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Overview of Late Antiquity--The Sixth Century

Section 4: Justinian -- Wars and Church Councils

Steven Muhlberger

The two main thrusts of Justinian's policy were the renewal of Roman political and military power, and the reunification of the churches behind an imperially-approved theological formula. To appreciate his reign we must alternate between them.

Historians often equate the Justinian's attempt to renew Roman power with his reconquest of the west. Reconquest, especially the recovery of the city of Rome, was ideologically important, and had far-reaching consequences, but relations with Persia were perhaps even more important, and Justinian devoted vast resources to pursuing a rather belligerent policy toward Persia.

The Roman empire and the Persian (Sassanid) empire could avoid confrontation only with difficulty. Their main common boundary, roughly along the modern Iraqi-Syrian border, was entirely artificial. Ecologically and economically, the two sides of it were identical. Speakers of Syriac, Arabic, and Armenian lived on both sides indifferently, as did Christians and Jews. Iranian culture affected Roman- ruled northern Mesopotamia as much as it did areas ruled from Persia, and Persian emperors were interested in Greek learning. Elsewhere, Roman and Persian interests were also intertwined. The health of the eastern Roman economy was closely connected to trade with the farther east. Much of it went through Persian territory, but Roman traders were always trying to circumvent Persian interference by going north through the steppes to central Asia, or south through the Red and Arabian Seas to India. This southern route was particularly significant. Egypt boomed economically on the basis of the India trade, and the imperial government was deeply interested in the politics of Arabia and the Horn of Africa.

Cooperation between the two empires was not impossible. The Persian and Roman governments had a common interest in controlling the Caucasus, to prevent "Hunnic" nomads from infiltrating across the mountain passes to make trouble in Armenia, Anatolia, and northern Iran. But a competitive spirit was more likely, since both emperors had such an exalted view of their position in the world. At the end of Justin's reign, the Roman government rejected a proposal that it should guarantee the Persian succession. The Persian government then tightened its control of the Caucasus in a provocative way. Soon the empires were at war, and in Justinian's reign they fought almost continuously, either directly or through their clients.

In the early years, Roman commitments on the Persian frontier were not demanding enough to prevent Justinian from looking west. In his early years, Old Rome was symbolic for him. That it was ruled by the Goths affronted him; similarly, he found it disgraceful that the bishop of Rome had condemned the ecclesiastical policy of his predecessors. From the time of Justin's accession the court had worked for a reconciliation with the church of Rome, and taken a pro-Calcedonian stance. With the imperial regime once again enjoying the respect of western churches, its influence rose in the lost provinces, especially Africa and Italy. When the grasp of the kings on these two realms was loosened by dynastic events, Justinian intervened in force.

Justinian launched his first western campaign, against Africa, in 533. His pretext was that a legitimate king (grandson of both Geiseric and Valentinian III) had been deposed by another royal Vandal. Despite the warnings of his advisors, he risked sending a fleet and a small force of 5000 men under his best general, Belisarius, to retake the province. This Belisarius did, in a single lightning campaign. The Vandals were rounded up and deported to the Persian frontier, the Arian churches returned to the orthodox clergy, and the vast treasure looted from Rome by Geiseric, (including the Temple treasures of Jerusalem captured by the Romans in A.D. 70) were displayed in the circus. A Roman province, the richest in the west, had been miraculously recovered.

Two years later, a similar opportunity arose in Italy. Amalasuntha, Theodoric's daughter and successor, had been murdered by her cousin and husband Theodahad. While negotiating secretly with Theodahad to buy his kingdom, Justinian sent Belisarius to spearhead a second invasion. This conflict was more prolonged and costly for all concerned. Belisarius was beseiged in Rome for a year, Milan was leveled by the Goths, and a great deal of other damage was done. But by 540, the Gothic king Witigis had agreed to surrender, and Belisarius occupied Ravenna and confiscated the royal treasure.

The conspicuous successes of Justinian's policy in the early 530s allowed him to push vigorously for a theological settlement. It proved impossible to get supporters of Chalcedon (under the leadership of the Roman church) and Monophysites (led by Bishop Severus of Antioch) to agree. Justinian decided to use force against the latter. Troops were sent to occupy Alexandria and maintain a pro-Chalcedonian patriarch, and slowly harsher anti-Monophysite measures were extended throughout Egypt and Syria.

In 540, Justinian received a series of severe setbacks. A Bulgar army raided deep into the Balkans and threatened the capital. The Persian emperor Khusro invaded Syria, sacking several cities and capping his progress by taking Antioch, emptying it of its wealth, and deporting its population across the Euphrates. At the same time, the apparent conquest of Italy came undone. The remaining Goths elected a new king and resumed the war. It was the beginning of a harsh period: starting in 541, the bubonic plague swept through much of the civilized world, killing a vast number of people. The plague would return in the 570s, 580s, and 590s.

