What are some of Justinian's major accomplishments?

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There is a saying, famous in the American lexicon, that states "behind every great man was a great woman." Historians are in almost complete agreement that Justinian, the Byzantine Emporer from 527-565 was a great man. His legal reforms allowed the Eastern Roman Empire to endure for nearly a thousand years after his death. However, any study of Justinian's political, artistic, and economic achievements need to be examined through the lens of the great woman behind him.

One of Justinian's greatest accomplishments is that he married well. His wife, the Empress Theodora was a savvy politician in her own right. Justinian treated her as her intellectual equal and they for all intents and purposes, ruled the empire together. In fact, Theodora can be credited with saving the throne in 532 when a riot threatened to overthrow Justinian. As Justinian and his court were set to flee the city in exile when Theodora's impassioned plea to fight was heard. The rebellion was easily put down and Justinian remained emperor.

As emperor, Justinian made great reforms in the areas of law, urban development, and conquest. His Justinian Code curbed bureaucratic corruption in the empire for centuries. Theodora was a partner in these reforms and convinced Justinian to reform the roles and responsibilities of women in the empire. Theodora was responsible for establishing royal decorum in the court that further legitimized the authority and respect of the crown. Justinian himself would credit Theodora for her guidance and leadership in these realms.

Justinian's initial attraction to Theodora may have been physical, but it did not take him very long for him to respect her intelligence and political abilities. His willingness to promote Theodora's talents and allow her to have a voice on his court should be considered one of his greatest accomplishments.

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Justinian was the emperor of the Byzantine Empire between 527 and 565.  The Byzantine Empire formed from the eastern portion of the Roman Empire; emperors such as Diocletian divided the Roman Empire into two parts to try and preserve the government, but ultimately when the Western Roman Empire fell to Germanic invaders in 476 CE, the Byzantines were left.  Constantinople remained the eastern capital, and became the center for Byzantine trade and culture.  Justinian is arguably the most well-known emperor of the Byzantines due to his many achievements.

  1. Expansion - with help from his wealthy and domineering wife, Theodora, Justinian pushed to reclaim land in the west.  While he was unable to reclaim the entire Roman Empire, he did make considerable gains to the west.  His expansion reached as far west as the boundary of modern day Macedonia in Europe and halfway through modern Libya in Northern Africa.  His general, Belisarius, was crucial to reconquest and expansion.
  2. Rebuilding Constantinople with Justinian's Code - before Justinian, Constantinople was ravaged by riots due to high taxes.  In order to quell the riots, rebuild the city, and reestablish order, Justinian codified Roman Law.  He unified law in order to organize the empire.  Not only did this help rebuild Constantinople, but it also helped preserve Roman culture in the eastern portion of the Empire.
  3. Hagia Sophia - one of the biggest architectural marvels of the eastern world was the Hagia Sophia, a huge new church dedicated to Christianity (at first, before the Seljuk Turks took Constantinople, changed the name to Istanbul, and made the Hagia Sophia a beautiful mosque, which it still it today).  The characteristic dome on top was an engineering marvel of its time.
  4. While on his expansion campaigns, the temporary capital of Ravenna became a key artistic center, and the characteristic Byzantine mosaics adorned the city.  Many Byzantine cultural and artistic artifacts were preserved in Ravenna.
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Justinian ruled the Eastern Roman Empire from 527 to 565.  It was in his time that the Eastern Roman Empire turned into the Byzantine Empire.  Among Justinian's major accomplishments were:

  • He extended the Byzantine Empire dramatically. Justinian extended the empire back into areas that had previously been part of the Western Roman Empire.  He conquered Italy and much of the coast of North Africa and even reached as far as Spain.
  • He codified Roman law.  There had been many laws passed by Roman legislatures, edicts handed down by emperors, commentaries by legal scholars, and other kinds of materials related to the law.  Justinian had these collected in one place and used that as the basis of Byzantine law.  This codification would later be used across Europe as the basis for law.
  • He had a great deal of building done in Constantinople.  The most important of these buildings was the Hagia Sophia, an extremely beautiful church that still stands today.
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List some of the most impressive of Justinian's accomplishments.

I am not sure that I am very impressed by any of Justinian’s accomplishments other than the creation of the Code of Justinian.  However, there are other things that some people could find impressive.

To me, the most impressive of his accomplishments was the compilation of the Code of Justinian.  It is impressive that he cared enough about the law to have people go through all of the Roman legal documents that the Byzantines had.  It is impressive that he had them create an organized set of laws that formed the basis of Byzantine law until the empire collapsed some 900 years later.  It is impressive that the code was useful enough that it became the foundation for law in all of Europe.

However, there are other things that some people would call impressive accomplishments.  One of these is military.  Justinian regained a fair amount of territory that had been part of the Western Roman Empire.  He conquered Italy and parts of Spain and North Africa.  Other people might be impressed by the building program that Justinian instituted in Constantinople.  They might be particularly impressed by the creation of the beautiful Hagia Sophia church.  I would argue that these actions hurt the empire by overextending it and draining its treasuries, but some would call them impressive.

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