Human societies may disintegrate for any one of a number of reasons – conquest, pestilence, internal strife or government incompetence. The tragedy which befell the civilisations of the Mediterranean world in 541–2 and undermined its two dominant empires was that all these woes fell upon them at the same time.
The empires in question were Rome and Persia. Both these mighty states could look back on a long and glorious past. They had increased their boundaries, built fine cities and established peace and firm government over their subject peoples. By the sixth century such achievements lay in a distant past, preserved only in imperial chronicles. But the tide of history had turned again – a fact that made the disasters of this year particularly poignant since they fell upon resurgent empires, empires that were just beginning to recover part of their former glory.
In the second century AD the Roman Empire had constituted a continuous band of territory from what is now Portugal to Iran. But, by the 520s, under pressure from ‘barbarian’ tribes from central Asia and northern Europe, its borders had shrunk to an area bordering the eastern Mediterranean from the Adriatic coast to the Nile valley. In fact, strictly speaking, it was no longer a Roman empire. The Emperor Constantine, who had ruled from 312 to 337, had made two major strategic decisions. He had moved his capital from Rome to Byzantium, on the Bosphorus, which he renamed Constantinople. The new centre was better placed for guarding the empire’s Danube and Euphrates borders. He had also replaced a welter of pagan religions with one official religion – Christianity. This gave the heterogeneous empire a philosophical/political unity. Henceforth Christianity and classical culture would constitute the ideological foundation on which European civilisation was built.
The empire was stabilised under rule from two centres, Rome and Constantinople. However, when, in 527, Justinian I came to the throne, the civilisation was looking far from secure. What had been the Western Empire had become a patchwork of barbarian kingdoms – Visigoths ruled what is now Spain, Vandals controlled North Africa, Burgundians and Franks had divided between them what is modern France. Scandinavian and north German tribes competed for Britain, and Ostrogoths were masters of Italy. The Eastern Roman Empire, usually called the Byzantine Empire was hard-pressed by Huns in the North and a revived Persian Empire in the East. In 540 a Bulgar army raided right up to the walls of Constantinople. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, the Byzantine Empire itself was divided by competing versions of Christianity.
Seen against this background, the achievements of Justinian seem truly remarkable. He completely turned the tide of Byzantine affairs. If he had not had to face a variety of misfortunes which eventually proved to be overwhelming, he might well have restored the power and glory of ancient Rome. This emperor was as forceful and ruthless as he was intelligent. There was no area of life on which he did not set his stamp. After the Bulgar raid he completely rebuilt the fortifications along the northern border. He recodified the laws. He imposed uniformity on the feuding religious factions and made himself the supreme authority in Church as well as state. He outlawed heretics and homosexuals. He forced through administrative and financial reforms, improved the defensive fortifications of the empire and built several churches. The material symbol of his greatness can still be seen in the magnificent Church of Santa Sophia (now a mosque), with its huge dome, which still crowns the skyline of Constantinople (now named Istanbul).
Establishing strong government after years of corruption and administrative incompetence called for ruthlessness. The emperor was hard and uncompromising and he was aided in his reforming programme by some powerful advisers and agents. Foremost among them was his wife, the Empress Theodora. Theodora is one of the most extraordinary women in all of ancient history, and certainly the most important in the story of the Byzantine Empire. Before Justinian made her his mistress and later, his wife, she had been an actress and a woman of very dubious morality. But she was mentally strong and highly intelligent. She came to exercise considerable power and even had a pope deposed on her sole authority. Justinian relied heavily on her advice and she was at her best in times of crisis. On many occasions, the emperor would have abandoned his plans in the light of strong opposition had not Theodora provided an example of unflinching leadership.
Justinian was also fortunate in having in his service a talented administrator and legal adviser: John the Cappadocian. John was a born bureaucrat with a clear mind unclouded by compassion or human sympathy. Justinian’s reforms would have been quite impossible without an administrator as single-minded as he was himself. It was John who helped to draw up the new legal code, and he imposed it without fear or favour. Justinian appointed him praetorian prefect of the Eastern Empire, with widespread powers to levy taxes and oversee regional governments. John weeded out ineffective officials and men who were using their office to amass personal fortunes. As far as possible he replaced them with others chosen on merit. He was not afraid to stand up to the emperor or to attempt to dissuade him from policies such as foreign wars, which would deplete the treasury and divert funds from administrative reconstruction. Inevitably, his draconian measures aroused opposition. This diatribe by one of his enemies indicates how much he was hated:
…the villainous John the Cappadocian… proceeded to cause misfortunes that were felt by the general public. First, he set out chains and shackles, stocks and irons. Within the praetor’s court he established a private prison there in the darkness for punishments that were inflicted upon those who came under his authority… There he shut up those who were being subject to restraint. He exempted no one, whatever his station, from torture. He has no compunction about stringing up, without holding an enquiry, those among whom the only information that had been laid was that they possessed gold… they were either stripped of all they possessed or dead before he let them go… A certain Antiochus, who was advanced in years at the time when this happened, was named by an informer who told a tale to John that he possessed some gold. So John arrested him and strung him up by the hands, which were fastened by strong, fine cords, until the old man, who denied the charge, was a corpse.
Justinian’s reign coincided with that of another great ruler in Persia. Khusro I (sometimes spelled Chosroes), who ruled from 531 to 579, was the most outstanding king of the Sassanid dynasty. The Sassanian Empire, founded in 221, had, at its apogee, extended from what is now Turkey to Pakistan and from the Caspian Sea to both shores of the Persian Gulf. However, like the Roman Empire, it had passed its peak by the early sixth century. Enter Khusro I. He was, in many ways, similar to Justinian – forceful and ruthless, an administrative reformer and a builder who left behind several new palaces, fortifications and even towns. Khusro presided over a cultural renaissance. A Christian chronicler, John of Ephesus, wrote of him:
He was a prudent and wise man, and all his lifetime took pains to collect the religious books of all creeds, and read and study them, that he might learn which were true and wise and which were foolish.
Under Khusro, Sassanian art reached its peak of achievement. Everything from clay seals, silverware, pottery and glass to monumental palace architecture testified to the aesthetic refinement, wealth and power of the dynasty. When pagan philosophers were expelled from Athens, Khusro welcomed them to his own capital of Ctesiphon, a city as grand as Constantinople, but now vanished. At the same time he introduced from India the game of chess.
Khusro’s political problems mirrored those of Justinian. His empire was beset by internal sectarian divisions within the national religion of Zoroastrianism and by political revolts. Persia faced the constant threat of Huns along its extended northern and eastern frontiers. In 484 they had ravaged the eastern half of the empire and slaughtered a whole Sassanid army, led by the Persian king. Khusro spent the early years of his reign concentrating on overhauling the tax system and imposing long-overdue military reforms. One of his first acts was to agree with Justinian a treaty of ‘Endless Peace’. No less than Justinian, the Persian king needed to avoid distractions while he dealt with the empire’s internal problems and while he secured his eastern frontier. But, again like Justinian, Khusro was a ruler with huge ambitions. His aim was nothing less than to obtain a stranglehold over all the land and sea routes along which flowed the precious cargoes of merchandise from India and China. Thus, while it was in the interests of both empires to put an end to their rivalry, such a respite could only be temporary.
One reason Justinian was pleased to be free of distractions in the East was his determination on territorial expansion in the West. His ambitions went far beyond establishing strong and efficient government in the Byzantine East. He had never accepted the loss of the western provinces and he was determined to bring together the two halves of the ancient Roman Empire. In this he was assisted by another talented servant, Belisarius. Belisarius was one of the great generals of antiquity, as imaginative and cunning as he was merciless. He also had the advantage of being married to a lady called Antonina, who was a close friend of Theodora. The first test of his loyalty and ability came in 532, when John the Cappadocian’s reforms sparked the first internal crisis of the reign. A revolt blew up in Constantinople and its leaders demanded the sacrifice of the most eminent imperial administrators. Some called for the deposition of the emperor. Justinian would have fled the capital had it not been for the steadfast example of Theodora. She called upon the services of Belisarius and he put a swift and bloody end to the insurrection. He hoodwinked the rebels into a meeting in the hippodrome, ostensibly to present their grievances. Once he had them inside the arena, Belisarius had the entrances sealed and sent in his troops. According to contemporary accounts, 30,000 rebels were massacred that day. Thereafter, Justinian was free from internal discord.
Justinian now employed Belisarius to carry out his reconquest of the western half of the old empire. In a series of brilliant campaigns between 533 and 535, Belisarius crushed the Vandals and captured their capital of Carthage. North Africa was reconquered for the Roman Empire. The following year, Belisarius crossed the sea, occupied Sicily, then moved northwards through Italy, reaching the city of Ravenna in 540, where he captured the Ostrogoth king and sent him back to Constantinople in chains. Justinian was not best pleased with this humiliation of his enemy. According to his political calculation, the stability of the empire would have been better served by allowing the Ostrogoths to rule a client kingdom in North Italy, paying tribute to Constantinople, until Byzantine rule in the peninsula had been firmly established. The emperor wanted a friendly buffer state to protect his own territory against the Franks to the North. Nevertheless, this turning of the tide of history was a remarkable achievement and just might have led to the re-establishment of Roman rule through the Mediterranean if Byzantium had not been beset by a clutch of new problems.
Justinian had scarcely received the news of victory over the barbarians in the West when he heard of a crisis on the eastern frontier. The Persian king Khusro, urged on by the Ostrogoths, who wanted the Romans to divert their forces from Italy, decided that now was the moment to have a go at attacking Byzantium. The temptation was too. By now he had energetically addressed his domestic problems, reorganised his army and was ready to confront the old enemy. So it was that, in 540, the two great empires once more went to war. Khusro marched through Syria, captured several Byzantine towns and made for the great prize of Antioch, one of the richest trading centres in Justinian’s realm. Antioch, as Khusro knew, was vulnerable. Although it had stout walls, they had recently been severely damaged by an earthquake. The citizens were unable to prevent the Persians looting and burning their city and carrying off thousands of its inhabitants into slavery. Khusro settled them in a newly built town which he called ‘Khusro’s-Better-than-Antioch’. Emboldened by easy victory, he then pressed home his advantage. In the next year’s campaign he headed for the Black Sea province of Lazika (part of modern Georgia). Justinian sent Belisarius to repel the resurgent Persians and the region was subjected to months of raid and counter-raid.
For Justinian, the campaigns in North Africa, Italy and Lazika were ruinously expensive. He had inherited a full treasury but, by 541, it was virtually empty. What the emperor needed was a few years of peace in which to establish imperial administration in his newly won territories, so that, from taxes and the increase of trade, he could recoup the money expended in conquest. Khusro, too, would have benefited from a period in which to consolidate his gains. What neither ruler reckoned with was the appearance of a new enemy which would make a mockery of both of their calculations – bubonic plague.
This new disaster, which fell upon both great empires, and put their problems into a new perspective, was the outcome of a set of circumstances that had probably begun in 536. Severe meteorological disturbances occurred over the greater part of the northern hemisphere. Procopius, the contemporary Palestinian historian of the Roman Empire, recorded: ‘a most dread portent took place… the sun gave forth its light without brightness… the beams it shed were not clear.’ Instances of excessively low temperatures, crop failures and drought were recorded in Ireland, China, Peru and Europe. A devastating event affected life in Scandinavia, North America and Greenland. Over a vast area the light of the sun was filtered through a dust cloud, resulting in dramatic falls in temperature. There could be no contemporary explanation for these phenomena, but recent scientific speculation has come up with two possible causes. Some suggest that the dust cloud was the result of volcanic activity. Cataclysmic eruptions (though on a smaller scale) in recent centuries have spewed thousands of tons of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, giving rise to ‘dry fog’ and acid rain, which have been disastrous for crops, animals and humans. Could the Indonesian volcano, Krakatoa, have been responsible for a veil which spread around the globe? The other possible cause is comet activity. Meterorite bombardment has long been suggested as a possible cause for the climatic change that brought to an end the age of dinosaurs. A large piece of debris from a comet tail striking the earth at several thousand kph. would have a force equivalent to over 1,000 atomic bombs and would throw up a plume of dust which would rapidly spread through the atmosphere and take months or years to disperse. One theory states that just such a dramatic event occurred in northern Australia in 536.
Whatever happened at that time was the result of the most destructive force to hit our planet in thousands of years; the effect on the climate was profound, with disastrous consquences for the ecological balance. Hitherto, plague had been confined to the tropical regions of Africa. The rat parasite that carries bubonic plague can only flourish at moderate temperatures. The heat of the desert and semi-desert band that crosses the continent from modern Senegal to Sudan was a barrier it could not cross. The temperature drop caused by the dust cloud breached that northern African barrier long enough for the fleas to cross into the temperate Mediterranean zone. Procopius charted its spread:
It started from the Egyptians who dwell in Pelusium [near modern Port Said]. Then it divided and moved in one direction towards Alexandria and the rest of Egypt, and in the other direction it came to Palestine on the borders of Egypt; and from there it spread over the whole world, always moving forward and travelling at times favourable to it. For it seemed to move by fixed arrangement, and to tarry for a specified time in each country, casting its blight slightingly upon none, but spreading in either direction right out to the ends of the world, as if fearing lest some corner of the earth might escape it.