Article — From the May 2012 issue

Byzantium

Their ears were uncircumcised

( 3 of 9 )

The Byzantines called themselves Greeks (because they were) and also Romans (because they had been). To the Muslims, who had been the Arabs (who had coveted Constantinople even before they were Muslims) but were later the Turks, the Byzantines were usually the Romans (Rum) and sometimes, though these Romans spoke Greek, the Latins (which to the Byzantines meant the barbarians of Western Europe), and sometimes the Children of the Yellow One, who was Esau. The Arabs called the Byzantine emperor (who signed his letters in purple ink emperor and autocrat of the romans) the Dog of the Byzantines, and by the fifteenth century the sultan of the Ottoman Turks (whom the Muslims farther east called Romans and whom the Byzantines called Trojans) called himself sultan i-Rum in expectation that he soon would be and in recognition that he already, for most purposes, was.

In 912, Harun ibn Yahya was taken prisoner by the Byzantines and brought to Constantinople, where he witnessed the emperor in procession from the palace to the great church, followed by fifty-five thousand two hundred and twelve young Khazars and Turks in stripes and middle-aged eunuchs in white and men and youths and boys and servants and patricians in brocade, and “In his hand is a golden box containing dust. He goes on foot. Every two steps he stops, and his minister says the words ‘Remember death,’ and he stops to open the box, look at the dust, kiss it, and weep.”

What were the laws and practices of the lawgivers? The Great Code of Theodosius forbade the impersonation of nuns by female mimes and the trampling of Jews by gentiles; the edicts of Leo VI permitted eunuchs to adopt; the Orthodox patriarchs anathematized the Manichaeans’ belief that all things fermented are alive.

The rulers of Byzantium were accustomed to blinding their rivals. With ornamental eye scoops, with daggers, with candelabras, kitchen knives, and tent pegs, with burning coals and boiling vinegar, with red-hot bowls held near the face and with bandages that left the eyes unharmed but were forbidden to be removed; sometimes it was sufficient merely to singe the eyelashes, for the victim to bellow and sigh like a lion as a trained executioner pantomimed the act. Sometimes cruelty was intended beyond the enucleation itself, as when the emperor Diogenes Romanus was deposed and “they permitted some unpracticed Jew to proceed in blinding the eyes” and “he lived several days in pain and exuding a bad odor.” In 797 the empress regnant Irene blinded her son Constantine VI and caused an eclipse that lasted seventeen days. Basil II blinded fifteen thousand Bulgarian soldiers, and every hundredth man he left with one eye to lead another ninety-nine, and when these men returned home to their king Samuel he looked upon them and died. Michael V blinded his uncle John the Master of Orphans. The iconoclasts blinded the eyes of the icons.

It was said that the city would fall when ships sailed by over dry land.

 

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  • Hyssop

    This piece is as informative as it is side-splitting. [no one has commented yet?]

    I need to read it again to tease out history from irony and to bask in the pleasure of a superbly written piece.

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