Justinian I, Byzantine emperor (AD 527-565), born Petrus Sabbatius (483 - 565).


Justinian I, depicted on a
contemporary coin
Justinian I was born in a small village called Tauresina (Taor) in
Illyricum (near Skopje), in the Balkan peninsula, probably on May 11, 483 to Vigilantia, the sister of the highly esteemed General Justin, who rose from the ranks of the army to become emperor. His uncle Justin adopted him and ensured the boy's education. Justinian completed the usual course of education, occupying himself with jurisprudence and philosophy. His military career featured rapid advancement, and a great future opened up for him when, in 518, Justin became emperor. Consul in 521, later in command of the army of the east, he functioned as a virtual regent long before Justin made him associate emperor on April 1, 527.

Four months later Justinian became the sole sovereign. His administration had world-wide impact, constituting a distinct epoch in the history of the Byzantine Empire and the Orthodox Church. He was a man of unusual capacity for work, temperate, affable, lively; but also unscrupulous and crafty. He was the last emperor to attempt to restore the Roman Empire to the territories it enjoyed under Theodosius I. To this end he directed his great wars and his colossal activity in building. Starting from the premise that the existence of a commonwealth rested upon arms and laws, he paid particular attention to legislation, and wrought a lasting memorial for himself by codifying the Roman law (the Codex Justinianus and the Novellae Constitutiones).

In 523 he married Theodora, a former actress. Actresses were socially akin to prostitutes prior to the reign of Justin I, and Justinian would in earlier times been unable to marry her. Justin had passed a law allowing intermarriage between social classes, which, during Justinian's reign, led to a blurring of class distinctions at the Byzantine court. Theodora would become very influential in the politics of the Empire, and later emperors would follow Justinian's precedent and marry outside of the aristocratic class.

Procopius provides our primary source for the history of Justinian's reign, although the chronicle of John of Ephesus (which survives as the basis for many later chronicles) contributes many valuable details. Both historians became very bitter towards Justinian and Theodora. Aside from his main history Procopius also wrote the Secret History, which reports on various scandals at Justinian's court.

Theodora died in 548; Justinian outlived her for almost 20 years, and died on November 14 or 15, 565.

Legal Activities

One of the Justinian's greatest accomplishments is his judicial revolution which organised Roman law in a form and organic scheme that is still in use today and remains more or less unaltered in some countries today (apart from obvious adaptations). The first draft of the Corpus Juris Civilis was issued on April 7, 529 in three parts: Digesto (or Pandectae), Institutiones, and the Codex. The Corpus was drafted by a group of commissioners headed by the quaestor Tribonian, and was written in Latin, the traditional language of the Roman Empire which was now poorly understood by most citizens of the Eastern Empire. The Corpus was later supplimented by the Authenticum or Novellae Constitutiones, a collection of new laws issued during Justinian's reign. The Novellae were written in Greek, the common language of the Empire.

The Corpus is the basis of latin jurisprudence (including ecclesiastical Canon law: ecclesia vivit lege romana) and a unique document about the life in the remains of the Roman Empire at the time. It is a collection that gathers the many sources in which the leges (laws) and the other rules were expressed or published: proper laws, senatorial consults (senatusconsulta), imperial decrees, case law, and jurists' opinions and interpretations (responsa prudentum ).

Military activites

Like his Roman predecessors and Byzantine successors, Justinian frequently engaged in war against Persia. However, his military ambitions focused on the western Mediterranean, where his general Belisarius spearheaded the reconquest of parts of the territory of the old Roman Empire. Belisarius gained this task as a reward after successfully putting down the Nika riots in Constantinople in January of 532, in which chariot racing fanatics had forced Justinian to dismiss the unpopular Tribonian, and had then attempted to overthrow Justinian himself. Justinian considered fleeing the capital, but remained in the city on the advice of Theodora, and Belisarius arrived to crush the rebellion a few days later.

