The Costume of the Byzantine Emperors and Empresses

A piece of carved ivory from the Pushkin Museum representing Christ blessing Emperor Constantine VII.

The Costume of the Byzantine Emperors and Empresses

By Carol Shaw

IAA Colloquium 2011 Extended Abstract published in Rosetta: Papers of the Institute of Archaeology and Antiquity at the University of Birmingham (2011)

Introduction: The first Roman emperors were all members of the senate and continued to belong to it throughout their reigns. All the members of the senate including the emperor wore tunics and togas decorated with a wide purple band, the latus clavus, and special footwear. During the period of instability in the early third century several emperors were selected by the army. Initially this shift in power did not affect court ceremony and dress; but slowly both began to change. Court ceremony became more formal and emperors distanced themselves even from senators. During the late third century, Diocletian introduced the new court ceremony of the adoration of the purple; according to Aurelius Victor, the emperor also wore richly brocaded purple robes, silks and jeweled sandals.

Diocletian’s abdication ceremony illustrates that court ceremony and dress often remained very simple. The only garment closely associated with imperial power at this time was the emperor’s purple robes. In his On the Deaths of the Persecutors, Lactantius records that in AD 305 when Diocletian abdicated, the ceremony consisted of the emperor standing under a statue of his patron deity, Zeus, before the assembled military, then removing his purple robes and finally placing them on the shoulders of his successor.

The primary event which resulted in changes to court ceremony and dress was Constantine’s adoption of Christianity as the state religion. The effect of his decision is best illustrated by the emperor’s funeral. Instead of being cremated like every emperor before him, Constantine was interred in a special mausoleum as the thirteenth apostle. The first part of Constantine’s funeral, the procession to the mausoleum led by Constantios II, the emperor’s son and successor in the East, followed earlier Roman practices. But once at the mausoleum, the memorial service and interment strictly conformed to Christian practices. Constantine’s funeral represented a decisive break with past Roman ceremony.

Its splendor and Christian elements foreshadowed the elaborate court dress, rituals and protocols found in the Middle Byzantine period and best described by the later antiquarian and writer, the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus in his Book of Ceremonies. These later ceremonies freely mingled elements from the Roman past with contemporary practices. Instead of identifying themselves with the twelve apostles, future emperors claimed that they were God’s representatives on earth and that their earthly courts mirrored the heavenly one. Because the empress’ role was initially less well defined, her dress resembled that of other Roman noble women; but beginning with Helena, the first Christian empress, the empress’ role and dress slowly changed to reflect her elevated status as the emperor’s consort.

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