The Byzantine Empire arose after the death of the Roman Emperor Constantine. To make the empire more manageable, it was split into eastern and western halves, with Rome as the seat of the west and Constantinople as the capitol of the east. Unlike Rome of the time, the Byzantine Empire coupled military might and the religious authority of the Church.
When the Roman Empire collapsed and led Europe into the Dark Ages, the Byzantine Empire continued on and it continued to modernize. You don’t last for a thousand years, including holding off Muslim invaders for much of that time, without doing some things right. They finally collapsed in 1453, when Constantinople was captured by Turks. It is known as Istanbul today.
But much of the literature and works of art that hadn’t already been captured (including by Christian crusaders in 1204) or purchased made their way into Western Europe at the time, including a substantial literary heritage. We can thank artwork and artisans from the Byzantine Empire for a large part of the European Renaissance that happened in the following generations but the literature gets far less attention.
Two projects at the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Vienna have been conducting a detailed analysis of written sources as a door to understanding the social framework and the mentality of the mainstream Byzantine culture. The texts offer insights into this long-standing, rich and widely influential cultural epoch.
The initial research findings were presented at the “Coming of Age – Adolescence and Society in Medieval Byzantium” symposium in Vienna. The symposium offered international experts (Byzantinists, Medievalists, art historians, legal scholars and psychologists) a stage for the lively exchange of thoughts from various disciplines on the adolescent life stage of “homo byzantinus”.
Prof. Johannes Koder, project leader from the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies at the University of Vienna, said about the significance of the event, “This symposium successfully presented the Institute´s extensive and complex fields of work to an international audience of experts, in developing a more refined picture of adolescence in Byzantium, and in demonstrating important guidelines for future research projects.”
The project is dedicated to analyzing the “discharge” of youth from the family in the period from the 6th to the 11th century.
“At that time, the reasons for this discharge were for general or professional education, marriage, and entering a monastery. These form the starting point of our study of extensive written sources, such as legal documents, hagiographies, chronicles and letters,” explains project member Dr. Despoina Ariantzi.
One of the aims here is to clarify to what extent not only parental influence was significant for this discharge from adolescence, in contrast to childhood, but also the wishes of the youngsters. This offers insights into the role of the family in society, in the expectations of the two or three familial generations involved with respect to the future, and in the change in these expectations on the part of society for each subsequent generation.
Another project at the Institute, dealing with the cultural phenomenon of irony, offers insights into the Byzantine mentality. Substantially more multifaceted than humor, to which it is related, irony can be systematically used for various purposes, especially for calling one´s opponent or specific issues into question, creating distance, and demonstrating one´s intellectual superiority.
The playful, humorous element of irony was thus only superficially about amusement, as project leader Claudia Rapp of the Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, explains. “The authors used rhetorical devices to produce subversive effects like irony. This enabled them to express critical opinions in a hidden manner.”
Project member Dr. Efthymia Braounou undertook the pioneering work to trace the conceptual history of irony from classical (Greek-speaking) antiquity into the Byzantine era, which allowed her to show the continuities of literary customs and usage. The next step will be to undertake a semantic analysis of works by Byzantine historians of the 11th and 12th centuries, the height of Byzantine literature, to uncover authors´ ironic intentions and the effect on their audience.
The aim is to gain a better understanding of the “poetry of subversion” (the title of the project) in Byzantine literature, thus contributing to the latter´s appreciation as an independent phenomenon in its socio-cultural context, and not just as a conveyor of the literary heritage of Greco-Roman antiquity.
Related Articles on Science 2.0
In an extraordinary ceremony in Ukraine, potential cabinet members are to be paraded in front of crowds of protesters to seek their approval, it’s been reported. It has strange echoes of Ancient Roman practices, writes Finlo Rohrer on BBC News Blog.
Apart from the X Factor, it’s hard to think of a modern parallel for the event planned in Independence Square, at the heart of anti-government protests in Ukraine. Candidates for the new cabinet of ministers are to be paraded and – only if approved by the crowds – formally confirmed later.
It has, one assumes, unintentional echoes of the tradition of acclamation in later Roman times and particularly in the Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire. A candidate for the imperial throne would present themselves in front of a crowd of soldiers, or even ordinary people, lap up the adulation, and then go on to overcome their rivals aided by a handy sheen of legitimacy.
“The emperor Constantine was acclaimed by his father’s soldiers in Britain – that didn’t guarantee the role. He then had to battle with several rivals,” says Prof Dame Averil Cameron, of Oxford University.
Then there was regular contact with large crowds who had a chance to voice disapproval. “Among the early Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome, they appeared in the Circus. That is where you met the people. There might be shouts or demonstrations,” says Cameron.
What happened was not necessarily always a reflection of the real will of the people. Even Rome in the republic was not any kind of modern-style democracy. “The Romans got really good at orchestrating it [acceptance by the crowd],” says Byzantinist Prof Charlotte Roueche, of King’s College London. “In Kiev, the main cathedral actually has wall paintings showing activities in the Hippodrome in Constantinople, where the emperors were acclaimed.”
In many societies throughout history it was seen as a mark almost of divine inspiration to have a unanimous shout from a crowd. But even with bribery and cajoling, unanimity isn’t always easy to come by. “If the [Roman or Byzantine] people were feeling grumpy they would shout out that they wanted more bread,” says Roueche.
Very sad to read but no real surprise.
by Patrick Cockburn
First published in The Independent 11 Feb 2014
Islamic fundamentalists in Syria have started to destroy archaeological treasures such as Byzantine mosaics and Greek and Roman statues because their portrayal of human beings is contrary to their religious beliefs. The systematic destruction of antiquities may be the worst disaster to ancient monuments since the Taliban in Afghanistan dynamited the giant statues of Buddha at Bamiyan in 2001 for similar ideological reasons.
In mid-January the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis), an al-Qa’ida-type movement controlling much of north-east Syria, blew up and destroyed a sixth-century Byzantine mosaic near the city of Raqqa on the Euphrates. The official head of antiquities for Raqqa province, who has fled to Damascus and does not want his name published, told The Independent: “It happened between 12 and 15 days ago. A Turkish businessman had come to Raqqa to try to buy the mosaic. This alerted them [Isis] to its existence and they came and blew it up. It is completely lost.”
Other sites destroyed by Islamic fundamentalists include the reliefs carved at the Shash Hamdan, a Roman cemetery in Aleppo province. Also in the Aleppo countryside, statues carved out of the sides of a valley at al-Qatora have been deliberately targeted by gunfire and smashed into fragments.
Professor Maamoun Abdulkarim, general director of antiquities and museums at the Ministry of Culture in Damascus, says that extreme Islamic iconoclasm puts many antiquities at risk. An expert on the Roman and early Christian periods in Syria, he says: “I am sure that if the crisis continues in Syria we shall have the destruction of all the crosses from the early Christian world, mosaics with mythological figures and thousands of Greek and Roman statues.”
Of the mosaic at Raqqa, discovered in 2007, he says: “It is really important because it was undamaged and is from the Byzantine period but employs Roman techniques.”
Syria has far more surviving archaeological sites and ancient monuments than almost any country in the world. These range from the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus with its magnificent eighth-century mosaics to the Bronze Age Ebla in Idlib province in north-west Syria, which flourished in the third and second millennia BC and where 20,000 cuneiform tablets were discovered. In eastern Syria on the upper Euphrates are the remains of the Dura-Europos, a Hellenistic city called “the Pompeii of the Syrian desert” where frescoes were found in an early synagogue. Not far away, close to the border with Iraq, are the remains of Mari, which has a unique example of a third-millennium BC royal palace.
Unfortunately, many of the most famous ancient sites in Syria are now held by the fundamentalist Islamic opposition and are thereby in danger. Professor Abdulkarim says that it is not just Isis but “Jabhat al-Nusra [the official affiliate of al-Qa’ida] and the other fundamentalists who are pretty much the same”.
He emphasises at the same time that he approaches his job of trying to preserve Syria’s heritage during the civil war from a politically neutral point of view. The civil war has inflicted heavy damage, notably in Aleppo, where the minaret of the Great Umayyad Mosque was destroyed along with seven medieval souks, or markets, with over 1,000 traditional shops burnt out.
Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque: the rubble is all that remains of its minaret, which was blown up during fighting last year (Getty) Aleppo’s Umayyad mosque: the rubble is all that remains of its minaret, which was blown up during fighting last year (Getty)
Homs Old City has suffered serious damage and is still held by the rebels, while the immense Crusader fortress of Krak des Chevaliers has been battered by government air strikes. The great church at St Simeon has been turned into a military training area and artillery range by rebels.
Syria’s museums are generally secure and moveable items have been taken elsewhere for safe-keeping. Museum staff say they saw what happened in Iraq after 2003 and moved quickly. A folk museum at Deir Atieh between Damascus and Homs was taken over, but the rebels were after old pistols and rifles on display that they intended to put to military use.
The most devastating and irreversible losses to Syria’s rich heritage of ancient cities and buildings are the result of looting. Much of this is local people looking for treasure, though in many cases they are obliterating the archaeological record by using bulldozers. Two looters were killed when they used a bulldozer to excavate a cave at Ebla, causing its roof to collapse.
What worries Professor Abdulkarim and his staff is that over the last year the looting has become large scale. He says that there is “a mafia from Turkey, Iraq and Lebanon hiring hundreds of people to strip sites”. Among what are known as the Dead Cities in Idlib province in northern Syria, once prosperous and then mysteriously abandoned 1,000 years ago, there are signs that thieves have brought in antiquities experts to advise them about the best places to dig, going by the orderly nature of the excavations.
Theft of antiquities is particularly bad in the far east of Syria at Mari where an armed gang numbering 500 has taken over the site. An official report says that the looters have been focusing on “the Royal Palace, the southern gate, the public baths, Temple of Ishtar, the Temple of Dagan and the temple of the Goddess of Spring”.
Even worse is the situation at Dura-Europos where 300 people are excavating. A report by the Directorate-General of Antiquities and Museums says that efforts by local communities to stop the digging here have failed and heavy machinery is being used. The report says that illegal excavations have “led to the destruction of 80 per cent of the site as perpetrators are digging holes that can reach three metres in depth”.
For some Syrians, often well-armed in war-ravaged, impoverished areas, the looting of antiquities has become a full-time job. In great stretches of the country outside state control there is total disorder with banditry and kidnapping common. Rebel commanders, even if they wanted to, are not going to give priority to protecting ancient monuments.
Professor Abdulkarim complains that he has received little international help in preventing the looting of Syria’s rich heritage. The deliberate targeting by Isis and other jihadist groups of mosaics and statues seen as profane will accelerate the speed of destruction. Antiquities that have survived invasions and wars for 5,000 years may soon be rubble.
This is pretty cool.
Published in Hurriyet Daily News.
The remains of an ancient basilica have been discovered about 20 meters from shore in Bursa’s Lake İznik, according to local archaeologists.
“We have found church remains. It is in a basilica plan and has three naves,” said Mustafa Şahin, an archaeology professor at Bursa Uludağ University.
The foundations of the church are currently lying in water that is about 1.5 to two meters deep.
“This church’s remains are similar to the Hagia Sophia in İznik. This is why we estimated that it was built in the fifth century A.D.,” said Şahin.
He said the structure was discovered while photographing the city from the air to make an inventory of historical and cultural artifacts.
After the discovery, the university informed the İznik Museum Directorate and the Culture and Tourism Ministry, asking that the archaeological site be protected, Şahin said.
There are many rough stones at the site, he said. “This shows that that the structure collapsed. İznik has gone through many earthquakes that destroyed such structures. The best known is the one that occurred in 740 A.D. Our first observations show that the structure collapsed in this earthquake and that the coastal side was submerged. The church was subsequently not rebuilt.”
The controversy continues!
Thirty-three historic artifacts in the garden of the Hagia Sophia in the Black Sea province of Trabzon have been moved to the Trabzon Museum after the structure was turned into a mosque again.
According to information provided by the Provincial Culture Directorate, the Hagia Sophia, which served as a museum for some time, has been transferred to the Trabzon Regional Directorate of Foundations through a court decision and turned into mosque again. Therefore, 33 historic artifacts and epitaphs from the Roman, Byzantine and Ottoman eras in the garden of the structure were decided to be transferred to the Trabzon Museum.
Following a classification process, the pieces were carried to the museum and will be displayed there from now on.
Hagia Sophia, which had been a mosque for many years after the conquest of Trabzon and was also registered as a mosque in the land title, was turned into a museum in the past and transferred to the Culture and Tourism Ministry.
As usual the WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2013 annual report for your favourite Byzantine blog. WordPress is the blogging engine that I use. Please click through to read the summary.
I wish you all a very Happy New Year and hope that you come back often to visit in 2014. As usual I have an enormous backlog of material and will get around to posting it. Some of the material has been sent in by readers (you know who you are) and I promise that I will get it online one day! Life is so busy.
Here’s an excerpt:
The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 51,000 times in 2013. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 19 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.
A new book about the ever fascinating Theodora. Following the pre-release of the first four instalments of the story, Erudition is pleased to announce that the complete edition of The Eagle and the Swan was launched on 7th November.
It is AD 518 in Constantinople. Theodora was a circus performer and prostitute, famed for her notorious interpretation of the “Leda and the Swan” myth, before catching the eye of a clever young military officer. The soldier and the swan dancer set out on a treacherous path to power that would lead all the way to the throne. The events that ensue, amid the struggles and politics of a society in flux, will leave a city in smouldering ruins.
Despite having been supremely powerful and progressively liberal, Theodora is little known today, having been cruelly maligned by history. While Strickland was researching the architecture of the Hagia Sophia, her curiosity was piqued as she encountered numerous references to Theodora. Strickland became ardent about setting the record straight and wrote The Eagle and the Swan to give Theodora a voice.
Strickland is author of the bestselling The Annotated Mona Lisa. She is also a regular correspondent on the subjects of art, architecture and cultural topics for various publications, such as The Christian Science Monitor and Art in America, and has contributed feature stories to The New York Times, Washington Post and Wall Street Journal.
The Eagle and the Swan represents a new approach to historical fiction publishing. A Readers Club allowed members to sample the beginning of the story first, and to contribute to the project via feedback and discussion forums. Members will also have an opportunity to obtain a 50% discount on the full publication and will have access to beta versions of the enhanced publication prior to its launch.
What are readers saying about The Eagle and the Swan?
“A fascinating time in Byzantium made more fascinating by Strickland’s compelling storytelling. I am impatient to read it all, and strongly recommend it.”
“I look forward to reading much more about Theodora and her climb from the bottom of the ladder to its top rungs. Thank you to Carol Strickland for uncovering her history and making her come so vividly to life.”
“LOVE THIS BOOK! By the fifth page I was already riveted by the characters – I could smell the wafting perfume in the throne room and feel the chill in the monk’s chambers. I can’t wait for the next instalment!”
A comprehensive website featuring further background to the title and a blog written by Strickland on related historical and current affairs is available at http://www.theeagleandtheswan.com. The publication will be available directly from the publisher via The Eagle and the Swan website and on the Amazon Kindle store on 7th November 2013.