Technology of the Byzantine Empire

Mechanics and Spectacle in the Eastern Roman Empire

When the Roman Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople in the fourth century C.E. on the old Greek site of Byzantium, a new era was inaugurated which saw a distinct Christian identity fuse with the apparati and ceremony of the Roman imperial cult of state. As we are going to see in this lecture, throughout the centuries until the eventual demise of the Byzantine Empire- finally in 1453 at the hands of the Ottomans but with a great blow struck by the Fourth Crusade in the thirteenth century- mechanical technology played an important role in the awe and wonder intentionally fostered by Byzantine imperial ceremony and left a lasting impression on the Europeans who came into its orbit. Through the successive dynasties which held onto and lost the imperial title of the Roman Empire of the East, the Byzantines as we collectively call them, hydraulic technology was a mainstay of their court which fostered an environment of awe-inspiring splendor designed to impress whatever foreign dignitaries arrived upon their shores. Sound, whether it came from the varied lengths of the pipe organ or from the hidden bellows within a brazen beast, was an integral part of the sensorial experience of Byzantine spectacle, and movement made possible by steam or compressed air created experiences which- to the medieval mind unfamiliar with mechanics- could only be the proof of the mastery of supernatural forces. Moving thrones, golden trees, singing birds, animal automata, and musical organs that preserved Hellenistic-era technology (that had vanished from what had been the Roman Empire of the West) are some of the wonders of the history of Byzantine art and technology.

What you’ll learn

  • Students will encounter the varied mechanical technology of the Byzantine Empire..
  • Byzantine technology included musical instruments, automata, hydraulic lifting machines, and more!.
  • Students will appreciate the intersection of art, technology, craftsmanship, and engineering in this unique course..
  • A comprehensive vocabulary slide is included at the end of the course..

Course Content

  • Greco-Roman Legacy of Byzantine Technology –> 3 lectures • 13min.
  • Constantinople, Not Istanbul –> 2 lectures • 27min.

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Requirements

  • College-level students with an interest in art history, engineering, and politics are the perfect fit for this course..

When the Roman Emperor Constantine founded Constantinople in the fourth century C.E. on the old Greek site of Byzantium, a new era was inaugurated which saw a distinct Christian identity fuse with the apparati and ceremony of the Roman imperial cult of state. As we are going to see in this lecture, throughout the centuries until the eventual demise of the Byzantine Empire- finally in 1453 at the hands of the Ottomans but with a great blow struck by the Fourth Crusade in the thirteenth century- mechanical technology played an important role in the awe and wonder intentionally fostered by Byzantine imperial ceremony and left a lasting impression on the Europeans who came into its orbit. Through the successive dynasties which held onto and lost the imperial title of the Roman Empire of the East, the Byzantines as we collectively call them, hydraulic technology was a mainstay of their court which fostered an environment of awe-inspiring splendor designed to impress whatever foreign dignitaries arrived upon their shores. Sound, whether it came from the varied lengths of the pipe organ or from the hidden bellows within a brazen beast, was an integral part of the sensorial experience of Byzantine spectacle, and movement made possible by steam or compressed air created experiences which- to the medieval mind unfamiliar with mechanics- could only be the proof of the mastery of supernatural forces. Moving thrones, golden trees, singing birds, animal automata, and musical organs that preserved Hellenistic-era technology (that had vanished from what had been the Roman Empire of the West) are some of the wonders of the history of Byzantine art and technology.

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