Justinian the Great?

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At first glance, the legacy of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I (r. AD 527 – 565) is remarkable. By his death in 565, the central territories of the Western Empire had been reconquered and Visigothic rule over Rome, once a galling sign of the decline of Roman civilisation, had been ended. The empire once again encompassed the entire Mediterranean, stretching from the Iberian Peninsula to the Red Sea. This is not to mention his reform and codification of the outdated Roman legal system, which eventually formed the basis of many future medieval European legal codes. In the eyes of some subjects and many historians, these feats warranted his anointing as ‘Justinian the Great’ – the title by which he best known.

Yet the rediscovery of the unpublished work Anecdota in the Vatican Library in 1623 – better known as The Secret History – provide an altogether different perspective. Its author, the contemporary historian Procopius, best known for his pro-Justinian History of the Wars, wrote that Justinian’s “nature was an unnatural mixture of folly and wickedness” and that “more men had been murdered by this single man than in all previous history”. Procopius describes a Justinian who was conniving and bloodthirsty, “a liar always” who merely claimed responsibility for others’ achievements. In reality, Justinian was neither a faultless ruler nor “a demon”, but a flawed emperor who nevertheless transformed Byzantium for the better.

The eventual Emperor Justinian I was born Petrus Sabbatius into a peasant family in North Macedonia. At a young age, he was adopted by his successful uncle, Justin, and so took the name Iustinianus and moved with him to Constantinople. His uncle continued to rise through the ranks until he was appointed commander of the Palace Guard, which funded an expensive education for Justinian where he learnt the intricacies of Byzantine politics.

When Emperor Anastasius died without an heir in 518, a power vacuum opened. Justin, due to his position as commander of the sole armed force allowed in the city, as well as a few assassinations and bribes, was able to seize the throne in the struggle. The peasant boy had now become heir to the throne.

Throughout his uncle’s reign, Justinian played a key role in imperial administration, being appointed consul in 521. His influence was such that he was able to change the law to allow for his marriage to the scandalous actress and former prostitute Theodora in 527. He was nominated as co-emperor shortly after his marriage, allowing for a smooth transition to his individual reign following Justin I’s death in August of that year.

Justinian’s policies on his accession were shaped by his monumental goal of renovatio imperii – the restoration of the Empire. In the short term, this meant imposing order on an existing empire he believed lacked unity and direction. The ongoing war with the Sassanid Persians was costly and unlikely to result in a Byzantine victory, so he committed to resolving the conflict. Following a defeat at Callinicum in 531, the ‘Eternal Peace’ agreement was reached with the new Persian king, Khosrow I, that secured the eastern frontier.

However, the domestic theatre proved just as troublesome for Justinian. In 532, due to anger at his government for raising taxes, the Nika Insurrection – named for their chant, the Greek for ‘victory’ – demanded the removal of certain officials and even the emperor himself. He considered fleeing, but his wife, Theodora, convinced him to remain in the city, and he then responded with crushing force against the rebels. Justinian sent imperial troops to the Hippodrome to kill anyone attending the crowning of the imposter Hypatius. The historian Procopius says these troops, under the command of Justinian’s best general, Belisarius, slaughtered 30,000.

Though this restored order temporarily, Justinian tried to impose it permanently, and prevent the future outbreak of revolts, through the establishment of a revised, effective legal code. Thus, he commissioned the production of the Corpus Juris Civilis, a compilation of laws from a millennium of Roman legislation, entwining the laws of the empire with the Chalcedonian Christianity (one of the religion’s many early branches) that Justinian personally upheld.

The first law in the code forbade any member of the empire from holding any other faith than that of the state church, making the practise of any heresy illegal. Justinian hoped that these new laws would promote social cohesion within the empire while fulfilling his obligations to God. This necessarily led to religious persecution for many of the empire’s diverse subjects, and Procopius even described the resulting “scene of massacre and flight”. Nonetheless, these problems must be weighed against the far-reaching impact of the codification of Byzantine law, which allowed for far more effective enforcement and formed the basis for a number of medieval legal systems across Europe.

Once the empire had regained stability, Justinian set his sights on the Vandal Kingdom of Carthage, which occupied almost the entirety of the North African coast not already under Byzantine control. Justinian’s motivation for conquering North Africa was dually motivated by his expansionist goal of restoring Roman Empire and the religious goal of eliminating heresy, for the Vandals practised Arianism, a heretical form of Christianity. However, the short-term impetus behind the decision itself was the deposition of the Vandal King Hilderic – though rivals, the two emperors had at least shared good relations.

Therefore, Justinian tasked the aforementioned Belisarius with the invasion in 533, with an army of 15,000 men and 90 galleys. The conquest was unexpectedly rapid, despite the relatively small army for the vast territory covered, and Belisarius took Carthage after two crushing victories in battle. Despite having to deal with uprisings from the Moors in the subsequent years, the conquest of North Africa proved a compelling display of the might of the Byzantine war machine, convincing Justinian to keep expanding the empire’s territories.

