Related Post: Theodora
Related Post: Procopius – The Secret History
Related Post: The End of the Legions
Related Post: Clovis – The Rise of the Franks
Background: What really changed in these years after AD 476, which is commonly cited as the “end” of the Roman Empire – a custom which seems to overlook the fact that the eastern part of it survived for another thousand years – was the basic structure of the western societies in favour of particularism – a fundamental change of structures.
But one could take any of the neighbouring decades and claim an “end” all the same; indeed, it is a mistake to see Roman and Barbarians as either/or, when in reality the cultures mingled; in the words of Chris Wickham, “Crisis and Continuity” were both present between AD 400 and 550. (43) The most significant change was the end of the centralization of politics, economy and culture that the great empire had provided; particularism set in, perhaps necessarily.
The end of political unity was not a trivial shift; the whole structure of politics had to change as a result. The ruling classes of the provinces were all still (mostly) Roman, but they were diverging fast. The East was moving away from the West, too. It was becoming much more Greek in its official culture, for a start. Leo I was the first emperor to legislate in Greek; under a century later, Justinian (527-565) may have been the last emperor to speak Latin as a first language. But it is above all in the West that we find a growing provincialization in the late fifth century, both a consequence and a cause of the breakdown of central government. … Building became far less ambitious, artisanal production became less professionalized, exchange became more localized. The fiscal system, the judicial system, and the density of Roman administrative activity in general, all began to simplify as well. (44)
The decisive challenge, and indeed the most “taxing” matter, for any community that would endeavour to follow the Roman example, was how to pay for a standing army, which had been the instrument of Rome’s expansion and maintenance. It is true that in ancient Rome the farmer was expected to perform military service if the need arose, quite like in ancient Gaul or beyond the Rhine. But that had changed at the latest with Marius’s army reform around 100 BC. The Imperial decline and the decrease in political stability six hundred years later resulted in a corresponding shrinking of manufacture and commerce, which, at length, destroyed the Imperial tax base. It seems that the change from a paid to a landed army occurred in the West at the same time as Emperor Justinian I in the East embarked on his Imperial reconquista (which depleted his own treasury, too), that is, at the time of Theodoric’s Ostrogoths reign in Italy.
Beginning in the fifth century, there was a steady trend away from supporting armies by public taxation and towards supporting them by the rents deriving from private landowning, which was essentially the product of this desire for land of conquering elites. In 476, according to Procopius, even the Roman army of Italy wanted to be given lands, and got it by supporting Odovacar. Procopius may well have exaggerated; the Ostrogoths state in Italy certainly still used taxation to pay the army, at least in part, probably more than any other post-Roman polity did by the early sixth century. Overall, however, the shift to land was permanent. After the end of Ostrogothic Italy, there are no references in the West to army pay, except rations for garrisons, until the Arabs reintroduced it in Spain from the mid-eight century onwards; in the other western kingdoms, only occasional mercenary detachments were paid … .
The major post-Roman kingdoms still taxed, into the seventh century. But if the army was landed, the major item of expanse in the Roman budget had gone. The city of Rome, another important item, was only supplied from Italy after 439, and lost population fast, as we have seen. The central and local administration of the post-Roman states was perhaps paid for longer, but in most of them the administration quickly became smaller and cheaper. Tax still made kings rich, and their generosity increased the attractive power of royal courts. But this was all it was for, by 550 or so.
Tax is always unpopular, and takes work to exact; if it is not essential, this work tends to be neglected. It is thus not surprising that there are increasing signs that it was not assiduously collected. In ex-Vandal Africa after 534, the Roman re-conquerors had to reorganize the tax administration to make it effective again, to great local unpopularity; in Frankish Gaul in the 580s, assessment registers were no longer being systematically updated, and tax rates may only have been around a third of those normal under the empire. Tax was, that is to say, no longer the basis of the state. For kings as well as armies, landowning was the major source of wealth from now on. (45)
The differentiated Roman structures of administration and command could no longer be maintained. For centuries Rome had continued to grow by her arms while providing reasonable security and the general advantages to the annexes of being a province of the Imperium Romanum. The tax base that had provided for the maintenance of the legions was evaporating, and consequently no large standing armies could be maintained for the next thousand years. We will see in the following, that armies had to be assembled for each of Belisar’s and Narses’ campaigns, of varying size. Standing troops were too expensive, except for guards and border points.
Clovis I (Chlodwig, Chlodowech), the first man resonably called “King of the Franks” (Rex Francorum) did not hesitate long in his desire for the geographic expansion of his realm. Chris Wickham relates (in The Inheritance of Rome, Viking Books 2009, ISBN 978-0-670-02098-0, p.92) that “in 507 he attacked the Visigoths, defeating and killing Alaric II at the Battle of Vouillé, and virtually drove them out of Gaul (they only kept the province of Languedoc, on the Mediterranean coast). The Burgundians held on for a time, but in the 520’s Clovis’s sons attacked them too, and took over their kingdom in 534.” Before long, Clovis accepted from Emperor Anastasius the honour of the Roman consulship, as a sign of Imperial support for his Catholic associates. But Clovis died soon, only four years after Vouillé [AD 511] and Italy remained beyond Frankish reach.
That particular trophy went to an initially obscure warlord, who governed the Ostrogoths, a people who numbered perhaps less than one hundred thousand heads and lived along the plains of Pannonia at the middle Danube River. This duke, Theodoric, one day received an embassy from the Eastern Emperor Zeno, Anastasius’ successor, who, at length, did want to punish the rebellious upstart Odovacar in Italy. In the missive, Zeno invited the Ostrogoths to subjugate Italy in his name and to destroy Odovacar’s regime of mercenaries. Theodoric accepted, and the greatest part of the nation set forth from their Pannonian pastures and Illyrian meadows in the direction of fabled Italia.
Zeno, however, got more than he had bargained for; belatedly he realized that the precious Italian provinces were now in hands much more capable than those of the comparatively simple soldier Odovacar. Theodoric’s gifts did not include much literacy, but a keen sense of political feasibility, of justice and fairness, honour and honesty, and in the murderous centuries of the age of migration, his name is one of the very few for whom the appellation of “the Great” is perhaps justified. His Goths swiftly closed in on Odovacar, who had no choice but to gain the security of Ravenna, where he resisted the Gothic siege for almost three years.
Yet in the commission of his duty, Theodoric committed, with his own hand (it is said), the only crime of his life. When, in March of AD 493, the situation became unbearable for both besiegers and besieged, a diplomatic mission succeeded with the proposal that Odovacar and Theodoric were to govern Italy and some neighbouring provinces [Sicily, Dalmatia, Noricum and Bavaria] together, like the original consuls had ruled the early Imperium Romanum. Edward Gibbon reports on the outcome of the deal:
A treaty of peace was negotiated by the bishop of Ravenna; the Ostrogoths were admitted to the city, and the hostile kings consented, under the sanction of an oath, to rule with equal and undivided authority over the provinces of Italy.
The event of such an agreement may be easily foreseen. After some days had been devoted to the semblance of joy and friendship, Odoacer, in the midst of a solemn banquet, was stabbed by the hand, or at least by the command, of his rival.
Secret and effectual orders had been previously despatched; the faithless and rapacious mercenaries, at the same moment and without resistance, were universally massacred; and the royalty of Theodoric was proclaimed by the Goths, with the tardy, reluctant, ambiguous consent of the emperor of the East. The reputation of Theodoric may repose with more confidence on the visible peace and prosperity of a reign of thirty-three years, the unanimous esteem of his own times, and the memory of his wisdom and courage, his justice and humanity, which was deeply impressed on the minds of the Goths and Italians. [March 5, AD 493 – August 30, AD 526].
Zeno’s mounting anxieties were completely justified when, after the death of Alaric II at Vouillé, Theodoric was invested with the regency over the kingdom of the Visigoths in Spain, as the warden of Euric, Alaric’s eldest son [There seems to be some confusion, on Alaric’s sons see Amalaric]. Should Theodoric succeed to reunite the Goths and lead them against Constantinople, the continued existence of the Eastern Empire might well be in peril. Yet Theodoric did not strive at further conquests, which, he believed, could not be gainfully controlled with the limited number of troops available to him. Instead, he emphasized in embassies, who he directed at his German neighbours, the necessity of unity against their enemies; that is, against Byzantium.
