Rise and Fall

`God has granted us to make peace with the Persians, to make the Vandals, Alans and Moors our subjects, and gain possession of all Africa and Sicily besides, and we have good hopes that he will consent to our establishing our empire over the rest of those whom the Romans of old ruled from the boundaries of one ocean to the other and then lost by their negligence.' - Emperor Justinian, Apri1536.'

Emperor Anastasius was in his late eighties when he died on 9 July 518. He had no son and had failed to mark out a successor. After a good deal of manoeuvring within the imperial court, Justin, the commander of the emperor's close bodyguard (excubitores) bribed his way to power. There were rumours that he used money given to him by the chamberlain, who as a eunuch could not aspire to the throne himself. Allegedly, Justin had agreed to buy support for another candidate, but then changed his mind and used the cash on his own behalf. Now in his mid sixties, he came originally from a rural part of the Latin-speaking Balkan provinces. Justin was not a member of the established aristocracy, but as usual we should be careful about accepting the snobbery of our sources and labelling him a peasant. The malicious claim that he was illiterate is extremely unlikely for someone so senior in rank. Nevertheless, his rise was certainly spectacular and demonstrated once again the influence of the senior officers and officials at court.'

One of Justin's nephews was a junior officer in another of the imperial guard units, the candidati. This man, Pettus Sabbatius, was rapidly promoted and then adopted, taking the name Justinian. Before the emperor died in 527, Justin made Justinian his imperial colleague, so that this time the succession was smooth. Justinian would rule as sole emperor until his own death in 565. Some saw him as the real power behind Justin, and even if this was an exaggeration, it is fair to say that he was at the centre of power for well over forty years. This was an exceptionally long period of continuity, even in an era of long-lived emperors. During these years Justinian took a direct interest in many things, from theology to law, and through his generals - he never went on campaign in person - fought a long series of wars. The provinces in North Africa were retaken and the Vandal kingdom destroyed. After a much longer struggle, Ostrogothic Italy also fell to Justinian's armies, as did Sicily, Sardinia, Corsica and part of Spain. Only a few of these conquests proved lasting and much of the regained territory was lost within a few years of Justinian's death. His successors were inclined to blame Justinian for over-stretching the empire's limited resources and creating the massive problems they faced. It was a convenient excuse and there was at least a measure of truth in it.3

Justinian's actions and their consequences were always deeply controversial. Like his uncle, he came from one of the few Latin-speaking regions of the Eastern Empire. There is no doubt that he was well educated and fluent in Greek as well as Latin, but he did not come from the ranks of the aristocracy and was always resented by them. Many of the sources - especially those written or released after his death - are deeply hostile to him. He was a stickler for court protocol, and anyone presented to him had to prostrate themselves on the floor and, if they were so favoured, kiss the hem of the imperial robe. Other emperors had permitted the more distinguished senators and officials merely to bow. Justinian and his wife Theodora seem to have revelled in expensive displays of imperial grandeur and dignity.4

In many ways the empress was even more remarkable than her husband. Theodora was born into a family of entertainers who worked in the great circus adjacent to the palace in Constantinople. As a girl she became maid to one of the mime actresses who performed in the intervals between chariot races. Later she became an actress and dancer herself. A career of this sort tended to be brief and Theodora, like many of these women, chose to exploit her celebrity and looks by becoming a courtesan. The more lurid stories about her allegedly rampant sexual appetites were doubtless mere gossip repeated by sources who loathed Theodora. Yet even accounts favourable to her did not hide the fact that she had been a prostitute. She gave birth to an illegitimate daughter and there may have been other children. After a while she was hired as mistress by the governor of Egypt, only to be abandoned by him in Alexandria. There, she seems to have had a profound religious experience. When Justinian met her she was back in Constantinople working as a seamstress. She became his mistress, but they could not legally marry since a man of his status was forbidden from marrying a woman who had once been a prostitute. It took some time for them to persuade Justin to introduce a special law permitting the wedding. As far as we can tell, Theodora was always faithful to Justinian, although the couple never had a child.'

