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Title: Βασιλεύς  
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"Basilissa" redirects here. For other uses, see Basilissa (disambiguation).

Basileus (ancient Greece, as well as for the kings of modern Greece.

The female forms are Basílissa, Basíleia, Basilís, or the archaic Basilinna.[1]


The etymology of basileus is unclear. The Mycenaean form was gwasileus (𐀣𐀯𐀩𐀄, qa-si-re-u), denoting some sort of court official or local chieftain, but not an actual king. Its hypothetical earlier Proto-Greek form would be gwatileus.[2] Most linguists assume that it is a non-Greek word that was adopted by Bronze Age Greeks from a preexisting linguistic substrate of the Eastern Mediterranean. Schindler (1976) argues for an inner-Greek innovation of the -eus inflection type from Indo-European material rather than a Mediterranean loan.

Ancient Greece

Original senses encountered on clay tablets

The first written instance of this word is found on the baked clay tablets discovered in excavations of Mycenaean palaces originally destroyed by fire. The tablets are dated from the 15th century BC to the 11th century BC and are inscribed with the Linear B script, which was deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952 and corresponds to a very early form of Greek. The word basileus is written as qa-si-re-u and its original meaning was "chieftain" (in one particular tablet the chieftain of the guild of bronzesmiths is referred to as qa-si-re-u). Here the initial letter q- represents the PIE labiovelar consonant */gʷ/, transformed in later Greek into /b/. Linear B uses the same glyph for /l/ and /r/, now uniformly written with a Latin "r" by convention. Linear B only depicts syllables of single vowel or consonant-vowel form, therefore the final -s is dropped altogether.

Basileus vs. Wanax in Mycenaean times

The word can be contrasted with wanax, another word used more specifically for "king" and usually meaning "High King" or "overlord". With the collapse of Mycenaean society, the position of wanax ceases to be mentioned, and the basileis (the plural form) appear the topmost potentates in Greek society. In the works of Homer wanax appears, in the form ánax, mostly in descriptions of Zeus (ánax andrōn te theōn te, "king of men and of the gods") and of very few human monarchs, most notably Agamemnon. Otherwise the term survived almost exclusively as a component in compound personal names (e.g., Anaxagóras, Pleistoánax) and is still in use in Modern Greek in the description of the royal palace i.e. anáktoron/anáktora, "[the place/home] of the ánax". The latter is essentially the same word as "wa-na-ka-te-ro", anákteros, "of the wanax/king" or "belonging to the wanax/king", used in Linear B tablets to refer to various craftsmen serving the king (e.g. the "palace", or royal, spinner, or the ivory worker), and to things belonging or offered to the king (javelin shafts, wheat, spices, precincts etc.).

Most of the Greek leaders in Homer's works are described as basileís, which is conventionally rendered in English as "kings". However, a more accurate translation may be "princes" or "chieftains", which would better reflect conditions in Greek society in Homer's time, and also the roles ascribed to Homer's characters. Agamemnon tries to give orders to Achilles among many others, while another basileus serves as his charioteer. His will, however, is not to be automatically obeyed. In Homer the wanax is expected to rule over the other basileis by consensus rather than by coercion, which is why Achilles proudly and furiously rebels (the central theme of the Iliad) when he perceives that Agamemnon is unjustly bossing him around.

Archaic basileus

A study by Drews (1983) has demonstrated that even at the apex of Geometric and Archaic Greek society, basileus does not automatically translate to "king". In a number of places authority was exercised by a college of basileis drawn from a particular clan or group, and the office had term limits. However, basileus could also be applied to the hereditary leaders of "tribal" states, like those of the Arcadians and the Messenians, in which cases the term approximated the meaning of "king".

Pseudo-Archytas' definition of the Basileus as "sovereign" and "living law"

According to pseudo-Archytas's treatise "On justice and law", quoted by Giorgio Agamben in State of Exception (2005), Basileus is more adequately translated into "Sovereign" than into "king". The reason for this is that it designates more the person of king than the office of king: the power of magistrates (arkhontes, "archons") derives from their social functions or offices, whereas the sovereign derives his power from himself. Sovereigns have auctoritas, whereas magistrates detain imperium. Pseudo-Archytas aimed at creating a theory of sovereignty completely enfranchised from laws, being itself the only source of legitimacy. He goes so far as qualifying the Basileus as nomos empsykhos, or "living law", which is the origin, according to Agamben, of the modern Führerprinzip and of Carl Schmitt's theories on dictatorship.

Use of Basileus in Classical times

In classical times, almost all Greek states had abolished the hereditary royal office in favor of democratic or oligarchic rule. Some exceptions existed, namely the two hereditary Kings of Sparta (who served as joint commanders of the army, and were also called arkhagetai), the Kings of Syracuse, the Kings of Cyrene, the Kings of Macedon and of the Molossians in Epirus and Kings of Arcadian Orchomenus. The Greeks also used the term to refer to various kings of "barbaric" (i.e. non-Greek) tribes in Thrace and Illyria, as well as to the Achaemenid kings of Persia. The Persian king was also referred to as Megas Basileus (Great King) or Basileus Basileōn, a translation of the Persian title xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām ("King of Kings"), or simply "the king". There was also a cult of Zeus Basileus at Lebadeia. Aristotle distinguished the basileus, constrained by law, from the unlimited tyrant.

At Athens, the Archon basileus was one of the nine archons, magistrates selected by lot. Of these, the archon eponymos, the polemarch and the basileus divided the powers of Athens' ancient kings, with the basileus overseeing religious rites and homicide cases. His wife had to marry Dionysus at the Anthesteria. Similar vestigial offices called basileus existed in other Greek city-states.

By contrast, the authoritarian rulers were never called Basileus in classical Greece, but archon or tyrant; although Pheidon of Argos is described by Aristotle as a basileus who made himself a tyrant.

Alexander the Great

Basileus and Megas Basileus were exclusively used by Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic successors in Ptolemaic Egypt, Asia and Macedon. The female counterpart is basilissa (Queen), meaning both a Queen regnant (such as Cleopatra VII of Egypt) and a Queen consort. It is precisely at this time that the term basileus acquired a fully royal connotation, in stark contrast with the much less sophisticated earlier perceptions of kingship within Greece.

Romans and Byzantines

Under Roman rule, the term basileus came to be used, in the Hellenistic tradition, to designate the Roman Emperor in the everyday and literary speech of the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean.[3] Although the early Roman Emperors were careful to retain the facade of the republican institutions and to not formally adopt monarchical titles, the use of basileus amply illustrates that contemporaries clearly perceived that the Roman Empire was a monarchy in all but name.[4] Nevertheless, despite its widespread use, due to its "royal" associations the title basileus remained unofficial for the Emperor, and was restricted in official documents to client kings in the East. Instead, in official context the imperial titles Caesar Augustus, translated into Greek as Kaisar Sebastos or Kaisar Augoustos, and Imperator, translated as Autokratōr, were used.

By the 4th century however, basileus was applied in official usage exclusively to the two rulers considered equals to the Roman Emperor: the Sassanid Persian shahanshah ("king of kings"), and to a far lesser degree the King of Axum, whose importance was peripheral in the Byzantine worldview.[5] Consequently, the title acquired the connotation of "emperor", and when barbarian kingdoms emerged on the ruins of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, their rulers were referred to in Greek as rēx or rēgas, the hellenized forms of the Latin title rex, king.[3]

