Byzantine Empire - C. W. C. Oman

The End of Justinian's Reign

The slackness with which the generals of Justinian prosecuted the Gothic war in the period between the triumph of Belisarius at Ravenna in A.D. 540, and the final conquest of Italy in A.D. 553, is mainly to be explained by the fact that, just at the moment of the fall of Ravenna, the empire became involved in a new struggle with its great Eastern neighbour. Chosroes of Persia was seriously alarmed at the African and Italian conquests of Justinian, and remembered that he too, as well as the Vandals and Goths, was in possession of provinces that had formerly been Roman, and might one day be reclaimed by the Emperor. He determined to strike before Justinian had got free from his Italian war, and while the flower of the Roman army was still in the West. Using as his pretext for war some petty quarrels between two tribes of Arabs, subject respectively to Persia and the empire, he declared war in the spring of A.D. 540. Justinian, as the king had hoped, was caught unprepared: the army of the Euphrates was so weak that it never dared face the Persians in the field, and the opening of the war was fraught with such a disaster to the empire as had not been known since the battle of Adrianople, more than a hundred and sixty years before. Avoiding the fortresses of Mesopotamia, Chosroes, who led his army in person, burst into Northern Syria. His main object was to strike a blow at Antioch, the metropolis of the East, a rich city that had not seen an enemy for nearly three centuries, and was reckoned safe from all attacks owing to its distance from the frontier. Antioch had a strong garrison of 6,000 men and the "Blues" and "Greens" of its circus factions had taken arms to support the regular troops. But the commander was incompetent, and the fortifications had been somewhat neglected of late. After a sharp struggle, Chosroes took the town by assault; the garrison cut its way out, and many of the inhabitants escaped with it, but the city was sacked from cellar to garret and thousands of captives were dragged away by the Persians. Chosroes planted them by the Euphrates—as Nebuchadnezzar had done of old with the Jews—and built for them a city which he called Chosroantiocheia, blending his own name with that of their ancient abode.

This horrible disaster to the second city of the Roman East roused all Justinian's energy; neglecting the Italian war, he sent all his disposable troops to the Euphrates frontier, and named Belisarius himself as the chief commander. After this, Chosroes won no such successes as had distinguished his first campaign. Having commenced an attack on the Roman border fortresses in Colchis, far to the north, he was drawn home by the news that Belisarius had invaded Assyria and was besieging Nisibis. On the approach of the king the imperial general retired, but his manoeuvre had cost the Persian the fruits of a whole summer's preparation, and the year 541 ended without serious fighting. In the next spring very similar operations followed: Belisarius defended the line of the Euphrates with success, and the invaders retired after having reduced one single Mesopotamian fortress. The, war lingered for two years more, till Chosroes, disgusted at the ill-success of all his efforts since his first success at Antioch, and more especially humiliated by a bloody repulse from the walls of Edessa, consented to treat for peace [A.D. 545]. He gave up his conquests which were of small importance but regarded the honours of the war as being his own, because Justinian consented to pay him 2,000 lbs. of gold [108,000] on the ratification of the treaty. One curious clause was inserted in the document though hostilities ceased everywhere else, the rights of the two monarchs to the suzerainty of the kingdom of Lazica, on the Colchian frontier, hard by the Black Sea, were left undefined. For no less than seven years a sort of by-war was maintained in this small district, while peace prevailed on all other points of the Perso-Roman frontier. It was not till A.D. 556, after both parties had wasted much treasure and many men on the unprofitable contest, that Chosroes resigned the attempt to hold the small and rugged mountain kingdom of the Lazi, and resigned it to Justinian on the promise of an annual grant of 18,000 as compensation money.

But although Justinian had brought his second Persian war to a not unsuccessful end, the empire had come badly out of the struggle, and was by 556 falling into a condition of incipient disorder and decay. This was partly caused by the reckless financial expedients of the Emperor, who taxed the provinces with unexampled rigour while forced to maintain at once a Persian and an Italian war.

The main part of the damage, however, was wrought by other than human means. In A.D. 542 there broke out in the empire a plague such as had not been known for three hundred years the last similar visitation had fallen in the reign of Trebonianus Gallus, far back in the third century. This pestilence was one of their epoch-making events in the history of the empire, as great a landmark as the Black Death in the history of England. The details which Procopius gives us concerning its progress and results leave no doubt that it operated more powerfully than any other factor in that weakening of the empire which is noticeable in the second half of the sixth century. When it reached Constantinople, 5,000 persons a day are said to have fallen victims to it. All customary occupations ceased in the city, and the market-place was empty save for corpse-bearers. In many houses not a single soul remained alive, and the government had to take special measures for the burial of neglected corpses. "The disease," says the chronicler, "did not attack any particular race or class of men, nor prevail in any particular region, nor confine itself to any period of the year. Summer or winter, North or South, Greek or Arabian, washed or unwashed—of such distinctions the plague took no account. A man might climb to the hill-top, and it was there; he might retire to the depths of a cavern, and it was there also." The only marked characteristic of its ravages that the chronicler could find was, that, "whether by chance or providential design, it strictly spared the most wicked."

Justinian himself fell ill of the plague: he recovered, but was never his old self again. Though he persevered inflexibly to his last day in his scheme for the reconquest of the empire, yet he seems to have declined in energy, and more especially to have lost that power of organization, which had been his most marked characteristic. The chroniclers complain that he had grown less hopeful and less masterful. "After achieving so much in the days of his vigour, when he entered into the last stage of his life he seemed to weary of his labours, and preferred to create discord among his foes or to mollify them with gifts, instead of trusting to his arms and facing the dangers of war. So he allowed his troops to decline in numbers, because he did not expect to require their services. And his ministers, who collected his taxes and maintained his armies were affected with the same indifference."

One feature of the Emperor's later years was that he took more and more interest in theological disputes, even to the neglect of State business. The Church question of the day was the dispute on Monophysitism, the heresy which denied the existence both of a human and a divine nature in Our Lord. Justinian was not a monophysite himself, but wished to unify the sect with the main body of the Church by edicts of comprehension, which forbade the discussion of the subject, and spent much trouble in coercing prelates orthodox and heretical into a reconciliation which had no chance of permanent success. His chief difficulty was with the bishops of Rome. He forced Pope Vigilius to come to Constantinople, and kept him under constraint for many months, till he signed all that was required of him [A.D. 554], The only result was to win Vigilius the reputation of a heretic, and to cause a growing estrangement between East and West.

The gloom of Justinian's later years was even more marked after the death of his wife; Theodora died in A.D. 548, six years after the great plague, and it may be that her loss was no less a cause of the diminished energy of his later years than was his enfeebled health. Her bold and adventurous spirit must have buoyed him up in many of the more difficult enterprises of the first half of his reign. After her death, Justinian seems to have trusted no one: his destined successor, Justinus, son of his sister, was kept in the background, and no great minister seems to have possessed his confidence. Even Belisarius, the first and most loyal soldier of the empire, does not appear to have been trusted: in the second Gothic war the Emperor stinted him of troops and hampered him with colleagues. At last he was recalled [A.D. 549] and sent into private life, from which he was only recalled on the occurrence of a sudden military crisis in A.D. 558.

This crisis was a striking example of the mismanagement of Justinian's later years. A nomad horde from the South Russian steppes, the Cotrigur Huns, had crossed the frozen Danube at mid-winter, when hostilities were least expected, and thrown themselves on the Thracian provinces. The empire had 150,000 men under arms at the moment, but they were all dispersed abroad, many in Italy, others in Africa, others in Spain, others in Colchis, some in the Thebald, and a few on the Mesopotamian frontier. There was such a dearth of men to defend the home provinces that the barbarians rode unhindered over the whole country side from the Danube to the Propontis plundering and burning. One body, only 7,000 strong, came up to within a few miles of the city gates, and inspired such fear that the Constantinopolitans began to send their money and church-plate over to Asia. Justinian then summoned Belisarius from his retirement, and placed him in command of what troops there were available—a single regiment of 300 veterans from Italy, and the "Scholarian guards," a body of local troops 3,500 strong, raised in the city and entrusted with the charge of its gates, which inspired little confidence as its members were allowed to practice their trades and avocations and only called out in rotation for occasional service. With this undisciplined force, which had never seen war, at his back, Belisarius contrived to beat off the Huns. He led them to pursue him back to a carefully prepared position, where the only point that could be attacked was covered with woods and hedges on either side. The untrustworthy "Scholarians" were placed on the flanks, where they could not be seriously molested, while the 300 Italian veterans covered the one vulnerable point. The Huns attacked, were shot down from the woods and beaten off in front, and fled leaving 400 men on the field, while the Romans only lost a few wounded and not a single soldier slain. Thus the last military exploit of Belisarius preserved the suburbs of the imperial city itself from molestation; after defending Old Rome in his prime he saved New Rome in his old age.

Even this last service did not prevent Justinian from viewing his great servant with suspicion. Four years later an obscure conspiracy against his life was discovered, and one of the conspirators named Belisarius as being privy to the plot. The old emperor affected to believe the accusation, sequestrated the general's property, and kept him under surveillance for eight months. Belisarius was then acquitted and restored to favour: he lived two years longer, and died in March, 565. The ungrateful master whom he had served so well followed him to the grave nine months later.

Of Justinian as conqueror and governor we have said much. But there remain two more aspects of his life which deserve notice—his work as a builder and his codification of the laws. From the days of Diocletian the style of architecture which we call Byzantine, for want of a better name, had been slowly developing from the old classic forms, and many of the emperors of the fourth and fifth centuries had been given to building. But no previous monarch had combined in such a degree as did Justinian the will and the power to launch out into architectural experiments. He had at his disposal the hoarded treasures of Anastasius, and his tastes were as magnificent as those of the great builders of the early empire, Augustus and Nero and Hadrian. All over the empire the monuments of his wealth and taste were seen in dozens of churches, halls of justice, monasteries, forts, hospitals, and colonnades. The historian Procopius was able to compose a considerable volume entirely on the subject of Justinian's buildings, and numbers of them survive, some perfect and more in ruins, to witness to the accuracy of the work. Even in the more secluded or outlying portions of the empire, any fine building that is found is, in two cases out of three, one of the works of Justinian. Not merely great centres like Constantinople or Jerusalem, but out-of-the-way tracts in Cappadocia and Isauria, are full of his buildings. Even in the newly-conquered Ravenna his great churches of San Vitale, containing the celebrated mosaic portraits of himself and his wife, and of St. Apollinare in the suburb of Classier, outshine the older works of the fifth-century emperors and of the Goth Theodoric.

Justinian's churches, indeed, are the best known of his buildings. In Oriental church-architecture his reign forms a landmark: up to his time Christian architects had still been using two patterns copied straight from Old Roman models. The first was the round domed church, whose origin can be traced back to such Roman originals as the celebrated Temple of Vesta of such the Church of the Holy Sepulchre at Rome may serve as a type. The second was the rectangular church with apses, which was nothing more than an adaptation for ecclesiastical purposes of the Old Roman law-courts, and which had borrowed from them its name of Basilica. St. Paul's Outside the Walls, at Rome is a fair specimen. Justinian brought into use for the first time on a large scale the combination of a cruciform ground-plan and a very large dome. The famous Church, of St. Sophia may serve as the type of this style. The great cathedral of Constantinople had already been burnt down twice, as we have had occasion to relate: the first time on the eve of the banishment of John Chrysostom, the second in the, great "Nika" riot of 532. Within forty days of its destruction Justinian had commenced preparations for rebuilding it as a monument of his triumph in the civil strife. He chose as his architect Anthemius of Tralles, the greatest of Byzantine builders, and one of the few whose names have survived. The third church was different in plan from either of its predecessors, showing the new combination which we have already specified. It is a Greek cross, 241 feet long and 224 broad, having in its midst a vast dome, pierced by no less than forty windows, light and airy and soaring 180 feet above the floor. In the nave the aisles and side apses are parted from the main central spaces by magnificent colonnades of marble pillars, the majority of verde antique. These are not for the most part the work of Justinian's day, but were plundered from the chief pagan temples of Asia, which served as an inexhaustible quarry for the Christian builder. The whole of the interior, both roof and dome, was covered with gilding or mosaics, which the Vandalism of the Turks has covered with a coat of whitewash, to hide the representations of human forms which are offensive to the Moslems' creed. Procopius describes the church with enthusiasm, and his praises are well justified.

