The 6th century: from East Rome to Byzantium
The 6th century opened, in effect, with the death of Anastasius and the accession of the Balkan soldier who replaced him, Justin I (ruled 518–527). During most of Justin’s reign, actual power lay in the hands of his nephew and successor, Justinian I.
The following account of those more than 40 years of Justinian’s effective rule is based upon the works of Justinian’s contemporary the historian Procopius. The latter wrote a laudatory account of the emperor’s military achievements in his Polemon (Wars) and coupled it in his Anecdota (Secret History) with a venomous threefold attack upon the emperor’s personal life, the character of the empress Theodora, and the conduct of the empire’s internal administration.
Justinian’s reign may be divided into three periods:
(1) an initial age of conquest and cultural achievement extending until the decade of the 540s;
(2) 10 years of crisis and near disaster during the 540s;
and (3) the last decade of the reign, in which mood, temper, and social realities more nearly resembled those to be found under Justinian’s successors than those prevailing throughout the first years of his own reign.
Justinian I, 6th-century mosaic at the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy. © A De Gregorio—DeA Picture Library/age footstock
After 550, it is possible to begin to speak of a medieval Byzantine, rather than an ancient East Roman, empire. Of the four traumas that eventually transformed the one into the other—namely, pestilence, warfare, social upheaval, and the Arab Muslim assault of the 630s—the first two were features of Justinian’s reign.
The years of achievement to 540
Justinian is but one example of the civilizing magic that Constantinople often worked upon the heirs of those who ventured within its walls. Justin, the uncle, was a rude and illiterate soldier; Justinian, the nephew, was a cultivated gentleman, adept at theology, a mighty builder of churches, and a sponsor of the codification of Roman law. All those accomplishments are, in the deepest sense of the word, civilian, and it is easy to forget that Justinian’s empire was almost constantly at war during his reign. The history of East Rome during that period illustrates, in classical fashion, how the impact of war can transform ideas and institutions alike.
The reign opened with external warfare and internal strife. From Lazica to the Arabian Desert, the Persian frontier blazed with action in a series of campaigns in which many of the generals later destined for fame in the West first demonstrated their capacities. The strength of the East Roman armies is revealed in the fact that, while containing Persian might, Justinian could nonetheless dispatch troops to attack the Huns in Crimea and to maintain the Danubian frontier against a host of enemies.
In 532 Justinian decided to abandon military operations in favour of diplomacy. He negotiated, at the cost of considerable tribute, an “Endless Peace” with the Persian king, Khosrow, which freed the Roman’s hands for operations in another quarter of the globe. Thus, Justinian succeeded in attaining the first of the objectives needed for reconquest in the West: peace in the East.
Even before his accession, Justinian had aided in the attainment of the second. Shortly after his proclamation as emperor, Justin had summoned a council of bishops at Constantinople. The council reversed the policies of Anastasius, accepted the Christological formula of Chalcedon, and called for negotiations with the pope. Justinian had personally participated in the ensuing discussions, which restored communion between Rome and all the Eastern churches save Egypt. No longer could a barbarian king hope to maintain the loyalties of his Catholic subjects by convincing them that a “Monophysite” emperor ruled in the East.
In the same year of 532, Justinian survived a revolt in Constantinople, stemming from the Nika riot, which initially threatened his life no less than his throne but, in the event, only strengthened his position. To understand the course of events, it is essential to remember that Constantinople, like other great East Roman cities, often had to depend upon its urban militia, or demes, to defend its walls.
Coinciding with divisions within the demes were factions organized to support rival charioteers competing in the horse races: the Blues and the Greens. It was originally thought that those two factions were divided by differing political and religious views and that those views were aired to the emperor during the races. More-recent scholarship has shown that the factions were seldom motivated by anything higher than partisan fanaticism for their respective charioteers.
The Nika riot «ΕΝ ΤΟΥΤΩ ΝΙΚΑ»
“Nika!” (“Conquer!” or “Win!”) being the slogan shouted during the races—of 532, however, was one of the rare occasions when the factions voiced political opposition to the imperial government.
Angered at the severity with which the urban prefect had suppressed a riot, the Blues and the Greens first united and freed their leaders from prison; they insisted then that Justinian dismiss from the office two of his most-unpopular officials: John of Cappadocia and Tribonian.
Even though the emperor yielded to their demands, the crowd was not appeased, converted its riot into a revolt, and proclaimed a nephew of Anastasius as emperor. Justinian was saved only because the empress, Theodora, refused to yield. Justinian’s able general, Belisarius, sequestered the rebels in the Hippodrome and slaughtered them to the number of 30,000. The leaders were executed, and their estates passed, at least temporarily, into the emperor’s hands.
After 532 Justinian ruled more firmly than ever before. With the subsequent proclamation of the “Endless Peace,” he could hope to use his earlier-won reputation as a champion of Chalcedonian orthodoxy and appeal to those Western Romans who preferred the rule of a Catholic Roman emperor to that of an Arian German kinglet. In those early years of the 530s, Justinian could indeed pose as the pattern of a Roman and Christian emperor. Latin was his language, and his knowledge of Roman history and antiquities was profound.
In 529 his officials had completed a major collection of the emperors’ laws and decrees promulgated since the reign of Hadrian. Called the Codex Constitutionum and partly founded upon the 5th-century Theodosian Code, it comprised the first of four works compiled between 529 and 565 called the Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), commonly known as the Code of Justinian. That first collection of imperial edicts, however, pales before the Digesta completed under Tribonian’s direction in 533.
In the latter work, order and system were found in (or forced upon) the contradictory rulings of the great Roman jurists; to facilitate instruction in the schools of law, a textbook, the Institutiones (533), was designed to accompany the Digesta.
The fourth book, the Novellae Constitutiones Post Codicem (commonly called the Novels), consists of collections of Justinian’s edicts promulgated between 534 and 565.
Meanwhile, architects and builders worked apace to complete the new Church of the Holy Wisdom, Hagia Sophia, designed to replace an older church destroyed in the course of the Nika revolt. In five years they had constructed the edifice, and it stands today as one of the major monuments of architectural history.
In 533 the moment had clearly come to reassert Christian Roman authority in the West, and Vandal North Africa seemed the most-promising theatre of operations. Although a major expedition mounted under Leo I had failed to win back the province, political conditions in the Vandal monarchy had altered to the Eastern emperor’s favour.
When King Hilderich was deposed and replaced, Justinian could rightfully protest that action taken against a monarch who had ceased persecution of North African Catholics and had allied himself with Constantinople. The Eastern merchants favoured military action in the West, but Justinian’s generals were reluctant; possibly for that reason, only a small force was dispatched under Belisarius. Success came with surprising ease after two engagements, and in 534 Justinian set about organizing that new addition to the provinces of the Roman Empire.
Those were, in fact, years of major provincial reorganization, and not in North Africa alone. A series of edicts dated in 535 and 536, clearly conceived as part of a master plan by the prefect John of Cappadocia, altered administrative, judicial, and military structures in Thrace and Asia Minor.
In general, John sought to provide a simplified and economical administrative structure in which overlapping jurisdictions were abolished, civil and military functions were sometimes combined in violation of Constantinian principles, and a reduced number of officials were provided with greater salaries to secure better personnel and to end the lure of bribery.
In the prefaces to his edicts, Justinian boasted of his reconstituted authority in North Africa, hinted at greater conquests to come, and—in return for the benefits his decrees were to provide—urged his subjects to pay their taxes promptly so that there might be “one harmony between ruler and ruled.”
Quite clearly the emperor was organizing the state for the most-strenuous military effort, and, later (possibly in 539), reforms were extended to Egypt, whence the export of grain was absolutely essential for the support of expeditionary armies and Constantinople.
Developments during 534 and 535 in Ostrogothic Italy made it the most likely victim after the fall of Vandal North Africa. When Theodoric died in 526, he was succeeded by a minor grandson for whom Theodoric’s daughter, Amalasuntha, acted as regent. Upon the boy’s death, Amalasuntha attempted to seize power in her own right and connived at the assassination of three of her chief enemies.
Her diplomatic relations with the Eastern emperor had always been marked by cordiality and even dependency; thus, when Amalasuntha, in turn, met her death in a blood feud mounted by the slain men’s families, Justinian seized the opportunity to protest the murder.
In 535, as in 533, a small tentative expedition sent to the West—in that instance, to Sicily—met with easy success. At first the Goths negotiated; then they stiffened their resistance, deposed their king, Theodahad, in favour of a stronger man, Witigis, and attempted to block Belisarius’s armies as they entered the Italian peninsula. There the progress of East Roman arms proved slower, and victory did not come until 540 when Belisarius captured Ravenna, the last major stronghold in the north, and, with it, King Witigis, a number of Gothic nobles, and the royal treasure.
All were dispatched to Constantinople, where Justinian was presumably thankful for the termination of hostilities in the West. Throughout the 530s, Justinian’s generals almost constantly had to fight to preserve imperial authority in the new province of North Africa and in the Balkans as well. In 539 a Gothic embassy reached Persia, and the information it provided caused the king, Khosrow, to grow restive under the constraints of the “Endless Peace.”
