BMCR 2006.03.12

The Cambridge Companion to the Age of Justinian

, The Cambridge companion to the Age of Justinian. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005. xxvii, 626 pages, 24 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations (some color), maps ; 23 cm. ISBN 0521817463 $34.99 (pb).

One thing is clear: With this volume, a collection of contributions from well-known specialists, we now have an exhaustive and up-to-date compendium of the sixth century — especially the reign of Justinian (527-565) — that deals not only with the political history of the Eastern Roman Empire, but also considers the neighbors of the empire and important aspects of religion, culture and the history of thought.1

The twenty articles of this volume are divided into four major sections dedicated to different aspects of the “Age of Justinian.” Unfortunately, there is no explanation of why the authors are dealing with an “Age of Justinian” and how this “age” can be characterized. Moreover, Ch. Pazdernik in his article on Justinianic ideology rightly points out that the “Age of Justinian” is a construct drawn from Justinianic self-representation (191). The fact that the authors of the first part of the volume strongly emphasize the complexity of this “age” and the dramatic changes that took place during the reign of Justinian marks a contradiction in the conception of this period as a coherent epoch.

The first part of the book (“Structures and Ideologies of Empire”, 3-212) presents a number of overviews that provide a useful introduction to the sixth century. M. Maas (“Roman Questions, Byzantine Answers: Contours of the Age of Justinian”, 3-27) outlines the most important contours of a phase “marking a transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages in the Mediterranean world” (3), which saw the transformation of the Roman Empire into the Byzantine Empire. He discusses the growing relevance of a uniform Christian belief under Justinian and points out that Roman society now began to define itself primarily by faith rather than by law (22).

J. F. Haldon (“Economy and Administration: How Did the Empire Work?”, 29-59) gives a concise overview of some aspects of administration and economy in the sixth century. From his point of view, Justinian’s reforms were mainly marked by ideological ambitions, but also by pragmatic and philanthropic elements. Haldon believes that these different motives led to contradictions and weakened the measures of Justinian, although “his achievements should not be underestimated” (53). Nevertheless, the reforms overextended the resources of the empire, and this, in combination with demographic decline and fiscal problems, led to the changes that took place during Justinian’s reign (54-55).

B. Croke (“Justinian’s Constantinople”, 60-86) deals with the capital of the Empire. Like Maas and Haldon, he highlights the drastic political, social and economic changes during the reign of Justinian and maintains that the emperor did not respond adequately to them in organizing Constantinople (79). Croke’s hypothesis that Justinian abolished the consulate for non-emperors in 542 in order to control this magistracy “more tightly” (77) does not explain this measure. I believe that the abolition of the consulate was a reaction to changed conditions. If this is right, Justinian did respond to the changes he perceived.2

The much-debated problem of the so-called decline of the classical city in the sixth century is the focus of K. G. Holum (“The Classical City in the Sixth Century: Survival and Transformation”, 87-112). Drawing on recent scholarship, Holum warns of generalizing conclusions and underlines that many prosperous cities still existed (e.g., Caesarea and a number of cities in Syria), but these cities also underwent a change (thus, the changes are not necessarily the consequences of decline). In any case, there was not a process of ruralization in the East as there was in the West (102). Earthquakes and especially the plague of 541/42 marked turning points in regions that had been prosperous until then, and in some cases this can be demonstrated from archaeology.

Fortunately, A. D. Lee (“The Empire at War”, 113-133) does not list and describe all the wars of the sixth century. Instead he gives a detailed overview of “the infrastructure of war making”, “the effectiveness of the Roman army” and the consequences of wars for the regions they affected (114). Lee’s general impression concerning the effectiveness of Roman warfare in the sixth century is quite positive (121-125). It is surprising, however, that he does not mention the disastrous Persian raid against Antioch and other Roman cities in 540. These events overshadowed the many successes of the Roman armies during the reign of Justinian and weaken the impression of a generally effective policy of war making. Taking the impact of the plague of the early 540s into consideration, Lee maintains that “there is little doubt that the plague caused major short-term dislocation in a wide variety of areas, including recruiting, but the question of its longer-term impact remains problematic” (118).

