Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape

Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape

by Antony Bridge

ISBN: 9780897333948

Publisher Chicago Review Press

Published in Biographies & Memoirs/Historical, History/World

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Each year on a day in late August or early September, the storks of northern Europe, western Russia, and the Ukraine rise into the air on great black and white wings, almost as if they had been given a signal to do so, and begin their journey to Africa where they spend the winter. In their tens of thousands they converge on the Bosphorus, until the sky above the narrow waters which separate Europe from Asia is filled with birds wheeling and soaring on the thermals of late summer as thick as motes of dust in a sunbeam. In A.D. 500, far below them on the triangle of land between the Golden Horn and the Sea of Marmara, lay Constantinople. Its houses, with their red-tiled roofs warm in the sun, were interspersed with parks and gardens, orchards and green fields; its streets and squares and forums stretched three miles westwards to the most formidable city wall the world had ever seen, running from sea to sea right across the peninsula. No doubt then as now, at a lower level than that at which the storks flew, the ubiquitous Byzantine pigeons circled in a noisy flurry of wings, and scavenging kites hung on the hot air in search of food, while the sounds made by a city of three-quarters of a million inhabitants rose up above the house-tops like the sound of a distant sea. A few noises stood out sharply from the groundswell: dogs barking in the distance, children calling and laughing as they played together, a donkey braying somewhere as if in pain, and down by the sea and the harbour the noise of men hammering or shouting the price of fish.

It was a cosmopolitan place. For centuries the Roman Empire had been a melting pot in which the races of mankind living around the Mediterranean had been mixed together, while others from farther afield had been drawn into it as immigrants in the hope of sharing its way of life and its riches. The result was a new kind of citizen; in origin the people of Constantinople might be Roman, Greek, Armenian, Syrian, Arab, or even Gothic, for a large number of blue-eyed, fair-haired Germans could be seen in the city, where they worked as labourers in menial jobs or slaves in rich households, but by the beginning of the sixth century they all felt themselves to be Byzantines, and they nearly all spoke Greek. Latin was still spoken by some people, chiefly on formal and official occasions, but it had been in decline for years throughout the eastern half of the Empire, where Greek had increasingly become the common language of the people since the days of Alexander of Macedon. It was Greek which you heard spoken in the streets, and it was in the streets too that the people of the city could be seen in all their variety.

The beau monde and the rich, whether on foot or in carriages drawn by white mules, were always attended by a retinue of servants without which no one who was anyone dreamed of moving about in public; bejewelled and dressed in the height of fashion, they were unmistakable. Fashions in dress had changed since Constantine had founded the city in the year 330; the old flowing Roman toga had disappeared, especially from the wardrobes of the upper classes, in favour of a straight ankle-length tunic with narrow sleeves, which was often elaborately embroidered and richly decorated, and which had probably been copied in the first place from the robes of a Chinese mandarin. Members of the new order of Patricians were easily recognised too, for they wore pure white edged with purple and had scarlet girdles round their waists. Priests were to be seen everywhere, recognised not only by their traditional clothing which had not changed with changing fashions, but also by their beards; the clergy had worn beards since apostolic times, and because the Church was a profoundly conservative institution, they still wore them. Monks were even more numerous than the clergy, for Constantinople was above all a city of monasteries, and the monastic profession was held in such popular esteem that a particularly holy or ascetic monk could, and often did, become the idol of the people and even a rival of the Emperor of the day in his influence over them.

Eunuchs, though rarer than either the clergy or the monks, were omnipresent too, for most of the civil servants who worked in the vast Byzantine bureaucracy and staffed the central government of the Empire were eunuchs; but they were not particularly easy to distinguish from other men, for contrary to common belief they were neither fatter nor smoother than anyone else. They were trusted in positions of power precisely because they were eunuchs and could therefore have no dynastic ambitions of their own, and parents often had their sons castrated in infancy in order that in later life they might qualify for the highest and most powerful government posts.

There were always soldiers in the streets, strolling about the city in their short green tunics with red facings and white stockings, enjoying an hour or two off duty; but there were seldom many of them, for the Byzantines maintained only a small professional army, most of which was stationed in the eastern provinces or on the northern frontiers during peace time; they preferred to rely upon diplomacy rather than upon military force for the protection of the Empire whenever it was possible to do so. In an emergency, when all else failed, there were large military reserves which could be called up to reinforce the regular soldiers. During the day, children were at school, but in the evening and during the holidays they could always be seen playing in the streets or dancing at street corners in the hope of earning a few pence. Meanwhile, of course, workmen of all sorts went about their business, and peasants from the country driving carts full of vegetables, shepherding flocks of sheep or goats to market, or walking behind donkeys with panniers full of fruit or dairy produce were commonplace.

