But the subjects of the Byzantine empire, who assume and dishonor the names both of Greeks and Romans, present a dead uniformity of abject vices, which are neither softened by the weakness of humanity, nor animated by the vigor of memorable crimes.” – Edward Gibbon, The Decline And Fall of the Roman Empire
As absolutely brilliant as Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire happens to be(and yes I did actually read the whole thing), I must take exception with the latter part of the above quote. The “vigor of memorable crimes” committed at the highest levels of the Byzantine Empire was most certainly animated. The Byzantine royal court was beset by decadence, degeneracy and intrigue. It offers tales equally lurid and fascinating. A long litany of machinations, assassinations, and usurpations occurred in the various struggles for the throne.
Before I recount one indicative example of this degeneracy, it should be noted that the Byzantines have long suffered from condescension by western scholars who see the empire in much the same way as Gibbon: totally corrupt and fueled by treachery. The reality, at times, is the opposite of this stereotype. Just to provide one example, the transmission of the Classical heritage to the western world would not have occurred but for the efforts of the Byzantines in literature, the arts and scholarship. Western historians would do well to keep this in mind when they gloss over Byzantine achievements. If not for these successes what would these same scholars of the ancient world have to write about? Certainly not their barbarous forebears who inhabited western and central Europe at that time. This was where even the best were barely literate and society was in the throes of a perpetual dark age. As the Byzantine scholar Sir Steven Runciman so aptly stated, “Ever since our rough crusading forefathers first saw Constantinople and met, to their contemptuous disgust, a society where everyone read and wrote, ate food with forks and preferred diplomacy to war, it has been fashionable to pass the Byzantines by with scorn and to use their name as synonymous with decadence.”
Despite this caveat, there is a legitimate basis for the stereotype. During its 1,100 plus year history (330 AD -1453 AD) 94 emperors ruled the Byzantine Empire. Not surprisingly nearly one-third (31) of these were deported. A variety of methods were used, some quite violent, everything from palace coups to outright revolts. 23 emperors suffered violent deaths, some killed on the spot, others died from wounds after being mutilated, in one case by orders from his own mother. An oft-repeated criticism of the Byzantine’s is that they were not warlike. Well compared to Roman society it was not nearly as martial, but at the highest levels, violence was definitely used as a tool for change.
Counter intuitively, changes could also occur in a surprisingly peaceful manner despite or even because an emperor was depraved. This brings us to the fascinating story of emperor Justin II (565 -578), a man who came to power at a watershed moment in the empire’s history and descended into the depths of insanity. Those who have at least a cursory knowledge of Byzantine history, will be familiar with the predecessor of Justin II, the famous Justinian (527 – 565). His time on the throne is seen as the golden age of the empire. Justinian put into place a massive building program which left an architectural legacy, such as the Hagia Sophia, that has stood the test of time. He led a codification of Roman Law that set in place a system of justice, which is the foundation of law in the western world today. He expanded the empire’s boundaries to their greatest extent. Taking back most of Italy, parts of North Africa, the Balkans and even a piece of southern Spain. Justinian’s vision was to reconstitute the Roman Empire in and around the Mediterranean. He was somewhat successful.
Justinian in close up from a mosaic
Less well known though is the fact that Justinian nearly bankrupted the empire with his grandiose vision. Continuous military campaigning and expensive building programs depleted the treasury. He also neglected the eastern frontier. Instituting a policy of paying bribes to keep the Persians as well as barbarian tribes on several others frontiers at bay. Justinian’s policies may have achieved greatness for Byzantium at times, but they also setup whomever was to follow him for failure. And who would be his successor. He had no male heirs. There were seven nephews that could possibly be chosen for the throne. There was definitely the possibility of a chaotic succession crisis.
Justin II as represented on a solidus (golden coin) from his reign
The man who would become emperor is known to history as Justin II. He was the son of Justinian’s sister, the exquisitely named Vigilantia. It is said that Justinian’s last words were to place Justin II on the throne. We do not know whether this is true though. The man who supposedly heard this order was Callinicus, an ally of Justin II. Of course this would have been to his liking. Callinicus was the only one with Justinian at the time of his death.
