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 The Justinian Dynasty (518-602)

 

The Emperor Anastasius died in A.D. 518 at the  ripe age of eighty-eight, and his sceptre passed to  Justinus, the commander of his body-guard, whom  Senate and army alike hailed as most worthy to  succeed the good old man. The late emperor had  nephews, but he had never designated them as his  heirs, and they retired into private life at his death.  Justinus was well advanced in years, as all his three  predecessors had been when they mounted the throne.  But unlike Leo, Zeno, and Anastasius, he had won  his way to the front in the army, not in the civil  service. He had risen from the ranks, was a rough  uncultured soldier, and is said to have been hardly able  to sign his own name. His reign of nine years would  have been of little note in history — for he made no  wars and spent no treasure — if he had not been the  means of placing on the throne of the East the  greatest ruler since the death of Constantine.


Justinus had no children himself, but had adopted  as his heir his nephew Justinian, son of his deceased  brother Sabatius. This young man, born after his father and uncle had won their way to high places in  the army, was no uncultured peasant as they had been,  but had been reared, as the heir of a wealthy house,  in all the learning of the day. He showed from the  first a keen intelligence, and applied himself with  zeal to almost every department of civil life. Law,  finance, administrative economy, theology, music,  architecture, fortification, all were dear to him. The  only thing in which he seems to have taken little personal interest was military matters. His uncle trusted  everything to him, and finally made him his colleague  on the throne.

Justinian was heir designate to the empire, and had  passed the age of thirty-five, giving his contemporaries  the impression that he was a staid, business-like, and  eminently practical personage. " No one ever remembered him young," it was said, and most certainly  no one ever expected him to scandalize the empire  by a sensational marriage. But in A.D. 526 the world  learnt, to the horror of the respectable and the joy of  all scandal-mongers, that he had declared his intention  of taking to wife the dancer Theodora, the star of the  Byzantine comic stage.

So many stories have gathered around Theodora's  name that it is hard to say how far her early life had  been discreditable. A libelous work called the " Secret  History," written by an enemy of herself and her  husband, I gives us many scandalous details of her  career ; but the very virulence of the book makes its  tales incredible. It is indisputable, however, that  Theodora was an actress, and that Roman actresses  enjoyed an unenviable reputation for light morals.  There was actually a law which forbade a member of  the Senate to marry an actress, and Justinian had to  repeal it in order to legalize his own marriage. There  had been scores of bad and reckless men on the  throne before, but none of them had ever dared to  commit an action which startled the world half so  much as this freak of the staid Justinian. His own  mother used every effort to turn him from his purpose, and his uncle the Emperor threatened to disinherit him : but he was quietly persistent, and ere  the aged Justinus died he had been induced to ac-  knowledge the marriage of his nephew, and to confer  on Theodora the title of " Patrician."

Theodora, as even her enemies allow, was the most  beautiful woman of her age. Procopius, the best  historian of the day, says " that it was impossible for  mere man to describe her comeliness in words, or  imitate it in art." All that her detractors could say  was that she was below the middle height, and that  her complexion was rather pale, though not unhealthy.  It is unfortunate that we have no representation of  her surviving, save the famous mosaic in San Vitale  at Ravenna, and mosaic is of all forms of art that  least suited to reproduce beauty.

Whatever her early life may have been, Theodora  was in spirit and intelligence well suited to be the  mate of the Emperor of the East. After her marriage no word of scandal was breathed against her  . She rose to the height of her situation : once  her courage saved her husband's throne, and always she  was the ablest and the most trusted of his councilors.

 

Justinian I (483-565 r.527-565)

Born in Illyricum to Slavic parents adopted by his uncle, the emperor Justin (452-527). Made war, then peace with the Persian and paid tribute to them to try to regain the empire in the west. The circus parties were suppressed after the Nika insurrection of 532.Gen Belisarius won victories in Carthage (535)and Italy(553),but was not able to hold Italy. A campaign against Visigothis Spain(554) was unsuccessful. Taxes were raised to pay for wars and public works, such as the Church of St.Sophia. reformed the law code into the Corpus Jurius Civilis, which became the principle source of Roman law. The codes were written in Latin and had to be translated into Greek for use in the empire . .He had a consuming interest in theology and a desire to stamp out heresy to gain God's   plague which hit the empire during his reign, was one of the most devastating in history. While his reign was one of the most glorious in Byzantine history, it exhausted the empire and it took a century and a half to recover.

The disproportionately large eyes of the Byzantine mosaics, with their fixed gazed, show the importance of inner spirituality.

