The Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian

The Byzantine Roman Emperor Flavius Justinianus

Mosaic of Iustinianus I -- San Vitale (Ravenna), 27 April 2015.

Petar Milošević/Wikimedia Commons (CC by 4.0)

Name: (At birth) Petrus Sabbatius; Flavius Petrus Sabbatius Justinianus
Birthplace: Thrace
Dates: c.482, at Tauresium - 565
Ruled: April 1, 527 (jointly with his uncle Justin until August 1) - November 14, 565
Wife: Theodora

Justinian was a Christian emperor of the Roman Empire on the cusp between Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Justinian is sometimes called "The Last of the Romans." In Byzantine Matters, Averil Cameron writes that Edward Gibbon didn't know if Justinian belonged in the category of the Roman emperors who had come before or the Greek kings of the Byzantine Empire who came after him.

History remembers Emperor Justinian for his reorganization of the government of the Roman Empire and his codification of the laws, the Codex Justinianus, in A.D. 534.

Justinian Family Data

An Illyrian, Justinian was born Petrus Sabbatius in A.D. 483 in Tauresium, Dardania (Yugoslavia), a Latin-speaking area of the Empire. Justinian's childless uncle became the Roman Emperor Justin I in A.D. 518. He adopted Justinian either before or after he became emperor; hence the name Justinianus. Justinian's own birth-based status in society was not high enough to command respect without the imperial office, and his wife's position was even worse.

Justinian's wife, Theodora, was the daughter of a bear-keeper father who became bear-keeper to the "Blues" (relevant to the Nika Revolts, below), an acrobat mother, and she herself is considered to have been a courtesan. The DIR article on Justinian says Procopius claims Justinian's aunt, Empress Euphemia, by marriage, so disapproved the marriage that Justinian waited until she died (before 524) before even starting to deal with the legal impediments to the marriage.


Justinian died on November 14, 565, in Constantinople.


Justinian became Caesar in 525. On April 4, 527, Justin made Justinian his co-emperor and gave him the rank of Augustus. Justinian's wife Theodora received the rank of Augusta. Then, when Justin died on August 1, 527, Justinian went from joint to sole emperor.

Persian Wars and Belisarius

Justinian inherited conflict with the Persians. His commander Belisarius obtained a peace treaty in 531. The truce was broken in 540 and so Belisarius was again sent off to deal with it. Justinian also dispatched Belisarius to settle problems in Africa and Europe. Belisarius could do little against the Ostrogoths in Italy.

Religious Controversy

The religious position of the Monophysites (whom Justinian's wife, Empress Theodora, supported) conflicted with the accepted Christian doctrine from the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451). Justinian was unable to do anything to resolve the differences. He even alienated the pope in Rome, creating a schism. Justinian expelled teachers of paganism from the Academy in Athens, closing the schools of Athens, in 529. In 564, Justinian adopted the heresy of Aphthartodocetism and tried to impose it. Before the matter was resolved, Justinian died, in 565.

Nika Riots

However improbable it may seem, this event was born of extreme sports fanaticism and corruption. Justinian and Theodora were Blues fans. Despite fan loyalty, they attempted to reduce the influence of both teams, but too late. The Blue and Green teams created a disturbance in the Hippodrome on June 10, 532. Seven ringleaders were executed, but one of each side survived and became a rallying point that integrated fans of both teams. They and their fans began shouting Nika 'Victory' in the Hippodrome. Now a mob, they appointed a new emperor. Justinian's military leaders prevailed and slaughtered 30,000 rioters.

Building Projects

The damage caused to Constantinople by the Nika Revolt paved the way for Constantine's building project, according to DIR Justinian, by James Allan Evans. Procopius' book On Buildings [De aedificiis] describes Justinian's building projects that included aqueducts and bridges, monasteries, orphanages, hostels, and the Hagia Sophia, which still stands in Constantinople/Istanbul.

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Gill, N.S. "The Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Gill, N.S. (2020, August 28). The Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian. Retrieved from Gill, N.S. "The Byzantine Roman Emperor Justinian." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).