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Born 483

Died 565

Byzantine emperor

T he Byzantine Empire, which grew out of the Eastern Roman Empire in Greece, carried Roman culture into the Middle Ages. It was a splendid and sometimes powerful realm, a stronghold of civilization in a dark time, and Justinian was perhaps its greatest ruler.

Justinian reconquered the Western Roman Empire, which had fallen to invading tribes in 476, and briefly reunited former Roman lands under his leadership. More lasting was his legal code, or system of laws, which provided the foundation for much of the law that exists today. Justinian built dozens of churches, most notably the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and under his reign, Byzantine arts—including mosaics, colored bits of glass or tile arranged to form a picture—reached a high point.

In his uncle's care

The Byzantine BIZ-un-teen) Empire, sometimes known as Byzantium (bi-ZAN-tee-um), controlled much of southeastern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa from its capital at Constantinople (kahn-stan-ti-NOH-pul), which today is the city of Istanbul in Turkey. Justinian, however, grew up far from the centers of power, in a village called Tauresium. His family had been humble farmers just a generation before, but his uncle Justin c. 450–527) had changed their fortunes when he went to Constantinople and became a member of the imperial bodyguard charged with protecting the life of Emperor Leo I.

Eventually Justin became commander of the imperial guards and a military leader of distinction. Having no children of his own, Justin brought his nephews—including Justinian—to Constantinople, where he helped them gain an education and embark on careers. Justinian enjoyed the benefits of a superb education, something Justin, who never learned to read and write, did not have. As was the Roman custom (the Byzantines referred to themselves as "Romans"), Justinian proved his ability by service in the military.

Co-ruler and sole ruler

In 518, the reigning emperor died, and Justin was chosen as his successor. Now the uncle called on his nephews, who had the education he lacked, to assist him in leading the empire, and none of these men distinguished himself more than Justinian. The latter became one of Justin's key advisors, and early in Justin's reign uncovered a plot against his uncle by one of the emperor's rivals.

Although Justinian was in his late thirties by now, Justin formally adopted him at some point during the 520s as a means of preparing to pass on leadership to him. In 525, the emperor designated his nephew as his preferred successor, though under the Roman system, succession was far from automatic: the emperor's chosen successor had to prove himself. Evidently Justinian did, because Justin promoted him to co-emperor on April 4, 527, and when the uncle died on August 1, Justinian became sole ruler.

Marriage to Theodora

Justinian had passed the age of forty before marrying, and when he did marry, it required the changing of an ancient Roman law. The reason was that the woman with whom he chose to share his life, Theodora (see box), was an actress—and in the Byzantine world, actresses had positions in society similar to that of prostitutes (and in fact, many actresses were prostitutes). Men of Justinian's class were forbidden from marrying women such as Theodora. Therefore Justinian, who fell deeply and passionately in love with the young woman (she was half his age) after meeting her in 522, had prevailed on Justin to strike down the old Roman law. Thus Justinian and Theodora were able to marry in 525.

Justinian and Theodora would gain enemies, among them the historian Procopius (pruh-KOH-pee-us), whose book Secret History portrays them as scheming villains. Although many aspects of Procopius's book are unfair, it is true that they reigned as co-rulers, with the wife sometimes exercising more influence than the husband. Despite Theodora's checkered past, to which Procopius devoted several gossipy, scandalous chapters, not even he could claim that she was ever unfaithful to Justinian after their marriage. It appears that they enjoyed a very happy married life, and that the empress proved a great asset to her husband.

The turning point

Theodora demonstrated her importance to the emperor during the Nika Revolt of 532, when Constantinople was nearly destroyed by rioters. Byzantine society was dominated by two rival groups called the Greens and the Blues, distinguished by the colors of horse-racing teams that competed at the Hippodrome, or stadium. Justinian and Theodora favored the Blues, and when he made an appearance in their company at the Hippodrome on January 13, 532, this sparked a riot. Suddenly the Greens attacked the Blues, chanting a favorite cheer from the races: "Nika!" (Conquer!). Constantinople was plunged into five days of bloodshed, fires, and looting, which very nearly destroyed the city and toppled Justinian's government. By January 18, leaders of the Blues and Greens, realizing that Justinian's high taxes were the source of all their troubles, had joined forces against Justinian, and were ready to storm the palace.

