Ancient History & Civilisation

Setbacks and Recovery in the Mid-Sixth Century

Contemporary observers focused on and doubtless often exaggerated the dramatic immediate impact of famine, earthquake, or plague. They have little to say about their long-term consequences, and indeed had no means of evaluating these. What then were the immediate consequences of natural disasters for the empire of the mid-sixth century? It is possible that they had a particularly dramatic impact on the capacity and activities of the emperor himself. Contemporaries noted that after 542 Justinian concerned himself to an extraordinary degree with religious matters, and neglected virtually all secular business. Procopius presents a famous image of Justinian, closeted with aged churchmen, discussing finer points of doctrinal theology and neglecting matters of state (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.35.11). In the Secret History Procopius depicted Justinian's religiosity, in particular the extreme fasting and vigils which he endured around the time of the Easter festival, in a highly negative light (Secret History 13.28–30), but it is evident that the emperor himself ensured that information about exactly this behavior was widely circulated. It was for this reason that Procopius included a virtually identical account of his fasting habits in the panegyric context of the Buildings (1.7.7–12). Insofar as Justinian presented himself to public view at all in his later years, it was in contexts of ostentatious piety. There is an extreme contrast between the secular military triumph which he celebrated in 534 after the reconquest of Africa, based on a re-invention of ancient Roman practice (see p. 150), and the ceremonial, also described as a triumph, which followed the victory of Belisarius after the Kutrigurs had broken through the Anastasian wall in 559. Justinian made one of his extremely rare journeys outside Constantinople, as far as Selymbria, to witness the repairs that had been made to the fortifications, and then returned with an entourage of senators in all solemnity to the city. At the climax of this adventus he made his way to the Church of the Holy Apostles, lit candles, and prayed to the memory of his wife Theodora, who had died eleven years earlier (Constantine Porphyrogennitus, On Ceremonies, appendix to book 1, 497–8). The pictorial representations of the emperor show a similar evolution from secular triumph to ostentatious religious piety. The Barberini ivory from the 530s, perhaps symbolizing the African conquest itself, showed the emperor as the archetypal Christian warrior. The mosaic panel illustrating the dedication of the Church of S. Vitale in Ravenna in 548 showed the bare-headed emperor, surrounded by clergymen, in the act of making a pious offering (see pp. 173–5, Plates 5.5 and 5.6).

Almost all of Justinian's recorded activity during the later 540s and 550s concerned doctrinal matters and church politics, especially his final attempts at the Council of Constantinople in 553 to lay down the law to the Monophysites. The legislative frenzy of his earlier years came to a standstill after 542, and only forty-six Novellae were issued for the entire remainder of his reign. Even treason did not stir him to react. Neither the conspiracy of a small clique of Armenian nobles, including a prominent general Artabanes, in 549 (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.31–2; for Artabanes see p. 419), nor the more serious treason of a group of prominent political figures in 561 provoked more than virtual indifference, a passive response, which the sources characterize as due to the emperor's merciful nature.23

How should we explain the contrast between the early and later years of Justinian? One explanation might be that the emperor, having achieved his political aims, consciously chose to refrain from further innovation, just as he had ordered that no further interpretations or commentaries of Roman law should be admitted after the publication of the Digest. Another suggestion, supported by the religious overtones of the emperor's self-representation, was that he redefined the imperial role in starkly religious terms, bringing fundamentalist Christian considerations to bear on all forms of political activity and decision-making. Neither of these explanations, however, accounts convincingly for the extraordinary collapse of a powerful personality.

Little was seen of the emperor in the years after the first outbreak of the plague, from which he himself had suffered, and this gave rise to extraordinary rumors. Among them was Procopius' famous supposition that Justinian and Theodora were incarnate demons. Men reported that they were not in the presence of the emperor but of an evil spirit phantom:

Some of those who were in the presence of the emperor, holding conference with him, I suppose, far into the night, obviously in the palace, men whose souls were pure, seemed to see a sort of phantom spirit unfamiliar to them in place of him. One of them asserted that Justinian would rise suddenly from the royal throne and wander off there (indeed he was never used to remaining seated for long periods); his head would disappear suddenly, but the rest of his body seemed to keep making these same long circuits, and the observer, as though his own organs of sight were in the poorest of health, stood there for the most part in distress, wondering what to do. But afterwards, when the head returned to the body, he thought that the gap that had been for a while inexplicably missing was now filled again. And another said that he stood beside Justinian when he was seated and suddenly saw that his face appeared to have become like featureless flesh; for neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their proper place, and showed no recognisable means of identification whatsoever; after a time, however, he saw the features of his face return. (Secret History 12.20–23)

We might simply dismiss this passage as feverish speculation, but Procopius' informants, the men of pure spirit, were presumably the senior elderly churchmen with whom Justinian convened in the later 540s, and they appear to have been trying to find words to describe what they had actually seen. A rationalist reading of this passage suggests that the emperor may have suffered a serious and irreversible breakdown of his mental health. His personality and behavior bore no relationship to those of his earlier years. At moments such as those that spooked his pious companions, he had, quite literally, become a zombie, a ghost of his former self.

However, the empire had always in the past been able to survive the incapacity of an individual emperor, and, whatever the reasons for Justinian's disfunctionality, this was certainly true of the regime in Constantinople in the mid-sixth century. One of the written works to survive from the period is the three-book treatise On Magistrates, written in the 550s by the imperial bureaucrat John the Lydian, whose active career had begun under Anastasius. On Magistrates is a disorganized compilation of information and opinion. In part it is a historical treatise which traced the origins of Roman offices and officials to the earliest period of Roman history. As such it is the best testament to the sense of history and Roman antiquarianism that marked the early Justinianic period, and which are also reflected in the prefaces to many of the emperor's new laws. At the same time Lydus' work contains an unsystematic survey of the way in which the imperial bureaucracy of the mid-sixth century functioned. However, its heart seems to be the virulent attack which John Lydus directed against John the Cappadocian, praetorian prefect from 529–41, whose career was briefly interrupted when he was removed after the Nika riot of 532 and replaced by John Lydus' own hero, Phocas (see pp. 145–6). John the Cappadocian had presided over an office that had administered the eastern Roman Empire, and exacted taxation with more rigor and efficiency than any that had preceded it. The papyrological evidence from Egypt in the east, and also documents from the newly recovered western possessions, especially the exarchate of Ravenna, shows that the Roman administrative machine continued to function through the second half of the sixth century with impressive thoroughness.24

There may be a more important sub-text behind the antagonism shown to John the Cappadocian by John Lydus. The early years of Justinian's reign had been a period of strong centralized government, and one of the state's overriding aims had been to maximize tax revenues, not least to cover the costs of the imperial wars of the 530s. The class that had most to lose from this approach was the landowning senatorial aristocracy, whose members had become increasingly accustomed not merely to collect revenue on behalf of the state from their properties, but to pocket much of it for themselves (see pp. 374–9 on Egypt). Justinianic policy broke with the laissez-faire approach of Anastasius at the end of the fifth century, which had been marked by an unstated complicity between the emperor and his court officials and the wealthy estate-owning families. During the 530s John the Cappadocian, Justinian's praetorian prefect, was the chief agent of tough imperial fiscal enforcement, which encountered widespread opposition from the self-interested new aristocracy of Constantinople. It is difficult to resist a modern analogy with the conflict between modern nation states demanding tax revenue, and worldwide corporations that have little difficulty in ensuring that the income from their operations remains largely tax-exempt. John Lydus represented the interests of the landowners against the new régime. Despite strenuous imperial efforts, the dice were loaded in favor of the landowners. In the medium term, Justinian's efforts to resist the growth of aristocratic power were hopelessly damaged by plague losses and the disastrous harvests between 536 and 548, which will have reduced tax revenues precisely during a period of heavy state expenditure on warfare. In the longer perspective the setbacks of this period marked a further decline in the state's fiscal authority, and Justinian's successors had no option but to resume the pact with the great landowners. This ensured social stability at the price of a weaker state (see pp. 472–5).25

