Justinian and the scandal-mongers

Michael Widener

One of my spare-time projects is trolling the Rare Books stacks looking for law  books with illustrations, and also bookplates (you can see the most recent finds in our Flickr photostream). That’s how I discovered the allegorical frontispiece to the Vita Iustiniani M. atque Theodorae (1731) by Johann Peter von Ludewig, shown below.

For many years this book was the standard biography of the Roman emperor Justinian (483?-565) and his consort Theodora. Edward Gibbon quoted from it frequently in The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Ludewig (1668-1743), one of the leading jurists of his time, was a professor of history and chancellor of the University of Halle.

The upper portion of the allegorical frontispiece celebrates Justinian’s achievements in law, architecture, and warfare. At center, Justinian and Theodora sit on their throne. To their right is Tribonian, the jurist who drafted the Corpus Juris Civilis, the reworking of Roman law that still forms the foundation of most western legal systems. Next to Tribonian is an architectural plan for the great Hagia Sophia cathedral. At left is Justinian’s famous military commander Belisarius.

It was the bottom of the image, however, that caught my attention. In the lower left are some demonic-looking beasts and a pile of disordered books with the label “Furiae Procopii”. This is a reference to the Secret History of Procopius. A courtier of Justinian, Procopius wrote two works praising the emperor’s accomplishments, The Wars of Justinian and The Buildings of Justinian, that circulated widely in Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages. However, many centuries later a manuscript of his Secret History surfaced in the Vatican Library, and was published in 1623. This tell-all exposé depicts Justinian as cruel and corrupt, and Theodora as a lascivious tyrant. The frontispiece thus announces that Ludewig’s book will defend the imperial couple against the scandalous accusations of the Secret History.

There is more to be gleaned from this image, such as the male Medusa-like figure at bottom, and Justinian’s depiction.


Rare Book Librarian 

Frontispiece, Johann Peter von Ludewig (1668-1743), Vita Iustiniani M. atque Theodorae, augustorum nec non Triboniani: Iurisprudentiae iustinianae proscenium (Halae Salicae: impensis Orphanotrophei, 1731).

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