de Gaulle – the ‘most difficult of allies’


The leader of the Fighting French, as they were now known, had cause for shock when 700 Allied ships landed 100,000 troops in Vichy-held North Africa on 8 November 1942, in Operation Torch, without informing him in advance. Roosevelt had vetoed a suggestion from Churchill that de Gaulle should be told of the American-led operation. This was partly because the Americans thought Gaullist participation would stiffen the resistance of Vichy commanders on the spot, but the exclusion stemmed mainly from the president’s distaste for the General who flew into a rage when told by an aide. ‘I hope the Vichy folk throw them into the sea,’ he cried. ‘One does not break into France.’ Still, as over Mers-el-Kébir, he calmed down to make a BBC broadcast in which he said the Allies did not have territorial designs on North Africa and called on Vichy troops there to ally with them.

The landing provoked Hitler’s order to move the German army to move into the unoccupied zone, further reducing Vichy to puppet status. Occupation costs were raised from 300 to 500 million francs a day. Seizure of assets ranging from farm machinery to works of art increased. The Germans sent troops towards Toulon to seize the French fleet anchored there. Laval instructed the port commanders not to resist. But an order drawn up by Darlan in 1940 for the ships to be scuttled if they came under threat was implemented and the vessels were blown up.

The big unresolved political issue was Washington’s choice of a French partner in North Africa. They went for General Henri Giraud, a handsome, straight-backed 63-year-old who had escaped from captivity in a German castle by sliding down a rope strengthened with wire which his wife sent him hidden in food tins. Travelling with false papers, he went to see Pétain in Vichy where the Americans established contact with him, and then made his way to Gibraltar where he accepted the American commission. But Giraud, nicknamed King Pin by his new patrons, lacked non-military skills, was contemptuous of politics and poor at administration and organisation. Dwight Eisenhower, the US commander, said he was somebody who ‘wants to be a big shot, a bright and shining light, and the acclaimed saviour of France’ but who turned out to be ‘a terrible blow to our expectations’.

As they encountered stiff resistance from troops loyal to the Marshal, the Americans turned to the more powerful if dubious figure of Admiral Darlan, who was susceptible to their approaches after being elbowed aside by Laval and was visiting Algiers to see his son, who was gravely ill with polio. The readiness of the Allies to collaborate with such a prominent member of the Vichy hierarchy caused dismay among the Resistance. De Gaulle protested to the White House, but got no reply. The British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, was critical, but Churchill went along in the name of Allied solidarity.

Eisenhower reached an agreement with Darlan to get Vichy forces to stop fighting after suffering 3,000 dead or wounded (about the same as Allied losses). The Admiral became high commissioner of a French ‘Imperial Federation’ and resumed the repressive methods he had pursued at Vichy, harassing Free French supporters and Jews in an atmosphere which Eisenhower characterised as rife with ‘petty intrigue with little, selfish, conceited worms that call themselves men’. The State Department warned Roosevelt of a storm of protest at the installation of a ‘semi-Fascist’ government in the first major territory liberated by US forces.

This episode was brought to an abrupt end when a young French royalist, Fernand Bonnier de la Chapelle, shot the Admiral in the stomach in his office – he died two hours later. The assassin was swiftly tried and shot. There was no direct link between the killing and the Fighting French, but some of the dollars taken to Algiers by an emissary of de Gaulle were found on the assassin and the General mentioned Darlan’s disappearance favourably in a conversation with Eden; he called the death an execution.

Giraud was left in charge on the French side, but he and the Americans made a hash of things. Maurice Peyrouton, a former Vichy interior minister who had signed the death sentence for de Gaulle, was put in charge of civil administration. The food situation deteriorated and bad weather bogged down the advance east along the coast. De Gaulle judged that Giraud showed ‘extreme political clumsiness’.

The Fighting French leader did not have to wait long for his chance to insert himself into North African affairs and carve out a new operational base there. In mid-January 1943, Roosevelt and Churchill met in the Anfa suburb of Casablanca in Morocco to review the progress of the war, plan the invasion of Italy and bring the two French generals together. Emboldened by further success for Leclerc’s column in Libya and the extension of his movement’s authority to the East African territory of Djibouti and the islands of Madagascar and la Réunion, de Gaulle played hard to get until Churchill threatened that, if he did not fly to Casablanca, Britain would have to ‘review’ its attitude and ‘endeavour to get on as well as we can without you’.

