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In his relations with religion, Justinian is presented to us in no less than six different aspects. We have seen him as a builder of churches, and as an ecclesiastical statesman; it still remains for us to consider him as a hierarch or clerical legislator, as a persecutor of heretics, as a missionary or converter of the heathen, and as a theologian or Christian metaphysician.


I. In the first department the Emperor enacted Constitutions dealing with clerical life and authority in every relationship, his maxim being that the salvation of the State and the individual depended on the Church being maintained in its integrity. In the case of a bishopric becoming vacant, three candidates were to be nominated, and the most fit elected by the votes of the ecclesiastics and the principal citizens of the locality; but, if obtained by bribery, the election was annulled.

Essential qualifications of a bishop were that he should be above thirty years of age and have no children or grandchildren, whereby his attention might be distracted from his sacred duties. It was necessary also that he should not be addicted to a curia, unless he had gained his freedom from the same, through having spent fifteen years in a monastery. In the exercise of his office he was authorized to supervise almost all the activities of civil life. He could demand an account of expenditure from all persons charged with public works, such as baths, roads, bridges, statues, aqueducts, harbours, and fortifications, selecting three experts to assist him with their experience; and he could call on the Rector with his cohort to help him in dealing with recalcitrants. He was enjoined to prohibit gambling, and to visit the prisons every Sunday in order to inquire into the cases of those under detention.

It was his duty to see that legacies left to the Church or to charities were properly applied by the heirs or trustees; and at one time Justinian allowed such bequests to be exacted even after the lapse of a century, but he subsequently reduced the limit to forty years. Litigants could choose him as a judge of first instance, or they could appeal to him from the Rector; but they could also, if dissatisfied with his decision, appeal to the provincial governor. A bishop was immune from charges which were incumbent on ordinary citizens, that is, trusteeships of all kinds. He need not accept the post of tutor or curator to young relations, nor the care of those who were demented; nor could he be compelled to attend in court as a witness.

The ethics of a bishop's life were scrupulously regulated by law. No woman could be resident in his house, except a wife, a sister, a daughter, or a first cousin. He was not permitted to indulge in any gambling game, nor to attend the spectacles of the circus or the theatre. He also laboured under the disability of being unable to make a will or execute a deed of gift, so that his mind should be wholly free from worldly concern. The lesser clergy, that is, presbyters, deacons, and sub-deacons, were obliged to live under the same stringent rules as far as applicable to their rank; and only for the lowest grades of the ministry, viz., chanters and readers, was marriage lawful. But even to them second nuptials were forbidden, under the penalty of forfeiting all claim to promotion in the service of the Church.

The children of illicit marriages contracted by clerics were ignored by the State so far that they were not even entitled to the privileges of bastards. Nor would the Emperor tolerate idle ecclesiastics, but enacted that all should perform a part methodically in prayers and psalmody for the benefit of the laity. Women of fifty could be ordained as deaconesses in the Church, but after some time Justinian reduced the age to forty.

The constitution of monasteries was also minutely regulated by legislation. Not the senior, but the most suitable person, was to be elected as abbot or abbess. The segregation of males and females was to be rigidly carried out, and only one old male servitor was to be employed in a nunnery. Husband or wife might elect to lead a religious life without incurring any of the penalties for the neglect of family duties to which an ordinary citizen was exposed. By entering a monastery the individual divested himself of all his worldly goods in favour of the religious community, but not to the prejudice of wife or children, who were still entitled to their legal share of the estate.

Abduction of a nun, even with her own consent, rendered not only the ravisher liable to capital punishment, but also any persons who harboured or aided him in the crime. Alienation of Church property, as well as of that of monasteries and charitable foundations, was carefully guarded against, and leases were lo be granted only to the rich. Ruins, however, and surplus treasure in the form of vessels and vestments might be sold to allow of the funds being applied to some more useful purpose. But an exception was made in the case of money being required for the redemption of captives, since it was only reasonable to prefer human souls to material valuables.

Some relief with respect to the incidence of the taxes was also granted to religious bodies in recognition of the distinction existing between things divine and human. Clerical criminals were punished by expulsion from the cloth and surrendered to be dealt with by the secular arm; in minor cases by relegation to a monastery for three years, there to be subjected to a stringent discipline.


