BMCR 2021.04.27

Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos, Le livre des cérémonies

, , , Constantin VII Porphyrogénète: Le livre des cérémonies. Corpus fontium historiae byzantinae 52/1-5. Paris: Association des Amis du Centre d'Histoire et Civilisations de Byzance, 2020. 5 vols. ISBN 9782916716701 €475.00.

Among all the cities of the Roman Empire, the ceremonial, processional, and ritual life of none is known better than that of Constantinople. This is due primarily to a text that we call the Book of Ceremonies, a compilation made at the court of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos (d. 959). Classicists will also know him as the emperor who sponsored the team behind the historical Excerpta, our source for the fragments of many otherwise lost ancient historians. The Book of Ceremonies contains the protocols for religious and secular ceremonies and celebrations, reflecting events and practices of the fifth to tenth century (but leaning heavily on the ninth and tenth). Its choreographies reflect the realities of New Rome: the book’s prescriptions use the monumental core of Constantinople as a stage, while its language eschews Atticism and thus preserve some of the more vernacular and Latinized forms that peppered the idiom of the court and, indeed, the populace of the capital. The Book of Ceremonies is thus a treasure-trove of information of interest to classicists and Byzantinists, ranging from historiography and the liturgy to art history and linguistics.

This new edition, translation, and commentary is a triumph of philology and historical scholarship. It has been in the works for thirty years and reflects the labor of a team of scholars working under the direction of Gilbert Dagron and Bernard Flusin, who contributed most of the Greek edition and translation; the contributions of others are individually credited in the relevant places. The text and translation each take up about 620 pages, and they are preceded by an introduction of 192* pages and followed by a commentary almost 950 pages long; the indexes form a separate volume of 475 pages. All these parts are closely interconnected and mutually supporting. After spending months exploring this edition with a mounting sense of glee, I have found only treasures and experienced no disappointments. There is no way to do justice to this masterpiece here. We will be processing its findings and readings for decades to come. Kudos to the entire team.

The introduction discusses the manuscripts, original structure, and genesis of the text. The editors argue that nothing in it can be dated for certain after ca. 950 AD, and even that is for Book 2. Book 1 was likely drawn up a few years earlier, ca. 946 AD (v. 1, 82*-89*). The only exceptions are the last two chapters of Book 1 (105-106), which date to between 963 and 985 and are perhaps owed to the emperor’s half-brother-in-law, the powerful courtier Basileios parakoimomenos (v. 1, 41*-42*). The editors are skeptical (but not dismissive) of the idea that Basileios played a significant role in the production or subsequent revision of the text as a whole. The introduction also analyzes the book’s sources and teases out traces of the compilers’ editorial work. There are places where we can see how they stitched different texts together, or where a description of a past event was changed into a normative protocol (to the point of changing verb tenses midstream). Useful tables of sources and their proposed dates are found at v. 1, 119*-122* (for Book 1) and 132*-135* (for Book 2).

The present edition of the Greek text replaces that published in 1751-1754 by the professor of Arabic Johann Jakob Reiske (1716-1774) in two volumes. Reiske’s edition was subsequently republished in the “Bonn” series of Byzantine texts (1829-1830) and then again in J.-P. Migne’s Patrologia Graeca (as v. 112 in 1897). In 1935-1939, Albert Vogt published a partial new edition of Book 1, with French translation and commentary, with a different enumeration of certain chapters (see below). But the Bonn version of Reiske’s edition and its enumeration remained standard in the field and was republished in English translation by Ann Moffatt and Maxene Tall in 2012, also in two volumes (for the editorial history of the text, see v. 1, 169*-177*).[1] The Moffatt-Tall translation has the great virtue of following the same pagination as the Reiske (Bonn) edition as well as its chapter numbers; this is a virtue because some scholars cite the text by the Bonn page number while others cite its chapter numbers. Those days are over now, though the new French edition usefully includes the Bonn pagination in the margins and, where they differ from those of the new edition, its book-and-chapter numbers in parentheses in the header.

