The Byzantine (BIZ-un-teen) Empire, sometimes known as Byzantium (bi-ZAN-tee-um), controlled much of southeastern Europe, western Asia, and northern Africa from
"If you wish to save yourself, Sire, it can easily be done.... For my own part, I hold to the old saying that the imperial purple makes the best burial sheet!"
Theodora, urging Justinian to take action during the Nika Revolt of 532
Portrait: Reproduced by permission of Archive Photos, Inc.
Its capital at Constantinople (kahn-stan-ti-NOH-pul), which today is the city of Istanbul in Turkey. Justinian, however, grew up far from the centers of power, in a village called Tau-resium. His family had been humble farmers just a generation before, but his uncle Justin (c. 450-527) had changed their fortunes when he went to Constantinople and became a member of the imperial bodyguard charged with protecting the life of Emperor Leo I.
Eventually Justin became commander of the imperial guards and a military leader of distinction. Having no children of his own, Justin brought his nephews—including Justinian—to Constantinople, where he helped them gain an education and embark on careers. Justinian enjoyed the benefits of a superb education, something Justin, who never learned to read and write, did not have. As was the Roman custom (the Byzantines referred to themselves as "Romans"), Justinian proved his ability by service in the military.