by James Allan Evans
London/New York: Continuum, 2011. Pp. xvii, 264.
Illus., maps, notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 1441140786
Franklin and Eleanor. Juan Perón and Evita. Bill and Hillary. Husband and wife political teams are a common theme in modern history.
In the world of Late Antiquity (c. 350-700 AD) one husband and wife team stands out as a recurring inspiration – and challenge – for historians. Stiff, formal, lavishly robed and bejeweled, the mosaic portraits of Justinian and Theodora in the sixth-century Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy are among the most frequently reproduced “iconic” images from the empire we call “Byzantine” (until the very end, in 1453, it called itself “Roman”).
Justinian “The Great” was born about 482 in a peasant village in what is now Serbia. He became Emperor in 527, ruling until his death in 565. Theodora was born about 500, married Justinian in 525 and died in 548. Justinian rose to power when his mother’s brother, Justin, a tough, uneducated Imperial guard commander was enthroned in 518 after emperor Anastasius died without an heir. In 526, as his health failed, the childless Justin made Justinian co-emperor, to ensure a smooth imperial succession.
Theodora was the orphaned daughter of a bear-keeper in the Hippodrome, the vast stadium that was the entertainment center of Constantinople. She gained notoriety as a comic actress, in an era when it was assumed that entertainers moonlighted as prostitutes. Under Roman law, actresses were forbidden to marry nobles, but Justinian was so smitten by her talents he made his uncle change the law.
When Justinian became emperor on 1 August 527, the empire was a mess. The Vandals, who had sacked Rome in 455, occupied North Africa. The Ostrogoths occupied most of Italy. At home, the Byzantines were bitterly polarized by theological disputes over the nature of Christ, to the point that street battles broke out between opposing sects. And in 532 massive rioting afflicted the imperial city, which was partially burned, threatening to topple the regime, had not Theodora convinced her husband to slaughter the rioting factions and restore order. Finally, the Sassanian Persians, long at peace with Constantinople, resumed conflict on the Syrian frontier.
Justinian sent a young guards officer, Belisarius (c.500-565) who had distinguished himself in suppressing the riot, to take command against the Persian threat. Over the next two decades, Belisarius would prove to be one of the most brilliant and resourceful military commanders in history. But the luckless Belisarius was chronically short of troops, supplies, and money, because Justinian feared him as a potential rival, and he was dominated by his chronically unfaithful wife Antonina, a close friend of Theodora, and one of the most brilliant and resourceful sluts in history.
The first historian to tackle the subject was a contemporary, Procopius of Caesarea. His Anekdota or Secret History, written in Greek around 550-560, is an insider’s account of court gossip, from the point of view of the Constantinople elite, who hated Theodora and Justinian. Procopius concluded that they were actually demons who had taken human form.
Under Justinian and Theodora, the empire regained much of the territory that had been lost to the barbarians over the preceding century, notably Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain. The confused morass of Roman law was codified and reformed, earning Justinian a place among the Great Lawgivers on the bronze doors of our Supreme Court. Magnificent cathedrals and public works were constructed under imperial patronage, notably the domed church of Hagia Sophia, which still stands in Istanbul.
Robert Grave’s novel, Count Belisarius (1938) and Harold Lamb’s popular history Theodoraand the Emperor(1952, sadly out of print) shaped the understanding of this complex period for my generation. Contemporary historians have reworked this territory from the viewpoints of gender studies, social theory, and other current academic fads.
James Allan Evans, an emeritus professor of Classics at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, has spent many decades studying the sources, and contributing to the scholarship of Late Antiquity. The Power Game in Byzantium is the sort of book that only an emeritus could write: playful, informal, often speculative, sometimes repetitive, but deeply learned and solidly grounded. It will be read with delight by readers who might be put off by more ponderous and pretentious academic studies.
Some things never change. When war, religion, money, and sex get mixed up in politics, there’s going to be trouble. And great storytelling.
Mike Markowitz is a D.C. based defense analyst, who writes for several defense related journals and Defense Media Network, including, The Year in Special Operations. He is the co-designer, with John Gresham, of Supermarina 1and Supermarina 2, both from Clash of Arms. Mike’s previous reviews for StrategyPage include To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, and The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204.