The Decision: Justinian and Vandalic North Africa: Part One


Few decisions in late Antiquity have received as much attention, as the Eastern Roman Emperor Justinian’s move to take back the lost provinces of the Western Roman Empire. As Peter Heather and others have noted, what has commonly been described as a reconquest was something more complex. Indeed I would agree that Justinian’s ‘reconquest’ resulted from opportunity, rather than a long-held plan to restore the glory of the Roman Empire.[1] Though one can debate the role of great men in shaping history, to understand the reconquest one must understand Justinian.

Justinian’s family came from the provincial Balkan town of Nis, and like the fifth-century Isaurian emperor Zeno, he had journeyed to Constantinople in the search for a position in the military. Justinian appeared to recognize that his humble origins meant that he had a tenuous hold on power. Accordingly, he took several steps to consolidate his authority. Under the guise of a Classical renewal, he gradually increased the authority of the emperor, and curtailed the aristocracy’s power. He claimed for the first time that the emperor represented the nomos empsychos (the living law). In the Digest, he codified Roman law and refused to allow lawyers to change these laws. It became the emperor’s duty to “resolve ambiguous juridical descisions.”[2]

It is with Justinian that Classical Rome fades away and a recognizable early Medieval Christian State takes its place. Although Justinian played upon many Romans’ hunger for the return of the glorious Roman past, his centralization, strict regimentation, and “Classical Roman renewal” were based on Christian concepts. Justinian perceived himself as the head of the Church and State, and he ruled as both a religious and a secular leader. No other emperor either before or after had such control over the Church. It would be a mistake to see Justinian acting out these reforms purely from political necessity. What separated Justinian from many of his predecessors was his devotion to Orthodox Christianity and his abhorrence of heresy. Like the first Christian emperor Constantine, Justinian seems to have honestly believed that he served as God’s vehicle in the secular world. Justinian thought of himself as a man who, along with his wife, the empress Theodora, served as God’s representative on earth. During the pagan era, the divinity of an emperor like Augustus isolated him from both his wife Livia and the general populace. Justinian’s role as mediator between heaven and earth brought him closer to the people and to his wife.[3] Justinian assumed that for the good of the Empire, it was his duty to impose religious and legal conformity on his subjects. Before Justinian’s ascension, pagans had been allowed to serve in the bureaucracy as long as they kept their beliefs to themselves. Justinian, however, felt compelled to stamp out the last vestiges of the old faith. In 528, he commanded that all pagans had three months to be baptized. The next year he forbade the teaching of philosophy at the Academy in Athens. Pagan professors disillusioned with the Christianization of the Empire fled to the more “enlightened” court of the Persian king Chosroes.[4]

Justinian’s autocratic rule and his humble background guaranteed that there would be strong opposition to his rule among the populace, especially the nobility, many of whom remembered the reign of the emperor Anastasius I (ruled 491-518 CE) as an era of relative religious freedom and prosperity. In January of 532, the anti-Justinian faction felt strong enough to make its move. A crowd of people went to the home of Anastasius’ nephew, Probus, in an attempt to name him emperor. Probus, perhaps purposely, was not there and the group burned down his house in frustration. In an attempt to appease the opposition, Justinian removed two unpopular officials from office. The emperor’s rivals, however, took this gesture as a sign of weakness and awaited the proper opportunity to make their move. Their chance arrived when Justinian attended a race at the Hippodrome and tried to placate the angry masses by giving a conciliatory speech. Both the Blues and the Greens, sporting factions that usually were bitter rivals, shouted down the emperor, and an uprising called the Nika revolt ensued.[5] According to Procopius, the emperor attempted to abandon the capital, but Theodora stiffened the emperor’s resolve, and Justinian sent out his general Belisarius to punish the rebels. The Chronicon Paschale, an early seventh-century account, described Belisarius’ ruthless counterattack, “The people remained mobbing outside the palace. And when this was known, the patrician Belisarius, the magister militum, came out with a multitude of Goths and cut down many [rioters] until evening.”[6] Justinian never forgot the lesson of his near overthrow. Perhaps he knew that if he wanted to survive he could never again show any signs of weakness or compromise.

Justinian’s actions cemented his power in Constantinople, and allowed him to conduct his campaigns to restore the lost Provinces of the Western empire. However, before Justinian could turn his forces to the West, he needed to secure his Northern and Eastern borders. Even before the Nika revolt, Byzantine armies had attained several important victories in these regions. In 530, for the first time in several years, the Byzantine army gained several victories over Persian forces in Armenia and Mesopotamia. The Empire gained further successes in the Balkans by defeating raiding Slavic and Bulgar forces. That same year, the Vandals deposed and imprisoned their king Hilderic. The Vandals replaced Hilderic with his fiery nephew and heir, Gelimer.46 Although this overthrow disturbed Justinian, for the time being he could only warn Gelimer “not to exchange the title of king for the title of tyrant.”47 The next year, the Persians and the Eastern Romans fought to a standstill in the East. However, the Persian emperor Cabades died in 531, and the new emperor, Chosroes, who needed time to consolidate his own power, in the spring of 532 agreed to a five-year truce with the Eastern Romans. With both the dangerous Balkan and Persian frontier secured, Justinian eagerly turned his eyes to the West.

Justinian used both political and religious reasons to justify his attack on the Vandals. In 533, claiming that he was protecting orthodox Christians from the dangers of an Arian usurper, the emperor prepared to send his armed forces that had fought the Persians against the Vandals. In my next blog I will look at Procopius’ depiction of this descision and the rather complicated way the historian described Justinian’s justification for the taking of Vandalic North Africa. Key to the blog will be the current debate on whether Procopius supported the venture.

[1] P. Heather, The Restoration of Rome: Barbarian Popes and Imperial Pretenders (London, 2013), pp. 137-153. For the notion that Procopius presented the Italian campaign as ‘a punishment of rebels’ rather than a reconquest, see R. V. Boy, ‘History of Wars: Narratives of Crises in Power Relations between Constantinople and Italy in the Sixth Century,’ in: D. Dzino and K. Parry, eds. Byzantium, its Neighbours and it Cultures (Brisbane, 2014), pp. 202-229. For an excellent discussion of the ideology behind Justinian’s Western military campaigns, see D. Brodka, ‘Prokopios von Kaisareia und Justinians Ideeder Reconquista’, Eos 86 (1999) pp. 243–255.

[2] Michael Maas, John Lydus and the Roman Past (London: Routledge, 1992), 15.

[3] Jas Elsner, Art and the Roman Viewer: The Transformation of Art From the Pagan World to Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 180-4.

[4] Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity AD 200-1000. (Oxford: Blackwell, 1996. Reprint, 1997), 122. Agathias points out that the philosophers quickly became disillusioned in Persia and returned to the Eastern Roman Empire in 531 CE. Agathias, 2.31. Evans supports Agathias’ account, Justinian, 70. Averil Cameron is more skeptical, The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity (London: Routledge, 1993), 134. Justinian launched three major persecutions against pagans during his reign, in 528-9, 545-6, and 562; Maas, 67-78. The emperor sought to convert the remaining pagans both within and outside the empire, see John of Ephesus’ account in, Pseuso-Dionysius of Tel-Mahre Chronicle (known also as the chronicle of Zuqnin) Part III trans. Witold Witakowski ( Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 1996), 76-8.

[5] For a detailed account of the revolt, Geoffrey Greatrex, “The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal,” Journal of Hellenic Studies cxvii (1997), 60-86.

[6] For a detailed account of the revolt, Geoffrey Greatrex, “The Nika Riot: A Reappraisal,” Journal of Hellenic Studies cxvii (1997), 60-86. Meire argues that the Nika riot was not a popular rebellion. He suggests that Justinian wanted to appear weak and endangered in order to draw out his enemies into the open. Then the emperor could destroy them and reveal his uncompromising strength to the people.

46 Here I follow Procopius account in Vandalic Wars.

47 Procopius, Wars 3.9.11.


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