Justin, Dying – Constantinople, 527 AD

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.

Justin, Dying

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 Arians 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.

Categories: News | 13 Comments

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13 thoughts on “Justin, Dying – Constantinople, 527 AD

  1. Julian the Apostate

    That was an excellent read!

  2. Quewye

    I’m getting an error 404 for the feeder URL on all of the podcast episodes.

  3. Toasti Toastus Agustus

    You should put the podcast on youtube

  4. Any news when the podcast will be back?

    • There will be a couple of episodes coming soon but the show won’t really resume for several months – you can listen to the last announcement on the feed for more details

  5. Ben

    Hey just wanted to reach out and wish you well. I was working in a half-empty lab between lockdowns and 2 lay-offs this year and managed to get up to the end of the show after just starting Mike Duncan’s History of Rome in February. You two (and audible) got me through this year and I just wanted to say thanks. I imagine this isn’t an easy undertaking but I’ll be with you until 1453.

    Take care,

  6. Niels

    Some listener questions you could use (yes, again more about identity, but it is just such a fascinating and admittedly maybe a little modern subject):
    what peoples in the empire would consider themselves Roman? Would the Bulgarians, (before the Turkish migrations) Armenians or Vlachs/Romanians consider themselves Roman? And would the people that do consider themsleves more like rightful successors of the ancient Empire long gone, or part of a continuing civilization?

    And would peoples outside the Greek world, like ‘Germans’ or the Rum say they are continuing the ancient legacy of Rome or would they also, like the Greek Romans, consider themselves part of the continuing civilization?

    When the empire had recovered Antioch and parts of Syria, what did the Christian populations feel of them? Did they find them invaders just like their fellow Arab speakers, or did they consider them liberators, or (more likely) something in between?

    Was there any Greek (or even Latin?) influence/group left in part of the old taken East? (Egypt, Cyrenaica, Syria)?

    BTW, I love the show, and have not yet supported it financially, but definitely plan on doing so. Does all the money from the purchased episodes go to you? If not, is there anywhere I can donate to give it all to you instead of a part to paypal or anything?

    • Hey,

      You’re very kind. Paypal and Patreon etc all take their cut but otherwise the money comes straight to me.

      By the 9-11th centuries I think ‘Roman’ had come to mean the Greek speaking, Orthodox population only. I think even Bulgarians or Armenians who worked in the Empire their whole lives would consider themselves outsiders. If they had children who grew up in the Empire speaking Greek then those children would think of themselves as Romans.

      So I think lots of people who were subject to the Emperor did not consider themselves Romans. Particularly those who saw ‘the Romans’ as those imposing taxation on them.

      I don’t think anyone beyond the elites thought much about the Roman Imperial past. And only the literate elites would have thought about any Emperor before Constantine.

      Lots of Christian Arabs did migrate to Melitene and Antioch after Nicephorus Phokas captured those areas which suggests that people thought that living under a Christian Emperor was a good thing. But I suspect there was also pressure in positive and negative ways. Positive – the chance to make money by grabbing empty plots of land etc. And negative – suspicion from their muslim neighbours that they were Byzantine allies and so they moved to avoid friction.

      I don’t think they saw the Byzantine expansion as a liberation as such. Those communities had lived in the Caliphate for centuries and it wouldn’t have taken long to discover that Roman tax collectors were no different to Arab ones.

      I don’t think there was much Greek influence in the Caliphate. But small communities of Orthodox Christians did continue to live in Eastern cities. In some cases all the way down to the 20th century.

      • Niels

        Thank you for your response, and sorry for my late one!

        I think a big barrier for us in modern days (and for anyone, anytime, looking at the past) is distinguishing between our modern beliefs and world and see things in the context and nuance of the past.

  7. Name

    Are you still releasing episodes?

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