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.

Smashing the idea of the “Byzantine Period.”

So, you want to have a Byzantine persona? Welcome to the ranks of the mysterious  medieval orient.

This, and more, are going to become a page here on my site shortly *points up to links*, I just need to find time to sit down and do it. Until then, I feel the information I am presenting here is somewhat necessary for SCAdians to find direction in their path, either to a full-fledged persona, or a garb project for a themed event.

Often, when people ask me what a Byzantine should wear, I respond with, “What period?”

This gets me a look of total confusion, and a response of, “You know, Byzantine.” I take a deep breath, and prepare to either bore the poor individual to tears with a well-rehearsed speech on the massive construct that was over 1000 years of history, or I open the flood gates and get them more excited about digging into more. I always hope it’s the latter, but the foremost argument I have to make is this:

There is no “Byzantine period.”

Repeat after me:

There is no “Byzantine period.”

That is the equivalent of asking somebody for French garb, and nobody ever just says “French”, there’s usually a century attached to it. Why is this never the case when it comes to Byzantine? Byzantine, like French, is a culture, it’s a place, it’s not a standalone period.

The Byzantine Empire, which is an anachronistic term for the Eastern Roman Empire, was the longest running medieval culture in Christendom. I use that term specifically, since it was not really a European culture, as much as it was an “Eastern” culture, or, generally referred to as “oriental.” Of course, that word today has a completely different connotation that comes across as somewhat pejorative of the Far East, but in actuality, it literally just means “eastern”, and that is exactly how the Western Europeans viewed the Romans, whom they referred to as Greeks. Both are correct, but a Roman would never call themselves Greek. 😉 They barely viewed themselves on the same plane of existence as the rest of the continent, as it was, and as my brother just haughtily remarked on my Facebook page less than 3 minutes after announcing I was writing this post, viewing the Eastern Romans as “medieval” is even somewhat insulting, but for the sake of the instructional nature of what I’m trying to do, this is the approach I’m taking. (What can I say? Byzantines were snooty people.)

So, as a newcomer, consider the Byzantines the medieval Greeks, because that is exactly who they were.  Wash the romantic imagery of draped clothing, columns, and Socrates out of your head, because I know that’s exactly where you went. 😉 While ultra-early Byzantine would be basically Roman, let’s fast forward a bit to the 6th Century, during the reign of Justinian and Theodora. Here, we find what most scholars refer to as the shift into what is considered “Byzantine,” versus Late Antiquity. The culture did shift, and with that, so did clothing, language, religion, law, architecture, etc.

This is the period most SCAdians view as “Byzantine”, the 3 pages in their Western Civilization textbook devoted to the laws of Justinian and how his wife may have been a prostitute, and onto the feudal system you go in the next chapter. This is where I need my readers to start thinking outside of this box, because you’re looking at a total of 38 years encapsulated within the time Constantine renamed the Greek town of Byzantium to the new Roman capital of Constantinople in 330, to 1453 when Constantinople was taken by the Ottoman Turks. That’s a lot time to assume that everybody wore exactly what Justinian and Theodora wore in the San Vitale mosaics.

I break the Byzantine Empire down into 4 parts for ease of understanding culturally, but there were still shifts within. Heck, I just got an older book this week on the cultural changes between the 11th and 12th Century, which is where I “live”, so even I still need to do more nailing down.

The Byzantine Periods According to Anna:

Roman Period 330-500 CE
Early Byzantine Period (including Iconoclasm) 500-900 CE
Middle Period (Golden Age) 900-1204 CE
Late Period (Collapse) 1261-1453 CE 

Important dates you NEED TO KNOW:

First Iconoclastic Period: 726-787
Second Iconoclastic Period: 814-882
Establishment of the formal Varangian Guard: 980’s
Sack of Constantinople during the 4th Crusade: April 12th, 1204
Latin Empire/Empire of Nicaea: 1204-1261
Empire of Trebizond: 1204-1461
Despotate of Epirus: 1204-1479
Fall of Constantinople: May 29th, 1453

I’m not going to go into a detailed history of the Fourth Crusade and the successor empires during this post, but as you can see, after the sack in 1204 by the crusaders, things kinda hit the fan and shattered. The Empire did not recover fully, and it remained unstable through to the absolute fall at the hands of the Ottomans in 1453. In my opinion, both scholarly and SCAdianly, anybody who wants a persona post-1204 has their work cut out for them. It can be done, it SHOULD be done, but I have yet to really see anybody nail it. My persona was probably dead by the mid 12th Century, so it’s all science fiction to me. 😛 Likewise, anybody looking for sources during the 8th and 9th centuries will also run into a lot of dead ends. Iconoclasm resulted into the loss of most artistic record from that period and earlier, which is why we have more illuminated manuscripts, frescoes, and mosaics from the 11th and 12th centuries than we do the 6th and 7th. These are all unfortunate events that are part of the Empire’s history, and as researchers and re-creators, we need to come to terms with it. Some things will just not be done easily, but what you can find could be incredibly rewarding.

I’m going to wrap up this post with a short selection on clothing, since that’s what a lot of people want to know about. When I make my full page, I’ll go into more detail regarding other factors.

Sumptuary laws are, and always were, a thing. Many pieces of artwork we have are just of imperials, and the average aristocrat, and certainly not the commoners, would be wearing the same fashions as their rulers.  While, as far as I know, there are no harsh rules in the SCA regarding dress aside from peerage elements and coronets in some kingdoms, in period a fashion faux pas could be devastating depending on when and where you lived, so if you plan to take the Byzantine route seriously, such laws need to be taken into account when it comes to your wardrobe, both male and female. Even shoe color was regulated. That idea of Byzantines always wearing red shoes? Drop it. That was for Imperials ONLY according to De Cerimoniis, a court manual written in the 10th Century. Prior to that? It seemed to be more widespread. Little things like that can make the difference between, “That guy in the clavii striped tunic and red shoes is a Byzantine” to, “Wow! You’re wearing something I’m not familiar with as Byzantine, tell me more.” There is so much of this culture that the SCA has just not explored.

Look at the differences between the clothing in the images below just to get a sense of how much things really changed over time.

6th Century Imperial and Attendants, showing a variety of fashions from the reign of Justinian I.
14th Century Imperial fashions from the Lincoln Typikon, showing the encroaching Ottoman Turkish styles present in dress, 100 years before the Empire fell. Tell the 14th Century Mafia to step aside, this is how it’s done.

The purpose of this post is, of course, not to chastise, but rather remind folks that there’s so much more out there to explore. Break out of the SCAdian conscience of just “Being Byzantine”, and find your home somewhere within your own personal One True Century, within the One True Empire.

Image may contain: 1 person, hat
Konstantia made this for me. This is why we can’t have nice things. (I was making sekanjabin en masse for an event. I SWEARRRRRR!)