Strange punishments in Byzantine Constantinople

Among the many delights of John Julius Norwich’s superlative Byzantium trilogy is a huge and astonishingly varied number of ways to inflict pain on human beings. I’m not even halfway through volume two and already towns of heretics have been immolated, enfeebled Emperors have had their hands hacked off and turbulent clerics have been blinded by being forced to stare into steaming bowls of retina-wrecking concoctions. Even those with no interest in the history of late antiquity and the early middle ages will find much to enjoy in the gory details.

None quite match the fate meted out to Theodore and Theophanes, two ninth-century writers from Palestine. Without going into too much of the story, these two scribes were iconodules, or fond of icon veneration, one of the most divisive issues the Byzantines had to deal with. At the height of Emperor Theophilus’ anti-iconographic reign (829-42) the boys were brought to Constantinople and given the standard beating and flogging to change their minds, but they declined.

It was then that they were held down and had  twelve lines of ‘abusive lampoonery’ tattooed on their faces. And that, poor quality of verse or not, was intended to be a lesson to Theo and Theo, who were promptly dispatched to Apamea, forever branded with unkind verse.

The war over icon veneration claimed many victims, but none in quite such an unusual way. Theodore died from his wounds, while his brother survived to see the triumph of Orthodoxy. Poor chap. There are more gory details to shock and delight as the centuries roll by: the Byzantium trilogy is a highly recommended read.

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