It remained only to unify belief, to weld the Church into a homogeneous instrument of rule. Probably Justinian’s piety was sincere, not merely political; he himself, as far as Theodora would permit, lived like a monk in his palace, fasting and praying, poring over theological tomes, and debating doctrinal niceties with professors, patriarchs, and popes. Procopius, with transparent concurrence, quotes a conspirator: “It ill becomes anyone who has even a little spirit in him to refuse to murder Justinian; nor should he entertain any fear of a man who always sits unguarded in some lobby to a late hour of the night, eagerly unrolling the Christian Scriptures in company with priests who are at the extremity of old age.”26 Almost the first use that Justinian had made of his power as regent for Justin was to end the breach that had been widened between the Eastern and the Western Church by the Emperor Zeno’s Henoticon. By accepting the viewpoint of the papacy, Justinian won the support of the orthodox clergy in Italy against the Goths, and in the East against the Monophysites.
This sect, arguing passionately that there was but one nature in Christ, had become almost as numerous in Egypt as the Catholics. In Alexandria they were so advanced that they in turn could divide into orthodox and heterodox Monophysites; these factions fought in the streets, while their women joined in with missiles from the roofs. When the armed forces of the Emperor installed a Catholic bishop in the see of Athanasius, the congregation greeted his first sermon with a volley of stones, and was slaughtered in situby the imperial soldiery. While Catholicism controlled the Alexandrian episcopacy, heresy spread throughout the countryside; the peasants ignored the decrees of the patriarch and the orders of the Emperor, and Egypt was half lost to the Empire a century before the Arabs came.
In this matter, as in many others, the persistent Theodora overcame the vacillating Justinian. She intrigued with Vigilius, a Roman deacon, to make him pope if he would offer concessions to the Monophysites. Pope Silverius was removed from Rome by Belisarius (537), and was exiled to the island of Palmaria, where he soon died from harsh treatment; and Vigilius was made Pope by the orders of the Emperor. Finally accepting Theodora’s view that Monophysitism could not be crushed, Justinian sought to appease its followers in a document of imperial theology known as the Three Chapters. He summoned Vigilius to Constantinople, and urged him to subscribe to this statement. Vigilius reluctantly consented, whereupon the African Catholic clergy excommunicated him (550); he withdrew his consent, was exiled by Justinian to a rock in the Proconnesus, again consented, obtained leave to return to Rome, but died on the way (555). Never had an emperor made so open an attempt to dominate the papacy. Justinian called an ecumenical council to meet at Constantinople (553); hardly any Western bishops attended; the council approved Justinian’s formulas, the Western Church rejected them, and Eastern and Western Christianity resumed their schism for a century.
In the end death won all arguments. Theodora’s passing in 548 was to Justinian the heaviest of many blows that broke down his courage, clarity, and strength. He was then sixty-five, weakened by asceticism and recurrent crises; he left the government to subordinates, neglected the defenses he had so labored to build, and abandoned himself to theology. A hundred disasters darkened the remaining seventeen years during which he outlived himself. Earthquakes were especially frequent in this reign; a dozen cities were almost wiped out by them; and their rehabilitation drained the Treasury. In 542 plague came; in 556 famine, in 558 plague again. In 559 the Kotrigur Huns crossed the Danube, plundered Moesia and Thrace, took thousands of captives, violated matrons, virgins, and nuns, threw to the dogs the infants born to women captives on the march, and advanced to the walls of Constantinople. The terrified Emperor appealed to the great general who had so often saved him. Belisarius was old and feeble; nevertheless he put on his armor, gathered 300 veterans who had fought with him in Italy, recruited a few hundred untrained men, and went out to meet 7000 Huns. He disposed his forces with his wonted foresight and skill, concealing 200 of his best soldiers in adjoining woods. When the Huns moved forward these men fell upon their flank, while Belisarius met the attack at the head of his little army. The barbarians turned and fled before a single Roman was mortally injured. The populace at the capital complained that Belisarius had not pursued the enemy and brought back the Hun leader as captive. The jealous Emperor listened to envious calumnies against his general, suspected him of conspiracy, and ordered him to dismiss his armed retainers. Belisarius died in 565, and Justinian confiscated half his property.
The Emperor outlived the general by eight months. In his final years his interest in theology had borne strange fruit: the defender of the faith had become a heretic. He announced that the body of Christ was incorruptible, and that Christ’s human nature had never been subject to any of the wants and indignities of mortal flesh. The clergy warned him that if he died in this error his soul would “be delivered to the flames, and burn there eternally.”27 He died unrepentant (565), after a life of eighty-three years, and a reign of thirty-eight.
Justinian’s death was one more point at which antiquity might be said to end. He was a true Roman emperor, thinking in terms of all the Empire East and West, struggling to keep back the barbarians, and to bring again to the vast realm an orderly government of homogeneous laws. He had accomplished a good measure of this aim: Africa, Dalmatia, Italy, Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily, and part of Spain had been regained; the Persians had been driven out of Syria; the Empire had doubled its extent in his reign. Though his legislation was barbarously severe on heresy and sexual immorality, it represented, by its unity, lucidity, and scope, one of the peaks in the history of law. His administration was sullied with official corruption, extreme taxation, capricious pardons and punishments; but it was also distinguished by a painstaking organization of imperial economy and government; and it created a system of order which, though a stranger to freedom, held civilization together in a corner of Europe while the rest of the continent plunged into the Dark Ages. He left his name upon the history of industry and art; St. Sophia is also his monument. To orthodox contemporaries it must have seemed that once more the Empire had turned back the tide, and won a respite from death.
It was a pitifully brief respite. Justinian had left the treasury empty, as he had found it full; his intolerant laws and thieving taxgatherers had alienated nations as fast as his armies had conquered them; and those armies, decimated, scattered, and ill paid, could not long defend what they had so devastatingly won. Africa was soon abandoned to the Berbers; Syria, Palestine, Egypt, Africa, and Spain to the Arabs; Italy to the Lombards; within a century after Justinian’s death the Empire had lost more territory than he had gained. With proud hindsight we may see how much better it would have been to gather the rising nationalities and creeds into a federated union; to offer friendship to the Ostrogoths who had governed Italy comparatively well; and to serve as a protective medium through which the ancient culture might flow unstinted to the newborn states.
We need not accept Procopius’ estimate of Justinian; it was refuted by Procopius himself.28 He was a great ruler, whose very faults sprang from the logic and sincerity of his creed: his persecutions from his certainty, his wars from his Roman spirit, his confiscations from his wars. We mourn the narrow violence of his methods, and applaud the grandeur of his aims. He and Belisarius, not Boniface and Aëtius, were the last of the Romans.