On this day in the year 565CE, one thousand four hundred and fifty one years ago, a truly extraordinary man died – a man who changed our world irrevocably. What’s more, the changes he wrought impact all of us, every single day in ways grand and small and yet most of us have never heard of him. It is safe to say that our world would be quite different had he not lived.
At birth his name was Pietrus Sabbatius, citizen of the Roman Empire born to a family of little merit in the grasslands of Thrace, west of the capitol of the Roman Empire at Constantinople. A note on that city – at the time of his birth not only was it the seat of government (the Emperor Constantine had moved the capital to Constantinople, formerly known as Byzantium, known today as Istanbul in 335CE) – but it was the grandest city in the entire world, filled with a million inhabitants. By the time he died, Pietrus was known as the Emperor Justinian “the Great”, Caesar, “Restitutor Orbiter” (restored of the world) and later Saint of the Orthodox Church.
He was a most peculiar man, married to an equally peculiar woman by any standard who went by the name of Theodora – she was as beautiful and cunning as Cleopatra herself. Together the Imperial couple were (not by accident) surrounded by some of the most extraordinarily able, creative, and dedicated people that had ever been assembled in support of an idea, a sovereign, or a nation. In the case of Justinian’s cabinet (filled with such luminaries as the General Belisarius who won wars with ideas, John ‘the Cappadocian’ the able administrator, Anthemius of Tralles the architect and inventor responsible for the Santa Sophia, and Tribunian the Qaestor the man who codified the whole history of Roman law), they supported something that was at once of this earth and yet more, aspirational, otherworldly. A single word that captures their cause continues to enchant us for reasons that none can entirely explain so long after it ceased to exist – ROME. It enchanted Justinian as well, it motivated his every breath, for that reason he bears remembering this day.
Justinian ruled Rome (and hence the known world) for 38 years, rising to the throne 51 years after the last Western Emperor was forced off the throne by the Goth warlord Odoacer. This new Caesar did not accept the status quo of a dismembered Empire where barbarian princes ran roughshod over Roman peoples and principles. Eastern Emperors that had ruled before him, after the fall of the West, seemed resigned to this new, diminished, belittled Rome but not Justinian. He dedicated his life to stitching the Empire back together – his unequalled general by the name of Belisarius took a handful of elite Roman knights and reconquered Africa and Italy, defeating vastly superior barbarian armies in the process.
Although Justinian was known by contemporaries as the Last Roman, the very last Caesar of Rome, Constantine XI “Palaiologos” would die in 1465, nine hundred years later, scant decades before Columbus set sail for the New World. Yet Justinian was very much the last Caesar of the ancient world. Many scholars have sought to explain why the Western Roman Empire declined prior to Justinian’s ascension, and to distill the world-rending pressures that would forever change Rome after Justinian (I would warmly recommend “Justinian’s Flea” by William Rosen for any interested in a brilliant and unconventional analysis of Rome’s transition into the Dark Ages – for those interested in a fictional account of his reign I’d be honored if you would see my trilogy on the subject, the “Legend of Africanus” on Amazon).
That said, it is worth repeating a few of the simple reasons why Justinian’s life represents such a milestone in world history and why his controversial reign marks the end of the Ancient World. Here is a short list of my reasons why this man should matter to you.
– Justinian was the last Roman Emperor to speak Latin as his native tongue (after him they would speak Greek first, Latin as an afterthought if at all).
– His remarkable compilation of a thousand years of Roman law formed the basis of most modern Western democracies, continuing to provide their legal framework to this day.
– His legal reforms allowed woman to inherit property and decreed that the beaches of his territory were public property and could not be taken as private property nor could access to them be blocked (a tradition that is still enshrined in our legal system).
– He was the last Caesar to rule over a Roman Empire that included the city of Rome amongst its dominions (thanks to General Flavius Belisarius – another contender for the title of “Last Roman”).
And while he lived, Rome remained ‘The One’ – after him, she gradually became one amongst many. She would wax and wane over the next nine hundred years and for as long as there was a Caesar on the Bosporus she would influence the world in infinite ways large and small, but never again as she did under Justinian.