Justinian I, Byzantine Emperor
JUSTINIAN I, BYZANTINE EMPEROR
Reigned 527 to 565; legislator, theologian, restorer of the Roman Empire, b. Tauresium, probably modern Caricin Grad, 482, d. Constantinople, Nov. 14, 565.
Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus was the son of an obscure Thracian named Sabbatius and of a sister of
the future emperor justin i. His native tongue was Latin and his family Catholic, and evidently unquestioning supporters of the Chalcedonian Creed. He received a good education thanks to his uncle Justin, who served in the guard under the emperors Leo I and Anastasius, rising to the rank of Count of the Excubitors, and at some point Justin adopted him: hence the name "Justinianus." At the time of Justin's enthronement (July 1, 518), Justinian was a candidatus (the name refers to his white uniform) in the Palatine guard known as the Scholarians, and he immediately became a comes illustris and Justin's close counselor. He supported Justin's policy of repairing relations with the papacy, which had developed into open rupture under Anastasius, and on March 28, 519, the acacian schism was finally healed and Rome and Constantinople were reconciled. He lent support to the Scythian monks who tried to get Pope Hormisdas to accept the Theopaschite formula as orthodox, and though Hormisdas refused, his successor Pope John I was to prove amenable. On the assassination of his rival Vitalian, he became a commander of the troops in Constantinople (magister militum praesentalis ) in July 420, and the next year, he became consul and celebrated his inauguration with magnificent games. His marriage to theodora had to be postponed until after the death of Empress Euphemia, who disapproved of Theodora's earlier life as an actress and prostitute. On April 1, 527, the ailing Emperor Justin gave him the title of Augustus, and on April 4, the patriarch Epiphanius crowned him coemperor. Theodora (d. June 548) was associated with him as Augusta. Perhaps because of their humble origins, the imperial couple encouraged elaborate court ceremonial, and Theodora in particular insisted on all the marks of reverence which were her due.
Imperial Reorganization. On the death of Justin I (Aug. 1, 527), Justinian became sole emperor, and commenced a plan of repair and restoration on the political, religious and legislative fronts. The empire was gravely menaced by barbarian incursions from without and by heresies in the Christian church from within. He reorganized the military, and overthrew the Vandal kingdom in Africa (533–534), and reorganized civil and ecclesiastical affairs in new African prefecture. He destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy (535–552) and when socalled "Endless Peace" (533) with Persia collapsed after seven years, he continued the Persian War with varying degrees of success. The Persian destruction of Antioch in 540 marked the low point of imperial fortunes in the east, and the arrival of bubonic plague, which reached Constantinople in 542, drastically reduced the empire's manpower resources. In 530, Justinian recognized Harith, the sheik of the Christian Arab clan known as the Ghassanids, as phylarch and ally, and entrusted the defense of the south Syrian frontier to him. In Egypt, where the First Cataract had marked the southern frontier since the time of the emperor Diocletian, Justinian closed the temple of Isis at Philae in 537, and after 543, the three Nubian kingdoms to the south of Philae were converted to Christianity. In the Crimea, civil war broke out after Grod, the king of the "Huns" (proto-Bulgars) came to Constantinople for Christian baptism (528) and on his return was killed in an anti-Byzantine insurrection aroused by the pagan priests who were incensed at Grod's efforts to spread Christianity in his realm. Justinian moved quickly to safeguard Bosporus in the Crimea and made it a center of resistance to the Huns. In the Balkans where there were constant invasions by raiding parties of proto-Bulgars and Slavs, he built numerous forts and places of refuge and prevented any permanent settlements of Slavs south of the Danube.
