Justinian’s rise to power from his lowly birth to emperor was not immediately apparent. Blessed with intelligence, energy and ambition, it was highly likely that Justinian would become a significant figure. But like all the great men of history, it was the element of luck or fate that set Justinian on the path to greatness. Without it, Justinian could have been successful, but not great.
The early life of Justinian
Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinian was probably born around 482 in Tauresium, somewhere in Southern Serbia, to a peasant family. Much of his early life however is unknown. At some point in his youth, his parents entrusted him to his mother’s brother Justin, for the sake of a better future at Constantinople. Constantinople was the largest city and capital of the Byzantine Empire. It was here that Justinian received a good education not available elsewhere in the empire. Next, Justin, the commander of the imperial bodyguards, arranged a military commission for Justinian in the palace regiments. During these formative years, Justinian cultivated his network, patiently preparing for an opportunity to advance his fortunes. 1
The moment arrived in 518. The aged emperor Anastasius died without naming a successor. As luck would have it, his three nephews were not in Constantinople to assume command. The vacuum led to a succession crisis as various factions sought to establish their candidates as emperor. Meanwhile, Justin, the commander of the imperial guards controlled the only troops in the city. His support was therefore crucial for a would-be emperor. Aware of this, Amantius, a high ranking palace eunuch, tried to bribe Justin to support his chosen candidate. But instead of doing so, Justin used the money to win the favour of important senators. The next day, a fight broke out in the Hippodrome. Although the imperial bodyguards quickly restored order, soon, they began calling for their commander to ascend the throne. Justin tried to decline the honour, but he could not refuse a joint call by the senators and his troops to defend the empire. And so, the lowborn, uneducated, and aged Justin became the new emperor of the empire. 2
Justin’s inner circle, of which Justinian was a prominent member, may have staged the entire show in the Hippodrome. Their purpose was to grant legitimacy to Justin’s ascension. At this point in history, any man who wished to be emperor needed the support of the senators and a body of troops to control Constantinople. The senators were already in Justin’s pocket while Justin’s troops owed their loyalty to him. But the support of the people was also crucial to maintaining harmony in the capital. By staging the drama in the Hippodrome, the message was clear. Justin was the best man to restore law and order to the empire as its next emperor.
Justinian the emperor-in-waiting
Justin’s appointment as emperor stunned the people in Constantinople who expected one of Anastasius’s nephews to succeed him. As such, Justin’s position was far from secure. Guided by his adopted son Justinian, Justin began his reign with great energy. Firstly, he corresponded with the Pope to heal the schism between the churches. Given the importance of unity within the church, this served to enhance Justin’s prestige. Next, he took measures to deal with potential contenders to his throne. For example, he ordered the execution of Amantius and his imperial candidate for causing unrest in Constantinople. Finally, he promoted and pardoned talented officials who Anastasius had condemned. All of these actions served to strengthen Justin’s hold on the throne. 3
Meanwhile, Justin’s supporters also sought to enhance their influence in the new government. But the most powerful and influential man was Justinian. It was Justinian who helped the emperor to heal the schism in the church left by Anastasius. To this end, Justinian willingly agreed to the demands from Rome for the sake of a reunited church. It was Justinian who had the general Vitalian murdered when he threatened their power. In the process Justinian replaced him as Master of the Soldiers. It was Justinian who built churches to beautify the city. It was also Justinian who took care to manage foreign affairs by developing a friendship with the future king of the Vandals, Hilderic. 4
But this was not all. Justinian also went all out to win the support of the people and the senators in Constantinople. During the consular games which he hosted as consul in 521, Justinian made sure it was a grand spectacle. He spent 4000 pounds of gold to bring in all sorts of entertainment including wild animals like lions and leopards. These lavish displays and entertainment were a stark contrast to the penny pinching reign of Anastasius and a welcome breeze for the people. Such was the boundless energy and dynamism of Justinian. 5
Justinian was intelligent, ambitious, pious and energetic. Expecting to inherit the empire one day, Justinian knew that he needed to start cultivating his support early. This was why he spared no expense in wooing the people and the senators to establish his reputation. He also had a fine eye for talent and employed men for their ability, regardless of their background. As a result, he earned the loyalty of many capable ministers and generals which helped to fulfil his ambitions.
Justinian and Theodora
But his staunchest ally, advisor and supporter would be his future wife Theodora. Justinian probably met Theodora after 520 when she returned from Alexandria. Despite a 20 year age difference, Justinian fell in love with her intelligence, willpower and beauty. Theodora also returned his love and soon they were openly living together in Constantinople. But Theodora’s former profession as a circus performer and courtesan caused a scandal amongst the elite. Although Justinian was prepared to disregard this, he faced a few difficulties when he tried to marry her. 6
Firstly, Roman law forbade someone of his newfound standing as senator to marry a courtesan like Theodora. Secondly, the reigning empress, his aunt Euphemia, was firmly against the union. Against this formidable roadblock, Justinian had no answer. The couple bided their time and soon, Euphemia passed away of old age. After getting the emperor to pass a new law which sanctioned their marriage, Justinian finally married Theodora around 525. 7
In 527, it was Justin’s turn to follow his wife to the grave. Just before Justin died, he crowned Justinian and Theodora co-emperor and empress on April 4. With the death of Justin on August 1, the empire passed into the hands of Justinian and Theodora. 8
Justinian’s choice of a spouse was interesting. He could have easily married the daughter of a rich aristocrat to further enhance his power and prestige through familial connections. Instead he chose to marry a courtesan who had nothing to offer beyond her intelligence and resourcefulness. This decision however proved to be a prudent one for Justinian. Theodora’s wise counsel helped him to guide the empire through many challenges.
Reflections of the Vizier
There were three significant points in Justinian’s life that paved the way for his ascension to emperor. These points may be termed luck or fate. The first was joining his uncle Justin at Constantinople where he gained an education and a military commission. This placed him near the nerve centre of the Byzantine Empire to advance his position. The second was the succession crisis that followed the death of Anastasius. This allowed Justinian to engineer the ascension of his uncle Justin. In due time, he would inherit the empire as the adopted son of the emperor. The last was his meeting of and marriage to Theodora. Theodora possessed a worldly wisdom that the bookish Justinian lacked. Without the support of Theodora, Justinian might have lost the empire early due to the mistakes he would make.
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Moorhead, John. Justinian. New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited, 1997.
Norwich, John Julius. Byzantium: The Early Centuries. England: Penguin Books, 1990.
Treadgold, Warren. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. California: Stanford University Press, 1997.
- John Moorhead, Justinian (New York: Addison Wesley Longman Limited), 15, 17; John Julius Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries (England: Penguin Books, 1990), 190; Warren Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society (California: Stanford University Press, 1997), 174. [↩]
- Moorhead, Justinian, 14-15; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 189; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 174. [↩]
- Moorhead, Justinian, 15; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 189; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 174-175. [↩]
- Moorhead, Justinian, 17; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 189, 191; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 175-176. [↩]
- Moorhead, Justinian, 17-18; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 189; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 176. [↩]
- Moorhead, Justinian, 19-20; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 191-193; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 176, 178. [↩]
- Moorhead, Justinian, 20; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 193-194; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 178. [↩]
- Moorhead, Justinian, 21-22; Norwich, Byzantium: The Early Centuries, 194; Treadgold, A History of the Byzantine State and Society, 178. [↩]