Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Petraeus Porphrygenitus

Mosaic of Justinian in Basilica S. Vitale, Ravenna

General Petraeus has the most fabulous name. He sounds as if he should be commanding his cataphracts against the Abbasid kingdom, or defending the Theodosian walls against King Boris of the Bulgars. He can take some consolation, however, from the fact that whether he succeeds or fails in Iraq (against the forces of Sultan Harun al-Rashid no doubt) Petraeus is unlikely to suffer the traditional Byzantine punishments for failure of nose-slitting, blinding, castration or, if he was very lucky, being tonsured and locked up in a monastery.

The picture, incidentally, probably shows Byzantium's most famous general, Belisarius. He's probably the bearded chap standing to the left of the Emperor Justinian (memorably described as looking like a hungover saxophonist). Although it's patently obvious which of them has more force of personality, if you look closely you can just see that the Emperor's slipper is placed firmly over his General's sandal. If you want to know who was really the boss of the Byzantine Emperor in the sixth century, then turn around and look at the mosaic behind you.

The Empress Theodora looks like precisely what she was - a jumped-up over-decorated trollop, dripping with diamonds and surrounded by far better-bred retainers. But crikey, you wouldn't mess. She was also responsible for a saying so utterly filthy that Edward Gibbon refused to translate it, and left it unglossed in Greek in a footnote. Dirty girl.
UPDATE: Apparently, General Petraeus's father was called Sixtus Petraeus, which would have been even better.

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