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Bill Thayer

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This webpage reproduces a section of
The Buildings


published in the Loeb Classical Library,

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Book I
Part 2


Book I (Part 1)

p3 1 1 It is not because I wish to make a display of skill, nor through any confidence in my eloquence, nor because I pride myself on my personal knowledge of many lands, that I have set about writing this record; for indeed I had no grounds for venturing so bold an intention. 2 Yet the thought has many times occurred to me, how many and how great are the benefits which are wont to accrue to states through History, which transmits to future generations the memory of those who have gone before, and resists the steady effort of time to bury events in oblivion; and while it incites to virtue those who from time to time may read it by the praise it bestows, it constantly assails vice by repelling its influence. 3 Wherefore our concern must be solely this — that all the deeds of the past shall be clearly set forth, and by what man, whosoever he might be, they were wrought. And this, I believe, is not an impossible task, even for a lisping and thin-voiced tongue. 4 Apart from all this, history shews that subjects who have received benefits have proved themselves grateful toward their benefactors, and that they have repaid them with p5thank-offerings in generous measure, seeing that, while they have profited, it may be, for the moment only by the beneficence of their rulers, they nevertheless preserve their sovereigns' virtue imperishable in the memory of those who are to come after them.1 5 Indeed it is through this very service that many men of later times strive after virtue, by emulating the honours of those who have preceded them, and, because they cannot endure censure, are quite likely to shun the basest practices. And the reason why I have made this preface I shall forthwith disclose.

6 In our own age there has been born the Emperor Justinian, who, taking over the State when it was harassed by disorder, has not only made it greater in extent, but also much more illustrious, by expelling from it those barbarians who had from of old pressed hard upon it, as I have made clear in detail in the Books on the Wars. 7 Indeed they say that Themistocles, the son of Neocles, once boastfully said that he did not lack the ability to make a small state large. 8 But this Sovereign does not lack the skill to produce completely transformed states — witness the way he has already added to the Roman domain many states which in his own times had belonged to others, and has created countless cities which did not exist before. 9 And finding that the belief in God was, before his time, straying into errors and being forced to go in many directions, he completely destroyed all the paths leading to such errors, and brought it about that it stood on the firm foundation p7of a single faith.2 10 Moreover, finding the laws obscure because they had become far more numerous than they should be, and in obvious confusion because they disagreed with each other, he preserved them by cleansing them of the mass of their verbal trickery, and by controlling their discrepancies with the greatest firmness; as for those who plotted against him, he of his own volition dismissed the charges against them, causing those who were in want to have a surfeit of wealth, and crushing the spiteful fortune that oppressed them, he wedded the whole State to a life of prosperity. 11 Furthermore, he strengthened the Roman domain, which everywhere lay exposed to the barbarians, by a multitude of soldiers, and by constructing strongholds he built a wall along all its remote frontiers.

12 However, most of the Emperor's other achievements have been described by me in my other writings,3 so that the subject of the present work will be the benefits which he wrought as a builder. They do indeed say that the best king of whom we know by tradition was the Persian Cyrus, and that he was chiefly responsible for the founding of the kingdom of Persia for the people of his race. 13 But whether that Cyrus was in fact such a man as he whose education from childhood up is described by Xenophon the Athenian, I have no means of knowing. 14 For it may well be that the skill of the writer of that description was quite capable, such was his exquisite eloquence, of coming to be a mere embellishment of the facts.a p915 But in the case of the king of our times, Justinian (whom one would rightly, I think, call a king by nature as well as by inheritance, since he is, as Homer says,4 "as gentle as a father"), if one should examine his reign with care, he will regard the rule of Cyrus as a sort of child's play.5 16 The proof of this will be that the Roman Empire, as I have just said, has become more than doubled both in area and in power generally, while, on the other hand, those who treacherously formed the plot6 against him, going so far even as to plan his assassination, are not only living up to the present moment, and in possession of their own property, even though their guilt was proved with absolute certainty, but are actually still serving as generals of the Romans, and are holding the consular rank to which they had been appointed.

17 But now we must proceed, as I have said, to the subject of the buildings of this Emperor, so that it may not come to pass in the future that those who see them refuse, by reason of their great number and magnitude, to believe that they are in truth the works of one man. 18 For already many works of men of former times which are not vouched for by a written record have aroused incredulity because of their surpassing merit. And with good reason the buildings in Byzantium, beyond all the rest, will serve as a foundation for my narrative. 19 For "o'er a work's beginnings," as the old saying has it,7 "we needs must set a front that shines afar."

20 Some men of the common herd, all the rubbish of p11the city, once rose up against the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, when they brought about the rising called the Nika Insurrection, which has been described by me in detail and without any concealment in Books on the Wars.8 21 And by way of shewing that it was not against the Emperor alone that they had taken up arms, but no less against God himself, unholy wretches that they were, they had the hardihood to fire the Church of the Christians, which the people of Byzantium call "Sophia,"9 an epithet which they have most appropriately invented for God, by which they call His temple; and God permitted them to accomplish this impiety, foreseeingº into what an object of beauty this shrine was destined to be transformed. 22 So the whole church at that time lay a charred mass of ruins. But the Emperor Justinian built not long afterwards a church10 so finely shaped,11 that if anyone had enquired of the Christians before the burning if it would be their wish that the church should be destroyed and one like this should take its place, shewing them some sort of model of the building we now see, it seems to me that they would have prayed that they might see their church destroyed forthwith, in order that the building might be converted into its present form. 23 At any rate the Emperor, disregarding all questions of expense, eagerly pressed on to begin the work of construction, and began to gather all the artisans from the whole world. 24 And Anthemius of Tralles, the most learned man in the skilled craft which is known as the art of building,12 not only of all his contemporaries, p13but also when compared with those who had lived long before him, ministered to the Emperor's enthusiasm, duly regulating the tasks of the various artisans, and preparing in advance designs of the future construction; and associated with him with another master-builder, Isidorus by name, a Milesian by birth, a man who was intelligent and worthy to assist the Emperor Justinian. 25 Indeed this also was an indication of the honour in which God held the Emperor, that He had already provided the men who would be most serviceable to him in the tasks which were waiting to be carried out. 26 And one might with good reason marvel at the discernment of the Emperor himself, in that out of the whole world he was able to select the men who were most suitable for the most important of his enterprises.13

27 So the church has become a spectacle of marvellous beauty, overwhelming to those who see it, but to those who know it by hearsay altogether incredible.14 For it soars to a height to match the sky, and as if surging up from amongst the other buildings it stands on high and looks down upon the remainder of the city, adorning it, because it is a part of it, but glorying in its own beauty, because, though a part of the city and dominating it, it at the same time towers above it to such a height that the whole city is viewed from there as from a watch-tower. 28 Both its breadth and its length have been so carefully proportioned, that it may not improperly be said to be exceedingly long and at the same time unusually broad. And it exults in an indescribable beauty.
[image ALT: Architectural plan of a large church about 110 meters long. It is that of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.]

Plan of St. Sophia.

[image ALT: Architectural cross-section of a large church about 110 meters long. It is that of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul.]

Longitudinal Section of StSophia.
A, the original dome as built by Anthemius and Isidorus.
B, reconstruction of the dome in A.D. 558 by Isidorus the Younger.