There was trouble from the moment the Constable arrived. When he saw that the windows of his car were covered with mud, he assumed that his hosts wanted to conceal him from the local people, not knowing that this had been done for security reasons to Roosevelt as well. The intrusive presence of armed US guards on French soil grated. At lunch with Giraud, he refused to sit at the table until French soldiers replaced the American sentries.

Such was American distrust of de Gaulle that when he had his first meeting with Roosevelt, armed secret service men were posted behind the curtains. Speaking French, the president observed that none of the various French groups could claim sole legitimacy; de Gaulle, for instance, had never been elected. To that, the General responded that Joan of Arc had drawn her legitimacy from taking action and refusing to lose hope. FDR did not improve matters by comparing France to ‘a little child unable to look out and fend for itself’. De Gaulle told an aide that he had met ‘a great statesman. I think we understood one another well.’ But Roosevelt’s son, Elliott, noted that his father thought the Frenchman determined to establish a dictatorship in France and remarked that ‘there is no man in whom I have less confidence’ – he also spread a tale that de Gaulle had compared himself to Joan of Arc, Clemenceau and other great historical figures.

The Frenchman had another stormy session with Churchill. However, the prime minister showed his admiration as the Fighting French chief walked away down the path from his villa, telling his doctor: ‘His country has given up fighting, he himself is a refugee, and if we turn him down he’s finished. But look at him! Look at him! He might be Stalin, with 200 divisions behind his words. Perhaps the last survivor of a warrior race.’

Anxious to present a façade of understanding between the two generals to the press, Roosevelt talked de Gaulle into shaking hands with Giraud for photographers on the lawn outside his villa. But, in the following months, the Constable comprehensively outwitted his rival, setting up a new headquarters in Algiers and gaining control of the French struggle against Vichy and the Germans. When he left London for North Africa in May 1943, he had a meeting with Eden – Churchill was in Washington. The foreign secretary told him in a friendly tone that he was the most difficult of allies. ‘I don’t doubt that,’ de Gaulle replied with a smile. ‘France is a great power.’

Preparing for peace

With the post-war era in view, de Gaulle set about shifting the emphasis of his movement from an anti-Vichy, anti-German operation to the nucleus of a government after liberation by creating a national committee in Algiers. This was joined by leading Fighting French figures including René Pleven, with responsibility for economic and financial matters and colonial policy, André Diethelm, Mandel’s former chief of staff, and the early Gaullist Jacques Soustelle along with Henri Frenay, Emmanuel d’Astier and Pierre Mendès France, the Popular Front deputy finance minister who had escaped from detention under Vichy. Another former minister, the Radical Socialist Henri Queuille, chaired inter-ministerial commissions, using political skills learned under the old regime to smooth over differences.

Though still keeping his distance from the General, Jean Monnet rallied, and sought to get supplies from the Americans. De Gaulle also gained the support of a prominent military man, Jean-Marie de Lattre de Tassigny, who had been jailed for his opposition to the German occupation of the Vichy zone in 1942 but escaped by using a saw smuggled into his cell to cut the window bars and scale two walls. General Koenig, the victor of the battle at Bir-Hakeim, took command of the Forces Françaises de l’Intérieur (FFI) while military affairs in France were delegated to 29-year-old Jacques Delmas, who subsequently added his Resistance pseudonym of Chaban to his name. De Gaulle’s family came, too, the General and his wife continually worrying about the condition of their daughter, Anne.

Giraud’s defeat was assured when his rival became the sole chairman of the national committee. ‘I let myself be beaten without a fight,’ he admitted. ‘On the political level, I was unbelievably incompetent, clumsy and weak.’ The British delegate to North Africa, Harold Macmillan, judged that ‘never in the whole history of politics has any man frittered away so large a capital in so short a time.’

A Provisional Consultative Assembly was appointed, including fifty-two representatives of the Resistance, twenty of the old parliament and twelve of the general councils of the Empire. De Gaulle reshuffled the administration to take in six representatives of non-Communist political parties, five Resistance figures plus five officials and generals, including Monnet and General Catroux. Seventeen ‘general secretaries’ were to run the administration, regional commissioners and prefects below them.

Though de Gaulle refused to let the Communists choose which posts they should hold and banned Thorez from visiting North Africa, the increasingly radical tilt of this ‘virtual republic’ was evident. The charter drawn up by its National Committee stipulated ‘the eviction from management of France’s economy of the great economic and financial feudal forces’. After the Liberation, there was to be a minimum wage, full social security, nationalisation of big companies, worker participation in management, and enhanced rights for inhabitants of colonies. De Gaulle said he looked to ‘the end of an economic regime in which the great source of riches escape from the nation, where the main production and distribution activities are beyond its control and where the management of firms excludes the participation of workers’ organisations on which, however, they depend.’

An official statement in Algiers said civil servants who followed Vichy orders were guilty of ‘punishable servility’. An example was made of a former Vichy interior minister, Pierre Pucheu, who had gone to North Africa with what he thought was a safe conduct from Giraud, intending to enlist in the forces fighting the Axis. The Communists were after him for his alleged involvement in handing over hostages, mainly from their party, to the Germans for a mass execution in 1941. After a show trial, he was shot.

Across the Mediterranean, growing expectations of an Allied victory and the unpopularity of forced labour service in Germany bolstered the Resistance. According to a British estimate, the partisans now numbered 150,000, though only 35,000 were properly armed. Partisan groups stepped up their ‘immediate action’ with increased sabotage of railway lines and strongholds in the Massif Central, Limousin, Brittany, the Lot, the Ain and Savoie.

The Gestapo caught General Delestraint – he was imprisoned in camps in Germany and executed – and then arrested Moulin who died under torture; whether he was betrayed or caught by German detective work remains a matter of controversy. The Socialist Resistance leader, Pierre Brossolette, was also detained, and died jumping from a high window of the Gestapo building in Paris. One of Moulin’s close associates, Georges Bidault, a Christian Democrat journalist, held the movement together despite these reverses.

As the Wehrmacht retreated from Italy, the Allies took Corsica and the Germans prepared for a cross-Channel landing, the struggle in the Hexagon sharpened. A Resistance leader, Philippe Viannay, published an article saying there was ‘a clear duty to kill’ all Germans, French people who helped the occupation forces, and police who were involved in the arrest of patriots. Pétain’s mind was unravelling: visiting Lyons, he asked as he walked in front of a welcoming parade, ‘Who am I? Where am I? What am I doing?’ He sent an emissary to Algiers to propose a rendezvous with de Gaulle at the Arc de Triomphe to transfer his authority. He also offered to put himself in British hands. He received no response to either message.

At the end of September 1944, an anti-Laval group at Vichy unveiled a plan under which a regency council would take over if the Marshal died or stepped down. A month later, Pétain tried unsuccessfully to get rid of the Auvergnat and, as a result, was put under tighter German supervision. Joseph Darnand, head of the Milice collaborationist paramilitary, was appointed secretary-general for order. Members of the Resistance were subject to summary courts or were simply shot out of hand. Special German units carried out mass shootings of hostages. An important Alpine base on the Plateau des Glières in Savoy was assaulted by collaborationist forces and German troops and planes; 150 maquisards were killed, some after being captured and tortured.




Louis XVIII Of France

Since both the republican and imperial models were discredited and unacceptable to the victorious Allies, a royal restoration was inevitable; the victor of Waterloo, the Duke of Wellington, warned that there would be no peace in Europe unless the Bourbons mounted the throne again. The Congress of Vienna, held to define European frontiers after two decades of war, reversed Napoleon’s conquests but was otherwise generous to France after Talleyrand inserted himself into the deliberations; in a sign of flexibility among recent adversaries, Britain and Austria allied with France to block a Prussian attempt to absorb Saxony.

However, the new monarch who called himself Louis XVIII in deference to his nephew who had died in prison two decades earlier, made a poor fist of it on his return from exile in Britain in May 1814. The corpulent 59-year-old king surrounded himself with appointees who had been out of government business for more than two decades. His principal minister, the Count of Blacas, was a minor noble who devoted himself to building up a fortune, arousing wide unpopularity and lacking authority. The army was alienated by the appointment of royalists for loyalty rather than ability, and the sacking of veterans who had borne the standard of Napoleonic glory. The monarch’s influence was undercut by his reactionary brother, the Count of Artois, and his circle of supporters set on revenge for the Revolution. Louis was unperturbed. As Paris amused itself with balls, he said he slept as well as in his youth.

