Thursday, August 8, 2013


Ann Moffatt, Maxene Tall, Constantine Porphyrogennetos, The Book of Ceremonies; with the Greek edition of the Corpus Scriptorum Historiae Byzantinae (Bonn, 1829) (2 vols.). Byzantina Australiensia, 18. Canberra: Australian Association for Byzantine Studies, 2012. Pp. xxxviii; vi, 870. ISBN 9781876503420. AU $77.00.

Reviewed by Isabel Kimmelfield and Paul Stephenson, Radboud University Nijmegen (;

Version at BMCR home site

The Book of Ceremonies of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus, otherwise known as the De ceremoniis aulae Byzantinae, survives in a single, near-complete manuscript in Leipzig, as well as in two other palimpsest fragments in Istanbul and on Mount Athos.1 Compiled and, perhaps, in part composed by Constantine VII, it is divided into two books, the first of ninety-seven chapters, the second of fifty-six, with three military treatises today treated as appendices to Book I. It is a unique and rich source for Byzantine imperial ceremonial, but much else besides, including courtly, imperial, military, and urban life and organisation. Until now, it has been available in an edition with Latin translation and notes by J.J. Reiske (completed in the 1750s, and reproduced in the Bonn Corpus later), and in a French translation of the first book by A. Vogt (1935-40). Additionally, translations have been published of parts of the work, discussed below, but no complete translation into a modern language. Therefore, the new complete translation of the work into English by Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall is a welcome contribution to Byzantine studies. Moffatt and Tall undertook this translation in full knowledge of another project, still ongoing, in Paris, which is undertaking a new edition with French translation and full commentary. In light of this larger project, perhaps, and also in deference to the great undertaking involved in the translation alone, Moffatt and Tall have chosen to limit their commentary to a few references in footnotes to the more extensive commentary provided by Reiske and Vogt, as well as other scholars. Moffatt and Tall have thus succeeded in their stated aim, to provide a comprehensive, readable, modern-language translation which can also serve as a guide to further study of the text.

The De ceremoniis is a composite work, a compilation made in the tenth century of a variety of source material dating from between the sixth and tenth centuries, making it a challenging text to work with, much less to translate. Through internal evidence, most sections have been fairly securely dated, but difficulties can still arise when dealing with terminology that changed in meaning over the centuries. Such shifts are notably evident in the oft-translated and cited Kletorologion of Philotheos (chapters 52-53 of Book II). Dated to 899, this list of ranks and titles within the Byzantine court provides invaluable information, but by the time the De ceremoniis was compiled in the mid-tenth century, many of the titles included were already falling out of use, or had changed in meaning or significance. Amid the vast lists of ranks and titles within the complex and ever-changing imperial bureaucracy, one can pick almost any title and see this process demonstrated. The post of the protovestiarios, for instance (I.42, p. 711), is first recorded in 412, at which time the holder of the office presided over the emperor's personal treasury (vestiarion). There is little evidence for the early development of the role, and only Philotheos mentions it among the taktika (official lists of offices) produced in the ninth and tenth centuries. Narrative sources, however, describe protovestiarioi commanding armies, conducting peace negotiations, and investigating conspiracies. The protovestiarios seems to have served as an aid to the parakoimomenos (first eunuch), with the post gaining increasing importance in the eleventh century. Conversely, other posts that had faded in importance by the tenth century are presented within the De ceremoniis as still playing central roles in the court. The praipositos, a eunuch in charge of palace ceremony, first appears in the fourth century as the highest-ranking eunuch, the grand chamberlain, and in the fourth and fifth centuries holders of the post had great influence. But by the sixth century, the role declined, and instead the parakoimomenos took over this leading role. However, in a work focused on ceremonial, and based on accounts often prepared by those who had been in charge of it in centuries past, the praipositos naturally still features frequently throughout the De ceremoniis. This inclusion of dated material was hardly an error, though, but more a deliberate choice, motivated by the project's purpose: in his prefaces to Books I and II, the scholar-emperor Constantine VII stated that this work was intended to help revive 'ancestral customs which have been neglected' (I, p. 4).

This context of the text's creation adds another layer of complexity to the interpretation and use of the work, with occasional hints showing through the text of Constantine's own life and times, and his scholarly predilections. Most frequently, then, scholars have concentrated on limited sections or aspects of the work. For example, it has served to elucidate studies on the layout of the Great Palace in which many of the ceremonies described took place, on the games played in the Hippodrome and the roles of the famous circus factions of Constantinople, on the complex bureaucratic systems and hierarchies of the Byzantine court, on the construction and presentation of imperial power and identity, and on the organisation and preparation for military campaigns. In the course of such studies, parts of the De ceremoniis have been translated into modern languages by scholars, along with further commentary, including studies of the Hippodrome,2 the Kletorologion,3 and the military treatises written by Constantine VII for his son, Romanos II.4 In each instance, Moffatt and Tall have used these previous studies and the commentary and interpretations provided. Although Moffatt and Tall include no historical or literary commentary of their own, they are admirably transparent in indicating where certain of their choices in translation were influenced by previous scholars' work, and they frequently direct readers to these earlier studies for further information and discussion.