Theodoric had diagnosed this enmity correctly, and it eventually resulted in unintended consequences for the Eastern Empire. Therefore, we shall have a more detailed look at the events of the second quarter of the sixth century. Significant changes on the political map around the Mediterranean Sea in the generation after Zeno and Theodoric were provoked, in these decades, by Emperor Justinian and his Imperial reconquista, which, one might argue, ran against the Empire’s best interests. Theodoric had brought stability to the remaining core provinces of the West; stability that Justinian could have utilized instead of hazarding it. Chris Wickham explains:
Theodoric ruled Italy from Ravenna, the western Roman capital, with a traditional Roman administration, a mixture of senatorial leaders from the city of Rome and career bureaucrats; he was (as Odovacar had also been) respectful of the Roman senate, and he made a ceremonial visit to the city in 500, with formal visits to St. Peter’s, to the Senate building, and then to the imperial palace on the Palatine, where he presided over games, like any other emperor. … The administrative and fiscal system had changed little; the same traditional landowners dominated politics, besides a new (but partly Romanizing) Gothic or Ostrogothic military elite.
Ostrogothic Italy was the most “Roman” of all Germanic kingdoms in the West, and might have remained so. Tom Holland (In the Shadow of the Sword, Doubleday Books 2012, ISBN 978-0-385-53135-1) summarizes the effect of Theodoric’s long reign in that …
“…whether addressing crowds in the Forum, slaughtering armies of savages beyond the Alps, or building palaces, aqueducts and baths, he demonstrated to glorious effect just how Roman a king of foederati might truly be. By the time of his death in 526, he had ruled as the master of Italy for longer than any Caesar, with the exception of Augustus himself. As a result, it seems barely to have crossed the minds of most Italians that they might not still belong to a Roman Empire.”
Yet the emergence of new characters on the stage of Byzantium changed the political picture completely within a single year: in 527, one year after Theodoric’s death, the powers of the Empire were invested upon the new emperor Justinian, nephew of the previous emperor Justin, whose reign was long assisted by the famously wicked (says Procopius) Empress Theodora, the general Belisarius and the talented eunuch Narses.
Justinian, whom the dutiful laudations of his courtiers soon labelled “the Great”, was the son of a Bulgarian shepherd who nourished his flock on grazing grounds somewhere near today’s Sofia. The youth eventually headed to Constantinople, under the tutelage of his uncle Justin and two fellow villagers, the three of whom enlisted in the legions upon their arrival. The uncle proved an industrious if not exceedingly gifted soldier: but in an age when average performance, by the old standards, stood out as heroism had in days of yore, he was promoted steadily: to tribune, count, general, senator; finally to the command of the palace guard. He did not only retain his life and fortune at the delicate occasion of Anastasius’ death in AD 518, but emerged from the momentary confusion in possession of the diadem and purple that Anastasius had to relinquish the previous night.
Justin’s age, at this most mournful occasion, was already sixty-eight, and since he had been a brave but not an educated man and governed the realm without the benefit of literacy, he had to rely on the counsel of his Quaestor Proclus in affairs of the empire, and had long groomed his nephew Justinian as heir apparent.
A few years passed without remarkable advents, and an old wound which persistently festered despite the mobilisation of all the doctors of the capital at length deprived Justin of his life. His last act of state was to affix, in the presence of the senators and excellencies of the realm, the diadem of the Imperial dignity upon his nephew’s head, who was forty-five years of age at the beneficial occasion. The subsequent reign of the Emperor Justinian has been accounted for in copious detail by the quill of the historian Procopius of Caesarea, who lived in Constantinople as a patrician and senator during Justinian’s government. He has provided us with comprehensive descriptions of his sovereign’s activities as legislator, builder, especially of churches, warlord – relating to the campaigns of his generals – and bane of mankind.
The latter particularity, described in his Secret History, Procopius attributes to a large degree to the nefarious influence of the famous Theodora, whom Justinian promoted from most popular ecdysiast of the theatre and most expensive strumpet of the capital to the dignities of First Lady, Empress, and, post-mortem, Saint. The story is simply too juicy to be disregarded, and here is Tom Holland’s take on it:
Even her bitterest critics – of whom there were many – grudgingly acknowledged that Theodora, consort and beloved of the emperor, was a woman of exceptional abilities. Shrewd, far-sighted and bold, she ranked, in the opinion of Justinian’s cattier critics, as more of a man than her husband ever did.
