Dr Matthew Raphael Johnson looks at one of the most important figures in Orthodox history, the warrior king Emperor Justinian who almost doubled the size of the Byzantine empire.
The zenith of the Byzantine Empire was in the middle of the 6th century during the reign of the great Emperor Justinian (527-565). The internal consolidation of the state was his first order of business and from that, his agenda could be launched. Justinian’s focus was to restore the Roman Empire in the west, that had been in a state of anarchy for several centuries. He wanted to strengthen domestic law, and sought to make Byzantium the successor of Rome as it had been meant to be, and in the process, ruling all Europe and a unified Christendom.
Justinian was born in Macedonia to the family of poor peasants from Illyria (today the Balkans). His uncle was the Emperor Justin (518-527) who elevated Justinian as his co-regent. After the death of Justin, Justinian took the throne. Given his influence, he remains highly controversial. His strength and brains brought him to the headship of the Imperial Guard, while his military valor helped him to climb the martial ladder. Participating in many campaigns, he won fame as a warrior. This permitted him to placate influential nobles as well as the emperor himself.
Under Justinian, the territory of the empire almost doubled, bringing its borders close to the farthest extent of Old Rome. Theodora became a powerful political force in the Mediterranean. Justinian made it a point to call himself the Emperor of the Frankish, Alemannic and other western peoples, those descending from the original tribes pressing on Old Rome’s northern frontiers, the “barbarians.” He was underlining Rome’s claim to supremacy in Europe, almost claiming to be Europe. This was generally accepted by many at the time and was not challenged until much later. It was not a pretension, but reality.
Byzantium became not only the largest and richest state in Europe, but also the cultural locus of several civilizations: the Middle east, North African, Persian (in a limited way), Russian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Latin and Greek, just to name the most important. Justinian strengthened the rule of law as a necessary parallel to a growing, prosperous empire. Constantinople became the center of the medieval world and created the artistic and architectural styles of Ravenna, Rome, Nicaea, and the major port city of Thessaloniki, all of which were immensely powerful cities in their own right and formed the financial backdrop to Greek rule.
This is the story of a peasant boy (albeit one related to the emperor) climbing from the chief of the palace guard to one of the most significant figures in world history. He was a Slav who became Romanized in the Greek and Latin tradition. He was truly great and today, is a saint in the Orthodox church.