Over the more than thousand years of the empire's existence, different titles were adopted and discarded, and many lost or gained prestige. At first the various titles of the empire were the same as those in the late Roman Empire. However, by the time that Heraclius was emperor (610–641), many of the titles had become obsolete. By the time of Alexios I reign (1082–1118), many of the positions were either new or drastically changed. However, from that time on they remained essentially the same until the fall of the Byzantine Empire in 1453.
In the early Byzantine period (4th to early 7th century) the system of government followed the model established in late Roman times under Diocletian and Constantine the Great, with a strict separation between civil and military offices and a scale of titles corresponding to office, where membership or not in the Senate was the major distinguishing characteristic. Following the transformation of the Byzantine state during the 7th century on account of massive territorial loss to the Muslim conquests, this system vanished, and during the "classic" or middle period of the Byzantine state (8th-late 11th centuries), a new, court-centered system emerged. In this, the new titles derived from older, now obsolete, public offices, and dignities of a certain level were awarded with each office. A senatorial class remained in place, which incorporated a large part of the upper officialdom as every official from the rank of protospatharios (Literally "first sword-bearer"; originally the head of the Emperor's bodyguards) was considered a member of it. During this period, many families remained important for several centuries, and several Emperors rose from the aristocracy. Two groups can be distinguished: a metropolitan civil nobility and a provincial military one, the latter remaining regionally based and having large land-holdings, but apparently no military forces of their own, in contrast to contemporary Western Europe.
The 10th and 11th centuries saw a rise in importance of the aristocracy, and an increased number of new families entering it. The catastrophic losses in the latter 11th century again prompted a reorganization of the imperial administrative system, at the hands of the new Komnenos dynasty: the older offices and titles fell gradually into disuse, while an array of new honorifics emerged, which signified primarily the closeness of their recipient's familial relationship to the Emperor. The Komnenian-led Empire, and later their Palaiologan successors, were based primarily on the landed aristocracy, keeping the governance of state tightly controlled by a limited number of intermarrying aristocratic families. In the 11th and 12th century for instance, some 80 civil and 64 military noble families have been identified, a very small number for so large a state. Finally, in the Palaiologan system as reported by pseudo-Kodinos one can discern the accumulated nomenclature of centuries, with formerly high ranks having been devalued and others taken their place, and the old distinction between office and dignity had vanished.
These were the highest titles, usually limited to members of the imperial family or to a few very select foreign rulers, whose friendship the Emperor desired.
In the 8th–11th centuries, according to information provided by the Taktikon Uspensky, the Klētorologion of Philotheos (899) and the writings of Constantine Porphyrogennetos, below the imperial titles, the Byzantines distinguished two distinct categories of dignities (ἀξίαι): the "dignities by award" (διὰ βραβείων ἀξίαι), which were purely honorific court titles and were conferred by the award of a symbol of rank, and the "dignities by proclamation" (διὰ λόγου ἀξίαι), which were offices of the state and were conferred by imperial pronouncement. The former were further divided into three subcategories, depending on who was eligible for them: different sets of titles existed for the "Bearded Ones" (βαρβάτοι from Latin barbati, i.e. not eunuchs), the eunuchs (ἐκτομίαι) and women. State officials usually combined titles from both main categories, so that a high official would be both magistros (an "awarded" title) and logothetēs tou dromou (a "proclaimed" office).