Jake Ransohoff (Harvard University)
Blinding is among the hardiest perennials in the field of Byzantine punitive practices. Often described as a “uniquely Byzantine” form of punishment, it served as the standard penalty for imperial rivals and defeated rebels in the Eastern Empire for over six centuries. Yet blinding’s longevity has obscured some important changes in the methods, frequency, and venues of this practice. This paper focuses on one such change in particular. It argues that a significant but unnoticed shift occurs in the venues of political mutilation at the end of Late Antiquity. Up to the eighth century, the mutilation of imperial rivals played out in large public arenas such as the Hippodrome, surrounded by elaborate spectacles of humiliation. After this point, however, mutilation had largely moved out of the arena and into prisons or monasteries, hidden from public view.
The present paper will begin by tracking these trends across the watershed of the eighth century. It will then suggest that changes in venues of punishment correlate with changes in regimes of punishment: the rising frequency of blinding vis-à-vis other forms of mutilation (such as nose- and hand-amputation) emerges in tandem with the shift of mutilation from open to closed space. Finally, it will use these intertwined developments to draw several broader conclusions about punishment and imperial power across the transition from Late Antiquity to medieval Byzantium.