By J. A. S. Evans
Historical Papers / Communications historiques, Volume 3:1 (1968)
Introduction: Justinian, who succeeded his uncle Justin as emperor at Constantinople in 527 AD, probably never intended to mark an epoch. Not, at least, the epoch which the modern historian must assign him, for he intended to renew the Roman Empire, whereas in fact he was a transitional figure, who more than anyone else marks the beginning of the Byzantine world. Writers of standard textbooks on mediaeval history are inclined to give Justinian a few kind words on the one hand for his law code, and the architectural triumph of Haghia Sophia, and with the other hand to subtract the praise by noting severely that he overextended the empire’s resources, and spent too much time on religious disputes. Justinian as a theologian was supremely unsucessful; neither the church tradition in the east nor in the Catholic west has been generous to him on this score. His wife Theodora has fared somewhat better; Slavonic tradition presented her as not only the most beautiful but the wisest of women, and the Monophysite churc of Syria by the twelfth century had evolved a legend whereby her father was not a bearkeeper but rather a pious old senator, who made Justinian swear, when he asked for her hand in marriage, that he he would never force her to accept the accursed doctrines of the Council of Chalcedon. Catholic tradition, hoever, always viewed her as somewhat the opposite of a saint, and when Procopius’ Secret History was disinterred from the Vatican Library and published in 1623 with all its lurid detail about Theodora’s early life, its first editor, Nicholas Alemannus, remarked that it was not worthwhile to seek evidence to confirm Procopius, for nothing was too execrable to be believed of a woman who tried to overturn the Council of Chalcedon. Up until this century, judgments on the reign of Justinian have rarely been free of religious or anti-religious prejudices.