Eric Flint and David Drake in their Belisarius series of alternative / sci-fi histories have the negusa nagast (king of kings) of Aksum (Axume) as a key character. But there is actually very little historical information regarding relations between the East Roman Empire and the kingdom of Aksum on the Red Sea. The result of this dearth of source material is that the importance of Aksum is ignored or given scant attention in histories of Byzantium. This despite that the Persian prophet Mani (c. 216–274 CE) regarded Aksum as third of the four greatest powers of his time after Persia and Rome, with China being the fourth. In fact the Aksum trade route was Rome’s principal supplier of exotic goods from Yemen, sub-Sahara Africa, and India.

At times Aksum’s trading empire extended across most of present day Ethiopia, Sudan, Eritrea, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, Djibouti, and Somaliathus controlling both the east and west coasts of the Red Sea. The capital city – also called Aksum – is located in northern Ethiopia and its caravans would likely have carried the Yemeni grown frankincense and myrrh that according to St. Matthew were brought to the baby Jesus by the magi. They might have carried the gift of gold as well. Aksum’s overland routes carried gold, other minerals, precious stones, and ivory from the African interior via the upper Nile. Aksum controlled the sea routes of East Roman (Syrian) trade with Yemen, India, and possibly so far as China. Sir Mortimer Wheeler, considering the late first century AD sailor’s manual known as the Peripus of the Etythraean Sea, noted in the 1950s that “behind Adulis lay the kingdom of the Axumites (Aksumites), in what is now Ethiopia or Abyssinia, established not long before by immigrants who had been squeezed out of southern Arabia by combined Arab and Parthian pressure. Now, in alliance with Rome, it became an entrepot of African and Eastern trade, particularly as a focus for African ivory, and received a miscellany of imports which included gold and silver plate for their king and iron and muslin from India.” About the same time Lacy O’Leary wrote that “the sea route between India and Alexandria depended upon the safety of the Red Sea which the Romans continued to police until the days of Justinian.”

Around 356 AD, the Roman emperor Constantius II wrote a letter on an ecclesiastical matter to Ezana, king of Aksum. Aksum is also mentioned in the account of the travels of an Arian bishop, Theophilus “the Indian”, who was sent by Constantius to try to convert the Arabian kingdoms. He seems to have visited Aksum as well. The ecclesiastical historian Ruffians, also writing at the end of the fourth century, gives an account of the actual conversion of the country by bishop Frumentius of Tyre. He became the first Abune—a title still given to the head of the Ethiopian Church.

We do know that the Aksumites built great palaces and royal tombs before their conversion to Christianity. Though these are long gone some of the huge obelisks which where built over the tombs remain, incised with images. Many biblical texts were translated from Greek into the Aksum language (Ge’ez) between the fifth and the seventh centuries. the Ezana Stone with an inscription written in the South Arabian Sabaean language, in Ge’ez, and in ancient Greek might be termed the Rosetta Stone of Aksum,

Around the year 380 AD Himyar (in present day Yemen) accepted Judaism whereas Aksum was already Monophysite Christian. An allusion in the Kebra Nagast (Book Of Kings) appears to refer to an alliance between the Aksum ruler Kaleb and the Emperor Justin I (r. 518-527) to strengthen Aksum’s Christian influence in Himyar. There was no doubt also a major element of Aksumite expansion in the plan though the Kebra Nagast is silent about that. Earlier, Justin’s maltreatment of Jews in Byzantine territories had been answered by the ruler of Himyar, Dhu Nuwas, with a persecution of Christian and East Roman merchants in his realm. Kaleb of Aksum attacked Himyar in return. Then Dhu Nuwas initiated a massacre of the major Christian communities of Himyar and Justin offered Kaleb ships with which to attack Himyar again. In the ensuing war Dhu Nuwas was either captured and killed, or committed suicide. The Patriarch of Alexandria appointed a bishop over Himyar, and Kaleb returned to Aksum leaving the Christian Esimiphaeus as viceroy. Esimiphaeus became the effective ruler. A saint of the Ethiopian Church Kaleb is also revered in the Greek Orthodox and Catholic Churches. A ruin near Aksum, Enda Kaleb, is said to be his grave.

While Esimiphaeus was viceroy (or king) in Yemen Justinian succeeded Justin on the East Roman throne. He sent an ambassador named Julianus to both Esimiphaeus and Kaleb with a proposal to divert the silk trade from its old route through Persia, via sea and land to Aksum and on to Alexandria; an illuminating account of the embassy has been preserved in the works of Procopius and John Malalas.

(When) Ellesbaas (Kaleb) “was reigning over the Ethiopians, and Esimiphaeus over the Omeritae (Yemeni) the Emperor Justinian sent an ambassador, Julianus, demanding that both nations on account of their community of religion should make common cause with the Romans in the war against the Persians; for he purposed that the Ethiopians, by purchasing (Chinese) silk from India and selling it among the Romans, might themselves gain much money. The Romans would profit in only one way: that they be no longer compelled to pay money to their enemy. (This is the silk of which they are accustomed to make the garments which of old the Greeks called “Medic,” but which at the present time they name ‘Seric’.) … So each king, promising to put this demand into effect, dismissed the ambassador, but neither one of them did the things agreed upon by them. It was impossible for the Ethiopians to buy silk from the Indians as the Persian merchants always locate themselves at the very harbors where the Indian ships first put in (since they inhabit the adjoining country), and are accustomed to buy the whole cargoes. It seemed to the Omeritae a difficult thing also. (They would have) to cross a country which was a desert and which extended so far that a long time was required for the journey across it, and then to go against a people much more warlike than themselves. Later Abramus, (the successor of Esimiphaeus in Yemen) when at length he had established his power most securely, promised the Emperor Justinian many times to invade the land of Persia, but only once began the journey and then straightway turned back. Such then were the relations which the Romans had with the Ethiopians and the Omeritae (so far as the silk trade was concerned.”)

Another ambassador of Justinian was Nonnosus who according to Gibbon “declined the shorter, but more dangerous, road, through the sandy deserts of Nubia; ascended the Nile, embarked on the Red Sea, and safely landed at the African port of Adulis. From Adulis to the royal city of Axume (Aksum) is no more than fifty leagues in a direct line; but the winding passes of the mountains detained the ambassador fifteen days; and as he traversed the forests, he saw, and vaguely computed, about five thousand wild elephants. The capital, according to his report, was large and populous; and the village of Axume is still conspicuous by the regal coronations, by the ruins of a Christian temple, and by sixteen or seventeen obelisks inscribed with Grecian characters.”

The climatic extremes or differences were also noted by Nonnosus: “The climate and its successive changes between Aue and Aksum should be mentioned. It offers extreme contrasts of winter and summer. In fact, when the sun traverses Cancer, Leo and Virgo it is, as far as Aue, just as with us, summer and the dry weather reigns without cease in the air; but from Aue to Aksum and the rest of Ethiopia a rough winter reigns. It does not rage all day, but begins at midday everywhere; it fills the air with clouds and inundates the land with violent storms. It is at this moment that the Nile in flood spreads over Egypt, making a sea of it and irrigating its soil. But, when the sun crosses Capricorn, Aquarius and Pisces, inversely, the sky, from the Adulitae to Aue, inundates the land with showers, and for those who live between Aue and Aksum and in all the rest of Ethiopia, it is summer and the land offers them its splendors.”

Aksum had reached its last period of glory during Kaleb’s reign. Legends were inscribed in the Ge’ez language, coins were minted, and art and architecture flourished. Aksum controlled traffic on the Red Sea, as well as much of the Indian Ocean and only Aksumites were permitted to sail ships to the Far East.

wall-painting-drawn-in-6th-centry-st-mary-church-aksum-ethiopia-world-AXFWBJ WUIKI W ATTRIBUTION Stavrev miko



Santa Maria in Trivio though much modified in the Renaissance retains its dedication by Belisarius.




By: Paul Kastenellos

Digenes (not Diogenes) Akrites has been described as a chanson de geste which it is not. It has been forced into the literary genre of heroic literature where it doesn’t quite fit thought there is some of the bluster one expects in heroic literature. When the hero asks his father’s permission to fight wild animals his father discourages him:

But the time is not come for beast-fighting;

The war with beasts is very terrible,

You are a twelve-year-old, a child twice six,

Wholly unfit to battle with the beasts

‘If when grown up I do my deeds, father,

What good is that to me? So all men do.

