1 July 2018
This is a gem of book that reappraises the reign of Justinian and reviews, analyses and discusses in depth the main themes debated by historians for several generations. It is very accessible, easy to read and well supplemented by half a dozen maps, a glossary and a chronology and backed up with a comprehensive bibliography. In other words, this is a book written by a scholar but successfully targeted at the general reader.
While they may be a few glitches, these are minor and clearly no enough to spoil the book. I will mention just one of these to illustrate the point.
There are a couple of instances where the author feels obliged to vent his anger and personal feelings with regards to a certain Boris Johnson being betrayed by one of his allies, something that is both anachronistic and difficult to relate with the subject at hand. However, apart from these two instances, I found all of the rest – and in particular the author’s ability to integrate seamlessly the abundant existing scholarship - simply excellent.
The over-arching question is to reassess whether Justinian and his re-conquest of Africa and Italy should be seen as the root cause of what Peter Heather calls “the Fall of the Eastern Empire”, that is the loss of about three quarters of its territory to the Muslim onslaught, but also the invasion of Italy and of the Balkans by, respectively, the Lombards and the Slavs. In other words, was the Empire so overstretched as a result of these efforts so as to be incapable of resisting the Arab attacks?
Within (or perhaps alongside) this question, which used to receive a positive answer, lay a number of other assumptions. One was that Justinian always had a “grand strategy” – an over-arching plan to re-conquer the western part of the Roman Empire – or at least as much of it as he could – at the earliest opportunity. Here, and alongside other authors writing on the topic over the last thirty years or so, Peter Heather’s answer is a resounding “no” which he demonstrates by analysing both the key features of the Christian Roman Empire including its ideology and culture of Victory, and the events that lead to the invasion and conquest of Vandal Africa. The author demonstrates very convincingly that the later was essentially a “last desperate gamble”, and a high risk one, from a regime that had just survived a coup by slaughtering tens of thousands when putting down the Nika riot, and which badly needed a victory to acquire legitimacy. The gamble, however, paid off rather magnificently and to such an extent that Justinian’s position became unassailable for decades. Even the invasion and sack of Antioch by the Sassanids – largely made possible by the depleted state of the Roman army in the East with many of the troops sent to conquer Italy - did not lead to attempts to overthrow him.
The initial stages of the conquest of Italy over the Goths were also opportunistic although, in this case, Justinian and his general Belisarius failed to win the war quickly for a number of reasons including mistakes, all of which are well presented and explained in detail in the book. This inability to win the war quickly enough did indeed have consequences with regards the defence of the east but the plague epidemic and the additional strain was clearly unpredictable and cannot be blamed on Justinian, nor can the onslaught of the Lombards on Italy and of the Avars in the Balkans shortly after his death. Additionally, and as shown throughout the book, starting with the introduction, Justinian did not abandon or even neglect the defence of the Balkans. There was an impressive fortification program meant to allow it to withstand nomadic raids and Slavic invasions and while it could not entirely compensate for the troops that had been shifted to other fronts (Italy in particular), it did allow the Empire to maintain control, even at the price of much suffering.
Another interesting section is an appraisal of Justinian’s personality and aims, together with an explanation of the apparently strange ambivalence of some of the sources – Procopius in particular. Essentially, according to the author, all of Justinian’s achievements, including the great legal reforms, were aimed at bolstering his regime and staying in power. As mentioned, the implication was that there was no “great plan” to reconquer the western half of the Empire. Moreover, the Emperor was not seeking the good of his subjects but merely to act in ways that cemented his grip on the throne and his power. However horrible this may seem to our modern eyes, this is probably a very realistic assessment that corresponded to the need for the Emperor to ensure his own political (and physical) survival including against whatever internal opposition that could arise if he was to suffer defeat or failure.
To conclude, the author shows that it is his successor Justinian II, and his unwise policy of antagonising both the Sassanid Persians and the Avars and, even more so, the long war against Sassanid Persia following the execution of Emperor Maurice in AD 602 which lasted more than a quarter of a century that brought the Empire to its knees, leaving it barely able to withstand the Arab onslaught but incapable to defend its eastern provinces.
The main value of this book is therefore to present a comprehensive reassessment of Justinian, his reign, his achievements and his shortcomings within the context and ideology of his times, a reassessment that pulls together and draws upon the vast amount of studies that the Age of Justinian has generated over the past thirty years of so. Five stars.