If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Justinian and the Byzantine Empire

Overview of the Byzantine Empire under its greatest strength under Justinian and then eventual slow decline over the next 900 years. Code of Justinian. Hagia Sophia. Empress Theodora's role in putting down the Nika Riots.

Want to join the conversation?

Video transcript

- [Instructor] In previous videos, we talk about how as we exit the fourth century, in the 390s, the emperor Theodosius, he actually splits the Roman Empire. We already had the city of Constantinople being established as a capital of the empire. That was done by Constantine in 324, the city previously known as Byzantium. But as we enter into the fifth century, there is an official split between the Western Roman Empire and the Eastern Roman Empire. They're actually governed separately. Now, also in other videos, we talk about the eventual fall of the Western Roman Empire. Now, one thing to keep in mind, sometimes when we talk about the fall of the west, it somehow implies that there's no governance left or there's no kingdoms left. And nothing could be further from the truth. One of the reasons why the Western Roman Empire fell is repeated attacks by Germanic tribes, and after the Western Roman Empire was gone, the Germanic tribes, for the most part, took over. On the Italian peninsula, you at first have the kingdom of Odoacer, but eventually you have rule, especially as we get into the late fifth century, you have the Ostrogothic Kingdom, Ostrogoths, the Eastern Goths, the Eastern Germanic tribes. Here in North Africa, you have the Vandals, another Germanic tribe. Here in the Iberian peninsula, you have the Visigoths, the Western Goths, yet another Germanic tribe. Here you have the Burgundians, you have the Franks. The word France comes from the notion of land of the Franks. Once again, all of these are Germanic kingdoms that took over, where before you had the Western Roman Empire. Now, as you can see from this map, and we've talked about it in previous videos, it was only the Western Roman Empire that fell and fragmented and, for the most part, came into the hands of these Germanic tribes. The Eastern Empire continues on, and it's often known as the Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople. Now, what we'll see is that the Byzantine Empire lasts for almost another 1,000 years, but its importance in the region diminishes for most of that period. It does have one last hurrah, so to speak, with the reign of Emperor Justinian. Justinian is able to come to power in 527. He comes into power with the help of his uncle, who's the previous Emperor Justin, and Justinian is able to regain much of the land that was lost to the Germanic tribes. Over the course of Justinian's reign, as you can see, they're able to retake the Italian peninsula and much of North Africa. Now, things weren't always easy for Justinian, and they are very difficult at the beginning of his rule and they get hard near the end of his rule as well. In 532, there's significant rioting in Constantinople, which is his capital. It all starts around chariot racing and the different groups or gangs that support the different chariot racing teams, but it eventually becomes an all-out revolt against Justinian. And many of Justinian's advisors, including Justinian himself, they're afraid that they're gonna be overthrown and killed, and they think about fleeing Constantinople. And this is only five years into his reign. This is in 532. And at that point, his wife Empress Theodora stands up and becomes a very important actor in history. She has her famous speech at the point in time when Justinian and his advisors were thinking about fleeing, fear of death. They thought they were going to be overthrown. And here is that famous quote from Empress Theodora. The present occasion is too serious to allow me to follow the convention that a woman should not speak in a man's council. Those whose interests are threatened by extreme danger should think only of the wisest course of action, not of conventions. In my opinion, flight is not the right course, even if it should bring us to safety. It is impossible for a person, having been born into this world, not to die, but for one who has reigned, it is intolerable to be a fugitive. May I never be deprived of this purple robe, the purple robe signifying royalty, being an empress, and may I never see the day when those who meet me do not call me empress. If you wish to save yourself, so she's talking to Justinian and Justinian's advisors, if you wish to save yourself, my lord, there is no difficulty. We are rich. Over there is the sea, and there are the ships. Yet reflect for a moment whether, when you have once escaped to a place of security, you would not gladly exchange such safety for death. As for me, I agree with the adage that the royal purple is the noblest shroud. So, she's saying I would rather die as an empress than try to be a fugitive and just try to live my life, the rest of my life, somehow comfortably. And she's able to convince Justinian, and they're able to put down the uprising quite brutally, killing 30,000 of the people who are rising up against them. Now, during that uprising, much of Constantinople is burned, including the main church, the Hagia Sophia, and it was under Justinian's rule that the Hagia Sophia gets rebuilt. And it still exists in what is now Istanbul today. Constantinople eventually gets renamed Istanbul once it's conquered by the Turks. And it eventually gets turned into a mosque, and today, it is a museum. The Hagia Sophia literally means holy wisdom. You might recognize the word Sophia from philosophy, which literally means friend of wisdom, philosophia. Now, perhaps what Justinian is most famous for is his attempt to better codify a set of laws. The Roman Empire, of course, always had laws, but Justinian got legal experts to go and collect the laws of the land, to make them consistent, to throw out the laws that are inconsistent, to add new laws as necessary. And he did this over his entire reign, and he spread them. And they are often referred to as the Code of Justinian. And they would have an influence on the Byzantine Empire for the next 900 years and even some influence on some relatively modern schools of law. Now, as I've mentioned before, the reign of Justinian is considered really the high point of the Byzantine Empire. And even as we get into roughly the second half of his reign, things start to slide downward, and over the next 900 years, are just in a state of decline. Starting in the 540s, there's a significant plague in the Byzantine Empire. Some accounts I've seen show that roughly 40% of Constantinople dies, significant chunk of the population of the Byzantine Empire dies. And that makes it more susceptible to attack from the various Germanic tribes throughout Justinian's reign. And well after Justinian's reign, there's constant tension and often conflict between the Sassanid Persians in the east. And then, as we go further on, especially as we get into the seventh and eighth century, you have the rise of Islam. Early Islamic empires are able to take over the Sassanids and significantly eat into the Byzantine Empire and then even some of the Germanic kingdoms in the Iberian peninsula. And so, this is taking us now, we're in the middle of the eighth century. And if we go further on, we see this once again gradual decline continue on, where you have further invasions into the Byzantine Empire from Turkish Muslim kingdoms or Turkish Muslim conquerors, all the way until we get to 1453, when Constantinople itself falls to the Turks and eventually gets renamed Istanbul.