ORB Online Encyclopedia

Overview of Late Antiquity--The Sixth Century

Section 3: Justinian--The Character of His Regime

Steven Muhlberger

Justinian (I), emperor 527-565, was the dominant figure of the sixth century. He was a leader of a type familiar in our own century and not uncommmon in Roman history, a small-town "new man" who rose to the top position in an authoritarian state, and dedicated his life to purifying a society he saw as corrupt. He sponsored two lasting monuments of the later Roman Empire, the comprehensive law code compiled by Tribonian (the Code of Justinian) and the immense church Hagia Sophia ("Holy Wisdom"), designed and built by the architects Isidore and Anthemius. Justinian's foreign policy also inspired one of the last and most readable of ancient histories, the History of the Wars, written by Procopius in a good imitation of the best classical Greek.

These products of his age, added to Justinian's determination to take back provinces lost by his negligent predecessors (especially Italy and Old Rome), make it easy to see Justinian as a Roman of the old stamp (he was a Latin-speaker from the Balkans), and his reign as a classical revival. Justinian, however, despite his rhetoric and occasional interest in Roman antiquities, was not a true conservative. He was more intent on outshining the past than restoring it. On seeing the finished Hagia Sophia (the name means "Holy Wisdom") he supposedly exclaimed, "Solomon [builder of the First Temple at Jerusalem], I have surpassed thee!"

ILLUSTRATIONS: Hagia Sophia today.

Contemporary critics, even those who had originally hoped for an activist regime, came to see Justinian as constant innovator, uprooting past tradition with a careless hand, and destroying more than he built. Justinian's abolition of the office of consul, which dated from the founding of the Roman Republic in 509 B.C., is one incident of many that helps prove their point. Justinian sacrificed many remnants of the ancient past to his present power.

ILLUSTRATIONS: The sleepless emperor and his scandalous consort.

The reference to Solomon reminds us that Justinian thought of his empire and office in religious terms. He was tireless in pursuit of orthodoxy. Even before he was emperor, when he was simply a minister in his uncle Justin's regime (518-527), solving the division between bishops over the Council of Chalcedon was his first priority; after his own succession, Justinian plunged into an energetic repression of all dissent and diversity. Upper class pagans were purged, and clerics accused of sexual deviance were mutilated. The emperor placed new restrictions on the Jews of the empire, and tried to insulate them from the influence of the rabbinical Judaism being formulated in Mesopotamia. Samaritanism, closely related to Judaism and very popular in Palestine, he attempted to suppress entirely. The government undertook massive campaigns of confiscation against heretical churches and monasteries, and closed the ancient schools of philosophy in Athens.

Even apart from his great wars, then, Justinian's reign was a time of turbulence, and much of it stemmed from religious conflict. The anti-heresy campaign provoked revolts by farmers dependent on the suppressed religious communities. Legislation against Samaritanism led to a large uprising in Palestine supported by both Samaritans and Jews, and inspired Samaritans to look to Persia for help. Anti-Jewish policies at the outset of the reign had consequences beyond the frontier: the king of Himyar (Yemen), a Jewish convert, closed off Roman access to the Indian Ocean. Rome countered by encouraging the Christian ruler of Axum (in Ethiopia) to launch a Crusade across the Red Sea. All this cannot be blamed solely on Justinian's undoubted enthusiasm for right religion. Throughout the sixth-century world, rulers and communities identified themselves with a religious position, and aligned themselves with others on ideological grounds. According to the Roman historian Agathias, the deciding argument among the Christian Lazi when they had to choose between allying with Christian Rome or Zoroastrian Persia was (in words put into the mouth of one of their leaders):

There can be no real fellowship and no lasting bond between men of different religion even under the stimulus of fear or of some previous act of kindness. A common religion is the one indispensible precondition for such a relationship. In its absence even the tie of kinship suggests an affinity which is only so in name while in reality there is no common ground whatsoever.

If the words are Agathias's, and perhaps exaggerated, he did not invent the justified Lazian fear of Persian intolerance. Justinian's regime was not unique, but rather a powerful expression of a basic characteristic of the time.

Next Section.

Index, Overview of Late Antiquity.

Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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