Journal Epohi

Kouropalates Outside the Byzantine Empire from 9th Through 11th Centuries

Nikolay Kanev St. Cyril and St. Methodius University of Veliko Tarnovo, Bulgaria

Pages: 79-94


One of the distinctive features of the Byzantine Empire is its specific rank system. Its primary function, intended for ‘internal consumption’, was related to the awarding of titles to subjects of the Emperor and determined their position in the Byzantine hierarchy. However, it also served an ‘external’ function when Byzantine titles were bestowed on neighbouring rulers, whose states were perceived as part of the Byzantine oikoumene. Until the second half of 11th century, immediately after the Emperor at the top of the Byzantine rank hierarchy were the holders of the titles kaisar, nobelissimos and kouropalates. The holders of the three higher titles were, as a rule, members of the imperial family. Until the middle of 11th century none of these titles could be duplicated or held by more than one person. The rulers of friendly states – part of the Byzantine oikoumene – were usually awarded the rank of patrikios or magistros. Bestowing the higher titles in the hierarchy upon foreign rulers was avoided, but insofar as this happened, the dignity that was awarded was that of kouropalates. Bestowing the title kouropalates upon foreign rulers played a significant role in the political relations between the Byzantine Empire and the neighbouring countries during 9th – 11th centuries. The high dignity, which retained the aura of the contact with the sacred imperial power, guaranteed a place of honour in the secular hierarchy of eastern Christianity and was particularly attractive in the eyes of the ruling elites in the countries of the Byzantine oikoumene. For that reason, it was a powerful tool of extending the Byzantine influence, as well as underscoring the special position of the respective ruler and his privileged, but at the same time feudatory (subordinate) relationship with the Emperor. Moreover, it was indicative of the position that the state and its ruler occupied in the Byzantine oikoumene. This role of the practice of bestowing the title kouropalates on neighbouring rulers was clearly delineated in the East – in relation to Armenian and, most of all, Georgian kings and princes. By awarding the title kouropalates the Byzantine Empire held sway over the internal and international affairs of the respective countries and regions,and often succeeded in shaping the traditional local ruling hierarchy to its own advantage. In the course of three centuries it was the custom among the Ivirian rulers for a representative of the Bagration dynasty to receive the dignity of kouropalates and until the second half of the 11th century the two definite signs of who occupied the top of the social pyramid in the country were the possession of the title and the rule over Kartli. In contrast with the situation in the East, where the Byzantine policy of strengthening the position of the Empire through the conferment of high rank dignities enjoyed considerable success, in the West it was not particularly effective. During the period under consideration not a single Western European ruler bore the title kouropalates, despite the fact that there were occasions when it was offered. In the last thirty years of 11th century the title began to fall in importance and within a relatively short period became the property of the rulers of several semi-independent princedoms, founded on former Byzantine territories. Arguably, the ‘productive life’ of the title kouropalates on the international stage was between 9th and 11th centuries. At that time it was a coveted, highly prestigious dignity that could not be obtained by every ruler. Prior to 9th century bestowing the dignity of kouropalates outside the Empire was an exception, but after the fast devaluation of the title at the end of 11th century, its conferment ceased to be an effective tool of Byzantine foreign policy and the title itself no longer befitted the rank of a ruler.



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