Justinian was born into a family of goat herds in 482AD in the Roman province of Dardania – which for sake of simplicity can be broadly considered as Macedonia/Greece. The people he was a member of were generally uncultured; in keeping with the roughness of the countryside they lived in, yet Justinian was out of character: generally feeble and interested in learning.
He was called to the new capital at Constantinople by his uncle Justin, who happened to have made a happy career in the military under emperor Anastasius. As can be imagined Justin was of a rude and vulgar culture, unable to read or write and furthermore was childless so he called his nephew Justinian to court, provided him with tuition and named him his personal secretary.
Justinian was of average stature, clean shaven, relatively introvert as well as careful with his diet. He woke up early and frequently stayed awake into the late hours of the night to study the great philosophers and theologians such as St. Augustine.
When emperor Anastasius I died in 518AD he was childless and a degree of social disorder ensued. Justin usurped the throne and named Justinian Consul – an event which Justinian celebrated by throwing public games with wild beasts (“venationes”) at the Roman amphitheatre.
With respect to women, Justinian was resilient to female charms until, it seems, around the age of 40 when he met Theodora: daughter of a lion tamer and ex courtesan who managed to spark the man in him. In spite of the adverse social pressure, he housed Theodora in a princely up-market dwelling in the best part of Constantinople where he would go to visit her each day.
In 527AD, four months before his own death, uncle Justin named Justinian co-regent: a purely formal investiture given that Justinian was de facto already managing the state. On the very same day that Justinian was given the imperial insignia he also married Theodora. Four months later Justin died, having left a well organised succession. Justinian became emperor and Theodora’s past was magically forgotten.
Much of what we know from those days is thanks to the historian Procopius who wrote a few very complimentary books about Justinian’s reign and a secret version which was rather discrediting. Nevertheless, according to Procopius Theodora was extremely beautiful (unlikely) as well as absolutely faithful to her workaholic husband. The imperial couple made a perfect match in their differences: Whilst Justinian was parsimonious and introvert, Theodora was extrovert and a clear lover of good food and luxury.
Justinian started by reacquiring much of the upper-class prestige which had been lost by his uncle’s uncouth attitude. The first move was to declare himself of divine nature and demand utter respect from his subjects who were expected to go down on their knees and kiss his purple robe. His strength lay in his learning and admiration for the power of law.
The Justinian Code
It is not surprising that a durable consequence of his reign was the very comprehensive digest of Roman law known as the Justinian code: “Corpus iuris civilis” which he commissioned in 528 and first results were published in 533.
Amongst the laws published there are some interesting highlights, such as…
an encouragement to freeing of slaves yet permission for indigent parents to sell their children into slavery
severe punishment including death for heretics balanced by a prohibition for clergy to be involved in financial enterprise or participate in public theatre and games.
Adultery was no longer a capital punishment yet a betrayed husband could kill his wife’s lover if warned at least three times and caught red-handed.
Corporal punishments include having your throat cut, your nose cut off or your eyes gouged out. Tax officials would have their hands cut off. As per Roman tradition, capital punishment included beheading for free citizens and crucifixion for slaves. A few particular cases included being burned alive
Perhaps most significantly the Justinian code favoured donations to the Christian church as well as protecting its property which through time allowed the clergy to accumulate a huge amount of wealth.
So as we can see the Justinian code was an interesting mix of balanced equality, horror and Christian benevolence which was perhaps the reason for which his throne was only once under threat from civil uprisings as a result of having arrested the representatives of the two main teams at the circus for hooliganism. The result was a surprising social revolt and near civil war. Justinian lost his nerve and all would have been lost had it not been for Theodora’s cold bloodedness in calling the young general Belisarius to put an equally cold and bloody end to the issue.
Justinian’s reign was not greatly inspired yet it did achieve some extremes:
The state coffers were emptied to build churches and convents
The taxes were so high as to induce large portions of farming provinces to abandon the land and converge on the city in the (hopeless) search for subsistence.
He achieved several military successes – largely thanks to his general Belisarius, the one who quelled the hooligan uprisings – who managed to wrestle Italy and north Africa from the Gothic menace and then set the scene for the future by introducing the “Pragmatic Sanction” – which gave the clergy the happy job of exacting taxes far beyond the population’s means, taking over much of the administration and of course finding themselves the means of becoming that little more independent of Constantinople.
This was, in a sense, the victory of Orthodox Catholicism over the Germanic Arian heresy, at the cost of what little wealth had remained in Italy and Rome. In his book “the Secret Histories” Procopius gives a good account of the state in which Italy was driven after almost 20 years of war: people driven to selling their children into slavery, to abandon their cities in the hope of finding food on the sea shore or eating acorns and grass on the hills.
Justinian then set the task of rebuilding Italy in the hands of his chief bureaucrat Narses and the only available funds were through more taxation on anything that moved – hence the “Pragmatic Sanction”.
The empress Theodora died in 548AD of cancer which proved to be a severe hit for Justinian who had counted on her extrovert character so much and so long. He became a shadow of his former self and retrenched into the state machinery. Justinian himself died almost 20 years later in 565AD. Not long after that Procopius also died and his “secret history” began to circulate more widely.
Other than his ability to work long hours perhaps his greatest talent was that of spotting and surrounding himself with the greatest talent, irrespective of social rank.