Death of Justinian I

The Byzantine emperor died in Constantinople on 14 November 565.

Last of the Latins: a sixth-century fresco of Justinian,  San Vitale, Ravenna.

Long before Justinian’s time barbarian invasions had effectively destroyed the Roman Empire in the West, but he tried his best to restore it. He was born in about 482 in the Balkans, to a peasant family in what centuries later would be Serbia. He may have been the last Roman emperor whose native language was Latin, though it was of a rustic, uncouth sort. Highly intelligent, determined and strong-minded, he was hugely ambitious and, fortunately for him, his mother was the younger sister of a leading military figure in Constantinople called Justin, who became commander of the imperial guard. Even more fortunately, Justin had no children.

Justinian went to Constantinople to join his uncle and was given an excellent education. It did not improve his Latin and he always spoke Greek with the wrong kind of accent, but Justin quickly came to value his nephew’s intelligence, efficiency and loyalty. In 518 Justin used his position along with plenty of money to become emperor. Justinian was now his ageing uncle’s most trusted aide. According to some writers he was the power behind the throne. In 527, at any rate, Justin made him co-emperor with the title of Augustus and when Justin died that year Justinian, now aged about 45, became sole emperor. By that time he had married the love of his life, an alluring stage entertainer and courtesan who now became the Empress Theodora and would be a major influence on him until she died, riddled with disease, in 548. She and Justinian had no children and he did not marry again.  

In Justinian’s early years as emperor the Byzantine army was busy fighting the Persians, but by giving the Persian ruler a substantial bribe in gold Justinian was able to conclude a ‘treaty of eternal peace’ with him in 532. It did not last long, but it allowed him to turn his attention and that of his most formidable general, Belisarius, to the West. They started with the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. A fleet of warships and vessels carrying troops left Constantinople in 533 and in a little under a year northern Africa was restored to the Byzantine empire, along with Sardinia, Corsica and the Balearic Islands. 

Italy had been long dominated by the Ostrogoths. Theodoric the Great, who had died childless in 526, had been theoretically a Byzantine functionary, but in reality he was an independent ruler. His death had set off fierce quarrels among the Ostrogoths and in 535 Justinian sent Belisarius to invade Sicily. He went on to take Naples and Rome and in 540 he entered Ravenna, the Ostrogoths’ capital. They were far from subdued, however, and it was not until the 550s, after years of fighting, that the Byzantines achieved a degree of control that would last until after Justinian’s death. Meanwhile there had been constant fighting between the Byzantines and barbarian invaders in the Balkans.  

Justinian did no fighting himself. From Constantinople he instituted a reform of the legal system and presided over a highly influential codification of Roman law. Besides promoting trade and industry, he carried out a massive building programme in the empire, extending to churches and monasteries, orphanages, fortifications, bridges and aqueducts. He also encouraged literature and the arts and did his best to stamp out paganism and steer Christianity through a chaotic profusion of heresies. 

The fact that Justinian was childless and self-protectively took care not to name a successor became important in his last years, when his nephew Justin came to the fore as an adviser. Justin was married to Theodora’s niece Sophia and he was on close terms with Tiberius, the commander of the imperial guard, which he would use to his advantage. 

Justinian was about 83 when he died at night in the imperial palace. The only other person in the room was an elderly aristocrat called Callinichus, who went to tell Justin and Sophia. There were several senators with them. Callinichus told them, truthfully or maybe not, that before Justinian expired he had named Justin as his successor. Justin and Sophia now led a party to the imperial palace, where they were greeted in friendly fashion by Tiberius and the imperial guard as the birds were singing in the dawn and Justin was crowned by the patriarch of Constantinople, another of his close contacts, to the acclamations of all present. The succession of events has a distinctly pre-arranged air about it.   

Justinian’s body was carried in procession in his sarcophagus past watching crowds to be buried in his mausoleum in the church of the Holy Apostles. It was discovered there, when the fourth crusade entered Constantinople in 1204, and the crusaders looted it.