Justinian the Great – part 1

I said earlier that I would write about Justinian.

Justinian was born in the ancient town of Tauresium, in what is now the Republic of Macedonia, but was then the province of Dardania, part of the Diocese of Dacia.

Justinian was a native Latin speaker and is said to have been the last Roman emperor who had Latin as his first language. As a boy, he was adopted by his uncle Justin (later emperor Justin I) and taken to Constantinople.

Justin was an officer in one of the Imperial Guard regiments and both he and Justinian represent that class of nouveau riche New Men who were able to rise to the top of the empire in the aftermath of the militarisation of the imperial system after Dioccletian’s Tetrarchy.

Justinian seems to have made the most of his opportunities, studying theological issues and the law, and making himself known to the senators and aristocrats of the City.

On the death of the emperor Anastasius in 518, Justin was able to secure the throne, by means of being the commander of the only troops in the City and by virtue of his ability to bribe them. A career soldier, Justin was barely literate and was around 70 years old at his accession. His nephew Justinian became his most trusted advisor and, on his adoption by Justin, his appointed successor.

Justinian was made the commander of the armies in the East and in 521 gained the consulship. On the death of Justin in 527, he became emperor.

In 525, Justinian had married Theodora, described by Procopius as a courtesan and a sink of depravity, who was from one of the Circus racing families.

As an outsider and a self-made man, Justinian relied heavily upon his own circle of advisors and appointees, including the Praetorian Prefect, John the Cappadocian, and Tribonian, who was the chief commissioner of the Corpus Juris Civilis, the legal text known today as the Code of Justinian.

This great work, written in Latin, at that time the legal language of the empire was in three parts; the Pandectae, the Institutiones and the Codex Justinianus. A fourth part, the Novellae Constitutiones was added later. This set of documents, with later amendments and additions, remained the basis of the legal system of the empire until the Fall in 1453.

Justinian’s administration of new men was efficient in collecting taxes and did not depend on support from the traditional senatorial class and this in turn led to his ministers and tax collectors becoming unpopular with both the upper classes and the masses alike, leading to calls for Justinian to dismiss John the Cappadocian and exploding into the Nika Riots of 532, where the Green and Blue Circus factions united to oppose the planned execution of several of their members who had been convicted of murder.

The riots began at a race meeting at the Hippodrome and, with clandestine support of some of the senatorial class, soon spread and led to large parts of the city being destroyed by fires. The rioters were by now calling for the overthrow of Justinian and went as far as proclaiming a new emperor, Hypatius, who was a nephew of the later Emperor Anastasius I.

Justinian was in despair and seriously considered fleeing, but his wife Theodora is said to have persuaded him otherwise, refusing to leave the City. It was now that we see the importance of one other member of Justinian’s circle of associates, the great general Belisarius, and it was he who was responsible for saving Justinian’s throne, suppressing the City mobs and reputedly killing 30,000 rebels.

Following the Nika Riots, Justinian was to establish himself as a new type of emperor. He turned away from the now-traditional forms of the government that had been established under Constantine, abolishing the consulship, and reinventing the role of emperor as an autocrat surrounded by a court full of ceremonies, attendants and rituals designed to show the emperor as the pinnacle of the whole edifice.

Court life became more complex, more gilded, more majestic and far more Christian. Justinian portrayed himself as the most Christian of Romans, the Defender of the Faith and a fanatical enemy of the heretics and pagans, although it is useful to note that he restricted his oppression to isolated minorities and often those on the fringes of the empire.

During the Nika Riots, the church of Hagia Sophia had been burnt down. Justinian made the most of this opportunity and called upon Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, two Greek mathematicians and architects, to built a truly awesome new church. The result was the revolutionary domed Hagia Sophia that endures to this day.

In 531, the Sassanid king had died and Justinian had been able to secure a peace in the east. Therefore, in the 530s, the empire was in a favourable political and military position and Justinian turned his attentions to the West, launching his armies against the Arian Germans who ruled over the successors to the Western Empire.

Justinian considered it his duty to try and regain the lost provinces of the West and reunite them to the empire.

Hilderic, King of the Vandals, had been deposed by his cousin Gelimer and Justinian used this as an excuse to attack the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. In 533, Belisarius invaded and his fleet and armies proved too strong for the Vandals and in 534 a Prefecture of Africa was established, with the fallen king Gelimer being paraded in Constantinople in an imperial triumph, before being allowed to retire to an estate in Asia Minor until his death many years later.

Justinian’s second success was in regaining the Italian peninsula for the empire. Again, it was his general Belisarius who was the instrument of this success.

On the death of King Amalric in 534, the Goths had fallen prey to dynastic wars, and the Roman armies had used this opportunity to invade Sicily in 535, advancing north to capture Rome in 536. The war was to continue until 540, with the Italian peninsula once again falling under Roman rule.

The renewal of Roman rule in Italy is a subject with huge ramifications and it is one that I shall return to in a separate post. This is a good point to end the first part of my discussion of the reign of Justinian.


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