2. The attitude of Justinian towards those of his subjects who did not profess the Orthodox faith was one of the most complete intolerance. A heretic was scarcely fit to live, and it was only strict justice for him to be “deprived of all earthly advantages, so that he might languish in misery”. Hence the legal enactments against such religious dissidents subjected them to civil and sometimes to physical death. They were accordingly excluded from all offices of dignity in the State, as well as from holding any magistracy "lest they should be constituted as judges of Christians and bishops". Similarly, the liberal professions were barred to them, "for fear of their imparting to others their fatal errors".

Wills made by them were not recognized in law unless in favour of Orthodox children or relatives, and, if they had none such, then the Treasury instituted itself as their successor. The testimony of heretics was not received in court against the Orthodox, and they were forbidden to hold Christian slaves. Hence, the slaves of heretics possessed the power of self-emancipation by professing themselves converts to the Orthodox faith.

There were, however, degrees in heresy, and the proscriptive laws were not pressed with equal force against all. Manichaeans, Pagans, Montanists and the various sects of Gnostics were the most odious, whilst Arians, Nestorians, and Monophysites were not pronounced against by name in the first decade of Justinian's reign. The disciples of Mani were frankly condemned to death wherever found, so that their very name might perish from among the nations. It was a crime to possess their books and not hand them over to a public official in order that they should be burnt.

Such were the principles which were laid down in the Byzantine state for dealing with heretics, but in practice the penalties were not always strictly enforced, and the law often slumbered unless some special stimulus set it in motion. A couple of years after Justinian's accession his zeal for Orthodoxy inflamed him with a desire to encompass a general conformity in religion throughout the Empire. He issued a decree, therefore, that all heretics of the flagrant type would be under the extreme penalties of the statutes unless they accepted Christianity within three months. As a result, many votaries of polytheism were discovered in the capital, and several high officials were dismissed from their posts.

At the same time, a numerous body of inquisitors pervaded the provinces in order to enforce the edict, whereupon many conformed through fear, whilst others who were fanatically attached to their belief fled to distant regions or even committed suicide. Among the most insensate devotees of the latter class were the Montanists of Phrygia, who shut themselves up in their churches and then set fire to the buildings, so that all perished together.

Prior to this decree Jews and Samaritans had enjoyed the ordinary protection of the law in their own communities, and only suffered the disabilities of heretics when legally opposed by Catholics; but now the latter sect was included among those upon whom the State religion was to be enforced. In their case the measure was carried out with the greatest harshness, and their synagogues were closed, emptied of their contents, or altogether ruined.

As the Samaritans were very numerous in Palestine, they soon congregated together, and broke into open revolt. A brigand chief named Julian was chosen as their King, and under his leadership more than twenty thousand of the rebels assembled. Doubtless they were very inefficiently armed and equipped, but they proceeded at once to retaliate on the Christians by pillaging their property, massacring those who came in their way, and setting fire to the churches. Scythopolis and Neapolis were the chief scenes of their depredations.

At the first news of the riots the Emperor became very irate and ordered the immediate execution of the local governor, but when subsequent accounts indicated that the movement had attained to the magnitude of a rebellion, he commanded the military Duke of the province to attack Julian with all the forces he could muster. After some preliminary skirmishes a considerable battle was fought, in which the Samaritan King was slain, and his army routed. The head of Julian, encircled with the diadem, was sent as a trophy to Constantinople; and the wretched sectaries were exterminated wherever they could be found among the mountains in which they had taken refuge. Altogether, twenty thousand are said to have perished by the sword; the young of both sexes to an equal number were captured by Arethas, and sold into slavery among the Persians and Indians; but the majority escaped by abandoning their homes and offering themselves as subjects to the Shahinshah.

