Justinian I Research Paper

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As emperor of Rome from 527 to 565 CE, Justinian I engaged the best legal minds to collect all Roman law into a single series of volumes. Justinian’s Codex replaced all earlier Roman law and was the source of all subsequent Roman law; it remains a key legal text. Justinian sponsored the rebuilding of the Hagia Sophia into the great domed cathedral that survives to this day.

Born Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, Justinian ruled the Roman Empire from 527 until 565 CE. From a Thracian peasant family, he was adopted by Justin, his uncle by marriage, thus taking the name Justinian. Justin, a professional soldier, oversaw the education and promoted the military career of his adopted son. In 518, the elderly emperor Anastasius died without a designated successor and Justin emerged as the successful claimant. Justinian became Justin’s principal minister and colleague. It was during this time that Justinian met Theodora, a former actress. Marriages were legally forbidden between men of Justinian’s class and women of Theodora’s profession, but in 524, Justinian arranged for this law to be changed so that they could marry, and in due course the two wed, commencing a long and extraordinary partnership. In April 527, Justin proclaimed Justinian co-emperor. When Justin died, four months later, Justinian succeeded him without challenge.

Justinian inherited a smoldering conflict with Persia that continued for much of his reign, punctuated only by a brief “Everlasting Peace” signed in 532. The respite this treaty brought nevertheless freed resources for Justinian’s great military project: the reconquest of the Western Roman Empire.

He appointed Belisarius, a young and highly gifted general, to this project. In 533, with a small force, Belisarius attacked the Vandal kingdom of Africa. He was swiftly successful and in 535 followed this up with an invasion of Sicily and Ostrogothic Italy. Much of the south fell easily to his forces, although he then had to sustain a counterattack from the Ostrogoths. In 540 he took the Gothic capital of Ravenna, although this did not bring the war to an end. The long conflict was continued by his able successor, the Persarmenian eunuch Narses, who rebuilt a durable imperial presence in Italy.

Both Belisarius and Narses had previously distinguished themselves in a serious disturbance that broke out in Constantinople. One feature of the city’s civic life was chariot racing, and there were two particularly prominent chariot-racing teams (or factions): the Blues and Greens. Justinian and Theodora were both known as partisans of the Blues. Early in 532, discontent in Constantinople resulted in violence between the two dominant factions. During the course of a race meeting on 13 January, they suddenly made an alliance, burst out of the Hippodrome, and, chanting the slogan nika (conquer), stormed through the city, setting fire to public buildings. For some days, confusion reigned. A reluctant rival to Justinian was proclaimed: Hypatius, nephew of the former emperor Anastasius. Justinian contemplated flight, but the situation was saved by the resolute action of Narses, Belisarius, and others. The Hippodrome was stormed; the rioters were massacred; Hypatius and his brother were executed.

Law was one of Justinian’s passions. Once he became emperor, he engaged the empire’s best legal minds in the collection of all Roman law into a single series of volumes. Justinian’s Codex replaced all earlier Roman law codes. This was only the beginning. He also set up a commission, under the direction of the quaestor (legal official) Tribonian, to summarize Roman legal authorities in a great reference book (The Pandects). The scale of Justinian’s legal achievement cannot be overstated. The texts produced through his authority and at his order were the source of all subsequent Roman law, remaining key legal texts to this day.

Justinian sought to interfere directly in the religious controversies of his time. He believed that as emperor he had a divine commission to determine the affairs of the Christian church (caesaropapism). The church itself was bitterly divided in a dispute over the nature of Christ (the Monophysite controversy). Many in his court, including Theodora, favored the Monophysite view, but Justinian sought to promote a more extreme position (aphthartodocetism).

Justinian was an intelligent and cultured man, an able diplomat, and a good judge of subordinates. A tireless emperor, he sought both to reassert Roman military power and to adorn his empire with great buildings. After the Nika riots, he rebuilt the cathedral church of Hagia Sophia into the great domed structure that survives to this day. He was generous to communities in distress, repairing earthquake damage, and succoring those affected by a major epidemic that raged across the Mediterranean after 541. He outlived most of his subordinates, still troubled by conflict with Persia and his failure to impose a settlement upon the raging religious controversies of the time. At his death in 565, he was succeeded by his nephew Justin II.

Our principal source for Justinian’s reign is the prolific writer Procopius, who wrote official literature praising the emperor, as well as a private work (the Anecdota) that is critical, even scurrilous. Other sources include the vast legal collection assembled at Justinian’s command and the work of the poet Paul the Silentiary.


  1. Barker, J. W. (1966). Justinian and the later Roman Empire. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  2. Browning, R. (1987). Justinian and Theodora (Rev. ed.). London: Thames and Hudson.
  3. Honore, T. (1978). Tribonian. London: Duckworth.
  4. Moorhead, J. (1994). Justinian. London: Longmans.

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