The Imperial Court

In the morning the king comes in [to the imperial box overlooking the Hippodrome] with his intimates and servants, all of them dressed in red. He sits on an eminence overlooking the place and there appears his wife called dizbuna [Greek despoina, mistress] with her servants and intimates, all of them dressed in green and she sits in a place opposite the king. Then arrive the entertainers and players of string instruments and begin their performance.

al-Marwazi, Properties of Animals, c. 1120

While the sacred liturgy and choir of castrati made a strong impression on visitors to Hagia Sophia, the ceremonies, receptions and dinners of the imperial court provided a colourful secular counterpart. Al-Marwazi followed a fuller account by Harun ibn Yahya, who was captured and taken to Constantinople in the late ninth or early tenth century. Both describe the chariot racing in the Hippodrome, with two men dressed in gold each driving a quadriga of four horses, how they enter and race three times round the place ‘with idols and statues’ (a reference to the monuments on the central division, Spina, of the Hippodrome). But the most impressive ceremonies took place within the Great Palace where the Byzantine court was the hub of empire; all activity revolved around it. The palace itself occupied a large area on the elevated eastern point of the city and contained classical monuments associated with the baths, churches built to display Christian relics, and reception halls designed to enhance imperial authority. Within its walls the emperor and empress had their private quarters, special areas were devoted to ceremonial activities, and barracks were reserved for the palace guards. While the rulers could meet informally with advisers, all official ceremonies took place in the court, which constituted a fixed point in the world of Byzantine politics.

Unlike the rulers of western Europe, who took centuries to settle in capital cities where they could establish permanent courts, Constantine I had transferred both the centre of Roman government and the imperial court to Byzantium. The complex known as the Great Palace of the emperors never moved from 330 to 1453, although from the twelfth-century emperors used the palace at Blachernai, an area within the northwest corner of the city walls. The Great Palace became the largest Christian court, rivalled only by ancient Persia and later by the caliphate. Court rituals impressed foreigners and subjects alike. Even before they got to the ceremonies, visitors to the Great Palace all comment on other spectacular aspects: the ancient statues which lined reception halls, some allegedly capable of predicting the future; the gold mosaic and precious metals which adorned the buildings, each one grander and more extravagant than the next; and the palace troops of different ethnic groups who carried their particular weapons.

At receptions held in the Chrysotriklinos, a golden hall built within the palace by Justinian II in the late seventh century, the emperor appeared on an elevated throne directly under a mosaic of Christ Pantokrator which decorated the apse. Elsewhere, hydraulic power was used to create amazing effects. Ancient organs operated by water pressure had survived in Byzantium and were used at imperial receptions and in the baths, where fountains and singing birds entertained the emperors. In the Magnaura Palace, the emperor sat on a great golden throne, flanked by golden lions that roared and golden birds that twittered in golden bejewelled trees. And while an ambassador made proskynesis (putting his forehead to the floor in the required act of reverence), this throne suddenly rose from the floor level up to the ceiling. On his first embassy to Constantinople in 949, Liutprand of Cremona pretended that this extraordinary sight did not surprise him. His father and stepfather had warned him about the ceremony. But he concedes: ‘I know not how it was done.’

In addition to this aim of inducing awe and wonder in the visitor, the court served a vital function within the empire: to bind all subjects into a closer relationship with the emperor, with a more devoted loyalty – both a sense of belonging and a fatalistic subordination to authority. This was achieved in part by the promotion of talented young men and women to positions of responsibility and power, which commanded respect and admiration. Although the actual number of ordinary people so promoted remained small, the possibility of being one of their number remained open, and this motivated many a family to try to place a son or daughter within the orbit of power. The court exercised a hegemonic power which integrated all sectors of society and reinforced imperial authority; it was recognized as a centre of superior culture and unrivalled brilliance. Ambitious provincial inhabitants usually identified with it and aspired to a place in it. In the eleventh century Kekaumenos, a retired general, condemned the court as the centre of intrigue, which it must have been. But his successful career reflects the ability of the court to attract and retain the loyal services of a talented officer of Armenian origin.

