Archive for the 'Byzantine' Category

What did a cataphract look like?

CataphractThe backbone of the Byzantine army when it dominated the Mediterranean was the feared cataphract. But what exactly- as Joseph asks- was a cataphract? The short answer is the Byzantine version of the knight on horseback. The Roman term was clibanarii which somewhat hilariously translates as ‘furnace’- probably an apt description of what it felt like to wear the armor on a sunny day.

There were three protective layers to bake in. The first (peristhethidion) was a padded leather jacket with short sleeves (a pair of greaves covered the arms) and a padded skirt faced with mail or scales to protect the legs. Over that was the klivanion, a mailed covering of the chest and shoulders, complete with a metal helmet hung with mail to cover the face (excepting the eyes). The final layer was the epilorikion, a padded cotton or thickly-stitched silk surcoat which would identify rank or unit. The poor horse- who had to carry this weight- was also covered with an iron headpiece and a thick ox-hide or laminated felt draping.

The cataphract carried a small round shield and a relatively short spear (roughly 8 feet long). In addition to this they carried two swords- one slightly curved, the other straight and double-sided. Some also carried a short bow or various kinds of maces and axes.

For the Roman empire they were never more than a small, peripheral force. The late 4th century document Notitia Dignitatum which records the administrative organization of the imperial armies mentions that there were 9 units of heavily armored knights, which means that they made up roughly 15% of the field army.

They seem to have gradually faded from use (completely vanishing by the 7th century) until their sudden emergence as the preferred troops of the terrifying emperor Nicephorus Phocas. In fact, most of what we know about them comes from the military manual that the emperor himself wrote (Praecepta Militaria) around the year 965 AD. But their renaissance proved short. Nicephorus’ (eventual) successor Basil the Bulgar-Slayer seems not to have used them, largely replacing them with his newly created Varangian Guard. After the military disaster of Manzikert in 1071, the imperial armies were largely mercenary and far less formidable. With the brief exception of the army of Manuel Comnenus, the empire never fielded a significant land force again.

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What happened to the Bulgar Slayer’s novel?

Calling all writers of historical fiction…

The other day I dusted off my copy of Colleen McCullough’s magnificent The First Man in Rome, a novel of historical fiction about Julius Caesar’s rise to power.  That got me thinking- ‘considering that it lasted for a thousand years longer, where’s the historical fiction about the Byzantine Empire?’  Currently there isn’t a lot to choose from.  The best is Harry Turtledove’s (writing under the pseudonym Turteltaub) Justinian, a fictionalized account of Justinian II’s vengeful return to power.  Turtledove, who has a PHD in Byzantine studies, certainly picked an interesting subject- the late 7th century emperor was overthrown, had his nose cut off and was exiled to a distant part of the Black Sea.  Undeterred, he started off the 8th century by having an artificial nose made of gold, escaped his captors, and snuck back into Constantinople through an unguarded Aqueduct to claim the throne again.

Aside from a young adult fiction about Anna Comnena, the only other author currently fighting the good fight is George Leonardos who in 2004 started a series about the final dynasty of Byzantium.  That’s pretty slim pickings.  So let me offer some suggestions to anyone looking for a good story to write down.

Emperor Nicephorus Phocas.  His nickname was ‘The Pale Death of the Saracens’, he made Byzantium the most powerful empire of the Mediterranean, and he won nearly every battle he fought.  And then he fell in love with a devastatingly beautiful woman who betrayed him, and he lost it all.  Modern connection: relatives of his still live in Greece where multiple streets and at least one battleship are named in his honor.

General George Maniaches.  This towering 11th century general was a throwback to the glory days of Byzantium.  He commanded an army which included the legendary Norman adventurer William Iron-Arm and the Viking beserker Harald Hardrada (who would later invade England in 1066 and bring to a close the age of Viking invasions).  The only thing he couldn’t control was his temper- when a rival seduced his wife and then got him fired, he had the man suffocated by smearing dung in his mouth, ears, and eyes; he then routed the imperial army but was killed in a fluke accident before he reached Constantinople.  His death sealed the decline of Byzantine power in Italy.  Modern connection: Sicily has several fortresses and a town named after him.

Praetorian Prefect Anthemius.  This well-connected 3rd century Consul served two playboy emperors but was the real power behind the throne.  Dedicated and hard working, he had to face the terrible Attila the Hun, and probably saved the east by deflecting him toward Rome.  Modern connection: The impressive walls he built (the so-called ‘Theodosian Land Walls’) are the most visible secular reminders of Constantinople at the height of its power, and are rightly regarded as the most impressive defensive fortifications ever built.  Though his ultimate fate is unknown, (sic transit gloria) for his efforts Anthemius has been called the ‘second founder of Constantinople’.

Princess Melissena.  Riches to Rags… to riches?  This mid-9th century princess was unbelievably well-connected, both to the hoi polloi of Byzantium and to foreign rulers like the Han Dynasty of China.  In her time she was the most eligible bachelorette on the international stage.  Unfortunately for her, it all came crashing down.  Her grandfather abdicated, her father was castrated, and she was married off to a Viking member of the imperial guard.  She travelled throughout western Europe on her way to her husband’s home, making a big impression especially in the courts of France.  Modern Connection: She is possibly the inspiration for the Starbucks logo (

The list could go on for quite some time: Anthemius the architect of the Hagia Sophia, Basil the Macedonian- the ultimate rags to riches story, Empress Theophano- the femme fatale of Nicephorus Phocas, etc.  The beauty of all of these is that they lived during the Byzantine ‘dark age’ which means it would be easy to remain faithful to the source material while having plenty of room to maneuver.  Best of all, the main story arc is already written- all you have to do is provide the details.  Anyone out there brave enough to take up the gauntlet?

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Secrets from the Stacks

Jan 03 2013 Published by under Byzantine,Emperor,Nicephorus Phocas,Stacks,Theophano

Today I happened upon a copy of the Synopsis of Histories, an 11th century chronicle by the monk John Skylitzes.  In it was the full inscription that the bishop of Melitene wrote on the sarcophagus of the great warrior-emperor Nicephorus Phocas.  (Usually only the final line is given- a reference to Phocas’ wife Theophano who betrayed him)  It’s quite a beautiful little poem, and judging from the end, was probably placed there several decades after the emperor’s grisly murder.

There is a nice symmetry to the poem.  It begins and ends with betrayal; in between it’s a kind of Byzantine Ozymandius- a wistful musing about greatness and the inevitable fate of man.  Most striking to me is when the tone changes to one of agonized pleading; begging the great emperor to either rise from the dead or make room in his grave.  It’s well worth the read.  I give it here in its entirety:

“Who once sliced men more sharply than the sword

Is the victim of a woman and a glaive.

Who once retained the whole world in his power

Now small, is housed in but a yard of earth.

Whom once it seemed by wild beasts was revered

His wife has slain as though he were a sheep.

Who chose to sleep but little in the night

Now sleeps the lasting slumber of the tomb.

A bitter sight; good ruler, rouse yourself!

Take footmen, horsemen, archers to the fight,

The regiments and units of your host

For Russians, fully armed, assail our ports,

The scythes are anxious to be slaughtering

While every people does your city harm

Who once was frightened by your graven face

Before the gates of your Byzantium.

Do not ignore these things; cast off the stone

Which now detains you here and stone the beasts,

Repel the gentiles; give us built in stone

A firm foundation, solid and secure.

Or if you would not leave your tomb a while,

At least cry out from earth against the foe

For that alone might scatter them in flight.

If not, make room for us there in your tomb

For death, as you well know, is safety and

Salvation for th’entire Christian folk,

Nicephorus, who vanquished all but Eve.”

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The Game of Names

Ryan asks what the two “halves” of the Roman Empire (German and Byzantine)- thought of each other.  The word ‘dysfunctional’ about sums it up.  Their relationship over the six and a half centuries of their co-existence was perpetually stormy: two empires (neither of which controlled Rome) arguing over who was really ‘Roman’.  Generally speaking, the Byzantines considered Charlemagne and his successors to be jumped-up barbarians, uncouth boors pretending to be something that they were clearly not.  Constantinople tried its best to pretend that the Holy Roman Empire didn’t exist, and when power politics made that impossible, they reluctantly admitted that the German monarch was an ‘emperor’ (though not a Roman one).

