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Social History of the Eastern Roman Empire

This project, tentatively named ‘Costly Diversity’ after my dissertation, investigates the social changes in eleventh century Byzantine society. It demonstrates how the centralized decision to adopt an ad hoc style of imperial succession by election transformed society over a century. As the new series of emperors introduced novel ideas and practices, they inadvertently stimulated social diversity and cultural fermentation. Subaltern groups such as eunuchs, foreigners, and women developed novel parameters of interaction with the elite and acted as catalysts to this transformation. Each group eroded the old boundaries within which it had operated and redefined its position in elite society. This resulted in a period of burgeoning creativity and political instability that was resolved only by the establishment of a new social model during the Crusades.

My argument draws upon interconnected medieval sources, ranging from Icelandic sagas to Iranian travelogs to uncover these social changes. Material culture, such as coins, seals, and works of fine art, are employed as an independent group of evidence. Through digital tools such as relational databases and network analysis software, the project reveals the social networks of Byzantine society which connected thousands of individuals over time.

At the moment, the project’s intended chapters mirror those of my dissertation. The project begins with a survey of the development of imperial succession over the century before pointing to the increased diversity as manifested in socio-cultural ideals of kingship over the same time. It then uses the database of the Prosopography of the Byzantine World to reconstruct the social networks of the Byzantine elite over the century. The next three chapters cover the successes and challenges of the three catalyst minority groups – how eunuchs turned from kingmakers to choir singers, how foreign elites reached the highest positions within the Byzantine state before declining in importance, and how women turned into power brokers and patrons of culture.

For more graphs and the updated eunuch database, visit my github repository, Byzantine Prospography.