The title of my last post included dates representing the time interval for the setup of the eastern empire and its separation from the west. Telling the story of the Byzantine Empire is such a large project, it demands that we divide it up into time intervals and focus on the highlights within each of them. The empire expanded and contracted over time based on its success at keeping the provinces in line and its ability to defeat those who would try and destroy it. Each period demonstrates a micro view through the events of the time, but also a macro view of the changing culture with respect to language, religion, and culture. Remember that the Byzantine Empire was an “empire” only by the loosest definition and never achieved status as a unified culture the way modern societies have.
When the Byzantine emperor Anastasius died suddenly in 518 AD with no heir, the imperial guard named the 68 year old Justin as the new emperor. Justin had an adopted son Peter, who also went by the name Justinian, a man was destined for greatness. Justin inherited two projects: the schism between the eastern empire and the papacy and a rebellion against the empire by Vitalian. He fixed both by mending fences with the pope and inviting Vitalian to serve as his master of horse to keep an eye on him. But his leadership skills were wanting so it was not long before Justinian began to accumulate power. He served as consul in 521 AD and was fully in charge at the time of Justin’s death in 527.
Justinian was an all-star in Byzantine history based on his dizzying list of projects and accomplishments. They would later have a far reaching impact on the empire and Western Europe. He started by shoring up the eastern army to protect the empire from the Persians. Then he appointed a council or jurists to create an official book of laws that would govern the empire. This effort produced the Justinian code which became the standard for European law for centuries to come.
Next, Justinian looked toward using his army to protect and expand the empire. He defeated the Persians and took Crimea. He defeated the Slavs and Bulgars in 530, making the Danube basin secure again. Justinian signed a peace treaty with the Persians freeing his up his eastern army to help attack the west. In 532, he planned an attack against the African vandals, but before he could depart, there was a coup against him in Constantinople which had to be put down. In 533, his general, Belisarius, defeated the Vandals and took Carthage. Belisarius also secured Sardinia, Corsica, and Gibraltar. This was the extension of the Roman Empire in reverse – taking back land that was part of the western empire for so many centuries.
But the prize – Italy – was still out there to be taken. How wonderful it would be to have Italy as part of the empire again, Justinian mused. Soon, he directed his two best generals to attack Dalmatia and Sicily -- both were taken. A nervous Ostrogoth king than made a secret pact to surrender Italy to Justinian’s troops. The pact was later rescinded, but the army of the east still prevailed at securing the Italian peninsula.
The king of Persia, seeing Justinian’s eyes turned west, decided to attack the Byzantines. Syria and Armenia were invaded and it took until 541 to end that conflict. That same year, the plague made its first appearance in southern Europe. By the spring of 542 it had spread to all seaports in the eastern Mediterranean, and there were 230,000 deaths in Constantinople alone. Justinian contracted the plague and became seriously ill, but survived.
The period of 542-548 saw wars, famine, and the plague as main actors in the story of the empire of the east. Then starting in 550, the emperor moved his army westward fortifying his control of Italy and conquering southern Spain. It took him another five years to stabilize the new western territories and then a calm period followed, only to be interrupted in by the return of the plague in 558. Then, more wars in the east ensued until 562, when the swords were finally still.
Justinian died in 565 at the age of 83, after a long a successful reign. The great frustration of his final years was his inability to unite the two warring Christian factions – Chalcedons and Monophysites -- and settle their argument over the divine nature of Jesus of Nazareth.
Justinian was followed by Justin II, Tiberius, Maurice, and Phocas during the period ending in 610. Justin, as the immediate successor, tried too hard to be Justinian and had fewer gifts of leadership to apply to the task. He mostly ignored the new western territories, causing them to come under attack. He spent his time focused on Persia and when an attack on them failed in 573, his mind gave way, and it was arranged to have the leading general Tiberius named as successor. Tiberius was a better military man than administrator so isn’t surprising that he decided the army was underpaid and used money from the treasury to win them over. Like his predecessor, he ignored the west because a war with Persia loomed on the horizon. That war was won by the general Maurice in 582, but Tiberius died soon after.
Before his death, Tiberius named Maurice emperor. The general looked at the empty treasury that resulted from Tiberius’ generosity and tried to refill it by periodically eliminated the army’s compensation. That generated at least two revolts, one of which led to his assassination in 602. Maurice was able to maintain stability during his reign as a result of victories over the Avars in the Balkans and the Persians in Armenia and Mesopotamia, but with his death became the first eastern emperor to lose his crown since the time of Constantine.
Phocas is to be given some credit for remaining in power for eight years. He executed Maurice and his family to try and legitimize his power but lived in an unlikely time. Wars with Persia continued, the plague returned, and the cut off of grain shipments caused a famine in the empire. When the people’s level of pain and disruption grew intolerable, the general Hericlius started a revolt, captured Phocas, and accused him of ruining the empire. As he was about to be beheaded, Phocas wished him better luck during his reign.
The Byzantine Empire during this period was greatly divided. The recovered provinces in the Italian Peninsula and Spain were distant, Latin speaking, and hard to manage, while the east maintained a strong army and spoke mostly Greek. The Catholic Church remained divided over the nature of Jesus and the power of the pope, but did manage to convert the empire’s remaining pagans and accumulate great wealth and authority.
When paganism was suppressed, it took with it all the contributions of the Greeks, including their science, philosophy, and literature, so what remained was defined by a Catholic view of the world.
The Byzantine Empire was larger in 610 than when the west fell, but it was also less stable. The skills of the emperors had been variable, the treasury often empty, and wars commonplace. Whether the empire could survive another century was a question mark.
Key words for this period: EXPANSION TO THE WEST, JUSTINIAN, PLAGUES, A DIVIDED CHURCH, CONTINUOUS WARS.