In 533 Belisarius reconquered North Africa from the Vandals after the Battle of Ad Decimum, near Carthage. Belisarius then advanced into Sicily and Italy, recapturing Rome (536) and the Ostrogoth capital at Ravenna (540).

Belisarius disagreed with Justinian over what to do with the reconquered land; Justinian wanted to let the Ostrogoths rule a tributary state, but Belisarius disagreed, wanting to make Italy an Imperial Roman territory. Justinian sent Belisarius to the East to defend against renewed attacks by the Persians. After establishing a new peace in the East in 545, Belisarius returned to Italy, but the Ostrogoths had recaptured Rome in his absence. The eunuch general Narses took over Belisarius' command, and the historian Procopius, a former officer in Belisarius' army, accused the general of treason. Belisarius briefly sufferred imprisonment, but Justinian later pardoned him and he defeated the Bulgars when they appeared on the Danube for the first time in 559. In 551, Byzantine forces conquered part of southern Spain from the Visigoths. Narses failed to defend Italy against either the Ostrogoths or the Lombards. Nevertheless, under Justinian, the empire's territory expanded greatly, if only for a short time.

Religious policy

Justinian's religious policy reflected the imperial conviction that the unity of the empire unconditionally presupposed unity of faith; and with him it seemed a matter of course that this faith could be only the orthodox. Those of a different belief had to recognize that the process which imperial legislation had begun from Constantius II down would now vigorously continue. The Codex contained two statutes (Cod., I., xi. 9 and 10) which decreed the total destruction of Hellenism, even in the civil life; nor were the appertaining provisions to stand merely on paper. The sources (John Malalas, Theophanes, John of Ephesus) tell of severe persecutions, even of men in high positions.

But what proved of universal historic account, was the ruling whereby the emperor, in 529, abrogated philosophical and juridical instruction at the Academy of Plato of Athens, thus putting an end to this training-school for Hellenism. And the Christian propaganda went hand in hand with the suppression of paganism. In Asia Minor alone, John of Ephesus claimed to have converted 70,000 pagans (cf. F. Nau, in Revue de l'orient chretien, ii., 1897, 482). Other peoples also accepted Christianity: the Heruli (Procopius, Bellum Gothicum, ii. 14; Evagrius, Hist. eccl., iv. 20), the Huns dwelling near the Don (Procopius, iv. 4; Evagrius, iv. 23), the Abasgi (Procopius, iv. 3; Evagrius, iv. 22) and the Tzani (Procopius, Bellum Persicum, i. 15) in Caucasia.

The worship of Ammon at Augila in the Libyan desert (Procopius, De Aedificiis, vi. 2) was abolished; and so were the remnants of the worship of Isis on the island of Philae, at the first cataract of the Nile (Procopius, Bellum Persicum, i. 19). The Presbyter Julian (DCB, iii. 482) and the Bishop Longinus (John of Ephesus, Hist. eccl., iv. 5 sqq.) conducted a mission among the Nabataeans, and Justinian attempted to strengthen Christianity in Yemen by despatching thither an ecclesiastic of Egypt (Procopius, Bellum Persicum, i. 20; Malalas, ed. Niebuhr, Bonn, 1831, pp. 433 sqq.).

The Jews, too, had to suffer; for not only did the authorities restrict their civil rights (Cod., I., v. 12), and threaten their religious privileges (Procopius, Historia Arcana, 28); but the emperor interfered too in the internal affairs of the synagogue (Nov., cxlvi., Feb. 8, 553), and forbade, for instance, the use of the Hebrew language in divine worship. The recalcitrant were menaced with corporal penalties, exile and loss of property. The Jews at Borium, not far from Syrtis Major, who resisted Belisarius in his Vandal campaign, had to embrace Christianity; and their synagogue became a church. (Procopius, De Aedificiis, vi. 2).

