(BYZANTIUM and the SASSANIDS make way for ISLAM – continued)

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MAKING WAY for ISLAM (2 of 5)

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Justinian's War for Trinity Worship

Like other Christians, Justinian was expecting the Second Coming of Christ in the near future, and in preparing for this he wanted to unify what he saw as God's empire. He wished to liberate Western Europe and North Africa from the non-Trinity, Arian branch of Christianity – the Christianity of the Vandals, the Ostrogoths and the Visigoths. note2   The Franks were his allies – Catholics who had converted a few decades before Justinian ascended the throne. Justinian believed that as God's chosen emperor it was his duty to create one state, one church and one law.

Justinian had inherited an on-going conflict with the Sassanid Empire, and, to wage war against the Vandals, in 532 he negotiated with the Sassanid dynasty's Khosrau I – who ruled from Ctesiphon. They called it an agreement of "Eternal Peace."

Some historians claim that the Vandals had grown soft in the one hundred years since they conquered North Africa. Perhaps they were enervated by the mild North African climate, by self-indulgence and by the new wealth that many of them had gained. The Vandal's military has been described as having declined in efficiency, and their new king, Gelimer, described as without military or diplomatic talent. Constantinople's historian, Procopius, was to attribute the coming Vandal defeat to God and fate. The Vandals, at any rate, were weaker than they would have been had they formed an alliance with their fellow Arian Christians, the Ostrogoths of Italy. Instead, they had been warring against the Ostrogoths.


An image of Khosrau. He told Justinian: If you don't give me the bits of territory I want, I'll make war. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rather than treat Justinian as a danger to themselves as well as to the Vandals, the Ostrogoths allowed Justinian's fleet of 500 ships, with 15,000 soldiers, to use their port in Sicily against the Vandals. That was in June, 533.  From Sicily, Justinian's military, under the commander Belisarius, invaded North Africa, and victory came fast. Belisarius defeated the Vandals by December 533.

Belisarius made slaves of the defeated Vandal warriors. Vandals were to return all estates they had taken in conquering North Africa, a pronouncement that inspired many claims and much litigation. Churches confiscated by the Vandals were to be returned to Catholic worship, and anyone guilty of having been an Arian Christian was to be excluded from public office. Justinian's forces seized Gelimer's treasures, and Gelimer was taken to Constantinople and displayed in a victory parade. He refused to abandon Arianism, but Justinian was charitable and granted him an estate on which he was allowed to retire.

The conquest of North Africa, however, was not complete. Justinian's victory against the Vandals was followed by intermittent wars between his forces and the blue-eyed Berbers (also called Moors) from North Africa's hill country. The Berbers fought on horseback along a front that was too long for Justinian's troops. For the sake of "Roman civilization," Justinian's military built a string of defensive fortifications.

Justinian Versus the Ostrogoths

Continuing his drive to reunite the Roman Empire and to defeat Arianism, Justinian moved next against the Ostrogoths. In 536, his forces, led by Belisarius, landed in Italy near Naples, and in November Belisarius conquered that city. The Ostrogoths were threatened also by the Franks to their north, and they neutralized the Franks with a bribe, gold proving stronger than Frankish loyalty to the cause pursued by Justinian. The Ostrogoths abandoned Rome, taking with them a group of Roman senators as hostages and an oath of fidelity from the Bishop of Rome, Pope Silvarius. Belisarius' army arrived there in December. The city's Catholics viewed them as foreigners. They had suffered no discrimination under the Ostrogoths, but they were hopeful and filled with respect for the emperor Justinian. The Pope was also hopeful, and he broke his word to the Ostrogoths and went over to the side of Justinian.

The king of the Ostrogoths, Witigis, assembled an army of about 150,000, mostly cavalry wearing chain-mail. With them, in March 537, he returned to Rome and began a siege of the city. The Ostrogoths cut Rome's outside supply of water – the beginning of the end of Rome's great aqueducts and an end to its luxurious public baths. The Ostrogoths tried storming Rome's wall but failed – the city's defenders in one area throwing statues down upon the attackers. Inside Rome, a secret group of anti-Catholics tried to open the gates for the Ostrogoths but failed. In the city, Belisarius gathered together women, children and slaves, and the Ostrogoths allowed them to leave unharmed. Belisarius drafted all able-bodied men in the city into his army, and joining his army were about sixteen hundred cavalrymen – mostly Huns and Slavs led by Romans – who managed to sneak into the city past the Ostrogoths.

The Ostrogoths had no navy, and Justinian's navy was giving him advantage. Not only did Justinian ship food and reinforcements up the Tiber river and into Rome, he was able to blockade food from reaching the Ostrogoths. A little more than a year after the siege had begun, the hungry Ostrogoths lifted their siege of Rome and returned north. There the Ostrogoths and their fellow Arian Christians the Burgundians blockaded the city of Milan and reduced its inhabitants to eating dogs and mice. And when the Ostrogoths and Burgundians took the city they massacred all the city's adult males, estimated at 300,000, and the Burgundians took the city's women as slaves.

By 539, food production and distribution in Italy had diminished to the extent that many were dying of malnutrition. Cannibalism appeared. Unburied corpses littered the countryside. Taking advantage of Italy's vulnerability, the Franks invaded Italy in search of plunder, slaughtering along the way.

Renewed War with the Sassanid Empire, and Plague

With Constantinople having gained in North Africa and Italy, Khosrau worried about Constantinople's greater strength, and he was interested in his reward for making Justinian's conquests possible. Meanwhile he had reorganized his army, turning it from an ill-trained feudal institution into a competent force capable of fighting prolonged campaigns. He asked Justinian for an outlet to the Black Sea and for the gold mines of Trebizond at the southeastern edge of the Black Sea, which he believed should belong to his empire. In the spring of 540, after Justinian refused, Khosrau broke the "Eternal Peace" agreement, declared war and invaded Constantinople's empire.

In 541, coinciding with the renewed war and troop movements, a plague pandemic appeared in Constantinople's empire, said to be the first recorded instance of bubonic plague. It was noticed first in the Egyptian harbor town of Pelusium, which had a huge rat population, as did much of Europe. It was deadly bacteria that had evolved and existed in fleas and passed along with flea bites.

Flees didn't travel far, but they rode on rats. On their own rats didn't travel far in their lifetime, but humans did, and humans transported infected rats. Bacterium was transferred by flea bites. Not all flees were infected, but infected flees killed their rat hosts, and if there were enough rats around the infected fleas would jump to new hosts, rats or humans. It was all dependent upon large populations of flees and rats. Among humans, weakened immune systems contributed to the danger.

The plague spread to Alexandria and moved on to Syria, to Palestine and to Constantinople, where it lasted four months and killed an estimated 40 percent of the city's population before it died from a dearth of available hosts. The emperor, Justinian, was infected and seemed on the verge of death, but he was one of the lucky ones: the flee bites and disease was not too much for his immune system and he recovered.

The plague bacillus survived among flea populations elsewhere, and epidemics of the disease would rise and fall elsewhere. Modern estimates suggest half of Europe's population died as a result of the plague before it disappeared in the 700s. note3  And another great outbreak would arrive in Europe in the 1300s.


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