Some Observations on Biographical Compositions and Egodocuments of the Middle Byzantine Military Aristocracy (c.900-c.1200)
By Kyle Sinclair
Published Online (2012)
Introduction: The prominence of certain aristocratic individuals and families in Byzantine historiography of the tenth and eleventh centuries has encouraged a number of arguments for the existence of biographical literature pertaining to these subjects. These hypothesized works are now lost, though it is suggested that traces may be observed in surviving histories of the period, such as those written by Leo the Deacon, John Skylitzes, and Nikephoros Bryennios. As a potentially significant source for historians of the period, these lost biographical compositions – a convenient collective label, though not ideal – warrant further (albeit speculative) study. Hitherto considered in isolation, the first part of this paper presents an overview of the evidence and arguments for aristocratic biographical literature. The second part takes a closer look at some of the potential extracts and demonstrates how they may be symptomatic of a general Byzantine style of writing about warfare which conformed to contemporary aristocratic ideals and literary interests.
The family name only appeared in Byzantium in the early ninth century, though it quickly became essential to aristocratic identity and social status. As the Byzantines gained the upper hand in the perpetual war against Islam, a number of military families based in Asia Minor were able to accumulate wealth, power and prestige at the head of Byzantium’s rapidly improving armed forces. The struggle for supremacy among the Empire’s leading generals would become a consistent theme in Byzantine politics until the end of the eleventh century. Against this backdrop, the allure of biographical literature to the military aristocracy is clear. By documenting their noble character and accomplishments, competing factions could show themselves to be worthy of acclaim and favour, and even of the imperial throne itself.