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The Eastern Roman Empire, AD 527 - 565



The death of Theodosius the Great in AD 395 marked the formal division of the Roman Empire, leaving east and west to face the oncoming turmoil of the fifth century alone. From the outset, the western empire found itself without the all-round prowess and efficiency of its eastern counterpart, a fact which had already been confirmed since the unprecedented crises of the mid-third century. Although the Romans emerged united from the successive civil wars, foreign invasions and economic regression, the architects of the empire’s fourth century revival – most notably emperors Diocletian and Constantine – placed the focal point of their power in the east, increasingly leaving the western provinces to their fate in the face of continued internal dissension, economic stagnation and Germanic incursions. To further consolidate the east as the new heart of the empire, Constantine ultimately founded a ‘New Rome’ at the ancient town of Byzantium in AD 330 – Constantinople – with its own Senate and a new governmental framework. Constantine thus literally distanced himself from the corruption and decline back in Rome, as if reconciling himself with the idea that revitalising the west had become a hopeless endeavour which the east should no longer pay for.

When the empire formally split in AD 395, the eastern government boasted a degree of efficiency and uniformity unseen in the west because it mainly consisted of people of lower social status – people hand-picked by the emperor who owed much of their fortune directly to him – as opposed to the west’s ancient senatorial nobility. A loyal power base allowed the eastern emperors to act decisively against any dissent and keep a tighter rein on state affairs. By contrast, the corrupt senators in the west sabotaged their emperor wherever possible, monopolising key positions in the central government but refusing to work or pay for it and acting as de facto independent magnates within their personal domains. The situation was further worsened by the fact that the west lacked the east’s high degree of urbanisation, dense population and access to far-reaching trade networks and circulation of currency. Bereft of the stabilising influence of the east, the west quickly proved unable to pay for itself and was forced to accept increasing numbers of Germanic peoples into its territory, assigning them lands to govern as Roman ‘allies’ (Latin: foederati) and recruiting them into the army. This policy had its precedent in the agreement made with the Salian Franks as early as AD 355, four decades before the actual division of the empire. However, the western empire proved unable to control its new subjects and could do little to stop them from establishing and expanding independent enclaves. The central government’s resulting inability to raise taxes and recruit soldiers further increased its reliance on Germanic mercenary forces and caused the Roman senatorial elite to try and secure their personal power and wealth, leaving the ailing empire essentially powerless to rule. By AD 486, the western empire had fallen apart into independent Germanic kingdoms from the British Isles to Africa, effectively reducing the Roman Empire to its eastern half.

While the west collapsed, the east held out well enough. Constantinople’s relatively efficient administration and versatile economy raised the finances required to maintain and expand the imperial bureaucracy and infrastructure, buy off invaders (most notably the Huns) and hire barbarian mercenaries to bolster the army. The policy of military barbarisation was nevertheless halted in time and by the end of the fifth century, the eastern armies had been rebuilt with Roman recruits from Asia Minor. Combined with the excellent position and defences of Constantinople itself, the eastern empire proved strong enough to hold on to its heartlands at all times.

Although the empire remained intact, it also underwent a significant internal transformation: the Christianisation of its entire society. After a final bout of persecution under Diocletian in the early fourth century, Constantine gave Christianity the formal right to exist in AD 313 and wielded the Christian Church as one of his most powerful weapons throughout his reign, especially in building his new power base at Constantinople from AD 330. By the time Theodosius declared Christianity the state religion of the empire in AD 380, the bulk of the Roman people in east and west had already converted and the Church had become the most powerful institution in the empire, second only to the imperial government. The division of the empire upon Theodosius’ death in AD 395 did not hamper the influence of the Christian faith and the Church. Throughout the fifth and sixth century, the eastern empire saw the gradual disappearance of many things characterising the ancient identity of Rome: amphitheatres, public bathhouses, theatres, gymnasia, pagan temples and festivals were branded ‘profane’ and 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 constricted view on marriage and sexuality, a glorification of virginity, monogamy and celibacy and the creation of a new monastic class with considerable governmental influence.

The empire had nevertheless changed little since the days of Diocletian and Constantine in terms of its governmental framework: until far into the sixth century, the imperial administration continued to be founded on prefectures, dioceses and provinces and the distinction between the government’s military and civil branches. Perhaps more importantly, the ideological attitude of Constantinople differed nothing from that of Rome in its heydays: only the Roman Empire had a right to exist, there could be no empire besides that of the Romans. The ‘circle of lands’ (Latin: Orbis Terrarum) once ruled by Rome had been broken by the western empire’s disintegration into a collection of Germanic kingdoms, but Constantinople considered this a temporary setback which could, would and had to be fixed. As the eastern empire grew in power at the dawn of the sixth century, it began to propagate the restoration of the imperial territory and dignity in its ancient entirety – Renovatio Imperii Romanorum. Boasts of this magnitude were nothing new to the Romans, but the propagandists of Constantinople now increased the importance of the religious element. After all, the empire had become the strongest proponent of Christianity – supposedly the ‘one true faith’ – and was deeply convinced of its central role in God’s plan. 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 known world. Most of the Germanic kingdoms in the west were in fact already Christian but – with the exception of the Franks since AD 496 – they adhered to Arianism, which the Church had condemned as heresy at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 and again at the Council of Constantinople in AD 381. In the eyes of Constantinople, the western barbarians were thus not only destroyers and usurpers of Rome’s legacy but also dangerous heretics – an insufferable insult to the empire and God.

The man who led the Romans in their final attempt at restoring the empire was Justinian the Great, who rose to the throne of Constantinople in AD 527. Under his leadership, the Romans lost little time 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 redefined.

To avoid a two-front war, the Romans first fought the Sassanid Empire – their traditional eastern nemesis – to a standstill in the Iberian War and subsequently concluded an ‘Eternal Peace’ in AD 532. Having neutralised the eastern front, Constantinople launched the final Roman assault on the western Mediterranean by attacking the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa in AD 533. The Romans smashed the Vandals at the Battles of Ad Decimum and Tricamarum that same year, reclaiming Africa and avenging the Vandal destruction of Rome in AD 455. Following up on its lightning victory in Africa, the empire invaded Ostrogothic Italy already in AD 535. Stubborn enemy resistance inflicted several defeats on the Romans and caused the war to drag on for nearly twenty years until a series of decisive Roman victories ruined Ostrogothic power, most notably at the Battles of Sena Gallica in AD 551, Taginae in AD 552 and Montes Lactarius in AD 553. However, the Ostrogoths brilliantly convinced the Sassanid Empire to reopen the eastern front from AD 542 onward, despite the ‘Eternal Peace’. Constantinople ended up fighting no less than four wars at the same time, invading the Iberian peninsula to attack the Visigoths in AD 552 while fighting the Ostrogoths in Italy, Berber tribes in Africa and the Sassanids in the east. Though the Romans reconquered southern Spain, were victorious in Italy, held out in Africa and fought the Sassanids to a new status quo, the ultimate goal of reclaiming the western territories proved too ambitious to accomplish. Three years after the death of Justinian in AD 565, the Langobard invasion of Italy undid much of Constantinople’s hard-fought reconquests, although 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 must be considered a short-lived pyrrhic victory at best, especially in the long run.