Theodora sat by in silence while Justinian's advisors suggested that he try to escape the city. Then she stood and addressed the imperial council with one of the most remarkable speeches in history. "It is impossible for a man, once born, not to die," she said, and went on to remind her husband that with the great wealth of the imperial court, they could easily escape. But, she said, she agreed with a saying of the ancient orator Isocrates (eye-SAHK-ruh-teez; 436–338 b.c..) "that the imperial purple makes the best burial sheet"—in other words, that it is better to die a king than to live as a coward. Justinian was moved to action by Theodora's speech, and he sent an army led by his great general Belisariusc. 505–565) to crush the rioters. The soldiers ruthlessly slaughtered ore than thirty thousand people in the Hippodrome.

The Nika Revolt was a critical turning point in Justinian's reign because his response to it (thanks to his wife and his general) helped him gain a firm grip on power. Also in 532, Byzantium signed a peace agreement with an age-old enemy to the east, Persia (modernday Iran). This gave Justinian the freedom to turn westward and pursue his greatest ambition: the reunification of the Roman Empire.

Wars of conquest

Led by Belisarius, the Byzantine armies in 534 won back North Africa from the Vandals, a tribe who had taken the region from Rome more than a century before. Thus he prepared the way for Justinian's primary aim, the reconquest of Italy from another tribe, the Ostrogoths. In 535, Belisarius conquered the island of Sicily, just off the Italian coast, and by 536, controlled the city of Rome itself.

After four bitter years of war, the Ostrogoths tried to crown Belisarius himself as "Emperor of the Western Empire," but Belisarius double-crossed them, and claimed all of Italy for Justinian in 540. The Ostrogoths responded by sending a message to Khosrow (kawz-ROW; ruled 531–79), the king of Persia, initiating a two-pronged offensive against the Byzantines. The Persians took several key cities, and this forced Justinian to send Belisarius eastward to deal with the Persian threat.

Without Belisarius in Italy, Rome and other cities fell back into the hands of the Ostrogoths. In 550, however, Justinian sent a new general, Narses (NAR-seez; c. 480–574), to conquer Italy. Over the course of the next thirteen years, he subdued the Ostrogoths and their allies, but in so doing he practically destroyed Italy; nevertheless, the Byzantines, who had also won back southern Spain, now controlled a large part of the former Roman Empire.

Though Justinian spent most of his energy waging his wars of conquest, those wars were far from clear-cut successes. Not only did he cause great destruction to Italy itself, but he became intensely involved in the religious politics there, removing one pope in favor of another, and ordering the deaths of people who opposed his views on religion. Furthermore, the effort was hardly worth it: except for parts of Italy, the Byzantines lost most of the reconquered lands within a few years of Justinian's death.

Laws and buildings

Justinian's importance as a leader lies not in his record as a conqueror, but in his contributions to civilization. Early in his reign, he had begun the project of reforming Byzantine law, which had become hopelessly complicated over the centuries. Looking back to ancient Roman models, Justinian's appointed legal authority, Tribonian, greatly simplified the system, creating a code that established the basis for much of modern law.


The empress Theodora (c. 500–548) came from far more humble beginnings than her husband, Justinian. Born somewhere in the east, perhaps Syria, she grew up in Constantinople. Her family was extremely poor and had to rely on the kindness of others to survive.

In the Byzantine rivalry between two opposing groups, the Greens and the Blues, Theodora became a lifelong supporter of the Blues, but not for any political reasons. Her father Athanasius had worked in the Hippodrome as a bear-keeper for the Greens, but he died when Theodora and her two sisters were very young. Her mother quickly remarried, and Theodora's stepfather tried to take over Athanasius's old job. The man in charge of assigning the positions, however, had accepted a bribe to give it to someone else, and no amount of pleading on the mother's part could sway the Greens. The Blues, however, saw this as an opportunity to shame the Greens, and gave the stepfather a job.

Times were extremely hard for Theodora and her family, but she was a talented and extraordinarily beautiful young woman. She started out acting in mime shows at the Hippodrome, but soon she was performing in the nude, and eventually she followed her older sister in becoming a prostitute. Unlike modern America, where actors and actresses are respected members of society, in Byzantium actresses were lowly members of society, partly because many of them were prostitutes.

At the age of sixteen, Theodora became the lover of a powerful man named Hecebolus (hek-EB-uh-lus). Appointed governor of a province in North Africa, Hecebolus took her with him, but after four years he left her, penniless and far from home. She spent the next year working her way back home, once again plying her trade as a prostitute.

But something remarkable happened in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, where she came in contact with a form of Christianity called the Monophysite (muh-NAH-fu-syt) faith. Whereas mainstream Christianity taught that Jesus Christ was both God and man, the Monophysites believed that he was only God. Theodora did not care about religious distinctions, however: what drew her to the Monophysites was that, unlike many mainstream Christians at the time, their ministers preached directly to women. She became a Christian, renounced her former lifestyle, and in 522 returned to Constantinople. There she settled in a house near the palace, and made a living spinning wool.

Also in 522, she met Justinian, a man old enough to be her father. He fell madly in love with her and arranged for his uncle, the emperor Justin, to change the laws preventing men of the upper classes from marrying actresses and prostitutes. They were married in 525, and appear to have had an extremely happy married life. When Justinian became co-emperor with Justin on April 4, 527, Theodora accompanied her husband to the Hippodrome, where they were greeted by cheering crowds. It must have been a moving experience for her, now an empress, to visit that place where, as a girl, she had been a lowly performer.

Throughout the two decades that followed, Theodora exercised considerable influence over Justinian, and sometimes seemed to hold greater power than he. She rightly saw that the empire's real interests lay in the east, rather than in Italy, which Justinian reconquered at great cost. She also pushed for laws that improved the status of women, for instance by prohibiting forced prostitution. Furthermore, she helped protect the Monophysites from persecution by mainstream Christians; but perhaps the greatest example of Theodora's leadership was her role during the Nika Revolt.

Theodora's advice about how to handle the rioters moved Justinian to order his general Belisarius to put down the revolt. In the bloody aftermath, Justinian emerged as absolute ruler over Byzantium. He could never have enjoyed such great power without his wife, a woman as renowned for her wisdom as for her beauty. When she died of cancer on June 28, 548, Justinian was heartbroken.

Another area of great achievement during Justinian's reign was in the arts. Among the few lasting reminders of the Byzantine presence in Italy, for instance, is the Church of San Vitale in Italy, a gorgeous piece of architecture that later inspired Charlemagne (see entry) in the building of his own chapel at Aachen. The interior of San Vitale contains mosaics depicting Justinian and Theodora, and these portraits are perhaps the two most famous artworks from Byzantium's 1,100-year history.

Certainly the most well-known Byzantine structure is the Hagia (HAH-juh) Sophia, one of more than thirty churches in Constantinople built under Justinian's orders following

the Nika Revolt. Completed in 537, the church is dominated by a dome that, despite its enormous size—184 feet high and 102 feet wide—seemed to one observer in Justinian's time as though it were "suspended by a gold chain from heaven."

Justinian's last years

Between his wars and his building projects, Justinian ran up enormous expenses, which he attempted to pay for through high taxes on his people. Taxes under Justinian were so high that many people lost everything—another cause for bitterness on the part of Procopius and others.

In 548, Justinian lost his beloved Theodora to cancer, and his last years were lonely ones. In 562, the uncovering of an assassination plot against him made him aware of the need to choose a successor; but like Justin, he had no children of his own. Therefore he promoted his second cousin and nephew, both named Justin, into positions from which either could succeed him as emperor. After he died on November 14, 565, at the age of eighty-three—extraordinarily old for the time—his nephew took the throne.

For More Information


Chrisp, Peter. The World of the Roman Emperor. New York: P. Bedrick Books, 1999.

Nardo, Don. Rulers of Ancient Rome. San Diego, CA: Lucent Books, 1999.

