Justinian I, East Roman Emperor

Nephew to the emperor Justine I, from a Romanised Illyrian family, on 1st April 527 he was adopted and made associate emperor by his uncle and on that same day he married Theodora, a woman of low social condition, but of rare beauty and intelligence. In August of that year Justine died and Justinian succeeded to the throne. A man of strong personality, with his wife’s energetic support, in internal and foreign affairs he undertook the enforcement of a plan of imperial restoration. The first step was taken in the administrative and fiscal reform, and by publishing the Institutions, the Digest and the Codex, which put in order the Roman legislation and jurisprudence, while in his attempt to give the Empire a religious unity he did not hesitate to persecute Monophysites and, later, to come to a harsh contrast with the Roman popes (Agapitus, Vigilius, Pelagius), who were too reluctant to his policy of conciliation at any cost. The whole of his reforms, which hit ingrained abuses, arouse a violent reaction, especially by the Monophysite Greens faction, such as the riots of Nika that broke out on 11 January 532, at the hippodrome, when Justinian was about to loose his throne and was saved, beside Theodora’s firm behaviour, by the troops of Belisarius. After gaining internal consolidation and signing a permanent peace with Chosroes I of Persia (532), so to cover his back, Justinian could undertake the restoration of the imperial authority in the West. In 533-34 Belisarius defeated the Vandals’ reign and brought back northern Africa within the borders of the Empire; soon afterwards a war was taken against the Goths, and the first phase of the Gothic war ended up with the conquest of Ravenna in 536. Yet the worsening of the situation in the East (Huns’ invasion into the Balkans, 540; the new outbreak of hostility against Persia) made it difficult, due to run out supplies, for Belisarius to restart fighting against the Goths who had been newly organised by Totila (544). It was thanks to Narses, who invaded Italy from Dalmatia, that the peninsula was gained again for Byzantium (552). Then (554) Justinian re-conquered the south-eastern region of Spain, but in the East he suffered serious setbacks due to the continuous incursions into the Balkans by Bulgarians, Slavs and Huns (who stepped forth to Constantinople and devastated its suburbs in 558) and to the breach of the peace with Chosroes, which brought to a ruinous war that lasted five years (540-45) and ended with an armistice that was several times renewed and eventually led to peace in 562. Therefore, while Justinian’s politics was able to maintain previous positions in the East, it could gain extended Mediterranean regions (Italy, Dalmatia, Northern Africa, part of Spain) back to the Empire in the West that was so ruled again by Byzantium, as it once used to be by Rome. As a whole, it can be said that Justinian and Theodora intervened in any field and gave impulse to the whole life of the Empire, even though at the cost of a strict discipline and hard financial sacrifices imposed to citizens. Whereas the restoration in the West was ephemeral and the religious peace, which Justinian had so firmly tried to establish, was not achieved and, on the contrary, the exasperating contrast among Orthodox and Monophysite Christians was one of the reasons for the split between the East and the West, the legislation and the outstanding works of art that were carried out under Justinian have to be considered among the ones that have had a major impact on the development of civilization. Dante (Par. VI) has Justinian celebrating the Roman eagle’s flight, that is to say the political unification of the world the Romans had been entrusted with by God: a religious unification, for the universal safety, but also for men who under the rule of a sole and just prince could pursue happiness in the earth.

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