Ancient History & Civilisation





MILES FROM BLOODY ANYWHERE, even in specifically Serbian terms, there is a narrow plateau delineated by the step-sided valleys of two small rivers. The plateau is located on neither of the main thoroughfares which have channelled traffic through this part of the Balkans since time immemorial: the Moravia–Vardar corridor, and the passage from ancient Naissus (modern Nis) to Scupi (modern Skopje). These were the two roads that the Pannonian Goths had flooded with their wagons when making that fateful march south into East Roman territory. Some agriculture is possible in the vicinity, but the climate and soil around the plateau have never supported a very dense population.

Despite these drawbacks, the authorities in Constantinople built a brand-new and thoroughly monumental city on the top of it in the middle of the sixth century, starting within a decade of Theoderic’s death in Ravenna. Excavations are still under way, now in the hands of a combined French and Serbian team, but the findings so far are already extraordinary. The plateau’s north-western extremity was occupied by the city’s final redoubt, its acropolis, surrounded by a massive rampart made irregular by the terrain and studded with five huge towers and just the one gate (Figure 5). Within, a massive episcopal complex (basilica, baptistery and audience hall) faced an equally monumental seat of secular authority across a colonnaded square. This redoubt was surrounded by another set of walls marking off five hectares or thereabouts of the upper town, which sat comfortably behind two sets of fortified gates. Here, the Romans constructed still more churches, arcaded streets and a huge granary, together with several rich residences and some of the usual paraphernalia of water management in the ancient world, including a water tower, without which it would be impossible ever to have such a concentrated population in this pretty arid part of the world. Outside, the lower town encompassed a further three hectares, and excavations have so far thrown up still more churches, a huge water tank, and two massive bath blocks.


No economic, administrative, religious or strategic necessity, or even logic, generated this mighty exercise in civil engineering. What it is, in fact, is a monument to one overmighty individual: the emperor Justinian I, nephew of that Justin whose promotion solved the succession crisis which followed the death of Anastasius, and for whose sake Theoderic had brokered the end of the Acacian schism. Our plateau hosted the city of Justiniana Prima – Caricingrad is its modern designation – which was built for no reason other than to commemorate the obscure birthplace – nearby it seems, not actually on the plateau – of one of history’s great egos. And not only did a city blossom here from nowhere, but secular and ecclesiastical geography was rearranged around it. A law of 535 declared the emperor’s intention to transfer to Justiniana Prima the seat of the prefecture of Illyricum (responsible for governing all the western Balkans and Greece) from the ancient city of Thessalonica, while the city’s new bishop was given metropolitan rights to become the senior prelate of the entire northern Balkans.1

The remains of Caricingrad make an altogether suitable monument for one of the most extraordinary characters from the entirety of Roman imperial history. Justinian is pretty well known to the general public, but not as well known as he would have been had he lived in the first century AD, say, and he is certainly worth his place alongside the Caligulas, Neros and Claudiuses who have such a hold on the imagination. He came to the throne in 527, when Theoderic’s body was barely cold in the ground, and has gone down among historians as one of the most visionary – if perhaps also misguided – Roman emperors ever to have lived. For many, he was the one ruler of Constantinople after 476 who was serious about wanting to restore the might of Rome to the full heights of its ancient glory. He came to the throne, it is often claimed, with a burning desire to reconquer the lost provinces of the Roman West, and then set about doing precisely that, while occupying his more idle moments with a complete reform of the entire corpus of Roman law. But if, at the end of his life, Roman borders had been massively advanced, and a revised text of Roman law produced which was to have a massive influence on medieval and early modern Europe, it is equally a commonplace that, like any proper anti-hero, Justinian’s legacy to his successors was a profoundly poisoned chalice. Within two normal lifespans of his death, East Rome was to lose not only the majority of what he conquered, but also most of the rest of its territory besides, and find itself plunged into the deepest of political, economic and even ideological crises as it struggled to cope with direst defeat.

Not the least cause of all the confusion surrounding his reputation is the astonishingly inconsistent picture of Justinian that emerges from the works of the greatest historian of his era: a lawyer from the city of Caesarea, in what is now Israel, by the name of Procopius. His home town was a prosperous port city in the late antique period, much of which is in the process of being opened up in large-scale excavations, not least of the harbour area, where a generation of marine archaeologists now have been enjoying their summers swimming in the warm waters of the eastern Mediterranean. Procopius doesn’t give us much specific information about his own background, but he clearly belonged to the gentry landowning class, since his works show that he had enjoyed the extensive education in classical Greek language and literature which was the mark of this class and above in the later empire, and – being entirely private – was affordable only to them. Since he appears in his own writings as an assessor – legal adviser – to Justinian’s most famous general, Belisarius, he would then appear to have moved on to legal studies, the costs of which again confirm the kind of privileged background from which he came. It was Belisarius, with Procopius in tow, who led first Justinian’s conquest of Vandal Africa in 533, and then the initial phases of the war in Italy, whose successes led Cassiodorus to his inexorable date with a Constantinopolitan destiny in the later 530s.


Procopius’ pen (probably his voice, since it was normal to dictate) has left us three separate works. By far the longest is a narrative history of Justinian’s wars focusing on the years 527 to 552/3, constructed on a generous scale. No one – not even Procopius himself – has ever thought it a perfectly sufficient account of Justinian’s reign, and it was written according to the conventions governing this type of history in the late Roman period. This gives it a number of peculiarities. You were not allowed to use any ‘modern’ vocabulary – officially anything not sanctified by the founding Greek grammarians of the classical period – which meant finding, amongst other matters, alternative ways of describing Christian bishops, priests and monks, since none of these had existed back in fourth- and fifth-century BC Athens. Introductory digressions designed to amuse and show off learning, rather than necessarily to educate, were also de rigueur before you plunged into the central narrative progression. Subject matter, too, was strictly prescribed – no new-fangled Christianity again, for instance, but rather a ruthless focus on military and diplomatic history – and it had become customary if not quite essential for the author to have participated personally in some of the events, both to provide extra interest and a kind of guarantee that his text contained the truth.2 Procopius’ war narrative provides a huge amount of detailed information which no one has ever provided serious reason to doubt. Indeed, so vast is the body of data that, unless you work really hard, there is a tendency for any history of Justinian’s reign to consist merely of writing out Procopius in your own words with a little extra comment.

Equally dense, in its own way, is Procopius’ second work – normally known in English as Buildings – dealing in four lengthy books with the construction works authorized by the emperor. Again, there’s lots of information, but also some potentially severe problems. For one thing, Procopius is – at least to modern tastes – excessively adulatory. In this work, the emperor is everything that imperial propaganda suggested that he ought to be. Divinely ordained, he is holy and pious, and his many and varied construction works both ornament and safeguard the empire. Historians have long been concerned about the sheer scale of the alleged activity. Some of it is unproblematic. Book 1 focuses on Constantinople – Istanbul as is – and some of Justinian’s structures are still there, not least the great Church of Hagia Sophia, which is pretty much everything Procopius wrote it up to be (even if the dome had to be remodelled later in the reign when the original collapsed in the fierce earthquake of 558). But in Book 3 and especially Book 4, Procopius’ originally precise and varied accounts give way to what are essentially lists, and very long lists too, raising doubts that so many structures could ever really have been built. Indeed, historians being the counter-suggestive animals they are, it became something of a trend in the 1980s to argue that much of what Procopius was attributing to Justinian had in fact been built in the reign of his predecessor Anastasius. This was based above all on an argument about the key Persian frontier fortress of Dara (of which more in the next chapter), where Procopius had originally been stationed with Belisarius, and of which he gives a long and highly specific account of what Justinian was supposed to have constructed. For the most part, it came to be claimed, this was just nonsense, and pretty much everything had in fact been built by Anastasius, who certainly started fortifying the site. And if Procopius could be so deeply wrong about somewhere he had actually been, why should we believe a word he has to say about countless other constructions in tracts of territory whose air he had never once breathed?

On balance, thankfully, we need not be quite so pessimistic. Anastasius did build much of what you can still see at Dara if you’re minded to go there, but the very specific things Procopius describes Justinian doing are also there, and do look like a secondary phase of construction: some of them, indeed, while now gone, are visible in the old black and white photos taken by Gertrude Bell and others in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And, more generally, there is a comfortable coincidence between Procopius’ account of Caricingrad, and what the archaeologists have been unearthing. In short, substantial exaggeration but not complete fabrication seems to have been the order of Procopius’ day in Buildings. While Justinian was certainly happy to take the credit for structures finished in his reign, even if started by Anastasius, no one has yet really caught Procopius with his hand in the till, attributing something specifically to Justinian which very definitely either was never there at all, or was equally definitely built by someone else. Nauseatingly sycophantic as the Buildings is, its overall point is not completely mendacious. Justinian did build a huge number of buildings and those where Procopius provides specific details probably were very much as recorded.3

The key problem with Procopius’ account of the reign of Justinian is posed neither by the Wars nor the Buildings, but by his third and shortest work, the Anekdota, or, as it’s usually called in English, the Secret History. A copy of this text was known to a late tenth-century Byzantine encyclopaedist, but then it disappeared from view until a solitary manuscript was discovered in the Vatican Library and published at Lyons in 1623. But getting hold of the text in the first place was only a minor irritant. Much more troublesome are its contents. For where the Wars and even – in a kind of way – the Buildings fall into recognizable genres of ancient literature – classicizing history and panegyric respectively – so that we know essentially how to read them, the Secret Historydoes not. What it says also lobs the proverbial cat among the feathered friends in terms of potentially undermining absolutely everything else Procopius has to say in his other, much longer works.