Theodora (508-548)

Wife of Justinian. Much of what is known about Theodora comes from the historian Procopius  (c500-565) who was hostile to her. She rose to fame as an actress/courtesan and caused a scandal for Justinian when he made her his wife in 523. She took a great interest in charities and exercised great influence on Justinian.

 

 

Map of Byzantine empire and Europe, 533-600

 

Justinian's Dream to Re-unite the Empire

 

Justinian determined to take up a task which none of  his predecessors since the division of the Empire  under Arcadius and Honorius had dared to contemplate. It was his dream to re-unite under his sceptre 1  the German kingdoms in the Western Mediterranean  which had been formed out of the broken fragments  of the realm of Honorius ; and to end the solemn  pretence by which he was nominally acknowledged as  Emperor West of the Adriatic, while really all power  was in the hands of the German rulers who posed a^  his vicegerents. He aimed at reconquering Italy,  Africa, and Spain — if not the further provinces of the  old empire. But during the first five years of his reign his attention was distracted by other matters. The first of  them was an obstinate war of four years' duration,  with Kobad, King of Persia. The causes of quarrel  were ultimately the rival pretensions of the Roman  and Persian Empires to the suzerainty of the small  states on their northern frontiers near the Black Sea,  the kingdoms of Lazica and Iberia, and more proximately the strengthening of the fortresses on the  Mesopotamian border by Justinian. His fortification  of Dara, close to the Persian frontier town of Nisibis,  was the casus belli chosen by Kobad, who declared  war in 528, a year after Justinian's accession.

The Persian war was bloody, but absolutely indecisive. All the attacks of the enemy were repelled,  and one great pitched battle won over him at Dara in  530. But neither party succeeded in taking a single  fortress of importance from the other ; and when, on  the death of Kobad, his son Chosroes made peace  with the empire, the terms amounted to the restoration of the old frontier. The only importance of the  war was that it enabled Justinian to test his army,  and showed him that he possessed an officer of first-  rate merit in Belisarius, the victor of the battle of  Dara.

 

Belisarius

 

Belisarius was a native of the Thracian  inland ; he entered the army very young, and rose  rapidly, till at the age of twenty-three he was already  Governor of Dara, and at twenty-five Magister of the East. His influence at Court was very great,  as he had married Antonina, the favourite and confidante of the Empress Theodora.

According to popular legend, Belisarius was blinded and lived out his remaining days as a beggar despite his service to the empire.

 

Belisarius (505-565) Was a famous Byzantine general who rose to command the armies of Just in the Persian War of 592-532 ,in the following years he won Carthage from the vandals and won decisive victories over the Goths in Italy. Recalled to Italy in 540 and lived in retirement until 559, when he was called up again to save Constantinople from the Bulgars. He was imprisoned by Justinian in 562 for alleged conspiracy, but was freed before his death in 565. Belisarius was the source for the character General Bel Riose in Isaac Asimov's Foundation and Empire.

 

After the Persians had drawn back, foiled in their  attempt to conquer Mesopotamia, and after the suppression of the "Nika" sedition had cowed the unruly  populace of Constantinople, Justinian found himself  at last free, and was able to take in hand his great  scheme for the reconquest of the lost provinces of  the empire.

 

The Hagia Sophia, Church of the Holy Wisdom of God,was built by Justinian between 532 and 537 and was the largest church in the world for nearly a thousand years, constructed by Isidore of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles,who were the first to solve how to set a spherical dome on a square chamber on a large scale. The Hagia Sophia was center stage for important events in the empire,such as being where emperors were crowned and the Patriarch of the Orthodox church presided. The last emperor, Constantine Palaeologuus received communion here on the night before the city was taken by the Ottomans. It was converted into a mosque after the Ottoman conquest with minarets added. It became a museum in 1935 by Kemual Ataturk


Attack on North Africa

 

The enforced delay of six years between his accession and his first attempt to execute his great plan,  was, as it happened, extremely favourable to the Emperor. In each of the two German kingdoms with  which he had first to deal, the power had passed  within those six years into the hands of a weak and  incapable sovereign. In Africa, Hilderic, the king  of the Vandals, had been dethroned by his cousin  Gelimer, a warlike and ambitious, but very incapable,  ruler. In Italy, Theodoric, the great king of the Ostrogoths, had died in A.D. 526, and his grandson and  successor, Athalaric, in A.D. 533.' After the death of the  young Athalaric, the kingdom fell to his mother,  Amalasuntha, and she, compelled by Gothic public  opinion to take a husband to rule in her behalf, had  unwisely wedded Theodahat, her nearest kinsman.  He was cruel, scheming, and suspicious, and murdered his wife, within a year of her having brought  him the kingdom of Italy as a dowry. ^ Cowardly  and avaricious as well as ungrateful, Theodahat possessed exactly those vices which were most suited to  make him the scorn of his warlike subjects ; he could  count neither on their loyalty nor their respect in the  event of a war.

