Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Byzantine Empire - Trouble at Home and Abroad

Assassination of Chosroes
he outer fringes of the Byzantine Empire were now suffering from depredation. There was insurrection, started by Moorish tribes, spreading across Africa. While the Ostrogoths were hitting back in Italy and had recaptured Naples. In Persia Chosroes’ plans for yet another attack on the empire had been stymied by further bout of the plague and a rebellion fomented by one of his sons. But this was offset in late summer by the annihilation of a large Byzantine army by a much smaller Persian force. The army had been marching into Persian held Armenia.

Trouble in Italy

In Italy the Goths had chosen a new king, Hildebad, but he had not much more than a thousand fighting men. Five Byzantine generals of secondary abilities were stationed in Italy, with no one supreme commander. In May 541 Hildebad was beheaded by one of his guards. His successor tried to come to terms with Justinian and he too died a violent death.

The new king now elected was known as Totila and was Hildebad's nephew. Totila was to bring about a resurgence of Goth fortunes. Totila had been negotiating with the Byzantines, but when elected to the kingship declared war. Aware that the Goths were a minority in the country Totila courted the Italian lower and middle classes. They threw their lot in with Totila and his men in an attempt to throw off the yoke of empire; having been subject to the rapacity of Justinian’s tax collectors[i].

Within months of his accession Totila was able to throw back an imperial army of twelve thousand men from the gates of Verona and wiped out another in a pitched battle outside Faventia[ii]. In spring 542 AD the Goths routed the army of Vitalian’s nephew John, the ablest of the five Byzantine generals in Italy. Totila’s army now laid siege to Naples.

Totila besieging Florence
Justinian appointed a Praetorian Prefect who took up residence in Syracuse and refused to leave the town. Totila defeated a naval expedition sent to relieve Naples and a second expedition, sent by the prefect in January 543 AD, was destroyed in a storm. In May the Neapolitans surrendered.  The Byzantine garrison were allowed to leave in peace with all their possessions and ships were provided to take them to Rome. For the remainder of the year Totila strengthened his hold on the peninsula.

In January 544 AD the Byzantine generals based in Italy wrote to Justinian informing him that they could no longer defend Byzantine interests. This letter convinced Justinian to send Belisaurus back to Italy. Totila addressed an appeal to the Senate in Rome

‘Surely in these evil days you must sometimes remember the benefits you were wont to receive, not so very long ago, at the hands of Theodoric and Amalasuntha…….My Roman friends, only compare the memory of those rulers with what we now know of the conduct of the Greeks towards their subjects.’[iii]

John, the nephew of Vitalian, forbad the Senate to reply and Totila tried a direct appeal to the Roman populace. The populace, perhaps put off by the military based in the city, did not rise up. Totila had been busy in the south besieging Hydruntum[iv]. He left a small force to continue the siege and marched most of his troops to Rome.

Belisaurus Returns

Belisaurus was given command of the army in the west, although he had hoped for the eastern command. Antonina refused to return to somewhere she had been so grossly insulted and in this she was supported by the empress.

In May 544 AD Belisaurus returned to Italy, not ranked as Magister Militum but as Comes Stabuli[v]; but Justinian had given him only inexperienced troops, little authority and no funds. Within a year he had raised the siege of Hydruntum, and Auximum and rebuilt the walls of Pesaro. Belisaurus had however seen desertions from his troops, many of whom had not been paid for over a year. With a population hostile to his forces and all they represented Belisaurus was facing an uphill task.

 In May 545 AD he wrote to Justinian informing the emperor that he desperately needed men, horses, military equipment and money. The letter was sent in the hands of John, who dallied in Constantinople for long enough to woo and marry the emperor’s cousin, thus increasing his influence in the imperial court. He finally returned bring a large force of Romans and barbarians under his own command and an Armenian general named Isaac.

The Fall of Rome


As the new Byzantine forces landed Totila’s army arrived at the walls of Rome and laid siege to the city. Bessas, the commander of the garrison was of Goth origin and his loyalties were uncertain; having failed to lay in emergency supplies[vi]. Totila’s fleet lay at the mouth of the Tiber. Belisaurus’s relief force broke through the chains laid across the river. Part of the army had been left in control of Portus, with supplies, reserves, the last few vessels and most important of all for Belisaurus, his wife Antonina, under the control of General Isaac.

About to attack the last major obstacle on the Tiber, before Rome, Belisaurus was informed that Isaac was dead. Isaac had been informed that he was not to leave his post under ANY circumstances. Belisaurus assumed that Portus had been taken and his enemies now had Antonina in their hands. He called off the attack and returned, only to find that Isaac had disobeyed orders and had attacked Ostia. Portus and Antonina were safe.

‘Totila was desperate to catch him outside a protecting wall; but he failed to make contact, as Belisaurus and the entire Roman army were in the grip of panic fear, with the result that he not only failed to recover a yard of lost ground but actually lost Rome as well, and very nearly everything else.’[vii]

This last chance to relieve Rome was lost as a result of Isaac’s disobedience and Belisaurus’s uxorious inclinations. In December 546 AD a group of disaffected soldiers opened the Asinarian gate and the Goths finally retook the city. Bessas fled with most of the garrison and some nobles. The population took refuge in the city’s churches.

Totila sent ambassadors to Justinian suggesting peace.

‘It is our wish that you should accept for yourself the blessings of peace, and that you should also grant them to us…….we have excellent examples and reminders in Anastasius and Theodoric, who ruled not long ago and whose reigns were given over to peace and prosperity.’[viii]

Justinian was unwillingly to ‘throw away’ the last ten years of campaigning and the loss of his cherished ambition to re-unite the two halves of the old Roman Empire. He claimed that Belisaurus was the person to whom the proposals should be addressed. Rome was recaptured in April 547 AD and held for three years before it was lost again.

Religious Disputes

Justinian was now heavily involved in theological matters. The orthodox view of the identity of Christ had been laid down by the Council of Chalcedon nearly a century before. In himself Christ united the human and divine. This viewpoint had never been accepted by the monophysites (of whom Theodora was one) who believed in only a divine aspect to Christ.

The monophysites were to be found in the eastern Mediterranean and were too numerous to be eliminated. Egypt, the empire’s source of grain, was a centre for the monophysites and harsh treatment could incite a rebellion. Treating them too well ran the risk of upsetting the orthodox. For years Justinian had been outwardly rigid, but his hard line was tempered by Theodora, who had maintained a discreet monastery in the Great Palace.

Now a charismatic new leader, Jacob Baradeus, was championing the monophysite cause. He was consecrated Bishop of Edessa in 543 AD, by the exiled Patriarch of Alexandria; although unable to take up his see Jacob embarked on a mission to revive monophysitism. He travelled through Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor consecrating thirty bishops in his travels and ordaining several thousand priests.

Justinian was already being criticised for his ‘hands-off’ policy towards the monophysites, yet their newly awakened fanaticism required careful handling if rebellion against the empire was not to ensue. He chose instead to chastise the Nestorians, an obscure sect who proclaimed the humanity of Christ rather than his divinity. Very few remained in the empire, most had fled to Persia; the paucity of Nestorians in the empire meant that action against them would not cause the crises that attacking the monophysites might. The Nestorians had the additional attraction of being hated by Orthodox and monophysites alike.

The anti-Nestorian edict in 544 AD pleased very few; the orthodox toed the emperor’s line, somewhat unwillingly. The monophysites were unappeased, having expected concessions from Justinian, while the Roman clergy were livid with anger. Justinian had condemned writings accepted by the Council of Chalcedon and the papal legate in Constantinople pronounced a ban on the Patriarch. Justinian had offended the Roman church at a problematic time in Italy for the empire.

In the autumn of 545, as Totila’s army surrounded Rome, a company of excubitors seized Pope Vigilius and carried him off down river. He was taken to Catania in Sicily, where he stayed for a year, not arriving in Constantinople until January 547 AD. He still stood firm in refusing to condemn the works disparaged in Justinian’s edict of 544 AD. Vigilius was given a palace of his own, but even so placed the patriarch and all bishops, who had subscribed to the edict, under several months excommunication.

Pressure from Theodora and Justinian resulted in a show of reconciliation between Vigilius and the Patriarch Mennas on 29th June. The Pope also handed Justinian his signed condemnation of the chapters referred to in the edict. The condemnation was not published until April 548 AD.

Eleven weeks later Theodora was dead. After her death many of her former protégés repudiated statements made during her lifetime, supporting the edicts. Vigilius’ actions had weakened the authority of the Council of Chalcedon and he was reviled as a turncoat; some African bishops excommunicated him.


Byzantium – The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003

The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990

[i] The tax collectors were given one twelfth of all they collected.
[ii] Faenza
[iii] Byzantium - Norwich
[iv] Otranto
[v] Count of the Stable
[vi] During the siege itself Bessas sold off what meagre supplies were available on the black market.
[vii] Secret History - Procopius
[viii] Byzantium - Norwich

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

The Byzantine Empire - Fighting in the West and the East

Belisaurus and Narses
Mural of a man believed to be Narses

The Goths now besieged Araminum where five thousand Byzantine troops were ensconced under the leadership of John, nephew of Vitalian[i]. John had refused an order from Belisaurus to join him in Ancona.

‘When John was again despatched to Italy, he dared not go anywhere near Belisaurus for fear of Antonina’s machinations, until that lady was safe in Byzantium. For there was every reason to suspect that the empress had entrusted her with the task of arranging his murder.’[ii]

John was in contact with the estranged wife of the new Ostrogoth leader, Queen Matasuntha. Belisaurus was contemplating his next move when the powerful Narses arrived with reinforcements.

The Grand Chamberlain Narses was one of the most powerful people in the empire. His close proximity to Justinian only increased his influence. But despite his appointment as Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard Narses was not a soldier. So why did the emperor send him? Norwich believes that the emperor was suspicious of Belisaurus’ motives and ambitions. Narses was sent to keep an eye on a potential candidate for the imperial throne.

At a council of war it was agreed that John’s forces at Arminum should be relieved; Narses having indicated that this would be Justinian’s preferred option. Belisaurus put the besieging Ostrogoths to flight within a couple of weeks. He must have been annoyed when John ignored him and attributed his relief solely to the brilliance of Narses. Belisaurus was now aware that a large contingent of his army would follow Narses rather than himself in the event of any disputation between the two.

The army was split into two to mop up the remaining Ostrogoth defences. Milan opened its gates to the Byzantine army and the Ostrogoth king sent a force to regain this largest of the Italian towns. They were joined by ten thousand troops from Burgundy. The relieving force was numerically overwhelmed and refused Belisaurus’s orders, claiming they could only take orders from Narses. Narses’ confirmation came too late; the Milanese had already surrendered. All the male Milanese were put to the sword and the women were enslaved and handed over to the Burgundians in acknowledgement of their support.

One of the side effects of the fall of Milan was Narses’ recall. The mopping up detail was assisted by the appearance of a large Frankish army. The Ostrogoths were attacked by their former allies, who fell on them and large numbers of Goths fled southwards. The Franks also turned on the Byzantine army but fell victim to dysentery.

The Ostrogoths wrote to the Persians suggesting that they strike at the empire, before it could call on the resources of Italy as well. The news of this reached Justinian, who was faced with a dilemma. Should he continue with the conquest of Italy or concentrate his forces to see off the Persian armies. He decided to come to terms with the Ostrogoths and sent ambassadors at the end of 539 AD tasked with reaching agreement. The Ostrogoths demanded that the treaty be signed not only by Justinian’s envoys but also by Belisaurus, who saw the treaty as a betrayal of all he had worked to achieve in the peninsula.

Belisaurus claimed that the treaty was an insult to his soldiers and that victory was only a few weeks away. He refused to append his signature to the treaty. The Ostrogoth king sent a messenger to Belisaurus offering to make him king of the Ostrogoths if he would agree to declaring himself Emperor in the West. Belisaurus appeared to accept the offer saying he would proclaim himself emperor once he had entered his capital as king of the Ostrogoths. The Goths accepted this prevarication and were betrayed when Belisaurus transported their nobility off to Constantinople as prisoners along with the royal treasury. Belisaurus returned to Constantinople in May 540 AD.

War with Persia

Coins of Chosroes reign
In June the troops of King Chosroes of Persia captured Antioch, massacring most of the inhabitants and demolishing the city. His troops had already taken Sura and burned Beroea (Aleppo). Having made off with large amounts of spoils Chosroes offered Justinian peace at a price, which Justinian was prepared to pay; five thousand pounds of gold upfront and an additional five hundred pounds per annum to be added to the annual payment made to the Persians.

‘To Chosroes Justinian handed over vast sums in gold to secure peace’[iii]

Belisaurus had stayed in Constantinople; apparently obsessed with his wife’s infidelity, which Theodora abetted, protecting Antonina. Long time friends, Theodora and Antonina were now bound by the enmity towards John of Cappodocia, who was known to harbour imperial ambitions. Antonina inveigled him into a secret meeting and persuaded him to talk of his plans. Theodora’s hidden spies recorded the conversation and John was arrested, found guilty and stripped of his wealth. He was not mutilated or executed but merely exiled.

‘Antonina, as I have said, had fallen out with her husband, but was an inseparable friend of the empress because she had recently contrived to ruin John the Cappodocian.’[iv]

Chosroes returned the following year, breaching his own peace treaty. The semi-autonomous kingdom of Colchis had been sent a personal representative of Justinian’s. The representative had instituted a number of imperial monopolies and had antagonised the citizens of Colchis. Their king appealed to Chosroes for assistance. Colchis was a poor country, but offered a bridgehead on the Black Sea, from whence expeditions against the Byzantine Empire could be launched.

‘Again, the Persians under Chosroes thrice invaded the rest of the Roman territory and razed the cities to the ground. Of the men and women they captured in the cities that they stormed and in the various country districts, some they butchered, others they carried away with them, leaving the land completely uninhabited wherever they happened to swoop. And from the time when they first invaded Colchis the destruction of the Colchians, the Lazi, and the Romans has continued to this day.’[v]

Chosroes launched an expedition into Lazica, capturing its port city of Petra[vi]. Belisaurus meanwhile launched an attack into Persian territory capturing the town of Sisaurana, but an attack of dysentery amongst his men meant that they had to retire.
Sex and the City

Antonina now required Theodora’s support in return. She had been conducting an affair with her godson and adopted child Theodosius. The scandal rocked Constantinople. Antonina’s son Photius informed Belisaurus of the affair. Photius detested his mother, whom he suspected of plotting to kill him. Antonina had announced her intention of joining Belisaurus in the east. It was planned that once she arrived Photius would kidnap and imprison Theodosius.

Antonina was arrested upon arrival and Photius had Theodosius was arrested and confined. However somehow Antonina managed to get word to Theodora and Photius was arrested in turn along with a number of Belisaurus’s friends, who were tortured along with Photius, who was to remain incarcerated for three years, but failed to inform Theodora’s servants of the whereabouts of Theodosius.

‘There she imprisoned Photius and kept him guarded for a long time. From this prison he had the extraordinary luck to escape twice over and get clear.……..convinced by this vision, he broke out of his prison and made his way to Jerusalem without being caught………Belisaurus, on the other hand, had paid no regard to his oaths and had chosen to give no help at all to his stepson.’[vii]

Antonina became reconciled with Belisaurus, while Theodora’s agents discovered the whereabouts of Theodosius and restored him to his mistress, only to die a short time later of dysentery.

Year of the Plague

Coin from Justinian's reign

In 542 AD the Bubonic plague spread across the empire; originating from Egypt, killing off over ten thousand people a day at its height. Over three hundred thousand people are estimated to have died; as much as 40% of the population. Justinian fell ill, which opened the question of the succession. Theodora knew that her future safety depended on a successor who was her supporter and with whom she could marry.

The choice of emperor lay with the army and they were in Mesopotamia. When the news of Justinian’s illness reached them they agreed not to accept a diktat from Constantinople. With Justinian too ill to rule Theodora was now in charge. She was furious and blamed Belisaurus and another general named Buzes, who was thrown into the capital’s dungeons.

Belisaurus was too powerful to be dealt with in the same manner as Buzes and he was instead accused of stealing monies from the Vandal and Goth treasuries; monies that should rightfully have enriched the Imperial Treasury. Belisaurus was removed from his command, his household disbanded and his treasury confiscated by Theodora’s agents.

It was not until the following year that Justinian was well enough to intervene. Belisaurus was pardoned and partially restored to favour; his treasury was returned to him with the exception of 3,300 cwt of gold, which Theodora had gifted to her husband. Belisaurus and Antonina’s only child was affianced to Theodora’s grandson Anastasius. Theodora informed Belisaurus by letter that she had only forgiven him because of her close friendship with Antonina.

It is unlikely that Belisaurus was forgiven for any other reason than practicality. The situation in the east was deteriorating rapidly and Belisaurus’s military skills were desperately required.


Byzantium – The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003

The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990

[i] Vitalian was a military adventurer of Goth origins who had supported Orthodoxy against Anastasius’s monophysite beliefs and had brought an army three times up to the walls of Constantinople.
[ii] Secret History - Procopius
[iii] Ibid
[iv] Ibid
[v] Ibid
[vi] Not Petra in Jordan, already in ruins.
[vii] Secret History - Procopius

Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Byzantine Empire - Expanding the Empire

Early in Justinian’s reign the treasury was hit by a number of large demands for monies; not just bread and circuses. The government provided support for cities struck by earthquake, helping survivors – Antioch in 528 AD and Laodicea in the following year. A war with Persia swallowed up men and money until peace was agreed in 531 AD. The peace required a tribute of 11,000 lbs of gold per annum to the Persians. In addition Justinian commenced a lavish building programme.

This expenditure was funded by taxes. A reorganisation of the tax collection system provided economies of scale and increased revenue. To provide funds for the increase expenditure new taxes had to be invented and for the first time the rich too had to pay. Centralisation of government reduced the power of local officials.
Unfortunately the man Justinian placed in charge of the reforms, John of Cappodocia, although an extremely able official, was also morally depraved. He imprisoned, flogged and even tortured those he suspected of under-declaring or hiding their wealth. His ‘private’ life was viewed with contempt by his contemporaries and he was seen as a glutton, drunkard and debauchee.

By 532 AD John of Cappodocia was the most hated man in the empire; but his bad reputation was closely matched by that of the Quaestor of the Sacred Palace. Tribonian, who was the most senior law officer of the government, was a pagan and corrupt; prepared to sell justice to the highest bidder. He was a charming and erudite man, whose breadth of knowledge may have attracted the emperor’s attention.
Justinian wanted Tribonian to undertake a re-codification of Roman law. The new Codex was completed in fourteen months and by mid-April 529 AD was in force throughout the empire. A year later a second commission under Tribonian began a second codification.

The Nika Riots
The first five years of Justinian’s reign created the emperor a lot of enemies. He dispensed with the support of the Blue faction and now both the Blue and Green factions found themselves being brutally suppressed.

In 532 AD after races at the Hippodrome the two factions came to blows and Justinian sent in the troops. Seven of the ringleaders were condemned to death, but two of the seven were found to be alive after the bodies were brought down from the scaffold; one Blue and one Green. The two men were rescued by a group of monk and taken to sanctuary, where the City prefect decided to starve them out, placing the buildings under guard.
The crowd at the next meeting at the Hippodrome chanted the word ‘Nika’[i] over and over again. The games were abandoned in disarray and the mob spilled out into the streets where they commenced by setting fire to the City Prefect’s palace and freeing all the prisoners.

The second night of rioting called for the dismissal of the City prefect and John of Cappodocia. By the fifth day the mob were demanding a new emperor and Justinian faced them down at the Hippodrome, taking full blame for the disturbances and promising an amnesty for all who had taken part in the riots.
The mob were still calling for a new emperor, crowning one of Emperor Anastasius’ nephews Hypatius. Justinian was meanwhile arranging for the court to leave the capital. It was now that Theodora intervened.

‘Every man born into the light of day must sooner or later die. And how could an emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive?’[ii]
Two generals, Belisaurus and Mundus were authorised to use arms to restore order. With assistance from the Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard Narses; the soldiers slaughtered the crowds at the Hippodrome. On Theodora’s order Hypatius and his brother were executed, to avoid the risk of their being used in any future revolt. Within a few weeks Justinian had reinstated both the City Prefect and John of Cappodocia.

After the riots large swathes of Constantinople required rebuilding and Justinian already in his fifties, wanted to see the buildings completed in his lifetime.

Justinian believed not only in one church, but also in one empire. His goal was the recovery f the empire lost in the west; he considered it his Christian duty. The empire’s most talented general, Belisaurus, had already inflicted defeat on the Persians to the east. He was now ready to take an army to Africa. Belisaurus’s main liability was his wife Antonina, a friend of Theodora’s. The two had shared a similar lifestyle when young and Antonina had borne several children, in and out of wedlock. Belisaurus took her with him on campaign, possibly as the best method of keeping her under some control.
Procopius was not impressed with Antonina

‘So it was already her intention to be unfaithful from the start. She took great care to conceal this business, not because her conduct gave her any qualms, or because she stood in any fear of her spouse - she never felt the slightest shame for any action whatever, and thanks to her regular use of magic she could twist her husband round her little finger – but because she dreaded the vengeance of the empress; for Theodora was only to ready to rage at her and bare her teeth. But by assisting her in matters of exceptional importance she quickly brought her to heel.’[iii]

In under three months Belisaurus captured Carthage from the Vandals. Their prince was not killed and he rallied his remaining forces taking to the field again in early December 533 AD. On the 1115th Belisaurus defeated the Vandals and took the Vandal city of Hippo, along with the Royal Treasury. Belisaurus was awarded a triumph; the first person not a member of the imperial family to be awarded one for over a century. Justinian and Theodora received the submission of the Vandal prince in the Hippodrome.
Justinian’s eyes had now turned westwards to where the Ostrogoths ruled as nominal Viceroys for the emperor. Justinian had been in contact with Amalasuntha, the mother of the young king; she had come to an agreement with Justinian as the Ostrogoth nobles had removed her son from her care. After the death of her son she was imprisoned by her cousin Theodahad’s nobles[iv] and Justinian wrote to the Ostrogoth court demanding her release, promising to intervene in Ostrogoth affairs if this was not done.

Theodora meanwhile had written to Theodahad assuring him that Justinian would be happy if Theodahad had his cousin put out of the way. It is not known whether this letter was part of a plan organised between Justinian and Theodora; or as Procopius suggests, that the empress was motivated by jealousy of an intelligent and cultivated woman, who she may have viewed as a threat.
‘Theodora reflected that the woman was an aristocrat and a queen, besides being extremely attractive in appearance and as swift as lightning to find means to her ends, and being suspicious of her splendid and extraordinarily masculine bearing, the fickle spirit of her own husband giving her further cause for alarm.’[v]

Justinian sent General Mundus to occupy Dalmatia. Mundus was killed in battle, while Belisaurus took Sicily without much opposition. At this point Belisaurus was called back to Africa to deal with a mutiny in the Imperial Army of Occupation.
It was not until spring 536 AD that Belisaurus was able to begin campaigning on the Italian mainland. After a siege Naples was taken and then sacked. Theodahad was blamed by the Goths for failing to relieve the city. It was believed that he had been bribed by Justinian to betray his country; while the Imperial Army sets its sights on Rome. Theodahad had already accepted one bribe from Justinian and failed to deliver on his promise and now he was deposed by the tribal elders. Theodohad fled but was caught and executed at Ravenna.

Belisaurus spent the summer and autumn consolidating his grip on southern Italy; moving northwards in December to occupy Rome. The Goth garrisons marched out of the city as the Imperial army marched in. The Goths, as expected, returned to lay siege to the city; but Belisaurus had organised his troops to repair the city walls and commandeer supplies.
The siege lasted 373 days and the Goths commenced by cutting all the aqueducts; which provided not only the majority of the city’s water, but also provided the power to grind corn for bread, the staple food of the masses.

The siege was raised after a contingent of Belisaurus’s men took the town of Ariminum, two hundred miles to the Goths’ rear. A truce in November, for peace terms to be considered by Justinian, had allowed a reprovisioning of the city. In mid-March 538 AD the Goth troops withdrew and Belisaurus and his men fell on the retreating army, leaving large numbers of Goth troops dead, some drowned in the Tiber’s spring flood. A few days later Belisaurus set out to conquer the north.

Byzantium – The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003
The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990

[i] Win; this was normally followed by the name of the faction being supported. In this instance the crowd continually chanted the single word nika.
[ii] Byzantium - Norwich
[iii] Secret History - Procopius
[iv] Amalasuntha and her cousin Theodahad had agreed to share the ruling of the Ostrogoth kingdom between them, but this agreement soon unravelled.
[v] Secret History - Procopius

Thursday, 6 September 2012

The Byzantine Empire - Theodora – Actress to Empress

Theodora, future empress of the Byzantine Empire, was born in 500 AD, the daughter of a bear-keeper. Her father, Acacius, was employed by the Green faction at Constantinople’s Hippodrome[i]. Her mother was a circus performer, possibly an acrobat. This alone would have been enough to bar Theodora from the upper echelons of society. But as a child Theodora joined her sister on the stage playing low burlesque.
Theodora’s father died when she was six and her mother remarried hoping that the role of Green’s bear-keeper would be given to her new husband. The job had already been awarded to another applicant. Theodora’s mother took her three daughters to the Circus and appealed to the audience. The Greens ignored the appeal, but the Blue faction supported the indigent widow; possibly to highlight the uncharitable actions of the Greens. The Blues found Theodora’s stepfather a job and from then on all her loyalties were for the Blue faction and she became an inveterate hater of the Greens.

A talented mimic, Theodora soon attracted followers and graduated to the role of courtesan. Procopius claimed that, while still too young for heterosexual sex, Theodora acted as a catamite substitute for slaves, who were too poor to afford the real thing. Procopius was antagonistic towards Theodora and her husband and probably used back streets titillating gossip for use in his polemical Secret History.

At sixteen Theodora became the mistress of a civil servant, named Hecebolus, and accompanied him to Pentapolis in North Africa, where he was in charge of the regional government. It is uncertain how long she stayed in Africa with Hecebolus, but she did not re-appear in Constantinople until about ten years later. While there the couple had a violent quarrel and she was dismissed. Procopius claims that she paid for her journey home with sexual favours, which may well be true for a young woman stranded in a foreign country and no resources to call upon.
‘From then on she provided in her customary fashion by making her body the tool of her lawless trade.’[ii]

Theodora stayed for a time in Alexandria. It has been suggested that she was struck by a religious experience while in the city, possibly coming into contact with the leading churchmen. Alexandria was a centre for Miaphytisism[iii] and it may have been at this time that Theodora picked up her strongly held beliefs in this sect. Her life style altered dramatically upon her return to Constantinople, her experiences abroad having matured her.

Sometime in or around 520 AD, after her return from Pentapolis, Theodora met the emperor Justinian. Justinian was co-emperor with his uncle Justin, who adopted the young Petrus Sabbatus, probably while he was an officer in one of the imperial palace regiments. At the same time Justinian assumed the name, by which he would become known to history.

Coins showing the head of the Emperor Justin
The emperor Justin was the successor of the emperor Anastasius. Justin was of peasant origin and prior to his accession had been the Commander of the Excubitors[iv].  Justin became emperor in July 518. It is possible that Justinian engineered his uncle’s accession to the imperial purple.
‘Justin on the strength of this command succeeded to the throne, though he was by now a doddery old man, totally illiterate – in popular parlance, he didn’t know his ABC – an unheard of thing in a Roman.’[v]

Almost immediately after his accession Justin made Justinian a Patrician and Count of the Domestics, a powerful position which gave him access to the centre of power. From now on Justin relied heavily on his nephew, willing to be guided by him in all things. Both Justin and Justinian were supporters of the Blues faction.
Justinian celebrated his consulship in 521 AD with an amazingly extravagant games at the Hippodrome. The equivalent of 3,700 lbs of gold was spent on the decorations alone. In Anastasius’ reign fiscal rectitude had been the order of the day and Justinian wanted to show his uncle’s new subjects that a glorious new era was dawning.

‘He had no sooner seized upon his uncle’s authority than he began to squander public money in the most reckless manner and with the greatest satisfaction.’[vi]

Justinian brokered the repair of the breach with Rome, resulting from the ex-communication of the Patriarch Acacius in 484 AD. In March 519 AD a papal embassy arrived in Constantinople and two days later Patriarch John declared the churches indivisible.

The Empress Theodora and attendants from a mural in Ravenna
Justinian was captivated by Theodora and made her his mistress; fathering a child on her[vii]. Justinian wanted to marry Theodora but there were two impediments. There was a law forbidding those of high rank to marry actresses. The second impediment was Justinian’s wife, a peasant girl named Lupicina, who took the name Euphemia on her husband’s accession to the throne. Euphemia, surrounded by high ranking women, felt able to look down on Theodora’s lowly beginnings.
 Justinian was freed by Euphemia’s death in 524 AD and within weeks Justin had approved a law allowing retired actresses, who had been given high dignities, to marry anyone they chose. This law may have scandalised the upper reaches of society. It certainly scandalised Procopius

‘He forced the emperor to abrogate the laws by establishing a new one. From that moment on he lived with Theodora as his legal spouse thereby enabling everyone else to get engaged to a courtesan.’[viii]
Theodora married Justinian later in the year and on 4th April 527 the couple were crowned co-emperor and empress. Four months later Justin died. Theodora was now co-ruler of the Byzantine Empire, able to make decisions in her own right.

Byzantium – The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003

The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990

[i] There were four factions, named after colours, at the Hippodrome; all rivalling for supremacy, but by this period only the Blues and Greens had any real influence.
[ii] Secret History - Procopius
[iii] ‘Miaphysitism holds that in the one person of Jesus Christ, Divinity and Humanity are united in one or single nature ("physis"), the two being united without separation, without confusion, and without alteration’ – source Wikipedia
[iv] One of the crack imperial palace regiments
[v] Secret History – Procopius
[vi] Secret History - Procopius
[vii] The child died in infancy
[viii] Secret History - Procopius