Ancient History & Civilisation



As FAR AS PROCOPIUS WAS CONCERNED, but this should come as no great surprise, there were no winners at all.

To state exactly the number of those who were destroyed by him would never be possible, I think, for anyone whomsoever, or for God. One might more quickly, I think, count all the grains of sand than the vast number whom this Emperor destroyed.

His survey started in North Africa which now (c.550 when Anekdota was composed) ‘has been so thoroughly ruined that for the traveller who makes a long journey [there] it is no easy matter … to meet a human being’. As to what followed in Italy, ‘it has become everywhere even more destitute of men than North Africa’. Nor was the destruction confined to the places Justinian’s armies attacked. The Roman Balkans in its entirety

was overrun practically every year by Huns [meaning Bulgars], Sclaveni and Antae, from the time when Justinian took over the Roman Empire, and they wrought frightful havoc among the inhabitants of that region. For in each invasion more than twenty myriads [one myriad is 10,000] of Romans, I think, were destroyed or enslaved there.

And meanwhile in the East:

The Persians under Chosroes four times made inroads into the rest of the Roman domain and dismantled the cities, and, as for the people whom they found in the captured cities and in each country district, they slew a part and led some away with them, leaving the land bare of inhabitants wherever they chanced to descend.

And that’s not counting – as our author then goes on to list – casualties among the Romans’ opponents, and those brought down by acts of misgovernment and natural disaster, all of which can reasonably be blamed on his demonic emperor. In all, Procopius reckons that ‘a myriad myriads of myriads’ – i.e. 10,0003, or a trillion people – died because of Justinian’s demonic reign. As a footnote to one of the standard English translations helpfully tells us,

The ‘cube of ten thousand’ is not the language of exact computation, and Procopius is trying to make out a strong case against Justinian.1

But poetic licence need not mean that the basic point is misplaced, and many have felt that Justinian’s reign did exhaust the empire, leaving it easy prey for the various disasters which would follow. So, how strong is the case against Justinian? Three related sets of questions need to be answered here. Were the territories his armies annexed in the West worth the cost of conquest? Did those costs of conquest have substantially bad effects upon the population of the empire he inherited from his uncle? And can subsequent territorial losses in the Balkans and the East be justifiably reckoned as the longer-term consequences of Justinian’s policies?


In the end, as Procopius’ judgements would lead you to expect, Justinian’s Gothic war ended up costing far more than the emperor and his advisers were expecting. But, a bit like recent Western deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq, it took some time for this to become apparent. In its initial phases, the Italian war looked comfortingly like a rerun of the North African campaign. It began in earnest in summer 536, when Belisarius landed in the south of Italy proper and besieged Naples which eventually fell after a prolonged struggle. We know that it was in East Roman hands by November. In the meantime, Theodahad, still in Rome, did nothing, presumably hoping to find some kind of negotiated solution to his impasse. But the fall of Naples was too much for his chief supporters who deposed and executed him before the end of the year. Thus perished the last male of the great Theoderic’s house to rule the remnants of his empire, and, in his place, the leading Goths promoted Wittigis, who had already established his reputation as a capable military leader. The Goths now had a regime that was as much committed to armed confrontation as that of Justinian. The phony war, which had lasted until the fall of Naples, was over, and battle was set to commence when the arrival of better weather set the grass to grow again in the spring of 537.2

Wittigis spent the winter preparing. Leaving Rome in December, he went to Ravenna to gather and equip his forces. He also ceded to the Franks the Gallic territories which Theoderic had won in 508 and Tuluin extended in the 520s, to secure the Goths’ northern border and free up military forces which would otherwise have been required there for garrison duties. The need was pressing because his armies had already suffered some losses of manpower. Not only had the Naples garrison been destroyed by Belisarius, but some Goths (nothing like a majority as we shall see) had clearly been impressed by the ease of the Vandals’ destruction. Thus a certain Pitzas and half the Goths of Samnium immediately surrendered to Belisarius rather than fight for Wittigis.

By February 537, Wittigis had mobilized his forces, but Belisarius had already moved his relatively limited army into Rome, which he had entered shortly after Wittigis vacated it on 9/10 December. The year 537 was thus spent in a fruitless Gothic siege of the old imperial capital. At this point, Procopius was still attached to his general, and he provides a gripping first-hand narrative, full of Gothic bravery and Roman steadfastness. Basically, Wittigis lacked the numbers or skill to break into the city, and Belisarius, despite a continued tactical advantage in weaponry which showed up every time there was an encounter, lacked the numbers to come out and fight. The blockade was briefly halted in December 537, when the arrival of Roman reinforcements prompted the Goths to make a three-month truce, but, otherwise, the year was marked only by some equally inconsequential fighting on the Balkan front in Dalmatia, where again the Goths failed in a siege, this time of Salona, which the Romans had taken in 535.3

The stalemate around Rome was broken early in the New Year. Belisarius’ reinforcements consisted mainly of cavalry, and, as soon as he could, the Roman general sent them off to raid Picenum. Picenum, on the far side of the Apennines by the Adriatic, was an area of relatively dense Gothic settlement, and Belisarius’ aim was to break up the siege of Rome by threatening the wives and children of the men who had him penned in the city. The stratagem worked. By March 538, enough pressure had been applied for Wittigis to be forced to abandon the siege. The Gothic army retreated north through the Apennines along the Via Flaminia, to cut off and destroy Belisarius’ cavalry, which had by this point established itself behind the walls of Rimini having spread maximum destruction further south. As he retreated, Wittigis established a series of strongpoints to guard his rear. The strategically placed city of Auximum was given a garrison of particular quality; other forces were left at Clusium (of Lars Porsena fame), Urviventus, Tudera, Petra, Urbinus, Caesena and Montefertra (Figure 9).

With the siege of Rome over, however, Belisarius’ forces now enjoyed complete freedom of movement. Rushing reinforcements to Rimini by an alternative route through the mountains before Wittigis’ main body – busy establishing its strongpoints – could arrive, he moved a second force by ship to Genoa. It then marched north to take the surrender of Milan and other cities of Liguria in the north-west. With the main part of his army, Belisarius followed Wittigis north-east into Picenum, where, on the receipt of yet more reinforcements, he began to work his way up the coast towards Ravenna.4 Again, it would seem, the emperor had been cautious. Despite committing his regime to war, he waited to see how the initial encounters went before putting in the extra troops. Presumably, if Belisarius had fared badly, he had it in mind to do a deal based on some kind of partition of the peninsula, which was one of the permutations which had been discussed with Theodahad during the period of phony war. But, by the end of 538, the emperor could afford to think in grander terms. When winter put an end to mobile operations, Wittigis was drawn up around Rimini, Belisarius was closing in fast behind him, and Gothic control of the north-west was ebbing away.

In 539, Belisarius largely retained the strategic initiative. On the main, Adriatic front, he slowly tightened the noose around Wittigis’ army. As the summer progressed, Auximum was captured, along with Fiesole. These successes opened up the road network towards Ravenna, and, in December, Belisarius advanced on the city itself. Wittigis had in the meantime sent his nephew Urais with a counter-expedition to Liguria which recaptured the lost cities and sacked Milan in the process. But this was not enough to return the strategic initiative to the Goths. The Roman threat to the region remained sufficient, for instance, to prevent Urais from leaving the Po valley to defend Fiesole at the crucial moment as Wittigis wanted him to.5

By the end of the year, Wittigis’ position was rapidly deteriorating. Individual Goths and even whole subgroups were abandoning his cause and looking to come to terms with Belisarius. Because of the well-directed military threat to their families and possessions, in a repeat of the Picenum stratagem, both the Gothic garrisons of the Cottian Alps and the bulk of Urais’ mobile force disappeared back to their homes. Increasingly isolated in Ravenna, Wittigis tried diplomacy, negotiating for assistance from the Lombards and Franks to the north, and, more desperately, from the Persian Empire to the east, hoping that a Persian invasion of Syria would undermine Justinian’s ability to pursue war simultaneously in Italy.6 But none of this happened soon enough to erode Belisarius’ strategic dominance, and this is precisely the moment that Cassiodorus was scribbling away on the Variae, trying desperately to reinsure himself against the political disaster which was looming on his doorstep.

Belisarius, by contrast, was now facing what he expected to be the final problem of the campaign: Ravenna itself. Protected by marshes and walls, it was virtually impregnable, and like Theoderic before him in 493, Belisarius looked to find an alternative way inside its walls. Negotiations began, operating simultaneously on a number of levels, as they had done at the outbreak of the war. Openly, the Goths offered formally to submit to Justinian, and to cede to him large tracts of Italian territory. Under this plan, a truncated Gothic kingdom would have been confined to lands north of the river Po: to Liguria and the Venetias, where the bulk of the Goths had been placed by Theoderic back in the 490s. Justinian might have settled for this at the start of the war, but success and reinforcements meant that he now wanted a grander outcome. At the same time, in secret contacts, the Goths tried to seduce Belisarius away from his loyalty to the emperor, offering him ‘rule of the West’: a further revival of empire in the West based on a combination of Belisarius’ army and Gothic military manpower.

Thinking he had his man, Wittigis opened the gates of Ravenna in May 540, but the Goths had been tricked. As Procopius reports it, they surrendered thinking that Belisarius would indeed declare himself emperor of the West, but, once the Romans were inside the city, nothing happened, and there was nothing that Wittigis could do. He and his chief supporters were detained, and the rest of the Gothic army sent home. With Belisarius’ coup de théâtre, the war seemed over.7 And if that had been the end of it, I doubt that historians would have spent much time and energy anxiously debating its costs. Victory over Wittigis had taken longer than the eight months or so required to dispose of Gelimer, and there had been bigger collateral costs: above all the sacking of Naples and Milan. Nevertheless, in spring 540, three campaigning seasons to dispose of the Ostrogothic kingdom which, only a generation before, had provided the backbone of a plausible restoration of the Western Empire, must have seemed like a highly reasonable return on Justinian’s investment.

But the bill was still a long way from complete. Far away to the east, Justinian’s victories over the Vandals had begun to prompt reflections at the Persian court as to whether and to what extent Roman success in the West was altering the balance of power between the two empires. Their urgency was redoubled in the summer of 539 when, by route unknown, an embassy from Wittigis somehow arrived at the Persian capital Ctesiphon with the following report:

It is clear that, if he can destroy utterly also the Goths, he will march against the Persians together with us and [the Vandals] whom he has enslaved already, and neither will he respect the name of friendship nor will he be ashamed [to break] the oaths that have been sworn.

The embassy was designed to stir up the Persians and relieve pressure on the Goths, but I’m confident that the Persians were perfectly capable of grasping the point without the assistance of the desperate Gothic king, or even that of the Armenians, who were also, according to Procopius, busy trying to stir up Chosroes with reports of increasing Roman power. Either way, in the spring of 540, Chosroes led his army into Roman Mesopotamia and simply ignored the network of massive fortresses that stood in his way to head straight for Antioch: regional capital of the Roman East and one of greatest cities of the empire. He felt able to do so because enough Roman troops had been stripped away for the North African and Italian wars for him to be confident that his forces would not be attacked from behind if they ventured deep within Roman territory.

The results were devastating. The Persians first took the city of Beroia (modern Aleppo) and then, in June 540, fell upon Antioch. The city was captured in a few days and razed to the ground except for two churches, one inside and one outside the walls, together with a small cluster of houses that were disregarded in the outskirts. Not that there was anyone to live in them. The surviving population was frogmarched off to Persia where a new city, in some way a copy of their old, was built within a day’s travel of Ctesiphon. Called ‘Khusro’s Greater Antioch’, it had a bathhouse, a hippodrome, charioteers and musicians. No expense was spared in making it an everlasting monument to the greatest victory a Persian shah-in-shah could ever win.8 Indirectly, therefore, his Western adventures had cost Justinian the second city of his empire: a devastating hit in itself, but by no means the end of the reckoning.

