Very little went well during the reign of Emperor Justin II of Constantinople (r. 565-578). He could not stop King Alboin (r. 565-572/573) and the Lombards from invading Italy in 568, conquering large swaths of the peninsula. Emperor Justin was also unable to militarily deal with the threats posed by the Avars along the Danube, and he ultimately had to pay them off with tribute payments. The emperor’s actions against Sāsānian Persia also proved unsuccessful—he invaded Persian territory to help an Armenian rebellion, only to be defeated and counter-invaded by the Persians, resulting in the loss of the strategic and symbolic city of Dara. Unfortunately, Emperor Justin II also mismanaged his relationship with his Turkish allies, who eventually ended the alliance and began attacking the emperor’s outposts in Crimea. To top it all off, Emperor Justin II went insane around 574, forcing Empress Sophia and Justin’s adopted son, Tiberius Constantinus (r. 574/578-582), to rule in the mad emperor’s stead. Despite this dismal record, there was one instance when Emperor Justin II did receive some genuine praise, and as for much of the history of the Romans and Christendom, the tale centers on Rome.
During the pontificate of Pope Benedict I (r. 575-579), the city of Rome was suffering under the military and agricultural disturbances caused by the Lombard invasion and conquests in Italy. Not only did the pope have to deal with the direct threat of Lombard armies showing up to attack his city, but he also faced the more indirect peril posed by the conquered, abandoned or destroyed farmlands, as well as disrupted trade routes, that were no longer producing food for the Italian cities who were still free of Lombard control. Sometime between 575 and 578, in the years when the reigns of Pope Benedict and the ailing Emperor Justin II coincided, the food shortage was said to have become especially bad. Although the emperor was supposedly insane by this point, he (or Empress Sophia and Tiberius Constantinus) decided to take direct action to relieve the people of Rome from their hunger. As was reported in the History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon (lived approximately 720-799), “when Rome at the time of pope Benedict was suffering the privation of hunger, while the Langobards were destroying everything on every side, he sent many thousands of bushels of grain in ships straight from Egypt and relieved it by the effort of his benevolence” (Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, III.11).
Whether or not this move was done by the emperor, or at the insistence of Empress Sophia and Tiberius Constantinus, the credit of relieving Rome’s hunger went to Emperor Justin II. Nevertheless, it was only a momentary relief for the holy city. Pope Benedict I would die in 579 during a Lombard siege of Rome.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
Picture Attribution: (Social media crop ancient Egyptian stone relief of ripe barley, ca. 1353–1336 BCE, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons and the MET.jpg).
- History of the Lombards by Paul the Deacon, translated by William Dudley Foulke (c. 1904). University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, 1974, 2003.