A Game of Power: Courtly influence on the decision-making of Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450)
By Emma Groeneveld
Master’s Thesis, University of Utrecht, 2013
Abstract: The aim of this thesis is to uncover the workings and levels of courtly influence on Theodosius II’s (r. 408-450) decision-making, but also, through analysis of the material by using modern theories, to gain a deeper understanding of the courtly structures, power, and dynamics at play at his court in Constantinople. Three groups are investigated: high officials, eunuchs, and royal women. It becomes clear that informal and formal power are not so clearly separated, as well as that the informal sphere could also play a role in the process of decision-making. Besides the prerogatives and tasks connected to certain offices, close personal proximity to the emperor comes to the fore as a highly important factor in this game of power. The theories of Norbert Elias (as well as the critique offered by Jeroen Duindam on his work) and that of Michael Mann are employed to thoroughly analyse these courtly dynamics.
Introduction: Often when describing the reign of a monarch at some point in history, historians refer to ‘the king’s policy’ or describe how ‘the emperor decided’ on the outcome of a matter of political importance. This is usually done for convenience’s sake – to create a general overview of the period in question – but the truth, as those historians are surely aware of, is that policy-making and decision-making were processes that did not take place in a void. Instead, the ruler often consulted with advisors or advisory bodies, as well as perhaps hearing the opinions of those who were close to him – family and friends – who could potentially have an influence on the ruler’s decision. The role played by high officials or by a broader section of the nobility (where one existed) in this process could vary greatly depending on the time and place in history one investigates. See, for example, the contrast between the English king Henry III (r. 1216-72), who became increasingly subjected to the power and will of the barons and ended up with nothing much to say at all, and the French powerhouse Louis XIV, the Sun King (r. 1643-1715), who consulted with his advisors but clearly had the final word and was determined not to let any favourites influence his decision-making. The ruler’s decision-making was thus not a straightforward matter.
Yet, the creation of policy, which usually took place at the court, stood at the heart of an empire- or kingdom’s exploitations, making it a highly interesting topic of study. Indeed, studies of the court certainly exist, especially concerning the lavish early modern courts of which that of Louis XIV is the most splendid example, but a focus on the process of decision-making is as of yet absent. What is more, the further one goes back in time, the less attention is awarded to the court. This can be explained by the fact that far fewer sources are extant, but that is no reason for not attempting such a specific investigation of an earlier court at all. The Roman Empire presents a hugely interesting period in which to investigate the machinations of the court, but so far the focus has mostly been on the reigns of emperors in general instead of dealing specifically with the court, and the influence that could be exercised on the emperor’s decision-making is still a scarcely illuminated topic. This is thus a field in which much can still be gained, and that is precisely what I aim to do.