 

Both the Vandals in Africa and the Goths in Italy  were at this time so weak as to invite an attack by  an enterprising neighbour. They had, in fact, conquered larger realms than their limited numbers were  really able to control. The original tribal hordes  which had subdued Africa and Italy were composed  of fifty or sixty thousand warriors, with their wives  and children. Now such a body concentrated on one  spot was powerful enough to bear down everything  before it. But when the conquerors spread 'themselves abroad, they were but a sprinkling among the  millions of provincials whom they had to govern. In  all Italy there were probably but three cities — Ravenna, Verona, and Pavia —in which the Ostrogoths  formed a large proportion of the population.

 

Barbarians - The Vandals
They were the dreaded forces on the fringes of civilization, the bloodthirsty warriors who defied the Roman legions and terrorized the people of Europe. They were the Barbarians, and their names still evoke images of cruelty and chaos. But what do we really know of these legendary warriors?

A great  army makes but a small nation, and the Goths and Vandals were too few to occupy such wide tracts as Italy  and Africa. They formed merely a small aristocracy,  fathers had won over the minds of the unwarlike  populations which they had subdued. The only  chance for the survival of the Ostrogothic and Vandal monarchies lay in the possibility of their amalgamating with the Roman provincial population, as  the Franks, under more favourable circumstances,  did with the conquered inhabitants of Gaul. This  was seen by Theodoric, the great conqueror of Italy ;  and he did his best to reconcile Goth and Roman,  held the balance with strict justice between the two,  and employed Romans as well as Goths in the government of the country.

 

But one generation does little  to assuage old hatreds such as that between the conquerors and the conquered in Sicily. Theodoric was  succeeded by a child, and then by a ruffian, and his  work ended with him. Even he was unable to strike  at the most fatal difference of all between his country-  men and the Italians. The Goths were Arians, having  been converted to Christianity in the fourth century  by missionaries who held the Arian heresy. Their  subjects, on the other hand, were Orthodox Catholics,  almost without exception. When religious hatred  was added to race hatred, there was hardly any hope  of welding together the two nationalities.

 

Justinian declared war on King Gelimer the moment that he had made peace with Persia, using as  his casus belli, not a definite re-assertion of the claim  of the empire over Africa — for such language would  have provoked the rulers of Italy and Spain to join  the Vandals, but the fact that Gelimer had wrong-  fully deposed Hilderic, the Emperor's ally. In July,  533, Belisarius, who was now at the height of his  favour for his successful suppression of the " Nika "  rioters, sailed from the Bosphorus with an army of  10,000 foot and 5,000 horse. He was accompanied,  luckily for history, by his secretary, Procopius, a very  capable writer, who has left a full account of his  master's campaigns.

 

Belisarius landed at Tripoli, at the  extreme eastern limit of the Vandal power. The town was at once betrayed to him by its Roman inhabitants.  From thence he advanced cautiously along the coast,  meeting with no opposition ; for the incapable Gelimer had been caught unprepared, and was still engaged in calling in his scattered warriors. It was not  till he had approached within ten miles of Carthage  that Belisarius was attacked by the Vandals. After  a hard struggle he defeated them, and the city fell  into his hands next day. The provincials were delighted at the rout of their masters, and welcomed  the imperial army with joy ; there was neither riot  nor pillage, and Carthage had not the aspect of a  conquered town.

 

The battle of Tricamarum 533 AD

Calling up his last reserves, Gelimer made one more  attempt to try the fortunes of war. He advanced on  Carthage, and was met by Belisarius at Tricameron,  on the road to Bulla. Again the day went against  him; his army broke up, his last fortresses threw  open their gates, and there was an end of the Vandal  kingdom. It had existed just 104 years, since  Genseric entered Africa in A.D 429.