p1729 For it proudly reveals its mass and the harmony of its proportions, having neither excess nor deficiency, since it is both more pretentious than the buildings to which we are accustomed, and considerably more noble than those which are merely huge, and it abounds exceedingly in sunlight and in the reflection of the sun's rays from the marble. 30 Indeed one might say that its interior is not illuminated from without by the sun, but that the radiance comes into being within it, such an abundance of light bathes this shrine. 31 And the face itself of the church (which would be the part which faces the rising sun, that portion of the building in which they perform the mysteries in worship of God) was constructed in the following manner. 32 A structure of masonry (oikodomia) is built up from the ground, not made in a straight line, but gradually curving inward on its flanks and receding at the middle, so that it forms the shape of half a circle, which those who are skilled in such matters call a half-cylinder (hêmikylindron); and so it rises precipitously to a height.15 33 The upper part of this structure ends in the fourth part of a sphere (sphaira), and above it another crescent-shaped (mênoeides) structure rises, fitted to the adjoining parts of the building, marvellous in its grace, but by reason of the seeming insecurity of its composition altogether terrifying. 34 For it seems somehow to float in the air on no firm basis, but to be poised aloft to the peril of those inside it. Yet actually it is braced with exceptional firmness and security. 35 On either side of this are columns arranged on the pavement; these likewise do not p19stand in a straight line, but they retreat inward in the pattern of the semicircle (hêmikyklon) as if they were yielding to one another in a choral dance, and above them hangs a structure of crescent shape (mênoeides). 36 And on the side opposite the east is reared a wall containing the entrances (eisodoi), and on either side of this there stand in a semicircle (hêmikyklon) not only the columns themselves but also the structure above them, all this being very similar to the columns and structure I have just described. 37 And in the centre of the church stand four man-made eminences (lophoi), which they call piers (pessoi), two on the north side and two on the south, opposite and equal to each other, each pair having between them just four columns.16 38 The piers (lophoi) are composed of huge stones joined together, carefully selected and skilfully fitted to one another by the masons, and rising to a great height. One might suppose that they were sheer mountain-peaks. 39 From these spring four arches (apsides) which rise over the four sides of a square, and their ends come together in pairs and are made fast to each other on top of these piers (lophoi), while the other portions rise and soar to an infinite height. 40 And while two of the arches rise over empty air, those namely on the east and the west sides, the other two have under them certain structural elements (oikodomia), including p21a number of rather small columns. 41 Upon the crowns of the arches rests a circular structure (kykloterês oikodomia), cylindrical (strongylon) in shape; it is through this that the light of day always first smiles. 42 For it towers above the whole earth, as I believe, and the structure is interrupted at short intervals, openings having been left intentionally, in the spaces where the perforation of the stone-work takes place, to be channels for the admission of light in sufficient measure. 43 And since the arches where they are joined together are so constructed as to form a four-cornered plan, the stonework between the arches produces four triangles (trigôna).17 44 And while each supporting end (krêpis) of a triangle, having been contracted to a point by the coming together of each pair of arches, makes the lower point an acute angle, yet as the triangle rises and its width is extended by the intermediate surface, 45 it ends in the segment of a circle (kykloterês) which it supports, and forms the remaining angles18 at that level. And upon this circle rests the huge spherical dome (sphairoeidês tholos) which makes the structure exceptionally beautiful. 46 Yet it seems not to rest upon solid masonry, but to cover the space with its golden dome (sphaira) suspended from Heaven. 47 All these details, fitted together with incredible skill in mid-air and floating off from each other and resting only on the parts next to them, produce a single and most extraordinary harmony in the work, and yet do not permit the spectator to linger much over the study of any one of them, but each detail attracts the eye and draws it on irresistibly to itself. 48 So the vision p23constantly shifts suddenly, for the beholder is utterly unable to select which particular detail he should admire more than all the others. 49 But even so, though they turn their attention to every side and look with contracted brows upon every detail, observers are still unable to understand the skilful craftsmanship, but they always depart from there overwhelmed by the bewildering sight. So much, then, for this.

50 It was by many skilful devices that the Emperor Justinian and the master-builder Anthemius and Isidorus secured the stability of the church, hanging, as it does, in mid-air. Some of these it is both hopeless for me to understand in their entirety, and impossible to explain in words; I shall record only one of them for the present, from which it should be possible to gain an impression of the strength of the whole work. 51 It is as follows: The piers (lophoi) which I have just mentioned are not constructed in the same way as other structures, but in the following manner. The courses of stone were laid down so as to form a four-cornered shape, 52 the stones being rough by nature but worked smooth; and they were cut to the angles when they were destined to form the projecting corners of the sides of the pier, but when they chanced to be assigned to a position between the angles, they were cut in rectangles (tetrapleuron).19 53 These were held together neither by lime (titanos), which they call "asbestus",20 nor by asphalt, the material which was the pride of Semiramis in Babylon,21 nor by any other such thing, p25but by lead (molibdos) poured into the interstices (telma), which flowed about everywhere in the spaces between the stones and hardened in the joints (harmonia), binding them to each other.22 54 Thus were these parts constructed; but let us proceed to the remaining portions of the church.

The whole ceiling is overlaid with pure gold,b which adds glory to the beauty, yet the light reflected from the stones prevails, shining out in rivalry with the gold. 55 And there are two stoa-like colonnades (stoai),23 one on each side, not separated in any way from the structure of the church itself, but actually making the effect of its width greater,24 and reaching along its whole length, to the very end, while in height they are less than the interior of the building. 56 And they too have vaulted ceilings (orophê tholos) and decorations of gold. One of these two colonnaded stoas has been assigned to men worshippers, while the other is reserved for women engaged in the same exercise. 57 But they have nothing to distinguish them, nor do they differ from one another in any way, but their very equality serves to beautify the church, and p27their similarity to adorn it. 58 But who could fittingly describe the galleries (hyperôa) of the women's side (gynaikonitis), or enumerate the many colonnades and the colonnaded aisles (peristyloi aulai) by means of which the church is surrounded? 59 Or who could recount the beauty of the columns (kiones) and the stones with which the church is adorned? One might imagine that he had come upon a meadow with its flowers in full bloom. 60 For he would surely marvel at the purple of some, the green tint of others, and at those on which the crimson glows and those from which the white flashes, and again at those which Nature, like some painter, varies with the most contrasting colours. 61 And whenever anyone enters this church to pray, he understands at once that it is not by any human power or skill, but by the influence of God, that this work has been so finely turned. And so his mind is lifted up toward God and exalted, feeling that He cannot be far away, but must especially love to dwell in this place which He has chosen. 62 And this does not happen only to one who sees the church for the first time, but the same experience comes to him on each successive occasion, as though the sight were new each time. 63 Of this spectacle no one has ever had a surfeit, but when present in the church men rejoice in what they see, and when they leave it they take proud delight in conversing about it. 64 Furthermore, concerning the treasures of this church — the vessels of gold and silver and the works in precious stones, which the Emperor Justinian has dedicated here — it is impossible to give a precise account of them all. But I shall allow my readers to form a judgment by a single example. 65 That part of the shrine which is p29especially sacred, where only priests may enter, which they call the Inner Sanctuary (thysiastêrion), is embellished with forty thousand pounds' weight of silver.

66 So the church of Constantinople (which men are accustomed to call the Great Church), speaking concisely and merely running over the details with the finger-tips, as it were, and mentioning with a fleeting word only the most notable features, was constructed in such a manner by the Emperor Justinian. 67 But it was not with money alone that the Emperor built it, but also with labour of the mind and with the other powers of the soul, as I shall straightway shew. 68 One of the arches which I just now mentioned (lôri25 the master-builders call them), the one which stands toward the east, had already been built up from either side, but it had not yet been wholly completed in the middle, and was still waiting. 69 And the piers (pessoi), above which the structure was being built, unable to carry the mass which bore down upon them, somehow or other suddenly began to crack, and they seemed on the point of collapsing. 70 So Anthemius and Isidorus, terrified at what had happened, carried the matter to the Emperor, having come to have no hope in their technical skill. 71 And straightway the Emperor, impelled by I know not what, but I suppose by God (for he is not himself a master-builder), commanded them to carry the curve of this arch to its final completion. "For when it rests upon itself," he said, "it will no longer need p31the props (pessoi) beneath it."26 72 And if this story were without witness, I am well aware that it would have seemed a piece of flattery and altogether incredible; but since there are available many witnesses of what then took place, we need not hesitate to proceed to the remainder of the story. 73 So the artisans carried out his instructions, and the whole arch then hung secure, sealing by experiment the truth of his idea. 74 Thus, then, was this arch completed; but in the process of building the other arches, indeed, those namely which are turned toward the south and the north, the following chanced to take place. 75 The so‑called lôri had been raised up, carrying the masonry of the church, but everything underneath was labouring under their load, making the columns (kiones) which stood there throw off tiny flakes, as if they had been planed. 76 So once more the master-builders were dismayed at what had happened and reported their problem to the Emperor. 77 And again the Emperor met the situation with a remedy, as follows. He ordered them immediately to remove the upper parts (akra) of the masonry which were strained, that is, the portions which came into contact with the arches, and to put them back much later, as soon as the dampness of the masonry should abate enough to bear them. 78 These instructions they carried out, and thereafter the structure stood p33secure.27 And the Emperor, in this way, enjoys a kind of testimonial from the work.

The Loeb Editor's Notes:

1 It has been thought that Procopius here alludes to personal gratitude to the Emperor on his own part; see the Introduction, p. x.

2 Quite a different interpretation of Justinian's actions in this respect is given in the Secret History, xiii.7.

3 This is thought to be a disguised reference to the Secret History, which was written before the present work, but designed to remain unpublished during Justinian's lifetime: (p7)Procopius seems to have designed the present passage so that it could be taken by contemporaries to refer to the Wars, the eight books of which had already been published, while posterity would know that it referred to the Secret History (cf. Haury in Byzantinische Zeitschrift, XXXVII, 1937, p5).

4 Odyssey, II.47, XV.152.

5 In the original there is a play upon the words παιδεία (p9)("education," the title of Xenophon's book mentioned above) and παιδιά ("child's play").

6 Wars, VII.xxxii.

7 Pindar, Ol.VI.4, translated by Sandys (L. C. L.).

8 I.xxiv.

9 "Wisdom"; cf. WarsIII.vi.26.

10 See the plan and section of St. Sophia on pp14 and 15.

11 Literally, "roundly turned," as by a lathe, cf. Plato, Phaedrus, 234E.

12 On the use in this translation of the terms "building" and "master-builder", see the Introduction, p. xiv.

13 In the Secret History (xxi.7‑25) Procopius gives a different account of the way in which Justinian chose his subordinates.

14 On Procopius's description see O. Wulff, "Das Raumerlebnis des Naos im Spiegel der Ekphrasis," Byzantinische Zeitschrift, XXX, 1929‑30, pp531‑539. Cf. also K. Kumaniecki, (p13)"Eine unbekannte Monodie auf den Einsturz der Hagia Sophia im Jahre 558," ibid., pp35‑43 (especially the note on p41).

