BMCR 2024.05.17

Les élites de cour de Constantinople, 450-610: une approche prosopographique des relations de pouvoir

, Les élites de cour de Constantinople, 450-610: une approche prosopographique des relations de pouvoir. Scripta antiqua, 155. Bordeaux: Ausonius Éditions, 2022. Pp. 367. ISBN 9782356134752.

The present monograph, originally submitted as a dossier d’habilitation at the École pratique des hautes études in Paris in 2020, investigates the relationships of power at the courts of the late Roman emperors in Constantinople. In contrast to earlier studies, which analysed the power relationships between the emperor and the senatorial, ecclesiastical or military elites in Constantinople more broadly,[1] Vincent Puech focusses his attention on the composition of the court personnel, military commanders, and other individuals with regular, close contact with the emperor. His analysis rests in particular on those individuals for whom there is enough evidence to evaluate their rapport with an imperial figure. While his focus on the court elites is thus narrower than that of earlier studies of the “Führungselite” of this period, notably by Christoph Begass,[2] Puech traces developments over a longer period of time, from 450 to 610, which allows him to illustrate patterns in the construction of imperial regimes in late antiquity more broadly.

Puech’s study opens with a succinct introduction to the study of secular elites and of the elite(s) – senatorial aristocracy, “Führungselite” and similar subgroups – in late antiquity and related bibliography. The main discussion is divided into three sections, covering, in chronological order, the period from the reign of Marcian in 450 to the fall of Phocas in 610. Each helpfully opens with a short note on the principal sources of the period and problems related to them.

The first section, entitled “Une naissance dans les crises: l’Empire romain d’Orient de 450 à 518,” treats the reigns of Marcian, Leon, Zenon, and Anastasius (Chapters 1 to 4 respectively). Puech finds that Marcian’s reign is characterised by the key role played by the general Aspar and his family, yet he also notes the ascent of Isaurian individuals (the magister militum Zenon) as well as the increased presence of individuals from Asia Minor (which he links to the defence of Chalcedonian Christianity) and Constantinople. Chapter Two is introduced with a discussion of the fall of Aspar and the rise of the future emperor Zenon, also from Isauria, under Leon I (pp. 35-41). Yet the court of Leon is characterised by the predominance of men from Asia Minor and the heightened importance of the networks of Verina, Leon’s wife (pp. 41-7). The circumstances of Zenon’s accession and his lack of imperial descent heralded a reign challenged by several usurpations prompted by Verina and her network, by Leon’s former supporters or by religious conflicts, as is discussed in Chapter Three. The following chapter (Chapter Four) covers the reign of Anastasius and traces the demise of Isaurian influence at court, which Puech sees counteracted by the promotion of Anastasius’ family from Greece to high offices (consular, military command). There follows a detailed analysis of the religious affiliations of Anastasius’ extended court, that concludes a balanced division between Monophysites and Chalcedonians. In the subsequent investigation of the geographical origins of the court personnel, Puech identifies a predominance of men from the pars Orientis (called “Orientaux” by Puech, pp. 95-8). The chapter closes with a study of the revolt of Vitalianus and its repression.

Section Two “Équilibres et ruptures de l’ère justinienne (518-565)”, is devoted to the reign of Justin (Chapter 5), as well as that of Justinian, analysed in two chapters (6 and 7). Chapter Five opens with an investigation of the career and accession of Justin, which heralded the promotion of Chalcedonians. At the same time, his court is characterised by a continuity with that of Anastasius. Puech concludes the chapter by tracing the rise of Justinian, Justin’s nephew, which heralded the ascent of a new dynasty. Justinian’s court personnel is the subject of Chapter Six. The first part focuses on the military ranks composed mostly of Illyrians (both those from among the imperial family and those, like Belisarius, who were not) as well as Thracians, Puech then turns to other personnel, identifying four major networks: Theodora’s network as well as men from the pars Orientis, from Asia Minor and from Egypt (pp. 145-68). The last sections of this chapter consider men who came from Armenia and Africa. Chapter Seven then investigates several “problems” in the reign of Justinian and their repression: pagan officials (pp. 177-8), the Nika revolt (pp.179-84), the military revolts in Africa between 536-546 (pp. 184-90), and the events surrounding Artabanes and Atherius (pp. 191-7).

