Archive for November, 2010

Where is Belisarius buried?

Nov 17 2010 Published by under Belisarius

Nate asks where Belisarius was buried.  This is sort of the Byzantine equivalent of Princess Di and Mother Teresa dying in the same week.  Had the latter expired at any other time it would have made international headlines, but the shock of the tragic royal death drowned out everything else for several weeks in September of 1997.  Belisarius was likewise forgotten.  He died in the same year as the emperor Justinian and- as if that news wasn’t big enough to overshadow him- the historian Procopius also perished leaving the great general’s final resting place unrecorded.  We can, however, make an educated guess.

Belisarius was tremendously popular throughout his career and lived out his last years on his estates on the Asiatic side of the Bosporus.  There were two churches in the vicinity (Saint’s Peter and Paul), and my guess is that he was buried there.  You can still visit the area- now the Turkish district of Kadıköy- but there is little to see.  Aside from the occasional Byzantine arch or bit of masonry, the Roman past has been largely obliterated.  (a disgraceful situation since it is also the site of the famous Council of Chalcedon)  Of course Belisarius may still be there.  If it was still visible, his tomb was probably destroyed during the Turkish conquest of the area in the 14th century, but the raiders would have had little interest in the bones within.  Either they were scattered to mix with the soil, or they are lying in some undiscovered crypt.

I’m choosing to believe the latter.

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Did the Byzantines invent lacrosse?

Strictly speaking no.  The term ‘lacrosse’ was coined in 1637 by a French Jesuit missionary named Jean de Brébeuf who was watching some Iroquois play a tribal game.  What he described, however, had very little in common with the sport played today.  Games could last several days, were played on fields that could be several miles long (and wide), and some matches had teams numbering in the hundreds.  The game was started by throwing the ball against the official’s head- an interesting choice considering the balls were large objects made of deerskin, clay, wood, and occasionally stone.  The modern rules for the game weren’t applied till 1867 when a Canadian dentist named William George Beers founded the first official club and standardized the game.

So what’s the Byzantine connection?  In the 5th century the emperor Theodosius II brought the game of ‘Tyzkanion’ to Constantinople.  This unpronounceable sport was soon all the rage among the upper crust.  It was played on horseback by two small teams of equal size each carrying a wooden stick with a net on the end.  A small leather ball the size of an apple was placed at the center of a field and each team would have to scoop it up and throw it toward the opposing goal.  Basil I was such a devotee that he built an official course on the grounds of the imperial palace and several emperors personally competed (one even died falling off his horse).  In the 12th century visiting French Crusaders caught the tyzakanion fever and brought it back to France.  They didn’t see the need for horses, so they modified it to be played on foot and changed the name to ‘chicane’.  This slowly evolved into the game ‘la soule’ or ‘choule’ which French settlers brought with them to Canada.  In 1867 William George Beers mixed the Native American and European sports and the modern game was born.

It’s not a straight line, but I think it’s fair to say that if lacrosse has an Iroquois mother, it may also have a Byzantine father.

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What was the point of the Byzantine Senate?

Nov 03 2010 Published by under Byzantine Senate,Heraclius,Justinian,Nika Riots,Senate

It’s the morning after an election and as luck would have it Shane asks a political question- what did the Senate do other than enrich itself and plot?

Aristotle first observed that ‘man is a political animal’ and as far as senators go that animal hasn’t changed in more than 2,000 years.

From the beginning Byzantine senators were lured east by the perks- free grain and land at the state’s expense.  There were relatively few duties to get in the way of enjoying the good life.  While the Roman Empire held on to the conceit that it was a Republic long after any trace of representative government had vanished- as late as the 6th century it was still issuing coins proclaiming the Republic- actual responsibilities were few and far between.  There was an obscure clause in one of Justinian’s law codes that said any new law had to be discussed by the Senate, but it was never enforced.  Their sole administrative duty was to manage the spending of money on the exhibition of games or public works.  This was not a highly lucrative job, so most senators (there were 2,000 of them) used the office for tax reasons- namely to escape the fees levied on others. (the more things change…)

Of course the Senate never quite forgot its august history and there were sporadic attempts to grasp real power.  In 532 they participated in the Nika Riots hoping to replace Justinian with one of their own members.  (Justinian repaid them by confiscating the Senate House and turning it into a reception hall for the Great Palace.)  In 608 they elected Heraclius as Consul, then elevated him to emperor against the usurper Phocas.  On his deathbed in 641, Heraclius thanked them by entrusting his young son Heraklonas to their care.  The Senate promptly deposed the boy and replaced him with a grandson of Heraclius named Constans II.  For the next three years the empire was openly ruled by the Senate- the first time since the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

That turned out to be the swan song of senatorial ambition.  After Constans came of age their importance quickly declined.  The Macedonian emperors stripped them of most of their remaining duties and the Senate was turned into a glorified imperial court.  Ordinary criminals were given a jury of 5 senators chosen by lot, while high treason involved the whole body.  There was still a whiff of prestige attached to the name, but Alexius Comnenus did away with that by allowing anyone to purchase senatorial rank directly from the emperor.

Their last known act was to elect a man named Nicholaus Kanabus as emperor in opposition to the pathetic Isaac II during the fourth Crusade.  Nicholaus- a gentle man- immediately fled to the Hagia Sophia and refused to come out.  But his resistance to the imperial summons failed to save him.  Another man seized control of the government, and as a warning to any challengers had Nicholaus dragged out of the church and strangled.

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If Basil I was illiterate how good could Byzantine education be?

Nov 01 2010 Published by under 12 Byzantine Rulers,Byzantine,Byzantine education

Nick asks how good the Byzantine educational system really was if the founder (Basil I) of its most illustrious dynasty was illiterate.

The average literacy rate for Byzantium probably averaged around 30%- which may not seem particularly high by contemporary standards, but for comparison’s sake is higher than 18th century France.  Of course there were the inevitable ups and downs- the 7th and 8th centuries are known as the ‘Byzantine dark ages’ where the literacy rate probably plunged well below 30%- but on the whole imperial subjects were better educated than their western brethren.

The fact that several emperors (Basil I and Justin I) were illiterate is not surprising considering the class they came from.  They were both peasants  (a swineherd and a shepherd), and as such had little time or money for school.  Once they gained the throne, however, they made sure their successors had the finest education available- and the remarkable thing is just how good that education was.  Justin was followed by Justinian and Basil by Leo the Wise, both famous for their scholarship and considered among the most erudite of rulers.

The fact that a good education was available was due in large part to the excellent university of Constantinople.  When it was founded in the 5th century it had 31 chairs: 10 each for Greek and Latin grammar, 2 for law, 1 for philosophy and 8 for rhetoric.  It was underwritten by the state and provided instant access to education for both genders of the nobility- during the latter half of the Macedonian Dynasty literacy among the aristocratic class probably was nearly universal.

The middle classes could also expect a practical education.  Byzantine clerks, notaries, and accountants had several years of training and government officials could measure land with a small margin of error.  Workmen routinely constructed items which were considered miraculous in the west- Thophilus’ famous elevated throne and golden lions that roared, a 9th century system of fire beacons that relied on synchronized clocks, buildings like the Hagia Sophia, aqueducts, silks, glass, and ceramics, as well as the famous silk industry.  None of this would have been possible without a widespread specialized education.

The real question is how much the poor had access to any of this.  The University of Constantinople was funded by the state even through the troubled ‘dark age’, but the vast majority of the imperial citizens lived outside the capital.  In fact the lack of education in the countryside became somewhat of an issue for the imperial government.  In their law codes both Leo VI and Justinian complain about the woeful state of ‘knowledge’ among peasants, and they authorized wills to be witnessed by ‘ignorant’ people if a literate one couldn’t be found.  In 867 Basil I (who could certainly sympathize) ordered that fiscal documents should write out the fractions to be more easily understood by peasants.

It’s tempting to think that the poor were all uneducated- and the vast majority of them most likely were- but there are a few hints that this might not be universally so.  Saints’ lives- which were popular throughout imperial history- frequently mention in passing the schooling that even impoverished holy men received before entering the church.  In addition, important imperial proclamations were posted in public (implying that someone could read them) and archeological sites have turned up thousands of stone slabs, wooden tablets, potsherds, and papyri, covered by inscriptions, signatures, transactions, accounts and contracts.  These combined with the inevitable graffiti that appeared on public walls down through the centuries testifies to the essential role of writing- even during the dark times- in Byzantine daily life.

The illiteracy of Basil I (and Justin) was seen as embarrassing by the court- and was considered rare enough that it needed to be pointed out.  Basil’s great grandson Constantine VII (a prolific author in his own right) went to great lengths to excuse his ancestor’s intellectual inadequacies, while making sure his offspring didn’t share it.

In the end, if Basil’s illiteracy represents a failure of the Byzantine educational system, by its very rarity it also brings into sharp relief how many times that same system succeeded.

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