Justinian's Misgovernment
From 'The Secret History' by Procopius

WHEN Justinian ascended the throne it took him a very little while to bring everything into confusion. Things hitherto forbidden by law were one by one brought into public life, while established customs were swept away wholesale, as if he had been invested with the forms of majesty on condition that he would change all things to new forms. Long established offices were abolished, and new ones set up to run the nation's business; the laws of the land and the organization of the army were treated in the same way, not because justice required it or the general interest urged him to it, but merely that everything might have a new look and might be associated with his name. If there was anything which he was not in a position to transform then and there, even so he would at least attach his own name to it.

Of the forcible seizure of property and the murder of his subjects he could never have enough: when he had looted innumerable houses of wealthy people he was constantly on the look-out for others, immediately squandering on one foreign tribe or another, or on crazy building schemes, all that he had amassed by his earlier looting. And when he had without any excuse got rid of thousands and thousands of people, or so it would seem, he promptly devised schemes for doing the same to others more numerous still.

At that time the Romans were at peace with all other nations; so not knowing how to satisfy his lust for blood Justinian kept flinging all the foreign nations at each other's throats; and sending for the chieftains of the Huns, though he had no reason at all, with senseless prodigality he flung vast sums into their laps, making out, if you please, that these were pledges of friendship. This he was stated to have done even when Justin was on the throne. They for their part, having received this windfall, used to send some of their brother-chieftains at the head of their men, urging them to make sudden raids into the Emperor's territory, so that they too might be in a position to exact a price for peace from the man who for no reason at all was prepared to pay for it. These chiefs at once began the enslavement of the Roman Empire, and all the time they were in the Emperor's pay. Their example was immediately followed by others, who joined in the pillaging of the unfortunate Romans, and on top of the pillage received as a reward for their inroads the extravagant largesse of the Emperor. Thus, in short, from year's end to year's end they all took turns to plunder and pillage everything within their reach. For these native races have many groups of chieftains, and the war was passed from one group to another in rotation as a result of Justinian's inexcusable prodigality; it could never come to an end, but went on circling round itself month after month, year after year. And so no single patch of ground, mountain, cave, or anything else on Roman soil, escaped being pillaged at this time, and many places were actually overrun five times or more. These calamities, however, and all those suffered at the hands of Medes, Saracens, Slavs, Antae, and other foreign nations, have been recounted in my earlier volumes; but as I said in the first paragraph of the present volume, it is essential that I should make clear now where the responsibility lay for all that happened.

To Chosroes Justinian handed over vast sums in gold to secure peace; then with inexcusable disregard of anyone else's opinion he made himself responsible for the breaking of the truce by his determination to effect a partnership with Alamundarus and his Huns, who were in alliance with the Persians, as in my chapter on the subject — was revealed plainly enough, I think. While he was stirring up the faction-fights and wars which brought such miseries on the Romans, and fanning the blaze with this one object only, that by all possible means the earth should be filled with human blood and that still more plunder should fall into his hands, he devised yet another horrible massacre of his subjects. It happened in this way.

Throughout the Roman Empire there are many unorthodox beliefs generally known as heresies — Montanism, Sabbatarianism, and numerous others which continually lead men into doctrinal error. All the adherents of these were ordered to renounce their former beliefs under threat of many penalties for disobedience, above all the withdrawal of the right to bequeath their possessions to their children or relations. The churches of these heretics, as they are called, especially those who professed the doctrine of Arius, possessed unheard of riches. Neither the whole Senate nor any other very large body in the Roman State could compete in wealth with these churches. They possessed treasures of gold and silver, and ornaments covered with precious stones, beyond description and beyond counting, houses and villages in great numbers, and many acres of land in all quarters of the world, and every other kind of wealth that exists andis named anywhere on earth, since none of the long line of emperors had ever interfered with them. A great number of people, even though they held orthodox beliefs, depended upon them at all times for their livelihood, justifying themselves on the ground that they were merely following their regular occupations. So by first of all confiscating the property of these churches the Emperor Justinian suddenly robbed them of all they possessed. The result was that from that moment most of the men were deprived of their only means of support.

