Gibbon, Part 8: Justinian’s Reign and Belisarius’ Western Expeditions

Compared to the pitiful decline of the Western Empire in the preceding decades, the reign of Justinian was a resurgence. Under the command of the great general Belisarius, Roman forces defeated and reconquered the Vandal kingdom in Africa and the Gothic kingdom in Italy, including Rome. The Goths and other barbarians were defeated multiple times, including a monumental defense of Rome, and a brilliant last victory of Belisarius against barbarian invaders of Constantinople. This period also saw the rise of another great general, the eunuch Narses. In the civil realm, Justinian pioneered developments in Roman law and jurisprudence. Although it was not to be so for long, faint glimpses of the better ages of Constantine and the Five Good Emperors appeared again, even if only for a moment. In this post, we shall recap and reflect on Gibbon’s narrative of both Belisarius’ military conquests and the general characteristics of Justinian’s reign.

The Nika Revolt and the Practices of Justinian

Belisarius first came to prominence due to his successful suppression of the Nika revolt in Constantinople. The revolt was precipitated by the growing importance of the blue and green factions in the chariot races. Initially being not much more than modern-day sports teams, they developed into political entities with identifying dress and attributes. The blue faction was associated with the family of the late emperor Anastasius, while the greens were devoted to the cause of Justinian. The rivalry evolved into violent conflict, with members of the greens being attacked, robbed, or killed by the blues. In an incident in the hippodrome Justinian dismissed the concerns of the greens, who complained about the oppression of some magistrates. In the ensuing conflict, assassins from both factions were hanged. This resulted in the two factions temporarily reconciling with each other to fight against Justinian’s perceived oppression. A general riot began which engulfed the city for five days. The great cathedral of St. Sophia was destroyed in a fire. A stranger, Hyptia, was crowned by the people as emperor. The riot was only subdued when the commanders Belisarius and Mundus led a force of 3,000 veterans into the Hippodrome and slaughtered tens of thousand sympathizers of both factions.

The Nika revolt was symptomatic of the conditions of the empire during Justinian’s reign. The people were dissatisfied with the inefficient and corrupt institutions of government and the church. As put by Gibbon,

Europe was over-run by the Barbarians, and Asia by the monks; the poverty of the West discouraged the trade and manufactures of the East; the produce of labour was consumed by the unprofitable servants of the church, the state, and the army; and a rapid decrease was felt in the fixed and circulating capitals which constitute the national wealth.
(Chapter XL)

Large taxes were imposed on the population of farmers and the people. Justinian required farmers to supply corn for the army and the capital. But he also required the Praetorian prefect to give him an annual additional tribute equivalent to 120,000 pounds (in Gibbon’s time), which was extracted from the people. Foreign trade flourished, but large tariffs were imposed, prices skyrocketed and the prevalence of monopolies oppressed the people in poverty. Government offices were freely bought and sold, in full awareness of Justinian and his empress Theodora. Justinian also formally banned the philosophical schools of Athens, and abolished the office of consuls, which had existed for almost a millennium.

Gibbon devotes a large portion of his narrative to Theodora, an empress who practically divided power equally with her husband. Theodora came from humble origins; her father was keeper of the beasts for the green faction in the circus and died when she was a child, forcing her to supplicate for herself. The blues rejected her, while the greens took pity on her, foreshadowing the eventual allegiance of the green to the emperor and empress. As an adult, she started a career as an actress and comedian, which in those times was a dishonorable occupation, no better than a prostitute. And indeed, Theodora was famous for taking many lovers, up until she met Justinian, who was thoroughly smitten, and even changed the requirements for the marriage of royalty in order to marry her. Theodora was not merely another royal consort, destined only to produce children and accompany the emperor.

He seated her on the throne as an equal and independent colleague in the sovereignty of the empire, and an oath of allegiance was imposed on the governors of the provinces in the joint names of Justinian and Theodora.
(Chapter LX)


Completely breaking free from her lowly past, the former prostitute was now revered, praised and worshipped by nobles, rich men, and magistrates from all over the Eastern Empire, as Gibbon wryly remarks. Theodora became known as a very religious woman as an empress, being indelibly involved in Justinian’s charitable works, including the establishment of a convent. However, she also exhibited tyrannical and totalitarian behavior, having an extensive network of spies and informants and ruthlessly suppressing any hint of criticism or opposition using her power. Her actions would eventually become a source of misery for the general Belisarius, as we shall shortly see.

