Prognostication Techniques in the Byzantine Empire

Fellowship for byzantinist Michael Grünbart at the Käte Hamburger International Consortium in Erlangen

Prof Dr. Michael Gruenbart
Prof Dr. Michael Gruenbart
© Institut für Byzantinistik und Neogräzistik

In the summer semester of 2017, byzantinist Prof. Dr. Michael Grünbart of the Cluster of Excellence “Religion and Politics” of the WWU has conducted research as a fellow at the International Consortium for Research in the Humanities “Fate, Freedom and Prognostication. Strategies for Coping with the Future in East Asia and Europe” (IKGF) at the University Erlangen. “Within the scope of my research stay, I will concentrate on the prognostication techniques in the Byzantine Empire”, the scholar says. Another focus will be the systematic collection and exploration of signs and omens in the Byzantine world. “In contrast to antiquity and the Latin Middle Ages, this research field has hardly been touched so far.”

“My stay in Erlangen will make it possible to look at phenomena of prognostication in a global context,” Prof. Grünbart emphasises. The Consortium enables an intense exchange with sinologists, tibetologists, arabists and mediaevalists. Insights from this research stay will be integrated into a compendium on the reading of the future in the pre-modern era. The IKGF at the University of Erlangen is one of ten Käte Hamburger Centres and is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The Käte Hamburger International Centres in the Humanities are part of the initiative “Freedom for the Humanities” of the BMBF. Every year, renowned scholars will be given the opportunity at the Centres to follow up self-chosen research questions as visiting scholars free from any administrative obligations.

Celestial Phenomena as Expression of Divine Anger

“When inspecting the sources, one can regularly find many types of signs that are woven into the historiographic narratives of the Greek Middle Ages,” Prof. Grünbart explains. It is fascinating how the authors of historical works positioned themselves in terms of the reading of signs, reaching from aversion to acceptance, including scientific explanation. “This becomes particularly apparent in the description of solar or lunar eclipses as well as in the apparition of comets.”

“The appearance of signs in the sky influenced the sovereign's actions,” the scholar says. This becomes obvious when reading the histories of the emperors. The meaning of the term “sign” depends on its respective context. “Perception was shaped by those biblical books in which apparitions in the sky and natural phenomena were often interpreted as the expression of divine anger,” Prof. Grünbart explains. Literary texts were taken or adapted in a new setting from antique-pagan cultures. “From the Byzantine area, there are numerous books on thunder and earthquakes that evidently have antique origins and were put into a Christian context. Such books were also taken to military campaigns where it was necessary for the strategist to explain the meaning of thunder or earthquakes to his troop in order to counteract misinterpretations, fearmongering or rumours.”

Interpretation of Nightly Visions

According to Prof. Grünbart, the interpretation of dreams was documented in the Byzantine Empire: “Although there are famous writings from late antiquity, proper collections to interpret dreams, influenced by Arab literature, were also created in Byzantium. Some of these “guidebooks” were traded under the name of Constantinopolitan patriarchs according to the scholar.

“The correct reading and interpretation of signs was often carried out by experts who worked in and around the Byzantine court in Constantinople.” There were no official soothsayers or haruspices as in Assyria or Rome, yet according to Grünbart, this knowledge was “readily available”: “In the imperial library, books of oracles, such as the Sibylline Oracles or later the Oracula Leonis, were archived and consulted by the imperial staff in times of trouble.” Antique prognostic techniques were indeed known, but their practical application was extremely reduced, says the byzantinist. “Augurs no longer exist, soothsaying in a trance disappears and all kinds of extispicy are forbidden. Astrology alone remains highly respected.”

Prognostication and Decision by Sortition

According to Prof. Grünbart, sortition also belongs to the field of prognostication and decision. “Choosing by lot is a method known from the Attic democracy and it was not only used in the Mediterranean cultures, but also in the Far East as a means to read the future.” In Byzantium, especially in monastic communities, sortition was thought to be focused on to determine leading positions. A late antique custom continued to exist until the High Middle Ages, says Grünbart: “In the hippodrome of Constantinople, the starting positions are allocated with the help of a very cleverly thought out system using a randomisation device. This procedure is explained in detail in the book of ceremonies by Emperor Constantine VII who ruled solely from 944 until 959 AD.”
At the Cluster of Excellence, Prof. Dr. Michael Grünbart heads the project B2-8 “Moses and David: Ambiguous Prototypes for Patriarch and Emperor in Byzantium”. (exc/dak/ill)