Justin's succession to the Byzantine throne.

The Byzantine Emperor Justin, a peasant from Dacia, had traveled to Constantinople as a soldier and had risen through the ranks to command the excubitors, the only effective fighting force in the city. On the death of the emperor Anastasius, the throne of Byzantium was without an heir, and panic and rioting ensued. As the city grew more restive and violent, the excubitors imposed order, and out of this panic Justin was put forward as a candidate for the throne. On Justin's ascension his key rival, Theocritas, was executed, along with the imperial chamberlain Amantius who had supported him.

It is commonly beleived that Justin's nephew Petrus Sabbatius, who took the name Justinian when his uncle adopted him as his son, was the power behind the throne. Certainly Justinian's influence over Justin was significant and historians have often treated Justin's reign as an extension of Justinian's.

During Justin's reign Anastasius' old enemy, Vitalian, an aristocrat, was made consul and placed in charge of the military forces in the capital. This was a powerful position, which put him in a better position than Justinian to succeed Justin. However, in 520, Vitalian was was brutally murdered. Suspicion, rightly or wrongly, fell on Justinian, although no case was ever proved. Whatever the truth of the matter, the murder eliminated Jusinian's most powerful rival and in 521, Justinian himself became consul.

It was during his consulship that Justinian married Theodora, a well-known actress and dancer. Justin's Empress, Euphemia, objected strongly to this marriage of because at that time the terms "actress" and "prostitute" were virtually synonymous -- even the church denied actresses the sacraments, except on their deathbed. While she lived, Justinian found it impossible to marry Theodora. However, Justinian was very much in love and after his aunt died, he persuaded his uncle, to pass a constitution which allowed acontrite actress, providing she then abandoned her profession, to recover her pristine condition. This would make her eligible to marry whoever she chose, regardless of rank. This law being passed the couple were able to marry, and immediately did so.

Justin died of complications arising from an old war wound on 1 August 527 and Justinian succeeded his uncle. He had already been co-emperor for four months at this time, and coins were minted showing the two emperors seated beside each other. The way already prepared, and there being no real practicable rivals for the throne, Justinian's succession was smooth.

The first years of Justinian's rule.

Justinian's first years as emperor were full of action. There was a spate of legislation, directed against Manichaeans, pagans and Samaritans.

On the eastern front of the empire, Hypatius, an experienced but ineffective officer, commanded the army. Justinian replaced him with Belisarius, who in June, 530, won a major victory over a Persian invasion force at Daras, a fortress built by the emporor Anastasius on the Persian frontier . A year later however, Bellesarius was defeated at Callinicum on the Euphrates River and recalled to Constantinople.

In September of 531, the shah of Persia died and his successor Khusro sued for peace to allow him to consolidate his position -- he was beset by rivals, and wanted some respite to make himself safe on his throne. Justinian saw the benefits of peace between the two nations, and Byzantium and Persia agreed upon the "Endless Peace" in 532. The truce cost Justinian dearly -- 11,000 gold pounds -- but had it lasted more than the eight years it did, it would have been worth it, allowing Justinian to extend his empire to the west, secure from attack on the eastern front.

The 'Nika' Rebellion

In January, 532, Justinian faced the greatest domestic challenge to his reign. In 6th Century Constantinople the populace was divided into factions (Blue or Green being dominant and Red and White secondary) dependent on which team they supported at the chariot races in the Hippodrome. This factionalism went far deeper than sport and fighting between the Hippodrome factions was common. The factions had their own quasi-military compounds whithin the city and were almost societies to themselves. Early in 532, however, there was an outburst of street violence which went far beyond what was acceptable, even in a society where brawling was the norm, and the authorities were forced to take action.

On Saturday, January 10, 532, the city prefect hanged seven men found guilty of murder, outside the city at Sycae. The scaffold broke two of them were saved, a Blue and a Green. These two were taken into sanctuary at the church of St Lawrence and the prefect set a guard around the church. The following Tuesday they were still trapped and the Blues and Greens petitioned Justinian to show mercy at the hippodrome races that day, and pardon the two offenders. He ignored them, not wishing to undermine the authority of his prefect, nor to give an outright denial. Acting in concert for once, the factions continued their appeals until the twenty-second race (of twenty-four) when they united, calling out a pre-arranged chant, 'Nika' meaning "victory". Riots erupted immediately and the mob burned the city prefect's home, while the imperial court took refuge in the palace.

