The Rise of Justinian


Ruling as we do over our Empire, which God has entrusted to us, by His divine authority, we know both the triumphs of war and the adornments of peace; we bear up the framework of the State; and we so lift up our hearts in contemplation of the support given to us by the Lord Omnipotent that we put not our trust in our own arms, nor in those of our soldiers, nor in our leaders in war, nor in our own skill; rather do we rest our hopes in the providence of the Supreme Trinity, from whence proceeded the elements of the whole universe and their disposition throughout the world.

Justinian, in his Introduction to the Digest

In the spring of 491, while Theodoric the Ostrogoth was busy blockading Odoacer the Scyrian in Ravenna, the Emperor Zeno died in Constantinople. The last three years of his reign had been the best, at least where the security of the state was concerned: the insurrection of Illus and his friends was over and its ringleaders eliminated; yet more important, the Empire - or, at least, that part of it still controlled from the capital - was, since the departure of Theodoric, finally free of the Goths. The only major problem that Zeno had failed to solve was the religious one: despite the decisions of Chalcedon, the monophysite heresy continued to gain ground - especially in the eastern provinces, which were becoming dangerously disaffected as a result. An attempt, made in 482 by the Emperor together with Patriarch Acacius, to heal the breach by means of a circular letter known as theHenoticon, had proved spectacularly unsuccessful. It had sought to paper over the differences by affirming that Christ was both God and man, while avoiding the delicate word 'nature' altogether; and, like all such compromises, it had aroused the implacable hostility of both sides. Most outraged of all were Pope Simplicius in Rome and his successor Felix III, whose anger was still further increased by the appointment to the Patriarchate of Alexandria, with the blessing of both Zeno and Acacius, of one Paul the Stammerer, a cleric whose utterances, when comprehensible at all, were violently monophysite in character. At a synod held in Rome in 484, Pope Felix had gone so far as to excommunicate the Patriarch of Constantinople1 - a sentence which, in default of any orthodox ecclesiastic courageous enough to pronounce it, had been transcribed on to a piece of parchment and pinned to the back of Acacius's cope during a service in St Sophia, when he was not looking, whereat the Patriarch, discovering it a few moments later, instantly excommunicated him back, thereby not only placing the see of Constantinople on the same hierarchical level as that of Rome but simultaneously confirming an open schism between the two churches that was to last for the next thirty-five years.

By the end of the decade the Emperor was obviously declining, both physically and mentally. His son, also called Zeno, had fallen into bad company at an early age and had died soon afterwards, worn out, it was said, by homosexual excesses and venereal disease. His expected successor was therefore his reprobate brother Longinus, whose star had steadily risen as that of his enemy Illus had declined and who by 490 — when he was appointed Consul for the second time - was in effective control of the State. Zeno, however, became obsessed by the prophecy of a well-known soothsayer, who had foretold that his place would be taken not by Longinus but by 'one who had served as silentiary'. Now the silentiaries were a corps of picked officials who made up the Emperor's personal entourage. Their name derived from their special duty of watching outside his private apartments and ensuring that his rest was not disturbed; in fact, however, they were considerably more distinguished than this particular function implies. Men of high culture and education, they ranked with senators and were employed on various important and confidential services, including the writing of court history. Their number was fixed at thirty, but to Zeno's senile mind the prophecy could refer to only one: a former member of the corps named Pelagius, now an eminent statesman and Patrician. The unfortunate man was given no opportunity to prepare his defence. His property was confiscated without ceremony; he himself was arrested and, shortly afterwards, strangled.

Pelagius had been popular and universally respected; Zeno was neither. In his youth he had been renowned as an athlete - the Anonymus

1 Something of an irony, since Felix was - as far as we can tell - the first Pope to have formally announced his election to the Emperor.

Valesii rather surprisingly attributes his fleetness of foot to the fact that he was born without kneecaps - but in all other fields he had been a failure. Even if he was not altogether to blame for the almost constant insurrections during his reign, these were inevitably seen as a reflection of his lack of ability; and the loss of the Western Empire put another indelible - if largely undeserved - stain on his reputation. By his senseless murder of Pelagius, Zeno sacrificed what little of his subjects' affection he had ever enjoyed; and there were few lamentations when, on 9 April 491, he died of a fit of epilepsy. The crowds are said to have greeted the appearance of the widowed Ariadne with the cry, 'Give the Empire an orthodox Emperor! Give the Empire a Roman Emperor!' Their meaning was clear: no more heretics on the one hand and no more Isaurians on the other. Longinus was passed over, and the soothsayer's prediction was proved correct: the choice fell on another former silentiary, Flavius Anastasius - owing in large measure to the influence of Ariadne, who married him some six weeks later. A native of Dyrrachium1 and now in his early sixties, he had one blue eye and one black one - a peculiarity which, we are told, in no way detracted from his outstandingly handsome appearance, nor from his reputation for uprightness and integrity. 'Reign, Anastasius!' the people shouted when, on 11 April, he first appeared before them in the imperial purple. 'Reign as you have lived!'

Anastasius did so; and if his subjects found life under their new Emperor during the first years of his reign more irksome than they had expected, they had only themselves to blame. He was intelligent and highly cultivated, given neither to those outbursts of cruelty nor to those sudden fits of ungovernable rage that had characterized so many of his predecessors. His chief defect was an almost pathological parsimoniousness - a failing which, combined as it was with a strong puritanical streak, made Constantinople a duller place to live in than its inhabitants could ever remember. Contests with wild beasts were forbidden throughout the Empire; and such was the general tightening-up of public morals that the citizens were no longer permitted to hold nocturnal feasts, on the grounds that they led to unbridled licentiousness - which, it must be said, they very often did. Meanwhile the Emperor launched a simultaneous campaign against unnecessary public expenditure, with the result that at the end of his twenty-seven-year reign he left the imperial treasury richer by 320,000 pounds of gold than it had been on his

1 Later known as Durazzo and now the Albanian port of Dimes, Dyrrachium marked the western end of the Via Egnatia.

accession1 - an achievement all the more remarkable in that he is also known to have abolished the so-called cbrysargyron, a tax on receipts which fell particularly heavily on the poor and was among the most unpopular of all the imperial levies.

