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Lights in the Dark

Posted On July 11, 2017 | 11:33 am | by lainw | Permalink
Paul Magdalino delivers public lecture in Byzantine Studies

When it comes to the seventh and eighth centuries in Byzantium—despite persistent attempts to illuminate the historical void—Paul Magdalino believes “darkness is still a rather appropriate description.”

In a recent lecture delivered at Dumbarton Oaks in conjunction with the Byzantine Studies program, Professor Magdalino sought to shed “material light” on these tenebrous centuries by analyzing the findings of recent excavations, among them a Byzantine port discovered in 2004 in the Yenikapı quarter of Istanbul.

The Byzantine Empire, and Constantinople in particular, was beset by a cavalcade of woes in the seventh and eighth centuries. Accordingly, Magdalino began his lecture by running through the miserable list: invasion, loss of territory, plague, violent regime change, the siege of the capital in 717–18, the devastating earthquake of 740, and, of course, iconoclasm—“which, if you happen to like icons, was a bit of a bad thing,” Magdalino added.

“Darkness” meant more than the merely grim, however. As Magdalino contended, “We are also largely in the dark when it comes to the seventh and eighth centuries.” Source material is at an all-time low, with much of it comprised by two rather “laconic” histories dating from the end of the period. These centuries are also some of the least rich in material artifacts; the modest amount of architecture that remains is, in conjunction with written sources, like “adding a dash of water to whisky to bring out the flavor.”

Much of Magdalino’s talk was concerned with repopulation and regeneration, which were central concerns of the Byzantine Empire in the seventh and eighth centuries. As Magdalino explained, the city of Constantinople was “a theater of power, alive with ceremonies.” Justinian II (685–95 and 705–11) created new ceremonial venues as part of a larger project to revive the empire and restore it to its former glories, while Constantine V (741–75), in addition to repairing crumbling aqueducts, attempted to repopulate the city after its decimation by plague.

In order to demonstrate how the complexities—political, ideological, and economic—of this period of Byzantine history could manifest in the built environment, Magdalino dwelt on the checkered history of the Hagia Eirene. Originally built in the fourth century, the structure burned down during the Nika revolt of 532. It was rebuilt in 548 only to be felled, once again, by an earthquake in 740. The church was restored under the reign of the arch-iconoclast Constantine V—hence the aniconic nature of its interior decorations, which include frescoes and mosaics.

That’s the traditional narrative, anyway. As Magdalino pointed out, recent developments in dendrochronology have pushed back aspects of the reconstruction, moving them into the reign of Empress Eirene, who, though officially reigning from 797 to 802, held power in some form from the 780s onward. The implications of these findings shed a significant amount of light on the priorities of Byzantium in the eighth century, Magdalino asserted. To start with the obvious: If a church could spend roughly sixty years in ruins, then church construction and maintenance were clearly not priorities in the eighth century.

These findings also highlight the status of icons at the end of the eighth century. The Second Council of Nicaea, convoked in part by Eirene in 787, officially restored the use and veneration of icons. With this in mind, the continued dominance of aniconic decorations in the church suggests that even ten years after the council, when the church was being renovated, the reintroduction of icons into Byzantine society was still proceeding rather cautiously.

The third point Magdalino stressed centered on the Short History of Nikephoros I, who lived from 758 to 828. The history, which ends with the year 769, describes the earthquake of 740 and its devastating effects on the built environment, but gives only one structure’s proper name: Hagia Eirene. In Magdalino’s interpretation, owing to the homonymity of church and empress, this singling out might be read as a “subtle encomium” to Eirene.

Magdalino then moved on to the Yenikapı quarter of Istanbul, where, since 2004, excavation efforts have been laying bare the largest man-made port in Constantinople, a site that contains, among other remains, thirty-seven shipwrecks. Because most of the jetties were made of wood, dendrochronology has allowed the construction of the jetties to be dated to the reign of Eirene. And yet, despite emerging information and continued excavation, the purpose of the port—what functions and communities it served—has remained unclear.

Answers to this fundamental question, Magdalino believes, are likely to be found in a nearby palace complex, also constructed—or rather reconstructed—under Eirene. The structure, likely a renovation of a Theodosian palace, served several purposes for the empress: it stored her gold, provided living spaces, contained workshops, and, more generally, acted as an economic center, boasting bakeries, a granary, and other production-oriented elements. Magdalino’s conclusion? The Yenikapı port was likely a surprisingly focused shipping center, tailored to the transportation needs of Eirene’s palace complex. 

At the end of his talk, Magdalino returned to the questions of repopulation and regeneration, which necessarily come with “ideological fanfare.” After an outbreak of plague in the middle of the eighth century, the reign of Constantine V was primarily focused on repopulation, Magdalino asserted; among other initiatives, Constantine V brought families from Greece who were skilled at shipping and settled them in harbor areas.

It was Eirene who turned her attention to the built environment, developing the physical power of her palace complex and refurbishing the Theodosian infrastructure that undergirt it. Ultimately, Magdalino closed, “the structures at Yenikapı show that regeneration in the seventh and eighth centuries was economic, and not just ideological.”