Justinian the Great was the Byzantine Emperor from 527 to 565 CE. Born around 482 CE in the village of Tauresium in Illyria, his uncle, Emperor Justin I, was an imperial bodyguard who ascended to the throne upon the death of Anastasius in 518 CE.

Justinian is regarded as one of the greatest late Roman and Byzantine emperors. In 533 to 534 C.E., he launched a major military campaign to recapture Africa from the Vandals and Italy from the Goths (535 to 554 CE). In addition, he ordered the construction of new churches, monasteries, forts, water reservoirs, and bridges throughout the empire (532 CE).

Between 529 and 534 CE, he finished the Corpus Juris Civilis, a compilation of legal reforms. This was the compilation of all Roman laws issued from the reign of Hadrian (117–138 CE) to the present. He is considered one of the greatest (and most controversial) late Roman and Byzantine emperors in history.

Mosaic of Justinian I - Sant'Apoilinare Nuovo - Ravenna
Mosaic of Justinian I - Sant'Apoilinare Nuovo - Ravenna

Early Life

The early life of Justinian is poorly understood. His mother, Vigilantia, was the Excubitor’s sister (an Imperial bodyguard). To ensure the education of his adopted nephew, Justin brought him to Constantinople. Justinian is regarded as one of history’s greatest late Roman and Byzantine emperors during his reign.

His accomplishments in the domains of art, architecture, legal reform, and conquest are extraordinary by any historical leader’s standards.

The works of Procopius have significantly contributed to this comprehension, as have criticisms of his reign. His Christian faith was visible in every aspect of his endeavors, indicating a milestone in the shift of emperors from war and political leaders to religious and patronage leaders as well.

Justinian served as a close confidant and advisor. He was appointed Consul in 521 CE and subsequently appointed commander of the Eastern army. In 525 C.E., he wed Theodora, a woman of humble origins who was possibly a courtesan.

Even though he was not a soldier himself, Justinian launched a massive military campaign to conquer Italy, Sicily, and Africa.

The Iberian War (526–532) was a conflict between the Sassanian Empire and the kingdom of Iberia in the Caucasus Mountains (roughly the modern state of Georgia). Beginning with the reign of Anastasius I, the conflict was part of a larger war against the Sassanian Empire. After numerous battles, a truce was signed upon the death of the Sassanian Shah Kavadh I and the accession of his son Khosroes I.

 

Justinian the Great and the Vandals

Since 439 C.E., the Vandals have ruled Carthage, the capital of Africa, and spread their influence throughout Africa, Tripolitania, Corsica, Sardinia, and the Balearic Islands.

In 533 CE, Justinian initiated a reconquest campaign to reclaim these territories for the Byzantine Empire. In the spring of 533 CE, Roman soldiers from the province of Cyrenaica helped consolidate an anti-Vandal revolt in Tripolitania (modern-day western Libya).

General Belisarius, Justinian’s most successful military commander, led a force of soldiers from the Aegean, stopping at Sicily and landing in Africa shortly thereafter. After a series of battles, the Vandal king Gelimer surrendered in the winter of 534 CE, leaving Africa in Roman hands after nearly a century of Vandal rule.

 

The Gothic War

Since the deposition of the last Roman Emperor in the West, Romulus Augustus, in 476 CE, the Goths have ruled Italy and Sicily. Despite the fact that Odoacer, the Gothic Rex Italiae, acknowledged the authority of the emperor in Constantinople, the Gothic dictatorship began to pursue policies independent of the Roman domain.

Even after the Gothic conquest, the Roman nobility of Italy remained in a position of luxury, but in 524 CE, with the execution of the renowned Roman Italian politician Boethius, dispute and dissent emerged. In this atmosphere of unrest within the Gothic regime, Justinian endeavored to recapture Italy and Sicily.

The fast conquest of Africa boosted the emperor’s confidence, and he dispatched Belisarius with a small force to assault Sicily in 535 CE, which fell quickly to the Romans. After a series of wins and losses against the Goths and their allies in Italy and Dalmatia (modern Croatia), the Romans controlled all of Italy by 540 CE.

However, this did not mark the conclusion of the Gothic War. Despite the fact that most of Italy was ruled by the Romans, certain towns and cities (such as Verona) remained under the influence of the Gothic style.

Totila emerged as the new leader of the remaining Goths, who had been decisively crushed. Soon after leading the reconquest of Italy, he was proclaimed king in the autumn of 541 CE. Totila’s objectives were achieved despite the fact that he commanded a very small army.

