Emperor Justinian was the most famous ruler of the Byzantine Empire, which had existed for over 1000 years. Ruling between 527 and 565, Justinian built important historical monuments of Istanbul such as Hagia Sophia and Basilica Cistern.
Great victories and great disasters followed each other in the years Justinian ruled the empire. The reign of Justinian, full of magnificent architectural works and conquests, was also the scene of great rebellions, religious conflicts and plague.
In this article, you can find information about the life of Emperor Justinian and his wife, Empress Theodora, and the works they left in Constantinople. But before we get into the facts about Emperor Justinian, we need to get to know his predecessor Justin.
Emperor Justinian Facts and Life History
Emperor Justinian was born in a village in Thrace. The life of this peasant boy named Petrus Sabbatius would change thanks to his uncle Justin. Justin had left the village at a young age and went to the capital, Constantinople. He rose in the army in a short time as he was an excellent soldier.
Justin was actually illiterate. However, thanks to his courage and leadership, he became the commander of the palace guards (Excubitors). During this period he married a woman named Lupicina.
When Emperor Anastasius I died in 518 without leaving an heir, there were many nobles who wanted to ascend to the throne. However, no one could become emperor without the approval of Justin, who led the most powerful military unit around the palace.
Some wanted to buy Justin’s loyalty and gave him large sums of money. Justin, on the other hand, decided to use these resources to his advantage. While convincing the nobles in the Senate that he would be a good ruler, he distributed gold to the people he organized.
The people of Constantinople were waiting for the new emperor to be announced in the Hippodrome. The Senate supported Justin. However, in such turbulent times, public support was crucial. When the crowds organized by Justin shouted his name, the senate immediately proclaimed him the new emperor.
1. Emperor Justin
Emperor Justin did not have enough knowledge to rule the state. But his nephew, Petrus Sabbatius, was perfect for the job. Justin had adopted Petrus long ago and ensured that he received an excellent education in Constantinople.
Thus, Petrus, the future Justinian, began to rule the state before he became emperor. His greatest achievement during this period was to regulate the relations between the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople.
During this period, Petrus fell in love with a woman named Theodora. However, Theodora did not come from a noble family. Lupicina, now empress with the name “Euphemia”, was strongly against this relationship.
Euphemia‘s anger was due to Theodora’s notoriety. She did not want a woman who was a dancer in the Hippodrome to join the dynasty. Petrus and Theodora waited for a while and married quietly after Euphemia’s death in 524.
Emperor Justin wanted Petrus to rule the empire after him. Thus, the dynasty he founded would rule the empire. To this end, he made Petrus co-emperor with the title of “Caesar” and declared him his heir.
Justin died three years after his wife’s death. Thus, in 527, Petrus became “Augustus” by the name of Justinian. Simultaneously, Theodora was declared “Augusta” and from now on they would rule the state together.
2. Church of Sergius and Bacchus
The rise of Justinian worried the nobles of Constantinople. Anicia Juliana, daughter of the former Western Roman Emperor Olybrius, was one of them. Anicia Juliana was a very wealthy and powerful woman, and her son was married to the niece of the previous emperor Anastasius.
Anicia hoped that after Justin, an aged emperor, the throne would pass to her own family. After all, Justin had no sons. However, while Justin was still alive, he proclaimed Petrus co-emperor and destroyed Anicia’s hopes.
Anicia did not consider the new emperor Justinian worthy of the throne. One of the main reasons for this was that he was married to a notorious woman. In response, Anicia decided to build a magnificent church in Constantinople.
Thus the Church of St Polyeuktos was built. The church was dedicated to Saint Polyeuktos, a Christian martyr. The magnificent church of Anicia Juliana was clearly a challenge to Emperor Justinian and his wife Theodora.
Theodora’s life story has been controversial throughout history. But there is no doubt that she had a strong character. Theodora responded to Anicia Juliana’s challenge soon after she became empress.
The Church of Saints Sergius and Bacchus was built shortly after Justinian ascended the throne. It was built with a plan to challenge traditional church architecture and represented a revolution.
Justinian and Theodora made great efforts to impose their authority on the nobles and the people in the first years of their rule. But over time they gained absolute authority.
