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Emperor Justinian

A/N: Part I, paper 13 essay from Easter term of the 2007/08 academic year. I was supervised by Dr. Sarris at Trinity.

Did Justinian Ruin the Empire He Set Out to Restore?

Justinian, who became sole Eastern emperor in 527 on the death of Justin, was for many years hailed as a heroic figure for his restoration of Empire and re-conquest of the barbarian kingdoms of the old Western Empire. Gibbon argued that Justinian was driven by a misguided attempt to restore the empire to its former glory. The discovery of Procopius’ Secret History in the seventeenth century led, once it was accepted that Procopius was indeed the author, to a reassessment of Justinian’s reign. Far from restoring the empire some argue that Justinian all but destroyed it with his extreme autocratic rule and persecution of his opponents. Such extreme differences in historiographical viewpoints suggest that this is a question with complex undertones. In fact the question brings up three points; did Justinian set out to restore the empire? Was the empire ruined? And, if so, was it Justinian’s fault?

Justinian’s reign is one of the best documented of the later Roman Empire, surviving sources include the great codified legal works of his reign: the Institutes, the Digest and the Justinianic Code. In addition there are a number of literary sources such as those of Agathius, John of Lydus and Johannid of Corippus. The scope and length of the works of Procopius have however invited an inevitable dependence on them which creates problems of its own; as Cameron points out, in many instances Procopius is blinded by the prejudices of his class, the provincial elite. In addition the genres Procopius chooses to write in are often limiting; adopting the tone of a classical history “Wars” suffers for the difficulties its author had in reconciling the traditional secular nature of the genre and the overt religiosity of his own day. Procopius, as an eyewitness of many of the campaigns he describes, has generally been assumed to be highly accurate although this is not consistently the case, especially in his digressions into earlier history. His Secret History of c.550 further complicates matters with its intense vitriol towards the emperor. Whilst the difficulties surrounding the source material are not insurmountable it is essential to bear their limitations in mind when assessing their usefulness for the reign.

Traditionally it was believed that Justinian’s aims as emperor were to restore the empire to its former glory. In more recent times it has become obvious that his true motives were somewhat more complex. Take for example Justinian’s legislation, what was often innovative and forward thinking legislation was masked with a veneer of traditionalism, the prefaces to such legislation provide historical reasons (real or invented) for its introduction. This hints at the real aim of Justinian, that is to style himself as the sole source of power within the empire; he made explicit what political thought in the Eastern Empire had been moving towards – that the emperor was God’s representative on Earth. In 545 Justinian made the canons of the four ecclesiastical councils law, exemplifying the way in which he saw his position, the church might make recommendations but it was he alone who could make them legally binding. Justinian then did not set out to revert to the conciliar style of rule favoured by the classical emperors; what he did want was to restore the power and prestige of the empire. By enforcing Christian orthodoxy and re-conquering the former Western Empire Justinian hoped to unite his subjects and secure his own position, allowing him further scope to reform and reinvent the Empire in his own vision.

If then, in some respects, at least Justinian was intent on restoring empire, is it also true to say that his efforts in fact ruined it? The first area to look at must be the military action of the empire. Once the Endless Peace had been concluded with the Persians in 532 Justinian took the opportunity, in spite of opposition from leading figures in Constantinople, to go into Vandal Africa. A quick success in Africa encouraged the emperor to send troops into Ostrogothic Italy in 535, after an initial lack of opposition things soon started to unravel for the imperial forces. A mutiny in Africa in 536, plus the reopening of hostilities with the Persians in 540 created serious pressure on the supply of manpower. Justinian’s rash decisions had seemed to pay off in the early 530s yet the Empire was to pay for them for the rest of the reign; the situation in Africa remained volatile with further rebellion in 539, the Goths were not totally subdued in Italy until 554 by which point the once proud capital of Roman power was reduced to ruins. In 546 Roman women, the wives of senators, had been reduced to begging for food during a Gothic siege of the city; the lack of practical support such people were receiving from the Empire must have made them long for the days of Theoderic’s rule. Even if Justinian is judged on what must have remained his principle military aim, to defend the borders of the Eastern Empire, the picture is still far from positive. The Sclavenes managed to cross the Balkan frontiers in 550 and in 559 the Kutrigurs attacked Constantinople itself, the only defence available being peasants and the local militia led by the aged Belisarius. Agathias gloomily complained that this was just one example of a large scale decline in the military strength of the Eastern Empire; he claimed that “150,000 men had to defend frontiers for which 645,000 men would have been a minimum number.” Although in 554 the garrisons in Lazica were sufficiently well manned to be able to repel Persian attack the imperial forces were weaker than they had been, the increasing reliance on barbarian born troops and symmachoi further evidence of this.

Economics is another area in which many claim Justinian’s empire began to fall into ruin. The increasing strain of taxation to fund the empire’s military activity began to cause resentment. Procopius complains that Justinian refused to remit taxes for landowners in spite of the fact that many of their labourers had died of plague. The complaints of Procopius and his contemporary John of Lydus are however products of their social position, as members of provincial elites they sympathised totally with the plight of the landowners. For the lower orders of society life improved somewhat in the aftermath of plague as the copper coinage in which they were paid rose in value against the solidus, before 542 a solidus was worth 210 folles, between 542 to 550 a solidus was worth only 180 folles making it easier for the poor to pay taxes and suchlike which were reckoned in solidi. In general though the economy suffered during Justinian’s reign: in the old Western Empire prolonged warfare managed to almost destroy Italy’s economy and Africa’s exports also suffered. The East’s economic situation started to decline after the 530s, even for the lower classes price raises and food shortages caused misery; Justinian was forced to legislate on the problem in 544. In 556 there was a demonstration in the hippodrome over food shortages, a considerable embarrassment for the empire as a Persian ambassador was there to witness it. For Italy, to say that Justinian ruined it economically is far from slander, and for the rest of his empire economic difficulties increased throughout the reign. When Justin II ascended to the throne in 565 after the death of Justinian he found “the treasury burdened with many debts and reduced to utter exhaustion.” It all seems to point to the ruin of the empire’s economy during Justinian’s reign.

Aside from restoring the power and extent of the empire Justinian had aimed to create religious unity allowing him to form the centre of religious and political affairs. To achieve this aim he pursued a neo-chalcedon policy which he hoped would reconcile the difference between orthodox Christians and the breakaway Monophysites. The situation proved to be irreconcilable and after the fifth ecclesiastical council at Constantinople in 553 - a council which pope Vigilus refused to attend, despite being in Constantinople at the time - Monophysite groups in Egypt refused to accept reconciliation into the seventh century. Aside from alienating religious groups within the empire Justinian aggressively sought to rid it of heretics and Pagans. In 529 he forbade pagans from teaching, much as Julian had done with Christians in the fourth century. Justinian was to succeed with such a policy where his predecessor had failed, the academy at Athens was effectively closed down and Procopius’ classical posturing in his writings became one of the last attempts as literacy increasingly became the preserve of the church. Throughout Justinian’s reign the production of books fell and the circulation of the classics fell. Even as legal texts and theology flourished under Justinian the classical literary modes were being ruined. In terms of religious persecution Justinian’s intolerance led to further problems, a prominent cause of the 536 uprising in Africa for example was an edict against Arians, angering the large number of Arian barbarian troops garrisoned there.

So far then it seems that the empire was ruined under Justinian, and that the blame can be laid directly at the emperor’s feet. Unsurprisingly the real picture is somewhat more complicated. In military terms it is impossible to ignore the problems Justinian’s campaigns created for the Empire. Yet, the blame is not all Justinian’s. A prime example is the lost chance of compromise with the Goths in 539, Justinian was willing to come to terms with the Gothic king Witigis to free up troops and resources to fight the re-emergent Persian threat closer to home. Belisarius however refused to compromise; his insistence on continuing the war meant that the conflict dragged on for over a decade until the resources could be spared to finally crush them in 554. Still, this suggests weakness for Justinian; surely a strong emperor could have overruled his general? Perhaps more conclusively in Justinian’s favour is the bubonic plague which swept the Mediterranean from 541. When it hit Constantinople in 542 the pestilence wiped out almost half the population: an estimated 300,000 people. Plague is the real issue behind the military problems of the rest of Justinian’s reign. Procopius claimed that after “his second expedition to Italy Belisarius brought back nothing but disgrace.” But the troops were simply unavailable, and where a force could be scraped together they had to be deployed to the most pressing frontiers; the 30,000 troops sent to the Armenian front in 543 while Belisarius had to make do with 4,000 for his return to Italy a year later is sure evidence of this policy. Justinian’s military aims had perhaps been over ambitious but the scale of difficulties they created was the fault not of the emperor but the devastation of plague.

Similarly in financial terms Justinian cannot shoulder sole blame. Following the massive impact of the recurrent plague epidemics (it reappeared in 555, 558, 560/1, 585 and 608) it is unsurprising that higher wages were being demanded. In March 544 Justinian was forced to try and ease the situation with legislation to stop those who had “abandoned themselves to Avarice and ask prices and wages two or three times those of old custom.” Similarly the emperor could not have failed to be aware of the problems facing the landowners but the collection of taxes remained imperative, especially as the population fell drastically. Resentment grew amongst the landowning elite, expressed in Procopius’ Secret History that, although they were struggling to pay their taxes, their lands were not being adequately defended, enemy incursions into Antioch and even Constantinople show that their complaints were fully justified. In the face of difficult times Justinian’s ability to simply keep his throne proves his ability. Procopius claims that the emperor “was at once villainous and amenable, as people say colloquially, a moron.” But it was Justinian’s ability to play barbarians tribes off against each other as he did with the Avars and hostile tribes in the Balkans, and his ability to stay ahead of his opponents that prevented Constantinople succumbing to the violent factional struggles and the provinces falling to hostile enemies. Faced with a difficult situation Justinian did the best he could. 

Unfortunately such a favourable view cannot be taken of Justinian’s involvement in religious policy. To some extent his aggressive stance towards dissidents from the Orthodox faith must have had a financial element to it; Procopius attests to the removal by the state of the estates of such men and Justinian changed inheritance laws so that only orthodox Christians could inherit from heterodox parents and another that only let the heirs of senators with male issue claim a quarter of their estates, whereas previously heirs had received three quarters with the remaining quarter going to the city. (The remainder under this new law went to the imperial treasury.) These were changes which undoubtedly served to swell imperial coffers. On the other hand it would appear that Justinian’s devotion to enforcing orthodoxy was genuine; by removing the pagan teachers he removed a source of opposition to his faith for example. Although many have praised Justinian for introducing a workable model of strong Christian government, in many ways it served only to divide and alienate. Although Procopius’ descriptions of Justinian and the empress Theodora, of whom he claimed “no other tyrant since mankind began ever inspired such fear,” in the Secret History are doubtless exaggerations it does hint at the real fear imperial intolerance created. Whilst Justinian did not ruin secular politics or the continued output of classical inspired, secular, literature his policies certainly pushed the process of decline forward.

In conclusion the image of Justinian as a great emperor who restored the Roman Empire to its former, classical, glory must be recognised as nothing more than a myth. However like most myths there is a kernel of truth at its centre; Justinian was an emperor with a strong vision who set about making it a reality. This vision was less about restoring the classical ideal of empire as creating a new structure based on the Christian orthodox faith which would recognise Justinian as the sole law-maker and the representative of God on Earth. This obsession with power is what led to Justinian’s attempts to re-conquer the Western empire, something which, whilst initially successful, left the former barbarian kingdoms in ruins. In the Eastern Empire the economy struggled to cope with the demands of the military and religious conflict led to a weakening of support for the emperor. By the 550s Procopius was so disillusioned with the regime that he described Justinian as a demon in his Secret History. Yet this ruin of empire was not solely the fault of Justinian, much of the “ruin” evident by the time of Justinian’s death in 565 can be blamed upon the plague which emerged in 541 , much of the destruction of Italy can be traced to Belisarius’ refusal to accept a compromise with the Goths in 539. Although Justinian’s impatient policies were the underlying cause of the ruin of the Western empire and the difficulties faced by its Eastern counterpart had it not been for the devastation of plague he may well have been able to pull it off and realise his vision of complete autocratic rule. 


  • Procopius: Secret History, preface of De Aedificiss, Wars Book 1 
  • Justinian’s Institutes: opening constitution. (P. Birks and G. Macloed) 

General Context:

  • Chapter on Justinian by Averil Cameron in The Cambridge Ancient History Volume XIV (eds. Bryan Ward-Perkins, Averil Cameron and Michael Whitby.) “Political Thought” in the Sixth Century -Procopius and the Sixth Century, Averil Cameron (1985) 
  • Reviews on Dvornik, Early Christian and Byzantine Political Philosophy – Origins and Background: P. Charans (Speculum 44) and P.J. Alexander (American History Review 73)
Justinian’s Reform Programme: 
  • J.A.S. Evans The Later Roman Empire (1996) 
  • M. Maas John Lydus and the Roman Past (1992) Introduction. 
  • B. Stolte “Justinianus Bifrons” in P. Magdalino (ed.) New Constantines (1994) 
  • M. Maas Roman History and Christian Ideology in Justinian’s Reform Legislation (Dumbarton Oaks Papers, 1986) 
  • J. Teall The Barbarians in Justinian’s Armies (Speculum, 1965) 
  • L. Meyendorff Justinian, the Empire and the Church (Dumbarton Oaks Papers 22, 1968) 
  • P. Sarris The Justinianic Plague: Origins and Effects (Continuity and Change, 2001) 
  • D. Sinor (ed.) The Cambridge History of Early Inner Asia (chapter on the Avars) 
  • Essay by W. Pohl in M. Maas (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (2005)


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