Justinian’s Reign: From Stability to Strain


Introduction to Emperor Justinian

Emperor Justinian was described by the contemporary historian John Malalas as: “In appearance, curly-haired, round-faced, handsome, with receding hair, a florid complexion, with his hair and beard greying; he was magnanimous and Christian.” This nondescript, non-traditional Byzantine ruler assumed the command of an empire that was, in general, politically stable, both internally and externally, with a full treasury from which to begin.

The Role of Empress Theodora

Justinian’s ability to maintain this stability was due in large part to his immediate family, beginning with his wife and empress, Theodora (c. 497–548). Theodora, much like her husband, had a non-traditional background, with most of it unaccounted for and lost to history. What is known before her marriage to Justinian is that Theodora was the daughter of Acacius, nicknamed the Bearkeeper, who provided animals for the amusement of the empire at the Hippodrome. Upon arriving in Constantinople, Justinian fell in love with Theodora and soon married her, just before the death of his uncle Justin.

Empress Theodora’s Influence

Theodora quickly “rose to royal dignity over all obstacles” and became more than just the empress but a close and trusted confidant and adviser to Justinian with her clear, pragmatic vision. This level-headed approach to the politics and problems of the empire would serve as a strong counterbalance to Justinian’s authoritarian and imperial leanings. On at least one occasion, her firm and direct counsel to the emperor likely saved him and the empire. This moment came during the bloody and tumultuous Nika Riot when events were quickly spiralling out of control and Justinian was close to losing his nerve and was set to flee the Great Palace. It was then that Theodora stepped in to remind the emperor that “Monarchy is a good shroud,” which stiffened Justinian’s resolve and authority as emperor and likely saved the empire from a complete breakdown of governmental control.

Justinian’s Political Network

Justinian also relied heavily on three cousins, Germanus (d. 550), Boraides (d. 548), and Justus (d. 550), all brothers. These three would help to put down the Nika Riot and serve as trustworthy and reliable generals in the wars against the Persians and the enemies of the empire in Italy. Once Theodora died in 548, Germanus would hold sway with the emperor as his most trusted, confident, and powerful family member.

Justinian’s Ambitions and Political Actions

With the establishment of trusted family members in key advisory, political, and military positions, Justinian’s political ambitions took off. The emperor was enraptured with the idealism of Rome’s republican past and saw it as his divinely ordained duty to reassert what had been lost as to territory, establish the codification of its laws for all of its citizens, and above all, to reassert his imperial authority in guiding the empire to do so. The irony in his execution would be that Justinian would soon leave those very same Republican ideals behind as he consolidated more power to himself in pursuit of restoring Rome’s glory.

The Religious and Political Fusion

“What is there greater, what more sacred than imperial majesty?” Justinian wrote as his imperial authority. The emperor wholeheartedly believed in his role as Imperator, that of the dual role of Commander-in-Chief and the chief Legislator. Additionally, Justinian was aware of the profound importance of Christianity within the empire, from the everyday lives of its people to its reverberations on the battlefield; therefore, further consecrations such as Chosen of God and Anointed of the Lord were bestowed upon him. These religious consecrations elevated the emperor even further above his subjects, making him not just the physical leader of his people, but their spiritual leader as well, thus binding the weaves of politics and Byzantine politics even tighter, with Emperor Justinian above all. This power fusion of the political and the religious established Justinian’s rule as one beyond just that of human politics, but one that was divinely inspired and sanctioned by God, thus giving him sovereignty above all.

Byzantium's Twilight Strategic Failures That Crushed an Empire by Michael G. Stroud
Byzantium's Twilight Strategic Failures That Crushed an Empire by Michael G. Stroud
Justinian and Theodora
Justinian and Theodora


Economic Foundations and Challenges

The economic tide of the empire would ebb and flow much like the Mediterranean Sea, from its busting coffers at the beginning of Justinian’s reign to its near destitution by the time of his death in 565. The Byzantine financial system’s machine was run by three overriding factors, which Justinian inherited and would continue to refine during his rule. These were agriculture, based heavily on grain production from Egypt; commercial trading through the vast network of roads, rivers, and ports that connected Europe and Asia; and finally, taxes and the administrative process of collecting taxes, all bringing great wealth into the empire.

Impact of Natural Disasters and Military Engagements

Though there are no historical records that speak directly of Justinian’s treasury and income at the time of his coming to power, we can ascertain that based on his economically minded forbearer, Anastasius I (c. 431–518), he likely inherited a treasury that enjoyed a surplus of at least 320,000 pounds of gold. This imperial surplus became the wellspring for Justinian’s ambitions in both his building programs and his military expansionism, but the empire’s agricultural base was the lynchpin keeping it all together, as without it, there would be no food, but even more worrisome, next to no tax revenue.

