It must have been 2004 or 2005 when I first read the Sarantine Mosaic series of books by Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. Set in ‘Sarantium’- a loose parallel fantasy world of Byzantium, the books follow the journey of a mosaicist Caius Crispus from Varenna (Ravenna in real life) as he travels to the imperial court of Valerius II and Alixana (modelled on Justinian and Theodora) to work on a mosaic project. Needless to say I was completely floored by the book and I developed a soft corner for Justinian and Theodora. The book also prompted me to do further research on the reign of Justinian and Byzantium. This was much before my interest in Ancient Rome began and in hindsight, this book and Justinian contributed in good measure to my interests. Because although the Roman empire had split into the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantium) and the Western Roman Empire well before Justinian, he was the last emperor, in the 6th century AD, who managed to reconquer much of the Western territories and bring them under the fold of Rome (even though Constantinople was New Rome). His rule was illuminated by the last rays of the setting sun which was the Roman Empire.
The most iconic image of Justinian and Theodora which survives until today is the fabulous mosaic at the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, Italy. Ravenna used to be the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century CE. Today it is also a place where one can take in the most amazing works of mosaic art from early antiquity and early Christian art. If you really love mosaics then Ravenna and Tunis (in particular the Bardo museum) need to be on your map.
I had a few hours in Ravenna last weekend. Needless to say I made the trip to Ravenna so I could finally see this mosaic of Justinian and Theodora which I have been waiting to see for more than a decade.
Someday I’ll get around to doing a longer post on why Justinian is one of my favourite emperors ever and Theodora was an amazing personality but for today I will just share a few images from the Basilica of San Vitale.