The Life of the Byzantine Emperor: Justinian I

In the year 483CE, many important events took place: Qi Wu Di became the fifth emperor of the Nan Bei Dynasty located in the south of China; the king of Iran, Firuz was defeated by the Ephthalites after a series of attacks that he lead; and the Buddhist Indian monk Da Mo who is best know for writing two books for priests on how to improve their lifestyle was born.  Besides these historic events, an even more historic event took place; the birth the one of the greatest and worst rulers of all time, the Byzantine emperor Justinian I.  Justinian is known for his many achievements and mistakes throughout his life dealing with wars, laws, religion, art, and agriculture.  A common question that will be answered is, “Who is this incredibly horrible, great ruler?” 
Justinian, originally named Flavis Petrus Sabbatius was born in 483C to a family of Slavic peasants in Tauresium, Illyria, along the eastern Adriatic coast.  At the age of twenty, his uncle Justin I took him to Constantinople to be given a proper education and military training with his other cousins.  Justinian proved to be a far more superior and skillful student than his cousins, and was eventually adopted by his uncle and given the name “Justinianus.”  Justinian was capable of speaking both Latin and Greek. In time, Justinian was paid to be the personal bodyguard of the Constantinople emperor, Anastasius.  On July 8, 518, Emperor Anastasius died, and Justinian’s uncle Justin I became the ruler  During his uncle’s reign, Justinian commanded military troops and kept order in Constantinople.  Justinian rose rapidly in the government.  In 521, Justinian became consul, and during his reign as consul he married a former actress and well-known prostitute Theodora in 523.  In 525 he became Caesar, and Theodora his queen.  Two years later in 527, Justin I became seriously ill and gave the throne to Justinian on April 4, 527, and Theodora was now empress.  About four months later on August 1, 527 Justin I died.
The first task that Justinian conducted as the new Byzantine emperor was selecting a highly educated staff that could help him run his government.  The first member of his staff that he picked was his Chief Financial Advisor, John of Cappadocia who helped Justinian raise money for his economically poor government by raising high taxes and inflicting misery on the citizens.  Empress Theodora despised John for his acts, and convinced Justinian to release him from his position.  The three military generals hired by Justinian were Belisarius, Mundus, and Narses.  Even though Belisarius was known for his profound work in tactics and administration, he did not work alone; Narses and Mundus worked alongside him.  They conducted many successful battles and proved to be very valuable to the government.  Some of the battles they fought include Dara, Callinicum, battle of Tricameron, Sena Gallica,  Taginae, Casilinum, and Berserker. Justinian’s Chief of the imperial judicial system was Tribonian who is said to have been the smartest man in the Byzantine Empire.  He was very useful in the creation of the legal specifics system for the government.  Justinian worked his staff so much, and got so little sleep that he became known as "the general who never sleeps."
The first major project that Justinian focused on was a sufficient legal system that would suit the Byzantine Empire.  On February 13, 528 Justinian drafted a commission of ten lawyers to create of new collection of laws.  On April 16, 529, the Theodosian Code, which was published in 438, was reduced to a set of simpler laws called the Justinianus Codex. In 530, a set of laws called the Digest were compiled into fifty books.   They were from Juristical writings, which were originally one hundred and six volumes long.  That same year an official manual for law students called The Institutes was written.  On November 16, 534, the Justinianus Codex was revised with the compilation of the digest, the institutes, some new constitutions, and about fifty new laws created by Justinian to create the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of civil law).  This set of laws is considered Justinian’s greatest achievement.
In January of 532, the largest rebellion in Constantinople during the reign of Justinian occurred.  It lasted for only five days, but with a loss of approximately thirty thousand casualties.  This rebellion is known as the Nika Revolt.  During that time, different chariot teams raced one another at a sporting arena called the hippodrome.  The different teams racing each other were distinguished by colors: red, white, blue, and green.  Their fans became different political factions.  The Blues and Greens were dominant and most closely related by of the amount of power they had, and their connections to criminal gangs.  Justinian was a supporter of the blue faction.  Problems arose after Justinian imposed new taxes and enforced collection of the other taxes.  The people of Constantinople were thus struck with two heavy tax burdens.  Both rich and poor citizens of the political factions tried to make a case to Justinian regarding the rise in taxes hoping he might reduce the amount of taxes imposed, or eliminate them completely.  Fearing a revolt by the political groups, Justinian tried to limit the amount of power they could have.  The blue and green factions united and rose against Justinian.  Ringleaders from both the Blues and the Greens were convicted of crimes, and seven of them were sentenced to death. The executioner did a slapdash job at carrying out the executions, and two men from the Blue and Green parties survived.  An angry crowd of demonstrators opposing the executions dragged the men to a church, where they sought shelter and claimed sanctuary to be legally safe from the government's efforts to execute them.  The people begged Justinian to reconsider their executions, but he denied their pleas.  All hell would soon break lose.  During a chariot race, the four factions united and revolted against Justinian by burning down buildings and major landmarks.  The angry demonstrators wanted Hypatius, nephew of the former emperor Anastasius to take the place of Justinian on the throne.  Hypatius fled the palace, but the mob found him, and proclaimed him emperor in the Hippodrome.  Later, Justinian would eventually order him executed as a traitor.  The situation appeared hopeless to Justinian, and he was willing to give up, but his wife Empress Theodora convinced him not to.  Instead, Justinian sent his top military generals Narses, Belisarius, and Mundus, as well as some troops to deal with the rebels at the Hippodrome.  Belisarius and Mundus went into the Hippodrome with some of the troops and closed the gates, with Narses on guard outside with more troops.  Any unfortunate rebels inside the hippodrome were slaughtered by Justinian’s men, while anyone that tried to escape were slaughtered by the men stationed outside.  By the time Constantinople was under control again, thousands had been killed, and many buildings were burnt to the ground.