Web Sites

"The Empress Theodora." [Online] Available http://www.campus.northpark.edu/history/Webchron/EastEurope/Theodora.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Imperium. [Online] Available http://www.ghgcorp.com/shetler/oldimp/ (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Theodora." [Online] Available http://www.komets.k12.mn.us/faculty/Simmon's%20Students/Rhoten's%20Internet%20Page/Theodora.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

"Theodora (500–548)." [Online] Available http://members.home.com/cheree/theo.html (last accessed July 26, 2000).

Justinian I

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Justinian I

Justinian I (ca. 482-565) was Byzantine emperor from 527 to 565. Ruling in a transitional epoch, he was both a conscious steward of the past and a pragmatic innovator.

The Roman Empire in the 4th century was an all-Mediterranean Christian state with an Eastern focus. But in the 5th century it was shattered by internal dissensions and eroded by barbarian attacks. Various Germanic tribes dismantled the Western provinces and established their own regional kingdoms, such as those of the Visigoths in Spain, the Vandals in North Africa, the Franks in Gaul, and the Ostrogoths in Italy. As recognized upholders of the continuing Roman imperial tradition, the Eastern line of emperors in Constantinople survived barbarian dangers, thanks to the richer resources of the Eastern provinces. But they faced internal strife, regional unrest, and sectarian religious controversy in these provinces. Subsequent developments in the 7th century would make the Eastern provinces into what we call the "Byzantine" Empire, with a more distinct Greek character. But in the 6th century Justinian could still see his mission as a Latin one, requiring him to restore the Christian Roman world of the past.

Rise to Power

Justinian was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius in the Macedonian Balkans; his parents were of Latin-speaking Thracian-Illyrian peasant background. All we know of his youth is that he was taken under the wing of his uncle Justin, who brought him to Constantinople for an education. The youth adopted the name Justinianus out of gratitude. Following thorough schooling, which left him with a particular taste for theology, Justinian was further aided by his uncle to rapid advancement in the army.

When the childless Anastasius I died in 518, Justin was unexpectedly made emperor, at age 66, as Justin I. Outmaneuvering rivals, Justinian rose to ever higher positions, becoming Caesar in 525 and finally being made coemperor and successor in early 527. It was also at this time that Justinian arranged to marry Theodora, thereby acquiring an important helpmate and also giving his age one of its most striking personalities.

When Justin I died on Aug. 1, 527, Justinian and Theodora succeeded without contest. During the first 4 years the mounting burden of governmental expenses made the regime oppressive and unpopular, while Justinian's autocracy provoked the old senatorial aristocracy. The so-called Nika Riots of Jan. 13-18, 532, which began as rioting among the circus factions of the Hippodrome, amplified into demands for changes in governmental policies and were finally converted by aristocratic opportunism into an effort to dethrone Justinian. The Emperor rallied his troops under some loyal generals, like Belisarius, and had them massacre the rioters. The mob broken, Justinian punished the conspirators, thus crushing both popular and aristocratic opposition for the time being.

External Policies

The bulk of Justinian's era was marked by war, partly sought, partly unsought. The unwanted war, which he had inherited, was with Sassanid Persia, the empire's one fully civilized neighbor. The accession of a new Persian king, Chosroes (Khosrow) I, in 531 made peace possible, and while the "Perpetual Peace" negotiated in 532 cost Justinian a veiled obligation to pay tribute, it freed him for his projects of territorial reconquest in the West. Jealous of Justinian's subsequent successes, however, Chosroes broke the peace in 540 by invading Syria-Palestine and devastating Antioch. Still committed in the West, Justinian was plunged into new war with Persia for almost all of his remaining reign. Only in 562 was the Fifty-year Peace agreed upon, requiring even heavier tribute payments to Persia.

By contrast, Justinian's wars in the West were part of his grand design. Justinian never considered himself merely an Eastern emperor, and his empire had never officially accepted the loss of its territory, which always remained legally Roman and subject to eventual recovery. Thus, the Germanic successor states in the West were regarded as temporary interlopers, and their rulers as Arian Christians, therefore heretics. As Roman emperor, Justinian was obligated to liberate these lands and restore them to imperial rule.

Because the Franks were so distant and were not Arian heretics, Justinian made no hostile plans against them. Visigothic Spain was virtually ignored until late in the reconquest program; only in 550 was a small force sent to Spain.

The two primary targets were Vandal North Africa and Ostrogothic Italy. The Vandal kingdom was quickly destroyed by Justinian's brilliant general Belisarius in 533-534. Two years later operations were begun against Italy. Belisarius eventually negotiated a settlement with the Ostrogoths in 540, but this was only short-lived. An Ostrogothic resurgence threatened to undo this work, and so Belisarius was restored to command in Italy. But Justinian supported him so inadequately that the war drifted indecisively until the Emperor then gave fuller backing to a new commander, Narses, who defeated the Ostrogoths decisively in two battles during 552. Further campaigning completed the pacification of Italy. Nevertheless, the region had been brutally ravaged by endless warfare that had shattered its prosperity and had left it exposed to renewed German invasion by the Lombards only a few years after Justinian's death. Nor was North Africa free of prolonged war; despite the rapid Vandal collapse, the unruly Berber tribes of the hills tied imperial forces down for decades. In both sectors, the expected rapid reannexation turned into interminable war, which continuously drained the empire's manpower and money.

Justinian's foreign relations were not entirely warlike. Anxious to free the empire's commercial life from dependency on Persian middlemen, he sought new trade routes, and his cooperation with the Christian kingdom of Abyssinia realized this aim briefly. But as his wars elsewhere strained his resources, Justinian relied increasingly upon diplomacy as a substitute for strength. The Balkan provinces suffered the most for this juggling. Denuded of adequate defenses, they were left exposed to new marauders, such as the Hunnic tribes and the vanguard of the Slavs, soon to be joined by the Asiatic Avars.

Internal Policies

To fill public needs neglected by previous regimes and to leave his own stamp upon the scene, Justinian built lavishly in all parts of his empire: fortresses and works of regional defense, structures of public utility and practical function, buildings for urban adornment, and, above all, churches and monasteries. Among his greatest buildings was his reconstruction of the Temple of the Holy Wisdom, or Sancta (Hagia) Sophia, in Constantinople, one of the supreme monuments of all Christian architecture.

Equally ambitious to leave institutional monuments, Justinian initiated a total overhauling of the empire's legal system. In the Corpus Juris Civilis his commissioners assembled a systematic exposition of the basic legal texts and the essential interpretational literature that summed up the great heritage of Roman law and preserved it for transmission to later generations. Less glorious, however, was the more practical side of his own legislative record. Justinian issued decrees on all aspects of his society's life. His goal was the noble one of a just government, but as the costs of his undertakings mounted, he was obliged to sacrifice it to the more urgent needs for immediate money and to allow his government to become ruthlessly oppressive.

Justinian was anxious to end religious disunity within the empire. The chief theological issue of his day was the persisting Monophysite rejection of the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon (451) regarding the natures of Christ. Since the Monophysite religious dissent was linked with regional unrest, especially in Syria-Palestine and Egypt, the problem had wide political implications. Justinian repeatedly sought to end the dissension, either by some compromise formula or device or by arbitrary pressures. His policies alternated between extremes of conciliation and persecution. At Justinian's behest, the Fifth Ecumenical Council met (553) to ratify some of his measures. Yet, for all his exertions, a resolution of the issues seemed even less attainable at the end of his reign than at the beginning.

Later Years

During 542-543 the worst plague before the 14th-century Black Death ravaged the Mediterranean world, leaving the population depleted for generations. Theodora's death of cancer in 548 was a cruel personal loss to Justinian. The deteriorating Balkan defenses exposed even the capital to dangerous barbarian attacks. Religious strife, economic ruin, popular disaffection—all reached new peaks. As a result, Justinian's death on Nov. 14, 565, was greeted with popular rejoicing.

