Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great Dies

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Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great Dies

Byzantine Emperor Justinian I, as portrayed in a mosaic, mid-sixth century AD
From the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
(Unless otherwise indicated, all illustrations are courtesy of Wikipedia)

Today in Military History: November 14, AD 565

The East Roman (Byzantine) Empire last nearly 1000 years after the Western Roman Empire slowly slid into oblivion between about AD 410-476. One of the Eastern Empire's most significant rulers was the man simply known as "Justinian the Great."


Justinian was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatiuson May 11, AD 482, in the town of Tauresium, in what is today the north-central portion of the Republic of Macedonia. He came from a peasant family of either Illyrio-Roman or Thraco-Roman stock. He was adopted by his uncle Justin, who was a member of the Excubitores, the Byzantine imperial guards, and given the name Justinian.

His uncle brought him to Constantinople, and saw to it that Justinian received an excellent education. As a result, the future emperor was well educated in jurisprudence, theology, and Roman history. He also joined the Excubitores, though the details of his career in that unit are not known. When the reigning Emperor Anastasius died in 518, Justin was declared the new Byzantine ruler. Justinian became his uncle's close advisor and confidant.

Between 518 and 527, Justinian demonstrated much ambition, and near the end of his uncle's reign – as senility began to take over Justin's personality – Justinian was functioning as the de facto ruler of the East Roman Empire. He was appointed a consul and commander of the Army of the East. When Uncle Justin died in August 527, Justinian became the new emperor.

As a ruler, Justinian showed great energy. He was known as "the emperor who never sleeps" on account of his work habits. Nevertheless, he seems to have been amiable and easy to approach. He was described by one historian as short, fair skinned, curly haired, round faced, and handsome.

Justinian was determined to completely revise all existing Roman laws, something that had never been attempted. The first version of this ambitious project was issued in 529, with the final version appearing in 534. This compilation – the Corpus Juris Civilis – eventually passed to western and eastern Europe, eventually finding its way to Russia. It is still the basis of many modern law codes. [It is often, though erroneously, referred to as the "Code of Justinian."] The Corpus continues to have a major influence on public international law.

The Empress Theodora

Empress Theodora (c AD 500-548), as portrayed in a mosaic, mid-sixth century AD; From the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy
Empress Theodora (c AD 500-548), as portrayed in a mosaic, mid-sixth century AD
From the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy

Around 525, he married his mistress, Theodora, in Constantinople. She was by profession a dancer and courtesan and some twenty years his junior. In earlier times, Justinian could not have married her because of her class, but his late uncle, Emperor Justin I, had passed a law allowing intermarriage between social classes. Theodora would become very influential in the politics of the Empire, and later emperors would follow Justinian's precedent in marrying outside the noble class. The marriage caused a scandal, but Theodora would prove to be a shrewd judge of character and Justinian's greatest supporter. One of the earliest challenges to Justinian's rule occurred in January of 532, and were…

The Nika Riots

In early 532, the two largest "fan clubs" of popular chariot racing teams – the Blues and the Greens – started rioting in Constantinople. At first seeking clemency for fellow fans already in jail for previous lawless acts, the unrest turned into an attempted coup to replace Justinian. The chaos lasted for about a week, and large portions of the city were burned.

Initially unable to control the rioting, the emperor nearly left the city to its own devices. However, his wife Theodora spoke to Justinian, chastising him for wishing to flee in the middle of a crisis. The empress stated that whatever her husband wished to do, she would stay and face the consequences of a city gone mad and on fire. She ended her speech with these words (loosely translating): "The purple cloth of royalty would make a fine burial shroud." Fearing to look bad if he fled and his wife stayed, Justinian hatched a plan to end the chaos in his capital.

