Thoughts, Ideas, Observations

Justinian and the Barbarians

James O’Donnell, The Ruin of the Roman Empire. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.

Justinian is one of the most famous Roman emperors. During his long reign (527-565) he built the great church of Hagia Sophia and many other buildings, beautified the city of Constantinople, reconquered Italy and north Africa from the barbarians who had overrun them, and, so the usual story goes, restored for a time the glory of the empire.

Mosaic portrait of JustinianJames O’Donnell hates Justinian. Really hates him. Thinks he was stupid, wicked, vain, pompous, and responsible for the final collapse of the Roman Empire. And he seems to have worried, back in 2007 when he wrote this book, that George W. Bush was a new Justinian, whose actions might cause another catastrophic collapse of the civilized order. “Old errors,” he tells us in his conclusion, “are easy to reenact.” Justinian, possessed of  “too little education and too much religion” – which American president is that supposed to remind us of? – launched thoughtless wars and wicked persecutions that undermined the Roman world and left it vulnerable to, in the west, a slow slide into medievalism and, in the east, Muslim conquest. O’Donnell’s heroes are the “barbarian” generals who led the revival of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, men like the Vandal Stilicho, Clovis the Frank, and especially Theodoric the Ostrogoth. These men, O’Donnell thinks, had the true Roman spirit and cared much more for the fate of the empire and its people than Justinian, debating theology and plotting war in his palace on the Golden Horne.

But this is getting ahead of ourselves, because The Ruin of the Roman Empire develops its argument gradually and the point of much that O’Donnell does is not clear until the end. One thing he asserts at the beginning is disdain for the Romans’ own story of their rise to greatness, all bound up with manly virtue and Republican government. His Rome is a multi-ethnic empire, centered more in Antioch and Alexandria than in the Eternal City. So theories of Roman decline based on the collapse of those good Roman virtues do not impress him. Actually, come to think of it, I am not sure what his theory of imperial decline is, although he does not seem to think the decline had progressed very far by AD 500.

O’Donnell gives us an entertaining tour of the empire in the fourth and fifth centuries, imagining the great cities, describing the social structure and the government, introducing us to famous emperors and saints. My problems with the book started here, because in O’Donnell’s telling the empire in this period was in fine shape. I doubt it. When I teach this period I have my students read Ammianus Marcelinus, whose History covers the period from 354 to 378. I have never spoken to student who did not think, after reading Ammianus, that the empire was doomed. The corruption, violence, and just plain wickedness of the ruling class are staggering. Of course, Tacitus made the first century seem pretty bad, too, but everything we know about the empire in the fifth century points toward trouble: large districts controlled by bandits, other large districts controlled by tribal kings or mercenary leaders, economic dislocation, declining trade, increasing religious conflict, frequent treason trials, falling urban populations, and so on. It is certainly true that in AD 450 there was still much economic, political and cultural strength in the empire, but it was not what it had been 250 years before.

The most lovingly crafted section of O’Donnell’s book is a description of Italy under the rule of Theoderic, focusing on a nearly imperial visit he paid to Rome in that magical year of 500. Theoderic is usually called an Ostrogoth, and his realm the Ostrogothic Kingdom, but O’Donnell does not think there was very much gothic about him. O’Donnell calls Theodoric’s father Theodemer “a successful general” and think his people were a Roman army, not a tribe:

Groups gathering around and following generals like Theodoric had become contract armies, willing to serve Rome for the right pay, but equally willing to choose independence and look out for themselves. They took their identity from the leader’s family, while embracing a broad mixture of backgrounds and ethnicities. The community Theodemer and Theodoric inspired could easily tell a story about its history in the Balkans going back almost a century. Given half an excuse, its historians would embroider that account with other, more edifying but less relevant anecdotes about more distant pasts and places, stories that none then thought to disbelieve.

So much for the ancient tribal traditions of the Goths, or the noble past of the Theodoric’s Amal family.

In Italy, O’Donnell explains, Theodoric ruled in Roman fashion:

His self-presentation and his performances were consistently Roman, citizenly, imperial, and respectful of the old ways of the lands where he dwelled.

He relied on men from the old Italian aristocratic families, like Cassiodorus and Boethius, to staff his administration. He did expropriate land for his followers, but that had been a tradition in the empire for centuries. He behaved in most ways like a junior emperor – a Caesar in the system of Diocletian. He issued coins in the name of the Emperor Zeno in Constantinople, to whom he repeatedly pledged his allegiance. He commissioned public works and sponsored chariot races. Roman culture continued to thrive in this time, expressed in works like Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy. Italy in this time was peaceful, thriving, and thoroughly Roman.

