S I I A S @ C S I Study Collection for Ancient and Medieval Civilizations
* Home * Egyptian * Greek * Roman * Medieval * Collecting * Web Sites *



Constantine I attributed his victory at Milvian Bridge to Christ, claiming that he had recieved a vision of the Cross and the words "Conquer by this Sign." After the battle Constantine and his eastern colleague Galerius issued the Edict of Milan, proclaiming toleration for Christians and ending the persecution of Diocletian. From this point on Christianity was to be the favored imperial religion of the Empire, and despite an effort to reverse this policy under Julian the Apostate (361-63), the new faith was to re-invent Rome as Christ's instrument on Earth.
Just as reverence for the old gods had been rewarded with triumphs, so was Christian piety and orthodoxy rewarded with imperial victory. Heresy and paganism were deemed hateful in the eyes of God; indeed their very existence was held to endanger the Empire. In 395 CE Christianity was proclaimed the state religion, and Christian culture began to permeate every aspect of daily life.
The other major event of this period was the final division of the Empire into two halves: The Western Roman Empire, ruled from Ravenna, and the Eastern Roman Empire, ruled from the new capital of Constantinople. Between 395-476 the western Empire was to disintegrate from within and without. Germanic tribes were to cross the northern frontiers and penetrate the heart of the Empire, founding new kingdoms in the former provinces. In 410 and 455 Rome, the old capital, was sacked by Germanic tribes. By 476, when the last western emperor was abdicated, the western empire had ceased to exist.

Cruciform Fibula

SIIAS A 55.94.12
(another fibula SIIAS A 55.94.16)
Bronze with traces of gilding.
Eastern or western Roman, 4th-5th century CE
Harold Rome Bequest  


In 330 CE Constantine I dedicated the new capital city that was to bear his name: Constantinople. The foundation of Constantinople marked a new orientation for the eastern provinces, and the gradual emergence of a state that modern historians call the Byzantine Empire. With the disappearance of the Western Empire, the Eastern Empire became the sole bearer of the Roman tradition. Since the Eastern Empire was centered in the Greek-speaking world, Greek culture and Christianity merged with the Roman tradition. But this did not stop eastern emperors from seeking to recapture the lost western half of the Empire. Justinian I (r. 527-565) considered an imperial restoration as God's will and reconquered north Africa, Italy, and southern Spain for the Empire. Although these policies were expensive in money and men, the eastern Empire flourished during the 6th century. This period also marked the emergence of a predominantly Christian society and culture, and this is reflected by objects from the SIIAS@CSI Collection. The Slavic and Persian invasions of the late 6th and early 7th centuries undermined this prosperity. These invasions were followed by the Islamic conquests that were to usher in a new age for the Mediterranean world.

Imperial Coins of Sixth Century CE

In order to pay salaries and collect taxes, the Emperor Diocletian (284-305) restored the gold and silver content of the coinage that had been debased by his predecessors. Diocletian's reforms were carried further by Constantine I, who introduced a new gold coin, the Solidus. Subsequent reforms of Anastasius I (491-518) abolished the old system, reducing the denominations to just the high-value gold coin, the Solidus or Nomisma, and copper denominations called Folles as small change. With minor variations this monetary system remained in force in Byzantium until 1092.

Follis of the Emperor Tiberius II (578-582)

SIIAS A 1911.15
Copper alloy; 40(?) follis
Byzantine, said to be from Carthage
Obverse: imperial bust
Reverse: M = 40

Follis of the Emperor Maurice (582-602)

SIIAS A 1911.15
Copper alloy; 20 follis, regnal year XI
Byzantine, said to be from Carthage
Obverse: imperial bust
Reverse: K = 20

Christian Cult and Pilgrimage in the Byzantine Empire

Centers of Christian pilgrimage attracted the devotions and offerings of the faithful in return for the intercessions and healings of the saints. The shrine of St. Menas in Egypt was one of the most popular of these pilgrimage sites, and the SIIAS@CSI Collection contains three pilgrim-flasks or ampulles from this shrine. According to the saint's Life, Menas was martyred between A.D. 303-305, but some scholars have suggested that Menas is little more than a hagiographic fiction. According to the Life, the saint posthumously chose his burial place by instructing his followers to tie his body to two camels, which wandered until they reached the desired site. Located in the desert south-west of Alexandria, the site was soon named Abu Mena in the saint's honor. Archaeological excavations since 1900 have revealed that Abu Mena grew rapidly in the course of the fifth and sixth centuries. By 600 CE the oasis had become a pilgrimage city, centered around the great basilica complex erected over the saint's burial chamber.

St. Menas Pilgrim-Flasks

SIIAS A 1811, A 56.30.37, x 56.30.38
Mold-made terracotta, red-orange and buff fabric. Byzantine, 5th-6th century CE
MacDonald Bequest
The flasks have ovoid bodies and once had short cylindrical necks flanked by two handles. On the two best preserved flasks, St. Menas is depicted as a standing orant figure, nimbed and dressed in a chlamys and tunic. The saint stands between the two kneeling camels that carried his body to Abu Mena. On either side of the saint's head is the Greek inscription `St. Menas.' Pilgrims used these flasks to contain oil from the lamp suspended above the saint's tomb, or to fill with water from a miraculous spring. Some flasks bear Greek inscriptions proclaiming the miraculous qualities of these liquids: `We recieve the blessing (eulogia) of St. Menas.' By means of these flasks and their hallowed contents, Byzantine pilgrims believed that St. Menas could continue to work miracles even after they had returned home.

Daily life in the Sixth Century

A number of objects in the SIIAS@CSI Collection grant us access to the material culture of everyday life in the 6th century. Most of these objects were found in Egypt where environmental conditions preserve fragile materials such as textiles and papyri. These materials provide us with an exceptionally detailed picture of everyday life between the 4th and 7th centuries. Christianity had become the dominant culture of Egypt by the 4th century CE. This culture is referred to as Coptic, and was a distinctive fusion of Christianity, Hellenism, and older Pharaonic elements.

Mold-Made Lamps

SIIAS no number
Terracotta, red-orange fabric.
Byzantine, 5th-6th century CE
MacDonald Bequest

Glass Flask and Bottle

SIIAS A 66.2.23
Pale green and purplish-amber glass.
Syria-Egypt, 3-4th century CE

Coptic Tapestry Roundel

SIIAS A 84.2.2
Woollen thread on linen.
Byzantine Egypt, 6th century CE
This roundel was originally a decorative panel on a linen garment.
The panel represents a dish of fruit, a common motif of abundance.

Statuette of a Fish

SIIAS A 56.78.3
Bronze, with traces of niello.
Byzantine Egypt(?) 6th-7th century CE
MacDonald Bequest

Transport Amphora

SIIAS no number
Terracotta, red-orange fabric.
Byzantine, 5-6th century CE
MacDonald Bequest


The collapse of the western Empire saw the establishment of new kingdoms founded by incoming Germanic tribes. The most powerful of these tribes were the Franks, who settled in the former provinces of Gaul. The Franks carved out several kingdoms which were ruled by scions of the ruling family, the Merovingian dynasty. Although their subjects were Catholic Christians, the Franks remained pagan until the conversion of King Clovis to Catholicism in 496. The culture of the early Franks is illustrated by the following group of SIIAS@CSI objects. These items are informative of costume of the period, and probably come from Frankish graves.

Frankish Belt(?) Ornament

SIIAS 55.94.13
Bronze, with traces of gilding.
Merovingian Gaul, 6th-7th century CE
Harold Rome Bequest

Frankish Belt Buckle

SIIAS 55.94.14
Bronze, with traces of niello.
Merovingian Gaul, 6th-7th century CE
Harold Rome Bequest

Pair of Frankish Earrings

SIIAS 55.94.22
Bronze, inlaid with glass.
Merovingian Gaul, 6th-7th century CE
Harold Rome Bequest


Click Here for Further Reading
about Medieval Civilizations in the CSI Library

Thomas Mathews
The Clash of Gods
N 7832.M36 1995

Caecilia Davis-Meyer
Early Medieval Art
N 5975.D3 1996

Ian Wood
Merovingian Kingdoms
DC 65.W48 1994

Anna Comnena
Alexiad of Anna Comnena
DF 605.C6 1969

Return to Home Page