Archive for the 'Justinian' Category

Why did Justinian close the Platonic Academy?

Jul 12 2011 Published by under Byzantine,Justinian,Plato,Platonic Academy

The closing down of the schools in Athens is often held up as the symbolic moment when  the traditions of the classical world finally ended.  It’s usually portrayed as the triumph of Christian intolerance over the cool-headed spirit of antiquity,  a rising tide of anti-intellectualism that snuffed out the last vestiges of the Greco-Roman tradition.  The leading actor in the saga- Justinian- is revealed to be a zealot and a boor, all too typical of the unfolding medieval age.

Unfortunately for Gibbon (and others who hold this view), it doesn’t stand up to any kind of scrutiny.  The idea of the Church being anti-intellectual is silly enough (if you enjoy reading Aristotle, Homer, or the other pagan authors of antiquity you can thank your local Byzantine monk)  As for Justinian, by the standards of the day he wasn’t particularly fanatical- quite the opposite.  He married a heretic (Theodora was Monophysite), and employed pagans- the most famous being John the Cappadocian.  There were the standard edicts ‘forbidding’ paganism but the emperor was blatantly violating that himself and there is no evidence that they were strictly enforced elsewhere.  Athens’ most famous landmark- the Parthenon- was probably still a pagan temple for the duration of Justinian’s reign.

So if he didn’t have an axe to grind against paganism why did Justinian close the Academy in 529?

Competition.  He had just founded a new University in Constantinople  which was directly under imperial control, and this was a convenient way to get rid of a rival.  He did the same thing to the main competitor of his new law school.  When an earthquake hit the renowned university of Beirut in 551 he took the opportunity to close it down (officially it was ‘moved’ but it never recovered) while transferring its most distinguished faculty to the capital.

Ruthless? Yes.  Anti-intellectual religious fanaticism? Not quite.

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How did Byzantine fashion change over time?

Julian the Apostate and Constantine XI

Ryan asks how Byzantine fashion changed over time.

In the first few centuries after Constantine, the Byzantines held true to their roots, dressing in the standard Roman toga.  But by the time of Justinian that venerable cloth was reduced to ceremonial occasions.  Most Byzantines preferred more simple, flowing clothes like the tunic that the ancient Romans had worn under their togas.  For the poor, this held true for virtually the entire span of the empire.

servants carrying a noblewoman

The clothes servants are shown in during the 10th century could easily be the ones their ancestors were wearing eight centuries before.    The wealthy, however, could show a good deal more variety.    Over their tunics the fashionable would wear a ‘dalmatica’- a heavier, more ornate cloth often tapering to a point. Justinian’s is a royal purple color, clasped at the shoulder with a heavy pendant. Half a millennium later, the emperor Leo the Wise was depicted wearing something very similar and clasped at the same shoulder. (This was originally a military convention that left the right arm free for easy access to the sword)


Leo the Wise








The toga did survive, but in heavily modified form. The imperial loros was an ornamental, stylized version that would be worn around the neck of an emperor and folded over his arm. Here Romanus III is shown wearing it in the 11th century.

While not attending to state functions, emperors tended to dress in ‘simple’ tunics.  Here Basil the Macedonian meets his son Leo VI on the fateful hunting trip that would result in the former’s death.

Emperor Basil greets his son Leo

Even their shoes are relatively simple- the only distinction being their scarlet color which was reserved for the reigning emperors.  Footwear in general was in the sensible Roman style of straps over a thick leather sole.  (My high school self would also like to point out that the Ravenna mosaics show them wearing white socks with their sandals)

I was in good company

Throughout their history, the Byzantines tended to be more conservative with hemlines than their ancestors.  They wore layers of clothes, sleeves went to wrists, and garments usually went to the ankles.  Even the poor, who couldn’t afford (or want to get tangled in) robes that reached the floor, would wear leggings under their tunics.

But in other ways, the Byzantines were much more expressive.  Where the Romans had preferred simple white robes, the Byzantines were fascinated by patterns and incorporated them into virtually all their clothing.  Utilizing a special form of silk called ‘samite’ or occasionally gold fibers, they embroidered tunics, dalmaticas, and even leggings and boots.  Trade with the East brought in exotic colors and ornamentation- along with new styles to add to the mix.  The nobility in particular got increasingly flamboyant toward the end- here is a 14th century merchant named Theodore Metochites proudly displaying the cutting edge of fashionable head wear.

A century later the emperor John VIII brought the then current version on his tour of early Renaissance Italy.

This was not what Western Europe expected Roman Emperors to look like, and such exotic dress made it that much easier to believe that they were never Roman to begin with.  A mere hundred years after the imperial visit a German historian coined the term ‘Byzantine’ to highlight their ‘non-Romaness’.  With that- as far as many westerners were concerned- the Eastern Romans were effectively cut out of history.

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Did Justinian help Islam to spread?

Jan 08 2011 Published by under Islam,Justin II,Justinian,Maurice,Phocas,Tiberius II

Matthew asks if Justinian unwittingly aided the spread of Islam by exhausting the resources of the empire with his conquest of Italy.

Byzantium was certainly weaker at Justinian’s death than it had been at the start of his reign, but that was not entirely his fault.  Invasions are expensive, but Justinian had good reason to think that on balance the empire would be enriched with the addition of Italy.  After all the capture of North Africa was lucrative enough to pay for itself within a few years, and it soon became the wealthiest province of the empire.

Italy turned out to be a different proposition- mostly because the emperor couldn’t bring himself to trust Belisarius or fund him appropriately.  This vacillation extended the length of the war but it wasn’t what doomed his conquests- given enough time Italy almost certainly would have become a productive imperial possession.  What destroyed the Justinianic renaissance was the plague which hit in 541 and killed a quarter of the Mediterranean population.  The empire was left reeling with longer boarders, fewer soldiers to patrol them, and fewer taxpayers to pay for it all.

Justinian was forced to depend on his shrinking gold reserves to defend the empire- reducing the ‘bread and circuses’ to buy off the barbarians on every side.  His successor Justin II didn’t understand the political realities of the weakened state and slammed on the spending brakes- causing the collapse of the careful alliances Justinian had built up and triggering waves of invasion.  The disasters unhinged his mind and he spent the rest of his reign being wheeled through the palace in a golden wagon biting anyone who was foolish enough to come within range.  He recovered enough to appoint Tiberius II as successor and (given the circumstances) surprisingly offered him the following bit of wisdom: ‘consult the experience rather than the example of your predecessor.’

Tiberius was more than happy to abandon any hint of austerity.  In a bid to be popular he managed to blow through 29,000 pounds of gold in four years, tactfully exiting the stage just in time to leave his successor with an empty treasury and several wars brewing.  There was little the new emperor Maurice could do other than to raise taxes and divert everything to the army.  He managed to settle most of the wars but his cost cutting made him so unpopular that he was easily overthrown by a soldier named Phocas who promised circuses and free food for everyone.  Of course there was no money to do that so he concentrated on killing everyone who looked at him sideways, using his free time to start a war with Persia- the one enemy that had miraculously been at peace with the empire.  Phocas was thankfully replaced by Heraclius and the new emperor managed to claw his way to victory against Persia after 17 years of a bruising war.

It was at this point with the empire exhausted, demoralized, religiously divided, and impoverished, that the first Muslim army arrived.

Persia and Byzantium were like prize fighters who had knocked each other out.  Just how fatigued they were can be seen by the speed with which they collapsed.  Within four years the last Persian Shah was dead and his kingdom conquered.  Byzantine Jerusalem barely resisted, Alexandria voluntarily opened its gates, and North Africa put up only a sporadic resistance.

So how much is Justinian to blame?  Certainly some- the conquests of Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain were a tremendous short-term drain of resources.  But even if he hadn’t gone west the plague would still have decimated Byzantium.  At his death the empire was stretched, but with capable leaders it could have been preserved.  Instead he was followed by the foolish (and insane) Justin II, the profligate Tiberius II, and the bloodthirsty Phocas.  If Heraclius had followed Maurice instead of Phocas, Byzantium and Persia would have been infinitely stronger.  The armies of Islam would have had to contend with the powerful buffer of Persia and if they had broken through they would have met Heraclius’ able grandson Constans II- who had the makings of a brilliant general.

Islam would have been contained within the Arabian peninsula, North Africa may have resembled Western Europe, and the world would be a much different place.  As it is Constans II was killed in his bath, Persia was submerged under a Muslim tide, and within half a century the Arabs were in Europe and poised to attack Constantinople by both land and sea.

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What was the point of the Byzantine Senate?

Nov 03 2010 Published by under Byzantine Senate,Heraclius,Justinian,Nika Riots,Senate

It’s the morning after an election and as luck would have it Shane asks a political question- what did the Senate do other than enrich itself and plot?

Aristotle first observed that ‘man is a political animal’ and as far as senators go that animal hasn’t changed in more than 2,000 years.

From the beginning Byzantine senators were lured east by the perks- free grain and land at the state’s expense.  There were relatively few duties to get in the way of enjoying the good life.  While the Roman Empire held on to the conceit that it was a Republic long after any trace of representative government had vanished- as late as the 6th century it was still issuing coins proclaiming the Republic- actual responsibilities were few and far between.  There was an obscure clause in one of Justinian’s law codes that said any new law had to be discussed by the Senate, but it was never enforced.  Their sole administrative duty was to manage the spending of money on the exhibition of games or public works.  This was not a highly lucrative job, so most senators (there were 2,000 of them) used the office for tax reasons- namely to escape the fees levied on others. (the more things change…)

Of course the Senate never quite forgot its august history and there were sporadic attempts to grasp real power.  In 532 they participated in the Nika Riots hoping to replace Justinian with one of their own members.  (Justinian repaid them by confiscating the Senate House and turning it into a reception hall for the Great Palace.)  In 608 they elected Heraclius as Consul, then elevated him to emperor against the usurper Phocas.  On his deathbed in 641, Heraclius thanked them by entrusting his young son Heraklonas to their care.  The Senate promptly deposed the boy and replaced him with a grandson of Heraclius named Constans II.  For the next three years the empire was openly ruled by the Senate- the first time since the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC.

That turned out to be the swan song of senatorial ambition.  After Constans came of age their importance quickly declined.  The Macedonian emperors stripped them of most of their remaining duties and the Senate was turned into a glorified imperial court.  Ordinary criminals were given a jury of 5 senators chosen by lot, while high treason involved the whole body.  There was still a whiff of prestige attached to the name, but Alexius Comnenus did away with that by allowing anyone to purchase senatorial rank directly from the emperor.

Their last known act was to elect a man named Nicholaus Kanabus as emperor in opposition to the pathetic Isaac II during the fourth Crusade.  Nicholaus- a gentle man- immediately fled to the Hagia Sophia and refused to come out.  But his resistance to the imperial summons failed to save him.  Another man seized control of the government, and as a warning to any challengers had Nicholaus dragged out of the church and strangled.

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Did Justinian have Belisarius blinded?

Reader Bryan asked what I thought of the legend that Belisarius was blinded by Justinian.  According to the story, a jealous and fearful Justinian arrested Belisarius after his final victory and had him tried for treason.  The loyal general’s eyes were put out, his estates confiscated, and he was forced to wander the streets of Constantinople begging for bread while contemplating the vicissitudes of fortune.

Belisarius did briefly fall out of favor late in Justinian’s reign, but was publicly rehabilitated.  The story of his blinding originated in the 12th century with the monk John Tzetzes who was trying to criticize the political figures of his own day.  It made for a good morality tale, and was pressed into service in the 18th century by Europeans (mostly French) who saw a parallel between the tyranny of Justinian and their own autocratic societies. (see the spectacular painting by Jacques-Louis David and the play ‘Bélisaire’ by Jean-François Marmontel)

Some scholars still argue that the legend does have some basis in fact (Justinian was certainly capable of it), but there are several reasons not to accept it.  The Crusaders who sacked Constantinople in 1204 mentioned several large statues of Belisarius still standing.  Had he been blinded and disgraced these surely would have been torn down.  Along the same lines there was also a great cycle of mosaics detailing the victories of Justinian and Belisarius above the gate to the imperial palace.  These were made during Justinian’s lifetime and were still in place a thousand years later.  Finally, there are the writings of the contemporary historian Procopius.  In his ‘Secret History’ he makes no mention of the emperor humiliating his general, despite the fact that he clearly hated Justinian and was trying to blacken his name.  He accuses Justinian of being a devil in the shape of a man, of being responsible for the deaths of a trillion people, and of having a head that would routinely disappear- but not of harming Belisarius.

Nevertheless the legend persists- perhaps because its lesson still resonates.  As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow summed it up neatly in his poem about the great general:

“Ah! Vainest of all things

Is the gratitude of kings.”

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