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by Archaeology Newsroom

The Futures Past: The end of the world and propaganda in 6th-century historiography

Now that the eve of the new millennium is presumably safely behind us. we are in a better position to understand the ephemeral appeal of predictions of doom. Despite their flexibility, precise calculations of the end of the world -or other catastrophes eventually expire and fall into oblivion: who would be interested today in reading an extensive study on how the Y2K bug would destroy civilization as we knew it?

The anticipation of the end is inherent in the linear-teleological perception of time which is part of our Christian legacy. In the continuous attempts to forecast the exact moment of the Second Coming, and therefore the end of time, the concept of the millennium proved to be one of the most influential tools For the Byzantines, it was not the first millennium ad. but the sixth AM {anno mundi) which first came into play, Due to the complexity and fluidity of early Byzantine chronology, reaching a universally accepted date was impossible, Varying calculations produced a whole set of alternative dates for this event, all of which fell within first half of the sixth century, in an attempt to determine the impact of eschatological fear on the period’s historiography, this article turns to two of the mam historical sources of the sixth century: the Secret History of Procopius and the Chronography of John Malalas.

It has been recently argued that eschatological considerations played an important role in the official imperial propaganda of Justinian whose reign covers part of this period. A close examination of the material from the two contemporary historical sources reveals a slightly different picture, All the relative passages were composed through a manifestly layered process, strictly related to their appropriation. The origins of such apocalyptical rumors were probably oral, and their initial function anti-dynastic. It seems rather unlikely that Justinian would construct his official propaganda on the ambiguous and therefore dangerous grounds of eschatology: had he done so. he would have invited the unfavorable conclusion that his reign was the earthly rule of the Antichrist. Malalas’s emphatic argument that all calculations of the time of the Second Coming had already been proven wrong, obviously refers to Justinian’s defense against the propaganda of his enemies as reflected in the Secret History’s famous equation of Justinian with the “king of demons”

However, eschatological references in these works are neither numerous, nor extensive, both writers modi¬fied any such material in order to suit their own propa¬gandists purposes, which no longer involved any escha¬tological considerations. Their texts betray no real belief in an approaching end of the world. By the time they were writing, talk of an ominous future was already a thing of the past Besides, if one believed that the end of the world was at hand one would hardly engage in writing history.