The devastation and depopulation of Palestine, which resulted from this civil war, had reduced a great part of the country to a desert, but, nevertheless, Justinian made no sign that the fiscal precept, for which the province was assessed, would he remitted. Thus the Christians, who had been despoiled by the rebels, were now presented with demand notes for a greatly increased amount. Extreme destitution was induced, and an appeal to the Emperor became a matter of urgent necessity. The Patriarch of Jerusalem headed the movement, and it was decided that Saba, an anchorite whose reputation for sanctity was greatest in that age, should be the bearer of the petition. He was the founder of the Great Laura in a wilderness near the Jordan, and was now upwards of ninety years of age. He undertook the mission with alacrity and departed for the capital (530), where the rumour of his approach preceded him, and occasioned a great commotion. A fleet of war-vessels, having the Patriarch Epiphanius and several Illustrious officials on board, sailed down the Propontis to meet him; and on his arrival at Court Justinian embraced him with joy and tears.

Yet the Emperor was alarmed at the prospect of a reduction of the revenue, and attempted a diversion by offering the Saint a large sum for the monasteries in which he was interested. But Saba was immovable and imperturbably pressed his petition for five concessions, remission of taxes, rebuilding and subsidies for ruined churches, the foundation of a hospital at Jerusalem, the completion of a church to the Virgin in that city, and the erection of a fort in the desert to protect his monasteries from the Saracens.

Finally Justinian yielded at every point, and the Holy City was enriched with an infirmary to receive two hundred sick and a magnificent church to the Theotokos, which it look twelve years to build, as a part of the tangible outcome of the mission. Saba was also brought into the presence of the Empress, who saluted him with the deepest reverence and solicited him to pray for her that she might have a son. But to this request he replied simply, “God save the glory of your Empire”, and left her in a very tristful mood. Her depression being noticed, some of the ecclesiastics questioned him, to whom he explained, "Believe me, Fathers, God does not will that there should be any issue of her womb, lest he should vex the Church worse than Anastasius."

As for the Samaritans, those who survived the blast of persecution, either by pretended conformity or temporary seclusion, formed a considerable multitude. As soon as the penal laws became dormant, they crept out of their hiding places and gradually settled down in their old haunts, so that after the lapse of a decade they again appeared as a conspicuous section of the Palestinian population. In 542 Justinian thought it wise to conciliate them by a formal amnesty, and he published an Act by which they were virtually restored to all their civic privileges. Yet fourteen years later, they fomented an insurrection at Caesarea in conjunction with some Jews, murdered the Proconsul, and the same scenes of violence against the Christians and their churches were repeated. A similar wave of oppression, though probably only of local origin, was doubtless the cause of this uprising, but the sedition was soon quelled by a special commissioner, who was sent down from the capital and punished the ringleaders by impalement, decapitation, mutilation, or confiscation of property, according to the degrees of guilt.

Early in the next reign, however, their turbulence appeared to be so incurable as to call for a re-enactment of almost all the disabilities under which they lay after Justinian's first decree against them.

It was, of course, a foregone conclusion that in Africa and Italy after the conquest the Arians should be a proscribed sect. No sooner had the Vandal Kingdom passed under the Byzantine rule than the same measure was meted out to the previously dominant religionists, as the African Catholics had generally received at their hands under Genseric and most of his successors. Dispossessed of all their churches and divested of civil rights, they were directed by the Emperor’s edict to consider themselves as humanely treated in being suffered to live at all.

In Italy the revulsion was less decided as, owing to the tolerant policy of Theodoric, the Orthodox Church in that country had not been disturbed. No special legislation, therefore, is extant, and it appears that the Italian Arians were only despoiled on occasion under some specious pretence in order that their riches might go to swell the treasury, as frequently happened in the case of their conquerors of the East.

Although Jews were held in abhorrence by the Emperor and his Catholic subjects, they were allowed to adhere to their traditional faith within certain limits. Thus such a blasphemous departure from the creed of the State as denial of resurrection and judgment, or the creation of angels, was not permitted to them; and they were compelled to use a version of the Old Testament according to the Septuagint in Greek or Latin, and not any Hebrew text of their own.

In one instance, however, a community of Jews at Borium in North Africa were forced to become Christians; and their synagogue, which they declared to have been built by Solomon, was accordingly transformed into a church.


