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HISTORY OF THE BYZANTINE EMPIRE
 
 


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Justinian and Theodora: 527-548

The emperor who comes to the throne in527 restores the western empire to much of its former glory, reforms the legal and administrative system of his realm, and commissions churches and mosaics which emphasize the imperial dignity of Christianity.

He also contracts a marriage which makes him and his bride the most famous couple in Byzantine history. He is Justinian. His wife, an ex-courtesan, is Theodora. They feature in mosaic, facing each other from opposite walls, in the church of San Vitale in Ravenna.
 









Justinian is born in483 into a peasant family in the Balkans, near Skopje, but from his early years he receives a good education in Constantinople; his uncle has risen to high command in the army and becomes emperor in 518 as Justin I. Theodora is of much less respectable origins. Born the daughter of a bear-keeper in the circus at Constantinople, she makes her mark as a child actress and then as a courtesan in various cities of north Africa and Anatolia.

In Constantinople she attracts the attention of Justinian, nearly twenty years her senior. He persuades his uncle, now emperor, to revoke a law banning marriage between men of senatorial rank and actresses.
 







Justinian and Theodora are married in525 in Constantine's church, the first Santa Sophia. Two years later Justinian's uncle dies and they become emperor and empress. Until her early death, in 548, Theodora plays an almost equal role with her husband in running the empire - not least in the resolve which she shows in persuading him to stay in Constantinople in the civil disorder which nearly ends his rule, the so-called Nika revolt of 532.

The rioters burn many of the most famous buildings of the capital city, including the church in which Justinian and Theodora were married. Together the couple supervise its replacement with one of the world's most spectacular buildings.
 






Santa Sophia: 537

In Santa Sophia in Constantinople (completed astonishingly in only five years) the architects working for Justinian achieve with triumphant skill a new and difficult feat of technology - that of placing a vast circular dome on top of a square formed of four arches.

The link between the curves of two arches (diverging from a shared supporting pillar) and the curve round the base of the dome is made by a complex triangular shape known as a pendentive (see Squinch and pendentive). Santa Sophia (or Hagia Sophia, the two being Latin and Greek for 'Holy Wisdom'), is not the first building in which a pendentive is used. But it is by far the most impressive.
 








A code of law: 527-534


By the time of Justinian nearly 600 years have passed since the last years of the Roman republic, in the 1st century BC. Many laws from all these centuries are still in force, but they exist only in scattered and often rare manuscripts. Consistency is impossible.

Justinian begins his reign with an energetic programme of reform in the administration of the civil service, in the collection of tax and in the field of law. Tackling corruption in the bureaucracy and improving the tax revenue bring immediate unpopularity (seen in The Nika revolt of 532). But tidying up the Roman law is an achievement for which Justinian has won lasting fame.
 










On his accession Justinian inmediately appoints a ten-man commission to collate all the statutes of past administrations and thus provide a clear version of the constitution. They complete their task in fourteen months. The resulting Codex Constitutionum is published in529.

In 530 Justinian sets a team of sixteen to the task of assembling the opinions of the jurists. This too is completed within three years and is published in 533 as Digesta. The result modifies to some extent the conclusions of the earlier Codex, which is issued in a revised form in 534.
 







The Codex of 534 is the Justinian code of law which has come down in history. It consists of twelve books containing 4652 laws and amendments, spanning the four centuries from Hadrian to Justinian himself.

This great legal effort, carried out on the emperor's behalf, is not legislation in the same sense as the Napoleonic code of civil law (which breaks new ground). It is more in the nature of academic clarification - of inestimable value in its own time to legal practitioners, and in subsequent ages to those who study Roman law.
 






Justinian's armies: 532-561

When Justinian comes to the throne, the empire is engaged as usual in the struggle in the east against Persia. A peace is agreed in532 with a new Persian monarch, Khosrau I (who breaks it dramatically in his raid on Antioch in 540). Later a series of settlements culminate in a 50-year-truce signed in 561.

The eastern frontier is a distraction from the campaigns which more greatly inspire Justinian. He is determined to recover the Roman empire in the west from heretical barbarians. With the help of a brilliant general, Belisarius, he has considerable success - against the arian Vandals in north Africa, the Arian Ostrogoths in Italy and the Arian Visigoths in Spain.
 








Byzantine Africa: 6th - 7th century

The expansionist energy of Justinian in Constantinople, and of his great general Belisarius in the field, brings the whole of the North African coast back under Roman rule for one final century. In 533 Belisarius defeats the Vandals in battle, captures their king and enters Carthage unopposed.

The authority of the emperor is restored, though the northwest tip of the continent is never again brought fully under control (in spite of pioneering efforts by Belisarius in the building of castles). Carthage rejoins Alexandria as a great imperial city on this important coast, rich in grain. But in the next century they both fall, in turn, to an entirely unexpected new power - the Arabs.
 








The recovery of Byzantine Italy: 535-568

In535 a fleet sails from Constantinople with orders to re-establish direct imperial rule in Italy. The campaign is under the command of Belisarius, hero of the recent African successes. He begins his task in the south, capturing Sicily in 535 and moving north to take Naples and Rome in the following year. Once again the fortified capital city, Ravenna, proves the hardest place to subdue. The Ostrogoths hold out against him here until 540.

When Ravenna finally falls in that year, the task seems complete. Belisarius returns to Constantinople. But Byzantine confidence is premature.
 









Within a few years the whole of Italy has been recaptured by the Ostrogoths, apart from three well guarded enclaves on the east coast (Ravenna, Ancona and Otranto). A long campaign by a eunuch general, Narses, eventually restores Byzantine control over the entire peninsula but this is not achieved until 562 - less than a decade before the arrival on the Italian scene of yet another Germanic tribe.

The Lombards, invading in 568, rapidly overrun the rich north Italian plain, from which the Byzantines never again shift them. Their arrival introduces the many centuries in which a united Italy will be nothing more than a dream, based on nostalgic memories of imperial Rome.
 






Exarchate of Ravenna: 584-751

In an attempt to hold the remaining Byzantine possessions in Italy against the Lombards, the emperor Maurice groups them from about584 in a new administrative structure based in Ravenna. In command of the entire region is an exarch - a provincial governor with absolute power over both military and civilian affairs.

At first the exarch governs most of Italy south of the Po, together with the coastal strip round the north Adriatic - including the modest settlements on the islands of the Venetian lagoon, recently established by refugees from the advancing Lombards. Corsica and Sardinia come under another exarch, ruling from Carthage. Sicily becomes linked more directly with Constantinople.
 









This swathe of territory soon proves impossible to hold. During the 7th century the Lombards steadily extend their territory in the north, and local dukes take possession of much of the south of Italy. In the 8th century ancient cities such as Naples and papal Rome show increasing signs of independence. In 726 even upstart Venice begins to choose its own dukes, or doges.

By the middle of the 8th century the Lombards have seized much of the territory inland from Ravenna, and in 751 they take Ravenna itself. Byzantine influence on places such as Venice will remain strong. But Italy can no longer be said to be part of the old Roman empire.
 






Byzantium and Persia: 6th - 7th century

The final and most destructive chapter in the rivalry between the Byzantine empire and Persia begins in an improbable way. In591 both emperors find themselves fighting on the same side.

Khosrau II has fled from Persia after the murder of his father. He enlists the support of the Byzantine emperor, Maurice, who marches east to restore Khosrau to his inheritance - in return for some useful territorial concessions in Armenia and Mesopotamia. The result is peace between the two sides until 602, when Maurice is murdered in a Byzantine upheaval. Khosrau, seeing his own opportunity, moves to avenge his friend's death. In the next few years the Persians devastate the Byzantine cities of the Middle East.
 









The first Christian city to fall to Khosrau's armies is Antioch, in 611. Damascus follows in 613. In the spring of 614 a Persian army enters Palestine and moves through the countryside, burning churches. Only the church built by St Helena in Bethlehem is spared; the Persians recognize themselves in the costumes of the Magi, seen bringing their gifts to the infant Jesus in a mosaic above the entrance.

The army reaches Jerusalem in April. The Patriarch urges the inhabitants to surrender, so as to avoid bloodshed, but they resist for a month. When the city falls, it is said that some 60,000 Christians are massacred and another 35,000 sold into slavery.
 







From the point of view of the Christian hierarchy, far away in Constantinople, the Persians commit one even greater affront. After sacking Jerusalem, they carry off to Ctesiphon the most holy relic of Christendom, the True Cross of Christ.

Its restoration to Jerusalem becomes an urgent matter of state.
 






Recovering the relic: 622-629

Under the emperor Heraclius, Byzantium has been quietly regaining its strength. In622 Heraclius feels ready to take the field against the Persians. His successes are as rapid and spectacular as the reverses of the previous decade. By 624 he has swept through Asia Minor and Armenia to reach Azerbaijan, to the north of Persia between the Black Sea and the Caspian.

Here, as if avenging the violation of the True Cross, he destroys one of the most sacred fire temples of Zoroastrianism.
 









In the next few years the swings of fortune become even more extreme. In 626 a Persian army reaches the Bosphorus, but fails to cross the water to support a siege of Constantinople's massive walls by a barbarian horde of Slavs and Avars. In 627 a Byzantine army under Heraclius penetrates Mesopotamia far enough to defeat the Persians at Nineveh and destroy Khosrau's palace at Ctesiphon.

From a position of strength Heraclius negotiates the return of the True Cross. He takes it back to be displayed in Constantinople, and then personally returns it, in 629, to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. But the relic proves powerless against the next threat to Jerusalem in 638.
 






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