Michael Maas, John Lydus and the Roman Past: Antiquarianism and Politics in the Age of Justinian. London: Routledge,1992. Pp. ix + 207. ISBN 0-41506-021-4. UK£30.00.
University of Auckland
Two centuries after its founder had been buried between the twelve apostles Constantinople wore its Christianity with surprising uneasiness. Ordinary people were Christian and fiercely orthodox: Justinian’s lavish rebuilding of Constantine’s Haghia Sophia Church was aimed at earning popular support after the Nika riots of 532. But while street-level popularity was won by shows of Christian zeal, the wealthy Byzantine bureaucracy hid a matrix of pagan sympathizers.
Michael Maas profiles John Lydus, a sixth-century civil servant whose career in the Praetorian Prefecture started brilliantly but ended in embitterment. When Zoticus, from Lydus’ home town of Philadelphia, became Praetorian Prefect in 511 he gave the twenty-one year old hopeful a job as an exceptor — a shorthand secretary. This modest-sounding post brought in a thousand gold solidi in fees in the first year – over and above the official salary. But there was more. Lydus soared to the corps of a secretis, the bureau that supplied the men who did the emperor’s own paperwork. This was based at the imperial Palace but Lydus was allowed to keep his post in the Prefecture as well. Then in 524 a new law banned the holding of two public offices. Lydus chose to resign his Palace job and pursue a career in the Prefecture. It was the cautious choice.
Staying in the Prefecture looked all right in the medium term. In 532 John the Cappodocian was sacked as Praetorian Prefect and Phocas, who comes across as a hero in Lydus’ De Magistratibus, was given the job. It was Lydus’ finest hour. As a Latin specialist in the Greek-speaking Byzantine civil service, he was commissioned to compose a Latin panegyric and speak it in front of visiting dignitaries. The moment in the limelight did not last. By October 532, as the Nika riots receded into the past, Justinian felt more secure on the throne and John the Cappadocian was reinstated as Prefect. John Lydus never received another promotion in the Prefecture.
The first two of his surviving books (De Mensibus and De Ostentis) come from the years in the 540s when hopes of advancement were blocked. The last and bitterest, the De Magistratibus, in which he writes about the traditions of his own government department, was written during his retirement in the 550s. Maas examines the works for what they show about their author and Justinian’s Constantinople. Throughout all three books, Lydus avoids any discussion of Christianity or any reflection of the Christian society in which he lived. His reticence about Christian features of the deeply Christianized society he lived in looks back to a pagan tradition: in the late fourth century, when bishops had been building basilicas and whispering in theemperor’s ear for two generations, Ammianus Marcellinus could still write of the Christians and ‘their leaders, whom they call “bishops”‘ — as if his readers needed the elucidation. But Lydus’ usage has gone past affectation and reaches the realm of paradox. There is no suggestion that contemporaries suspected Lydus of pagan sympathies. Yet it was easy for people in the public eye to fall victim to such suspicions. Procopius in his Persian War says that John theCappadocian muttered pagan prayers under his breath while in church and in 579 even a Patriarch of Antioch was accused of performing pagan rites. Lydus, on the other hand, was made aprofessor at the imperial school in the 540s in the wake of one of Justinian’s anti-pagan purges. The suggestion that profiting from action taken against pagans must have embarrassed Lydus may seem plausible granted Lydus’ apparent lack of Christian zeal, but as there is no written evidence on the point, it remains only Maas’ own inference.
Throughout the book, Maas returns to this problem of a Christian acting up the part of an old-time pagan — strictly on the written page. Justinian was sharpening the Christian-pagan distinction, partly because militant Christianity provided a card he could play against people who might want to treat the government as greater than the individual emperor. Probably this made Lydus uncomfortable and certainly his antiquarian writings represent a line of thought that opposed Justinian’s way of doing things. However, Maas is a bit quick to read Justinian as motivated mainly by fanatical pro-Christian feelings – he even warns his readers not to be intolerant like Justinian (p. 77). The corollary is that he wants to give great weight to Lydus’ work as representative of a more tolerant and humane impulse.
It is too easy to take Lydus at his own evaluation of himself. Maas notes that ‘within the offices of the eastern Prefecture . . . Latin had been abolished by Cyrus (Prefect 439-41), much to Lydus’ dismay’ (p. 32). ‘Dismay’ is the wrong word. This had been done fifty years before Lydus was born. To think one’s department is going to the dogs maydefine one as old-fashioned, but a man who thinks it went to the dogs seventy years before he joined it is deliberately exempting himself from discussion of real issues.
But then, that was John Lydus from beginning to end. From his student years he specialized in Latin – by this time, a language not much needed in government. Maas sums up Lydus’ non-Christian view of society as a ‘willful denial of reality'(p. 117), but there’s more that must be drawn from the personal side. John Lydus followed an obscure specialism. He left the Palace for the relative backwater of the Prefecture. He stayed stubbornly loyal to a boss who had only held office momentarily. He was a man who did everything to avoid accepting the responsibility — and risks — that exerting his abilities fully could have brought.