Lars Brownworth answers your questions from the 12 Byzantine Rulers, Lost to the West and Norman Centuries projects.

Who invented the Themes?

Dec 01 2011

Craig asks which emperor developed the Theme System.

This is one of the most disputed topics in Byzantine history.  The word ‘theme’ was originally used to describe an army unit and only later became a political subdivision, so it’s very difficult to distinguish which of the two the sources are referring to.  Just to make things more confusing, the word “Theme” at first referred to military rolls, and the first Themes took the name of the army corps stationed there.  It’s nearly impossible to say exactly when the name of a division became the name of an area. The one thing that everyone agrees on is that it happened during the Heraclid Dynasty, but the exact emperor is unknown.  Generally Heraclius is credited (as part of his reorganization of the empire), but his son and grandson (Constantine III and Constans II) are also possibilities.  One theory even has it that the last member of the family- the disastrous Justinian II- came up with it.

The primary sources seem to favor Heraclius.  Theophanes the Confessor (8/9th C) mentions Heraclius arriving ‘in the land of the themes’, but this might be an example of attributing present day conditions to the past- like a Renaissance painting of a mythological scene that has everyone dressed in 15th Century clothes.  The 10th Century emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus wrote a book On Themes where he says that the Themes were ‘since the time of Heraclius the Libyan (African)’.  So who developed the Theme system?  This time I think common knowledge has it right.  Probably (I follow professor Angeliki Laiou here) the first Themes were instituted by Herakleios and the full development of the system took time to mature.

2 responses so far

Why isn’t Greece Islamic today?

Nov 07 2011

Jeremy asks why (considering the dominance of the Ottoman Empire after the fall of Constantinople) Greece isn’t Islamic today.

First and foremost Greek culture was much more deeply rooted than the Ottoman one since it predates even Islam by more than a millennium.  There were those who adopted the prevailing faith and culture, but they were always a minority.  Perhaps given enough time ‘Greekness’ would have been drowned out but it would have taken much longer than five centuries.  For example, Constantinople- the capital of the Ottoman Empire- had a significant Greek populace and character until the population exchange of the 1920’s.  The same is true for many coastal areas in modern Turkey.  They remained Greek Christian enclaves until the exchanges of the twentieth century.

A second reason is that much of the Ottoman energy and vitality had been expended by the time the Greek heartland was taken.  For a century it appeared as if the Ottomans couldn’t be stopped, but when Suleiman the Magnificent besieged Vienna in 1532, his failure to take it marked the beginning of a 400 year decline.  The Ottoman Empire became a bloated, weak figure- christened the ‘sick man of Europe’ by the Russian Tsar.  (You know you have problems when you get a derisive nickname from Europe’s most corrupt monarch whose own empire is about to collapse)  At the same time there was a growing European appreciation of all things Greek which fueled a new wave of patriotism.  Since the ‘re-discovery’ of antiquity during the Renaissance there was a steady stream of pan-Hellenic feeling – best exemplified by Lord Byron who wrote and fought for the Greeks during the war for Independence.  If there was any question of Islamic or Ottoman culture supplanting the Hellenic one it had vanished by this point.

5 responses so far

A bath that changed history

Sep 26 2011

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

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.”

15 responses so far

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

Jul 23 2011

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.

11 responses so far

Why did Justinian close the Platonic Academy?

Jul 12 2011

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

Was Leo III’s reign good or bad for Byzantium?

Jun 25 2011

Jack asks if Leo III was beneficial or detrimental to the Byzantine Empire.

If you ask five historians this question you may very well get five different answers- Leo is a complicated figure.  I’ve changed my mind about him several times, but have gradually come to feel that he was a beneficial ruler.  Here’s why.

Leo was born in Syria (but grew up on the Black Sea Coast of Bulgaria) and cut his teeth on the eastern frontier.  This gave him a knowledge of the Arab mind that stood him in good stead when he became emperor.  When he arrived in Constantinople in 717 Byzantium was in a terrible predicament.  Heraclius’ dynasty had petered out with the bloody Justinian II, the Arabs were already on their way with a massive fleet and land army to exterminate the empire, and the current occupant of the throne (Theodosius III) was an overwhelmed tax collector who had been crowned against his will.  (When Leo arrived, Theodosius was more than happy abdicate and become the bishop of Ephesus)  A month after Leo’s coronation a gigantic Muslim army was pounding at the gates.  Things looked bleak but Leo somehow kept up morale and outmaneuvered the Arabs at every turn.  Within months they were suffering from inadequate sanitation and freezing temperatures.  After they were appropriately demoralized Leo sent in the fireships against the enemy navy and- in what is surely one of the most brilliant unsung victories in history- managed to bamboozle the Bulgarians into attacking the Arab army for him.  Less than half of the Muslim infantry made it home and the grand fleet lost all but 5 ships.  Had there been a less capable man on the throne (Theodosius III for instance), Constantinople probably would have fallen in the eighth century and Islam would have had a free run at an undeveloped and divided Europe.

That’s the part of the legacy that most can agree is positive.  Offsetting that is Iconoclasm.  In 726 Leo came to the conclusion that the Byzantine love of icons had strayed into idolatry and he ordered the city’s most prominent icon to be torn down.  That unleashed two centuries or so of controversy that was among the most destructive in the empire’s history.

So why conclude that his reign was on balance beneficial?

Because I think it’s unfair to blame Leo for everything that came after him.  And by the true iconoclast’s standards, it’s doubtful that he was really even one of them.  The use of icons had gone overboard- they stood in for godparents at baptisms and most people agreed that it could stand to be ratcheted down a notch or two.  There was also a popular belief that Arab victories in Asia (and the terrible earthquake of 726) were due to divine displeasure over idolatry.  Leo gave a sermon in the Hagia Sophia to that effect and it was greeted with rousing applause.  I don’t think he ever intended to say that icons were inherently bad- he promulgated a revision to the law code in 726 that didn’t even mention them- and contemporary Muslim and Armenian sources don’t number him among the iconoclasts.

His most controversial action was to rip down the famous icon above the imperial palace, but this can be explained in two ways.  First, just before the Arab army had been routed the Patriarch had processed around the city walls bearing an icon of Mary and the subsequent victory was credited to divine intervention.  Leo’s own efforts were downplayed and it’s quite possible that he was a tad peeved.  Secondly (and more importantly), he replaced the icon with a simple cross and the inscription “I drive out the enemies and kill the barbarians.”  I think this was an attempt to resurrect the cross as a victorious symbol.  Leo’s main argument was always that the Arabs were winning because the Byzantines had abandoned their true faith.  What better way to get back to basics than by fighting under the same symbol that had led Constantine and Heraclius to such incredible victories?  This was not so much a strike against the idea of icons as it was a re-branding.  There is no evidence to suggest he ever persecuted those who disagreed with him on the issue, and in fact he (ironically) tried to promote religious unity his entire reign.  He was always a moderate and for most of his reign he had popular opinion on his side- hardly the divisive figure later writers tried to make him.  His son Constantine V, on the other hand, took the whole thing to an extreme.  He really did have a theological axe to grind against icons and suppressed them with a single-minded fervor that crossed into obsession.

It’s been all too easy for most historians to throw Leo under the bus as the guy who started all the trouble.  Somehow it seems a bit ungrateful to blame him for his successors’ fanaticism…

2 responses so far

What was Byzantine Athens like?

Jun 15 2011

Justin asks how Athens fared during the Byzantine period.

To put it bluntly, Constantinople’s gain was every other prestigious city’s loss.  Constantine and his immediate successors looted Athens of much of its impressive works of art, including the famous statue of Athena that graced the Parthenon.  This, combined with an exodus of talent (the action was clearly in Constantinople) reduced the city to a shell of itself.  The deathblow, however, was Justinian’s closing of the Academy which ended its one remaining attraction as a university town.  In 580 invading Slavs burned the lower city and (in a demonstration of how little importance was now attached to the place) it took the empire a decade to rebuild.

It was probably around this time that the Parthenon was converted into a church.  Roman emperors had started making pronouncements in the 4th century to convert all pagan buildings to Christian ones, but these edicts had been largely ignored in the backwater parts of the empire.  And Athens was by now a true backwater.  Its economy was almost purely agricultural with one or two ‘aristocratic‘ families hanging on, and for the next two centuries it was a sad, little village huddled around the Acropolis.  The low point was the early 7th century when Heraclius reorganized the empire along military lines.  Needing a capital for the province of Greece (Hellas), he bypassed Athens completely and chose Thebes- a move which would have appalled any ancient Greek who fought at the battle of Plataea.