This complacency was shattered on 26 February 1815, when Bonaparte escaped from Elba to stage an attempted comeback, reaching Paris on 20 March after getting a mixed but generally not unfriendly reception across the country. Louis fled as Napoleon raised a 125,000-strong army and attracted figures who had temporarily sided with the king. A referendum approved a constitution drawn up by the political theorist, Benjamin Constant, though the abstention rate was very high. Seeing a quick and decisive battlefield victory as the way to gain recognition from the Allies, Bonaparte launched his army across the north-eastern border to confront the British and Prussians. The resulting battle at Waterloo on 18 June 1815, was, as Wellington remarked, ‘the nearest run thing you ever saw in your life’, but defeat dethroned France as a great European power. The universe changed direction, Victor Hugo would judge. More to the point, France had had enough of its emperor. Even if he had not lost at Waterloo, Bonaparte’s days would have been numbered. His enemies were simply too strong, France too weakened and his political support too frayed.1

Escaping from the rout of his army, Napoleon regained Paris and put on as brave a face as he could. ‘All is not lost,’ he declared while taking a bath in the Élysée Palace. But the Chamber of Deputies obliged him to abdicate, and he threw himself on the mercy of the British, ending up in his second exile on the bleak South Atlantic outpost of St Helena.

The crowds cheered as Louis XVIII was driven in his carriage to the Tuileries Palace in the centre of Paris on 8 July 1815. A National Guard sergeant kissed the hand of the twice-restored monarch. Now referred to by his supporters as le Désiré (the Desired One), Louis made his Parisian palace, with its succession of halls and apartments stretching down what is now the rue de Rivoli to the Louvre, facing gardens laid out by the great designer Le Nôtre, the centre of festivities that summer. Balls were held at night outside – when the authorities tried to stop them to protect the lawns, the monarch called from the window ‘Dance on the grass!’ The surrounding buildings were illuminated at night. There were firework displays. Musicians strolled the streets and a charity kitchen fed the poor in the Saint-Antoine district. The Treaty of Paris signed with the victorious Allies assured Parisians that they would ‘continue to enjoy their rights and liberties’.

The restored monarch went to see plays at the Comédie-Française and, each morning, courtiers gathered to listen to his stories as he sat in a large armchair and gave them every opportunity to agree with his high appreciation of his wit. Rejecting Napoleon’s view that he should exercise despotic rule, he fancied himself as father of the people, refusing to be ‘king of two Frances’. A royal proclamation issued a week after Waterloo set out his intention ‘to call round our paternal throne the immense majority of Frenchmen whose fidelity, courage and devotedness have brought such pleasing consolation to our heart’.

With a charter setting out rights for the richer sections of society, Louis sought to win over bourgeois liberals and some Bonapartists, though democracy was still far off with an electorate limited to 75,000 men. A police report told him that barely 10 per cent of the French favoured a return of the ancien régime. As the writer Charles-Louis Lesur put it in 1817, however deplorable its excesses, the Revolution would ‘leave for ever great models as well as salutary lessons’.

Voting for the Chamber of Deputies was on a rolling basis with staggered five-yearly polls. A new upper house mixed old and new figures. Civil rights, religious toleration and press freedom were guaranteed. Conservatives were reassured that ‘abuses’ would be controlled by Article 14 of the Charter, which enabled the crown to decree ordinances for state security in times of danger. Most important for the middle class and richer peasants, the purchase of land taken from aristocrats and the church was left in their ownership.

Still, the king showed the limits of his tolerance by insisting on the white royal flag in place of the tricolour and dating his reign from the death of his nephew. Royal statues were restored. Streets and squares reverted to old names. Church building underlined the monarchy’s identification with Catholicism. The column erected by Napoleon to his glory in the Place Vendôme was torn down.

