Category Archives: Byzantium

Leeds 2013 report part 4 and final

I probably stayed at the dance of the International-Medieval-Congress-before-last longer than I should have done given that I was presenting the next day, but nonetheless I was on time, just, to my own session, and in practice it would have upset few enough people if I had been late, as there were only four people in the audience!

1525. Expressions of Ecclesiastic Authority: from priests to popes

The lessons here, I suppose, apart from the obvious “hope not to be scheduled the morning after the dance“, are to aim to be part of a session, not just to fling a paper title at the organisers as I had done (and as I am avoiding doing next year: had you seen the Call for Papers? I’d be happy to have some more submissions…). All the same, I’d spent quite a lot of the conference in a funk about leaving the profession, although I had during it in fact been offered my next job had I but known this, and this morning audience did not, shall we say, help me with feeling as if my work had value, as didn’t my knowing that because of Montserrat’s e-mail silence I didn’t have the facts I really needed to make it work. Nonetheless, I gave it my best, and I think that certainly the other two papers were very interesting in their own ways. The trouble was rather that there was no single way in which all three were on someone’s wavelength…

  • Jonathan Jarrett, “The Priests of Montpeità: Competing Ecclesiastical Interests at the 10th-Century Catalan Frontier”
  • Patricia Dalcanale Meneses, “‘Roman Gothic': Giuliano della Rovere in Avignon”
  • David Kennett, “Trouble Finding Bishops: the episcopal crises of Henry VII”
  • My morning offering was, as you can see, the second part of the Manresa project. Having in my previous paper on this (seen, of course, by none of the same people but hey) tried to set apart the monastic clergy of Sant Benet de Bages from their dense recording of parts of the territory of the city of Manresa in the tenth century, I now tried to see past them to the wider priesthood, concentrating in particular on one of the most densely-documented parts of the record there, a place that is now a basically empty hillside called Montpeità. Having first taken the twenty most frequently-appearing people and shown that they were surprisingly free of direct associations with the monastery, I demonstrated the intermittent monk problem then tried the same trick with the clergy, and yeah, the top three are monastics, one of them being the place’s advocate but never actually dealing with it direct (a sign how little weight this kind of work can bear) but numbers 4-10 of the top 10 are just the actual local priests as far as I can see, albeit that one of them was apparently quite senior at the era of the monastery’s foundation and wrote their foundation and endowment documents (the latter seen below, with his distinctive spelling of his name and signature in capitals). So it does kind of work, there is a possibility of getting at the local clerical distribution through this sample despite the weight of the monastery. But it wasn’t what you could call a finished set of findings.

    The act of endowment of Sant Benet de Bages

    The act of endowment of Sant Benet de Bages, not in great shape alas, but signed at bottom left by SUNIÆRUS. Slightly larger version linked through, but even at the biggest size I have this is still basically no longer legible

    As for the other two speakers, Dr Dalcanale showed us how the man who would become Pope Julius II had, by the time he did, architecturally implanted himself all over the centre of Avignon so that even before his election one could hardly avoid seeing his works, which were furthermore strongly French Gothic in style, rather than the Romanising architecture he might have adopted. Then Mr Kennett looked at the accusations often levelled at King Henry VII of England that he kept bishoprics open for longer than other kings (thus profiting from their revenues). According to Mr Kennett, while there is a statistical justice in this it can be mostly explained by the fact that as Henry took the throne almost all of his bishops were seventy years old or more, and that very rapidly they died: he had 14 new vacancies over the period 1502 to 1505, and it understandably took him time to find competent candidates for so many sees, especially given the kind of hierarchy of importance and income they seem to have had which meant that only some of them could honourably be used as entry-level positions. This was interesting, as was Dr Dalcanale’s paper, but you can see what I mean when I say that there was very little that joined all three of us together in era, geography or focus…

I did get what looked as if it might be a useful contact for the Montserrat problem out of this, though, so I left in a better humour than I’d entered. (Ironically, firstly the contact has been unable to help, and secondly they found me independently though here a few months later anyway! But I wasn’t to know that then.) It was good to have finally done my turn, anyway, and the rest of the day was much more fun for me.

1602. ‘Defended Communities': fortified settlements of the 8th-10th centuries – origins, forms and functions, II

  • Rossina Kostova, “The Western Black Sea Coast: how and how much was it defended?”
  • Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer, Montserrat Rocafiguera & Maria Ocaña-Subirana, “The Southern Carolingian Frontier along the River Ter: ‘Roda Civitas’ identified in the archaeological site of l’Esquerda (Catalonia)”
  • This thread was ill-favoured by its position on the last day, as all the sessions I could make were really interesting but people kept leaving during them. This session here had even lost one of the planned speakers, but to me this mattered not at all because what it meant was that the small-scale Catalan invasion got to take up far more of the session than it otherwise would have been allowed. (You may have recognised some of the names…) But before that happened, Dr Kostova gave us an interesting summary of the medieval fortress archæology along the Bulgarian coast of the Black Sea. She saw a division at the Danube, south of which the Byzantines kept forts active in some places, planted settlements when they could and generally kept the space full, and which the Bulgars subsequently blocked up with earth dykes to prevent easy movement of armies; the Byzantines recapture of this zone during the eleventh and twelfth centuries didn’t change that much but they did make a good attempt to hold the Danube. North of the Danube, however, whether Byzantine or Bulgar (or, briefly, Avar) there was much less investment except at a few notable coastal centres. What this seemed to show to the audience was that whoever held that territory, they could usually mobilise a good deal of labour: the Bulgarian dyke system extends for 120 km in some of its lengths! But though the how is impressive, the why of all of this would also be informative if we could get closer to figuring it out.