The most unfortunate landmark in Constantinople that was destroyed by demonstrators in the Nika Revolts was the Hagia Sophia.  Burnt to the ground in 532, Justinian immediately began working on the rebuilding process of the beloved church.  Justinian ordered the rebuilding according to the designs of two of his imperial architects Anthemius of Tralles and Isidorus of Miletus.  Construction began on February 23, 532.   The two architects supervised one hundred master builders and ten thousand laborers who built the magnificent church.  Justinian ordered the finest materials from the four corners of the empire to be used in the construction of new Hagia Sophia. Porphyry columns which were rocks containing relatively large conspicuous crystals were taken from an Egyptian temple in Heliopolis, and beautiful ivory and gold icons and ornaments were brought from ancient temples in Ephesus, Kizikos and Baalbek.  It took five years, ten months and four days to build the new Hagia Sophia, and on December 27, 537 the mesmerizing chapel was completed.  During the dedication ceremony, Justinian, remembered the temple in Jerusalem, and said a prayer to God for allowing him to fulfill his wish "Oh, Solomon, I have surpassed thee".  During Justinian’s reign, he built more than thirty churches trough out his empire going as far as Mount Sinai in Egypt.  Besides building magnificent churches, Justinian also created superior aqueducts and luxurious public baths.
Justinian’s love for building churches revealed a side of him that was disapproved by some.  He was a Catholic, and extremely passionate about his religion, but since he supported the monophysites, the Easter and Roman churches split again after being joined by his predecessor, Justin.  His passion for his religion influenced his law making in Constantinople.  He outlawed paganism, or anyone who was not Catholic.  Even Justinian’s set of laws, Corpus Juris Civilis is full of laws against paganism (ex: apostasy was punished by death, 10 c., "De pag.", I, 11).  He shut down Plato’s academy in Athens because it taught about searching for answers as opposed to believing answers.  He also drove non-Christian philosophers into exile because they protested against his religious beliefs.
Throughout Justinian’s reign, he wanted to conqueror large amounts of land.  Like any other ruler, he wanted to expand his empire.  Justinian wanted to unify the Western Roman Empire and North Africa because he felt it was his duty to God to create one church, state, and law too defeat heresies like Arianism.  In 532, he negotiated a peace treaty with the Persian Empire to wage a war against the Vandals.  In June of 533, he attacked the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa to relieve them of Arian Vandal rulers who persecuted Catholics.  For the attack, he sent Belisarius with 18,000 men: 10,000 of them infantry and 5,000 cavalry, plus some barbarian confederates to Carthage.   For the attack, the Ostrogoths allowed Justinian's fleet to use their ports in Sicily.  In December of 533, Justinian’s army won the battle against the Vandals with low casualties since the Vandal army was unprepared.  Two thousand Vandals were recruited into Justinian’s imperial army.  In 536, Justinian sent Belisarius to conquer Rome from the Ostrogoths who only three years prior allowed the Byzantines to use their ports in Sicily.  The Ostrogoths held a group of Roman senators as hostages in Rome, but eventually let them go and fled.  Justinian treated the conquered Catholics in Rome well even though they considered the Byzantines as “foreigners.”  In March of 537, the Ostrogoths returned to Rome, and tried to break through the city's walls.   The Ostrogoths cut Rome's outside supply of water.  Fighting broke out between the Ostrogoths and the Byzantines once again.  Fortunately, women and children were allowed to leave.  During the constant fighting, Justinian's navy proved to be a useful tool.  His navy was able to ship food and reinforcements up the Tiber River and into Rome, while also blocking food from reaching the Ostrogoths.  After a year, the hungry Ostrogoths left.  In 540, Justinian wanted to make peace with the Ostrogoths by offering them territory north of the Po River in exchange for Justinian keeping all of Italy south of the Po.  Unfortunately, some of Justinian's generals south of the Po in Italy had taken advantage of their power to steal from the Italians.  Their immoral actions turned many Italians against Justinian's effort in Italy. In 552, the Ostrogoths then resumed their war against Justinian's forces, whom they pushed southward, bypassing Rome. By the spring of 543 the Ostrogoths captured Naples.  All of the warfare left Constantinople with few resources. Also, the wars weakened Justinian’s ability to protect his empire's northern frontier along the Danube River and his frontier in the east.  Even after Justinian’s death, Constantinople was in a serious debt.
In November of 565, the long time emperor of the Byzantine Empire died.  To some he is considered a cruel tyrant; to others he is considered one of the best rulers of all time.  No matter how Justinian is looked upon, he is one thing for sure, a ruler who made decisions for both right and wrong reasons.  He was motivated to help Constantinople, but the ways he implemented his decisions sometimes resulted in disaster.   








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