Steelyard sets guaranteed propriety and accuracy in commercial transactions. Merchants, consumers, and officials could weigh a load by hanging it, by means of the collar, from the lower (larger) hook on the rod. The rod was in turn suspended from a fixed fulcrum by the upper (smaller) hook. The user would then slide the counterpoise weight back and forth along the long, calibrated part of the rod, until the rig balanced. The mark at the resting point of the counterpoise would indicate the weight of the load.
Byzantine counterpoise weights in the form of empresses far outnumber those in the form of emperors. They are generic busts, rather than identifiable portraits, with their imperial dignity suggested by a diadem, a jeweled necklace, and a scroll or mappa (the towel used to signal the beginning of races) in the left hand. The predominance of empresses in this context is intriguing. Ruler portraits on coins and weights served to exert imperial authority over transactions. How are we to understand, then, the leading role of empress weights in Byzantium, which, like all patriarchal societies, restricted the power of women? In general, a woman derived her status from her husband or father, not herself, a principle that was enshrined, for example, in marriage laws. Hence, in other media, empresses were usually represented in relation to the emperor. One way of understanding the empress’s paradoxical appearance in this official role is to recognize these busts as representing real empresses on one level, and personifications of relevant values such as good fortune or possession on another level. According to this notion, the Byzantine empress weight may have been an attractive Christian alternative to the goddesses and personifications that were more common on ancient Greek and Roman counterpoise weights.
The Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection of Harvard University, Handbook of the Collection (Washington, D.C., 1946), 44, no. 85.
The Dumbarton Oaks Collection, Harvard University (Washington, D.C., 1955), 43, no. 101.
M. C. Ross, Metalwork, Ceramics, Glass, Glyptics, Painting, Catalogue of the Byzantine and Early Mediaeval Antiquities in the Dumbarton Oaks Collection 1 (Washington, D.C., 1962), 61, no. 71, pl. 45.
Handbook of the Byzantine Collection (Washington, D.C., 1967), 37, no. 133.
A. L. McClanan, Representations of Early Byzantine Empresses: Image and Empire, The New Middle Ages (New York, 2002).
A. Kirin, J. N. Carder, and R. S. Nelson, Sacred Art, Secular Context : Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, ed. A. Kirin, exhibition catalogue, Georgia Museum of Art, (Athens, Ga., 2005), 107-108, no. 48.
G. Bühl, ed., Dumbarton Oaks: The Collections (Washington, D.C., 2008), 60, pl. p. 61.
Athens, GA, Georgia Museum of Art, “Sacred Art, Secular Context: Objects of Art from the Byzantine Collection of Dumbarton Oaks, Washington, D.C., Accompanied by American Paintings from the Collection of Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss,” May 15 – Nov. 6, 2005.
Purchased from Joseph Brummer (dealer) by Mildred and Robert Woods Bliss, Mar. 26, 1940;
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Woods Bliss, Washington, DC, March-November, 1940;
Dumbarton Oaks Research Library and Collection, Byzantine Collection, Washington, DC.