There are some instances, however, where more discussion of the reasons behind differing translations would be useful. Throughout their translation of the military treatises that appear as appendices to Book I, Moffatt and Tall identify most places where they have differed significantly from Haldon's translation, but they do not always explain why, nor the different interpretations of the meaning of the events described that this indicates. For instance, where the text describes the manner in which the emperor receives senators after returning from campaign, Haldon translates καὶ δέχεται αὐτούς ἀπὸ στόματος as 'he receives them verbally' (Haldon, p. 137), while Moffatt and Tall translate '[he] receives them with a kiss' (Appendix to Book I, p. 496). While the Greek can be read literally as 'from the mouth' or 'orally', the precise meaning is uncertain. Moffatt and Tall appear to have been influenced in their translation by ecclesiastical traditions of the kiss as greeting. Haldon, on the other hand, seems to see this phrase as indicating the distinctive fact that here the emperor greets the senators directly, from his own mouth, whereas in most ceremonies the emperor does little speaking himself. Such differing interpretations lead to differences in translation that appear arbitrary without further discussion of the reasoning behind them.

Similar issues appear in the translation of the Kletorologion. In the sections on the various feasts that take place throughout the year and the guests invited to each, mention is made of the 'Bulgarian guests', τῶν Βουλγάρων φίλων' (II.52, p. 767). Moffatt and Tall appear to interpret these as diplomats of some description, as they later translate καὶ ἐξαποστέλλονται πρὸς τὰ οἰκεῖα οἱ ἀπὸ βουλγάρων φίλοι as 'the guests from the Bulgarians are sent away to their own country' (I.52, p. 773). It is equally possible – indeed, more likely – that these were not diplomats, but hostages; thus, they would not be returning to their 'country', but rather to their 'home' or 'place' (in Constantinople) following the feast. In his French translation of the Kletorologion, Oikonomides translates this phrase as 'les amis Bulgares sont renvoyés chez eux', which seems to indicate that he too sees these 'friends' as residing closer to the court (possibly, therefore, as hostages), rather than travelling all the way back to their 'own country' (Oikonomides, p. 210). These are of course inevitable challenges to translators, particularly dealing with works this complex.

Structurally, Moffatt and Tall have followed in the footsteps of previous translators and publishers of the work. Reproducing the Greek text from the 1829 Bonn edition, they sensibly follow the page and chapter numbering of Reiske's text. A different chapter numbering appeared in Vogt's translation due to his accounting for lacunae in the original manuscript – Reiske noted these, but chose not to give them chapter numbers – so Moffatt and Tall also include Vogt's chapter numbers where appropriate, further aiding the reader working between publications. The work is also made accessible to non-Greek-readers by the inclusion of footnotes that refer to the English translation rather than to the Greek text. The inclusion of the Greek text can feel like an afterthought at times – indeed, Moffatt credits Anna Kartsonis with insisting on this important addition, although the Bonn Corpus text is available to download – and, apart from the correspondence between page numbers, there is no further indication in the English text of how it corresponds to the Greek (notably, through the inclusion of line numbering). Although this means that the English translation flows well without awkward line breaks, it does limit precision in citation for those using the English text alone.

Two maps are reproduced in the book. One presents a possible layout of the Great Palace taken from an adaptation by J.M. Featherstone of W. Müller-Weiner's hypothetical plan. The other provides a simplified map of Constantinople by Cyril Mango, indicating key points and ceremonial routes through the city. Although these maps do not include all places mentioned in the text, they do help to contextualise the ceremonies and events described in the work. A partial glossary of transliterated terms is also included, as is an index of proper names. With a work of the size of the De ceremoniis, the limited length of both of these is understandable, though an expanded glossary and index would have been useful. This problem is ameliorated by a comprehensive table of contents, including short 'titles' for the chapters and brief descriptions of the events and ceremonies mentioned. Moreover, the translators make up for the lack of any commentary of their own by providing a lengthy bibliography of previous partial and complete translations of the work, as well as related medieval sources, and modern studies. This is an immensely useful collection of references to the wide range of research that has been done in relation to or directly on the De ceremoniis, and will be of great help to students and scholars.

There are very few typographical or other errors in such a large work, although some footnotes misdirect readers to earlier notes. These do not undermine the value of this work as a tool for both scholars and students, allowing those without the necessary linguistic skills to access this work in its entirety for the first time, and providing those already familiar with it in the original Greek with an excellent tool to ease their work.


1.   This review was written by Isabel Kimmelfield following a close reading of the text and a dozen hour-long conversations with Professor Paul Stephenson, part of a graduate research seminar on medieval sources in context at the Radboud University Nijmegen.
2.   Gilbert Dagron, 'L'organisation et le déroulement des courses d'après le Livre des Cérémonies', in Travaux et mémoires du Centre de recherche, d'histoire et de civilisation byzantine (Paris, 2000): 1-200.
3.   Nicolas Oikonomides, Les listes de préséance byzantines des IXe et Xe siècles (Paris, 1972). J.B. Bury also produced a commentary on the Kletorologion, with a revised version of the Greek text: The Imperial Administrative System in the Ninth Century, with a Revised Text of the Kletorologion of Philotheus (London, 1911).
4.   John F. Haldon, Constantine Porphyrogenitus: Three Treatises on Imperial Military Expeditions (Vienna, 1990).

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