The dialectics of expansion and retraction: recent scholarship on the Palaiologan aristocracy
By Dionysios Stathakopoulos
Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, Vol. 33 No. 1 (2009)
Introduction: In the first half of the fifteenth century a man donated an icon to the monastery of Mega Spelaion at Kalavryta; his name was less an instrument of identification than a manifesto of social association: John Tornikes Doukas Angelos Palaiologos Raoul Laskaris Philanthropenos Asanes.
To judge from the chain of such resounding names of the leading late Byzantine families he clearly belonged to the dominant class of his time, and since nothing else is known of him, for lack of more precise social coordinates, we surely must count him among the aristocracy. Can we take an educated guess at what constituted a person of such social standing?
He must have owned land; he probably held some office, while the accumulation of all his names points to marriage alliances between families of similar social standing. None of these assumptions suggests anything new about the aristocracy of the Palaiologan period, and yet, the overview that will follow aims to disclose exactly that: the points in which this era brought forth new developments that challenge the (thankfully dwindling) misconception of Byzantium as a state in which hardly anything changed.
In 1973 Angeliki Laiou published her important article on the Palaiologan aristocracy. In twenty dense pages she made a number of remarks and reached several important conclusions that have influenced the direction of scholarship on the topic. As such it is worth summarizing these conclusions briefly.