Roman Empire: Emperor Justinian and His Code of Law

From The Lecture Series: The Roman Empire: From Augustus to The Fall of Rome

By Gregory S. Aldrete, Ph.D., University of Wisconsin-Green Bay

Constantinople, from its inception, was a majestic city. It was blessed geographically, was a vital economic and trading hub, a melting pot of cultures and ideas, and the emperors of the Eastern Roman Empire ensured it was an architectural marvel as well. None more so than Emperor Justinian. What is Justinian’s legacy? How did he make Constantinople an even greater city during his reign? And what role did his wife Theodora play in all of this?

Historical map of the Byzantine Empire, showing the extent of King Justinian's reign.
Justinian was one of the most significant emperors of the Byzantine Empire, who ruled Constantinople from 527 A.D. till his death in 565 A.D., and during this period the Byzantine Empire reached new heights. (Image: yfpro/Shutterstock)

Justinian: An Outsider Among the Aristocrats

Of the approximately 95 emperors who ruled over Constantinople, the most significant of the earlier ones was a man named Justinian. His rise to power began as a boy, when his uncle Justin became emperor and took on his nephew as an assistant.

Justinian quickly became his uncle’s main confidant and advisor, and when his uncle became senile, took over de facto administration of the empire. Upon his uncle’s death in 527 A.D., Justinian succeeded him and embarked on an energetic program of building, organization, and conquest.

Despite his ties to the former emperor, Justinian was something of an outsider among the aristocrats of Constantinople, and he appointed a number of people to important positions based more on energy and ability than on family connections. This gave him a core of talented subordinates who were able to carry out his ambitious schemes. But, at the same time, he also earned the enmity of the old aristocracy.

Learn more about the dawn of the Roman Empire.

Theodora: Justinian’s Wife and a Key Advisor

Making things worse for him was his choice of wife. Justinian married a woman—several decades younger than him—named Theodora, who apparently came from the lower classes. There were persistent rumors that her father was a bear wrangler for the Green faction in the hippodrome, and that she herself had been a prostitute.

It is difficult to assess the accuracy of any of these rumors because ancient sources are almost universally hostile toward Theodora, and plainly go out of their way to portray her in as bad a light as possible.

Some of this was simply due to the fact that she seems to have been an intelligent and strong-willed woman who took an active role in government and was a key advisor and helper to Justinian.

She assumed a public role in policymaking, and was a forceful advocate for what we might today term women’s rights. For example, she had laws enacted that gave women better protection from abuse, and more rights in divorce proceedings.

All of this, however, made her a target for resentment and criticism, and the hostile sources depict her as an immoral, sexually licentious, and conniving woman who exerted an unfortunate degree of control over her husband.

This is a transcript from the video series The Roman Empire: From Augustus to the Fall of Rome. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

Nika Riots Nearly Ended Justinian’s Reign

In 532 A.D., early in his reign, Justinian faced a crisis that almost deposed him from office.

In the hippodrome, the traditional chariot-racing factions, the Greens and the Blues, had always engaged in a fierce rivalry that would sometimes result in riots and violence. Adding to the intensity was the fact that, around this time, these factions had become associated with rival sects of Christianity.

Two tall obelisk towers, one in the foreground and the other in the background, preserved, fenced and turned into tourist attractions.
The hippodrome of Constantinople (now Istanbul) was the sporting center of this ancient city and the site of the Nika riots. (Image: Ian Pitchford/Public domain)

When Justinian refused to pardon two criminals, one from each faction, the Blues and Greens joined forces and rioted. The subsequent urban violence spilled out of the hippodrome and into the streets, and the factions then attempted to replace Justinian as emperor with another man.

This incident was known as the Nika riots because one of the traditional shouts of the factions at chariot races was Nika, meaning victory.

Things escalated to the point where much of the city was burnt to the ground, and the anarchy continued for a week. Justinian was reportedly on the brink of fleeing the city when his courage was rallied by the determination of Theodora, who berated him and convinced him to stay and oppose the rioters.

He ended up suppressing the unrest and reasserting his authority by calling in the army, with the result that allegedly 30,000 people were killed by the troops.

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Justinian and Theodora Nearly Reunified the Roman Empire

Despite this somewhat unpromising start, Justinian and Theodora would accomplish some impressive achievements. One of these was to nearly reunite the eastern and western Roman empires by conquering many of the barbarian kingdoms that had taken over western Mediterranean.

Justinian was fortunate in having a particularly skilled general named Belisarius, who led several successful military expeditions. The first of these managed to recapture North Africa from the Vandals. Using this as a base, Belisarius then invaded and seized Sicily, and from there, moved on to Italy.

In a series of campaigns against various Gothic groups, Belisarius succeeded in recapturing most of Italy, including Rome itself. Other generals regained parts of Spain, and for a brief time, the Roman Empire of Justinian approached its one-time unified size.

All of these campaigns cost considerable amounts of money, and the empire’s resources were further dissipated by a string of serious conflicts with the Middle East-based Sassanians, who remained a powerful and warlike empire.

