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7-08-2015, 20:18

The rise of justinian and the question of his ‘grand design’

Anastasius died in 518, leaving the question of his succession undecided.He was succeeded by Justin I (518–27), a peasant from Illyria, who had risen through the ranks to become count of the excubitors. He was uneducated, perhaps even illiterate, and Procopius would have us believe that the real power behind the throne was Justin’s nephew, Peter Sabbatius, who took the name of Justinian; Justin had earlier brought him to the capital and lavished an expensive education on him. It is hard to say how true this is, for there is no independent evidence to support the claim.7 Justin’s first act was to repudiate his predecessors’ attempts to achieve unity among the Christians by ignoring, or even implicitly condemning, the council of Chalcedon: theHenotikon was revoked and Chalcedonian orthodoxy became imperial policy. Justin announced his election and religious policy to Pope Hormisdas (514–23), who sent legates to Constantinople; a council was held there to confirm the ending of the Acacian schism and to condemn those who had promoted it. These included not only Acacius and those successors who had agreed with him, but also – and in this exceeding papal demands – the emperors Zeno and Anastasius. Prominent non-Chalcedonian monophysites, including Severus of Antioch and Philoxenos of Mabbug, were deposed and exiled. Reconciliation with Rome only reopened the wounds that the Henotikon had tried to heal, but very soon a refinement of Chalcedonian orthodoxy was put forward that was to become the focus of Justinian’s endeavours to achieve religious unity. A group of monks from Scythia, led by John Maxentius, brought their proposal to Constantinople: it involved supplementing the Chalcedonian definition with the affirmation that ‘one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh’. This affirmation would appeal to the monophysites’ conviction of the indivisible unity of Christ, which had found expression in the theopaschite addition to the Trisagion. Justinian was attracted by this proposal and sent the monks off to Rome, where they failed to convince Pope Hormisdas, though others found it acceptable, notably Dionysius Exiguus and Boethius. The proposal remained dormant until the 530s, when Justinian’s religious endeavours began in earnest. In spring 527 Justin fell ill, and Justinian was proclaimed augustus in April; four months later Justin died, and Justinian succeeded him.His reign lasted until 565, thirty-eight years in all – or forty-seven, if one includes his stint as the power behind Justin’s throne. This was an exceptionally long reign and its duration would have been an achievement in itself. But there was much else besides: reform of the legal code; reconquest of Roman territories in North Africa, Italy and Spain; grandiose rebuilding projects, notably the rebuilding of the centre of Constantinople, including the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom, St Sophia; the closure of the Platonic Academy in Athens; and a religious policy culminating in the fifth ecumenical council, held at Constantinople in 553 (or, to adopt a different perspective, in his lapse into heresy in his final months). The temptation to see all these as parts of a jigsaw which, when correctly fitted together, yield some grand design is hard to resist. And then there is glamour, in the person of Theodora, the woman he married. In doing this, Justinian circumvented the law forbidding marriage between senators and actresses; even Procopius acknowledges her beauty, while regarding her as a devil incarnate. He wrote a malicious account of Theodora’s meddling in the affairs of state in his Secret history. Procopius also relates how during the so-called Nika riot in 532, when Justinian was terrified by the rioting against his rule and was contemplating flight, Theodora persuaded him to stay and face either death or victory with the dramatic words, ‘the empire is a fair winding-sheet.’ All this prepares the way for assessments of Theodora that rank her with Byzantine empresses like Irene or Zoe, both of whom (unlike Theodora) assumed imperial power in their own right, albeit briefly.8 The ‘grand design’ view of Justinian’s reign sees all his actions as the deliberate restoration of the ancient Roman empire, though a Roman empire raised to new heights of glory as a Christian empire confessing the orthodox faith. According to this view, reconquest restored something like the traditional geographical area of the empire; law reform encapsulated the vision of a Christian Roman empire, governed by God’s vicegerent, the emperor; the capital’s splendid buildings, not least the churches, celebrated the Christian court of New Rome, with the defensive buildings described by Procopius in the later books of his Buildings serving to preserve in perpetuity the newly reconquered Roman world. The defining of Christian orthodoxy, together with the suppression of heterodoxy, whether Christian heresy or pagan philosophy, completes the picture. In discussing Justinian’s reign it is therefore difficult to avoid the notion of a grand design. Virtually all our literary sources reflect something of this idea. It is there in Procopius (even the Secret history sees Justinian as a grand designer, albeit malign), in the legal texts and even in the ecclesiastical texts written by those who experienced persecution at Justinian’s hand: the monophysites shared with those who embraced imperial Christianity the vision of a Christian empire ruled by a Christian emperor.9 It is hardly to be denied that there were moments when Justinian