The three chapters of the last and third section look at “Les successeurs contestés de Justinien (565-610)” and examine power relationships at the courts of Justin II and Tiberius II, Mauricius, and Phocas (Chapters 8-10). Chapter Eight covers the period from 565 to 582. Puech first identifies the problems emanating from the imperial family in the reign of Justin II as well as the ambivalent inheritance from Justinian’s reign (pp. 203-7), before noting the preponderance of men from the pars Orientis in Justin’s government and his ambiguous position towards Monophysites (pp. 207-12). A key supporter of Justin II was the future emperor Tiberius II, his comes excubitorum, whom he adopted and elevated to the rank of Caesar in 574. Tiberius’ reign is discussed on pp. 212-3. That of Mauricius is covered in more detail in Chapter Nine: Puech argues for continuity with Tiberius’ court as well as a policy to draw on Mauricius’ family, who profited from a substantial transfer of wealth from among Justin’s entourage. Puech’s attention then turns to military men from Thrace and Armenia (pp. 224-9), as well as other officials from Egypt and from the pars Orientis (pp. 229-30). The chapter closes with a short overview of the overthrow of Mauricius and the coup d’état of Phocas. Chapter Ten investigates the rule of Phocas, threats to his authority, his support among certain parts of the elites, as well as his demise.

The results of the study are summarized in a short general conclusion, which is followed by a prosopography of individuals discussed in the previous chapters (pp. 251-91). This discussion is entitled “carrières”, but, in fact, the entries also include references to family relationships, property and similar. Users of PLRE[3] may at first be surprised by the different formatting (references are relegated to footnotes), yet they will greatly appreciate the efforts of Puech to update and revise PLRE and other earlier discussions of the individuals covered in the prosopography.  The book closes with three genealogical tables (albeit without reference to dates of birth and death or office-holding), six superb maps of the provinces of the eastern empire and its major cities, as well as a bibliography, an index of sources cited and an index of all individuals discussed in the book. The entries in the index “prosopographique” come with indications of offices held, yet its usability could have been improved by the inclusion of dates or references to PLRE or other prosopographical collections.

Puech’s study thus offers valuable insights into the political machinations at the courts of various Constantinopolitan emperors and a useful revised prosopography of their personnel. His study highlights well the importance of familial networks, in particular those of several empresses such as Theodora, Verina, and Sophia. Overall, Puech traces many instances of continuity, thus arguing against the notion of fluctuating elites as proposed by Begass. This offers new room for debate. In addition, his discussion comes with many suggested improvements to the known prosopography of the late-Roman eastern elite, making this an important addition of the study of the Constantinopolitan elite in late antiquity. Not all scholars will agree with Puech’s reconstruction of religious affiliations. Yet his conclusion that, besides religious affiliation, dynastic networks and the geographical provenience were key criteria for appointment is insightful as it highlights both the regional and familial sense of belonging among late-antique elites and their heterogeneity. Puech’s monograph thus furnishes an excellent starting point for any further study of the composition of the imperial court in Constantinople between 450 to 610 and of the politics (familial, religious and other) that guide it.



[1] As does e.g. R. Pfeilschifter, Der Kaiser und Konstantinopel: Kommunikation und Konfliktaustrag in einer spätantiken Metropole, Berlin/Boston 2014.

[2] C. Begass, Die Senatsaristokratie des oströmischen Reiches, ca. 457–518. Prosopographische und sozialgeschichtliche Untersuchungen, Vestigia 71, München 2018.

[3] Arnold H. M. Jones, J. R. Martindale, and J. Morris, Prosopography of the Later Roman Empire, 3 vols, Cambridge 1971–1992.