Story of Europe - H. E. Marshall

The Rise and Fall of Justinian's Empire—The Role of The Eastern Empire

The year after Theodoric died Justinian, one of the greatest rulers of the Eastern Empire, came to power. He was not content with merely ruling over the Eastern Empire, but, like the Cęsars before him, he had dreams of a world dominion, and he longed to gather under his sceptre all the lands which had at one time owned Roman sway. He had great generals at his command to help him to realize his dream, among them Belisarius, at this time a brave and splendid youth.

Belisarius and Narses

About this time the Vandals were quarrelling among themselves, and it seemed to Justinian a good opportunity to win Africa again for the Empire. So with a great army Belisarius set out. In a campaign of three months he conquered the Vandals. Then, laden with rich spoil, and carrying the captive Vandal king, Gelimer, with him, he returned again to Constantinople in triumph.

Italy, too, was at this time in a state of unrest. Here again Justinian saw his opportunity, and again Belisarius set forth to subdue a rebel province of the Empire. But to conquer the Goths was by no means an easy matter. The war raged for years, and before he could bring it to a victorious close the jealousy of his rivals caused Belisarius to be recalled.

Two years later he returned to Italy. But he was, he says himself, "destitute of all the necessary implements of war—men, horses, arms, and money." And the emperor, still listening to the envious whisperers, was deaf to his appeals. So the war lingered on, until at length Belisarius was again recalled, and his place taken by Narses, another of Justinian's great generals.

Narses was no young and splendid hero like Belisarius, but a little dried-up old man. He was, however, the most brilliant strategist of the day, and he received the support denied to Belisarius. His so-called Roman army was indeed merely a conglomeration of Greeks and wild barbarians, but with it he swept victoriously through Italy.

It was not far from the ancient city of Pompeii that the Goths made their last stand. Their king, Teias, stood in the forefront of the battle. In his right hand he held a mighty spear, and with unerring aim he dealt death this way and that. Although arrows and javelins fell thick and fast about him, he heeded them not. Yet so many found their mark, and remained fast embedded in his shield that, at length, even his mighty arm could not bear the weight.

So calling to his squire he bade him bring another shield. The squire obeyed. But for one moment, in changing one shield for another, the king's side was unprotected. In that moment a javelin was sped, and, pierced to the heart, Teias fell dying to the ground. With a wild shout of exultation the foe rushed forward, and cutting off his head, placed it upon a spear, and carried it in triumph through their ranks.

Thus died the last king of the Goths. Yet although leaderless now, his men still fought on, and only night and darkness put an end to the strife. Day dawned and it was renewed, but the struggle now was hopeless, and at length the Goths sued for peace. This Narses readily granted, giving the conquered people the choice between remaining in Italy as the subjects of Justinian or of departing thence.

The Goths chose to depart. And with their women and children and household goods they slowly crossed the Alps. They went who knows where? From that time the Ostrogoths vanish from history.

But the campaign in Italy was not yet over. For the Franks and Allemanni had poured like a torrent over the Alps into the plain of Italy, vowing to restore the Gothic kingdom. But these, too, Narses defeated, and only a scattered remnant reached home. Then at length the harassed, exhausted land had rest, and for the next twelve years Narses ruled over it as governor for the emperor.

Justinian also attacked the Visigoths in Spain, and brought all the south and east of that country under Roman rule once more. So much of the old Roman Empire, indeed, did he reconquer that it seemed as if his dream might come true. But in 565 he died, and almost at once fresh hordes of barbarians overran his newly acquired provinces. The Lombards invaded Italy, the Visigoths rose and expelled the Romans from Spain, Slavs and Avars, wild peoples akin to the Huns, streamed over the Balkans, while Persians, in a war which lasted twenty years, devasted the eastern boundaries of the Empire. Arabs made themselves masters of Egypt and Roman Africa, until at length the Eastern Empire included little more than the countries now forming Greece, the Balkan States, and Asia Minor.

It is not, therefore, for his conquests that we remember Justinian. For his conquests soon vanished away, and all through the ages he has been remembered not as a conqueror but as a lawgiver. His great work was the codification of the whole body of Roman law. Upon the so-called laws of Justinian the laws of nearly every civilized country are founded to this day. That is his title to greatness.

It must be remembered, too, that although after the time of Justinian the dimensions of the Empire became small indeed, in comparison to those of the Roman Empire in the days of its strength, it was no mean role that this shrunken Empire played in the development of Europe; for it formed a Christian bulwark against the attacks of the heathen hordes of Asia. While the new Teutonic kingdoms were being formed it was the Romans and not the Teutons who defended Europe from the danger coming from the east.

And besides being a barrier the Eastern Empire was a storehouse of art and literature. For the new Teutonic nations which overran the Western Empire were only half civilized, or not civilized at all. Before them the learning and the art of old Rome went down. It would have been lost to the world had it not been kept alive in Constantinople. There, too, in this time of flux the trade and commerce of Europe centred, and when in course of time the new Teutonic kingdoms settled down, and the peoples awakened to the need of learning and of art, it was to Constantinople that they turned to find them.

But however useful a part the Empire played in the development of Europe the old imperial splendour was gone. New Rome was not mistress of the world, but rather its handmaid. And as the old imperial idea changed the character of the Empire changed too. It was no longer Roman in any sense, but Greek. Greek became the language of State, and even the later laws of Justinian were written in that language. So although legally the continuance of the Roman Empire, it has come to be called the Greek Empire or the Byzantine Empire, from the name of the ancient city of Byzantium, upon the site of which Constantinople was built.