Rumour had it that at the height of the deadly riots of 532, Constantinople ablaze and Justinian twitchily contemplating flight, she stiffened the imperial backbone by declaring, with a magnificent show of haughtiness, that “purple makes for an excellent shroud.”
Steel of this order, in a woman, was unsettling enough to the Roman elite; but even more so were the origins of the empress. Theodora, like an exotic bloom sustained by dung, had her roots, so it was darkly whispered, deep in filth. Dancer, actress and stand-up comic, she had also – long before puberty – been honing on slaves and the destitute a career even more scandalous.
Her vagina, it was said, might just as well have been in her face; and, indeed, such was the use to which she put all three of her orifices that “she would often complain that she did not have orifices in her nipples as well.” The gang-bang had never been held that could wear her out. Most notorious of all had been her trademark floor-show, which had seen her lie on her back, have her genitals sprinkled with grain, and then wait for geese to pick the seeds off one by one with their beaks. Such were the talents, so her critics sneered, that had won for her the besotted devotion of the master of the world. Yet, this sorely underestimated both husband and wife.
In our context, the foreign policies and advantages and deficiencies of Justinian’s warlordship are of greater interest than his private pleasures. He had the fortune, yet, in hindsight, the empire perhaps the liability, to have at his command the military genius as well as the civil cowardice of the great general Belisarius.
It was Justinian’s desire to restore the lost provinces of the West to the imperial fold: Britannia, Gallia and Hispania, perhaps, later, but as soon as possible Africa, for its grain, and Italy, the original imperial treasure. But other business, that is, the perennial Persian wars, had to be dealt with first. The eastern border of the Empire had been fixed for centuries at the Upper Euphrates, but the boundless approaches through the Arabian Desert could not possibly be guarded effectively.
Parthian and Persian kings and their armies had overstepped the borders regularly, and sometimes with impunity. From the fourth century on, a time of military decay, the Romans had frequently replaced counter-attacks with financial considerations for the peace-loving Persian kings; in the year AD 532, for example, following five years of borderline rapine, Justinian’s contribution to the Royal Persian Exchequer amounted to 11,000 pounds (ca. 5 tons) of gold; this quantity was to secure, as the treaty document specified, nothing less than a perpetual peace between the two empires.
As the future was to show, perpetuity had to be reinforced every decade or so by additional remunerations. But the peace secured in AD 532 (which held until AD 540) allowed Justinian his first move in the West. He was assured of the services of a general whose military deeds were to rank him with Caesar and Alexander, but whose civil timidity placed him among the meek and mendicant of this earth.
The soldier Belisarius was born, not far from where the emperor’s father had kept his sheep, on the plains of Thrace. His military career proceeded timely and peaked in the command of the private guards of prince Justinian. When the prince was elevated to the royal dignity, the soldier was promoted to general.
When Justinian sought a commander whom he could entrust with the first step in rebuilding the glory of the Empire, he was unable to find a suitable candidate. At length, perhaps for the intimate counsel Belisar’s wife Antonina retained with the empress Theodora, her husband was chosen to lead the glorious enterprise. Due to his sovereign’s unwillingness to spend substantial sums upon the renovation of the Empire, Belisar was given only a small fleet and a few legions, yet, nonetheless, commanded to wrest Africa from the Vandals.
Against the odds, the mission succeeded: it was the first occasion in which Belisarius proved exceptional generalship. But to replace the money in the imperial treasury that had been spent on Belisar’s army, a “rapacious minister of the finances closely pursued the footsteps of Belisarius” and the unhappy province not only had to pay the regular dues but a special liberation tax.
The Vandals had destroyed the old tax registers, and when new ones were created, the quaestors did not forget to add another fee, to secure a just compensation for their own labours. Financial ruin was followed by depopulation, and Edward Gibbon cites Procopius, who, upon his first landing in Africa with Belisar in AD 534 “admired the populousness of the cities and country, strenuously exercised in the labours of commerce and agriculture. In less than twenty years, that busy scene was converted into a silent solitude; the wealthy citizens escaped to Sicily and Constantinople”; and the secret historian Procopius has confidently affirmed that “five million Africans were consumed by the wars and government of the Emperor Justinian.”
