Justinianic Wars: A Study

Written by Dido Papikinou


Emperor Justinian I’s (r. 527-565) military campaigns in the West against the Vandalic and Ostrogothic kingdoms have been the topic of much debate among modern historians, particularly concerning the vision behind such an ambitious and expensive imperial project. Overall, these campaigns have had a positive legacy, being seen as a final attempt by the Eastern Roman Empire to reunite with its former territories in the West, all under the supervision of a charismatic and energetic emperor. This paper aims to examine the campaigns both against the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, as they are extremely well-documented by the sixth-century historian Procopius. More specifically, it will be argued that Justinian was a canny opportunist, who had powerful people at his disposal, something which allowed imperial successes at the early stages of the campaigns. Nevertheless, this initial triumph was worth a terrible price: the overextension of the Empire, which would lead to its eventual weakness.  

The Persona of Procopius  

Before moving on to the actual campaigns as they are presented in Procopius’ Wars, it is crucial to provide some information concerning the author of this invaluable sixth-century source. Procopius was a legal adviser, who was appointed as secretary under general Belisarios, with the latter playing the leading role in both campaigns against the Vandals and the Ostrogoths. The Wars are written in the form of classicizing history, following the example of Thucydides, something which becomes evident not only when looking at the content of the books, which is predominately warfare, but also when noticing the overwhelming number of speeches made by generals, ambassadors, and councilors. Furthermore, the vast number of manuscripts surviving from the medieval period reveals that there was wide circulation of Procopius’ work, suggesting that warfare was a popular topic in sixth-century Byzantium. Nevertheless, it is also important to note that the text’s form and content primarily reflects the values and culture of a specific sect of readers, namely the aristocracy and military elite. As noted in the author’s own introduction, the Wars aimed to inform, instruct, and entertain, while focusing on themes such as heroism as well as on how to actually defeat the Empire’s ‘barbarian’ opponents. 

The Vandalic Campaign  

According to Procopius, the motive behind the imperial campaign against the Vandals in North Africa arrived when Geiseric, who was the kingdom’s lawful successor, overthrew the rightful king Hilderic, while the latter was keeping excellent communication and cooperation with Justinian. Initially, the emperor attempted to intervene in Vandalic politics for the restoration of the lawful ruler. However, these attempts came to nothing, with Geiseric arguing that Justinian already has a kingdom, so he should not ‘meddle in another’s affairs’. In short, the new Vandal king was rejecting imperial interventions in his kingdom, a privilege previously enjoyed by Roman emperors.  

This shift in power politics and influence provided the pretext for the Roman invasion of North Africa, a campaign which was further justified by the fact that the Vandals, who ruled over a predominately Roman population, were Arian Christians, although Arianism was a dogma condemned by the Council of Nicaea in AD 325. Nevertheless, Justinian’s insistence on launching this campaign was initially met with resistance by his councilors, especially by Ioannes of Kappadokian, who believed that the emperor should not rush into things, especially since victory was ‘far from certain’.  

Despite these warnings, Justinian sent Belisarios to North Africa, after signing a treaty of ‘perpetual peace’ with the Persians in AD 532. By this act alone, it becomes clear that Justinian’s primary concern was the West rather than the East, at least in the early 530s. Indeed, in one of his letters addressed to the Vandals, the emperor showed his conviction in terms of the rightfulness of his cause, with the Roman army being presented as the liberator trying to dethrone a Vandal ‘tyrant’. In addition, Belisarios showed confidence in his speeches towards the Roman army in terms of the campaign’s outcome, believing that the inhabitants of North Africa ‘have always been Roman’, making them natural allies to the imperial cause. Indeed, the citizens of Carthage are presented as being ‘delighted’ by the Roman takeover the city, while Belisarios made sure to celebrate his victory according to Roman customs, an act which may be interpreted as a symbol of the eventual reunification of North Africa to the Roman Empire.  

Nevertheless, when Geiseric organized a counterattack, Belisarios reminded his soldiers that previously they had taken the land of others, but now they must defend their own land, a statement that makes one question to what extent the Vandalic campaign was a conquest or a reconquest of North Africa. In any case, despite the rapidity of Belisarios’ victory, more troubles were yet to come with a Moor revolt against the Romans and a mutiny among the soldiers in Libya. Both of these incidents were crashed; however, they reveal the grievances of the local population about being again under direct Roman rule.  

As a matter of fact, Procopius evaluates the swift Roman victory against the Vandals as a matter of luck and of the enemy’s internal weakness, with the local population hardly finding peace no matter who ruled over them. Nonetheless, the Empire stretched itself over rich lands, important both financially and strategically, something which surely was on Justinian’s agenda. 

The Ostrogothic Campaign 

Belisarios’ victory against the Vandals restored the ideological and political credibility of Justinian’s regime, something which was expressed entirely on religious terms by a law in early AD 534. More specifically, God had punished the Vandals for their many sins against the Catholic Church, with no mention of the fact that North Africa had previously belonged to the Roman Empire. In any case, these swift Roman successes gave confidence to the imperial regime to involve itself further in others’ struggles, this time in the Italian peninsula. More specifically, Justinian intervened in a succession crisis, with the assassination of one his allies in Italy giving him the pretext for an invasion under the command of Belisarios. This time, however, Justinian made his intensions clear towards the Goths by stating that it his primary concern to return the populace of the Italian peninsula back into the Roman republic. The citizens of major cities, such as Naples, Ravenna, and Rome, seem to have complied with these imperial plans, especially when their cities are under siege, which lead to famine and disease. 

