Dominus Illuminatio Mea

February 3 2007

As I was rereading my notes for this [lecture] during the last few days, there floated into my mind the picture of a scene which was transacted in the capital of a great empire about fourteen hundred years ago, when that capital was full of war – not a war on a front but a war in the rear, a war of turmoil and street fighting.

The Nika riots, in 532, the worst in early Byzantine history (in all Byzantine history?), at the end of a war with Persia, started in the Hippodrome in Constantinople as a tense population, including Blues and Greens, was assembling for the races. Justinian and Theodora watched from the royal palace.

Toynbee was speaking in the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on May 23 1940.

The emperor of that empire was holding council to decide whether he should carry on the struggle or whether he should take ship and sail away to safety. At the crown council his wife, the empress, was present and spoke, and she said: “You, Justinian, can sail away if you like; the ship is at the quay and the sea is still open but I am going to stay and see it out, because καλὸν ὲντάφιον η βασιλεία: ‘Empire is a fine winding sheet.’ ” I thought of this passage and my colleague, Professor Baynes, found it for me; and, as I thought of it, and also thought of the day and the circumstances in which I was writing, I decided to emend it; and I emended it to κάλλιὸν ὲντάφιον η βασιλεία τοῦ Θεοῦ: “a finer winding-sheet is the Kingdom of God” – a finer because that is a winding-sheet from which there is a resurrection. Now that paraphrase of a famous phrase of Greek comes, I venture to think, rather near to the three Latin words which are the motto of the University of Oxford; and, if we believe in these three words Dominus Illuminatio Mea and can live up to them, we can look forward without dismay to any future that may be coming to us. The material future is very little in our power. Storms might come which might lay low that (sic) noble and beloved building and leave not one stone upon another [Matthew 24:2, Mark 13:2, Luke 21:6, 19:44]. But, if the truth about this university and about ourselves is told in those three Latin words, then we know for certain that, though the stones may fall, the light by which we live will not go out.

Toynbee makes his most ardent personal approach to Christianity in this lecture, Christianity and Civilization. The Phoney War was over: since May 20 the Germans had been able to see the estuary of the Somme flowing into the Channel.

Manners makyth man


The Somme, Wikimedia Commons

Civilization on Trial, OUP, 1948

3 Responses to “Dominus Illuminatio Mea”

  1. […] especially feverish excitement. The Blue-Green rivalry would erupt into gang warfare. In the Nika riots of 532, the two factions united and attempted to overthrow the unpopular Justinian. The sport did […]

  2. […] Dominus Illuminatio Mea (the Hippodrome in Constantinople) Athens, c AD 52-53 (the Areopagus at Athens) Carabas and the mob (the Gymnasium in Alexandria) Kaisarion (the Gymnasium in Alexandria) […]

  3. […] Dominus Illuminatio Mea (the Hippodrome in Constantinople) […]

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