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After the collapse of the western Roman empire, the Byzantine empire in the east continued to thrive. Its capital, Constantinople, was protected from barbarian invasions by huge fortifications of walls and towers. In 527, the devoutly Christian Justinian I became emperor. He wanted to create a vast Christian empire by bringing the western and eastern empires together. He partly succeeded when his armies, under general Belisarius, conquered North Africa in 533, defeated the Vandals in 535, and won back much of Italy in 552. He also sought to keep a shaky peace with Persia, which periodically threatened the eastern borders of his empire.

He reorganized the empire's legal system, which influenced European law for centuries. His wife, Theodora, was a strong woman who greatly influenced her husband. She had been an actress before marrying him in 525, and was considered very beautiful. She pushed through laws which gave women rights of property, inheritance and divorce. She and Justinian believed that laws should be something made by rulers, rather than something which was handed down as a custom. In 529 Justinian began to codify the laws, which were based on the old Roman ones. They filled three volumes and it took him until the end of his reign to complete them.

The church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople was the greatest Byzantine building. Hagia Sophia means 'Holy Wisdom'. Justinian began building it in 532. It became a mosque in the 16th century when Arabic medallions were added to the interior and minarets to the exterior. Today it is a museum. As for the church itself under Justinian, it survives today as the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Justinian died in 565, and by that time his empire stretched across North Africa, and reached from Spain to Persia. However, much of this land was lost soon afterwards.

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