The eternal spirit of Thalassa: the transmission of classical maritime symbolism into Byzantine cultural identity

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In antiquity, the sea held an important place in the hearts and minds of those living in the Mediterranean region, and maritime motifs were popular across a range of literary and artistic genres. Classical maritime imagery was transmitted almost seamlessly into early medieval and Byzantine cultural identity, despite its overt polytheistic connotations. Mosaics depicting maritime deities and mythological seafaring scenes were installed in private residences and Christian churches. Poets wrote of Fortune steering the ship of life and orators spoke of leaders at the helm of their state. Didactic and ecclesiastical texts taught of the corrupting nature of merchants and the sea, and compared the trials and tribulations of everyday life and faith with storms and squalls. The Christian church also became viewed as a ship or safe harbour. Seafaring imagery was regularly imbued with both traditional and contemporary religious, political, and cultural relevance. This paper argues that the ongoing popularity of maritime symbolism was not only a throwback to classical times or because seafaring themes had a greater relevance to Christians than non-Christians. Thalassa (the Sea) had always been important in Greek and Roman thought, and she acquired a more tangible and pervasive presence in the lives of those in the late antique Roman East. Unlike Rome, the eastern capital at Constantinople was itself a great maritime entrepot. The maritime cultural milieu that dominated coastal Mediterranean regions played an influential role in the city and its far-reaching empire. Constantinople sat at the centre of a vast network of seaports and was a major hub of Roman culture and communication. With the city's foundation, classical maritime imagery acquired a contemporary cultural and political relevance; even as the Graeco-Roman world slowly evolved into a Christian one.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)51-69
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of the Australian Early Medieval Association
Publication statusPublished - 2018


  • Constantinople
  • early Byzantium
  • early Christianity
  • mariners
  • marine symbolism
  • maritime culture
  • merchants
  • mosaics
  • ships
  • shipwrecks
  • storms
  • Thalassa
  • Thalassography


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