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10. Justinian |
The unlikely marriage that shaped the destiny of Europe and the faith

Justinian is drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 254, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends of the twelve-volume historical series The Christians: Their First Two Thousand Years. If you would like to order this book please visit

When the bachelor-emperor married an ex-prostitute, the capital was aghast, but together they prepared the city to defend Christianity for the next 900 years

Justinian - The unlikely marriage that shaped the destiny of Europe and the faith

Justinian - The unlikely marriage that shaped the destiny of Europe and the faith
A more mature, double-chinned Justinian gazes out from a mosaic at Ravenna, Italy. In the sixth century, a halo did not specifically indicate sanctity. Rather, it was a commonly accepted convention in portraiture denoting a person of good character or prestige, a condition one might claim for the man who managed to reign nearly forty years in turbulent times. So his look of satisfaction may have been entirely justified.

While smoke and dust hung like a pall of death over Rome and its crumbling western empire, Constantinople, the New Rome on the Bosporus, presented a very different scene. In 457, with the demise of old Marcian, the late-in-life husband of the empress Pulcheria (see chapter 7), Constantinople was precisely one and one-third centuries old. Already, it was exhibiting the two qualities that would distinguish it throughout its long history. One was the internecine feuding of its court. The other was its virtual impregnability to attack, a fact the barbarian tribes were the first to discover. Constantine the Great, its founder, had recognized the near invincibility of this strategic location, and history would prove him right. The city would stand unconquered until the fifteenth century.

Five undistinguished emperors followed Marcian. Then, with the sixth, fate, fortune or possibly God favored the eastern empire with a new dynasty and new vigor. After Marcian came Leo I (457—474), who, as father-in-law of Marcian’s granddaughter, could claim at least a tenuous family connection to the previous Theodosian Dynasty.1 Leo held the barbarians and Persians at bay, then destroyed his credibility and the imperial solvency with a disastrous attempt to reclaim North Africa from the Vandals. (See sidebar, page 270.) His grandson, Leo II, ruled ten months, and died of natural causes. Verina, widow of Leo I, survived for another ten years, long enough to back her brother Basiliscus (475—476) against her son Zeno (474—491). But Zeno prevailed. He trapped his uncle Basiliscus’s family in a church, promised not to execute them if they surrendered, then exiled them to Cappadocia where they were deliberately starved to death.

When Zeno died, his widow secured the succession of a prominent court official named Anastasius as emperor (491—518), and of herself as empress, by marrying him. Anastasius, in his twenty-seven-year reign, was noted for numerous achievements, but one in particular. He erected the “Long Walls,” crossing the base of the peninsula upon which the New Rome was built. Against these walls, successive waves of barbarians in the centuries ahead would hurl themselves hopelessly and perish. Then, with the death of Anastasius, the Dynasty of Leo, as it came to be called, was over.

The Long Walls provided Constantinople with an outer defense line, but its inner defense line, at the western city limits, was formidable too. Built by Constantine the Great, it proved its worth in 378 when the Goths assailed the capital and were stopped by these inner walls. Anthemius, administrative head of government under Theodosius II, built a second line, and Anastasius’s Long Walls became a third.

Safe behind them, the city flourished. Historian Glanville Downey takes readers on an imaginary tour of the early sixth-century city (Constantinople in the Age of Justinian, Oklahoma, 1960). Built on a hilly peninsula, it was surrounded on three sides by salt water: the Sea of Marmara to the south; the Bosporus, which divides Europe from Asia, to the east; and its harbor, the Golden Horn, one of the best anchorages in the ancient world, to the north.

At the promontory stood a high plateau, towering 140 feet above the sea. Here stood the palace, home of the emperor, and close by it the Hippodrome, part-time home of nearly everybody else. Here too stood Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), known as the Great Church. It would soon be rebuilt, and its huge dome would rise 180 feet above the plateau.

If the visitor arrived by sea, his vessel would enter the Golden Horn; the narrow, four-mile-long harbor whose crescent shape protected it against storm winds from every direction. From there the visitor would probably be taken uphill to the Augusteum, a public square that served as the heart of the city and the heart of the empire. Facing onto the square was the Senate House. Nearby was the main gate to the Great Palace with its brick and marble buildings, its gardens, terraces on different levels, reception halls, summer pavilions, churches, a private stadium and an indoor riding school.

Running off the Augusteum toward the inner walls, was the Mesê, Middle Street, along which the city’s development had extended, an avenue flanked by tall columns supporting stone roofs, and ornamented by statues of the emperors. Here too, often in booths between the columns and in side streets, were hundreds of shops offering every manner of merchandise known to the ancient world.

Along the Mesê by day thronged the citizenry in their thousands, plus the animals they led, rode, bought, sold or butchered, these contributing a braying, neighing, barking and bellowing to the cacophony of human voices. In the damp, chill winter, men and women wore a wool tunic, covered by a wool cloak. The women’s tunics reached to the ground; the men’s were varied, with workmen’s extending to the knees, and gentlemen’s to the ankle. Children’s clothes replicated their parents’. The ancient Roman toga was gone, worn now only on ceremonial occasions.

Most people wore sandals, some low shoes of cloth or leather, some military boots that came to the calf and some went barefoot. The streets were too narrow for vehicles. Goods were usually transported by donkeys, camels or porters, picking their way between the jam of pedestrians and the occasional flock of sheep or geese being herded to market.

Water was delivered by aqueducts from the nearby hills and stored in cisterns all over town, or fed into the many public baths, or supplied free at drinking fountains located everywhere. An underground system drained sewage into the sea. Such hygiene, however, did not prevent recurrent dysentery, sometimes fatal, nor an outbreak of bubonic plague in 542 and 543, said to have peaked at ten thousand deaths in a single day, in a city with a six hundred thousand population.

The wealthy lived in brick houses that presented a blank wall to the street, broken only by bay windows on the second floor, from which the ladies of the house could watch the street scene and the neighbors. Courtyards in the rear might feature a fountain and gardens. The homes of the less wealthy were miniatures of those of the rich, but with smaller rooms, often accommodating more people. Then came the very poor, writes historian Downey, in the midst of this opulence, unemployed and in dire poverty. However, churches fed and clothed them, while the government distributed free bread; and both government and church operated hospitals and shelters for the poor and elderly.

The prevailing language by then was Greek, though the more learned or traveled knew Latin as well, and Latin was still the official language of the court. Mixed with these were scores of other languages spoken by slaves, Germans in the army stationed in the city, Persian merchants, and the curious incomprehensible tongues of the Huns, Avars and Slavs who were gradually infiltrating the general populace.

It was an “outdoors” city, with seaside strolls and meeting places where most social life took place. However, the center of nearly everyone’s social interest was the Hippodrome, modeled on the Circus Maximus at Rome, which could accommodate sixty thousand people in its thirty tiers of seats. Since it was too long for the promontory hill, its southern extremity rested on an artificial foundation of stones piled high in the air. Down the center of the oval chariot course ran a narrow decorative island adorned with statues. Above these towered an eighty-four-foot obelisk of porphyry, brought from Egypt by Theodosius the Great, at its base a sculpture of the emperor presiding at the games.

It would be difficult to name any city in the world more preoccupied with what a later generation would call spectator sports. Constantinople’s citizens, from the wealthiest to the most bitterly impoverished, took the chariot races so seriously that citywide riots could erupt after a bad call by a referee. Early in the city’s development, a race most often involved four competitors, each identified by a color–the Blues, Greens, Reds and Whites–their fans sitting in the four sections reserved for them. Over the years, these groups hardened into distinct factions, called the demes (from demos, the people), and their activities extended far beyond the Hippodrome. They were in effect political parties, social clubs, labor unions, welfare agencies with cradle-to-grave programs, and finally theologies. Over time, the Greens and Blues absorbed the Reds and Whites, so that in Constantinople, your favorite team, your friends, your social standing, your politics and your theology would all be reflected by whether you were a Blue or a Green.

So, often, would your work. Thus in 447, the Blues and Greens provided sixteen thousand laborers for the construction and repair of the city’s foundations, writes historian Byron C. Tsangadas (Fortifications and Defense of Constantinople, New York, 1980). Inscriptions on the walls still testify to their work. The two enlarged parties wielded major influence, and even the emperor would ally himself with one side or the other, after calculating the political benefit offered by each. Thus, the fortunes of either faction were very much tied to the patronage of the reigning emperor. If he leaned toward the Greens, the Greens got the government jobs. If a Blue emperor succeeded a Green, then the incumbents promptly changed in thousands of offices and positions, many of them highly lucrative.

Members of the factions adopted distinct styles of dress, with elaborate tunics and headdresses, haircuts, mustaches and beards. Their spokesmen engaged in public dialogue with the emperor’s staff when at the Hippodrome, advancing their members’ concerns. And some of their more unruly members took knives and clubs with them as they roamed the city streets at night, mugging anyone, especially of the other party, who crossed their paths. That form of lawlessness became so common that men of fashion kept two sets of pins and buckles: some of gold for daytime use, some of bronze if they had to leave home after dark.

In the late fifth century, the Blues and Greens became heavily involved in church politics. Whether you were Green or Blue, you would be Christian, of course, but if a Green, you would probably be a Monophysite Christian, bitterly opposed to the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon. If you were Blue, you would be orthodox, a word that meant “right faith,” and you would be referred to as Catholic or Chalcedonian, meaning that you affirmed the Chalcedon council, the assembly of bishops through which Marcian and Pulcheria had sought to end once and for all the dangerous wrangling in the church over the relationship between the divine and human elements in Jesus Christ. (See chapter 7.)