As glorious as Justinian’s reunification might have appeared at the time, and as notable an achievement as it was, like many similar conquests, it would be both short-lived and relatively inconsequential in its permanent effects.

Fairly soon after Justinian’s death, almost all of the western Mediterranean territories were once again lost to various barbarian kingdoms. From this point on, the Byzantine Empire would be confined exclusively to eastern Mediterranean. And even in that region, over time, its geographic extent steadily contracted.

Learn more about the Byzantine Empire.

Justinian and the Construction of Hagia Sophia

An image of the beautifully lit Hagia Sophia.
Justinian commissioned two famous scientists and mathematicians, called Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, to design a spectacular church that is today known as Hagia Sophia, which was inaugurated on December 26, 537 A.D. (Image: Repina Valeriya/Shutterstock)

At Constantinople, Justinian embarked on a great building program, particularly after the destruction wrought by the Nika riots.

Among the buildings erected during this time, it was one of the most awe-inspiring in all of history, and impresses visitors even today. This was a church known as the Hagia Sophia, which was inaugurated on December 26, 537 A.D.

Justinian selected two famous scientists and mathematicians, Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, to be the architects of this gigantic church, and they came up with a spectacular design.

Not only is this a simply massive edifice covering nearly 60,000 square feet; it is also an architectural marvel centered around a colossal dome suspended above a great, square, box-like structure.

The vast open space beneath the dome is 100 feet across and 170 feet high, and filled with light from rows of windows. The columns and walls are made of the finest decorative marbles in vivid shades of purple, red, black, yellow, and green.

One ancient source described the effect of entering this vast structure and being confronted with the glories of its decoration: “A golden stream of glittering rays strikes the eyes of men so that they can scarcely bear to look.

Unfortunately, the dome collapsed 20 years after completion, but was rebuilt to a strengthened design. In antiquity, it was a truly astonishing structure, and even today, it remains one of the world’s greatest buildings.

Eventually, Constantinople was captured by the Ottoman Turks, the Hagia Sophia was converted into a mosque, and accordingly minarets were added. Today, it retains these features, but is officially a museum.

Justinian’s Code of Roman Law

At Justinian’s command, another project was accomplished which would exert long-term effects on the entire world: the compilation of the Code of Roman Law.

This was a definitive edition of the accumulated centuries of Roman legal precedent and thought, consisting of both actual statutes and legal analysis by eminent jurists. Running to over 100 volumes, this compilation of Roman law survived to become the direct source for many of the world’s current legal systems, and it exercised a profound influence over others. This law code became particularly influential in the great early law school established at Bologna during the Middle Ages.

The Code of Roman Law formed the basis for the legal systems that evolved in Europe, and then, during the era of colonialism, its impact extended to much of the rest of the world. Thus, countries as apparently dissimilar as Germany, Argentina, and Japan use legal systems derived either directly or indirectly from Roman law.

Although England deviated by developing the English Common Law, much of its terminology and structure was nevertheless derived from Roman Law as well. In the long run, the single, most wide-ranging and influential effect of the Roman world on the modern one might well be in the realm of law, where Justinian’s Code laid the foundation for almost all modern legal systems.

The Byzantine Empire was struck by a particularly bad outbreak of plague in the 540s, and even Justinian himself caught the disease, although he survived it. Theodora died young in 548 A.D., but Justinian continued to rule until his own death in 565 A.D.

Since he had no direct heir, his sister’s son became the next emperor. He and his successors were part of a line of emperors that ruled all the way through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance.

Common Questions about Emperor Justinian, Theodora, and Constantinople

Q: What is Justinian known for?

Justinian was one of the most significant emperors of the Byzantine Empire. He is known for rebuilding Constantinople after the Nika riots had inflicted great damage to the city. He is also the emperor who commissioned the construction of the Hagia Sophia, which is still considered one of the greatest architectural wonders. And probably the biggest impact of Justinian on the modern age is the Roman Code of Law, which was compiled during his reign, and is the basis of most legal systems around the world today.

Q: Was Justinian a good leader?

Justinian was considered an outsider among the aristocrats of Constantinople, which allowed him to appoint a number of people to important positions based more on energy and ability than on family connections. This gave him a core of talented subordinates who were able to carry out his ambitious schemes.

Q: What is Theodora known for?

Theodora was an intelligent and strong-willed woman who took an active role in government, and was a key advisor and helper to her husband, Justinian. She assumed a public role in policymaking, and was a forceful advocate for what we might today term women’s rights. For example, she had laws enacted that gave women better protection from abuse, and more rights in divorce proceedings.

Q: Who did Belisarius, Justinian’s general, defeat?

Justinian was fortunate in having a particularly skilled general named Belisarius, who led several successful military expeditions. He recaptured North Africa from the Vandals, then invaded and seized Sicily, and from there, moved on to Italy. In a series of campaigns against various Gothic groups, Belisarius succeeded in recapturing most of Italy, including Rome itself.

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