How does it feel when the world is about to change, and you are at the very centre of it?
When an Empire is in the balance, and power stares death in the eye? When your city is in ruins, its colonnades and porticoes fallen to ash and rubble, and the stink of smoke and corpses taints the air?
How does it feel?
Terrifying, sickening, desolate – and yet also exhilarating, because it seemed that something which had seemed fixed almost as the heavens – I mean the rule of the Emperor Justinian and Theodora his Empress – was about to end, and I was there. In Constantinople, jewel of the Roman Empire, in the Chrysotriklinos, the throne room of the Great Palace, surrounded by officials and hangers on as terrified as I was, and like everyone else, waiting for the doomed Emperor and his generals to decide whether to flee or make a pyrrhic last stand.
I remember standing in the Chrysotriklinos, with its great arched columns all around and the high windows framing the hard blue of a winter sky. Between my feet was a mosaic telling the story of Theseus and Ariadne; my left foot was on the tail of the Minotaur. Behind me, in the official waiting room, the Pantheon, worried functionaries whispered to each other, or hurried in and out on secret errands, their eyes bent on the ground. Nearer to the dais, beneath the bronze railing that divided the imperial couple from mere mortals, clustered senators with their richly bordered mantles and nervous, darting glances. Closer still stood the Emperor’s generals – the brilliant Belisarius, old Mundus and Constantiolus, the eunuch Narses – grim-faced and dressed for battle.
I remember looking up at the dais, with its twin thrones upholstered in purple and gold, and the figure of Christ Pantokrator in splendour up above, and thinking, tomorrow perhaps a new Emperor and his Empress will look down upon all this magnificence. But how much blood will have been spilt by then? What a beginning that will be for them, to reign over the burned and bloodstained ruin that our city has become. Even here, deep inside the Great Palace, we could hear the noise of the huge mob gathered in the Hippodrome, no more than an arrow’s flight from the walls. It had a hungry sound to it.
“So this is it?” the Empress said – or rather, hissed – at us all.
Oh – not at me, I was behind a pillar near the silver door that led to the imperial private quarters, trying to be inconspicuous. I had no right to be there. No, she was glaring at the men clustered about the throne, their expressions ranging from frank terror to embarrassment, calculation and smooth duplicity. Her glance swept over the assembled senators, lighted on Narses with his hairless eunuch’s face, hands clasped in front of him, and on Belisarius, sweating in his cuirass.
“After all we’ve been through?” Her voice dripped with disdain.
I watched Justinian’s expressions change as he sat beside her, the emotions following one another across it like cloud shadows. Annoyance – what man, after all, likes to be spoken to by his wife in that tone. Chagrin – I think he knew at this point that he’d got himself into a mess of his own making. Desperation. Because, after all, the situation was desperate.
A stone’s throw from the Palace precinct the great race course of the Hippodrome was packed with rioters, roused and armed, and ready to march on their Emperor. Throughout the week the mob had burned and rampaged through the City, right up to the walls of the Great Palace itself, wielding fire brands, clubs and whatever could be found. The outer buildings of the Palace precinct, together with much of the surrounding area, lay in ruins. Decent citizens – those who had not joined the mob or fled to the provinces – hid trembling in their houses behind barred doors. Here, inside the palace, Senators clustered like sheep – or like wolves in sheep’s clothing – and the Emperor’s most trusted generals urged immediate flight.
‘Take a galley,’ Belisarius said, in his quiet, firm way, ‘and go to Herakleia in Thrace. It’s not too late, and there you can gather your strength and make ready to take back the City.’ It was clear to all of us that even the great Belisarius thought all was lost.
All eyes were on the Emperor, Justinian. Silent, he tapped his fingers on the carved armrests of the throne, staring out over us with a blank, unfocused gaze. The Empress sat silent, her pointed face pale and tight. Justinian could not make up his mind; that much was obvious. He had never been in such mortal danger, and yet all courses of action now seemed fraught with risk.
Belisarius’ suggestion had merit. The Great Palace was flanked on one side by the Bosporus, and there were imperial galleys docked there which could convey the Emperor to safety, even now. He could abandon his throne and save his life – but who would willingly abandon supreme rule over the Roman empire and over the greatest city in that empire?
Or he could stay and fight. But when even Belisarius advised him that it was hopeless, that would be suicide. We all knew well enough what happened to Emperors who fell from power. Basiliscus starved to death in an empty reservoir. Julius Nepos was slaughtered by his servants. Majorian had his head cut off, Avitus was strangled, his body thrown in a ditch. The odds of survival were pretty slim; as for the Empress, what was she but a jumped-up actress, a whore? She’d be lucky to be whipped through the City naked and then sent to a nunnery.
Watching him, you could see all this going through Justinian’s mind. His was not an expressive face; round, with narrow lips and large, cold brown eyes, it was said that he rarely smiled or frowned. But it was clear in the way he kept raising his hand to his chin to rub at it and then, conscious of the movement, forced it back down; the way he avoided looking at us but just stared at a detail of one of the arches, as if he was trying to memorise it – that he was paralysed by fear. All this magnificence, he must have been thinking, soon to belong to another man.
Go, they’d all told him – get yourself and Theodora on a ship, make a run for it. One by one the generals and senators had stepped up to the Imperial throne, heads bowed in deference, and offered their advice. Each time he’d shaken his head impatiently and waved them away, as if the waiting – it had been hours – would bring a solution of itself. Do nothing, and all will be resolved. I could see from Narses’ clenched hands and Mundus’ tight-lipped scowl that his generals didn’t agree.
I have never understood, really, why anyone wishes to be an Emperor. When all goes well, one is at the centre of power, ruling all men with a wave of the hand and a flourish of the pen. But by virtue of that very fact, one is responsible for everything. Taxes. War. The decline of family values. Drought. Hunger. Even earthquakes, they say, are sent by God as punishment for the sins of the ruler. When matters go ill, one’s enemies gather like kites, and he who wears the golden crown one day may, the next, be hanging from a post with his guts strewn in the dust.
I, of course, was only a minor and unnoticed observer to these events. Even so, I was perhaps more afraid then than I have ever been in my life. When the mob stormed the Palace – as they soon would – they would very likely murder everyone inside, without asking tiresome questions. You could see that most of the men clustered below the dais, and in the Pantheon, were thinking the same thing. It was like being in a yard of nervous beasts destined for slaughter, not knowing quite what was to happen but smelling the fear in the air. I smelled it too. I admired Theodora – sometimes, I think, I almost liked her – but I was damned if I wanted to follow her down into Hell. Which, the Bishops no doubt agreed, was her certain destination.
Again, from the Hippodrome, we heard the chanting of the rebels. There is nothing, I think, quite so menacing as a mass of people thinking as one, acting as one, intent on reckless destruction. Even now I remember my stomach turning over, feeling a strange sensation both of burning heat and icy prickling of my skin – as if I had been turned out into the amphitheatre with a beast of nightmare, hatred incarnate.
The Emperor must make a decision. Otherwise, from the restive glances of some of the senators, it was possible that it would be made for him. Justinian knew it. His gaze came down from the window and slid across to his wife’s set face. I heard someone behind me mutter, “The man can’t take a piss without her permission!”.
I looked at the Empress, and – against all expectation – she saw me there, pressed against the pillar. For a moment she looked back at me, her eyes huge and green and more than faintly contemptuous. ‘Men!’ her expression clearly said. She stood up. Against the towering magnificence of the throne, and swathed in brocade, she seemed tiny.
She cleared her throat. “Far be it from me, as a mere woman, to offer an opinion…”
But I should begin at the beginning, I suppose…
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