“Glory to God who has judged me worthy of accomplishing such a work as this!” Justinian exclaimed. “O Solomon, I have surpassed you!”
Even more important than expanding the empire and rebuilding its capital was Justinian's reform of the law. Early in his reign, he set up a commission to collect, revise, and organize all the laws of ancient Rome.
The result was the Corpus Juris Civilis, or “Body of Civil Law,” popularly known as Justinian's Code. This massive collection included laws passed by Roman assemblies or decreed by Roman emperors, as well as the legal writings of Roman judges and a handbook for students.
Justinian's Code had a legal and political impact far beyond the Byzantine empire. By the 1100s, it had reached Western Europe. There, monarchs modeled their laws on its principles, which would slowly, over many centuries, help them to centralize their power. Later, the code also guided legal thinkers who began to put together the international law in use today.
To Justinian, the law was a means to unite the empire. Yet he himself was an autocrat, or sole ruler with complete authority. Like earlier Roman emperors, he had a large bureaucracy to carry out his orders.
The emperor also had power over the Church. He was deemed Christ's co-ruler on Earth.
As a Byzantine official wrote, “The emperor is equal to all men in the nature of his body, but in the authority of his rank he is similar to God, who rules all.” His control was aided by his wife, Theodora. A shrewd politician, she served as advisor and co-ruler to Justinian. At times, she even challenged the emperor's orders and pursued her own policies.
The Byzantine empire flourished under a strong central government, which exercised strict control over a prosperous economy. Peasants formed the backbone of the empire, working the land, paying taxes, and providing soldiers for the military. In the cities of the empire, trade and industry flourished. As coined money disappeared from areas once ruled by the Roman empire in the west, the Byzantine empire preserved a healthy money economy. The bezant, the Byzantine gold coin stamped with the emperor's image, circulated from England to China.
Justinian commissioned an important reform of ancient Rome's laws.
How did Justinian's Code help rule the Byzantine empire? Why did the Code become so valuable later?
A prosperous economy allowed the Byzantines to build one of the strongest military forces in the world. Soldiers, ships, and sailors protected the empire, and fortifications protected its capital. The Byzantines also relied on a secret weapon called Greek fire, a liquid that probably contained petroleum.