Category Archives: Byzantium

The Carolingian Frontier I: points south

Last July was a rather busy conference season, possibly even busier than this one is, and the first one of it was that one I plugged here long ago (obviously), The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours, which was held at Sidney Sussex College in Cambridge from the 4th to the 6th of July. This was organised principally (maybe entirely?) by three postgraduates, and given this—in fact, even not given it— it was a success of a great order as far as I was concerned. I guess that they had some help in securing some really big-hitting speakers but there were also plenty of new voices, not just from Cambridge, as well as, you know, me, wherever I fit onto that continuum. Aside from one failure of the college staff to realise that during a paper was not when to set up the refreshments noisily in the same room, I don’t recall anything going wrong and lots went right, including some of the most avid dicussion I remember at any conference. So, firstly, my congratulations to the organisers, and now I’ll move onto what people were actually saying!

Cover of the programme of the conference "The Carolingian Frontier and its Neighbours", 4th-6th July 2014, Cambridge

Cover of the conference programme

The conference ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday morning (which just about allowed people time to move on to the Leeds International Medieval Congress; we went direct from one to the other with one of the organisers in the back of the car…), with Saturday the only full day. The Friday thus had a sort of micro-unity, which was enhanced by the fact that all four papers were on the Mediterranean edges of the Frankish empire. We arrived late, for reasons I no longer recall, however, so I didn’t get all of the first one, a pity as it provoked a great many questions. What I can report broke down like this.

  1. Lorenzo Bondioli, “A Carolingian frontier? Louis II, Basil I and the Muslims of Bari”.
  2. What I got here was focused on the southern Italian city of Bari, which fell to Muslim forces in 841 and then became a distant target of the campaigns of Emperor Louis II, great-grandson of Charlemagne, for whom beating up on Muslims made an excellent way of justifying pushing the Christian cities between him and the Muslims into his control. There were also Byzantine claims to the area, but both empires could derive importance from squashing the same Muslims so there was a short-lived cooperation in 869, which broke down acrimoniously. Eventually Louis captured Bari with Slav aid instead, in 871.1 He then died in 875, however, leaving it more or less ready for the Byzantines to move in as protection. Signor Bondioli was arguing, I think, that the anti-Muslim campaigning was initially a cover for more local ambitions but became the basic requirement of an imperial claim to power in the area, which both sides could benefit from even as they were beholden to it.

  3. José Miguel Rosselló Esteve & Isabel Busquets Porcel, “The Balearic Islands and the Carolingian Empire: an unknown relationship”
  4. As the title implies, this was a paper with less evidence to put to work. It used to be thought that Byzantine control in the Balearic islands ended in the mid-eighth century, and that the Muslims then took over rather later, but we now have reason to believe (seals, mainly) that an observable flight of settlement from the coast to hilltop fortifications was actually done under the auspices of imperial authority. By 799, however, Christians there were soliciting aid against the Muslims from Charlemagne and Carolingian naval forces began to get involved very soon afterwards. What we don’t as yet have is anything archæological to indicate Carolingian presence on the island, rather than control from outside, the islands’ once-three bishoprics all being replaced by mainland Girona for example. (There is a bigger problem here about identifying a Carolingian archæological signature at all, something I have seen elsewhere in Catalonia.) This fits with the ease that the Muslims retook the islands in 849. It seems rather as if this was a place that wanted to be Carolingian but got nothing from the concession, so, did it count as frontier or not? Come to that, did Bari?

This was but one of many themes that came up in the very busy discussion after this session. Oddly, the answers diverged somewhat: the actual urban centre, Bari, had its Muslim presence reduced by Signor Bondiolo’s comments to a sporadic or vestigial mercenary force, making it essentially just a town with a purely local context except when larger polities gave it more, whereas Drs Rosselló and Busquets were anxious to stress the less populous Balearics’ involvement in their wider political world and the articulation of the fortified environment by such powers, even though they were doing this based on only one of the castles on the islands, because it’s the only one (of three on Mallorca itself) that’s been dug. I don’t have a clear record of which one this was, but I think it must have been the Castell del Rei at Pollença, which as far as I can discover is not the one that produced the seals, which came up at Santueri. You can probably argue that if any fort is producing Byzantine seals so far out it bespeaks a wider involvement, but one could still wish for more evidence; the site could have just been coordinating or gathering revenue via the one local official who still wrote to Constantinople, for example.2 We can see more Byzantine involvement in the Balearics in the archæology and more Carolingian in the texts, and I suppose it’s partly a choice of which to emphasise, but in Bari the same arguments from silence led to very different places. As ever, one model won’t do for such variant areas but it does make one wonder what models people start with when they look at them.

The Castell del Rei at Pollença, Mallorca

The Castell del Rei, a serious enough looking refuge! By Grugerio (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Once the moderators had managed to quell things enough to get some tea down us and we had managed to get some air and were all back in the conference room, we got another suitably border-crossing pairing.

  1. Eduardo Manzano Moreno, “The Carolingians and al-Andalus: an overview”
  2. This was nothing so superficial as an overview but in fact a very trenchant analysis, and my notes on it are full of marginal asterisks of emphasis. Professor Manzano pointed out that the area between the Frankish empire and Muslim Spain was articulated by cities, with local rulers who were at first emplaced or suppressed by a centralising Muslim government whose tax systems and garrisons are evident (he argued) through coins and seals, and which the Carolingians just attacked, without further plans, until the Andalusi government collapsed into civil war in the 740s, when Mayor-then-King Pepin III started to get the idea of actual takeover and to incentivise the local élites to come over to his side. Thereafter the contest was for the loyalty of the city lords, and what happened there is that what had been an incomer Muslim élite was displaced by Islamicised locals using either one of the big states on their borders as a hand up into power. Except in the relatively small area of what is now Catalonia that was held by the Carolingians after 830, the resulting power interests were then able more or less to ignore those powers for a long time thereafter.3 This all made a lot of sense to me, and it would probably work in other areas too.

  3. Sam Ottewille-Soulsby, “‘The Path of Loyalty': Charlemagne and his Muslim allies in Spain”
  4. Sam, one of the organisers, thus had the unenviable task of following one of the masters of the field, but he did so capably by focusing down onto a few particular cases of the kind of interaction Professor Manzano had been discussing, in which lords of cities like Huesca, Pamplona, Barcelona and so on moved between Córdoba and wherever Charlemagne was holding court as each grew more or less able to exert influence in the area, usually gravitating to the stronger but backing away as soon as that meant concessions. In 799, particularly, never mind the famous 778 campaign, Charlemagne had the alliance of the King of Asturias, Barcelona notionally under his lordship, Huesca sending him its keys, Pamplona having freshly thrown out its Muslim governor and a claimant to the Andalusi Emirate hanging round his court… and when Carolingian forces turned up at Pamplona they couldn’t take it and the whole position fell apart. As my notes suggest I thought then too, this is that idea I had long ago of Königsfern; for many a lord in a quasi-independent position, kings and the like are useful resorts but you want them to stay at a distance! This is how the kind of status that Professor Manzano had been drawing out was maintained under pressure, and it is in a way understandable why the two superpowers severally resorted to force to remove such unreliable allies and replace them with still more local ones who actually needed their help to get into power. But we only have to look at the Banū Qāsī to see how that could turn out…

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona

The Catedral de Santa Maria la Real de Pamplona, not Carolingian-period itself but in a location that would almost certainly have been in use when Charlemagne arrived, and that’s as close as we’re going to get I fear! Image licensed from the Centro Vasco de Arquitectura under Creative Commons.

Questions here were also busy. I asked about the language of such deal-making; of course we don’t know, but I think it is worth asking whether these Arabicized élites spoke a language that Charlemagne’s court could understand, because I think it helps determine whether they seem like the Other or not. Rebecca Darley raised scepticims about the conclusions Professor Manzano was drawing from the coin evidence, and once he’d explained himself I was sceptical too, I’m afraid; much rested on the non-existence of Visgothic copper coinage, which is a given in some parts of the scholarly literature even though it’s been disproved at least three times.4 The seals are still fun, though. And the last question, from someone I didn’t know, was perhaps the most important if again unanswerable. Sam had mentioned that the Carolingian sources refer to some people as custodes Hispanici limitis, ‘guards of the Spanish frontier’. What were they guarding? Lines of defence, points of entry, tax districts? We just don’t know how this government defined the places where they ran out, but by now this gathering seemed a pretty good one in which to start thinking about it!5


This post was again constructed with the aid of Kava Kava, Maui, which turns out to have been a good purchase.

1. I’m lifting the background detail so far from R. J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii: a Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 101-106, because it’s what is to hand and I missed the bit where Dr Bondioli doubtless explained it all… I may therefore be slightly out of date.

2. Drs Rosselló and Busquets referenced the Taktika of Emperor Leo VI (now available as George T. Dennis (ed./transl.), The Taktika of Leo VI, Dumbarton Oaks Texts 12 (Washington DC 2010)) by way of explaining what Byzantine policy with regard to fortresses would have been, and OK, but what I’ve just described would fit perfectly well into Leo’s son’s De Administrando Imperii (available as Constantine Porpyhrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn. (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 1967 and as Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 Washington DC 1993)), for all that that’s later, so I think this is also plausibly sourced.

3. All of this reminds that I still badly need to read Eduardo Manzano Moreno, Conquistadores, emires y califas: los Omeyas y la formación de al-Andalus (Barcelona 2006), as it’ll obviously be great.

4. In Xavier Barral i Altet, La circulation des monnaies suèves et visigothiques : contribution à l’histoire économique du royaume visigot, Beihefte der Francia 4 (München 1976); Philip Grierson & Mark Blackburn, Medieval European Coinage, with a catalogue of the coins in the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, volume 1: the Early Middle Ages (5th–10th centuries) (Cambridge 1986) and Miquel Crusafont i Sabater, Sistema monetario visigodo: cobre y oro (Barcelona 1994).

5. We actually have a much better idea of such matters for al-Andalus, largely thanks to Professor Manzano; see his La Frontera de al-Andalus en época de los Omeyas, Biblioteca de Historia 9 (Madrid 1991) and “Christian-Muslim Frontier in al-Andalus: idea and reality” in Dionisius Agius & Richard Hitchcock (edd.), Arab Influence upon Medieval Europe (Reading IL 1994), pp. 83-96.

Seminar CLVIII: too close to the action and yet too far

As you know, I dither about reporting on postgraduate seminars—in fact I dither about going to them but I always feel that more staff should, and you know, be the change you wish to see in the world, and so on—but the 19th June 2014 meeting of Birmingham’s Gate to the East Mediterranean Forum seems like fair game, partly because it was not a postgraduate speaking, but an alumnus of the Centre of Byzantine, Ottoman and Modern Greek Studies, Kyle Sinclair, but also because the paper was interesting. It was entitled “Michael Attaleites and Eyewitness Accounts of Warfare in Byzantine Literature”.

The autograph signature of civil servant and historian Michael Attaleites, at the end of a manuscript of his Diataxis

Allegedly, the autograph signature of the man behind our key source for this post, the civil servant and historian Michael Attaleites, at the end of a manuscript of his Diataxis. By Dimik72 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

One of the basic questions historians of any stamp have to ask about their sources is how they know what they claim to know, obviously, and in the hierarchy of the possible answers to that question there isn’t usually much to trump the eye-witness report. Obviously, they may still be mistaken or lying but at least they had the chance to get it right. Right? Dr Sinclair was testing this argumentative position with the sources for the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071, when the Byzantine Emperor Romanos IV fought against the Seljuk Turks and lost, badly, his forces being routed in confusion and he himself captured by his opponents. In the subsequent government confusion, the Turks were able to sweep quite a lot of the local authority in what is now Turkey out of the way and take over while the empire was still trying to reconstitute its centre.1 And the chronicler Michael Attaleites was there.2

Sketch-map of the army routes to Mantzikert (now Malazgird, Turkey)

Sketch-map of the army routes to Mantzikert (now Malazgird, Turkey). By Bakayna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

Well, we say he was there: he was on the campaign, indeed he was the army’s judge (krites ton stratepedou, say my notes), but when the actual battle was being fought, as Dr Sinclair excavated from his testimony for us, he was at the camp, not in the field. So rather than seeing the outcome himself, what he knew about was the reports of the survivors, every one of whom had of course been scattered in confusion and none of whom, it becomes clear as one goes through the account, knew what had happened to the emperor. Now, by the time Attaleites was writing that was in fact well-known, and he knew and used the work of fellow historian Michael Psellos on the battle, but Attaleites seems to have worked to give his contemporary impression as an eye-witness, and what he witnessed was, well, not very much but still more than most of the actual participants could have determined individually.3 All the same, what he tells us about is fear, confusion and the limits of everyone’s understanding of what was going on.

Obverse of a gold histamenon nomisma of Romanos IV struck at Constantinople in 1068-1071, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4526

Emperor Romanos IV in happier times, as who could not be happy being crowned alongside your wife by Christ himself? Obverse of a gold histamenon nomisma of Romanos IV struck at Constantinople in 1068-1071, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4526, and currently on exhibition in Inheriting Rome, along with its sibling B4524 the other way up! Yup; that should bring ’em in.

Now, it is of course possible that that is actually what being involved in or close to the losers in a battle that ends in an utter rout is like, but we did push a bit deeper on this. For a start, Attaleites seems to have been making the most of his own status as a witness, not least to raise the value of his testimony, a lot more favourable to his old boss Romanos than had Michael Psellos been. This also involved emphasising his own connection to the emperor, the importance of his role in the army and so on, in general trying to make sure that whatever had gone wrong didn’t reflect on him. As Dr Sinclair concluded, just because it’s eye-witness doesn’t make a source unbiased or without purpose! And here, the purpose was not least to give the ring of eye-witness testimony to events that our chronicler had not in fact seen, and didn’t really understand at the time. As usual, the methodological conclusion is that every source is evidence for something, even if only the motives of its maker, but you do need to consider those before pretty much anything else…4


1. Mantzikert has been much studied, but I’m afraid that I was writing in a hurry so I crib from Timothy Gregory, A History of Byzantium (Oxford 2005), pp. 254-256. He and the work in the next note both spell Manzikert ‘Mantzikert’ so although Wikipedia and my own education vie against them, I’ve done so too.

2. Lately available in English as Michael Attaleites, The History, transl. Anthony Kaldellis, Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library 16 (Cambridge MA 2012).

3. As well as the Internet Medieval Sourcebook version linked, you can if you like get more or less the same translation of Michael Psellos’s Chronographia as Michael Psellus, Fourteen Byzantine Rulers: the Chronographia, transl. E. R. A. Sewter (London 1966).

4. Cited at several points on such issues in the course of the paper was Ruth Macrides, “The Historian in the History”, in Costas N. Constantinides, Nikolaos M. Panagiotakes, Elizabeth Jeffreys and Athanasios D. Angelou (edd.), Philellen: studies in honour of Robert Browning, Biblioteca dell’Istituto ellenico di studi bizantini e postbizantini di Venezia 17 (Venice 1996), pp. 205-224, which sounded really interesting, but good luck getting hold of it…

Coins of an emperor about to lose some face

One of the very many things that needed doing when I arrived in post at the Barber Institute, as you may recall, was to see about getting its coin collection onto the Internet. Some attempt had been made at this by Jonathan Shea in 2008, a representative selection of our holdings, but although that was a start it was only 200-odd coins out of 16,000, so still a little way to go. It took me some time to improve upon it, though; quite some time just to work out what needed to be done, still longer to work out how to do it, and by that time I’d already started putting volunteers to work on it and had to deal with the consequences of setting workflows before I knew what was best to do. The result was that it was March already before stuff finally started to appear online. But when it did, what stuff!

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II, struck in 695-696 at Carthage, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4400.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II, struck in 695-696 at Carthage, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4400.

Because I was reliant on volunteer labour to a great extent, I was also guided very much by what those volunteers wanted to work on. As it happens, though, quite a lot of people wanted to see or teach with coins of Emperor Justinian II (685-695 and 705-711), so it was just as well that one volunteer also needed to work on them for their undergraduate dissertation. They went through all our existing records for the coins of Justinian’s first reign, correcting them against what was in the trays and reference catalogues, and then typed those corrections into a spreadsheet. Then I proofed the spreadsheet, converted it laboriously into upload format and navigated the whole upload process until it was done. And the results are here!

Bronze follis of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople between 685 and 695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4395

Bronze follis of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople between 685 and 695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4395; from the sublime to the seriously heavily-used… Also not to scale, this is a good bit bigger than the solidi.

Justinian II is famous among early medieval historians principally for getting deposed in 695 and having his nose cut off, so as to disqualify him from returning to the throne. It wasn’t enough, since, allegedly adorned with a false nose made of gold (because why would you settle for less?), he came back anyway, executed his supplanter Leontius and the man who had since supplanted him, Tiberius Apsimar, in the Hippodrome and managed six more years of rule before his enemies finally decided to finish the job.1 There are various ways one can view this career, more and less favourable, but even this essentially laudatory write-up concludes, justifiably I feel, that “Emperor Justinian II of Byzantium wasn’t a brilliant military strategist, a capable ruler, a benevolent dictator, or even a… half-decent human being” (and the ellipsis is over obscene language, so if you’re bothered by such, don’t click the link, you won’t like it). For numismatists, though, Justinian II has a more particular importance, because in about 692, he seems to have decided to remove his own portrait from the obverse, ‘heads’ side of his biggest gold coins and replace it with one of Christ, relegating himself to the reverse, where he hung determinedly on to the Cross and was named not as emperor but as Christ’s servant.

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381

Gold solidus of Emperor Justinian II struck at Constantinople in 692-695, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4381. Its siblings B4380 and B4383 are currently on display in Inheriting Rome, so come and see for yourself!

There are various views about what was going on here, which I don’t think is obvious (or rather, several equally obvious interpretations spring to mind), and I will write about that a little way down the line, but a teaching point I like to make with these coins is that, whatever public image Justinian was trying to project with these coins, it wasn’t effective enough, as he was deposed and eventually killed anyway. I think this should make us think about the idea that coinage was somehow propaganda. But what should make us think about this still more is that this change only took place on the gold and silver coinage, and only at Constantinople.

Gold tremissis of Emperor Justinian II, struck at Ravenna between 685 and 695, Barber Insitute of Fine Arts B4422.

Gold tremissis of Emperor Justinian II, struck at Ravenna between 685 and 695, Barber Insitute of Fine Arts B4422. Again, not to scale, this thing is about the size of a small fingernail…

So, on the bronze coinage that was the stuff anyone would actually have used in the cities every day, although Justinian’s coins did have some innovations (and we may have a unique one of them in the Barber collection) this changed policy of representation wasn’t reflected at all. Who was the audience for this propaganda supposed to be, exactly? To answer that, we would need to understand what the solidus was actually for and how it circulated better than we do, but for the time being, I like to think that it helps if you can look at the coinage as a whole.2 In which spirit, here are some links to particular searches for your enjoyment:

It’s all quite like actual numismatics, isn’t it? Thanks need to be added to this post to Emily Hancock, who did the spadework with printouts, catalogues and coins, and to Jan Starnes, wherever she may be, who did the original photography many years hence. Without them, it would have been a lot longer coming about!


1. Although I’ve never seen it, there is apparently a book-length study of the reign of Justinian, Constance Head, Justinian II of Byzantium (Madison 1972); some coverage can be found in John Haldon, Byzantium in the Seventh Century: transformation of a culture, revised edn. (Cambridge 1997), pp. 70-78, but my immediate reference here was Paul A. Hollingsworth, “Justinian II” in Alexander Kazhdan (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium (Oxford 1991), 3 vols, II, pp. 1084-1085.

2. The most thorough guide to his coinage is Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 84-149 esp. pp. 97-99, but a recent contribution has been made by Michael Humphreys, “The ‘War of Images’ Revisited: Justinian’s Coinage Reform and the Caliphate” in The Numismatic Chronicle Vol. 173 (London 2013), pp. 229–244.

Announcing Inheriting Rome

Publicity image for Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016

Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture
Barber Institute of Fine Arts, 27 February 2015 – 24 January 2016
Coin Gallery

One of the very many things that have been keeping me from updating this blog as I would wish over recent months is now done, and can and should be announced. It is nothing less than the new exhibition in the Coin Gallery at the Barber Institute of Fine Arts, curated by none other than yours truly. It’s entitled Inheriting Rome: the imperial legacy in coinage and culture and I’m really very pleased with it. The designer has taken my ideas and content and made it into a feast for the eyes as well as the brain but people have also been telling me that it is clear and interesting and makes them think and all those things that one wants to hear when one has done this much work to put objects, text and images together for the delectation of the general public. The Barber’s current What’s On leaflet has this to encourage you to come and see:

Look at one of the coins you’re carrying today: you’ll see the Queen’s portrait facing right and Latin script around the royal head. It seems our coins have looked this way forever, and that’s nearly true. But why? This exhibition uses money to explore and question our deep-seated familiarity with the Roman Empire’s imagery. Britain is not the only nation, empire or state to channel ancient Rome in this way: the Barber’s excellent collection of coins from the Byzantine Empire – as well examples from Hungary, Georgia and Armenia – illustrate both the problems and possibilities of being genuine heirs of Rome. Attempting to uncover the political uses of Rome’s legacy, this exhibition encourages the visitor to ponder why we are so often told of the empire’s importance – and whose interests such imagery serves.

A little UK-centric in retrospect, but then I don’t think we send the leaflet out any further than that… You can see that I was and am out to make a point, anyway, but really, come for how great it all looks and stay for the interpretation. It’s open until the 24th January 2016, and there are gallery tours on the third Sunday of most months as well as a number of gallery talks by myself, of which you can find details on the Barber’s website at those links. Do come and see!

Entrance to the Coin Gallery, Barber Institute of Fine Arts, showing the banners for Inheritance of Rome

Entrance to the gallery

Meanwhile, I have to thank Robert Wenley, Chezzy Brownen and John van Boolen for making it clearer and better in various ways or in John’s case actually helping install it, as well as crawling in roof-spaces to try and fix broken lights, and most of all Selina Goodfellow of Blind Mice Design for making it into something everyone wants to look at. I’ll have as much credit as is going, you know, but these people deserve theirs too. Thanks to all and you, readers, come and see what we did!

Backdrops at the end of the coin gallery of Inheriting Rome

Backdrops at the end of the gallery

(Right. So that just leaves a website rewrite, children’s activities, auditing the collection, checking the library and uploading the entire set of catalogues onto the University of Birmingham’s website, ON WHICH MORE SHORTLY, as well as zapping things with X-rays for purposes of Science! What’ll I do tomorrow?)

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition Inheriting Rome

The English and Hungarian coins in the exhibition, in full splendour

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”

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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).