Byzantium: The Apogee by John Julius Norwich (1991)

By the tenth century to be a eunuch was, for a promising youth about to enter the imperial service, a virtual guarantee of advancement; many an ambitious parent would have a younger son castrated as a matter of course. (p.130)

This is a timeline of Byzantine emperors between 802 and 1081, based on John Julius Norwich’s book, Byzantium: The Apogee (1991).

This book is volume two in his three-volume history of the Byzantine Empire, and the first thing you notice is that although the book is a similar length to the first one (389 pages to volume one’s 408), it covers only half the number of years (478 years in volume one, 281 in this volume). The reason is that there are more sources for this later period, and the sources are more complete, and so our histories can be more detailed. Indeed,

thanks to such writers as Liudprand of cremona, St Theophanes and his continuators, George Cedrenus, John Scylitzes and above all the odious but ever-fascinating Michael Psellus, we can enjoy an incomparably nore colourful picture of life in the Imperial Palace of Byzantium in the early middle ages thatn we can of any other court in Europe. (p.xxii)

Permanently embattled

By the time this book starts the Byzantine Empire feels permanently embattled. Muslim armies were constantly attacking in what we now call Syria and Palestine, in Anatolia, but also in faraway Sicily, even invading the Italian Peninsula. The Muslims had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and a new breed of Arab pirates or ‘corsairs’ was attacking Byzantine shipping, and raided the islands of the eastern Mediterranean and the Aegean.

As if this wasn’t enough, there was the barbarian threat from the north. The book opens with Constantinople besieged by the mighty armies of Khan Krum of the Bulgars, later replaced by Symeon I. And the Bulgars themselves were later superseded by the ‘Rus’, in the shape of the Khan of Kiev and his armies.

Time and again Constantinople is only saved by the impenetrability of its defensive walls. The Byzantine response to these threats was either a) to buy the attackers off with vast tributes of gold and treasure or b) occasionally to lead counter-attacking armies, and the emperors who are best remembered tend to be the ones who were successful in defeating these foes in battle.

Constant war

All this means that Norwich’s book is overwhelmingly, consistently, about war – describing campaigns, battles and – more dispiritingly – the endless cycle of sieges and sackings of cities, the massacring of inhabitants or their selling off into slavery, the ravaging of countryside, the murder and killing and raping and looting of civilians.

Every year, as spring rolled around, the campaigning season resumed and off the armies went to pillage and kill, the armies of the Bulgars or Muslims or Rus or Greeks. It does, eventually, become a quite depressing chronicle of man’s inhumanity to man. Since Norwich hardly mentions Byzantine art or architecture, what you’re left with is a gloomy cavalcade of men’s infinite capacity for murder and destruction.

Palace intrigues

And that’s before you get to the palace politics, for the book also highlights the endless scheming among the emperor’s immediate family and the higher echelons of the civil service and army. There is a whole succession of generals or top administrators who mount coups and seize ultimate power. Successful or failed, the coups are always accompanied, not just by predictable bloodshed, but by especially cruel punishments, namely the blinding and castration of the loser, and often of all his sons (to prevent them presenting a long-term threat the the winner).

The divisive impact of religion

And then there is the perpetual problem of religion. This comes in two forms:

  1. the Patriarch and ‘home’ church of the Greeks might oppose the wishes or behaviour of the emperor, raise crowds and mobs against him, excommunicate him and so on – which led to the forcible deposition and sometimes imprisonment of unruly religious leaders
  2. the Pope in faraway Rome could be just as much of a problem, acting with what the Byzantine emperors considered was unacceptable independence, and forever poking their noses into Byzantine court business, for example supporting or even harbouring a deposed Patriarch, sending ambassadors to the emperor insisting the latter obey this, that or the other stricture of the church

Iconoclasm

And that’s before you even consider the complexifying impact of the great divide about Iconoclasm – the belief that images of any sort should be banned from religion, a policy issued by an emperor which led to the gleeful destruction of untold amounts of painted icons, statues, mosaics and other art works in the following hundred years or so. But for Norwich, interested primarily in the political impact of everything, what matters is that Iconoclasm split the ruling class, with some emperors, empresses, their senior administrators and the aristocracy, and even generals and the army holding directly contrary views – some in favour of the strictest interpretation of Iconoclasm and the destruction of religious images wherever they were found – others directly opposed to this policy, and reversing it whenever they had the chance.

If you combine all these elements – repeated coups and civil wars, permanent cultural civil war over Iconoclasm, and annual invasions and attacks by at least three distinct groups of enemies (Bulgars, Rus, Muslims) – it makes for Game of Thrones levels of political intrigue, poisonings, blindings and assassinations, all set against the permanent backdrop of vicious and immensely destructive wars.

The cover illustration is of a fabulous golden icon, and my impression of Byzantine and Greek Orthodox culture had been of austere magnificence: but this book undermines that and is hard to read, not only because the details are often confusing, but because the overall impression is of unrelenting low-minded conspiracy, killing and destruction, covering entire centuries.


Emperors of Byzantium 802 – 1081

The Empress Irene

Iconoclasm (the banning of religious images and icons) had been instituted by Leo III the Isaurian in 726. 80 years later it still divided the empire. The empress Irene had dominated her weak husband, Leo IV (775-780) and their son, Constantine VI (780-797) who came to the throne aged just nine and who, when he became a threat to her power, Irene had arrested and blinded, resulting in his death soon afterwards.

So then the wicked Empress Irene reigned by herself for five years, alienating most sections of the empire – by being a woman, by being an icon-supporter, and for the foul murder of her own son.

In 800 Pope Leo II crowned King Charles of the Franks as Holy Roman Emperor in St Peter’s Rome. This astonished the Byzantines who considered it an appalling assault on their power and prerogatives, but to both Pope and new Emperor, Irene, as a woman, simply did not count and so, for them, the throne of Roman emperor was vacant.

To seal the deal Charlemagne, in 802, sent Irene a proposal of marriage. This in fact struck her as a decent exit strategy to escape the gathering number of enemies to her rule. But her leading ministers rebelled. Led by the Logosthete of the Treasury (the minister of finance), they mounted a coup, and exiled Irene.

Nicephorian dynasty (802–813)

Nicephorus I Logothetes (802 – 811)

The leader of the coup against Irene took the name Nicephorus. Irene had cancelled loads of taxes in a bid to be popular with the people and thus brought the empire to the brink of bankruptcy. The fact that Nicephorus had been finance minister meant he understood how important it was to revitalise the tax base, rebuild the city’s walls, and build up the army. In 803 an Armenian general in the Byzantine army, Bardanes Turcus, rebelled but his revolt was crushed, Bardanes being sent to a monastery where he was, in the traditional style, blinded to prevent him being any more of a threat.

Irene had tried to buy off both the Khan of the Bulgars (in the north) and the Muslim Caliph Harun al-Raschid (in the East) with gold tribute. Nicephorus immediately cancelled both these tributes, sparking war with both (although Raschid died in 809).

He led initially successful campaigns against the Bulgars but was killed at the Battle of Pliska against the mighty leader of the Bulgars, Khan Krum. Initially, Nicephorus had successfully led raids into Bulgar territory and destroyed their capital city, but he and his army were eventually caught in a narrow defile and annihilated. Krum had Nicephorus’s skull encased in silver and used it as a cup for wine-drinking.

Staurakios (July – October 811)

The only son of Nicephoros I, Staurakios automatically succeeded on his father’s death but had been present at the Battle of Pliska and was himself severely wounded, left paralyzed and in constant pain. He was forced to resign within a year, and retired to a monastery where he died soon after.

Michael I Rangabe (811 – 813)

Son-in-law of Nicephorus I, Michael succeeded Staurakios on the latter’s abdication. A spendthrift in everything except defence, he wasted money on high living while Khan Krum devastated various Byzantine towns.

In late 812 Krum offered battle some miles from the capital and in June Michael marched out at the head of an army but, as battle began, the Anatolian wing of the Byzantine army, led by Leo the Armenian, deserted their posts. As a result the Byzantine army was decimated, Michael made it back to Constantinople where he abdicated (retiring to a monastery where he lived quietly for another thirty years), all four of his sons were castrated and his wife and daughters sent to a monastery – while Leo the Armenian returned to the capital and seized the throne.

Non-dynastic

Leo V ‘the Armenian’ (813 – 820)

Born about 775, Leo joined the army and rose to become a general in which capacity he betrayed the army in a confrontation with Khan Krum of the Bulgars, leading to the abdication of Michael I.

Leo still had to deal with Krum and arranged a meeting with the Bulgar at which he treacherously set assassins to kill him. They failed and Krum made off, infuriated, destroyed all the buildings without Constantinople’s city walls – palaces and churches – then systematically destroyed every Byzantine town he could seize, murdering all the men and taking the women and children into slavery. Adrianople was burned to the ground and the entire population sent into slavery beyond the Danube.

Leo, for his part, mounted some sneaky raids into Bulgar territory where, the chroniclers report, his armies had instructions to kill all the children (dashing their heads against rocks and walls, is the precise description). It was a war of extermination on both sides.

Then, just as Krum was supervising the siege engines rumbling up to the walls of Constantinople for a final siege, he dropped dead of apoplexy. To everyone’s surprise, peace had come.

Leo devoted the remainder of his rule to reviving Iconoclasm. The previous three ill-fated emperors had been icon-supporters and their reigns had coincided with financial and military disasters. Leo hoped to revive support for his rule by falling in line with the majority of the upper class, the army and many of the Eastern refugees (who now thronged the city, having fled the armies of the Arabs) who were all deep-rooted iconoclasts. (Iconoclasm feeling became stronger the further east you went.) In 815 Leo promulgated an edict against images which led to an orgy of destruction across the empire. So much beauty and art, silken vestments, gold icons, priceless statues – destroyed forever.

Something – the chronicles are unclear – led to a rift with his one-time good friend Michael from Armoria, who began speaking openly against the emperor and who Leo had imprisoned and ordered to be thrown into a burning furnace. Before this order could be carried out, Michael was freed by accomplices who went with him to the imperial chapel on Christmas Day 820, where they struck down Leo, first cutting off his sword arm, then his head. Leo’s corpse was paraded in ignominy around the Hippodrome. Leo’s four sons were castrated (one died during the procedure) and sent, along with his wife and daughters, into exile.

Amorian dynasty (820–867)

Michael II ‘the Amorian’ (820 – 829)

Michael was an illiterate boor who made his son co-emperor in a bid to establish a settled dynasty. Almost immediately he faced a rebellion which evolved into a civil war, led by Thomas the Slav, a Byzantine general, who besieged Constantinople. However Thomas’s army was unexpectedly attacked from the north by the Bulgars and massacred. The survivors retreated to a walled town, and Michael now felt confident enough to lead a Byzantine army to besiege them. Michael quickly persuaded the rebels to surrender with a promise of mercy, and to give up Thomas – who promptly had his hands and feet chopped off and his body impaled on a stake.

During Michael’s reign the empire lost Crete to Arab pirates, who ravaged all the towns and converted the entire population into slavery. Another band of Arab adventurers began the Muslim conquest of Sicily. Both islands became the home for Arab corsairs who preyed on shipping all over the eastern Mediterranean, despite Michael sending numerous fleets to try and stop them.

Michael died peacefully in his bed, the first emperor in a sequence of six to do so.

Theophilus (829 – 842)

Born in 813, Theophilus was the only son of Michael II, the illiterate Armorian. Co-emperor since 821, he succeeded on his father’s death aged 25 and was, according to Norwich, ‘magnificently qualified to take on the responsibilities of emperor’.

Theophilus had to deal with the aggressive campaigns from the Muslim East of Caliph Mutasim, who besieged and sacked Armoria, the second city in the empire: when some of the inhabitants took refuge in the town church, Mutasim burned them alive in it, the rest of the population was put in chains and taken back across the desert towards Syria but, when water ran short on this long trek, almost all of them were executed. Only 42 made it alive to Muslim territory. Years later the 42 were offered a final choice between converting to Islam or martyrdom. All 42 chose death and were beheaded on the banks of the River Tigris, thus entering the canon of saints of the Byzantine church. Burning, murdering, death.

Theophilus continued the iconoclastic policies of his father, but rather half-heartedly (with some notably brutal exceptions: he had two Christian writers who refused to renounce icons, tattooed across their faces with a long iconoclastic poem, and he had the greatest icon painter of the time, Lazarus, scourged and branded on the palms of his hands with red hot nails). Nonetheless, in Norwich’s opinion, when Theophilus died, aged just 29, from dysentery, ‘the age of iconoclasm died with him’ (p.52).

Interestingly, in response to the Muslim seizure of Crete and Sicily, Theophilus appealed to the son of Charlemagne, Lewis the Pious, to join forces and drive the Muslims from the Mediterranean. Interesting because, as Norwich points out, if Lewis had done so, the age of the crusades (i.e. armed Western Christian knights interfering in the Muslim Mediterranean world) would have come two and a half centuries early and, if it had become a sustained campaign uniting the Western and Eastern Christians, might have seized back more of the Mediterranean littoral.

Michael III ‘the Drunkard’ (842 – 867)

Born in 840, Michael succeeded on Theophilus was succeeded by his son Michael, born in 840 and so just two years old, with the result that the empire was ruled by his mother, Theodora, until 856. She called a Church Council in 845 which anathematised Iconoclasm, not without the usual fierce ecclesiastical in-fighting. (The fierceness of language and actual bodily violence involved in these Church disputes has to be read to be believed. Senior Christian opponents to imperial policy were often arrested, tortured, scourged and whipped, branded, blinded and exiled.)

The Logothete and eunuch Theoctistus manoeuvred his way to becoming co-ruler with Theodora. (Logothete: An administrative title originating in the eastern Roman Empire. In the middle and late Byzantine Empire, it became a senior administrative title, equivalent to minister or secretary of state.)

Theoctistus led a fleet which managed to recapture Crete, and another Byzantine fleet attacked and ravaged the Muslim naval base at Damietta. In other words, this period saw the start of a significant fightback against Muslim domination of the Eastern Mediterranean.

Theoctistus and the Empress adopted the ruinous policy the pair adopted of the systematic persecution of the heretics known as Paulicians. The Paulicians were Christians of a sort, but rejected large parts of the Old and New Testament and many of the practices of the Church. They were based in Armenia, a mountainous region far to the east of Anatolia. They were ordered to renounce their beliefs but refused, and so a vast military army set out to the East and, if the chroniclers are to be believed, massacred up to 100,000 of the Paulician community – by hanging, drowning, putting to the sword and even crucifixion. Not only was this a foul atrocity in itself, but strategically short-sighted in that it drove the entire community into alliance with the Muslim regime based in Baghdad.

Map showing the spread of the Muslim empire and how surrounded and embattled the Byzantine Empire became (and how foolish it was to drive the Armenians into alliance with the Muslims)

The Empress Theodora’s brother (Michael’s uncle) Bardas, overthrew Theoctistus, confronting him in the palace with a group of soldiers and the young emperor himself, who ran him through with a sword. That was in 855.

Bardas was raised to Caesar in 862. Norwich considers Bardas’s ten year-rule (855-865) one of unparalleled success, notable for his military victories over the Bulgars to the north and the negotiation of their conversion to Christianity, for the growing confidence and distinctness of the Eastern Church, and for Bardas’s personal sponsorship of learning – setting up schools and a university – and the arts.

In the last years of Bardas’s rule the monks and scholars, the brothers Cyril and Methodius, were invited by the Khan of the Bulgars to help convert his Slavic people to Christianity. (Formerly it was believed that Cyril, forced to invent new letters to convey Slavic speech sounds, invented the Cyrillic script which is named after him. Nowadays it is thought he and Methodius invented the Glagolitic script, and that Cyrillic was developed later by their students and followers.)

This story didn’t end well, though, because the Khan of the Bulgars wrote a long letter to the emperor complaining about the endless squabbles among the Byzantine Christian missionaries, and asking for clarification on various points of theology. The emperor Michael made the mistake of arrogantly dismissing it, with the result that the Khan turned to the Pope, who gave him a clear, thorough and polite response. The result was the Khan of the Bulgars gave his allegiance to the Pope in Rome and expelled all the Byzantine missionaries.

Meanwhile, Emperor Michael declined into alcoholism. In his last years he took a favourite, Basil, a strong, illiterate peasant from Armenia, talented with horses, and raised him to the level of Court Chamberlain. All kind of speculation floats around him, including the possibility that he was Michael’s gay lover. Michael ordered Basil to marry a young woman who was almost certainly Michael’s mistress, in order to give his mistress free access to the palace (and Michael), without scandalising the clergy. It is possible, then, that when Basil’s wife bore him children, they were in fact the children of the emperor…

Whatever the details, Basil tightened his grip on Michael’s affections, becoming a serious rival to Michael’s uncle, Bardas. On 21 April 866, on the eve of a naval expedition which he was meant to be leading to liberate Crete from the Muslims, Bardas was sitting next to Michael in the imperial pavilion, when Bardas stepped forward and assassinated him. The emperor was obviously in on the coup because he issued a statement declaring Bardas a traitor and exonerating Basil.

Macedonian dynasty (867–1056)

Basil I ‘the Macedonian’ (867 – 886)

Having assassinated Michael’s uncle, Bardas, in 866, 18 months later, on 24 September 867, Basil and seven followers killed the emperor Michael as he lay in a drunken stupor in his bedchamber. Basil had himself proclaimed basileus.

Basil led successful wars in the East against the Arabs and the Paulicians, and seized back the entire Dalmatian coast, Bari, and all southern Italy for the Empire. He initiated a major review and digest of the laws (on the model of Justinian’s code) and also commissioned the building of new churches and palaces. He had four sons but one, young Constantine, was the apple of his eye. When Constantine died suddenly in 879, Basil went into a decline, becoming surly, reclusive and unbalanced. A later legend says he was killed by a stag while out hunting. We’ll never know for sure.

Leo VI ‘the Wise’ (886 – 912)

Instead of Basil’s favourite son, Constantine, it was his next eldest son, Leo, who succeeded, aged twenty. Already he has acquired the nickname ‘the wise’ for his scholarship, grace and deportment. But Leo VI’s reign saw an increase in Muslim naval raids, culminating in the Sack of Thessalonica, and was marked by unsuccessful wars against the Bulgarians under Symeon I.

Leo sparked a far-ranging religious dispute because he married a succession of wives, who all managed to die of illness or in childbirth. He kept at it because he was desperate for a male heir but when he married for the fourth time, to Zoe ‘Carbonopsina’ (of the black eyes), the church was outraged.

Orthodox theology disapproved of even one remarriage, only reluctantly admitted two – so long as the partners spent a good deal of time repenting and praying – but to remarry for a third time was completely forbidden and the Patriarch of Constantinople. Nicholas, was not slow to criticise and anathematise the emperor. So Leo had Nicholas exiled and appointed a new Patriarch who carried out his wishes. But Nicholas’s dismissal and the scandal of the four marriages split the church into fiercely opposing factions.

Alexander (912 – 913)

Leo had sidelined his brother, Alexander, during his reign. When Leo finally died his brother inherited and promptly set about undoing much of his brother’s work, starting by banishing Leo’s wife, Zoe, and ignoring Leo’s careful diplomacy with the ever-threatening Bulgars. He restored the troublesome patriarch, Nicholas, who Leo had dismissed and who returned from exile furious and determined to take his revenge on everyone in the hierarchy who had condoned Leo’s marriage.

Alexander was an alcoholic and died of exhaustion after a polo game, leaving the throne to Leo’s young son, Constantine, born in 905 and so aged just seven.

Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913 – 959)

At Alexander’s death there is a scrabble for power. When Zoe learned that Alexander lay dying she rushed back to the palace to protect her and Leo’s son, Constantine. On his deathbed Alexander confirmed Constantine as heir, but appointed a Regency Council led by Nicholas. And the first thing Nicholas did was order the empress to have her hair shorn and be sent to a nunnery, where she was renamed Sister Anna.

Within days the leader of the army, Constantine Ducas, mounted a coup against the regency Council, but as he snuck into the city, he and his conspirators (including his eldest son, Gregory) were caught and killed. Almost certainly Nicholas was in league with Ducas but, after the coup failed, it gave Nicholas the pretext he needed to launch a drastic reign of terror.

Whole companies were massacred, their bodies impaled along the Asiatic shore of the Bosphorus; others were flogged or blinded…. Ducas’s widow was exiled… his younger son… was castrated. (p.127)

Leo VI had wisely paid a tribute or bribe to Symeon the Great, Khan of the Bulgars, to stop him ravaging Thrace (the area to the north of Constantinople).

Constantine rashly stopped the payment with the result that Symeon led a Bulgar army right up to the walls of Constantinople. At this point the Patriarch Nicholas went out to see Symeon and did some kind of deal, so that the Bulgars went away.

But 1. Nicholas’s brutal treatment of the empress and 2. his brutal treatment of the army and 3. the rumour that he had sold out to the Bulgars, led to the collapse of the Regency Council. This triggered the swift return of ‘Sister Anna’, who reclaimed the role of Augusta and Regent and her true name of Zoe.

The next thing that happened was a coup organised by the admiral Romanus Lecapenos. He overthrew the empress (and sent her back to the convent again, hair shorn, Sister Anna once more) and quickly wedded his daughter to Constantine, thus becoming the young emperor’s father-in-law. Romanus worked to make himself invaluable and to seize all the levers of state. Eventually he got himself crowned senior emperor in 920.

Constantine was sidelined during the Lecapenos regime, but asserted his control by deposing Romanus’s sons in early 945. Byzantine forces helped an Armenian king against the Muslims in the East and destroyed an advancing Muslim army in south Italy, restoring a lot of the empire’s prestige. The Byzantines then caught an attacking army of Bulgars under Symeon I unprepared, forcing it to retire back over the Danube.

Constantine’s long reign also saw a flourishing of the arts known as the ‘Macedonian Renaissance’, with the emperor sponsoring encyclopaedic works and histories. He was a prolific writer himself, best remembered for the manuals on statecraft (De administrando imperio) and ceremonies (De ceremoniis) which he compiled for his son, Romanus II.

Romanus I Lecapenos (920 – 944)

This is the admiral, mentioned above, who seized power in 920 and ruled as the emperor Constantine’s ‘father-in-law’. After becoming the emperor’s father-in-law, he successively assumed higher offices until he crowned himself senior emperor. Like a previous Armenian emperor, Basil I, Romanus was keen to create a family dynasty.

His reign was marked by the end of warfare with Bulgaria and the great conquests of John Kourkouas in the East. Romanus promoted his sons Christopher, Stephen and Constantine as co-emperors over Constantine VII. Eventually Constantine VII threw off his rule and sent him to an island as a monk. He died there on 15 June 948.

Romanus II ‘the Purple-born ‘ (959 – 963)

The only surviving son of Constantine VII, Romanus was born on 15 March 938 and succeeded his father on the latter’s death in 959. He ruled for four years, although the government was led mostly by the eunuch Joseph Bringas. His reign was marked by successful warfare in the East against Sayf al-Dawla and the recovery of Crete by general Nicephorus Phocas.

Nicephorus Phocas (963 – 969)

The most successful general of his generation who restored Byzantine fortunes in the West and East, Nicephorus II was born around 912 to the powerful Phocas clan. The Phocas family were one of the leading powers in the state, having already produced several generals, including Nicephorus’ father Bardas Phocas, his brother Leo Phocas, and grandfather Nicephorus Phocas the Elder.

On the ascension of Emperor Romanus II in 959, Nicephoros and his younger brother Leo Phocas had been placed in charge of the eastern and western field armies respectively. In 960, 27,000 oarsmen and marines were assembled to man a fleet of 308 ships carrying 50,000 troops in a campaign against the Muslim Emirate of Crete. They besieged the capital, Chandax, till it fell in 961, and took back the island after 130 years of Muslim occupation. Meanwhile, another Byzantine force recovered Cyprus in 965.

Nicephorus was recalled to Constantinople by Constantine and sent to the East, where he defeated the governor of Tarsus, ibn al-Zayyat in open battle, before taking the major Muslim city of Aleppo. From 964 to 965, he led an army of 40,000 men which liberated Cilicia and raided in Upper Mesopotamia and Syria. Then Nicephorus led Byzantine forces which besieged and took Tarsus. In 968, Nicephorus conducted a raid through Syria into Palestine which reached the city of Tripoli, raiding and sacking most of the fortresses along his path and which finally managed to take the city of Antioch. It was a high summer for the empire.

However, to finance these wars Nicephorus had increased taxes both on the people and on the church at a time of poor harvests and general dearth, while maintaining unpopular theological positions and alienating many of his most powerful allies. This combination of policies led to a series of riots in Constantinople. These involved his nephew, John Tzimiskes, who, despite having played a key role in many of his military victories, Nicephorus banished to Asia Minor on suspicion of disloyalty.

Tzimiskes was a popular general and, rallying his supporters, was smuggled back to Constantinople. Fellow conspirators let him into the palace, where he and a gang of collaborators murdered Nicephorus in his sleep. Thus ended the life of one of the most successful emperor-generals in Byzantine history.

John I Tzimiskes (969 – 976)

Tzimiskes took over as regent for the young sons of Romanus II. As ruler, Tzimiskes crushed the Rus in Bulgaria and ended the Bulgarian tsardom, before going on to campaign in the East.

According to Norwich, travelling through Anatolia John was appalled to discover the vast extent of the lands acquired by the Imperial chamberlain Basil Lecapenos. Basil got to hear about the emperor’s anger and, fearing that he was about to lose his lands and position, paid servants to administer a poison to Tzimiskes. Taken very ill, John just about made it back to Constantinople before dying. He was, in Norwich’s opinion:

One of the greatest of Byzantine emperors (p.230)

Basil II ‘the Bulgar-Slayer’ (976 – 1025)

Basil was the eldest son Romanus II, born in 958 and, with Tzimiskes’ death, he now inherited the throne aged just 18. He was to have a long and successful reign but the first half was a struggle to establish his own personal rule.

The first decade of his reign was marked by rivalry with the powerful Imperial chamberlain, the eunuch Basil Lecapenos, who he eventually managed to overthrow, confiscating all his estates and having him banished. Then there was a prolonged attempt by two rival generals  – Bardas Phocas and Bardas Sclerus – to overthrow him, though the generals spent as much time fighting each other as the emperor. Both eventually failed, though not after prolonged unrest and military campaigns.

Threatened by the rise of Thomas the Slav who revived the kingdom of the Bulgarians, Basil found it wise to form an alliance with Vladimir I of Kiev whose entry into the Church (the baptism of him and his court) Basil supervised, as well as marrying off his sister, Anna, to the new convert. Vladimir would, in time, be made into a saint by the Russian Orthodox Church, for his zeal in building churches, monasteries, and converting his people.

In his campaigns in the East against the Muslims, Basil had seen for himself the immense estates built up by the class of ‘nobles’ or ‘those with power’, and he determined to break their influence, confiscating all large estates, reducing much of the aristocracy to poverty, rejuvenating the peasant communities which the empire depended on for its manpower, and reverting large tracts of land to the emperor.

Basil then did a deal whereby Venice was awarded the coast of Dalmatia to rule under Byzantine suzerainty: this suited the Venetians for the area was rich in wood and grain, and they also wanted to campaign against Croatian pirates; and suited Basil because it left him free for his life’s work, a sustained campaign against Bulgaria. It took twenty years but he eventually defeated Thomas the Slav and his son, and the usurper who murdered the son. All Bulgarian territory and cities were seized, and all survivors of the royal family taken prisoner off to Constantinople. In fact Basil ruled wisely, keeping taxes deliberately low and assimilating leading Bulgar aristocrats into the Byzantine administration.

Basil II’s reign is widely considered the apogee of medieval Byzantium.

Map of the Byzantine Empire in the year 1025 – most of present-day Turkey, Greece, the southern Balkans and south Italy

Constantine VIII (1025 – 1028)

The second son of Romanus II, Constantine was born in 960 and raised to co-emperor in March 962. During the rule of Basil II, he spent his time in dissipation. He was 65 when he came to power and managed, in three short years, to fritter away almost all of his brother’s achievements. Unsure of his powers, he became paranoid, suspicious of courtiers and plots, and hundreds of men arrested, tortured and blinded on trumped-up charges.

Only on his death-bed, aged 68, did he worry about the succession. He had three daughters, themselves now relatively old (in their 40s and 50s) and decided that the most presentable of them, Zoe, should be married off to continue the line. After some squabbling about who the lucky man should be, his civil service settled on Romanus Argyros to be Zoe’s husband. The fact that Romanus was already married was not a barrier, since Constantine said, Marry my daughter or I will blind you and your wife. So Romanus’s wife willingly divorced him, took the veil and disappeared to a convent. Next day Romanus married Zoe. Next day the emperor was dead.

Zoe (1028 – 1050)

The daughter of Constantine VIII, Zoe succeeded on her father’s death, as the only surviving member of the Macedonian dynasty. She had three husbands – Romanus III (1028–1034), Michael IV (1034–1041) and Constantine IX (1042–1050) – who ruled in quick succession alongside her.

Zoe’s first husband: Romanus III Argyros (1028 – 1034)

Romanus was an ageing aristocrat, judge and administrator when he was chosen by Constantine VIII on his deathbed to become Zoe’s husband. He was educated but had an inflated opinion of his own abilities and led his army into a disastrous defeat against the Muslims in Syria. Realising his limitations he decided to make a name for himself by building an enormous church to Mary Mother of God, but taxed the population of Constantinople to the hilt to build it with the result that he became very unpopular.

Contemporary chroniclers also claim he had alienated his wife once he realised they were never going to conceive a child (despite both parties spending lots of money on amulets and charms and potions to restore fertility). He had her confined to her quarters and cut her spending allowance.

Gossip had it that Zoe took a young, handsome Greek lover, Michael, related to the most powerful figure at the court, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos. The chronicler Michael Psellus suggests the couple poisoned Romanus who was discovered expiring by an imperial swimming pool.

Zoe’s second husband: Michael IV ‘the Paphlagonian’ (1034 – 1041)

Within hours of Romanus’s death, Zoe arranged to be enthroned alongside her 18-year-old lover Michael.

Michael quickly came to despise his aging wife and, once again, had her confined to her quarters. He was an epileptic when they married and his condition rapidly worsened, so that he had a curtain installed around the throne which could be quickly drawn by servants at the first sign of a fresh attack.

Aided by his older brother, the eunuch John the Orphanotrophos, Michael’s reign was moderately successful against internal rebellions, but his massed attempt to recover Sicily from the Muslims totally failed, not least because it was put under the command of John the Orphanotrophos’s sister’s husband, Stephen.

As he grew iller, Michael spent more time building churches and having masses said for his soul. His older brother, the by-now all-powerful John the Orphanotrophos, could see he was dying and cast around for ways to preserve the dynasty. His other brothers were eunuchs, so John’s search alighted on the son of his sister, Maria, and her husband Stephen, Michael.

Basil II had wisely decreed the defeated Bulgarians should only pay tax in kind. John the Orphanotrophos unwisely revoked this and imposed tax demands in gold. This, plus the imposition of an unpopular Greek to rule their church, led to a revolt of the Bulgars. Michael amazed everyone by taking to his horse and leading the Byzantine army which successfully put the revolt down. He then returned to the capital and died.

Zoe’s son: Michael V Calaphates (‘the Caulker’) (1041 – 1042)

In the last stages of terminal illness, Michael IV was persuaded to adopt Stephen’s son (his nephew), also named Michael, as his own son and heir. Michael IV duly died, aged just 25, and was succeeded by this nephew and namesake, who became Michael V.

In time Michael would be nicknamed calaphates or ‘the caulker’ because this had been the humble shipyard profession of his father, Stephen, before John the Orphanotrophos had wangled him a job as admiral on the ill-fated expedition to reclaim Sicily. He certainly had a very tenuous claim to the throne.

No emperor in the whole history of Byzantium had less title to the throne than Michael Calaphates. (Norwich p.292)

Michael V immediately 1. mounted an assault on the court civil service, making widespread changes 2. removed John the Orphanotrophos from power, confiscating his property and sending him to a monastery. Next he tried to sideline Zoe, having her shaven and send to a convent, but, unexpectedly, this sparked a popular revolt which led to days of mass rioting – resulting in the largest casualties from civic strife the capital had seen since the Nika riots. Michael was forced to recall her and restore her as empress on 19 April 1042, along with her sister Theodora but this wasn’t enough. Norwich quotes the eye witness account of Michael Psellus who went with the mob to the palace chapel where Michael and his uncle, Constantine, were hiding, describes them being persuaded to leave, escorted by the City Prefect through a jeering mob, and then met by the public executioner sent by Zoe, who proceeded to blind them both in front of the baying mob. They were both sent to separate monasteries, Michael dying later that year.

Michael had managed to get himself deposed after a pitiful four months and 11 days on the throne,

Zoe had hoped the riots were solely in her favour but it became apparent that the city didn’t trust her, associating her too much with the ancient regime, and began clamouring for her sister, Theodora who had, fifty years earlier, been consigned to a convent where she had spent most of her life.

Zoe’s sister: Theodora (1042 – 1056)

Born in 984, Theodora was therefore 58 when she was raised as co-ruler on 19 April 1042. However, it quickly became clear that the sisters didn’t get on and that, worse, the court, civil administration, the army and so on were liable to divide into sects supporting one or other woman. The solution was to bring a man in to rule. Theodora, still a highly religious virgin, refused absolutely to be married, but Zoe, now 64, accepted with relish. (It is symptomatic of the name shortage in Byzantium that all three of the candidates which were considered for her hand were named Constantine.)

Zoe’s third husband: Constantine IX Monomachos (1042 – 1055)

Wikipedia tells the story:

Constantine Monomachos was the son of Theodosius Monomachos, an important bureaucrat under Basil II and Constantine VIII. At some point, Theodosius had been suspected of conspiracy and his son’s career suffered accordingly. Constantine’s position improved after he married his second wife, a niece of Emperor Romanus III Argyros. After catching the eye of the Empress Zoe, Constantine was exiled to Mytilene on the island of Lesbos by Zoe’s second husband, Michael IV.

The death of Michael IV and the overthrow of Michael V in 1042 led to Constantine being recalled from his place of exile and appointed as a judge in Greece. However, prior to commencing his appointment, Constantine was summoned to Constantinople, where the fragile working relationship between Michael V’s successors, the empresses Zoe and Theodora, was breaking down. After two months of increasing acrimony between the two, Zoe decided to search for a new husband, thereby hoping to prevent her sister from increasing her popularity and authority.

After her first preference displayed contempt for the empress and her second died under mysterious circumstances, Zoe remembered the handsome and urbane Constantine. The pair were married on 11 June 1042, without the participation of Patriarch Alexius I of Constantinople, who refused to officiate over a third marriage (for both spouses). On the following day, Constantine was formally proclaimed emperor together with Zoe and her sister Theodora.

During his thirteen-year rule Constantine supported the mercantile classes and favoured the company of intellectuals, thereby alienating the military aristocracy. A pleasure-loving ruler, he installed his long-term mistress, Maria, grand-daughter of the rebel Bardas Sclerus, in the palace with the apparent approval of the old empress, although this scandalised public opinion. He endowed a number of monasteries, chiefly the Nea Moni of Chios and the Mangana Monastery.

He had to cope with two major military revolts, of George Maniakes, the empire’s leading general who was rampaging across southern Italy in combat with the new power in the region, the Normans, and who, when recalled to the capital, was so angry that he had himself declared emperor by his troops in 1042 and marched on Constantinople, ending up killed in a skirmish with loyal troops in Thessalonica in 1043; and three years later by Leo Tornikios, who raised an army in Thrace and marched on the capital, which he besieged. After two failed assaults Leo withdrew, his army deserted him and he was captured. At Christmas 1047, he was blinded and no more is known of him.

Though he survived these threats, Constantine’s rule saw the elimination of the Byzantine presence from Calabria and Sicily, the Seljuk Turks had established themselves in Baghdad and were planning their invasions of Anatolia, and the Danube frontier had been breached by a number of invading tribes – the Pechenegs, the Cumans and the Uz. Which leads Norwich to comment:

The Emperor Constantine IX was more confident than Constantine VIII, more of a realist than Romanus Argyrus, healthier than Michael IV and less headstrong than Michael V. Politically, however, through sheer idleness and irresponsibility, he was to do the Empire more harm than the rest of them put together. (p.307)

Norwich goes into great detail to describe the Great Schism between the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople which climaxed in legates from Rome placing a grand bull of excommunication on the high altar of St Sophia cathedral during the Eucharist. It is a long, sorry, shambolic story of misunderstandings and animosity between bigots on both sides.

This was bad politics because both sides needed to unite to drive the Normans out of Sicily. Their disunity allowed the Normans to seize control of the island and part of southern Italy. Interestingly, Constantine set about restoring the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, which had been substantially destroyed in 1009 by Caliph al-Hakim bi-Amr Allah, and endowing other churches in Palestine.

During Constantine’s reign, Theodora was again sidelined, but Zoe died in 1050, and Constantine himself followed her in 1055. At which point Theodora briefly assumed full governance of the Empire and reigned until her own death the following year (1056).

As both Theodora and Zoe had no children, the chronicler Michael Psellus describes the panic-stricken meetings in which senior officials cast around for someone to replace her. They finally settled on an elderly patrician and a member of the court bureaucracy, Michael Bringas, who had served as military finance minister (and hence the epithet Stratiotikos often attached to his name). The senior civil servants knew he was one of them, and thought he would be easily managed. The dying Empress was persuaded to nod her head in approval of the choice, just hours before she passed away.

Non-dynastic (1056–1057)

Michael VI Bringas ‘the Old’ (1056 – 1057)

Michael was in his 60s, an ageing bureaucrat who had put up with years of low level abuse from military types. Now, as emperor, he took his revenge, spending money on the civil service and state officials, but underfunding the army. In his first review of the leading generals he amazed them by berating them in violent terms, and followed it up a few days later with more of the same.

They rebelled. A conspiracy of generals persuaded their leading figure, the tall, successful leader Isaac Comnenus, to lead the army of the East against Constantinople. Everywhere they went troops and citizens rallied to his flag, but nonetheless they were forced to fight a hard-fought battle against the army of Europe which Michael had summoned to his defence, just across the Bosphorus near Nicomedi. After a prolonged struggle, the eastern army triumphed and – after negotiations with Michael’s envoys – the emperor abdicated and was allowed to retired to a monastery where he died in 1059.

Comnenid dynasty (1057–1059)

Isaac I Comnenus (1057 – 1059)

Born about 1005, Isaac was the empire’s leading general when he was declared emperor by his troops and led them against Constantinople in 1057. He reigned for just two years, during which he tried to fund and organise the army better, but alienated the church (by arresting Michael Cerularius, the Patriarch who had persuaded Michael VI to abdicate) and much of the population (rigorous collection of taxes, reduction in state salaries, confiscation of property from the mega-rich).

There are two stories about his death: either he simply abdicated, perhaps depressed by the scale of the problems he faced and the obdurate roadblocking of the civil service, and retired to a monastery. In the other version he caught a chill while out hunting which turned into pneumonia.

In both versions of the story Isaac needed to name a successor and ignored his daughter, brother and five nephews to choose Constantine Ducas, the most aristocratic of the group of intellectuals who had helped revive Byzantine learning a few years before.

Doucid dynasty (1059–1081)

Constantine X Ducas (1059 – 1067)

There is no Emperor in the history of the later Roman Empire whose accession had more disastrous consequences. (p.337)

Constantine was a highly educated Greek aristocrat but he was also, in Norwich’s opinion, ‘a hopelessly impractical and woolly-minded bureaucrat’ (p.336) and ‘arguably the most disastrous ruler ever to don the purple buskins’ (p.338).

Why all the blame? Because Constantine wasted the imperial finances on high living and indulged in theological and philosophical speculation. Meanwhile he replaced standing soldiers with mercenaries and left the frontier fortifications unrepaired.

This led to mounting unhappiness within the army and an attempt by some generals to assassinate him in 1061 which was foiled. The result of running down the army was that under his rule the Empire lost most of Byzantine Italy to the Normans under Robert Guiscard, suffered invasions by Alp Arslan in Asia Minor in 1064, resulting in the loss of the Armenian capital, and by the Oghuz Turks in the Balkans in 1065, while Belgrade was lost to the Hungarians.

But it is the rising threat from the Seljuk Turks which Norwich focuses on. He describes the Turks as being a nomadic tribe of warriors, famed for their abilities firing a bow and arrow from the saddle, which originated in Transoxiana, and moved south, converting to Islam and slowly taking over Persia. They finally seized the capital of the old Abbasid Dynasty, Baghdad, in 1055. Meanwhile they also led expeditions against Armenia, which was by way of being a buffer state between the east and the Empire, and then pushed on into Anatolia, raiding as far as Ankara and Caesarea.

It is for Constantine’s systematic and deliberate running down of the Empire’s army and physical defences that Norwich names him worst Byzantine Emperor ever. In the same year that the Turks penetrated as far as Ankyra – with no army or force of any kind sent to prevent them – that Constantine died.

On his deathbed Constantine made his wife swear not to remarry and made all the senior officials sign a pledge that the succession could only go to a member of his family, the Ducases.

By his second wife, Eudocia Macrembolitissa, Constantine had the following sons:

  • Michael VII Ducas, who succeeded as emperor
  • Andronicus Ducas, co-emperor from 1068 to 1078
  • Constantius Ducas, co-emperor from 1060 to 1078

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 1

Born about 1050, Michael was the eldest son of Constantine X and succeeded to the throne aged 17 but showed little interest in ruling, leaving that to his mother, Eudocia, and uncle, John Ducas.

On 1 January 1068, Eudocia, having deceived the leading aristocrats about her intentions in order to get her deathbed promise to Constantine not to marry again annulled, married the general Romanus Diogenes, who now became senior co-emperor alongside Michael VII, and Michael’s brothers Constantius and Andronicus.

Romanus IV Diogenes (1068 – 1071)

If the Ducas family was one of the grandest, oldest and most illustrious parts of the courtly bureaucracy, Romanus hailed from the Anatolian military aristocracy. Eudocia, at least, appeared to realise that, with the pressing threat from the Turks, the Empire needed a strong military leader.

Michael VII had surrounded himself with sycophantic court officials, and was blind to the empire collapsing around him. In dire straits, imperial officials resorted to property confiscations and even expropriated some of the wealth of the church. The underpaid army mutinied, and the Byzantines lost Bari, their last possession in Italy, to the Normans of Robert Guiscard in 1071. Simultaneously, there was a serious revolt in the Balkans, where the Empire faced an attempt at the restoration of the Bulgarian state. Although this revolt was suppressed by the general Nicephorus Bryennius, the Byzantine Empire was unable to recover its losses in Asia Minor.

Struggling against this tide, Romanus immediately began to try and correct all the abuses which had built up around the army, to settle all arrears of pay, negotiate new contracts with mercenary soldiers, raise new levies from peasants in Anatolia, improve equipment and training.

In 1068, 1069, and 1070 he led raids into Turkish territory, seizing towns. The leader of the Turks by this point was Alp Arslan and the two leaders tried to negotiate a truce, but this was constantly broken by the Turcomen, lawless bandits related to the Turks who had not adopted Islam or any central authority.

Finally Romanus set off in the spring of 1071 with the largest army he could muster to crush the Turks. But – to be brief – it was he and the Byzantine army which was crushingly and definitively defeated, at a massive battle near the small fortress of Manzikert in August 1071.

There is reams of speculation about what exactly happened, but it seems certain that, having split his army in two due to uncertainty about the precise location of the Turk army, when Romanus located it and called for the other half, led by Joseph Tarchaniotes, to come to his aid, it didn’t. Speculation why continues to this day. After lining up for an engagement the Turks then retreated systematically, luring Romanus’s army towards mountains at the edge of the plain, where he feared getting trapped, so turned his forces. But some of them interpreted this as flight, rumour spread that the Emperor was killed, the Turks suddenly attacked in force, and the rearguard, led by one of the rival Ducas clan, fled. The remaining army was massacred by the Turks, Romanus fighting to the end, captured and brought before the Turkish leader.

The battle of Manzikert was the greatest disaster suffered by the Empire of Byzantium in the seven and a half centuries of its existence. (p.357)

Alp treated Romanus with respect, concluded a treaty with him, had him dressed, his wounds treated, and escorted back towards Constantinople: it would pay him to have a defeated Emperor in his power who would respect their treaty, rather than a new young buck who would ignore it. But Romanus’s fate was already sealed.

Michael VII Ducas (1067 – 1078) part 2

When rumours of a calamitous defeat reached Constantinople, the initiative was taken by Michael’s uncle John Ducas and his tutor Michael Psellus. They quickly proclaimed Michael VII Senior Emperor and he was crowned as such on October 24, 1071. Eudocia was quickly despatched to a convent.

Romanus seems to have mustered what remained of his army for the return march on Constantinople but was beaten in two consecutive battles with loyalist troops, after the second of which he gave himself up. Despite promises of a safe passage he was blinded and then paraded in rags sitting backwards on a donkey.

After Manzikert, the Byzantine government sent a new army to contain the Seljuk Turks under Isaac Comnenus, a brother of the future emperor Alexius I Comnenus, but this army was defeated and its commander captured in 1073.

The problem was made worse by the desertion of the Byzantines’ western mercenaries, who became the object of the next military expedition in the area, led by the Caesar John Ducas. This campaign also ended in failure, and its commander was likewise captured by the enemy.

The victorious mercenaries now forced John Ducas to stand as pretender to the throne. The government of Michael VII was forced to recognize the conquests of the Seljuks in Asia Minor in 1074, and to seek their support against Ducas. A new army under Alexius Comnenus, reinforced by Seljuk troops sent by Malik Shah I, finally defeated the mercenaries and captured John Ducas in 1074.

The net effect of these years of chaos was that the Turks established enduring control of a vast swathe of Anatolia, previously the main source for the Empire’s grain and manpower. The Turks named it the Sultanate of Rum (derived from ‘Rome’).

The economic upheaval caused by all these defeats added to widespread dissatisfaction and in 1078 two generals, Nicephorus Bryennius and Nicephorus Botaneiates, simultaneously revolted in the Balkans and Anatolia, respectively.

Bryennius raised the standard of revolt in November 1077 in his native city of Adrianople and marched on the capital. But, out east, Botaneiates gained the support of the Seljuk Turks, and he reached Constantinople first. They arrived as rising prices and food shortages led to riots and widespread burning and looting in March 1078. Michael abdicated on March 31, 1078 and retired into the Monastery of Studium.

Nicephorus III Botaneiates (1078 – 1081)

Born in 1001, Nicephorus rose to become the strategos of the Anatolic Theme, rebelled against Michael VII and was welcomed into the capital as a saviour to the ruioting and anarchy. He had his rival Bryennius arrested and blinded.

Botaneiates was in his seventies when he came to power, old and faced with the breakdown of the civil authority (after the leading bureaucrat had been murdered in the riots) and the ongoing weakness of the army on all fronts, which led to uprisings, rebellions and invasions on all borders, Botaneiates struggled and failed to cope.

Alexius I Comnenus (1081-1118)

In the nick of time arrived a saviour. Exhausted, Botaneiates abdicated in 1081 and retired to a monastery where he died on 10 December of the same year. He abdicated in favour of an aristocratic young general who was to reign for the next 37 years with a firm hand and give the Empire the stability is so sorely needed.

He was Alexius Comnenus, nephew of Isaac Comnenus. His reign was to be dominated by wars against the Normans and the Seljuk Turks, as well as the arrival of the First Crusade and the establishment of independent Crusader states. But that is the start of a new era, and so here Norwich ends the second volume of his history of the Byzantine Empire.


Thoughts

Same names

I found this book hard going for several reasons. The most obvious is there’s a lot of repetition of names. Quite a few Leos, Michaels, Nicephoruses and Theodosuses recur throughout the narrative and when, on page 265, you find yourself reading about yet another Leo or another Michael, suddenly your mind goes completely blank and you can’t remember whether this is the one who inherited as a baby or was an alcoholic or murdered his brother or what…

And it’s not just the emperors’ names which get confusing. There were roughly two other major figures at any one moment of Byzantine history – the Patriarch of Constantinople – the head of the Eastern Church – and the Logothete or Chamberlain (in fact there were a number of logothetes with specialised roles, but there only ever seems to be one head of the imperial household and/or civil service at a time).

The point is that these other figures, also share just a handful of the same names. There were quite a few patriarchs named Leo or Nicephorus, and the same with the logothetes.

Then there’s the popes. Every Eastern Emperor and Patriarch had a troubled relationship with the Patriarch of Rome who increasingly ran the Western Church and, after Pope Leo III crowned Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800, had an increasing say in the running of the new Holy Roman Empire.

There appear to have been no fewer than ten popes named Leo during the three hundred years covered by this book. At the moment I am reading about the overthrow of the emperor Constantine by the Armenian general Romanus who, once he had seized power, had to settle things with his powerful rival Leo Phocas, before turning to turning to settle things with pope Leo. And all this is recorded for us in the chronicle of Leo the Deacon.

There are lots of Leos in this book.

It doesn’t help that Norwich’s standard practice is to introduce a new figure with their full title and number (Leo V, Michael II) but thereafter to omit the number. So you can easily find yourself reading about a Leo conspiring against a Nicephorus while a Basil lurks in the background – and wonder whether you’re in the 8th, 9th or 10th century.

The lack of social history indicates deeper gaps and absences

In fact this confusion about names and people stems from a deeper problem. Norwich, in his preface, candidly admits he isn’t interested in economic or social history. He likes people, and so his book is purely a history of the succession of the emperors, their wives, of troublesome patriarchs and rebellious generals – a history enlivened with plenty of gossip and speculation about the emperors’ sex lives and true parentages and military campaigns and heroic monuments. Fair enough, and all very entertaining.

But the unintended consequence of this VIP-based approach is that nothing ever seems to change.

The empire is permanently threatened by the Muslims in the east and the barbarians from the north. Time and again, one or other of them leads a massive army right up to the walls of Constantinople. Time and again, the emperor has a falling-out with the patriarch, imprisons him, replaces him, and holds an ecumenical council to try and impose his will on the church. Time and again, a rebellious general or jealous colleague assassinates the emperor in the heart of the palace and declares himself basileus.

There is little or no sense of historical change or development. Instead it feels a little like we are trapped in a very ornate version of Groundhog Day.

This is more than just confusing – the absence of economic or social history really profoundly fails to capture the passage of time.

What was the impact of mass destruction? I grew puzzled and frustrated every time I read that the Bulgars razed Adrianople to the ground and took 100,000 citizens off into slavery; or the Muslims razed Armoria to the ground and devastated the entire region, or captured Sicily or Crete.

Because in Norwich’s narrative, events like this are only interesting or relevant insofar as they consolidate or undermine each emperor’s position, as they feed into court intrigues.

But I kept wondering about their effect on the Byzantine Empire as a whole? Surely the utter destruction of its second city, the ravaging of entire areas, and the loss of major islands in the Mediterranean – surely these events changed things: surely trade and the economy were affected, surely the tax base and therefore the ability to pay for civil services and the army were affected. Surely archaeology or letters or books by private citizens might shed light on the impact of these events and what it felt like to live through them.

But none of that is included in Norwich’s narrative, which focuses exclusively on the tiny, tiny number of people right at the pinnacle of the empire and their increasingly squalid and repetitive shenanigans.

This is a highly entertaining account of the colourful lives and conspiracies of the Byzantine emperors, which gives you all the major political and biographical events of the period, but – the more I read it, the more I felt I was missing out on a deeper understanding of the Byzantine Empire, of its economy and trade – was it based on farming (and if so, of what?), or mining, or trade (and if so, with who?).

Writers And of its broader social structure and changes. Were there no poets or chroniclers who give us insight into the lives of ordinary people – farmers, and traders and lawyers – beyond the corrupt and violent emperors and their horrible families?

Art Art is mentioned occasionally, but only in the context of the massive schisms caused by Iconoclasm. I appreciate that there are other, separate books devoted to Byzantine art, but it’s just one of a whole range of social and cultural areas which remain pretty much a blank.

Slavery Slavery is repeatedly mentioned as a fundamental element of the empire and, indeed, of the surrounding societies. We hear again and again that both Muslim and barbarian raiders sold their captives into slavery. But what did that mean? Who ran the slave trade? Which societies had most slaves? What was a slave’s life like? How did you escape from slavery, because there are casual mentions of former slaves who rise to positions of power…

Eunuchs Eunuchs played a key role in Byzantine civilisation, and plenty of sons of deposed emperors were castrated; but not once does Norwich explain what this really meant, I mean not only how the operation was carried out, but there is no exploration of the culture of the court eunuchs, and how this made the Byzantine court different from those of, say, the King of the Franks or the Muslim Caliph in Baghdad.

So this is a great gaudy romp of a book which gives you all the necessary dates and explanations of the political and military history – but I was left wanting to know a lot more about the Byzantine Empire.


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

Van Gogh and Britain @ Tate Britain

Before I went I’d read some disparaging reviews of this exhibition – but I found it really interesting, thought-provoking, full of wonderful paintings and prints and drawings, and making all kinds of unexpected connections. And big, much bigger than I expected.

The premise is simple: Vincent van Gogh came to live in England at the age of 20 in 1873, He lived in London for nearly three years, developing an intimate knowledge of the city and a great taste for English literature and painting. The exhibition:

  1. explores all aspects of van Gogh’s stay in London, with ample quotes from his letters to brother Theo raving about numerous aspects of English life and London – and several rooms full of the paintings and prints of contemporary urban life which he adored
  2. then it explores the development of van Gogh’s mature style and the many specific references he made back to themes and settings and motifs he had first seen in London, in London’s streets and galleries
  3. finally, the exhibition considers the impact van Gogh had on British artists
    • as a result of the inclusion of his pictures in the famous 1910 exhibition Post-Impressionist Painting
    • between the wars when van Gogh’s letters were published and fostered the legend of the tormented genius, the man who was too beautiful and sensitive for this world
    • and then how van Gogh’s reputation was further interpreted after the debacle of the Second World War

Gustave Doré

The first three rooms deal with the London that van Gogh arrived in in 1873. Among the highlights was a set of seventeen prints from Gustave Doré’s fabulous book London, a pilgrimage, which had been published only the year before, 1872. All of these are marvellous and the first wall, the wall facing you as you enter the exhibition, is covered with an enormous blow-up of Doré’s illustration of the early Underground.

The Workmen’s Train by Gustave Doré (1872)

Frankly, I could have stopped right here and admired Doré’s fabulous draughtsmanship and social history, as I could at the wall covered with seventeen of the prints from the book which we know van Gogh owned and revered. It’s the basis of the first of many links and threads which run through the show because, many years later, when van Gogh had developed his mature style but had also developed the mental illness that was to plague him, during his confinement in a mental hospital, he was to do a faithful copy of Doré’s depiction of inmates in Newgate prison to express his own feelings.

The prison courtyard by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © The Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow

Social realism

Van Gogh had come to London because he had got a job at the art dealer Goupil, which was part of the fast-growing market for prints and art reproductions which were informally referred to as ‘black and whites’. Van Gogh ended up with a collection of over 2,000 of these English prints, and admired them for their realistic depictions of contemporary urban scenes, especially among the poor. I was fascinated to learn that there was a set of socially-committed artists who all drew for The Graphic magazine, including Luke Fildes, Edward Dalziel, Frank Holl, and Edwin Buckman. The exhibition includes quite a few black and white social realist prints by artists from this circle and, as with the Doré, I could have studied this stuff all day long.

A London Dustyard by Edwin Buckman, from the Illustrated London News, 1873

The curators related these blunt depictions of London life back to the novels of Charles Dickens, who we know van Gogh revered (in this instance the rubbish dump motif linking to the dust yard kept by the Boffin family, the central symbol of his last, finished novel, Our Mutual Friend). As Vincent was to write during his first year as a struggling artist:

My whole life is aimed at making the things from everyday life that Dickens describes and these artists draw.

But these illustrations by numerous London artists are also here because Vincent copied them. Next to the Buckman image of a dustyard is a graphite sketch of dustmen by Vincent. Next to a Luke Filde image of the homeless and poor, is a van Gogh drawing of a public soup kitchen.

A Public Soup Kitchen by Vincent Van Gogh (1883) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Other images include one of surly roughs waiting for the pub to open and a hooligan being arrested. Next to them all are van Gogh’s own earliest sketches and drawing, including a series he did of a homeless single mother begging on the streets, Sien Hoornik, who he took in and fed and had model for him (fully clothed) in a variety of postures of hopelessness and forlornness. And variations on the theme of tired, poor old men.

This is the Vincent who set his heart on becoming a vicar and did actually preach sermons at London churches, as well as crafting skilled sketches of churches in the letters he sent to brother Theo, and which are displayed here.

The example of old masters

But it wasn’t just magazine and topical illustration which fired Vincent’s imagination. The curators have also included a number of big classic Victorian paintings – by John Constable and John Millais among others – to give a sense of what ‘modern’ art looked like to the young van Gogh.

He was not yet a painter, in fact he didn’t know what he wanted to be. But the curators have hung the sequence, and accompanied them by quotes from letters, to show that, even in his early 20s, he was an acute observer of other people’s art, not only Victorian but other, older, pictures he would have seen at the National Gallery.

The Avenue at Middelharnis by Meindert Hobbema (1689) © The National Gallery, London

Several of these classic paintings depict an open road between a line of trees and, as the room progresses, the curators have hung next to them van Gogh’s later depictions of the same motif, showing early versions of the motif done in a fairly rudimentary approach, the oil laid on thick and heavy and dark…

Avenue of Poplars in Autumn by Vincent van Gogh (1884) © The Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

And then next to these, suddenly, we have the first works of his mature style in which his art and mind have undergone a dazzling liberation.

Path in the Garden of the Asylum by Vincent van Gogh (1889) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

The triumph of distortion

One of the things you can see evolving is his depiction of faces. Early on, he’s not very good. There’s a set of faces of what look like jurymen, as well as individual portraits of working men and women, and often they are either expressionless blocks, or a bit cack-handed, a bit lop-sided. Even the numerous sketches of Sien Hoornik are better at conveying expression through the bent posture of her body, than through facial expressions which are often blurred or ignored.

Similarly, you can’t help noticing that the early landscapes like the avenue of poplars, above, very much lack the suave painterly finish and style of his models (Constable, Millais).

But what happens as you transition into room four – which covers his move to Paris to be near his brother in 1885 – is a tremendous artistic and visual liberation, so that the very wonkiness and imperfections in his draughtmanship which were flaws in the earlier works, are somehow, magically, triumphantly, turned into strengths. The blockiness, the weakness of perspective, the lack of interest in strict visual accuracy, have suddenly been converted into a completely new way of seeing and of building up the image, which feels deeply, wonderfully emotionally expressive.

Sorrowing old man (‘At Eternity’s Gate’) by Vincent van Gogh (1890) © Collection Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo

Room four makes fleeting reference to the community of like-minded artists he found working around Paris, and in particular to Pissarro, exponent of what was being called neo-Impressionism.

It seems quite obvious that van Gogh was very influenced by the Frenchman’s experiments with chunks and blocks, and spots and dabs and lines of pure colour. The painting above combines the strong formal outlines redolent of the black and white Victorian prints he revered so highly, with a new approach to filling in the outlines – not with a consistent smooth finish à la Millais – but a completely new idea of filling the space with disconnected lines of paint, the artist quite happy to leave blanks between them, quite happy to let us see them as isolated lines all indicating colour and texture.

The curators link this technique back to the cross-hatching used to create volume and shape by the Victorian print-makers and illustrators. So one way of thinking about what happened is that Vincent transferred a technique designed for print making to oil painting. What happens if you don’t create a smooth, finished all-over wash of colour, but deliberately use isolated lines and strokes, playing with the affect that basic, almost elemental short brushstrokes of mostly primal colours, create when placed next to each other.

It has a jazzy effect, creates a tremendous visual vibration and dynamism. the image looks like it is quivering or buzzing.

The Manet and the Post-Impressionists exhibition

To be honest, by this stage my head was buzzing with the fabulous images of Doré and Fildes and the other British illustrators, and van Gogh’s similarly social realist depictions of the poor, the old, prostitutes and so on and the way the early social realist paintings had morphed into a series of paintings of outdoor landscapes. I felt full to overflowing with information and beauty. But there was a lot more to come.

Suddenly it is 1910 and room five is devoted to the epoch-making exhibition held in London and titled Manet and the Post-Impressionists by the curator Roger Fry. As with Doré’s underground image at the start, the curators have blown up a page from a popular satirical magazine of the time, depicting the dazed response of sensible Britishers to the outlandish and demented art of these foreign Johnnies and their crazed, deformed, ridiculously over-coloured paintings. A number of Vincent’s paintings were included in the show and came in for special scorn from the philistine Brits.

This amusing room signals the start of part two of the show which looks at van Gogh’s posthumous influence on a whole range of native British artists.

This second half is, I think more mixed and of more questionable value than the first half. We know which British artists and illustrators van Gogh liked and admired and collected, because he gave their names and his responses in some detail in his letters.

As to the influence he had after his death, this is perforce far more scattered and questionable. Thus room six introduces us to paintings by Walter Sickert, leader of the Camden Town school (whose work I have always cordially hated for its dingily depressing dark brown murk), to Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (bright Bloomsburyites), and to Matthew Smith, Spencer Gore and Harold Gilman.

The Vineyard by Vanessa Bell © The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett

It’s impossible to place any of these artists on the same level as Vincent. Amid the sea of so-so also-rans, the scattered examples of works by van Gogh ring out, shout from the walls, proclaim the immensity of his genius, the vibrancy of design, colour and execution. Like an adult among children.

That said, there’s quite a lot of pleasure to be had from savouring these less-well-known British artists for their own sakes. I was particularly drawn to the works of Harold Gilman and Spencer Gore. Here is Gore’s painting of Gilman’s house. It doesn’t have a lot to do with van Gogh, does it, stylistically? Apart from being very brightly coloured.

Harold Gilman’s House at Letchworth, Hertfordshire by Spencer Gore. Courtesy of New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester Arts and Museums Service

Similarly, I really liked Gilman’s picture of the inside of a London caff, focusing on the decorative wallpaper and bright red newel posts, and a sensitive portrait titled Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table, 1917. The curators relate this latter painting back to Vincent’s vivid, warts-and-all portraits, which also contain highly decorative elements and stylised wallpaper, a garish brightness which scandalised critics of the 1910 show.

Maybe. It’s a good painting, he conveys the old woman’s character in a sober, unvarnished way and the use of decorative elements is interesting. But only a few yards away is hanging one of five or six drop-dead van Gogh masterpieces of the show, the Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889), and there is absolutely no competition.

Hospital at Saint-Rémy (1889) by Vincent van Gogh © Hammer Museum collection

Good God, hardly anything you’ve ever seen before explodes with such power and vibrancy as this painting. The brown earth, the green grass, the writhing trees and the very air seem to have burst into flames, to be erupting and leaping with energy, fire, ecstasy, fear, manic force.

Although there are a number of other, milder, more discreet landscapes by Vincent, when he is in this manic mood he wipes everybody else off the table, he dominates the dancefloor, he takes over the room, while the others are playing nice tunes on their recorders, he is like a Beethoven symphony of colour and expression, full of tumult and vision.

The impact of sunflowers

Emotionally and intellectually exhausted? I was. But there’s more. A whole room devoted to sunflowers. Pride of place goes to one of his most famous paintings, the sunflowers of 1888, and I was fascinated to learn from the wall label that van Gogh’s still lifes contributed to a major revival of the art of painting flowers. There are ten or a dozen other paintings of sunflowers around this room, by a whole range of other artists (of whom I remember Winifred and William Nicholson, Christopher Wood and Frank Brangwyn and Jacob Epstein). One of the Brits is quoted as saying that the painting of flowers had been more or less dismissed by the moderns, as having come to a dead end in Victorian tweeness and sentimentality. Until Vincent’s flower paintings were exhibited in the 1920s.

Sunflowers by Vincent Van Gogh (1888) © The National Gallery, London

Van Gogh’s flower works showed that flowers could be painted in an entirely new way, blazing with colour and passion, wildly undermining traditional canons of beauty, revealing the passionate secrets implicit in the shapes and patterns of nature.

In a work like this you see a pure example of his exploration of colour for its own sake, a post-Impressionists’ post-Impressionist, the sunflowers not only being a blistering depiction of the flower motif, but a highly sophisticated and daring experiment with all the different tones of yellow available to the artist in 1888. So much to do, so much to paint, so much experience implicit in every fragment of God’s beautiful world!

Van Gogh’s reputation between the wars

By the 1920s van Gogh’s works were being exhibited regularly in Britain and snapped up by private collectors. He became famous. The process was helped hugely by the publication in English translation of his vivid, passionate and tormented letters. The life and the works became inextricably intertwined in the myth of the tortured genius. The curators quote various writers and experts between the wars referring to Vincent’s ‘brilliant and unhappy genius’.

However, this room of his last works makes a simple point. For a long time it was thought that the painting he was working on when he shot himself on 27 July 1890 was ‘Wheatfield With Crows‘. Forests have been destroyed to provide the paper for oceans of black ink to be spilt publishing countless interpretations which read into this fierce and restless image the troubled thoughts which must have been going through the tormented genius’s mind on his last days.

Except that the display in this room says that the most recent research by Vincent scholars have conclusively proven that it was not his last painting. the painting he was working on when he shot himself was a relatively bland and peaceful landscape painting of some old farm buildings.

Farms near Auvers by Vincent Van Gogh (1890) © Tate

The point is – there’s nothing remotely tormented about this image. The aim is – to debunk the myth of the ‘tortured’ artist and replace it with the sane and clear-eyed artist who was, however, plagued by mental illness.

Phantom of the road

This point is pushed home in the final room which examines van Gogh’s reputation in Britain after the Second World War. All his works, along with all other valuable art had been hidden during the war. Now it re-emerged into public display, including a big show at Tate in 1947.

In the post-war climate, in light of the Holocaust and the atom bomb, the legend of the tormented genius took on a new, darker intensity. The curators choose to exemplify this with a raft of blotchy, intense self-portraits by the likes of David Bomberg which, they argue, reference van Gogh’s own striking self portraits.

But this final room is dominated by a series of paintings made by the young Francis Bacon in which he deliberately copies the central motif of a self-portrait Vincent had made of himself, holding his paints and easel and walking down a road in Provence.

Bacon chose to re-interpret this image in a series of enormous and, to my mind, strikingly ugly paintings, three of which dominate one wall of this final room.

Study for portrait of Van Gogh by Francis Bacon (1957) Tate © The Estate of Francis Bacon

They are, in fact, interesting exercises in scale and colour, and also interesting for showing how Bacon hadn’t yet found his voice or brand. And interesting, along with the Bomberg et al in showing how the legend of tormented genius was interpreted in the grim grey era of Austerity Britain.

And they show what a very long journey we have come on – from the young man’s early enthusiasm for Charles Dickens and Gustave Doré right down to his reincarnation as a poster boy for the age of the H-bomb.

A bit shattered by the sheer range of historical connections and themes and ideas and visual languages on show, I strolled back through the exhibition towards its Victorian roots, stopping at interesting distractions on the way (some of Harold Gilman’s works, the big cartoon about the Post-Impressionist show, some Pissarros, the Millais and Constable at the beginning, the wall of Dorés), but in each room transfixed by the one or two blistering masterpieces by the great man.

Even if you didn’t read any of the wall labels or make the effort to understand all the connections, links and influences which the curators argue for, it is still worth paying to see the handful of staggering masterpieces which provide the spine for this wonderful, dazzling, life-enhancing exhibition.

Starry Night by Vincent van Gogh (1888) Paris, Musée d’Orsay. Photo © RMN-Grtand Palais / Hervé Lewandowski

Promotional video


Related links

Reviews of other Tate exhibitions

AI: More than Human @ Barbican

What a fabulously enjoyable funfair of an exhibition, even if it isn’t quite the searching investigation or revealing insight into its subject which the curators hoped it would be.

Do you remember the science fiction exhibition the Barbican put on two years ago, Into The Unknown? It filled the long, narrow, curving exhibition space they call The Curve with loads of sci fi books, magazines and screens showing clips from classic sci fi movies and TV shows (Star Wars, Star Trek etc), along with models of the spaceships, and some of the actual outfits and spacesuits worn by famous sci fi characters. It was geek heaven!

Well, now that whole exhibition looks a bit like the introduction, the part one, to this exhibition’s part two. Where Into The Unknown romped through retro visions of the future, from Jules Vernes and H.G. Wells to 2001 and Blade Runner, AI: More than Human, packs out the same curving exhibition space with a jamboree of interactive gadgets which explore sci fi aspects of the present and the near future, in particular the notion of artificial intelligence or AI for short.

The exhibition space is absolutely crammed with robots large and small, classic movie clips looming down from overhead screens, videos showing the latest AI research in agriculture or undersea exploration, plus a dozen or more games and touch screen programs you can get involved in – the whole busy funfair of exhibits claiming to be an investigation of how artificial intelligence dominates our current existences and will do so more and more in the near future.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing Alter 3: Offloaded Agency (Photo by the author)

For example, there’s a photo booth just like the ones you traditionally get your passport photos from, except that in this one you have to type a word of your own choosing into the instruction pad, then pose for the photo. The booth then generates – from your one word – a unique ‘poem’ which it prints out over the photo it’s taken of you. Prints the pic out for you to show your friends. Emails it to you, if you want to share your email address. The idea is the program running it will slowly build up a database of people’s key words and this will influence the evolution of its poetry-writing skills.

Each section of the long curved exhibition space is marked off with translucent white hangings. One little section is devoted to the fact that a computer program, DeepMind recently beat the world champion at Go, the Chinese board game (it was in 2016). the space includes a big video screen showing the world champion pushing through throngs of admirers while, at waist height is a table containing several monitors showing a Go board and counters. One of these monitors showed the fatal move which stunned the Go champion and the Go world with its unexpected brilliance. On others, I think you were meant to have a go at Go against the computer, if you wanted. Personally, I’ve no idea what the rules of Go are and not much interest in finding out.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the Go section: a tense Go fan on a screen hanging above the table into which are embedded several monitors showing games of Go. Note the translucent white curtains used through the exhibition (Photo by the author)

In another little alcove I was surprised to come across a couple of two- or three-foot-wide Lego boards. In front of them were a number of ‘wells’ containing Lego pieces of different sizes and colours and behind the bases were screens showing a series of metrics. The idea is to ‘build a city’ using the Lego pieces, and the computer would then sense the design and layout you’ve created and assess its social parameters, such as Quality of Life, Employment, Percentage of Highly Educated and so on. Difficult to see how this information could be generated from a few toy bricks positioned at random. Not easy to see how this would be applied in real-world situations where, presumably, there would already be existing measurements of quality of life, employment rate etc. The whole thing was titled Kreyon City.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the Kreyon City installation  (Photo by the author)

In a self-contained alcove was an artwork by Stephanie Dinkins which consisted of a black pot with ‘Do not touch’ written on it. being human and not a robot, I immediately wanted to touch it. Behind it, on the wall, was a large video screen showing, when I strolled in, a big picture of a row of ladies’ hats in a hat shop. The visitor assistant manning this little stall apologised and said the installation was broken, so I wandered round the pot and out again, none the wiser.

Paradox 6554 by Stephanie Dinkins at AI: More than Human at the Barbican

Another stand featured a play area a few yards wide on which a cute little robot ‘puppy’ was trotting across till it bumped into one of the raised edges, turned round and trotted off in a other direction. A French TV presenter was very excitedly explaining the point of this cute little toy to his viewers and rolled a red ball towards the puppy which ignored it.

Just beyond the main exhibition space is a row of four black leather chairs set in front of immersive, split computer games screens. You put on headphones and take the console in your hands and then navigate through a computer-generated image based on the architecture of the Barbican itself. As you go downstairs you enter increasingly futuristic fictional environments. Personally, I have never seen the point of computer games and watching my son fritter away a lot of his teenage years holding just such consoles while he eviscerated vast numbers of enemy warriors in Rome Total War or League of Legends has put me off computer games for life. There didn’t appear to be any guns or swords in this game so my son wouldn’t have been interested.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Early on in the show there was a timeline on the wall showing key moments in mankind’s quest to create artificial intelligence, starting sometime around the writing of Frankenstein and carrying through early computer pioneer Ada Lovelace, the famous Alan Turing, through the women who worked at Bletchley Park during the war and on into the modern age of computer research, increasingly carried out in America and Japan, and then onto contemporary digital technology.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican showing the timeline of computers and AI technology (Photo by the author)

Probably the most dramatic attraction came towards the end and was a life-size robot with a prosthetic head which waves its arms around in front of a large screen showing atmospheric shots of Japanese technicians interacting with it, giving the whole installation a very filmic vibe.

Installation view of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Throughout the exhibition there was a wealth of wall labels briefly addressing issues surrounding artificial intelligence. I give a flavour of these in the précis of the press release, below.

None of them really told me anything I didn’t already know. None of them really told me what artificial intelligence is. I didn’t read all of them, but nowhere did I come across a memorable definition. Instead we were eased into the idea by the opening section which described the medieval idea of the golem, a medieval legend of a human-shaped creature which is created from inanimate matter. its story was told through some Marvel and DC superhero comics and I was immediately distracted by a set of big video screens showing clips from classic 1920s and 30s silent sci fi and horror films.

The whole exhibition felt a bit like that. Consecutive thought was everywhere sacrificed to pop culture and flashy effects. But as I marvelled at the big rack of cogs which was part of one of the decoding machines at Bletchley, or admired the role of women who are often overlooked in official histories of computing, or watched a middle-aged man in what appeared to be a simulator of a racing car, or looked at a miniature greenhouse in which plants were growing whose temperature and humidity etc were all controlled by computer — what began to really forcefully impress itself on me was that possibility that there is no such thing as artificial intelligence.

Sure enough the digital world is now full of algorithms which can predict what you want to buy next or your personality type and so on (if you let them access enough of your personal data). Personally, I don’t have a smart phone and don’t use Facebook, twitter or any other social media, for precisely this reason.

But none of us are likely to escape the increasing use of facial recognition programs and one feature seemed to be able – if you stood in the right position – to do a full body scan of you and tell you what kind of fabric clothes you’re wearing. Right at the entrance to the Barbican was an enormous video screen and, if you stand on a circular manhole-cover-sized pad and jig around, then abstract shapes on the screen perform exactly the same movements, as if a piece of modern sculpture had come to life.

But absolutely none of these clever gadgets has a mind, has purpose or intention or agency. None of these devices can choose what they’re doing, or is in the slightest bit aware that it is a machine performing a function.

Programs which are designed to monitor the data they’re processing and change the program itself in light of that data – self-correcting or improving algorithms – can have dramatic effects, but… none of them amount to anything even remotely resembling intelligence.

They are just very thorough face recognition, or clothes recognition, or Lego recognition, or word recognition programs. In the same way that the big robot at the end which can wave its arms about is a million miles away from being human, from being a self-conscious, aware being.

I wondered if my reaction was just me being jaded and cynical but then I happened to get into conversation with a BBC science journalist and a friend of his, who both know a lot more than me about this area.

They referenced the classic 1974 paper by the philosopher Thomas Nagel titled ‘What is it like to be a bat?’ which, apparently, says that even if bats have something we might call ‘intelligence’, it would be of such a completely different type, evolved to perfectly suit bats and their batty situation, that we wouldn’t recognise it anyway, hopelessly programmed as we are to think solely in terms of human values and goals.

The BBC guy’s friend then referenced the philosopher Peter Singer’s work on animal rights to argue that, even if we ever did manage to create a self-starting, self-directed form of intelligence, would we not then be guilty of slavery? If we created something that genuinely had heart and soul and emotions and yearnings – would we not be immediately duty bound to ‘set it free’?

But even thinking about it like this makes you realise how absurdly far we are from a situation like that. Programs and machines and devices which can mimic our movements and project them up onto video screens – these are fabulous as artworks, but in the end, all I saw at the exhibition was toys, glorified toys.

Mimic (concept), 2018, by Universal Everything. Image courtesy of Universal Everything

I was relieved by this little conversation which confirmed my opinion that the exhibition contains lots of fun fairground attractions, eye-catching news snippets (computer beats Go champion, Steven Hawking signs a petition warning governments against weaponising artificial intelligence), and distracting movie clips (right at the start there’s a screen showing a montage of pretty much every movie in which an android or robot turns on its human makers, from Blade Runner to Ex Machina), and lots of featurettes about self-guiding robots which can explore the bottom of the oceans, or monitor growing conditions in greenhouses — but somehow all this gallimaufrey of festival fun manages not, in the end, to be that penetrating or insightful.

I got talking to one of the curators of the exhibition and asked what one thing she’d learned from the year or more they’d been preparing it. She said, ‘Not to be afraid of AI’.

She said here in the West, there’s a long tradition of fear of robots and computers (fears not allayed, it must be said, by the numerous movie clips of robots strangling people which greet you as you walk in).

But by contrast, she said that one of the curators was Japanese and it had been a real eye-opener for her to see the completely different approach the Japanese have to new technology. Possibly it is because of their Shinto traditions, according to which the world is full of spirits, but the Japanese seem to be more open and receptive to the idea that we are on the verge of developing new types and forms of intelligence. For us in the West, this immediately prompts headlines about Frankenstein. For the Japanese, she said, these new developments are to be welcomed into a world already full of various types of technology.

That was an interesting insight into Japanese culture. But I couldn’t help noticing how she, like all the wall labels and exhibition promo material, said that we are on the verge of a brave new world where there will be trans-humans incorporating digital technology, or cities will run themselves, cars drive themselves and so on and so on.

I was a big fan of science fiction in the 1970s, I watched Tomorrow’s World every week, and they told us then that robots were about to take over all the boring chores of life, that soon cities would be run by computers and that this would usher in The Leisure Society – an age where everything was done for us by smart bots and so the biggest struggle people would have would be finding ways to fill all their leisure time. Everyone would become poets and playwrights and artists. It would be utopia. And what followed all this technological utopianism? The 1980s of Mrs Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Robot technologies were introduced in some car manufacturing plants, but they were a drop in the ocean compared to the mass unemployment, social crises, to the Miners Strike and the Poll Tax riots. The failure of the technological utopianism of the 1970s innoculated me for life against believing a word of the prophets of Shiny New Societies until I actually see them.

Meanwhile what I see is the destruction of countless ecosystems, the extermination of species at an unprecedented rate, the irreversible heating of the atmosphere, the poisoning of the oceans, and the new digital technology being used by China to control its population and Russia to launch cyber-attacks on its enemies.

That is the actual existing world which we live in and no sweet little robot puppy or booth which prints rubbish poems over your passport photo or big monitor screens on which shapes dance around mimicing your movements, are going to change it.

What a Loving and Beautiful World

Just like the Into The Unkown exhibition, elements of the show are scattered beyond the Curve, in the entrance space and foyer – where a film is running of a dancer whose movements are copied by sensors and where there’s a tall pulsing sculpture called Totem. But the best thing is downstairs in the space they call The Pit.

Here, in a big square room, a Japanese art collective called teamLab have installed a wonderful thing – projected onto the four walls is a continual slow flow of colour washes, down which move large images of Chinese characters i.e. letters from Chinese script. If you reach out your hand and the shadow of your hand touches one of these characters it gently explodes releasing a plume of images. Thus I reached out and the shadow of my hand touched a Chinese character as it slowly moved down the wall and – it disappeared in a puff of smoke and a covey of brightly coloured birds appeared and started flying round the walls!

If someone else happens to have touched the character for ‘tree’, the birds you’ve released will fly round the walls and go and roost in the tree. Touching another character released a flourish of butterflies which fluttered round the wall. All this is accompanied by a soundtrack of very chilled Oriental music consisting of just a flute and maybe a cymbal or two, very soft, very mellow, very calming.

I’ve been subjected to many interactive installations in my time, but I think this might be the most genuinely interactive, and certainly the most mellow and blissful, I’ve ever experienced. I couldn’t for the life of me, though, see what it had to do with ‘artificial intelligence’. Rather it is just (i say ‘just’ – it is the immensely impressive) use of advanced but still non-conscious, non-self-correcting computer programming.

Installation view of What a Loving, and Beautiful World, part of AI: More than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Thoughts

I went round the exhibition twice and nothing I read on any of the wall labels and none of the interactive exhibits really explained artificial intelligence to me, or the current state of research into artificial intelligence. Instead I was distracted from distractions by more distractions. It was decades ago – 1996 – that IBM’s computer DeepBlue beat world chess master Gary Kasparov at chess. Did it rock my world? Now DeepBlue has beaten the world Go champion. Somehow I can’t get excited.

I couldn’t help thinking that if a metal robot waving its arms around and a cute little plastic puppy are the best that contemporary robotics can come up with, the rest of us have nothing to fear. And, if playing with Lego is the best that AI can offer contemporary architecture, isn’t that rather pitiful?

A major risk with creating an exhibition like this, most of which seems to consist of funky digital art works, is that the artworks hugely distract from the actual, intellectual questions we should be asking.

For example, I saw one little monitor tucked away in a corner with a short wall label describing in a superficial way China’s use of digital and social media to define and control its entire population. This is a massive issue, an absolutely enormous development, with huge ramifications for the way the same kind of system of total digital control might possibly be introduced into the West. But it wasn’t explored or followed through.

There was footage of some researchers who’ve developed some kind of deep sea fish robot which learns about its environment. That’s sweet, but news last week revealed that

A retired naval officer dove in a submarine nearly 36,000ft into the deepest place on Earth, only to find what appears to be plastic waste.

We are, in other words, destroying the planet, laying waste to entire ecosystems, burning up the atmosphere and poisoning the oceans far faster than we can develop any kind of technology to stop it.

Downstairs on the other side of the Barbican from the main show was a bar which has been set up with a robot barperson i.e. a robotic arm, which can mix any cocktail you want from a row of liquor bottles in front of it. Is… is that the best they can do? Are the pubs round where I live ever going to have robot bar staff? No.

One of the exhibits showcases the following project:

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Australian Center for Field Robotics, and NASA present pioneering research that took place in Costa Rican waters on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel Falkor, using the deep sea as a testbed for exploration of Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.

Do you really think we are ever going to ‘explore’ Jupiter’s moons? And why would we? We are burning up this planet. Shouldn’t absolutely every scrap of scientific research imaginable be going towards devising non-carbon ways of generating energy, storing energy, non-carbon ways to travel and transport food and goods?

I react to projects like these as I react to Elon Musk’s announcements that he is going to fund a manned expedition to Mars, which is: Why? Is he mad? Why isn’t he spending billions trying to save this planet, the one we all live on?

Another exhibit:

With the consequences of climate change growing in scale every year, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative looks at ensuring our food security for the future with their AI-driven ‘personal computer farms’ that optimise the development of crops in tabletop-sized growing chambers. It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household, by gathering crop-growing data from a network of farms and sharing it with the wider public.

‘It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household’! In my household we can’t even grow cacti on the windowsill. This is never going to be affordable or practical. Those who are interested already grow vegetables in windowboxes or garden beds or their local allotment.

If this is the best contemporary technology has to offer us, we’re doomed.


A précis of the press release

There is so much to see, and the exhibition itself is just part of a wider Barbican season about life in modern technology, that, in the name of spreading information and enlightenment – and also to give the full, official explanation of some of the exhibits I’ve mentioned above –  I here give a summary of the press release. I’ve highlighted in bold the exhibits I’ve referred to in my review.

AI: More than Human is part of Life Rewired, the Barbican’s 2019 season exploring what it means to be human when technology is changing everything.

It tells the rapidly developing story of AI, from its ancient roots in Japanese Shintoism through Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage’s early experiments in computing, to AI’s major developmental leaps from the 1940s to the present day.

The exhibition features some of the most cutting-edge research projects in the field from DeepMind, Jigsaw, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (MIT CSAIL), IBM, Sony Computer Science Laboratories, Google Arts and Culture, Google PAIR, Affectiva, Lichtman Lab at Harvard, Eyewire, Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, Wyss Institute and Emulate Inc.

The exhibition also features commissions by artists, researchers and scientists Memo Akten, Joy Buolamwini, Certain Measures (Andrew Witt & Tobias Nolte), Es Devlin, Stephanie Dinkins, Justine Emard, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, Stefan Hurtig & Detlef Weitz, Hiroshi Ishiguro & Takashi Ikegami, Mario Klingemann, Kode 9, Lawrence Lek, Daito Manabe & Yukiyasu Kamitani, Massive Attack & Mick Grierson, Lauren McCarthy, Yoichi Ochiai, Neri Oxman, Qosmo, Anna Ridler, Chris Salter in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier , Sam Twidale and Marija Avramovic, Yuri Suzuki, teamLab and Universal Everything.

The exhibition includes digital media, immersive art installations and a chance for visitors to interact directly with exhibits to experience AI’s capabilities first-hand, to examine the subject from multiple, global perspectives and give visitors the tools to decide for themselves how to navigate our evolving world.

The exhibition asks the big questions: What does it mean to be human? What is consciousness? Will machines ever outsmart a human? And how can humans and machines work collaboratively?

Section 1. The Dream of AI

The exhibition charts the human desire to bring the inanimate to life right back to ancient times, from the religious traditions of Shintoism and Judaism to the mystical science of alchemy.

Artist and electronic musician Kode9 presents a newly commissioned sound installation on the golem. A mythical creature from Jewish folklore, the golem has influenced art, literature and film for centuries from Frankenstein to Blade Runner. Kode9’s audio essay adapts and samples from many of these stories of unruly artificial entities to create an eerie starting point to the exhibition. Stefan Hurtig & Detlef Weitz also look at the golem as well as other artificial life forms and how they are imagined in film and television.

This section explores Japanese animism philosophy, including Shinto food ceremonies and a selection of ancient anthropomorphic Japanese cooking tools, shown for the first time outside Japan. Sam Twidale and Marija Avramovic also look at AI through the lens of Japanese Shinto beliefs to explore notions of animism and techno-animism in Sunshowers.

Doraemon – one of the best known Japanese manga animations – will also be on display, exploring its influence on the philosophy of robotics and technology development.

Section 2. Mind Machines

This section explains how AI has developed through history from the early innovators who tried to convert rational thought into code, to the creation of the first neural network in the 1940s, which copied the brain’s own processes, going on to show how this has developed into machine learning – when an AI is able to learn, respond and improve by itself.

It includes some of the most important moments and figures in AI’s history:

  • computing pioneers Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage
  • Claude Shannon’s experimental games
  • Alan Turing’s groundbreaking efforts to decipher code in World War II
  • Deep Blue vs chess champion Garry Kasparov
  • IBM’s Watson, who beat a human on US gameshow, Jeopardy! in 2011
  • DeepMind’s AlphaGo, which became the first computer to defeat a professional in the complex Chinese strategy game Go in 2016, including an in-depth explanation of the surprising Move 37 – a turning point in the history of AI, that shocked the world

This section also looks at how AI sees images, understands language and moves, as artificial intelligence developed beyond the brain to the body. Projects on display include MIT CSAIL’s SoFi – a robotic fish that can independently swim alongside real fish in the sea and Sony’s 2018 robot puppy, aibo, who uses its database of memories and experiences to develop its own personality.

Google PAIR’s project Waterfall of Meaning is a poetic glimpse into the interior of an AI, showing how a machine absorbs human associations between words.

Artist Mario Klingemann’s piece Circuit Training invites visitors to take part in teaching a neural network to create a piece of art. Visitors will first help create the data set by allowing the AI to capture their image, then select from the visuals produced by the network, to teach it what they find interesting. The machine is constantly learning from this human interaction to create an evolving piece of live art.

In Myriad (Tulips), artist Anna Ridler looks at the politics and process of using large datasets to produce a piece of art. Inspired by ‘tulip-mania’ – the financial craze for tulip bulbs that swept across the Netherlands in the 1630s, she took 10,000 photographs of tulips and categorised them by hand, revealing the human aspect that sits behind machine learning. Her second piece Mosaic Virus uses this data set to create a video work generated by an AI, which shows a tulip blooming, an updated version of a Dutch still life for the 21st Century.

Myriad (Tulips) by Anna Ridler atAI: More Than Human. Image credit: Emily Grundon, 2019

Section 3. Data Worlds

At the heart of the main exhibition in The Curve is Data Worlds. This section examines AI’s capability to improve commerce, change society and enhance our personal lives. It looks at AI’s real-life application in fields such as healthcare, journalism and retail.

Affectiva, the leader in Human Perception AI, will demonstrate how AI can improve road safety and the transportation experience, through a driving arcade game during which Affectiva’s AI will track drivers’ emotions and reactions as they encounter different situations.

In Sony CSL’s Kreyon City, visitors plan and build their own city out of LEGO and learn how the combination of human creativity and AI could represent a promising tool in major architecture and infrastructure decisions.

Lauren McCarthy’s experiment to become a human version of a smart home intelligence system explores the tensions between intimacy vs privacy, convenience vs the agency they present, and the role of human labour in the future of automation.

Qosmo’s sound artwork creates a dialogue between human and machine by inviting visitors to make music together with AI.

Nexus Studios have produced a series of interactive works that demonstrate how AI works. Visitors can opt to be classified by an AI, revealing how the computer interprets their image. Nexus Studios have collaborated with artist Memo Akten to present Learning to See, which allows visitors to manipulate everyday objects to illustrate how a neural network trained on a specific data set can be fooled into seeing the world as a painting. It can see only what it already knows, just like us.

Data Worlds also addresses important ethical issues such as bias, control, truth and privacy.

Scientist, activist and founder of the Algorithmic Justice League, Joy Buolamwini, examines racial and gender bias in facial analysis software. As a graduate student, Joy found an AI system detected her better when she was wearing a white mask, prompting her research project Gender Shades. This project uncovered the bias built in to commercial AI in gender classification showing that facial analysis technology AI has a heavy bias towards white males. In parallel to this, Joy wrote AI, Ain’t I A Woman – a spoken word piece that highlights the ways in which artificial intelligence can misinterpret the images of iconic black women.

Joy Buolamwini /The Algorithmic Justice League at MIT Media Lab, part of AI: More Than Human. Image credit: Jimmy Day/MIT Media Lab

Section 4. Endless Evolution

The final section of the exhibition looks at the future of our species and envisions the creation of new species, reflecting on the laws of ‘nature’ and how artificial forms of life fit into this. A newly commissioned set of interviews will discuss themes of the future through the eyes of visionary thinkers.

Massive Attack mark the 20th anniversary of their landmark album Mezzanine by encoding the album in strands of synthetic DNA in a spraypaint can – a nod towards founding member and visual artist Robert del Naja’s roots as the pioneer of the Bristol Graffiti scene. Each spray can contains around one million copies of Mezzanine-encoded ink. The project highlights the need to find alternative storage solutions in a data-driven world, with DNA as a real possibility to store large quantities of data in the future.

Mezzanine will also be at the centre of a new sound composition – a co-production between Massive Attack and machine. Robert Del Naja is working with Mick Grierson at the Creative Computing Institute at University of the Arts London (UAL), students from UAL and Goldsmith’s College, and Andrew Melchior of the Third Space Agency to create a unique piece of art that highlights the remarkable possibilities when music and technology collide. The album will be fed into a neural network and visitors will be able to affect its sound by their actions and movements, with the output returned in high definition.

This section includes Alter 3, created by roboticist Hiroshi Ishiguro and Kohei Ogawa with artificial life researcher Takashi Ikegami and Itsuki Doi. With a body of a bare machine and a genderless, ageless face, Alter learns and matures through an interplay with the surrounding world.

Justine Emard’s piece Co(AI)xistence explores a communication between different forms of intelligences: human and machine. Through signals, body movements and spoken language, she created the interaction between Alter and Mirai Moriyama, a Japanese performer. Using a deep learning system, Alter learns from his experiences and the two try to define new perspectives of co-existence in the world. (So this explains the film running on the big screen behind the robot waving its arms around.)

Stephanie Dinkins’s new work Not The Only One is the multigenerational memoir of one black American family with which visitors can have conversations and ask questions, continuing her ongoing dialogue around AI and race, gender and aging. As society becomes more reliant on artificial intelligence, many voices are left out of the creation of these systems and bias and discrimination can be encoded in AI systems. In Not The Only One, the AI is trained with the needs and ideals of races which are under-represented in the tech sector.

Architect, designer and MIT Professor Neri Oxman presents ongoing projects from her research lab, The Mediated Matter Group at MIT.

The Synthetic Apiary explores the possibility of a controlled space in which seasonal honeybees can produce honey all year round. A large scale investigation into the cultivation of bees and their behaviour has huge implications for the future of the human race, due to the massive decline in bees worldwide over recent years.

Mediated Matter Synthetic Apairy Honeybee Hive in the Synthetic Apiary environment, part of AI: More Than Human at Barbican © The Mediated Matter Group

In an era when we can engineer genomes and design life, Vespers, explores what it means to design (with) life. From the relic of the ancient death mask to the design and digital fabrication of an adaptive and responsive living mask, the project points towards an imminent future where wearable interfaces and building skins are customised not only to fit a particular shape, but also a specific material, chemical and even genetic make-up, tailoring the wearable to both the body and the environment which it inhabits.

For the first time in the UK, Japanese media artist Yoichi Ochiai presents projects from his research lab, Digital Nature, including an artificial butterfly.

Resurrecting The Sublime by Christina Agapakis of Ginkgo Bioworks, Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg, and Sissel Tolaas, brings back the smell of flowers made extinct through human activity. The creation of these smells asks questions about our relationship with nature and the decisions we make as a species.