An army of officials was at once sent out in all directions to force everyone they met to renounce his ancestral beliefs. In the eyes of country people such a suggestion was blasphemous; so they resolved one and all to stand their ground against the men who made this demand. Many in consequence perished at the hands of the soldiers; many even put an end to their own lives, being foolish enough to think this the godliest course; and the great majority abandoned the land of their birth and went into banishment. But the Montanists, who were established in Phrygia, shut themselves up in their own churches and at once set these buildings on fire, perishing with them for no reason at all. The result was that the whole Roman Empire was one great scene of slaughter and banishment.

A similar law being next passed in respect of the Samaritans, tumultuous disorders descended upon Palestine. All who lived in my own Caesarea and the other cities, thinking it silly to endure any sort of distress for the sake of a nonsensical dogma, discarded their old name and called themselves Christians, managing by this pretence to shake off the danger threatened by the law. Those among them who were at all prudent and reasonable were quite agreeable to remaining loyal to their new faith; but the majority, apparently feeling indignant that in defiance of their wishes they were being compelled by this law to abandon the beliefs they had inherited, very soon defected to the Manichees and 'Polytheists'. But the peasants at a mass meeting resolved as one man to take up arms against the Emperor, putting forward as the emperor of their own choice a bandit named Julian, son of Savarus. They joined battle with the soldiers and held out for some time, but in the end they lost the fight and were cut to pieces, together with their leader. It is said that a hundred thousand men lost their lives in this engagement, and the most fertile land in the world was left with no one to till it. For the owners of these acres, Christians one and all, this business had disastrous consequences; for though the land was yielding them no profit at all, they were compelled to pay to the Emperor in perpetuity annual taxes on a crippling scale, since these demands were pressed relentlessly.

Next he turned the persecution against the 'Greeks', torturing their bodies and looting their property. Many of these decided to assume for appearance' sake the name of Christian in order to avert the immediate threat; but it was not long before they were for the most part caught at their libations and sacrifices and other unholy rites. What was done in respect of the Christians I shall explain in a later volume.

After that he passed a law forbidding offences against boys, not inquiring closely into those committed after the passing of the law, but seeking out men who had succumbed to this moral sickness some time in the past. The prosecution of these offenders was conducted in the most irregular fashion, since the penalty was imposed even where there was no accuser, and the word of a single man or boy, even if he happened to be a slave forced to give evidence most unwillingly against his owner, was accepted as final proof. Men convicted in this way were castrated and exposed to public ribaldry. At first, however, not everyone was treated in this shocking manner, but only those who were thought to be either Greens or exceptionally well off, or who happened to have come up against the rulers in some other way.

Again, they were bitterly hostile to the astrologers. Accordingly the official appointed to deal with burglaries made a point of ill-treating them simply because they were astrologers, flogging the backs of many of them and setting them on camels to be shown to jeering crowds all over the city, though they were old men and respectable in every way. Yet he had nothing against them except that they wished to be authorities on the stars in such a place as this. As a result, great numbers of people were constantly slipping away, not only to foreign countries but also to distant regions in Roman occupation, and in every district and city there were always masses of new faces to be seen. For to avoid being caught every man was glad to exchange his homeland for another country, as if his own had fallen into enemy hands.

So it was that the possessions of those considered well-to-do in Byzantium and every other city (next after members of the Senate) were plundered, in the way described, by Justinian and Theodora, and remained in their hands. How they managed to rob the senators too of all their property I will now explain.

There was in Byzantium a man called Zeno, grandson of the Anthemius who had earlier become Emperor of the West. To serve their own ends they appointed this man Governor of Egypt and dispatched him there. But Zeno packed all his most valuable effects on board ship and got ready to sail; for he had an immeasurable weight of silver, and vessels of solid gold embellished with pearls and emeralds, and with other stones equally precious. Their Majesties then bribed some of those whose loyalty he trusted completely to remove the precious cargo with all speed and drop firebrands into the hold of the ship, after which they were to inform Zeno that the blaze had broken out spontaneously in the vessel and that the entire cargo had been lost. Not long after, as it happened, Zeno died very suddenly, and the two of them promptly took over his estate as his lawful heirs; for they produced a will of sorts, which it was openly rumoured was not of his making.

