The seventy-year-old man who sat on Constantinople’s throne in 518 was hardly emblematic of the winds of change that were blowing through the Eastern Empire, but he was nevertheless a living example of the upward mobility possible in the sixth-century Roman world. Justin’s life began in a small peasant home in Thrace, and he spent his youth tending the few sheep his parents could afford. When he turned twenty, he decided to leave the crushing poverty of his homeland and set off for Constantinople with nothing more than the clothes on his back and a few biscuits in his knapsack. Arriving in the city, he found a job in the army, and, thanks to a healthy mix of hard work and ability, he rose to become commander of the palace guard. This job conveniently placed him at the head of the only real troops in the city, and when Zeno’s successor expired, Justin found himself ideally placed to seize power. With a few strategic military parades and a generous donation of a pound of silver to each soldier to maintain their support, he was cheerfully hailed as Augustus by the people of Constantinople.
At first glance, he was hardly a good choice for the throne. Poorly educated and now “elderly,” he had no administrative experience and didn’t seem remotely qualified for the heavy burdens of state. He did, however, have one important advantage—his brilliant nephew Peter Sabbatius.
Peter had been born thirty-six years before, during the last years of the reign of Zeno, and had left the dusty Macedonian town of his birth to seek his fortune in the city where his uncle was rising fast. Recognizing the boy’s extraordinary ability, Justin adopted him as a son, providing him the finest education available, steeping his mind in the classical texts and intellectual climate of the capital. Peter was so moved by his uncle’s generosity that he adopted his name in gratitude. From that time on he was known simply as Justinian.
Keenly aware of the new power and wealth of the empire, Justinian was determined to adopt a more aggressive foreign policy. The barbarian kingdoms that had inherited the western half of the empire had been allowed to flaunt their independence for long enough. The emperors of Constantinople, busy as they were clinging onto their own thrones, may have been too distracted to respond in the past, but stability had returned and the imperial star was once again in the ascendancy. The time had come to deliver those suffering under the shifting, chaotic oppression of barbarian overlords. No longer would Roman pride be crushed under the brutish barbarian heel. The time had come to return to the West.
The opening salvo in Justinian’s great reconquest was the restoration of relations with the papacy. Relations between Rome and Constantinople had become somewhat strained thanks to a recent heresy teaching that Christ was divine but not fully human.*Various patriarchs and councils had ruled against it, but the priests and monks of the East were stubbornly independent and determined to make up their own minds on religious matters. Tired of the endless theological speculation, the pope broke off relations, hoping to force his eastern brothers to admit the error of their ways.† Justinian couldn’t repair the damage overnight, but he could lay the groundwork. Appointing firmly Christian ministers, Justinian had his uncle send a letter to the pope asking for the regrettable schism to be healed so that the church might be united again. Satisfied that the eastern half of the church had recovered its bearings, the pope at once agreed.
The warming relations between pontiff and emperor sent shock waves rippling throughout the barbarian kingdoms of the West, especially in Theodoric’s Italy, where the shrewd Gothic king was fully aware that he ruled Italy only because Constantinople had other things on its mind. Theodoric knew that as an Arian ruling a Christian population, his position was weak. If his subjects found common cause with their coreligionists in Constantinople, Theodoric’s kingdom was doomed. Where spiritual victories appeared, armies would soon follow, and Rome for all its decay had not forgotten its imperial glory. If the empire was once again casting its attention toward its ancestral capital, he had no doubt the citizens of Rome would throw open the gates.
If Theodoric had spies in Constantinople, they would have given him the comforting news that Justinian, the guiding star of imperial policy, was increasingly distracted by the attractions of the Hippodrome. Like any city in any age, Constantinople had its fanatical sports fans who would occasionally engage in acts of hooliganism and generally considered the success of their teams to be more important than life itself. Called the Blues and the Greens after the colors they would don to show their support, the factions were mostly made up of youths and members of the lower classes who had few other ways to vent their energy. Showing up at the Hippodrome to watch the chariot races, they would sit in their own sections and try to drown out the opposing side with mildly insulting chants. Most emperors and their families maintained a careful neutrality when it came to the rowdy circus factions, spouting bland assertions of support depending on the company they were in, but Justinian, with his typical disregard for tradition, made no attempt to hide his passionate support for the Blues.
A day at the chariot races was more than just entertainment. The vast network of Blue supporters allowed Justinian to keep a finger on the pulse of the city and alerted him to possible threats from public disturbances. There was never a shortage of people willing to ingratiate themselves with the heir apparent by sharing information, and one of them, a star ballet dancer named Macedonia, introduced Justinian to a beautiful ex-actress named Theodora. The daughter of a bear keeper and an actress, Theodora was nearly twenty years his junior and had grown up on the stage—a profession synonymous with prostitution in the sixth century* The gulf between them was so large, and the occupation of actress so frowned upon, that there was even a law forbidding someone of senatorial rank from marrying a lady of the stage. It would have been hard to pick a less appropriate mate for a future emperor, but the moment he set eyes on her, Justinian fell madly in love.
Despite their different social status, it proved to be an inspired match. Theodora’s prodigious energy and intelligence matched Justinian’s, and the two of them were soon inseparable. Easily overcoming the legal barriers to marriage by pressuring his uncle to amend the offending law, Justinian soon married his new love and turned his formidable mind back to foreign policy.
The emperor Justin was as always content to be led by his brilliant nephew, and Byzantium looked outward with an expansive new confidence. Dissidents crushed by the tyrannies of foreign oppression suddenly found they had a powerful ally in Constantinople, and emissaries flocked to the capital. The glittering new power and prestige drew neighboring powers into the Byzantine orbit, and one diplomatic triumph seemed to follow the next. Client kings tired of the oppressive Persian rule began to break away, transferring their allegiance to Constantinople, despite the furious protests of the Persian king. The long arm of Justinian’s ambition even reached the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, where the Jewish king of Yemen had recently massacred his Christian subjects by throwing them into a ditch and setting them on fire. Offering to provide transport ships to aid in crossing the Red Sea, Justinian induced the Christian king of Ethiopia to retaliate and avenge the disaster. Within two years, a Christian king was installed on the Yemenite throne, and the empire was given access to trade routes from the Red Sea to India.
Most of these accomplishments came at the expense of Persia, and the annoyed king sent an army into modern Georgia to prevent any more vassals from defecting. This ham-fisted measure provoked the annoyed Justinian into more direct action, and he persuaded his uncle to send a Byzantine army to raid Persian Armenia. It wasn’t a large force, and it was remarkable only for a single man that Justinian contributed from his personal bodyguard. At the moment, he was simply an unknown soldier, but he would soon show himself to be the most brilliant general in imperial history. Like Justinian, his origins were humble, but kingdoms and kings would one day tremble at the name of Belisarius.
By the end of 526, as the two ancient enemies slowly rumbled to war, Justin’s health started to seriously decline, and the Senate asked him to crown Justinian as coemperor. He did so on April 1, 527, in a magnificent ceremony that seemed more a coming-out party than a simple coronation. By the end of the summer, Justin was dead of an old war wound, and Justinian and Theodora stood as the sole rulers of the Roman Empire.
*Called Monophysitism (single nature), this heresy stemmed from several bishops who vigorously defended the church from the teachings of Arius. So intent were they on denying the claim of an inferior, human Christ that they went as far in the other direction.
†Pope Felix III actually excommunicated the patriarch of Constantinople, but since no one was brave enough to deliver the sentence in person, the questionable decision was made to pin the letter of anathema to the back of his robes when he wasn’t paying attention.
* Theodora herself seems to have specialized in a particularly obscene form of pantomime involving geese. Such details of her life, however, come from the lurid pen of Procopius, who had reason enough to hate her, and should probably be taken with a large grain of salt.