The emperor Justinian (ruled 527-565) has received a great deal bad press in the past two decades. Where the older historiographical tradition mostly praised him for his reconquest of the lost provinces in the West, law code, and his example as an engaged Christian emperor, revisionist scholars have lately condemned him as a megalomaniac Christian despot. One example should suffice. Peter Heather (Restoration, 203) has recently described him as an “autocratic bastard of the worst kind.” Heather goes so far as to compare Justinian to the twentieth century’s most infamous murders Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot. Even the sixth-century Byzantine writer, Procopius who composed his Secret History in attempt to undermine the reigning emperor, might be surprised that such a negative description of an emperor who was largely successful in his own life time has largely taken hold in modern scholarship .
It has been a long hard slog for Procopius in his attempt to chip away at Justinian’s legacy. Certainly for most of the Christian Middle Ages, Justinian was idealised as a model Christian emperor who deftly mastered his role as a secular and religious leader. We find that when Carolingian intellectuals looked for ancient leaders to emulate, they generally looked back to Constantine and Justinian as the prime examples of “model”’ Roman leaders. The twelfth-century historian Otto of Freising portrait is typical of the view of Justinian in the middle ages. When describing Justinian, he lauded: “This most zealous and Christian monarch resurrected his domain, as it were, from the dead. The state, which in large part had been overthrown and among other valiant deeds triumphed gloriously.” He then praised Justinian for his law codes, his church building, pursuit of Orthodoxy, and many victories over the “barbarians.” This is the legacy of Justinian that Procopius seemed to have feared.
So what has changed? Obviously for those of who live in the liberal democracies of the modern world, Justinian can seem as a bit of a religious nut and a megalomaniac. We have a fear of leaders who want to build states around their views of orthodoxy. Justinian certainly sought to crack down on those he considered as heretics and pagans. But to compare him to Stalin and Hitler is foolish and unfair. Taking the Secret History at face value can be dangerous for those seeking the truth about Justinian or indeed sixth-century Byzantium. I would suggest that the notion that Justinian’s reconquest pushed sixth-century Byzantium and Italy over the edge has been taken a bit too far by those who know of the disasters to come in the seventh century. Certainly Justinian did not set out to slaughter large numbers of his own peoples. Indeed, the population losses argued for by some historians have been convincingly rebutted by those who suggest that the Empire was in a pretty decent state when Justinian died in 565. So too does our modern fear of religious fundamentalism play a part in the vilification of Justinian, who seemed to truly believe that he was God’s vehicle on earth. In an age of increasing “toleration”, Justinian’s harsh views on intellectuals, homosexuals, and religious dissidents do not play too well. Certainly uncomfortable comparisons can be made between Justinian’s Rome and Vladimir Putin’s Russia.
To survive in sixth-century Byzantium was not an easy task. Justinian never forgot the lesson of his near overthrow in 532. Perhaps he knew that if he wanted to survive he could never again show any signs of weakness or compromise. Well that’s it for now. In my next blog I will look at Justinian’s legacy in the Byzantine writers that came after Procopius.