Nonetheless, Justinian pushed on with grim determination. He juggled resources to meet the various challenges on the frontiers and slowly forged a theological settlement. Most of his energy was devoted to the latter project. Procopius thought this foolish, but those familiar with ideological struggles in modern dictatorships can appreciate why Justinian considered religious conformity the key to his entire enterprise.

During the 540s Justinian changed his religious policy significantly. He decided that the Monophysites were justified in some of their objections to Chalcedon, and that compromise with them was necessary. They did, after all, dominate his richest provinces. In 543, Justinian condemned three Chalcedonian theologians as Nestorians, and forced Pope Vigilius -- who was held under close supervision at Constantinople for seven years -- to approve the condemnation. This brought a storm of protest from Latin bishops, but Justinian kept up the pressure until 553, when a general council of the church at the capital approved his formulation over their objections. The council's end in 554 coincided with the final defeat of the Goths in Italy. Two years previously, Justinian had been confident enough to send a fleet to Spain, once again exploiting disunity in a barbarian kingdom to reclaim provincial territory -- in this case, no more than a coastal strip on the coast of Baetica (Andalusia).

Justinian's victories proved to be as illusory as they were costly. His church council, for instance, satisfied no-one. Although Justinian had coerced agreement from the bishop of Rome, most other western bishops rejected his compromise as a sell-out to heresy. The Monophysites, who were supposed to be won over by the council, largely ignored it. Beginning in the 540s, they had been constructing an alternative church in Egypt and Syria, one with no ties to the imperial court or its recognized bishops. The Council of 553-4 also confirmed the alienation of churches within the empire from those in Mesopotamia and other Persian-ruled countries, churches which really were Nestorian.

The reconquest, too, destroyed much of what it was intended to restore. The fate of Italy was far different than might have been expected in 535, when for a moment a repeat of the lightning seizure of North Africa seemed possible. The war up to 540 had been hard, and far worse afterwards. With the empire distracted by the Persians, the Goths were able to choose new kings and mount a desperate and vengeful attempt, lasting fourteen years, to retake the Italian realm once ruled so benignly by Theodoric. In this second phase of the war, Rome was beseiged three more times; following the worst siege, its population was reduced, if only temporarily, to a mere 500 people. Every other Italian city suffered, too. Gothic massacres of senators and the wholesale freeing of slaves to fight in their armies undermined the existing social structure of the peninsula. Where the imperial government regained control, its tax collectors insisted on levying taxes at peacetime rates, so that Italy could pay for its own occupation.

Simultaneously, Africa went into a steep decline. During the last years of their regime, the Vandals had been losing territory to the desert people known as Moors. After 534, the Roman garrison was ineffective at stopping the Moorish advance on cultivated lands because it was in state of mutiny for much of the time. Syria, too, had been damaged by war, and the Balkan frontier was breached repeatedly and ever more seriously by riders off the steppe such as the Bulgars and the Avars. The court itself was enfeebled, having spent so many resources on destruction. Even in a key province like Egypt, Justinian's writ hardly ran beyond Alexandria. After 540, the court lacked the power to appoint anyone but Egyptians to local offices, and the churches outside the metropolis -- and even two within it -- were abandoned to the Monophysites. Egypt had become so independent that the much ballyhooed imperial religious initiaves were not so much ignored as unknown. Constantinople got nothing out of Egypt but the yearly grain tribute.

A map of Justinian's possessions at the time of his death (565) is impressive, showing an empire that once more embraced almost the entire Mediterranean. But the boundaries were untenable. The imperial wars had largely been fought by the massive employment of barbarian mercenaries and allies, and as in the fourth century, this destabilized the politics of a wide area. The court, impoverished but committed to subsidizing a great many client kings, found those clients becoming uncontrollable and increasingly threatening. Justinian's successors, tied down in an unending Persian war, saw his reconquests slip away. In Italy, no sooner had the Goths been defeated when first the Franks and then the Lombards invaded (568). The empire could not expell the Lombards, and they proved unable to take Italy. It became a disputed border province, split between a Roman military government and a crowd of Lombard warlords (duces, dukes). Under Emperors Tiberius II and Maurice, the Danubian frontier failed. The spearhead of the invasions was provided by the Avars, a people whose power was based on nomadic cavalry, but equally important were the Slavs, who not only raided, but settled throughout the Balkans, even in Greece.

These barbarian movements were in some ways more important than the famous ones of the fourth and fifth centuries. Where the earlier immigrants had come into contact with a lively urban culture, Lombards and Slavs moved into a landscape of crumbling cities. What was left of the classical inheritance, economically and culturally, was in full retreat.

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Copyright (C) 1996, Steven Muhlberger. This file may be copied on the condition that the entire contents, including the header and this copyright notice, remain intact.

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