But perhaps the most common of all were the merchants and shopkeepers, for Constantinople was the greatest mercantile centre in the world, lying as it did across the trade routes between east and west, north and south. All roads might have led to Rome in the old days, but to the new capital of the Roman world on the shores of the Bosphorus ran the caravan routes from China, India, and Ceylon, the roads from the steppes of Scythia and the forests of Germania Magna, and the sea-ways from Africa, the Mediterranean, and the Aegean. So the streets of the city usually contained a few people from almost every corner of the known world who were there as traders, ambassadors, or simply as sightseers. In times of peace on the eastern frontier little parties of Persians in exotic clothes mingled with the crowds, gazing up at the statue of Apollo with the head of the Emperor Constantine on its tall porphyry column in the Forum which bore his name; barbarians from the tribes which lived somewhere north of the Danube stared at the aqueduct of Valens which brought water to the city's vast underground reservoirs; Egyptian sailors on shore leave from the corn-ships which brought grain from Alexandria wandered down the Mese or Central Street, which ran its splendid marble way from the oldest square in the city, the Augusteum, past shops selling silk, jewellery, perfume, and other luxuries in the arcades at its sides to the Golden Gate almost three miles away in the great wall built in 413 by the Emperor Theodosius II; and others whose nationality could not be guessed from their appearance were usually to be seen somewhere amongst the crowds in the city, for people lived in the open air much more than we do, and the main thoroughfares were perpetually busy.

Behind them lay a maze of narrow and confusing streets, which followed the contours of the hilly ground upon which Constantinople was built, and opened up frequently into little squares. Churches were everywhere, and so were monasteries, though some of them held no more than one or two people, while others were the homes of a hundred or more monks or nuns. By the sixth century a law had been passed to regulate the width of the back streets; none of them was supposed to be narrower than twelve feet, though some of the older streets were mere alleys, and the authorities could do little about them, for they had existed for a hundred years or more; similarly the balconies on the houses were not supposed to extend nearer to the opposite side of the street than ten feet or be lower than fifteen feet above the ground, although once again in some of the older parts of the city this regulation was not observed. Balconies were common on the poorer houses, where the inhabitants — especially the women of the place — when they were not working liked to sit and watch the life of the street go by beneath them. Since most of these houses were built of wood, which stood up to the earthquakes which rocked the city from time to time better than brick or stone, there was an ever-present risk of fire; and although there was an efficient fire-fighting force, when fire did break out it often did extensive and appalling damage, especially in the older and more overcrowded districts. But there were no slums in the modern sense and no fashionable residential areas either; rich and poor lived in the same streets, though the houses of the rich were far grander than those of their less affluent neighbours. Like some of the older houses in the cities of the Arabic world today — Cairo, for instance — the houses of wealthy Byzantines presented blank faces to the streets, being built round courtyards on to which their rooms opened; sometimes these inner courts were covered with roofs, but more often they contained gardens, fountains, and little arbours where the occupants of the house could sit under the shade of vines or flowering shrubs.

Perhaps it was because the rich and the poor lived side by side, or perhaps it was because the poor knew that Byzantine society was a society in which people could rise from the humblest beginnings to positions of great power and dignity — whatever the reason may have been neither racial prejudice nor class distinction divided them; at least, it did not usually do so. There had been a time in the fourth century when there had been a good deal of prejudice against the Gothic minority which lived in the midst of Byzantine society; rather like the black minority in the United States and in England, the Goths were racially recognisable, economically under-privileged, and mostly employed in the most menial jobs. Everywhere you went there were these German barbarians. They worked on the land; they did the dirty jobs in the cities; most households had one or two as slaves or as badly paid servants; and worst of all the army was full of them. The idea that they might revolt one day was terrifying, and to many Byzantine citizens the sight of these immigrants with their fair hair, blue eyes, and pink skins was both disturbing and disgusting. But by the sixth century the Goths had been assimilated by Byzantine society, and there was no longer any prejudice against them on account of the colour of their skin.

Class distinction was not a feature of Byzantine society either. In the nature of things only a few people rose from rags to great riches, but the mere fact that some did so in every generation seems to have been responsible for the acceptance by most people of the basic order of society. Moreover, although the poor were often very poor indeed, they were seldom destitute; there was no poverty in Constantinople or elsewhere in the Empire comparable to the poverty of modern Calcutta, for although the social pyramid of Byzantine society was crowned by an Emperor with autocratic and almost unlimited power, the state over which he presided was in many ways a welfare state. There were free hospitals where the sick were nursed by monks and nuns, almshouses for the needy and the old, free accommodation for the homeless, and orphanages subsidised by the state. Both prices and wages were strictly controlled by law, and rationing was often introduced in times of need, so that the poor did not suffer while the rich thrived. But the absence of social divisions in Byzantine society was not merely a negative quality; it was the result of three positive forces which united nearly everyone: Roman citizenship, Christian faith, and a passion for chariot racing.

