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On the opposite side, some see his foreign policy as a failure given that the Byzantines were not able to hold their newly conquered territories for long, and the focus of reconquering in the West left the eastern border with the Sasanian Empire and the eventual Arab caliphate open for invasion. Of course, both of these views have supporting evidence for them, but I will try to stress the importance of not falling into the cushion of historical hindsight. My argument will begin with the historical framing of the political situation and the situation of the Byzantine army when Justinian officially ascends to the throne in AD.

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The political situation of the Byzantine Empire at this time was stable if foreboding. To the eastern border lie the mighty Sassanian Empire that had risen during the mid-3rd century during the crisis period and remained a threat to the wealthy cities in the eastern provinces. North Africa and southern Spain was home to the kingdom of the Vandals, Italy was now ruled by the Ostrogoth Kingdom, Gaul was controlled by the Franks, and Britannia was conquered by the Saxons.

The Sassanian Empire was the biggest threat for a potential invasion of Byzantine territory, and the Roman armies were unsuccessful in trying to overcome them in the past. Therefore, the more logical targets for conquest would be the newly established kingdoms in the old western Roman empire as they are less established than the Sassanian Persians. Virtually ever since the rule of Emperor Hadrian the Roman military adopted a defensive posture and was more concerned with border protection than expansion.

During the crisis of the 3rd century, the Roman Empire was being invaded by Germanic coalitions, such as the Goths, and the Sasanian Persian empire. With the new defensive military system, the Roman Legions were reduced from the 5, troops, with a similar number of auxilia, into a much smaller and mobile unit of 1, soldiers.

Underwood 4 The function of the new military divisions was as follows the limitanei were the frontier defense with the primary purpose of holding off invasions while also operating as border control force. The comitatenses worked as the mobile field army, mainly cavalry but not entirely; that could respond to any breaks in the limitanei defensive line. Upon his ascension, Justinian inherited five armies of comitatenses with each commanded by a magister militum Master of soldiers.

Two of the five comitatenses armies were stationed in Constantinople, two were stationed in Illyricum and Thrace, and one was stationed in Antioch. The foederati have been used in the Roman Army before but with the elimination of the limitanei by Justinian; the foederati become a more integral force in the defense of the Byzantine Empire, in particular with the defense of a possible invasion of the Arabian Peninsula. Also, with the removal of the limitanei, Justinian now has more money to fund his wars of expansion. Now with his updated Byzantine military Justinian prepares to launch his first war of expansion, the war against the Vandal Kingdom but before Justinian begins his invasion he has to deal with his greatest threat; the Sasanian Empire.

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This period was a time when the Roman Empire dealt with civil war, economic collapse, foreign invasions, and massive depopulation due to starvation and plague. However, the King of Palmyra Odaenathus was able to drive Shapur back and defend the province of Syria. After Aurelian re- integrates the Palmyrene Empire into the Roman Empire, the eastern borders were again opened up to conflict. The Roman Emperor Carus was able to launch a major invasion into the Sasanian territory and even sack the capital Ctesiphon.


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These wars between Sasanian Persian and the Roman Empire cemented the status between the two empires as being hostile towards each other. However, neither nor the Romans or Sasanians could deliver a decisive blow against each other, and the Sasanian Empire and the Roman Empire would continue to fight off and on wars between each other continuing up to the reign of Justinian.

Chosroes price of peace for Justinian was centuries8 of gold that the Byzantine Empire had to pay the Sasanians for peace.

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If anyone were to say, O king, putting it all in a word, that you have given up your kingdom and all your men to Justinian, he would be speaking correctly…if he is able to crush the Goths utterly, he will march against the Persians with 7 G. Underwood 7 us and those he has already enslaved, neither considering the name of friendship nor respecting any of his sworn promises. The peace that Justinian achieved with the Sasanian Empire, while short lived, allowed Justinian to focus his foreign policy on his wars of expansion in the west.

