Emperor Constantine VII dining with Tsar Symeon of Bulgaria, 13th century / History of John Skylitzes (Skyllitzes Matritensis (Biblioteca Nacional de España)
History and geography were fundamental to the identity of Byzantium as an ecumenical empire with a long existence in time and an outreach that extended to three continents. Yet while the Byzantine elite maintained a long and distinguished tradition of history writing, it produced no geographers and travel writers to compare with those of antecedent and neighboring or comparable cultures. There was no Byzantine equivalent of Strabo, Ptolemy, Pausanias, Ibn Hawqal, al-Idrisi, Gerald of Wales, William of Rubruck, Marco Polo, or Evliya Çelebi. Byzantine geographical theory did not rise above the level of commentary on Strabo and Ptolemy, and geographical treatises were almost nonexistent.  The three main works date from the sixth century, a period that was as much Late Roman as it was Byzantine, and none of them contains much discussion of real geography. The Ethnika of the Constantinopolitan teacher (grammarian) Stephanos of Byzantium (ca. 528–535), which apart from a few fragments survives mainly in a later epitome, is essentially a list of ethnic names related, where appropriate, to the places from which they derive; the geographical information it contains is largely incidental, uneven, and derived from ancient literature.  The Synekdēmo s of another grammarian, Hierokles, is a list of imperial provinces with the cities belonging to each.  The Christian Topography (Χριστιανικὴ Κοσμογραφία), written slightly later, does not live up to the geographical promise of its title, or of the name attributed to its author, the so-called “Cosmas Indicopleustes” or “Cosmas the Indian sailor.”  The author’s firsthand experience of tropical travel contributes very little to the work, which consists mainly of a lengthy demonstration from Scripture that the earth is a box-like structure with a semi-cylindrical upper story corresponding to the heavens.  Yet, in the poverty of their geographical research, these non-geographies are not atypical of Byzantine attitudes to the geography of the world beyond Constantinople, as reflected in Byzantine literature. Byzantine literature as a whole not only reveals a deafening lack of curiosity about the empire’s provincial territories, let alone the lands beyond its borders; several authors notoriously express a positive distaste for life and travel anywhere outside the capital. 
An ancient Greek inscription mentioning the Byzantine emperor Justinian was found at the Jerusalem Old City / Creative Commons
In spite of this, Byzantines had to think geographically, and many of them had to travel, whether they liked it or not.  There were two central facts of their culture that held them to a geographical outlook, beyond the basic functions of agriculture and trade. The first was the topography of holiness: the network of loca sancta, emanating from Jerusalem, through which the Gospel of Christ’s Resurrection had been preached throughout the world by the apostles, and the power of faith in the Christian God had been made manifest, first by martyrs in the towns, and then by holy monks in the desert fringes of agricultural society. The diffusion of apostles, martyrs, and ascetics created a hagio-geography of sacred sites where their bodily presence was venerated, in death as in life, and their miraculous intervention was sought. This hagio-geography partly replaced, and partly redrew, the map of the pagan cult centers of the ancient Roman world. Like its ancient predecessor, it did not correspond exactly to the map of imperial power and administration, and it generated much movement in search of holiness. Pilgrimage never stopped, and the ultimate pilgrimage destination remained Jerusalem and the Holy Land. Monasteries drew visitors seeking spiritual benefits and physical therapy. Monks themselves were often on the move in search of spiritual opportunities. Byzantine hagiography indeed constitutes a not inconsiderable body of travel literature,  whose perception of travel is not negative even though its information on places is minimal and marginal—just as the splendid locations of most Byzantine monasteries barely rate a mention in the accounts of their foundation. The most positive and geographically informative piece of travel literature surviving from Byzantium is a late twelfth-century Description of the Holy Places. 
However, the second and primary impulse to geographical thinking in Byzantium came from the mechanisms and logistics of empire. The measurement and evaluation of landed resources,  the planning and execution of defensive and offensive warfare, the management of communications and supplies, the dispatch and reception of embassies, the gathering of foreign intelligence, the deployment of administrative personnel in the provinces and the frontier areas, and the referral of decisions from the periphery to the center: all of these activities required a conception of differences and distances between spaces and places. The geography of empire lay behind most of the perceptions of peoples and places expressed in Byzantine non-religious sources. This is obviously true of the Byzantine historians, whose geographical information is linked to their narratives of war, civil war, and diplomacy. But even the “geographical denial” which, as we have seen, typifies Byzantine literary attitudes to life and travel outside Constantinople, reflects the geographical dimension of the imperial experience. It reflects, first of all, the enormous attraction of Constantinople as a magnet of ambition, a cultural metropolis, and a center of consumption on a global scale. It also reflects the extent to which displacement from Constantinople was a function of imperial power, for the intellectuals who complained about the wretchedness of foreign travel or provincial residence were all officially assigned to their locations—whether as members of diplomatic missions, as civil administrators, as bishops of remote episcopal sees, or simply as political exiles. 
Was geography, then, like trade, something that the Byzantine elite accepted as a practical necessity, but deemed unworthy of theoretical formulation, and preferred not to get involved in directly? Did they lack a systematic, coherent conception of imperial geography in the way that they arguably lacked a view of the monetary economy as a coherent system?  For the late antique/early Byzantine period, there are several pieces of evidence that the imperial response to geographical logistics was not merely piecemeal and ad hoc. There are the rare surviving maps, such as the Tabula Peutingeriana and the Madaba mosaic, that reflect a cartographic habit.  There is the early fifth-century Notitia of Constantinople, a detailed description of the city, quarter by quarter, which could serve as the specification for a map.  There are the massive imperial building projects of the Later Roman Empire, from the foundation of new imperial capitals in the early fourth century to the comprehensive fortification program of Anastasios and Justinian two hundred years later. All these projects required a sophisticated knowledge of local geography, as well as expertise in civil engineering. In particular, we may mention the long-distance aqueduct system of Constantinople, which has recently been investigated in detail; it extended over 200 kilometers, and involved careful mapping of the geology, hydrology, and elevation of the entire region.  Finally, it should be noted that Procopius’ book on the Buildings of Justinian, though a shameless panegyric with a heavy emphasis on church building, also contains much information on harbors, bridges, and baths, and provides a comprehensive overview of the empire’s defense infrastructure that must have been based on government records.  It shows that Justinian himself not only had a global vision of imperial geography but liked to have it put in writing. In the light of this observation, the two geographical treatises of the grammarians Stephanos and Hierokles, disappointing though they are in terms of information, take on significance from the fact that both were composed in the early years of Justinian’s reign.
To what extent did this geographical vision of empire, and the desire to articulate it, survive the collapse of the ancient world and the transition to the smaller, poorer, and culturally deprived Byzantine Empire of the Middle Ages? The answer is to be sought in the official literature of the tenth century that may be loosely characterized as treatises on government. By far the largest group in this category is the series of military treatises, starting with the Taktika of the emperor Leo VI from 905–906 and ending with the Taktika of Nikephoros Ouranos from 1010–1011.  These texts, which include manuals on naval and siege warfare, necessarily pay close and detailed attention to the geography of military operations and cover a full range of possibilities. Some of them are explicitly concerned with particular regions. However, on the whole they deal in general, transferable geographical features, and rarely refer to the unique geography of a specific area. For a specific focus on imperial geography as the principal object of attention (and not as a transferable model), we have to turn to the two treatises in which the emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (913–959) discussed the empire’s provinces and the foreign peoples with whom the empire had to deal. These works are, respectively, the De thematibus (DT)  and the so-called De administrando imperio (DAI).  It should be noted that the latter work has no Greek title apart from the address to the emperor’s son Romanos.  Between them, these works offer a rich, comprehensive, and quintessentially Byzantine historical geography of empire.
Greek text & English trans. of De Administrando Imperio by Emperor Constantine VII
The DT is a survey of the administrative divisions (“themes” or themata) that had replaced the provinces of the Later Roman Empire.  Book 1, devoted to the eastern themes (i.e. the Aegean islands and Cyprus) is dateable to ca. 934; Book 2, on the European provinces, shows signs of having been added in a revision of the original version some 80–90 years later. In his Preface (DT:59–60), Constantine emphasizes that the themes were an innovation, which he rightly connects with the great territorial losses that the empire suffered from the reign of Heraclius, but wrongly explains as a result of the emperors no longer leading their troops in battle. His 17 chapters on the Anatolian and Aegean themes vary greatly in length, from more than two pages in Pertusi’s edition on the great central Anatolian provinces of Anatolikon and Armeniakon to only a few lines on some of the newly formed units on the eastern frontier. The type of coverage can also be inconsistent and random. Over half of the entry on Paphlagonia in Pertusi’s Chapter 7 is devoted to a rant, based on Homer, against the despicable Paphlagonians.  The six lines on the theme of Mesopotamia in Pertusi’s Chapter 9 merely record its recent upgrading from the status of a frontier outpost (kleisoura) after the local Armenian lords had surrendered their castles to Constantine’s father, the emperor Leo VI (DT:73). The eleven-line entry on the theme of Sebasteia, by contrast, consists entirely of an explanation of the etymology of the name Caesar, the derivation of Sebasteia from Sebastos-Augustus having apparently triggered an association with the parallel derivation of the name Caesarea.  To some extent, this uneven treatment reflects the uneven nature of Constantine’s sources. While he clearly relied regularly on the Synekdēmos of Hierokles for the provincial divisions and distribution of towns before the institution of the themes, he otherwise gives the impression of using whatever materials happened to come to hand or to mind—whether it was Homer, the Bible, Strabo, Stephanos, the De magistratibus of John the Lydian, or epigrams from the poetic anthology of Kephalas (DT:66, 70), soon to be re-edited under Constantine’s patronage as the Palatine Anthology.
Occasionally, Constantine quotes a totally random source. Thus in his attempt to relate the theme of Anatolikon with the former Roman province of Asia, he cites two inscriptions commemorating provincial governors: one from the tombstone/sarcophagus in Smyrna of a certain proconsul Publius, and the other from a set of repoussé silver plates in the imperial treasury that had belonged to, or been donated by, one Jordanes “commander of the East and of the other nations in Asia Minor” (DT:61–62). Later, in Chapter 12, on the newly created theme of Lykandos, Constantine quotes a rather more dubious inscription that Justinian had supposedly set up on the city walls to honor the local mayor, Thomas.  Justinian, not yet emperor, had been passing through as commander in chief of the imperial forces, and Thomas had made him a little gift of 10,000 sheep in ten different colors.
Nevertheless, the DT is not without method. Constantine is consistently concerned to relate the present theme system to the ancient administrative and human map that it overlays. In a number of entries, he goes through a checklist of points: he explains the name of the theme where this is not self-evident, he outlines the boundaries of the province, and he lists its towns. He also, intriguingly, describes the inhabitants of Asia Minor in terms of their ancient ethnic names. One might be tempted to dismiss this as an affected or unthinking anachronism but for the insistence with which he uses the present tense and repeats the words ἔθνη and γένη; as we shall see, the units of “nation” and “people” are basic to Constantine’s geographical thinking in the DAI. In other ways, too, the DT anticipates the presentation of geographical information in the later treatise. While it frequently defines territories in terms of coasts and rivers, it almost never mentions mountains and plains. It notes the presence of architectural wonders: Justinian’s great bridge over the Sangarios river,  the Mausoleum at Halikarnassos, and the temple of Aphrodite at Knidos (DT:78). It registers places associated with famous ancient people and events: the river Granikos as the site of Alexander’s famous victory (DT:69), Amaseia as the birthplace of Strabo (DT:63), and Kotyaeion as the birthplace of Aesop (DT:69). Repeated attention is given to hagiography. Under the theme of Armeniakon, Cappadocia is highlighted as the homeland of numerous saints, including St. Gregory of Nazianzos whose relic, as Constantine observes, he had brought to Constantinople for reburial in the church of the Holy Apostles (DT:66). In the theme of Thrakesioi, Constantine mentions the famous sanctuary of the Archangel Michael at Chonai (DT:68). Under Seleukeia, Constantine records that the shield of St. Theodore the Great Martyr hangs under the dome of the church at Dalisandos (DT:77), while the mention of Myra, in the theme of Kibyrraiotai, occasions the remark that this is where the great St. Nicholas, the servant of God, exudes an unguent (myron) according to the name of the city (DT:78).
The mention of the translation of St. Gregory of Nazianzos points to another, unmistakably imperial, aspect of Constantine VII’s geographical outlook. It is centered on Constantinople, and Constantinople is the constant point of reference. Characteristic is Constantine’s explanation for the name of the Anatolikon thema. “This theme is called Anatolikon not because it properly belongs to the eastern parts, where the sun rises, but because it is east for us the inhabitants of Byzantium and the land of Europe” (DT:60). In fact, the thema derived its name from the field army of Oriens who had been stationed there after their withdrawal from the eastern frontier in the face of the Arab onslaught. 
The Constantinopolitan perspective is maintained in Constantine’s main geographical work, the DAI, which can be dated on internal evidence to the years 949–952. This text remains one of the most enigmatic compositions in the whole of Byzantine literature, and there is still no consensus as to the reason for its infuriating inconsistencies. Were these due to imperfect editing, incomplete filing, or careless copying, as most scholars believe (although there is no consensus as to exactly how or when the dossier was constituted)?  Or do they mask a highly sophisticated and devious agenda, as one scholar has maintained in an elaborate argument that has been consistently ignored but never effectively refuted?  In this view, Constantine did not feel able to express himself directly even in a private memorandum to his son and heir, and was deliberately oblique in advocating policies that he knew to be controversial and contested, notably his policy of “limited ecumenicity” in regard to Byzantine imperial claims—the effective renunciation of Roman sovereignty and even suzerainty over most of western Europe and Italy.
