Byzantine Body Image and Politics

A few months ago, we came out with an article about body image, body dysmporphia, and how both men and women, who pursue fitness, can be affected by it.  Body image is something that we normally attribute to eating disorders and the twenty first century.   Yet, it’s interesting to go back and see the prevalence of this concept in different societies of the past and see how it impacted large-scale social structures.

Take Byzantine culture, for instance.  We have cases of political mutilation taken on by rivals for the imperial throne.  Rivals had their nose clipped; genitals mutilated, and were blinded.   All of this was in the name of political leverage.

Now, to understand how such frightening means of political leverage were able to be effective, we read into the great writings of Byzantine culture.  From them, we see how important body image really was.

In Princess Anna Komnene’s (1083-1153 C.E), Alexiad, a trend is shown of describing in grave detail the individual physical characteristics of characters.  By doing so, Komnene was able to show the ‘likeness’ of the person of physical characteristic, especially the face.

These individual characteristics would be described as beautiful in their individual nature which came together in a consolidation of a beautiful person.

Artist’s depiction of Anna Komnene

Descriptions such as:

“a chest as white as marble”

“glimmering armour”,

and a “beautiful beard” were used to describe beautiful men.

Interestingly, good looks did not necessitate being of good nature.   In such a way, a villainous person could be portrayed as being equally handsome.  Again in the Alexiad, people who had behaved with villainy were still described with having strong physical beauty.  Historians, who’ve examined Komnene’s work, have pointed out that this would have been a sign of showing equal balance among adversaries who were present in the imperial court of the author’s father.

From these examples we see that there was a level of depth to the superficial idea of Byzantine body image.  In fact, these examples lead to an even deeper level of complexity as they relate to two of the most important figures in Byzantine society:  Christ and the Emperor.

In Michael Psellos’ (1017 – 1078 C.E.) Chronographia (A history of the byzantine emperor’s in Psellos’ time), the writer makes a comparison of the asymmetry of Christ’s physique upon his crucifixion.  In typical Byzantine culture, being closely symmetrical in one’s physique was prided upon.  Yet, in Psellos’ example, Christ’s asymmetry was used to show his humanity.

Constantine Monomachos

This was in contrast to the depiction of Emperor Constantine Monomachos (1000 – 1055 C.E.) in the same book.  Monomachos was depicted as being flawless with impeccable symmetry in his physical image.  By doing so, Psellos attributed qualities of ‘quasi-divinity’ to a human being.  This depiction of the emperor was a reflection of the permanent power of the imperial rank.  Constantine’s symmetry showed beauty and it symbolized the beauty in the emperor’s power, under which the rest of the empire would bow to.

Ugliness and mutilation

It was under this high status of physical beauty that ugliness was completely deplored.  Facial disfigurement was a personal catastrophe and those that chose not to hide their deformity were shunned as being shameless.

In fact, in the fictional story, Rodanthe and Dosiklis, by Prdromos, a jester is one of the characters shown to have physical deformities.  He is entertaining to the children through his laughable actions.  However, he is also entertaining to the adults watching as  they laugh at the jester’s apparent ugliness.

For holding such high levels of esteem for body image, Byzantine society posed mutilation as a customary judicial punishment.  Some minor sentences could include something like cropping of the hair.  It was surmised that the fine tresses of hair were beautiful in nature.

Cropping them would thus elicit a punishment of that beauty.  However, even more aggressive forms of mutilation would be just as readily utilized.

Blinding, castration, and nose slitting were devastating punishment and would be strategically utilized by even opponents vying for the imperial throne as a political tool for advancement.

Using Mutilation and Body Image as Political Leverage

Mutilation was a major manner of eliminating a political rival in Byzantine court.  As mentioned earlier, the emperor was supposed to be an almost divine office whose physical image could not be blemished with a physical disfigurement.  As a representative of the divine how could something so pure not be perfect in physicality?

An interesting case is that of, Emperor Justinian II (668 – 711 C.E.), who was be nicknamed Rinotmetos or slit-nosed, after he was usurped and had his nose cut off.  Having only been emperor for a year (from 685-695 C.E,), Justinian was usurped by the strategos of Hellas, Leontios (695 – 705 C.E.).  Leontios had Justinian’s nose cut off to prevent a return to the throne and had the nose-less former emperor exiled to Cherson in the Crimea.

Justinian with a replica nose

Unfortunately for Leontios, Justinian II was not done.  He had a solid gold replica made to replace his real nose and was able to overthrow Leontios in 698 C.E. with the support of the Green faction.  To pay Leontios back, Justinian had the usurper’s tongue and nose removed and then had him imprisoned in the monastery of Pasamathion, in Constantinople.

In a double irony, Justinian would once again face a miserable fate due to his tyranny by the exiled general, Bardanes.  Bardanes would fight, capture, and execute Justinian in Constantinople in 711 C.E.  However, Bardanes would face rebellion not too long after in 713 C.E., being blinded by some of his officers in Thrace.  Blinding was a double political death-note, for it prevented seeing.  An emperor, who would be required to lead armies into battle, could not effectively do so with his eyes missing.

Another infamous mutilation that occurred in court was that of Emperor Heraklonas (626-641 C.E.). Heraklonas was emperor between February and September 641 C.E.  and it was the first instance in Byzantine history, that a reigning emperor had been mutilated.

body image

Heraklonas’ mother, Martina, also had her tongue cut out while her son’s nose was removed.

However, one of the most frightening forms of mutilation was castration.  It drew upon another perception of body image in Byzantine culture: vitality.  Castration would prevent a man from having his own children.  Moreover, the idea of a castrated man was a bit of an oxymoron.

Such a person was thought to not actually be a man anymore.  He was considered dead yet still living.  As such, a castrated person could not take on the role of emperor, although many did rise to high offices in administration.

Individuals like Basil Lekapenos (925-985 C.E.) would rise to high status such as that of the parakoimomenos (Chief Court Eunuch) but could never take on the throne.  Lekapenos was the illegitimate son of Romanos I Lekapenos (870-948 C.E.) and even though he was an effective prime minister for three Byzantine Emperors, he still could not be accepted as an Emperor himself.

In this way, we can see how closely body image was intertwined with capability in the world of the Byzantine politics and culture.   Body image has a long history as an influential aspect of human society.   In the case of the Byzantine Emperors, body image impacted their ability to effectively rule.

In today’s age, physical “imperfection” continues to be a point of comparing intellectual capability, and the ability to perform in others.  People do indeed judge each other based on appearances, having done so for thousands of years.



Beauty and the Male Body in Byzantium: Perceptions and Representation In Art and Text by Myrto Hatzaki



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