I., or the elder, emperor of the East from A. D. 518-527, was of barbarian, probably Gothic extraction. Tired of the humble occupation of a shepherd, for which he had been brought up in his native village, Tauresium, in Dardania, he went to Constantinople in company with two youthful comrades, to try his fortune in the capital. Justin entered the guards of the emperor Leo, and through his undaunted courage soon rose to some eminence.
He served with great distinction against the Isaurians and the Persians, and his merits were successively rewarded with the dignities of tribunus, comes, senator, and at last commander-in-chief of the imperial guards, an important post, which he held in the reign of the emperor Anastasius.
It was expected that the aged Anastasius would appoint one of his three nephews his future successor, but as they evinced little capacity, the emperor hesitated. His prime minister, the eunuch Amantius, availed himself of his master's irresolution to promote his own interest by bringing about the election of his creature Theodatus, and for this purpose entrusted large sums of money to Justin, with which he was to bribe the guards and other persons of influence to espouse the cause of Theodatus.
He expected that an illiterate and rude barbarian, who resembled Hercules more than Mercury, would faithfully execute his orders.
But he was greatly mistaken. Justin employed the money for his own elevation; and when Anastasius died, on the 10th July, 518, it was not Theodatus whom the army proclaimed emperor, but Justin, who thus ascended the throne without opposition, at the advanced age of sixty-eight. Justin could neither read nor write, and was in every respect a rude soldier; but his predecessor Anastasius was scarcely more civilized, and the people preferred a brave master to a learned one. Feeling his incapacities as a statesman, Justin committed the direction of affairs to the quaestor Proclus, and this excellent man discharged his functions to the satisfaction of both master and subjects. Soon after his accession, as it appears, Justin assumed the noble name of Anicius; some, however, believe that he had previously been adopted by a member of that illustrious family. Amantius, indignant at being cheated by a rustic, gave vent to his feelings, and perhaps conspired with Theodatus. They were accordingly accused of treason, and, what was still worse, of heresy, and they paid for their imprudence with their heads. Several of their associates shared their fate. In 519 Justin, who was a stanch adherent of the orthodox church, and had adopted energetic measures against the Eutychians, concluded an ararngement with pope Hormisdas, in consequence of which the harmony between Rome and Constantinople remained undisturbed during a considerable time, to the great satisfaction of the East.
In the following year, 520, Justin adopted his nephew Justinian, whom he had withdrawn in early youth from their native village, and the government was henceforth in the hands of Justinian.
The elevation of Justinian was signalized by an event which occasioned great discontent and disorders in the empire. The Goth Vitalian, so famous by his war against Anastasius, and who held the offices of consul and magister militum, under Justin, became an object of suspicion and jealousy to the emperor and his crafty nephew, and on rising from a banquet to which he had been invited, was treacherously assassinated by the order and in presence of Justin and Justinian. Vitalian was beloved by the faction of the Green, who immediately took up arms, and as they were opposed by the Blue, who enjoyed the favour of the emperor, great troubles arose, which lasted during three years, without Justin's becoming well acquainted with the extent of danger. When he was at last apprised of it, he appointed one Theodotus prefect of the capital, who succeeded in restoring peace. In 522 some misunderstanding arose between Justin and Theodoric, king of the East Goths in Italy, who was offended with Justin because he continued to appoint consuls, a dignity which, in the opinion of Theodoric, could only be conferred by the master of Rome; but Justin prudently renounced the privilege, leaving its exercise entirely to the Gothic king, who accordingly appointed Symmachus and the famous Boethius consuls for the year 522.
In the same year misunderstandings arose between Justin and the Persian king Cabades, on account of the kingdom of Colchis or Lazica. Cabades proposed to the emperor, as a guarantee for their mutual friendship, to adopt his favourite son Nushirwan or Chosroes, who afterwards reigned over Persia with so much glory, and Justin would have complied with the king's wishes, but for the interference of the wise quaestor Proclus, on whose advice the emperor declined the proposition. Annoyed by the failure of his plan, Cabades prepared for war, the outbreak of which was hastened by Gurgenus, king of Iberia, throwing himself upon the protection of the emperor. The Persians having invaded Iberia, Justin dispatched Sittas and Belisarius against them, and this is the first time that the name of Belisarius becomes known in history.
He was, however, not successful in this campaign, but was, nevertheless, appointed governor of the great fortress of Dara, on the confines of Mesopotamia and Syria. and the historian Procopius was appointed his secretary.
The war was carried on for some years without leading to important results on either side. In 525 a terrible earthquake and the overflowing of several rivers carried destruction through some of the finest cities of the empire.
In the East Edesa, Anazarba, and Pompeiopolis were laid in ruins, and in Europe Corinth and Dyrrachium met with a similar fate.
But the destruction of Antioch at the same time by fire and water offered a still more heart-rending sight. When Justin heard of its awful fate, he ordered the theatres to be closed, took off his royal diadem, and dressed himself in mourning.
He spent two million pounds sterling towards the rebuilding of Antioch, which was done with the utmost splendour, and he evinced a proportionate liberality towards the other sufferers. On the whole, Justin, though a barbarian and a fanatic, was a man of good sense, a sincere well wisher of his subjects, and successful in choosing capable persons to govern them; his knowledge of the human character was remarkably sound.
He died on the 1st of August, 527, shortly after having conferred the dignity of Augustus upon his nephew and successor, the great Justinian.
He was buried in the church of Euphemia near his wife Euphemia, a woman as illiterate and rude as her husband, but who never interfered with public affairs, and who caused that church to be built at her expense. (Evagr. 4.1-10, 56; Procop. Vandal.
1.9; De Aed.
2.6, 7, 3.7, 4.1 ; Arcan.
100.6, 9; Pers.
1.19. 2.15, &c.; Theoph. p. 141, &c.; Zonar. vol. ii. p. 58, &c.; Cedren. p. 363 in the Paris edit.; Jornand. De Regn. Suec.
p. 62, ed. Lindenbrog.)