Justinian’s Disaster I

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.


Justinian’s Disaster II

A map of the Byzantine Empire in 550 (a decade after the Plague of Justinian) with Justinian’s conquests shown in green.

Alexandria was a great mercantile entrepôt in the sixth century. In its waterfront warehouses the produce of North Africa, ‘the granary of the Roman Empire’, was stored. It was the terminus of vital trade routes which avoided Persian territory and brought, by sea and overland caravan, African slaves, Chinese silks, Indian gems and Indonesian spices. Large fleets regularly plied across the eastern Mediterranean to Constantinople. By 541 they were carrying a new and unwelcome cargo.

Today, we can describe clinically the symptoms of bubonic plague and how it spreads. The rat flea carries a bacterium, Y. pestis. As the rat moves through unsanitary and crowded towns and villages, the flea ‘jumps ship’, seeking a new host – animal or human. When the flea bites its latest victim, the bacterium, which does not harm the rat, is transferred to its new body, with disastrous results. Once in the bloodstream, Y. pestis makes its way to the lymph glands, which swell and rupture, appearing on the surface as painful, dark-coloured ‘buboes’ in the groin or armpits. The victim falls prey to shivering, fever and stiffening of the joints. He/she may experience delirium or fall into a coma. Once the lungs are infected, the plague takes on a new form – pneumonic. Miniscule droplets of sputum are exhaled with every breath, carrying the plague to new victims. The original sufferer has become a machine gun of highly infectious bullets. For several days the newly infected victims display no symptoms. The plague is, therefore, hidden; its real impact concealed. Half of the people catching bubonic plague, if they were reasonably fit and healthy beforehand, survive. Pneumonic plague is virtually one hundred per cent fatal.

It was not only the disease itself that killed people. Some, in delirium or sheer desperation, took their own lives. Some starved to death because there was no one to bring them food. Understandably, neighbours avoided houses where plague victims were lying. More compassionate people faced hardship caring for the afflicted, even if they did not contract the disease:

when patients fell from their beds and lay rolling on the floor, they kept putting them back in place, and when they were struggling to rush headlong out of their houses, they would force them back by shoving and pulling against them. And when water chance to be near [the sufferers] wished to fall into it… because of… the diseased state of their minds.

People took to wearing name tags, so that they could be identified in the event of sudden death. The forums and public places were deserted.

At that time it was scarcely possible to meet anyone going about the streets of Byzantium; all who had the good fortune to be in health were sitting in their houses, either attending the sick or mourning the dead. If one did succeed in encountering a man going out, he was carrying one of the dead. And work of every description ceased, and all the trades were abandoned by the artisans… Indeed in a city which was simply abounding in all good things widespread starvation was running riot… so that with some of the sick it appeared that the end of life came about sooner than it should have because they lacked the necessities of life.

Fifteen hundred years ago, observers lacked the knowledge of human anatomy and epidemiology that would have enabled them to describe the pestilence objectively. Such medical science as they possessed was freely mixed with religious belief and superstition. Chroniclers, appalled by what they saw and fearful of what it might mean, prophesied the utter destruction of the empire, or even of the entire human race. They readily reported portents in the heavens warning of imminent disaster. They passed on stories of visions and mystical experiences:

many people saw shapes of bronze boats carrying passengers with their heads cut off… These figures were seen everywhere as frightening manifestations, especially at night. They appeared like gleaming bronze and fire, black and without heads they sat in their glistening boats, travelling rapidly across the water – a sight which made those who saw it almost drop dead.

Both the Byzantine and Persian empires possessed physicians and philosopher/astrologers whose understanding of the human condition was advanced by the standards of the day, but they were powerless to cope with this new and terrible visitation. The second-century physician, Galen, whose thinking had dominated medical theory and practice for centuries, made important discoveries about the nervous system and the ‘flow’ (not circulation) of blood, but his assertion that health was determined by the balance of four ‘humours’ which had their bases in blood, phlegm, black bile and yellow bile was of no value in combating plague. His disciples sought to achieve ‘balance’ in their patients by a combination of simple drugs, incantations, the application of saints’ bones and other magical charms, diet and exercise. The only result of such clinical methods was that many doctors succumbed to plague as a result of close contact with their patients. Small wonder that Procopius was sceptical about the medical services available:

the most illustrious physicians predicted that many would die, who unexpectedly escaped entirely from suffering… and declared that many would be saved, who were destined to be carried off almost immediately.

Potentially more valuable was the practice of isolating plague victims. Hospitals were the invention of early Christians in Palestine and, by the fifth century, they were to be found in many towns and cities of the Roman Empire. There were several in Constantinople, and Justinian provided state aid to them to cope with the new emergency, but these institutions were soon overwhelmed by the sheer size of the problem. Procopius and other chroniclers have left us a vivid and horrifying picture of life in the Byzantine capital during these dreadful months, and the scenes they recorded must have been replicated in other towns and cities.

The most urgent problem was disposal of the dead. The city’s cemeteries were soon filled, even when people were being buried three or more to a grave. Justinian commandeered waste or unused land to provide more burial grounds but these, too, were overflowing within weeks. The next location found for cadavers was along the city walls. At regular intervals there were watchtowers, designed to house soldiers to man the walls when Constantinople came under attack. These empty buildings were now used for a more gruesome purpose. Their roofs were removed and bodies were thrown inside and stamped on in order to get as many as possible into the space available. The stench drifting over the city was appalling. The terrible reality presents a real challenge to the imagination, as another contemporary writer bewailed:

How can anyone speak of or recount such a hideous sight, and who can watch this burial, even though his soul remain in his body and not waste away from bitter lamentations over so much iniquity which would suffice to destroy the children of Adam? How and with what utterances and what hymns, with what funeral laments and groanings should somebody mourn who has survived and witnessed the wine-press of the fury of the wrath of God?

There is no way of knowing exactly how many people died in the East Roman capital during this terrible visitation, but contemporaries claimed that between a third and a half of Constantinople’s citizens succumbed and that this degree of mortality was replicated throughout the Eastern Roman Empire. The plague had no respect; it claimed victims at all levels of society. The emperor himself caught the disease. He was one of the lucky ones not to die but he was ill for several weeks. Had it not been for the vigorous efforts of the Empress Theodora and a small team of palace officials, the running of the empire might well have collapsed in chaos. While the emperor remained incapacitated, officials looked to Theodora for instructions, and it was she who masterminded the provision of aid to sufferers and maintained some semblance of law and order. John the Cappadocian was no longer there to apply his considerable administrative skills to overcoming the crisis. He had survived the mounting tide of criticism, but he could not surmount the opposition of Theodora. The empress was increasingly jealous of John’s influence with her husband and eventually she had him stripped of office and sent into exile. Almost at once the Byzantine bureaucracy began to slip back into corruption and was quite unable to handle the effects of plague.

Death brought other grave problems in its wake. Because of the threat of invasion, Justinian had made sure that Constantinople’s grain stores were full. But there were soon few bakers left to make bread, and those that were still in business charged inflated prices. There was famine in the midst of plenty and malnutrition kept pestilence company on the streets. The economic effects were no less disastrous than the loss of life. Slavery was the basis of Byzantine society and when the stock of slaves was drastically cut, all human activities were affected. Farm animals went untended. Shops remained closed. Businesses went out of production. Ships rotted in harbour for want of mariners to sail them and chandlers to equip them. Aristocratic households could not function without indoor and outdoor servants. The army was severely depleted. Government business came to a standstill. Inevitably, the costs of labour and goods rocketed, resulting in rapid inflation. In a desperate attempt to stabilise the currency, the coinage was debased. This made matters worse since those who could afford to do so hoarded gold and silver, which drove down the value of coin, forcing producers to charge more for their goods and workers to demand higher wages. The government tried to halt the wage-price spiral by forbidding workers to raise the price of their labour. In March 544, Justinian issued the following edict:

Pursuant to the chastening that we have received in the benevolence of our Lord God, some people… have abandoned themselves to avarice and demand double and triple prices and wages that are contrary to the custom prevalent from antiquity, although such people ought rather to have been chastened by this calamity. It is therefore our decision to forbid such covetous greed… In the future no businessman, workman or artisan in any occupation, trade, or agricultural pursuit shall dare to charge a higher price or wage than that of the custom prevalent from antiquity.

It is no surprise that this clumsy attempt to frustrate the laws of simple economics had little effect.

Inevitably, fear and grief drove people to ask the question: ‘Why?’ Procopius confessed himself baffled:

Now in the case of all other scourges sent from heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men, such as the many theories propounded by those who are clever in these matters, for they love to conjure up causes which are absolutely incomprehensible to man… but for this calamity, it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation, except indeed to refer it to God.

Later moralists, who saw the events of the 540s as precursors to the collapse of the Sassanian and Western Roman empires, had less hesitation. A seventh-century monastic chronicler interpreted the catastrophe in terms of divine judgement. God had sent his agents to punish the arrogant presumption and cruelties of the ancient empires:

The land of the Persian was given to Devastation for him to devastate it, sending its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter: Syria was given to the sword of Devastation, its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter; the Roman empire was given to Devastation and its inhabitants to captivity and to slaughter.

By the time this writer recorded his view of history, he was able to see the plague as part of the long-term decline of Sassanian Persia and of Rome’s empire in the West. To those who lived through these terrible times, matters were more complex.

The enemies of the Byzantine Empire were not slow to take advantage of its weakness. The Persians attempted to press home their advantage in the region between the Black Sea and Mesopotamia and laid siege to Edessa. The inconclusive war went on for months and ended in a truce under whose terms Khusro undertook to remove his troops from the area for five years, in return for a payment of 2,000 pounds in gold. It was a heavy price, but Justinian needed to buy time. Affairs were going badly in Italy. Under a new king, the Ostrogoths were mounting a fresh offensive, steadily reclaiming territory which the Byzantines had gained. Justinian had to send Belisarius back to the West in a desperate attempt to cling onto his conquests there. But the great general was woefully short of resources. The plague had decimated the Byzantine army and economic difficulties created shortages of equipment. Belisarius found himself bogged down in a long and, eventually, unsuccessful series of campaigns. The grand vision of recreating the glories of the Roman Empire had to be abandoned.

The debilitating effects of the plague cannot be described only in terms of economic and political decline. There was a widespread sense of fatalism. When Bulgars and other tribes displaced by the Huns raided into the Balkans and northern Greece, they encountered little resistance. The garrisons that should have defended the inhabitants were seriously undermanned and the people had no confidence in the government to protect them. They had to suffer the barbarian incursions, watch their homes being pillaged and their womenfolk raped. There was only one way to put an end to their ordeal: they had to pay the invaders to go away. Some wealthy citizens hid their treasures – and many never returned to reclaim them. Numerous hoards of buried coins, silver plate and gold ornaments have been found throughout this region – graphic testimony to the turbulence of the times. Administration broke down and much of Justinian’s reforming work was undone.

Yet, ironically, the pestilence thaht devastated the Eastern Roman Empire also saved it from more severe depredations. The plague took no account of territorial boundaries, as Procopius recorded:

this calamity… did not come in one part of the world or upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world, and blighted the lives of all men, though differing from one another in the most marked degree, respecting neither sex nor age.

When he described this catastrophe as one that ‘embraced the entire world’, Procopius was, of course, referring to the world he knew: Europe, the Middle East, northern Africa and the nearer parts of Asia. However, this outbreak reached well beyond the fringes of the known Mediterranean world and resulted in human mortality on an unimaginable and incalculable scale. It galloped over mountains, deserts and seas, striking down men, women and children as far away as Ireland, China and the African interior.

Thus, for example, raiders across the borders of the weakened Byzantine Empire often took back with them more than sackfuls of loot. When the Alemanni (a Germanic tribe) leader, Leutharis, led a raid into northern Italy, he was able to plunder at will but, when he turned for home with his laden wagons of loot,

He became deranged and started raving like a madman. [He] was seized with a violent ague and would fall over backwards, foaming at the mouth, his eyes glaring dreadfully… The plague continued to rage until his whole army was destroyed.

Unfortunately, no Persian records describing events in the 540s have survived, but Byzantine writers recorded, in brief, the spread of contagion into the territory of the invader. John of Ephesus referred to this period in Persia’s history as years of ‘famine, plague, madness and fury’. Khusro had to give up the siege of Edessa when many of his troops succumbed to disease. Y. pestis travelled with Khusro’s armies and along his trade routes. Antioch, Nisibis and other important centres were virtually depopulated. Khusro, victorious over his human enemies and confident of further military successes, had encountered a foe he could not beat. It was Persian weakness, not Byzantine strength, that prevented Persia advancing irresistibly westwards. Militarily, the mid-540s were years of stagnation. Two mighty empires stood like punch-drunk boxers, eyeing each other blearily, swaying from side to side and unable to land any telling blows.

Matters were little different in Europe, beyond the farthest Byzantine borders. The plague is recorded as reaching Frankish territory in 543. Familiar, dreadful scenes were soon to be witnessed throughout Gaul (the land of the Franks):

so many people were killed throughout the whole region and the dead bodies were so numerous that it was not even possible to count them. There was such a shortage of coffins and tombstones that ten or more bodies were buried in the same grave. In St Peter’s church [in Clermont-Ferrand] alone on a single Sunday three hundred dead bodies were counted. Death came very quickly. An open sore like a snake’s bite appeared in the groin or the armpit, and the man who had it soon died of its poison, breathing his last on the second or third day.

In terms of the long haul of history, the real impact of plague and war in the years 541–2 was on the size of populations. In the twenty-first century we face the problem of overpopulation. Fifteen hundred years ago societies that felt themselves just as secure as we do fell into the abyss of drastic population collapse. In the first two years of the pandemic it has been suggested that four million of the East Roman Empire’s twenty-six million inhabitants disappeared and the decline continued as Y. pestis sought out more victims. Whole villages and towns vanished. Cities shrank. Crumbling walls left their citizens vulnerable to marauders. Farmland fell into disuse. Governments faced declining revenue and could no longer provide their people with the benefits of advanced civilisation. The same phenomena were to be observed in Persia and the other nations fringing the Mediterranean world.

These ancient societies were not allowed time to recover. Long before population levels, stable government and a measure of prosperity had returned, the Persians and Byzantines faced another foe. Within a century, the great civilisations that had shared the world of the Mediterranean basin found themselves facing a new, vigorous, expanding empire, bursting out of its Arabian heartland. Less than thirty years after the plague visitation of Constantinople, a boy was born in Mecca whose impact upon the lands where Christianity and Zoroastrianism flourished would, in its way, be as devastating as the earlier rat-borne invasion. His name was Mohammed. When the armies of Islam marched out of Arabia carrying their new faith, at swordpoint, to all points of the compass, the older civilisations had been so weakened that they had no effective answer.

What if…

The circumstances under which the ancient Mediterranean civilisations collapsed present us with several ‘what ifs’. What if court rivalries had not forced John the Cappadocian from office? What if Theodora had lived longer (she died in 548)? What if Justinian and Khusro had managed to agree a lasting peace? What if the bubonic plague had not struck when it did? These lead us to bigger questions. Could the empire of Rome have been recreated in the sixth century? Could the Sassanian and Roman empires have survived barbarian incursions? Impressive ancient ruins litter the lands from Spain’s Atlantic coast to the River Indus. Valley-spanning viaducts, soaring pillars that once graced temples, wide amphitheatres scooped from the earth, the crumbling walls of beautiful palaces, javelin-straight highways along which the legions once marched – all such examples of vanished grandeur stir us to wonder and to reflect on the reasons why empires rise and fall.

The Wars of Basil II

The Byzantine Empire at the death of Basil II in 1025

Basil II (976-1025) is generally held to have been one of the most effective and competent rulers of the eastern Roman empire. His early years were not easy but, despite beginning his reign with a civil war and military defeat in the Balkans, he continued and consolidated the conquests of his immediate predecessors, re-establishing the Byzantine empire as the paramount power in the region. After a long and gruelling war against a revived Bulgarian state, under the Tsar Samuel, he was finally victorious, entirely incorporating Bulgaria and its vassals into the empire, giving them their own provincial administration and establishing them as regular imperial provinces. The Danube once more became the imperial frontier in the north; the emirate of Aleppo and its more easterly neighbours became client states of the empire in the east. Here, the dynamic military power of the Egyptian Fatimid dynasty, whose interests likewise lay in exercising some control over the Syrian emirates and cities, now became the main enemy.

Basil became effective ruler only in 976, on the death from typhoid fever of John I. But he was still very young, and there were members of the aristocracy related to the previous emperors, Nikephoros Phokas and John Tzimiskes, who felt that they had better claims to imperial power. Both Nikephoros and John had, in effect, seized the throne, and had been able to legitimate their position only through marriage to the widow of emperor Romanos II – father of Basil and his brother Constantine – who had died in 963. It was a leading member of one of these ambitious noble clans, Bardas Skleros, who rebelled against Basil II shortly after his succession in 976; and it was another leader of an even more prestigious family, Bardas Phokas, whom the emperor called to his assistance in 978. The rebellion was defeated and Skleros escaped to the Caliphate where he was imprisoned. On his release in 987, however, and with Arab support, he returned and raised an army once more. Bardas Phokas was sent against him, but betrayed the emperor, first coming to an agreement with Skleros, then imprisoning him and declaring against Basil II himself. The emperor called upon the Russian prince Vladimir for help, and an agreement was reached which involved both Vladimir’s acceptance of Christianity and his marriage to Basil’s sister Anna. Vladimir also sent Basil a stout body of Norse-Russian troops (known in the Byzantine sources as Varangians). With their help, Basil was able to defeat Phokas, who died after a second battle in 989. And although Skleros continued in rebellion for a while, a reconciliation was soon arranged and peace restored.

Basil’s early military ventures were largely unsuccessful (a factor which contributed to the desire in certain aristocratic quarters to replace him). In 986 he had marched against the reviving power of the Bulgarians, under their Tsar Samuel who, together with his brothers, had rebelled against Roman rule in Macedonia after the death of Tzimiskes, establishing a capital first at Prespa and later at Ohrid. Although taking up the older Bulgarian tradition, this was essentially a kingdom based in Macedonia, which now became the political centre of the new empire. From there he was able to extend his sway over the regions to the north and east, and by the mid-980s he controlled all the original Bulgarian state up to the Danube as well as the western Balkans, including much of Thessaly, Epiros and what is now Albania. He then began pushing directly into Byzantine Thrace, attacking Thessaloniki and other major centres in 985 and 986.

The young Basil had to take action before the empire’s Balkan provinces fell away. An expedition led by the emperor marched north against the region of Serdica, but failed to take the town and, on his return, his forces were badly mauled in the Balkan passes, losing the imperial baggage in the process. The ensuing civil wars took up the emperor’s attention for the next years, allowing the new Bulgarian power to extend and consolidate its hold. When next the emperor turned his attention to Tsar Samuel, he faced a very different problem indeed.

