Justinian I: 9 Facts about the Byzantine Emperor’s Life

Although Rome had fallen, the empire endured from Constantinople. Find out how the Byzantine Emperor Justinian I attempted to return it to its former glories

Sep 23, 2021By Kieren Johns, PhD Classics & Ancient History
mosaic emperor justinian consummation destruction empire
Mosaic depiction of Justinian, the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna; with The Course of Empire series, The Consummation of Empire and Destruction, Thomas Cole, 1833-6, New York Gallery of Fine Arts


On 4th September 476, one of history’s great anti-climaxes unfolded. An empire that once spanned from the northern edges of Britain to the desert frontiers of Syria and North Africa finally collapsed. It did so not with some great crescendo, but rather with the meekest of whimpers. Riven by decades of warfare and political instability, its weakness was confirmed by Alaric’s sacking of the city in 410. It was left to Odoacer to enter the former imperial capital several decades later and force the abdication of Romulus Augustulus, an emperor aged just 16 years old. The fate of the deposed boy-emperor remains unclear, but with his removal the Roman Empire had ceased to exist.


At least, it had in the west of Europe. To the east, the empire endured. Based in Constantinople, the new capital selected by Constantine in 330 had been the de facto seat of empire for over a century now, with Rome retaining only its ideological and historical significance. Theodosius I had effectively split the empire in 395, realising the pragmatic political and administrative aims of Diocletian from a century earlier. To this new Byzantine Empire in the east, the idea of Rome remained seductive. But dreams of renovatio imperii, or restoring the empire, remained just that: dreams. It was left to Emperor Justinian, who reigned from 527 to 565 to reunite the empire once more.


1. Making an Emperor: Justinian and Justin 

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The ‘Barberini Ivory’, debate is ongoing as to whether it depicts Anastasius or Justinian I, 525-550, The Louvre, Paris


The future ambitions of Justinian are well disguised by his unremarkable beginnings. He was born in around 482 in the ancient city of Tauresium (modern Gradište in Northern Macedonia), to a lowly family of Illyro-Roman peasants. He was, however, a native Latin speaker and is believed to be the last Roman emperor to be so. After him, the imperial language would be Greek. He also shares his birthplace with Theodahad, the future King of the Ostrogoths, born in Tauresium in around 480.


Justinian’s mother, Vigilantia, had a well-connected brother, Justin. At the time of his nephew’s birth, Justin was the commander of a unit of Excubitors, the imperial guards founded by the emperor Leo I in 460. Like the imperial guard units they replaced, the Scholae Palatinae, and the Praetorians in Rome, the Excurbitors found themselves in prime position to act as kingmakers…


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A gold solidus of Justin as emperor, with reverse depiction of Victoria, minted in Constantinople 518-19, Dumbarton Oaks

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Before this, however, Justin had to oversee the education of his nephew. Justinian was taken to Constantinople. There, he received an education that included tutelage in jurisprudence, theology, and Roman history; three subjects that would define the course of his later life. At this time, Justin was serving as one of the emperor’s personal bodyguards. This meant that he was well-positioned. Upon the death of Anastasius I in 518, he was proclaimed emperor, reputedly with much support from his nephew. His reign was comparatively brief. Justinian was a close advisor throughout, so much so that Justinian was effectively acting as emperor for his increasingly infirm uncle by the end of his life. Justinian’s rise was remarkable, considering his humble origins. By 521 he was consul, and would later be placed in command of the eastern army. It ensured that his accession as emperor on 1st August 527 was, in reality, anything but surprising.


2. Ruling an Empire: Justinian and Roman Law

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Earth Receiving the Code of Roman Law from the Emperors Hadrian and Justinian, Charles Meynier, 1802-3, Met Museum, New York


The Roman Empire that Justinian sought to restore was more than just politics and geography. It was bound together by a shared understanding of the world. Although Greco-Roman culture had evolved significantly in the centuries after Constantine’s conversion to Christianity, the empire was still bound together by a shared sense of identity. Central to this was law. Justinian’s education had involved legal training and his reign as emperor began with an extensive and unprecedented overview and revision of Roman law. The fruits of his labors are known collectively today as the Corpus juris civilis, the ‘Body of Civil Law’. This collection of fundamental legal works includes the Digest, the Institutiones, the Novellae, and the Codex Justinianus, and was compiled between 529 and 534. The compilation of information required to produce this corpus of legal literature was overseen by Justinian’s quaestor Tribonian.