    Aerial view of l'Esquerda

    Aerial view of l’Esquerda

    Then, however, came a site dear to my work, good old l’Esquerda, being presented in the UK for the first time in a long time, and with much done since then.1 The site has a very long chronology, late Bronze Age to twelfth century, so Dr Rocafiguera took us through the background, which included one more big square Iberian tower than they thought they had when I was last there, possible Punic War defences that became the gateways of a Roman village. They now also have a hitherto unsuspected Visigothic phase, however, dating evidence including a radio-carbon date centering around 614, and it comprises a thoroughgoing refortification period with a huge new wall slighting the older defences. Within it, however, the excavated area seems to have been turned over to silos that eventually became rubbish pits and cut through each other, with burials going on in the area of the walls. A village was presumably there somewhere but as of the 2012 season they hadn’t yet found it. It was this somewhat dilapidated complex, anyway, rather than a half-functional Iberian fortress-town, that the Carolingians inherited and refurbished, then.2 There was obviously enough for the Carolingian forces to reuse.

    The newly-discovered wall of l'Esquerda exposed in the 2012 excavations

    The newly-discovered wall exposed in the 2012 excavations

    The star find in all this, however, was a silver denier of Louis the Pious that came from the Carolingian destruction layers, whose deposition we can thus reasonably date to 826 or very narrowly before, an unusually close chronology. Coins are just vanishingly rare finds in Catalonia anyway, so they were understandably excited, but the find also helps remove any doubt (if there were any) that this is the Roda mentioned as destroyed in the rebellion of Aizó in the Royal Frankish Annals.3 That’s great, because pinning textually-attested events to archæology so closely hardly ever happens, but now we have quite a lot more questions about what on earth the Visigothic-period site was for and who was using it…

All of that gave me quite an appetite for lunch, once I managed to stop talking Catalonia. But I was clear which strand I needed to be in for what remained of the conference now! First, however, came lunch with friends and also some unexpected neighbours…

Hawks and owls at the 2013 International Medieval Congress

Hawks and owls peacefully waiting for showtime

I didn’t get to see the actual show, however, because I had more fortresses to go and hear about!

‘Defended Communities': Fortified Settlements of the 8th-10th Centuries – Origins, Forms, and Functions, III

  • Juan Antonio Quirós Castillo, “Early Medieval ‘Incastellamento’ in the North of Iberia”
  • Alessandra Molinari, “Rural Landscapes of Sicily between Byzantines and Muslims (7th-11th c.)”
  • Neil Christie, “Creating Defended Communities in late Saxon Wessex”
  • Yes, that’s right, every single session I went to this day had something about Spain in it and I only had to supply one of them! (This was not least because I’d suggested a bunch of Spanish castellologists to Hajnalka Herold when she was setting the sessions up and they apparently proved agreeable, but hey, you do what you have to.) Nonetheless, and despite his prodigious output, much of it internationally aimed, this was the first time I’d actually seen and met Professor Quirós. He was here to tell us of a sea-change, however, in which Pierre Toubert’s model of castles as the social centres that drive everything because of élite demand have been shunted out in the archaeolography (if there can be such a word) of northern Iberia in favour of villages being the key, and castles being basically defence apparatus, more symbols of power than agents of it.4

    Castillo d'Arganzón

    The Castillo d’Arganzón, another of those Professor Quirós has been digging

    That fits what I see in Catalonia quite well, but it is also something much more likely to come up in archæology because the units the newest digs, his type site here being a place called Treviño, are showing up are effectively self-contained, so would not show up in transactions. I’m less sure about that argument or whether any such places exist outside mountain Navarre, but I suppose that the Catalan archæologists would probably brandish Roc d’Enclar at me and they’d probably have a point.5 From the survey Professor Quirós’s team have, in any case, early medieval castles in Navarra and the Basque Country seem to have been exterior to settlements, churches were more integral and a late antique precedent is also often common; it’s only in the twelfth century that the picture of a castle as the obvious tool of social domination begins to stick, which means that such incastallamento as was being carried out was being done from existing, centralised, sites. That paradigm was already struggling, but this doesn’t do it much good…6

    Meanwhile, in Sicily, wouldn’t you know, it’s the tenth century that turns out to be crucial; Dr Molinari painted us a picture of a society where late antique settlement organisation went on till quite late, and while it began to be dotted with Byzantine fortresses in the face of the Muslim invasion in the ninth century, it’s only in the tenth that peasant settlement moves up to the hills. What is missing from the picture so far is much sign of Islamic fortification; the Byzantine state here seems to have been attenuated enough that it just withered back in the face of opposition. And lastly, Neil Christie, co-organiser of the sessions, took us through the now-appreciated variety of the Anglo-Saxon burghal system of fortresses against the Vikings and added to it a perspective that many of the other papers had also adopted, that control of territory may not have been as important for their location as control of routeways (including waterways).7 This interests me because, as I hope to show soon, it just doesn’t work in Catalonia (except maybe the waterways, but the Ter is no quick way to get anywhere, especially upstream). The other factor that came up again here was the workforce needed to get these sites up, which was not just a matter of a quick bit of earth-moving but often demolition, clearance, and then quite heavy building for all that stone was not usually involved. Of course, Asser tells us about how this was resented, but it was good to have the Anglo-Saxon sites brought into the same dialogue as everyone else was having.8