Things went along fine until Theodoric died in AD 526. A period of conflict followed, and one of Theordoric’s nephews eventually emerged as the leader of Italy. Then the villain of the piece enters: Justinian, the new emperor in Constantinople. Justinian inherited a flush treasury from his careful predecessors, and rather than using it to achieve some sort of lasting settlement with his main enemy, Persia, he used the money to raise armies and fleets and send them westward. First he conquered the Vandal kingdom in North Africa, centered on Carthage, which O’Donnell also thinks was a well-governed and very Roman sort of place. In 535 Justinian’s general Belisarius landed in Italy with a large army. The nephew did nothing, so he was overthrown by a general named Witigis. By 539 Belisarius had defeated Witigis and declared victory, but the Goths refused to give up. Another leader emerged, named Totila, and he fought on until 552. This 17-year war devastated Italy. Rome was besieged twice, in the course of the fighting its precious aqueducts were damaged, and by the end of the war its population had shrunk to perhaps 20,000. Many other parts of the peninsula suffered similar devastation.

Hagia SophiaIn O’Donnell’s telling, this war was mainly responsible for the collapse of Roman civilization in Italy. Certainly the war was devastating, but I doubt Justinian could have brought down civilization all by himself, or even with the help of 100,000 soldiers. There is just too much fire spewed at Justinian himself here, and too little analysis of broader conditions. To O’Donnell, the war in Italy was just the bloodiest of Justinian’s many crimes. Perhaps even worse, in the long run, was Justinian’s obsession with theological orthodoxy. The classical world had been, in general, tolerant, but Justinian (in O’Donnell’s view) pioneered the medieval style of religious intolerance and repression. (The occasional slaughters of Christians are dismissed as an aberration.) He even has harsh words about the great Hagia Sophia, saying, “the outsize scale of Justinian’s buildings shouts aloud the ego and insecurity of their creator.” (286) If only the average politician left such an amazing monument to his ego!

The Roman empire endured for centuries of bad rule, civil war, invasion, and so on. What explains its resilience? I would say that the empire endured because it had become the political expression of the social power of the Mediterranean elite. The Roman world was dominated by a wealthy upper class that comprised much less than one percent of the population, based in the cities and towns but owning vast swathes of the countryside. These people shared a common culture across the empire. While the peasantry in each region used their own languages, told their own stories, and honored their own gods (or, later, saints), the elite spoke Latin or Greek, studied classical rhetoric and literature, and tried to keep up with fashions in the great cities. The Roman world recovered from the disasters of the third century because this class of people remained in control of their districts, and when a strong emperor eventually emerged they gave him their support, and order was restored.

I know little about the eastern half of the empire, but I know a fair amount about the west, especially Britain, Gaul, and Italy. It seems to me that reason the western empire never recovered from the crises of the sixth century is that the old elite disappeared. In the fifth century, to judge from the letters of Sidonius Apollinaris, they were still numerous and optimistic about the future. Boethius was one of the last impressive specimens of this type, and the Consolation of Philosophy one of its last worthwhile productions.  By the 590s, when Gregory of Tours was writing his great history of Gaul under Frankish rule, this class of people had disappeared.

Hagia Sophia domeWhy did that happen? In China, the Mandarin class survived the fall of the Han Empire and went on to dominate several more empires over the next 1700 years. But in western Europe a new elite arose that was very different in its composition, values, and interests than the aristocracy of the Roman period. These people – Frankish barons, Lombard dukes, Norman knights, Cluniac monks, and so on – identified with their families and their local districts, not any continent-spanning state or civilization, and they kept Europe divided throughout the Middle Ages. Many of them could not read, and those that could read mainly the Bible.

