Archive for July, 2012

How hard was it to see a Byzantine emperor in person?

Jul 17 2012 Published by under Bureaucracy,Byzantine,Emperor,Protocol

Almost impossible.  The emperors were removed from the masses both as a security measure and a means to emphasize their distinct and sacred nature.  For the select few, however, it was possible.  The emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913-59) left us a detailed description of protocol called the De Cerimoniis.  From it- and from the writings of the visiting diplomat Liutprand of Cremona- we can piece together a “normal” visit to Constantinople’s throne room.

Liutprand was of very important rank (though not quite so high as he thought) and so was seen rather quickly.  He arrived in a pouring rainstorm and only had to wait several hours outside the Chalke- the massive bronze entrance gate to the Great Palace complex- before being admitted.  He was quartered in a large mansion (he complains that it was too drafty) and was left there for six days before being summoned.  He met with the imperial chancellor- in this case the emperor’s brother- who instructed him how to address the emperor, where to stand, and when to kneel, etc.  A day later he was led by two eunuchs into the Chrysotriklinos- a palace containing the main throne room.  As he approached, the famous mechanical birds and golden lions began to sing and roar- a psychological maneuver calculated to awe the unsuspecting diplomat.  But Liutprand had been informed of this part of the spectacle and cooly knelt before the emperor without betraying any surprise.  After the customary three bows he looked up and was stunned to find that the emperor’s throne had risen up to the ceiling and its occupant was now wearing a completely different set of robes.

The emperor then addressed Liutprand at length after which he was allowed to deliver his message.  Liutprand and his entire party was then invited to a banquet.  This was in effect the closing ceremonies where you could gauge how highly you were in the emperor’s favor by how physically near to him you were positioned.  Liutprand as usual was offended- he complained that he was 15 tables away and without such basics as a tablecloth.  The meal itself, however, was a true spectacle.  The golden dining room was lit by great chandeliers, glittering imperial regalia, and relics from various churches scattered throughout the room.  Music was provided by the choirs of the Hagia Sophia and the Holy Apostles, accompanied by music from two silver and golden organs.

Liutprand’s only comment about all of this?  The food was too oily.

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