As many people in the United States of America during the first half of the twentieth century, who were born of Polish, Italian, Russian, Jewish, German, Irish, or native American parents, were nevertheless united by their American citizenship and welded into one people, so the Byzantines were united by their Roman citizenship. They were not all Roman by blood or birth, but from the highest to the lowest every Byzantine was intensely conscious of being an heir of the eternal world of Rome. It was a world which seemed to everyone, both its citizens and its enemies, to be coterminous with civilisation itself: a steady and a splendid light in a dark and barbarous world. For a thousand years the Empire had grown, absorbing into itself all that was best in classical Greece and the Hellenistic world which had followed it, and taking peace and the rule of law to people of different races and beliefs from the Atlantic Ocean to the deserts of the Middle East, and from the Danube to the Sahara. The collapse of the West under barbarian invasions during the fifth century had only made the citizens of the East more conscious of their role as guardians of civilisation in a world where barbarism seemed to be inexorably spreading; and curiously enough this was a verdict with which the Gothic conquerors of Italy would almost certainly have agreed. The last thing the invaders of the Roman world wanted was to destroy it; they wanted to share its riches and its way of life, which they admired above all things. Moreover, there was nothing they desired more passionately, once they had established themselves within the borders of the Empire and had built their petty kingdoms, than to be recognised by the Byzantine Emperor, who claimed to rule by divine authority as God's representative on earth, arrogating to himself and to his office not only the secular powers of Caesar but also the God-given powers of the western Popes; as a result the Goths regarded him with a respect bordering on idolatry as almost a god in his own right. All this the Byzantines knew, and their pride in themselves as Romans became even greater than it had been before the barbarians had begun to encroach upon the Empire; but it was a pride tinged with a certain self-mockery and an urbane cynicism about their own chances of escaping the fate of the West in the long run. Their role as defenders of civilisation often seemed a very lonely one and their chance of ultimate success rather forlorn.

A cynic might say that it was as a result of this pessimism that the Byzantines turned to religion for comfort, and there would be a measure of truth in such an accusation. In a world which seemed to be crumbling around their ears, the Byzantines found very persuasive the voices of men like Augustine of Hippo in the West and, nearer home, Basil the Great of Caesarea in Cappadocia, both of whom advocated rejection of this mundane world as a vale of tears, a deceitful and untrustworthy place in which only a fool vested his hopes. Certainly they were obsessionally religious almost to a man. It is difficult, if not impossible, for us living in the secular society of the twentieth century to imagine what it must have been like to be a Byzantine. He lived his life between two worlds; like us he was born into the physical world of human desire, power politics, war and peace, life and death, and the everyday business of getting and spending, but he did not feel himself to be primarily its citizen. He was first and foremost a citizen of the world represented in the glittering mosaics which surrounded him when he entered one of his churches: a world ruled by Christ and the supernatural hierarchy of heaven and hell and erupting with miracles. The darkly luminous world of his icons, where martyrs and saints and confessors, silhouetted against golden skies, moved about in a strange and timeless landscape not subject to the mundane dictates of perspective, was his true home. It was far more real to him than the humdrum world of material reality; it was the primary reality in which he lived, and hoped, and planned his future in the prospect of eternity and judgement. Not surprisingly, therefore, his great passion was for theological debate, and this was taken to astonishing lengths. A contemporary historian remarked how, towards the end of the fourth century, 'the imperial transport system was quite disorganised by bands of bishops travelling hither and thither in government conveyances' to synods where they disputed minute points of Christian doctrine for weeks on end. But this Byzantine passion was by no means limited to the ranks of the clergy; laymen were possessed by it too. At about the same time — that is to say towards the end of the fourth century, when the controversy over the doctrine of the Trinity was at its height — one of the great doctors of the eastern Church, Gregory of Nazianzus, complained that, if you went into a shop in Constantinople to do something as apparently simple as to buy a loaf of bread, it was almost impossible to do so without being drawn into a religious discussion; for 'the baker instead of telling you the price will argue that the Father is greater than the Son. The money-changer will talk about the Begotten and the Unbegotten instead of giving you your money, and if you want a bath, the bath-keeper assures you that the Son surely proceeds from nothing.' In fact, the average Byzantine citizen got as excited over religious arguments of this kind, and as divided by the religious issues arising from them, as party politicians are today excited and divided by politics. Indeed, in a very real sense religious issues were political issues in the world of the sixth century, for it was the Christian faith which united the Empire against her enemies, many of whom were her enemies principally because they were adherents of another religion. The over-riding aim of all Byzantine Emperors in foreign politics was to convert the enemies of the Empire to Christianity and thereby to turn them into allies, rather as Russian Communists today try to convert non-Communist countries to Communism in the belief that they will thus gain political and military allies. It is impossible to understand the Byzantines unless the fact that they were obsessed by religion is constantly remembered; almost to a man they were religious, and some of them were grossly superstitious too.

Excerpted from "Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape" by Antony Bridge. Copyright © 2013 by Antony Bridge. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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