Who invented the Themes?

Dec 01 2011

Craig asks which emperor developed the Theme System.

This is one of the most disputed topics in Byzantine history.  The word ‘theme’ was originally used to describe an army unit and only later became a political subdivision, so it’s very difficult to distinguish which of the two the sources are referring to.  Just to make things more confusing, the word “Theme” at first referred to military rolls, and the first Themes took the name of the army corps stationed there.  It’s nearly impossible to say exactly when the name of a division became the name of an area. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that it happened during the Heraclid Dynasty, but the exact emperor is unknown.  Generally Heraclius is credited (as part of his reorganization of the empire), but his son and grandson (Constantine III and Constans II) are also possibilities.  One theory even has it that the last member of the family- the disastrous Justinian II- came up with it.

The primary sources seem to favor Heraclius.  Theophanes the Confessor (8/9th C) mentions Heraclius arriving ‘in the land of the themes’, but this might be an example of attributing present day conditions to the past- like a Renaissance painting of a mythological scene that has everyone dressed in 15th Century clothes.  The 10th Century emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus wrote a book On Themes where he says that the Themes were ‘since the time of Heraclius the Libyan (African)’.  So who developed the Theme system?  This time I think common knowledge has it right.  Probably (I follow professor Angeliki Laiou here) the first Themes were instituted by Herakleios and the full development of the system took time to mature.

2 responses so far

  1. I agree that Heraclius might have set the Theme system into action. What is interesting about Heraclius he came from Carthage and was the last Byzantine Emperor which the western region of the empire and might have really been the last to know Latin since in Carthage Latin was the Language not Greek. Heraclius knew a lot of Greek though. And a Turk pointed out that Justinian’s conquest of North Africa was not a totally waste since Heraclius came from there.

  2. Interesting about the debate on the Theme system. I think what is interesting in this time period is a lost of an lot of land in Byznatium and this is where it appears even less Roman to the historians and more of a medieval society. In fact, a statement was made that for abut 300 years after Justinian the first in the 6th century no major building projects occurred. When Byzantium picks up again and conquers some lost land things changed a lot. A recent study shows Byzantium more of what is known as a hyper-elists society in the year 1000 compared to ancient Rome. Emperor and aristocratics and peasants. Byzantium had fewer wealthy people at the 5 percent upper wealth than old Rome more at the 1 percent.

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