The Franks for their part, acted like a younger sibling.  They viewed the ‘Greeks’ as soft, effeminate, easterners, unworthy of the name ‘Roman’, but were at the same time a bit insecure and jealous of the older empire’s greater legitimacy.  They at first stopped calling themselves Roman to appease Constantinople, and even when they resumed the claim, German monarchs would occasionally cross the border in southern Italy (where the two empires touched) to seek formal recognition of their titles, and ask for marriage alliances.  This finally paid off in 972 when the Byzantine princess Theophano married the German emperor Otto II.  Their son- Otto III- was therefore a union of both crowns and was probably the best hope for a reunification of the old Roman Empire.  Unfortunately, however, he died of a fever at age 21 and the empires resumed their antagonistic stances.

There was one more brief moment of cooperation.  During the reign of the pro-western Manuel Comnenus, the German emperor Conrad III led the (disastrous) 2nd Crusade through Constantinople.  The two became close friends, with Manuel personally nursing his brother-monarch back to health after an injury suffered during the campaign.  But when they exited the scene, relations quickly soured.  The terrifying Frederick Barbarossa (Conrad’s successor) threatened to sack Constantinople and throw its emperor into prison, and several of his successors invaded Byzantine territory.

The Holy Roman Empire never succeeded in getting Constantinople to recognize it as an equal, but it did outlast it.  Though its power largely collapsed in the 13th century, the empire limped along until the 19th, finally being swept aside during the Napoleonic Wars.  Before it disappeared, however, it had one last parting shot at its (by now) long dead adversary.  In 1557, the German humanist Hieronymus Wolf published a history of the medieval Greek world.  Not wanting to refer to the impostors in Constantinople as ‘Roman’ (since the real Roman Empire was in Germany) he coined a new term for them.


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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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A bath that changed history

Craig asks if Constans II ever defeated the Arabs in pitched battle, and- if he hadn’t been killed in his bath- would he have completed the conquest of the Duchy of Benevento.

Constans II took the throne when he was 11 so the early victories of his reign- the brief reconquest of Alexandria and several naval battles- can’t really be credited to him.  But he was a quick learner and a talented general.  At the age of 21 he personally led the eastern army into Armenia and drove the Arabs out.  Five years later they were back and he repeated the feat in a quick campaign.  By this time the Arab world was in the midst of a civil war and the worried Caliph bought a treaty with the promise of 1,000 gold pieces, a horse, and a slave for each day that Byzantium kept the peace.

Constans took the breathing room to reorganize his army and consolidate the weakened provinces.  His most immediate concern was money.  The imperial army had a serious morale problem.  It showed a disturbing tendency to disintegrate in the east and revolt in the west- largely because its pay was so far in arrears.  To fix the problem Constans had to control North Africa- where most of the surplus revenue came from- and that meant moving his center of operations closer to the threatened province.  He transferred the government from Constantinople to Syracuse in Sicily and started to build up an army.

It wasn’t a popular move, but the emperor was determined.  No less than three full-blown revolts broke out- one involving virtually the entire eastern army allied with the Caliphate and marching on Constantinople- but Constans refused to budge.  Ultimately of course, this resulted in his embarrassing assassination.  But if he had avoided that fatal bath would he have conquered the Duchy of Benevento?  I don’t think so.  His primary concern was with Africa.  He attacked Benevento when he reached Italy for two reasons- to dissuade the Lombards from attacking him and to keep the surrounding Italians loyal.  He had done much the same against the Slavs in the Balkans- successfully weakening them to neutralize a threat instead of outright conquest.

The man had a sensible plan and may even have had the skills to carry it out.  (more about that here) Unfortunately, thanks to a soap dish, unfairly high taxes, and a disgruntled chamberlain, he never had the chance to carry it out.

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Are there modern Byzantines?

Aug 05 2011 Published by under Byzantine

Dogukan asks what nation (if any) can claim to be the blood descendants of Byzantium.  The obvious answer would be Greece, but the modern state draws much more of its identity from Athens than Constantinople.  In any case, though Greek was the language of Byzantium it wasn’t ‘Greek’ as we think of that term today.  The best way I’ve heard it put is that Greece is like the elder brother of Byzantium’s offspring- the Balkan countries, Georgia, Armenia, Syria and Lebanon with their ancient Christian communities, the Copts in Egypt, etc.

Byzantium was always a polygot empire so no one modern nation can really claim to be a direct descendant although many have a piece of it.  The truest scion- some would say a living remnant of the empire itself- is Mount Athos; administratively separate from modern Greece, it still keeps Byzantine time and flies the imperial flag.

