“I, Emperor once, am now Justinian” (Dante Alighieri, Divina Commedia, Paradiso VI, 10)
In Thursday’s coffee this week we focus on one of the most famous personalities related to Ravenna and among the most important figure of the late antiquity and early medieval era: Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus, today simply known as Justinian.
Born in Tauresium (today Taor) in 482, he received a good education thanks to his uncle, the emperor Justin, completing his studies in philosophy and jurisprudence.
His political career began in 521, when he was appointed consul and later head of the eastern army. In this period he meets Teodora, a wonderful actress of whom he falls madly in love. Despite the difficulties due both to the resistance of the family and the court, and to the existence of a law that forbade marriage between actresses and high-ranking citizens, he managed to marry her between 524 and 525.
He was elected emperor in 527. His reign has a huge impact not only in the political-military reality of the time, being the last emperor who cradled the dream of restoring the ancient Roman empire, but also in the history of legislative studies: starting from the idea that the existence of the common good was entrusted to arms and laws, pays particular attention to legislation, making the Corpus Juris Civilis, codification of the entire latin jurisprudence and foundation on which are built many of the juridical systems of the modern world.
Justinian’s ascent to the imperial throne marks a sharp change in the military policy of the Byzantine Empire: cradling the project of restoring the empire, he concentrates most of his forces in advancing in the West, through three distinct military campaigns (Africa, Spain and Italy). However, despite the successes obtained, the enormous effort carried out in the various campaigns of conquest generates heavy repercussions both financial and military in the Eastern part of the Empire, that will find full explosion only with its successors.
The relationship between the city of Ravenna and the figure of Justinian was born with the murder of Amalasunta (the only daughter of Theodoric and regent of the Ostrogoth kingdom) by Theodatus, who after was elected king. This fact is taken as a pretext by the Eastern Empire to intervene against the new king of the Ostrogoths, beginning the Greek-Gothic War (535 – 553). Justinian entrusted General Belisario with the task of leading the countryside, moving from Sicily and going up the peninsula. Despite the first rapid victories, the war against the Ostrogoths continues for almost twenty years both because of Ostrogoths’ strenuous resistance, and for the strong disunity of the Byzantine army caused by clashes between its commanders. However, between 539 and 540 Belisarius besieged and conquered Ravenna, capturing King Vitiges (successor of Theodatus) and taking him to Constantinople. The arrival of the Byzantines in Ravenna actually marks the beginning of the golden age of the city: Justinian, thanks to the intervention of the banker Giuliano Argentario, built two of the most important monuments of the city, the church of Sant’Apollinare in Classe and, above all, San Vitale.
In San Vitale is preserved, on the left side of the apse, the most famous representation of the emperor, although he never arrived in the city. Inside a red background frame adorned with precious stones, we find in the center the figure of the emperor, dressed in a white tunic, a purple clam with golden decorations, wearing a precious tiara decorated with pearls, sapphires, emeralds and rubies. It is carrying a large golden basin as a sign of offering, accompanied by figures of high civil dignitaries, while it is preceded by representatives of the clergy (among which is the bishop Maximian, appointed by Justinian himself, and the only one in the representation to be characterized by the name) and followed by the honor guard. In this panel the message is profoundly political: the harmony that reigns among the highest and dominant social classes of the era (ie aristocracy, clergy and army), especially between civil and religious authority, or between the State and the Church, in a moment of strong political and theological conflict within the Byzantine Empire due to the monophysite heresy, also supported by Teodora herself.
Justinian died November 14, 565, finding burial in the Church of the Holy Apostles in Constantinople. His political, religious and legislative activity was so important that Dante, almost 800 years later, chose him as the perfect interlocutor for the “VI canto” of the Paradise, in which Justinian painted the Roman Empire as an instrument of the Redemption desired by God.
The mosaic panel of St. Vitale certainly inspired the realization of the “VI canto” of the Paradise, but it is not the only influence that the mosaics of Ravenna had on Dante. If you want to discover or deepen the links between the mosaics of Ravenna and the Divine Comedy, we invite you to visit the exhibition “The beauty that I saw: the Divine Comedy and the mosaics of Ravenna”, sited in the exhibition space adjoining the church of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo until 6 January 2019.