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History Reborn: The Re-Discovery of Emperor Justinian

Photograph by Robert Bluestein, 1990 ©

The Incredibly Exotic City of Justinian - Constantinople (Istanbul)

The centuries of history between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance has been largely ignored. Yet it is such a pivoltal point in time and yet is largely unknown. On August 24th, 410 AD a band of thugs ransacked Rome under the leadership of Alaric the Goth. For the first time in 800 years, the city was looted. The Visogoths were well known to Rome, for they had taken them in as refugees and then paid many of them to fight as mercenaries. But they never intermarried with the Romans, who considered the Visigoth religious practices as pagan. The cruelty of the Romans on Gothic people was well documented. In one case, a Roman writer reports rather incredulously that the Roman merchants were offering dog meat in exchange for the children of Gothic mothers and fathers. In turn, they became part of the Middle Ages dirtiest secret - The Child Sex Slave trade.

These Gothic Warriors had fought valiantly for the Romans on the Northern Frontier. When he was passed over for a promotion, the tables turned and Aleric decided to plunder Rome. He was appointed to the relatively low post of ''Primus inter pares'' (First Amongst Equals) despite having a commanding military presence. But in all reality, Alaric was noted in very few battles, and the seige of Rome is noted only because of Rome's previous grandeur. The Goths plundered it and left it in rubble. Those very few that survived eventually left Rome. Edward Gibbon, in his book, ''The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire'' indicates that Alaric was looking for simple recognition at the council of Ravenna. ''If Alaric himself had been introduced into the council of Ravenna, he would probably have advised the Roman military and the servants of Honorius.''

The crushing psychological affects were seen and felt everywhere. The Roman citizens were horrified by the Gothic aggression by its leader Alaric. In 408 AD, they arrive at the doorsteps of Rome looking for food and plunder. For two years, all supply lines into the city were denied. Over time, the people were beginning to starve.

It was a shock like no other. The city once seen as the Navel of the World, the invincible domain and the glory of Rome was gone forever. The next seven centuries would be a time when urban populations declined and cities withered away. Europe was in such a constant state of war and bloodshed that it only rarely saw peace. The world was a smaller place. Widespread violence, disease, crime, illiteracy and superstition ruled the day. Sewage systems, aqueducts and internal structures fell apart. The great monuments of Rome were quarried for building materials. Because the grandeur and size of structures had broken down, cities just couldn't grow and houses get less and less impressive. People went backward in culture, technology, and thinking.

The decay of civilization was apparent to all. The Colisuem, once a monument and symbol of the very height and power of the Roman Empire was torn asunder. Over the years, it became a landfill, a death haven, a gathering place for the homeless and disenfranchised, and finally a home for the diseased. The Roman empire had grown so huge that aside from importing spices and goods from around the world, it also imported diseases for which they had little immunity. The empire that financially and culturally did so good by reaching out was now paying a terrible price.

One wonders what life must have been like for people living in Rome in the fifth and sixth centuries. The people certainly saw the structures around them - temples, engineering marvels, artistic masterpieces, and an unprecedented age of innovation and huge structures. As time progressed, humanity got further and further away from their Roman past. The things they imagined about the previous lives, confronted with the curious fact that there was once a glorious civilization. Fresh water, supplies from abroad, civil authority, ready access to education, employment and medicine were absent from the lives of those living in these centuries. Perhaps at no other time in the history of man had we gone so far backward when our genetic tendencies are to go so far forward.

In fact, this remote time in history, because of the anarchy and chaos, or perhaps in spite of it, the world of the Franks, Gauls, Saxons and Goths began to slowly get back on its feet. It would take a uniting force, one that appealed to the basics of faith, that would end up being the only strands of hope that preserved the classical, and yes, pagan world. On Christmas day, 496 A.D. the basilica at Rheims is filled with incense. The king of the Franks, Clovis, forged his own destiny and that of the Franks.

After overthrowing the last Roman governor of Rome and replaced him in a New World Dis-Order. Feuds, vendettas, and just outright vandalism were the common items of the day. An unrelenting anarchy really caught the people in the middle, the non combatants. And now, a handful of Jewish converts had grown throughout the Roman empire. And it took root in the fields, in the shelters, and in the worst places one could live. Christianity had quickly grown wealthy and now, Clovis extended his conquest deeper and deeper into Europe.

His power spread throughout the Roman world that was still hanging on. His conversion did little to quench his thirst for violence, it only gave him a reason. He was never reluctant to emply murder - even when it involved relatives. Since primo-geniture was the rule then, Clovis had anyone who could claim the throne summarily eliminated. A thick shadow of misery was overhead. Once again, there were mass migrations of homeless - and very sick people moving about. More were coming in from the Middle East, which began to systematically see kingdoms rise and fall, catching the every day people in the center of combat.

Clovis was already a veteran of war at the age of eighteen. He also turned the captured soldiers into soldiers of his own. It started the Merovingian dynasty. But in subsequent years, Clovis couldn't have imagined what would nearly take his empire down. The 'Greek Plague' was one of the few episodes in history so powerful that its legend lived on in the stories passed down from generation to generation. And now, one-after-another began to show similar signs.

In 533, an army of self-proclaimed Romans become intent on recapturing the city. The Roman world was not completely destroyed just because Rome fell. The Romans in the Middle-East were wealthy in culture and in economics. The geography of the Roman Empire by the second century ecessitated two emperors. By institutionalizing two empires with a Greek East and Roman West, it began to be apparent which empire would be successful.

Justinian sought to unite the two empires. It was - on the surface- a terrible idea. Justinian had no idea just how broken the western empire was. Their Christian faiths were different and each held its own power. Meanwhile in Constantinople, the city flourished beyond anyone's wildest imagination. It became a hub of international trade and exchange. There were beautiful horse-race tracks, grandiose theatres, and marbled churches. Everyone spoke of Constantinople in glorious terms. ''A city with no peer, it was described by the Monk Dionysius Exiguus.

I took this shot of Hajia Sophia from an unusual angle in 1990. Istanbul is still one of the World's Great Treasures

''Everything beautiful and lavish was there for the taking, and the best artisans from around the world come

here to make a fortune.'' While Constantinople gleamed in the afternoon sunset, there was trouble on the horizon for Justinian. His character left a lot to be desired. He was petulant and most of all, he was also greedy. He would often go months without paying his soldiers. Then when he paid them, he would then take back a portion saying that they owed this to him. At a Chariot Race, two rival sides began to turn their attention from one another and then towards Justinian. A throng of thousands stormed the palace grounds and looted the palace. The terrified Justinian was ready to get out of the city, but then his wife, Theodora refused.

Theadora was a dancer with a well-documented raunchy act. Justinian loved her from the beginning. By every account, Justinian considered her an equal and Co-Regent. She helped lure the fans back to the chariot park for an announcement. By noon the next day, 30,000 fans lay slaughtered and wounded. Just two weeks later Justinians army was on the march. In 538 A.D. town after town quickly fell to Justinians army in an attempt to reconquer the west. All throughout the Mediterreanan and Africa, Justinians army conquered. The Italian campaign was one of the nastiest ones of Medieval History.

Θεοδώρα --- Theodora

Towns and Cities were depopulated to the point that the Italian people could not regain their footing for centuries.

In a further attempt to be seen as a biblical figure, Justinian set his goals on building. Built over the ashes of his charred capital, Justinian builds a huge church. He challenged every known architectural norm. And - he spared no expense. By 542, his domain conquered more land than any one in the past 300 years. But he couldn't have accounted for the Bubonic Plague. In one of the many cruel twists of historical fate, just when things were reaching their splendid peak, tragedy erupted.

One Hundred Million people died. Within three days, violent muscle spasms would occur alongside blackish bulbs which be description were ''swollen bruises.'' Within four months, Constantinople was under seige too. Justinian was a plague survivor. He would get the purple-black bulbs on his face and neck that would permanently disfigure him.

In G.P. Baker's book, ''Justinian'' he writes, ''There was a strain of weakness in him. He pitied himself too much...with the self-consciousness of a pity of a tragedian.'' Theodora exploited Justinian by continuing to play upon his superstition. '...I alone am the reason you still live,...'' She told him. It all but enslaved Justinian to Theodora while countless tens of thousands were dying in the streets. It was so virulent that the city-dwellers couldn't even bury the dead. Huge pits were dug and mass graves built, and it still wasn't enough. Although smaller outbreaks happened in later years, the damage of ''Justinians Plague'' had been done. The Byzantine Empire could not sustain this enemy.


Science meets History at some very interesting crossroads. Here, we learn something new - a confirmation of what the History books have told us about the Plague of Justinian. Up until now, we knew nothing aside from the myth of The Plague and how it brought a mighty empire to its knees. Now, from a single tooth, DNA helps history unfold before our very eyes and the text-books that teach History fast become obsolete. History is written and re-written through the years, but as science begins to improve, our understanding grows deeper and the mysteries that make up history begin to be revealed.


Ancient Plague's DNA Revived From A 1,500-Year-Old Tooth

Scientists have reconstructed the genetic code of a strain of bacteria that caused one of the most deadly pandemics in history nearly 1,500 years ago.

They did it by finding the skeletons of people killed by the plague and extracting DNA from traces of blood inside their teeth.

This plague struck in the year 541, under the reign of the Roman emperor Justinian, so it's usually called the Justinian plague. The emperor actually got sick himself but recovered. He was one of the lucky ones.

"Some of the estimates are that up to 50 million people died," says evolutionary biologist David Wagner at Northern Arizona University. "It's thought that the Justinian plague actually led partially to the downfall of the Roman Empire." The plague swept through Europe, northern Africa and parts of Asia. Historians say that when it arrived in Constantinople, thousands of bodies piled up in mass graves. People started wearing name tags so they could be identified if they suddenly collapsed.

Given the descriptions, scientists suspected that it was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis — the same kind of microbe that later caused Europe's Black Death in the 14th century.

The bacteria get spread by fleas. After someone gets infected from a flea bite, the microbes travel to the nearest lymph node and start multiplying. "And so you get this mass swelling in that lymph node, which is known as a buboe," says Wagner. "That's where the term bubonic plague comes from." The Justinian plague has been hard to study scientifically. But recently, archaeologists stumbled upon a clue outside Munich.

Housing developers were digging up farmland when they uncovered a burial site with graves that dated as far back as the Justinian plague. "They found some [graves] that had multiple individuals buried together, which is oftentimes indicative of an infectious disease," Wagner says. "And so in this particular case, we examined material from two different victims. One of those victims was buried together with another adult and a child, so it's presumed that they all may have died of the plague at the same time."

Skeletons were all that was left of the pair. But inside their teeth was dental pulp that still contained traces of blood — and the blood contained the DNA of plague bacteria.

By decoding the bacteria's DNA, Wagner and a team of international scientists could trace the pathogen's evolutionary journey.

They think the strain of bacteria that caused the Justinian plague jumped from rodents into humans and then died out, the team wrote Tuesday in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The later emergence of Black Death seems to have been caused by a separate event.

The DNA also suggests that, like Black Death, the original source of the plague was in China, says microbiologist Paul Keim, another member of the research team at Northern Arizona University.

"So the ecological reservoir for plague, the historical reservoir, is in China," Keim says. "And it's this emergence, this pattern over and over again, with people moving commodities, rats and fleas around the world that we're able to document."

Overall, this ancient strain is not that different from modern ones that still circulate in places like Arizona, says Keim.

"The biology of the pathogen no doubt could cause another pandemic if it weren't for the changes in human culture and medicine," Keim says.

These days, though, antibiotics can quickly stop plague outbreaks in their tracks.


Even though the glory of the Roman Empire had long faded, there was still a deep connection to the past. Temples and government buildings were kept up as well as could be expected. Eventually, other tribes would wreak havoc on the old cities and with the arise and spread of Islam, the cities soon feel apart or were otherwise destroyed.

Historians have begun to call Justinian ''The Last Roman'' since his rule over the Eastern Empire was so absolute. He quickly conquered the Vandals and other wayward tribes of nomadic looters. He set up the province of Spania (Spain) in the far west and as a result exerted control over the entire Mediterranean. At a time when Latin literacy had fallen to an all-time low, Justinian brought back a common language and embarked upon ambitious building projects throughout his empire.

But one area where Constaninople and Rome were divided was in the area of the Church. The beliefs of the Eastern Christians were considered heathenistic by the western Church and he Emperors. Justinian however, had a policy of preserving the unity between Constantinople and Rome; and this remained possible only if they did not swerve from the line defined in previous Christian eccliasastical meetings. One such was at Chalcedon.


THE Council of Chalcedon _________________________________________________________________________________________________________

The Council of Chalcedon issued the Chalcedonian Definition, which repudiated the notion of a single nature in Christ, and declared that he has two natures in one person and hypostasis. It also insisted on the completeness of his two natures: Godhead and manhood. The council also issued 27 disciplinary canons governing church administration and authority. In a further decree, later known as the canon 28, the bishops declared the See of Constantinople (New Rome) second only in honor and authority to Rome.


In addition, the factions in the East that had become stirred up and disaffected because of Chalcedon needed restraining and pacifying. This problem proved the more difficult because, in the East, the dissenting groups exceeded supporters of Chalcedon both in numerical strength and in intellectual ability. Tension from the incompatibility of the two aims grew: whoever chose Rome and the West must renounce the East, and vice versa.

Offensive as it was to many in the East, nonetheless Justinian felt himself entirely free to take a Despotic stance toward the popes such as Silverius and Vigilius. While no compromise could ever be accepted by the dogmatic wing of the church, his sincere efforts at reconciliation gained him the approval of the major body of the church.

A signal proof was his attitude in the Theopaschite controversy. At the outset he was of the opinion that the question turned on a quibble of words. By degrees, however, Justinian came to understand that the formula at issue not only appeared orthodox, but might also serve as a conciliatory measure toward the Monophysites, and he made a vain attempt to do this in the religious conference with the followers of Severus of Antioch in 533.

Extrodinary events have provided extraordinary proofs. Justinians life and his distinctive manner in which he led life would leave a legacy of the Eastern Empire. There are new explanations for old events by the day. Linear history is now a thing of the past. As we open new doors to History the past comes to life again and again. The winding staircase of time stops at many different floors and curious detials emerge when we take a new look at a very old story.

NEXT CHAPTER: Justinian's Death and the Rise Of Islam

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