The Last Years of Justinian


The natural course for a high-souled Emperor to pursue is to seek to enlarge the Empire, and make it more glorious.


Justinian greeted his general like a long-lost friend - which, in a sense, he was. For years the two men had been kept apart by the intrigues of Theodora, who had continually poisoned her husband's mind with fabricated stories about Belisarius - his faithlessness, his duplicity, his imperial ambitions. The Emperor had never really believed her; yet the doubts that she implanted in his mind were enough to produce a vague feeling of mistrust which endured for as long as she lived. With her death, however, this feeling was quickly dissipated; by the time Belisarius returned to Constantinople, Justinian had recovered from the initial shock of his bereavement — though he continued to mourn his wife until the day he died - and welcomed him with open arms, adopting him as his closest confidant and going so far as to erect a gilded statue of him, next to that of his uncle Justin, in the Augusteum.

Even Belisarius, however, seems to have been unable to persuade the Emperor to provide the men and money for a final all-out attack on Totila. It was not that Justinian lacked determination to regain Italy for the Empire. This had, after all, been his primary objective ever since his accession, and his categorical refusal to receive Totila's ambassadors after the latter's capture of Rome is clear enough indication that he had in no way weakened in his resolve. But for the past six years he had had a major theological problem on his hands - a problem which the death of his wife had rendered, if anything, still more intractable; and the hiatus which now occurs in the story of the Italian reconquest - following the recall of Belisarius and preceding the brief final act of the drama -provides us with a welcome opportunity to see what had occurred.

At the root of the trouble there lay the same old enigma that had caused all the previous disputes - the identity of Christ. The orthodox view was that laid down nearly a century before by the Council of Chalcedon: that the Saviour possessed, in his one person, two natures inseparably united, the human and the divine. But this view had never been accepted by the monophysites, according to whom the divine nature alone existed and who consequently saw Christ as God rather than man; and these, heretics as they might be, were far too numerous and too widespread to be eliminated. Egypt, for example, was monophysite through and through; in Syria and Palestine, too, the doctrine had taken a firm and potentially dangerous hold. In the West, on the other hand, such heresy as existed at all was Arian rather than monophysite and was to be found almost exclusively among the barbarians. The Roman Church was staunchly orthodox and quick to protest at any deviation from the Chalcedonian path. Justinian therefore had a difficult and delicate course to steer. If he dealt too harshly with the monophysites, he risked rebellion and the possible loss to the Empire of valuable provinces -Egypt was one of its chief sources of corn. If he treated them with too much consideration, he incurred the wrath of the orthodox and split his subjects more than ever. Fortunately Theodora had strong monophysite sympathies, even going so far as to maintain a discreet monastery in the Great Palace; her husband could thus on occasion afford to take an outwardly rigid line in the knowledge that she would secretly be able to temper its severity.

Thanks to this somewhat disingenuous policy, the Emperor had managed to curb most of the monophysite communities - outside Egypt, where he left them firmly alone — with considerable success; but then, suddenly, there emerged a charismatic new leader. Jacob Baradaeus ('the Ragged') was a Syriac-speaking monk from Mesopotamia. He had already spent fifteen years in Constantinople - where he may well have been one of the Empress's proteges - during which time he had caused the authorities little trouble; but in 543 the exiled monophysite Patriarch of Alexandria chose to consecrate him Bishop of Edessa. The fact that he had no hope of ever setting foot in his see, which was already safely held by a perfectly sound Chalcedonian, worried him not a bit: for him the important thing was the consecration itself, and its effect on him was electric. Disguised as a poor beggar - hence his name - he embarked on a mission to revive monophysite sentiment throughout the East, travelling constantly and at prodigious speed the length and breadth of Syria and Palestine, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, consecrating some thirty bishops as he went and ordaining several thousand priests.

Unable to stamp out the flames of fanaticism that sprang up everywhere in the wake of Baradaeus, Justinian found himself in a quandary. The monophysites in their present mood needed still more careful treatment than before; at the same time he was already being criticized in the West for weakness and inertia in the face of the new threat. Some kind of positive action was clearly required; and so, for want of any better solution, he decided on a public condemnation - not of the monophysites but of those who occupied the other end of the theological spectrum, professing the humanity rather than the divinity of Christ: the Nestorians. This by now half-forgotten sect had been anathematized as early as 431 at the Council of Ephesus; afterwards the majority had fled eastward, to Persia and beyond, and few if any of them now remained within the imperial frontiers. It thus mattered little whether they were attacked again or not; but they had the advantage of being detested by monophysites and orthodox alike, and an ex cathedra pronouncement of the kind the Emperor intended would, he hoped, do something to defuse the increasing hostility between the two. Early in 544 he published an edict, condemning not the heresy itself but three particular manifestations of it, soon to become notorious as the 'Three Chapters': the person and writings of Nestorius's teacher, Theodore of Mopsuestia, and certain specific works of two other, still more obscure theologians, Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa.

It was a foolish idea, and it fully deserved the response it received. Only the orthodox clergy in the East agreed - in some cases a trifle unwillingly - to toe the imperial line. The monophysites, who had hoped for genuine concessions, were unappeased; in the West, the Roman bishops made no attempt to conceal their fury. Any attack on the Nestorians, they thundered, could only be a blow in favour of the monophysites; besides, had not the Council of Chalcedon examined the writings of Theodoret and Ibas and found them blameless? They refused absolutely to condemn the Three Chapters; and Stephen, the papal legate in Constantinople, made known his master's displeasure by pronouncing the ban of the Church on Patriarch Mennas himself.

Justinian was first surprised by these reactions, and then seriously alarmed. In Italy, during the four years that had passed since the first recall of Belisarius, the Byzantine position had grown steadily worse; now, at a moment when he needed their support more than ever before, he had managed to antagonize Pope Vigilius and the entire Church of Rome. The sooner the whole thing were forgotten, the better. He made no protest when the Pope failed to condemn the Three Chapters, but settled down quietly to mend relations.

For a year and a half he pursued this policy, and would presumably have continued to do so had circumstances allowed; but by the autumn of 545 Totila's army was at the gates of Rome. Were he to capture the city, there was nothing to prevent his holding the Pope hostage, with consequences that could only add further fuel to the flames. Justinian acted quickly. On 22 November an officer of the imperial guard with a company of excubitors arrived in Rome, seized Vigilius just as he was leaving the Church of St Cecilia after mass, loaded him on to a boat waiting in the Tiber and carried him off down the river.

The Pope, who had no particular wish to remain in the city during what promised to be an unpleasant and protracted siege, made no complaint when told that he was being taken to Constantinople - though he may not altogether have relished the prospect of renewing his acquaintance with Theodora. Some years before, while serving as papal legate at the imperial court, he had made a secret agreement with her, by the terms of which Belisarius would depose Pope Silverius and instal him, Vigilius, in his place; in return, he would denounce the principles laid down at Chalcedon and proclaim his acceptance of the monophysite creed. The Empress had fulfilled her side of the bargain, but the Pope had reneged on his; back in Constantinople, he might have a certain amount of explaining to do.1 As things turned out, however, his meeting with the imperial couple did not occur as soon as he had expected; he remained for a whole year as their guest at Catania in Sicily - during which he dispatched several ships, laden with grain, for the relief of Rome - and only in January 547 reached the capital.

At this stage Vigilius was still firm in his refusal to condemn the Three Chapters. Though the Emperor had greeted him warmly on his arrival and even put at his disposal the old Palace of Placidia as a residence, the Pope lost no time in making his authority felt, immediately placing Patriarch Mennas and all the bishops who had subscribed to the imperial edict

1 A writer known as Anastasius Bibliothccarius - the Librarian - maintains that it was not Justinian but Theodora, bent on vengeance for this and other pretended offences (including murder) on the part of the Pope, who engineered the arrest of Vigilius. But the story as he tells it is too improbable to be taken very seriously.

under four months' further sentence of excommunication.1 Before long, however, the constant pressure exerted by the Emperor and Empress -who seemed to have forgotten her previous grievances but who on this issue was every bit as zealous and determined as her husband - began to wear him down. On 29 June he was officially reconciled with the Patriarch, and on the same day he handed Justinian his signed condemnation of the Chapters, stipulating only that it should be kept secret until the end of a formal inquiry by certain Western bishops - whose findings, he hinted, were a foregone conclusion; and on 11 April 548 he published his Judica-tum, in which he solemnly anathematized the Three Chapters, while emphasizing that his support for the doctrines of Chalcedon remained unshaken.

Thus, when the Empress died eleven weeks later, it might have been thought that she and her husband had triumphed, and had succeeded at last in restoring unity to the Church. In fact, the split was soon revealed to be deeper than ever. Theodora had always been more feared than her husband; while she lived, many distinguished churchmen - including several of her former proteges - had preferred to keep a low profile rather than incur her displeasure. After her death, they came out publicly in opposition to the imperial edict, and gradually others followed suit across Europe. Whatever Vigilius might have said to the contrary, there could be no doubt that his anathemas had dangerously undermined the authority of Chalcedon; and the Pope was now generally reviled throughout Western Christendom as a turncoat and an apostate. In Africa, indeed, the local bishops went further still and excommunicated him.

Only in Italy was there no real opposition to Vigilius; poor, beleaguered Italy - sacked, plundered, ravaged and now half starving -had little time to spare for abstruse theological niceties. The long struggle between Roman and Goth for mastery over the peninsula was now entering its final phase.

Justinian's anxieties over the Three Chapters, though largely of his own making, had turned his mind away from his Italian problems. He always tended to underestimate the Goths; it may well be, too, that the recovery of Rome by the Byzantines in April 547, only four months after its capture by Totila, had confirmed him in his belief that, given only a little more time, the Gothic opposition would crumble of its own accord.

1 No less an authority than Pope Gregory the Great claims that he also excommunicated Theodora herself. But Gregory was then still a child in Rome, and his story sounds highly unlikely. If Vigilius had taken so bold a step, we should surely have heard about it at the time - though he himself would not, one suspects, have lasted very long.

Unfortunately, it did no such thing. On 16 January 550, history repeated itself and another group of disaffected Isaurians in the Roman garrison opened the gates - this time those of the Porta Ostiensis, near S. Paolo fuori le Mura - to Totila's men. But whereas in546 the Goths had entered the city as invaders, they now showed every sign of staying. Many of them appropriated empty houses and settled in with their families; the Senate was reopened; refugees were encouraged to return to their old homes; damaged buildings were repaired and restored. The following summer, Totila gave still more conclusive evidence of his intentions where Rome was concerned: he staged a full-scale revival of the Games in the Circus Maximus, and personally presided over them from the imperial box. Meanwhile his fleet was ravaging both Italy and Sicily, to return in 551 loaded to the gunwales with plunder. These two insults finally stung Justinian to action. The first he could see only as a deliberate challenge to his authority; the second was the more galling in that Sicily had, since its reconquest by Belisarius, been part of the Emperor's personal patrimony, its revenues passing directly to him rather than through the imperial exchequer. He immediately looked for a new commander-in-chief to send to Italy; and his choice fell on his own first cousin, Germanus.

In Theodora's day the appointment would have been unthinkable; she had detested Germanus even more than Belisarius, and had done him down wherever she could. But Theodora was gone; Germanus was an able soldier of long experience, without any of his predecessor's brilliance but reliable, efficient and absolutely loyal. He possessed, moreover, another advantage that promised to strengthen his position considerably once he reached Italy, for he had recently married Matasuntha, widow of that luckless King Vitiges who had died a captive in Constantinople eight years before. As granddaughter of the great Theodoric, she could be expected to attract the allegiance of most of the Gothic nobility, just as Germanus might, with any luck, win the support of the Italian land-owners.

