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Justinian I (aka, Justinian the Great), was Emperor of the Eastern Roman (aka, the Byzantine) Empire for 38 years from 527 CE to 565 CE. Under his reign, the Eastern Roman Empire reached its greatest territorial extent, the Roman legal code was standardized, and the Orthodox church was more fully brought under imperial control. His reforms led to the Serbian Byzantine historian George Ostrogorsky to describe him as"the last Roman emperor to occupy the Byzantine throne."
Justinian lived and reigned at the time when the Roman Empire was transitioning between the Late Roman and Byzantine periods.[note 1] The official language of the empire was still Latin, though much of its court and population spoke Greek. Six years prior to Justinian's birth saw the deposition of the emperor Romulus Augustus by Odoacer. Two years prior to his birth, the last recognized Western Roman Emperor, Julius Nepos, was assassinated in Illyria. The Eastern Roman Empire, while not as threatened by barbarians as their Western counterparts, still faced numerous issues with the security of its Danubian frontier against barbarian tribes such as the Gepids. In addition, the Sassanian Persians, who had captured Emperor Valerian and kicked off another phase in the Crisis of the Third Century, continued to threaten Rome's eastern frontier. Thus, the greatest threats the Eastern Roman Empire faced were mostly different than those that faced the West; whereas the primary threat to the West would be the Germanic tribes overrunning the Rhine frontier, the East would have to contend with the organized and (relatively) urbanized Persians.
With the death of Julius Nepos, only the Eastern Emperors could claim to be Emperors of Rome. As such, the practice of several barbarian kingdoms in the post-Roman world was to acknowledge the Roman Emperor as their nominal sovereign, a practice that would continue until Charlemagne's coronation as Holy Roman Emperor. It was for this reason that the emperor Zeno "ordered" the Ostrogothic king Theodoric the Great to overthrow and kill Odoacer in 489 CE, thus paving the way for Justinian's Gothic Wars.
In short, at the time of Justinian's life, the Roman Empire consisted solely of its eastern territories, spoke mainly Greek while using Latin as a court language, was threatened by the Persians in the east and the Gepids in the west, and was only nominal sovereign over its former western territories, including the Eternal City itself.
Justinian was born in 482 CE, in Macedonia to Illyrian peasants. His birth name was Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, taking the cognomen "Justinian" (in Latin, "Iustinianus") to honor his uncle, Justin, who educated and cared for him. Justinian came to live with his uncle in Constantinople, while his uncle served as the comes excubitorum (count of the excubitors), the commander of the imperial bodyguard. In July of 518 CE, when Emperor Anastasius I died, Justin used bribe money meant to be used to support other candidates for the throne and used it to support himself instead. Thus, Justinian became the heir-presumptive of Emperor Justin I.
While Justinian served as Justin's chief advisor and Caesar,[note 2], he met an actress by the name of Theodora, who was 15 years his junior. The two apparently fell in love together and were married in 525 CE, after overturning a law that prevented members of the imperial family from marrying actresses.
A brief tangent; you might wonder why there was a law preventing imperial family members from marrying actresses. Well, ever since the rule of Diocletian and the dominate, the Emperor/Augustus was no longer seen as a "first among equals. Rather, the emperor was seen as the chosen of God, assigned to rule over all Christians. The emperor was, therefore, supposed to be above and apart from his subjects. The image of the divinely-sanctioned emperor was a fundamental aspect of late Roman and Byzantine government and propaganda. Actresses, on the other hand, were perceived as among the lowest members of society. Much like today, stage performers were not able to make a living from acting alone. As such, many actors turned to prostitution in order to supplement their income, and Theodora was no exception.
Theodora was renowned for her intelligence and beauty, and this would factor into both her future performance as empress as well as the historiography surrounding her. In contrast to her Orthodox husband, Theodora was a Monophysite. As such, she used her position and her influence on Justinian to fight for the rights of Monophysite Romans, and Justinian's attempts to reconcile both the Orthodox and Monophysite churches within his realm would be one of the major projects of his reign.
While Theodora's conduct and historiography will certainly be discussed in much greater detail later in this article, it should be noted that Theodora and Justinian were similar in their respective rises. Both were born to poor families and took professions considered unbecoming of an imperial couple (swine-herding for Justinian, acting/prostitution for Theodora), and both rose to prominence through their connections to people with access to power. The fact that Justinian is written about in a laudatory fashion while Theodora is regularly downplayed when she isn't actively vilified as an ambitious harlot is, sadly, another example of sexism in the historiography of antiquity.
War with the Persians
Justin I went to war with Persian Shahanshah Kevadh I in the year 526 CE, but died before the war could be brought to its conclusion. As such, the first major project of Justinian's reign as sole emperor was the conclusion of this war. This first conflict with the Persians, the Iberian War (named after the kingdom in East Georgia called Iberia, not the Iberian peninsula), went poorly for the Romans at first. However, gradually, the Romans won several major victories such as the Battle of Dara which allowed them to conclude the war with only the cost of paying tribute and minor territorial exchanges. This war would elevate one of the Roman commanders, Flavius Belisarius, to fame. The war was concluded with the Perpetual Peace of 532, which guaranteed the Persians some tribute from Rome, but with little territorial change. Having secured his eastern frontier, Justinian was free to pursue his policy of Renovatio Imperii.
The origins of Justinian’s family as swineherds and peasants who somehow had ascended to the Imperial throne caused resentment among the Byzantine nobility and elites. They viewed Justinian as some sort of an upstart that had no place in Imperial politics. This was also an issue with Justinian’s wife Theodora, who began her life as a prostitute. They also didn’t approve of Justinian giving Theodora power because they felt a woman was incapable of wielding political power. The aristocracy were also resentful of Justinian's crippling tax policies which were used to help Justinian's military campaigns and building projects. These issues would help to contribute to the revolt that almost caused Justinian to lose his throne.
Chariot racing in antiquity was considered to be a national past-time for many civilizations in the Mediterranean. In Byzantium, the chariot races were very political with the nobility and commoner alike betting massive amounts of money on the various teams. The four chariot teams which were known as "demes" were the Reds, Whites, Greens, and Blues. The most powerful of the "demes" though, were the Blues and the Greens. These factions had fierce rivalries which were very similar to the football clubs in Britain, which meant they often got violent. A few week before the Nika Revolt took place in January of 532 CE, An incident took place between members of the Blues deme and Greens deme in which several people got killed. The perpetrators who were members of the Blues and Greens were sentenced to be hung, but a mishap occurred with the nooses and these members were saved by other members of the Blues and Greens and were given sanctuary in a nearby monastery. Petitions immediately came to Justinian which asked for the Emperor to fully pardon the two members. Justinian was reluctant to pardon them as he had been trying to curb the power of the “demes” and had become tired of the chaos that the “demes” had been causing. As a result he did not respond to the petitions. This caused both the Blues and the Greens to become angry with Justinian and at the next chariots races instead of them cheering for their chariot team, the Blues and the Greens united and started to chant "Nika" which in Greek can mean either "conquer" or "victory". Soon members of the Blues and Greens went to rioting and started to burn down half of Constantinople.
Justinian first tried to appease the rioters by commuting the sentences of the murderers to life imprisonment, this did nothing to quell the riot. The rioters then demanded that Justinian fire two of his most efficient courtiers, Tribonian the legal scholar and John the Cappadocian the tax officer. Justinian accepted these terms and promised clemency for everyone involved in the riot. This still did not capitulate the rioters and in response they demanded a new emperor. The rioters decided on a nephew of the former emperor Anastasius I, a man named Hypatius who originally did not want to become Emperor, but was still crowned Emperor by the mob and grew to accept his role. Justinian by this point was worried he might lose his throne and was prepared to flee to the Asian side of the Bosporus. Theodora was appalled by this cowardice of her husband and made a speech where she said:
“”As to the belief that a woman ought not to be daring among men or to assert herself boldly among those who are holding back from fear, I consider that the present crisis most certainly does not permit us to discuss whether the matter should be regarded in this or in some other way. For in the case of those whose interests have come into the greatest danger nothing else seems best except to settle the issue immediately before them in the best possible way. My opinion then is that the present time, above all others, is inopportune for flight, even though it bring safety. For while it is impossible for a man who has seen the light not also to die, for one who has been an emperor it is unendurable to be a fugitive. May I never be separated from this purple, and may I not live that day on which those who meet me shall not address me as mistress. If, now, it is your wish to save yourself, O Emperor, there is no difficulty. For we have much money, and there is the sea, here the boats. However consider whether it will not come about after you have been saved that you would gladly exchange that safety for death. For as for myself, I approve a certain ancient saying that royalty is a good burial-shroud.
With the Persians placated and his domestic opponents subdued, Justinian was free to look west towards the former center of the Roman Empire. However, before taking Italy from the Ostrogoths, the former province of Africa would have to be retaken from the Vandals. The Vandals, one of many Germanic tribes marauding throughout the Western Empire, had crossed over from Spain into Africa. During the early 430s, the Vandals had been invited into the province of Africa by its governor, Bonifacius, who had been declared a rebel by the emperor at the behest of Magister Militum Flavius Aetius. Bonifacius hoped the Vandals could help him defend himself from imperial wrath. But court shenanigans cleared him of all wrongdoing, and he was persuaded to send the Vandals away. Bonifacius, therefore, tried to get the Vandals to leave. But the Vandals had found they rather liked North Africa (plus they had been asked to fight for Bonifacius, so now being asked to leave was taken as an insult), and so the Romans tried to force the issue. They failed, and so the Vandals decided to set up their own kingdom in North Africa. The fall of North Africa presented two major problems to the Romans: the first was that the province of Africa was the main breadbasket for the Western Empire. Now the Vandals could shut off the grain supply whenever they felt like it, or force the Western Empire to ask the East for help from Egypt. The second and possibly larger problem was that Carthage (the new capital of the Vandalic Kingdom) was previously one of Rome's most important shipyards. In one fell stroke, the Vandals had both crippled Western Rome's naval capacity and increased their own. It was this new Vandal navy that allowed the Vandals to sack Rome itself in 455 and defeat the combined Western-Eastern coalition at Cape Bon in 468. 
The Vandals, like many other Germanic tribes active in the Late Roman Empire, belonged to the Arian denomination of Christianity. This set a very clear difference between the Vandals and the Nicene/Chalcedonian Romans, and this would eventually prove instrumental in provoking conflict. In 523, Hilderic [note 3] became king of the Vandals. According to Procopius, one of our principal sources on this era, Hilderic was "harsh neither to the [Nicene] Christians nor to anyone else, but in regard to affairs of war he was a weakling and did not wish this thing even to come to his ears," and was apparently quite friendly to Justinian himself. However, many of his family considered him too pro-Roman, and so a noble named Gelimer deposed him in 530. Justinian's protests fell on deaf ears, and so he resolved to press the issue when the situation allowed him. 
It was only after the Nika Riots when his position was secure enough to deal with the Vandals. He sent Flavius Belisarius of the Battle of Dara fame to spearhead the assault. While the Vandals were distracted putting down rebellions in Sardinia and Tripolitania, Belisarius was able to land in North Africa unopposed. Gelimer promptly executed Hilderic and ordered his men to ambush Belisarius' army, but was defeated at the Battle of Decimum and forced to flee for his life, while his brother was killed in the fighting. For the first time in almost a hundred years, Carthage was occupied by the Romans.
The Vandal fleet eventually returned to reinforce Gelimer, but to little avail. Belisarius destroyed the Vandalic army at Tricamerum, killing yet another of Gelimer's brothers. Gelimer and the last Vandal remnants surrendered soon after, bringing the Vandal Kingdom to a close. It was replaced by the Praetorian Prefecture of Africa, which would remain in place until the Muslim Conquests
Justinian was so impressed with Belisarius' success that he granted his general a triumph, an honor that was bestowed only upon the Emperors themselves since the foundation of the Empire itself.  This would, however, be a preview of the coming conflicts between emperor and general; as Belisarius's fame increased, Justinian and Theodora became increasingly worried that he would soon decide to seize power himself.
- As such, the terms "Roman" and "Byzantine" will be used interchangeably in this article.
- heir-presumptive and junior co-ruler
- Hilderic, incidentally, was the grandson of King Genseric, who sacked Rome in 455, and the great-great-grandson of Theodosius I, the Emperor infamous for his semi-establishment of Nicene Christianity as the Roman state religion.
- Ostrogorski, Georgije. History of the Byzantine State. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1957. page 70
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Julius Nepos." Encyclopædia Britannica. May 05, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Julius-Nepos.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Zeno." Encyclopædia Britannica. April 05, 2019. Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Zeno-emperor.
- Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. "Justin I." Encyclopædia Britannica. July 28, 2018. Accessed May 18, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Justin-I.
- "Theodora." Brooklyn Museum: Theodora. Accessed May 19, 2019. https://www.brooklynmuseum.org/eascfa/dinner_party/place_settings/theodora.
- Treadgold, Warren T. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.
- Treadgold, Warren T. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000.