Justinian I - Byzantine Emperor

Justinian I - Byzantine Emperor
Justinian I - Byzantine Emperor

Justinian was born to a nonaristocratic family in the Balkans. His uncle Justin served in the imperial bodyguard and rose to become its commanding officer and then emperor from 518 to 527 c.e.

Justin promoted and adopted his talented nephew and proclaimed him co-emperor in 527. Two years earlier Justinian had married Theodora, a former actress and prostitute, who would prove a strong imperial partner until her death in 548.

Justinian envisioned the restoration of imperial unity and power that had been impaired during the fifth century, when the empire endured assaults by German tribes that removed most of the west from imperial control.

In 532 Justinian faced his gravest challenge in the Nika Riot in Constantinople (called so because the crowd shouted "Nika", the Greek word for "conquer"). Justinian’s tax reforms and some of his officials were unpopular.

Justinian attempted to arrest members of the Blues and Greens (the leading sports clubs which supported their charioteers who wore the said colors during the races in the Hippodrome) that were rioting.

The riots escalated in force and various senators who opposed Justinian’s centralization of power used the riots, which appeared ready to topple the government, to propose a new imperial candidate. Justinian considered abandoning the throne. At this moment of doubt Theodora declared that she would rather die than abandon the imperial purple.

Bolstered by her, Justinian unleashed soldiers under Belisarius and Mundo who massacred, reportedly, 30,000 people. The riot had the effect of strengthening Justinian’s position, as he used it to arrest and punish his political opponents.

He also used it to impose his stamp on Constantinople, sections of which had been burned down, including the church of Hagia Sophia. The emperor built a new, far grander Hagia Sophia that was the greatest church in Christendom and the mark of Byzantine power and splendor to the 15th century.

It stands today as one of the great works of world architecture. Justinian built or repaired other churches as well as fortresses throughout the empire. Procopius, a contemporary, wrote On Buildings to describe the imperial effort.

As part of his restoration of unity and power, Justinian commissioned the revision and reorganization of laws, known collectively as the Corpus Juris Civilis. This work comprised the Code (the law book), the Digest (legal decisions and commentaries), the Institutes (a legal textbook), and the Novels, which were the new laws promulgated after the Code.

Justinian’s greatest challenge was to find a way of uniting the various Christian groups in his empire. Without a solution his empire would remain divided between eastern lands, like Egypt and Syria, and the West.

As a student of theology himself, Justinian was one of the few emperors to write theological works, though he was not above persecuting other groups to pressure them to conform. He persecuted non-Christians such as Samaritans and pagans.

The theological problems even affected the imperial palace. His wife, Theodora, was pro-Monophysite, while he himself fluctuated between a pro-Chalcedonian and a more tolerant position. In 553 Justinian summoned the Fifth Ecumenical Council that met in Constantinople.

This did not, unfortunately, bring a permanent solution. Justinian was more successful with other groups, namely the Christians of Arianism, who rejected the Council of Nicaea and the Council of Ephesus, which proclaimed that Christ was begotten and not made by God.

His persecution of them made relations with the German tribes in the West uneasy, since they too were Arians (except the Franks). Justinian’s goal of stamping out heresy and bringing the lands of the West back into Roman hands would both be accomplished by military assault.

Under Belisarius he campaigned first against the Vandals of North Africa, which he quickly conquered (533–534). The campaign then shifted to Sicily and Italy where the Ostrogoths were defeated in a long drawn-out conflict that devastated Italy (535–552). (Three years after the emperor’s death, the Lombards invaded Italy and deprived the empire of much of the reconquered peninsula.) Justinian also occupied portions of Spain held by the Visigoths. The army’s focus on the West, however, weakened the eastern and northern defenses.

Justinian’s vision of unity managed to bring entire regions back to the empire, created a lasting legal compilation, built one of the great monuments of world architecture, and asserted imperial power over all challenges.

Yet, this was achieved at a great price. He was not able to find a solution to theological divisions, and the cost of the western reconquest emptied the treasury and opened up problems of defense for his successors.