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The Emperor Justinian
age of Justinian is recognised as a highly significant period in world history (Britannica 1977, 10:362) and has special relevance to the Christian Church's problematic history. Justinian's ambitious foreign policy and his legal and architectural accomplishments have however, sometimes created a larger than life impression of the man and his rule, and it is not adequately appreciated that he was part of an on-going imperial development.
was born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus of peasant stock in Tauresium in the year 483 AD. His last name was from his uncle, emperor Justin I, who gave him advancement to the throne.
As a young man he visited Constantinople at the time his uncle held high military command. His education was excellent for the time, although it was said that he spoke Greek with a bad accent.
When his uncle became emperor in 518 Justinian already had significant influence and probably greatly affected the policies of his elderly and childless patron. He married Theodora, and actress and courtesan (daughter of the Hippodrome bear-keeper), who exercised considerable influence over him. Justin I legally adopted him, and in 525 he was given the legal title of caesar.
On the 4th April, 527, he was made co-emperor with the rank of augustus, dropped his names Petrus Sabbatius, and his wife was crowned augusta. On the 1st August of that year, Justin I died and Justinian became sole emperor of the eastern Roman Empire (later known as Byzantine).
factors continually influenced Justinian's foreign policy: his struggle with Persia, and his attempt to regain provinces lost to the barbarian invaders in the West.
  3.1 War in the East  
At the time of his enthronement his army was at war with Persia on the Euphrates river. His generals, among whom Belisarius was the most distinguished, achieved great successes, and a truce was signed by the Persians on the death of their king Dobad I in September 531. In 532 the Persian royal successor ratified this peace, recognising Justinian's jurisdiction over the small but strategic Christian kingdom of Colchis (Lazica) in exchange for 11,000 pounds of gold.
War erupted again in 540 while Justinian was preoccupied with problems in Italy. The Persians invaded Mesopotamia, northern Syria, and Byzantine Armenia.
  3.2 War in the West  
Justinian's policy in the West was the result of his idea of imperial responsibility. He attempted to regain provinces lost through maladministration and also felt obliged to help the imperial church that was under Vandal oppression in North Africa.
  North Africa and Spain  
Commander Belisarius was sent to North Africa with an invasion force in June 533, in response to a coup d'etat against Vandal King Hilderich who had agreed with Justinian to stop persecuting Catholic Christians. Within seven months of arrival the Vandals were subjected and Justinian then recognised North Africa as a part of his empire, including Sardinia, Corsica, the Balearic Islands, and Septem. The territory was administered under seven provincial governors with its centre in Carthage.
Justinian, with great detail, laid down the duties and salaries of his administrative and military officials, restored to the Catholic Church lands confiscated by the Vandals, penalized Jews and Christian heretics, and celebrated the victory by rewarding Belisarius with a triumphal procession through Constantinople. There were subsequent sporadic revolts in North Africa, but these were suppressed and stable government established.
In 552 Justinian intervened militarily in Spain to support a claimant to the throne and strengthen Byzantine controlled southeast Spain which was administered from North Africa.
Italian-Gothic (Catholic-Arian) friction in Italy provided Justinian with an excuse to assert his claim to direct control. His troops invaded the country in 540 by land and sea and quickly subjugated it. Oppressive measures estranged the people and revolts gave the country into the hands of the Ostrogothic king, Totila.
In 552, Justinian's commander Narses attacked and defeated Ostrogothic resistance, but total Byzantine control was only finally established by 562. Justinian attempted the social and economic restoration of Italy with his Pragmatic Sanction of administrative laws in 554, but the country was too damaged by the wars to return to normal life during his reign.
  The Balkans  
Justinian was troubled by barbarian pressure and incursions from beyond the Danube into Thrace, Dacia, and Dalmatia by Bulgars and Slavs. In 559 the Huns were added to the problem and the barbarians penetrated to Constantinople's defence lines. In 561 the Avars joined these raiders but were bought off with a subsidy.
Justinian's failure to secure his borders against these aggressive migrating tribes (initiated by a global change in earth climate which most affected northern latitudes) is one of the principal criticisms of his rule. However, Slavs from the Balkans did provide a welcome source of manpower in view of the decimation of the population by bubonic plague.
  4.1 His Legislation  
Justinian is most famous as a codifier and legislator. In 528 he had set up a commission to produce a new code of imperial enactments or constitutions which was published the following year (Britannica 1977, 10:364). In 530 a second commission began a three year codifying of the work of Roman jurists. It was known as the Digest. In 533 a handbook for law students, the Institutes, was published. In 534 a second edition of Codex Justinianus containing his own laws to that date was published. Later legislative work of Justinian up to 565 was known as the Novels (Novellae Constitutiones). In much of this work Justinian was ably assisted by advocate Tribonian (Ibid. 364).
  4.2 Administration  
Justinian seems to have been a good judge of character. His administration's efficiency ran upon the excellent qualities of ministers, such as John of Cappadocia, and his successor Peter Barsymes.
Justinian prohibited the sale of provincial governorships, the high cost of which inevitably led to oppression and corruption to recoup the cost. The provincial system was reorganized for efficiency and economy, and some provinces were even reshaped according to economic factors. Wars and subsidies to foreign powers were expensive and these ministers of Justinian ran an efficient system of tax collections, imperial audits, misappropriation prevention, and pruning of public expenses. Unfortunately, the side-effect of this stringency was an alienation of the people.
State monopolies were developed as lucrative sources of revenue, such as raw silk, and later of all silk fabrics. The silk worm itself was imported to prevent manipulation or blockage of far east supplies by Persians, and the Byzantine market eventually became self-sufficient in silk production.
The Nika revolt of 532 expressed the general public dissatisfaction. It shook Justinian, whose leadership only survived by his wife Theodora's personal encouragement and a massacre of his opponents in the Hippodrome by loyal troops.
  4.3 Buildings  
Justinian's costly building program expressed his idea of imperial responsibility. He assisted the rebuilding of cities devastated by earthquake, such as Antioch in 528 AD. He built aqueducts, bridges, defensive fortifications, monasteries, orphanages and hostels, as well as magnificent churches. The greatest of the last mentioned was the Great Church (Hagia Sophia) whose daring construction was the masterpiece of Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles.
  5.1 Support for Orthodoxy  
The imperial church and the state were indissolubly linked as –
"essential aspects of a single Christian empire, the terrestrial counterpart of the heavenly polity." (Britannica 1977, 10:364)
Justinian therefore regarded it as his duty to ensure stable government of this church and to uphold its teachings. Many of his legislative acts deal in great detail with religious problems. Pagans, Christian non-conformists, and Samaritans were forbidden to teach any subject whatsoever. He even took the initiative concerning the influence of Origen's teachings by condemning them  and anathematising the great man himself. He received the support of the episcopate and the pope in this.
  5.2 Doctrinal Conflicts  
The principal doctrinal dispute that troubled Justinian was that which raged over the co-existence of divine and human natures in Jesus Christ. resentment of Byzantine rule in Syria and Egypt was beginning to be associated with monophysitism (one soul with two natures in Christ) and its rejection of the imperial church's creed of Chalcedon (451 AD). Justinian did not want to loose these eastern provinces and, in addition, his wife Theodora strongly favoured the Monophysites.
Early in his reign he had tried to reconcile the Monophysite leadership and had been rebuked by the pope. Further attempts to reconcile these elements in the East would run the risk of alienating the West. Nevertheless, he issued an edict in 544 condemning parts of the writings of three bishops for Nestorianism (separation of the two natures of Christ) to placate the Monophysites.
The result was an outcry of protest in the West with little support in the East. The subsequent general church council in Constantinople in 553 simply confirmed Calcedon's statement and condemned Justinian's Three Chapters (under which his edict's condemnation of the three bishops' Nestorianism had been summarized).
Justinian had angered Rome (for his handling of Pope Vigilius and his attempt to define doctrine), had enraged Antioch (for his attack upon its teachers), and gained nothing from the Monophysites.
Rome rejected the decrees of the 553 council and a schism occurred between it and Constantinople which lasted until 610 AD.
  5.3 His Heresy  
the end of Justinian's reign he became more preoccupied with theological matters and in 564 he issued an edict denying the corruptibility of the human body of Jesus Christ. This last aroused church protest which lasted until his death in 565 AD.
was a vigorous ruler with a heightened sense of responsibility for his empire and its Christian religious character.
His reign is not characterized by any particular change of direction in the empire. Much that he accomplished, and it was much, stood in continuity with the work of his predecessors.
He renewed Byzantine rule and Hellenic influence in parts of Italy which lasted for several centuries, gave sound government to North Africa from which Constantinople's salvation arose in 610.
His legal work and the Great Church in Constantinople became his most enduring monuments, and the flowering of literature, poetry and philosophy during his time attests to his positive influence upon the civilization of the Eastern Roman Empire (Britannica 1977, 10:365).
  BAINTON, Roland 1967 The Penguin History of Christianity. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
JOHNSON, Paul 1976 A History of Christianity. Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin Books.
WALKER, Williston 1963 A History of the Christian Church. Edinburgh, UK: r&T Clark.
Encyclopedia Britannica, 1977, Chicago, USA: Britannica.

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