This plague is discussed in detail by P. Horden (“Mediterranean Plague in the Age of Justinian”, 134-160). The author particularly focuses on methodological problems concerning the question of the correct diagnosis of the disease that devastated Europe, the Mediterranean and the Near East in several waves from 541 up to the mid eighth century. There are two different approaches to the epidemic, as Horden points out: that of relativism (“the disease was precisely what its sufferers said it was”) and the conventional diagnosis (“bubonic plague”) (146). In the following discussion the author shows why the conventional diagnosis is highly problematic and raises questions that are difficult to answer (148-151). He argues that the identity of the epidemic disease must remain unclear (152). It is regrettable that Horden dedicated the major part of his article to these questions, especially since a correct retrospective diagnosis would not help much in understanding the disease and its consequences, as Horden points out himself (151). In discussing these aspects of the plague he believes that he is following current trends in scholarship. But recent scholarship deals more with source criticism and the demographic and economic consequences of the plague and, especially in recent years, with its impact on culture and religion.3

C. Humfress (“Law and Legal Practice in the Age of Justinian”, 161-184) looks at the development of the (later so-called) Corpus Iuris Civilis and gives some vivid insights into the legal practice of the sixth century. Her article is closely connected with that of Ch. Pazdernik (“Justinianic Ideology and the Power of the Past”, 185-212), which discusses, principally on the basis of the laws, some central patterns of Justinian’s self-representation (I prefer this term instead of ideology, which seems to me problematic). He argues that Justinian’s conception of ruling was “more absolute, more exclusively Christian and orthodox, and more dedicated to enforcing uniformity of thought and behavior than some observers thought to be achievable or desirable” (188). This is doubtless an important point, marking an aspect that is characteristic of the regime of Justinian. However, Pazdernik does not try to give an explanation for this phenomenon.

The second section (“Religion and Philosophy”, 213-340) is the most coherent part of the volume. It starts with an article by P. T. R. Gray (“The Legacy of Chalcedon: Christological Problems and Their Significance”, 215-238), which offers a thorough overview of Christological problems and church policy after the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). Gray tries to prove that Justinian’s church policy was mainly designed by pragmatic elements (229, 234), but I doubt if Justinian really intended to offer the anti-Chalcedonians a “deal” (228, 234). From the year 536 onwards Justinian condemned the anti-Chalcedonians and showed his antipathy towards them again and again. I cannot discover any willingness for compromise either in his writings or in his politics. It seems more plausible to me that his neo-Chalcedonianism consisted of a new openness toward miaphysitic theology — an openness that Justinian did not himself perceive. Besides, it would be useful to make a distinction between the first and the second phase of Justinian’s church policy, i.e. the years 527-540/42 and 540/42-565. A remarkable characteristic of Gray’s article is the clear and precise terminology used to distinguish the various groups involved in the religious and political conflicts resulting from the Council of Chalcedon.

The anti-Chalcedonian point of view is taken by L. Van Rompay (“Society and Community in the Christian East”, 239-266), who particularly focuses on the achievements of Jacob Baradaeus (248-252) and on Christendom in the Persian Empire and Armenia (257-262). Van Rompay believes that ethnic, cultural and linguistic identities did not serve to constitute separate Christian churches: “If there was antagonism, it was against the local Chalcedonian bishops or patriarchs, rather than to the empire as such” (255).

The articles of Gray and Van Rompay are complemented by the considerations of C. Sotinel (“Emperors and Popes in the Sixth Century: The Western View”, 267-290), who treats the growing difficulties between Rome and Constantinople, culminating in a “lapse in communication” (287) in the later years of Justinian. Sotinel interprets this development as a series of misunderstandings with a tragic end.

D. Krueger (“Christian Piety and Practice in the Sixth Century”, 291-315) rightly states that “the sixth century … saw a more mysticizing trend” (295) and demonstrates this when discussing some aspects of the hymns of Romanus Melodus (297-300), processional liturgies (300-302) and the emergence of the cult of icons (310-311). However, his remarks — particularly on the cult of icons — remain mostly descriptive. In his article, Krueger circumscribes a complex social and religious phenomenon which was called liturgification by Averil Cameron some years ago,4 but Krueger does not mention either this term or the heuristic conception behind it.

In the following article Chr. Wildberg (“Philosophy in the Age of Justinian”, 316-340) gives a sound overview of philosophy and philosophers in the sixth century, emphasizing the continuing high level of thought in this period, which he demonstrates in the writings of John Philoponus. Wildberg tries to explain why even under the pressure of Justinian’s measures against pagan thinking and philosophy (the author also discusses the end of the Academy of Athens after the law of 529) many people were still interested in philosophy. He supposes that in fact Christianity itself served to uphold the interest in pagan philosophy: “… to some extent the study of philosophy was a matter of necessity for the Christian elite, for the unavoidable doctrinal differences of the day could be articulated and understood only in a language that was heavily indebted to philosophy” (335).

The third section (“Literature and the Arts”, 341-397) starts with a good list and descriptions of the most important works of art and monuments from the Justinianic period. In creating this list, J. D. Alchermes (“Art and Architecture in the Age of Justinian”, 343-375) interprets the remains that have survived as a “growing synthesis of the imperial and the Christian” (344).

C. Rapp (“Literary Culture under Justinian”, 376-397) discusses the question of the “circumstances of literary production” (377), emphasizing that reading and writing was a form of activity which only members of the elites could afford (377). She points out the particular relevance of patronage for literary production, because within the system of patronage “the composition of literary works … became a vehicle for upward social mobility” (382), which she demonstrates in authors such as Corippus, Marcellinus Comes, John Lydus, Procopius and Agathias. Only a small number of sixth-century authors wrote without a patron — but ( pace Rapp, 392) surely not Agapetus. I should also note that Jordanes’ Roman History is anything but “now lost” (390)! Unfortunately, Rapp treats only Greek and Latin writers; important authors like Severus of Antioch (whose works were originally written in Greek, but are preserved only in Syriac and Coptic translations) or John of Ephesus, one of the most important church historians of Late Antiquity, are not even mentioned.

The last section (“Peoples and Communities”, 399-533) is dedicated to peoples and groups inside and outside the empire. N. de Lange (“Jews in the Age of Justinian”, 401-426) shows that for the Jews the reign of Justinian was “a transitional period”, defined by growing restrictions (420-421).

L. Brubaker (“The Age of Justinian: Gender and Society”, 427-447) deals with aspects of sex and gender in the sixth century; and W. Pohl (“Justinian and the Barbarian Kingdoms”, 448-476), on the basis of his numerous books and articles on the Völkerwanderung,5 describes the emergence of the barbarian kingdoms within the Western Roman Empire, emphasizing that these kingdoms were based on Roman infrastructure and Latin literacy (458). Pohl points out the complexity of the processes by which barbarian kingdoms and identities were formed (455) without outlining modern conceptions of ethnogenesis in detail. Stating that Justinian’s wars against the Goths in Italy devastated the peninsula (464) he rightly contradicts Wickham’s thesis (cited by Lee, p. 127) that “the total desolation of Italy in these years has certainly been exaggerated.”6

The relations between Constantinople and the Sasanians are treated by G. Greatrex (“Byzantium and the East in the Sixth Century”, 477-509), who points out the great relevance of Justinian’s alliance with the Ghassanid chief Harith (499-500) and the pragmatic features of Justinian’s Persian policy. He rightly states that the Roman emperor did not neglect the Eastern frontier while concentrating on the wars in the West, as he is accused by many scholars. On the contrary, Justinian invested a great deal of energy and many resources in the Eastern wars (503). However, Greatrex seems to me to underestimate the damages that resulted from the Persian raid in 540 (503): certainly Antioch was rebuilt quickly, but at a lower level, and the Persian destruction of the city remained highly traumatic for the Romans for many years.

In the last article F. M. Donner (“The Background to Islam”, 510-533) outlines the most important political, social, economic and religious factors that favored the rise of Islam in the seventh century.

At the end of the volume the reader will find an index (583-626) and a bibliography, which is long, but by no means exhaustive, manifesting a regrettable trend within American scholarship to take no notice of current German research.7

Despite this reservation and despite some minor errors (mostly concerning dates: see, e.g., 93 [lawbook of Alaric ιι], 98-99 [the end of the Vandal War], 135 [the arrival of the plague at Constantinople], and 519 [the plague]), this volume offers a competent introduction to the reign of one of the most important Roman emperors and its circumstances.


1. The volume thus replaces the crude compilation of O. Mazal, Justinian I. und seine Zeit. Geschichte und Kultur des Byzantinischen Reiches im 6. Jahrhundert (Köln/Weimar/Wien 2001).

2. On this thesis, see M. Meier, “Das Ende des Konsulats im Jahr 541/42 und seine Gruende. Kritische Anmerkungen zur Vorstellung eines ‘Zeitalters Justinians’,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik 138 (2002), 277-299.

3. See, for example, M. Meier, Das andere Zeitalter Justinians. Kontingenzerfahrung und Kontingenzbewältigung im 6. Jahrhundert n. Chr. (Göttingen, 2nd ed. 2004), 321-340, 373-387.

4. A. Cameron, “Images of Authority: Elites and Icons in Late Sixth-Century Byzantium,” Past and Present 84 (1979), 3-35, repr.: A. Cameron, Continuity and Change in Sixth-Century Byzantium (London 1981), XVIII; see also A. Cameron, “The Theotokos in Sixth-Century Constantinople,” Journal of Theological Studies 29 (1978), 79-108, esp. 80-82.

5. See esp. his very useful compendium, Die Völkerwanderung. Eroberung und Integration (Stuttgart 2002).

6. C. Wickham, Early Medieval Italy (London 1981), 26.

7. The important article of K. L. Noethlichs, “Iustinianus (Kaiser),” RAC 19 (1999), 668-763, for example, is not mentioned. One also misses also some French and Italian scholarship, such as G. Gauthier, Justinien (Paris 1998) and P. Maraval, L’empereur Justinien (Paris 1999) as well as the work of G. G. Archi.