Justinian sent his most trusted advisor, the eunuch Narses, to the nearby Hippodrome where the two factions were busy crowning a replacement emperor. After spreading some gold around and plying one faction with information, Narses left the stadium, followed shortly afterwards by the Blues, shocking the Greens and the new "emperor." Within minutes several units of Byzantine royal troops, commanded by Justinian's best generals Belisarius and Mundus, stormed the Hippodrome, and killed all the Greens. The unrest abated, and the city was quiet once again. [Readers interested in more information on the Nika Riots can go to the below link: Nika Riots in Constantinople: "Sports Fans" Riot & Burn the City ]

Byzantine Empire at its height, c. AD 555; image courtesy of user Tataryn and Wikipedia
Byzantine Empire at its height, c. AD 555; image courtesy of user Tataryn and Wikipedia

Byzantine Conquests

As a Christian Roman emperor, Justinian considered it his divine duty to restore the Roman Empire to its ancient boundaries. Although he never personally took part in military campaigns, he boasted of his successes in the prefaces to his laws and had them commemorated in art. The re-conquests were in large part carried out by his general Belisarius. Thanks in large part to more efficient tax collections in the Byzantine lands (which made the hiring of troops easier), Justinian prosecuted a number of wars to hold onto the territory already under their control. This included two successful wars with the Sassanid Persian Empire to the east in (527-532 and 540-562).

Dynastic unrest in the North African kingdom of the Vandals in 533 brought the Byzantines to the former West Roman provinces. Belisarius with an army not much larger than 15,000 men conquered the Vandalic kingdom.

One year later, a similar dynastic struggle occurred in Ostrogothic Italy, allowing Justinian the opportunity to recapture another important part of the old Roman Empire. Waged in two phases, the entire Italian peninsula finally came into the East Roman orbit in 554. Both Belisarius and Narses participated in the eventual East Roman subjugation of the Ostrogoths. During this time, Byzantine military forces also conquered Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica, and the Balearic Islands. By the end of Justinian's reign, the Mediterranean Sea could once more be considered a Roman lake.

Byzantine Architecture

After the disastrous Nika Riots, Emperor Justinian supervised the virtual rebuilding of his capital city. One of the highlights of that reconstruction was the new Hagia Sophia basilica in Constantinople. The former church was burned down in the Nika Riots; that edifice was the second Hagia Sophia, the newest one becoming the third.

View of Hagia Sophia at sunset, Istanbul, Turkey
View of Hagia Sophia at sunset, Istanbul, Turkey

Inside the building, it was decorated with dozens of mosaics, many depicting scenes with Christian themes. The new Hagia Sophia, with its numerous chapels and shrines, gilded octagonal dome, and mosaics, became the center and most visible monument of Eastern Orthodoxy in Constantinople.

When Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks in 1453, it was decided to convert the church into a mosque. Many of the fine mosaics inside were either destroyed or plastered over. Subsequent renovations to the building have strengthen the structure, and many of the forbidden mosaics have been uncovered.

Hagia Sophia served as a mosque from 1453 until 1935, when it was converted into a museum. It is the 2nd most visited museum in Turkey, attracting nearly 3.3 million visitors per year.

Byzantine Economy

One of Justinian's most significant achievements was a reform of the East Roman taxation system. According to historians, his action increased tax revenues by 20 percent. He also sought new trade routes – mainly to eastern Asia – to avoid lands of the Sassanid Persians. Another major coup for Byzantine trade was the acquisition of silk worm eggs, which allowed the East Romans to begin making their own silk, bypassing the middle man.

…And Other Stuff…

During the course of Justinian's reign, a number of natural disasters bedeviled his empire.

During the decade of the 530's, famine ran through most of the Byzantine lands (possibly caused by some massive volcanic eruption blocking out sunlight). In addition, a major outbreak of bubonic plague (often called the "Plague of Justinian") occurred from 541-542. Justinian fell ill with the  plague, but did not succumb. [This plague is estimated to have killed 25 million people – about 13 percent of the world's population.] A major earthquake struck the eastern Mediterranean in 551, which triggered a tsunami. An estimated 30,000 people died in these twin disasters.

Justinian, who had always had a keen interest in theological matters and actively participated in debates on Christian doctrine, became even more devoted to religion during the later years of his life. Theodora's death from cancer in 548 was a cruel personal loss to Justinian, as he lost his best advisor.

By the early 560s, the deteriorating Balkan defenses exposed even the capital to dangerous barbarian attacks, especially Slavic and Turkic tribes from north of the Danube. Religious strife, economic ruin, popular disaffection – all reached new peaks. As a result, Justinian's death on November 14, 565 at the age of 83, was greeted with popular rejoicing.

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