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An Imperial Language: Alphabet Ceremonies in Constantinople and Rome|Intellectuals & Empire

Thursday, March 11, 2021, 5:30 pm – 8:00 pm

Abstract: This talk examines the role played by intellectuals in shaping the rituals and ceremonies of the imperial court in Constantinople and the papal curia in Rome during the period from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. We shall compare and contrast two manuscripts – the De Ceremoniis associated with Basil Lekapenos and the Liber Politicus associated with Benoit of Saint Peter’s –, focusing on the prescriptions they contain for the performance of alphabetical poems during celebrations for the high feasts of Christmas and Easter. These poems, which were organised according to mnemonic elements that drew on a well-established educational tradition, constituted highly dramatic declarations of religious conversion and political allegiance. Often dismissed as obsolete by the time they were recorded in ceremonial handbooks, the poems can be shown to have drawn the attention of officials in both courts because of the potential they afforded for showcasing the cultural superiority of the prince and enhancing his prestige both at home and abroad.

Teresa Shawcross is Associate Professor of History and Hellenic Studies at Princeton University and a Senior Member of Robinson College, Cambridge University. As a historian of the Middle Ages, she works at the interstices between the Byzantine, Latin, and Islamic Mediterranean. Publications include The Chronicle of Morea: Historiography in Crusader Greece (Oxford, 2008) and Reading in the Byzantine Empire and Beyond, co-edited with Ida Toth (Cambridge, 2018). She is completing a monograph on the ideas and practices of empire – and its alternatives – from the eleventh to the fifteenth centuries.

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Passcode: 056007

The lecture is a part of the CEMS "Intellectuals and Empire" lecture series. The series asks what role intellectuals played in formulating notions of empire and spreading imperial policy, on the one hand, and, on the other, how they criticized emperors and challenged imperial ideology or practices. How did intellectuals navigate power structures and their asymmetrical relationship with relevant powers? What strategies did they use to maintain a critical distance from those on whom they often depended for their livelihood? How did they shape their personas to carve out a place for themselves within – or outside – the machinery of imperial administration? By looking at the intellectual production and socio-political roles of different kinds of intellectuals in various historical periods, the series invites meditation of the complex yet constant tension between power and intellectual life.