3. Having the power of compulsion in his hands, the efforts of Justinian to convert heathens to Christianity are not easily to be distinguished from persecution. As a rule his chief argument was the sword or the stake, but, as difficulties sometimes stood in the way of applying that mode of persuasion, he was obliged occasionally to have recourse to milder methods. The only notable instance, however, is that in which he appointed John, the Monophysite Bishop of Ephesus, to preach the Gospel in the wilds of Caria, Asia, Phrygia, and Lydia. It seems that in those provinces there were many small communities interspersed among rugged and barely accessible mountain tracts, who were still addicted to some primitive form of idolatry. Some peculiar fitness recommended the heretic prelate to the Emperor for this arduous task; and doubtless it was not intended that the rude proselytes should imbibe any nice theological distinctions. According to the account of the missionary himself his success was very great, and seventy thousand persons were baptized, for whom a sufficient number of churches and monasteries were built in the sequestered districts which they inhabited' It is probable that this mission conduced to the spread of civilization, and that the regions dealt with were opened by various public works to a freer intercourse with the more advanced dwellers in the plains.

Two other examples of Justinian's propagation of the Gospel are rather to be classed as military subjugation and enforced conversion. On the outskirts of the Empire between Armenia and the Caucasus lived a number of predacious tribes, offshoots of a common stock, called the Tzani. Their homes were situated in mountain fastnesses hemmed in by dense forests, and at an elevation which rendered agriculture impossible. Their sustenance was derived from cattle, and from incursions for the sake of rapine into the surrounding districts. A punitive expedition, however, was undertaken by the Byzantine soldiery, who penetrated to their retreats, and reduced them to submission. The permanency of the conquest was then assured by the clearing of avenues for facile access and by the building of forts. Instruction in Christianity naturally followed, and the wild men, who had previously deified groves and birds, were taught to resort to churches which were erected for their accommodation.

Near the eastern extremity of the new Praefecture of Africa a numerous people existed who maintained a magnificent temple served by a throng of hierodules, in which the divinity claimed by Alexander was still adored in conjunction with that of Jupiter Ammon. By a mandate of the Emperor this obsolete religion was abolished, and Christian worship in a church dedicated to the Virgin was substituted for the Pagan rites previously held in honour there.

It is uncertain whether the arrival of barbarian princes at Constantinople, petitioning to be baptized under Imperial patronage, is to be attributed to missionary activity, to the prestige of the Empire, or to accidental persuasion by Christian devotees. From whatever cause, however, such occurrences were not uncommon, and two further instances may be noticed. In 527 a king of the Herules presented himself at the Court, with a numerous retinue, and begged to be made a Christian. All were baptized, Justinian himself acting as godfather to the King, whom he dismissed with handsome presents, and an intimation that, for the future, he should rely on him as an ally. A similar case happened shortly afterwards, which was attended with unfortunate consequences for the royal neophyte, who was a Hunnish chief reigning in the vicinity of Bosporus. On his return, assuming too hastily that all his subjects were ready to follow his example, he seized on the idols of the tribe, which were cast in silver and electron, and transmuted them into coined money. The native priests, however, were indignant at this act, and, having transferred their allegiance to his brother, quickly procured his assassination. The new ruler then marched against Bosporus, and massacred a small Byzantine force which was habitually stationed there in order to guard the interests of trade with the Huns.

This outrage necessitated the despatch of a punitive force across the Euxine, but the barbarians contrived a hasty disappearance without risking a battle, and thereafter the peace of the region remained unmolested.

With these cases may be classed that of the Abasgi, who dwelt beyond Lazica on the north-east of the Euxine. They worshipped woods and groves, but under Justinian received an impulse which caused them to embrace Christianity. They were ruled by a dual kingship, the associates in which made a practice of seizing and castrating all handsome boys, whom they sold in great numbers within the Empire. They lived in dread, however, of the Roman power, and hence slew the fathers of such boys, lest they should be moved to appeal to the Emperor against their tyranny. But when a deputation of the Abasgi appeared at the Byzantine Court to solicit that a bishop should be sent to them, Justinian not only granted their petition, but published and enforced an edict that no more eunuchs should be made in that country. He also built a church to the Virgin among them, so that they should be permanently retained in their attachment to the rites of their new faith.