Louis insisted all power had to devolve from the throne, even if he chose to allow others to exercise it on his behalf. Citizens were to revert to being subjects. It was he who granted the constitution rather than accepting one drawn up by parliament. Ministers needed majority backing in the Chamber but, when they presented proposals to the throne, they said simply, ‘Here is our opinion’ to which the sovereign replied, ‘Here is my will’.

Property owners might be reassured but the outlook was distinctly unpromising for their fellow countrymen. The army, wounded and humiliated, was kept south of the Loire by the Allies. The demobilisation of hundreds of thousands of troops swelled the underclass. Ex-soldiers joined outlaw bands that roamed the countryside.

The restored king and his ministers were subject to the dictates of the Allies, represented in Paris by Wellington and Castlereagh for Britain, Metternich for Austria, the Tsar Alexander for Russia and the 72-year-old Prussian Marshal Blücher whose intervention had been decisive at Waterloo. They had at their command an occupation army of 150,000 men. The tents of the invaders stretched along the Champs-Élysées and frequently drunken British troops reeled through the streets mocking Louis as ‘an old bloated poltroon’ or referring to his liking for oysters by calling him ‘Louis des huîtres’.

Some foreign national treasures, which French armies had seized on their conquests, were reclaimed; a French observer recorded Wellington mounting a ladder to help take pictures down from walls. The Allied commander also annoyed farmers by importing his pack of hounds and hunting with them over fields without warning or compensation for the damage caused; eventually, when protests swelled, he gave the dogs to Louis XVIII.

The Prussians were the most set on revenge, looting at will. Occupying the Place du Carrousel at the end of the Louvre, they trained their cannons on the royal palace. Blücher proposed to blow up the Pont d’Iéna over the Seine commemorating Napoleon’s victory over Prussia in 1806, but Louis XVIII said he would go to the bridge to share its fate; hurrying to the scene, Talleyrand offered to change its name to the Pont de l’École Militaire, calculating that, once the invaders were gone, it could revert to Iéna. Most tellingly, Wellington posted a British soldier on the bridge, correctly guessing Blücher would not risk blowing him up.

The economy was in a sorry state, aggravated by financial indemnities to the Allies including meeting the cost of the occupation. Parts of eastern France had been ruined by fighting; in the historic centre of Laon, 280 of 350 homes had been destroyed. National output was below that of 1789; production in Marseilles was 25 per cent lower than at the outbreak of the Revolution. Farming was stagnant. The beetroot industry, encouraged by Napoleon to ensure home-grown supplies of sugar, went bust as imports from the West Indies resumed. There were few big factories; the most advanced city, Paris, was a web of small workshops and artisans doing piecework. Annual coal output was 800,000 tons compared to 17 million tons in Britain. Metallurgy remained stuck where it had been in 1789. British entrepreneurs used their techniques to set up a thriving lace industry round Calais, and an iron foundry and gas works outside Paris.

Barter was common in rural areas. For the better-off, income from land and interest from state securities took precedence over other forms of investment. Trade was at half the level of the mid-1780s. High duties raised the price of imports and manufactured goods were generally not competitive abroad. Falling exports hit port cities hard – the population of Bordeaux had dropped by a third since pre-Revolutionary days and grass grew on the quays. Industrial production in Marseilles was 25 per cent lower than at the outbreak of the Revolution, but the port still received several thousand cargo ships a year and its energetic Greek merchant community conducted commerce with the Levant in cotton, wool, horses, wheat and dried vegetables; one trader, who had a concession from the Pasha of Egypt, made a million francs in profit in 1817.

Banking and finance were hindered by regulation and an unadventurous spirit. Only seven shares were quoted on the Paris stock exchange. When the banker, Jacques Laffitte, proposed to create a company to take deposits to fund credit, the Conseil d’État rejected the idea. Though the state debt was low, government credit was limited and capital remained scarce. The new regime was obliged to raise funds by a forced loan and pawning royal forests, but still faced a budget deficit of 300 million francs and its ability to pay the indemnity to the Allies was in doubt, meaning that the occupation would drag on.

The Catholic church had been the biggest loser of the Revolution in terms of property and influence; nearly all its 4–5 million hectares of land holdings had been confiscated and mainly sold off, compared to an estimated half of those of the nobility. The priesthood had been reduced by more than 20,000 during the anti-Christian crusade from 1789 to 1793 and had not recovered significantly. So it now lost no time in seeking to restore its ranks. Ordinations rose from 900 to 2,500 a year and the number of nuns doubled to 25,000.

