Category: byzantine empire

The Byzantine Princess Who (re)Wrote History

ANNA KOMNENE: ANNA Komnene (aka Anna Comnena, …


ANNA Komnene (aka Anna Comnena, 1083-1153 CE) was the eldest daughter of Byzantine emperor Alexios I Komnenos(r. 1081-1118 CE) and the author of a lengthy biography of her father’s reign, the Alexiad. Although not an impartial history, Anna’s position at court, her thorough research of sources and a good measure of pithy observation and insightful opinion have all ensured the Alexiad remains one of the most important and colourful primary sources of Byzantine history.  

Anna Komnene was born in 1083 CE in the Porphyra, the purple room of the Byzantine royal palace in Constantinople where royal babies were usually born and which was a potent symbol of royal legitimacy. She was the eldest daughter of Alexios I Komnenos and his wife the Empress Irene Doukaina. The emperor had no sons and so, for a time, Anna was the official heir following her betrothal to Constantine Doukas, the son of Michael VII (r. 1071-1078 CE). Constantine was nine years older than Anna and the empress-to-be later wrote of him in the following glowing terms:

“[Constantine was] seemingly endowed with a heavenly beauty not of this world, his manifold charms captivated the beholder, in short, anyone who saw him would say, He is like the painter’s Cupid” (Herrin, 233)

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The Moon Star Flag: How Turkey’s Flag Came To …

The Turkish national flag is mostly red, with a white star and a crescent in the center. Ottoman Sultan Selim III formalized the look in 1793, but the flag is actually much older.

The crescent-and-star combination has been used in Turkey since Hellenistic times (400s to 100 BCE). It likely came from ancient Mesopotamian iconocraphy. Ancient depictions of the symbol always show the crescent with horns pointing upward and with the star placed inside the crescent, for reasons that have been lost to time. When it came to Turkey, they gave it their own meanings. For Byzantium the moon symbolized Diana, also known as Artemis, the patron goddess of the city.

In 1453, when the city was conquered by the Ottoman Empire, the flag remained unchanged. With time, it became not just Istanbul’s flag but the Ottoman flag, with its design formalized in 1793 and its status as national flag formalized in 1844. Turks affectionately call the flag “ay yildiz” – the “moon star” flag.

Many nations that were once part of Ottoman Empire adopted the star-and-crescent when they gained independence, including Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria. In the 1900s the symbol became associated with not just the Ottomans, but with Islam in general, and many states that were never part of the Ottoman Empire adopted it too, including Pakistan, Malaysia, and the Maldives. Pretty amazing that an ancient Mesopotamian symbol is flown around the world today.

BOOK REVIEW: Byzantium: The Surprising Life of…

BOOK REVIEW: Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire by Judith Herrin 

THIS excellent and highly readable book by Judith Herrin breezes through some of the more fascinating aspects of the Byzantine Empire and provides insights rarely found in other works such as intriguing court eunuchs, influential women, and clothing fashions.

The history of the Byzantine Empire covers a timeframe of over a millennium, and this fact alone has caused all kinds of headaches for authors, chief amongst them the dilemma of what to leave in and out of their books. The majority of writers on Byzantium seem to settle for a chronological treatment focussing on the emperors and their three main policy areas of domestic affairs, squabbles with the church, and imperial conquest and defence. This is all well and good, and perfectly understandable, as that is what we have the most information on, too, but it hardly makes for a pleasurable reading experience to plough systematically through the reigns of 88 emperors and endless wars with the Bulgars and Arabs.

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These earrings have a story to tell. Unfortuna…

These earrings have a story to tell. Unfortunately, we don’t know most of it. They were most likely made in Constantinople around 600 CE, perhaps as an imperial gift to a Visigothic ruler of medieval Spain, where they were found in Extremadura. The Visigoths by that point had become the settled rulers of the Iberian Peninsula, and had established trade and diplomatic contacts with the Byzantine Empire. And its known that the Visigoths particularly prized Byzantine jewelry.

EMPRESS ZOE: ZOE Porphyrogenita was empress of…


ZOE Porphyrogenita was empress of the Byzantine Empire from 1028 CE until her death in 1050 CE. In an eventful career, she reigned alongside three husbands, had a hand in the succession of her adopted son, and, in 1042 CE, she was co-ruler with her sister Theodora. Zoe is the subject of a colourful and somewhat unflattering biography in the Chronographia of the 11th-century CE Byzantine historian Michael Psellos.

Zoe was born c. 978 CE, one of three daughters of ConstantineVIII (r. 1025-1028 CE). She first appears on the stage of history when her uncle emperor Basil II (r. 976-1025 CE) promised her in a marriage of alliance to Otto III (r. 996-1002 CE), the Holy Roman Emperor. Zoe, then 23 and said to have been a great beauty, set sail in 1001 CE from Constantinople, but on arrival at Bari, she was given the sad news that Otto had died of fever. It was one of those moments in history of “what might have been?”, if the imperial families of the two great empires of the west had been united. Instead, Zoe returned home to spend the next 27 years in the seclusion of the Great Palace of Constantinople, but her time would come.  

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DAILY life in the Byzantine Empire, like almost everywhere else before or since, largely depended on one’s birth and the social circumstances of one’s parents. There were some opportunities for advancement based on education, the accumulation of wealth, and gaining favour from a more powerful sponsor or mentor. Work, in order to produce or buy food, was most people’s preoccupation, but there were many possibilities for entertainment ranging from shopping at fairs held at religious festivals to chariot races and acrobat performances in the public arenas most towns provided for their inhabitants.

As in most other ancient cultures, the family one was born into in Byzantium greatly determined one’s social status and profession in adult life. There were two broad groups of citizens: the honestiores (the “privileged”) and the humiliores (the “humble”), that is, the rich, privileged, and titled as opposed to everyone else. Legal punishments were more lenient for the honestiores, in most cases being composed of fines rather than corporal punishment. Flogging and mutilation, most commonly having one’s nose cut off, were common forms of punishment for such crimes as adultery and the rape of a nun. For crimes such as murder and treason, no social distinction was made with the death penalty for all. Below the two broad groups mentioned above were the slaves who were acquired in markets and through warfare.

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BYZANTINE GOVERNMENT: THE government of the By…


THE government of the Byzantine Empire was headed and dominated by the emperor, but there were many other important officials who assisted in operating the finances, judiciary, military. and bureaucracy of a huge territory. Without elections, the ministers, senators, and councillors who governed the people largely acquired their position through imperial patronage or because of their status as large landowners. Government was multi-levelled based on the geographical division of the empire’s population and although corruption, rebellions, and invasions threatened the functioning of the system, and even caused its reduction in scale, the system nevertheless survived for centuries to become one of the most sophisticated apparatus of government seen in any empire in history.  

The Byzantine emperor (and sometimes empress) ruled as an absolute monarch and was the commander-in-chief of the army and head of the Church and government. He controlled the state finances, and he appointed or dismissed nobles at will, granting them wealth and lands or taking them away. The position was conventionally hereditary, but new dynasties were regularly founded as usurpers took the throne, usually military generals backed by the army. Unlike in the west, the Byzantine emperor was also head of the Church and so could appoint or dismiss the most important ecclesiastical role in the empire, the Patriarch or bishop of Constantinople. Further, the emperor was widely regarded as having been chosen by God to rule for the good of the people.  

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BYZANTINE EMPEROR: THE Byzantine Emperor ruled…


THE Byzantine Emperor ruled as an absolute monarch in an institution which lasted from the 4th to 15th century CE. Aided by ministers, high-ranking nobility, and key church figures, the emperor (and sometimes empress) was commander-in-chief of the army, head of the Church and government, controlled the state finances, and appointed or dismissed nobles at will. The position was conventionally hereditary but new dynasties would be founded throughout the medieval period.

Living in the sumptuous Great Palace of Constantinople, the emperors enjoyed fabulous wealth but also great risk that, in troubled times, they could be removed by a usurper, imprisoned, blinded, or murdered. Many emperors founded lasting dynasties or achieved even longer-lasting fame as great rulers, and these include Constantine I, Justinian I, Basil I, Basil II, Alexios I Komnenos, John II Komnenos, Constantine VII, and Leo III. Still others gained infamy for their misrule, military incompetence, and bloody reigns: Empress Irene, Nikephoros I, Anastasios I, Constans II, Constantine V, and Leo I.

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THE Great Palace of Constantinople was the magnificent residence of Byzantine emperors and their court officials which included a golden throne room with wondrous mechanical devices, reception halls, chapels, treasury, and gardens. In use from 330 to 1453 CE, it was sumptuously decorated throughout with exotic marble and fine mosaics to impress visitors from near or far with the wealth and power of the Byzantine Empire.

The Great Palace was first constructed by emperor Constantine I (r. 306-337 CE) on an elevated part of the city and then added to by his successors until it became something of a sprawling and eclectic magnificence. Located just east of the city’s Hippodrome, the palace occupied a rectangular space against the sea walls of the city to the south-east and the forum and Hagia Sophia church to the immediate north-east. A residential wing, the Palace of Daphne, connected the palace to the city’s famous circus so that emperors could easily and safely attend the public spectacles held there.

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