What, in the aftermath, should be said of the conquests of the Emperor Justinian? Were they a doomed crusade that left a structurally and economically weakened Roman Empire as easy prey in the seismic upheavals of the seventh century? And what should be said of the man on whose whim such destruction was unleashed? Was Justinian a romantic visionary, engaged in a valiant attempt to restore God’s chosen kingdom to sacrosanct unity? Or was this the reign of a tyrant, allowing his megalomania to cut a bloody swathe through the fields and cities of the West? What, if anything, was achieved? Peter Heather’s Rome Resurgent: War and Empire in the Age of Justinian is a bold, absorbing and thoroughly compelling response to these questions. Combining a wealth of literary material, a flare for swashbuckling narrative, and the most up-to-date archaeological discoveries available, Heather endeavours to achieve a critical realignment of the traditional and often contradictory views of Justinian’s attempt to reconstitute the West at the point of a sword.
Heather establishes his central thesis in the first two chapters. Chapter one, ‘In this sign conquer’, sets out the ideological underpinnings of the late Roman regime and the political standards by which Justinian would expect to be judged. In particular, Heather focuses on the interplay between the traditional Graeco-Roman concept of civilitas and the subtle changes and striking continuities introduced by the advent of Christianity. Through an examination of the importance of written law, the often convoluted politico-theological relationship between Emperor and Church and, crucially, the overwhelming emphasis placed on military victory, Heather demonstrates how the “empire’s Panglossian ideology” (p. 31) necessitated a relentless search for legitimising victories on the part of any Emperor determined to maintain total approval. In as labyrinthine a political environment as sixth-century Constantinople, failure could, and frequently did, have the direst of consequences.
Chapter two, ‘The military-fiscal complex’, is intended to explain the nature of the state that Justinian inherited. Repeated catastrophic military crises in the third- and fifth-centuries had forced a dramatic adaptation on the part of the Roman Empire. Rome, according to Heather, emerged from the Tetrarchic period with a military establishment that had potentially doubled in manpower, and was forced to meet the corresponding costs by enforcing a new fiscal regime. The result was a revolutionary realignment of imperial society, politics and economic interests around “what was in fact the largest flow of wealth ever to have been generated by any society of the ancient Mediterranean” (p. 65), now firmly under the control of a centralised Imperial bureaucracy. Heather claims that, far from bankrupting the empire, these enhanced systems of taxation were supported by a corresponding expansion in rural settlement and cultivation. In short, the empire inherited by Justinian was in a far healthier economic condition than has traditionally been believed, and was potentially capable of absorbing the economic shock of overseas military adventurism. This section also contains a detailed analysis of the composition, tactics and equipment of the sixth-century Roman army, paving the way for the accounts of Belisarius’ unexpectedly stunning successes.
If chapter one outlines what was expected of Justinian, chapter three, ‘Regime Change in Constantinople’ demonstrates how far he might fall should he fail: Heather details the series of political and religious intrigues that led him to the rule of the Roman world, as well as the crucial policy decisions he had inherited from his predecessors, Anastasius and Justin I. Concurrently, chapter five, ‘The Last Desperate Gamble’, shows how close Justinian came to the edge, as it relates the outset of his attempt to reformulate Roman law, the disastrous consequences of brinksmanship with Persia, and the Nika riots that so nearly proved fatal to his rule. It was from the ashes of these cataclysms that the nascent conquest policy was conceived, as Justinian cast around for any legitimising victory that could save his battered regime.
In chapters six and seven, we are treated to the quality in-depth military analysis that characterises a great deal of this book. ‘Five Thousand Horse’ deals with the origins of the Vandal kingdom in North Africa, as well as Belisarius’ campaign against them. The consequence of such a seemingly easy victory, Heather attests, was the evolution of what had been a desperate political gamble into a full-blown imperial policy of reconquista. In ‘Rome and Ravenna’, Belisarius inflicts this policy upon the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy. Again, Heather takes care to break down the origins and state of the Ostrogothic kingdom at the time of conquest.
The following three chapters deal with the immediate consequences of Justinian’s military conquests. In chapter seven, ‘The Culture of Victory’, Heather details how Justinian chose to spend the immense political capital accrued by reinvesting it in further conquests in the civil field. To that end, Heather relates the somewhat hurried completion of the review of Roman jurisconsult material by Tribonian as a complement to the successful promulgation of the Justinianic legal code; the empire-spanning raft of construction projects launched, not least of which was the redesign of a Constantinople gutted by fires during the Nika rioting; and the ill-fated attempt to solve the growing schism between Chalcedonian and anti- Chalcedonian partisans within the Church.
Chapter eight, ‘Our Brother in God’, is a reminder of the intractable antagonistic relationship between the Roman Empire and its Persian counterpart. Determined to redress the imbalance introduced by the sudden expansion of the Roman tax base, the Persians took advantage of the relative absence of Roman troops to strike deep into the heart of Syria, before settling down to their own round of military adventurism in Armenia: peace was eventually restored, but at a colossal price. Heather thereby demonstrates that, far from assuaging Rome’s most persistent strategic rivalry, the ‘rebirth’ of the western empire served only to exacerbate it.