The first of these wars Justinian would launch in his expansionist foreign policy would be of the Vandal Kingdom. Following the failed attack and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the Byzantine Empire enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with the Vandal Kingdom. Underwood 9 conquering the Ostrogoths.


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Of course the jewel of reconquering the Roman Empire for Justinian would be the recapturing of Italy and the city of Rome itself. From the onset this was going to be a challenging task as Italy was now home to the newly formed Ostrogoth Kingdom and, as Hannibal Barca discovered in the Second Punic War, conquering Italy is a very challenging military endeavor. A significant difference between the Ostrogoth Kingdom and the Vandal Kingdom is that the Ostrogoths, under King Theoderic, had been sent to Italy in by emperor Zeno to throw over the rule of Odovacer.

Justinian I, 527-565: Wars

However, Justinian and Belisarius were very optimistic for the campaign because of the success and speed of the campaign against the Vandals. The siege of Naples lasted a relatively short time when compared to contemporary siege warfare at the time, and Belisarius was able to take Naples in AD. Underwood 10 As the Byzantine army departed Naples it split into two forces, one destined for Rome under Belisarius which he would besiege Rome and capture it in AD. And the other intended to head north of Rome, under Konstantianos, to Tuscany to take the city of Ravenna.

Procopius accounts for this: Belisarius took over the entire perimeter of Rome as far as the river Tiber, and strengthened it. When he thought his preparations were complete, he gave to Konstantianos a large number of his guardsmen together with many spearmen, including the Massagetai Zarter, Chorsomanos, and Aischmanos, and army besides, commanding him to go into Tuscany and win over towns there. It seemed the Byzantine armies were able to complete the re-conquest of Italy with the capture of the Ostrogoth capital of Ravenna Figure 2.

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Unfortunately, for Justinian the Sasanian launched an invasion in AD and diverted resources from the Gothic campaign to counteract the Sasanian threat. Thus ending what would be the first phase of wars in Gothic Italy. Following the diverting of men and resources to halt the Sasanian onslaught the Goths and Franks launched a counter-offensive against the Byzantine forces in Italy. This second phase of the Gothic Wars was a much longer and more challenging affair in comparison to the first stage when it seemed that Belisarius, Narses, Alexandros, Ioannes, and Konstantianos had defeated the Goths in a four-year conflict.

The second phase of the Gothic campaign began in AD with an Ostrogoth counter attack under the Ostrogoths newly elevated king Totila A little later he entered Tuscany and made trial of the places there, but no one was willing to yield to him, so he crossed the Tiber and, carefully avoiding the territory of Rome, advanced 19 Procopius, The Wars of Justinian, Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, , Underwood 11 quickly into Campania and Samnium. During this period of bogged down war, Procopius gives an excellent synopsis of the Byzantine situation: At this point in the war, the barbarians became unquestionably masters of the whole west.

Though the Romans had been first decisively victorious in the Gothic War, as I have previously recounted, the result for them was that they had not only spent and lives in huge amounts and to no advantage, but they had also lost Italy besides, and had to look on while practically all of Illyria and Thrace were being ravaged and destroyed in confusion by the barbarians, who were now their neighbors. Under his expansionist policy, the Byzantine Empire was able to recapture a respectable portion of the land lost during the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

The war against the Vandals was a brilliantly calculated war that was a massive success for the Byzantines in the amount of land conquered and the relative low cost. The war against the Ostrogoth Kingdom was, initially, very successful. But after Chosroes launched an invasion against the Byzantine Empire the Gothic campaign became bogged down in a second phase that became a war of attrition between the Byzantines and Goths.

The invasion of Byzantine territory required Justinian to pull the Byzantine general Belisarius and send him with an army to counter-attack the Persian forces. The Persian forces were propelled but not before they were able to sack the wealthy eastern city, Antioch. To compile this set back a great plague sweep through the Byzantine and Sasanian Empire in AD that halted the advances of both armies.

