Basileus is a Greek term and title that has signified various types of monarchs in history. In the English-speaking world it is most understood to mean "king" or "emperor"; the title was used by sovereigns and other persons of authority in ancient Greece, the Byzantine emperors, the kings of modern Greece. The feminine forms are basileia, basilissa, or the archaic basilinna, meaning "queen" or "empress"; the etymology of basileus is unclear. The Mycenaean form was *gʷasileus, denoting some sort of court official or local chieftain, but not an actual king, its hypothetical earlier Proto-Greek form would be *gʷatileus. Most linguists assume that it is a non-Greek word, adopted by Bronze Age Greeks from a pre-existing linguistic Pre-Greek substrate of the Eastern Mediterranean. Schindler argues for an inner-Greek innovation of the -eus inflection type from Indo-European material rather than a Mediterranean loan; the first written instance of this word is found on the baked clay tablets discovered in excavations of Mycenaean palaces destroyed by fire.
The tablets are dated from the 15th century BC to the 11th century BC and are inscribed with the Linear B script, deciphered by Michael Ventris in 1952 and corresponds to a early form of Greek. The word basileus is written as qa-si-re-u and its original meaning was "chieftain". Here the initial letter q- represents the PIE consonant */gʷ/, transformed in Greek into /b/. Linear B uses the same glyph for /l/ and /r/, now uniformly written with a Latin "r" by convention.. Linear B only depicts syllables of single vowel or consonant-vowel form, therefore the final -s is dropped altogether; the word can be contrasted with wanax, another word used more for "king" and meaning "High King" or "overlord". With the collapse of Mycenaean society, the position of wanax ceases to be mentioned, the basileis appear the topmost potentates in Greek society. In the works of Homer wanax appears, in the form ánax in descriptions of Zeus and of few human monarchs, most notably Agamemnon. Otherwise the term survived exclusively as a component in compound personal names and is still in use in Modern Greek in the description of the anáktoron/anáktora, i.e. of the royal palace.
The latter is the same word as 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, to things belonging or offered to the king. Most of the Greek leaders in Homer's works are described as basileís, conventionally rendered in English as "kings". However, a more accurate translation may be "princes" or "chieftains", which would better reflect conditions in Greek society in Homer's time, 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 automatically obeyed. In Homer the wanax is expected to rule over the other basileis by consensus rather than by coercion, why Achilles proudly and furiously rebels when he perceives that Agamemnon is unjustly bossing him around. A study by Robert Drews has demonstrated that at the apex of Geometric and Archaic Greek society, basileus does not automatically translate to "king".
In a number of places authority was exercised by a college of basileis drawn from a particular clan or group, the office had term limits. However, basileus could be applied to the hereditary leaders of "tribal" states, like those of the Arcadians and the Messenians, in which cases the term approximated the meaning of "king". According to pseudo-Archytas's treatise "On justice and law", quoted by Giorgio Agamben in State of Exception, Basileus is more adequately translated into "Sovereign" than into "king"; the reason for this is that it designates more the person of king than the office of king: the power of magistrates derives from their social functions or offices, whereas the sovereign derives his power from himself. Sovereigns have auctoritas. Pseudo-Archytas aimed at creating a theory of sovereignty enfranchised from laws, being itself the only source of legitimacy, he goes so far as qualifying the Basileus as nomos empsykhos, or "living law", the origin, according to Agamben, of the modern Führerprinzip and of Carl Schmitt's theories on dictatorship.
In classical times all Greek states had abolished the hereditary royal office in favor of democratic or oligarchic rule. Some exceptions existed, namely the two hereditary Kings of Sparta, the Kings of Cyrene, the Kings of Macedon and of the Molossians in Epirus and Kings of Arcadian Orchomenus; the Greeks used the term to refer to various kings of "barbaric" tribes in Thrace and Illyria, as well as to the Achaemenid kings of Persia. The Persian king was referred to as Megas Basileus or Basileus Basileōn, a translation of the Persian title xšāyaθiya xšāyaθiyānām, or "the king". There was a cult of
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