Justin I, also known as Justin the Thracian, was the Eastern Roman emperor from 518 to 527. During his reign, he established the Justinian dynasty, which included his notable nephew, Justinian I, and three other emperors.
Early Life and Succession
Justin I was born in the hamlet Baderiana near Scupi (modern Skopje, North Macedonia) into a peasant family. With a background rooted in Thraco-Roman or Illyro-Roman descent, he possessed a command of Latin but only rudimentary knowledge of Greek. As a teenager, he was forced to seek refuge in Constantinople following a barbarian invasion. There, he joined the palace guard, known as the excubitors, and displayed remarkable bravery in campaigns against the Isaurians and Sassanian Persians. Rising through the ranks, he held positions as a tribune, comes, and senator. Eventually, Emperor Anastasius I appointed him comes excubitorum, commander of the palace guard. During this period, Justin married Lupicina, though there were no recorded surviving children from this union.
On the night of 8–9 July 518 Emperor Anastasius I passed away without leaving an heir. In the absence of a clear successor, Justin, supported by his own well-trained soldiers, won the support of the council and was elected as the new Eastern Roman emperor. His wife became his empress consort under the name Euphemia, a name which had roots in Christian martyrdom during the Diocletianic Persecution. By selecting this name, Justin and Euphemia demonstrated their fervent commitment to Chalcedonian Christianity, which contrasted with the Monophysite leanings of Justin's predecessor.
Justin secured his position by skillfully eliminating potential adversaries, especially those aligned with the anti-Chalcedonian faction that had supported Anastasius. As a seasoned soldier rather than a statesman, Justin relied heavily on a close circle of trusted advisors, with his nephew Flavius Petrus Sabbatius, whom he adopted and granted the name Justinian, occupying an influential position in this inner circle.
Foreign relations during Justin's reign were characterized by a strategy of fostering alliances with neighboring states, effectively cultivating client states along the Empire's borders. This allowed him to maintain relative peace and avoid large-scale conflicts for much of his time on the throne. A significant example of this diplomatic prowess was the agreement struck with Theoderic, the Ostrogothic king of Italy, in 497. This arrangement enabled Theoderic to govern Italy as a representative of the Eastern Roman Empire, thus preserving the region's nominal connection to Constantinople. However, the peaceful coexistence between the Goths and the predominantly Chalcedonian population of Italy became strained following Theoderic's passing, as Justin's strong Chalcedonian stance clashed with the Arian beliefs of the Ostrogoths.
Religious matters also played a central role in Justin's rule, notably in resolving the Acacian schism between the eastern and western branches of the Christian church. Pope Hormisdas was invited to Constantinople, and Justin endorsed Rome's view on the nature of Christ, leading to the end of the schism in 519. At the beginning of his reign, Justin persecuted Monophysites, but later adopted a more pragmatic approach. He issued an edict against Arianism in 523, leading to tensions with Theodoric, the Arian king of the Ostrogoths.
Justin's reign became increasingly intertwined with his Christian faith since he portrayed his election to the throne as a divine favor granted by the Trinity and declared his commitment to governing in the name of Jesus Christ. Symbolically, he abandoned the tradition of depicting pagan symbols on his coins and seals, instead using an angelic figure, publicly reaffirming the Empire as a Christian state.
Death and Legacy
During the later years of Justin I's reign, tensions with neighboring powers, especially the Ostrogoths and the Sassanids, escalated. As Justin grew older, there was a decline in his mental faculties, with the emperor being described as sometimes unable to make timely decisions or fulfill his duties, which became a subject of ridicule among his courtiers. Meanwhile, Justinian, Justin's nephew, had been rising through the ranks during his uncle's reign. As Justin's health declined, he officially named Justinian as co-emperor and his successor on 1 April 527. Later that year, on 1 August, Justin I passed away, and Justinian ascended to the throne.
Justin's reign as Eastern Roman emperor, though relatively short, left a lasting legacy that significantly impacted the empire's trajectory and future developments. To honor his memory, the city of Caesarea in Cilicia was renamed Justinopolis in 525. The name persisted until the 12th century when Thoros I, the king of Armenian Cilicia, made the city his capital and changed its name to Anazarbus.
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