By similar methods they made themselves heirs of Tatian, Demosthenes, and Hilara, who in rank and all other respects were leading members of the Roman Senate. The property of certain others they acquired by forging not wills but letters. That was how they became heirs of Dionysius, who lived in Lebanon, and of John, the son of Basilius. John had been quite the most distinguished man in all Edessa, but Belisarius had handed him over willy-nilly as a hostage to the Persians, as recounted by me in an earlier volume. Chosroes finally refused to let this man go, accusing the Romans of breaking all the agreements under which Belisarius had handed him over; however, he was prepared to sell him as being now a prisoner of war. John's grandmother, who was still alive, furnished the ransom, amounting to two thousand pounds' weight of silver, in the full expectation of redeeming her grandson. But when this ransom had arrived in Daras the Emperor got to know of it and forbade the completion of the transaction — in order, he said, that Roman wealth might not be transferred to a foreign power. Shortly after this John fell sick and departed this life; whereupon the chief administrator of the city concocted a letter of sorts which he said John had recently written to him as a friend, to inform him that he desired his whole estate to go to the Emperor. It would be beyond me to list the names of all the others whose heirs they contrived to become.

Nika Insurrection
Until the 'Nika' insurrection took place, they were content to annex the estates of the well-to-do one at a time; but after it took place, as I related in an earlier volume, from then on they confiscated at a single stroke the possessions of nearly all the senators. On all movable property and on the most attractive landed estates they laid their hands just as they fancied; but they set aside properties liable to oppressive and crushing taxation, and with sham generosity sold them to their previous owners! These in consequence were throttled by the tax-collectors and reduced to penury by the never ending interest on their debts, dragging out a miserable existence that was no more than a lingering death.

In view of all this I, like most of my contemporaries, never once felt that these two were human beings: they were a pair of blood-thirsty demons and what the poets' call 'plaguers of mortal men'. For they plotted together to find the easiest and swiftest means of destroying all races of men and all their works, assumed human shape, became man-demons, and in this way convulsed the whole world. Proof of this could be found in many things, but especially in the power manifested in their doings. For the actions of demons are unmistakably different from those of human beings. In the long course of time there have doubtless been many men who by chance or by nature have inspired the utmost fear, and by their unaided efforts have ruined cities or countries or whatever it might be; but to bring destruction on all mankind and calamities on the whole world has been beyond the power of any but these two, who were, it is true, aided in their endeavours by chance, which collaborated in the ruin of mankind; for earthquakes, pestilences, and rivers that burst their banks brought widespread destruction at this time, as I shall explain shortly. Thus it was not by human but by some very different power that they wrought such havoc.

It is said that Justinian's own mother told some of her close friends that he was not the son of her husband Sabbatius or of any man at all. For when she was about to conceive she was visited by a demon, who was invisible but gave her a distinct impression that he was really there with her like a man in bodily contact with a woman. Then he vanished like a dream.

Some of those who were in the Emperor's company late at night, conversing with him (evidently in the Palace) — men of the highest possible character — thought that they saw a strange demonic form in his place. One of them declared that he more than once rose suddenly from the imperial throne and walked round and round the room; for he was not in the habit of remaining seated for long. And Justinian's head would momentarily disappear, while the rest of his body seemed to continue making these long circuits. The watcher himself, thinking that something had gone seriously wrong with his eyesight, stood for a long time distressed and quite at a loss. But later the head returned to the body, and he thought that what a moment before had been lacking was, contrary to expectation, filling out again. A second man said that he stood by the Emperor's side as he sat, and saw his face suddenly transformed to a shapeless lump of flesh: neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their normal position, and it showed no other distinguishing feature at all; gradually, however, he saw the face return to its usual shape. I did not myself witness the events I am describing, but I heard about them from men who insist that they saw them at the time.

