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Basileus (

Byzantine emperors, and the kings of modern Greece

The feminine forms are basileia (βασίλεια), basilis (βασιλίς), basilissa (βασίλισσα), or the archaic basilinna (βασιλίννα), meaning "queen" or "empress".[1]


The etymology of basileus is uncertain. The

Proto-Greek form would be *gʷatileus.[2] Some linguists assume that it is a non-Greek word that was adopted by Bronze Age Greeks from a pre-existing linguistic Pre-Greek substrate of the Eastern Mediterranean.[3] Schindler[4] argues for an inner-Greek innovation of the -eus inflection type from Indo-European material rather than a Mediterranean loan.[4]

Ancient Greece

Original senses encountered on clay tablets

The first written instance of this word is found on the baked

smiths 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 transcribed with a Latin "r" by uniform convention. (Similarly, the Old Persian word vazir
also has almost the same meaning as "chieftain".) Linear B only represents syllables of single vowel, or of a consonant-vowel form, therefore any final -s is omitted.

Basileus vs. wanax in Mycenaean times

The word can be contrasted with

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 anáktoron / anáktora ("[place or home] of the ánax"), i.e. of the royal palace. The latter is essentially the same word as 𐀷𐀩𐀏𐀳𐀫 wa-na-ka-te-ro, wanákteros, "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 items 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 rendered conventionally in English as "kings". However, a more accurate translation may be "princes" or "chieftains", which would better represent 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 obeyed automatically. In Homer the wanax is expected to rule over the other basileis by consensus rather than by coercion, which is why Achilles rebels (the main theme of the Iliad) when he decides that Agamemnon is treating him disrespectfully.

Archaic basileus

A study by

Arcadians and the Messenians, in which cases the term approximated the meaning of "king".[5]

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

According to pseudo-

archons") derives from their social functions or offices, whereas the sovereign derives his power from himself. Sovereigns have auctoritas, whereas magistrates retain 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 Führerprinzip and of Carl Schmitt's theories on dictatorship

Use of basileus in classical times


Persia. The Persian king was also referred to as Megas Basileus/Basileus Megas (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
(tyrannos), who had generally seized control.


archon eponymos (for whom the year was named), the polemarch (polemos archon = war lord) and the basileus divided the powers of Athens' ancient kings, with the basileus overseeing religious rites and homicide cases. His wife had to ritually marry Dionysus at the Anthesteria festival. Philippides of Paiania
was one of the richest Athenians during the age of Lycurgus of Athens, he was honoured archon, basileus in 293–292 BCE. Similar vestigial offices termed basileus existed in other Greek city-states.

By contrast, the authoritarian rulers were never termed basileus in classical Greece, but archon (ruler) or tyrannos (tyrant); although Pheidon of Argos is described by Aristotle as a basileus who made himself into a tyrannos.

Many Greek authors, reconciling

sufet, as basileus in their native language. In fact, this office conformed to largely republican frameworks, being approximately equivalent in mandate to the Roman consul.[7] This conflation appears notably in Aristotle's otherwise positive description of the Carthaginian Constitution in the Politics, as well as in the writings of Polybius, Diodorus Siculus, and Diogenes Laertius. Roman and early Christian writings sourced from Greek fostered further mischaracterizations, with the sufet mislabeled as the Latin rex.[8]

Alexander the Great

Basileus and Megas Basileus/Basileus Megas were exclusively used by

. It is 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

Bronze follis of Leo VI the Wise (r. 886–912). The reverse shows the Latin-transcribed Greek titles used in imperial coinage
: +LEOn En ΘEO bASILEVS ROMEOn, "Leo, by the grace of God Emperor of the Romans".


Augustus, translated or transliterated 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

King of Axum, whose importance was rather peripheral in the Byzantine worldview.[10](pp 35, 42) 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 not as basileus but as rēx or rēgas, the hellenized forms of the Latin title rex, king.[9]
(pp 263–264)

The first documented use of basileus Rhomaíōn in official context comes, surprisingly, from the Persians: in a letter sent to Emperor

Kavadh II in 628. Finally, in a law promulgated on 21 March 629, the Latin titles were omitted altogether, and the simple formula πιστὸς ἐν Χριστῷ βασιλεύς, "faithful in Christ Emperor" was used instead.[10](p 31) The adoption of the new imperial formula has been traditionally interpreted by scholars such as Ernst Stein and George Ostrogorsky as indicative of the almost complete hellenization of the Empire by that time.[10](p 32) 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).[9]
(pp 263–264) "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 neglected the fiction of Roman suzerainty from the 6th century onward, they refrained from adopting imperial titles.[10](pp 52–57)

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

Frankish) aversion to the idea of a female sovereign. Although it is often claimed that, as monarch, Irene called herself in the male form basileus, in fact she normally used the title basilissa.[11][b]

The Pope would seize this opportunity to cite the imperial throne being held by a woman as vacant and establish his position as able to divinely appoint rulers. Leading up to this, Charlemagne and his Frankish predecessors had increasingly become the Papacy’s source of protection while the Byzantine’s position in Italy had weakened significantly. In 800 CE, Charlemagne, now a king of multiple territories, was proclaimed “Emperor of the Romans” by the Pope.

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 πιστὸς βασιλεὺς καὶ αὐτοκράτωρ Ῥωμαίων", "Χ, en Christō tō Theō pistós basileus kai autokratōr Rhōmaíōn").

The later

Theodora Smilets of Bulgaria royal line, self-styling himself in Greek as basileus and autokratōr of the Romans and Serbs which was, however, not recognized by the Byzantines.[9]
(pp 1, 950–1, 951)

New Testament and Jesus

While the terms used for the

Hegemon (Matthew 27:2), Herod is Basileus (in his coins also Basileōs Herodou, "of King Herod", and by Josephus


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');[12] 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, by 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

as its first king.

The Great Powers furthermore ordained that his title was to be "Βασιλεὺς τῆς Ἑλλάδος" Vasilefs tes Elládos, meaning "King of Greece", instead of "Βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἑλλήνων" Vasilefs ton Ellénon, i.e. "King of the Greeks". This title had two implications: first, that Otto was the king only of the small

Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburg began with King George I. Both to assert national independence from the will of the Powers,[c]
and 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 abolitions of the Greek monarchy in 1924 and 1973.

The two Greek kings who had the name of Constantine, a name of great sentimental and symbolic significance, especially in the irredentist context of the


See also


  1. help·info); plural βασιλεῖς, basileis Ancient Greek[basilêːs], Modern Greek[vasiˈlis]
  2. ^ There are only three instances where it is known that Irene of Athens used the title "basileus": Two legal documents in which she signed herself as "Emperor of the Romans" and a gold coin of hers found in Sicily bearing the title of "basileus". In the case of the coin's inscription, its lettering is of poor quality and the attribution to Irene may, therefore, be problematic. In reality, she used the title "basilissa" in all other documents, coins and seals.[11]
  3. ^
    Imperial Russia


  1. ^ Brown, Roland Wilbur (1956). Composition of Scientific Words: A manual of methods and a lexicon of materials for the practice of logotechnics.
  2. ^ New Comparative Grammar of Greek and Latin. 2008. p. 330.
  3. ^ Beekes, R.S.P. (2009). Etymological Dictionary of Greek. Brill. p. 203.
  4. ^ a b Schindler, J. (1976). "On the Greek type hippeús". In Meid (ed.). Studies Palmer. pp. 349−352.
  5. ^ a b Drews, R. (1983). Basileus: The evidence for kingship in geometric Greece. New Haven, CT: Yale.
  6. ^ as quoted by Agamben, G. (2005). State of Exception.
  7. .
  8. .
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i
    Kazhdan, Alexander, ed. (1991). .
  10. ^ a b c d e f
    Chrysos, Evangelos K. (1978). "The title ΒΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ in early Byzantine international relations". Dumbarton Oaks Papers. Washington, DC: Dumbarton Oaks. 32: 29–75.
    JSTOR 1291418
  11. ^ .
  12. .
  13. ^ Brozan, Nadine (13 April 1994). "Chronicle". The New York Times. Retrieved 2022-08-13.{{cite news}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  14. ^ Barret, Matt (ed.). "King Constantine II and Queen Anne-Marie". A History of Greece.
  • Janda, Michael (2004). "Annäherung an basileús". In Krisch, Thomas; Lindner, Thomas; Müller, Ulrich (eds.). Analecta Homini Universali Dicata – Festschrift für Oswald Panagl zum 65 Geburtstag [Analects Describing the Universal Man – commemorative publication for Oswald Panagl on his 65th birthday]. Vol. 1. Stuttgart, DE: Hans Dieter Heinz. pp. 84−94.

External links