Gelimer took refuge for a time with the Moorish  tribes who dwelt in the fastnesses of Mount Atlas.  But ere long he resolved to surrender himself to  Belisarius, whose humanity was as well known as his  courage. He sent to Carthage to say that he was  about to give himself up, and — so the story goes —  asked but for three things : a harp, to which to  chant a dirge he had written on the fate of himself  and the Vandal race ; a sponge, to wipe away his  tears ; and a loaf, a delicacy he had not tasted ever  since he had been forced to partake of the unsavoury  food of the Moors ! Belisarius received Gelimer with  kindness, and took him to Constantinople, along with  the treasures of the palace of Carthage, which included many of the spoils of Rome captured by the  Vandals eighty-six years before, when they sacked  the imperial city, in 453. It is said that among these  spoils were some of the golden vessels of the Temple  at Jerusalem, which Titus had brought in triumph to  Rome, and which Gaiseric had carried from Rome to  Carthage.

The triumphal entry of Belisarius into Constantinople with his captives and his spoils, encouraged  Justinian to order instant preparations for an attack  on the second German kingdom, on his western  frontier. He declared war on the wretched King  Theodahat in the summer of A. D. 535, using as his  pretext the murder of Queen Amalasuntha


Attack on Italy

 


In the summer of 535, Belisarius landed in Sicily,  with an even smaller army than had been given him  to conquer Africa — only 3,000 Roman troops, all  Isaurians, and 4,500 barbarian auxiliaries of different  sorts. Belisarius' first campaign was as fortunate as  had been that which he had waged against Gelimer.  All the Sicilian towns threw open their gates except  Palermo, where there was a considerable Gothic gar-  son, and Palermo fell after a short siege. In six  'months the whole island was in the hands of  Belisarius.

Theodahat seemed incapable of defending himself;  he fell into a condition of abject helplessness, which  so provoked his warlike subjects, that when the news  came that Belisarius had crossed over into Italy and  taken Rhegium, they rose and slew him. In his stead  the army of the Goths elected as their king Witiges, a  middle-aged warrior, well known for personal courage  and integrity, but quite incompetent to face the impending storm.

After the fall of Rhegium, Belisnrius marched  rapidly on Naples, meeting no opposition ; for the  Goths were very thinly scattered through Southern  Italy, and had not even enough men to garrison the  Lucanian and Calabrian fortresses. Naples was  taken by surprise, the Imperialists finding their way  within the walls by crawling up a disused aqueduct.  After this important conquest, Belisarius made for  Rome, though his forces were reduced to a mere  handful by the necessity of leaving garrisons in his  late conquests. King Witiges made no effort to obstruct  his approach. He had received news that the Franks were threatening an evasion of Northern Italy, and  went north to oppose an imaginary danger in the  Alps, when he should have been defending the line  of the Tiber. Having staved off the danger of a  Prankish war by ceding Provence to King Theuderic,  Witiges turned back, only to learn that Rome was  now in the hands of the enemy. The troops of Leudaris, the Gothic general, who had been left with  4,000 men to defend the city, had been struck with  panic at the approach of Belisarius, and were cowardly  and idiotic enough to evacuate it without striking a  blow. Five thousand men had sufficed to seize the  ancient capital of the world ! [December, 536.]

Siege of Rome 

Next spring King Witiges came down with the  main army of the Goths — more than 100,000 strong  — and laid siege to Rome. The defence of the town  by Belisarius and his very inadequate garrison forms  the most interesting episode in the Italian war. For  more than a year the Ostrogoths lay before its walls,  essaying every device to force an entry. They tried  open storm ; they endeavoured to bribe traitors within  the city ; they strove to creep along the bed of a disused aqueduct, as Belisarius had done a year before  at Naples. All was in vain, though the besiegers  outnumbered the garrison twenty-fold, and exposed  their lives with the same recklessness that their ancestors had shown in the invasion of the empire a  hundred years back. The scene best remembered in  the siege was the simultaneous assault on five points  in the wall, on the 21st of March, 537. Three of the  attacks were beaten back with ease ; but near the  Praenestine Gate, at the south-east of the city, one storming party actually forced its way within the walls,  and had to be beaten out by sheer hard fighting ; and  at the mausoleum of Hadrian, on the north-west,  another spirited combat took place. Hadrian's tomb  — a great quadrangular structure of white marble,  300 feet square and 85 feet high — was surmounted  by one of the most magnificent collections of statuary  in ancient Rome, including four great equestrian  statues of emperors at its corners. The Goths, with  their ladders, swarmed at the foot of the tomb in such  numbers, that the arrows and darts of the defenders  were insufficient to beat them back. Then, as a last  resource, the Imperialists tore down the scores of  statues which adorned the mausoleum, and crushed  the mass of assailants beneath a rain of marble fragments. Two famous antiques, that form the pride of  modern galleries — the " Dancing Faun " at Florence,  and the " Barberini Faun " at Munich — were found, a  thousand years later, buried in the ditch of the tomb  of Hadrian, and must have been among the missiles  employed against the Goths. The rough usage which  they then received proved the means of preserving  them for the admiration of the modern world.