It is also related that a certain monk highly favoured by God was persuaded by those who lived with him in the desert to set out for Byzantium in order to speak on behalf of their nearest neighbours, who were suffering violence and injustice beyond bearing. On his arrival there he was at once admitted to the Emperor's presence; but when he was on the point of entering the audience chamber and had put one foot inside the door, he suddenly drew it back and retreated. The eunuch who was escorting him and others who were present urged and encouraged him to go on; but he gave no answer, and as if he had suddenly gone crazy he dashed away back to the apartment where he was lodging. When those who accompanied him asked him to explain this strange behaviour, we understand that he said straight out that he had seen the King of the Demons in the Palace, sitting on the throne, and he was not prepared to meet him or to ask any favour of him.

After all, how could this man be other than a wicked demon, when he never satisfied his natural appetite for drink, food, or sleep, but took a casual bite of the good things set before him and then wandered about the Palace at untimely hours of the night, although he had a demonic passion for the pleasures of Aphrodite?

We understand too from some of Theodora's lovers that, while she was still on the stage, a demon of some sort swooped on them in the night and drove them from the room where they were spending the night with her. And there was a dancing girl called Macedonia who belonged to the Blues in Antioch and had acquired great influence; for by writing letters to Justinian while Justin was still master of the Empire she could easily destroy any she wished of prominent citizens in eastern regions, causing their property to be confiscated for the Treasury. This woman, we are told, while welcoming Theodora on her return from Egypt and Libya, saw that she was very annoyed and put out by the insults she had received at the hands of Hecebolius, and by the loss of her money during that trip. So Macedonia did her best to console her and cheer her up, reminding her that Fortune was quite capable of playing the benefactress and showering wealth upon her. Then, we are told, Theodora declared that actually during the previous night she had had a vivid dream which told her not to worry about money any more: when she reached Byzantium she would go to bed with the King of the Demons, and would live with him as his wedded wife in every respect, and as a result would become mistress of all the money she could desire.

Such at any rate were the facts as they appeared to most people.

The character of Justinian was in the round such as I have portrayed; but he showed himself approachable and affable to those with whom he came in contact; not a single person found himself denied access to the Emperor, and even those who broke the rules by the way they stood or spoke in his presence never incurred his wrath. That, however, did not make him blush when confronting those whom he intended to destroy. In fact he never even gave a hint of anger or irritation to show how he felt towards those who had offended him; but with a friendly expression on his face and without raising an eyebrow, in a gentle voice he would order tens of thousands of quite innocent persons to be put to death, cities to be razed to the ground, and all their possessions to be confiscated for the Treasury. This characteristic would have made anybody imagine that he had the disposition of a lamb. But if anyone attempted to conciliate him and by humble supplication to beg forgiveness for those who had incurred his displeasure, then 'baring his teeth and raging like a beast' he would seem to be on the point of bursting, so that none of his supposed intimates could nurse any further hope of persuading him to grant pardon.

He seemed to be a convinced believer in Christ, but this too meant ruin for his subjects; for he allowed the priests to use violence against their neighbours almost with impunity, and when they looted the estates next to their own he wished them joy, thinking that in doing so he was honouring the Almighty. When he tried such cases he thought that he was showing his piety if anyone for allegedly religious purposes grabbed something that did not belong to him, and after winning his case went scot-free. For in his view justice consisted in the priests' getting the better of their antagonists. And when he himself got possession by unscrupulous methods of the estates of persons living or dead, arid gave these as an offering to one of the churches, he would congratulate himself on this cloak of piety — but only to make sure that ownership of these estates should not revert to those who had been robbed of them.

But he went much further, and to achieve his aim he engineered an incalculable number of murders. His ambition being to force everybody into one form of Christian belief he wantonly destroyed everyone who would not conform, and that while keeping up a pretence of piety. For he did not regard it as murder, so long as those who died did not happen to share his beliefs. Thus he had completely set his heart on the continual slaughter of his fellow-men, and together with his wife he was constantly engaged in fabricating charges in order to satisfy this ambition. The pair of them were almost indistinguishable in their aims, and where there did happen to be some real difference in their characters they were equally wicked, though they displayed exactly opposite traits in destroying their subjects. For in his judgement the Emperor was as unstable as a weathercock, at the mercy of those who at any moment wished to swing him in whatever direction they thought fit — so long as their plans did not point in the direction of generosity or unselfishness — and perpetually exposed himself to gusts of flattery. His fawning courtiers could with the utmost ease convince him that he was soaring aloft and 'walking the air'.

One day as he sat beside him on the Bench, Tribonian said he was quite terrified that sooner or later as a reward for his piety the Emperor would be carried up to heaven and vanish from men's sight. Such laudations (or were they gibes?) he interpreted according to his own preconceived notions. Yet if ever by any chance he complimented some person on his virtues, a moment later he would be denouncing him as a scoundrel. On the other hand, when he had poured abuse on one of his subjects he would veer round and shower compliments on him — or so it appeared — changing about without the slightest provocation. For his thoughts ran counter to his own words and the impression he wished to give.

What his temperament was in regard to friendship and enmity I have indicated already, evidencing for the most part the man's own actions. As an enemy he was determined and undeviating, to his friends most inconstant; so that he actually brought ruin on numbers of people who had been high in his favour, but never showed friendship to any man he had once hated. Those whom he seemed to know best and to esteem most he soon betrayed, graciously presenting them to his spouse or whoever it might be, to be put to death, though he knew quite well that it was because of their devotion to himself and of that alone that they would die. For he could not be trusted in anything except inhumanity and avarice, as all the world could see: to wean him from the latter was beyond the power of any man. Why, in cases where he refused to listen even to his wife's persuasions, by throwing into the scales the hope of a big profit to be made from the business she could lead her husband by the nose into any scheme she fancied, however loudly he might protest. For if there were any ill-gotten gain in sight he was always ready to establish laws and to rescind them again. And his judicial decisions were made not in accordance with the laws he had himself enacted, but as he was led by the sight of a bigger and more splendid promise of monetary advantage. To commit a succession of petty thefts and so deprive his subjects of their property seemed to him to involve him in no discredit at all; that is to say, in cases where he could not grab the lot on some pretext or other, either by hurling an accusation out of the blue or by alleging a non-existent will.

While he ruled the Romans neither faith nor doctrine about God continued stable, no law had any permanence, no business dealings could be trusted, no contract meant anything. Then he dispatched his close friends on some mission, if they happened to do away with a number of those they came up against and collect some booty, His Majesty promptly decided that they were men of real distinction and deserved to be recognized as such, since they had carried out all their instructions to the letter. But if they treated men with any clemency, when they reported back to the Court he was ill-disposed to them from then on, and indeed actively hostile; and writing off men of this kind as hopelessly old-fashioned, he called on them for no further service. The consequence was that many made strenuous efforts to convince him of their villainous character, although their regular behaviour was as different as could be. After promising certain people again and again and confirming the promise with an oath or in writing, he immediately contrived to forget it, supposing that such behaviour won him admiration. Justinian regularly behaved in this way, not only to his subjects but also to many of his enemies, as I stated earlier.

He had little need of sleep as a rule, and his appetite for food and drink was unusually small: he did little more than sample a morsel, picked up with his fingertips, before leaving the table. Such things seemed to him irrelevant, as if Nature was trying to make him toe the line: time after time he went without food for two days and nights, especially when the days before the 'Easter Festival' called for such discipline. Then, as I have said, he often went two days without food and chose to live on a little water and a few wild plants, and after sleeping for perhaps one hour he would pass the rest of the night walking round and round the Palace. Yet had he been prepared to spend just that amount of time in good works, the nation could have enjoyed a very high degree of prosperity. Instead he employed all his natural powers for the ruin of the Romans, and succeeded in bringing the whole political edifice crashing to the ground. His prolonged vigils, privations, and painful efforts were undergone with this object alone — always and every day to devise for his subjects bigger calamities for him to crow over. For, as observed before, he was extraordinarily keen to invent and swift to execute unholy crimes, so that ultimately even the good qualities in his nature were instrumental in ruining his subjects.

Mainly Silence
All the nation's affairs were topsy-turvy, and of established customs nothing remained. I will mention a few instances, but all the rest must be passed over in silence, that my story may not go on for ever. In the first place, he himself neither possessed any quality likely to enhance the dignity of an emperor nor attempted to give the impression of possessing it: in speech, dress, and way of thinking he was utterly uncouth. Whenever he wished a decree to be published in his name, he did not send it in the usual way to the holder of the quaestor's office to be promulgated, but thought fit in most cases, in spite of the poorness of his speech, to read it out himself, supported by a large crowd of bystanders, so that there was no one against whom those wronged by the decree could lodge a complaint.

The officials known as a secretis were not allowed the privilege of writing the Emperor's secret dispatches — the task for which they had originally been appointed — but he wrote almost everything himself; for instance, whenever it was necessary to commission the city arbitrators, he would lay down the course they must follow in giving judgement. For he would not permit anybody in the Roman Empire to decide any dispute in accordance with his independent judgement, but obstinately going his own way with insane arrogance he himself settled what verdicts were to be given, accepting hearsay evidence from one of the litigants, and without proper investigation promptly cancelled decisions already given, not swayed by any law or principle of justice but undisguisedly succumbing to sordid covetousness For the Emperor accepted bribes without a blush, since his insatiate greed had robbed him of all sense of shame.

Frequently matters agreed between Senate and Emperor ended by being settled quite differently. The Senate sat merely as a picturesque survival, without any power either to register a decision or to do any good, assembling for the sake of appearance and in fulfillment of an old law, since no member of that assembly was ever permitted to utter one word. The Emperor and his consort for the most part made a show of taking sides in the questions at issue, but victory went to the side upon which they had already agreed. If a man had broken the law and felt that victory was not securely his, he had only to fling more gold to this Emperor in order to obtain the passage of a law going clean contrary to all existing statutes. Then if somebody else should call for the first law, which had now been repealed, His Majesty was perfectly prepared to re-enact it and substitute it for the new one. There was nothing that remained permanently in force, but the scales of justice wandered at random all over the place, whichever way the greater mass of gold weighing them down succeeded in pulling them. The home of justice was the market hall, though it a once been the Palace, and there sale-rooms flaunted themselves in which not only the administration of justice but the making of laws too was sold to the highest bidder.

Again, the Referendarii, as they are called, were no longer content to convey to the Emperor the petitions of suppliants, and merely report to the magistrates as usual what his decision was about the petitioners. Instead they collected from every side the 'false logic', and with various impostures and fallacies regularly deceived Justinian, whose temperament laid him open to such cunning arts. Then as soon as they came out and had barred the litigants from any contact with those with whom they themselves had conferred, they proceeded to extort from these defenceless people as much money as they needed without laying themselves open to any retaliation. The soldiers on guard at the Palace used to place themselves alongside the arbitrators in the Royal Portico and by brute force secure the verdicts they wanted. At that time all with few exceptions had left their posts and were walking just as they pleased down ways hitherto barred to them and not to be trodden; things were all rushing along in utter disorder and had ceased to be called by their proper names, and the commonwealth was like children playing 'King of the Castle'. I must leave a great deal out, as I indicated at the beginning of this section but I must make clear who was the first man to persuade the Emperor to accept a bribe while sitting in the judge's seat.

There was one Leon, a native of Cilicia, madly devoted to money-making. This Leon was the prince of flatterers with an uncanny ability for imposing his will on the minds of the ignorant, and he possessed powers of persuasion which assisted him to turn the Emperor's crass stupidity to the destruction of his fellow-men. This man was the first to persuade Justinian to sell his judicial verdicts for money. When His Majesty once made up his mind to steal in the manner described he never looked back; this scandal went on and on and grew bigger and bigger; and anyone who had made it his aim to bring a groundless suit against some honest citizen went straight to Leon, and by agreeing that a share of the property in dispute should fall to the monarch and to Leon, he had as good as won his case, in defiance of all justice, before leaving the Palace. This business enabled Leon to pile up riches on an immense scale, and he got a great deal of land into his hands, and did more than anyone to bring the Roman State to its knees.

There was no security for those who had signed contracts, no law, no oath, no written guarantees, no legal penalty, no other safeguard whatever except to toss money into the laps of Leon and the Emperor. But not even this could ensure that Leon would continue in the same mind: he was quite prepared to sell his services to the other side as well. For since he invariably robbed both sides, it never crossed his mind that to treat with supreme indifference those who had put their trust in him and to act against their interests was in any way discreditable. In his eyes, so long as profit came his way, there was no discredit in his playing a double game.