IN 408 Arcadius died, and his son Theodosius II, aged seven, became Emperor of the East. Theodosius’ sister Pulcheria, having the advantage of him by two years, undertook his education, with such persistent solicitude that he was never fit to govern. He left this task to the praetorian prefect and the Senate, while he copied and illuminated manuscripts; he seems never to have read the Code that preserves his name. In 414 Pulcheria assumed the regency at the age of sixteen, and presided over the Empire for thirty-three years. She and her two sisters vowed themselves to virginity, and appear to have kept their vows. They dressed with ascetic simplicity, fasted, sang hymns and prayed, established hospitals, churches, and monasteries, and loaded them with gifts. The palace was turned into a convent, into which only women and a few priests might enter. Amid all this sanctity Pulcheria, her sister-in-law Eudocia, and their ministers governed so well that in all the forty-two years of Theodosius’ vicarious reign the Eastern Empire enjoyed exceptional tranquillity, while the Western was crumbling into chaos. The least forgotten event of this period was the publication of the Theodosian Code (438). In 429 a corps of jurists was commissioned to codify all laws enacted in the Empire since the accession of Constantine. The new code was accepted in both East and West, and remained the law of the Empire until the greater codification under Justinian.
Between Theodosius II and Justinian I the Eastern Empire had many rulers who in their day made great stir, but are now less than memories: the lives of great men all remind us how brief is immortality. Leo I (457–74) sent against Gaiseric (467) the greatest fleet ever assembled by a Roman government; it was defeated and destroyed. His son-in-law Zeno the Isaurian (474–91), anxious to quiet the Monophysites, caused a bitter schism between Greek and Latin Christianity by imperially deciding, in his “unifying” letter, theHenoticon, that there was but one nature in Christ. Anastasius (491–518) was a man of ability, courage, and good will; he restored the finances of the state by wise and economical administration, reduced taxes, abolished the contests of men with wild beasts at the games, made Constantinople almost impregnable by building the “Long Walls” for forty miles from the Sea of Marmora to the Black Sea, expended state funds on many other useful public works, and left in the treasury 320,000 pounds of gold ($134,400,000), which made possible the conquests of Justinian. The populace resented his economies and his Monophysite tendencies; a mob besieged his palace, and killed three of his aides; he appeared to them in all the dignity of his eighty years, and offered to resign if the people could agree on a successor. It was an impossible condition, and the crowd ended by begging him to retain the crown. When presently he died, the throne was usurped by Justin, an illiterate senator (518–27), who so loved his septuagenarian ease that he left the management of the Empire to his brilliant regent and nephew Justinian.
Procopius, his historian and enemy, would have been dissatisfied with Justinian from birth, for the future emperor was born (482) of lowly Illyrian—perhaps Slavic1—peasants near the ancient Sardica, the modern Sofia. His uncle Justin brought him to Constantinople, and procured him a good education. Justinian so distinguished himself as an officer in the army, and as for nine years aide and apprentice to Justin, that when the uncle died (527), the nephew succeeded him as emperor.
He was now forty-five, of medium height and build, smooth shaven, ruddy faced, curly haired, with pleasant manners and a ready smile that could cover a multitude of aims. He was as abstemious as an anchorite, eating little and subsisting mostly on a vegetarian regimen;2 he fasted often, sometimes to exhaustion. Even during these fasts he continued his routine of rising early, devoting himself to state affairs “from early dawn to midday, and far into the night.” Frequently when his aides thought he had retired, he was absorbed in study, eager to become a musician and an architect, a poet and a lawyer, a theologian and a philosopher, as well as an emperor; nevertheless he retained most of the superstitions of his time. His mind was constantly active, equally at home in large designs and minute details. He was not physically strong or brave; he wished to abdicate in the early troubles of his reign, and never took the field in his many wars. Perhaps it was a defect of his amiability that he was easily swayed by his friends, and therefore often vacillated in policy; frequently he subordinated his judgment to that of his wife. Procopius, who devoted a volume to Justinian’s faults, called him “insincere, crafty, hypocritical, dissembling his anger, double-dealing, clever, a perfect artist in acting out an opinion which he pretended to hold, and even able to produce tears … to the need of the moment”;3 but this might be a description of an able diplomat. “He was a fickle friend,” continues Procopius, “a truceless enemy, an ardent devotee of assassination and robbery.” Apparently he was these at times; but he was also capable of generosity and lenience. A general, Probus, was accused of reviling him, and was tried for treason; when the report of the trial was laid before Justinian he tore it up and sent a message to Probus: “I pardon you for your offense against me; pray that God also may pardon you.”4 He bore frank criticism without resentment. “This tyrant,” so unfortunate in his historian, “was the most accessible person in the world. For even men of low estate and altogether obscure had complete freedom not only to come before him but to converse with him.”5
At the same time he promoted the pomp and ceremony of his court even beyond the precedents of Diocletian and Constantine. Like Napoleon, he keenly missed the support of legitimacy, having succeeded to a usurper; he had no prestige of presence or origin; consequently he resorted to an aweinspiring ritual and pageantry whenever he appeared in public or before foreign ambassadors. He encouraged the Oriental conception of royalty as divine, applied the term sacred to his person and his property, and required those who came into his presence to kneel and kiss the hem of his purple robe, or the toes of his buskined feet.* He had himself anointed and crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople, and wore a diadem of pearls. No government has ever made so much ado as the Byzantine to ensure popular reverence through ceremonial splendor. The policy was reasonably effective; there were many revolutions in Byzantine history, but these were mostly coups d’état of the palace personnel; the court was not awed by its own solemnity.
The most significant revolt of the reign came early (532), and nearly cost Justinian his life. The Greens and Blues—the factions into which the people of Constantinople divided according to the dress of their favorite jockeys—had brought their quarrels to the point of open violence; the streets of the capital had become unsafe, and the well-to-do had to dress like paupers to avoid the nocturnal knife. Finally the government pounced down upon both factions, arresting several protagonists. The factions thereupon united in an armed uprising against the government. Probably a number of senators joined in the revolt, and proletarian discontent strove to make it a revolution. Prisons were invaded, and their inmates freed; city police and officials were killed; fires were started that burned down the church of St. Sophia and part of the Emperor’s palace. The crowd cried out “Nika!” (victory)—and so gave a name to the revolt. Drunk with success, it demanded the dismissal of two unpopular, perhaps oppressive, members of Justinian’s council; and he complied. Emboldened, the rebels persuaded Hypatius, of the senatorial class, to accept the throne; against the pleading of his wife he accepted, and went amid the plaudits of the crowd to take the imperial seat at the Hippodrome games. Meanwhile Justinian hid in his palace, and meditated flight; the Empress Theodora dissuaded him, and called for active resistance. Belisarius, leader of the army, took the assignment, assembled a number of Goths from his troops, led them to the Hippodrome, slaughtered 30,000 of the populace, arrested Hypatius, and had him killed in jail. Justinian restored his dismissed officials, pardoned the conspiring senators, and restored to the children of Hypatius their confiscated property.6 For the next thirty years Justinian was secure, but only one person seems to have loved him.