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Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

From Eastern Roman Revanche to Byzantium under Siege I: Justinian I (527-565)

Eastern Rome from Marcian to Justin: Doorstep of Byzantium (450-527)

From Eastern Roman Revanche to Byzantium under Siege II: Justin II to Heraclius (565-641)


Justinian was born in Thrace as Petrus Sebatus in 482, and was a native Latin speaker. He was brought to Constantinople as a child and received all of his thoroughly classical education there. At Anastasia's death he had been an officer in one of the palace regiments. His uncle Justin immediately raised him to Patrician and made him Count of the Domestics, allowing him decisive influence over the Emperor. Justinian was responsible for ending the thirty-five-year East-West Christian schism from the time of Acacia. In the mid-520s he met Theodora. Though a daughter of a bear keeper and acrobat in the Hippodrome and censured by later writers, Justinian was captivated by her strong personality. They were married in 525, and became Emperor and Empress in 527, shortly before Justin's death.

The first five years of Justinian's rule were challenging and accomplished. He signed an 'Everlasting Peace' with the Persian Sassanians for which Eastern Rome was obliged to pay an annual tribute of 11,000 pounds of gold. He also began a great building program, mostly ecclesiastic in nature. To raise revenue and order the state's finances, John of Cappadocia was made Praetorian Prefect in charge of taxes. He undertook fiscal restrictions on the army and spearheaded an anti-corruption campaign. He also introduced new taxes which the rich could not evade, and reduced senior provincial officials' individual powers.

A further early accomplishment of significance for the next millennium was the Corpus Juris Civilis. Based on earlier redactions of Roman law going back to Theodosius II in the 430s, this was a thorough summing up and commentary on all aspects of Roman law since the second century. Completed between 528 and 533 under the supervision of Tribonian, it consisted of three parts: a) the Code collected imperial, basic laws into a unified body of statute law; b) the Digest or Pandects was case law consisting of judicial responses of East and West Rome's greatest lawyers, divided into fifty books dealing with particular legal issues individually, where majority views held imperial authority; and c) the Institutes, a short handbook for aspiring legal scholars.

By 533 the new Emperor's policies had aroused the ire of influential segments of the populace. Peace with Persia seemed a defeat. John of Cappadocia's financial exactions were not only irksome to all, but his personal life was believed to be repugnant. As well, Tribonian was a confessed pagan of tremendous conceitedness. The representatives of this pent up disaffection were the Blues and Greens, who united on 13 January 532 to launch an uprising from the Constantinople Hippodrome with cries of "Nika, Nika!"--"win, win!"- directed against Justinian. For the next five days they and other subjects rampaged through Constantinople's streets, setting fire to government buildings including the Senate House and Praetorian Prefecture, as well as sacred sites such as St. Sophia. Initially bowing to their demands, Justinian removed John of Cappadocia and Tribonian from positions of power. When rioters proceeded to raise up as anti-Emperor Hypatius, an old relative of Anastasia, Justinian decided to flee the capital. Empress Theodora, however shamed him in to staying to fight it out. It was at this point that two of his most trusted generals, present with him, saved the day.

The Romanized Thracian Belisarius and the Illyrian Mundus secretly left the Palace and marched on the Hippodrome, surprising the riots' ringleaders there. At the same time the Imperial Bodyguard leader Narses, an Armenian eunuch, blocked all the exits and issued orders that no one leave alive. Ultimately, nearly 30,000 rebels were slaughtered, ending the Nika Revolt. John and Tribonian were restored, and Justinian then embarked on an even larger building campaign of restoration, focusing most of his attentions on St. Sophia.

Having regained imperial preeminence, the indefatigable Justinian surged forward, first with the reconquest of Vandals in North Africa. Relations between the Vandal rulers and the populace were poor. While the occupiers followed Arianism, the African Church was strongly Catholic, and had a solid ecclesiastical basis. Vandals had tried since the 450s to weaken the Catholic Church, but had not succeeded, merely alienating the population and remaining obnoxious in the eyes of Eastern Rome. Additionally, in the 520s, Childeric had become Vandal king. Anxious to improve relations with Constantinople, he cut back on harassment of Catholics. In 530 he was overthrown by his heir Gelimer, thus giving Justinian a legal pretext for invasion. Imperial victory was quick. Part of this was due to increased factionalization of Vandal leadership. Also, the Vandals as a whole had not transformed from a garrisoned occupying power to a fully naturalized population, and indigenous Catholics supported Roman return. Thus, though Vandal forces attacked oncoming Imperial vessels near Carthage, brilliant tactics by Belisarius drove them back. Upon Roman disembarkation, the mere appearance of Huns mercenaries under the general's command caused the Vandals to flee en masse, and after a subsequent battle, the Vandals disappeared as an historical force

Next was the Imperial reconquest of Italy, which while brutal and drawn-out, seemed to have been accomplished by 552 with the defeat of Teias near Pompei. Even so, 540 was the turning point. Imperial prestige had been restored at home as the Blues and Greens had been repressed, and North Africa as well as Italy had been restored to Roman control. Now, Justinian's (d. 565) last decades would prove a continuous ordeal. It began in March 540, when Sassanian Shah Chosroes I began a major offensive into Eastern Imperial lands. Moving through Syria, Persian forces took the holy Christian city of Antioch, pillaging it severely in June 540. Though Justinian agreed to terms including more tribute, Chosroes' armies continued to ravage through Asia Minor. A huge Byzantine army was defeated in Armenia in 543. Still, by the end of the decade, Persian forces had been fought to a standstill. Though peace was not made, it did demonstrated that 1) Eastern Roman forces still possessed military prowess, and 2) neither Romans nor Sassanians could ever sustainably extend their power beyond central Iraq.

At the same time as Persian wars and resurgent Ostrogoths in Italy, a pressing Balkan crisis erupted. After the Germanic migrations and Hun collapse of the 380s-450s, two new Barbarian groups began to move in from the North and East. The first was the Bulgars, a nomadic group from the Ukraine perhaps related to the Huns. They grouped into two subunits, the Utrigurs in the East, and the Kutrigurs in the West. The second major Barbarian group was the Slavs. A forest people in the woods east of original German settlement areas, they had moved to the lower Danube when the Huns fell. Their level of barbarity made the Germans look civilized. Pagans, they had no visible government structures, and though they began raiding Imperial territories from the 500s, they were not so dangerous, and new walls prevented tremendous damage. In the 540s, though, Slav raids increased dramatically, now under the leadership of the equally plunder- thirsty Bulgars. They were able to range into Thrace as far as southern Greece, and with Roman troops committed in East and West, there was little offensive action possible. Instead, Justinian built three chains of east-west fortifications, which would cause Slavic-Bulgar losses upon their return from plundering. In the long term, this did cut down on Barbarian incursions.

This same decade witnessed terrible natural disaster. In 542 a plague struck the cities of the Mediterranean basin, affecting all the settled, urban population. Its rate of mortality was staggering--up to 40% of those who contracted it. It may have been the Bubonic Plague, based on a bacillus which infects rats. Indigenous to rodent kingdoms in Central Africa and the China-Tibet border, it rarely spread from these areas given its virulence and need for immense host populations. But when a rodent happened to stow away on a caravan or sea vessel, it did spread. It first appeared in Pelusium in Egypt, then spread in all Mediterranean directions, especially to port cities. After the 541-42 outbreak, Constantinople saw two more plague crises over intervals of fifty years. As many as 10,000 people may have died a day. Justinian himself was near death in 543. The disease reduced tremendously the state and society's resources in warding off Persians and Goths, who were also affected by the illness, as well as the Bulgars and Slavs, who were less urban, less Mediterranean, had lower population densities, and as a result were most likely much less susceptible to the epidemic.

A theological dispute also complicated matters, alienating Western clerics at the very time their support was necessary in the Italian campaigns. An extreme Monophysite called Jacob Baradaeus had been made bishop by the exiled Alexandria Patriarch in 543, after which he roamed through Mesopotamia, the Levant, and Asia Minor consecrating bishops and thousands of Monophysite priests. Justinian had to do something, but did not want to alienate Monophysites in the Empire's current conditiion. He therefore decided to publicly condemn Nestorians, whom everyone disliked and whose numbers were few. This satisfied no one, and an east-west frenzy of excommunications lasted for the next ten years. Only after the defeat of the Goths was Justinian able to discipline Pope Vigilus, who was forced to withdraw all of his condemnations of the Eastern Church.

After the final defeat of the Ostrogoths, during which North African revolts had proven troublesome, there was one more success. An insurrection in Visigothic Spain allowed a small force sent by Justinian to occupy a small sector of southern Spain, giving Constantinople a toe-hold on all parts of the Mediterranean Roman core. Still, the Emperor's last years were difficult. In the late 550s, the Persian war re-ignited, while in 559, the Kutrigur Bulgars led most of the Slavs over the Danube and pillaged into the Balkans. Faithful Belisarius was able to draw them far south, cutting off retreat with a naval fleet. Then Byzantine diplomacy was able to engineer a Kutrigur-Utrigur split, with the latter defeating their western brothers. The Bulgars and Slavs then withdrew, and in 561, the Persians declared a fifty-year truce. At his death, Justinian left an enlarged Empire more superficially magnificent, but with severe shortages in funds and human/military resources while its commitments were exceedingly broad.


In Justinian we have the last Emperor of the Latin, Roman mould. He was from Thrace, and while he was a native Latin speaker, his Greek was very poor. Further, initiatives such as the Law Code show that he perceived himself totally as a continuation of Roman rule going back to the first century. Of course, an alternative interpretation is that he and his advisers felt the necessity of codifying a body of law and custom no longer able to evolve under new circumstances. Still and all, we should see Justinian as the last Latin Emperor in Constantinople, though he faced dilemmas characteristic of the Byzantine period, and left a state and society of a very different, medieval sort.