The problem posed by the Secret History – if problem it be; in fact, the whole thing is a hugely intriguing and in the end highly entertaining puzzle – comes in several interlocking layers. On the one hand, the work’s preface tells us exactly why Procopius wrote it. We are in the very early 550s, and he had already written and published all but the final book of the Wars. But, he reports:

In the case of many of the events described in that previous narrative, I was compelled to conceal the causes which led up to them. It will therefore be necessary for me to disclose in this book, not only those things which have thus far remained undivulged, but also the causes of those occurrences which have already been described.4

Afraid of ‘a most cruel death’ and of being discovered in flagrante by the emperor’s ‘multitudes of spies’, Procopius had produced only a highly sanitized version of the wars of conquest. Now he promises to tell us the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

So far so good, but then you read on and find out exactly what Procopius’ ‘truth’ consists of. First of all, he trashes his former employer, the general Belisarius, and his wife Antonina, but the full weight of fire is withheld for the emperor Justinian himself, and his wife, the empress Theodora. First Justinian:

This man was both an evil-doer and easily led into evil, the sort of a person whom they call a moral pervert, never of his own accord speaking the truth to those with whom he conversed, but having a deceitful and crafty intent behind every word and action … [He] was insincere, crafty, hypocritical, dissembling his anger, double-dealing, clever, a perfect artist in acting out an opinion which he pretended to hold, and even able to produce tears … And to sum up the whole matter, he neither had any money himself, nor would he allow anyone else in the world to have it, as though he were not a victim of avarice, but simply consumed by envy of those who possessed money. Consequently he lightly banished wealth from the Roman world and became the creator of poverty for all.5

Theodora also left a lot to be desired, if not, it seems, to the imagination:

As soon as she came of age and was at last mature, she joined the women of the stage and straightaway became a prostitute of the sort whom men of ancient times used to call the ‘infantry’. For she was neither a flute-player nor a harpist, no, she had not even acquired skill in the dance, but she sold her beauty to those who chanced to come along.

And in Procopius’ view it was not just economic necessity which drove Theodora on:

There never was anyone who was such a slave to pleasure in all forms; for many a time she would go to a feast with ten youths or even more, all of exceptional bodily vigour who had great expertise in fornication, and she would lie with all her banquet companions the whole night long, and when they were all too exhausted to go on, she would go to their attendants, perhaps thirty in number, and pair off with each one of them.

She used to complain that nature had not endowed her with still more ways of enjoying sexual pleasure, and that’s not even mentioning her famous stage act involving chickens, grains of barley and such private parts as she did have, although, according to Procopius, private is about the last thing they actually were. At the same time, she was massively strong-willed and extremely clever, and by mind and body succeeded in capturing the heart of Justinian, who even had the law changed so that he could marry her.6

Together, they made perfect partners in crime. Each was as greedy as the other, and as intolerant of any opposition to their will, so they combined to ruin everyone with whom they came into contact, and by this means the empire as a whole. Nor was this outcome purely the result of human folly. For Justinian’s mother confessed at one point:

When she was about to conceive him, a demon visited her; he was invisible but affected her with a certain impression that he was there with her as a man having intercourse with a woman and then disappeared as in a dream. And some of those who were present with the emperor at very late hours of the night … asserted that he would rise suddenly from the imperial throne and walk up and down there (indeed he was never accustomed to remain seated for long), and the head of Justinian would disappear suddenly, but the rest of his body seemed to keep making these same long circuits … And another person said that he stood beside [Justinian], sat and suddenly saw that his face had become like featureless flesh, for neither eyebrows nor eyes were in their proper place.

The identification was finally confirmed by a Holy Man who came to Constantinople for an imperial audience, but couldn’t go into the throne room because he saw the Prince of the Demons sitting there instead of the emperor. And it turned out that the Devil had long since come to a pact with Theodora too, that, with him as her lover, she would never again want for money.7 So there we have it. The real truth about why things happened as they did in Justinian’s reign. When The Exorcist meets Deep Throat, with nothing but avarice in mind, how could the outcome be anything other than disastrous for humankind?

The problem all this poses for the general credibility of Procopius on Justinian is straightforward. When the same author tells you in Buildings that on the one hand the emperor was God-appointed, righteous and pretty much infallible – he even received messages from God via a dream as to how to solve a pressing architectural problem in the construction of Hagia Sophia – but on the other that he’s an Omen prequel, it’s not immediately obvious what to think. How are we to reconcile the extraordinary juxtaposition of Anekdota’s claims to be revealing the full and final truth about the regime with the pornographic portrayal of Theodora and its entirely diabolical Justinian? To my mind there’s a host of clues that Procopius is playing with his readers in Anekdota – not that he doesn’t mean what he says in vilifying the regime, but in the sense that neither does he expect us to accept its contents as ‘truth’ in a straightforwardly literal sense. One is the vivid pornography of the Theodora passage. The response of at least 95 per cent of all the students I’ve taught in the last twenty-five years, especially to all the chickens, has been to laugh (with just a few from very sheltered backgrounds looking a bit shocked). It’s always a little dangerous to judge the cultural values of another time and place, but I’m extremely confident here that laughter is precisely the response Procopius was after. This doesn’t mean that the portrayal may not have a serious purpose; ridicule is one of the most effective strategies for cutting enemies down to size. And, in Theodora’s case, the portrayal does an A1 job of turning her into the exact mirror image of what imperial propaganda demanded that she ought to be. Instead of the modestly virtuous, divinely chosen consort of her emperor, she is a greedy and wilful nympho, with Procopius taking particular delight in all the ironies surrounding her establishment in Constantinople of a home for reformed prostitutes.8

The same is also true of the Anekdota’s portrayal of Justinian. Instead of a God-chosen emperor, the empire was in fact being run by the Devil’s own child. And here too, I’m confident that we’re meant to laugh. The headless figure and dissolving face descriptions are both pretty funny and all surrounded by careful verbal formulations if you look closely, that suggest we’re not meant to be thinking in terms of literal truth: ‘seemed’, ‘asserted’ and ‘said’ litter the account. The same is even more true of the outrageous cock and bull story with which Procopius surrounds his report of what Justinian actually looked like.

He was neither tall in stature nor particularly short, but of a medium height, yet not thin but slightly fleshy, and his face was round and not uncomely; for his complexion remained ruddy even after two days of fasting. But that I may describe his appearance as a whole in few words, I would say that he resembled Domitian, son of Vespasian, very closely.

The fact that Procopius could know this, however, was not straightforward. For Domitian was the ultimate bogeyman, the very worst imperial tyrant thrown up in the entirety of Roman imperial history, whose reputation in the ancient world was much worse than Caligula and Nero who are better known to modern audiences. Domitian’s reputation was so bad, Procopius tells us, that not only did the populace literally tear his body to pieces, but, after his death, the Senate ordered the destruction of all his statues. So how did Procopius know that Justinian looked just like Domitian?

[Domitian’s wife], collecting the flesh of Domitian, and putting the pieces accurately together and fitting them one to the other, sewed up the whole body; then, displaying it to the sculptors, she bade them represent in a bronze statue the fate which had befallen her husband … [she] set it up in the street leading to the Capitol … and it shows both the features and fate of Domitian even to the present.

If you’re not laughing yet, I really think you should be. The whole story is total nonsense, and, you’ll note, the said statue is located safely far away in Rome when Procopius is writing for an audience in Constantinople, so no one could check. Again, we’re in the brilliant world of Procopius’ imagination; the whole artifice is just a clever way for him to draw a parallel between Justinian and the worst tyrant in imperial history. What we’re dealing with in the Anekdota, in other words, is high quality political satire, and there are other late Roman examples where precisely his chosen routes – sexuality and demonization – were used to belittle and hence destroy their targets’ credibility.9

All this offers us two broad conclusions about the great historian of Justinian’s age: one more comforting, the other rather less so. On the one hand, I’m pretty confident that we can know broadly what Procopius thought about the regime of Justinian and its achievements. Like many other East Romans, I suspect, the first victory in North Africa in 533–4 inspired a sense of triumph, which may even have provided the initial impetus to his historical ambitions, since he was profoundly involved in the action as Belisarius’ aide. But if so, enthusiasm quickly gave way to profound disenchantment as subsequent and consequent wars dragged on through the 540s, until, by c.550 at the absolute latest, he was implacably and consistently hostile towards the regime and all its works: there being no need to see Buildings as anything more than a perhaps commissioned panegyric.

Rather less comforting is the image of the clever and playful Procopius which emerges so starkly from Anekdota. This might seem paradoxical, but it’s not. The more clever the writer, especially an extremely well-informed one like Procopius, then the more difficult it is to escape from the world view that they have so artfully constructed. With writers in the ancient rhetorical tradition – and history was viewed as a branch of rhetoric – this is a particular problem because they were always encoding into their writings cross-references to the ancient authorities in which both they and their potential audience had been educated. Sometimes these were just verbal reminiscences with no particular meaning, reflecting the fact that particularly apt phrases tended to get memorized and handed on: a bit like the astonishing number of proverbs that are in Hamlet, that you pick up from elsewhere long before you’ve ever seen or read the play. But cross-references could also be used to encode extra layers of meaning, for instance where an author provided one half of a well-known quotation in his text, and when the reader added the other half it twists or even subverts the ostensible meaning of the passage (like a more sophisticated version of the game of adding ‘not’ to the end of positive statements – ‘Justinian was a holy and divinely appointed emperor: not’, which is a pretty good summary of Anekdota). The trouble with ancient rhetorically trained authors like Procopius is that they spent the best part of a decade in their teens trawling through ancient literature under professional guidance, whereas most of us now do not. Being totally sure that you’ve garnered every last grain of such an author’s meaning is extremely difficult, therefore, and the cleverer your author, the more difficult it is to know. As I write this, the jury, it seems to me, is still considering its verdict on Procopius. That he is a clever and artful writer seems inescapable. But exactly how clever? The case has recently been made that he was actually extremely clever, and constructed a philosophically based critique of Justinian’s regime for a group of like-minded analysts in sixth-century Constantinople, rather than merely lampooning out of an overarching sense of disgust. But while this case can certainly be constructed from Procopius’ works, it might be adding an unwarranted final level of depth to the author’s own intentions, and independent evidence for the existence of the supposed audience is lacking, so the jury is still out.10

Fortunately, however, we do have a second body of material to work with. For alongside the wars of conquest explored by Procopius, Justinian’s reign possesses arguably even greater significance for its total recodification of Roman law. The legal material is by its very nature more intractable than the standard type of historical narrative produced by Procopius, and hence, despite or perhaps because of its bulk, doesn’t get discussed in nearly as much detail. Looked at from the right direction, however, it throws a bright and thankfully non-Procopian shaft of light on to the regime of Justinian: in particular its earliest years.


Justinian’s reform of late Roman law would prove to be an epochal moment for much of the European land mass. It wasn’t at the time, since none of the former Roman West was then controlled from Constantinople, and some other parts of Europe had never been Roman at all, but the long-term effects of Justinian’s project could hardly have been greater. Essentially, it preserved by codification a carefully chosen selection from a thousand years of so of Roman jurisprudence. This was done in such a systematic fashion that the resulting text – the Corpus Iuris Civilis or Body of the Civil Law – provided an overall model together with numerous individual pieces of legislation for many of the developing legal systems of central and Western Europe from the medieval into the early modern periods. It was precisely thanks to Justinian, therefore, that study of Roman law remained central to many university legal courses until very recently (only being demoted from compulsory to voluntary at Oxford, for instance, in the 1990s). How Justinian’s text came to enjoy this astonishingly influential afterlife is a story that is central to the final section of this book, but none of it could have been foretold in the late 520s and early 530s when it was being created. What’s important for the moment is the nature and significance of the project at the moment of its creation.