Far more enduring and successful was the second goal of the Renovatio-policy: the purification and codification of Roman law. To accomplish this, Justinian formed a commission of jurists of the imperial court and the empire’s most prestigious schools of law: Berytus (modern-day Beirut, Lebanon) and Constantinople itself. The fruit of their labour bloomed by AD 534 and went down into history as the monumental Corpus Iuris Civilis. Although it was presented as a single ‘body of civil law’, it actually consisted of three parts. First of all, the Codex Iustinianus gathered all the imperial edicts issued from the reign of Hadrian (AD 117 – 138) to that of Justinian until the year AD 533. Its primary purpose was to replace earlier incomplete compilations, most prominently the Codex Theodosianus, issued in AD 439 by Theodosius II and Valentinian III in the eastern and western empire, respectively. Upon Justinian’s death in AD 565, his Codex was expanded by the addition of edicts issued after AD 533 – the Novellae Constitutiones. The second and largest part of the Corpus was the Digesta, also known as the Pandectae: an assortment of legislative writings authored by no less than thirty-nine celebrated jurists from the heydays of the Roman Empire, including Gaius, Paulus, Papinian and Ulpian. The third part of the Corpus was the smallest but may have been the most influential on a day-to-day basis: the Institutes, a systematic overview of laws compiled as a handbook for law students, lawyers and jurists alike.

The bottom line of the Corpus was before anything that law and justice were no longer vested in ‘the people of Rome’ – represented by the Senate – but the emperor alone. Justinian’s Corpus thus not only made him the beating heart of Roman legislation, but also presented him as a ruler who considered the protection of his people a primary concern. However, the Corpus remained a fairly inefficient instrument for a long time because fewer and fewer people – even the intellectual elite – spoke and wrote the Latin language. Use of the Corpus was frequently restricted to unofficial Greek excerpts until the imperial government released a more or less complete Greek translation at the end of the ninth century and added a vast number of laws issued in the more than three hundred years since the Corpus was first created.

The third goal of Justinian’s Renovatio-policy represented the interweavement of state and religion and the idea that the emperor was the guardian of both. Like Constantine and Theodosius before him, Justinian considered it the supreme right and duty of the emperor to lead – and by extent, control – the Christian Church and safeguard the Christian faith against both internal and external threats. This was evident in that Justinian built the greatest cathedral in Christendom – the Hagia Sophia (Latin: Sancta Sophia; Greek: γία Σοφία, Agía Sofía; literally ‘Holy Wisdom’) – right next to the imperial palace in Constantinople, in addition to many other architectural projects of a religious nature throughout the empire. Perhaps more importantly, Justinian frequently used religion in Constantinople’s war-time propaganda and portrayed the wars in the west as a holy struggle against the heresy of Arianism. Religious zeal may have helped brute force abroad but sparked significant problems at home with monophysite teachings which claimed there is no distinction between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. Though condemned as heretics at the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 and the Council of Chalcedon in AD 451, many monophysites still resided in the empire, most notably in Egypt and Syria. Justinian’s pursuit of religious unity not only put monophysites’ loyalty to the empire in question but also created a political ground for attacking them. Neither imperial edicts and crackdowns nor the Second Council of Constantinople in AD 553 could solve the tensions which survived until the Arabs invaded the Middle East and Egypt in AD 634.

Constantinople’s constant state of war weighed heavily upon the empire’s economy, which aimed to support the army before anything. Severe taxation of the people was required for the war effort, not to mention Justinian’s majestic constructions and the food supplies for Constantinople itself. Public discontent grew radically as war exhaustion took its toll and the first European plague epidemic began to ravage the Mediterranean from AD 541. While the Sassanids beleaguered the imperial frontiers in the east and the war kept dragging on in the west, new waves of barbarian invaders – the Avars and Bulgars – advanced from the Ukraine to the Danube by AD 550, subjugating several Slavic peoples along their way and triggering a Slavic invasion of the Balkans from around AD 570.

Justinian died in AD 565, having led the Romans to their greatest triumphs since the days of Diocletian and Constantine. However, the dream of the Renovatio Imperii Romanorum perished with him. Never again would Constantinople be powerful enough to launch a similarly ambitious endeavour, let alone have a realistic chance at accomplishing it. In fact, the ruined economy, the war exhaustion, the plague’s devastating demographic and economic consequences and the renewed foreign invasions plunged the Eastern Roman Empire into an unprecedented crisis during the seventh century, leaving its survival hanging by a thread. The power of Constantinople nevertheless reconsolidated again and re-emerged as what is known in modern times as the Byzantine Empire…


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