Chapter nine, ‘Insurgents’ gives another granular account of the military situations left behind in Justinian’s new provinces in North Africa and Italy, and demonstrates that, in spite of Belisarius’ triumphs, victory was still distant. In the case of North Africa, a berber insurgency put off final victory for fifteen years. In Italy, Heather recounts the rebellion of Totila, which necessitated another full-scale invasion under Narses; the insurgency was eventually defeated, although not without fatally undermining the Roman grip on northern Italy in the process.
Heather addresses the central questions posed by his thesis in the final two chapters. ‘The Western Empire of Justinian’ straightforwardly addresses whether or not the conquests of North Africa and Italy can be said to have led to imperial collapse in the seventh century. Heather is to be commended for reminding the reader of the human cost of Justinian’s campaigns, as he asserts that for so many to have died at the whim of an emperor seeking nothing more than political capital was an unjustifiable catastrophe. However, from a strategic standpoint, the view is more nuanced. In the case of North Africa, Heather combines its evident political stability with the wealth of archaeological evidence to assert that the new province did, in fact, pay dividends in the century it remained under Constantinopolitan control. Conversely, Heather takes pains to demonstrate that the collapse of Roman rule over northern Italy following the Lombard conquest was the product not so much of Roman inefficiencies as it was of geopolitical shifts beyond Rome’s frontiers. Despite this, Heather attests that the same basic literary and archaeological patterns indicate that the parts of Italy that remained within the Roman sphere of influence would, eventually, have paid dividends for their reconquest. Heather’s conclusion, therefore, is that the western conquest policy may even have served to strengthen Rome’s hand financially in the long-term, had these provinces remained under Roman control.
‘The Fall of the Eastern Empire’ addresses the fundamental question head on. According to Heather, in spite of the huge immediate losses incurred, Justinian’s reconquest policy did not fundamentally undermine the socio-economic health of the empire, as the archaeological evidence for serious decline in the eastern heartlands does not occur until the seventh century. It is to external pressures and to the policies of Justinian’s successors that Heather attributes the decisions and events that fatally destabilised the Roman east. In spite of this, Heather reminds us that for all of its successes, Justinian’s western adventurism remained an act of political opportunism, and nothing more. If any blame is to be laid at his door for the fall of the empire in the seventh century, it is to be found in the politically toxic legacy he left for his successors: having set the bar for imperial glory-hunting so high, Justinian forced them to follow suit in order to satisfy the pressing need for legitimising victory.
Overall, Heather’s argument is extremely compelling, particularly in light of its nuances. The handling of the political necessities of imperial ideology is particularly deft, as is the counter-balancing weight given to the prominence of external forces in explaining Rome’s eventual decline in the seventh century. Given that Justinian’s reign is somewhat ripe for polarised interpretations, this is in itself a triumph. Further, Heather’s sympathetic handling of the human costs of Justinian’s campaigns is wholly appropriate, and serves to ward the reader away from any eulogising tendencies: indeed, whatever one may think of the successes of Justinian-as-emperor, one cannot walk away from this book with anything other than a jaundiced view of the man himself.
In spite of this, the handling of the evidence gives me pause. The majority of this is a compilation of the existing literary material, which is treated with a practised hand—in particular, Heather must be commended for a masterful analysis of Procopius of Caesarea. The archaeological evidence is somewhat more sparse, significantly more revolutionary, and methodologically curious. Firstly, Heather’s suggestion that “no serious student of the late Roman army thinks that its notional manpower strength increased by less than 50 per cent in the century after 230, and a pretty good argument can be made that it actually doubled in size” (p. 48) is likely to make a couple of modern scholars feel rather silly. Heather bases this estimation on “a whole range of evidence, from the size of extant barrack blocks to pieces of specific information” (ibid.): one feels that given the centrality of this claim to Heather’s thesis he is being unnecessarily coy. As Heather attests, this manpower expansion led to the social, political and fiscal revolution that underpinned the entire late Roman regime, which in turn led to “the overall conclusion, in fact, that imperial GDP was at an overall maximum in the fourth century…” (p. 60), based on evidence for rural settlement and land cultivation. A military-fiscal revolution of this scale is fundamentally necessary in supporting Heather’s thesis that Justinian’s conquests did not fatally weaken the empire. However, whilst his analysis may be correct, one cannot help but feel that Heather may be taking the most generous interpretation of the available evidence and setting it as his median. In a book notable for eschewing extremes, this appears to be the one extreme in which Heather indulges.
Rome Resurgent is situated firmly in the revisionist tradition that has emerged in opposition to the recent Cultural Turn, and in political and ideological terms will doubtless be taken as an important contribution to the field. As a military history of the reign of Justinian it is unparalleled, being both eminently readable and thoroughly researched. In sum, it is a process of disillusionment: the romantic vision and diabolical pageant of Justinian’s reign stripped away to reveal the bleached bones of naked political opportunism beneath.