I think part of the explanation for the disappearance of the old elite was that they were replaced by invaders. By this I do not mean just biological replacement, although that happened in part, but cultural replacement. Gregory of Tours shows very clearly that the Frankish nobles  had different interests and concerns (e.g., blood feud) than the Gallo-Roman aristocrats they displaced. Paul the Deacon shows us the same for the Lombard conquerors of Italy, who divided the peninsula into two dozen squabbling dukedoms and fought even more savagely with the members of their own families. In the cultural mixing that took place in the “barbarian” kingdoms, much that the invaders brought with them disappeared, such as their languages and their Arian Christianity. But much of the old Roman way was also discarded, such as the tradition of service to the empire and the interest in classical education. Since these were two of the fundamental pillars of the Roman elite, it is hard to see how the western nobility of the seventh century could really be called Roman. In their style, in the way they dressed, in their amusements, in the way they spoke to each other, they were something quite different. O’Donnell, who thinks that the Franks and Goths were just Roman armies, and anyway not numerous to cause far-reaching social changes, cannot account for this transformation.

I think the barbarians had much to do with these changes. I think the Goths, Vandals, and especially the Franks saw themselves as something very different than Roman soldiers with funny names. Think for a moment about the long war that resulted from Justinian’s invasion of Italy. Why did Witigis, Totila and their men fight on so long, against the armed might of the Roman emperor? Why didn’t they just join the conquerors, as the men of the warlord Odoacer did after Theodoric killed their boss? I think they fought on because they had a strong sense of themselves as a people who were not Romans. They were Goths, and they did not accept that the Emperor of Rome had any right to rule them. They considered submission to Rome a surrender of something dear to them, the independence of their people. So they fought on for decades.

Theodoric, at least, had been raised in Constantinople, and O’Donnell is probably right that he was personally better educated in Roman than in Gothic ways. Once he was back with his people, and especially after he was securely in Italy, he did emphasize his Gothic roots by measures like sponsoring the copying of Gothic books and commissioning those histories of the Goths that O’Donnell thinks were made up. Still, there was much of the Roman about him. Where I think O’Donnell goes utterly wrong is by putting Clovis in the same category. Clovis was a barbarian through and through, and a glance at any page of Gregory of Tours shows us that the Franks were not just a Roman army.

The story of the Franks is mysterious. They did not ride out of some distant forest but arose from the culture of the Roman frontier zone, and when we first hear of them they were already fighting in Roman service. Yet they somehow acquired a royal family surrounded by magical taboos, and they buried at least one of their kings in a Sarmatian-style tomb ringed with horse sacrifices. The name they gave to themselves, the Free People, surely draws a contrast to those who lived under the yoke of Rome. They were familiar with Rome, knew some of its ways, and sometimes fought in its armies, but their knowledge of Rome only made them more determined to assert their own independence. They had a strong tribal identity that survived the Roman empire by several centuries, their own songs, their own heroes, and a language that endured into modern times. To call them a “contract army” is simply wrong.

As the alternative to his own way of seeing the barbarians, O’Donnell offers this straw man:

Theoderic’s life conventionally takes up part of the history of the barbarian invasions of Europe, the Völkerwanderung or “migration of peoples.” This standard tale has as its centerpiece a group of insensate, unfeeling brutes who insidiously overthrew civilization, little understanding what they had done.

To O’Donnell, the Goths and Franks were “fully assimilated Romans”, while, he says, other historians see them as “insensate brutes”. (A cynic might ask whether there was really any difference between a Roman and an insensate brute, given the Romans’ record of savagery, but that is a question for another time.) I wish to argue that the Goths and Franks were neither Romans nor brutes, but men of a different sort. They had their own ideas about what was good and bad in life, about what mattered, about who should do what to whom. They were passionately proud about their families and quick to draw their swords in defense of their own kin. Toward abstractions and faraway emperors they felt very little. Their values were not necessarily worse than those of the Roman elite, but they were much less conducive to the maintenance of a large, centralized empire. Nor were the invaders much interested in cities, civil engineering, tax policy, or long-distance trade. They were warriors, first and foremost, and they spent a great deal of time and energy fighting each other or whatever groups of Romans they could find to oppose them. In an era of plague and worsening weather, the lack of order led to a downward economic and demographic spiral, which seems to have hastened the cultural changes that turned the Roman world into the Middle Ages.
7th Century Germanic WarriorI must pause here to ponder a question about Justinian. Now it may well be that Justinian’s invasion of Italy was bad policy and led to a bad outcome. But what else was a Roman emperor supposed to do? To be a Roman leader was to command armies in wars. By Justinian’s time it had gone out of fashion to conquer new areas, but restoring imperial control over areas within the empire’s traditional borders was still very much encouraged. For Justinian to accept Vandal rule over Africa and Gothic rule over Italy and Spain would have been un-Roman. In trying to reconquer them he was acting as the most famous of his predecessors had, and it is hard to fault any leader for doing that. Some of O’Donnell’s other charges against Justinian also seem weak to me. O’Donnell wants to argue that Justinian first made the persecution of heretics a major plank of imperial policy, which seems a little odd for a man whose last book was a biography of that great persecutor Augustine. He spends dozens of pages complaining that Justinian did not somehow settle relations with Persia, preventing the future conflicts that fatally weakened the empire. Yet he does not say how Justinian could have solved a problem that had troubled Rome for 600 years. I agree with O’Donnell that Justinian was not a great man or a great emperor, but Rome had had many worse emperors over the centuries, and to blame the empire’s implosion on him is foolish.

After three hundred pages about Justinian and his sins, O’Donnell pulls back and takes a broader view of events in the lands between the Mediterranean and Persia. He gives a brief summary of Jewish history from the Babylonian Captivity to the destruction of Herod’s temple, and an even briefer account of the rise of Islam. The main thing that comes through here is O’Donnell’s suspicion of religion; “Abraham,” he writes, “has a lot to answer for.” The problem with religion is that it leads to persecution and religious conflict, something that seems very much on O’Donnell’s mind.

The strangest section of The Ruin of the Roman Empire comes next, in which O’Donnell ponders the shape of empires and asserts that Rome was really the wrong configuration all along. The right sort of empire, in his view, is one like the Ottoman Empire or Alexander’s, that is, one that controls the entire Near East from Persia to the Aegean. O’Donnell does not really say why this would be better, beyond some unconvincing stuff about natural connections and different modes of transportation. The reason seems clear enough, though: O’Donnell longs for an empire that would encompass all the dangerous religious fanatics whose boiling anger threatens the modern world. If the Israelis and Palestinians were both under the thumb of some great ruler like Mehmet the Conqueror – a favorite of O’Donnell’s, it seems – we would not have to worry about boundaries between them or terrorist attacks by one on the other. Under these wise emperors, tolerance was the order of the day, and people of different religions and ethnicities lived harmoniously together in great cities like Alexandria, Baghdad, Damascus, and Istanbul. But no, we moderns have “failed to build a society that could bring together Europe, Africa, and reaches of Asia in neighborly respect.” O’Donnell actually seems a little embarrassed by his imperial fantasies – “If we must think empire a good thing,” he starts one sentence – but he still has them. Not even his own account of a Roman world divided between an elite that could not be routinely beaten and a mass of people who could dampens his longing for a world like Theodoric’s Italy.

Contemplating the sad aftermath of Justinian’s wars, and the confusing aftermath of American and Israeli “victories,” O’Donnell feels a gnawing anxiety about the security of civilization. Is our future safe in the hands of men like George W. Bush, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Benjamin Netanyahu?

Old errors are easy to reenact – as fading empires, bereft of self-awareness, struggle again to use their old power to preserve themselves, and in so doing risk weakening beyond repair; as religious communities mistake their faith for destiny and find pretexts for behavior that goes beyond then the unconscionable and the imaginable. Today, as in the sixth century, a calm sense for the long view, the broad view, and a pragmatic preference for the better rather than the best can have a hard time overcoming the noisy anxiety of those who would transform – that is, ruin – what they do not understand. Civilization is a thing of the calm, the patient, the pragmatic, and the wise. We are not assured that it will triumph.

But triumph over what? And if the Roman empire was “civilization”, would we want it to triumph? In fifth-century Gaul, whole districts had driven out their aristocratic rulers and accepted leadership by bandit chiefs, and when the Franks came many towns happily hung their imperial tax collectors from the walls and opened their gates to the barbarians. Yes, Justinian’s wars were disasters, and the fall of Rome led to great turmoil and the loss of a whole culture. But disaster at that scale is all too common in human history, and all cultures eventually fall. People adapt and go on. We have been doing so for 150,000 years, and we will keep doing it, no matter what mayhem the fanatics inflict on each other.

June 17, 2011

Map of Europe in AD 526

From the 
Commonplace Book

For it isn't the books that are important, but the ideas in them, the opinions and principles of time gone by, which is what gives the books their value.

Wretched men cringe before tyrants who have no power, the victims of their trivial hopes and fears. They do not realise that anger is hopeless, fear is pointless and desire all a delusion. He whose heart is fickle is not his own master, has thrown away his shield, deserted his post, and he forges the links of the chain that holds him.

Nothing is miserable unless you think it so.



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