During the next year (the same year  that a Bulgar force raided Macedonia and reached the long walls of Constantinople), Khosrow’s armies reached even Antioch in the pursuit of booty and blackmail. They returned unhurt, and 541 witnessed the Persian capture of a fortress in Lazica. In Italy, meanwhile, the Goths chose a new king, Totila, under whose able leadership the military situation in that land was soon to be transformed.
No summary of the quiet but ominous last years of Justinian’s reign would be complete without some notice of the continuing attacks of bubonic plague and the impact that they were to continue to produce until the 8th century. As have other societies subjected to devastation from warfare or disease, East Roman society might have compensated for its losses of the 540s had the survivors married early and produced more children in the succeeding generations. Two developments prevented recovery. Monasticism, with its demands for celibacy, grew apace in the 6th century, and the plague returned sporadically to attack those infants who might have replaced fallen members of the older generations.
The resulting shortage of manpower affected several aspects of a state and society that perceptibly were losing their Roman character and assuming their Byzantine. The construction of new churches, so noteworthy a feature of the earlier years, ceased as men did little more than rebuild or add to existing structures.
An increasing need for taxes, together with a decreasing number of taxpayers, evoked stringent laws that forced members of a village tax group to assume collective responsibility for vacant or unproductive lands. That, contemporary sources avow, was a burden difficult to assume, in view of the shortage of agricultural workers after the plague. Finally, the armies that won the victories described above in east and west were largely victorious only because Justinian manned them as never before with barbarians: Goths, Armenians, Heruli, Gepids, Saracens, and Persians—to name only the most prominent.
It was far from easy to maintain discipline among so motley an army; yet, once the unruly barbarian accepted the quieter life of the garrison soldier, he tended to lose his fighting capacity and prove, once the test came, of little value against the still warlike barbarian facing him beyond the frontier. The army, in short, was a creation of war and kept its quality only by participating in battlefield action, but further expansive warfare could hardly be undertaken by a society chronically short of men and money.
In summary, the East Roman (or better, the Byzantine) state of the late 6th century seemed to confront many of the same threats that had destroyed the Western Empire in the 5th century. Barbarians pressed upon it from beyond the Balkan frontier, and peoples of barbarian origin manned the armies defending it.
Wealth accumulated during the 5th century had been expended, and, to satisfy the basic economic and military needs of state and society, there were too few native Romans. If the Byzantine Empire avoided the fate of West Rome, it did so only because it was to combine valour and good luck with certain advantages of institutions, emotions, and attitudes that the older empire had failed to enjoy. One advantage already described, diplomatic skill, blends institutional and attitudinal change, for diplomacy would never have succeeded had not the Byzantine statesmen been far more curious and knowing than Justinian’s 5th-century predecessor about the habits, customs, and movements of the barbarian peoples.
The Byzantine’s attitude had changed in yet another way. He was willing to accept the barbarian within his society provided that the latter, in his turn, accept Chalcedonian Christianity and the emperor’s authority.
Christianity was often, to be sure, a veneer that cracked in moments of crisis, permitting a very old paganism to emerge, while loyalty to the emperor could be forsworn and often was. Despite those shortcomings, the Christian faith and the ecclesiastical institutions defined in the 6th century proved better instruments by far to unite people and stimulate their morale than the pagan literary culture of the Greco-Roman world.
Christian culture of the Byzantine Empire
Justinian’s legislation dealt with almost every aspect of the Christian life: entrance into it by conversion and baptism, administration of the sacraments that marked its several stages, proper conduct of the laity to avoid the wrath that God would surely visit upon a sinful people, and the standards to be followed by those who lived the particularly holy life of the secular or monastic clergy.
Pagans were ordered to attend church and accept baptism, while a purge thinned their ranks in Constantinople, and masses of them were converted by missionaries in Asia Minor. Only the Christian wife might enjoy the privileges of her dowry; Jews and Samaritans were denied, in addition to other civil disabilities, the privilege of testamentary inheritance unless they converted.
A woman who worked as an actress might better serve God were she to forswear any oath she had taken, even though before God, to remain in that immoral profession.
Blasphemy and sacrilege were forbidden, lest famine, earthquake, and pestilence punish the Christian society. Surely God would take vengeance upon Constantinople, as he had upon Sodom and Gomorrah, should the homosexual persist in his “unnatural” ways.
Istanbul: Hagia Sophia Interior of the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul.Dennis Jarvis (CC-BY-2.0) (A Britannica Publishing Partner)
Justinian regulated the size of churches and monasteries, forbade them to profit from the sale of property, and complained of those priests and bishops who were unlearned in the forms of the liturgy.
His efforts to improve the quality of the secular clergy, or those who conducted the affairs of the church in the world, were most opportune. The best-possible men were needed, for, in most East Roman cities during the 6th century, imperial and civic officials gradually resigned many of their functions to the bishop, or patriarch. The latter collected taxes, dispensed justice, provided charity, organized commerce, negotiated with barbarians, and even mustered the soldiers.
By the early 7th century, the typical Byzantine city, viewed from without, actually or potentially resembled a fortress; viewed from within, it was essentially a religious community under ecclesiastical leadership.
Nor did Justinian neglect the monastic clergy, those who had removed themselves from the world. Drawing upon the regulations to be found in the writings of the 4th-century Church Father St. Basil of Caesarea as well as the acts of 4th- and 5th-century church councils, he ordered the cenobitic (or collective) form of monastic life in a fashion so minute that later codes, including the rule of St. Theodore the Studite in the 9th century, only develop the Justinianic foundation.
Probably the least successful of Justinian’s ecclesiastical policies were those adopted in an attempt to reconcile non-Chalcedonian and Chalcedonian Christians.
After the success of negotiations that had done so much to conciliate the West during the reign of Justin I, Justinian attempted to win over the moderate non-Chalcedonians, separating them from the extremists.
Of the complicated series of events that ensued, only the results need be noted. In developing a creed acceptable to the moderate non-Chalcedonians of the East, Justinian alienated the Chalcedonians of the West and thus sacrificed his earlier gains in that quarter.
The extreme non-Chalcedonians refused to yield. Reacting against Justinian’s persecutions, they strengthened their own ecclesiastical organization, with the result that many of the fortress cities noted above, especially those of Egypt and Syria, owed allegiance to non-Chalcedonian ecclesiastical leadership. To his successors, then, Justinian bequeathed the same religious problem he had inherited from Anastasius.
If, in contrast, his regulation of the Christian life proved successful, it was largely because his subjects themselves were ready to accept it. Traditional Greco-Roman culture was, to be sure, surprisingly tenacious and even productive during the 6th century and was always to remain the treasured possession of an intellectual elite in Byzantium, but the same century witnessed the growth of a Christian culture to rival it.
Magnificent hymns written by St. Romanos Melodos mark the striking development of the liturgy during Justinian’s reign, a development that was not without its social implications. Whereas traditional pagan culture was literary and its pursuit or enjoyment thereby limited to the leisured and wealthy, the Christian liturgical celebration and its musical component were available to all, regardless of place or position.
Biography too became both markedly Christian and markedly popular. Throughout the countryside and the city, holy men appeared in legend or in fact, exorcising demons, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and warding off the invader. Following the pattern used in the 4th century by Athanasius to write the life of St.
Anthony, hagiographers recorded the deeds of those extraordinary men, creating in the saint’s life a form of literature that began to flower in the 6th and 7th centuries.
The vitality and pervasiveness of popular Christian culture manifested themselves most strongly in the veneration increasingly accorded the icon, an abstract and simplified image of Christ, the Virgin, or the saints.
Notable for the timeless quality that its setting suggested and for the power expressed in the eyes of its subject, the icon seemingly violated the Second Commandment’s explicit injunction against the veneration of any religious images. Since many in the early centuries of the church so believed and in the 8th century the image breakers, or iconoclasts, were to adopt similar views, hostility toward images was nearly as tenacious an aspect of Christianity as it had been of Judaism before it.
The contrasting view—a willingness to accept images as a normal feature of Christian practice—would not have prevailed had it not satisfied certain powerful needs as Christianity spread among Gentiles long accustomed to representations of the divinity and among Hellenized Jews who had themselves earlier broken with the Mosaic commandment. The convert all the more readily accepted use of the image if he had brought into his Christianity, as many did, a heritage of Neoplatonism.
The latter school taught that, through contemplation of that which could be seen (i.e., the image of Christ), the mind might rise to contemplation of that which could not be seen (i.e., the essence of Christ). From a belief that the seen suggests the unseen, it is but a short step to a belief that the seen contains the unseen and that the image deserves veneration because divine power somehow resides in it.
Men of the 4th century were encouraged to take such a step, influenced as they were by the analogous veneration that the Romans had long accorded the image of the emperor. Although the first Christians rejected that practice of their pagan contemporaries and refused to adore the image of a pagan emperor, their successors of the 4th century were less hesitant to render such honour to the images of the Christian emperors following Constantine.
Since the emperor was God’s vicegerent on earth and his empire reflected the heavenly realm, the Christian must venerate, to an equal or greater degree, Christ and his saints.
Thus, the Second Commandment finally lost much of its force. Icons appeared in both private and public use during the last half of the 6th century: as a channel of divinity for the individual and as a talisman to guarantee success in battle. During the dark years following the end of Justinian I’s reign, no other element of popular Christian belief better stimulated that high morale without which the Byzantine Empire would not have survived.