So, that was it; after that it was an hour or so of hanging about, gathering bags, drinking tea and saying goodbye, and then I set off home, quite possibly as I then thought having just done my last Leeds as an academic. I’m pleased that this was not so, and I had extensive plans for how to handle it if it were so, but all the same the abyss yawned near, and spending most of a day remembering that other people are also interested in the things I’m interested in and get paid for investigating them was a boost in an otherwise slightly dark time. But it’s OK: I was about to head for the sunshine…

1. That first presentation being Immaculada Ollich i Castanyer & Montserrat Rocafiguera, “Ancient patterns in settlement and urbanism: the medieval site of L’Esquerda (Catalonia)” in Rural Settlement, Medieval Europe 1992: a conference on medieval archaeology in Europe, 21st-24th September 1992 at the University of York volume 4 (York 1992), pp. 131-137.

2. Cf., well, basically everything previously published on the site alas. Happily, in a way, there’s still basically no later ninth- or tenth-century evidence beyond the church, so J. Jarrett, Rulers and Ruled in Frontier Catalonia, 880-1010: pathways of power (Woodbridge 2010), pp. 87-99, is still basically OK on the place, and you can find there the other most useful earlier references.

3. Friedrich Kurze (ed.), Annales regni Francorum inde ab a. 741 usque ad a. 829, qui dicuntur Annales Laurissenses maiores et Einhardi, Monumenta Germaniae Historica (Scriptores Rerum Germanicum) VI (Hannover 1895; repr. 1950), transl. in B. Scholz & B. Rogers (transl.), Carolingian Chronicles: Royal Frankish Annals and Nithard’s Histories (Michigan 1972), pp. 35-125, with commentary pp. 2-21, s. a. 826. On the coinage of the area see most easily J. Jarrett, “Currency change in pre-millennial Catalonia: coinage, counts and economics” in Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 169 (London: Royal Numismatic Society 2010 for 2009), pp. 217-243.

4. Toubert, classically, in Pierre Toubert, Les Structures du Latium médiéval : Le Latium méridional et la Sabine du IXe siècle à la fin du XIIe siècle, Bibliothèque des Écoles françaises d’Athènes et de Rome CCXXI (Paris 1973), 2 vols, but now cf. his “L’Incastellamento aujourd’hui : Quelques réflexions en marge de deux colloques” in Miquel Barcelo & Toubert (edd.), L’incastellamento : Actes des recontres de Gerone (26-27 novembre 1992) et de Rome (5-7 mai 1994), Collection de l’École française de Rome 241 (Rome 1999), pp. xi-xviii, also printed as “L’incastellamento, mode d’emploi” in Hélène Débax (ed.), Les sociétés méridionales à l’âge féodal (Espagne, Italie et sud de la France Xe-XIIIe s.) : Hommage à Pierre Bonnassie, Méridiennes 8 (Toulouse 1999), pp. 119-124. For Professor Quirós the new gospel appears to be the work of Iñaki Martín Viso, most obviously I suppose his “Un mundo en transformación: los espacios rurales en la Hispania post-romana (siglos V-VII)” in Luis Caballero Zoreda, Pedro Mateos Cruz & Tomás Cordero Ruiz (edd.), Visigodos y omeyas: el territorio (Mérida 2012), pp. 31-63.

5. There’s probably a full report on Roc d’Enclar by now but I know it from J. M. Bosch Casadevall, “El Roc d’Enclar: el poblado fortificado d’época carolingia” in Jordi Camps (ed.), Cataluña en la época carolingia: arte y cultura antes del Románico (siglos I y X), pp. 107-110, transl. as “El Roc d’Enclar. The Fortified Site in the Carolingian Age”, ibid. pp. 473-476.

6. See Richard Hodges, “Size matters: new light on the Italian Dark Ages” in Philippe Sénac (ed.), De la Tarraconaise à la Marche Supérieure d’al-Andalus : les habitats ruraux (IVe-XIe siècle). Desde la Tarraconense a la Marca Superior de al-Andalus: los asentamientos rurales (siglos IV-XI), Méridiennes : Études Médiévales Ibériques 2 (Toulouse 2006), pp. 223-229.

7. Here the cite of choice, which I must follow up some day when world enough etc., was Jeremy Haslam, Urban-rural connections in Domesday Book and late Anglo-Saxon royal administration, British Archaeological Reports (British Series) 571 (Oxford 2012).

Back where the money is

Some of you may have been wondering, if you knew how temporary my lecturing rôle at Birmingham was, what has happened to me since it ran down by way of employment, and now that I have some pictures to go with the announcement it’s time to answer that silent question. As of this week, I have been and will for the next little while be the Interim Curator of Coins at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

The Barber Institute of Fine Arts, University of Birmingham

My new place of employ, really pretty much next to the old one

Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition currently on inthe coingallery of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Two of the cases of the Faith and Fortune exhibition, and a really big map, all down to Rebecca Darley and Daniel Reynolds with help from Maria Vrij and Ali Miynat

The Barber is to the University of Birmingham roughly as the Fitzwilliam Museum is to that of Cambridge, which is to say, a university museum blessed with an excellent fine art collection that has also been lucky enough to acquire a world-class coin collection. The Barber’s strengths are especially in Byzantine coinage, where they have—we have—probably the best collection in Europe, but because of staff leave and other factors this has been essentially inaccessible for the last couple of years, except in connection with the Faith and Fortune exhibition I’ve mentioned and in charge of which I now more or less am, but for which I can of course take absolutely no credit.

