We are at the end of chapter 43 and we find Gibbon in full on enlightenment mode. The reign of Justinian happened to coincide with a couple of comets, some significant earthquakes and a major plague. Previous ages would have agreed with the Byzantines themselves and taken these as communications from God but Gibbon is a modern man and instead gives us the science. The plague was probably the biggest event in history since the fall of the western empire and had profound effects many of which are still being unpicked today.
My latest dollop of Gibbony goodness as I continue my extended review of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. And on the subject of extended things, in Chapter 43 we are looking at an empire that has just been considerably extended. Or rather, it is not so much extended as overextended. Let’s start with the newly reconquered province of Africa.
In previous posts we have heard a lot about the Lombards and the Gepids, a couple of troublesome germanic tribes.
We have given a lot of attention to the campaigns of Belisarius, especially those in Italy. Gibbon covers it all in sumptuous detail. I think we can assume that the court in Constantinople did as well. Big events like the recapture of Rome and Ravenna are bound to be seen as important and significant.
We’ve all got used to social media and communicating over the internet. We instinctively know what the real meaning of a lot of communications are. You can tell that an email or a message on Twitter is not genuine even without reading the whole thing. But put yourself in the place of an historian looking back on the 21st century from a 1,000 years in the future. Human nature probably won’t be very different, but the social context will have changed enormously. Many of the social conventions we regard as so obvious we hardly even feel the need to notice let alone explain will be far from obvious any more. There will probably be a thesis written on exactly what LOL means. Our future digital historian might well ponder statistics about how many plaintive tweets went unanswered and ponder how lonely people using Twitter used to be in the early years of the twentieth century. As to what they will make of Twitter exchanges between famous people – well we all know that their accounts are run by their offices. But how do we know that? Again, taken out of context would it make any sense?
The Goths were far from out of the running and although they had pulled back from Rome they still held plenty of territory in northern Italy, had a very strong base in Ravenna and were mobile and numerous enough to counterattack at any time.
Despite all his efforts it was still very much touch and go as to whether the Romans would be able to keep Rome. The Byzantine position in Italy was still highly precarious. Holding Rome depended on keeping out the Goths who had rapidly regrouped and were now laying siege. There had been a change in leadership too, with the rather indecisive Theodatus by replaced by the much more aggressive Witiges. The Goths were getting back into form as barbarian invaders and finally pulling together as a coherent force.
The Goths with their extensive kingdom in Italy ought to have found events in Africa thought provoking. Here was a resurgent Empire confidently recovering a lost province. They must have guessed that they were now top of the to do list. Perhaps now was the time to unite against a common enemy.
One of the problems of reading history is that we get a very distorted view of it. We are looking at the past down the wrong end of a telescope. A good example is the Vandal kingdom of North Africa. This seems like a very ephemeral kind of thing from our point of view. In fact the Vandal Kingdom lasted for over 50 years and it must have seemed pretty well established to people living in it. It was possible to have been born in it and to have lived to a pretty mature age without knowing any different.
If you are a regular follower you’ll know that most of my output is an extended review in great detail of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. This episode fits in with that review but I have stepped out of the frame of the book briefly. I have reached the reign of Justinian, and I want to go into a bit more detail about the changes in the military set up in the Empire at around this time. Gibbon covers it well enough and his account is okay, but I think it is important enough to warrant going into a bit more depth. So I have dug into Gibbons source, the historian and soldier Procopius, and also into Edward Luttwak’s book on Byzantine strategy which I have reviewed previously. Edward Luttwak is a Romanian born strategic thinker and consultant to the American defence department. I am not sure how he got his Anglo Saxon forename, but I do know he has been into the sources of information about what made the Byzantine Empire tick in a lot of detail.
With these three guides I hope we can have an illuminating journey.
So why do I say the Byzantines had a military revolution, and what prompted it?