Byzantine Games

Tzykanion, or polo, formed part of the ritual of life at the court of the Emperors in Constantinople. Expertise on horseback, writes Anthony Bryer, was one of the requirements of Imperial dignity.

Byzantines tended to take their amusements seriously. Their Emperors had few pursuits that they could call their own. Sports were incorporated into the measured ceremonies of the Sacred Palace in Constantinople. At one stage chariot-racing came near to becoming a substitute for a political system. Significantly, the Hippodrome lay between the Great Church of Hagia Sophia and the Sacred Palace.

It was embellished with Egyptian obelisks, bronze statues and a huge royal box. Today its site is marked out by municipal flower beds; Kaiser Wilhelm II added a polychrome fountain. Here the Byzantine Emperors were welcomed by the rhythmic acclamations of the factions that competed on the course. With its earnest cheerleaders, the Hippodrome scene must have resembled an American football match.

In the tenth century the Emperor Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus codified all such imperial ritual, down to the obscure dances of the ‘Gothic Game of the Nineteen Divans’—whose performers solemnly intoned garbled slogans like ‘Deumonogungubele’ (in the third mode) through mouthless masks. The most intimate details of imperial life became official functions.

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