Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space

  Bazzaz, Sahar, Yota Batsaki, and Dimiter Angelov, eds. 2013. Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space. Hellenic Studies Series 56. Washington, DC: Center for Hellenic Studies.

2. “Asia and Europe Commonly Called East and West”: Constantinople and Geographical Imagination in Byzantium

Dimiter Angelov

Writing in the years shortly before the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, Ioannes Kanavoutzes, a Greek teacher living in Genoese Phokaia in Asia Minor, addressed Palamede Gattilusio (1431–1455), the Genoese lord of Samothrace and Ainos, with a treatise on the ancient history of the island of Samothrace. In a creative act of inventing tradition, Kanavoutzes explained to his Latin patron that his island had once been an important link in the chain of events that led to the foundation of Rome by Greek settlers. Kanavoutzes’ story, based on the Roman Antiquities of Dionysios of Halikarnassos, has its twists and turns, mentioning several mythical waves of Greek migration towards the Italian peninsula. When referring to the immigrants from Arcadia who sailed eastwards along the European coast of the Aegean Sea on their way to found Troy (so Aeneas, Rome’s Trojan founder, became a Greek by blood) and stopped over temporarily in Samothrace, Kanavoutzes embarked on a short geographical excursus. He explained to his Genoese patron the division of the world into three continents and remarked that “the two parts of the world, namely Asia and Europe, are commonly called East and West.” [1] As for Africa, it was “considered the East because it lies close to the South where the sun always dwells.” {43|44}

The geographical notions investigated here can be better understood if they are examined from the contextual viewpoint of the multiple currents of geographical thought and imagination in Byzantium. What I mean by geographical thought and imagination is the large, diverse, and rich body of concepts and ideas describing, arranging, and mapping mentally the inhabited world, known or imagined by the Byzantines. A systematic study of macro-spatial concepts and ideas conceived of in Byzantium, or in specific periods of Byzantine history, is still a desideratum. Such a study would have to consider not only specialized geographical texts and travelogues, which are, as Paul Magdalino notes in this volume, relatively rare in Byzantium in comparison with ancient and other medieval civilizations, but it would have to undertake the massive task of scrutinizing historical, literary, hagiographical, and educational works shedding light on the geographical thought-world of Byzantine authors and audiences. Account would need to be taken of specific periods and literary genres and circles (e.g. secular versus monastic milieus, Constantinopolitan versus provincial authors). As is well known, the division of the world into three continents (Europe, Asia, and Africa) was first elaborated by the ancient Greek {44|45} geographers and was carried over into the Greek and Latin Middle Ages. Initially defined as geographical terms, the continents evolved over time into cultural concepts. In the fourteenth- and fifteenth-century Latin West, and particularly in Renaissance Italy, “Europe” established itself as a meta-geographical notion expressing the sense of cultural and religious identity of the politically divided world of Latin Christendom vis-à-vis the rising Ottoman Empire and, to a lesser degree, the schismatic Christian East. [3] From this time onwards, Europe became an important concept in the construction of Western identity until the present day. The similarities and differences in the understanding of the continents in Byzantium shed light on its cultural environment and political experience of empire. The comparison is all the more interesting and justified in light of the circumstance that Byzantium and the medieval Latin West were sibling Christian civilizations that inherited, albeit through different paths and each to a different extent, the works of ancient geography.

The Multiple Geographical Traditions of the Byzantines

Classifying the currents of geographical thinking and imagination in Byzantium is a challenging task. What can be offered here is an introductory and by necessity incomplete discussion, not a fully developed typology. I would like to draw specific attention to three different kinds of geographical thought which are distinct in terms of their origin and perspective: first, academic geography based on the ancient tradition; second, political geography reflecting current administrative practice; and third, popular geography. To these three types, one may add at least one more variant that will not be treated here: the hagio-geography of pilgrimage and its network of saints’ shrines dispersed throughout the territory of the empire and beyond, with Jerusalem being a natural focal point. Travel accounts to the Holy Land, starting with the earliest surviving one authored by Epiphanios Hagiopolites, and other texts pertaining to pilgrimage, display a sense of geographical orientation rivaling the centrality of the imperial metropolis. [4] An important subject left aside is the relationship between geography and ethnography, two closely related fields since Greco-Roman antiquity. As the ancients, the Byzantines too tended to associate territories with the peoples inhabiting them. [5] Despite being partial and preliminary, the typology worked out here provides useful background for discussing a rather {45|46} different mode of spatiality in Byzantium, one issuing from and oriented toward Constantinople. This mode of spatiality sometimes informed and permeated political and popular geography. Therefore, rather than seeing it as a distinct type of geographical or literary tradition, one is more justified to approach it as a pervasive system of spatial orientation. The Constantinopolitan spatial perspective is particularly significant as it marks a convergence between empire and imagined geography.

As a school discipline, geography lay at the margins of the educational curricula in Byzantium. The school tradition of geography, which one may call academic geography, was based entirely on ancient geographical works and was a powerful vehicle for the transmission of ancient place names and ethnography to Byzantium’s classically educated literary elite. Geographical handbooks, epitomes, and commentaries serving educational purposes were based on the Roman geographers Strabo (d. ca. AD 64), Claudius Ptolemy (d. AD 168), and Dionysios Periegetes (second century AD). Many of these school texts have long been known, although they have been little studied, after their publication a century and a half ago by Karl Müller in the second volume of his Geographici graeci minores. A few of the prominent works of academic geography deserve mention here. The learned patriarch Photios (terms in office 858–867 and 877–886) has been credited with the authorship of the so-called Chrēstomatheiai, an abridgement of all 17 books of Strabo’s Geography, and with scholia on Strabo, probably in the latter case with the significant subsequent input of Arethas of Caesarea. [6] The philosopher and teacher Michael Psellos (1018–after 1081) promoted the study of Strabo and was responsible, along with members of his educational circle, for the production of excerpts and epitomes. [7] The ninth century also saw the production of epitomes of the Geography of Ptolemy, a fundamental work of ancient cartography that assigned latitudes and longitudes to places in the known world and included detailed maps of the Roman provinces. [8] The earliest Byzantine manuscripts of the entire Geography of Ptolemy containing maps were connected to the activities of the teacher, scholar, and diplomat Maximos Planoudes in the second half of the thirteenth century. [9] {46|47}

Imperialism and the interest in ancient geography could cross paths. Upsurges in the study of geography occurred in periods of Byzantium’s territorial expansion and involved high imperial functionaries. While the emperor Justinian I (AD 527–565) was embarking on an ambitious project of territorial reconquest, the Constantinopolitan teacher (grammarian) Stephanos composed {47|48} a large geographical and ethnographical lexicon, the Ethnika, which sums up important aspects of ancient geographical knowledge. One modern scholar has compared the Ethnika to a handbook for United Nations officials visiting little known places in the Third World. [14] The similarity vanishes on closer scrutiny, however, because the Ethnika lacks an immediate applicability to Justinian’s imperialism and cannot be considered a true imperial handbook. Rather, Stephanos assumed that his readership already had a good knowledge of contemporary geography in and outside the empire and chose to focus instead on etymologies, multiple meanings of geographic terms, and curiosities. A more obvious correlation between the study of ancient geography and imperialism is discernible in the second half of the ninth and the tenth century, a time of renewed military and diplomatic offensive of the empire. Photios, whose work on Strabo has been noted, was a top imperial bureaucrat holding the title of prōtoasēkrētis (head of the imperial chancery) prior to his appointment to the patriarchate. He was closely involved in planning Byzantium’s missionary activity in central Europe, with long-term consequences for the history of the Slavs. A similar link between the study of ancient geography and imperial foreign policy may be assumed in the case of Eustathios of Thessaloniki’s commentary on Dionysios Periegetes, which was addressed to Ioannes Doukas, a future holder of the office of epi tōn deēseōn (master of petitions) and the son of Emperor Manuel I’s (1143–1180) powerful minister Andronikos Kamateros, who formulated the emperor’s religious policy toward the Armenian and the Roman church. It is possible that Andronikos Kamateros was grooming his son John for a similar diplomatic role when he asked Eustathios to prepare his geographical commentary. [15]

The geographical thought-world and writing of the Byzantines was inevitably affected by the language and practices of the imperial administration. The territorial divisions and subdivisions of the empire and the Church introduced new geographical terms. The driving force for this kind of geography, which one may term political geography, was not learned tradition or popular imagination, but practical considerations and the reasoning of lay and ecclesiastical bureaucrats at times of administrative restructuring. Political geography approached the territory of the empire as the matrix for mapping space. It often contradicted academic geography and could be at odds even with earlier administrative nomenclature. The Byzantine theme of Macedonia created in the late eighth century, with its main city being Adrianople, was located at the heart of the old Roman province of Thrace. [16] The theme of Macedonia had nothing to do with the region of Macedonia as described by Strabo or Claudius Ptolemy, or with the {48|49} Roman province and the early Byzantine diocese of Macedonia with its main city being Thessaloniki; rather, the name of the theme appears to have derived from the withdrawal of troops from Macedonia and their stationing in Thrace during the period of the Slavic invasions. Self-contained works of political geography have survived in the form of descriptions or simple lists of administrative territorial units. The sixth-century list by Hierokles lays out the provinces of the early Byzantine Empire with their main cities, while numerous and constantly revised lists of bishoprics rank in a hierarchical order the episcopal sees under the authority of the patriarch of Constantinople. [17] The tenth-century work On the Themes by the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus belongs partly to the category of political geography, although it is notable for its historical and antiquarian rather than practical content. [18]

Geographical thought in Byzantium was also a living tradition of the people, a tradition that can be termed popular geography. The popular element varied. Geographical notions were engendered by the imagination of the common people and entered popular parlance. Entire geographical works may be classified within this tradition because their strong scriptural basis reflects not only piety and devotion, but also ignorance or neglect of academic geography. The coinage of new geographical terms was often a matter of popular usage. The visible features in a locality could give rise to a new geographical name: the designation “Morea” for the Peloponnese, attested already in the ninth- or tenth-century scholia on Strabo, means literally a mulberry tree. [19] The name may derive from the diffusion of mulberry trees used for silk production in certain areas of the Peloponnese rather than from the shape of the peninsula reminding one of a mulberry leaf. [20] The Greek word zygos —meaning “yoke” in classical Greek and also “mountain” in Byzantine demotic usage—became a favorable designation for mountains because of their perceived yoke-like shape. The twelfth-century epic romance of Digenis Akritis calls the Anti-Taurus mountain range in Asia Minor Zygos. [21] Zygos became also a name for the Balkan Mountains called Haimos in antiquity. In the twelfth century, Anna Komnene designates mountains in different areas in the Balkans as “Zygos,” including the Balkan mountain range in present-day Bulgaria and the Kapaonik Mountain further west in today’s Serbia that marked the Byzantine frontier with Dalmatia. [22] On one occasion she calls the mountain “somehow known locally as Zygos.” This {49|50} snippet of information in the work of an elite author such as Anna Komnene provides unique insight into a local geographical usage. The local usage entered the vocabulary of Constantinopolitan court orators writing in high Attic Greek. In the second half of the twelfth century, they identified the Bulgarians who rebelled against imperial rule as “the people of the Zygos,” and thus imputed a spatial identity to the provincial population in a way strikingly similar to the modern use of the word “Balkan.” [23] In the early thirteenth century, a learned Byzantine legal author engaged in a humorous word play and referred to the Bulgarians as “the people inhabiting the land of Zygos who have raised their necks against the authority of the Rhōmaioi and have shaken off shamelessly its yoke (zygos).” [24]