By 991, when Basil finally had the time to devote to the Balkan situation, Samuel’s power was well established. Basil began by trying to forge diplomatic alliances with some of the other Balkan powers, such as the princes of Serbia, for example. In 991 Basil campaigned briefly and successfully in Macedonia, but eastern politics then took up his attention until 1001. In the meantime, in 997, Samuel had suffered a major defeat at the hands of one of Basil’s generals, Nikephoros Ouranos, following a raid as far south as the Peloponnese. But it became clear that this would not affect his overall situation. Beginning in 1001, therefore, Basil began a series of regular, yearly campaigns that, with the strength of the well-disciplined Byzantine armies behind him, soon reduced Samuel’s power to a fraction of its former extent. Basil’s campaigns were well thought through. He first established a wedge of Byzantine-controlled territory stretching up from Thrace to the Balkan range and Pliska, thus cutting Samuel’s core Macedonian lands off from the old Bulgarian heartlands. In a series of pincer movements he then progressively isolated the Tsar’s forces, until by about 1007 the war had become a question of searching out and bringing Samuel’s remaining forces to battle. The end for Samuel came in 1014 when, at the battle of Kleidion, a narrow pass in the Belasica mountains which Samuel had fortified against Byzantine attack, his remaining forces were caught in a pincer movement and annihilated. Samuel died shortly after the battle, possibly from a cerebral haemorrhage or heart attack, and within four years the remainder of his empire had collapsed in civil war and been absorbed into the empire. The whole Balkan region up to the Danube was, for the first time since the sixth century, again in Roman hands, and was to stay in Roman hands until the rebellions of the later twelfth century.

The effectiveness and inventiveness of Roman generalship during this period is exemplified by a number of battles fought during the reign of Basil II. One of the best known is the battle of the Spercheios river, fought in 997. Tsar Samuel had marched into Thrace, where he was able to ambush and capture Ashot, the son of the Byzantine doux, or commander, of the region of Thessaloniki, Gregory Taronites. In a vain attempt to rescue his son, Gregory too was drawn into a trap and surrounded, and died trying to cut his way out. Samuel then marched across northern Greece and down as far as the Gulf of Corinth, from where he entered the Peloponnese and proceeded to ravage and harry the land. Samuel’s forces had managed to avoid the detachments placed to halt their advance into the Peloponnese and Greece, but on the march back towards his home territories he was forced to confront one of the empire’s most able commanders, the general Nikephoros Ouranos, a close friend of the emperor Basil and author of an important military handbook. Nikephoros, who held the post of supreme commander of all the western armies, set out from Thessaloniki with his forces and crossed the mountains of Olympos to Larissa, where he left his baggage before proceeding. From Larissa he set out with a select and lightly equipped force to try and intercept Samuel’s army. Moving by forced marches he crossed Thessaly and the plain of Farsala before arriving at the Apidanos river, which he crossed to reach the Spercheios, where his scouts had located the Bulgar encampment. Nikephoros pitched his camp on the bank opposite Samuel’s army, but this did not dishearten the Bulgars: not only were there no nearby fords, but the river was in full spate due to particularly heavy rains.

Nikephoros was not prepared to give up, however. Scouts were despatched up and down the river for a considerable distance in both directions and eventually a fordable stretch was found, sufficient to permit the select force under Nikephoros’s command to pass over. Marching along the bank of the river after nightfall, the troops were safely crossed over before dawn. Forming up on the opposite bank, they now marched back towards the Bulgar encampment and, just before dawn, fell on the imperfectly defended camp which Samuel had thought adequate. The Bulgar troops were caught completely unawares, and there was no organized resistance. The greater part of the Bulgar force perished or was captured. Samuel and his son Romanos, who had accompanied him, were both badly wounded and only escaped with their lives by hiding among the dead and injured until they could creep away. The Romans captured Samuel’s baggage train and all his booty, and returned to Thessaloniki with a substantial body of captives.

A similarly stubborn refusal to give up when faced with apparently insurmountable physical obstacles was demonstrated by Basil II himself and his officers in the campaign of 1014. In the years preceding, the Roman strategy of attrition had worn down Bulgar resistance to such an extent that Samuel could no longer go on the offensive, but was limited to trying to prevent Byzantine incursions into his core territory and to preserve what lands and resources were still in his power. The Tsar’s strategy was to attempt to prevent the damaging raids mounted by Basil each year into these Macedonian heartlands. Campaigning generally began in May, and the raids usually involved imperial units pushing up from Serres in the south, through the pass of Rupel and along the ‘long plain’ (Campulungu, or ‘Kimbalonga’ in its Greek form) formed by the Strymon valley itself. Following well-established Bulgar practice, Samuel blocked many of the passes off with timber palisades and ditches, including the important pass at Kleidion (near the modern village of Kljuc), regularly employed by the imperial armies as they marched into Macedonia, despatching at the same time a diversionary attack against Thessaloniki by another route. The latter move was defeated by the local commander in the region, Theophylaktos Botaneiates, whose troops cut the Bulgar force to pieces. The attempt to block the pass also failed.

Confronted by the high palisade erected by the Bulgars, the eastern Roman forces at first tried to storm the obstacle, but after sustaining disproportionate losses in the attempt, found that they would have to march a long way westwards or eastwards in order to circumvent the obstacle, which would have meant calling off the campaign for that year. One of Basil’s commanders, however, Niketas Xiphias, the commander of Philippoupolis, volunteered to lead a small force over the mountains in an attempt to find a way across and behind the enemy position. Basil’s forces maintained their position before the pass, launching a series of small-scale assaults to keep the Bulgars occupied, while Xiphias spent some time scouting the area on either side of the pass. Eventually he located a narrow and difficult track to the west of the pass, which led across mount Belasica, and at dawn on 29 July Xiphias’s small force fell on the rear lines of the Bulgar army with bloodcurdling yells. Order was never really established and, as panic gripped the Bulgar soldiers, the main imperial army under Basil, no longer faced by a determined and focused resistance from the palisade, were able to tear it down and begin the pursuit of their utterly disorganized foe. Many were killed, but the vast majority were surrounded and forced to surrender.

This was Samuel’s last remaining army of any consequence, and its destruction effectively ended serious resistance. According to a slightly later source, some 15,000 prisoners were taken in all, and of these, Basil is supposed to have blinded all but one in every hundred, whom he left with one eye each to guide the rest back to Samuel. Whether the tale is true is hard to know, although there is probably some element of truth to it. At any rate, Samuel had a seizure or stroke of some kind when he saw what had happened to his soldiers, and died. Within the next four years Basil and his generals completed the subjugation of Bulgaria, and the Danube became once again the effective frontier of the Roman empire.

The successes of the period from about 960 to 1025 are impressive, but they were by no means uniform. The imperial armies had achieved a powerful reputation, so much so that by the 1030s the mere threat of an imperial army marching into northern Syria was enough to keep the local Muslim emirs in check. Yet while these successes were the result of a combination of good organization and logistics, intelligent tactics, well-armed, trained and disciplined soldiers, and good morale, the key still remained the competence and effectiveness of the commanders. Even under Basil II incompetent officers led their troops to disaster, so it can reasonably be maintained that the dependence on the charisma and intelligence of its leaders was one of the most significant inbuilt weaknesses of the imperial military system at the tactical level. Combined with short-sighted strategic planning and internal political conflict, this was to lead during the middle of the eleventh century to serious problems and to the erosion of the effectiveness of the field armies as well as the provincial defences.

Naval Battles – Siege of Constantinople 1453 Part I


In early April, while the big guns were busy pounding the land walls, Sultan Mehmet began to deploy the fleet, his other new weapon, for the first time. He had been quick to grasp a fact obvious to all potential besiegers from the time of the Arabs onwards – that without firm control of the sea an attempt on the city was likely to fail. His father Murat had come to the siege of 1422 with no ability to strangle Byzantine sea-lanes – the Ottoman fleet had been caught and destroyed at Gallipoli by the Venetians six years earlier. Without a blockade of the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles the city could be easily resupplied by the Greek cities of the Black Sea or by Christian sympathizers from the Mediterranean basin. It was with this in mind that the Throat Cutter had been built and equipped with heavy guns in the summer of 1452. No ship could henceforth pass up or down the Bosphorus into the Black Sea unexamined.

At the same time he had set to work repairing and strengthening the navy. During the winter of 1452 an ambitious programme of shipbuilding work was undertaken at the Ottoman naval base at Gallipoli and probably at Sinop on the Black Sea and other shipyards on the Aegean coast. According to Kritovoulos, Mehmet ‘thought that the fleet would be more influential in the siege and the fighting ahead than the army’, and gave great personal attention to this work. The empire had acquired an experienced resource of shipwrights, sailors and pilots, both of Greek and Italian origin, as it rolled up the coasts of the Black Sea and Mediterranean, and this skilled manpower could be brought into play in naval reconstruction. Mehmet also had access to the substantial natural resources essential to naval endeavour: timber and hemp, cloth for sails, cast iron for anchors and nails, pitch and tallow for caulking and greasing hulls. These materials were sourced widely from within the empire and beyond. It was the logistical skill of Mehmet to bring together all these resources for war.

As with cannon, the Ottomans were swift to adopt the ships of their Christian enemies. The key fighting vessel of the Mediterranean Middle Ages was the oared galley, the natural successor of the Roman and Greek galleys of classical antiquity, a vessel that dominated the Mediterranean in evolving forms from the start of the Bronze Age until the seventeenth century, and whose basic shape, echoed on Minoan seals, Egyptian papyri and the pottery of classical Greece, was to be as central to the sea’s history as the vine and the olive tree. By the late Middle Ages the prototype war galley was long, fast and very lean, typically perhaps 100 feet in length, under twelve feet in width with a raised prow or spur at the front to act as a fighting platform or boarding bridge onto enemy ships. The tactics of naval warfare were hardly distinguishable from those on land. The galleys would be packed with a complement of fighting men who, after an initial discharge of missiles, would attempt to storm the opposing vessel in vicious hand-to-hand combat.

The galley itself was startlingly low in the water. To maximize the mechanical advantage of the oars, a laden war galley might have clearance above the water of two feet. It could be powered by sail, but it was the oars that gave the galley its punch and flex in battle. The rowers were arranged in a single tier, above deck – which left them horribly exposed in battle – and usually two or three to a side on a single bench; each man worked an individual oar whose length was determined by his place on the bench. Conditions were cramped; galley rowing meant operating an oar in the seat space of a modern passenger plane so that the basic rowing motion, where sideways space was at a premium, involved the oarsman pushing the oar straight forward with his elbows kept in and rising up out of his seat in the process, then dropping back into it. Not surprisingly galley rowing required skilled crews able to row in perfect time – and considerable muscle power to work an oar up to thirty feet long weighing some 100 pounds. The war galley was bred for speed and manoeuvrability in battle; a galley with a well-greased keel could maintain a dash speed of seven and a half knots for twenty minutes under human power. The demand to row for longer than an hour quickly tired the crew.

For all its pace on a calm sea, the galley suffered from extraordinary disadvantages. The low freeboard rendered it surprisingly unseaworthy, even in the short choppy seas of the Mediterranean, so that galley sailing tended to be confined to the summer months and dictated a preference for hugging the coast to making long journeys over open water. Galley fleets were not infrequently swamped by unseasonal storms. The sails were only useful with the wind full astern, and the oars themselves were useless against any strong headwind. In addition the requirement for speed had created a hull that was fragile and so low in the water as to be at a serious disadvantage when attacking a high-sided vessel, such as a merchant sailing ship or one of the taller Venetian great galleys. The galley’s strengths and weaknesses were to be severely tested in the struggle for the city.

Mehmet had assembled a substantial fleet. He repaired and recaulked older vessels and built a number of new triremes – galleys with oars grouped in threes – as well as smaller scaled-down raiding galleys, ‘long ships, fast and fully decked, with thirty to fifty rowers’, which Europeans called fustae. He appears to have supervised much of this work himself, choosing ‘skilled seamen from all the Asian and European coasts – oarsmen with particular skills, deckhands, helmsmen, commanders of triremes, captains and admirals, and the other ships’ crews’. Some of this fleet was already in the Bosphorus in March, ferrying troops across the straits, but it was not until the start of April that the main force could be assembled at Gallipoli under his appointed admiral Baltaoglu, ‘a great man, a skilful admiral experienced in sea warfare’. It was the first time in seven sieges that the Ottomans had brought a fleet to the city. It was a crucial development.

Gallipoli, ‘homeland of defenders of the faith’, was a talismanic city for the Ottomans and an auspicious point of departure. It was here that they had gained their first foothold in Europe in 1354 after a fortuitous earthquake. The fleet, fired with zeal for holy war and the enterprise of conquest, started out from the Dardanelles and began to work its way up the Sea of Marmara. The crews apparently set out ‘with cries and cheering and the singing of rowing chants, encouraging each other with shouts’. In practice the enthusiasm may have been more muted: a substantial portion of the rowing force were in all likelihood Christians working under compulsion. According to a later chronicler ‘the wind of divine help pushed them forward’, but the reality must have been different. By now the prevailing wind was blowing from the north so the passage up the Marmara had to made against wind and current. The 120 miles to Constantinople presented a hard slog for the galleys. News of their progress preceded them up the sea-lane with a mixture of astonishment and panic. As with his army Mehmet understood the psychological value of superior numbers. It was the impression of a sea covered with oars and masts that appalled the watching Greek villages along the coast. The most reliable estimates of the Ottoman navy were made by experienced Christian seafarers, such Giacomo Tetaldi and Nicolo Barbaro, rather than by more impressionable landlubbers. Between them they estimated a fleet of something between twelve and eighteen full war galleys composed of a mixture of triremes and biremes, then seventy to eighty smaller fustae, about twenty-five parandaria – heavy transport barges – and a number of light brigantines and other small message boats, a force of about 140 boats in all. It was an awesome sight to glimpse over the curve of the western horizon.

Word of Mehmet’s impressive naval preparations reached the city long before his ships, so that the defenders had time to draw up their naval plans with care. On 2 April they closed the Golden Horn with the great chain to create a secure anchorage for their ships and to seal off the puny sea walls from attack. It was a practice embedded deep in the history of the city. As early as 717 a chain had been strung across the strait to hamper besieging Muslim navies. On 6 April, according to Barbaro, ‘we put ready for battle the three galleys from Tana and the two narrow galleys’, and their crews then progressed the length of the land wall in a show of military strength. On the 9th all the naval resources available to the defenders in the harbour were organized and made ready. It was a mixed collection of craft, brought together for a range of motives. There were ships from the Italian city-states and their colonies – Venice, Genoa, Ancona and Crete – as well as a Catalan ship, one from Provence, and ten Byzantine craft. There were galleys of various sizes including the three ‘great galleys’, the bulk carriers of Italian maritime trade, slower than conventional war galleys but stoutly built with higher sides, and two ‘narrow galleys’, slender hulled and low in the water. The majority of the vessels at anchor in the Golden Horn in early April 1453 were merchant sailing ships – high-sided, sail-driven ‘round ships’ – carracks with high poops and sterns, stoutly timbered and masted. In theory none of these were fighting ships, but in the dangerous, pirate-threatened waters of the Mediterranean, the distinction was a fine one. Their height and the vantage points of their decks and crow’s nests gave them natural advantages over low-slung war galleys if supplied with weapons and skilled troops. At this snapshot moment in the history of naval warfare the sailing ship could often hold its own against the most determined attack. Galley-mounted guns were in their infancy; they were too small and mounted too low to threaten a carrack. It was to be another fifty years before the Venetians devised an effective ship-killing gun that could be mounted on a galley. Furthermore, the sailors from Venice and Genoa in particular, who depended totally on their prowess at sea for survival and prosperity, approached all maritime matters with supreme confidence. They made their plans accordingly.

On 9 April therefore, they drew their ten largest merchantmen up in front of the boom ‘in close array and with bows forward’. Barbaro faithfully recorded their captains and the size of each one, ranging from that of Zorzi Doria of Genoa, ‘2,500 botte’, to one of ‘600 botte’; three he named: the Filomati and Guro of Candia, the Gataloxa of Genoa. Alongside these were stationed the stoutest of the galleys. The ships, which were ‘well armed and in excellent order, as if they wanted to join battle, and all equally good’, spanned the length of the boom from the city to Galata on the other side. In the inner harbour a further seventeen square-rigged merchantmen were kept in reserve, together with more galleys, including five of the emperor’s which were probably disarmed to provide a concentration of equipment at the boom. A few surplus ships were scuttled to lessen the risk of being hit by cannon and spreading fire, the waking nightmare of mariners in a closely packed fleet. Secure in both their defences and their nautical skill, with cannon positioned on the foreshore as an extra assurance, the captains sat to await the arrival of the Ottoman fleet. They had perhaps thirty-seven ships in total against an armada of 140, on paper a huge discrepancy, but the Italian seafarers understood the critical issues in sea warfare. Ship handling was a craft skill dependent on well-trained crews, so that the outcome of naval encounters rested less on numbers than on experience, determination and the random luck of winds and currents. ‘Seeing that we had such an impressive fleet, we felt ourselves confidently secure against the fleet of the infidel Turks,’ recorded Barbaro smugly, betraying a consistent Venetian tendency to underestimate Ottoman maritime skills.

The Ottoman fleet was finally sighted on 12 April at about one o’clock in the afternoon, battling up against the north wind. Doubtless the sea walls were crowded with watching citizens as the horizon slowly filled with masts. The fleet came rowing on ‘with determination’, but seeing the Christian ships drawn up at the boom in line of battle, it went over to the other side of the strait, lining the opposite shore. It made a strong impression on those watching and deepened the city’s gloom, hearing the ‘eager cries and the sound of castanets and tambourines, with which they filled our fleet and those in the city with fear’. Later in the afternoon, the whole fleet moved two miles further up the Bosphorus to a small harbour on the European shore called by the Greeks the Double Columns, now the site of the Dolmabache Palace. The size and power of the warlike fleet had undoubtedly dented the confidence of even the Italians, because the ships at the boom stood to arms all that day and into the night ‘waiting hour after hour in case they came to attack our fleet’, but nothing happened. It was to be the start of an attritional game of cat and mouse. To minimize the risk of being surprised, two men were stationed permanently on the town walls of neutral Galata from which vantage point the fleet at the Double Columns further up the Bosphorus could be closely watched. At any sign of movement along the straits by even a single ship, a man hurried back down the streets of Galata to the Horn to alert Aluvixe Diedo the harbour commander. The battle trumpet was sounded and those on the ships stood immediately to arms. In this state of nervy apprehension they waited day and night, rocking gently at anchor in the calm waters of the Horn.

Mehmet had three clear objectives for his new fleet: to blockade the city, to attempt to force a way into the Horn, and to oppose any relieving fleet that might sail up the Marmara. Initially Baltaoglu did nothing more than send out patrols round the waters of the city specifically to prevent ships entering or leaving the two small harbours on the Marmara side of the city. At about the same time a further detachment of ships came from the Black Sea laden with cannon balls and other munitions for the army. The arrival of these supplies seemed to precipitate a new cycle of activity in the Ottoman camp.

Impatient to tighten his stranglehold on the city, Mehmet ordered Baltaoglu to make an attempt on the boom. If the Ottomans could force their way into the Horn, Constantine would be compelled to strip the land wall of much-needed defenders to guard the shoreline. Both sides had made careful preparations for this moment. Doubtless at the instigation of Mehmet, whose appetite for artillery innovations was boundless, the Ottomans loaded small cannon onto their galleys. They packed the fighting beaks with heavy infantry and provisioned the vessels with stocks of weapons: stone cannon balls, arrows, javelins and inflammable material. The lookouts on the Galata walls closely observed these preparations, so that Lucas Notaras, the commander of the Byzantine ships, had ample time to prepare the big merchant carracks and galleys with men and ammunition.

