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5.0 out of 5 stars The last of the Romans, 23 Mar 2005
Kurt Messick "FrKurt Messick" (London, SW1) - See all my reviews
This review is from: The Emperor Justinian and the Byzantine Empire (Greenwood Guides to Historic Events of the Ancient World) (Hardcover)
Justinian's reign was the a high point of the final days of the Roman Empire - besieged from within and without, the Roman Empire was based administratively in Constantinople, and had all but lost contact with the 'Eternal City', the home of its origin, Rome. There was a definite East/West split that had already begun to solidify linguistically and culturally, and there were increasing tensions in the now-officially Christian Empire as to just what kind of Christianity was going to be the official line.
When he was born, Justinian wasn't really meant to be Emperor. His uncle Justin came to power somewhat unexpectedly, but Justinian adapted to the coming responsibility with shrewdness and ability. He has been called the last of the Romans for good purpose; the city of Rome itself had been sacked by Visigoths and Vandals in the preceding century, and the western lands were more often than not in open defiance of Roman authority. When they were officially Roman, they were as often demanding as they were supportive. Justinian's long reign enabled him to reunite most of the old Roman Empire one final time. After Justinian, no one would be able to reunite East and West again.
There were different groups pressing at the borders of the Empire - the various European tribes of peoples, from Goths and Germans to Slavs, pressed in on the northern borders with increasing power. The African provinces were increasingly problematic, and the ancient enemy to the east, the Persians (formerly Parthians). Justinian was the last emperor to expand territory and defend against the invaders on all the fronts. Some peace treaties (such as that with the Persians) leads to long-term problems; Justinian's successor refuses to pay the treaty amounts, for example, and war ensues with Persia once more.
As interesting a period as this is internationally, it is also an interesting period theologically; it is one of the few times in Roman history where the dominant belief (or at least wishes) of the Emperor are not translated into theological orthodoxy. The Monophysite party had great influence, not just with Justinian, but with his Empress, Theodora, and thus prompted church councils, that nonetheless determined against the Monophysites. Several heretical issues arose during Justinian's reign; some of the aftermath still survives in official church doctrine for the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic worlds, as well as for splinter groups in Christendom that remain to this day.
Evans also writes about the building of the Hagia Sophia, the crowning building project of Justinian's reign, and a magnificent structure which remains in the city of Istanbul to this day.
The book is arranged in an interesting manner - there is a timeline with annotations beginning with the dedication of Constantinople in the year 330, leading to the overrun of Greece by Avars and Slavs in the year 587, twenty years after Justinian's death. Evans put these events in some wider context - the prophet Muhammad was born about the same time as Justinian's death; the final stage of the united Roman Empire fell as Muhammad came of age.
The second section is a narrative history in six chapters, each one looking at particular significant topics (the overall context of the world in late antiquity; the Nika revolt of 432; the legal achievement of Justinian; the Empress Theodora; the building programme of Justinian; and a concluding chapter). This is followed by a biographical section, with short essay biographies of the major figures of the time period. The fourth section includes primary documents from the Byzantine Empire, including legal documents, architectural descriptions (Hagia Sophia), reports on the plague and more. Finally, there is a useful glossary, index, and list of bibliographic references that make this a truly useful volume for the historian in a hurry.
The text includes a few photographs in black-and-white of significant buildings and mosaics. The one disappointment for me was that there are no maps; a few showing the lay of the lands would be helpful.
Overall, this is an interesting, accessible volume for a little-studied time period. Bella Vivante states in the series foreword that knowing the past is essential to knowing the present, and gives good reason for studying time periods such as late antiquity and the reign of Justinian. James Evans' style of writing is engaging and succeeds in bringing these issues into relevance.
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