Byzantine automata – the emperor is on the throne!

Hero of Alexandria devised various water-powered machines in antiquity.  But one of the ways in which the Byzantine emperor impressed the barbarians was the presence of automata at his court.  Mechanical marvels were part of their arsenal of influence.

One account records that the emperor had a throne which could whisk him up towards the ceiling.  It doesn’t sound all that safe, actually.  Byzantine robes could be voluminous, and I wonder whether any emperor ever fell off!  Did the imperial throne have a seat-belt, I ask?

I thought I would see what I could find on these by a google search.  I found few primary sources.  One page told me that one of the artificers was Leo the Mathematician (790-870), although I could find no details.

Another book was more detailed.  Constantine Porphyrogenitus (913-54) in his Book of ceremonies apparently mentions three automata related to the “throne of Solomon”.  These include trees with singing birds, roaring lions, and moving beasts.  Liudprand of Cremona in his memoirs of his trip to Constantinople in 949 tells us [1]:

In front of the emperor’s throne was set up a tree of gilded bronze, its branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species.  Now the emperor’s throne was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air.  This throne was of immense size and was, as it were, guarded by lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue.  Leaning on the shoulders of two eunuchs, I was brought into the emperor’s presence.  As I came up the lions began to roar and the birds to twitter, each according to its kind, but I was moved neither by fear nor astonishment … After I had done obeisance to the Emperor by prostrating myself three times, I lifted my head, and behold! the man whom I had just seen sitting at a moderate height from the ground had now changed his vestments and was sitting as high as the ceiling of the hall.  I could not think how this was done, unless perhaps he was lifted up by some such machine as is used for raising the timbers of a wine press.[2]

Theophanes Continuatus tells us in the Vita Michaelis 21 (Bonn ed., 1838, p.173, ll.6-10), that the emperor Theophilus (829-842) had automata, which his successor Michael III (842-867) destroyed.  Other chroniclers also mention these, apparently.[3]

[1] G. Brett, The automata in the Byzantine ‘Throne of Solomon’, Speculum 29 (1954), 477-87, via this link.
[2] J.Becker, Antapodosis (Hannover-Leipzig, 1915), 6,5, tr. Mango, Art of the Byzantine Empire, 209-10.
[3] Bibliography in Littlewood, Gardens of the palaces, p.32, n.139.

2 thoughts on “Byzantine automata – the emperor is on the throne!

  1. Arab geographer Harun ibn Yahya of this time claimed that there was a bronze bird atop a Constantinople church dome which, in olive season, gave the sound of a thrush. All similar birds within earshot then made a point of gathering olives, one by beak, two by claw, and flying to the bronze bird and dropping the fruit, which were then gathered and pressed into enough oil to treat the local’s leather sandals.

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