4. As a doctor of theology Justinian believed himself to be the superior of any of the prelates of the Church who lived in his time. He pored over the ponderous tomes of the Fathers whose subtle disquisitions on the divine nature had inspired the decrees of the four great Councils, and assumed the rôle of a priestly expositor of the Catholic faith.

As his age advanced, his pious ardour increased, and he pursued his studies far into the night, closeted with venerable ecclesiastics in his library, a circumstance which caused him to incur some contempt among the more active political and military spirits. Thus, when the plot, in which Artabanes was involved, was organized, the conspirators based their hopes of success chiefly on the facility with which he might be surprised during such nocturnal vigils, bereft of guards, who had been dismissed lest they should disturb his devout researches.

Several of his theological treatises have come down to us, which, though not voluminous, might have sufficed to give him a respectable rank among ecclesiastical authors, had not his royal position rendered him independent of such distinction. As a specimen of the intellectual activities of an age, in which philosophy and science had been abandoned as worthless pursuits, it may be interesting to quote two passages from Justinian's writings, wherein damnable heresy may be seen opposed to the inestimable conceptions of orthodoxy. In the first he exposes the pernicious errors of Origen, in order that they may be anathematized by an episcopal council; and in the second he defines the true views which must be held as to the ineffable conjunction of the two natures in the Savior. The Palestinian monks, who cherished the Alexandrian Father, he urges, were engaged in ruining souls by infusing into them ideas assimilated to those of Pythagoras, Plato, and Plotinus, thus perverting them towards the tenets of Paganism and Manichaeanism

"They say", expounds Justinian, "that there were originally an innumerable host of minds united in contemplation and love of God. But, being subdued by satiety, their devotion cooled, and hence they became associated with bodies and names of a higher or lower nature in proportion to the degree of their falling off. Those who were least deteriorated passed into the sun, moon, and stars; a lower class into gross bodies like our own; whilst those affected with the greatest perversity coalesced with the frigid and fuliginous matter of which demons are constituted. One only remained unchanged in love and contemplation of the Deity, and that one was Christ. But all bodies are liable to perish utterly; and he, becoming at once God and man, first threw off bis body; and all bodies will ultimately do likewise, returning into unity and again becoming minds. Hence impious men and demons will at last attain to the same celestial state as the divine and saintly. Thus Christ differs in no manner from other living beings. But Pythagoras said that unity was the beginning of all things; and Plato taught similarly, and asserted that souls were sent into bodies as a punishment. Wherefore he called the body a sepulchre and a chain, as being that wherein the soul was buried and bound. And the soul of a philosopher which pollutes itself with paederasty and iniquity performs a triple circuit of chastisement in a millennium, and in the thousandth year becomes winged and takes its flight ... Therefore I exhort you, holy fathers, to examine and condemn in general synod all who think like Origen."

The next extract I draw from his lengthy exposition of the principles of Catholicism with a view to the condemnation of the Three Chapters. In this document he relies mainly on the interpretation of Scripture by Athanasius, Cyril of Alexandria, Basil the Great, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa :

"... And when we say that Christ is God, we do net deny him to be man; and when we say that he is man we do not deny him to be God. For should he be only God, how should he suffer, be crucified, and die? For such is alien to God. Wherefore when we say that Christ is composed of both natures, divine and human, we introduce no confusion in the union, but in the two natures we confess Jesus Christ, the Incarnate Word. When we say that there is a composition, we must allow there to be parts in the whole, and the whole to consist in its parts. The divine nature is not transmuted into the human, nor the human into the divine. Rather is it to be understood that, each nature abiding within its own limits and faculties, a union has been made according to the substance. The union according to the substance signifies that God the Word, that is, one substance of the three substances of the Deity, was not united to a previously formed human body, but created for Himself in the womb of the Holy Virgin from her substance the living flesh, which is human nature."

He then drew up a number of canons against the Three Chapters and heretics generally, to which he appended a diffuse argument to prove the necessity for their being anathematized. These canons are virtually the same as the fourteen adopted by the Fifth Ecumenical Council.