Thursday, 4 October 2012

The Byzantine Empire - The End of the Reign

After Theodora

Now the situation in Italy was stalemate and Belisaurus decided to appeal to Justinian through the medium of Antonina for money and re-enforcements. In midsummer 548 AD Antonina arrived in Constantinople to find the city in deepest black. Theodora had died of cancer. Justinian was too wrapped up in his grief to see anyone and was incapable of making decisions. Antonina arranged for Belisaurus’s recall so that the seemingly certain loss of the empire in the west could not be laid at his door.

Belisaurus’s return to Constantinople was greeted with pleasure by Justinian. His doubts about his friend had been nurtured by Theodora, whose death opened a reawakening of the friendship between the two men. Justinian continued to mourn Theodora until he died.

In 550 AD disaffected members of the Byzantine garrison in Rome opened the gates to the Goths, who now gave every indication that they were prepared to stay, taking over empty homes. The senate was re-opened and refugees were encouraged to return; whilst damaged buildings were repaired.

Totila not only presided over games in the Circus Maximus, but his fleets were ravaging the coasts of Italy and Sicily, returning in 551 AD loaded with plunder. In response Justinian decided to send a force under the command of his cousin Germanus, long overlooked as Theodora had conceived a dislike of this able general.

‘Such savage enmity against Germanus had the empress conceived – enmity of which she made no secret at all – that although he was the emperor’s nephew[i] no one dared marry into his family, and his sons remained single until their best years were gone.’[ii]

Germanus had also recently married Matasuntha, widow of an Ostrogoth king who had died in captivity in Constantinople. Matasuntha was the granddaughter of the Ostrogoth king Theodoric.

Germanus had an army larger than any ever assigned to Belisaurus, but his death in Sardica[iii] in the autumn left his army leaderless. The childless Justinian had just lost a potential successor. The recall of the army would lead to a tacit admission that Totila had won his fight for Italy. Instead Justinian sent Narses, now in his late seventies, to Italy to command his troops.

Ancient Generals Victorious

There were only four cities left in Italy under Byzantine control – Ravenna, Hydruntum, Ancona and Crotone. Narses had an army of 35,000 men, larger that commanded by Germanus. They left Constantinople in the spring of 551 AD but spent most of the year in Thrace and Illyria recruiting more troops. The march into Italy began in 522 AD overland to Ravenna, where Narses was able to give the remnants of the local troops their long overdue pay. They then marched down the peninsula

At the end of June the decisive battle for Italy took place near a town called Taginae on the Via Flaminia. The outclassed Goth army fled in the evening and Totila, mortally wounded, died in the village of Caprae[iv]. The Goths elected one of Totila’s generals as their new leader, to continue the struggle. Narses marched south where city after city opened its gates to the victor. Rome fell after a brief siege. Narses had been informed that the majority of Totila’s treasury was held at Cumae. He was determined to emancipate the bullion and treasure before the remnants of the Goth army could reach the town.

The new Goth king had the same aim in reverse and the two armies met at the end of October 552 AD. Again the Goth army was defeated and their king was killed by a javelin, and the following day the few Goths left agreed to terms. They were to leave Italy and agree to indulge in no further fighting against the empire. In return the Goths were allowed to take all their movable goods with them and promised that they would never be forcibly conscripted into the imperial army.

At the same time an imperial army under the command of a general, probably in his mid-eighties - Liberius[v] was marching through Spain. According to Procopius there had previously been a falling out between Justinian and Liberius. Following a dispute with an official who had taken over Liberius’s post in Egypt the two came to blows and the new post holder was killed.

‘Liberius was instantly summoned to Byzantium. Where the Senate, after making a thorough investigation of the case, acquitted him, as he had not been the aggressor but had been defending himself when the dreadful thing happened. The emperor, however, did not allow the matter to drop until he had secretly forced him to pay a heavy fine.’[vi]

    Visigoth gold tremisses in the name of Justinian
In 551 AD Athangild, a relative of the reigning Visigoth king in Spain, Agila, rebelled against his sovereign. Athangild called for help to Justinian, providing the Byzantines with an excuse for intervening. At the same time the citizens of Cordova were in a state of revolt against the Visigoth overlords.

Circa two to three thousand men were despatched from Narses’ army to Spain to support Athangild. The Visigoth army was divided in its loyalties and it did not take Liberius long to take control of the country below a line drawn from Valencia to Cadiz. In 555 AD Agila was murdered by disaffected troops and Athangild assumed the crown. An agreement was reached between the new king and Liberius; the empire would retain the lands it had conquered, keeping control of the Balearic islands, even if it did not possess the soldiers to control the lands that Liberius had conquered.

Religious Issues, Violent Answers

Pope Vigilius felt that his support for Justinian’s edict of 544 AD had been won as the result of blackmail. The Pope had also been concerned by the reaction to his support. His attempts to regain control of the church in the West had brought him into divergence from the emperor. When Justinian issued a second edict on what Justinian believed were the basic tenets of Christianity and ending with a violent condemnation of the works maligned in the first edict, Vigilius protested that the edict went beyond the principles of Chalcedon and urged Justinian to withdraw it.

