OUP (2018) p/b 393pp £22.99 (ISBN 9780197500538)

Who was to blame for the ruin of the Eastern Roman Empire in the late 6th and first half of the 7th centuries? The finger is usually pointed at Justinian (482-565) and his exuberant military adventures in North Africa and Italy. But, surely, they were successes, and success is built on success? Not if those adventures turn out to be unsustainable, and to have exhausted the military and economic resources of the empire. But H. thinks that’s all a bit too simplistic.

He begins with what a Byzantine Emperor is for. That’s fairly easily expressed: to preside over an empire entrusted to him by God by protecting and promoting the Church, enhancing the rule of law, spreading her bounds by warfare and ensuring a return on investment to enable more of the above. And it can be fairly claimed that Justinian achieved all this with his building programme, his search for religious unity, his summation and rationalising of the law and his largely profitable warmongering. Exemplary as this may sound, it’s not the way H. tells it, and he locates his historiographical sting where it belongs—in the tail.

The whack-a-mole nature of negotiating with Khavad of Persia presented Justinian with the opportunity to take North Africa back from the Vandals whilst Khavad wasn’t looking (distracted by threats to his northern border). Belisarius’ blitzkrieg is vivid and exciting, and the Vandals had no answer to his new model army and the deployment of light and heavy cavalry. All this presented the opportunity to go on to regain Italy from the Goths whilst there was the military talent to do this: Belisarius, Narses, Germanus, Bessas amongst them.

Destruction resulting from the Nika riots of 532 presented an opportunity to initiate a massive, restorative building programme, starting with the devastated centre of Constantinople and focusing on religious and civic construction. He further sought to promote the church through a series of councils to heal schisms through agreement on the nature(s) of Christ.

Those fortunate enough to live within the bounds of God’s and Justinian’s realm deserved a legal code to match the empire’s beauty and justice, and Justinian cracked the whip to get centuries of law making rationalised and put together, without repetitions and with clarification of judicial findings.

So it looks as though Justinian could tick off all the key headings. Nor can some of the major charges against him be made to stick: for instance, that territory in the east was lost during the African and Italian campaigns and taxes had to meet the costs. In fact, the wars probably paid for themselves, and seem to have caused no damage to allegiance to the empire. Even the onset of the so-called Justinian plague in 541 doesn’t seem to have initiated an economic downturn—that didn’t happen until the 7th century. The causes of the economic and military catastrophes of the 7th century were the Persian wars renewed by Justin II, the enforced, punitive peace of Maurice, the rise of Islam and the appearance of the Western Turks.

So with one bound he is free of all blame? No, and here comes that sting. Justinian’s motives for his most spectacular achievements were ‘internal political agendas and immediate opportunism’. He was in bad trouble after the Nika riots and failures against Persia, and he knew he was at risk. He would hang on to the throne to his last breath. So he seized every opportunity to make himself look good: the building programme, the healing of religious dissent, the rush job on the legal code and the (ultimately unsustainable) recovery of Africa and Italy. But here lies his share of the blame for subsequent imperial woes. He had set a recklessly high bar for those who followed him. What was needed, perhaps, was a philosopher, maybe a Hadrian for whom imperium sine fine had its own inbuilt destruction. What they got were successors with ambitions beyond their competence, whose decision making was compromised by what had gone on before, and who ruined an empire by a fifty-year war and a toxic peace.

Rome Resurgent is utterly brilliant.

Adrian Spooner