Sports of the Christian Roman Empire (“Byzantine Empire”) – Part 4

Here we present, in parts, the paper ‘Sports of the Byzantine Empire‘, by Barbara Schrodt (Associate Professor in the School of Physical Education and Recreation at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, at the time of publication), from Journal of Sport History, Vol. 8, No. 3 (Winter, 1981)


Not all sports of Byzantium were inherited from Greece or Rome. Persia gave the world polo, and in due course, this horseman’s team game made its way to Constantinople, where it became a popular activity of the nobility. The introduction of polo to the Byzantine Empire is generally attributed by historians to Theodosius II, who reigned from 408 to 450. The game was known there as tyzkanion, presumably a variation of the Persian name, tschougan. The field on which Byzantine polo was played was called the tyzkanisterion, and Basil I (867 to 886), a devotee of the game, caused such a ground, measuring about seventy yards, to be built within the walls of the Imperial Palace.

Polo appears only as a game of the nobility, in the Byzantine Empire, and it can be assumed that this sport, like chariot racing, was incorporated into the imperial ceremony; participation by emperors was frequently reported, and since all imperial activities in the later periods were bound in ritual, polo would also have been granted this treatment.

Of particular interest is the form that polo took in Byzantium. According to the most detailed description available, the game resembled nothing so much as lacrosse-on-horseback. The historian, John Kinnamos, secretary to Manuel I Comnenus (1143 to 1180), described a game of polo, played in the winter of 1166-67 by his master, as follows:

Just as We have already abolished profane rites by a salutary law, so We do not allow the festival assemblies of citizens and the common pleasure of all to be abolished. Hence We decree that, according to ancient custom, amusements shall be furnished to the people, but without any sacrifice or any accursed superstition, and they shall be allowed to attend festal banquest, whenever public desires so demand. [ 16.10.17]

Within these restrictions, then, the Olympic Games could have continued, but without the sacrifices long associated with the festival.

Also, athletic festivals per se were not eliminated at this time. It appears that meets were held well into the sixth century, for the Justinian code of 528 still carried a regulation that exempted from civil obligations those athletes who had won at least three wreaths at a sacred festival. According to Bury, The Theodosian Code suggested that the games were still being staged at Delphi during the reign of Theososius II (408 to 450).70 The stigma of pagan origin was obviously not enough to eradicate these activities; venationes, also derived from ancient pagan rituals, flourished for fully one hundred years after
Theodosius the Great banned pagan sacrifice. And open paganism, in the form of pagan ideas, was condoned until 529, when Justinian closed the schools in Athens.

Given the meagre evidence for 393 as the final staging of the Olympic Games, and the continuation of similar activities for a number of years after that date, it is, perhaps, easier to believe that the Games simply came to an end gradually. Robinson suggested this, citing barbarian invasions, economic decline, or disastrous natural events as the likely causes for their cessation, while Cameron inferred that changing tastes and the disappearance of the gymnasium were the principal contributing factors. Clearly, the question is still unresolved and evidence that would produce a conclusive answer has either been destroyed or has yet to be discovered.

In conclusion, any attempt to generalize about Byzantium presents certain difficulties,
because this complex civilization, which spanned eleven centuries, included within its boundaries, at various times, most of the civilized Mediterranean world, Asia Minor, and that part of Europe now known as the Balkans. However, there are a number of characteristics that the Byzantine Empire did retain throughout its history; it was Roman in ideology, government, and law; Greek in cultural and intellectual endeavours; and Christian in religion. The synthesis of these elements, added to its strategic location as a
crossroads civilization, gave Byzantium its distinctive qualities, and influenced the forms and development of its sports institutions.

Was Byzantine sport unique, and if so, in what ways? If to be unique is to be without like or equal, then, in certain respects, some of the sport institutions and activities were different from any seen before or since. The obvious differences were manifest in the most popular sport, chariot racing. Amalgamated with theatre partisans, the circus fans became a rowdy but official part of the imperial ceremonies, and because the state administered and financed the chariot races, it was able to exert a form of control that went beyond mere support. The result was a bureaucratic centralization that can best be described as a medieval version of “nationalized sport.”

The relationship between the circus and the Christian Church was also unique. Given the doctrinal condemnation of pagan sport by the Church in the west, the official sanction of the races by the Byzantine Church might appear to be a contradiction of Church policy. But this Byzantine sanction was granted only reluctantly, and it appears that the Byzantine Church simply could not combat the widespread popularity of the races and the important association of the emperor with this sport. And, as the Byzantine Empire was governed by an autocratic emperor whose near-divine status elevated him to a position superior to the patriarchs, these Church leaders acknowledged the Christianization of the races, allowing the partisan officials to assume roles within the imperial liturgy.

The only significant difference in form between the Roman and the Byzantine chariot races was the diversium, wherein a victorious charioteer exchanged chariots with the loser, for a rematch. This emphasis on individual achievement is reminiscent of the Greek sporting ideology, but it is more likely that its significance lay in the link between the victory of a charioteer and the universal victory of the emperor. If a charioteer’s victory was a credit to his emperor, how much more worthy would be a victory in the diversium.

The ceremonial of the hippodrome, and the relationship of the emperor to racing victories, thus reveal a society in which dominant sport forms were modified to serve the government of that society, that is, a Christian autocracy.

The venationes of the Byzantine Empire were distinguished from the earlier Roman version by a comparative lack of violence and death. These sports events were not wild-beast fights in the traditional sense, but mock-battles and demonstrations of agility skills— and, at the same time, fascinating exhibits of wild and exotic animals. The absence of danger and the stress on light entertainment suggest a more civilized society, in which Christianity produced a higher regard for human life than previous generations had demonstrated.

The other sport which developed unique features was polo, and the Byzantine form was certainly unlike any version of polo played elsewhere. But it may be questioned whether the difference in equipment—and, therefore, in the manner of collecting and propelling the ball—was significant, or simply a local modification of small consequence.

In one important respect, Byzantine sport was not different, for Byzantium did not introduce any new sports to the ancient or medieval world. It simply inherited a number of activities as part of its Roman and Greek heritage. However, the modifications of certain sports, and the ways in which sport, as an institution, was used to further social and political ends, does make this chapter in sport history interesting and unique.

Finally, it should be noted that it was within the boundaries of the Byzantine period that a number of sport forms came to an end, after centuries of popularity in the Mediterranean world. This empire witnessed the end of the ancient world, and, with it, the demise of the gymnasium, athletic festivals, chariot races, and the venatio —sports which had had their genesis in the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome.



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