The rapid conquest of Africa had encouraged the emperor, and he sent Belisarius with a small force to attack Sicily, which fell quickly to the Romans in CE. By CE, after a series of victories and defeats against the Goths and their allies in Italy as well as in Dalmatia modern Croatia , Italy was secured for the Romans.

Foreign policy and wars

However, this was not the end of the Gothic War. Though much of Italy was under Roman control, some towns and cities such as Verona remained under Gothic influence. Though soundly defeated, the remainder of the Gothic regime found a new leader in Totila. In the autumn of CE, he was proclaimed king, soon after leading a reconquest of Italy. Though at the head of a relatively small force, Totila was helped in his goals by several problems in the Roman Empire.

Around the same time, new hostilities opened between Justinian and the Sassanian Empire, which meant that resources had to be split between East and West. An outbreak of plague in CE later called the Justinianic Plague crippled the empire's ability to respond. Totila thus managed to defeat the first Roman counter-attacks and captured Naples by siege in CE.

Rome itself changed hands three times in quick succession, ending up in CE in the hands of Totila. Belisarius had attempted to defeat Totila on several occasions prior to this but was hampered by lack of supplies and support from Justinian. A new campaign was undertaken by Justinian's nephew Germanus Justinus, but he died in CE, succeeded by the general Narses. Justinian's reign lasted almost 40 years, but it was not always popular.


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In CE Julianus ben Sabar, a messianic figure in Palestine , led a revolt of the Samaritan people against the empire. In CE Constantinople was gripped by civil discontent; the Nika riots lasted a week, resulted in the deaths of thousands of citizens, and left much of the monumental centre of the city in ruins. A second Samaritan revolt in CE, more significant and possibly involving elements of the Jewish population of Palestine, was not quelled until after the death of Justinian.

Early on in his reign, Justinian commissioned a legal expert in his court, Tribonian, to gather together numerous legal notes, commentaries, and laws of the Roman legal system into a single text which would hold the force of law : this was the Codex Iustinianus. In CE the first edition was published, followed in CE by a revised second edition which unlike the first, survives today. The text is divided into titles relating to specific aspects of the law, and was composed in Latin. It contained laws on heresy, orthodoxy and paganism as well.

Justinian is unique among Roman emperors in that his life was recorded in two separate sources by the same author. Procopius of Caesarea , who was a legal secretary to General Belisarius, composed De Bellis "On the Wars [of Justinian]" between and CE, which records the successes and some failures of the military campaign the emperor launched. He also composed De Aedificiis "On the buildings [of Justinian]" between and CE, a work describing in great detail the many building projects the emperor undertook during his reign. Procopius also composed the Anecdota translated as "Secret History", less often as "Unpublished Things" between and CE that claims to reveal the reality of life in the imperial court.

It details the alleged sexual activities of the Empress Theodora , the weak determination of the emperor, and the power that women held in the imperial court. Considering the very negative tone of the text, it is unclear if Procopius intended the work to portray a satirical take on life at court or a truer account of imperial life than is portrayed in the De Bellis or De Aedificiis.

What is almost certain is that the Anecdota reveals that Procopius had lost faith in the regime of Justinian, in contrast to the positive feelings expressed in his earlier works. Justinian is credited as one of the greatest emperors in late Roman and Byzantine history. His achievements in the fields of art, architecture , legal reform, and conquest are remarkable by the standards of any leader in history. The works of Procopius have contributed greatly to this understanding as well as criticisms of his regime. His Christian faith was evident in all the spheres of his enterprise, marking a step in the transition of emperors from leaders in war and politics to leaders of faith and patronage as well.

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication. We're a small non-profit organisation run by a handful of volunteers. Become a Member. Wyeth, W. Justinian I. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Wyeth, Will. Last modified September 28, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Sep This license lets others remix, tweak, and build upon this content non-commercially, as long as they credit the author and license their new creations under the identical terms.