But the 7th century also saw the city’s fortunes begin to recover.  A sign of this was that fact that Heraclius’ grandson Constans II (who knew his Herodotus) spent the winter of 662 there on his way to Sicily.  He was on the search for a new capital- the last Roman emperor to seriously consider moving back into the west.  (He was attracted by the virtual impregnability of the walled Acropolis)  There were also emerging signs of intellectual life.  Theodore of Tarsus (who would be Archbishop of Canterbury from 669-690) studied there, and Athens became a haven for monks fleeing Iconoclastic persecution (thanks to the availability of caves in nearby Mt. Penteli).  The late 8th and early 9th centuries saw two Athenian women (Irene and Theophano) become empresses- with one (Irene) even ruling as emperor.

By the end of the 9th century the population had expanded enough to make Athens a true city again.  The local bishop was promoted to Metropolitan, and the city was finally made the seat of the Theme (province) of Hellas.  (You can see a vestige of this period on the Acropolis today- one of the columns of the Parthenon has a carving recording the death of the strategos (governor) Leo in 848)  The next three centuries saw a sustained period of growth- the ‘golden age’ of Byzantine Athens.  A tzykanion field was installed (an aristocratic game related to polo), and Athenian merchants grew wealthy selling purple dye and soaps.  In 1018 Basil the Bulgar-Slayer visited specifically to visit the Parthenon church.  His presence (he may have cleared the ruins of the nearby Daphne monastery and begun to build the magnificent dome visible today) kicked off a rash of church building- most of the surviving Byzantine buildings (Church of the Holy Apostles in the Agora, Panaghia Kapnikarea, etc) date from this period.

The new wealth and prestige (and general isolation from the troubles besetting the rest of the empire) led to feelings of independence.  They rose against the central government of Michael IV in the 11th century and were brutally suppressed by an imperial army led by the Norse adventurer Harald Hardrada.  The city physically recovered quickly (a 12th century Arab traveler reported that it was well populated and surrounded by rich country), but couldn’t escape the wider Byzantine decline.  Roger II of Sicily sacked it in 1147, and the new governor sent in 1182 complained that it was filled with ‘uncivilized hordes whose boorish accents took 3 years to learn’.  In 1204 came the ultimate humiliation when it was seized by crusaders.  For the next 250 years it was ruled successively by the French, Catalans, and Florentines.  The Athenians referred to the period of French and Catalan domination as the ‘ultimate slavery’ and things got so bad that Greek had to be reintroduced in 1387.  The Byzantines never regained control.

As for the Parthenon, it weathered the ages gracefully.  The large statue of Athena was probably removed to Constantinople in the third century where it was set up in one of the public squares.  In 360 it was restored by Julian the Apostate in his quest to revive paganism and probably remained a temple for some time after Theodosius’ decree of 379 which made Christianity the sole legal religion of the empire.  As a church, the Parthenon attracted both famous pilgrims and the donation of relics.  Outside of Constantinople, it probably had the most impressive collection in the empire. (including a painting of Mary done by St. Luke which gave the church its name, and a copy of the gospels written on vellum by St. Helena)  The 13th century Italian sightseer Niccolo da Martoni left a breathless description- the magnificent marble carvings, glittering mosaics, massive columns, and the seemingly endless reliquaries.  He also repeats a story (smacking of that time honored tradition of local guide yarns) about the doors being made of the wood from the gates of Troy.

Interestingly enough, the Parthenon was a church for longer than it was a pagan temple, since it survived as such until the Turkish occupation of Athens in 1456.  As for the famous statue of Athena, that lasted almost as long.  It stood in Constantinople for almost a thousand years until 1204.  As the crusading army gathered outside the walls a superstitious mob converged on the square where it was kept.  Since the statue happened to be facing the West it was blamed for attracting these western barbarians and destroyed.

That of course, was only the beginning of the destruction.

4 responses so far

How did Byzantine fashion change over time?

Apr 15 2011

Julian the Apostate and Constantine XI

Ryan asks how Byzantine fashion changed over time.

