Justinian’s Clemency and God’s Clemency
By David Alan Parnell
ΒΥΖΑΝΤΙΝΑ ΣΥΜΜΕΙΚΤΑ, Vol.30 (2020)
Introduction: In 528 CE, Probus the patrician, a nephew of the emperor Anastasius, was found guilty of slandering Justinian, the reigning emperor. But in a full meeting of the senate in Constantinople, Justinian dramatically tore up the paperwork from the case, and said to Probus: Ἐγὼ τὸ ἁμάρτημα συγχωρῶ σοι, ὃ κατ’ ἐμοῦ ἔπραξας· εὖξαι οὖν ἵνα καὶ ὁ Θεὸς συγχωρήσῃ σοι (“I forgive you for the offense you committed against me. Pray then that God too may forgive you”).
This carefully orchestrated scene suggests that, even early in his reign, Justinian was deliberately cultivating a reputation for mercy. However, Justinian is not typically known today for his mercy. Most modern accounts of the emperor tend to focus on his cruelty or at least his indifference toward his subjects. Thus Justinian is remembered as the ruler who is responsible for the deaths of thousands to end the Nika Riot, for example. Modern historians have described Justinian as “incapable of admitting failure,” “self-righteously pious and overbearing,” a “murderous ruler,” and “an autocratic ruler who cared not one jot for the fate of anybody outside his immediate circle”. That he does not have a reputation for mercy would have disappointed Justinian, who makes it loud and clear that he wanted to be known for governing in this fashion.
Justinian and his ministers’ emphasis on his reputation for acts of mercy was part of a concerted effort to burnish the standing of his regime in the eyes of his subjects. In choosing mercy as a major point of his propaganda campaign, the emperor was both continuing and furthering an imperial tradition that had seeds in Roman antiquity, the Hellenistic world, and in the teachings of Christ.
Top Image: Detail of a contemporary portrait mosaic of Justinian I in the Basilica of San Vitale, Ravenna