That the three traditions of geographical thought and imagination were not fully capsulated currents is seen in the case of popular geography, which was not confined to the illiterate or the poorly educated. The Christian Topography aroused the interest of elite audiences. In the ninth century, when the learned Photios ridiculed the geographical knowledge of the Christian Topography, a richly illustrated manuscript (Vaticanus gr. 699) was produced and was followed by two other middle Byzantine ones, a circumstance that suggests elite patronage. [36] In the thirteenth century, the Christian Topography was known to the emperor Theodore II Laskaris, a highly educated man, who nonetheless cracked an indecent joke in one of his rhetorical works by comparing the vocal consternation that his words could elicit in his amazed audience to the mating and loud birth pangs of the Indian buffalo (taurelaphos), one of the exotic animals described in the Christian Topography. [37] Thus, in the thirteenth as in the ninth century, the Christian Topography continued to attract an elite readership. Furthermore, geographical terms of popular origin entered over time the vocabulary of the imperial chancery and attained official usage. One of the earliest mentions of the word Rhōmania, which signified the territory of the Byzantine Empire, is in the sixth-century Chronicle of Malalas composed in low-register Greek. Middle Byzantine authors writing in high style used the word with increasing frequency, and eventually it found its way into imperial charters of the twelfth century. [38] The popular usage of the word Rhōmania continued, however, to be a living tradition, a circumstance that makes modern interpretations of its precise geographical meaning difficult. For example, a region in northern Thrace disputed by Byzantium and the Bulgarian kingdom in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries was known locally as Rhōmania. [39]

Constantinople and Geographical Imagination

The city of Constantinople plays a different role in each of the three traditions of geographical thought. Constantinople is almost invisible in epitomes and {52|53} textbooks in the tradition of academic geography; in the rare cases when it appears there, it is named Byzantion in a classicizing fashion and no mention is made of it being the imperial metropolis. By contrast, Constantinople is omnipresent in the works of political geography and influenced deeply popular geographical imagination. In contrast to academic, political, and popular geography, where one can easily identify works representing each current, no self-contained geographical work or treatise had as its subject “the world as viewed from Constantinople.” Rather, Constantinople’s long shadow was cast in the form of a pervasive set of spatial notions based on centrality and dominance of the imperial metropolis. Furthermore, and to a large degree again in contrast to academic, political, and popular geography, geographical notions originating from Constantinople were often “global” in character and tended to evaluate rather than describe space. Constantinopolitan geographical thinking had as its starting point the idea that Constantinople was an imperial metropolis surpassing in location, status, and worth all territories of the civilized world (oikoumenē), both within and outside the power of the emperor. Constantinople was considered a central and hegemonic city dominating over other cities and over a vast geographical space.

The role of Constantinople in imagined geography was partly a consequence of the ways in which claims to empire and imperialism were constructed and expressed in Byzantium. The main carriers of the claims to imperial universalism were two figures of power at the top of the state and Church hierarchies, and one city: the emperor, the patriarch, and the city of Constantinople itself. This trio operated in confluence and agreement, while each of its members maintained its own distinct voice and sphere of claims. The emperor projected the public image of a divinely-sanctioned world ruler and earthly imitator of Christ, the heavenly king. The patriarch of Constantinople, titled as “ecumenical” since the sixth century, manifested his own universalist ambitions by initiating missionary activities beyond the empire’s borders and by projecting an image steeped in imperial associations. The city of Constantinople was intimately connected to the imperial identity of Byzantium. Known since the late fourth century as “the New Rome,” Constantinople inherited the Roman tradition of being seen as a city-turned-empire. The imperial symbolism of Constantinople gained added importance due to the absence in Byzantium of a developed conceptual vocabulary of empire as a state formation and the carryover of Greek philosophical terminology based on the polis. [40] The architectural landscape of Constantinople, with its imposing monuments and statues (some transported from Rome, Greece, and Egypt) as well as the Great {53|54} Palace of the emperors, infused the city with a tangible aura of being the center of a world power. [41] The opportunities for career and patronage were greater in Constantinople than elsewhere in the empire. Most of the political and literary elite of Byzantium was the creation of Constantinople’s environment of power and assumed a Constantinopolitan identity, which is well attested in the twelfth and the thirteenth centuries. [42]

The location of Constantinople at the border of Europe and Asia led to comments about the city’s global geographical position. The most fertile breeding ground for the literary expression of these geographical constructs was the tradition of the praises of the city. Erwin Fenster, the modern scholar who studied this rich literary tradition embedded in historical, rhetorical and hagiographical works, has demonstrated the early establishment of a standard repertory of themes and imagery about Constantinople. [43] Relatively soon after its foundation, Constantinople was perceived as occupying a central location in the inhabited world. The fourth-century Athenian rhetorician Himerios exclaimed: “You are the beginning of Europe and you are also its end; you have been allotted the same fate with regard to Asia.” [44] In the fourth century, the orator Themistius and the church father Gregory of Nazianzos described Constantinople as “the eye” of the oikoumenē, an expression that would become a rhetorical commonplace about Constantinople. [45] The concept of the eye of the oikoumenē was understood not simply in terms of passive observation; it meant engagement with the surrounding world. For ancient and Byzantine philosophy considered vision to be a process by which the eye sent and received signals—hence the ancient, medieval, and still common Mediterranean belief in “the evil eye.” [46] The characterization of Constantinople as the eye of the oikoumenē thus conveyed the idea of the ability of the imperial city to maintain contact and interact with the civilized world. Alongside “eye of the oikoumenē,” other metaphors came to express the central world position of Constantinople within a century or two after its foundation, among them: “the navel of the earth,” “midpoint of the oikoumenē,” and “heart of the earth.” [47] {54|55}

