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Justinian I

Justinian I

Roman Emperor (527-65)

Flavius Anicius Julianus Justinianus was born about 483 at Tauresium (Taor) in Illyricum (near Uskup); d. 565. The theory that he was a Slav by race is now abandoned (Krumbacher, "Byz. Litt.", 237). He was the nephew of Justin I (518-27), being the son of Justin's sister Vigilantia and a certain Sabatius. Already during his uncle's reign he became the chief power in the state. Justin was an old man, weak in body and mind; he gradually handed over all power to his nephew. In 521 Justinian was proclaimed consul, then general-in-chief, and in April, 527, Augustus; in August of the same year Justin died, and Justinian was left sole ruler.

The thirty-eight years of Justinian's reign are the most brilliant period of the later empire. Full of enthusiasm for the memories of Rome, he set himself, and achieved, the task of reviving their glory. The many-sided activity of this wonderful man may be summed up under the headings: military triumphs, legal work, ecclesiastical polity, and architectural activity. Dominating all is the policy of restoring the empire, great, powerful, and united. Of these many features of his reign -- each of them epoch-making -- it is impossible to give more than the merest outline here.


Justinian carried on the unending war against the Persians with mixed success. His general Belisarius lost a battle at first in 528, then completely routed the Persians at Daras, near Nisibis (June, 530); but on 19 April, 531, the Romans were defeated near Callinicum on the Euphrates; in September a peace was arranged on fairly equal terms. The emperor then conceived the plan of reconquering Africa and Italy, lost to the empire by the Vandal and Gothic invasions. In 533 a fleet of five hundred ships set sail for Africa under Belisarius. In two battles the Romans annihilated the Vandal kingdom, took the king, Gelimer, prisoner to Constantinople, and re-estabished the authority of Caesar in Africa. In 535 Belisarius sailed for Sicily. The island was conquered at once. After a reverse in Dalmatia that province was also subdued. Belisarius in 536 took Rhegium and Naples, entered Rome in triumph, seized Ravenna, sustained a siege in Rome till 538, when the Goths retired. A second general, Narses, then arrived with reinforcements from Constantinople; Milan and all Liguria were taken in 539, and in 540 all Italy up to the frontier of the Frankish Kingdom was reunited to the empire. In 542 the Goths revolted under their king, Totila; by 553 they were again crushed. Narses became the first Exarch of Italy. Verona and Brixia (Brescia), the last Gothic strongholds, fell in 562. The Roman armies then marched on Spain and conquered its south-eastern provinces (lost again in 623, after Justinian's death.) Meanwhile the Crimean Goths and all the Bosporus, even the Southern Arabs, were forced to acknowledge the rule of Rome. A second war against the Persians (540-45) pushed the Roman frontier beyond Edessa. From 549 to 556 a long in Armenia and Colchis (the Lazic War) again established the empire without a rival on the shores of the Black Sea. So Justinian ruled once more over a colossal world empire, whose extent rivaled that of the great days before Diocletian. Meanwhile the emperor was no less successful at home. In 532 a very dangerous revolt (the Nika revolution), that arose from the factions of the Circus (the Blues and Greens), was put down severely. Bury says that the result of the suppression was "an imperial victory which established the form of absolutism by which Byzantine history is generally characterized". (Later Roman Empire, I, 345).


The most enduring work of Justinian was his codification of the laws. This, too, was an important part of his general scheme. The great empire he was reconquering must have the strength of organized unity. He says in the edict of promulgation of his laws that a state rests on arms and law ("De Justin. Cod. Confirmando", printed in front of the codex). The scattered decrees of his predecessors must then be collected in a well-ordered and complete codex, logically arranged, so that every Roman citizen could learn at once the law of the empire on any subject. This codification was Justinian's great work. He made many new laws himself, but his enduring merit is rather the classification of scattered older laws. The legislation that the world owes to Justinian is in outline this:

  • First, a commission of ten lawyers (including the famous Tribonianus and Theophilus) reduced the bulky and rambling Theodosian Code (published in 438) to an orderly compendium, inserting into it the laws made since it was written. So the "Codex" was produced in 529.
  • Second, a mass of answers given by authorities (the responsa prudentum that formed acknowledged precedents) were arranged (omitting all superfluities) in fifty books, whereby a law library of a hundred and six volumes was reduced to about one-fifth. This is the "Digest", or "Pandects", published in 530.
  • Third, a manual of law for students was compiled from the commentaries of Gaius (second century). This, the "Institutes", was published in the same year, 530.
  • In 534, finally, the whole work was revised, and a fourth part, the "Authentic", or "Novels", was added, containing later decisions made by Justinian's own courts.

So the immortal "Corpus Juris Civilis" was produced, consisting of four parts: (a) Digestae seu Pondecta, (b) Institutiones, (c) Codex, (d) Authenticum seu Novellae (an excellent account of its composition is found in Bury's Gibbon, ed. Cit., IV 461-510). It would be difficult to exaggerate the importance of this "Corpus". It is the basis of all canon law (ecclesia vivit lege romana), and the basis of civil law in every civilized country.


