Justinian’s reconquest of the West : ideology, warfare, religion, and politics in sixth-century Byzantium

Justinian’s reconquest of the West : ideology, warfare, religion, and politics in sixth-century Byzantium

By James W. Matthews

Bachelor’s Thesis, Williams College, 2008

Introduction: On May 7, 558 CE, Constantinople was struck by its second earthquake in less than eighteen months. Already weakened by the 557 quake, the large central dome and eastern supporting semi-dome of the Hagia Sophia – Justinian’s greatest architectural accomplishment and the largest church in the world – completely collapsed. Undaunted, the aging emperor immediately set to work restoring the cathedral, relying on Isodorus the Younger (nephew of Isidore of Miletus, one of the original architects) to redesign the building, which would boast an even taller dome and surpass the majesty of its previous form, already the greatest feat of engineering of its age. At the cathedral’s rededication ceremony on December 23, 562, Justinian, determined not to let the troubles of his reign overshadow its accomplishments, is reported by an anonymous chronicler to have approached the ambo lectern alone, raised his hands to Heaven, and proclaimed, “Glory to God, who has deemed me worthy of such a work. Solomon, I have surpassed you!”

Solomon, of course, was the builder of the original house of God, the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem in the tenth century BCE that housed the Ark of the Covenant. The temple’s last incarnation was finally destroyed in 70 CE, when the future emperor Titus decisively suppressed a Judean rebellion, though the Ark had long been unaccounted for after the sack of Jerusalem and destruction of the original temple by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Despite the temple’s fate, Justinian’s declaration claimed that he himself had a special relationship with God, even more privileged than that of Solomon, whose reputation for piety and wisdom made him the iconic role model of medieval kingship, and that through the Hagia Sophia he had glorified God more greatly than Solomon had in Jerusalem. In so doing, Justinian laid claim to God’s sanction for his own rule and sought to legitimize his ability to carry out the obligations of the imperial office as a successor to the great Hebrew kings of the Old Testament. Such an assertion was fundamental to Justinian’s self-perception. This thesis will examine the guiding ideology of Justinian’s emperorship and how that ideology especially manifested itself in terms of Justinian’s diplomacy and his relationship with the former provinces of the Western Roman Empire. It will also consider how the emperor’s ideology regarding the West, as well as his justifications and motivations for his momentous efforts to reconquer it, changed over the course of Justinian’s reign.

Click here to read this thesis from Williams College

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine