BMCR 2004.05.06

Studies in Byzantine Sigillography, 8. Founded by Nicolas Oikonomides

, , Studies in Byzantine sigillography. 8. München/Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2003. 1 online resource (332 pages) : illustrations. ISBN 9783110960082. €78.00 (pb).

Studies in Byzantine Sigillography, generally abbreviated to SBS, was founded by the late Nicolas Oikonomides as an occasional medium for the publication of papers relating to a late-blooming field, the study of Byzantine lead seals. Oikonomides edited the first six volumes, published by Dumbarton Oaks, parallel with his co-operative effort with John Nesbitt to produce a catalogue of the seals collected at Dumbarton Oaks. The seventh volume was underway at the time of Oikonomides’ death in May 2000 and was brought to completion by Werner Seibt, with the assistance of Alice-Mary Talbot, the meticulous editor of Dumbarton Oaks Papers. The series has since passed under the editorial care of Jean-Claude Cheynet and Claudia Sode, both fine scholars and expert sigillographers, but less happily it is now published by K. G. Saur. Consequently, while volume eight looks very similar to preceding volumes, it costs more than three times as much. Moreover, without the careful editorial contributions by Alice-Mary Talbot and John Nesbitt, one is left with a volume written largely in English by non-native speakers, edited by native speakers of French and German. This introduces problems which will be addressed below, although rarely is comprehension affected.

Volume eight of SBS continues the fine tradition established by Oikonomides of presenting papers by most of the world’s leading Byzantine sigillographers — this is a fairly select group, as one might imagine — alongside original contributions by relative newcomers. Some of the papers are summaries in English which draw on catalogues or larger works written in Greek, Bulgarian or Russian (Koltsida-Makre, Jordanov, Alekseenko). There are two papers in French, three in German, and six in English (four of which are by non-native speakers). The second part of the volume, in English, consists of an extensive list of scholarly articles in which seals have published, or corrections offered to earlier publications, covering the years 1997-2001, and a catalogue of auctions held between 1997 and 2001, with brief descriptions of the seals sold.

Werner Seibt, “Probleme mit mittelbyzantinischen Namen (besonders Familiennamen) auf Siegeln,” addresses an issue which has fascinated Seibt for a number of years. Provoked in part by a series of papers published a decade ago, Seibt has now refined his approach to the use of family names on seals to highlight not only social phenomena — the emergence of a self-conscious aristocracy, the balance between public and private power — but also to elucidate the multi-ethnic composition of the Byzantine administrative class. Here we are offered insights into the possible etymologies of ten family names, many of them corrected readings, which suggest origins in Pecheneg Turkic, Armenian, Arabic or Persian, Slavic, Latin and Turkish. One compelling example is that of a certain Constantine, a kommerkiarios (a trade official), whose surname may have been Achlimanos, which would then likely have derived from the Arabic ahl al-imam or the Persian ahl-I imam, being “People of the (true) faith.”

John Cotsonis offers an insightful glance at “Saints and cult centers: a geographic and administrative perspective in light of Byzantine lead seals,” which draws on a database he has created of 7277 seals. In essence a comparative study of local and regional loyalties, Cotsonis’ paper demonstrates that suffragan bishops hardly ever demonstrated loyalty to the same cult as their metropolitan. While a metropolitan almost always placed the image of a local cult saint on the obverse face of his lead seals, those who were subordinated to him chose either their own local saint, or the Virgin. Cotsonis suggests that “at first glance this lack of iconographic similarity … seems unexpected,” given that “the metropolitan see was perceived as an ecclesio-political unit.” However, he concludes that the practice reflected reality, rather than the perceived ideal, and that “the lack of iconographic congruence between metropolitans and their dependent bishops reflects the actual fractured and severed connections that came to prevail [in the provinces].” This may well be the case, but does one need to find fractures to explain divergent loyalties? Would it be entirely frivolous to compare the use of saintly images to that of Bucky the Badger and cheeseheads on a Wisconsin football gameday? The University of Wisconsin sports teams have an icon, the proud badger, which is well established and ubiquitous in Madison. To wear a shirt with this image does not preclude one from wearing a cheesehead, but the two are rarely worn together. Not wearing a cheesehead does not suggest that residents of Madison do not support the Green Bay Packers, but merely that they have a more immediate loyalty. Cotsonis also notes that bishops are usually outsiders upon arrival at a place where they will live and, being appointed to a bishopric for life, die. Therefore, each might readily display personal loyalty to a new locality by adopting the image of the local cult saint but would also wish to stress his own succession to the charisma of the individual saint. Cotsonis might have gone still further and suggested that it was in the interests of the bishop or metropolitan to discourage others from adopting the image of “his” saint, and thus challenging or diluting the personal association. It was not beyond the power of a metropolitan, for example, to discourage his suffragans from mirroring his own iconographical preferences if it was perceived to be in his interest.

Ioanna Koltsida-Makre offers a descriptive account of “The iconography of the Virgin through inscriptions on Byzantine lead seals of the Athens Numismatic Museum collections.” The author has produced a catalogue in Greek of the seals in this museum, and is to be commended for seeking to make some of her conclusions accessible to non-Greek readers. It would be invidious to list here every error or infelicity when the scholar has taken the trouble to make her work available to a broader audience, and it is not her fault that, while the editors themselves both have excellent English, they appear to lack the confidence to alter the language of other non-native writers. The paper is interesting for its list of Virgin types — Hodegetria, Blachernitissa, Nikopoios, etc. — which feature on seals, and for noting the occasional inconsistency between inscriptions and icon type, suggesting that not all Byzantines were as confident as modern art historians in their identifications.

Valerij Stepanenko’s paper, “An anonymous Russian seal (XIIth/XIIIth C.): the image of St. George as horseman in Byzantine and Russian sigillography,” suffers still more from the absence of native English editorial control. Whereas all that Koltsida-Makre writes can be understood, albeit with the occasional sympathetic wince, Stepanenko’s text become obscure on a number of occasions, for example in arguing that representations of St. George on horseback are rare (which they are not) when the author surely means in the absence of the dragon. On other occasions the slips are amusing, for example where St. George repeatedly “murders” the dragon. Obscurity and murder co-exist at the bottom of page forty-seven, where a fourteenth-century Novgorod icon is described: “It depicts the saint [George] after the binding of the dragon “by the God’s word,” but before of its murder.” The greatest surprise in this paper is the absence of an illustration of the eponymous anonymous seal, held at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, despite the inclusion of six comparative images (two of similar seals discovered in Tatarstan and at Iaroslavl’). The anonymity of the seal is swiftly, if not conclusively ended: it was likely struck by Prince Vsevolod of Vladimir (1176-1212), who had lived in Constantinople in the 1160s, and also possibly Thessalonika, whence an icon of St. Demetrius was exported to Vladimir in 1197 (not 1997!).

John Nesbitt of Dumbarton Oaks offers “The Orphanotrophos: some observations on the history of the office in the light of seals,” as an addendum to T. S. Miller’s recent monograph on The Orphans of Byzantium (Washington, DC, 2003), but also as a corrective to an earlier study by R. Guilland. Nesbitt appears not to have taken account of the important article by P. Magdalino, “The reform edict of 1107,” in M. Mullett and D. Smythe, edd., Alexios I Komnenos, I: Papers (Belfast, 1996), which might have obliged him to modify his conclusion that “the Orphanage … had been throughout its earlier history an elitist institution and … it continued to be so until the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade.” Moreover, Magdalino does not consider the curriculum offered at the Orphanage under Alexius I Komnenos (1081-1118) to be “well-rounded,” as Nesbitt suggests. However, this is otherwise an excellent overview of an important Byzantine institution and the official who presided over it. Editorial slips are few here, but there is a typo in the first footnote (“Throught the eye of a needle”), and it is surprising that attention was not drawn to the publication of a seal similar to that in Nesbitt’s figure 2 (p. 54) by N. Alekseenko (fig. 1, p. 76), which is dated to the seventh century. Moreover, there is an inconsistency which the editors should have noted: Alekseenko claims his seventh-century seal is the earliest known example struck at the orphanotropheion, but Nesbitt offers a sketch of a sixth-century seal.

Ivan Jordanov, “The katepanate of Paradounavon according to sphragistic data,” contains the usual complement of redundant definite articles but is otherwise well written. The author sketches a problem and uses seals to solve it, albeit not definitively. The problem is the nature of Byzantine administration at the lower Danube after the annexation of Bulgaria in 1018, which has been obfuscated by national historical scholarship and competing national claims to the Dobrudja in Romania and Bulgaria. Jordanov, a Bulgarian, advances the more convincing case without any evident national sentiment, that the administrative district of Paradounavon (“Beside the Danube”) was created in the later eleventh century, suggesting that for some decades it had been part of the larger province of Bulgaria. Jordanov’s list of officers who held commands in Paradounavon, alternatively Paristrion, and his conclusions are both complementary to those presented in my 2000 monograph, Byzantium’s Balkan Frontier (Cambridge Univ. Press), which is not cited, but which drew on Jordanov’s earlier catalogue, in Bulgarian, of seals discovered at Preslav. A criticism leveled at the catalogue was the precision of the dates it offered for many of the seals, and this could apply equally here.

