Thursday, 27 September 2012

The Byzantine Empire - Trouble at Home and Abroad

Assassination of Chosroes
he outer fringes of the Byzantine Empire were now suffering from depredation. There was insurrection, started by Moorish tribes, spreading across Africa. While the Ostrogoths were hitting back in Italy and had recaptured Naples. In Persia Chosroes’ plans for yet another attack on the empire had been stymied by further bout of the plague and a rebellion fomented by one of his sons. But this was offset in late summer by the annihilation of a large Byzantine army by a much smaller Persian force. The army had been marching into Persian held Armenia.

Trouble in Italy

In Italy the Goths had chosen a new king, Hildebad, but he had not much more than a thousand fighting men. Five Byzantine generals of secondary abilities were stationed in Italy, with no one supreme commander. In May 541 Hildebad was beheaded by one of his guards. His successor tried to come to terms with Justinian and he too died a violent death.

The new king now elected was known as Totila and was Hildebad's nephew. Totila was to bring about a resurgence of Goth fortunes. Totila had been negotiating with the Byzantines, but when elected to the kingship declared war. Aware that the Goths were a minority in the country Totila courted the Italian lower and middle classes. They threw their lot in with Totila and his men in an attempt to throw off the yoke of empire; having been subject to the rapacity of Justinian’s tax collectors[i].

Within months of his accession Totila was able to throw back an imperial army of twelve thousand men from the gates of Verona and wiped out another in a pitched battle outside Faventia[ii]. In spring 542 AD the Goths routed the army of Vitalian’s nephew John, the ablest of the five Byzantine generals in Italy. Totila’s army now laid siege to Naples.

Totila besieging Florence
Justinian appointed a Praetorian Prefect who took up residence in Syracuse and refused to leave the town. Totila defeated a naval expedition sent to relieve Naples and a second expedition, sent by the prefect in January 543 AD, was destroyed in a storm. In May the Neapolitans surrendered.  The Byzantine garrison were allowed to leave in peace with all their possessions and ships were provided to take them to Rome. For the remainder of the year Totila strengthened his hold on the peninsula.

In January 544 AD the Byzantine generals based in Italy wrote to Justinian informing him that they could no longer defend Byzantine interests. This letter convinced Justinian to send Belisaurus back to Italy. Totila addressed an appeal to the Senate in Rome

‘Surely in these evil days you must sometimes remember the benefits you were wont to receive, not so very long ago, at the hands of Theodoric and Amalasuntha…….My Roman friends, only compare the memory of those rulers with what we now know of the conduct of the Greeks towards their subjects.’[iii]

John, the nephew of Vitalian, forbad the Senate to reply and Totila tried a direct appeal to the Roman populace. The populace, perhaps put off by the military based in the city, did not rise up. Totila had been busy in the south besieging Hydruntum[iv]. He left a small force to continue the siege and marched most of his troops to Rome.

Belisaurus Returns

Belisaurus was given command of the army in the west, although he had hoped for the eastern command. Antonina refused to return to somewhere she had been so grossly insulted and in this she was supported by the empress.

In May 544 AD Belisaurus returned to Italy, not ranked as Magister Militum but as Comes Stabuli[v]; but Justinian had given him only inexperienced troops, little authority and no funds. Within a year he had raised the siege of Hydruntum, and Auximum and rebuilt the walls of Pesaro. Belisaurus had however seen desertions from his troops, many of whom had not been paid for over a year. With a population hostile to his forces and all they represented Belisaurus was facing an uphill task.

 In May 545 AD he wrote to Justinian informing the emperor that he desperately needed men, horses, military equipment and money. The letter was sent in the hands of John, who dallied in Constantinople for long enough to woo and marry the emperor’s cousin, thus increasing his influence in the imperial court. He finally returned bring a large force of Romans and barbarians under his own command and an Armenian general named Isaac.

The Fall of Rome


As the new Byzantine forces landed Totila’s army arrived at the walls of Rome and laid siege to the city. Bessas, the commander of the garrison was of Goth origin and his loyalties were uncertain; having failed to lay in emergency supplies[vi]. Totila’s fleet lay at the mouth of the Tiber. Belisaurus’s relief force broke through the chains laid across the river. Part of the army had been left in control of Portus, with supplies, reserves, the last few vessels and most important of all for Belisaurus, his wife Antonina, under the control of General Isaac.

About to attack the last major obstacle on the Tiber, before Rome, Belisaurus was informed that Isaac was dead. Isaac had been informed that he was not to leave his post under ANY circumstances. Belisaurus assumed that Portus had been taken and his enemies now had Antonina in their hands. He called off the attack and returned, only to find that Isaac had disobeyed orders and had attacked Ostia. Portus and Antonina were safe.