In the first few centuries after Constantine, the Byzantines held true to their roots, dressing in the standard Roman toga.  But by the time of Justinian that venerable cloth was reduced to ceremonial occasions.  Most Byzantines preferred more simple, flowing clothes like the tunic that the ancient Romans had worn under their togas.  For the poor, this held true for virtually the entire span of the empire.

servants carrying a noblewoman

The clothes servants are shown in during the 10th century could easily be the ones their ancestors were wearing eight centuries before.    The wealthy, however, could show a good deal more variety.    Over their tunics the fashionable would wear a ‘dalmatica’- a heavier, more ornate cloth often tapering to a point. Justinian’s is a royal purple color, clasped at the shoulder with a heavy pendant. Half a millennium later, the emperor Leo the Wise was depicted wearing something very similar and clasped at the same shoulder. (This was originally a military convention that left the right arm free for easy access to the sword)


Leo the Wise








The toga did survive, but in heavily modified form. The imperial loros was an ornamental, stylized version that would be worn around the neck of an emperor and folded over his arm. Here Romanus III is shown wearing it in the 11th century.

While not attending to state functions, emperors tended to dress in ‘simple’ tunics.  Here Basil the Macedonian meets his son Leo VI on the fateful hunting trip that would result in the former’s death.

Emperor Basil greets his son Leo

Even their shoes are relatively simple- the only distinction being their scarlet color which was reserved for the reigning emperors.  Footwear in general was in the sensible Roman style of straps over a thick leather sole.  (My high school self would also like to point out that the Ravenna mosaics show them wearing white socks with their sandals)

I was in good company

Throughout their history, the Byzantines tended to be more conservative with hemlines than their ancestors.  They wore layers of clothes, sleeves went to wrists, and garments usually went to the ankles.  Even the poor, who couldn’t afford (or want to get tangled in) robes that reached the floor, would wear leggings under their tunics.

But in other ways, the Byzantines were much more expressive.  Where the Romans had preferred simple white robes, the Byzantines were fascinated by patterns and incorporated them into virtually all their clothing.  Utilizing a special form of silk called ‘samite’ or occasionally gold fibers, they embroidered tunics, dalmaticas, and even leggings and boots.  Trade with the East brought in exotic colors and ornamentation- along with new styles to add to the mix.  The nobility in particular got increasingly flamboyant toward the end- here is a 14th century merchant named Theodore Metochites proudly displaying the cutting edge of fashionable head wear.

A century later the emperor John VIII brought the then current version on his tour of early Renaissance Italy.

This was not what Western Europe expected Roman Emperors to look like, and such exotic dress made it that much easier to believe that they were never Roman to begin with.  A mere hundred years after the imperial visit a German historian coined the term ‘Byzantine’ to highlight their ‘non-Romaness’.  With that- as far as many westerners were concerned- the Eastern Romans were effectively cut out of history.

3 responses so far

Were there two Roman Senates at the same time?

Mar 25 2011

Chris asks if the Roman Senate moved with the capital to Constantinople.

Constantine wanted his city to copy Rome in nearly every respect.  Rome had 7 hills so Constantinople would too- even if it took some creative counting to reach seven on the Bosporus.  He naturally intended for a Senate as well- not to replace the Roman one but to mirror it.  But despite Constantine’s best effort, Constantinople’s version of the Senate was much less respected and originally functioned as a kind of city magistrate.  As the importance of the city grew so did its Senate’s prestige.

Although power shifted decisively east in the 4th and 5th centuries, the two bodies- Roman and Constantinopolitan- existed side by side for a surprisingly long time.  In the West the Senate outlasted the empire by several centuries.  They continued to meet and pass legislation (mostly pertaining to city affairs) after the last emperor was put out to pasture in 476.  Theodoric consulted them when he took possession of the city and Justinian officially restored some of their ancient privileges in the sixth century.  There are records of them acclaiming eastern emperors until the seventh century and although they probably stopped meeting as a group sometime after that, senatorial families were still powerful in Medieval Italy.  (The Orsini family for example claimed to be descended from the Julio-Claudians- a member of their clan was raised to the papal throne as late as the 18th century)

In the East, the Senate remained as a functioning body until the 13th century.  Their last recorded act was raising the unfortunate Nicholaus Kanabus as emperor during the 4th Crusade.  Their power had been declining for centuries (as detailed here) and their titles were empty, but there were Senators defending Constantinople’s walls on the morning of May 29, 1453.

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