A first question regards the disturbances at the beginning of his rule. Were the Nika Riots extremely serious? On the one hand, he could very well have lost his rule in an urban revolt and coup. On the other hand, it was put down as soon as the Emperor displayed resoluteness, and he was not faced with similar outbursts during the rest of his reign. It seems that this incident captures the volatility and degree of urban politicization in Constantinople and other cities of those years, setting it off from Western Europe which did not possess the degree of political sophistication, urban development, or popular involvement. It also demonstrates the intermittent confluence of interests between claimants and disaffected urban factions, and the peril of excessive Imperial fiscal extractiveness. It should not be construed as revealing systemic weakness in the emerging Byzantine body politic, but rather the political vitality of its subjects.

We have considered elsewhere Justinian's western campaigns and their effects. Here it is necessary to examine his motives. It is tempting to think that after the Nika disturbances, he needed a foreign distraction that would both prove his martial vigor and unite the people in an outward direction. Though this may have impacted upon his timing, Justinian seems too purposeful and reasoning an individual to launch so momentous an operation just as a national distraction to save his throne. At the same time, it is unlikely that he planned to attack North Africa, Italy, and even Spain from the start. As regards the latter, only a Visigothic revolt in the early 550s allowed him the opportunity to grab the southern coast. In general terms, though, Justinian's program was indeed restorative, yet perhaps not entirely planned from the start. Reforms were initially internal. Codifying the laws and restoring the fiscal basis of the state were natural starting places. After subduing internal opposition, he then went on to rid the bureaucracy of the corruption that had set in since Zeno began selling administrative offices. Only then, and not without the proper political circumstances in Vandal North Africa, did he contemplate foreign involvement. Its rapid success facilitated the jump to Italy, which was also undertaken only when situation on the ground seemed to assure success.

Beyond this though, one could argue that an Eastern Roman attempt at reconquest of the West was predetermined. Emperors in Constantinople had never regarded Italy as totally out of their sphere of concern. Further, though granting temporary legitimacy to Odovacar or Theodoric the Ostrogoth, these had not been earnest acknowledgements of a new order. Odovacar had not been appointed to his position, but had presented Constantinople with a fait accompli. Likewise, Zeno sent Theodoric west not because he thought it was the best new ordering of the Empire, but because he was urgently trying to relieve his state of Ostrogothic pressure. Thus no Eastern Roman leader viewed the situation in the West as legitimate or permanent, and anyone of them who had the capacity would try to reverse it, returning to a unified Roman Empire. Anastasia had moved in this direction, sending flotillas to Italy, but the ecclesiastical schism of the time had undercut his prospects. This was no longer an issue for Justinian.

Many of Justinian's leading advisers opposed the expeditions to the West, claiming that challenges in the North and East would not permit it. In this, there is some merit. Justinian would simply not accept that which was probably quite true--the Empire could not fight a two-front war, and the proof emerged after 540. Indeed, by devoting all his resources to the West, Justinian invited Eastern disaster. Still, what we can determine of Justinian's design was not too far-fetched. Targeting the North African littoral, the southern Spanish coast, the Adriatic, and peninsular Italy, he only appears to have been trying to restore the coastal core of ancient Mediterranean society. This was the most thoroughly Romanized area, as well as the most revenue-producing. Success would have strengthened his state tremendously indeed.

We have seen how the thoroughly destructive nature of roman-Gothic warfare in Italy brought the region to the brink of the Dark Ages, the descent into which was facilitated by Lombard arrival. The Justinian era exhibits similar dynamics for the East. The plague ushered in a characteristic of Byzantium to the end of the millennium--a severe constriction of human and material resources in comparison to Antiquity. It also caused a fatigue whereby each crisis the state faced appeared to be a life-or-death matter. The Avar-Slav invasions fit into this context. These invasion-migrations are quite important, being the third sustained wave of Barbarian infiltration into Mediterranean lands. The Gothic, Vandal, and other Germanic invaders of the 370-420 period had moved through Eastern Roman lands as fast as possible, plundering some, yet settling almost none, and not wrecking the culture or ecology. The second wave, comprising Huns and subject peoples, had been violent, pillaging expeditions in the Danube region, which extorted great amounts of gold from the imperial treasury. Huns as well, however, were a temporary disaster. The Avars and Slavs were different. Not only did they raid and exact tribute, but they stayed in Byzantine lands, particularly the Slavs, who were egged on buy the post-570 Avar state on the Danube. This would cause peasant flight, as well as full-scale urban decline in the Balkans and even Thrace. What was needed to preserve Justinian's accomplishments, therefore, were talented emperors and good fortune in dealing with the Barbarians. Neither would materialize.

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