Far from ending it, however, Chalcedon had made it worse, and the conflict in the capital merely reflected a strife that engulfed the whole eastern empire, and preoccupied whatever emperor might occupy the imperial palace. In Alexandria, for example, Dioscorus, an evil villain in the eyes of the Council of Chalcedon, had been deposed as patriarch and banished into exile. But he was regarded as a valiant hero by most Christians in Egypt and they later canonized him. In his place as patriarch, the Chalcedonians, enjoying imperial favor, had named the gentle priest Proterius. The Copts, as the rural people of Egypt were called, greeted this news with a riot, and imperial troops drove many of them away from their homes. Similarly, in Jerusalem the Chalcedonian Juvenal had to be escorted by soldiers into his cathedral, inciting Monophysite monks to celebrate his arrival with a rampage of looting, riot and assault.

Thereafter, the Copts at Alexandria had elected a rival patriarch, one Timothy Aelurus. This translates as, Tim the Cat, and according to some sources was bestowed on him because he allegedly was given to certain nocturnal enterprises.2 However that may be, Tim the Cat assembled a band of turbulent monks, took possession of a large church, and had himself consecrated patriarch of Alexandria. He was promptly expelled by imperial order, whereupon his adherents blamed the unfortunate Proterius, beat him to death, dragged his body through the streets, cut it up, burned it and threw the ashes into the air. The date was Good Friday, 458. The Eastern Churches venerate him as a martyr.

Leo I, by now emperor, sent Tim the Cat into exile and appointed to the Alexandrian see another man of the same name, Timothy Salophaciolus. Leo had hoped this man’s dithering theological uncertainty would somehow endear him to both parties. It endeared him to neither, and due to his nervous vacillation, history regrettably remembers him as “Timothy of the Trembling Hat.” Leo died in 474. His successors–Zeno, then Basiliscus, then Zeno again–merely sustained the chaos, because Zeno was Chalcedonian and Basiliscus Monophysite. By the time Zeno regained the throne, the patriarchs of Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch were all three in schism with Rome and Constantinople. Zeno concluded that something must be done, or the whole eastern church could disintegrate.

Consulting the patriarch of Constantinople, a suavely charming ecclesiastic named Acacius, Zeno came up with a plan. They would issue a clever document. It would placate the Monophysites by evading all the divisive issues raised by Chalcedon. It would unreservedly endorse the Nicene Creed, which was no longer seriously disputed; it would condemn Nestorius and the teachings of the monk Eutyches which had helped make Chalcedon necessary; it would endorse the teachings of Cyril of Alexandria, and finally, it would totally ignore both the Council of Chalcedon and the Tome of [Pope] Leo. They called the document the Henoticon, meaning “the Instrument of Union.” Instead, it became an instrument of conflict. How, people asked, could Rome and the pope possibly accept it? Rome did not matter, came the reply, because Rome was now being ruled by the Ostrogoths.

But Rome did matter. Ostrogoths or no Ostrogoths, Pope Felix II acted decisively. He sent two bishops to Constantinople with a summons to Patriarch Acacius to come to Rome and explain what was going on. Zeno and the smooth Acacius talked the two bishops around; both endorsed the Henoticon and refused to return to Rome. So Felix called a synod at Rome, which denounced and deposed the two bishops, denounced the Henoticon, and excommunicated and deposed Acacius. In response, Acacius excommunicated Pope Felix, and for the next thirty-five years the eastern church and the western were in schism. Zeno’s successor, Anastasius I, upheld the Henoticon then declared himself a full-fledged Monophysite. By now, with the dynasty of Leo at an end, the west was largely a smoldering ruin from the viewpoint of fashionable Constantinople, while the east was schismatic and mired in Monophysitism from the viewpoint of Rome.

However, while the bishops battled, the charitable work of the church continued, whether Monophysite or Chalcedonian. At Alexandria, a group of Monophysite nuns ran a home for girls “in trouble,” the kind of place churches would run all through the centuries and all over the world. To this home there came one day a very sad and disillusioned young woman named Theodora. She knew she could not long deceive these holy women, so she told them the truth. Since childhood, she had been a prostitute in the Hippodrome at Constantinople. Her sex shows had been the toast of the crowd. On a promise of luxurious living, a man had persuaded her to accompany him to North Africa, where he had dumped her. She was now trying desperately to get home to Constantinople, earning money for the trip the only way she knew.

The nuns took her in, and in the following weeks a strange thing occurred. Quite clearly, they said, the Holy Spirit came upon this young woman, shining forth in her so that her whole manner and outlook astonishingly changed. She returned to the capital a very different person, avoided the Hippodrome crowd, and worked as a spinner of wool in a humble cottage near the palace, contenting herself to live in Christ and accept whatever God might have in mind for her. The day came when she met again a man she had known in her former life, and by any reading of the historical records, he now fell hopelessly and irrevocably in love with her.