In his religious policy, Anastasius was somewhat less successful. A man of devout Christian piety even by the standards of the time, he had been in the habit during the previous reign of holding regular theological seminars in St Sophia and preaching in churches throughout the capital, despite the fact that as a layman he was technically unlicensed to do so; he had even at one moment been put on a short list of three candidates for the vacant bishopric of Antioch. Later, however, he had gradually moved towards monophysitism, to the point where Patriarch Euphemius was obliged to bar him from the pulpits and, after his accession, to refuse him coronation until he had signed a written declaration of orthodoxy.

Anastasius signed without hesitation. He was the least cynical of men, and it seems certain that up to that time he believed, rightly or wrongly, that he stood firmly in the Chalcedonian camp. But there were others less convinced, who were quick to ascribe his action to an eye for the main chance and a readiness to sacrifice his principles on the altar of political expediency. Such men could be trusted, too, to exaggerate any signs he might have given of monophysite tendencies, seeing in them a perfect weapon to be used against him. They represented essentially the Isaurian faction, and were led by Zeno's disaffected brother Longinus, who had never forgiven Anastasius for occupying a throne which he believed to be rightfully his. Before long he had gathered around him an unsavoury mob of troublemakers and hooligans, largely but by no means exclusively Isaurian; and the outbreaks of street fighting that ensued led to fires in which several more of the city's finest buildings, including much of the Hippodrome, were destroyed or damaged.

The Emperor fought back. In 492 Longinus himself was arrested and exiled to Alexandria, where he was forced to enter the priesthood; but strife in the city continued and soon escalated into full-scale civil war. The following year saw still more serious disturbances, during which the imperial statues were toppled over and dragged through the streets; only with great difficulty was order restored, after which an edict was published banishing all Isaurians from the capital including Lalis, the old mother of Zeno, and the rest of his family, all of whose property - even

1 It is never really possible to calculate the precise modern equivalents of such sums; but this figure, given by Procopius (Antedota, xix, 7) compares interestingly with the 130,000 pounds which he mentions as the cost of Leo I's ill-fated African expedition in 468.

his former robes of state - was confiscated and sold. Now at last the capital was quiet; but in Anatolia the war continued for three more years. Only in 496 did peace finally return.

But the Isaurians, insufferable as they were, cannot take all the blame for the continuing unrest in Constantinople. Another major contributory cause was the division of the populace into two rival factions, the Blues and the Greens. Their names came originally from the Hippodrome, where they referred to the colours worn by the two principal teams of charioteers;1 but the factions themselves had long since left the narrow confines of the arena. Their leaders were by now appointed by the government, who also entrusted them with important public responsibilities, including guard duties and the maintenance of the defensive walls. Thus, not only in the capital but in all the main cities of the Empire, they existed as two independent semi-political parties which combined on occasion to form a local militia. Their political affiliations naturally varied according to local conditions and the issues of the day; at this period, however, the Blues tended to be the party of the big landowners and the old Graeco-Roman aristocracy, while the Greens represented trade, industry and the civil service. Many members of this last group came from the eastern provinces, where heresy was more widespread; thus the Blues had gradually come to be associated with religious orthodoxy, the Greens with monophysitism. But these were loose associations only, with exceptions on both sides, while the populace as a whole gave its adherence, indiscriminately though enthusiastically, to one faction or the other. Anastasius himself at first tried to maintain impartiality, and in 493 was actually pelted with stones by a group of Greens after refusing to release certain of their number who had been arrested after an affray; soon, however, his economic policies - which favoured the manufacturing industries - and his instinctive if only semiconscious tendency towards the monophysites drew him to the Greens, of whom he was finally to become an open adherent.

Hostility between the two demes (as they were called) increased steadily as his reign continued, and the riots of 493 were seen to have been only the beginning of a new wave of internecine strife in the capital. Still worse troubles occurred in 501 during the festival of the Brytae, when the Greens attacked the Blues in the Hippodrome; among those killed was the Emperor's own illegitimate son. (It was because of this that the

1 Originally there had been four teams, but by this time the Reds and the Whites had been assimilated into the other two.

celebration was banned the following year.) Worst of all, however, were the disturbances of 511, for which Anastasius himself was very largely to blame, and which came dangerously near to toppling his throne. With advancing age - he was now in his eighties - his monophysite sympathies had become more and more pronounced and were now plain for all to see. Patriarch Euphemius was no longer in a position to protest: he had been accused - with what justice we cannot tell - of having given secret support to the Isaurians, and had been banished to a distant region of Anatolia. His successor Macedonius was the gentlest and mildest-mannered of men, but he too was beginning to find dealings with his sovereign impossible.

By now the monophysites had found themselves a war-cry. After the so-called trisagion - the words 'Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy and Immortal' which occur as a constant refrain in the Byzantine liturgy -they added the phrase 'who was crucified for us', seeing this as the most emphatic statement that could be made of their belief that it was not the man Jesus but God Almighty himself who met his death upon the Cross. In the atmosphere of Anastasius's Constantinople these were fighting words, and tempers ran high when the news spread through the city that they had been heard in the Chapel of the Archangel, which stood within the walls of the imperial palace. But worse was to come: on the Sunday following they were heard again, defiantly shouted during the morning mass in St Sophia itself. The orthodox congregation shouted back, louder still; fighting broke out; and the service ended in uproar.

At the subsequent inquiry, the examining magistrates - possibly acting on the Emperor's instructions - laid the blame not on the monophysite intruders but squarely on the shoulders of the harmless old Patriarch Macedonius. For the people of Constantinople, the vast majority of whom staunchly supported the decrees of Chalcedon, this transparently unfair attack on their beloved Patriarch was the last straw. They marched threateningly on the Palace, and there is no telling what might have ensued had not Macedonius responded to Anastasius's terrified appeal and hurried to his side. Some sort of reconciliation was hastily patched up, and the crowd dispersed.