Theodora was undoubtedly a very strong-willed woman. Justinian had a deep affection for her and respected her opinions, and emperor and empress often appeared as equals at ceremonial events. Theodora was known to influence his policy and decisions over the appointment, promotion and dismissal of officials and army officers. Emperors believed to be dominated by their wives or other female relations were invariably criticised in later sources, and Justinian was no exception. Yet domination certainly seems too strong a word. Justinian relied on his wife, but his was not a weak character and after her death no one individual in any way controlled him. Theodora's humble and rather discreditable background provided plenty of ammunition for the couple's detractors. Three of her old friends from the circus days were brought to live as her companions in the palace and were found wealthy husbands. Theodora also gave over another palace building as a refuge for girls rescued from prostitution. Some Christian groups later remembered her as extremely devout. Yet there was no doubt that she could also be devious and vindictive, engineering the fall of a number of prominent 6 men.

The Old Enemy

In the fifth century relations between the Eastern Empire and Sassanid Persia had generally been peaceful, in marked contrast to earlier centuries. It became normal for the Roman emperor and Persian king to refer to each other as `brother' in their diplomatic exchanges. Persia was effectively acknowledged as the empire's equal and Roman dreams of her conquest had long since faded. The long peace was encouraged by the other problems faced by both sides. The Persians were confronted with the growing threat of nomadic groups - the Sabir Huns in the north and the Hephthalite or `White Huns' to the north-east. To what extent either of these groups were related to the Huns of Attila is questionable, and the name `Hun' may simply have been given to any nomadic group felt to fight in a similar way. Their raids were frequent and several expeditions sent to punish them ended in disaster. One Persian king was even killed in battle, something that the Romans had never managed in all their long wars with Persia. Several bouts of civil war further weakened Sassanid power and made them reluctant to provoke serious fighting with their Roman neighbours.?

Things began to change with the accession of the Persian King Kavadh in 488. Eight years later he was expelled in a civil war and took refuge amongst the Hephthalite Huns. With their support he defeated his rival in 499 and then reigned until his death in 531. His son Khusro I succeeded him and ruled until 579. For some eighty years Persia was ruled by just two kings, providing a level of stability that more than matched the longevity of contemporary emperors in Constantinople. Yet it took some time after his return from exile before Kavadh could feel secure and he was desperately short of money. Hephthalite assistance had come at a high price. He also needed wealth to pay soldiers, reward loyal followers and prevent the nobility from supporting rival claimants to the throne. The irrigation systems that made agriculture possible in large parts of his kingdom were expensive to maintain and even more costly to expand!

Kavadh needed funds and sent ambassadors to Constantinople requesting money from Anastasius. The ostensible justification for this was the cost of maintaining garrisons to deny the Sabir Huns access to the passes in the Caucasian mountains, most notably the pass known as the Caspian Gates. The Persians argued that this was a service to the Romans as well as themselves, since Hunnic raiding parties could otherwise easily reach into the Roman provinces, as they had done in the past. The Romans had paid subsidies to the Persians on several occasions during the fifth century. However, it is uncertain whether there was ever a formal arrangement to help fund the defence of the Caucasian passes. Such a deal would have smacked of paying tribute to a superior foreign power and have been deeply damaging to any emperor. Whatever the background, Anastasius refused to pay. Therefore, in 502 Kavadh launched an attack on the Roman provinces, determined to take by force the wealth he needed. He took and plundered several important towns, including Amida, which fell only after a siege lasting more than three months. The Roman response was sluggish, but by 505 their counter attacks were strong enough to persuade Kavadh to accept a truce. He had already acquired considerable plunder and large numbers of captives to settle on royal lands. The Romans probably paid him a considerable sum to secure the peace. All in all Kavadh was most likely content, and anyway faced a new burst of aggression from the Sabir Huns.'

The peace lasted for two decades, by which time Kavadh was well into his seventies and becoming concerned about the succession. Choosing Khusro over an older son, the Persian king asked his `brother' the Roman emperor to ensure that his choice was respected. Kavadh actually asked Justin to adopt Khusro as his son. Although the emperor was enthusiastic, his advisors eventually persuaded him that this would be dangerous, as it would also give the youth a direct claim to the imperial throne. That the proposal was made and seriously considered and even the reason for its rejection emphasise how far Roman attitudes towards Persia had changed. In the end, Justin offered a lesser form of adoption, which was often used with barbarian leaders, but eventually the talks broke down.'°

Disappointed, Kavadh returned to his familiar demands for money from the Romans. Skirmishes escalated along the frontiers and in 530 the Persians launched a major invasion. Their first target was Dara, a fortress city built not far from Nisibis. Anastasius had begun its development into a major stronghold and Justinian had added to the work. Led by a general named Belisarius, a sizeable Roman army met the larger Persian force outside Dara and inflicted a sharp defeat on them. In 531 Belisarius was in turn routed by another invading Persian army at the Battle of Callinicum. Fortunes were mixed in the following months, but the Persians were gaining little and by the end of the year were eager for peace. This mood was only reinforced when Kavadh died and Khusro became king in his place. In 532 the Romans and Persians agreed what they called the `eternal peace'. Justinian agreed to pay the Persian king 11,000 lb of gold - a figure almost twice as large as the biggest payment to Attila, but still comfortably affordable for the Eastern Empire."

In 54o Khusro broke the treaty and attacked. It was simple opportunism. He knew that Justinian's armies were heavily committed elsewhere and that therefore Roman defences in the east were weak. Like his father, he was also very short of funds, and like most earlier Persian campaigns, the invasion was essentially a large-scale raid. It did reach further into Syria than any Sassanid attack since the third-century triumphs of Shapur I, and in this respect was exceptional. Antioch was captured and sacked, and Khusro bathed in the waters of the Mediterranean. Then the king retired, taking his plunder and tens of thousands of prisoners with him. There was never any prospect of permanently occupying the captured cities."

The fall of Antioch was a major humiliation for Justinian, but a year later a far more serious blow was struck by a dreadful plague. It began in Egypt and swiftly spread throughout the provinces. The fatalities in Constantinople were said to have been massive and it has been common to compare this epidemic with the Black Death of the fourteenth century. The disease was probably a form of bubonic plague, although it is perfectly possible that other infections spread simultaneously and claimed many victims. Like the medieval plague it returned a number of times during the next decades, but as usual we have no reliable statistics to assess its full cost in lives and its wider economic and social consequences. In spite of the impact of the plague, Justinian recalled Belisarius from the west and sent him against the Persians. The Romans attacked Persian territory in Assyria, although the offensive, much like enemy operations, amounted to little more than a grand raid. There were no more spectacular successes for either side in the following years."

BY 545 Justinian and Khusro made peace in Mesopotamia, although hostilities continued in the far north, near the Caucasus. Both Rome and Persia had long struggled to dominate the kingdoms of this area, such as Lazica and Iberia. Religion played a role in the contest, for both areas became Christian, providing the Romans with a pretext for supporting them. Over-enthusiastic Persian efforts to promote Zoroastrianism provoked several defections to Rome. In turn, the maladministration and corruption of Roman officials at other times convinced peoples to break their link with the empire. The balance of power swayed back and forth between the two powers and much of the actual fighting was done by allies. This was also true in the south, where the two main Arab groups - the Ghassanids allied to the Romans and the Lakhmids who were backed by the Persians - were enthusiastic raiders. The two powers encouraged these allies to harass the other's territory. This was often a way of putting pressure on the rival power and was rarely considered by either side to constitute a real war.14