Justinian attempted to continue the games but this just led to more riots and arson which continued throughout the week. On Sunday, just before sunrise, Justinian appeared in the Hippodrome and promised the revolutionaries an amnesty if they ceased their activities. Instead, the mob turned hostile, and Justinian was forced to retreat. The mob sought out a nephew of emperor Anastasius, Hypatius, took him to the Hippodrome and proclaimed him emperor. There is some doubt whether Hypatius had any part in this other than bowing to the will of the mob, but even so, he was placed in direct opposition to Justinian. Reports of the time say that Justinian was ready to flee, but that Theodora, who did not frighten easily, persuaded him instead to act to put down the revolt. Troops, under the command of Belisarius and another general, invaded the Hippodrome and the 'Nika' riot was supressed mercilessly ending with a bloodbath, and rumors of more than 30,000 dead.

After the revolt, Justinian was left without opposition. The mob was beaten and senators opposed to him were forced underground. Whilst there was huge damage to the city of Constantinople, this cleared the way for Justinian's own building program. The church of Hagia Sophia to was destroyed in the rioting, but work on rebuilding it in a grand and extravagent scale started only forty-five days after the revolt was crushed.

The two leaders of the massacre, Mundo and Belisarius, went on to new jobs: Mundo returned to his native Illyricum as magister militum and Belisarius went on to make a reputation for himself as the conqueror of the Vandals in Africa.

The Campaign agains the Vandals in Africa.

In 533, Justinian launched an expedition to extend the empire. This was led by Belisarius and it's target was the Vandal kingdom in Africa. With the "Endless Peace", Justinian believed that that the Persian frontier was safe and that therefore he was free to grab whatever opportunities he could to recover lost provinces in the west.

His motive for attacking the Vandal Kingdom was good and valid. King Hilderic of the Vandals, who had fostered a good relationship with the Catholics, had been deposed deposed by his cousin Gelimer, who had no such relationship and, from his prison, Hilderic appealed to Justinian for assistance in regaining the throne.

The force set sail about the summer solstice in 533. In Sicily, Belisarius discovered that Gelimer was unaware of the offensive and had sent a substantial part of his army to put down a rebellion in Sardinia. The expedition landed in Tunisia, and marched towards Carthage.

Gelimer reacted by putting Hilderic to death and marching out to resist the Byzantine force. However, outside Carthage he was routed. Gelimer fled westwards to join his troops, and in December he suffered another defeat at Tricamarum. He took refuge with the Berbers but after a winter siege he surrendered.

In Africa Belesarius was replaced by Solomon, while he began a campaign against the Ostrogoths. But in 536 a revolt broke out in the army, and Solomon was forced to flee to Sicily to seek help from Belisarius. Although Belisarius saved Carthage he could not in Africa if the Ostrogothic campaign was to continue, So Justinian appointed his cousin Germanus to lead the army in Africa. Germanus crushed the revolt and for two years Africa was calm. In 539 Solomon was reappointed, and came with fresh troops.

Solomon began a campaign against the Berbers. Mauretania Prima was annexed and Solomon built several defensive positions to protect imperial territory. Rebellion broke out again in 543, however, and was not effectively quenched until Justinian appointed John Troglita, who won a major victory in 548. After this there was peace in Africa until the Arab conquest.

The Ostrogothic Campaign.

The Ostrogothic campaign continued from 535 until 552, and it left Italy devastated. The force which Belisarius took to Sicily in 535 was less than half the size of the one he had taken against the Vandals in Africa. This probably resulted from the apparent disarray of the Gothic rulers, after the death of Theoderic the Great, and the ascension of Theodahad. They apeared at the time to be unlikely to offer much in the way of resistance.

The attack launched in 535 was two-pronged. One spearhead led by Mundo went into Dalmatia and the other, commanded by Belisarius landed in Sicily. Belisarius met no resistance until Palermo, and on December 31, he entered Syracuse. The following spring, he crossed to the Italianmainland and had an easy advance until he reached Naples. The city fell after a twenty-day seige and was then sacked. Theodahad's failure to relieve Naples was the last straw for the Goths and they deposed him and chose a new king, Witigis. Theodahad fled towards Ravenna, but he was overtaken and killed.

Witgis and the Goths decided that their greatest immediate danger came from the Franks in the north. They had invaded as a result of Justinian's incitement and were wreaking havoc. Witigis made for Ravenna where he married Theoderic's granddaughter to legitimise his kingship and bought off the Franks invading force. While Witgis was tied up with this, Belisarius advanced on Rome and entered the city on 9 December.

On hearing news of the fall of Rome, Witigis raised an army of 150,000 and marched directly on the city. The Gothic siege of Rome lasted one year and nine days, and was a difficult one for both sides. Both besiegers and besieged suffered from hunger and disease and when reinforcements arrived form the Byzantine empire with supplies the Goths sought a truce to negotiate terms of peace.

Belisarius ordered that if the Goths should break the truce, Gothic estates in the area were to be plundered, and laid to waste. The Goths did, in fact, break the truce, and a second campaign resulted which brought the Byzantines to Rimini. Disturbed by this new attack, Witigis lifted the siege of Rome and beat a retreat.

As the Goths retreated northwards, they laid siege to Rimini. Contrary to Bellisarius' orders, a Byzantine force attempted to hold the city against the goths and Belisarius was in no great hurry to relieve the insubordinate group. Rimini, therefore, remained under siege until mid-538 when a new army arrived from in Italy Constantinople led by the eunuch general, Narses. He argued that however insubordinate] the commander might have been, the city, and the Byzantines within it, could not be abandoned to the Goths. When a message arrived from Rimini saying the city could not hold out more than another week, Belisarius moved swiftly and Rimini was relieved. The rift between the two generals Belisarius and Narses however, grew until they operated independently. This independence led to the destruction of Milan in 539, where both forces acted autonomously -- had the Byzantines cooperated, the city would probably have been saved.

Early in 539, the Goths contacted Khusro in Persia, and urged him to set aside the "Endless Peace". Khusro was keen to help, but the Gothic position was failing too rapidly, and Khurso could not send an assisting force quickly enough. Witigis was left with two options: either to accept help from the Franks in beating back the Byzantines and share the rule of Italy with them, or to negotiate with the Byzantines themselves.

Justinian offered to leave Italy north of the Po River, and half the Gothic treasure to the Goths, while the rest would go to the Byzantines. This would have been a prudent settlement for Byzantium, establishing an Ostrogothic kingdom in the north of Italy to act as a shield, against threat from italy and freeing Roman troops to deal with the Persian threat.

Belisarius, however, was looking for another triumph like the Vandal War and countered this arrangement. Rumors spread that he wanted to make himself king of the Goths, independent of Constantinople, and the Goths believed them. They offered Bellesarius the rule in the west. Belisarius accepted. It has been claimed that this acceptance was a charade to reduce resistance to the Byzantine advance and that once Ravenna had surrendered, Belesarius would have revealed himself as loyal to Byzantium. Whatever the case may be, Justinian got wind of the plot, and immediately called Belisarius home.

Persia attacks

In early spring, 540, Khusro, now secure in his position as Shah of Persia broke the 'Endless Peace" crossing into imperial territory and heading for Antioch. Justinian had dispatched a small force under the command of his cousin Germanus to protect the city but he could do little with so much of the Byzantine force committed elsewhere, and he and the patriarch had already evacuated the city when Khusro took it. The sack of the city was a devastating blow.

In 541, Belisarius was sent back to the Persian frontier leading a larger force. Khusro was, at that time, concentrating on the area around the Black Sea but cut short his campaign to oppose Belisarius. The two leaders played back and forth games, gaining and losing territory, until Belisarius was mysteriously and suddenly recalled to Constantinople. The likely reason for this is semi-treasonous gossip between Bellesarius and other generals, when they heard that Justinian was suffering from plague -- this was reported to Empress Theodora and she recalled the all officers concerned. Belisarius' wife, a friend of Thedora's saved him from serious repercussions, or imprisonment, but even so it was a year before he was given another command.

The Plague and its effects on the empire

The plague moved from city to city in the empire throughout the period of Justinian's reign, claiming huge numbers of victims. In addition, the midst of the plague of 542, Constantinople suffered a major earthquake. Estimates suggest that the population of the empire probably dropped by 40% between 500 and 600AD -- and certainly the plague ended economic growth. The population decrease meant that there were fewer taxpayers and this hurt hurt the treasury, of course, recruits for the army became harder to find and Justinian had to rely more on barbarian troops. The army in Italy, in particular , suffered from a lack of new resources to carry on the war against the Goths under their new king Badulia. Even so, Justinian's building program continued unabated.

War with Persia.

Despite the plague, in 543, a Roman army of 30,000 troops invaded Persian-controlled Armenia. However this great army was routed by a a much smaller Persian force and the campaign came to nothing. The following year Khusro launched a retaliatory attack against Edessa, with this time it was the Persian's turn to meet with little success and Khusro had to be satisfied with the relatively small indemnity of 500 gold pounds. In 545, Justinian paid Khusro 5000 gold pounds to secure a 5-year peace on the border. It was an uneasy peace but nonetheless, it held.