Back in Italy, the bulk of the Goths had been dispersed by Belisarius’ well-conceived military stratagem of attacking their homes, but not actually defeated in battle. Moreover, Belisarius had insufficient troops to occupy in force Gothic heartlands north of the Po. The only Roman unit in the area was a group of Heruli under Vitalius at Treviso. As the extent of Belisarius’ trickery became clear, tactical opportunity and military manpower were both available, therefore, for more energetic Gothic leaders to rekindle the fires of war. In the summer of 540, two in particular continued to resist: Urais in Pavia and Ildebadus at Verona. Neither conducted aggressive operations, but both refused to surrender, and they continued to press Belisarius to accept the Western imperium.

Had he been able to move north of the Po in force at this point, the war really could have been over. But all hell having broken out on the eastern front, troops were at a premium, and Justinian (reportedly also worried about reports of the Goths’ offers to his general) eventually decided that Belisarius too was needed. Belisarius thus left Ravenna in December 540, taking with him Wittigis and the other leading Goths he had captured, not to mention our old friend Cassiodorus. All hope of seducing the general away from his loyalty to Justinian disappeared, and the Goths needed to try a new tack. Ildebadus rallied his supporters for war. Vitalius and his Heruli tried to nip the revolt in the bud, but were heavily defeated.9 The second phase of the Gothic war was about to begin in earnest, but, first, the Goths needed to sort out their politics.

Initially, Urais deferred to Ildebadus. But power-sharing proved difficult, and, when the two fell out (reportedly over their wives’ competitive dressing), Ildebadus engineered Urais’ death. This alienated a significant body of the Goths, who had Ildebadus killed in turn. Goscinny and Uderzo were not wrong in identifying faction and civil war as the Gothic disease. Both Goths were dead by the end of 541. In the meantime, Eraric, latest leader of that contingent of Rugi who had followed Theoderic to Italy in 489 and played both ends against the middle during the struggle against Odovacar, put himself forward as a potential king. His main policy was to negotiate with Constantinople, reviving the idea of partitioning Italy. Then he too was murdered, and power passed to Ildebadus’ nephew Totila.10 In the short term, Totila was committed to more martial options.


His years of success, which lasted through the 540s, had two foundations. First, the war with Persia prevented Justinian from reinforcing his Italian armies. Having learned from the Antioch debacle, Justinian was careful never again to leave the eastern front so exposed. Second, Totila won some quick victories. Militarily, they allowed him to regain the tactical initiative. Politically, they encouraged more of the Goths to throw in their lot with the revolt. Totila was also careful to treat prisoners leniently, with the result that many Roman troops (often contingents of allied barbarians who been hired in for the purpose) eventually joined the Goths, especially when their pay failed to arrive. Totila picked certainly hundreds, and perhaps a few thousand reinforcements in this way. At one point, some Roman slaves also took their place in the Gothic army, but Procopius gives us no idea of how many.11

Faced with Totila and renewed revolt, 12,000 imperial troops moved north to besiege Verona, one of the chief centres of resistance, in winter 541–2. In spring, Totila went after them with 5,000 men, and won a resounding victory at Faenza, south of the Po, whence the Roman army had retreated. The key moment in the battle came when 300 of Totila’s cavalry crashed into the Roman rear. As Procopius reports it, this victory encouraged enough further Gothic recruits to come forward to swell the ranks of Totila’s army to 20,000 men. Quick to capitalize on his success, he then besieged the Roman forces holding the city of Florence, and won a second victory there over a Roman relief force sent to its assistance. Between them, the two battles were enough to push the Roman forces in Italy on to the defensive. They looked to do no more than hold on to the fortified centres they had already taken, while Totila was able to spread his revolt south, taking Benevento, Cumae and eventually Naples in spring 543.12

In the next two campaigning seasons, Totila took careful aim at important Roman holdings, including the strategic fortress of Auximum. Its capture cut off land communications between Rome and Ravenna, and prepared the ground for an escalation in Gothic military ambitions. At the end of 545, Totila was ready to mount a siege of Rome itself. He pressed it hard throughout the next year, and the city finally surrendered to him on 17 December 546. Totila had succeeded where Wittigis had failed, but Gothic manpower was being stretched to the limit. During the siege, Totila concluded that he had to hand over the province of Venetia to the Frankish king Theudebert, in order to free still more Goths from garrison duties there.13

Alarmed by Totila’s successes, and with some stability restored in the East, Justinian sent Belisarius back to Italy in winter 544–5. But no reinforcements went with him, and there was little he could do. His best moment came in April 547, when he reoccupied Rome. Chronically short of manpower, Totila had decided not to hold the city himself and made the serious mistake of failing to neutralize its defences. But Belisarius could not do much more, and he was eventually recalled to Constantinople in 548, while the Gothic military successes kept on coming. Stung by his own mistake, Totila besieged Rome for a second time, from the summer of 549, until it fell to him again the following January, during which time Gothic forces also captured a whole string of other fortresses, including Tarentum and Rimini. Totila also chose this moment to create a raiding fleet, which was placed under the command of Indulf, a deserter from the East Roman army. It was then set loose on Constantinople’s possessions. The coast of Dalmatia was ravaged in 549, Sicily taken in 550 and Corfu and Epirus attacked in 551.14

Despite these successes, Totila faced an overwhelming problem. The East Roman Empire possessed resources of wealth and manpower far in excess of his own. Like Wittigis before him, he had been forced to cede parts of Theoderic’s kingdom to the Franks to free Gothic manpower for his campaigns, and every engagement cost further losses. In the mid-540s, Justinian’s resources were still being stretched by war on two fronts, as the war with Chosroes which had started with the sack of Antioch rumbled on, but such a situation could not last indefinitely. In such circumstances, outright Gothic victory was impossible and Totila needed to find a way to bring the war to an end with some kind of Gothic kingdom still intact. Totila’s vigorous and strikingly successful pursuit of military options was not about trying to win the war outright, but to make its continuation so costly that Justinian would be willing to offer him a deal. Even at the height of his military successes, therefore, Totila kept offering concessions. Immediately after his second capture of Rome, for instance, Totila sent a third embassy to Justinian, and its tone was highly conciliatory. In it, Totila offered to cede Dalmatia and Sicily to Constantinople, to pay an annual tribute, and to provide military contingents for the Eastern Empire’s campaigns.15 Totila clearly understood that, without face-saving gains, Justinian would never be persuaded to end the war, and it was overwhelmingly in the Goths’ interest to persuade him to do so.

Justinian, however, rejected every approach. From the emperor’s point of view, I suspect, so much prestige had been invested in the conquest policy that it was extremely difficult to abandon it. By the later 540s, too, stability was returning to the eastern front. No more serious engagements took place on the main Mesopotamian front after a failed Persian siege of Edessa in the summer of 544, while, in the Caucasus, major Roman gains in 549 reversed earlier losses and convinced Chosroes that no further advantage was in the offing. A formal peace treaty would not be agreed until 551, but by the time Totila’s third embassy arrived in early 550, it would already have been clear to Justinian that the strategic context would soon allow him to find the necessary forces to finish the Italian job. Totila’s approaches were all rejected, and the scene was set for the showdown.

Justinian’s preferred strategy was a land expedition through the Balkans into northern Italy: the route taken by Theoderic some sixty years before, and so much easier than trying to transport a large army by sea. Preparations began in 550, when the emperor’s cousin Germanus was appointed to command the expedition. Wittigis now dead, Germanus also married Matasuentha, Amalasuentha’s daughter, in an attempt to confuse Gothic loyalties. Germanus, however, died in the year of his appointment, and it was not until early 552 that the expedition, now under the command of the eunuch general Narses, was ready to move. But the noose had already been tightening in other ways. In summer 551, an imperial force had utterly destroyed Totila’s raiding fleet off Ancona, and Procopius reports the alarm and despondency which greeted news of this setback in the Gothic camp.16

By April 552, everything was set, and, with the grass now growing again to sustain his baggage animals, Narses advanced into Italy. Totila attempted to block the route to Ravenna (which remained in East Roman hands), by flooding the land south of Verona. He also sent a force of his best men under its own commander, Teias, independently to harass Narses’ operations. The East Roman army, however, advanced methodically along the coast to Ravenna, while a second Roman force landed in Calabria in the south, where it defeated some Goths at Crotone. Having replenished stores at Ravenna, Narses came on in search of battle. Totila eventually confronted him – at the end of June or in early July – on a level plain in the northern Apennines called Busta Gallorum. Totila had gathered most of his available troops, and the central drama of the battle was a charge by the Gothic cavalry, the elite of his army:

Orders had been given to the entire Gothic army that they should use neither bow nor any other weapon in this battle except their spears.

The idea, presumably, was to overcome at close quarters with shock and awe, but it all proved tragically misconceived:

For in making their charge against their enemy’s centre, the [Gothic cavalry] placed themselves in between the 8,000 [Roman] infantry, and [were] raked by their bowshots from either side.

The charge was broken before it could even come to grips with the Roman line, and its retreat prompted a general rout with the Goths reportedly leaving 6,000 dead on the battlefield, a casualty count which was quickly swelled by the subsequent execution of all prisoners. Totila himself was mortally wounded. In the aftermath of victory, Narses quickly occupied Rome and subdued all the remaining Gothic garrisons in Tuscany. Still the Goths weren’t quite beaten. Teias gathered as many of the remaining Goths as he could at Pavia, and, realizing he needed help, made a further alliance with the Franks. Battle was renewed in October 552, far to the south, at Mons Lactarius in Campania. After another fierce fight, Teias died breathing defiance, and most of the remaining Goths negotiated an armistice.17

The Italian Goths had been destroyed as a coherent military and political force, but Italy had not yet been secured for Justinian. Narses spent the winter subduing some stubborn but entirely isolated centres of resistance. After Teias’ death, three Gothic leaders had continued the struggle. Indulf retreated to Pavia with 1,000 men, Aligern fought on at Cumae, and Ragnaris was holding out in Conza della Campania. Then, early in 553, the last Frankish assistance purchased by Teias, an army consisting largely of Alamanni, finally arrived. Advancing south through Liguria and Aemilia, it won some Gothic support among the scattered remnants of Theoderic’s former followers, and one of its leaders, Butilinus, was even offered the Gothic kingship. Narses, however, was ready. In 553, his troops subdued the whole of Tuscany, and, in December, brought Aligern to surrender. Butilinus’ expedition itself was eventually defeated in 554, at the battle of Casilinum, as a result of which Ragnaris’ followers surrendered in spring 555.

Just the mopping up remained. By 560, imperial control was securely established in Liguria, Histria and most of Venetia. Only eastern Venetia was left unsubdued, and it was this region which witnessed the last flicker of Gothic revolt. In 561, a Gothic count called Widin rebelled in Brescia and called again for Frankish help. The manoeuvre failed.18 Widin’s defeat marked the final extinction of Gothic resistance to Justinian’s conquest of Italy, and in November 562 Narses formally reported to Constantinople the capture of Verona and Brixia. Twenty-seven years after the near-bloodless seizure of Sicily, imperial domination had finally been established over the Italian peninsula.


Recovering the contingent, events-led drift of Justinian’s regime into a policy of Western expansion is relatively straightforward when the events of his early years, and the exact detail of the orders given to Belisarius, are looked at closely. It is also, thanks to Procopius, reasonably easy to recapture something of the narrative drama of the actual conquests, even if his tendency to disperse events happening simultaneously on different fronts into separate books conceals important linkages. Altogether more difficult, however, is the task of forming a convincing overall judgement on the conquest policy and its effects, in both the short term and longer. The hard statistics – what did the campaigns cost, how much taxation did the conquered territories add to the empire’s fiscal base, etc. – are all unavailable.19 Qualitative judgement rather than statistical analysis has to be the order of the day, but that’s perhaps not too surprising given that we’re dealing with events of the mid-first millennium.

More fundamentally, however, whose perspective should we adopt when making such judgements? The real problem with a wonderfully Sellar and Yeatman type question like ‘Was Justinian’s policy of Western expansion a good thing?’ (variants of which have been seen on many a university exam paper) is, straightforwardly, ‘good’ from whose perspective? In the era of nationalism, the state tended to be viewed in Western historiography as broadly – again in the terms of 1066 & All That – a ‘good thing’, and developments were usually judged according to how they affected the prosperity or otherwise of centres of political authority. But that is only one possible viewpoint, and it is important to try to do justice to everyone caught up in the tornados of conquest which Justinian unleashed.

For many of the human beings concerned, the experience of war was devastating. Not least, the two wars destroyed the Vandal–Alan and Gothic political elites around which twin successor states in North Africa and Italy had been built. There has been a strong tendency to downplay the reality of these units in some recent literature, on the basis that they were not the unified, culturally coherent peoples imagined by scholars working in the nationalist era. Instead, it is suggested, they were loose groups which could slip in and out of existence at the drop of a hat, in which case, of course, their political destruction need not have occasioned any major loss of life. But while, as we’ve seen, these entities certainly were not ancient ‘peoples’, the minimalist view of their historical importance is actually based on only a half-understanding of how group identities work. Yes, some individuals can and do change group identity, and one important ingredient of identity is located primarily in the head: the identity that you consider yourself to hold. But the individual’s own assertion of what is inside their head does have to be recognized by the broader group – what’s inside your head is a kind of claim which may or may not be recognized by the group you want to be part of – and group rules vary over time and space. Some groups impose relatively tight rules on individuals who want to be or are part of them, and hence have a more solid existence, while others do not. To go from an old vision of complete solidity to a new one of complete fluidity, therefore, is to move from one oversimplification to another.

Both the Vandal–Alans who ended up in North Africa, and the Goths of Theoderic, were demonstrably new alliances, sometimes of culturally very diverse groups (where the Vandals were Germanic-speaking agriculturalists, the Alans were Iranian-speaking nomads) created in the fifth century. But that doesn’t mean that these alliances had no real group identity. The Vandal–Alan coalition was forged in the furnace of warfare against the Western Empire. Theoderic’s Goths, likewise, were constructed, as we saw inChapter 1, in the context of a sequence of struggles first against other successors to Attila’s empire, and then in the Roman Balkans. Social scientists confirm what intuition would anyway suggest: that conflict, and the need to survive it, is one crucial form of social cement, and these groups had enjoyed that in spades. Their settlements in North Africa and Italy then provided a second. Theoderic’s most important political task, once Odovacar was eliminated, was to provide economically for the followers who had put him in power. The Vandal–Alan leader Geiseric had to go through the same process in North Africa in the 440s. In both cases, the distribution of assets identified and rewarded key military supporters by gifts of real estate, which continued to be held by their heirs in return for a liability for military service. Though certainly transformed by the process of settlement, the original groups thus continued to exist as a distinctly rewarded and distinctly liable element of the total population of the two kingdoms. In the Gothic case, we know that cohesion was maintained by clustering the settlements and organizing periodic gatherings subsequently, during which further rewards were handed out.20

It is in this transformed, but still distinct, manifestation that we then encounter Vandal–Alans and Goths in the war narratives of Procopius. And if you step back from the intense details of particular military encounters, what you see is the destruction by various methods of these core groups. The Vandal campaign was over so fast that the story is quickly told. But the vast majority of all the Vandal–Alan males had been removed from North Africa by the time that the initial conquest was complete. The process in Italy took longer and gets more fully documented, but its overall shape is clear. Theoderic’s following consisted of warriors of two distinct statuses, and the higher group were the key to the coherence of the force he led to Italy. They were not just a small nobility in the later medieval sense of the word, but maybe something like a quarter of the total following, so 5,000 individuals or more. The story of the East Roman conquest is the story of the effective elimination of this group, a few by surrender, but many more by death or deportation. Because of the current penchant for stressing fluidity of identity, this evidence tends not to be discussed, but it is plentiful, coherent and detailed. It also fits in perfectly well with the previous history of the group’s initial formation and subsequent settlement within the Italian landscape. While certainly not ethnic groups, therefore, there is no reason to dismiss either Vandal–Alans or Goths as entirely will-o’-the-wisp groupings in human terms, and their destruction – entirely literally so in the case of many individuals – can and should be reckoned among the costs of Justinian’s conquests.21

Then, of course, there is all the collateral damage inflicted on the populations of the conquered territories. You don’t have to believe in the fantastical facade erected by Cassiodorus – that the creation of Theoderic’s kingdom involved no change whatsoever for his Italo-Roman subjects – to see that a whole political generation of periodic warfare, punctuated with bouts of occasionally intense violence, must have generated huge losses for the population of Italy. Particular sacks – such as those of Naples and Milan early on in the war, or Tiber later on – are vividly described by Procopius. Cassiodorus mentions even in the early years a famine that was probably generated by the dislocations of army supply. And through it all runs a sub-theme of warfare centring on cities, and disrupted agricultural production, punctuated by moments of social rupture, such as Totila’s desperate arming of Roman slaves towards the final stages of the war. It is impossible to come to any kind of quantitative judgement on the effects of the fighting, but it is quite clear that the archaeology of Italy never looked the same again.

Northern Italy in particular, the area taken over by the Lombards, failed to recover from the dislocating effects of the warfare, in the sense that there is almost no evidence for complex exchange systems, and the admittedly incomplete evidence is suggestive of considerable population decline. No figure can be put on the latter, but what had been a great hub of the late Roman world both declined in demographic terms, and saw its economy move decisively towards only very local exchange.

The pattern in areas that remained under Constantinople’s control is rather different. Southern Italy retained commercial pottery industries which sold their wares across reasonably wide areas, which suggests that more general patterns of exchange retained greater complexity. The city of Rome also recovered from its various sieges to become, again, a centre of wealth which imported goods in considerable quantities, very considerable in relative terms by the seventh century. All this was on nothing like the scale of the late Roman period, and it is normally reckoned that the city’s population dropped by a factor of ten from a few hundred thousand to just a few tens of thousands. Nonetheless, despite the decline, it has been suggested that southern Italy was probably richer than any other part of the old Roman West in the seventh and early eighth centuries. Whether or how much of this economic decline would have been avoided had Justinian’s armies not been set loose in the region is difficult to estimate. Cassiodorus’ Variae give the impression that everything was running as normal prior to 536, but this is only a facade, and it is certainly true that the same kind of economic simplification we observe in Lombard Italy affected every other region of the post-Roman West as well, once thepax Romana was removed. So, I have no doubt that Justinian’s wars caused a lot of damage and killed many people unnecessarily in the Italian peninsula, but the chances are that the Italian economy – even under Ostrogothic rule – would have moved more towards the simpler patterns of the early medieval north in any case.22

Nor was everything sweetness and light in North Africa, despite the speed of the initial conquest. Like the neocons of our own era, the East Roman authorities found that it was much easier to win battles than to establish functioning governmental structures. One problem had nothing to do with Justinian. Rome’s old North African provinces – thanks to the relief rainfall generated by the Atlas Mountains – were marked by the close proximity of desert-fringe and upland nomadic Moorish populations to the much more densely populated and agriculturally rich Roman heartland provinces of eastern Numidia, Proconsularis and Byzacena (Figure 9). There had always been some endemic low-level raiding of the Roman provinces, but, for the most part, nomad–settled relations were ‘managed’ rather than a source of constant conflict. When the Vandal–Alans took over these key provinces with the capture of Carthage in 439, they inherited the network of established relations with the Moors, and started to use the latter in some of their military adventures across the Mediterranean, not least the famous sack of Rome in 457. By some means or another – my suspicion is by a combination of new arms, new wealth and new ambitions acquired in the course of this involvement – the Moorish world of the African fringes then fell out of its old rhythms under Vandal rule, and, by the 480s, larger political structures were appearing, capable of concentrating enough warriors periodically to defeat Vandal forces. One such defeat, indeed, was a major cause of Gelimer’s ability to gather a critical mass of political support against Hilderic.

On Belisarius’ overthrow of the Vandal kingdom, the Moorish problem landed at the feet of Justinian’s new administrators, and raids both on Numidia and Byzacena were reported as early as 534.23 The quick victory of 533–4 proved illusory. Teething troubles with the Catholic Church, leftover Vandals and Roman soldiers short of pay, quickly gave way to the main event: confrontation with the Moors, amongst whom the dislocations of Vandal rule had stimulated a new capacity for large-scale predatory ambition towards the wealth of the settled agricultural land which formed the beating heart of the province. This took over a decade to resolve itself, at which point the victories of the new Roman commander John Troglita in 547–8 stabilized the situation again in the medium term. All this was no small problem, even if there is no sign that the resulting conflict inflicted losses on anything like the scale of those suffered by the Italian provincials. Only one city ever changed hands, and the main initial damage to the civilian population would seem to have been through wide-ranging but small-scale raiding. And alongside the political stability that seems to have returned to North Africa both within and beyond the settled fringe from the 540s, the archaeological evidence suggests that the North African provinces saw considerable renewal of economic prosperity, even if it never quite recovered to the old late Roman levels.

The hinterland of Carthage, in particular, seems to have prospered, and the period saw considerable investment in city defences and religious buildings. There was also a modest recovery in the export of fine tablewares and agricultural produce such as wine and olive oil. But North Africa’s late Roman prosperity had come from the fact that it was tied into a broader system of west Mediterranean exchange which was actually dependent in a series of ways on the West Roman state, not least because it subsidized transport costs for its own purposes, and none of that came back into existence in the mid-sixth century. Instead of being the booming centre of a Western imperial economy, North Africa was now only a moderately prosperous peripheral zone of an East Roman economy whose crucible was located much further to the east around the Aegean and in the Near East. It exported, therefore, but on a much smaller scale, and the general level of wealth in the region seems to have settled back into a more modest prosperity.24

From the viewpoint of those caught up in the fighting – whether Vandal–Alans, Goths, Roman troops, or North African and Italian provincials – Justinian’s wars can only be considered a major disaster. The longer-term archaeological evidence does not suggest that they were anything like as devastating as Procopius’ death toll would indicate, but, in places, the impact – whether of the war itself in Italy or the longer-term struggle for control in North Africa – was extremely fierce. It does not look as though population levels recovered to prewar levels in either region, although there was clearly plenty of agricultural activity and some revival in patterns of economic exchange and specialization once peace was finally restored. In addition, of course, we must factor in the effect of East Roman tax collectors. So, in sum, it’s hard to make the argument that local provincial populations gained anything at all from being incorporated into the East Roman Empire, except perhaps that a showdown with the Moors was on the cards in North Africa even if Justinian hadn’t invaded, and his armies were arguably more capable of protecting the settled agricultural areas than the Vandals would have been.

There were few gains either in the conquest policy from the point of view of the second major grouping affected by it: the taxpayers of the Eastern Empire. Some of them, of course, suffered a similar level of collateral damage to their more unlucky peers in North Africa and Italy. The many thousands of individuals – those who survived the sack – dragged hundreds of kilometres away to live in Chosroes’ New Antioch are a case in point, although, outside of 540, specific major damage to the Eastern provincial population seems to have been rare. Much more regularly affected by the unpleasant consequences of conflict were the provincial communities of the Roman Balkans. They were plentifully provided with fortified redoubts. Hundreds are listed in Procopius’Buildings (most ‘repaired’, notice, not built: so they had long existed) and none of the invaders of the Balkans in Justinian’s reign was much good at capturing fortified centres. What was a problem, however, was the fact that Justinian regularly drew troops away from the Balkans to fight the Italian campaign. To my mind, it is no surprise, therefore, that the first really damaging Bulgar attack on the Balkans occurred in 539, just after Justinian had found Belisarius the reinforcements he needed to exploit his initial gains in Italy. The fortifications show that the emperor was not entirely without thought for his Balkan subjects, but his need for troops exposed them to much greater danger.25

Balkan and certain Eastern communities aside, the main effect of the conquest policy, as experienced by the bulk of the East Roman population, came in the form of increased taxes to defray the costs of the wars and the initial garrisoning of the conquered territories, since any extra income from them certainly took a number of years to come fully on stream. Particular individuals involved in army supply – weaponry, food, wagons, ships and a host of other items – will of course have profited. War is always a hugely profitable time for those involved in supply, since the need is pressing and lucrative contracts can usually be negotiated. Most of the Eastern Empire’s population, however, will only have seen the tax bills to pay for those contracts, and little if any profit from their filling. One of the great themes running through Anekdota, as we saw in the last chapter, is Justinian’s voracity for other people’s money, and the text combines rebarbative general condemnations with specific examples of individuals who fell foul of either the emperor’s greed or that of his wife.

