The Roman Empire was a military dictatorship. Its emperors came and went in a relentless spree of assassinations and civil wars (example) that lasted for nearly 1500 years. One and one-half millennia of violent government extended across history from the victories of Octavian (a.k.a. Caesar Augustus) over his rivals in decades before Christ to the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453. Despite the violence, or perhaps because of it, Roman elites accumulated vast surpluses and left spectacular monuments unmatched until much later in European history.
By the opening of the 6th century the city of Rome itself was no longer a part of the Empire. Instead Italy was ruled by the Goths and the capital city of the remaining empire, “Romania”, was Constantinople. This city (in modern times called Istanbul) controlled the strategic straights linking the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
No topics dominated the culture of Constantinople so much as (1) the horse races, and (2) the debate over the relative contributions of the divine and the human to the nature of Christ.
The debate over the nature of Christ divided Christians into numerous sects: Orthodox Catholics, Monophysites, Arians, Manicheans, Nestorians, and many others. The Orthodox Catholics believed that Christ was both God and man, Monophysites divine only, Arians human only, and there were a dizzying number of variations on and nuances to these dogmas. Theology was the hottest topic of debate and biggest motivation for political division and persecution in Constantinople. Constantinople was dominated by Orthodox Catholics and Monophysites, while the Arian heresy held by the Goths and Vandals that had taken over the Western part of the Empire was considered a heresy beyond the pale. Other positions, such as Manicheaism, were sometimes tolerated and sometimes not.
With the coming to power of Christianity the brutal gladiatorial fights had been suppressed and horse racing was now the dominant spectator sport. The Hippodrome in Constantinople was the main place of public gathering. Spectators shouted political opinions at the emperor, who in turn used the crowd to gauge public opinion. Indeed, for the normal citizen, this was the only form of political participation.
The racing teams and their colors – Red, White, Blue, Green – dated far back to the early Empire. By the 6th century, the two dominant teams were the Blues and the Greens. The political nature of the Hippodrome had converted their fans into political factions. The Blues tended to be government types, land owners, and Orthodox Catholics (or, during the frequent schisms with Rome, Chalcedonians). Greens tended to be merchants and Monophysites.
During the reign of Anastasius, in a village in Illyria (probably in modern Macedonia just north of modern Greece), where the natives still spoke a passable Latin, lived a young peasant bachelor. Instead of taking up farming he left the village and came to Constantinople to join the army. Dropping his humble family name and styling himself “Justin” – “just man” -- he fought in several wars and was promoted through the ranks of the palace guards. Eventually he was promoted to Count (head) of the Excubitors, one of the two palace guard groups.
Justin then adopted his nephew, one Petrus Sabbatius, and brought him to Constantinople. Sabbatius too dropped his humble name and, aspiring to the achievements of his uncle and benefactor, restyled himself “Justinian”.
Justin’s master, the emperor Anastatius, was a Green and Monophysite. Justin, and to an even greater degree his nephew, were Orthodox Catholics (or during the schism of the time Chalcedonians) who supported the Blue faction.
Anastasius failed to make formal provisions for the succession. His death in 518 threw Constantiople into confusion, as none his three nephews had strong support. The Manichean eunuch Amantius, Chamberlain to Anastasius, hoped to be a power behind the throne of his chosen puppet, an obscure character named Theocritus. The palace guards had traditionally dominated the succession in Rome, so Amantius needed the support of at least one of the two palace guard groups, the Excubitors and the Scholarians.
Justin, head of the Excubitors, secretly promised to support Theocritus and took money from Amantius to bribe the support of influential fence-sitters. But instead of carrying out this secret plot, Justin lobbied and bullied the Blues, their Senate allies (most Senators were Blue), and his own soldiers. Finally winning acclamation of most of the Blues in the Hippodrome, and fearful acquiescence of the Greens, Justin assumed the purple robes of emperor.
Roman imperial successions had always been highly irregular, but the ideal of authority that other political players would most accept is suggested by Justin’s letter, upon assuming power, to the Pope in Rome: “We have been elected to the Empire by the favor of the indivisible Trinity, by the choice of the highest ministers of the sacred Palace, and of the Senate, and finally by the election of the army.”
To cover his tracks, Justin had Amantius and Theocritus executed, under the pretext that Amantius (a heretic Manichean, but tolerated under Anastatius) had insulted the Orthodox Patriarch of Constantinople. He named his nephew Count of the Domestics. Justinian was a, or perhaps the, power behind the throne. Falling in love with a repentant prostitute, Theodora, he had Justin’s quaestor, Proclus, cleverly draft a law that allowed him to marry a former prostitute while still forbidding such a degrading marriage to other Senators.
Early in 527 AD, Justin fell sick and named Justinian Augustus (co-ruler) and successor. A few months later, Justin died and Justinian at age 45 became emperor.
The former Petrus Sabbatius was to lavish his adoptive name and the empire's treasure on cities new and old, grand buildings, and wars of reconquest. Most importantly for our purposes, Justinian would plaster his just-sounding name on a recompilation of Roman law that has profoundly shaped the West down to our own time.
Coming: Tribonian, John of Cappadocia, revolt, massacre, prostration, and the the birth of a bloody code.
Procopius, Anecdota (Secret History)
Procopius, History of the Wars
J.B. Bury, History of the Later Roman Empire
Gibbon, The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire