From Academic Kids

Missing image
A silver coin of the Seleucid king Antiochus I Soter. The reverse shows Apollo seated on an omphalos. The Greek inscription reads ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ (king Antiochus).

Basileus (Greek Βασιλεύς) means "king". It is perhaps best known in English as a title used by Byzantine monarchs, but also has a longer history of use in Ancient Greece.



The etymology of "basileus" is unclear. If the word is originally Greek, then it might somehow derive from the Greek "basis" (base). Since this etymology is rather dubious, 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.

Ancient Greece

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. They were 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"). Its meaning later evolved to "king", as is attested in the works of Homer. The word can be contrasted with anax, another word used for "king". This title was used throughout the Greek-speaking world to signify the person and office of king, either in reality or when recounting Greek mythology. "Anax" was then used only in poetry.

In classical times the use of "basileus" was limited to the very few states that never abolished the hereditary royal office in favor of democratic or oligarchic rule: namely the two hereditary Kings of Sparta (who served as joint commanders of the army), the Kings of Macedon and Epirus, various kings of "barbaric" (i.e. non-Greek) tribes in Thrace and Illyria, as well as the Achaemenid kings of Persia. The Persian king was also referred to as "Megas Basileus" (Great King) or "Basileus Basileon", a translation of the Persian title "Shâhanshâh" (King of Kings).

The term was also used in classical Athens in the title of the "Archon Basileus" (Lord King), which was an elected and purely ceremonial office supervising religious rites. In other city-states occasionally governed by authoritarian rulers the term "basileus" was never used, and the titles "tyrannos" (tyrant) or, more benignly, "archon" (lord) were preferred. This signifies that a ruling Greek "basileus" had to be an heir of a long-standing, legitimate dynasty.

Alexander the Great

"Basileus" was exclusively used by Alexander the Great and his Hellenistic successors in 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.


At the time of the Byzantine Empire, "basileus" assumed the meaning of "emperor" and was used by the Byzantine Emperors from the reign of Justinian II onwards, when official usage of Latin in coinage and state documents was gradually replaced by Greek.

This use of the word was new — when the Romans had originally conquered the Mediterranean, the imperial title "Caesar Augustus" was initially translated as "Kaisar Sebastos", and later Hellenized to "Kaisar Augoustos". "Imperator", another imperial title, was translated as "Autokrator". Interestingly, "BASILEUS" was initially stamped on Byzantine coins (in lieu of the standard Latin abbreviations "C.IMP." for "Caesar Imperator") in Latin script. Only somewhat later was the Greek script universally used.

The title of "basileus" became an issue of great diplomatic controversy when Charlemagne was crowned as "Emperor of the Romans" by Pope Leo III on December 25, 800 AD, at St. Peter's in Rome. The matter was complicated by the fact that the Eastern Empire was then ruled by the Empress Irene, who had ascended the throne of Constantinople after the death of her husband, the emperor Leo IV, as Regent to their 9-year-old son, Constantine VI. Following Constantine's coming of age, the Empress Dowager 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.

Charlemagne, in an effort to advance his own dynastic affairs, proposed marriage to the aging Empress, but Irene, who now styled herself "Basileus" (in the male, rather than "Basilissa", in the female) rejected Charlemagne's marriage proposal, and refused to recognise Charlemagne's imperial title. Eventually a compromise was reached, whereby Charlemagne was to be recognised as "Emperor Augustus of the Franks and the Lombards", but not "of the Romans".

See also: Byzantine Empire, Persia

External link

fr:Basileus nl:Basileus pl:Basileus sv:Basileus


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