Further Reading

The chief contemporary historian of Justinian's age was Procopius of Caesarea, whose complete works were translated by H. B. Dewing for the Loeb Classical Library series (7 vols., 1914-1940). The fullest account of Justinian's reign in English is John B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire from the Death of Theodosius I to the Death of Justinian, vol. 1 (1923). John W. Barker, Justinian and the Later Roman Empire (1966), puts the reign within the context of the 3d-8th centuries. Percy N. Ure, Justinian and His Age (1951), is a provocative short account from a classicist's point of view. Robert Browning, Justinian and Theodora (1971), is a lively narrative, richly illustrated.

Glanville Downey, Constantinople in the Age of Justinian (1960), gives a lively picture of the period, while the same author's paperback, The Late Roman Empire (1969), is a concise digest that includes a discussion of Justinian's era. Aleksandr A. Vasiliev, Justin the First: An Introduction to the Epoch of Justinian the Great (1950), is the indispensable introduction to Justinian's reign. Valuable information on Justinian's era is in Arnold H. M. Jones's massive The Later Roman Empire, 284-602: A Social, Economic and Administrative Survey (2 vols., 1964). Also useful is William Gordon Holmes, The Age of Justinian and Theodora: A History of the Sixth Century A.D. (2 vols., 1905-1907; 2d ed. 1912). □

Justinian I

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JUSTINIAN I (482565), Roman emperor, was born in or near Skopje in Macedonia, a city where the local aristocracy spoke Latin. The trusted minister of his uncle, Justin I, from 518, Justinian was made his coemperor and succeeded him in 527. Justinian worked for the liberation of the Latin West from armies of occupation: Ostrogoths in Italy and Illyricum, Vandals in Africa and Sicily, Visigoths in Spain. To this end it was necessary to repair the breach between the court and church of Constantinople, and the church and city of Rome, which had been caused by concessions made in the East to those who held that the Council of Chalcedon (451) had pressed the distinction between the divine and human natures of Christ too far in a direction that could be called Nestorian.

Before the reign of Justinian, Chalcedonians in the East were a party opposed to anything that might obscure the distinction between the natures of Christ. During his reign, some Chalcedonians in the East came to stress what is common to the letters of Cyril of Alexandria, who wrote of a union of two natures in the incarnate Word, and of Leo of Rome, who wrote of one person in two natures. Both Cyril and Leo affirm that the manhood of Christ is the same as everyone's own and subject to suffering. John Mayentius and a group of Scythian monks from the Dobruja, who said that "one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh," had a cool reception in Rome in 519. But Justinian used their language in edicts in 529 and 533, which were included with a letter of approval from Pope John II (received in 534) in the definitive edition of his collection of Roman law, the Corpus juris civilis (535). So the suffering and death as well as the birth of the Son of God became part of the vocabulary of church and state in East and West.

The Corpus juris became the standard textbook of Roman law in the West, at Bologna and elsewhere, but Justinian did not succeed in restoring imperial government. In Africa the Vandals were eliminated, but the mountain tribes were not subdued. In Italy the Ostrogoths were defeated, but they fought on as guerrillas, preferred by the peasants to rent collectors and tax gatherers. Pope Agapetus I came from Rome to Constantinople in 536 in search of a diplomatic solution. He insisted on a purge of those whom he considered disloyal to the Council of Chalcedon and pressed the emperor to introduce a Chalcedonian patriarch into Alexandria. But when he died suddenly his successor at Rome was elected while the Ostrogoths were still in possession. Pope Silverius, deposed and exiled as soon as the imperial armies arrived, obtained a review of his case from Justinian, but he was deposed again and died in prison.

Vigilius, who replaced Silverius, was regarded as an intruder, an agent of Theodora, Justinian's empress, who patronized the Monophysite opponents of the Council of Chalcedon. In 543544 Justinian issued the "Three Chapters" edict against the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, who, though the master of Nestorius, died in 428 before the Nestorian controversy broke out; and against criticisms of Cyril of Alexandria by Theodoret of Cyrrhus and Ibas of Edessa, who at Chalcedon were received as orthodox. In a revised form (551), which has been preserved, this edict contained a series of directions for the use of terms in appropriate contexts, for instance for the proper use of in and of two natures. Vigilius did not criticize these, but he kept up criticism of the "Three Chapters" before and after he was brought to Constantinople in 548 and during the Second Council of Constantinople (553), where a final version of the edict was approved.