His name was Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, but he would soon become Justinian I, augustus of the New Rome, tireless, visionary, devout, deeply perceptive of human nature, about forty years of age, unmarried and now accepted as a lifetime bachelor. That he should marry at all was considered unlikely. That he should marry a commoner was considered inconceivable. That he should marry a former prostitute from the Hippodrome was considered not only unthinkable but illegal. However, Justinian I was not a man to let such trifling obstacles stand in his way.

He was not, it is true, altogether self-made. He had gained the imperial crown through his uncle Justin. When Anastasius, last emperor of the old dynasty, died in 518, several men tried unsuccessfully to seize control. Justin, commander of the imperial guards, the Excubitors, prevailed, and at age sixty became Justin I. He appointed his nephew the Count of the Domestics.

Little is known of the nephew’s youth. He was born around 483, in Illyricum, on the Adriatic’s east coast, along the recruiting ground for the Roman army. Early on, he took the name Justinian as a sign of gratitude to his uncle, who sent him, in his twenties, to be educated in Constantinople. Justinian made good use of that education, lived in the palace, and soon became Justin’s right-hand man and obvious successor. Not without a rival, however. Justin had given the highest military command to a well-connected ex-rebel named Vitalian. In 520, Vitalian turned up dead, the victim of a brutal murder, commonly ascribed to both nephew and uncle. In any event, the path was now open for the former to succeed the latter.

Since Justin and Justinian backed the Blues, the police tended to leave them alone during street battles, and to come down hard on the Greens. The Blues got the good government jobs, and they knew they could depend on Justinian for funding. They kept him informed of affairs in the city, and were ready to assemble crowd support wherever Justinian needed it–in the unlikely event of a power struggle upon the death of his uncle, for instance.

Sometime in the early 520s, Justinian fell in love with the woman who–against every expectation, probability and imperial protocol–would become his wife. Theodora was by all accounts bright, charming, intelligent and beautiful. Her acceptance of Christ notwithstanding, she was as ambitious as Justinian himself. Unlike Justinian’s early life, however, much is known about Theodora’s. Some would say too much, because she and her husband were to be made victims of what is arguably the most famous published smear in history.

Justinian would reign as emperor from 527 to 565, and through much of this period, his inner circle would include an official historian named Procopius, whose glowing accounts of the regime’s achievements fulfilled all the expectations of a sixth-century public relations department. However, all the while, and in the strictest secrecy, Procopius was composing a very different portrayal of the imperial couple. It remained secret for more than a century after both they and he were dead. Not until the mid-seventh century was it discreetly published as The Secret History, and achieved a limited circulation.3

The book–consisting of thirty chapters, filling about two hundred pages in a modern volume–savagely scores Justinian and others. But its continuing notoriety is fueled most especially by its lurid tales of Theodora’s early life. She began, writes Procopius, at the very bottom of the social ladder, in a family with no money or position. Her father was employed by the Greens to tend the bears that were kept to fight in the Hippodrome. He died when she was a young child and the Greens abandoned the family, leaving them destitute until the Blues gave Theodora’s stepfather a job, and employed the young Theodora in bawdy circus farces.

Procopius spares his readers no detail of the empress’s dark young life–her uninhibited exhibitionism, her “partying with ten young men or more,” her nightlong orgies, her shamelessness over these activities. He writes “with the neurotic lasciviousness of a prude,” notes the British historian Robert Browning (Justinian and Theodora, London, 1987), who warns that Procopius hated and feared the empress, and that his source for the sordid stories “was mainly malicious tittle-tattle.” However, even Procopius makes it evident that she very much wanted to escape this life, and that is why she became the official mistress of a bureaucrat named Hecebolus, who took her to North Africa and abandoned her.

Justinian had encountered Theodora in this earlier, unsavory life. Even then, he was apparently enchanted. She was already a popular entertainer, quick with one-liners and clever impersonations, smart, pretty, and uninhibited. But, the better social circles were strictly forbidden to her. Under the law, any gentleman who had sunk so low as to marry an actress would be barred as a senator. Any woman who took a stage role without her husband’s permission could find herself quickly divorced.

However, Theodora, the devout Christian, would make a far more acceptable empress than Theodora the wanton actress, and the more discerning could see that she was just what Justinian needed. He was a socially distant man who could work alone on his official papers all night with little or no sleep. She was fifteen years his junior, witty, and gracious with people in groups large and small. Historian Browning observes another factor: “At crucial moments, his courage sometimes failed him, and he floundered in indecision. Theodora was his ideal complement. She never lost her head in a crisis.” Before long, Justinian knew without any doubt that he wanted to marry her.

The obstacles were nevertheless real. Apart from her past, there was the problem of the venerable empress Euphemia, wife of his uncle Justin. Though she herself had been a concubine and slave before Justin bought and married her, she flatly rejected any suggestion that a marriage to an actress could take place. That woman? Moving into the palace? It was preposterous.

But not to Justinian. Deftly, he had his uncle confer upon Theodora the formal honor of the patriciate–the highest rank that could be bestowed upon a subject. Then in 524, Euphemia died. Neither Justinian nor Theodora grieved any more than good manners demanded, and his uncle signed an unprecedented piece of legislation. If an actress had truly rejected her former life, and had been granted high honor, she could marry any man of whatever rank. In the subsequent nine-hundred-year history of the empire, the law was applied only this once, and Justinian and Theodora were married in 525 in the Great Church.

In the same year, his emperor uncle gave Justinian the rank of caesar, and two years later made him co-emperor. On August 1, 527, Justin died, victim of an old, infected war wound on his foot. Justinian became sole emperor, with Theodora his empress. There were no other contestants. By then, writes the American historian John W. Barker (Justinian and the Later Roman Empire, Madison, 1966), Justinian had been effectually running the empire for nine years. “The Age of Justinian did not suddenly begin in 527. It had been a reality since 518.”

It was to be an age marked by vast expansion of imperial territory and munificent building programs that produced an unprecedented number of forts, aqueducts and churches. It saw a complete reorganization of the documents and principles of the law, and a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to bring eastern and western Christians into unity. “His reign,” says Barker, “was a crucial phase in the transformation of the later Roman Empire into what we call the Byzantine Empire. . . . Justinian emerges as a pivotal figure in the development of the medieval European world out of the breakup of the ancient Mediterranean world.”

Even as Justinian was being crowned, Roman troops were battling the Persian army on the Euphrates River. They were under the command of Belisarius, a tall, handsome and heroic native of what is now western Bulgaria, who would be recognized by military historians as one of the world’s greatest generals (and in the Secret History as a gullible dimwit, deceived by his treacherous and promiscuous wife). Whatever the gossip and skepticism of Procopius, the fact remains that Belisarius enabled Justinian to stabilize the Persian frontier, the constant problem of Roman emperors. He won several key battles against the Persian king Khosrov I, and forced him to sign a treaty. When Khosrov broke it, and looted cities in Armenia, Syria and Mesopotamia, Belisarius pounded him into another treaty, this one a fifty-year truce, which held.

That gave Justinian the chance to attempt the goal to which he had aspired since the crown had first seemed within his reach–the recovery of the western empire. His first objective was to regain Vandal North Africa, the project that destroyed Leo I and bankrupted his treasury. Justinian put ninety-two warships and about five hundred other vessels under Belisarius’s command in June 533. The big fleet met little resistance, landed its troops, and by March 534, North Africa had been retrieved for the empire.

On the Danube front, the Slavs4 and Hunnic Bulgars staged continual raids into Dacia, Dalmatia and Thrace. A healthy contingent of Kotrigur Huns joined them in 559, and pushed south to Thermopylae and east as far as the Constantinople wall. Belisarius went in, rallied the civilian population, and pushed the barbarians back. Border battles continued, though, and in 561, when an energetic contingent of Avars (Asian relatives of the Huns) joined in the attack, Justinian paid them off. This removed the immediate threat, though many Slavs and Bulgars settled into ethnic enclaves within the Roman territory, not fighting but not assimilating either.

But Justinian’s main target was Italy, which he had long wanted restored to the imperial fold. In the late fifth century, virtually the whole peninsula, Rome included, had fallen under the control of Theodoric, an Ostrogoth, who had embraced the religion of Arius. (See sidebar, page 262.) Justinian sent Belisarius and a fleet of ships to Sicily, where, in 540, they defeated Witigis, the new king of the Ostrogoths. Belisarius then recaptured the Italian capital of Ravenna, and re-established imperial rule.

But the recovery could not be sustained. In 541, the Ostrogoths named a new king, Totila, who within two years had regained Naples. Justinian sent Belisarius after him in 544, but by now, the imperial strength was waning and Belisarius was not adequately supplied. Totila soon controlled all but three Italian cities. The exhausted Belisarius was recalled to Constantinople, and Totila signaled a willingness to bargain.

This time, Justinian dispatched another general, the personable Narses, a eunuch, a first-rate strategist and a financial expert, with a reputation for honesty. Better supplied than Belisarius, Narses defeated Totila and killed him on the battlefield, so that by 562, the Byzantines held all of Italy once more.

