Episode 169 – Constantinople in 1025

Constantinople in the Byzantine era

Constantinople in the Byzantine era

The Palazzo Farsetti in Venice, built by descendents of Enrioc Dandolo (venicetour.it)

The Palazzo Farsetti in Venice, built by descendents of Enrioc Dandolo (venicetour.it)

Bodrum Mosque, the former Myrelaion Church

Bodrum Mosque, the former Myrelaion Church

Map of the Great Palace from the book The Emperors House

Map of the Great Palace from the book The Emperors House

The Great Palace from The Byzantine Court - Source of Power and Culture

The Great Palace from The Byzantine Court – Source of Power and Culture

Having covered the famous monuments thoroughly we take a look around the rest of Constantinople. We survey changes in the population, harbours, architecture and palace amongst other things.

Period: 913-1025

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Categories: Podcast | 6 Comments

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6 thoughts on “Episode 169 – Constantinople in 1025

  1. JeanDukeofAlecon

    “The Basilica had been a large public space for law courts and shops, but was now gone”

    There were many basilicas in Constantinople, not just the one Justinian built a cistern under, and a number were still used for their original purpose in the 11th century, including the Praetorium. A number of law courts were also erected by more recent emperors, including Basil I.

    “The old Senate Houses were no longer used”

    The senate house in the forum of Constantine was still intact but not used often (it features a couple of times in the book of ceremonies), but the Senate house of Magnaura was still quite well used, even if court was normally held in the Golden Hall (it’s used in a good dozen ceremonies and receptions in the BoC).

    Also, I would strongly caution against concluding that Roman architecture of the period was always smaller and lower quality than in earlier periods just because the tiny amount which survives happens to be smaller and somewhat lower quality than the Theodosian and Justinianic masterpieces of the 5th and 6th centuries.

    There are a number of very large middle Byzantine structures described in the sources not currently extant, such as the hall of Justinian II, the Nea Ekklesia, mentioned in the episode, Leo VI’s multi-storied, domed, eight-naved monumental bathhouse decorated with secular mosaics and a plethora of antique statues, and Monomachos’s Mangana Palace, which had main apartments rising 5 stories into the air, complimentary gardens incorporating a variety of fountains, ponds, and unique waterworks, an attached reception hall (which would have to have been monumental to hold all the usual courtiers and brilliant to fit the emperor’s tastes), baths, and a church noted in multiple neutral and even hostile histories for its enormous size and lavish decoration – and, if the contemporary basilica of San Marco, designed and built by Roman architects for a much poorer ruler, is anything to go by, it might very well have been enormous indeed.

    These would, of course, be notably smaller than the very best of early-period imperial constructions, having been built, as you say, when the Empire was a mere great power instead of a superpower, but they would still be of truly monumental size and imperial quality nonetheless, even by the standards of late antiquity – the Hagia Sophias and Basilica Novas of the world were just *ridiculously* large.

    I would implore you to perhaps focus a little less on noting how much smaller what remains of middle-period architecture is than the most wasteful passion projects of Justinian and how much richer Roman civilization was before plague and constant invasion, and maybe focus a little more on how Rome measured up to its medieval contemporaries and what imperial constructions meant to contemporary Romans. As it stands I have to say the show’s taking far too pessimistic and backwards-looking a tone, constantly emphasizing how much smaller, poorer, and weaker the medieval Roman polity was than the ancient, instead of studying 10th and 11th century Romania’s unique place in the medieval world as an ascendant, rich, sophisticated, technologically advanced, incredibly influential, and well-organized and centralized nation which had its own monuments and masterpieces, less grand though they might be.

    • I think you’ve absorbed a more negative tone than was intended. Most listeners have very little architectural knowledge. So I’m making comparisons between the most famous buildings because they are the best understood. And when I say the Empire was poorer, I do just mean financially poorer. I did say that these new buildings were thought of as beautiful by contemporaries. I also do make comparisons in passing in episodes about the West and how visitors to Constantinople were always deeply impressed by what they saw.

      • JeanDukeofAlecon

        I do apologize for the tone of the comment, which got too generalizing and too negative at the end; going back and re-listening to the last few full episodes, the show in general has been more balanced and less pessimistic than I remembered. Looking at this episode and my comment again, my main issue is that, for an episode about Constantinople and its architecture in 1025 ad, late antiquity is rather quite over-represented and middle period structures almost entirely passed over. The Hagia Eirene and Saint Sergius and Bacchus are both mentioned and lauded for their size, sophistication, and good foundations, but the Nea Ekklesia, while mentioned, is only described at all as being far smaller and supposedly less sophisticated than “anything Justinian had erected”, with the entire rest of the section on imperial construction being focused exclusively on the Myrelaion, a minor imperial chapel.

