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The Eastern Roman Empire in the time of Justinian

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The Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, was a polyglot, multiethnic, polysectarian state, at the head of which was the emperor (basileus, autokrator), whose autonomous monarchical power rested on Hellenistic political philosophy and Christian political theory.


Justinian was a man of autocratic character and grandiose conceptions. He was strongly influenced by his wife, Theodora (d. 548), a woman of humble origin but of iron will and unusual political judgment. Justinian’s whole policy was directed toward the revival of a universal Christian Roman Empire. The entire reign was filled with wars in the east and the west, punctuated by constant incursions of the barbarians from the north.

Justinian and the Church

Peace had been made with Rome in 519 and Pope John I had visited Constantinople in 525. Justinian made a great effort to maintain the unity of the western and eastern churches, but this led him into trouble with the Monophysites of Syria and Egypt. He attempted to reconcile them also, but with indifferent success. The cleavage between Latin and Greek Christianity became ever more marked. Justinian suppressed all heresies and paganism (closing of the Neo-Platonic Academy at Athens, 529). Extensive missionary work was carried on among the pagans and in Ethiopia. For the rest, the emperor, with a great taste for dogma, set himself up as the master of the Church and arrogated to himself the right to make binding pronouncements in even purely theological matters.


The emperor abolished the sale of offices, improved salaries, united the civil and military powers of provincial authorities. To hold back invaders, he built hundreds of forts along the frontiers and established a regular system of frontier forces (limitanei). Financially the empire suffered greatly from the extensive military operations and from the great building activities of the court.

Law reform

To clarify the law, Justinian appointed a commission headed by the jurist Tribonian. This commission collected and ordered all the constitutions promulgated since the time of Hadrian and published them as the Codex Justinianus (529). There followed the collection of opinions of the jurists, the Digest, or Pandects (533), and a general textbook of the law, the Institutes. Justinian’s own legislation was collected in the Novellae (565). By this great work of codification Justinian assured for the Roman Law an immense prestige and far-reaching influence, but at the same time diminished its chances of further development.

Building activity

The period was one of unexampled construction, ranging from whole towns to public baths, palaces, bridges, roads, and forts, as well as countless churches and cloisters. It was a period of much free experimentation and originality in architecture, resulting in unusual variety of types, all of them, however, marked by grandeur and splendor. The Church of St. Sophia (constructed between 532 and 537 by Anthemois of Tralles and Isidoros of Miletus) is the greatest of the many monuments of Justinian’s reign.


An age of revival. The Anekdota (Secret History) of Procopius; the historians Agathias and John of Ephesus. Renascence of Greek classical poetry; creation of religious poetry by Romanos.

The first Persian War of Justinian

His commander, Belisarius, won a victory at Dara (530), but was then defeated at Callinicum. The conflict ended with the Perpetual Peace of 532, designed to free the imperial armies for operations in the west.

Nika Insurrection

The Nika Insurrection (so called from the cry of the popular parties, nika meaning victory). This was the last great uprising of the circus parties. Much of Constantinople was destroyed by fire. Justinian was deterred from flight only through the arguments of Theodora. Ultimately Belisarius and the forces put down the insurrection with much cruelty (30,000 slain). Therewith autocracy was reaffirmed. People started to regard the emperor as God’s regent on earth, and church and state became one. Not only land ownership but also lucrative economic activities, like the silk industry, were state monopolies (Byzantium succeeded in importing silkworms directly from China and developed a silk industry of its own). Another precedent to be followed by most Byzantine emperors until the 13th century was Justinian’s ambition to restore the previous Roman Empire with the entire Mediterranean under its control.

Conquests of North Africa, Italy and raids by barbarians across the Danube

The Vandal usurper Gelimer was defeated, and the whole of North Africa was reincorporated into the empire.After a series of devastating wars against the Ostrogoths, all of Italy was brought under
imperial rule. The Huns, Bulgars , and other barbarian tribes crossed the Danube and
raided the Balkan area as far south as the Isthmus of Corinth.

The Great Persian War

The great Persian War against Khusru I (Chosroes) . The Persians invaded Syria and took Antioch. A truce was concluded in 545, but hostilities were soon resumed in the Transcaucasus region. By the 50-year Peace of 562, Justinian agreed to pay tribute, but Lazistan was retained for the empire. Constantinople and the empire were affected by the first main cycle of bubonic plague, which struck the Mediterranean world throughout the 6th century and recurred periodically perhaps for the next 200–300 years. The 542–46 epidemic possibly caused the death of as many as 300,000 people in Constantinople alone. By the end of the 6th century, Byzantium saw its manpower severely debilitated.

Conquest of southeastern Spain and the Slavic Treat

The conquest of southeastern Spain by the imperial armies. Cordoba became the capital of the province. The Huns and Slavs, having advanced to the very gates of Constantinople, were driven
off by Belisarius.



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