Was Justinian consciously working towards a restored Empire of the West, with Italians and Goths finally united and Germanus reigning in Ravenna as his Caesar and ultimate successor? Something of the sort may well have been in his mind as he bade farewell to his cousin, now at the head of an army considerably larger than any ever allowed to Belisarius, his beautiful young wife - still only about thirty and pregnant for the first time - at his side. Whether this objective would ever have been achieved, we cannot tell. In the autumn of 550 Germanus was stricken with fever and died at his camp in Sardica (now Sofia). He never set foot in Italy, and never saw his son.

The news of his cousin's death came as another severe blow to Justinian. He was now sixty-eight, and childless. Thoughts of possible successors were beginning to occupy his mind, and Germanus, whatever the outcome of the Italian campaign, had been the obvious candidate. But the Italian situation was more pressing still, with a huge army now leaderless in the field. Its withdrawal at this stage would be worse than its defeat - tantamount to an open acknowledgement of Totila's sovereignty over the peninsula. A new commander must be found, and quickly. Did the Emperor turn, as he had turned twice before, to Belisarius? If so, Belisarius must have refused point-blank; for the man chosen for this last attempt to bring Italy back into the imperial fold was none other than the eunuch Narses, now well into his seventies.

The choice was, to say the least, unexpected; on examination, however, it was seen to be less perverse than might have been thought. Narses was admittedly old, but he had lost none of his energy or his decisiveness. He was relatively inexperienced in the field; but there were several excellent tacticians - notably his old friend John - already in Italy. What was needed above all was a superb organizer, strong-willed and determined, able to dominate a team of ever-squabbling rivals and inspire them with new purpose and spirit. And for such a task Narses was ideally qualified.

He had no delusions as to the magnitude of his task; by now only four cities in all Italy - Ravenna, Ancona, Otranto and Crotone -remained in Byzantine control. But Narses had not spent a lifetime in the imperial palace for nothing. He knew Justinian better than any man alive, and easily persuaded him to make available an even greater army than that he had given to Germanus - at least 35,000 men, most of them barbarians: Lombards, Gepids, Herulians and Huns, together with a number of Persians captured in the recent war. He left Constantinople in the spring of 551, but spent the rest of the year in Thrace and Illyria, touring military establishments, recruiting still more troops and generally working himself in. The coming campaign was to be the culminating achievement of his career. He could not afford to fail.

Only in the early summer of 552 did he and his men begin their march into Italy. They came by land, advancing around the head of the Adriatic to Ravenna, where Narses was able to provide what was left of the local troops with their long overdue arrears of pay; thence, after nine days' consolidation, they continued across the Apennines and down the Via Flaminia towards the south, Totila meanwhile advancing northward up the same road to block their path. So it was that, one day towards the end of June, at Taginae (somewhere between the little towns of Scheggia and Gualdo Tadino) the Roman and Gothic armies met for what was to prove the decisive encounter of the entire war.

Though no longer an eye-witness - he had returned to Constantinople with his master Belisarius - Procopius is still able to give us a remarkably detailed account of the battle. He tells us, for example, how Totila tried to deceive Narses by first saying he wished to delay the fighting for a week and then attacking on the following day, but how Narses suspected a trick and was ready for him; how later the Gothic King, learning that a further 2,000 of his men were on their way, genuinely played for time, going so far as to treat the two armies to a display of horsemanship and Gothic haute ecole in his efforts to win a few additional hours - incidentally providing, one would imagine, a memorable contrast with the shrivelled old eunuch who watched impassively from the opposing ranks; and how, when battle had at last been joined, the Gothic army was progressively outflanked and outfought until, as the sun was sinking, it fled in panic and disorder, the Byzantines in hot pursuit. Totila himself, mortally wounded, took flight with the rest and died in the little village of Caprae - now Caprara - a few hours later.

For the Goths, all hope was now lost; but they did not surrender. Unanimously they acclaimed Teia, one of the bravest of Totila's generals, as his successor and continued the struggle. An attempt to forge an alliance with the Franks, who controlled much of Italy north of the Po, came to nothing. The Frankish King Theudibald preferred to let the two protagonists fight it out together while he remained on the sidelines; he accepted Teia's presents, but lifted not a finger to help him. Narses meanwhile continued his advance to the south, while city after city opened its gates to the conquerors. Rome itself fell after a brief siege -changing hands for the fifth time since the beginning of Justinian's reign

- but the old eunuch marched on. Totila, he had learnt, had deposited vast reserves of treasure and bullion at Cumae, at the far northern end of the Bay of Naples; he was determined to lay his hands on it before it was spirited away. Teia, similarly resolved that he should do no such thing, sped to relieve the garrison; for some reason, however, he and his army emerged from the mountains at the southern end of the bay, near Nocera; and it was there in the valley of the river Sarno (then known as the Draco) to the south-east of Vesuvius - a mile or two from the already long-forgotten Pompeii - that, at the end of October 552, Romans and Goths met for the coup de grace. Teia himself fought heroically, until felled by a well-aimed javelin; but even after his head had been impaled on a lance and raised aloft for all his men to see, they still battled on. It was only on the evening of the following day that the few still surviving agreed to negotiate. By the terms of the consequent treaty, the Goths undertook to leave Italy and to engage in no further warfare against the Empire, receiving in return the guarantee that they would be permitted to take all their movable property with them and that they would never be forcibly conscripted into the imperial army.

A few pockets of resistance remained. The garrison at Cumae held out for a few months longer and — thanks largely to belated Frankish support - one or two cities north of the Po remained at least technically in Gothic hands for longer still; not for another nine years was Narses able to send his master the keys of Verona. But it was that desperate battle beneath Vesuvius that marked, for all practical purposes, the defeat of the Goths in Italy. Justinian's grandest ambition was realized at last.

