If you ask a man for change, he will give you a piece of philosophy concerning the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you enquire the price of a loaf, he replies: 'The Father is greater and the Son inferior'; or if you ask whether the bath is ready, the answer you receive is that the Son was made out of nothing.
St Gregory of Nyssa
It is one of the cliches of Constantinople that it should, ideally, be approached from the sea. Only then, we are told, can the uniqueness of its geographical position be properly appreciated, to say nothing of that famous skyline of dome and minaret which has symbolized, for as long as any of us can remember, the Mysterious East. With this opinion we cannot easily disagree; but, for those of us on whom Byzantium will always cast a more powerful spell than Islam, there is another approach every bit as satisfying and very nearly as spectacular. No one, surely, whose first arrival has been by road from Edirne, can ever forget that first astonishing sight of the Land Walls, looming up from the surrounding plain, their huge russet-striped towers splintered and occasionally shattered, magnificent witnesses to the bludgeonings - by attacking armies and, more recently, by Turkish traffic - that they have endured for nearly sixteen centuries. Running just over four miles from the Marmara to the upper reaches of the Golden Horn - and thus enclosing a far greater area than those earlier fortifications traced by Constantine -they totally close off the city by land; only once, after more than a thousand years, were they ever breached - a breach that was to spell the end of the Byzantine Empire.
But that was over 500 years ago; they are still standing today, and still known as the Theodosian Walls after Theodosius II, in whose reign they were first built. And yet, although this tremendous construction remains the only achievement of his forty-two-year reign for which the name of Theodosius is generally remembered, the sad truth is that he can take little of the credit. Those walls - a single line of them, rather than the triple fortification that we see today - were begun in 413, when the Emperor was still a boy of twelve; they were conceived and carried to their completion not by him but by his Praetorian Prefect Anthemius, who for the first six years of his reign was his guardian and the effective Regent of the East.
Anthemius was the first highly-placed layman at Constantinople since the days of Theodosius the Great to combine ability with high principle. Apart from the Walls, he was also responsible for a new peace treaty with Persia; for a much strengthened Danube fleet after a damaging but ultimately unsuccessful invasion by the Hun King Uldin; for improvements in the corn supply from Alexandria; and for the restoration of good relations with the Western Empire after the death of Arcadius. But he did not last long. After 414 he disappears from view, to be succeeded as the power behind the throne by the Emperor's own sister, the princess Pulcheria; and with this faintly awesome figure there is inaugurated a period of thirty-six years - the remainder of her brother's reign - during which virtually all the effective influence in the state was concentrated in female hands.
Pulcheria had been born only two years before Theodosius; she was thus still barely fifteen when she was proclaimed Augusta and took over the reins of government. By now it must have been generally apparent that her brother would be no improvement on Arcadius: he was weak, vacillating and easily led. She herself, by contrast, was strong and determined, with a love of power for its own sake; but she was also excessively, extravagantly pious, taking a particular pleasure in the rebuilding of the ruined St Sophia. Under her influence, her two younger sisters Arcadia and Marina developed similar inclinations: the prevailing mood in the imperial palace, it was said, was more that of a cloister than a court, thronged from morning till night with priests and monks while the princesses, all three of whom had vowed themselves to perpetual virginity, stitched away at their altar-cloths and chasubles to the sound of hymns, psalmodies and muttered prayers. It was all a far cry, people somewhat wistfully observed, from what it had been in Eudoxia's day.
How far Theodosius allowed himself to be drawn into his sister's devotions is a matter for conjecture. Born in the purple1 and proclaimed co-Augustus at his birth, he had in fact granted his first petition
1 Porphyroginitus, or born in the purple, was a title used exclusively of a prince who was bom after his father had become Emperor - theoretically at least, in the Purple Chamber of the Great Palace.
(addressed to him by Porphyrius, Bishop of Gaza, and requesting the destruction of all pagan temples in his diocese) immediately after his baptism, when he was still only a few days old;1 and from his earliest childhood he had been obliged to live in that stultifying seclusion from his fellows that was considered appropriate for God's Vice-Gerent on Earth. Despite his upbringing, however, and his hereditary defects of character, he seems to have possessed considerable charm: 'he was much loved,' writes Socrates the Church historian, 'by Senate and people alike.' And he was certainly far from stupid. Religion in the fifth century was too much a part of everyday life not to have interested him in some degree, but his tastes lay more in the direction of secular learning and culture: in the classical authors both Latin and Greek, in mathematics and the natural sciences, and above all in the art of illustrating and illuminating manuscripts, where his skill soon earned him the sobriquet of kalligraphos, the calligrapher. His interests, however, were not exclusively intellectual and artistic. He had a passion for hunting, and there is evidence - though not, it must be admitted, contemporary - to suggest that it was he who introduced to Constantinople the Persian game of tsukan, which we know today as polo. Immersed as he was in these pursuits, he had no objection to leaving affairs of state to his sister, long after he had reached the age when he should have taken them over himself. Only in 420, when he was nineteen and his thoughts began to turn to other channels, did he send for Pulcheria on a matter of state importance. It was time, he told her, that she found him a wife.