There appears to have been other issues relating to the priesthood that emperor and Pope disagreed over.

‘But Vigilius, who was in Byzantium at the time, flatly refused to yield to the emperor if he should issue such instructions[vii].’[viii]

In the event Justinian refused to withdraw the edict and an assembly of both eastern and western bishops pronounced against it, and forbad any cleric to say Mass at a church that exhibited the edict. Two clerics ignoring the pronouncement were immediately excommunicated. Justinian flew into a rage and the Pope took refuge in the church of St Peter and St Paul. The city police, members of the imperial guard and the Praetor of the People attempted to drag the Pope out of the church. A crowd had gathered by the time the altar the Pope was clinging too, fell about his head. They vigorously protested this treatment of the Pontiff.

The soldiery departed and the next day Belisaurus arrived to give Vigilius the emperor’s regrets for the invasion, assuring him that he could return to his residence. Upon his return Vigilius discovered that he was being kept under close supervision, approximating to house arrest. In the night of 23rd December 551 AD Vigilius exited the palace that had been loaned to him, taking a small boat to Chalcedon, and positing himself in the Church of St Euphemia. Belisaurus was again sent to plead with the Pope, who this time refused to budge. Vigilius produced an Encyclical giving his side of the dispute. In the spring the Patriarch and other excommunicated bishops, under orders from Justinian, humbled themselves before Vigilius in an attempt to break the stand-off.

Vigilius returned to his palace and Justinian’s latest edict was withdrawn. Justinian now decreed that a new ecumenical council, under the chairmanship of Vigilius, should reconsider the matters under dispute. The new council met on 5th May 553 AD, without Vigilius, who now disagreed with Justinian on the way the council was to work. The council was led by the new Patriarch Eutychius. Vigilius wrote a paper to counteract one written by Justinian. But unfortunately for him, Justinian was in a position where he did not need to pacify Vigilius; as the West of the empire was now firmly in the hands of the Byzantines.

In response Justinian decreed that Vigilius’s name be struck from the diptychs. The ecumenical council formally endorsed the emperor’s decree. Vigilius was sent into exile and told that he would not be allowed to return to Rome until he accepted the council’s findings. Six months later, in great pain from kidney stones, Vigilius capitulated.

The Road to Death

It took Justinian another ten years to die. Years that saw a deterioration in his abilities to rule and which adversely affected the empire. Yet Justinian was unwilling to delegate responsibility. Money was short and whereas in previous years Justinian would have found the monies by one means or another, now he left things to his ministers.

Defence of the empire had always been one of the emperor’s priorities, but by 555 AD Justinian had allowed the imperial army to fall to a mere 150,000 men, from a high of 645,000. The frontier fortresses he had caused to be built in the dynamic years of his reign, now stood abandoned. In his declining years the main focus of Justinian’s energies was religion.

Enormous sums of money, from an almost bankrupt treasury, were paid to the Persians for a fifty year peace treaty in 556 AD. In 559 AD a tribe of Huns swept down into Thessaly and Thrace to within twenty miles of the capital. They followed in the footsteps of Slavs who overran the Balkan peninsula in 548 and 500 AD.

To see off the Huns Justinian called Belisaurus back to duty. Belisaurus and his troops ambushed the Huns and drove them back to their base camp near Arcadiopolis[ix]. Justinian did not allow Belisaurus to wipe out the Huns, as he may have been able to do, but bought them off with promises of subsidies. For this Justinian awarded himself a triumph. It is possible that he was again jealous of Belisaurus’s military capabilities. Belisaurus retired back into private life.

In the autumn of 562 AD a conspiracy against Justinian was uncovered and one of the conspirators named Belisaurus as being involved. There was no proof but Belisaurus had all his dignities and privileges removed. It took eight months to persuade Justinian that Belisaurus was innocent and to reinstate him.

On 14th November 565 AD Justinian died; eight months after Belisaurus. The dynamic Justinian was a force for expansion in his early years as emperor, backed by the indomitable Theodora. Once he lost his wife much of his enthusiasm expired too. His policy of buying off enemies failed to take into account the premise that more enemies might be attracted by the allure of enormous bribes.

Some consideration should be given as to why Procopius was so malevolent towards Justinian and Theodora and the reasons for writing his Secret History, which is often at odds with his publically acknowledged works. As a supporter of Belisaurus, Procopius had some motives for traducing the imperial couple and Antonina.


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

The Secret History – Procopius – Folio Society 1990

[i] There seems to be some discrepancy between Procopius and Norwich as to the relationship between Germanus and Justinian
[ii] Secret History - Procopius
[iii] Sofia
[iv] Capara
[v] Records show that Liberius was Praetorian Prefect in Italy 60 years previously
[vi] Secret History - Procopius
[vii] To reinstate a priest who had treated his flock in Alexandria with cruelty, had been defrocked, and now agreed with Justinian to purchase his priesthood by paying £105,000 to the emperor.
[viii] Secret History - Procopius
[ix] L├╝leburgaz

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