Hollanda Araştırma Enstitüsü  -  Nederlands Instituut in Turkije

Once upon a Roman past. Anchoring Justinian’s reign in his laws and the sixth-century literary landscape

Key Tengeler (Leiden University)

Writing your thesis under the Mediterranean sun. It sounds like a dream, but it is possible! For a month, I was resident at the Nederlands Instituut in Turkije (NIT – Dutch Institute in Turkey) to work on my thesis about the legislation of Roman Emperor Justinian (c.482-565). The emperor ruled from Constantinople, current Istanbul, so what better place was there to revive his past?

In February, I received the great news that I was awarded a fellowship to reside at the Nederlands Instituut in Turkije (NIT). From half April until half May, I was welcome in the very heart of Istanbul! The NIT is situated in a building of the Koç University and always has one room available for master or PhD students to work on their research on something related to Turkey. I was granted a free stay at the institute and unlimited access to its library. When I stepped out of my room, I only had to walk around the corner and I was surrounded by books. Perfect!

In my thesis I discussed the so-called ‘Novels’ of Justinian, laws that were distributed in the form of letters. For the website Het Leids Kwartiertje I wrote a Dutch blog about these surprisingly modern laws: they treated variegated subjects ranging from the validity of legal testimonies to the deplorable practice of ruining one’s garden view.

However, in my thesis I ventured to discover how the language of the Novels helped to increase the acceptance of the innovations they brought by anchoring those innovations in the worldview of the people. When people recognise something or it appeals to their values, it is better internalised. And naturally it was important the people accepted the law and obeyed it! Justinian tried to reach this goal by clever use of the familiarity of old customs and contemporary ideas about benevolent emperorship.

Istanbul possesses many beautiful stories for a lover of Ancient History. The average resident of the city might not see that history, he would simply live among the remnants, sit in their shadow or even use them as garbage deposits. However, for me the past was revived and I could see with my own eyes the world the laws of my thesis tried to capture and regulate. And with that experience, my courage was renewed and my inspiration kindled to delve into my books and write.

I would recommend the experience and would urge anyone to apply for a fellowship. And who knows, next year you might sweat to finish your thesis while you bathe in the Mediterranean sun.

(Please click here to read more in Dutch on Key Tengeler's fellowship stay in Istanbul.)