The Justinian era

The decline of the Roman Empire which had been so marked in the fifth century seemed to be halted in the sixth century and for a brief time that realm flowered again. The central figure in the revival was the Emperor Justinian I, who reigned from 527 to 565, dying in his eighties. A nephew of his predecessor, Justin I, an Illyrian peasant who had come to Constantinople in his youth to seek his fortune and had risen to the throne in 518 at the age of sixty-six, Justinian had been the real power during much of his uncle's tenure of the high office. Justinian was highly intelligent, enormously hard-working, paying great attention to details, friendly, usually in control of his temper, vain, autocratic, ambitious, sometimes vacillating, temperate in his private life almost to asceticism, and deeply religious. He cherished the dream of restoring the Roman domains to their former extent and of bringing unity to the Church. This last he sought to achieve by obtaining the triumph of the orthodox faith of Chalcedon over its rivals, especially the Arian Christianity held by many of the Germanic invaders and the varied kinds of Monophysitism.

Thanks very largely to able generals, during the reign of Justinian Italy, North Africa, and part of Spain were brought back under Roman, or perhaps we should now say, Byzantine rule. Wars were waged against the chronic enemy, Persia. Under Justinian this revived Roman Empire was probably the mightiest realm on the planet, for the period was one of decline for the major contemporary kingdom in India, that of the Gupta, and China had not yet emerged from the political division which had come upon that land in the third century and which had been aggravated by invasions from the north and west.

Justinian's Empress was Theodora. Theodora, like Justinian's family, was of humble origin. A contemporary, Procopius, who wrote a Secret History defaming both Emperor and Empress, tells scandalous stories of her youth. These may have been exaggerated, but it is regarded as certain that before her union with Justinian she had had an illegitimate child. She was indisputably a woman of great resolution, charm, beauty, ability, and force. After she was raised to the throne she seems to have remained true to Justinian, who, in turn, was devoted to her. The two differed religiously, for while Justinian was staunch in his Chalcedonian orthodoxy, Theodora was a warm supporter of the Mono-physites. She was energetic in redressing wrongs, and she is given the credit for stringent legislation suppressing the sale of girls into prostitution and for founding a convent in which the unfortunates were given an opportunity to begin a better life.

Under Justinian and Theodora, perhaps because of the latter's love of luxury and display, the imperial court took on additional pomp and those coming into the imperial presence were required to prostrate themselves. This was in accord with the lavish or-nateness which was to characterize Byzantine life, both secular and religious.

It was partly in this spirit that Justinian became a great builder. At his command towns came into being, extensive fortifications, roads, bridges, baths, and palaces were constructed, and many churches and monasteries were erected. His most famous architec tural achievement was Saint Sophia, the cathedral church of Constantinople. Saint Sophia was the climax of a new style of architecture which made outstanding use of the dome and which was inspired by the Christian faith and had as its purpose a worthy setting for Christian worship.

Justinian was deeply interested in theology. Almost inevitably, therefore, he took a leading part in the controversies which were still raging over the relation of the divine and human in Christ. We have seen how in 482 the Emperor Zeno had attempted to compose the differences between the Chalccdonians and the Monophysites by his Henoticon. This had not brought peace, for while some Monophysites accepted it, others of them rejected it, and, on the other extreme, the Pope would have none of it and excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople for being associated with it.

Into all the complicated details of the disputes and the attempted settlements during the reign of Justinian we must not take the time to go. In general, Justinian, who was no mean theologian in his own right, endeavoured to bring about agreement on the basis of ostensibly holding to the decrees of Chalcedon but slanting the latter in the direction of the views of Cyril of Alexandria. These, it will be recalled, while conceding the human element in Christ, subordinated it to the divine. Justinian seems to have hoped that by this policy he would draw together the adherents of Chalcedon and the more moderate among the Monophysites. The latter, it will be remembered, represented varying shades of theological conviction, some leaving less room for the human in Christ than others. In this effort Justinian found support in the writings of a contemporary monk, Leo of Byzantium, who, employing Aristotelian categories, held that one could affirm two natures in Christ without going to the extreme associated with what was regarded as Nestorianism, and that, while the two natures, the human and the divine, might remain, they could be regarded as so commingled and united that in Christ there would be but one hypostasis, that of the Logos.