The first of these texts to be completed was the Codex Justinianus. This served as the codification of imperial constitutions from the early 2nd century onwards. The constitutions contained do not pre-date the reign of Hadrian. The ostensible aim of this text was to compile one law code from previous attempts, including the Theodosian Code. It was followed by the Digest, and then the Institutiones, which outlined the principles of law. These texts formed the basis of Latin jurisprudence, but the political realities of the division between east and west were evident in the Novellae. This collection of new laws, dating to the reign of Justinian, was composed in Greek, the common language of the eastern empire. Justinian’s legal reforms far outlasted the impact of his other attempts to restore the empire, being fundamental to much legal practice in Europe. Basic concepts survived through Norman law, as well as in the canon law of the Catholic Church.


3. An Emperor Challenged: Justinian and the Nika Riot

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Horse Racing in a Roman Hippodrome, Matthaeus Greuter, mid 16th to mid-17th century, Met Museum, New York


Across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East today, impressive remains testify to the prominence and popularity of entertainment in the Roman Empire. From the theatres to stage dramas and comedies, through to the arenas in which men and beasts fought and died to the sound of baying crowds. The gladiatorial contests in the amphitheaters had gradually declined over the 4th century and become illegal in the 5th. Still, the chariot races in the hippodromes remained hugely popular, as they had been for centuries. The notoriously surly emperor Caracalla was reputedly a huge fan of the sport.


In Constantinople’s Hippodrome, the Blues, whom Justinian supported, competed with the Greens. Support for these teams was closely connected to other social and political issues. In 532, unpopularity with Justinian and his advisors (including Tribonian), prompted by high taxes among other issues, fanned the flames of unrest. The events that followed were prompted by the botched execution several days previously of some members of each team who had provoked violence. The men fled the scene of their execution and sought shelter in a church. At the races that followed, they became a focal point of public unity in the face of imperial oppression.


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Mosaic depicting a charioteer and horse from the four teams (clockwise from top left: Green, Red, Blue, White), 3rd century, Palazzo Massimo alla Terme, Rome, via flickr


The Hippodrome of Constantinople was adjacent to the Imperial palace complex – much as how the Palatine Palaces at Rome overlooked the Circus Maximus. However, it also provided the space for the populace to voice their frustrations. This they did, vocally and vociferously, at the races on the 13th January 532, in events described by Procopius (History of the Wars 1.24). The typical chants of partisan support had changed to a unified clamor for “Nika!” (“Victory!”). The crowds turned to violence, burning buildings and assaulting the palace. The violence endured for almost a week, as calls for the dismissal of Tribonian and even the removal of Justinian as emperor intensified. Allegedly fortified by the courage of his wife, Justinian rallied. He deployed loyal generals, including Narses and Belisarius. Narses delivered gold to the supporters of the Blues. When they disbanded, Belisarius and his soldiers stormed the Hippodrome and slaughtered whoever was left.


Reputedly, some 30,000 rioters were killed within a week, making this one of the bloodiest insurrections in Roman history. However, the blood spilled ensured that Emperor Justinian had secured his position as the dominant figure in the Mediterranean world. The city’s destruction during the riot also provided the emperor with a blank canvas, onto which the architectural and topographical manifestation of his power could soon be created…


4. An Empire Restored? Justinian’s Wars in the East and West

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Silver Sassanian plate with central depiction of the King, usually identified as Kavad I, mid-5th to mid-6th century, Met Museum, New York


War had been endemic to the Roman Empire and the reign of Justinian was no different. Upon his accession, he had inherited from Justin an unfinished campaign in the East, the so-called Iberian war (the Kingdom of Iberia in Georgia, rather than the Iberian peninsula). The campaign, which had begun in 526, pitched the Eastern Roman Empire against the Sassanian Empire, and it was a war driven by tensions over trade and tribute.


The campaign was largely unsuccessful for the Romans, who were defeated at the Battle of Thannuris in 528 and at Callinicum in 531. The death of the Sassanid King, Kavad, allowed Justinian to pursue a diplomatic resolution with Kavad’s son, Khosrow I. The treaty signed, known as the ‘Perpetual Peace’, stipulated the return by both sides of all occupied territories and a one-off Roman payment of 11,000 pounds of gold. However, the name was something of a misnomer. Justinian’s campaigns in the West would later leave these provinces unguarded, offering Khosrow an opportunity too good to ignore…


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A gold solidus of Justinian I, with victory depicted on the reverse, minted in Ravenna, c. 530-539, British Museum, London


The western campaigns of Emperor Justinian occurred in several stages. The first phase of the conflict involved the attempted reconquest of lost North African territories taken by the Vandals in the fifth century. The overthrow of King Hilderic by Gelimer in 530 offered Justinian the pretext for intervention. The emperor sent Belisarius to Africa. There he defeated the Vandals in a series of battles, including decisively at Tricamarum in December 533. Gelimer was taken to Constantinople in 534 and paraded through the imperial capital as a prisoner of war.


Much as in North Africa, Justinian used dynastic struggles in the Italian Ostrogothic Kingdom  – specifically the usurpation of Theodahad in 534 – as a casus belli for the attempted reconquest. Sicily was invaded in 535. By 536, Belisarius was advancing through the peninsula, having sacked Naples. Rome itself fell, with the Eastern Roman armies marching through the Porta Asinaria into the former imperial capital.


The war was far from over, however. Continued campaigning in the north of Italy was marked by tremendous bloodshed, including the sacking of Mediolanum (Milan). Belisarius eventually marched into the Ostrogothic capital at Ravenna in 540, shortly before being summoned back to Constantinople by Justinian.


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Totila, King of the Ostrogoths, Franceso Salviati, c. 1549, Musei Civici di Como, Como


Belisarius had been recalled in the face of renewed Sassanid pressures in the east. Khosrow had broken the terms of the Perpetual Peace and invaded Roman territory in 540, sacking important cities such as Antioch and extracting tribute.


Similarly, whilst occupied in the east, the Ostrogoths, led by Totila from 541, rebelled against Eastern Roman authority, defeating them at Faenza in 542 and retaking much of the territory in the south of Italy. Belisarius was sent back to the west but, lacking adequate forces, was unable to reassert Eastern Roman dominance. Rome itself changed hands several times over the course of this campaign. It wasn’t until Justinian dispatched a sizable force under the command of Narses that the Romans were able to defeat the Ostrogoths, first at the Battle of Busta Gallorum and then at Mons Lactarius in 552. The threat from the Franks was crushed by the victory at Casilinum in 554. Italy was restored to Roman control, but the Eastern Roman hold on the peninsula remained little more than tenuous at best.


5. Generals and Jealousy: Emperor Justinian and Belisarius

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Belisarius Begging for Alms, Jacques-Louis David, 1780/1, Palais des Beaux-Arts, Lille


The story of Justinian’s attempts to reassert Roman control over former territories cannot be told without acknowledging Belisarius’ impact. Routinely recognized as embodying traditional Roman virtues – one of a long list of the “Last Romans” that had included figures as diverse as Brutus, assassin of Julius Caesar, and Stilicho, the Roman-Vandal general in the early 5th century – his was a successful military career, often in the face of unfavorable odds.


He had helped secure Justinian’s reign, putting down the civic unrest at the Nika Riots. Then campaigning for the emperor in the east and the west, reclaiming swathes of territory that had long since fallen out of Roman control, including the cities of Carthage and Rome. In 540, the Ostrogoths had offered Belisarius the throne of the “Western Empire”. He feigned acceptance, but when he took the city of Ravenna he did so in the name of Justinian. Nevertheless, the seeds of suspicion had been sown…


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Belisarius, Jean-Baptiste Stouf, c. 1785-91, J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles


In 562, towards the end of his life, Belisarius stood trial at Constantinople, accused of conspiring against the emperor. Found guilty and imprisoned, he was released shortly after by an imperial pardon, reflective of the tempestuous relationship between the two men. This also evolved into a story that grew particularly popular in the medieval period. This held that Belisarius had been blinded on the orders of Justinian and reduced to a pitiful beggar, left to entreat the kindness of strangers from the streets of Rome.


Most modern scholars argue that this is a fabrication, but it is a story that has captured the imagination of artists throughout history. Justinian’s cruelty and the noble character of Belisarius laid low, offered a convenient and malleable historical subject for depicting the cruelty of monarchs.


6. A Match Made in Heaven? Justinian and Theodora


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A contemporary mosaic depiction of Theodora (center) and her courtiers, 6th century, Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna


It is not often that saints are criticized for their promiscuity or “venal charms,” as Edward Gibbon wrote of her, but Empress Theodora, Justinian’s wife, was no ordinary woman. Her origins were humble, born to parents who allegedly worked in entertainment: her father, Acacius, was a bear trainer in the Hippodrome, and her mother an actress and dancer.


A law initially barred Justinian from marrying Theodora, but Justin intervened on his nephew’s behalf. It might have saved his life. Reputedly, Theodora fortified her husband in the face of the Nika Riots, shaming his thoughts of fleeing by stating that “the royal purple is the noblest shroud”. She effectively meant that it was nobler to die as an emperor than flee and continue to live in obscurity. She was also prominent at the imperial court, described as the “partner in my deliberations” in Justinian’s legal code (Novel 8.1). Her prominence in the Empire is illustrated by the spectacular mosaics from the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna, where the empress glowers down on worshippers.


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Empress Theodora, Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant, 1887, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires


Discovering the “real” Theodora is greatly problematized by the conflicting accounts of her life. Even the most prolific historian of Justinian’s reign, Procopius, offers several strikingly contrasting portraits of the empress. The most enduring is the unflattering depiction offered in his Secret History, in which Theodora’s promiscuity and penchant for political intriguing take center stage.


However, it appears that Theodora was a devout Christian, championing the cause of her Miaphysite faith, which ran contrary to her husband’s Chalcedonian beliefs. Consequently, she was accused of heresy and fostering divisions in the Empire. Nonetheless, her faith remained resolute. This appears to have been particularly evident after her death in 548 (likely from cancer). Then Justinian’s attempts to bring together the Miaphysites and the Chalcedonians in a harmonious fashion was attributed to his respect for the memory of his beloved wife. She was, like her husband, canonized, becoming a saint in both the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches.


7. Abandoned by God? The Plague of Justinian and Other Disasters

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The Healing of Justinian by Saint Cosmas and Saint Damian, Fra Angelico, 1438-1440, Museo Nazionale di San Matteo, Pisa, via the fraangelicoinstitute.com


Grand designs of imperial reconquest and glory were blindsided in the latter decades of Justinian’s reign. From the 530s onwards, the empire was wracked by a series of disasters that must have made it seem as though God had abandoned the empire. At first, the 530s were beset by darkness and famine. A volcanic eruption – perhaps in Iceland – threw up noxious gases, robbing farmers around the Mediterranean and Near East of the sunlight their crops needed. Famine soon devastated the Empire and its neighbors. Less than a decade later, beginning in 542, Justinian’s Empire was beset by Plague. Today this has been recognized as a bubonic plague outbreak, like the disease that ripped through Europe and Asia in the medieval period. The outbreak killed innumerable people around the empire. Justinian himself contracted the disease but miraculously survived. The Sassanian Empire also suffered the ravages of this disease.


The Roman Empire had previously suffered from outbreaks of plague, most notably the Antonine Plague that devastated the Empire during its so-called Golden Age in the reign of Marcus Aurelius. According to the historian Procopius, in an account that echoes Thucydides’ narration of the Plague of Athens in the 5th century BC, the disease was first identified at Pelusium, a port in Roman-controlled Egypt.


From there, it quickly spread. Grain ships arrived in Constantinople from Egypt to feed the city’s growing populace, unwittingly spreading the lethal contagion. Justinian and the Empire recovered but enjoyed no respite from the vicissitudes of nature. A decade later in 551, the Mediterranean basin was rocked by the Beirut earthquake. The tremors were felt all along the eastern of the Mediterranean, from Alexandria to Antioch. The resulting tsunami killed tens of thousands.


8. Empire Builder: Justinian and Constantinople

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Mosaic showing the Virgin and Child (theotokos) seated, being presented with the city of Constantinople by Constantine (right) and the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia by Justinian (left), c. 1000, Hagia Sophia, Istanbul


To be held in the same regard as the greatest Roman emperors of antiquity, Emperor Justinian needed an imperial capital to match. His reign was marked by intense and often spectacular building activity, especially in Constantinople itself. The most famous of all his monuments was the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), built between 532 and 537. The previous iteration of this church had been consecrated in AD 360 by Constantius II, Constantine the Great’s successor and was built in a “western style”(i.e. a basilica style). However, this structure had been burnt down during the Nika Riots, offering Justinian the opportunity to leave a lasting impression on the capital.


Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles oversaw the architectural masterpiece’s construction. Reputedly Justinian exclaimed, “Solomon, I have outdone thee!” as soon as he first set foot inside the vast domed interior of the church. It was the largest cathedral for almost a thousand years until Seville Cathedral was completed in 1520.


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Procession of Sultan Süleyman through the Atmeidan from the frieze Ces Moeurs et fachons de faire de Turcz, Pieter Coecke van Aelst, 1553, Met Museum, New York


The emperor’s building activity did not stop at the reconstruction of Hagia Sophia. He also oversaw the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus, later renamed as Little Hagia Sophia was built in the 530s at the behest of Justinian and Theodora. The former of these is believed to have been the burial place of a series of emperors, including a pair of ‘Greats’ – Constantine and Theodosius – whilst the latter of was dedicated to the popular cult a pair of Roman soldiers – Sergius and Bacchus – who were martyred for their Christian beliefs during the persecutions of Diocletian in 303. Justinian’s building activity was not limited to holy structures. He also used the urban spaces of the imperial capital to glorify himself, in the grand tradition of Roman emperors. Most notably, he erected the imposing Column of Justinian in the Augustaeum (the main ceremonial square in the city). It was topped by an imposing equestrian statue of the emperor and celebrated his victories in the East.


9. A Secret History: Justinian and Procopius

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An ivory panel of a diptych announcing the consulship of Justinian to the Senate, the body to which Procopius would also join, 521, Met Museum, New York


The main source for the life and times of Emperor Justinian is provided by Procopius of Caesarea, the most prominent historian of the 6th century who wrote in Greek. He produced three narratives that cover the period of Justinian’s reign: History of the Wars, Buildings, and the Secret History. In 527, he was appointed as the adessor for Belisarius, which brought him into the centers of imperial power. The fate of Procopius was closely entwined with that of the great general, whom he accompanied on campaign in both the east and the west. Procopius was likewise a witness to the great unrest and bloodletting of the Nika Riots. It is probable that Procopius also enjoyed a seat in Constantinople’s senate, making him a man of considerable influence and importance. The History of the Wars remains Procopius most important historical narrative, covering in eight books the wars in the east, the conquest of Vandal North Africa, and the Gothic Wars which Belisarius waged in Italy.


His Buildings is effectively a panegyric piece praising Emperor Justinian for the public architectural works he completed throughout the empire. Justinian is presented throughout as an idealized Christian emperor, building churches and securing the empire for the welfare of its citizens. This view of the emperor and the imperial court is sharply contrasted with that found in the Secret History, the work for which Procopius is most well-known. In this, Procopius skewers Justinian, Theodora, Belisarius, and his wife Antonina. The emperor is cruel to the point of demonic, Theodora is the personification of unrestrained lust and cold calculation, and Belisarius, under whom Procopius had served, is a weak cuckold, frequently wilfully ignorant of his wife’s infidelities. The motivations for Procopius’ sudden change of tact remain debated; some have suggested that it was a backup plan – if Justinian was overthrown, then the publication of a denigrating document might allow Procopius to save his own position by ingratiating himself with the new rulers. Whatever the case, the work of Procopius has proved enduringly popular, inspiring later authors, including Robert Graves, author of Count Belisarius (1938).


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An electrotype copy of a gold medallion of Justinian I, minted in Constantinople, 527-565, British Museum, London


This man, however, not one living person of the entire Roman world had the fortune to escape”. Such was Procopius’ verdict of the Justinian. Far from the universally popular figure, there can be little doubt that Emperor Justinian towered over the Eastern Roman Empire in the sixth century and that his legacy in law codes, architecture and beyond still resonates today. Dreams of renovatio imperii may have remained distant, but Rome itself had been reclaimed. For a moment at least.

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By Kieren JohnsPhD Classics & Ancient HistoryKieren is a UK-based independent researcher with a PhD in Classics and Ancient History. His thesis explore the representation of imperial status during the reigns of the Severan emperors. He is passionate about sharing his interest in the ancient world. He is currently writing his first book.