Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.12.59 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.12.59

Alicia Walker, The Emperor and the World: Exotic Elements and the Imaging of Byzantine Imperial Power, Ninth to Thirteenth Centuries C.E.   Cambridge; New York:  Cambridge University Press, 2012.  Pp. xxvii, 260.  ISBN 9781107004771.  $95.00.  

Reviewed by Antony Eastmond, Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London (


The Emperor and the World is a thought-provoking and welcome book. Moving from the ninth to the late twelfth century, Alicia Walker explores how Byzantine imperial power could be presented in relation to other cultures – the idea of the exotic. It is a tightly woven book with a clear argument and a neat structure, bookended by descriptions of the Islamicising decoration of two Byzantine palaces in Constantinople. It is full of stimulating – but often controversial – points that should inspire new research on the objects and ideas that she discusses.

The introduction establishes Walker’s ideas with a terminological tool-box: she gives succinct definitions of the relationships that she will examine, in terms of emulation, appropriation, expropriation, parity, and incomparability. Alongside this she talks about the distinction between ‘official’ and ‘non-official’ iconography and also provides a definition of the ‘exotic’. This key word is a more loaded term than ‘foreign’, and Walker suggests it is a more active concept relating to the ways in which desires and anxieties about the foreign can be negotiated through representation. So armed we jump straight in to the first of the five chronologically arranged case studies that comprise the book.

The first chapter opens with Theophanes Continuatus’ description of the Bryas palace in Constantinople, which is described as being an imitation of Abbasid palaces in Baghdad. It is considered alongside a range of ninth-century silks with hunting imagery drawn from Roman, Sasanian and Islamic traditions. Walker places these all in the context of military rivalry, trade, and intellectual links between the two capitals in order to suggest that Islamicising art in Byzantium emulates eastern art, and should be seen as a means of asserting Byzantine cultural supremacy. Questions of audience hover throughout the book, and one wonders at different possible readings that might not always have accorded with the intended meanings of the commissioners. Would Islamic ambassadors to Constantinople have seen these works in the same way?

The second chapter examines the Troyes casket, a lavish tenth-century ivory box. Its lid, front, and back are decorated with imperial scenes: two mounted emperors approach (or leave) a city on its lid, and lion and boar hunts grace the front and back. In contrast, the two short ends are decorated with Chinese phoenixes (feng huang). The discussion nicely situates the placement of the Chinese elements on the periphery of the box as echoes of the extent and reach of the empire. It is interesting that Walker sees all the meaning of these beasts lying in their intrinsic exoticness. No space is given to whether the iconographies might also have meaning. Whilst it is clearly impossible now to recover any specific meaning for such rare beasts within Byzantium, it might be possible to explore why the Byzantines chose these animals rather than any others from Chinese art. Were the Byzantines aware of the imperial associations of the feng huang in China? How might such meanings have been maintained, altered, or lost over the vast distances that the motifs were carried in the tenth century?

The end of the chapter on the Troyes casket raises the possibility that the ivory was used as a diplomatic gift. This is a tempting idea, but raises new questions about the use of exotic motifs. If the box were offered as a gift to a society which regarded Byzantium itself as an exotic ‘other’, then what role would doubly exotic Chinese animals have played in the box’s reception? Would they have been recognised as even more foreign? The term ‘exotic’ is in danger of becoming too broad a term, and so lacking differentiation. Or is there a point at which all such elements collapse into a single category of the ‘exotic ‘?

The third chapter looks at Byzantium from outside by considering the eleventh-century Fatimid Book of gifts and rarities and its account of gifts exchanged across the Mediterranean. Walker focuses on the gift of a saddle belonging to Alexander the Great, supposedly sent from Constantinople to Cairo in the mid tenth century, and the gift of a vest with the seal of Solomon, sent from Iran to Constantinople a century later. Walker sees these as evoking parity between the two states, indicating their joint membership in the international fellowship of kings.

The fourth chapter is the most seductive, but also the most controversial in the book. Walker now moves on to discuss a second small ivory box now in Darmstadt. Smaller than the Troyes casket, its sides are decorated with eight intricate scenes. Six she suggests come from the lives of Herakles and Alexander the Great. They are joined by a mounted warrior killing a dragon and, most confusingly, a fat naked figure playing a lute. Walker’s reading of the box and its imagery is innovative and radical, but depends on re-dating it to the twelfth century (it has traditionally been ascribed to the tenth). Walker presents a plausible case for her re-dating, but it is necessarily very circumstantial. The re-dating of the box to the twelfth century cannot easily be substantiated since there are no obvious visual parallels to draw on. Instead we must rely on the accord between the imagery and what Walker calls the ‘new sensibility’ for such themes that emerged in the twelfth century.

The most interesting idea is her proposal that the naked lute player who appears on the end of the box opposite that showing Alexander the Great is his enemy, the Persian emperor Darius. This is a nice play of syncresis, comparison and opposition, between the ends. But the evidence for the identification is as circumstantial as that for the dating. Walker looks to the Greek Alexander Romance and its account of the death of Darius. Given that the Romance is the source for the Ascension of Alexander on the other end, this is an attractive idea. However, the account of Darius’ death in the Romance presents him as a much more heroic figure than the fat sot on the casket. Clearly there was no requirement for the artist literally to reproduce the tale in the Romance, but each alteration from this one known source makes it harder to be sure of the foundations of Walker’s argument.

However, even if you are not prepared to accept Walker’s dating, or the precision of her identifications of the scenes, there is still much to be gained from reading her analysis of the Darmstadt box and the ways in which it seeks to evoke meanings through comparisons and contrasts. The final chapter looks afresh at Nicholas Mesarites’ ekphrasis of the Moukhroutas, one of the more extraordinary buildings in the Great Palace complex in Constantinople. The passage, which describes a structure built in Persian style, is well known and has often been invoked by historians and art historians as evidence of cultural links between Byzantium and Seljuk Rum. Walker’s focus on the context of the description – the failed revolt of John Komnenos the Fat in 1200 – suggests a very different reading of the building. She argues that it is evoked at this stage in John’s revolt as an emblem of his inappropriateness to rule. Walker’s argument is sustained and convincing. However, I find that a positivist worry creeps into my mind as I read her account. Underpinning the discussion is an assumption that Mesarites’ description does evoke a real building within the palace. If this is correct then we are still left with the problem of how the building might have been seen or interpreted at the time of its construction. Previous scholars have tried to dismiss it as an exceptional structure built to honour the visit of the Seljuk Sultan Kılıç Arslan in 1161; but this seems a reductive argument, designed to exclude it from Byzantine art by divorcing it from a Byzantine context. However, if it was built by and for members of the Byzantine court, then the Moukhroutas moves from being an object of incomparability to one of her other categories: but which? Is it emulation or appropriation?

A recurring theme in the first four chapters concerns the distant origins of the motifs employed. For the silks in the first chapter many Sasanian and Romano-Byzantine (i.e., Late Antique) parallels are cited. Walker makes a good argument for suggesting that the Sasanian imagery should be seen in terms of its reuse in the contemporary Abbasid world, rather than as a legacy of the engagement between the Byzantines and the Sasanians themselves, which had ended with the Islamic conquest of Iran in the seventh century. However the case for the Romano-Byzantine imagery is more problematic: whether it is the hunting imagery on the silks and Troyes ivory, the stash of saddles of Alexander the Great supposedly piled up in a cupboard in the Great Palace, or the images of Alexander and Herakles on the Darmstadt casket. Emerging from within Graeco-Roman culture, all these images and objects are presented as unproblematic. But, it is possible to see them very differently: in the words of L.P. Hartley ‘The past is a foreign country’. Should we see the continuity of hunting scenes as straightforward evidence of Byzantine continuity with its Roman past, or is it a different form of exotic marker? This then changes the status of those images drawn from within the Graeco-Roman world and suggests a different way of reading them. The exotic might be internalised within the empire through its relationship with its own past, as well as externalised in terms of the contemporary cultures that surrounded the empire.

Walker’s conclusion brings her chapters together to construct a chronological argument, in which the relationship between Byzantium and the exotic developed alongside the changing historical relationship between Byzantium and its neighbours. Within the parameters of the book Walker argues her case with care and conviction, but to base such an overarching argument on a discussion of so few objects (and objects which are, by their very nature, exceptional within Byzantine production) seems problematic. Her argument should make art historians look again at Byzantine production in relation to its neighbours afresh to see whether these arguments can be sustained on a larger scale, but I suspect that the different categories that she uses for each case will become more blurred and overlap across time. The power of the book lies in the way in which she deals with individual objects.

Throughout this book Walker demonstrates the value of re-examining this material both for what we can learn about the development of imperial ideology in the middle Byzantine period, but also for what it tells us about the changing relationship between Byzantium and its neighbours. Whilst I suspect that some of the details will not find acceptance, the overall ideas should inspire.

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