Byzantium and conspiracy theories: because Prokopios – another short essay.

Continuing on my “I have all these ridiculous topics I’ve written about” side quest, additional digging into the bowels of my external hard drive has produced this gem.

Note that this one delves into the more complex nature of religion during the Byzantine period, but does little to define them for folks that are unsure of how the early church dealt with heretical sects. It’s not something that you see a lot of in the SCA side of things, because it’s incredibly dense material, and my paper only discusses them briefly. If this isn’t something you are familiar with, don’t be afraid to visit Wikipedia or other open source site that can help you understand these terms better. Hell, even my brain starts melting out of my ears when it comes to this level of study. My professor who taught us the basis for heresy in graduate school had gone to divinity school, and STILL couldn’t fully grasp it. This is some heavy stuff.

Again, any citations needs to be done from the paper directly, not my blog. Academia.edu link:

https://www.academia.edu/36922619/Prokopios_conspiracy_theory_Justinian_versus_the_Heretics


 

Prokopios’ conspiracy theory: Justinian versus the Heretics.
The religious reforms of Emperor Justinian I would continue to resonate through the Byzantine Empire well after his time, with his fingertips still reaching into the modern doctrines of Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. His combative stance against paths of Christianity labeled as heretical was notable, and his increased support of the Chalcedonian doctrine is what no doubt elevated him to Orthodox Sainthood. Though the eyes of the controversial 6th Century writer, Prokopios, a glance of Justinian’s attempts to win over the opposition can be seen, and blame is cast directly on the imperial monarchs for exacerbating the situation beyond control, perhaps for nothing more than to legitimize their rule.

Justin I’s reign presented a struggle in returning the doctrine of Chalcedon to the forefront of Byzantine Orthodoxy. It was clear that his successor, Justinian, would follow in these footsteps and continue the pro-Chalcedonian rhetoric from the throne, despite stiff opposition from outlying areas such as Egypt and Syria. Even before his ascension to the throne in 527, it was clear that the Chalcedonian doctrine was a cornerstone in his policies.[1] Despite evidence in that his wife, Theodora, may have been a follower of the anti-Chalcedonian school, and that he was willing to work with opposing doctrines as a way to find peace, the ultimate goal of Justinian was to appease the Pope in the west, not only to legitimize his rule, but also to create a smoother transition as he pushed to regain the lands lost once belonging to the Classical Roman Empire, and unifying his New Rome with Old Rome once more.[2]

The anti-Chalcedonian doctrine perceived the embodiment of Christ as being one person, one hypostasis, and one nature that was entirely divine, whereas the embodiment as codified by the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon in 421, stated that Jesus had two natures: one divine, and one mortal. Another idea, Nestorianism, which is described as the true antithesis of Monophysitism, believed that Christ was even more complex by having two forms of hypostasis, mortal and divine. This view was rejected by Chalcedon, but many Monophysites believed that it was this Nestorianism that had won in the council. This was incorrect, and Justinian did attempt to correct this misunderstanding as an attempt to coax the anti-Chalcedonians into accepting what he was asserted the true orthodox doctrine. This failed, and the emperor was forced to save face and appease the Pope in more desperate measures.

Justinian’s marriage to Theodora may have been used as a method of reaching out to the anti-Chalcedonians. Prokopios, found this to be an appalling technique of policy when writing his Secret History. He claims that Justinian and his heretic wife did nothing independent of each other, but he believed that by pitting the opposing doctrines against each other in rival circus factions, that they may have deliberately prolonged the controversy, and created the illusion that the struggle was far direr than it appeared.[3] Surely, a marriage to a Monophysite could have and should have helped the tension between the opposition dissolve, but that was not the case, at least according to what Prokopios claims to have witnessed not just with the in-city violence between factions, but also in the alleged persecutions that the emperor performed against heretical sects. He paints the picture of a blood-thirsty demonical tyrant, out for the accumulated wealth of these practically backwater churches, for no reason but to attempt forced conversion, and the joy of spilling blood.[4] However, Prokopios contradicts his own views here within his Wars, were he expresses his dislike of the heretical doctrines, and also accepts them as false.[5] He never gives his support of the emperor’s alleged violence against these groups in Wars, but in Secret History, Prokopios seems to believe that it was all constructed by Justinian for his own benefit to legitimize himself on the throne. By pushing the doctrine of Chalcedon even in the most violent way, Justinian could effectively show the Pope that he was doing right, and perhaps as previously mentioned, regain control of the Italian peninsula with greater ease.

A point that may support Prokopios’ idea that Justinian and Theodora played the game of opposing each other for furthering their agenda would be Theodora’s own outreach to her fellow Monophysites in Constantinople. John of Ephesos, a Monophysite who according to Anthony Kaldellis in footnote 80 of his translation of The Secret History, was actually a missionary for Justinian sent to preach against Jews, heretics, and pagans, wrote a volume known as The Lives of the Saints, in which he praises Theodora for her good works in protecting Monophysites within the imperial capital of Constantinople.[6] If Justinian was so adamant on crushing these anti-Chalcedonians as virulently as Prokopios claims, why would he have allowed his wife to give sanctuary to heretics within the capital of his empire? In the same chapter, John of Ephesos states that Justinian continued to look after these Monophysites in the capital after Theodora’s death.[7]  Prokopios in that case may be correct in assuming that such consistent head-butting between the imperial couple was deliberate, and that Justinian overall did not generally oppose the idea of anti-Chalcedonians living safely, but was simply creating the illusion that actions were being taken to quash the heretical theories.

Prokopios’ views on Justinian’s actions against the anti-Chalcedonian heresies of the 6th Century may contain evidence that strife between the opposing Christian doctrines were deliberately escalated by the ruling heads of Byzantium in attempt to legitimize what the author felt was a farcical rule. By creating the illusion of consistent struggle against the heretics, Justinian could appease the Pope in the West, prove to the Chalcedonians that he was working in their best interest, and be successful while creating his own struggle with his anti-Chalcedonian empress in attempts to prolong the fight.

Bibliography

Prokopios, The Secret History with Related Texts. Translated by Anthony Kaldellis. Indianopolis: Hackett, 2010.

Prokopios, History of the Wars Books III and IV. Translated by H. B. Dewing. Cambridge: Harvard, 1916. Project Gutenberg Edition 2005. Accessed September 30, 2015. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16765/16765.txt

Maas, Michael. Editor. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. New York: Cambridge, 2005.

 

Notes

[1] Patrick T. R. Gray, “The Legacy of Chalcedon”, in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian, ed. Michael Maas. (New York: Cambridge. 2010), 228.

[2] Ibid. 229.

[3] Prokopios, The Secret History with Related Texts. Trans. by Anthony Kaldellis. (Indianopolis: Hackett, 2010), 10.13, 48.

[4] Ibid, 11.14, 52.

[5] Prokopios, History of the Wars Books III and IV. Trans.by H. B. Dewing. (Cambridge: Harvard, 1916), 5.3.5-9. Accessed September 30, 2015. http://www.gutenberg.org/files/16765/16765.txt.

[6] Secret History, 53, and page 145 in “related texts” of same volume.

[7] Secret History, 148.

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