You could call Justinian a lot of things, but you could not call the man boring. Justinian was the emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantium – for the better part of sixth century – from the early 520s to 565. He’s heavily associated with the taking back of the parts of the Western Roman Empire that were lost to barbarians. He’s also known for great public works like the Hagia Sophia, which still stand today, as well as the codifying of Roman law, which is essentially what European law is still based off of.
Procopius is our guy here. He is our primary source when it comes to what we know about Justinian and his wars. Most of what we know about this comes from the Secret History, Buildings and The Wars. The Wars and Buildings are very different from Secret History. It’s almost as if two different people are writing these things. It seems as if The Wars and Buildings are some sort of propaganda and the Secret History – only meant to be published well after Procopius’ death – is one of those things where we get to hear him talk SO MUCH SHIT on everyone. In Secret History, Justinian and his wife Theodora are demon monsters and everyone except for Procopius totally sucks and stuff. It’s so good. I feel that it is one of the great, weirdo works of late-antiquity. It’s why I love Procopius and why I can’t get enough of this time period in the first place.
Who was Justinian?
In a way, Justinian’s rule goes back to the 510s. He was the ruling power behind his uncle, Justin I. Justinian seems as if he would have been your pain in the ass boss. This guy never slept, he worked all the damn time, he got hung up on details, he was obsessed with and immersed in architecture, law, and theology.
He was an upstart, he came from nothing. He was from a military family from modern Croatia. His whole back story is really interesting. You see, his uncle got a job as an imperial guard. In turn, he adopted Justinian. His uncle became emperor in 518 with Justinian as right hand man. As his uncle became senile and died, Justinian took over in earnest in 527.
Justinian dressed kind of sloppy for an emperor, but he was approachable – if you were a politician that is, if you were an every day guy, he’d probably just assume you were worse than shit. He wasn’t an angry kind of guy though, but he was cold. He wasn’t very tolerant. He was unforgiving and merciless.
I think the most interesting thing about Justinian, isn’t really even Justinian, it’s his consort, Theodora. She was of even more meager beginnings than he was and he gave her a ton of power. She effectively ruled as co-empress. Her father was a bear keeper, an animal trainer, who kept bears for the cruel spectacles they would put on at the circus, the Hippodrome. She was an actress who had lived a crazy life all over the world. She had been a professional prostitute, servicing high-ranking people in society. She even had an illegitimate child.
Justinian and Theodora worked together as a team, but it’s so weird and I really have to wonder how the hell it worked. They had totally different personalities. Theodora was fucking luxurious, she slept all the damn time, she was sympathetic to the Monophysites – a Christian sect Justinian was bent on destroying. Hell, she WAS a Monophysite. Justinian didn’t sleep, he was a slob, they even supported opposing political parties. Dude, I have no idea how it worked.
There was a great arena attached to the palace, where the emperor would show up at sporting events. This was the circus, the Hippodrome – the horse racing arena in Constantinople. The Emperor had his own box that he would show up in. People would criticize him in there, yell all kinds of rude shit to him. It was like the YouTube comments section, but live. Just the worst of the worst, the dregs with all the lights on you. There were circus factions, the political parties of the time. People who were cheering for one side or another, they were the Blues and the Greens.
The Greens were pro-Monophysite, Theodora was a partisan of the Greens. The Blues were anti-Monophysite and Justinian was a partisan of the Blues. In 532, the factions revolted in the Hippodrome. It was part tax revolt and part assholes being fucking assholes.
I have tried to really get down to see what the hell it is these factions were really all about, but it is of no use. In the end, it’s simply a case of angry people being angry. They’re also heavily taxed at this point too, so there’s that. But let there be no doubt that these are pretty much a bunch of people who like to fight, cheer for one team or the other, wear crazy costumes and spend all their money on sporting events. So essentially nothing has changed. Not one fucking thing.
Seven people were arrested for rioting and were condemned to death. They were to be hanged, but two guys escaped when the rope broke. They were protected by the crowd, they were now some kind of heroes apparently. They were put in a monastery where they were protected.
And of-fucking-course, one was a Blue and one was a Green. That is pretty damn convenient, right? You can see how this is going to create a shitstorm, can’t you? The Blues and Greens unite! They riot, they demand a pardon for these assholes, they try to overthrow Justinian.
These are the famous Nika Riots – Nika! meaning Victory!, which is what these crowds were chanting. They burned down most of the city in the process. Now look, a lot of politicians at the time did not like Justinian. His taxes really made him some powerful enemies. Also, a lot of these senators did not like the fact that Justinian was of humble birth. So they saw this as a good time to use this to their advantage and try to have Justinian killed and replaced.
Procopius says that Justinian was ready to escape but Theodora told him she preferred to die in imperial robes, rather than flee in disguise. According to Procopius, Justinian agrees with her and mobilizes Belisarius and Narses – his top generals. The mob and the senators are all getting ready to crown a new emperor, this guy called Hypatius, in the Hippodrome. Right fucking there in the Hippodrome! Justinian has Narses go in the Hippodrome and give the leader of the Blues some gold. The leaders of the Blues walk out of the Hippodrome and Justinian’s troops come in and slaughter everyone. They get right to work on these people and have 30,000 to 40,000 of them destroyed that day. Still, Constantinople was partially burned in the wake of the riots.
This is where they start building of the new Hagia Sofia that we see today. They built the thing in five years through an incredible number of workmen. The expenditure of money had to have been insane. A massive “fuck you” to the people upset about taxes. The throne in the Hagia Sofia was made of silver. It uses a lot of glass in order to emit light. And the light comes from so far away that it forms these intense patterns all depending on what time of day it is. The columns are of porphyry. Justinian also built a new Senate, imperial palace, baths and a ton of other churches.
War all the time
Justinian started his wars against Persia before the Nika revolt. The taxes to pay for that being one of the reasons for the revolt itself. He was interested in securing enough of the frontier so that the Persians couldn’t launch a damn sneaky surprise attack. In 531, the Eastern Roman Empire and Persia signed what they were calling a perpetual peace, but we should know by now these kinds of things are bullshit, but whatever. Justinian had his heart set on the West and so he moved his troops over there.
The Vandals had been a pain in Rome’s ass forever. These are the assholes who had sacked Rome in 455, who had seized the granary of Rome in 430. Now, finally, almost 100 years later, Justinian handed them their asses during a successful war against them in North Africa in 534 and it was quick.
Next stop on the ass-kicking train was Italy in 535. But that took twenty goddamn years and in the process, Italy was left devastated and a lot of classical culture would be lost. What most people don’t realize is that a lot of Rome wasn’t destroyed by the invaders, it was destroyed by the Romans themselves.
Justinian’s general, Belisarius, at first was able to triumph in Italy when he had first got in there. The problem was there was an Ostrogothic resistance that turned out to be pretty fucking strong. Belisarius was recalled by Justinian and Italy was reoccupied by the Ostrogoths. Finally, Justinian sends his other guy, Narses out there and from 552 to 555 he fights his ass off and hands the Ostrogoths their ass. In 540, Ravenna falls to Justinian, and this is the high point of his reign. It’s all downhill from here, kids. Shit kind of gets ugly after this.
The Persians break their “perpetual peace” and sack the city of Antioch in the Eastern Mediterranean. It’s a big deal. Antioch is the Empire’s third biggest city at the time. And of course, comes the plague, which just cripples everyone beyond comprehension.
Have you seen my video on that? You should! Check it out right here!
In 555 Italy falls, but the empire just can’t keep up. It’s too weakened by the plague and it’s just too big to support itself at this point. The plague came at a crucial time and just destroyed the place by taking out the population who can’t fight, farm or pay taxes. It hits Constantinople especially hard due to the fact that it is so dense and tightly packed. The Persians are eventually pushed out of Antioch, at least. But the Empire is clearly in bad shape over the burden of taxation, shitty economy, declining population, and being too big for its damn britches.
But guys! They conquered Italy! Right? Right? Well, yeah but the place was fucking ruined. And come on, this empire now stretches from Sicily to the Persian frontier. It’s in ruins, it just couldn’t hold on. Disease and war, man. Disease and fucking war.
Theodora had died of cancer back in 548. Justinian died way later in 565 of who-knows-what. His body was dug up and desecrated during the Fourth Crusade of 1204. That is a whole other story for a whole other time. The history of crazy shit is a long history indeed.
Obolensky, Dimitri. The Byzantine Commonwealth; Eastern Europe, 500-1453. New York: Praeger, 1971. Print.
Bridge, Antony. Theodora: Portrait in a Byzantine Landscape. Chicago, IL: Academy Chicago, 1984. Print.
Procopius, Averil Cameron. History of the Wars, Secret History, and Buildings. New York: Twayne, 1967. Print.