In 561/2 a more complete peace treaty was agreed - this time supposedly to last a modest fifty years instead of being eternal. The Romans were to pay the Persians an annual subsidy of 500 lb of gold. Justinian could see little advantage to further fighting against Persia, especially since he had continued military commitments elsewhere. It is striking just how limited the operations in this conflict had been. Most campaigns were essentially raids. Fortified towns remained of critical importance, providing protection from enemy attacks and bases from which raids could be launched. As such they were often the targets of major offensives. Both sides scored successes, but sieges could be costly and were not invariably successful. The Persians repeatedly failed to capture Edessa, just as the Romans were always unsuccessful in their attempts to regain Nisibis. The Persians had resented the strengthening of Dara so close to their own border and in 532 had persuaded the Romans to withdraw the bulk of the troops stationed there.15

Into the West

The wars against Persia were the largest conflicts fought by the Romans in the sixth century. On several occasions they mustered armies of 30,000, and perhaps even 40,000 men. These were large by the standards of any period of Roman history and were matched by Persian armies, which were as big or even bigger. The cost of maintaining the many fortresses on the eastern frontier was also huge. On several occasions these were found to have decayed, something that the spate of earthquakes to hit the area in this period is unlikely to have helped, but they were always rebuilt. Justinian also spent heavily on defending the Balkan frontier against the various tribal peoples who threatened the region. Yet even though this was closer to Constantinople itself, it is clear that the Persians were always seen as the most dangerous and important enemy. Resources would be taken from any other theatre to bolster the defences of the east. This makes it all the more striking that the most spectacular successes of Justinian's reign were won in the western Mediterranean.'6

In 533 Justinian despatched Belisarius to invade the Vandal kingdom in North Africa. The previous year's eternal peace with Persia had made the eastern front secure, but this was still a risky venture. Senior advisers reminded the emperor of the costly disaster in 468 and urged him to abandon the plan. Yet Justinian scented an opportunity. The Vandals had recently become embroiled in a dynastic squabble and also faced rebellions, both in Africa and some of the islands they controlled. In addition, the Ostrogoths agreed to let the Romans use their ports in Sicily as staging posts for the invasion fleet. Justinian decided to take the gamble. Belisarius was given a large support fleet and an army of at least 15,ooo men - there is some doubt about the total as it is unclear whether this figure included his own strong regiment of cavalry. The real total for the army may have been up to a few thousand higher. This was a considerable force by the standards of the day. However, the army and fleet were certainly not larger than those involved in the disastrous fifthcentury expeditions. There was absolutely no guarantee of success and a failure would have seriously damaged Justinian.'7

The result was a spectacularly rapid and overwhelming success. The main Vandal forces were elsewhere when the Romans landed. King Gelimer was in the south of the country dealing with rebels, while many of his best troops were far away in Sardinia dealing with another uprising. Wrong footed from the start, the Vandals concentrated what troops they could and rushed to confront the invaders. Belisarius smashed them in two battles, both fought almost entirely by his cavalry. Gelimer fled to a mountain refuge, but eventually surrendered a few months later and was taken back to Constantinople. Justinian allowed Belisarius the honour of a triumphal procession, although the victorious general walked through the streets rather than riding in a chariot in the ancient fashion. Gelimer was led in the procession and kept repeating a verse from the Old Testament Book of Ecclesiastes: `Vanity of vanities, all is vanity'. The culmination of the ceremony came when Belisarius and Gelimer both came before a seated Justinian and Theodora. Both the general and his captive prostrated themselves before the emperor. For all the honour done to Belisarius, the ceremony made it abundantly clear that the true glory belonged to Justinian."

The stunning success against the Vandals encouraged the emperor to consider further adventures in the west. Italy now seemed vulnerable as a group of Ostrogothic nobles turned against Theodoric's grandson, who was seen to be both too `Roman' and far too much under the control of his mother. When the young king died, she tried to replace him with his cousin, but she was soon imprisoned and eventually killed. In 535 Belisarius was sent with just 7,500 men to take Sicily. Once again, his success was speedy, encouraging Justinian to order the invasion of Italy itself. From the beginning this conflict was to be fought with very limited resources compared to the African campaign. Italy, with its many walled cities, also presented a far larger and more difficult theatre of operations. At the same time the Goths proved less willing than the Vandals to seek immediate confrontation. The result was a far longer and bitterly fought series of campaigns over the following decades, during which many of the communities of Italy suffered badly. Belisarius occupied Rome at the end of 535 at the head of just 5,000 men and was besieged there for over a year before finally repulsing the Ostrogothic army.'9