Portrait of John III from a 15th-century manuscript / History of John Zonaras, Mutinensis gr.122, f.294r, Biblioteca Estense Universitaria, Modena
The problems of decoding the DAI begin with the earliest and only seriously important manuscript, Parisinus Graecus 2009. This was copied in the late eleventh century for a very important political figure, the Caesar John Doukas, and Brigitte Mondrain has thrown out the intriguing hypothesis that Doukas and his scribe, Michael Rozaites, were responsible for the arrangement of the material in its present form.  This form can only be described as opaque. The treatise combines prescriptive advice with ethnographical descriptions, which, it has been suggested, derive from a separate work, a Περὶ ἐθνῶν. Up-to-the minute information is juxtaposed with antiquated and often fanciful historical material, raw documentary data with worked-up narratives, original reports with passages lifted from the ninth-century chronicles of Theophanes and George the Monk. There are enormous distortions in the historical perspective, with Diocletian mentioned more frequently than Constantine, who appears in a mainly legendary role, and Justinian I glaringly absent. Yet, as in the DT, there is method amid the apparent chaos, and the DAI in fact has a clearly defined structure, which it declares up front. In the Preface that Constantine addresses to his son and co-emperor, he outlines a clear five-point agenda. His work, it is stated, will set out information and advice under the following headings:
- Nations that are useful and dangerous to the empire, and how to use them against each other (Chapters 1-13).Their insatiable demands (Chapter 13).Differences between other nations: “their origins and customs and manner of life, and the position and climate of the land they dwell in, its geographical description and measurement” (Chapters 14–46).“Events which have occurred at various times between the Romans and various nations” (Chapters 47–48). Changes that have been introduced at various times in “our state/city” and throughout the whole Roman Empire (Chapters 49–53).
Throughout the work, this structure is formally adhered to. The headings are reiterated in almost identical terms, and on the whole they recognizably correspond to the material that follows them. Although it is not always clear why some chapters fall under one rubric rather than another, the classification scheme generally makes more than less sense of apparent inconsistencies, and notably the fact that the geographical information on the Black Sea region is divided among three different sections. Indeed, if the work has a concealed agenda, the key to unlocking this may lie in matching the section headings exactly to the section contents. More prosaically, and perhaps more plausibly, the occasional mismatch between contents and headings, and the generally disjointed character of the work as a whole, may be explained by reading the headings as the titles of files into which Constantine sorted his materials with the intention—which he never realized—of connecting them into a continuous narrative.
The multiplicity of files and the unprocessed heterogeneity of their contents create not only a moving lens but also an abruptly shifting depth of focus and angle of vision, which together present a highly fragmented tableau of imperial geography: a series of animated vignettes with a bewildering variety of scales and legends, rather than a uniform panorama. The camera dwells first on the area north of the Black Sea (Chapters 1–13, DAI:44-65), then switches to record some scenes of policy-making at imperial headquarters (Chapter 13, DAI:66–77), before taking a rapid tour of the Islamic Mediterranean (Chapters 14–25, DAI:77–109). Coming around to Italy, it lingers there a little (Chapters 26–28, DAI:109–121), as a preliminary to shooting detailed footage on Dalmatia and the Balkan Slavs (Chapters 29–36, DAI:122–165), and revisiting the Black Sea area (Chapters 36–42, DAI:166–189). Then there are some equally close-up shots of the Armenian, Arab, and Georgian principalities on the eastern frontier (Chapters 43–46, DAI:189–223). This is followed by brief shots of Cyprus and Cyzicus (Chapters 47–48, DAI:224–227), after which the focus shifts inside the empire to register administrative changes in the Peloponnese (DAI:228–237, 256–257), Asia Minor (DAI:237–243), and the imperial entourage (DAI:244–257). The final scene is a long piece of action set in Cherson, in the Crimea, so that the coverage ends where it began, north of the Black Sea (Chapter 53, DAI:258–287).
The difference in coverage lies not just in the degree of zooming and lingering, but also in the depth of the historical dimension and the relative density of topographical and genealogical information. The first 12 chapters, which concern the importance of maintaining good relations with the Pechenegs, contain no history but report current steppe politics and diplomacy, and Chapter 9 consists of a long, detailed topographical description of the river and sea route taken by the Rus from the Baltic area to the Black Sea. The greater part of Chapter 13, which forms the second section of the work, contains absolutely no geography but fabricates much bogus history, invoking mythical curses of Constantine the Great to fob off the importunate northern barbarians who come asking for precious state assets like crowns, Greek fire, and imperial daughters.
