Elite Byzantine Kinship

By the end of the twelfth century, Byzantine aristocratic families looked in many ways like the more familiar noble lineages of Western Europe. Marked by a surname and a strong sense of collective identity, these families both dominated imperial politics and developed a distinct system of cultural values and social hierarchy. Within this system, the genose merged as the cornerstone of aristocratic self-awareness and factional politics.

The Byzantine aristocratic genos (γένος, pl. γένη/genē)is alternately treated by modern scholars as a western European-style lineage, some kind of nebulous “clan,” or is simply left untranslated. Most scholars have viewed it as a kind of amorphous, poorly defined Byzantine “extended family,” and have contrasted the genos with the oikos/household or nuclear family. Despite the fact that it was foundational to the social and political structure of the Byzantine aristocracy from at least the eleventh century, the precise nature of the genos as a distinct form of kin group remains relatively unexplored among modern scholarship. Even a basic definition of the concept can be hard to come by.

Elite Byzantine Kinship, ca. 950-1204 is a study of the genos as both a social group and, importantly, a concept. Its purpose is to ascertain the role and function of the Byzantine aristocratic genos as a distinct entity as it appears in a variety of sources between the tenth and twelfth centuries. The analysis focuses primarily on the social and political elites of the Byzantine Empire both because of the nature of the sources and because many of the structures and ideals associated with the genos as kin group pertained primarily, if not exclusively, to them. Even if some aspects of the genos were shared by all people in the empire, a central argument of the book, the average peasant farmer probably had a more restricted view of his lineage and extended kin than a member of the Constantinopolitan court in the eleventh century. As in contemporary Western Europe, for the lower social orders in Byzantium, the household probably reigned supreme.

Each chapter utilizes a different approach and methods to bring to light various aspects of the Byzantine genos. The first chapter offers an analysis of both the Byzantine sources and the modern historiography in search of a clear definition of the genos, while chapter two traces broader changes in the vocabulary of kinship between the ninth and thirteenth centuries to argue for the central place of the genos in the Byzantine understanding of kinship. Chapter three focuses on legal sources and contends both that the genos was the principal form of the singular family in questions of marriage law and that debates in marriage law at this time were framed as debates over the nature of the family itself.

The fourth chapter turns to philosophical and medical treatises to explore the culturally specific knowledge of reproduction and the significance of shared blood, which gained momentum in the period covered by the study. This includes an exploration of the role of gender in the intergenerational reproduction of the family. Chapter five contends that the heritable surname was perhaps the single most important development for the aristocratic genos in the period covered in this study. The surname, as the outward marker of one’s genos, encapsulated the family’s reputation and was more likely than most other properties to survive intact from one generation to the next than other possessions. The power of the family name could even outlast the social or political relevance of members of the genos itself. The final chapter of the book places the genos back into the politics of the tenth through twelfth centuries, offering a broad overview of political and social changes in this period with a special focus on developments related to family and kinship.

To say that the genos played a central role in the Byzantine aristocracy of the eleventh century and later is not a controversial statement. The histories, hagiographies, orations, poetry, and lead seals of the late tenth century onward are full of references to “noble lineages” (εὐγενεῖς γένη). Praise is consistently lavished on individuals for their famous and wealthy family members, past and present. Heritable surnames become ubiquitous by the eleventh century. The political maneuvering and civil unrest that so dominated Byzantine politics in the late tenth and eleventh centuries consisted of factions largely divided along family lines and built upon family ties. Under the Komnenian dynasty (ca. 1081-1185), the genos formed the very basis of both the government and of the aristocracy as a whole. This book attempts to bring some clarity to the precise nature, role, and function of the genos in Byzantine society between the tenth and early thirteenth century by approaching it through a wide variety of sources and methods.

by Nathan Leidholm, Ph.D.