In some ways it’s easier to trace individual Byzantines.  I’ve met descendants of Basil I and Isaac Angelus, and the ex-King of Greece Constantine II traces his line back to Alexius I and John Tzmisces.  Even Prince Philip of England has some Byzantines in the closet- he’s descended from Constantine XI through the latter’s niece Sophia.  But it’s not just the high and mighty.  In Greece today there are many whose names reflect their proud Byzantine origins: Xylis, Dragazis, Kedros, Lemos, Costopouloi, Dimopouloi and Stathakopouloi among many others.

I’ll end with the words of Jacques Chirac.  In 2004 Turkey applied to join the EU and the objection was made that they were clearly not European in culture, tradition or religion.   The former president of the French Republic defended the application with a curious argument.  First he pointed out that the Ottomans had maintained Byzantine traditions, and preserved imperial chancellery habits and tax-keeping methods.  Then he concluded with a verbal flourish on what it meant to be a European:

“We are all children of Byzantium.”

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What are the ‘must-see’ sites in Istanbul?

Jul 23 2011 Published by under Byzantine,Istanbul,Things to see

View through the bricked-up entrance to the Mausoleum of Alexius Comnenus

Joanna asks which sites in modern Istanbul are a ‘must see’ for Byzantine enthusiasts.  For those interested I’ve made a google map (here) of many of the sites- including those outside of Constantinople.

My quick answer is divided into two parts- the “major” ones (if you only have a day) and the “deep cuts” if you have a bit more time.

Let’s get the obvious ones out of the way first.  Any such list has to start with the Hagia Sophia (small entrance fee).  It is the triumphant masterpiece of the Byzantine world, the place where you can most vividly peel back the centuries to see Byzantium at the height of its magnificence.  Walk in through the imperial door- underneath the mosaic of Leo VI- and take as much time as you need to drink it all in. If you can see only one thing in Istanbul this is it.

The Theodosian Land Walls (free): there is a restored section where you can get a sense of what it was like in its prime and if you’re daring there are plenty of stretches for you to climb and explore.  Two gates in particular should be visited- the Golden Gate (now incorporated into the Yedikule Fortress) and the Gate of St. Romanus (Topkapi or ‘Cannon Gate’).  The latter is where the Turks breached the walls and where Emperor Constantine disappeared.

Chora Church (entrance fee): (Kariye Camii) The original structure dates back to the fifth century but it’s worth seeing for the breathtaking 14th century frescoes.  A last glimpse of artistic vibrancy in the waning days of the empire.

Column of Constantine (free): (Çemberlitaş) Known as the ‘burnt column’ in Turkish, it was the focal point of Constantinople.  Each year on the city’s ‘birthday’ (May 11) the citizens would gather here and sing hymns.  It was raised in 330 and at one time had a huge bronze statue of Constantine as Apollo on top.  The emperor buried the most holy relics from the Christian and pagan worlds beneath it- and presumably they’re still there.

Milion (free): Located near the Hagia Sophia, the Milion was originally a double triumphal arch built by Constantine the Great,  It was considered the origin point of all roads leading to European cities in the empire, and had the distances to the main cities inscribed on its base.  Nearby the Milion was the column of Justinian, the base of which was still visible in the 19th century.

Hippodrome (free): The sporting center of the Byzantine world, the Hippodrome was a witness to some of the most seminal moments in the empire’s long history. Here the citizens of Constantinople gathered to overthrow Justinian during the Nika riots, and here 30,000 of them perished when Belisarius was sent against them. Though little remains of the structure today- apart from one retaining wall- the three columns which once decorated the center of the track are still in place.  They are the Obelisk of Theodosius- with a splendid marble base, the Obelisk of Constantine VII- actually much older but sheathed in Bronze by Constantine Porphyrogenitus, and the Serpent Column- the oldest object in Constantinople, it was made from the bronze weapons of the defeated Persians who fell at the Battle of Plataea.

Mosaic Museum (entrance fee): The in situ remains of a floor mosaic from the Great Palace. Offers a unique glimpse of the empire around Justinian’s time.

Hagia Irene (inaccessible unless you know someone): The second church commissioned by Justinian, the Hagia Irene has the distinction of being one of the only churches in Constantinople that wasn’t converted to a mosque after the conquest. An earthquake heavily damaged it in the 8th century, and the great iconoclast emperor Constantine V repaired it, replacing its interior decorations with a monumental cross which can still be seen today. Seldom visited due to severe Turkish restrictions, the church remains one of the few examples of original iconoclastic art.  There is a small hole in the bottom of the entrance door that allows a glance inside.