Victory in Africa not only made Justinian politically untouchable, it also emboldened him to take on his richer taxpayers. The year after Gelimer’s humiliation in Constantinople saw no less than nine separate measures going round the regions of the Eastern Empire with the express intention of ratcheting up the overall tax-take by getting more out of the wealthy. And this was before the costs of fighting Goths and Persians simultaneously began to bite in the 540s (although it is noticeable – and the career of Totila expresses the fact – that Justinian never tried to fight two full-on wars at once). While I would not for a moment dispute that tax bills must have gone up under Justinian, this does provide a bit more perspective on the complaints of Procopius. All the individuals he mentions being ruined in Anekdota are rich ones, and he himself – as his education demonstrates – was certainly from at least a reasonably wealthy gentry-level landowning family. Justinian’s wars did increase tax bills, but did so disproportionately for Procopius’ class, and the anger that this generated still burns through the pages he wrote.26

There are broadly two types of overtaxation: political and economic. Political overtaxation occurs when a population, or a significant element of it, finds the level of taxation it is facing to be so unfair that it puts huge efforts into protest, avoidance, and evasion. The level at which taxation becomes politically too high is of course subjective. Economic overtaxation, by contrast, is much more based on figures. In an industrial economy, taxing production increases the costs of the goods being produced, and if you increase that cost to a point where buyers stop being interested, production and consequently GDP declines. Economic overtaxation, therefore, is measureable in terms of its negative effects on overall economic output, whereas you might get political overtaxation at levels where total output is not actually being lowered. It is here that proper allowance for the differences inherent to an agricultural economy comes in. Without good reason (and who can blame them), peasant farmers do not always maximize their production in practice. Unless they have a functioning market to sell cash crops into, they will tend to work hard enough only to feed their families and pay such dues as they owe, preferring to consume some of their potential surplus in the form of more free time and leisure. In such contexts, increasing taxation can sometimes increase overall production, so the automatic linkage between tax hikes and some kind of lowering of total output that you find in modern industrial economies is not necessarily there. Economic overtaxation of peasants, brutally, shows up when families are not left with enough of their production, no matter how hard they work, to sustain themselves in the longer term. This will usually take the form of chronic but not immediately fatal levels of malnutrition which make the population more prone to disease in general with little or no available food reserves, so that periodic, unavoidable crop failures generate bursts of high mortality. Between them, both phenomena start to lower population levels, which in turn causes marginal land to drop out of production first, and eventually perhaps better grades too. Given this kind of framework for qualitative judgement, did Justinian’s conquest policies cause overtaxation in the Eastern Empire’s heartlands?

With absolutely certainty, it led to political overtaxation among the landowning classes of the empire. Procopius’ diatribe is one indication, but there is a better one. One of the easiest ways for a new regime to gain quick political capital is to reverse – fully or partly – the most unpopular policies of its predecessor. And after Justinian’s death, the new regime of his nephew Justin II immediately reversed his uncle’s policies – or some of them – on taxing the rich.27 They had obviously been very unpopular, but this is not necessarily proof that they had done serious harm to the structure of the empire. Political overtaxation does serious damage only when it causes important political constituencies to seek entire alternatives to the prevailing order, and in fact there is little or no sign of that in the reign of Justinian. We don’t, for instance, find Roman landowning elites seeking a Persian allegiance instead of their traditional Roman one (although Procopius deliberately presented Justinian as no better than his Persian counterpart) either in the time of Justinian or immediately afterwards, so it is difficult to make the case stick that the emperor’s tax hikes had seriously damaged the structure of the empire in the long term. More likely, they just seriously annoyed the already rich.

Deciding whether Justinian overtaxed the east in economic terms is greatly complicated by the fact that his reign was also marked by a massive outbreak of plague, which affected the entire Mediterranean in the 540s. In 541 it migrated up the Red Sea, through Egypt to Alexandria, which was such a busy entrepôt that from there it quickly spread around the rest of the empire and, indeed, beyond: reaching Constantinople by spring 542 and cities in Syria, Palestine and Africa by the end of the year. By 543 it had embraced Armenia, Italy, and Gaul before eventually arriving in the British Isles. The Justinianic plague, as it is known, has taken its place alongside the Black Death and an equivalent outbreak in the later nineteenth century as one of the three great pandemics so far known to have affected human history. But controversy surrounds its every aspect, not least cause. The late 530s saw extreme climatic instability right across the Eurasian land mass and included a veiling event in 536–7, when the sun’s rays were partially blocked by heavy particles in the atmosphere and temperatures fell worldwide (this much is documented by ice core samples). The veiling was plausibly caused by a massive volcanic explosion in East Asia (although that is not certain), and the consequent change in climate perhaps caused central African plague-carrying rodents to range more widely than usual into the Red Sea area, and hence kick-start the epidemic. However, it is far from certain that the plague was bubonic (with its associated mutations), since contemporary reports suggest that the outbreak did not behave as bubonic plague should. It spread much faster, for instance, than the well-observed late nineteenth-century pandemic, despite the slower contacts and communications.

There is also massive controversy over its effects. Contemporary accounts demonstrate that it killed in large numbers, seemingly in urban and rural contexts alike. Whether it killed on the scale of the Black Death of the fourteenth century, however, when well over a third of the population in affected areas of Western Europe succumbed, is still being argued about. Those who are keen on seeing the plague as a great crisis have attempted to date some clear archaeological evidence for economic decline in the lands of the Eastern Empire to around AD 550. But, as the most recent comprehensive survey of this evidence concludes, the argument has in general terms been extremely unsuccessful. In fact, both the cities and countryside of the Eastern Empire show every sign of continued prosperity in the late sixth century, and there is no evidence at all of any major economic downturn. As we shall see later in the chapter, there is also a perfectly good, and rather different, explanation, for the evident decline which follows after 600. While the plague was certainly horrible, and killed many people, there is no evidence that it led to any generalized, or structurally serious economic dislocation.28

As I hope is clear, though, I have no doubt that Justinian’s wars were an entirely ghastly sequence of events for a very large chunk of the Mediterranean population. They certainly generated higher tax demands for the east’s population, landowners (for whom I have in general much less sympathy) and peasants alike. Many East Roman, Vandal–Alan, and Gothic soldiers died painful, brutal deaths. And, thanks to a mixture of collateral damage and consequent instability, innocent bystanders among the provincial populations of North Africa and Italy certainly in their tens of thousands – and perhaps more – lost a combination of their goods, longer-term livelihoods, and straightforwardly their lives. All to satisfy the demands of a tyrannical autocrat, who initiated the policy in a desperate attempt to win back lost political capital and then became intoxicated by the savour of apparently easy victory. For so many constituencies, Justinian’s wars were an unmitigated disaster and that is perhaps the conclusion that needs stressing more than any other. History has all too often been guilty of favouring the viewpoint of autocratic rulers in describing their glorious victories, when there is so much else that needs to be said.

But what, finally, about Justinian’s wars when viewed from that final, more traditional viewpoint: the imperial centre? From that particular perspective, despite everyone else’s losses, were the wars in any sense worth it? For Justinian himself – the self-proclaimed conqueror of many nations – there is not the slightest doubt that they were. Victory in North Africa had provided him with the mother of all get-out-of-jail-free cards, and gave him all the political capital he needed to rebuild both his regime’s standing and the ceremonial centre of Constantinople in the later 530s and beyond. He survived it all to die in his bed at the grand old age of eighty-three (or thereabouts), leaving behind him a series of monuments that still amaze (Hagia Sophia really is amazing) and with each of his wars brought to – from his point of view – fairly successful outcomes. By 565, Africa had been reasonably quiet for nearly two decades, most of Italy for over a decade, and Sicily for the best part of three. For the Illyrian adventurer who was ready to take ship and fly over that ghastly weekend in January 532, the conquest policy had been extraordinarily successful. But this is the tyrant’s own viewpoint. What about the entity he ruled, the Eastern Empire as a whole?

There are, I think, two ways to start thinking about this. One is to look at the conquered provinces. From the central, Constantinopolitan perspective, the key issue is whether they brought in enough revenue for long enough to cover the costs of their initial conquest and subsequent defence. Running quickly around them – and again, of course, we have to adopt a qualitative not quantitative approach – the answer would appear to be mixed. Sicily was undoubtedly worth it. Contrary to its role in the modern Italian polity, in the ancient and indeed medieval worlds, Sicily was a great prize: Henry III of England would virtually bankrupt himself in the thirteenth century trying to get his sticky little paws on it. Justinian, by contrast, picked Sicily up at virtually no cost, and the Eastern Empire held it without trouble down to the 650s when the first Arab raids began, and then at rather greater cost until the ninth century. By this date, the island must have more than paid for itself. The same, I think, is likely to have been true of North Africa. There the costs were higher, and it would seem that a somewhat smaller area was eventually secured for the Eastern imperial taxman than his Western predecessor had enjoyed. It also fell much sooner into Arab hands, with the loss of Carthage in the 690s marking the effective end of East Roman rule. Nonetheless, the bulk of the conquered North African territory had been in East Roman hands for 150 years by this time, which was more than long enough for the costs of conquest to have been repaid. Indeed, in the late sixth and early seventh centuries the Sicilian–North African axis was wealthy enough to provide the power base from which the father-and-son team of Heraclius (on whom more in a moment) would take over the entire empire.

The tricky one is Italy. Surprisingly large parts of Italy remained part of the East Roman Empire for a very long time, and, as we have seen, those that did show many more archaeological signs of economic prosperity than those that did not. A substantial enclave around Ravenna, together with Rome and most of central and southern Italy, were ruled directly from Constantinople until the eighth century. At that point Ravenna was lost, and Rome moved out of direct control, in a story we will need to explore in Chapter 7. The southern part of the peninsula would remain solidly East Roman for another 200 years after that, and isolated communities for a lot longer still. Belisarius’ capture of Naples thus inaugurated the best part of half a millennium of East Roman rule in southern Italy, making it hard to conclude that the costs of conquest had not long since been repaid by the tenth century.29 Much more conspicuous than these lengthy examples of continuous East Roman rule, however, is the very swift loss of much of northern Italy, and two central upland duchies – centred on Benevento and Spoleto – immediately after Justinian’s death. In 568, the Lombards swept out of the lands they had held in the Middle Danube region for about three generations, and into a northern Italy, where Narses had only just, as we’ve seen, extinguished the last flickers of Gothic independence, thus ruining the aged general’s retirement. This sudden, devastating loss clearly messed up the cost-benefit analysis being run in Constantinople on the value of Justinian’s Italian conquests. For historians, it has also become the starting point of a more general argument, that, whatever their short-term successes, Justinian’s conquests generated a more or less fatal case of imperial overstretch. For not only could all of Italy not be held, but within forty years of Justinian’s death there began a series of major losses of heartland tax base in the Near and Middle East which changed the nature of the East Roman state forever. How good is the case that these losses represent the longer-term consequences of Justinianic imperial overreach?


In 583, several embassies went backwards and forwards from Constantinople to the reigning khagan of the Avar confederation. East Romans and Avars were currently at peace, and, in the course of these contacts, the khagan made a sequence of demands for diplomatic presents from the emperor: an elephant, a golden couch, and eventually a huge sum of cash. These exchanges are reported without comment by the East Roman historian Theophylact Simocatta (charmingly, his surname means ‘the one-eyed cat’). The Avars were steppe nomads who had only recently arrived in western Eurasia from the fringes of China, who had never seen an elephant and probably barely heard of them. What was clearly going on with the elephant and the couch is that the Avar khagan and his advisers were, first of all, trying to think of something that the Constantinopolitan authorities could not provide in order graphically to demonstrate the limits of the emperor’s power. When the Romans delivered the elephant, the Avars opted for a golden couch as the most impossible diplomatic gift they could think of. When that turned up too, it became an excuse for showing disdain and the preface to an unfeasible demand for cash that they knew would lead to war. The whole rigmarole of asking for elaborate presents and then rejecting them was a diplomatic dance, designed to show Avar superiority and then to generate a break in the current state of peace.30 Its more surreal elements aside, the story also – eventually – takes us to the heart of why the Eastern Empire found it impossible to hold on to more of the Italian peninsula in the years immediately after Justinian’s death.

The Avars did not start to figure in imperial calculations until the final decade of Justinian’s reign, by which time the last embers of Gothic resistance were being snuffed out, and John Troglita’s campaigns had calmed the situation in North Africa. Their first embassy arrived in Constantinople in 558 and, as reported by the historian Menander Protector, conducted itself with the kind of bluster that was a speciality of nomad powers of the mid-first millennium:

One Kandikh … was chosen to be the first envoy of the Avars, and when he came to the palace he told the emperor of the arrival of the greatest and most powerful of the tribes. The Avars were invincible and could easily crush and destroy all who stood in their path. The emperor should make an alliance with them and enjoy their efficient protection. But they would only be well disposed to the Roman state in exchange for the most valuable gifts, yearly payments and very fertile lands to inhabit.

It is also typical of first-millennium nomads that the reality was rather more prosaic. The smart money is on their having in fact been refugees looking to get out of the way of the Western Turks, who were the really dominant steppe power of the mid-sixth century, and whose star was busily ascending at the moment when the Avars – now on the fringes of the Black Sea – sent Kandikh and their calling card to Constantinople. And getting out of the way of the Western Turks was, in fact, an extremely good idea. Theirs was the first nomad superpower known to history. Attila had been bad enough, but, though he is often compared to the great Mongol conquerors like Genghis and Kublai Khan, his was actually a petty-fogging type of enterprise confined to central and south-eastern Europe. The power of the famous Hsiung-Nu, who so pestered the Qin emperors that they built the Great Wall, was likewise confined to the northern fringes of China. The Western Turks, however, established power on a Mongol-type scale, straddling Eurasia all the way from China to the eastern approaches to Europe.31

Something pretty monumental was under way in the world of the steppe, but quite what is unclear, since nomads didn’t write much, and neither Western nor Chinese sources have the range to allow us to explore inner-steppe processes in detail. Some scholars have therefore played the environmental card, and, certainly, the veiling event which may have played some role in the plague will also have reduced the amount of fodder available on the steppe in the late 530s. This must have increased inter-nomad competition to some extent, and if the effect were large enough, the consequences would be only too predictable for their more settled neighbours.

But this is not the only possibility. Nomads depend upon their settled agricultural neighbours for huge amounts of essential foodstuffs and other items, which can either be traded for or simply extracted, and the amount of leverage that can be exercised over these neighbours’ political structures is often at the heart of any particular nomad group’s capacity to build an empire. It is just as likely, therefore, that the unprecedented empire-building of the Western Turks had its roots in changes to the world around the steppe as in changes to the steppe itself (although some combination of the two is possible, if not indeed highly likely). Here the plague might figure of course, but, in the absence of sufficient evidence, it is extremely important not to collapse the range of possibilities too quickly.32 Fortunately, our concern here is not with the rise of the western Turkish khaganate itself, but with one of its main consequences, the appearance of the Avars in the West, and here the documentation is much more straightforward.

Even if they were refugees, the Avars had sufficient military power to cut like a very hot knife through the strategic butter of central and south-eastern Europe of the mid-sixth century. Prior to 558, the situation was fairly straightforward. The Middle Danubian region west of the Carpathians (roughly modern Hungary and western Romania) was divided between two Germanic-speaking kingdoms: that of the Lombards in the west, and the Gepids further east. The lands north of the Black Sea, likewise, were divided between two Turkish-speaking Bulgar nomadic groupings, the Utigurs and the Cutrigurs. In between, the Transylvanian uplands and some of the lands north of the Danube bend were becoming home to a series of – at this stage – very small-scale Slavic entities: chiefdoms of some kind rather than kingdoms (Figure 10). The latter had come into recorded contact with the defended Danube frontier of the Roman state only from around the 520s, from which point their raiding of Roman territory became an increasing problem.

If, like Justinian, you were playing the great game from your palace at Constantinople, the overall strategy was clear. Play Lombards off against Gepids at one end of your northern frontier, and Utigurs against Cutrigurs at the other, while seeking to minimize the amount of raiding damage that the Slavs might do in the middle. And this, broadly, is what Justinian aimed at for the majority of his reign. But no policy is ever perfect, and, because he withdrew army units from the Balkans to fight in Italy, this certainly led to extra losses in the Balkans. Large Cutrigur raids affected the Roman provinces in both 539 and 559, the former enslaving many thousands of prisoners, while Slavic raids increased in intensity in the later 540s.33


Given the context, the Avars looked like a useful addition to the mix, and Menander records Justinian’s eventual response to that first contact:

He sent an ambassador Valentinus, one of the imperial bodyguard, and he urged the tribe to make an alliance with the Romans and take up arms against their enemies. This … was a very wise move, since whether the Avars prevailed or were defeated, both eventualities would be to the Romans’ advantage.34

At first, all was sweetness and light. By 562, Avar might extended across the northern shores of the Black Sea, a series of undocumented campaigns having swallowed up both Utigurs and Cutrigurs. This, no doubt, was all entirely according to the imperial plan following the Cutrigurs’ second large-scale intrusion into the Roman Balkans in a generation in 559. There was thus no reason not to accord the Avars favoured-ally status and substantial amounts of annual foreign aid (or ‘subsidies’, depending on your point of view), which they proceeded to enjoy down to Justinian’s death in November 565.

At that point, the change of regime brought a decisive change in policy. We’ve already seen that Justin II attempted to win political capital by reversing his uncle’s tax policies, and it was presented as part and parcel of the same policy that he also stopped handing out as much in foreign aid. Thus, when the next Avar embassy trotted into Constantinople to pick up their annual gifts, they got a nasty surprise, the new emperor telling them:

Never again shall you be loaded at the expense of this empire, and go your way without doing us any service: for from me you shall receive nothing.

According to Menander, this left the ambassadors ‘thunderstruck’ and extremely hesitant about returning home empty-handed, though they eventually did so.35

The ambassadors’ response was not mere petty-mindedness. The removal of East Roman foreign aid threatened the whole stability of the Avar confederation. Like the Huns before them, the Avars lacked the capacity, or probably even the desire, to rule subjugated elements of their confederation directly, but operated rather through subordinate princes. This meant that it was easy to add new elements to the confederation, and the whole thing could mushroom quickly. One swift military campaign and a formal submission was all that was required, in essence, for a new subject grouping to be added to the line-up. But the resulting political construction was by the same token fragile, since old patterns of loyalty among subject peoples were not broken down and could easily reassert themselves in bids for independence. Despite the braggart nomad rhetoric recorded in first-millennium sources, all that held their confederations together was the prestige of the dominant leader and his immediate supporters, who were often not that numerous compared to all the subject groupings. And prestige was no more than a combination of exerted or perceived military domination, combined with recycled prestigious gifts. Both were often the products of successful warfare, and both sustained the perception that accepting Avar domination was a much better option than trying to resist it. In 582, they were besieging the important Danubian fortress of Sirmium, and realized that they were not going to win. The Roman commander then received an extraordinary communication from his opposite number, that the Avars were willing to withdraw, but only if the Romans handed over a grand present which the Khagan could use to hide the fact of defeat. Any major loss of prestige might lead to Avar authority being put to the test, at considerable cost in time, effort, and lives, even if it was not in the end overthrown.36

The emperor’s deliberate slight in 566 would have been only too apparent, leaving the khagan with no choice but to do something both to replace the lost income and to repair the deficit in his prestige. And, in a typically imaginative early medieval policy initiative, the khagan and his advisers decided that the best thing they could do was wage war on somebody. Their choice fell on the Franks, and in the same year they inflicted a major defeat on the easternmost of the Frankish kings, Sigibert, who, afterwards, ‘immediately sent to the Avars wheat-flour, vegetables, sheep, and cattle’.37 It is this increased interest in going west that finally brings us back to Italy.

At the same time as Justin was busy rebuffing the Avars, the latest in a series of spats was breaking out between the Gepids and Lombards. In 566, the Gepids secured some imperial military assistance but then didn’t keep their part of the bargain in that they refused to return the city of Sirmium to imperial control. The Romans were not minded to intervene again in 567, therefore, when the Lombards secured Avar help, at high cost, and with it smashed Gepid independence forever. This is the moment when the Lombard king, Alboin, reputedly turned the skull of his defeated enemy, Cunimund, into a drinking cup, but then made the mistake of marrying Cunimund’s daughter Rosamund (page 19).

Early the next year, on 2 April 568 – pretty much as soon as the grass had started to grow again – the Lombards left the Middle Danube in a large co-ordinated body, which resembled the cavalcade Theoderic had led over the same passes ninety years before. At least several tens of thousands strong, a ragbag of Lombards proper and many others besides, nobles, freemen and slaves, this human procession fatally compromised the security of newly conquered East Roman Italy. Within no time at all Lombard duces (you can translate it ‘dukes’ but this gives an anachronistic flavour) had taken over most of the cities of the North Italian Plain, except for an enclave around Ravenna, and established two separate duchies – Benevento and Spoleto – in the mountainous uplands of central and southern Italy.

A source written over 200 years later reports that the Lombards were ‘invited’ to move into Italy by the very same Narses who had finished off the Goths, due to a quarrel between himself and Justin’s wife Sophia. Given his past career, and not least that he soon retired to live quietly in the firmly East Roman city of Rome, this is completely implausible, and no one believes it. It’s no more than one aspect of the later Lombard claim, highly pertinent in the eighth century as we shall see in the next chapter, that they had an entirely legitimate right to establish a kingdom in Italy. Aggressive ambition presumably had some role to play, since ‘pull’ as well as ‘push’ factors often feature in decisions to migrate. But I have no doubt that the Lombard leadership was not motivated purely by perceptions of East Roman weakness. Lombard contingents had been involved in the Gothic war, after all, and had witnessed at first hand the East Roman destruction of both the Goths and the large Frankish force which had come – too late – to the rescue. It cannot have been thinking that conquering a piece of East Roman territory was going to be a pushover, therefore, and in making such a disruptive and dangerous move, it seems clear that, like several late fourth- and early fifth-century Germanic groups faced with the rise of the Huns, the Lombard leadership decided – and managed to sell to a large part of their following – that organized retreat was the best method of dealing with a rampant enemy. The defeat of Sigibert in 566 followed by the destruction of the Gepids in 567 had rammed home the point that the Avar star was ascending rapidly and that its direction of travel was increasingly westwards. There is a direct causal link between the rise of Avar power in central Europe and the arrival of the Lombards in Justinian’s recently conquered province of Italy.38

The question of whether Justinian’s conquest of Italy was wildly overambitious and destined to lead to imperial overstretch boils down, therefore, to your answers to two slightly more complicated questions. Could East Roman rule in Italy have been consolidated – as it was in North Africa – without the invasion of the Lombards? And, if so, was Justinian fundamentally responsible for the rise of Avar power and its westward shift of focus which prompted the Lombard invasion? The answer to the first question must surely be ‘yes’. The assertion of Constantinopolitan rule in Italy certainly generated complaints about imperial taxmen; Justinian had conquered Italy for no one’s benefit but his own. At the same time, the tax regime was broadly that which operated in the East itself, and in North Africa, and there is no obvious reason why, lacking any alternative, the population of Italy, greater and lesser, would not have eventually accommodated itself to the norms of East Roman rule, as many parts of central and southern Italy in fact did. And, apart from the sudden Lombard influx, there was no other enemy in sight with the power to overthrow Constantinopolitan rule. At least, Narses’ armies had proved more than a match for the various Frankish forces – the only serious competition – that had come to Italy in the 550s to fight over the corpse of Theoderic’s kingdom (page 166).