Now it happened - these are admittedly the facts as given by later historians, but who are we to contradict them? - that at about this time there presented herself at the Palace a young Greek girl of startling beauty named Athenais. She was the daughter of a certain Leontius, a professor at the university of Athens, and she had come to enlist the Emperor's support against her two brothers, who had refused to share her father's estate with her after his death and had thus condemned her to penury. According to one version of the story, Leontius had deliberately cut her off with a hundred gold pieces since, as he wrote in his will, 'she will
1 The Bishop's deacon, Marcus, tells how he and his master stood outside the church and, when the baptismal procession emerged, shouted the words, 'We petition Your Piety', and held out the document. 'And he who carried the child .. . halted, and commanded silence, and having unrolled a part he read it .. . and placed his hand under the head of the child and cried out: "His Majesty has ordered the requests contained in the petition to be ratified."' Later, at the Palace, 'the Emperor ordered the paper to be read, and said: "The request is hard, but to refuse is harder, since it is the first mandate of our son"' (quoted by Bury (op. cit.), from the Abhandlungen of the Berlin Academy, 1879).
have her good luck, which is better than that of any other woman'. If so, he was right. Pulcheria, who saw her first, was immensely impressed -not only by her beauty but by the exquisite Greek in which she framed her appeal. She took her straight to Theodosius, who at once fell passionately in love. The potential difficulty of the girl's paganism was quickly overcome: after a few weeks' instruction by Bishop Atticus she was baptized into the Christian faith, marking the occasion by a change of name from Athenais to Eudocia. Her new sister-in-law, it need hardly be said, stood as her godmother. On 7 June 421, she and Theodosius were married.
Into the well-nigh insufferable atmosphere of the imperial palace, Athenais1 arrived like a fresh spring breeze. She too was genuinely religious - in the circumstances she could hardly have been anything else - but her Christianity was somehow lightened by her pagan background. Her father had steeped her from childhood in the Hellenistic tradition, and she knew the Greek poets and philosophers even better than the Bible and the patristic writings; in short, there was a whole extra dimension to her mind compared to those of the three dismal princesses, and she cheered up the court wonderfully. Her star rose still higher when, the year after her marriage, she presented her husband with a baby daughter — to whom, in a gesture towards his mother's memory as inappropriate as it was confusing, he gave the name Eudoxia. It was perhaps in gratitude for his first-born child that, in 423, he raised his wife to the rank of Augusta.
Nothing, one would have thought, could be more natural; but her sister-in-law did not take it well. Pulcheria had always seen Athenais as her creation. She had found her, introduced her to Theodosius, organized her conversion, sponsored her at her baptism and educated her in the ways of the court. The girl was her protegee, beholden to her for all she possessed and all she had become. Now, suddenly, she was of equal rank. She was more beautiful, more sought-after, better educated and infinitely better liked. She was also far closer to her husband, and exerted a far greater influence over him than his sister could ever hope to do. As Pulcheria's jealousy grew, she began to find the Empress frivolous, irreverent and - which was probably true - increasingly disrespectful of herself. And so she determined, sooner or later and in any way she could, to cut her down to size.
1 From this point on she should properly be known as Eudocia; but since both her mother-in-law and daughter were called Eudoxia - the two names seem often to have been interchangeable - the possibilities of confusion will be appreciably lessened if we allow her, for the purpose of this narrative, to keep her pagan name. It is a much prettier name anyway.
That same summer the imperial couple received at the Palace the Empire's third Augusta: Galla Placidia, daughter of Theodosius the Great - and granddaughter, through her mother, of the elder Valentinian
- who arrived in Constantinople with her two small children. Though still only in her early thirties, Placidia could already look back on an extraordinary life. Finding her half-brother Honorius's court in Ravenna intolerable, she had taken up residence in Rome, where she had survived all three of Alaric's sieges; after the third, however, she had been taken by the Goths as a hostage and kept by them in captivity for four years until, in 414, Honorius was finally induced to consent to her marriage with Ataulfus, Alaric's brother-in-law and successor. There had been a sumptuous wedding at Narbonne, and the two had finally established their court at Barcelona; but Ataulfus had died after little more than a year and Placidia had returned to Ravenna - where, in 417, reluctantly but at her brother's insistence, she took his closest adviser, a dark, swarthy Illyrian named Constantius, as her second husband.
Despite his unprepossessing appearance - his expression, we are told, was permanently sulky, his eyes darting suspiciously to right and left -and his execrable horsemanship, Constantius had enjoyed a distinguished military career, culminating in the defeat of the usurper Constantinus at Aries in4111 and he seems to have genuinely loved Placidia, whose hand he had sought even before her first marriage. Two children, Honoria and Valentinian, were born to them in swift succession, and in 421 Constantius was raised to be co-Emperor with Honorius, Placidia herself being named Augusta. The news was received with dismay at the court of Theodosius, who refused to recognize the new elevations or to erect the traditional statues when they arrived from Ravenna; but fortunately this dissension did not last long, since Constantius - who detested his new position and had almost immediately gone into a decline - died in his turn, after a reign of barely six months.
So Placidia entered her second widowhood at the court of Ravenna, which soon proved even less congenial to her than before. Honorius, whose mind had never been altogether stable, was now becoming progressively more unbalanced. First he displayed embarrassing signs of falling in love with his half-sister, covering her with slobbering kisses in
1 He had guaranteed Constantinus's life in return for his surrender, and had sent him and his son Julian back under close escort to Ravenna; but at the twentieth milestone from the city the two prisoners were intercepted and executed on the Emperor's orders. The contemporary historian Olympiodorus claims that their impaled heads were subsequently exposed outside the gates of Carthage - a curious choice of city, which he does not attempt to explain.
public; then, finding that his affection was not reciprocated, he became by turns suspicious, jealous and at last openly hostile. Soon this hostility began to manifest itself not just in the Emperor personally but in his entourage as well, and even among his guards; and it was when the latter began attacking her own retainers in the streets of Ravenna that Placidia decided that she could stand no more and early in 423 sought refuge with her nephew in Constantinople, taking her children with her.
The two families seem to have got on cordially enough together, even agreeing on the marriage of little Valentinian - he was then four - with the baby Eudoxia when the two children should be of somewhat riper years; and there is no telling how long Placidia and her family might have remained on the Bosphorus had she not, towards the end of that summer, received news that must have caused both her and her hosts considerable relief: on 26 August Honorius had died of dropsy, in his fortieth year. Unfortunately this report was immediately followed by another: the empty throne had been seized by a certain Johannes, erstwhile holder of the not very illustrious office of primicerius notariorum, Chief of the Notaries.
Theodosius - urged on, we may be sure, by Pulcheria and perhaps even by Athenais - acted swiftly. He had no intention of seeing the Empire of the West, ailing as it might be, snatched away by a relatively unimportant member of the Civil Service. There and then he confirmed Placidia in the rank of Augusta, invested Valentinian with the title of Caesar and gave orders for the immediate preparation of an army to escort them back to Italy and restore them to their rightful thrones.
The expedition set forth the following year - the Emperor himself accompanying it as far as Thessalonica - and proved triumphantly successful. In those times, the surroundings of Ravenna were very different from what they are today. Over the past 1,500 years the sea has receded several miles; where we now see low-lying meadows and grassland there was once an island-studded lagoon on the Venetian pattern. Ravenna consequently enjoyed the reputation of being virtually impregnable - which was precisely why the terrified Honorius had established his court there after the battle of Pollentia nearly a quarter of a century before, but which had not prevented him from setting up additional defences along the numerous dikes and causeways that led to the city. These the Byzantines wisely ignored; instead, they somehow contrived to ford part of the lagoon itself - Socrates claims that they were guided by an angel disguised as a shepherd - thereby taking the defenders by surprise and capturing Ravenna, early in 425, with scarcely a casualty.
Johannes, after just eighteen months on the throne, was taken prisoner and brought in chains to Aquileia, where Placidia and her children were waiting. There in the Hippodrome his right hand was cut off, after which he was led around the city on a donkey, the people mocking him as he passed, and finally put to death. Meanwhile the victorious soldiery were allowed a three-day sack of Ravenna - to punish the inhabitants, so it was said, for having supported a usurper - and Valentinian, now six, was carried off to Rome for his coronation.
In Constantinople, Athenais's Hellenism was now making itself felt far beyond the confines of the imperial palace. For many years already the Latin element in the capital had been gradually giving way to the Greek, but its progress had been considerably faster under her influence - and under that of her protege Cyrus of Panopolis, who served for many years as Praetorian Prefect of the city. A poet, philosopher and art-lover, and a Greek through and through - he was the first Prefect to publish his decrees in the Greek language - Cyrus added immeasurably to the architectural splendour of Constantinople, erecting more public buildings than anyone since the Founder himself. He was also instrumental, together with the Emperor and Empress, in transforming the relatively modest educational establishment instituted by Constantine into a large and distinguished university. The idea behind the latter enterprise was to provide a Christian counterpart to the essentially pagan university of Athens, which had so far successfully resisted various attempts to close it down; but the constitution of the new foundation made it clear that, if a pagan university was Greek, a Christian one did not necessarily have to be Latin: though both the Greek and Latin schools were allotted a staff of ten grammarians, the Greek school could boast five rhetors while the Latin school had to make do with only three.
A by-product, as it were, of the university was the compilation of what was known as the Theodosian Codex. Begun in 429, it was entrusted to a commission of nine scholars and was in essence a collection of all the legislation enacted in both East and West since the days of Constantine. Many of the laws had been annulled, others amended and not a few were found to be mutually contradictory; such indeed was the confusion that the first commission found itself unable to continue, and it was nine years before a second, reconstituted group managed to complete the task. The Codex was finally to be promulgated on 15 February 438, jointly by the Eastern and Western Emperors in what was obviously intended to emphasize the unity of the Empire, following as it did only a few months after the long-planned marriage of Valentinian and the fifteen-year-old Eudoxia.
That unity, however, was a good deal more apparent than real. The imperial law, as it had evolved up to that moment in both East and West, was now at last on a firm foundation; but almost immediately the two halves of the Empire began to diverge once again, the new edicts and enactments of the one being seldom if ever passed on to the other. Constantinople and Ravenna might remain friendly, but their separate ways were in fact leading them further and further apart.
By now, too, another rift had appeared within the framework of Byzantine life - a rift whose significance can be fully realized only if we first understand the extraordinary intensity with which religious thought permeated every level of Eastern Christian society. Already at the end of the preceding century, St Gregory of Nyssa had written the words quoted at the head of this chapter; and that essentially Greek passion for theological speculation that he describes had been, if anything, intensified since his day by such charismatic figures as St John Chrysostom and Bishop Theophilus of Alexandria - whose quarrels, as we have already seen, could easily stir up sufficient public feeling to cause demonstrations, riots and even fighting in the streets. And of all the issues most likely to cause serious dissent and to inflame tempers to flash-point and beyond, the most contentious concerned the relation of Jesus Christ to God the Father.
This impossible and - to most of us - obviously unanswerable question had lain at the root of the Arian heresy, which had bedevilled both Eastern and Western Christendom for a hundred years and more; it had been condemned in 325 at Nicaea, but had smouldered on in one form or another throughout the fourth century, sometimes affecting even the Emperors themselves. Constantius, for example, had favoured a compromise, according to which the Son was not of the same (homoousion) but of like (homoiousion)substance with the Father;1 Valens, on the other hand, had been an out-and-out Arian. At the Council of Constantinople in 381, the impeccably orthodox Theodosius the Great had confirmed the findings of Nicaea and had promulgated several subsequent edicts designed to enforce what he called Catholicism on his subjects; but they had failed. The issue, though it should have been settled time and time again, had obstinately refused to lie down.