What they had regained from the Ostrogoths, however, was a crippled, war-torn, poverty-stricken country in need of massive restoration. Such an effort was not forthcoming, and soon large areas of Italy would slip from the empire’s hands and into a state of destitution that would briefly leave Rome itself a silent ghost town, its famed aqueducts wrecked, struggling to stay alive. Belisarius, meanwhile, returned to the capital, and soon found himself accused of sedition and placed under guard. He was quickly absolved, however, retired with dignity, and died in 565.

Early in his reign, Justinian launched the initiative that would carry his name into legal history, establishing a foundation in law that would enable Byzantine society to function efficiently for the next nine centuries. It is known as “the Code of Justinian,” his revision of the entire Roman legal system, by then an accumulation of often contradictory laws, rescripts, regulations, traditions and precedents dating back five hundred years to the republic and beyond. The Justinian reforms were far more, however, than mere revision. His lawyers composed a textbook of Roman law called the Institutes, plus a careful selection of legal opinions from great legal scholars of the past called the Digest, and finally, a revised law code called the Codex. These three were fundamental to the history of both Byzantine and Western law.

The lawyer whom he enlisted to oversee the work was the pagan Tribonian. Aided by nine other jurists and scholars, Tribonian gathered related legislation from its myriad sources, deleted repetitions and inapplicable sections, resolved contradictions and assembled the result in rational order. In 535, they completed the job: twelve volumes containing 4,562 laws.

To Justinian also must go the credit (or blame) for ending the age-old dominance of Athens as the intellectual center of the Mediterranean world. In 529, he closed the Athenian schools. He had observed that the university professors there remained pagan, flatly refusing to bring their teaching into line with the Christian view of classical philosophy that was being developed and taught in Constantinople, Gaza and Alexandria. This new view was based upon the radical notion that the old, classical culture, which had held sway for so long, need not be abolished. Its ideals and wisdom–and its emphasis on eloquence–could be used, once its pagan elements were eliminated, in the education of Christians. At that point, writes historian Downey, the culture of Constantinople “supplanted that of Athens.”

The most serious crisis in Justinian’s reign did not come on the military front, nor the theological, nor the intellectual. It came on the civil front, and while the generals had a key part in it, the determining role was played by his wife. The source of the crisis was the conflict between the Blues and the Greens. Due to Justinian’s favorable treatment of the Blues, they became bolder, defying any authority figure that stood in their way. Finally, Justinian had to prohibit violent demonstrations and commit the government to equal treatment of the two factions.

The Blue extremists resented this. Street fights escalated. In January 532, after several people were killed, thugs from both sides were charged with murder. Two of them, one Green and one Blue, were sentenced to hang. But the nooses failed to kill them, and spectators swarmed onto the scaffold and carried them to a church, where they claimed sanctuary.5 Guards were posted around the church. Justinian, attending a race in the Hippodrome, was mobbed by members of both parties, loudly demanding pardon for the offenders. The emperor made no response. The crowd began chanting, “Nika! Nika!” the Greek word for “conquer.” That began the Nika Revolt.

Soon mobs moved in on the jail, set all the prisoners free, and torched the building. Now frenzied, they set other fires. That night and the next day, more buildings were burned. Justinian opened the Hippodrome, hoping the races would distract them. They did not. The rebels next demanded that three hated bureaucrats be dismissed. Justinian dithered, then abruptly fired all three. His capitulation made things worse. Mobs roamed the streets, burning and looting. His Senate opponents began calling for his ouster. Justinian barricaded himself in the palace and sent for Belisarius and another commander, Mundus, who assembled troops, but failed to disperse the mob.

On January 18, five days after the riots began, Justinian appeared before the angry throng in the Hippodrome, and swore he would grant a general amnesty. But the chanting and stomping continued after the emperor withdrew. His senatorial opponents thereupon presented to the crowd one Hypatius, a nephew of the late Anastasius I, who was hailed as the new emperor.

The emperor, panicking, decided to make a run for it. He ordered boats filled with provisions, gold and jewels. Then suddenly, he found himself confronted with an immovable obstacle. It was Theodora. All the wily survival instincts she had acquired from childhood onward, all the hair’s-breadth dangers she had survived, all the lessons learned when she lived on the permanent edge of death, surged into the impassioned pronouncement she now made to her husband.

Procopius, in his Secret History for once gives her credit, recording a convincing version of what she said: “Emperor, if you still want to escape, there is no problem. We have plenty of money; the sea is there; here are the ships. Nevertheless, consider. Once you’ve managed to save yourself, might you not gladly exchange your safety for death? As for me, I cherish an old expression. Royal rank is the best burial garment.”

That did it. Justinian decided to fight. Meanwhile, in the Hippodrome, the mob had convinced Hypatius that Justinian was gone, and that he should accept the role of emperor. He did, though reluctantly, apparently after failing to get word to Justinian.

