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Lecture examines mobility of ancient empires

By MEGHAN THOMASSEN | Wednesday, September 25, 2013


Margaret Mullett, director of Byzantine Studies at Dumbarton Oaks Research Library in Washington D.C., spoke about her research on absentee Byzantine emperors in McKenna Hall on Tuesday night, in honor of the late Prof. Sabine MacCormack.

Mullett’s lecture, titled, “Writing a Mobile Empire” focused on Byzantine emperors’ war-time lodging of choice: tents. It was the second in a year-long series of talks, “Writing Empire: Rome and Byzantium,” hosted by several academic departments, including the Department of Classics and the Department of Theology.

“The emperors were on campaign for half the year,” Mullett said. “[I study] how much of the [governmental] functions travelled with them and how much they left behind, how much evidence went with them.”

MacCormack, a Hesburgh Professor of Arts and Letters who died last June, published “Art and Ceremony in late Antiquity” in 1981. Mullett said she wants to update MacCormack’s ideas about the cultural impact of tents on the Byzantine empire.

“I think that ceremony and performance were very much at the heart of what she thought about [the Byzantine] empire,” Mullett said. “I think its time to reassess. She’s right, but I think there are other things to be taken into account.”

Mullett’s analysis focused on three areas affected by Byzantine’s mobile emperors: the government, court culture and ceremonial tradition. Despite the realm’s strengths, Mullett said Byzantium is largely ignored in comparative literature about empires.

“The Byzantium Empire reigned for nearly two millennia,” Mullett said. “They had impressive road systems and communications, a cultural unity project, superb tax machinery and military logistics. … It was a primary empire.”

Mullett specifically addressed the “tent poetry” that arose from emperors “governing from the furthest corners” of the domain. She said her interest in the cultural and ceremonial aspects of this kind of literature was “unexpected.”

“I got hooked on structures and soft architecture and what it might mean for the empire. [It’s] less about marble and more about fabric, the silk of tents,” she said.

Mullett said she was happy to be a part of the colloquium, especially since she knew MacCormack from her time at Oxford, where they both studied.

“I spent a lot of time in her floor and was totally inspired by her performance in seminar and just the collegiality of [her] conversation and the power of her intellect,” she said.

“MacCormack was a wonderful and unique scholar whom I knew in the early 70s,” she said. “She is a wonderful inspiration.”