Get to Know the Society of Byzantine Greece
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It’s true that Greek history is filled with ups and downs. There have been times of prosperity and also times of extreme poverty. Byzantine Greece was a bit of an enigma. The history of the empire is filled with invasions from other ethnic groups, stories of extreme poverty, and even population decline. There have been some archaeological discovers, however, that have also shown that this was a period of prosperity, especially in urban areas. Here’s a glimpse of what the society was like in Byzantine Greece:
A vital component of society in Byzantine Greece were the bureaucrats and titled officials that managed the day to day running of the Empire. Within the complex hierarchy were a myriad of accountants (logothetes), magistrates, secretaries, messenger-spies (agentes), and prefects to execute the many functions of state. Their duties included, among others:
- collecting taxes
- distributing payments
- maintaining infrastructure
- correspondence and diplomacy
- adjudicating legal disputes
Considered one of most powerful position below the emperor himself were the magister officiorum, head of the palace guard, agentes, and bureaux secretariats.
At the height of the empire’s economic activity, entrepreneurs had enough social clout to merit positions in the Senate with the ruling elite. Later, the senatorial class would become more honorary as the administration of state became more militarized, but during the Middle Empire (4th to 7th century AD), merchants traded goods and set prices in markets as far as Cairo and Alexandria.
Elementary school education was widely available in most cities as well as some villages. Literacy was therefore most widespread among the church and aristocracy, but soldiers, peasants, and even women were at least literate enough to read the Bible. Elementary school teachers did not hold much social stature, but the grammarians and rhetoricians that taught secondary and higher education were highly respected.
Along with the peasantry, soldiers made up the greatest percentage of the Byzantine Greek population, from average conscripts to the imperial guards, who had the most prestige. Many emperors were themselves military men, especially in later centuries when renewed threats from Crusaders and invading Ottoman Turks forced them to become commanders and strategists more than state administrators.
Parish priests, called papas, were the most familiar and respected clergymen among the peasantry, but they were overseen by bishops and archbishops in charge of entire provinces (eparchies). The Church was shaken up first by the Iconoclast emperors (ca. 760-842) and later by the Great Schism of 1054 which officially divided the Eastern Orthodox from the Roman Catholic Church. Priests and deacons lived among the laity and enjoyed the right to marry (although bishops did not).
One of the largest strata of Greek society in the early, provincial era was the agrarian peasantry living in villages and hamlets or on estates. Peasants were mostly responsible for farming crops and herding livestock the empire depended on for food – and of course paying taxes. Later, in the theme (district) system, plots of land were doled out to soldiers (with rent deducted from their wages) for them to farm and build their homes.
Peasants are not to be confused with the general poor, which was anyone with less than 50 gold coins to his name. The poor sometimes served as scapegoats for criminal activity but the newly Christianized society saw them more as a population on which to practice their newfound doctrine. This manifested in the building of hospitals, almshouses and other ostensibly charitable institutions.
The empire was gradually destabilized by loss of territory and infighting between various military leaders, themes, and emperors, finally falling to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. Both Hellenism and Christianity lived on, with new churches springing up after the 16th century.
Categorized in: Ancient Greek History
This post was written by Greek Boston
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