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The Sigillaria in Byzantium

By Tim Hazell

The Sigillaria on December 19, part of the Roman festival of Saturnalia, was a day of gift-giving. Pottery or wax figurines called sigillaria were manufactured especially for the occasion. Caesar Augustus was particularly fond of “gag gifts.” Children received toys. Poems about Sigillaria mention writing tablets, dice, knucklebones, moneyboxes, combs, toothpicks, hats, hunting knives, oil lamps, balls, perfumes, pipes, pigs, sausages, and parrots. For Roman citizens—slaves and masters alike—this predecessor of Christmas was a beloved holiday.

Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire (modern day Istanbul), was built upon seven hills spanning the harbor of the Golden Horn and Sea of Marmara, making it an impregnable fortress. Considered the largest city in the world after the fall of Rome, the metropolis dominated the land route from Europe to Asia and was resplendent with magnificent palaces, domes, and arcaded avenues.

Built by Roman Emperor Constantine I in 324 and inaugurated in 330 on the site of the already-existing city of Byzantium, a settlement dating from the early days of Greek colonial expansion (671–662 BC), Constantinople would become the economic and cultural hub of the east, a melting pot for Greek classics and Christian ethics.

The city was famed for its architectural masterpieces, such as the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Emperor Justinian commissioned Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus to replace the previous structure, which had burned down in a fire. The great cathedral of the Greek Orthodox Church, whose dome cost 20,000 pounds of gold to build, was directly connected to the palace so that the imperial family could attend services without passing through the streets. Its dedication took place on December 26, 537, in the presence of the emperor, who exclaimed, “O Solomon, I have outdone thee!” The Hagia Sophia was staffed by 600 people, including 80 priests.

Constantinople’s cuisine brought together Greek and Roman gastronomic ideas. Expansion and trade introduced spices and exotic commodities to teeming markets. Cooks experimented with innovative techniques. Roman garos—fermented fish sauce in all its varieties—was especially favored as a condiment along with umami, a fermented barley sauce similar to modern soy sauce. Enjoy these authentic Byzantine meatballs as savory holiday appetizers!




1 lb. ground beef

1 medium onion, grated

1 clove garlic, crushed

1 egg, beaten lightly

2 slices of bread, crusts removed, soaked in water and squeezed dry

3 tbsp. minced parsley

2 sprigs minced fresh mint

1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 tbsp. red wine

2-3 tbsp. water, if necessary


1 cup of barley, powdered in the blender (cebada perla from Bonanza)

Olive oil for a frying depth of 1/2 inch


Mix together all ingredients except barley and olive oil and refrigerate for an hour. Pinch off small pieces the size of walnuts, form into balls, and dredge in the barley flour. Heat the oil to a smoking point and fry the meatballs until crisp, turning constantly. Remove and drain on absorbent paper.

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