Ancient History & Civilisation

Justinian: The Years of Ambition

The reign of Justinian is much more exhaustively documented than those of his predecessors, thanks above all to the survival of the works of Procopius, the last great historian of antiquity. Like his predecessors, Ammianus Marcellinus and Priscus, Procopius was not merely a chronicler, but a participant in the events that he described. He had been appointed to the staff of the general Belisarius, when the latter was made comes of Mesopotamia in 526,78 and this close relationship colors his narrative, both favorably and unfavorably at different stages of Belisarius' career. He was present for much of the fighting in the wars on the eastern frontier, against the Vandals in Africa, and against the Goths in Italy (Map 4.2).79 The campaigns in these three areas provide the dense and detailed material of the eight books of his History of the Wars. These narratives are more concerned with events and actions than with causes and motivation. Procopius, however, although he only rarely obtrudes his own voice to comment on events, used the structure and form of the historical narrative as a whole to provide a personal commentary and judgment on the behavior both of groups and of individuals. The juxtaposition of successful and unsuccessful episodes, the implicit contrast between speech and action, the clear connection between immoral, careless, or self-interested behavior and its consequences provide a moral framework through which the world of Justinian was presented to his readers. Procopius uses all the tools of classical historiography to provide as serious and comprehensive an account of Justinian's Roman Empire at war with its enemies as Thucydides had of the wars of Athens and Sparta in the fifth century BC. In an important recent study, Anthony Kaldellis argues that Procopius created a sophisticated intertextual dialogue between his work and that of the great classical philosophers and historians as one means of conveying coded judgments on contemporary affairs.80 In the unpublished Secret History, which was probably written around 550, at the same time as the Wars, Procopius produced an alternative view of the events described in the History of the Wars, which was concerned to get behind the facade of what had happened. This is a bitterly hostile analysis of the unscrupulous personal behavior of the crucial political figures: the emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora, the general Belisarius and his wife Antonina, the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian, and the lawyer Tribonian. The Secret History looks into the black heart of a corrupt and evil imperial regime behind the closed gates of the palace. The Wars shows the impact of this sinister empire on the world that Justinian was bent on dominating. It is critical to remember that in the Wars the author was chronicling high affairs of state while the main protagonist, the emperor himself, was alive and active. This imposed obvious limits on what could be said. Most of Procopius' predecessors – Tacitus and Cassius Dio, Suetonius and Ammianus Marcellinus, to say nothing of Zosimus writing under Anastasius – had written about emperors who were dead. They had been able to integrate criticism, sometimes undisguised in its partisanship, in their narratives. Procopius did not have that option open to him. The Secret History was his solution.


Map 4.2    The Roman Empire and the barbarian kingdoms around 525

Procopius' works are indispensable for any reconstruction of the historical events of the Justinianic period, but the historian is obviously not without his limitations. The information he provides can be incomplete, misleading, or demonstrably inaccurate. His presentation was affected by parti pris. Thus the books of the Persian Wars are sometimes distorted by encomiastic misrepresentation of Procopius' commander-in-chief and patron, Belisarius. His Buildings, which was designedly written in praise of Justinian's achievements, enormously exaggerates and distorts the emperor's contribution, often attributing to Justinian what had in fact been accomplished by his predecessors, or dressing up insignificant repairs as major undertakings.81 The view into the black box of the arcana imperii, which is provided by the Secret History, is also not untainted by Procopius' individual prejudices.82

Moreover, even on its own terms Procopius offers only a very partial picture of the empire in the mid-sixth century. His perspective is largely a Roman one, drawn from the viewpoint of a member of the Constantinopolitan elite. The subject matter, in the Wars at least, is deliberately restricted to campaigns and foreign policy, with only occasional excursuses on internal or domestic affairs that were more or less relevant to this narrative of warfare, battles, and diplomacy. He was nevertheless fully aware of the importance of the religious moralizing that was central to Justinian's self-representation, and the religious motivation that ran through imperial foreign policy.

Procopius affects not to have more than an outsider's pagan knowledge of Christian institutions: bishops are referred to as pagan priests (hiereis), churches as temples, monks are prefaced with an apologetic “so-called.” He also writes virtually nothing about the religious issues that divided the Christian world, above all the doctrinal conflicts between the Chalcedonians and the Monophysites, which dominated church and civic affairs. This was one of the key topics on which he was fundamentally at variance with the emperor whose reign he chronicled. Whereas Justinian was driven to persecute heretics by religious zeal, “in order to gather all men into one belief as to Christ” (Secret History 13.7), Procopius shared the view that it was “a foolish thing to undergo any suffering in the name of a senseless dogma” (Secret History 11.25–26). Procopius turned a blind eye to the undercurrents of Christian feuding, and was alienated by the extremism that the emperor encouraged.

No emperor began his reign with more confidence and aplomb than Justinian. He had been well prepared by the role he had played in his uncle's reign, during which he eventually achieved the position of co-emperor, and when Justin died on August 1, 527, the succession was inevitable and unopposed. Justinian's early years in power were marked by extraordinary self-belief. He was determined to consolidate the Roman Empire as a universal kingdom, ruled in justice before God. A first step was to codify and publish the entire corpus of Roman law on a definitive basis. This is the best guide to understanding how Justinian conceived his imperial mission. The Codex Justinianus was a revised compilation of the three existing late Roman law codes, which had been published under Diocletian and Theodosius II, and of the new legislation, novellae, produced by subsequent emperors. The work was completed in fourteen months. In December 530 Justinian asked his lawyers to undertake a much larger task, to produce an edited selection based on the existing collections of private legal rulings and discussions by earlier jurists. This came to be known as the Digest or Pandect of Civil Law, which was an epitome in fifty books, based on more than 1,500 classical legal texts, mostly dealing with private law. The man who was principally responsible for delivering this project was the quaestor to the palace, Tribonian, who, as well as being a lawyer of extraordinary energy, also possessed an immense private library, which must have served as the basis for the compilation. The Digest was ready by December 533. The commission also completed a third major undertaking, the Institutes of Justinian, a comprehensive handbook, designed for instructing jurists in Roman legal principles. Finally the legal team set to work on a revised second edition of the Codex Justinianus, which was completed in 534. In December 533 a law was passed which reorganized legal training. The law schools at Alexandria and Caesarea were closed, leaving only those at Berytus, Constantinople, and Rome to provide a five-year syllabus. The aim was clearly to standardize legal education. After the completion of the Digest a law was passed which quite simply forbade the publication of new commentaries on existing laws. This was designed to draw a line under the whole undertaking. The enterprise was intended to be definitive. This enormous body of legal writing, mostly compiled in Latin, the emperor's own native tongue as well as the official language of imperial authority, was the most compelling articulation of the ideology and nature of the Christian Roman Empire ever to have been devised.

The great Justinianic codification of existing Roman law amounts to one of the largest bodies of Latin prose literature that survives from antiquity. It was for this reason above all that Roman law continued to be used as the foundation of organized western society until the early modern period. However, by the second quarter of the sixth century Latin, the language of law and administration, was being overhauled in Constantinople by the use of Greek, which was spoken by most of the eastern empire's inhabitants and was the language of culture and of the eastern church.83 Justinian's own subsequent legislation, his novellae, were mostly issued in Greek. These appeared in rapid succession until the mid-540s, but only sparsely thereafter. The contrast between energy at the beginning of his period of rule and the inertia of his later years is characteristic of Justinian's reign as a whole.84

Although the regime was explicitly based on legislation that had been built up over centuries by his predecessors, Justinian's conception of the law differed from theirs. The prologue to the Institutes brackets military power with the force of law as the two main instruments by which the Roman Empire was mastered. However, human law was explicitly shaped by the guiding hand of God, and the Institutes begin with the invocation “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The union of divine and secular authority is articulated even more clearly by the preface to one of Justinian's own early laws:

The greatest gifts which God in his mercy has granted to mankind are priesthood and empire. The former serves God's requirements, the latter controls man's affairs and is concerned with them. These two authorities, originating from the same source, provide order to human life. (Justinian, Nov. 6, praef.)

Justinian approached the question of organizing religious doctrine with the same urgency that he brought to the codification of Roman law. He himself was a passionate proponent of Chalcedonian orthodoxy, and his beliefs were not merely those of casual convenience but based on personal conviction. In particular he adhered to the so-called theopaschite formula, that “the one who suffered in the flesh is God and one of the Trinity.” This encompassed the Chalcedonian view of the two natures of Christ, that he was both wholly man and wholly God, and expressed the belief that Christ's suffering was completely compatible with his Godhead. Leading representatives of the Monophysites, the main opponents of this doctrine, were called to the capital in 528 to discuss and agree on the doctrine that Justinian expounded. He introduced a far more authoritative and high-handed approach to religious matters than any of his imperial forerunners. In 536 a council pronounced that “it was fitting that nothing be done in the holy Church contrary to the emperor's will and command.” However, it is evident that even Justinian had to reckon with the fact that the Monophysites were too numerous and well organized simply to be extirpated or converted to the Chalcedonian view by the arbitrary redefinition of doctrinal terms. Remarkably the emperor's own wife, Theodora, had strong Monophysite sympathies, and entertained Monophysite bishops and other religious leaders in the palace. Procopius cynically suggested that the division between the two was contrived:

For a long time, it is true, they were supposed by all to be diametrically opposed to each other at all times in both their opinions and their way of living, but later it was realised that this impression was purposely worked up by them in order that their subjects might not, by getting together in their views, rise in revolt against them, but that the opinions of their subjects might be at variance regarding themselves. (Secret History 10, 13–14)

Dialogue and theological debate, in which the emperor himself was adept, remained the means by which the disputing wings of the Church would have to be united. Justinian was obliged to temper his beliefs to practical realities. When Ghassanid Arab leaders, who were Christian Monophysites, approached Theodora and asked for new clergy to be sent from Constantinople, she prevailed on her husband to send two bishops, Theodore and Jacob Bar-Addai, who in turn created an entire church hierarchy of thirty bishops and innumerable clergy across eastern Syria and Mesopotamia. The region thereby became a Monophysite stronghold.85 Another important Monophysite figure was John, bishop of Ephesus, who was charged by Justinian in 542 to carry out extensive missionary work in Anatolia to convert the residual pagan populations of Phrygia and Lydia. His Lives of the Eastern Saints and his partially preserved Church History, which both survive in Syriac versions, presented an account of the eastern church that was sympathetic towards the Monophysites.86 It appears that Justinian was prepared to bide his time, before attacking this central conflict of faith.

In practice, the empire was a maelstrom of diverse religious communities (see pp. 251–6). The successive church councils had never managed to homogenize religious belief, or even religious practice. From the viewpoint of the imperial church some of these sects were irredeemably heretical, and these were swiftly and drastically outlawed. In the first half of 527, even before the death of Justin, Justinian passed laws against the Manichees and the Samaritans of Palestine (CJust. 1.5.12; cf. CJust. 1.5.18 and 19 of AD529). Repeated imperial legislation throughout the late empire had treated the “accursed Manichaeans” more repressively than any other religious group,87 and the word Manichee itself had become a byword for extreme heresy, a term of abuse in religious polemic rather than a description of a particular form of belief. The Samaritans were an ethnic religious group, closely akin to the Jews, whose worship centered on sacrifice on Mount Gerizim in Palestine, north of Jerusalem. There had been violent conflicts between the Samaritans and local Christians in 484, during the reign of Zeno, and after a Samaritan attack on Christians during the Easter festival at Neapolis (Nablus), their mountain-top temple was replaced by a Christian church. Procopius in the Buildings alleged that Justinian converted them to a pious Christian way of life (Procopius, Buildings 5.7). In fact the legislation that forbade Samaritan religious activities amounted to the abolition of the Samaritan race. Large numbers of them are said to have sought sanctuary with the Persian king Kavad.88 Those that remained mounted a major revolt in 529. Procopius, who himself came from Caesarea in Palestine, close to the Samaritan homeland, says that the sensible inhabitants of this region, with its mixed population and diverse religious traditions, made it their business to avoid religious confrontation. However, the Samaritans were goaded by the imperial decision:

The majority, feeling resentment that, not by their own free choice, but under the compulsion of the law, they had changed from the beliefs of their fathers, instantly inclined to the Manichaeans and to the polytheists, as they are called. And all of the farmers, having gathered in great numbers, decided to rise in arms against the emperor, putting forward as their own emperor a certain brigand, Julian by name, son of Savarus. (Procopius, Secret History 11.26–27)

The insurrection was crushed with massive military force: 100,000 rebels are said to have been put to death, and the Christian inhabitants of the region suffered in future from having to pay the huge annual land tax. After achieving some respite around 550 the Samaritans revolted again in 556.

The Montanists of Asia Minor were another target of violent repression. This Judaizing sect had established a very strong hold across the interior of Asia Minor. Anti-Montanist moves were undertaken in 529, and in November 530 a law banished Montanist clergy from Constantinople (CJust. I.5.18.3, 5–7, 12;–7). These early actions were to culminate around 550 in a major pogrom, conducted by troops, against the spiritual center of the heresy, the Phrygian town of Pepuza, which Montanists regarded as the New Jerusalem. Montanism was a Judaizing form of Christianity, and for this reason the attack on Pepuza may well be compared with the attack on the Samaritans. The Montanists and other sects, which celebrated Easter at the time of the Jewish Pass­over, laid particular emphasis on the Christian teaching of St John's Gospel and the Book of Revelation.89 It is no coincidence that in the 550s, as the onslaught on Pepuza took place, Justinian encouraged and supported the building of a great basilica church for St John at Ephesus, the supposed site of the evangelist's tomb, thus reclaiming the saint for the imperial form of orthodoxy. Pepuza is said to have been destroyed.90

Other heretical groups were treated severely, but less drastically. Early legislation was issued against the Nestorians and other groups that had been anathematized at Chalcedon. Justinian also mounted a final major onslaught on the institutions of paganism. The aim of his law of 529 was not simply to abolish pagan practice but to require pagan households to be baptized into Christianity (CJust. 1.11.10). Pagan teaching was a focus of attack, and the thrust of Justinian closed the philosophical school at Athens, which had become the most important center for non-Christian Neoplatonic teaching in the later empire. The staff of the academy fled to Persia.91

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