The Catholic cannot applaud the great emperor's ecclesiastical polity, though in this, too, we recognize the statesman's effort to promote peace and union within the empire. It was a matter of course that this union was to be that of the "most holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of God" (5 c., De s. tr., I, 1). The Corpus Juris is full of laws against paganism (apostasy was punished by death, 10 c., "De pag.", I, 11), Jews, Samaritans (who began a dangerous revolt in 529), Manichaeans, and other heretics. The decrees of the four general councils were incorporated in the civil law. There was no toleration of dissent. True to the ideal of Constantinople, the emperor conceived himself as "priest and king", supreme head on earth in matters ecclesiastical as well as in the State. He filled his codex with canon law and assumed the most outspoken Erastianism as the law of the empire. And all through his reign he fell foul of the authority of the Church by his attempts to conciliate the Monophysites. Ever since Chalcedon (451) these heretics filled Syria and Egypt, and were a constant source of disunion and trouble to the empire. Justinian was one of the many emperors who tried to reconcile them by concessions. His wife Theodora was a secret Monophysite; influenced by her, the emperor, while maintaining Chalcedon, tried to satisfy the heretics by various compromises. First came the Theopaschite question. Peter Fullo of Antioch had introduced into the Trisagion the clause: "Who didst suffer for us". Pope Hormisdas (514-23) refused to admit it, as savoring of Monophysitism. But Justinian approved it and promoted a Monophysite, Anthimus I (536), to the See of Constantinople. Then followed the great quarrel of the Three Chapters, the lamentable attitude of Pope Vigilius (540-55), and the Second Council of Constantinople (553). In all thus story Justinian appears as a persecutor of the Church, and takes his place, unhappily, among the semi-Monophysite tyrants who caused the long series of quarrels and schisms that were the after-effect of Monophysitism. His ecclesiastical tyranny is the one regrettable side of the character of so great a man.


Justinian also acquired immortal fame by the impetus he gave to the arts. If any style can ever be ascribed to one man, what we call Byzantine architecture, at least in its perfect form, owes its origin to Justinian and the architects he employed. His activity in building was prodigious. He covered his empire from Ravenna to Damascus with superb monuments. All later building in East and West was derived from his models; two most famous schools, our medieval (Gothic) and the Moslem styles, are the lineal descendants of Justinian's architecture. Of his many buildings may be mentioned the two most famous, the church of Our Lady (now the El-Aqsa mosque) at Jerusalem and, by far the most splendid of all, the great church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) at Constantinople. This church especially, built by Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, and consecrated on 27 December, 537, remains always one of the chief monuments of architecture in the world.

Naturally these great enterprises demanded great expense. Justinian's subjects frequently complained of the heavy taxes; many people in the lands he conquered back thought that the glory of being once more Roman citizens was bought too dearly when they realized how much they had to pay to the Roman exchequer. On the other hand, Justinian spent magnificently. In times of calamity, earthquake and famine, the imperial purse was opened to the sufferers with unlimited generosity.

The emperor's private life is somewhat clouded by the scandals told of his wife, Theodora. She had been a dancing-girl; there is no doubt that she had led an immoral life before her marriage in 523. She was also a Monophysite. But most scholars now reject the scandalous account of her married life given by Procopius in his "Secret History". And in January, 532, at the time of the Circus revolution that nearly wrecked the state, it was Theodora's courage and presence of mind that saved the situation. For the rest she had a hand in all her husband's policy; administration, diplomacy, church affairs, etc., felt her influence for twenty-one years. If she did not dishonor Justinian by infidelity she certainly led him into semi-Monophysitism (see Diehl, Theodora, imperatrice de Byzance," Paris, 1904).

Justinian died in November, 565 (succeeded by his nephew, Justin II, 565-78). He was undoubtedly the greatest emperor after Constantine, perhaps the greatest of all the long line of Roman Caesars. Indeed one may question whether any state can show in its history so magnificent a ruler. His glorious memory lasted through all the ages after him (see Dante, "Paradiso", vi,) and his portrait gleams still from the mosaic in S. Vitale at Ravenna, where he stands in his toga and diadem, surrounded by his court, with a bishop at his side the very type of the majesty of Christian Rome on the Bosporus.

The literature on the various sides of Justinian's activity is naturally enormous. His reign is equally important to the historian of the empire, the lawyer, theologian, and archaeologist. These are a few of the most serviceable modern works only: GIBBON (ed. BURY), The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, IV (London, 1898), xl-xliv (an excellent general account, with copious bibliography in Bury's appendix); BURY, A History of the Later Roman Empire, I (London, 1889), bk. IV 333-482 (supplements Gibbon); DIEHL, Justinien et la civilisation byzantine au Vle siecle (Paris, 1901); SCHULZE, Gesch. des Untergangs des griech.-romischen Heidentums, I (Jena, 1887), 434-59; HUTTON, The Church of the Sixth Century (London, 1897); JOERS, Die Reichspolitik Kaiser Justinians (Giessen,1893); KNECHT, Die Religionspolitik Kaiser Justinians I. (Wurzburg, l896); DIEKAMP, Die origenistischen Streitigkeiten (Munster, 1899); Further bibliography is given in DIEHL, Etudes byzantines (Paris, 1905), i and ii.


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