Justinian was known for his campaigns to reclaim the former Roman territories in Italy and North Africa, but perhaps Justinian was made more famous with his “scandalous” marriage to Theodora and the Nika revolt. Whether he was a great leader or a complete failure according to Byzantine historian Procopius, it remains undeniable that he was one of the most remarkable persons to have lived during that time. He is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History between 527-565 AD.
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Justinian was born in the Illyrian city of Tauresium in 482/3 AD, and he ruled the Byzantine Empire between 527 to 565 AD. His uncles were farmers in Illyria, but they made their way to Constantinople and rose to become soldiers of the empire. One uncle, Justin I, rose to become the emperor of the Byzantine empire in 518 AD and started the Justinian Dynasty that ruled from Constantinople for a total of eighty-two years. Justin adopted his nephew during Justinian’s childhood and brought him to Constantinople to be educated. The young man eventually became a soldier of the empire. He rose through the ranks quickly and by the time he was 30 years old, Justinian was an accomplished military leader. By 521 AD, Justinian received the position of the Consul of the Roman Empire but in the same year, another event would shape his destiny and the way he ruled the Byzantine Empire: he met the future Empress Theodora and fell in love with her immediately.
A discussion of Justinian would be incomplete without a mention of Theodora, the woman he fell in love with, married, and crowned as empress. She was as vital to his rule as Emperor as to his personal life, and she rose to such greatness along with her husband during his reign. Theodora’s background was much humbler than Justinian’s; her father was the bear-keeper of the Greens (a faction in the Hippodrome), but he died early during her childhood which left her family destitute. His death left her mother to take care of three young daughters, so she quickly remarried and begged the Greens to give her new husband some job to help support them. The Greens refused, but the Blues saw this opportunity to add another member to their faction and gave Theodora’s stepfather a job. Theodora grew up as an actress, but it meant she also needed to double as a prostitute—an occupation which damaged her reputation and hounded her for life.
Theodora met a Byzantine official during her teens and went with him to North African Pentapolis (in present-day Libya) where he was appointed as governor. She left him when the relationship fell apart. She supported herself through prostitution once again and eventually made her way to Alexandria where she converted to Christianity. The Christianity that she learned in Egypt was Monophysitism (the Greek word monos means ‘one’ while physis means ‘nature’) which asserted that Christ only has one nature and that his divinity had dissolved his human nature/substance. It was considered a heresy by the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. It was also a direct opposition to another popular Christological belief called Nestorianism wherein Christ has a dual nature (both human and divine). However, her new religion steered her away from prostitution. She later moved to Antioch in Asia Minor to stay with her friend and fellow former actress, Macedonia.
Macedonia also left prostitution to work as a spy for Antioch’s state-sanctioned imperial police and she personally wrote letters to Justinian as an informer. Sometime around 521 AD, Justinian visited Macedonia who then introduced the consul to her young friend. The two fell in love, and Theodora accompanied Justinian to Constantinople in 522 AD. It was clear that she did not practice prostitution anymore. The consul promised to marry Theodora, but Emperor Justin I and his wife Euphemia (Justinian’s uncle and aunt) stood in their way because of Theodora’s former profession and monophysitism. The main reason for his aunt and uncle’s opposition to their marriage was Emperor Constantine‘s decree two hundred before that forbade government officials from marrying actresses. This was revoked by Emperor Justin I in 524 AD when his wife Euphemia died. The couple married immediately and by 527 AD, Justinian replaced his uncle as emperor of Byzantium. Theodora was crowned empress in the same year—a far cry from the days when she was destitute and needed to sell her body to survive.
Justinian as Emperor (527-565 AD) and the Nika Revolt
One of Justinian’s first act as an emperor was to put together the confusing mass of laws issued by past emperors and put them together into a single yet understandable code. He assembled a committee, had them rewrite the contradictory laws laid out centuries ago. The result was the Justinian Code that he issued in 529 AD. He also signed a peace treaty with the Persian emperor which was called Eternal Peace. This peace would not last as war flared up between the two empires again eight years later. In addition, Justinian was a man of great ambition and for much of his reign, he waged wars in Italy, Spain, and North Africa to conquer what were once parts of the greater Roman Empire. He needed money to fund for these conquests, so he raised taxes imposed upon the people which earned their anger over the years.
One event, however, marked his early reign, and this was the Nika revolt. Two factions—the Blues and the Greens—competed in the dominance of the entertainment in the Hippodrome. The citizens of Constantinople were divided in their support for these factions (Justinian himself supported the Blues, as was Empress Theodora who, in her childhood, resented the treatment her family received from the Greens after her father’s death). The rivalry went beyond the Hippodrome as it was rumored that the wealthier people supported the blues while, the less affluent supported the Greens. Their rivalry over the years turned bitter and many times so bloody that by 532 AD, the city was ripe for a violent revolt.
Two men—one from the Blues and the other from the Greens—were supposed to be hanged after a relatively minor riot in Constantinople but the torture of the men and a couple of botched executions had angered the crowd. The crowd rioted and set fire to many buildings in Constantinople, including the Church of the Holy Wisdom, government buildings, palaces, and marketplace. They also killed many people on the streets while shouting, “Nika!” and forced Justinian, Theodora, as well as their courtiers to hide in the palace in hopes that the riot would just fade away. It did not burn itself out, so Justinian decided to flee into a nearby city if not for his wife, Theodora, who convinced him to stay and face the people. For Theodora, it was better to die as an empress than go back to her former life.
Justinian realized his wife was right and immediately ordered the general Belisarius and his Illyrian troops to contain the rioters in the Hippodrome. They devised a plan to kill all the rioters inside the Hippodrome and succeeded in slaughtering 30,000 people in one night. The bloody end of the Nika revolt would sear the psyche of the people of Constantinople for many years, and no one challenged Justinian for the remainder of his reign.
The Aftermath: Reconquest of Italy, Gaul, North Africa, and Hispania
Justinian implemented a large-scale recovery program for Constantinople which included the reconstruction of new churches and government buildings. He also embarked on a campaign to reclaim the territories now occupied by the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Vandals, and Franks. He sent his trusted general Belisarius to North Africa to counter the Vandals who had occupied Carthage years before. After the death of the great Vandal leader Geiseric, the tribe had fallen to disunity and had neglected the defense of Carthage. Belisarius took Carthage easily when the new Vandal leader fled from the city and the inhabitants themselves opened the city gates to the Byzantine forces in 533 AD.
In 535 AD, Justinian sent Belisarius to wrest Italy from the Ostrogothic monarchy whose rule was in itself on the verge of collapse. He reclaimed Sicily easily in the same year, but it would take another four years for the Byzantines to get rid of the Ostrogoth King Witigis and capture the Italian capital Ravenna. With Belisarius’ victory, Justinian was worried that his general would usurp the throne of Italy, so he recalled the brilliant man from the peninsula and back into Constantinople. Belisarius complied and went back to Constantinople with the captive Ostrogoth king while many of his men remained in Italy to guard the northern border from invading tribes.
The Justinian Plague
Meanwhile, the Eternal Peace Justinian and the Persian king Khosrau negotiation fell apart in 541 after the Byzantine king failed to pay the annual tribute he promised eight years ago. Justinian sent Belisarius once again to the Near East to counter Khosrau, but something more malevolent arrived on the shores of the city that would wipe out a great portion of its population. A mysterious sickness arrived via a ship from Egypt that carried Constantinople’s grain. Many people fell sick days after the ship docked. It was the start of the bubonic plague that raged in the city for three months and killed as much as much as ten thousand a day, according to Procopius of Caesarea.
Even Justinian himself was not spared from the plague, and buboes grew from his body when he fell sick. He recovered later, but as much as 200,000 people in Constantinople alone ended up dead by the time the plague had burned itself out in 543 AD. It also reached the Persian capital of Ctesiphon in Mesopotamia and spread toward the Frankish territory where it also ran its course on the people who lived there. The plague temporarily sidelined Khosrau to Ctesiphon. Persia then came back to Asia Minor and besieged the city of Edessa. The citizens of Edessa effectively defended the city when they worked together and poured oil onto the invading Persian army that dared scale the city walls. The Persians retreated after a negotiation and Justinian after his health returned, was free to recover the Western Roman territories.
Return to the Western Campaigns and Death
Justinian sent more troops to Italy to reinforce the ones left behind by general Belisarius. But this time, they were led by a eunuch-general named Narses. Italy fell to the hands of the Ostrogoths once again. Justinian did not have enough men to counter the threat, so he hired Lombard and Gepid warriors to help general Narses. The barbarian mercenaries were promised land in Pannonia to settle in in exchange for their skills as warriors and with this reward in mind, they successfully drove out the Ostrogoths from Italy. After the battle for domination in the peninsula, Justinian established a governor in Ravenna to rule on his behalf and then wrested Hispania from the Visigoths in 552 AD.
Belisarius and Justinian died in 565 AD after their brief spat because of the emperor’s insecurity. Justinian had his friend imprisoned for some time because he thought the retired general wanted to usurp his throne, but “pardoned” Belisarius before their death. Theodora had died earlier in 548 AD. The couple had no children so his nephew Justin replaced Justinian as emperor.
Picture By Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant – Art Renewal Center Museum, image 7554., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1848404
Evans, J. A. S. The Emperor Justinian and the Byzantine Empire. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005.
“Monophysitism.” Theopedia. Accessed August 4, 2016. http://www.theopedia.com/monophysitism.
North, Joshua. “The Death Toll of Justinian’s Plague and Its Effects on the Byzantine Empire.” The Death Toll of Justinian’s Plague and Its Effects on the Byzantine Empire. Accessed August 02, 2016. http://archive.armstrong.edu/Initiatives/history_journal/history_journal_the_death_toll_of_justinians_plague_and_its_effects_on.
Procopius, and Richard Atwater. Secret History. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1961.
“The Nika Riot.” The Nika Riot. Accessed August 02, 2016. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/circusmaximus/nika.html.http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/circusmaximus/nika.html.
“Vol. IIp16 Chapter XV.” J. B. Bury: History of the Later Roman Empire • Vol. II Chap. XV (Part 1). Accessed August 02, 2016. http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/secondary/BURLAT/15A*.html#2.
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