to provincial households in negotiations with imperial officials. She uses this analysis to illuminate how authority was “actually exercised in provincial society” (99). The households examined by Neville are those that were neither at the very top, with to the emperor, nor those at the bottom of the scale, but households with some ability to make themselves heard by an official. A useful discussion of the Byzantine legal concept of oikonomia is included in this chapter (101-102). This key concept in Orthodox theology influenced legal decisions by allowing judges to “act under the pressure of personal relations” (102). It had the effect that “lines of friendship, contact, and solidarity at the expense of legal standing,” were all-pervasive (102). Constantinople was not proactive in settling disputes in the provinces. The Imperial government was first and foremost interested in fines due to the treasury. Neville judges this as one of the reasons why landholders were reluctant to engage official authorities in their disputes. Besides everything else, it was costly to bring grievances to the courts in the capital. If an unfavourable verdict resulted, provincials would often appeal to a different authority, going from court to court, from authority to authority.

Neville uses evidence from monastic households to illustrate her investigation into provincial households since there is little documentation for lay households. She assumes that both monastic and lay households were equally unscrupulous in their dealings with the authorities. The government assessed taxes based on the fertility of any given land, and since this opened the door to a great variety of assessments, it allowed individual assessors to help their friends at the expense of others. “For every time an official let a friend off the hook someone else had to pay twice” (115). Of course this had its dangers. A tax collector could be denounced as “a bribe taker and tax-canceller” (115).

Neville summarizes saying “provincial communities had considerable authority to govern themselves” (118). Prominent provincial households could influence the tax assessment by befriending imperial officials. Others of less influence could still negotiate a more advantageous assessment of their property. Local officials could be pressured and intimidated since they had to live in the community after the imperial assessors had left. Like tsarist Russia later in history, the Imperial government was too far away to become involved in the affairs of the provinces, and this resulted in considerable autonomy for prominent households and communities.

In chapter five, Neville examines what was left to the provinces to manage on their own. The author conceptualises provincial society as the sum of individual households, each wielding considerable autonomy. She describes how as a result private individuals were involved in building and maintaining public structures. This, she says, attests to the limited interest, not to say apathy, the Imperial government had regarding the maintenance of provincial towns and cities. She suggests that nearly all of imperial building activities had to do with strengthening fortifications and showed little interest in supplying civil amenities. Surprisingly, this seems to have extended also to religious buildings, with many households maintaining private chapels. Churches were rarely built for communities but served the spiritual needs of Byzantine provincial families. A law of Nikephoros Phokas forbade the founding of new monasteries that the emperor judged as stemming from personal vanity. Older establishments became neglected and fell into disrepair for that reason, he stated. It seems that for once the Imperial government took notice. Neville sees in this building of household chapels a privatisation of religious practices. For all the religious Orthodoxy of the Byzantine Empire, the imperial administration seemed to have ignored most instances of different practises in spite of legislation against heretics.

The sixth chapter is called “Contention and authority.” It takes a look at how provincial communities dealt with conflicts between individual households. In these conflicts, physical violence and intimidation were not unknown. Documents played an important role but, at the same time, had limited authority. They did not insure that one would prevail in a dispute. Argument and discussion played an important role in controversies. Deliberation was as vital as the written document. If a party was dissatisfied with a decision, it could go higher and higher to superior authorities. Naturally, those with the best connections benefited. People who lacked such good connections often made use of the intercession of more powerful individuals. As Neville states “Community consensus and solidarity provided significant leverage to those who otherwise would be unable to oppose the action of others.” There was an ideal way to behave in Byzantine society. Good behaviour meant that one acted in accordance with one’s proper role. In this chapter, Neville uses the writings of Kekaumeno to illustrate her point. He recommends turning relationships in your favour by creating familial situations with possible enemies. No doubt there was much manipulation in a society so structured. Public perception of proper behaviour was of great importance and created authority along with “money, imperial contacts, and physical force” (163). R.J.H. Jenkins in his contribution to The Cambridge Medieval History writes “The sermon preached by Cecaumenus on the Isocratean text, that a man should be prudent in his converse, presents us with a dismal picture of scheming, spying and treachery in provincial society.”1 The chapter ends pointing out that the Imperial government kept a weary eye on the provinces so that important men, either lay or clerical, could not become independent princes. She surmises that “this levelling of the peaks of provincial power was a key factor in allowing provincial authority to remain informal and malleable.”

In her short conclusion to the book, Neville states that Byzantine society used terms that emphasized relationships rather than status. She therefore endeavours to let the reader see “overlapping relationships and ambiguous identities among imperial officials and provincial people” (165). In this, Neville succeeds very well.

In the useful “Appendix: guide to sources”, he author discusses the sources she used throughout her book. The purpose of the Appendix, however, is more than a general introduction. According to the author, “its purpose rather is to allow readers of all levels of training to follow and assess my arguments.”

To conclude, Neville’s book on authority in Byzantine provincial society is a welcome study since so much that has been written about Byzantine history centres on Constantinople and the Imperial government. The one reservation one has with a study such as this is that the sources used are heavily based on monastic records. This is probably unavoidable, and monastic establishments possibly had much in common with lay households. It is, nevertheless, a limitation. For the rest, the book is well written, easy to follow and largely free of errors. One minor error is on p. 90, n.108. It should read Oströmische Beamte im Spiegel der Schriften des Michael Psellos. The same mistake is also in the bibliography (203). Otherwise the book is informative and makes for good reading.


1. R.J.H. Jenkins, “Social Life in the Byzantine Empire,” The Cambridge Medieval History, IV. The Byzantine Empire, Part II: Government Church and Civilization, p.100.