Now, in the reign of Theodosius's grandson and namesake, it assumed
1 An idea that had occurred to several delegates to the Council of Nicaea.
a new form - a polarization this time, with two opposing schools of thought, one on each side of Nicaean orthodoxy. The first of these schools to cause concern was that of a certain Nestorius, who in 427 had been appointed Bishop of Constantinople and was consequently in a particularly strong position to advance his theories. An impassioned fanatic who, after only five days on the episcopal throne, had burnt down a neighbouring church on hearing that it had been used for clandestine services by Arians, Nestorius preached that Christ was not, as the Nicaeans believed, a single person - both God and Man - but that he possessed two distinct persons, one human and the other divine. 'I cannot speak of God,' he wrote, 'as being two or three months old'; in other words, he refused to attribute the frailties inseparable from human life to a member of the Trinity. It followed - and this corollary soon assumed overriding importance in the popular mind - that the Virgin Mary could not be described as the Tbeotokos, the Mother of God, since such a description would suggest that the divine nature was born of woman. She was, Nestorius claimed, the Mother of Christ, and no more.
Thanks in large measure to the power of the bishop's oratory, his teachings rapidly gained ground in the capital and in the major cities of the East. They found a worthy opponent, however, in Cyril, nephew of Bishop Theophilus and his successor in the see of Alexandria, who was determined to carry on the quarrel which had begun with his uncle and St John Chrysostom - less, probably, for doctrinal reasons than because of personal jealousy and his own long-cherished ambition to establish the primacy of the ancient Alexandrian see over that of upstart Constantinople. As the dispute between the two protagonists and their followers grew ever more bitter the Emperor, who always tended to believe those who were nearest him and was consequently a convinced Nestorian, decided in 430 to summon another Council of the Church that would pronounce unequivocally in favour of his bishop. In doing so, however, he seriously underestimated the Alexandrians. Cyril fought with every weapon he possessed — including his knowledge of the rivalry that existed between the two Augustae. Athenais, he was well aware, was a Nestorian like her husband; it would be so much the easier to attract Pulcheria to his own side. Before long Theodosius got wind of his machinations and taxed him with them, but it was of no avail; the damage had been done.
The Council met on 22 June 431 in the Church of the Theotokos — a significant dedication - at Ephesus; and Cyril, who had beggared his own diocese to find sufficient funds for the bribing of civil servants and ecclesiastics as necessary, carried all before him. With no apparent difficulty he assumed the presidency of the Council, and then summoned Nestorius to appear before it to answer the charges of heresy levelled against him. Not surprisingly, Nestorius demurred. He had travelled to Ephesus, he pointed out, as a delegate, not as a defendant; he would present himself at the church only when all the bishops who had signified that they would attend the Council had in fact arrived. But Cyril was not disposed to wait. He read out the correspondence that had passed between them - suitably edited, one suspects - after which the entire assembly cried anathema on the unfortunate Nestorius, who was thereupon dismissed from his episcopate and from all priestly communion. The number of delegates present by that time was 198; but when Nestorius later commented that 'the Council was Cyril', he was surely not so very far wrong. He retired into private life; his troubles, however, were not yet over. In 435 the Emperor - who had by this time totally renounced Nestorianism - banished him, first to Petra in Arabia and later to a distant oasis in Libya or Upper Egypt, where he died.1
Many years before - perhaps even while Galla Placidia and her children were still at Constantinople - Athenais had vowed that, if her daughter did in fact marry Valentinian and become Empress of the West, she herself would make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem in thanksgiving. The marriage duly took place in the summer of 437; and in the following year she set out for the Holy Land. Her journey, however, first took her to Antioch, where her pagan upbringing stood her in better stead than her more recently adopted faith. Though the population of Antioch was by now predominantly Christian the city remained, more than any other in Asia Minor, infused with the old Hellenistic spirit; and the Empress's familiarity with the literary and cultural traditions of antiquity, combined with the purity and perfection of her Greek, made a far deeper impression than ever it had in Constantinople. The climax came with a magnificent ceremony in the local Senate House, in the course of which she delivered a brilliant extempore speech in praise of the city and its history, ending with a quotation from the Odyssey:
1 Despite his disgrace, Nestorius was to have a more lasting influence than he knew. Some of his followers wandered eastward to Persia and Mesopotamia, where they later founded a separate Nestorian Church. After periods of considerable prosperity, they eventually fled from Mongol oppression under Tamburlaine and sought refuge in the mountains of Kurdistan, where a small number of them survived into modern times.
I claim proud kinship with your race and blood.1
Jerusalem, Roman but never Greek, was very different. There may well have been a few old men and women still alive whose fathers had remembered the visit of the Empress Helena, 111 years before; and Athenais clearly modelled herself on her predecessor. She remained in the city a whole year, visiting all the Holy Places as a humble pilgrim, attending the consecrations of churches, instituting new charities, opening convents and hospices. When at last she returned to Constantinople she brought with her the usual profusion of relics - in which, we are told, the Bishop of Jerusalem plied a profitable trade - including the bones of St Stephen and the chains with which St Peter had been fettered when imprisoned by King Herod.2 Her husband welcomed her warmly, and for a time all went on as before. But not, alas, for long.
What precisely it was that caused Athenais's downfall we shall never know for sure; but the sixth-century historian John Malalas tells a story which, improbable as it sounds, is curious enough to be worth repeating here. One day, he relates, as the Emperor was on his way to church, a poor man handed him a Phrygian apple of prodigious size. So huge was this apple, and so impressed was Theodosius at the sight of it, that he ordered the man to be given 150 nomismata and immediately sent it to Athenais. She, however, did not eat it herself but had it taken instead to Paulinus, Master of the Offices, who was confined by an injured foot to his house; and Paulinus, not knowing how the Empress had obtained it, dispatched it to the Palace as a gift from himself to Theodosius. The Emperor received it with some surprise. At last, thoroughly mystified and not a little suspicious, he summoned his wife and, concealing the apple, asked her what she had done with it.
