His name was Justinian and he left a surprising legacy.
At the time of his accession, the Roman empire was more than 1,000 years old and was in terrible shape.
The old city of Rome was a backwater. The court of the emperors had been moved to Constantinople, now called Istanbul. Most of the western provinces had been lost to Germanic invaders for more than a generation. Taxes were onerous, trade uncertain, and the legal system was a haystack of conflicting laws and regulations going back hundreds of years.
But the emperor had an ambitious plan of reform and renewal. It was his great dream to re-establish Roman rule in the west and to reunite the fractured Mediterranean world.
But, critically, he began with the legal system.
A committee of expert jurists was instructed to compile all laws issued over the previous 400 years. Over the following six years, the Roman legal system was completely overhauled and put on a much surer footing. Obsolete and contradictory laws were abolished or corrected; and similar or identical laws were consolidated and harmonized. Standards of interpretation were simplified and streamlined.
No other part of Justinian’s ambitions succeeded. His wars to recover Italy were a major financial drain; they ended up destroying and depopulating much of the countryside. Seemingly endless conflict with Persia produced no important gains. And his religious policies did more to divide than to unite the Christian world.
But Justinian’s legal work was an extraordinary success.
The proof that it worked is that the Roman empire lasted for almost another 1,000 years. What we call the Byzantine empire was the long posthumous survivor of the Roman state down to the year 1453. But Justinian’s work outlived even that and became the basis of European civil law. The influence of that legal system even reached across the Atlantic in the form of the civil code of Quebec.
What this proves is that a strong political leader can reverse even centuries of decline if he or she has the will to do it.
In Ontario we have endured 15 years of a government that’s determined to regulate and tax everything into oblivion. Inflation-adjusted growth in Ontario is stuck at about half the Canadian average. Growth in disposable income lags significantly behind that of every other province. And private-sector investment in business is declining.
The Liberal government has been subjected to five police investigations. It has forced Ontarians to overpay egregiously for electricity. It mortgaged the future with grossly overpriced wind farm and solar power contracts. It repeatedly used public money to fund self-congratulatory and partisan advertisements. It falsified freedom-of-information statistics at the Ministry of the Environment and Climate Change.
The shameful scheme to make future generations pay for today’s electricity bills and the recent billion-dollar vote-buying frenzy are merely the latest symptoms of decline.
The Ontario election is on June 7.
The moribund government of Premier Kathleen Wynne must be removed.
But we can’t stop there.
It will take years to clear away the wreckage left by a politically corrupt and wasteful government. But it must be done.
The example of the emperor Justinian proves that no matter how bad the rot, competent leadership can reverse the damage.
Dr. Michael Bonner is a political adviser based in Toronto. He has advised legislators at both the federal and provincial levels of Canadian politics. He holds a master’s and doctorate in Iranian history from the University of Oxford, and is the author of two books on pre-Islamic Iran.