15 Procopius regularly describes the plan of an apse or semi-circular niche by saying that it "retreats" or "recedes," though he does not often say, as he does here, that it is semi-circular, or that, in elevation, it forms a half-cylinder. He (p17)sometimes uses the same locutions to describe the arrangement of columns.

16 It seems clear from the context that Procopius here uses μάλιστα in the sense of "just," either in order to indicate (p19)that he is giving the number exactly, or in order to give it as his impression that the number four is a rather small one in relation to the large size of the building. He uses μάλιστα in this sense elsewhere in the Buildings: it certainly means "just" in I.vi.9 and II.ii.3, and may have this meaning also in I.vii.1, II.viii.14 and IV.x.

17 Pendentives.

18 The two upper angles of each spherical triangle.

19 In describing the great piers, which are actually quite irregular in plan, Procopius uses the word "four-cornered" to convey a general impression of their somewhat rectangular appearance as they rise above the spectator.

20 Because lime "cannot be quenched" by water; cf. WarsVI.xxvii.21.

21 Cf. Diodorus, II.12. Babylon was famous for its asphalt (Strabo, XVI.743; Pliny, Nat. Hist. XXXV.178).

22 Procopius evidently misunderstood what he had been told about the way in which the lead was employed, for it can scarcely have been poured into the joints in the manner which he describes. Paul the Silentiary, in his Description of Saint Sophia, says that sheets of lead were used in the piers (P. Friedländer, Johannes von Gaza und Paulus Silentiarius, Leipzig, 1912, p240, lines 476‑480):

ἁρμονίαις δ᾽ ἐνέηκε πλάκας μαλακοῖο μολύβδου,

ὄφρα κε μὴ λάιγγες ἐπ᾽ ἀλλήλῃσι δεθεῖσαι

καὶ στυφελὰ στυφελοῖσιν ἐπ᾽ ἄχθεσιν ἄχθεα θεῖσαι

νῶτα διαθρύψωσι· μεσοδμήτῳ δὲ μολύβδῳ

ἠρέμα πιληθεῖσα βάσις μαλθάσσετο πέτρου.

(p25) "In the joints they have put sheets of soft lead, lest the stones, as they lie on one another, and heavy weight bears upon heavy weight, should have their backs broken; with the lead between, the stone foundation is pressed softly and is gently burdened." Cf. Lethaby and Swainson, Sancta Sophia, p259.

23 The procedure followed in rendering Greek stoa in this translation is explained in the Introduction, p. xvi.

24 Literally, Procopius says "the measure of its width." He seems to have been aware that colonnades of the aisles and galleries, which he describes as stoas, increased the scale of the interior by making the great width of the nave seem more measurable and impressive in relation to the apparent size of the side aisles.

25 Greek λῶρος, from Latin lorus, meaning a "thong" or "leash," and, in the plural, "reins."

26 This passage is at first sight ambiguous because Procopius is using pessoi in two quite different senses. Obviously the statement that once the arch was completed it would no longer need the pessoi beneath it cannot refer to the main masonry piers (which Procopius has just called pessoi), but must refer to the scaffolding or centering (pessoi) which was holding up the great arch before its completion.

27 Procopius's account is not entirely clear, either because he did not understand what had happened, or because he was unable to describe the processes in technical language, or possibly because he wished to avoid a complicated technical description. His account suggests that the builders constructing the north and south arches used the walls and galleries (p33)at the sides as permanent centering for the great arches, with the result that the weight of these arches, before their keystones were in place, was too much for the thin clerestory walls and columns beneath, which were not designed to carry so much weight and would not have to do so after the arches were completed. It is even possible, from Procopius's description, that the builders were building up the spandrels of masonry above the haunches of the arches before they had completed their curve. Therefore, when Justinian ordered them to take out the strained portions and replace them later, he made it necessary for the builders to complete the arches before filling in the clerestory wall.

Thayer's Notes:

a Procopius' intellectual prudence here is remarkable. Even today, his circumspect attitude would place him among the more careful writers. It is still useful to remember that while Antiquity is nearly unanimous in praising the magnanimity and fundamental decency of the Persian king, the skill of writers (or propagandistic motivation) is quite capable of embellishing the facts about him: for a corrective, see the pages at Livius on the Cyrus Cylinder.

b Yes and no; there's an optical illusion involved, which saved some money. See Emerson Swift, Byzantine Gold Mosaic (AJA 38:81‑82).

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Page updated: 14 Apr 12