I was a bit surprised to discover that this book, first published in 1996, has not been reviewed on either Amazon.co.uk or on Amazon.com up to now. The author claimed, at the time, that there was still room for the "definitive history" of the reign of Justinian. One cannot help wondering as to whether there ever is such a thing as a definitive history or any character, event or period in history. If this was meant to mean that the author's purpose was not to come up with the most comprehensive and detailed book as possible on Justinian, then his claim is both correct and refreshingly modest. This book is not a biography of the great Emperor either. Rather, it is a reassessment of his reign and, accordingly, an excellent overview covering the period AD 491 to AD 574, from the beginning of the reign of Anastasius to the death of Justin II, Justinian's nephew. It is also perhaps the most accessible book and therefore the easiest to get to grip with this Emperor's long reign. This is only the first of its many qualities.
The second quality that I found n this book was the trouble and care taken in assessing both the context in which the reign began and its aftermath. At some 270 pages of text, the book is not too long to discourage a general reader. Almost 100 pages are dedicated to setting the scene, that is describing what Evans terms "The Imperial Environment" or, perhaps even more accurately, "the empire which Anastasius left behind". The care with which the "starting point" is described is worthy of praise, especially since the author manages to present an excellent overview while not overburdening the general reader with too much detail. The last section of the book ("The Final Years") describes Justinian's last decade, the reign of his immediate successor and assesses his reign. While the description of the last years and the summary of Justin II's reign are also good, I was a bit disappointed by the book's conclusion and reassessment: a mere 4 pages. To be fair, however, most of the author's points are made in it, or summarized again, and for the few that may not be, they can be found in the relevant sections of the main text.
The author's views are particularly interesting, regardless of whether the reader agrees with them or not. The statements that Justinian's wars to "reconquer the West" were not "a misguided attempt to reverse the course of history" and did not "result in fatal inattention to the eastern provinces" have become more mainstream than fifteen years ago, even if they may not have been accepted by all. Again, regardless of the debate between historians, the succession of events - the expedition against the Vandals, that against the Ostrogoths and then the expedition against the Wisigoths of Spain - do show that, in each case, Justinian took advantages of circumstances. This allows Evans o portray his conquests as opportunistic and to imply that there was no "masterplan" to reconquer the West. He only shows that Justinian was careful to ensure that the eastern provinces were at peace when new expeditions were sent out to the West so that is rather unfair and incorrect to state that Justinian did not pay attention to the East.
Another interesting point made in this book (and picked up by other authors afterwards) is to show how the bubonic plague disrupted his wars in Italy and how it drastically affected the Empire's whole balance and strength. Here, Evans does no shy away from estimating that the plague and its resurgence in the 550s could have cost the lands around the Mediterranean up to 40% of their population in the short term. The disruption that this would have created and its impact on the Empire would have been tremendous and it is this entirely unpredictable event which overstretched the Empire, rather than Justinian's Wars which were not necessarily as unrealistic as they have been sometimes been portrayed to be with hindsight. That Justinian decided to impose a crushing tax burden on the Empire's population to make for lost income and cover expenses (including war expenses) that had not been reduced is easy to understand: had I pulled out of Italy and admitted defeat, it is doubtful as to whether the "upsart" Justinian would have remained on his throne for very long.
Finally, a fascinating point, although perhaps one which is more controversial and more difficult to make is the one on the influence of Empress Theodara, whom Evans sees as being almost the "loyal opposition to the throne", in particular with regards to religious matters. I am not so sure about the extent of her influence after her death, with the author claiming that it remained and going as far as implying that Justinian's last foray into theology showed that it became a monophysite, but the claim in itself is a very interesting one to make. It also illustrates the Emperor's will to compromise for the sake of unity.
Anyway, this is an excellent introduction for anyone wanting to know the essentials about Justinian. It is also a thought provoking and refreshing starting point for those who intend to dive into the century of Justinian in more depth. Highly recommended.
J. A. S. Evans' subtitle "The Circumstance of Imperial Power" may give an impression of this work being an analysis of the nature of imperial government in the mid-sixth century. It's a rather different publication than that in its scope however. More than a third of the book, the largest section, is in fact taken up with developments before Justinian, going back a couple of centuries or more; whilst this might seem out of place in a book ostensibly about "The Age of Justinian", if the book is seen as serving as an introduction to the subject it acts as a very valuable part of the whole text in describing the nature of the empire at the time of Justinian's succession.
Following on from a shortish section on the early years of Justinian, there follows a chronological narrative of the reconquest of Vandalic Africa and Ostrogothic Italy. Only in the penultimate section do we find a more thematic approach with consideration of theological developments, Justinian's codification of the law, economics and commerce, and attitudes towards 'outsiders' (Jews, Samaritans, pagans and heretics).
A final short chapter covers "the final years" and Evans' own conclusions. He sees Justinian's later years as something of a sad decline both personally and in the consequences for the empire, though puts much of the blame for continued decline on his successors Justin II, Tiberius Constantine, Maurice and Phocas.
This book does indeed serve as an excellent introduction to the subject. Evans is careful to not slavishly follow the fashionable opinions and 'received wisdom' of other historians, and while his ideas may not be radical as such, and nor are they different just for the sake of being different, they deserve close consideration.