The Invasion of Africa

By the time of the commencement of Justinian’s reign (482), the Vandal kingdom had become established since the landing of Genseric in 429. The throne had passed on to Hilderic, a peace-loving king who tolerated Catholics in the Arian kingdom and as a result was much liked by Justinian. However, inside his own kingdom he was viewed negatively. His religious toleration was viewed as traitorous by the Arian clergy, while the Catholics did not feel any gratitude; his friendly diplomatic relations with Justinian were similarly viewed with suspicion, and his general lost a battle against the Moors. The insecurity of his position prompted the rise of his firmly Arian cousin Gelimer, who took over the throne, supposedly with full consent of the rest of the country, while the poor Hilderic was confined in a prison. The uprising in the Vandal kingdom and the fall of Hilderic prompted Justinian to start planning the idea of an African expedition. The idea of revenging his friend and reconquering the past territories of the empire was deeply appealing. But the memory of the failed expedition of Leo and Anthemius under Basiliscus only a few decades ago was still fresh in many minds.

Still, Justinian pressed on despite the extreme reluctance of his counselors and people. Funds and supplies were raised, and hundreds of ships were built. A multinational army of 15,000 soldiers was assembled, consisting of Heruli, Huns, Greeks, Syrians, Thracians, Isaurians, and Scythian archers. The command was given to the general Belisarius, who had played an important role in suppressing the Nika revolts and also distinguished himself through a great victory over Persian forces (including the infamous immortals) at Dara. Belisarius was both an excellent tactician and man manager. He enforced impeccable discipline and rigor in his army, and exhorted them to cooperate and captivate the native population instead of looting and pillaging from them.

The arrival of the invasion force in North Africa was helped by the fortunate fact that the bulk of the Vandal troops were away, occupied by an invasion of Sardinia under the command of Gelimer’s brother. Belisarius’ forces moved swiftly towards Carthage almost unopposed. Gelimer’s feeble and rash resistance only resulted in a string of disastrous defeats for the Vandals. Upon reaching Carthage, Belisarius smartly waited the night out, confident that the tyranny of the Vandals would work its own victory. He was vindicated when the populace threw open the gates of the city to welcome their liberators, and the great city was taken without a single drop of blood. As before, Belisarius impressed strongly on his troops to maintain their status as liberators and refrain from sacking the city.

When Gelimer was finally able to consolidate his forces and that of his brother’s, the two sides met 20 miles from Carthage, but after a relatively tame battle where only a few hundred combatants died, the Vandals were repulsed. Belisarius’ forces chased them into their camp and massacred large numbers of them, momentarily losing their discipline. Apprehensive of the situation, he quickly restored order. The submission of the rest of the Vandal kingdom – Tripoli, Corsica, Sardinia, Caesarea, and so on – followed not soon after. The remnants of the Vandal forces surrendered, with only a few holdouts in the extreme West end of Africa. Belisarius proceeded to reform the Vandal kingdom as Roman territory, creating administrative divisions and firmly establishing the Catholic Church. (After the demise of the Vandal kingdom, the Arian church declined into obscurity and Catholicism became the universal religion of Romans, Goths, Franks, and other barbarians.) Gelimer was chased by Belisarius’ lieutenant Pharas to a holdout in the mountains in Numidia. He was besieged for many days, before eventually being persuaded to surrender by the friendly and persistent overtures of Pharas.

Upon his return to Constantinople, the victorious Belisarius was celebrated with a grand triumph and elevation to the (mostly symbolic by now) position of consul. Both conqueror and the conquered fell prostrate in front of the emperor and empress, neither of whom had lifted a finger. As promised, Gelimer was treated mercifully, being given ample estates to live out his retirement in peace and prosperity. Despite his fame and potential power, Belisarius humbly and obstinately maintained his submission to the rightful emperor.

Reconquering the Ostrogothic Kingdom

After the resounding success of the African invasion, Justinian turned his attentions to the Gothic kingdom. As Gibbon points out, the Goths had foolishly failed to provide any assistance to the Vandals, instead delighting in their destruction, even helping them by simultaneously invading the western part of North Africa. They failed to foresee Justinian’s ambition, repeating the errors of their barbarian predecessors, by which Rome was able to conquer them in the first place. Instead, the Gothic kingdom was engulfed in the tumults of a power struggle between Amalasontha, the daughter of Theodoric and the queen mother of the youthful king Athalaric, who died prematurely, and Theodatus, her avaricious cousin, whom she had appointed to rule together with her as women were not legally allowed to inherit the throne. Justinian’s ambassadors had negotiated with Theodatus, but he eventually took the side of the queen. Theodatus’ assassination of Amalasontha provided the perfect pretext to invade the Gothic kingdom and revenge his former ally.

An invasion force was assembled again, this time only half of the size of the African army, but under the same famous commander, Belisarius. The ships stopped first to survey Sicily. But the Goths had left the island defenceless, and its inhabitants were more than ready to return to the bosom of the Empire. Palermo was conquered via the brilliant tactics of Belisarius (including using boats filled with archers which were hoisted to the top of ships’ masts, enabling them to easily take over the walls of the city. Syracuse was next. However, Belisarius was then interrupted by news of a revolt among the troops he had left in Carthage; he had to first return back and subdue the rebellion. Still, Theodatus was terrified by Belisarius’ progress. At first he offered generous terms of peace to Justinian, which included a full abdication and resigning of his entire kingdom to the Romans. But at the last minute, he changed his mind and decided to fight on.

Still unopposed, with sympathetic local populations along the way, Belisarius proceeded to make his way to Rome. Only a few cities resisted – such as Naples, which was taken after a lengthy siege of almost three weeks and the discovery of a passage into the city through an aqueduct. Theodatus cowered within the walls of Rome, his forces dispersed and his mind superstitious of his impending fall. The Goths reevaluated their king and displaced him from the throne as unworthy. The commander Vitiges was chosen to replace him. However, the Goths decided to retreat with the bulk of their forces to the fortress of Ravenna, leaving only 4,000 soldiers to defend the city. But the citizens of Rome were quickly converted through considerations of religion and culture:

“They furiously exclaimed that the apostolic throne should no longer be profaned by the triumph or toleration of Arianism; that the tombs of the Cæsars should no longer be trampled by the savages of the north; and, without reflecting that Italy must sink into a province of Constantinople, they fondly hailed the restoration of a Roman emperor as a new æra of freedom and prosperity.
(Chapter XLI)

Upon Belisarius’ arrival, the gates of Rome were opened readily without resistance, and the ancient city was reconquered after 60 years of Gothic rule. But the celebrations were not for long; for the Goths consolidated their forces at Ravenna and invaded Rome with an army of 150,000. It was in the defense of Rome that the genius, valour and skill of Belisarius was exhibited perhaps to their highest degree yet. In one exciting incident, he personally sallied forth with his cavalry, only to be encompassed by a host of barbarians, who immediately set themselves to kill him. But Belisarius and his guard fought ferociously, and over a thousand Goths fell before they broke into a rout. Belisarius survived, though he was wounded.

The Goths proceeded to create their siege works around Rome. Belisarius diligently organized the defense, using a slender core of 5,000 veterans as the main force defending the walls. He built military engines to support the archers, put a chain to block the Tiber, converted and strengthened buildings and fortifications, and carefully distributed his meagre forces to man the 14 gates of the city, only seven of which were besieged by barbarian forces. On the 19th day of the siege, the Goths finally engaged in an all-out assault. Through Belisarius’ acute eye, crystal-clear vision, and intense micromanagement, they were swiftly repulsed. At the end of the day, 30,000 Goths were dead and the same number wounded. They maintained the siege, but thousands more died over the next few days as Belisarius sent out detachments to sally forth and skirmish their camps. At a point, their constant victories led to hubris and imprudence, and Belisarius suffered his first defeat, as one of his detachments were overwhelmed by the numbers of the Goths, but his reputation and morale stayed intact.

However, as the siege wore on, the populace started to feel the wearying effects of the siege. Before the siege, Belisarius had cleverly secured supply lines of grain from Sicily and Campania and evacuated all the women and children to reduce the number of mouths to feed, but the Goths had blocked the convoys and the granaries of the city started to empty. As astutely put by Gibbon,

Adversity had awakened the Romans from the dreams of grandeur and freedom, and taught them the humiliating lesson that it was of small moment to their real happiness whether the name of their master was derived from the Gothic or the Latin language.

Belisarius took more extreme steps to rally the population. Senators were dismissed, and the pope Sylverius was forcefully deposed for secretly conspiring to open the gates of the city. Belisarius asked for help from Justinian, but the emperor could only send a meagre force of 1,600 Sclavonians and Huns. However, these forces were fresh. Money to pay the troops also arrived, and Belisarius sent his secretary Procopius and then his own wife Antonina to daringly escape past the Gothic siege works and return with provisions from Italy and the East to replenish the city. Forces of Isaurians landed at Naples and Thracians at Tarentum. The relief forces and supplies, including Antonina, gathered at the mouth of the Tiber. Meanwhile, Belisarius had opened negotiations with the Goths. Through deception, the Goths became convinced that the relief force was only the vanguard of a larger army. Using this imaginary threat, a winter truce was worked out. (The Goths were also distracted by the attacks of John the Saguinary on their territories along the Eastern side of Italy.) After a siege of one year, the Goths retreated, and Belisarius’ forces sallied forth to inflict deadly losses as they went away. Vitiges at first tried to besiege Rimini, but eventually he was forced back, chased all the way to Ravenna.

Meanwhile, to the north, the Frankish kingdom under Theodebert was alarmed by the Romans’ progress and sent a force of Burgundians to relieve their Gothic friends. They managed to besiege and conquer Liguria, and destroyed Milan, which had rebelled earlier against the Goths. Theodebert continued on, conquering both Gothic and Roman cities, but his progressed was checked by an outbreak of dysentery, which wiped out a third of his army.

Belisarius consolidated his hold on Italy by conquering the remaining Gothic strongholds. However, Vitiges was was safely in Ravenna, the siege of which would be very difficult. Negotiations began. Vitiges offered Belisarius his surrender and the title of king of Italy if he would’ve abandoned the Roman forces. But Belisarius rejected any such fancies of power. Finally, Ravenna’s gates were opened, and he entered the city, setting himself to secure his presence as soon as possible. The surviving Gothic nobles and leaders were treated mercifully and respectfully, even raised to the rank of patrician and given large estates. The Italian expedition finished as a resounding success. Parts of the Western Roman empire had been restored back to their “rightful” owners.

The Character of Belisarius

There were already envious rumors at this point of Belisarius’ growing power and alleged intentions to take the throne for himself. But Belisarius’ intentions were entirely pure; he promptly returned to Constantinople with all the spoils of the Italian expedition. Gibbon extols Belisarius in both personal character and skill; he was disciplined, chaste, faithful, and extremely skilled yet humble. He refused the glories of a second triumph. To Gibbon, Belisarius’ military brilliance was all the more remarkable as it occurred during a degenerate age, unlike that of Alexander and other legendary commanders.

By the union of liberality and justice, he acquired the love of the soldiers, without alienating the affections of the people.
…he was daring without rashness, prudent without fear, slow or rapid according to the exigencies of the moment; that in the deepest distress, he was animated by real or apparent hope; but that he was modest and humble in the most prosperous fortune.

But while Belisarius’ professional success was without equal, his personal life was engulfed in unfortunate turmoil. While his wife Antonina had accompanied and shared in almost all of his military exploits, she was egregiously unfaithful, taking many lovers. Belisarius was initially completely oblivious to his wife’s unfaithfulness. But she was also very close to the empress Theodora, which prevented Belisarius from taking his revenge on her when he finally found out. Eventually, Belisarius angered Theodora by rashly speculating about the impending death of Justinian upon hearing of his illness. He was removed from his official positions and compelled to pay a fine, and was only saved from the death penalty through the intercession of his wife. As a result, Belisarius was reduced to being a slave of his own wife through the rest of his life. He was a man of the greatest skill and most upstanding character, but his political game was much weaker, and resulted in his personal downfall, despite the persistence of his professional success.

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