Greatest Achievements of Justinian I

Born Petrus Sabbatius to Sabbatius and Vigilantia, Justinian I succeeded his uncle, Justin I, who had adopted and educated him. Justin admired the enthusiasm of his cousin and made him his associate and the de facto emperor. Upon the death of Justin I, Justinian ascended the throne of the Byzantine Empire in 527.

In the midst of incessant internal and external attacks, outbreak of the First Plague Pandemic of 541-549 (also called the Justinianic Plague) and earthquakes, Justinian’s achievements during his reign from 527 to 565 cannot be underrated.

Emperor Justinian the Great

Below, WHE presents the 10 greatest achievements of Emperor Justinian I:

Judicial Reforms: Corpus Juris Civilis

Right from the onset of his reign, Justinian commissioned Tribonian, the Quaestor of the Sacred Palace, to undertake the first recorded revision of Roman laws which subsequently came out with the “Corpus Juris Civilis”, or Body of the Civil Law, which included the famous Cordex Justinianeus (Justinian Code), the Pandectae, the Institutiones, and the Novellae.

The Justinian Code issued in 534 was the first of the Civil Law. It was composed of imperial constitutions gathered from as far back as the 2nd century.

Tribonian then collated older laws to draft the Pandectae (otherwise called the Digesta) in 533 and issued a document on the principles of law. Justinian also had a compilation of new supplementary laws issued in the Novellae.

In effect, Justinian’s concern for the welfare of women and children was manifest in the Corpus in that while it protected prostitutes from being exploited, it also protected women from forced prostitution.

The emperor also issued austere laws against rapists. A number of domestic and marital laws, including laws requiring a husband to seek his wife’s consent before taking loans.

Justinian’s tasked his judicial advisors to come up with laws that shielded women accused of major crimes from sexual abuse. There were also laws that protected the interest of children born out of wedlock or children from broken marriages.

These judicial reforms have become great references in modern law schools, and wherever Roman laws are mentioned, Justinian’s name is rarely left out.

Post-Nika Insurrection: Reconstruction of the Hagia Sophia

Hagia Sophia

The Hagia Sophia in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) is regarded as one of Justinian the Great’s major infrastructural achievements. Translated as “Holy Wisdom”, the Hagia Sophia was indeed the crowning jewel of the Byzantine Empire.

After the Nika Insurrections of 532 left some 30,000 dead in Hippodrome and the damage of Emperor Constans I’s Hagia Sophia, Justinian set out to rebuild a larger and more magnificent basilica under the supervision of mathematician Isidore of Miletus and geometric engineer Anthemius of Tralles.

The Hagia Sophia has survived to this day, despite undergoing many centuries of disasters and a series of remodeling and changes in usages.

To celebrate his triumph over the rioters and sneaky conspirators that wished ill for him, Justinian is said to have invested significantly into magnificent buildings all across city of Constantinople. By so doing, the emperor steered Byzantine into the golden age, encouraging the growth of arts, sciences, philosophy, architecture, and other disciplines.

Military Achievements

Achievements of Justinian the Great

During the reign of Justinian I, the Byzantine Empire was also significantly expanded into areas in Italy, North Africa and other parts of the Mediterranean.

  • Iberian Wars

Between 527 and 532, Justinian vied with Sassanid Persia in the Iberian War during which he crushed the Persians in Dara and Satala in 530. But the table turned and the Persians retaliated, defeating Justinian’s army the following year in Callinicum.

Though a plan to merge his forces with those of the Axumites and Himyarites against the Persians backfired, he signed a peace treaty ─ the Eternal Peace, which was ironically a short-lived one ─ worth 110 centenaria or 11,000 pounds of gold with Khosrau I, the successor and son of the Persian King Kavadh I. This treaty earned Justinian the eastern frontier and the two border forts of Bolum and Pharangium in Persarmenia.

However from 540, Khosrau broke cordiality with Justinian and invaded Rome. Khosrau sacked over 6,000 forces from Beroea and Antioch. The Persian monarch also occupied Daras and Lazica, and exacted 5,000 pounds of gold and an annual 500 pounds more from Justinian.

The rivalry between Justinian and Khosrau heated up amidst the outbreak of the Justinian Plaque and the Lazic War, but after the Lazics sided with the  Byzantines, Justinian recaptured Petra, and signed the Fifty Years’ Peace in 565 which ─ though it required Justinian to pay some annual 500 pounds of gold to the Persians.

  • Military Interventions in North Africa

Though Khosrau had broken the Eternal Peace and revitalized his armies to recapture the Eastern provinces, typically Lazica, Justinian mobilized his forces towards North Africa to aid his friend King Hilderic who, in 530 AD, had been overthrown and imprisoned by his cousin, Gelimer.

Justinian’s commander, Belisarius landed in Ras Kaboudia with an army of 15,000 and some barbarian troops in 533. They defeated Gelimer’ Vandals in Ad Decinum and Tricamarum and recovered Carthage, Sardinia, Corsica, the Berlearic Islands and the Septem Fratres for Hilderic.

  • Military Interventions in the Gothic Wars

Justinian intervened for the Gothics of Italy; Theodahad had assassinated Queen Amalasuintha, mother of deceased King Athalaric in 535 on the Martana Island. Belisarius led 7,500 men to conquer Sicily, Naples but failed to capture Rome while the Ostrogothic forces dethroned Theodahad and crowned Vitigis.

After a series of failed attempts to retain authority over the Roman and Milan provinces, even with extra support from Justinain’s general Narses, Belisarius subtly entered and recaptured the provinces north of the Po River in May 540 by faking agreement to entrust the Gothics with the provinces.