Besides the eunuchs, who managed the imperial court, well-educated men found employment in the vast civil service, which often led to their promotion to high-ranking government positions. As we have seen, others competed – and paid – for the honour of holding particularly ceremonial titles, which carried a state pension (roga). All were expected to attend the court when invited, dressed in their costumes and carrying their staffs of office, together with leading ecclesiastics, members of the Senate of Constantinople, the circus factions in their green and blue uniforms (see chapter 3) and a variety of military units wearing their regimental colours. In a hierarchical order, they entered the ceremonial area, greeted the emperor and empress and took their places for the festivities, creating impressive ranks of different colours and identities.

Young girls were also recruited to serve at court, not only as ladies-in-waiting to the empress, but sometimes to fill the most important role open to any woman in Byzantium. In theory, one method of selecting wives for future emperors was the imperial bride show, in which the prince chose the most attractive contestant for his wife. Stories describe how the empress-mother selected a number of suitable and beautiful young girls and presented them to the future emperor in a sort of beauty contest. It seems unlikely that such events actually took place as recorded. But the idea that a provincial family with an attractive daughter of the right age might be so honoured was not without foundation. Imperial brides of the eighth and ninth centuries often came from relatively undistinguished provincial families: Irene from Athens, Maria of Amnia and Theodora from Paphlagonia. Maria and Theodora were allegedly chosen through an open contest. Even if ‘beauty’ was not the deciding factor, the idea points to the vitality and openness of the court. For the possibility of recruiting a new family from anywhere in the empire into the court generated an identification with its good fortune, and provincial families were drawn into the cycle of imperial ceremonial and were kept aware of court life. The prize benefited all involved. Sisters of successful imperial brides could also make advantageous marriages to courtiers, for example. Indeed, to gain a position as lady-in-waiting to the empress was a highly desirable objective, and many men sought to promote their daughters in this way. In more than one case it resulted in marriage to the emperor (Theodote in the late eighth century, Zoe Zaoutze in the ninth). So while young boys were castrated by their families and sent to make careers among the eunuch staff, young girls were groomed to attract the attention of a future emperor or a high-ranking official. The imperial court became a centre of social and thus financial promotion.

The supposed bride show itself only played a small part in the selection of empresses. Since marriage alliances were often critical to the success of diplomatic negotiations, foreign brides arrived in the Byzantine capital to seal important treaties, for instanceČiček the Khazar, renamed Irene, in 732, or Mar’ta/Maria of Alania in 1072. Byzantine brides were also sent abroad for the same purpose, and eventually even a princess ‘born in the purple’ had to honour a military alliance (see chapter 17). During the period of the crusades, the number of western princesses who became Byzantine empresses increased greatly. John II and Isaac II had Hungarian wives; Manuel I was married first to a German and second to a Latin princess from Antioch, and he chose a French wife for his son, Alexios II. The emperors’ female relatives were also married to western rulers more often, indicating a wider use of marriage alliances in foreign relations. But the Komnenos and Angelos families took care to draw many prominent Byzantine families into strategic alliances. For all their members, male and female, marriage was a matter of politics not of personal choice.

Ever since the fourth century, when Eusebius of Caesarea formulated the theory that the ruler obtained imperial power only by God’s will and served as His representative on earth, Christian and Roman ideology had been welded together to sustain Byzantine cultural supremacy. According to this theory, the imperial court was a mirror of the heavenly one, and the emperor’s enhanced power was designed to implement divine rule. Foreign policy, administered by trained diplomats, court ceremonial directed by eunuchs, and the central administration all used this theory to ensure that a deep and penetrating sense of imperial authority pervaded the empire.