Probably on 18 April, at the same time as the first major assault on the land walls at the St Romanus Gate, Baltaoglu launched the new navy’s first attack. Putting out in force from the Double Columns, the fleet rounded the point and advanced at speed towards the boom. They rowed hard at the steady line of tall ships anchored in front of the chain, with the crews encouraging each other with shouts and battle cries. They came on to within a bowshot, then slowed and released a volley of fire from bows and cannon; stone balls, metal bolts and flaming arrows whistled across the water and swept the enemy decks. After the initial salvoes, they came on again towards the anchored ships. As they clashed, the Ottomans attempted the standard boarding procedures of close engagement. Grappling hooks and ladders were thrown up as they tried to scale the sides of the taller ships; attempts were made to slash the merchantmen’s anchor cables. A hail of javelins, pikes and spears was hurled at the defenders. The ferocity of the assault was unquestionable but the advantage of battle lay with the higher and more stoutly built carracks. Stone balls from the ship-mounted cannon of the Ottoman galleys were too small to inflict damage on the sturdy wooden hulls, and the sea-borne soldiers were attacking from below, like troops trying to storm the land walls from the bottom of a ditch. The sailors and marines on board the Christian ships could hurl down missiles from the bow and stern platforms and from higher up in the crow’s nests. Volleys of gads – iron javelins with stabilizing fins – arrows and stones were rained down on the undefended attackers scrabbling at the sides of the ships, ‘wounding many, and killing a considerable number too’. The merchantmen were practised and equipped for close combat at sea; jars of water were at hand to extinguish incendiary devices and simple rope hoists extending from their masts allowed them to swing out heavy stones clear from the sides of the ships and drop them onto the fragile shells of the swarming long boats, ‘and inflicted considerable damage in this way’. The struggle to capture and to protect the chain was intense, but eventually the Christians started to prevail. They manage to turn the flank of the galley fleet. Fearing humiliation Baltaoglu withdrew his ships and sailed back to the Double Columns.

The first round of naval warfare had gone to the defenders. They understood their ships well and a basic fact of naval warfare: that a well-prepared merchantman could hold its own against a swarm of low-lying galleys if the crew were disciplined and well equipped. Mehmet’s hopes for artillery power had not been met at sea. The guns that could be mounted on light-framed galleys were too small to be effective against the stout sides of sailing ships, and the conditions of operation – the difficulty both of preventing the powder absorbing atmospheric moisture at sea and of aiming effectively on a pitching deck – further decreased the chances of success. By the morning of 19 April, Mehmet’s troops had been repulsed by both land and sea, while the spirits of the defenders remained undaunted. The lengthening timeframe of the siege increased Mehmet’s impatience day by day – and the possibility of aid from the West.

Naval Battles – Siege of Constantinople 1453 Part II


The Ottoman Turks transport their fleet overland into the Golden Horn.


Map of Constantinople and the dispositions of the defenders and the besiegers.

For Emperor Constantine a successful defence of the city depended on relief from Christian Europe. The endless round of diplomatic missions that preceded the siege had all been undertaken to beg or borrow men and resources for the cause of Christendom. Daily the population looked in the direction of the setting sun for another fleet – a squadron of Venetian or Genoese war galleys, their beaked prows surging up the Marmara to the beating of drums, the rallying of war trumpets, the lion flags of St Marks or the gonfalons of Genoa cracking in the salt wind. But the sea remained ominously empty.

In effect the fate of the city hung on the complex internal politics of the Italian city-states. As early as the end of 1451 Constantine had sent messengers to Venice to report that the city would fall without help. The matter had been debated by the Venetian Senate at length; it was the subject of prevarication in Genoa; in Rome the Pope was concerned but required evidence that the union of the churches had been fully implemented. In any case he lacked practical resources to intervene without the Venetians. Genoa and Venice eyed each other in cold commercial rivalry and did nothing.

Constantine’s appeal to the West rested on notions that were religious and medieval but they were directed at states whose motivations were economic – and surprisingly modern. The Venetians were largely indifferent to whether the Byzantines were unionists or not and had little appetite for the role of defenders of the faith. They were hard-nosed traders, preoccupied with commercial agreements, the security of their sea routes and the calculation of interest. They worried about pirates more than theology, about commodities rather than creeds. Their merchants studied the price of what could be bought and sold – wheat, fur, slaves, wine and gold – the supply of manpower for the galley fleets and the pattern of Mediterranean winds. They lived by trade and the sea, by discount, profit margins and ready coin. The doge was on excellent terms with the sultan and trade with Edirne was profitable; furthermore Constantine had considerably damaged Venetian interests in the Peloponnese in the previous twenty years.

It was in this spirit that in August 1452 a minority of senators actually voted to abandon Constantinople to its fate. The lack of concern was modified the following spring as reports trickled in of the throttling of trade routes to the Black Sea and the sinking of Venetian ships. On 19 February the Senate decided to prepare a fleet of two armed transports and fifteen galleys to sail on 8 April. The organization of the expedition was entrusted to Alviso Longo with cautious instructions that included a helpful diktat to avoid confrontation with the Ottomans in the straits. He finally departed on 19 April, one day after the first major assault on the walls. Others made similarly uncoordinated efforts. On 13 April the government of the Republic of Genoa invited its citizens, merchants and officials ‘in the East, in the Black Sea and in Syria’ to help with all means the Emperor of Constantinople and Demetrios, despot of the Morea. Five days earlier it had been authorizing loans to arm ships against the Venetians. At about the same time the Pope had written to the Venetian Senate informing them of his desire to get up five galleys, on loan from the Venetians, for the relief of the city. The Venetians, ever sticklers for a debt, accepted the commission in principle but wrote back reminding the papacy that the cost of galleys for the failed crusade of Varna in 1444 was still outstanding.

Pope Nicholas had however already undertaken one prompt initiative at his own expense. Fearful of the fate of Constantinople, in March he hired three Genoese merchant ships, provisioned them with food, men and weapons, and dispatched them to the city. By the start of April they had reached the Genoese island of Chios off the Anatolian coast but could proceed no further. The north wind that impeded the Ottoman fleet held the Genoese at Chios for a fortnight. On 15 April the wind shifted to the south and the ships set sail. By the 19th they had reached the Dardanelles where they fell in with a heavy imperial transport, laden with a cargo of corn the emperor had purchased from Sicily and commanded by an Italian, Francesco Lecanella. They swept up the Dardanelles and passed the Ottoman naval base at Gallipoli unopposed – the entire fleet had decamped to the Double Columns. The ships were in all likelihood similar to those that had seen off the Ottomans at the boom a few days previously: high-sided sail-powered vessels, probably carracks, described by the Ottoman chronicler Tursun Bey as ‘cogs’. On the swell of the south wind they made rapid time up the Marmara so that by the morning of 20 April the crews could make out the great dome of St Sophia forming on their eastern horizon.

The look-out for a relieving fleet was a constant obsession in the city. The ships were seen at about ten in the morning and the Genoese flags – a red cross on a white background – identified. The news caused an instant stir among the people. Almost simultaneously the ships were also sighted by Ottoman naval patrols and word was sent to Mehmet in his camp at Maltepe. He galloped down to the Double Columns to deliver clear and peremptory orders to Baltaoglu. Doubtless stung by the failure of his fleet at the boom and the reversal at the land walls, Mehmet’s message to commander and fleet was unequivocal; ‘either to take the sailing ships and bring them to him or never to come back alive’. The galley fleet was hurriedly made ready with a full complement of rowers and crammed with crack troops – heavy infantry, bowmen and Janissaries from his personal bodyguard. Light cannon were again loaded on board, as well as incendiary materials and ‘many other weapons: round and rectangular shields, helmets, breast plates, missiles and javelins and long spears, and other things useful for this kind of battle’. The fleet set out down the Bosphorus to confront the intruders. Success was imperative for morale, but this second naval battle was to be fought further out in the straits where the vagaries of the Bosphorus’s extraordinary winds and local currents were less predictable and the demands on ships could be exacting. The Genoese merchantmen were battering up the straits with the wind astern. The Ottoman fleet, unable to use their sails against the wind, lowered them as they rowed downstream against a choppy sea.

By early afternoon the four ships were off the south-east of the city, keeping a steady course for the tower of Demetrios the Great, a prominent landmark on the city’s Acropolis, and well out from the shore, ready to make the turning manoeuvre into the mouth of the Horn. The huge disparity in numbers filled Baltaoglu’s men ‘with ambition and hope of success’. They came on steadily, ‘with a great sounding of castanets and cries towards the four ships, rowing fast, like men wanting victory’. The sound of beating drums and the braying of zornas spread across the water as the galley fleet closed in. With the masts and oars of a hundred ships converging on the four merchantmen, the outcome seemed inevitable. The population of the city crowded to the walls, onto the roofs of houses or to the Sphendone of the Hippodrome, anywhere that had a wide view of the Marmara and the entrance of the Bosphorus. On the other side of the Horn, beyond the walls of Galata, Mehmet and his retinue watched from the vantage point of an opposing hill. Each side looked on with a mixture of hope and anxiety as Baltaoglu’s trireme drew near to the lead ship. From the poop he peremptorily ordered them to lower their sails. The Genoese kept their course and Baltaoglu commanded his fleet to lie to and rake the carracks with fire. Stone shot whistled through the air; bolts, javelins and incendiary arrows were poured up at the ships from all directions but the Genoese did not waver. Again the advantage was with the taller ships: ‘they fought from high up, and indeed from the yardarms and the wooden turrets they hurled down arrows, javelins and stones’. The weight of the sea made it hard for the galleys to steady their aim or to manoeuvre accurately around the carracks still surging forward with the south wind in their sails. The fight developed into a running skirmish, with the Ottoman troops struggling to get close enough in the choppy sea to board or to fire the sails, the Genoese flinging a hail of missiles from their castellated poops.