There was a substantial change in Roman foreign policy after 540, which was as apparent to contemporaries as it is to modern historians. In their histories Agathias (5.14.1–2) and Menander (fr. 5.1), public men who had lived through the last part of Justinian's reign, contrasted the energy and dynamism shown during the conquests of Africa and Italy with the lassitude (rathumia) of Justinian's old age. They deduced this from the way that he dealt with Rome's enemies. Whereas before he had eagerly undertaken wars against them, now he preferred to play his enemies off against each other, or win them over by gifts and subsidies. The tactics of sowing dissension among enemy peoples and using Roman wealth to make new friends had an impeccable pedigree and had long been demonstrably effective. In itself this change in foreign policy constitutes no good argument for the emperor's incompetence. Furthermore, the Romans showed no lack of determination in foreign wars, although they no longer enjoyed the easy success of the first African campaign. Roman forces continued to campaign in Africa, Italy, and Lazica for much of the 550s. The abiding impression is of the government's implacable determination to retain and assert control over the reconquered territories of the West.

From 543 to 549 a succession of commanders tried to impose Roman authority across the length of North Africa from Tripolitania to Mauretania. The enemy were no longer the Vandals but the native Moorish peoples, aided and reinforced by Roman deserters. After Roman reverses in 543 and 544, a new command team was sent to Africa in 545 under the Armenian magister militum Areobindus. A rebel officer murdered Areobindus, but fell victim to a counter-plot, masterminded by another Armenian Artabanes (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.25–27). Artabanes was rewarded with promotion to the rank of magister militum prasentalis at Constantinople, and replaced by John Troglites, who undertook four seasons of campaigning against the Moors to try to restore order to Africa (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.28.45–51). However, the overall outcome was far from happy either for the native inhabitants or for the Roman would-be rulers of reconquered Africa. Procopius ends his narrative of the Vandal Wars with words of cold comfort for the province's residents: “So it resulted that those of the Africans who had survived, few in number and thoroughly impoverished, finally and at great cost obtained some peace” (Procopius, Bell. Vand. 4.28.52). He offered an even bleaker assessment of the devastation of Africa in the Secret History (18.5–12).

The aftermath of the conquest of Italy was also a protracted war waged against the new occupiers. Vitigis was succeeded by an even more formidable Gothic leader, Totila, who established military superiority and won the support of the local population. The Goths had been established in northern Italy for more than fifty years. Justinian's forces were an occupying army of diverse ethnic contingents – Isaurians, Thracians, and Armenians – whose conduct since the fall of Ravenna had been marked by rank indiscipline. The inhabitants of the Po Valley had little reason to favor the incomers (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.5).

Totila took full advantage of the situation in 543, recovering most of southern Italy, including Naples (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.6–7) and proposed to the Roman Senate that they should throw their hand in with the Goths and restore the successful and peaceful days of Theoderic and Amalasuntha. At the end of 544, Justinian ordered Belisarius back to Italy (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.8–9), where he established a foothold on the Adriatic coast and sent two senior officers to stiffen the resolve of the besieged garrison at Rome (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.10–11). Another letter was sent to Constantinople, and this vividly described the demoralization and pitiful state of Roman forces. It urged the need for reinforcements, fresh armaments and mounts, and money enough to pay the mutinous Roman troops. Totila meanwhile accepted the surrender of more Italian cities as a prelude to his main objective, the recapture of Rome (see p. 478).

The second siege of Rome lasted through 546. The occupants of the city were reduced, after the grain supplies were consumed, to eating nettles. The Roman troops and their commander profiteered vigorously by selling at ever increasing prices the stocks of grain that they still controlled. Eventually there was no option but to let the civilian population escape as best it could, and the city fell on December 17, 546, when a group of Isaurians guided an assault party of Goths over the wall at the Asinaria gate. The streets of the city were almost deserted as Totila made his way across the Tiber to celebrate mass at St Peter's Basilica. Procopius used the siege to introduce his own reflections on the changes in human fortunes. A pitiful sight now was Rusticiana, daughter of the patrician Symmachus and widow of the famous philosopher Boethius, reduced to begging from door to door.

The Romans in general, and particularly the members of the senate, found themselves reduced to such straits that they clothed themselves in the garments of slaves and rustics, and lived by begging bread or any other food from their enemies; a very notable example of this change of fortune being that of Rusticiana, the daughter of Symmachus, who had been wife of Boethius, a woman who was always lavishing her wealth on the needy. Indeed these wretches went about to all the houses and kept knocking at the doors and begging that they give them food, feeling no shame in doing so. (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.20.27–28)

Some of Totila's men were for putting her to death, as she had destroyed statues of the great Theoderic, who had executed her father and husband in 526 (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.20). This episode surely marks the demise of the senatorial class as a force to be reckoned with, and this was a crucial break in Italian history.26 The Senate House itself no longer served as a meeting place and was converted for use as a church in the seventh century.

Totila sent peace proposals to Justinian, aimed at restoring the status quo of 535:

We request that you take for yourself the benefits of peace and allow them to us. We have the finest memorials and examples of this in the persons of Anastasius and Theoderic, who have ruled as monarchs not long ago, and filled everything with peace and good things throughout their reigns. If this could be achieved in accordance with your wishes, you would properly be called my father, and you would have us as your allies to use against whoever you wish. (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.21.22–24)

Justinian brusquely dismissed the delegation and instructed Totila to make terms with his plenipotentiary Belisarius (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.15–21). But Belisarius was powerless to prevent the Goths taking control of Italy and was himself recalled to Constantinople in 548. In a passage of the Gothic War which he repeated almost word-for-word in the Secret History Procopius was scathing about his former hero:

Belisarius, in Italy for the second time, departed thence in the most shameful circumstances. For during a five-year period he never succeeded in setting foot on land, as was explained by me in my previous account, except where there was some sort of fortress, but he kept navigating during this period going round the coastal regions. Totila was desperate to come to grips with him outside fortifications, but he never encountered him, since Belisarius and the whole Roman army were gripped by deep fear. For this reason he never recovered any of the places that had been lost, but even lost Rome as well and practically everything else. (Procopius, Secret History 5.1–3; cf. Bell. Goth. 7.35.1)

Procopius matches this bitter verdict with an equally bleak reading of the overall historical balance sheet. By the end of 548 the barbarians were undisputed masters of the West. The upshot of the Gothic War for the Romans was that Italy had been lost at an enormous human and financial cost. Illyricum and Thrace were plundered and devastated by the barbarians who lived on their borders. Gaul as far as the Mediterranean and much of Transpadane Italy including the Veneto was in Frankish hands. Their kings controlled this region with Justinian's blessing, but declared their independence by minting gold coins without the emperor's head (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.33.2–7). Sirmium and the cities of Dacia, which the Romans had won back from the Ostrogoths in 536, were now held by the Gepids (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.33.8–9). The Lombards held most of Noricum and Pannonia, and plundered Dalmatia and Illyricum, making slaves of many of its inhabitants (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.33.10–12). The Heruls showed their contempt of Justinian by terrorizing Illyricum and Thrace (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.33.13–14). In 549 splinter groups of Lombards and Gepids pushed into northern Italy, threatening to join forces with the Ostrogoths (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.35.19–30).

Nevertheless, Roman foreign policy in the 550s was far from inert. The struggle to control Africa was problematic and unremitting, but Rome did not abandon the conquests of 533–4. Procopius' exaggeratedly negative verdict on the desolate state of Africa in the late 540s is offset by the fact that the Roman occupation continued in relative peace, secured by a network of new fortifications. In 551 Procopius himself acknowledged the success of John Troglites in winning over the allegiance of one of the Moorish rulers, Cutzinas, and subduing Antalas and Iaudas in Byzacena and Numidia respectively (Procopius, Bell. 8.17.20–22). He remained in control of a pacified Africa until the early 560s when his exploits were commemorated in a four-book verse epic by Corippus.27

Indeed there was a further chapter to the Roman Drang nach Westen. In 551 Athanagild, a relative of the Visigothic king Agila, appealed to Justinian to intervene in Spain. The circumstances are obscure and poorly documented. One objective was probably to protect the African provinces from attacks by the Visigoths in Spain, but it may be that the main motivation was to support the Catholic population against the Arian Goths. The Romans had already secured the Balearic islands, Cadiz, and the southern side of the Strait of Gibraltar during the initial campaign against the Vandal kingdom (Bell. Vand. 3.1.6, 4.5.6), and thus controlled the approaches to Spain by sea. Despite conflict with their erstwhile ally Athanagild, the Romans swiftly established control in Andalusia as far as Cadiz including the major center of Cordoba (Greg. Tur., Hist. 4.8). The occupation was not merely a temporary matter. As late as 589 Comentiolus, a leading general of the emperor Maurice, held the post of magister militum Spaniae and was responsible for building a monumental fortified gate in the walls of Cartagena (New Carthage), carrying an inscription that read “thus let Spain for ever rejoice under such a governor, as long as the poles rotate and the sun circles round the earth” (ILS 835).

The Romans were even more determined to re-assert their domination in Italy after Totila's Gothic forces re-occupied Rome in 550 (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.36–37). A command was initially assigned to Justinian's nephew, Germanus, who married the Gothic princess Matasuntha, Vitigis' widow, and attracted numerous barbarian recruits to the army, many paid for from his private fortune. On the eve of the expedition Germanus unexpectedly died (Procopius, Bell. Goth. 7.39–40), and was replaced by his son-in-law, John, and son, Justinian. As Totila's Gothic fleet launched naval raids on Corcyra and the islands off Epirus, with the objective of interrupting Roman supply lines (Procopius, Bell. 8.22.17–32), John led a vital expedition to relieve the Roman garrison in the strategic harbor of Ancona, the critical bridgehead on Italy's Adriatic coast (Procopius, Bell. 8.23). His warships won a decisive battle at the anchorage of Sena Gallica, which confirmed the Romans' unchallenged mastery of the Adriatic and indeed the Mediterranean at large. This was critical to the subsequent campaign. In 552 the main command was transferred to a senior figure, the eunuch Narses. He led as large a coalition of forces as the treasury could afford: substantial new forces from Constantinople, Thrace, and Illyricum, the private army of Germanus which had passed on to his son-in-law John, 2,500 Lombards, 3,000 Herul cavalry, large numbers of Huns, 400 Gepids, and others. There was also money to cover arrears of pay owing to Roman troops that had defected to Totila (Procopius, Bell. 8.26.5–18; see p. 478). Narses led his forces on a remarkable blitzkrieg. They marched round the head of the Adriatic gulf to Venetia, added reinforcements at Ravenna, and overcame the resistance of the Gothic garrison of Ariminum, before setting out to cross the Apennines. Totila moved his own forces forward from Rome to Tadinae. The two armies fought a decisive battle at a place known to Procopius as the Funerary Pyre of the Gauls, Busta Gallorum. The outcome was a decisive victory for Narses' men. Six thousand Goths, including Roman deserters, perished on the battlefield and many more who surrendered were slain by their captors. Totila fled but died of his wounds at Caprae (Procopius, Bell. 8.29–32).

The Gothic War now entered its final phase. Narses rid himself of his Lombard allies, who in a frenzy of looting, arson, and rape provided a foretaste of the havoc they were to cause when they invaded Italy in 568. The Roman army advanced to Rome where the Gothic garrison vainly barricaded themselves between Hadrian's mausoleum (Castel San Angelo) and a stretch of the old Aurelianic wall. Thus in the autumn of 552 Rome fell to an enemy army for the fifth time in Justinian's reign (Procopius, Bell. 8.33). A further season of campaigning was needed to deal with Totila's successor, Teja. The Gothic strongholds were scattered throughout the peninsula and fell one by one to treachery or assault: Perugia, Taranto, Centumcellae, and finally Cumae in Campania, where the largest part of Totila's treasure had been deposited. Teja marched the length of Italy along the Adriatic coast before crossing to Campania to the area of Mount Vesuvius and the site of the final battle of the war, at Mount Lactarius above the Mediterranean resort of Amalfi. He was slain by a javelin and his head raised on a pole by the victors. The Goths who survived the battle disavowed further hostilities and were allowed safe passage out of Italy (Procopius, Bell. 8.34–35).

Narses now introduced a new regime for Italy, just twenty years after similar arrangements had been made for Africa. This was laid down in a major imperial ruling, the Pragmatic Sanction of 554 (Corpus Iuris Civilis [ed. R. Schöll and W. Kroll], Novellae app. VII [August 13, 554]). He himself remained the ruler of Roman Italy until he was dismissed in 568. The administrative structure of Italy was replaced by a new hierarchy of military and civilian offices, controlled by Narses in his capacity as ex praeposito palati, and was ultimately dependent on Constantinople. Details of these arrangements can be recovered from the correspondence of Pope Gregory the Great, dating to the 590s.28 The essence of the new order was succinctly conveyed by an inscription from the end of Justinian's reign, which commemorated the construction of a bridge over the river Anio near Rome:

When our master the most pious and eternally triumphant Justinian, father of the fatherland, Augustus, was emperor in his 39th year, after the victory over the Goths, when their kings themselves had been conquered and humbled in the public conflict with amazing speed, and liberty had been restored to the city of Rome and the whole of Italy, Narses, the most glorious man, commandant of the palace, former consularis and patrician, has restored the bridge on the Salarian road, which had been destroyed down to the water level by the most wicked tyrant Totila, after the river bed has been cleansed to a better state than it has ever been in. (ILS 832, dated between April and November 565)

It is inevitable that assessments of Justinian's reign, and especially of his wars of reconquest in the West, are colored by Procopius' judgment in his Wars and in the Secret History. As he drew his narratives to a close around 550, he came to a damning verdict concerning both Africa and Italy. Initial success had swiftly been followed by reverses and systematic failure. The wars had dragged on and brought little but suffering. The provinces of the former western empire were laid waste and impoverished. However, this conclusion appears premature in the light of subsequent events. The 540s had been a horrendous decade for the empire. The devastation of the plague was accompanied by severe famine throughout the empire. The Romans would have been faced by acute manpower shortages and dwindling tax revenues. The consequence in a military context was that Roman forces went for long periods without pay, often causing them to mutiny, and they were rarely reinforced from Constantinople. There was a fractious military stalemate both in Africa and in Italy. Roman forces were disheartened, ill-supplied, and barely a match for their barbarian enemies.

The turning-point was reached shortly after Procopius finished the first seven books of his Wars and the Secret History. Already the supplementary eighth book, which was completed around 554, had a more optimistic story to tell, above all in its account of Narses' successful invasion of Italy, which dealt with Totila's Gothic forces almost as swiftly as Belisarius had defeated Gelimer's Vandals twenty years before. The empire had taken heavy blows from natural catastrophes between 535 and 545. Justinian himself was a changed character, perhaps personally broken by the burdens and responsibilities that he had taken upon himself. The hammer blows of misfortune may have caused levels of public anxiety to rise and may explain a shift in religious behavior (see pp. 455–8). But the Roman Empire itself was resilient. Military and civilian affairs continued to be in the hands of men of high competence. The systems of government remained intact and effective. It would have occurred to no one that decline and fall were imminent, or that the overall balance sheet of Justinian's reign, at least in political and military terms, was not a positive one.

What Justinian achieved by the riconquista was to recover a considerable proportion of the former Roman Empire in the West, including all its resources of manpower and potential tax revenues, but on a substantially different basis from previously. The fundamental difference was that the Roman Empire, now ruled from Constantinople, had a maritime base. It relied on communication by sea and naval control, not on the roads and land-based armies that had underpinned earlier Roman successes. The keys to power were no longer the great road system and fortified cities of Illyricum, but major ports – Carthage, Cartagena, Marseilles, Genoa, the port of Rome, Naples, Lilybaeum, Syracuse, Otranto, Brundisium, Ancona, Ravenna, Venice, and Salona – that were critical for transport and supply, the movement of armies, officials, tax revenues, and food stuffs. These critical strategic bridgeheads enabled the Romans to reassert their rule in the western Mediterranean.

By the end of Justinian's reign the Roman Empire had been transformed by a series of extraordinary challenges. There is no significant evidence that its ruling class had lost the will to maintain political domination once morale had recovered from the dire setbacks of the 540s, but the state's capacity for military action was seriously impaired by long wars, by structural economic problems which reduced revenue from taxation, and above all by the recurring ravages of the plague. Rome's leaders and armies also now faced fresh threats on their eastern and northwestern frontiers from the Sassanian empire and from new barbarian groups out of central Asia.

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