The short books appearing regularly in the series “Wissen” from the German publisher C.H. Beck are a rewarding and reliable source for both readers in the field and for non-specialists of new insights into important topics in current research. In France a corresponding series, which by now has produced a library of its own, is entitled “Que sais-je?” What do we know now, after reading Mischa Meier’s (M.) introduction to Justinian? Briefly, M., who recently published a much more broadly conceived study on Justinian,1 has succeeded in vividly portraying a complex character from Late Antiquity for a general audience, and in doing so has reached the right combination of common knowledge and his own theses. The result is a slim book written by an author deeply knowledgeable of Justinian with a willingness to go a long way to do justice to this somewhat curious emperor.
The structure of the book, 14 brief chapters, generally follows the chronology of Justinian’s long life (he was born in 481/82 and died in 565, 83 years old). In the first chapter M. focuses on two crucial exceptions of Justinian’s reign compared to earlier emperors. First, J. was unusually consistent in the interpretation of his divine charge: to him, all his successes were gifts of God, all his failures divine punishment. Second, and related to the first, under J. the role of the people changed fundamentally. The fact that Justinian’s crowning ceremony took place not in the Hippodrome, the central meeting point of emperor and people, but in the palace, thereby excluding the people, was an indication of Justinian’s politics. M. argues that the illness of his uncle and predecessor Justin I was obviously nothing but an excuse for the absence of the people (Leo I, for instance, had once when critically ill dragged himself to the Hippodrome). M. then shows (chapter 2) how Justinian’s constantly increasing and unusual piety can be explained (at least partially) by the fantastic and unexpected career of the “young farmer’s son” (Procopius). Justinian’s first arrival in Constantinople is used by M. to give the readers an introduction to this city.
After the fall of Rome and the end of the West Roman empire, it was not only in Constantinople that people were waiting for the end of times and the second coming of Christ. But the end of times did not arrive and the resurrection failed to happen, even under Anastasius, who carried a most appropriate name for this occasion. M. shows (chapter 3) how Justinian inherited a disappointed population, who in the time since Anastasius had endured disasters such as earthquakes and epidemics. It is no coincidence that the introduction of the new calendar counted from the life of Christ (525 through Dionysius Exiguus) happened in this period of uncertainty. Justinian endeavored, as M. writes, to replace the longing for the end of times with an optimistic image of a new age, his age.
It is not really new when M. describes the young emperor Justinian as a workaholic (John Lydus called him the “most sleepless of all emperors”) who was extremely active in all areas (chapter 4) and then towards the end of his life became increasingly hesitant (chapter 10) after experiencing several setbacks (not the least of which was the plague which left Justinian himself ill for some time). But due to the brief format of the book this radical description leaves a strong impression on the reader.
One of the many exciting aspects of Justinian as a historical figure is his politics of religion. M. proceeds quickly with this theme. It becomes apparent how Justinian, as a supporter of the Chalcedon creed, first attempts to hold back the Monophysites (with only limited success, e.g. in Egypt) and, second, attempts to restrain pretty much all who fail to agree with his own personal convictions. This was true for pagans, Manichaeans, and Jews. It is also at this time that Justinian made his fatal decision to prohibit the teaching of philosophy in Athens (529).
Naturally, the primary association of Justinian’s name is with that of lawgiver. Also in chapter 4 M. briefly traces the outline of the history of the Codex Iustinianus and the Corpus Iuris Civilis. Thus between the pages of one chapter, the reader meets a Justinian who is a sometimes reckless persecutor of dissenters and a Justinian who, due to his legal work in general, is counted as one of the most significant contributors to European legal history. Scholarship, even in antiquity, has always considered Justinian an ambiguous personality. And here, in such a concise presentation, the impression of ambiguity is even stronger. In the context of some of Justinian’s reckless actions, Edward Gibbon’s harsh verdict on Justinian makes sense: “the government of Justinian united the evils of liberty and servitude; and the Romans were oppressed at the same time by the multiplicity of their laws and the arbitrary will of their master.”
Occasionally, M. takes issue with the communis opinio with respect to certain details. On one important question, however, M. offers a thesis which many readers will find somewhat bold. M. refuses to interpret the tremendously bloody Nika Riots in the year 532 as a popular rebellion (chapter 5):2 “One cannot completely reject a terrible suspicion: The riots were wanted. Justinian’s goal was obviously to publicly appear weak, endangered, even ready to escape. This would cause his influential enemies to feel empowered and to reveal their identities. Then, the emperor could destroy them and at the same time demonstrate his uncompromising strength to his people.” M.’s thesis is interesting, although it naturally relies on events of which the emperor could have had no knowledge from the beginning.
Chapter 6 is concerned with the legend of Justinian’s wife Theodora, former actress and prostitute. M. makes sure to remind the reader of the great discrepancies in the ancient sources. Indeed, depending on the source consulted, one may be reminded of the mosaic of the chaste Theodora in San Vitale in Ravenna or not. Chapter 7 outlines the military campaigns in the West, that is the wars against the Vandals and the Ostrogoths. Chapter 8 treats, among others, those of Justinian’s laws that concern women and children. Justinian improved the status of married women and took measures to stop the capture and enslaving of women and the abandonment of children. Also the rights of slaves were improved under Justinian’s watch. In chapters 9 to 12 M. reviews the activities of Justinian after the catastrophes of the years 540-42 (the Persian conquest of Antioch, reignition of the war with the Goths, the plague). M. shows clearly how Justinian began withdrawing from political life and how all the initiatives of earlier years slowed down. Also the numbers of new laws decreased. Instead, Justinian turned to theological questions and wrote theological tractates. The not exactly transparent religious controversies of the time (Three chapters, Origenism), may leave one with the impression that Justinian himself barely had an attitude to these questions. According to M. that was not the case: Justinian’s religious politics was not accidental or haphazard. His focus remained the promotion of his own religious preferences, in other words to support what was for him the irreversible Council of Chalcedon, and to battle the Monophysites.
Anyone interested in a very brief introduction to the exciting transition into the Byzantine age will find it in chapter 13. With the proliferation of the icon, the intensification of Mary worship and the sacralizing of imperial cult, phenomena of the later Justinian, the last years of this emperor point to Byzantine culture. In a summarizing remark, M. rightly points out that it would be too simple to conclude, as scholars often do, that Justinian was an emperor who went too far (by his military undertakings and in other ways) and was duly punished by life. In his last chapter (chapter 14) M. seems to find that a much too simple judgment and shows how Justinian was to some extent at least simply a phenomenon of his time.
This book obviously does not aim for comprehensiveness. One topic, however, should not have been left out: an overview of the literature in the time of Justinian. This is, after all, a very important period of transition. M. points to the sources immediately relevant to the life and work of Justinian (such as Procopius, Agathias, John Malalas). Otherwise, there is no mention of the literary production by other important writers who were active at least during parts of Justinian’s career, such as Boethius, Cassiodorus, Verecundus and Corippus (the latter mentioned a few times by M.).
This does not change the overall assessment of the book. M. has composed an excellent introduction to Justinian. The book is too brief and the intended audience too broad for this work to become a standard reference work (for that one will have to refer to M.’s Habilitationsschrift). But for accessible and reliable information on Justinian, M.’s book is the right place to look.
1. M. Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians. Kontingenzerfahrung und Kontingenzbewältigung im 6. Jahrhundert n.Chr. Göttingen 2003.
2. Cf. M. Meier, “Die Inszenierung einer Katastrophe: Justinian und der Nika-Aufstand.” ZPE 142 (2003) 273-300.