Ancient History & Civilisation


AD 527–65

Reign of Justinian

AD 533

Roman reconquest of North Africa from Vandals, followed by successful campaigns in Italy to 540 and the invasion of Visigothic Spain in 551

AD 540

Persians sack Antioch

AD 577

Beginning of Avar incursions into the Balkans

AD 568

Lombards invade Italy

AD 10-640

Reign of Heraclius. Romans lose Jerusalem (614) and Egypt (616) to Persians and on the defensive until Heraclius’ victory at Nineveh in 627

AD 622

Muhammad’s Flight to Medina. The first year of the Islamic calendar

AD 626

Constantinople under siege by Avars and Persians

AD 628

Roman peace with Persia

AD 636

Arab armies defeat Roman forces at Yarmuk. Jerusalem taken in 638, Egypt in 640, and Anatolia invaded in 647. The Persian Empire destroyed in 651

AD 671

Constantinople survives Arab blockade

AD 697

Arabs capture Carthage

AD 711

Arabs cross the Straits of Gibraltar, invading Visigothic Spain



Let the cities return to their former glory, and let nobody prefer the pleasures of the countryside to the monuments of the ancients. Why avoid in peacetime the very places we fought wars to protect? Who finds anything less welcome than the company of the elite? Who does not enjoy conversing with his equals, promenading in the forum, observing the practice of worthy professions, engaging in legal cases in the courts, or playing that game of draughts that Palamedes loved, or visiting the baths with one’s fellows, or inviting one another to grand banquets? Yet those who choose to spend all their time in the country with their slaves miss out on all of this.

(Cassiodorus, Variae 8.31.8)

How Empires End

Empires do not all have the same fate. Modern studies of collapse and transformation have failed to establish a single theory of imperial decay, offering instead a range of alternative catastrophes.1 Perhaps this should not surprise. Empires— even early ones—were complicated engines with many parts that might go wrong. The argument of this book has been that it is persistence and survival that needs to be explained, not decline and fall. Rome’s genius—or good fortune—lay in the ability to recover from crisis after crisis. Until this one.

Some empires succumb to sudden and unexpected violence from without. The empire of the Inka crumbled before the invasion of Pizarro, and the Achaemenid Persian Empire was swept away by Alexander. The rapidity of their fall often seems to follow as much from the demonstration of the fragility of their rulers’ claims to cosmological favour, as from any actual losses in manpower and resources that follow the first reverses. Emperors claim so much. When their weakness is exposed the disappointment is often fatal. Collapses of that sort illustrate how much early empires depended on ideology and symbolism to sustain them.

Other early empires simply fragmented, like the empire of Han China and the Abbasid caliphate. Fragmentation is arguably a risk integral to the structure of tributary empires. Most early empires were, after all, put together when a conqueror accumulated a series of pre-existing kingdoms: Achaemenid Persia and Qin China offer paradigms for this kind of growth. Earlier identities were rarely eroded under the relatively light touch of pre-industrial hegemony and capstone monarchy. Egyptians remembered their pharaohs under Persian, Macedonian, and Roman occupations. Greek writers looked back before Rome and Macedon to the classical age of Athens and Sparta. Even when the issue was not one of ancient traditions, these empires were often composed of separable parts. Tributary empires often simplified their logistics by allowing each region to support its own occupying army and governors. This, too, made individual regions potentially self-sufficient. Alexander’s empire collapsed because it depended on Macedonian armies supplied by local satrapal administration. Fragmentation usually began at the margins. Action at a distance is a problem for all emperors, and distance was exacerbated by primitive communications. A common response was to create powerful border viceroys, lords palatinate, margraves, and the like, with the authority and resources to respond independently to external threats. But when the centre did not hold these border generals often chose to go it alone. The outer satrapies of the Achaemenid and Seleucid empires were often in revolt. Fragmentation may be temporary, of course. Aurelian reunited the Roman Empire, and Antiochus III did the same for the Persian Empire. Chinese imperial history is often presented as an alternation of fragmentation and reintegration.

Yet other empires simply wither away. They lose control of their outer provinces to revolt or conquest, but successfully retrench to their original (or a new) core area. Often their rulers maintained the imperial styles and ceremonies of their grander pasts. Imperial Athens in the fourth century BC, late Hellenistic Syria and Egypt, the last century of Mughal rule in India all offer examples. After the Fourth Crusade resulted in the Frankish seizure of Byzantium in 1204 there remained tiny successor Greek empires in Epirus, Nicaea, and Trebizond. Historical sociologists have never found it easy to distinguish large states from small empires. Perhaps it is best to say that some empires have reverted to ordinary states with extraordinary memories.

During the fifth, sixth, and seventh centuries AD, the Roman Empire underwent all three of these fates: invasion, fragmentation, and a dramatic downsizing. The empire was repeatedly invaded. I described in Chapter 15 how Alamanni, Vandals, Huns, and others followed the Gothic groups, who entered the empire in AD 376. The loss of the western provinces was not as rapid as the fall of the Inka or the Aztec. Yet within a hundred years of the battle of Adrianople, Rome’s Mediterranean empire was no more. There were further invasions during the sixth and seventh centuries. From the north the Avars and Slavs invaded the Balkan provinces and the Lombards Italy. Periodic Persian raids into Syria culminated in 540 in the sack of Antioch. Finally, in the early seventh century, the Arab conquests swept away Byzantine Africa, Egypt, Sicily, and Syria and went on in the next century to destroy Visigothic Spain.

The empire fragmented, too, in the sense that the political unity of the west came apart in stages, leaving intact for a while Roman tax systems, Roman cities, and the Latin-speaking elites who ran both.2 The fact that taxation was devolved via the praetorian prefectures to the groups of provinces known as dioceses certainly helped make fragmentation feasible. For some Romans in the west, perhaps only the identity of their rulers seemed to have changed.3 Theoderic the Ostrogoth held court in the imperial capital of Ravenna, celebrated games in the Roman Colosseum and Circus, and patronized the western Senate, even lending some support to efforts to restore the monuments of the city. The Roman senator Cassiodorus had a career at the Gothic court in Ravenna in the early sixth century first as quaestor, then as magister officiorum, and finally as praetorian prefect for Italy.4 These positions, part of the Ostrogothic inheritance from Rome, were among the most senior in the bureaucracy. Like senatorial courtiers of the fourth and fifth centuries, he also interrupted his career for a consulship in Rome. Cassiodorus produced elegant Latin literary works throughout his life, alongside the royal letters he was responsible for drafting. His panegyric of the barbarian king and his (lost) history of the Goths show how easy it was for educated Romans to accommodate themselves to new circumstances. At the end of his life, he founded a monastery and turned his attention to religious writing. Many of the earlier generation of kingdoms in the west—those of the Ostrogoths and Vandals and Burgundians for example—were in effect hybrid societies; Romans living by one set of laws and performing civil functions while the barbarian leaders lived by their different customs and provided the military. The exact means by which the barbarian ‘guests’ were supported is unclear. Did they own a share of the land? Or have a share of its profits? Perhaps different modes of accommodation were developed in different kingdoms.5 But it is clear that the kings stood at the head of these societies, tribal leaders and Roman magistrates combined, issuing law and distributing favours to all their subjects. The Visigothic kingdom in Spain preserved elements of this fusion until it was swept away by the Arab conquests in the early eighth century.

At Constantinople, too, some must have taken comfort in the fact that barbarian kings sometimes claimed to rule as subordinates of the emperor and put the eastern emperors’ heads on their coinage. But in practice those emperors had no influence over their appointment, or how they ruled. Mostly they had enough to worry about defending their territory against raids from across the Danube or war with Persia. But fragmentation had been reversed before, and it is not surprising that the eastern emperors did not immediately give up on the west. Most dramatic of all interventions were those of Justinian in the middle of the sixth century. Justinian ruled 527–65 and his reign is exceptionally well documented, most of all by the historical works of Procopius, who produced not only accounts of the emperor’s wars of reconquest and his building activities, but also of the intrigues at court.6 The great volume of legislation Justinian produced and had codified, and an account of the administration of the empire by one of his praetorian prefects, John the Lydian, together offer a vivid picture of the sixth-century empire.7 Justinian’s generals succeeded in recapturing North Africa from the Vandals in 533, gaining control of Sicily and much of Italy from the Ostrogoths by 540, and finally creating a beachhead in Visigothic Spain in 551. But the wars in Italy, which were prolonged until 561, exhausted the empire and made impossible the kind of cohabitation between Romans and Goths created by kings like Theoderic and senators like Cassiodorus. The reconquest of Italy was short-lived: in 568 the peninsula was invaded once again, this time by the Lombards.

Finally the empire collapsed back on itself, and retrenched, not on Rome, of course, but on Byzantium.8 Retrenchment did not only mean shrinkage: the fundamental economic and administrative structures of the empire were in the process remodelled. Even at the beginning of the eighth century, when everything south of Anatolia was lost, and Arab invaders were crossing into Spain; when the Lombards had swept away most of Justinian’s gains in Italy; and much of the Balkans was effectively outside the control of the emperors, Constantinople remained a spectacular city. But it was in some senses now the only real city in a miniature Christian empire stretched around the Aegean Sea. Its complex administrative and legal systems remained characteristically Roman long after Latin had disappeared from everyday usage, and the ceremonials and intrigues of the palace were as elaborate as ever.9 As the power of the Franks grew from the eighth century onwards, Byzantium was the only possible model for imitation, and the city still offered a fascinating spectacle to the descendants of western barbarians as late as the eleventh century, when crusading brought the societies into yet another relationship. The three heirs of Rome—as western Christendom, Islam, and Byzantium have been aptly called10 —were the products of fragmentation, invasion, and shrinkage. Each part had its own imperial destiny and dreams, but the story of Rome’s empire ends here.


Fig. 23. A mosaic portraying the Emperor Justinian from San Vitale, Ravenna

Continuities in the Long Term

The detailed political history of the sixth and seventh centuries does not offer an explanation of the end of the Roman Empire. Those who wrote that history—whether chroniclers of disasters like Zosimus, or ambivalent recorders of imperial success like Procopius—had no real sense of the big picture. Christian historiography told its own stories, in some of which political changes hardly signified: the Church marched on as earthly kingdoms came and went. Otherwise political history took the familiar Roman form of an alternation between more and less successful emperors. Social, economic, and other trends were almost invisible from their perspective on the ground. As a result, the successes of Justinian in the sixth century, the disasters of the reigns of Maurice and Phokas that followed, and the triumphs of Heraclius against the Persians in the early seventh century do not explain the structural transformation of the empire. I shall not try to summarize those narratives here.

During the course of this book, I have drawn attention to a number of contexts that made the success of the Roman Empire possible. The Mediterranean basin offered a corridor within which communication was relatively easy. The Sahara and the Atlantic together provided boundaries that, once reached, did not really need to be defended. The Iron Age civilizations of the Mediterranean world and its hinterlands produced sufficient demographic and agricultural surpluses to support the rise of cities and states, even given the technological limits of antiquity. Climatic conditions, broadly similar to those we experience today, had perhaps contributed to the general prosperity of the period, making it easier for peasant cultivators to produce the surpluses on which states and empires depended.

Little of this had changed by the seventh century AD. Plagues had occasionally ravaged the empire. Epidemics of different kinds had moved back and forward between the more densely populated (and so urbanized) portions of the Old World since at least the middle of the last millennium BC. But it is likely that this had been happening every so often since the first domestications of animals and the appearance of the first towns. The disease pools of Eurasia had been loosely connected by trade routes and urban systems from the Neolithic. Mediterranean plagues tended to come from the east, as Chinese ones did from the west.11 Literary sources—our only evidence—record terrifying epidemics in the reign of Marcus Aurelius, in the middle of the third century AD, and again in the reign of Justinian. But it is very difficult on the basis of contemporary testimony alone to assess either the severity of these episodes, or their long-term impact on the economy or on population levels. The question of climatic change is equally difficult. Even minor changes in the mean temperature can have dramatic impacts on the fertility of marginal areas. Sea level rises are recorded in late antiquity in some areas while dendro-chronological (tree-ring) data has been taken to suggest a slight drop in fertility. But it is difficult to make close connections between changes at this scale and historical questions, such as the relative success of the empire in resisting incoming groups in different periods. Few historians today subscribe to either an epidemiological or a climatic explanation for the collapse of Roman power, and few believe in a dramatic collapse in the population of the empire. But research is moving fast in these areas, and the balance of probabilities may well change.