A year and nine days after he had formed the siege  of Rome, the unlucky Witiges had to abandon it.  His army, reduced by sword and famine, had given  up all hope of success, and news had just arrived that  the Imperialists had launched a new army against  Ravenna, the Gothic capital. Belisarius, indeed, had  just received a reinforcement of 6,000 or 7,000 men,  and had wisely sent a considerable force, under an  under an officer named John, to fall on the Adriatic coast

The scene of the war was now transported further  to the north; but its character still remained the same.  The Romans gained territory, the Goths lost it.  Firmly fixed at Ancona and Rimini and Osimo, Belisarius gradually forced his way nearer to Ravenna,  and, in A.D. 540 laid siege to it. Witiges, blockaded  by Belisarius in his capital, made no such skilful  defence as did his rival at Rome three years before.  To add to his troubles, the Franks came down into  Northern Italy, and threatened to conquer the valley  of the Po, the last Gothic stronghold. Witiges then  made proposals for submission ; but Belisarius refused  to grant any terms other than unconditional surrender, though his master Justinian was ready to  acknowledge Witiges as vassal- king in Trans-Padane  Italy. Famine drove Ravenna to open its gates, and  the Goths, enraged at their imbecile king, and struck  with admiration for the courage and generosity of Belisarius, offered to make their conqueror Emperor of  the West. The loyal general refused ; but bade the  Goths disperse each to his home, and dwell peaceably  for the future as subjects of the empire. [May, 540  A.D.] He himself, taking the great Gothic treasure-  hoard from the palace of Theodoric, and the captive  Witiges, sailed for Constantinople, and laid his  trophies at his master's feet.

Italy now seemed even as Africa ; only Pavia and  Verona were still held by Gothic garrisons, and when  he sailed home, Belisarius deemed his work so nearly  done, that his lieutenants would suffice to crush out  the last embers of the strife. He himself was required in the East, for a new- Persian war with Chosroes, son of Kobad, was on the eve of breaking out.  But things were not destined to end so. At the last  moment the Goths found a king and a hero to rescue  them, and the conquest of Italy was destined to be  deferred for twelve years more. Two ephemeral  rulers reigned for a few months at Pavia, and came  to bloody ends ; but their successor was Baduila, the  noblest character of the sixth century — " the first  knight of the Middle Ages," as he has been called.  When the generals of Justinian marched against  him, to finish the war by the capture of Verona and  Pavia, he v/on over them the first victory that the Goths  had obtained since their enemies landed in Italy. . This  was followed by two more' successes ; the scattered  armies of Witiges rallied /round the banner of the  new king, and at once /the cities of Central and  Southern Italy began to fail back into Gothic hands,  with the same rapidity with which they had yielded  to Belisarius. The fact was, that the war had been  a cruel strain on the Italians, and that the imperial  governors, and still more their fiscal agents, or " logo-  thetes," had become unbearably oppressive. Italy  had lived through the fit of enthusiasm with which it  had received the armies of Justinian, and was now  regretting the days of Theodoric as a long-lost golden  age. Most of its cities were soon in Baduila's hands ;  the Imperialists retained only the districts round Rome,  Naples, Otranto, and Ravenna, Of Naples they were  soon deprived. [B.C. 543.] Baduila invested it, and  officer named John, to fall on the Adriatic coast.

Justinian was obliged to send back  Belisarius, for no one else could hold back the Goths.  But Belisarius was ill-supplied with men ; he had  fallen into disfavour at Court, and the imperial  ministers stinted him of troops and money. Unable  to relieve Rome, he had to wait at Portus, by the  mouth of the Tiber, watching for a chance to enter  the city. That chance he never got. The famine-  stricken Romans, angry with the cruel and avaricious  Bessas, who commanded the garrison, began to long  for the victory of their enemy ; and one night some  traitors opened the Asinarian Gate, and let in Baduila and his Goths. The King thought that his  troubles were over ; he assembled his chiefs, and bade  them observe how, in the time of Witiges, 7,000  Greeks had conquered, and robbed of kingdom and  liberty, 100,000 well-armed Goths. But now that  they were few, poor, and wretched, the Goths had  conquered more than 20,000 of the enemy. And  why? Because of old they looked to anything rather  than justice : they had sinned against each other and  the Romans. Therefore they must choose hence-  forth, and be just men and have God with them, or  unjust and have God against them.

