How did the wars of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian, change history

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Justinian I from a mosaic in Ravenna

There is a growing appreciation of the importance of the Byzantines in the history and development of Europe and the Middle East. It comprised the Eastern half of the Roman Empire and its inhabitants regarded themselves as Romans. One of the greatest figures in the history of this Empire is the Emperor Justinian (483-565). He is regularly known as Justinian the Great and is even a saint in the Greek Orthodox Church. Justinian was a man of remarkable ability and vision and he sought to restore the Roman Empire, to its former glory and extent. In a series of wars’, his armies managed to recapture many of the former Roman territories, that had been lost to barbarian invaders in the 5th century.

These wars of reconquest had a dramatic impact on the Byzantine lands and their legacy was mixed for the Empire. The demands of war transformed the Byzantine state and society and weakened its army and economy. However, the conquests of Justinian in Italy and Africa later helped to save the Christian realm during the Arab and Persian wars. The Emperor’s wars of reconquest also led to the final destruction of the World of Late Antiquity and the beginnings of the Middle Ages.

The Background

Belisarius from a mosaic

The Roman Empire had been divided by the Emperor Theodosius I into an Eastern and Western state. The two parts of the Roman Word were very different from the east, mainly Greek-speaking, wealthier and urban, while the west, was mainly Latin speaking and increasingly impoverished. The Western Empire was much weaker than the East and after the collapse of the Rhine frontier in 410 AD it was slowly occupied by various Germanic tribes who created states in the former Imperial provinces.

By 500 AD, Italy was ruled by the Ostrogoths, North Africa was ruled by the Vandals and Spain was in the possession of the Visigoths. The Eastern Empire had been able to avoid the fate of the West because of its inherent strengths and some strong leaders such as Emperor Zeno. By the start of the 6th century AD, the eastern part of the Roman Empire was a unified state that was actually growing stronger and its borders were secure.[1]

The reign of Justinian and his wars of conquests

A gold coin of Justinian I

Justinian was born in Illyria and his uncle Justin had become commander of the Imperial bodyguard and had been crowned Emperor in 518 AD. Justinian became a trusted advisor to his childless uncle whom he succeeded in 527 AD. He married a former courtesan Theodora, and this was very controversial and made the Emperor unpopular in some circles.[2] He was a capable administrator and he ordered the codification of the law code which was very progressive for the time. Justinian was also a great builder and his greatest achievement was the magnificent Hagia Sophia. The Emperor was a committed Christian and he closed the ‘pagan’ academy founded by Plato during his reign.

However, Justinian’s years in power was mainly marked by war. Soon after his coronation, the Sassanian Empire invaded the eastern provinces. It was during this war that the great general Belisarius came to prominence. In 532 AD a peace was reached with the Persians and this allowed Justinian to turn his attentions to the western Mediterranean. His suppression of the Nike Riots made him all powerful in Byzantium.[3] Justinian created a large army and navy and placed it under the command of Belisarius. He ordered him to attack the Vandal Kingdom in North Africa, whose capital was the ancient city of Carthage (modern Tunisia). This was very audacious as a previous East Roman invasion was a disastrous failure.

Belisarius was a brilliant strategist and he completely surprised the Vandals. In two battles in 533 and 534 AD he defeated the Vandal king and conquered his kingdom and it became a province of Byzantium, but it was not pacified for many years.[4] This was a remarkable achievement, but it did not satisfy Justinian and he had greater ambitions. He wanted to reconquer Rome and Italy which had been the birthplace of the Roman Empire. In 535 he ordered Belisarius to Sicily which he conquered easily and the General then launched a lightning strike against Ostrogothic Italy. In five years, Belisarius, with a relatively small army was able to capture the entire kingdom, founded by Theodoric the Great.

In 540 AD it seemed that Italy had been reconquered, but the situation in the eastern frontier deteriorated, when the Sassanians once more attacked, despite a peace treaty, the eastern border of the Byzantine Empire. Belisarius was recalled, and he was forced to fight a defensive war against the Persians. The Byzantine army suffered several defeats and it was only a major outbreak of plague that ended this war. The Christian Emperor became seriously ill when he contracted the plague, which killed his beloved Empress.[5] Because Justinian had been focused on the Persian threat and distracted by his sickness he neglected Italy, and this led to a revival of the Goths under an able leader by the name of Totilla.

The Ostrogoths managed to recapture nearly all of Italy and not even the presence of Belisarius could contain their advance. However, Justinian had an iron will and he ordered an official by the name of Narses to re-conquer Italy. He was given command of a large army and defeated the Ostrogoths in two battles in 543 AD and he re-conquered the entirety of Italy by 545 A.D.[6] Justinian skilfully exploited a civil war in the Visigoth kingdom in Iberia. A small Byzantine force was able to secure much of south-west Spain. Justinian as he grew older became increasingly religious and almost withdrew from public life. He made the husband of the niece of his beloved Theodora his heir and he became Justin II.[7] The most powerful Emperor in over 150 years died in 565 AD and he was deeply mourned by his subjects.

The Restoration of the Roman Empire

Justinian believed that his efforts to reconquer the territories of the former Western Roman Empire was an almost religious duty. He was determined as a Christian Emperor to restore the Roman Empire as he believed that it was ordained by God to achieve the ultimate Christianization of the world [8]. He was himself a Latin speaker and was born shortly after the Fall of the Roman Empire. His campaigns in Italy, Spain and North Africa looked to have at least partially restored the Empire, of Augustus and Marcus Aurelius. [9]

While impressive, his conquests proved fleeting. Most of Italy was lost in the reign of his successor Justin I. The Lombards, a German tribe, occupied most of Italy by the 570 AD and only the extreme south of Italy and Sicily remained in Byzantine hands. The territories that were taken in the south-west of Spain were lost to the Visigoths within 50 years. While the new North African province was to prosper for another century and it was eventually captured by the Muslims and became part of the Umayyad Empire. The conquests of Justinian were mostly ephemeral and apart from some possession in Italy, and he failed in his efforts to restore the Roman Empire, to its former extent and power. This was mainly because his aims did not consider the new political realities of the 6th century AD in the Mediterranean.

Overextending of the Empire

Many historians have criticized Justinian for his efforts to re-conquer the old western provinces of Rome. It has been widely argued that he placed an intolerable strain on the military and financial resources of the Byzantine Empire. He imposed very heavy taxation on his realm at a time when it was suffering from depopulation due to plague and natural disasters, such as earthquakes. This undoubtedly weakened the rulers who followed him because Justinian’s wars exhausted the state and its people. His successors such as Justin II were not able to hold onto his conquests.

Moreover, they could not protect the borders of the Empire and the Slavs and Avars began to make inroads into the Balkans and this was to greatly undermine the Christian Empire.[10] The Eastern Romans were also forced to pay tribute to the Persians and others to secure their frontiers. After the death of Justinian, his Empire went into serious decline and lost a great deal of territory and prestige. The decades after the death of the conqueror of the Vandals and Ostrogoths, saw his state enter into a prolonged period of crisis that was only stabilized by the soldier- Emperor Maurice.

It has been plausibly argued that Justinian’s ambitious campaigns nearly brought the Empire to the edge of collapse. However, ironically those western conquests, played an important role in the revival and even survival of the Byzantine state during the Persian and the later Arab invasions.[11] For example, the North African possession were used by the future Emperor Heraclius as a springboard for the successful counter-attack against the Persian invasion. Moreover, the western possession acquired by Justinian such as Sicily and Southern Italy provided much needed resources in the decades’ long struggles against the Arabs and the Slavs (7th to 9th century).

The conquests of Justinian left a paradoxically legacy in that they gravely undermined the Byzantine Empire. Yet the conquests of Justinian helped his heirs to fight off a multitude of enemies and allowed the Eastern Roman Empire, to enjoy a renaissance in the 9th and 10th centuries A.D.

Justinian and the end of the World of Late Antiquity

Justinian wanted to revive the Roman Empire, which he saw as essential for the future of Christianity. He stamped out any practices deemed to be pagan, for example in his reign the last pagan communities were suppressed or converted. However, his policy of Christianization meant that classical learning and philosophy all but disappeared and that education came increasingly under the purview of the Church. His conquests were to end the last vestiges of the Classical World in the Mediterranean, which emphasised reason, secular values, and an urban culture. The wars he fought to secure Italy and Rome were devastating. Here classical culture, continued to flourish, urban living, a state apparatus, and the study of classical subjects had continued even during the rule of the Ostrogoths, preserved by the old Roman aristocracy.

The reconquest of Italy left it depopulated and a wasteland and destroyed the last relics of the ancient world. Then the need for evermore taxes for his never-ending wars led to a growing centralization of power in the Imperial Court in the Byzantine territories. This resulted in the end of the autonomy that had been enjoyed by the cities for centuries [12]. The high taxes and the loss of autonomy meant that many urban centres declined, which had long been important in preserving the culture and ideals of the classical world. Justinian’s attempts to revive the Roman Empire led to the demise of the society and culture of Late Antiquity and helped to usher in the Medieval World.[13]


Justinian is widely seen as the ‘Last Roman’ because of his efforts to restore that Empire. His many wars were largely successful, and he did reconquer many areas of the old Western Roman Empire. However, the majority of these were soon lost. The costs of his wars were enormous, and they placed a great strain on the Christian Empire. They attempt to revive Rome, weakened the Byzantines and resulted in a very serious political-economic and military crisis. Paradoxically, the provinces added by Belisarius, proved to be invaluable to the Christian Empire in its life and death struggles with the Arabs. Then there is the fact that the conquests in the west by the Eastern Roman Empire, was an important stage in the transition from the Late Classical World to the Medieval era in the Mediterranean.

Further Reading

Evans, James Allan. The Empress Theodora: Partner of Justinian (Houston, University of Texas Press, 2003).

Sarris, Peter. Economy and Society in the Age of Justinian (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2006).

Constantelos, Demetrios J. "Paganism and the State in the Age of Justinian." The Catholic Historical Review 50, no. 3 (1964): 372-380.

Watts, Edward. "Justinian, Malalas, and the end of Athenian philosophical teaching in AD 529." The Journal of Roman Studies 94 (2004): 168-182.


  1. Baker, George Philip. Justinian: The Last Roman Emperor (London, Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), p 119
  2. Procopius, The Secret History, translated by Anthony Kaldellis (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2010), p 15.
  3. George, p 45
  4. Procopius, The Wars, III
  5. Evans, James Allan. The Emperor Justinian and the Byzantine Empire (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 2005), p 119
  6. Procopius, The Wars, VII-VII
  7. Baker, p 118
  8. Evans, p 87
  9. George, p 201
  10. Evans, p 201
  11. Evans, p 202
  12. Brown, Peter The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150–750 (London, Fontana, 1989), p 17
  13. Brown, p 67