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date: 16 September 2019

Justinian I

The Oxford Dictionary of Late Antiquity
Rowena LoveranceRowena Loverance, Rebecca DarleyRebecca Darley

Justinian I (Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Iustinianus) (c.482–565) 

One of the most renowned and controversial of Eastern Roman emperors (527–65), nephew and successor of Justin I (517–27), under whom he served as Comes et Magister Militum Praesentalis (520–7).

Career before accession (c.482–527)

Justinian was born in Tauresium, in the Balkan province of Dardania, the son of Sabbatius. Before 518 he served in Constantinople among the Scholares and was proposed for the throne upon Anastasius I’s death, but refused. Although Procopius (Anecd. 6, 11; 9, 50) insists that Justinian was the dominant figure of his uncle’s reign, his career advanced only gradually; not until 1 April 527 was he promoted to the rank of Augustus, ensuring an easy transition to sole rulership following the death of Justin on 1 August 527. He had earlier, probably in 525, married Theodora, a former actress, despite opposition from Justin’s wife Euphemia.

Early years of the reign (527–40)

The opening of Justinian’s reign was marked by an astonishing burst of activity. The new military commanders he appointed, notably Belisarius and Sittas, enjoyed several successes in the war with the Persian Empire, which had flared up in the late 520s. The emperor was therefore able to agree the Everlasting Peace with the Sasanians in 532, which allowed him to redeploy substantial forces to the West, where they were able first to reconquer North Africa (533–4) from the Vandals and then to retake Italy (535–40) from the Ostrogoths (see Byzantine invasion and occupation of Africa, Italy).

Justinian chose similarly talented collaborators, notably the Quaestor Sacri Palatii Tribonian, for his grandiose project of systematizing Roman law. The first edition of the Codex Justinianus appeared already in April 529, while the Digest appeared in 533, a yet more ambitious undertaking (see Justinian’s Code). The emperor saw it as his duty constantly to eliminate corruption, paganism, and heresy. This led naturally to the introduction of many administrative measures; even after the publication of the second edition of the Codex Justinianus in 534, Justinian continued to issue an abundant stream of laws, known as Novellae (NovJust; see Novels of Justinian). In these reforms his leading collaborator was the Praefectus Praetorio John the Cappadocian; like Justinian’s other ministers, John was of humble origin.

Justinian’s reforming zeal inevitably sparked resistance among the imperial aristocracy, while his attempts to clamp down on factional violence also met opposition. The Nika Riot of January 532, which brought together these elements, nearly toppled the emperor and laid waste much of Constantinople. Justinian therefore had the opportunity to draw on the skill of further collaborators, the architects Anthemius and Isidore, to rebuild (inter alia) the Great Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, which was consecrated on 27 December 537. Throughout his reign Justinian undertook numerous building projects, especially the construction of churches and of defensive works, as Procopius relates in De Aedificiis.

Like his uncle Justin, Justinian firmly supported the Council of Chalcedon. Already during Justin’s reign he took an active role in negotiations with the papacy, constantly seeking solutions to the longstanding differences between supporters and opponents of the council. Once established as sole ruler, he redoubled his efforts to bring about reconciliation with those of Miaphysite views, culminating in negotiations in Constantinople in 532. The anti-Chalcedonian stance of his wife Theodora was an asset in this process. But although Justinian tried to accommodate the Miaphysites, he met with increasing resistance from the newly reconquered western territories and therefore explicitly condemned the anti-Chalcedonian Patriarch Severus of Antioch in 536.

The period of crisis (540–51)

Justinian’s western conquests in Africa and Italy left the eastern frontier vulnerable. The Sasanian King Khosrow I took the opportunity to break the Everlasting Peace and overrun the eastern provinces, sacking Antioch in June 540. Justinian dispatched Belisarius to the East in 541, who stabilized the situation. Neither side gained a decisive victory; most of the fighting took place in Lazica and Armenia, as the Persians sought to restore control of the Caucasus Passes. For much of the 540s North Africa was in revolt, while in Italy the Ostrogothic leader Totila retook almost the whole peninsula; Roman forces were inadequate and poorly led.

The Empire was gravely weakened in this period by the appearance of the Early Medieval Pandemic (EMP) or Justinianic Plague in 541, which spread from central Africa to all parts of the Empire, striking Alexandria in September 541 and Constantinople in March or April. This first outbreak of bubonic plague had a wide-ranging impact. It eliminated a sizeable proportion of the population, particularly in the cities, not only in the Empire but beyond it; and it continued to resurface for two centuries thereafter. Justinian himself contracted the plague, but recovered.

Final years (551–65)

Another longstanding collaborator of Justinian, the eunuch general Narses, defeated Totila and reconquered Italy. The emperor was able also to conclude a Fifty Year Peace with Persia in 561 through negotiations led by his faithful Magister Officiorum, Peter the Patrician. Roman armies even occupied parts of southern Spain, exploiting Visigothic divisions. But Justinian’s energies were consumed largely in seeking to resolve the doctrinal differences that still plagued his Empire, leading to the Second Council of Constantinople of 553, at which an attempt was made to mollify opponents of the Council of Chalcedon by condemning certain works associated with it, the ‘Three Chapters’. Although Pope Vigilius was browbeaten into assenting, the Council’s decisions met with vigorous opposition in the West and failed to reconcile the Miaphysites. The end of Justinian’s reign was marked by unrest in Constantinople and court conspiracies, the result probably of his failure till the very end to designate a successor. GBG

Justinian I in art and coinage

The only secure surviving portrait of Justinian I is the standing figure in the wall mosaic at S. Vitale Ravenna (c.546). Fragments of a bronze cuirassed statue have been found at Caričin Grad (Justiniana Prima, mod. Serbia) and statue bases survive from northern Greece, Anatolia, and northern Syria. Two standing statues are known from Constantinople. The high-relief equestrian figure on the Barberini diptych (now in the Louvre) may be Anastasius I (as the treatment resembles that of the Ariadne ivories) but is more probably Justinian. Three equestrian statues are known to have stood at Constantinople. The colossal statue on a column in the Augustaeum of c.543 (Procopius, Aed. I, 2, 5) is depicted on a 15th-century drawing in Budapest University Library, and was perhaps a reused statue of Theodosius or Arcadius. The two others, both from the Hippodrome, are known from dedicatory inscriptions (Anth. Plan. 62, 63). Justinian is represented similarly on a gold 36-solidi medallion, probably of 534, which is now lost, though electrotypes survive. Justinian I opened twice as many mints as were opened under Justin I. Brief production of lightweight solidi (c.3.7 g/0.13 ounces) probably reflects financial strain.

Rowena Loverance; Rebecca Darley


PLRE II, Iustinianus 7.

Coins: DOC 1.

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H. Leppin, Justinian. Das christliche Experiment (2011).Find this resource:

L. K. Little, ed., Plague and the End of Antiquity: The Pandemic of 541–750 (2007).Find this resource:

M. Maas, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (2005).Find this resource:

M. Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians. Kontingenzerfahrung und Kontingenzbewältigung im 6. Jahrhundert n.Chr. (22004).Find this resource:

M. Meier, ed., Justinian (Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, 2011).Find this resource:

P. Sarris, Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian (2006).Find this resource:

Stein, Histoire, vol. 2 (1949).Find this resource: