John Lydus’ Political Message and the Byzantine Image of the Ideal Ruler

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John Lydus’ Political Message and the Byzantine Image of the Ideal Ruler

Paper by Sviatoslav Dmitriev

Paper given at Thirty-Eighth Annual Byzantine Studies Conference, held at Hellenic College Holy Cross in Boston, Massachusetts on November 2, 2012

What makes a great emperor? This was one of the questions addressed by John Lydus, a 6th century Byzantine administrator and writer, whose work On Powers examined the rule of previous Roman emperors.

Lydus’ description of the individual qualities of sovereigns and officials inevitably created a collective image of a ruler. Those qualities can be categorized as physical, intellectual and moral. For Lydus, the ideal ruler was like a father and a teacher, who had wisdom, self-control, virtue, just and serene. He needed to be constantly vigilant, and would need little sleep and would disdain luxury. To be successful in Lydus’ opinion, the ruler needed to behave like God.

Dmitriev then turns to how other Byzantine writers approached this same question.  Procopius, Theophylact, and George Acropolites praised those emperors who preserved and increased their territory. The Epanagoge and Michael Italicus likewise extolled the emperor’s “sleepless care.” George Acropolites believed Theodore II became emperor due to his learning and philosophy; and, according to Leo VI, Basil I’s imperial power was based on his “beauty of soul,” justice, and many toils.




Dmitriev also notes that this image of the ideal ruler also placed certain restrictions on his rule, for in the view of Lydus and other writers it was the personal qualities that entitled someone to rule, not just their right of succession. Those who failed to live up to these ideals could be branded a tyrant, and could even lose the right to rule, or at least be advised or admonished.

While this work was written during the time of Justinian, there is no evidence that Justinian himself exhibited any of the qualities that Lydus wrote about. Dmitriev finds that perhaps the work On Powers was partly a satire of the current Byzantine emperor.

- report by Peter Konieczny

Sharan Newman