On Buildings by Procopius was written as a panegyric of the Roman emperor Justinian with the intent of glorifying the monumental architecture of his reign. The work is somewhat controversial, because The Secret History – which Procopius also wrote about Justinian – largely vilified the emperor. External of the panegyric elements of On Buildings there are engaging insights into the Roman architecture of the era.
“The Emperor Justinian was born in our time, and succeeding to the throne when the state was decayed, added greatly to its extent and glory by driving out from it the barbarians, who for so long a time had forced their way into it, as I have briefly narrated in my History of the Wars. They say that Themistocles, the son of Neocles, prided himself on his power of making a small state great, but our Emperor has the power of adding other states to his own, for he has annexed to the Roman Empire many other states which at his accession were independent, and has founded innumerable cities which had no previous existence.
Hagia Sofia: “The entire ceiling is covered with pure gold, which adds glory to its beauty, though the rays of light reflected upon the gold from the marble surpass it in beauty; there are two porticos on each side, which do not in any way dwarf the size of the church, but add to its width. In length they reach quite to the ends, but in height they fall short of it; these also have a domed ceiling and are adorned with gold… who could tell of the beauty of the columns and marbles with which the church is adorned? One would think that one had come upon a meadow full of flowers in bloom: who would not admire the purple tints of some and the green of others, the glowing red and glittering white, and those, too, which nature, like a painter, has marked with the strongest contrasts of color?… No one ever became weary of ‘this spectacle, but those who are in the Church delight in what they see, and, when they leave it, magnify it in their talk about it; moreover, it is impossible accurately to describe the treasure of gold and silver plate and gems, which the Emperor Justinian has presented to it… That part of the church which is especially sacred, and where the priests alone are allowed to enter, which is called the Sanctuary, contains forty thousand pounds’ weight of silvers.
Column of Justinian: “…On the summit of the column there stands an enormous horse, with his face turned towards the east – a noble sight… Upon this horse sits a colossal bronze figure of the Emperor, habited as Achilles, for so his costume is called; he wears hunting-shoes, and his ankles are not covered by his greaves. He wears a corslet like an ancient hero, his head is covered by a helmet which seems to nod, and a plume glitters upon it. A poet would say that it was that ‘star of the dog-days’ mentioned in Homer. He looks towards the east, directing his course, I imagine, against the Persians; in his left hand he holds a globe, by which the sculptor signifies that all lands and seas are subject to him. He holds no sword or spear, or any other weapon, but a cross stands upon the globe, through which he has obtained his empire and victory in war; he stretches forward his right hand towards the east, and spreading out his fingers seems to bid the barbarians in that quarter to remain at home and come no further.
Roman Senate Building: “In front of the palace there is a forum surrounded with columns. The Byzantines call this forum the Augustaeum… On the eastern side of this forum stands the Senate House, which baffles description by its costliness and entire arrangement, and which was the work of the Emperor Justinian. Here at the beginning of every year the Roman Senate holds an annual festival, according to the custom of the State… Six columns stand in front of it, two of them having between them that wall of the Senate House which looks towards the west, while the four others stand a little beyond it. These columns are all white in color, and in size, I imagine, are the largest columns in the whole world. They form a portico covered by a circular dome-shaped roof. The upper parts of this portico are all adorned with marble equal in beauty to that of the columns, and are wonderfully ornamented with a number of statues standing on the roof.
