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. link:


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.


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.

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



[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. H. B. Dewing. (Cambridge: Harvard, 1916), 5.3.5-9. Accessed September 30, 2015.

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

[7] Secret History, 148.

Stealing the Worm: Silk Production in the Byzantine Empire

This is a paper I wrote back in freshman year of College Mark II (2010.) It’s not in my finest academic form, and I used MLA instead of Chicago, since that’s what I knew at the time. I figured it’s length and content were perfect for a blog entry as I have been lacking on any real substantial content lately, ESPECIALLY about the Byzantine Empire. In-text citations with works cited at the end.

Stealing the Worm: Silk Production in the Byzantine Empire
Angela Costello

The Shroud of Charlemagne. Manufactured in Constantinople in 814.

One of the primary achievements within the reign of Justinian I was the obtainment of silkworms from China. We will analyze how this event led to major changes within the Eastern Roman Empire’s economy and foreign policies.

The Silk Road opened to Rome in the 2nd Century as caravans that traveled from China and through Persia worked their way into the outer provinces of the Empire.  A chapter of the Hou Hanshu, a historic text from China, states that Roman contact was made by sea in AD116, which initiated a series of trades from there on out. (Hill) There are also Biblical mentions of silk, although the period translation from ancient Hebrew may be referring more to a very fine linen, there is one certain mention within the Book of Revelations during the description of the Fall of Babylon, as it was translated from Greek. “And the merchants of the earth weep and mourn for her, since no one buys their cargo any more … fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet”. (Revelation 18:12) So it is believed at the time the book was finalized, that the fabric was commonly known.

The luxuriousness of the fabric and the wealth that it embodied allowed the Empire at a time to use silk as a monetary standard for a short period of time. Silk was used as a way to determine the value of currency in the outer provinces, much like silver was used in the core of Rome. This didn’t seem to have lasted very long, however, as most records show that the silver standard took precedence for the majority of the period. (“Money” 701)

China was the sole manufacturer of silk for thousands of years, and it wasn’t until the Emperor Justinian I in 552 obtained the first silkworm eggs. Prior to that, the Romans had to trade through their strongest enemy to the East, Sassanid Persia. Trade with Persia was costly, strenuous, and often dangerous, therefore it was evident a solution was needed.

There was a high demand for silk in the Mediterranean during the reign of Justinian, both within Constantinople and into the outreaches at the highest extent of the Byzantine Empire. It was the prized fabric of the notably well-dressed Imperial court and an overall hot commodity in the area.  Interaction with Persia needed to be brought to a minimum, and Procopius wrote of a solution.

The legend tells of the Emperor sending monks as emissaries to China, and smuggling back the worms in stalks of bamboo. The eggs did hatch on the journey back, but within the care of the monks they did arrive safely. With them also came several Chinese slaves, educated in the ways of sericulture, or the production of silk, and the humble beginnings of the silk industry in Constantinople began. (Procopius 229)

Although silk production began under the reign of Justinian I and Irene of Athens, it didn’t particularly pick up until several centuries later.  It was necessary to breed the worms to have a significant production of the thread, so to do this would take a considerable amount of time. Thanks to the destruction of the Western Empire in the century prior, Constantinople had established itself as the economic superpower for nearly all of Europe and especially the Levantine Mediterranean realms. (Schoeser 27) So despite the work needed to establish a strong foothold on sericulture, the Romans found themselves in a strong opportunity.

Authors such as Procopius and Theophanes attempted to give a look as if the production of silk happened “overnight” in Byzantium, but the truth is that this just isn’t the case. Although Procopius’ stunning story of the theft of the worms from China is intriguing, it was probably nothing more than contemporary propaganda. The earliest known documented Byzantine silkworms were actually located in fifth-century Byzantine-controlled Syria. ( Muthesius 150)

Initially, silk production was limited to just the Imperial Palace, with private spinners and weavers put to work to create the splendid garments for the emperor, empress, and entourage of the court of Byzantium, much like the private workshops they had for jewelers and perfume makers. Eventually commerce spread outward to the people of Constantinople and the Empire as a whole, and an overall monopoly on silk goods produced by the former Imperial workshops had spread as far as Francia in the west, but that wasn’t until the 11th and 12th centuries once the Empire had established a solid industry.

The most notable factor of silk produced within the Eastern Roman Empire was the intricacy of the designs on the finished woven textiles. In Constantinople, improvements and innovations to the weaving industry were made to accommodate the desire for more elaborate designs. These were known as pattern harnesses, which required a considerable amount of skill to operate. As written by St. Theodoret of Cyrus, the skilled laborers were women:

“…Women take it in hand and weave the fine yarns. First they place the warp like strings in order on the looms and pass the weft through them, separating the threads with the combs, loosening some of the broken lines and tightening others; then they thrust and compress the weft with the instruments made for this purpose and in that way complete the web…Notice how on all kids of living things are embroidered, the forms of men, hunters, worshipers, and the images of trees and countless other objects.” (Theodoret 55)

Notable weaving patterns in early Byzantine textiles that still exist are the tabby, damask, twill, lampas, and tapestry weaves. (Muthesius 153)  It seemed an entirely new sub-industry within the Empire was created to support this new weaving venture.

Despite the silk industrial revolution that was occurring in Constantinople, trade for raw and finished silk goods from China was still very prominent for several centuries. The Empire continued to import raw silk thread and yarn from the East as to support their weaving industry, and to get there; it had to go through the Persian Empire. Each stage of the journey from China, either by land or sea, dyes and designs added value and increased its cost. The uneasy relations that Byzantium had with Persia often made the trade difficult and dangerous, so the importation of silk and other eastern goods were subject to strict government regulations on both sides. (Feltham 5) Prior to Persian control, the majority of silk going into Greek and Roman provinces was done by nomadic tribes coming from the steppes of Central Asia, who traded for goods such as horses and furs.

An important question is raised in whom exactly, were the monks that Procopius mentioned. Sources point to them being Sogdian, which were a nomadic tribe that brought in silk from China, or even Persians. But why would either culture attempt to undermine their control of the trade?

In 529, Justinian himself passed a law within his codex that stated that Romans and Persians alike were to follow strict rules on when and where trade could take place “in order to prevent the secrets of either kingdom from being disclosed”. This limited trade between the Empires to take place at only three cities: Nisibus, Callinicum, and Artaxata, and that all outside trade would be confiscated. It goes on to list additional fees associated with violation of the law. (Justinian I LXIII, 4)

If it were in fact Persians that were the monks that Procopius mentioned, then they would be in direct violation of this law, which leads that hypothesis to be unlikely. At the time, other cultures were coming into the game plan as far as trade goes, including the Turks, whom would prove to be the ultimate downfall of the Roman Empire less than a millennium in the future, so it is still very unclear as to the origins of Procopius’ tale.

The Vikings were well-known trades people during this time period, and had a considerable amount of interaction with Eastern Rome. There have been numerous finds in Viking archaeological sites that demonstrate the wide contact they had with the continent. Silk from Byzantium is commonly found among other imported and domestic items of the Norse people. (Christensen) These examples were most likely brought back by the Varangian guards who were working under the imperial banner, and the extensive trade routes the Vikings set up from Constantinople to the Baltic.

Despite the demand for the silk goods to be purchased by foreign cultures, the Empire strictly regulated how much could be sold. It was written within the Russian Primary Chronicle, “When the Russes enter the city, they shall not have the right to buy silk above the value of fifty bezants…” (Muthesius 165) In edition to the limit on how much one could purchase, there were also tariffs placed in effect, which regulated the flow of illegal trading. This insured the Empire’s foothold in the silk trade, and helped regulate the economic impact the industry would eventually have on the growing market, which would boom during the prime of Byzantium in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

The interaction with Persia would not end immediately. Eastern Rome had to continue dealing with their menacing middleman while their industry was growing, and would be doing so until the Ottoman Empire came into play several centuries after the establishment of silk cultivation.

