Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Byzantine Empire - Expanding the Empire

Early in Justinian’s reign the treasury was hit by a number of large demands for monies; not just bread and circuses. The government provided support for cities struck by earthquake, helping survivors – Antioch in 528 AD and Laodicea in the following year. A war with Persia swallowed up men and money until peace was agreed in 531 AD. The peace required a tribute of 11,000 lbs of gold per annum to the Persians. In addition Justinian commenced a lavish building programme.

This expenditure was funded by taxes. A reorganisation of the tax collection system provided economies of scale and increased revenue. To provide funds for the increase expenditure new taxes had to be invented and for the first time the rich too had to pay. Centralisation of government reduced the power of local officials.
Unfortunately the man Justinian placed in charge of the reforms, John of Cappodocia, although an extremely able official, was also morally depraved. He imprisoned, flogged and even tortured those he suspected of under-declaring or hiding their wealth. His ‘private’ life was viewed with contempt by his contemporaries and he was seen as a glutton, drunkard and debauchee.

By 532 AD John of Cappodocia was the most hated man in the empire; but his bad reputation was closely matched by that of the Quaestor of the Sacred Palace. Tribonian, who was the most senior law officer of the government, was a pagan and corrupt; prepared to sell justice to the highest bidder. He was a charming and erudite man, whose breadth of knowledge may have attracted the emperor’s attention.
Justinian wanted Tribonian to undertake a re-codification of Roman law. The new Codex was completed in fourteen months and by mid-April 529 AD was in force throughout the empire. A year later a second commission under Tribonian began a second codification.

The Nika Riots
The first five years of Justinian’s reign created the emperor a lot of enemies. He dispensed with the support of the Blue faction and now both the Blue and Green factions found themselves being brutally suppressed.

In 532 AD after races at the Hippodrome the two factions came to blows and Justinian sent in the troops. Seven of the ringleaders were condemned to death, but two of the seven were found to be alive after the bodies were brought down from the scaffold; one Blue and one Green. The two men were rescued by a group of monk and taken to sanctuary, where the City prefect decided to starve them out, placing the buildings under guard.
The crowd at the next meeting at the Hippodrome chanted the word ‘Nika’[i] over and over again. The games were abandoned in disarray and the mob spilled out into the streets where they commenced by setting fire to the City Prefect’s palace and freeing all the prisoners.

The second night of rioting called for the dismissal of the City prefect and John of Cappodocia. By the fifth day the mob were demanding a new emperor and Justinian faced them down at the Hippodrome, taking full blame for the disturbances and promising an amnesty for all who had taken part in the riots.
The mob were still calling for a new emperor, crowning one of Emperor Anastasius’ nephews Hypatius. Justinian was meanwhile arranging for the court to leave the capital. It was now that Theodora intervened.

‘Every man born into the light of day must sooner or later die. And how could an emperor ever allow himself to be a fugitive?’[ii]
Two generals, Belisaurus and Mundus were authorised to use arms to restore order. With assistance from the Commander of the Imperial Bodyguard Narses; the soldiers slaughtered the crowds at the Hippodrome. On Theodora’s order Hypatius and his brother were executed, to avoid the risk of their being used in any future revolt. Within a few weeks Justinian had reinstated both the City Prefect and John of Cappodocia.

After the riots large swathes of Constantinople required rebuilding and Justinian already in his fifties, wanted to see the buildings completed in his lifetime.

Justinian believed not only in one church, but also in one empire. His goal was the recovery f the empire lost in the west; he considered it his Christian duty. The empire’s most talented general, Belisaurus, had already inflicted defeat on the Persians to the east. He was now ready to take an army to Africa. Belisaurus’s main liability was his wife Antonina, a friend of Theodora’s. The two had shared a similar lifestyle when young and Antonina had borne several children, in and out of wedlock. Belisaurus took her with him on campaign, possibly as the best method of keeping her under some control.
Procopius was not impressed with Antonina