The Chalke Gate to the Great Palace: “This entrance-hall is the building called Chalce; its four walls stand in a quadrangular form, and are very lofty; they are equal to one another in all respects, except that those on the north and south sides are a little shorter than the others… Above them are suspended eight arches, four of which support the roof, which rises above the whole work in a spherical form, whilst the others, two of which rest on the neighboring wall towards the south and two towards the north, support the arched roof which is suspended over those spaces. The entire ceiling is decorated with paintings, not formed of melted wax poured upon it, but composed of tiny stones adorned with all manner of colors, imitating human figures and everything else in nature…
I will now describe the subjects of these paintings. Upon either side are wars and battles, and the capture of numberless cities’, some in Italy, and some in Libya. Here the Emperor Justinian conquers by his General Belisarius; and here the General returns to the Emperor, bringing with him his entire army unscathed, and offers to him the spoils of victory, kings, and kingdoms, and all that is most valued among men. In the midst stand the Emperor and the Empress Theodora, both of them seeming to rejoice and hold high festival in honor of their victory over the kings of the Vandals and the Goths, who approach them as prisoners of war led in triumph. Around them stands the Senate of Rome, all in festal array, which is shown in the mosaic by the joy which appears on their countenances; they swell with pride and smile upon the Emperor, offering him honors as though to a demi-god, after his magnificent achievements. The whole interior, not only the upright parts, but also the floor itself, is encrusted with beautiful marbles, reaching up to the mosaics of the ceiling. Of these marbles, some are of a Spartan stone equal to emerald, while some resemble a flame of fire; the greater part of them are white, yet not a plain white, but ornamented with wavy lines of dark blue.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Complete Procopius Anthology, Bybliotech.
The epoch of Byzantine military resurgence from the mid tenth to the early eleventh centuries defined the climax of the Anatolian military aristocracy attaining mastery over the Byzantine state. The capstone of this consummation of power can be observed in the triumphant reigns of Nicephorus II Phocas, and John I Tzimiskes. Historian George Finlay dedicates a chapter of his History of the Byzantine Empire from 716 to 1057 to chronicle the feats of Nicephorus and John.
“Nicephorus proved an able emperor, and a faithful guardian of the young emperors; but his personal bearing was tinged with military severity, and his cold phlegmatic temper prevented his using the arts necessary to gain popularity either with the courtiers or the citizens. His conduct was moral, and he was sincerely religious; but he was too enlightened to confound the pretensions of the church with the truth of Christianity, and, consequently, in spite of his real piety, he was calumniated by the clergy as a hypocrite. Indeed, there was little probability that a strict military disciplinarian, who ascended the throne at the age of fifty-one, should prove a popular prince, when he succeeded a young and gay monarch like Romanus II.
“The standard of the coinage of the Eastern Empire, it must always be borne in mind, remained always the same until the taking of Constantinople by the Crusaders. The gold coins of Leo III and of Isaac II are of the same weight and purity; and the few emperors who disgraced their reigns by tampering with the currency have been branded with infamy. Perhaps there is no better proof of the high state of political civilization in Byzantine society.
“In the first year of his reign, Nicephorus endeavored to restrain the passion for founding monasteries that then reigned almost universally. Many converted their family residences into monastic buildings, in order to terminate their lives as monks, without changing their habits of life. The emperor prohibited the foundation of any new monasteries and hospitals, enacting that only those already in existence should be maintained; and he declared all testamentary donations of landed property in favor of the church void. He also excited the anger of the clergy, by forbidding any ecclesiastical election to be made until the candidate had received the imperial approbation. He was in the habit of leaving the wealthiest sees vacant, and either retained the revenues or compelled the new bishop to pay a large portion of his receipts annually into the imperial treasury.
“The high position occupied by the court of Kiev in the tenth century is also attested by the style with which it was addressed by the court of Constantinople. The golden bulls of the Roman emperor of the East, addressed to the prince of Russia, were ornamented with a pendent seal equal in size to a double solidus, like those addressed to the kings of France.
“With all his talents as a general, John does not appear to have possessed the same control over the general administration as Nicephorus; and many of the cities conquered by his predecessor, in which the majority of the inhabitants were Mohammedans, succeeded in throwing off the Byzantine yoke. Even Antioch declared itself independent. A great effort became necessary to regain the ground that had been lost; and, to make this, John Tzimiskes took the command of the Byzantine army in person in the year 974. He marched in one campaign from Mount Taurus to the banks of the Tigris, and from the banks of the Tigris back into Syria, as far as Mount Lebanon, carrying his victorious arms, according to the vaunting inaccuracy of the Byzantine geographical nomenclature, into Palestine.
*All excerpts have been taken from George Finlay’s History of the Byzantine Empire 717-1453, Quintessential Classics.
