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.


12 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.

  2. I have not seen that exact account with the bronze bird, but it is from Harun ibn Yahya, a Syrian who was apparently captured at Ascalon sometime around AD 886 by Byzantine pirates and kept prisoner at Constantinople. He was ransomed, released, and wound up travelling through Europe all the way to England. His account survives only in fragments preserved by Ibn Rustah in his early tenth-century Book of Precious Records.

    I can not find the full account of either, if anyone can I would LOVE to read it.

  3. First hand contemporary accounts of geography and sights of the period, very interesting. Here is a snippet of his description of the voyage from Rome to Britain:

    “From this city (sc. Rome) you sail the sea and journey for three months, till you reach the land of the king of the Burjān (here Burgundians). You journey hence through mountains and ravines for a month, till you reach the land of the Franks. From here you go forth and journey for four months, till you reach the city (capital) of Bartīniyah (Britain). It is a great city on the shore of the Western Ocean, ruled by seven kings. At the gate of its city (capital) is an idol (șanam). When the stranger wishes to enter it, he sleeps and cannot enter it, until the people of the city take him, to examine his intention and purpose in entering the city. They are Christians. They are the last of the lands of the Greeks, and there is no civilization beyond them.”

  4. It is Harun ibn Yahya description, but preserved and re-written by Rustah. His book was apparently a geographical description of Persia (he was from Isfahan), the steppes, Rus, Slavs, Europe, etc. as well as the people of those lands and their customs. Much of it was from secondary sources like Harun.

    A blog post would be great! I love these first hand, contemporary accounts.

  5. A. Vasiliev, ‘Harun-ibn-Yahya and his Description of Constantinople” That contains, I imagine, the account Bruce Ware Allen mentioned in the above post. I can’t find the entire paper.

    National Geographic, March 1985 looks like it has an article on ibn Rustah and his account.

    N. E. Hermes, The [European] Other in Medieval Arabic Literature and Culture: Ninth–Twelfth Century AD (New York, 2012), pp. 72–80; A. Classen, ‘East meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Age: many untold stories about connections and contacts, understanding and misunderstanding’, in A. Classen (ed.), East Meets West in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times: Transcultural Experiences in the Premodern World (Berlin/Boston, 2013) I think this may have the full ibn Rustah account of Europe, Rus, Slavs, etc. and I imagine all of Harun ibn Yahya’s account? Hard to find anything in English from this century ha

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