Orthodox America

  Justinian the Great, Emperor and Saint

by Asterios Gerostergios;  Institute for Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies;  1982;  313 pps, illustrated;  paper.

Reviewed by  Fr. Alexey Young

            For such a long time it has been the norm for writers and scholars to speak of Byzantium and her Emperors in lurid terms.  We in the West have even made up a whole mythology about that great Orthodox Christian civilization, from which we readily borrow when we want to describe something contemptible.  Thus we speak of politics as “seething with Byzantine intrigue.”  Without even knowing what Byzantium was, the common man will now routinely tell you that that era must have been a “frighteningly dishonest and corrupt” time in which to live.

            A disconcerting twist to this inaccurate portrayal is typified in a comment a Roman Catholic seminarian recently made to me:  “In my view,” he said, “Constantine was the kiss of death for Christianity.”

            Fortunately there seem now to be a few voices raised here and there in protest to this distorted treatment of Byzantium.  Many rejoiced at the splendid cover article on Byzantium in the December ’83 “National Geographic” – a piece which went some way towards undoing many of the popular misconceptions.

            Another contribution is Justinian the Great, the Emperor and Saint, by Fr. Asterios Gerostergios.  Since it was under St. Justinian that Byzantine civilization reached its climax, and since the Orthodox Church honors this emperor (and his wife, the wonderful Theodora) as saints, it is fitting to have a book (more a “study” than a biography) which examines the spirituality of a great man and his great Christian civilization.  Fr. George Florovsky in his essay, “Christianity and Civilization,” says that Justinian’s reign “was the time when a Christian culture was conscientiously and deliberately being built and completed as a system….The magnificent Temple of Holy Wisdom, the great church of Sophia in Constantinople, will ever stand as a living symbol of this achievement.”  Fr. Gerostergios’ book will help the reader to see for himself the glories of Byzantine culture, a culture which was nothing less than the culture of Orthodox Christianity herself.

            Divided into six major areas of concentration, the author first examines the Emperor in the context of his times – both politically and religiously; then he looks at Justinian as an author and theologian, evaluates his relationship with non-Christians and heretics, and finally examines his relationship to the Orthodox Church.

            The author says, “Justinian was a faithful and devoted member of the Orthodox Church and worked not only to protect its dogmatic teachings, but also to elevate the spiritual and moral stature of its representatives.”  Therefore the writer speaks much of Justinian’s “philanthropic-constructive works, which in our opinion are a pure fruit of his Christian faith and an embodiment of the great commandment of Christ to love one’s neighbor.”

                        O Only-begotten Son and Word of God,
Thou Who are Immortal, yet didst deign
for our salvation to be incarnate through

                     the most holy Lady and Ever-Virgin
                     Mary, and without change didst become
                     Man and wast crucified, trampling upon
                     death by death, do Thou, O Christ our
                     God, Who are one of the Holy Trinity and
                     art glorified, together with the Father
                     and the Holy Spirit, save us.

 (A hymn composed by the Emperor Justinian the Great, contained in the Divine Liturgy)

             The book is fascinating.  The reader will be rewarded by many glimpses into the heart and mind of a great follower of Christ, who was also an Emperor, and who used the throne primarily for the benefit of his people and the glory of God.  Fr. Gerostergios shows us a warm, deeply Orthodox personality, thoroughly penetrated by the piety of the Church:  “Astonishment is provoked in us by the endurance of Justinian through long hours of hard mental work and personal deprivations.  Within his magnificent palace, he lived almost as a hermit.  A few hours of sleep were sufficient for the relaxation of his tired body.  Because of this phenomenon, he was named ‘nonsleeper.’  He ate sparingly and worked very hard.”  He was of a “magnanimous” and “non-egotistical” temperament, and “desired to be pious, and to express his piety through his actions.”

            No one can fail to enjoy and be edified by this fine book, whether historian, theologian, student or layman, and all should be urged to make its acquaintance.

Fr. Alexey Young

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