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Athena Review  Vol.3, no.1:   Byzantine Cultures, East and West


Introduction to the Early Byzantine: Constantinople and the Basilica of Hagia Sophia


by James Allan Evans

Professor Emeritus, University of British Columbia, Vancouver


Imperial favor had made Constantinople into a city greater than its nearest rival in the Mediterranean world, Alexandria. The site which Constantine had chosen for his “New Rome” was not ideal. It was arid and prone to earthquakes. No olive trees could flourish there. It was fed by grain shipped from Alexandria, diverted from supplies intended for Italy, and Italy was left to support itself with grain shipments from Sicily and North Africa. But the cargo ships that sailed from Alexandria to Constantinople encountered head winds and contrary currents in the Hellespont which could make it impossible to approach the wharfs. The Emperor Justinian (527-565) built granaries at the entrance to the Hellespont on the island of Tenedos to store the grain brought from Egypt until there was a favorable wind, but that meant that stevedores at Tenedos had to unload the grain sacks, store them until the weather changed, and then reload them. It was back-breaking work, and must have provided illicit feasts for rats and other rodents. Yet Constantinople grew into a splendid city of about half a million persons in Late Antiquity, at a time when Paris, Milan, and Ravenna were large villages and Rome was a decaying museum-without-walls.

In the southeast corner of the city was the Great Palace. Like the Kremlin in Moscow, it was not a single building, but rather a group of them surrounded by a wall and entered by a magnificent gateway. Opposite the palace, across a square called the Augustaeum, was the cathedral church, Hagia Sophia, and to the west of the palace was the Hippodrome and the Baths of Zeuxippus. The Hippodrome is in ruins now, but on the seaward side we can still see some of its massive substructures and in what remains of the arena we may view some of the monuments that once adorned the spina, including a bronze serpent column taken from Delphi, where Pausanias, the Spartan who led the Greeks to victory over the Persians at Plataea in 479 BC, had dedicated it as an offering to Apollo. The main street of Istanbul, the Divanyolu, is the main street of Constantine’s city, the Mese. It runs past the “Burnt Column,” all that remains of a pillar which once held a bronze figure of Constantine which was a recycled statue of Apollo, and marked the “Oval Forum” where there stood the bronze Athena Promachos statue by Pheidias which had once looked over ancient Athens from the Acropolis. Constantine had adorned his city with works of art taken from various sites in Greece, and his successors, down to the 6th century, followed his example. Beyond the Oval Forum, the Mese continued west and one of its branches led to the Golden Gate which pierced the great Theodosian walls that were never broken until the Turks attacked in 1453.

It was a busy, disorderly city, full of life and at a time when older cities of the empire were shrinking, it continued to grow. The porticoes lining either side of the Mese were full of merchants’ stalls. Nearest the imperial palace were the perfumers, for the scent from their shops was considered suitable for the sacred persons of the emperor and empress. Further along the Mese were silversmiths and money-changers and the Oval Forum of Constantine was a center of the fur trade. Near the Baths of Zeuxippus stood the “House of Lamps,” so-called because its windows were lamp-lit at night, and there the finest dyed silks were on display. The rich lived in palaces, and the poor eked out an existence on the streets. The numerous churches advertised the piety of the wealthy class, but the poor supplied the mob which was forever restless and easily ignited by religious disputes.

Second only to theology and its controversies, the crowd loved chariot-racing. In the Hippodrome, four chariot factions competed, marked by their colors, Red, White, Blue, and Green. Their fans sat in designated sections in the Hippodrome while the emperor had a loge on its east side, next to the imperial palace. The crowd did not always come to the Hippodrome merely to cheer the charioteers. This was also a place where it could voice discontents and shout complaints, and the emperor, using a herald with a trained voice, could reply. There was a rough-and-ready democracy here, where emperors encountered public opinion, and revolutions might be born.

In 491, the Emperor Zeno the Isaurian died. He had left a brother who expected to succeed to the throne, but Ariadne, Zeno’s widow, married an elderly bureaucrat, Anastasius. The Isaurians whom Zeno had favored were outraged, but Anastasius banished Zeno’s brother to upper Egypt where he died of starvation and by 497, he had quelled the Isaurians in the capital and put paid to notions of independence in Isauria itself. The patriarch was also unhappy at Ariadne’s choice, for Anastasius was a known Monophysite sympathiser, and as part of the coronation ceremony, the patriarch insisted that he take a coronation oath to uphold orthodoxy. But Anastasius was an able administrator, though once the Constantinople mob almost dethroned him when he introduced an addition to the liturgy in Hagia Sophia that smacked of Monophysitism. He was forced to appear in the Hippodrome, repentant, bareheaded without his crown, when mob sentiment turned to pity and he survived. But his attempts to negotiate a solution to the schism with Rome came to nothing. Rome would accept nothing less than the Chalcedonian Creed and unless Anastasius surrendered, the pope would not lift the excommunication.

Then in 518, Anastasius died suddenly and left a vacuum of power. His obvious heir was his nephew, a thorough mediocrity, but he was in Antioch commanding the armed forces in the east. It was up to the Constantinople senate to make the choice, and the picturesque but powerless body was unused to making decisions about anything. Yet it met in the palace with the patriarch and the chief bureaucrats and negotiated, while the people gathered in the Hippodrome and waited impatiently. With negotiations dragging on, the situation threatened to get out of hand and a panicked senate opted for Justin, the commander of the effective palace guard known as the Excubitors. Justin had risen through the ranks and married a former slave, Lupicina, whom he had purchased as his mistress. The new emperor was presented to the Hippodrome crowd which raised the salute: “Justin, may you be victorious!” Lupicina, adopting the more suitable name of Euphemia, became empress.

Justin also adopted his nephew, Justinian, who later inherited the throne and provided the expertise that his uncle lacked. But both men agreed that the schism with Rome must end. That meant surrendering to Rome’s demands, and Pope Hormisdas was adamant. He demanded that the emperors Zeno and Anastasius, and the patriarchs who cooperated with them be anathematized. Monophysitism was to be outlawed and its followers persecuted if they would not recant. In cooperation, Justin ousted Monophysite bishops and monks from their sees and monasteries. The patriarch of Antioch, Severus, the leading Monophysite of the day and Anastasius’ protegé, avoided arrest by secretly fleeing to Alexandria. Only Egypt remained a safe haven for the Monophysites, for though the pope urged Justin to extend his persecution there too, Justin knew how much Constantinople depended on cargoes of grain from the Nile Valley.

At Amid, modern Diyarbakir in Turkey, monks were driven from their monastery and nearly died of privation. In their distress they turned to one friend at court who they knew favored their theology. That was Justinian’s mistress, an ex-actress named Theodora who had been converted to Monophysitism in Alexandria, possibly by the patriarch Timothy IV himself. When the monks banished from Amid appealed to Theodora, she urged Justinian to approach Justin, and the monks were allowed to go to Egypt and find refuge there. It was Theodora’s first intervention on behalf of the Monophysites.

In 527, Euphemia (formerly Lupicina) was dead for several years and Justin, by now senile and suffering from an old wound he had received as a soldier, appointed Justinian co-emperor and four months later, he died. Justinian and Theodora became emperor and empress. More than most imperial marriages, it was a union of equals, for Justinian valued Theodora’s advice, and Theodora did not hesitate to oppose him when she thought fit, though her loyalty to her husband was never in doubt. On matters of theology, they agreed to disagree. But together they presided over the most brilliant period of early Byzantium, which began with a burst of optimism when it seemed possible to restore the dominion of the old Roman Empire. Byzantine armies reconquered Africa, Italy, and part of Spain. But by the end of Justinian’s reign the mood had darkened. War had depleted the empire’s resources, plague had cut the population by forty per cent, and the division between the Monophysites and the Chalcedonian Creed orthodoxy was on the way to becoming permanent.

Three buildings survive to attest the magnificence of Justinian’s reign. One is the church of San Vitale in Ravenna. Ravenna, the last refuge of the emperors of the Western Roman Empire, had become the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom of Theodoric, who had made himself master of Italy during Zeno’s reign in Constantinople. Byzantine forces led by Justinian’s most famous general, Belisarius, took Ravenna in 540, and the city was to become the seat of the Byzantine exarch. The construction of San Vitale began while Ravenna still belonged to the Ostrogoths, and a local banker paid for it, but it was not dedicated until 547, a year before Theodora died of cancer. In its chancel, two splendid mosaics face each other on the side walls. One shows Justinian and his attendants. The other shows Theodora surrounded by her ladies. Justinian looks vigorous. Theodora looks severe; the onlooker can perhaps recognize in her face traces of pain from the cancer which would soon kill her. Neither Justinian nor Theodora ever came to Ravenna, but this is where we feel closest to their ghosts.

In Istanbul, the church of SS. Sergius and Bacchus is a twin of San Vitale. It is now a mosque, and the vibrations of the elevated railway that runs close by it are slowly cracking the dome. But inside the church on the entablature under the dome there can still be seen the inscription hailing Theodora as “God-crowned whose mind is adorned with piety and whose constant toil lies in unsparing efforts to sustain the needy.” The church stood close to the Palace of Hormisdas where Justinian and Theodora lived while Justin was still alive, and after they moved to the Great Palace, Theodora filled their former home with Monophysite holy men who flocked to Constantinople to seek her protection. Saints Sergius and Bacchus was probably their church.

But the great monument of Justinian’s reign is Hagia Sophia which still stands intact though it shows the scars of a turbulent history. Behind it lies a story. Once he was emperor, Justinian determined to enforce law and order and to suppress rioting. In January of 532, one group set off a week of riots and arson that destroyed whole regions of the city and would have driven Justinian from the throne except that Theodora kept her nerve in the crisis, and the soldiers that were still loyal cornered the rioters in the Hippodrome and massacred them. Justinian emerged from the riots stronger than ever, determined to remake the city and leave his mark on it. The conflagration destroyed Hagia Sophia, and Justinian was anxious to replace it with a structure that would glorify his reign.

Hagia Sophia tested the limits of contemporary civil engineering. It is a great dome placed on a modified basilical church. The first dome that was built was breathtaking but the outward thrust was too great and the huge piers that held it up began to tip outwards. A severe earthquake smote Constantinople in December of 557, driving the people in terror into the streets where they shivered in a sleet storm until morning, when the light revealed a crack in Hagia Sophia’s dome. Stone masons from Isauria set to work repairing it, but suddenly next year, on 7 May, they had to scramble for safety as the eastern section came tumbling down. The dome was rebuilt, making it 7 meters higher, and though there have been later repairs and reconstructions, this is the dome that still impresses us in modern Istanbul. Hagia Sophia has served as a mosque and is now a museum, but it still proclaims the greatness of Justinian’s empire.

Yet the religious schism remained intractable. Once Byzantium overthrew the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy and had physical control of Rome, the popes no longer found it so easy to defy the emperor, and though Justinian continued to respect the papacy, Theodora regarded the popes as recalcitrant prelates who should be forced to soften their defense of the Chalcedonian Creed. But though she seconded her husband’s efforts to reconcile the Monophysites and the Chalcedonians, she cannot have been too sanguine. In 541, an Arab client king of the Ghassanid tribe which guarded the south Syrian frontiers for the empire, asked Theodora for an ordained Monophysite bishop to minister to his people. Bubonic plague was already killing thousands in Egypt and was moving into Syria; next year it would reach Constantinople and cut its population in half. Antioch lay in ruins; the Persians had sacked it in 540, and were still ravaging the eastern provinces. Whatever private hesitations Theodora may have had, the imperial government was in no position to refuse a valuable ally what he wanted. Theodora provided the Ghassanid emir with two bishops, and unwittingly she became the godmother of a separate Monophysite church with its own hierarchy. Thereafter the quest to reunite Christendom with one statement of faith was to grow increasingly futile.

[Return to part 1: View from a Turkish Monastery]


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