10 Inventions You Should Know That Came From the Byzantine Empire

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Welcome back to another article from the Byzantium Blogger! This time, it is time again for a bit of break from extremely long and highly researched articles and stories spanning the entire 1,100-year history of the Byzantine Empire (330-1453), therefore time for a quick yet entertaining top 10 list, this time on Byzantine inventions. Now, the Byzantine Empire among the many things it was known for, was known to have come up with a series of spectacular inventions including items we know very well up to this day, however not many know these items date back to the Byzantine era and were created by the Byzantines themselves. Some inventions in the Middle Ages including Greek Fire would immediately be associated with Byzantium when first hearing about especially when one is familiar with Byzantine history, however there is more than just Greek Fire when it comes to items the Byzantines created throughout the existence of their empire. These spectacular creations include larger than life architectural styles such as the pendentive dome and simple everyday items like the fork, and other than that, a lot of civil laws, scientific theories like the Theory of Impetus and that of the round earth and time zones, religious doctrines and icons, and the Cyrillic Alphabet can be attributed to Byzantium too. This article however will be only limited to the material inventions of the Byzantine Empire whether they were for architectural, warfare, or daily life purposes, therefore we will not include Justinian I’s Corpus Juris Civilis or “Body of Civil Laws”, spiritual innovations of the Byzantines which would include religious icons, political innovations like the Thematic System, and scientific theories despite them being of great importance even up to this day. Now if you remember from 2 years ago, I did a similar article to this (check out Forgotten but Significant Byzantine Science and Technology), however this previous one was more related to science as it included not only inventions but scientific theories made by the Byzantines in their history, while this one will basically be limited only to material inventions. Although just like that previous article, this one will also be heavily inspired by the book A Cabinet of Byzantine Curiosities by Anthony Kaldellis, and since a lot of these inventions were discussed in the 12 chapters of my recent Byzantine Alternate History series, these chapters will be linked as well in the list of these inventions. Before starting off, I would like to remind you all that this article would seem rather amateur and less researched than the previous ones I made, mainly because this one was just a spontaneous piece I just suddenly thought of writing for now.

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Map of the Byzantine Empire at 3 different eras; greatest extent in the 6th century (red line), in 1025 (pink), and by 1360 (red)

I. Pendentive Dome         

20110225 Aya Sofia Dome
Pendentive dome of the Hagia Sophia from the interior

Possibly the most famous landmark from the Byzantine Empire which still exists up to this day is the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople which is famous for its massive and high dome, and this type of dome design is known as the Pendentive Dome.

Pendentive dome design of the Hagia Sophia

The pendentive dome now is a construction solution that allows a circular dome to be built above a rectangular floor plan, and although the Romans before the rise of the Eastern Roman Empire based in Constantinople in 4th century had already come up with a number of early designs of this kind of construction plan in which known examples of this include the Pantheon in Rome built in the 1st century, these Ancient Roman pendentive domes were only prototypes and not as high and large as the dome of the Hagia Sophia itself. Shortly after Constantinople’s founding in 330, the original structure of the Hagia Sophia was already present, however it was a much smaller church without a dome and following the Nika Riot of 532 during the reign of Emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565), most of the city including the original Hagia Sophia was burned down, thus Justinian sought to rebuild it from scratch into a much larger structure with a dome higher than everything else.

Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, architects of the Hagia Sophia

To build this cathedral, Justinian left the job to two brilliant architects being Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, and in only less than 6 years (532-537), the entire church with the dome included was completed due to having thousands of workers constructing the building day and night and lots of wealth brought back to Constantinople as war spoils from the Byzantine conquest of the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa (533-534). The dome of the Hagia Sophia looked as if it was suspended in midair without any pillar to support it by connecting its middle part to the ground, instead its architects used a solution of building 4 semi-domes or pendentives on the 4 corners below the main dome in order to hold it up. Though no matter how impressive the structure was, the dome itself when completed was unstable that the historian of the 6th century Procopius of Caesarea who saw the cathedral built with his own eyes writes “the piers on top of which the structure was being built, unable to bear the mass that was pressing down on them, somehow or suddenly started to break away and seemed to be on the point of collapsing”.

Emperor Justinian I the Great of Byzantium (r. 527-565), acrylic painting, art by myself

True enough, following the great earthquake in Constantinople in 557 when the Justinian I was still ruling, the foundation of the Hagia Sophia was weakened, and in the following year (558), the dome itself collapsed. In 563, the dome was rebuilt by the architect Isidore the Younger who was a nephew of its original architect Isidore, and by the time Justinian I died in 565, he at least saw the dome of his cathedral that he put a lot of attention into making completed. Back in the Byzantine era, the dome itself was not only impressive from the outside but from the inside as well, as its interiors were filled with gold mosaics while its base had 40 windows forming a circle that let light in, and the dome was in fact so impressive that people from all over the world were in awe when coming to Constantinople basically because of it. In the 10th century, ambassadors from the Kievan Rus’ Empire (includes today’s Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia) sent by their Grand Prince Vladimir I the Great (r. 980-1015) when seeing the dome, suggested to Vladimir that he and his people must convert to Orthodox Christianity as it was their faith that had the most spectacular place of worship being the Hagia Sophia with its dome. The dome meanwhile had a diameter of 33m and a height of 55m from the ground, and for about a thousand years until the 15th century, it would be the world’s largest dome until the one of the Cathedral of Florence which is the Santa Maria de Fiore was completed in the 1430s. The style of the Hagia Sophia of Constantinople’s dome meanwhile would also be the basis for the architectural plans for many Greek Orthodox churches in the centuries to come, and after the Ottoman Empire captured Constantinople from the Byzantines and took over the Byzantine Empire, the Hagia Sophia with its pendentive dome would be the basis for the architectural plans for many of their mosques as well.

Cross-section of Constantinople’s Hagia Sophia, interior and exterior
The Hagia Sophia, built in the 6th century under Emperor Justinian I

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter III- 6th Century.

II. Cross-in-Square         

Cross-in-square Byzantine church plan

Other than the pendentive dome, another architectural style especially used for churches that can be attributed to the Byzantines was the Cross-in-Square plan, in which many Orthodoxy churches use this kind of style. This kind of plan consisted of a basic square shape with 4 halls in the middle of it being the naves intersecting each other forming a cross while above the intersection area at the middle was the church’s main dome, while the 4 different corners of the square sometimes had their own domes as well, thus this kind of church architecture would usually have 5 domes in total, however there are many variations to this design, therefore not all churches in this cross-in-square plan have this said plan, but this said plan was the standard design for these churches. This kind of style was developed by the Byzantines from the 9th to 10th centuries which took the place of the former long Basilica style of churches which consisted of a great hall with an apse at the end, and as I recall from the History of Byzantium Podcast by Robin Pierson, in one of its earlier episodes it is said that this kind of compact style of churches was more preferred in the Eastern Roman Empire as a lot of their churches were built over tombs of early Christian martyrs, therefore it had this kind of style while churches in the western world such as in Italy and other parts of Western Europe used the long rectangular Basilica as they were based on the Ancient Roman Basilica structures as the western world on the other hand too did not have that much tombs of early Christian martyrs compared to the east. In the Byzantine world, the cross-in-square style of church was first introduced with the Church of the Nea Ekklesia built between 876 and 880 by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian (r. 867-886) which was part of the Imperial Palace Complex of Constantinople, however this structure does not exist anymore today as in 1490 when Constantinople was under the Ottomans who used this former church as a gunpowder storage room, it exploded when it was struck by lightning. However, the earliest cross-in-square style church in Constantinople that still exists up to this day is the Church of the Theotokos dating back to 907/908 constructed under Basil I’s son and successor Emperor Leo VI the Wise (r. 886-912). At this day, this kind of plan can be seen in many Orthodox churches whether dating back to the Middle Ages or to more recent times all over the Orthodox world especially in countries like Greece, Macedonia Serbia, and Bulgaria.      

Example of a Middle Byzantine era cross-in-square style church
Church of the Theotokos, Constantinople

III. Pointed Arch Bridge          

Byzantine era Karamagara Bridge, Turkey, built in either the 5th or 6th centuries

When it comes to bridge building, the Byzantines too apparently had made innovations to it as well, and one style they had created for bridges was the pointed arch bridge, which as basically a long bridge over a river or other kind of body of water with arches supporting it that are not just a regular semi-circle arches, but arches that narrow at the top forming a point. Now the reason why we conclude that the pointed arch bridge was invented by the Byzantines is because the earliest known pointed arch bridge is in the region of Cappadocia dating back to either the 5th or 6th century where Cappadocia at that time was under the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. This bridge in Cappadocia was the Karamagara Bridge which however unfortunately became submerged with the completion of the Keban Dam in 1975, but before that, it was an impressive bridge crossing the Euphrates River with just a single pointed arch over the river spanning 17m yet holding up the entire bridge without any mortar between the stones that was used in creating the arch. When this bridge was completed in either the 5th or 6th century as part of the Roman road to the city of Melitene in Asia Minor, an inscription was written on the eastern edge of the arch in Greek which is a passage from Psalm 21, verse 8 from the Bible which says “The Lord may guard your entrance and your exit from now and unto all time, amen, amen, amen”, and although this inscription may have nothing really to do with the bridge, it shows that in this part of the empire, Greek was the mainly spoken language. Of course, in the centuries to come, the pointed arch bridge style would become more and more common, and there are many notable ones you can find that still exist such as the Mostar Bridge in Bosnia built by the Ottomans, and apparently the pointed arch design for bridges had happened to be one of the many things the Ottomans had carried over from the Byzantines before them.

Example of a Byzantine era pointed arch stone bridge

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter II- 5th Century.

IV. Ship Mill          

Medieval ship mills, original one created by the Byzantines during the 536-537 Siege of Rome

The ship mill, as a means to create milled wheat for flour in order to make bread by the use of a boat on a body of water is credited to the 6th century Byzantine general Flavius Belisarius (505-565) as recorded by the same historian Procopius mentioned earlier who was a secretary of Belisarius.

Flavius Belisarius (505-565), Byzantine general in Justinian I’s reign, art by Amelianvs

Now Belisarius who was the famous general that served Emperor Justinian I was a military genius not only in the battlefield but in coming up with creative means in order to win including digging trenches to slow down the enemy cavalry as seen with him during the Battle of Dara in 530 against the Sassanid Empire, lighting up campfires across the hills to scare off the enemy to make it seem the Byzantines had a larger army as seen in his campaigns against the Ostrogoths in Italy in the late 530s, and by beating trees in order to release giant gas clouds to scare off the enemy as well in his last battle in 559 fought against the Kutrigur Huns. Another genius solution Belisarius came up with was the ship mill in which he created in 537 after taking over Rome from the Ostrogoths, however the Ostrogoth army led by their king Vitiges attempted to recapture Rome while Belisarius and his army were within, and in order to starve out Rome’s population and Belisarius’ Byzantine army, the Ostrogoths cut off the aqueducts supplying water to Rome, which not only cut the water supply but disabled the mills to create flour as the water from the aqueducts powered the mills too.

Belisarius and his army

To not make the people starve and to keep his troops strong, Belisarius had the mill wheels of Rome moved to where the current of the Tiber River was the strongest, and here he stretched two ropes across the river as tight as possible attaching them to many boats with the wheels attached to them. This invention then proved successful as the river’s current was strong enough to power the wheels in order to grind the wheat creating flour, and thus the population of Rome and the army had a sufficient food supply despite the city being blocked off by the Ostrogoths’ siege. The Ostrogoths however fought back by tossing logs and the bodies of their dead soldiers into the river which made it into the walls of Rome jamming the mill wheels. Belisarius in return hung chains stretched tightly across the arches of a bridge which then proved successful in stopping the debris and dead bodies thrown by the Ostrogoths, thus resuming the operations of the mills allowing the population to continue being fed, and by late 537, the Ostrogoths lifted their siege of Rome as Belisarius and his army chased them away to the north. Following the success of the ship mill used in Rome, this invention would later spread across Europe as a new way for creating flour that not too long after it reached Paris in 556, Geneva in 563, and Dijon in 575. Between the 8th and 10th centuries, ship mills too became a popular means of milling wheat in the Arab world and common in the rest of Europe as well, although little did they know that this effective means of milling wheat came from the mind of a brilliant Byzantine general.

Belisarius at the 536-537 Siege of Rome, art by Amelianvs

V. Greek Fire         

Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Arab fleet, 717-718 Siege of Constantinople

When hearing of the Byzantine Empire, usually the naval superweapon of Greek Fire would be one of the first things that comes into a lot of people’s minds, and true enough this was one of the most cutting-edge innovative things the Byzantines had created that only they, and no one else had made, as true enough this weapon was a heavily guarded state secret as it was the secret weapon that saved the empire from ultimate destruction a number of times.

Emperor Constantine IV of Byzantium (r. 668-685)

Greek Fire (Hygron Pyr in Greek) first came into use during the 674-678 Umayyad Arab Siege of Constantinople where the Syrian refugee Kallinikos made it right in time for the event during the reign of Emperor Constantine IV (668-685), and although this Arab siege basically consisted of on-and-off attacks by the Arab army and fleet, it was with Greek Fire used for the first time on the ship of the emperor Constantine IV himself that was able to relieve Constantinople from the siege. Greek Fire was basically an incendiary weapon that served as a kind of flame-thrower blowing out a sticky kind of fire that could even stick to the water which is why some Byzantine chroniclers call it “sea fire” or “liquid fire”. This weapon not only destroyed enemy ships by burning them but struck fear into the enemies that the enemy armies fighting against the Byzantines at sea when seeing Greek Fire would jump to the sea in fear and would not die really from the fire but by drowning. The fire then came from a liquid mixture which was heated in a brazier, pressurized by a pump, and lastly ejected through a large siphon against the enemy. The Greek Fire now wasn’t entirely this mechanism but the liquid fire formula the mechanism used, however the formula of Greek Fire being kept as a heavily guarded secret remains to be a mystery, but it is most probably a mixture of petroleum, pitch, sulfur, pine or cedar resin, lime, and bitumen, while some even speculate that it even had gunpowder in it due to how the fire could explode.