Japanese art and technology specialist Daito Manabe from Rhizomatiks and neuroscientist Yukiyasu Kamitani present Dissonant Imaginary, a research art project that investigates the relationship between sound and images. Using brain decoding technology facilitated by fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to generate imagery visualised from brain activity data that changes according to sound, the project seeks to recreate the vivid emotional imagery that can be conjured when listening to a film soundtrack or nostalgic music and foresees a future in which music and visuals may directly interact with the brain as a new medium.

Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), Australian Center for Field Robotics, and NASA present pioneering research that took place in Costa Rican waters on Schmidt Ocean Institute’s Research Vessel Falkor, using the deep sea as a testbed for exploration of Europa – one of Jupiter’s moons.

With the consequences of climate change growing in scale every year, MIT’s Open Agriculture Initiative looks at ensuring our food security for the future with their AI-driven ‘personal computer farms’ that optimise the development of crops in tabletop-sized growing chambers. It hopes to bring controlled agriculture into the household, by gathering crop-growing data from a network of farms and sharing it with the wider public. Strategic design firm Method display their own take on the concept by using upcycled materials and a modular design to build a durable DIY Food Computer.

This section also looks at the research labs using AI to revolutionise healthcare. Lichtman Lab at Harvard and Eyewire both look at mapping the brain in their research projects and the implications this could have for our health. Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine is engineering tissues and organs made from human cells in the lab. Wyss Institute and Emulate, Inc. present their human Organs-on-Chips technology that contain tiny hollow channels lined with living human cells and tissues, opening up new understanding of how different diseases, medicines, chemicals, and foods affect human health and potentially changing the way drugs are developed forever.

The exhibition ends with a short film produced by Mark Gorton, Visionaries, which lets thinkers and experts Danielle George, Amy Robinson Sterling, Kanta Dihal, Yoichi Ochiai, Francesca Rossi and Andrew Hessel speak about their vision of singularity and the future.

Installation view of AI: More Than Human at the Barbican (Photo by the author)

Level G

A series of new commissions run across the Barbican’s Level G spaces throughout the exhibition.

Digital art and design collective Universal Everything take over the Barbican’s main Silk Street entrance hall to create a new installation, Future You, where visitors can interact with an AI version of themselves. Large digital avatars mimic visitors’ movements onscreen. When the exhibition opens, the character begins in primitive, childlike form and evolves throughout the exhibition’s run, as it learns new ergonomic abilities.

Chris Salter’s piece Totem, in collaboration with Sofian Audry, Takashi Ikegami, Alexandre Saunier and Thomas Spier, is a large-scale, dynamic installation that uses sensing and machine learning to inform its patterns, rhythm and behaviour that will give the installation a feeling of a living, breathing entity.

Lawrence Lek’s open-world video game 2065 is set in a speculative future, when advanced automation means that people no longer have to work and can spend all day playing video games and art is indistinguishable from gaming. Integrating the architecture of the Barbican Curve into the virtual world, players are invited to play the role of an AI to imagine what life might be like in future years.

Artist and designer Es Devlin’s PoemPortraits is a social sculpture that brings together art, design, poetry and machine learning; it has been created in collaboration with Google Arts and Culture and Ross Goodwin. Each visitor will be invited to donate a single word to the piece. This word will be instantly incorporated into a two-line poem generated by an algorithm trained on 20 million words of poetry. This poem will form the photographic flash that illuminates each unique PoemPortrait. The work is cumulative; each poem will also include a word donated by another visitor. At the end of the exhibition, a collective PoemPortrait will be generated from everyone’s contributions: a trace of this transient social sculpture.

Inspired by Raymond Scott’s Electronium machine, Yuri Suzuki’s Digital Electronium gives visitors the chance to input sounds to create a changing soundscape through AI and algorithms.

A Machine View of London, a video work by Certain Measures (Andrew Witt and Tobias Nolte), presents an AI categorising and mapping the shapes of the one million buildings in London. This project is one of their series of FormMaps, an ongoing architectural research project that aims to compare and create a complete catalogue of building patterns from cities around the world.

The exhibition chatbot

To support the exhibition and widen the conversations around artificial intelligence, the Barbican worked with marketing technology agency, Byte, to create a chatbot aimed at stimulating conversations around the role of AI within society. Appearing on the Barbican’s website and Facebook page, the chatbot gives people the chance to engage further with the role of AI tech within different cultural arenas. Opening with a definition of AI, the chatbot develops the conversation around four themes reflected in the exhibition – Why are you afraid of AI? Does data discriminate? Who’s driving the car? And What makes us human?

Curators

The exhibition was created and produced by Barbican International Enterprises, with guest curators Dr Suzanne Livingston and Maholo Uchida.


Related links

Reviews of previous exhibitions & concerts at the Barbican

Only Human by Martin Parr @ the National Portrait Gallery

Born in 1952 in Epsom, Martin Parr has become one of Britain’s most celebrated and successful photographers. He has achieved this by:

  1. being extremely prolific, having taken thousands of tip-top photographs which he has packaged into numerous books and projects and exhibitions (he has published more than one hundred books, exhibited internationally, was President of the highly respected Magnum photo agency from 2013–17, and recently established the Martin Parr Foundation in Bristol, dedicated to collecting and exhibiting work by British and Irish photographers)
  2. being an extremely good talker – the exhibition features an eight-minute-long video interview in which Parr confidently, affably and articulately explains his work (can’t find this on YouTube but if you search you’ll find plenty of examples of him being interviewed and chatting away like a favourite uncle)
  3. having established a style, a niche, a unique selling point and brand, namely large, colour photos of ordinary British people in crushingly ordinary, unposed situations, captured in a blunt, unvarnished, warts-and-all style
Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013. © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Lord Mayor’s Show, City of London, 2013 © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos

Massive colour prints

In fact, leafing through the many books on sale in the shop, you realise that his early work, for example shooting chapelgoers in Yorkshire, consisted of relatively small, black-and-white prints. It’s only in the past ten years or so that switching to digital cameras has allowed Parr to make much bigger images, with digital clarity and colour.

And it is hosts of these massive, colour prints of hundreds of images of the great British public, caught in casual moments, going about a wide range of odd, quirky and endearing activities, or just being ugly, fat, old, and scruffy – which make up the show.

Nice, France, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Humorous presentation

The exhibition fills the 14 or so rooms of the National Portrait Gallery’s main downstairs gallery space but the first thing to note is how Parr and the curators have made every effort to jazz it up in a humorous if rather downbeat way typical of the man and his love-hate relationship with the fabulous crapness of ordinary, everyday British culture. Thus:

Parr has always been interested in dancing, all kinds of dancing, and the big room devoted to shots of dancers – from punk to Goth, from gay pride to traditional Scottish dancing, to ballroom dancing to mosh pits at a metal concert – the room in which all these are hung is dominated by a slow-turning mirror ball projecting spangly facets on the walls and across the photos.

In the room devoted to beachlife one entire wall is completely covered with a vast panorama of a beach absolutely packed with sunbathers in Argentina.

Installation view of the huge photo of Grandé Beach, Mar Del Plata, Argentina, 2014. Note the jokey deckchairs in front.

The Martin Parr café

Half way through the exhibition, they’ve turned a whole room into the Martin Parr café, not a stylish French join with expresso machine, but a down at heel, flyblown transport caff, with formica tables and those glass cases by the till which display a range of knackered looking brandenburg cakes. You really can buy tea and cakes here (two teas and two pieces of cake for a tenner), or a pint of the ‘Only Human’ craft beer which has been created for the show, read a copy of the exhibition catalogue left on each table, or stare at the cheap TV in the corner which is showing a video of the Pet Shop Boys busking at various locations around London (which Parr himself directed), or chat.

Buy now while stocks last

The gallery shop has similarly had a complete makeover to look like a cluttered, low-budget emporium festooned with big yellow and red placards proclaiming ‘Pile em high and sell ’em cheap’, and ‘Special offer’, ‘Special sale price’, and they have deliberately created the tackiest merchandise they can imagine, including Martin Parr sandals, deckchairs, tea towels, as well as the usual fridge magnets, lapel badges and loads of books by this most prolific of photographers.

Parraphernalia

The first room, before you’ve even handed over your ticket, is jokily titled Parraphernalia:

As Parr’s fame has grown, interest in the commercialisation of his images, name and likeness has grown exponentially. Parr approaches these opportunities with the same creativity he applies to his photography. Early in his career, Parr experimented with alternative methods for presenting his photographs, such as transferring pictures onto ceramic plates and other everyday objects.

Thus a wall festooned with t-shirts, pyjamas, tote bags, mugs, posters, plates and so on each covered with a characteristic Parr image.

Stone Cross Parade, St George’s Day, West Bromwich, the Black Country, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Fotoescultura

Then there’s a room of fotoescultura. What is fotoescultura? I hear you ask. Well:

In 2009, Mexican photographer Graciela Iturbide introduced Parr to Bruno Eslava, an eighty-four year old Mexican folk artist, who was one of the last remaining practitioners of the art of fotoescultura (photo sculpture). Hand-carved in wood, and incorporating a photograph transferred onto shaped tin, fotoesculturas are traditionally used to showcase prized portrait photographs in the home, frequently, but not always, of deceased loved ones. Parr commissioned Eslava to produce a series of these playful and affectionate objects to draw attention to the disappearing art of fotoescultura in Mexico.

These take up a wall covered with little ledges on which perch odd-shaped wood carvings with various photos of Parr himself on them.

Installation view of fotoesculturas at Only Human by Martin Parr. Photo by the author

Oneness

And right next to these was a big screen showing the recent set of idents for BBC 1. I had no idea that Parr was involved in making these – although if you read the credit roll at the end you realise the whole thing was researched, produced and directed by quite a huge cast of TV professionals. Presumably he came up with the basic idea and researched the organisations.

In 2016, BBC Creative commissioned Parr to create a series of idents for BBC One – short films between programmes that identify the broadcaster – on the subject of British ‘oneness’. He subsequently travelled throughout England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales photographing volunteer organisations and sport and hobby clubs, which he felt exemplified this quality. Parr’s evolving portrait of modern Britain shows people united by shared interests and passions, and reflects the diversity of communities living in the UK today.

For each subject, both a 30-second film and a still photograph were made. The films were all produced in the same format: participants start by being engaged in their activity seemingly unaware of the camera, pause briefly to face the camera, then return to the activity as if nothing ever happened.

You can watch them on Parr’s website.

Full list of rooms and themes

The rooms are divided by theme, namely:

  • Parraphernalia (bric a brac covered with Parr images)
  • Fotoesculturas & Autoportraits (fotoesculturas explained above; autoportraits are self portraits in the styles of other cultures, from Turkey, Thiailand, the Sioviet Union etc)
  • Oneness (the BBC One idents)
  • Celebrity (photos of famous people e.g. Vivienne Westwood, Grayson Perry)
  • Grand Slam (he likes photographing the crowds at tennis tournaments)
  • Everybody Dance Now (people dancing, from Goth mosh pits to Scottish Ceilidhs)
  • Beside the Seaside (he’s visited every major seaside resort in the UK photographing the fat and pasty British at play)
  • Ordinary Portraits
  • British Abroad (pasty-faced ex-pats in Africa)
  • A Day at the Races (pasty-faced, tackily-dressed Brits at the races)
  • Interview (eight-minute video interview)
  • Café (complete with Martin Parr beer)
  • Britain in the time of Brexit (for which he went to Leave-voting areas and photographed tattooed chavs and their pit bull terriers)
  • The Establishment (quaint ceremonies of the City of London, Oxbridge students, Her Majesty the Queen)

The Queen visiting the Livery Hall of the Drapers’ Livery Company for their 650th Anniversary, the City of London, London, England, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Identity

Regular readers of this blog will know that, although I welcome the weird and wonderful in art (and music and literature) – in fact, on the whole, I am more disposed to 20th and 21st century art than to classical (Renaissance to Victorian) art – nonetheless I am powerfully allergic to a lot of modern art curation, commentary and scholarly artspeak.

This is because I find it so limiting. Whereas the world is big and wide and weird, full of seven and a half billion squabbling, squealing, shagging, dying, fighting, working human beings – artspeak tends to reduce all artworks to the same three or four monotonously similar ‘issues’, namely gender (meaning all women are oppressed), diversity (meaning all blacks and Muslims are oppressed), same-sex desire (the polite, ladylike way of saying gay and lesbian sex: of course, all lesbians and gays and trans people are oppressed), imperialism and colonialism (all colonial peoples and imperial subjects were oppressed), and – sigh – identity (all the old, traditional categories of identity are being interrogated, questioned and transgressed).

It’s rare than any exhibition of a modern artist manages not to get trapped and wrapped, cribbed, cabined and confined, prepackaged and predigested, into one or other of these tidy, limiting and deadly dull categories.

Many modern artists go along with this handful of ‘ideas’ for the simple reason that they were educated at the same art schools as the art curators, and that this simple bundle of ideas appears to be all they were taught about the world.

About accounting, agriculture, applied mathematics, aquatic sciences, astronomy & planetary science, biochemistry, biology, business & commercial law, business management, chemistry, communication technologies, computing & IT, and a hundred and one other weird and wonderful subjects which the inhabitants of this crowded planet spend their time practicing and studying, they appear to know nothing.

No. Gender, diversity and identity appear to be the only ideas modern art is capable of ‘addressing’ and ‘interrogating’.

Unfortunately, Parr plays right into the hands of curators like this. Because he has spent so many years travelling round Britain photographing people in classic ‘British’ activities (pottering in allotments, dancing, at the beach, at sports tournaments or drinking at street parties), many of them with Union Jacks hanging in the background or round their necks – Parr’s entire ouevre can, without so much as flexing a brain cell, be described as ‘an investigation into British identity in the age of Brexit’ or ‘an analysis of British identity in the era of multiculturalism’.

And the tired visitor consumes these exhausted truisms and clichés without missing a beat, without breaking a sweat, without the flicker of an idea troubling their minds. For example, see how this photo of bhangra dancers ‘raises questions of British identity.’

Bhangra dancers, Assembly Rooms, Edinburgh, Scotland, 2017, commissioned by BBC One. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

The introduction and wall labels certainly don’t hold back:

This exhibition of new work, made in the UK and around the world, is a collection of individual portraits and Parr’s picture of our times. It is about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raises complex questions around both national and self-identity.

The portraits used were drawn from Parr’s Autoportraits series, also on view in this gallery. By transforming these pictures into shrine-like objects, Parr pokes fun at his own identity. At the
same time, he raises questions about the nature of photography, identity and memory.

Parr’s Autoportraits reflect his long-standing interest in travel and tourism, and highlight a rarely acknowledged niche in professional photography. As Parr moves from one absurd situation to the next, his pictures echo the ideals and aesthetics of the countries through which he moves, while inviting questions. If all photographs are illusions, can any portrait convey a sense of true identity?

Parr shows that our identities are revealed in part by how we spend our leisure time – the sports we watch, the players or teams we support, the way we celebrate victories or commiserate defeat.

These pictures might be called ‘environmental portraits’, images in which the identities of person and place intertwine. Do the clothes we wear, the groups we join, the careers we choose, or the hobbies we enthusiastically pursue, express our personality? Or is the converse true – does our participation in such things shape and define us?

The way we play, celebrate and enjoy our leisure time can reveal a lot about our identities. Questions of social status often sneak into the frame. Whether a glorious opportunity to put on your top hat and tails, or simply an excuse to have a flutter on the horses, this ‘sport of kings’ brings together people from many different walks of life.

The 2016 referendum vote to leave the European Union is not only one of the biggest socio-political events of our time, it is also a curious manifestation of British identity. Politicians on both sides of the debate used the referendum to debate immigration and its impact on British society and culture. At times, this degenerated into a nationalistic argument for resisting change, rejecting the European way of doing things and returning to a more purely ‘British’ culture, however that might be defined.

But for me, somehow, the more this ‘issue’ of identity is mentioned, the more meaningless it becomes. Repeating a word over and over again doesn’t give it depth. As various philosophers and writers have pointed out, it tends to have the opposite effect and empty it of all meaning.

The commentary claims that Parr’s photographs are ‘about Britishness and Brexit, belonging and self, globalism and consumption, and raise complex questions around both national and self-identity.’

But do they? Do they really? Is a photo of some ordinary people standing at random on a beach ‘raising complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

Porthcurno, Cornwall, England, 2017. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Or a photo of Grayson Perry, or Vivienne Westwood, or five black women sitting on the pavement at the Notting Hill carnival, or two blokes who work in a chain factory, or a couple of fisherman on a Cornish quayside, or toned and gorgeous men dancing at a gay nightclub, or a bunch of students at an Oxford party, or a photo of the Lady Mayoress of London, or of a bloke bending down to roll a bowls ball.

The Perry Family – daughter Florence, Philippa and Grayson, London, England, 2012. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

Does this photo ‘raise complex questions around both national and self-identity?’

I just didn’t think see it. So there’s a lot of black people at the Notting Hill carnival, so Indians like dancing to bhangra music, so posh people go to private schools, so Parliament and the City of London still have loads of quaint ceremonies where people dress up in silly costumes.

And so Parr takes wonderfully off-kilter, unflattering and informal photos of all these things. But I don’t think his photos raise any questions at all. They just record things.

Take his photos of the British at the seaside, an extremely threadbare, hoary old cliché of a subject which has been covered by socially -minded photographers since at least the 1930s. Parr’s photos record the fact that British seaside resorts are often seedy, depressing places, the sea is freezing cold, it’s windy and sometimes rainy, and to compensate for the general air of failure, people wear silly hats, buy candy floss, and eat revolting Mr Whippy ice creams.

None of this raises any ‘complex questions’ at all. It seems to me to state the bleedin’ obvious.

Same goes for the last room in the show which ‘addresses’ ‘the Establishment’ and ‘interrogates’ notions of ‘privilege’ by taking photos of Oxford students, public school children and the Queen.

In all seriousness, can you think of a more tired and predictable, boring and clapped-out, old subject? Kids who go to private school are privileged? Oxford is full of braying public school toffs? As any kind of sociological ‘analysis’ or even journalistic statement, isn’t this the acme of obviousness?

Magdelene Ball, Cambridge, England, 2015. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

In other words, although curators and critics and Parr himself try to inject ‘questions’ and ‘issues’ into his photos, I think they’re barking up the wrong tree.

Photographic beauty

And by doing so they also divert attention from any appreciation of the formal qualities of his photographs, Parr’s skill at capturing candid moments, his uncanny ability to create a composition out of nothing, the strange balances and symmetries which emerge in ordinary workaday life without anyone trying. The oddity of the everyday, the odd beauty of the everyday, the everyday beauty of oddness.

Preparing lobster pots, Newlyn Harbour, Cornwall, England, 2018. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

I don’t think Parr’s work has anything to do with ‘issues of Britishness’ and ‘questions of identity’. This kind of talk may be the kind of thing which gets publishers and art galleries excited, and lead to photo projects, commissions and exhibitions. In other words, which makes money.

But the actual pictures are about something else entirely. What makes (most of) them special is not their ‘incisive sociological analysis’ but their wonderfully skilful visual qualities. Their photographic qualities. The works here demonstrate Parr’s astonishing ability to capture, again and again, a particular kind of everyday surrealism. They are something to do with the banality of life which he pushes so far into Banality that they come back out the other end as the genuinely weird and strange.

He manages a consistent capturing of the routine oddity of loads of stuff which is going on around us, but which we rarely notice.

The British are ugly

Lastly, and most obvious of all – Parr shows how ugly, scruffy, pimply, fat, tattooed, tasteless and badly dressed the British are. This is probably the most striking and consistent aspect of Parr’s photos: the repeated evidence showing what a sorry sight we Brits present to the world.

It’s not just the parade of tattooed, Union Jack-draped chavs in the ‘Brexit’ room. Just as ugly are the posh geeks he photographed at Oxford or the grinning berks and their spotty partners he snapped at the Highland dances. By far the most blindingly obvious feature of Parr’s photographic oeuvre is how staggeringly ugly, badly dressed and graceless the British mostly are.

His subjects’ sheer lumpen plainness is emphasised by Parr’s:

  • deliberate use of raw, unflattering colour
  • the lack of any filters or post-production softening of the images
  • and the everyday activities and settings he seeks out

And the consistently raw bluntness of his photos makes you realise how highly posed, polished and post-produced to plastic perfection almost are all the other images we see around us are – from adverts to film stills, posters and billboards, and the thousands of shiny images of smiling perfection we consume on the internet every day.

Compared to all those digitally-enhanced images, Parr has for some time now made his name by producing glaringly unvarnished, untouched-up, unimproved images, showing the British reflections of themselves in all their ghastly, grisly grottiness.

New Model Army playing the Spa Pavilion at the Whitby Goth Weekend, 2014. Picture credit © Martin Parr / Magnum Photos / Rocket Gallery

But this is a genuinely transgressive thought – something which the polite and respectable curators – who prefer to expatiate at length on the socially acceptable themes of identity and gender and race – dare not mention.

This is the truth that dare not speak its name and which Martin Parr’s photographs ram home time after time. We Brits look awful.

Video

Video review of the exhibition by Visiting London Guide.


Related links

Byzantine Emperors 324-802

This blog post uses the timeline of Byzantine emperors from Wikipedia and then adds details and comments from John Julius Norwich’s book Byzantium: The Early Centuries.

Constantine I ‘the Great’ (324-337)

Son of the Augustus Constantius Chlorus and Helena. Proclaimed Augustus of the western empire upon the death of his father on 25 July 306, he became sole ruler of the western empire after the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312. In 324, he defeated the eastern Augustus Licinius and re-united the empire under his rule, reigning as sole emperor until his death. Constantine completed the administrative and military reforms begun under Diocletian, who had begun ushering in the Dominate period. Actively interested in Christianity, he played a crucial role in its development and the Christianization of the Roman world, through his convocation of the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea. He re-founded the city of Byzantium as ‘New Rome’, popularly known as Constantinople.

Constantius II (337 – 361)

Second surviving son of Constantine I, he inherited the eastern third of Roman Empire upon his father’s death, becoming sole Roman Emperor from 353, after the overthrow of the western usurper Magnentius. Constantius’ reign saw military activity on all frontiers, and dissension between Arianism, favoured by the emperor, and the Orthodox supporters of the Nicene Creed. In his reign, Constantinople was given equal status to Rome, and the original church of Hagia Sophia was built. Constantius appointed Constantius Gallus and Julian as Caesars, and died on his way to confront Julian, who had risen up against him.

Constans I (337 – 350)

Third surviving son of Constantine I. Caesar since 333, he inherited the central third of Roman Empire upon his father’s death, and became sole emperor in the west following the death of Constantine II in 348. Constans was assassinated during the coup of Magnentius.

Julian ‘the Apostate’ (361 – 363)

Grandson of Constantius Chlorus and cousin of Constantius II. Proclaimed by his army in Gaul, Julian became legitimate Emperor upon the death of Constantius. He was killed on campaign against Sassanid Persia having failed to revive pagan religion.

Jovian (363 – 364)

Captain of the guards under Julian, elected by the army upon Julian’s death. Died on journey back to Constantinople.

Valentinian I (364 – 375)

An officer under Julian and Jovian, he was elected by the army upon Jovian’s death. He soon appointed his younger brother Valens as Emperor of the East. Died of cerebral haemorrhage.

Valens I (364 – 378)

A soldier of the Roman army, he was appointed Emperor of the East by his elder brother Valentinian I. Killed at the Battle of Adrianople.

Gratian (378 – 379)

Son of Valentinian I. Emperor of the West, he inherited rule of the East upon the death of Valens and appointed Theodosius I as Emperor of the East. Assassinated on 25 August 383 during the rebellion of Magnus Maximus.

Theodosius I ‘the Great’ (379 – 395)

Aristocrat and military leader, brother-in-law of Gratian who appointed him as emperor of the East. From 392 until his death sole Roman Emperor. Theodosius passed laws banning pagan religious practice, entrenching Christianity as the religion of the empire.

Arcadius (395 – 408)

On the death of Theodosius I in 395, the Roman Empire was permanently divided between the East Roman Empire, later known as the Byzantine Empire, and the West Roman Empire. Theodosius’ eldest son Arcadius became emperor in the East while his younger son Honorius became emperor in the West.

Theodosius II (408 – 450)

Only son of Arcadius. Succeeded upon the death of his father. As a minor, the praetorian prefect Anthemius was regent in 408–414. Died in a riding accident.

Marcian (450 – 457)

A soldier and politician, he became emperor after being wed by the Augusta Pulcheria, sister of Theodosius II, following the latter’s death. Died of gangrene.

Leo I ‘the Thracian’ (457 – 474)

Of Bessian origin, Leo became a low-ranking officer and served as an attendant of the Gothic commander-in-chief of the army, Aspar, who chose him as emperor on Marcian’s death. He was the first emperor to be crowned by the Patriarch of Constantinople. His reign was marked by the pacification of the Danube frontier and peace with Persia, which allowed him to intervene in the affairs of the western empire, supporting candidates for the throne and dispatching an expedition to recover Carthage from the Vandals in 468. Initially a puppet of Aspar, Leo began promoting the Isaurians as a counterweight to Aspar’s Goths, marrying his daughter Ariadne to the Isaurian leader Tarasicodissa (Zeno). With their support, in 471 Aspar was murdered and Gothic power over the army was broken.

Leo II (January – November 474)

Grandson of Leo I by Leo’s daughter Ariadne and her Isaurian husband, Zeno. He was raised to Caesar on 18 November 473. Leo ascended the throne after the death of his grandfather on 19 January 474. He crowned his father Zeno as co-emperor and effective regent on 10 November 474. He died shortly after, on 10 November 474.

Zeno (474 – 491)

As the leader of Leo I’s Isaurian soldiers, Zeno rose to comes domesticorum, married the emperor’s daughter Ariadne, took the name Zeno, and played a crucial role in the elimination of Aspar and his Goths. He was named co-emperor by his son on 9 February 474, and became sole ruler upon the latter’s death, but had to flee to his native country before Basiliscus in 475, regaining control of the capital in 476. Zeno concluded peace with the Vandals, saw off challenges against him by Illus and Verina, and secured peace in the Balkans by persuading the Ostrogoths under Theodoric the Great to migrate to Italy. Zeno’s reign also saw the end of the western line of emperors, with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus in 476.

Basiliscus (475 – 476)

General and brother-in-law of Leo I, Basiliscus seized power from Zeno but was then deposed by him.

Anastasius I (491 – 518)

He was a palace official when he was chosen as husband and Emperor by the Empress-dowager Ariadne. Anastasius reformed the tax system and the Byzantine coinage and proved a frugal ruler, so that by the end of his reign he left a substantial surplus. His Monophysite sympathies led to widespread opposition, most notably the Revolt of Vitalian and the Acacian Schism. His reign was also marked by the first Bulgar raids into the Balkans and by a war with Persia over the foundation of Dara. He died childless.

Justin I (518 – 527)

Officer and commander of the Excubitors bodyguard under Anastasius I, he was elected by army and people upon the death of Anastasius I. Illiterate, he was much influenced by his nephew Justinian.

Justinian I ‘the Great’ (527 – 565)

Nephew of Justin I, possibly raised to co-emperor on 1 April 527. Succeeded on Justin I’s death. Attempted to restore the western territories of the Empire, reconquering Italy, North Africa and parts of Spain. Also responsible for the corpus juris civilis, or ‘body of civil law’ which is the foundation of law for many modern European nations. For John Julius Norwich Justinian was the last Roman emperor of Byzantium. (See my review of Robert Graves’s novel about his reign, Count Belisarius.)

Justin II (565 – 578)

Nephew of Justinian I, he seized the throne on the latter’s death with support of army and Senate. Became insane, hence in 573–574 under the regency of his wife Sophia, and in 574–578 under the regency of Tiberius Constantine.

Tiberius II Constantine (578 – 582)

Commander of the Excubitors, friend and adoptive son of Justin. Named Caesar and regent in 574. Succeeded on Justin II’s death.

Emperor Maurice (582 – 602)

Became an official and later a general. Married the daughter of Tiberius II and succeeded him upon his death. Named his son Theodosius as co-emperor in 590. Deposed by Phocas and executed on 27 November 602 at Chalcedon.

Phocas (602 – 610)

Subaltern in the Balkan army, he led a rebellion that deposed Maurice but turned out to be spectacularly brutal and cruel. Increasingly unpopular, he was deposed and executed by Heraclius.

Heraclius (610 – 641)

The eldest son of the Exarch of Africa, Heraclius the Elder. With his father and uncle launched a revolt against the unpopular Phocas in 609 and deposed him in October 610. Brought the Byzantine-Sassanid War of 602–628 to a successful conclusion but was unable to stop the Muslim conquests; during his rule Muslim armies conquered of Syria (637), Armenia (639) and Egypt (639). In 638 Jerusalem fell after a two-year siege. The loss to the Muslims of Jerusalem, the holiest city to Christians, proved to be the source of much resentment in Christendom for centuries to come.

Heraclius officially replaced Latin with Greek as the language of administration. This act, for Norwich, makes Heraclius the first fully Greek Byzantine emperor. His military and administrative reforms created the backbone for the Byzantine Empire which helped it last another eight hundred years. He tried to solve the ongoing divisions caused by the monophysitic heresy by promoting a compromise theory, monothelitism, devised by Patriarch Sergius I of Constantinople, although this only ended up causing more ill-feeling and excommunications. Nonetheless, according to Norwich, his record:

remains a magnificent one. Without his energy, determination and inspired leadership, Constantinople might well have fallen to the Persians – in which case it would almost inevitably have  been engulfed a few years later by the Muslim tide, with consequences for Western Europe that can scarcely be imagined. (Byzantium: The Early Centuries p.310)

Constantine III (February – May 641)

Born 612, eldest son of Heraclius by his first wife Fabia Eudokia. Named co-emperor in 613, he succeeded to the throne with his younger brother Heraklonas following the death of Heraclius. Died of tuberculosis, reputedly poisoned by scheming empress-dowager (i.e. Heraclius’s wife) Martina.

Heraklonas (February to September 641)

Born 626 in to Heraclius’ second wife Martina, named co-emperor in 638. Succeeded to the throne with Constantine III following the death of Heraclius. Sole emperor after the death of Constantine III, under the regency of Martina, but was forced to name Constans II co-emperor by the army. In September both Martina and Heraklonas were arrested: her tongue was cut out and his nose was slit, and they were sent into exile on Rhodes.

Constans II (641 – 668)

Born 630 the son of Constantine III. Raised to co-emperor in summer 641 i.e. aged just 11, after his father’s death, Constans became sole emperor after the forced abdication and exile of his uncle Heraklonas (see above). Baptized Heraclius, he reigned as Constantine, ‘Constans’ was his nickname. Constans’s 27-year reign was overshadowed by constant struggle against the fast-expanding Muslim caliphate. In 642 the seized Alexandria, later razing its defences to the ground and starting a new town at the head of the Nile Delta, which would become Cairo. In 649 the Muslims sacked Cyprus. In 654 they attacked Rhodes. In 655 they thrashed an imperial fleet off the coast of Lycia. In 663 Constans led an army across the Adriatic and into Italy to combat the Lombards. Having taken Rome he stripped it of its last remaining treasures and shipped them back to Constantinople. Then he moved on to Syracuse, which he made his base for the last five years of his reign. He was murdered by a slave while bathing.

Constantine IV (668 – 685)

Eldest of Constans II’s three sons. In 669 there was an army uprising against his rule which he put down and then slit the noses of his two younger brothers to render them unfit to rule (in Byzantine theory the king or basileus had to be free of physical blemishes). From 674 to 678 he held off a sea-based siege of Constantinople, not least by deploying Greek fire, and in doing so – according to John Julius Norwich – ‘saved Western civilisation’.

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – ad America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)

Not bad for a man who died of dysentery aged just 33.

Justinian II nicknamed ‘the Slit-nosed’ (685 – 695)

Son of Constantine IV, he was named co-emperor in 681 and became sole emperor upon Constantine IV’s death. He was a stern disciplinarian whose biggest act was to move an estimated quarter of million peasants and villagers from Thrace and northern Greece into Bithynia and the south coast of the Black Sea. He was also a ferocious taxer who made it plain he wanted to tax the aristocracy to extinction so when a military revolt broke out, they and other sections of the population gleefully welcomed Justinian’s overthrow in 695. He was dragged into the Hippodrome where his nose was slit, before being sent into exile at Cherson in Crimea.

The Twenty Years’ Anarchy (695–717)

Leontius (695–698)

A professional soldier from Isauria, Leontius led a military revolt against Justinian II, who was disfigured and sent into exile. In 698 the Muslims conquered Carthage and thus extinguished the entire Roman province of North Africa. Leontius had sent a fleet to defend the city but rather than return in disgrace, the sailors mutinied and elected a new king, the fleet returning to Constantinople and overthrowing Leontius.

Tiberius Apsimar (698–705)

Originally named Apsimar and of German origin, this is the admiral the failed Byzantine fleet elected their leader and king (and hastily gave the Roman-sounding name of Tiberius) and who led them back to the capital to overthrow Leontius. In the seven years of his reign he led military expeditions against the Muslims in Syria and Cilicia. His reign (and life) came to an end when the exiled Justinian II returned.

Justinian II ‘the Slit-nosed’ (705 – 711)

In exile Justinian did a deal with the Bulgar King Tervel to make the latter caesar in exchange for Slav troops. With these troops Justinian returned to Constantinople and seized power. The two usurpers – Leontius and Tiberius – were tracked down, put in chains, dragged round the Hippodrome in front of a jeering crowd, had their noses slit as Justinian had, and then were beheaded. Justinian then went on to inaugurate a reign of terror, torturing and executing his enemies.

In 709, for reasons which remain obscure, he sent an army to Ravenna – theoretically still a Byzantine ‘exarchate’ – round up the town’s dignitaries and packed them off to Constantinople where they were all executed except for the archbishop, who he had blinded, while his army went on the rampage in the captured city.

Then he launched an expedition against the Khazars who had taken Cherson, site of his exile, where a complicated sequence of events led to an exiled general named Bardanes rallying rebellious Byzantine forces and  sailing to take Constantinople, where a grateful populace greeted him. Justinian was captured a few miles outside of town and beheaded. His mother took his son, six-year-old Tiberius, to the sanctuary of a church across the Bosphorus but soldiers followed them there and slaughtered the little boy ‘like a sheep’. The Heraclian line of emperors had ended.

Philippicus Bardanes (711 – 713)

A general of Armenian origin, he led the forces from Cherson which deposed Justinian II, but turned out to be a ‘hopeless hedonist’ (p.347). The Bulgar King Tervel vowed to avenge his friend Justinian and marched his Slav army up to the walls of Constantinople. Philippicus called on the Opsikian Theme (a theme was a geographical and administrative unit of the empire) just across the Marmaris to send troops to help, but they refused and instead nominated a rival basileus. Philippicus was enjoying a siesta in his palace when soldiers broke in, seized him, dragged him to the Hippodrome where his eyes were put out.

Anastasius II (713 – 715)

Originally named Artemios, he was a chief secretary to Philippicus and proclaimed emperor by the soldiers who overthrew Philippicus. Anastasius set about repairing the walls defending Constantinople and, hearing the Muslims were once again on the war path, sent a pre-emptive force of Opsikian troops in a fleet to Rhodes. However the rebellious troops clubbed the head of the expedition to death and then returned to the capital, picking up an inoffensive tax collector named Theodosius along the way. After a six month siege, Constantinople submitted to the rebels and Anastasius, who had fled to Nicaea, was allowed to retire to a monastery in Thessalonica. In 719 he led a revolt against his successor but one, Leo III, but failed, and was executed by Leo.

Theodosius III (715 – 717)

A tax collector unrelated to any royal blood, Theodosius was proclaimed emperor by rebellious Opsikian troops, entering Constantinople in November 715. Two years later Leo the Isaurian, who was governor of a theme on the eastern border, led a revolt of soldiers on Constantinople and, after some negotiations with the Senate and Leo, Theodosius was allowed to abdicate and retire to a monastery in Ephesus.

End of the Twenty Years’ Anarchy

Leo III the Isaurian (717 – 741)

Norwich, in his history of Byantium, calls Leo ‘the saviour of the empire’. He rose through the ranks from very obscure origins (‘a Syrian peasant’) to become a general. Led a rebellion and secured the throne in spring 717. In the autumn a massive Muslim army and fleet besieged Constantinople but Leo had prepared well, the besieging army was decimated during a bitter winter of famine and disease, the survivors massacred by a Bulgarian army which attacked from the north, and then the retreating fleet was destroyed in a storm. Saved again.

Leo’s other big achievement was to inaugurate the movement known as Iconoclasm which set out to destroy all images of the human figure and face and which was to divide the empire and severely exacerbate the divide between the Western and Eastern churches. He had barely begun, by removing just one statue from one church, before he sparked a storm of protests across the city and the Greek East and from the pope in Rome. Despite protests, he pressed on and in 703 issued an imperial decree banning all religious images, demanding they be destroyed. Monks and priests fled east and west carrying their beloved icons and images concealed. The fleet and numerous military garrisons mutinied. There were riots in the major cities.

Some scholars attribute the rise of iconoclasm to the influence of the sternly anti-image Muslims who now controlled most of the former Roman territory in the East. But Norwich points out that the movement actually began as a charter launched by eastern bishops who thought they were challenging the increasingly fetishistic worship of icons in themselves. It had got to the stage where icons stood in as godparents during baptisms.

Constantine V (741 – 775)

The only son of Leo III. Constantine was made co-emperor in 720 and succeeded on his father’s death. He was leading a military expedition against the Muslims when he was attacked by Artabasdos, an old colleague of his father’s who had helped Leo seize the throne from Theodosius.

Artabasdos (741 – 743)

General who had helped Leo II to the throne and been given Leo’s sister’s hand in marriage, thus becoming brother-in-law to Leo and uncle to Constantine V, who he overthrew. For eighteen months he ruled in Constantinople making himself very popular by calling for the restoration of icons, which suddenly reappeared all over the city. Meanwhile Constantine had not been killed, but taken refuge in an eastern garrison filled with icon-supporters (the issue now split every level of Byzantine society) who marched behind him and they defeated Artabasdos in battle in Lydia.

Artabasdos fled to Constantinople which Constantine re-entered at the head of his army, dragged Artabasdos to the Hippodrome where he and his two sons were ritually blinded, their chief supporters executed or subjected to various mutilations. The Patriarch Anastasius was stipped naked, flogged, and paraded round the Hippodrome sitting backwards on a donkey.

Constantine V (741 – 775) part two

Constantine returned to power with renewed virulence against the icon-supporters, not least because they had helped overthrow him. He convened a church council which banned icons. He banned the use of the word ‘saint’ and ‘mother of God’ as blasphemous. He was particularly violent against monasteries, which had been growing in size and power. We have records of entire monasteries being sacked, the head monks having their beards doused in oil and set on fire, libraries burned to the ground. And this not by the Muslims, but by their fellow Christians.

Constantine campaigned continually against the Bulgars who threatened from the north but he was granted relief from the Muslim threat when, in 750, at the Battle of the Greater Zab River, the army of Caliph Marwan II was smashed by that of Abu al-Abbas al-Suffah and the Omayyad dynasty of Damascus came to an end. Power moved to the new Abbasid dynasty based in Baghdad, which was to be more interested in the East, in Persia, Afghanistan and Transoxiana than in Europe or Africa.

But in 751 Ravenna was taken by the Lombard king Aistulf and the last Byzantine foothold in north Italy was snuffed out forever. Constantine died of natural causes while on campaign against the Bulgars aged 56.

Leo IV ‘the Khazar’ (775 – 780)

Eldest son of Constantine V, co-emperor since 751, he succeeded upon his father’s death and was much influenced by his powerful, scheming wife Irene. When he died aged just 30, Irene made herself Regent for their son, Constantine VI. Irene was

scheming and duplicitous, consumed by a devouring ambition and an insatiable lust for power, she was to bring dissension and disaster to the Empire for nearly a quarter of a century (p.366)

Constantine VI (780 – 797)

Born in 771 and only child of Leo IV, co-emperor in 776, sole emperor upon Leo’s death in 780, he was for the next ten years under the regency of his mother, Irene of Athens.

Irene was a fierce supporter of icons and overthrew all Constantine V’s legislation, in 787 convening the Second Council of Nicaea which condemned the practice of iconoclasm and restored the veneration of icons to Christian practice. This also helped restore relations with the pope in Rome, the Western church having never condemned icons in the first place.

Her icon-support sparked repeated mutinies in the solidly iconoclast army. Anticipating a coup in 790 she placed her son – fast becoming a focal point for iconoclast rebellion – in prison. When she tried to make the entire army swear an oath of allegiance to her personally, it mutinied, freed young Constantine (now 18 years old) and confined Irene to house arrest. Constantine proved weak and indecisive and a poor military leader. The famous Muslim leader Haroun al-Rashid had to be bought off with vast tributes of gold, while Constantine failed in his campaigns against the ever-threatening Bulgars of the North.

Constantine scandalised his church, especially the monks, by divorcing his first wife and marrying a court attendant. This issue, like everything else, became ensnared in theological language and led to splits among the icon-supporters which were exploited by the iconoclasts. In 797 Irene launched a coup against her own son, having him captured, taken to the palace and there ritually blinded. Her own son. He died soon after of his wounds.

Irene (797 – 802)

Although she tried to court popularity by reducing all manner of unpopular taxes, this only had the effect of impoverishing the empire, leaving her unable to repel further incursions by Haroun al-Rashid, alienating the iconoclast army, as well as every conservative who thought there mustn’t be a woman basileus.

In 802, out of the blue, came a marriage proposal from Charles, King of the Franks, who had been crowned Holy Roman Emperor at St Peter’s on Christmas Day 800. Theoretically the pope in Rome was subject to the emperor, the Roman Emperor, resident in Constantinople. But Irene’s reign created a unique conjunction of events. For most churchmen, aristocrats and citizens, a woman couldn’t be basileus. Therefore the Roman throne was vacant. Add in the factor that the popes of Rome had been abused, ignored, sometimes kidnapped and even murdered by various Eastern emperors – and that the East seemed to have been taken over by icon-destroying madness – and was militarily weak, especially against the Muslims – all these are reasons why Pope Leo should turn to by far the strongest military figure in the West, the pious and genuine Christian believer Charles King of the Franks who, in the preceding 30 years, had hugely expanded the territory of his kingdom.

Crowning him emperor in Rome in 800 a) created an entirely new centre of power in the West, resulting in there being two emperors in Christendom b) gave enormous power and influence to Leo (which protected him against powerful enemies who were conniving at his downfall) and – though no-one realised it at the time – to all his successors.

Charles and probably Leo thought that if Charles married Irene it would reunite the two halves of the empire, and hence the marriage proposal. Irene for her part knew how unpopular she had become and looked favourably on it. Imagine if they had go married and Christendom united.

Instead she was overthrown in a palace coup in 802, sent into exile on Lesbos and died a year later. The epoch of one Roman Empire united under one emperor, was over. From now on there would be a Holy Roman Emperor in the West and a Byzantine Emperor in the East.


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves (1938)

Now, in Constantinople there is a square called ‘The Square of Brotherly Love’ with a fine group of statuary in it, on a tall pedestal, commemorating the fraternal devotion of the sons of the emperor Constantine – who subsequently destroyed one another without mercy. (p.183)

Robert Graves

Apart from one year teaching at the University of Cairo, Graves made a living for his whole long life (1895-1985) from writing – books and articles, editing collections, but above all writing poetry.

He regarded himself first and foremost as a poet, slaving over his carefully constructed verses and developing slightly eccentric theories about poetic inspiration. It was only to pay the rent, and feed his growing family that he churned out the prose works which he didn’t consider nearly as important.

But ironically, it is these prose works which posterity has remembered Graves for, starting with his hugely enjoyable autobiography, Goodbye To All That (1929), famous for its account of his service in the First World War, but which also includes humorous memories of his childhood growing up in Wimbledon, and then merry anecdotes of being a struggling poet, husband and father in the 1920s.

I, Claudius

On the same level of fame is the pair of novels he wrote about the Roman emperor Claudius (who ruled from AD 41 to 54), I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both published in 1934) which were made into a famous BBC TV series in 1976. Presumably this introduced Graves’s name (and Claudius’s) to million of viewers who’d never heard of either before.

Belisarius

Close behind the Claudius duet in reputation is this novel, which is also based around another major figure from the classical world, General Flavius Belisarius.

Belisarius (500-565 AD) rose to become the leading general of the Eastern Roman Empire in the first half of the 6th century. He is best known for serving the Eastern Emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) and leading a series of campaigns to try and recapture the Western half of the Empire, over a century after the first sack of Rome (by Alaric and the Visigoths in 410), 50 years or so after the last Roman Emperor in the West was deposed (476) and Africa, Spain, Gaul and Italy had been overrun by barbarian conquerors.

Belisarius made his reputation in a campaign against the Persian Empire on the eastern border, before leading campaigns against the Vandals in Africa (then a word describing what is basically Tunisia today), before taking Sicily and then fighting Ostrogoth armies the length and breadth of Italy during the prolonged Gothic War (535-554). Unfortunately the resulting waste and devastation of Italy left the inhabitants with an enduring resentment of the Easterners / the Greeks / the Byzantines. At one point a minor character, the tall good-looking Theodosius who is a favourite of Antonina’s (and who court gossip quickly suggests is having an affair with her) composes a comic song which ironically lists all the ‘benefits’ Byzantine rule has brought to Italy, including ‘massacre, rape, arson, enslavement, famine, plague and cannibalism (p.298).

In fact the next effect of Justinian and Belarius’s campaigns was so to weaken both Goth and Roman authority that just fourteen years after both sides had fought to exhaustion, the entire peninsula was conquered by another tribe of barbarian invaders, the Lombards, in 568.

As with the Claudius books, Graves had a number of good sources for the career of General Belisarius, namely the scurrilous account of court intrigue by the contemporary historian, Procopius (the origin and motivation for whose books is dissected right at the end of the text), as well as other chronicles by the likes of John Malalas, Theophanes, and John of Ephesus. But being such a good classicist, he has slipped in various inventions – invented characters and events – which fit seamlessly into his vision of the 6th century Byzantine Empire.

Flavius Belisarius depicted in the mosaic in the Church of San Vitale, Ravenna

The novel

I found the book slow going to begin with, but then became more and more absorbed by it. It is told in a straightforward chronological order, covering Belisarius’s boyhood and school years, his move to the Eastern capital Constantinople, his rise in the army, reforms to the army, and then the long, long sequence of military campaigns.

What brings the book alive, though, is the narrator Graves has invented to tell the whole, long story – Eugenius the eunuch (p.11). He makes Eugenius the long-suffering servant of Belisarius’s wife, an ex-prostitute named Antonina who, at an early point in her life ran a sort of nightclub-cum-brothel with several other filles de joie, including – as it happens – one Theodora who, after a series of unlikely events, ends up marrying the Emperor Justinian and becoming ‘Her Resplendent Highness, the Empress’.

And what power she has! Again and again Eugenius shows Theodora as being the most resolute and decisive of all the emperor’s advisers, and even going behind his back to take strong decisions when Justinian was dithering.

Theodora was no fool of the priests. She had seen the world, and she understood men and politics, both lay and ecclesiastical. She ruled Justinian as absolutely as it is said that the great Livia once ruled Augustus, the first Emperor of the Romans. (p.147)

[A discreet nod, there to the guiding theme of the Claudius novels, published just four years earlier.]

Thus although the novel is generally about a man, a military man, one of the most famous generals in history – and although it certainly contains a great deal about the Byzantine army and cavalry, their equipment, training and tactics, and describes in great detail pretty much every battle Belisarius was involved in – nonetheless, the novel still has quite a lot of feminine content, the eunuch Eugenius being as understanding of and sympathetic to his mistress and her lady friends, and in tune with the friendship between Antonina and Theodora, as he is with the more famous menfolk.

In fact Eugenius manages to be consistently rude about most of the male figures, not least Justinian (and his illiterate predecessor and sponsor, Justin, and his hapless predecessor, Anastasius I). Here he is on Justinian:

The man was a mass of contradictions: most of which, however, were to be explained as the result of great ambitions struggling with cowardice and meanness. Justinian wised, it seems, to make himself remembered as Justinian the Great. His talents would indeed have been equal to the task if he had only been less of a beast in spirit. (p.146)

Rudeness which slowly changes into contempt as he describes Justinian’s growing meanness, avariciousness, paranoia and poor decision-making, until he is routinely describing examples of Justinian’s

incompetence, cruelty, procrastination, meanness, ingratitude (p.407)

Towards Belisarius Eugenius is more ambivalent, painting him as the generally innocent victim of various court intrigues and Justinian’s petty mean-mindedness – but all the same, he doesn’t really like the general and is only supportive because of his undying loyalty to Belarius’s wife, Eugenius’s mistress, the lovely Antonina.

The Emperor Justinian I (r. 527–565) and his entourage as depicted by a contemporary mosaic from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna (it is believed that the figure standing on Justinian’s immediate right is Belisarius)

We learn a lot about the backstories of Eugenius, Antonia and Theodora which are described with wonderful plausibility. I particularly like Eugenius’s own story, that he was the young son of a Welsh prince, kidnapped by Saxon raiders and then sold on to an unscrupulous Greek salesman of fake religious relics, Barak, who had him castrated, and crops up at amusingly unlikely moments throughout the rest of the story.

At Constantinople Barak [who had been arrested and sent there by Belisarius] secured an honourable release through bribery, and though by now seventy years of age, resumed his long-interrupted task as overseer of monuments in the Holy Places. It was his pleasure to refresh the blood-marks on the pillar of scourging; and to  renew the hyssop-sponge at Golgotha, which the piety of pilgrims had worn almost to nothing; and to discover at Joppa, buried in an old chest during the persecutions of the Emperor Nero, a startling number of early Christian relics of the first importance and in an agreeably sound state of preservation. (p.305)

A passage which, incidentally, gives you a good feel for Eugenius’s own ironic scorn for most Christian belief and practice.

Eugenius is a gossipy narrator and frequently stops the narrative to tell us diverting anecdotes about whoever is appearing in the main narrative whether it is the early stories about Antonina and Theodora setting up their brothel, or stories about the enemies Belisarius faces, like old Khavad of Persia, or describing the culture of the north African Moors, or a revealing anecdote about King Gelimer of the Vandals. All these little asides and stories make the book much more accessible and readable.

Eugenius is also a chatty and fascinating guide to the culture of 6th century Constantinople where the first half of the novel is set, before Eugenius sets off accompanying his mistress Antonina who insists on accompanying her husband Belisarius on his western campaigns.

Two massive issues dominated the culture of the time, which were the powerful antagonisms stirred up by the various Christian heresies which swirled round the empire, and, in the city itself, the huge division between the two factions, the Blues and the Greens.

Heresies

By the early 300s the spread of Christian heresies throughout the empire was already such a problem that the Emperor Constantine, the man who ordered the building of Constantinople (officially consecrated in 330) had been forced to call the Council of Nicaea in 325 to thrash out definitions of the key ideas and terms of Christianity.

Nicaea was the first ecumenical council of the Christian church, though far from the last. The heresy it was called to address was Arianism, named after the presbyter Arius who preached that Jesus – the Son of the Christian Trinity – was at some point created by the Father and therefore was not identical with him and was therefore, logically, inferior to him. This belief became very popular but contradicted the orthodox view that Jesus was fully divine, part of the Holy Trinity which was made up of equal members.

Although the Council of Nicaea stripped Arius of his teaching position and exiled him, his heresy continued to flourish, and others soon joined it. A recurring problem was defining the precise nature of Jesus: was he a man, or a God? Or half man, half God? Or both man and God? Was he eternal and one with God, or ‘begotten’ i.e. created at some later date i.e. not as godly as God?

These are all ‘Christological’ issues i.e. debates about the person, nature, and role of Christ, and they turned out to be prolific. To put it another way, Christianity was and is to this day, a very unstable theological or philosophical system, liable to splinter off into all kinds of heresies and sects.

At the period when the novel is set the most common heresy in the Greek East was monophysitism. This held that in the person of Jesus Christ there was only one, divine nature. This view conflicted with the ‘orthodox’ position, which had been agreed at a later ecumenical council, the Council of Chalcedon in 451, which proclaimed that Jesus possessed two natures, divine and human.

The emperor Justinian was a staunch defender of the orthodox view propounded at Chalcedon, but his wife, Theodora, was a believer in miaphysitism. Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one nature, ‘united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration,’ although – looking it up – I see that Chalcedonian orthodoxy considered this view assimilable within the orthodoxy. Thus Justinian and Theodora were more or less at one in their theology.

This may all sound very theoretical and abstruse but in fact heresy played a vital role in the geopolitics of the day. Virtually all the ‘barbarian’ tribes who had conquered the territories of the former western empire were Arians which put them at loggerheads both with the pope (who clung on in defeated Rome) and Justinian.

Thus the Ostrogoths, who had conquered and occupied all of Italy and the Adriatic coast, and who reached the zenith of their power under Theodoric (454-526) were Arians. It was these Ostrogoths who Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer in what turned into the long and ruinous Gothic War (535-554 AD) and, at various points in the long, complex negotiations for peace, the issue of religious belief became a stumbling block.

Also the Vandals who had travelled through Spain and crossed the straits in order to conquer Carthage and the surrounding area of north Africa were also Arians who lorded it over the native Roman population who were orthodox. This fact led to some bad decisions, for Belisarius – having conquered them in battle – sensibly recommended to Justinian that the Vandals be allowed to worship in their own way and receive eucharist from their Arian priests. But Justinian, more devout and more removed from military reality, insisted that the Vandals be forced to submit to orthodox priests and that their own religious rites be banned. Predictably, this (along with other tactical mistakes Justinian made, like not allowing the victorious Byzantine troops to hang on to the estates they had sequestered) led to a rebellion against Byzantine rule after Belisarius had left the area in order to campaign in Italy, forcing Belisarius to weaken his forces by sending some back to quash the rebellion. It could have become a peacefully restored part of the Byzantine empire but for Justinian’s religious intolerance on this central issue of Christian heresy.

These heresies add depth to the personal, social and military clashes which feature in it. Of every single major character we need to know which form of Christianity they follow in order to gauge or understand their likely reactions to other characters, and to understand the broader religious-cum-power politics of the situation.

The Blues and Greens

Within the Eastern empire itself, and especially in the city of Constantinople, raged a fierce enmity between the Greens and the Blues. These had originally been the colours of competing teams of chariot racers in the city’s massive Hippodrome. In fact there had originally been blue, green, red and white teams but the latter two had been swallowed up by the former.

By the time of the novel the conflict between Blues and Greens had permeated every level of Byzantine society. It was a bit like Brexit. Families were divided, friends opposed, politics became poisoned by the fierce opposition of Blues and Greens at every level. Even religion was dragged into it, with the Greens broadly representing monophysitism and the lower classes, while the Blues tended to be orthodox and upper class. Blues and Greens took opposing views not only on religion, but on social and political issues, up to and including the choice of new emperors.

Early on in the novel we learn that the empress Theodora was the daughter of one Acacius, a bear trainer of the hippodrome’s Green faction. An internal rivalry among the Greens led to Acacius’s death whereupon his widow brought her four children, including young Theodora, into the Hippodrome wearing garlands, but they were roundly booed and rejected by the Green half of the audience who had been led to believe Acacius had been a traitor to their colour. To spite the Greens, they were taken up by the Blues and from then on Theodora would be a Blue supporter.

The degree of enmity this rivalry caused has to be read about to be believed. In its sporting origins it was a bit like the sectarianism of football fans of my youth in the 1970s, and was accompanied by a lot of street hooliganism. Except that there were only two factions and the rivalry permeated right to the top of Byzantine society, something like the ineradicable difference between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland or Turks and Greeks in Cyprus.

As with all the other sociological aspects of the book, Graves gives a completely convincing description of what it felt like to live and work in a society drenched in this rivalry. The different factions developed different haircuts and fashions. Young toughs of both sides patrolled the streets in gangs, wearing short swords, frequently stabbing each other in broad daylight.

The mounting anarchy climaxed in the Nika Riots of January 532. Some rioters from a previous horse race had been arrested and most of them hanged. A pair escaped and took refuge in a church. The emperor Justinian was just at a delicate point in negotiations with the Persian empire and facing hostility over high taxes at home. At the next day of chariot racing, on 13 January the crowd began chanting anti-government slogans at Justinian who, as usual, was sitting in the royal box (which linked directly into the enormous royal palace just behind the Hippodrome). By the end of the races the entire crowd, Blues and Greens, had united in chanting their opposition to Justinian via the slogan ‘Nika’, meaning ‘Victory’, the chant usually set up when one or other of their champions had won a race.

The crowd then surged out into the streets and ran wild, burning and looting. Justinian’s palace was besieged and over the next week nearly half of Constantinople was burned or destroyed (including the grand church of Hagia Sophia) and hundreds of people killed. Senators opposed to Justinian saw their opportunity, first of all to call for the repeal of his unpopular laws and then, as things really got out of hand, they were bold enough to declare a new emperor, Hypatius, a nephew of former Emperor Anastasius I.

All this is described in a thrilling eye-witness account by the narrator, Eugenius. He explains how a) Justinian was all for fleeing the burning city but was restrained by Theodora who, like so many of Graves’s women, is the really strong figure in the story, and so b) contrives a solution to the anarchy. This was to bribe the Blue faction by pointing out that he, Justinian, was a Blue supporter while the new emperor, Hypatius, was a Green. This, and a hefty bribe of gold, got the leading Blues back on the emperor’s side, at which point they left the hippodrome, leaving the Green leaders isolated.

And it was at this point that Belisarius was ordered to lead Imperial troops into the Hippodrome, commencing a merciless slaughter of the Green rebels. In all, after the street violence and the out of control city fire, and then the mass slaughter, it is estimated that some thirty thousand rioters were killed.

Justinian tracked down Hypatius, who pleaded that he had only agreed to become puppet emperor because the rioters threatened to lynch him, but Justinian had him executed nonetheless, and had the senators who had supported the riot exiled. He then rebuilt Constantinople, and particularly the church of Hagia Sophia which stands to this day (although it was converted into a mosque by the conquering Turks after the fall of Constantinople in 1453).

Glorious though this may sound, Eugenius continually criticises Justinian for spending more money building churches and basilicas than defences for strategically important cities, and for continually skimping on men and supplies for Belarius’s many expeditions.

Fighting the Persian empire

Again Graves takes historical fact and, by filtering it through the gossipy, chatty, storytelling narrator Eugenius, makes it come to life. The ancient Persian or Achaemenid Empire reached its zenith under Xerxes (519-564 BC) and Darius (550-486 BC), who both tried to invade the West, at that point represented by the Greek federation of cities led by Athens, which stopped the invaders at the famous Battle of Marathon.

At the time the novel is set, nearly 1,000 years later, Persia is ruled by the Sassanian Empire, the last kingdom of the Persian Empire before the rise of Islam. To quote Wikipedia:

In many ways, the Sassanian period witnessed the peak of ancient Iranian civilisation. The Sassanians’ cultural influence extended far beyond the empire’s territorial borders, reaching as far as Western Europe, Africa, China and India. It played a prominent role in the formation of both European and Asian medieval art. Much of what later became known as Islamic culture in art, architecture, music and other subject matter was transferred from the Sassanians throughout the Muslim world.

The Persian ruler is the ageing Kavadh I (449-531) (who Graves – or Eugenius – refers to as Kobad). The Byzantine Empire and Persian Empire are the two main powers sparring for control of the Middle East. In the first, Eastern half of the book, we become very familiar with the towns and rivers of the border region, the dividing line between the two empires running roughly from the Caspian Gates – a narrow pass through the Caucasus mountains in the north – dividing Christian Armenia in two, and then running across the headwaters of the River Euphrates, sloping diagonally down towards the Red Sea. Many offences are launched from the Persian frontier town of Nisibis. Belisarius leads the defence of the town of Dara, just over the border opposite Nisibis, in the Battle of Dara of 530, which Graves describes in great detail. A few years later the Persians launched a devastating raid on Antioch which they pillaged and burned (540).

Map showing the border between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 502 to 628

What is really interesting about Graves’s account, though, is the insight he gives into the strangely friendly relationship between the Roman emperor and Persian emperor. Although they wage intermittent wars, there is a continual correspondence between them including exchanges of gifts and land. When both are threatened by attacks from the Hunnic tribes north of the Caucasus they arrange to suspend hostilities between them to fight against the common foe, indeed Kavadh at one stage invites Justinian to send Byzantine soldiers to bolster the Persian garrison defending the Caspian Gates. There had been another, important historical juncture when, in 525, Kavadh had asked Justinian’s predecessor, Justin, to ‘adopt’ his youngest son, Khosrau. Kavadh had two older sons but wanted Khosrau to succeed. Much bloodshed would have been spared if Justin had agreed but, as it happened, he (Justin) was without an heir and so worried that Khosrau, if officially adopted as his son, might end up with a good claim to the Byzantine throne, which Justin wanted to hand on to his appointed heir Justinian. So Justin refused the offer and Kavadh was mortally offended, immediately launching an attack on Roman border towns.

Ten years later Belisarius, having completed the conquest of the Vandals in North Africa, returned to Constantinople where he was granted an enormous victory parade, first the soldiers of his army marching along the imperial high street, then hordes of captured Vandals, and then huge amounts of plunder and treasure which the Vandals themselves had built up during their career of looting (not least during their comprehensive sack of Rome in 455). But it is characteristic of the time that the new king of the Persians, Khosrou, sent an embassy to Justinian, half-jokingly asking for his share of the spoils since, as he pointed out, it was only due to his keeping peace on the Persian frontier which had freed up the soldiers Belisarius had used to conquer North Africa. And very characteristic that Justinian, choosing to continue the joke, sent the ambassador back to Khosrou with his thanks and bearing a valuable gold dinner service (p.204).

This is all fascinating stuff, but made all the more readable by being told in Eugenius’s factual, but chatty, gossipy style, assigning praise and blame, relating these historical incidents to the present conflicts and battles he is describing, and weaving in and out of them his concerns for his mistress Antonina or behind-the-scenes accounts of power struggles at the court of Justinian.

Belisarius’s career

505 Flavius Belisarius born in Illyria.
532 Belisarius puts down the Nika Uprising, slaughtering between 20,000 and 30,000 people.
530 Belisarius defeats the Persians at the Battle of Dara
533 Belisarius leads the Byzantine invasion of North Africa and defeats the Vandals under King Gelimer at the Battle of Ad Decium and the Battle of Tricameron.
534 Belisarius celebrates a triumph in Constantinople.
535 Belisarius’ first campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy, during which he conquers Sicily and, in spring 536, takes Naples.
536 Rome falls to Belisarius but is then besieged by the Ostrogoths from March 537 to March 538, during which Pope Silverius and some senators try to betray it to the Goths.
539 Belisarius conquers Ravenna and captures the Ostrogoth king Witigis but, due to disagreements in the Byzantine chain of command, Milan falls to a combined force of Goths and Burgundians, its inhabitants decimated and the city razed to the ground.
540 Belisarius captures the Goth capital of Ravenna, and is offered the crown by the Goths, but turns it down. Nonetheless he is recalled to Constantinople by Justinian who has been listening to rivals claiming Belisarius plans to seize the throne. Instead Belisarius is sent once again against the Persians.
545 Belisarius’ second campaign against the Ostrogoths in Italy.
559 Belisarius is recalled again to Constantinople to defeat the invading Bulgars.
562 Belisarius is arrested and imprisoned on trumped-up charges of corruption. Pardoned by Justinian and restored to former position.
565 Belisarius dies in Constantinople of natural causes, and so does the Emperor Justinian
571 The year the narrator, Eugenius the eunuch, claims to be writing his text in (p.388)

Proverbs

One entertaining way Graves brings the period to life is having Eugenius report and explain various trivial aspects of contemporary life, such as the Empress’s use of a wig, or the way young men of the Green faction wear their hair shaved back over the forehead but left hanging long at the back, ‘in the Hunnish manner’. He tells us that the poor of Constantinople could claim a dole so long as they had obtained the requisite wooden ticket. He also includes a number of proverbs. Who knows whether he’s made them up or not. When discussing the Massagetic Huns’ addiction to drinking mares’ milk, Eugenius comments:

  • Every fish to his tipple
  • Thistles are lettuces to the ass’s lips

And various characters make pithy replies or sayings at crucial and dramatic moments, which are overheard by slaves and servants and end up becoming proverbial sayings. All these add colour and verisimilitude to the account.

Cruel and unusual punishments

But the story never lets you forget that they were living in a world of almost perpetual warfare, that anyone living in what was left of the Roman Empire was – far from being guaranteed peace and security – almost certain of the opposite. The narrative shows how Belarius brought war and ruin to North Africa, before inaugurating 20 years of war and devastation the length and breadth of Italy which reduced the land and all the cities to abject poverty – Rome’s ancient defences are entirely removed by the Goths, who also burn Milan to the ground – marking a decisive break between the peace and plenty of the ancient world, and the role of backwater littered with ruins which was to be Italy’s lot for the next 1,000 years. All the towns and cities of the Levant do not escape, as the book covers a period when the two largest cities – Antioch and Jerusalem – are sacked, and many other towns entirely razed, their populations taken off into slavery by the Persians. And Thrace, the area of north Greece to the west of Constantinople, is ravaged more than once during the 60 or so years the book covers, with barbarian tribes making it right up to the walls of Constantinople before just about being beaten back.

Overall, the book paints a picture of a world of continual warfare, in which the forces of Roman civilisation and Christian culture are only just keeping their heads above water.

And a world of stunning brutality. You get used to reading that an entire city was burned to the ground by the Goths or the Persians, all the men of fighting age massacred, and all the women and children led off into slavery but, if you stop to really reflect on what this must have meant, it makes reading the book a mournful and harrowing experience.

And this is brought into the foreground of the story, so to speak, by some of the cruel and unusual punishments meted to out to named characters. Thus we are told the fate of Photius, Antonina’s son by her marriage before Belisarius. He grows up to be a selfish, scheming brat. After losing lots of money gambling on the hippodrome races, he flees Constantinople to Belarius’s camp in Persia and there spins a long cock and bull story about how his mother (Belisarius’s wife, Antonina) is having an affair with her musician companion Theodosius, and the two are conspiring to blacken Belisarius’s name.

To cut a long story short the empress Theodora becomes involved to try and reconcile Belisarius and Antonina and this involves arresting, imprisoning and torturing Photius, at which he admits the whole thing was a conspiracy and also admits a string of thefts, embezzlements and perjuries. He had been helped in all this by a figure referred to simply as ‘the Senator’ who also confesses under torture. Now here’s the point: as punishment, Theodora has the Senator stripped of all his property and immured in a dark underground stable. He is tied to a manger with a short halter, his hands shackled behind him and there he was forced to stand, unable to move or lie down, but forced to eat, drink, try to sleep, defecate and urinate in a semi-standing position. It turns out that back in the days when she worked in a brothel the Senator had very rudely insulted Theodora’s appearance. This was her revenge. As for Photius he was shackled in the same underground stable but not given the manger treatment. After a while Justinian (who found sneaks and snitches useful) helped him escape. (pp.332-3)

Boutzes was one of Belarius’s most successful generals but when he fell foul of Theodora she had him convicted of treasonous speech and punished by being lowered into an unlit dungeon in solitary confinement. He was thrown scraps of bread and meat once a day. He was only released after two years and four months by which point he could only crawl on his hands and knees which were covered in callouses, had lost all his hair and most of his teeth, and when he was dragged out the sudden exposure to harsh sunlight meant that he could never again see properly (p.345).

This litany of imperial cruelty reaches a climax at the very end of the book when the scheming, paranoid, ageing Justinian, unrestrained by Theodora, who predeceases him (she dies 548, Justinian dies 565) having  recalled Belarius to Constantinople, finally charges him with a long list of ‘crimes’.

Now Eugenius has described in great detail all his military campaigns so that we know that his defeats and setbacks were almost all due to the emperor refusing to send enough reinforcements or money. It was Justinian’s insistence that the Arian Vandals be forbidden their religious rites, and his skimping on the pay of his own troops, which led to mutiny and the loss of North Africa, and we have seen countless examples of how Justinian’s penny-pinching and deliberate undermining of Belsarius’s authority hamstrung the years of campaigning in Italy. Why? Because, in Eugenius’s account, Justinian is determined to go down in history as ‘Great’ and he is jealous of Belisarius and, when his general is at his most successful, genuinely afraid that Belisarius will raise up in rebellion and declare himself emperor. Certainly this has happened many times before in Roman history but Justinian completely fails to appreciate Belisarius’s honesty and rectitude (as depicted by Eugenius).

Thus, at this final trial, Justinian takes all the occasions when Belisarius had failed militarily and declared them deliberate treasons, along with all the times he had been accused by others of treasonous speech or plotting, strings them all together, and comes up with the surreal conclusion that Belisarius is the greatest enemy of the state – despite his obvious track record of defeating all of the empire’s major enemies (the Persians, the Vandals, the Goths).

All Belisarius’s household servants and associates were tortured to provide incriminating evidence, including Eugenius the narrator. The tortures included being racked and scourged, having cords tied round the forehead and then tightened, and having their feet burned in a charcoal brazier. Eugenius insists he proclaimed Belisarius’s innocence of all charges, but many others didn’t. Belisarius was found guilty of treason against the emperor and blinded. Then he was pushed out of the state prison into the street, in rags.

The final pages describe how passersby give him money, then word spreads that the man who had, within the last year, led a last-ditch military effort to save Constantinople from marauding Bulgarians, had been treated this disgracefully and crowds, and then huge crowds assemble, to put money into his begging bowl, while his old troops and comrades rally to his assistance. Even this last monstrous ingratitude from his emperor doesn’t shake Belisarius’s loyalty and he is led by friends to Antonina’s house where he spends his last days quietly before passing away. The murmur against Justinian becomes so great, shouting against him in the Hippodrome as well as graffiti all over town saying that he is the real traitor, that Justinian – cowardly to the last – hurriedly revokes the charge and magnanimously ‘pardon’s Belisarius. But the noble warrior is beyond caring and passes away in peace of spirit.

In the chapters up to this point the reader had formed the opinion that Justinian was a paranoid coward. This last passage leaves you feeling sick at the mention of his name.

Then again…

It’s worth pointing out that John Julius Norwich, in his book Byzantium: The Early Centuries, gives a far more favourable account of Justinian, noting his jealousy of Belisarius’s success, and his failure to give his general enough money or men to achieve the goals he was set, but also blaming the emperor’s animosity against Belisarius largely to the influence of Theodora – more or less the opposite of what Graves’s fiction claims.

Moreover, Norwich dismisses the story of Belisarius being imprisoned and blinded and then walking the streets of Constantinople dressed in rags and holding a begging bowl as a touching but entirely fictitious legend. Apparently, this story first appears in a history written five centuries later, in the 11th century, and so Norwich dismisses it.

Homo homini lupus

This novel was published in 1938, the year of the Munich Crisis and when the Italy which features in the book had been ruled for 16 years by a Fascist dictator, and Germany by the Nazi dictator for five years, and all Europe was paralysed with fear of another world war. Graves had served in the First World War and this gives his many detailed descriptions of Belisarius’s battles a kind of quiet authority. But it also adds to the one small passage where Eugenius reflects that war is an unmitigated evil.

Credit

Count Belisarius by Robert Graves was published by Cassells in 1938. All references are to the Penguin Classics paperback edition.


Related links

Other reviews of late antiquity

Byzantium: The Early Centuries by John Julius Norwich (1988)

Viscount Norwich

As his own website explains:

John Julius, 2nd Viscount Norwich, was born on 15 September 1929, the son of the statesman and diplomat Alfred Duff Cooper (1st Viscount) and the Lady Diana Cooper. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer.

Could it be possible to be more posh? Norwich died  last year. He had written or edited about thirty books, the major ones being histories of the Mediterranean, of Sicily, of Venice and of Byzantium. The volume under review is the first of the trilogy of popular histories which continues with Byzantium: The Apogee (1992) and Byzantium: The Decline and Fall (1995).

Byzantium: The Early Centuries is divided into 18 action-packed chapters, which take us from the family background of the Emperor Constantine (reigned in the 320s and 330s) through to the Empress Irene (775 to 802) i.e. up to about the time of Charlemagne whose coronation in Rome on Christmas Day 800 marks a watershed in European history.

The book comes with handy extras like maps of all the relevant territory, family trees of the complex imperial families, a list of emperors and – nice touch, this – a list of sites in present-day Istanbul which date from the Byzantine Empire and which tourists can still visit today.

Highlights

It was the Emperor Diocletian who decided to split the empire in two, appointing a fellow emperor to rule the West in 293 while Diocletian concentrated on the East, securing the whole of the current Middle East round to Egypt against attack from the Persian Empire, while also guarding the frontier along the river Danube.

It was the Emperor Constantine who founded the new eastern capital of Constantinople, basing it on the existing small Greek town of Byzantium. By the late 300s the Roman Empire was under pressure from barbarians pushing at all its borders, leading to a complex series of wars, alliances, betrayals and defeats. In the 390s the western emperors had moved their court to Milan in northern Italy, closer to the centre of western Europe, and in 402 moved on again to the town of Ravenna, thought to be more defensible because it was situated behind a network of marshes which could only be crossed by a couple of narrow causeways.

The scholar Emperor Julian reigned for 18 months during which he tried to reinstitute paganism across the Empire, closing Christian churches, subsidising the great temples, attending countless pagan ceremonies, all with little effect, until he died from a spear wound incurred during his fruitless invasion of the Persian Empire, in 363. With his death went the last hopes of reviving paganism and, during the reign of Theodosius (379-395), the old religion was banned, temples closed and Christianity made the official and compulsory state religion.

The various barbarian incursions led up to the reign of terror of Attila the Hun (434-453). During this period the Empire suffered a series of military blows and by the time of Attila’s death, Britain had been abandoned (410), the Franks had taken over Gaul, Gothic tribes had settled in Spain and the western half of north Africa – the Empire’s breadbasket – had been seized and settled by the Vandals. Norwich gives a relatively brief account of Attila, which can, however, be supplemented by reference to Christopher Kelly’s recent book.

The next major figure is the Emperor Justinian who ruled from 527 to 565, and launched expeditions to reconquer North Africa, then to seize back Italy, before being distracted by incursions from the newly warlike Persian Empire, as well as reeling from major outbreaks of plague which decimated the population from the 540s onwards. All his clever schemes came to nothing and he left the Eastern Empire bankrupt.

Norwich devotes more space to Justinian than any other emperor (pages 190 to 263) in an account which I found profoundly depressing. Specifically, as regards the career of his top general, Belisarius, who slaved away for the emperor devotedly but was hampered at every turn by the scheming of the Empress Theodora. It is profoundly lowering to see such a talent so hamstrung, and gives a powerful sense of the self-defeating futility of palace intrigues which raged on while the empire was collapsing around them.

But, on a different level, it is also depressing to see in some detail how Justinian’s ‘noble’ campaign to reclaim Italy from the Gothic rulers who had overthrown the last Western emperor in 476 (the so-called Gothic Wars which lasted a generation, from 535 to 554) was also in the end so self-defeating.

Belisarius’s military campaign amounted to besieging most of the major cities and devastating the countryside his troops had to live off; but when he was recalled to Constantinople, management of the country was handed over to a cabal of greedy incompetents who taxed Italy to the hilt, continued plundering all available settlements while turning tail and running every time the Goths threatened to counter-attack.

The upshot was that most Italians came to hate the Greek Byzantine army and its rapacious administrators much more than the Goths, and both were happy when a new tribe, the Lombards, swarmed into the peninsula in the 560s, eliminating both their predecessors and quickly establishing kingdoms throughout Italy.

Heraclius

There is a similar tragic, or just depressing, downward spiral to the reign of Heraclius (610-641). Heraclius was appointed exarch (ruler/manager) of Carthage in the comprehensive reorganisation of the Eastern Empire carried out by the Emperor Maurice (582 to 602). Maurice (a wise and efficient ruler, according to Norwich) was overthrown and executed along with six of his sons in a coup carried out by a general, Phocas. Their heads (and this happens over and over again in this history) were impaled on spikes and put on display in Constantinople.

Phocas was a populist, but when he met resistance he responded with brutality. Under his rule the Danube borders were breached by Avars (yet another barbarian tribe) while the ruler of Persia, who had concluded a truce with Maurice, used Phocas’s rebellion as an opportunity to relaunch the semi-permanent Persian War and seize territory round to Egypt in the south and as far into Asia Minor as Antioch.

It was this growing chaos around the Empire which prompted Heraclius to raise the standard of rebellion against Phocas in Carthage and sail slowly to Constantinople, securing his supply routes and islands along the way. By the time Heraclius arrived at the capital, the army, politicians and religious leaders were all ready to abandon the tyrant. Phocas was dragged before Heraclius and then, rather rashly, insulted him to his face. So Heraclius had Phocas beheaded on the spot, his body was mutilated, paraded through the capital and burned.

After this grim start Heraclius settles down to become a great emperor, reorganising the Empire’s finances and defences, seeking a solution to the endless problem of the monophysite heresy which plagued and divided the Empire, and latterly embarking on a spectacularly successful campaign against the Persians, scoring a series of decisive victories which eventually led to the overthrow of the latter’s great leader, Chosroes II. If Heraclius had died in 628, he would have gone down as one of the great emperors for administrative reforms and military successes.

However, he lived into the first decade of the Rise of Islam. In 622 Mohammed had fled from Mecca to Medina, marking the start of the Muslim era. In 633 Mohammed died and his followers, tightly organised and enthused with fanatical fervour, swept out of Arabia to conquer the Middle East. Part of the reason for their early success was that twenty years of gruelling warfare had shattered the region and exhausted its two great powers, Byzantium and Persia. Into this vacuum swept the Muslims.

Just as importantly, most of the region’s inhabitants were ‘monophysites’. This was the Christian heresy which believed that Jesus Christ had only one ‘nature’, that the godhead and the human being were united. Taken to a logical extreme, this implied that God actually died on the Cross, which is an obvious theological nonsense. This explains why a series of Church Councils declared ‘monophysitism’ to be a heresy, and affirmed the ‘Catholic’ position that Jesus had two distinct ‘natures’, united in one ‘person’ i.e. the human who died but the godhead which remained eternal. But these were subtle differences, difficult for many people to grasp. And it’s a consistent thread of the book that there was a big difference in theology between the Latin West and the Greek East of the Empire.

For the East was a hotbed of theological debate, packed with fiery bishops, monks, preachers and heretics all disputing a wide range of subtle variations of Christian belief, and it took centuries to hammer out an ‘orthodox’ creed, and try to put down the opposing ‘heresies’.

And this is why, historians argue, on the level of personal belief, the Arabs’ extremely simple, practical monotheism (‘There is only one god, Allah, and Mohammed is his Prophet’) appealed to much of a population exhausted by centuries of conflict caused by Christian heresies. The Muslims swept north to Damascus and south through Egypt, conquering vast areas which were never to be Christian again.

So Heraclius’s last decade was spent watching everything he had planned and fought for – territory reclaimed from the Persians and Christian unity – destroyed before his very eyes. Prematurely aged and sick, he began to deteriorate mentally, developed a phobia of water and brutally punished those he suspected of conspiring against him (ordering the noses and hands of his nephew Theodosius and his bastard son Athanaric to be cut off) before passing away, a senile and disappointed old man who’d lived on into a new era.

The Middle Ages

Historians like drawing lines and defining eras. This book is no exception and joins the host of others which variously claim that the Middle Ages started with the death of Theodosius the Great (395), with the Sack of Rome (410), with the overthrow of the last Western Emperor (476), with the death of Justinian (565), and so on.

For me, the lesson of this book, as of Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity, is that it is the arrival of the Muslims on the world stage which marks the decisive break. All the other moments are part of a continuum of Roman rule or semi-rule or detached rule or vicarious rule (i.e. allowing barbarians to rule ‘in the name of’ the emperor etc).

But when the Middle East, Egypt and the entire African coast were lost to Islam that was it. A clean and definitive break had been made with the cultural unity of the Mediterranean, which lasts to the present day. Surely it is the advent of Islam which decisively marks the start of the Middle Ages.


Thoughts

1. Great men

This is a beautifully written, very fluent and entertaining account but it is very much a history of emperors. It takes for granted that a history of this subject will be a history of Great Men. That there are other perspectives is demonstrated by Peter Brown’s history of Late Antiquity which features the emperors, of course, but also captures a lot about the changing economic and social scene, or a book like Paul Johnson’s History of Christianity which gives a thrilling sense of the changing political and social background of the period.

2. Murder and massacre

Not just about Great Men but about their Great Quarrels. The history of Byzantium is presented as a succession of power struggles and features an extraordinary amount of double-dealing, treachery and murder. And that’s just in Constantine the Great’s family – e.g. in 326 Constantine had his eldest son, Crispus, and then his own wife, the Empress Faustina, executed, no-one quite knows why, maybe to impress on his underlings that he had no hesitation whatsoever about keeping complete control of the empire in his own hands. (An incident which later Christians, who wanted to declare Constantine a saint, found tricky to explain away.)

The book includes a family tree of the families of Diocletian, Constantine, Valentinian and Theodosius, and I struck out in pencil the name of everyone in the trees who died an unnatural death (murder, execution, assassination, forced ‘suicide’) and it turns out to be by far the majority. In fact I made a pencil mark in the text wherever someone eminent met with an unnatural death, and there’s one on every page.

One of the clichés of later Byzantine history is the idea that it is dense with convoluted palace politics, plots and poisoning – but this book demonstrates very clearly that this culture was simply a continuation (and maybe an intensification) of established Roman imperial practice. When I was young I think I found all the poison and bloodshed thrilling, but now I find it a depressing indictment of human beings’ endless capacity for cruelty and deceit.

3. A clearer understanding of key events

It’s difficult to pick out themes in a 400-page book so dense with historical incident, but I was grateful to it for giving a detailed account of at least two events which, as a result, I properly understood for the first time: Alaric and the Visigoths’ Sack of Rome (410 AD) and the overthrow of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustulus (476 AD) both of them dates which every ‘schoolboy’ is supposed to know by heart, though I wonder how many modern schoolboys have even heard of them.

The sack of Rome

The thing to grasp about the barbarian leaders is that they rarely wanted to seize or overthrow Imperial power: they generally wanted recognition and high rank within the Roman system, and land for their followers to settle on.

Thus the king of the Visigoths, Alaric I, began his career leading his Goths as mercenaries within the Roman army. In 394 Alaric led a Gothic force of 20,000 that helped the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius defeat the Frankish usurper Arbogast at the Battle of Frigidus. But disappointed at getting little recognition or reward, Alaric left the Roman army and marched toward Constantinople. He was confronted by Roman forces and so decoyed southward into Greece, where he sacked Piraeus and destroyed Corinth, Megara, Argos, and Sparta. A bit belatedly, the Eastern emperor Flavius Arcadius appointed Alaric magister militum (master of the soldiers) in Illyricum and Alaric stopped his rampage. Like Attila and Odoacer after him, the ravaging was a form of negotiating strategy.

In 401 Alaric invaded Italy but was defeated by the Roman general (of Vandal descent) Stilicho at Pollentia in 402. A second invasion that same year also ended in defeat at the Battle of Verona, though Alaric forced the Roman Senate to pay a large subsidy to the Visigoths. Stilicho had emerged during this decade as the most powerful man in Italy, which is why it was a fatal mistake when the Western Emperor Flavius Honorius had Stilicho and his family executed, on trumped up charges of making secret deals with Alaric.

Honorius then did something even more stupid and caved in to many Romans’ pent-up frustration with the way their country was held to ransom by so many barbarian tribes. Honorius ordered a co-ordinated massacre of tens of thousands of wives and children of the foederati (allied) Goths serving in the Roman military. As a result some 30,000 Gothic soldiers defected to Alaric, who now marched on Rome to avenge their murdered families.

In classic style, Alaric sacked Aquileia and Cremona and ravaged towns along the Adriatic Sea before arriving to lay siege to Rome in September 408. Alaric blocked off all points of entry to the city which quickly began to starve. As Christmas approached the first cases of cannibalism were reported. Finally the Senate granted him a substantial subsidy of (i.e. bought him off with) 5,000 pounds of gold, 30,000 of silver, 4,000 silk tunics, 3,000 hides of dyed scarlet and 3,000 pounds of pepper.

Alaric ended the siege of Rome and marched north to Rimini where he met envoys from Honorius and demanded the Roman territories of Venetia, Dalmatia and Noricum in which to settle, plus subsidies to feed his people in exchange for which Alaric pledged loyalty to the emperor and to defend Italy against any enemy. These were generous terms but Honorius like an idiot refused them. Alaric reduced his request to just the (ravaged) province of Noricum on the Danube. Once again Honorius refused and so, incensed, Alaric marched his army back to Rome and invested it for a second time, making clear that his aim wasn’t the sack of the city but the removal of Honorius.

The Senate quickly agreed, opened the gates to Alaric and he entered Rome in peace. The Senate declared Honorius (who all this time had been holed up in well-defended Ravenna in the north) no longer emperor and replaced him with the Prefect of the city, one Priscus Attalus, who promptly appointed Alaric his magister militum.

The first thing on Alaric’s mind was the control of North Africa – the breadbasket of Rome – by Heraclian. Alaric wanted to despatch an army to Africa to seize the province. But Attalus insisted on diplomacy and sent an envoy to Heraclian who was promptly murdered. Alaric badgered Attalus who refused to give a Goth army permission to invade a Roman province, and the Senate backed him up. At this point Honorius, who had been sending panic-stricken letters to Attalus asking to be given official control of Ravenna, received an unexpected boost in the shape of ships from Constantinople carrying some 40,000 troops sent by the Eastern Emperor Theodosius II. Emboldened, Honorius announced his intent of marching against the Visigoths.

Infuriated at being blocked and threatened at every turn, Alaric summoned Attalus to Rimini and ritually stripped him of the imperial diadem and purple cloak. Then he marched on Rome for the third and final time determined to make his supremacy and will absolutely clear. After a brief siege he forced a gate and entered Rome, giving his troops license for three days of looting and pillaging.

Although the Visigoths plundered Rome, they treated its inhabitants humanely and burned only a few buildings. They were –  it is worth emphasising, as were most of the so-called barbarians – actually devout Christians themselves, albeit of a variety – Arianism – which had been declared heretical in the previous century.

(Arius was an Alexandrian priest who lived from around 250 to 336. He took Jesus’s teachings that he was the son of God, literally, asserting that the son of God was created by the Father and was therefore neither ‘coeternal’ nor ‘consubstantial’ with the Father. This makes Jesus a more human figure, and his story more tragic, but fatally undermines the orthodox doctrine of the equality of the three persons of the Trinity. The orthodox view that the three parts of the Trinity are eternally co-valent and consubstantial was hammered out at the Councils of Nicea (325) and Chalcedon (451), and hence is sometimes referred to as Nicene or Chalcedonian Christianity. Early missionaries to the barbarian tribes beyond the border happen to have been Arians and so converted the majority of the tribes to this ‘heresy’. When the Arian barbarians overran parts of the Western Empire in the 5th and 6th centuries, they brought their Arian beliefs with them, though they were generally tolerant of the Nicene inhabitants of the lands they conquered. It has been suggested that, for some time – centuries – the Arian heresy helped differentiate between Gothic overlords and Roman inhabitants. Whether this was so or not, the strength of the orthodoxy of the church of Rome and the Eastern Empire eventually overcame Arianism and the last Arian kings in Europe were Grimwald, King of the Lombards 662 to 671, and his young son, Garibald, 671.)

After pillaging Rome, Alaric marched his men south, planning to take ship to Africa and deal once and for all with Heraclian in order to gain control of Italy’s grain supply. At Cosenza he was taken with a fever and was dead in a few days.

So:

a) The sack was the result of a very complicated series of diplomatic and military manoeuvres, involving, by the end, three emperors – Honorius, Theodosius II, Attalus – as well as the military strong-men Stilicho and Heraclian.

b) To a surprising extent the sack was the Romans’ own fault:

  • the stupidity of Honorius in executing the only man who could hold Alaric at bay – Stilicho
  • Honorius’s refusal to grant Alaric’s demands when they were eminently reasonable
  • the refusal of Attalus or the Senate to let Alaric sail off to Africa (which would, at the very least, have got him off Italian soil and bought them time)

c) All of which underscores a remark Norwich makes somewhere in the first half about the quality of the Roman army. The Empire equalled the army: strong army, strong empire. None of the books I’m reading on the subject really tackle this issue head on. Why did the Roman army deteriorate? Why by the 390s and 400s was it incapable of confronting and beating Alaric? The same but worse occurred during the time of Attila the Hun (430s to 450s) when all the Roman army could do was shadow Attila’s rampages. What changed between, say, 200 AD and 400 AD which made the Roman Army so fatefully weak?

(As a footnote, Alaric’s death so soon after sacking Rome became a useful tool to later protectors of the Holy City. Priscus reports that when Pope Leo I rode out to meet Attila the Hun who was rampaging south to take Rome in 452, the superstitious barbarian only had to be told/reminded of the fate of Alaric to decide to call off his assault.)

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

Alaric and the Visigoths plunder Rome in 410 AD

The overthrow of ‘the last Roman Emperor’ (in the West)

The last generation of emperors in the West make for a sorry story as one barbarian overlord after another sponsored puppet ’emperors’ in what had become the Western Imperial capital, at Ravenna, in north-east Italy.

In 474 the Eastern Emperor Leo I appointed Julius Nepos Western Roman Emperor. This was to replace the ruling emperor Glycerius, who Leo regarded as a usurper. (Julius is called ‘nepos’ (nephew) because he was married to Leo’s wife’s niece.)

When Julius arrived in Italy in June 474, Glycerius promptly surrendered, was spared by Julius and packed off to become bishop of Salona. But Julius only ruled over what was left of the Western Empire (now more or less reduced to mainland Italy) for less than a year. In 475 he appointed magister militum (leader of soldiers) the experienced general, Orestes. (Orestes in fact has a fascinating backstory: having been born and bred in Pannonia, he remained when the territory was ceded to Attila the Hun in the 440s and found himself appointed Attila’s secretary and ambassador.) This turned out to be a mistake, for in August 475 Orestes marched on the Western capital, Ravenna, prompting Julius to flee to Dalmatia (modern Yugoslavia) where he carried on regarding himself as the legal emperor until (typically for the times) he was assassinated in 480.

For reasons that aren’t entirely clear, Orestes didn’t claim the imperial crown but appointed his 12-year-old son Romulus, emperor. Technically this gave him the title Romulus Augustus, which cynics at the time changed to Romulus Augustulus i.e. ‘little Augustus’. The Eastern emperor Zeno, unsurprisingly, refused to recognise Romulus as Western Emperor – although there was little he could do about the situation, since he was himself engaged in a full-scale civil war with his own Eastern rival, Basiliscus.

Romulus himself ‘ruled’ i.e. did what his father told him, for just ten months, for Orestes turned out to be as unlucky / stupid as Julius. The army he had led to Ravenna mostly consisted of barbarian mercenaries. When Orestes refused their demands for up to a third of the land area of Italy to settle in, they simply mutinied against him, appointing the Germanic Odoacer their new king, on August 23, 476.

Odoacer led the barbarian army on a rampage through every town and village in northern Italy, pursuing Orestes to Pavia, where the bishop gave him sanctuary, but he had to flee again when the Germans broke through the city defenses and ravaged the church, razing many of the city buildings to the ground.

Orestes rallied the remnants of a Roman army and engaged the barbarians outside Piacenza, where the Romans were slaughtered, Orestes captured and executed. A few weeks later Ravenna was captured and Romulus Augustus was deposed. Legend has it that Odoacer’s heart was softened when he had the young boy brought before him, so he spared his life and sent him into permanent retirement in the Campania. Nothing more is known of lucky Romulus Augustulus.

More interestingly – and counter-intuitively, but something which these barbarian conquerors repeatedly did – Odoacer was then happy to submit to the authority of the Eastern Emperor Zeno, asking to be granted the official status of patrician of Rome and to rule as administrator of Italy in Zeno’s name. Although we see them, with hindsight, fatally undermining Roman authority, the major players of the time all still saw themselves acting within the Empire and seeking ultimate authority for their rule from it.

(History doesn’t stop. The overthrow of Romulus looks to us like a hugely significant event, but the rulers of the day carried on fighting each other as if nothing had changed. Julius Nepos continued styling himself the Augustus of the West from his stronghold in Dalmatia, and when he was murdered in 480 Odoacer used it as a pretext to invade Dalmatia and punish the murderers (and annex the territory). Odoacer then foolishly decided to ally with the Eastern general, Illus, in the latter’s attempt to overthrow the Eastern Emperor Zeno in 484. Zeno retaliated by appointing the Ostrogoth ruler, Theoderic the Great, who had been menacing Constantinople, King of Italy, thus motivating him to attack Odoacer. Theoderic invaded Italy in 489 and by August 490 had captured almost the entire peninsula, forcing Odoacer to take refuge in Ravenna. The city surrendered on 5 March 493. Theoderic invited Odoacer to a banquet of reconciliation and promptly killed him by, according to our sources, walking up to him at the banquet table, drawing his sword and cleaving his body in two, from collarbone to waist. And thus perished the man who showed mercy to Romulus.)

Conclusion

These two stories (just two from hundreds of similar events) give a good flavour of this long, beautifully written history, which can only be described as ‘entertaining’ if you find the relentless description of high-level power politics, military strategy, court intrigue and endless battles entertaining.

As it happens, I do – but I can also see how the inexorable saga of conspiracy, war and violent death on almost every page could put a lot of people off.

