Thursday, March 13, 2014

Justinian and an Attempted Restoration

One of the striking features of the Decline and Fall of Rome is the persistent longing for its reestablishment by those who inherited its parts—and the Middle Ages are a period in which successive attempts to resuscitate the dearly departed actually took place. One of the first of these, curiously, was Alaric’s brother Athaulf (also Atawulf) the Visigoth who dreamt of recreating the Empire:

At first I wanted to erase the Roman name and convert all Roman territory into a Gothic empire: I longed for Romania to become Gothia, and Athaulf to be what Caesar Augustus had been. But long experience has taught me that the ungoverned wildness of the Goths will never submit to laws, and that without law a state is not a state. Therefore I have more prudently chosen the different glory of reviving the Roman name with Gothic vigour, and I hope to be acknowledged by posterity as the initiator of a Roman restoration, since it is impossible for me to alter the character of this Empire.
    [Circa 413, source Orosius, Historiae adversum paganos, quoted in Wikipedia (link)]

Another at least titular barbarian was Charlemagne (742-814), and he came closest to achieving it. The last famous name was Dante; in the fourteenth century he still dreamed of the reestablishment, this time, of the Holy Roman Empire.

An intermediate figure in this process was the East Roman Emperor Justinian (482-565). He made a stab at it himself when he launched the Gothic Wars in which, except for the end phase, the famed General Belisarius led most of the fighting—and the depopulation of Italy in the process—which cleared the field for the Lombard dominion, coming from the north, of Italy until Charlemagne came and defeated them in 774. Regarding Belisarius, I would recommend Robert Graves’ novel, Belisarius, which provides a genuine flavor of those times in rich detail.

Now for a broader context on that Eastern Empire. One might argue that the Roman Empire was split in two because its western half had become more and more ungovernable owing to barbaric invasions from the Germanic north certainly by the third century already—so much so that Emperor Diocletian (245-311), who first partitioned the realm politically into a tetrarchy, a rule of four, quite awarely acknowledged that ungovernability before the split. Under his design two emperors co-ruled, one in the West, one in the East. Two was turned into four by assigning each emperor a deputy, a Caesar. Caesars were to succeed Emperors and to appoint their own Caesars in turn. Each emperor (indeed each Caesar) had de facto sovereignty—and choice of capital. The capital of Rome therefore began to move around.

The Eastern empire consisted then of the regions south of the Danube, i.e. the Balkans, together with Greece, Turkey, Syria, Israel, Jordan, and Egypt. The great military pressures on this realm came from the north and east (Hunns, Avars, eventually Genghis Khan—and from the Germanic tribes that these incursions in turn threatened) and from the southeast pressure came from the Persians (the Sassanids). The map shows the divisions at around 395, year of the death of Theodosius, the last Roman Emperor who had managed to rule both realms at once:


Constantine transferred his center of power to Byzantium because the East was more stable and therefore also more prosperous than the West. It might also be noted here that a large proportion of Rome’s military leadership came from what is now the Balkans. Diocletian was born in today’s Croatia, Constantine in Serbia—and this move was also, you might say, going closer to home. Diocletian, after his retirement (a rare bird he, who actually resigned the emperorship) lies buried in what is now Split, Croatia, where he retired.


How the map had changed by Justinian’s time is shown above; its date is 526, the death of Theodoric. The Western Empire has become fragmented as shown by its many colors. The Eastern Empire was still intact but obviously under pressure from the west as well. In 535, some nine years after Theodoric’s death (he who painted that map above red) Justinian launched a war, really multiple thrusts. His inspiration was Gothic infighting over Theodoric’s legacy. One of Justinian’s thrusts was directed at the recovery of Italy, another at the conquest of the Vandals, and a third, which did not go very far, was an attempt at recapturing Spain. The results are shown below:


Note that Justinian’s two out-stretched hands have almost managed to recover most of the old territories of Rome West. But coloration of maps does not tell the whole picture. Justinian’s wars are labeled Pyrrhic victories. The war in Italy is called the Gothic War of 535-554; it might have been called the Second Gothic War because an earlier one, 376-382, is also called by the same name—but that conflict took place in the Balkans, thus in the actual territory of the Eastern Empire itself. The Goth, pressed north by Belisarius, came back a little more to the east. The Eastern Empire, after that, was on its last leg. Nor did the reconquest of Italy last any significant time. Just a decade after Justinian died, the situation in Italy had changed again. The Gothic War had devastated Italy, particularly its urban places. Historians use the word “depopulated.” Depopulation is, however, also an invitation. Lombards had come to take over significant parts of the country and would claim yet more of it. A map of Italy dated 575 shows the results. 

Let me now look ahead some 500 years or so, to 1092 and therefore the High Middle ages. The map that follows does this. It shows a greatly shrunken Byzantine state, an Empire in name alone. The Balkans have been overrun. And the green coloration of the southern regions, stretching up into Spain, signal a new element in history. Something called Islam has emerged and shows its wide-spread reality replacing Vandals and Visigoth.


Every coin has two sides. One side of the Medieval coin shows political fragmentation—and incessant warfare as now this tribal domain and now that other has its crack at becoming the new Augustus. The actors here are tribal ruling classes. Those who bear the pain are the resident populations. And that reveals the Medieval coin’s other side. The population of this once peaceful region—with all its wars far away on the limes, as the Romans called the frontiers, are now living in a world that, translated to our times, would resemble rule by very large motor cycle gangs. The yearning for peace—and the courage to overcome the hardship of this age—is provided by a common faith which, while the battles keep raging on, is slowly forming a new culture: Christendom. This culture comes gradually to overlay these different realms. But it is much more difficult to illustrate it with maps; nevertheless, I’ll attempt to make it “visible” in my next attempt in this series.
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Images: Empire in 395: Wikipedia (link); Europe in 526: Wikipedia (link); Italy in 575: Wikipedia (link); Byzantine conquests: RealHistory (link);  Europe in 1092: Wikipedia (link).

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