Justinian almost lost his throne to an uprising (Jan. 13–18, 532) known as the Nika revolt from the battle cry nika ("conquer!") which the rebels used. The Blues and the Greens, the colors of the two major groups of chariot-racing fans in the Hippodrome, allied against him, took control of the streets and set fire to large areas of Constantinople. Justinian and his court were on the point of taking flight when Empress Theodora rallied them to make a final effort. Belisarius and Mundo, a Gepid prince who had entered Justinian's service, led out their troops, caught the rebels massed in the Hippodrome where they were acclaiming Anastasius' nephew Hypatius as emperor, and massacred them. Some 30,000 were reportedly slain. The revolt had won the support of much of the Constantinople senate, and once it collapsed, Justinian needed to fear no more opposition from that quarter. The fire had destroyed the center of the city, including the Theodosian church of hagia sophia, and Justinian seized the opportunity to rebuild magnificently. He employed the architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus to build a new Hagia Sophia, a domed basilica that pushed the limits of contemporary engineering skill. An earthquake on Dec. 14, 557 opened a fissure in the dome, and the following spring (May 7) the dome collapsed, almost killing the masons who were repairing it. The church was restored according to the plans of Isidore the Younger, who made the dome higher so as to reduce its outward thrust. The old patriarchal cathedral of Hagia Eirene was also destroyed in the Nika riots and was rebuilt, though the rebuilt church was burned again in 564. The Holy Apostles church, built by constantius ii, was unharmed by the Nika riots, but it had fallen into disrepair and was completely rebuilt (536). Tradition attributed its construction to Theodora. It provided the model for San Marco in Venice with its five cupolas.
Religious Policy. Deeply interested in theology and convinced that, as emperor and vicegerent of God, he possessed authority over matters of religion, he undertook to repress pagans, heretics, and Samaritans, and unlike previous emperors, he lumped Jews together with other non-believers, even though Judaism was still a religio licita. However in practice he seems not to have extended his repressive measures to the Jews, and archaeology reveals that in Palestine, his reign was a golden age of synagogue building in spite of the law forbidding Jews to construct new synagogues. He ruled that the Scriptures could be read in synagogues either in Greek or the local language of the congregation, but he prohibited use of the Mishnah. His repression of paganism was harsh: he deprived pagans of the right to teach or inherit and in 529, he closed down the Neoplatonic Academy in Athens which had become an intellectual center for pagan revival. Justinian's reign marks the end of the long, unequal struggle between Christianity and paganism. Samaritan revolts in 529 and 556 were suppressed savagely; the 529 revolt reportedly left 100,000 Samaritans dead or enslaved, and deprived large areas of Palestine of cultivators. After a vain effort to convert the Manichees, Montanists, Macedonians (pneumatomachians) and Ophites, he persecuted them. The Montanists resisted vigorously, some of them shutting themselves up in their churches and setting them on fire.
At the instance of Theodora, who was herself Monophysite, and a Monophysite advocate at the imperial court, Justinian softened the repressive measures applied during the reign of Justin I. In 532, he held a colloquy at Constantinople between the moderate Monophysites who looked to the exiled patriarch of Antioch, Severus, as their leader, and representative Catholic bishops, and personally presided over the third session in a vain attempt to find an agreement. He published his own confession of faith in the form of an edict (March 15, 533) which was based on the Theopaschite formula that stated that one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh, and persuaded Pope john i to accept it. When the Sleepless Monks (Akoimetoi ), tireless champions of the Chalcedonian Creed, protested, the pope excommunicated them.
In 535, Empress Theodora arranged for the installation of two new patriarchs: Theodosius as successor to Timothy IV of Alexandria (February 10), and Anthimus, bishop of Trebizond as successor to Epiphanius (d. June5) of Constantinople. Anthimus was considered Catholic but Theodora knew that in fact, he was sympathetic to Monophysitism, and when he met Severus, the two easily came to an agreement. However in March 536, Pope Agapetus arrived in Constantinople as an emissary of the Ostrogothic king Theoderic, and he convinced Justinian of the error of his ways. The pope excommunicated and deposed Anthimus and consecrated Mennas as patriarch. Severus fled to Egypt, and Theodora protected Anthimus by hiding him in the women's quarters of the Great Palace, where he was discovered after her death (548). Agapetus' sudden death (April 22) did nothing to lessen Justinian's new resolve to enforce orthodoxy. A synod (May 2–June 4) confirmed Mennas as patriarch and condemned both Anthimus and Severus, and Justinian undertook to repress Monophysitism throughout the empire, not excepting Egypt (Aug. 6, 536). Theodosius, the Monophysite patriarch whom Theodora supported, had retained his see for almost 17 months, but only with the help of imperial troops, for his position was challenged by the Julianists, a.k.a. Aphthartodocetists, a more radical wing of the Monophysites. Now he was summoned to Constantinople where the emperor urged him to accept the Chalcedonian Creed, and when he refused, he was replaced by a Chalcedonian patriarch. Theodosius was sent off to the fortress of Derkos in Thrace with some 300 Monophysite clergy, but Theodora soon secured more comfortable quarters for them in the Palace of Hormisdas next to the Great Palace, and there he lived until his death in 566, recognized by the Monophysites after Severus' death as their leader. In 541, when the Ghassanid phylarch Harith approached Theodora with a request for a Monophysite bishop for his tribe, Theodosius, with Theodora's blessing, consecrated two monks, Theodore as metropolitan of Bostra and Jacob Baradaeus as metropolitan of Edessa. Jacob, before his death (578) in turn consecrated 27 metropolitan bishops and some 100,000 clergy, thus creating a Monophysite hierarchy separate from the Chalcedonians, who became known as "Melkites" after the Semitic word for "king".
