WHAT IS PERSONA?
The object of a persona is to essentially create a person that could have lived in the Middle Ages. By taking on a persona, you assume that “role”, in the form of name, clothing, armor, art forms, etc. It can be as simple or as complex as you wish, and never, ever permanent! My story seriously changes all the time, and is rather complex. This is only an example of how insane you can get.
ANNA DOKEIANINA SYRAKOUSINA…
Was born in the mid 11th Century to a high-ranking Greek Family that maintained residence on Norman-controlled Sicily. She was married to an Imperial Prince by proxy at a young age, and moved to Constantinople. She was rapidly caught up into dangerous court intrigue, and after nearly 20 years of grandiose Imperial life, her husband was mysteriously killed while turmoil reigned during a shifting of power in the Purple. Being that her family was of an opposing political view to the Emperor, she was placed under house arrest and is confined to the grounds of the Great Palace Complex overlooking Propontis (The Sea of Marmara). Following the Byzantine loss to the Normans at Dyrrakhion in 1081, Anna was betrothed and married to a Norman lord in Robert Guiscard’s service by the name of Gieffrei de Toesni, and returned to Sicily where he was able to gain control over her family’s estate by dowry. Despite their nobility, Gieffrei is engaged in active service with the Norman military, and they often travel from post to post.
I could go into more details, including my research into women’s rights during this period, but this class is not about me. 😉 I will be using this paragraph as a way to explore options as we progress. For now, let’s focus on getting started.
Running the SCA Byzanteam group on Facebook, a common issue that arises is the misconception that “Byzantine” is a period. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Sure, the Byzantines had a “period”, but it was in the form of an empire that spanned from 527-1453 CE. If you tried to ask somebody for a French persona in that same near-millennium of time, they’d have to sit you down and pinpoint where you want to be, because Clovis and King Charles VII didn’t even speak the same language, let alone exist in the same France. Byzantium needs to be approached with a similar angle. Justinian I and Constantine XI Palailogos certainly weren’t contemporaries, and there’s a whole lot of Byzantine Byzan-tween. (I should warn you now, I make horrible Byzan-jokes.) Byzantine is a culture, literally and simply, Medieval Greek, and now you get to pick your period.
BYZANTINE PERIODS AND VERY ABBREVIATED TIMELINE (Trust me, there is a lot more stuff that happened, these are notable ones I picked that help ping specific moments in time.)
EARLY PERIOD (330-899)
330 – Constantine I establishes Constantinople as the capital of the Roman Empire
527 – Justinian I becomes Emperor. Reigns with Theodora (d. 542) until 565, the “Byzantine Empire” begins.
726-787 – First Iconoclasm
814-842 – Second Iconoclasm
MIDDLE PERIOD OR “GOLDEN AGE” (900-1204)
950’s- Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos pens De Ceremoniis and De Administrando.
988 – Basil II establishes the formal Varangian Guard consisting of Kievan Rus mercenaries.
1054 – The Great Schism: Church splits into the Greek (Orthodox) and Latin (Catholic) Rites permanently.
1065: Anna Dokeianina Syrakousina is born. 😉
1071 – Battle of Manzikert, Byzantines defeated by Seljuk Turks.
1081 – Battle of Dyrrakhion, Byzantines defeated by Siculo-Normans.
1095 – Pope Urban II calls for the First Crusade
1097 – Alexios I takes Nicaea behind the Crusaders’ back.
1099 – Jerusalem falls to the Crusaders
1118 – Anna Komnene is put in exile for an attempted usurpation of her brother, Ioannes. She writes the Alexiad during this period.
1203 – Crusaders of the Fourth Crusade are convinced by a deposed Byzantine prince Alexios Angelos to march on Constantinople and restore him in lieu of payment. This ends badly. Rut roh.
1204 – Alexios Angelos is deposed of, Crusaders sack Constantinople and establish the Latin Empire. The Romans set up an Empire in Nicaea, the Empire of Trebizond, and a despotate in Epirus.
LATIN EMPIRE OF CONSTANTINOPLE/EMPIRE OF NICAEA/EMPIRE OF TREBIZOND/DESPOTATE OF EPIRUS (1204-1261)
This stuff is totally a history class in itself, but if someone builds a persona that is a citizen of the Despotate of Epirus after this class, I will buy you a beer.
LATE PERIOD AND COLLAPSE (1261-1453)
1261 – The Byzantine Empire is restored after the Nicaeans surround the Latin Empire and take back Constantinople.
1453 – The Ottomans breach the walls of Constantinople with gunpowder, Constantine XI is killed, and the Byzantine Empire officially ends.
WAIT, WHAT DID THE BYZANTINES CALL THEMSELVES? WHAT DID OTHERS CALL THEM?
The term “Byzantium” is the Latinization of from “Byzantion,” the Greek name of the settlement that existed before it was renamed Constantinople. While some authors, such as Anna Komnene, use “Byzantion” as the name of the empire, the people referred to themselves as rhomanoi, or Romans. Despite what the Germans will try to tell you, the Byzantine Empire is the Roman Empire. It was commonly referred to as the Serene Empire of the Romans or more simply Rhomania during the middle period on official literature such as chrysobulls. Another term is the Eastern Roman Empire, which is what a lot of scholars are attempting to revert it to from the anachronistic term “Byzantine”, which came into parlance during SCA period, but after the collapse in the 16th Century. It is simply easier to refer to ourselves in the 3rd person as Byzantine, but, should you decide to engage others in the 1st person, you should describe yourself as a Roman.
There is a great deal of snark, however, from the western European kingdoms at this time, and the Neither Holy Nor Roman Nor an Empire referred to the Byzantine Empire as The Kingdom of the Greeks. Ouch! As far as I can tell, so did the Normans and Franks. The Italian kingdoms were hit or miss. My Norman husband refers to me as Greek, I refer to myself as Roman. I refer to him, and anybody else NOT ROMAN, as barbarian. This is something that goes way back to Archaic Greece. I highly recommend that if you are in-persona, that you don’t blurt out to everyone that they’re barbarians. It’s rude, and not well accepted by folks who may not be in the know. Choose your snarks wisely. Being Byzantine may allow for a level of snootiness, but we’re all friends, here.
BUT WHAT ABOUT VARANGIANS? I REALLY WANT TO BE A VARANGIAN!!11eleven!
I’m going to preface this by saying that I have nothing against Varangian personae, but I’m about to be very blunt: Varangians are not Byzantine. The Romans viewed them as barbarians and outsiders, and despite the fun tales from the Norse Sagas, chances are, they weren’t well liked in the City. The truth of the matter is that there are currently more Varangians in the SCA than there ever was serving an emperor at one point in time due to the fact that it gives Norse personae an excuse to wear lamellar when it’s hot. Not everybody could show up at the Blachernae Palace steps from somewhere up North and demand they be admitted into service to the Purple. It was a bit more complicated than that, and each emperor had different requirements. Not to mention, Varangians were only predominantly Norse for a short period of time in the mid 11th Century if we assume what the Sagas say is true. The first Varangian Guard was not established until the late 10th Century (around 980) when Basil II was given thousands of Kievan soldiers in exchange for marriage of a Byzantine princess to the Prince of Kiev in order to defeat the Bulgarians. The Kievan Rus were not Norse, they were Slavic, potentially with Norse ancestry, but the term “Viking” itself is a particular Norse occupation. The “Viking Age” was pretty much over at this time. We do have record of plenty of Norse travelers coming to Constantinople prior to this, but the “Viking raid” in 860 was actually Rus that had come down into the Black Sea from what is now Ukraine.
To further screw things up, the term “Varangian” itself was used by both the Romans and the Rus to refer to Norse Vikings prior to the 10th Century. So, if this is the route you desire to go, determining if you’re just a Norse traveler from early period, or an actual member of the Emperor’s elite guard is important.
If you do decide to go Varangian GUARD, here is a list of “waves” of ethnicities that served at specific times:
988 – 1020ish: Kievan Rus
1020-1070ish: Scandinavian (Icelandic, Norwegian, Swedish) Bolli Bollason and Harald Hardrada served at this time.
1070-1204ish: Danish and English (Anglo-Saxon). The term “Danes” comes up in Byzantine literature often to describe the Varangians, and the English were escaping Norman rule in England at this time. This is documented in the saga of Edward the Confessor. Siward Barn served at this time. Normans were NOT permitted to be apart of the Varangian Guard, but some may have served as mercenaries in other capacities.
The Fourth Crusade has probably some of the best documented accounts of the Varangian Guard in action protecting Constantinople. After the Fourth Crusade, however, there didn’t appear to be as formal of a guard unit, and those that were a part of it, had fully assimilated into the Roman culture. It is unclear if the Varangian Guard really remained a thing until the Fall of Constantinople in 1453.
There are a lot of myths surrounded what they actually wore, especially in the SCA. The “red is for the Emperor’s service” and “green is for the Empress’s service” is totally a SCAdianism as far as I’ve found. It looks like the on-duty color for the guard was blue or red, while off-duty, you see them in nothing more than plain tunics and slim-fitting trousers or hose, which was typical for men’s casual wear throughout the empire. During the period of the active guard, most serving were already Christian or converted, but some paganism did remain.
COMMON BYZANTINE PEOPLE
Demographics and class structure, like anywhere, changed over time, but beyond the glittering aristocracy, Byzantine society did have a pretty prosperous middle/working class. Commerce and guilds were highly developed by the 10th Century, when the Book of the Eparch, a guidebook for the governor of Constantinople, was compiled. Those that are looking for a trade or craftsperson position will find a wealth of interesting ideas in the guild structure of Constantinople. For those that don’t want to be in the city, Cappadocia and Macedonia also offer ideas for persona-building. The empire also sent trade agents and officials to other places in the world, including Scandinavia, Kiev, The German Empire, etc.
The lowest classes were performers, “dancers” (prostitutes), and farmers. Empress Theodora was one such “dancer”, who also became a social climber as a more formal courtesan. Opinions of such professions varied wildly. Prokopios’ Secret History is a juicy read about how much he voices his disdain!
The heavy bureaucracy that the Byzantine Empire is known for starts in the aristocratic structure. I cannot give a comprehensive lecture on it, because it changed constantly. Almost everyone had some kind of title, even if they were honorary in nature. There are entire tables dedicated to trying to follow this mess in textbooks. It’s not something I can teach in a 101 class, but chances are, if you’re looking for a specific job, such as, “Imperial Bed Maker”, chances are, it existed. For example, the woman I wrote my thesis on, Kale Pakouriane, was the Kouropalatissa, adopted from her husband having the role of Kouropalates, basically the head of the Imperial Household. Serious job! My title is Hypatissa, which is basically, “honorary lady-consul”, basically, a court baroness, but my persona, before marrying a Norman, was a Zoste Patrikia, or “girded lady-patrician”, the Empress’ chief lady.
THE IMPERIAL FAMILY
For those Crowns interested in having a Byzantine reign and heirs, there is a whole other world you get to unlock. Please email me for specifics. It is important to note that most artwork that SCAdians typically go to for garb ideas are almost always Imperial or ecclesiastical in nature. Iconography almost always puts saints in imperial dress, versus aristocratic dress. There is a difference!
IT IS MY PERSONAL MISSION IN THE SCA TO CHANGE THE STANDARD “BYZANTINE” GARB
While the generic layered tunic look did not change much over the years, there were some major pattern shifts in both cut and embellishment that need to be noted. While it’s super easy to go to Linengarb and get one of their “Coptic” tunics, it’s far more impressive to not stay in 600CE when your persona is allegedly in the 1100s. Potami stripes (also known as clavii) went out of style sometime during the iconoclastic period, and occasionally show up on UNDERWEAR peeking out under the over tunics. Since these stripes are basically the mark of the SCA Byzantine, it will probably take some time to get them to go the way of the dodo bird. Even I still wear them on a lot of my older stuff, and they still are correct from 300-800CE or so, but they should not be considered the be-all-end-all of Byzantine dress. Trim was concentrated on necklines, cuffs, and hems through the bulk of the span of the Empire, even on the lower classes.
The general list of garments that should be worn for almost all Byzantines, with some terms in Medieval Greek that were used over time. Ancient Greek and Medieval Greek were not the same, so don’t assume that these mean the same as they do for ancient garb:
Men: Body linen (esoforion), undertunic (tunica/chiton/himation/himation), overtunic (dalmatic/kamision/manikion/skaramangion), leggings or slim pants (touvia), socks or stockings (housia), ankle boots, slippers, or sandals. Men never wore wide sleeves, that is a strictly feminine fashion.
Women: Body linen (esoforion), underdress (tunica/kamision/chiton/himation), overgown (dalmatica/delmatikion/persomanikion/himation), probably some kind of socks or stockings (housia), ankle boots, slippers, or sandals.
Not everybody was required to cover their heads, but there were a variety of hats and ornaments depending on station and court position. Most common women veiled or wrapped when outdoors.
These are the basic cutting layouts I use for most of my garb. Necklines can vary from basic round, keyhole, keyhole covered by a placket, toggles or ties at the shoulder, or an off-center opening.
To wrap up the section on garb, I’m going to touch in on sumptuary laws. These were laws that were in place during certain times in the empire which limited who could wear what, including Tyrian Purple, black, hats, shoe color, certain garments, etc. These change drastically over time, but are most pronounced during the 10th and 11th Century because of Constantine Porphyrogennetos’ Book of Ceremonies, which is basically a handbook for running the imperial court. While in the SCA, we rarely have clothing-related sumptuary laws, if you want to present a more-accurate persona, obliging the laws of your period will create a more complete impression. For example, while I am in theory, rich enough to afford Tyrian Purple, which was allowed for women of my station, I tend to keep it a bit simple and try not to presume myself above my rulers since I am not a peer, and keep my purple-wearing to trim and some accents. I wear yellow slippers as was reserved for the rank of prefect or governor, so that would work in tandem with that of baroness. If I’m ever on the throne, blue shoes as princess, and red shoes as queen. Green shoes were restricted to eunuchs, so, heads up. 😉
MILITARY STRUCTURE AND ARMOR
I know this topic is very important to many of our fighters, however I do confess that I have not put a great deal of work into Byzantine military society and structure. I do have sources at home that I will be happy to share, so please email me, and I will do my best to get everybody where they want to be. I will say it was another one of those “hey, this changed between the 6th and 14th Centuries like everyone else” thing, so again, it’s a matter of pinpointing your place in time, and going from there. Likewise regarding building an accurate armor kit. Within the middle period, the basic armor scheme was as such: Shields were kite-shaped, and cuirasses, also known as a klivanion, were lamellar and leather. For those of lower classes or infantry who could not afford metal armor, a padded gambeson, or kolovion, was all you got. Helmets were onion-topped and were sometimes shown with nasals. Sometimes you see grieves and bazubands, sometimes, you do not. In the SCA, however, it is important that you meet the minimum armor standards and pass inspection at all times for personal safety, rather than accuracy. Always armor to meet the rules, and your own level of comfort!
GENDER AND SEXUALITY:
In iconography, archangels are often depicted as non-binary or gender fluid. There is new research, as of this year, devoted to the idea of transgender and non-binary individuals in the Byzantine Empire. Right now, studies have been focused predominantly on monks assigned female at birth, that have chosen to live their lives as male in the monastery, despite there being paths for females in monastic orders. Homosexuality also appeared to have been common, and there is some research toward the idea of “ritual brotherhood/sisterhood” within the empire as overseen by the Orthodox Church, could be perceived as support for same-sex marriage and partnerships. There is also evidence of polyamory in some households, often described as the triad of the white, concubine, and courtesan. As far as names go, there doesn’t appear to be much in the way of neutral gendered names, but there are some titles. Maistor, for example, works for both master/mistress. This is a relatively new area of study, but there is promise, and evidence that what was once considered to be a theologically-oppressed population may have retained more of its Greco-Roman fluidity than originally thought.
The SCA College of Heralds already has a great guideline for name formation, located here:
One of the best sources for documented names is the Prosopography of the Byzantine World. It allowed me to document my name easily:
I hope the contents of this page helps set you into the direction of building a strong Byzantine persona. I certainly have no room, or time, to discuss every possible alleyway, but with the information provided, a path can start being followed to greatness.
I’ve kept the bibliography to a short list of favorite suggested readings. Please contact me for further information. My library is at your disposal.
Prokopios, The Secret History. https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/basis/procop-anec.asp
Porphyrogénnētos, Constantine. De Admininstrando Imperio. Translated by R.J.H. Jenkins.
Budapest: Pázmány Péter Tudományegyetemi Görög Filológiai Intézet. 1949-1962.
——. De Ceremonii. Translated by Ann Moffatt and Maxeme Tall. Canberra: Byzantina
Komnene, Anna. The Alexiad. Translated by E.R.A. Sewter. London: Penguin Books. 2009.
The Book of the Eparch. http://www.paulstephenson.info/trans/eparch.html
Choniates, Niketas. O City of Byzantium. Translated by Harry J. Magoulas. Detroit: Wayne State
University Press. 1984.
Manuscripts (all from the middle period):
The Madrid Skylitzes: MS.gr.vitr.26-2 – https://www.wdl.org/en/item/10625/
The Menologion of Basil II: Vat. gr. 1613 – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Menologion_of_Basil_II
The Eisiterion of Agnes of France: Vat.gr.1851- http://digi.vatlib.it/view/MSS_Vat.gr.1851
Ball, Jennifer L. Byzantine Dress: Representations of Secular Dress in Eighth to Twelfth Century Painting. New York: Palgrave. 2005.
Dawson, Timothy. By the Emperor’s Hand: Military Dress and Court Regalia in the Later Roman-Byzantine Empire. Yorkshire: Frontline. 2015.
Garland, Linda. Byzantine Women: Varieties of Experience AD 800-1200. Aldershot: Ashgate. 2006.
Norwich, John Julius. A Short History of Byzantium. New York: Vintage Books. 1999.
Parani, Maria. Reconstructing the Reality of Images: Byzantine Material Culture and Religious Iconography (11th-15th Centuries.) Leiden; Boston: Brill. 2003.
The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium. Ed. Alexander Kahzdan. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1991.
Rapp, Claudia. “Ritual Brotherhood in Byzantium.” Traditio 52 (1997): 285–326.
Blöndal, Sigfús. The Varangians of Byzantium. Translated by Benedikt S. Benedikz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 1978.
Shepard, Jonathan. “The English and Byzantium: A Study of Their Role in the Byzantine Army During the Later Eleventh Century.” Traditio Vol. 29 (1973): 53-92. http://www.jstor.org/stable/27830955