The death of the Ostrogothic King Athalaric in 534 made Italy the next target of Justinian’s reconquering vision. The following year, he sent Belisarius with a meagre force of 7500 men to return the peninsula to Roman control.

Although the invading force was initially mostly unopposed, with Belisarius’s force taking Sicily and then Rome with no contest, the Goths rallied under the leadership of King Vitiges. Belisarius was unable to meet the Goths in battle as they vastly outnumbered the relatively small army he had been granted by Justinian. Even when more troops were sent, disagreements between Belisarius and Narses, the leader of the secondary force, along with a Frankish invasion, caused the invasion to stagnate.

Growing concerns about Persian hostility thus prompted Justinian to recall Belisarius to Constantinople without a completed conquest. The military commitment to the invasion of Italy in 540 did not take into account the vulnerable position it placed the rest of the empire in; Justinian had underestimated the threat the Persians might pose or the time required to complete the capture of Italy.

Indeed, fears about Persia were well-founded; by the time Belisarius had returned to the east in 541, the Sassanids had attacked Byzantine territories, sacked Antioch and invaded the Kingdom of Lazica, an allied border state. In this way, the ‘Eternal Peace’ was broken just eight years after it was signed, making the 11,000 pounds of gold initially sent to the Sassanids in exchange for peace pointless – a major criticism raised by Procopius. The Persian threat was never put down by Justinian, merely postponed repeatedly, and at great expense, as seen by the signing of another gold-for-peace agreement in 545.

The empire was struck by another, greater blow at the same time – an outbreak of bubonic plague in 541. The Justinianic Plague – as it was known – killed tens of millions, including 40% of Constantinople’s inhabitants. Justinian himself caught the disease but ultimately survived.

The death of so many had a dramatic impact on the Byzantine economy, with insufficient labour supply a problem across the empire. However, the costs of two wars of conquest still strained the public purse, so Justinian did not cut taxes, despite the suffering of his subjects, but raised them. As Procopius said, “Justinian showed no mercy to the ruined freeholders.” Though the plague subsided by 549, the empire remained fragile, with the economy never fully recovering during Justinian’s reign. One obviously cannot blame Justinian for the plague or its effects, but his policy only intensified the damage.

The new Gothic king, Totila, was emboldened by the sickened state of the empire; starting in 541, his forces swept down throughout Italy to conquer the under-defended cities. Belisarius was sent to attempt to repel Totila’s force but was undersupplied and was unable to prevent Rome from being sacked twice. Only in 551 did Justinian commit to the reconquest of Italy, sending Narses to Italy with 20,000 men.

After two victories, at Taginae and Mons Lactarius, the Ostrogoths were defeated, returning Italy to Byzantine control. However, the decades of war and plague had left Italy in ruin, and it brought little value to the empire relative to that which had been expended for its capture.

By 555, the Byzantine empire was the largest it ever had been or would be in its existence, with Justinian’s conquests bringing the empire an additional million solidi (gold coins) in revenue; his plan for the restoration of the empire had been partially realised.

Yet these victories were pyrrhic in the longer term: new territories led to military overextension, leaving the east vulnerable to attacks from Turkic and Slavic raiders. Some of these small forces even began to take Byzantine border territories without repercussions, and still more were paid tribute to not attack. By the time of his death in 565, the empire remained economically and militarily overstretched, resulting in the gradual loss of its conquered territories, starting with the Lombard invasion under his successor, Justin II.

Procopius’s Anecdota was clearly slanderous and ridiculous in parts – in one instance claiming that Justinian was responsible for a trillion deaths – but it provides a valuable counter-perspective on Justinian the Great. His most incisive criticism of Justinian is that many of the achievements credited to him are, in whole or in part, the work of others. His generals, Belisarius and Narses, were successful in the reconquest in spite of Justinian granting them exceedingly small forces. Meanwhile, the Corpus Juris Civilis was drawn up under the lawyer Tribonian with little contribution from the emperor. Thus, the two greatest components of his legacy are the work of others.

Nonetheless, the outcome of Justinian’s reign was, for all its defects, an empire stronger than before, in territorial and even financial terms. While victorious conquests may have been expensive and overstretched military resources, they were still victorious. Though his greatest achievements may have been on the backs of other men, Justinian’s single-minded focus on achieving those goals enabled Belisarius, Narses and Tribonian to pursue them so effectively. His domestic policy may have been questionable and his spending occasionally profligate. However, as much as one might criticise the details, the broader picture is that of an emperor who brought order to a chaotic society, and victory and glory to the Byzantine Empire.

Procopius, trans. Dewing, H.B., 1935. History of the Wars. Loeb Classical Library 48, Harvard University Press.

Procopius, trans. Dewing, H.B., 1935. Anecdota/The Secret History. Loeb Classical Library 290, Harvard University Press.

Maas, M., 2005. The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. Cambridge University Press.