Whatever the case, Justin II took charge in 565. He was a man of rigid views, who adhered to principle over pragmatism. He set about paying off Justinian’s debts. This made him well regarded at the beginning of his reign, but it was not long before he ran into trouble. He flatly refused to pay any more bribes to keep the peace with barbarian tribes. This brought on war and then defeat. On the northern and western frontiers of the empire, the Lombards and Avars went on rampages. The empire soon lost most of the gains acquired at so much cost over the preceding four decades. Justin II’s lack of flexibility brought him and the empire an undo amount of stress that neither could handle. He began to crack under the pressure of keeping the empire afloat.
Then the situation on the eastern frontiers turned disastrous. The Persians defeated Byzantine forces on multiple occasions. Finally in 572, the Byzantines lost the frontier fortress of Dara. Justin II had had enough, he soon lost touch with reality. He became stark, raving mad. Aides would push him around his palace in a wheeled throne while he tried to bite them or anyone else who came close. As John of Ephesus, relates in his Ecclesiastical History:
“the evil spirit filled him with agitation and terror, so that he rushed about in furious haste from place to place, and crept, if he could, under the bed, and hid himself among the pillows; and then, when the horror came upon him, he would rush out with hot and violent speed, and run to the windows to throw himself down. And his attendants, in spite of their respect for him as king, had to run after him, and lay hold of him, to prevent him from dashing himself down and being killed: and the queen was obliged to give orders for carpenters to come, and fix bars in the windows, and close them up on the whole of that side of the palace on which the king lived. Moreover they selected strong young men to act as his chamberlains and guard him; for when they were obliged, in the way I have described, to run after him and seize him, as he was a powerful man, he would turn upon them, and seize them with his teeth, and tear them: and two of them he bit so severely about the head, as seriously to injure them, and they were ill, and the report got about the city that the king had eaten two of his chamberlains.”
Here was an emperor whose bite was truly worse than his bark! Now we know Justinian would have been a tough act to follow under the best of circumstances. Yet Justin II’s behavior was a bit much even by the standards of those times. Something had to be done. He was still physically healthy and did not seem to be anywhere close to death. The empire’s difficulties called for a lucid mind at the helm just as much as the emperor’s aides might have needed a rabies shot. Justin II’s wife, Sophia impressed upon her husband in one of his sane moments that he had to relinquish power. Strangely despite his mad fits, he agreed. This was no ordinary madman. Like the insanity that consumed his mind, he was tragically unpredictable. In a humble, pathetic and sadly endearing spectacle the sources tell us that in his final act as emperor, he gave the following speech to his assembly:
You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them, not from my hand, but from the hand of God. Honor them, and from them you will derive honor. Respect the empress your mother: you are now her son; before, you were her servant. Delight not in blood; abstain from revenge; avoid those actions by which I have incurred the public hatred; and consult the experience, rather than the example, of your predecessor. As a man, I have sinned; as a sinner, even in this life, I have been severely punished: but these servants, (and we pointed to his ministers,) who have abused my confidence, and inflamed my passions, will appear with me before the tribunal of Christ. I have been dazzled by the splendor of the diadem: be thou wise and modest; remember what you have been, remember what you are. You see around us your slaves, and your children: with the authority, assume the tenderness, of a parent. Love your people like yourself; cultivate the affections, maintain the discipline, of the army; protect the fortunes of the rich, relieve the necessities of the poor.
He then transferred power to a general named Tiberius. Sophia in effect acted as a regent. Justin II went into retirement, where he died four years later in 578. By this time, Justinian’s dream of a reconstituted Rome was in shambles. The empire was not up to the task. Even if Justin II had been perfectly sane and more flexible, it is doubtful he would have met with much more success. The real madness may well have been Justinian’s vision. Justinian could not escape the internal logic of Byzantium, always caught in one of three trends: trying to reclaim lost glory, just holding on or in decline. The pity is that Justin II let the whole thing drive him over the edge.
Following in the footsteps of historical giants is often an exercise in futility. Rarely has a man been setup for such a historical fall as Justin II was by Justinian. The grand madness of Justinian led to the fragile madness of Justin II. There cannot be one without the other. Both of these men represent the essence of Byzantium, grasping for greatness while at the same time heading toward ruin. Possibly the most amazing feat of Byzantium, is that the empire somehow resisted the clutches of fate for over 1,100 years.