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582 10 2013 , 29 2014 . 785

University news
Royal terror in Byzantium

On March 24, 2018, a lecture took place in the Conciliar Chamber of Saint Tikhons Orthodox University of the Humanities on Byzantium: What was Royal Terror? It was the fifth lecture in the series Medieval Studies in the Conciliar Chamber, organized by Saint Tikhons University together with the Department of History of the Higher School of Economics (HSE), and it was given by Professor Sergei Arkadievich Ivanov of HSE.

The lecture discussed the nature of terror felt by Byzantines in the face of their emperors. Sergei Ivanov gave a brief account of cases when this terror was felt by people who had real grounds to fear for their lives. He also spent time discussing those contexts where an excessive, unfounded fearfulness on the part of courtiers is condemned.

However, the speaker paid the most attention to the emotion called royal terror (phobos vasileikos) by the Byzantines, which in actual fact was a kind of reverence mixed with elation and fear in the face of their ruler. It is felt by a subject of the emperor who has no reason to be afraid of imperial power. Such feelings have a religious character and their origins can be traced back to the despots of the near east. The lecturer adduced examples of subjects relating to their rulers in this way in the Hellenistic era and in imperial Rome.

Many approving references to this emotion in Byzantine sources were cited. Royal terror was thought to be beneficial. It would seem that nothing else could be expected from an absolute monarchy that appropriated religious emotions for its own use. The concept of the fear of God, the most beneficial type of fear, was transferred onto the ruler. The fear of God and the fear of the emperor was a common trope for Byzantine authors.

One superlative manifestation of such an atmosphere of reverential terror is provided by the golden lions which stood on both sides of the Imperial throne in Magnaura Palace and were intended to give rise to a type of fear not at all associated with an idea of individual guilt. The Byzantines considered that the only safe social environment is one in which everyone felt fear. However, our a priori assumption that this was the Byzantines default stance towards authority is undermined by instances in which we see this reverentiality being mocked.

Michael Psellus was one of the paradigmatic favourites of the Constantinopolitan court of the 9th century. However, in his works, one encounters satirical descriptions of how those at the court showed fear before the emperor in improper situations where such fear was not required. Such irony was shown by another writer, John Mauropos, as well. The reverse side of court psychology was depicted most vividly of all by Nicetas Choniates (12th-13th centuries). He was himself a courtier, and his History gives an account of how the grandees of the empire would joke amongst themselves at the expense the emperors. These witticisms were made freely and during the most solemn ceremonies.

Royal terror was an extremely complex, multi-layered phenomenon. On one level, the emperor could be almost like God, but on another, he could be the worst of all people. It is this complexity that makes the culture of the Eastern Roman Empire so interesting, Sergei Ivanov said at the end of his lecture.

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