The spatial constructs based on Constantinople’s location were no empty rhetoric, but functioned, as we just saw, in legal contexts and were the building blocks of an ideology of empire expressed in highest-level public discourse. Court oratory under the Palaiologoi (1261–1453), the imperial dynasty that ruled the Byzantine Empire in the last two centuries of its existence, provides an example of how the image of Constantinople’s centrality and hegemonic position in the world functioned ideologically. The period of the rule of the Palaiologan family began with the euphoria of the Byzantine recovery of Constantinople after more than half a century of Latin domination. The only two self-contained prose encomia on Constantinople from the entire Byzantine period—both of which present the city in exultant terms as a grand imperial metropolis—are the work of early Palaiologan authors, Theodore Metochites and George Karbones. The spirit of glorifying Constantinople permeated the orations in praise of the Palaiologan emperors, the most solemn and refined form of public oratory in Byzantium. While imperial orations of the earlier period had little to say about the city and articulated, during the twelfth century, claims to imperial universalism by commenting on imperial victories, Constantinople became ubiquitous {55|56} in Palaiologan court oratory. [54] One imperial panegyrist of the Palaiologoi described Constantinople as “the eye of Asia, the head of Europe, a metropolis for people in every land, wherever Hellenes and barbarians reside—a metropolis which draws and binds together the ends of the West and the East.” [55] George Karbones noted in his encomium on Constantinople that all other cities on earth were Constantinople’s slaves because “it is a law of nature that the weaker serve the stronger” and described at length an imaginary quarrel between the personifications of Asia and Europe who contested the ownership of the city. [56] In the first half of the fifteenth century, when the territory of Byzantium consisted of Constantinople and a few disjointed possessions in Thrace, Macedonia, the Aegean, and the Peloponnese, the emperor’s panegyrists at the court, such as the future Cardinal Isidore, praised the city for having once ruled over the entire continents of Europe and Asia and compared the relationship between the current emperor and other rulers to the innate superiority of Constantinople over other cities. [57] Thus, while the “empire” increasingly resembled a city-state encircled by the Ottomans, the imperial symbolism of the city persisted and was even magnified in court rhetoric.

Constantinople contributed to a characteristically Byzantine understanding of the location of the East and the West. The Byzantines, it must be noted, were neither unique nor the first to think of their empire as lying along an East-West axis. The Romans sometimes imagined their empire as consisting of an eastern and a western part. [58] In fact, in the fourth century AD, Rome was still a legitimate point of reference for a two-partite division of imperial space into East and West. The large praetorian prefecture of the Orient (Anatolē) created in the fourth century included, alongside the dioceses of the Orient, Pontos, and Asia, also the diocese of Thrace, which lay west of Constantinople. Clearly, Rome was capable of determining where the Orient should be localized. In the same vein, Gregory of Nazianzos called Constantinople in his funerary oration on St. Basil of Ceasarea “the city presiding over the East” (τὴν προκαθημένην τῆς Ἑῴας πόλιν). [59] It is remarkable, however, that in another oration the same Gregory of Nazianzos commented on the borderline position of Constantinople between the East and the West, praising Constantinople as “the node at the termination of the East and the West where extremities from every side converge.” [60] In the fourth century, Rome and Constantinople were competing foci of {56|57} global spatiality, and therefore it was possible for the same author to present Constantinople both as the chief city of the East and as a city straddling the East and the West.

By the tenth century, the point of reference determining the “East” had become firmly that of Constantinople. Rome ceased to be a locus of empire in the fifth century, and the late Roman administrative divisions disappeared in the seventh century with the emergence of a new territorial unit, the themes. As Konstantinos Amantos has shown in a seminal article, middle Byzantine authors tended to conceive of the East and the West as the land masses lying to the east and to the west of Constantinople; specific localization of the East and the West varied in individual works. [61] Further and more systematic research on semantics is likely to produce illuminating results. Particularly intriguing, for example, is the question of when and how the Greek word Anatolē became synonymous with Asia Minor. I would like to restrict myself here to just a few examples from the middle and late Byzantine periods. In his treatise On the Themes, the tenth-century emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus explained that the theme of Anatolikon (literally the “Eastern theme”) created in the seventh century bore this name not because it was located in the “upper and prime East where the sun rises,” but because, “with respect to us living in Byzantion [i.e. Constantinople] and on European territory, it is the East.” Constantine VII went on to stress the relativity of the cardinal directions. The perspective of the observer, he stated, could change the definition of the East: “The theme of Anatolikon is called the Middle West (dutikon meson) and Asia Minor (Asia mikra) by the people of Syrian Mesopotamia and of Great Asia, where the Indians, Egyptians and Ethiopians live.” [62] (That Constantine placed the Egyptians and Ethiopians in Asia and not Africa may be explicable with the notion found in the works of the ancient geographers that the Nile River divided Asia from Africa.) Constantine VII underlined that his own perspective was a Constantinopolitan one, which justified for him the name of the “eastern” theme.

