Philobiblon: My favourite Byzantine

Friday, November 26, 2004

My favourite Byzantine

After posting a couple of days ago on some lesser-known Byzantine empresses, I thought I had to put together something on my favourite, Theodora, wife(and spine-stiffener) to Justinian.

I've found for her some wonderful resources on the web, most notably Justinian, Theodora and Procopius, "a web directory about 6th-century Byzantium and its greatest historian". It includes a complete text, with a commentary to which you can add, of Procopius's Secret History, so called because he wrote it for posthumous publication, while in the meantime writing more or less sycophantic stuff for earlier consumption.

There's an excellent introductory biography here and the famous Ravenna mosaic portraits.

I've posted elsewhere about how certain sorts of women attract certain sorts of sexual slanders, and Justinian as the powerful empress who might have originally been an actress was open to the hottest accusations that antiquity could come up with, which was pretty hot indeed. Gibbon, of course, had to repeat them in his Rise and Fall, but did so in the classic "scholarly" way. In the text he wrote: "Her murmurs, her pleasures, and her arts must be veiled in the obscurity of a learned language." His footnotes, in Greek, revealed all.

As for the spine-stiffening, well that's why she's my favourite empress. After the five-day Nika revolt in 532AD, and the proclamation of Hypatius as emperor in Byzantium, Procopius (no friend of hers), quotes her as saying as Justinian and all of the couriers, locked in the palace, plan to flee:

"As to whether it is wrong for a woman to put herself forward among men or show daring where others are faltering, I do not think that the present crisis allows us to consider whether we should hold one view or another.
"For when a cause is in the utmost peril there seems to be only one best course--to make the very best of the immediate situation. I hold that now if ever flight is inexpedient even if it brings safety.
"When a man has once been born into the light it is inevitable that he should also meet death. But for an emperor to become a fugitive is a thing not to be endured . . .
"If you wish to flee to safety, emperor, it can easily be done. We have money in abundance; yonder is the sea; here are the ships.
"However . . . as for me, I hold with the old saying that royalty makes a fine winding sheet'"

They stayed, and re-established control. There was a massacre of the other side. Of course.


Blogger Ronnie Smartt said...

She did though insist on the death of poor old Hypatius, whom Justinian would have spared The Secret History is rather intemperate: Justinian is described walking headless through the palace. However it should not come as any surprise to us that private lives in the palace were confused, lurid and nasty, or that Theodora and Belisarius's wife, Antonina, were in the thick of it. Procopius, B's secretary, admired his boss, this side of idolatry and probably thought he might have conquered more with a bit of help from Theodora. But thanks, again, for the references.

11/26/2004 02:29:00 pm  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

No there are reasons why "Byzantine" is an adjective for (to quote ...

Of, relating to, or characterized by intrigue; scheming or devious: “a fine hand for Byzantine deals and cozy arrangements” (New York).

Highly complicated; intricate and involved: a bill to simplify the byzantine tax structure.

11/27/2004 02:20:00 am  

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