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.
But the events on the Italian peninsula had repercussions elsewhere that were to prove very significant for the later course of Byzantine history and indeed for the development of modern Europe. The Ostrogothic Kingdom of Italy”s extent was quite a bit larger than the modern state of Italy. It included a large part of the top left had corner of the Balkans and along with a long stretch of the Danube. When Theodoric was running things, he was quite capable of defending the flank of the empire”s frontier against the barbarians of the Steppes and northern Europe.
With the Goths out of the way there was something of a power vacuum. This was made still more significant by what seems to have been a pretty extensive manpower shortage in the later years of Justinian”s reign. The Balkans had had a lot of investment in defences, but without troops to man them in sufficient numbers they were of little use. Procopius talks about extensive raids by barbarians carrying off large numbers of citizens as captives. He puts the number at around 200,000 per year. This seems a rather far fetched figure but there is no doubt the numbers were large.
Let’s review the resources available to Justinian. Gibbon quotes the figures that the empire in its heyday had 650,000 soldiers available, but that Justinian could only number his troops at 150,000. The exact military strength of the empire at any one time is not something that modern historians can confidently assert, but if for the sake of the argument we accept Gibbon’s numbers it shows that the Byzantine position was now a lot tougher than that of the earlier emperors. The threat from the outside was pretty much the same. They might now be able to ignore the Picts, Scots and Saxons and maybe the threat from the Berbers in the Sahara was a bit lower. But the big enemies – the germanic and slavic tribes, the steppe nomads and the Persians were all as big as they ever were. The Mediterranean was no longer under the empire’s control so there was now the need for a navy. And there was now the risk of an attack from one of the new barbarian kingdoms in the west. This last one didn’t really materialise for a couple of centuries but it still had to be factored into Byzantine military thinking. It makes it easy to understand why the reconquest of the lost provinces of the western part of Europe made sense. The old borders were basically a lot more defendable and in theory would defend a lot more tax paying citizens.
We’ll never know if it would have worked, but the world had changed a lot so recreating the classic Roman Empire was probably never really possible.
Many of the tribes and groupings we hear about for the first time at this period would go on to play a big part in European history for centuries to come. A lot of their names are still on the map today. Europe really does start to begin to look like somewhere that a modern European would recognise in the sixth century. The collapse of Roman power had created new opportunities that were sitting there waiting to be seized. You could argue that we are still living in the aftermath.
Take for example the Gepids, a Gothic tribe related to the Ostrogoths. They were settled just over the border in what is now southern Germany. They saw their chance for some of the action and occupied the parts of the Balkans vacated by their cousins. They had the cheek to set themselves up as allies of Justinian and help themselves to the reward that such an alliance would be due without going to the trouble of negotiating the arrangement in the first place.
This is how they put it in their own words to the Byzantine court.
“So extensive, O Caesar, are your dominions, so numerous are your cities, that you are continually seeking for nations to whom, either in peace or in war, you may relinquish these useless possessions. The Gepidae are your brave and faithful allies; and if they have anticipated your gifts, they have shown a just confidence in your bounty.”
That’s got to sting.
Justinian was obliged to go along with it initially.
He didn’t have the troops to deal with them, so instead came to an arrangement with the Lombards. These were a Germanic tribe whose name comes from the long beards that they used to sport. Their facial hair was notable, but so was their fierceness. They would eventually end up conquering a big chunk of Italy. They give their name to the region of Lombardy. But they first made their name as successful conquerors in the Balkans. The war between the Gepids and the Lombards was savage. In fact there is a record of one battle where the opposing sides were so terrified of each other that both armies fled leaving the respective kings with only their retainers and guards to slug it out.
The Byzantines tried to maintain control over the situation by backing one side then the other in the age old divide and rule approach. It was better than letting go completely I suppose, but the taxpaying citizens no doubt would have preferred actual troops keeping the barbarians completely out of the empire.
The strategy might have been justifiable as a temporary expedient while other objectives were being pursued. Who knows, that might have been what the thinking was in Constantinople at the time. But in the event it would be a very long time before the Danube again became the border of the empire. It is hard to see how holding on to the city of Rome was more important to the well being of the empire than maintaining the most easily defendable border in the Balkans.
As it was the strategy failed even to succeed in the divide part let alone the rule part. In a final battle, with Byzantine aid in the form of troops, the Gepids were defeated. The young and ambitious Lombard king Alboin married Rosalind, the daughter of the deceased Gepid king Cunimund. The Gepids were absorbed into the Lombards and pass from the pages of history at this point, leaving the Lombards big and powerful enough to cause plenty of trouble later on. We’ll come to that in future episodes.