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.

One response to “Seminar CLXXV: banquets in the ruins at Constantinople

  1. Pingback: Learning from an ailing emperor | A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe

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