The small convoy of tall ships reached the point of the Acropolis unscathed and was ready to make the turn into the safety of the Horn when disaster struck. The wind suddenly dropped. The sails hung lifeless from the masts, and the ships, almost within touching distance of the city walls, lost all headway and started to drift helplessly on a perverse counter-current across the open mouth of the Horn and towards Mehmet and his watching army on the Galata shore. At once the balance shifted from the ships with sails to the galleys with oars. Baltaoglu gathered his larger vessels around the merchantmen at a slight distance and again pelted them with missiles, but with no greater effect than before. The cannon were too light and too low in the water to damage the hulls or disable the masts. The Christian crews were able to put out any fires with barrels of water. Seeing the failure of raking fire, the admiral ‘shouted in a commanding voice’ and ordered the fleet to close in and board.

The swarm of galleys and long boats converged on the cumbersome and disabled carracks. The sea congealed into a struggling mass of interlocking masts and hulls that looked, according to the chronicler Doukas, ‘like dry land’. Baltaoglu rammed the beak of his trireme into the stern of the imperial galley, the largest and least heavily armed of the Christian ships. Ottoman infantry poured up the boarding bridges trying to get onto the ships with grappling hooks and ladders, to smash their hulls with axes, to set fire to them with flaming torches. Some climbed up anchor cables and ropes; others hurled lances and javelins up at the wooden ramparts. At close quarters the struggle developed into a serious of vicious hand-to-hand encounters. From above, the defenders, protected by good armour, smashed the heads of their assailants with clubs as they emerged over the ships’ sides, cut off scrabbling hands with cutlasses, hurled javelins, spears, pikes and stones down on the seething mass below. From higher up in the yardarms and crow’s nests ‘they threw missiles from their terrible catapults and a rain of stones hurled down on the close-packed Turkish fleet’. Crossbowmen picked off chosen targets with well-aimed bolts and crewmen deployed cranes to hoist and drop weighty stones and barrels of water through the light hulls of the longboats, damaging and sinking many. The air was a confused mass of sounds: shouts and cries, the roaring of cannon, the splash of armoured men falling backwards into the water, the snapping of oars, the shattering of stone on wood, steel on steel, the whistling of arrows falling so fast ‘that the oars couldn’t be pushed down into the water’, the sound of blades on flesh, of crackling fire and human pain. ‘There was great shouting and confusion on all sides as they encouraged each other’, recorded Kritovoulos, ‘hitting and being hit, slaughtering and being slaughtered, pushing and being pushed, swearing, cursing, threatening, moaning – it was a terrible din.’

For two hours the Ottoman fleet grappled with its intractable foe in the heat of battle. Its soldiers and sailors fought bravely and with extraordinary passion, ‘like demons’, recorded Archbishop Leonard begrudgingly. Gradually, and despite heavy losses, the weight of numbers started to tell. One ship was surrounded by five triremes, another by thirty long boats, a third by forty barges filled with soldiers, like swarms of ants trying to down a huge beetle. When one long boat fell back exhausted or was sunk, leaving its armoured soldiers to be swept off in the current or clinging to spars, fresh boats rowed forward to tear at their prey. Baltaoglu’s trireme clung tenaciously to the heavier and less well-armed imperial transport, which ‘defended itself brilliantly, with its captain Francesco Lecanella rushing to help’. In time, however it became apparent to the captains of the Genoese ships that the transport would be taken without swift intervention. Somehow they managed to bring their ships up alongside in a practised manoeuvre and lash the four vessels together, so that they seemed to move, according to an observer, like four towers rising up among the swarming seething confusion of the grappling Ottoman fleet from a surface of wood so dense that ‘the water could hardly be seen’.

The spectators thronging the city walls and the ships within the boom watched helplessly as the matted raft of ships drifted slowly under the point of the Acropolis and towards the Galata shore. As the battle drew closer, Mehmet galloped down onto the foreshore, shouting excited instructions, threats and encouragement to his valiantly struggling men, then urging his horse into the shallow water in his desire to command the engagement. Baltaoglu was close enough now to hear and ignore his sultan’s bellowed instructions. The sun was setting. The battle had been raging for three hours. It seemed certain that Ottomans must win ‘for they took it in turns to fight, relieving each other, fresh men taking the places of the wounded or killed’. Sooner or later the supply of Christian missiles must give out and their energy would falter. And then something happened to shift the balance back again so suddenly that the watching Christians saw in it only the hand of God. The south wind picked up. Slowly the great square sails of the four towered carracks stirred and swelled and the ships started to moved forward again in a block, impelled by the irresistible momentum of the wind. Gathering speed, they crashed through the surrounding wall of frail galleys and surged towards the mouth of the Horn. Mehmet shouted curses at his commander and ships ‘and tore his garments in his fury’ but by now night was falling and it was too late to pursue the ships further. Beside himself with rage at the humiliation of the spectacle, Mehmet ordered the fleet to withdraw to the Double Columns.

In the moonless dark, two Venetian galleys were dispatched from behind the boom, sounding two or three trumpets on each galley and with the men shouting wildly to convince their enemies that a force of ‘at least twenty galleys’ was putting to sea and to discourage any further pursuit. The galleys towed the sailing ships into the harbour to the ringing of church bells and the cheering of the citizens. Mehmet was ‘stunned. In silence, he whipped up his horse and rode away.’

The immediate consequences of the naval engagement in the Bosphorus were profound. A few short hours had tipped the psychological balance of the siege sharply and unexpectedly back to the defenders. The spring sea had provided a huge auditorium for the public humiliation of the Ottoman fleet, watched both by the Greek population thronging the walls and the right wing of the army with Mehmet on the shore opposite.

It was obvious to both sides that the massive new fleet, which had so stunned the Christians when it first appeared in the Straits, could not match the experience of Western seamanship. It had been thwarted by superior skill and equipment, the innate limitations of war galleys – and not a little luck. Without secure control of the sea, the struggle to subdue the city would be hard fought, whatever the sultan’s guns might achieve at the land walls.

Justinian’s Reversal Reversed: Victory and Plague I



Sabbatius Iustinianus, our Justinian I or Justinian the Great, St Justinian the Emperor of the Orthodox Church, was born a peasant’s child in what is now Macedonia, yet came easily to the throne, having long served as assistant, understudy, co‐emperor, and increasingly the effective ruler for his uncle Justin I (518–527). When he was formally enthroned in 527, seventy‐seven years had passed since the end of the reign of Theodosios II, and its strategic innovations had been absorbed, consolidated, and institutionalized to good effect.

The empire was much stronger than it had been in 450, but still needed the Long Wall and the Theodosian Wall to protect Constantinople, not against large‐scale invasions but rather against plunder raids from across the Danube.

The Sassanian empire of Persia remained the permanent strategic threat, undiminished by mutual respect, frequent negotiations, and formal treaties, including the ‘endless peace’ of 532. Persistent vigilance and a readiness to deploy reinforcements quickly were always necessary, if often insufficient, to contain Sassanian power in the Caucasus, across contested Armenia and the entire eastern front down to southern Syria. On the other hand, there was no longer any rival power north of Constantinople or beyond the Danube, while across the Adriatic the Ostrogothic kingdom of Italy desired good relations with the empire; at least some of its elite even wanted reunion under the empire. The Vandals and Alans who had conquered Africa in the last century were still there, but no longer threatened naval expeditions against Egypt. As for the dangers of the great Eurasian steppe, the nearest warlike nomads were the Turkic Kutrigurs in what is now Ukraine, at worst a nuisance rather than an irresistible force as Attila’s Huns had been.

More powerful steppe enemies were on their way, so it was more important that by the time of Justinian the warriors of the steppe had irreversibly lost their tactical superiority. The imperial army had undergone its tactical revolution, mastering the difficult technique of mounted archery with powerful composite reflex bows while retaining close‐combat skills with sword and thrusting lance. Even if their archery could not quite match the best that the Hun mercenaries with them could exhibit, Byzantine troopers could no longer be outclassed tactically. The steppe warriors had also lost much of their operational superiority, because the imperial army had adopted agile cavalry tactics, and what individual riders may have lacked in virtuoso horsemanship could be compensated by the greater resilience of their disciplined and cohesive units.

This also meant, of course, that the imperial army now had tactical and operational superiority over the Vandals and Alans of Africa and the Ostrogoths of Italy. The Alans were primarily horsemen; Vandals and Goths were formidable fighters at close quarters, fully capable of organizing major expeditions and not unskilled in sieges, but all now found themselves lacking in missile capability and battlefield mobility. Prokopios of Caesarea, who was there, reports how Belisarios, Justinian’s celebrated commander, explained the difference that made:

practically all the Romans and their allies, the Huns [Onogur mercenaries], are good mounted bowmen, but not a man among the Goths has had practice in this branch, for their horsemen are accustomed to use only spears and swords, while their archers enter battle on foot and under cover of the heavy‐armed men [to ward off cavalry charges]. So the horsemen, unless the engagement is at close quarters, have no means of defending themselves against opponents who use the bow, and therefore can easily be reached by the arrows and destroyed; and as for the foot‐soldiers, they can never be strong enough to make sallies against men on horseback.

This was only tactics, not strategy, but without this advantage it may be doubted whether Justinian would have embarked on his plan of reconquest, first of North Africa in 533–534 and then of Italy from 535.

Modern historians almost unanimously assert that he was excessively ambitious and that his conquests overextended the empire—true enough in retrospect, though only because of unforeseeable catastrophe. Not even his harshest critics consider Justinian a fool, or irrational, or incapable of sober calculation, but he was severely constrained by logistics. The inescapable fact was the impossibility of sending large armies by sea. In the biggest expedition, Belisarios set out from Constantinople to what is now Tunisia in the summer of 533 with some 10,000 infantry and 8,000 cavalry carried in 500 transport ships manned by 30,000 crewmen and escorted by ninety‐two war galleys. It was certainly a most impressive armada, but 18,000 soldiers were not enough to take on the Vandals and Alans in North Africa, let alone the Ostrogoths, whose fighting manpower was sustained by the resources of the whole of Italy.

