In 518, aged thirty-five, Justinian found himself the real ruler of the eastern empire when his uncle Justin was raised to the throne. The elderly new emperor was an illiterate Thracian peasant and depended on his clever nephew Peter, who adopted the name Justinian.* He did not come to power alone: his mistress Theodora was the daughter of the Blue chariot-racing team’s bear-trainer, raised among the sweaty charioteers, louche bathhouses and bloody bearpits of the Constantinople hippodrome. Starting as a pre-pubescent burlesque showgirl, she was said to be a gymnastically gifted orgiast whose speciality was to offer all three orifices to her clients simultaneously. Her nymphomaniacal party piece was to spread-eagle herself on stage while geese pecked grains of barley from ‘the calyx of this passion flower’. The sexual details were no doubt exaggerated by their court historian, who must secretly have resented the sycophancy of his day job. Whatever the truth, Justinian found her life-force irresistible and changed the law so that he could marry her. Though her intrigues complicated Justinian’s life, Theodora often provided the will he lacked. When he had almost lost Constantinople during the Nika riots and was ready to flee, she said she would prefer to die in imperial purple than live without it and despatched his generals to massacre the rebels.

Thanks to their realistic portraits in the San Vitale Church at Ravenna, we know that Justinian was thin-faced and unprepossessing with a reddish complexion, while Theodora, delicate, pale and glacial, with dazzling eyes and pursed lips, stares at us witheringly as ropes of pearls bedeck her head and breast. They were a supreme political double-act. Whatever their origins, both were humourlessly, mercilessly serious about empire and religion.

Justinian, the last Latin-speaking emperor of the east, believed that his life’s mission was to restore the Roman empire and reunite Christendom: shortly before he was born, the last emperor of Rome had been driven from the city by a Germanic chieftain. Ironically, this enhanced the prestige of the bishops of Rome, soon to be known as popes, and the differences between east and west. Justinian achieved astounding success in promoting his universal Christian empire by war, faith and art. He reconquered Italy, north Africa and southern Spain, though he faced repeated invasions by the Persians who at times almost overran the East. The imperial couple promoted their Christian empire as ‘the first and greatest blessing of all mankind’, suppressing homosexuals, pagans, heretics, Samaritans and Jews. Justinian demoted Judaism from a permitted religion and banned Passover if it fell before Easter, converted synagogues into churches, forcibly baptized Jews, and commandeered Jewish history: in 537, when Justinian dedicated his breathtaking domed Church of Hagia Sofia (‘Holy Wisdom’) in Constantinople, he is said to have reflected, ‘Solomon, I have surpassed thee.’ Then he turned to Jerusalem to trump Solomon’s Temple.

In 543, Justinian and Theodora started to build a basilica, the Nea (New) Church of St Mary Mother of God,* almost 400 feet long and 187 feet high, with walls 16 feet thick, facing away from the Temple Mount and designed to overpower Solomon’s site. When Justinian’s general Belisarius conquered the Vandal capital of Carthage, he found there the candelabra, pillaged from the Temple by Titus. After being paraded through Constantinople in Belisarius’ Triumph, it was sent to Jerusalem, probably to embellish Justinian’s Nea Church.

The Holy City was ruled by the rituals of Orthodox Christianity.* Pilgrims entered through Hadrian’s gateway in the north and walked down the Cardo, a paved and colonnaded street, 40 feet wide, enough for two wagons to pass, lined with covered shops, extending down to the Nea Church. The well-to-do lived south and south-west of the Temple Mount in two-storeyed mansions set around courtyards. ‘Happy are those who live in this house’ was written in one of them. The houses, churches, even the shops, were decorated gloriously with mosaics: the Armenian kings probably commissioned the incandescent mosaic of herons, doves and eagles (dedicated ‘For the memory and salvation of all the Armenians whose names only God knows’). More mysterious is the vivid semi-Christian mosaic of a puckish Orpheus playing his lyre found at the turn of the century north of the Damascus Gate. Rich Byzantine women wore long Greek robes bordered in gold, red and green, red shoes, strings of pearls, necklaces and earrings. A gold ring has been unearthed in Jerusalem decorated with a gold model of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.

The city was set up to host thousands of pilgrims: the grandees stayed with the patriarch; poor pilgrims in the dormitories of Justinian’s hospices which had beds for 3,000; and ascetics, in caves, often old Jewish tombs, in the surrounding hills. When the rich died, they were buried in sarcophagi; the sides of which were decorated with frescoes and equipped with bells for the dead to ward off demons. The cadavers of the poor were pushed into the anonymous mass tomb of the Field of Blood. The temptations that had outraged Jerome were always available: there was chariot-racing in the hippodrome, supported by the rumbustious Blue and Green factions of supporters. ‘Fortune of the Blues wins!’ cries an inscription found in Jerusalem. ‘Live long!’

Theodora died of cancer soon after the Nea was finished, but Justinian lived on into his eighties until 565, having ruled for almost fifty years. He had expanded the empire more than anyone except Augustus and Trajan, but by the end of the century it was overstretched and vulnerable. In 602, a general seized the throne and tried to hold on to it by unleashing the Blue chariot-racing faction against his enemies, who were supported by the Greens, and ordering the forcible conversion of the Jews. The Blues and Greens, always a dangerous combination of sporting fans and political bullyboys, fought for Jerusalem: ‘evil, malicious men filled the city with crime and murder.’ The Greens won, but Byzantine troops retook the city and crushed their rebellion.

This turbulence was irresistibly tempting to Khusrau II, the Persian shah. As a boy he had been helped back on to his throne by the Byzantine emperor Maurice, but when the latter was murdered, Khusrau had his pretext to invade the East, hoping to destroy Constantinople once and for all. Jerusalem was about to suffer a rollercoaster epoch that would see her ruled by four different religions in twenty-five years: Christian, Zoroastrian, Jewish and Muslim.6


The Persians, spearheaded by the mailed first of their heavy cavalry, conquered Roman Iraq and then swooped into Syria. The Jews of Antioch, so long persecuted by the Byzantines, rebelled and, as the brilliant Persian commander, who gloried in the name Shahrbaraz – the Royal Boar – marched south, 20,000 Jews from Antioch and Tiberias joined him to besiege Jerusalem. Inside, the patriarch Zacharias tried to negotiate, but the chariot-racing bullyboys ruled the streets and refused. Somehow the Persians and Jews broke into the city.

Jerusalem, and virtually the entire Roman East, now belonged to the young Persian King of Kings, the Shah-in-Shah Khusrau II, whose new empire extended from Afghanistan to the Mediterranean. This shah was the grandson of the greatest of the Sassanid rulers who had burned Antioch during Justinian’s reign. But he had spent a humiliating boyhood as the helpless pawn of rival noble families and had grown up into a paranoid megalomaniac who imposed his power with extravagant gigantism: his tiger-skin banner was 130 feet long, 20 feet wide; he held court on the King’s Spring, a carpet of 1,000 square feet, inlaid in gold and brocade and depicting an imaginary royal garden; his shabestan – the cool underground apartments where the shahs kept their women – contained 3,000 concubines; and it was possibly he who built the colossal palace at his capital Ctesiphon (close to present-day Baghdad) with the world’s largest audience-hall. Riding his black horse, Midnight, his robes were woven in gold, encrusted in jewels, his armour gold-trimmed.

The shah, whose polyglot subjects included many Jews and Christians, was Zoroastrian, but he had married a lovely Nestorian Christian, Shirin, whom he had won, according to legend, by sending his rival to perform the impossible task of carving stairs out of the Behustan mountains.

Once Jerusalem had been taken, the shah’s general, the Royal Boar, moved on to conquer Egypt, but no sooner was he gone than the Jerusalemites rebelled against the Persians and Jews. The Royal Boar galloped back and besieged Jerusalem for twenty days, destroying the churches on the Mount of Olives and Gethsemane. The Persians and Jews mined under the north-eastern wall, always the most vulnerable place, and on the twenty-first day, in early May 614, they stormed Jerusalem ‘in great fury, like infuriated wild beasts’, according to the eyewitness Strategos, a monk. ‘The people hid in churches and there they destroyed them in great wrath, gnashing their teeth and slew all they found like mad dogs.’

In three days, thousands of Christians were massacred. The patriarch and 37,000 Christians were deported to Persia. As the survivors stood on the Mount of Olives ‘and gazed upon Jerusalem, a flame, as out of a furnace, reached up to the clouds and they fell to sobbing and lamenting’, dropping ashes in their hair for they saw the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, the Nea, the Mother of Churches on Mount Zion and the Armenian cathedral of St Jameses, consumed by the inferno. The Christian relics – the Lance, the Sponge and the True Cross – were sent to Khusrau, who gave them to his queen Shirin. She preserved them in her church in Ctesiphon.

Then, 600 years after Titus had destroyed the Temple, the Royal Boar gave Jerusalem to the Jews.


After centuries of repression, the Jews, led by a shadowy figure named Nehemiah, were keen to avenge themselves on the Christians who until weeks earlier had been persecuting them. The Persians imprisoned thousands of less valuable prisoners in the Mamilla Pool, a large reservoir, where, according to Christian sources, they were offered the same choice recently offered to the Jews: convert or die. Some monks converted to Judaism; others were martyred.* The joyous Jews may have started to reconsecrate the Temple Mount, for the Jews now ‘made sacrifices’* and messianic fervour vibrated through the Jewish world, inspiring the enthusiasm of the Book of Zerubbabel.

The Persian shah had conquered Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Asia Minor all the way to Constantinople. Only the city of Tyre still held out against the Persians, who ordered the Jewish commander Nehemiah to capture it. The Jewish army failed in this mission and fled from Tyre, but the Persians surely already realized that the more numerous Christians were more useful. In 617, after three years of Jewish rule, the Royal Boar expelled the Jews from Jerusalem. Nehemiah resisted but was defeated and executed at Emmaus near Jerusalem.

The city was returned to the Christians. Once again it was the Jewish turn to suffer. The Jews left the city by an eastern gate like the Christians before them, marching away towards Jericho. The Christians found the Holy City ravaged: Modestos, the priest in charge during the absence of the patriarch, energetically restored the shattered Holy Sepulchre, but the city never regained the magnificence of Constantine and Justinian.

Three times since Titus the Jews had grasped moments of free prayer among the rock heaps of the Temple – probably under bar Kochba, certainly under Julian and Khusrau – but Jews would not control the Temple again for 1,350 years. As for the triumphant Persians, they now faced a dynamic young Byzantine emperor who seemed to merit the name of Hercules.7


Blond and tall, he looked the part of imperial saviour. The son of the governor of Africa and of Armenian descent, Heraclius had seized power in 610 when much of the east was already in Persian hands and it seemed that things could scarcely get worse – but they did. When Heraclius counterattacked, he was defeated by the Royal Boar who then conquered Syria and Egypt before attacking Constantinople itself. Heraclius sued for a humiliating peace that gave him time to rebuild Byzantine strength and plan his vengeance.

OnEasterMonday622,Heracliussailedwithanarmy, not(as expected) through the Black Sea to the Caucasus, but around the Ionian coast of the Mediterranean to the Bay of Issus whence he marched inland and defeated the Royal Boar. Even as the Persians threatened Constantinople, Heraclius was taking the war into their homeland. The next year, he repeated the trick, marching through Armenia and Azerbaijan towards Khusrau’s palace at Ganzak. The shah retreated. Heraclius wintered in Armenia and then in 625, in a Herculean display of military virtuosity, prevented three Persian armies uniting, before defeating each in turn.

In this war of wild gambles and global ambition, the shah turned the tables once again, despatching one general to seize Iraq and the Boar to link up with the Avars, a marauding, nomadic tribe, and take Constantinople. The shah, calling himself ‘Noblest of the Gods, King and Master of the Whole Earth’, wrote to Heraclius: ‘You say you trust in God; why then has He not delivered out of my hand Caesarea, Jerusalem, Alexandria? Could I not also destroy Constantinople? Have I not destroyed you Greeks?’ Heraclius despatched one army to fight in Iraq, another to defend the capital, while he himself hired 40,000 nomadic Turkic horsemen, the Khazars, to form a third.

Constantinople was besieged by the Persians and Avars on either side of the Bosphorus, but the shah was jealous of the Royal Boar. The over-weening arrogance and creative cruelties of the Master of the Whole Earth were already alienating his own noblemen. The shah sent a letter to the Royal Boar’s deputy ordering him to kill the general and take command. Heraclius intercepted it. Inviting the Boar to a meeting, he showed him the letter; they made a secret alliance. Constantinople was saved.

The Royal Boar withdrew to Alexandria to rule Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Heraclius sailed his army to the Caucasus via the Black Sea, and with his Khazar horsemen invaded Persia. He outmanoeuvred the Persian forces, challenged and killed three Persian champions in duels, then defeated their main army, stopping just outside the shah’s capital. Khusrau’s deluded intransigence destroyed him. He was arrested and placed in the dungeon, the House of Darkness, where his favourite son was butchered in front of him before he was himself tortured to death. The Persians agreed to restore the status quo ante bellum. The Royal Boar agreed to marry Heraclius’ niece and revealed the hiding-place of the True Cross. After tortuous intrigues, the Royal Boar seized the Persian throne – but was soon assassinated.

In 629, Heraclius set out from Constantinople with his wife (also his niece) to return the True Cross to Jerusalem. He pardoned the Jews of Tiberias, where he stayed in the mansion of a rich Jew, Benjamin, who accompanied him to Jerusalem, converting to Christianity on the way. The Jews were promised that there would be no vengeance and that they could reside in Jerusalem.

On 21 March 630, Heraclius, now sixty, exhausted and grey, rode up to the Golden Gate, which he had built for this special occasion. This exquisite gate became, for all three Abrahamic religions, Jerusalem’s most potently mystical gateway for the arrival of the Messiah on the Day of Judgement.* There the emperor dismounted to carry the True Cross into Jerusalem. It was said that when Heraclius tried to enter in his Byzantine robes the gate became a solid wall, but when he humbled himself it opened for his imperial procession. Carpets and aromatic herbs were spread as Heraclius delivered the True Cross to the Holy Sepulchre, now cleaned up by the patriarch Modestos. The catastrophe that had befallen the empire and the emperor’s return played into a new variant of the ever malleable vision of the Apocalypse in which a messianic Last Emperor would smash the enemies of Christianity and then hand power to Jesus who would rule until Judgement Day.

The Christians demanded vengeance on the Jews, but Heraclius refused until the monks took the sin of his broken oath to the Jews upon themselves as a fast of atonement. Heraclius then expelled any remaining Jews; many were massacred; he later ordered the forcible conversion of all Jews.

Far away to the south, the Arabians had noticed not so much Heraclius’ victory as his weakness. ‘The Romans have been defeated,’ declared Muhammad, the leader who had just united the Arabian tribes, in what became the sacred text of his new revelation, the Koran. While Heraclius was in Jerusalem, Muhammad despatched a raid up the King’s Highway to probe Byzantine defences. The Arabs encountered a Byzantine detachment – but they would soon return.

Heraclius would not have been too alarmed: the divided Arab tribes had been raiding Palaestina for centuries. The Byzantines and Persians had both hired Arab tribes as buffer states between the empires, and Heraclius had fielded large squadrons of Arab cavalry in his armies.

The next year, Muhammad sent another small detachment to attack Byzantine territory. But he was now old and his spectacular life was near its end. Heraclius left Jerusalem and headed back to Constantinople.

There seemed little to fear.8

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!