Istanbul Archeological Museum (entrance fee):  This is well worth a trip inside (a sarcophagus of Alexander the Great and the lions from the Bucoleon Palace among other things), but the gardens outside are also a treasure trove.  Most of the sarcophagi of the Patriarchs and Emperors were evicted from the Hagia Sophia and the Church of the Holy Apostles and those that survived ended up here.  Look for the porphyry (purple) ones.

Now for the deeper cuts.

The Church of the Pammakaristos (entrance fee): (Fethiye Camii) The haunting church of the Pammakaristos was refurbished in the 13th century in celebration of the retaking of Constantinople from the Crusaders. Commissioned by the emperor Michael VIII, Pammakaristos contains the largest collection of mosaics outside of Chora and the Hagia Sophia. After the fall of the city, the Patriarch moved the seat of the Patriarchate here, but was evicted five years later when the Sultan had the church converted to a mosque. Many of the original decorations were removed or damaged at the time, but enough remains to give a glimpse of the vanished grandeur of the Byzantine world.

The Myrelaion (free): (Bodrum Camii) If you’re a fan of the Macedonian Dynasty be sure to visit Romanus Lecapenus’ “House of Myrrh”.  Intended as an imperial mausoleum for the Lecapeni and as the core of a new Great Palace it was largely abandoned when his family fell from power.  Nevertheless it inspired a new building style- the Greek cross-in-square style that most Orthodox churches are still built according to.

Aqueduct of Valens (free): This was the original water source of many of the public fountains and baths in the city, transporting water from the Belgrade forest over 120 km away.  According to legend it was built from the stones of the walls of a nearby city that had been pulled down as a punishment for revolt. Repeatedly damaged over the centuries by earthquakes, it was repaired by nearly every famous (or infamous) emperor including Justinian, Constantine V, Basil II, and Andronicus the Terrible.

Sea Walls (free): Though large swaths were destroyed by a railroad in the 19th century, the remaining portions have been turned into a pleasant park.  If you exit the city near Sts. Sergius and Baccus you can see masonry from Justinian’s Column in a small gate.  A little further is the so-called ‘House of Justinian’- a two story facade of the Bucoleon Palace.  Next to that are the remains of the city’s pharos– its lighthouse.  The vaults beneath it functioned as the main treasury of the emperors.  Follow the walls long enough and you will come the the burial church of Alexius Comnenus (see picture at top of post) built right into the walls.  No sarcophagus has ever been found- perhaps he is still there in some hidden vault.

St. Polyeuktos (free): Though now only a rather ill-maintained sprawl of ruins near a highway, St. Polyeuktos was once the largest- and most lavishly decorated- church in Constantinople. Surpassed only by the Hagia Sophia, it was modeled on Solomon’s temple, and filled with inscriptions glorifying its patron’s impressive dynastic credentials. Since she happened to be a private citizen this was seen as a direct insult to the rather low-born Justinian, and may have encouraged the emperor to build his own church on such a massive scale. Upon entering the Hagia Sophia for the first time, Justinian is said to have exclaimed “Solomon, I have surpassed you”- perhaps a veiled reference to his rivalry with St. Polyeuktos. Unfortunately the sumptuous church fell into disrepair and during the Fourth Crusade much of its decoration was plundered. Some columns ended up as far away as Spain and Vienna, but undoubtedly the most famous sculptures taken from St. Polyeuktos are the four porphyry statues of the tetrarchs now included in the masonry of St. Marks in Venice.

Monastery of the Pantocrator (small fee to gatekeeper): This monumental building- the largest built after the age of Justinian- is actually three churches combined into one. The original building was constructed by the emperor John Comnenus in the 12th century and adorned by the ‘stone of unction’- the slab of marble that the crucified Christ had been anointed on before burial. When his wife died, the emperor built an identical church nearby, then added a chapel to connect them. A library and a hospital were attached to the foundation, and it became the mortuary chapel of the Comneni dynasty.  After the fourth Crusade it was used as a palace by the last Latin Emperor Baldwin II.  Partly ruined today, it can be entered with a small tip to the doorkeeper who usually hovers nearby. This is one of the overlooked masterpieces of the Byzantine world. On the walls are traces of the original decoration- which must have been truly splendid- and on the floor is the marble tombstone of emperor John II Comnenus.

