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Lectures for A Medieval Survey

Lynn H. Nelson

The Reign of Justinian


The reign of Justinian was an extremely significant period. It marked the final end of the Roman Empire; the establishment of the new, Byzantine empire; the beginning of western Europe'S unique position within the civilizations of the old world; and made possible the spread of Islam and the rise of the Franks.

1. The empire was united under the eastern emperor in theory; Justinian tried to make it so in fact. His armies invaded the Vandal, Ostrogothic, and Visigothic kingdoms in turn, and, in a series of bitter wars (540-554), reconquered much of the Mediterranean lands of the west.

But the westerners did not want a return of Roman taxation, Roman justice, and imperial interference in their affairs. The easterners did not want to waste money defending these western conquests and were impoverished by the cost of these wars.

When Justinian died in 565 and new invaders entered the west, the eastern empire did very little to stop them. Neither westerners nor easterners had any further interest in restoring the empire.

2. Although committed to the idea of a Roman Empire, Justinian recognized that his realms were basically Greek and that the imperial administration would be more effective, if the fact were recognized. Once the government stopped forcing the use of the Latin language and Roman institutions upon its people, the eastern empire rapidly became more eastern in its customs and outlook.

3. In the course of the sixth century, the other classical civilizations recovered from the barbarians the lands they had lost in the fifth. The Sui dynasty of China reunited north and south China by 589, the Persians recovered the Iranian plateau by 557; and by 606, Harsha has established a new Indian empire. Only in the Mediterranean did the wars of reconquest fail. Western Europe was the only part of a classical empire to fall permanently under barbarian control. The continuity of imperial institutions was broken only in western Europe. It was the only area to begin an independent development.

4. During his western wars, Justinian had bought peace with the Persians, weakened the empire, and oppressed his subjects. The Persians recognized this weakness, and attacked the Byzantine empire after Justinian's death in 565. They managed to devastate and/or occupy much of the Byzantine empire until the emperor Heraclius turned the tide of battle against them. By 632, the Byzantines were triumphant, but both the Persian and Byzantine peoples and economies were exhausted and easily beaten by confident Muslim armies.

Heraclius' subjects were oppressed by both religious and political regimentation as well as a ruinous burden of taxes. Many welcomed the tolerant Muslims, with their light taxes, as liberators and quickly converted to Islam.

s. Justinian's reconquests in the west were not permanent, but his destruction or weakening of the most sophisticated and highly-romanized of the Germanic invaders was. The Ostrogothic and Vandal states were eliminated and the Visigothic kingdom greatly weakened. The only culturally advanced German tribe left untouched were the Burgundians, and they were too few in number to exercise any real power.

Justinian's abortive "reconquest" had left the Franks as the most powerful force in the west. This left the direction of western affairs in the hands of those people least able to maintain Roman traditions. Only the Frankish alliance with the church of Rome preserved some measure of continuity with Europe's classical past.

g. Conclusion

We often view history as a series of "achievements," and think that great men and women control the course of events. In the case of Justinian, the view may be partly true. The results of his decisions were crucial in the development of western Europe. The Middle Ages would not have happened had it not been for Justinian. But it was not because of his "achievements," but because of his failures that history turned out the way that it did. His ill- conceived western venture led to a clear split between the westerners and the eastern Romans; his abandonment of Latin made the division permanent, and so he failed to reunited the empire, as the leaders of the other classical civilizations had done. He weakened the eastern empire and strengthened the Persians, setting a stage for a devastating war that weakened the eastern empire to such an extent that it could not effectively resist the spread of Islam. Finally, he destroyed those western Germanic powers that were committed to attempting to preserve as much of imperial civilization as possible. And this led, indirectly, to the rise of the medieval church.

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Copyright ©1999, Lynn H. Nelson. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents,including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.The contents of ORB are copyright © 1995-1999 Laura V. Blanchard and Carolyn Schriber except as otherwise indicated herein.