Tuesday, July 10, 2018

The 1,500th Anniversary of Accession of Justin I as Roman Emperor

A gold tremissus of Justin I.
When the elderly Eastern Roman Emperor Anastasius died on July 8, AD 518, he left no son and no clear successor. This unsettled situation led immediately to a mad scramble by the powerful in Constantinople to win the throne for one of their own candidates. As a result of this struggle, the throne ended up belonging to an elderly man who could take a punch: Justin I.

By all accounts, Justin came from peasant stock in the hinterlands of Thrace, long one of the most productive recruiting grounds for the late Roman army. Of his family, little is known. They are thought to have been poor herdsmen from an area which, at the time of Justin’s birth (ca. AD 450), had been devastated repeatedly by the Huns. To escape the poverty and poor prospects of his home, Justin set out to try his luck in the capital, Constantinople. Like many young men at that time, he was recruited into the Roman army where he found great success and rose steadily through the ranks. Eventually, he was made a senator and became the Comes (or Count) of the Excubitors under emperor Anastasius—a position equivalent to the general of the palace guards. Already in his late 60s by this point, he had enjoyed a brilliant career, going from poor peasant to a member of the elite in Constantinople.

When Anastasius died without an heir, however, Justin suddenly found himself in the middle of a welter of court intrigue. What followed is best described in the epochal book, Justin I. Here A. A. Vasiliev paraphrases a near-contemporary account of the events written by Peter the Patrician and saved for posterity in a 10th century compilation called On Ceremonies by Constantine Porphyrogenitus:
Since there was neither Augusta nor Emperor to influence the election, and since almost no provision had been made to meet the situation, a certain confusion took place….Immediately, the Silentiaries, personal attendants of the emperor of senatorial rank with the title Clarissimi, sent word to Celer, the master of offices, and to Justin, who at that time was commander of the Excubitors, to come to the palace. Upon their arrival, Celer summoned the Candidates and other Scholarians who were in a strict sense bodyguards of the imperial person and were under the control of the master of offices. And Justin called together the Excubitors, soldiers and ordinary officers as well as those of higher rank, that is, the whole body of the palace guards who were under his command, and he said to them: “Our lord as man has passed away. We must all deliberate together and elect [an emperor] pleasing to God and useful to the empire.” In the same way, Celer addressed the Candidates and chiefs of the Scholarians.
While these maneuverings were going on in the palace, word apparently got out about the emperor’s death to the demes – the Blue and Green race factions who flexed considerable political muscle in Constantinople. They gathered in the Hippodrome and began chanting to make their desires known:
“Long live the Senate! Senate of the Romans, you conquer!” We demand the emperor, given by God, for the army. We demand the emperor, given by God, to the world.”
Inside the palace, the political and ecclesiastical authorities began to deliberate, no doubt feeling the heat from the chanting factionists nearby in the Hippodrome. The senators, officers, and the Patriarch gathered in the great hall known as the Triklinos of the Nineteen Akkubita, but were unable to agree on a candidate. Vasiliev, paraphrasing Peter, continues:
As time was passing by, the Magister Celer said to them: “While it is still possible to us, let us decide and act. If we decide promptly on the name, all will follow us and keep silent. But if we fail to come promptly to a decision, then we shall have to follow others.”
Even following this urgent appeal, the palace officers were unable to agree, and the disputes became violent. First, the Excubitors went ahead and proclaimed a certain John as emperor. This candidate was immediately rejected by the Blue factionists who started a riot during which several people were killed. The Scholarians, meanwhile, put forth a candidate of their own, but the excubitors seized him violently and would have killed him had he not been saved by Justin’s nephew—a certain Petrus Sabbatius, otherwise known as Justinian. This Justinian was also put forward as a candidate by the Excubitors, but he adamantly refused to accept. Meanwhile, Vasiliev continues:
As each of these persons had been proposed, their advocates knocked at the Ivory Gate, through which probably the shortest way led to the imperial personal quarters in the palace, and called upon the chamberlains to deliver the imperial robes. But on the announcement of the names of the proposed candidates, the chamberlains refused to do so.
With the situation in chaos and continuing to deteriorate, a strong faction of senators was able to convince their colleagues that Justin, the count of the Excubitors, should be named as emperor.
Some of the Scholarians resented this choice and rushed upon Justin, and in the heat of the altercation one of them struck the future emperor a blow of the fist and split his lip. The decision of the senators, however, backed by the army and the demes prevailed. Justin was brought to the Hippodrome; even the antagonistic factions of the Blues and Greens agreed upon him; the chamberlains immediately sent him the imperial robes….Standing on a shield Justin received a chain which was placed upon his head….The military insignia, the labara and the standards, which lay on the ground, were immediately raised, as was customary on such proclamations….The soldiers held their shields over his head, and under this shelter, he donned the imperial garb in the box [the Kathisma of the Hippodrome]. Then the Patriarch John placed the crown on his head. Justin took the lance and the shield, and reappeared in the Kathisma. All cried: “Justin August, you conquer!”
The new emperor first announced his donative to the army—five nomismata of gold and one pound of silver for each soldier. He then gave an address which Vasiliev renders from Peter’s account as follows:
Justin, Victorious, ever Augustus: “Having received the imperial power through the will of Almighty God and your unanimous choice, we invoke celestial providence.”

All cried: “Abundance to the world! Reign as thou has lived! Abundance to the government! Celestial Lord, save the earthly one! Justin August, you conquer! Long live the new Constantine! We are slaves of the emperor!”
Justin: "May God, through his grace, enable us to achieve everything that is beneficial to you and to the state!”

All cried: “Son of God, have pity on him! Thou hast elected him! Have pity on him! Justin August, you conquer!”
Justin: Our concern is to provide you, by divine grace, with every kind of prosperity, and to conserve all of you with all benevolence, affection, and in a state of full tranquility.” 
All cried: “Worthy of the Empire! Worthy of the Trinity! Worthy of the City! Long may thou live, Imperator! We demand honest magistrates for the world.”

Justin: “Because of the celebration of our happy enthronement I will grant everyone of you [the soldiers, that is] five nomismata and a pound of silver.”

All cried: “May God protect a Christian emperor! Such are the unanimous vows of the world!” 
Justin: “God be with you!”
Thereafter, Justin processed to the great Church, Hagia Sophia [that is, the second Hagia Sophia as built by Theodosius II which burned during the Nika Rebellion 14 years later] and the coronation ceremony continued.

A gold solidus of Justin I.
Given the number of eminent and wealthy men who could have stepped into the role at that moment, it is noteworthy that the senate, the court, the demes and the army settled on a grizzled old soldier who was one of the unlikeliest individuals ever to sit upon the throne. A man of humble birth, Justin had serious shortcomings, foremost of which was his lack of formal education. Vasiliev casts doubt on the legends that Justin was illiterate to the point that he couldn’t sign his own name. But it’s clear that the new emperor realized that his dearth of formal academic training would make him easy prey for the clever men of letters who inhabited the court. To make up for this deficiency, Justin employed a secret weapon—a young man of unquestionable loyalty whom he had caused to be educated in the capital and who had already shown a unique spark of intellect and depth of vision—his nephew, Justinian.

Vasiliev's book, Justin I, published in 1950, remains the most authoritative source on Justin and his reign and is well worth reading. Fortunately, it is readily available on Archive.org.

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