St. John of Stoudios (usually inaccessible): The Studium was the most important monastery of Constantinople, and could claim no less than three emperors among its ranks. Although the monastery has been abandoned for more than half a millennium, several hymns composed there are still in use today in the Orthodox church, and its monastic rule is still used by the monks of Mt. Athos in Greece.

Blachernae Palace (free): Like the older Great Palace, Blachernae was a complex of buildings. Originally the site of a holy spring- and several churches built by Justinian- the last imperial dynasty chose it as the site for their official residence after the fourth Crusade. Unfortunately most of the buildings didn’t survive the fall of the city, but there are still the remains of some dungeons and a few subterranean vaults to be seen.  Don’t miss the nearby Palace of the Porphyrogenitus– the finest surviving example of secular Byzantine architecture.  Part of the grounds are now used to park tour buses, but the building still boasts fine marble decorations, and a faint wisp of grandeur.

There are many, many more Byzantine things to see- and the only fee most require is a spirit of adventure.  But this post is long enough and has been said elsewhere, the joy of Byzantium is in the discovery.

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Why did Justinian close the Platonic Academy?

Jul 12 2011 Published by under Byzantine,Justinian,Plato,Platonic Academy

The closing down of the schools in Athens is often held up as the symbolic moment when  the traditions of the classical world finally ended.  It’s usually portrayed as the triumph of Christian intolerance over the cool-headed spirit of antiquity,  a rising tide of anti-intellectualism that snuffed out the last vestiges of the Greco-Roman tradition.  The leading actor in the saga- Justinian- is revealed to be a zealot and a boor, all too typical of the unfolding medieval age.

Unfortunately for Gibbon (and others who hold this view), it doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny.  The idea of the Church being anti-intellectual is silly enough (if you enjoy reading Aristotle, Homer, or the other pagan authors of antiquity you can thank your local Byzantine monk)  As for Justinian, by the standards of the day he wasn’t particularly fanatical- quite the opposite.  He married a heretic (Theodora was Monophysite), and employed pagans- the most famous being John the Cappadocian.  There were the standard edicts ‘forbidding’ paganism but the emperor was blatantly violating that himself and there is no evidence that they were strictly enforced elsewhere.  Athens’ most famous landmark- the Parthenon- was probably still a pagan temple for the duration of Justinian’s reign.

So if he didn’t have an axe to grind against paganism why did Justinian close the Academy in 529?

Competition.  He had just founded a new University in Constantinople  which was directly under imperial control, and this was a convenient way to get rid of a rival.  He did the same thing to the main competitor of his new law school.  When an earthquake hit the renowned university of Beirut in 551 he took the opportunity to close it down (officially it was ‘moved’ but it never recovered) while transferring its most distinguished faculty to the capital.

Ruthless? Yes.  Anti-intellectual religious fanaticism? Not quite.

8 responses so far

Did the Byzantines consider themselves Greek?

Mar 07 2011 Published by under Byzantine,Greek

Rob points out that Edward Gibbon referred to the Byzantines as ‘Greeks’ and asks if they saw themselves as Greek.

Belonging to Byzantium was never really a matter of blood.  It was a ‘commonwealth’, a racially mixed group of what we would today call Slavs, Bulgarians, Serbs, Greeks, Thracians, etc. Greek wasn’t the only language spoken though it was by far the dominant one.

But they certainly didn’t see themselves as Greek- at least not as we use the word today.  ‘Hellene’ had a pagan connotation- they called themselves Romanoi- which meant ‘Roman’ of course, but in a broader sense ‘civilized’.  In other words, someone who had a classical education, dipped their bread in oil, and crossed themselves from right to left.  National identities are very much a modern notion.  Moving outward, most ancient and medieval people would have considered themselves belonging to a family, then a village or town, and then possibly a region.  Beyond that there would probably be a dim view of ‘Christendom’, but certainly not a sense of being ‘a German’ or a ‘Spaniard.  A ‘Byzantine’ would have divided the world into two basic parts- those who had civilization (Romans) and those who didn’t (barbarians).  It was not necessarily a haughty thing- the Persians were viewed as refined, worthy adversaries.  But they were not ‘right-thinking’- in other words they didn’t acknowledge the true emperor (ruler of the civilized world) or the true religion (Orthodoxy).  They were therefore ‘barbarians’ no matter how impressive their society was.

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