Theme (Byzantine district): Wikis


Note: Many of our articles have direct quotes from sources you can cite, within the Wikipedia article! This article doesn't yet, but we're working on it! See more info or our list of citable articles.


From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The themata of the Byzantine Empire, at the death of Basil II in 1025.

The themes or themata (Greek: θέματα; singular θέμα, thema) were the main administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the mid-seventh century in the aftermath of the Muslim conquests of Byzantine territory and replaced the earlier provincial system established by emperors Diocletian and Constantine the Great. In their origin, the first themes were created from the areas of encampment of the field armies of the East Roman army, and their names corresponded to the military units they had resulted from. The theme system reached its apogee in the 9th and 10th centuries, as older themes were split up and the conquest of territory resulted in the creation of new ones. The original theme system underwent significant changes in the 11th and 12th centuries, but the term remained in use as a provincial and financial circumscription, until the very end of the Empire.





During the late sixth and early seventh centuries, the Byzantine Empire was under frequent attack from all sides. The Sassanid Empire was pressing from the east on Syria, Egypt, and Anatolia. Slavs and Avars raided Greece and settled in the Balkans. The Lombards occupied northern Italy, largely unopposed. In order to face the mounting pressure, in the more distant provinces of the West, recently regained by Justinian I (r. 527–565), Emperor Maurice (r. 582–602) combined supreme civil and military authority in the person of an exarch, forming the exarchates of Ravenna and Africa.[1] These developments overturned the strict division of civil and military offices, which had been one of the cornerstones of the reforms of Diocletian (r. 284–305). In essence, however they merely recognized and formalized the greater prominence of the local general, or magister militum, over the respective civilian praetorian prefect as a result of the provinces' precarious situation.[2]

This trend had already featured in some of the administrative reforms of Justinian I in the 530s. Justinian had given military authority to the governors of individual provinces plagued by brigandage in Asia Minor, but more importantly, he had also created the exceptional combined military-civilian circumscription of the quaestura exercitus and abolished the civilian Diocese of Egypt, putting a dux with combined authority at the head of each of its old provinces.[3] However, in most of the Empire, the old system continued to function until the 640s, when the eastern part of the Empire collapsed under the onslaught of the Muslim Caliphate. The rapid Muslim conquest of Syria and Egypt and consequent Byzantine losses in manpower and territory meant that the Empire found itself struggling for survival.


In order to respond to this unprecedented crisis, the Empire was drastically reorganized. The remaining imperial territory in Asia Minor was divided into four large themes, and although some elements of the earlier civil administration survived, they were subordinated to the governing stratēgos ("general"), who also commanded the military forces of each theme.[4]

The origin and early nature of the themes is heavily disputed amongst scholars. The very name thema is of uncertain etymology: it has been suggested that it came from the Chazar Turkic tūmān, "ten thousand men", but most scholars follow Constantine Porphyrogennetos, who records that it originates from Greek thesis ("placement").[5][6] The date of their creation is also uncertain. For most of the 20th century, the establishment of the themes was attributed by many historians to the Emperor Heraclius during the last of the Byzantine–Sassanid Wars.[7] Most notable amongst the supporters of this thesis was George Ostrogorsky who based this opinion on an extract from the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor mentioning the arrival of Heraclius "in the lands of the themes" for the year 622. According to him, this "shows that the process of establishing troops (themes) in specific areas of Asia Minor has already begun at this time."[8] This view has been objected to by others and most modern historians date their creation later, to the period from the 640s to the 660s, under Constans II.[9] It has further been shown that, contrary to Ostrogorsky's conception of the themata being established from the outset as distinct, well-defined regions where a stratēgos held joint military and civil authority, the term thema originally seems to have referred exclusively to the armies, and only in the later 7th or early 8th centuries did it come to be transferred to the districts where these armies were encamped as well.[10]

Tied to the question of chronology is also the issue of a corresponding social and military transformation. The traditional view, championed by Ostrogorsky, holds the establishment of the themes also meant the establishment of a new type of army. Instead of the old, mercenary-based force, the new Byzantine army was supposedly based on native farmer-soldiers living on the state-leased military estates.[5][11] More recent scholars however have posited that the formation of the themes did not constitute a radical break with the past, but rather a logical extension of pre-existing, 6th-century trends, and that its direct social impact was minimal.[5]

The first themes: 7th–8th centuries

What is clear is that at some point in the mid-7th century, probably in the late 630s and 640s, the Empire's field armies were withdrawn to Anatolia, the last major contiguous territory remaining to the Empire. Territorially, the new themes encompassed several of the older provinces, and with a few exceptions, followed the old provincial boundaries.[12] The first four themes were those of the Armeniacs, Anatolics and Thracesians, and the Opsician theme. The Armeniac Theme (Θέμα Άρμενιάκων, Thema Armeniakōn), first mentioned in 667, was the successor of the Army of Armenia. It occupied the old areas of the Pontus, Armenia Minor and northern Cappadocia, with its capital at Amasea.[13][14] The Anatolic Theme (Θέμα Άνατολικῶν, Thema Anatolikōn), first mentioned in 669, was the successor of the Army of the East (Άνατολῆ, Anatolē). It covered southern central Asia Minor, and its capital was Amorium.[15][16] Together, these two themes formed the first tier of defence of Byzantine Anatolia, bordering Muslim Armenia and Syria respectively. The Thracesian Theme (Θέμα Θρᾳκησίων, Thema Thrakēsiōn), first mentioned clearly as late as ca. 740, was the successor of the Army of Thrace, and covered the central western coast of Asia Minor (Ionia, Lydia and Caria), with its capital most likely at Chonae.[17] The Opsician Theme (Θέμα Ὀψικίου, Thema Opsikiou), first mentioned in 680, was constituted from the imperial retinue (in Latin Obsequium). It covered northwestern Asia Minor (Bithynia, Paphlagonia and parts of Galatia), and was based at Nicaea. Uniquely, its commander retained his title of komēs ("count").[18]

In addition, the great naval division of the Carabisians or Karabisianoi (Kαραβισιάνοι, from κάραβις, "ship"), first mentioned in 680, was probably formed of the remains of the Army of the Illyricum or, more likely, the old quaestura exercitus. It never formed a theme proper, but occupied parts of the southern coast of Asia Minor and the Aegean Islands, with its stratēgos seat most likely at Samos. It provided the bulk of the Byzantine navy facing the new Arab fleets, which after the Battle of the Masts contested control of the Mediterranean with the Empire.[19] In the event, the Carabisians would prove unsatisfactory in that role, and by 720 they had been disbanded in favour of a fully-fledged naval theme, that of the Cibyrrhaeots (Θέμα Κιβυρραιωτῶν, Thema Kibyrrhaiotōn), which encompassed the southern coasts of Asia Minor and the Aegean islands.[20][21]

The Byzantine themes as they existed in ca. 770, following the creation of the Bucellarian and Optimatoi themes out of the original theme of the Opsikion.

The part of the region of Thrace under Byzantine control was probably constituted as a theme at about 680, as a response to the Bulgar threat, although for a time the command over Thrace appears to have been exercised by the Count of the Opsikion.[22][23][24] Successive campaigns by the emperors of the Heraclian dynasty in Greece also led to the recovery of control of Central Greece from Slavic invaders, and to the establishment of the theme of Hellas there between 687 and 695.[25] Sicily too was formed as a theme by the end of the century, but the imperial possessions in mainland Italy remained under the exarch of Ravenna or the local doukes, as did Byzantine Africa until the fall of Carthage in 698. At the same time, Crete and the imperial exclave of Cherson in the Crimea formed independent archontiai.[23][26]

Thus, by the turning of the century, the themes had become the dominant feature of imperial administration. Their large size and power however made their generals prone to revolt, as had been evidenced in the turbulent period 695–715, and would again during the great revolt of Artabasdos in 741–742.[27] The suppression of Artabasdos' revolt heralded the first significant changes in the Anatolian themes: the over-mighty Opsikion was broken up with the creation of two new themes, the Bucellarian Theme and the Optimates, while the role of imperial guard was assumed by a new type of professional force, the imperial tagmata.[28]

The height of the theme system: 9th–10th centuries

Map showing the extent of the Byzantine Empire in ca. 600 and ca. 900, including the themes for the latter date.

Change and decline: 11th–12th centuries

Late Byzantine themata


The term thema was ambiguous, referring both to a form of military tenure and to an administrative division. A theme was an arrangement of plots of land given for farming to the soldiers. The soldiers were still technically a military unit, under the command of a strategos, and they did not own the land they worked as it was still controlled by the state. Therefore, for its use the soldiers' pay was reduced. By accepting this proposition, the participants agreed that their descendants would also serve in the military and work in a theme, thus simultaneously reducing the need for unpopular conscription as well as cheaply maintaining the military. It also allowed for the settling of conquered lands, as there was always a substantial addition made to public lands during a conquest.

The commander of a theme, however, did not only command his soldiers. He united the civil and military jurisdictions in the territorial area in question. Thus the division set up by Diocletian between civil governors (praesides etc.) and military commanders (duces etc.) was abolished, and the Empire returned to a system much more similar to that of the Republic or the Principate, where provincial governors had also commanded the armies in their area.

The following table illustrates the thematic structure as found in the Thracesian Theme, circa 902-936:

Structure of the Thema Thrakēsiōn
Name Number of personnel Number of subordinate units Officer in command
Thema 9,600 4 Tourmai Strategos
Tourma 2,400 6 Droungoi Tourmarches
Droungos 400 2 Banda Droungarios
Bandon 200 2 Kentarchiai Count
Kentarchia 100 10 Kontoubernia Kentarches/Hekatontarches
50 5 Kontoubernia Pentekontarches
Kontoubernion 10 1 "Vanguard" + 1 "Rear Guard" Dekarchos
"Vanguard" 5 n/a Pentarches
"Rear Guard" 4 n/a Tetrarches

List of the themata

Theme Date Established from Later divisions Capital Original territory Cities
842-843 Cibyrrhaeots possibly Mytilene or Methymna Cyclades, Lesbos, Lemnos, Chios, Imbros, Tenedos, Hellespont
(thema Anatolikōn)
669 New creation Amorium Phrygia, Pisidia, Isauria Iconium
(thema Armeniakōn, Armeniakoi)
667 New creation Amasea Pontus, Armenia Minor, northern Cappadocia Sinope, Amisus, Trebizond, Neocaesarea, Theodosiopolis
(thema Boukellariōn, Boukellarioi)
766 Opsicians Paphlagonia Ancyra Galatia, Paphlagonia
1018 Skopje
830 Armeniacs, raised from kleisoura Koron Fortress SW Cappadocia
Chaldia 824 or 840 Armeniacs Trebizond Pontic coast
Charsianon 873 Armeniacs, archontia in 863 Caesarea NW Cappadocia
809 raised from archontia Langobardia Ionian Islands, Apulia
(thema Kibyrrhaeotōn, Kibyrraiotai)
ca. 720 Created from the Karabisianoi fleet Aegean, Samos Samos, later Attaleia Pamphylia, Lycia, Dodecanese, Aegean Islands, Ionian coast
961 archontia until 828, thereafter Arab emirate Chandax Crete Rethymnon, Gortys
965 Byzantine-Arab condominium from 688 Nicosia Cyprus Citium, Limassol, Paphos, Keryneia
842-843 New creation Dyrrhachium Albanian coast Avlon, Apollonia
Hellas ca. 690 Karabisianoi Peloponnese Corinth, Thebes (after 809) Initially E. Peloponnese and Attica, after 809 Central Greece and Thessaly After 809: Athens, Larissa, Pharsala, Lamia
Iberia, later Iberia and Armenia
1000 annexation of Tao/Tayk, expanded in 1045 Manzikert, after 1045 Ani large parts of Western Armenia
Koloneia ca. 845 Armeniacs N. Armenia Minor Koloneia, Satala, Nicopolis
Langobardia ca. 910 Cephallonia Bari Apulia Taranto
916 Lycandus SE Cappadocia
790s Thrace Adrianople Western Thrace Didymoteichon, Mosynopolis
between 886-889 Naupaktos Epirus, Aetolia, Acarnania
680 New creation Bucellarians, Optimates
(thema Optimatōn, Optimatoi)
mid-8th century Opsicians Nicomedia Bithynia opposite Constantinople
Paristrion or Paradounabion 1018 Dorostorum Lower Moesia
809 Hellas Corinth Peloponnese
Samos 893 Cibyrrhaeots Smyrna Samos, Ionian coast
Syracuse Sicily and Calabria
1018 Sirmium
899 Thrace, raised from kleisoura (709) Adrianople roughly modern Greek Eastern Macedonia Kavala
962 Teluch
836 Thessalonica roughly modern Greek Central Macedonia Beroia, Edessa, Dium
ca. 690 Opsicians Arcadiopolis Eastern Thrace, except Constantinople Selymbria, Bizye
(thema Thrakēsiōn, Thrakēsioi)
680 New creation Chonae
1016 New creation Vaspurakan

naval theme (θέμα ναυτικόν)



  1. ^ Bréhier 2000, pp. 98–101
  2. ^ Haldon 1990, p. 210
  3. ^ Bréhier 2000, pp. 93–98
  4. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 2035
  5. ^ a b c Kazhdan 1991, p. 2034
  6. ^ Haldon 1990, p. 215
  7. ^ Cheynet 2006, pp. 151–152
  8. ^ Ostrogorsky 1997, p. 101
  9. ^ Treadgold 1997, p. 316
  10. ^ Haldon 1990, pp. 214–215
  11. ^ Cheynet 2006, p. 152
  12. ^ Haldon 1990, pp. 212–216
  13. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 177
  14. ^ Haldon 1999, pp. 73, 112
  15. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 90
  16. ^ Haldon 1999, p. 73
  17. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 2080
  18. ^ Haldon 1990, pp. 216–217
  19. ^ Haldon 1990, p. 217
  20. ^ Haldon 1999, p. 77
  21. ^ Cheynet 2006, p. 155
  22. ^ Haldon 1990, p. 216
  23. ^ a b Haldon 1999, p. 87
  24. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 2079
  25. ^ Kazhdan 1991, p. 911
  26. ^ Cheynet 2006, p. 146
  27. ^ Treadgold & 1998 pp. 26–29
  28. ^ Treadgold & 1998 pp. 28–29, 71, 99, 210


Got something to say? Make a comment.
Your name
Your email address