Some felt that the church should ally itself with the cause of liberty and progress – the prominent priest and philosopher Hugues-Félicité de Lamennais preached theocratic democracy. But most clergy were loyal to the traditional fusion of church and royal state as the priesthood played a role similar to that of the army under Napoleon in terms of jobs and career advancement for young men without wealth to support them. The importance of the family was stressed. Divorce was banned in 1816; a right-wing deputy castigated it for creating ‘a veritable domestic democracy [which] allows the wife, the weaker sex, to rise up against marital authority.’

Despite its sufferings and exile during the Revolution, the nobility still possessed at least a fifth of all land – some aristocrats who fled abroad had used agents to secretly buy property requisitioned from their peers or from the church. On their estates, they tapped in to proroyalist sentiment among peasants and smallholders who had been alienated by taxation and conscription under the Jacobins and the Empire. In regions like the Gard, Ardèche, Aveyron and Lozère, as well as the Vendée, they drew on rural anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois, anti-Protestant sentiment, conjuring up rose-coloured memories of paternalistic ancien régime welfare to buttress their authority while cutting themselves off from progress.

In towns and villages alike, life was harsh for most people, 60 per cent of whom were illiterate. Bad water and lack of hygiene spread disease. Despite the efforts of the Jacobins to encourage national education, most people outside the Paris area communicated in the local patois; the port city of Toulon was known as ‘the northern colony’ because it was the only southern town where the national language was spoken by a majority of inhabitants. There were great empty, silent spaces. Stepping down from a coach at a staging post only thirteen miles from the provincial capital of Bourges in central France, Stendhal was struck by the sense of ‘complete isolation’ while, a little later, the German poet, Heinrich Heine, found Brittany ‘a wretched, desolate land where mankind is stupid and dirty’. The Landes in the south-west was known as ‘our Sahara’, a great deserted region where a travelling official recorded that ‘for several hours, I saw nothing but flat country varied by thickets of briar, and now and then, by a forest of pines on the horizon . . . the only inhabitants a few rare shepherds perched on their long stilts.’

Rural people faced the continuous threat of bad harvests and hunger. Much of the countryside, where 90 per cent of the population lived, was a backward patchwork of small farms, hamlets and country towns, isolated by poor communications, high hills and mountains, wide rivers, swamps and forests. Lack of transport and paved roads impeded the distribution of food and goods, and farmers held on to what they had for fear of famine. Meat was rare – a pig had to last a family for a year. Peasants depended on the local nobility or teachers and priests to mediate with the authorities on their behalf and lacked the concept of a world beyond their immediate surroundings. Some men escaped to become day labourers in towns or travelling pedlars, but women were confined to the most humdrum, restricted existences.

Poverty and backwardness was most marked south of a line from the border of Normandy and Brittany at St-Malo across to Grenoble in the Alps. North and east of this, people were generally taller, fitter and better educated. They also had better road communications. But even in this more evolved half of France, disparities were great and poverty widespread. Most inhabitants of big cities died without leaving any assets. Urban workers huddled in slums, prey to disease and exploitation or, in the capital, in filthy shanty towns for migrant workers outside the city walls.


Episode of the French intervention in Spain 1823 by Hippolyte Lecomte.

Despite the misgivings of the king, the nationalist, legitimist right pushed France into its first post-1815 foreign foray in Spain, where civil war had broken out in 1822 after the Bourbon King Ferdinand VII sought to re-establish the absolute monarchy he had been forced to renounce by a constitution ten years earlier.

Austria, Prussia and Russia backed French intervention and Louis did an about-turn saying, ‘a hundred thousand French are ready to march invoking the god of St Louis to keep the throne of Spain for a descendant of Henri IV’. Angoulême commanded the army that advanced to Madrid in May 1824, took Seville and Cadiz, and freed Ferdinand to launch a ferocious counter-revolution. In November, Angoulême returned to a hero’s welcome, leaving behind an occupying force of 45,000 men that was not fully withdrawn until 1828. Though he likened the expedition to an episode from Don Quixote, Ultras celebrated not only victory but also the restoration of absolute monarchy in Spain. For them, France had paid its dues in the counter-revolutionary alliance directed by Metternich from Vienna.