If the external environment of the Roman Empire were broadly unchanged, then the crucial variables must lie among the institutions and routines out of which Roman rule had first been constructed and later sustained. I have emphasized the use made of the family, slavery, and the city; the community of interest engineered between local and imperial elites; and the power of ideological productions, including those associated with state cults, to capture the imagination of Rome’s other subjects. None of these had remained fossilized over the seven centuries that separated Polybius from Zosimus. But many features of Roman society remained recognizable.

Continuities are most clear at the lowest level of organization, the family and slavery, linked as ever to the primitive conditions of economic production on which the empire rested. Cassiodorus’ writings and the legislation of Justinian show us how vital some of these most basic building blocks of empire remained in the sixth century. Roman styles of family life were perhaps more widespread than ever before, disseminated by the spread of citizenship, the moderate extension of education in late antiquity, and the cultural convergence of the empire’s elites. Notions of slavery and the family that would have been recognizable to Cicero remained enshrined at the heart of Roman and barbarian law codes alike. Probably the numerical balance between slaves and free had shifted very slightly. But where records are good, as in late antique Egypt, there is no sign of a dramatic change in social structure.12 Transformation, rather than crisis, is the preferred term among scholars working on these subjects.

Fundamental change is much more evident at what we might term higher levels of organization, that is in relation to the city, local, and imperial elites and the government of the empire itself. The idea that collapse often occurs through the shedding of the highest levels of social complexity perhaps has some application here.13 At the highest level, the power and authority of the emperor, there was clearly enormous change as the empire fragmented, for all it was mystified by traditionalism and ritual.14 Roman scholars were, to some extent, able to reproduce their accustomed lifestyles in the chaos of Ostrogothic Italy or under the increasingly centralized power of Justinianic Constantinople. Rural lifestyles were least affected. But the picture looks different if we focus attention on that level of imperial society represented by cities, landowning elites, and the fiscal systems through which they had been linked ever since the Roman Empire was transformed from conquest state to tributary empire.

Cities and their Rulers

The early empire rested on a collusion of interests between the propertied classes of Rome and their counterparts in Italy and the provinces. Many of these elites were already installed within a world of city-states, whether of Greek, Punic, Etruscan, or other origin. Others were drawn into that mode of aristocracy, and shaped in their image. Across the western and northern provinces, in interior Spain and North Africa and Anatolia, in Syria and eventually even in Egypt, cities on the classical model were established. Those cities provided the emperors with their most fundamental instrument of government. The local property classes that ruled them kept order and collected taxes, and in return the empire preserved and enhanced their power over other members of their societies.

Today, Roman cities evoke images of temples and basilicas, theatres and bathhouses, grand amphitheatres and enormous circuses, the representative highlights of a monumentality that, with some variations, came to characterize the early Roman Empire wherever it could be afforded.15 Monuments of this kind represented a commitment—financial and moral—on the part of the rich to a particular urban version of civilization. That civilization included a public style of politics and social life, and a festival culture that alluded to the past, celebrated the present, and was designed to ensure the future.16 The remains of those monuments are the physical traces of urban societies, the hard fossils from which the ephemeral material of human life and public rhetoric has since withered away.

Sixth-century rulers were as spellbound as we are by these traces of urban civilization. But by their day, they were no more than traces in most parts of the empire. Almost all the great monuments of provincial cities were built before the middle of the third century AD: even maintaining them was a concern for rulers of all kinds.17 The letter quoted at the head of this chapter was penned by Cassiodorus for the Gothic king Athalaric who was keen to encourage the propertied classes to return to their notional urban bases. Procopius wrote a long account of Justinian’s building works, but when On Buildings is examined closely we see the emperor’s attention was focused almost exclusively on churches and fortifications. When he did found the city of Justiniana Prima at his birthplace in Thrace, it covered around 7 hectares (around 17 acres): early imperial cities often extended well over 100 hectares (just under 250 acres). Already in Italy and much of the west, the propertied classes had moved out to their grand estates hundreds of years before. Urban contraction was most dramatic in the northern provinces, where occupied areas dropped to a third by around AD 300: by the end of the fourth century some were no more than refuges, fortified strongpoints built out of pillaged monuments in the middle of vast deserted towns, in which abandoned residential quarters were gradually crumbling where they had not already been turned into gardens and fields.

That vision looks catastrophic to us. But in most areas the process of change was probably a gradual one and the product of choice not necessity. The wealthy had always had homes in both town and country, and over time they spent more time (and money) in the latter than in the former. Public building and the sponsoring of festivals in most cities dried up between AD 200 and 300. Meanwhile the villas of the fourth century display extravagant elaboration and ornamentation. Wherever the elites were absent from the cities, urban economies shrivelled up without the huge stimulus of their spending and that of their slaves, freedmen, and clients and without the support of their occasional benefactions.

Charting and explaining the collapse of classical urbanism has been a major research priority for archaeologists and for historians of late antiquity.18 One clear finding is that there were exceptions to this picture, but they are not where we might have expected them. Rome, for example, underwent dramatic population decline. Estimates for the age of Augustus are around one million, by the early fifth century it was about a third of that, and when Justinian’s armies recaptured it from the Gothic kings in 536 it was around 80,000. The decline set in far too early to be explained by the Gothic wars or even the fall of the west. On the other hand a small number of cities show evidence for building of private housing and extensive trade well into the fifth and sometimes the sixth centuries. Marseilles and Carthage, Ephesus, Alexandria, and Caesarea are particularly well studied: all were, as it happens, port cities.19 This pattern is superimposed on some broad regional variation that can be (crudely) summarized as follows. Britain, Germany, and northern Gaul experienced earlier and more severe urban contraction than anywhere else, while Syria and western Asia Minor seem to have sustained urban styles of life longest, with clear continuity in Syria into the period of Islamic rule. Spanish cities were transformed during the fourth century, insofar as Christian building replacing older monuments is concerned, but there is little third-century construction of public monuments.20 Many African cities do well into the fourth century and later, but others do not.21Urbanism generally did not flourish in the Balkans, but in much of the interior cities had never been very large. Egypt had no catastrophic decline, but temple building declined from the third century, some time before churches begin to appear. Many classical cities had their afterlives, at least as places invested with memories. Many had been built on key sites in communication nodes; centuries of road building and port construction had only emphasized these advantages. Bishoprics were also based on the urban framework of the second century. Many towns survived to the Middle Ages only as wall circuits enclosing churches, and in a few cases the palaces of barbarian kings. Otherwise, the physical cities crumbled or were absorbed. Temples naturally found fewer sponsors after Constantine and some were physically dismantled, but many became churches. Aqueducts functioned for surprisingly long periods after the end of their construction. Shops, stalls, and markets encroached on the great colonnades and public squares of Syrian cities during the sixth century.22

It is still difficult to sum up this picture, let alone explain it in a way that is completely satisfying. But a few trends can be separated out. First, the rich stopped building public monuments and endowing money virtually everywhere before the end of the third century: where new building is attested in the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries it generally comprises fortifications, churches, and private mansions. Second, even after elites had transferred their expenditure from public to private, they varied considerably from region to region in how far they chose to live in or near cities. Third, some impoverishment of part of the landowning classes is certain: at least some of this was due to increased burdens imposed by the state, at the same time as more members of local elites were able to escape financial obligations by joining the imperial bureaucracy or indeed the Church.23 Fourth, civic institutions collapsed despite efforts made by various emperors to compel local elites to maintain them: their role was taken over by imperial counts and governors, bishops, and groups of first citizens.24 Fifth, notwithstanding these trends, a small number of port cities seem to have thrived connecting densely farmed landscapes, like those of Egypt, Syria, and North Africa, to distant consumers. Sixth, responsibility for these changes cannot be laid at the door of environmental change or any other external factor: the only plausible culprits are the propertied classes and the empire, and they were certainly not working together.

Empire, Aristocracy, and the Crisis

Not all empires relied on an urban infrastructure. Romans did not exactly choose this course: the Mediterranean urban system long pre-dated Rome’s rise to power, and structured the social and political space they expanded into. Even so, cities and civic elites only really became central to the running of the empire in the late Republic, after the shortcomings of other mechanisms—such as unequal alliances, client kings, tax farming, informal hegemony—had been revealed. Pompey and Caesar had laid the groundwork, and Augustus had generalized the system.

But since then the empire had experienced a combination of incremental and catastrophic changes. Incremental changes included the gradual expansion of bureaucracy; the development of the court as a governing institution in its own right; and the emergence within the propertied classes of a group of families of exceptional wealth. Catastrophic changes included the new monetary, fiscal, and governmental systems set up by Diocletian and Constantine. The bureaucracy run by the praetorian prefects and from the early fourth century by the magister officiorum (the same position that Cassiodorus had held at the court of Theodoric the Ostrogoth) was much larger than its early imperial counterpart, and it assumed fiscal, juridical, and organizational functions that had been performed before either by cities as institutions or by aristocrats in the imperial service. Unsurprisingly the emperors became less and less concerned to require members of the local elites—called curiales in the west and bouleutai in the east—to carry out their civic obligations if they would prefer to join the imperial service. Squeezed on the one hand by exemptions and on the other by wealth accumulation that reduced the number of families who could be asked to supply magistrates, some cities clearly ran into problems. Yet the fact that other cities seem to have survived and prospered shows this was less of a general threat and more of a possible hazard in the new order.

Attractive, then, as it might be to see Roman imperialism as a species of macro-parasitism,25 growing up within classical urban civilization before killing off its host (and so itself), that story is too simple. Not only does it not explain all the variation between the fates of different cities: it makes no sense of the length of the process by which some (but not all) of the rich fell out of love with city life. An alternative narrative sees those propertied classes as the parasites, using the empire to accumulate wealth and power, and then refusing to pay their dues, with the result that the peasantries became alienated and the emperors ran out of cash to protect the ancient world from the barbarians.26 Again this is too simplistic. If some elites were indeed efficient at accumulating wealth in a smaller and smaller number of hands, they were not completely immune from the tax system in the fourth century. It is also difficult to show the peasantries of the empire were generally more disaffected in late antiquity than at other times. Finally, careful reading of the letters of Sidonius, the history of Zosimus, the erudite researches of Cassiodorus, or the passionate apologetics of Augustine and Orosius makes it difficult to reduce the attitudes and motives of the educated and wealthy to such a crude calculation of financial interest.

So if cities were not essential to ancient empires, why should Rome not have reinvented itself as a non-urban empire? The bureaucracy created in the fourth century, combined with the army, could surely raise revenue and secure peace. In a sense, this is exactly what did happen from the seventh century on, in the remnant Byzantine lands left around the Aegean. Constantinople was the only real city left, others were abandoned or became tiny market towns, and the empire was divided into districts called themata within which a single official exercised both military and civilian authority, raising locally the resources needed by the troops he commanded.27 But this system was evidently created in the aftermath of collapse. Using the language of transformation to describe what happened to the Roman Empire between AD 300 and 700 is an evasion. Measured in terms of territory, population, influence, and military power there is no doubt at all about the fact of collapse. Ancients recognized this, and so should we.

Throughout this story of empire I have emphasized moments of survival. Episodes of expansion are not rare in world history, and nor are short-lived periods of hegemony. The exclusive club that Rome joined, however, is that small number of political entities that survived their own expansion, and were able to generate new institutions, ideologies, and habits. Successful empires are sustained by long-term relationships with other social entities with which they are in some senses symbiotic. The success of the Roman Empire rested on the synergies it engineered between imperialism and aristocracy; imperialism and slavery; imperialism and the family; imperialism and the city; and imperialism and civilization. Those relationships were not immutable: during the symbioses each set of partners modified the other. Yet they were not very unstable either. The Romans’ own list of ‘crises survived’ might include the Gallic sack, the Conflict of the Orders, Hannibal and Cannae, the Social War, the civil wars, and a string of tyrannical emperors up until the anarchy of the third century. I have emphasized a slightly different set of key moments in the evolution of the empire: but in each case a new set of institutions emerged. From the third century AD on there are signs that each successive version of empire was in some respects less successful than its predecessors. During late antiquity the symbioses with the classical city and with the propertied classes grew weaker. That only mattered because what replaced them did not work so well.

Emperors seem to have realized this, since the pace of innovation did not let up. Attempts were made to remodel the aristocracies of the empire, making them more pliable and more useful. New titles were devised for senior courtiers, the Senate of Constantinople was treated with respect, and great ceremonies were orchestrated to draw in the masses. Positions were opened up in the imperial bureaucracy, and then actually sold to those who could afford them. Once in office, bureaucrats were allowed to charge bribes worth many times their notional salaries. Justinian tried to rally his subjects around a Christian faith; and worked as hard as Constantine had to unify that faith. He emphasized a single legal system, and with it traditional moral and martial values. His reconquest of the west and his great campaigns of church building won support. But an ideology that required constant success was no support when times were hard. Military failures and payments to the barbarians undermined the reputations of some emperors. Christianity was a less effective imperial ideology than had been the traditional state cults, partly because of the chronic tendency to schism and heresy, partly because it conferred an independent authority on religious leaders, such as the bishops of Rome. During the sixth century one could be a Christian without being a subject of the emperor, and a Roman living under a barbarian king. Justinian was not welcomed with open arms throughout the west, and even at the end of what was by most standards a phenomenally successful reign, he was dogged by religious divisions.

The empire that emerged in the late seventh century was in some ways a hugely successful city-state. We could compare it to Rome in the early second century BC, on the eve of its expansion beyond Italy, when the scale of its territory was roughly similar. Geopolitically it was less defensible, with its long Balkan frontiers, and its exposure to the Arab invaders by land and sea. But the monuments were more impressive, and its rulers had amassed considerably more symbolic capital from their nine centuries of empire. Internal politics remained factionalized, both in the palace between rival eunuchs and in the city between circus factions. Yet it was stable in the sense that its institutions were now focused on survival rather than expansion. No one had planned contraction, but then no one had planned expansion either. Both the rise and collapse of Roman power had been generated by the internal logic of the institutions of the day.

The world around had changed, of course. Christianity and Islam now set the agenda in ways that the polytheisms of an earlier age had never done. A clear sign that the emperors were not themselves to blame for contraction, and that Roman institutions were not the central problem, is that no other empires were created in the gap left by Rome. During the second century BC a number of regional powers competed for hegemony, Carthage and Rome in the west, the Seleucids, Ptolemies, and Antigonids in the east, and beyond them the Parthians. The failure of one opened up opportunities for the others. When the Parthians’ power shrank, the Sassanians grew to replace them. Similar dynamics can be observed earlier in the Near East and later in pre-Columbian Mesoamerica. But that did not happen in the early Middle Ages of the Old World. Theoderic played at being king of Rome, but could not convert his symbolic power into meaningful overlordship of the other western kingdoms. The Carolingian empire was a more fragile and tenuous entity than its Roman model. So, in a different way, was the power of the caliphs. It is as if the age of empire was over. Unless the case for some general and long-lasting environmental disaster can be substantiated, the most likely factor making the world less receptive to imperial projects must be the emergence of the new universal religions of late antiquity.28 Christianity and Islam did not destroy the Roman Empire, but the world they introduced was one less friendly to the great political empires of antiquity.

Further Reading

Michael Maas’s Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian (Cambridge, 2005) surpasses the limits of the genre, to present a new portrait of the age. Fundamental to the study of the period are the various works of Procopius of Caesarea. Averil Cameron’sProcopius and the Sixth Century (London, 1985) is the best introduction. Some of her many important papers on the sixth and seventh centuries are gathered in Continuity and Change in Sixth-Century Byzantium (London, 1981) and Changing Cultures in Early Byzantium (Aldershot, 1996). For the west, Julia Smith’s Europe after Rome (Oxford, 2005) presents an original and lucid new synthesis.

The transformation of the ancient urban system has been the focus of much work. Two very useful collections are John Rich’s City in Late Antiquity (London, 1992) and Neil Christie and Simon Loseby’s Towns in Transition (Aldershot, 1996). Wolf Liebeschuetz’s Decline and Fall of the Ancient City (Oxford, 2001) is the best synthesis: it is worth reading it alongside Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (Oxford, 2005). For the city of Rome see William Harris’s collection The Transformations ofUrbs Roma in Late Antiquity (Portsmouth, RI, 1999) and Early Medieval Rome and the Christian West (Leiden, 2000) edited by Julia Smith.

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