It could only be done, and then only just, with the tactical and operational advantages of manoeuvre with forces of mounted bowmen: it also required a successful theatre strategy, and good generalship overall. Justinian was famously well served by talented field commanders, especially the eunuch Narses, who was perhaps the better tactician, and the more celebrated Belisarios of the many stratagems and ingenuities. Belisarios is still remembered today by unlettered Romans for his improvised floating mills powered by the current of the Tiber that ground corn into flour during the siege of 537–538. Successful stratagems are the classic force multipliers, and it was with Belisarios that they first became a Byzantine speciality, along with his systematic avoidance of attrition and maximum exploitation of manoeuvre.

In the record of both the Vandal and the Gothic wars left by his secretary Prokopios, an admirer but not uncritical, we read how Belisarios would undertake long marches on more perilous routes to avoid the expected direction, and reach instead the enemy’s flank or, better, his rear, and we read how he was willing to hazard the most risky stratagems to avoid direct assaults. To win with few against many, he replaced the mass he lacked with high‐pay‐off, high‐risk manoeuvres and bold surprise actions, coups de main that all would praise in the successful aftermath, but which were gambles indeed.

Stratagems aside, it was mostly its archery as well as good tactics that enabled the Byzantine army to defeat enemies with larger numbers quite regularly. In an authoritative reconstruction of two major battles of the Italian campaign, at Tadinae, or Busta Gallorum, on the Via Flaminia in what is now Umbria in 552, and at the River Casilinus, now Volturno, near Naples in 554, the Byzantine forces commanded by Narses included assorted foreign contingents of Lombards, Heruls, and even Persians. In both cases, it was the bowmen of the imperial army who made the critical difference in the crucial phase of the fight with their volleys of powerfully lethal arrows.

In sum, the army’s tactical and operational superiority was the sufficient condition for the two campaigns of North Africa and Italy; the necessary condition was the negotiated peace with the Sassanian Persians. Italy was hardly restored to a better condition (in melius convertere) by being liberated from the Ostrogoths in fighting that lasted until 552 through many destructive vicissitudes. From 568 the Lombard invasion started a new round of destructive fighting, which began only after Justinian’s death in 565, and long after the unforeseeable catastrophe that invalidated all his strategic plans.

Whatever the future held, Justinian achieved his ambitions almost in full. His forces conquered North Africa from Tunis through coastal Algeria to what is now the northern tip of Morocco, thus reaching the Atlantic; and, across the straits, a coastal slice of the Iberian peninsula in what is now south‐east Spain; all the islands of the western Mediterranean—the Balearics, Corsica, Sardinia, and Sicily; and all of Italy. Except for a tract of the Iberian coast and the southern coast of Gaul, where no rival naval power existed in any case, the entire Mediterranean was once again a Mare Nostrum, with none to contest the Byzantine navy.

Nor was this the achievement of a military adventurer, but merely the military dimension of even broader ambitions. Justinian was notoriously indefatigable, demonstrably very intelligent, unchallenged by rivals, and quite unfettered by conventions—he married a woman with the social status of an ex‐prostitute. He also had two more attributes that empowered him greatly: a full treasury at his accession, and a particular talent in finding the especially talented to serve him. Thus, Justinian could have been an even more successful version of Anastasios, who ruled for twenty‐seven years, built a great deal including the Long Wall and the fortress city of Dara, lost no wars, reduced taxes, yet supposedly left 320,000 pounds of gold in the treasury for his successor, Justin.

But Justinian had much larger aims. In the legal sphere, he set out to codify all the extant costitutiones, imperial pronouncements with the force of law. Theodosios II had also issued a codification, but it was incomplete, while Justinian’s code, already published in 529, which implies that it was started as soon as he gained the throne, collated all the costitutiones in the Theodosian code with those in two unofficial collections, adding more recent laws including his own to produce the Codex Iustinianus, in twelve books. The lawyer Tribonian was in charge, another of Justinian’s highly talented appointments. Tribonian was also the chief author of the Pandectae, Pandektes, or Digesta, the jurisprudential treatise that followed the Codex, which contains in fifty books the legal opinions on all manner of cases of thirty‐nine legal experts, notably Ulpian and Paulus. Once issued with official authority, the Digest became in effect an additional code of jurist‐made law, not dissimilar from the body of English common law—except that Romans were involved, hence the code is organized. Tribonian and his colleagues next produced a much shorter work, the Institutiones, in four books, a manual of legal training. By 534 the Codex Iustinianus was issued in a new edition with corrections and additions, including Justinian’s laws issued in the interim, and 168 new laws, novellae, mostly in Greek, were added by the time Justinian died in 565.

The sum total has been known since the sixteenth century as the Corpus Iuris Civilis. Long before then, by the end of the eleventh century, it was rediscovered in Italy and came to form the foundation of canon law, of secular legal studies at Bologna and of the first real university along with them, and of the Western jurisprudence that now extends worldwide. The continued use of untranslated Latin in English and even more in American courts—sine die, nolle prosequi, ad litem, res iudicata, etc.—symbolizes a much deeper persistence; these phrases all come from the Digesta of the Corpus Iuris Civilis.

Equally vast and equally successful was Justinian’s ambition in the realm of public works. Prokopios wrote an entire book, Peri Ktismaton (‘On Buildings’), to describe the churches, fortresses, and all else that Justinian built or enhanced—sometimes attributing to him the edifices of other emperors. But we know that under Justinian dozens of fortresses and other fortifications were built, or substantially rebuilt, in many parts of the empire, and that thirty‐nine churches were built or rebuilt in Constantinople alone, including the great church of Hagia Sophia, whose immense floating dome still amazes visitors, and whose design is reproduced with varying degrees of fidelity and felicity in thousands of churches all over the world. From the detailed description in Prokopios of how Hagia Sophia was built, we learn that the men chosen by Justinian in person to build a radically innovative building, Anthemios of Tralles and Isidore of Miletus, used mathematical engineering to calculate the statics of the delicately counter‐weighted dome. Once again the talented Justinian had found exceptional talents to realize his inordinate ambitions, and the evidence remains intact in Istanbul to prove that he was highly successful, just as it does in his ambitious jurisprudential project, whose influence is even wider now than it was at his death in 565.

So why were Justinian’s military ambitions different? That they were not grossly unrealistic we know from the simple fact that the maritime expedition sent in 533 to conquer Africa was neither shipwrecked nor defeated on arrival, so that what is now Tunisia and coastal Algeria were duly conquered. The conquest of Italy from the Ostrogoths, which started in 535, was a much more demanding undertaking, but it too was successfully completed in May 540, when Belisarios entered the Ostrogothic capital and last refuge of Ravenna to accept the surrender of King Witiges, or Vitigis, and his wife, Mathesuentha.

As noted, most modern historians hold that Justinian’s military ambitions were unrealistic, because they exceeded the capacity of the empire to sustain them. One year after Belisarios ceremoniously concluded his Italian war in May 540, because no powerful garrison remained in Italy to control them, the Goths were able to start fighting again, and with increasing success once Totila became their king. One established explanation is that Justinian did not reinforce Belisarios and his army because he was ‘afraid of the threat that a mighty general could pose’. Even Rome was lost in 546 to the Gothic counter‐offensive that persisted until 552. And because Sassanian Persia had repudiated the ‘endless peace’ treaty to resume fighting in 540, continuing with interruptions until 562, the empire had to sustain simultaneously two large‐scale wars on widely separated fronts, so that in 559 hardly any troops were left in Constantinople to fight off an incursion of Kutrigurs and Slavs. That was certainly evidence of overextension, and presaged an inability to defend the Danubian frontier and the Balkan peninsula with it, and therefore Greece also, from Avar invasions and Slav occupations.

Justinian’s Reversal Reversed: Victory and Plague II


General Belisarius under the walls of Rome, c. 538 AD.


The charge of overextension therefore implies a charge of strategic incompetence, or more simply a lack of ordinary common sense: having himself inherited a war with the perpetually aggressive Sassanians when he came to the throne, Justinian had to know that the Persian front had to be well guarded at all times, in peace as in war. What military strength was left would be needed for the ‘northern front’ of the empire, from Dalmatia to the Danube, which was not under attack in 533 but which was bound to be attacked sooner or later, as the turbulence of peoples continued beyond the imperial frontiers. That northern front was indeed the primary defence perimeter of the empire; it protected the valuable sub‐Danubian lands all the way to the Adriatic, and shielded Greece as well as Thrace and therefore Constantinople itself. The northern front also contained prime recruiting grounds for the imperial army, including the village near the fort of Bederiana where Justinian himself was born and lived his first years when he was still called Sabbatius.

To launch expeditions far away, even to conquer the rich grain fields of Africa and the hallowed first Rome, while neglecting the defence of the very hinterland of the imperial capital, was therefore a strategic error so gross that it betokens a foolish mind—not the mind of the Justinian we know. It is true, of course, that history is the record of the crimes and follies of mankind, and many a foolish war of conquest has been launched since 553.

But there is an altogether different explanation, based on evidence in part very old and in part very new—so new that it is not yet incorporated in the broader research on Justinian and his wars, let alone more general histories. Entirely new historical evidence of large significance is very rare, and almost always the product of fortunate digging. That is true in this case also, even if the evidence itself is neither epigraphic nor numismatic, or conventionally archaeological, for it consists of skeletal DNA and ice cores.

