ca. A.D. 482-565
Eastern Roman emperor
Justinian was a ruler of the Byzantine Empire, as the Roman Empire in the East came to be called after the A.D. 400s. He accomplished much during his 38-year reign, including the reconquest of imperial* lands lost during the barbarian invasions of the West and the codification* of Roman law.
Justinian was born in Thrace and was adopted by his uncle, the emperor Justin. Justinian rose rapidly through the ranks—from imperial guard to personal imperial bodyguard, count, general, and then, in A.D. 521, consul*. Two years later, Justinian married the former actress Theodora, who would become his most trusted adviser until her death in A.D. 548. Following the death of Justin in A.D. 527, Justinian became emperor.
Justinian was passionately interested in theology*, law, and the expansion of the empire’s boundaries. He tried to wipe out the heresies* that were threatening to tear apart the Christian church. Pagans* were driven from positions of authority, and the Neoplatonist* school in Athens was closed. Justinian contributed money to churches and commissioned the rebuilding of the monumental church Hagia Sophia in Constantinople.
As emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, Justinian kept invaders from Persia and the Balkans from encroaching on his realm. He was responsible for codifying Roman law and for building the magnificent Church of St. Sophia in Constantinople. This carved ivory shows Justinian riding triumphantly among his subjects.
In A.D. 528, Justinian set out to reorganize Roman law. For this enormous and complicated task, he chose the lawyer Tribonian to assist him. A commission was established to organize the existing laws and the emperor’s comments on them. The initial organization was accomplished, and the first Codex, or code, was published in A.D. 529. Work on the project continued the following year. Another commission was established to organize the work of early judges. Commission members read through nearly 2,000 books and published the Digest (in 50 books) in A.D. 533. Tribonian also directed the writing of a textbook, called the Institutes, for beginning law students. In A.D. 534, a new code was published. The complete body of work was called the Corpus Juris Civilis, or The Complete Civil Law. It both preserved the legal heritage of the past and transmitted it to future generations. The Corpus remained the cornerstone of European law for centuries. Justinian was a vigorous lawmaker himself and instituted many laws that affected all aspects of life in the empire.
Justinian successfully took back the provinces* of the Western Roman Empire from the barbarians. He was aided by his great military commanders Belisarius and Narses, who recaptured northern Africa and the islands of the western Mediterranean from the Vandals, occupied Rome, and eventually secured the Italian peninsula from the Ostrogoths. Southern Spain was also liberated from the control of the Visigoths. Justinian strengthened fortifications in the Balkans and along the eastern frontier with neighboring Armenia, Mesopotamia, and Syria. His wars were expensive, however, and seriously weakened the finances of the empire.
Justinian was a tireless ruler who enjoyed his work. He slept little and kept his staff continually busy. His helpmate and colleague was his wife and empress, Theodora. When the Nike Rebellion (so-called because the rebels used the battle cry of nike or “conquer” during chariot races) in Constantinople nearly tumbled Justinian from power, it was Theodora who convinced her husband to remain and fight for his crown. Justinian listened to her advice and ordered Belisarius to slaughter the factions who were calling for his downfall. With Justinian’s death in A.D. 565, the first and greatest period of Byzantine history came to an end. Future emperors tried to save the imperial provinces in the East rather than fight on both western and eastern frontiers. (See also Byzantium; Constantinople; Rome; History of.)
* imperial pertaining to an emperor or empire
* codify to arrange according to a system; to set down in writing
* consul one of two chief governmental officials of Rome, chosen annually and serving for a year
* theology study of the nature of God and of religious truth
* heresy belief that is contrary to church doctrine
* pagan one who worships many gods; nonChristian
* Neoplatonist referring to the modification of Plato's teachings by scholars who came later
* province overseas area controlled by Rome