In 544 Justinian issued an edict in which by his own fiat he condemned three writings or groups of writings (sometimes known, not with entire accuracy, as "the three chapters"), including those of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who had had much to do with shaping the views of the two natures in Christ which had been associated with the name of Nestorius and had been rejected by the Catholic Church, and of a Theodoret who had come out against Cyril and in behalf of Nestorius. However, this edict, far from making for harmony, stirred up fresh dissension. In the West some of the bishops regarded it as an iniquitous action against men who, being dead, could not defend themselves, as a repudiation of Chalcedon, and as an endorsement of the Monophysites. The resulting controversy is known as that of "the three chapters."

In the ensuing struggle the Pope, Vigilius, came through with a record of vacillation and self-contradiction. At first he opposed the imperial edict and broke off communion with the Patriarch of Constantinople, who supported it. Then, arriving in Constantinople, he executed an about face and issued a ludicatum in which, while careful to support Chalcedon and not to concede to the Emperor the right to determine matters of doctrine, he independently condemned the writings which had been anathematized in the imperial edict. The ludicatum met with sharp criticism from many bishops in Gaul, North Africa, Scythia, Dalmatia, and Illyria, as compromising Chalcedon, and in 550 Vigilius withdrew it. Vigilius also reversed himself in other decisions. Yet on occasion he showed courage, refused to yield to the Emperor, and stood up for the authority of the Papal see.

Eventually, after many discussions among the bishops and with Justinian, the latter called a synod of the entire Catholic Church, usually known as the Fifth Ecumenical Council. This met in Constantinople in 553. Vigilius refused to attend and insisted on giving an independent judgement on the points at issue. The gathering confirmed the condemnations of the imperial decree of 544, and, at the command of the Emperor, probably had the name of Vigilius as an individual struck from the diptychs, but without breaking off communion with Rome. The Emperor banished Vigilius, but the latter was freed when he had conceded the legitimacy of the council. This Vigilius did, condemning "the three chapters" and their defenders. Thus the Cyrillic interpretation of Chalcedon, with its leaning towards Monophysitism, was made official for the Catholic Church.

Yet the Fifth Ecumenical Council did not, as Justinian had hoped, restore unity in the Church. In spite of its endorsement by Vigilius and his successor, numbers of the bishops in Italy and Gaul refused to recognize it as authoritative and for more than a century part of the West was divided from the main body of the Catholic Church. Moreover, Justinian's dream of providing a via media which would win back the Monophysites was by no means entirely fulfilled. The more extreme among the latter believed that assent would mean compromise of jealously held convictions. In some areas, notably Egypt, Ethiopia, Syria, and Armenia, Monophysite views were becoming identified with a regionalism which, to use a nineteenth and twentieth century term, was a kind of nationalism. It resented control by the Greeks and from Constantinople.

What Justinian was unable to accomplish by negotiation, persuasion, and a council of all the Church he endeavoured to bring about by force. He wished an empire which would be solidly Christian and orthodox. He sought to extirpate what survived of paganism. In its formal cults, paganism was clearly dying. Yet many continued to be pagans at heart and held to the pre-Christian Greek philosophies. To rid the realm of these remnants Justinian enacted fresh legislation. He commanded both civil officials and bishops to seek out pagan superstitions and forbade any persons "infected with the madness of the unholy Hellenes" to teach any subject. There were prosecutions and confiscations of property and, as we have seen, Justinian closed the schools of philosophy in Athens. Yet many, among them some in high office, remained pagans and usually were not molested if they were not ostentatious in their faith. Justinian also placed the Samaritans under heavy disabilities and ruthlessly suppressed the revolts which his measures provoked. He was somewhat more lenient towards the Jews, but essayed to regulate their worship. He decreed the death penalty for Manichsans and for heretics who, after recanting, fell back into their former beliefs. He tried to argue with Manichsans, and, when he failed to convert them, had numbers of them killed, among them nobles and senators. He took vigorous measures against heretics, and was especially zealous against the Montanists, who after nearly four centuries still persisted in Phrygia, the region of their origin. He took action against some who, professing to follow Origen, used the name of that famous teacher to justify a pantheistic mysticism which was enjoying something of a vogue, especially in Palestinian monasteries. He labelled Origen as a heretic and either the Fifth Ecumenical Council or an earlier synod in Constantinople in 543 condemned some of the teachings ascribed to that great Alexandrian.

