Justinian I (ca. 482-565) was Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565. Ruling in a transitional epoch, he was both a conscious steward of the past and a pragmatic innovator.
The Roman Empire in the 4th century was an all-Mediterranean Christian state with an Eastern focus. But in the 5th century it was shattered by internal dissensions and eroded by barbarian attacks. Various Germanic tribes dismantled the Western provinces and established their own regional kingdoms, such as those of the Visigoths in Spain, the Vandals in North Africa, the Franks in Gaul, and the Ostrogoths in Italy. As recognized upholders of the continuing Roman imperial tradition, the Eastern line of emperors in Constantinople survived barbarian dangers, thanks to the richer resources of the Eastern provinces. But they faced internal strife, regional unrest, and sectarian religious controversy in these provinces. Subsequent developments in the 7th century would make the Eastern provinces into what we call the "Byzantine" Empire, with a more distinct Greek character. But in the 6th century Justinian could still see his mission as a Latin one, requiring him to restore the Christian Roman world of the past.
Rise to Power
Justinian was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius in the Macedonian Balkans; his parents were of Latin-speaking Thracian-Illyrian peasant background. All we know of his youth is that he was taken under the wing of his uncle Justin, who brought him to Constantinople for an education. The youth adopted the name Justinianus out of gratitude. Following thorough schooling, which left him with a particular taste for theology, Justinian was further aided by his uncle to rapid advancement in the army.
When the childless Anastasius I died in 518, Justin was unexpectedly made emperor, at age 66, as Justin I. Outmaneuvering rivals, Justinian rose to ever higher positions, becoming Caesar in 525 and finally being made coemperor and successor in early 527. It was also at this time that Justinian arranged to marry Theodora, thereby acquiring an important helpmate and also giving his age one of its most striking personalities.
When Justin I died on Aug. 1, 527, Justinian and Theodora succeeded without contest. During the first 4 years the mounting burden of governmental expenses made the regime oppressive and unpopular, while Justinian's autocracy provoked the old senatorial aristocracy. The so-called Nika Riots of Jan. 13-18, 532, which began as rioting among the circus factions of the Hippodrome, amplified into demands for changes in governmental policies and were finally converted by aristocratic opportunism into an effort to dethrone Justinian. The Emperor rallied his troops under some loyal generals, like Belisarius, and had them massacre the rioters. The mob broken, Justinian punished the conspirators, thus crushing both popular and aristocratic opposition for the time being.
The bulk of Justinian's era was marked by war, partly sought, partly unsought. The unwanted war, which he had inherited, was with Sassanid Persia, the empire's one fully civilized neighbor. The accession of a new Persian king, Chosroes (Khosrow) I, in 531 made peace possible, and while the "Perpetual Peace" negotiated in 532 cost Justinian a veiled obligation to pay tribute, it freed him for his projects of territorial reconquest in the West. Jealous of Justinian's subsequent successes, however, Chosroes broke the peace in 540 by invading Syria-Palestine and devastating Antioch. Still committed in the West, Justinian was plunged into new war with Persia for almost all of his remaining reign. Only in 562 was the Fifty-year Peace agreed upon, requiring even heavier tribute payments to Persia.
By contrast, Justinian's wars in the West were part of his grand design. Justinian never considered himself merely an Eastern emperor, and his empire had never officially accepted the loss of its territory, which always remained legally Roman and subject to eventual recovery. Thus, the Germanic successor states in the West were regarded as temporary interlopers, and their rulers as Arian Christians, therefore heretics. As Roman emperor, Justinian was obligated to liberate these lands and restore them to imperial rule.
Because the Franks were so distant and were not Arian heretics, Justinian made no hostile plans against them. Visigothic Spain was virtually ignored until late in the reconquest program; only in 550 was a small force sent to Spain.
