Taking Silk–The Emperor’s Tale
After the proper period of mourning had elapsed, the four chroniclers met in a little chapel in the Cathedral of Saint Sophia, who was, after all, the avatar of wisdom. To inspire their deliberations in other and more sensual ways, their nostrils occasionally caught the fading scent of incense, burning at the High Altar, and they could faintly hear the latest mass being said for the soul of the late Emperor.
“He was a great soldier, whose armies drove the barbarians from whole tracts of the old empire,” said the first chronicler. Nearby, a scribe (who was also a slave, and therefore sat on a low stool with his forehead level with the table top) smoothed a piece of parchment on his knees and poised his stylus.
“But not from Mother Rome herself,” said the second. “The Empire remains here, at Constantinople, in the Holy City of Byzantium. Savages still desecrate the seven sacred hills.”
“Perhaps,” said the third, “for his brave attempt and that sad failure we should call him ‘The Last Roman’?”
“A sorry epitaph indeed,” said the second. The chroniclers brooded. The slave let his hand drop. It was going to be a long night – and perhaps a long day afterwards. Candles flickered on marble sills and sconces. From beneath the great, gilded octagonal dome came the sounds of soft chanting and echoing footfalls. Outside in the piazza, silence. Even the drunken soldiers of the Imperial Guard had gone to bed.
“No,” said the third chronicler, “above all he must be remembered as a legislator; look at what he did: he took a cacophony of conflicting laws – different customs, tongues, territories, cultures – and harmonised them into a single code.”
“You’d have this on his memorial?” asked the second – “‘Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus Augustus – Lawyer’?”
The others laughed, and the fourth said, “what fools we are. His holiness takes precedence over everything: crushing paganism; championing the Church; the light he shed on the sacred doctrine of the Incarnation; in the terrible darkness of schism and confusion he lit the clear flame of orthodoxy.”
“Yes,” murmured the second chronicler. “A flame that will go on burning so-called heretics for generations.”
“So, what would you say, then?” demanded the first, angrily.
The second chronicler pushed back the bench and went to make sure the door was closed. “Stop your ears,” he said to the scribe, who put down his stylus and obeyed. “I would say,” he continued, “that we will remember Justinian the Great because of a loose woman, a bolt of cloth and a handful of insect eggs.”
Some facts beyond dispute: Justinian the Great, later a Saint of the Catholic Church, dies in 565 AD at the age of 83. Just to the south-west of Hagia Sophia, he is commemorated by a great, bronze-wrapped column, topped with his statue (head crowned by the sun) on horseback, which monumental stack rises almost as high as the apex of the adjacent dome (180 feet, or if you prefer, 55 metres). The structure is demolished when Byzantium falls to the Ottoman Empire in 1453.
He’d been a man of war, a man of law, a man of God, and a man of flesh. In the first capacity, he failed to turn back the tide of history: eventually, of course, the barbarians won. In the second, after more than 1500 years, his legal code, the “Corpus Juris Civilis” remains in some European states the foundation of their civil law. It is the third capacity which troubles the modern, materialist historian. How could this pragmatist have spent so much intellectual energy trying to make sense of a doctrine which was as ambiguous as it was poetic, as subtle and dangerous as it was radical?
Its gospel foundation was an encryption of the divine and the human into a single omnipotent algorithm: “God becomes Man.” But what did that mean? Priests and scholars dissected and wrestled the concept in front of their anxious, fascinated emperor. Was the immaculate and immortally divine really united with corruptible human flesh and transformed into a single entity? Or did God, having fashioned the most virtuous of humans, descend at a certain point – the baptism in the Jordan? – to anoint this man his “Son” and immaterially cohabit with him for a while before forsaking him? Or was “He” a divine illusion – a charismatic, miracle-working phantom who carried the benign deception of flesh and blood right up onto the cross and beyond, completing his holy conjuring act with resurrection and ascension.
Each theory (and many others) had implacable adherents. There were Monophysites and Arians, Nestorians, Manicheans, Anthropomorphites, Docetes and Aphthartodocetes, Ebionites and Gnostics… The cacophony of scriptural interpretation in front of the imperial throne made the cacophony of laws more like a children’s nursery chant.
But Justinian wanted to save the souls of his subjects as well as the substance of his empire. If it could be established that somehow, at some verifiable moment, the divine had married itself to the mortal, then there was the possibility that out of this “worm of sixty winters” (as William Blake would later call the fallen human) – out of this carnal and corruptible cocoon, might, through a metamorphosis of grace, and of worship and diligence, emerge the butterfly of a soul to live in the purity of an eternal hereafter.
So Justinian needed to make sense of this sacred binary code. He wrote theological treatises. He protected monks (and the monasteries where they prayed, fasted, studied and meditated on the mysteries) from secular laws and lay interference; and he granted them gifts from the imperial treasury and subsidies from local taxes. He extended the jurisdictions and powers of bishops and clergy and it was he who disbursed twenty thousand pounds of his own gold to rebuild the Cathedral of Sophia.
But to tell the truth, saint or not, try as Justinian and his monks and bishops might to plait the holy threads together, these never quite led, unknotted or untangled, to the butterfly.
A Jew and a Greek (a priest of Dionysus) were in the great court one evening. All day they’d been patiently waiting to plead for toleration, all the while listening to the bilious, obstinate and obviously irreconcilable argufying of the theologians.
At last, they whispered together and stepped forward.
“Sire, may we speak,” said the Jew, humbly
There was silence. Justinian raised an eyebrow and nodded.
“We were wondering if you’re trying, perhaps, to wed the unmarriageable?”
“What?” said the Emperor, sharply.
“You see, on the one hand,” said the Jew, “you have the omnipotent and eternal Yahweh, awful and blessed be his name.”
“And on the other,” the Greek continued, “you seem to have an incarnation of the beautiful but sacrificial Adonis…”
“And you are trying to contain these two powers, somehow, within a single, fragile cocoon of mortality?” said the Jew, barely suppressing his incredulity.
Some of the theologians coughed uneasily, glancing at each other. Justinian said: “Have you any other pagan wisdom to share?”
Tired as he was, the Jew entirely missed the sarcasm in the Emperor’s voice. He had been biting his tongue on this point for hours, and couldn’t resist an indiscretion he regretted for the rest of his life (which was a little over a day).
“Only, Eminence, that in our courts we would never a permit a woman to observe, let alone speak.”
Justinian ordered the Jew and the Greek to be sown in a sack with a pig and a jackal, and then thrown into the Bosphorus.
The woman was an actress called Theodora, described here by Edward Gibbon in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Painting and poetry were incapable of delineating the matchless excellence of her form. But this form was exposed to the public eye, and prostituted to licentious desire. Her venal charms were abandoned to a promiscuous crowd of citizens and strangers of every rank, and of every profession: the fortunate lover who had been promised a night of enjoyment, was often driven from her bed by a stronger or more wealthy favourite; and when she passed through the streets, her presence was avoided by all who wished to escape either the scandal or the temptation.”
Justinian fell in love with her. Surely there were Roman laws prohibiting intermarriage between the highest and the lowest – between emperor and courtesan? There were. But Justinian, the lawyer, changed them. Gibbon continues:
“Perhaps she inflamed, at first by modest delays, and at last by sensual allurements, the desires of a lover, who was addicted to long vigils and abstemious diet. When his first transports had subsided, she still maintained the same ascendant over his mind, by the more solid merit of temper and understanding. Justinian delighted to ennoble and enrich the object of his affection; the treasures of the East were poured at her feet, and the Emperor was determined, perhaps by religious scruples, to bestow on his concubine the sacred and legal character of a wife. He seated her on the throne as an equal and independent colleague in the sovereignty of the empire, and an oath of allegiance was imposed on the governors of the provinces in the joint names of Justinian and Theodora… The prostitute who, in the presence of innumerable spectators, had polluted the theatre of Constantinople, was adored as a queen in the same city, by grave magistrates, orthodox bishops, victorious generals, and captive monarchs.”
Ah, the “treasures of the East”. These included, of course, a fabulous cloth known as silk; a shining, shimmering, enigmatic fabric whose mode of fabrication none in the whole of Byzantium understood; a fabric which was ruinously expensive, and which Theodora must have, in bolts and swathes.
It came from somewhere in Asia. Persia and Abyssinia controlled the intermediate trade and fixed its exorbitant prices. But since extremes of bribery and threat failed to source the secret in either of those countries, it had to lie far beyond their frontiers.
Was it teased out of some fine hybrid of flax or hemp or cotton? Byzantine agriculturalists sweated at their seedlings and failed to repeat the marvel. Zoologists, likewise, searched in vain for the rare animal, pure or crossbred, whose fleece might be spun into this delicate, luminous thread. Alchemists insisted that given the right proportions of precious materials, the right retorts, athanors, alembics and crucibles, they would refine silk and bring skeins of it to the palace. Only they must have gold to melt, and silver, and rubies and emeralds to grind to powder… and in quantity.
And then, two monks set off for Asia.
I do not know whether they were missionaries who decided to do a little espionage, or commissioned spies who posed as missionaries. But as monks, they were grateful and loyal to Justinian and either saw or sought the opportunity to pay the debt that loyalty implied, and return a good deed for good deeds.
I imagine them bearded, shabby, unkempt, coarse-robed, tramp-like (because that is how contemporaries described and depicted the monks of the time). I imagine the contempt of the fastidious Chinese – their sophisticated disdain for these ragged quasi-primitives, impertinently trying to preach their neo-religion to an audience from an ages-old culture of ancestral homage and complex ceremonial.
I imagine someone jeering – “You? You stupid foreigners don’t even understand how silk is made…”
And the trap is opening.
“We have no use for silk.”
“Your courtiers have.”
“Vanity. Foul ostentation. The very livery of the devil, Beelzebub, the lord of the flies.”
“Ha! We have the flies here, hatched by the devil himself. Come and see…”
And there, in the hatchery, the little moths, eggs, worms, pupae – the cocoons from which the priceless, iridescent threads, the soul of silk, are teased.
One monk, perhaps, pretends to faint, or, better, seems to throw a fit. The other quickly, gently, in the commotion, palms a few eggs.
I do not know which of them had the clever idea of hiding the eggs in dung to incubate them on the journey home; or how, if there were borders and customs posts, the dung was explained – some strange ritual, maybe, involving mementos of human corruptibility and the mortification of the flesh? Revolted, the guard clutches his nose and waves them through.
So the eggs laid in China hatch in Byzantium. A secret of almost incalculable value is unlocked; eventually it will be published to the world.