First the old evidence. In book 2, chapter 22, of the History of the Wars of Prokopios, we read:

During these times [from 541] there was a pestilence, by which the whole human race came near to being annihilated. Now in the case of all other scourges sent from Heaven some explanation of a cause might be given by daring men…But for this calamity it is quite impossible either to express in words or to conceive in thought any explanation…For it did not come in a part of the world nor upon certain men, nor did it confine itself to any season of the year, so that from such circumstances it might be possible to find subtle explanations of a cause, but it embraced the entire world…

It started from the Aegyptians who dwell in Pelusium. Then it divided and moved…And in the second year it reached Byzantium in the middle of the spring, where it happened that I was staying at the time.…With the majority it came about that they were seized by the disease without becoming aware of what was coming.…They had a sudden fever…And the body showed no change from its previous color, nor was it hot as might be expected when attacked by a fever, nor did any inflammation set in…It was natural, therefore, that not one of those who had contracted the disease expected to die from it. But on the same day in some cases, in others on the following day, and in the rest not many days later, a bubonic swelling developed…not only in [the groin]…but also inside the armpit, and in some cases also beside the ears…. there ensued for some a deep coma, with others a violent delirium…Death came in some cases immediately, in others after many days, and with some the body broke out with black pustules about as large as a lentil and these did not survive even one day but all succumbed immediately. With many also a vomiting of blood ensued…and straightaway brought death…

We come to the demographic consequences:

Now the disease in Byzantium ran a course of four months, and its greatest virulence lasted about three. And at first the deaths were a little more than the normal, then the mortality rose still higher, and afterwards [the number of] dead reached five thousand each day, and again it even came to ten thousand and still more than that…

Three months, or ninety days, of the greatest virulence at 5,000 a day comes to 450,000; if we take the 10,000 estimate, we reach 900,000, and Prokopios mentions a still‐higher daily mortality, yielding seemingly impossible numbers. When writing as a historian and not as a polemicist, Prokopios is generally deemed a trustworthy source by his modern colleagues, but on the subject of the pandemic he was wrongly suspected, for two different reasons. First, in an age without statistics there were no mortality figures to peruse and incorporate in a text, while impressionistic assessments of the effects of epidemics are notoriously misleading—anyone who read prose accounts of the early years of AIDS in the United States would never guess that it had insignificant demographic effects. The second reason acquired greater resonance with the advent of structuralist approaches to the study of texts. Like any sane person, Prokopios immensely admired Thucydides, and tried to write in his prose, by then a millennium removed from the common Greek of his day. Thucydides famously wrote of the plague of his own days most poignantly (in (p.75) book 2, as now edited) and Prokopios clearly strove to echo his prose. Hence his testimony is wrongly discounted.

Of course, it is universally accepted that there was a pandemic, and a very severe one, not only because Prokopios was trusted that far, but also because other extant contemporary texts concur. One such is by Evagrius Scholasticus of Antioch; he too refers to Thucydides. But uncontaminated sources also depict an unprecedented catastrophe, notably the Chronicle of Pseudo‐Dionysius of Tel‐Mahre, which was written in Syriac (late eastern Aramaic), in eighth‐century Mesopotamia, but which preserves a lost contemporary text on the pandemic specifically written by the prelate and historian John of Ephesus. Under the Seleucid year 855 (= 543/4) the text reads, ‘there was a great and mighty plague in the whole world in the days of the emperor Justinian’. The chronicler then lists the affected provinces of the empire: all the Egyptian provinces and Palestine as far as the Red Sea, Cilicia, Mysia, Syria, Iconium (Konya, central Anatolia), Bithynia, Asia (western Anatolia), Galatia, and Cappadocia.

This is no mere literary emulation but rather the recollection of a demographic catastrophe. And it would also have been an institutional catastrophe: when half the soldiers of cohesive army units become casualties, those units do not lose half their combat capability but all of it, or almost. All components of the imperial military system—tax collection offices, central administrative commands, weapons workshops, supply depots, fortress construction teams, warships and fleets, and army units everywhere—would have been in the same predicament, with their surviving personnel much more likely to have scattered to flee the pandemic or to tend to sick survivors, or simply shocked into immobility, or weakened by the disease, or just demoralized, so that 50 per cent mortality would have caused more than 50 per cent incapacitation.

The old narrative evidence would thus immediately explain why Justinian’s military capabilities declined so drastically from 541, irremediably ruining his ambitious plans. But that evidence could not be conclusive because it was devoid of credible, comprehensive figures. Hence it has been said that Prokopios exaggerated. In the account of Justinian in the latest edition of the most authoritative survey of late antiquity, the principal evidence is presented—including fiscal legislation necessitated by the death of many taxpayers—but the implication is that it was just another disaster (‘there were other disasters, notably earthquakes, one of which destroyed the famous law school at Berytus’) whose consequences were incremental: ‘Justinian’s difficulties were increased by a severe outbreak of bubonic plague…’.

The new evidence, which comes in two parts, definitely proves that Prokopios was accurate: it was not just another outbreak of disease, not just another disaster soon assuaged, it was a historically unprecedented pandemic that may well have killed even more than one‐third of the population, radically altering the strategic situation.

First, a study published in 2005 contains the first definitive DNA evidence that the disease of Justinian’s pandemic was caused by an exceptionally virulent and exceptionally lethal biovar of Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague.38 That is an entirely different disease from the plague narrated by Thucydides or any other malady known until then. When Yersinia pestis reappeared as the agent of the Black Death from c.1334 in China and from 1347 in Europe, some residual acquired immunity would have persisted, but for the populations of the empire in 541 it was an entirely new pathogen against which none had acquired any immunity, as opposed to much less prevalent natural resistance.

Hence the pathogen was exceptionally virulent; that is, its ability to cause the disease was very high—a single bite from a flea carrying Yersinia pestis in 541 was enough to infect, which is certainly not the case with established pathogens, because many people have acquired immunities against them. Infection rates of 90 per cent or more were therefore possible for people in contact with fleas, which meant practically everyone in antiquity. Justinian contracted the disease, as did our witness Evagrius among other survivors. To be sure, virulence is one thing, lethality another. Actually, for obvious reasons, highly virulent diseases are not usually highly lethal: common influenza biovars kill minimal numbers of their many victims. But that was not true of the biovar of Yersinia pestis in 541 because it was entirely new for the affected population—a lethality of 30 per cent or even as much as 50 per cent was thus very likely, at least in well‐connected parts of the empire, though not in remote backwaters of course.

A second stream of new evidence indicates that what could have happened, did in fact happen. Climatology is now infected by partisan polemics, but ice‐core studies that show rising carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere over the last 10,000 years are undisputed. According to an ‘anthropogenic’ explanation offered by an eminent climatologist with much persuasive evidence, agricultural deforestation, which replaces natural greenery with bare planted fields and increasing livestock herds, especially methane‐producing cattle, has measurably contributed to rising levels of carbon dioxide over the last several thousand years. In any case, carbon dioxide levels in the ice show two abrupt and drastic declines, one of which correlates with c.541, providing independent evidence of an unprecedented demographic collapse, which would have caused the widespread reversion of cleared fields to natural greenery, and the predation of abandoned cattle—imperial territories still had populations of wolves, bears, lions, and cheetahs, and also Caspian tigers in eastern Anatolia. The climatological evidence is more decisive than the archaeological evidence, but the latter is perfectly consistent. A recent overview concludes: ‘the expansion of settlement that had characterized much of rural and urban Syria in the fifth and early sixth centuries came to an abrupt end after the middle of the sixth century. There is evidence that housing starts almost ceased.’

Taken together, the new biological evidence and the climatological theory compel a reassessment of the realism of Justinian’s ambitions. He could have been as successful in his military ambitions as he was in his jurisprudential and architectural ambitions. It was not overextension but Yersinia pestis that wrecked the empire, drastically diminishing its military strength as compared to that of enemies less affected. The invaders were less infected because they were less urbanized, or simply less organized to begin with, hence less vulnerable to institutional breakdown.

Quite suddenly, with frontiers denuded of their defenders (the post‐541 disappearance of coinage from Byzantine military sites on the frontiers of Syria and Arabia has long been attested, if misunderstood), with strongholds abandoned, once prosperous provinces desolate, and its own administrative machinery greatly enfeebled, the empire found itself in a drastically altered world, in which the nomads of the steppe and the desert were greatly favoured as compared to empires, and in which the less urbanized Persian empire was relatively favoured also.

Still, what Justinian did would not have been done by his successors. It was his policy to destroy totally the power of the Vandal conquerors of Africa, and he succeeded. Therefore, when the native tribes started raiding from the desert and the hills of the Aurès, there was no pliant Vandal militia to resist them, let alone a functioning Vandal client state, so the overburdened imperial army had to fight them instead. Likewise, there were promising opportunities for a negotiated acquisition of Italy instead of an invasion followed by all‐out war to destroy the Ostrogothic power. The landing of Byzantine troops from reconquered Sicily to the mainland of Italy in 535 was preceded by secret negotiations with King Theodahad. One proposal would have retained him as client ruler of a dependent state, another would have seen him off with the award of landed estates yielding 86,400 solidi a year, the income of 43,200 poor men. Justinian’s successors would have found such a compromise solution, but he rejected all compromise—before the pandemic. After it, Justinian too had no other choice but to revert to the embryonic Theodosian strategy of avoiding war by paying off enemies if necessary.

When the Turkic Kutrigurs of the Pontic steppe under their leader Zabergan mounted raids in 558 that penetrated Greece and approached Constantinople, indulging in the usual outrages that allowed Agathias Scholasticus to indulge himself and his readers (‘well‐born women of chaste life were most cruelly carried off to undergo the worst of all misfortunes, and minister to the unbridled lust of the barbarians’, etc. etc.), Justinian called out Belisarios from retirement (he was 53) to repel them with ceremonial palace guards, 300 veterans, and a mob of volunteers, but then took more decisive action by enlisting the aid of the leader of the Utrigurs. The alternative of waging war could be very successful tactically and operationally, but even in total victory the only definite result would be the cost of it, while the benefit would only be temporary, as the demise of one enemy merely made room for another. It is hard to imagine that the empire could have overcome the ensuing century of acute internal crises and devastating invasions without its new strategy. It generated disproportionate power by magnifying the strength obtainable from greatly diminished forces, and by combining that military strength with varied means and techniques of persuasion.