I want fame now, to illustrate my line,

So his relatives stand aside and let him fight the beasts alone. There was no kid coddling on the Anatolian frontier. He kills two bears and a deer with his bare hands. But that was not enough for the poet.

As thus they spoke, his father and his uncles,

A lion huge came from the withy-bed,

And quickly they turned round to see the boy,

Beheld him in the marsh dragging the beasts.

In his right hand dragging the bears he had killed,

And with no sword he ran to meet the lion.

His uncle said to him: ‘Take up your sword,

This is no deer for you to tear in two.”

The youth at once spoke such a word as this:

‘My uncle and my master, God is well able

To give him, like the other, into my hands.’

Snatching his sword he moved towards the beast,

And when he had come near out sprang the lion,

And brandishing his tail he lashed his sides,

But I get ahead of myself. Digenes Akrites is actually two stories or rather several lumped into two parts. The first is the romantic tale of how his father, an emir from Syria, after raiding “Romania” – killing and enslaving many there – takes as a captive Eirene, the beautiful daughter of the local general who happened to be away at the time. The text makes plain that the general had been exiled from Constantinople to his rural estates in Anatolia where he and his family could be useful policing the frontier against Arab raiders and highwaymen. Eirene’s brothers pursue the emir to his camp.

Our father is descended from the Kinnamades;

Our mother a Doukas, of Constantine’s family;

Twelve generals our cousins and our uncles.

Of such descend we all with our own sister.

Our father banished for some foolishness

Which certain slanderers contrived for him,

The girl’s brothers try either to buy her from the emir or fight for her but to no avail as the emir is besotted by Eirene who still remains a virgin. He speaks to the brothers:

If you deign have me as your sister’s husband,

For the sweet beauty of your own dear sister

I will become a Christian in Romania.

And, listen to the truth, by the great Prophet,

She never kissed me, never spoke to me.

Come then into my tent: see whom you seek.’

Not only does the emir readily move his tribesmen to Romania and convert and marry Eirene, when his mother complains by letter of how he has defamed his family and religion by lusting after a pig-eater he briefly returns to Syria where he converts his mom and whole family to Christianity by simply reciting the Nicene creed and some New Testament quotes. The poet rather humorously describes the emir’s return to Eirene:

When suddenly she saw him coming up

She sorely fainted in a wonderstroke,

And having wound her arms about his neck

She hung there speechless, nor let fall her tears.

Likewise the Emir became as one possessed,

Clasping the girl, holding her on his breast,

So they remained entwined for many hours;

And had not the General’s wife thrown water on them

They had straight fallen fainting to the ground.

(Love beyond measure often breeds such things,

And overpassing joy leads on to death,

Even as they too were nigh to suffer it.)

And hardly were they able to sever them;

For the Emir was kissing the girl’s eyes,

Embracing her, and asking with delight:

‘How are you, sweet my light, my pretty lamb,

How are you, dearest soul, my consolation,

Most pretty dove, and my most lovely tree

With your own flower, (Basil) my beloved son?

Digenes Akrites is a bunch of highly romantic folk tales with a theme. The problem with writing down folk tales is that they become set as in stone. Cinderella as written down by the brothers Grimm is certainly a lovely story but only one version of what circulated mother-to-daughter in earlier years. Until the twentieth century Akritic literature was also passed down orally in Greece and Greek Cyprus. Presumably it was from this rich tradition that the tale of the twice born Digenes Akrites – Basil the huntsman – derives.

But if Basil is the hero’s name, what is with this Digenes? Digenes Akrites translates as two-blood border lord – two bloods referring to his mixed Arab and Byzantine parentage. The title border lord or borderer (akrites) describes his life’s work: protecting the Byzantine frontier not only against Arab raiders like his dad had been but also thieves and highwaymen. Otherwise he is known as Basil the huntsman.

What makes this fairy tale of romance and bad guys and even a dragon so important to academic studies is that it is so entirely different from the usual Byzantine literature of the capital. It came out of the boonies of Cappadocia and the writing does not constantly refer back to classical models. The setting is the Asian frontier in the tenth century or thereabouts but since the earliest version was written down some two hundred years later it reflects the situation of that day. In fact it is a piece of nostalgia for a lost time of Byzantine greatness before the defeat at Manzikirk, never to be fully regained. How much of the text as we have it reflects oral tradition, and how much of later Akritic literature is modeled upon the epic is a matter to be discussed by scholars.

Unlike court literature it is not particularly religious and what religion there is in the tale are set pieces, as with the quick persuasion of the emir’s family noted above; a familiar if boring style of Orthodox hagiography apparently set within a paradigm influenced by the Pauletian heresy. That, however, is irrelevant to the non specialist. In Constantinople everything was viewed through the prism of an autocratic state where the basilius was also the temporal head of the church, one who often viewed himself as a theologian. Digenes Akrites is a romance set on the frontier where the hero’s nearest neighbors and sometimes relatives are Muslim while the enemies he defeats are as likely as not Christian bandits and rustlers. In this Digenes reminds one of the Spanish hero, El Cid, also a border lord. Both heroes are from families of the “Great” who while acknowledging the divine overlordship of king or emperor, are in practice so independent that Digenes can set security conditions for the emperor to visit him. One is put in mind of the English maxim: “a man’s home is his castle” as the king’s authority stops at a nobleman’s fortress.

But one should not overemphasize the heroic element. Homer’s Odyssey is an heroic tale. Penelope’s main virtue is keeping Odysseus’ sheep out of the clutching paws of her suitors. Digenes falls in love with Evdokia at first sight and she with him. The scene cannot but put one in mind of Juliet on her balcony.

When that she saw the youth, as I am telling,

Her heart was fired, she would not live on earth;

Pain kindled in her, as is natural;

Beauty is very sharp, its arrow wounds,

And through the very eyes reaches the soul.

She wanted from the youth to lift her eyes,

Yet wanting not from beauty to be parted,

Plainly defeated drew them there again;

And said to her Nurse quietly in her ear:

‘Look out, dear Nurse, and see a sweet young man,

Look at his wondrous beauty and strange stature.

If but my lord took him for son-in-law –

He would have, believe me, one like no one else.’

So she stayed watching the boy from the opening.

The youth through the embrasure saw the Girl,

And gazing on her, forward made no step,

Amazement took him, trembling took his heart;

He urged his charger, drew near to the Girl,

And to her quietly spoke words like these:

‘Acquaint me, maid, if you have me in mind,

If you much wish I should take you for wife;

If elsewhere be your mind, I’ll not entreat you.’

And the Girl thereon did entreat her nurse,

‘Go down, good nurse, and say you to the boy,

“Be sure, God’s name, you are come into my soul;

Digenes woos her by playing on a lute:

Then rising thence he went up to his room,

He fetched his boots, and then he took his lute,

First with his hands alone the strings vibrated

(Well was he trained in instruments of music)

And having tuned he struck it murmuring:

‘Who loves near by shall not be short of sleep,

Who loves afar let him not waste his nights:

Far is my love and quickly let me go,

That I hurt not the soul that wakes for me.’

The sun was setting and the moon came up

When he rode out alone holding his lute.

The black was swift, the moon was like the day,

With the dawn he came up to the Girl’s pavilion

And low down leaning out (she) says to the boy:

‘I scolded you, my pet, you were so late,

Shall always scold if you are slack and slow,

And lute-playing, as if you don’t know where you are,

Dear, if my father hear and do you harm,

And you die for me

When Evdokia’s father indeed separates the two they elope. When pursued Digenes single handedly defeats the general’s entire army of retainers. His martial prowess is not the important thing however, but how each risks everything for the other, Evdokia even accompanying her husband in his adventures. There is no monkish piety in their story but lots of lust. Christianized lust for each other, but lust none the less at least by the standards of the Orthodox church of the day. In Digenes Akrites there is none of the concern for humility, piety, and the poor that is familiar in Constantinoplean fare but earthy romance, manly virtue, and description of the rich life of the Anatolian aristocracy.

He straightway changed, put on a Roman dress,

A tabard wonderful, sprinkled with gold,

Violet, white, and thick purple, griffin-broidered,

A turban gold-inscribed, precious and white;

Thin singlets he put on to cool himself,

The upper one was red with golden hems,

And all the hems of it were fused with pearls,

The neck was filled with southernwood and musk,

And distinct pearls it had instead of buttons,

The buttonholes were twisted with pure gold;

He wore fine leggings with griffins embellished,

His spurs were plaited round with precious stones,

And on the gold work there were carbuncles.

I would if I could pass over a disturbing element, the affair of Basil and Maximo. Every hero must have a weakness however and for Digenes it is the warrior-maid Maximo, of Amazonian descent, whom he twice defeats in battle, twice spares, is unfaithful with, and than kills out of guilt

Straight mounting horse he went to Maximo.

She was descended from Amazon women,

King Alexander brought from the Brahmanes.

Great was the strength she had from her forebears,

Finding in war her life and her delight.

Maximo appeared in the field alone.

She sat upon a black a noble mare,

Wearing a tabard, all of yellow silk

And green her turban was, sprinkled with gold,

She bore a shield painted with eagle’s wings,

An Arab spear, and girdled with a sword.

They fight. She loses and expects to be slain. She offers her body to the hero.

“You die not, Maximo,” I said to her,

“But it cannot be for me to make you wife.

I have a lawful wife noble and fair,

Whose love I will never bear to set aside

Alas his resolve melts when she

Threw off her tabard, for the heat was great.

Maximo’s tunic was like gossamer,

Which as a mirror all her limbs displayed,

And her small paps just peeping from her breast.

My soul was wounded, she was beautiful

Maximo lighted up my love the more

Shooting upon my hearing sweetest words,

And she was young and fair, lovely and virgin,

Reason was conquered by profane desire;

His wife is not deceived. But she is forgiving.

What stings me is Maximo’s daring delay;

What you were doing with her I know not;

But there is surely God knows what is hidden,

And will forgive this sin of yours, my friend;

But see, young man, you do this not again

Now this much may be said for Digenes. A Homeric hero would have shrugged off the dalliance. A simple warrior might accept it is loot. But Digenes is Christian even if his reaction to his sin makes but little sense to us today. He feels guilt. Though he had twice spared Maximo in battle, for his shame he now kills her. A Freudian might see a demonic dragon which Digenes slays in another chapter as his phallic double. In killing that monster the guilty hero may be symbolically castrating himself for this murder of his seductress. However it is hard for me to believe that some medieval poet thought it out so explicitly. As likely, as it has been suggested, the slaying of Maximo was somewhere inserted into the narrative to eliminate a developing and inconvenient love triangle. That works too.

Many a hero dies in some glorious but hopeless cause. So too our hero – sort of. He and Evdokia retire to an estate which he builds on the banks of the Euphrates and there he dies (In some later versions wrestling with death himself.) content that he has served the empire and his legacy well. Digenes’ single infidelity aside, the love between Basil and Evdokia is strong even to death. He kills but not needlessly, or as revenge, or to impose Christianity on peaceful Muslim neighbors. One can easily imagine a crowd of villagers gathered in some Cypriot town to hear the familiar tale from a visiting troubadour just as the sun sets and the wine flows in rivers like the romance of the poem itself. Evdokia prays over her dying husband:

In loving-kindness pity me in exile,

Have mercy on my loneliness, raise him up.

If not, O God who can do all, command

Me die before him and give up my soul,

Let me not see him voiceless, stretched out dead,

See his fair hands that learned to be so brave

Clasped crosswise, and remaining motionless,

His eyes covered over, and his feet wrapped up:

Allow me not to see such great affliction,

O God my maker, who canst do all things.’

Thus the Girl with much contrition of heart

Having prayed, turned to see the Borderer,

Beheld him speechless, yielding up his soul;

And not bearing the pain of boundless grief

From measureless and great despondence falling

On him in sympathy the Girl expired.

Never had she had knowledge of affliction,’

And therefore was not able to endure it.

The hero seeing, and feeling with his hand,

For he was living still by God’s compassion,

Having beheld her dying suddenly,

Said, ‘Glory to Thee, O God, who orderest all,

That my soul bears not pain unbearable,

That she should be alone here and a stranger.’

His hands setting crosswise the noble youth

Gave up his soul to the angels of the Lord;

Illustrious and young both brought to an end

Their souls at once, as if by covenant.



By Paul Kastenellos


We do not have a lot of detail about Byzantine medicine nor is what we read in some Byzantine author necessarily true for the entire 1,100 year life of the empire. But both the Emperors Maurice (582-602) and Leo IV (886-912) wrote on medical subjects during the high points of Byzantine history and Manuel I Comnenus himself ministered to the German king Conrad of Hohenstaufen. Of course, as with the “Renaissance man,”  it was pretty common for the educated layman of the ancient, medieval, and Arabic worlds to have a scholarly and often self-schooled interest in many disciplines including astronomy, architecture, mathematics, and medicine. Procopius of Caesaria, while not a doctor, gave a fine description of the Justinian plague which hit the empire in 541 AD. He accurately describes how it arrived first in seaports and was not necessarily spread by contact with the victims. As important, he admits his ignorance rather than giving an otherworldly explanation. There is not a word to indicate the wrath of God or the machinations of the devil. Without a knowledge of germ theory he could not recognize the source of infection now known to have been the bite of rat-born fleas. None the less, he is recognized in medical education for accurate observation without preconceived notions.



Besides these gentlemen scholars, there were the practitioners trained in the schools of medicine who were disciplined by day-by-day medical practice and the need to perform actual surgery. Modern authors are not always helpful, at times exaggerating Byzantine expertise and specialization. With that reservation it can be admitted that though hampered by the dead hands of Galen and Hippocrates the East Roman doctors were – if not very innovative of theory – at least willing to modify theory with practical experience. Medical texts and health manuals throughout the Middle Ages often note the benefits of drinking water, as long as it came from good sources. For example, Paul of Aegina, a 7th-century Byzantine physician, writes “of all things water is of most use in every mode of regimen. It is necessary to know that the best water is devoid of quality as regards taste and smell, is most pleasant to drink, and pure to the sight; and when it passes through the praecordia quickly, one cannot find a better drink.” Surgeons operated successfully on head wounds, haemorrhoids, and hernias, removed tonsils and performed hysterectomies. According to the chronicle of Ioannes Skylitzes surgeons even attempted to separate a dead conjoined twin from his still living brother. (The living twin survived the surgery itself but died only a little later.) The following interesting link gives a thorough description of several methods employed to correct aneurisms:


Steven Runciman notes the static nature of Byzantine theory but praises its practicality. Physicians would encourage common sense preventatives while picking and choosing elements from the revered Greek and Roman authors that supported their favored treatments.

Byzantine history is one of nearly constant warfare so there was considerable expertise in treating wounds. The East Roman Army had a medical corp with medics to follow the soldiers into battle, provide first aid, and carry the wounded to  MASH units behind the lines. For the cavalry there would be a unit of 8 to 18 men assigned to each detachment of 200 to 400 men. They would follow some 200 feet behind the front line troops in order to bring the badly wounded away from danger. To that end, the saddles of their horses had two ladder-stirrups on the left side, and flasks of water to revive the faint.  There were VA hospitals. The emperor Justin II (565-578) founded such an institution in Constantinople as did Alexius Comnenus I (1081-1118) – Alexius placing his own daughter Anna in charge.

Throughout the middle ages it was probably better to have a bone set by an experienced craftsman than by a university educated doctor who might consider surgery below his dignity anyway. As always, village “old wives”  ministered with success and certainly monasteries cultivated herbs. Herbals were common and were translated into Arabic and then to Latin and eventually passed into western Europe via Spain. But as noted, the teaching of Hippocrates and Galen had a death grip on medicine throughout Europe so there was not much advance in the theory until Harvey discovered the circulation of the blood. The invention of the microscope showed (or confirmed) the existence of microorganisms. Only then did it become worthy to think outside the box. Byzantium was no exception.

Monastic hospitals for the poor were common throughout the empire, established by an emperor, or by  aristocrats and civil servants trying to buy their way into heaven at the end of a less than edifying life. It was usual for monasteries to contain hospital wards for the poor. As elsewhere in medieval Europe these mainly served to let peasants die in clean bed linens just as third world hospices minister to those dying from AIDS today. The first Christian hospital considered to have been built to cure disease rather than just ease the pain and depression of impending death was built by St. Basil the Great of Caesaria in the late fourth century This holy bishop has been credited with convincing other Christians that medical care was a gift from God and not a proscribed paganism.

