Justinian I

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Justinian I

The emperor Justinian I ruled the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire from 527 until 565. He is significant for his efforts to regain the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire, his Codification of Roman Law, and his architectural achievements.

"Justice is the constant and perpetual wish to render to every one his due."
—Justinian I

Justinian was born circa 482 in Pauresium, Illyricum (probably south of modern Nišs, Serbia). Justinian came to the throne with the intention of reestablishing the Roman Empire as it had been before the provinces of the Western Roman Empire fell under the control of various Germanic tribes during the fifth century. To this end, he sent his armies against the Vandals in North Africa (roughly, modern Algeria and Tunisia), the Visigoths in Spain, and the Ostrogoths in Italy. The Vandals surrendered in 534, but the Visigoths and Ostrogoths proved more difficult. Justinian's forces never succeeded in capturing more than a small part of Spain and subdued Italy only after a devastating war that ended in 563 with Italy in ruins. Nonetheless, when Justinian died, he could claim with some justice that the Mediterranean Sea was once again a Roman lake.

Justinian's conquests proved ephemeral, however. Within four years of his death, northern Italy had fallen to the Lombards, another Germanic tribe, and by the early eighth century, Muslim armies had conquered North Africa and Spain.

Justinian's achievements in law were more long-lasting. Although several collections of imperial Roman legislation had been compiled in the past, by Justinian's reign even the most recent, the Theodosian Code (Codex Theodosianus), which had been issued in 438, was out-of-date. Accordingly in 528 Justinian established a commission of ten experts, including Tribonian, to prepare a new edition, which was completed in 534. The Code (Codex), as it was called, contains 4,562 laws from the reign of Hadrian (117–138) to 534.

Roman law, however, encompasses both legislation and Jurisprudence; that is, literature interpreting the law. Despite the importance of jurisprudence, no single collection had ever been made, and some important works were not readily available. Therefore in 530 Justinian ordered his commission to collect the most important writings on jurisprudence and to edit and clarify the texts whenever necessary. To complete their task, the commission had to read two thousand books containing over three million lines, but nonetheless they finished the compilation known as the Digest (Digestum), or Pandects (Pandectae), by December 533.

In the same year, the commissioners issued the Institutes (Institutiones), a handbook for law students. Although Justinian had only planned a tripartite compilation of Roman law, imperial legislation did not cease with the completion of the Code in 534. Therefore the edicts issued by Justinian after 534 were collected and came to be known as the Novels (Novellae), or New Laws. The Code, Digest, and Institutes had been written in Latin, the traditional language of Rome, but Justinian issued the Novels in Greek in recognition of the fact that Greek was the ordinary language of the Eastern Roman Empire. Together the Code, Digest, Institutes, and Novels came to be known as the Corpus juris civilis ("the corpus of civil law"). The Corpus juris not only preserved Roman law for later generations but, after the twelfth century when it came to be known and studied in western Europe, provided inspiration for most European legal systems.

Justinian is also known for the extensive building program that he undertook both in the East and in Italy. The church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, which was completed in 562, is considered one of the finest examples of Byzantine architecture. Justinian died November 14, 565, in Constantinople, now Istanbul, Turkey.

Further readings

Baker, G.P. 2002. Justinian: The Last Roman Emperor. New York, N.Y.: Cooper Square Press.

Lysyk, Stephanie. 1998. "Purple Prose: Writing, Rhetoric and Property in the Justinian Corpus." Cardozo Studies in Law and Literature 10 (summer): 33–60.