The war in Italy continued until 553. After it was over, Vigilius consented to confirm the council, but he died on the way home. His successor at Rome, Pope Pelagius I, succeeded in limiting schism to a few places in northern Italy around Aquileia, but by this time the Monophysites in Syria had acquired their own hierarchy. There and in Egypt, where they kept control, their leaders were not extreme, but they feared to lose their followers if they accepted the orthodoxy of the Council of Chalcedon, as Vigilius feared to lose support in the West if he admitted their orthodoxy. Justinian continued to strive for a balance that can be seen in the architecture of the great churches built in his reign in Constantinople and Ravenna. He kept the West open to Eastern influence but failed to restore the unity of the East.


A review of the political background can be found in George Ostrogorsky's History of the Byzantine State, rev. ed. (New Brunswick, N.J., 1969), pp. 6879. For the history of theology, see Jaroslav Pelikan's Christian Tradition, vol. 1, The Emergence of the Catholic Tradition, 100600 (Chicago, 1971), pp. 267279, and John Meyendorff's Christ in Eastern Christian Thought (Crestwood, N.Y., 1975), pp. 2989.

George Every (1987)

Justinian I

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The emperor Justinian I ruled the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire from 527 until 565. He is significant for his efforts to regain the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire, his codification of roman law, and his architectural achievements.

"Justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render to every one his due."
—Justinian I

Justinian was born circa 482 in Pauresium, Illyricum (probably south of modern Nišs, Serbia). Justinian came to the throne with the intention of reestablishing the Roman Empire as it had been before the provinces of the Western Roman Empire fell under the control of various Germanic tribes during the fifth century. To this end, he sent his armies against the Vandals in North Africa (roughly, modern Algeria and Tunisia), the Visigoths in Spain, and the Ostrogoths in Italy. The Vandals surrendered in 534, but the Visigoths and Ostrogoths proved more difficult. Justinian's forces never succeeded in capturing more than a small part of Spain and subdued Italy only after a devastating war that ended in 563 with Italy in ruins. Nonetheless,

when Justinian died, he could claim with some justice that the Mediterranean Sea was once again a Roman lake.

Justinian's conquests proved ephemeral, however. Within four years of his death, northern Italy had fallen to the Lombards, another Germanic tribe, and by the early eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered North Africa and Spain.

Justinian's achievements in law were more long-lasting. Although several collections of imperial Roman legislation had been compiled in the past, by Justinian's reign even the most recent, the Theodosian Code (Codex Theodosianus), which had been issued in 438, was out-of-date. Accordingly in 528 Justinian established a commission of ten experts, including Tribonian, to prepare a new edition, which was completed in 534. The Code (Codex), as it was called, contains 4,562 laws from the reign of Hadrian (117–138) to 534.

Roman law, however, encompasses both legislation and jurisprudence; that is, literature interpreting the law. Despite the importance of jurisprudence, no single collection had ever been made, and some important works were not readily available. Therefore in 530 Justinian ordered his commission to collect the most important writings on jurisprudence and to edit and clarify the texts whenever necessary. To complete their task, the commission had to read two thousand books containing over three million lines, but nonetheless they finished the compilation known as the Digest (Digestum), or Pandects (Pandectae), by December 533.

In the same year, the commissioners issued the Institutes (Institutiones), a handbook for law students. Although Justinian had only planned a tripartite compilation of Roman law, imperial legislation did not cease with the completion of the Code in 534. Therefore the edicts issued by Justinian after 534 were collected and came to be known as the Novels (Novellae), or New Laws. The Code, Digest, and Institutes had been written in Latin, the traditional language of Rome, but Justinian issued the Novels in Greek in recognition of the fact that Greek was the ordinary language of the Eastern Roman Empire. Together the Code, Digest, Institutes, and Novels came to be known as the Corpus juris civilis ("the corpus of civil law"). The Corpus juris not only preserved Roman law for later generations but, after the twelfth century when it came to be known and studied in western Europe, provided inspiration for most European legal systems.

Justinian is also known for the extensive building program that he undertook both in the East and in Italy. The church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which was completed in 562, is considered one of the finest examples of Byzantine

architecture. Justinian died November 14, 565, in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey.

further readings

Baker, G.P. 2002. Justinian: The Last Roman Emperor. New York, N.Y.: Cooper Square Press.

Lysyk, Stephanie. 1998. "Purple Prose: Writing, Rhetoric and Property in the Justinian Corpus." Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 10 (summer): 33–60.

Justinian I

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Justinian I


Byzantine Emperor

The most famous of all the emperors of the Byzantine, or Eastern Roman Empire, was Justinian I. After becoming emperor, he embarked upon an extensive building program that produced many magnificent examples of early Byzantine architecture, including churches, aqueducts, and canals, throughout Constantinople. He commissioned the building of the Church of the Holy Wisdom, or the Hagia Sophia, which is the best known example of the Byzantine style of architecture. Many of his administrative programs as emperor have stood the test of time and have been integrated into modern policies.

Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinian was born in the year 483 to Slavic parents in a country along the eastern Adriatic coast. Little is known of his early years except that as a youth he was adopted by his uncle, Emperor Justin I, and was educated in Constantinople. In 527 Justin made him coruler of the empire. When his uncle died a few months later, Justinian became the sole emperor.

Justinian was known as a strong ruler and excellent administrator. When he assumed power the laws of the empire were in confusion. Many were out of date, many contradicted themselves, and different provinces had a different understanding of the laws. One of his most valuable contributions was his code of Roman law, which took all the laws from the Roman Empire and consolidated them into one uniform system. This became known as the Codex Justinianus and comprised the most logical and fairest system of law. In later centuries, when Europe began to develop into states, this code became the legal basis of the new governments. Today the laws of most European countries and the Roman Catholic Church show the influence of these laws compiled by Justinian I.

Under Justinian, the Eastern Roman Empire enjoyed its greatest glory. Financed by taxation, he used these funds to construct buildings in the capital city of Constantinople. The golden age of early Byzantine art and architecture blossomed under Emperor Justinian, who was a prolific builder and patron of the arts. Throughout his vast empire he authorized the building of forts and aqueducts, and the building or rebuilding of 30 churches. The most famous of these churches is the Church of the Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia, in Constantinople. This church, designed and engineered by Isodorius of Melitus and Anthemius of Tralles, was a magnificent example of Byzantine architecture.

The Hagia Sophia was built in five years and incorporates a style of architecture known as "hanging architecture," which gives the church its ethereal quality. The domed structure uses pendentives, a new technique at the time of its construction, that support the dome on a square framework of four enormous arches. This engineering feat gives the structure a feeling of weightless stability and a visual sense of great spaciousness.

Justinan was also instrumental in the development of an art form known as mosaics. Mosaics were the favored medium for the internal decoration of the Hagia Sophia and other Byzantine churches. Mosaics were created by assembling small pieces of colored glass or enamels, occasionally overlaid with gold leaf, into pictures and designs. Spread over the walls and vaults of the churches, these mosaics created a luminous effect that complimented the mystic character of the Christian Church as well as embellishing the magnificence of the imperial court, presided over by emperor Justinian I.



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Justinian (483–565), Byzantine emperor 527–65, husband of Theodora. Through his general Belisarius he regained North Africa from the Vandals, Italy from the Ostrogoths, and Spain from the Visigoths. He codified Roman law in a compendium (the Digest, 529) and carried out a building programme throughout the Empire, of which St Sophia at Constantinople (532) was a part.

Justinian I

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Justinian I (482–565) Byzantine Emperor (527–565), sometimes called ‘the Great’. His troops, commanded by Belisarius, regained much of the old Roman Empire, including Italy, North Africa, and parts of Spain. Longer-lasting achievements were the Justinian Code (a revision of the whole body of Roman law) and his buildings in Constantinople. Heavy taxation to pay for wars, including defence against Sassanid Persia, drained the strength of the Empire.

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Justinian I

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