There haven't been too many of these lately, a fact which was pointed out by a fellow gamer at CanCon this year (which I haven't written about as I weep every time I try). After I got over the surprise at someone actually reading my blog I decided to rectify this at the first opportunity in a pathetic and transparent attempt to preserve my readership base.
So, happy birthday to Justin I, Byzantine emperor. Justin followed quite a traditional leadership path in the Byzantine empire, he started off as a pig farming peasant. As a teenager he fled a barbarian invasion (I'm not sure which but there were plenty going around at the time) and wound up in Constantinople where he decided that a military career was preferable to having anything more to do with pigs.
But what about the giddy ascent that led from muddy sty to the imperial purple? According to one tale the story went like this. Justin's predecessor as emperor, one Anastasius by name, now in his ninth decade could feel the bony hand of death on his shoulder and was filled with curiosity as to who would rule the empire after him. He had no sons but he had three grown nephews so he invited them to a private dinner. A couch was provided for each of them, on one couch a secret mark was made, whoever sat on that couch would inherit the throne (beats pulling a sword out of a rock doesn't it). Unfortunately two of the nephews seemed to have an affection slightly at odds with the prevailing social mores and decided to share a couch and the marked couch was left unused.
Anastasius realised that the throne would not be inherited by a family member but he was still keen to know who the lucky person would be. He prayed for insight and that night God (who apparently had nothing better to do) dropped in on a dream to inform him that the new emperor would be the first person to enter the imperial bed chamber the next morning. This made sense to Anastasius, normally the first person in was the Grand Chamberlain with the latest political reports. High born and a senior member of the hierarchy possibly the only real surprise is that he was waiting until the incumbent died before grabbing the purple. On this particular day however the first person in was the thuggish, illiterate commander of the Imperial Guard our boy Justin (who was pushing seventy by this time). Anastasius accepted that the ways God moved in were not just mysterious but downright weird and died at peace.
If you believe the above story I have a bridge I'd like to sell you. All it really does is serve notice on the quality of investigative journalism in fifth century Byzantium. As far as we can tell from a distance of some seventeen hundred years what actually happened was that Anastasius' brother made a bid for the throne. The grand chamberlain had his eye on another candidate and to buy military support gave Justin a large sum of money to bribe the relevant people. This Justin did, he bribed them so well that they elevated him as emperor instead. Justin then executed his predecessor's brother and the other candidate for the throne and a few other people who looked like they might look good in purple. Then he settled down to rule.
So, how did a seventy year old, semi literate pig farmer do as emperor? Better than you might think. Justin was smart enough to know what he didn't know and dialled in skilled advisors to assist him in areas where his knowledge was lacking. Foreign policy consisted of building up Christian buffer states between the empire and its distinctly non-Christian neighbours like the Sassanians (essentially Persia). This worked for a while although war broke out under Justin's successor. The main thing Justin concerned himself with was religion.
This might not seem particularly important now but in those days it was everything. There was a split in the Christian church (because there always is) between those who believed in the dual nature of Christ (Chalcedonians) and those who believed the son of God had a single, divine nature (Miaphysites). Anastasius had been a Miaphysite which had led to a certain amount of tension (riots, revolts and an attempt to remove him from the throne) by the largely Chalcedonian population of Constantinople. It had also led to a schism with the Pope in Rome. Justin an avowed Chalcedonian mended bridges with the Pope and reunited Christianity or rather reunited some bits of Christianity. The Miaphysites and Monophysites (like Miaphysites only more so) were persecuted which caused some issues as at that time Italy was being ruled by the Goths who were Arians (a type of Monophysite). The Goths got very annoyed and wound up tossing the Pope in gaol.
The displeasure of the Goths was significant because technically they ruled Italy in the emperor's name. They had defeated the last emperor of the West some years previously and had taken over. Claiming that they did so at the behest of the emperor in the East saved that emperor some face and gave a little respectability to a Gothic invasion force. Now however relations between the two were on a downward slide. Justin's nephew was to blame for a good deal of this and would ultimately wind up having the Gothic kingdom destroyed.
So, Justin's nephew; one of the talented advisors Justin called on was his own nephew of equally low origins but considerably more talent. His name was Justinian (not originally of course but after Justin adopted him it was). Cold, intelligent and utterly ruthless he was Justin's right hand man (a lot of the success of Justin's coup can be traced back to his activities) and as the emperor slid into senility he took on more and more of the imperial duties. He was crowned co-emperor and when Justin finally died took the throne as sole emperor. One of the top items on his to do list was destroying the Gothic kingdom of Italy.
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