Book Review: By the Emperor's Hand: Military Dress and Court Regalia in the Later Romano-Byzantine Empire

By the Emperor's Hand: Military Dress and Court Regalia in the Later Romano-Byzantine Empire

By Timothy Dawson and Graham Sumner

Casemate Publishers
ISBN: 9781848325890
Pages: 304

Reviewed by Andrea Di Bernardo:

Let me tell you one thing: there’s no such book as By the Emperor’s Hand out there. I know you are just asking “Why?” Because with this book more than others you can see and “smell” the ceremonials, the rites of the Byzantine Court. You can see the fixed hierarchy of the imperial officials, the paramount attention to the “tradition” and all through the point of view of the clothing of the court, and in special way the regalia given “by the Emperor’s hand” to his subordinates. Items of clothing (and not only) determining the complex hierarchy of the court, usually fine clothes, having some sort of link to the Roman and Greek tradition that defined Byzantine culture and style.

Timothy Dawson made a great comprehensive work in his book (large format book 1.9 x 27.9 x 21.6 cm), dividing it in five big chapters illustrating as many historical periods of the empire. Every chapter delves deeply in one or more historical “sources”. Usually treatises on the ceremonial written by emperors or functionaries. When there is not the chance to draw from treatises or literary sources, the author fills the gap analyzing pictorial sources. Indeed the book has a great amount of pictures (in black and white unfortunately, and this is one of the few flaws of the book) portraying paintings, mosaics and illuminated manuscripts. Every image is meticulously discussed with references to the vast bibliography and notes section.

One of the highlights of this book is the central section of 24 plates by the great illustrator Graham Sumner. The plates portray a selection of Byzantine officials and royals from the the time of Justinian to the end of the empire in 1453. You can see how the clothing changed in style, form and purpose, and how deeply the “romaioi” felt their legacy to the ancient Roman Empire and how some of the clothes of the court recalled classical garments. This includes the “loros” - a strip of fabric, usually lavishly garnished, worn by the emperor and higher ranks (women and men) and originating from the “toga” of Roman times.

Some other garments or parts of it are derived from the recurrent contacts with the east (first Persian, then Islamic). Some sleeves derived from Persia, including the so-called “persikomanikion” or the “paragavdes”, another import for the female fashion. Tim Dawson goes deeper than just dealing with male clothing and garments by examining the higher female ranks from “Augousta” (that is the empress) to “Zoste Patrikia”, “Koubikoularea” etc. and their respective clothing.

Not only the royal and noble clothes are examined and discussed , but the attributes given from the emperor to qualify a certain rank in the fixed hierarchy. In the “taxis”, the hierarchical list of officers with the emperor in the first place, every rank had a particular item distinguishing it by the rank above and below it. So a “mandator”, an officer relaying imperial decrees and military orders, in addition to a particular garment carried a red dyed swagger stick, a “strator”, carried an ornamental whip to represent his task in the imperial stables, and so on. A list at the end of the book helps in this respect, with the various ranks and officers listed drawing from the existing sources in their hierarchical position in the court. Various lists are available in the tables at the end of the book, mirroring some change in the list and the suppression of some positions in the “taxis”, and the creation of new.

A large glossary section is priceless, given the nature of the topic, and another section with the charts of the clothes discussed complete the book.

What can I write more? If you have an interest in the Byzantine empire, this book is a must. If you have read J.J. Norwich and his trilogy on Byzantium, or Ostrogorsky, or Charles Diehl (just to name a few), with this book you can see how the complicate rites of the court appeared. Even if you do not have an interest in the Byzantines, with this book you can fall in love with a culture and a world that is often misunderstood, vilified or simply overlooked.

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