Poor Athenais - had she only given a truthful answer, all might yet have been well; but at this critical moment she lost her head. 'I ate it,' she replied. White with rage, her husband produced the fatal fruit. By lying, he told her, she had revealed the truth of her relations with Paulinus, who would be executed at once. But now Athenais struck
1 Such a claim seldom fails to touch the hearts of its audience. We may compare General Eisenhower, addressing the crowd after receiving the Freedom of the City of London in 1945: 'I've got just as much right to be down there hollering as you have - I'm a Londoner too'; or President Kennedy's 'Ich bin ten Berliner in 1963.
2 One of these she sent on to her daughter Eudoxia, who immediately built the Roman church now known as S. Pietro in Vincoli to receive them. There they were subsequently joined by similar chains said to have tethered the saint during his later captivity in Rome.
back. To execute him, she claimed, would be tantamount to an open accusation of adultery, which she absolutely denied. After such an insult she could in any case no longer remain under her husband's roof; she accordingly sought his permission to return to Jerusalem, where she proposed to end her days.
It has been suggested, by Professor Bury among others,1 that the apple was in ancient times a symbol of chastity, and that this strange story may consequently be allegorical, signifying that Athenais had indeed surrendered her virtue to Paulinus. It may be so, and perhaps she had; but such an interpretation certainly does not accord with her character as we know it. The Master of the Offices was by all accounts a highly honourable man, the closest friend of her husband since the two had played together as children. Athenais, too, he had known since before her marriage, which he had actively encouraged and at which he acted as paranymphos or best man. On her deathbed, some twenty years later, the Empress swore once again that she was innocent; and if there is still any doubt, she must surely be given the benefit of it. A final point in her favour is that Paulinus was executed in 440, whereas she does not seem to have left for Jerusalem till some three years later - a long time to remain in a city in which she believed herself dishonoured.
It looks, therefore, as if we shall have to consign the story of the Phrygian apple to legend and conclude that, in all probability, the fate of Paulinus - who was in fact first exiled to Caesarea in Cappadocia, being assassinated on the Emperor's orders a short while later - had no connection with the Empress's resolve to leave the capital for ever. A far likelier explanation is to be found in the relentless machinations of Pulcheria, who must have been infuriated by the vastly increased reputation for holiness acquired by her sister-in-law as a result of her visit to Jerusalem and who doubtless intrigued against her with still greater determination than before. But, whatever the reason, it seems clear that Athenais did somehow fall from her husband's favour - she could never otherwise have left him as she did - and that even her departure did not altogether save her from his vindictiveness; for within a few months of her arrival in Jerusalem a certain Saturninus, Count of the Imperial Bodyguard, followed her there and killed the two leading members of her entourage, one a priest and the other a deacon, whom she had brought with her from Constantinople. She took her revenge by having Saturninus murdered in his turn and (perhaps subconsciously) by her enthusiastic adoption of the monophysite heresy2 - until, in her last
1. Op cir.. Vol. I, p. 133, fn.
2. Sec p. 155.
years, Pope Leo the Great himself finally succeeded in persuading her back into the orthodox fold. She lived on till 460, sad, lonely and embittered, a pathetic shadow of the brilliant, talented girl who had swept the young Emperor off his feet and, fifteen years later, had so dazzled the citizens of Antioch. When at last she died, she was buried in the Church of St Stephen which she had founded - in Constantinople long forgotten and even in Jerusalem, one suspects, feared rather than loved.
We have now followed - sketchily but, in a book primarily concerned with the Byzantine Empire, sufficiently - the career of the young Western Emperor Valentinian III from his childhood in Ravenna and Constantinople to his coronation in Rome and, twelve years later, his marriage to the Princess Eudoxia. He had proved a weak and ineffectual figure, utterly dominated by his formidable mother Placidia, who had continued to govern in his name long after he had reached manhood - indeed, until her own death in 450;' and he need no longer detain us here. As for his sister Honoria, she would not have gained so much as a mention in this book were it not for a single circumstance; but that circumstance must ensure for her at least a footnote in any account of her time. In the whole of history there can, after all, have been few princesses of any age or condition who would, of their own free will, have offered themselves in marriage to Attila the Hun.
Any self-respecting historian must try as best he can to tell his story in his own words. He may permit himself the occasional direct quotation from primary sources, if they add colour or flavour to his narrative; but he should, on the whole, steer clear of secondary ones, unless there are compelling reasons to the contrary. Such a moment now arises: for the Princess Honoria has provided Edward Gibbon with the inspiration for one of his most brilliant and characteristic paragraphs, which it would be unfair to the reader not to quote in full:
The sister of Valentinian was educated in the palace of Ravenna, and as her marriage might be productive of some danger to the state, she was raised, by the title of Augusta, above the hopes of the most presumptuous subject. But the
1 Her Mausoleum at Ravenna is the outstanding monument of the age. Of the three marble sarcophagi that stand beneath the glorious mosaics, that on the left contains all that remains of Constantius, her second husband, and their son Valentinian III; that on the right holds what there is of Honorius; while the central sarcophagus - the largest of all - is that of the Empress herself. In it her body is said to have sat, enthroned in robes of state, for eleven centuries, visible through a small peep-hole at the back; but in 1577, so the story goes, some children thrust a lighted taper through the hole. There was a sudden flash, and within seconds everything - throne, robes and Empress - was a heap of ashes.
