The Secrets of Byzantium
By Gabriel Blanchard
Few figures in history are as compelling as Justinian and Theodora—and we owe nearly all we know of them to a single man.
In 476, the Roman Empire fell.
Except it didn’t. The western half of the Empire, including the “eternal city” itself, was overrun by the Ostrogoths; but the capital had long since been moved to the city of New Rome, or Constantinopolis, standing between the Black and Ægean Seas (and thus better situated to counter the rival power of Persia). Many other aspects of the Roman Empire had changed as well: the pretense of republican rule maintained by Augustus had been dropped centuries ago, and the emperors now used titles like basileus kai autokratōr, “king and autocrat”; more significantly, paganism had been swept away during the fourth century, and the Empire was now Christian—which meant in turn that Christian theology was now political. This new phase of the Roman Empire is generally called Byzantine, after the city of Byzantium on whose ruins New Rome was built. Byzantine civilization stood for almost another thousand years after the collapse of the Roman west; but in all that time, probably no single person has achieved the same importance, fame, and infamy as Emperor Justinian the Great, who reigned from 527 to 565, alongside his equally notorious wife, the Empress Theodora. Mosaics of them still survive, showing them in the lavish purple silks that signified their office. A number of contemporary historians left accounts of their reign, but none was more prominent than a scholar from the Levantine coast named Procopius.
He composed three books recording the history of Justinian and Theodora. Two were fairly laudatory of the imperial couple; the third was, shall we say, less so. Procopius began his career as a legal advisor to Belisarius, one of the principal generals in the Byzantine army. In his History of the Wars, Procopius relates that Justinian cherished ambitions of reclaiming the lost provinces of the West, which had only been separated from the rest of the Empire for about fifty years; and in fact he enjoyed temporary but considerable success in this, reconquering much of Italy, Spain, and North Africa from the Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals. Another early triumph was the compilation of the Code of Justinian, a reorganization and reform of the hopelessly complex imperial legal system. The Wars also records the dangerous early episode of the Nika riots, which broke out in 532 over a mixture of political and theological causes with (of all things) rival racing fandoms. Tens of thousands of people were killed during the riots, and half the city was destroyed. Justinian nearly fled, but was rallied by the indomitable pride of Theodora: “Perhaps it is not seemly for a woman to talk in front of men, and to bid cowards have courage! But I am convinced that in circumstances like these flight would not mean safety. … As for me, I shall never renounce my imperial title. … I stand by the old maxim: the purple is the finest winding-sheet!”*
The other primarily laudatory work of Procopius is The Buildings—indeed, it so praises the virtue of the emperor and the beauty of the then-deceased empress that most historians believe it is, at minimum, an exaggeration of its author’s real feelings. However, like his military advances, Justinian’s architectural accomplishments were of great value. Not everything this work attributes to him is correct, as Procopius fudges his dates a bit to give the emperor credit for certain works of earlier rulers (more than a little ironically, given the quote we have selected from the historian!). But he did construct the Hagia Sophia, or Cathedral of Holy Wisdom, which stands to this day, though it no longer serves as a church. Its magnificence was so great that Justinian was reputed to have cried, when he first set foot in the completed church, “I have beaten you, Solomon!”—a remark which Dante brings in to his portrait of the flawed but ultimately blessed emperor in the Paradiso.
But, more than either of these, Procopius is known for The Secret History. Like The Buildings, modern historians are skeptical of its author’s honesty; if Justinian had been suddenly overthrown (a common enough occurrence in Byzantine history), a tell-all memoir of the palace’s seedy underbelly would have been a perfect tool to curry favor with the incoming regime, and The Secret History is a downright soap opera. Even if some details are fabricated or overstated, however, Justinian and Theodora had plenty of historically confirmed scandal to be going on with. The empress in particular was a shocking figure, a former actress and prostitute whom Justinian had fallen in love with. She had been brought to the faith by monks of the Miaphysite tradition, which the officially approved Chalcedonian party considered heretical: at the same time Justinian was enforcing Chalcedonian orthodoxy with the full energy of the law, Theodora was harboring Miaphysite clergy in the palace!
Even when he was not being actively undermined by his wife, Justinian had an unenviable task in many ways. His attempts at military and economic revitalization were never fully realized, partly due to a slough of natural disasters in the middle of the century: a mysterious chilling of the sun, a famine, a colossal earthquake in Syria that triggered a tsunami affecting much of the eastern Mediterranean, and the first historical outbreak of Bubonic Plague all took place in the space of less than twenty years. Procopius reports strange visions that “men pure of spirit” had, in which the emperor would wander aimlessly in his palace, and suddenly seem to be headless, his body wavering like cloth in a breeze.
The emperor died in the year 565. When his now-obsequious, now-scathing biographer died is less certain—some historians conjecture that he died before Justinian, some after. Regardless, few historians have enjoyed such a powerful legacy in how history is recounted to future generations, and Procopius rightly takes his place among names like Herodotus, Livy, and Josephus as one of the most influential historians of an otherwise forgotten world.
*Translation quoted from H. Daniel-Rops’ The Church in the Dark Ages (1959), p. 159.
Gabriel Blanchard is a freelance writer and the editor-at-large for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.
Every week, we publish a profile of one of the figures from the CLT author bank. For an introduction to classic authors, see our guest post from Keith Nix, founder of the Veritas School in Richmond, VA.
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Published on 8th August, 2022. Page image of a sixth-century mosaic of Justinian I and his retinue, located in the Basilica of St. Vitalis in Ravenna, Italy, photographed by Roger Culos (source).