Born the son of a peasant couple in the barbarian-ravaged province of Dardania, Justin seemed destined to serve the Empire which would cause peace to be brought to his home. During the invasions of Ostrogoths in the middle 5th Century A.D., he and two companions fled to Constantinople, whilst the Emperor of the time (Leo) made peace with the Ostrogoths. As three young men with strong physiques, they had eminent prospect of employment in Leo's new guard corps, the excubitors, which were being assembled by Leo to prevent dominance by German mercenaries. After being enrolled into the excubitors, Justin rapidly ascended the ranks. He became the commander of the excubitors, around the time of the death of Anastasius I in 518 A.D, and these guards were at the time the only soldiers in the city.
Justin met with the high officials of the city in the main palace to choose a successor. Justin, whose soldiers were willing to fight to guarantee his position, was in a powerful position. However, the officials discussed a number of different candidates initially, such as Hypatius (the magister militum of the east), but as he was absent from Constantinople at the time, he was not chosen. With the threat of the general populace in the Hippodrome getting violent, the High Officials finally settled on Justin. He was taken to the Hippodrome, dressed in the Imperial Robes and he addressed the people. He secured the loyalty of the army with a donation of 5 nomismata and one pound of silver to each soldier. Writing to the Pope in Rome, he announced his elevation and his unwillingness to be Emperor. This is most likely a falsehood; he is said to have bribed officials to gain their support over the Chamberlain's candidate, and afterwards had the Chamberlain and his candidate put to death. Thus he was the Roman Emperor, beginning in 518 A.D. and ending with his death in 527 A.D.
During the previous years, the Empire had been divided by warring between various religious factions; mainly those of the Monophysites and the Chalcedonian Orthodoxy. Anastasius had been a persecutor of the Orthodoxy and now Justin reversed this, supporting the Orthodox Church and persecuting the Monophysites. He did much to restore Orthodoxy to the Empire.
However, further division between the Catholic Church and the Eastern Churches caused much conflict, and Justin decided to try to compromise with the Pope in Rome. Solutions were put forward, but nothing was resolved except the old "Acacian Schism" of Zeno's time. The lack of progress, however, proved the futility of Rome's policy of not yielding in the face of the Monophysites. The persecution thus continued, and Orthodoxy continued to expand, even to the army. Eventually Justin pursued a more lenient course. However, in the last few months of his reign, when Justinian was his co-emperor, Imperial policy towards the Monophysites returned to oppression.
Management of External Affairs
Ostrogothic suspicions were raised when the Roman Emperor attempted to repair relations with the Pope. During Anastasius' time, the Ostrogoths had a peaceful agreement with the Romans in which they ruled the Romans in Italy as the Emperor's deputy. This arrangement worked well when the Roman Emperor was Monophysite, but now that a Chalcedonian Orthodox Emperor ruled, one that had regained the loyalty of his subjects in Italy, the situation had been turned on its head. Theodoric, ruler of the Ostrogothic Kingdom, grew wary of the Romans and doubted that they would remain under his control. He attempted to strengthen relations with Justin, but as Justin's anti-heretical policies caused the persecution of Ostrogothic Arians, Theodoric couldn't maintain close relations. He executed his Master of Offices, Boethius, whom he suspected was communicating with the Imperial court in Constantinople treasonably. As well, he threatened to persecute Catholic Christians in Italy through Pope John, who died after returning to Ravenna (possibly through Theodoric's paranoia). Before relations could deteriorate further, Theodoric died, leaving his kingdom to his son Athalaric, and a potential war between the Ostrogoths and the Romans was avoided.
Further problems arose in the east with conflict between the Romans and the Persians. The Persian King Kawad became ill-disposed towards the Roman Emperor Justin, who attempted to conciliate his good will. He initially succeeded, but Kawad put Justin in an impossible situation by asking him to adopt one of his sons, named Khusro, so as to ensure his ascension to the Persian throne. To do so would give Khusro claim to both the Persian throne and the Byzantine throne; a situation Justin could not allow. Therefore Justin offered to adopt Khusro according to a barbarian custom; which the Persians would not accept. Negotiations between the empires broke down, and war broke out. Iberia, a Christian Kingdom in modern-day Georgia, lost it's independence to the Persians, as Justin did not send an adequate force to defend the Iberian Royal Family.
Racked by pain of an old wound and age, Justin feebly endorsed an attack on Persian Armenia (most likely engineered by Justinian) in 526 A.D. These attacks failed. Another army was dispatched to Mesopotamia to reconnoitre, withdrawing after a while. It would seem that Justinian was behind these attempts to take the measure of the Persian strength.
While all this unfolded, many Christian inhabitants of a city in Arabia named Najran (the centre of Christianity in the area) were massacred by a Jew-convert named Dhu Nuwas, the new ruler of the Himyar region (Modern-day Yemen). It is difficult to discern what actually happened, but it would seem that a Christian from Najran escaped to Ethiopia, and told the King, Ela Atzheba, of the massacre. Ela Atzheba would have sent troops to assist, but he had no way of transporting them to Himyar. Through the patriarch of Alexandria, Ela Atzheba apprised Justin of the situation. Justin dispatched transport ships for the Ethiopian army. In two campaigns Ela Atzheba conquered the Himyarite capital, killed Dhu Nuwas and set up a Christian ruler as an Ethiopian client. The situation in Yemen, however, remained volatile and unstable. In 570-72, after Justinian's death, Persia occupied the region.
Justin was by his choosing a career-soldier. He knew little of politics and was not the wisest statesman when he became Emperor. However, through accepting the counsel of trusted advisors and applying a soldier's common sense, he was not an incompetent Emperor, and contrary to popular belief, he was not illiterate. Much of his reign is overshadowed by the rising star of Justinian, and many do not discern the difference between their reigns because of more popular rumour that Justinian ruled in his uncle's name for much of Justin's reign, which is not true, as Justinian was not Justin's co-emperor until a year before his death, and was only a close, trusted advisor to Justin prior to this. It is true, however, that Justinian used Justin's reign as a bridge to his own, and Justin's repealing of a law that in effect prohibited a member of the senatorial class from marrying a woman from a lower class of society, including the theatre, allowed Justinian to marry Theodora, a woman who would later in history become an infamous figure.
He began in fleeing from his homeland with nothing but the clothes on his back, and he ended in one of the highest posts in the world at the time. He had a successful army career and governed the Empire competently. It must be remembered that had Justin not set out for Constantinople that day, or become Emperor, his sister's son (named Flavius Petrus Sabbatius but known more commonly as Justinian) would never have become Justin's heir and ascend to great heights; thus the Eastern Roman Empire would never have felt the reforms and wars of Justinian without Justin's ambition. He receives nowhere near as much acknowledgement for his contribution to history as he deserves.
This article was written by forum member Tobias.
Did you know...?
The town of Anazarbus was re-named Justinopolis in 525 AD in his honour.