From the birth of the Roman Empire in Rome, to the fall of the empire in Constantinople, the emperors were known to have periodic clashes with astrologers. Justinian, emperor of Constantinople from 527 to 565, was no exception, as he apparently feared that the horoscopes and predictions created by astrologers could be a threat to his authority, as well as that of Constantinople’s church.
Procopius (c. 490-565), a lawyer and historian who lived at the same time as Justinian, described how astrologers were reportedly treated during the emperor’s reign. He wrote:
“They were bitterly hostile to astrologers. Accordingly the official appointed to deal with burglaries made a point of ill-treating them simply because they were astrologers, flogging the backs of them and setting them on camels to be shown to jeering crowds all over the city, though they were old men and respectable in every way” (Procopius, Secret History, chapter 11).
As the end of the quote shows, Procopius disapproved of Justinian’s treatment of astrologers, and such critical comments are the common theme of his controversial work, the often-libelous Secret History. Yet, despite Procopius’ negative and antagonistic flourishes in the Secret History, it was in his commentary on legal issues that he most often spoke the truth. Even if the astrologers were punished with whips and humiliation as Procopius claimed, the astrologers were still treated better than other groups that Justinian chose to oppress. Non-Christians, heretics, and certain classes of criminals faced far worse punishments.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Image from page 293 of “The astrologer of the nineteenth century” (1825), [Public Domain] via flickr.com and Creative Commons).
- The Secret History by Procopius, translated by G. A. Williamson and Peter Sarris. New York: Penguin Classics, 1966, 2007.