Gibbon, Part 9: Justinian’s Wars in the East and Consolidation of the West

The Avars and the Persian War

The Avars came from the people of the nation of the Ogors or Varchonites, originally living on the banks of the river Til. According to Gibbon’s footnotes, the Til or Tula river, which I cannot find the modern name for, is a black-colored river in the desert that flows to the rivers Orchon (Orkhon) and Selinga (Selenga) in modern-day Mongolia. Large numbers of the Ogors were defeated and slain by the Turks, and the remnant traveled along the river Volga until they reached the foot of the Caucasus Mountains, the land of the Circassians and Alani. Their leader was called the chagan (khagan). The Avars offered their services and alliances to Rome in exchange for monetary gifts. Justinian, who was 75 and had reigned for 30 years, gladly accepted their offer, and as a result the Avars terrorized and vanquished various tribes and nations in Bulgaria and Sclavonia over the next decade.

But not before long, the Turks came into Justinian’s court and asked him renounce his support of the Avars, in return for an alliance between the two kingdoms. Impressed by the Turks’ relative sophistication and swayed by the prospect of obtaining from them rich luxuries such as silk, Justinian accepted the offer. They became an ally in the Eastern Empire’s wars with Persia.

Persia itself was still ruled by the Sassanids, the same dynasty who under Sapor (Shapur) had engaged in war against Constantius, Julian, and Jovian. The ruling king was Chosroes (Khosrow) or also known as Nushirvan, who would reign for 48 years (531-579) in a government described by Gibbon as “firm, rigorous, and impartial” (Chapter XLII), and a court extremely well-versed in philosophy, science, and scholarship. Initially, Justinian purchased peace with Chosroes through a gift of 11,000 pounds of gold – a good example of the military weakness but material wealth of the Eastern Empire by this time. But alarmed by the successes of Belisarius, Chosroes put his support behind his Saracen vassal Almondar, who was involved in a conflict with Arethas of the tribe of Gassan, an a confederate of the Roman empire. Representatives from Armenia came to Chosroes’ court and voiced their common worry for Justinian’s ambition, inducing him to begin an all-out invasion of the Roman empire.

The Persian army advanced along the Euphrates, through Syria, conquering many cities along the way, before Belisarius was recalled from the West for the rescue of the empire. Starting near the famous citadel of Nisibis, he invaded Persian territory and sent out detachments under Arethas to ravage Assyria. The distraction worked. Belisarius then went down to Hierapolis in Syria to complete his repulsion of the Persian invaders. The two sides met at the Euphrates, one side encamping on each bank. Chosroes was impressed and intimidated by the simplicity and spartan discipline of Belisarius’ camp, and decided to retreat. Belisarius’ forces were immediately on their heels, but their great commander was recalled to go back to the Italian front. He was replaced by 15 generals, who were comparatively ineffective and suffered a disastrous defeat by the Persians in Armenia. The Persian war was eventually suspended through an outbreak of the plague.

The Lazic Wars

The Lazi conquered the rich kingdom of Colchos (Colchis, on the eastern coast of the Black Sea in modern-day Georgia), but were in turn conquered by the Persian Empire, who had taken over the whole of Iberia. As the Lazi converted to Christianity, they sought the favor of Constantinople again, and became allies of the Romans during the reign of Justin. However, the Lazi disliked the inferior treatment they suffered at the hands of the Roman empire and decided to seek the favor of Chosroes. Chosroes liked the prospect of using Phasis, a city in Colchis along the Black Sea, as a base for his navy, and accepted their alliance with various stipulations. Before long, the perfidious Lazi realized that they had made a mistake, and repented to Justinian, who sent a Roman army to expel the Persians from Colchis. The impregnable fortress of Petra (today known as Tsikhisdziri, and not to be confused with the Petra of Jordan) was besieged and taken by the Romans under Dagisteus and the Lazi, despite a heroic and protracted defense by a small contingent of Persians. Under the command of their great general Mermeroes, the Persians had inflicted a series of defeats on the Romans, forcing them back to Phasis. However, after Mermeroes’ death, he was replaced by the arrogant and incompetent Nacoragan, who suffered a disastrous defeat at Phasis. Gubazes, the king of the Lazi, was then assassinated by the Romans under rumors of yet another defection.

