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Posts Tagged ‘Justinian’

Divine Wisdom

January 8, 2014 | by

Hagia Sophia Schezar Flickr

Photo: Schezar, via Flickr

On May 28, 1453, the Byzantine emperor Constantine XI entered Hagia Sophia, “the church of the divine wisdom,” to pray. Constantinople was under siege, and the fate of the great basilica was unclear. The emperor prayed there before returning to the city walls, where he coordinated the defense effort against the army of Mehmed II, who would be christened conqueror by day’s end.

As the two armies struggled to outmaneuver each other, those caught inside Hagia Sophia waited anxiously, fearful of what might happen if the capital of Greek Orthodoxy fell into Muslim hands. Emperor Justinian had commissioned the church in 532 A.D.; planned by the mathematician Anthemius of Tralles and the physicist Isidore of Miletus, and built by more than ten thousand laborers, it was intended to symbolize the magnificence of Christianity and become the seat of the Orthodox patriarch. Twenty years after its completion, two major earthquakes shook Hagia Sophia and destroyed its eastern arch. After extensive renovation, it reopened in 562 A.D. to the delight of Justinian, who, three years before his death, saw his great church survive one of nature’s worst calamities.

On May 29, 1453, Mehmed II and his army entered the city, immediately marching on Hagia Sophia. In their book Strolling Through Istanbul, John Freely and Hilary Sumner-Boyd describe how Mehmed “dismounted at the door of the church and bent down to take a handful of earth, which he then sprinkled over his turban as an act of humility before God.” Read More »


The Year 476: An Illustrated Panorama

November 20, 2012 | by

History is full of linchpin dates around which the world is said to have pivoted. The year 476 is touted as the momentous one in which the Roman Empire fell and the world descended into a dark administrative vacuum inhabited by pillaging, horned demons. The reality is that, after blowing through dozens of emperors over the course of a generation, 476 was simply the year in which the ceremony of crowning yet another emperor didn’t seem worth the cost or trouble, and everyone stayed home.

What is usually absent from the “Rome fell” story is that the eastern half of the Roman Empire flourished for another thousand years. In fact, 476 was when things were just getting interesting.

The sixth-century historian Procopius wrote about his contemporaries in eastern Byzantine Rome in two works: one famous, one infamous. The first, the official history, paints a rosy picture of Emperor Justinian and his imperial accomplishments. The second, the “Secret History,” describes Justinian; his empress, Theodora; and their bosom companions General Belisarius and his wife, Antonina, as wicked, conniving, and so outrageously scandalous and beastly that the whole work has to be read as an act of either revenge or farce. Needless to say, the second one is a delight to read.

The following panels are culled from both works, and from lore about the period: a miscellany on the exciting century that followed 476.

Jason Novak works at a grocery store in Berkeley, California, and changes diapers in his spare time.