The emperor had much trouble with the Samaritans; refractory to Christianity, as they were, and repeatedly in insurrection. He opposed them with rigorous edicts, but yet could not prevent a fresh outbreak against the Christians from taking place in Samaria toward the close of his reign. The consistency of Justinian's policy meant that the Manicheans too sufferred severe persecution, experiencing both exile and threat of capital punishment (Cod., I., v. 12). At Constantinople, on one occasion, not a few Manicheans, after strict inquisition, were executed in the emperor's very presence: some by burning, others by drowning (F. Nau, in Revue de l'orient, ii., 1897, p. 481).

Ecclesiastical Policy

Justinian I depicted on a Byzantine mosaic
As with his secular administration,
despotism appeared also in the emperor's ecclesiastical policy. He regulated everything, both in religion and in law.

At the very beginning of his reign, he deemed it proper to promulgate by law his belief in the Trinity and the Incarnation; and to threaten all heretics with the becoming penalties (Cod., I., i. 5); whereas he subsequently declared that he designed to deprive all disturbers of orthodoxy of the opportunity for such offense by due process of law (MPG, lxxxvi. 1, p. 993). He made the Nicaeno-Constantinopolitan creed the sole symbol of the Church (Cod., I., i. 7), and accorded legal force to the canons of the four ecumenical councils (Novellae, cxxxi.). The bishops in attendance at the Second Council of Constantinople in 536 recognized that nothing could be done in the Church contrary to the emperor's will and command (Mansi, Concilia, viii. 970B); while, on his side, the emperor, in the case of the Patriarch Anthimus, reinforced the ban of the Church with temporal proscription (Novellae, xlii). Bishops without number had to feel the tyrant's wrath. On the other hand, it is true, he neglected no opportunity for securing the rights of the Church and clergy, for protecting and extending monasticism.

Indeed, were not the despotic character of his measures so glaring, one might be tempted to call him a father of the Church. Both the Codex and the Novellae contain many enactments regarding donations, foundations, and administration of ecclesiastical property; election and rights of bishops, priests and abbots; monastic life, residential obligations of the clergy, conduct of divine service, episcopal jurisdiction, etc. He was also responsible for rebuilding the Church of Hagia Sophia, the original site having been destroyed during the Nika riots. The new Hagia Sophia, with its numerous chapels and shrines, gilded octagonal dome, and mosaics, became the centre and most visible monument of Eastern Orthodoxy in Constantinople.

Relations with Rome

From the middle of the fifth century onward increasingly arduous tasks confronted the emperors of the East in the province of ecclesiastical polity. For one thing, the radicals on all sides felt themselves constantly repelled by the creed which had been adopted by the Council of Chalcedon with the design of mediating between the dogmatic parties. The letter of Pope Leo I to Flavian of Constantinople was widely considered in the East, to be the work of Satan; so that, here such was the case, nobody cared to hear aught of the Church of Rome. The emperors, however, had to wrestle with a twofold problem. In the first place, the unity between East and West, between Byzantium and Rome, was to be preserved; and this was possible only if they swerved not from the line defined at Chalcedon. In the next place, the factions in the East which had been stirred up and disaffected on account of Chalcedon must be restrained and pacified. This problem was the more difficult because the dissenting groups in the East excelled the party for Chalcedon in the East both in numerical strength and in intellectual ability; and so the course of events showed the two aims to be incompatible: whoever chose Rome and the West most renounce the East, and vice versa.

Justinian entered the arena of ecclesiastical statecraft shortly after his uncle's accession in 518, and put an end to the Monophysite schism that had prevailed between Rome and Byzantium since 483. The recognition of the Roman see as the highest ecclesiastical authority (cf. Novellae, cxxxi.) remained the cornerstone of his policy in relation to the West, although he thus grievously offended those of the East, and though he felt himself entirely free to show a despotic front toward the pope (witness his behavior toward Silverius and Vigilius). But the controversies in the East were alone sufficient to keep the emperor busy all through his reign; and he plainly paid much more attention to them than to the external affairs of the realm. Yet his policy bore marks of greatness, and strove with large understanding to satisfy the religious instincts of the devout in the East, a signal proof of which was his attitude in the Theopaschite controversy. At the outset he was of the opinion that the question turned on a quibble of words. By degrees, however, he came to understand that the formula at issue was not only orthodox, but might also be used as a conciliatory measure toward the Monophysites, and made a vain attempt to do this in the religious conference with the followers of Severus of Antioch, in 533.

Again, he reviewed the same approvingly in the religious edict of March 15, 533 (Cod., L, i. 6), and congratulated himself that Pope John II admitted the orthodoxy of the imperial confession (Cod., I., i. 8). The serious blunder that he had made at the beginning by abetting after Justin's accession a severe persecution of the Monophysite bishops and monks and thereby embittering the population of vast regions and provinces, he remedied eventually. His constant aim now was to win the Monophysites, yet not to surrender the Chalcedonian faith. For many at court, he did not go far enough: Theodora especially would have been glad to see the Monophysites favored unreservedly. Justinian, however, was restrained in that policy by the complications that would have ensued with the West. Neither, for that matter, could he escape these issues; for instance, the Three-Chapter Controversy (see also Pope Vigilius). In the condemnation of the Three Chapters Justinian tried to satisfy both the East and the West, but succeeded in satisfying neither. Although the pope assented to the condemnation, the West believed that the emperor was acting contrary to the decrees of Chalcedon; and though many delegates were found in the East subservient to Justinian, yet there were many, especially the Monophysites, left unsatisfied. So the emperor's efforts were wasted on an impossible task; the more bitter for him because during his last years he took greater interest in theological matters.

Religious Writings

No doubt exists but that Justinian also took an actual, personal hand in the theological manifestoes which he put forth as emperor; although, in view of the author's exalted position, it becomes difficult to ascertain whether the documents current under his name came directly from his own pen. Apart from letters to the Popes Hormisdas, John II, Agapetus I, and Vigilius, and sundry other compositions (collected in MPL, lxiii., lxvi. and lxix.), the following documents may be noted (all to be found in MPG, lxxxvi. 1, pp. 945-1152):

  1. the edict on Origen's heterodoxies, in 543 or 544;
  2. summons to the bishops assembled at Constantinople on the occasion of the council of 553, with reference to their sitting in judgment on errors in circulation among the monastic followers of Origen at Jerusalem;
  3. an edict on the Three Chapters, probably framed in 551;
  4. an address to the council of 553, concerning the Antiochian theology;
  5. a document, probably antedating 550, addressed to some unnamed defenders (perhaps Scythians) of the Three Chapters;
  6. writ of excommunication against Anthimus, Severus and companions;
  7. an address to some Egyptian monks, with a refutation of Monophysite errors;
  8. a fragment of a document, mentioned in (7), to the Patriarch Zoilus of Alexandria.

The theology upheld in these writings agreed, in general, with that of Leontius of Byzantium; in that it aimed at the final solution of the problem by interpreting the Chalcedonian symbol in terms of the theology of Cyril of Alexandria. Two points deserve note in this connection. First, the clever way in which the emperor, or his representative, contrives to defend the reputation and the theology of Cyril; secondly, his antagonism to Origen: a clear sign of the characteristic disinclination of that age for independent thinking; at least among personages of weight and influence.

One should also mention Aphthartodocetism, a doctrine professed by the emperor toward the close of his life. Evagrius reports (Hist. eccl., iv. 39) (and other sources confirm the point) that Justinian promulgated an edict in which he declared Christ's body incorruptible and not susceptible to natural suffering, and commanded bishops everywhere to accept this doctrine. The fall of the Patriarch Eutychius links with this final phase of the imperial policy. The sources saw a lamentable decline from the right faith in Justinian's latter conduct. The train of thought underlying Aphthartodocetism, however, does not necessarily oppose orthodoxy (see Julian of Halicarnassus); because it need not deny the acceptance of the essential identity of Christ's nature with human nature. Hence one need not regard Justinian's final theological views as those of an old man, nor disregard them in surveying the aims of his full-bodied activity.

This article incorporates text from the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religion

Preceded by:
Justin I
Byzantine emperors Followed by:
Justin II