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Comites rei militaris and duces in Late Antique Egypt

Anna Maria Kaiser

After the emperor Diocletian had separated the civil and military powers, until then united in the hand of the provincial governor, comites rei militaris and duces held the highest military authority in the provinces. In Egypt these were the comes Aegypti in the north and the subordinated dux Thebaidis in the south. In 539 CE the emperor Justinian reunited civil and military authority in the hands of the duces et Augustales (Lallemand 1964; Gascou 2004; Palme 1999, 2007). Before then the duces had experienced quite a few changes in responsibilities and duties as well as promotions in rank (Carrié 1998). These topics are addressed in a project in progress concerning the duces in Egypt that will result in a comprehensive study on the military commands and commanders as well as an overview of the military institutions and the development of the ducatus, a study not attempted since Maspero 1912.

In this paper, however, we will focus on the career patterns and the social background of the comites and duces in Egypt and thereby on the provinces’ social elites. Who were the highest military commanders in Egypt? What are their family ties? What can be said about their careers before and after they held the ducal office?

We will focus on the 6th century CE, since this is the time in which the famous Apiones, a senatorial family well known from its Oxyrhynchite documents, are best documented, and it is the Apiones (the leading members of that family held high imperial offices) that can serve as a mirror for the social ties and background of the duces in Egypt. (On the Apiones see esp. Mazza 2001; Flavius Apion II or III was dux Thebaidis himself [P.Oxy. I 130].) One very prominent dux et Augustalis Thebaidis is Flavius Athanasius, in office in the 560s CE. Just like Strategius I, another prominent family member of the Apiones, he served as phrontistes of the domus divina, an office that might well have been the stepping stone for many well-to-do Egyptian families (Azzarello 2012). Athanasius is nowadays well known for his colourful career (Fournet 1999, Morelli 2008). Other duces from the archive of Dioscoros (the archive relating most of our knowledge about Athanasius) seem to have had similarly steep career paths – outside of Egypt even. It might also be possible to link Athanasius to a very important Egyptian family – a possibility the paper will explore in more detail. We thereby might glimpse a family that could have equalled the Apiones.

What will emerge in this paper is the fact that the duces were (at least in the 6th century CE) the scions of important families, mostly from Egypt itself. They were important members of the local elite’s networks and inseparably connected to their peers in the provincial elite. What begins to appear as a shadow on the horizon is a network of important provincial families whose sons held office as the highest military commanders in Egypt – families that might have been connected through marriage and other ties and that, although we do not know them as well as the Apiones, seem to have been just as powerful.

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Culture and Society in Greek, Roman, and Byzantine Egypt

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