fancied he was fulfilling some such grandiose design. In 536, after reconquering Sicily, Justinian affirmed, ‘we have good hope that God will grant us to rule over the rest of what, subject to the ancient Romans to the limits of both seas, they later lost by their easy-going ways.’10 Whether we should think of Justinian’s reign as the fulfilment of a consciously preconceived grand design is another matter. This raises two interrelated questions: do all the above-mentioned elements fit together into some grand design; and, even if they do, did Justinian really have the means to bring this grand design to fruition? As we shall see, neither of these questions can be answered in the affirmative without heavy qualification. Perhaps the most convincing evidence for such a grand design, at least at the beginning of Justinian’s reign, is found in his revision of Roman law. Justinian set this in hand as soon as he could, strikingly fulfilling one of the recognised roles of a ruler: that of ultimate judge and legislator. This was a task especially associated with the Roman emperor, for Romans prided themselves on living under the law, something given signal expression in Priscus’ account of the embassy to the court of Attila in the fifth century.11 Within months of assuming sole rule, Justinian had announced to the senate in a formal legal enactment (a ‘constitution’) his intention of having a new law-code prepared, that would bring matters up to date, reconcile contradictions, winnow out irrelevant legislation, and introduce clarity. He set up a ten-man commission, led by the quaestor Tribonian, which completed its work in little over a year. This code no longer survives, but five and a half years later, in 534, it was issued in revised form, arranged in twelve books and containing constitutions from the intervening period; it is this edition that has survived to exercise such an influence on subsequent European law. By the time of the second edition, there had been a further contribution to the work of legal revision, the publication of the Digest or Pandects, which reduced to order the legal opinions of centuries of Roman lawyers. This was published in December 533. A further part of the legal reform was the publication of the Institutes, a revision of the Commentaries of the second-century jurist, Gaius, which was to be the official textbook for students of law at the two official schools of law, in Constantinople and Beirut. This revision and clarification of Roman law was complemented by the later laws of Justinian, the novellae. Whereas the main body of Tribonian’s work was in Latin, most of the novellae are in Greek, for the reign of Justinian marks a watershed between the Roman empire with Latin as the official language and the so-called Byzantine empire, in which Greek was the principal and eventually the sole language. The purpose of this legal reform should be seen as twofold. It was practical: the code and the novellae provided legal norms to be interpreted by judges with the use of the Digest. It seems, however, that this function was not to continue much beyond the middle of the next century. But its other purpose was to delineate a world-view, enshrining the inheritance of Roman civilisation, the embrace of Christian orthodoxy, and the paramount position of the emperor. This was an enduring legacy, and at its heart was a vision of the complementarity of empire and priesthood, basileia and hierosyn¯e, imperium and sacerdotium. This is expressed nowhere better than in novella 6 (535): The greatest of God’s gifts to men, given from on high in accordance with his loving kindness, are priesthood and empire; the one ministers to things divine, the other rules and cares for matters human, both proceed from one and the same source, and set in order human life. So nothing is more sought after by kings than the dignity of priests, if they beseech God continually on their behalf. For if the one is always unblemished and has open access to God, while the other rightly and fitly orders the received form of government, then there will be a fair harmony, and everything that is good for the human race will be granted.We therefore have the greatest care for the true dogmas of God, as well as for the dignity of the priests, which we believe cares for them, as through it good gifts are given us from God, so that what we have we possess securely, and what we have not yet attained we shall come to acquire. Thus everything will be done rightly and fitly, if the beginning of everything is proper and acceptable to God. We believe that this will be so, if the observance of the holy canons is preserved, which has been handed down by the apostles, who are rightly praised and venerated as eyewitness and ministers of the word of God, and which has been safeguarded and interpreted by the holy fathers. Such comprehensive legislative activity can hardly be regarded as other than part of a grand design of imperial rule. The next essential ingredient, reconquest of lost imperial territory, as we have seen above (p. 107), also inspired in Justinian the conviction that he was the divine agent in reconstituting the Roman empire in a Christian form. But was this a settled conviction, or a passing hope? The facts about Justinian’s reconquest of North Africa, Italy and Spain are not in doubt, although we are poorly informed about the Spanish expedition; their interpretation is much more hazardous. In 533, Justinian despatched his general Belisarius to North Africa with an impressive force of 10,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry.12 However, the reasons for his determination that this enterprise should not fail are perhaps more down-to-earth than the fulfilment of some grand design of imperial restoration. Justinian had only just recovered from the Nika riot, and Emperor Leo’s disastrous attempt in 468 to dislodge the Vandals made it imperative that Belisarius’ expedition should succeed if Justinian’s credibility as emperor were to recover. Even Procopius’ celebratory account seems to depict Belisarius’ swift success as fortuitous. The Italian expedition, which followed up this success, seems to have been a much more modest affair: only 7,000 troops were involved, compared to the 6,000 sent with Narses in the same year to Alexandria, to protect the monophysite patriarch Theodosius (535–6). At this stage it would seem that the expedition was little more than a matter of showing the flag, even if its early successes, following so closely on the victory over the Vandals, conjured up in Justinian’s mind ideas of a grand design, as witness the novellae of the period. In reality, the reconquest of Italy proved to be a long-drawnout affair, during which Italy itself was devastated.13 By 554, however, when Italy was formally restored to Byzantine rule (by a ‘pragmatic sanction’), most of the Mediterranean littoral belonged to the Roman empire once more. Justinian’s rebuilding programmes likewise fit uneasily into the idea of a grand design. Our principal source for Justinian’s extensive building activity is Procopius’ Buildings, which takes the form of a panegyric and consequently presents the fullest and most splendid account, drawing no distinction between new building work, restoration or even routine maintenance. As we saw earlier, the building of fortresses along the frontier, along the Danube and in Mesopotamia, to which Procopius devotes so much space, should not all be attributed to Justinian himself: as archaeological surveys have shown (and indeed other contemporary historians assert, even Procopius himself in hisWars),14 much of this was begun by Anastasius. And the great wonders with which Procopius begins his account, when describing the reconstruction of the centre of Constantinople, were consequent upon the devastation wrought by the Nika riot of 532, which Justinian can hardly have planned. But however fortuitous the occasion, the buildings erected in the wake of the riot are works of enduring magnificence, none more so than the church of the Holy Wisdom, St Sophia. Contemporary accounts are breathtaking. Procopius says: The church has become a spectacle of marvellous beauty, overwhelming to those who see it, but to those who know it by hearsay altogether incredible. For it soars to a height to match the sky, and as if surging up from amongst the other buildings it stands on high and looks down on the remainder of the city, adorning it, because it is a part of it, but glorying in its own beauty, because, though a part of the city and dominating it, it at the same time towers above it to such a height that the whole city is viewed from there as from a watch-tower. He speaks too ‘of the huge spherical dome which makes the structure exceptionally beautiful. Yet it seems not to rest on solid masonry, but to cover the space with its golden dome suspended from heaven.’ Contemporaries were struck by the quality of light in theGreat Church: ‘it abounds exceedingly in sunlight and in the reflection of the sun’s rays from the marble. Indeed one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it, such an abundance of light bathes the shrine.’15 Paul the Silentiary, speaking of the church restored after the collapse of the dome in 558, says ‘even so in the evening men are delighted at the various shafts of light of the radiant, light-bringing house of resplendent choirs. And the calm clear sky of joy lies open to all driving away the dark-veiled mist of the soul. A holy light illuminates all.’16 This stress on light as an analogy of divinity chimes in well with the vision found in the writings ascribed to Dionysius the Areopagite (commonly known as Pseudo-Dionysius); a fact surely with bearing on the huge popularity these writings were soon to assume. The novel design of the church, with its dome forming an image of the cosmos, was immensely influential: there are many smaller Byzantine imitations of St Sophia, and the suggestion of the church as a mim¯esis of the cosmos influenced later interpretations of the liturgical action taking place within (see theMystagogia of the seventh-centuryMaximus the Confessor and the commentary on the liturgy ascribed to the eighth-century patriarch of Constantinople, Germanos).17 But it may not have been novel: recent excavations in Istanbul have revealed the church of St Polyeuktos, built by the noblewoman Anicia Juliana in the late 520s, which seems in many respects to have foreshadowed Justinian’s Great Church.18 Original or not, St Sophia and Justinian’s other buildings in the capital created a public space in which to celebrate a world-view in which the emperor ruled the inhabited world (the oikoumen ¯ e), with the support of the court, the prayers of the church and to the acclamation of the people. These buildings included more churches, the restored palace (in front of which, in a kind of piazza, was erected a massive pillar surmounted by a bronze statue of an equestrian Justinian), an orphanage, a home for repentant prostitutes, baths and, finally, a great cistern to secure an adequate water supply in summer. According to Procopius’ description of the mosaic in the great Bronze Gate forming the entrance to the palace, there, amid depictions of Justinian’s victories achieved by his general Belisarius, stood Justinian and Theodora, receiving from the senate ‘honours equal to those of God’.