fair Honoria had no sooner attained the sixteenth year of her age than she detested the importunate greatness which must for ever exclude her from the comforts of honourable love; in the midst of vain and unsatisfactory pomp Honoria sighed, yielded to the impulse of nature, and threw herself into the arms of her chamberlain Eugenius. Her guilt and shame (such is the absurd language of imperious man) were soon betrayed by the appearances of pregnancy: but the disgrace of the royal family was published to the world by the imprudence of the Empress Placidia, who dismissed her daughter, after a strict and shameful confinement, to a remote exile at Constantinople. The unhappy princess passed twelve or fourteen years in the irksome society of the sisters of Theodosius and their chosen virgins, to whose crown Honoria could no longer aspire, and whose monastic assiduity of prayer, fasting and vigils she reluctantly imitated. Her impatience of long and hopeless celibacy urged her to embrace a strange and desperate resolution. The name of Attila was familiar and formidable at Constantinople, and his frequent embassies entertained a perpetual intercourse between his camp and the imperial palace. In the pursuit of love, or rather of revenge, the daughter of Placidia sacrificed every duty and every prejudice, and offered to deliver her person into the arms of a barbarian of whose language she was ignorant, whose figure was scarcely human, and whose religion and manners she abhorred. By the ministry of a faithful eunuch she transmitted to Attila a ring, the pledge of her affection, and earnestly conjured him to claim her as a lawful spouse to whom he had been secretly betrothed. These indecent advances were received, however, with coldness and disdain; and the king of the Huns continued to multiply the number of his wives till his love was awakened by the more forcible passions of ambition and avarice.
Attila, jointly with his brother Bleda, had succeeded to the throne of the Huns in 434. Since 376, when it had first smashed its way into Europe from the steppes of Central Asia, this most savage of all the barbarian tribes had caused the Empire surprisingly little trouble. Neither an invasion - possibly prompted by Rufinus - of Armenia and Cappadocia in 395 nor a brief incursion into Bulgaria by King Uldin thirteen years later had produced any lasting results, and to increase his sense of security still further Theodosius had started, in about 430, to pay an annual subsidy - some might have called it a tribute - of 350 pounds of gold, the further to encourage his neighbours to keep the peace.
With the appearance of Attila, however - 'the scourge of God' as he was called - this relatively uneventful coexistence was to change. After over half a century's contact with the Romans, his people had become perhaps one degree less bestial than at their first arrival; but the vast majority still lived and slept in the open, disdaining all agriculture and even cooked foods - though they would often soften raw meat by putting it between their thighs and their horses' flanks as they rode. For clothing they favoured tunics made, rather surprisingly, from the skins of field-mice, crudely stitched together; these they wore continuously, without ever removing them, until they dropped off of their own accord. And, as they had always done, they still practically lived on their horses, eating, trading, holding their councils, even sleeping in the saddle. Attila himself was typical of his race: short, swarthy and snub-nosed, with tiny beady eyes set in a head too big for his body and a thin, straggling beard. He was not a great ruler, nor even a particularly able general; but so overmastering were the ambition and avarice with which Gibbon credits him - to say nothing of his pride, in both his person and his race, and his lust for power - that within the space of a few years he made himself feared throughout the length and breadth of Europe: more feared, perhaps, than any other single man - with the possible exception of Napoleon - before or since.
The details of his early campaigns are largely unrecorded; but within seven years of his succession he had built up a vast barbaric dominion of his own, stretching from the Balkans to the Caucasus and beyond. His first attacks on the Eastern Empire began in 441,and for the next six years there was sporadic fighting in Pannonia and along the Danube; but it was not until 447 that he gave Theodosius and his ministers serious cause for alarm. By this time his brother Bleda had died - no contemporary evidence exists to support later allegations that Attila had had him murdered - and he was in sole command of a people estimated at several thousand. His army now advanced in two directions at once: southward into Thessaly as far as Thermopylae, and eastward to Constantinople. The Theodosian Walls had, it seemed, been built just in time: the Huns had not the patience, the skill nor the discipline required for protracted siege warfare and soon turned away in search of more accessible plunder. But they inflicted a crushing defeat on the Byzantine army at Gallipoli, withdrawing only after the Emperor had agreed to treble the annual amount of Hun-money payable - as well as to hand over vast sums of past arrears which Attila claimed (probably rightly) that he had never received.
From this time forward, embassies passed almost constantly between Attila's camp and the court of Theodosius. If the majority came from the Hunnish side this was because Attila, seeing one after another of his ambassadors return from Constantinople weighed down with rich presents, had discovered a most effective means of benefiting those whom he wished to help at no cost to himself. He believed that the Emperor was now terrified of him, and he was right: what little spirit Theodosius had once possessed had long since evaporated. His only policy now was one of craven appeasement, for which he was perfectly ready not only to exhaust his own treasury but to bleed his subjects white into the bargain. Had Athenais, or even Pulcheria, remained at his side, one is tempted to believe that they might have persuaded him to take a firmer line; but the former was far away in Jerusalem, and the latter had long since lost her brother's ear. The most powerful influence at the court was now that of a eunuch named Chrysaphus; and it was he who in 448 managed to suborn one of Attila's envoys, Edeco, and to involve him, in return for a rich reward, in a plot to assassinate the King of the Huns.
In pursuance of this conspiracy, a more than usually distinguished Byzantine embassy set out later in the same year. It was led by a senior officer of noble lineage (a point to which Attila always attached great significance) named Maximin and his friend Priscus - to neither of whom it was revealed that certain members of their retinue had secret orders from Chrysaphus to murder Attila in the course of their mission. In the event, this hardly mattered. The plot was at once confessed to Attila by Edeco - whose role from the outset may have been that of an agent provocateur - and was dealt with by its intended victim with remarkable adroitness. Meanwhile the embassy, after a few initial embarrassments, was finally received with every show of cordiality by Attila himself.
Its significance to posterity, however, lies not in its more sinister aspect nor yet in its achievements - which were in any case minimal -but in the long and almost unbelievably detailed account of it left by Priscus. Thanks to him we have an unforgettable picture of the Hunnish court, as well as of its King - feasting, carousing, dispensing justice, entertaining the Roman emissaries with his tribesmen, moving alternately between towering, terrifying rages and quieter moods in which he shows his guests courtesy and even glimmerings of charm. They were surprised, too, by the simplicity of his tastes during the banquet that he gave in their honour:
While for the other barbarians and for us there were lavishly prepared dishes served on silver platters, for Attila there was only meat on a wooden plate .. . Gold and silver goblets were handed to the men at the feast, whereas his cup was of wood. His clothing was plain, and differed not at all from that of the rest, except that it was clean. Neither the sword that hung at his side nor the fastenings of his barbarian boots nor his horse's bridle was adorned, like those of the other Scythians, with gold or precious stones or anything else of value.1
1 Trans. R. C. Blockley.
Priscus leaves us with the unmistakable impression that Attila, for all his brutishness, was in fact a remarkably astute diplomatist; and there is no telling how much longer he would have continued to drain away the wealth of the Eastern Empire had not Theodosius been killed, on 28 July 450, by a fall from his horse while hunting. He and Athenais had produced no male heir, but the problem of the succession was solved by Pulcheria. Despite her vow of virginity, she was able to contract a nominal marriage to Marcian, a Thracian senator and ex-soldier, whom she promptly named Augustus and placed, with herself, on the throne - giving out (whether truthfully or not it is hard to say) that he had been nominated by Theodosius on his deathbed.
One of the first acts of the new Emperor was to refuse the King of the Huns his annual tribute. It was a courageous step to take, though possibly not quite so courageous as it seemed: Marcian was almost certainly aware that Attila was at that moment preparing a vast operation against the Western Empire, and doubtless gambled on his unwillingness to delay this by a punitive expedition to the East. Nevertheless, a gamble it was; and there must have been rejoicing in Constantinople when the news arrived that the Hunnish army had started upon its march into Italy and Gaul.
But rejoicing, by its very essence, does not last long. All too soon the exhilaration dies, the problems of daily life reassert themselves. So, as the danger from the Huns began to fade, Marcian found himself obliged to turn his attention to a new threat, internal rather than external, spiritual rather than material, but none the less insistent for that: the ever-deepening split in Byzantine society occasioned by the monophysite heresy.
It was rooted in the same old enigma: the precise relation of the Father and the Son within the Trinity. The story of the Nestorians has already been told, with its grim moral concerning the fate awaiting those who upheld the principle of the two distinct persons in Christ, the human and the divine. That error had been dealt with forcibly enough at Ephesus in 431; since then, however, the pendulum had swung to the opposite extreme, and in 448 an elderly archimandrite named Eutyches was accused of disseminating the equally subversive doctrine that the Incarnate Christ possessed but a single nature, and that that nature was divine. Found guilty, condemned and degraded, Eutyches at once appealed to Pope Leo I (the Great), to the Emperor Theodosius and to the monks of Constantinople; and in doing so he unleashed a storm of scarcely imaginable ferocity. For three years the Church was in uproar, with councils summoned and discredited, bishops unseated and restored; with intrigues and conspiracies, violence and vituperation, curses and anathemas thundering between Rome and Constantinople, Ephesus and Alexandria. At last, in October 451, the fourth Ecumenical Council1 was held in the Church of St Euphemia at Chalcedon to put an end to the chaos. Numbering as it did some five to six hundred bishops, whose views ranged across the whole breadth of the Christological spectrum, it is astonishing that this Council should have reached any decisions at all; in fact, it achieved everything it set out to do and more.2 Eutyches, who had been rehabilitated and reinstated in449, was once again condemned; and a new statement of faith was drawn up, known as the Chalcedonian Definition, according to which the doctrines of Nestorius and Eutyches were alike repudiated. Christ was established as the possessor of one person with two natures, united 'unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly and inseparably': perfect God and perfect man.
But, successful as the Council of Chalcedon unquestionably was in the short term, it laid up a greater store of future trouble than it knew. Monophysitism, as soon became apparent, was by no means dead. In the years to come, both in Egypt and Syria - the latter once a stronghold of the Nestorians - bishop after bishop was openly to reject the findings of the Council; and when these provinces began their struggle for independence from Byzantine rule, the Single Nature of Christ was to be their rallying-cry.3 With the West also, the seeds of discord were sown -notably in one of the thirty decrees which the delegates went on to promulgate when their main business was over. This decree, known as Canon Twenty-Eight, bestowed on the Bishop of Constantinople the title of Patriarch and reiterated the Theodosian ruling of 381 which had accorded him a pride of place in the Christian hierarchy second only to the Pope of Rome. So much the papal representatives present were
1 The three previous Councils had been those of Nicaea in 325, Constantinople in 381 and Ephesus in 431.
2 According to an 'Anonymous Englishman' writing in 1190, the two opposing camps, orthodox and monophysite, decided to resolve the dispute by placing their two respective formulas in the coffin of St Euphemia - a local virgin martyred in 303 - and leaving the decision to her. When they opened the coffin a week later they found the orthodox formula on her head and the monophysite under her feet. There was no further argument.
3 The monophysite doctrine still survives today among the Copts and Abyssinians, the Jacobites of Syria and the Armenians.
prepared to allow; what they could not accept was the clear implication that the Pope's supremacy would henceforth be purely titular, and that in every other respect there would be complete equality between the sees of Rome and Constantinople. The eastern provinces in particular - those of Thrace, Pontus and Asia - would be responsible to the Patriarch alone, by whom their metropolitans would in future be ordained. From this moment was born the ecclesiastical rivalry between the Old Rome and the New which was to grow increasingly bitter over the centuries until, just 600 years later, it was to erupt into schism.