Baduila had determined to do that which no general  since Hannibal had contemplated : he would destroy  Rome, and with it all the traditions of the world-  empire of the ancient city — to him they seemed but  snares, tending to corrupt the mind of the Goths.  The people he sent away unharmed — they were but a  few thousand left after the horrors of the famine during the siege. But he broke down the walls, and dismantled the palaces and arsenals. For a few weeks  Rome was a deserted city, given up to the wolf and  the owl [a.d. 550].

For eleven unquiet years, Baduila, the brave and  just, ruled Italy, holding his own against Belisarius, till  the great general was called home by some wretched  court intrigue. But presently Justinian gathered  another army, more numerous than any that Belisarius had led, and sent it to Italy, under the command of the eunuch Narses. It was a strange choice  that made the chamberlain into a general'; but it  succeeded. Narses marched round the head of the  Adriatic, and invaded Italy from the north. Baduila went forth to meet him at Tagina, in the Apennines. For a long day the Ostrogothic knights rode  again and again into the Imperialist ranks ; but all  their furious charges failed. At evening they reeled  back broken, and their king received a mortal wound  in the flight [A.D. 553].

With the death of Baduila, it was all up with the  Goths ; their hero's knightly courage and kingly  righteousness had not sufficed to save them from the  same doom which had overtaken the Vandals. The  broken army made one last stand in Campania, under  a chief named Teia ; but he was slain in battle at  Nuceria, and then the Goths surrendered. They  told Narses that the hand of God was against them ;  they would quit Italy, and go back to dwell in the  north, in the land of their fathers. So the poor  remnant of the conquering Ostrogoths marched off,  crossed the Po and the Alps, and passed away into  oblivion in the northern darkness. The scheme of  Justinian was complete. Italy was his ; but an Italy  so wasted and depopulated, that the traces of the  ancient Roman rule had almost vanished. ** The  land," says a contemporary chronicler, " was reduced  to primeval solitude " — war and famine had swept it  bare.


Spain

There was civil war in Spain,  and, taking advantage of it, Liberius, governor of  Africa, landed in Andalusia, and rapidly took the  great towns of the south of the peninsula — Cordova,  Cartagena, Malaga, and Cadiz. The factious Visigoths then dropped their strife, united in arms under  King Athangild, and checked the further progress of  the imperial arms. But a long slip of the lost territory was not recovered by them. Justinian and his  successors, down to A.D. 623, reigned over the greater  part of the sea-coast of Southern Spain.

Chosroes Attacks

The slackness with which the generals of Justinian  prosecuted the Gothic war in the period between the  triumph of Belisarius at Ravenna in A.D. 540, and  the final conquest of Italy in A.D. 553, is mainly to  be explained by the fact that, just at the moment of  the fall of Ravenna, the empire became involved in  a new struggle with its great Eastern neighbour.  Chosroes of Persia was seriously alarmed at the  African and Italian conquests of Justinian, and  remembered that he too, as well as the Vandals and  Goths, was in possession of provinces that had  formerly been Roman, and might one day be re-  claimed by the Emperor. He determined to strike  before Justinian had got free from his Italian war,  and while the flower of the Roman army was still in  the West Using as his pretext for war some petty  quarrels between two tribes of Arabs, subject respectively to Persia and the empire, he declared war  in the spring of A.D. 540.

 

Justinian, as the king  had hoped, was caught unprepared : the army of the  Euphrates was so weak that it never dared face  the Persians in the field, and the opening of the war was  fraught with such a disaster to the empire as had  not been known since the battle of Adrianople, more  than a hundred and sixty years before. Avoiding  the fortresses of Mesopotamia, Chosroes, who led his  army in person, burst into* Northern Syria. His  main object was to strike a blow at Antioch, the  metropolis of the East, a rich city that had not seen  an enemy for nearly three centuries, and was  reckoned safe from all attacks owing to its distance  from the frontier. Antioch had a strong garrison of  6,000 men and the " Blues ''' and " Greens " of its  circus factions had taken arms to support the regular  troops. But the commander was incompetent, and  the fortifications had been somewhat neglected of  late. After a sharp struggle, Chosroes took the town  by assault ; the garrison cut its way out, and many of  the inhabitants escaped with it, but the city was  sacked from cellar to garret and thousands of  captives were dragged away by the Persians.  Chosroes planted them by the Euphrates — as  Nebuchadnezzar had done of old with the Jews —  and built for them a city which he called Chosroantiocheia, blending his own name with that of their  ancient abode.

The Life of Belisarius

Lord Mahon

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This horrible disaster to the second city of the  Roman East roused ail Justinian's energy ; neglecting the Italian war, he sent all his disposable troops  to the Euphrates frontier, and named Belisarius  himself as the chief commander. After this, Chosroes  won no such successes as had distinguished his first  campaign. Having commenced an attack on the Roman border fortresses in Colchis, far to the north,  he was drawn home by the news that Belisarius had  invaded Assyria and was besieging Nisibis. On the  approach of the king the imperial general retired,  but his manoeuvre had cost the Persian the fruits of a whole summer's preparation, and the year  541  ended without serious fighting. In the next spring  very similar operations followed : Belisarius defended  the line of the Euphrates with success, and the  invaders retired after having reduced one single  Mesopotamian fortress.

 

The war lingered for two  years more, till Chosroes, disgusted at the ill-success  of all his efforts since his first success at Antioch,  and more especially humiliated by a bloody repulse  from the walls of Edessa, consented td treat for  peace [A.D. 545]. He gave up his conquests — which  were of small importance — but regarded the honours  of the war as being his own, because Justinian  consented to pay him 2,000 lbs. of gold  on the ratification of the treaty. One curious clause  was inserted in the document — though hostilities  ceased everywhere else, the rights of the two  monarchs to the suzerainty of the kingdom of  Lazica, on the Colchian frontier, hard by the Black  Sea, were left undefined. For no less than seven  years a sort of by-war was maintained in this small  district, while peace prevailed on all other points of  the Perso-Roman frontier.

The Great Plague

 

 

The Plague of Justinian I


But although Justinian had brought his second  Persian war to a not unsuccessful end, the empire  had come badly out of the struggle, and was by  556 falling into a condition of incipient disorder and  decay. This was partly caused by the reckless  financial expedients of the Emperor, who taxed the  provinces with unexampled rigour while forced to  maintain at once a Persian and an Italian war.

 

Justinian's Flea: Plague, Empire, and the Birth of Europe

The Emperor Justinian reunified Rome's fractured empire by defeating the Goths and Vandals who had separated Italy, Spain, and North Africa from imperial rule.


The main part of the damage, however, was  wrought by other than human means. In A.D. 542  there broke out in the empire a plague such as had  not been known for three hundred years — the last  similar visitation had fallen in the reign of Trebonianus Gallus, far back in the third century. This  pestilence was one of the epoch-making events in  the history of the empire, as great a landmark as the  Black Death in the history of England. The details  which Procopius gives us concerning its progress and  results leave no doubt that it operated more power-  fully than any other factor in that weakening of the  empire which is noticeable in the second half of the  sixth century. When it reached Constantinople,  5,000 persons a day are said to have fallen victims  to it. All customary occupations ceased in the city,  and the market-place was empty save for corpse-  bearers. In many houses not a single soul remained  alive, and the government had to take special  measures for the burial of neglected corpses. " The  disease," says the chronicler, "did not attack any  particular race or class of men, nor prevail in any  particular region, nor confine itself to any period of  the year. Summer or winter, North or South, Greek  or Arabian, washed or unwashed — of such distinctions  the plague took no account. A man might climb to  the hill-top, and it was there ; he might retire to the  depths of a cavern, and it was there also." The  only marked characteristic of its ravages that the  chronicler could find was that, " whether by chance  or providential design, it strictly spared the most  wicked."

Justinian himself fell ill of the plague : he recovered, but was never his old self again. Though  he persevered inflexibly to his last day in his scheme  for the reconquest of the empire, yet he seems to  have declined in energy, and more especially to have  lost that power of organization, which had been his  most marked characteristic. The chroniclers com-  plain that he had grown less hopeful and less  masterful. "After achieving so much in the days  of his vigour, when he entered into the last stage  of his life he seemed to weary of his labours, and  preferred to create discord among his foes or to  mollify them with gifts, instead of trusting to his  arms and facing the dangers of war. So he allowed  his troops to decline in numbers, because he did not  expect to require their services. And his ministers,  who collected his taxes and maintained his armies  were affected with the same indifference."

 

The Secret History  (c500-565)

Procopius was the Empire's official chronicler, and his "History of the Wars of Justinian" proclaimed the strength and wisdom of the Emperor's reign. Yet all the while the dutiful scribe was working on a very different - and dangerous - history to be published only once its author was safely in his grave. "The Secret History" portrays the 'great lawgiver' Justinian as a rampant king of corruption and tyranny, the Empress Theodora as a sorceress and whore, and the brilliant general Belisarius as the pliable dupe of his scheming wife Antonina.


