Theme (country subdivision)

The themes or themata (θέματα; singular θέμα, thema) were the main administrative divisions of the middle Byzantine Empire. They were established in the 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.



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, Emperor Maurice combined supreme civil and military authority in the person of an exarch, forming the exarchates of Ravenna and Africa. This trend had already featured in some of the administrative reforms of Justinian in the 530s, but had been limited to individual provinces. It was the establishment of the exarchates that overturned the strict division of civil and military offices that had existed since the reforms of Diocletian, 300 years earlier. However, in most of the old 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. Although some elements of the earlier administration survived until the latter seventh century, the remaining imperial territory in Asia Minor was divided into five large themata, each governed by a stratēgos ("general"), who also commanded the military forces of each thema. Until the early 20th century, the establishment of the themes was attributed by many historians, like George Ostrogorsky, to the Emperor Heraclius. This view has since been overturned, and modern historians date their creation to the period from the 640s to the 660s, under Constans II.


Each of the original five themata was formed from the Empire's earlier mobile field armies, as their names testifies. These were mobile regional forces, in contrast to the static limitanei garrisons, and commanded each by a magister militum. In the aftermath of the loss of the Levant, these armies were withdrawn to Asia Minor, and assigned each to a specific area. The first themata were:

  • 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
  • the Anatolic Theme (Θέμα Άνατολικῶν, Thema Anatolikōn), first mentioned in 669, was the successor of the Army of the East (Άνατολῆ). It covered central Asia Minor, and its capital was Amorium.
  • the Opsician Theme (Θέμα Ὀψικίου, Thema Opsikiou), first mentioned in 680, was where the imperial retinue (in Latin Obsequium), was established. It covered northwestern Asia Minor (Bithynia, Paphlagonia and parts of Galatia), and was based at Nicaea. Its commander bore the title of komēs ("count")
  • the Thracesian Theme (Θέμα Θρακησίων, Thema Thrakēsiōn), first mentioned in 680, was the successor of the Army of Thrace. It covered the central western coast of Asia Minor (Ionia, Lydia and Caria), with capital at Ephesos.
  • the Theme of the Carabisiani (Θέμα Kαραβησιάνων, Thema Karavēsianōn), first mentioned in 680, was the successor of the Army of the Illyricum or the old quaestura exercitus. It occupied the southern coats of Asia Minor and the Aegean Islands, with its capital at Attaleia. It was a naval theme (κάραβις means "ship"), and its commander bore the title of droungarios.

The new system of settling military units in vacant lands and thus strengthening local loyalties to the state greatly helped the Byzantine Empire survive. The price was paid in terms of a militarization of society and a decline of civil institutions and civil culture; for this reason, the introduction of the themes is often seen as marking the end of Late Antiquity and the beginning of the Middle Ages for the Eastern Roman Empire.

Later development


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.

Name No. of personnel No. of subordinate units Officer in command
Themata 9 600 4 Merẽ Strategus
Turma, Meros 2 400 6 Drungi Turmarch
Drungus 400 2 Banda Drungary
Bandum 200 2 "Centuria" Count
"Century" 100 10 "Contubernia" Hecatontarch
50 5 "Contubernia" Pentecontarch
"Contubernium" 10 1 "Vanguard*" + 1 "Rear Guard*" Decarch
"Vanguard*" 5 n/a Pentrarch
"Rear Guard*" 4 n/a Tetrarch

  • Note: The names have been Latinized and terms in quotations are continuations of the Roman Legion system. Those with an asterisk (*) are direct translations.

List of the themata

Theme Date Established from Later divisions Capital Original territory Cities
842-843 Carabisians possibly Mytilene or Methymna Cyclades, Lesbos, Lemnos, Chios, Imbros, Tenedos, Hellespont
669 New creation Amorium Phrygia, Pisidia, Isauria Iconium
667 New creation Amasea Pontus, Armenia Minor, northern Cappadocia Sinope, Amisus, Trebizond, Neocaesarea, Theodosiopolis
766 Opsicians Paphlagonia Ancyra Galatia, Paphlagonia
1018 Skopje
830 Armeniacs, raised from kleisoura Koron Fortress SW Cappadocia
later Cibyrrhaeot
680 New creation,
renamed in 732
Aegean, Samos Samos, later Attaleia Pamphylia, Lycia, Dodecanese, Aegean Islands, Ionian coast
824 or 840 Armeniacs Trebizond Pontic coast
Charsianon 873 Armeniacs, archontate in 863 Caesarea NW Cappadocia
809 raised from archontate Langobardia Ionian Islands, Apulia
ca. 845 Armeniacs N. Armenia Minor Satala, Nicopolis
961 archontate 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 Carabisians 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
Langobardia ca. 910 Cephallonia Bari Apulia Taranto
916 Lycandus SE Cappadocia
790s Thrace Adrianople Western Thrace Didymoteichon, Mosynopolis
between 886-889 Nicopolis Epirus, Aetolia, Acarnania
680 New creation Bucellarian, Optimates
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
680 New creation Chonae
Vasprakania 1016 New creation Vaspurakan
naval theme (θέμα ναυτικόν)


  • Haldon, John F. (1999). Warfare, state and society in the Byzantine world, 565-1204. Routledge.
  • Treadgold, Warren T. (1995). Byzantium and Its Army, 284-1081. Stanford University Press.
  • Treadgold, Warren T. (1997). A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford University Press.


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