The first documented use of basileus Rhomaíōn in official context comes, surprisingly, from the Persians: in a letter sent to Emperor Maurice (r. 582–602) by Chosroes II, Maurice is addressed in Greek as basileus Rhomaíōn instead of the habitual Persian appellation qaisar i Rum ("Caesar of the Romans"), while the Persian ruler refers to himself correspondingly as Persōn basileus, thereby dropping his own claim to the Greek equivalent of his formal title, basileus basileōn ("king of kings").[6] The title appears to have slowly crept into imperial titelature after that: Emperor Heraclius is attested as using it alongside the long-established Autokratōr Kaisar in a letter to Kavadh II in 628. Finally, in a law promulgated on 21 March 629, the Latin titles were dropped altogether, and the simple formula πιστός ἐν Χριστῷ βασιλεύς, "faithful believer, king by the grace of Christ" was used instead.[7] The adoption of the new imperial formula has been traditionally interpreted by scholars such as E. Stein and G. Ostrogorsky as a move indicative of the almost-complete hellenization of the Empire by that point.[8] In imperial coinage, however, Latin forms continued to be used. Only in the reign of Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717–741) did the title basileus appear in silver coins, and on gold coinage only under Constantine VI (r. 780–797).[3] "BASILEUS" was initially stamped on Byzantine coins in Latin script, and only gradually were some Latin characters replaced with Greek ones, resulting in mixed forms such as "BASIΛEVS".

Until the 9th century, the Byzantines reserved the term basileus among Christian rulers exclusively for their own emperor in Constantinople. This usage was initially accepted by the "barbarian" kings of Western Europe themselves: despite having shed the fiction of Roman suzerainty from the 6th century on, they refrained from adopting imperial titelature.[9] The situation began to change when the Western European states began to challenge the Empire's political supremacy and its right to the universal imperial title. The catalytic event was the coronation of Charlemagne as imperator Romanorum ("Emperor of the Romans") by Pope Leo III on 25 December 800, at St. Peter's in Rome. The matter was complicated by the fact that the Eastern Empire was then ruled by the Empress Irene (r. 797–802), who had ascended the throne after the death of her husband, the Emperor Leo IV (r. 775–780), as regent to their 9-year-old son, Constantine VI (r. 780–797). Following Constantine's coming of age, Irene eventually decided to topple him and rule in her own name. In the conflict that ensued, Irene was victorious and Constantine was blinded and imprisoned, to die soon after. The revulsion generated by this incident of filicide cum regicide was compounded by the innate Frankish aversion to the concept of a ruling female sovereign. Consequently, in Frankish eyes, the imperial throne was vacant and free for Charlemagne to claim.[10] Although it is often claimed that, as monarch, Irene called herself in the male form basileus, in fact she normally used the title basilissa - empress.[11]

Charlemagne's claim to the imperial title of the Romans sparked a prolonged diplomatic row, which was resolved only in 812 when the Byzantines agreed to recognize him as "basileus". In an effort to emphasize their own Roman legitimacy, the Byzantine rulers thereafter began to use the fuller form basileus Rhomaíōn (βασιλεύς Ῥωμαίων, "emperor of the Romans") instead of the simple "basileus", a practice that continued in official usage until the end of the Empire.[3][10] The title autokratōr was also revived by the early 9th century (and appears in coins from 912 on). It was reserved for the senior ruling emperor among several co-emperors (symbasileis), who exercised actual power. The term megas basileus ("Great Emperor") was also sometimes used for the same purpose.[12] By the Palaiologan period, the full style of the Emperor was finalized in the phrase "X, in Christ the God faithful Emperor and Autocrat of the Romans" (Greek: "Χ, ἐν Χριστῷ τῷ Θεῷ πιστός βασιλεύς καὶ αὐτοκράτωρ Ῥωμαίων", "Χ, en Christō tō Theō pistós basileus kai autokratōr Rhōmaíōn").

