===================Justinianus I ~ Renovatio Imperii Romanorum (AD 527 – 565)
While the Western Roman Empire collapsed, its eastern counterpart held out well enough. Several factors contributed to this. Firstly, the east had always enjoyed a greater degree of urbanisation in comparison to the west, with access to far-reaching trade networks and circulation of currency. Secondly, the imperial government in the east outclassed the west in terms of efficiency because it consisted mainly of people of lower social status – people who thus owed much of their fortune directly to the emperor – as opposed to the west’s ancient senatorial nobility. This allowed the eastern emperors to exert a much tighter control over state affairs. In the western empire, corrupt senators sabotaged the emperor wherever possible, monopolising key positions in the central government but refusing to work for it or pay taxes and acting as de facto
independent magnates within their personal domains. The eastern empire hardly suffered such internal weakness and could act far more decisively than its western counterpart, using its versatile economy to build up a huge treasury which it could then use to buy off invaders and hire Germanic mercenaries. This military barbarisation was halted in time and by the end of the fifth century, the empire had rebuilt its armies with Roman recruits from Asia Minor. Lastly, the excellent position and defences of Constantinople – the New Rome – allowed the eastern empire to hold on to its heartlands. In the west, little or no comparable accomplishments were made.
Although the Eastern Roman Empire remained intact, it also underwent significant changes. The Christianisation of its entire society ultimately led to the end of many things characterising the ancient identity of the Roman Empire: amphitheatres, public bathhouses, pagan temples and gymnasia were shut down; churches, abbeys and monasteries rose up in both the cities and the countryside; the importance of ascetic ideals rose dramatically, leading to a narrow-minded view on marriage and sexuality, a glorification of virginity and celibacy and the creation of a new monastic class.
The empire had nevertheless changed little from the days of Diocletianus and Constantinus on a political level. Until far into the sixth century, its administration continued to be based on prefectures, dioceses, provinces and the distinction between the imperial government’s military and civil branches. More importantly, the ideological attitude of Constantinople differed not one bit from that of Rome in its heydays: only the Roman Empire had any right to exist, there could be no empire besides that of the Romans. At the imperial court of Constantinople, the fall of the western empire to an ‘inferior’ barbarian rabble was therefore not really considered a defeat but a temporary setback which could and would be fixed. As the eastern empire recovered from the troubles of the fifth century, it began to propagate the restoration of the imperial Roman territory and dignity – Renovatio Imperii Romanorum
. Boasts of this magnitude were nothing new to the Romans, but the propagandists of Constantinople now introduced a new element: religion. After all, the empire had officially converted to Christianity, which claimed to be the ‘one true faith’. There could be no doubt that a Christian Roman emperor was God’s chosen representative on earth. As such, it was his holy duty to guarantee the religious unity of the empire and spread the Christian faith to every corner of the civilised world. The Germanic tribes in the west were largely Christian but adhered to Arianism, which the Church had condemned as heresy. In the eyes of Constantinople, the western barbarians were thus not only usurpers of Rome’s legacy but also dangerous heretics, an unforgivable insult to both the empire and God.
The man who would lead the Romans in the final attempt at restoring the supreme power of their empire was Justinianus I the Great, who rose to the imperial throne in AD 527. The Romans now lost no more time in devising plans to realise the Renovatio Imperii Romanorum
. Four goals were to be fulfilled: the reconquest of the lost western territories, the purification and codification of Roman law, the establishment of religious unity and a military-first economy. Ambition had been redefined.