History offers few examples of a campaign as swift and decisive as that of Narses being successfully concluded by a general in his middle eighties; nor, surely, any more persuasive argument in favour of castration. Almost unbelievably, however, just as that ancient Armenian was marching his men into Italy in the spring of 552, another, smaller Byzantine expeditionary force had landed in Spain under the command of a general who was older still. His name was Liberius, and he is recorded as having been Praetorian Prefect of Italy sixty years before, in Theodoric's day; at the time of which we are speaking, therefore, he cannot possibly have been less than eighty-five.

Compared with the reconquest of Italy the Spanish campaign was never more than a side-show, and its story can be quickly told. By now Spain was firmly in the hands of the Visigoths, who had first arrived there in the early fifth century and who in 418 had made a pact with Rome by the terms of which they agreed to recognize the sovereignty of the Empire. The position was thus very much the same as it had been in Italy under Theodoric, with a Roman land-owning aristocracy living comfortably on its estates, perfectly satisfied with the status quo and doubtless grateful that the immense distance separating them from Constantinople reduced imperial interference to the point of im-perceptibility. For them and their Visigothic masters, the first warning of the approaching storm came with Belisarius's recovery of Vandal North Africa in 533, and his eviction of a Visigothic garrison from the port of Septem - now Ceuta - the following year. An attempt by the Visigothic King Theodis to seize it back in 547 ended in disaster; his protests that the Romans had cheated by attacking on a Sunday wnile ne was at church did not alter the fact that his army had been annihilated, and he himself met his death shortly afterwards at the hands of an assassin.

Then, in 551, Theodis's second successor, King Agila, found himself faced with two simultaneous rebellions: one by the Romans of Cordova and one, larger and far more serious, by his own kinsman, Athanagild. He fought back with courage and determination, and it was not long before Athanagild appealed to the Emperor for help.1 Here was precisely the opportunity Justinian had been waiting for. Despite the exigences of the Italian campaign and his chronic shortage of manpower, he ordered that a small force - perhaps one or two thousand at the most - should be detached from Narses's army and sent under Liberius to Spain for the support of Athanagild and the protection of the Roman insurgents. Landing on the south-east coast, they met with little resistance: the Visigothic army was already hopelessly divided between those who were loyal to Agila and those who had thrown in their lot with the rebellion. Before long Liberius effectively controlled the whole area south of a line drawn from Valencia to Cadiz, including Cordova. In 555 Agila was murdered by his own troops and Athanagild assumed the throne without opposition.

Had the new King agreed to rule as an imperial vassal, all would have been well; such, however, had never been his intention and he soon made it clear to Liberius that he expected him and his army to withdraw as soon as they conveniently could. The old man - who was clearly every bit as good a diplomat as he was a general - agreed in principle, but gradually persuaded Athanagild to negotiate; and finally an agreement was reached between them according to which the Empire kept much of the territory it had conquered. But its soldiers were few, and its lines of communication dangerously long; and Justinian was obliged to acknowledge that a good seven-eighths of the peninsula lay beyond his power. On the other hand, he retained the Balearic Islands which, together with Corsica and Sardinia (reconquered respectively by Belisarius and Narses) gave him a firm base in the western Mediterranean, and he could boast that the Empire now once again extended from the Black Sea to the Atlantic Ocean. The expedition may not have been a complete success; but it was certainly not a failure.

1 The Visigoths, like almost all the barbarian tribes, were devout Arians; according to Bishop Isidore of Seville, however, Athanagild was secretly a Catholic - in other words, an orthodox Christian. If he is right, Justinian would doubtless have been even more eager to go to his assistance.

When the army of Narses drove the Goths out of Rome for the last time, Pope Vigilius was not present to preside over the services of thanksgiving. He was still in Constantinople, ever more inextricably enmeshed in the dispute over the Three Chapters. The hostility aroused by his Judicature had compelled him to revoke the offending document in 5 50; and though in August of that year he had secretly sworn to Justinian a written oath that he would continue to use all his influence on his behalf, his efforts to regain the control - and, more difficult still, the respect - of the Western Churches had inevitably led him further and further away from the Emperor's own position. Relations between the two became still more strained the following year, when Justinian published a second edict, in the form of a long treatise in which he set forth - as if he himself were a one-man Ecumenical Council - his own interpretation of the basic tenets of Christianity, ending up with yet another violent condemnation of the Chapters. Prompted, no doubt, by many of the Western churchmen in the city, Vigilius protested that the edict went against the principles of Chalcedon and called upon the Emperor to withdraw it. Justinian, predictably, refused; whereupon the Pope summoned a meeting in his palace of all the bishops from both East and West who were present in the city. This assembly pronounced unanimously against the edict, solemnly forbidding any cleric to say mass in any church in which it was exhibited. When, a few days later, two prelates ignored this decree they were immediately excommunicated - as was (for the third time) the Patriarch himself.

On hearing the news, Justinian flew into a towering fury; and the Pope, suspecting that he was no longer safe from arrest, sought refuge in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, which the Emperor had recently built next to the Palace of Hormisdas.1 Scarcely had he reached it, however, when there arrived the Praetor of the People, who commanded the city police, with a company of the imperial guard. According to a party of Italian churchmen, who were eye-witnesses of what took place and who subsequently described it in detail to the Frankish ambassadors,2 they burst into the church with swords drawn and bows ready-strung and made straight for the Pope. He, seeing them, made a dash for the high altar; meanwhile the various priests and deacons surrounding him

1.   This was a Constantinian building looking out on to the Marmara immediately to the south of St Sophia. It took its name from one of its first residents, a fugitive Persian who became one of the chief advisers to the Emperor Constantius.

2.   Their letter will be found in Migne, Patrologia Latino, Vol. 69, Cols. 11 j-19.

remonstrated with the Praetor, and a scuffle ensued during which several of them were injured, though not seriously. The soldiers then seized hold of the Pope himself, who was by this time clinging tightly to the columns supporting the altar, and tried to drag him - some by the legs, some by the hair and others by the beard - forcibly away. But the more they pulled, the tighter he clung - until at last the columns themselves came loose and the altar crashed to the ground, narrowly missing his head.

By this time a considerable crowd, attracted by the commotion, had begun to protest vehemently against such treatment being accorded to the Vicar of Christ; the soldiers, too, were manifestly unhappy, and the Praetor wisely decided to withdraw, leaving a triumphant though badly shaken Vigilius to survey the damage. The next day there arrived a high-powered delegation, led by Belisarius, to express the Emperor's regrets for what had occurred and to give the Pope a formal assurance that he could return to his residence in the capital without fear of violence or apprehension.

The Pope returned at once, but soon found that he was being kept under so close a surveillance as to amount to something approaching house arrest. He realized, too, that if he were to break the present deadlock and maintain the prestige that he had striven so hard to recover among the Western Churches, he must once again take decisive action. Two nights before Christmas, in the late evening of 23 December 551, he squeezed his considerable bulk through a small window of the palace and took a boat across the Bosphorus to Chalcedon, where he made straight for the Church of St Euphemia. It was a clever move, and also a symbolic one in that he was deliberately associating himself with the scene of the Great Council of 451, distancing himself from the Emperor who was questioning its authority and taking refuge from him in the very building in which its sessions had been held exactly a century before. Once again a delegation under Belisarius came to plead with him, but this time he stood firm; and when a detachment of soldiers called a few days later they were content to arrest some of his priests, but made no attempt to lay hands on the Pope himself. Vigilius meanwhile composed a long letter to Justinian known as his Encyclica, in which he answered accusations made by the Emperor by giving his own account of the controversy as he saw it and once again proposing negotiations. In a less conciliatory mood, he also published his sentences of excommunication on the Patriarch and the two bishops who had incurred his wrath the previous August.

Negotiations were resumed in the spring, and in June Justinian decided on a major tactical concession: the Patriarch and other excommunicated bishops were dispatched to St Euphemia to apologize and humble themselves before Vigilius, after which the Pope returned to his palace. It was also agreed to annul all recent statements on both sides covering the Three Chapters, including the Emperor's edict. To the papal supporters it must have seemed like victory: if recent statements were annulled it was hardly likely that any more would be made, and with any luck the whole issue might now be allowed to fade back into the obscurity it deserved. But Justinian was not yet beaten. He now decreed a new Ecumenical Council to pronounce upon the matter once and for all, and invited Vigilius to preside.

In theory an Ecumenical Council of the Church was a convocation of bishops from every corner of Christendom. When all were gathered together it was believed that the Holy Spirit would descend on them, giving a sort of infallibility to their pronouncements. Their judgement was supreme, their decisions final. In practice, however, attendance was inevitably selective. If therefore the Church was split on any given issue, the outcome of the Council's deliberations would depend less on divine intervention than on the number of bishops from each side able to attend; and both Emperor and Pope knew full well that bishops were considerably thicker on the ground in the East than they were in the West, and that - particularly if the meetings were held in Constantinople - the Easterners would thus command a substantial majority. Vigilius accordingly suggested that the question should be put to a small committee composed of an equal number of representatives from both East and West, but Justinian refused; and after various other possibilities had been put forward and similarly rejected the Pope decided that his only chance lay in boycotting the assembly altogether. In consequence, when the Fifth Ecumenical Council eventually met in St Sophia on 5 May 553, under the presidency of Eutychius, Mennas's successor as Patriarch - of the 168 bishops present only eleven were from the West, and nine of these were African. Justinian too had elected to stay away since, he explained, he did not wish to influence the assembly; but his letter to the delegates, read aloud at the opening session, reminded them that they had already anathematized the Three Chapters. No one present could have had any doubt as to what was expected of him.

For over a week the deliberations continued; then, on 14 May, after repeated invitations to attend, the Pope produced what he described as a Constitutum, signed by himself and nineteen other Western churchmen. It was to some degree a compromise, in that it allowed that there were indeed certain grave errors in the writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia; but, it pointed out, the other two writers accused had been pronounced 'orthodox fathers' at Chalcedon. In any case, it was not proper to anathematize the dead. The present agitation over the Three Chapters was therefore unfounded and unnecessary, and itself to be condemned. Vigilius concluded by forbidding - 'by the authority of the Apostolic See, over which by the Grace of God we preside' - any ecclesiastic to venture any further opinion on the matter.

It was not till 25 May that the Pope formally sent a copy of his paper to the Palace. He cannot have expected it to be well received; neither, however, had he reckoned with the changed situation in Italy. Totila was dead; the Goths were defeated; no longer was it necessary to woo the Roman citizens in Italy for their support. Justinian had had more than enough of Vigilius, and now at last he could afford to treat him as he deserved. He made no reply to the Constitutum; instead, he sent one of his secretaries to the Council with a packet containing three documents. The first was the text of the Pope's secret declaration of June 547, anathematizing the Three Chapters; the second was his written oath of August 5 50, swearing to do everything in his power to bring about their condemnation; and the third was a decree that his name should be forthwith struck from the diptychs. This was tantamount to a sentence of excommunication on the Pope himself - though Justinian stressed that in repudiating Vigilius personally he was not severing communion with Rome.1 At its seventh session on 26 May the Council formally endorsed the Emperor's decree and condemned the Pope in its turn, 'until he should repent his errors'; and at its eighth and last, on 2 June, echoing the Emperor's second edict almost verbatim, it anathematized a whole series of heretics including Theodore and Theodoret. (Ibas escaped, on the grounds that the offending letter attributed to him had in fact been written by someone else.)

For Vigilius, it was the end of the road. Banished to an island in the Marmara, he was told that until he accepted the findings of the Council he would never be permitted to return to Rome. Not for another six months - by which time he was suffering agonies from kidney-stones -did he capitulate; but when at last he did so his surrender was absolute. In a letter to the Patriarch of 8 December he admitted all his previous errors, and two months later - almost certainly at Justinian's insistence -

1 Non sedem sed sedentem, 'not the scat but the sitter'.

he addressed to the Western Churches a second Constitutum in which he formally condemned the Three Chapters and all who dared uphold them; as for himself, 'whatever is brought forward or anywhere discovered in my name in their defence is hereby nullified'. He could not say more. By now too ill to travel, he remained another year in Constantinople and only then, during a brief respite from the pain, started for home. But the effort was too great. On the way, his condition suddenly grew worse. He was obliged to interrupt his journey at Syracuse; and there, broken alike in body and spirit, he died.

It is an almost universal characteristic among autocrats that they cling compulsively to power, to the detriment alike of their subjects and their reputation. If death had come to Justinian at the same time as it came to Pope Vigilius, he would have been genuinely mourned. By the re-conquest of Italy he had restored to his Empire its former frontiers and had made the Mediterranean once again a Roman lake; by the Council of Constantinople he had brought at least a semblance of unity to the Christian Church. His work was done, all his dominions at peace. He was seventy-three years old, his beloved Theodora was dead and it was time for him to follow her to the grave. But death did not come; indeed, it delayed its coming for another ten years. And the Empire suffered.

All through that last, unhappy decade of his life Justinian persistently refused to delegate his authority, while it became clearer and clearer to those around him that he no longer possessed either the ability or the appetite to wield it properly himself. 'The old man no longer cared for anything,' wrote a contemporary, 'his spirit was already in heaven.' Money - always a problem - was shorter than ever; but whereas in the old days the Emperor would have taken steps himself to find at least part of what he needed, now he left it to his ministers to do the best they could. The defence of the frontier had always been one of his primary concerns: he had raised literally hundreds of walls and ramparts, of castles and strongholds, from the Euphrates to the Guadalquivir. But by 5 5 5 he had allowed the imperial army, which had once numbered 645,000 men, to shrink to a mere 150,000, while the great frontier fortresses stood desolate and abandoned. War, money, defence, even conquest - all these things had begun to bore him. Nowadays he cared only for religion, for the state of the Church - his Church - and for the endless theological disputations in which, true Byzantine that he was, he found both stimulus and relaxation.

Hostile neighbours were to be bought rather than fought, even though the exchequer had no funds with which to buy them. Thus the payment in 5 56 to the Great King of 30,000 gold solidi obtained a fifty-year peace treaty with Persia - well worth it, from Justinian's point of view, for the renunciation of all Persian claims on Lazica and for the opportunity for him to stand down his army along the seemingly endless eastern frontier. Unfortunately, protection money has always been a poor guarantee for the future; he who starts to pay it usually finds it very hard to stop. Sometimes, too, such methods proved impracticable. Only three years afterwards, in 559, meeting little resistance from the Danubian defences or from the long inner chain of forts that Justinian had erected behind them, a Hunnish tribe known as the Kotrigurs swarmed deep into imperial territory, striking southward into Thessaly and advancing eastward through Thrace to within twenty miles of the capital.

This was not the first invasion that the Empire had suffered in recent years - in 548 and again in j 50 the Slavs had overrun the Balkan peninsula as far as the Gulf of Corinth, the Adriatic and the shores of the Aegean - but for the people of Constantinople it was by far the most terrifying, many of them in their panic taking flight with their families and all their movable possessions across the Bosphorus. Justinian himself was not unduly alarmed; the invaders had been able to approach so close only because the Anastasian Walls, which ran some thirty miles west of the city from Selymbria on the Marmara to the Black Sea, had recently been severely damaged in an earthquake. On the other hand the Walls of Theodosius, which formed the inner line of defence, had survived intact and were still fully manned. In such circumstances he knew that they could be trusted to keep out any army in existence, let alone so primitive and ill-equipped a horde as the Kotrigurs.

What he did feel was humiliation: that he, who had destroyed the Ostrogothic and Vandal Kingdoms in Italy and Africa and had re-established the imperial presence in Spain, should have allowed a rough barbarian tribe of which few people had ever heard to approach to his very doorstep, plundering and laying waste everything in their path. This time there was no alternative but to fight. As so often in the past at moments of crisis, he sent for Belisarius.

The general was still only in his middle fifties. Although it was now ten years since he had seen action in the field, he had lost none of his energy, nor any of his astonishing tactical imagination. With only a few hundred men at his disposal he organized a brilliant guerrilla campaign, in the course of which he drew the Kotrigurs into a carefully planned ambush and left 400 dead where they had fallen before driving the remainder back to their base camp near Arcadiopolis (Liileburgaz). Doubtless he could have driven them further if Justinian had allowed him; with a few more men he could probably have destroyed them utterly. But that was not the Emperor's way. He preferred diplomacy, backed up where necessary with bribes. And so he bought the Kotrigurs just as he had bought the Persians, promising them a generous annual subsidy on condition that they returned to their homeland and made no further incursions into imperial territory.

After so encouraging a start, this was not a very creditable outcome to the affair; it certainly did not merit Justinian's triumphal procession into his capital when he returned that August from Selymbria, whither he had made one of his rare excursions from Constantinople to superintend the reconstruction of the Anastasian Walls. This extraordinary ceremony, in which Belisarius took no part, was apparently intended to convince his subjects that the Kotrigurs had been annihilated after a great and glorious victory for which the Emperor himself had been alone responsible; that old jealousy for his brilliant commander that had always smouldered in his heart had suddenly flared up again, for the first time since Theodora's day.