War between the Romans and the Persians continued in Lazica however, with successes for both sides, though overall the Romans had the upper hand. In 557 Khusro sued for a more complete truce to allow him the freedom to deal with other enemies who were attacking him -- the Ephthalites, or "White Huns" . In 561, Justinian and Khusro's envoys negotiated a 50-year peace and the Persians evacuated Lazica, in return for an annual payment of 420 gold pounds. Since this was less than the emperor Anastasius had negotiated with Khusro's father, it was a modest success for the Byzantines.

The final defeat of the Ostrogoths, and the Visigothic campaign

In Italy, Belesarius was starved of troops -- the plague had taken it's toll and it was impossible for Constantinople to provide the reinforcements required to keep up the impetus of the campaign. In December, 545, the Goths laid siege to Rome, which held out for about a year, but eventually fell, Belesarius being without the resources to hold it any longer. Baduila threatened to destroy the city, after he captured it, but instead evacuated it leaving it empty. Belisarius promptly took the empty city city over again and repopulated it, and this time Baduila found that he could not recapture it.

Antonia, Belisarius' wife, went to Constantinople in 548 to petition Theodora for reinforcements. When she arrived, however, she found the Empress had died of cancer. She concluded that without the necessary reinforcements Belisarius could do no more in Italy, and with Theodora gone she had no pull with anyone in power to acquire them. She arranged for Belesarius to be recalled to Constantinople.

Once again Baduila took Rome and plundered Sicily. But now Italy had some eloquent advocates of its own in Constantinople, among them Pope Vigilius and various Roman nobles who had fled the city and the constant warfare and plunder. In 550 Justinian, who was a devout man, took direct action, despatching the Armenian eunuch Narses with an army of 30,000 men to put down the Goths once and for all. In mid 552, the Goths were defeated in a decisive battle which was fought at Busta Gallorum in the Apennines and Baduila died of wounds received in the fighting. At the end of October, another large battle was fought not far from Naples. After that it was only a matter of mopping up.

Even as this campaign continued, Justinian had an army campaigning in Visigothic Spain. A Visigothic noble, Athanagild, had sought Justinian's help in a rebellion against the king, and in 552, Justinian dispatched a force to assist him. In 555 Athanagild became king and once his objective was achieved, he asked the Romans to withdraw. They refused. There was a strategic reason for the Spanish campaign above and beyond helping Athnagild of course: the Visigoths across the Strait of Gibraltar were a potential danger to Byzantium. But the overriding reason was that Justinian could not resist what must have seemed a golden opportunity -- to be invited to take land.

The end of Justinian's reign.

The final years of Justinian's reign were dogged by bad luck and misfortune. In midsummer 556 there was another Samaritan revolt. In December of 557, a huge earthquake shook Constantinople, with many casualties ,and in May of the following the dome of the Justinian's new Hagia Sophia church collapsed, (almost certainly because of damage sustained in the earthquake) and had to be rebuilt About the same time, the plague returned to the empire again, and in 559 a horde of Kutrigur 'Huns' advanced into the Balkans. This force split into three columns: one pushing into Greece, one into the Gallipoli peninsula and the third most dangerous spearhead, making for Constantinople. Belisarius was called out of retirement to deal with the threat, and he ambushed the Kutrigur horde and defeated it soundly. The Kutrigurs agreed to a treaty which gave them a subsidy and safe passage back across the Danube, but it was another drain on the already over-stretched treasury.

In the the capital the people were discontented. The city was dogged by plague, street violence again increased and there were shortages of bread and water. Late in 562 a conspiracy almost succeeded in killing the emperor. Justinians health was failing by this time, and in 565, the emporor died.

Justinian's successor Justin II lost many of the gains that Justinian had made. Nobody can deny Justinian's military successes or the overall prosperity of Byzantium under the Emperor, however, although by the end of his reign his extensive military campaigns, the ever-present plague and the huge building programme had left the treasury badly depleted. Even so, the emporor generally known as 'Justinian the Great' left a legacy of the finest art and architecture from the days of the Byzantine era, still evident both in Constantinople itself and throughout the countries that made up Empire under his rule.

  • http://www.roman-emperors.org/justinia.htm
  • Browning, Robert, Justinian and Theodora. 2nd ed., London, 1987.
  • Procopius, Anekdota
  • http://www.thehistorynet.com/MilitaryHistory/articles/1999/1099_text.htm

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