Approximately at the time when Constantine Porphyrogenitus was making this comment, the two supreme generals of the empire became the domestics of the schools (domestikoi tōn scholōn) of the East and of the West, who led the Byzantine mobile armies on campaigns in Asia Minor and the Balkans, respectively. [63] In the fourteenth century, the domestics of the Eastern and the Western themes were high fiscal officials responsible for collecting taxes from the Byzantine territories remaining in Asia Minor and the Balkans. [64] The axis of {57|58} spatial orientation underlying this administrative jargon is an East-West one, and the point of reference is Constantinople. Beyond the language of the imperial bureaucracy, middle Byzantine historians speak of the East and the West as the two parts of the empire. The ninth-century chronicler Theophanes the Confessor refers to the two military fronts of the empire as the East and the West. [65] On rarer occasions, the two sections of the empire were called Asia and Europe, as in the work of the eleventh-century historian Michael Attaleiates. [66] In the twelfth century, Anna Komnene remarks that in ancient times the Roman Empire spanned all cardinal directions (South, East, North, and West) and approached the limits of the inhabited world. [67] However, as she switches from the past to the present and describes the current imperial frontiers, she revealingly refers to only two cardinal directions, the East and West: at the time of the accession of Alexios I Komnenos (1081–1118), Anna’s much-praised father, the East-West frontier had been merely the Bosporus and the city of Adrianople, but subsequently Alexios succeeded in extending the empire to the Tigris and the Euphrates in the East and the Adriatic Sea in the West.

Remarkably, the geographical language of the East and the West helped to construct self-referential statements of identity in the aftermath of 1204. In letters addressed to the patriarch of Constantinople in Nicaean exile, the bishops of the short-lived state of Epiros-Thessaloniki prayed “God to deem us, the western people (hoi dutikoi), worthy of your holy prayers” and identified themselves as the “the western congregation of hierarchs under you.” [70] The emperor Theodore II Laskaris referred to his arrival at the Balkans from Asia Minor in the winter of 1255 as a crossing into “the western fields” and called the territory of the empire of Nicaea in Asia Minor “the holy land, my mother, the East (Anatolē).” [71] While the rival states of Nicaea and Epiros-Thessaloniki each claimed the political traditions of the Byzantine Empire as their own, they were in the process of acquiring local spatial identities based on pre-1204 notions of the East and the West. This innovative process ended abruptly with the reconquest of Constantinople by Nicaea in 1261 and the restoration of the old seat of the empire. Interestingly, a spatial identity based on the Constantinopolitan notion of the East persisted in the empire of Trebizond, a Byzantine splinter state formed in 1204 on the northeastern Black Sea shore of Asia Minor, which persisted until its conquest in 1461 by the Ottomans. Sometime between 1282 and 1360, the emperor of Trebizond assumed the title “emperor and autokratōr of the entire East [pasēs Anatolēs], the Iberians, and Perateia [the overseas territories in the Crimea].” [72] The “East” mentioned in the title of the emperors of Trebizond was defined vis-à-vis Constantinople, the restored capital of a Byzantine state.

In the middle and late Byzantine periods, the East and the West came to mean not only the current, or former, territories of the empire in Asia Minor and the Balkans, but also the continents of Asia and Europe. As Constantinople was considered to be marking the boundary between Europe and Asia, it should come as no surprise that a Constantinopolitan viewpoint came to identify the continents with the two cardinal directions. There is a stark contrast between this contemporary usage and the classicizing tradition of academic geography. First, the ancient geographers and their Byzantine epitomists were interested in delineating the land border between Europe and Asia further east from Constantinople, setting it usually along the Tanais (Don) or Phasis (Rioni) Rivers (e.g. Strabo, Geography XI.1). When the border between the two continents {59|60} was set nearer Constantinople, it was the Hellespont, not the Bosporos, that was mentioned as the boundary. [73] Constantinople, thus, did not determine the border between the continents in the classicizing geographical tradition. Furthermore, Byzantine academic geography did not view the East and the West as territorial or administrative concepts, but merely as orientating directions. The ninth-century Compendium of Geography in Epitome specifies that “Europe is the continent extending to the West and the North, Africa, the continent directed toward the South and the West, and Asia, the continent facing solely the East.” [74] This description reflects the ancient geographical theory that Asia was far bigger than the other continents, and therefore it would have to face solely the East, while the other two continents were described through a combination of two cardinal directions.

The cardinal directions played a different role in global geographical imagination shaped in Constantinople. By the twelfth century, an explicit identification was made between the continents of Asia and Europe and the two cardinal directions. The Ecloga Basilicorum, a twelfth-century legal collection, refers to a ship arriving at Constantinople “from Asia, that is, the East.” [75] Neilos Doxapatres, the twelfth-century Byzantine theologian and canonist exiled to the Norman court in Palermo, remarks in his geographical work on the hierarchy of the Church addressed to the king of Sicily Roger II that “the entire inhabited world is divided into three parts, Asia, that is, the East (Anatolē), Europe, that is, the West (Dusis), and Libya.” [76] Unlike Kanavoutzes in the fifteenth century, Doxapatres divides the world into three rather than two parts corresponding to the three continents, yet just like Kanavoutzes, Doxapatres understands the East and the West as territorial concepts. Elsewhere in his geographical treatise, Doxapatres consistently uses the two cardinal directions as synonyms of the two main continents, calling Asia “the East” and Europe “the West.” [77] In the late Byzantine period, a list of old and new geographical names dating to the fourteenth century explained the term “Europe” as meaning “the entire West.” This identification of Europe with the West is accompanied in the same list by the statement that “Asia” refers to the city of Ephesos, which was indeed the see of a metropolitan bishop who titled himself as “metropolitan of Asia.” [78] The practice is related to the early Byzantine diocesan structure of the Church, which tended to follow the contemporary provincial divisions. Thus, the {60|61} diocese of Asia with capital Ephesos became a metropolitan bishopric; the province of Europe in the diocese of Thrace became the metropolitan bishopric “of Europe” based in Herakleia Thrakikē. [79] The fourteenth-century list speaks with the voice of different geographical traditions and demonstrates once again the complexity of the geographical thought-world of the Byzantines.

