Petrus Sabbatius was born to a Latin speaking peasant family in Macedonia with no hint of his glorious future. When he was a boy we was sent to Constantinople where his uncle Justin served in the imperial guard. The rough soldier adopted his nephew. After the adoption the young Petrus took the cognomen by which he is commonly known – Iustinianus i.e Justinian.
The death of the childless emperor Anastasius in 518 gave Justin (possibly with the help of Justinian) the opportunity to rise to the throne. Justinian was Justin’s most prominent adviser and the de facto ruler by the end of Justin’s reign in 527. In 525 Justinian married his mistress Theodora to the scandal of upper class Byzantine society. Theodora was an actress and if the Secret History of Procopius is to be believed a notorious courtesan. Theodora would be Justinian’s partner and save his throne during the Nika Riots of 532 AD by stiffening Justinian’s resolve.
Justinian’s ambitions were grandiose. The most ambitious plan was his attempt to reconquer the lost Western half of the Roman Empire. Vandal North Africa was taken with ease. A dispute in Visigothic Spain gave Justinian the opportunity to seize a slice of Andalusia. But the most exhausting campaign was the 20 year conquest of Ostrogothic Italy. At the end Justinian’s generals were triumphant though Italy lay in ruins.
While this was going on Justinian commissioned the updating and codification of Roman Law – the Justinian Code that is the basis of the legal codes of much of Continental Europe. He built on a grand scale – particularly the spectacular Santa Sophia Church (now the Haga Sophia). Stubbornly refusing to abandon Latin in favor of the Greek used by the majority of his subjects, Justinian is sometimes referred to as the last of the Romans.
Justinian’s reputation in posterity would have been even greater had he died soon after the successful completion of the conquest of Italy in 554. Like Elizabeth I of England and the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius he lived too long. A deadly plague ravaged the Empire resulting a catastrophic loss of manpower – for taxes and military strength. His exhausted empire had to buy off the Avars raiding across the Danube who threatened Constantinople itself. The grand scale of Justinian’s plans and his success eventually weakened the Empire and the military gains were unsustainable. North Italy was lost 3 years after his death. The Spanish province was lost in the 620s. The Monophysite controversy continued unabated weakening the Empire in Egypt and Syria.
Ironically the man who was not Italian, never set foot in Italy and whose reconquest of Italy caused untold misery in the peninsula has been embraced by Italian American lawyers as one of their own in the form of – The Justinian Society.