Library shelving in the Coin Study Room of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Birmingham

Shelves of the Coin Study Room, library currently undergoing audit and reorganisation

Anyway, part of my job is exactly to end that inaccessibility, and there’s plenty of people already wanting to come and do either research or teaching with it, which is great. Where my actual expertise comes in, however, is that much of this collection is catalogued but not to database-compatible standards, those catalogues are not on the web and almost none of it is published, so there is a lot to do to get it where its contents are as well-known as they deserve to be and can be searched and studied from outside. But, these are things in which I have past form, so I and a slowly-growing roster of willing volunteers will get something done on that; watch this space. Right now, to do much work on the coins will mean watching this space:

Doors of the Coin Study Room in the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, seen from inside with one of the coin vaults open and a tray out

Coin trays open and doors to coin room firmly shut. Security, you understand. But the real question is probably, which contains more gold? And actually we have plans to get data on the coins at least…

… but this is going to change. There are also some exciting research questions I’m looking forward to getting at with this collection. About those you’ll doubtless hear more as they develop but while a number of them are substantially other people’s ideas (not least Rebecca’s and Daniel’s, collaborators whom one could not hope to better) with which I’m able to help, some are my own fascinations which I had never previously thought of exploring. Stay tuned and I will tell you more! And for now, this is where I am and what I’m doing.

Seminar CLXXVII: conquering Egypt by the back door

After the sudden rush of major events lately described, the regular seminars in my incredible reporting backlog resumed on 13th May 2013 with Dr Philip Booth addressing the Medieval History Seminar in Oxford with the title, “Beyond Alfred Butler’s Conquest of Egypt“. The work in question here is old enough that it’s in the Internet Archive from its initial 1902 edition but it went into a second edition in 1978 and, according to Dr Booth, is still the standard text.1 He is, however, determined to replace it because he thinks the narrative in it is much too trustingly based on the ninth-century Arabic account of Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam,2 and in this paper argued that a perspective from earlier, Christian, sources actually shows something more complicated going on.

Map of the traditional understanding of the Muslim conquest of Egypt

The story as it is usually told. “Mohammad adil-Muslim conquest of Egypt” by Mohammad Adil (talk) – who created this work entirely by himself, he says. Transferred from en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The account in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, and therefore in Butler, has a big Muslim army under ‘Amr ibn al-‘As arrive in Egypt along the coast, move into the Delta and more or less sweep all before them, slowing at Alexandria and then with that under siege beginning to move south and coming up against the remaining Roman defence in Arsinoë, the modern Faiyum, more or less by accident. Against this, Dr Booth raised the Chronicle of Bishop John of Nikiu.3 Now, this is a text with problems that make the usual ones of Arab historiography look minor: Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s ninth-century work is known from four manuscripts, of which the two earliest are twelfth-century and all of which are thought to be derived from a single copy of the original made at an uncertain earlier date by an uncertain person, but John of Nikiu’s work, while contemporary to the events it describes in terms of its author, firstly jumps between 610 and 641 without any coverage, while the events we are interested in here started in 639, and more importantly was written in Coptic, but survives only via an Arabic abbreviation of that text which itself only survives via translation into Ethiopian in the seventeenth century, given the which perhaps it’s not surprising that only James Howard-Johnston has really tried to use it.4 Dr Booth made some attempt to plug the gap before 641 with the tenth-century Arabic History of the Patriarchs of Alexandria,5 and a small but useful myriad of papyrus charters that let us seek identities for the rather obscure names preserved in the narratives.6

Christian-period ruins at Ansinā on the Upper Nile

Images for this post have been really hard to search up. Apparently the only things from the actual settlement of Medinet el-Fayum that have ever been photographed are its modern water-wheels and a load of mummy portraits (which are both very cool but not relevant right here). At Antinoë, modern Ansinā, however, there is much less going on and so some of the Byzantine-era stuff is still standing. Hopefully this is it!

All this doesn’t do much to explain the Arab conquest of Egypt or the lack of solid Roman resistance to it, although Dr Booth made some attempt at the latter; the History says that the Muslims came to liberate the Monophysite Christian Copts from the tyranny of the Orthodox Empire, for example, which maybe is what you feel you have to say after eighty years of Muslim rule, and of course John of Nikiu as we have it enters the story long after its beginning. Nonetheless, both texts seem to agree that two armies were involved, the main force coming along the coast but also a second, fast-moving one that would have come in via marginal, undefended territory (a caravan route, according to Elizabeth Fentress in questions), crossed the Nile very far down it and routed the few Roman forces in the area. John of Nikiu opens up with these forces falling back on Arsinoë to face attack from the south and then having to retreat further up the Nile to what is now Abūīt. Only then did the Roman forces regroup to meet a threat from the north in the form of the new army of ‘Amr ibn al-‘As, who therefore got ships sent down the Nile by Apa Cyrus, the Pagarch of Heracleopolis (as the papyri allow him to be identified) to bring up the cavalry force from the south, and rather than meet the Romans in the field besieged and took a fortress at Antinoë.

Recto of Oslo Pap. Inv. 1648

A papyrus fragment from Antinoë, now in Oslo, sadly from two centuries before we’re talking about but showing why this evidence is perhaps not as much used as some other sorts. Oslo Papyrus Inv. 1648.

All this seems to have been about securing roads and river routes, rather than strongpoints or the string of cities recorded in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, which Dr Booth thought helped explain the lack of Roman resistance somewhat: the Muslim forces were not only fast-moving and dangerous but not attacking the points the Romans were set up to defend. Instead they cut them off from each other and robbed them of their ability to appropriate supplies and taxes, leaving small islands of Roman jurisdiction floating but slowly sinking in a sea of now-Muslim-occupied territory. The eventual master narrative of the Arabic sources is thus quite literally after the facts here. There was some debate in questions about why anyone would write out such Muslim cunning and effectiveness, which Dr Booth thought might be about the tribal origins of the respective leaders, but he was happy that while this remained to be explained the fact that it had happened was demonstrable.7 Now, this is neither my period nor my texts nor any of my languages so I make no final call here, but I do note that the two Coptic texts’ failure to identify too strongly with the Roman cause here, explicable in terms of doctrinal conflict as has often been done, here ties up quite nicely with Petra Sijpesteijn‘s insistence that the Arabic conquest left the local community rulers and pagarchs in place for the most part; in the form of Apa Cyrus we have such a man making the immediate and presumably profitable decision to throw his lot in with the invaders.8 If he, how many others? I suspect that that kind of readiness to abandon the cause may have even more to do with the Roman collapse than cunning use of a cavalry squadron in a preliminary feint, given that it doesn’t seem actually to have drawn forces south. The problem here looks like the home front to me…9

1. Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of Roman Dominion (Oxford 1902, 2nd edn. 1978).

2. Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, Futūh Misr, ed. Charles C. Torrey as Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam, The History of the Conquest of Egypt, North Africa and Spain, known as the Futūh Misr (New York City 1922), partly transl. Torrey as “The Mohammedan Conquest of Egypt and North Africa in the years 643 to 705 A.D.” in Biblical and Semitic Studies: critical and historical essays by the members of the Semitic and Biblical Faculty of Yale University (New York City 1901), pp. 279-330, online here.

3. And, unless anyone who’s using it actually does read Ethiopic, a further step is introduced by the fact that the edition of resort is a translation into English, R. H. Charles (transl), The Chronicle of John, Bishop of Nikiu, translated from Zotenberg’s Ethiopic text (London 1916). However, that wouldn’t necessarily serve you here as Dr Booth was introducing extra details that apparently only survive in later manuscripts of a translation of the Ethiopic into Amhari!

4. In his huge Witnesses to a World Crisis: historians and histories of the Middle East in the seventh century (Oxford 2010), which it must be annoying to have people already picking holes in.

5. Severus of Al’Ashmunein (Hermopolis), History of the Patriarchs of the Coptic church of Alexandria, ed./transl. B. Evetts, Patrologia Orientalis 1, 5 & 10 (Paris 1904-1914), 4 fascicles, repr. together as Sawirus ibn al-Mukaffa’, Bishop of al-Asmunin, History of the patriarchs of the Egyptian Church, known as the History of the Holy Church (Cairo 1942).

6. Bernard P. Grenfell, Arthur S. Hunt & David G. Hogarth with J. Grafton Milne, Fayûm Towns and their Papyri (London 1900); Robert Hoyland, “New Documentary Texts and the Early Islamic State” in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies Vol. 29 (London 2006), pp. 395-416.

7. Here he cited H. Omar, “‘The Crinkly-Haired People of the Black Earth': examining Egyptian Identities in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh” in P. Wood (ed.), History and Identity in the Late Antique Near East (Oxford 2013), pp. 149-167, and E. Zychowicz-Coghill, “Defining the Copts in the Conqquest of Egypt: minority representation in Ibn ‘Abd al-Hakam’s Futūh Misr in Robert Hoyland (ed.), Minorities in the Mediterranean and Islamic World (Princeton forthcoming).

8. Just to cite the ones that Dr Booth did, P. M. Sijpesteijn, “The Arab Conquest of Egtypt and the Beginning of Islamic Rule” in R. S. Bagnall (ed.), Egypt in the Byzantine World (Cambridge 2007), pp. 437-459; Sijpesteijn, “New Rule over Old Structures: Egypt after the Muslim Conquest” in H. Crawford (ed.)., Regime Change on the Near East and Egypt (London 2007), pp. 183-202; Sijpesteijn, “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-133. One could now add eadem, Shaping a Muslim State: The World of a Mid-Eighth-Century Egyptian Official (Oxford 2013).

9. Lastly one should add P. Booth, “The Muslim Conquest of Egypt Reconsidered” in Travaux et Mémoires Vol. 17 (Paris 2013), pp. 639-670, which was still forthcoming at the point the paper was given (though presumably even then beyond the point of change).