Nevertheless, the Goths, when in dialogue with Belisarios, argued for an unjustified invasion of Italy, with the peninsula being received as part of a deal struck with emperor Zenon (r. 476-471), while also reminding the general that the Romans have continued to hold offices of state, a truth which the general failed to counterargue. Indeed, Belisarios conceptualized Italy, and especially the city of Rome, as a possession, something that historically always belonged to the Romans. He was also well-aware of the shifting loyalties of the local population, something which, not only prolonged the duration of the campaign, but also made the general consistently request reinforcements from Constantinople, especially since the Roman army was astonishingly undisciplined and ill-paid.  

The Ostrogothic regime eventually fell in AD 554, leading a campaign of 20 years to an end, once again at a heavy cost of both the local population and the Empire’s resources. The Gothic determination to defend the Italian peninsula was unprecedented, as they rejected the initial motives of the Roman invasion, something which makes one question how well thought-out and planned the invasion was in the first place. 

Emperor Justinian’s Vision 

When looking at the imperial military campaigns of the early to mid-sixth century it is impossible not to consider the visioner behind these projects, who is no other than Justinian. Although he lacked personal military experience, he made sure to be well-informed about operations on the battlefield, while allowing his most trusted general, Belisarios, to take the initiative when necessary. He never visited the Roman military camps himself, since it was extremely rare for emperors to campaign in person already by the end of the fourth century. Nevertheless, he made sure to claim the credit for military successes, something which is evident both in his law-making and his building projects.  

More specifically, Justinian’s laws claim that the emperor inherited both the authority and the geographical scope of ancient Roman law [Novel 9]. In this case, all that was left was to bring back these territories under direct imperial rule. Furthermore, Justinian blames his predecessors’ lethargy (rathymia) for the fall of the Western Empire, something which comes into sharp contrast with his own energetic and ambitious persona.  

When it comes to his building projects, the most obvious example of his expansionist aims was the erection of a seventy-meter column atop a seven-stepped marble pedestal, where the emperor is presented holding a globe and a cross in his hands. This project of imperial propaganda, which was built on the west of the Mese in the early 540s, reflects how the emperor was meant to be perceived by the Empire’s subjects and beyond. More specifically, he is meant to be seen as the overlord of the entire world, who, with Divine help, is meant to spread and defend Christianity until the Day of Judgement. Justinian made sure to preserve this persona in order to justify his long and expensive campaigns to the West, at a time and space when the Empire had technically outgrown its need for the western provinces.  

Re-evaluation 

With this examination shortly coming to an end, it is important to emphasize some of its main themes. More precisely, when looking at both the Vandal and the Ostrogothic kingdoms, one needs to remember that, fundamentally, they were internally weak: politically unstable and vulnerable to external threats. As communication with the Eastern Empire was still existent, it made sense to Justinian not only to intervene, but also to attempt to bring these rich and strategically important provinces under direct Roman rule once again. With the local population being predominantly of Roman heritage, the emperor hoped for their cooperation, especially if the campaigns were to be quick, so that they were not to suffer any major inconvenience. However, even after direct Roman rule was imposed, grievances did not stop, either because of the abuses by local tax collectors or because of the devastating effects of prolonged warfare. 

Nevertheless, the Justinianic Wars were meant to be remembered predominantly as an achievement, since former Roman territory had come under the rule of the Empire once again. In the short term, this overextension was glorified; however, in the long run, the Empire failed to maintain its commitments and ended up spending all of its resources. This is a pattern in human history that repeats itself; Empires stretching more than they reasonably should, which leads to internal weakness and eventual collapse if successful reform is not achieved.  

Conclusions 

In conclusion, there were a plethora of factors leading to the Justinianic Wars of the sixth century, such as the weakness of the Empire’s neighboring kingdoms and the ambitions of an energetic emperor, reportedly the last Roman Emperor, because of his expansionist campaigns in order to reunite the politeia of Constantine. It is clear that the Empire was still on the offensive, something which would lead to its overstretching and eventual weakness. However, this well-known cycle of an Empire’s existence can only be applied with the benefit of hindsight, which is both the privilege and the curse of the modern scholar. Indeed, something which we consider a ‘fact’ does not tell us what contemporaries thought. This said, the Justinianic wars may be considered a ‘glorious disaster’ – an attempt to reunite the Empire based on seemingly favorable conditions. With no other Roman emperor attempting something similar, it may be argued that the lesson was learned, with the Empire adopting a more defensive policy, while focusing once again on the East as shift in power politics was about to take place with the emergence of Islam. 


Bibliography

Heather. P. Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 2018. 

Kruse. M. The politics of Roman memory: from the fall of the Western empire to the age of Justinian. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvanian. 2019. 

Lee. A.D. ‘The Empire at War’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. M. Maas. (ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2005. 

Pohl. W. ‘Justinian and the Barbarian Kingdoms’ in The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian. M. Maas. (ed.) Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 2005. 

Procopius, The Wars of Justinian, H.B. Dewing (tr.). Indianapolis, Indiana: Hackett Publishing Company, Inc. 2014. 

Whately. C. Battles and generals; combat, culture, and didacticism in Procopius’ Wars. Leiden; Boston: Brill. 2016. 


Featured image credit: Emperor Justinian (1886), Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant. Oil on canvas. The John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art. Accessed via Wikimedia Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Portnoy_Normal_DT_190913A-21205_-_Copy.jpg.

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