Restless zeal of the insomniac emperor

There is something uncanny about the story of Justinian


This article is taken from the December-January 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The emperor Justinian did not sleep. So concerned was he for the welfare of his empire, so unremitting was the tide of business, so deep was his need for control that there simply was not time for rest. All this he explained to his subjects in the laws that poured forth constantly from his government — as many as five in a single day; long, complex and involved texts in which the emperor took a close personal interest.

The pace of work for those who served Justinian must have been punishing, and it is perhaps unsurprising that he found few admirers amongst his civil servants. They traded dark hints about the hidden wellsprings of the emperor’s energy. One who had been with him late at night swore that as the emperor paced up and down, his head had seemed to vanish from his body. Another was convinced that Justinian’s face had become a mass of shapeless flesh, devoid of features. That was no human emperor in the palace on the banks of the Bosphorus, but a demon in purple and gold.

There is something uncanny about the story of Justinian, ruler of the eastern Roman Empire from 527 to 565. Born into rural poverty in the Balkans in the late 5th century, he came to prominence through the influence of his uncle Justin. A country boy made good as a guards officer, he became emperor almost by accident in 518. Justinian soon became the mainstay of the new regime and, when Justin died in 527, he was his obvious and preordained successor. The new emperor immediately showed his characteristically frenetic pace of activity, working in consort with his wife Theodora, a former actress of controversial reputation but real ability.

A flurry of diplomatic and military action put the empire’s neighbours on notice, whilst at home there was a barrage of reforming legislation. More ambitious than this, the emperor set out to codify not only the vast mass of Roman law, but also the hitherto utterly untamed opinions of Roman jurists — endeavours completed in implausibly little time that still undergird the legal systems of much of the world.

All the while, Justinian worked ceaselessly to bring unity to a Church fissured by deep theological divisions. After getting the best of Persia — Rome’s great rival — in a limited war on the eastern frontier, Justinian shrewdly signed an “endless peace” with the Sasanian emperor Khusro II in 532. The price — gold, in quantity — was steep, but worthwhile because it freed up resources and attention for more profitable ventures elsewhere.

Justinian: Emperor, Soldier, Saint, Peter Sarris (Basic Books, £25)

In that same year, what was either a bout of serious urban disorder that became an attempted coup, or an attempted coup that led to rioting, came within an ace of overthrowing Justinian and levelled much of Constantinople. Other emperors might have been somewhat put off their stride, but not Justinian. The reform programme was intensified, with a severe crackdown on corruption and a wholesale attempt to rewire the machinery of government.

Constantinople was rebuilt on a grander scale, the church of Hagia Sophia being the most spectacular addition, a building that seems still to almost defy the laws of physics. At the same time, Justinian dispatched armies to recover regions lost to barbarian rulers as the western Roman Empire collapsed in the course of the 5th century. In brilliant and daring campaigns, the great general Belisarius conquered first the Vandal kingdom in North Africa (533–34) and then the much more formidable Ostrogothic realm in Italy (535–40), with armies that must have seemed almost insultingly small to the defeated.

If Justinian had had the good fortune to die in 540, he would have been remembered as the greatest of all Rome’s many emperors. Unfortunately for him, he lived. The 540s was a low, depressing decade for the Roman Empire. Khusro broke the endless peace, and a Persian army sacked the city of Antioch. The swift victories in the west collapsed into difficult wars of pacification, which at points the Romans seemed destined to lose.

Above all else, a devastating plague swept through the Empire, killing a vast number of its inhabitants. It is these years of so much disappointment after hopes so lofty that perhaps explain why our sources are so hostile to Justinian, particularly the great historian of the age Procopius.

Yet, the sleepless emperor was not finished. Justinian enjoyed a remarkable third act at the end of his reign. Persia was contained, the wars in the west were won, and a sliver of Spain even added to the empire. As he aged, Justinian invested more and more energy in attempting to unite the Church. If he failed, then he came closer than any other emperor or churchman ever had.

Justinian and his age are tricky subjects — the sheer variety of events and their complexity can baffle interpretation. Peter Sarris, Professor of Late Antique, Medieval, and Byzantine Studies at Cambridge has, however, a triple qualification: author of an indispensable scholarly monograph on the emperor, translator of much of his voluminous legislation, and already a practised writer for general audiences. He has produced here an expert, readable and thought-provoking biography of Justinian.

A full moon rises over the Hagia Sophia Grand Mosque in Istanbul in 2022

Sarris adopts a broadly chronological approach, though he is not afraid to range forwards or back in time as the subject demands. The landmarks of the reign are here, briskly narrated with an eye for the telling detail, but Sarris also devotes attention to topics that sometimes get lost in the melée: this is where the book shines most.

Justinian’s efforts to reform the state are crisply analysed, yielding a portrait of technocratic visionary, hobbled by the fact that the upper classes on whom Roman government relied were also those whose corruption and self-dealing any reformer needed to repress. The impact of plague is emphasised — for Sarris is a maximalist here (there is much to be maximal about) — and carefully threaded through the narrative of Justinian’s later reign.

The theological controversies of the age are delineated with striking clarity: Sarris brings out extremely well the blend of cynical politics and sincere Christian belief that made them so intractable.

The narrative is leavened with anecdote and autopsy, perhaps nowhere more effective than in the brilliant evocation of what it must have been like to enter Hagia Sophia as the kontakion (a sort of sermon in verse) reverberated through it. Throughout, Sarris stresses the relevance of Justinian, the freshness of the history of the age. Classical parallels for current events can be rather clunking, but here they are sensitive and thought-provoking.

This book is essential reading for anyone curious about later antiquity, and it will give profit and pleasure to those with broader interests. History was broadly unsympathetic to Justinian, a man who made many enemies in the cultured classes whose best revenge on a reforming emperor was to criticise him at leisure after his death.

Sarris is much more sympathetic, if still alive to the authoritarian and unpleasant aspects of his subject’s character and deeds. There are no faceless demons here, but one can instead discern the carefully drawn features of the restless, sleepless and tireless Justinian.

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