Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Age of Justinian Part II

Hagia Sophia

In a past posting I talked about the Age of Justinian and his wife Theodora. This is a second look at Justinian and his age.

I mentioned before that the age of Justinian seems in many respects one of futility despite the glory. Has Gibbon says:

But the wars, the conquests, and the triumphs of Justinian are the feeble, and pernicious efforts of old age, which exhaust the remains of strength, and accelerate the decay of the power of life. He exulted in the glorious act of restoring Africa and Italy to the republic; but the calamities which followed... betrayed the impotence of the conqueror and accomplished the ruin of those unfortunate countries.


The triple scourge of war, pestilence, and famine, afflicted the subjects of Justinian, and his reign is disgraced by a visible decrease of the human species, which has never been repaired in some of the fairest countries of the globe.1

I could quote other authors who write the same sort of thing. A response to this is to state that the reason why Justinian failed, and that his empire proved incapable of retaining his conquests was the effects of the great plague.2

Well this is dubious. If your going to make such a supposition your going to have to back it up. The best comparison would be with the Black Death in Europe of the mid 14th century and reoccurring afterwards for centuries. Do we see the same ebbing of effort, the same cultural and permanent economic decline. In other words do we see the same decay of civilization? Well the answer is that we don't. The Black Death certainly inaugurated a long period of change, and was a catastrophic event. But it did not destroy the culture or vitality of European Christianity. A case in point is the plague did not stop the Hundred Years War between Britain and France. In fact its effect on their war making was amazingly minimal, at least immediately.3

I have severe doubts that the plague was the only or even the main cause for the moribund character of the late classical culture, society and economy. After all it is generally recognized that the Black Death fell upon a Europe that was very vunerable to this type of disaster and one that was already in crisis.4

After all The Western Roman Empire had already fallen, large areas of the west, for example Britain, had experienced significant decline, even collapse earlier.5 But the argument that it was the plague does serve one very useful purpose it helps get Justinian and Theodora off the hook of responsibility.

The argument that loss of people and revenue adversely effected the ability of the Roman Empire to hold onto and maintain the re-conquests of Justinian, ignores one thing above all others. The plague also affected the enemies of the empire, reducing the costs of conquest and maintaining the conquests. To say nothing of defence. If the plague seriously reduced revenue by eliminating taxpayers and reducing output it would also have reduced costs by having fewer people to administer over.

That the Empire went into a long term decline was not simply the effects of plague but of long term serious structural problems. After all if Europe showed significant powers of regeneration and recovery after the Black Death, despite repeated outbreaks that lasted for centuries. Why the malaise that spread across the Empire and Europe. Certainly plague is a insufficient explanation for collapse of Byzantine authority in Italy when the Lombards invaded in 568 C.E. The lack of virtually any sort of coordinated resistance is remarkable. Roman / Byzantine authority seems to simply evaporate.6 Narses the great Eunuch general of Justinian, who finally conquered Italy seems to have unable to do much of anything to oppose the Lombards. This speaks of exhaustion and devastation not simply the effects of plague.

And besides if the plague had catastrophic effects on revenue etc., then Justinian's persistence in his grandiose schemes despite the drastic reduction in the ability to pay for them is a serious blunder which is his responsibility. Such a refusal to face facts is simply foolish.

The argument can be made that the four Barbarian monarchies of the west, (Visigothic Spain, Frankish France, Ostrogothic Italy, Vandal North Africa), were attempts, with varying degrees of success to preserve has much of Classical culture has possible in the Frame work of Germanic monarchies. The destruction of two of them, (Vandal North Africa, Ostrogothic Italy), and weakening of the other two through war, (Visigothic Spain, Frankish France), if anything made thing much worst.7

The fact is the picture given by the writers of the time period is a melancholy one. There is simply no reason to dispute that.8

It is simply not up for discussion that Justinian's activities exhausted the empire and helped pave the way for the Muslim conquests, after the empire came within whisker of being destroyed by the Persian Empire.9

The French Historian Ferdinand Lot long ago gave the following considered verdicts on the reign of Justinian.


From 535 to 548 Africa enjoyed scarcely a moments rest. The best generals of the empire, Belisarius, Germanus, the eunuch Solomon and Johannes Troglita exhausted themselves for nearly fifteen years in fruitless attempts to restore peace. When they succeeded, in the middle of the sixth century, the provinces were depopulated and ruined.10


In 554, when all was finished, Italy was ruined, depopulated and at her last gasp, in a worst position than Germany's after the Thirty Years War. To crown her suffering, she had to taste the pristinium gaudium mentioned by the continuator of Prosper and the inscription of the Aino bridge. This "joy of yore" presented itself to the people become once more "Roman" under the form of crushing taxation.11

The East:

Even in the East, if Justinian's was a great reign, it was so only by comparison with is contemporaries. It is certain that our Frankish and Visgothic sovereigns were kinglets in comparison. But what shadows are in the picture!12.

Famine, war, pestilence, combined with fiscal and religious oppression characterized the reign of Justinian for all its glory the reign exhausted the empire.13.

In the book The Ruin of the Roman Empire, James J. O'Donnell, pictures a Rome and Italy that under Theodoric the Great, (493-526 C.E.) was still vital and in many ways still classical. With the "barbarian" King trying to preserve has much as possible. With Rome still the greatest city in the west and possibly still greater than Constantinople.14.

Justinian's wars and the reconquest, devastated Italy and reduced Rome to largely empty ruins with a population only a small fraction of what it was before. The Senate vanishes by the end of the 6th century and the last Consul mentioned is in 541 C.E.15

The melancholy and almost apocalyptic vision of ruined Rome in the writings of Pope Gregory the Great, (c.600 C.E.), are the epitaph on the reign of Justinian not just Hagia Sophia.16

Some more books I consulted.

Plague and the End of Antiquity, Editor Lester K. Little, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2007.

Justinian and His Age, Percy Neville Ure, Penguin Books, London, 1951.

The Age of Justinian, Editor Michael Maas, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2005.

Barbarians, Terry Jones, BBC Books, London, 2006.

History of the Later Roman Empire, v. 2, J. B. Bury, Dover Publications Inc., New York, 1958.

1. The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, v. 4, Edward Gibbon, p. 415.

2. For example: A History of the Byzantine State and Society, Warren Treadgold, Stanford University Press, Sanford CA, 1997, pp. 216-217. Justinian's Flea, William Rosen, Penguin Books, London, 2007.

3. See A Distant Mirror, Barbara W. Tuchman, Ballantine Books, New York, 1978.

4. Ibid. pp. 24-48.

5. The Decline and Fall of Roman Britain, Neil Faulkner, Tempus Pub. Ltd., London, 2000, pp. 169-220.

6. History of the Lombards, Paul the Deacon, University of Pennsylvania Press, 1907, pp. 62-81.

7, See The Ruin of the Roman Empire, James J. O'Donnell, HarperCollins Pub., New York, 2008. The Military History of the Western World, v. 1, J. F. C. Fuller, Da Capo Press, New York, 1954, Ch. 11, pp. 307-329.

8. See for example The Secret History, Procopius, Penguin Books, London, 2007.

9. See The Great Arab Conquests, Hugh Kennedy, Phoenix, London, 2007.

10. The End of the Ancient World and the Beginnings of the Middle Ages, Ferdinand Lot, Harper & Row, New York, 1931, p, 267.

11. Ibid. p. 268. The "pristinium" were the benefits of Roman rule. The Inscription referred to celebrated Narses restoring liberty to Rome and Italy. (p. 263).

12. Ibid. p. 269.

13. See Procopius.

14. O'Donnell, pp. 107-174.

15. Ibid. p. 364.

16. Ibid. pp. 370-374.

Pierre Cloutier

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