This agricultural base within an expansive empire allowed for the production of varied crops, from its main staple of grain and wheat in Anatolia and Egypt to vines and olives in coastal areas. Animal husbandry was being done throughout the empire’s interiors, and even Constantinople had large swaths of its land converted for the production of fruits and vegetables, all to power the agricultural and economic machine.

Trade and Taxation: Pillars of the Byzantine Economy

The majority of the empire’s citizens worked the land in and around villages that ran throughout the empire; therefore, the well-being of the farmer was in the best interest of both the empire and the emperor. Oftentimes the emperor, including Justinian, would issue edicts to provincial governors reminding them to protect these farmers from undue burdens or unfairness, as the loss of these farmers would be catastrophic to Byzantine society.

Trade through Constantinople, which the Byzantines referred to as “The City,” was critically important to the economy. Its location and that of the empire itself served as a geographical meeting point between the East and West, where the most heavily travelled land and sea routes of trade either began or ended in Byzantium. The constant flow of Chinese merchants with silk (until Byzantium began making their own through smuggled silkworms), Russians with honey, furs, and linens from the north, and assorted spices from Anatolia all brought critical and needed supplies and revenue to the empire.

Byzantine ports dotted the greater Mediterranean Sea and provided numerous locations for merchants the world over to conduct business. In Justinian’s time, Byzantium’s domination of the Mediterranean Sea was such that it was referred to as the Byzantine Sea, with its coin and currency being widely accepted by nearly every market in the world. The endless bazaars, stalls, and peddlers lined every Byzantine seaport, with the government securing a steady income from the taxation of the entire affair, continuing to fill the empire’s treasuries. The allure of Byzantium’s ports and trading opportunities was such that merchants from all over the world fought to make their way to Constantinople and other Byzantine cities in the hopes of doing business, where they were deemed to be “the paradise of monopoly, privilege, and protectionism.”

Taxation and the administration of collecting taxes were established by emperor Diocletian (r. 284–305), who introduced a tax system based around ‘heads’ (capita) and ‘land’ (iugera), which, along with Constantine and his creation of gold coin currency known as Nomisma or Solidus, would remain the monetary core for the empire until at least the eleventh century. Justinian improved upon the entire system by “tightening up the tax collection system and refusing to rebate arrears… eliminating unessential expenses like the outmoded prizes for oratory… for festivals, [sic] establishing a tax on exports to barbarian enemies—export controls” and “regulating the price and fining black-marketeers.”

The refinement of the Byzantine tax system cut down dramatically on corruption at the local level now that imperial officials were in charge of collections, and regular pay helped to mitigate the constant issue of desertions (which would always plague Byzantine armies to one degree or another), which allowed for even more efficiency and increased monetary flow into the imperial treasury. Justinian also introduced state controls on interest rates through its coin production and types, as well as strict measures regulating commerce that were conducted by the various guilds within Constantinople and throughout the empire.

Crisis and Decline at the End of Justinian’s Reign

The well-established and controlled Byzantine economy would begin to crack by the midpoint of Justinian’s reign and nearly break by his end in several ways. First, always at a disadvantage as to manpower for crop production and especially that of manning her armies, Byzantium utilized diplomatic tributes and bribes to effectively buy a peace from its enemies. This had been a long-standing practice that Justinian continued with during his reign, which included lump sum payments such as 11,000 pounds of gold that were paid to the Persians in 532 to annual tributes of varying amounts ranging from 400 pounds of gold to over a thousand, which were paid to tribes from the Balkans to Anatolia and then some. These obligations would continue to grow and become harder to maintain as income-driving lands were lost after his death, thus depriving the empire of more and more of its main cash crop, if you will.

Natural calamities led by the earthquakes of 527 that levelled Antioch and reportedly killed over 250,000 people, the cold year of 535/536 that was likely due to an Indonesian volcanic eruption that ravaged Byzantine agriculture, and the even more deadly plague of 541-543. The plague, sometimes referred to as the ‘Justinian Plague’ and believed to be bubonic, would run roughshod through Constantinople and the empire, wiping out what was estimated to be between 20 and 30 percent of the empire’s total population. The mortality rate in Constantinople alone, somewhere between 5,000 and 10,000 a day, was so severe and put such a strain on the empire’s resources that “people who died remained unburied, for there were not enough stretchers in the churches and the houses’ to carry them away.”

The drain on the Byzantine economy was profound after the loss of such a significant portion of the wealth-generating population. When combined with the other natural factors and those of the empire’s wars of expansion, which required the most direct funding of any institution or entity in Byzantium, its financial collapse was a near certainty.



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