Book Review: Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian

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by Peter Heather

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018. Pp. xiv, 393. Illus., maps., chron., gloss., notes, biblio., index. $29.95. ISBN: 0199362742

Justinian and the Sixth Century Roman Revival

“He was short with a good chest, a good nose, fair-skinned, curly haired, round-faced, handsome with receding hair, a florid complexion, with his hair and beard graying.”

This description of emperor Justinian “the Great” who reigned at Constantinople from 527 to 565 C.E. from the contemporary Chronicle of John Malalas is a good match for how the emperor appears in the famous, often-reproduced Sixth century mosaic panel in the church of San Vitale, in Ravenna, Italy.

The verdict of history on Justinian is mixed. Was he a brilliant strategist, a wise lawgiver, and a gifted politician who laid the foundations for the Byzantine empire’s remarkable millennium of survival? Or was he a megalomaniac, whose impractical dream of reconquering the West so weakened the empire that the rise of Islam in the next century nearly finished it off?

In Rome Resurgent Peter Heather, Professor of Medieval History at King’s College, London, tackles these questions with a deep mastery of the sources and a wry sense of humor.

Justinian inherited a shaky throne when his uncle, emperor Justin I died. In 532, the unruly population of Constantinople rioted against his regime. Thirty thousand rioters were massacred by imperial troops and the center of the city was burned down. In late Roman ideology, the legitimacy of the state was based on a constant stream of military victories, demonstrating God’s approval of the emperor’s rule. For centuries the usual inscription on the reverse of the empire’s gold coins was VICTORIA AUGUSTORUM (“Victory of the Emperors.”) Even emperors who never ventured far from the safety of the palace portrayed themselves as conquerors.

Desperate for a win, Justinian sent his most capable general, Belisarius, to conquer North Africa, where the Vandals had established a rich kingdom. After a swift victory over the Vandals, Belisarius was drawn into a protracted war against the Goths in Italy, which dragged on for nearly two decades, devastating the land.

Belisarius is one of the most under-appreciated “Great Captains” of history. His elite professional army of cavalry troopers armed like steppe nomad warriors with lance and bow, bore little resemblance to Caesar’s legions. We know a great deal about his campaigns because the historian Procopius of Caesarea (c. 500- 565) served on his staff and left a detailed eight-volume History of the Wars.

Heather offers a clear, logically argued analysis of what Procopius wrote. The conclusion he arrives at is blunt:

Justinian’s poisonously successful legacy of military victory played a major role in kick-starting the fifty-year cycle of world war which led inexorably to Constantinople’s eventual demotion to regional power status.”

Rome Resurgent will be enjoyed by readers of military history with an interest in Late Antiquity (what we used to call the “Dark Ages.”) The book is enhanced by eight small but clearly drawn maps, and for an academic publication, it is reasonably priced.

 

Our Reviewer: Mike Markowitz is an historian and wargame designer. He writes a monthly column for CoinWorld and is a member of the ADBC (Association of Dedicated Byzantine Collectors). His previous reviews include, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire, The Age of the Dromon: The Byzantine Navy, ca. 500-1204, Military Saints in Byzantium and Rus, 900-1200, Heroes and Romans in Twelfth-Century Byzantium: The Material for History of Nikephoros Bryennios, The Power Game in Byzantium: Antonina and the Empress Theodora, Siege Warfare and Military Organization in the Successor States (400-800 AD), Constantine XI Dragaš Palaeologus, Romanland: Ethnicity and Empire in Byzantium, The Emperor in the Byzantine World, The Politics of Roman Memory: From the Fall of the Western Empire to the Age of Justinian, Theodosius and the Limits of Empire, and Byzantium Triumphant: The Military History of the Byzantines, 959–1025.

 

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Note: Rome Resurgent, a volume in the Oxford series “Ancient Warfare and Civilization” is also available in paperback and e-editions.

 

StrategyPage reviews are published in cooperation with The New York Military Affairs Symposium

Reviewer: Mike Markowitz   


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