Seminar CCXXXI: the disappearing Byzantine teenager

The close of February 2015 seems to have seen me spending a lot of time at seminars, including three evenings in a row of which you heard about the first two posts ago. Here now is the second, when I was in London because Professor Leslie Brubaker of Birmingham was presenting at the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research, leaving me several flags of loyalty to show by turning up. Her topic was “Teenagers of Byzantium”.

Paris, Musée du Louvre, MS 416, showing Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos and family

One problem with such an enquiry is that most of the families of which we have pictures are either royal or holy, and neither necessarily naturalistic… Here Emperor Manuel II Palaiologos illustrates that last problem: if as is thought this was done in 1415, the boys at his and his consort’s sides were 23, 19 and 12 when depicted, given the which we would rather expect some of them to be taller. The artist obviously didn’t think like that! Paris, Musée du Louvre, MS 416, I’m afraid I don’t know what folio

As we have already seen with an earlier paper, the middle patch between childhood and adulthood is one that the Roman, and therefore in law at least the Byzantine one, didn’t really acknowledge in the way that we do, so has to be tracked down in indirect evidence. That earlier paper had used literature from the twelfth century; Leslie works earlier and, of course, in images.1 There it is easy enough (well; not easy, but possible) to point at depictions of people we know to have been the relevant age and observe how their juniority was marked artistically, but the problem is disambiguating that visual language from ways of signalling other sorts of lesser status. For example, things that often mark out youth in Byzantine imagery are less-than-adult size, beardlessness for men and lack of veils for women (sometimes), all of which also tend to be used when servants or followers are being depicted. These are not really signs of youth, therefore, just of less-than-autonomy. That language was also used on coins to indicate junior and senior emperors, and indeed once we get into the Isaurians that language hardens up, with even fully adult junior emperors being shown beardless compared to their fathers and so on. Whatever that is telling us, it’s not telling us what Byzantines thought teenagers looked like. One is left with much more subjective things like roundness of face, relative heights and so on, by which one can suggest that the artists was trying to differentiate someone, but it’s not easy.2

A gold solidus of Emperor Leo IV with his son Constantine V, struck at Constantinople in 776-780, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4583

A gold solidus of Emperor Leo IV with his son Constantine V, bearded and not respectively, with their dead ancestors Leo III and Constantine IV on the reverse, fully fuzzed, the coin struck at Constantinople in 776-780 and being Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4583

Leslie did argue, however, that the run into the eighth and ninth centuries marked a change in even this ambiguous visual language more widely than the coinage. Depiction in general was becoming more generic and less individualised, and this left less and less room for the specialisation of appearances in the way that she had been seeking in the earlier period. As Iconoclasm settled in, whether connectedly or not, figural art stopped including the subtleties by which artists might indicate gradation of youth, and non-adults appeared the same way whether they were aged two or twenty-two. Transition across this line came with the beard for men or marriage for women (although pictures of women—pictures at all but therefore especially of women, always a small part of the sample—are very thinly preserved from this period).3 They seemed even less evident to us, sadly, as about half of Leslie’s images were of such high resolution or file-size that the struggling IHR laptop couldn’t actually display them! But what there was provoked a lively discussion and it was good to be part of it all.

Copy of an ivory plaque showing Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria overseeing a relic translation in Constantinople, this copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original in Trier

One of the other depictions that came up was this, the Trier Ivory, which Leslie thinks shows Emperor Constantine V (beardless) and his mother Empress Eirini (tiny), but which I now realise Jill Harries had the previous year claimed shows Emperor Theodosius II and Empress Pulcheria (just Roman). Who’s right? It would be a fun argument to spectate on! This is a copy in the Römisch-Germanisches Museum Mainz, the original is still in Trier.

1. Children at least are quite well studied in this light: see Cecily Hennessy, Images of children in Byzantium (Aldershot 2008) and Arietta Papaconstantinou & Alice-Mary Talbot (edd.), Becoming Byzantine: Children and Childhood in Byzantium (Washington DC 2009), plus also Eve Davies, “Age, Gender and Status: a three-dimensional life course perspective of the Byzantine family” and indeed Leslie Brubaker, “Looking at the Byzantine Family” in Brubaker (ed.), Approaches to the Byzantine Family, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Studies 14 (Farnham 2013), pp. 153-176 & 177-206 respectively.

2. Indeed, when coins get involved as evidence it can all get worryingly circular, as subjective art-historical criteria like size and shape of face are actually ways in which the coins have been attributed to emperors, so that the art historians then take the numismatist’s words that these are in fact depictions of those emperors although those were largely art-historical judgements in the first place… See for examples Philip Grierson, Phocas to Theodosius III, 602-717, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection II (Washington DC 1968, repr. 1999), pp. 386-387 (are there any coins of Heraclius Constantine? Yes if we distinguish them by size of head! No other way of telling) & pp. 391-394 (the same argument for Heraclonas, but with a distinctive inscription in only one of the several such types which still doesn’t distinguish him) or idem, Leo III to Nicephorus III, 717-1081, Catalogue of the Byzantine Coins in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection and in the Whittemore Collection III (Washington DC 1973, repr. 1999), pp. 291-292 (uncertainty over where Leo IV’s coinage with Constantine as junior emperor stops and Constantine V’s with Leo as deceased ancestor begins).

3. Of course, a lot was changing generally in that period, and few if any people know this so well as Leslie: see L. Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), but on this issue more specifically eidem, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 650-850: the sources. An annotated survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001), pp. xxiii-xxvii.

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