In Africa the Roman army had generally been welcomed by the wider population. Belisarius took care to keep his men on a tight rein when they entered Carthage, preventing looting or other misbehaviour. The situation in Italy was more complicated. Naples held out against the Romans and was sacked when they finally managed to force their way in. Elsewhere the Romans were welcomed, but each community to defect to Belisarius was another place he needed to protect from Ostrogothic reprisals. Even though the number of Roman troops in Italy gradually increased, many of these had to be dispersed in small garrisons. In 539 another of Justinian's most trusted generals, the eunuch Narses, was sent to Italy with reinforcements. He and Belisarius did not get on well and failed to co-operate. Milan was occupied by the Romans, but then quickly retaken and brutally sacked by the Ostrogoths. Friction and bickering between Roman commanders became a common theme for most of the Italian campaigns. Individual commanders went their own way, content with controlling their own small forces and dominating one patch of territory. Many proved themselves spectacularly corrupt, extorting as much money as possible from the local inhabitants. There were several cases of individuals and whole communities regretting their allegiance to the Eastern Empire and defecting back to the Goths.Z°

The record of the Roman army during Justinian's wars was extremely mixed. It won most of the major battles in the west and a fair few of those fought against the Persians. In some of these it fought with exemplary discipline and skill. On the other hand, battles were comparatively rare and much of the fighting was on a far smaller scale. More importantly, there were far more cases of generals unable to control their own soldiers. On more than one occasion, including the defeat at Callinicum, Belisarius was pressured into joining battle against his better judgement because he felt unable to resist the enthusiasm of his men. After the victory in Africa one soldier got drunk and accidentally shot and killed his own commander with an arrow. Looting and other misbehaviour could not always be prevented, even when it weakened the Romans' cause by alienating the locals. It did not help that the soldiers' pay was often heavily in arrears and this provoked a number of mutinies. Before the Italian campaign, Belisarius had to be recalled to Africa to deal with a serious outbreak amongst the troops he had left there. A major contributing factor in this outbreak was the fact that many of the soldiers had married the former wives of the Vandals and were eager to retain their property.2'

Justinian's wars in the west were fought with limited numbers of troops, who were sometimes poorly disciplined and even mutinous. The senior officers rarely co-operated well - a problem not helped by a reluctance at times to appoint a clear supreme commander. Many Roman officers and officials were more interested in personal profit and succeeded only in alienating the people they had supposedly come to liberate and restore to the empire. The resurgence of war with Persia in 540 also shifted the conflict in Italy to a lower priority. Narses had already been recalled, and Belisarius was sent to fight in the east in 541. The impact of the plague can only have reduced the manpower and funds at the emperor's immediate disposal. Belisarius returned to Italy in 544 and found himself desperately short of all resources. He retook Rome, which had fallen to the Goths, but was able to achieve very little before being recalled again in 549. Narses returned to take charge of the forces in Italy and, as relations with Persia improved, was able to demand and receive more troops. In 552 he defeated and killed the last Ostrogothic king, Totila, in battles where the Romans significantly outnumbered the Goths. This was in spite of the fact that some troops were despatched to intervene in a civil war in Visigothic Spain. Justinian seems to have believed that this offered another opportunity to exploit the weakness of one of the kingdoms

From the beginning, there was a strong element of opportunism in Justinian's wars in the western Mediterranean. Periods of temporary internal weakness in Vandal Africa, then Ostrogothic Italy and finally Visigothic Spain were exploited. If the forces deployed by the Romans to fight these campaigns were modest in comparison with those fielded in the struggle with Persia, it is also worth noting how comparatively weak the western kingdoms proved. Luck played a major part in the swift collapse of the Vandals, but the slow progress of the war in Italy had more to do with the Roman failure to commit sufficient resources than Ostrogothic strength. The intervention in Spain was on a limited scale and had very limited results. A Roman-controlled coastal enclave was created around Cartagena. In Italy Narses defeated a Frankish invasion in 554. There was further trouble in Africa, with a succession of difficult campaigns against the Moorish tribes to the south of the provinces. For both Italy and Africa new praetorian prefectures were created to oversee their administration. Justinian had no intention of reviving the Western Empire, instead the recovered territories were simply treated as additional provinces of the east."

