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Justinian - Coptic Wiki

JUSTINIAN (c. 482-565)

The Byzantine emperor. Originally given the name Petrus Sabbatius, he took the name Justinian upon being adopted by his uncle Justin, whom he later succeeded as emperor (1 August 527). Justinian’s reign was marked by extensive legal reform, successful military incursions against the Vandals and the Goths, vast architectural undertakings, and an intense but unsuccessful attempt to unite the Chalcedonians and Monophysites.

Justinian believed that Rome had been a great nation, and he felt it was his task to restore its preeminence. A major thrust of this restoration took the form of a renovation of the legal system. On 7 April 529 a commission headed by Justinian’s legal expert, Tribonian, produced the first JUSTINIANUS, a revision, and expansion of Theodosian’s Code. The Institutes, based on the legal text compiled by the second-century jurist Gaius, was published in 533. The Digest, consisting of codified excerpts of the classical jurists, followed on 16 December 533, and a second, revised edition of the Justinianus, on 16 November 534. Subsequently, Justinian added to, and modified, these constitutions through more than 150 Novellae. Together these works established a single code of law incorporating all of the constitutions back to the time of the emperor Hadrian (117-138).

Another aspect of Justinian’s restoration unfolded in battles against the barbarians, who had encroached on the empire’s borders. On the eastern frontier, he was forced to fight a lengthy and inconclusive war with the Persians. Although a treaty arranged in 532 was designed to end this war, fighting broke out again in 540 and continued with intermittent truces until a new treaty was compacted in 562. Fortunes in North Africa were more salubrious. On 13 September 533, Justinian’s troops, led by Belisarius, defeated the Vandals at Ad Decimum. On the next day, they captured Carthage. The Vandal kingdom was dismantled quickly and efficiently. ARIANISM fled before the incursion of Catholicism. Belisarius next turned his attention to Italy, where he conducted successful campaigns against the Ostrogoths during the years 535-540; Justinian’s general Narses finally subdued the Ostrogoths completely in 553. Meanwhile, in 551, a major portion of Visigothic Spain was conquered.

Throughout the empire, Justinian not only renovated older buildings and aqueducts but also erected churches, monasteries, and fortresses. The most notable achievement of this building campaign was the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. After five years of construction, the church, which was built after the plan of a Greek cross with an octagonal dome, was dedicated to Saint Stephen’s Day 537.

In an attempt to establish orthodoxy and harmony throughout the empire, Justinian enacted legislation against the major heresies of his day, such as Nestorianism, Eutychianism, and Apollinarianism. In 529 he closed the Academy of Athens, thus ridding the empire of its last outpost of pagan intellectualism. But Justinian was thwarted in his boldest religious undertaking, for despite his diligent efforts, he was unable to close the rift between the Monophysites and Chalcedonians. When he failed in his attempt to unite the two sides in acceptance of the Theopaschite formula “one of the Trinity suffered in the flesh” and when a series of meetings between the two groups in 532 and early 533 did nothing to reduce the tension, Justinian ratified the banishment imposed by a home synod on the Monophysite leader Severus in 536.

Next he tried to reintroduce Origenism, but this attempt to provide a concept acceptable to both sides also failed, and in 543, Justinian condemned ORIGEN, a move that resulted ultimately in the loss of many of that churchman’s works. The next approach involved removing from the pacts of the of those points most offensive to the Monophysites. Accordingly, sometime between 543 and 546, Justinian issued an edict condemning the Three Chapters—that is, the writings of THEODORUS OF MOPSUESTIA, THEODORET’s work against Cyril’s Twelve Anathemas, and the Letter of Ibas of Edessa. However, at the Fifth Ecumenical Council, convened on 5 May 553 in the secretariat of Hagia Sophia, the edict won scant support, and it also failed to bridge the gap between the two groups.

Justinian’s inability to bring religious unity to the empire may have been indicative of a failure to establish peace at home.

THEODORA, Justinian’s wife, was a strong and active supporter of the Monophysites. Often working behind the scenes without Justinian’s knowledge, she arranged shelter for Monophysite clergy who had been exiled; encouraged the mission of JACOB BARADAEUS to Syria, where he ordained a large number of Monophysite priests; and promoted Monophysite missions to Nubia. The Procopius, who left one of the best records of Justinian and his accomplishments, felt her actions had a decidedly divisive influence on the empire.

Justinian died in 565, leaving the empire larger and better equipped with legal codes, trade relations, and architectural splendors than it had been at his accession, but overextended, open to attack by the Slavs and Lombards, and the Monophysite schism involving Egypt and Nubia without the prospect of settlement.


  • Barker, J. W. Justinian and the Later Empire. Madison, Wis., 1966.
  • Browning, R. Justinian and Theodora. London, 1987. Cameron, A. Procopius. London, 1985.
  • Downey, G. A. in the Age of Justinian. Norman, Okla., 1960.
  • Frend, W. H. C. The Rise of the Monophysite Movement. Cambridge, 1979.
  • . The Rise of Christianity, pp. 527-65. Philadelphia, 1984. Rubin, B. Das Zeitalter Justinians. Berlin, 1960.