Chosroes chose to suspend the continuation of the Colchian war, “in the just persuasion that it is impossible to reduce or, at least, to hold a distant country against the wishes and efforts of its inhabitants,” a maxim that the Roman empire had successfully proven wrong in the past during the heights of its glory, but was increasingly compelled to accept, even in view of Belisarius’ successful reconquering efforts. A peace treaty of fifty years of peace was worked out, in which the Persian monarch managed to clearly establish his superiority over Justinian, extorting from them a payment of 30,000 pounds of gold per year.

Justinian also established an alliance with the Christian Abyssinian empire in Ethiopia. Under the pretext of defended their persecuted Christian brethren, they had invaded and conquered the Jewish-influenced kingdom of the Homerites in Arabia. Justinian hoped of diverting the silk trade through there and using them as allies against Persia. But the Abyssinians were incapable, and their king Abrahah suffered a decisive defeat at the gates of Mecca. The Abyssinians were then expelled from Arabia forever. Gibbon adds a note speculating that were they successful, then they might have stemmed the rise of Islam a century later.

Rebellions in Africa and the Final Defeat of the Goths

After the successful reconquest of Africa, Justinian chose to satisfy his greed by taxing the region at very high rates. Dissatisfaction started to arose, and a mutiny broke out among Roman soldiers who had married Vandal women and were denied the right to take over the former estates of Genseric’s soldiers. Most of the rebels were Arian Heruli soldiers, who had been enlisted in Belisarius’ invasion force but broke away, refusing to abandon their religion. They proclaimed their independence at Mount Aurasius in modern-day Algeria. At Carthage, the governor Solomon was overthrown in a conspiracy, and thousands of rebellious soldiers elected Stoza as their chief. Eventually, Belisarius returned to suppress the rebellion, and Stoza was defeated and forced back to the west, before returning again and being killed at Carthage. Gontharis, an Armenian prince also attempted a rebellion in Carthage with the aid of the Moors. Through the reckless conduct of Solomon’s nephews, the Moors were also provoked to attack the Roman territories. The continuous warfare and violence of these rebellions during Justinian’s reign desolated northern Africa and killed over 5 million people, according to Gibbon.

In Italy, Belisarius also could not finish the defeat of the Goths before he was recalled by Constantinople. The remaining Goths at Pavia elected Hildibald as their new king, who was shortly killed in an internal conflict and replaced by his nephew Totila. Totila began a quest to reclaim the Gothic kingdom in Italy from the Romans. The 12 generals left by Belisarius were completely incapable of stemming his progress. Through their avarice and mismanagement, in the space of three years they had turned the local population against them. In contrast, Totilla was simple, fair, and loyal, promising his protection in return for only regular taxes. Bypassing Ravenna, Rome, and Florence, Totila besieged Naples, which alerted Justinian to send a relief force. The force landed in Sicily, but the tardy decision of its commander resulted in their naval annihilation when they approached the bay of Naples. Totila’s progress continued, until he encamped at Tibur, 20 miles from Rome.

Belisarius was once again enlisted to rescue Italy. He landed in the port of Ravenna, attempted to galvanize and recruit soldiers from the local population, but few people were tempted to desert the standard of Totila. Totila’s forces proceeded to besiege and starve out Rome. The ancient city was defended by the Gothic general Bessas, who manipulated the economics of the besieged city for his own benefit. Belisarius’ forces started to sail to Rome along the river Tiber. Totila had prepared all that he could to guard the city from Belisarius’ arrival, placing the best Gothic archers on high towers at the narrowest part of the river. An additional obstacle of chains was also placed, with archers strung along the banks. But Belisarius used large planks of wood to guard his boats from the arrows, and when he arrived, fireships were sent to burn the high towers. Unfortunately, his successful advance was not balanced by the planned sally of Bessas from inside the city, and his lieutenant, stationed at the port, was also defeated. As a result, Belisarius was forced to retreat back to the port.

