‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Saturday, 14 March 2020

How Many Did Justinian Kill?

A trillion. You read that right.

Hard to keep your hands clean when running a large empire over many decades, of course. But did Justinian the Great, Byzantine emperor, really kill so many? Here's the relevant bit from chapter 18 of the Anekdota, or ‘Secret History’, of Procopius:
And that he was no human being, but, as has been suggested, some manner of demon in human form, one might infer by making an estimate of the magnitude of the ills which he inflicted upon mankind. For it is in the degree by which a man's deeds are surpassingly great that the power of the doer becomes evident. Now to state exactly the number of those who were destroyed by him would never be possible, I think, for anyone soever, or for God. For one might more quickly, I think, count all grains of sand than the vast number whom this Emperor destroyed. But making an approximate estimate of the extent of territory which has become to be destitute of inhabitants, I should say that a trillion people perished.
That's the 1935 Loeb translation. The translator/editor, H. B. Dewing, notes that the Greek translated as a trillion is literally ‘a myriad myriad of myriads’, adding ‘the “cube of ten thousand” is not the language of exact computation, and Procopius is trying to make out a strong case against Justinian.’ No shit. A trillion is the number a kid reaches for when he wants to emphasise the magnitude of a given thing.

But let's imagine it was true. How might we frame it, as history or (better) as fiction? A planet vastly more populous than it is, even in the overcrowded twenty-first century; a world in which humans live cheek by jowl, perhaps because, as with the Biblical patriarchs, people live hideously elongated lives. And here comes Justinian, to cull the overcrowding, to reduce human lifespans to their present levels and sweep away billions upon billions into the afterlife. No wonder the Eastern Orthodox Church made him a saint.


  1. Estimates of the number of humans who have ever lived seem to be in the region of 100 billion, so Procopius is suggesting Justinian killed everyone in history and pre-history (from here in 2020) ten times over.

    He mows down billions and billions and they keep coming back. Everyone has nine lives? He's going to take them all.

    1. It would make an excellent premise for a novel.

  2. If we count potential descendants of those who died in Justinian's plague, we can get to a trillion fairly quickly.

  3. Imperium in Imperio.

    Points to the position (indistinct zone between fact and fiction) and issue (problem of proof) of the secret history, which is live and in our culture. i.e I don't need to have read Rebecca Bullard to get the sense of its literary position.