Sailing towards the real Byzantium

Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204

July 2, 1999

Byzantium is still a byword for court ceremonial and presumed intrigue, though why we should think there was more intrigue in Byzantium than in other medieval, or even modern, states is not entirely clear.

Perhaps it has to do with the idea of the vast, sprawling imperial palace whose foundations lie under busy, modern Istanbul. We have known about it in theory from the extraordinarily detailed protocols laid down in the tenth-century Book of Ceremonies . Now, Henry Maguire has edited a splendid volume of essays on the court culture of the great palace in its heyday, before the sack of Constantinople in the Fourth Crusade in 1204.

The great palace of the Middle Byzantine Empire was a byword among westerners for its magnificence - and a throne that went up and down. There is rich information in these essays on this technology (James Trilling), costume (Elisabeth Piltz) and the use of relics and icons (Ioli Kalavrezou, Annemarie Weyl Carr).

The palace was actually a huge complex, containing many churches and chapels. One - the chapel of the Mother of God of Pharos - became the repository for the cross on which Christ was crucified, the crown of thorns, the nails, the sponge and the lance. Tenth-century emperors added to this collection such treasures as the Mandylion of the Holy Face of Edessa and the arm of John the Baptist.

Anthony of Novgorod described the contents of the Pharos chapel in the 12th century. A 12th-century icon in the Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow depicts them. But under the Comnenian emperors (1081-1204) the imperial residence moved to the fortified Blachernae palace on the north-east edge of the city and the treasures of the Pharos chapel, and more, were carried off by the Crusaders.

Most of what we know has to be constructed from surviving written accounts, for the great palace no longer stands and its contents are lost. With them went the state archives that were kept there (the sack of Constantinople by Mehmet II's troops in 1453 removed the rest). For historians that was a tragedy and has led to Byzantium seeming to be more a theocracy than it actually was, in that monastic archives now provide our main documentary sources.

Nevertheless, two of the essays, the first by Paul Magdalino and the second by the late Alexander Kazhdan and Michael McCormick, raise questions about the nature of court and bureaucracy in Byzantium. Despite appearances, this was no Versailles, with landed aristocrats turned into courtiers attending the king.

The word "court" comes from the West, as Kazhdan and McCormick point out. They and Magdalino observe that the Byzantines did not write about the concept - or thought it so obvious that they did not need to. Kazhdan and McCormick estimate that the men attending the court in various capacities may have numbered about 2,000 (their wives had roles, too). It is not easy to distinguish between the court and the ruling class, although we know about titles and precedence and we even have the emperor's official invitation lists for great occasions (about 2,500 persons would receive invitations during the busy period between Christmas and Epiphany).

But the court was more open than one might imagine and its composition might change drastically with successive dynasties. Offices and titles changed, too, as Nicholas Oikonomides shows in an essay tracing the complex interrelations between dignity, office, salary and wealth.

The 12th century also saw an increasing western influence on aristocratic society. Byzantium may have been bureaucratic, but having the heavenly court as its professed model in no way implied that the earthly court remained static.

Probably correctly, the editor has not tried to pull the essays together into an overall conclusion. But their most original contribution lies in the hints they provide as to how this much misunderstood society worked. Plenty of black-and-white illustrations make this a handsome book.

Averil Cameron is warden, Keble College, Oxford.

Byzantine Court Culture from 829 to 1204

Editor - Henry Maguire
ISBN - 0 88402 242 0
Publisher - Harvard University Press
Price - £39.95
Pages - 264

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