Justinian (ca. 482-565) and Theodora (ca. 500-548)Justinian (ca. 482-565) and Theodora (ca. 500-548) - Justinian was the Eastern Roman Emperor from 527 until his death in 565. By the time of his rule, the Western Empire had fallen and the Eastern could now be called the Byzantine Empire (although they themselves still considered it the Roman Empire). He was the most famous emperor of the Byzantines and his reign was marked by several major historical events. Justin I, his predecessor and uncle, was founder of the Justinian Dynasty. One thing for which Justinian was famous was his wife, Theodora. Just as her husband is considered the most prominent Byzantine emperor, Theodora is similarly remembered as its most prominent empress. She was famous for several reasons. The first was her background. She came from a lower class family who took up entertainment as a young girl to support herself. In polite terms she was known as an actress. In reality, she was an erotic performer and possibly even a prostitute. However, upon her conversion to Monophysite Christianity in 522, she gave this lifestyle and became a wool spinner at a house near the royal palace. It was here that she first caught Justinian's attention and he became enamored by her. Soon they fell in love and wanted to get married. But Roman law forbade royalty from marrying an "actress". So Justinian appealed to his uncle to change the law. Apparently he was successful because they were married in 525 (despite Justinian being Chalcedonian). Two years later, on Justin I's death, they became emperor and empress of the Byzantine Empire. One of Justinian's first actions was to reform Roman law in 529. Traditional Roman jurisprudence had been in place for about 1000 years and Justinian felt it had become a little outdated. His revisions became known as Codex Iustinianus (Code of Justinian).

 

Justinian (ca. 482-565) and Theodora (ca. 500-548)By all accounts Theodora was beautiful and intelligent, and some sources indicate she became the true power broker of the Eastern Empire. Justinian was said to have loved her very much and gave her wide latitude in the exercise of royal power. And she did not waste it. As a woman who came from the lower class, she did not forget her background once she became empress. Theodora might possibly have been the first woman in history to defend and expand the rights of other women. She outlawed forced prostitution and closed brothels. She established a sanctuary called Metanoia (Repentance) where ex-prostitutes could go to live. She granted women more rights in divorce cases and made it legal for them to own property. She instituted a death penalty for rapists and forbade it for women who committed adultery. She also made it illegal to expose infants to death and gave women more guardian rights over their children. She was said to be especially helpful to women of misfortune. However, what Theodora is most famous for is saving her and her husband's emperorship. It was in 532 during the chariot races at the Hippodrome. Two rival factions, known as the Greens and the Blues, which normally directed their displeasure toward each other during the competition, both became furious with the government for poor economic conditions at the time, and directed their anger toward Justinian and Theodora. The Hippodrome was located next to the royal palace allowing for the emperor and empress to watch the races from their residence. The crowd began riot, which became known as the Nika Riots, and poured out onto the track, heading straight for the palace. Justinian and Theodora barricaded themselves inside and decided to wait until the riots ended. But they dragged on for five days and much of the city of Constantinople was burned, including the original Hagia Sophia. Justinian was ready to abandon the crown and flee the city. He prepared a ship for himself and Theodora to leave under cover of darkness. But as he was boarding the boat, his wife refused to join him. She insisted on staying and fighting for the throne, or die trying. Her resolve convinced Justinian, and they returned to the palace. He ordered the army to storm the Hippodrome where leaders of the riot had set-up their headquarters. The army slaughtered most in the stadium until the rest scattered, finally bringing the riots to an end. In all, thousands were killed as a result of both the unrest and the final suppression of it.

 

With ordered restored to the Eastern Empire, Justinian made preparations to achieve a goal of his since the took power. He wanted to restore the old Roman Empire as it existed before it split in two nearly two centuries earlier. But before he could, he had to deal with the Sāssānid Empire on his eastern border. When he became emperor, Justinian inherited a war from his uncle (see many wars below). With the death of King Kavadh I of Persia in 531, the two antagonists of the war were dead and Justinian saw no reason to continue it. The following year he made peace with the new Sāssānid king, Chosroes I (see below). Now he could turn his attention west. He attacked the Vandals in North Africa first. The Eastern Empire had been allied with King Hilderic of the Vandals, but he was overthrown by his cousin, Gelimer, in 530. Justinian used this as an excuse to attack them in 533. His military commander was a very able general named, Belisarius. They took the Vandals by surprise and quickly defeated them. This added North Africa, Corsica, Sardinia and the Balearic Islands to the Byzantine Empire. Next Belisarius, under the orders of Justinian, invaded Sicily and then Italy, initiating the Gothic War (See Gothic War above). This brought an end to the Ostrogothic Kingdom. Justinian was not able to fully restore the old Roman Empire, but he came close. However, the Byzantine Empire did not have the resources to hold these acquired lands very long and soon had to abandon them.

 

Justinian (ca. 482-565) and Theodora (ca. 500-548)In 535, he rebuilt the Hagia Sophia, which had been destroyed in the Nika Riots, to its current splendor. The other significant event in Justinian's lifetime was the outbreak of the great plague which struck the entire empire and beyond starting in 541. Today it is referred to as the Plague of Justinian, and it would probably be remembered as the most severe in history had it not been for the infamous Black Death 800 years later (see Black Death). It has been confirmed as the bubonic plague, the same as the Black Death. In fact, it may have been just as widespread, and have originated in China like that later plague; but the mere fact that the world population was much smaller then and it occurred at the time of the European Dark Ages, made it less devastating in terms of number of deaths, and record of it less documented. Justinian himself contracted it, but he survived the disease. However it may have driven him mad. Whether it physically affected his mind or simply had a psychological affect on him is not known. But his wife, Theodora, died in 548, which added to his suffering. He supposedly spent the final years of his life as a semi-recluse, mostly behind the walls of the royal palace. The accounts of Justinian and Theodora's lives are conflicting, even by their primary biographer, Procopius. He was the scribe of Justinian's general, Belisarius. His three works each portray the emperor and empress differently. The Wars of Justinian and Buildings of Justinian paint them both in a positive light. However, these were "authorized" accounts, likely subject to review by the Byzantine authorities. The far more "juicy" Secret History (Latin: Historia Arcana, Greek: Άνέκδοτα - Anekdota) was never published until it was discovered in the Vatican archives about a millennium later and published in 1623. It details the "scandals" of Justinian and Theodora and reveals an author (Procopius) who became deeply dissatisfied with the two, as well as his own boss, Belisarius. Justinian is described as petty, cruel and not too bright. And Theodora is portrayed as a woman of insatiable lust and crude vulgarity. Probably the most interesting claim is that both the emperor and empress were possessed by demons (or were in fact demons themselves) whose heads became disembodied from their corporeal forms and wandered the halls of the palace at night.