Wednesday, October 2, 2013

History mystery: CONSTANTINOPLE the City of the emperor Justinian -2

This cosmopolitan population was governed by a pyramid-like bureaucracy headed by the emperor. Like many bureaucracies, it was prone to corruption and inefficiency. Denied any democratic institution through which to air its grievances, the seething mob was always ready to show its resentment. With every bad harvest or increase in taxes, turbulent crowds filled the streets threatening insurrection. The population tended to align itself according to four broad groupings, or factions, known as the Blues, Greens, Rose, and Whites. Members wore distinguishing colours on their shoulders. The factions were partly street gangs, partly political groups. In the time of Justinian, the Blues and Greens were dominant. The Greens represented the merchants, democratic in their political leanings and favouring Monophysite beliefs. The Blues were aristocratic and theologically orthodox. The enmity of the two groups set whole districts at each other’s throats. The Hippodrome became a focus for the rivalry. At foot races athletes from the different factions competed against each other, backed by partisan support from the terrace. It was in this cauldron of political ferment that disorders erupted in January 532. In that month the imperial treasury was empty, and Justinian, whose military campaigns needed huge funds, decreed a further increase in taxes. It was the last straw. Rebellion broke out at the Hippodrome. For once, the Greens and Blues united, channelling their outrage against the government. The two factions proclaimed a new emperor. Under the rallying cry of ‘Nika!’ (‘Victory!’), the rioters spilled into the streets, where they set fire to the Sacred Palace and several other buildings. Swarming into the wealthy districts, the uncontrollable mob pillaged the luxury shops along the Mese. Justinian considered flight into Asia, but Theodora restored his courage, declaring that for herself, death was preferable to dishonour. ‘If you wish to protract your life, O Emperor, flight is easy; there are your ships and there is the sea. But consider whether, if you escape into exile, you will not wish every day that you were dead. As for me, I hold with the ancient saying that the imperial purple is a glorious shroud.’ Not for the first time, the bearkeeper’s daughter showed herself more than worthy to share the throne of the Caesars. 

His resolve now stiffened, the emperor set about dividing the rebels by reawakening the eternal animosity between the two main factions, corrupting their leaders with bribes, and making special overtures to the Blues. Meanwhile, 3,000 veteran loyal mercenaries under the command of General Belisarius marched on the mob through an inferno of flames and falling buildings. The rebellion was drowned in the blood of the people. On January 18, some 30,000 corpses littered the steps of the Hippodrome. The Imperial District had been devastated, but the Byzantine Empire was safe. These insurrectionary tendencies were always least in evidence as soon as the spectre of invasion arose. Faced with the threat of conquest by barbarian horsemen from beyond its frontiers, Constantinople would rediscover its unity. Several times the empire’s boundary on the River Danube had been breached and alien hordes – including Asiatics, Avars, Slavs, and Bulgars – closed in on the city. The most serious invasion came in 558, when Asiatics Huns, the successors of Attila, camped under the city’s very walls. The population was panic-stricken, but once again Belisarius, by now retired but ever faithful, came with his mercenaries to the empire’s rescue. They succeeded in repelling the invaders. On November 14, 565, Justinian died at the age of 82.

His grandiose vision of a Holy Empire was going bankrupt. Exhausted by public works and military expenditure, it was now facing a major war against the Sasssanian kings of Persia – a war which Justinian had been unable to prevent. The chaos and violence of the Dark Ages in Europe were drawing near, too – centuries which were to strip Constantinople of its provinces, leaving it as an isolated bastion of culture and learning in an alien universe. It remained a bastion for more than 600 years after Justinian’s death, until it was overrun and occupied by the Franks in 1204. Even after that it retained its retained its imperial status for a time; its last emperor was not overthrown until 1453, when the city finally fell to the Turks. By then, almost 900 years had passed since the death of Justinian.

But the classical heritage was preserved and the Christian tradition protected. The philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and the distinctive character of Byzantine religious art, were transmitted from the eastern metropolis to palaces and monasteries, shaping the culture of medieval Europe. The city had a particularly lasting influence on parts of Russia, Greece, and the Balkans. Its religious tradition, developed independently from Rome, survives today as the Orthodox Christian Church. Constantinople was a crossroads in space and time. Here, Europe merged into Asia, the classical era into the Middle Ages. From its narrow promontory jutting into the Bosporus, the city witnessed the death of Western civilization, and its rebirth.

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