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This Friday’s talk at the Ancient World Breakfast Club was given by Dr Fiona Haarer of King’s College, London. An interesting connection was established in her introduction, in that she went to Byranston (the infamous Greek summer school) with my head of department around 20 years ago!

The Byzantine Empire marks the period between late antiquity and medieval ages, so Fiona began her talk. It has been characterised by the philosopher Voltaire and the historian Edward Gibbon as a time of decline between such eras, with thoughts such as:

A worthless repertory of declamations and miracles, a disgrace to the human mind (Voltaire)

Fiona gave us another view, an era of intrigue, by looking at both the life and times of Justinian, and the cultural connections between/evolution from the Classical world and Byzantium he secured.

Archangel Diptych - British Museum

Fiona showed us the above diptych which is rich with Classical imagery, particularly the drapery of the figure. The figure is solitary which is typically Classical also. The progression from this type of religious imagery to the below demonstrates the cultural shift from ‘ars gratia artis’ to a desire solely to convey religious fervour. If you look at the figures, the drapery is still skilfully done but the figures are difficult to distinguish. Ars gratia Christi, perhaps.

liturgical dish made in Constantinople

Fiona also discussed how the Byzantine era gave birth to the ‘icon’ with this stunning example, the oldest known icon of its sort:

‘Christ Pantokrator’ icon from St. Catherine’s monastery on Mount Sinai

Fiona went on to talk about the literature of the age, in particular the historian Procopius, and how he not only wrote about the wars of Justinian, but rather intriguingly a work entitled ‘the secret history’ which is perhaps responsible for both Voltaire’s and Gibbon’s view of Byzantium as an age of mystery and magic. After a work in praise of Justinian’s war efforts, to write tales of witnesses seeing Justinian’s head disappear, or his facial features blur, seems rather contradictory. Fiona told us that it had been disputed that Procopius actually could have written both works since they are indeed so contradictory, but his authorship has been established. Other literature of the time included poetry on Classical themes, histories from Adam and Eve to present day, and religious hymns. She mentioned one man, St. Romanos, who had a dream in which the Virgin Mary ‘fed’ him some hymns and went on to write hundreds during his life. Other elements of change from late antiquity to the Byzantine era which Fiona discussed include the architecture and the layout of the cities. If you look at the following picture of Scythopolis you can see the combination of the two styles.

Scythopolis, Israel. There are both Roman and Byzantine ruins here – a Roman theatre and Byzantine churches for example

Justinian himself, formerly Petrus Sebbatius, fought hard to become emperor. Fiona showed us a diptych he had commissioned when he became consul, which is very Classical in style – see if you can spot the only connection to Christianity.

Diptych announcing Justinian’s consulship

Justinian, as many emperors in the past had done, used art for propaganda. This is an early example, but a later one, and one which can be analysed until you’re blue in the face, is called the Barbarini ivory, and is depicted below.

The Barbarini Ivory

There is nothing in this piece which has not been put there to serve some sort of purpose. Fiona described it all to us – he’s on horseback, showing a proactive general where in fact he did not fight, nor did he maintain his success in war. Victory is potrayed being held by a soldier on the left panel, and Plenty is at the bottom, supporting his foot.  These Classical goddesses are mixed with the clear representation of Jesus at the top in the middle. An interesting mix. Fiona discussed how Justinian had some great generals of the army under him – one in particular, Belisarius, was very successful but Justinian was worried that Belisarius would get recognition for any victory achieved and thus gain power, so he accused him of conspiracy and blinded him, so that he ended up begging for alms on the streets.

Fiona also showed us some mosaic panels of Justinian and his wife from a church (shown below): the two panels face each other – how romantic!

Mosaics of Justinian and Theodora from the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

Theodora is an interesting character: a prostitute before she met Justinian, they married for love and she fought for respect as his wife and equal.

Fiona summed up by reflecting on the way that Justinian tried to look back to the Classical past and bring hope for the future. She finished up by showing a mosaic panel from the Hagia Sophia church in Istanbul, which depicts the Virgin Mary with Justinian and Constantine. She remarked that if Justinian had seen it, he would have been pleased to be ranked in importance alongside Constantine.

panel depicting the Virgin Mary with the Emperors Constantine and Justinian from the Hagia Sophia church, Istanbul

There is so much more to talk about here, such as the riots of the hippodrome where 32,000 citizens were killed, Justinian’s bout of the plague and his unremarkable death…I have to say, Fiona’s talk was not something I was particularly excited about, knowing very little about the Byzantine Empire beforehand, but she has really enthused me on this subject. The progression of art and its use as propaganda has always been of interest to me. After the talk, a Lower Sixth pupil told me that she might do her EPQ (Extended Project Qualification) on Byzantium, such was the interest that Fiona sparked in her. Conspiracy, propaganda, prostitution – who could not be entertained?

Please leave any comments on this below!

Next week’s talk: Simonides and the Poetry Industry, given by Max Pappenheim, formerly of The Godolphin and Latymer School, now literary associate at the Finborough Theatre, London.

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