With Belisarius’ failure, Rome eventually surrendered. Totila’s forces sacked Rome, though they were merciful to its inhabitants. But the conqueror was prepared to destroy large parts of the city, before being prevented by Belisarius’ firm protests. He then shortly left the city to go to Lucania and Apulia. The moment that Rome was deserted, Belisarius speedily went forth and retook the city again. He inspired the citizens to return to the standard of Justinian and repaired the walls and fortifications. Totila immediately turned back from his march, but this time Belisarius was ready, defeating him three times.

Despite this victory, the remainder of Belisarius’ time in Italy was filled with several defeats, most of which were due to the incompetence of his soldiers or the orders of his superiors. He never obtained the chance for a final decisive confrontation with Totila. As put by Gibbon,

The valour of Belisarius was not chilled by age; his prudence was matured by experience; but the moral virtues of humanity and justice seem to have yielded to the hard necessity of the times.
(Chapter XLIII)

When he returned to Constantinople, a conspiracy against him and Justinian was discovered, and having endured a common danger, Belisarius was raised to the emperor’s favor once again. But after his departure, despite the best efforts of some of the generals he left there, Rome was betrayed by the Isaurians and was conquered again by Totila. Totila proceeded to reconquer all the territories of Italy, even Sicily and Sardinia and Epirus in western Greece. Alarmed, Justinian refused Totila’s overtures of peace and sought to reconquer Italy once again. An invasion force led by Liberius was defeated, and a second one was raised up under the command of Artaban and Germanus. Germanus’ past reputation as a successful commander against the Sclavonians of the Danube and rebels of Africa encouraged many veteran soldiers and the youth of Constaninople to enlist under his command; his background also attracted the help of barbarians to the cause; and the boost from the mere news of his appointment galvanized several Sicilian cities to resist Totila. But Germanus died prematurely before he was able to actually depart, and he was replaced by Narses, an eunuch who turned out to be a military genius in the mould of Belisarius.

Narses immediately demanded a sufficiently large army for the mission, which was granted. Besides the troops of Germanus, who had already started advancing to Italy, Lombards, Huns, Heruli, and Persians came under Narses’ standard, and he landed with his new army at Salona (on the western coast of modern Croatia). He crossed over to Italy, advancing to Rome as quickly as possible, hoping that the Roman people would once again desert Totila. The two forces met at the field of Tagina. Narses’ superior tactics resulted in the destruction of the Goths, in which Totila himself was also killed. He then besieged and retook Rome once again. As Narses set up a new government in the city, senators who had been banished by Totila resolved to return, but they were prevented and killed by the Goths. This marked the virtual end of the ancient institution of the Roman senate.

Teias had been elected to replace Totila, and continued the Gothic war for some time, before he was defeated and killed in a battle along the banks of the Sarnus river. The majority of the Goths were subdued, given the choice of leaving Italy or residing as faithful subjects of Justinian; a number chose to retreat to Pavia, and other holdouts existed, but the rest of Italy was steadily reconquered by the forces of Narses.

In the meantime, an army of Franks under the Alani brothers Buccelin and Lothaire invaded Italy. Narses let them through, while chasing at their heels. They advanced as far as Rhegium and Otranto at the edge of the boot of Italy, ransacking various cities along the way. Buccelin hoped to restore the Gothic kingdom, while Lothaire was controlled by simple greed. The brothers turned back and met the forces of Narses at Capua. At first, it seemed that Narses had made a wrong decision by executing a Heruli soldier who had unlawfully killed a slave. But instead, he used the incident to galvanize them for the battle. The Franks crashed into the Roman middle, but pushing them back, and this became the perfect setup for Narses to execute a double envelopment using the cavalry of the Heruli, completely destroying the enemy.

Narses proceeded to administer Italy for the next 15 years, restoring prosperity and rebuilding the region. The Franks completely abandoned their ambitions and the remaining Goths assimilated into the population. The jurisprudence of Justinian was diffused into the west.

The End of Justinian and Belisarius

In the 32nd year of Justinian’s reign, Zabergan led an army of 7,000 Bulgarians and Sclavonians on the frozen river of the Danube to the walls of Constantinople, which had just been shaken by a huge earthquake. Belisarius was called upon for the last time to defend the empire. He only had 300 veterans, but it was more than enough. Only 400 of Zabergan’s forces died, but he retreated, and Belisarius was victorious once again. Despite this success, he could not win the favor of Justinian, who had been wary for years of Belisarius’ fame and success. Worse, when the old Justinian was in an illness, Belisarius was falsely implicated in a conspiracy against him. His riches were confiscated and he was put under house arrest. Eight months before his death, his innocence was proven and he was restored back, before dying of old age. Justinian himself lived for eight more months after the death of Belisarius.

In his assessment of Justinian, Gibbon criticizes him multiple times for his ingratitude to Belisarius. Despite the great military success under his general, Justinian himself never took to the field or even traveled far from Constantinople. As aptly put, “The characters of Philip the Second and of Justinian are distinguished by the cold ambition which delights in war and declines the dangers of the field.” At the same time, his reign exhibited surprising openness for buying the allegiance of neighbors and enemies instead of conquering them the old-fashioned Roman way, as we have seen in the case of the Persians. Despite Rome’s resurgence, Justinian’s empire was no longer the conqueror of the world. Otherwise Persia would have never dared to strut its extravagance and declared their superiority during their peace negotiations.

Gibbon approves of the emperor’s chastity, temperance, and industriousness, but chastises his superstitiousness, vanity, and love for the tyrannical Theodora, who abused her power. An example of his vanity was his erection of a large statue of him on horseback, which displaced that of Theodosius in the Hagia Sophia.

The love of fame was deeply implanted in his breast, but he condescended to the poor ambition of titles, honours, and contemporary praise; and, while he laboured to fix the admiration, he forfeited the esteem and affection, of the Romans.

Justinian’s Jurisprudence

In Chapter 44, Gibbon narrates the progress of Roman jurisprudence since the time of the Republic, culminating in the reforms of Justinian. To put a long story short, over the years, Rome developed a growing number of codified laws, starting with the Twelve Tables created by the Decemvirs. These were supplanted by edicts by specially appointed magistrates. Over time, the edicts diverged further and further from the inflexible and obsolete Tables, before emperor Hadrian introduced the “perpetual edict”, which was basically ruling by a series of free decrees. This divested Rome from the Tables entirely, and the law became entirely dependent on the will of the emperor. The personal edicts of the emperors also multiplied over the years, until they were codified more formally in the Gregorian, Hermogenian, and Theodosian codes. During the reign of Justinian, he appointed a committee of lawyers to shorten, reformulate, revise, and update the edicts, laws, and codes that had accumulated since the time of Hadrian. This was finished in 14 months, and published all over the empire as the Code of Justinian. After this, in only three years, the number of statues was reduced by a factor of 20 in a summary published as the Pandects or Digest of Justinian. The Institutes was also published as the standard for civil jurisprudence.

Among the most important innovations of Justinian’s new laws was the abolishment of distinctions of ranks between persons, such as patrician versus plebian. The only inferior ranks were that of slave and freedmen.

In the decline of the Roman empire, the proud distinctions of the republic were gradually abolished, and the reason or instinct of Justinian completed the simple form of an absolute monarchy.
(Chapter XLIV)

The absolute power of the Roman father, infamous throughout the times of the Roman Republic, was limited by the judgement of a judge. The inheritance of children was secured; a parent could no longer arbitrarily disinherit their children and give away wealth to a stranger. Usury was strictly regulated, though permitted. During the rise of Christian emperors, laws based on Christian morality had gradually become more prominent. But during Justinian’s time, some of these, such as the penalty for adultery were relaxed. (On the other hand, homosexuality was strongly condemned and punished.) Overall, Gibbon judges Justinian’s laws as uniting liberty and servitude; “…the Romans were oppressed at the same time by the multiplicity of their laws and the arbitrary will of their master.”


2 thoughts on “Gibbon, Part 9: Justinian’s Wars in the East and Consolidation of the West”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *