Byzantine Empire: Justinian and Theodora – From Swineherd to Emperor – Extra History – #1


The West has fallen. Britannia was abandoned centuries ago. Gaul is overrun by the Franks. Hispania is a Visigothic province now. And North Africa has fallen to the Vandals. Worst of all Italy and thus Rome itself has become an Ostrogothic kingdom. Only the East still stands. But even in the east, Huns and Bulgars press in on the north. and in the south war rages with a mighty Sassanid Empire. Not even Anatolia, the heart of the Empire, home of Constantinople herself is safe. And yet today all around us we see the legacy of Eastern Rome. In the heart of Istanbul stands the Hagia Sophia. It’s great domes housed the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years, and even now, 1500 years after its construction, it stands as a wonder for us all. Every day in courtrooms half the world over, decisions are made rooted in the legal framework laid out in the Corpus Juris Civilis. And in the apse of the basilica in San Vitale, if you look up, you will see the most renowned emperor of the east looking down on you from a mosaic nearly 1500 years old. And these things that are left to us are almost all the work of one man. One emperor. Justinian. He was perhaps the greatest emperor of the Byzantines and the last of them to dream. To dream of a restored Rome. To dream of a unified Christian Church. To dream in marble and gold and steel. Never again would the Roman Empire see the heights it saw under this one man And never again would anyone come so close to bringing the west back into the light of Rome But Justinian’s legacy is mixed. Unlike those heroic emperors who kept Rome and then Byzantium from being forever extinguished when complete collapse looked inevitable, Justinian took an empire that was beset on all sides but still strong and raised it to magnificence. But in doing so he may have gambled too many of its resources expended too much of its strength on a dream Justinian is one of my favorite roman emperors because he had the boldness to dream in a way that no one else did And he had the energy, the drive and the capacity to back up those dreams He was intelligent, wise, diligent beyond measure, working tirelessly for his people But his reign was not without blood, not without miscalculations, and not without human failings and distrust. And so for the next few weeks we’ll dive into the reign of this most spectacular emperor and his renowned empress, Theodora. But before we can get to Justinian and Theodora, we have to talk about Justin, the uncle of Justinian, without whom Justinian may never have been. Because before Justinian was an emperor, he was a peasant And before he was Justinian, he was Flavius Petrus Sabbatius. He changed his name to honor his uncle and benefactor Justin. Justin’s one of those wild American dream sort of stories. He himself began as a peasant farmer in a remote western corner of the empire. He spoke Latin in a world that had become almost entirely Greek and owned nothing but the clothes on his back. But despite all this he made his way to that monumental city, the heart of the empire, Byzantium and sought his fortune. He joined the army and was assigned to the palace guard. He quickly rose through the ranks, and as he did so, he brought his family to join him Having no children of his own he doted on his nephew, young Flavius Petrus Sabbatius. And while he, Justin, was an illiterate farmer he was determined to give his young nephew Sabattius the finest education in Law, Theology and Rhetoric. He also made sure to get Sabattius appointed to the royal guard. And, in gratitude, Sabattius took on the name Justinianus. Or, as we call him, Justinian. Then, Justin( and by extension Justinian)’s big break came. When the emperor Anastasius, the emperor who Justin served, died, he left the throne without an heir, and a succession crisis began. Justin, at this point being the head of the Excubitors, or the imperial guard, and thus the only guy with troops in the capital city, was going to be essential to deciding who the next emperor would be. So one of the imperial officials tried to bribe Justin in order to get him to support their favorite candidate. But Justin, probably at the suggestion of Justinian, promptly took the bribe, and used it to bribe influential senators to support HIM instead. As he had the only troops in town and the support of the senate, Justin was raised to the imperial purple. But Justin had no education. He only had experience as a soldier and a swineherd, and he realized he would need help running the empire. Doubly so because he was seen by many as less legitimate than the nephews of the previous emperor, who were still alive. And for this help he turned to Justinian. Justinian rapidly went to work, closing the rift between the church in Rome and the Byzantine church (an act which lent legitimacy to Justin’s reign) while at the same time pardoning and promoting the most talented men who the previous emperor had imprisoned or condemned, securing Justin loyalty within the palace. Next, Justinian had to secure Justin’s new reign on a military front. So he also made peace with a popular general named Vitallium, who had rebelled against the religious policies of Justin’s predecessor and still had an Army inside byzantine borders. Unfortunately Vitallium was a little too popular, and in an act which displays the ruthlessness that Justinian tried to avoid but certainly wasn’t above, Justinian had Vitallium assassinated shortly after he returned to Byzantium. Because Justinian was a man who just did everything at once it was also about this time that he met Theodora. Theodora was intelligent, witty, charming, and always the center of attention wherever she went. But she was also an actress, and as was common for actresses at this time, had worked as a prostitute and an escort. So how did this former escort meet the man who was second only to the emperor himself? Well, she was an ardent supporter of the Blue faction of the demes. “What the heck is a deme?” you might reasonably ask. The demes were the chariot racing teams in Constantinople, and this may sound crazy, but they are absolutely essential to understanding Byzantine history. They played an enormous role in the life of the average citizen of Constantinople. You can think of them as a sports club, a political organization, a community group, and a moving riot all rolled into one. By the time of Justinian, the chariot races were basically THE sport in Constantinople. With the rise of Christianity, gladiatorial combat was functionally outlawed. So everyone, and I mean e-very-one turned out for the chariot races The hippodrome, the arena for chariot races in Constantinople, could seat over 100,000 people. Just.. think about that. Even by today’s standards that would make it one of the biggest stadiums in the world. And think about what 100,000 people all in one place means for a city like Constantinople. If those folks all decide they want something, it’s going to be very hard to turn them down. And the two teams -the Blues and the Greens- were not only sports clubs, but also organized political agitation. The average member of each of the teams was basically a soccer hooligan, always ready for a good riot. Which meant that the upper echelons of society would use the demes to promote their political agendas. Thus, through the demes, sometimes the highest and lowest members of society would meet. And thus Justinian met Theodora. Justinian was a fanatical supporter of the Blues, often using his political clout to protect them from the law. The blues served as a power base for him in the city, and in turn he had the constabulary turn a blind eye when members of the Blues were involved in coercion or extortion or occasionally outright banditry. Through the blues Justinian and Theodora met, and instantly fell in love. And although they lived together they couldn’t marry, because there was a law against government officials marrying actresses. A law which he would get his uncle to repeal as soon as he had the power to do so. Unfortunately for Justinian and Theodora, Justin’s wife, much as she loved her nephew, wouldn’t let him repeal this law. But shortly after her death the law was wiped from the books. and Justinian and Theodora became husband and wife. Justin followed his wife shortly thereafter, dying on the 1st of August 527, leaving the Empire in the sole hands of Justinian. Join us next time as we watch Justinian burst into action. See him implement all those plans he’d been dreaming up for years as his uncle’s subordinate. Meet the men Justinian employed to enact his grand project. And witness the true power of the demes, as 100,000 howling citizens nearly bring the reign of Justinian to an end.

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