The surviving title of the Greek text, which is likely original, does not refer to the work’s contents, calling it only “a collection worthy of imperial solicitude” (commentary at v. 4, 4-7). The Latin title by which it is known – De Cerimoniis aulae byzantinae – was invented by scholars in the early eighteenth century and adopted by Reiske (v. 1, 170*). The Greek title that is sometime used – Περὶ βασιλείου τάξεως – was actually invented by K. Classen in 1829 for the Bonn edition, on the basis of key words used in the preface of book 1 (line 12) and 2 (line 1) (v. 1, 62*-63*, 175*). Thus, the faux-Latin title came first and the faux-Greek title second, although they are by now entrenched. The editors believe that the translation of basileiou taxis as “imperial ceremonial” can stand, so long as we attend to the other nuances of taxis (v. 4, 11).

Defining the original contents of the text, and therefore what to include and exclude from an edition, is a challenge. The Book of Ceremonies survives in a single, beautifully written manuscript of the tenth-century, Lipsiensis Rep. I. Fo. 17 (Naumann 28) (v. 1, 139*-148*; plates at v. 5, 3-5).[2] It passed through the library of Matthias Corvinus (146*), was bought by Leipzig in 1731, and is available for online viewing. In that manuscript, the text is preceded by three treatises that pertain to imperial military expeditions. These emerged from the same milieu at the court of Constantine VII and are similar to some of the administrative documents that his team appended to Book 2 of the Book of Ceremonies, but they are rightly excluded from this edition (v. 1, 33*-34*, 80*); anyway, they have been published and translated separately by John Haldon.[3]

Thornier problems emerge toward the end of Book 2, which, after 2.40, becomes a dossier of (admittedly fascinating) administrative documents and lists, including lists of emperors who ruled in Constantinople (2.42); their tombs (2.43); lists of military units, payments, and equipment prepared for naval campaigns of the tenth century (2.44-45); forms of address to be used in official correspondence with foreign rulers (2.47); Philotheos’ Kletorologion, a precedence-list for the reception of officials at the court, from 899 AD (2.52); a ranked list of bishops (or Notitia) of the patriarchate of Constantinople (2.54); and others. The editors of the new edition argue that these texts did form part of the expansion of the Book of Ceremonies by Constantine’s team that resulted in Book 2 (71*-74*); they were supplements to the text, but made within the orbit of its original intent. However, two of these texts are not included in the new edition (Philotheos’ Kletorologion, which circulated independently of the Book of Ceremonies, and the Notitia), both of which have already received good editions elsewhere.[4] Nevertheless, the edition includes placeholders for these chapters in the appropriate locations.

There are further problems at the end of Book 2. The table of contents for Book 2 in the Leipzig manuscript lists two items at the end (i.e., as chapters 2.56 and 2.57): a Life of Alexander the Great (from the Romance) and the Physiologos. But these texts do not survive in the manuscript itself (for their exact titles in the table of contents, see v. 3, 13 app.). Now, in the 1960s it was discovered that another manuscript of the late tenth century, divided between the Patriarchate in Istanbul and Vatopedi on Mt. Athos (v. 1, 145*-156*; plates at v. 5, 6-7), contained a palimpsest of the Book of Ceremonies from which only fragments could be recovered (unfortunately, the Istanbul portion has since been lost). Crucially for the reconstruction of the text, the palimpsest yielded a slightly shorter table of contents for Book 2 that did not contain those two puzzling items. This authorized the editors to prune them away as later accretions. However, the palimpsest table of contents did contain in place of those two items the title of another chapter (on salaries paid to the Senate), which is also lost (v. 1, 71*-82*). The editors numbered this chapter as 2.[56] and placed its title at the end of the text (v. 3, 431).[5]