Justinian’s victory over the Ostrogothics also witnessed the capture and transport of Vitigis and Matasuntha, his (Vitigis’) wife to Constantinople.

However, the Ostrogoths resumed their conquest in 541, bringing Faenza and most parts of southern Italy and the Peninsula under their control. Belisarius struggled to sustain control over the Ostrogoths, so, in 552, commander Narses with an army of about 35,000, defeated the Ostrogoths, first in the Battle of Busta Gallorum, and a second time at the Mons Lactarius.

Narses further crushed the Frankish invasion in Casilinum which finalized the return of Italy to the Byzantine Empire at the cost of 15,000,000 slain Goths and 300,000 pounds of gold.

  • Expanded the Byzantine Empire and Defeated the Turkic and Slavic Invaders

In 552, Justinian outsmarted Athanagild, the Visigothic King of Hispania and Septimania. Athanagild had asked for Justinian’s help to rebel against Agila I. Before Athanagild could retaliate, Justinian mobilized some 2,000 forces under the octogenarian Liberius who secured Cartagena and some south-eastern coastal cities for the Byzantine Empire. The new territory of Sparnia was also founded.

Justinian commissioned Belisarius to subdue the attacks of the Turkics and Slavics on the Balkans, and in 559, he defeated the invasive Sklavinoi and Kutrigurs who encroached Constantinople.

Economic Achievements

Justinian introduced sweeping tax reforms that augured well for the Byzantine Empire. Image: A golden medallion celebrating Emperor Justinian’s reconquest of Africa, AD 534

  • Improved Cereal Trade

Justinian built a granary on the Tenedos Islands to enhance the storage of cereals from Alexandria to Constantinople. He also developed new routes to restore the eastern trade which had been upended by the wars with Persia.

  • Localized the Production and Processing of Silk

In 541, he monopolized the processing of silk by restricting their production to the imperial factories. To avoid routes on Persian territories, he solidified trade relationships with the Abyssinians, who began buying silk from India to supply Constantinople’s factories.

However, the Abyssinians could not compete with the Persian silk traders in India. To sustain the factories, therefore, two monks smuggled silkworm eggs from Central Asia and Justinian’s reign saw the indigenous production of silk in the 550s.

  • Reformed the Collection of Revenues

Having inherited 400,000 pounds of gold from Anastasius I and Justin I, Justinian the Great set out to reorganize his Praetorian ministry under John the Cappadocian and Peter Barsymes. The Byzantine Emperor thrived to improve tax collection as well as eradicate corruption.

Though the vicariates of the dioceses were made defunct and autonomy of various Greek town councils were reduced, annual revenues saw substantial growth from about 5,100,000 solidi (about 694,000 pounds of gold) in 530 to 6,200,000 solidi (about 834,000 pounds of gold) by 550.

Religious Achievements

One of the concrete evidences of his religious achievements was the re-construction of the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople after the Nika Revolts, which served the Eastern Orthodox Church and continued to be a central point of worship for varying sects of Christians and Muslims as well as a museum.

His legislative reforms outlined in the Novellae and Codex established guidelines for various religious activities such as the appointment of priests and bishops, donations and divine services, as well as crush pagans from his empire.

Justinian also sided with the Chalcedon Doctrine, which claims Jesus has both human and divine nature. He condemned Monophysitism, which argues Jesus has only one divine nature, but he opted not have any legislations on such doctrines.

He made an ardent effort to suppress heresy. He also protected the interests of monk by permitting them to receive annual gifts. The properties of those priests as well as their monasteries were exempted from confiscations.

Beyond Constantinople, Justinian abolished the worship of the Egyptian god Amun in the Libyan desert. Similarly, bans were placed on worship of ancient Egyptian goddess Isis on the Philae Island. The Emperor dispatched a bishop from Egypt to Yemen in order to propagate Christianity. He also encouraged the use of the Septuagint (i.e. the Greek Old Testament) in the synagogues of Constantinople.

Read More: Facts and Major Accomplishments of the Byzantine Empire

Other Notable Accomplishments of Justinian the Great

A Southwestern entrance mosaic at the Hagia Sophia showing the Virgin Mary, the Child Christ, Emperor Justinian and Emperor Constantine. Justinian (left) is depicted presenting a model of the church of Hagia Sophia to the Virgin Mary, while Constantine the Great presents a model of the city of Constantinople.

In addition to the Hagia Sophia, Justinian’s love for Christianity was manifested in his construction of the Basilica di San Vitale in Ravenna with its two mosaics of him and wife Empress Theodora. He also rebuilt the Church of the Holy Apostles and the Church of St. Sergius and Bacchus. The following are some other notable feats chalked by Justinian the Great:

  • The emperor fortified borders of the Byzantine Empire and constructed the Sangarius Bridge in Bythinia.
  • Underground cisterns were also built to supply water to Constantinople, while an arch dam was constructed to shield the border township of Dara from floods.
  • As part of the restoration of cities destroyed in earthquakes and wars, Justinian built the city of Justiniana Prima close to Tauresium, his birth town.
  • He rebuilt the city of Antioch after two earthquakes in 526 and 528 and the Persians sack of the city in 540 left it almost empty.
  • Though the Law School of Berylus and Athen’s Neoplatonic Academy became unpopular in Justinian’s time, historians such as Procopius and Agathias as well as poets like Paul the Silentiary and Romanus the Melodist rose to prominence in his reign.
Empress Theodora

Empress Theodora was the wife of Justinian the Great. Image: Empress Theodora depicted with a large halo and assorted jewelry, including a gem-designed crown and a Tyrian purple robe

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