An original and effective system of government was run from the Great Palace. It controlled most aspects of Byzantine life, from financial matters, such as the minting of coins and commercial regulations, to the promulgation of new laws. The emperor also appointed the patriarch and could exercise considerable influence over the Church. A hierarchy of bureaucratic officials sustained this highly centralized system, which created an endless demand for scribes and copyists and had to ensure that decisions taken in the court were put into practice effectively. Government records were stored and administrators housed in the substructures of the Hippodrome, where some eleventh-century judges complained of their cramped office space. But over the centuries these vast archives have all been destroyed. The few original documents that survive are now generally found in monasteries (especially those of Mount Athos), the Vatican and other foreign collections.

It has been said that Byzantine government could survive even frequent changes of leadership because its administration was so solid. Emperors might come and go, but the routines of the bureaucracy continued. Some aspects of this system can only be reconstructed through the study of lead seals once attached to now-lost parchment documents. When the emperor appointed an official to a new post, or promoted a military officer, that man recorded his new rank and title on lead seals which he attached to his orders as a guarantee of their authenticity. These seals were made like coins from a matrix cut in mirror writing but they were of lead, a much cheaper metal (plate 8). Although very few original Byzantine parchment documents survive, the lead seals that were once attached to them are not so easily destroyed. When the University of Istanbul was constructed in the 1920s in the area of the Forum of Theodosios, the rubble excavated must have come from an archive of documents, for it contained many thousands of seals. Although this was not noticed when the rubble was tipped off the sea walls, the seals were eventually washed up on the shore and collected. Similarly, on archaeological sites like Corinth, lead seals are very common finds. From the multitude that survive, specialists can reconstruct the career paths of many individual administrators and soldiers. But centuries of medieval records themselves, authenticated by seals, are almost completely lost.

For those who became the elite of Byzantine society by contributing to the administration of the empire, court ceremonies of bestowing titles, costumes and insignia of office confirmed not only their own role but also that of their wives. When military and civilian officials received an honorary title, their wives were endowed with a feminine form of that title. Thus the wife of an imperial kandidatos gained the title kandidatissa, which was formally bestowed when her husband was promoted. A few seals with these feminine titles indicate that women authenticated their acts in the same way. All wives had to present themselves at court, correctly dressed and appropriately rehearsed to perform the ceremony. When they wore a special hat called propoloma, they did not make the low proskynesis, presumably because it might fall off.

Two major written sources permit a reconstruction of the Byzantine hierarchy of offices: the taktika of imperial administrators (lists which record the seating plans for major banquets) and court rituals described in the Book of Ceremonies (see below). The emperor headed the court hierarchy, followed by the patriarch. By the reign of John I Tzimiskes (969–76), a taktikon records the five highest honours held by members of the imperial family (including the title of zoste patrikia, patrician of the girdle or belt, zoste, usually reserved for the emperor’s mother-in-law). They are followed by the military and naval chiefs commanding the themes; then by the rector (who held responsibility for the imperial household), synkellos (assistant to the patriarch), and judges, including the city eparch, and leaders (demarchs) of the Blues and the Greens. Next came the officers responsible for running the large divisions of the civil service and their staff, ahead of those representing the industries and trades of Constantinople, the grain stores and local monasteries. Military leaders always took precedence over civilians.

How both groups worked together to organize the resources of the empire can be illustrated by the complex preparations for a military operation planned in 949 to liberate Crete from Arab domination. Among the personnel and their equipment were 20dromones(ships) with two crews each of 300 men, 230 oarsmen and soldiers, 70 cavalrymen supplied with 70 chain-mail shirts, and 12 light mail shirts for the steersmen and Greek fire siphon operators; that is 600 altogether. On the 20 dromones of the Vestiarion (a separate department of government), each ship had 3 siphons, i.e. 60 siphon operators altogether, 120 oars, i.e. 2,400 altogether, and 120 anchors and cables. This is a tiny fraction of a much longer list. The navy had to provide both transports and manpower, protective clothing for the steersmen and those operating the siphons for the use of Greek fire, as well as for 70 cavalrymen with their horses. With the necessity of providing water and food for the animals as well as the oarsmen and combatants, the central administration called on services from many departments of government to get the armada under way. And yet this expedition failed.

