Lapis lazuli enjoyed great popularity in the late Roman and Early Byzantine
periods; its rich purple-blue color was associated with royalty. From
the 200s on, coins and medallions often showed the emperor
carrying a scepter topped with an eagle, emblem of victory and authority.
This particular lapis lazuli eagle was found in Italy and dates to the 300s or 400s CE, meaning it may very well have once perched
on a Roman emperor’s scepter.
IN this issue, all that glitters is gold! The Medieval Magazine goes east and visits the vibrant culture, art, and life of the Byzantine Empire. This issue takes a look at music, medieval travel in the Aegean islands, war on the frontier, Ravenna’s beautiful basilicas, and the important contributions made to Byzantine history by powerful women such as Sophia Palaiologina and Zoe Porphyrogenita. We hope you enjoy this trip to the golden East with us!
THE Empire of Nicaea was a successor state to the Byzantine Empire, or rather a ByzantineEmpire in exile lasting from 1204 to 1261 CE. The Empire of Nicaea was founded in the aftermath of the sacking of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade and the establishment there of the crusader-run Latin Empire in 1204 CE and was ruled by the Laskarid Dynasty. When the forces of Michael VIII Palaiologos recaptured Constantinople in 1261 CE, the Empire of Nicaea, an empire in exile no more, effectively became the Byzantine Empire once again, until it ultimately fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453 CE.
The sacking of the Byzantine capital of Constantinople shattered the Byzantine Empire. As the Latin crusaders and their Venetian backers established themselves in Europe and in the Aegean islands, three Greek successor states rose up at the peripheries of the empire. The first, and furthest away, was the Empire of Trebizond on the southeastern edge of the Black Sea. Next was the Despotate of Epiros, in modern-day Albania and northwestern Greece. Finally, there was the Empire of Nicaea, centered on the ancient city of Nicaea and controlling northwestern Anatolia.
In addition to the maelstrom of new states were the Bulgarians to the north and the Turks to the east. Battles were fought frequently, alliances were made and broken just as quickly, and who was preeminent in the region was decided by an ever-changing game of thrones. Trebizond was too far away from the center for it to be a serious candidate to reunify Byzantium, and thus it was the Latins, Epirotes, Nicaeans, and the Bulgarians who became the chief contenders for Constantinople.
Did you know that the Byzantine Empire sometimes had two emperors? This was an old tradition dating back to Roman Emperor Diocletian in the late 200s CE, who created a system of four emperors, two senior emperors and two junior emperors. Byzantine co-emperors go back to at least the 400s CE with Leo II crowning his father Zeno co-emperor and promptly dying, making Zeno sole ruler. Not exactly off to a good start. But the co-emperor tradition continued. By the 900s it was common enough that there were distinct terms for the junior co-emperor (basileus) and senior co-emperor (autokratōr or occasionally megas basileus).
One of the more interesting co-emperors had not one co-ruler but four! Romanos I Lekapenos, an Armenian who became a major Byzantine naval commander, seized the royal palace and the reins of government in 919. In March he married his daughter to the reigning emperor, fifteen-year-old Constantine VII. In September Romanos decided that was not enough and had himself crowned co-emperor with his own made-up term for equal emperors “Caesar,” before finally, in December, naming himself the senior co-emperor or autokratōr
Romanos eventually crowned his own sons co-emperors: Christopher in 921, Stephen and Constantine in 924. For the time being, Constantine VII was regarded as first in rank after Romanos himself, Augustus to his Caesar. For his kindness to the man he deposed, Romanos I Lekapenos was given the nickname “the gentle usurper.”
ANNA Komnene (aka Anna Comnena, 1083-1153 CE) was the eldest daughter of Byzantine emperorAlexios 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)
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 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.
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.
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.