Justinian’s ‘reconquest’ in 1200 words

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At the moment I am editing an article on the Eunuch-commander Narses that, with a few changes, made it through peer review and will be out around October. I have been playing around with it since the end of 2012…so will be happy to see it in print at last. Some articles are easy to write and publish others, like this one are more difficult. Probably because I was writing it more for myself and assumed somewhat basic knowledge of Procopius and sixth-century Byzantium. One reviewer asked for a brief review of the reconquest, but as I learned its a little difficult to fit such a complex process into a brief summary for a 7,000 word article. So my friends I have instead snuck in here.

Current consensus posits that what is commonly referred to as Justinian’s ‘reconquest’ resulted from opportunity, rather than a long-held plan to restore the glory of the Roman Empire.[i] Although one should be careful not to overstate the extent by which Justinian’s reign should be defined by these military campaigns, this warfare has played a crucial part in shaping ancient and modern views of his reign.[ii]

In 530, for the first time in many years, the Byzantine army had achieved several victories over Persian forces in Armenia and Mesopotamia. The Empire attained further successes in the Balkans by defeating raiding Slavic and Bulgar forces. That same year, the Vandals deposed and imprisoned their king Hilderic, replacing him with his fiery nephew and heir, Gelimer. 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’.[iii] 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, needing time to consolidate his power, readily agreed to a five-year truce with the Eastern Romans. With both the dangerous Balkan and Persian frontier secured, Justinian turned his eyes to Africa.

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 sent Belisarius and his small army of about 18,000 men to North Africa. The landing caught the Vandals off guard. Although Gelimer attempted to block Belisarius’ march on Carthage, the Eastern Roman army soundly defeated him. He fled, leaving his forces in disarray. Belisarius captured the city, and that same year he destroyed the remnants of the Vandal army at the battle of Tricamerum. Although Gelimer escaped once more, in 534, he finally surrendered to Belisarius. Despite the seeming ease of the Byzantine victory over the Vandals, it would take another fifteen years to stamp out the local Berber tribes stubborn resistance.

Defeating the Vandals gave Justinian the confidence to retake Italy from the Goths. The emperor secretly negotiated with Theoderic’s daughter, Amalasuntha, (regent to her son, king Athalaric, ruled 526-534), to restore Italy to Roman rule. However, when Athalaric died in 534, political considerations forced Amalasuntha to reconcile with her cousin Theodahad (ruled 534-536) and make him co-ruler. Theodahad suspected Amalasuntha’s ‘treason’, and hoping to ingratiate himself with the queen’s enemies, he imprisoned and then murdered her sometime in early in 535.[iv]

Once again, Justinian used a ‘barbarian’ king’s unlawful’ usurpation of power as a pretext for Byzantine intervention. Soon after Amalasuntha’s death, the emperor decided to take Italy and claimed the Gothic kingdom for himself. Belisarius seized Sicily in 535. Justinian sent envoys to pressure the Goths to capitulate. Belisarius invaded Italy and, facing little resistance, easily captured Naples. Exasperated with Theodahad’s inept leadership, in 536 the Goths killed him, replacing him with the general Vittigis (ruled 536-540). Vittigis fared little better than Theodahad. His attempts to besiege Belisarius in Rome from 536 to 537 failed, and in 540, he surrendered Ravenna to Belisarius. Despite being sent to Constantinople in chains, Vittigis was allowed an honourable retirement in Constantinople.

Victory seemed to be within Justinian’s grasp. Yet in 540 things took a turn for the worse. Justinian’s campaigns in North Africa and Italy had severely stretched the limits of the Eastern Romans’ military power. In the same year, the Persian Emperor Chosroes, fearing Justinian’s growing puissance, violated the ‘endless peace’. Persian troops quickly overwhelmed Syria’s sparsely defended cities. Desperate to defeat the Persians, Justinian recalled Belisarius from Italy. While Belisarius had mixed success in his campaigns against the Persians, Justinian managed to sign another truce with Chosroes by agreeing to pay more tribute. The treaty with the Persians allowed Justinian to concentrate once more on conquering Italy. Ultimately, however, the payments reduced Byzantium’s power in the East, allowing the Persians to become the dominant power in the region.

