Although Justinian I is considered to have been one of history’s most important Roman and Byzantine emperors, his was a humble beginning. Born of peasant stock, the son of a farmer around the year 482, he was christened Petrus Sabbatius by his father. At the time that Justinian rose to become emperor of the Roman Empire, an advancement that owed to his uncle, the Barbarian tribes of central Europe had already conquered much of the western half of the empire. His leadership not only reunited the Roman Empire, it left a legacy that touches all of our lives: our modern legal system.
Justinian’s Early Life
Although born of peasant stock, Justinian was able to rise above his birthright by virtue of his relationship to his uncle, an imperial bodyguard for Athanasius who ascended the throne upon Athanasius’ death in 518, becoming Justin I. Prior to his uncle’s rise, Justinian traveled to Constantinople, where he was provided an excellent education, paid for by his uncle. When Justin rose to power in 518, he chose his nephew to be one of his closest advisers. Having no children of his own, Justin eventually adopted his nephew and assigned him to hold several important offices during his reign.
In 525, Justinian received the title of Caesar. Only 2 years later, he was declared co-emperor and held the rank of Augustus. His wife, Theodora, was crowned Augusta at the same time. Only a few months later, on August 1, 527, Justin I died, and Justinian succeeded him, adopting a variation of his uncle’s name.
The Codex Justinianus
Only a short time into his reign, Justinian commissioned Tribonian, a legal expert who served in his court, to collect various legal notes, comments, and laws, into a single text to become the new rule of law. This was called the Codex Justinianus. The first edition of the new code of law was published only 2 years into his reign. This work alone, and its impact on the modern judicial system is justification enough to warrant studying the life and thought of Justinianus.
The work was planned to have 3 parts, the Codex, the Digest, and the Institutes. The Codex contained every imperial enactment that had become law to date, while the Digest was a collection of primarily brief extracts from important writings of Roman jurists. The Institutes was a student textbook that also contained conceptual elements that were underdeveloped in either the Codex or the Digest. Later, Justinian added a fourth part to the work called the Novellae Constitutiones, or New Laws.
It is unknown how effective the works were during the reign of Justinian, however, it had fallen out of general use by the early Middle Ages. Interest in the Codex Justinianus was revived by the later Middle Ages, and it was used as a foundation for much private law and public law by both ecclesiastical and secular authorities. The provisions had a significant influence upon the development of the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. Its influence upon the secular common law systems was much smaller, but there were some basic concepts that survived, such as the interpretation of the law, or statutes, in light of local custom (take that automobile industry!) . Today, it continues to play a significant role in public international law, and as such, it can be accurately stated that it constitutes the foundation of the Western legal tradition.