In Antioch someone knocked over a lamp or failed to carefully attend a cooking fire; the reason was never determined. The city’s slum district was aflame and the fire, though eventually contained, could not be extinguished. The city’s garrison did all they could and several soldiers surrendered their lives trying to save children; but as quickly as one group of shanties was pulled down the fire would spread down another alley. Eventually it reached the wharves and warehouses along the river.

Displaced slum dwellers gathered in makeshift shelters made of branches and old cloth without any facilities at all for sanitation or cooking. There were more small fires in the camps and the troops were spread thin trying to contain these along with the main blaze. In truth, the devastation was never completely controlled before the city was struck by a second and worse calamity, an earthquake. Now the wealthier districts which had been spared by the fire began to topple house upon house.

Antonina had been fetching water when the first shock hit. She was not a panicky female from the nobility. She grabbed Photius and lay face down over him in an open square with her hands over her head. She tried to pray. She felt guilty that she was asking God’s help now and at no other time and did not dare to make him any promises that she knew she would not keep if she lived. She just asked his mercy and reminded Christ that he was good and kind. In a moment between bouts of fear for Photius’ life and her soul she prayed that God would get her respectable employment far away from Antioch, maybe in one of Constantinople’s many rich villas; or better still, find her a husband.

When the first shocks subsided Antonina returned to the reality of her life. She didn’t really want a job waiting upon her betters, nor did she want another demanding man. But now they’d be no need for pretty pots to decorate the homes of Antioch for some time to come; so that half formulated plan was null. Whoring wasn’t great either but it was far more likely.

In temporary quarters outside the city proper Antonina began to pace in an unsettled manner. She could not shake off the realization of how short life could be. It would be stupid to continue just living day-to-day. Corpses were being found and excavated all around her. The very young were a particularly sad business but their deaths did not have the same horror of mortality and damnation about them that the deaths of women near her own age did. Young women who had no opportunity to repent their sins; who, like her, had likely given no more than formal ascent to religion and had then been so suddenly taken to be judged. Antonina decided that she didn’t want to go back to giving blow jobs to rich men, and anyway, there weren’t many men looking for her skills in a city that still shook from time to time. Although it never occurred to her that she might be alive because for a moment she had turned to Christ, she took up nursing the injured and cooking for the other aid-givers. It didn’t pay but for once there was purpose in her life. She and Photius ate and she felt better than she had since Belisarius had left, and that was what she wanted.

The shocks were felt even in Constantinople. Fast imperial couriers soon brought the news of Antioch’s total devastation overland along the coast road through Anatolia to the capital. Within two weeks help from Constantinople began trickling in. Justin had pledged massive assistance and chosen sackcloth over wearing the imperial purple. The co-emperors appeared to the city’s populace in this simple attire asking for those with medical experience to board one of the relief ships headed for the devastated city. They pledged financial aid and imperial workmen to help in the rebuilding. Though aged and in ill health Justin led the services in the cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Even so, he could not forget the Monophysite heretics of Antioch and suspected that the hand of God had been involved.

“Most merciful God who sent an earthquake that the jailer of Paul and Silas might listen and believe, accept the repentance of thy people in Antioch and save that city from the fate of heretics. Be merciful also to us thy obedient servants; let our aid ships fly quickly to Antioch. In anticipation of thy mercy we here pledge to rebuild thy churches there in a manner greater and more fitting than they were hither-fore, and likewise to provide for the orphans and widows of that city, and assist with our own gold and silver in the rebuilding which must be done. Remember thy city of Antioch where Peter and Paul preached and where thy people were first called Christian. Do not destroy it for its heresy, we pray.”

Justinian listened to his uncle and was moved by Justin’s sincerity. He promised himself that he would not wait until he was near death to do the sort of things that Justin had pledged in his last days. Many of the churches which great Constantine had built throughout the empire two hundred years before were now in disrepair, he would rebuild or replace them and give glory to Christ. The priests would bless him and posterity would remember him for his sanctity.