Justinianus knew the upcoming wars of reconquest would be a risky endeavour. To prevent a two-front war, the empire first fought its Sassanid nemesis in the east to a standstill in the Iberian War and subsequently concluded an ‘Eternal Peace’ (AD 532). Soon after, the armies of Constantinople swept westwards and invaded the Vandal Kingdom in Northern Africa (AD 533). The Romans made rapid progress and smashed the Vandals at the Battles of Ad Decimum and Tricamarum, reclaiming Africa and avenging the Vandal destruction of Rome in AD 455. Following their triumph in Africa, the Roman armies launched the invasion of Ostrogothic Italy (AD 535). Stubborn resistance inflicted several defeats upon the Romans and caused the war to drag on for nearly twenty years until a series of decisive Roman victories destroyed Ostrogothic power, regaining Constantinople the ancient Roman heartland (AD 554). However, the Ostrogoths had convinced the Sassanids to renew the war in the east (AD 542), despite the ‘Eternal Peace’. Constantinople ended up fighting no less than four wars at the same time, invading the Iberian peninsula in AD 552 while fighting the Ostrogoths in Italy, the Berber tribes in Africa and the Sassanids in the east. Though the Romans reconquered southern Iberia, were victorious in Italy, held out in Africa and fought the Sassanids to a new status quo, the ultimate goal of reclaiming the lost western empire proved too ambitious to accomplish. Three years after the death of Justinianus in AD 565, the Langobard invasion of the Italian peninsula undid much of Constantinople’s hard-fought reconquests, though the empire held on to key Italian regions, including the two ancient imperial abodes of Rome and Ravenna. In retrospect, the final Roman attempt at reconquering the west can be considered a short-lived pyrrhic victory at best, especially in the long run.
Far more successful was the second goal of the renovatio
-policy, the purification and codification of Roman law, which was initiated by Justinianus shortly after his ascension to the throne. Law and justice were no longer vested in ‘the people of Rome’, represented by the senate, but the deified emperor. The new Corpus Iuris Civilis
thus presented the emperor as the beating heart of Roman legislation and restructured Rome’s centuries-old traditions of law and justice. However, the Corpus
would remain an inefficient instrument for a long time because fewer and fewer people – even intellectuals – knew the Latin language. Judges and jurists frequently had to rely on unofficial Greek excerpts of the Corpus
until the government issued a more or less complete Greek translation at the end of the ninth century.
The third goal of Justinianus’ renovatio
-policy also appealed to a long Roman tradition, namely the strong interweavement of state affairs and religion. Like Constantinus before him, Justinianus considered it the supreme right and duty of the emperor to lead the Christian Church and protect the faith against both internal and external threats. Justinianus used religion in Constantinople’s war-time propaganda, portraying the wars in the west as a holy struggle against Arianism. Simultaneously, Justinianus organised a massive though ultimately pointless crackdown on the Monophysites in Egypt and Syria. The emperor furthermore emphasised his role as guardian of the Christian faith by building the most formidable church in Christendom – the Hagia Sofia – right next to the imperial palace in Constantinople.
The Roman wars of reconquest weighed heavily upon the empire’s economic power, which was principally aimed at backing the military. Furthermore, Justinianus’ vast architectural projects and the grain supplies for Constantinople required heavy taxation of the people. Public discontent over this grew significantly as war exhaustion took its toll and the first European plague epidemic ravaged the Mediterranean (AD 541). While the Sassanids pounded upon the imperial frontiers in the east, new waves of barbarian invaders approached the Danube in the north (c. AD 550). The Avar and Bulgar hordes subjugated several Slavic peoples along their way, which ultimately caused many other Slavs to cross the Danube and invade the Balkans (c. AD 570).
Justinianus died in AD 565, having led the Romans to their greatest triumphs since the days of Diocletianus and Constantinus. However, his death effectively ended the dream of a Renovatio Imperii Romanorum
. Never again would the imperial government of Constantinople be powerful enough to launch a similarly ambitious endeavour. In fact, the plague’s devastating demographic and economical consequences, the war exhaustion and the renewed foreign invasions would plunge the Eastern Roman Empire into a phenomenal crisis at the dawn of the seventh century, during which its survival hung by a thread. The power of Constantinople nevertheless reconsolidated yet again, ultimately re-emerging as the Byzantine Empire.© 2013 – 2014 undevicesimus.deviantart.com