Of the many emperors of the Byzantine Empire, Justinian I, also known as Justinian the Great, was one of the most significant. Born in c.482, when he came to the throne in 527 the western empire had been lost for a generation, yet he made it one of his goals to restore the former empire, or at least as much as possible, and in particular the city of Rome itself. In this he was quite successful, and by the time of his death in 565, large parts of Italy, including the eternal city, as well as much of the North African coast and parts of Spain were all within the expanded empire. Justinian was aided by his remarkable wife, crowned Empress Theodora I (c.500 - 548), who was a major advisor and power behind the throne. Between them they brought many changes to the empire, not just territorial enlargement, and many of their reforms would long outlive their conquests, affecting the empire for centuries to come.
This small set contains just four figures, and the first two as pictured above are of the emperor and empress themselves. Both are very obviously taken from the famous mosaics still to be found today in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, which have provided both the costume and the poses. The emperor wears a long cloak (chlamys) with ornate clasp (fibula) over a tunic, and on his head he has a cylindrical crown called a stemma. He holds a plate (paten) in both hands, which was used for the bread of the Eucharist. Theodora wears similar imperial robes, but with an even more splendid crown and much jewellery. To her right she holds a chalice with both hands, used for the wine of the Eucharist. Both these figures are in their ceremonial dress, and have been faithfully taken from the mosaic, showing them at their most magnificent. However, while the choice of costume is fine, we were not pleased by the choice of poses. In the Basilica they are either side of a Christ figure, and are clearly performing the Eucharist to revere him, but in real life this was something done by ordained priests, not emperors, and even if they had performed this ritual in life, it would hardly be a common way to see them, so we really can’t see much purpose to them as model figures. Far better that they simply stand and look on, perhaps at court or some ceremony, when they would have been much more useful.
The third figure in our picture is identified by the box as Bishop Maximian (499-556), and he is present because he too appears on the mosaic in the basilica. This is because it was he that completed its construction, and presumably commissioned the mosaic, so he made sure he was in it. For our purposes this figure is best seen as a typical bishop rather than a particular individual, and as such he is very good. He wears an alb, chasuble and a pallium, all typical ecclesiastical garb, and holds a large cross. His pose is simply standing, which works well in this case, so a very useful bishop figure for the period.
The last figure is of the imperial bodyguard, who are again depicted on the mosaic showing the emperor. Here the sculptor has departed from the image on the mosaic by giving this man a more everyday look, as he might appear when on duty, rather than the highly decorated appearance we see on the mosaic, which would greatly limit the utility of this figure. The guard wears the usual belted tunic with a cloak (known as a Bulgarian sagion) around the shoulders. He has no helmet, so is clearly not in battle attire, and holds his spear and shield in relaxed fashion, making him an excellent guard figure. He also has a sword by his side, and the shield is of the correct shape, with no design engraved on it so as to allow the modeller to paint their own.
These figures are quite complex in appearance and detail, but simple in pose, and the sculpting is very good indeed, with the usual lifelike proportions we have come to expect from Linear-A. Inevitably the most challenging aspect of this set is the imperial couple, and the sculptor has done a very good job of depicting the plentiful decoration on both, particularly the crowns. The clothing all hangs naturally, and the faces are full of character – the balding bishop is particularly nicely done. We found some flash, mainly on the emperor, but some seams are completely clean, and the poses mean there is no problem with excess plastic in hidden areas, so not much work would be required to tidy up these figures.
Command sets have been quite popular in recent years, and this one would be the ultimate command set for the early Byzantine Empire. The very specific nature of the subject means no one is likely to want many of this set, but they are certainly well-made figures that any modeller can enjoy in their own right. Given the nature of the source material, the costumes are all accurate and look splendid, so our only complaint is that the imperial couple are posed in a highly unusual way, which makes perfect sense for the mosaic, but it is hard to imagine what sort of diorama could have a use for these two. The bishop and guard are much more useful, so perhaps this is more a set for the collectors, and it is certainly one that many will enjoy.