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- - - - Princess Anna Comnena (1083–1153) - Byzantine historian

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The Senate's Election of Emperor Justin


The Sword Behind The Throne

The threat of violence. The photo above of Commodus twirling his sword during a meeting of the Senate really says it all. The Senate has the right to vote - but only if it votes for the "correct" candidate or law.

It was no different with the Senate of Constantinople than the Senate in Rome.

At best the Senate's "election" of an Emperor was a fig leaf to hide from the people the naked power of the military selecting and perhaps controlling the next leader.

In this case the Emperor Anastasius died childless in Constantinople on 9 July 518. A new Emperor would have to be legally chosen or a violent civil war might happen.

"Magically" Justin, who had risen through the ranks of the army to become commander of the Imperial Guard, was selected as Emperor.

As a young man Justin joined the palace guard, the excubitors. He served in various positions, campaigning against the Isaurians and the Sassanian Persians and was noticed for his bravery. Because of his ability he was successively appointed a tribune, a comes, a senator and, under the Emperor Anastasius I, the influential position of comes excubitorum, commander of the palace guard.

Justin's approval by the Senate was not automatic. This implies a certain amount of power in the Senate and/or tradition requiring the support of that body.

The Election of Justin

History of the Later Roman Empire

by J. B. Bury

published by Macmillan & Co., Ltd.,

Anastasius had made no provision for a successor to the throne, and there was no Augusta to influence the election. Everything turned out in a way that no one could have foreseen. The most natural solution might have seemed to be the choice of one of the late Emperor's three nephews, Probus, Pompeius, or Hypatius. They were men of average ability, and one of them, at least, Pompeius, did not share his uncle's sympathy with the Monophysitic creed. But they were not ambitious, and perhaps their claims were not seriously urged.

The High Chamberlain Amantius hoped to play the part which Urbicius had played on the death of Zeno, and he attempted to secure the throne for a certain Theocritus, otherwise unknown, who had probably no qualification but personal devotion to himself. As the attitude of the Palace guards would probably decide the election, he gave money to Justin, the Count of the Excubitors, to bribe the troops.

In the morning (July 9) the people assembled in the Hippodrome and acclaimed the Senate. "Long live the Senate! Senate of the Romans, tu vincas! We demand our Emperor, given by God, for the army; we demand our Emperor, given by God, for the world!" The high officials, the senators, and   the Patriarch had gathered in the Palace, clad most of them in mouse-coloured garments, and sat in the great hall, the Triklinos of the Nineteen Akkubita. Celer, the Master of Offices, urged them to decide quickly on a name and to act promptly before others (the army or the people) could wrest the initiative from their hands. 

But they were unable to agree, and in the meantime the Excubitors and the Scholarians   were acting in the Hippodrome. The Excubitors proclaimed John, a tribune and a friend of Justin, and raised him on a shield. But the Blues would not have him; they threw stones and some of them were killed by the Excubitors. Then the Scholarians put forward an unnamed patrician and Master of Soldiers, but the Excubitors would not accept him and he was in danger of his life. He was rescued by the efforts of Justin's nephew, the candidatus Justinian. The Excubitors then wished to proclaim Justinian himself, but he refused to accept the diadem. As each of these persons was proposed, their advocates knocked at the Ivory Gate, which communicated between the Palace and the Hippodrome, and called upon the chamberlains to deliver the Imperial robes. But on the announcement of the name, the chamberlains refused.

At length, the Senate ended their deliberations by the election of Justin, and constrained him to accept the purple. He appeared in the Kathisma of the Hippodrome and was favourably received by the people; the Scholarians alone, jealous of the Excubitors, resented the choice. The coronation rite was immediately performed in the Kathisma. Arrayed in the Imperial robes, which the chamberlains at last delivered, he was crowned by the Patriarch John; he took the lance and shield, and was acclaimed Basileus by the assembly. 

To the troops he promised a donation of five nomismata (£3: 7: 6) and one pound of silver for each man.

Such is the official description of the circumstances of the election of Justin. If it is true so far as it goes, it is easy to see that there was much behind that has been suppressed. The intrigue of Amantius is ignored. Not a word is said of the candidature of Theocritus which Justin had undertaken to support. 

If Justin had really used his influence with the   Excubitors and the money which had been entrusted to him in the interest of Theocritus, it is hardly credible that the name of Theocritus would not have been proposed in the Hippodrome. If, on the other hand, he had worked in his own interest, as was naturally alleged after the event, how was it that other names, but not his, were put forward by the Excubitors? 

The data seem to point to the conclusion that the whole mise en scène was elaborately planned by Justin and his friends. They knew that he could not count on the support of the Scholarians, and, if he were proclaimed by his own troops alone, the success of his cause would be doubtful. The problem therefore was to manage that the initiation should proceed from the Senate, whose authority, supported by the Excubitors, would rally general consent and overpower the resistance of the Scholarian guards. It was therefore arranged that the Excubitors should propose candidates who had no chance of being chosen, with the design of working on the fears of the Senate. 

The ultimate power behind all thrones

Justin's friends in the Senate could argue with force: "Hasten to agree, or you will be forestalled, and some wholly unsuitable person will be thrust upon us. But you must choose one who will be acceptable to the Excubitors. Justin fulfils this condition. He may not be an ideal candidate for the throne, but he is old and moderate." But, however the affair may have been managed by the wirepullers, Justin ascended the throne with the prestige of having been regularly nominated by the Senate, and he could announce to the Pope that "We have been elected to the Empire by the favour of the indivisible Trinity, by the choice of the highest ministers of the sacred Palace, and of the Senate, and finally by the election of the army."

The new Emperor, who was about sixty-six years of age, was an Illyrian peasant. He was born in the village of Bederiana in the province of Dardania, not far from Scupi, of which the name survives in the town of Üsküb, and his native language was Latin. Like hundreds of other country youths, he set forth   with a bag of bread on his back and walked to Constantinople to better his fortune by enlisting in the army. Two friends accompanied him, and all three, recommended by their physical qualities, were enrolled in the Palace guards. 

Justin served in the Isaurian and Persian wars of Anastasius, rose to be Count of the Excubitors, distinguished himself in the repulse of Vitalian, and received senatorial rank. He had no qualifications for the government of a province, not to say of an Empire; for he had no knowledge except of military matters, and he was uneducated. It is even said that he could not write and was obliged, like Theoderic the Ostrogoth, to use a mechanical device for signing documents.

He had married a captive whom he had purchased and who was at first his concubine. Her name was Lupicina, but she was crowned Augusta under the more decorous name of Euphemia. In his successful career the peasant of Bederiana had not forgotten his humble relatives or his native place. His sister, wife of Sabbatius, lived at the neighbouring village of Tauresium and had two children, Petrus Sabbatius and Vigilantia. He adopted his elder nephew, brought him to Constantinople, and took care that he enjoyed the advantages of an excellent education. The young man discarded the un-Roman names of Peter and Sabbatius and was known by the adoptive name of Justinianus. He was enrolled among the candidati. Justin had other nephews and seems to have cared also for their fortunes. They were liberally educated and were destined to  play parts of varying distinction and importance on the political scene.

The first care of Justin was to remove the disaffected; Amantius and Theocritus were executed, and three others were punished by death or exile. His next was to call to Constantinople the influential leader who had shaken the throne of Anastasius. Before he came to the city, Vitalian must have been assured of the religious orthodoxy of the new Emperor, and he came prepared to take part in the reconciliation of Rome with the Eastern Churches. He was immediately created Master of Soldiers in praesenti, and in A.D. 520 he was consul for the year. The throne of Justin seemed to be firmly established. The relatives of Anastasius were loyal; Pompeius co-operated with Justinian and Vitalian in the restoration of ecclesiastical unity. Marinus, the trusted counseller of the late sovran, was Praetorian Prefect of the East in A.D. 519.

In the spring of A.D. 527 Justin was stricken down by a dangerous illness, and he yielded to the solicitations of the Senate to co-opt Justinian as his colleague. The act of coronation was performed in the great Triklinos in the Palace (on April 4), and it seems that the Patriarch, in the absence of the Emperor, placed the diadem on the head of the new Augustus. The subsequent ceremonies were carried out in the Delphax, where the Imperial guards were assembled, and not, as was usual, in the Hippodrome. Justin recovered, but only to survive for a few months. He died on August 1, from an ulcer in the foot where, in one of his old campaigns, he had been wounded by an arrow.

The gold Solidus of Emperor Justin I

(J.B. Bury)    (Justin I)