The long, central, ethnographic section 3 (Chapters 14–46), which sweeps clockwise around the Mediterranean and Black Sea from Syria to Armenia, is full of the history of the peoples who occupy these former imperial territories and the genealogies of their rulers. But the history varies considerably in timespan, emphasis, originality, and accuracy. Chapters 14–25, covering the Islamic world, are primarily the history of the Arabs, except for Chapters 23–25, where the focus is more on the territory of Spain and on all the peoples who have occupied it since its loss to the empire. All these chapters, however, are lifted mainly from chronicles and, in the case of Spain, from Stephanos of Byzantium.
Chapters 26–28 contain three original narratives on the history of Italy from the time of the Lombard invasions, all probably deriving from oral accounts of Italian visitors to Constantinople. Constructed to make sense of the present territorial status quo, they are reasonably accurate on the history of the recent past, but degenerate into pure fantasy when they try to explain the more remote origins of the political divisions of the Italian peninsula between the imperial provinces and dependencies, notably Venice, on the one hand, and the Lombard and Frankish controlled areas on the other.  The sixth-century Lombard occupation is effectively transposed to the eighth century. This is one of several instances where Constantine should have known better, and perhaps did, but chose to propagate, or to go along with, a version of history that suited his diplomatic agenda—in this case a division of Italy into Frankish and Byzantine spheres of domination.
A 6th century Lombard helm portraying king Agilulf (590-616) and his entourage
Chapters 29–36, on Dalmatia and the western Balkans, are similarly constructed to rationalize the presence of the Croats and Serbs on former imperial territory. However, here the story begins much earlier and is told in much greater detail. It has four main phases:
- The settlement of Romans in Dalmatia by Diocletian because he greatly loved the country.
- The expansion of these Rhōmanoi as far as the Danube and their wars with the Avars, equated with the Slavs, who eventually broke through the frontier, overran the land, and drove the Rhōmanoi back on the coastal cities and islands.
- The arrival of the Croats and Serbs and their settlement authorized by the emperor Heraclius, who had some groups baptized.
- The genealogy of the Croat and Serb rulers in the past century. Constantine must have obtained the elements of this narrative from both Dalmatian and Serbo-Croatian informants. The earlier parts of it are fanciful, but there is little reason to doubt the basic authenticity of the agreements between Heraclius and the Serbs and Croats, and none at all to question the facts, if not the chronology, of more recent events.
The ultimate purpose of the historical narrative is hinted at in those passages where Constantine records the achievement of his own ancestor, Basil I, in regaining imperial control of Dalmatia, and where he asserts, in identical wording, both for the prince of Croatia and the prince of Serbia, that each “has from the beginning, that is, ever since the reign of Heraclius the emperor, been in servitude and submission to the emperor of the Romans, and was never made subject to the prince of Bulgaria” (DAI:150–151, 160–161). This reminds us that the Christian kingdom of Bulgaria, the empire’s closest political neighbor, firmly established on former imperial territory, was as conspicuous for its powerful presence in the Balkans and Black Sea region as it is for the massive absence of a chapter devoted to it in the DAI.
The looming absence of Bulgaria at the center of Constantine VII’s imperial geography is palpable in the next few chapters of the ethnographic section (Chapters 36–42), which provide the historical background to the steppe nomad peoples whose strategic value to the empire was discussed in section 1. These are essentially the all-important Pechenegs and the Magyars, whom Constantine calls Turks. The emergence of both these groups from the area of the former Chazar empire north of the Black Sea occasions several references to the Chazars and the Uz, and the final settlement of the Magyars on the territory of Greater Moravia prompts a short chapter on the demise of that principality (Chapter 41). The history of these peoples, derived presumably from their own oral memories, begins relatively recently and concerns their clans and their migrations. The only exception is an account (in Chapter 42), reproduced from the contemporary history of Theophanes Continuatus, of the mission of a certain imperial official, Petronas Kamateros, sent by Theophilos to help the Chazars build the city of Sarkel.
The last chapters in the ethnographic section (Chapters 43–46) concern the recent history of the minor Caucasian principalities—Armenian, Arab, and Georgian—in the northern sector of the empire’s eastern frontier. They are certainly not in any sense ethnographies of the nations in question, since the Arab caliphates have been dealt with at the start of the section, and the main kingdoms of Georgia and Armenia are barely mentioned at all. The principalities in question are clearly included because of their strategic importance to the empire, whether for blocking the advance of invading armies or for capturing the important Arab-held city of Erzerum (Theodosiopolis), and the desirability of keeping their princely dynasties, and indeed their towns and castles, under close imperial control. In these chapters, Constantine thus anticipates the future imperial policy of annexing Armenian and Georgian principalities as a result of more or less voluntary bequests by their rulers. In terms of his own filing system, he also anticipates the next section that is labeled “relations between the empire and foreign powers,” so one might ask whether these Caucasian chapters have not been wrongly filed. As for the historical dimension, although the Georgian chapters are introduced with the myth of the nation’s descent from King David, the real dynastic history in each case effectively covers no more than the last three generations: in other words, the period of oral memory. Constantine could have had his information from more than one source: from the imperial agents, like Constantine Lips, who were dispatched to deal with the princes, as well as from the various members of the princely families themselves who spent time in Constantinople.
Like the historical coverage of the ethnographic section, the topographical and geographical focus is uneven. Most of the chapters on Italy and eastern Europe end with lists of the main cities, but otherwise the section as a whole provides no consistent geographical information, and very few parts of it supply all the data promised in the section heading: “knowledge of the difference between other nations, their origins and customs and manner of life, and the position and climate of the land they dwell in, and its geographical description and measurement.” While the origins of nations are regularly covered, and most chapters end with a list of the main towns in the area, the other aspects really only feature in the chapters on Dalmatia and the region north of the Danube and Black Sea.
The last two sections of the DAI can be dealt with more rapidly. Section 4, on “events which have taken place at various times between the Romans and different nations,” consists of two chapters dealing with Justinian II’s policy with regard to Cyprus. Section 5, on “internal reforms,” is concerned mainly with administrative changes in the Peloponnese, Asia Minor, and the staff of the imperial palace. With one exception, it contains little geographical description, and refers to no events earlier than the ninth century, with its main focus being on the reigns of Constantine’s immediate predecessors, Leo VI, Alexander, and Romanos I. The exception is the long, last Chapter 53, on the ancient history of the city of Cherson. Although the greater part of this seems highly inappropriate to the section where it has been filed, the notices appended at the end (DAI:284–287) point to a basic relevance. The first five of these notices indicate the locations east of the Crimea of various sources of naphtha, the inflammable petroleum that was vital for the manufacture of ὑγρὸν πῦρ (Greek fire), Byzantium’s secret weapon.  The remaining three notices detail the reprisals that are to be taken if the Chersonitai revolt against the emperor. So the whole chapter is really about the need to keep a tight control over the city of Cherson, and it is in the file on internal reforms because, as we have been told in an earlier section (§3, Chapter 42), since the reign of Theophilos “it has been the rule for military governors in Cherson to be appointed from here [i.e. Constantinople].”
So what is the vision of imperial geography that the DAI presents us with? The text is plainly not a flat, diaphanous window, or even a single distorting lens, through which to view the geographical vista of the tenth-century Byzantine Empire; and it is certainly not the legend for a coherent, homogenous map, such as we do get in the sixth-century geographical list of Hierokles. Rather it is a densely packed, intricate mosaic of unequal and highly refractory gemstones, offering a multiple split focus on a spatial image that is as much a reflection of the viewing subject as it is an objective vision of the landscape beyond. But in this aspect, it is not unlike the representation of spatial reality in Byzantine paintings of landscapes, or indeed in all medieval maps. And in its very patchwork of distortions, the DAI may accurately represent the optics of power by which Constantine VII viewed his empire in its geographical dimension and sought to share his vision with his son. It is analogous to his other main political compilation, the Book of Ceremonies, in the way that it states a comprehensive, general idea through the accumulation of highly specific prescriptions and descriptions. Both works are statements of power: this is what unites them, together with the DT, and this is what gives sense and coherence to their internal inconsistencies. Both are studies in the topography of power. The De cerimoniis builds up a picture of the demonstration of power in the ritual spaces of Constantinople; the DAI evokes the exercise of power in the geographical space of the oikoumenē. However, being a more personal and confidential document, apparently destined for the emperor’s son and successor, it is also more partial, in every sense, although it hides its partiality under a discourse of objective, comprehensive reporting. It does not say everything, and it does not state the obvious, leaving its reader to infer the importance of what is being said.
A view of Byzantine Constantinople in AD 1000
That its selectivity is coded and deliberate, and not just the result of incomplete or unprocessed filing, must surely be concluded from the way the treatise downplays or totally ignores the empire’s current relations with what we regard as the most important foreign powers on the mid tenth-century horizon—the Arab caliphates and emirates (including Crete), the German empire, and Bulgaria—while paying what seems like inordinate attention to the western Balkans, the peoples to the north of the Danube and Black Sea, and petty Caucasian princes. That Constantine’s discourse is deliberately opaque can be inferred from the way that he keeps coming, in different contexts and from different angles, at the strategic importance of Greek fire and the security of the region that produces its main ingredient, naphtha. Section 1 prescribes the diplomacy among the northern peoples needed to keep the region secure. Section 2 provides the argument needed to prevent these northern peoples from gaining the secret of Greek fire. In Section 3, Constantine includes the invention of Greek fire in his account of Arab history taken from Theophanes, and later in that section (Chapter 42) he describes in detail the route, circumventing Bulgaria, from Thessalonike via the Danube to Cherson and the regions to the east of it. This is the only part of Section 3 that fulfills the heading’s promise to provide distances. Then we learn, at the very end of Section 5, that the areas at the end of that route are none other than those where the naphta-yielding wells are located.
The power perspective of the DAI, which is surely the key to understanding the work, needs further investigation in terms of the power politics at the court of Constantine VII. In particular, Section 4, with its details of court appointments and administrative changes under Leo VI and Romanos I, needs to be examined in the light of Constantine’s intention, which he expressed but never realized, of writing a sequel to his Life of Basil that would deal with the reigns of Basil’s successors.  But we can safely conclude, for present purposes, that his geographical perspective in the DAI is a function of the power perspective. Constantine applies to each geographical area on the imperial horizon the degree of historical narrative and topographical description that is appropriate to his imperial and, we should add, dynastic interests. The depth and angle of coverage varies not only according to the quantity and quality of his sources and the degree of processing, but also, and I would argue primarily, according to the potential for imperial intervention and domination, both inside and outside the empire.
Thus the DAI may be seen to represent Constantine VII’s considered and coherent view of the historical geography of empire, despite its inaccuracies, inconsistencies, and omissions, which are indeed an important part of the picture. If this is true, then it is also fair to conclude that where the work does reproduce geographical details, they represent what was of interest to Constantine, and not just what his informants chose to tell him. They reproduce, to some extent, the pattern of priorities that we saw in the DT. Several ethnographic chapters include lists of towns, both inhabited and abandoned. Mountains are unavoidably mentioned in connection with Dalmatia and the Slavs of the Peloponnese, but otherwise they figure much less prominently than coasts and rivers. The northern Black Sea littoral and the Dalmatian islands are described in some detail, and with attention to their importance for naval communications. The rivers Danube and Dnieper are also described in terms of communication, including details of journey times. Otherwise, the river systems of central and eastern Europe serve to mark the boundaries between peoples and to define the habitat of nomadic populations. Rivers again appear as boundary markers in the Caucasian chapters, where the mountains are again conspicuous by their absence, as too is Lake Van.
In general, the descriptions do not have much to say about land use and agricultural production, and trading activity is implied rather than described. Exceptional is the notice on the Georgian town of Ardanaoutzin, describing the defense, strategic value, and layout of the settlement along with its rich agricultural hinterland and commercial network, which produces an “enormous customs revenue” (DAI:216–217).
Like the DT, the DAI pays attention to great ancient monuments of the past, in an area where they must have been much more scarce than in Asia Minor. Pride of place goes to Diocletian’s palace at Split, which is indeed the basis for the whole historical narrative of the Dalmatian section (DAI:122–123). Chapter 40 signals three “ancient landmarks” of the former Danube frontier; going upstream, these are Trajan’s bridge at Trajan’s Gate, “the tower of the holy and great Constantine” at Belgrade, and the city of Sirmium. Chapter 37, on the Pechenegs, mentions six deserted cities on the Dniester, and adds: “Among these buildings of the ancient cities are found some distinctive traces of churches, and crosses hewn out of porous stone, whence some preserve a tradition that once on a time Romans had settlements there” (DAI:168–9). It is tempting to infer that the ancient monuments are mentioned in order to justify an imperial interest in the area.
A similar thought is prompted by the close attention to the hagiography of Dalmatia, which also recalls the DT. Chapter 29 lists the resting places of no less than seven saints, all of them venerated in Constantinople.
While these reminiscences of DT are specific to certain chapters of the DAI, there are two that pervade the text as a whole and may be seen as the defining characteristics of Constantine VII’s vision of the historical geography of empire. One is the primary focus on peoples rather than territories, or peoples as the identifiers of the territories they occupy. The importance of ethnicity to Constantine is clear not only from the disproportionate size of the ethnographic section (22 out of 53 chapters), but also from the ethnocentric content of several other chapters: Chapters 1–13 on steppe diplomacy and Chapters 49–50 on the Peloponnesian Slavs. Even Chapters 51–53, on internal “reforms,” treat certain groups of provincials almost as separate national entities: the Greeks of the Mani, the Mardaites of Attaleia, and of course the people of Cherson. It is particularly instructive to look at two passages where ethnicity is used, in one case to provide a false historical explanation, and in another case to justify a specious argument. In Chapter 47, Justinian II is said to look after the interests of Cyprus because he was a Cypriot. In Chapter 13, Constantine instructs his son to reject dynastic marriage proposals from northern peoples by telling them that interracial breeding is wrong: “For each nation has different customs and divergent laws and institutions, and should consolidate those things that are proper to it, and should form and develop out of the same nation the associations for the fusion of its life. For just as each animal mates with its own tribe, so it is right that each nation also should marry and cohabit not with those of other race and tongue but of the same tribe and speech” (DAI:74–75).
Additionally, a reading of the DAI amply confirms the Constantinople-centered vision of imperial geography that we saw in the DT. In every section, Constantinople is the constant viewpoint and point of reference. This is always implicit, and in many passages it is made graphically explicit. Chapter 9 describes the river route taken by the Rus when they come to trade in Constantinople. When they come to the first set of rapids on the Dnieper, the channel at this point is said to be as narrow as the polo-ground of the imperial palace (DAI:58–59), while down-river they pass through a ford “as wide as the Hippodrome” (DAI:60–61). In Chapter 13, where the scene shifts to Constantinople, Constantine insists that the importunate requests of ambassadors from the northern nations are to be rebutted by invoking dread curses that Constantine the Great had inscribed on the altar of Hagia Sophia. In Chapter 21, the short notice, derived from Theophanes, of the Arab siege of Constantinople, is supplemented with the information that “the mosque of the Saracens in the imperial praetorium” was built at the request of the Arab commander, Masalmah (DAI:22–23). In Chapter 29, on Dalmatia, the city of Salona is said to be half as large as Constantinople (DAI:122–123), and the church of St Anastasia in Zadar is said to be a basilica resembling the Constantinopolitan church of the Chalkoprateia (DAI:138–139). The “Caucasian” chapters, 43–46, record not only the dispatch of imperial agents to the Armenian and Georgian principalities, but also the frequent visits of the princes and their relatives to Constantinople, where they were royally entertained and given imperial court titles, and the princely family of Taron even received, for a time, a sumptuous urban residence.  One of the two chapters in Section 4 is an excerpt from the canons of a church council, which, as the title specifies, was held in the “domed hall” of the imperial palace. Finally, Section 5 turns the spotlight squarely on Constantinople by including, under the category of administrative “reforms,” in Chapters 50 and 51, the details of several recent appointments to court dignities and offices, mostly ceremonial. The long Chapter 51 is almost entirely about the staffing of the ceremonial galleys and barges by which the emperors from the time of Basil I onward traveled around the Sea of Marmara. These journeys took the emperors, mainly for recreation, as far as Nicomedia (Izmit) to the east, Region (Küçük Çekmece) to the west, and Pythia (Yalova), Prousa (Bursa), and Bithynian Mt Olympos (Uludağ) to the south. It is very likely that this was as far as any emperor after Basil I travelled outside Constantinople. In other words, this was the extent of the imperial geography that Constantine VII experienced for himself.
On a quick reading, these narratives of palatine procedure sit oddly with the adjacent notices on changes in provincial organization and military logistics, let alone the wider coverage of peoples and territories. We may feel that they are frivolous digressions in a work of historical geography; they seem more appropriate to Constantine’s compendium on court protocol, the De cerimoniis..  Yet, fundamentally, these narratives complete the geographical picture of the DAI. Quite apart from their unstated, and I believe undoubted, political agenda, they fully conform to the optics of imperial power space that inform the work as a whole. They are not misfiled, and Constantine tells us so in the heading to the section, which, he says, will treat μὴ μόνον περὶ τῶν ἐν τῇ καθ’ἡμᾶς πολιτείᾳ, ἀλλὰ καὶ περὶ πάσης τῆς τῶν ῾Ρωμαίων ἀρχῆς κατά τινας χρόνους καινοτομηθέντων. However, we construe politeia—whether as “city” or “state”—it clearly represents a discrete entity within the boundaries of the empire of the themata. These boundaries were Constantine’s virtual horizon; the limits of his real horizon, and of “our politeia,” did not stretch beyond the Sea of Marmara. It is all the more remarkable, then, that he produced a work of historical geography which is still a fundamental source for the early medieval history of Serbia, Croatia, Hungary, and the Ukraine; and that these areas, which were never properly part of the medieval Byzantine Empire, were largely put on the historical map by tenth-century Byzantine imperialism.
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Originally published by The Center for Hellenic Studies under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported license. From “Imperial Geographies in Byzantine and Ottoman Space”, eds. Sahar Bazzaz, Yota Batsaki, and Dimiter Angelov (Washington, D.C.: Center for Hellenic Studies).