Justinian: The Last of the Romans

By: Christian Landers

Around A.D. 480 a young peasant boy was born in a remote northern region of the Roman Empire known as Thracia. His name was Petrus, but he would be remembered by historians as the Roman Emperor Justinian. His uncle Justin, whose support assured him a prosperous and successful career in the military, brought Petrus to Constantinople as a young man. Young Flavius Petrus showed himself to be intellectually gifted and soon excelled in law and theology. Under his uncle's direction, Petrus would be transformed from a swineherd from Illyria into Justinian , the last emperor of the Roman Empire.

Until recently, most historical scholars believed the downfall of the Roman Empire began with the invasions of Germanic peoples into western Roman territories, and that finally, the end of the Roman Empire came with the fall of Rome itself to the Goths in A.D. 476. However, modern historians point out that after A.D. 476 a smaller Roman Empire survived in the east, with Constantinople as its new capital, and with Justinian as its last emperor. Today, much attention is given to Justinian because his reign ushered in a period of history that saw the end of the ancient world and the birth of the medieval world. Justinian was the last great Emperor of Rome, perhaps the first Christian emperor of the Byzantine Empire, and his citizens, the last remnants of Roman civilization.

The majority of films dealing with the Roman Empire tend to concern themselves with events at the height of the Roman Empire and/or with emperors such as Augustus and Caesar. However, in a fifty-minute film released by A&E Home Video and derived from A&E's documentary television series Biography, the life of Roman Emperor Justinian is revealed. Titled Justinian: The Last of the Romans, the film begins with Justinian's humble birth and goes on to explore his life and reign until his death in A.D. 565. Jack Perkins, the narrator, and numerous historiansinterviewed for the film, including Professor Averil Cameron of Oxford University, Michael Whitby of the University of Warwick, and Dr. Chris Kelly of University of Cambridge, tell of Justinian's dreams as a young man of traveling to Constantinople, the city considered the new Rome of the diminished Roman Empire. The viewer follows Justinian's journey to Constantinople and learns about his induction into the imperial guard and his introduction into the privileged life of the imperial court. Continuing in true documentary style, A&E sheds light on the unusual circumstances in which Justinian eventually became Emperor of Rome. As expected, the film devotes the majority of its length to the people and events surrounding the half-century reign of Justinian. Justinian's military conquests, his conflicts wit the neighboring Persian Empire, as well as with his controversial wife, Theodora, and his popular general, Belisarius, are just a few examples of the people and events examined in the film.

The film concludes with a reflection on the successes and failures of Justinian in his time as Emperor. Accomplishments such as his codification of Roman law and his military victory over the Vandals to reclaim North Africa for the Roman Empire are among the few successes of Justinian remembered in the film. More numerous and more noteworthy were his failures. Justinian's inability to recapture Italy and Rome from the Goths, and more importantly, to reunite the entire western provinces under Roman rule forever leaves a dark cloud hanging over his reign. Indeed, as the film reveals, Justinian spends his last days as emperor contemplating these failures. In the end, the film reflects on the importance of his death and what his failures meant for the Romans and all of western civilization.

Historians, who consider objectivity to be essential in accurately recording past people and events, will be delighted with the film's presentations of Justinian and his wife Empress Theodora. There is no attempt by the narrator or by historians interviewed for this biography to embellish the truth. There is as much attention given to Justinian's failures and fallacies as there is to his successes. While Roman emperors such as Caesar are often portrayed as larger than life in documentary film, the portrait painted of Justinian in this documentary is much more human and believable. The film is very good at not only looking at the public persona of Justinian, but at the private Justinian: the husband and peasant boy become king. The same approach is used with Theodora, Justinian's wife. The film presents Theodora's flattering attributes and not so flattering attributes with equal measure. Indeed, Professor Averil Cameron from Oxford University describes the circus faction background in which Theodora was born in unflattering terms. Professor Cameron reveals that, as the daughter of a bear keeper, Theodora made her living in the circus as an exotic dancer and prostitute. Tales and rumors of Theodora's sexual liaisons and sexual misadventures are also given for the viewer's consideration, but it is these rumors, exaggerated as they may be, that give the viewer a more accurate depiction of Theodora the individual. In the end, the method in which these historical characters are presented stays true to fact. The film's willingness to explore the scandal, as well as the achievement that makes up the true history of Justinian, will appeal to the amateur historian and professional historian alike.

Adding to the appeal and to the historical credibility of this documentary is the film's historical depiction of Roman history, Roman culture, and Roman social life during the time of Emperor Justinian. Although the film is dedicated to the biography of Emperor Justinian, it does give accurate information about the life and times of Constantinople and the Roman Empire between A.D. 530 and A.D. 565. A brief history of the Roman Empire, given at the beginning of the film, gives the viewer vital insight into the evolution of the Roman Empire and an understanding of the role that Constantinople played in the lives of the Romans during Justinian's era. The documentary's descriptions of the Hippodrome, the circus, and the gambling in Constantinople prove to be very enlightening in the way of cultural entertainment during that period. The imperial court and imperial guard described in the film reveal the ways and structures of the social life of the upper class, but more important is an expert description of the Nika riot during Justinian's rule.

The Nika riot not only brings to light the social life of the lower classes, but it also reveals the political climate of that time. Justinian's oppressive tax policies and his bans on entertainment in the city in an attempt to preserve the morality of his people, fueled the Nika riot. The mass rioting and looting was put down by the military at great cost, but only after Theodora, determined and unwilling to separate herself from the throne, persuaded Justinian not to flee. The film goes on to expose many of the harsh policies handed down by Justinian and their effects on the citizens of Constantinople. Overall, the film's efforts to paint an accurate picture of Constantinople's cultural and social life are done well.

After watching the film, a viewer possesses more detailed knowledge of the Roman Empire after the fall of Rome, but more importantly, a viewer has detailed knowledge of an important figure in Roman history. Justinian was probably the most important Emperor in all of Roman history because of what the end of his rule meant for the Roman people and all of western civilization. This is where the value of the film lies. The film's ability to illustrate the fact and to point out Justinian's role in the development of western civilization makes watching the documentary worthwhile.

For more information on Justinian, Procopius History of The Wars, translated by H.B. Dewing is the best source for a detailed chronicle of the events of Justinian's reign as emperor. As legal advisor to Belisarius, the general of Justinian's army during the sixth century, Procopius possessed first hand knowledge of Justinian's life and rule. His dislike for Justinian and disdain for Theodora provided for the most impartial and truthful description of Justinian's life and reign found in modern history. Other works surveying the sixth century Roman Empire and Justinian include The Age of Justinian by J.A. S. Evans and Justinian and the Later Roman Empire by John W. Barker. Robert Browning, in his book Justinian and Theodora, examines the lives of Justinian and his wife Theodora in greater detail. Constantinople: Birth of an Empire by Harold Lamb is also valuable for an overview of life and culture in Justinian's Constantinople