Gianni Dagli Orti/Art Archive/Art Resource

‘Portrait of the Four Tetrarchs’; detail of a porphyry statue from about 300 AD of Diocletian and three other emperors who ruled the Roman Empire, now at St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice

Big empires, it appears, like big stones. The moment that the mines of the Urals and the Altai opened up, in the early years of the nineteenth century, the tsars of Russia reached out to fill their palaces with jasper and malachite. Time and distance meant nothing. A single block took over eleven years to prize from the mountainside. One hundred and fifty-four horses would drag it to the nearest river, so as to start a journey of three thousand miles to St. Petersburg. Carved according to designs approved by the Imperial Cabinet, vast objects of Victorian exuberance would be sent as diplomatic gifts, worthy of the size and seemingly unlimited resources of the Russian Empire. Many remain in the Malachite Room of the Hermitage Museum, where their huge size and strident metallic greens alternately awe and appall the visitor.

Eighteen hundred years previously, the Romans had done the same. Following in the footsteps of the Hellenistic kings of Egypt, they reached out to the edge of the Red Sea, to a lunar landscape (some 280 miles southeast of Cairo) now called the Gebel Abu Dukhan—the Smoking Mountain—where the violence of the heat haze makes the mountain itself seem to be on fire. This was the Porphyry Mountain of ancient times. With infinite effort and expenditure, the dark red stone was cut from high cliffs. Then it traveled slowly to the Nile, and down the Nile to Alexandria, where it was sent on huge rafts throughout the Mediterranean.

One would expect such a hellish workplace as the Porphyry Mountain to be a gulag, worked only by slaves and convicts. Indeed, at times, large groups of Christians ended up as convicts, enclosed in the stifling valley below the cliffs. They did not need chains. The burning desert itself held them in. Yet we find much evidence for free labor. This is not surprising. Work on such unyielding stone required almost magical skills. In legends surrounding the mines, Christian stonemasons pitted the power of Christ against the occult know-how of pagan “philosophers”—engineers and carvers versed in the well-kept secrets of stone.

Released from these mountains by unthinkable labor, porphyry flooded the Roman world. Unlike the raw greens of malachite in tsarist Russia, the arrival of porphyry simply added weight to long-held images. The word “porphyry” itself (our “purple”) came from the Sanskrit pur-phur—the word for burning embers. For ancient Greeks and Romans, porphyry was never simply a hard rock. It was congealed fire and blood. Bright purple garments (more fiery than our purple—more like bright crimson) always sheathed the bodies of the powerful. But purple did not invariably speak of “glowing” success. For the warrior, death also was a purple veil—a flood of bright blood that fell across the eyes of the mortally wounded.

In a world where majesty and blood-soaked death were often uncomfortably close to each other, porphyry was a doubly charged stone. In what we call the “later” empire (from 300 AD onward), the association of porphyry with majesty was unambiguous. Emperors were presented as being “men of porphyry”—the toughest of the tough—much as Iosef Vissarionovich, Stalin, wished to be known as the “Man of Steel.”

But that was always only half the story. Emperors died—many with a lot of blood on them. Martyrs also died. Their flowing blood could be thought of as frozen in the great porphyry slabs that encased their tombs. Porphyry was about blood. Later, medieval Christian legends tell this side of the story. The middle of the nave of the church of Santa Prassede in Rome, the place where (so we are told) Saint Praxedis had squeezed out the sponge with which she had mopped up the blood of the martyrs before her own death, was marked in the twelfth century by a porphyry roundel (or circular floor tile)—a rota. The pool of deep purple was sacred blood turned into stone.

Only a supremely powerful state could continue to exploit the mines of the Porphyry Mountain. As the Roman Empire weakened, the mines ground to a halt, never to resume work. By 350 AD the inhabitants of the Roman world had to make do with what they already had. All over the Mediterranean, they settled down to digest the mass of purple stone that had been left on their shores in the glory days of empire. A vast exercise in recycling got underway.

Let us take Rome, for example. As the centuries passed, the bulky remains of Roman columns, statues, sarcophagi, and even great bathtubs were devoured by enterprising artists and engineers. Fragments of porphyry (painfully chipped from broken blocks) were set alongside other semiprecious stones to create multicolored pavements that were the medieval equivalents of rag rugs. In the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, the Cosmati family at Rome brought this skill to a memorable level. Anyone who looks, in the evening light, at the pavement of Santa Maria in Cosmedin will see porphyry mingled with other stones to create an effect that recaptures the original meaning of the word: here is porphyry turned, once again, into pur phur—into a bed of glowing coals.


But porphyry was also imperial glory turned into stone. Painstakingly sliced from gigantic Roman columns of porphyry, the great rotae in Old Saint Peter’s in Rome were circular pools of majesty. In the churches of Rome, as elsewhere, pavements were no mere decorations. They mapped out the route of processions of the popes that reached their climax in these great purple roundels. In the middle of the nave of Old Saint Peter’s, popes would stand in a pool of purple—the shadow in stone of their own supra-imperial authority—when they met the Holy Roman Emperors.

Altogether, the presence of reused porphyry showed most clearly where the thick blood of empire had congealed most solidly around the Mediterranean. In Italy, porphyry was, above all, a stone of the south. Throughout the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the kings of Sicily reached eastward, to pull off the beaches of Alexandria, where they still lay abandoned, the great purple sarcophagi that we now see in the cathedral of Palermo. Imperial to the last, Conradin, the tragic grandson of the Sicilian emperor Frederick II, was beheaded in 1268 on the stub of a porphyry column.

But these porphyry pieces, highly charged though they might be, were mere slivers from the mass of stone that had once flooded the Roman world. If we want to know where the imperial legacy of Rome lingered most convincingly in the Middle Ages, we must go not to Rome and southern Italy, but to the East—to Constantinople, modern Istanbul. Ever since its foundation, in 324, by the emperor Constantine (306–337), Constantinople was the greatest depository of the stone of empire. Porphyry had piled up in its public squares, palaces, and churches. The Roman emperors of the East lay in vast porphyry containers that dated back to the days of Alexander the Great and his successors in Egypt.

Now lined up outside the Archaeological Museum of Istanbul, they were once bathed in the flickering light of perfumed lamps as they lay in the side galleries of major churches. Like so much else in that great city, they were almost magical presences. They spoke of a deep past—a past older than Constantine, older even than Christianity itself. In the middle of the fourteenth century, Russian pilgrims from distant Novgorod still knelt before them, “and although [these emperors] are not saints, we sinners kissed [them].”*

It was the sheer weight of porphyry that marked out the rulers of Constantinople as the true heirs of Rome. They were sheathed in porphyry. Their robes glowed with the fire of empire. Wherever they went, they trod on porphyry. In a privileged corner of the Hagia Sophia, a porphyry roundel, far larger than that of St. Peter’s, marked the spot where the emperors were crowned. It was called the Omphalion, the “navel of the world.” Though surrounded by a railing, it was kissed by pilgrims from all over the Orthodox world. And it was not only emperors who stood there. One night, a priest saw none other than the Virgin Mary herself, kneeling in the middle of that great pool of purple, praying for the salvation of all Christians.

The emperors of Constantinople were also born, quite literally, “in the purple.” The birthing room of the empresses in the Great Palace of Constantinople (now occupied by gentrified small hotels, beneath the great platform that supported the Hagia Sophia and the Hippodrome) was described by the princess Anna Komnene (1083–1153). It looked out over the great statues of bulls and lions that decorated the palace gardens, across the Bosphorus (where nowadays the cruise ships line up to pass the straits, ringing the horizon like a vast armada poised for invasion). Its walls, floor, and tent-like roof were of solid porphyry, “casually acquired in Rome by former emperors.” In the words of one emperor who had emerged from that all-purple womb—Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos: “born in the purple” (905–959)—porphyry stone was rightly called, by all Byzantines, “Roman Stone.”

Dario Del Bufalo’s Porphyry takes us into the origins and afterlife of porphyry in Europe and Byzantium. Despite a somewhat orotund introduction, it is a constant source of instruction to work one’s way through Del Bufalo’s well-documented catalog of porphyry pieces, both ancient and modern. We walk the galleries of Europe, where ancient, Renaissance, and baroque works in porphyry mingle easily with each other, as they would have done in the great palazzi of early modern Europe—Constantine in porphyry on the one side, Ferdinando I de’ Medici in porphyry on the other. The more succinct treatment of Philippe Malgouyres and Clément Blanc-Riehl, Porphyre, introduces the treasures of the Louvre with zest and clarity.


But these two books lead us to a greater problem. The judgment of the stones is unambiguous. If porphyry was the blood of ancient empire, then it must be to Constantinople that we should look (and not to Western Europe) if we wish to understand the heritage of Rome in the Middle Ages. But why do we not do so? Why is “Byzantium”—an innocent enough place, after all: merely the name of the original Greek city renamed, after himself, by Constantine—so charged with negative associations, and so absent from the historical imagination of Western Europeans? This is the problem addressed with vigor by Averil Cameron in her two short books Byzantine Matters and Dialoguing in Late Antiquity.

Byzantine Matters is a fighting book. It may well be that the title was chosen to echo Cornel West’s Race Matters. In a more restrained and academic vein than West—but with no less tenacity—Cameron points to an injustice: the absence of Byzantium from the historical consciousness of Western Europe. It is as if Westerners never forgave those rulers who issued from the birth chamber made of porphyry—the “Roman” stone of empire—for having claimed, in distant Constantinople, to be Romans, and to be, in fact, better Romans than they, the Westerners, had proved to be, when the empire crumbled, ignominiously, in the West.


Museo Pio Clementino, Vatican Museums/Nimatallah/Art Resource

The porphyry sarcophagus of Constantina, the eldest daughter of Constantine the Great, 330–360 AD

For we of the West think that we own Rome. It is a neat Rome, uncomplicated by the real-life complexities of great imperial systems. Our common stereotypes of the Roman Empire exclude entire centuries of its existence. Our Rome barely has room (except for a few romantic references to the Christian martyrs) for the spiritual ferment that led to the rise of Christianity within it. It has no room at all for the surge of talent in the Greek world and along the non-Greek fringes of the Middle East, which led to the emergence of what Sir Fergus Millar has called a Greek Roman Empire—a Roman Empire run (and none too badly) by Greek speakers for Greek speakers, that emerged in the very century in which the Western Empire foundered. As carefully manicured as the tidy lawns that now frame the ruined forts of Hadrian’s wall and so many other Roman sites in Britain and Europe, our image of Rome tends to remain aseptic and unchallenging. It is a reflection of our own comfortable image of ourselves: as Byron Ward-Perkins put it in his The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization (2005), that image is “in some ways a wonderful precedent for much that modern Europe aspires to.”

And when Rome falls, it is, of course, our Rome, the Rome of the West, that holds our melancholy attention. We find it difficult to admit that another Rome should have survived for a further thousand years, constantly reinventing itself, despite progressive downsizing, with the same tenacity and skill as its architects and craftsmen recycled the vast chunks of purple stone that lay to hand in Constantinople and in the other cities of the eastern Mediterranean. To do so would be to complicate this narrow image of ourselves. Altogether, Byzantium does not fit into current narratives of the history of Europe because if it did, we would have to abandon too many of the tinny certainties that make up our own neat view of the origins of modern Europe.

This brief summary offers a somewhat distant view of Cameron’s Byzantine Matters. In the book itself, we are constantly reminded of the foreground: the fate of Byzantine studies in Britain, for which Cameron has fought so hard over the years. Her tone is not optimistic. But then, how could it be? In 2003, the then secretary for education in Britain allegedly stated: “I don’t mind there being some medievalists around for ornamental purposes, but there is no reason for the state to pay for them.” Cited so as to be splendidly refuted by Ian Wood in his recent book, The Modern Origins of the Early Middle Ages (2013), this is the boisterous tone of the school bully, looking for easy laughs at the expense of the odd boy—the vulnerable nerd or “swot.” But if medieval history as a whole is fair game, what of Byzantium? Byzantium, as Cameron admits, is “not merely medieval but deeply unfamiliar.”

Seen from the mean streets of university and state policies in the United Kingdom, Cameron’s book makes depressing reading. But seen as a program for Byzantine studies in themselves, it is a crackling description of an intellectual trajectory. For Cameron had not always been a Byzantinist—that is, a student of the medieval rather than of the late classical periods. Her early work concentrated on late antiquity. Few scholars have done such justice to the remarkable synthesis of the classical and the post-classical worlds that went into the creation of a distinctive late antique civilization in the Constantinople of Justinian and his immediate successors.

When Cameron wrote on that civilization, during the 1970s and even in the 1980s, to bring life to the age of Justinian was enough. It seemed as if medieval Byzantium could be reached only by passing through a grim tunnel. Ahead of us lay a “Byzantine Dark Ages,” characterized by dramatic social, economic, and cultural recession brought about by the Muslim invasions of the seventh and eighth centuries. At the other end of the tunnel was a “little Byzantium”—a Byzantium with its back against the wall, ringed by pertinacious enemies in the Balkans and in Anatolia. This embattled empire had been forced in upon itself. It had opted for the carapace of an intolerant and xenophobic Christian orthodoxy. If it was a Roman Empire, it was a more rigid thing than it had once been, when the rafts of porphyry still crossed the eastern Mediterranean to bring their last consignments to the mile-and-a- half-long docks of Constantinople.

What Cameron has discovered, and encouraged so many of us to discover through her publications, is that this forbidding image of an empire frozen by perpetual emergency was wrong. No definitive moment of “closure” separated the turbulent world of late antiquity from its Byzantine successors. Her little book Dialoguing in Late Antiquity is a vivid illustration of her new approach. Both in this book and in Byzantine Matters, she shows that Byzantines never lost their zest for argument. As they made constant ad hoc challenges to their own Christianity, some appealed to immemorial orthodoxy by way of defense. In the vast panoply of Byzantine religion, there was always wiggle room.

Indeed, the very zest with which Byzantines set about “a vast technologizing of theological argument”—by producing comprehensive lists of heresies and of proof texts from ancient Christian writers that rebutted them—kept argument in play. What seems, at first sight, to be a marble front is, in fact, a tensile surface, ready to reverberate at a touch. At any time, an ancient ambiguity, carefully registered in lists of heresies, might come alive again, to set to work the tongues and pens of courtiers, clergy, and monks. As Cameron says, “Orthodoxy in Byzantium was always vaunted but also always contested.”

For when such doubts arose, who would decide what, in fact, “orthodoxy” was? Among the most enlightening pages of Byzantine Matters are in chapter five, where Cameron describes in detail the workings of the “decentralization of religious authority” that characterized the Orthodox world. No one was certain about who had the last word in religious debates: Was it the patriarch, was it the emperor, was it some cabal of especially holy monks? Caught in these shifting currents, even the proverbially cunning and resilient emperor Alexis Komnenos (1081–1118) was at a loss. He survived the Crusades. But when he attempted to persuade his own clergy on a recondite theological issue, he became flustered and was discreetly sidelined.

Byzantine Matters is the book of someone determined that we do not take Byzantium for granted. Not only does Cameron take seriously the prejudices that weigh on the study of Byzantium from the outside. Her review of the progress of Byzantine studies, from the inside, is an austere exercise in troubleshooting. She is well aware of the limits of the field. As she points out, there are few specialties whose leading scholars have shown such contempt for those they study. All too many modern scholars of Byzantium wrote from the viewing point of an idealized Greece and Rome. They remained classical snobs. To study medieval Greek, for them, was to go slumming. The Byzantines did no more than save a few fragments of the classical heritage. In “The Hellenistic Origins of Byzantine Literature,” R.H. Jenkins wrote:

Let us be grateful that the medieval Byzantine adhered with fidelity to at least some of the traditions handed down from a world more liberally minded and more cultivated than his own.

Altogether, Cameron regards Byzantine studies as a backward field. Only the application of new methodologies can save it. To put it bluntly: Byzantine studies should be put into a sort of intellectual receivership. It is “an undertheorized field as well as an understudied one.” “Concepts such as ‘hybridity,’ borrowed from postcolonial criticism…have barely as yet been applied to Byzantium.” Furthermore, “Byzantine historians would also do well to look more to discourse analysis and to language and writing as mechanisms of identity and power.”

In proposing these remedies, Cameron is stern but not querulous. Nor is she content merely to recite fashionable theoretical mantras. She has proved in her many studies, as now in her Dialoguing in Late Antiquity, that she can deliver the goods. She has shown that we can bring new approaches to bear to change the way we see a distant world that still cries out for explanation.

What emerges, above all, from Byzantine Matters is a thousand years of an empire long seen in narrow perspective that is rendered more flexible and exciting at every turn. Things are not what they seem. In Byzantine theology, ancient rigidities are revealed to be responses to incessant questioning. As for Byzantine society—the Western image of Byzantium as a place of “autocracy, bureaucracy, deviousness, and a stultifying lack of originality” has been overturned from the bottom up. Here was a society where learning was respected; where intense competitiveness was the norm; and where a remarkable degree of acceptance of hybridity (in populations as in ideas) enabled an empire “to administer and exploit diversity” in such a way as to reinvent itself, each generation in a different manner, for over a millennium. Such novel perspectives warm the mind.

In 1946, the leading Byzantinist in England, Norman Hepburn Baynes, gave a lecture at Westfield College in the University of London. He concluded with a challenge. Referring back to the Oxford Movement that had caused so much creative intellectual turmoil in Victorian England, Baynes noted that this movement had “made religion interesting.” Then he asked: “Cannot someone be found to do the same for the Byzantine Empire?”

In this book, Averil Cameron has done just that. And in doing so she has enriched us by leading us away, firmly and with alert intelligence, from the debased images of Byzantium that have, for many centuries, locked Western Europeans into a pitiably narrow and superficial view of their own past. As Cameron says, “Byzantium belongs to all of us.” And the Byzantium “made interesting” by Cameron is a Byzantium calculated to nourish us all.