In effect, legal reform quickly became the flagship home affairs project of Justinian’s new regime when he took sole power on the death of his uncle Justin on 1 August 527. The project came in several parts, the first of which was announced as early as 13 February 528, just six months after the new emperor’s accession. And if, as a Roman ruler, you wanted to make a huge noise about your own fitness to rule, then, in matters internal to the Roman state at least, there was no better task to throw yourself into than legal reform – for two reasons.

First – and we’ve already seen Theoderic’s response to the same point – Roman imperial state ideology had long since identified the existence of written law as the single factor which distinguished the Roman world as a higher order of divinely inspired human society, far superior to that of any known or conceivable neighbour. As Justinian himself put it in Deo Auctore (By the Authority of God), the order which set in motion the second element of reform on 15 December 530:

Nothing in any sphere is found so worthy of study as the authority of law, which sets in good order affairs both divine and human and casts out all injustice.11

Identifying written law as the key constituent of Roman superiority was a habit which descended directly from classical Greek ruminations on why their society was superior to all-comers. The Greek originals, however, had focused not just on one factor, but on several, which were all mutually reinforcing. In particular, Greek thought had laid great stress on the value of an intense education system (in a descendant of which Procopius was trained) in producing individuals of high moral sensibility, who could see the value of self-control in the face of life’s vicissitudes, and were willing, therefore, to subject their individual wills to written rules and regulations. In this system of thought, it wasn’t entirely clear whether you had already to be superior as a person before you were willing to accept written law, but the later empire’s ideology gradually dropped the other ideas to make law the undisputed centrepiece of Roman superiority, and in all the formal comparisons of civilized Roman and barbarian society (even the highly sophisticated Persians) which appear in our sources from the fifth century onwards, it is the existence of written law that marks out the former as so superior. One Roman author famously has the Visigothic king Athaulf say that he gave up on the idea of replacing the Roman Empire with a Gothic one precisely because his followers couldn’t obey written laws. Hence the best option he could come up with was to use Gothic military might to support Rome. Another author – equally famously – reduces a Roman merchant turned highly prosperous Hun to tears at the memory of the overall quality of life that written law could sustain. And, within the post-Roman West as a whole, issuing a written law code, however virtual and impractical, was tantamount to a declaration that your polity belonged to the club of civilized Christian nations.12

Why law in particular should have emerged from the cluster of older ideas to play this starring role is not central to this story, but my hunch is that the Christianization of Roman imperial ideology lies behind it. The old Greek ideology of superiority was unashamedly elitist – since the only superior individuals were fully educated ones, and since that education was private and expensive, then by definition only a few (generally male) persons could belong to the elite club of the fully human. But Christianity held that everyone – even women – had souls and could be saved, so that the old Graeco-Roman vision of superiority was far too exclusive. Dropping the rest of the ideological apparatus and concentrating instead on law overcame this problem since law and the social structures it defined gave everybody a place. Some were in positions of greater authority and power, some more humble, but everyone had a position, and this worked much better in the Christian Empire, which, after the Gospel texts, was committed to the central contention that everybody could be saved. Either way, the late imperial focus on written law as the key to Roman superiority meant that there could be no more ambitious move for any regime to make than legal reform.

The second reason for Justinian to have picked on legal reform requires a little more teasing out. It starts from the straightforward observation that reforming Roman law was, by the summer of 527, a job that certainly needed doing. When he came to the throne, the potential sources of legal authority that might be cited in court were too many and too diverse to make it easy to resolve more complex cases. Simply leaving it there, however, and concluding that the new emperor was a far-sighted ruler who introduced sweeping legal reforms for the good of his subjects is an insufficient response to what went on. To see why, we need to kick the subject a little harder.

By the sixth century (and for several centuries previously in fact), there were two main types of legal authority commonly being referred to in imperial law courts: the writings of lawyers more or less officially licensed by past emperors to give authoritative legal opinions (so-called jurisconsults), and rulings of different kinds given directly by emperors, whether in the form of official general edicts or rulings which might originally have related only to one specific case, but which made a point of potentially more general significance. Justinian’s reforms came in three tranches, and addressed themselves both to the separate problems posed by each body of material on its own, and the further overarching problem which followed when you tried to use them side by side. Of the three, the third was a piece of cake. This came at the end and took the form of producing a new introductory textbook for law students, which reflected the changes to the law generated by the other elements of the project. It also closely followed, where it could, the pre-existing manual for students, written by the third-century jurist Gaius, including about one half of this earlier work.13 But if banging out the final textbook was a relatively easy task, the labours which had preceded it had been much more onerous.

Part one of the reform, the element kick-started in February 528, set itself, first, the task of collecting new imperial legislation issued since the last such collection: the Theodosian Code of 438. This covered the period from c. AD 300 onwards. It then had to combine this new selection from ninety years of imperial legislation with the three other codes of imperial laws which already existed: that of Theodosius and two earlier codes compiled by Hermogenianus and Gregorianus in the 290s. Between them, the latter two provided a selection of imperial law dating back to the 130s. The job was undertaken by a commission of eight senior administrators-cum-politicians of high standing within the regime, and two practising barristers.

Their general working parameters were well set, since they were following models set by both the Theodosian Code and intervening initiatives to collect subsequent new legislation:

a) You started by throwing away any laws which pertained only to one particular case, identifying thereby laws of actual or potential general significance (the operative concept here was generalitas in the Latin).

b) These chosen laws were then edited, initially by throwing away much of the rhetorically self-justificatory bullshit with which emperors customarily introduced their rulings.

c) Then you separated out the various parts of any law which related to different topics, because emperors often issued composite laws covering several subjects.

d) Finally, you arranged your edited extracts under thematic chapter headings within numbered books, maintaining chronological order within the individual chapters.

This much was pretty straightforward, since the editing approach and even most of the book and chapter titles could follow the pre-existing models of the older codes. A much harder task was to decide what to keep from those three older works, and how to integrate their materials with the selection from new imperial law that the commissioners had just made.

The commission proved itself up to the task, however, and brought home the completed Code in just over a year, the new volume being formally promulgated on 7 April 529. By comparison, it had taken the corresponding Theodosian Code commission nine years to complete only the first of these tasks, and it never even tried to produce the combined volume, although, to be fair, new bureaucratic habits of collection and the fact that they had a model to follow had made some aspects of life easier for Justinian’s commissioners.14 Nonetheless, to edit the new laws and integrate all imperial legislation into one book, and within thirteen months from start to finish, showed formidable despatch.

It was this very despatch, I suspect, which encouraged Justinian to set up a second commission in December 530 to tackle the still bigger problem of the jurisconsult writings. Deo Auctore set out the principles.

We therefore command you to read and work upon the books dealing with Roman law, written by those learned men of old to whom the most revered emperors gave authority to compose and interpret the laws [the jurisconsults], so that the whole substance may be extracted from them, all repetition and discrepancy being as far as possible removed, and out of them one single work may be compiled, which will suffice in place of them all … so that nothing may be capable of being left outside the finished work … but that in these fifty books the entire ancient law – in a state of confusion for almost fourteen hundreds years, and rectified by us – may be as if defended by a wall and leave nothing outside itself. All legal writers will have equal weight and no superior authority will be reserved for any author, since not all are regarded as either better or worse in all respects, but only some in particular respects.15

Chairing the new commission was entrusted to one of the barristers attached to the previous work, Tribonian, who had clearly distinguished himself in that task, and had certainly been doing some preparatory work between the publication of the Code in April 529 and the announcement of the new project in December 530. They already knew by then that the next text would be drawn up in fifty books, and the principles with which they would approach the jurisconsult writings were carefully laid out: no pre-judging, every opinion to be weighed on its merits.

None of this preparatory work took much away from the difficulty of the task. By its own account, the commission had to read legal opinions totalling 2,000 books and 3 million lines. In the end, they reduced this mass to fifty books and 150,000 lines, but that doesn’t tell half the story. Not only was there a huge amount of jurisconsult material, but it was deeply intractable. Pretty much the only legal writings we have from the jurisconsults are those which survived the red pens of Tribonian and his fellow commissioners, and their brains imposed an order and logic on this material which clearly had not existed before. The key thing to remember about lawyers is that for the most part they make their living from clients, and clients employ lawyers to win cases. And going to law – especially in non-criminal cases and it was mostly non-criminal, civil law that jurisconsults wrote opinions on – is a costly activity whose purpose is overwhelmingly to protect or achieve some kind of financial gain. Thus, not surprisingly, the chief problem Tribonian’s commissioners found in the jurisconsult material was not the amount of it, but the fact that its leading practitioners often disagreed with one another. That they did so is not surprising: many of these disagreements were generated by the need to provide no doubt ingenious arguments for particular clients. Cutting the jurisconsults down to size was not just an editing problem, therefore, but one of intellectual decision-making. Which among the competing opinions on any particular issue would the commission choose to support?

The scale of the problem was vast, as several hundred years of mutually competitive jurisconsult opinion-giving had created the kind of confusion which is the paid lawyer’s paradise. Dickens’ Bleak House with its interminable legal case which eventually ate up the value of the property under dispute is no bad image to have in your head. Roman law was a jungle whose tigers were the lawyers, among whom the best – those most able to adapt jurisconsult opinion and imperial ruling to their clients’ needs – could command astronomic fees.16

Without this backstory, it is impossible to grasp what a high-risk strategy the second element of Justinian’s legal reform actually involved. To work, it had to cut through the Gordian knot of traditional Roman legal authority, and, in so doing, challenge the vested interests who benefited so substantially from the status quo. That the reform was necessary was never in doubt, but the realities of the task had already frightened off Theodosius’ legal team, who had quietly dropped this part of their project by the late 430s, and it had not got any easier in the meantime. Deo Auctore not only laid out logical working principles, therefore, but nailed the regime’s colours to the mast. In December 530, Justinian’s regime committed itself to boldly go where no emperor had dared go before.

Nor was legal reform the only high-risk project adopted by Justinian’s administration as it took up the reins of power. Never mind hairy European barbarians of one kind or another, East Rome’s traditional bête noire, inherited from the Greeks, was Persia. When the new Sasanian dynasty achieved an unprecedented degree of centralized control over what is now Iran and Iraq in the 220s, this heralded two political generations and more of disaster for Rome, involving three massive defeats and a sequence of humiliations, not least the capture and subsequent display of the emperor Valerian, monumentalized in the great rock reliefs close to Naqs-I Rustum. Only after a turbulent fifty-year process of political and administrative reform, which enabled emperors to point a larger share of their realms’ assets in the direction they wished, was parity restored on the eastern front in the last decade of the third century. Further conflict had then followed at intervals through most of the fourth century, but, in its final decade and a half and above all then in the fifth century, periodic superpower confrontation gave way to both practical and ideological coexistence. Both empires were facing fierce, especially Steppe nomad enemies on other frontiers, and the Persians suffered their own equivalent of Hadrianople when the shah-in-shah Perozes and his army were massacred by the Hephthalite Huns in 484. It may only have been a myth, but, by the early sixth century, both empires understood this period of relatively good relations as having been heralded by an agreement between the emperor Arcadius and the shah-in-shah Yazdegerd, that the latter would adopt Arcadius’ young son Theodosius II in an act designed to smooth the latter’s accession in case of Arcadius’ early death. The arrangement proved prophetic in that Arcadius died in 408 when Theodosius was only six.17

As the nomad threat finally receded for both parties, the early sixth century saw a partial return to the old Cold War patterns of behaviour, with matters of dispute sometimes being resolved by warfare rather than by negotiation (as had happened throughout the fifth century) and both sides looking to stir up trouble for the other in their border marches, particularly at the eastern end of the Black Sea. The goodwill of the fifth century had not completely dissipated, however, and in 522 the then Persian ruler, Cavades, waved a new olive branch in Constantinople’s direction. He had a very particular reason for doing so, since he wished to make a younger son, Chosroes, his heir, by-passing the claims of an older son with whom he had had a major falling out. What he did, was hark back to the example of Theodosius II and Yazdegerd, and ask the then reigning emperor Justin to adopt Chosroes in an entirely parallel move. According to the account in Procopius, Justin and Justinian were about to accede to the request when they received some troubling advice from the then chief legal officer, the quaestor Proculus:

This embassy openly and straight from the very first words means to make this Chosroes, whoever he is, the adopted heir of the Roman Emperor. And I would have you reason thus in this matter: by nature the possessions of fathers are due to their sons and while the laws among all men are always in conflict with each other by reason of their varying nature, in this matter both among the Romans and among all barbarians they are in agreement and harmony with each other, in that they declare sons to be masters of their fathers’ inheritance. Take this first resolve if you choose: if you do you must agree to all its consequences.

Thank goodness for Proculus! He rumbled Cavades’ cunning plan to make Chosroes ruler of the Roman as well as the Persian Empire, and, after negotiations went backwards and forwards for a while, the request was finally rejected in the summer of 527, by which time Justinian was co-Augustus and already effective co-emperor. Instead of meeting the Persian request in full, the Romans offered to adopt Chosroes as son-at-arms in the fashion they used with the rulers of Western successor states and other so-called ‘barbarians’. Offended, Cavades broke off the negotiations and soon invaded Roman territory.18

It’s a fascinating episode but I’ve always found it strange that Proculus’ advice has often been taken seriously, sometimes with an appreciative comment on the quality of information available to Procopius: that he could know so much of the secret counsels doing the rounds at court. As soon as you stop to think about it, the whole thing is total nonsense. The way you became emperor in Constantinople, and had done since time immemorial, was to win sufficient backing from a critical mass of the key constituencies: major senatorial landowners, leading bureaucratic administrators, court officials and chief officers of the army, amongst which categories there was anyway considerable overlap. Justin adopting Chosroes would tick none of these boxes and gave the latter not the slightest hope of succeeding to the throne of Constantinople after Justin’s death, any more than Yazdegerd adopting Theodosius (if it happened) gave him a claim to the Persian throne.

Without an iota of doubt, rejecting Cavades’ diplomatic initiative on the basis of this pretext was deliberately insulting, as was, of course, the offer to treat the heir to the Persian throne like a western barbarian. And this, you will recall, is not the first time that we have observed Justin and Justinian with their hands in the till on matters of succession. At the same time as Cavades’ approaches were being first parried and then rejected, the same parties were busy refusing recognition to Theoderic’s choice of heir after the death of Eutharic (page 95). It is impossible, in my view, to reach any conclusion from this episode other than that Justinian, in his final rejection of Cavades’ approach, was behaving in a deliberately insulting fashion with the hope presumably, as had been the point of the equivalent policy in relation to the Gothic kingdom, of destabilizing the Persian Empire over Chosroes’ unconstitutional and disputed succession.

In other words, Justinian opened his reign by adopting a very high-risk strategy in the field of foreign affairs, as well as at home. But, just as was equally true of the legal-reform project, should it be possible to claim a good outcome from the war with Persia that Roman behaviour now made virtually inevitable, the ideological pay-off was potentially huge. Ever since the Persians turned Valerian’s pickled pelt into a wine skin in the third century, Persia had been the enemy of ideological choice when it came to claiming victory. Constantius II had ridiculed Julian’s victory over the Alamanni at Strasbourg in 357 by saying that, compared to the Persians, half-dressed savages weren’t real enemies, and Julian himself had looked to cement his hold on power by launching a massive and ultimately doomed invasion of Persian territory. For emperors who claimed to be divinely appointed and divinely supported, the ultimate test of legitimacy was a decent military victory or two. For how better could the support of the Almighty (who was indeed almighty) actually show itself, if not through victory on the battlefield? There was no more prestigious enemy to overcome than the Persians.19

Legal reforms and the quarrel with Persia need to be seen together in my view when we’re trying to understand the opening salvos of Justinian’s reign. In its first few months, the regime took not one high-stakes gamble, but two: and simultaneously. What this really reflects is the severe insecurity underlying Justinian’s hold on power at this point. His uncle Justin’s promotion to the imperial throne on the death of the emperor Anastasius was an entirely improvised affair, rather than a carefully worked out succession commanding widespread consent among the political classes in Constantinople. Anastasius himself had clearly not felt secure enough in his power to arrange succession before his death; if he had, presumably he would have picked one of the three nephews (Hypatius, Pompeius and Probus) who were his closest relatives. Justin was a prominent officer in the imperial guards, who, according to our sources, exploited the power vacuum launching what was in effect a coup d’état. Charged with disbursing large sums in bribes on behalf of another candidate entirely, a certain Theocritus, he spent the money instead on securing the loyalty of his guards corps, the excubitors, who then promptly put him in power. And, once on the throne, Justin busied himself removing any rivals, actual and potential, who stuck their heads above the parapet; notably that Theocritus whose funds he had misappropriated, and Vitalianus, the senior general who had led the Chalcedonian opposition to Anastasius and who played a large role in the reconciliation with the papacy which marked the start of the reign, and from which Theoderic apparently benefited so much (page 86).

During the years which followed these somewhat inauspicious beginnings, Justinian, by all accounts (not just that of Procopius) worked tirelessly to gain effective control over the reins of power and make himself un-bypassable in the short term as the old emperor’s immediate heir. But that did not mean he was securely in power. Uncle-to-nephew succession was no automatic given in the world of Constantinopolitan politics; it was, after all, precisely what had not happened on the death of Anastasius. And, amongst other possible candidates, Anastasius’ nephews were still knocking around at court, some of them in very high office, and Roman imperial regimes were always coalitions of the powerful. By the summer of 527, Justinian had worked his way on to the throne, but he was not yet securely in power. Taking on these huge – and risky – projects was all about winning sufficient political capital to turn mere occupation of the throne into the power actually to rule. Success on either front would demonstrate that the practical power of the Divinity was securely underpinning Justinian’s throne: that he was a fully legitimate ruler of the Roman world.20

Justinian emerges from these first few months of his rule as an imaginative and ambitious chancer, looking to exploit the two main ideological routes open to an East Roman emperor to cement his hold on power. This is a substantially different image to any of the normal range of responses to Procopius’ wildly inconsistent pictures of Justinian, but its essential accuracy is confirmed by some of the details of the actual legal reform which followed. A strong element of the short cut was already there, in fact, in the basic project design. The Theodosian version of necessary reform to the Roman legal system, you will recall, envisaged one final über-code which would bring together imperial pronouncements and jurisconsult writings into a single seamless garment. Justinian’s version was considerably less ambitious, looking to end up instead with two not-quite-so-über-codes, one of imperial law, the other of jurisconsult material. This was easier, but left open potential problems of disagreement or – more likely – differences of emphasis between the two bodies of material for the ambitious lawyer to exploit in court. The speed at which Justinian’s reforms proceeded is of and in itself also highly indicative. As Constitutio Tanta, which confirmed the legal status of the code on 16 December 533, commented, when the task was first announced no one expected it to be completed in less than ten years, and ten years, pretty much, was what it had taken the Theodosian team to produce just their code of imperial pronouncements.21 Ramming the whole thing through in three years required a whole lot more than mere efficiency, reflecting rather the amount of political will and capital that Justinian’s regime was willing to invest in cutting the many legal Gordian knots with which they were faced. Some evidence of this process survives.

An essential strategy for sorting out the mess of jurisconsult discord was the series of so-called ‘Fifty Decisions’, which resolved by new legislation a series of thorny old chestnuts within Roman jurisprudence. The greatest modern scholar of the process reckons that there were in fact more than fifty, but they were all hammered through between 1 August 530 and 30 April 531 (another indication that preparations were well in hand before the project was officially announced in December 530). Some of these problems had been around for centuries and resolving them so quickly wasn’t just a question of logical argument or administrative efficiency, but of making an argument stick in the face of the vested interests which had preserved the disagreements, no doubt to their own profit, over preceding generations. Part of the answer as to how Tribonian and Justinian got them through was certainly brute force (as we shall see in more detail shortly), but they also offered a deal to some of the interested parties. In the final reconstitution of the legal profession in the Eastern Empire, representatives of the legal schools of Constantinople and Beirut, which were, it seems, the most distinguished, were central to the process. At the very end of this process, however, two other law schools, Caesarea and Alexandria, were explicitly suppressed, their teachers being no longer allowed to take students. This is classic divide and rule. Consent from the most distinguished part of the legal establishment for the reform package was won in part by ensuring that they would enjoy a duopoly over law students, thereby securing higher fee incomes than had previously come their way.22

In short, Justinian’s law reform was just as much a political project as it was a legal one, and a political project which was rushed through with every possible despatch because its success was deemed essential to the prestige of the regime. The Whole Body of the Law, one of the prefatory constitutions to the finished work, claimed that ‘everything has now been reformed and arranged’, but there were some loose ends left hanging in order to get the job finished. My favourite final indication of the fundamental truth of this observation comes in Constitutio Tanta. The key aims of the second element of the legal reform was to pare down the jurisconsult material to remove superfluities, repetitions, and, above all, contradictions. On the matter of repetitions, Tanta comments:

Should it chance that here and there, in so great a collection of legal rules, taken as it is from an immense number of books, some cases of repetition should occur, this no one must be severe upon; it should rather be ascribed first of all to human weakness, which is part of our nature … It should also be borne in mind that there are some rules of exceeding brevity in which repetition may be admitted to good purpose.

So don’t be too hard on us if you do find any repetitions, but, anyway, there aren’t many and they are probably there deliberately: as wonderful a piece of fatuous rear-end covering as you’re likely to find. Best of all are its comments on contradiction:

As for any contradiction occurring in this book, none such has any claim to a place in it, nor will any be found, if we consider fully the grounds of diversity; some special differential feature will be discovered, however obscure, which does away with the imputation of inconsistency, puts a different complexion on the matter and keeps it safe from the imputation of discrepancy.23

So there are no contradictions in the book, and if you think you’ve found one, think a little harder and you’ll find a way of making it disappear. Orwell’s Ministry of Truth could not have done better. Not only was the reform pushed through with massive haste, by means of a political deal with some of the legal establishment, but even the commissioners realized that, in their haste, not everything had been fully resolved.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the legal-reform project, in the person of Tribonian, its chief architect, should have become an issue in the political upheavals which marked the early years of Justinian’s rule. This was not necessarily a response to the precise details of the Fifty Decisions or any other specific aspect of the commission’s legal work, but a general reflection of the fact that the stakes were so high. Because a successful legal reform would have gone a long way to making Justinian untouchable in political terms, it was only natural that those opposed to him more generally would seek to block it. In this purpose, Justinian’s opponents were greatly aided by the fact that the emperor’s other massive gamble led to disaster.

Cavades responded to Justinian’s insulting rebuff with a predictable invasion of Roman territory on the main Mesopotamian frontier between the two empires. At the same time, he started undermining Roman interests in Lazica and Iberia, two of the marginal states between the empires in the Caucasus and at the eastern end of the Black Sea (Figure 6). In 528, two Roman attempts to threaten Nisibis, the main Persian base in Mesopotamia, were defeated and things started to look a little bleak from a Constantinopolitan perspective. Incipient disaster was rescued by a Roman victory in 530 outside Dara, however, Rome’s main base, against a Persian force which had come to besiege it. This was won by Belisarius with Procopius now in tow, and the regime celebrated. But the celebrations were precipitate. In 531 the Persians made an unexpected attack on Roman territory and Belisarius suffered a defeat at Callinicum, which was so bad that a committee of inquiry was established to look into the circumstances.24 By late 531, the storm clouds were gathering over Justinian’s rule. Dara aside, the Persian gambit had failed. After Callinicum, Justinian could no longer claim military success against the auld enemy as proof that God was behind his rule. The political vultures were beginning to circle.



Their opportunity came from an entirely unpredictable quarter. The East Roman equivalent of soccer – the veritable opium of the masses – was not so much religion as chariot racing. Charioteers were the sporting superstars of the age, commanding massive salaries and popularity, and whose movements between the set teams within a given city – Greens and Blues being the most popular, Reds and Whites the also-rans – generated fanatical responses of despair or joy. In total, the factions, at least in the largest cities of the empire, were something more than supporters’ clubs: by the sixth century they had become hierarchical organizations with plenty of muscle who ran particular neighbourhoods with a rod of iron: Manchester United supporters club meets the Mafia, say. These young men liked, Procopius tells us, maximum facial hair, mullets, wide lapels, and plenty of bling. Generally speaking, they worked hand in glove with the more official city authorities. But in a world with more than its fair share of extreme poverty and more or less no police forces, lines of acceptability could be crossed fairly easily, and there was a limit to how much extortion and intimidation could be tolerated, especially within the imperial capital itself. Hence on Sunday 11 January 532, seven members of the two main factions – the Greens and the Blues – were due to be hanged, but then there occurred a fatal blunder. Two ropes broke and a pair of reprieved reprobates – one from each faction – fled for sanctuary in a nearby church.

The next Tuesday was another chariot-racing day and, in line with an ancient tradition of using such occasions to ask for favours by organized, ritual chanting called acclamation, the assembled crowd asked the emperor, who was present in the royal box, to pardon the prisoners. Justinian refused, at which point the Greens and Blues started a massed riot. Using the watchword nika – ‘victory’: a traditional battlecry of the Roman army – they stormed the capital’s prison, releasing all the inmates. Things were already looking pretty nasty, but then came an extraordinary change of pace. More chariot racing was due for the Wednesday, which the emperor, fearing even worse trouble should he suppress it, allowed to go ahead. The event saw more chanted demands, but this time they were overtly and specifically political. What the crowd wanted now was not merely a pardon for some of its fellow hooligans, but the dismissal of three of Justinian’s leading ministers, including Tribonian, who at this point, of course, was still busily throwing most of the chaotic mess that was classical Roman jurisprudence into the wastepapyrus basket.

Now seriously frightened, Justinian dismissed all three, but to no avail. On Thursday, the demands escalated further with the crowd trying to find Probus, one of the nephews of Anastasius, and raise him to the purple in Justinian’s place. Probus proved not to be in the city, but the move set off three days of rioting which makes the summer of 2011 in Britain look like a nursery tea party. As violent street fighting and huge fires swept the city, Justinian decided on the Saturday to expel from the palace a series of leading senators who had taken refuge there, including the two other nephews of Anastasius: Hypatius and Pompeius. On Sunday a huge crowd gathered in the Hippodrome, home of the chariot racing and whose royal box was connected to the palace by an enclosed passage. They had come partly out of pure excitement, but also in response to an announcement – following a precedent established by Anastasius at a moment of extreme turmoil in his reign (that time over religious policies) – that Justinian would appear before the crowd to offer apologies and an unconditional amnesty to all the rioters. That may have been the announcement, but it was not what happened. The crowd – or part of it – acclaimed Hypatius as emperor, and he ended up being crowned in the royal box surrounded by the baying crowd; how many of the Hippodrome’s 100,000 seats were occupied at this point is unclear.

Justinian had reached the ultimate crunch moment for all dictators facing rebellion: do I run (though it’s unclear what the sixth-century equivalents of South Africa or Saudi Arabia were) or do I order the troops to fire? Justinian’s first instinct, Procopius reports, was to leave (in the published Wars, so it was presumably acceptable to tell the story thus in public in Constantinople by c.550). Maybe, as has been true of some modern dictators, he wasn’t sure that the troops would fire. But Theodora put new fight into him, declaring, again according to Procopius in the Wars, in an almost classical turn of phrase, that: ‘Purple makes a fine burial shroud.’

In other words, our former actress would rather die than give up the throne. Thus emboldened, the regime deployed its remaining assets. The eunuch Narses, whom we shall meet again in the next chapter, went into the Hippodrome crowd alone, sought out the leaders of the Blues and promised them a huge sum of gold; according to reports, he had some of it with him. He also reminded them that Hypatius, whom they were currently busy crowning, had long supported the Greens. The argument proved sufficient. In the middle of the coronation, the Blues simply left the Hippodrome, leaving the Greens stunned.

Stupefaction turned to panic as the departing Blues were replaced by the regime’s most loyal troops, guardsmen and personal retainers from the Persian front led by Belisarius, and Herulian foederati from the Balkans led by Mundus: both bodies of troops, you will notice, with no pre-existing ties within Constantinople. The original plan was for Belisarius’ men to burst into the Hippodrome through the royal box, but the official palace guard – waiting to see which way the wind would blow – refused to take sides by opening the gate at the end of the passage. Belisarius was forced to work his way round to another entrance and led the charge, at which point, hearing the tumult, Mundus also burst in from the Black gate opposite (Figure 7). The result was carnage. The Greens had their armed thugs, but these were no match for crack imperial troopers, and, amid the slaughter, no one even tried to defend Hypatius and Pompeius who were tamely captured. Held in prison overnight, they claimed to have been acting against their will, but Justinian would have none of it. They were executed on the Monday morning and their bodies thrown into the sea, with all their property confiscated to the imperial treasury.


The regime had held on to power, but a bit like Syria in the early 1980s or now, at astronomic cost to its citizens, and, in this case, not even in a provincial city but the central imperial capital. Two separate contemporaries tell us that around 30,000 people died in a combination of the street fighting and the massacre in the Hippodrome. That is of a similar order of magnitude to Syria in the early 1980s, by all accounts, but you do also have to think about relative scale. The population of Constantinople is generally reckoned to have peaked at half a million from around the middle of the fifth century. So the Nika fighting led to the deaths of something like 5 per cent of the city’s population, the equivalent of 400,000 being killed out of the current population of Greater London. The fires also destroyed the great palace church of Hagia Sophia, its smaller neighbour Hagia Irene, the Senate House, many of the palace’s outer buildings, and several of the ceremonial arcades at the heart of the city. Again, a London equivalent would be rioting that destroyed the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and pretty much the entirety of Whitehall down to Horse Guards and Admiralty Arch. It would be almost impossible to overestimate, therefore, the level of dissent and destruction evidenced in the riot.25

But, despite the detail of our sources, a number of key questions cannot be answered conclusively. Who exactly lay behind the politicization of the protests as Tuesday’s demands for pardons for a couple of thugs, gave way over the next forty-eight hours to demands, first, that Justinian emasculate his regime, and then for an entirely new emperor? What was Justinian’s thinking when he threw Anastasius’ nephews out of the palace? Was it a mistake that he failed to observe Vito Corleone’s famous dictum to keep his friends close, but his enemies even closer? Or was the emperor trying to engineer a showdown by bringing their latent opposition out into the open? And how much should we believe of Procopius’ famous scene where Theodora puts the fight back into Justinian? Her famous phrase is a misquotation. The original reads ‘Tyranny makes a fine burial shroud.’ So it looks a fair guess that the same Procopius who wrote the Secret History reckoned he could bank on a lack of classical education in the higher reaches of the regime and crack a little joke for those in the know at the imperial couple’s expense.26 But the story of the empress’ bottle appears in the Wars, which was published openly, so presumably it encapsulates a line on the riot that the regime was in a general sense happy to see publicized, at least by c.550.

These hard questions are unanswerable, but the presence in the city of the troops of Belisarius and Mundus suggests that the emperor may have been anticipating a need for troops who could not have been suborned by disaffected elements at court. And this may in turn suggest that there was an element of entrapment in his expulsion of Anastasius’ nephews from the palace, although this could also be explained as the desire to forestall the possibility an overnight coup d’état within the palace walls at the hands of palace guards, whose refusal to open up the passage to the imperial box indicates that they had been approached in some way by the opposition. At the very least, Justinian was sure where responsibility for the politicization of the violence lay, carried forward, no doubt, by the same kind of targeted bribery which Narses used to detach the Blues from the Greens inside the Hippodrome. Not only were Anastasius’ unfortunate nephews executed on the Monday, but another eighteen senators were banished from the city and their estates confiscated. There was probably an element of score-settling in this, with the emperor’s officials not being overly sparing in the accuracy of their condemnations, but I don’t doubt either that Justinian was entirely correct in supposing that, halfway through that dreadful week, conspiracy took over from sheer hooliganism, and directed the latter’s violence towards some highly specific political aims.

None of this lifted the air of defeat and disaster that hung over the regime. The deliberate quarrel picked with Persia had led to a series of defeats, of which the latest was serious enough to set off a committee of inquiry, the chief architect of the legal reform and two other leading henchmen had been dismissed, 5 per cent of the capital’s population lay dead in its streets, and its ceremonial centre was a smoking ruin. This was not a record which was in any way compatible with the notion that Justinian was God-appointed, ruling with the direct assistance and guidance of the said Divinity. In short, by the end of that terrible Nika week in January 532, the regime had lost pretty much all its political capital, and all obvious consent to its rule. It had held on at spear point, but was teetering on the brink. And it is striking that Justinian didn’t even feel strong enough to bring his dismissed ministers back into office.

It is against this background that we need to think about the policy of Western conquest which is considered the leitmotif of the regime in much modern historical writing. According to such views, launching the wars of conquest in the West had always been Justinian’s main aim. A Latin-speaking traditionalist from Illyricum, which had formed part of the Western Empire in most of the late Roman period, he was desperate – it is thought – to recover the lost Roman territories. It is, moreover, entirely possible to find statements to this effect in his propaganda:

We are inspired with the hope that God will grant us rule over the rest of what, subject to the ancient Romans to the limits of both seas, they later lost by their neglect.

The problem, however, is that this, the first known statement to this effect, dates only to the tenth year of his reign, 536, and followed two successful bouts of conquest: the seizure of Africa in 533–4 and an almost bloodless acquisition of Sicily in 535. And the conquest of Africa had itself originally been justified on religious and not political grounds at all:

That which the omnipotent God has now … deemed proper to demonstrate through us exceeds all wonderful acts which have happened in the course of all time – namely that freedom should, through us, in so short a time be received by Africa, which 105 years before was captured by the Vandals who were enemies of both mind and body … By what language, therefore, or by what works worthy of God that He deemed it proper that the injuries of the Church should be avenged through me, the least of His servants.

It was only when Justinian was eyeing up further gains in Italy after these two initial successes, and setting his sights on Theoderic’s old Gothic kingdom, that we hear a first whisper of any imperative need to reconquer the lost Roman West.27

The chronology of Justinian’s propaganda has long been recognized, but it has nevertheless been thought that the cunning plan always existed, and that, as soon as an end could be put to troubles on the Persian frontier, the emperor was dead set on regaining the lost Roman territories. In my opinion, every detail we have indicates that this was absolutely not the case. Justinian’s regime picked a deliberate quarrel with Persia in 527, when the opportunity was there to reach at least a temporary peaceful accommodation. If Justinian had really wanted to devote himself to the West, he could have dropped the nonsense about the adoption of Chosroes and gone straight for the Western jugular. It is also extremely to the point to realize that the conquest policy emerged only slowly and in highly contingent – i.e. entirely unpredictable – circumstances.

The first of the conquests – that of the Vandal kingdom – was triggered by events that were originally internal to North Africa. Unlike Theoderic’s Italy (the unfortunate imprisonment of Pope John aside) where Arian rulers and Catholic Nicene churchmen got on famously, the course of inter-sect relations did not run so smoothly south of the Mediterranean. To a very significant degree, this was due to the different circumstances of the founding of the Vandal kingdom. This had been carved out of the living body of a still very vital Western Empire by the Vandal conquest of Carthage in 439, whereas all the other Western successor states emerged both more slowly and more consensually, a generation or so later, as the central Roman state gradually ran out of revenues and the capacity to direct events. And since Catholicism was unambiguously the religion of the empire, Vandal monarchs tended to be highly hostile towards it, deliberately fostering an alternate Christianity among the warriors who had put them in power. The other component here was that the North African Catholic Church had a long history of resisting persecution with might and main, and saw, perhaps, a touch more virtue in courting it than was true elsewhere. But, nonetheless, Vandal aggression was at the heart of the episodes of systematic small-scale and occasionally vicious (especially under Huneric in 484) persecution of Catholic clergy and laity which remained characteristic of the Vandal kingdom even after the Western Empire had ceased to exist.28

Breaking with the established mould, a Carthage spring was ushered in by the new king Hilderic who succeeded that Thrasamund whose gifts Theoderic had so unceremoniously returned, when he died on 6 May 523. Hilderic was the son of Huneric of the 484 persecution fame, but, in one of those ironies with which history abounds, his main new policy was to end all persecution and allow the Catholic Church of North Africa to function without impediment, and in particular to hold the first full general council of all its bishops for two generations in Carthage in 525. His religious policy was part of the major realignment of Vandal foreign policy, as we saw in the last chapter, away from the Ostrogothic axis-cum-domination, which had been ushered in by Thrasamund’s marriage to Theoderic’s sister Amalafrida, and towards Constantinople. In the end, he was lucky. Where the Burgundians suffered Theoderic’s wrath for similar uppity behaviour when Tuluin seized extra territory from them in Gaul, the ships at least for the corresponding North African expeditionary force were still at anchor, waiting for the king’s final order, when the old Gothic warrior eventually succumbed in summer 526 (page 94).

If Hilderic thus got away with a more than slightly dangerous show of independence at the start of his reign, he eventually ran into problems from another quarter. Within North Africa as a whole, or rather on its fringes, the great political problem was provided by indigenous Moorish groups who grew in size, organization, and effectiveness during the Vandal period of rule. Some of these groups inflicted a major defeat on his armies in the province of Byzacium in 529–30, and this was enough to trigger a coup d’étatagainst him led by his royal cousin Gelimer on 19 May 530 (May seems to have been a bit of an unlucky month for sixth-century Vandal kings). Gelimer was a great-grandson of the first Vandal king of North Africa, Geiseric, where as Hilderic was a grandson (by a different branch of the family), and the younger man set about seizing full control of the reins of power. This involved both a clearout of Vandal supporters of Hilderic and a – moderate – reversal of the latter’s pro-Catholic policies, although there is no sign that he re-instituted any kind of full-on persecution.29

Hilderic had been a loyal ally of Justinian, but when news arrived in Constantinople of his overthrow, the emperor was still fully involved in and hopeful of a good outcome to his Persian war (defeat at Callinicum would only come the following year). He therefore contented himself with a couple of stiff notes to the new king, and another advising Theoderic’s grandson Athalaric not to recognize the new king over the water in Carthage. It was only two years later, in fact, in the summer of 532 (and here it’s really important not to collapse the chronology) that Justinian began to show the slightest interest in doing anything more than writing the occasional letter. And by this time, two key events had intervened. Nika itself, of course, had come and gone with disastrous consequences for the prestige of Justinian’s regime left just about standing among the piles of rubble at the heart of Constantinople. And the downward trend had been entirely confirmed by the terms of the so-called ‘Eternal Peace’ made with Persia soon after, in the spring of 532, which involved Justinian in large annual indemnities.

By the middle of that year, therefore, Justinian was desperate for some kind of political success, and this put an African adventure seriously on the menu. Even so, the decision to try to rescue the regime via a successful intervention there had not yet been definitely taken. The court was simultaneously exploring other possible avenues for a propaganda coup, initiating discussions which might have healed a current schism within the East Roman Church. A series of ‘conversations’ had been held in February just after Nika, which made progress but didn’t come to any final positive outcome. Interestingly, the kind of religious compromise that would have been required to resolve the schism would have alienated churchmen in the non-Roman western Mediterranean, so that these conversations were pulling Justinian’s regime in an opposite direction, to some extent, to the African option. But even after the conversations failed to reach any conclusion, the emperor still hesitated to pull the trigger.30

There were very good reasons to hesitate. Since the Vandals had taken Carthage in 439, there had been three serious attempts to recapture the lost provinces from them, and all three had ended in disaster. The essential problem was getting a large enough force across the Mediterranean and safely on to North African soil. The first expedition of 441–2 had been building up a combined expeditionary force from the Eastern and Western empires in Sicily when the first of Attila the Hun’s campaigns into the Balkans had forced its abandonment, since the Eastern forces were urgently required at home. The second of 461 had gathered in Spain to make the short crossing over the Straits of Gibraltar, but the Vandals got wind of the operation and destroyed the Roman shipping while it was still in harbour. The third and final attempt had come in 468. Then a huge East Roman armada had set sail from Constantinople but come to grief off North Africa itself, nailed by hostile winds to a rocky shoreline and made a sitting duck for Vandal fireships. The loss of life had been horrendous, and the fleet’s failure marked the end of serious attempts to keep the Western Empire afloat, triggering the free-for-all which saw its last assets being swallowed up wholesale by the nearest barbarian power. It also emptied the Eastern treasury to such an extent that it had not recovered by the time of the emperor Leo’s death five years later. Even though Justinian was so desperate for a success, and Africa was so tempting a possibility, the odds were not on the face of it inviting.31

According to Procopius’ account in Wars, divine inspiration eventually resolved the dilemma. Justinian was told in a dream to launch the attack. I’m quite prepared to believe that the emperor had a dream as well, but it looks as though another set of contingent events actually prompted Justinian to push the button. Over the autumn/winter of 532–3, two important pieces of news reached Constantinople. First, at the eastern end of the Vandal kingdom, in Tripolitania (modern Libya) a revolt against Gelimer broke out led by a local notable called Pudentius. No Vandals had been settled in this extremity of the Vandal kingdom, so there was no actual – or at least much – fighting to be done to declare independence. Pudentius immediately sent to Constantinople for assistance, asking for Tripolitania to be taken back under direct imperial rule. By itself, this still might not have been enough to arouse imperial interest in a full-on Vandal adventure, but the second piece of news then pushed Africa right up the imperial agenda. For, hot on the heels of the messages from Libya came news of a second revolt from within the Vandal domains. This time, Godas, the governor of the island of Sardinia, Gelimer’s northernmost holding, declared independence and, again, wrote to Constantinople asking for imperial support. This message also arrived in autumn/winter 532–3, and was enough to make Justinian commit his forces. With two revolts convulsing Gelimer’s kingdom, there was now much more chance of success.32

