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7-08-2015, 20:20

Enemies of justinian and other blows

One of the obstacles to any grand design was the Persians, traditional enemies of the Roman empire. After a period of peace in the latter half of the fifth century, war had broken out again in the reign of Anastasius. This led to the building of the fort at Dara shortly after 505 (see above, pp. 104–5 and below, p. 135). It was twenty years before war broke out again between the Roman and Persian empires, partly over Justinian’s decision to reinforce the fort atDara. The initial battles took place in Lazica, an important buffer zone for the Romans, both against the barbarians north of the Caucasus and against a Persian advance through Iberia. One of the Persian generals on this occasion, Narses, defected to the Romans after having inflicted defeat on them. But the main part of Justinian’s first Persian war took place in Mesopotamia, and this was the theatre in which another of Justinian’s generals, Belisarius, rose to prominence. The Romans held their ground, and the war was concluded with a ‘perpetual peace’, negotiated with Khusro I (531–79), who had become shah after the death of his aged father on 13 September 531. This peace gave Justinian the resources for the North African and Italian campaigns of the 530s. Khusro would reign for nearly fifty years and in Persian historiography he is depicted as one of the greatest of the Sasanian shahs.26 But the ‘perpetual peace’ negotiated at the beginning of Khusro’s reign was not typical of his relations with his western neighbour. In 540 a territorial dispute between two Christian Arab kingdoms, the Nestorian Lakhmids, clients of Persia, and the monophysite Ghassanids, clients of the Roman empire, provided an opportunity for Khusro to respond to pleas from Witigis, the hardpressed Ostrogothic king of Italy, and from the Armenians, suffering from their incorporation into the Roman empire through the ‘perpetual peace’: Khusro invaded the empire. The war was fought on several fronts – in Syria, Mesopotamia and Lazica – and Antioch was seized by the Persians. A truce was called in 545, but fighting went on in Lazica until 557. In 561 a fiftyyear peace was negotiated, restoring the status quo; the Romans agreed to pay tribute at the rate of 30,000 solidi a year for the whole period.27 Persia was once again a force to reckon with, and would remain so, until it succumbed to the Arabs in the seventh century, together with much of the Roman empire itself. Persia was clearly one obstacle standing in the way of any initiatives undertaken by Justinian. Another constraint on his plans, much harder to assess, is the effect of natural disasters and climate change. The chronicles paint a vivid picture of recurrent earthquake, famine and plague, as well as events recorded as harbingers of disaster, such as eclipses and comets. Malalas, for instance, records ten examples of Justinian making grants for the reconstruction of cities devastated by war or natural disaster.28 Collation of scientific with literary studies suggests that the early years of Justinian’s reign saw extreme climatic conditions,29 whose cause is not yet determined; the years 536–7 saw what is called a ‘dust-veil event’, recorded in the chronicles as a kind of perpetual solar eclipse. One can only speculate about the impact of such phenomena, but it is hard not to think that they led to the disruption of traditional patterns and a growing sense of insecurity, not to mention a drain on finite resources caused by the need for reconstruction. It was in this context that theNika riot of 532 occurred. Tension between the circus factions, the Blues and the Greens, erupted spectacularly: Justinian was nearly toppled, and much of the palace area, including the churches of St Sophia and St Irene, was destroyed by fire. Popular anger against hate-figures was appeased by the dismissal of the City prefect Eudaemon, the quaestor Tribonian, and the praetorian prefect John of Cappadocia. The riot continued for several days and was only eventually quelled by the massacre of 30,000 people, trapped in the Hippodrome, acclaiming as emperor the unfortunate Hypatius, a general and one of Emperor Anastasius’ nephews. Afterwards Hypatius was executed as a usurper. The reaction of some Christians to the whole sequence of disasters is captured in the kontakion ‘On earthquakes and fires’, composed by Romanus theMelodist. Romanus wrote and performed this kontakion one Lent while the Great Church of St Sophia was being rebuilt (i.e. between February 532 and 27 December 537). It is a call to repentance after three disasters that represent three ‘blows’ by God against sinful humanity: earthquakes (several are recorded in Constantinople and elsewhere between 526 and 530), drought (recorded in Constantinople in September 530), and finally the Nika riot itself in January 532.30 These repeated blows were necessary because of the people’s heedlessness. Repentance and pleas for mercy begin, Romanus makes clear, with the emperor and his consort, Theodora: Those who feared God stretched out their hands to Him, Beseeching Him for mercy and the end of disasters, And along with them, as was fitting, the ruler prayed too, Looking up to the Creator, and with him his wife, ‘Grant to me, Saviour,’ he cried, ‘as to your David To conquer Goliath, for I hope in you. Save your faithful people in your mercy, And grant to them Eternal life.’ When God heard the sound of those who cried out and also of the rulers, He granted his tender pity to the city . . .31 The rebuilt city, and especially the Great Church, is a sign of both the care of the emperor and the mercy of God: In a short time they [the rulers] raised up the whole city So that all the hardships of those who had suffered were forgotten. The very structure of the church Was erected with such excellence As to imitate heaven, the divine throne, Which indeed offers Eternal life.32 This confirms the picture of recurrent adversity, found in the chroniclers and, it is argued, supported by astronomical and archaeological evidence. But it also indicates the way in which religion attempted to meet the needs of those who suffered – a way that evoked and reinforced the Byzantine world-view of a cosmos ruled by God, and the oikoumen¯e ruled, on God’s behalf, by the emperor. But a study of Romanus’ kontakia also reveals the convergence of the public and imperial apparatus of religion, and private recourse to the Incarnate Christ, the Mother of God and the saints; it also reveals the importance of relics of the True Cross and of the saints as touchstones of divine grace. It is in the sixth century, too, that we begin to find increasing evidence of the popularity at both public and private levels of devotion to the Mother of God, and of religious art – icons – as mediating between the divine realm, consisting of God and his court of angels and saints, and the human realm, desperately in need of the grace which flows from that divine realm; icons become both objects of prayer and veneration, and a physical source of healing and reassurance. But if the 530s saw widespread alarm caused by natural and human disasters, the 540s saw the beginning of an epidemic of bubonic plague that was to last rather more than two centuries. According to Procopius it originated in Egypt, but it seems very likely that it travelled from the east along trade routes, perhaps the silk roads. Plague appeared in Constantinople in spring 542 and had reached Antioch and Syria later in the same year. Huge numbers died: in Constantinople, it has been calculated, around 250,000 people died, perhaps a little over half the population. Few who caught the disease survived (one such being, apparently, Justinian himself ); those who died did so quickly, within two or three days. Thereafter the plague seems to have declined somewhat in virulence, but according to the church historian Evagrius Scholasticus, there was severe loss of life in the years 553–4, 568–9 and 583–4. Historians disagree about the probable effect of the plague on the economic life of the eastern empire: some take its impact seriously;33 others, following a similar revision in the estimate of the effects of the Black Death in the fourteenth century,34 think that the effect of the plague has been exaggerated.35 In the final months of his life, Justinian himself succumbed to heresy, the so-called Julianist heresy of aphthartodocetism, an extreme form of monophysitism named after Julian, bishop of Halicarnassus who died c. 527, and which Justinian promulgated by an edict. This is recounted both by Theophanes and by Eustratius, in his Life of Eutychius, patriarch of Constantinople, who was deposed for refusing to accept Justinian’s newly found religious inclination, and has been generally accepted by historians. However, it has been questioned by theologians, who cite evidence for Justinian’s continued adherence to a Christology of two natures, together with evidence that he was still seeking reconciliation between divided Christians: not only with the Julianists themselves, which might indeed have led to orthodox suspicion of Julianism on Justinian’s part, but also with the socalledNestorians of Persia. The question is complex, but seems to be open.

 

 

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