John Malalas - a sixth-century Syrian-Byzantine chronicler whose anecdotes, however apocryphal, are the very essence of the ben trovato -records that the King of the Huns sent envoys, shortly before the death of Theodosius II, to both the Eastern and the Western Emperors, bearing the message: 'Attila, thy master and mine, bids thee prepare a palace for his reception.' Despite the lack of contemporary evidence, there is nothing inherently improbable about this story: Attila had designs on both halves of the Roman Empire, and loved nothing more than to strike terror into the hearts of his enemies. Until now, he had directed his energies principally against the East; but developments among the various barbarian tribes in the Western provinces had recently provided several excellent pretexts for his intervention there. Still more fortunate, from his point of view, was the opportunity unexpectedly afforded by the luckless Princess Honoria, to whose imperial brother he could now forward the ring she had sent him, together with a demand couched in his usual peremptory style: that Valentinian should restore to her forthwith that part of his Empire which was her due, and of which he had so unjustly deprived her.
The details of Attila's western campaigns need not concern us here; none the less, it should never be forgotten that, in the summer of 451 and again in 452, the whole fate of western civilization hung in the balance. Had the Hunnish army not been halted in these two successive campaigns, had its leader toppled Valentinian from his throne and set up his own capital in Ravenna or Rome, there is little doubt that both Gaul and Italy would have been reduced to spiritual and cultural deserts, just as surely and just as completely as the Balkan peninsula was reduced by the Ottoman Turks a thousand years later. In 451 Attila crossed the Rhine, devastated the great frontier city of Metz with several other important garrison towns, and penetrated as far as the walls of Orleans. Before he could take the city, however, he was forced to turn back: an imperial army under the Roman general Aetius - the effective ruler of Gaul - was advancing from the east, strengthened by detachments of Visigoths and Burgundians, Bretons and Franks, all united for the first time against their common enemy; and though the ensuing battle, known sometimes by the name of the Catalaunian and sometimes by that of the Mauriac or Mauritian Plain,1 was indecisive insofar as both sides sustained immense losses and neither was left master of the field, it had the effect of halting the Huns' advance. On the following morning Attila gave the signal for retreat and departed for his Hungarian heartland, there to rest and consolidate until spring should bring new ardour to his men.
Early in 452 he launched his army upon Italy. The opening of the new campaign was hardly encouraging: Aquileia held out for three months against the Hunnish onslaught, and Attila was on the point of giving up the siege when, Jordanes tells us, he saw a flight of storks heading away from the city with their young. Crediting them with a degree of foresight which in our own day is more usually accorded to rats, he pointed them out to his troops as a sure sign that the city was doomed. Thus encouraged, the Huns flung themselves with renewed vigour into the attack; and soon afterwards, the ninth greatest metropolis in the Roman Empire was an empty shell. Concordia, Altino and Padua followed in quick succession. Vicenza and Verona, Brescia and Bergamo would have suffered likewise had they not immediately opened their gates at the conqueror's approach - as would Pavia and Milan, where Attila triumphantly set up his court in the imperial palace. These last cities were not put to the torch like those of the Veneto; they were, however, mercilessly sacked, and many of their leading citizens taken into captivity.
This time the King of the Huns was carrying all before him. Aetius, who had assumed command in Italy, had no friendly barbarian tribes on whom to call, as he had had in Gaul the previous year. The imperial army alone stood no chance against the advancing multitude and there was, it seemed, nothing to prevent Attila from marching on Rome - the consequences of which would have been infinitely more terrible than anything ever contemplated by the relatively civilized, Christian, Alaric. And yet, at the very point of departure for his advance down the
1 The old chroniclers differ as to the site of the battle as well as its name. Hodgkin, after a careful analysis of all available evidence, plumps for Mery-sur-Seine, some twenty miles north-west of Troyes; if he is right - which he probably is - the actual fighting is most likely to have taken place in the broad, flat plain immediately to the south, between Mery and Estissac.
peninsula, he suddenly halted; and historians have been speculating ever since as to precisely why he did so.
Traditionally, the credit has always been given to Pope Leo the Great who, accompanied by two imperial dignitaries of the highest rank, travelled from Rome to meet Attila on the banks of the Mincio - probably near Peschiera, where the river issues from Lake Garda - and somehow persuaded him to advance no further; but the pagan Hun would not have obeyed the Pope out of mere respect for his office, and the question remains: what inducements was he offered in return? A substantial tribute is the likeliest answer - together, perhaps, with the hand of Honoria and an appropriate dowry. But there is another possibility: Attila, like all his race, was incorrigibly superstitious, and the Pope may well have reminded him of how Alaric had died almost immediately after the sack of Rome, pointing out that a similar fate was known to befall every invader who raised his hand against the holy city. The Huns themselves may also have been partly responsible for persuading their leader to retire: we have evidence to suggest that, after their devastation of all the surrounding countryside, they were beginning to suffer from a serious shortage of food, and that disease had broken out within their ranks. A final consideration was that troops were beginning to arrive from Constantinople, sent by Marcian to swell the imperial forces. A march on Rome, it began to appear, might not prove quite so straightforward as had first been thought.
For some, or all, of these reasons - just which we shall never know, primary sources for the period being in lamentably short supply - Attila made the decision to turn back. A year later, during the night following his marriage to yet another of his already countless wives, his exertions brought on a sudden haemorrhage; and, as his life-blood flowed away, all Europe breathed again. While the funeral feast was in progress, a specially selected group of captives prepared his body for the grave, encasing it in three coffins - one of gold, one of silver and one of iron. Then, when it had been lowered into the earth and covered over, first with rich spoils of war and then with earth until the ground was level above it, all those involved in the burial ceremonies were put to death, so that the great King's last resting-place might remain for ever secret and inviolate.
And so it has done, to this day.