The Biggest Idea

In the 670s a Muslim fleet under the Caliph Muawiya laid siege to Constantinople and tried for five years to break into the city from the sea. They persisted despite repeated Greek counter-attacks which deployed the secret weapon known as Greek fire (a kind of napalm). After five long years of losses, the Caliph admitted defeat and ordered his fleet home (and the fleet was caught in a storm on the way, and further depleted). At the same time his land forces had been harassed by the so-called Mardaites, freebooting Christian marauders who spread south from Syria to wage a relentless guerrilla war against Muslim forces, as far south as Jerusalem. Demoralised by the combination of these setbacks, in 679 the Caliph accepted defeat and made terms with the Emperor Constantine IV, handing back the Aegean islands he had seized and agreeing to pay the emperor an annual tribute.

Thus, the Byzantine Emperor Constantine IV had halted the Muslim progress into Europe, the first real setback in the hitherto unstoppable spread of Muslim forces. It was a decisive moment, and in reward he received grateful thanks from many former enemies: the Khagan of the Avars, the Slav tribal leaders in the Balkans, the Lombard and Frankish princes of the West.

By holding the line at Constantinople Constantine IV ensured the Muslims would only be able to enter Europe via Spain, forcing them to stretch their lines of communication to breaking point along the whole north coast of Africa, then up across Iberia so that their progress via this route would be halted at the Battle of Poitiers in 732. These far-off and, to most people unknown, events had vast historical significance. As Norwich comments:

Had they captured Constantinople in the seventh century rather than the fifteenth, all Europe – and America – might be Muslim today. (p.325)


Related links

Other early medieval reviews

The Tragedy of the Templars: The Rise and Fall of the Crusader States (1) by Michael Haag (2012)

From its title I expected this book to focus narrowly on the history of the Knights Templars, but it is much more than that.

The Knights Templar

The history of the order can be summarised thus:

The Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, also known as the Order of Solomon’s Temple, the Knights Templar or simply the Templars, were a Catholic military order founded in 1119 after the First Crusade had seized Jerusalem. The order was recognised by the Pope in 1139 and was active until 1312 when it was suppressed by Pope Clement V.

The Templars became a favoured charity throughout Christendom and grew rapidly in membership and power. Templar knights, in their distinctive white mantles with a red cross, were among the most skilled fighting units of the Crusades. Non-combatant members of the order, who formed as much as 90% of the order’s members, managed a large economic infrastructure throughout Christendom, developing innovative financial techniques that were an early form of banking, building its own network of nearly 1,000 commanderies and fortifications across Europe and the Holy Land, and arguably forming the world’s first multinational corporation.

The Templars were closely tied to the Crusades so that when the Holy Land was lost, support for the order faded. Rumours about the Templars’ secret initiation ceremony created distrust, and King Philip IV of France – deeply in debt to the order – took advantage of this distrust to destroy them and erase his debt. In 1307, he had many of the order’s members in France arrested, tortured into giving false confessions, and burned at the stake. It was under pressure from King Philip that Pope Clement V disbanded the order in 1312. (Wikipedia)

From that time to the present day rumours have swirled around the Templars, and I have met conspiracy theorists who think that the tentacles of the transnational organisation they founded persist to the present day, and underlie modern banking/wars/global inequality.

Deep history, revisionist history

So much for the order itself. What is surprising about Haag’s book is the extreme thoroughness with which he presents the deep historical background for the crusades themselves, a history so deep it goes back before the founding of Christianity, and covers the conquests of Alexander the Great (333-323 BC), the rise of the Roman Empire, the fall of Rome to the barbarians, the endurance of the Byzantine empire, the rise of Persian power, and then the eruption of militant Islam into the Middle East in the 630s.

And the reason he goes back to such an early period is because…

Haag presents the entire crusading enterprise in a radically revisionist light.

The politically correct, modern view of the crusades is that they were a racist, orientalist, unjustified, colonial attack by rapacious, cruel and undisciplined European armies, motivated solely by greed and personal aggrandisement, against the peace-loving Muslim world upon whose civilians (and even local Christian populations) they perpetrated grotesque massacres.

By going so very far back into the deep pre-history of the crusades Haag aims to present us with the broadest possible historical context for them, a perspective which then forms the basis of his drastic reinterpretation. Thus he claims that:

1. At the time of the First Crusade the majority of the population of Palestine was Christian – so the crusades weren’t an attack on a majority population of Muslims, but an attempt to rescue the majority population of the area from subjugation by alien oppressors. He quotes a young Islamic scholar Ibn al-Arabi who stayed in Jerusalem from 1093 to 1096 and wrote that, four and a half centuries after the Muslim conquest, Jerusalem was still a predominantly Christian city, as was Palestine generally:

The country is theirs [the Christians’] because it is they who work its soil, nurture its monasteries and maintain its churches. (quoted on page 88)

2. Because it was not the Christians, but the Muslims who were the outsiders and conquerors – erupting into the Levant in the 7th century and imposing a violent, racist, imperialist ideology on the native inhabitants of the region over the next few hundred years.

You can see how that is completely opposite to the self-hating, anti-western narrative most of us are used to. Haag goes back to the start of the Christian era to show that:

  1. The entire Mediterranean basin, from the south of Spain through Italy and Greece on to Anatolia and the Levant, then around Egypt and along the whole coastline of North Africa to Ceuta opposite Spain – this entire region was part of the Roman Empire.
  2. Christianity did not spread via the sword; the exact opposite, for its first three centuries (from Jesus’ execution in 33 AD to the Emperor Constantine decriminalising Christianity in 312) Christianity spread like wildfire around the Mediterranean empire despite the violent and cruel attempts of the Empire to crush it. Christianity was not a religion of the sword but of proselytising and persuasion, which despite all efforts to stamp it out had nonetheless become the de facto religion of the Empire by the mid-350s, and was officially made the state religion by the Emperor Theodosius in the 390s.
  3. With the result that, from around 400 to around 700 AD, the entire Mediterranean basin formed one unified Christian civilisation.

The extent of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Trajan in 117 AD

The invaders were the Muslims, who erupted from Arabia in the 650s and quickly overran Persia and the Levant, then spread along North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar and pushed up through Spain, crossing the Pyrenees and raiding half way-up France until stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732. From about 718 onwards, various Christian princes and armies began the very long, slow process of reconquering Spain for Christianity – the so-called Reconquista – which was only completed in 1492, over 700 years later.

The spread of Islam 622 – 750

Meanwhile, Muslim armies continued pushing eastwards into Persia and on towards India, and north and west through Anatolia towards the embattled centre of the Eastern Roman Empire, Constantinople, which they were only prevented from capturing by a series of heroic stands by succeeding Byzantine emperors.

During the 800s and 900s Muslims also seized the islands of Cyprus, Malta, Sicily (842) and the Balearic Islands, using them and ports along the North African coast as bases for pirate raids on Christian ships and ports. They even attacked the heart of Christendom in the West, the city of Rome, in 846, when Muslim raiders plundered the outskirts, sacking the basilicas of Old St Peter’s and St Paul’s-Outside-the-Walls, and were only prevented from entering the city itself by the sturdiness of the Aurelian Wall. In 849 another Arab raid targeted Rome’s port, Ostia, but was repelled.

This, then, was the broad – and often ignored – context for the crusades. Christian Europe was, in effect, under siege from extremely fierce warriors motivated by an ideology which aimed to suppress or wipe out all traces of Christian civilisation.

Haag goes on to make key points about the new Muslim overlords of the conquered areas:

1. The Muslim rulers generally despised agriculture and manual labour. In all the Mediterranean lands they conquered they saw themselves as a warrior élite whose fierce ideology justified them in subjugating the native inhabitants who were overwhelmingly Christian in culture and belief. The native Christians and Jews (in Palestine, particularly) were subject to punitive taxes, unable to worship openly, forbidden to repair their churches or synagogues and, in some periods, forced to wear specific clothes or even branded to indicate their lowly serf status.

2. The call for Christians in France and Italy – the ‘West’ – to come to the aid of their fellow Christians in the newly-occupied lands were not new to the 11th century (when the crusades began). Throughout the 800s, 900s and 1000s came repeated pleas for help from Spain, from the imperiled emperor at Byzantium, from Christian leaders in Alexandria and Jerusalem –  pleas to be liberated from semi-slavery, from the Muslim desecration of Christian holy places, and the destruction of churches and synagogues. From the suppression of the original Christian culture and belief of the native inhabitants.

Of the five original patriarchal seats of the Roman Empire – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem – by the 1050s Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had fallen into Muslim hands, and – as mentioned – Constantinople was under permanent threat.

In other words, seen from this deep historical perspective, it is not the Christians who were the aggressors. Christian armies didn’t march on Mecca and Medina and occupy them and tear down their holy places and plunder their treasures and force the native inhabitants to wear special markers on their clothes or even to be branded. Christian armies have never attacked the holy places of Islam.

But Muslim armies had by the 800s:

  • conquered Alexandria, the great centre of Christian learning
  • Jerusalem, where Jesus was tried, executed and rose from the dead
  • Antioch, home of the first Gentile Christian church and where the term ‘Christian’ was first used
  • and Constantinople, explicitly founded as the new, Christian capital of the Roman Empire

For Haag, then, the crusades are the precise opposite of a colonial Western attempt to conquer peace-loving Muslims; they were an attempt to recover authentically and originally Christian lands, shrines and holy places which the Muslims had seized and whose majority Christian populations the Muslims were oppressing.

Haag makes further arguments.

Jerusalem not a Muslim holy city By going back into the deep history he shows that Jerusalem was, for centuries, not the Holy City for Muslims which is it now generally seen to be. It is so now because the tradition grew up that the city was the location of the Prophet Muhammad’s Night Journey. Just to be crystal clear, I’ll quote Wikipedia on the subject of the Night Journey.

The Isra and Mi’raj are the two parts of a Night Journey that, according to Islam, the Islamic prophet Muhammad took during a single night around the year 621. Within Islam it signifies both a physical and spiritual journey. The Quran surah al-Isra contains an outline account, while greater detail is found in the hadith collections of the reports, teachings, deeds and sayings of Muhammad. In the accounts of the Isra’, Muhammad is said to have traveled on the back of a winged mule-like white beast, called Buraq, to ‘the farthest mosque’. By tradition this mosque, which came to represent the physical world, was identified as the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem. At the mosque, Muhammad is said to have led the other prophets in prayer. His subsequent ascent into the heavens came to be known as the Mi‘raj. Muhammad’s journey and ascent is marked as one of the most celebrated dates in the Islamic calendar.

But Haag points out that the sura in the Koran which is the basis of this belief in no way mentions Jerusalem, but simply refers to ‘the farthest mosque’ or masjid.

Glory to Him Who carried His beloved by night from the Sacred Masjid to the Furthest Masjid, whose precincts We have blessed, to show him of Our wonders! He it is Who is All-Hearing, All-Seeing![Quran 17:1 (Translated by Tarif Khalidi)]

In Haag’s view, the tradition that Muhammad’s flight took place from Jerusalem was created after Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims. He describes in detail the career of Muslim warrior Abd al-Malik Ibn Marwan, who built the al-Aqsah mosque (which became known as the Dome of the Rock) in Jerusalem in order to promote and aggrandise his achievements, and in deliberate competition with the large Christian Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

But, as Haag highlights, the carved inscription inside the al-Aqsah mosque in which al-Malik claims credit for building it (and also threatens Christians and Jews unless they obey their Muslim overlords) which is also one of the earliest written records of a text from the Koran – this inscription nowhere mentions the Night Flight. Thus:

far from commemorating the Night Journey, the Dome of the Rock seems to have generated the tradition. (p.34)

The point of this section is that Haag is seeking to undermine or question what most historians (and ordinary people) tend to take for granted, which is that Jerusalem was a Muslim Holy City at the time of the Crusades.

Not so, claims Haag. It certainly had been a Jewish and then a Christian Holy City – it had been founded by Jews and was the centre of their world for a thousand years before the Romans arrived, and it was where the Jewish heretic and/or Son of God, Jesus, was crucified and rose again and preached to his disciples before ascending into heaven, which makes it pretty obviously holy to Christians, too.

But for the Muslim rulers it was, at least to begin with, just one among numerous ports and trading centres in the Levant, with no particular strategic significance in itself, but with the notable perk that – as a destination for European pilgrims could be heavily taxed – it was a useful profit centre.

Saladin not a Muslim hero In another reversal of the usual story, Haag points out that Saladin (An-Nasir Salah ad-Din Yusuf ibn Ayyub), the legendary opponent of Richard the Lionheart during the Third Crusade (1189-92), was not an Arab at all, but a Kurd, who spent more time fighting against his fellow Muslims than against Christians.

For years before he finally took Jerusalem, Saladin fought Muslim rivals in Egypt and Syria in his efforts to found a new dynasty, the Ayyubid dynasty. Above all, Saladin aspired to supersede the Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad and his seizure of Jerusalem was, for him, a great propaganda coup.

Thus if Saladin fought the Crusaders it wasn’t as part of a high-minded general Muslim resistance; it was as part of his attempts to gain kudos and respect in the Muslim world in order to reach his deeper goal, the establishment of his own dynasty, achieved through what Haag calls ‘an imperialist war.’ In fact, the core of the Muslim world, the caliphate based in Baghdad, hoped the Christians would defeat Saladin and thus remove this troublesome usurper.

Summary of Haag’s argument

In the section about the Night Flight, in his passages about Saladin, and in numerous other ways throughout this book, Haag sets out to counter the politically correct narrative and to show that:

  • the crusades were not a violent attack on the Muslim Holy City of Jerusalem because it was not in fact a genuine Muslim Holy City, not in the same way that Mecca or Medina were
  • the majority population of the Middle East was not Muslim, but Christian and Jewish
  • that the imperialists in the story were not the Europeans, but the conquering Muslims who (as he vividly shows) at various times massacred the native Christians and Jews (who had both been living there far longer than the Muslims) or imposed all kinds of restrictions on them – forbidding them to practice their religion in public, closing churches and synagogues, mulcting them for money, and making them wear special clothes, or even branding their skin

Which leads up to Haag’s claim that the Crusader States, far from being the oppressive intervention of Christian outsiders, were a rare period when the majority Christian population of Palestine had something approaching local rule, representing local interests.

These are the big, thought-provoking points Haag makes before he even gets to the origins of the Templars.

The vital role of Constantinople

It’s not the main focus of Haag’s book but, covering the Dark and Middle Ages in the East as he does, his narrative can’t help bringing out the way that Constantinople/Byzantium again and again and again proved a bulwark protecting the rest of Europe from the marauding Muslims.

Prompting the reader to reflect that, if Constantine had not happened to win the Battle of the Milvian Bridge in 312 (the battle in which he defeated his main rival to the throne and thus became Emperor of Rome), and if Constantine had not become convinced of the power of Christianity – he would never have decided to create a new capital in the East and commissioned the mighty new city which came to be known as Constantinople. And this city and its outlying territories and warrior population would not have gone on to become Christian Europe’s main bulwark and protection against invading Muslims for eight hundred years (from the 600s until its fall in 1453).

And so, if it had not been for this sequence of fortunate events, might not the whole of Europe – and so its later colonies like America, Australasia and so on – not all now be Muslim?


Related links

Other medieval reviews

The Plantagenets (1) by Dan Jones (2012)

The House of Plantagenet held the English throne from 1154 (with the accession of King Henry II) until 1485 (when Richard III was killed at the Battle of Bosworth).

The origin of ‘plantagenet’

The family name comes from Geoffrey V, Count of Anjou in north-west France (tucked in behind Normandy and Brittany) from 1113 to 1151, and here’s why:

When Henry I of England’s only son and heir, William Aetheling, drowned in the White Ship disaster of 1120, Henry took a second wife, Adeliza, in the hope of having another son, but their marriage was childless. So Henry named his daughter, Matilda, born in 1102, as his heir and called the nobles of England together to vow to accept her as monarch after his death. All he had to do now was marry her off to another royal family. Henry received various offers for Matilda’s hand and eventually chose the 15-year-old Geoffrey of Anjou, son of Fulk V, count of Anjou – for the good reason that the county of Anjou lay to the south of Henry’s kingdom of Normandy, so this alliance would secure his southern border.

Now according to legend, young Geoffrey of Anjou was not only a keen rider and fierce warrior but liked to sport a sprig of yellow broom in his hair. The Latin for broom is Planta Genista – hence the nickname Plantagenet. (In actual fact, the family didn’t start using this as a family name until several centuries after his death, but history now refers to the entire line as ‘the Plantagenets’ and ‘the Plantagenets’ they will forever remain.)

Anyway, when Henry I of England died in 1135, his daughter Matilda theoretically became Queen, a title everyone was uncomfortable with, so she took the title ‘Lady of England’. But such quibbles were moot because her father’s sister’s son, Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois, hastened to England to lay claim to the throne himself. Although his claim was more remote than Matilda’s, he had one big advantage – he was a man.

On this basis, Stephen secured the loyalty of many of the more conservative nobles. As Jones points out, the law of primogeniture i.e. automatic succession of the first-born child of a monarch, was, during this period, only taken as a guideline. In practice, each new king needed the support of a majority of the nobles in order to secure the throne. And this Stephen managed to secure, helped by influential relatives, notably his younger son, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester.

But not all of the nobles supported Stephen, some cleaved to Henry’s original wish that Matilda succeed – and so England fell into a nineteen-year period of anarchy and civil war, fought between the brutal mercenaries of Queen Matilda and the equally brutal mercenaries of King Stephen.

And so begins our story.

Jones’s book

Dan Jones has written a rip-roaring, boys-own-adventure version of the history of the Plantagenet kings (and queens) between 1154 (when King Henry II came to power) and 1399, when Richard II was overthrown by Henry Bolingbroke, who thus became King Henry IV of England.

The Plantagenet dynasty continued for another 85 years after Richard’s overthrow, up till the day when King Richard III was cut down at the Battle of Bosworth Field and was succeeded by a new family, the Tudors; but Jones brings his account to an end at 1400, partly for thematic reasons, but mostly because of size – this paperbook book is already a hefty 601 pages long, another 85 years-worth would have made it too big and heavy to hold easily.

But fear not, medieval history fans, Jones has more recently published the sequel – Plantagenets II you might call it – or, as it’s actually titled, The Hollow Crown: The Wars of the Roses and the Rise of the Tudors. For although Henry V, Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard II are all theoretically Plantagenets, the 15th century has a feel of its own, dominated by the prolonged civil war between two branches of the Plantagenet line which came to be known as the Yorkists and the Lancastrians.

You know how conventional history normally includes surveys of society, analysis of social structure, a look at the changing economy, technology and commerce, developments in law and governance, with sections thrown in about the arts, poetry, painting and architecture. Well, none of that features in this big book. It’s all been chucked out to make The Plantagenets read almost like a novel, with Jones concentrating exclusively on the triumphs and reversals experienced by the strong central characters, the successive kings and their immediate families – scheming, strategising, involved in endless fighting, marrying off members of the family, making alliances, breaking alliances, raising armies of mercenaries and marching off to war. The result is ridiculously readable.

Adding to the popular feel, the book is divided into seven sections with romantic titles like ‘Age of Shipwreck’, ‘Age of Empire’, ‘Age of Opposition’ and so on. And these sections are then broken up into surprisingly numerous chapters, 85 of them to be precise.

Given that the seven section headings each require a title page and a blank page (i.e. 14 pages with no text), this means that the chapters are an average of 601 – 14 = 587 / 85 = 6.9 pages long. In other words the chapters are short, focused and punchy, and Jones likes to end them on a cliff-hanger:

It would be here, however, that all his decades of triumph would dissolve, finally, into heartbreak. (p.99) [setting up the next chapter which describes the war which eclipsed the end of Henry II’s reign]

Yet for every month he spent on his crusade, problems loomed larger and larger for the Plantagenet empire back at home. (p.123) [describing the mounting problems facing Richard I]

All he could do was sit behind his ever-receding lines and hope for a miracle. None would be forthcoming. (p.165) [King John loses Normandy to the French]

The book often has a soap-opera-ish tone but then many of the actual events are barely believable, and the whole story presents a vast panorama of lying, treachery and blood-curdling violence on an epic scale.

This is a hugely enjoyable, racy, pacy page-turner of a popular history.

A war of all against all

It is fairly common knowledge that the Middle Ages were warlike, but it’s still breath-taking to read quite how much it consisted of back-to-back fighting. With the spring of each year came the return of the ‘campaigning season’ and off they’d go, pretty much every leader of every country, duchy, princedom, earldom and so on – keen to gain ‘honour’ and loot by attacking their nearest neighbour and reneging on every deal they’d made the previous year.

And it wasn’t just wars between ‘nations’ – after all, nations in our sense barely existed – the fighting is between everybody. Henry II was reckoned a great king in his day because he held together an ’empire’ which stretched from the border with warlike Scotland, across all of troublesome England, down through the duchy of Normandy (which he owned as a descendant of William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy), along with Anjou which he’d inherited, into Brittany which he’d conquered, and across the vast area of south-west France known as Aquitaine, which came into his possession after he married its queen, Eleanor, in 1152.

It comes as no surprise that holding on to all this land involved the king in non-stop conflict against the Scots in the north, against the King of France in the East, and in putting down a ceaseless stream of rebellions everywhere else, especially in the territories scattered on the periphery of his ’empire’ (namely in Poitou, Maine and Brittany).

So much is to be expected. What was a revelation to me was the extent to which Henry II ended up fighting his own family. He had four sons – William, Geoffrey, Richard and John. He parcelled out bits of the empire to each of them but they were never satisfied, his eldest son William in particular, champing at the bit for more land and more power, and in 1173 this led to the Great Revolt when Henry’s eldest three sons united to rise against him, supported by their mother Eleanor (!) and numerous rebel counts.

It took Henry 18 months of unremitting fighting and canny diplomacy to put the rebellion down. He then showed astonishing clemency in forgiving his sons and re-allotting them their various dukedoms (Richard retained Aquitaine, Geoffrey Normandy, and so on). After all, he needed them – they were his heirs.

(The example of Henry’s wise forbearance is revisited later in the book, when bad King John and weak King Henry III are seen vindictively punishing those who opposed them – and thus creating enemies for life, not only in the enemies themselves, but among their wider families and children; in this, as in so much else, Henry II showed a tough wisdom.)

But if Henry forgave his sons, not so his wife and rebel queen, Eleanor, who he locked away in Shrewsbury castle for her pains (and to guarantee her sons’ good behaviour). Despite his forgiveness, the three unfilial boys carried on making alliances with the king of France, with rebellious counts, with anyone they could get to listen to them, and carried on non-stop plotting against their father and against each other.

At this high level of courtly politics the unscrupulous politicking, back-stabbing, levying of mercenaries and fighting small battles to put down rebels, uprisings, invasions and attacks is constant.

If there’s one conclusion from this long, violent, treacherous and cynical record it is what a terrible system of government ‘kingship’ was, when the throne so often ended up in the hands of women who no-one would follow, of psychopaths who suspected everyone of betraying them, of children who were easily manipulated by cabals and cliques, or of men who were simply not up to its almost impossibly demanding requirements.

N.B.

Historians are divided in their use of the terms ‘Plantagenet’ and ‘Angevin’ in regards to Henry II and his sons. Some make Henry II the first Plantagenet King of England while others refer to Henry, Richard and John as the Angevin dynasty, and consider Henry III to be the first Plantagenet ruler.


Timeline

King Henry I (1100-1135)

Youngest son of William the Conqueror, King of England and Duke of Normandy, Henry I groomed his own son William Aetheling for the succession, having him named co-ruler when he turned 16, as was the custom.

The drowning of this son in the White Ship tragedy (the Aetheling and a group of courtiers were aboard ship in Barfleur harbour drinking late into the night, at which point the captain ill-advisedly set off in pitch darkness and crashed into some rocks) left the succession to the throne vacant.

Henry’s first wife was by now dead so he quickly remarried the nubile young Adeliza of Louvain, in the hope of having another son, but their marriage was childless. So as a last resort, Henry declared his daughter, Empress Matilda, his heir. She had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor when just eight, but he had died and she had returned to England. Now Henry quickly remarried her to Geoffrey of Anjou who was just fifteen, in 1128. Their marriage was difficult but eventually Matilda did her duty and gave birth to two sons, Henry (who would become Henry II) and Geoffrey, in 1133 and 1134. Then, after a day hunting, Henry fell ill after – according to legend – consuming a surfeit of lampreys, and died on 1 December 1135.

The Anarchy (1135-54)

After Henry I died without a male heir, his daughter Matilda claimed the throne but was beaten to it by her cousin, Stephen, who ruled the centre of England as King Stephen, while Matilda managed to establish a base in the West Country, with regular incursions by her allies in the East and North. Both sides hired mercenaries, mainly Flemish. Over the next 19 years hardly a part of England wasn’t ravished and burnt by these hated foreigners. England became a wasteland.

King Henry II (1154-1189)

Cut to a generation later and young Henry – Henry FitzEmpress – is turning twenty. He had shrewdly married Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152 and plots to overthrow the ageing king Stephen. The major obstacle to Henry’s plan to take back the throne of England was Stephen’s own son, Eustace. But Eustace did everyone a favour by dying in 1153, just as Henry mounted an invasion of south England backed by Norman forces. Now lacking an heir, and faced with Henry and Matilda’s sizeable forces, King Stephen made a deal, declaring Henry his heir – and then very conveniently died the next year (1154).

Thus Henry smoothly succeeded to the throne and became King of England, Duke of Normandy, Duke of Aquitaine, Count of Anjou, Count of Maine, Count of Nantes and sometime Lord of Ireland.

21 when he came to the throne, Henry was clever, resourceful and aggressive, and faced almost continual warfare from the King of France and neighbouring counts and dukes for the next 37 years. He not only held his empire together but expanded it south towards Toulouse, while seizing Eastern Wales and East Ireland, repeatedly defeating his enemies, while also supervising reform of the tax and legal systems, especially in England.

Maybe the most striking thing about these kings is the way the way England continued to be only one of their realms. English historians see them as English kings concerned with English law etc, but Henry and his sons Richard and John were as much or more concerned with courtly politics, appointments, the laws and customs and even the smallest castles and lords in Normandy, Brittany, Poitou, Maine, Anjou or Aquitaine as well.

The simplest proof of this is that when Henry II, caught up in his last campaign (against his eldest son Richard who had rebelled against him, in alliance with the king of France), realised that he was dying, he headed not north to England, but south into his home domain of Anjou, dying at Chinon Castle and asking to be buried at nearby Fontevraud Abbey. This abbey is also the last resting place of his queen Eleanor, and their son Richard I. It’s only by bending the truth that we call these early Plantagenet rulers ‘English’. They were something else, really, for which no modern word quite exists.

Henry had five legitimate sons with Eleanor of Aquitaine:

  • William (b.1153) who died aged 3.
  • Henry the Young King (b.1155) who died aged 28 in the midst of fighting against his father and brother Richard.
  • Richard (b.1157) who became king in the middle of waging a military campaign against his own father (one chronicler said that his father’s corpse, laid out in the chapel at Chinon, began to bleed from the nose when Richard approached it – and who would blame it!).
  • Geoffrey (b.1158) the sneaky devious one who was involved in countless plots against his father and brothers but died in a tournament in 1186, aged 27.
  • John (b.1166) who schemed relentlessly during his brother Richard’s absence in the Holy Land – while Richard was away John handed over much of the Angevin empire to King Philip Augustus of France in return for being allowed to rule it, and then plotted with Philip to try and prolong Richard’s captivity in Germany.

King Richard I (1189-99)

It is interesting to learn that Richard was always closest to his mother and, once given her Duchy of Aquitaine by Henry, refused to be budged from it despite Henry II’s various complicated plans to move his sons around the empire.

When the Saracen leader Saladin seized Jerusalem in 1187 all Europe was shocked and Henry II negotiated a peace with his enemy King Philip of France in order to ‘take the Cross’ and go crusading to the Holy Land. But Henry died in the midst of the rebellion against him led by Richard and so the onus to take up the cross fell on the latter, a doughty warrior who, of course, was to go on and earn the sobriquet Cœur de Lion or Lionheart.

Just as for Henry, England was only one of Richard’s many realms and one he wasn’t particularly attached to, always preferring his ancestral homeland of Aquitaine. Richard mainly regarded England as a cash cow and mulcted it mercilessly in order to fund and provision a huge fleet. (Richard is widely quoted as having said that if he could have sold London to raise funds, he would have.)

Richard rampaged across the Mediterranean, seizing Cyprus for his empire and alienating other European notables engaged on crusade. Once actually in the Holy Land he won some famous campaigns, including recapturing the port of Acre, but he never got near recapturing Jerusalem and he alienated many important European leaders with his braggadochio.

In his absence the condition of his empire decayed. King Philip of France (who had returned early from the crusade, mostly in anger at Richard’s bossiness) now attacked Normandy, and England was brought to the brink of civil war between the forces of the chamberlain Richard had appointed, William Longchamps, and rebel nobles allied with his slimy brother, John.

The crusade dragged on but a) Richard was physically ill for most of it b) power was even between the Crusaders and Saladin, leading to a costly stalemate. Eventually, Richard signed a peace pact with Saladin allowing for Christian pilgrims to visit Jerusalem in peace, and set sail, vowing to return.

It was only on the return journey that Richard discovered just how many enemies he had made, and just how blackened his reputation had become. Travelling overland from the Adriatic, Richard was caught and imprisoned by Leopold of Austria who he had insulted at the siege of Acre (by refusing to let him enter the captured city on equal terms with himself and Philip of France, and by ordering Leopold’s standard inside the captured city to be torn down).

Leopold sold him on to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI, who insisted that England pay him a vast ransom for Richard’s release. Despite lobbying from the King of France and his brother John to keep him imprisoned, loyal nobles in England eventually raised the ransom and paid the Emperor who released Richard. He had been in prison from Christmas 1192 to February 1194.

Back in England, Richard set about raising more money in order to put this realm back on a sound footing, before setting off to Normandy to reclaim the territory the King of France had seized in his absence.

It was in the south, in Aquitaine, that Richard met his death, unexpectedly shot from the battlements of the castle of Châlus-Chabrola, as Richard suppressed a relatively minor revolt by Viscount Aimar V of Limoges. Richard was hit in the shoulder by a stray crossbow bolt. Trying to pull it out, he snapped off the exposed shaft. The surgeon who removed the metal arrowhead hacked deep into the flesh and muscle to get at it. The wound became infected and then gangrenous. Richard died in his mother’s arms, in agony. He was 41.

Richard was buried in the same church – Fontevraud Abbey near Chinon – as the father he had spent so much energy rebelling against.

King John (1199-1216)

‘England’s most callous and remorseless king’ (p.216)

Richard had married Berengaria of Navarre in 1191 during his sojourn in Cyprus. Despite eight years of marriage they failed to produce any children. Richard’s death without an heir was the trigger for the dissolution of the empire his father had so laboriously built up and defended.

Towards the end of his life Richard had nominated his nephew, Arthur of Brittany, the son of his late brother Geoffrey, to be his heir and when Richard died, Brittany declared for Arthur. But England declared for John, while Aquitaine was left to fight for.

John’s lack of political nous, his ability to rub everyone up the wrong way, his reputation for treachery, and his uselessness as a general all contrast sharply with the ascendant French king, Philip II, who had come to the throne in 1180 as a 15-year-old. (John born in 1166 was 33 when he came to the throne; Philip, born in 1165, was one year older and infinitely more experienced and canny.)