Although Procopius was not above the common tendency of antiquity’s historians to exaggerate his numbers, the fact remains that the wealth of Africa Provincia from then on constantly declined and the area lost its former status as the empire’s grain chamber. Belisar was not a politician, and it may be doubted whether he was even aware of the dangerous side effects of his conquest. He had to contemplate a different distraction.
That a victory afar, in particular if not necessarily expected, may induce a measure of suspicion at the court of a doubting monarch is, perhaps, a quite common occurrence. Hardly had the news of the triumph over the Vandals reached Byzantium when the subaltern officers who had preferred to remain in the safety of the capital instead of courting the danger or the glory of the battlefield, informed the emperor that the reliable rumour had arrived that Belisarius was about to declare himself King of Africa.
When the distrustful monarch inquired of his general whether he was to return to Constantinople soon or whether some
An optimistic Justinian then planned his next stroke, and a somewhat bigger fleet and army were prepared for Belisar’s subsequent task: to deliver Italia and Dalmatia from the hands of the Arian, that is, heretic, Ostrogoths. That his predecessor Zeno had personally invited the Goths to Italy, well aware of their beliefs, Justinian resolved to overlook.
Indeed, it is hard to say, and the opinions of historians have clashed on whether the restoration of the Western Empire per se was Justinian’s aim or the destruction of the heretics, or whether both points of view happened to coincide. He had theological problems in his own house, for Theodora was a fervent Monophysite, and the emperor was driven to allow her, and hence her community, the licence that his strong Catholic convictions would not have granted otherwise. A glimpse into these complications of Christian doctrine is here provided by Tom Holland:
In 451, a year after the death of Theodosius II, the largest ecumenical council that the Church had ever seen, attended by a full six hundred bishops, was held at Chalcedon, directly across the straits from the imperial palace, in a conscious effort to rein in this tendency [of Christian communities’ theological independence]. The new regime’s aim – just as Constantine’s had been at Nicaea – was to muzzle a taste for bickering that had come to threaten, in the opinion of the authorities, not only the unity of the Church but the very security of the Roman people.
At stake for the delegates, however, was no longer the relationship of the Son to the Father, an issue long since triumphantly resolved, but a no less awesome mystery: the identity of the Son Himself. How, Christians wanted to know, had His divine and human natures coexisted? Had they been wholly intermingled, like water and wine in a goblet, to constitute a mone physis – a “single nature”? Or had the two natures of Christ in fact coexisted within His earthly body as quite distinct entities, like water and oil? Had both His human and His divine essence experienced birth, suffering and death, or was it the most repugnant blasphemy to declare, as some bishops did, that God Himself “was crucified for us”? Knotty questions – nor easily unpicked. The Council of Chalcedon, nevertheless, did its level best. A determinedly middle road was steered. Due weight was given to both the divine and the human elements of Christ: “the same truly God and truly man.” This formula, devised by a bishop of Rome and graced with the approval of the emperor himself, struck the Christians of both the West and Constantinople as eminently reasonable – so much so that never again would they attempt to revise or reverse it.
In practice, the result of the council worked against the Monophysites and in favour of a Catholic Church that, with the emperor’s support, intensified the prosecution of apostates. While the privacy of his palace allowed Justinian religious tolerance and urged him moderation in the matter of the Monophysite error, the public Arianism of the Goths and Vandals challenged not only his Catholic beliefs but, indirectly, his profane authority as well. Belisar was summoned and given a second command: not only to regain Italia, the glory of the Empire, and Rome, its seed, but to liberate millions of souls from religious oppression by their errant masters.
The target of the renewed offensive, Ostrogothic Italy plus its appendices, had suffered from dynastic complications since the great king’s death, and “infighting between Theodoric’s heirs in 526 – 36 led to a more serious alienation of some of the aristocratic elite from the Ostrogothic regime, many of whom ended up in Constantinople.” Belisar’s second western campaign, begun in AD 536, was another success, it would appear: the Gothic arms were defeated at three different occasions and their authority diminished quickly, although they remained in possession of a few strongholds.
The news of Belisarius´recapture of Italy spread swiftly through the realm, and fed Justinian’s suspicions for a second time. The hero was recalled again but brought with him, as his captives or guests, the royal pair of the Ostrogoths, who proceeded to sign a comprehensive treaty [Vitiges, a military man and his wife Matasuntha, Theodoric’s Granddaughter]. The agreement emphasized the Goths’ future and unconditional obedience to the emperor and introduced a great number of their youth to service in the legions. A delivery of Gothic hostages substantiated, as usual, the validity of the compact.
But since “the jealousy of the Byzantine Court had not permitted Belisarius to achieve the [complete] conquest of Italy … his abrupt departure revived the courage of the Goths [AD 540].” What happened next was much to Justinian’s chagrin. One thousand or so Gothic warriors, who had held the town of Pavia, received word from another small garrison, that still held Verona, and from another one that still controlled Teriolis (Tyrolia). The Byzantine army had been left, at the departure of Belisar, to the command of eleven equal-ranked generals, and the disaster this policy caused may easily be imagined.
Messengers from the Gothic garrisons remaining in Italy meanwhile had met, undisturbed, with their comrades that still guarded the northern borders of the Danube and the Alps, and before long the war the empire believed won was rekindled. The banner of the Gothic monarchy was resurrected by the young Baduila, called Totila, and the cause of the Goths profited greatly from the avarice and the appalling methods of Justinian’s fiscus. Edward Gibbon compares valour and corruption, in the tradition of Tacitus:
The rapid success of Totila may be partly ascribed to the revolution which three years’ experience had produced in the sentiments of the Italians. At the command, or at least in the name, of a Catholic emperor, the pope [Silverius], their spiritual father, had been torn from the Roman church and either starved or murdered on a desolate island.
The virtues of Belisarius were replaced by the various or uniform vices of eleven chiefs, at Rome, Ravenna, Florence, Perugia, Spoleto, etc., who abused their authority for the indulgence of lust and avarice. The improvement of the revenue was committed to Alexander, a subtle scribe long practised in the fraud and oppression of the Byzantine schools, and whose name of Psalliction, the Scissors, was drawn from the dexterous artifice with which he reduced the size without defacing the figure of the gold coin. Instead of expecting the restoration of peace and industry, he imposed a heavy assessment on the fortunes of the Italians.
The subjects of Justinian who escaped these partial vexations were oppressed by the irregular maintenance of the soldiers, whom Alexander defrauded and despised; and their hasty sallies in quest of wealth or subsistence provoked the inhabitants of the country to await or implore their deliverance from the virtues of a Barbarian.
Totila was chaste and temperate; and none were deceived, either friends or enemies, who depended on his faith and clemency. To the husbandmen of Italy the Gothic king issued a welcome proclamation, enjoining them to pursue their important labours and to rest assured that, on the payment of the ordinary taxes, they should be defended by his valour and discipline from the injuries of war. … The Roman captives and deserters were tempted to enlist in the service of a liberal and courteous adversary; the slaves were attracted to the firm and faithful promise that they should never be delivered to their masters; and from the thousand warriors of Pavia, a new people, under the same appellation of Goths, was insensibly formed in the camp of Totila.
It is obvious where Gibbon’s sympathies lay, but indeed, “most of the non-Gothic Italians were at best neutral about Justinian’s armies.” The Emperor now faced the pro-Belisar faction of the court, who argued that only the recall of the hero had made the renewed Gothic insurrection possible. There was not really a way to counter the postulation, and at length Justinian had no choice but to send Belisar back to Italy. The imperial frugality, however, restricted the general to such troops as he could support by his own means. Thus, Belisar arrived at Ravenna with his personal guards, but little else. Procopius relates a letter the fettered hero wrote to his master:
“Most excellent prince, we are arrived in Italy, destitute of all the necessary implements of war, men, horses, arms, and money. In our late circuit through the villages of Thrace and Illyricum, we have collected with extreme difficulty about four thousand recruits, naked and unskilled in the use of weapons and the exercises of the camp.
The soldiers already stationed in the province are discontented, fearful, and dismayed; at the sound of an enemy, they dismiss their horses and cast their arms on the ground. No taxes can be raised since Italy is in the hands of the Barbarians; the failure of payment has deprived us of the right to command, or even of admonition. Be assured, dread Sir, that the greater part of your troops have already deserted to the Goths.
If the war could be achieved by the presence of Belisarius alone, your wishes are satisfied; Belisarius is in the midst of Italy. But if you desire to conquer, far other preparations are requisite: without a military force, the title of general is an empty name. It would be expedient to restore to my service my own veteran and domestic guards. Before I can take the field, I must receive an adequate supply of light and heavy armed troops; and it is only with ready money you can procure the indispensable aid of a powerful body of the cavalry of the Huns.”
Belisar’s own words reveal that, almost ninety years after the general retreat of the Huns following Attila’s death in AD 453, large bodies of their mercenaries still infested the continent. At length, the hero gathered some troops and supplies on the opposite coast of the Adriatic Sea, in Dalmatia, and launched an expedition to deliver Rome from the Goths. Rome and Ravenna were the last two places in Italy still held by Justinian’s troops and had consequently been blockaded and beleaguered for years. The Byzantine fleet landed at the port of Ostia, five leagues from Rome, but the news of Belisar’s reappearance reached the town too late to prevent the famished garrison’s release of Rome to the charity of the king of the Goths [December 17, AD 546].
Totila’s soldiers requested permission to raze the walls and houses of the sinful city to the ground, but, swayed by a message from Belisar, who appealed, on Procopius’s counsel, to the king’s mercy for the eternal town, Totila spared Rome from devastation, on the condition of her future neutrality in the war and obedience to his and his successors’ directives, as a part of the new Romano-Gothic kingdom. The clemency of Totila forewent the institution of a garrison within the city: a single regiment of guards was stationed in a camp, perhaps five leagues away, epitomizing a protection of the town against pirates or meandering mercenaries rather than against a regular army.
The king’s leniency was ill rewarded, and Totila’s generosity became the cause of his downfall. The Gothic army had barely left Latium when Belisar assaulted and annihilated the Gothic sentinels and moved into Rome for the second time [February, AD 547]. Totila returned post-haste, but three successive attempts to take the city by storm failed and the newly formed Gothic and Italian army lost the flower of their men. Eventually, exhaustion paralysed both sides, until Belisar was, once again, recalled to Byzantium and Totila, once again, conquered Rome in AD 459. During the Gothic wars, the town changed hands five times.
It had been Justinian’s policy to deny the Goths a formal peace, but not to burden the treasury with the expenses of war either, and for years the Gothic war boiled on a small flame. But his resolve was injured when Gothic raids invaded the provinces of Epirus and Macedonia, in the Balkans, and Constantinople itself seemed in the reach of the Barbarians. Justinian realized the urgency of the situation, and, belatedly, the treasury was opened, but not to Belisar’s support.
The emperor was not a father, but he had a niece, who had married the young prince Germanus, a nobleman of whom public opinion held that this marriage was his sole accomplishment.
This is the way the story used to be told, somewhat of a cliché – and I repeated it for Edward Gibbons’s sake – in actuality Germanus was a nephew of Justin I and hence a cousin of Justinian. He was Magister militum in various campaigns, with varying success, and before setting out to Italy had the amorously as well as politically most excellent idea of taking for his second wife – with Justinian’s blessing – the fabled beauty Matasuntha, granddaughter of Theodoric and now widow of Totila’s predecessor Vitiges – a match that sought to entice Goth and Italians alike to switch sides.
The young man was promoted to the post of general-in-chief of the Gothic war, and put on a ship to Sicily, where he was to muster the troops assembling for the glorious enterprise of subduing Italy again. The solemn inspection, however, had to be postponed when the youth suddenly expired.
The empire awaited, naturally, the return of the Gothic command to Belisar, when “the nations were provoked to a smile by the strange intelligence that the command of the Roman armies was given to a eunuch,” the domestic Narses, who “is probably the sole representative of his peculiar sex in the annals of military history.” Narses was the complete opposite of Belisarius: weak of body and unfamiliar with the use of weapons, he was probably the only man, so to say, at the court of Constantinople, who dared to speak his mind.
