Justinian I (527–565)
Born into a Balkan peasant family, Petrus Sabbatius was brought to the capital by his uncle Justin who sponsored his education and career. Justin adopted his nephew, who in honor of his uncle took the name by which he is know to history, Justinian. In 518 Justin became emperor, with Justinian acting as his closest advisor. When Justin died his nephew succeeded him, and over a reign of thirty-eight years guided his empire to the apogee of its power and oversaw a flowering of later Roman culture.
In all areas Justinian attempted to strengthen and unify his empire. Whilst acting defensively in the East and along the Danube, his armies recovered the lost provinces of Africa, Italy, and part of Spain. Justinian's reforms, most importantly the monumental Corpus Iuris Civilis, sought to unify the administration and laws of his newly enlarged empire. Justinian became involved in the theological disputes of the age, sponsoring the fifth ecumenical council (Constantinople II, 553) in an effort to bridge the divide between Chalcedonians and Monophysites. His achievements, alternately praised and derided by the historian Prokopios, have been variously interpreted. While there is no doubt that this was a golden age of Roman rule, and the last time that the Mediterranean world of antiquity stood united, the enlarged empire proved unable to defend itself from the combination of renewed pressures from north of the Danube and perennial attacks from Persia and later the Arabs. Today the most evident piece of Justinian's legacy are his buildings. He undertook a number of building programs, including fortifications along the empire's frontiers, monasteries such as St. Catherine's at Mt. Sinai, and churches—more than thirty in Constantinople alone, most notably Hagia Sophia, which would remain the largest cathedral ever built until 1520.
In a departure from the designs of Justin I, Justinian is shown facing on his seals, a trend that would be followed by almost all subsequent emperors. He is shown wearing a helmet with a diadem, a pendilia, and a chlamys. Justinian is also the first emperor to be shown nimbate on his seals. The reverse of the seals, contrasting with Justin’s, returns to the Winged Victory type; small crosses appearing to the left and right, however, preserve the Christian context that Justin had tried to introduce with the angel. There is a single seal in the Dumbarton Oaks collection on which the Winged Victory is replaced by the Mother of God, her first appearance on an imperial seal. On coins, the most important innovation of Justinian was the introduction of the dated follis, which appeared in year 12 (538/9), depicting a frontal bust that replaced a right-facing one, as on his seals. Mint activity was vastly increased, with twice as many operating as during his uncle’s reign.
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