Accordingly, preparations for the Byzantine expeditionary force (BEF) were brought to completion in spring and early summer 533, its huge fleet assembling in the quiet waters of the Bosphorus and the Golden Horn. Its task was to transport to North Africa 10,000 infantry and 5,000 cavalry under the command of Belisarius, ‘hero’, if that’s the right word, of the massacre in the Hippodrome. Leaving Constantinople in mid-June, the fleet made slow and occasionally rocky progress to the eastern coast of Italy and then on to Sicily where it holed up at a deserted spot close to Mount Etna. Two Hunnic soldiers had had to be executed for killing one of their comrades while drunk, and an astonishing 500 men had died from eating infected bread. But if these cannot have seemed anything but ill omens at the time, lady luck was firmly on the side of the expedition and helped it avoid the humiliating fate of its British counterparts of the early part of World War Two, whose regular need for evacuation under intense air bombardment led parts of the Royal Navy – unfairly of course – to construe the real meaning of BEF as ‘back every Friday’. Procopius was sent forward to Syracusa and came back with some crucial intelligence. Gelimer, it turned out, was entirely unprepared for an East Roman invasion, and had sent the Vandal fleet and an elite force of 7,000 men off to Sardinia to quell the revolt of Godas. The problem in the past had always been the same. It had manifested itself in different ways in 441, 461 and 468, but the key difficulty was getting your army on to North African soil in the first place. Thanks to Godas, the road to Carthage was now open.33

And it was right at that moment, I suspect, in that deserted spot close to Mount Etna, close presumably to the beautiful city of Taormina with its wonderful Greek theatre, that Justinian’s Western conquest policy was finally born. For, as Procopius tells us, it was only on hearing that the Vandal fleet was elsewhere, that Belisarius took the decision to head straight for the heart of Gelimer’s kingdom. This suggests – and when you think about it, it must have been so – that Belisarius had been sent off from Constantinople with entirely contingent orders. Justinian and his key advisers knew that there was some chaos in the Vandal kingdom, but news travelled so slowly in the ancient world, even around the Mediterranean, that what was known in Constantinople in mid-June 533 was weeks if not months out of date. The same fact also made it impossible for Belisarius, on finding out more, to refer back to Justinian for further orders. In reality, therefore, his orders must have contained several options – from least to most ambitious – depending on what he actually found when he got to Sicily. If the situation looked less promising, the fleet could always sail on to safely to Tripolitania, and by securing that province confirm at least some kind of ‘victory’ for Justinian’s propagandists to do with what they could. As it was, the Vandal cat turned out to be away, and much wider vistas fell open. Set in the twists and turns of the early years of Justinian’s reign, Western conquest turns out to have been not the deep-seated, long-standing plan of a romantic visionary, but another type of phenomenon altogether, one that is much better known to historians: overseas adventurism as the last desperate gamble of a bankrupt regime. Between them, Nika and defeat at the hands of the Persians had put Justinian’s regime in deepest jeopardy. As contingent factors unfolded around them, the emperor and his advisers eventually decided – three years later – that avenging their old ally Hilderic offered the best chance of re-establishing the regime, and it was in Belisarius’ hands finally to roll the dice of war.


It is impossible to overestimate the importance of the fact that the Vandal fleet was away in Sardinia. Never before had a Roman army – Western, Eastern, or combined – managed actually to land unmolested on the shores of the Vandal kingdom. Belisarius’ armada, however, was able to push on south from Sicily in total confidence. After brief stops on the intervening islands of Gozo and Malta, they arrived off the headland of Caput Vada (now Ras Kabudia) opposite the province of Byzacena more or less three months after the fleet had left Constantinople. A fortified disembarkation camp was quickly constructed, food obtained from the surrounding area (with a little calculated punishment of some looters thrown in to reassure local opinion), and, within three days the army began its march on Carthage, capital of the Vandal kingdom (Figure 8). The route took them past Lepcis Minor to Hadrumentum and Grasse where a first skirmish followed with Gelimer’s forces. On the fourth day of the march – 13 September – the army arrived at the town of Ad Decimum, so called because it was established at the tenth mile post from Carthage. There battle commenced.

First of all Belisarius’ light reconnaissance forces drove in the Vandal advance guard killing its commander, Ammatas, one of Gelimer’s brothers. As they followed up against the now retreating enemy, some of the Roman main body reached the same spot to find there Gelimer and the bulk of his army which promptly attacked them and drove them back. Belisarius and the bulk of his cavalry were not far behind, however, and when they rode over the horizon to the rescue they found the Vandal army in the disorder of apparent victory. The general saw his chance and launched an immediate attack which routed the disordered Vandals, inflicting significant casualties. The Romans had won a first major victory, without remotely planning to; the bulk of Belisarius’ force, his infantry, had never even left its camp. On 14 September, the army moved up to the outskirts of Carthage but didn’t enter, since Belisarius was concerned that Gelimer might spring an ambush. The general also wanted to make sure that his soldiers would not take advantage of nightfall to start looting in the city. But trap was there none, and the next day the Romans entered the city in triumph.34 Within about a week of their initial landing, Belisarius’ soldiers were safely ensconced in the greatest city of North Africa. The contrast between their fate and those of their predecessors of 441, 461 and 468 could not be greater.

There then followed an extended period of quiet. Cautious as ever, and conscious no doubt that the capture of Carthage was already a much greater success than his emperor’s minimum requirement from the expedition, Belisarius carefully fortified the city, whose walls the Vandals had allowed to degenerate. Gelimer meanwhile licked his wounds, consolidated his forces, and advanced towards Carthage, but contented himself with a little harassing work. Initially, he was awaiting the return of his fleet and 7,000 reinforcements from the Sardinian campaign, but, even when they returned, he did not want to attack Carthage and become embroiled in the kind of siege warfare in which the Vandals had had no practice for generations. Tactical initiative lay entirely with Belisarius. The final struggle would begin when he chose.

Three months later, the general was ready. His army moved forward in two groups. The advance guard was composed again of the bulk of the cavalry which had triumphed at Ad Decimum under the command of an officer of Armenian origins, John, who had earlier led those screening forces which had killed Gelimer’s brother. Not far behind was the main body under Belisarius himself, comprising all the infantry and a small force of 500 cavalry, together with the general’s personal guardsmen. In the evening, the advance guard duly found Gelimer and his army at Tricamarum, some twenty miles from Carthage. Things started quietly enough on the next day, but around midday the Vandals came out of their camp in battle array and drew themselves up in formation on one side of a small river. John did the same with forces on the other side, but, before any fighting could begin, Belisarius and the last of the cavalry arrived on the scene, with the infantry following as best they could.

The engagement opened with a series of skirmishes, always initiated by the Romans, until full-scale battle was eventually joined. Belisarius’ men had by far the best of it, losing reportedly less than fifty men, where the Vandals lost 800. Eventually the Vandals had had enough and retreated to their camp, but Belisarius wasn’t finished. By now, his infantry had arrived and a full-scale assault was prepared for the middle of the afternoon. In the event, it was not required. Gelimer had already fled from the camp in panic, and, when the rest of his forces realized this, they too collapsed into disorder. Organized resistance disappeared and the routed Vandals, many of whom had been accompanied by their women and children, were simply cut down as they ran. But the Vandal camp also contained a huge amount of moveable wealth, so Belisarius’ army too lost its coherence as it turned from fighting to looting.35

In the end, then, the battle of Tricamarum became extremely messy, but it was no less decisive for that. Gelimer kept running westwards along the coastal cities of his former kingdom. Belisarius paused, to restore discipline among his own men, and to round up all the shattered Vandals that he could, to ensure that they could never be remobilized against him. And, in fact, they never were. Satisfied that matters were in hand, Belisarius then set off after Gelimer, and eventually captured the Vandal royal treasure and a demoralized gaggle of leading Vandals at Hippo Regius. Gelimer himself had fled for safety to some friendly Moors on the inaccessible Mount Papua on the borders of Numidia, where he was safe enough, but could do nothing to prevent Belisarius rounding up all the remaining Vandals in sight. With no assets left for a comeback, Gelimer had had enough by March 534, and negotiated terms of surrender. Within ten months of the landing at Caput Vada, it was all over. That same summer Belisarius returned to Constantinople with Gelimer in tow, and a host of Vandal prisoners. He received, as was his due, every honour that Justinian could find. He was the first non-emperor to be granted a triumphal procession in centuries, and he was made consul-designate, the highest honour in the imperial medal cabinet, for the following year.36

The horrors of the Nika riot of January 532 had given way – finally – to another kind of victory altogether, and Justinian’s regime was back in business. God’s authority had been displayed. The emperor’s virtue was manifest in this extraordinary triumph whose scale and ease no one had foretold, and nothing but nothing could better display the hand of God than a stunning military victory. Except, perhaps, driving through the legal reform. Even while out of office, Tribonian seems to have carried on working, and he was back formally in his post by the autumn of 532. A year later, he was ready to publish, and by then Justinian’s forces had already captured Carthage. This half-victory, even before Gelimer’s final defeat, was more than enough to give the emperor the final political leverage he required to dare to push through the reform to completion. On 16 December 533, before news of Tricamarum can have reached Constantinople, Justinian confirmed the Digest of jurisconsult writings and linked together all his triumphs:

God has granted us, after Our peace with the Persians, Our triumph over the Vandals, Our taking of the whole of Libya, Our regaining of most famous Carthage, to fulfil the task of restoring the ancient laws – something which none of the Emperors that reigned before Us ever hoped even to conceive, nor would they have thought it humanly possible at all.

God had spoken, and the regime was now safe. Amidst all the plaudits and self-congratulation, Justinian could afford to be magnanimous. The eighteen senators banished after Nika were pardoned, and the estates of Hypatius and Pompeius were returned to their families. The emperor’s last desperate gamble had paid off in spades; his position was now untouchable, and everyone knew it.37

Not only did the overwhelming contrast between the various kinds of disaster that had attended the Vandal expeditions of the mid-fifth century and the astonishingly swift victory of Belisarius provide irrefutable evidence that Justinian was indeed ruling by the authority of God, but it clearly also set the grey matter whirring at court in Constantinople. Two engagements in three months had been enough to wrap up an entire kingdom which had terrorized much of the Mediterranean world for the bulk of the fifth century. Where had this reversal in prevailing balances of power come from?

In part, it really was as simple as the fact that, this time, the East Romans were able to land their army intact on North African shores. Maybe the Vandals would have been pretty much as easy to defeat in the fifth century if only the eagles had ever landed? But, in fact, the Vandals had had to fight their way eastwards from Morocco, taking Carthage and the richest lands of the province in 439, only after an eight-year struggle against combined Eastern and Western forces, which doesn’t suggest that they were then so incapable of fighting off Roman armies. And, in fact, the key point seems to lie in a major reconfiguration of the nature of East Roman armies which had taken place by the time Belisarius left for North Africa.

Traditionally, Roman armies had relied on the foot soldier. The armies of Caesar and Augustus which had underpinned Roman domination of the entire Mediterranean and much of its hinterland were built around the power of the legions, and legionaries were foot soldiers par excellence. Nearly a third of Belisarius’ army, however, was cavalry, and they played the crucial part. (As we saw, at Ad Decimum the Roman infantry never even engaged.) Many of these horsemen, moreover, were cavalry of a particular kind: heavy mounted archers. East Roman armies had developed this new military arm, which combined the hitting power from distance of the Hunnic mounted archers that they had been forced to combat in the mid-fifth century, with the shock and awe at close quarters of the armoured cavalry charge, and the result was a versatile force capable of dominating sixth-century battlefields.

I’m not myself generally a great believer in the broader explanatory power of military technology. God is generally on the side of the big battalions. But just occasionally – and usually only for a short time until the opposition picks up the changes too, or finds an alternative means for dealing with it – new hardware can give one side or the other a temporary edge. In this case, a temporary but sufficient advantage was given by a more flexible adoption of the capacities of the Hunnic mounted archer, and the result was devastating. Procopius’ battle narratives for the Vandal campaign leave a huge amount to be desired. He doesn’t tell us exactly why it was that the Vandals lost 800 men and the Romans only fifty during the initial skirmishing phase of the battle of Tricamarum, but given that John and the cavalry were continually sallying and then retreating, it’s a pretty fair bet that their archery was doing most of the damage. He is much more explicit in at least some of the battles which followed in Italy against the Goths, and there the Goths’ consistent problem was getting to grips with an East Roman cavalry arm whose capacity to hurt from a distance gave them a massive tactical advantage. The main focus of this adaptation, which can be dated to the later fifth century, must have been Constantinople’s traditional enemy in the east: Persia and all its works. But the Vandal gamble showed how much distance it had also put between Roman armies and those of the Western successor states. And once you know you have a major military advantage, so long as no third party is holding you in check, the temptation to use it, as we’ve seen in our own times, can become overwhelming.38


Again, however, the regime was extremely cautious and still did not rush headlong into a policy of total war in the West. The initial propaganda generated by the Vandal victory heralded it as a triumph over heretics who were oppressing fellow Catholic Christians. It was couched, in other words, in terms entirely specific to the North African situation, and made no threats – explicit or implicit – to other Western powers. Indeed, Belisarius’ whole campaign would have been impossible without the logistic licence that Ostrogothic Italy had allowed the Roman fleet within its territorial waters. But Ostrogothic Italy was the next plausible Western target for East Roman armies, and you did not get to win and retain power in sixth-century Constantinople by remaining true to entirely disposable friends, or possibly even by having ‘friend’ anywhere in your conceptual lexicon.

A pretext for playing silly buggers in Italy was duly provided by that old happy hunting ground: succession. Constantinople had already fished productively there once, of course, after the death of Eutharic, with the active aim of undermining Theoderic’s newly united Visigothic and Ostrogothic kingdoms (page 95). Whether they responded more positively to the extant request in the Variae to recognize Athalaric after Theoderic’s death and the re-separation of Spain from Italy is unclear, but likely enough, since their key goal had already been achieved and relations were good enough by the early 530s for Belisarius’ fleet to find the logistic support it needed along the Italian coastline. If you were intent on causing trouble, however, the overarching political situation in most of the successor kingdoms was unstable enough that it could usually be relied upon to deliver the aggressor’s dream: internal dissent within your target combined with a propaganda angle to give you the requisite respectability.

Athalaric had only been eight or ten at Theoderic’s death, and, in political terms, it was impossible for him at this point to exercise real power in his own right. The new game in Ravenna thus became securing influence over Athalaric through the regency council which now effectively governed the realm. Procopius puts a particular spin on the political struggles which followed, claiming that the boy’s mother, Theoderic’s daughter Amalasuentha, wished her son to have a more Roman education, whereas the other older Gothic males on the council wanted him to be brought up as a more traditional Goth. I’m confident that this is simplificatory shorthand rather than the full story, but controlling the king’s upbringing would certainly have been the key to immediate political power, so it would not be remotely surprising if that were indeed one of the issues around which rival political groupings coalesced.

Eventually, and here Procopius becomes more precise, Amalasuentha found herself locked in a struggle with three leading Gothic nobles, anonymous in the Wars, which was so threatening that, at one point, she had a ship loaded with treasure in case she needed to make a swift getaway, with Constantinople as her destination of choice. In the end, she won out, but only just; and at considerable cost. She managed to get the three men appointed to important provincial commands and there had them murdered. Two of the three were probably our old friend Tuluin, who held large estates in Gothic Provence (which would count as a provincial command), and another noble by the name of Osuine, who, at about the right time, was appointed to an important and equally provincial command in Dalmatia. Both then disappear without further trace. Who the third was, I have no idea, and nor does anyone else.

The queen had survived one moment of extreme danger, but it was not her fate to pass safely into a more comfortable future. The true cost of survival became clear when Athalaric passed away on 2 October 534, at the tender age of sixteen or eighteen. The pressures were now such that it was impossible for Amalasuentha to rule by herself so she appointed her cousin Theodahad, Theoderic’s nephew, as co-ruler. He, however, had already been a potential candidate for the throne in the 520s, and had his own base of influential support. Amalasuentha’s Godfather moment of simultaneous assassination had also alienated many supporters of her eliminated rivals, making it easy for Theodahad to mobilize a critical mass of support against her. Power quickly slipped through her fingers, and nor was there an easy out in Constantinople. Theodahad had her first arrested, and then executed – famously in her bath tub. We don’t know the exact date of her murder, but she was certainly dead by April 535.39

As news of impending Italian instability filtered across the Adriatic, Justinian could smell the aroma of a new opportunity a mile away, and sent in an agent provocateur, Peter the Patrician, something of a cross between James Bond and Lord Carrington, the former British Foreign Secretary so lovingly described by an American Secretary of State as ‘that duplicitous bastard’. From Dara in Mesopotamia, where Belisarius had won the early victory over the Persians, Peter (he was not yet ‘the Patrician’: that particular gong came after his return from Italy in 539) had studied and practised law and was renowned as a scholar. He was also according to Procopius clever, kindly and persuasive, but that’s the good news recorded in Wars; Anekdota adds the bad news that he was grasping and the greatest thief alive. There is no doubting his cleverness and guile, however, nor the trust in which he was held by his emperor.40

Peter was originally sent to Italy before Athalaric had actually passed away, since he was halfway there when he met the messengers announcing the king’s death going in the other direction. But Athalaric died of a wasting disease whose effects and likely outcome were apparent substantially before October 534, so there is no reason to doubt that impending Italian instability was the cause of Peter’s deployment. That said, the young king’s death was an eventuality which his orders did not yet encompass so he had to stay put and await instructions. Such was the speed of communication versus that of actual events, that when he finally made it to Italy armed with orders to make Justinian’s support for Amalasuentha explicit, the queen was already dead. This probably wasn’t that much of a problem. Anekdota claims that he had secret instructions to arrange the queen’s murder anyway. If so, this was certainly to destabilize the situation further, and, in the wake of Justinian’s declared support for her, provide a repeat of the pretext – support of a deposed and murdered monarch – which had sent Belisarius to North Africa. In the summer of 535, he shuttled back and forth to Constantinople, apparently taking Theodahad’s messages that Amalasuentha’s murder had not been his idea (having been perpetrated by the relatives of her three murdered rivals) and returning with Justinian’s response. In fact, he came back to sow as much dissent as he could in the kingdom which now found itself at the top of the East Roman hit list.

In summer 535, Belisarius and the fleet had been despatched to the West for a second time, this time carrying 4,000 regulars, 3,000 Isaurians, and a few hundred others, along with the general’s own guardsmen. His destination was ostensibly Carthage, but he also had contingent orders to test out Gothic control of Sicily and, if it could be easily overturned, to do so. He landed close to Catana which quickly surrendered, and the other cities of the island followed suit and almost entirely without resistance, except at Panormus. Syracusa was the last to open its gates and, by chance, Belisarius entered it in triumph in late December, on the final day of his consulship. Again, Justinian had been cautious: note the carefully contingent nature of Belisarius’ orders. But, after the bloodless capture of Sicily, emperor and propaganda finally came out of the closet. At this moment, and for the very first time, the celebration of Sicilian victory committed the regime to a potentially unlimited policy of Western conquest (page 137).

Back in Ravenna, Peter went into overdrive, pressuring Theodahad with tales of the military juggernaut which was heading in his direction. Panicked, Theodahad agreed to surrender the kingdom, contemplating the kind of wealthy retirement that his cousin had had in mind when she’d loaded all that treasure on to her ship. But he was between a rock and a hard place, and when news came around Easter 536 that an East Roman assault on Gothic possessions in Dalmatia had been beaten off, he did a complete volte-face, declaring war and throwing his ambassadorial tormentor in jail.

A year earlier, this kind of Gothic resolve, combined with a military setback, might have made Justinian think again, but, after the bloodless seizure of Sicily – an extremely valuable prize in its own right in the ancient world – the emperor was committed to another roll of the dice. And, in fact, Theodahad had moved too slowly against the Roman mission. Before being sent to jail, where he would languish for three whole years, Peter got off the crucial letter – which Justinian had ordered Belisarius to expect and respond to – summoning the general and his army to Italy.41

Imperial war-making in the West was no longer dependent on massively favourable and highly contingent circumstances as it had been when Belisarius was despatched with the first fleet in summer 533. Three years later, the Goths were up in arms and had already won one round. But like the neocons nearly 1,500 years later, Justinian was now confident that he had the military hardware to roll over the Gothic kingdom as quickly as he had the Vandals. The dice of war were being thrown with a vengeance and Constantinople committed itself to recovering every last square inch of Roman territory that it could. By a long and tortuous path, Justinian’s regime finally came to the policy option which has distinguished it for historians ever since. Who would the winner be, and would they take it all?

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