Africa was the biggest long-term success in the reconquered west and by the end of the sixth century was a relatively peaceful and prosperous part of the Eastern Empire. Most of the gains in Italy were lost within a decade of Justinian's death. In 568 Italy was invaded by the Lombards, yet another tribal group that in the past had as often appeared as allies as they had as enemies of the empire. The Roman forces stationed in Italy were weak and poorly co-ordinated. The bulk of the Italian Peninsula was overrun and carved up into separate territories ruled by Lombard chieftains called duces by the Romans. The empire managed to hang on to just a few areas on the coast and around cities such as Ravenna and Rome. Sicily and the other major islands were also preserved, but even the most generous assessment of Justinian's aggressive policy in the western Mediterranean would have to see it as extremely limited in its success. It had also been highly expensive and produced a need for permanent garrisons to protect territories that in most cases yielded little revenue to central government. Ironically, the fall of the Ostrogothic kingdom in a long and costly conflict, followed not long after by the Lombard invasion, probably destroyed many aspects of Roman culture and society that had survived the collapse of the Western Empire.14

A New World: The Age of Justinian and After

Justinian's empire suffered from prolonged conflict with Persia, other wars on many other fronts, as well as natural disasters of which by far the most catastrophic was the great plague. Some of the wars were of his own making, and in all cases any profits or gains were more than balanced by the expenses and losses. The empire was not markedly stronger by the end of Justinian's reign and its resources were certainly stretched very thin. The events of these years clearly exposed the limited power of the sixth-century empire. It did not have the capacity to take back the lost Roman territories in the west and recreate the grandeur of the old, united empire. There was considerable sympathy for the arrival of the eastern Romans amongst the wider population of the western regions. In spite of this it was usually some time before the provincials were convinced that the presence would be permanent and so safe to support.

The corruption and venality of eastern commanders and officials in several cases quickly destroyed this goodwill. The emperor could not fully control his representatives, in much the same way that his generals often struggled to control their troops. The military successes of Justinian's reign owed something to the talents of a handful of gifted generals - most notably Belisarius and Narses - and far more to the still considerable resources of the empire. At times the Romans were able to commit troops and funds to a campaign on a scale that no one apart from the Persians could match. If the Constantinople government was determined enough and willing to commit the resources, then none of the western kingdoms was likely to be able to resist in the long run."

For all the problems of his reign, Justinian was spared an outbreak of full-scale civil war. In 532 riots broke out in Constantinople led by the factions supporting the two main chariot-racing teams in the circus. Traditionally these two groups were bitterly hostile, but when they joined together the trouble escalated rapidly into something far more serious. Some powerful individuals seem to have seen this as an opportunity to replace the existing regime and they may have helped to foster the violence in the first place. One of the surviving nephews of Anastasius was proclaimed as emperor and initial attempts to suppress the rebels by force failed. One story claimed that Justinian was ready to flee and only Theodora's resolution dissuaded him, quoting the old tag, `Monarchy is a good burial shroud'. Since the actual saying was `Tyranny is a good burial shroud' it is more than likely that this was a malicious story aimed at the imperial couple. For whatever reason, Justinian resolved to fight. Belisarius and Narses led their soldiers against the rioters and massacred them. The recently proclaimed emperor was executed, even though he had probably been an unwilling pawn.26