The only way to answer ‘yes’ to the second question, moreoever, is if you believe the subsidies Justinian handed out in 558 played a critical role in empowering the Avars to make their initial conquests of the Cutrigurs and Utigurs. Otherwise, the remaining stages of Avar expansion were all accomplished without East Roman subsidy, and all the subsequent increases in their power, together with the move west, were arguably more the fault of Justin II, for removing stability payments, than it was of his uncle for handing them out. The build-up of Avar power followed the pattern of the Huns closely, with a virtuous or vicious (depending on your point of view) circle being established, whereby conquests added more subject peoples to increase military capacity, but also still more political strains within the confederation, both of which had an in-built tendency to generate yet further bouts of military expansion. It is just about possible to make the argument that Justinian should have known that the Avars were far too dangerous to use in his traditional games of divide and rule, and should never have given them the original subsidy in 558; but that involves a huge amount of second-guessing and it is not clear that the Roman funds were critical to the Avar conquest of the Bulgars anyway. In other words, it seems much more likely both that the rise of Avar power to such intimidating heights was unforeseeable in 558, and that Justinian’s contribution to the process was pretty minimal. And, without the Avar Empire, there is no obvious reason why Constantinople should not have been able to hold on to much or most of the Italian peninsula more or less indefinitely.

All in all, it seems a bit of a stretch to blame the Avars on Justinian, which in turn makes the case for seeing the emperor as strategically reckless much less convincing. The Avars were also responsible, moreover, for major post-Justinianic losses in the Balkans. They looked to secure parts of the north-west for their own purposes, but they also facilitated more general Slavic intrusion into the region. First, Slavic groups wanted to get out of the way of aggressive Avar domination, which was exercised with equal brutality over as many Slavs as the khagan could reach, just as it was over Gepids and Bulgars. The rise of the Avar Empire thus provided a negative stimulus for Slavic intrusions on to Roman territory. At the same time, again echoing the Huns, the Avars periodically mounted major campaigns through the Roman Balkans as part of their remit to demand money with menaces from Constantinople. Especially in the 580s and the 610s, these had the effect of blowing huge holes in the defensive arrangements for the Balkans which Justinian’s building campaigns had been designed to complete. This in turn meant that the smaller Slavic groupings, which otherwise the Romans could deal with effectively enough, were able to move on to Roman soil and carve out new territories for themselves.

This was a decisive moment. The Slavicization of large parts of the Balkans, and the definitive loss of the region to Constantinopolitan control, does indeed date back to the decades either side of the year 600, when the Avars made it all possible. So, again, the case for blaming Justinian is not, on reflection, a very good one since the Avars lay at the heart of it all. Indeed, when you stop and really think about how events interconnected in these years, the case against Justinian quickly gets a whole lot weaker still. For while the aggressive Avar campaigns into the Roman Balkans of the 580s led to initial waves of substantial Slavic settlement, the situation was brought substantially back under control by Roman counter-attack in the 590s.39 It was, in fact, the further Avar campaigns of the 610s that were really critical: generating an uncontrolled Slavicization that was never reversed by further counter-attacks. The reason that there were no further Roman counter-attacks after the 590s has its roots in a second strategic shift of quite colossal historical significance.


In chapters 2 and 3 of the Book of Revelation, the Lord of Hosts dictates letters to the Christian communities of each of seven cities of the Roman province of Asia in what is now western Turkey. They range in size from huge metropolises like Ephesus and Sardis to the smaller Thyatira. The usual pattern is for the church to be named and its prevailing sin identified (for five of the seven). There then follows a warning or challenge and a promise about the benefits of properly faithful behaviour. Each includes the famous, even ominous refrain, ‘He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.’ St John the Divine, particularly when it came to identifying besetting sins, had in mind the Christian communities of his own time, but, if ever these cities needed ominous warnings, it was in the aftermath of Justinian’s passing.

Most retained substantial Christian communities down to the forced exchanges of population which followed the Treaty of Lausanne in 1923, but in the eighty or so years after Justinian died, an apocalypse was visited both upon the Christian cities of Roman Asia, and those of its neighbours to the south and east: the heartlands of the East Roman Empire. Syria, Palestine and Egypt fell first to the control of Sasanian Persia and were then swallowed up, shortly afterwards, by the forces of Islam which the Prophet Muhammad had fashioned in the heart of the Arabian desert. The old Christian cities of the conquered regions survived as great conurbations, but Muslim conquest and conversion destined their Christian populations to long-term decline and minority status, in worlds which had once been the beating heart of ancient Christianity. A different kind of apocalypse was visited upon the cities of Asia Minor named in the Book of Revelation. They remained in the hands of the Christian Constantinopolitan authorities, but twentieth-century archaeological investigation has revealed just how profound a shipwreck they had to endure.

Sardis, in particular, declined from great city to fortified military stronghold and perhaps a centre of government, and did so extremely suddenly. Up until the very late sixth century, the city continued to prosper, maintaining its great monuments with gusto. Its commercial life, too, seems to have been as busy as ever, with excavators uncovering a colonnade of shops outside the main bathhouse, which show every sign of vitality. The very wealthiest houses show – perhaps – a little decline in standards, but that’s about it. Then all hell broke loose with the Persian sack in 610. Few people were killed it seems, but the refugees did not have time to take their goods with them from the shops, and the city never recovered. On the old main site on the plain, all that excavators have ever found from the seventh century are a few scrappy little clusters of poor houses, and the main centre of activity moved to the nearby fortified hilltop. But this was really only a fortress – made incidentally almost entirely out of reused blocks from the old city – never a centre of population. As a proper city, Sardis ceased to exist: life continued there but only in the form of a garrison and a couple of hamlets. The situation was not quite so bad at nearby Ephesus. Here too, though, straightforward continuity on the old main site was broken. Habitation shifted instead to two new walled enclosures, one a small area – a kilometre square – within the old site, the other marking off a smaller area around what had been the external Church of St John. The population within these two sets of walls was clearly larger and more diverse than that surviving at Sardis, and its economic life remained more diverse; we happen to know, for instance, that a great fair was held there, seemingly on a regular basis. But, even so, this post-600 Ephesus was but a shadow of its former self in size, wealth and grandeur and the archaeological picture from all the late Roman cities of western Asia Minor is very similar.40

Once-great cities had been reduced to small garrison posts, or small agricultural market towns, and even Constantinople didn’t escape. The city saw a drastic decline in its population in the seventh century – perhaps by as much as 90 per cent – and this is when all its grandiose masonry began to crumble. It still remained a big city in early medieval terms, but its seventh- and eighth-century manifestation was but a shadow of its late Roman self. This perfectly reflected the state of the empire as a whole. By 640, that is within seventy-five years of Justinian’s death, Egypt and the Middle East had fallen to Arab domination and western Asia Minor had become a battleground. There’s a nice game you can play about the likely effects of these losses on the tax base of the empire, using figures from the sixteenth-century Ottoman Empire, which had much the same shape as the empire of Justinian. These suggest that Muslim conquest of Egypt and the Middle East, combined with the economic collapse of western Asia Minor, meant that the emperors of Constantinople would have lost somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters of their annual tax revenues.41 The micro-apocalypse experienced by the citizens of Ephesus and Sardis had its counterpart at the macro-level of the imperial court. This astounding imperial emasculation had its roots in a collapse of Constantinople’s eastern front, and in relations with its long-time foe and occasional partner, the Persian Empire.

The Persian front was a vast theatre of confrontation which involved three separate zones of conflict (Figure 6). In the north, the two empires faced each other in the mountainous region of Caucasia where fighting tended to take the form of winning and losing control of the various small valley-based principalities of Armenia, Iberia and – in the sixth century – Lazica, into which the geography naturally divided the region’s human population. In the south, likewise, wars tended to be fought through surrogates: Arabs this time, as conventional Roman and Persian armies found it difficult to operate in the vast sandy underbelly separating their holdings. The geographical centre, therefore, also tended to be the main theatre of war: Mesopotamia. Here both sides had built up fortresses of huge power since the third century, manned them with substantial garrisons, and stationed large field armies to provide support. In this zone, warfare (except in the highly unusual circumstances of 540: page 160) had long since bogged down into lengthy sieges of strategically placed strongpoints if your Empire was in a position to attack, or determined efforts to disrupt the besieging forces if you were on the defensive.

Justinian’s immediate legacy to his imperial successors was peace in all three sectors. There had been bouts of fighting in each between 527 and 532, and again from 540, but the violence in Mesopotamia had quickly reached stalemate, resulting in an armistice there as early as 545. Elsewhere, there seemed to be more to gain and lose, so the fighting went on until 551, when a five-year armistice brought hostilities to a close in the north. This was followed by a general truce in 557 and in 562 by a formal peace agreement which applied everywhere. By Justinian’s death, Mesopotamia had been quiet for twenty years, and the Caucasus for a decade and a half.42

Two factors kick-started a vicious circle of destabilization – one a perennial feature of Roman–Persian relations, the other entirely new. The old favourite was succession, the arrival on the throne of a new emperor with the usual need to make his mark. Justin II faced the unusually poisonous legacy of his uncle Justinian, the ‘conqueror of many nations’. And, in an effort to demonstrate to the balance of factional powers at court that he really was a ruler to be reckoned with, the new emperor was not only very rude, as we have seen, to the Avar ambassadors, but, like the young Justinian before he slid into Western conquests, had a firm eye on establishing his ruling credentials at the expense of Persia. The Persians were the enemy par excellence from a Constantinopolitan perspective, and picking on them as the target of his early ambitions had the additional virtue that Justinian had never scored a major victory over them. The victory speech would be so easy to write. ‘Justinian I have surpassed you’ was such a seductive prospect.

The problem, of course, was that while they were the target of first choice, the Persians were also a tough nut to crack, as many a Roman emperor had found to his cost. What gave Justin the nerve nonetheless to attempt to define his reign at Persian expense, however, was that second and entirely new factor: the growing power of the Western Turks. By the later 560s (another reason why the Avars were so happy to move on west into the Middle Danube region), western Turkish hegemony had reached the northern fringes of the Aral, Caspian, and even Black Seas, making it a potential factor in Roman–Persian relations, since its armies could now easily intervene in either or both empires by direct attack through the Caucasus. Justin II’s strategy focused on mobilizing the Western Turks against the Persians, to which end a succession of embassies and gifts shuttled forth from Constantinople out across the steppe, literally, in this case, going halfway to China. The end result was – from Justin’s point of view – apparently satisfactory. A great joint campaign was to be launched by East Roman and western Turkish armies in the year 573. The Romans would assault the Mesopotamian fortress of Nisibis which had been lost to them since the defeat of the emperor Julian 210 years before, while the Turks prevented any Persian response by launching their own attack from the east.

