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Stefan's Florilegium


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CaRussia-art - 7/20/94

"The Imperial Ideal-- and reality
Constantinople and Russia in the early eleventh century"
by Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

NOTE: See also the files: Russia-msg, Russ-law-art, St-Nicholas-art,
Rus-Handbook-art, Rus-women-art, Russia-bib, Kiev-Slavery-art.


This article was submitted to me by the author for inclusion in this set
of files, called Stefanšs Florilegium.

These files are available on the Internet at:

Copyright to the contents of this file remains with the author.

While the author will likely give permission for this work to be
reprinted in SCA type publications, please check with the author first
or check for any permissions granted at the end of this file.

Thank you,
Mark S. Harris
AKA: Stefan li Rous

The Imperial Ideal-- and reality
Constantinople and Russia in the early eleventh century
--Nicolaa de Bracton of Leicester

Byzantium believed herself to be the centre of the civilized world,
the living continuation of the Roman Empire, the imperial ideal
personified. There was no other city like it in the Western world,
and few to rival it in all of human civilization. Imagine, if you
will, a city of one million -- in an age that thought a settlement of
ten thousand to be a metropolis. Surrounded by 12 miles of walls, lit
by the Pharos lighthouse, Constantinople was literally a beacon to
the rest of the world at the entrance to the Black Sea, astride East
and West and the trading routes which connected them. Her harbours
filled with warships, her streets lit by a system of lighting, her
citizens provided with excellent drainage and sanitation, hospitals,
orphanages, libraries, and luxury shops which stayed open even at
night, Constantinople stood at her apogee. The great cathedral of
Hagia Sophia, built by Justinian in the sixth century, it is said,
could be seen for miles from its position commanding the Golden Horn
due to the huge number of candles and lamps used to light it; the
light of Orthodox Christianity shone even further, with the Patriarch
of Constantinople overseeing nearly as many souls as the Pope, from
the city founded as the New Rome by Constantine the Great, first
Christian Emperor of Rome, himself. No wonder the Eastern Church
balked at claims of papal supremacy!

Inside the Great Palace, a second city within this great city that
many residents probably never even saw, the Imperial Court lived out
their lives, amidst seven palaces (some roofed in gold) and halls with
silver and bronze doors equipped with fountains which could be made to
flow with wine. They sat on gold and jewel-encrusted thrones equipped
with mechanical devices which could lift them to the ceiling to
impress the awe-stricken audience below, and they ate soup garnished
with pearls off of gold plates. When bored, they could wander the
libraries, gardens, zoo, and aviary all contained inside the walls.

The Emperor and his family did venture out of the palace on occasion
-- for festivals and visits to the Hippodrome. One eyewitness has
described an imperial procession. The streets were strewn with mats,
leaves, and branches for the event. First came Greeks in silks of red,
white and green, followed by the Varangian Guard, clad in sky-blue
silk and carrying gilded axes. Next came eunuchs, pages, patricians,
and finally the Emperor, accompanied by the silentarius, whose job it
was to hush the crowd. The Emperor wore his diadem of pearls and
gold, his state robes, and the purple cloak and shoes which only he
was entitled to wear, but behind him walked his chief minister, who at
every two steps reminded him to "think on death", upon which he opened
a gold box he was carrying and kissed the earth it contained, tears in
his eyes. All of this was done by a strict set of rules, overseen by
a Master of Ceremonies, whose only duty it was to orchestrate these
events and to ensure that precedence was observed-- no small task,
when one realizes that there were eighteen separate ranks of titles
and over sixty leading officials in the Byzantine Court. These
included heads of the chancery, the master of horse, the chief
advisor, the head of finance, the receiver of petitions, and the
stategi , or military commanders, not to mention the Eparch of
Constantinople, the acting governor of the city itself, just to name a
few. Eunuchs were everywhere. Often they formed the Emperor's most
intimate counselors, as the post of Emperor was the only one that by
law they could not attain. Otherwise, they held positions of great
power, including military commands.