When comparing The Secret History with On Buildings it is almost unbelievable both were written by the same man: Procopius. On Buildings glorifies the preeminence of the emperor Justinian in all things, and The Secret History maligns Justinian in all things. Extracting the attainable truth from The Secret History is devilishly difficult, because it was clearly written when Procopius was out of favor. It was also ostensibly written following the plague years, and after the wars in the West as well as East of the Byzantine Empire had gone bad. Despite these dilemmas the work does bring forth the apparent emotional underpinnings of East Roman society near the end of Justinian’s reign.
“Theodora had at her disposal secret and absolutely secluded dungeons, so solitary and so dark that it was impossible to distinguish between night and day…to her no place ever was sacred or unassailable; and she thought nothing of violating the holiest of sanctuaries. The Christian priests and people were struck with horror at her impiety, but nevertheless yielded and submitted to her in everything.
“Belisarius, although none of the charges brought against him could be proved, was removed by the Emperor, at the instance of Theodora, from the command of the army in the East…As for his friends and the many people who had before served under him, Justinian forbade them to visit him. Thus was seen in the city a piteous spectacle which men could scarce believe to be real, that of Belisarius simply a private individual, almost alone, gloomy and thoughtful, ever dreading to be set upon and assassinated.
“At the time when Leo occupied the imperial throne, three young husbandmen, of Illyrian birth, named Zimarchus, Ditybistus, and Justin of Bederiane, in order to escape from their utter poverty at home, determined to enlist in the army. They made their way to Byzantium on foot, with knapsacks of goat’s-hair on their shoulders, containing nothing but a few biscuits which they had brought from home. On their arrival they were enrolled in the army, and chosen by the Emperor amongst the palace guards, being all three very handsome young men.
“Justinian, by openly encouraging and provoking the Blue faction, shook the Roman Empire to its foundation, like an earthquake or a flood, or as though each city had been taken by the enemy. Everything was everywhere thrown into disorder; nothing was left alone. The laws and the whole fabric of the State were altogether upset, and became the very opposite of what they had been.
“He wrote decrees, without the slightest hesitation, for the capture of fortresses, the burning of cities, the enslaving of whole races of men for no crime whatever, so that, if anyone were to reckon all the calamities of this nature which have befallen the Roman people before his time, and weigh them against those which were brought about by him, I imagine that it would be found that this man was guilty of far more bloodshed than any ruler of previous times.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Complete Procopius Anthology, Bybliotech.
The Byzantine Empire in the eleventh century was engaged in a power struggle between two parties. The court party was centered in the capital of Constantinople, and was composed of the courtiers, administrative bureaucrats, and urban aristocracy of the metropolis. Rivaling the court party was the military party, which was mostly the agrarian military aristocracy of Anatolia. The military party had been preeminent for about a century prior to the reign of the Emperor Basil II.
The elevation of Romanus IV Diogenes to the throne by the Empress Eudocia was an important victory for the military party, because Romanus was connected with most of the Anatolian military aristocracy, and considered an enterprising, able, as well as skilled general. Romanus was selected as the husband of Eudocia, because the eastern border of the empire was under grave threat from the Seljuk Turks, and even though her own son Michael had already been crowned as Emperor he was young with no military background. The court party preferred weak rulers because of the inbred corruption in the imperial bureaucracy, and for this reason supported Michael.
Michael Psellus was the personal tutor of Michael, and a leading member of the court party. Although a political enemy of the Emperor Romanus IV, Psellus does say some good things about him. However, most of the biography is dedicated to calumny against Romanus in order to justify his betrayal by the supporters of Michael at the battle of Manzikert, which would lead to the ascension of Michael as sole ruler.
“He affected contempt for the empress, completely despised the officers of state, refused advice, and – incurable malady of emperors – relied on no counsel, no guidance but his own, under all circumstances without exception.
“The fact is, he bore the whole brunt of the danger himself. His action can be interpreted in two ways. My own view represents the mean between these two extremes. On the one hand, if you regard him as a hero, courting danger and fighting courageously, it is reasonable to praise him; on the other, when one reflects that a general, if he conforms to the accepted rules of strategy, must remain aloof from the battle-line, supervising the movements of his army and issuing the necessary orders to the men under his command, then Romanus’s conduct on this occasion would appear foolish in the extreme, for he exposed himself to danger without a thought of the consequences. I myself am more inclined to praise than to blame him for what he did.
“He put on the full armour of an ordinary soldier and drew sword against his enemies. According to several of my informants he actually killed many of them and put others to flight. Later, when his attackers recognized who he was, they surrounded him on all sides. He was wounded and fell from his horse. They seized him, of course, and the Emperor of the Romans was led away, a prisoner…
“The picture they painted was by no means distinct, for each explained the disaster in his own fashion, some saying that Romanus was dead, others that he was only a prisoner; some again declared that they had seen him wounded and hurled to the ground, while others had seen him being led away in chains to the barbarian camp. In view of this information, a conference was held in the capital, and the empress considered our future policy. The unanimous decision of the meeting was that, for the time being, they should ignore the emperor, whether he was a prisoner, or dead, and that Eudocia and her sons should carry on the government of the Empire.
“The commander-in-chief of the enemy forces, when he perceived that the Roman Emperor had fallen into his hands, instead of exulting in his triumph, was quite overcome by his own extraordinary success. He celebrated his victory with a moderation that was beyond all expectation. Offering his condolences to the captive, he shared his own table with him, treated him as an honoured guest, gave him a bodyguard, loosed from their chains those prisoners he cared to name and set them free. Finally, he restored liberty to Romanus himself also, and, after making a treaty of friendship and after receiving from him assurances on oath that he would loyally abide by the agreements they had made, sent him back to Roman territory, with as numerous an escort and bodyguard as anyone could wish for.
*All excerpts have been taken from Fourteen Byzantine Rulers, Penguin Books.
In his Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople, Geoffrey de Villehardouin relates his first-hand account of the evolution of the Fourth Crusade from its original destination of Cairo in Egypt to its eventual conquest of the Christian city of Constantinople. Villehardouin served as a member of the high command of the crusade, and the narrative is written as an attempt to justify its actions. During this era in Byzantine history the population of Constantinople was perhaps 500,000 inhabitants or more, and Villehardouin recounts exceptional wonder at the magnitude as well as opulence of the city.
“Now you may know that those who had never before seen Constantinople looked upon it very earnestly, for they never thought there could be in all the world so rich a city; and they marked the high walls and strong towers that enclosed it round about, and the rich palaces, and mighty churches of which there were so many that no one would have believed it who had not seen it with his eyes-and the height and the length of that city which above all others was sovereign. And be it known to you, that no man there was of such hardihood but his flesh trembled: and it was no wonder, for never was so great an enterprise undertaken by any people since the creation of the world.
“The Marquis Boniface of Montferrat rode all along the shore to the palace of Bucoleon, and when he arrived there it surrendered, on condition that the lives of all therein should be spared. At Bucoleon were found the larger number of the great ladies who had fled to the castle, for there were found the sister (Agnes, sister of Philip Augustus, married successively to Alexius II, to Andronicus, and to Theodore Branas) of the King of France, who had been empress, and the sister (Margaret, sister of Emeric, King of Hungary, married to the Emperor Isaac, and afterwards to the Marquis of Montferrat) of the King of Hungary, who had also been empress, and other ladies very many. Of the treasure that was found in that palace I cannot well speak, for there was so much that it was beyond end or counting.
“…And the other people, spread abroad throughout the city, also gained much booty. The booty gained was so great that none could tell you the end of it: gold and silver, and vessels and precious stones, and samite, and cloth of silk, and robes vair and grey, and ermine, and every choicest thing found upon the earth. And well does Geoffrey of Villehardouin the Marshal of Champagne, bear witness, that never, since the world was created, had so much booty been won in any city.
“So the host of the pilgrims and of the Venetians found quarters, and greatly did they rejoice and give thanks because of the victory God had vouchsafed to them for those who before had been poor were now in wealth and luxury…And well might they praise our Lord, since in all the host there were no more than twenty thousand armed men, one with another, and with the help of God they had conquered four hundred thousand men, or more, and in the strongest city in all the world – yea, a great city – and very well fortified.
“Well may you be assured that the spoil was very great, for if it had not been for what was stolen and for the part given to the Venetians, there would have been at least four hundred thousand marks of silver and at least ten thousand horses one with another. Thus were divided the spoils of Constantinople, as you have heard.
*All excerpts have been taken from Chronicle of the Fourth Crusade and the Conquest of Constantinople, A Public Domain Book.
Chapter 5 of Michael J. Decker’s book on the Byzantine art-of-war recounts the strategy and tactics used by the Byzantine Empire throughout its long history. Decker discusses the stratagems, imperial ideology, and organization of the Byzantine state apparatus centered in its capital city of Constantinople. Following the conquest of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204 this apparatus was irrevocably destroyed by the Latin West, and even after the reconquest of the city by the Greeks it was never again on the same order of magnitude or effectiveness as before.
“…All wars were defensive. Even offensive campaigns were considered defensive, in that they aimed to recover land that had been seized from the empire and rightfully belonged to it, and this notion of the ‘forward defense’ or ‘active defense’ was something that the Romans probably imparted to Muslim jihad theorists.
“Experience taught the emperors that any period of peace was fleeting; never did this come into such sharp clarity more than in the events of the late 620s and 630s, when Heraclius found himself at the top of the wheel of fortune with his victories over the Persians, symbolized by his triumphant entry into Jerusalem in a spirit of millennial jubilation. The wheel turned, however, and within a decade Arab forces seized the whole of the Levant.
“Since the reign of Constantine I, the Romans had understood that the universe was ordered according to the principles of Christianity and the world was a reflection of the unseen cosmos:one God, one faith, one emperor, one empire.
“Subterfuge, bribery, and disinformation were prized bloodless means to undermine or dissolve enemies and were always preferred to open battle. The military manuals instruct, whenever possible, to bribe enemy commanders. Before campaigns on the frontiers, the general Nikephoros Ouranos (ca. 950-1011) ordered that gifts be sent to the emirs along the border in order for the bearers to collect intelligence and possibly induce the enemy to the Byzantine side or at least inaction in the coming conflict.
“The handbooks stress the need to surprise the enemy. Strategic surprise could be achieved by avoiding enemy agents, by disinformation, and by unexpected marches. The Strategikon warns that to avoid enemy spies armies should take little-used routes and march through uninhabited areas that were less likely to be under surveillance.
*All excerpts have been taken from The Byzantine Art of War, Westholme Publishing.
In the second volume of his History of the Art of War, Hans Delbrück devotes a chapter in book three to the military organization of the early Byzantine/late Roman Empire under the emperor Justinian. He examines the dissolution of discipline within the ranks, as well as the transition to a generally cavalry centered army. This more mobile force than the famous legions of previous epochs – particularly the republican one – was the culmination of centuries of evolution within the Roman army that had commenced under the emperor Gallienus. The resultant innovations from this transformation would give Justinian the edge in escalation dominance over the barbarian kingdoms in the West, and would open-the-door to a Roman re-conquest of North Africa, Sicily, and the Italian peninsula – all within the span of forty years.
“The active armies were quite small. Belisarius had 25,000 men when he won his victory over the Persians at Daras in 530. He landed in Africa with no more than 15,000 men, and of these 15,000, the 5,000 cavalry included in that total were sufficient to defeat the Vandals in the open field. Even smaller was the army with which Belisarius moved to Italy in order to destroy the East Gothic Kingdom eleven years after Theodoric’s death: there were no more than 10,000 to 11,000 men.
“A contemporary author, Agathias (5. 13), estimated that the total Roman army must have been 645,000 men strong but that only 150,000 men were actually available under Justinian.
“A very large number of the soldiers with whom Belisarius had conquered Italy deserted to the Goths when, after he was relieved, the Roman domination again collapsed and Totila established the Gothic kingdom.
“After the fourth century A.D., and after the disappearance of the legions, everything changed. The barbarian mercenaries now felt that they were the masters. Woe to the prince or the general who might have dared to incur their displeasure by his strictness!
“Procopius considers it a half-miracle and an extraordinary accomplishment of Belisarius that the Romans marched into Carthage in good order, ‘whereas otherwise the Roman troops never march into their own cities without disorder, even if there are only 500 of them.
*All excerpts have been taken from History of the Art of War, Volume II: The Barbarian Invasions, Hans Delbrück, University of Nebraska Press.