As soon as the grass was growing, the Roman armies rumbled forward towards Nisibis, but the Turks never showed. The result was disaster. The Persian garrison held on in the midst of ferocious fighting, while the undistracted Persians concentrated their forces in a well-placed counter-attack. One division struck into Syria, but Chosroes I (the same Chosroes that Justinian had refused to adopt so long ago) led his main body against the fortress of Dara: jewel in the Roman Mesopotamian crown. After a six-month siege, the Persians forced the walls and sacked the city, enslaving its population. Justin II’s great plan had failed utterly. Instead of capturing the Persian flagship, he had ended up losing his own. Distraught, the emperor suffered such a mental and physical collapse that power devolved to a regency council. Why the Turks failed to show is unclear. Some think that it was a cunning plan on their part to set two potential enemies at loggerheads at no cost to themselves. Possibly so, but by the time a new Roman embassy reached them in 576 the old khagan was dead, and it may just be that his passing was behind their non-appearance. Either way, Justin had destabilized relations in the East only to generate a massive Persian victory in Mesopotamia, where it really mattered. His few gains in Caucasia were not the slightest compensation.43

For the next decade, war dragged on. The Romans won one spectacular victory on the Mesopotamian front, in 576, capturing the shah’s wife, extinguishing the holy flame that he brought on campaign, and even drowning his high priest. This was good enough to keep the regency council in business, and, to be fair, the Romans also kept firm control of their interests in the Caucasus. But the non-stop and highly expensive warfare in Mesopotamia gradually told against them. By the later 580s, the new emperor Maurice was running out of money and militarily hit the wall. In 588, the unpaid garrison of the important frontier city of Martyropolis simply handed their fortress over to the Persians, and much of the imperial field army, stationed near Edessa, rebelled on the news that they were facing a 25 per cent pay cut. Even when their general paraded the famous Mandylion in front of them, an image of Christ ‘not made by human hands’ and one of the holiest relics of Christendom (it was once thought that it was the Turin Shroud in an earlier incarnation), they were not impressed. They were so unimpressed, in fact, that they pelted it with rocks, and Maurice was forced to reverse his pay cuts and find the necessary savings elsewhere.

Just as the Roman train was approaching the buffers, an escape route appeared in the form of another disputed succession among the Persians. In 589, one of the leading Persian generals Bahram rebelled against the new shah, Hormisdas IV. Bahram had won so many victories, including a decisive one over the Turks in 588, that the shah was sufficiently threatened to want to cut him down to size. He chose to do so, after a reverse against Roman forces in the Caucasus, by sending him women’s clothing. In the ensuing mayhem, Hormisdas was deposed and murdered, Bahram seized power, and Hormisdas’ son and chosen heir, Chosroes II, fled to Constantinople to ask for Maurice’s support, offering a huge advance to the Roman position in the Caucasus in return. Bahram’s counter-offer held up the prospect of Persia giving back not only Dara and Martyropolis, but also even Nisibis if support came his way. Maurice eventually opted for Chosroes, because moving the Mespotamian frontier backwards or forwards by two or three fortresses in the end made no fundamental difference. Huge gains in the Caucasus, however, gave the Romans strategic control of the top end of the passes through the Zagros Mountains which led straight to the Persian Empire’s economic heartland between the Tigris and the Euphrates (Figure 6): a knife over the Persian jugular.

Maurice’s support proved sufficient, and by 591 Chosroes II was established on the throne and the Romans gratefully took most of Armenia when peace was finally declared, nearly two decades after the ill-fated Justin II had sought to play his Turkish trump card. This was all very well in itself, and Constantinopolitan sources duly trumpeted Maurice’s triumph. The problem, however, was that the Roman gains were just so big, that they were a further destabilizing factor in themselves. A recent study has labelled this the Eastern Empire’s ‘Versailles moment’. The treaty gave the Romans such a strategic advantage that any shah was bound to resort again to warfare to redress the balance whenever a suitable opportunity presented itself.44 And, as I’m sure has become clear by now, the internal political structures of both empires were sufficiently wobbly, especially when it came to the transfer of political power, that such an opportunity was never likely to be that long in coming.

In this instance, it was a continuation of the strained relations between Maurice and his armed forces which started the ball rolling. With his armies freed from the Persian front by the peace of 591, the emperor set them loose on the Balkans, where they proceeded to overturn some of the Avar successes of the 580s. Maurice’s generals insisted, however, that, really to hurt the Avars, it was important to campaign early while the grass was not growing, since this would hamstring the operations of the key cavalry arm of the enemy’s forces. As the winter of 602 approached, therefore, the field army was ordered not to return to winter quarters. By November, it had revolted and, under the leadership of an officer by the name of Phocas, was marching on Constantinople. Maurice fled the city on 22 November, but was captured with his family, and Phocas, who was crowned emperor on 24 November, had Maurice executed with four of his five sons three days later. The fifth son, Theodosius, was killed a little later along with many of the former emperor’s chief ministers.

Or was he? The head of Theodosius was never displayed in Constantinople, and, only slightly later, an individual claiming to be him turned up in the train of Persian armies who said they were here to avenge the deposed Maurice, benefactor and patron of their reigning shah, Chosroes II. We really don’t know if Theodosius escaped or not, but, if he did, Chosroes quickly eliminated him when he ceased to be useful. The result was a new round of cataclysmic warfare between the two great empires of antiquity.45

While Roman imperial politics resonated to the sound of coups and rebellions, Chosroes II proceeded, methodically, to roll up virtually the whole of the Eastern Empire. Even the arrival of a new imperial saviour, in the form of Heraclius (and his father) all the way from North Africa via a dashing sea-borne expedition which crashed into Constantinople over its sea walls in October 610, made not the slightest difference. By the end of that year, all the Roman hardpoints on the Mesopotamian front east of the Euphrates had been systematically reduced, laying the path open to grander Persian ambitions. By 607, too, Maurice’s Armenian gains in the 591 treaty had been reversed, so everything in the hanging gardens of Babylon was looking pretty rosy. In 611, Chosroes’ chief commander, Shahvaraz, struck deep into Roman Syria, capturing Apamea, Antioch and Emesa. Unlike 540, however, this was no mere raid. The Persians were there to stay.

They also pushed north on to the Anatolian plateau, capturing Caesarea. In the south Damascus soon followed, leading to the loss of all of Palestine including Jerusalem in 614 and the holiest relic of them all: the True Cross reputedly uncovered by Helena, the mother of Constantine. Further north, a scorched-earth policy had been unleashed and in the same year the great city of Ephesus was stormed – bearing out, just a little late, the warnings of Revelation – its centre reduced to ash and rubble.

Chosroes II had the smell of total victory in his nostrils and refused all peace offers from an increasingly desperate Constantinopolitan political establishment, including an extraordinarily abject embassy in 616 ostensibly from the Senate (since the shah refused ever to recognize Heraclius) which offered to accept Chosroes as ‘supreme Emperor’ and style the Romans as his ‘slaves’. A successful invasion of Egypt was duly launched and completed by 621. Sea raids were being mounted concurrently on Cyprus and the island chains of the Aegean, and the attacks continued across Asia Minor, until the nadir was reached in late July 626. At this point, the imperial capital itself faced a Persian army on the other side of the Bosphorus, and the Avar army directly outside the great Theodosian land walls.

An eye-witness description of the siege is preserved in the Chronicon Paschale, and makes fascinating reading. The Avar army spent several days demonstrating that it hadn’t a hope of smashing through the land walls. Then came crunch time. Some of the subjugated Slavs were highly adept on the water; they’d been famous for their skill with dugout canoes throughout the sixth century, and had been known to make plenty of money out of it when ferrying retreating raiders out of Roman territory. The only possible route into Constantinople was the one Heraclius had taken: water. A vast fleet of canoes was launched therefore with the express orders of fetching Persian reinforcements from the Asian shore. The Romans held their nerve until the encumbered Slavs started to return to the European side, and then the fleet was unleashed, complete with Greek fire. The Slav armada was smashed, and, on viewing the mayhem, other Slavs in the Avar army immediately started legging it for home, requiring the khagan to turn his more loyal forces on them. The siege broke up in disarray. The high tide of Persian conquest had broken on the indomitable rock of Constantinople.

Heraclius himself was not in the city during the siege, so great was his confidence in its defences, but retraining and organizing his field forces further east on the Asian shore. Critically he also managed to negotiate an effective alliance with the Western Turks, that chimera which had led Justin II to war. In 627, a huge Turkish army stormed through the Caucasus into the Persian-dominated kingdom of Iberia. They sacked the regional capital of Tiflis, killing its Persian client king, and handed over to Heraclius 40,000 men for further operations. The emperor went straight for the kill. The combined army force marched over the Zagros Mountains and down the line of the Tigris into the Iranian heartland of the Sasanian Empire, breaking a Persian army just outside Nineveh in December. Rather than taking on the defences of the capital at Ctesiphon, Heraclius employed scorched-earth tactics to batter the economic engine of the Persian Empire. Then he sat back and watched the Persian polity implode. Chosroes II was deposed by acoup d’état in early 628, and a sequence of short-lived regimes followed. Eventually Heraclius got the deal he wanted. The Persians withdrew from the conquered Roman provinces, most of whose administration they had not touched, and Heraclius returned to Constantinople with the True Cross.

True, his restored empire had seen better days. Parts of the rich lands of western Asia Minor had been ravaged, and loyalties in Syria, Palestine and Egypt had been muddled by a decade and a half, in some cases, of Persian rule. The situation in the Balkans, likewise, was completely out of hand. With all troops needed on the far side of the Bosphorus, Avars and Slavs had run wild, the settlements of the latter increasing apace. Worst of all, perhaps, the imperial treasury was exhausted. In the depths of crisis, Heraclius had forced through extraordinary measures. Military pay was halved, free bread within the capital ended, the treasuries of the churches emptied of their precious metals. It had been enough, if only just, to pay off the Turks and launch the great counterstrike into Iran. And now Heraclius, armed with the prestige of victory and carrying the True Cross before him as the emblem of God’s favour, could set about rebuilding the empire.46

Looking at the situation in c.630, there was no internal Roman reason why reconstruction should not have been successful. The nightmare of the previous twenty-five years had not involved greater losses for the empire than the depths of the third-century crisis, when, again, large tracts of its eastern provinces fell out of Roman rule. Then, for a decade and a half after the defeat and capture of Valerian, the city of Palmyra had become the centre of a successor state which defeated both Persians and Romans and ran an arc of territory from Egypt through to Asia Minor. And yet the empire had bounced back successfully, restoring its control under Aurelian in the mid-270s, and then refilling its treasuries from the cities’ taxation flows. By the mid-fourth century, when sources from these regions had again become plentiful, loyalty to the empire was once more second nature, and the Near East was in the middle of a 300-year patch as Constantinople’s heartland.

In principle, there is no reason why a similar rebuilding job could not have been undertaken by Heraclius and his successors. Yes, the Balkans were an additional problem, but they had been in the third century too, and Maurice’s campaigns had shown that the Avars could be defeated. And, without the Avars, the Slavs were no worse than raiders; they were not yet capable of facing up to imperial armies in open battle. Nor were the internal religious conflicts within the empire so big a problem as is sometimes imagined. True, debate on the Council of Chalcedon was rumbling on. But if its doctrinal issues were not ultimately solvable, then neither did they threaten the fabric of empire. There is no evidence that religious dissonance had made it easier for the Persians to conquer the Roman Orient, and the quarrel over Chalcedon had shown signs of downgrading itself to minor-irritant status in the later sixth century before the great Persian crisis had broken up the hard-won consistency in imperial policy which had finally emerged on the religious front from the 580s.47 So Heraclius had every reason for optimism as he marched back to Constantinople. What brought it all to naught was the introduction of a second new factor into the strategic geography of the Near East, one whose impact would massively outweigh that of the Western Turks. For just as Heraclius was beginning to reconstruct his empire from the ashes, an Arab world, newly united by Islam, totally overturned the old certainties of the previous thousand years.

