Post-classical history

Venice and the Fork

She did not touch her food with her hands but when her eunuchs had cut it up into small pieces she daintily lifted them to her mouth with a small two-pronged gold fork.

Peter Damian, Institutio monialis, c. eleventh century

From that moment in 1004/5 when the Byzantine aristocrat Maria Argyropoulaina used her little golden fork in Venice, western dining habits would never be the same. Although initially condemned as pretentious, forks became luxury objects, often made of precious metal with ebony or ivory handles, collected by monarchs and bequeathed to churches. The Romans had used forks in their ancient style of dining on couches. But both couches and forks were forgotten in the early Middle Ages. Primitive instruments resembling a knife, with a single point, were used for piercing meat and people ate with their hands. Our familiar fork, to which Norbert Elias attributed a ‘civilizing’ role, returned to Europe thanks to Byzantium. Maria’s golden one serves as a symbol of many aspects of Byzantine cultural influence in the West.

This influence was particularly evident in the settlement at the head of the Adriatic, founded by refugees from mainland Italy during the Lombard invasions of the sixth century, which became the city of Venice (see chapter 6). Fleeing with their wealth to the sandbanks that formed islands in the lagoon, the inhabitants became expert sailors and shipbuilders, exploiting the local supplies of fish and salt. They were governed by the exarch of Ravenna and maintained strong links with Constantinople. In the early seventh century, Emperor Herakleios provided funds for the church of the Mother of God at Torcello (Santa Maria Assunta, which was later rebuilt with the famous mosaics and Last Judgment); and the local inhabitants created a new city named Heracleana (Civitas Nova Heracleana) in the emperor’s honour. The combination of local wealth, military support from Ravenna, a bishopric established at Malamocco and cultural investment from Byzantium created the nucleus of Venice, a name which embraced scattered communities on a number of islands.

The Lombard invasions of northern Italy also put pressure on the Byzantine exarchate of Ravenna, which rarely had enough funds or troops to defend the territory reconquered by Justinian’s wars. In 751, King Desiderius finally realized the Lombards’ ambitions and captured Ravenna. Byzantium transferred its attention to the new settlement of Venice. But the inhabitants of Venice carefully balanced their alliance with Byzantium with their need for allies in the West. From the eighth century onwards, they cultivated close relations with the Franks in order to preserve their independence from hostile powers, notably Lombards and later Hungarians. The old Roman title Duke of Venice gradually lost its Byzantine connections; ‘dux’ became ‘doge’, and an autonomous system of city government slowly emerged under his authority. Contacts with the East were strengthened by Byzantine control of certain Dalmatian ports on the eastern shore of the Adriatic, and Venetian boats provided a regular service for ambassadors travelling between East and West. Merchants of Venice are known to have traded in wood for shipbuilding, wheat, salt and slaves, while archaeological evidence suggests the circulation of Byzantine glass and pottery, such as amphoras for transporting wine, grain and oil. At the end of the ninth century, Doge Orso II presented a set of twelve bells to the emperor, who responded with gifts of silks.

A lucrative slave trade also linked Venice with the Muslim world, although Roman popes regularly condemned commerce with non-Christians and Byzantine emperors prohibited it whenever they were at war with Islam. The Venetians continued to sell slaves (both Christian captives and non-Christian prisoners of war) in eastern Mediterranean centres where they bought spices, jewels and incense. In 829, they took advantage of local Christian anxiety in Alexandria about a possible Muslim persecution to smuggle the relics of St Mark out of Egypt. San Marco became their patron saint and his lion still adorns the flag of the city. When a suitably grand new church was built to house these precious bones, a Byzantine style of architecture was adopted. In 976, this church of San Marco was destroyed in a fire, repaired and later replaced by the great basilica which dominates the Piazza of San Marco today (plate 29). Architects from Constantinople, inspired by the church of the Holy Apostles in the Byzantine capital, began the construction under Doge Domenico Contarini in the mid-eleventh century and created the building characterized by Byzantine-style domes and mosaic decoration, as well as western architectural elements. Bronze doors made in Constantinople were installed at the west entrance and the Pala d’Oro, a magnificent Byzantine gold and enamel altar façade, commissioned by Doge Ordelafo Falier in 1105, was displayed behind the high altar. These tributes to imperial culture were increased after 1204 by materials looted from Byzantium, such as the four bronze horses from the Hippodrome (plate 30), carved pillars from the church of St Polyeuktos and a porphyry sculpture of the tetrarchs now immured in the external wall. The Basilica of San Marco symbolizes Venice’s great admiration for Byzantine culture.

Venetian magistrates also sought and obtained titles and honorific ranks from Byzantium. They regularly sent their sons to be educated in the capital and married them to Byzantine ladies. Maria Argyropoulaina embodied these strong ties. Her marriage to Giovanni, son of Pietro II (doge from 991 to 1008), was a mark of Byzantine gratitude to Venice for its recent naval assistance which had thwarted an Arab siege of Bari in southern Italy. It united the senatorial family of Argyros and Argyropoulos (son of Argyros) with the Orseolo, a leading Venetian family. Romanos Argyros, a close relative of Maria, later ruled as emperor from 1028 to 1034. The wedding was celebrated in Constantinople in the summer of 1004, in great style. The patriarch blessed the couple and Emperors Basil II and Constantine VIII placed the golden wedding crowns on their heads. When Maria and Giovanni arrived back in Venice, the whole city met them at a lavish reception, and the birth of their son, named Basil after the Byzantine ruler, was greeted with joy. Two years later, however, all three died during an epidemic. Nonetheless, their union strengthened an important relationship between the Republic and the Empire.

Constantinople cultivated these connections not only for cultural but also strategic reasons: the Venetian navy was designed to serve military as well as commercial purposes and proved an essential ally in Byzantine efforts to protect its territories in southern Italy. These relations were enshrined in a document of March 992, issued by Basil II (976–1025), which gave Venice most favoured trading status, under the direct control of the foreign minister. Guaranteed by a golden seal (chryso-boullos) and thus known as a chrysobull, it listed the privileges enjoyed by Venetian merchants in return for military and naval aid. The most important were reduced entry and exit fees payable to the port of Constantinople, which were restricted to Venetian merchants and could not be extended to merchants or goods from other cities. Amalfitan, Lombard or Jewish merchants were expressly excluded, as were the local Byzantines. Citing ancient customs, the imperial document recalled that the Venetians had always acted as loyal servants of the emperor, particularly when asked to assist imperial forces in Italian waters, and counted on this continuing.

While Doge Pietro Orseolo had initiated the discussion leading to the new chrysobull, its formal style suggests that it was not negotiated as a bilateral agreement. Although the province of Venice was treated as an independent foreign power, not a subordinate part of the empire, Byzantium dictated the terms which the Doge accepted. Basil II combined an insistence on naval assistance with trading privileges, and when Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118) needed more of the former, he extended the latter. In the twelfth century, Venice established an entire quarter along the Golden Horn in Constantinople and built warehouses in numerous Aegean ports. Local Byzantine merchants still had to pay the 10% kommerkion tax, which generated considerable anti-Venetian feeling and contributed to a disastrous deterioration in relations. Eventually, as we shall see, Venice turned against Byzantium, and after 1204 consolidated its scattered bases into a colonial empire created on the ruins of Byzantine imperial territory.

While Venice developed its very special ties with Constantinople, the regions of southern Italy and Sicily remained under direct imperial control and became themes in the course of the early Middle Ages. Sicily was strategically important as a staging post on the naval route between Old and New Rome, while the crossing from Dyrrachion (Durazzo in Albania) to Bari linked the two halves of the land route (the Via Egnatia). Emperor Leo III (717–41) transferred the diocese of East Illyricum, which included these areas, to the control of the patriarch, thus strengthening their Greek identity. The empire also kept allies among the seafaring population of coastal cities, including Naples, Amalfi, Salerno and Ravenna. Although northern Italy passed under Lombard control in the eighth century and the Arabs gradually overran Sicily in the ninth, the two south Italian regions of Calabria and Apulia remained part of the empire until the mid-eleventh. Byzantium then lost them to an adventurous band from Normandy, who formed part of the exodus of young knights, originally of Viking descent, seeking fame and fortune abroad.

While the Italian trading cities were drawn into a closer alliance with Byzantium by commerce, other western powers pursued a different relationship with the empire based on marriage alliances. From the eighth century onwards, numerous diplomatic agreements were negotiated on the promise of a Byzantine imperial bride, what western sources call a porphyrogennita, born in the Purple Chamber to the ruling imperial couple, as we have seen. In 767, Constantine V sent an organ to the Frankish king Pippin with a marriage proposal, and later Empress Irene’s court eunuch remained in the West to instruct Charlemagne’s daughter Rotrud in Greek customs, but neither of the projected unions was successfully concluded. Only in 901 did Leo VI send his illegitimate daughter Anna to marry Louis III of Provence (887–928). Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos not only justified the event, but also chose a western bride for his own son (see chapter 17).

Imperial brides from Constantinople were prestigious and alluring and medieval western rulers continued to seek and eventually obtained them. Theophano, niece of Emperor John I Tzimiskes, was one of the most notable. In 972, John sent her to marry Otto, the son of the German ruler Otto I (936–73). Although Nikephoros II Phokas had earlier refused Liutprand’s request for such a marriage, John needed to make peace in southern Italy so that he could concentrate on the eastern frontier and reopened negotiations with the western emperor. Theophano was not an imperial princess born in the purple, but she had been well prepared by the Byzantine court for her diplomatic role in the West, and brought with her an impressive dowry. Silks, jewellery, icons and manuscripts accompanied her entourage. The marriage contract was written in gold ink on a long roll of parchment painted to resemble a Byzantine silk, and the ceremony in Rome was commemorated in an ivory plaque, which displays Christ crowning the couple in imperial style (plate 14). The marriage confirmed a central tenet of Byzantine foreign policy: the use of the emperor’s female relations to strengthen diplomatic negotiations. It was as essential in the tenth century, when Theophano married Otto II, and Anna, sister of Basil II, was sent to Kiev to marry Vladimir, as in the fourteenth, when Theodora Kantakouzene, daughter of John VI, married the Ottoman ruler Orhan.

By the marriage alliance between Otto II and Theophano in 972, Byzantine influence was extended from Italy into northern Europe. Her father-in-law gave her estates near Nijmegen and Cologne, where she lived and in due course gave birth to four children, three daughters and a son, the future Otto III. As the wife of the western emperor, she participated in numerous donations to northern monasteries and after his death in 983 continued to build churches in Rome, Frankfurt, Magdeburg and Aachen, some dedicated to eastern saints such as Nikolaos, Dionysios, Alexios and Demetrios. She strengthened the cult of the Virgin and St Pantaleon at Cologne and placed her daughters in the key nunneries of Quedlinburg and Maastricht, where Byzantine silks are preserved. During her son’s minority, she issued acts for him, once using the term imperator, rather than the normal feminine version, imperatrix. She made sure that he received a good education in Greek and inspired him to promote the study of classical culture. Later, he was taught mathematics by Gerbert of Aurillac, a scholar who had mastered Arabic scientific innovations through Latin translations made in Catalonia. In 999, Otto promoted him to the papacy as Sylvester II. Long before he was old enough to marry, Theophano had sent an embassy to Byzantium to find him a bride and negotiations eventually resulted in the engagement of Zoe, niece of Basil II. The proposed marriage never took place, however, as the Emperor of the West died in 1002, in his twenty-second year.

This extension of Byzantine influence north of the Alps was quite new. In Italy, the existence of orthodox churches and monasteries observing the regulations of St Basil meant that Byzantium was well known. Merchants from the cities of Naples, Amalfi and Salerno, as well as Pisa and Genoa further north and Bari on the eastern coast, traded regularly in Constantinople, and monks from the region of Amalfi established themselves on Mount Athos. Knowledge of Greek was widespread in the south and Sicily, where a Greek dialect was spoken into modern times. In the eleventh century, just as Byzantine political influence was waning, the empire set a new fashion for church doors cast in bronze, which swept Italy. Byzantine doors were imported to Amalfi, Monte Gargano, Montecassino and Venice. When Abbot Desiderius (1058–87) rebuilt the main church at St Benedict’s own foundation of Montecassino, he asked Constantinople for mosaicists to create a new pavement and commissioned liturgical furniture including parts of a bronze and silver screen. The monastic scriptorium produced illuminated manuscripts inspired by Byzantine models, and craftsmen were trained in metalwork, ivory, stone, wood-and alabaster-carving and glass-making. Under the Ottonian and Hohenstaufen emperors, who ruled over both Italy and Germany, Benedictine monks from Montecassino regularly travelled across the Alps and reinforced knowledge of Byzantium in the imperial court.

While the marriages of Theophano and Maria Argyropoulaina indicate how deeply Byzantine culture was appreciated in certain parts of Europe, in other quarters there was less enthusiasm. Both women were the objects of scurrilous attacks written by western clerics, who condemned their bad influence and predicted that they would suffer torments in hell for introducing luxurious customs to the West. In a list of people who came to a bad end, the clerical reformer Peter Damian (1007–72) records Maria as an example to be avoided. In addition to criticizing her fork (see above), he considered that she lived in a very soft, delicate and artificial fashion, because she refused to wash herself in the communal waters of Venice and got her servants to collect rainwater. Maria perfumed her chamber with thyme and other aromatics, ‘a bad and shameful stink’, that provoked the dreadful punishments visited upon her during the epidemic of 1006.

In the case of Theophano, a vision recorded in about 1050 by Otloh of St Emmeram in Regensburg describes her bemoaning her sins and begging for forgiveness. A nun had experienced this vision, which Otloh wrote down. In the process, he accused Theophano of introducing previously unknown clothing and superfluous decorations to women at the western imperial court, which caused them to sin. These depraved customs had corrupted western women, leading them to adopt luxurious silk clothes and wicked habits. No wonder the empress was now appearing to nuns in night visions, begging them to pray for her soul.

Why should educated clerics like Otloh and Peter Damian make violent attacks on Byzantine women who had married western husbands at least two generations earlier? Apart from their obvious dislike of cultivated women, who preferred to bathe in clean water, live in scented rooms, wear silk dresses and not eat with their fingers, the reason is related to a growing awareness of Byzantium’s different theological beliefs and ecclesiastical customs. Western theologians transposed their hostility to orthodox definitions and practices onto the women who had introduced Byzantine customs to the West. In attacking the personal habits of Theophano and Maria long after their deaths, the clerics found a new way of repudiating all Byzantine influence in the West.

This hostility increased during the mid-eleventh century, when contacts between Old Rome and New Rome deepened awareness of differences between eastern and western church practice, particularly the wording of the creed. At the same time, the conquest of parts of southern Italy by Norman adventurers, under their leader Robert Guiscard, prompted Emperor Constantine IX (1042–55) and Pope Leo IX (1049–54) to seek a way of limiting it. In 1054, at the emperor’s invitation, a papal embassy embarked from Rome, led by Cardinal Humbert of Silva Candida, to discuss relations. But instead of creating a firm alliance, relations between the cardinal and Patriarch Michael Keroularios rapidly deteriorated, to the emperor’s embarrassment. On 16 July 1054 they exchanged bulls of excommunication and hope of unity against the Normans was forgotten. This moment of mutual condemnation was quickly lifted but not forgotten (see chapter 4).

Although it can hardly justify the name ‘the Great Schism’, this split drew attention to differences in belief, use of unleavened bread (azymes), clerical celibacy and the underlying issue of Roman primacy. If Byzantium refused to recognize the supreme position of the Bishop of Rome, heir of St Peter, this reflected on its incorrect theology. Western hostility to the East could overflow from ecclesiastical issues, such as the procession of the Holy Spirit, to more mundane concerns. In addition to expressing extreme antagonism to Byzantine silks, eunuchs and forks, Peter Damian accused Theophano of immoral behaviour with John Philagathos, the Greek monk from Calabria (a typical way of trying to undermine an adversary). From the issue of women wearing diaphanous silk dresses, it was a short step to condemning the long robes of Byzantine court clothing for men, viewed as less manly than western trousers. From the fork to other strange eating habits, such as using garlic, onions and leeks cooked in oil; from strange food to the even stranger custom of entrusting eunuchs with court ceremonial; and from the prevalence of eunuchs to the assumption that all Byzantine men were effeminate and preferred not to fight: these deep prejudices fed on ill-informed, anti-Byzantine stereotypes. The ninth-century collection of papal letters, especially later ones drafted by Anastasius Bibliothecarius, and Notker’s Life of Charlemagne, identified the Greeks as most abominable (nefandissimi). Most of these stereotypes originated in Rome and were extended by the Franks, in contrast to the warmer relations that Venice and other Italian maritime cities maintained with the empire. But they have had a nefarious and disproportionate influence on modern historians, one reflected in repetition of Damian’s condemnations (later strengthened by St Bonaventura, 1221–74). Even today, some scholars reproduce the old stereotypes without questioning their bias. They use them as a way of implying that all Byzantine influence – the introduction of the fork, the organ or Greek scholarship – was regrettable. Yet behind any western anxiety over Byzantine customs lies a deflection of the theological row of 1054 onto individual Byzantine women. Let us hope it will not take another thousand years after exposing these notions to put an end to them.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!