Greek Fire operated by the Byzantine navy

The operators of this weapon would then be a very elite force of the imperial guard and only this unit could operate it as the weapon was overall meant to be a secret, however the operation process was a difficult one as the cannon that fired the liquid fire was heavy and unwieldy while the range of the fire was very short, therefore when the weapon was mounted on a ship it needed to be up close to the enemy ship in order for it to be fully effective, and at the same time the weapon was only very effective when being used on a ship when the sea was calm and the wind blew from behind the ship. Although the weapon may have been difficult to use, it defended Constantinople a number of times including against the more massive Umayyad Arab siege from 717-718 and in a massive naval battle near Constantinople against the fleet of the Kievan Rus’ navy in 941. On the other hand, there were many variations of the Greek Fire weapon as well, as long as it used the same formula, and these included Greek Fire that could be stored in grenade jars and thrown at the enemy or hand-held cannons ejecting the same kind of fire known as a Cheirosiphon which was mostly used during sieges as a medieval version of the modern flamethrower. Now it is unclear when the Byzantines discontinued the use of Greek Fire or if they never discontinued it at all, although one theory says that the secret of Greek Fire was lost before the 4th Crusade captured Constantinople in 1204, though Greek Fire could have also been used in 1453 in the defense of the city before it fell to the Ottomans.

Operation process of Greek Fire
Greek Fire used for the first time at the 674-678 Arab Siege of Constantinople
Byzantine navy using Greek Fire against the Rus’ fleet outside Constantinople’s Walls, 941
Hand-held Greek Fire (Cheirosiphon), art by Amelianvs

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IV- 7th Century.

VI. Incendiary Grenades           

Surviving evidence of Byzantine era grenades

Other than using a large cannon as an incendiary weapon, the Byzantines too had used grenades as another means of using Greek Fire, and shortly after the successful defense of Constantinople against the Umayyad Caliphate Arabs from 717-718 during the reign of Emperor Leo III the Isaurian (r. 717-741), the soldiers who had defended the city had come to realize that Greek Fire could not be only be projected by flamethrowers, but could be thrown in stone and ceramic jars as well, thus leading to the creation of grenades.

Sample of a Byzantine era grenade

Over the years, the Byzantines had developed different versions of this exploding weapon such as in storing the flammable substance that Greek Fire was made of into small or large clay jars and pouches used as grenade shells that could be hurled at the enemy, and over time Byzantine soldiers developed a tactic by loading their catapults with these grenades as a way to besiege walled cities, which true enough proved to be effective. Other than using flammable substance, these grenades also dispersed sharp objects or shrapnel as well as smoke when exploding, and in the following centuries, this kind of weapon was adopted by armies of the Islamic world who also developed different forms of these incendiary grenades, and archaeological evidence as well shows that in the 13th century there was a grenade workshop in Syria showing that by this time, the use of grenades became popular in the Islamic world. Even in the video game Assassin’s Creed Revelations– which I said a number of times was one of the many things that introduced me to Byzantine history- which is set in 16th century Constantinople under the Ottomans, you have the option to craft a large variety of these kinds of grenades when playing it, while in one mission you actually get to operate the superweapon of Greek Fire from a ship.

11naphta thrower (500x458)
Arab armies using the Byzantine warfare tactic of throwing grenades

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter V- 8th Century.

VII. The Fork         

Byzantine era forks

Now if the Byzantines could create larger than life inventions from large domes without any central support to superweapons that could not be rivalled by anything in its time such as Greek Fire, the Byzantines too had made inventions very small and simple yet very important to our daily lives, and such inventions like this include the fork. Now for those who aren’t familiar with the fork and its origins, it certainly does date back to the Byzantine Empire, and although I’ve written about the fork and its Byzantine origins a number of times, I would like to discuss it again here, as recently I have made new discoveries about the fork’s Byzantine origins. Just recently, I had posted on my Facebook page my photos of the Byzantine Collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC, and part of this collection included a Byzantine fork, and in the comments of this post someone asked if the fork was really a Byzantine invention as it only first appeared in France in 1315 at the royal court, while someone here replied saying that the Byzantines have been eating using a fork ever since the 4th century, thus it took a full thousand years for an item as simple as this to be adopted in other parts of the world. Now the fork has been a utensil used by the Byzantines ever since the beginning while the rest of Europe had no idea about it, thus for a long time everyone else but the Byzantines had been eating with their bare hands and a knife, that also recently I have just heard a saying from Serbia which was also part of the Byzantine sphere of influence that “while a German would still use his fingers to eat, in the middle ages, a Serb picks his food with the fork”. For the longest time- such as in Ancient Rome- the fork was only used to serve dishes, while it was only in the Byzantine era after the 4th century when it became a personal utensil for eating, and it was only in the 10th century when the Byzantines first introduced this item to Western Europe.

Theophano Sklerina, niece of John I Tzimiskes and wife of the future Holy Roman emperor Otto II

This happened in 972 when the Byzantine princess Theophano Sklerina, the niece of the Byzantine emperor at that time John I Tzimiskes (r. 969-976) married the future Holy Roman emperor in Germany Otto II, and the people of the imperial court in Germany when seeing the fork for the first time being used by Theophano did not get the idea of it, thinking it was all useless as they already had their hands to do the job of picking up the food and bringing it to their mouths. Another story of the Byzantines introducing the fork to Western Europe happens in 1004 when another Byzantine princess being Maria Argyropoulina married Giovanni Orseolo, the son of the Doge of Venice Pietro II Orseolo, and during their wedding feast Maria used a two-pronged golden fork to eat the food. The Venetians meanwhile who saw her eating with it also did not get its concept thinking it was in fact blasphemous while some members of the clergy there had said “God had provided humans with natural forks being their fingers, therefore it was an insult to substitute them with artificial metal ones for eating”. In 1007, just 3 years after their marriage, both Maria and Giovanni died from a plague in which the Venetians claimed that Maria’s early death was a result of her disrespecting God by eating with a fork. Nowadays, we cannot imagine eating certain things without a fork, and to this we have to thank these Byzantine marriages to rulers in different parts of Europe as over time, these marriages with Byzantium would lead to the spread of the fork across Europe, and from there to the rest of the world.

Byzantine spoons and a fork, Dumbarton Oaks collection

Read about my take on the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection here.

VIII. Hand-Trebuchet and Counterweight Trebuchet         

Byzantine army using a trebuchet, Madrid Skylitzes

The Byzantines themselves were adept at siege warfare with weapons like Greek Fire and incendiary grenades, but the other kind of siege weapons they have developed as well and were skilled at were trebuchets, which was a type of catapult used for hurling large stones and missiles during sieges. The unique catapult design of the hand-trebuchet first appeared in the Byzantine Empire during the 10th century, which was Byzantium’s golden age of warfare when they had turned the tide of war against the Arabs from the defensive to the offensive.

Emperor Nikephoros II Phokas of Byzantium (r. 963-969)

This hand-trebuchet (Cheiromangana in Greek) was basically a staff sling mounted on a pole using a lever mechanism to propel projectiles which could be operated by only one man and was first advocated as a siege engine in an open battlefield by the military emperor Nikephoros II Phokas (r. 963-969) in 965 during his campaigns against the Arabs in Asia Minor and Syria. This weapon too had been mentioned in the Taktika or military manual of the Byzantine general Nikephoros Ouranos in around 1000. Aside from this small single-man operated trebuchet, the Byzantines not too long after this weapon was invented had also been apparently the first ones to use the much larger and more complex counterweight Trebuchet, which was basically a massive catapult with a heavy weight on the opposite side of the projectile to balance it.

Niketas Choniates, Byzantine historian (1155-1217), recreation of the original manuscript depicting Choniates, art by myself

This weapon is first recorded in the work of the 12th century Byzantine historian Niketas Choniates (1155-1217) who first mentions the use of this weapon during a siege in 1165 taking place in the area of the Danube River border, and that this weapon here was equipped with a windlass, which was an apparatus used for moving heavy weights that earlier trebuchets such as the traction or hybrid ones did not use when launching missiles. However, this counterweight trebuchet was also said to have appeared even before 1165 being introduced at the Byzantine-Crusader Siege of Nicaea in 1097 during the First Crusade against the Seljuk Empire wherein the Byzantine emperor then Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) was credited for having invented it together with other artillery weapons, and with this weapon he made a deep impression on everyone whether Byzantine or Crusader.

Counterweight trebuchet, first recorded in Byzantium in 1165

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter VII- 10th Century.

IX. Hospitals          

Medicine in the Byzantine era

Apparently, even the concept of a hospital was created by the Byzantines, however even way longer before the birth of the Byzantine Empire in the 4th centuries, hospitals were already existent in Ancient Greece, Rome, and in other civilizations, although hospitals back then were only mere places for people to die or for soldiers wounded from battle to be treated. The Byzantines now came up with the concept of hospitals being an institution to offer medical care and possible cures for patients due to the ideals of Christian charity which played a very important role in Byzantine society. In Byzantine Constantinople itself, there were a number of functioning hospitals with one such example being a structure found between the two important churches of the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene that connected them, and this here was the Hospital of St. Sampson in which its structure however does not exist anymore today. Hospitals in Byzantium meanwhile were mostly associated with monasteries; thus, hospitals were usually found within monastery structures with another notable one being the 12th century Pantokrator Monastery in Constantinople (today the Zeyrek Mosque) which was founded in 1136 by Emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) and his wife Empress Irene of Hungary, and back then it was one of the most impressive structures of its time with possibly the best medical services in the empire, if not the entire world. This structure contained not only a monastery but a church, library, hospital, and mausoleum for the Komnenos emperors. Its hospital meanwhile had 50 beds and 5 wards with one for women, 2 doctors per ward with a number of assistants, a chief pharmacist, and a female doctor with female nurses for the female ward. Salaries for male and female nurses here were equal, but for doctors the salary for the female ones was half of their male counterparts. The Pantokrator hospital too had a complete set of medical equipment including lancets, cauterizing irons, catheters, forceps, tonsil knives, tooth files, scalpels, rectal speculums, uterine dilators, rib saws, clysters, tweezers, needles, and something called a “skull-breaker” used possibly to break a dead fetus in order to make its extraction easier. With all these kinds of medical equipment as well as in having female doctors, the Byzantines too were an advanced society in medical matters, but one major innovation the Byzantines too had in medical matters was that they were the first to successfully carry out the operation of separating conjoined twins where the first known case of it took place in the 10th century. In this case, a pair of conjoined twins lived in Constantinople for many years and when one twin died, surgeons removed the dead one and its result was partially successful as the one that was alive still continued living for 3 more days, while the next known case of separating conjoined twins happened so many centuries later in 1689 in Germany.

Recreation of the Hospital of St. Sampson between the Hagia Sophia and Hagia Eirene, Constantinople
12th century Pantokrator Monastery and Hospital in Constantinople, art by myself
Separation of the conjoined twins in 10th century Byzantium, Madrid Skylitzes

Read Byzantine Alternate History Chapter IX- 12th Century.

X. Mechanical Throne, Lions, and Tree          

Constantine VII on his throne with the mechanical lions and singing tree, art by Byzantine Tales

The type of self-operating mechanism known as an Automaton had already existed a lot earlier before in Ancient Egypt, Greece, and China, but it was in Byzantium where this mechanism was the most impressive as it was used to elevate a throne, while the lion sculptures that flanked the throne as well as the golden tree were able to operate on its own. Now before writing this article, I asked for suggestions on Byzantine inventions, and apparently someone mentioned the mechanical throne, and so I decided to put it here. The Byzantine automaton being the mechanical throne was mentioned in 949 when the Italian ambassador Liutprand, the Bishop of Cremona visited the imperial court of Constantinople wherein the Byzantine Empire here was ruled by Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (r. 913-959).

Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of Byzantium (r. 913-959), art by myself

Here, Liutprand when meeting the emperor Constantine VII had mentioned “lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue, a tree of gilded bronze, it’s branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species, and the emperor’s throne itself which was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air”. What Liutprand here said was that the lion statues on both sides of the emperor’s throne made a roar by itself with the actual sound of the lion, while the birds on the artificial tree next to it sang with the actual sounds of birds, but what was most impressive was that the throne of the emperor itself actually rose up to the air with the emperor as well. This same emperor Constantine VII too confirms in the book he wrote being De Ceremoniis that these mechanical items were present in his throne room at the Imperial Palace in Constantinople. An Ancient Jewish legend however says that King Solomon of Israel using his wisdom designed his throne room to look exactly like this with mechanical animals and a throne that could be elevated, however there is not much proof about this unlike how we have written evidence about Constantine VII’s mechanical throne and sculptures in which its design was definitely inspired by Solomon’s throne room. Now, the big mystery is how the Byzantines were actually able to record the sounds of these animals to make it so exact to fit the artificial animals in the said throne room.

King Solomon’s throne room with mechanical lions


Now with all these fascinating cutting-edge inventions, it truly does show that the Byzantines had a lot of creativity as well as the ability to come up with solutions at difficult times, and usually these difficult situations allowed the Byzantines to create powerful inventions like no other including weapons like Greek Fire and incendiary grenades. On other occasions, the Byzantines created such inventions including the pendentive dome and the mechanical throne as a way to assert the power of their empire and Orthodox faith as these domes were built for their churches to emphasize the power of the Orthodox Church, and the mechanical throne for the imperial throne room to assert the authority of its emperor. Other times, the Byzantines created these innovations out of necessity such as the ship mills, other times out of charity such as the concept of hospitals as a place to recover and not plainly to just die, while other times they created such things to make life easier such as the fork. Now no matter how much the Byzantines have created in their empire’s existence and no matter how great these inventions were, Byzantium does not really get the credit they deserve for coming up with these brilliant inventions, and it is for this reason why I suddenly came up with this short article. These days, we usually eat with forks, have hospitals, and have buildings with domes that seem to be floating in the air, but little do most of us know that the Byzantines played a major part in making these things possible, therefore again this article was made to let you viewers know more about Byzantium’s role in these items in which some are still relevant up to this day. On the other hand as well, there could possibly be more inventions made by the Byzantines that we don’t know much about including the beacon system and so much more, and so it is up to you viewers to comment if I missed out on any other inventions. Anyway, this article was rather quick as this was just a spontaneous article wherein an idea to do this just popped out in my head, which is why I just said whatever came to my mind when writing this without much thought or heavy research in the process. Before finishing off, I would like to greet you all viewers Happy Holidays in advance, and again this is Powee Celdran, the Byzantine Time Traveler… Thank you for viewing!       

The Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine Collection and What to Expect

Posted by Powee Celdran

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Welcome to another special edition article by the Byzantium Blogger! It has been about 2 years since I published an article on places to travel to in the Byzantine world, but now after 2 years of not travelling due to the COVID-19 pandemic, I am back again with another article after writing all the alternate history chapters and Byzantine history in general. However, this article will not be focusing on a travel destination in the Byzantine world like Constantinople, Asia Minor, Greece, or Ravenna which I have done before, instead this one will be focusing on the Byzantine Gallery of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Georgetown, Washington DC, USA and what to expect from it. (check out their site here).


Just recently, I got the chance to see the Byzantine collection of the Dumbarton Oaks Museum, and in the 1 hour I was there, I spent the entirety of it at the Byzantine collection alone. Now the collection may just be a single room with a bit more outside, but don’t let the size fool you, especially if you are an enthusiast of Byzantine history. You could get carried away looking at the items and their descriptions that you may never want to leave! As Dumbarton Oaks features specialized collections, the Byzantine collection does indeed have some of the best artifacts from the Byzantine world from the 4th to 15th centuries- basically their entire history. It is not really the quantity of their collection that is impressive, but rather its quality as the Dumbarton collection features premium Byzantine items including pieces that belonged to emperors. For this article, I will first give a little overview of the Dumbarton Oaks museum and its history before moving on to the Byzantine collection, then I will also discuss my favorite finds in the entire collection in which I have a lot of. Before beginning the rest of the article, I would also like to remind you all that I will not list the name of every single item found in the collection as it would just go on forever if I did, rather I will stick to talking about the pieces in the collection I find the most interesting and impressive.   

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Dumbarton Oaks Museum, Georgetown, Washington DC

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Photos of the collections’ items are taken by myself.

When thinking of the capital of the United States of America, Washington DC, the first thing that would come into everyone’s minds would be its world famous landmarks like the White House, US Capitol, and the Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials, or if not these important landmarks in US history, Washington DC would best be remembered for its museums such as the Smithsonian and National Gallery. However in the western part of the city which is the neighborhood of Georgetown, there is another great museum in the form of a historical mansion worth seeing, and this is Dumbarton Oaks. If you wonder about its name “Dumbarton”, this comes from the name of its location as the location this mansion was built in was known as the “Rock of Dumbarton” as it is in an elevated area, and in 1702- when America was still a British colony- this piece of land was granted by Queen Anne of Great Britain to the British army officer Colonel Ninian Beall. Fast-forward to 1801, many years have passed since the USA became a country declaring independence from Great Britain (1776), and here was when the first house which included an orangery was built on this property by William Hammond Dorsey, and between 1822 and 1829, this house became the Washington residence of the US Senator and later the 7th Vice President John Calhoun. In 1846, this small house was bought by Edward Linthicum who then enlarged it and renamed it “The Oaks”, which is possibly a reference to its environment of being full of oak trees, then in 1891 The Oaks was bought by Henry Blount. In 1920, the couple Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss bought the property including The Oaks and in 1933 they renamed it “Dumbarton Oaks” combining its two historic names, and now owning the house they continued to enlarge and restructure the house itself by adding a music room and a Renaissance style room to display their European furniture, tapestries, and other belongings, which would also be used as a space for music performances and scholarly gatherings.

Robert and Mildred Bliss, founders of Dumbarton Oaks

To give a background of the couple, they were both enthusiastic collectors and patrons of scholarships and the arts whereas Robert who was a graduate of the Harvard University pursued a distinguished career as an officer and diplomat in foreign service, while his wife Mildred had the funds to acquire this property after inheriting a fortune from her family’s investment in the patent medicine Fletcher’s Castoria. Part of the items the couple enthusiastically collected were Byzantine artifacts which included entire mosaic floors taken from Syria, and from 1936 to 1940, they invested heavily on collecting Byzantine art and artifacts as in 1940 they opened the house’s Byzantine gallery to the public envisioning it to be one of the world’s greatest collections of Byzantine art. Aside from their interest in Byzantine history and its artifacts, the couple too had an interest in Pre-Columbian America and its art and artifacts, thus in 1963, 2 decades after opening their Byzantine collection, they added another wing to the house to be used as a gallery showcasing their collection of Pre-Columbian American art and artifacts from different parts of the American continent. Though in 1962, just a year before the Pre-Columbian gallery opened to the public, Robert Woods Bliss had died, and in 1969 it was his wife Mildred’s turn to die. However, long before the death of Robert and Mildred, the Dumbarton Oaks collection as well as its research library was already transferred legally to Harvard University, while in 1987 the courtyard gallery of the museum was constructed. Today, the Dumbarton Oaks Museum may best be remembered for its gardens, but if you are a Byzantine, Pre-Columbian American, Medieval European, or Ancient Roman history enthusiast, this place would be a lot more than just the gardens.

August 14th, 1999
Dumbarton Oaks House in the early 20th century
Floor plan of the Dumbarton Oaks museum


When getting into the museum’s room containing the Byzantine collection, the first thing you may notice is a massive display of a map of the Byzantine Empire at its height of territorial extent in 565- marked in purple- the year its most influential emperor Justinian I the Great (r. 527-565) had died, wherein the empire stretched west to east from Southern Spain to Syria and north to south from the Crimea (Ukraine) to Egypt. If you look more carefully, this map also shows the greatest extent of the Byzantine Empire in 1180 at the death of Emperor Manuel I Komnenos (r. 1143-1180)- marked in dotted lines- wherein the empire occupied almost all of the Balkans and east to Central Asia Minor (Turkey). This map however is not just a map to make viewers see how large the Byzantine Empire was in size, but rather it is a display of coins of different Byzantine rulers from different eras of Byzantine history found all across lands once under the Byzantine Empire. These coins are displayed on the specific area on the map that they were found in. In the tour of this wall map of the Byzantine world, we would start at their westernmost province which was Southern Spain, and this map displays a Tremissis or a small gold coin of Emperor Heraclius (r. 610-641) that was found there as it was during his reign when Byzantine control of Southern Spain in which they gained in the 550s under Justinian I was lost. The map then shows 2 coins of Emperor Justinian I with one found at Carthage in North Africa which is the Byzantine standard gold Solidus coin and the other being a copper coin or Follis of Justinian I found in Ravenna, Italy.

Map of Byzantine Italy with coins found there

As you look below Ravenna on the map, you will then see a Solidus gold coin of Emperor Constantine V of the Isaurian Dynasty (r. 741-775) found in Rome and a half-follis coin of Emperor Constans II of the Heraclian Dynasty (r. 641-668) found in Naples, as in both their reigns the Byzantines were still in control of most of Italy despite their authority over it already greatly challenged by the Germanic Lombards. In the portion of the southern tip of mainland Italy and Sicily on the map, you will then see a Follis of Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty (r. 976-1025) found there as in his reign Byzantium still had Southern Italy, then over in Sicily you will see two coins of Emperor Maurice of the Justinian Dynasty (r. 582-602) found there both being Dekanoummion coins, which are a variety of copper coins, then also in the Sicily part of the map you would see a gold Nomisma coin of Emperor Theophilos of the Amorian Dynasty (r. 829-842) found in Syracuse, as it was during his reign when Byzantine rule over Sicily began falling to the Arabs of North Africa. Now heading east in the map, we proceed to Thessaloniki, Greece where the map shows a 13th century Hyperpyron coin found there of Theodore Komnenos Doukas Angelos (r. 1215-1230), who was both Despot of Epirus and Emperor of Thessaloniki since 1224 in years when Constantinople had fallen to the 4th Crusade (1204-1261), and Theodore Doukas here was one of the many claimants to the lost Byzantine throne, though he never got his chance to take back Constantinople as he was defeated and blinded by the Bulgarians in 1230.

Map of the Byzantine Balkans, Asia Minor, and the Crimea with coins found there

When looking at the Byzantine capital Constantinople at the map there, you would then see two coins found there with one of them being a copper Follis of Justinian I and the other one being a gold Solidus of his nephew and successor Emperor Justin II (r. 565-578), then while heading across the Marmara Sea from Constantinople on the map you will see two other coins of Justin II found there in which both are copper Follis coins with one found at the city of Nicomedia just across the water from Constantinople and the other one at Kyzikos. The map then also shows a coin found in Nicaea and Magnesia in Asia Minor, the one found at Nicaea being a Hyperpyron of the first emperor and founder of the exiled Byzantine Empire of Nicaea (1204-1261) Theodore I Laskaris (r. 1205-1221), and the found at Magnesia being also a Hyperpyron, except this is one of Theodore I’s grandson Emperor Theodore II Laskaris (r. 1254-1258). Now moving north up the map to the Byzantine colony of Cherson in the Crimea in Ukraine north of the Black Sea, you would then see a copper Follis of Maurice that was found there, and directly south from there at the city of Trebizond at the northeastern corner of Asia Minor along the Black Sea you will then see a Hyperpyron found there of Manuel I Megas Komnenos (r. 1237-1263) who was an emperor of the Empire of Trebizond, the breakaway Byzantine Empire based there since Constantinople fell to the 4th Crusade in 1204. When looking at the regions of Seleukeia and Isauria in Asia Minor on the map you will then see copper Follis coins of Heraclius with one found in Seleukeia and the other in Isauria, then when looking at Cyprus you will also see another copper Follis of the same Heraclius found there as well. Now lastly when proceeding to the eastern provinces of the Byzantine Empire on the map, when looking at Antioch you will then see a copper Follis coin of Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527) who was the uncle and predecessor of Justinian I found there, then in Jerusalem you will see another copper Follis of Heraclius found there, and lastly at Alexandria in Egypt you will see a copper coin of Justinian I found there.          

Complete map of the Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent in 565 (purple), and in 1180 (dotted lines) with coins found in certain locations

Aside from the massive map displaying coins found all over the Byzantine world, the collection also displays another portion focusing on the evolution of the images of Byzantine emperors shown on their coins, mainly about the Byzantine imperial uniform known as the Loros which was a 16ft long heavy jewelled scarf wrapped in a cross shape over the emperor’s body and draped over the left arm, which was then introduced as an imperial uniform by the late 7th century. This imperial garment was then something that evolved from the Ancient Roman togas, and in the Late Roman era, the consuls in the Roman/ Byzantine Senate began wearing a robe wrapped around the body like a scarf instead of a large sheet being the toga worn before, and in the 7th century with the office of consul being abolished, the Byzantine emperor who now had the powers of the consul began wearing the consul’s robe, which then became the standard uniform of Byzantine emperors in official ceremonies until the fall of the empire in 1453, although over the centuries the style of the imperial Loros kept evolving. Now the coins at this part of the collection first shows images of Late Roman emperors minted in their respective coins dressed in the consular robe known as the Trabea Triumphalis which was an elaborate toga with a decorative border and sometimes even encrusted with jewels.

Top to bottom: coins of Roman/ Byzantine emperors Numerian, Constantius II, Julian, and Arcadius

The 4 coins here showing the emperors in the Trabea Triumphalis include a copper one of the Roman emperor Numerian (r. 283-284) found in Rome, a double gold Solidus of the second Byzantine emperor Constantius II (r. 337-361) found in Trier in Germany, a gold Solidus of Emperor Julian (r. 361-363) found in Antioch, and a Gold Solidus of Emperor Arcadius (r. 395-408) found in Constantinople. The next set of two coins to the right of these 4 then show the first ones depicting emperors in the early version of the Loros now holding an imperial scepter using the symbol of the Christian cross now replacing the old Roman symbol of the eagle, and these coins include a gold Solidus of Emperor Theodosius II (r. 408-450) found in Constantinople and the other one being a copper Follis of Emperor Tiberius II Constantine of the Justinian Dynasty (r. 578-582) also found in Constantinople.

Top to bottom: Coins of Byzantine emperors Theodosius II and Tiberius II

To the right of these 2 coins, the next 4 coins you will see show how the coins beginning in the 7th century have evolved into ones having more Christian symbols such as crosses and these include a gold Solidus found in Constantinople of Justinian II during his first reign (685-695) who is said to be the emperor credited for introducing the Loros as the standard uniform for Byzantine emperors, then below his coin is a gold Solidus of Constantine V found in Constantinople. Below the coin of Constantine V is a copper Follis of Emperor Basil I (r. 867-886) who was the peasant turned imperial bodyguard that founded the famous and long reigning Macedonian Dynasty (867-1056) found in Constantinople, and below the coin of Basil I is a very important and rare Byzantine lead seal which is that of Emperor Romanos I Lekapenos (r. 920-944) who was the Armenian admiral that took over the throne at that time, in which there are not that many coins that depict him, and this one here shows not only Romanos I but him with his two sons and co-emperors Stephen and Constantine Lekapenos.

1st column, top to bottom: Coins of emperors Constantine VII, Theodora (2&3), and Theodore I; 2nd column, top to bottom: Coins of emperors Andronikos II and Michael IX, Basil II, and Nikephoros III

The next 7 coins on display to the right of the last 4 ones I mentioned then show coins from the 10th century onward showing how the imperial Loros evolved into becoming more simplified, whereas the design of the coins too have been simplified to the point where the emperor’s image became more and more unrecognizable, whereas as some depict the full body of the emperor and the others just the emperor’s bust. The first of the 7 shown here is a gold Solidus of the same Romanos I mentioned earlier except this one with his co-emperor and son-in-law Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos of the Macedonian Dynasty as a child (r. 913-959) beside him, found in Constantinople. Below this is a gold Solidus of Empress Theodora (r. 1055-1056) who was a sole woman ruler of the empire and the last of the Macedonian Dynasty, while below her gold Solidus is another coin of her, except this one being a gold Histamenon Nomisma which is slightly lighter than the standard gold Solidus, and both these coins of Theodora were found in Constantinople.

Top to bottom: Coins of emperors Justinian II, Constantine V, Basil I, and Romanos I

The coin seen below the ones of Theodora is a Byzantine Hyperpyron coin which in the reign of Alexios I Komnenos (r. 1081-1118) replaced the standard gold Solidus that had been devalued in the mid-11th century, and the Hyperpyron seen here is of the first Emperor Nicaea Theodore I Laskaris who had been mentioned earlier, and just like the coin of Theodore I on the map mentioned earlier, the one here was also found in Nicaea which he chose as the base for his exiled Byzantine Empire. The next 3 coins to the right include a Basilikon which was a variation of a silver coin in the late Byzantine Empire in which this one here is of Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) wherein it shows a rather crude full-body image of him next to his son and co-emperor Michael IX Palaiologos (r. 1294-1320) found in Constantinople, then below this is a lead seal with the bust of Emperor Basil II of the Macedonian Dynasty, and below this is a full-body lead seal of Emperor Nikephoros III Botaneiates (r. 1078-1081).

Ivory triptych panel with Emperor St. Constantine I the Great

Next to all these coins to the right is a precious Byzantine artifact, which here is a piece of a 10th century ivory triptych, and this piece shows the Roman emperor and first Byzantine emperor Constantine I the Great (r. 306-330) dressed in the 10th century Byzantine imperial Loros. Above this part of the collection containing the coins is a large marble roundel from the 12th century depicting the Byzantine emperor John II Komnenos (r. 1118-1143) dressed again in the imperial Loros, however based on certain studies the identity of the emperor on the marble roundel is not clear, meaning that it could not exactly be John II but could possibly be any other 12th century Byzantine emperor, but whoever the emperor on the roundel is, this roundel is something I would like to recreate as part of my artworks recreating Byzantine era images.                  

Marble roundel with the image of John II Komnenos in the imperial Loros (disputed)

The other most noticeable items in the collection include a number of intricately carved marble pillars, arches, niches, and sarcophagi. The one you cannot miss is the marble “Seasons Sarcophagus” which was found in Rome dating back to around 330, the same year Constantinople was founded by Emperor Constantine I, and this piece being from the 4th century still shows some Pagan elements considering that by this time Roman Paganism was still strong despite Christianity already rising to becoming a dominant faith, although it was only by the 380s when Christianity became the empire’s official religion under Emperor Theodosius I (r. 379-395).

Byzantine marble chancel barrier

Another piece similar to this sarcophagus that you will find in the collection is a 6th-7th century fragment of a marble Byzantine chancel barrier showing that this piece could have been much larger than how you see back in its day. Something similar to the chancel barrier that you will also find is a 5th-6th century marble reliquary box designed to look like a miniature sarcophagus which was found in Syria. Another of the more notable large sized sculptures from the collection that you will see is an 11th century marble slab known as the Hagiosoritissa depicting the Mother of God and suggesting that it could have been part of a larger relief part of a pillar from a church with an identical one opposite it, except with a sculpture depicting St. John the Baptist, however its twin slab is missing, though this piece is definitely a rare one that shows some evidence of Byzantine sculpture art from the 11th century.

Byzantine marble slab with the Hagiosoritissa

In another of the smaller vertical display cases is a set of 3 items in which I consider it to be some of my finest pieces in the whole collection and this includes a 10th century ivory slab with a cross, and at the center of it a bust of a Byzantine emperor, while the borders of this ivory slab show some sockets suggesting that they were once used for placing jewels to border it. Next to this slab is a fragment of another ivory slab which just like this has an arched top, except this one has a sculpture of St. Gabriel the Archangel dressed in the Byzantine imperial Loros, and below it is a small but very intricately carved ivory round box known as a pyxis.

Consular diptych of Philoxenus, 6th century

Now one of the larger pieces in the entire collection I find very interesting is the 6th century consular diptych of the consul Philoxenus as it shows inscriptions in both Latin as seen at the center showing the name of the consul, and in Greek as seen in the 4 circles surrounding it, thus showing the transition of Latin to Greek in language which already began taking place in the 6th century where Greek had already slowly been becoming used as an official language in the government, rather than just the everyday language. Additionally, 3 other impressive ivory pieces include a late 10th century triptych of the Virgin Mary and the child Christ at the center with 3 saints on each of the 2 sides flanking it making it have a total of 6 saints, another one being a late 10th century ivory sculpture of the Virgin Hodegetria (mother and child icon), and one made from between the 7th-8th centuries depicting the Nativity. When it comes to the famous Byzantine boxes and caskets, Dumbarton Oaks too features some of the finest examples of it such as the very intricate and symmetrical rosette casket with carvings of warriors and animals which is made of wood and clad with bone plaques, it dates back to either the 10th or 11th centuries and is a lockable piece intended to store valuables such as spices, perfumes, and coins. Another intricate rosette casket you will find in the collection is a long rectangular one made also of wood with bone plaques dating back to the late 10th century, and this one here has religious images carved into it.                   

Ivory panel with an emperor, fragment of the panel with Archangel St. Gabriel, and the pyxis box
Seasons Sarcophagus, 4th century
Rosette casket with warriors and animals
Rosette casket with religious figures

Now when it comes to Byzantine jewellery, the collection features a wide variety of it spanning across the different centuries of Byzantine history, thus you can see the evolution in the designs Byzantine jewellery had over the centuries. In the jewellery collection, one of the most noticeable is something known as the “Marriage Belt” dating back to either the 5th or 6th centuries featuring 23 golden medallions forming a circle which features both Christian and Pagan symbols minted on the golden medallions showing that the ancient Pagan faith and its traces were not yet totally wiped out by then.

10th century Byzantine earrings

One of the impressive pieces of jewellery also includes an early 10th century golden ring surrounded by a circle of pearls, which still looks very much intact even up to this day. Aside from this ring, the same case as the ring and marriage belt also features an early 10th century pair of earrings made of gold with pearls as well, two golden marriage rings from the early 7th century, and a series of golden necklaces and earrings with gemstones dating all the way back to the early 5th century too. However, the item from this case that I find the most interesting is the early 7th century golden necklace with the image of the Ancient Greek goddess Aphrodite at its pendant, thus showing that even up until the 7th century when Orthodox Christianity was not only already the official faith of the empire but one that already dominated over society, their Pagan Greek roots were still not yet forgotten.

7th century gold and lapis lazuli Aphrodite necklace

Additionally, this necklace’s pendant does in fact stay true to how art was like in Ancient Greece showing the golden sculpture Ancient Greek goddess in her full beauty exposing most of her body’s physique with only her lower part covered, while the blue lapis lazuli background is meant to represent the sea, while the necklace itself features an alternating pattern of gold and lapis lazuli pieces. As part of the golden necklaces, one of them that I really found interesting was a large one with the bust of Emperor Anastasius I (r. 491-518) at its pendant while the two clasps of this necklace feature two coins with one of Anastasius I and the other one of his predecessor Emperor Zeno the Isaurian (r. 474-491), and next to this necklace are two golden coins with the image of Emperor Justinian I used as a clasp for either a belt or necklace. One thing that you will notice here that has a very interesting appearance is a set of 2 golden medallion bracelets dating back to the 6th century but still looking very intact except for the top-left corner of the left medallion chipped off while the rest of it still looks very much of good quality after all these centuries.

4th century gold and jewelled bracelet

Next to these 2 golden medallions would then be another interesting piece being another golden bracelet as well, except this one still has 4 out of 9 jewels still in place, and the more impressive part is that this bracelet being from the 4th century is 2 centuries older than the previous one I mentioned yet looks even more intact than the former. Another interesting and very intact piece you would also see in this part of the collection is a pair of 2 early 7th century bracelets worn by certain Byzantine governor generals in which this one contains not only the image of one emperor but 3, which include emperors Maurice, Heraclius, and the emperor between them which was Phocas (r. 602-610) who was the emperor that overthrew Maurice and was overthrown by Heraclius.

Cameo of Caesars Galerius and Constantius I

In this part of the collection, you will also see one of the oldest pieces in the Byzantine collection, which is in fact something that even predates the founding of the Byzantine Empire (330), and this is an Ancient Roman pendant known as a cameo dating back to the year 300 made of chalcedony and gold depicting the busts of the emperors Galerius (r. 293-311) and Constantius I (r. 293-306) when they were Caesars or junior emperors of the Roman Tetrarchy- when the Roman Empire was divided into 4 parts- with the latter one (Constantius I) being the father of Byzantium’s founder Constantine I.

Circular and hexagonal pendants with medallions of Constantine I, 4th century

Other than this cameo, the collection does in fact feature even earlier pieces such as gold pendants with the coins of Roman emperors Caracalla (r. 211-217) and Elagabalus (r. 218-222) of the Severan Dynasty and a coin of Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305). Something else here that would be of great interest is a pair of 2 pendants of Constantine I from the 4th century, with one being circular and its pair a hexagonal one, and here Constantine I is depicted as the Roman god Apollo as he true enough went back-and-forth in his images from Christian to Pagan.              

Golden necklace with Anastasius I, coins with Justinian I below
Marriage Belt with 23 golden medallions
Golden medallion bracelets, 6th century
Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine jewellery collection
Golden bracelets with emperors Maurice, Phocas, and Heraclius

Another impressive collection at Dumbarton Oaks are the crosses from the Byzantine era which were used as reliquaries or cases to store holy relics, and apparently these containers used to store pieces of the True Cross came in the form of crosses, and considering the importance of the relic of True Cross, the containers holding them too had to be of high quality with very impressive and intricate art on them. The case containing the collection of reliquary crosses then shows a large number of them coming in different forms and designs together with 2 other reliquary items and 4 different rings.

Cloissone enamel reliquary cross with golden box, 12th-13th century

In this collection of reliquary crosses, the one that I find the most impressive is the gold and Coisonne enamel one made from the late 12th to early 13th centuries that is still fully intact as it not only has its cross but the gold box in the shape of a cross underneath it, and to display both items still intact, this piece is seen with the golden box turned over beneath the painted cross above it. Another piece here that is very impressive is although now seen in 3 fragments coming from the 11th century made of silver, niello, and gilding showing that they once belonged to one piece, although these surviving fragments are pieces coming exactly from 3 edges of this cross- except for the bottom one- wherein the fragment of the upper edge shows the emperor Constantine I the Great in the Byzantine imperial Loros with Pope St. Sylvester, the one on the left edge shows the archangel St. Michael at the location of Chonae in Asia Minor, and the one on the right showing the Old Testament figure Joshua- although only half of him is seen- prostrating himself before an Archangel.

11th century reliquary cross fragments

One of the other crosses you will easily notice is the bronze one from either the 11th or 12th centuries which is still highly intact that it even still has its base hanging from it, and not to mention you will also see crosses from as early as the 6th and 7th centuries here still mostly intact with one being a necklace with a cross pendant from the 7th century and another one being a series of 4 small pendant crosses made as early as the 6th century. Aside from the reliquary crosses and cross pendant necklaces, this same case that contains them also contains 3 small, but very intricate Byzantine rings and the most impressive of these 3 rings happens not be the most detailed and colorful one but the simplest of the 3 from the 11th century as this ring is a rare one of great value belonging to an important historical figure of that time which was the historian Michael Attaleiates (1021-1080).

Byzantine rings, Michael Attaleiates’ ring (leftmost)
Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine reliquary crosses collection


Now as icons have played such a major role in the history of Byzantium, the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine collection does in fact feature a few valuable and very stunning icons, and the one here that I find the most impressive is the one of the late 4th and early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople St. John Chrysostom made in around 1325, and this piece is not just a hand-painted icon but a miniature mosaic made of several tiny tesserae or painted tiles assembled to form the image of the saint in a very realistic way as if it were a hand-painted icon.

Miniature mosaic of St. John Chrysostom, 1325

Other than the miniature mosaic icon of St. John Chrysostom, this collection also features another impressive miniature mosaic in which the other one here also made in the 14th century depicts not one character but 40! The 40 figures in this miniature mosaic are the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia, which were Christian Roman soldiers from the 4th century who were sentenced to death by the Roman authorities during the early 4th century Christian persecutions by being forced to march to death in the dead of winter with their clothes stripped off. The collection too features another icon of the same subject being the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia, although the second one with the same subject is a post-Byzantine era piece made in the 17th century using tempera and gilding on wood, and this one here is a triptych icon with the central panel showing the same 40 martyrs except this one with one of them finding a warm bathhouse as the legend about them says, while the panels left and right of the central one show different saints painted on them.

Golden frame with 8 Cloissone medallions, 11th century

Another thing you will find here is a golden icon frame from the mid-11th century containing 8 Cloisonne medallions around it depicting religious images. The largest one and perhaps the most noticeable of the icons in the collection happens to be the 14th century icon of St. Peter made of tempera and gilding on a large wooden slab which shows him with such strong emotion and depth, in which became the style of icons in the late Byzantine era, compared to the more emotionless way saints were depicted in earlier Byzantine eras. Other than icons, you will also find Byzantine era illuminated manuscripts made on sheets of vellum, and here you will see one displayed on a page of an opened book and 2 others as hanging sheets.

Miniature mosaic of the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia, 14th century
Triptych of the 40 Martyrs of Sebasteia, 17th century
Icon of St. Peter painted on a large wooden slab, 14th century
Byzantine illuminated manuscripts on vellum

Of course, the collection not only features larger than life treasures from the Byzantine world belonging to larger-than-life figures like emperors or items that depict them, but rather the collection also features several objects of everyday life in Byzantium including plates, utensils, chalices, and a lot more.

5th century silver plate with a hunting scene

Although no matter how ordinary these items may seem, a lot of them are of great historical value with some even having a story to tell, and this could be said about the silver plate from the 5th century depicting a hunting scene here which shows that hunting had a major role in Byzantine society especially among the elites, while the same too can be said with a large silver chalice you will see which actually belonged to the important Ardaburius family of 5th century Constantinople.

Byzantine spoons and a fork

Now one thing you cannot miss in the collection is the display of Byzantine era utensils as here among the several serving spoons, you will see an actual Byzantine era fork, and when looking at it, it may at first seem very ordinary to see a simple silver fork, but if you know the history of Byzantium you will know it is a very important object as the fork was in fact an item the Byzantines had developed as a utensil for eating in which they have introduced to the Western world, and at this day we have the Byzantines to thank for introducing it to us. Among the other silver housewares in the collection, you will find a series of silver plates, chalices, incense burners, candlesticks, ewers, intricate bronze lampstands, small oil lamps in the form of animals, and even trading instruments such a weight for a scale in the form of the bust of a 5th century Byzantine empress.

Weight in the form of a 5th century Byzantine empress’ bust

Outside the room of the collection, you will then find a large pot made of the purple stone porphyry, in which the Byzantines used in order to make the room the imperial heirs were born in purple to legitimize their claim to the throne. Other than that, you will also find a series of tiled mosaics found in floors from different parts of the Byzantine era like Asia Minor and Syria wherein one shows an interesting green one with red and white lines and another one looking like a maze of different patterns made of green and red porphyry stones laid into marble, this piece is thus an amazing geometric mix of a tiled mosaic and a checkerboard which was found in a church in Southern Italy.

Byzantine lamps in animal designs and lampstands
Porphyry jar
Floor mosaic pattern with red and green porphyry stones laid into the marble

That’s about it for my article on the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine collection. To sum it up, the collection does feature very valuable treasures, though not very large, its size does not really matter as you would in fact spend endless minutes staring at these valuable items. Prepare to be immersed in the fascinating history and culture of Byzantium. The Dumbarton Oaks collection has some of the rarest and most well-preserved Byzantine treasures as well as the most important ones that are not only treasures found all over the Byzantine world but those that belonged to important people in the Byzantine era. This is what makes this collection very special, and it was such a great pleasure for me to see this collection. Of course, the entire Dumbarton Oaks museum has a lot more to show than its Byzantine collection, but since my site only features the history of Byzantium, I only chose to cover it. Also, if you all noticed I did not mention every item you would see since if I did, then I would go forever with this article, so for the sake of making this post short and simple, I chose to just stick with my best finds in the collection. Anyway, this is all for now on this special edition article on the Dumbarton Oaks Byzantine collection, this is Powee Celdran the Byzantine Time Traveler… thank you all for reading!