About the project

Project description


The Language of Buildings is a three-year joint project sponsored by the DFG which has been running since November 2018, led by Prof. Dr. Gunnar Brands (Halle-Wittenberg) and Prof. Dr. Marietta Horster (Mainz).

Our main cooperation partners are Prof. G. Greatrex (Ottawa), Prof.Dr. M. Meier (Tübingen), Prof.Dr. H. Leppin (Frankfurt), Dr. F. Montinaro (Tübingen), Prof.Dr. R. Pfeilschifter (Würzburg), and Prof.Dr. G. Makris (Münster). We also collaborate with the Leibniz-Science Campus Mainz/Frankfurt Byzantium between Orient and Occident, the Malalas project in Tübingen, and the Anecdota project in Würzburg.


The Buildings (De Aedificiis) features in its six books no fewer than 1128 buildings, which the author Procopius ascribes to the East Roman Emperor Justinian (527-565). The eulogistic descriptions are arranged in a geographical sweep from Constantinople to North Africa. The capital city is both the starting point and the touchstone for the building works in Justinian’s empire.

Elaborate descriptions that delight literary scholars and archaeologist alike are offset by frequent dry enumerations and plain lists. The result is that the individual books have often received unbalanced regard from modern readers. Indeed, construction works in some cities (for example Dara, Jerusalem, Justiniana Prima, Leptis Magna) are described in great detail whereas some regions are only marginally covered (e.g. Alexandria). Individual building projects such as Hagia Sophia are portrayed at length. Digressions on geography or on political history extend the main theme, which is the description of the imperial commitment to building, which Procopius strives to suggest was programmatic and thus an important part of imperial politics.

The Buildings is transmitted in two recensions, a long one (edited by Jakob Haury), and a short version about two-thirds the length of the long recension. Both are attested in the manuscript transmission by the 13th century. How the two recensions relate to one another is still the subject of debate. Both versions will thus be included in the project database, accompanied by our new English translation.
Many intriguing issues surround the text: Procopius’s decisions in including certain buildings and excluding others, and how he presents them raise questions for the study of imperial politics, cultural history, and archaeology. The project will address these issues via a digital commentary.

The project will discuss and weigh the literary qualities and composition of the text, the literary tradition it draws on, and its aims. It will also consider the historical and cultural context by referencing contemporary texts (e.g. Malalas, Agathias, Paul the Silentiary) in order to generate a new understanding of the text as a whole and interpret it in detail.
In addition to literary studies, the second core aim of our project will be cultural-historical with the presentation of regions, functions of individual buildings, as well as the processes of construction, both from an organizational and economic point of view (such as material and labour, additional costs, transport and infrastructure), and building regulations.
In light of the ongoing archaeological research in the regions covered by the Buildings, there is a need to bring together text and material culture critically. As valuable as the Buildings might be to archaeologists, it is as interesting and important to address the omissions and errors found in the text, in light of a constant supply of new data. An archaeological commentary will present the most up-to-date information available regarding sites mentioned in the text, as well as discussions of those edifices that can be archaeologically dated to Justinian’s time and yet are missing in Procopius’s text.

The project results will have widespread impact on scholarly trends for philologists, archaeologists and historians alike, in particular regarding the credibility of the Buildings as a historical and archaeological source, and the commentary aims at a sound re-evaluation of the text as a literary composition.

Outreach and Output

The project will produce a digital commentary, which will also function as a searchable database based on TEI-XML using the GIS reference system as well as bibliographical entries supported by Zotero. It is structured using the Greek text of the long recension, but the short recension appears alongside it for facilitating comparison between the two texts.

The project also hosted its first symposium in February 2020 on aesthetics and imagery of late antique urban spaces. A second one will take place at a later date and will focus on the state of the art in archaeology of the sixth century. We intend to publish some of the conference papers in a series of thematically structured volumes. A monograph containing a new English translation and extensive commentary of Book I is underway.



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