Concurrently, new battles sprang up between Justinian and the Sassanid Empire, necessitating a division of resources between East and West. In 542 CE, the Justinianic Plague weakened the empire’s ability to respond. In 543 CE, Totila was able to withstand the initial Roman counterattacks and seize Naples by siege. The city of Rome changed hands three times in rapid succession before falling to Totila in 549 CE.

Prior to this, Belisarius had attempted to defeat Totila on multiple occasions but was handicapped by a lack of supplies and Justinian’s assistance. Germanus Justinus, the nephew of Justinian, launched a new campaign, but he passed away in 551 CE and was succeeded by Narses. In 553 CE, Narses defeated Totila, restoring the Roman Empire to Italy.

The rule of Justinian lasted over four decades, although it was not always popular. A messianic figure in Palestine, Julianus ben Sabar, led a revolt of Samaritans against the empire in 529 CE. In the year 532 A.D., Constantinople was beset by civil unrest; the Nika riots lasted a week, resulted in the deaths of thousands of inhabitants, and left much of the city’s magnificent core in ruins.

After Justinian’s death, a second, more substantial Samaritan uprising in 559 CE, potentially involving sections of the Jewish population of Palestine, was put down.

 

The Codex Justinianus

This was the Codex Iustinianus, which was commissioned by Justinian early in his reign. A first edition was produced in 529 CE, followed by a revised second edition in 534 CE (which, unlike the first, survives today). The Latin-written material is organized into titles pertaining to distinct parts of the law. It also had regulations regarding heresy, orthodoxy, and paganism.

Procopius and Justinian the Great

Justinian is notable among Roman emperors in that the same author chronicled his life in two separate sources.

Between 545 and 553 C.E., Procopius of Caesarea, the legal secretary of General Belisarius, authored De Bellis (“On the Wars [of Justinian]”), which details the victories and failures of the emperor’s military campaign.

Between 550 and 557 C.E., he also authored De Aedificiis (“On the Constructions [of Justinian]”), a treatise chronicling in great detail the numerous construction projects undertaken by the emperor throughout his reign.

Between 550 and 562 CE, Procopius also produced the Anecdota (often translated as “Secret History” or “Unpublished Things”), which purports to depict the truth of life at the imperial court. It describes the supposed sexual activities of Empress Theodora, the emperor’s lack of resolve, and the influence of women in the imperial court.

Given the extremely negative tone of the text, it is unclear if Procopius meant the work to be satirical or a more accurate depiction of imperial life than the De Bellis or De Aedificiis. Almost certainly, the Anecdota demonstrates that Procopius had lost faith in Justinian’s rule, in contrast to the optimistic sentiments conveyed in his earlier works.

Justinian is regarded as one of the finest late Roman and Byzantine emperors in history. His accomplishments in the domains of art, architecture, legal reform, and conquest are extraordinary by any historical leader’s standards.

The works of Procopius have significantly contributed to this comprehension, as have criticisms of his reign. His Christian faith was visible in every aspect of his endeavors, indicating a milestone in the shift of emperors from war and political leaders to religious and patronage leaders as well.

 

Belisarius mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Belisarius mosaic, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

Death

Justinian died at night in the imperial palace around the age of 83. Callinichus, an elderly aristocrat, was the only other person in the room. He went to tell Justin and Sophia. Several senators accompanied them. Callinichus told them, possibly truthfully, that before Justinian’s death, he had appointed Justin as his successor. Justin and Sophia now led party to the imperial palace, where they were greeted in friendly manner by Tiberius and the imperial guard. 
 
Justinian’s sarcophagus was carried in procession past crowds of onlookers to his mausoleum in the church of the Holy Apostles. When the fourth crusade entered Constantinople in 1204, they discovered it there and looted it.

 

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Recommended Books

A History of the Ostrogoths
A History of the Ostrogoths by Thomas Burns
Ancient Rome: From Romulus to Justinian by Thomas R. Martin
Ancient Rome: From Romulus to Justinian by Thomas R. Martin
Justinian's Flea The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire by William Rosen
Justinian's Flea The First Great Plague and the End of the Roman Empire by William Rosen
The Secret History by Procopius
The Secret History by Procopius
The Wars of Justinian I
The Wars of Justinian I by

Sources

  • Death of Justinian I | History Today. (2015). Historytoday.com. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/months-past/death-justinian-i

  • Wyeth, W. (2012, September 28). Justinian IWorld History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from https://www.worldhistory.org/Justinian_I/‌

  • © José Luiz Bernardes Ribeiro

 

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