War and Empire in the Age of Justinian
Oxford University Press, New York, 2018, 408 pages
Book Review published on: October 12, 2018
The collapse of the Roman Empire in 476 AD was not the end of the story. Fifty-one years later, Byzantine Emperor Justinian would embark on an overarching plan to reconquer the western part of the Roman Empire, and by 555 AD, he would reconquer much of the western Mediterranean coast. Justinian went beyond reconquering the Roman Empire; he commissioned the rewriting and codification of Roman law as part of legal reform, Corpus Juris Civilis (Body of Civil Law), and began a massive building program that included the Hagia Sophia in modern day Istanbul. In Rome Resurgent, historian and author Peter Heather reevaluates the reign of Justinian in providing a comprehensive assessment of the emperor and his accomplishments in the context of his time. Heather relies heavily on primary sources to provide a fascinating window on the workings of the Roman, and later, the Byzantine Empire.
Rome Resurgent begins with an overview of the Byzantine Empire inherited by Justinian. The empire was still coming to terms with the loss of the western half of its territory, which was caused by major events such as the Visigoth army sacking Rome in 410 AD, Vandals occupying Carthage in Africa, and the Huns invading central Europe and Italy. As a result, the Byzantine Empire, or Eastern Roman Empire, transformed itself into a continuation of the Roman Empire with a capital in Constantinople. Orientation toward Greek culture and Orthodox Christianity distinguished it from the earlier Roman Empire.
Heather relies heavily on Procopius, who was a historian, eye witness, and participant in Justinian’s empire. Procopius is interesting given that he was an avid supporter of Justinian and the Roman general Flavius Belisarius in his renowned work, The Wars of Justinian. Procopius’s disillusionment with Justinian; his wife, Empress Theodora; and Belisarius would be reflected in his later work, Secret History. Procopius’s Buildings captured Justinian’s building program to include a statue of himself and over thirty churches, including the Hagia Sophia.
As the Roman Empire grew, so did the cost to maintain it. Heather informs us that the classic Roman legion of the early empire numbered about five thousand soldiers organized into ten cohorts. Each were commanded by a centurion, with more or less the same number of noncitizen auxiliary troopers organized in supporting infantry and cavalry cohorts. The number of legions slowly increased from the time of Augustus until the third century, when they reached a grand total of thirty-three legions. The number of soldiers reached around 350,000; they were distributed throughout the empire’s vast frontiers in northern Britain, the Rhine and Danube rivers in central Europe, Mesopotamia and Armenia, and the desert fringes of Egypt to Morocco.
Heather challenges an assumption of many modern historians that Justinian had a grand strategy in reclaiming the glory of the Roman Empire. He asserts Justinian’s motivation reflected a mixture of the demands of internal political agendas and immediate opportunism. Justinian found himself in a catastrophic political mess following failure in the Persian Wars and the destruction of central Constantinople in the Nika Revolt. As a result, Justinian dispatched Belisarius on a military campaign to exploit dissentions within the Vandal kingdom in hope of restoring lost political capital.
Heather challenges the perception of many modern historians that Justinian’s policy of western expansion was responsible for undermining the overall strategic security of the empire. Heather claims that it was the highly aggressive decision–making and overly ambitious responses of Justin II, Maurice, and Chosroes II that plunged the Roman Empire and Persia into a fifty-year, full-scale conflict that led to Constantinople’s eventual demotion to regional power status. Within six days of Justinian’s death, his successor, Justin II, told the ambassadors of the Avars that there would be no more diplomatic presents. Flavius Cresconius Corippus’s treatment of this event made it clear that Justin II was making the new regime even tougher on barbarians than his predecessor.
The strengths of Rome Resurgent are its primary sources, its writing style, and the illustrations and maps throughout the book, which provide context for the reader; Heather also includes a glossary and timeline. Rome Resurgent makes a great addition to Heather’s previous works on the Roman Empire. It is highly recommended for scholars and students interested in the Roman world.
Book Review written by: Jesse McIntyre III, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas