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Minute details of minting in Constantinople

I mentioned a couple of posts ago that I had, “for my sins or for whatever reason”, been reading A Corpus of the Nomismata from 713-976 in Constantinople by Franz Füeg.1 This was not leisure reading, I should probably say, I had been asked to review both it and its partner volume covering 976-1067, which of course meant I had to read it in detail, of which there is much in the books.2 What they actually are is a number of corpora of Byzantine gold solidi of Constantinople (not just one corpus each, as you might imagine) and a series of attached essays dealing with the design, political æsthetics and production of the coins. Füeg is not a numismatist by training—there are, after all, almost no places that one can acquire such training—but a retired professor of architecture, and this may be one of the reasons this book goes to some strange places. It seemed to me in reading it, though, that the author doesn’t always recognise where his argument, or even in happy moments his data, take him, and that the true worth of the book is in deductions which it requires like the one I want to set out in this post.

Six denarii of Emperor Septimius Severus, all struck from the same obverse die but different reverse ones, and collected by Doug Smith

Six denarii of Emperor Septimius Severus, all struck from the same obverse die but different reverse ones, and collected by Doug Smith, on whose website this image is located (and which is linked through it)

The great strength of Füeg’s work is that he has a huge sample die study. For those not already speaking fluent numismatist, this is a thing one can particularly do with pre-industrial coinage because each of the dies with which the coins were struck were, of course, hand-carved and therefore unique in detail. Thus, if one has enough of a certain issue of coins, one expects to see individual dies turn up again and again, and someone with sharp enough eyes and short enough sight can recognise them.3 There are various things one can do with this information, but the simplest thing one can do is to count the dies one observes, and this Füeg has done. That is data we didn’t have before, whatever its quality may be, and my brain started to fire where he observes that there is a drop in the number of reverse dies being used at the Constantinople mint at the point where the coinage ceases to distinguish between officinae of the mint on its gold coinage.4

A copper-alloy forty-nummi coin of Emperor Justin II, struck at Constantinople in 565-566, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1208

A copper-alloy forty-nummi coin of Emperor Justin II, struck at Constantinople in 565-566, in the Alpha officina, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1208

So, OK, you may fairly ask at this point, what’s an officina? And the answer is that we don’t really know. In the mid-fourth century the Roman coinage, which was basically uniform across the whole Empire but with frequently varying codes that identified the issuing mint of each coin, began to add letters to reverse designs in use at certain mints that seem to have distinguished issues within their production; Lyons is especially complex, for example. By the time we can sensibly speak of Byzantine coinage, this system had settled into a sequence of Greek letters for each mint.5 Most mints ran to only two or three letters, alpha, beta, gamma, sometimes delta and epsilon, or more confusingly nothing and theta, but Constantinople could get up to iota in some issues. On the copper-alloy coinage these letters appeared below the main denomination mark on the reverse, as you see above and on the gold they appear at the end of the reverse legend as below. These, we call officinae, largely because some of the early Roman instances actually use the letters OF and a number for them.

A gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Constantinople in 583-601, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1810

A gold solidus of Emperor Maurice struck at Constantinople in 583-601, in officina Eta (H), Barber Institute of Fine Arts B1810, not to scale with previous. Note how the officina letter is bigger than and out of line with the letters of the legend (VICTORI-A AVCC), suggesting that the die was marked for an officina only after it had been completed elsewhere.

As I say, we don’t really know what these divisions within the mint were. Some obvious suggestions have been made—different workshops (as implied by the word we use for them), teams within the mint, markers of different commissioned officials or even companies making the coin—but we don’t really have the means to test these theories. Or we didn’t, until now. But Füeg notices that when this marking of officinae ceases (under Emperor Leo III, some of whose coins you can see here) the count of reverse dies drops noticeably. He doesn’t do anything with this fact but it’s part of the answer.

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople between 717  and 741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4530

As mentioned, the officina-marking only stopped on the gold at this point; here is a copper-alloy follis of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V, struck in Constantinople in 717-741, and about the clearest thing on it is the mark for officina Beta. Not to scale with previous coins; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4530

In case you’re not with me, consider. If the way that the mint worked was that there were up to ten separate workshops or even teams turning out coins at full capacity, they would go through dies at the same rate whether those dies were marked for them or not. But production seems to have stayed up and reverse die use went down. That can only mean that prior to the change, reverse dies marked up for officinae weren’t being used to capacity, which means in turn that there must have been a point in a minting cycle or design lifetime at which each officina stopped work. That’s not simultaneous striking under each mark, therefore; the officinae must have been sequential, switching over at intervals we don’t know. That’s where Füeg’s observation leads, even if he hasn’t taken it there. It’s not a big deal, perhaps; but no-one’s been able to figure it out before, it affects millions of pieces of evidence that passed through millions of people’s hands and if he won’t figure it out I am happy to do so instead.

A gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople in 717-741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4510

A gold solidus of Emperors Leo III and Constantine V struck at Constantinople in 717-741, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4510. Not to scale with previous coins. The alert will notice that this coin has a Theta at the end of the reverse legend instead of the old officina mark. These have long puzzled people. Füeg has an explanation for them, of course, but that would be another and much longer blog-post…6


1. F. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople 713-976: Structure of the Issues, Corpus of Coins Finds, Contribution to the Iconographic and Monetary History, ed. Italo Vecchi & transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2007).

2. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Basil II to Eudocia 976-1067: corpus from Anastasius II to John I 713-976 with addenda, structure of the issues 976-1067, the concave/convex histamena, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, ed. Vecchi & transl. Hofmänner (Lancaster PA 2014), reading the which is what has held up the review. But it will get done, after another project that I haven’t yet told you about is off my desk for a bit…

3. For explanations, as well as Doug Smith, “Die-Links: a tool for the numismatist” in Celator Vol. 9 (Lancaster PA 1995), pp. 12-17, as linked above, see Philip Grierson, Numismatics (Oxford 1975), pp. 142-144.

4. Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I, p. 11.

5. R. A. G. Carson, P. V. Hill & J. P. C. Kent, Late Roman Bronze Coinage (London 1960); Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 20-24.

6. The short of it is that he thinks the mint switches to using indictional dates here for a few years, which lets him do all kinds of magic with reattributions and so on (Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I, pp. 13-18). The long of it, explaining all of that, would be oh so much longer…

The quiet return of the ruler of all

Long-term readers may remember a post from when I was teaching on medieval views of the Apocalypse, in which I looked at some charters from St-Pierre de Beaulieu that mention the end of the world every now and then, and then stopped doing so somewhere around the year 1000. I’m still interested in that kind of inverse evidence for a phenomenon, in which what we can actually see is concern stopping, and I think that last year I found another sort. Consider: in 843 the Synod of Constantinople, under the Empress Theodora as regent for her son Michael III and Patriarch Methodios, relegalised the veneration of images of heavenly persons, or icons, in the Byzantine Empire.1 Meanwhile, at some point between 842, when Theodora’s husband Theophilos died and she assumed the regency for their son, and 856 when she demitted the regency, the gold coinage of the Empire began to show a portrait of Christ on it, and it would continue to feature either Him, the Virgin or a saint, and often more than one, from then on until the empire’s final end in 1453.2 This was, therefore, the beginning of something big, and it seems to have begun with the end of the condemnation of icons.

Gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

One I couldn’t source from the Barber Institute’s collection, alas, a gold solidus of Emperor Michael III and Empress Theodora struck in Constantinople between 842 and 856, sold in Classical Numismatic Group auction no. 64, lot 1330.

This is not true in a way, because it didn’t quite begin here. You may even remember a very similar-looking portrait on the Barber Institute coins of Justinian II’s first reign (685-695) which I told you all about in March 2015. It would be very neat to be able to say that the promotion of Iconoclasm by Emperor Leo III meant the removal of Christ from the coinage, but it won’t work: for one thing, we are as you may remember no longer sure that Leo III really did very much about icons one way or the other, and for another and more important thing, it was Justinian II’s initial successor Leontius (695-698) who removed Christ from the coinage, not Leo III (717-741). Justinian restored a slightly different portrait of Christ to the coins in his second reign, but that was stopped by his immediate successor Philippikos (711-713). Leo and his descendants certainly did change the coinage, but mainly by putting themselves on it to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it has frustrated a number of scholars who have hitherto accepted the idea that Iconoclasm was an all-consuming state policy which divided the whole empire that not only does the coinage not show any other trace of this almighty schism, but the coins of the supposedly pro- and anti- parties don’t even really differ.3 So why should the reappearance of Christ, supposedly distinguished by his long hair and Gospel Book as the Pantokrator, ruler of all, already, be connected either?

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

Well, whether or not Iconoclasm had been a big deal under Leo III, it had certainly become one by 843. The whole issue had provoked a three-way theological dispute with the papacy and the Carolingian Empire and become a casus belli for several coups (because, like bullying someone for whatever makes them different, any excuse will do for that perhaps, but it became effective propaganda).4 This is the spirit in which our principal written sources for the controversy were written, and the whole reason why our perspectives on Leo III and his son Constantine V are so warped by them.5 Thus, whether or not the removal of Christ from the coinage had been for theological reasons or just to make it clear that Justinian II and all his policies were now gone, for those that knew those coins—and someone obviously had some of them coins at the mint to copy—it would have been seen as theologically motivated by 843. This is how I am trying to get away with arguing that the changes to the coinage in 695 and 711 were not to do with theology and that in 842×856 was, but if you will accept it, it’s another of these cases like the Beaulieu apocalypse charters, in which our sources only expose that something was a concern once it ended!

Triumph orthodoxy


1. See Leslie Brubaker & John Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconcoclast Era, c. 650-850: a history (Cambridge 2011), pp. 447-452.

2. I met this fact for the first time while reading Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople, 713-976: structure of the issues, corpus of coin finds, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history, transl. H. Thomas Hofmänner & ed. Italo Vecchi (Lancaster PA 2007), where the issues of 843 are discussed p. 30 and illustrated p. 76, but I don’t by any means accept Füeg’s close dating of the issue, for which there is no firm basis.

3. Frustration evident in Philip D. Whitting, “Iconoclasm and the Byzantine Coinage” in University of Birmingham Historical Journal Vol. 12 (Birmingham 1971), pp. 158-163. On the actual coins see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 150-187, but even he performs this same double-think, in which the coinage is unchanged by the advent of Iconoclasm but Irene’s changes to it must be explained in its light, not in the light of her having murdered her son the emperor (p. 158) and Theodora’s restoration of Christ to the coinage (p. 178) is also an Iconodule move. Only the latter seems justified, and even that underexamined.

4. For the Western side of the story see Thomas F. X. Noble, Images, Iconoclasm and the Carolingians (Philadelphia PA 2009).

5. This is the basic argument of Brubaker & Haldon, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era. The sources in question are accordingly discussed in John Haldon & Leslie Brubaker, Byzantium in the Iconoclast Era: the sources. An Annotated Survey, Birmingham Byzantine and Ottoman Monographs 7 (Aldershot 2001). See also Leslie Brubaker, Inventing Byzantine Iconoclasm (Bristol 2012).

Imitation and officialdom in early Islamic Syria

I want to write today about something I want at some point to be working on. This has been in the plans since I was at the Barber Institute and first met the relevant coins, but at the moment I have too many other things to finish to give it the time it needs; I’ve done enough reading to teach it, which worked well, but not enough to write with assurance. So I’ll just set it up to think about and promise to return to it in more depth later. The subject is what happened to the organisation of government in the areas taken over by Islam in its rush of conquests in the mid- to late-seventh century.

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

A Coptic-language papyrus detailing renders to an Islamic governor of Egypt, ʿAmr Ibn al-ʿĀṣ, London, British Museum, Pap. BM 1079

In Egypt, at least, it is now fairly clear that the immediate difference the Islamic conquest of the 640s made was minimal. The very top level of government, the Byzantine imperial governors and their staffs, was sliced off and replaced by an Arab governor appointed from Damascus, and that often proved to be problematic, but the people who ruled in localities, usually officials called pagarchs, were often allowed to remain in office, raising taxes in more or less the same way (and quite possibly less, which may have meant they were keeping more) and just rendering them to officials from Fustat for transmission to Damascus rather than Alexandria for Constantinople.1 We know this from Egypt because of the prolific, if localised, survival of the papyrus documentation of the administration that dealt with all this, but Egypt’s level of survival, especially for papyrus, is kind of unique. What can we use where there are no papyri? And the answer is, as so often, coins.

Copper fals of 'Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

Copper fals of ‘Abd al-Malik, Commander of the Faithful, struck at Manbij between 680 and 696, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B36

The areas that Islam took over in the seventh century were coin-using ones. In the west, as seen from Medina, there was the Byzantine (or, as they saw it, Roman) Empire, with a tax system based on the gold solidus and made practical by voluminous copper-alloy small change that also fed market exchange and kept city economies running. This system had been in trouble over the previous thirty years because of the ‘last great war of Antiquity’, that between the Romans and Persians during which Persia had for a decent while occupied the Middle East and Upper Egypt, and in that time not only do we apparently find the Persians striking pseudo-Byzantine coinage to keep things running, we also have several of the smaller cities of the occupied zone apparently making their own emergency coin to keep things going; that that is what it is seems obvious by how very much it doesn’t look like the real stuff, as if they feared to be accused of forgery if and when regular government returned.2

Probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Hastily-constructed composite image of a probable coin of the Persian occupation of Syria in the reign of the Emperor Phocas (602-610), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Meanwhile, in the relative east, the system of what had been the Persian Empire, based on a tax system working in silver drachms with only locally-issed copper-alloy small change, also seems to have continued almost unaltered. That is really interesting, not least because of the Zoroastrian and royal imagery of the coinage which was maintained with only the smallest Islamic additions, but it’s not where I want to go today because that system does actually seem to have continued pretty much as before, with provincial governors in the same provinces striking coin of the same sort at the same mints. Not so, however, in the west.

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdigerd III

Arab-Sassanian drachm after Shah Yazdigerd III, islamized only by the addition of the words ‘Muhammad the prophet of God’ in Arabic by the Shah’s left shoulder, image from I forget where alas

In the Roman zone, much of the coinage had previously come from Constantinople or its two satellite mints of Nicomedia and Cyzicus, all of which were now outside the political area. More local mints had been at Antioch, not conquered until 637 and Alexandria (which was taken in 641, reconquered in 645 and definitively fell to Islam in 646), with some coinage perhaps coming in from Cyprus (where Roman-Islamic power-sharing was agreed in 649).3 We know of emergency issues that are probably from Jerusalem and Cæsarea, but these are very scanty and since we can’t date them, we also can’t be sure they were still being issued.4 What this means is that the ex-Roman area of the new Islamic dominion at the point of takeover had no regular mints in it, and even the addition of Alexandria didn’t solve that because Egyptian coinage was struck at a different standard to the rest of the Empire’s.5

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616

Copper-alloy follis of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Nicomedia in 615-616, Stoa Image Gallery

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of Emperors Heraclius and Heraclius Constantine struck at Alexandria in 613-618

Copper-alloy duodecanummi of the same rulers struck at Alexandria in 613-618, HJB Coins sale 16 August 2001, not to scale (in fact, none of these are to scale)

So, what did they do? The study I’ve learnt most from so far breaks it down into four phases, all of which can seem a bit surprising.6 In the first place, the captured provinces continued to ship in Byzantine coin; we know this because issues struck after the date of the conquest, for Emperor Constans II (642-664), turn up there still in considerable numbers. Quite how that was arranged, I would love to know… After a while, which we can’t date and could actually have started straight away, local versions of Byzantine coins started to be made, which we can mostly identify because the details start to be slightly wrong. At the extremities of that range they feature things that were never on the same coin together, or which didn’t turn up on coins at all but seem to belong to the general symbolic library.

'Derivative Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date

“Er, Severos, usually that B goes below the M, and vertically? What? No, no, it doesn’t matter…” ‘Derivative’ Arab-Byzantine coin of uncertain mint and date (636×695 to be safe?), Leeds University Library, Thackray Collection, uncatalogued

Almost none of these coins identify their place of issue, though some of them carry Greek or, perhaps increasingly, Arabic, words meaning ‘good’ or ‘legitimate’ or the like. There is assumed by the numismatists a general progression from real-looking pseudo-Byzantine coins towards things that are essentially Arabicised variations on a vaguely Byzantine theme. If that’s right, then we get more and more Arabic, and among those coins emerge new mints, at Damascus, Tiberias (a. k. a. Tabariyya), Manbij, Scythopolis (Baisan), and many other places, none of which except perhaps Jerusalem and Cæsarea, neither of which stuck at it long, had ever struck coin under the empire.

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

Forty-nummi coin of an unknown issuer at Heliopolis (Baalbek), signed in both Greek and Arabic, of uncertain date, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B19

But almost all of these coins seem also to be imitated quite widely, at varying standards that have made one scholar, Clive Foss, write of a spectrum ranging from official issues to things that could have been made by a local blacksmith.7 At the extreme ends of this there are coins overstruck on whole or partial old coins, but this is hard to be sure about because the actual empire did a lot of that too, by now. And running alongside all of this is a myriad of very very worn Roman and Byzantine bronze, as well as some of the new stuff, that was validated or otherwise updated with Islamic countermarks, about which we know hardly anything (though a selection of it is now on display at the Barber Institute, if you’re interested).8

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

A copper twenty-nummi probably struck by Emperor Anastasius (491-518) or Justin I (518-527), very worn and bearing an Islamic countermark, from the Mardin Hoard, Barber Institute of Fine Arts MH0123

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

Copper-alloy forty-nummi coin struck by an unknown issuer at Emesa (Hims) at an uncertain date, and later countermarked on both sides, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B15

And this whole situation lasts until the 690s or so, at which point Caliph ‘Abd al-Malik seems to have tried a number of ways of joining Arab-Byzantine and Arab-Sasanian coinages up then replaced them all with the more standard Islamic coinage of the Middle Ages that we recognise somewhat more easily.

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid struck at a mint I can't identify between 713 and 715 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

Silver dirham of Caliph al-Walid struck at a mint I can’t identify between 713 and 715 AD, Barber Institute of Fine Arts A-B73

So, if you were one of my Empire and Aftermath students, at this point I would be asking you what this all means in terms of authority and government in the area. Usually coinage is a state monopoly; if everyone and his or her neighbour is making coins, who’s in charge? Isn’t it a problem for our picture of the eary caliphate if there were ‘official’ mints like Damascus striking coin and then there was another mint, somewhere we can’t place, imitating them to the point where numismatists actually distinguish it as pseudo-Damascus? How can the ‘official’ coinages and the countermarked quarters of coins hundreds of years old have been part of any system together? What can the point have been of marking some things ‘good’ or ‘of legitimate weight’ when their weights vary by sometimes as much as 50%? Why was no-one stopping the imitation? Could they not do so? These are the kind of questions that understanding the coinage might help with, and I intend to try, with the help of some esteemed collaborators, but any understanding of it is going to have to include the imitations.


1. This has been pretty much established by the work of Petra Sijpesteijn: see for example her “Landholding Patterns in Early Islamic Egypt” in Journal of Agrarian Change Vol. 9 (Oxford 2009), pp. 120-132, DOI: 10.1111/j.1471-0366.2009.00198.x.

2. I follow here Clive Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coins: an introduction, with a catalogue of the Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection Publications 1 (Washington DC 2008), pp. 1-17, with the Persian coinages described on pp. 9-12. For the phrase ‘the last great war of Antiquity’ I have to acknowledge James Howard-Johnston, “Al-Tabari on the Last Great War of Antiquity” in idem, East Rome, Sasanian Persia and the End of Antiquity: historical and historiographical studies, Variorum Collected Studies 848 (Aldershot: Ashgate 2006), VI.

3. On the coinage system as it had existed here, see for preference Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 43-77. My dates for the conquests could be challenged; I follow Hugh Kennedy, The Great Arab Conquests: how the spread of Islam shaped the world we live in (London 2007).

4. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, pp. 14-19.

5. Ibid., pp. 87-98.

6. Ibid., pp. 18-57, on which most of the next two paragraphs rest. Important differences with Foss’s account can be found in Grierson, Byzantine Coins, pp. 144-149, and Stephen Album and Tony Goodwin, The Pre-Reform Coinage of the Early Islamic Period, Sylloge of Islamic Coins in the Ashmolean Museum 1 (Oxford 2002), pp. 77-112.

7. Foss, Arab-Byzantine Coinage, p. 26.

8. Nicholas M. Lowick, Simon Bendall and Philip D. Whitting, The Mardin Hoard: Islamic Countermarks on Byzantine Folles. Catalogue of an Exhibition of Coins from the “Mardin Hoard” of Byzantine Folles, Many with Islamic Countermarks, in the University of Birmingham, 1976 (London 1977).

From the Sources XIII: a Who’s Who of the tenth-century Caucasus

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ, now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, image from Wikimedia Commons

Let me return for one last post—for now, at least—to the De Administrando Imperio of Emperor Constantine Porphyrogenitus (913-959).1 I’ve described already how rambling and personal this text can be as one gets closer to Constantine’s own recollections, and how sharply tuned to its purpose it can be beneath that exterior when one presses. At times, the two things coincide, and this is sharpest of all in the sections that cover the disputed and often-autonomous territories at the east end of what is now Turkey heading into the Caucasus, what is now Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan and was then Armenia, Lazica, Iberia and a number of other small polities whose number scholars in Baghdad, at least, considered impossible to count.2 These were areas where by the tenth century, after a long period of stand-off diplomacy, the Byzantine Empire had found it more and more possible to take a direct military interest, which was as Constantine wrote unbalancing local power relations left, right and centre.3 Imperial intervention for one side or another regularly increased the local instability, and it is in this section of the De Administrando Imperio that one really sees how it was done. This was where the kind of mind Constantine had, which could track tiny details of interpersonal relations for dozens of people and work out where a well-aimed gift or sanction would split them out, was exactly the right tool for the job, and having the statecrafter himself to tell you about it is really illuminating.

Map of Armenia and its neighbours in the early- to mid-tenth century

Map of Armenia and its neighbours in the early- to mid-tenth century. By www.armenica.orgwww.armenica.org, GFDL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12515076

We begin in the middle of an account “of the country of Taron”, which in the time of Constantine’s father Leo VI was ruled by one Krikorikios (Grigor, or, as we might put it, Gregory).4 Krikorikios was essentially a vassal of the Sultan of Baghdad at this point, but was also contending for the rule of Taron with his cousin Ashot Arkaïkas, and at an uncertain point he managed to capture Ashot’s sons in battle. Ashot wrote for help to Sembat, Prince of Princes of Armenia, and Sembat wrote for help to Emperor Leo. Leo sent a couple of embassies, and with the second one, led by one Constantine Libos, brought Krikorikios’s brother Apoganem (or Abu Ghanim, it’s mixed-up out here) and the two prisoners to Constantinople, honoured Apoganem with the imperial rank of protospatharios and got to keep the kids at the capital. This is where we enter the story:

“After this the said Constantine spent some time in Chaldia, and was then commissioned by imperial mandate to go to Taron and take Krikorikios, prince of Taron, and come to the imperial city; and this he did. When this same Krikorikios had entered the city protected of God, and had been honoured with the rank of magister and military governor of Taron, he was also given for his residence a house called the house of Barbaros, now the house of Basil the chamberlain. He was, moreover, honoured with an annual stipend of ten pounds in gold and a further ten pounds in miliaresia, making twenty pounds in all. After some sojourn in the imperial city, he was escorted back again to his country by this same protospatharius Constantine.

Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo VI and Constantine VII, struck at Constantinople between 908 and 912, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4812

This weighs two-and-a-half grams, so ten pounds of them would pile up a bit… Silver miliaresion of Emperors Leo VI and Constantine VII, struck at Constantinople between 908 and 912, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4812

“After this, Apoganem came once more to the emperor, of blessed memory, and was advanced by him to the rank of patrician; and he was also permitted to take to wife the daughter of the said Constantine; and on this ground he asked for a house as well and he too received the house of Barbaros, without a golden bull. After receiving the emperor’s bounty, he then returned to his country, with intent to come again and complete the celebration of his marriage; but no sooner was he escorted back to his country than he ended his life, a few days afterwards. His brother Krikorikios sent letters asking that he might come to the imperial city and receive from the hands of the holy emperor the stipend granted to him and sojourn for some while in the city protected of God. Thereupon he proceeded to demand for his residence the house which had been set aside for his brother, and the emperor, of blessed memory, handed it over to him, both because he had lately submitted himself and in order to excite in other princes of the east a similar eagerness for submission to the Romans; but he issued no golden bull making a deed of gift of this house to him.

Chrysobull of Emperor Andronikos II to the church of Monemvasia from 1301, Athens, Byzantine and Greek Museum BXM000534

About three hundred years too late, but, this is one of those golden bulls the text keeps going on about, a chrysobull of Emperor Andronikos II to the church of Monemvasia from 1301 (Athens, Byzantine and Greek Museum BXM534), made of four sheets of parchment glued together

“Several years later, when the emperor Romanos, of blessed memory, had laid hold upon the sceptre of the empire of the Romans, this same Krikorikios reported that he had not the means to keep the house of Barbaros, but demanded that he should receive in its stead a suburban estate in Keltzini, either that of Tatzates or some other, whichever the emperor directed, in order that, when the Agarenes should make an incursion into his country, he might be able to send thither his personal relatives and substance. The emperor, who did not possess an accurate knowledge of the facts, and supposed that the Taronite held the house of Barbaros in virtue of an imperial golden bull of Leo, of blessed memory, gave him the suburban estate of Grigoras in Keltzini and, of course, took back the house; but he too issued no golden bull in favour in respect of the suburban estate.

Modern Erzincan, Turkey

Modern Erzincan, Turkey, central town of the old province of Keltzini where Krikorikios wanted his estate, a lot further from the capital but within plausible fleeing range of Taron all right

“Thereupon Tornikis, nephew of the Taronite and son of the late Apoganem, wrote to this same emperor:

«The house of Barbaros was presented to my father by the emperor Leo, of most blessed memory, but after my father’s death, because I was under age and an orphan, my uncle, in virtue of his authority, took possession of his house, always promising that when I should come of age, I should take over the paternal house; and now, as I have learned, my uncle has given this house to your imperial majesty, and has received in exchange for it the suburban estate of Grigoras in Keltzini.»

“And because of these imperial gifts bestowed on the prince of Taron, envy towards him was implanted and grew up in Kakikios, prince of Basparaka [Gagik Ardzrouni prince of Vaspurakan], and Adranasir, the curopalate of Iberia, and Asotikios [Ashot Erkot], the prince of princes [of Armenia], who wrote to the emperor grumbling at the cause whereby the Taronite alone enjoyed an imperial stipend, while all of them got nothing.

«For what service – they said – is he performing more than we, or in what does he help the Romans more than we do? Either, therefore, we too should be stipendiary as he is, or else he too should be excluded from this largesse.»

The emperor Romanos, of blessed memory, wrote back to them, that the stipend in favour of the Taronite had not been granted by him, that it should now lie with him to cut it off, but by the emperor Leo, of most blessed memory; nor was it right that what had been done by former emperors should be undone by their successors. However, he wrote to this same Taronite informing him that the said parties were vexed and offended. He replied that he could provide neither gold nor silver, but promised to give, over and above the gifts regularly sent, tunics and bronze vessels up to ten pounds in total value, and these he did give for three or four years. But thereafter he reported that he could not provide this tribute, and demanded either that he should receive the stipend gratis as in the time of the emperor Leo, or else that it should be cut off. And so, that it might not cause offence to Kakikios and the curopalate and the rest, the said emperor Romanus, of blessed memory, cut it off. But to console him, as it were, he afterwards honoured his son Asotios, when he came to Constantinople, with patrician rank and entertained him munificently before sending him home.

“On the death of the magister Krikorikios [in 929], Tornikios [Thornik], son of Apoganem, reported that he heartily desired to come and behold the emperor; whereupon the emperor sent the protospatharius Krinitis, the interpreter, who brought the said Tornikios to Constantinople, and the emperor advanced the same Tornikios to the honour of patrician rank. He put forward his claims to the house of Barbaros, and having heard that his uncle had resigned his ownership of it on receipt of a suburban estate in Keltzini, declared that his uncle had no power to effect an exchange in respect of his paternal inheritance, and demanded that he should be given either the house or the suburban estate, failing which, he was for resigning both to the emperor, so that his cousins might not have them. Therefore the emperor, since the old Taronite was now dead, resumed the suburban estate but did not give the house in exchange for it, because, as has already been stated above, no golden bull had been issued in respect of any of these transactions.

Genealogy of the various princes involved here, taken from Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962 repr. Washington DC 2012), p. 161

Genealogy of the various princes involved here, taken from Romilly J. H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962 repr. Washington DC 2012), p. 161

“After this, the late Pankratios, eldest son of that magister Krikorikios the Taronite, came to the imperial city and was advanced by the emperor to the dignity of patrician and was also made military governor of Taron. He asked that he might also be given a wife from among the ladies related to the imperial family, and the emperpr gave him to wife the sister of the magister Theophylact. And after his marriage he made a will, in which he stated: «If children are born to me of this women, they are to have all my country for their ancestral inheritance.» Thereupon he asked the emperor that he might be given the suburban estate of Grigoras for the patrician lady, his wife, to reside there, and after he death this suburban estate should revert to his imperial majesty. The emperor sanctioned this too, and after presenting him with many gifts, sent him with his wife away to his country. Now, the sons of the magister Krikorikios, the same patrician Pankratios and the patrician Asotios, greatly vexed and oppressed their cousin, the patrician Tornikios, who, finding their aggressiveness unendurable, wrote to the emperor to send a trustworthy servant and take over his country, and conduct himself and his wife and their child to the emperor. The emperor sent the protospatharius Krinitis, the interpreter, to take him and conduct himself and his wife and their child to the emperor. But when Krinitis arrived in that country, he found that Tornikios had already departed this life, having devised before his end that all his country should be subject to the emperor of the Romans, and that his wife and child should go to the emperor; and to her, on her arrival, the emperor gave for her residence the monastery in Psomathia of the protospatharius Michael, formerly collector of Chaldia. The said Krinitis was sent back again by the emperor to take over the country of Apoganem, that is, the portion of the patrician Tornikios. But the sons of the Taronite, the cousins of the deceased, sent back a demand that they should give up Oulnoutin [now Ognut] and retain the country of their cousin, for they were quite unable to live if the emperor were to occupy their cousin’s country as his own. The emperor, yielding to his own goodness of heart, fulfilled their request and gave them the country of Apoganem, their cousin, and himself took Oulnoutin with all its surrounding territory. The whole country of Taron was divided in two, one half of it being held by the sons of the magister Krikorikios, the other half by their cousins, the sons of the patrician Apoganem.”

I realise that this is not easy to follow, and I bet it wasn’t at the time either. I can easily picture Romanos’s face when each of these cousins turned up demanding that they should have the estate he’d just been given back by someone who seemed to own it. Problems he didn’t have at sea! But nonetheless, the end result is that the empire, without at any point going to war or even, apparently, more than the implicit use of force presumably involved in escorting all these ambassadors, wound up with a frontier town deep into what had been foreign territory and no tributes to pay. How?

Almost the only image I can find of Ognut as it now is is this rather odd little video promoting a dead website, which suggests that the place may not now be quite what it was in Constantine's days...

Well, none of this would have worked without that very dense family tree, it seems clear. The problem was that there were too many Taronites competing for too little Taron, and Leo had cleverly inserted the empire into this as a source of support, with the result that since the various princes were already in competition they quickly came to compete for that support too. The first generation of princes we’re talking about were fighting with their cousins; by the time we get to the end their own children are all fighting each other. The stakes were small and blood was, apparently, high. It didn’t therefore really matter that the support was very little material use to them, as we can see; indeed, it could apparently cost them more than they could afford in the barely-mentioned but presumably usual tribute arrangements that paid for this promotion. It was worth being an imperial patrician back home in Taron all the same, presumably, even if all it meant was that you had the evidence of having friends in the highest of places. Of course, once all your cousins were also patricians that wore off also, but maybe you could get some symbolic capital out of owning a nice house in Constantinople or a manor in Mesopotamia even if your other cousin was, for now, the recognised governor. When Krikorikios gave the estate in Keltzini back to Romanos, Tornikios was thus cut out of the competition; no wonder he made a stink about it, what did he now have to lose? And he was sufficiently desperate, and apparently sufficiently unable to reach any kind of modus vivendi with his cousins, that even a guarantee that the emperor would not give them stuff was enough to buy his loyalty right up to the contrary end where rather than let his cousins have it (and deprive his son) he would rather hand his whole province over to the empire. That is the kind of enmity you can use! The emperors, both Leo and, once he got a grasp of the situation, Romanos, thus roped these princes into something like a card game in which the dealer was able every now and then to take a card from their hands and make them carry on without it. They don’t seem to have fancied their chances challenging the casino bouncers, and so the house won.

All of this seems quite a lot like the kind of pacts with individual princes, declarations of protection and interventions in defence of its own interests that extended the British power in India; the end of the Maratha Empire has some especially relevant-looking parallels. The difference is, of course, that whereas those deals were negotiated by various officers of the East India Company, this is a lot more like the King (or Queen) of England playing host to the Maharaja at Windsor Castle and lending him a small chunk of Yorkshire to call home in the cricket season. The emperors themselves were deeply involved in this interpersonal network, not least because as Romanos found if you didn’t stay at least passingly familiar with it things went sideways, but also because that connection to the emperor was actually what the Byzantines primarily had to offer; we’ve already seen that it wasn’t about money, and I suppose that the various offices only meant what they could be made to mean once you were back in Taron. It meant keeping the whole web of relations not just present but past in your head, but Constantine was obviously good at that, and wrote it down for his son because he thought his son would need to be good at it too.

The other part of it that interests me is these high-powered ambassadors knitting it all together, not just grand dignitaries but people whom the emperors could send, presumably as I say with a small but powerful contingent of troops, into what is essentially a city under siege to get the ruler’s family out; again, parallels from the British involvement in Southern Asia spring to mind and I wonder what stories could be told about Constantine Libos and Krinitis and what kind of men they were.5 Doubtless our imperial author could have told a few such stories, and it’s annoying in a way that he did not, but there is, you have to admit, plenty to go on here already…


1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperii, ed. Gyula Moravcsik & transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, new edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967, repr. 1993).

2. Stephen Runciman, “Cc. 43-46/165″, in Romilly J.&ngsp;H. Jenkins (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Administrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 156-180, at p. 158: “The Caucasian nations to the north and east, of which Mas’udi says that ‘God alone knows the number’…” Runciman gives no citation, but if you want to hunt it down there’s a translation of the first book of al-Mas’udi’s Meadows of Gold and Mines of Gems online here and at the moment Wikipedia gives links to the full edition and French translation.

3. My grip on the historical context is all coming from Jonathan Shepard (ed.), The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire c. 500-1492 (Cambridge 2008), here especially Shepard, “Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)”, ibid. 493-536 and Tim Greenwood, “Armenian Neighbours”, ibid. pp. 333-364, the latter of which the author appears sportingly to have put online here, although a lot of the detail in the commentary comes from Runciman, “Cc. 43-46/165″.

4. Constantine, De Administrando Imperio, c. 43, whence also translation quoted below. Ordinarily in these posts I provide a text of the original to go with my translation, but since the DAI is online I figure you can just go and look there. Names in square brackets are modern Armenian or Turkish, transliterated into English as per Runciman, “Cc. 43-46/165″.

5. Ibid. pp. 162-163 & 165, suggest that some such stories could be told: there is apparently enough in Theophanes Continuatus to explain that Constantine’s byname, which Runciman renders as ‘Lips’ but I have changed to try and minimise confusion, means ‘son of the south wind’ and comes from an event at the dedication of a church he built, for example, and there are some data on a man who may be the right Krinitis. Still: Constantine would have known more…

In Marca Hispanica XXXIII: my questions answered

Entrance to the Arxiu i Biblioteca de Vic

The entrance to the Arxiu Capitular i Biblioteca de Vic

Resuming the recounting of my last trip to Catalonia, we left the story at the amazing Santa Maria del Mar in Barcelona but finished that day back in Vic, where we had an excellent dinner at la Creperia and then the next day fell to something alarmingly like work. Admittedly, that work started with a visit to the Museu Episcopal de Vic, because you have to, but they don’t like photography and more and more of their collections are online now, even if still not the bits I would like most. But after that, while my companion went a-touristing, I went to an archive like a real historian. This was something of a flying visit, made more effective as ever by the tremendous help of Dr Rafel Ginebra and the great knowledge of Monsignor Miquel dels Sants Gros i Pujol, exemplary archivists if ever such there were. But I had come in with a hit-list of charters intended to answer certain questions, and apart from a very few that were away for conservation, I came out with all the answers I’d wanted. And since some of the relevant questions are ones I’ve raised here, I may as well tell you the answers!

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 547

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 547

For example, I have many times used this document in my work, because it recounts a meeting at Taradell in which two charters were replaced after having been lost, and it does so in terms that sound utterly realistic but actually must derive from a written model.1 (Joan, if you’re reading, this is our testimony for the Vilar de Gaudila…) I’ve written about it so much that it was clear I would at some point need to illustrate it, so this was me making sure I could. But there are two documents deriving from that meeting, and I had always wondered what the relationship between them was. It turns out it’s physical; they’re both written on the same parchment, as you see, and if you click through to a slightly bigger version you’ll see that several of the same witnesses signed both bits autograph. There’s more questions this raises about how the ceremony actually went, but now I have all the evidence there is with which to answer them.

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 649

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 649

Most of what I was doing, however, was hunting scribes. For example, I have become interested in a particular scribe called Joan who wrote charters for Bishop Guisad II of Urgell but only in various areas of Osona, and doesn’t seem to have been linked to the cathedral which actually covered that county, Vic, although it’s there where his documents largely survive.2 Obviously one question that therefore arises is whether all the documents are by the same Joan. Well, there’s one above…3

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 2097

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 2097

… and here’s another and immediately, you see that the simple answer is the correct one; although I did find others by this guy, there is at least one other, the scribe of the above, and one of my new tasks is therefore to go through the list and group the charters according to what I can now see of who is writing them.4 But wait: there is something even more interesting here. Do you remember when I was working through the excellent book of Benoît-Michel Tock about signatures in charters that he had cases where signatures might have been made on and then actually cut off from the formal version of the charter that went into the archive.5 Well, look along that lower margin above there and tell me that isn’t what’s happened here; that mark is the top of someone else’s ruche, isn’t it? We’ll never know whose but it’s educational just to know it could happen.

Arxiu Episcopal de Vic, calaix VIII, núm. 135

Arxiu Episcopal de Vic, calaix VIII, núm. 135

Likewise with scribe-hunting: do you remember me writing about a scribe named Ermemir, based at Santa Eulàlia de Riuprimer, who seemed to have been keeping the charters he wrote in his own church? Here’s one of them.6

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1302

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1302

This, on the other hand, is pretty clearly by a different Ermemir, who actually turns up in a small group of his own.7 Now I can separate the two (or, as it may be, more).

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1300

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1300

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1300, verso

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 1300, verso

This is the Riuprimer guy again, but this one has its own interest, because you will observe if you look closely that the actual charter text, the paler ink, sat a few centimetres clear of the left-hand margin. Accordingly, someone very short of parchment later wrote an inventory in the margin (the darker ink). This runs onto the reverse, as well. The edition gives one only the tiniest hint of this; Ordeig just says, “Al marge esquerre i al dors hi ha escrits uns capbreus (s. XI)”.8 I’m sure he’s gone on to edit in its proper place in the eleventh-century series but I don’t have access to that, so can’t answer questions like whether this is the same lands that are being inventoried, and whether this therefore counts as a sort of update, or if this was just random parchment reuse.9 Well, now, in theory I can, if I can only read it. And having a high-resolution photograph makes that a lot easier! Now, one last one.

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973

Arxiu Capitular de Vic, calaix 6, núm. 973

You will probably remember my long long series of posts arguing with Michel Zimmermann, and you may remember that a certain trend in his scholarship emerged as a theme in these posts to the extent that I was very surprised to find him writing towards the end of his massive work about an eleventh-century female scribe, called Alba ‘femina’.10 Unfortunately, I had my doubts about whether that scribe was really writing the charter, because there was clearly another one on the same parchment by a very similar-looking hand. Well, now I have seen the parchment, and the other hand is not in fact the same. You have to look very carefully, they are very similar, but they form their loops differently and, perhaps most clearly, the capital N in their signatures is differently constructed. She may have learnt from him, may even have been working wth him and that be why they wound up writing documents on the same parchment, but I’m now fairly sure she did do her own writing, or at least that he did not do hers. And this is the kind of question you can only answer when you can see the original, or at least get a decent picture of it. So my thanks go again to the Arxiu i Biblioteca de Vic, to Rafel Ginebra and to Miquel dels Sants; I will be back when I have more questions!


1. My writing for now at Jonathan Jarrett, “Pathways of Power in late-Carolingian Catalonia”, unpublished Ph. D. thesis (University of London 2005), online here, pp. 49-53, though actual publication of these thoughts is even now under review. The charters are most recently edited as Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Catalunya Carolíngia: els comtats d’Osona i Manresa, Memòries de la Secció Històrico-Arqueològica LIII (Barcelona 1999), 3 vols, doc. nos 33 & 34.

2. Although as this post makes clear they are not all by the same scribe, if you only have the edition ibid. doc. nos. 668, 670, 674, 675, 837, 840, 849, 863, 896, 899 & 1499 are all contendors for his authorship.

3. Printed as ibid. doc. no. 674.

4. This one printed as ibid. doc. no. 840.

5. B.-M. Tock, Scribes, souscripteurs et témoins dans les actes privés en France (VIIe – début XIIe siècle, Atelier de Recherches sur les Textes Médiévaux 9 (Turnhout 2006), pp. 392-397.

6. Printed as Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, doc. no. 1792.

7. This one is too late for the Catalunya Carolíngia; it must be printed in Ramon Ordeig i Mata (ed.), Diplomatari del Catedral de Vic (segle XI) (Vic 2000-2010), 6 fascicules, but nowhere in Britain has more than the first two volumes of that and I’d have to be in London, Oxford or Cambridge even for those.

8. Ordeig, Catalunya Carolíngia IV, III p. 1292 (doc. no. 1822).

9. Again, this must be edited in Ordeig, Diplomatari de la Catedral de Vic (segle XI), but this one won’t even be in one of the sections that is in the country. I am looking into buying a copy…

10. Michel Zimmermann, Écrire et lire en Catalogne (IXe-XIIIe siècles), Bibliothèque de la Casa de Velázquez 23 (Madrid 2003), 2 vols, II p. 1250, fig. 4.

Learning from an ailing emperor

The last two posts have involved rather a lot of me getting things wrong in a more or less embarrassing fashion, including about stuff I’ve either taught or written about. Obviously the thing to do next is to start giving opinions about a text written in a language I don’t even read, right? In fact, that might even be safer since at least here I know roughly how much I don’t know… But I have been meaning to write about this since the run-up to the Leeds International Medieval Congress last year, and my current somewhat shaky form isn’t going to stop me. So I want to introduce you to the work known as De Administrando Imperio by Emperor Constantine VII (913-959).1

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ

Ivory depiction of Constantine VII being crowned by Christ, now in the Pushkin Museum, Moscow, image from Wikimedia Commons

You see, last academic year I was under a certain amount of social pressure to identify as a Byzantinist, what with the second-best Byzantine coin collection in the world (so it has been claimed) in my charge. I was also trying to get people to participate in a grand effort of comparison of medieval frontiers, and needed to come up with something for a Leeds session on that subject. And so I thought that it would be potentially interesting to compare what my speciality medieval magnate, Count Borrell II of Barcelona (945-993), did with his frontiers to what a completely different but roughly contemporary polity, which given my immediate circumstances should most obviously be the Byzantine Empire, did with some of its. And having declared such an intent, the obvious next step was the De Administrando Imperio.

Now, there are lots of things about this text that struck me and I want to write about at least a couple, without anticipating the actual paper too much since I have every hope that a version of it will some day go into print.2 But to say anything useful about what the De Administrando says it seemed more and more to me that the first step was to understand what it is, which should be simple but isn’t. What it immediately appears to be is a manual of statecraft by a Byzantine Emperor, written for his son and future successor Romanus II (959-963). In fact, firstly not very much of it is explicitly about the administration of the Empire and secondly quite a lot of it is not by Constantine VII.3 I’ll try and explain…

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine VII with Empress Zoe, struck at Constantinople in 913-919, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4871

Bronze follis of Emperor Constantine VII with Empress Zoe, struck at Constantinople in 913-919, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4871; Constantine is the little one on the left

In the first place one has to understand Constantine’s own life situation.4 He was son of the successful Emperor Leo VI the Wise (886-912) but was only two when Leo died, so although he succeeded he did so alongside his uncle Alexander (912-913), who kept his nephew mostly excluded from power during his short reign. Once Alexander was dead Constantine’s mother Zoe became leader of a regent council, but was for one reason or another unable to hold onto that status and the admiral of the fleet, Romanus Lecapenus, more or less took power in 919, marrying his daughter Helena to Constantine in that year and then assuming co-emperorship in 920.

Pierced gold solidus of Emperor Romanus I, showing him being crowned by Christ, with his son-in-law Constantine VII and his son Christopher sharing a cross on the reverse. Struck in Constantinople between 919 and 931, though narrower guesses have been made; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4841

Pierced gold solidus of Emperor Romanus I, showing him being crowned by Christ, with his son-in-law Constantine VII and his son Christopher sharing a cross on the reverse. Struck in Constantinople between 919 and 931, though narrower guesses have been made; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4841

Over Romanus I’s long and more or less successful reign (920-944) power was shuffled and reconfigured again and again, it seems, with his own sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine becoming co-emperors alongside and indeed in front of Constantine VII, in terms of how they were presented in public display and on the coinage.5 Another of his sons, Theophylact, became Patriarch of Constantinople in 933, although far too young. Christopher, who seems to have been the intended heir, however died in 931, and after that Romanus seems to have accepted that his other sons would not be able to keep Constantine VII from power, and returned him to a more obvious rôle. Constantine was spared the bother of a contest, however, because in 944 Stephen and his imperial brother decided they’d waited long enough, kidnapped their father and deposed him and when they returned to Constantinople the people rose against them and demanded that Constantine VII take sole power. Usurper father and rebels sons all died as monks, although Stephen outlived both Constantine VII and Romanus II. It’s a messy story.

Gold solidus of Constantine VII struck in Constantinople, most likely between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4855

Gold solidus of Constantine VII struck in Constantinople, most likely between 945 and 959 but let’s be honest, could be earlier too; Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4855

What it all means for us, however, is that until 944 Constantine VII had a lot of time on his hands, and he seems to have spent a lot of this buried in books and the archives of the imperial palace. By the time he came to the throne he had a better idea than most about what the empire had been and some strong ideas about what it should now be, based not least on a series of treatises he had written, of which the De Administrando was only one.6 But he proceeded by compilation, pulling in materials of all vintages, so that the empire he reconstructed, and in the case of his book on imperial ceremony even enacted, was an empire that had never quite been, not all at once.

A modern map of part of the world as depicted by Constantine VII

A modern map of part of the world as depicted by Constantine VII, by Hxseek at English Wikipedia – Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6342264

This applies no less to the De Administrando, but this raises particular excitement for scholars of the areas that he covers. These are, more or less, the frontiers with non-Islamic powers: it starts with the Pechenegs and the various other peoples who can affect them, including Rus’, Bulgarians and Turks, then talks at length about the way the Rus’ get to Constantinople, briefly about how to constrain the the Khazars, then goes off for many chapters into a reprise of the early history of Islam, largely retold from the Chronographia of Theophanes, all of which seems to be leading up to the point at which the ‘Abbasids lost control of al-Andalus to the one Umayyad they’d failed to kill, ‘Abd al-Rahman I. But that, 756, is as far as that thread goes and then he moves onto recent diplomatic relations within Italy, a matter of much more current concern as Romanus was married to a daughter of King Hugh of Italy (924-947). After that he proceeds more or less geographically, giving a historical ethnography of the various Roman and Slavic peoples of the Balkans, moving into the Caucasus and then appending a series of anecdotes about treaties and the manning of the imperial fleet. He finishes with two legends from Cherson.

Bronze coin of Constantine VII struck at Cherson between 913 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4918

Bronze coin of Constantine VII struck at Cherson between 913 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4918

From this you can see that if there was really an overall plan for this work, it was not adhered to very well. This has been explained by suggesting that Constantine had actually already nearly finished a different, more ethnographical work hypothetically known as the De Nationibus, and then before the final edit recycled its material willy-nilly into his new project for his son.7 But lots of that material is not only not his, but not reconciled at all with the other components of the work, which has suggested to many people that what we are getting here is nothing less than palace archival material copied without alteration, and often (it can be argued from the language used) based on or even actually being reports by local officials or informants from the areas concerned. This opens up for scholars of the early Slavs or the Rus’ the irresistible possibility that Constantine has preserved for them the earliest written records from their chosen peoples of study, and so there is great resistance to any suggestion that this is in fact a compilation of Constantinopolitan pseudo-history, selected by Constantine to justify baseless claims to imperial suzerainty of areas he couldn’t actually affect.8

Map of the rapids down the Dnieper river constructed more or less from the account of the De Administrando Imperio

Map of the rapids down the Dnieper river constructed more or less from the account of the De Administrando Imperio

And yet it sometimes seems as if it must be, because Constantine turns up so strongly as an authorial voice, which was the the thing that I liked best about reading the text. He starts the first chapter with a clear agenda:

“Hear now, my son, those things of which I think you should not be ignorant, and be wise that you may attain to government. For I maintain that while learning is a good thing for all the rest as well, who are subjects, yet it is especially so for you, who are bound to take thought for the safety of all, and to steer and to guide the laden ship of the world… I conceive, then, that it is always greatly to the advantage of the emperor of the Romans to be minded to keep the peace with the nation of the Pechenegs and to conclude conventions and treaties of friendship with them and to send every year to them from our side a diplomatic agent with presents befitting and suitable to that nation, and to take from their side sureties, that is, hostages and a diplomatic agent, who shall be collected together under charge of the competent minister in this city protected of God, and shall enjoy all imperial benefits and gifts suitable for the emperor to bestow.”

And he goes on with what is essentially a catalogue of people whom the Pechenegs can be induced to attack instead of the empire or who as allies of the empire may make the Pechenegs think twice before leaving their homeland open to attack by setting out against the empire. But it’s not long before that takes him onto ambassadorial routes to these people and then, apparently, he remembers this excellent account he has of bringing boats down the Dniepr from Kiev, and we’re off.9

Map of the Caucasus during the period of Romanus I's and Constantine VII's rule

Map of the Caucasus during the period of Romanus I’s and Constantine VII’s rule, from Wikiwand

Although a lot of the material can thus be explained as things it is useful for an emperor to know, some of it seems to have a bigger purpose, of presenting imperial claims in areas that lay well beyond the empire’s current control. On the former side there’s the intricate account of the recent politics of the Caucasus, important because almost all the rival potentates there had appealed for imperial support at some point and might do so again, always opening up opportunities for imperial expansion by force majeure. On the latter there are the quite dubious and much-debated claims about imperial Christianisation of the Balkans, which can be made into currently-relevant political statements but are at the least very odd ways to do that.10 Both of these cases are going to get their own posts, so I’ll not say more just now; instead, I’ll just add that not only do some sections, especially that on the Islamic conquest of Spain, not obviously serve any agenda beyond antiquarianism, but some are much more obviously personal. The little section on the imperial fleet—not the navy proper but a squadron maintained to carry the emperor and his officials in suitable style—is perhaps the most touching of these, where Constantine describes some of the men he remembers commanding the imperial galleys:

“When Podaron became vice-admiral, the protospatharius Theophylact Bimblidis was appointed protospatharius of the basin, who was nephew of the protospatharius John, surnamed Thalasson, and he lasted for a few years of the first reign of Constantine the Porphyrogenitus, the Christ-loving sovereign. On his death, since Michael the elder aforesaid [in a part not quoted here] was grown very old indeed and had given many long years of service as steersman, he was honoured with the rank of protospatharius and was also appointed protospatharius of the basin. And when the emperor embarked on the galley in the basin and set out either upon a progress or somewhere else, that good old man, ever memorable for his seamanship, would take his stand amidships of the galley, inspiring and urging the oarsmen of the galley to pull and row more bravely and manfully, and at the same time instructing the steersmen of the day how to manage the rudders and steer the imperial vessel when the winds were blowing distemperately. Well, he died….”11

I like this bit not just for the sheer irrelevance of Constantine’s genealogical detail—Romanus could surely get no benefit from knowing whose nephew an official of forty years before was—but because despite the third-person narrative, it’s clearly Constantine’s own memory we’ve got here, and it tells us that somewhere within the forty-five-year-old emperor who had spent much of his life as a virtual prisoner, albeit in a huge palace, was still the boy who had got to ride around on that galley and watch the elder Michael boss the sailors around in grand style.

Some of Constantine’s memories are less generous, and in particular, and understandably, he has almost nothing good to say of Romanus I Lecapenus. His words vary from lengthy accounts of why Romanus’s policy had been misguided, especially in areas where Constantine was now doing better, to straightforward character assassination:

“The lord Romanus the Emperor was an idiot and an illiterate man, neither bred in the high imperial manner, nor following Roman custom from the beginning, nor of imperial or noble descent, and therefore the more rude and authoritarian in doing most things … for his beliefs were uncouth, obstinate, ignorant of what is good, and unwilling to adhere to what is right and proper.12

One could certainly argue that this had a political purpose, since two of Romanus’s sons were still alive and, indeed, one Patriarch of Constantinople at the time of writing and might still have been seen as threats, and it’s an odd thing so thoroughly to insult your son’s grandfather in a work you’re giving to that son. This is not the only place where Constantine seems to have thought this work might have a wider audience, but on the other hand the contents could have been considered sensitive and the repeated addresses to his son make a specific audience also seem to have been intended.13

Gold solidus of Emperor  Constantine VII with Romanus II, struck at Constantinople probably between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4852

Gold solidus of Emperor Constantine VII with Romanus II, struck at Constantinople probably between 945 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4852

One is left to wonder if Constantine really knew what he was doing with this work, or if it was even really finished; it seems not to have been edited, as said, its chapter headings don’t always match its contents and Constantine seems to refer here and there to things he’s failed to say in other sections.14 One explanation of the state of it might be that the single surviving manuscript, which was copied in the second half of the eleventh century, was made up from something that was still a working copy, with notes and materials laid in that were never supposed to be part of the final version. The scholarship is pretty clear that the text was finalised in 952, however, because that is a date actually given as current at one point in the text and was the year of Romanus II’s fourteenth birthday, when he might have been considered to have come of age, and the opening proem not only names the author, in the first person, and the recipient, but gives a summary of the contents that seems to match the order of what we have.15 In other words it looks as if this is something like what Constantine meant it to be, although if so one wonders if our copy was made from the final version, if Constantine had in fact read over that version or if he was really working at full power. Later sources suggest that Constantine drank too much wine, and there is something about the way this text proceeds that does remind me of one knowledgeable but ageing alcoholic I knew well in his declining years.16 But if the De Administrando is, in fact, just badly put together, what does that do to our attempts to divine its various deeper political and intellectual purposes? Maybe they have also to be assumed to be not very well put together. And can we trust such an author to have reported or copied his sources accurately? These are questions people probably don’t want to deal with, as they threaten to diminish how much we know, but what mainly strikes me all the same is how very human Constantine comes across in his attempt to compile his uniquely imperial wisdom.

Copper-alloy follis of Constantine VII , struck at Constantinople probably between 944 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597

Copper-alloy follis of Constantine VII , struck at Constantinople probably between 944 and 959, Barber Institute of Fine Arts B4597


1. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, ed. Gyula Moravcsik, transl. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, 2nd edn., Dumbarton Oaks Texts 1 (Washington DC 1967), online here.

2. Though should you really care and need a citation, that would be J. Jarrett, “De Administrandis Marcis: the 10th-Century Frontier with Islam, seen from Barcelona and Byzantium”, paper presented in session ‘Rethinking the Medieval Frontier, I: Beyond the Reconquista’, International Medieval Congress, 9th July 2015.

3. Also, it’s not called the De Administrando Imperio, in as much as it’s in Greek and it doesn’t have a title in any of the manuscripts, but this is what its first editor called it in an era when it was still considered necessary to give Greek texts a title of reference in a ‘proper’ language…

4. I base my account here mostly on Jonathan Shepard, ‘Equilibrium to Expansion (886–1025)’ in idem, The Cambridge History of the Byzantine Empire (Cambridge 2008), pp. 493-536, doi: 10.1017/CHOL9780521832311.020, at pp. 503-518. I was working at speed when I put that paper together…

5. On the coinage, which has probably been assigned too precise a chronology on the assumption that its iconography precisely reflects the shifting balance of power in the reign, see Philip Grierson, Byzantine Coins (London 1982), pp. 172-188. The finer chronology proposed by Franz Füeg, Corpus of the Nomismata from Anastasius II to John I in Constantinople, 713-976: structure of the issues, corpus of coin finds, contribution to the iconographic and monetary history (Lancaster PA 2007), goes well beyond the demonstrable. I’d give page references but, really, you could say that of the whole book. Even he, however, has to admit (at p. 39) that Constantine struck solidi with both sole and accompanied portraits at the same time, which if it could be done obviously undermines the whole chronology based on who’s on the coins. This really should have been obvious from the copper-alloy coinage already.

6. Others: Costantino Porfirogenito, De Thematibus, ed. Agostino Pertusi, Studi e Testi 160 (Città di Vaticana 1962); Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies, with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829), transl. Ann Moffatt & Maxene Tall, Byzantina Australiensia 18 (Canberra 2012).

7. Romilly J. H. Jenkins, “General Introduction”, in idem (ed.), Constantine Porphyrogenitus: De Adminstrando Imperio. A Commentary (London 1962, repr. Washington DC 2012), pp. 1-8.

8. E. g. Dimitri Obolensky, “C. 9“, ibid., pp. 16-61 at pp. 19, 25-26 & 40-42; Jenkins & Francis Dvornik, “Cc. 29/1-53, 217-295; 30-36“, ibid. pp. 93-142 at pp. 96-101, 112-113 & 118, or Moravcsik, “Cc. 37-42“, ibid., pp. 142-156 at pp. 143 & 145-146, all arguing for local informants behind Constantine’s material on the Rus’, Slavs and Hungarians respectively; cf. e. g. Florin Curta, The Making of the Slavs: history and archaeology of the lower Danube region, c. 500-700 (Cambridge 2001), pp. 64-66.

9. Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De Administrando Imperio, cc. 1-6, 7, 8 and then 9 respectively, section quoted from c. 1.

10. Ibid. cc. 29 & 31-36, all of which attribute a major role in the pacification and the Christianization of the relevant people of the Balkans to Emperor Heraclius, presumably to challenge any Frankish claims to control of either the peoples or their churches (clearest in c. 29) but picking the emperor who actually largely lost these areas on which to pin the relevant claims.

11. Ibid. c. 51.

12. Ibid. c. 13, though it needs to be clear that this is not Constantine giving voice to his actual thoughts, but part of an excuse he suggests offering by way of excusing the fact that although Romanus I married his grand-daughter to a Bulgarian prince, the foreign embassies with whom Romanus II might be dealing were absolutely not going to get a Byzantine bride to take home for their master. Still, he wrote it for his son to say about his son’s grand-dad…

13. Romanus II is directly addressed in ibid. Proem & cc. 1, 13, 43 & 46, but cc. 26 & 30 both seem to be addressed more generally. For the argument of sensitive contents, see Moravcsik & Jenkins, “General Introduction” in ibid., pp. 1-14 at pp. 13-14.

14. Chapter headings that don’t match chapters: ibid. cc. 9, 10, 51 & 52. Confusion: in ibid. at one point in c. 27 Constantine explains the Duke of Naples’s title in Byzantine terms but never actually refers to him by it; in c. 40 ideas are dropped and picked up again after a paragraph of digression; one could go on.

15. Date: ibid. c. 45; address: ibid. Proem.

16. Obviously I’m not going to name my example, but for Constantine see Moravcsik & Jenkins, “General Introduction”, p. 9, where the emperor’s drinking is excused without identifying the source of the accusation.

A Theory under Siege

You may recall that some time ago I recorded that I had been reading David Bachrach’s Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany as part of my ongoing reworking of my paper about military service in tenth-century Catalonia.1 There are ways in which that was really useful and ways in which we are just talking about different things, but a thing that we both talk about but take quite different views on is the normal size of early medieval armed forces. Now, this is an old controversy, which goes back far beyond this book and involves names like Halsall, Sawyer and not least, Bernard S. Bachrach, and in some ways I would prefer not to get into it, not least as several of these people including Professor Bachrach (the younger) have been known to read this blog, but I can’t avoid it.2 I would confine myself to an argument that the situation I see in Catalonia, of guardposts and border-raiding and no serious armies except when an Andalusi one comes calling, is just very different from the full-on imperial warfare of Ottonian Germany, and in the article I expect that I will. But still, there are premises to the large army argument, as set up in this book at least, that I find hard to accept, and this post is an attempt at a critical examination of one of them. Where most openly stated, it goes like this:

“Ottonian military operations were consistent with warfare throughout the medieval millennium, which was dominated by sieges, particularly in the context of campaigns that were intended to conquer territory. Contrary to the long-established narrative that the Ottonian kings fielded small armies of a few hundred to a few thousand heavily armed mounted fighters (Ritterkrieger) led by warrior aristocrats, the siege operations that dominated warfare in the tenth century required very large armies, composed predominantly of foot-soldiers.3

One is, initially at least, left to assume the premises behind this. It’s easy enough to come up with some: walled cities are naturally quite large, and need a lot of defenders to keep a whole perimeter secure. If you’re attacking them, you must need more attackers than defenders, right? As it turns out, in fact, you allegedly need quite a lot more: once you get through to p. 226 you learn that, “in order to storm a strongly held enemy fortress an attacker required four to five men for every defender.” The justification for that, however, is farmed out to an article by Bernard Bachrach and Rutherford Aris.4 Now, if you actually get hold of that article, that doesn’t seem to me to be what it says: instead, by virtue of some extremely hypothetical probablity mathematics, it says that a charge by a Viking warband at a typical Anglo-Saxon burh defended by archers of the number implied by the Burghal Hidage (1 to every 1.3 m of wall) would probably have resulted in one to two attackers in every four being hit before they reached the wall.5 Even if that mathematics were somehow realistic, it’s quite a specific situation and one calculated on the basis that Vikings attacking a fortress would only have ladders to deploy so needed to make that approach.6 I don’t see how it can be transportable to a large-scale military operation with siege engines such as (David) Bachrach thinks the Ottonians were able to mount.7 Moreover, it doesn’t actually provide the numbers that he employs, only an implication that if you were to outnumber your opposing force once atop the walls you needed to allow for a fifty per cent casualty rate when planning your attack. That seems like awful odds that no commander would have risked to me, but it’s obviously not what an Ottonian planner would have been facing.

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms

Interior view of the restored Romanesque city walls at Worms, one of the fortress cities Bachrach considers and possibly not too much unlike this in the Ottonian period? CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=167751.

But let’s take one step further back. These are figures based on the idea that victory at a siege is achieved by storming and carrying the enemy’s defences, and indeed so is Bachrach’s account of Ottonian warfare against fortifications more generally.8 But this is, surely, not the only way. More conventional, if much slower, would be simply to starve the defenders out. Now, in that case, your army requirements drop radically. Whereas before you perhaps had to have men all round the fortification, now you really only need to guard the points of access. Possibly someone could resupply a city by hauling sacks up the walls in the dead of night but not, you might think, in any real quantity, especially if you as attacker are sending patrols around every twenty minutes or so, which I assume you, as a thinking tactician, probably would be. Their supply will still not be equal to their demand. This makes siege warfare a much less demanding effort in terms of numbers; one must still be able to supply the besiegers for a prolonged period of time, but that’s easier if there’s fewer of them needed.

Illustration of a (small) siege from the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse

Even more anachronistic, but far too good a picture not to use, an illustration of a (small) siege from the fourteenth-century Codex Manesse

Of course, you still need to have more men than the defenders do, otherwise they could just sortie out and squash your forces. But wait a minute. How many more men than you do they have to have to do that before it would mean leaving the walls partly undefended, giving your troops access to the city and thus losing the war for the sake of a battle? There’s more balance here than might immediately appear, because both sides need their forces at least partly dispersed to hold their positions. The various ways that concentration of force could play out here seem to me to be very hard to calculate with and I’m not at all sure it reduces to any simple arithmetic beyond the basic logic that the more troops whom you can feed you have available, the more tactical options you have. But in a siege situation, that proviso about feeding is quite important, often for both sides.

Crop-marks clearly showing a fortress, supposedly the Slavic fortress of Gana, at Hof-Stauchitz

A different (and more usual?) scale of opponent, crop-marks clearly showing a fortress, supposedly the Slavic fortress of Gana, at Hof-Stauchitz

I should say that I am not, a priori, against the idea that the Ottonians could sometimes field quite large armies, meaning in the double figures of thousands of men, although whether such were necessary for all their campaigns I rather doubt. When they were, though, they had a whole empire to draw upon and Bachrach has here a whole book full of details about how such things might have been organised, resourced, supplied and led which almost make his argument for him; one can reasonably assume that the Ottonians would have wanted to raise large armies and Bachrach shows us how they could have. But he argues it the other way around, from the necessary existence of large armies, through a reading of the sources which illustrates that, to the techniques for their provision and operation, and if these are the starting premises, they seem very shaky to me.


1. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany (Woodbridge 2012, repr. 2014).

2. In reverse chronological order, more or less, Guy Halsall, Warfare and Society in the Barbarian West, 450-900 (London 2003); Bernard S. Bachrach, Merovingian Military Organization 481-751 (Minneapolis 1972), what I think of as the wellspring of the maximalist argument, and Peter H. Sawyer, The Age of the Vikings (London 1962, 2nd edn. 1971), which is the place where I first met a sustained attack on the numbers which early medieval sources used for army size. In all these cases, albeit Sawyer least and Bachrach most, references could be proliferated; a lot of Bachrach’s most relevant works are collected in his Warfare and Military Organization in Pre-Crusade Europe, Variorum Collected Studies 720 (Aldershot 2002).

3. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 1, which is a good place to state your axioms after all.

4. B. S. Bachrach & R. Aris, “Military Technology and Garrison Organization: some observations on Anglo-Saxon military thinking in light of the Burghal Hidage” in Technology and Culture Vol. 31 (Baltimore 1990), pp. 1-17, on JSTOR here, repr. in B. S. Bachrach, Warfare and Military Organization, III, cit. D. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, p. 226 n. 2. A much fuller version of the argument here is however to be found in B. S. Bachrach & David Bachrach, “Early Saxon Frontier Warfare: Henry I, Otto I and Carolingian Military Institutions” in Journal of Medieval Military History Vol. 10 (Woodbridge 2012), pp. 17-60, which was presumably not available to cite in D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, and would have made that a much longer book to reprise there. I engage with the version in the book here, which I assume to be self-standing.

5. B. S. Bachrach & Aris, “Military Technology”, pp. 5-10 with an appendix for the mathematics pp. 14-18.

6. Ibid., pp. 3-5, on the not unreasonable basis that the Burghal Hidage uses the same ratio for number of defenders required for places with eight-foot thick Roman stone walls (Winchester) and earthen ramparts with wooden palisades (Wareham), so the writers obviously weren’t thinking in terms of attacks actually upon the defences.

7. D. S. Bachrach, Warfare in Tenth-Century Germany, pp. 151-167, covers Ottonian siege equipment, including ladders but also mantlets, rams, ballistas, catapults and mobile towers, largely by providing detail from Vegetius and anchoring it in less-detailed reports from Ottonian sources.

8. Ibid., pp. 12-13 and repeatedly exemplified in his narrative of Henry I’s and Otto I’s campaigns provided pp. 14-69; see also Bachrach & Bachrach, “Early Saxon Frontier Warfare” for a fuller statement of the position.