Justinian for a political legitimacy of Beirut

Rue Justinien's street sign, Beirut

Haec autem tria volumina a nobis composita tradi eis tam in regiis urbibus quam in Berytiensium pulcherrima civitate, quam et legum nutricem bene quis appellet, , tantummodo volumus, quod iam et a retro principibus constitutum est, et non in aliis locis quae a maioribus tale non meruerint privilegium.

(These three works which we have composed we desire should be put in their hands in Imperial cities as well as in the most fair city of Berytus, which may well be styled the nursing mother of law, as indeed previous Emperors have commanded, but in no other places which did not enjoy the same privilege in old times)

(Justinian, Constitutio Omnem of the Digest, 16 December 533)


Justinian (+565), Roman Emperor, is a legitimising figure: his legacy is often used to give power to actual decisions and policies. And his Collection of Laws, the Corpus Iuris Civilis[1], is still the base of legal systems in most of the countries of the world. Justinian legacy was used to legitimise states vs. the Church (In modern European state system Justinian was used as a God-blessed state figure; thus sovereigns, heirs to Justinian, can be peers to the popes). His figure was also used to legitimise companies and international entities (like the Genoese Maona of the Giustiniani in Chios). Justinian as a person has always been regarded as a personification of the Roman Empire, and the examples are numerous but we can cite one of the most eminent: Justinian as the Roman Empire in Canto VI of the Paradiso of the Divine Comedy by Dante. Thus his persona is the embodiement of the good, just, and legitimate government, and where the just governor is a legitimate political centre can be.

In a particular “tiny” state of our world, Lebanon, Justinian was used, in the modern times, to give political legitimacy to the city of Beirut as a capital of a sovereign state. In this article we will see how Justinian had entered the official Beiruti discourse as one of the eminent figure of the history of the city and how this historical heritage was used to legitimise its status as a capital of a newly formed state of Lebanon.

Beirut-Capital in quest for legitimacy

Before to the Lebanese Independence in 1943 Beirut had never been a capital of a sovereign state or of a sui iuris political entity: a [minor] metropolitan see of the Roman province of Phoenicia, it was the seat of a seigneurie during the Crusades, and before the collapse of the Ottoman Empire it was a capital of a wilayat: but never a seat of a sovereign political body.

Beirut had to find other sources to legitimise its new role. So the “Phoenician” legacy was used in extenso in political discourse and in architecture and planning. According to this “historical” argument Beirut is but a continuity of the great Phoenician civilisation and the Lebanese are a new avatar of a millenia-old people. But this legitimacy was rather Lebanese than Beiruti as Beirut was neither like Byblos (religiously important) nor like Tyre and Sidon (politically and economically important) in the Phoenician world.

Beirut needed another “complementary” source of legitimacy: another period of its history which can be a source for the construction of political power in the city. The most suitable heritage was the Justinian one: Beirut was once the seat of a famous Roman Law school which legacy went far more beyond the borders of Phoenicia and became part of the foundations of what was later to be called “Christendom”.

Berytus, Nutrix Legum

Beirut was a Roman colony since the time of Augustus Caesar. Some texts of the Justinian Digest echo this judicial status of Roman Beirut:

Sed et Berytensis colonia in eadem provincia augusti beneficiis gratiosa et ( ut divus Hadrianus in quadam oratione ait) augustana colonia, quae ius italicum habet.


Laodicia in Syria et Berytos in Phoenice iuris italici sunt et solum earum.


So according to Roman Law Beirut was (like Laodicea, modern day’s Latakia) a domain of ius italicum, thus the Roman Law for Italy applied to it and was considered to be a Roman colony with all the benefits of this status.

Beirut was chosen to host a Roman Law school since the beginning of the Empire. And by the time of Justinian the Emperor decreed that no other school except Beirut and the ones of the Imperial cities (Rome and Constantinople) shall be recognised by the Imperial authorities. In 551 a big earthquake struck Beirut, who lost some of its population and students. And with the Arab conquest in the 630s the Law school came to an end. A glorious phase of Beirut’s history ends with it.