In the 8th and 9th Centuries true hospitals began to appear in provincial towns as well as cities. Towns were required to have sufficient doctors for their populations. Presumably these were trained at Alexandria or the university of Constantinople. Self taught practitioners like Alexander of Thalles – who produced a medical compendium – used their common sense. Another compendium in seven books by the seventh century practicing physician Paul of Aegina remained in use as a standard textbook for the next eight hundred years.

By the twelfth century Constantinople had two well organized hospitals staffed by medical specialists including women doctors. John II Comnenus established a then modern well organized institution which according to Tamara Talbot Rice was staffed by medical specialists. These contained special wards for various types of diseases and employed systematic methods of treatment. There were ten wards of fifty beds each and there was a dedicated hierarchy including the Chief Physician (archiatroi), professional nurses (hypourgoi) and orderlies (hyperetai). Each qualified male doctor had twelve qualified assistants and eight helpers while the lone woman doctor had eight assistants and two helpers. There were also two “pathologists” and a dispensary to tend outpatients. Talbot Rice also notes that outside the capital everyday practice by state supported doctors – begun by Justinian I – had already somewhat modified ancient theory.

Christianity always played a key role in the building and maintaining of hospitals. Many hospitals were built and maintained by bishops in their respective prefectures. These were nearly always built near or around churches and great importance was laid on the idea of healing through salvation. When medicine, bathing pools, clean air, and cleanliness failed, doctors would ask their patients to pray. This usually involved symbols of saints especially Saints Cosmas and Damien who were the patron saints of medicine and doctors. That said, the Byzantines drew a distinction between miraculous cures, in which everyone believed, and magic. Prayer before icons was encouraged for both its spiritual and psychological benefits. But amulets and spells, while common in the empire, were decried by the church and merely tolerated by doctors.

Anna Comnena emphasized preventive medicine with life style changes, but Andrew Dalby’s Flavours of Byzantium reports extensively on the Hippocratic concern with balancing hot and cold, dry and moist, and the four humors: blood, phlegm, yellow and black bile. In fact we know more about the East Roman obsession with diet and health than we do their actual recipes. He reports that to the Byzantines wheat is the best of all grains and produces healthy blood; that rice is midway between hot and cold and inhibits movement of the bowels but if boiled with seasoning becomes good for the bowels; that broad beans have a high degree of coldness and cause gas while chickpeas which have a high proportion of heat also cause gas, etc. Milk and hen’s eggs produce good humors. Fibrous parts of animals produce phlegm. The meat of oxen and goats produce black bile.

Besides diet other lifestyle recommendations for each month are quoted by Dalby from a Byzantine calendar. For December, which was thought to govern the salty phlegm, one should avoid cabbage and seris (endive or chicory), and eat no goat, deer, or boar. All other meats should be eaten lean, served hot, boiled, and spiced. In December one should also eat fenugreek soup in moderate amounts as well as young green olives in brine and olives in honey vinegar … He should take eight baths using an ointment containing aloes and myrrh washed off with wine and sodium carbonate. … and make love.




Black People In Byzantine  Society






Arnold Toynbee consistently used the term “East Roman” rather than either “Roman” or “Byzantine.” To him, the Roman Empire was a continuation of Greek / Hellenistic civilization, a point of view shared by the poet Horace who in the first century BC famously wrote that “captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror.” Toynbee divides East and West Roman civilizations as early as the late republic and early principiate, with the East Roman being Hellenistic and the West Roman more in keeping with the traditional image of marching legions and gladiators that in time disappeared as the west declined. Thus he refers to an East Roman culture well before Constantine I divided the administration. Such an East Roman terminology covering an era since before the birth of Christ till the fall of Constantinople may finally satisfy those who feud over whether the later Empire should be called Byzantine or Roman. It was West Roman legions which conquered the world but East Roman cavalry which maintained it throughout the middle ages.

Having made that point I have no desire nor any will to continue the unproductive argument of Byzantine vs Roman terminology. To say Roman to anyone not already immersed in East Roman history and culture is to confuse him only to make a point. In art it would actually be a distortion to speak of Byzantine as medieval Roman. On the other hand, politically the later emperors did rule in an unbroken succession from Caesar Augustus and their laws – even those of Julian the apostate – survived their individual deaths unless canceled by a successor.

Sometimes there is no single “right” way to see something. It was what it was and to each his own. End discussion.



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