The "Three Chapters." While Rome was under siege by the Goths (537–538), Empress Theodora had Pope silverius i deposed by Belisarius on suspicion of treason, and Vigilius I, who had promised Theodora to be more flexible, was chosen in his place. Vigilius' nuncio (apokrisarios ) in Constantinople, Pelagius, later Pope pelagius i, became Justinian's counselor. His position as favorite adviser, however, was usurped by two Origenist monks from Palestine, theodore ascidas and Domitian, who caught Justinian's attention when they came to Constantinople in 536 to take part in a synod. Pelagius served an an imperial appointee at the synod of Gaza which replaced Paul, the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria with Zoïlus (late 539) and on his return to Constantinople, he convinced Justinian to write a long treatise against Origenism in the form of an edict (543), which all five patriarchs signed. Thus Pelagius had the satisfaction of annoying Theodore Ascidas as well as striking a blow for orthodoxy. But when Pelagius left for Rome (late 543), Theodore riposted by convincing Justinian that a road to reconciliation with the Monophysites lay in the condemnation of the person and writings of theodore of mopsuestia, certain works of Theodoret of Cyrrhus and a letter by Ibas of Edessa. Theodoret and Ibas had been supporters of Nestorius, but after the Council of Chalcedon, they had been brought into communion, thus providing grounds for the Monophysite charge that Chalcedonianism was really only nestorianism. All three had died at peace with the Church.
In early 544, Justinian published his edict against the three chapters. However, for the Monophysites it was irrelevant, for it failed to condemn the Council of Chalcedon, and for the Catholics it was disconcerting, for it appeared to attack the doctrine of Chalcedon. The Roman see in particular viewed the Three Chapters edict as a challenge to papal authority, and opposition was particularly strong in Africa which had now been liberated from the Vandals. The patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Antioch signed the edict under protest. But Pope Vigilius, aware of the strength of the opposition in the Latin West, refused, and Justinian resorted to strong-arm tactics. Vigilius was arrested while saying mass in the church of S. Cecilia in Trastevere and taken to Constantinople (Jan. 27, 547). Under pressure, Vigilius gave Justinian and Theodora secret assurances that he would condemn the Three Chapters, and in April 548, issued a Iudicatum which anathematized the Three Chapters that at the same time upholding Chalcedon. There was a storm of protest from the western bishops, and Justinian, who could not afford western alienation at this point while the Byzantine conquest of Italy was still in the balance, allowed Vigilius to abrogate his Iudicatum in return for a secret promise to work for the condemnation of the Three Chapters (August 550).
Pope Vigilius. In preparation for the council, Justinian tried to win over the African bishops. Reparatus of Carthage was intransigent, and Justinian arranged for him to go into exile on a trumped-up charge of treason, and his fate so impressed Firmus of Numidia that he signed the Three Chapters edict. But the remaining two African bishops would not give way. In July 551, Justinian published a theological tract condemning the Three Chapters that he had prepared with Theodore Ascidas, but Vigilius threatened to excommunicate anyone who accepted it, and on being menaced, took refuge in the church of SS. Peter and Paul, the twin of SS. Sergius and Bacchus which still stands in Istanbul near the site of the Palace of Hormisdas. Justinian sent a posse of notables there, including Belisarius, to arrest the pope, but he resisted and the onlookers intervened when the posse tried to drag him off. However, on the night of Dec. 23, 551, Vigilius crossed the Bosporus to the basilica of S. Euphemia together with the two African bishops who would not sign the Three Chapters edict, and there sought asylum. The pope returned to Constantinople on June 26, and the patriarch and bishops in turn reiterated their support of the Creed of Chalcedon. Meanwhile, Justinian's agents set to work in Africa and they were effective. Reparatus was replaced as bishop of Carthage by a more flexible prelate and used a combination of force and persuasion to win over the African clergy.