It was a narrow escape, and should have been a salutary lesson; but the Emperor was now too old to change his ways. Macedonius - to whom he probably owed his life - was quietly exiled like his predecessor, and on 4 November 512 the fateful clause 'who was crucified for us' once again echoed through the great basilica. On this occasion the violence was far worse; by the time order had been restored the floor was covered in the blood of the dead and the wounded. A similar incident the next day at the Church of St Theodore resulted in further casualties; but on the 6th the orthodox mob was ready. At a huge rally in the Hippodrome they called death and destruction on all heretics, then poured out into the city to make good their words. Again the imperial statues were hurled to the ground and smashed; among the many houses burned to the ground were those of the Praetorian Prefect and the Emperor's nephew Pompeius. The rioting continued for another two full days; then at last Anastasius acted. Presenting himself in the Circus before some 20,000 of his furious subjects, he slowly removed his diadem and laid aside the imperial purple. He was ready there and then, he told them, to lay down the burden of the Empire; all that was necessary was that they should name his successor. Alternatively, if they preferred, he would continue in office, giving them his word that he would never again give them cause for dissatisfaction. The tall, white-haired figure was still handsome, the voice firm and persuasive. Gradually, the clamour ceased; once more, the situation had been saved.

There were plenty of other threats to the peace during the long reign of Anastasius. A three-year war with Persia resulted in the loss of several important strongholds along the eastern frontier, while repeated invasions by the Bulgars into Thrace obliged him to build a defensive wall across the thirty-odd miles from Selymbria (now Silivri) on the Marmara across to the Black Sea. Most dangerous of all was an insurrection led by a military adventurer of Gothic origins named Vitalian, who gained much popular support by claiming to be a champion of orthodoxy against a monophysite Emperor and who on three occasions advanced with his army to the very walls of Constantinople. None of these threats, however, had important long-term effects. It has seemed worth describing the religious riots in considerably greater detail than any of these simply to emphasize once again that aspect of daily life in the Byzantine Empire which it is hardest for the twentieth century to comprehend: the passionate involvement shown by all classes of society in what appear to most of us today to be impossibly abstruse niceties of theological doctrine. That such points should preoccupy deeply devout and scholarly men like Anastasius need occasion no particular surprise; that a plebeian mob should be inflamed to fury not by political slogans but by such questions as the relation of the Father to the Son or the Procession of the Holy Ghost puts a greater strain on our understanding, but is true none the less.

Some time towards the end of his reign, old Anastasius was consumed with curiosity to know which of his three nephews would succeed him on his death. Superstitious as always, he invited all three of them to dine with him in the Palace, and had three couches prepared on which they could afterwards take their rest. Under the pillow of one of these he slipped a small piece of parchment, on which he had inscribed the single word R EG N U M; whichever nephew chose that particular couch would, he believed, in due course assume the throne. Alas, a sad surprise awaited him: two of the young men, whose affection for each other seems to have gone somewhat beyond family feeling, chose to share the same couch; that which Anastasius had secretly marked remained unrumpled. From that moment he had no doubt that the next Emperor would come from outside his own line; but he still longed to know who it would be. After fervent prayers for a sign, it was revealed to him that his successor would be the man who first entered his bed-chamber the next day. Now the Emperor's first visitor was normally his personal chamberlain; that particular morning, however, it chanced to be Justin, Commander of the Excubitors, come to report the carrying-out of certain imperial orders. Anastasius bowed his head. It was, he knew, the will of God.

So runs the legend; and we may well imagine the old man reflecting, not perhaps for the first time, that the Almighty moves in a mysterious way. Justin was a Thracian peasant, now aged about sixty-six, uneducated and illiterate. Like Theodoric, he is said to have possessed a stencil -though of wood rather than gold - into which was cut the word LEGI, 'I have read it'; since only he had the right to use purple ink, his actual signature was unnecessary. Even then, according to Procopius,1 the Emperor's hand had to be firmly guided across the page. The same source tells us how he and his two brothers had walked to Constantinople from their home at Bederiana - a village some sixty miles south of Naissus (Nis in present-day Yugoslavia) - 'with their cloaks slung over their shoulders .. . and when they reached the city they had nothing more than the cooked biscuit that they had brought with them from home'. His wife, Lupicina, had even humbler origins; she was a slave, and had already been the concubine of the man from whom Justin had bought her.

Despite, therefore, his signal service during the war in Isauria and his undoubted military capabilities, the new ruler was scarcely of imperial calibre. Procopius even goes so far as to compare him to a donkey, 'inclined to follow the man who pulls the rein, wagging his ears steadily the while'; but this is surely an exaggeration. Justin had, after all, risen from being a simple soldier to Comes Excubitorum, commander of one of

1 For this and the following references, see Secrett History, vi-viii.

the crack palace regiments. He certainly seems to have possessed plenty of self-confidence and ambition, and not a little peasant cunning. According to another report, when Anastasius finally expired, at the age of eighty-seven, on the night of 9 July 518, the chief eunuch Amantius had his own candidate for the purple and confided his plans to Justin, supplying him with a considerable quantity of gold with which to bribe the soldiers. Justin, however, kept the money for himself and alerted his men to stand by their arms. The next morning, as the people poured into the Hippodrome and the Senate debated the succession behind closed doors, fighting broke out. The Excubitors were brought in to restore order, and of their own accord began to call for their Comes as the next Emperor. He first refused; but when the Senate, taking as usual the line of least resistance, joined their voice to that of the soldiers, he allowed himself to be persuaded.

A report that the regiment then formed a protective screen around its commander, drawing back to reveal him in full imperial regalia, suggests that despite appearances to the contrary Justin was not entirely unprepared for his elevation; even so, one may still wonder how it came about that so rough and unsophisticated a man should have obtained the support he did. First of all, he was uncompromisingly orthodox, standing four-square against the Anastasian party with its monophysite leanings and openly championing the Blues against the by now highly unpopular Greens. Second, he was well-liked and respected by the army and could be trusted to deal firmly with any renewed attempts at insurrection by Vitalian, who was still at liberty in Thrace. But his greatest advantage was his nephew, the real power behind his throne, the eminence grise who guided him more infallibly than any of those secretaries who steered his faltering pen across the wooden stencil. It was this nephew who, quite probably, engineered his uncle's elevation to the purple; it was he who dealt with Vitalian in typically Byzantine fashion, inviting him to Constantinople, lulling his suspicions by awarding him the Consulate and the rank of magister militum and then having him quietly assassinated; it was he who carried through the reconciliation with the Papacy after a thirty-five-year schism; and it was he who celebrated his own Consulship in 521 with the most lavish games and public spectacles in the Hippodrome that Constantinople had ever seen. No less than twenty lions, thirty panthers and an unspecified number of other exotic beasts were fought and killed - so much for Anastasius's reforms - in the vast circus; the equivalent of 3,700 pounds of gold was spent on decorations, stage machinery and largesse to the people; and the chariot races were of such superlative quality and aroused such excitement that the final contest had to be cancelled for fear of serious public disturbances. The contrast with the austere, penny-pinching days of the previous reign was dramatic, the message clear: the Empire stood on the threshold of a new and glorious age - an age in which, under a once-more benevolent God represented by a noble and dazzling Emperor, it would regain its lost territories and recapture its past greatness.