The later German emperors were also conceded the title "basileus of the Franks". The Byzantine title in turn produced further diplomatic incidents in the 10th century, when Western potentates addressed the emperors as "emperors of the Greeks".[3] A similar diplomatic scuffle (this time accompanied by war) ensued from the imperial aspirations of Simeon I of Bulgaria in the early 10th century. Aspiring to conquer Constantinople, Simeon claimed the title "basileus of the Bulgarians and of the Romans", but was only recognized as "basileus of the Bulgarians" by the Byzantines. From the 12th century however, the title was increasingly, although again not officially, used for powerful foreign sovereigns, such as the kings of France or Sicily, the tsars of the restored Bulgarian Empire, the Latin emperors and the emperors of Trebizond. In time, the title was also applied to major non-Christian rulers, such as Tamerlane or Mehmed II.[3] Finally, in 1354, Stefan Dushan, king of Serbia, assumed the imperial title, styling himself in Greek as basileus and autokratōr of the Romans and Serbs.[13]

New Testament and Jesus

While the terms used for the Roman emperor are Kaisar Augustos (Decree from Caesar Augustus, Dogma para Kaisaros Augoustou, Luke 2:1) or just Kaisar (see Render unto Caesar...) and Pontius Pilate is called Hegemon (Matthew 27:2), Herod is Basileus (in his coins also Basileôs Herodou and by Josephus)

Regarding Jesus the term basileus acquires a new Christian theological meaning out of the further concept of Basileus as a chief religious officer during the Hellenistic period. Jesus is Basileus tôn Basileôn, King of Kings (Matthew 28:18) (a previous Near Eastern phrase for rulers), Basileus tôn Ouranôn (which is translated as King of Heaven) with his Basileia tôn Ouranôn Kingship or Kingdom of Heaven, and is Basileus tôn Ioudaiôn King of the Jews (see INRI). In Byzantine art, a standard depiction of Jesus is Basileus tēs Doxēs King of Glory (in the West 'the Christ or Image of Pity');[14] a phrase derived from the Psalms 24:10 and the Lord of Glory (Kyrios tēs Doxēs, 1 Corinthians 2:8).

Modern Greece

During the post-Byzantine period, the term basileus, under the renewed influence of Classical writers on the language, reverted to its earlier meaning of "king". This transformation had already begun in informal usage in the works of some classicizing Byzantine authors. In the Convention of London in 1832, the Great Powers (the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, July Monarchy France, and Imperial Russia) agreed that the new Greek state should become a monarchy, and chose the Wittelsbach Prince Otto of Bavaria as its first king.

The Great Powers furthermore ordained that his title was to be "Βασιλεύς της Ελλάδος", meaning "King of Greece", instead of "Βασιλεύς των Ελλήνων", i.e. "King of the Greeks". This title had two implications: first, that Otto was the king only of the small Kingdom of Greece, and not of all Greeks, whose majority still remained under the rule of the Ottoman Empire. Second, that the kingship did not depend on the will of the Greek people, a fact further underlined by Otto's addition of the formula "ελέω Θεού" ("By the Grace of God"). For 10 years, until the 3 September 1843 Revolution, Otto ruled as an absolute monarch, and his autocratic rule, which continued even after being forced to grant a constitution, made him very unpopular. After being ousted in 1862, the new Danish dynasty of the House of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg took over with King George I. In a demonstrative move, as to assert both national independence from the will of the Powers, and as to emphasize the constitutional responsibilities of the monarch towards the people, his title was modified to "King of the Hellenes", which remained the official royal title until the abolition of the Greek monarchy in 1974.

It is interesting to note that the two Greek kings who bore the name of Constantine, a name of great sentimental and symbolic significance, especially in the irredentist context of the Megali Idea, were often, although never officially, numbered in direct succession to the last Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, as Constantine XII[15] and Constantine XIII[16] respectively.

See also


  • Jochem Schindler, "On the Greek type hippeús" in Studies Palmer ed. Meid (1976), 349–352.
  • Robert Drews, Basileus. The Evidence for Kingship in Geometric Greece, Yale (1983).
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, Oxford University Press (1991).

External links



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