The Last Roman Emperor

A soldier by name only, Justinian had the good fortune to be the nephew of a soldier, Justin, who had risen to a position of authority at the Emperor’s court in sixth-century Constantinople. Being childless, Justin and his wife summoned their nephew from the wilds of Thrace, where he was born on a hog farm, to the city where they made sure he was schooled in classical studies as well as prepared for a military career.

Fighting as “Christ’s soldier” was the only kind of warfare Justinian could contemplate. An avid scholar and amateur theologian, he possessed vaulting ambition and big dreams. Although his elderly uncle had no conception of rising higher than Count of the palace guards, Justinian had other ideas. And he had enough cunning to translate his idea (that his uncle could become Emperor) into reality.

Thus began Justinian’s own rise to power. Never forgetting that he owed his ascendancy to his own merit and imagination, Justinian became a great innovator. The progressive laws he passed were called “novels”, and they swept away established customs “wholesale” (in the historian Procopius’s hyperbolic words) because Justinian was determined to “change all things to new forms”.

An intuitive engineer and micro-manager of details like Steve Jobs, Justinian became an unrivaled builder of magnificent churches. He also excelled as a codifier of Roman law, great legislator and protector of the faith. In the latter role, he embarked on merciless persecution of his subjects in order to compel them to worship according to orthodox beliefs. Convinced that he was God’s representative on Earth, Justinian ruthlessly eliminated rivals who threatened his rule or, as he thought of it, stability of the state.


He was a man of contradictions: strictly religious, yet he could ignore the commandment “thou shalt not kill” when expedient. Intent on restoring the grandeur of the lost Roman Empire, he nearly ran it into the ground by tax-gouging. Sure that any means were justifiable in his crusade to save souls and revitalize the Empire, he was tortured by guilt over the messy methods entailed.

Obvious differences aside, Justinian was a sort of Tony Soprano figure (if you omit the Bada Bing Club and adultery, and substitute protecting his state for collecting protection money). His strong-arm tactics supported the law (unless the lawbreakers happened to be his supporters), and the laws were all his.

In personality, Justinian was affable, approachable, shrewd, pious and tireless – a quintessential policy wonk. He worked constantly, played not at all, and never showed the least taste for luxury or even pleasure. Except when it came to his choice of a mate.

In a nearly unbelievable lapse of propriety, this man who dedicated his whole life to serving God and the Roman Empire was totally enthralled by the ex-harlot, ex-actress Theodora. They made an improbable couple: a swan-dancer and a swineherd. Their love story shaped the age – for better and for worse.

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