        We really don’t know exactly how large the main building of the New Church was – it’s not impossible it was close to or around the same size as the Hagia Eirene (huge amounts of resources and effort were definitely put into it, with ships being dedicated to transporting materials for its construction from as far as Sicily) – but the complex as a whole, erected by Basil from the foundations, was evidently massive, encompassing an entire polo field and more. This complex was connected to the water supply and thoroughly plumbed, allowing basil to attach an peristyle with two large fountains (one of which could apparently be made to produce wine instead of water) and a large irrigated garden, still functioning perfectly a century later when they were described in Theo. Cont, and included a large vaulted portico surrounding said garden, covered in encaustic paintings which, if surviving encaustic works and the art produced in Basil’s reign are anything to go on, would probably be considered masterpieces today.

        Theophilus is also brought up briefly, but only his renovations of the Boukoleon Palace are described. No mention is made of the emperor’s monumental Triconch hall or Sigma court, of antique tradition and the first major constructions of their kind in centuries, on which he lavished huge amounts of time and money, and in which he held court and ceremony until his death. The Sigma complex was made up of a large semi-circular (or Σ/ς shaped) peristyle facing west (IE Ɔ) with a gilded fountain in the center, a golden throne under a canopy facing west at the eastern extremity, a large set of marble steps leading up to a minor hall bounding the west, and a huge two-leveled, multi-storeyed arcade enclosing the rest of the open court – the interior perimeter was additionally mirrored and bounded by a semi-circular water channel fed by two gilded lion fountains at the north and south, culminating in the aforementioned throne. Immediately to the east of this complex lay the Triconch, connected by two sets of large silver and polished bronze doors.

        This was a unique structure, a combination of new and very old styles, of almost cross-in-square form but not quite; the main upper hall was of cruciform plan with a main vault, a large central dome, and three apsidial half-domes in the north, east, and south (the three “conches” which gave it its name). The ceiling, as in Chrysotriklinos, was covered in gold mosaic throughout, the walls were decorated with marble paneling and mosaics depicting natural scenes and figures picking fruit, and the main eastern apse, in which the imperial throne was placed, was perforated by large windows, supported by porphyry columns, in a fashion quite similar to buildings like the Aula Palatina. There was also a smaller lower hall, immediately beneath the main, which was lavishly decorated but doesn’t seem to have served any specific purpose outside of being a gilded substructure and alternative hall when needed, though the sources do describe a cave-like echo in one of its apses which got it named “the Mystery”. For visualization, Antoine Helbert has done some excellent reconstructions of both the Nea and especially the Sigma-Triconch complexes:

        General overview from the south: http://www.antoine-helbert.com/shop/articles/91518/zoom/Constantinople_rrr_GRAND_PALAIS_SACRe.jpg

        Sigma-Triconch cross-section: https://i.imgur.com/4bwYUNN.jpg

        Sigma detail: https://i.imgur.com/7jyihmN.jpg

        In general, it would have been appreciated if the episode had focused more on structures like these than the Myrelaion, a small building far outdone in size and sophistication by even provincial churches like the Hagia Sophia in Thessalonika, Hosios Loukas, and Nea Moni of Chios, especially since we do have reconstructions for many of them. It was monumental constructions such as those described above – assertions of wealth, power, and sophistication not seen since gilded antiquity – which embodied the imperial revival underway since the 9th century, not what minor personal chapels have come down to us. I also would have preferred if the episode focused more, as I’ve said before, on how Roman architecture compared to its contemporaries and competitors as opposed to the greatest products of its past. The Grand Projects of Theophilus and Basil were perhaps less towering than what Justinian’s architects could erect with a tax base 4 times larger, but they easily rivaled anything being built by the Carolingians or even Abbasids, a fact which seems more relevant and interesting, at least to me, than the slightly diminished capacity of the Romans to build strong foundations.

        I do again apologize for the unwarranted attitude of the previous comment though, and realize that the show has been, in general, fair and balanced in recent episodes. I should also make clear that I’m personally a huge fan of the podcast – it’s one of the most consistently in-depth, entertaining, unbiased, and accurate presentations of history out there, not just in terms of podcasts but period, and for a time and people that really need it – I just think that it could have been a bit more detailed, a bit more focused, and a bit more positive in this specific instance.

  2. I appreciate your comments and your obvious love for Byzantine architecture. But I hope you can see why most of the information in your post would have been far too detailed for the level the podcast is pitched at 🙂

    • JeanDukeofAlecon

      Oh of course – I wouldn’t expect you to explain the plans, detail the decoration, or count the courtyards of any structure, those were just included in the comment to show how expansive and significant such complexes were – but a mention and perhaps quick evaluation of more exceptional monuments such as the Triconch, baths of Leo VI, and the Walled Obelisk (probably not built – but definitely sheathed in gilded bronze panels depicting the victories of Basil I – by Constantine VII) would have been nice, and there are much better poster-boys for imperial architecture than the Myrelaion, if not many extant. In any case, I’ve said what I’ve come to say, the show is great and only getting better, and it seems we generally agree, so I think I’ll leave it here; thank’s for your time, and I hope the comments have been at least a little constructive 🙂

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