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


"It presents a most glorious spectacle, extraordinary to those who behold it, and altogether incredible to those who know it by report only. In height it rises to the very heavens, and overtops the neighbouring buildings like a ship anchored among them. It towers above the city which it adorns, and from it the whole of Constantinople can be beheld, as from a watch-tower. Its breadth and length are so judiciously chosen, that it appears both broad and long without disproportion. For it excels both in size and harmony, being more magnificent than ordinary buildings, and much more elegant than the few which approach it in size. Within it is singularly full of light and sunshine; you would declare that the place is not lighted from without, but that the rays are produced within itself, such an abundance of light is poured into it. The gilded ceiling adds glory to its interior, though the light reflected upon the gold from the marble surpasses it in beauty. Who can tell of the splendour of the columns and marbles with which the church is adorned? One would think that one had come upon a meadow full of flowers in bloom—one wonders at the purple tints of some, the green of others, the glowing red and glittering white, and those, too, which nature, like a painter, has marked with the strongest contrasts of colour. Moreover, it is impossible accurately to describe the treasures of gold and silver plate and gems which the Emperor has presented to the church: the Sanctuary alone contains forty thousand pounds weight of silver."

[Illustration] from The Byzantine Empire by C. W. C. Oman


Justinian was almost as great a builder of forts as of churches, but his military works have for the most part disappeared. It may give some idea of his energy in fortifying the frontiers when we state that the Illyrian provinces alone were protected by 294 forts, of which Procopius gives a list, disposed in four successive lines from the Danube back to the Thessalian hills. Some were single towers, but many were elaborate fortresses with outworks, and all had to be protected by garrisons.

Thus much of Justinian as builder: space fails to enumerate a tithe of his works. Of his great legal achievement we must speak at even shorter length. The Roman law, as he received it from his predecessors was an enormous mass of precedents and decisions, in which the original basis was overlaid with the various and sometimes contradictory rescripts of five centuries of emperors. Several of his predecessors, and most especially Theodosius II., had endeavoured to codify the chaotic mass and reduce it to order. But no one of them had produced a code which sufficed to bring the law of the day into full accord with the spirit of the times. It was no mean work to bring the ancient legislation of Rome, from the days of the Twelve Tables down to the days of Justinian, into strict and logical connection with the new Christian ideas which had worked their way into predominance since the days of Constantine. Much of the old law was hopelessly obsolete, owing to the change in moral ideas which Christianity had introduced, but it is still astonishing to see how much of the old forms of the times of the early empire survived into the sixth century. Justinian employed a commission, headed by the clever but unpopular lawyer Tribonian, to draw up his new code. The work was done for ever and a day, and his "Institute" and "Pandects" were the last revision of the Old Roman laws, and the starting-point of all systematic legal study in Europe, when, six hundred years later, the need for something more than customary folk-right began to make itself felt, as mediaeval civilization evolved itself out of the chaos of the dark ages. If the Roman Empire had flourished in the century after Justinian as in that which preceded him, other revisers of the laws might have produced compilations that would have made the "Institutes" seem out of date. But, as a matter of fact, decay and chaos followed after Justinian, and succeeding emperors had neither the need nor the inclination to do his work over again. Hence it came to pass that his name is forever associated with the last great revision of Roman law, and that he himself went down to posterity as the greatest of legislators, destined to be enthroned by Dante in one of the starry thrones of his "Paradise," and to be worshipped as the father of law by all the legists of the Renaissance.