‘So it was already her intention to be unfaithful from the start. She took great care to conceal this business, not because her conduct gave her any qualms, or because she stood in any fear of her spouse - she never felt the slightest shame for any action whatever, and thanks to her regular use of magic she could twist her husband round her little finger – but because she dreaded the vengeance of the empress; for Theodora was only to ready to rage at her and bare her teeth. But by assisting her in matters of exceptional importance she quickly brought her to heel.’[iii]

In under three months Belisaurus captured Carthage from the Vandals. Their prince was not killed and he rallied his remaining forces taking to the field again in early December 533 AD. On the 1115th Belisaurus defeated the Vandals and took the Vandal city of Hippo, along with the Royal Treasury. Belisaurus was awarded a triumph; the first person not a member of the imperial family to be awarded one for over a century. Justinian and Theodora received the submission of the Vandal prince in the Hippodrome.
Justinian’s eyes had now turned westwards to where the Ostrogoths ruled as nominal Viceroys for the emperor. Justinian had been in contact with Amalasuntha, the mother of the young king; she had come to an agreement with Justinian as the Ostrogoth nobles had removed her son from her care. After the death of her son she was imprisoned by her cousin Theodahad’s nobles[iv] and Justinian wrote to the Ostrogoth court demanding her release, promising to intervene in Ostrogoth affairs if this was not done.

Theodora meanwhile had written to Theodahad assuring him that Justinian would be happy if Theodahad had his cousin put out of the way. It is not known whether this letter was part of a plan organised between Justinian and Theodora; or as Procopius suggests, that the empress was motivated by jealousy of an intelligent and cultivated woman, who she may have viewed as a threat.
‘Theodora reflected that the woman was an aristocrat and a queen, besides being extremely attractive in appearance and as swift as lightning to find means to her ends, and being suspicious of her splendid and extraordinarily masculine bearing, the fickle spirit of her own husband giving her further cause for alarm.’[v]

Justinian sent General Mundus to occupy Dalmatia. Mundus was killed in battle, while Belisaurus took Sicily without much opposition. At this point Belisaurus was called back to Africa to deal with a mutiny in the Imperial Army of Occupation.
It was not until spring 536 AD that Belisaurus was able to begin campaigning on the Italian mainland. After a siege Naples was taken and then sacked. Theodahad was blamed by the Goths for failing to relieve the city. It was believed that he had been bribed by Justinian to betray his country; while the Imperial Army sets its sights on Rome. Theodahad had already accepted one bribe from Justinian and failed to deliver on his promise and now he was deposed by the tribal elders. Theodohad fled but was caught and executed at Ravenna.

Belisaurus spent the summer and autumn consolidating his grip on southern Italy; moving northwards in December to occupy Rome. The Goth garrisons marched out of the city as the Imperial army marched in. The Goths, as expected, returned to lay siege to the city; but Belisaurus had organised his troops to repair the city walls and commandeer supplies.
The siege lasted 373 days and the Goths commenced by cutting all the aqueducts; which provided not only the majority of the city’s water, but also provided the power to grind corn for bread, the staple food of the masses.

The siege was raised after a contingent of Belisaurus’s men took the town of Ariminum, two hundred miles to the Goths’ rear. A truce in November, for peace terms to be considered by Justinian, had allowed a reprovisioning of the city. In mid-March 538 AD the Goth troops withdrew and Belisaurus and his men fell on the retreating army, leaving large numbers of Goth troops dead, some drowned in the Tiber’s spring flood. A few days later Belisaurus set out to conquer the north.

Byzantium – The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003
The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990

[i] Win; this was normally followed by the name of the faction being supported. In this instance the crowd continually chanted the single word nika.
[ii] Byzantium - Norwich
[iii] Secret History - Procopius
[iv] Amalasuntha and her cousin Theodahad had agreed to share the ruling of the Ostrogoth kingdom between them, but this agreement soon unravelled.
[v] Secret History - Procopius

1 comment:

  1. Being of eclectic tastes, I know more about Amalsuentha and the Goths than I do about Byzantium, so looking at it from the other angle is fascinating.