Belisarius doubtless took note, and retreated once more into the background. Even then, no one was probably more surprised than he when, in the autumn of 562, several distinguished citizens were accused of plotting against the Emperor's life and one of them named him as being among those implicated. Nothing, of course, was ever proved; but he was shorn of all his dignities and privileges, and lived for eight months in a state of disgrace until Justinian, finally persuaded of his innocence, reinstated him. It was presumably this unfortunate incident that gave rise to the legend according to which the Emperor had his old general blinded and thrown out into the streets with a begging-bowl; but the earliest authority for this story dates from more than five centuries later and can safely be rejected.1 After his return to favour Belisarius lived out his life in tranquillity and comfort, dying in March 565 at the age of about sixty. Antonina, now probably well into her eighties, survived him.

That same month saw Justinian's last item of legislation, the end of a long series of enactments on ecclesiastical affairs - they included a law

1 Strangely enough, the work in question - a late-eleventh-century account of Constantinople tentatively attributed to Michael Psellus - refers on the very same page to the continued existence of the gilded statue of Belisarius that Justinian had erected in 549. This would surely have been taken down had the general suffered the fate described.

fixing the official dates of Christmas and the Epiphany - to which, as he grew older, he devoted more and more of his time. He continued through the summer and early autumn, working at his desk, granting audiences and holding theological discussions; then, on the night of 14 November, quite without warning, he died - of a heart attack presumably, or a stroke. The only official with him at the time was the Patrician Callinicus, Praepositus of the Sacred Bedchamber, who subsequently reported that the Emperor had, with his last breath, designated his successor: his nephew Justin, son of his sister Vigilantia.

There may have been some who doubted this story, but no one was in a position to contradict it. The account of what happened next is also somewhat suspect, relying as it does on the testimony of a third-rate African poet named Corippus who was obviously anxious to ingratiate himself with the new Emperor; but since it was intended to be read by several eye-witnesses to the events it describes, it is probably true in its essentials at least. Corippus sings of how the Patrician quickly summoned a number of senators and how together they hurried to Justin's mansion. There they found the prince, accompanied by his wife Sophia - who was Theodora's niece - in a beautiful room overlooking the sea, and hailed him as their new Emperor. The whole party then repaired to the Palace, where Justinian had been laid out on a golden bier and where Sophia, producing a golden cloth on which she had embroidered scenes from her uncle's life, draped it reverently over the body.

The following morning the imperial pair rode in state to St Sophia where Justin, having been ceremonially raised on a shield in the old Roman manner and crowned with the imperial diadem, made an inaugural speech in which he swore to his orthodox beliefs, undertook to rule with piety and justice and - somewhat ungraciously, it may be thought - expressed his regret that his predecessor in his old age had neglected or mismanaged so many important departments of state. He and Sophia then continued to the Hippodrome, where they received the acclamation of their new subjects and paid off, then and there, all Justinian's debts left unsettled at his death. Only when all these formalities had been completed could they proceed to the funeral itself. The body, now raised on a high catafalque glittering with gold and jewels, was carried slowly from the Palace and through the densely packed but silent streets, followed on foot by Justin and Sophia, the Senate and senior officers of State, the Patriarch, bishops and clergy, the soldiers and the Palace Guard. On arrival at the Church of the Holy Apostles it was borne up the nave to the tomb of Theodora, next to which stood a vast porphyry sarcophagus, empty and waiting. Into this it was gently lowered, while a mass was said for the repose of the old Emperor's soul.

An age had ended. The Empire had passed from an uncle to a nephew, in as smooth and undisputed a succession as had ever been known; but there is no mistaking the fact that, far from inaugurating the glorious new era of which he had dreamt, Justinian was the last Roman Emperor to occupy the throne of Byzantium. It was not simply that he had been born a Latin, and that - if Procopius is to be believed - he spoke barbarous Greek all his life; it was that his mind was cast in a Latin mould, and that throughout his reign he devoted the greater part of his prodigious energies to the restoration of the old Roman Empire. What he never understood was that that Empire was by now an anachronism; the days when one man could stand in undisputed universal authority were gone, and would not return. He had dealt the Vandals and the Ostrogoths their respective death-blows; but the barbarian tribes that pressed along his northern frontiers were as numerous as ever, and ever more eager to enjoy for themselves the warmth and fertility of the Mediterranean lands. No longer moreover were they prepared, as their predecessors had been, to accept the role of barbarians. Already the Slavs had begun their slow but relentless infiltration into the Balkans. As for Italy, in the reconquest of which Justinian had spent almost half his lifetime and which he had regained only at the cost of many thousand lives and untold human misery, it was to remain in imperial hands, after his death, for just three years.

Of all the Emperors of Byzantium, he is the one whom we find the easiest to imagine - thanks to the great contemporary mosaic in the choir of the Church of S. Vitale in Ravenna, dating from 546 when the building was completed. Justinian looks younger than his sixty-four years, but his face - in striking contrast to the imperial diadem that he is wearing and the golden nimbus that frames his head - is plain and unidealized: a portrait clearly taken from the life, as is that of Maximianus, Archbishop of Ravenna, who stands next to him. It is not a fine face - the Macedonian peasant is there for all to see - nor indeed a particularly strong one. Certainly it bears no comparison with that of Theodora on the opposite wall, frowning menacingly from between pendant ropes of pearls as she extends a great jewelled chalice - in a gesture that echoes those of the Three Kings, embroidered along the bottom of her purple robe. No wonder, one feels, that her husband was easily led - if it was she who was doing the leading.

And yet, weak-willed and vacillating as he could often be, Justinian was - with anyone except his wife - an autocrat through and through. He possessed in full measure the faults which are all too frequently associated with absolute power: the vanity, the quickness of temper, the occasional bursts of almost paranoid suspicion, the childish jealousy of anyone - though it was usually Belisarius - who he feared might threaten his prestige. On the other hand his energy astonished all who knew him, while his capacity for hard work was apparently without limit. Known within his court as akoimetos - 'the sleepless' - he would spend whole days and nights together pondering on affairs of state, attending personally to the minutest details, wearing out whole successions of secretaries and scribes as the sky darkened, then lightened, then darkened again outside the palace windows. Such, he believed, were the duties imposed by God upon an Emperor; and he performed those duties with conscientious dedication and - at least until the very last years of his life - with unfailing efficiency.

But there were other sides, too, to an Emperor's life. He could not always remain closeted in the imperial chancery. He must also move out among his people, dazzling them with a majesty and magnificence that reflected the glory of the Empire itself. Hence the sumptuous processions, the high ceremonial pomp with which he was surrounded on all public occasions. Hence also his passion for building. The Empire's splendour, he believed, must be made manifest in its capital. Justinian transformed Constantinople; and though many of his most extraordinary monuments - such as the Great Palace, which he entirely rebuilt for himself and his successors, with its famous 'Bronze Gate', the Chalke, ablaze with polychrome marble and mosaic, or his own immense equestrian statue on a column in the Augusteum - have long since crumbled away to dust, the great churches of St Sophia and St Irene and the little miracle of St Sergius and St Bacchus have somehow survived and still have the power to catch the breath. So, even more surprisingly, have certain of his public works - above all the vast Columned cisterns now known as the Yerebatansaray and the Binbir-direk, constructions as remarkable in their way as any that can be seen in the city. But - despite the fact that he so seldom left it himself -Justinian did not confine his tremendous building projects to his capital. Roads were laid, sewers were sunk, bridges and aqueducts sprang up in every corner of the Empire; not one but several new cities were founded and given the name of Justiniana in his honour. Antioch, after its sack by Chosroes in 540, was rebuilt on a far more lavish scale than formerly, as were the Syrian towns destroyed in the succession of earthquakes that, in 551 and again in 554, shook the province to its foundations.

One reason for Justinian's compulsive building operations may be that here at least he could be reasonably certain of the outcome of each new enterprise. Not all his other endeavours were equally successful - often through his chronic inability to come to terms with the world as it was, rather than as he would have liked it to be. In his desire for religious unity, as we have seen, he succeeded only in deepening the rift between East and West, orthodox and monophysite, since having once taken a decision it never occurred to him that he might be wrong. Similarly his immense efforts to reform the administration and to purge it of corruption were repeatedly sabotaged by his own extravagance: so great was his need of money that he simply could not afford to be too particular about how it was obtained. Even his conquests had disappointing results. He had hoped, by restoring the conquered lands to the Empire, to bring them peace, prosperity and good government; in fact, the depredations of the imperial soldiery, followed by those of the swarms of tax-collectors and logothetes, left the local populations in misery and destitution. And although vast expenditure in Africa - including a magnificent rebuilding of the city of Carthage - ultimately replaced that economy on a sound footing, in Italy such similar attempts as were made ended in failure, leaving its desperate people all too ready to welcome the Lombard invaders.

But there were successes too, particularly in the field of industry and commerce. By Justinian's day, Constantinople was already the principal centre of the entrepot trade between Europe and Asia, and carrying on a brisk business with both the Mediterranean world and the Orient. The West, however, was by now sadly impoverished; it was to Cathay and the Indies that the Byzantines looked for their commercial prosperity -and for the silks, spices and precious stones by which they set so much store. But there was one perennial problem which beset all merchants trading in such commodities: the presence of Persia. Caravans taking the land route from the East passed without hindrance as far as the oases of Samarkand and Bokhara and the Oxus River; thereafter, however, they were in Persian territory, where the Great King exercised a strict control over all their transactions - often, in time of war, suspending them completely. The sea route presented the same difficulty, since all cargoes had to be landed in the Persian Gulf. Huge tolls were levied, especially on silk - the most sought-after item of all - and direct trading was forbidden. Sales could only be effected by Persian middlemen, and they too took exorbitant commissions.

This was the stranglehold that Justinian had determined to break-First, he opened up new routes designed to bypass Persia altogether: a northern one via the Crimea, Lazica and the Caucasus - where his subjects were already carrying on a flourishing trade in textiles, jewellery and wine, which they exchanged for leather, furs and slaves - and a southern one which used the Red Sea rather than the Gulf and which involved him, already in the early 530s, in negotiations with the Ethiopian kingdom of Axum. The first of these attempts was partially successful; the latter failed, owing to the firmness of the Persian grip on the Indian and Ceylonese ports. The real breakthrough came only in 552, when a party of orthodox monks sought an audience with the Emperor and offered to obtain through certain contacts in Soghdiana - that distant land beyond the Oxus - a quantity of silkworm eggs, together with enough technical knowledge to establish an industry. Justinian leapt at the chance; before long there were factories not only in Constantinople but in Antioch, Tyre and Beirut (and later at Thebes in Boeotia) and the imperial silk industry - always a state monopoly - became one of the most profitable in the Empire.

After thirty-eight years on the throne, a personality as powerful as that of Justinian could not fail to be missed by his subjects; but he was not deeply mourned. Even in his early days he had never won their love. By the time he had grown old, the tyranny of his tax-gatherers had created dangerous discontent; of the last ten years of his reign, no less than six saw serious rioting in the capital. Economically, despite all his efforts, he left the Empire prostrate: for that reason alone, he cannot be considered a truly great ruler. On the other hand, he also left it infinitely richer in amenities, services and public works, and incomparably more beautiful. He extended its frontiers, he simplified and streamlined its laws. He worked ceaselessly, indefatigably, as few rulers in history have ever worked, for what he believed to be the good of his subjects. When he failed, it was almost invariably because he attempted too much and set his sights too high; never the reverse. More than any other monarch in the history of Byzantium, he stamped the Empire with the force of his own character; centuries were to pass before it emerged from his shadow.

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