The year 540 also marked a turning point in Justinian’s reconquest of Italy. Despite Belisarius’ victories, the Gothic army had refused to submit to Byzantine rule. In 541, the Gothic nobility appointed Totila (ruled 541-552) as king. Totila, a relative of the Visigothic king Theudis (ruled 526-548), revitalised the Gothic army’s fighting spirit. In a series of swift campaigns, he recaptured almost all of Italy. Finally, however, after a long and bitter struggle, Narses defeated Totila in 552, and by 554, the Eastern Roman army had overwhelmed the remnants of the Gothic forces. Victorious at last in Italy, in 555, Justinian sent an army to Spain, capturing the southeast corner of the Iberian Peninsula.[v]

For contemporaries, it may have looked as if Justinian had succeeded in restoring the Western half of the Roman Empire. In retrospect, however, the ‘reconquest’ was the ancient Roman Empire’s last gasp.[vi] The victories in the West had come at a steep price. The vicious wars had devastated Italy, and many Italians began to perceive the Eastern Romans as foreign invaders.[vii] Italy’s depopulation also made it increasingly difficult for the Byzantine army to protect Italy from outside invaders, and in 568 the Lombards overran Northern and Central Italy.[viii] Although the Eastern Romans managed to maintain a political presence in Italy until the eleventh century, they no longer treated it as if it were their ancient home, but simply as a frontier military Province.[ix]

In the end, Justinian failed to reinstate a united Roman Empire. The Empire’s overextension had spread its defenses thin. In the second half of the sixth century, Slavic invaders overwhelmed the Byzantine defenders and established permanent settlements in the Balkans. The Visigoths drove the Byzantines from Spain sometime between 623 and 625. Byzantine power in North Africa lasted until the Arabs took control at the end of the seventh century. Despite Justinian’s attempts, the campaigns in the West, ultimately, only led to further decline.

[i]Heather, Restoration of Rome, pp.137-55; Dariusz Brodka,‘Prokopios von Kaisareia und Justinians Ideeder Reconquista’, Eos 86 (1999), pp. 243–55.

[ii] Roger Scott, ‘Chronicles versus Classicizing History: Justinian’s West and East’, in Byzantine Chronicles and the Sixth Century, ed. by Roger Scott (Burlington, VT.: Ashgate, 2012), VI-1-25. Scott makes the sensible point that historians using Procopius’ Wars have, at times, overemphasised Justinian and the average Byzantine’s interest in these campaigns and warfare more generally. I would agree that a more balanced view of sixth-century Byzantine culture is needed, but would point out that this militarised theme is found in a myriad of sixth-century sources other than Procopius. Moreover, Justinianic propaganda such as triumphal mosaic (Procopius, Buildings 1.10. 16-20) depicting the reconquest on the Chalke Gate of the imperial palace and the use of similar imagary Justinian’s in funerary iconography (Corippus, In laudem Iustini Augusti minoris libri IV I 290), suggest that these military campaigns played an important part in his regime’s self-presentation. Further discussion in, Stewart, ‘Soldier’s Life’, 115-20.

[iii] Procopius, Wars 3.9.11.

[iv] Procopius (Secret History 16.5) claimed that Theodahad had murdered Amalasuntha at Theodora’s behest.

[v] For the dates of these mostly undocumented campaigns in Spain, see Jason Fossella, ‘Waiting only for a Pretext: A New Chronology for the Sixth-century Byzantine Invasion of Spain’, Estudios Bizantinos 1 (2013), pp. 30-38.

[vi]See, e.g., Paul the Deacon, Historia Romana 16.23, where the eighth-century author described Justinian’s reconquest as an event signifying the end of the Roman Empire.

[vii] Amory, People and Identity, 120.

[viii] Paul the Deacon, History of the Lombards, 2.5-9.

[ix] Amory, People and Identity, 313.

[ix] Amory, People and Identity, 313.

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