But the symbol of that age, and the identity of that Emperor, was not Justin; it was his nephew Justinian.

Justinian was born in 482, in a little village called Tauresina, not far from the birthplace of his uncle. His first language, like Justin's, was almost certainly Thracian, which was to become extinct a few hundred years later; but that whole region of the Balkan peninsula had long been thoroughly Romanized and the boy was probably bilingual in Latin at an early age. We do not know how or when he came to Constantinople. It was almost certainly at Justin's behest, when he was still a child: he was later known as a man of wide education and culture, of a kind that he could not possibly have acquired anywhere outside the capital. His schooling completed, his uncle must have arranged a military commission for him; for we find him as an officer in the Scholae, one of the palace regiments, at the time of Anastasius's death. By now, too, it seems that Justin had formally adopted him as a son, on which occasion he had abandoned his original name of Petrus Sabbatius and had assumed, as a mark of gratitude and respect to his benefactor, the name by which he is known to history.

But all this is little more than speculation. It is only from 518 onwards that we have firm historical evidence for Justinian's extraordinary career. One of his uncle's first actions on assuming the purple was to raise him to the rank of Patrician and appoint him Count of the Domestics, a position which gave him access to the innermost circles of power; and it was from this moment, that his effective domination began. Even if Justin did not owe his elevation to his nephew, he immediately showed himself willing to be guided by him in all things, and for the rest of his life thereafter - apart from a few months in 524-5 when Justinian was gravely ill - was content to be his mouthpiece and his puppet.

To Justinian, then, belongs the credit for what was incontestably the most important achievement of his uncle's reign: the healing of the breach with Rome, which had begun with the pinning of the sentence of excommunication on to the robes of Patriarch Acacius in 484. That breach was, in his eyes, an affront to the essential unity that lay at the heart of his entire political philosophy: as there was one God, so there must be one Empire, and one Church. Justin had not been on the throne a month before he wrote (at his nephew's dictation) to Pope Hormisdas, informing him of his accession - an honour, he somewhat disingenuously added, which he had been most unwilling to accept. The Pope replied, equally cordially; further exchanges followed; and on 25 March 519 a papal embassy arrived at Constantinople, having been met at the tenth milestone by a reception committee headed by Justinian himself. Two days later, in St Sophia, Patriarch John declared the Churches of the Old Rome and the New to be one and indivisible, and solemnly read a sentence of anathema on a whole string of heretics, including Timothy the Weasel, Paul the Stammerer and his own predecessor Acacius, 'formerly Bishop of Constantinople, who made himself accomplice and follower of these heretics, together with all who persevered in their fellowship and communion'. Finally the names of Zeno and Anastasius, together with those of the Patriarchs Euphemius and Macedonius - who had never veered from the orthodox path and had indeed suffered exile for their beliefs - were ceremonially struck from the diptychs.1 The schism was at an end. The cost, from the Byzantine point of view, had been an almost unconditional surrender, involving the sacrifice of two innocent reputations; but to Justinian it was a small enough price to pay for a reunited Church.

Only a year or two after this - the date is uncertain, but it must have been soon after 520 - there came the second great turning-point in Justinian's life: his meeting with his future Empress. Theodora was not, to put it mildly, an ideal match. Her father had been a bear-keeper employed by the Greens at the Hippodrome, her mother some kind of circus performer, probably an acrobat; and these antecedents alone were more than enough to debar her from polite society. But they were not all. While still a child she had joined her elder sister on the stage, playing in low knockabout comedy, farce and burlesque. Already attractive and vivacious, she was also an inspired mimic; thus she soon acquired an enthusiastic following and before long had graduated to being Constantinople's most notorious courtesan - though we may doubt whether, even in her most abandoned moments, she altogether deserved the description of her by Procopius, surely one of the most outspoken pieces

1 These carried the lists of the orthodox faithful whose names were regularly remembered bv the early Church during the celebration of the Eucharist.

of vilification ever directed against a queen or empress in all history:

Now for a time Theodora was still too immature to sleep with a man or to have intercourse like a woman, but she acted as might a male prostitute to satisfy those dregs of humanity, slaves though they were, who followed their master to the theatre and there took the opportunity to indulge in such bestial practices; and she remained some considerable time in a brothel, given over to such unnatural traffic of the body . . . But as soon as she reached maturity she joined the women of the stage and became a harlot, of the kind that our ancestors used to call 'the infantry' . . . The wench had not an ounce of modesty, nor did any man ever see her embarrassed: on the contrary, she unhesitatingly complied with the most shameless demands . . . and she would throw off her clothes and expose to all comers those parts, both in front and behind, which should rightly remain hidden from men's eyes.

Never was any woman so completely abandoned to pleasure. Many a time she would attend a banquet with ten young men or more, all with a passion for fornication and at the peak of their powers, and would lie with all her companions the whole night long; and when she had reduced them all to exhaustion she would go to their attendants - sometimes as many as thirty of them - and copulate with each in turn; and even then she could not satisfy her lust.

And although she made use of three apertures in her body, she was wont to complain that Nature had not provided her with larger openings in her nipples, so that she might have contrived another form of intercourse there. And though she became repeatedly pregnant, yet by various devices she was almost always able to induce an immediate abortion.

Often in the theatre, too, in full view of all the people . . . she would spread herself out and lie on her back on the ground. And certain slaves whose special task it was would sprinkle grains of barley over her private parts; and geese trained for the purpose would pick them off one by one with their beaks and swallow them. And when she rose again to her feet, so far from blushing she actually seemed to take pride in this performance.1

So it goes on, the sanctimonious old hypocrite clearly relishing every word he writes. Clearly too, his account is to be taken with more than a pinch of salt. Procopius loathed both Theodora and her husband, and this is not the only passage in his scurrilous Secret History in which he sets out to destroy the reputation of one or the other. There is no suggestion that he ever witnessed Theodora in action; thus his authority can only be the gossip of the market place, and that, we may be sure, lost nothing in the telling. All the same, such billowing black smoke must presumably issue from some sort of a fire; and there can be little doubt that Theodora was, as our grandparents might have put it, no better

1 .Secret History, ix, 10-12.

than she should have been. Whether she was more depraved than others of her sort is open to question.

In any case she soon began to look around for better things, and so became the mistress of a moderately distinguished civil servant, whom she accompanied to North Africa. Once there, the two had a violent quarrel. Theodora was dismissed and, still according to Procopius, worked her passage home in the only way she knew. At some stage on her return journey, however, she found herself in Alexandria; and it has been suggested that while there she came into contact with the leading churchmen of the city - something which would go a long way towards explaining the pronounced monophysite tendencies which she was to display in later life. She may even have undergone some sort of religious experience, for she certainly seems to have been a changed woman by the time she returned to Constantinople.

One characteristic that remained constant, however, was her strong attachment to the Blue party and her hatred for the Greens. The story is told of how, after her father's death when she was six years old, her mother at once remarried in the hopes that her new husband would succeed to his predecessor's job as the Greens' bear-keeper. But she was disappointed: the post had been given to another applicant. Threatened with destitution, she appeared one day in the Circus, her three little girls accompanying her with garlands in their hair, and appealed to the assembled populace. The Greens, who might have been thought to have some moral obligation to the widow of their old employee, ignored her; but the Blues - more probably out of a desire to show their rivals in a bad light than from any genuine sympathy - took pity on her and found employment for her husband. From that moment on, Theodora's loyalties were fixed; for the rest of her life she never wavered.

Justinian too favoured the Blues, and before his succession spent much time and energy in securing their support. It was probably while doing so that he first met Theodora. She was by now in her middle thirties, as beautiful and intelligent as ever, and with all the wisdom and maturity that had been so noticeably absent in earlier years. He was at once captivated and, within a short time, enslaved. He made her his mistress and fathered a child who died in infancy, but this was not enough: despite her background, he was determined that she should be his wife. Inevitably, there were obstacles. One was a law which specifically forbade the marriage of senators and others of high rank to actresses; another, far more serious, was the implacable opposition of the Empress. On her husband's accession she had abandoned the name of Lupicina in favour of the nobler - if less original - Euphemia; but she was still essentially the peasant she had always been and, having finally found in her immediate entourage someone of still baser extraction than herself, she was determined to do her down in any way she could. While Euphemia lived the marriage was impossible, even for Justinian; but in 524, fortunately for him, she died. The old Emperor made no difficulties; he never attempted to stand against his nephew. Within weeks he had given his approval to a law permitting retired actresses on whom high dignity had been conferred to marry anyone they liked. The way was now clear, and in 525 the Patriarch in St Sophia declared Justinian and Theodora man and wife. Only two years later, on 4 April 527, they were crowned co-Emperor and Empress, and when on 1 August old Justin finally succumbed to the cancer from which he had long been suffering, they found themselves the sole and supreme rulers of the Byzantine Empire.

The plural is important. Theodora was to be no Empress Consort, spending her life quietly with her attendant ladies in the gynaeceum and appearing with her husband only at the most solemn ceremonies. At Justinian's insistence, she was to reign at his side, taking decisions and acting upon them in his name, giving him the benefit of her counsel in all the highest affairs of state. She had come a long way in five years; her future appearances on the public stage were to be very different from those of the past.

What the people of Constantinople thought of Justinian's marriage to Theodora is not recorded. If Procopius's account of her early life has any truth in it at all, there must have been many who saw it as a disgrace to the Empire. One suspects, none the less, that there were others prepared to adopt a less censorious attitude. Justinian had never acquired the common touch: he had always seemed somehow remote from his future subjects, chilly and withdrawn. Here at last was a sign that he was human, just like anyone else.

But to be human is not necessarily to be popular. However splendid the games in the Circus, however open-handed the largesse scattered to the crowds celebrating his second Consulship in the year following his accession, however generous the financial aid made available to cities stricken by earthquakes - there were nearly 5,000 casualties at Antioch in 528, and half as many again at Laodicea in 529 - Justinian was never loved. His extravagances were all very fine, but they all had to be paid for. So did the war with Persia, which began when he had been only a few months on the throne and smouldered fitfully on till after the death of King Kavadh in 5 31; so did the 'Everlasting Peace' with which it ended, signed with Kavadh's successor Chosroes in September 532, which provided for the payment by the Empire of an annual tribute - though it was never so described - of 11,000 pounds' weight of gold a year. So too did the monumental construction programme, which Justinian had begun in his uncle's reign with the great church dedicated to Mary the Mother of God at Blachernae, where the Walls of Theodosius ran down to the Golden Horn, and which he had continued with the rebuilding of no less than seven others - many of them originally founded by Constantine - commemorating early Christian martyrs who had met their deaths in and around Byzantium. This alone would have been an impressive achievement; but it proved to be only the beginning. In the first days after his succession he continued with a foundation of his own, erected in grateful memory of two more martyrs, St Sergius and St Bacchus - a church which, by the originality of its architecture and the sumptuousness of its carved decoration, ranks in Constantinople second only to St Sophia itself.1

For all these purposes and many others, the necessary funds could be raised - and indeed were - by a tightening-up and general streamlining of the system of tax collection. But such measures are never welcomed by those called upon to pay, and the widespread popular discontent was still further increased by the official appointed by the Emperor to put them into effect. This was a certain John of Cappadocia. We know nothing about his background, except that he came from Caesarea in Asia Minor and that he had little formal education. He was rough and uncouth, utterly devoid of any social graces; but Justinian recognized a superb administrator when he saw one, and in 531 promoted him to be Praetorian Prefect. In this capacity he instituted stringent economies in the provisioning of the army, launched a determined campaign against corruption, introduced new taxes - John of Lydia, one of our most valuable sources for the period, lists twenty-six of them - which fell, perhaps for the first time, as much on the rich and powerful landowners as on the poor peasantry, and did much to centralize the government, dramatically reducing the power of the senior provincial officials. Most of these reforms were long overdue, and John certainly

1 This exquisite building, now a mosque known as Little St Sophia - Kcuk Ayasofya Camii - still survives below the southern end of the Hippodrome, just behind the Sea Walls. Its two patrons, Roman centurions converted to Christianity and subsequently martyred for their faith, had been particularly dear to Justinian since his youth, when he had been condemned to deaih after a plot against Anastasius and they, appearing to the Emperor in a dream, had obtained his release.

left the financial machinery of the Empire in very much better shape than he found it. Unfortunately, he combined with his industry and efficiency a degree of moral depravity that aroused universal contempt. Those whom he believed to possess hidden and undeclared riches he thought nothing of subjecting to imprisonment, flogging or even torture; he was, moreover, a glutton, drunkard and debauchee who, according to his Lydian namesake, not only drained the province of Lydia of all its wealth but 'left behind to the wretched inhabitants of the country not a single vessel of any kind; neither was there any wife, any virgin, or any vouth free of defilement'.1 His activities in these fields are unlikely to have been confined to a single province, and it is small wonder that by the beginning of 532 John was the most hated man in the Empire.

One other official, however, ran him close; and that was the jurist Tribonian, who in 5 29 was appointed Quaestor of the Sacred Palace, the highest law officer in the government. John of Cappadocia, nightmarish as he may have been in other respects, was at least a Christian, and personally incorruptible; Tribonian, a Pamphylian from Side, was an unashamed pagan and venal to boot: Procopius remarks that 'he was always ready to sell justice for gain and every day, as a rule, he would repeal certain laws and propose others, according to the requirements of those who bought his services'.2 On the other hand - also unlike the Cappadocian - he was a man of quite irresistible charm, who astonished all with whom he came into contact by his immense erudition and the breadth of his learning. It must have been this last quality that appealed to Justinian; a considerable scholar himself, he had long contemplated an almost superhuman undertaking, and in Tribonian he found the one man capable of bringing it to fruition. This was a complete recodification of the Roman law. Such an attempt had already been made by Theodosius II in 438; but a century had passed since his day, and Justinian's plan was in any case far more ambitious: where his predecessor had contented himself with making a simple compilation of the imperial edicts, he aimed to produce an entirely new code, removing all repetitions and contradictions, ensuring that there was nothing incompatible with Christian teaching, substituting clarity and concision for confusion and chaos.

Under Tribonian's chairmanship and guided by his encyclopaedic

1.   Herodotus (writing admittedly nine centuries earlier) tells us that the Lydians had the unfortunate habit of prostituting their daughters before marriage - although, he adds, 'apart from that, their way of life is very like our own'. But the moeurs of the ladies of Lydia had presumably changed since his day.

2.   History of the Wars, 1, xxiv, i6.

knowledge, the special commission appointed by the Emperor pressed forward with almost unbelievable speed. On 8 April 529, less than fourteen months after work began, the new Codex was ready; and a week later it came into force, the supreme authority for every court in the Empire. A fuller edition, including Justinian's own laws, appeared five years later; already in 530, however, a second commission under Tribonian began another codification, this time of the principal writings of all the ancient Roman jurists. Known as the Digest - or sometimes as the Pandects - it was the first attempt ever made to bring these also into the framework of a methodical system. The commission was said to have 'condensed the wisdom of nearly two thousand treatises into fifty books, and recast three million "verses" from the older writers into 150,000': an astonishing achievement in only three years. Finally in 533 there appeared the Institutes, a handbook of extracts from the two main books designed for use in the imperial law schools. All these were written in Latin - still the language of law, but of very little else. The Empire had changed much since the days of Constantine; the Hellenization of his city was almost complete.

In comparison with the immense weight of Tribonian's contribution to the imperial law, the irregularities of his professional life seem insignificant enough - particularly when we make allowance for Procopius's inveterate tendency towards exaggeration. There is no doubt, however, that he and John of Cappadocia were together largely responsible for the growing disaffection that marked the first five years of Justinian's reign. Few memories rankle so much as those of lost lawsuits that should have been won; and to the voices of disappointed litigants we must also add those of men who had been deprived of their positions (whether sinecures or not) and of those who, as a result of the tax reforms, had found their various sharp practices exposed and stopped. The latter were naturally somewhat less vocal; but any reticence in this respect was more than made up for by yet another class of malcontents: the Blues and the Greens. Once Justinian felt himself secure on his throne, he found that he no longer needed Blue support and so embarked on a policy of repression directed against both parties indiscriminately, limiting their powers and privileges and curbing their excesses with harsh, at times even savage, punishments. Thus, when the two factions came to blows after the races in the Hippodrome on 10January 532, he did not hesitate to send in troops to restore order: and no less than seven of the ringleaders were condemned to death. Of these, five were executed without difficulty, but the remaining two were found to be still breathing when they were cut down. Rescued by a group of monks, they were hurried across the Bosphorus to sanctuary in the monastery of St Lawrence. There the City Prefect, Eudaimon, decided to starve them into submission and posted an armed guard outside the doors; meanwhile their followers demonstrated noisily, demanding that the two should be given their freedom.

The two men were, as it happened, a Blue and a Green; thus for the first time the two factions found themselves with a common cause. Three days later, as Justinian once again took his place in the Hippodrome and gave the signal for the games to begin, his appearance was greeted by uproar. At first it seemed nothing unusual, but then, suddenly, he realized that this demonstration was different to any he had witnessed before: the Greens and the Blues were united, and their clamour was directed not at each other but at him. 'Nika! Nika!' they cried, using the normal word of encouragement - 'Win! Win!' - by which they were accustomed to cheer on the charioteers. In the past, however, they had invariably followed it with the name of the team they supported, each side trying to shout down the other. Now, in menacing chorus, they chanted the single word alone, over and over again. Factional differences had been forgotten. The crowd was speaking with one voice; and that voice was not pleasant to hear.

