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.
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.
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.