Justinian and Theodora of the Byzantine Empire Biography | Church History

About the year 482, Justinian was born to peasants in what is today, North Macedonia. His Uncle Justin, who was a peasant soldier, adopted Justinian at an early age, brought him to Constantinople, and ensured he received a great education there.[1] Justinian then served as an advisor to Uncle Justin, who rose quickly through the ranks. When the emperor died, Justin was proclaimed the new emperor. Justinian continued to assist his uncle and eventually was appointed co-emperor in 527. Justinian convinced his uncle to repeal a law forbidding marriage of people in different classes, which opened the door to Justinian marrying Theodora.

Theodora was also of humble origins.[2] She was the daughter of a bear trainer in the circus in Constantinople, and she herself became an actress, prostitute, and lewd, comedic dancer. However, she disappeared for a while, but when she returned to Constantinople, she caught the eye of Justinian. They got married, continuing in love and mutual respect for the rest of their lives. 

Shortly after they were married, Emperor Justin died, and Justinian and Theodora were crowned emperor and empress at the Hagia Sophia by Epiphanius, Patriarch of Constantinople, in the year 527. As co-emperors, they frequently discussed and often deferred to one another in political and religious matters of the empire. Justinian was more of a Chalcedonian Christian, that is, he backed the wording of the Definition of Chalcedon in terms of understanding how to explain the person of Jesus Christ. Theodora, on the other hand, was partial to Cyril of Alexandria’s explanation of Jesus, which put her in favor with the churches in Syria and Egypt against what they considered to be the heresy of Nestorianism.[3]

One of Justinian’s chief goals was to reclaim parts of the Western empire lost to the Vandals and Goths in the previous century. It took two decades and most of his resources, but he recaptured Italy and North Africa to bring them back into his empire. This gave Justinian and Theodora deep and wide power throughout the Mediterranean world. However, to secure the West, Justinian had to thin out his defenses on the eastern border of his empire by arranging a peace with Persia and leaving the outer eastern region susceptible to attacks from the east.

Justinian believed that religious unity was essential to political stability, so he sought to unify the religious landscape by outlawing paganism and heresy.[4] Non-Christians were even required to be baptized. The battle for religious unity in the Byzantine Empire was waged on two fronts: unity between Rome and Constantinople and unity among the various Eastern groups of churches. To accomplish this, undoubtedly with the help of Theodora, he published an edict which gave a definition of Jesus Christ that was faithful to the official Definition of the Council of Chalcedon but also conciliatory toward the Cyrillian churches in Syria and Egypt. Justinian claimed that the first four ecumenical councils embraced the true core of Christian beliefs. Additionally, the edict recognized the Bishop of Rome as the head of the entire church, though Justinian claimed the power to depose popes if they did not comply with his wishes. From 526-741 the election of Roman Bishops had to be confirmed by Constantinople.[5] Never before, and perhaps never since, has a head of state wielded such widespread religious power. To ensure a bond with the non-Chalcedonian churches, Justinian also condemned the “Three Chapters” which consisted of the writings of 3 theologians who opposed Cyril’s teaching and promoted what the Council of Chalcedon called the Nestorian heresy: Theodore of Mopsuestia; Theodoret of Cyrus; and Ibas.[6]

Religious unity in the Empire required legal backing to be enforced. Justinian put the empire’s top jurists to the task of collecting all laws of the empire which were written prior to Justinian’s reign. Jurists then made some commentaries on the laws, keeping in mind the central role of Christianity, and the final product was known as the Justinian Code.[7] It was intended to endure far beyond Justinian’s reign as the central legal document of the Empire. It encompassed both secular and ecclesiastical forms of leadership and their relationship with one another.[8] It was both a political and a doctrinal statement for the empire. It also made some progress in terms of human rights, raising the legal status and power of the empire’s lowest classes to at least a minimum level of humanity. The code itself rewarded those who were faithful to the church and the emperor in Constantinople, but conversely, it pushed away numerous groups who found it oppressive.[9]

Justinian died in the year 565, but he and Theodora left behind a legacy in which he attempted to resurrect and unify the Old Roman Empire under the headship of the Pope in Rome but with the center of power in Constantinople. He sought to unify the various groups of churches to bring about religious and political stability, which lasted throughout his reign. After his death, however, Italy was captured by the Lombards, the eastern churches continued to splinter, and the eastern borders remained relatively unsecured.

[1] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 104.

[2] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 106.

[3] Stephen Presley, “Nestorius,” in Churchfails: 100 Blunders in Church History & What We Can Learn from Them (Nashville: Holman, 2016), 68-69.

[4] Williston Walker, et al. A History of the Christian Church, fourth edition (New York: MacMillan, 1985), 177.

[5] Richard A. Todd, Introduction to the History of Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2002), 203.

[6] The three chapters are: (a) the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia, (b) certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrus, and (c) the letter of Ibas to Maris. See Everett Ferguson, Church History: Volume One—From Christ to the Pre-Reformation, second edition (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 312-313.

[7] Samuel P. Scott’s 1932 translation of the Code of Justinian can be found at https://droitromain.univ-grenoble-alpes.fr/Anglica/codjust_Scott.htm.

[8] The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, s.v. “The Code of Justinian,” second edition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[9] Will Durant, The Story of Civilization: Volume IV—The Age of Faith (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), 114.