The Imperial Ideal--And Reality

Constantinople and Russia in the early eleventh century

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, Basil1s 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 Basil1s 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 journey.

The 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 contributed men to the Emperor1s 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.

Copyright 1997 Susan Carroll-Clark. All rights reserved.