Early Middle Ages (475-1000)

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

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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