The Propoloma: A headdress of the Zoste Patrikia and other high ranking women in the courts of Eastern Rome
Kyria Anna Dokeianina Syrakousina, OM, OBT
One of the more difficult aspects of studying Eastern Roman dress for the SCA is locating suitable headwear outside of the typical veil and circlet that seems common place, and easily mimicked from iconographic depictions of female saints, and especially the Virgin Mary. I have just started to scratch the surface of ceremonial Roman dress, but so far I have been able to uncover some rather unique pieces that may begin to open the door into more complex appearances for Eastern Roman personae to try.
The zoste patrikia was a title held by the chief attendant or lady in waiting to the Eastern Roman Empress. It literally translates to “girded-lady patrician” but is often translated into English as “Mistress of the Robes.” It appears to have been given only to extremely high ranking ladies in direct service to the empress. She was not only the head retainer for the empress, but also the head of the court of ladies, the wives of other high ranking patrician men in the court of Byzantium.
As was tradition with the Eastern Romans, ceremony heavily accompanied any augmentation in rank, and with ceremony, came elaborate new costume. Ioannis Spatharakis, in his monograph, The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts, gives a detailed footnote of the ceremony, as described by Constantine Porphyrogénnētos in De Cerimoniis in Latin, while explaining the details of a manuscript depicting the installation of Anicia Juliana as patrician:
“In the church of the Theotocos of Pharos she received from the despotes a delmatikion [dalmatica], a thorakion [ecclesiastical pallium, similar to a chasuble], and a white maphorion [hooded veil]. In the Pantheon, wearing the thorakion and the delmatikion and carrying the loros [heavy gold wrap] and the propoloma [trapezoid hat], she received from the enthroned emperors the kodikellia [codex], which were later blessed by the patriarch. Because she was wearing the loros and the propoloma, she was not able to prostrate and kiss the feet of the despotai, as she did when she received her costume, but she bent slightly and kissed their knees.”  (The available text of De Cerimoniis is only in Latin or Greek. I did my best to translate the footnote and verify it with the original 1830 publication.)
This article will focus on the design of and wearing of the propoloma. This particular style of the hat is described as being in use as early as the 10th Century, but appeared to have had its heyday during the 11th and 12th Centuries, which allows it to fit perfectly into my persona. It appears to have taken the shape of a trapezoid, or upside down cone sewn shut on all but one side for the head. It may have been covered in silk, and then decorated in a variety of ways.
Dawson seems to have done most of the legwork on this hat, as there is not an English translation of De Ceremoniis available to do primary source research from Constantine’s perspective. He discusses that although the hats were usually white, it appears that in one manuscript, purple ones were seen. This may indicate that these women may have been members of the extended royal family. He also brings into account on his Levantia website that the padded headroll seen in earlier artwork, including the Ravenna mosaics, may have been the predecessor to the trapezoid propoloma. So for those who have an earlier period persona, we simply need to take a look at the bust of Anicia Juliana to get a glimpse at the earlier hat style.
(Photos taken by me at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in March of 2014.)
Anicia was born in 462, which puts her occupation of zoste patrikia during the reign of Anastasius I, two reigns prior to Justinian I. So it is arguable that her attire could be considered that of late Antiquity of the very late Roman Empire, rather than “Byzantine” in nature. However, a similar style was worn by Theodora’s court in the mosaics at Ravenna:
The first thing I noticed immediately on this particular bust was not the layered look at the top, but the gathering in the back at the base of the skull. This reminded me immediately of the Cap of St. Birgitta, a style that was popular in the 14th century:
Naturally, there is no reason why this cap could not be older in origin, and this marble bust may just show a similar cap being in use as early as the 5th century. At least for the over cap, the under cap is a bit more perplexing, especially with the pucker going on at the top of the head. It is highly unlikely that is a hair part, considering the detail given to the rest of the statue, in addition to the same look of the layered “turbans” on the mosaic, so my belief is that it was two separate pieces, but how they created that gather on the top is still a mystery to me. It is something I do plan on exploring later to help those with early period personae.