This was the closest Justinian came to being overthrown by a rival, but like all emperors he was always suspicious of any possible threats. For the moment Belisarius had proved his loyalty by slaughtering the rioters - in much the same way that Napoleon was promoted by the Directory after his famous `whiff of grapeshot'. Later, Belisarius came under suspicion when the Ostrogoths offered to proclaim him western emperor. Similarly, there were rumours that he and others had plotted to control the succession when it was expected that Justinian might succumb to the plague. More than once Belisarius was removed from his command and sent into retirement when the emperor lost confidence in his loyalty. This in spite of the fact that he was certainly one of the most competent and probably also one of the most loyal of Justinian's commanders. As always, an emperor tended to make his own security his first priority, sacrificing the wider needs of foreign wars. Theodora also arranged the dismissal and disgrace of one of her husband's most trusted senior officials, the praetorian prefect John the Cappadocian. Inventing a conspiracy, her agents - including Belisarius' wife Antonina - managed to convince John to incriminate himself.'

Suspicion of colleagues was as deeply entrenched in the imperial bureaucracy as corruption. Justinian made some attempts to combat this, in particular trying to prevent the now normal practice of selling appointments and governorships. Despite the emperor's best efforts his success was extremely limited. Men entering a career in the imperial service expected to make substantial profits through informal gifts given to secure their favours. This was simply the way things worked, and had been for as long as anyone could remember.z8

Justinian's codification of Roman law proved a far more lasting legacy. In 529 his team of legal experts produced the Codex Justin ianus, which collected all imperial legislation and confirmed its validity. Legislation excluded from the collection was automatically repealed. In this way it superseded all earlier collections of law, including that carried out under Theodosius II almost a century before. In 533 this was supplemented by the Digest, which summarised the rulings and ideas of all notable Roman jurists from the imperial period. Another major work was the Institutes, which was intended to guide those studying law. In the following year a new edition of the Codex was released. All of these works were in Latin and eventually they would have a profound influence on the development of law in Europe. Justinian also continued to issue new laws or legal rulings - known as novellae - many of which were in Greek.29

Throughout Justinian's legal work it was always made clear that these were the laws of a Christian emperor. He seems to have taken far more seriously the concept that as emperor he was God's representative on earth. Certainly, while many previous emperors had tried to promote unity within the Church, Justinian took a much more direct role in defining what was orthodox theology. The main point of contention continued to be the question of whether Jesus during his life on earth had possessed a single combined nature, or distinct human and divine parts. A version of the latter defined by the Council of Chalcedon as long ago as 451 was the orthodox position that Justinian attempted to impose. There was considerable resistance and Theodora was widely known to be sympathetic to opponents of this doctrine. Both Justinian's direct interventions and the periodic inconsistencies in his attitude caused suspicion in many churchmen. This certainly contributed to periods of friction with successive popes, although the continued reluctance to admit equality with the see in Constantinople also formed part of this. However, the emperor's power was unquestioned. Justinian felt free to dismiss any bishop, including the pope and the senior bishop or patriarch of Constantinople."

By Justinian's day it was clear that the basic culture of the empire had changed and its ideas owed more to Christianity than to the classical tradition. There were still some notable pagans, but the long-established types of literature, including secular history and many forms of poetry, were disappearing. The philosophical schools in Athens were closed - at one point a group of philosophers fled to Persia to be freer to continue their studies. In time they became disillusioned and were permitted to return to the empire as part of the treaty between Justinian and Khusro in 532. Books of all types became less common. Purity of language - mostly Greek, for most of the inhabitants of the Eastern Empire had never esteemed Latin that highly - ceased to be quite so important as the mark of true refinement and education, as did knowledge of Homer and the other great works of pagan literature."

At the same time the physical shape of cities and their central importance to society also changed. The central open space for public business, ceremonies and commerce had been the Forum, or Agora. By the sixth century these functions were more likely to be performed on a single straight road, the cardo, which was lined with stalls. Over time such roads tended to become crowded with more or less permanent structures, looking much like the Souk in later Middle Eastern cities. Churches rather than other public buildings were most likely to be the main focal points for the community. Theatres were no longer very important and public bath houses were in decline. The complex rituals and luxury of Roman bathing ceased to be one of the main elements of civilised life."