Justinian did not act as emphatically and consistently against the Monophysites as against other heretics. As we have seen, he sought to woo the more moderate of them and Theodora's known advocacy of their views may have softened his rigour towards them. In his last years he attempted to force on the Church a form of Monophysitism known as Aphthartodocetism. This held that Christ's body, being divine, had undergone no change from the time of its conception in the womb of Mary, and was incorruptible, incapable of suffering or of the natural and blameless passions. It thus distinctly limited Christ's humanity. Justinian tried to impose this view on the bishops of the Catholic Church, and, since the orthodox among them resisted, he was preparing to apply physical violence when death removed him.

Not only did Monophysitism continue. It also spread. Its most active missionary was a younger contemporary of Justinian, Jacob Baradsus. Born about 490, of well-to-do parents, Jacob was given a good education and had fluent use of Greek, Arabic, and Syriac. From his early youth he was committed to the ascetic life. During an episcopate of nearly a generation, from 542 to 578, he roved from Nisibis in Mesopotamia to Alexandria in Egypt, usually on foot and garbed only in a ragged horse cloth, and is said to have consecrated two patriarchs, eighty-nine bishops, and a hundred thousand priests. He extended Monophysitism, strengthened it, and did something towards giving it a sense of unity. The term Jacobite applied to a large wing of the Monophysites either perpetuates his memory or was intended to indicate the claim of the group to be the true Church, the custodians of the faith of James, or Jacob, the brother of Jesus.

In spite of the labours of Jacob Baradsus, the Monophysites were badly divided. They differed from one another in doctrine and had no comprehensive organization. Towards the end of the sixth century there were said to be twenty Monophysite sects in Egypt alone. One form was tritheism, which held that in the Trinity there are really three Gods, each with a substance and a nature different from the others.

After the death of Justinian there were attempts to unite the Monophysites. In 575 the Monophysites of Egypt chose a Patriarch of Syrian origin, but he was not generally accepted. Not far from 580, about two years after the death of Jacob Baradsus, partly through the efforts of an Arab Christian prince, a council was held which seemed for a brief time to have brought a semblance of accord. Yet that also failed. The two leading Monophysite sees were the Patriarchates of Antioch and Alexandria.

In Alexandria there was also an orthodox Patriarch, but loyalty to him was confined chiefly to Greek residents and imperial functionaries. In spite of the use of force to obtain conformity with the Catholic faith, most of the Egyptians adhered to Monophysi-tism in one or another of its expressions.

Justinian was not content with seeking the doctrinal unity of his realm. He also enacted a large number of laws which dealt with various aspects of the life of the Church

— the election of bishops, the appointment of the heads of monasteries, the ordination of clergy, public worship, the management of church property, and the morals of the clergy (legislation which, by forbidding simony — the sale and purchase of ecclesiastical office

— and the attendance of the clergy at the theatre and horse-races, is an indication that some of the clergy were given to these practices). Justinian increased the functions of bishops in the administration of civic and social matters, such as the overseeing of public works, the enforcement of legislation against gambling, and the rearing of exposed infants. In some matters they acted in place of the governors.

It will be seen that Justinian greatly accelerated a movement which had begun with Constantine for the domination of the Church by the Emperor and which on acca-sions made the Church an instrument of the state.

It is not surprising that under Justinian, with the renewed vigour displayed by the Roman Empire, Christianity continued to spread in the outlying sections and on the borders of the realm. The re-conquest of North Africa was followed not only by the strengthening of the Catholic Church against the Arians and Donatists who flourished in that region under the Vandals. It also led to the conversion of some of the pagan Berbers, a process which continued after the death of Justinian. During the reign of Justinian Christianity was carried further up the valley of the Nile, into Nubia, in both its Catholic and Monophysite forms. Through the encouragement and initiative of Justinian at least one people in the Caucasus and a barbarian folk who crossed the Danube into Roman territory adopted the Christian faith.

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