Looking for Byzantium in Spain at Oxford

Another event from the diminishing pile of things I have yet to report from when I was in Oxford is a one-day conference organised by some of the small crowd of temporary Hispanists among whom I was sort of numbered while I was there, on 11th May 2013. The theme of this conference was Byzantium and the West: Byzantine Spain, and it brought people from a fair range of places to All Soul’s College. Philip Niewöhner introduced proceedings with the working question: how western was the east, how eastern was the west? and with that we were off into sessions. This is kind of a huge post, so I’ll stick it behind a cut, but there’s some good stuff here I promise. Continue reading

Seminar CLXXV: banquets in the ruins at Constantinople

Next in the now-thinning pile of things I went to in Oxford that I still haven’t reported here is when Dr Michael Featherstone gave a paper entitled “The Great Palace of Constantinople: tradition or invention?” to the Late Antique and Byzantine Seminar there on 1st May 2013. This seems to have been an update of a piece Dr Featherstone published in 2006, but it also seems to have been more dependent on the visuals than is good for my recall: my notes refer blithely to buildings with Greek names I can’t reconstruct and hang arguments off sources I didn’t note down, and so this is a fairly shaky account of what was, nonetheless, an interesting paper.1 Given that, it seems best to start with a visual from somewhere else, to wit Wikimedia Commons:

Reconstruction map of the imperial district of Constantinople

Constantinople imperial district” by Cplakidas – Image:Constantinople center.svg. Translated and added more detail. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

There are two important things about this map, which is ultimately drawn from the works of Wolfgang Müller-Wiener and Cyril Mango (or so the Wikimedia Commons page for the original French version says). One is that it is cumulative: you’re looking there at the work of emperors over about six centuries and a great many periods of prosperity or crisis that made architectural display or administrative rehousing seem wise. The second, and perhaps more important thing is that it rests on really very little archæology: large parts of this now lie under the Blue Mosque and not much of the rest has been dug either. So what we are essentially being asked to accept this map from is careful work to reconstruct it from mentions in historical and literary sources, and here most of all Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitos’s De Ceremoniis, ‘On the Ceremonies’, part of that unlucky ruler‘s general attempt to uplift the symbolic state of his imperial government by calling on ancient precedent and tradition wherever he could find it.2 Given how much else that was old or disused he seems to have reactivated, how much of what he says about the palace can we take to have been important to anyone else or true before (or even during) his reign?

The Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul

The so-called Blue Mosque of Sultan Ahmed in Istanbul, the biggest single reason why there is relatively little known about the imperial palace complex on top of which it was built, image from Wikimedia Commons

Dr Featherstone took the information of the De Ceremoniis and tried to unweave from it the various sources of information Constantine VII had to write it with and that we have to check it with. Constantine’s sources must have included the standing fabric of his day, of course, but also seem to have included some rather older texts, whose testimony came from times when perhaps more was standing or had not yet been rebuilt, and which may have reported uses that were centuries outdated or even perhaps no longer possible. A particular example seems to be the hall of the 19 Couches (’19 Accubita’ on the map above), in the sixth century the palace complex’s private banqueting hall (with nine couches a side and one in its apse for the emperor) but later relegated to ceremonial use only as the emperors moved their residences down the hill to the south and left the old ‘upper palace’ as a more occasional resort. By the ninth century the 19 Couches was considered to be outside the palace, because the focal point had moved so thoroughly, leaving the old buildings higher up the hill as more or less disused space, although was was remarked in questions, still with guards on the entrances (as we know from Liudprand, not least).3 Constantine VII however re-roofed it (showing what state things were in), found somewhere an account of what had used to go on in it (here we had a mention of a Philotheos, I think probably Philotheos of Selymbria though this would be a much later source for an early source if so…) and started using it for official promotions, despite the fact that as far as we can tell that was not something the building had previously housed. He also restarted chariot racing, revived a bunch of old costumes and so forth; it’s not at all clear that the Constantinople he created had ever existed before all together, however, and it must have had something of the historical film set about it. None of that makes it seem any wiser to use Constantine VII’s works (dare we say, scripts?) as guides to the ancient past…

Ornamental pier supposedly from the Great Palace of Constantinople

It’s not that there is no remnant of the palace complex now… But even this rather excellent pier, apparently now on fairly uncaring display in Istanbul, doesn’t give us a lot to go on. Image from Wikimedia Commons, though the contributor’s suggested attribution to the second century does leave me worried that it is in fact somewhere else entirely…

What we wound up with, therefore, was a picture of a kind of ghost palace, a large set of buildings constructed to earlier political agendas which subsequent ones had found expensive, impractical or irrelevant, in which occasionally spectacles might still be staged, where it was safe to do so, but whose use quickly became exceptional. Given the quality of their building, they presumably mostly stayed up, but things like lighting, access and so on must have been problematic. Dr Featherstone suggested that the worst of the damage and deterioration was probably hidden with hangings, but all of this is a kind of make-do-and-mend that doesn’t seem at all appropriate for the image we are conventionally given (not least by Constantine VII) of the glorious and ever-wealthy Byzantine Empire, especially at its absolute heart here in Constantinople. But one of the things this paper emphasised was that it was probably one of the ways in which Constantine VII was unusual that he had his heart in these old buildings; for most emperors before him, their homes down the hill had been where their heart was, and the actual government was quite possibly somewhere else entirely.

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

The Old Royal Naval College, Greenwich, viewed from the River Thames

Writing about this now puts me immediately in mind of the above as the best parallel I have for what this might have been like. Sir Christopher Wren built this place in the late seventeenth century and for a while it was the place that trained up the bearers of Britain’s proud naval tradition etc. but when I first met it years ago, on the way to a rather nice restaurant, it was maintained but disused public space utterly devoid of a function. The creation of the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site has now woken it up and stuff is going on there by way of events, conservation, visits, tours and so forth. You can find out lots more about that online, but what you can’t find out about on that official website is anything really at all about what the buildings used to do. It’s no longer relevant: they want people to come and see them because they’re still splendid, not because they were once important. But I remember wandering round the site before it was renewed, with everything dull, grey and locked up behind railings, and saying to my then-companion, “My gods, this is where the empire died and was buried, isn’t it?”

Taking the parallel back to the tenth century, did Constantine VII manage this kind of revamp, in the parts of the complex he decided were reactivable, do you suppose? Or was it, for his audiences, somewhat more like standing in a mausoleum of dead achievements he would never equal and which weren’t really anything to do with the problems of the day? Should we put Constantine VII in the same box as I have put King Charles the Simple of the Western Franks, eager to revive the traditions of his ancestors but not realising that times had changed? Or does Constantine’s dogged progress towards sole rule suggest that he knew a trick his colleagues didn’t? If so, the old palace buildings may have been part of it, but even then perhaps, then you saw them, soon you didn’t…

1. Jeffrey Michael Featherstone, “The Great Palace as Reflected in the De Cerimoniis” in Franz Bauer (ed.), Visualisierungen von Herrschaft. Frühmittelalterliche Residenzen: Gestalt und Zeremoniell. Internationales Kolloquium 3./4. Juni 2004 in Istanbul, Byzas 5 (Istanbul 2006), pp. 47-61; see now also Featherstone, “Der Große Palast von Konstantinopel: Tradition oder Erfindung?” in Byzantinische Zeitschrift Vol. 106 (Amsterdam 2013), pp. 19-38, DOI:10.1515/bz-2013-0003, fairly apparently this paper.

2. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall (transl.) Constantine Porphyrogennetos: The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012), 2 vols.

3. Liudprand visited Constantinople for the first time in the reign of Constantine VII and seems to have been exactly the kind of impressive but impressionable foreign audience the emperor wanted, as we can tell from his account in his Antapodosis. I’ve just given references to all Liudprand’s works, so I won’t do that again, but you might like to look at Constanze M.F. Schummer, “Liudprand of Cremona – a diplomat?” in Jonathan Shepard & Simon Franklin (edd.) Byzantine Diplomacy: Papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990 (Aldershot 1992), pp. 197-201.

Seminar CLXXI: Türks and Byzantine strategy

Returning now to my seminar backlog, I find myself reliving my last term in employment at Oxford, and fittingly in many ways, it more or less opened with a paper by Dr Mark Whittow, Byzantinist and generalist both and a man whom I think can cope with being described as a ‘good egg’ and who had on 22nd April 2013 taken convenor’s privilege at the Medieval History Seminar to present a paper called “Worlds in Motion: Byzantium’s Eurasian Policy in the Age of the Türk Empire, 550-630″.

Mark’s essential question was whether the Byzantine state of his period had anything that could be described as a foreign policy towards the area north and east of its great enemy, Persia, and he knew his audience well enough to know that this would mean setting out in some detail what actually happened in the area and, for example, why we were talking about Türks with a diaresis. Specifically, in fact, we were talking about the Gök Türks, a supposedly-ethnic group who emerged as a political quantity in the mid-sixth century in what is now Mongolia as subjects of the Avars (something we know largely from Chinese sources) but in 552 blew up and occupied the Eastern steppes, in 556 destroying the rule of the Hepthalites or White Huns in cooperation with Persia and beginning to move in on trade along the incipient Silk Roads in Sogdia. The Persian link didn’t serve them well, however, and in 568 their western ruler made an approach to the Byzantine Emperor Justin II, leading to a joint attack on Persia in 573 that however went very badly, so that the Türks then gave up on Byzantium and in fact nicked the Crimea off it. (I have to admit, I had not known till this point that Byzantium had ever held the Crimea. I have a lot to learn.)

Sixth-to-eighth-century petroglyphs supposedly showing Gök Türks

This is the best Wikimedia Commons can do me for pictures of Gök Türks, pictures in stone from Mongolia dated to between the sixth and eighth centuries, which is at least about right for our purposes. All the same, I don’t feel this illustrates much…

This was the beginning of the end for a Türk empire that had for a while stretched from Mongolia to Iran. In 581 Persia and China managed to put together simultaneous campaigns that broke up the Türks’ eastern Qaghanate, leaving only the western one. It was however to this that a desperate Emperor Heraclius, he of beards but not badgers as I think we have shown, turned in 624 when no other expedient against the lately-triumphant Persia seemed available. the Türks had already raided Persia in 618, and no other help was to be had, so in 626 Heraclius began attacking Persia from the east, rather than the west, and next year the Türks joined in. (This we have from Nikephoros.) Exactly what contribution this made to the emperor’s following victory and the Persian collapse of 628 is probably still to be worked out but the Türks descended into civil war the next year and that is about the last we see of the Gök Türks as an autonomous polity.

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius's victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Byzantine silver plate showing David confronting his brother Eliab, thought to have been made in celebration of Heraclius’s victory over Persia, now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art but found on Wikimedia Commons

Can all this be counted as a policy, then, asked Mark? Well, in some senses no: it’s not a policy for Eurasia in the way that China had a policy for the steppes, a continuous attempt to consider them as part of their total strategic picture. What it could be seen as is a continuation of attempts to use groups from this area as an outside threat to the Persians, a diplomatic outflanking manœuvre, like the Huns and before them the Sarmatians, the Hephthalites, the Avars, a continuation which meant, even if contact was sporadic and very much to current purposes, maintaining some kind of awareness of who was out there, what languages one needed to deal with them, and what interests they had. This presumably all became a lot more relevant when Persia was strong or active, and that information might not be something emperors carried round in their heads at all times, but the further part of the strategic map was, Mark argued, never quite empty in this period, because one never knew when it would become advisable to use it.