In the conduct of foreign policy and diplomacy, for which Byzantium was famous, a corps of interpreters dealt with foreign embassies and translated the diplomatic letters they brought to Byzantium. Occasionally, instructions to reply in a simpler form of Greek rather than the classical language indicate that spoken demotic Greek was well known among both Arabs and Italians. Arab sources describe an official letter from Romanos I Lekapenos sent to the Caliph of Baghdad, al-Radi, which was written in Greek in golden letters with an Arabic translation in silver. It accompanied gifts of golden glass encrusted with precious stones, with a lion in crystal, goblets, plates of gold and bowls all encrusted with jewels, clothing, spices including musk, amber, numerous perfumes and rare objects ‘sans pareil’. Later in the tenth century, during the rebellion of Bardas Skleros, an Arab ambassador recorded his unsuccessful negotiations with Basil II over the status of key border fortresses, citing the triple copies of previous agreements (which turned out to be not identical). Byzantine diplomats were usually selected from among the most educated, including bishops and monks, as well as military and civilian officials, and the letters of Leo, Bishop of Synada, Leo Choirosphaktes and Constantine Manasses document their work. By the twelfth century, Manuel I Komnenos employed several Italian merchants as translators and interpreters in his negotiations with the crusaders.

The most important source for imperial administration, however, is the Book of Ceremonies, a compilation of detailed receptions, court rituals and activities outside the palace, to be observed on certain days, put together by Constantine VII (945–59). It includes much earlier material compiled by Peter, a senator, reflecting court activities during the reign of Justinian, which draw on documents such as the Calendar of 354, a Roman record of traditional pagan rites for the well-being of the capital city and its rulers. In Constantinople, the most important public holiday occurred on 11 May, the foundation of the city. The Book of Ceremonies records what should happen at particular feasts, including both Christian services and commemorations of military anniversaries, such as the defeat of the Arabs in 718, of particularly severe earthquakes, or of the annual grape harvest, which involved an expedition made by barge up the Bosphoros. Of course, all the anniversaries of saints and church festivals required imperial participation, which could take an entire day when the court processed to a shrine, attended the liturgical service and the emperor dined with the patriarch. Organized according to the liturgical calendar, which begins at Easter, the book also gives instructions for celebrating acclamations, coronations, imperial marriages and the birth of a son to the empress. In most of these events, the eunuch courtiers direct each stage and signal the participation of different groups.

Among the numerous foreigners who recorded their impressions of the Byzantine court and its workings, Liutprand of Cremona provides two vivid, detailed and contrasting accounts. As the envoy of Berengar of Italy in 949–50, the first reflects his positive reception by Constantine VII, cited in chapter 14. Eighteen years later, the second was dominated by Nikephoros II Phokas’ hostility to his master, the German Emperor Otto I, who was a much more powerful ruler. On Liutprand’s first trip he records how Christmas was celebrated in the Hall of the Nineteen Couches in the Great Palace, when the emperor and his guests reclined, eating from golden plates in ancient Roman style. At one point the ceiling opened and heavy gold dishes of fruit were lowered onto a table. Between the numerous courses, dancers and singers with organs and other instruments provided musical entertainment. Liutprand was particularly impressed by an acrobatic display, performed by a strong man who balanced a tall pole on his forehead, and two young men who climbed up and down performing tricks at the top of it. A similar scene is depicted on frescoes in the cathedral of Kiev and on a magnificent enamel bowl of Islamic make, reminding us of the common features of medieval court culture. Throughout the Near East, rulers collected unusual animals, exchanged luxury goods, such as enamel saddles and silks decorated with gold thread and jewels, and built themselves spectacular palaces with gardens, fishponds and fountains. Byzantium’s network of contacts with the Muslim caliphs and emirs, Slavonic princes and other rulers, was sustained by such gifts, which led in the mid-tenth century to Byzantine craftsmen creating the mosaic and tile decoration of the mihrab in the expanded Great Mosque of Cordoba.

During his second, unwelcome, mission to negotiate an imperial marriage for Otto I’s son, Liutprand was housed in a draughty palace and closely watched. His party was not allowed to ride to the palace when summoned to meet the emperor’s brother. Sometimes they were not even allowed out to purchase water. Since relations between Byzantium and the West had changed, Liutprand found Nikephoros Phokas hostile to the proposed alliance. The emperor told him that it was impossible for a princess born in the purple to marry a western ruler. He railed against diplomatic letters from Rome which employed incorrect titles: instead of Emperor of the Romans, Nikephoros was addressed as Emperor of the Greeks. In turn he addressed Otto as king rather than emperor. After these squabbles over titles, over Latin – the original language of the Romans – and over Otto’s conquests in southern Italy, Liutprand insulted the Byzantines by asserting that the name ‘Roman’ comprehended ‘every form of lowness, timidity, avarice, luxury, falsehood and vice’. In contrast to the banquet he had enjoyed with Constantine VII, the imperial dinners, dominated by leeks, garlic and fish sauce, disgusted him. He was outraged that a barbarian embassy from Bulgaria was seated closer to the emperor and with a proper tablecloth. The final indignation occurred as Liutprand left imperial territory, when customs’ officials confiscated the silks which he thought he had purchased legitimately.

Liutprand’s descriptions of court ceremonies permit us to experience rituals which are prescribed in the Book of Ceremonies. While many document what should happen, for instance at the betrothal of the emperor’s son to his future wife, the actual practice might be adjusted to take account of unusual circumstances. The Byzantines were frequently flexible and shrewd at such adaptation. In the second year of her sole rule, Irene transformed the ceremony for Easter Monday (1 April 799): instead of riding on a white horse to the church of St Mokios, distributing coin to the crowds as an emperor would, she arranged to be carried in a carriage drawn by four white horses, whose bridles were held by high-ranking military officers. In this way, the empress could maintain the act of imperial largesse, giving out money, which the crowds surely expected. Similarly, when Olga, the widowed Princess of Kiev, visited Constantinople in the mid-tenth century, the reception for a male head of state had to be revised to take account of her gender. Olga and her delegation took part in the regular ceremony of greeting, but in addition she was received by Empress Helena, the wife of Constantine VII, in her private quarters, and participated in an all-female dinner, while the men of her embassy (mainly fur and amber traders) were entertained by the emperor.

Separate events for men and women were the norm and gave the empress a particularly important role as hostess. During her visit, Olga was invested with the grand title of zoste patrikia, marked by a special belt of office. Thus decorated, she took part in a mixed reception of both men and women, at which she was seated beside the ruling couple and the young prince Romanos II. Since seating arrangements were of the utmost significance in the court, and proximity to the top table was greatly valued, this special privilege indicated that Olga had been granted the highest status among foreigners. Despite apparently fixed arrangements at imperial banquets, quarrels over who sat where were predictable. We have seen how Liutprand felt that his master Otto I had been insulted when the Bulgarians were seated in a higher position than himself. He also recorded a story about a banquet planned in 945 in order to assassinate Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos. The official who warned Constantine of the threat also advised him how to avoid it: at the moment when ‘the dispute for pride of place begins’, the prince was to strike on a shield, thus giving the signal for his loyal Macedonian troops to burst in and arrest the traitors.

Arab diplomats and prisoners of war record similarly graphic details of the life of the imperial court. Harun ibn Yahya provides a fascinating account of the palace, where Muslim captives were invited to dine on special occasions and were assured by a herald that ‘there is no pork in these dishes’. He described the guards – Black Christians, Khazars and Turks – with their own weapons, four different prisons, numerous talismans (including a horse and rider with ruby eyes), an organ, the emperor’s church and courtyards with marble, mosaic and fresco decoration and tables of wood, ivory and gold. Close to the church of Hagia Sophia, he noted the clock with twenty-four small doors, which opened and closed automatically to mark the hours. He was interested in a cistern from which wine and honey could be made to flow out of the statues on top of columns on feast days, and statues such as the one on the top of the column of Justinian.

In the Hippodrome, Harun thought the Serpent Column, made of four copper snakes, was intended to ward off real ones, and described other hollow statues of yellow copper representing people, horses and wild beasts. He observed with surprise that the empress sat beside the emperor to watch the chariot and horse races. This scene is portrayed in frescoes decorating the tower of the cathedral at Kiev, where the imperial couple are shown overlooking Hippodrome sports from the imperial box. In the early fifteenth century Clavijo, the Spanish ambassador, records the same tradition: the empress sits with the emperor in the Hippodrome, while other ladies watch the jousts from a gallery above the entrance. Although tumblers, jugglers, gymnasts, wrestlers, singers, jesters (often dwarves) and dancers, both male and female, were common court entertainers throughout the medieval world, Byzantium clearly had its own unusual distractions: acrobats performed on camels and on ropes strung between high columns in the Hippodrome. Inside the court, choirs of eunuchs with their permanently childish voices, and golden and silver organs played by the Greens and the Blues, as well as castanets and lyres, all provided musical diversion.

The most detailed records of Byzantine court activity, diplomacy and administration are the compilations of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos: the Book of Ceremonies; a treatise On Governing the Empire, dedicated to his son; and another On the Themes. These reflect a practical need to prepare Romanos II for his imperial role, and draw on a long tradition of books of guidance. The two treatises deal respectively with territories and rulers beyond the empire, and the regions under imperial control, the themes. Both include much geographical information about the different terrains, mountains, rivers and the characteristics of their inhabitants. On Governing the Empire opens with a discussion of the Pechenegs, who are considered extremely dangerous enemies as well as ‘ravenous and keenly covetous of articles rare among them… shameless in their demands for generous gifts’. Constantine advises,

when an imperial agent goes over to Cherson on this service, he must at once send to Patzinacia (the land of the Pechenegs) and demand hostages and an escort, and on their arrival he must leave the hostages under guard in the city of Cherson and himself go off with the escort to Patzinacia and carry out his instructions.

This practical information is illustrated by particular experiences.

Once when the cleric Gabriel was dispatched by imperial mandate to the Turks and said to them, The emperor declares that you are to go and expel the Pechenegs from their place… all the chief men of the Turks cried aloud with one voice, We are not putting ourselves on the track of the Pechenegs; for we cannot fight them because their country is great and their people numerous and they are the devil’s brats.

In this section on Byzantium’s northern neighbours, Constantine gives a detailed account of the way the people from Novgorod, Smolensk and other cities in Russia gather in Kiev and sail down the River Dnieper to the Crimea, and thence across the Black Sea toConstantinople. He describes the seven rapids or cataracts on the lower Dnieper and how they may be negotiated. At the first, which is called Essoupi, which means ‘Do not sleep!’, the water crashes against rocks in the middle ‘with a mighty and terrific din’. To provide a sense of scale, he reports that this cataract is as narrow as the polo ground in Constantinople. Here the Russians disembark the men and guide the boats around the rocks in the middle of the river on foot, also punting them with poles:

At the fourth barrage, the big one called in Russian Aeifor and in Slavonic Neasit, because the pelicans nest in the stones of the barrage… all put into land. They conduct the slaves in their chains by land, six miles, until they are through the barrage. Then partly dragging their boats, partly carrying them on their shoulders, they convey them to the far side of the barrage.

They continue to the seventh barrage and on to Krarion, where there is a ford as wide as the Hippodrome and as high as an arrow can reach if shot from the bottom to the top. This is ‘where the Pechenegs come down and attack the Russians’.

Constantine collected this mixture of practical and political advice from older sources covering the history of Byzantium’s relations with all its neighbours. Even though some of the information is not up to date, the genealogies he provides of the Prophet Muhammad, the ruling Bagratid dynasty in Georgia and Armenia, and the Franks in the West explain and elaborate on important historical developments. He shows, for instance, why the Croatians remain independent from the Bulgarians:

The prince of Croatia has from the beginning, that is ever since the reign of Heraclius, the emperor, been in servitude and submission to the emperor of the Romans, and was never made subject to the prince of Bulgaria.

In addition to these works for his son, Constantine described another of his personal efforts in the following words:

Research into history has become clouded and uncertain, either because of the scarcity of useful books or because the quantity of written material has aroused fear and dismay. This is why Constantine, born in the porphyra, the most orthodox and most Christian of all the emperors who ever reigned… considered that the best thing… was first of all to have an active search made and to gather together from all corners of the oikoumene books of every kind, full of diverse and varied knowledge.

(I discuss the porphyra in the next chapter.) The result was an enormous encyclopaedia in 53 books ‘enshrining all the great lessons of history’, and divided by topics such as military strategy, hunting and marriage. Only three of these books survive: number 1 on the election of emperors, 22 on embassies, largely culled from the work of a certain John of Antioch, and 50 on vice and virtue. Other projects in the same style are fortunately preserved intact: a complete Lexikon of Greek names and terms called the Souda, and a revised edition of the late antique anthology of Greek epigrams, which gives pride of place to the Christian inscriptions at the beginning but also preserves even the most indecent homoerotic verses.

These great encyclopaedias brought together the historical experience of the past in a movement which modern historians have characterized as a ‘renaissance’. It could also distort the past, as Constantine showed in the Life of Basil, an account which he commissioned of his grandfather’s rise to power. As we have seen, Basil I became emperor by murdering his predecessor Michael III. Constantine insisted on interpreting this act as one that saved Byzantium from a drunkard and emphasized all the irreverent and crazy aspects of Michael’s rule. Basil I could thus be portrayed in a favourable light as the founder of the Macedonian dynasty, now in its third generation under the proud leadership of Constantine. ‘Macedonian’ has also become the term attached to his ‘renaissance’ of ancient wisdom.

The court ceremonies documented by Constantine VII continued in use for centuries and were transferred to the Blachernai Palace, when Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) decided to live there. After 1204, during the Latin occupation of Constantinople, all the centres which claimed to represent Byzantium adapted the ceremonies to their own courts, and in 1261, when Michael VIII Palaiologos re-entered the capital on foot, he observed the ceremony appropriate to a victorious emperor returning in triumph. In some ways the most curious text about court ceremonies is the late Byzantine Treatise on the Dignities and Offices by an anonymous author known as Pseudo-Kodinos. It reflects the persistence of titles, costumes and regalia well into the fourteenth century, when both the empire and the imperial court had only a shadow of their former strength. In his mosaic portrait at the Chora monastery, Theodore Metochites, the first minister of the empire, is depicted wearing a kaftan and turban, which reflect the influence of Turkish styles on court costume in this period (plate 26). So even in the last years of the empire, not only do the same responsibilities appear, together with the roga, the annual pension, which had once made certain offices so desirable, but also the honorific terms are grossly inflated and individuals competed to gain them as never before. During the short reign of the last ruler of Byzantium, Constantine XI (1449–53), the Grand Duke, Loukas Notaras, tried to obtain two high offices for his sons in convoluted obsequiousness:

Your Majesty made Kantakouzenos’ son stratopedarch at your brother the despot’s request, because of his relationship by marriage and because his father was protostrator. If you give Phrantzes such an important office which is above that of grand stratopedarch, what will happen? But if Your Majesty pleases, reward him with the office ofgrand primikerios which is next in rank.

At this stage, whether an official was protostrator or grand stratopedarch cannot have been of great importance in financial terms, but courtiers still fought to gain the most prestigious posts which ranked highest in the hierarchy. The emperor was embarrassed because he wanted to reward other officials who were more deserving than Notaras’ sons. Meanwhile the Turks encircled the city and brought up their new giant cannon which was to bring down the walls.

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