|Personal Names of the Aristocracy in the Roman Empire During the Later Byzantine Era - Introduction|
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Personal Names of the Aristocracy in the Roman Empire During the Later Byzantine Era
This article is entirely the fault of Berret Chavez, whom some in the SCA might know as Bardas Xiphias. The information is provided as light reading for those with a cursory interest, or as a guide for those who may wish to delve further. If you have any comments, suggestions, or sources, please let me know. Thanks for stopping by.
Personal names in the Byzantine era of the Roman Empire consisted of
a given name followed by one or more surnames. Surnames came in three varieties:
inherited family names, patronymics, and by-names. As the empire grew older,
it became increasingly common to find more and more inherited family names
included in the personal name. As typical in medieval Europe, the sample
of women's names is much smaller than the sample of men's names. When a
woman's name is found, the inherited family name or names are in feminized
The ancient Roman three-name practice had gone out of use even before Constantine moved the capital of Rome to the shores of the Bosporus. In that system, the second name (the nomen gentile, or clan name) was used to identify individuals, and as the common form of address (for example, Gaius Julius Caesar). As Christianity became the dominant (and eventually state) religion, it became popular to use the names of saints instead. With the exception of remote reaches of the empire in Africa, the use of the nomen gentile had died out by the end of the 4th century AD.
The cognomen (or family name) had begun to disappear as well. With the infusion of Greek culture into the Roman Empire, the use of patronymics ('son of') and by-names (both attributive, such as 'the wise' or 'the short', and descriptive, such as 'of Antioch' or 'the tailor') began to displace inherited surnames. The Greeks did not have as keenly developed a sense of genealogy as did the Romans. The Byzantine era being a blending of the two, the value of hereditary family names declined, and so did their use. Family names are completely missing or extremely rare in documents and seals dated from between the 7th and 10th centuries. Eventually, family names were seen as a quaint custom.
As early as the 8th century, however, family names began to reappear among the aristocracy. By the 9th century there were a few great families, and by the 11th century family names were again pervasive. The early family names from this era are those found among the military aristocracy, and usually are derived from place names in Asia Minor (Asia Minor being the bread basket of the empire's military man power by then), such as Komenos (from the village of Komne). Names found among the civil aristocracy are derived from trade professions (Pantechnes - an artist's assistant), districts within Constantinople (Akropolites - 'from the Acropolis') , provincial towns (Choniates), and monasteries (Manouelites). Among commoners, family names are found which derive from crafts (Chalkeus - "smith" and Raptes - "tailor"), but also some aristocratic names are found, such as Komnenos or Synadenos - possibly reflecting links of dependancy.
The return of the family name to the Roman Empire seems to have come via the military aristocracy. Most of these clans came from Armenia, where tribal affiliations were significant. Between the 6th and 9th centuries, however, there was little desire within the aristocracy to advertise familial associations. Unlike the earlier Romans or the nobility of the west, the nobility of the Empire in the east was not inherited. In Constantinople people moved up and down the aristocratic pyramid by merit, guile, nepotism, treachery or loyalty (and usually a combination of all) - but it was an individual accomplishment. Starting position helped, but it did not serve as absolute protection or right. The great generals from Armenia, however, brought a new attachment to family identify, and established a new aristocratic ideal. Social mobility was still very fluid, but lineage gained in importance as an agent of influence.
In the late centuries of the empire, name dropping had taken on strong significance, and the panoply of family names one might carry could be staggering. One could be reasonably sure that a person's last name was inherited from his or her father, but the ones in between the given name and last name could come in any number, combination, or order, depending on the circumstances. Generally, a man would not trace back his lineage more than three generations, but even that is enough ammunition for a spicy array of middle names. The best example is found on a 15th century icon: John Doukas Angelos Palaiologos Raoul Laskaris Tornikes Philanthropenos Asanes.
Inherited family names were not a fixed and sure way of identifying anyone, however. Individuals might vary in which family name they chose to use by the circumstances of a certain situation. In writing an appeal to the emperor, for instance, one might sign his name to show familial ties with the emperor, while excluding those names which might not be in favor with him. One's detractors and supporters might use different names when referring to the same person, to show that person's ties with certain families. A bastard ruler of the separatist state of Epiros in the 13th/14th centuries, for instance, was called Michael Doukas or Michael Komnenos, or occasionally Michael Komnenodoukas, by his supporters, but Michael Angelos by his detractors.
The use of by-names continued throughout the Byzantine era. The by-name
sometimes replaced, sometimes augmented the inherited family name. Some
names are only known in the form of <given name> <by-name>,
but they are a minority of the total sample. Women are almost never known
in the form <given name> <by-name>. If a woman's family name
is not given, she is usually identified by her relationship to a man. Those
women who are identified in the form <given name> <by-name>
are commoners, usually performers.
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