D-Day plunged relations between de Gaulle and the Allies into a fresh crisis as the general was excluded from planning and informed about it only during a visit to Churchill on the eve of the landings. No French forces were to be involved in the first wave. At a stormy lunch, he was further irritated by a US plan to issue special bank notes in France and by the prime minister’s suggestion that he go to Washington to seek Roosevelt’s benediction. The president had never wanted to see him in the past, he shot back, so why should he now ‘lodge my candidacy for power in France with Roosevelt. The French government exists.’ Still the two men ended by toasting one another, Churchill raising his glass ‘to de Gaulle who never accepted defeat’ while his guest drank ‘to England, to victory, to Europe.’

But the White House decreed that the Supreme Commander, Eisenhower, was free to deal with any groups he chose in France rather than having to talk to a provisional government Washington did not recognise. A text to be read out on the radio and distributed in leaflets named the American as ultimate authority for the country and omitted any mention of Fighting France, the Resistance or de Gaulle. Shown this, the Frenchman exploded. His anger increased when he learned that he was expected to follow Eisenhower in a post-invasion broadcast, giving the impression of endorsing what had just been said. He refused to speak at all, and withdrew the cooperation of French liaison agents.

That provoked a harangue from Churchill to the cabinet about de Gaulle’s misdeeds while the General described the prime minister as a gangster. Summoning a representative of the French leader, Churchill accused him of ‘treason at the height of battle’. As usual, de Gaulle calmed down and agreed to speak on the BBC on the landings so long as this was some hours after Eisenhower. He would also supply liaison agents. Churchill was not appeased. From his bed late at night, he dictated an instruction that de Gaulle was to be flown to Algiers ‘in chains if necessary’. Eden had the memo burned.

Showing continuing bad temper, the prime minister did not ask de Gaulle to accompany him when he visited Normandy on 12 June. Nor did he attend a dinner the foreign secretary gave for de Gaulle. He also raised objections about de Gaulle’s intention to visit France, but the General went ahead, crossing the Channel on 14 June aboard the destroyer, La Combattante. Driving inland in a jeep, he stopped to talk to local people who ‘cried out with joy’, one of his companions recalled.

In Bayeux, the first town liberated, the mayor and municipal council put on a hero’s welcome. ‘At the sight of General de Gaulle, a kind of stupor took hold of the inhabitants who broke out into cheers or dissolved into tears,’ the Constable recorded in his memoirs. Everywhere, he was acclaimed, the public reaction contradicting Roosevelt’s insistence that he was not a representative figure, though FDR maintained his reservations when de Gaulle finally visited Washington the following month, describing the visitor to his wife as the ‘president of some French committee or other’ and an ‘egotist’. For his part, de Gaulle was convinced that America was ‘already trying to rule the world’ and, since Britain would always accede to the US, France had to count on itself, a belief he would nurture till the end of his life.

The brink of civil war

The Allied advance through Normandy took a heavy toll on French people caught up in the fighting or killed by bombing. The retreating Germans massacred hundreds of civilians, shooting eighty detained partisans in Caen prison on the day of the landings. There were also killings of civilians, rapes and pillage by the Allied forces, increasing the disproportion between civilian and military losses in France during the conflict.

The French second armoured division (la 2éme DB) under Leclerc crossed the Channel at the end of July to join the advance on Paris once the Allies had broken out of the Normandy pocket. In mid-August, Allied forces, including a division under de Lattre de Tassigny, landed on the Riviera. Resistance fighters proclaimed new ‘republics’; 140,000 partisans were estimated to have received weapons through Allied parachute drops on top of arms captured from the Germans and the Milice.

Seven thousand partisans mustered in the Morbihan département of Brittany. In the Resistance stronghold of the Limousin, the maverick Communist Georges Guingouin led 20,000 men to take over Limoges after the Germans capitulated. Other partisans set up a base in the rugged south-eastern uplands of the Dauphiné region, which brought together farmers and former soldiers, priests, Communists and Jews, mechanics, café owners and local officials in the Free Republic of the Vercors. But they were cut off and did not receive arms drops or bombing support to enable them to ward off a German attack that killed 600 maquisards and 200 local inhabitants.