The location of the school is still uncertain: it is supposed to be close to the ancient Anastasis (Resurrection) Cathedral of Beirut, not far from the actual Cathedral of Saint George in the Centre-Ville and by the old Roman cardo maximus. Some archaeologists say it was by the actual Saint George’s and some others prefer to place it to the north east, on the actual Place des Martyrs (See FIGURE 1).

For fourteen centuries the Roman Law school was forgotten in Beirut. But not the Justinian Law: the Corpus Iuris Civilis was rediscovered in Europe at the University of Bologna and was re-used and modified throughout the centuries to result in the contemporary legal systems used in Europe and in most of the countries in the world.

FIGURE 1. A- The Centre-Ville Beirut, by the Saint George's Cathedral. B- The northern side of the Place des Martyrs

FIGURE 1. A- The Centre-Ville Beirut, by the Saint George’s Cathedral. B- The northern side of the Place des Martyrs

Beirut had never been a big Roman city, but was rather of moderate size in its dimensions and population. In this regard the Roman choice to implant the Law school there could be likened to the tendency of having great academic institutions in moderate-size towns: the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Leiden, Uppsala, Münster, Leuven, Harvard and Princeton, amonsgt others, belong to this category of academic institutions.

The Jesuits of Beirut and “rediscovery” of Justinian

In 1913 the Jesuits founded the Law School of the Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut. In his quest for a historical legitimacy, Paul Huvelin, then law historian and an eminent professor, inaugurated the school by announcing that Beirut is but a “nursing mother of law” (nutrix legum) since the time of Roman Emperors and notably during the reign of Justinian, when the city became the most famous law school of the Empire. For Huvelin the new Jesuit Law School was a “revival of the old Roman school of Berytus“.

Apparently, Huvelin’s historical connection Beirut-Justinian had a great success. In the 1936 Beirut map, made by the Service Topographique of the French Army, there is a “Rue Justinien” on the northern part of what was called “Rue de la République” in the 1922 maps by the French Army, in Beirut since 1918[2]: a sign that, between 1922 and 1936, the name of Justinian had become an important part of the newly-set ideology of the Lebanese State, declared in 1926 under the Mandate and protection of France. This semantic inscription, the name of Justinian for a street in Beirut, gives an evidence about his presence as one of the founding figures of the Beiruti legitimacy. Roman Berytus was resurrected in the 1930s beirut. The Jesuit role in the construction of this legitimacy of a political centre in Beirut is not yet studied in its details (For the Rue Justinien please see FIGURE 2).

FIGURE 2: Rue Justinien, maps and street sign

FIGURE 2. Rue Justinien, maps and street sign

The Justinian heritage is still a part of the Jesuit curriculum in Lebanon, and when we remember that almost all Lebanese presidents went to Jesuit schools we can imagine how influential the figure of Justinian was in the construction of a modern Lebanese capital in Beirut.

This influence can still be seen in the coat of arms of Beirut, always with the motto Berytus Nutrix Legum (See FIGURE 3).

FIGURE 4. The coat of arms of Beirut with the motto "Berytus Nutrix Legum (Beirut oum al Shara'eh in Arabic) written on it

FIGURE 3. The coat of arms of Beirut with the motto “Berytus Nutrix Legum” (Beirut oum al Shara’eh in Arabic) written on it

Justinian was commemorated in 1968 by a Lebanese stamp, along with the Law School, where he is depicted in a manner very similar to his image at the famous San Vitale’s in Ravenna. The mention under Justinian reads Beyrouth, mère des lois, Beirut Mother of Laws (See FIGURE 4).

FIGURE 5. Commemoration of Emperor Justinian and the Roman Law by a Lebanese stamp, 1968

FIGURE 4. Commemoration of Emperor Justinian and the Roman Law by a Lebanese stamp, 1968


In 2013 this Justinian heritage is evoked for the Centenary of the Law School of the Jesuit University of Beirut and in presence of the Lebanese President: this Law School, always considered as a continuity for the Roman one, is, according to Father Selim Daccache SJ, rector of the University:

This Faculty has done and continues to do a pioneering work in the elaboration of the Lebanse Identity in the judicial, constitutional and political aspects. Thus the concept of Lebanese belonging of the Lebanese and of the homeland has become a cornerstone of the Lebanese social and political contracts, that we need to back in a time where we live the fragmentation and a loss of our conscience[3].

It is clear that the “Justinian legacy” of the Law School is here recycled into a legitimacy for the entire country and for a Lebanese identity: the Roman Law school of Justinian has become a cornerstone for the modern identity of Lebanon.

The Justinian legitimcay

In the Levant the Justinian claim is not unique to Beirut: Justinian’s name is used to give religious legitimacy to the Monastery of Saint Catherine of Mount Sinaï, to the Monastery of Saidnaya near Damascus in Syria, and to the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Sometimes he is depicted as “Justinian, the God-loving king” (see FIGURE 5) in the Christian art.

FIGURE 6. Justinian as a just God-loving king, a detail from an icon in the Balamand Monastery, near Tripoli, Lebanon

FIGURE 5. Justinian as a just God-loving king, a detail from an icon in the Balamand Monastery, near Tripoli, Lebanon

For Beirut we can see that Justinian is a political-legitimacy figure. He was added, again, to the “official” narrative of the city with the Jesuits then with the French Mandate: what can be better than Justinian to legitimise a newly created parliament, a legislature, as he himself was most known for his constitutions, legislations and laws?

Once there is a need to build a political centre the “builders” go to space-time to find legitimacy: in the case of Beirut many factors participated in this construction, and one of them is certainly the Justinian one. The Justinian Law was at the base of European civilisation and was quite a pertinent argument in the quest for legitimacy of a new sovereign political centre. We can here ask some further research questions:

1- What is the role of universities in this legitimacy: how university participates in constructing legitimacy for new political centres. In the Beiruti case we can see a continuity between the Jesuit official “rediscovery” of Justinian in 1913, the French-mandate commemoration of him in the streets of Beirut and then his (re)entering in the Beiruti political discourse.

2- Where can we find similar cases in the world where new legislators and “centrality builders” search history in order to resurrect figures to legitimise their work?

After all the Justinian heritage is quite grandiose and important, which makes it logical to accept it as a source of legitimacy. And here we can cite Assad Rustum, one of the eminent Lebanese historians. He worked on the history of the East Roman Empire and he concluded his chapter on Justinian by this rhetorical question: Are there more grandiose [in the world] than the Collection of Laws and the Cathedral of Hagia Sophia?!


[1] The Corpus Iuris Civilis was issued in three parts, in Latin, under the direction of the imperial quaestor Tribonian at the request of Emperor Justinian in 529-534. The first part was the Codex Justinianus compiled all of the extant imperial constitutiones from the time of Hadrian. It used both the Codex Theodosianus and private collections such as the Codex Gregorianus and Codex Hermogenianus. The second part, the Digest (Digesta) or Pandects (Pandectae), was issued in 533 : it compiled the writings of the great Roman jurists such as Ulpian along with current edicts. The third part, the Institutes (Institutiones), was intended as a sort of legal textbook for law schools. Later, Justinian issued a number of other laws, mostly in Greek, which were called Novels (Novellae). 

For more information please see the page of the University of Grenoble on the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

[2] It is interesting to see that the name of the “République” was compromised to the benefit of Justinian’s: the Republic to an emperor, as, maybe, it was more “conform” to the then political discourse in Beirut.

[3] In the original text in French: Cette Faculté a fait et continue à exécuter un travail pionnier dans l’élaboration de l’identité libanaise sous l’angle juridique, constitutionnel et politique. Ainsi le concept de l’appartenance libanaise des Libanais et celle de la patrie est devenu une pierre angulaire du contrat social et politique libanais qu’on doit confirmer à une époque où l’on vit une fragmentation et une perte de conscience.


For more information on the Justinian Law please see the page of the University of Grenoble dedicated to study of Roman Law.

The texts of the Corpus Iuris Civilis are also available of the Latin Library site.

OpenEdition suggests that you cite this post as follows:
Jack Keilo ( Jacques Keilo ) (June 1, 2015). Justinian for a political legitimacy of Beirut. Centrici. Retrieved July 25, 2024 from https://doi.org/10.58079/mjfb

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