3. Codex Justinian
Emperor Justinian’s goal was to restore Rome to its former glory. In order to achieve this, he would have to take initiatives in the military, legal and architectural fields.
Justinian commissioned Tribonian, one of the most important jurists of the time, to compile Roman law. All laws in the history of the Roman Empire would be classified and updated.
Thanks to the Corpus Juris Civilis, Roman law has survived to the present day. The Corpus Juris Civilis forms the basis of modern Western law and is commonly known as the Codex Justinian.
4. Nika Riots
The most popular activity in the capital was chariot races held at the Hippodrome of Constantinople. About 40,000 people watched the chariot races. These races were between two teams named Blues and Greens.
The impact of the Blues and Greens on the social life was far beyond being just a sports club. Blues represented the rich and aristocratic segments. Greens were supported by traders, farmers and artisans.
Justinian had previously supported the Blues. However, when he became emperor, he neglected them. Justinian limited the powers of these teams during the first five years of his reign (527-532).
There were some street fights a few days before the riot. For this reason, some members of both the Blues and the Greens were arrested. Most of them were executed. Because of this, relations with Justinian and the Blue and Green fans completely deteriorated.
On January 13, 532, the emperor and the audience took their place in the Hippodrome. As the races continued, the classic chants of the teams changed and became a single sound. Together they were shouting “Nika, Nika, Nika” (Victory).
Justinian and the other nobles in the imperial lodge realized that something was wrong and retreated to the palace. It is rumored that Justinian planned to leave the city at that moment and cross to Asia. Theodora, however, was adamantly opposed.
When Theodora said, “The imperial cloak is the noblest shroud,” Justinian decided to fight against the rebels. Meanwhile, the Nika Riots spread throughout the city and the most important buildings of the city were set on fire.
Justinian organized his palace guards while the raging crowd plundered the city. The guards were led by generals Belisarius, Mundus, and Narses. These generals would be the main actors of the great conquests that Justinian would make in the coming years.
Belisarius and Mundus marched directly to the Hippodrome. The hippodrome was the base of the rebels and there were 30,000 people in it. The generals suddenly came in and put everyone to the sword. Narses killed those who escaped through the exit gates.
Thus, the biggest rebellion in Byzantine history was suppressed with blood. Justinian embarked on a major restoration work in the city to restore his reputation. Famous churches such as Hagia Sophia and Hagia Irene would also be rebuilt.
5. Justinian’s Hagia Sophia
Justinian already wanted to decorate the capital with monumental structures. The destruction of Constantinople in the Nika Revolt gave Justinian the opportunity to equip the city with a new architectural style.
Justinian wanted to build an unprecedented church in place of the previous Hagia Sophia. He commissioned the famous architect Anthemius and the mathematician Isidore for this work.
Architects built Hagia Sophia in just 5 years. The most important trademark of Hagia Sophia was the dome design. Although Hagia Sophia abandoned the traditional Basilica design, it had an interior suitable for traditional Christian rituals.
Even though Justinian’s Hagia Sophia was partially damaged by earthquakes, it managed to survive until today. The Church of Sts Sergius and Bacchus (Little Hagia Sophia) and the Basilica Cistern, which were also built during the reign of Justinian, are still standing.
6. Gothic War
Born to Latin culture, Justinian wanted to restore the Roman Empire to its former glory. But first he had to take back the eternal capital, Rome. For this purpose, he decided to embark on a very long and difficult military campaign.
Although Justinian is remembered for great conquests in history, he actually left the capital Constantinople several times during his lifetime. Justinian chose the best generals to lead the army in wars, and he worked in the capital for the welfare of the Byzantine Empire.
Commissioned for the conquest of Italy, General Belisarius first defeated the Persians at the Battle of Dara to secure the eastern border. Then he went to North Africa, defeated the Vandals and conquered Carthage. Finally, favorable conditions were created for the conquest of Rome.
Belisarius recaptured Italy, which had fallen to the Goths after the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in 476. However, he had great difficulties during the Gothic War. Because Justinian did not want him to become too powerful and kept his resources limited.
In Roman history, successful generals had marched to the capital with the army and seized power. Although Belisarius repeatedly proved his loyalty to Justinian, the emperor’s concerns never faded.
One of the reasons for these concerns was Theodora’s efforts to preserve power. Theodora sensed that if anything happened to Justinian, the generals would disobey her orders. In fact, these concerns were not unjustified.
7. The Plague of Justinian
In the years when the Byzantine Empire won brilliant victories, one of the greatest disasters in world history took place. The plague, which reached Constantinople by ships bringing grain from Egypt, spread throughout Europe.
Bubonic Plague from the Far East was a terrible disease. Following the Silk Road route, it first spread to Egypt and then to the capital. The Plague of Justinian, which killed 1/3 of the world’s population, took Constantinople by storm.
The Byzantine palace was also affected by the plague and Emperor Justinian fell ill. The generals declared that if anything happened to Justinian, they would not accept a new emperor proposed by Theodora.
General Buzes, one of the architects of this ultimatum, was demoted and imprisoned. Since the empire was under great threat, they did not dare to do the same to General Belisarius. However, his property in the capital was confiscated.
The first thing Justinian did when he recovered was to forgive Belisarius. The army was crushed by the plague, and the empire was surrounded by enemies. In these circumstances it would be suicidal to dismiss the best general in Byzantine history.
The Goths were now ruled by a young and talented king named Totila. Totila gradually began to retake Italian cities and eventually began to threaten Rome. Although Belisarius wanted to react immediately, he did not have enough resources. Another problem was that the people in Italy did not want Byzantium.
Byzantium had taken back Rome, claiming that it was the natural heir of the Roman Empire. However, the people in Italy lived in prosperity under the Goths and did not need Byzantium. The Goths did not impose heavy taxes and allowed religious freedom.
By contrast, the tax collectors of Byzantine Empire were ruthless. Moreover, there were religious conflicts between Rome and Constantinople. The Romans (and especially the Pope) were skeptical of Byzantine rule.
Belisarius sent word to the capital and asked Justinian for support. But the emperor was preoccupied with religious conflicts that undermined the empire. As if that wasn’t enough, Empress Theodora died.
9. Religious Conflicts
There was great conflict in the empire between the Orthodox and the Monophysites. The Orthodox were loyal to the decisions taken at the First Council of Nicaea in 325. These decisions were the official state policy of Rome since the reign of Emperor Constantine.
However, there were conflicts about the nature of Jesus, and Monophysitism was the most popular opposing view. During the years when Justinian and Theodora ruled together, they kept the two sides in balance.
Religious conflicts between the two sides grew over time and threatened the integrity of the empire. Justinian then decided to convene the Fifth Ecumenical Council in Constantinople.
The Fifth Ecumenical Council convened in the Great Palace, where the emperor lived. In the council, Monophysite and Orthodox views were tried to be reconciled, but the solutions were not permanent.
10. Reconquest of Italy
Postponing religious problems in the empire, Justinian turned his attention back to Italy. He allocated a large army and navy to Narses, who was his most trusted bureaucrat during his rule.
Narses was a very experienced statesman in his 70s. He had stood by Justinian during all critical periods of his rule. Because Narses had the emperor’s full support, he would not have the resource problems Belisarius faced.
Narses surprised and defeated the Goths with maneuvers that were unexpectedly quick for his age. Totila died during the Battle of Taginae. He was succeeded by King Teias. However, Teias suffered the same fate in Battle of Mons Lactarius.
Narses had won a glorious victory and Italy was reconquered. The most important cities of the Mediterranean, such as Rome, Carthage and Alexandria, were under the rule of Byzantium.
11. Legacy of Justinian
Justinian died in 565, after leading the Byzantine Empire to its peak. During the reign of Justinian, the Mediterranean became a Roman lake again and magnificent architectural works were built.
However, the legacy of Justinian was as fragile as it was magnificent. Due to the plague, the population dwindled and the army weakened. It was necessary to build walls on wide borders and defend them with trained troops.
There were serious shortages of manpower and resources to keep the empire afloat. In addition, religious conflicts undermined the empire. The last years of Justinian’s 38-year rule were spent dealing with these problems.
The Christianization of Rome, which began during the reign of Constantine, was still continuing during the reign of Justinian. For this purpose, Plato’s Academy was also closed by Justinian.
Emperor Justinian Facts by Serhat Engul