For Justinian, however, the ancestors of the Ottomans would be his loophole to bypass the Persians. The Turks had no love for the Sassanids, and during periods of hostility in which the silk trade between the Empires was suspended, Byzantium attempted to make direct contact with China. This brought them into an agreement with the Turks, whom Justinian’s successor, Justin II, drafted a treaty with, and they supported the Empire against Persia. (Ostrogorski 74)  Similar arrangements were made with Ethiopia for imports from India by sea, but they could simply not break the hold that Persia had on the Indian Ocean.

Although the Eastern Roman Empire succeeded in becoming one of the foremost silk manufacturers of the Middle Ages, the path there began with a legend of stolen silkworms. This event aiding the shaping of a region that would be not only known for its beautiful textiles, but also for its strength in the Empire’s policies of trade.

References Cited

 The Bible. King James Edition. Print.

Christensen, Arne Emil. “The Vikings.” ReiseNet. N.p.,n.d. Web. December 2010.

“Money.” Encyclopaedia Brittanica. Print.

Feltham, Heleanor. “Justinian and the International Silk Trade.” Sino-Platonic Papers 194. (2009): 5. Web. 8 Dec 2010.

Hill, John. ““Chapter on the Western Regions”.” The Hou Hanshu. N.p.,September 2003 . Web. November 23, 2010.

Justinian I, “Codex Justinianus (529): Title LXIII. Concerning Commerce and         Merchants.” The Civil Law. S.P. Scott A.M.. Cincinnati: The Central Trust Company, Digital.

Muthesius, Anna. “Essential Processes, Looms, and Technical Aspects of the Production of Silk Textiles.” Economic History of Byzantium: From the Seventh through the Fifteenth Century 1.1 (2002): 150-63. Web. November 24, 2010.

Ostrogorski, Georgije. History of the Byzantine State. 74. Print.

Procopius, History of the Wars, Books VII (continued) and VIII. 1962 Edition. V. Loeb Classical Library, 1978. 229. Print.

Schoeser, Mary. Silk. 27. Print.

St. Theodoret of Cyrus. On Divine Providence. 4. 55. Print.

When you wish you’re Jeannie…

Garb does not blink into existence, but oh, how I wish it did.

I have a backlog of commissions right now because schoolwork is taking precedence right now in my life. I’m toward the end of my degree, and the classes are railing into me, this includes a capstone major paper on The Varangian Guard.

I haven’t really made myself any new “nice” garb in a while, because I don’t particularly have the time. My Viking dress was finished a year ago, and since I’ve made the switch to Byzantine persona full-time, I figured I needed more stuff. Well…I picked up some gorgeous jewel-toned linen and some trims at Birka for this project, and figured, “Oh I have PLENTY of time before I have to teach my class at Ice Weasel.”

Yeah no. A couple blizzards and the inability to get anywhere slowed me down greatly on the sewing front, because I couldn’t get to the laundromat or Joann’s for much needed supplies. This is annoying, but nothing life-threatening. So, as it stands, the gorgeous linen I have is still unwashed and shall remain that way until I have ample time to make myself this new tunica and dalmatica. Until then, I have older stuff I can bring to Ice Weasel I can use for the sake of the class. I would love to get my beaded dalmatica to a wearable state, so that’s an option, but…it’s Ice Weasel. Snow, ice, weasels. Okay, not actual weasels, but the climate and the fact I’d like to be outside supporting my lord in his first heavy tournament (I brought a newb into the society, teehee.) is more important than wrecking new, or nice expensive, garb. Plus, he’s been on my ASS to finish his Norman riding tunic, so that’s the project this week. I will post pics when it’s done.

Until then, here’s pics of my fabric and trim that will some day become my next tunica and dalmatica. Complete with antique silk saris I pillaged for trim.

Mint green for the tunica, dusty rose for the dalmatica.

 Some old, moth-eaten saris I’ll be cutting trim from. I’ll probably use the pink for the dalmatica, and save the red for a hand-sewn tunica I have planned for the summer.