During our break from the narrative I will try and keep in touch whenever something interesting comes up. Today Listener Steve Knepper (an English professor at Virginia Military Institute) has written a dramatic monologue about Justin I. I thought you might enjoy being transported back to the 6th century once more.
Constantinople, 527 AD
Justinian’s been crowned, with me too ill
To leave this couch and see my prayers fulfilled.
My thoughts drift to my first time through the gates,
A peasant boy still smelling of the pigs,
Dumbfounded by the spires, mosaics, and domes,
Glass-windowed shops, perfumes, incense, and spice,
The forum buzzing with the tongues of every
Land like Babel healed by Pentecost.
Even the fishmongers dealt in opulence.
Unfathomable that I should rule this place,
That he, my sister’s son, should rule in turn.
I heard the chanting from the Hippodrome
But was so weak I couldn’t even stand,
God teaching me humility again.
The last shall not be first without His Grace.
No skill or cleverness of ours alone
Has made these outland swineherds into Caesars.
Yet think of Christ’s temptation in the sands
When Satan offered him the diadem
Of worldly power, perhaps a crown like ours.
At times this plagues my mind.
Is He working in his cleverness?
When Anastasius lay dead it was
My nephew who first urged me to pursue
The throne. Chief of the royal guard and no
Monophysite, I’d set aright the wrong
My wise old emperor invited by
Imprudence in the Faith,
Repair us with the Patriarch of Rome.
Justinian convinced me to take bribes
Amantius intended for his cause
And use them to finance my own support.
It seemed, I still believe it was, God’s Will.
But what if he did slay Vitalian?
What of his rabble-rousing gangs of Blues?
Some cut their hair like Huns,
Shaved close on top and flowing in the back,
Barbarians in looks and action both.
How many riots, murders did he urge?
No doubt at least he looked the other way.
And what of Theodora,
Crowned empress in the Hippodrome where she
Once swayed her hips, unveiled her breasts,
A famous Leda on the stage,
Allowing geese to peck grain from her loins?
Some call her Theodora-of-the-brothel
Still, my spies within the senate say.
My wife had been a slave.
That does not give me pause.
I worry more she is monophysite,
An adept of the Bishop Timothy.
What will this pair now prove?
Is he the David that this city needs?
Or will he be the upstart thug they claim?
Is she a new Bathsheba…Athalia?
I need to banish evil thoughts like these.
I love Justinian. His faith is true.
He tends the needy, widows, sick, and orphans,
Cares for the Christians scattered in far lands.
There’s mercy in his heart
And as his indiscretions fade with age
He may become a saintly emperor.
And she may be the woman at the well.
Her brilliance matches all her other charms.
Intelligence and wit may grow to wisdom.
The unity of faith may start with them,
Monophysite now wed to Orthodox,
Co-regents ruling all Byzantium,
Their eros may grow into agape.
This is why Christ’s two natures must be taught,
To show our weakness turned to strength, our strength
Perfected into love,
To show our flesh become a phoenix.
Nor is it bad that that they are strong and shrewd,
Well-versed in what the raucous demes may do,
With enemies within
And enemies without,
The Persians mighty in the east, the Huns
Still raiding in the Balkan dioceses,
With allies often more like enemies,
Goth Aryans now seizing lands and life
Of senators in Italy for speaking
Too directly of old Rome made new.
He’ll need the prayers of that great peasant king
Who once was still a boy with flocks to guard,
Who heard the snarls and saw the glinting eyes,
Who stepped out from the fire’s ring
Remembering that he too was a sheep
In need of the Great Shepherd of us all.
A swineherd’s not so different from a shepherd.
It’s well that he wore rags before the purple.
I need such hope tonight
As I prepare for one procession more,
This time into the vale.