It is easy to forget that the biggest threat to the Roman Empire throughout its history was the Persians. We read a lot about all the barbarian inroads into the empire, and know that the western empire was destroyed by the Goths and the eastern one by the Turks, so it is easy to underestimate the Persians. Their behaviour was a bit more predictable than that of nomadic tribesmen, but apart from that they were potentially much more dangerous. They had the same ability that the Romans had of being able to put a large army in the field for a prolonged period of time.
The big issue was always the balance of power between the two states. When the so called Universal Peace had been declared between Justinian and the Persian Great King Chosroes they had been pretty much on the level with each other. But Justinian had used the peace to expand into the west. The conquest of Africa and Italy increased the size of the Roman Empire by about 45%. Peace with the Persians was obviously working well for Justinian. It was in his interest to keep the frontier with Persia quiet. He tried to keep the status quo going by sharing some of the spoils from the Vandals with Chosroes.
But even while the Universal Peace lasted, the peace of the two empires wasn’t actually perfect. They were conducting something of a proxy war in a couple of parts of the frontier. For example, they were backing factions in a dispute in part of what is now Syria. At the time I am recording this, something very similar is going on right now in exactly the same place. Chosroes marched a large army into the area then proceeded to occupy most of Syria. He was able to capture Antioch when the Roman garrison simply ran away. He then proceeded down the Orontes to the Mediterranean where he bathed in the sea and carried out a solemn sacrifice to the creator of the Sun in thanks for his success. The local Christians would have been appalled by the sacrilege but found the behaviour of the army to be disciplined and not oppressive to the inhabitants. They were also treated to some games at the Persian’s expense. This was the behaviour of a monarch intent on conquering and holding, an alarmin prospect for the Romans. And with the Byzantine’s forces tied up in Italy, there was little standing between Chosroes and a march on Palestine to seize the holy city of Jerusalem or even an advance on Constantinople itself.
The recall of Belisarius saved the day. Although there were few troops on hand, Belisarius by a careful campaign of manoeuvre and deception was able to force the Persians back to the Euphrates. He wasn’t however able to deliver a knockout blow. This left the two empires pretty much were they had been at the start of the conflict.
Gibbon does the Persians a great disservice by including them in the chapter that covers the state of the barbarian world. It is, as I am sure the man himself would readily concede, not remotely fair to lump the ancient and highly organised Persian Empire with the uncivilised barbarians. But that is the only complaint any fair minded but patriotic Persian could make, because the account of the remarkable reign of the very able Chosroes is very positive to the Persians in general, and to Chosroes in particular. It is one of those flukes of history that both Persia and Byzantium should be ruled by these two men at this time. The similarities just shout out to be compared. Both were unusually long lived and unusually adept at staying alive in roles that were usually strongly correlated with early and violent death.
They were both also unusually able, and unusually ambitious for their respective states. Both had an expansionary policy. Neither were that fussed to fight the other either, because both had other projects that seemed and indeed probably were rather more beneficial to the short term interests of the countries they ran and the long term legacy they were both conscious of leaving in history.
That they would end up doing quite a bit of fighting with each other was basically a consequence of the iron laws of superpower politics. When you have two superpowers, they are going to be in conflict most of the time.
The comparison between the two men is generally in favour of Chosroes. Both of them were notable for their willingness to reform and develop institutions and to build up the fabric of their empires. But Chosroes did a lot more than Justinian managed. Where Justinian should be praised for the introduction of silk production to Constantinople, Chosroes was responsible for widespread improvements in farming and education. And where Justinian was religiously orthodox and close minded, Chosroes was much more practical in ensuring that religious controversy did not cause any unnecessary unpleasantness. He supported the native Persian fire worship cult and also showed favour to the monophysite Christians.
Gibbon misses one of his key reforms out however. Chosroes reformed taxation to give his empire its first centralised tax system where the government got the money directly from taxpayers themselves. That this reform was necessary was partly a consequence of the messy situation he inherited when he first came to the throne. But it must also have been motivated by a desire to match the military spending of the Byzantines. In a classic arms race, the Byzantine desire for security had led to them to build up forces which were threatening the security of their neighbour. The Persian response had been to build up their own capabilities, so threatening the Romans.
But although conflict with the Byzantines was more or less inevitable, in his early years it wasn’t a priority for Chosroes. He had come to the throne at a rather complicated point in Persian history with a lot of conflict already available, making it unnecessary to go and look for it. His rival for the throne was his brother who had allied himself with a revolutionary movement led by a man called Mazduk. Mazduk and his followers believed in a more equal society and so challenged the rights of the Persian nobility. Chosroes took the other side, and helped with the suppression of the movement by the nobles. They might have regretted this help though, because he was later to turn on his one time supporters. He also wiped out the rest of his family. The progressive part of his nature didn’t stop him being highly skilled at the blackest of the black arts of internal politics. He was also quite adept at the cut and thrust of international politics too.
His interventions in neighbouring states showed all the guile, hypocrisy, opportunism and downright cynical naughtiness that were characteristic of the average superpower’s foreign policy at the time, and have continued to be right up to the present day.