The two primary targets were Vandal North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy. The Vandal kingdom was quickly destroyed by Justinian's brilliant general Belisarius in 533-534. Two years later operations were begun against Italy. Belisarius eventually negotiated a settlement with the Ostrogoths in 540, but this was only short-lived. An Ostrogothic resurgence threatened to undo this work, and so Belisarius was restored to command in Italy. But Justinian supported him so inadequately that the war drifted indecisively until the Emperor then gave fuller backing to a new commander, Narses, who defeated the Ostrogoths decisively in two battles during 552. Further campaigning completed the pacification of Italy. Nevertheless, the region had been brutally ravaged by endless warfare that had shattered its prosperity and had left it exposed to renewed German invasion by the Lombards only a few years after Justinian's death. Nor was North Africa free of prolonged war; despite the rapid Vandal collapse, the unruly Berber tribes of the hills tied imperial forces down for decades. In both sectors, the expected rapid reannexation turned into interminable war, which continuously drained the empire's manpower and money.
Justinian's foreign relations were not entirely warlike. Anxious to free the empire's commercial life from dependency on Persian middlemen, he sought new trade routes, and his cooperation with the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia realized this aim briefly. But as his wars elsewhere strained his resources, Justinian relied increasingly upon diplomacy as a substitute for strength. The Balkan provinces suffered the most for this juggling. Denuded of adequate defenses, they were left exposed to new marauders, such as the Hunnic tribes and the vanguard of the Slavs, soon to be joined by the Asiatic Avars.
To fill public needs neglected by previous regimes and to leave his own stamp upon the scene, Justinian built lavishly in all parts of his empire: fortresses and works of regional defense, structures of public utility and practical function, buildings for urban adornment, and, above all, churches and monasteries. Among his greatest buildings was his reconstruction of the Temple of the Holy Wisdom, or Sancta (Hagia) Sophia, in Constantinople, one of the supreme monuments of all Christian architecture.
Equally ambitious to leave institutional monuments, Justinian initiated a total overhauling of the empire's legal system. In the Corpus Juris Civilis his commissioners assembled a systematic exposition of the basic legal texts and the essential interpretational literature that summed up the great heritage of Roman law and preserved it for transmission to later generations. Less glorious, however, was the more practical side of his own legislative record. Justinian issued decrees on all aspects of his society's life. His goal was the noble one of a just government, but as the costs of his undertakings mounted, he was obliged to sacrifice it to the more urgent needs for immediate money and to allow his government to become ruthlessly oppressive.
Justinian was anxious to end religious disunity within the empire. The chief theological issue of his day was the persisting Monophysite rejection of the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451) regarding the natures of Christ. Since the Monophysite religious dissent was linked with regional unrest, especially in Syria-Palestine and Egypt, the problem had wide political implications. Justinian repeatedly sought to end the dissension, either by some compromise formula or device or by arbitrary pressures. His policies alternated between extremes of conciliation and persecution. At Justinian's behest, the Fifth Ecumenical Council met (553) to ratify some of his measures. Yet, for all his exertions, a resolution of the issues seemed even less attainable at the end of his reign than at the beginning.
During 542-543 the worst plague before the 14th-century Black Death ravaged the Mediterranean world, leaving the population depleted for generations. Theodora's death of cancer in 548 was a cruel personal loss to Justinian. The deteriorating Balkan defenses exposed even the capital to dangerous barbarian attacks. Religious strife, economic ruin, popular disaffection—all reached new peaks. As a result, Justinian's death on Nov. 14, 565, was greeted with popular rejoicing.
Further Reading on Justinian I
The chief contemporary historian of Justinian's age was Procopius of Caesarea, whose complete works were translated by H. B. Dewing for the Loeb Classical Library series (7 vols., 1914-1940). The fullest account of Justinian's reign in English is John B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian, vol. 1 (1923). John W. Barker, Justinian and the Later Roman Empire (1966), puts the reign within the context of the 3d-8th centuries. Percy N. Ure, Justinian and His Age (1951), is a provocative short account from a classicist's point of view. Robert Browning, Justinian and Theodora (1971), is a lively narrative, richly illustrated.
Glanville Downey, Constantinople in the Age of Justinian (1960), gives a lively picture of the period, while the same author's paperback, The Late Roman Empire (1969), is a concise digest that includes a discussion of Justinian's era. Aleksandr A. Vasiliev, Justin the First: An Introduction to the Epoch of Justinian the Great (1950), is the indispensable introduction to Justinian's reign. Valuable information on Justinian's era is in Arnold H. M. Jones's massive The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey (2 vols., 1964). Also useful is William Gordon Holmes, The Age of Justinian and Theodora: A History of the Sixth Century A.D. (2 vols., 1905-1907; 2d ed. 1912).