One feature of the Emperor's later years was that  he took more and more interest in theological  disputes, even to the neglect of State business. The  Church question of the day was the dispute on  Monophysitism, the heresy which denied the existence  both of a human and a divine nature in Our Lord.  Justinian was not a monophysite himself, but wished  to unify the sect with the main body of the Church  by edicts of comprehension, which forbade the  discussion of the subject, and spent much trouble  in coercing prelates orthodox and heretical into a  reconciliation which had no chance of permanent  success. His chief difficulty was with the bishops  of Rome. He forced Pope Vigilius to come to  Constantinople, and kept him under constraint for  many months, till he signed all that was required of  him [a.d. 554]. The only result was to win Vigilius  the reputation of a heretic, and to cause a growing  estrangement between East and West.

The gloom of Justinian's later years was even more  marked after the death of his wife ; Theodora died  in A.D. 548, six years after the great plague, and it  may be that her loss was no less a cause of the  diminished energy of his later years than was his  enfeebled health. Her bold and adventurous spirit  must have buoyed him up in many of the /more  difficult enterprises of the first half of his reign.  After her death, Justinian seems to have trusted no  one : his destined successor, Justinus, son of his  sister, was kept in the background, and no great  minister seems to have possessed his confidence.  Even Belisarius, the first and most loyal soldier of  the empire, does not appear to have been trusted : in  the second Gothic war the Emperor stinted him of  troops and hampered him with colleagues. At last  he was recalled [A.D. 549] and sent into private life,  from which he was only recalled on the occurrence  of a sudden military crisis in A.D. 558.

The Huns Attack

This crisis was a striking example of the mismanagement of Justinian's later years. A nomad  horde from the South Russian steppes, the Cotrigur  Huns, had crossed the frozen Danube at mid-winter,  when hostilities were least expected, and thrown  themselves on the Thracian provinces. The empire  had 150,000 men under arms at the moment, 'but  they were all dispersed abroad, many in Italy, others  in Africa, others in Spain, others in Colchis, some in  the The baid, and a few on the Mesopotamian frontier
 

There was such a dearth of men to defend the home  provinces that the barbarians rode unhindered over  the whole country side from the Danube to the  Propontis plundering and burning. One body, only  7,000 strong, came up to within a few miles of the  city gates, and inspired such fear that the Constantinopolitans began to send their money and  church-plate over to Asia.


Justinian then summoned  Belisarius from his retirement, and placed him in  command of what troops there were available — a  single regiment of 300 veterans from Italy, and  the " Scholarian guards," a body of local troops  3,500 strong, raised in the city and entrusted with  the charge of its gates, which inspired little confidence as its members were allowed to practice their  trades and avocations and only called out in rotation  for occasional service. With this undisciplined force,  which had never seen war, at his back, Belisarius  contrived to beat off the Huns. He led them to  pursue him back to a carefully prepared position,  where the only point that could be attacked was  covered with woods and hedges on either side. The  untrustworthy " Scholarians " were placed on the  flanks, where they could not be seriously molested,  while the 300 Italian veterans covered the one  vulnerable point.

The Huns attacked, were shot  down from the woods and beaten off in front, and  fled leaving 400 men on the field, while the Romans  only lost a few wounded and not a single soldier  slain. Thus the last military exploit of Belisarius  preserved the suburbs of the imperial city itself from  molestation ; after defending Old Rome in his prime  he saved New Rome in his old age

Belisarius Accused

 

 Listen to The Decline and Fall of The Roman Empire (for free !)

*Conquests Of Justinian, Character Of Balisarius.

*From The Time Of Heraclius To The Latin Conquest.

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Even this last service did not prevent Justinian  from viewing his great servant with suspicion. Four  years later an obscure conspiracy against his life was  discovered, and one of the conspirators named Belisarius as being privy to the plot. The old emperor  affected to believe the accusation, sequestrated the  general's property, and kept him under surveillance  for eight months. Belisarius was then acquitted and  restored to favour : he lived two years longer, and  died in March, 565. The ungrateful master whom  he had served so well followed him to the grave nine  months later.

It is comforting to know that the popular legend which tells how  the great general lived in poverty and disgrace, begging the passerby  "dare obolum Belisario," and dying in the streets, is untrue. But  the suspicious emperor's conduct was quite unpardonable.

 

 The Time Commanders on The Battle of Dara was fought between the Sassanids and the Byzantine Empire in 530.

Despite being outnumbered, Belisarius decided to attack the poorly-armed Persians.

 

 

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