Justinian the Great

THE death of the emperor Anastasius had raised to the throne a Dardanian peasant, who by his arts secured the suffrage of the guards, despoiled and destroyed his more powerful rivals, and reigned as emperor under the name of Justin I from 518 to 527. He was succeeded by the great Justinian, who for thirty-eight years directed the government of the Roman Empire.

The Empress Theodora, who before her marriage had been a theatrical wanton, was seated, by the fondness of the emperor, on the throne as an equal and independent colleague in the sovereignty. Her rapacity, her cruelty and her pride were the subject of contemporary writings, but her benevolence to her less fortunate sisters, and her courage amidst the factions and dangers of the court, justly entitle her to a certain nobility of character.

Constantinople in the age of Justinian was torn by the factions of the circus. The rival bands of charioteers, who wore respectively liveries of green and blue, created in the capital of the East, as they had created in Rome, two factions among the populace. Justinian's support of the blues led to a serious sedition in the capital. At first opposed, the two factions were united by a common desire for vengeance. With the watchword 'Nika' (vanquish), which has given a name to this memorable sedition (January 532), the blues and greens raged in tumult through Constantinople for five days. The greens even dared to raise a new emperor, and Justinian might have perished had it not been for the heroic firmness of Theodora. At her command 3,000 veterans who could be trusted marched through the burning streets to the Hippodrome and there massacred the unresisting mob. But the disorders revived later, and the blue and green factions continued to afflict Justinian and to disturb the Eastern Empire.

That empire, after Rome was barbarous, still embraced the nations whom she had conquered beyond the Adriatic, and as far as the frontiers of Ethiopia and Persia. Justinian reigned over 64 provinces and 935 cities. The arts and agriculture flourished under his rule, but the avarice and profusion of Justinian oppressed the people. His expensive taste for building almost exhausted the resources of the empire. Heavy customs tolls, taxes on the food and industry of the poor, the exercise of intolerable monopolies, were not excused or compensated for by the parsimonious saving in the salaries of court officials, and even in the pay of the soldiers. His stately edifices were cemented with the blood and treasures of his people, and the rapacity and luxury of the emperor were imitated by the civil magistrates and officials.

The schools of Athens, which still kept the ancient philosophy, were suppressed by Justinian. The academy of the Platonics, the Lyceum af the Peripatetics, the Portico of the Stoics and the Garden of the Epicureans had long survived.

With the death of Simplicius, and his six companions, who terminate the long list of Grecian philosophers, the golden chain, as it was fondly styled, of the Platonic succession was broken, and the Edict of Justinian (529) imposed a perpetual silence on the schools of Athens.

The Roman consulship was also abolished by Justinian in 541; but this office, the title of which admonished the Romans of their ancient freedom, still lived in the minds of the people. They applauded the gracious condescension of successive princes by whom it was assumed in the first year of their reign, and three centuries elapsed after the death of Justinian before that obsolete office, which had been suppressed by law, could be abolished by custom.

The usurpation by Gelimer (530) of the Vandalic crown of Africa, which belonged of right to Hilderic, first encouraged Justinian to undertake the African war. Hilderic had granted toleration to the Catholics, and for this reason was held in reproach by his Arian subjects. His compulsory abdication afforded the emperor of the East an opportunity of interfering in the cause of orthodoxy.

A LARGE army was entrusted to the command of Belisarius, one of those heroic names which are familiar to every age and to every nation. Proved in the Persian war, Belisarius was given unlimited authority. He set sail from Constantinople with a fleet of six hundred ships in June 533. He landed on the coast of Africa in September, defeated the degenerate Vandals, reduced Carthage within a few days, utterly vanquished Gelimer, and completed the conquest of the ancient Roman province by 534. The Vandals in Africa fled; and in the heart of a Moorish tribe a traveller has discovered the white complexion and flaxen hair of a Northern race.

In Italy, Amalasontha, the daughter of Theodoric, reigned on behalf of her son, Athalaric. On his death at the age of sixteen, she contracted a marriage with Theodatus, whose mother was the sister of Theodoric, and, attempting to subvert that law of her country which declared that the succession can never pass from the lance to the distaff, proclaimed that she and her husband reigned jointly in Italy. The discontent of the Goths led to her exile and death in 535.

These domestic dissensions excited the ambition of Justinian. Belisarius was sent with another army to Sicily in 535 and, after subduing that island and suppressing a revolt in Africa, he invaded Italy in 536. The murder of Theodatus and the accession of Vitiges confronted him with a more worthy opponent. Policy dictated the retreat of the Goths, and Belisarius entered Rome (December 536). In March, Vitiges returned with a force of one hundred and fifty thousand men. The valour of the Roman general supported a siege of forty-one days and the intrigues of the Pope Silverius, who was exiled by his orders; and, finally, with the assistance of a seasonable reinforcement, Belisarius compelled the barbarians to retire in March of the following year. The conquest of Ravenna and the suppression of the invasion of the Franks completed the subjugation of the Gothic kingdom by December 539.

The success of Belisarius and the intrigues of his secret enemies had excited the jealousy of Justinian. He was recalled and the eunuch Narses was sent to Italy, as a powerful rival, to oppose the interests of the conqueror of Rome and Africa. The infidelity of Antonina, which excited her husband's just indignation, was excused by the Empress Theodora, and her powerful support was given to the wife of the last of the Roman heroes, who, after serving again against the Persians, returned to the capital, to be received not with honour and triumph, but with disgrace and contempt and a fine of pound 120,000.

The incursions of the Lombards, the Sclavonians, and the Avars and the Turks, and the successful raids of the king of Persia were among the number of the important events of the reign of Justinian. To maintain his position in Africa and Italy taxed his resources to their utmost limit. The victories of Justinian were pernicious to mankind; the desolation of Africa was such that in many parts a stranger might wander whole days without meeting the face of either a friend or an enemy.

Return to Outline of Great Books Volume I