We have now arrived close to the period of the literary activity of Ioannes Kanavoutzes with which this discussion began. When Kanavoutzes—a man who lived outside Constantinople and had weak ties, if any at all, with the imperial metropolis—referred to Asia and Africa as the East and Europe as the West, he was operating in a geographical frame of mind created in the imperial metropolis. His understanding of the continents had little to do with academic or political geography and reflected a long tradition of an imperial, Constantinople-based system of spatial orientation. By Kanavoutzes’ times, the geographical notions created in the metropolis were detached from the milieu of Constantinople and had taken on a life of their own. It did not matter whether one resided in Constantinople: Kanavoutzes, after all, lived in a former Byzantine city held by the Genoese. Nor did it matter whether Constantinople was the seat of the Byzantine emperor: the Latin conquest of Constantinople in 1204 did not uproot the preexistent territorial understanding of the East and the West. In a similar way, the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans did not put to an end, among Greek speakers at least, to the older Byzantine view. The sixteenth-century ecclesiastical author Damaskenos Stoudites notes in a sermon published in his homiletic collection, the Thesauros: “The entire world is divided into three parts—Asia, that is, the East (Anatolē), Europe, that is the West (Dusis), and Libya.” [80] Printed in Venice in 1558 and soon thereafter translated into Slavonic by an Athnonite monk, the Thēsauros of Damaskenos inspired a popular, pseudo-scientific literature of edification and entertainment among the Bulgarians and the Serbs. [81] The Byzantine background should be taken into consideration in any study of the imagined geographies of the Greeks and the Balkan Slavs living in the Ottoman Empire.

The Byzantine notions of Asia as the East and Europe as the West may seem remarkably close to the discourses of modernity. The similarity is superficial, however. As defined from the viewpoint of Constantinople, the notions had a narrowly territorial significance in Byzantium and rarely contributed to the construction of political identity. The most prominent exception after late antiquity is the thirteenth century, when the concepts of the East and the West (but notably not the continents) helped to create the spatial self-awareness of {61|62} new political formations in the Byzantine world, at a time when the imperial metropolis lay in the hands of a foreign power. This innovative development took place in the former provinces and was cut short by the Byzantine recovery of Constantinople in 1261.

Produced through the lens of Constantinople, the Byzantine understanding of Asia as the East and Europe as the West is highly idiosyncratic and does not lend itself to Orientalist Saidian interpretation, for it is not concerned with otherness. The Byzantine usage is worlds apart from the literary representation of Asia and the East in ancient Greek literature analyzed by Said in the premodern section of Orientalism. [82] Aeschylus employs in the Persians the word “Asia” as a metonymy for the hostile Persians. Herodotus presents the war between the Hellenes and the Persians as a conflict between Europe and Asia. Herodotus’ Histories were known, copied, excerpted, and occasionally admired among highly-educated Byzantines. [83] Byzantine authors, such as the fourteenth-century scholar and polymath Theodore Metochites, sometimes rehashed the classical Greek view that Asiatics were by nature receptive to despotic rule. In one of his essays on historical subjects, Metochites observed that the European Hellenes and “many peoples in Europe” had traditionally been less prone to accepting despotic rule without resistance. [84] Yet this is a rarest interpretation by a Byzantine author. The general pattern was for the continents of Asia and Europe not to serve as foci of oppositional conceptions of us versus them. In the rare cases when the cardinal directions became such foci, they did not produce durable cultural concepts of identity and self-definition. It is telling that in the fifteenth century Ioannes Kanavoutzes did not associate either the continents or the cardinal directions with the foundation myths of Troy or Rome, but embarked on his global geographical description for the sake of edification and as a digression.

Let us consider as one final example the historical memoirs of the emperor John VI Kantakouzenos (ca. 1292–1382; r. 1341–1354), which are profoundly classicizing in their language, literary echoes (especially ones from Thucydides), and ethnographic vocabulary, such as the designation of the Turks as “Persians” and their rulers as “satraps.” [85] Kantakouzenos generally speaks of Asia as a place of arrival or departure. [86] He calls Umur Beg (r. 1334–1348), the emir of Aydin, the “strongest of the satraps in Asia” and presents Süleyman, the son of the Ottoman ruler Orhan (r. 1326–1362), as “one of the satraps in Asia” (the Greek {62|63} expression is κατὰ τὴν Ἀσίαν). [87] In a reported speech dating to 1354, after the fall of Gallipoli to the Ottomans, Kantakouzenos puts in his own mouth the words: “we are forced to fight not only in Thrace, but also against all the barbarians in Asia” (κατὰ τὴν Ἀσίαν). [88] The preposition used here is “in,” not “of,” Asia, which in itself presupposes location rather imputation of spatial identity. The impression is reinforced by the circumstance that Kantakouzenos does not consider “Europe” to be a term of identity and polar opposite of “Asia,” the continent with which he associates the barbarians. In a speech addressed to papal ambassadors, Kantakouzenos states that in the past the polity of the Romans had ruled successfully over both Asia and Europe, thus conveying the conventional notion of Byzantium as an empire spread on two continents. [89]

The territorial understanding of Asia and Europe contrasts to the Renaissance view of the continents as cultural categories, a view that gained prominence at the very time Kantakouzenos was composing his historical memoirs. The poet Petrarch (1304–1374), Kantakouzenos’ contemporary, compared the crusade planned by the French King Philip VI (r. 1328–1350) to the conflict between the East and the West at the time of the Persian Wars. [90] In an exhortation addressed in 1452 to Pope Nicholas VI, the Greek émigré and Italian humanist George of Trebizond (1395–ca. 1472–1473) described Constantinople and Greece as an integral part of Europe pitted against barbarian Asia. The geographical and cultural perspective of George of Trebizond was that of Renaissance Italy, not Byzantine Constantinople. [91] A view similar to that of George of Trebizond appears in the works of the chancellor of Florence Poggio Bracciolini (1380–1459). But it was Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (1405–1464), elected pope under the name Pius II (1458–1464), who elaborated—in greater detail and with rhetorical fervor—the concept of Europe as a synonym of Latin Christendom defined in opposition to the expanding “Asiatic” Ottoman Empire. Piccolomini has been credited with coining the adjective “European” as cultural self-designation. [92] This semantic development was shaped by the special cultural and historical environment of fifteenth-century Italy: the humanist adoration of the ancient classics which contained instances of binary opposition of the East versus the West; the spatial perspective of authors who lived on the Italian peninsula far removed from the boundaries of Europe and Asia; and the rising Ottoman threat. {63|64}

The view of the continents as bywords for two different civilizations was generally alien to the worldviews found in Byzantium. The notions of Asia as the East and Europe as the West became common knowledge over time, yet these notions appear not to have functioned as polar binaries of identity. The reason lies not simply in the territorial extent of Byzantium, which, with the exception of the early thirteenth century and the last century of the empire’s history, always straddled parts of the two continents. Another reason, I suggest, was the important role of Constantinople in determining the meaning of the continents. In its capacity as the metropolis of New Rome situated at the border of Europe and Asia, Constantinople was identified through, and indeed with, the continents: a city of Europe and Asia; an imperial city dominating over the cities of Europe and Asia. Conversely, Constantinople shaped the understanding of the two continents and the cardinal directions that came to describe them. The ideological and political pull of the imperial metropolis proved too powerful to permit the semantic evolution of the notions of East and West into cultural dichotomies. {64|}


PGMigne, J.P., ed. 1857–1866. Patrologiae cursus completus, series graeca, 161 vols. Paris.

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[ back ] 1. Lehnerdt 1904:39–40, esp. 39:23–25: λέγεται δὲ κοινῶς τὰ μὲν δύο μέρη τῆς γῆς ἤγουν ἡ Ἀσία καὶ ἡ Εὐρώπη ἀνατολὴ καὶ δύσις. Regrettably little is known about Ioannes Kanavoutzes. He titles himself magistros and makes it apparent that he knew Greek and Latin. Ciriaco d’Ancona calls him “the teacher (magister) from Phokaia.” Kanavoutzes was interested in history and astronomy. He completed before 1434–1435 a calculation of the length of the day for the latitude of Phokaia and was Ciriaco d’Ancona’s guide in Sardis in 1444. In the letter where Ciriaco mentions “Kanavoutzes the teacher from Phokaia,” he urged his correspondent Andreolo Giustiniani-Banca, who was on Genoese Chios, to ask a different Kanavoutzes (Crytes Canabuzios), presumably a relative of our Ioannes Kanavoutzes, to interpret an ancient Greek inscription. Ioannes Kanavoutzes may have owned a manuscript of George Gemistos Plethon. See Diller 1970:271–275. Bodnar 2003:28–29 and 411–412, has corrected the older interpretation (as in Diller 1972:257–258) that Ciriaco met Kanavoutzes at Foglia Vecchia in 1446. Cf. Trapp et al. 1976–1996:no. 10871.

[ back ] 2. Hankins 1995:139, 141; Kafadar 1995:90; Bisaha 2004:58, 90–92.

[ back ] 3. Hay 1957:73–116; De Rougemont 1966:55–75.

[ back ] 4. Kazhdan 1993; Külzer 1994; Külzer 2002; Wilkinson 2002: 19–20, 207–215.

[ back ] 5. Maas 2007.

[ back ] 6. Diller 1954:43–47; Wilson 1996:87–88.

[ back ] 7. Lasserre 1959; Pontikos 1992:LIX–LX.

[ back ] 8. A brief epitome of Ptolemy’s Geography (published in Müller 1861 II:488–493) has been dated to the sixth or the ninth century AD. See Hunger 1978 I:512, n. 23. Another epitome, the Compendium of Geography in Epitome (Hupotupōsis geōgraphias en epitomē) (Müller 1861 II:494–509), which combines information from Strabo and Ptolemy, has also been assigned to the ninth century. Diller (1954:49–50) attributed the work to a student of Photios.

[ back ] 9. Diller 1940.

[ back ] 10. Müller 1861 II:201–406, 411–425; Diller 1975:187–207.

[ back ] 11. Müller 1861 II:458–468; Brodersen 1995.

[ back ] 12. Strabo, Geography, I.1.1; I.1.20; the Byzantine Chrēstomatheiai in Müller 1861 II:530.

[ back ] 13. Diller 1973.

[ back ] 14. Hunger 1978 1:530–531.

[ back ] 15. Karlin-Hayter 1972:259–265; Magdalino 1993:259–260; Diller 1975:182.

[ back ] 16. Treadgold 1988:92–93n114.

[ back ] 17. Honigmann 1939; Darrouzès 1981.

[ back ] 18. See Magdalino in this volume.

[ back ] 19. Diller 1954:38.

[ back ] 20. Jacoby 1991–92:454n9.

[ back ] 21. Grottaferrata 5, line 260, Escorial, line 262, in Jeffreys 1998:150, 258.

[ back ] 22. Anna Komnene (Comnena), Alexiad, 9,1,1; 9.4.2–5; 10,2,6; 10,3,1 in Reinsch and Kambylis I 2001:258, 266–267, 286, 287; Stephenson 2000:125, 148–150, 291.

[ back ] 23. Regel and Novosadskii 1892–1917:277.8–13; Van Dieten 1972:106.18–19.

[ back ] 24. Prinzing 2002:423, no. 146.17–22.

[ back ] 25. Genesis 2:8–14.

[ back ] 26. Revelation 20:7–8.

[ back ] 27. Alexander 1985:185–192; Stoneman 1991:185–187.

[ back ] 28. Anastos 1946; Wolska 1962:1–11.

[ back ] 29. Strabo, Geography, VIII.1.3; the Byzantine Chrēstomathiai in Müller 1861 II:580–581.

[ back ] 30. Claudius Ptolemy, Geography, III.15, VIII 12.16–23; Dionysios Periegetes, vs. 398–402 in Müller 1861 II:127; Eustathios of Thessaloniki in Müller 1861 II:290–291.

[ back ] 31. Hierokles, Synekdēmos, 643.6, in Honigmann, 1939:16.

[ back ] 32. Koder and Hild 1975:56–60; Gregory 1991; Živković 1999.

[ back ] 33. Aristotle, Politics, 1327b20–36.

[ back ] 34. Krikonis 1988:138–140.

[ back ] 35. Müller and Kiessling 1821:758.

[ back ] 36. Brubaker 2006.

[ back ] 37. Tartaglia 2000:87.28–35.

[ back ] 38. Wolff 1948:5–8.

[ back ] 39. George Pachymeres, in Failler 1999 IV:491.20; Malingoudis 1971:57.

[ back ] 40. Magdalino 1991:193–197.

[ back ] 41. Bassett 2004.

[ back ] 42. Magdalino 1984:65; Magdalino 1991:289–290; Van Dieten 1975 I:593.

[ back ] 43. Fenster 1968.

[ back ] 44. Himerios, Oration 41, in Colonna 1951:170.44–47; Fenster 1968:38.

[ back ] 45. Themistius, Oration 6, in Schenkl 1965:124.4–9; Gregory of Nazianzos, Oration 42, in Migne, PG, vol. 36:469C. Themistius asked rhetorically: “Is it not, if the whole earth is considered to be one body, its second eye, even its heart and its navel, or whatever of the parts one might say is the more important?”— translated by Heather and Moncur 2001:197.

[ back ] 46. Magdalino 2005:109.

[ back ] 47. Fenster 1968:30, 102, 133, 141, 146, 189, 198, 205, 212, 287.

[ back ] 48. Fenster 1968:93, 120, 135, 188, 205.

[ back ] 49. Kroll and Schöll 1895:282.30, 453.14–16.

[ back ] 50. Fatouros 1992 I:194.29.

[ back ] 51. XXI.1.54 in Scheltema, van der Wal and Holwerda 1953–1988.

[ back ] 52. Papadopoulos-Kerameus 1909–1910:17.7–8. A similar phrase is found in Emperor Michael VIII’s privileges granted to Venice in 1277, after the Byzantine recapture of Constantinople in 1261: ἔν τε τῇ Κωνσταντινουπόλει καὶ ταῖς ἄλλαις χώραις τῆς βασιλείας ἡμῶν (Miklosich and Müller III 1865:89.24).

[ back ] 53. Magdalino 1991:185–188.

[ back ] 54. Radošević 1993:156–161; Angelov 2007:102–105, 114, 418–419.

[ back ] 55. Polemis 1992:31.35–32.2.

[ back ] 56. Fenster 1968:345.26–346.6, 347.23–353.10.

[ back ] 57. Lampros 1926 III:136–137, 152, 202–203.

[ back ] 58. De Rougemont 1966:41.

[ back ] 59. Gregory of Nazianzos, Oration 43, ch. 14, in PG, vol. 36:513A.

[ back ] 60. Gregory of Nazianzos, Oration 42, ch. 10, in PG, vol. 36:469C; Fenster 1968:60.

[ back ] 61. Amantos 1936.

[ back ] 62. Pertusi 1952:60.1–7.

[ back ] 63. Oikonomides 1976:141–143.

[ back ] 64. Verpeaux 1966:188.

[ back ] 65. De Boor 1883 I:356.7–8.

[ back ] 66. Pérez Martin 2002:25.13–18.

[ back ] 67. Anna Komnene (Comnena), Alexiad, 6.11.3, in Reinsch and Kambylis I 2001:193. When Anna refers to the pillars of Dionysus “somewhere near the frontiers of India” as the eastern frontier of the ancient Roman empire, she is deriving her information from Dionysios Periegetes (Müller 1861 II:143, vs. 622–626). She would have, therefore, read this author in the course of her education.

[ back ] 68. Lampros 1880 II:149, 353–354; Prinzing 1983:35.41–42; Loenertz 1970:464.4–19, 497.382–383, 499.438, 500.448.

[ back ] 69. Angelov 2011:111–113.

[ back ] 70. Prinzing 2002:370, no. 112:58–60; Loenertz 1970:464.5–6.

[ back ] 71. Festa 1898:246.43–44, 281.74.

[ back ] 72. Oikonomides 1978.

[ back ] 73. Dionysios Periegetes, vs. 799–800, in Müller 1861 II:154, 420.

[ back ] 74. Müller 1861 II:495.

[ back ] 75. Ecloga Basilicorum, VII, 3,1 in Burgmann 1988:251.22.

[ back ] 76. PG, vol. 132:1084B.

[ back ] 77. PG, vol. 132:1085D, 1092BC.

[ back ] 78. Diller 1973:32–33 [List C].

[ back ] 79. Neilos Doxapatres in PG, vol. 132:1092BC.

[ back ] 80. Damaskenos Stoudites, Oration 20 on Saint Nicholas, in Deledemou 1943:426.

[ back ] 81. Petkanova 1965.

[ back ] 82. Said 1994:55–58.

[ back ] 83. Rapp 2008:129–132.

[ back ] 84. Müller and Kiessling 1821:674–676.

[ back ] 85. Kazhdan 1980.

[ back ] 86. Schopen II 1831:385.8–11; 407.12; 409.18; 416.3; 596.24.

[ back ] 87. Schopen II 1831:55:19–20; 476:13.

[ back ] 88. Schopen III 1832:298:13–14.

[ back ] 89. Schopen III 1832:60:15–16.

[ back ] 90. Bisaha 2002; 2004:51.

[ back ] 91. Bisaha 2004:115–116.

[ back ] 92. Hay 1957:83–87; Bisaha 2004:83–87.