He declined to accept a command without the means to enforce it, and “Justinian granted the favourite what he might have denied to the hero: the Gothic war was rekindled from its ashes, and the preparations were not unworthy of the ancient majesty of the empire. The key of the public treasure was put into his hand, to collect magazines, to levy soldiers, to purchase arms and horses, to discharge the arrears of pay, and to tempt the fidelity of the fugitives and deserters.”
The expedition of Narses [AD 552-554] was the last military effort of the Empire that stood up in comparison with the distinguished past. It is said that the Romans numbered 80,000 or more, mostly mercenaries, against which Totila, after the bloody losses at Rome between AD 546 and 549, could field probably less than twenty thousand.
At length, the Gothic arms were defeated: Totila died on the Battlefield of Taginae in July 552 and his successor Teja lead the remnant of the troops to a last stand at the Battle of Mons Lactarius on Mons Vesuvius. The remainder of the Goths from the northern garrisons retired past the Alps, where they reorganized and, with the assistance of a few mercenaries, attempted a return to Italy [AD 533]. They were defeated a second time by Narses, who, after a timely visit to Constantinople, was dispatched back to Italy to govern her, as Exarch, or lieutenant of the emperor, for the next about fifteen years [AD 554-568].
Yet something worse than the Vandal and Gothic wars was inflicted on the people around the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. A horrific attack of bubonic plague was reported in Alexandria in the fall of AD 541, and the grain ships that emerged from its harbours in the spring of AD 542 spread the disease over the world. Constantinople was ravaged by the epidemic through which, as Procopius wrote, “the whole of humanity came close to annihilation.”
The emperor, too, was caught by Yersinia pestis but recovered. The disease travelled from Constantinople, over the Bosporus, to Asia Minor, and from there to Syria and Palestine. There it reversed direction westward, and by AD 543 it had spread over the provinces of the West, Africa, Italy, Gaul and Spain. Two years later, it struck the Far East, and devastated the Persian Empire: large parts of Mesopotamia, Media and Persia were depopulated. [FN1]
Overall, the results of Justinian’s anachronistic efforts to rebuild the empire were not only short-lived, but, for the worse, a financial catastrophe.
The destruction of Africa’s and Italy’s tax base in the wake of the military occupations meant that the monarchy never even recovered its expenses. And since the Eastern Empire could not make the step to replace an army paid for by taxes to that paid by a landed gentry, losses of revenue implied losses of military power. Justinian’s escapades had almost bankrupted the realm and the net result of Emperor Heraclius‘ [r.AD 610-641] war against the Persians between AD 610 and 628 was that, a decade later, he lost everything he had gained and more to the assault of the recent Islamic Caliphate, which, ironically enough, “was itself built on Roman foundations (as also Sassanian Persian foundations),” and “it arguably preserved the parameters of imperial Roman society more completely than any other part of the post-Roman world, at least in the period up to 750.”
No happy end there was for the hero Belisar, as legends report – it is said that he was blinded by Justinian for the one or other infraction, and condemned to beg for alms at the Pincian Gate of Rome – while the story has long held to be apocryphal, Belisar’s biographer Philip Stanhope believed the story to be true based on some primary sources.
Soon after Narses’ death Italy was taken over by the Lombards, who had, under their original name of Langobards, dwelt around the lower Elbe, near today’s Hamburg, before they joined the southward migration of the Germanic tribes. They had been employed, among other mercenaries, by Narses against the Goths, but in the aftermath of the Gothic war conquered most of rural Italy between AD 568 and 570, without encountering much resistance from the exhausted locals.
But the Gothic Wars were over.
[FN1] It was the effect of the plague of the 540s and its reoccurrence in much of Syria, Palestine, and Upper Mesopotamia from AD 600 on, and the eternal Romano-Persian border wars, that reduced the populations around the Eastern Mediterranean and the Fertile Crescent (and hence the availability of soldiers) to a degree which permitted the eventual expansion of the Arabian Caliphate in the seventh century.
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(© John Vincent Palatine 2015/19) [Quotes, except where noted, from Edward Gibbon]