Justinian’s Flea

William Rosen discusses his fascinating book, Justinian’s Flea

In some ways, [Justinian I] is the most interesting of them all, but also the most contradictory. Here is a Roman emperor who never set foot in Italy; a great conqueror – the greatest since Julius Caesar – who never led troops in the field; the most powerful man in the world, and one of its most paranoid; the richest and one of the most abstemious (he appears to have lived largely on greens and lemon juice).

After spending years in his company, however, he is still something of a mystery to me. In fact, it sometimes seems to me that the period is most distinguished by its elusiveness…not least because of the place religion occupied in the life of Justinian and his contemporaries. It wasn’t merely that pre-Enlightenment Christians drank from a pool of unquestioning faith; during Justinian’s time, they grew drunk on it.

Justinian’s favorite hobby, in fact, was arguing the most obscure points of Christian doctrine (you can easily see where we get the dictionary definition of “Byzantine”). This was brought home to me by way of one really illuminating scene that I included in the book; an incident that took place at the Hippodrome, Constantinople’s great arena for chariot racing. Justinian was seated in the imperial box, surrounded by 50,000 racing fans, when one of them (no doubt equipped with a megaphone) engaged him directly in a debate about the nature of the incorruptibility of Christ’s body. The emperor and the fan went toe-to-toe on the issue in stanza after stanza of extemporaneous verse on the murkiest kind of Christian dogma, with occasional cheers from the crowd when one debater got in a good one. It was as if New York’s Mayor Bloomberg spent halftime at a Knicks game debating the finer points of string theory with a physicist seated twenty rows away, and not only did no one think anything extraordinary about it, but the drunks in the cheap seats applauded.

Mysterious? Perhaps better to say that it’s a lot easier to describe that sort of world, than to really understand it.

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