The races began, but failed to reduce the tension and were soon abandoned. The mob poured out of the great circus, hell-bent on destruction. Their first objective was the palace of the City Prefect where, having forced an entrance by killing the guards who stood in their way, they released all the prisoners from the cells and set fire to the building. From there they passed on to the Praetorian Prefecture, then to the Senate House, the Baths of Zeuxippus and of Alexander, and even to the two great churches of St Irene and St Sophia, leaving a trail of flames behind them. By the end of the day all these buildings and countless others standing along the Mese had been reduced to smoking ruins.

Meanwhile new fires were constantly being started, and for five days and nights the smoke lay thick over the city. On the second day the mob, returning to the Hippodrome, called for the immediate dismissal of John of Cappadocia, Tribonian and the City Prefect Eudaimon - a demand which Justinian, by now seriously alarmed, granted at once. On the third, their fury still unassuaged, they began shouting for a new Emperor - one of Anastasius's nephews, a man named Probus; when they found that he had left the city they set fire to his house and went rampaging on. At last, on 18January, Justinian partly recovered his nerve and faced them in the Hippodrome, taking the entire blame for all the disturbances and promising a full amnesty if they all returned quietly to their homes. This tactic had been employed twenty years before by his predecessor with complete success; but the present situation was far more serious than anything that Anastasius had had to face. The few halfhearted cheers were soon drowned in catcalls, and the Emperor retreated hurriedly into the Palace.

By now the rioters had found a new favourite. Hypatius, another nephew of the former Emperor, could look back on a distinguished military career, having commanded Byzantine armies both in Persia and against the rebel Vitalian in Thrace. Now an old man, he had no imperial ambitions and had indeed done his best to hide when the mob began calling his name; but they somehow ran him to earth and carried him shoulder-high to the Hippodrome where, in default of a diadem, he was crowned with a gold necklet borrowed from a bystander and seated on the throne in the imperial box. Meanwhile, in the Palace behind, a desperate Justinian was conferring with his advisers. Already some days before, he had ordered preparations to be made for himself and his court to flee the capital at short notice if the need arose, and he now argued that that moment could no longer be delayed.

Suddenly, Theodora intervened. She did not care, she said, whether or not it was proper for a woman to give brave counsel to frightened men; in moments of extreme danger, conscience was the only guide. So far as she was concerned, the possibility of flight was not to be considered for a moment, even if it brought them safety. 'Every man', she continued,

who is born into the light of day must sooner or later die; and how could an Emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive? May I myself never willingly shed my imperial robes, nor see the day when I am no longer addressed by my title. If you, my Lord, wish to save your skin, you will have no difficulty in doing so. We are rich, there is the sea, there too are our ships. But consider first whether, when you reach safety, you will not regret that you did not choose death in preference. As for me, I stand by the ancient saying: the purple is the noblest winding-sheet.'

After that, there could be no question of departure; the crisis, it was agreed, must be resolved by force of arms. Fortunately, two of the Empire's best generals were present in the Palace. The first, Belisarius, was still in his twenties. A Romanized Thracian like Justinian, he had

1 Procopius, History of the Wars, I, xxiv, j $-7.

recently been recalled from the Persian front and had been promoted to Commander-in-Chief. The second, Mundus, was an Illyrian who found himself only by chance in the capital, but who happened to have with him a sizeable force of Scandinavian mercenaries. The two quickly decided on a plan of action.

Secretly they slipped out of the Palace, rallied their soldiers and, by separate and circuitous routes, marched on the Hippodrome. Then, at a given signal, they burst in simultaneously on the shouting, screaming mob, taking it completely by surprise. No quarter was given: Greens and Blues were slaughtered without discrimination. Meanwhile the Commander of the imperial bodyguard, an elderly and deceptively frail-looking Armenian eunuch named Narses, had stationed his men at the principal exits with orders to cut down all who tried to escape. Within a few minutes, the angry shouts in the great amphitheatre had given place to the cries and groans of wounded and dying men; soon these too grew quiet, until silence spread over the entire arena, its sand now sodden with the blood of the victims.

As the mercenaries, exhausted by their butchery, picked their way among the 30,000 bodies, finishing them off where necessary and relieving them of such valuables as they possessed, the trembling Hypatius was led before the Emperor. Justinian, who probably realized how his old friend had been swept up in events beyond his control, was inclined to be merciful; but Theodora stopped him. The man, she pointed out, had been crowned by the people; despite his grey hairs, he might at any time serve as a focus for further rebellion. Her husband, as always, bowed to her will. On the very next day Hypatius and his brother Pompeius were summarily executed and their bodies cast into the sea.

The Nika revolt (as it came to be called) taught Justinian a salutary lesson. Within a few weeks he felt sufficiently confident to reinstate Tribonian and John of Cappadocia in their former positions; but thereafter he was more circumspect, and though taxation remained heavy it no longer went beyond the bounds of reason. His subjects, too, were chastened. Thirty thousand of them indeed were dead, and there must have been countless others who attributed to divine providence alone their absence from the Hippodrome on that fateful afternoon. Emperors, it now appeared, could not be made and unmade as easily as they had thought. With Anastasius they had been able to do more or less as they liked; Justinian had shown that he was not to be trifled with.

Meanwhile, for Emperor and people alike, there was work to be done.

Their capital lay in ruins around them; whatever the cost, it must be rebuilt - where possible, on a yet grander and more impressive scale than before. Primarily, this was the responsibility of the City Prefect and his staff; but the central buildings of the capital were obviously too important to be left to subordinates, and first among them was St Sophia itself. This, Justinian resolved, was to be his own creation, and he lost no time. On 23 February 532, just thirty-nine days after the destruction of its predecessor, work began on the third and final Church of the Holy Wisdom.

Although the earliest of the three churches to be built on the site had been conceived by Constantine himself, it was not actually erected until the reign of his son Constantius, around the year 360, and lasted for less than half a century before being burnt down during the riots following the banishment of St John Chrysostom in 404.1 The second church, re-dedicated eleven years later by Theodosius II, was almost certainly a near-replica of the first, designed once again on the traditional basilican plan. Justinian's building, however, was to bear no resemblance to these. It was to be infinitely larger, for one thing - far and away the largest religious building in the entire Christian world.2 It would also be square rather than rectangular, reaching its climax not with its apsed sanctuary at the eastern end but with its high central dome. So revolutionary was the concept, indeed, that it seems likely that Justinian was already planning it with his two chosen architects, Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, long before the Nika rising made it necessary; for all their undoubted genius, they could hardly have prepared their working drawings in under six weeks.