As English people we tend to focus on the failures of bad King John, but Philip was the star of the age, not only going on Crusade, but fighting off a north European alliance at the Battle of Bouvines which was a defining moment in the unification of France, winning Normandy and Brittany and most of Aquitaine from John, as well as extending French possessions further to the south-east.

Philip built a great wall around Paris, re-organized the French government, reined in his nobles and brought financial stability to his country. All in all he transformed France from a small feudal state into the most prosperous and powerful country in Europe and no wonder contemporaries came to call him Philip Augustus during his lifetime.

Jones chronicles John’s loss of almost all the continental parts of the Angevin empire. For the first time, a Plantagenet king really was forced back into these islands and could now truly be described as an English king. The surprise of this section of the book is how firm and effective John’s rule actually was in Britain, where he extended Plantagenet rule over all of Wales and most of Ireland.

John was fascinated by law and instituted circuits of judges, himself taking a close interest in even trivial law cases. In the height of his reign from 1207 to 1212 he devised countless new ways to extract money from his nobles, as well as turning on the small but wealthy Jewish community in England with terrifying rapacity, torturing wealthy Jews till they handed over more or less all their belongings to him.

With these devices John became the richest of the Plantagenet kings, and yet the loss of Normandy and his unscrupulous money-raising turned the aristocracy against him. A series of revolts in the 1210s led to lengthy negotiations over a peace treaty. This expanded – as medieval texts had a way of doing – into a complete set of rules by which king and nobles should abide by and was given the name of the Big Charter, or Magna Carta, signed at Runnymede in East Berkshire in June 1215.

It was news to me that the Magna Carta was:

  • less a bill of rights than a peace treaty between king and rebels
  • that it failed – within months it was renounced by the king and his main supporter, the pope, and open rebellion broke out again

John died of dysentery while campaigning against rebel nobles in eastern England during late 1216. (‘Campaigning’ means pillaging, looting and burning everything he could get his hands on.)

King Henry III (1216-1272)

‘Born without a father, abandoned by his mother, never allowed to grow up watching another king rule, all his life dominated by others: Henry was from the start a poor candidate for the Crown…’ (p.266)

Henry III had such a long reign because he came to the throne aged just 9. He was the oldest son of King John and his wife Isabella of Angoulême. As we’ve seen his father died in the middle of what became known as the Barons Wars. The rebel barons had allied with the crown of France and the French had invaded, led by the king’s son, the future Louis VIII. There followed a year and a half of complex manoeuvres, sieges and battles, notably the second Battle of Lincoln (p.222) where an army led by the 70-year-old William Marshall managed to defeat pro-French barons, accompanied by several sea victories against the French – before Louis finally gave up and signed the Treaty of Lambeth relinquishing French claims to the English crown.

Henry was humourless and devout and became increasingly obsessed with the last Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor. He was impressionable and remained under the influence of older guardians till well into his 30s, allowing them to fleece the country in the usual way, despite the limits set by the Big Charter. First Hubert de Burgh and then Peter des Roches awarded law cases in their own favour, seized land, diverted royal revenue to their own family etc, prompting a number of uprisings and small-scale civil wars.

During his reign the Big Charter, along with the Law of the Forest, were reissued and widely distributed. Generally ignored under John, it was only during Henry III’s reign that they began to take hold as a list of rights and duties which a king had to obey.

Such was Henry’s misrule that a consistent body of barons now began to meet 3 or 4 times a year to consult on Henry’s actions. One of them is referred to as a ‘parliament’ in a document of Henry’s, in 1236 (p.251). And this is how the English Parliament began, sitting in judgement on an incompetent king. As early as 1233 there was talk of deposing the king.

Simon de Montfort came from France and was the latest in a line of strong father figures that Henry seemed to need. Henry gave his sister, Eleanor, to Simon in marriage in 1238, shocking commentators; usually royal women were kept as bargaining chips to marry off to foreign kings.

As the 1240s rumbled along de Montfort and Henry fell out. After a mad project to conquer Sicily barely got off the ground, though incurring huge debts in the mid-1250s, the barons, once again, rebelled against an incompetent Plantagenet king. Summoned to Oxford to give money and support to Henry’s scheme, the barons refused to a man, and instead imposed the Provisions of Oxford, an extension of the Big Charter rights, with the insistence that England be ruled by a council of 25 barons elected by their peers, and a new innovation – that justice in the shires should be administered by four knights who would go on circuit to review law cases (p.261).

These were followed by the Provisions of Westminster in 1259 which lay down far-reaching reforms in administration. Henry had become ‘a dithering irrelevance’ in his own land (p.263).

Having read summaries of the reign of King John and Henry III, what these really amount to was the glaring admission that rule by one man was a terrible, terrible system, which seemed to have embedded in its DNA institutional corruption, favouritism, unfair and arbitrary taxation, brutal torture and execution on trumped up charges, personal vendettas, and the pursuit of mad, exorbitantly expensive foreign wars.

Alas it would take another 400 years of personal rule by various incompetent kings before Oliver Cromwell’s regime took opposition to its logical conclusion and cut off the head of yet another incompetent, spendthrift ruler, thus chastening and limiting all his successors.

The only successful campaign of Henry’s rule was carried out by the Earl of Salisbury, who secured the land around Gascony in south-west France, thus establishing a 200-year-long commercial connection with this important wine-growing region. But for the rest, Henry was forced, under the Treaty of Paris, to go to France and kneel before the French King Louis IX, and do him formal obeisance, and renounce his claims to Normandy, Maine, Anjou and Poitou.

If there’s a dramatic plotline to his long reign it’s in the relationship with Simon de Montfort. Born in France, Montfort inherited the earldom of Leicester and arrived in the English court in the 1230s. His fierce Catholic faith and manly confidence (he had already been on several crusades) dazzled the impressionable Henry who, as mentioned, married him to his sister Eleanor. But relations slowly became strained, as de Montfort presumed on their friendship to borrow money against the king’s name in 1239. de Montfort was also squeezed out by the arrival of the de Lusignan clan in the 1240s who also began to manipulate the impressionable king.

A long line of disagreements – over Henry’s mismanagement of a campaign in Poitou, and then over de Montfort’s heavy-handed administration of Gascony – led to de Montfort becoming the leader of the rebel barons in the later 1240s and into the confrontations of the 1250s, where he led the deputation which forced Henry to accept the Provisions of Oxford.

A complicated sequence of failed negotiations led up to the Battle of Lewes on 14 May 1264, the first set piece battle on English soil in a century. The rebels won, capturing the King, Lord Edward, and Richard of Cornwall, Henry’s brother and the titular King of Germany. This led to the Great Parliament of 1265 (also known as Montfort’s Parliament). For the first time representatives were invited from all the counties and selected boroughs of England. Voting rights were discussed. All this is the seeds of modern democracy.

But Henry’s son, Prince Edward, escaped from captivity and rallied royalist nobles as well as Welsh rebels and this led to a pitched battle with de Montfort’s forces at Evesham, which was a decisive royalist victory. Jones describes how a 12-man hit squad was commissioned to roam the battlefield, ignoring everything, with the sole task of finding and killing de Montfort. They succeeded. His body was mutilated, his testicles, hands and feet cut off. To later generations he became a sort of patron saint of representative government. Today De Montfort University in Leicester is named after him.

Henry III was once again titular king but he was a broken, dithering old man. The real power in the land during his last few years was his forceful and energetic son, Edward (named after Henry’s icon, Edward the Confessor) who turned out to be a very different character from his saintly Saxon namesake.

[To be continued…]


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Other medieval reviews

The Renaissance Nude @ the Royal Academy

In this review I intend to make three points:

  1. This exhibition is without doubt a spectacular collection of outstanding Renaissance treasures, gathered into fascinating groups or ‘themes’ which shed light on the role of the body in Renaissance iconography.
  2. It confirms my by-now firm conviction/view/prejudice that I don’t really like Italian Renaissance art but adore North European late-medieval/Renaissance art.
  3. Despite being spectacular and full of treasures, the exhibition left me with a few questions about the underlying premise of the show.

1. Spectacular Renaissance treasures

The exhibition brings together works by many of the great masters of the Renaissance, including Titian, Raphael, Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello, Dürer and Cranach. The small sketch by Raphael of the three graces is seraphic, the two pages of anatomical drawings by Leonardo da Vinci are awe-inspiring and the Venus Rising by Titian is wonderful.

Venus Rising from the Sea (‘Venus Anadyomene’) by Titian (1520) National Galleries of Scotland

However, it isn’t just a parade of greatest hits. The exhibition includes works by lots of less-famous figures such as Perugino, Pollaiuolo and Gossaert, and lots of minor works or works which aren’t striving for greatness.

Indeed, there are quite a few rather puzzling or perplexing prints and images, like Dürer’s woodcut of naked men in a bath-house, or a battle scene from the ancient world where all the axe-wielding men are naked. The exhibition is more notable for its diversity and range than its concentration on well-known names.

It is far from all being paintings. There are also large numbers of prints and engravings, alongside drawings and sketches, statuettes in metal and wood, some bronze reliefs, and fifteen or so invaluable books of the time, propped open to display beautiful medieval-style, hand-painted illustrations.

There’s even a case of four or five large circular plaques from the period, showing the patron’s face on one side and nude allegorical figures on the other, some 90 works in total.

In other words, this exhibition brings together works across the widest possible range of media, and by a very wide range of artists, famous and not so famous, in order to ponder the role of the naked human body in Renaissance art, showing how the depiction of the nude in art and sculpture and book illustration changed over the period from 1400 to 1530.

A Faun and His Family with a Slain Lion (c. 1526) by Lucas Cranach the Elder. The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

It does this by dividing the works into five themes.

1. The nude and Christian art

Medieval art had been concerned almost exclusively with depicting either secular powers (kings and emperors) or religious themes. For the most part the human figure was covered up. So a central theme in the exhibition is the increasing ‘boldness’ or confidence with which artists handled subjects involving nudity, and the increasing technical knowledge of the human body which gave their images ever-greater anatomical accuracy.

You can trace this growing confidence in successive depictions of key Christian stories such as the countless depictions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, the classic locus of nudity in the whole Christian canon.

This version by Dürer seems more motivated by the artist showing off his anatomical knowledge and skill at engraving (and learnèd symbolism) than religious piety.

Adam and Eve by Albrecht Dürer (1504) Los Angeles County Museum of Art

Of course the Christian Church still ruled the hearts and imaginations of all Europeans and the Pope’s blessing or anathema was still something to be feared. From top to bottom, society was dominated by Christian ideology and iconography. And so alongside Adam and Eve there are quite a few versions of subjects like Christ being scourged or crucified and a number of Last Judgments with naked souls being cast down into Hell.

In fact for me, arguably the two most powerful pictures in the show were the images of damned souls being stuffed down into Hell by evil demons, by the two Northern painters Hans Memling and Dirk Bouts.

The fall of the damned by Dirk Bouts (1450)

In these images the way the men and women have been stripped naked is an important part of their message. It symbolises the way they have been stripped of their dignity and identity. They have become so much human meat, prey for demons to eat and torture. Paintings like this always remind me of descriptions of the Holocaust where the Jews were ordered to strip naked, men and women and children, in front of each other, and the pitiful descriptions I’ve read of women, in particular, trying to hang on to their last shreds of dignity before being murdered like animals. The stripping was an important part of the psychological degradation which reduced humans to cowed animals which were then easier to shepherd into the gas chambers.

2. Humanism and the expansion of secular themes

Humanism refers to the growth of interest in the legacy of the classical world which began to develop during the 1400s and was an established intellectual school by the early 1500s.

Initially it focused on the rediscovered writings of the Greeks and especially the Romans, promoting a better understanding of the Latin language and appreciation of its best authors, notably the lawyer and philosopher Cicero.

But study of these ancient texts went hand in hand with a better understanding of classical mythology. In the 1500s advanced thinkers tried to infuse the ancient myths with deeper levels of allegory, or tried to reconcile them with Christian themes.

Whatever the literary motivation, the movement meant that, in visual terms, the ancient gods and goddesses and their numerous myths and adventures became increasingly respectable, even fashionable, subjects for the evermore skilful artists of the Renaissance.

In addition, classical figures also became a kind of gateway for previously unexpressed human moods and feelings. For some painters a classical subject allowed the expression of pure sensual pleasure, as in the Titian Venus above.

In this wonderful drawing by Raphael something more is going on – there is certainly a wonderful anatomical accuracy, but the drawing is also expressing something beyond words about grace and gracefulness, about eloquence of gesture and poise and posture, something quite wonderful. This little drawing is among the most ravishing works int he exhibition.

The Three Graces by Raphael (1517-18) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2019

The replacement of sex by desire in artspeak

About half way round I began to notice that the words ‘sex’ or ‘sexy’ don’t appear anywhere in the wall labels or on the audioguide, whereas some of the paintings are obviously and deliberately sexy and sensual, blatant pretexts for the artists to show off their skill at conveying the contours and light and shade of bare human bodies, often deliberately designed to arouse and titillate.

However, blunt Anglo-Saxon words like ‘sex’ are, apparently, banned. If you are an art scholar you are only allowed to use the word ‘desire’ (and preferably ‘same-sex desire’ because that is the only permissible form of male sexuality, since it is not targeted at women but at other men).

Straightforward male sexual attraction to women is, nowadays, the love that dare not speak its name. Any way in which a man can look at a woman is, certainly in modern art scholarship, immediately brought under the concept of the wicked, controlling, shaping, exploitative, objectifying, judgmental and misogynistic Male Gaze.

The English language possesses many, many other words to describe these feelings and activities, but absolutely all of them are banned from the chaste world of artspeak. Stick to using the bland, empty, all-purpose term ‘desire’ and you can’t go wrong. Here’s an example:

Within humanist culture, much art created around the nudes was erotic, exploring themes of seduction, the world of dreams, the power of women and same-sex desire.

‘The power of women and same-sex desire.’ These are the values promoted by art institutions and art scholars in most of the art exhibitions I go to, and the values which the narrow world of contemporary art scholarship projects back onto all of history.

I don’t even really disagree with them as ideas, it’s just the sheer tedium of having them crop up in every art exhibition, and above all, the way the repetitive use of a handful of ideas and buzzwords limits and closes down analysis and discussion and enjoyment.

Saint Sebastian

A good example of the unashamed sensuality of Renaissance art is the image the Academy has chosen for the posters of the exhibition, Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino.

Saint Sebastian by Agnolo Bronzino (1533) Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid

Saint Sebastian was an early Christian convert who was killed by Roman soldiers by being shot to death with arrows (around the year 288 AD, according to legend). There are four or five depictions of the arrow-peppered saint in the exhibition and what comes over powerfully in all of them is the way that the supposedly tortured saint is obviously experiencing absolutely no pain whatsoever. In fact, in the hands of Renaissance painters, the subject has become an excuse to display their prowess at painting (or sculpting) beautiful, lean, muscular, handsome young men often seeming to undergo a sexual rather than religious experience.

Bronzino’s painting takes this tendency – the conversion of brutal medieval legend into Renaissance sensuality – to an extreme. The audioguide points out that the unusually large ears and distinctive big nose of this young man suggest it is a portrait from life, maybe the gay lover of Bronzino’s patron?

Whatever the truth behind this speculation, this painting is quite clearly nothing at all to do with undergoing physical agony, torture and dying in excruciating pain in order to be closer to the suffering of our saviour. Does this young man look in agony? Or more as if he’s waiting for a kiss from his rich lover? It is easy to overlook the arrow embedded deep in his midriff in favour of his hairless sexy chest, his big doe eyes, and the show-off depiction oft he red cloak mantled around him.

It is a stunningly big, impactful, wonderfully executed image – but it also epitomises a kind of slick superficiality which, in my opinion, is typical of Italian Renaissance art – a point I’ll come back to later.

3. Artistic theory and practice

This is a scholarly room which explains how Renaissance artists began to submit the human body to unprecedented levels of systematic study and also to copy the best of classical precedents. We see examples of the sketches and sculptures made as copies of newly discovered classical statues, such as the Laocoön and the Boy with a Thorn in his Foot.

At the start of the period covered (1400) life drawing was unheard of, which is why so much medieval art is stylised and distorted and often rather ‘childish’. By the end of the period (1530) drawing from life models was standard practice in all reputable artist’s workshops.

It is in this section of the exhibition that we see the enormous guide to anatomy, the Vier Bucher von menschlicher Proportion of Albrecht Dürer, in a display case, and two examples of Leonardo da Vinci’s extraordinarily detailed drawings of human anatomy, in this case of a man’s shoulder.

The Anatomy of the Shoulder and Neck by Leonardo da Vinci (1510-11) Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II

It was a fleeting idea, but it crossed my mind that there is something rather steampunk about Leonardo’s drawings, in which intimately depicted human figures are almost turning into machines.

4. Beyond the ideal nude

This small section examines images of the human body being tortured and humiliated.

The founding motif in this subject is of Christ being stripped, whipped, scourged, stoned, crucified and stabbed with the spear, and there is an exquisite little book illustration in the Gothic style of a Christ naked except for a loincloth tied to the pillar and being scourged. Not the blood streaming from his multiple wounds, but the detail on the faces and clothes and the pillar and architecture are all enchanting.

The Flagellation by Simon Bening (1525–1530)

This room is dominated by a vast depiction of the legend of the ten thousand martyrs who were executed on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian by being spitted and transfixed on thorn bushes. The odd thing about images like this is the apparent indifference of those being skewered and tortured, but there is no denying the sadism of the torturers and, by implication, the dark urges being invoked in the viewer.

Here again, I felt that modern art scholarship, fixated as it is on sex and, in particular, determined to focus on women’s sexuality and/or the ‘safe’ subject of ‘same-sex desire’, struggles to find the words to describe human sadism, brutality and cruelty.

I had, by this stage, read quite a few wall labels referring to the subtle sensuality and transgressive eroticism and same-sex desire of this or that painting or print. But none of them dwelt on what, for me, is just as important a subject, and one much in evidence in these paintings – the human wish to control, conquer, subjugate, dominate, punish, and hurt.

Reflecting the civilised lives lived by art scholars, wafting from gallery to library, immersed in images of erotic allure and same-sex desire, art criticism tends to underestimate the darker emotions, feelings and drives. The universal artspeak use of the bluestocking word ‘desire’ instead of the cruder words which the rest of the English-speaking word uses is a small token of this sheltered worldview.

These thoughts were prompted by the scenes of hell, the numerous battle scenes and the images of martyrdoms and the whippings which I had, by this stage, seen and were crystallised by this image, which prompted me to disagree with the curators’ interpretations

This is Hans Baldung Grien’s etching of a Witches’ Sabbath. The curators claim the image represents ‘male anxiety’ at the thought of ‘powerful women’ and ‘presents women as demonic nudes, rather than as beauties to be desired’. (Note the way the buzz word ‘desire’ being shoehorned even into this unlikely context.)

Witches’ Sabbath by Hans Baldung Grien (1510)

This is, in my opinion, to be so bedazzled by feminist ideology as to misread this image in at least two ways.

Number one, is it really the women’s nudity which is so scary? No. It is the thought that these are humans who have wilfully given themselves to the power of the devil, to Satan, and become his agents on earth to wreak havoc, blighting harvests, infecting the healthy, creating chaos and suffering. That was a terrifying thought to folk living in a pre-scientific age where everyone was utterly dependent on a good harvest to survive. The nudity is simply a symbol of the witches’ rejection of conventional notions of being respectably clothed.

Number two, the nudity is surely the least interesting thing in the entire image. In fact the print is packed full of arcane and fascinating symbolism: what are the two great streams issuing up the left-hand side, and ending in what looks like surf? Are they some kind of wind, or actual waves of water? And why does the lower one contain objects in it? Are they both issuing from the pot between the woman’s legs and does the pot bear writing of some sort around it, and if so, in what language and what does it say? Why is the woman riding the flying ram backwards and what is in the pot held in the tines of her long wooden fork? What is lying on the plate held up in the long scraggy arm of the hag in the middle? Is is just a cooked animal or something worse? Are those animal bones and remains at the witches’ feet? What is the pot at the left doing and what are hanging over another wooden hoe or fork, are they sausages or something more sinister?

Feminist art criticism, by always and immediately reaching for a handful of tried-and-trusted clichés about ‘male anxiety’ or ‘the male gaze’ or ‘the patriarchy’ or ‘toxic masculinity’, all-too-often fails to observe the actual detail, the inexplicable, puzzling and marvellous and weird which is right in front of their eyes. Sometimes it has very interesting things to say, but often it is a way of closing down investigation and analysis in a welter of tired clichés, rather than furthering it.

5. Personalising the nude

During the Renaissance individual patrons of the arts became more rich and more powerful. Whereas once it had only been Charlemagne and the Pope who could commission big buildings or works of art, by 1500 Italy was littered with princes and dukes and cardinals all of whom wanted a whole range of works to show off how fabulous, rich, sophisticated and pious they were, from palaces and churches, to altarpieces and mausoleums, from frescos and murals to coins and plaques, from looming statues to imposing busts and big allegorical paintings and small, family portraits.

Thus it is that this final room includes a selection of works showing the relationship between patrons and artists, especially when it came to commissioning works featuring nudity.

The most unexpected pieces were a set of commemorative medals featuring the patron’s face on one side and an allegorical nude on the other.

Next to them is a big ugly picture by Pietro Perugino titled The Combat Between Love and Chastity. Apparently Isabella d’Este, Marchioness of Mantua, was one of the few female patrons of her time and commissioned a series of allegorical paintings for her studiolo, a room designated for study and contemplation.

Isabella gave the artist detailed instructions about what must be included in the work, including portraits of herself as the goddesses Pallas Athena (left, with spear) and Diana (centre, with bow and arrow), as well as various scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses which have been chucked into the background (for example, in the background at centre-left you can see what appears to be Apollo clutching the knees of the nymph Daphne who is turning into a laurel tree.)

The Combat Of Love And Chastity Painting by Pietro Perugino (1503)

Maybe the curators included this painting an example of the way nudity had become fully normalised in Western painting by about 1500, but it is also an example of how misguided devotion to ‘the classics’ can result in a pig’s ear of a painting. And this brings me to my second broad point.

2. I prefer northern, late-medieval art to Italian Renaissance art

Why? Because of its attention to sweet and touching details. Consider The Way To Paradise by Dirk Bouts, painted about 1450. This reproduction in no way does justice to the original which is much more brightly coloured and dainty and gay.

In particular, in the original painting, you can see all the plants and flowers in the lawn which the saved souls are walking across. You can see brightly coloured birds perching amid the rocks on the left. You can even see some intriguingly coloured stones strewn across the path at the bottom left. There is a loving attention to detail throughout, which extends to the sumptuous working of the angel’s red cloak or the lovely rippled tresses of the women.

The Way to Paradise by Dirk Bouts (1450)

So I think one way of expressing my preference is that paintings from the Northern Renaissance place their human figures within a complete ecosystem – within a holistic, natural environment of which the humans are merely a part.

The people in these northern paintings are certainly important – but so are the flowers and the butterflies and the rabbits scampering into their holes. Paintings of the Northern Renaissance have a delicacy and considerateness towards the natural world which is generally lacking in Italian painting, and which I find endlessly charming.

Take another example. In the centre of the second room is a two-sided display case. Along one side of it is a series of Christian allegorical paintings by the Northern painter Hans Memling. I thought all of them were wonderful, in fact they come close to being the best things in the exhibition for me. They included this image of Vanity, the age-old trope of a woman looking in a mirror.

Vanity by Hans Memling (1485)

I love the sweet innocence of the central figure, untroubled by Leonardo da Vinci’s scientific enquiries into human anatomy, undisfigured by flexed tendons and accurate musculature.

And I like the little doggy at her feet and the two whippets lounging further back. And I really like the plants at her feet painted with such loving detail that you can identify a dandelion and a broad-leaved plantain and buttercups. And I love the watermill in the background and the figure of the miller (?) coaxing a donkey with a load on its back.

The other side of this display case shows a series of allegorical paintings by the famous Italian artist Giovanni Bellini, titled Allegories of Fortune (below).

In the image on the left, of a semi-naked figure in a chariot being pulled by putti you can see the direct influence of ancient Roman art and iconography which infused all Bellini’s work. It is learnèd and clever and well-executed.

But my God, isn’t it dull! The figures are placed in generic settings on generic green grass with generic mountains in the distance. All the enjoyment of the life, the loving depiction of natural detail, has – for me – been eliminated as if by DDT or Agent Orange. Unless, maybe, you find the little putti sweet and charming… I don’t. Compared to the delicacy of medieval art, I find Renaissance putti revolting.

Thinking about these pesky little toddlers gives me another idea. They are sentimental. Northern gargoyles and kids and peasants and farmers and figures are never sentimental in the same way these Italian bambini are.

Four Allegories by Giovanni Bellini (1490)

In my opinion, by embracing the pursuit of a kind of revived classicism, many Renaissance paintings lost forever the feel for the decorative elements of the natural world and a feel for the integration of human beings into the larger theatre of nature, which medieval and Northern Renaissance art still possesses.

3. Reservations about the basic theme of the exhibition

This is without doubt a wonderful opportunity to see a whole range of masterpieces across all forms of media and addressing or raising or touching on a very wide range of topics related to the iconography of nudity.

The curators make lots of valid and interesting points about nudity – they invoke the revival of classical learning, the example of classical sculpture, they describe the importance of nudity in Christian iconography – the almost-nudity of Christ on the cross echoed in the almost-nudity of countless saints who are depicted being tortured to death.

They discuss nudity as symbolic, nudity as allegorical, nudes which appear to be portraits of real people (presumably beloved by the patrons paying the painter), nudes which warn against the evils of sin, nudes which revel in the beauty of the naked male or female body, nude old women acting as allegorical reminders of the passage of Time, nude witches supposedly exemplifying ‘male anxiety’ at the uncontrolled nakedness of women — all these points and more are made by one or other of the numerous exhibits, and all are worth absorbing, pondering and reflecting on.

And yet the more varied the interpretations of the nude and naked human form became, the more I began to feel it was all about everything. Do you know the tired old motto you hear in meetings in big corporations and bureaucracies – ‘If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority’? Well, I began to feel that if the nude can be made to mean just about anything you want to, maybe it ends up meaning nothing at all.

According to the exhibition, nude bodies can represent:

  • the revival of classical learning and yet also the portrayal of Christian heroes
  • the scientific study of anatomy and yet also unscientific, medieval terrors
  • clarity and reason and harmony and yet also the irrational fears of witches and devils
  • key moments in the Christian story or key moments in pagan myth
  • warnings against lust and promiscuity or incitements to lust and promiscuity
  • warnings against the effects of Time and old age, or celebrations of beautiful young men and women in their prime

Nakedness can be associated with Christ or… with witches. With the celebration of sexy, lithe young men or with stern images of torture and sacrifice. With suffering martyrs or with smirking satyrs tastefully hiding their erections.

In other words, by the end of the exhibition, I felt that nudity in fact has no special or particular meaning in Western art, even in the limited art of this period 1400-1530.

The reverse: the exhibition suggests that nudity had an explosion of meanings, a tremendous diversity of symbols and meanings which artists could explore in multiple ways to the delight of their patrons and which we are left to puzzle and ponder at our leisure. Nudity, in other words, could be made to mean almost anything an artist wanted it to.

When is a nude not a nude?

There is another, glaringly obvious point to be made, which is that a lot of the figures in the exhibition are not nudes.

  • The Bronzino Saint Sebastian is not nude, he is wearing a cloak which obscures his loins.
  • Christ is always shown wearing a loincloth, never naked.
  • Adam and Eve are held up as examples of the nude but they are, of course, almost never depicted nude but, as in the Dürer woodcut, wearing strategically placed loincloths. 
  • One of the medieval illustrations of Bathsheba shows her fully dressed except that she’s pulled up her dress to reveal her thighs.
  • None of the figures in Dirk Bouts’s Way to Paradise is actually nude.

So I became, as I worked my way round, a little puzzled as to how you can have an exhibition titled The Renaissance Nude in which quite a few of the figures are not in fact… nude.

The more you look, the more you realise that something much more subtle is going on in the interplay between fully dressed, partially dressed and completely naked figures, and I felt the full complexities of the interrelationships between nudity and various forms of dress and bodily covering pictures wasn’t really touched on or investigated as much as it could have been.

Take the Perugino painting, The Combat Of Love And Chastity. I count sixteen figures in the foreground (not counting the irritating cupids). Of these sixteen no fewer than eight are fully dressed, two are partially dressed and only six are nude. So this is not a study in the naked human body. It is a far more subtle study of the interplay between dressed, partially dressed, and fully nude figures, drenched in complex meanings and symbolism.

Again, I wondered whether the curators’ modish obsession with sensuality and desire and ‘the erotic’, and the notion that this era saw the Rise of the Daring Naughty Naked Nude as a genre, has blinded them to other, far more subtle and interesting interplays between nudity and clothing, which are going on in many of these works.

Summary

This is a fascinating dance around the multiple meanings of nakedness and (near) nudity in Renaissance iconography, and a deeply rewarding immersion in the proliferation of new techniques and new belief systems which characterised the period 1400 to 1530.

But, in the end, as always, the visitor and viewer is left to dwell on with what they like and what they don’t like.

For me, the Renaissance marked a tragic break with the gloriously detailed and eco-friendly world-view of the high Middle Ages, a world of genuine delicacy and innocence. Surprisingly, maybe, this late-medieval world is represented in the exhibition, by the works by Memling and Bouts which I’ve mentioned, but also by a clutch of exquisite, tiny illuminated illustrations from a number of medieval books of hours which, surprisingly, continued to be made and illuminated well into the period of the High Renaissance (around 1500).

So I marvelled, as I am supposed to, at the skill of Bronzino and his sexy Saint Sebastian, at the subtle use of shadow to model the face and torso, at the way he shows off his ability to paint the complex folds of the red cloak which sets off the young man’s sexy, hairless chest, and so on.

But I got more genuine pleasure from studying the tiny illuminations in the books of hours, including this wonderful image by Jean Bourdichon, showing the Biblical figure of Bathsheba having her famous bath (in the Bible story she is ‘accidentally’ seen by King David who proceeds to take her to bed).

Note the details – the apples on the tree in the centre and the cherries (?) on the tree on the right. And the flowers on the hedge of bushes across the middle, and the careful detailing of the lattice-work fence. The filigree work of the cloth hanging out the window where King David appears. And the shimmering gold of Bathsheba’s long, finely-detailed tresses.

‘Bathsheba Bathing’ from the Hours of Louis XII by Jean Bourdichon (1498/99) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Compare and contrast the modesty and sweetness of Bourdichon’s image with the big, grandiose, heavy, dark and foreboding symbolism of Italianate Renaissance painting like this one.

Allegory of Fortune by Dosso Dossi (c. 1530) The J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles

The final room is dominated by this enormous painting by Dosso Dossi, the kind of sombre, portentous allegory you could, by the mid-1500s, order by the yard from any number of artists workshops, the kind of thing you find cluttering up the walls of countless stately homes all across England, helping to make dark, wood-panelled rooms seem ever darker.

I find this kind of thing heavy, stuffy, pretentious, dark and dull.

But that’s just my personal taste. You may well disagree. Go and see this fabulous exhibition – it is packed with wonders – and decide for yourself.

Curators

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Kren, Senior Curator Emeritus at the J. Paul Getty Museum, in collaboration with Per Rumberg, Curator at the Royal Academy of Arts.


Related links

Reviews of other Royal Academy exhibitions

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