Byzantine Emperor Justinian was the bold architect of a revitalized Byzantine Empire that would leave a lasting legacy for Western Civilization. As much of Europe entered the Dark Ages, Justinian’s vision of a restored Roman Empire would reverse the decline of the Byzantine Empire and lay a firm foundation that would allow the Byzantine Empire to survive for centuries to come.
Justinian, whose full name was Flavius Anicius Julianus Justinianus, was born around 483 AD at Tauresium in Illyricum in the Balkans of present-day central Europe. He was the nephew of Byzantine Emperor Justin, the son of Justin’s sister Vigilantia (Fortescue).
Justinian’s uncle, Justin, was the Byzantine Emperor from 518 until his death in 527. As a young man, Justin had left his home province of Dacia, going to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople to seek his fortune. He eventually rose to the position of commander of the “excubitors”, the handpicked 300-soldier guard of the Byzantine Emperor. When he was selected to succeed Emperor Anastasius, he was an old man, weak in body and mind. He took the office reluctantly, writing to Pope Hormisdas in Rome, announcing his elevation to the Emperor’s throne and complaining he had been chosen against his will (Evans).
Justin handed over much of the duties of governing the Empire to his wife, Lupicina, and his nephew, Justinian. This power sharing arrangement would help to prepare Justinian to succeed him. Justinian worked hard and rose in position in his uncle’s government. He was proclaimed consul in 521, and rose to the post of general-in-chief of the Byzantine military in April, 527. In August of the same year Justin died, and Justinian became Emperor (Fortescue).
In the early 300’s, Roman Emperor Constantine, the first Christian Roman Emperor, recognized the growing wealth and cultural strength of the eastern provinces of the Roman Empire and decided to relocate the capital of his Empire to the East (Norwich 3). Rome would become the capital of the Empire’s western territories, while the city of Byzantium (present-day Istanbul in modern-day Turkey) was renamed Constantinople and made the new capital of the Roman Empire (Bury 69).
From its peak under the Roman Emperors Constantine and Diocletian in the 300’s, Rome importance in the Empire began to shrink. The commercial and cultural growth of the provinces in Greece and the Near East had eclipsed the once-robust culture of Rome, where growing trade with the Far East was creating new wealth. The Christian emperors felt more at home in the East, where Christianity, the new official religion of the Roman Empire, was stronger and closer to its roots in Palestine, rather than in the more-pagan West (Norwich 11).
Forced from their homelands in Central and Eastern Europe by the savagery of the invading Huns, Germanic barbarian tribes invaded the western territories of the Empire. Under constant attack, the western Empire began to shrink, losing centuries worth of territorial gains in Britain, Gaul, Spain, and North Africa to the barbarian tribes, while the eastern territories remained strong, vital and secure. In 378, they dealt the Roman Empire a major blow at the Battle of Adrianople (now Edirne in modern-day European Turkey), near Constantinople. In this battle, considered to be Rome’s largest battlefield defeat, Valens, the Roman Emperor, was killed fighting the Ostrogoths and Visigoths (Koeller).
The Roman Emperor Theodosius completed the growing split between the shrinking western territories and the vital, prosperous and more secure territories in the East. His will divided the Roman Empire upon his death in 395, giving the East to his elder son, Arcadius, and the West to his younger son, Honorius (Norwich 4).
The Western Empire came to an end in 476, when the Germanic King, Odoacer, deposed Romulus Augustus, the last Western Emperor (Norwich 53). After the fall of Rome, the Western Empire was fully under the control of the invading Germanic tribes and the Eastern Roman Empire now stood alone.
Justinian had dreamed of restoring the Roman Empire in Europe (Norwich 68). In order to accomplish his goal, Justinian was faced with the difficult task of retaking the Western provinces once controlled by Rome. Much of the Western Roman Empire had fallen into the hands of four groups of Germanic barbarian tribes: the Vandals, who had conquered the North African Roman territories; the Ostrogoths, who had taken control of the Italian peninsula, including Rome itself; the Franks, who controlled most of modern-day France; and the Visigoths, who held the Spanish peninsula (Fortescue).
Justinian’s first obstacle to conquest in the West lay in ending centuries of warfare with the Persian Empire. The two empires were longtime rival “superpowers” in the Middle East and had battled regularly over territory until 363, when the Emperor Julian died of wounds inflicted in battle with the Persians. After the death of Julius, Jovian, the commander of the Imperial Guard, succeeded Julius, withdrew the Roman armies and reached a peace agreement with the Persian Empire. Jovian’s surrender of territory and fortresses to the Persian Empire, while costly to the Roman Empire, bought over a century of peace with the Persians (Norwich 27).
During the 400’s, both the Romans and Persians struggled to cope with invasions of their Empires from new, outside groups, and avoided conflict with each other until 502, when the old rivalry with the Persians re-ignited. The Byzantines and Persians would fight each other from 502 to 505, and again, from 527 to 532. This round of renewed warfare between the rival empires would end when the Byzantines fought the Persians to a standstill and forced them to accept a peace agreement (Whittow 41).
Taking advantage of peace in the East, Justinian appointed General Belisarius, who had exemplified himself in battle against the Persian Empire, to lead an army and fleet to the West to retake the western Roman provinces (Fortescue). In 533, Belisarius’ army’s first stop was North Africa. The Byzantines quickly smashed the Vandals, conquering the North African provinces they had taken from Rome and sending their king, Gelimer, along with his family, back to Constantinople as a prisoner (Norwich 68). Two years later, in 535, Belisarius captured Sicily without a fight, and then sailed for Italy (Norwich 69).
The Ostrogoths had taken control of the Italian peninsula with Odoacer’s ouster of Romulus Augustus. Theodoric had ousted Odoacer with the backing of Byzantine Emperor Zeno (Norwich 54). After taking power of the Ostrogoth kingdom, Theodoric had merged many aspects of Roman government into his own rule. However, his Ostrogoths were Arian Christians, a “cult” in the eyes of Roman Church doctrine (Loffler). His death in August 525 left his daughter as his only descendent, which left no clear successor to his throne. This uncertain line of succession, coupled with a strained relationship with the Church in Rome, opened the door to a Byzantine invasion of the Italian peninsula (Norwich 68).
It would take almost two years, but at long last, in December 536, Belisarius’ army entered the gates of Rome (Norwich 69). The Ostrogoths would soon return to Rome in overwhelming numbers, forcing Belisarius and his army to remain under siege in the city until reinforcements arrived in 538. It would take much longer to defeat the Ostrogoth nation, and Rome, as well as much of the Italian peninsula, would change hands several times (Fortescue). The war with the Ostrogoths would continue until 552, when the Byzantine Army would deal the Ostrogoths a crushing defeat at the Battle of Mon Lactarius (Bury 273).
As the war for Italy was winding down, civil war amongst the Visigoths in Spain opened the door in 550 to Byzantine conquest. Athanagild, a Visigoth leader battling King Agilia for the Visigoth throne, invited Justinian to send a fleet and army to southern Spain in 550 to aid his rebellion. Under the command of Liberius, the Byzantine army marched into Spain and took control of southern Roman provinces that had fallen to the Visigoth invaders almost two centuries earlier. The civil war would continue until 554, when Athanagild would prevail, and take the Visigothic throne. With the war over, the Byzantines were asked to leave, but refused and remained in control in these provinces (Bury 287).
In the latter years of Justinian’s reign, the long struggles in both East and West to regain lost Roman territories were bearing fruit. In the East, peace with the Persians ended when a Persian army sacked of the Byzantine provincial capital of Antioch in 540 (Norwich 74). A peace treaty in 562 would end the war and stabilize Byzantine frontiers in the Middle East and Asia Minor (Whittow 41). In the same year, peace was being reached in the West, when Byzantine General Narses sent the keys of the Italian cities of Verona and Brixia to Justinian, symbolizing the fall of the last strongholds of the Ostrogoths (Bury 281). With this, the Ostrogoths ceased to exist as a people (Loffler).
With these conquests, the Byzantine Empire had reclaimed much of the territory that had been under the control of the Roman Empire. In the West, the Mediterranean Sea was once more the Roman “lake” as it had been for centuries before the fall of Rome. In the East, the Persian Empire was held back from the Black Sea, thus blocked from gaining open-water access to the heart of the Byzantine Empire (Bury 313). With these gains, the Byzantine Empire now reached from the Mesopotamia to Gibraltar, and had reclaimed the role once held by the Roman Empire as the largest and most powerful entity in both Europe and the Middle East (Whittow 38).