Category Archives: Byzantium

A Compensation Coin, then, Two Rooms of Budding Byzantinists

I have been neglecting this blog, I’m sorry. I can only assure you that this is not out of laziness; rare has been the day of 2015 so far in which I have not written a couple of thousand words, but much less of this has been in the kinds of document that will ever have a readership than I would like, and much of that which has been is a long way off getting to that state… In particular, I have about thirty thousand words of a book manuscript (enthusiastic first-draft words, but words), and at the other end of the scale of scale, about four thousand words of exhibition copy of various sorts which were really hard to keep short. The fruits of all of this will be announced in their due season, of course, but just for the moment let me make up for the long silence with a picture of a coin, and then a conference report.

Reverse of a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953

Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4953 (reverse)

This is a gold solidus of Emperor John I Tzimiskes (969-976), and it’s connected to what I’ve been doing at work lately in several ways. In the first place, it is a little way down the slippery slope of decreasing fineness that Byzantine gold coinage descended in the tenth and eleventh centuries; it looks pretty shiny, but all that glitters is not gold… That’s not news exactly, but it’s one of the types we’ve been blasting with x-rays to find out what more its metal can tell us. Secondly, it’s one of the coins that’s going in the next exhibition on the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute, which is why I happen to have an image of it handy, And, thirdly, because as you can see it shows the Virgin Mary, identified in Greek, ‘theotokos’, motherbearer of God, crowning Emperor John with some help from a Hand of God, it was among the coins that my first research enquiry at the Barber, some time ago now, involved me getting out to scrutinise because of being a depiction of divinity in Byzantium. And with that, you see, we connect to the conference report, because the person who asked me about this coin was also presenting at the conference against which the blog backlog now laps. So!

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

A woodcut depiction of Constantinople from Hartmann Schedel’s Nuremberg Chronicle, 1493

Every year since 1999, the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Birmingham has held a postgraduate colloquium to showcase its research. In the last few years this has grown somewhat to become an international event; the fifteenth colloquium, on 24th May 2014, had thirty different speakers from fifteen different institutions in seven different countries, organised by necessity into two parallel strands, and I know because I was there. I usually don’t report on postgraduate presentations here, figuring that students are not necessarily fair game for such exposure, but there was such a lot of good stuff said here that I want to give some account at least, so I will give you the running order of the papers I saw and then offer some remarks about the ones I found most thought-provoking. The theme they’d chosen was “Language as Culture in the Eastern Mediterranean (330-2013)”, and you see below how that was reflected in the papers on offer.

    Keynote address

  • Maria Georgopolou, ‘Διγλωσσία: bilingualism as a cultural paradigm’
  • Session 01

  • Zuzana Cernáková, “Language of Fiction: representations of Byzantium in twelfth-century French literature”
  • Kirsty Stewart, “Beast Literature and the Vernacular in Byzantium, 1261-1453″
  • Jeff Brubaker, “The Language of Religious Union: the Greek-Latin Disputatio of 1234″
  • Theofili Kampianaki, “John Zonaras’ Treatment of the Roman Past in his Epitome of Histories
  • Session 03

  • Eileen Rubery, “Making and Meaning in the Frescoes in the Church of Santa Maria Antiqua in the Roman Forum (600-800 AD)”
  • Katherine Harrison, “From Ancient Lapidaries to Christian Allegories – Textual Sources on Stones and Their Impact upon Gemstone Icons in Byzantium”
  • Sandro Nikolaishvili, “Translation of Byzantine Symbols and Language of Power to Medieval Georgia”
  • Georgia Michael, “The Visual ‘Language of Death': new interpretations of aspects of idolatry and worship of early Christian funerary art (3rd-4th centuries)”
  • Session 05

  • Panagiotis Sotiropoulos, “Visual Representation in the World of Late Antiquity: religious origins of a gaze attracted by new public and private sights”
  • Miranda Williams, “Language and Propaganda in 6th-Century Africa”
  • Daniel Kelly, “Hagiographic Evidence for Continued Language Diversity in Post-Crises Byzantine State”
  • Lilly Stammler, “One Spiritual Beneficial Tale from the Life of St Andrew the Fool in South Slavonic Translation”

Continue reading

Seminar CLV: tracking the head of John the Baptist

I proffer my usual apologies for the intermittent service here at the moment. I had hoped that the holidays would give time for blog catch-up but I am between even more places than usual this Christmas and have also been contriving to get about 1,500 words a day of book written and an article finished off and ready to submit, and I’m loath to mess with the magic… Nonetheless, tonight I have some time and so I can tell you about going to the Earlier Middle Ages Seminar at the Institute of Historical Research on 14th May 2014 to hear Dr Georges Kazan speak to the title, “The Head of St John the Baptist: Byzantium and the Circulation of Relics in the Early Middle Ages”.

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria

View from the west of the church of Sv. Ioan Prodrom, Sveti Ivan, Bulgaria. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov

This was an unusual paper, not least because the speaker confessed himself out of his area of expertise almost immediately and then turned out to know an awful lot. Dr Kazan’s expertise is archæological, and specifically he knows a lot about reliquary types and designs, especially in the Byzantine world. But reliquaries are what they are only because they contain things connected with saints, and that gets you into the world of hagiography, that most tricky and unreliable of genres. Plucking up his courage after getting involved in the Bulgarian find of relics that were immediately hailed as John the Baptist’s at Sveti Ivan near Sozopol in 2010, as reported sceptically here indeed, Dr Kazan had tried using the texts to tell him what relics of St John the Baptist were around in the early Middle Ages and where, and had been pretty exhaustive in breadth about it.

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

Supposed relic of the skull of St John the Baptist in the Topkapi Palace, Istanbul

The first thing that surprised me about this catalogue is that it was surprisingly unambitious till about 800. Despite John’s fame, his head was not claimed by anyone until the end of the fourth century, although then there were two, in Alexandria and in Constantinople. Other places claimed to have unspecified relics of his and it is possible to guess that these might in fact have been coming from Constantinople, not least because the Sveti Ivan relics were in a reliquary of a type that was exported from there in some numbers. In about 800 a third head came to light, however, and by 814 a fourth one (claimed to be the same one) was in Rome, and after that it begins to get silly: there are, to Dr Kazan’s knowledge, thirty-six claimed heads of John the Baptist currently preserved in whole or in part, and a hundred and thirty-seven relics of him in general, with sixty-seven other cases now lost. All this is exactly why I was sceptical about the Sozopol claim, though I didn’t know the numbers. Interestingly, however, that has been radio-carboned and DNA-tested and comes out (at least the human bones in the casket, which were accompanied by lots more including animal bones 500 years older) as bone from a Middle Eastern male alive in the first century A. D., so at the very least it was a suitably-old body the makers piled in there…

The supposed relics of St John the Baptist as discovered at Sveti Ivan, in the sarcophagus that contained them

Not that there was very much of him… The relics as discovered, in the sarcophagus. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

That was the second thing that surprised me, and the third was that, with excruciating effort, it was more or less possible for Dr Kazan to construct a story that more or less reconciled all the different snippets of hagiography up till 800.1 In that construction, that of the chronicler Rufinus of Aquileia, the body of St John was first reported at Sebaste in Palestine, when with that of the prophet Elisha it was attacked by pagans during Emperor Julian’s persecutions in 361. It was gathered up and brought to Jerusalem for safety, then to Alexandria, then back to Jerusalem in 362, by which time the body had been divided; it was then established in a martyrium in Alexandria (again!) in 395. On the other hand, in the Ecclesiastical History of Sozomen, monks who had found the head in the mid-fourth century were reported to be venerating it in Cilicia during the reign of the Emperor Valens; Valens ordered them brought to Constantinople but the mules pulling the cart would go no further than Cosilaos, where a new cult was set up and whence Emperor Theodosius I removed the relics in 391, taking them to Constantinople where they were established in a church at the Hebdomon.2 The thing that makes this all just about possible is the first story’s insistence that there were two bodies at Sebaste and that they were burnt and broken up; after that, how to know which head was which? Both groups could have believed they had the right one. Of course, then there come the heads of 800, one supposedly located in the ruins of Herod the Great’s palace by yet more monks and stolen off to Emesa by parties unknown, who sealed it into an urn that became the property of an Arian healer, who hid it in a cave when his quackery was revealed and he was run out of the town. The cave got used by hermits, who eventually turned up the urn in 453, and passed it on to a monastery back in Emesa in 753. This was the head that was claimed to be at Rome in 800 but was unfortunately also still attested at Emesa in 814, so by then things have got silly but before 800 the details we have that are not fantastic are not in themselves clearly contradictory.

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich

Supposed relic of part of the head of John the Baptist in the Residenz, Münich. By LarryB55 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, the fact that that is possible does not mean that any of it is true, and the fantastic details do present a problem or two here, ones that may be more apparent to the textual scholar than the archæologist. In the first place, the deposition of the bodies at Sebaste is hard to take in Rufinus’s terms because we have very little sign otherwise of persecution under Julian, rather than just cutting funding. In the second place, of course, it is completely unclear how many of these details could possibly have been known by the people who would have to have hold the story; in the case of the Emesa head most of that is frankly impossible (and this Dr Kazan freely acknowledged). To do any more one would need to know a lot more about the manuscript situation of each of the texts (Rufinus, at least, not being preserved in any version earlier than the seventh century, surely affecting what his redactors knew to be ‘true’ about such matters, and you already know what I think about Sozomen’s critical faculty) but Dr Kazan had not gone any further than the nineteenth-century editions, so there that matter had to rest. At this rate, to accept any of the details as any more than a fortunate stab in the dark by an inventive hagiographer is pretty much unjustifiable, so the body part maths doesn’t really get us very far, and what we are left with is more or less where Dr Kazan had started, the Sozopol sarcophagus and its siblings.

Reliquary box which contained supposed relics of St John the Baptist, found at Sveti Ivan

The reliquary with its lid on. Photograph by Kazimir Popkonstnatinov.

By Dr Kazan’s account, pressed from him in questions by Charlotte Roueché, Alan Thacker and Caroline Goodson, these kinds of reliquaries were made in Asia Minor half-finished and finished wherever they were needed, but the best finishing was done in Constantinople. They often contained metal caskets, although both the stone shells and the caskets are found separately. They were not necessarily reliquaries, but were almost always put to funerary purposes and so make sense for that use. It would seem that Constantinople had quite the trade in these things going on, so that by the fifteenth century relics with a Constantinopolitan provenance were considered automatically suspect. Nonetheless, it was and had been for a long time one of the kinds of status Constantinople had to offer people. The trouble was, I think these were things that Dr Kazan had known already before starting research for this paper. It was delivered sincerely and contained a great deal of interesting information, but very little of it was information on which a historian could put any weight, and sadly that is a state of the record which further finds are unlikely to fix.3


1. Happily for me given the state of my notes, Dr Kazan seems to have had most of these references worked up for a conference he organised in the Sozopol finds in Oxford in 2011, which I completely missed but whose papers are now online. I get most of the textual references following from Dr Kazan’s own “The Head of St John the Baptist—the early evidence”, and the site details and a number of the images in this post from Rossina Kostova, Kazimir Popkonstantinov and Tom Higham, “Relics of the Baptist: Scientific research planned for the finds excavated in Sozopol, Bulgaria in 2010 (Radiocarbon Dating, DNA testing)”.

2. Rufinus of Aquileia, Historia Ecclesiastica, ed. Theodor Mommsen in Eusebius, Werke, ed. Eduard Schwartz (Leipzig 1903-1909), II: Die Kirchengeschichte – die lateinische Übersetzung des Rufinus, II.28; an earlier translation is here. Other later historians also report this, and are listed in Kazan, “John the Baptist”, p. 2, but all seem to be working from Rufinus. Sozomen, who worked explicitly to correct Rufinus, is edited in Sozomène, Histoire ecclésiastique, ed. J. Bidez, trans. André-Jean Festugière & rev. Bernard Grillet (Paris 1983-96), and in older English online here, VII.21.

3. Kostova, Popkonstantinov & Higham, “Relics of the Baptist”, cites as publication of the excavation K. Popkonstantinov et al., ‘Srednovekoven manastir “Sv. Ioan Prodrom” na ostrov ”Sv. Ivan”, Sozopol’ in Arheologičeski otkritija i razkopki za 2009 godina (Sofia 2010), pp. 595-599.

Announcing All That Glitters

Starting work at the Barber Institute in August meant learning to work in and outside of office hours again, and I’m still rebalancing my routine. It has also meant an even longer to-do list, not least since I am also still doing some teaching for History at Birmingham on my spare day. There are long and difficult jobs connected with the electronic catalogue of the coins and the numismatic library, as well as more immediate ones connected with the next exhibition. But it has also meant a bunch of exciting new research projects! In some ways this should have been expected, and indeed I came into the job with one particular problem I wanted to use the coin collection to address, which I’ll tell you about when I’m slightly further along. But in the meantime, we are about to start something quite big and I wanted to announce it. The project name is “All that Glitters: the Byzantine solidus 307-1092″, and it aims to carry out non-destructive scientific testing of the metal composition of the Byzantine gold coinage over that period, up to 300 coins in all depending on results.

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

A gold solidus of Emperor Anastasius (491-518) struck in Constantinople, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B0031

The reason this has got so ambitious is that word ‘we’, because this is essentially the brainchild of Rebecca Darley, one of the curators of the current coin exhibition at the Barber as you may remember and now part of the Bilderfahrzeuge project based at the Warburg Institute in London. Rebecca is an energising collaborator who does not think small and has thus gathered me, as the man with the coins and the wider medieval background, and Robert Bracey of the British Museum, as a man with an X-ray flourescence spectrometer and experience using it on the money of ancient empires, into a suddenly-active attempt involving Birmingham University’s School of Chemistry and Bruker Industries Ltd., who make XRF machinery among many other things, to deepen the basis of Byzantine monetary history (and with that, it’s probably not too much to say, the monetary history of the early Middle Ages as a whole). Here is our synopsis, with some edits for context:

“The Byzantine Empire, which evolved from the eastern Roman Empire, issued coinage continuously for more than a thousand years. The gold solidus, a coin of 4·5 g and a notional 95-97% purity, was the backbone of this system from the reign of Emperor Constantine I (306-37) to the eleventh century, though it was debased steadily from the tenth century until its replacement in a coinage reform in 1092. Before that time, the reputation of the solidus was near-legendary and it has remained so in scholarship.” In fact, however, we have limited evidence as to the precise purity or composition of the early coinage prior to debasement.
Earlier metallurgical studies of Byzantine gold coinages concentrated mainly on the later period, and used the most sophisticated equipment available in the 1980s and 1990s. Recent developments in X-Ray Flourescence technology, in which Bruker Industries Ltd. have been at the forefront, now make it possible to evaluate non-destructively the composition of metal alloys with far greater sensitivity to a range of trace elements, and the ability to quantify very small changes in the proportions of different metals in an alloy and in detecting and identifying even minute quantities of trace elements. “These newly developed techniques have not, however, been applied to Byzantine gold coinage and the time is therefore ripe for a project which could not only offer new data on the Byzantine monetary economy but also explore the possibilities of XRF testing, and set standards of analysis for other currencies and precious-metal objects.
“The Barber Institute of Fine Arts contains the most important collection of Byzantine coins in Europe and its greatest strength is in the coinage of the sixth to eighth centuries. It is currently unpublished, though cataloguing is in progress, and it has never been subject to any metallurgic analysis. It therefore offers an entirely new source of data for a detailed examination of the gold coinage that underpinned the Byzantine economy. In light of increasing recognition by historians that the numerous crises experienced by the Empire were survived only because of the sophistication and resilience of the imperial monetary and taxation system (Haldon, 1990; Wickham, 2005; Brubaker and Haldon, 2011), this study has immediate relevance not just to the Middle Ages but also to wider questions about the impact of monetary stability on political balance.”

You see that we have plans, and as of last week, we now have permission from the Henry Barber Trust, who own the collections of the Barber Institute, to carry on and do Science! with their coins. At this point we’re still in meetings-and-planning stages but before the end of the year we will in fact be zapping solidi with X-rays and trying to get money from people to do so on a rather larger scale. We should be presenting preliminary results from the first phase of work as early as January. It’s all moving rather fast! Anyway. One of our pledges is to keep the world updated via our various blogs, but I rather thought you might be interested anyway. Now, when those results come in, you’ll have some idea of what they might lead to…


The references above decode as John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century (Cambridge 1990); Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005); and Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era c. 680-850: a history (Cambridge 2011). To those I should add the essential starting point for the scientific study of Byzantine coinage till now, Cécile Morrisson, C. Brenot, J. N. Barrandon, J. P. Callu, J. Poirier & R. Halleux, L’or monnayé I : Purification et altérations de Rome à Byzance (Paris 1985).

Seminar CLI: absence of ornamentation in Byzantine churches

My last seminar of the spring term of this (calendar) year was back to Byzantium, in the form of turning up to the General Seminar of the Centre for Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies in Birmingham to hear Professor Henry Maguire speak with the title “Why was there no Renaissance in Byzantine art?” Professor Maguire was known to me only as a name at this point, but I had been assured that it was quite a big name in the field, and this he demonstrated by having to apologise for the fact that he was giving us a version of a public lecture he’d done in the USA. He was apologising for what he called the “flourishes”, but actually I was glad of the nods towards accessibility. I am however faced with the peculiarity that though I remember him making a perfectly reasonable stab at answering the question of his title, my notes seem determined to answer another one, which was more like “why is Byzantine art so darn austere?”

Madonna and Child by Berlinghiero, Lucca, 1228x1236

Looking pretty Byzantine, this gold-on-tempera Madonna and Child is actually from Lucca, by a chap called Berlinghiero who was active in the first third of the thirteenth century, but it gets the idea over both of what was and what could change. “Berlinghiero: Madonna and Child” (60.173) in Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History . New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/60.173 (October 2006).

Comparisons with the art of the Italian Renaissance certainly helped to mark a contrast: even when the subject matter was similar, the level of ornamentation was usually starkly different. To drive this home Professor Maguire showed us two suspiciously similar Madonna and child portraits, both with the classic long gloomy Byzantine faces and almost identical poses, but one from Italy having a background loaded with architecture, ships and trees and a Byzantine one, well, not doing that. This lack of ornamentation is characteristic of Byzantine art as we know it, and can be set with Byzantine theologians’ disdain for the Latins’ concentration on external things rather than the internal, spiritual ones that really mattered, but that feeling didn’t stop them celebrating the glories of God’s Creation visually elsewhere.1 Nonetheless, from the ninth century onwards it’s really hard to find much beyond geometric ornament and stylised portraits in Byzantine art as it survives. Why?

Dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus

Obviously there are exceptions… but even here, in the dome of the church of the virgin of Arakas, Lagoudera, Cyprus, this twelfth-century painting is figures of holy men and geometric ornament and little more, however much there is of it. I’m not sure austere is quite the word, but… Link goes to a web-page with a zoomable image.

Well, one obvious factor is that survival, because we’re talking almost entirely about churches here and may suspect, from what little we have of secular art and even manuscript painting, that that was more lively. In church, however, such things could be criticised as distracting from the holy focus of worship from as early as the fifth century. Defacement of palæochristian mosaic pavements and so on has been put down to Muslim pressure, but it was happening in Christian buildings and does seem to thrive as an ethic of non-natural display even in unconquered areas (though it is definitely strongest in modern Jordan and Palestine, as Daniel Reynolds pointed out in questions). Professor Maguire suggested that the real enemy here, as evinced in the legislation that closed the controversy over icons at Nicæa in 787, was not Islam but paganism, an imagery of zoomorphs and human-animal hybrids essentially inherited from Egypt and the Classical era. He ingeniously argued that the removal of the natural world from ornamentation was in fact how one allowed the human figure to remain as a visual object, because of its unique potential to reside in the next world, to which churches then operated as a gateway as they should.2 Consequently the saints only appear in the upper registers of Byzantine church spaces, where one’s eyes are upraised to Heaven to see them; they stand between the worshippers and the uppermost spaces, it’s all quite plausible when put together like this.

A 'corrected' mosaic at St Stephen's Umm al-Rasas, Jordan

A ‘corrected’ mosaic at St Stephen’s Umm al-Rasas, Jordan, with all the human figures carefully replaced with blank or reused tessera. I’m really not sure this is the same phenomenon, myself…

It was this different focus on heaven in art rather than the world that Professor Maguire used to explain the lack of a revival of interest in the created world by which he was characterising the Western Renaissance, but the questions centred most of all on the issue of defacement of imagery in churches. Daniel Reynolds, as said, raised the issue of regionality, and Matthew Harpster that of chronology: whether or not such imagery was criticised earlier, the defacements that we can date are post-Islamic, late eighth or ninth century. There’s a certain sense in this as that’s when Islam generally hardened up in its dealings with the other Abrahamic faiths; it’s when the so-called Covenant of ‘Umar’ starts to be invoked, for example.3 Christians might well feel under scrutiny then… Daniel Reynolds doubted that this could be fear of paganism as late as the ninth century, at least, and also put forward an idea from his own research on the early Islamic Holy Land, which is that as far as he has been able to discover, such defacement happens only in churches which held to the Chalcedonian rite, not in Monophysite/Coptic or other non-Orthodox ones.4 If the attack on Classical imagery is only a Melkite thing, as he put it, then at the very least Islam, while it may have been the catalyst somehow, was not the only actor in play and it served as a reminder that there were lots of stakeholders in Byzantine Christianity, and presumably its art, even after Byzantium ceased to be able to control much of it.


1. Cited doing this were the Vita S. Andreae Sali, which you may be able to find in Lennart Rydén (ed./transl.), The Life of St Andrew the Fool: text, translation and commentary (Uppsala 1995), 2 vols, and Symeon of Thessaloniki, who apparently also provides the Latin-slagging and whose stuff is edited as David Balfour (ed.), Politico-Historical Works of Symeon, Archbishop of Thessalonica (1416/1417 to 1429): critical Greek text with introduction and commentary, Wiener byzantinische Studien 13 (Wien 1979) and idem (ed.), Ἔργα θεολογικά, Ἁγίου Συμεὼν ἀρχιεπισκόπου Θεσσαλονίκης, 1416/17-1429 (Thessaloniki 1981), but only some translated; I don’t know which work was meant here, so I can’t be any more guidance than Wikipedia can I’m afraid. This is probably also the place to mention Professor Maguire’s most obviously relevant works, his collected papers, H. Maguire, Rhetoric, Nature and Magic in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 603 (Aldershot 1998) and idem, Image and Imagination in Byzantine Art, Variorum Collected Studies 866 (Aldershot 2007), and his more recent monograph, idem, Nectar and Illusion: nature in Byzantine art and literature (Oxford 2012).

2. I believe I am prevented, both by good sense and probably also contractually, from mentioning Iconoclasm without citing Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era ca. 680–ca. 850: a history (Cambridge 2011).

3. Something that I know about mainly from Norman Daniel, “Spanish Christian Sources of Information about Islam (ninth-thirteenth centuries)” in al-Qantara: revista de estudios árabes Vol. 15 (Madrid 1994), pp. 365-384.

4. Dan needs to get more stuff into print (don’t we all?) but has some limited excuse what with only just having left his doctorate, “Monasticism and Christian Pilgrimage in Early Islamic Palestine c. 614-c. 950″, University of Birmingham 2013, behind him; he will at least soon be able to boast of D. Reynolds, “Monasticism in early Islamic Palestine: contours of debate” in Robert Hoyland and Marie Legendre (edd.), The Late Antique World of Early Islam: Muslims among Christians and Jews in the East Mediterranean (London forthcoming).

Seminar CXLVII: de-emphasising Greece in Byzantine history

Long before I knew what my next job would be, on 13th March 2014, I was persuaded to attend the University of Birmingham’s General Seminar of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies. I have been doing this on and off since then, and naturally more regularly given my new employment, but I think I am still the only person not speaking who attends from outside the Centre, which is slightly odd. I came along because I was told by someone who should know that I’d be interested in this particular paper, however, and so it proved, that paper being one called “Byzantine Greece — Microcosm of Empire? Retrospect and Prospect”, by Dr Archie Dunn.

Map of Byzantine Greece c.900

Byzantine Greece c. 900. By Cplakidas (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn’s basic starting contention was that, at least since its revival as a nation in 1830, modern Greece has been central to Byzantine studies, since its area preserves or generated many of the major narratives and almost all the surviving Byzantine documentary material, and was the location of many of the pioneering digs in Byzantine archæology. It’s just taken places like Turkey who have less interest in claiming some kind of continuity with their Byzantine predecessor longer to decide this stuff might still be interesting, I think, though it is now happening, and a Greek-language academy presumably also helps. Anyway, this presents problems of generalisation, because Greece thus drives the older and still basic synthetic narratives of Byzantine history but wasn’t necessarily typical of the wider empire. So Dr Dunn here attempted, using the archæology that he knows best, to set up a new synthetic model of landscape development in Byzantine Greece and then test it against Thrace to see just how bad this problem is. The basic lynchpins of this picture were cities, castles and churches and their interrelations, so you can probably already see how I would find thinking material in this.

The Angelokastron in Corfu

The Angelokastro in Corfu, about the best copyright-free image of a Greek Byzantine kastron I can find even if well out of area… By Dr.K. (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

The synthetic model for Greece went something like this. By the fifth century Greece, once a landscape of cities, still counted a lot of cities in its territorial organisation but far fewer than before and not all of them actually physically instantiated, rather than just being organisational constructs, settlement having moved out to rural settlements like Italian hill-villages (a comparison I thought of about a minute before Dr Dunn invoked it), walled in undressed timber-braced stone, and articulated also by churches separated by 4-10 km distances. Over the sixth to eighth centuries the cities continued to fade but from the seventh century on fortifications arise instead, partly as a reaction to Slav incursions. Those incursions were gathered under more or less willing jurisdiction eventually, however: by the ninth centuries some such notional groups have official seals, for example. These new kastroi, castles, often had bishops, despite the tiny territories thus implied, but even so were not poleis, cities, to the government but choria, villages, even when abandoned cities were close by. They were however centres for military organisation, and however they’d got there were incorporated into systems of government.

Castles at Didymoteicho in Thrace, now Greece

Castles at Didymoteicho, which we do have textual evidence was founded by Justinian I. By Aramgar (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Dr Dunn then compared the situation of Thrace, roughly modern Bulgaria and a bit west into Greece, where a lot of the same factors could apply but somehow, don’t all. Here, though the scattering of new villages and kastroi did occur, it did so without the end of the urban network that had preceded it; the bishops stayed in the old poleis and the kastroi fitted in new places between these. Dr Dunn argued, I think from my notes, that this was an attempt by central govenment to impose a similar system to that that was being managed in Greece over a landscape whose old jurisdictional anchors were still in place, and which couldn’t be ignored—the Thracian cities did revive somewhat over the seventh to ninth centuries—but which weren’t the focus of attention from the state any more. Some of the new fortifications subsequently became towns, however, which prompted me as the then-temporary-Anglo-Saxonist to ask if, as with the fortress-towns of Alfred the Great’s burghal system, they took a long time to do this; sadly, the archæology hasn’t yet been done that would ground that comparison.

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece

Walls of the Byzantine fortress at Komotini, Thrace, now in modern Greece. By User:Ggia (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The main points that came out of this paper, then, were firstly and mainly that Greece can’t be taken as typical of Byzantium even if much of our information comes from it, but also a point about scales of comparison. To make a real point when dealing with a state of this size, one’s micro-regions need to be quite large. No one or few of these city districts would tell a typical story; comparing chosen themata across the two provinces would probably miss the general shape of change entirely. That then implies that to compare at this scale you have to look at something that occurs widely enough but thinly enough to be manageable; cities may be too slight, churches is heading for the feasible maximum, house types would be impossible, it seems to me. Other questions did arise, of course. The obvious one, asked by Ruth Macrides, was, well, why is Thrace different, to which the obvious answer seemed to be proximity to Constantinople, leading to better-funded development of both defences and agriculture because the capital needed them both in a way that it didn’t from further-off Greece. Someone I didn’t know asked about agency, whether these new foundations were necessarily top-down, to which the honest answer could only be that we know some are so there is some kind of central effort to do things, but whether other sites are in on the plan, who knows? And Rebecca Darley asked what was organising society at the village level before they started getting churches, and whether they might have replaced an older religious articulation, to which Dr Dunn said that if there was such an older sacred landscape, it is now largely invisible, though a few cases could be adduced. Here again it seems to me that scale of comparison is important. In the previous answer, a few cases were indicative because we know there was some linkage of them together; in this one a few cases were not, because we don’t have that linkage. Such a linkage would have to be some organised pagan Greek priesthood for which there’s no evidence, of course, so that’s probably OK, but looking at it now the argument from silence still sits oddly next to that from information. It would be nicest of all to be able to show this by digging of course, and I’m sure Dr Dunn would be more than happy to start on that given funding! It was certainly clear that he would know where to start or, indeed, carry on looking.

Seminar CXXXVIII: between Offa and Irene, Cœnwulf and Charlemagne

As mentioned a couple of posts ago, on 2nd November last year I was in a little Northamptonshire town called Brixworth, crowded into its rather splendid church of All Saints with about a hundred other medievalists and interested parties for the annual Brixworth Lecture. Attendance at this was mandatory for me for two reasons, firstly that Birmingham were that year employing me largely to impersonate an Anglo-Saxonist and it would therefore have seemed odd for me not to go, and secondly and perhaps more importantly that the lecture was being given by one of our own, Professor Leslie Brubaker. So there I was, thanks to the good offices of Rebecca Darley in driving us there, and thus I got to hear Professor Brubaker speak to the title, “Byzantium at Brixworth”.

All Saints Brixworth

Wikimedia Commons has a better image than any of the ones I took. This is by Alan Simkins [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

I do wonder what Professor Brubaker’s reaction was when this was first suggested to her, as one thing that students of either side of the divide represented here can say with reasonable confidence is that there were almost no links between Britain and Byzantium after the sixth century. On the other hand, the ones best-documented are probably artistic ones, so, ask an art historian? In any case, Professor Brubaker’s task was made slightly easier by the very recent publication of the new site report for Brixworth, which she thus ran through very quickly setting up quite how much of what we were in was Saxon and what wasn’t. The church seems to have been quite a project: big enough as it stands now, it was bigger when new by virtue of having aisles that have since been removed, which were crowded with side chapels. It was built on a repeating module of 9 m2, with the fourth one being the apse over the crypt, suggesting a relic deposition as its focus. Some of the stone was Roman spolia, too, but not from the nearby villa site but all the way from Leicester, indicating some fairly long-range patronage.1 Since the date now proposed for the church is c. 800, even Professor Brubaker could not resist the temptation to suggest that an obvious patron would be King Offa of Mercia (757-796). I feel this is unfair on King Cœnwulf (796-821), who repaired a lot of Offa’s damage and was also what we might call ‘kind of a big deal’ (albeit not a Byzantine scale, I admit) but gets largely ignored because he wasn’t as bloodthirsty or earthmoving as his predecessor.2 This also got raised by none other than Nicholas Brooks in questions, however, and Professor Brubaker was able rightly to say that even if it wasn’t Offa her argument would still hold up, so, I should tell you her argument.

1867-drawn ground plan of All Saints Brixworth

Here is a handy plan showing the original layout, apparently from C. F. Watkins, The Basilica and the Basilican Church of Brixworth (1867) so probably to be taken with some caution but, illustrative. “Original Brixworth Plan“. Original uploader was Simon Webb at en.wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia; transferred to Commons by User:Kurpfalzbilder.de using CommonsHelper. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

She proceeded essentially by taking a Byzantinist’s view of the church, marking out what seemed familiar or strange, and then wondering how that might be explained. Among the strange were the marks at the door, which she thought might be connected with the liturgy of baptism in which the family waited there to be admitted and the disconnection of the west-work from the rest of the building’s operations (I confess that I don’t now remember what was said to describe this); among the familiar, the crypt and choir as a focus on a relic deposition and the reuse of Roman material. All of this was backed up with images of sites in the Byzantine world which provided good support for the contentions. In a special category, though, were things that would have been familiar some time before the church was built but that would then have looked odd to any contemporary Byzantine visitor. These were the long-nave plan with side chapels, the current Byzantine fashion by 800 having been for a cross-and-square layout, and, especially, the apparent lack of decoration: it seems that Brixworth ran to a tiled floor, maybe, but that otherwise the walls were as plain as they now are.

Interior of All Saints Brixworth

A good photo of the current state of the interior taken by Frank Burns, whose site duly linked through; he gives no copyright notice so I hope attribution will do because it’s a much better picture than any others I could dig up…

The reason that is a live issue, of course, is that between about 750 and 787 the Byzantine empire was in something of a pother about decorative religious imagery, and perhaps no-one is more expert on this than Professor Brubaker.3 This makes me almost afraid to summarise but the big point is that by 800, for the Byzantines, this was over, and painting and colour and so forth were back in. The message seems to have taken a while to reach England though, as the question was still being settled at the Council of Chelsea in 816 (under, we might note, Cœnwulf). So there is a case to be made that Brixworth was responding to Byzantine fashions in art, but if so, it was doing so rather late.

The characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave in All Saints Brixworth

Very blurry picture of the characteristic triple arch feature at the west of the nave

The probable reason for that is the route cannot easily have been direct. While there are Byzantine parallels for many of the Brixworth features, there are a much more collected set of them in the form of Charlemagne’s chapel in Aachen. Here, especially, we find the triple-arched separation between nave and west-work that I photographed so badly, in which the patron monarch may have sat and watched his congregation but from which, the tower not then being present, he could also have addressed his people outside the building. (That sounds familiar…) But the inspirations at Aachen, while Byzantine, were largely old Byzantine, in the form of Justinian I’s San Vitale di Ravenna. Justinian, at least, also got imitated in England: there was an Alma Sophia in York modelled after Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, though we know very little about it.4 What we are seeing at Brixworth may reflect this second-hand Justinianism, therefore (although, as Professor Brubaker pointed out, what Charlemagne may have been more interested in imitating was King Theodoric of the Ostrogoths, Dietrich of song and story). If so, its ideological response to the current worries over imagery may even be more up-to-date than some of its models. I felt that the case for everything reacting at some remove to Byzantium was maybe a little over-stated here—the Anglo-Saxons presumably didn’t miss the Carolingian end of the worry over images, for example, and Professor Brubaker’s suggestion that the new Caroline minuscule script reflected a recent shift to minuscule in the East seemed to me to miss out all the myriad Western pre-Caroline minuscules that it more or less replaced5—but as a reminder that there was, all the same, a very big empire whose issues resounded westwards in the form of ideas and their expression in art at the other end of the Anglo-Saxons’ world this was salutary and enlightening.


1. This is all apparently in David Parsons & Diana Sutherland, The Anglo-Saxon Church of All Saints, Brixworth, Northamptonshire: Survey, Excavation and Analysis, 1972-2010 (Oxford 2013).

2. For now the best neutral coverage of Cœnwulf is probably Morn Capper, “Contested Loyalties: Regional and National Identities in the Midland Kingdoms of Anglo-Saxon England, c.700 – c.900″, unpublished doctoral thesis (University of Sheffield 2008), pp. 345-413.

3. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era, c.680–850: a history (Cambridge 2011)!

4. It’s described in a poem by Alcuin, translated by Peter Godman as The Bishops, Kings, and Saints of York (Oxford 1983).

5. See Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm, and the Carolingians (Philadelphia 2009) and David Ganz, “The Preconditions for Caroline Minuscule” in Viator Vol. 18 (Turnhout 1987), pp. 23–43, respectively.

Faith and Fortune on Byzantine and Islamic Coinage: exhibition review

[This post originally went up on the 9th February, and I’ve now reached the point in my backlog where I first stubbed it as a draft so it can be set free to join the stream of posts. But! It has also lately been decided to extend the exhibition, which will now run until February 3rd 2015, it’s that successful. So if you haven’t already gone and seen, you still have time to do so. And who knows but what I may be behind the doors at the end of the gallery…]

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 3 February 2015

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 beginning of February 2015.