10 December: An Important Date in Eleventh-Century Byzantium.

By Jean Marie Carey

10 December was an important date in the Byzantium of the 11th Century, as the Empire consolidated its own dynastic royalty while maintaining close contact with Rome and the politics of the Medieval church. On 10 December 1041, the emperor Michael IV the Paphlagonian died, ending a period of imperial intrigue and murder. Michael IV was rapidly succeeded on the throne of the Eastern Empire – on the same day in fact – by Michael V, the son of the legendary Empress Zoë. Four decades later Nikephoros III Botaneiates, who had been deposed as emperor, died on 10 December 1081.

The art and architecture of this period cannot be easily categorized as either Roman or Byzantine and often reflected the meeting of artisans and cultures as well as influences from Egypt, Germany, and China. The Hippodrome of Constantinople, for example, located in today’s Sultanahmet Square, was an area that was the sporting and social center of Constantinople, during the Byzantine Imperial period. Only a few relics from the original Hippodrome survived. Horse racing and chariot racing probably took place in this area during the early Byzantine Period. Originally, the Hippodrome was built when the city was called Byzantium, circa 203, when Roman Emperor Septimius Severus rebuilt the city and expanded its walls, adding an arena for chariot races and other forms of entertainment. Circa 324, when Emperor Constantine I moved his capital city from Rome to Byzantium, he greatly enlarged the city, during which he also renovated the Hippodrome. Constantine’s Hippodrome could host some 100,000 spectators. The Hippodrome features some interesting historical and other monuments, such as the Serpent Column, Obelisk of Thutmose III, the Walled Obelisk and the Kaiser Wilhelm German Fountain.

This free-blown flagon shown here is part of a tradition that begins in the First Century when glassworkers in or around Sidon, a city in Syria, discovered the blowpipe. Glass artistry had been around for many centuries, providing costly ornaments and containers for the upper classes of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, but the advent of blowpipe technology made glassware suddenly cheap and plentiful. The Syria/Palestine area became the center for glasswork in the world of the Late Roman Empire, with the bulk of it imported from that region throughout the various conquered nations. This particular flagon has been dated to approximately 750 and given a Byzantine origin, but it bears many similarities in approximate size, shape, and color to the earlier Late Roman imports of the Syro-Palestinian coastline.

Even after glass became common in the marketplace, the upper classes still preferred glassware that was vivid in hue, colored to resemble precious stones or treated so as to be completely colorless, while less costly were naturally a pale greeish tint, due to the presence of iron oxide in the mix of soda, lime, and silica necessary to create glass. Although the Late Roman tradition of glass design – including types of this particular flagon – did continue after the fall of the Roman Empire, the Byzantine period began featuring glass vessels of a more ornate character, in some cases the handle devolving into ornamental uselessness. The flagon has a utilitarian style that enjoyed a wide era of popularity. The spacious body and solid handle are imminently practical. Household items of this type were extremely commonplace; this flagon, probably used for serving liquids in the average home, was no exception.

Reference: James Howard-Johnston. “Byzantium and Its Neighbours” in The Oxford Handbook of Byzantine Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press 2008.


Hippodrome of Constantinople, The Neo-Byzantine German Fountain, Established by Roman Emperor Septimius Severus; enlarged and renovated by Byzantine Emperor Constantine I. Originally established ca. 203; enlarged and renovated 324-337. Istanbul, Turkey. Photos: Shmuel Magal, Sites and Photos, Nrs. R51022603, R51022607, R51022612.

Goblet with Personifications of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, and Cyprus, c. 750. Found near Vrap, district of Pekinje, Albania in 1902. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nr. 17.190.1710.

Necklace with Medallion and Amulet, medallion: first half 5th century; amulet: 2nd century. Medallion: gold-wrought sheet; repoussé; wire-beaded. Pendant: gold-wrought sheet; wire-beaded; hematite. Chain: gold; wire-block twisted. Found in Piazza della Consolazione, Rome, Italy in 1908. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nr. 58.12.

Byzantine Free-Blown Flagon, 7th century. Portland Art Museum European Collection, Nr. 36.114.

Arcadius, first Emperor of the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire, 390-400. Found in Rome. Photographer: Jürgen Liepe. Antikensammlung, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin.


Further Reading: Walter Pohl, Clemens Gantner, and Richard E. Payne. Visions of Community in the Post-Roman World: The West, Byzantium and the Islamic World, 300-1100. Burlington, VT : Ashgate, 2012. 

Przemysław Marciniak and Dion Smythe. The Reception of Byzantium in European Culture Since 1500. Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2015.

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