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Famous Men of The Middle Ages|
Justinian the Great
by Haaren, John H. (LL.D.) and Poland, A. B. (Ph.D.)
|Emperor from 527-565 A.D.
In the time of Clovis the country now called Bulgaria was inhabited
by Goths. One day a poor shepherd boy, about sixteen years of
age, left his mountain home in that country to go to the city of
Constantinople, which was many miles away. The boy had no money
to pay the expenses of the journey, but he was determined to go,
even though he should have to walk every step of the road and live
on fruits that he could gather by the way. He was a bright, clever
boy who had spent his life hitherto in a village, but was now eager
to go out into the world to seek his fortune.
Some years before, this boy's uncle, who was named Justin, had gone
to Constantinople and joined the Roman army. He was so brave and
so good a soldier that he soon came to be commander of the imperial
guard which attended the emperor.
The poor shepherd boy had heard of the success of his uncle, and
this was the reason why he resolved to set off for the big city. So
he started down the mountain and trudged along the valley in high
hope, feeling certain that he would reach the end of his journey
in safety. It was a difficult and dangerous journey, and it took
him several weeks, for he had to go through dark forests and to
cross rivers and high hills; but at last one afternoon in midsummer
he walked through the main gate of Constantinople, proud and happy
that he had accomplished his purpose.
He had no trouble in finding his Uncle Justin; for everybody in
Constantinople knew the commander of the emperor's guards. And when
the boy appeared at the great man's house and told who he was, his
uncle received him with much kindness. He took him into his own
family, and gave him the best education that could be had in the
As the boy was very talented and eager for knowledge he soon became
an excellent scholar. He grew up a tall, good-looking man, with
black eyes and curly hair, and he was always richly dressed. He was
well liked at the emperor's court, and was respected by everybody
on account of his learning.
One day a great change came for both uncle and nephew. The emperor
died; and the people chose Justin to succeed him. He took the
title of Justinus I (Jus-ti'-nus), and so the young scholar, who
had once been a poor shepherd boy, was now nephew of an emperor.
After some years Justinus was advised by his nobles to take the
young man, who had adopted the name of Justinian, to help him in
ruling the empire. Justinus agreed to this proposal, for he was
now old and in feeble health, and not able himself to attend to the
important affairs of government. He therefore called the great
lords of his court together and in their presence he placed a crown
on the head of his nephew, who thus became joint emperor with his
uncle. The uncle died only a few months after, and then Justinian
was declared emperor. This was in the year 527. Justinian reigned
for nearly forty years and did so many important things that he
was afterwards called Justinian the Great.
He had many wars during his reign, but he himself did not take part
in them. He was not experienced as a soldier, for he had spent
most of his time in study. He was fortunate enough, however, to
have two great generals to lead his armies. One of them was named
Belisarius and the other Narses.
Belisarius was one of the greatest soldiers that ever lived. He
gained wonderful victories for Justinian, and conquered some of
the old Roman provinces that had been lost for many years.
The victories of these two generals largely helped to make the reign
of Justinian remarkable in history. Many years before he ascended
the throne the Vandals, as you have read, conquered the northern
part of Africa and established a kingdom there with Carthage as
its capital. The Vandal king in the time of Justinian was named
Gelimer (Gel'-i-mer), and he lived in Carthage.
Justinian resolved to make war on this king in order to recover
Northern Africa and make it again a part of the Empire. So
Belisarius was sent to Africa with an army of thirty-five thousand
men and five thousand horses, that were carried on a fleet of six
hundred ships. It took this fleet three months to make the voyage
from Constantinople to Africa. The same voyage may now be made
in a very few days. But in the time of Belisarius there were no
steamships, and nothing was known of the power of steam for moving
machinery. The ships or galleys were sailing vessels; and when
there was no wind they could make no progress except by rowing.
When Belisarius reached Africa he left five men as a guard in each
vessel, and with the body of his army he marched for some days
along the coast. The people received him in a friendly way, for
they had grown tired of the rule of the Vandals, and preferred to
be under the government of the Romans.
About ten miles from Carthage he met a large army led by the brother
of Gelimer. A battle immediately took place, and the Vandals
were utterly defeated. Gelimer's brother was killed, and the king
himself, who had followed with another army and joined the fight,
was also defeated and fled from the field. Belisarius then proceeded
to Carthage and took possession of the city.
Soon afterwards Gelimer collected another army and fought the Romans
in another battle, twenty miles from Carthage; but Belisarius again
defeated him and the Vandal king again fled. This was the end of
the Vandal king in Africa. In a short time Gelimer gave himself
up to Belisarius, who took him to Constantinople. Justinian set
apart an estate for him to live upon, and the conquered king passed
the rest of his life in peaceful retirement.
After conquering the Vandals Justinian resolved to conquer Italy,
which was then held by the Ostrogoths. A large army was got
together and put under the command of Belisarius and Narses, who
immediately set out for Italy. When they arrived there they marched
straight to Rome, and after some fighting took possession of the
city. But in a few months, Vitiges (vit'-i-ges), king of the Goths,
appeared with an army before the gates and challenged Belisarius
and Narses to come out and fight.
The Roman generals, however, were not then ready to fight, and so
the Ostrogoth king laid siege to the city, thinking that he would
compel the Romans to surrender.
But instead of having any thought of surrender, Belisarius was
preparing his men for fight, and when they were ready he attacked
Vitiges and defeated him. Vitiges retired to Ravenna, and
Belisarius quickly followed, and made such an assault on the city
that it was compelled to surrender. The Ostrogoth army was captured,
and Vitiges was taken to Constantinople a prisoner.
Belisarius and Narses then went to Northern Italy, and, after a long
war, conquered all the tribes there. Thus the power of Justinian
was established throughout the whole country, and the city of Rome
was again under the dominion of a Roman emperor.
While his brave generals were winning these victories for the Empire,
Justinian himself was busy in making improvements of various kinds
at the capital. He erected great public buildings, which were not
only useful but ornamental to the city. The most remarkable of
them was the very magnificent cathedral of St. Sophia (So-phi'-a),
for a long time the grandest church structure in the world. The
great temple still exists in all its beauty and grandeur, but is
now used as a Mohammedan mosque.
But the most important thing that Justinian did--the work for
which he is most celebrated--was the improving and collecting of
the laws. He made many excellent new laws and reformed many of
the old laws, so that he became famous as one of the greatest of
the world's legislators. For a long time the Roman laws had been
difficult to understand. There was a vast number of them, and
different writers differed widely as to what the laws really were
and what they meant. Justinian employed a great lawyer, named
Tribonian (trib-o'-ni-an), to collect and simplify the principal
laws. The collection which he made was called the CODE OF JUSTINIAN.
It still exists, and is the model according to which most of the
countries of Europe have made their laws.
Justinian also did a great deal of good by establishing a number
of manufactures in Constantinople. It was he who first brought
silk-worms into Europe.
To the last year of his life Justinian was strong and active and
a hard worker. He often worked or studied all day and all night
without eating or sleeping. He died in 565 at the age of eighty-three