TW Viewpoint | The Restoration of Rome Part 1: Justinian

September 11, 2019 | Michael Heykoop

In September of AD 476 Romulus Augustus was deposed as Emperor. Rome had fallen. An era had ended. The empire was lost. Less than a century later a young King ascended to the throne in Constantinople and, after a tumultuous start, began his quest to reunify and re-establish the Roman Empire. This is the Imperial Restoration of Justinian.


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In AD 285 Emperor Diocletian decided that the empire had grown too vast to be administered from a single seat of government. Thus, the empire was split between east and west. Later, in AD 330, Constantine would spend a great deal of effort increasing the prestige of the eastern half, even renaming the capital in his own honour. While the western empire crumbled and Rome eventually fell, the eastern half, also called the Byzantine Empire, continued for nearly a millennium.

Born in the Balkans to a peasant family, Justinian ascended to the throne of the Byzantine Empire in 527. His reign was nearly cut short as riots erupted in Constantinople over a Chariot race resulting in an armed revolt against the government. Justinian, about to abandon the city, was encouraged by his wife, Empress Theodora, to remain and uphold his empire.

Justinian sought to heal the wounds which had developed not only in the Roman Empire itself, but also in the Catholic Church which had become its unifying feature. To Justinian, Church and State were co-dependant, inseparable and complimentary pieces, both ordained by God to uphold one another:

"There are two great gifts which God, in his love for man, has granted from on high: the priesthood and the imperial dignity," he wrote. "The first serves divine things, while the latter directs and administers human affairs; both, however, proceed from the same origin and adorn the life of mankind." Justinian I and Theodora I

His greatest general, Belisarius was given the task of reclaiming the lands previously held by Rome. While he did not reconquer the Empire in its entirety, much of North Africa and Italy (including of course the city of Rome itself) were reunified as part of Justinian's revived Roman Empire. The general date for the Empire’s restoration is often cited as August AD 554, the date of the “Pragmatic Sanction of Justinian I” which formally asserted Roman law throughout Italy, following the Gothic War.

Reunifying the religion would prove a more difficult task as doctrinal issues threatened to tear the Catholic Church apart. Justinian felt responsibility to intervene as:

"Justinian, like succeeding Byzantine emperors, regarded himself as the viceregent of Christ . . . ." Justinian I

It was Justinian who would cement the bishop of Rome's pre-eminence in the Church, even appointing three successive Popes. Justinian's efforts would be recorded in history as "the Imperial Restoration."

However, Justinian would learn that just as Rome was not built in a day, reunifying the Roman Empire is not a simple or inexpensive task. His dream of a restoring Rome's former glory left his troops overextended and his treasury empty. Soon after his death, the empire began losing territory. Over the course of his reign Justinian had more than doubled his territory, less than a century later, all that he had gained, and more, would be lost.

Justinian's legacy can still be felt to this day. His words describing his motivation to restore the grandeur of Rome could be attributed to many subsequent conquerors who chased the dream of a revived Roman Empire.

“Much has been disputed about ‘the ghost of the Roman Empire’ that still lurks far beyond the shores of the Mediterranean. The heritage of Roman law is not a ghost but a living reality. It is present in the court as well as in the market-place. It lives on not only in the institutions but even in the language of all civilized nations.” (Justinian, "The Digest of Roman Law: Theft, Rapine, Damage and Insult")

The dream of reviving the glory of the Empire has been a guiding force in Europe ever since.

Watch The Restoration of Rome Part 1: Justinian on YouTube at Tomorrow's World Viewpoint