In the Renaissance the term `Byzantine' was coined for the Eastern Empire, in part because this made it easier for people in western Europe to claim to be the real heirs of Roman civilisation. The population of the Eastern Empire never stopped referring to themselves as Romans and their empire as Romania. (Sometimes they would also call themselves Christians, seeing this as synonymous with being Roman.) Justinian's empire was the clear descendant of the empire of Augustus and his successors, but in terms of power it was a lesser descendant. It remained powerful, but its strength was matched by Sassanid Persia. The superpower that had once so utterly dominated such a large part of the world - almost all of the known world - was a distant memory. The events of the century after Justinian's death would only ram home this truth.33

He was succeeded by his nephew Justin II, after allegedly naming the latter as his heir during his final hours. In 572 Justin started a new war with the Persians. It was the only time in the sixth century when the Romans initiated a major conflict against their eastern neighbour, which is in marked contrast to their aggression towards Parthia and Persia in earlier periods. In the event the war went very badly and the ageing Khusro I captured the fortress of Dara. The shock seems to have plunged Justin into complete mental collapse from which he never recovered and so an imperial colleague was created. A senior and loyal court official named Tiberius was chosen and under him the Romans started to enjoy more success in the struggle with Persia. During these campaigns a general called Maurice made a name for himself, and his popularity with his soldiers encouraged key figures at court to make him emperor when Tiberius died in 582. The war continued to go well for the Romans, aided by a Persian civil war in 590.34

Fortunes continued to sway one way and then the other, often aided by periods of internal chaos affecting either the Romans or Persia. In 602 a usurper named Phocas rebelled against Maurice, who fled from Constantinople and was killed. Another usurper emerged to challenge Phocas within the year. The Persians were not slow to exploit this weakness and launched a series of major offensives. Large parts of Mesopotamia and Roman Armenia were systematically conquered. Another Roman civil war erupted in 608. A few years later the Persians overran Syria, capturing Antioch once again. Palestine also fell, with the Persians entering Jerusalem in 614. It took almost a decade for the Romans to recover and then there were more years of heavy fighting before they retook most of the lost provinces."

In the meantime, something unexpected by either Rome or Persia had occurred to the south. A merchant named Muhammad from the Arab trading town of Mecca preached a new religion and united the Arab tribes. He taught that there was only one God - not a Trinity of complex definition as the Christians had claimed and argued over. Jesus was revered as a prophet, one in a succession that culminated in Muhammad, the greatest of them all. Muhammad died in 632, but his followers swept on to success after success. Both Persia and Rome had exhausted their strength in their long conflicts with each other. Sassanid Persia was the first to fall, collapsing in just a few years. Then in 636 the Arabs won an overwhelming victory over the Romans near the River Yarmuk. They soon took Palestine, Syria and, not long afterwards, Egypt itself. Later their armies would sweep across North Africa and overwhelm the Roman provinces there.31

How the Arabs united and achieved such incredible conquests is a fascinating story, but it is too long a tale to tell here. By the end of the seventh century the Eastern Empire survived, as it would do until the fifteenth century, but it was a tiny rump even of the territories ruled by Justinian. The superpower had died centuries before his day. By the time of the Arab conquests the shape of medieval Europe was still developing. Society there lacked the comforts common in the centuries of Roman rule. It was also less sophisticated, with low levels of literacy and patterns of trade far reduced in distance and quantity from the height of the empire. By comparison the Muslim world preserved far more aspects of Greco-Roman civilisation, to which the Arabs would add ideas and refinements of their own. In part this was because their heartland lay in regions that had known civilisation long before the arrival of the Greeks and Romans. Both the Islamic world, and in time the `barbarians' of the west, would develop further, rediscovering old ideas or inventing new ones. Marcus Aurelius understood that the world was always changing, but by the seventh century it is doubtful that he would have seen much that was familiar in the lands that had once been his empire.

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