But how does a re-creator or reenactor transfer the wearing of this type of hat into their hobby? Well for one, this is a hat of station and rank. In the SCA, some kingdoms have sumptuary laws, the East Kingdom, where I reside, does not. However, I like to take into account the “what would my persona do?” clause when it comes to my clothing choices. My persona is well-developed, but not everybody else’s is, nor should they have to be. It is absolutely a personal choice on how much thought you want to put into your persona, and what you want them to wear. In the case of portraying a persona from a culture that has strong sumptuary laws, such as the Eastern Roman Empire, and especially if you reside in a kingdom that has laws about what one can wear on their head regarding their own rank, this is when the re-creator needs to take into account what he or she wants to wear, or should be wearing, for the holder of their awards.
In the case of the propoloma, I would recommend that nobody holding anything less than an Award of Arms wear this hat. A woman who would have received this hat would have already been of high patrician rank, and even though the title of lady may or may not convey this, it would be unfair to say that only peers or grant holders/court baronesses would be permitted to wear it as well as far as the game we play goes. I made my first one from looking at the Tom Tierney coloring books, which have proven to be rather inaccurate the more that my studies continue before understanding that it was a hat of rank. However, I feel that it would make an excellent choice for something akin to a cap of maintenance for a Pelican, or wreath for a Laurel, as the SCA simply does not hold a candle to the intense pomp of Eastern Roman ceremony. But by bringing pieces of these ceremonies into the SCA, bit by bit, we can help enrich our game even more, and introduce others to a new and exciting part of Roman culture they may have never otherwise known about.
Please visit http://www.1186-583.org/Headgears-Headdress-and-Jewellery for Eudocia Kinnamos Dallassene’s research into this same hat. (Site is predominately in French.)
Edit 11/9/2014: My new wool and silk Propoloma, visit my walkthrough here:
Constantine Porphyrogénnētos, De Cerimoniis aulae Byzantinae libri duo. London: Oxford. 1830.
Kazhdan, Alexander. The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. New York: Oxford 1991.
Garland, Lynda. Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204. Abington: Routledge 1999.
Spatharakis, Ioannis. “The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts,” Byzantina Neerlandica 6 (1976): 145.
Dawson, Timothy. “Women’s Dress in Byzantium” In Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200, edited by, Lynda Garland, 47. London: Ashgate, 2006.
Dawson, Timothy. A Woman of the High Aristocracy,” accessed August 13, 2014. http://www.levantia.com.au/clothing/zoste.html.
 Alexander Kazhdan, The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, (New York: Oxford 1991), 2231.
 Lynda Garland, Byzantine Empresses: Women and Power in Byzantium, AD 527-1204, (Abington: Routledge 1999), 5, 245, 264.
 Ioannis Spatharakis, “The Portrait in Byzantine Illuminated Manuscripts”, Byzantina Neerlandica 6, (1976): 145.
 Timothy Dawson, “Women’s Dress in Byzantium” in Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience 800-1200. Ed. Lynda Garland (London: Ashgate, 2006), 47. Dawson cites De Cerimoniis by Constantine Porphyrogénnētos, the 1837 Latin edition, which I am currently translating into English.
 Ibid. 48.
 “A Woman of the High Aristocracy,” Timothy Dawson, accessed August 13, 2014, http://www.levantia.com.au/clothing/zoste.html. Also gives his interpretation of what a complete outfit may have looked like.
5 thoughts on “The Propoloma: A headdress of the Zoste Patrikia and other high ranking women in the courts of Eastern Rome”
I am SO glad my persona is about 100 years too early for this particular hat. I’m intrigued by the older form, and think it is something I will need to learn more about. Meanwhile, I STILL don’t have the silk veil trimmed and ready to use.