This all raised a goodly number of questions. I asked the obvious and perhaps unfair one about what made up Türk ethnicity, unfair because it’s a question we don’t really have the means to answer. There was also some interest in what role control of the Silk Roads played in the Türk position, which seems to have been something the Türks themselves emphasised but about which again we can say little. There were also questions about how all this looked from other perspectives, not least that of the Türks: what did they want from Byzantium, did they have policies of their own that we can guess at? To this Mark’s answer was that their priorities seemed to be to hold onto access to the Silk Roads and keep the Avars at bay or beyond, though it does seem to me that in that case their involvement with Heraclius was an own goal, as it seems likely to have made the Avars stronger, but perhaps Persia was become too much of a threat, or too rich, to ignore. I wonder about the possibility of a régime in crisis turning to outside victories to bolster its status in what was, if so, obviously an insufficient ploy. But for the most part I was happy to sit back and learn from this paper, which was immensely informative about an area of which I know far less than I should.

I couldn’t attempt to footnote this paper given the state of my knowledge, but two major references which might be good places to start were Thomas Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757 (Oxford 1999) and James Howard-Johnston, Witnesses to a World Crisis: Historians and Histories of the Middle East in the Seventh Century (Oxford 2010).

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014

Masthead of exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 8 November 2013 to 30 November 2014; image by BlindMice Design

One of the earliest signs that I’d arrived in Birmingham in some academic sense was an invitation to the private view of an exhibition currently running at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and early Islamic coinage. This is less surprising than it sounds because it was being curated by two Ph. D. students of Professor Leslie Brubaker‘s, along with two other postgraduate students in the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, one of the former of whom, Rebecca Darley, is an old friend of mine from my days at the Fitzwilliam Museum. (The other three are Daniel Reynolds, Ali Miynat and Maria Vrij.) Thus it was that my name got on the list as an early medievalist who knows something about coins, and this has all been good for connecting (or reconnecting) me to people at Birmingham whose paths I otherwise wouldn’t immediately cross. Also, the exhibition is really good.

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680x696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown

Copper-alloy fals struck at Manbij, 680×696 CE, showing a standing caliph and a cross on steps after Byzantine prototypes, issuer unknown; image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

People have been amazed by what four postgraduates have been able to do with this exhibition; certainly, it’s one of the best numismatic displays I’ve seen, and I’ve seen a few, you know. The scope runs from Emperor Constantine I, when the new Christian faith got its first representations on metal, through Byzantium’s seventh-century crises (a period noticeable, among other things, for the beards given emperors on the coinage, not the main point of the display here but one can’t help notice) and those of Sasanid Persia in the face of each other and Islam, through to the various attempts by Islamic rulers to make something of the fiscal systems they had inherited and the currencies on which those operated, running as late as the Artuqid dynasty in the twelfth century. The coins have been very carefully selected; every case has a point to make and makes it clearly.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632.

Gold solidus of Emperor Heraclius and his son Heraclius Constantine struck at Constantinople between 629 and 632. Scholars are in dispute over whether Heraclius’s beard here should be described as `egregious’ (Jarrett) or `badger-smuggling’ (Darley). Image copyright the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

That does mean that the weight of text to object seems high, though the text is not dense to look at and of course the objects are small. The text is, admittedly, not simplistic: the audience is assumed to be able to handle complex ideas if they’re set out clearly, and the layout and design of one of the cases takes a little working out, but in both areas that is not least because we’re dealing with visual and abbreviated packages that represent complicated theology in highly compressed form and with systems of representation that affect and influence each other (one of the things that the exhibition makes very clear). Still, while the visitors to a public viewing may not be a fair sample—I did spend a while arguing with Rebecca over whether one caption should say “overstrike” or “double-strike”, after all—there seemed to be no problem getting the point on the day, and I gather that there have been many comments in the guestbook about how informative it is, so it may be that this is pitched about right, in fact.

Entry to exhibition Faith and Fortune: visualising the divine on Byzantine and Islamic coinage, at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts

Entry to the exhibition; photo by Daniel Reynolds, used with kind permission

Anyway, it is well worth a look if for some reason you’re in the area of my workplace: not only is it interesting and thought-provoking in itself, and stylishly designed, but it is a great opportunity to see the Barber displaying items drawn entirely from its own excellent coin collection, a collection which is in some respects the best in the UK but unjustly under-used and little-known. It’s a problem I recognise from the Fitzwilliam that a museum with strong holdings in fine art, especially paintings that are large, unique and often of immediately-recognisable content, winds up with doubts about the exhibition potential of objects that are small, mass-produced and whose details are obscure of reference and often have to be peered at, and which often seem to be roughly-made. I understand those doubts, but they are unfounded: medieval coins can be fascinating and their obscurities can be made clear. Rebecca, Dan, Ali and Maria have done a great job of showing how and you could go and see. (In fact, if you were to go on March 8th, between 2 and 4, you could hear, as there will then be an ‘In Focus’ session with the curators. Book ahead! But even if not that, please consider having a look.) It runs till the end of November 2014.