‘Totila was desperate to catch him outside a protecting wall; but he failed to make contact, as Belisaurus and the entire Roman army were in the grip of panic fear, with the result that he not only failed to recover a yard of lost ground but actually lost Rome as well, and very nearly everything else.’[vii]

This last chance to relieve Rome was lost as a result of Isaac’s disobedience and Belisaurus’s uxorious inclinations. In December 546 AD a group of disaffected soldiers opened the Asinarian gate and the Goths finally retook the city. Bessas fled with most of the garrison and some nobles. The population took refuge in the city’s churches.

Totila sent ambassadors to Justinian suggesting peace.

‘It is our wish that you should accept for yourself the blessings of peace, and that you should also grant them to us…….we have excellent examples and reminders in Anastasius and Theodoric, who ruled not long ago and whose reigns were given over to peace and prosperity.’[viii]

Justinian was unwillingly to ‘throw away’ the last ten years of campaigning and the loss of his cherished ambition to re-unite the two halves of the old Roman Empire. He claimed that Belisaurus was the person to whom the proposals should be addressed. Rome was recaptured in April 547 AD and held for three years before it was lost again.

Religious Disputes

Justinian was now heavily involved in theological matters. The orthodox view of the identity of Christ had been laid down by the Council of Chalcedon nearly a century before. In himself Christ united the human and divine. This viewpoint had never been accepted by the monophysites (of whom Theodora was one) who believed in only a divine aspect to Christ.

The monophysites were to be found in the eastern Mediterranean and were too numerous to be eliminated. Egypt, the empire’s source of grain, was a centre for the monophysites and harsh treatment could incite a rebellion. Treating them too well ran the risk of upsetting the orthodox. For years Justinian had been outwardly rigid, but his hard line was tempered by Theodora, who had maintained a discreet monastery in the Great Palace.

Now a charismatic new leader, Jacob Baradeus, was championing the monophysite cause. He was consecrated Bishop of Edessa in 543 AD, by the exiled Patriarch of Alexandria; although unable to take up his see Jacob embarked on a mission to revive monophysitism. He travelled through Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia and Asia Minor consecrating thirty bishops in his travels and ordaining several thousand priests.

Justinian was already being criticised for his ‘hands-off’ policy towards the monophysites, yet their newly awakened fanaticism required careful handling if rebellion against the empire was not to ensue. He chose instead to chastise the Nestorians, an obscure sect who proclaimed the humanity of Christ rather than his divinity. Very few remained in the empire, most had fled to Persia; the paucity of Nestorians in the empire meant that action against them would not cause the crises that attacking the monophysites might. The Nestorians had the additional attraction of being hated by Orthodox and monophysites alike.

The anti-Nestorian edict in 544 AD pleased very few; the orthodox toed the emperor’s line, somewhat unwillingly. The monophysites were unappeased, having expected concessions from Justinian, while the Roman clergy were livid with anger. Justinian had condemned writings accepted by the Council of Chalcedon and the papal legate in Constantinople pronounced a ban on the Patriarch. Justinian had offended the Roman church at a problematic time in Italy for the empire.

In the autumn of 545, as Totila’s army surrounded Rome, a company of excubitors seized Pope Vigilius and carried him off down river. He was taken to Catania in Sicily, where he stayed for a year, not arriving in Constantinople until January 547 AD. He still stood firm in refusing to condemn the works disparaged in Justinian’s edict of 544 AD. Vigilius was given a palace of his own, but even so placed the patriarch and all bishops, who had subscribed to the edict, under several months excommunication.

Pressure from Theodora and Justinian resulted in a show of reconciliation between Vigilius and the Patriarch Mennas on 29th June. The Pope also handed Justinian his signed condemnation of the chapters referred to in the edict. The condemnation was not published until April 548 AD.

Eleven weeks later Theodora was dead. After her death many of her former protégés repudiated statements made during her lifetime, supporting the edicts. Vigilius’ actions had weakened the authority of the Council of Chalcedon and he was reviled as a turncoat; some African bishops excommunicated him.


Byzantium – The Early Centuries – John Julius Norwich, Folio Society 2003

The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990

[i] The tax collectors were given one twelfth of all they collected.
[ii] Faenza
[iii] Byzantium - Norwich
[iv] Otranto
[v] Count of the Stable
[vi] During the siege itself Bessas sold off what meagre supplies were available on the black market.
[vii] Secret History - Procopius
[viii] Byzantium - Norwich

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