Affairs of State


William Rosen in Lapham's Quarterly (image Gabrielle D’Estrées and One of Her Sisters, c. 1594. Louvre Museum, Paris, France.):

On Sunday, January 18, 532, the sun rose fairly late over Constantinople—had one been available, a modern watch would have read 7:29 a.m.—but no one in the world’s most populous city saw it through the smoke. The city, which had been the center of the Roman Empire ever since Constantine had founded it as his eponymous capital two centuries before, was on fire. Five days earlier, what had begun in the city’s chariot-racing stadium as a protest against two planned hangings had turned into the biggest civil insurrection in the empire’s history. Tens of thousands of rioters had vandalized and burned the imperial senate, the city’s most important church, the enormous public Baths of Zeuxippus, and dozens of other buildings. By Sunday, the riot had escalated into a rebellion. The insurgents demanded the abdication of the current emperor, whose own bodyguards had him and his empress besieged in their own palace.

The trapped ruler had traveled a long and indirect route to the pinnacle of the empire founded by Augustus six centuries before. Christened Flavius Petrus Sabbatius in the last years of the fifth century, he had come to Constantinople as the protégé of his uncle, a successful officer in the palace guard. There, he took advantage of the capital’s substantial educational opportunities and his own even more substantial intelligence to place his uncle on the imperial throne, and to succeed him, under the name he gave himself: Justinian.

He was already first in line for the crown when he met his future empress, Theodora, whose path to the palace was even more improbable than Justinian’s own. His father was a Balkan peasant; hers was an animal trainer for Constantinople’s circuses. He had spent his early years as a student of theological dogma and an undistinguished soldier. She had been a high-priced prostitute and Constantinople’s most famous erotic actress: a petite, wavy-haired beauty with enormous dark eyes and a stage act that was three parts Mae West, two parts Jenna Jameson.

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