Mennas died suddenly (Aug. 24, 552) and was replaced swiftly by the abbot Eutychius. In July 551, Justinian had replaced the Melkite patriarch of Alexandria with Apollinaris, and in December 552, Eustachius became patriarch of Jerusalem. In a meeting between the pope and the patriarchs (Jan. 6, 553), Vigilius was given a profession of the faith of the patriarchs and asked to preside at a forthcoming ecumenical council. Vigilius agreed but suggested to Justinian that the Latin West could not be properly represented unless a synod were held in Italy or Sicily. Justinian rejected this proposal, as well as the suggestion of a preparatory commision where the pope and his aides could not be outvoted by the Eastern patriarchs.
In March 553, Justinian convoked a synod at the request of monks from Palestine where a fierce struggle between the Origenist and the strictly Chalcedonian monasteries had developed after the death of the doughty Chalcedonian archimandrite of the Judaean lauras, Mar Saba (533). In this synod, Justinian had 15 anathemas promulgated against Origenism and the isochritic doctrines, and the pope concurred. Justinian also demanded a final decision about the Three Chapters from the pope and sent him copious documentation. Yet the pope demurred, and when the Fifth Ecumenical Council at Constantinople opened in Hagia Sophia (May 5, 553), the pope did not attend.
Council of Constantinople. Justinian left the presidency of the council to the patriarchs but a letter from him was read out at the opening session, wherein he laid down a program of procedure, reminded the bishops that they had already agreed to the condemnation of the Three Chapters, and deplored Vigilius' refusal to participate. At his suggestion, several deputations waited on the pope, and he yielded so far as to publish his Constitutum I, wherein he condemned the doctrines attributed to Theodore and Theodoret, but avoided any condemnation of the three churchmen under indictment. Justinian refused to accept the Constitutum, commenting that if Vigilius condemned the Three Chapters, it was superfluous, and if he justified them, he was condemning himself. He informed the seventh session of the Council that he had removed the pope's name from the diptychs, and he also presented the bishops with documents containing the secret assurances he had received from Vigilius in 547 and 550. In condemning Vigilius, he declared, he was not breaking with the See of Rome but only with the incumbent, thereby making a distinction which was first made by Pope leo i (440–461). The council condemned the pope and in its final session (June 2) it promulgated 14 anathemas that were taken almost literally from Justinian's edict of July 551. It also included Origen among the group of heresiarchs.
Hoping the pope would give way, Justinian published the council's condemnation only on July 14, and then he began a campaign of pressure until the pope surrendered, sending a letter of submission (December 8) to the Patriarch Eutychius. Justinian demanded a formal statement, and on Feb. 23, 554, Vigilius published his Constitutum II wherein he repudiated his former decisions and condemned both the doctrines and the authors of the Three Chapters. In return, Justinian gave heed to the pope's petition on behalf of Italy which was ruined by war and plague, and on Aug. 13, 554, he issued the Pragmatic Sanction, regulating ecclesiastical, economic and political affairs in Italy. It was an effort to restore the social fabric of Italy as it had existed before the Gothic War, and it was for the most part a futile effort.
Vigilius was already an ill man, suffering from a kidney stone, when he surrendered and on his way back to Rome, he died at Syracuse (June 7, 555). He had fought a good fight to preserve authority of Rome, but the Italian clergy did not forgive his surrender, and he was refused interment in St. Peter's basilica where the other sixth century popes were buried. Knowledge of Greek had by this time faded badly in the west, and hence many of the Latin clergy who defended the Three Chapters so fiercely could not read them. If they had, they might have realized that Justinian had a point: the Three Chapters did smack of heresy. But the Latin West saw the Three Chapters dispute as a challenge to the Creed of Chalcedon and the supremacy of the pope, and it fought back with all its might. The condemnation of the Three Chapters had no effect on the Monophysite dispute. In 557, Justinian called Jacob Baradaeus and a large selection of his followers to Constantinople for a colloquy, but it achieved nothing.
Aftermath of the Council. In a surprise move, Justinian offered the papal throne to Pelagius, a stout defender of Vigilius whose In defensione trium capitulorum, written the previous year, had strongly opposed Justinian's condemnation of the Three Chapters. The condition was that Pelagius now agree with the condemnation, and Pelagius accepted. He returned to face hostility in Italy, but imperial troops under Narses' command maintained firm control, and he was ordained bishop of Rome on Easter Sunday, 556, in St. Peter's basilica, by two bishops and a presbyter, since the usual complement of three bishops willing to perform the ceremony could not be found. Yet little by little Pelagius managed to impose his authority south of the Po River. Milan, north of it, remained estranged until the Lombard invasion (568). In Africa Justinian exiled and imprisoned recalcitrant prelates and his tactics bore fruit. Justin II's first edict sent the exiles back to their sees with the provision that they avoid any "novelties". Their passion was spent.
When Theodore Ascidas died (January 558), the bishop of Joppa in Palestine, whose name is unknown, took Theodore's place as Justinian's advisor, and he pointed out that if Justinian could not win over those Monophysites who followed the teachings of Severus, why not approach the follower of Severus' rival, Julian of Halicarnassus who preached the incorruptibility of Christ's body and were known as Aphthartodocetists? Justinian was not immediately won over. In 562, he published an edict reasserting the Chalcedonian doctrine. But near the end of 564 he promulgated an edict declaring orthodox the doctrine of Julian of Halicarnassus that Christ's body was incorruptible and incapable of suffering. Eutychius, the patriarch of Constantinople, refused his assent and was arrested (Jan. 22, 565) and deposed by a synod (Jan. 31, 565). He was replaced by John of Sirimis, who seems to have convinced Justinian that he would be willing to assent to his Aphthartodocetist decree, but he would not be the first of the patriarchs to do so. The other patriarchs, Apollinaris of Alexandria, Anastasius of Antioch and Macarius of Jerusalem, all resisted, and Justinian's death on November 14 averted a major crisis. justin ii immediately cancelled Justinian's decree.
Legislation. Justinian promulgated a cluster of laws intended to bring about religious conformity. His first such law (Cod.Just. I. 5. 12) dates to 527, while he was still co-emperor with Justin I, and it was followed by a group of laws against pagans, heretics, and Samaritans. These laws were extended to include Jews, though he does not appear to have enforced the laws against Judaism any more rigorously than his predecessors. At the same time, he attacked the social inequities of the empire with exemplary vigor. Laws governing slavery were simplified. Freedmen should conduct themselves as free citizens, he asserted, and though he safeguarded the rights of former masters as patrons of their freed slaves, he ruled that the demands of the patron must be reasonable. However he did nothing to better the condition of the adscripticii coloni, tenant farmers bound to their lessors under conditions little different from slavery. By now, free tenant farmers had practically disappeared and Justinian recognized only the freehold farmer and the adscript tenant, who was a serf and could break his tie to his landlord only if he became a bishop. He passed laws against prostitution, he wiped out many of the legal disabilities of actors and actresses, and passed regulations governing dowries and ante-nuptial donations. The old custom of divorce by mutual consent was prohibited; instead he gave legal recognition to a list of just causes. The rights of women to hold property was put on an equal footing with the rights of men.
By way of ecclesiastical legislation, he passed laws requiring clerical celibacy and regulating accession to the episcopate (Cod. Just. I. 3.41; Just. Novel. 6.1). Bishops were instructed to retrench their ordinations, for churches were spending more than their income on the stipends of their clergy. He regulated the conduct of monks and clergy, forbade them to attend the Hippodrome, legislated the control of property for convents and monasteries, and forbade the alienation of Church goods. He gave prefects and provincial governors the right of surveillance over ecclesiastical abuses and excluded persons accused of murder, adultery or rape from the right of asylum in church. On the other hand, bishops were authorized to act against governors to right injustice when necessary (Cod. Just. I. 41.33; Novel. 8.8) and juridical processes against clerics and monks were put exclusively into the hands of bishops unless referred to the emperor himself. This was a period when the only source of justice in the outlying parts of the empire was often only the local bishop.
Justinian's great achievement, however, was his code of laws. On Feb. 13, 528, he summoned a ten-man commission chaired by John the Cappadocian to update the old Gregorian and Hermogenian Codes, as well as the Theodosian Code published a century earlier. The aim of the new code was to limit the ingenuity of lawyers who would produce obscure constitutions as precedents in order to win a point even when it did not conform to the general law. The new code came into effect in April 529. Twenty months later, Justinian set up another commission to undertake the collection of jurists' law, that is, the writings of private specialists in jurisprudence as opposed to imperial edicts, constitutions and responses. The commissioners had to scan 1,528 books written by Roman lawyers from the first to the fourth centuries. Heading the commission was the brilliant Tribonian, probably a product of the Beirut Law School who was "Quaestor of the Sacred Palace." The Nika riots cost Tribonian his quaestorship, but the commission continued its labors with Tribonian still its chair, and the whole work was completed in three years and published (Dec. 16, 533). It was called the Digest or in Greek, the Pandects.
At the same time as the Digest a new textbook for law students (the Institutes ) was published. It was written by Dorotheus, the dean of the Beirut Law School, and Theophilus, a professor of the Constantinople Law School, both members of the commission chaired by Tribonian who also supervised the writing of the Institutes. Like the Digest, Justinian gave the Institutes the force of law. It now became clear that the Code of 529 needed updating, and Tribonian, Dorotheus and three lawyers set to work on a second edition. It was published on Nov. 14,534. This edition superseded the Code of 529, known as the Codex vetus, which has not survived.
In the Constitution (Cordi nobis est ) which prefaced the promulgation of the Code in 534, Justinian indicated that he planned a collection of his subsequent laws under the title Novellae Constitutiones, but he never carried out this plan. But there were unofficial collections, the oldest of which is an abridged Latin version made for use in Italy and containing no novels later than 555. The fullest is a collection of 168 constitutions, which also contains some by Justin II and Tiberius II and hence is no earlier than the reign of Tiberius II. It gives each novel in its original language, which is usually Greek. The third is the Authenticum, where the latest entry dates to 556. It gives Greek originals in literal Latin translation and contains 134 Novels. Noteworthy is the use of Greek. In Justinian's reign, Latin ceased to be the exclusive language of law.
Justinian's Building Program. We are usually well-informed about Justinian's buildings because Procopius of Caesarea, better known as the author of the History of the Wars of Justinian, which chronicled events of the wars up until 552, wrote a panegyric describing them. The Peri Ktismaton, in Latin, the De aedificiis, begins with Justinian's buildings in Constantinople in the first book, and then in the remaining five books, undertakes to describe his building program throughout the empire. Italy is omitted, but Justinian built little there. The church of San Vitale in Ravenna, which contains famous mosaics of Justinian and Theodora on the two side-walls of the chancel, was dedicated in 547. But it was begun while Ravenna was still the capital of the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy, and it was paid for by a local banker, Julius Argentarius. In Constantinople, pride of place goes to the great church of Hagia Sophia, which still stands. Also surviving, and used as a mosque, is SS. Sergius and Bacchus near the Palace of Hormisdas where Justinian and Theodora lived before Justinian became emperor. Justinian joined it to the imperial palace, and Theodora used it as a monastery and refuge for Monophysite churchmen. SS. Sergius and Bacchus may have been used for Monophysite services, and its twin, SS. Peter and Paul, which was joined to SS. Sergius and Bacchus by a common exonarthex, may have been used for the Latin rite. Outside Constantinople, he rebuilt Antioch which was sacked by the Persians in 540, and rebuilt his birthplace Tauresium with the new name, Justiniana Prima, and he made its metropolitan an archbishop, giving him the same rank as the metropolitans of Ravenna and Carthage. Procopius' panegyric reveals Justinian's concern for building churches to the glory of God, forts and walls to defend his subjects, and wells and aqueducts to assure a water supply. In the Balkans Procopius lists over 600 sites where Justinian built or improved defenses, many of them simply places of refuge where the inhabitants of the surrounding area could go for safety when invaders threatened.
Conclusion. Justinian's reign was a period of change, and in spite of his efforts, he left the empire in a more precarious position when it ended than when it began. Part of the reason was bad luck. The economy was expanding under the reign of Anastasius (d. 518) and the expansion continued under Justin I and Justinian until the epidemic of bubonic plague, which broke out first in Egypt, moved up the eastern Mediterranean coast and reached Constantinople in 542. From there it traveled westward, reaching Italy and France by 543 and even reaching Ireland the following year. There was a second outbreak in Constantinople in 558. This was bubonic or bubo-septicaemic plague, spread by fleas living on rodents, not the more deadly pulmonary type which is directly communicable to another person, for Procopius who describes the symptoms in detail notes that those who cared for plague victims did not necessarily contract the disease. Nonetheless it cut the population base drastically. One estimate is that the empire's population in 600 was only 60 percent of what it was in 500.
The empire's resources became overextended. It is the general view that Justinian's ambition to restore the Roman Empire in the western Mediterranean was responsible for this. But the reconquest at first went well. Justinian made a peace intended to last indefinitely with Persia (533), for which he paid an indemnity of 11,000 gold pounds and, trusting that the Persian king Khusro would keep his word and he would have no cause for alarm on his eastern frontier, Justinian sent an expedition of modest size led by the young general Belisarius against the Vandal kingdom in North Africa in 533. The conquest was easy and Belisarius returned to Constantinople to celebrate a triumph. In 535 Belisarius led an even smaller force against Sicily, which fell easily. On December 31, Belisarius entered Syracuse. Next year he invaded Italy. The offensive went well at first; on Dec. 9, 536, Belisarius entered Rome without a fight, for Pope Silverius urged the Romans to open the city gates to him. But the Goths regrouped, and subjected Rome to a terrible siege that lasted until mid-March 538. Quarreling among the Byzantine general staff hampered the campaign, and when Belisarius finally took Ravenna in 540, it was because he tricked the Ostrogoths into believing that if they surrendered the city to him, he would rebel against Justinian and declare himself independent ruler in Italy with Gothic support. When Belisarius returned to Constantinople, he received a cool welcome.
The 540s were grim. In 540 Khusro broke the Endless Peace and invaded Syria, sacking Antioch and collecting ransoms from other cities. In Italy, the Goths rallied under a new king, Baduila, and the war dragged on until 552. The plague drained the empire of manpower and Justinian had to rely more upon barbarian recruits. In Africa there was unrest. The war of reconquest, which was launched when times were prosperous, overextended the resources of the empire. Still, Justinian could not resist an opportunity for more conquest in the west. In 551, a Visigothic noble, Athanagild, rebelled against the Visigothic king and appealed for help to Justinian. Justinian sent an army, which helped obtain the kingdom for Athanagild, but then the Byzantines declined to leave. The Byzantines remained in Spain until c. 624. Nonetheless the criticism that Justinian neglected the defense of his eastern provinces in order to concentrate on his western conquests is not justified. Justinian refused to commit large numbers of troops to the Gothic War in Italy in the 540s. Not until 551 did he send the eunuch Narses to Italy with sufficient resources to win the war in Italy, and the Goths were finally destroyed in two battles fought in 552.
Justinian's activities and accomplishments reveal a man of incredible energy and acute intelligence: his subjects spoke of him as the "Emperor who never sleeps" (John Lydus, De magistratibus 3.55). He was a tireless reformer in a society that was hostile to innovation. To quote his own words, he spent day and night reflecting on measures which were pleasing to God and useful to his subjects (Novel 8, preface). His reign is notable for the number of brilliant generals who served under him, such as Belisarius, the eunuch Narses, the Armenian Sittas who became Justinian's brother-in-law, and his cousin Germanus whose career suffered from Theodora's antipathy until her death. His praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian carried through administrative reforms ruthlessly until he ran afoul of the empress Theodora who contrived his downfall. Justinian spent prodigiously and taxed heavily; Evagrius (4.30) writing after his death, thought him greedy for money, but a generous builder of churches, orphanages, homes for the aged and hospitals for the sick. He believed it was his mission, as vicegerent of God, to unify Christian belief and to that end, he pursued heretics and sought to find a formula that was common ground for the Chalcedonian Catholics and the Monophysites. Contemporaries wondered at his partnership with Theodora, for she was Monophysite and championed the Monophysite cause. Procopius in his Secret History, an invective wherein he claimed to reveal the depravity of Justinian and Theodora as well as Belisarius and his wife Antonina, thought that Justinian and Theodora pretended to disagree in order to stir up trouble. More likely Justinian realized the value of having a loyal opposition, for as long as the Monophysites had an ally at court, they did not spawn any separatist movement. Whatever their theological differences, Justinian had no doubt of Theodora's loyalty.
According to the panegyrist Corippus, Justinian spent his last years in his religious preoccupations (In laudem Justini 2.265–267). The end of his reign was disturbed by a number of attempted rebellions. The aged Belisarius was implicated in one of the these, but since there was no proof of his guilt, in July 563, he was rehabilitated. He died in March 565, eight months before Justinian. His last service to the empire was to organize the defense of Constantinople against an incursion of the Kutrigur Huns in 559. Justinian himself died in his sleep without warning on the night of November 14 or 15, and his death averted a theological crisis. For all his contradictions and failures, he was probably the greatest of the Byzantine emperors.
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[j. a. s. evans]