De Cerimoniis and Liutprand

Gold histamenon coin depicting the emperors Ni...

Emperors Nikephoros II Phokas and his son-in-law Basil II. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had been reading De Cerimoniis (On Ceremonies) compiled for the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus and updated and revised in the reign of Nikephoros II Phokas. It describes in great detail Byzantine ceremonial procedures for exactly the time of Liutprand’s visit to Nikephoros II at Constantinople. It goes into great detail on some of the more peculiar aspects of Byzantine culture so it can get pretty dry and even tedious. But reading the perspective of Liutprand really brought to life this rather dry collection of ceremonial procedures.

De Cerimoniis demonstrates the Byzantine obsession with order and hierarchy. The key idea is taxis (order) from which we get the English word taxonomy. The human taxis is a reflection of the divine taxis and consists of elaborate hierarchies, protocols and nomenclature for maintaining a well-ordered society. These hierarchies rank and order people, states, rulers, dinner table conversations, just about anything. Those who are not Byzantine, the barbarians, are forces of ataxia, the disorder and chaos that undermine society, morals and the divine order on earth.

In the passages we read, Liutprand runs up against the absurdity of the unending and indecipherable Byzantine procedures leading to his great frustration. Yet everything he does in reaction further emphasizes his position of ataxia, a disordered and immoral barbarian. Disagreements about titles, writing Latin poems on the table, threatening violence all undermine his position and prevent him from his task. This rather comic episode was most likely repeated regularly at the court for centuries and no doubt fueled the ongoing schisms between East and West.


~ by severalfourmany on February 6, 2008.

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