Nikolay Alekseenko, “Les relations entre Cherson et l’empire, d’après le témoignage des sceaux des archives de Cherson,” offers a survey of seals discovered at that site, with some comments on four important, but not representative, examples. More than five hundred seals have been discovered at Cherson in the Crimea, three hundred of which date from the ninth and tenth centuries, many in poor condition. Alekseenko is preparing a catalogue for publication. The first of the four seals Alekseenko publishes here has been referred to above: a seventh-century seal struck by an officer of the Orphanage. The second, third and fourth date from the later ninth and tenth centuries, and were all struck by men holding the office of “general logothete.” This might better have been translated as “Logothete of the genikon” which was one of the more important imperial financial bureaus, responsible, it would appear, for payments made overseas. (Indeed, the office features extensively as “Logothete of the genikon” in a later essay by Cheynet, who fails to draw attention to this in his capacity as editor.) It would have been interesting to have seen some of the 115 seals struck by local officials, to which Alekseenko alludes. Moreover, it is worth raising a quibble, since an implication to the contrary features here, as it does frequently in articles about seals: the presence of a seal at a given location does not necessarily imply a direct or personal interest in the location, beyond the fact that a letter may have made its way there. Thus we cannot posit an intense interest in Cherson on the part of Constantine VII by virtue of the fact that one of his seals was found there — although we can make this claim based on other evidence — any more than we can assume a great interest by Alexius I in Lincolnshire, England, where Cheynet reminds us a seal of that emperor has been discovered. Alexius’ interest was likely to be the soldiers who might come from that area to Byzantium, and that is the subject of the next fascinating paper, J.-C. Cheynet, “Les sceaux byzantins de Londres.”

It is not merely as an Englishman that I find this the most interesting paper in the collection, but rather for Cheynet’s willingess to engage in critical conjecture and analysis based on the seals he has here published for the first time. The French professor is a marvellous sigillographer, but he is an even better historian. Thus we are led to the conclusion that a recruitment office may have been established by the Byzantines in London, where bags of coins sent from Constantinople were distributed to secure the services of mercenary troops for the empire. We are brought there through a careful analysis of eight seals, now in the Museum of London and all discovered during construction of the Thames Exchange, near Southwark Bridge. The seals all have much in common, being products of the office of the “Logothete of the genikon” (although not all struck by the logothete himself), dating from the later eleventh century, and many bearing the image of St. Mark and a counterstamp of the letter “B[eta].” Some contemporary coins were discovered at the same site, although not the precious coins one would associate with cash payments to mercenaries. Still, the discovery of a cache of seals struck by a financial office in Constantinople allows for the possibility that Cheynet advances, and he supports this with the supposition that the “B” stands for “bestiarion,” which officer may have countermarked sealed purses of coins ordered to be distributed by the office of the genikon. We know that the Byzantine emperor managed to recruit a number of dispossessed Anglo-Saxons into his bodyguard at just this time, replacing many of the Rus of the Varangian guard with a new tagma Inglinon, and the idea that they were actively recruited makes more sense than the standard assumption that they migrated in dribs and drabs after 1066. There remain a couple of instances where Cheynet fails himself as editor, for example by not referring in footnote 38 (p. 96) to papers in this volume by Stepanova (citing only her 1999 paper on seals from Sudak) and Alekseenko’s paper on Cherson.

C. Stavrakos, a former Seibt student who has produced an excellent study of family names on seals collected in Athens, offers a useful prosopographical study of the Maniakes family (“Unpublizierte Blesiegel der Familie Maniakes: der Fall Georgios Maniakes”). He publishes five previously unedited seals struck in the eleventh and early twelfth centuries, with an interesting excursus on the career of the general and pretender George Maniakes. In her article entitled “Neue Metropoliten- und Bischofssiegel aus Kleinasian und der östlichen Ägäis,” Alexandra-Kyriaki Wasiliou publishes eight seals from the private collection of a Munich doctor, ranging from a seventh-century bishop of Mitylene to a thirteenth-century Metropolitan of Kerasus.

The collection ends with two articles listing previously unpublished seals from excavations at modern Sudak (in eastern Crimea, the Byzantine port of Sogdaia), and from the museum of Afyon (Turkey). Elena Stepanova’s article “New finds from Sudak,” contains few errors of language, although we do find the statement: “The discovery of Michael [ archon of Matracha, Zichia and all of Khazaria]’s seal in Sudak attests to close contacts between Sogdaia and Tmutarakan’ at the end of the XIth century,” when all it really attests to is the arrival of a letter written by that potentate. One of the more interesting seals published by V. Bulgurlu and A. Ilasi in their “Seals from the Museum of Afyon (Turkey),” was struck by Eirene Radene, a zoste patrikia, long the highest rank which could be held by a woman other than empress, which disappears from written sources after 1018; that is, it appears for the last time in the chronicle of Skylitzes, written c. 1070-90, relating to events of 1018. The seal is dated to the mid-eleventh century.

This is an excellent series of papers marred as a volume only by an overly light editorial touch.