Friday, April 14, 2017

Justinian and the Byzantine Empire (Notes:52)

The term ‘Byzantine’ is coined in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries by scholars; the name, being derived from a fishing site called Byzantium, has some intrigue to it: Byzantines would not have called themselves as such, since they would, up to the fifteenth century, call themselves Roman. Indeed, previous lectures have only examined the half of the Roman Empire which collapsed, now we move to the half which did not collapse and outlasted the Western half by about a thousand years.
In many ways, the Byzantine Empire was a continuation of the Roman Empire: education, the idea of the imperial office were both holdovers from the classical period and they survived well within the Byzantine Empire. There is one important difference, however, and that concerns language; specifically, in the Roman Empire, Latin is the language of law and how the most important societal aspects are taught—citizens, moreover, are expected to be bilingual in both Latin and Greek. In Byzantine, however, the citizens stopped using Latin and almost exclusively used Greek (the opposite of what had happened in the Western half). This extended to offices and titles and is how we know there was a real level of differentiation between the Western and Eastern half.

Byzantine emperor Justinian (527-555), though not as well known as Charlemagne, would have just a large an impact. Justinian reconquers Italy from the Ostrogoths and even entertains the idea of reconquering the whole of the former Roman Empire. But, were it not for a political disaster involving Chariot hooligans, Justinian may not have attempted the re-conquest at all: in short, what happened was that opposing Chariot team fans joined forces to try and overthrow Justinian (the Nica Revolt), but Justinian is convinced by his wife, Theodora, to stay and massacre the protesters. Evidence suggests that Justinian may have launched his re-conquest efforts in an effort to bolster his popularity among his subjects.

Justinian, being a methodical individual, signs a peace treaty with the Persian Empire, thus securing his eastern flank. Now free to try and reconquer parts of the former Roman world, Justinian eyes what he would like to gain. But Justinian initially sets his sights not on Italy but Vandal North Africa. He entrusts this task to a trusted general—Belisarius. Justinian bribes the Vandal leader of Sicily to rebel so as to lure the Vandal forces away from North Africa. He succeeds. By 534, Vandal North Africa has, for the most part, been re-absorbed into the Byzantine Empire.

Though Justinian had hoped that he could conquer a barbarian kingdom at the rate of one per year, subsequent attacks would not go so well. As a result, there is some debate as to whether Justinian had a grand re-conquest plan or if he was just a devious opportunist who knew how to respond well to situations; for example, in Italy, there some talk on a possible peaceful re-absorption into the Byzantine Empire since relations were very good. But when the co-ruler who is friendly with Byzantine is murdered, Justinian invades Ostrogothic Italy in order to avenge the death of the co-ruler. Initially, the Ostrogoths suffer defeat after defeat and it looks like they are going to fold as quickly as the Vandals had done. In the 540s, though, Justinian suffer some set-backs—such as the betrayal of the Persians and the demanded withdrawal of skilled generals to a massive outbreak of disease in the Byzantine Empire—which caused him great consternation; however, he did not relent on his attack on Italy and by the 550s, the Ostrogoths are finally overwhelmed, defeated, and vanish from history. This would, of course, came at tremendous cost, however, and affected Byzantine ability for further military undertakings. Byzantine efforts at re-conquering Visigothic Spain, for instance, only produce minor territorial gains (the Southern tip).

When not engaged in military matters, however, Justinian was being tough on heretics and pagans, making strident efforts at eliminating paganism from the empire. To do this, Justinian forbade the teaching of philosophy at Athens, one of the last strongholds of pagan influence and one of the most influential teaching places in the world (the Platonic Academy at Athens founded by Plato and which survived for nearly a thousand years). Such actions were not popular with Justinian’s subjects, however, and as a public figure, Justinian was a deeply despised and controversial figure by many sectors of society. The text par excellence for this hatred is exemplified by the book A Secret History, which is one of history’s great hatchet jobs on any political figure.

In his lifetime, though, Justinian did much. He sponsored the reconstruction of the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, one of the architectural achievements of history which is still being studied today by scholars; Justinian also sponsored a major recodification of Roman Law—he ordered scholars to sift through all the law books, remove the contradictions, and make a single accessible book which precedents and laws could be studied as a whole. Eventually, this re-codification would become the foundation for medieval law in the west; Justinian was also involved in smuggling, specifically of silk worms so that the Byzantines could make silk.

Despite these accomplishments, however, Justinian likely did more harm than good to the Byzantine Empire in the long run. After all, the Byzantines were not able to hold on to their conquests and, following the death of Justinian, came close to being overwhelmed themselves by their enemies—first Northern Italy was lost, then the Slaves establish themselves permanently in Byzantine territory (the Balkans). Then the Persians, seeing the dire straits of the Byzantine Empire, decide to attack in the 610s, seizing Damascus, Jerusalem, as well as Egypt and most of Turkey. Though a decent amount of territory would be regained, it would be only under a desperate assault on Persia which was a perilous decision which paid off, though at high costs.

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