The bulk of the population probably caught glimpses of the Emperor in
the Hippodrome as well, where, fresh from his morning prayers, he
would bless the crowd from his box and drop a white handkerchief to
start the games. Most popular were the four-horse chariot races, but
gladiators and mock hunts had their parts, too. After the games, the
people would return to their duties -- perhaps in the massive Imperial
administration, perhaps in crafts or trading. Constantinople had
hundreds of well-established guilds; six alone -- silk twisters, silk
weavers, dyers in purple, dealers in raw silk, dealers in Syrian silk,
and dealers in silk clothing-- associated with the silk trade. There
were guilds for every trade imaginable, from cattle traders,
fishmongers and innkeepers to money-changers, goldsmiths, and
notaries. Membership was not hereditary, but was based on aptitude.
Nowhere else in Europe was the guild system so fully developed. Thus,
while Byzantium's claim to supremacy might have smacked of arrogance,
it was a well-founded claim.

To understand Byzantium's policies towards the Rus' and other nearby
peoples in our period, it is necessary to know a bit about Byzantine
politics and history at this period. Vladimir the Great (the
converter of Russia)'s contemporary in Byzantium was Basil II, who has
been called the "apogee of Byzantine Power". His predecessors had
been involved not only in external conflicts against the Bulgarian
Slavs and Arabs, but also in internal struggles between members of the
ruling dynastic family, powerful generals, and the feudal aristocracy,
which was trying to consolidate its power by grabbing up land from
small landowners. Basil had just concluded a successful campaign in
the Balkans when the feudal aristocracy in Asia Minor revolted,
supporting a pretender related to one of the generals who had worn the
purple while Basil was still a child and unable to assume it himself.
These rebels, led by Bardas Phocas, marched on Constantinople. Basil
turned to Vladimir, who himself led 6000 men in aid of the emperor at
Chrysopolis. The result was a splendid victory; within a year Bardas
Phocas was dead of a heart attack suffered in the midst of a final
battle at Abydus. A grateful Basil promised Vladimir his sister Anna,
on the condition that he and his people convert to Christianity, which
they did. Basil seems to have regretted his promise, because Vladimir
had to invade Byzantine possessions to get him to keep it. And no
wonder -- no other European lordling had ever been permitted to wed a
purple-born Imperial princess. That Basil eventually kept the promise
is testament to the strong bond now growing between the two powers.

Basil himself never married, but grew increasingly withdrawn and
autocratic. He hated the ceremony, art, rhetoric, and learning that
ornamented the court -- his only wish was to increase the power of the
state and overcome its enemies, both domestic and foreign. In the
case of the former, he moved to halt the land-grabbing feudal
aristocracy that he hated by restricting their ability to force small
landowners to sell their property and become mere tenants, and he
imposed taxes to both help the Empire fund its military and to keep
the aristocracy from accumulating wealth that could be used to fuel revolts.

Externally, Basil conducted campaigns against a number of foes. He
literally wiped out the Bulgar tsardom in the Balkans, earning the
epithet "Basil the Bulgar-slayer". While ruthless and inhuman on the
field, he was moderate and sensible towards this newly-reclaimed
Byzantine province once it was subdued, exempting it from a number of
heavy taxes. The Arabs were successfully kept quiet as well, and
towards the end of his reign, Basil annexed lands in the region of
Armenia. When he died in 1025, the Byzantine Empire was larger and
more prosperous than it had been for years; Basil had also been
working on a plan to extend Byzantine influence into Italy, where a
Byzantine Princess had married the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II.

Unfortunately, after Basil's death, this all began to fall apart.
Constantine VIII, Basil's brother, assumed the purple next. An old
man by this time, Constantine cared little for anything but banquets
and visiting the Hippodrome, and was Emperor in name only. When he
died in 1028, he left no sons, but on his deathbed named Romanus
Argyrus, the Eparch of Constantinople, to marry his 53-year-old sister
Zoe and thus succeed him. Romanus was past 60 and had absolutely no
ability whatsoever, preferring the kind of decadent life Constantine
had enjoyed. During his reign, all of Basil's policies were
completely abandoned, with the result that the feudal aristocracy once
again began grabbing up land from small landowners, who were reduced
to a state of dependency. The taxes went unenforced as well, with the
result that revenue declined, which led to a decline in the strength
of the armed forces.

Romanus did not last long, however. He had quickly tired of Zoe, who
found a more attractive lover in Michael, the brother of the eunuch
John the Orphanotrophus, with the result that Romanus died in his bath
in 1034 and Zoe married Michael that very night. Michael assumed the
purple as Michael IV, but John the Orphanotrophus ran the
administration, reimposing the taxes on the feudal aristocracy, thus
winning the support of the civil nobility. Michael himself was an
improvement over his predecessors -- he was a capable leader and a
brave general, though he suffered from epilepsy. In his reign, the
Slavs began to make inroads once again into Byzantine territories,
though a serious revolt in the Balkans was suppressed; however,
Michael himself returned mortally ill, dying in 1041.

Thus, after Vladimir's conversion, the Rus' for the most part left
Byzantium unmolested, preferring instead to pursue the more lucrative
route of trade with Constantinople. The fact that a special bond now
existed between Kiev and Constantinople is quite clear when one notes
that in the troublesome years after Basil's death, the Rus' did not
seize the opportunity to expand at Byzantium's expense.


What of this trade, then? It is not surprising that Constantinople
attracted people, both friendly and hostile, from afar. The Rus'
attacked the city a number of times, each time concluding hostilities
with a treaty which allowed them trade privileges. The Vikings, who
had previously plied the Volga River routes in search of Arabic
silver, looked westward for new sources when the Kufic sources began
to dry up in the ninth and tenth century. The Dneiper River system
was an obvious choice as a route to Constantinople, but until the
tenth century, the passage was hazardous due to hostile tribes in the
area. Once Kiev secured control over the area, there was less danger
of attack, though still other difficulties to surmount.

The items most in demand in Constantinople were fur, and to a lesser
degree, slaves. Sheep, cattle, goatskins, leather, hawks, honey, wax,
nuts, coriander, fish, ivory, amber, arrows, swords, and mail-coats
were just a few of the other items in demand. The boats which plied
the lower Dneiper had to leave by June if they hoped to get to
Constantinople and back before the river froze. The journey took 5-6
weeks. The traders traveled in boats (monoxyla ) made of a large,
hollowed tree trunk, planked up on the sides to hold more goods;
these seem to have been well suited for river travel; once into the
Black Sea, they were fitted with sails for the last leg of the

1;0cThe journey was quite grueling. Besides the ever-present threat of
raiders and bandits, there were seven sets of rapids on the lower
Dneiper, and passage was possible only during a narrow window when the
river was full of spring meltoffs and thus higher than normal. Once
out of the Dneiper, the boats made their way to the Danube estuary,
where they picked up sails, masts, and rudders and sailed for
Constantinople. Once in the city, the Rus' were afforded special
privileges, especially after 988, when a grateful Byzantium thanked
the Rus' by extending them the right to stay six months (rather than
the customary three), the guarantee of certain provisions (food,
sailcloth, rope) and the right to buy extra silk (the amount of silk
one was allowed to export from the city was strictly regulated).
These special privileges probably also had something to do with the
fact that the main Rus' trade good, furs, was in high demand in
Byzantium. The Rus' had their own section outside the walls on the
Bosporus and their own churches within this quarter. After 988, they
also contribu ted men to the Emperor's Varangian Guard.

The goods brought back were the luxuries in demand among the Rus':
silk, extremely prestigious to those at home; wine, unavailable
otherwise; finished goods, spices, and Byzantine money. The return
trip was at least as treacherous as the journey there, but the trouble
was definitely worth it in the eyes of the Rus' elite.

Davidson, H.R.E. The Viking Road to Byzantium. London: Allen and
Unwin, 1976.

Ostrogorsky, George. History of the Byzantine State , revised
edition. Translated from the German by Joan Hussey. New Jersey:
Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Vernadsky, George. Kievan Russia . New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948.

Copyright 1994 by Susan Carroll-Clark, 53 Thorncliffe Park Dr. #611,
Toronto, Ontario M4H 1L1 CANADA. Permission granted for
republication in SCA-related publications, provided author is credited
and receives a copy.

If this article is reprinted in a publication, I would appreciate a notice in
the publication that you found this article in the Florilegium. I would also
appreciate an email to myself, so that I can track which articles are being
reprinted. Thanks. -Stefan.

<the end>

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