Of these two architects we know little. Anthemius, a Greek from Asia Minor - Tralles, now Aydin, was a small town in the valley of the Meander - was primarily a mathematician and engineer, who is thought to have studied in Alexandria before finding his way to Constantinople. Once there, he worked for Justinian on St Sergius and St Bacchus, so impressing his master that he was later given technical authority over all the new building work in the capital. His colleague Isidore came from the same region, and may also have travelled to Egypt for his education: he is known to have written a brilliant commentary on a famous treatise on vaulting by the first-century mathematician Heron of Alexandria. By the time he received the imperial summons, he was already celebrated as the foremost teacher of his day.

1.   See p. 130.

2.   It would remain so until the building of Seville Cathedral some 700 years later.

From the outset Justinian seems to have given the two men carte blanche, regarding both the design and the cost of the building. His only stipulations were that it should be of unparalleled magnificence, and that it should be erected in the shortest possible time: he was already fifty years old and was determined to see it complete before he died. Procopius tells us1 that he gathered artisans and craftsmen 'from the whole world'; according to another authority, he appointed a hundred foremen, each with a hundred men under him, setting 5,000 to the north side and 5,000 to the south, so that each of the two teams should strive to work faster than the other. Meanwhile an imperial rescript was circulated to all the provinces of the Empire, requiring their governors to examine all the ancient sites and to send at once to the capital any surviving classical remains that might be suitable for incorporation in the new structure. In response, we are told, eight porphyry columns, once part of a temple of the Sun, were received from Rome and eight of green marble from Ephesus. More marble, of every colour and kind, was especially quarried, for use on the walls and pavements:

. . . the fresh green from Carystus, and many-coloured marble from the Phrygian range, in which a rosy blush mingles with white or shines bright with flowers of deep red and silver. There is a wealth of porphyry too, powdered with brilliant stars, that once weighed down the boats of the broad Nile. You may see an emerald green from Sparta, and the glittering marble with the undulating veins which the tool has worked from the deep bosom of the Iassian hills, showing slanting streaks of blood-red and livid white . . . Stone too there is that the Libyan sun, warming with his golden light, has nurtured from the dark clefts of the Moorish hills, of crocus colour sparkling like gold; and that product of the Celtic crags, a wealth of crystals, like milk splashed over a surface of shining black. There is the precious onyx, looking as if gold were glowing through it, and the marble that the land of Atrax yields ... in parts a fresh green like the sea or emerald stone, or again like blue cornflowers in grass, with here and there a drift of fallen snow . . .

So wrote a certain Paul the Silentiary, whose long poem in praise of the new church - one might almost call it a rhapsody - was composed for an encaenia held there on Christmas Eve, 563, when the building was reconsecrated after being damaged in two successive earthquakes. Despite his flowery Homeric language, he is immensely detailed and astonishingly accurate - so accurate indeed that one feels that he must have written the poem in the building itself. 'The vaulting,' he continues, 'is

1 Buildings, i, i.

formed of countless little squares of gold cemented together. And the golden stream of glittering rays pours down and strikes the eyes of men, so that they can scarcely bear to look. It is as if one were to gaze upon the mid-day sun in spring, when it gilds every mountain height.'

Interestingly, neither the Silentiary nor any of his contemporaries mention the existence of figurative mosaics. One would not in fact expect any such work of Justinian's time to have survived, since it would certainly have been destroyed by the iconoclasts in the eighth century; had there ever been any, it is inconceivable that neither Paul nor Procopius - to say nothing of other writers - would have said a word about it. The latter, on the other hand, echoes the former when he remarks that the interior of the great church was so full of light and sunshine as to suggest some inner radiance of its own, and there can be no doubt but that virtually the whole surface of the interior above the marble revetments - an area estimated at some four acres - was completely covered with mosaic, either in uniform gold or in decorative patterns in which red, blue and green tesserae were added. The vast majority of this original work is still in place, though we have regrettably lost the huge jewelled cross on a background of stars that once spread itself across the dome.1

But the splendour of the church was not confined to its surface decoration: architecturally, too, it seemed to its earliest visitors little less than a miracle. To Evagrius the historian, it was 'a great and incomparable work' whose beauty 'surpassed all powers of description'; to Procopius it seemed to soar up to heaven, rising above the surrounding buildings 'like a huge ship anchored among them'. But to most observers the most magical feature of all was that extraordinary dome, 107 feet across and 160 above the pavement, several times broader and higher than any other dome ever previously attempted, a shallow saucer pierced around its rim with forty windows so that it appeared to be 'suspended from heaven by a golden chain'.

And then there was the furniture: the fifty-foot iconostasis in solid silver, hung with sacred images of angels and apostles, the Holy Virgin occupying the place of honour in the centre; the high altar, encrusted with gold and precious stones, covered by a silver ciborium resting on four richly decorated columns; the immense circular ambo for the

1 The first dome collapsed on 7 May 558, after being severely weakened by earthquakes in 553 and 557. It was rebuilt bv the nephew and namesake of Isidore who gave it a slightly steeper pitch, raising its crown some twenty feet higher than that of its predecessor; but this second dome collapsed with the western arch in 989, as did the third when the eastern arch fell in 1546. The present dome is the fourth, now reinforced with the iron chains inserted by the Italian architect Ciaspare Fossari in the course of his major restoration during the 1860s.

preacher, ablaze with polychrome marble and mosaic; the gold lamps innumerable. The relics, too, were such as no other church could match, dominated as they were by the True Cross itself, brought back from Jerusalem by the Empress Helena with the other instruments of the Passion, among them were Christ's swaddling clothes and the table at which he and his Apostles sat for the Last Supper. Also to be revered were the chains of St Peter, the carpet of St Nicholas, the head of St Pantaleimon and the arm of St Germanus, which was laid upon each succeeding Patriarch at his induction. No wonder that Justinian, entering the completed building for the first time on 27 December 537 - just five years, ten months and four days after the laying of the first stone - stood for a long time in silence before being heard to murmur: 'Solomon, I have surpassed thee.'

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