The rise of Islam is another of those extraordinarily influential phenomena which makes the history of western Eurasia in the first millennium still so relevant to the twenty-first century. Along with the end of Rome and the ancient world order of Mediterranean domination, the rise of Christianity, and the integration of the east and north into the European mainstream, the explosion into existence of Islam is the final link in a chain of transformation which separates the medieval and modern worlds from everything that had gone before. And, like those other elements, it’s a story of profound complexity. The main historical problem is a lack of early source material from within the Islamic world itself, where no narratives of the life of Muhammad now survive that date from before the ninth century. By this time, Islam had been through two major revolutions: the crisis which generated the split between Sunni and Shia Islam in the seventh century, and the Abbasid revolution of the mid-eighth century. Given his overwhelming importance, the ninth-century narratives understandably give an account of the Prophet’s life which legitimizes Islam as it had evolved by that later date, but what relationship any of this may bear to the realities of the early seventh century is less certain.48

It is clear, however, that the backstory to the rise of Islam is deeply rooted in superpower conflict between Rome and the Persians. The Arabs of the desert fringe were the critical protagonists of that third, desert frontier zone between the two empires. It was never possible for large conventional armies to operate there, but the desert offered opportunities for raiding at least, and for distracting your opponent’s attention from the Armenian and Syrian fronts to the north. Consequently, both sides recruited, paid and armed Arab allies to protect their desert underbellies, and to cause as much trouble as possible for the other side. No one bothered to write a continuous history of these Arab marches of empire, but, if you string together the patchy information available in a surviving sequence of Roman historians, one fact about Arab history from the fourth to the sixth centuries jumps out from the pages. Thanks no doubt to the wealth and weaponry both sides unloaded into the region, the size of the political networks controlled by the empire’s Arab allies grew massively in extent, and hence in military power. Whereas, in the fourth and fifth centuries, the Romans operated through a series of Arab allies, by the sixth century both they and the Persians had but one each: the Ghassanids and Lakhmids respectively. And these groups were now so powerful that they had – sometimes at least – their own seat at the negotiating table, and certainly their own agendas. In other words, the Arab world, caught between two superpowers, went through a similar kind of transformation to that which affected the largely Germanic-speaking world on the fringes of the Roman Empire’s European frontiers. The kinds of relationship that empires tend to establish with their neighbours has the effect, in the long run, of generating larger and more cohesive political entities in these fringes, and the Arab world was catalysed by the interference of not one, but two empires.49

Viewed from this perspective, the non-religious element in the career of Muhammad bears a striking resemblance to that of Attila the Hun. What Attila did was unite against Rome a series of former largely Germanic-speaking frontier clients of the Roman state, who would normally have been just as likely to quarrel among themselves as fight the empire. This created a power-bloc which was large enough to confront the empire directly, and, at its apogee, sometimes even to win. Muhammad’s career has close parallels. He united Arab groupings who, over the previous 200 years, had grown accustomed to operating in ever larger and more complex military-political constellations, but which, without Muhammad, don’t look at all likely to have reached the climax of unification. Where Muhammad differs so dramatically from Attila is that a powerful new religion was a fundamental element in the political authority he managed to establish, and that religion continued to operate as a unifying force after the death of the confederation’s original charismatic leader. After Attila’s death, the Hunnic core of his empire consumed itself in civil war, which gave so many of his subjects, like the Pannonian Goths united by Valamer (page 7), the opportunity to re-establish their independence that the Hunnic Empire ceased to exist within a generation. After Muhammad’s death, the so-called Ridda (‘Apostasy’) wars saw a large enough core of key supporters retain their religious unity to prevent those who were less committed to the enterprise from breaking away. Instead of rising and falling again with equal speed, as its Hunnic parallel did in central Europe, Muhammad’s unification of two empires’ Arab clients endured and swiftly conquered virtually the whole of the Roman Orient and, further to the east, all of the Sasanian Empire, and much more besides. The first Islamic Arab armies appeared out of the desert in 633, and, within a generation, a millennium of binary imperial confrontation between the Graeco-Roman Mediterranean and the Persian Near East had been consigned to the dustbin of history.50


Adjusting the focus more tightly again, back on to Justinian, one inescapable conclusion emerges. It was the rise of Islam which fundamentally changed the course of East Roman imperial history. Thanks to Muhammad, and the catastrophic losses of imperial heartland to his united Arab soldiery, it proved impossible for Heraclius and his successors to pull off a repeat of the great third-century Roman imperial escape act. These losses confined the East Roman Empire to somewhere between a quarter and a third of its former territorial expanse, and many of its remaining provinces would be regularly fought over in the decades which followed. As the imperial economy collapsed, administration had to be fundamentally recast since still substantial armies had to be maintained more or less on a shoestring, because the Arabs had somehow to be fended off from what was left. The losses even generated religious recalibration because the old imperial ideologies looked increasingly hollow. Claiming to be a unique divinely guided state, destined by the Almighty to bring Christian civilization to the entire globe, lost most of its force after two-thirds of the empire had been conquered by the standard-bearers of a different religion. Fortunately, Judaeo-Christian texts offered another, now more apposite model. From divinely ordained world conquerors, emperors were able to use the Old Testament to morph themselves into the leaders of a Chosen People, riding the Constantinopolitan Ark of salvation through besetting tempests towards final Salvation and Triumph, with apocalypse a recurrently popular genre. This neat sidestep both managed to save face and avoid insulting people’s intelligence, since the crushing weight of contemporary reality was overwhelming. In overall terms, the losses of the seventh century demoted what had been an East Roman world power to a Byzantine east Mediterranean regional power, which became, in effect, an unwilling satellite of the Islamic world. All periods of Byzantine expansion subsequent to the seventh century came when the Islamic world was fragmented. Whenever even a largish chunk of the Islamic world was unified, things did not go well in Constantinople.51

This sharpens up the line of questioning we need to pursue in relation to Justinian. The real question is whether his conquests so overstretched the empire that they were responsible not just for immediate losses of territory in Italy and the Balkans, but also, in the longer term and above all, for the empire’s inability to retain its Eastern heartlands. And in my view, when you take a close look at events subsequent to Justinian’s death, it becomes extremely difficult to answer this in the affirmative.

To blame Justinian for the losses of territory in Italy and the Balkans, you have to be able to blame him for the Avar Empire, and we’ve already seen that this is difficult to do with conviction. The same, it seems to me, is pretty much equally true of the rise of Islam. If you’re a true-believing Muslim, there’s no case to answer. Muhammad was sent by God, subsequent Islamic conquests were ordained by Him, and anything that Justinian could have said or done was fundamentally irrelevant. But if you’re not, pinning the tail of blame on the Justinianic donkey is still far from straightforward. At most, the emperor can be ascribed only a marginal role in the emergence of greater Arab unity. He did promote a new unity among his empire’s Arab federates, recognizing the current Ghassanid leader as their overall leader: an entirely unprecedented position. But he did this only reactively and unwillingly. The Persians had already united their federates under one ruler from the Lakhmids, and were able, as a result, to launch a damaging raid through Rome’s desert fringes in 529, which was too powerful for any of Constantinople’s not-yet-united Arab allies to oppose. For this reason, and this reason only, Justinian created a larger network of allied Arabs in response. Yet that network was itself dismantled again by the emperor Maurice in the 580s, and was not a direct ancestor of the network Muhammad put together in the 620s.52

Nor is the line of cause and effect very direct from Justinian to the utter financial exhaustion which made Heraclius’ empire of the 630s so ripe for a takeover at the hands of Muhammad’s newly united Arabs. The East Roman Empire does show signs of financial strain after Justinian’s death, particularly in the reign of the emperor Maurice; but whether that owes more to Justinian or to the cataclysmic head-on conflict with Persia that his successor, Justin II, committed the empire to pursuing, convinced that the Western Turks would come galloping over the horizon at the crucial moment, needs to be thought about extremely carefully. The final half a decade of Justinian’s reign was largely peaceful, even on the Persian front, and there is every reason to think that revenues from North Africa and Sicily were by this stage coming substantially on stream. Fighting Persia in Mesopotamia is what really cost the Eastern Empire money, and Justin’s actions precipitated eighteen years of full-on conflict there between 573 and the treaty of 591. It is much more likely that this is what put Maurice under so much financial pressure, combined with Justin’s wasted payments to the Turks, rather than continued unrequited payouts for the territories Justinian added to the empire from 533.

Nor can the imperial coffers have been much replenished in the twelve-year gap before the outbreak of the next round of Roman–Persian conflict in 603. Throughout that time, Maurice’s forces were engaged in rectifying the situation in the Balkans. Fighting the Avars was probably less costly than fighting Persia, but not by much, and whatever financial savings had been made in the 590s were quickly wiped out again after 603, when cataclysmic great-power conflict erupted in the East. Not being a Muslim, I find it difficult to imagine that Muhammad’s warriors would have been anything like so successful had they not encountered two empires who had just spent twenty-five years fighting each other to a state of bankrupt exhaustion. In other words, the success of the Arab conquest of the Roman East owes far more – in direct terms at least – to the two massive rounds of Roman–Persian conflict which immediately preceded it (and, between them, these were fully active for an extraordinary forty-three out of the fifty-five years between 573 and 628) than it does to Justinian. It was these wars which emptied the imperial treasury and loosened the empire’s grip on its Eastern provinces to such an extent that Arab armies were able to roll them over so easily. If Justinian is to be blamed for the loss of the Roman Orient, you have to construct a convincing argument which can hold him primarily responsible for ratcheting up Roman–Persian conflict to levels of intensity unseen since the third century.

No doubt some of the blame for this should be placed at his door. Justinian’s Italian and North African campaigns gave Chosroes I both pretext and opportunity for his successful raid into Roman Syria in 540. But during the rest of the reign, head-on conflict on the key Mesopotamian front occurred only between 540 and 546, and, otherwise, both parties were content with a more limited – and cheaper – level of engagement on the other two sectors. And, as we have seen, Justinian’s final years were distinguished by a general peace on all fronts. The real story of the more or less continuous bouts of head-on confrontation between the two empires between 573 and 628, without which the Arab conquests in the form we know them are patently inconceivable, begins anew, therefore, after Justinian’s death. The political decisions of Justin II and Maurice – the one to start world war, the other to enforce a punitive peace – and the appearance of the Western Turks are fundamentally responsible for creating the conditions in which the forces of Islam could conquer the Roman Orient, and not the sporadic and limited spats with Persia which distinguish the reign of Justinian. He might well have fallen into the same hubristic traps as his successors, had he still been in charge in the 570s, but that is another question entirely.

At this point I probably should go explicitly on record, in case the preceding paragraphs make it seem like I’m being too soft on Justinian. By Roman or indeed any standards, Justinian was an autocratic bastard of the worst kind. It worried him not a jot to slaughter his own citizens in huge numbers to keep himself in power, nor to launch speculative attacks on neighbouring states with much the same end in mind, no matter what the collateral damage. He didn’t quite kill his own citizens on the scale of a Hitler, a Stalin or a Pol Pot, but the ambition was there, and his reign was as authoritarianly chaotic as any of these. Nor is there any sign that he had the great dreams sometimes ascribed to him, since his regime slipped late into a policy of Western expansion and entirely out of desperation. But, all that said, it is also very difficult to blame him for the subsequent collapse of East Rome into its shadowy Byzantine successor. Yes, his Western conquests aroused some Persian envy, but not enough to propel Chosroes I into anything more than controlled, opportunistic aggression. And, yes, he did create a more unified network of Arab allies on the Roman frontier, but that was not the direct progenitor of Muhammad’s military-cum-political-cum-religious alliance network.

While it would make for a much more morally satisfying story to see this entirely horrible emperor bequeathing a poisoned chalice of inevitable collapse to his successors, the argument at best limps along. Avars, Western Turks, Justin II and Maurice, Chosroes II and Muhammad all need to be brought into the story to get anywhere near a convincing understanding of Constantinople’s later woes, and their collective contribution to its unfolding are, overall, much greater than that of Justinian. It is one of the most difficult challenges of them all, when writing about a very distant past, to keep a proper sense of chronological perspective. Viewed from the twenty-first century, 565 and 630 seem next door to each other, but they are actually three political generations apart, and no direct line of causation runs from Justinian to the Arab conquests. Justinian did not come to power determined to reconquer the lost Roman West, but neither did he doom Constantinople to strategic demotion.

He was certainly, however, the last ruler of Constantinople to use the resources of his Eastern heartlands to attempt to recreate a Roman Empire in the western Mediterranean and beyond. After 573, East Rome was set for fifty-five years of all-out confrontation on its eastern front, after which no ruler of Constantinople would ever again dispose of a power base large enough to rebuild a Western Empire. With the rise of Islam, the eastern Mediterranean dropped out forever from the list of potential contenders lining up to restore imperial power in the West. Both East and West had now been the bases of failed efforts at Western imperial restoration. The final serious attempt would come from the north.

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