Justin I

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Justin I (450-518) was the first Emperor of the Byzantine Empire, the most powerful man in Europe, with the possible exception of the Goth warlord Theodoric the Great.

Justin I's dynasty is usually known as the Countrians, on account of their remote, rustic origins. They had dreams of grandeur, aloofness, and lyrical supremacy. Justin spoke Latin with a Thracian Twang and was an expert on looking after pigs. He was also illiterate, apart from certain select Greek curse words, yet in 518, this 'son-of-the-sty' became emperor. Justin also played guitar, but more about that later.


Justin in his bodyguard kit.

Justin (or to give him his full Romano-Thracian name, Justinius Timberjackass) grew up on a farm in Macedonia.

It wasn't a good time to be a peasant. The land was marched across and ravaged by a succession of barbarians, including the Visigoths, Ostrogoths, Mall-goths, Huns, and the most feared, the Emos. Fed up seeing his pigs stolen or molested, Justin emigrated on foot to Constantinople to find a better job.[1] His brute strength and stringy beard made him a natural hire for the Imperial bodyguard as a bone-crunching specialist. They wore bright white clothes and were called the Excubitors,[2] with one of them[3] designated to sleep in the same room as the emperor. Justin was trusted for this task and soon earned tips from visitors who were keen to get up close and personal with the emperor. He saved enough gold to invite the rest of the Countrian clan to the capital city and find them various demeaning jobs.

You couldn't find a more unlikely choice for the next emperor if you tried: Justin's only non-military talent was fiddling with his guitar and acquiring some fearsome tattoos. But he did have one grace (at least for Catholic and Orthodox Christians): He was a full-on Chalcedonian Christian, at a time when other flavours were in ascendance. But more about that later too.


In 518, Emperor Anastasius I died without indicating who he thought was best for the job. No one had been named Baby Caesar or co-Emperor. Tradition was that this omission meant the job was up for grabs. This was a challenge for a sixty-something who barely spoke Greek, met through the expedient of bribery. Justin, ringed by his fellow bodyguards, got a hot tip that the previous emperor had died. Before anyone else had a chance to pitch in with their bid, Justin had been elected emperor by the Imperial Council. He then appeared in the Hippodrome and was announced as new ruler, just before the chariot races started.

Justin's first major move was to order the execution or assassination of all other pretenders to the throne, an actual bloodbath where so many imperial regimes had started with a merely figurative one. His next move was to name his concubine/partner and ex-slave Lupicina as Empress Euphemia. Finally, as he had no son, Justin selected his nephew Flavius Petrus Sabbatius as his official successor — provided Sabbatius adopted a version of his name, hence the future Emperor Justinian I.

After mopping the blood off the floor, Justin announced that he was a Chalcedonian Christian and officially ended the decades-long schism between Rome and Constantinople. Anastasius and his predecessor Emperor Zeno had tried to square the theological circle with the Monophysites in the East by claiming Jesus had 'one nature' and 'two nature' simultaneously as God was beyond comprehension. It read as 'all Greek' to the Popes in Rome who had refused to go along and had sent scrolls to Constantinople covered in choice Latin abuse. Now Justin ended the split by saying he didn't understand the issues involved. He wanted to return to his guitar but...


The 3.30 Empress Verina Stakes Chariot Race at the Hippodrome

...the Ostrogoth king Theodoric the Great sent a letter. He reminded Justin of the arrangement between him and the Byzantine Empire. Italy's Goths were his but the Italians were under the emperor's protection with Theodoric acting as the 'protector'. Again, Justin said that looked fine to him. He wouldn't get involved. Theodoric was relieved but nervous now that the papacy and the empire were back on speaking terms. Theodoric had relied on the split to prevent a united front against him, especially as he was of the Arian Christian persuasion. Things could have got sticky when Theodoric had the Roman philosopher Boethius killed, but Justin had a low opinion of these types, so he let the matter pass. Now...where had he placed his guitar?


About the music. Justin let his nephew/adopted son Justinian run the shop. When a stamp was required, Justin punched the appropriate paper work and went back to his instrument. Justin left statecraft and taught music to his great nephew, also named Justin. Without success.


Justin maintained good relations with everyone, including the prickly Persians. As a soldier, he felt he had nothing else to prove. Just attaining the office of emperor was enough for him. Besides, he was an old man, by ancient standards, and surprisingly free of debauchery and vice. He had become a stay-at-home emperor in slippers. Feeling his time was up, in April 527, Justin made his nephew Justinian co-emperor and then went for a sleep on the couch and never woke up.


  1. Justin set off with two companions called Zimarchus and Dityvistus. They never made it to the capital. Speculation is that Justin ate them along the way.
  2. Later known as the eXcubitors when they became an electronic pop German Goth Metal group.
  3. Designated the Concubitor.
Preceded by:
Anastasius I
Byzantine Emperor
Succeeded by:
Justinian I