There is another major change that scholars who use the Bonn edition (or its English translation by Moffatt and Tall) should know. Six folios fell out of the Leipzig manuscript that included part of 1.9 (relating to the ceremonies of Pentecost) and going on into part of 1.18 (Easter Sunday). As the table of contents for Book 1 survives only partially, we can only guess at the possible content of these missing folios (see v. 1, 92*-93*). The Bonn edition did not leave a gap in its enumeration of chapters between 1.9 and 1.18 but instead turned what the manuscript calls 1.18 into 1.10, in order to produce a continuous sequence. By contrast, Vogt (in his partial edition from the 1930s) and now Dagron and Flusin preserve the manuscript enumeration, and thus the gap. This means that after 1.18 all chapter numbers for Book 1 in the new edition are larger by 9 than their counterparts in the Bonn (and in all scholarship that depends on the Bonn); the Bonn chapter numbers are included in parentheses in the header. In preliminary publications of these chapters going back to 2000, Dagron had already used these manuscript chapter numbers, so we have here a general misalignment between a “French school” (from Vogt and Dagron to the present edition) and almost everyone else. We will all have to adjust to the French school on this matter, as its approach to this problem is correct.

The new edition of the Greek text marks a vast improvement over the Bonn for sheer legibility, especially by marking direct speech; indicating changes in speakers; and making lists look like lists (the Bonn often runs everything together in a single block of text). It also clears up the vast number of typos in the Bonn (so many that it was a useful edition for advanced students of Greek to cut their teeth on). Philologically the new edition is a monument of meticulous scholarship. Extensive spot-checks found no errors or typos in the main text. Besides, it is not clear what counts as an error that needs to be corrected, especially in the text’s many Latinisms or medieval Greek deviations from ancient norms of grammar and spelling, and words were not always spelled consistently. The editors take a sensible approach to these problems, making some standardizations in koine texts embedded in the collection but leaving some deviations intact (v. 1, 178*-179*). All changes can, after all, be followed in the apparatus and are often discussed and justified in the commentary.

The editors’ corrections and interventions cleared up passages that seemed weird in the Bonn. Let us look at sections that derive from the manual for ceremonies drawn up by Justinian’s magister officiorum, Peter the Patrician, as his era is closer to the interests of most readers of BMCR. In 491 AD, upon the death of the Isaurian emperor Zeno, the people of Constantinople assembled in the hippodrome to discuss the succession with the empress Ariadne and the court. At one point, according to the Bonn edition, the people chant this: ὅλα τὰ καλὰ ἐπὶ σοῦ γένηται, Ῥωμαῖα, εἰ οὐδὲν ξένον αὔξει τὸ γένος τῶν Ῥωμαίων (v. 1, 420), which Moffatt and Tall translate as, “May all blessings be upon you, Roman empress, if no foreign element is added to the race of the Romans.” If this sounds xenophobic, it is because the populace emphatically did not want another Isaurian emperor (and they eventually acclaimed Anastasius). But the new edition changes both the punctuation and accentuation and, along with them, the meaning of the passage: ὅλα τὰ καλὰ ἐπὶ σοῦ γένηται· Ῥωμαῖα εἶ, οὐδὲν ξένον· αὔξῃ τὸ γένος τῶν Ῥωμαίων, meaning, “May all blessings be upon you! You are a Roman [woman], nothing strange! [rien d’étrange!]; may the race of the Romans prosper!” (1.101, lines 73-75 = v. 2, 422-423). I am tentatively persuaded that this correction is right (see the commentary, v. 4, 582 n. 201), though the meaning of οὐδὲν ξένον is now opaque. The assertion of Romanness is still there, though less xenophobic. Yet an implicit contrast to the Isaurians is restored to an earlier passage. On the previous page, the Bonn (and Leipzig ms.) reads Ῥωμαίων βασιλέα τῇ οἰκουμένῃ (p. 419; Moffatt and Tall: “An emperor of the Romans for the empire!”). The new edition corrects this to ῥωμαίον βασιλέα τῇ οἰκουμένῃ, i.e., “[we want] a Roman to be emperor over the oikoumene” (i.e., as opposed to the Isaurians who came in with Zeno). This is also a sensible correction.

These chapters, dealing with imperial acclamations of the fifth and sixth centuries and deriving from Peter the Patrician, were skillfully prepared for this edition by Denis Feissel, a specialist in the official documents, inscriptions, and bureaucratic procedures of the later empire. These chapters pose unique challenges stemming, among other reasons, from the Latinisms in the Greek text, preserved here at an earlier stage than those in the rest of the Book of Ceremonies. This called for special methodologies and corrections, and led, for example, to changing τούμβηκας to τουβίγκας (Greek for tu vincas: line 163 of the same chapter; see the explanations in v. 1, 182*; commentary in v. 4, 590 n. 243).

It was a delight to go off exploring for odd words, phrases, and technical terms in this masterfully integrated work of scholarship. The Greek text, apparatus, translation, commentary, and the indexes work together flawlessly. In the French translation, some technical terms are translated (e.g., “souverain” for despotes), others are transliterated and placed in italics (mètatôrion), while some are transliterated without italics but with a lozenge (proskynèse·, stratèges·); the last two categories have entries in the glossary. So if you look at 1.104 (the accession of Justinian), you will see that σιλέντιον καὶ κομβέντον (a correction of the Leipzig and Bonn κομέντον) is rendered as “silention avec le sénat·” (line 7, v. 2, 442-443). You may wonder where the corrected κομβέντον went, and where the Senate came from. What was a conventus at this time anyway? Kombenton is not in the glossary, as it is not in the translation marked with a lozenge. But the index of Greek words tells us that it occurs in only two passages, this one and 1.101, line 115 (the events of 491 AD again). If we go to the edition there, we find a note (v. 2, 424 n. 9) which explains that, in this era, silentium cum conventu refers to an imperial audience in the presence of the Senate (and it gives a brief discussion of the sources). The threads are thus tied together. Poking around, I did not manage to find loose ends.

The commentary also explains choices made in the translation that do not stem from corrections to the Greek. For example, in 1.104 again (the accession of Justinian), the translation parenthetically introduces Justin I as the person who crowned Justinian, even though the syntax of the Greek clearly has the patriarch perform this function. The commentary explains the historical reasons behind this choice, which is debatable but, at least in my view, probably right again (v. 4, 612-613).

Considering the size, technical language, complexity, and historical ramifications of this text, all of the contributors to this new edition are to be warmly commended for producing such a coherent, thorough, and user-friendly scholarly instrument. Moreover, as the Book of Ceremonies is the gateway to our understanding of so many aspects of imperial history and administration, the religious and courtly life of Constantinople, and the evolution of the Greek language, all scholars of the later empire should learn how to use this magisterial new edition and its commentaries.


[1] Ann Moffatt and Maxene Tall, Constantine Porphyrogennetos: The Book of Ceremonies, 2 vols. (Canberra, Australian Association of Byzantine Studies, 2012).

[2] and

[3] J. Haldon, Constantine Porphyrogenitus: Three Treatises on Imperial Military Expeditions (Vienna: Verlag der Österreichischen Akademie der Wissenschaften, 1990).

[4] N. Oikonomidès, Les listes de préséance byzantines des IXe et Xe siècles (Paris: Éditions du Centre national de la recherche scientifique, 1972) 225-231; J. Darrouzès, Notitiae episcopatuum Ecclesiae Constantinopolitanae (Paris: Institut français d’études byzantines, 1981) 204-213.

[5] The table of contents in the Leipzig ms. lists, before Alexander and the Physiologos, an addition to 2.55 (“on gifts to the praipositoi”), which Reiske published as 2.56. In the new edition, it has become 2.55bis, followed by the title for 2.56 from the palimpsest.