It was time to strike. Belisarius and Mundus led their well-armed troops into the Hippodrome from two sides, and when they saw that the rioters were not going to be still, they swung into them with clubs and swords. The unarmed mob was overpowered. The soldiers slaughtered all who could not escape. Estimates of the death toll stagger the imagination, ranging to thirty thousand and upward. If even a fifth of such a number perished, the whole vast complex would have been drenched in blood, with bodies piled three and four deep on the bleachers.

Hypatius and the aristocrats who had tried to make him emperor were arrested and hauled before Justinian. Hypatius pleaded for mercy, saying he had been forced, and he had tried to get things under control. But Justinian opted for strong measures, and ordered Hypatius and his brother to be executed and dumped into the ocean. The scheming aristocrats were exiled and their property seized. Some years later, the emperor would restore some of the impounded properties and make provisions for the care of Hypatius’s family and that of his brother. But the effect of the Nika Revolt was to remove or silence all possible opposition, leaving Justinian unencumbered, powerful and free to take any action he wished.

It had also pulverized the capital city. The burials must have taken weeks. Thousands were missing from work. Broad swaths of ash lay where important buildings once stood. But Justinian’s response was prompt and vigorous. He launched an extravagant redevelopment program, hiring the best artisans and workmen to create striking new buildings and public spaces. Its scope and scale were unprecedented. “It is no coincidence that Justinian’s most ambitious steps were taken only after the Nika outbreak,” writes Barker. “The last obstacles to his bold schemes were now removed. It is from the quelling of this revolt that we can most decisively date the full-scale blossoming of the era of Justinian.”

The industrious Procopius recorded it all in his non-secret history, producing six books on these public works, which were not confined to the capital alone. Forts, bridges, roads, aqueducts, reservoirs, courthouses and other official buildings, warehouses, and massive cisterns were constructed in Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia, the Crimea, the Black Sea coast, the Balkan peninsula and Greece, Asia Minor and Palestine, Egypt and Africa.

Included in the program, as well, were dozens of monasteries and churches. Many still stand, including Justinian’s masterpiece, erected to replace a structure that burned to the ground during the Nika Revolt. It was the new Hagia Sophia, Holy Wisdom, known as “the Great Church,” which would serve Christendom until 1453, when the Muslim Turks converted it into a mosque. (See sidebar pages 278 and 279.) He also rebuilt the Church of the Holy Apostles, considered second in importance only to Hagia Sophia, which would serve as the architectural inspiration for the renowned Basilica of St. Mark in Venice.

However, building churches was one thing. Uniting the Christians who used them was quite something else, and here Justinian was no more successful than his predecessors. If anything, he widened the divide, not only between Chalcedonian and Monophysite Christians, but also between the Greek-speaking east and the Latin-speaking west. And in the course of his efforts, appalling situations arose. At one point, for example, his troops found themselves trying to drag away from the altar of a Constantinople church an invited guest, none other than Pope Vigilius of Rome. They subsequently kept him prisoner until he escaped by climbing over a back fence.

Things did not reach such an impasse quickly, however. They arose out of Justinian’s attempt to restore the west to the empire and to unite his whole realm under one faith. To do this, he needed both the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites. The Chalcedonians were entrenched in the west, and their support was essential for the regaining of North Africa, Spain and particularly Italy. The Monophysites, who were very strong in rural Syria and Egypt, might at any time provide some dangerous independence movement with religious credentials. However, his own household represented a certain ecumenism, for while he was a Chalcedonian, his wife had never forgotten the kind and holy nuns who had rescued her at Alexandria. Theodora was a passionate Monophysite.6

It will be recalled that when Justinian’s uncle became emperor, the eastern and western churches were in schism, the pope at Rome and the patriarch at Constantinople having excommunicated each other. Throughout the first years of his reign, Justinian sought to unobtrusively undermine the Monophysite hold on the east by appointing Chalcedonian bishops to the major sees. The policy seemed to work, and Monophysite Christianity appeared to decline–but then came Baradaeus.

A Monophysite monk from Mesopotamia of intense evangelistic zeal, Baradaeus was consecrated bishop through the influence of Theodora, and promptly began a sweeping Monophysite revival.7 He had particular appeal for the Arabs of the south, who were Monophysite Christians, allies of the empire, and a major factor in keeping Persia in check. Justinian could not risk losing their support. He therefore decided that if he could not suppress the Monophysites, he must win them over to Chalcedon. Or alternatively, he must sufficiently diminish the decisions of Chalcedon to make that council acceptable to the Monophysites.

His attempted solution became known as the Three Chapters. It referred to the writings of three theologians–Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa, all supporters of the heretic Nestorius (arch-foe of the Monophysites), and all dead. These are the “three” condemned by Justinian’s Three Chapters. What makes things confusing is that accepting the Chapters meant rejecting the three theologians and vice versa. If the rest of the church met in council and supported the Chapters, therefore, this would appear to repudiate the Nestorians and thereby reconcile the Monophysites and restore them to the fold. Such, anyway, was his hope.

The problem was that the west would very probably see the repudiation of the three theologians as an implicit repudiation of Chalcedon, which had restored Theodoret as a bishop and accepted some of the writing of Ibas. What was required, therefore, was the installation of a pope who would ratify the Chapters on his own authority, compelling the west to concur. But how could such a pope be found? Theodora knew just the man.

His name was Vigilius. He was Rome’s official legate in Constantinople, an individual of high ambition and low resolve, whom Theodora had somehow persuaded to return to Rome to work for the Monophysite cause there. In Italy, the war with the Goths was in full sway. With the help of Belisarius and his wife (the latter acting as agent for Theodora), Vigilius became pope.8 By then, he realized, however, that the western bishops were almost unanimously opposed to the Three Chapters. He therefore balked at signing, whereupon the emperor’s agents abducted him, and hustled him onto a ship. They kept him captive for a time in Sicily, then transported him as a distinguished prisoner to Constantinople, where he received a royal welcome from Justinian and Theodora at the dockside.

This amiability didn’t last, however. With Vigilius still flatly refusing to approve the Three Chapters, the mood chilled. Then he changed his mind and it warmed again, and Justinian announced his plan for a church council to approve the Chapters. When it was disclosed that scarcely a single western bishop would attend, however, Vigilius again reversed himself, defied the emperor, and took sanctuary in the Church of St. Peter in Ormisda. A squad of palace guards, disregarding the rules of sanctuary, broke into the church, and found him clinging to the altar. Two men grabbed his legs, another his beard, and pulled. But Vigilius hung on, the altar toppled, and the frightened guards hastily left.

A few days later, imperial officials persuaded Vigilius to return to his designated residence. There, he once more became a closely watched prisoner, but one night he discovered an unguarded exit, jumped a back fence, and made his way to Chalcedon across the Bosporus. He took refuge in St. Euphemia’s, the same church in which the controversial Council of Chalcedon had been held a century before.

By now, however, the Goths had been defeated in Italy, the empire was in control, and the support of the western church was far less essential. Justinian proceeded with the council. Composed almost exclusively of eastern bishops, it met on May 5, 553. Vigilius boycotted the meeting, the patriarch of Constantinople presided, and the Three Chapters were quickly approved. Prevailed upon to sign the council’s decision, Vigilius at first refused, then changed his mind one final time, and signed. He was sent home, but died en route of a kidney disease.

Pope Vigilius’s signature was by no means sufficient to gain the concurrence of the whole western church. But his successors, more decisive and persuasive men, continued to support this final act of his. In due time, the Second Council of Constantinople of 553 gained recognition as the Fifth Ecumenical Council of the Christian church (after Nicea in 325, First Constantinople in 381, Ephesus in 431 and Chalcedon in 451).

However, Justinian’s grand objective, the reconciliation of the Monophysite Christians, proved a partial success at best.9 What the Monophysites wanted was repudiation of Chalcedon, nothing less. Mere gestures to this effect did not interest them. On the other hand, the west knew very well that if the church began discrediting its councils, then no creed could be considered stable, no doctrine as ultimately true.

Theodora died in 548 of symptoms that suggest cancer. Justinian, sixty-six, was grief-stricken, and never quite recovered from the loss of his beloved wife. Though he made a desultory attempt to find another (see sidebar, page 20), he spent most of his last years studying theology and practicing a self-denying, ascetic lifestyle. He died in 565, at the age of eighty-three, after an official reign of thirty-eight years. Because he had come to be regarded as a tyrant, there was little public display of sorrow. His nephew, Justin II, took the throne amid great acclaim for what would turn out to be an undistinguished career, and Justinian was entombed in the new Church of the Holy Apostles.

In restoring the west to the empire he had failed, and in securing the unity of Christendom, he had doubly failed. Yet in one regard he would later prove to have achieved a crucial success. About five years after the death of Justinian, there was born in the dusty commercial center of Mecca, near the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula, a man named Muhammad. With the fierce fervor of a new creed and a new cause that mandated war and sanctified conquest, his disciples would swiftly crush the armies of both Persia and the New Rome.

In the ensuing century, they would subjugate, through military conquest, fully two-thirds of Christendom. In western Europe, they would be finally stopped by the Franks. Thrusting northward by sea, they would reach Constantinople, and there, too, meet defeat. Justinian had done his work well. He had readied the city for the nine-hundred-year siege that lay ahead, when it would guard and preserve all Europe for the faith of Jesus Christ.

This is the end of the Justinian category article drawn from Chapter Ten, beginning on page 254, of Volume Four, Darkness Descends. To continue reading more about Justinian from The Christians, Their First Two Thousand Years we suggest experiencing the rest of the book, complete with hundreds of magnificent illustrations, by ordering it at