There was lawlessness, vengeance killings and summary trials as France appeared to teeter on the brink of civil war. In Toulouse, Limoges and Montpellier, Jacques Baumel, a Resistance fighter and future Gaullist minister, witnessed ‘atrocities comparable to the killings in the Spanish Civil War’. The numbers of those slain in the process and earlier in the war are subject to different estimations. The total of Resistance fighters who died in action, were executed or perished after deportation has been estimated at between 12,000 and 20,000. The interior ministry provided a figure of 9,673 for all summary executions by the Resistance during the war, 4,439 of them during or after the Liberation. A later official committee put the number at 12,000. The revisionist historian Robert Aron arrived at 20,000 for 1944 and 30–40,000 for the war as a whole, a figure contested by other experts.

The Milice and the retreating occupation forces became ever more violent. The SS Panzer Reich tank division picked up men in the Corrèze provincial capital of Tulle and killed ninety-nine by hanging them from balconies. It then slaughtered 642 people in the Limousin village of Oradour-sur-Glane, 240 of them women and children burned in the church. At one town in the Loire Valley, the Germans shot dead 124 people, including 44 children; in another massacre, 305 were executed and 732 deported, 405 to their deaths. A Milice leader had eighty Jews rounded up and the men buried alive under bags of cement in a well.

Partisans disguised in blue paramilitary uniforms got into the building where the Vichy propaganda minister, Philippe Henriot, was sleeping and murdered him in his bed – big crowds filed past his coffin outside the Hôtel de Ville in Paris before the funeral at Notre-Dame. In retaliation, militiamen took Georges Mandel, who had been handed over to them by the Germans, into the forest of Fontainebleau and killed him. Others led the Popular Front education minister, Jean Zay, from prison, shot him, stripped the body, tore off his wedding ring and flung the corpse into a quarry.

Pétain, who was reported to have reacted to news of D-Day by singing ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’, criticised the Milice for imposing ‘an atmosphere of police terror unknown in this country until now’, but he was now an impotent prisoner of the Germans who moved him to what amounted to house arrest in a château in the northern Auvergne. Laval sought an escape with a plan to revive the Third Republic; he got backing from eighty-seven mayors but failed to win the support of the pre-war premier Édouard Herriot who was brought to meet him from a lunatic asylum where he was being held.

The Germans moved the Vichy leaders to Belfort in eastern France where a phantom administration was set up under Fernand de Brinon, the former Vichy representative to the German High Command in Paris who had used his position to get a pass protecting his Jewish wife. Darnand and Déat were among the ministers. In the autumn of 1944, the Allied advance forced them to flee to a grandiose, gloomy castle on a rocky outcrop on the Danube in the small town of Sigmaringen together with some other leading collaborationists, including the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline.


Freeing the capital

As the Vichy leadership moved in ignominious retreat, de Gaulle made a triumphant progress through Normandy and Brittany. Church bells rang and the streets were garlanded with flowers. But his relations with the Allies were still tense. There was yet another row with Britain over Syria and Lebanon, and an argument about who should be responsible for distributing arms to police in France. De Gaulle objected at not being consulted over the Allied destruction of ships at Toulon, Sète and Marseilles. Churchill visited Corsica without telling the French in advance.

In Paris, the Wehrmacht laid explosives in strategic points to destroy the city in keeping with Hitler’s order. Eisenhower wanted to avoid a big urban battle, which could delay his advance on Germany, but his hand was forced by a Resistance rising in the capital that began on 15 August, the day that a final convoy of more than 2,000 prisoners left for Buchenwald. Railway workers, led by the Communists, went on strike. Police and staff on the bus and underground transport systems followed. De Gaulle saw the danger of a ‘populist government which would encircle my head with laurels, ask me to take a position which it would designate for me and pull all the strings . . . until the day when the dictatorship of proletariat was established’.

On 18 August, a general strike was declared in the city. The unified Resistance command, the French Forces of the Interior (FFI) headed by the Communist Henri Rol-Tanguy, told Parisians to mobilise. There were echoes of the popular risings of the nineteenth century as the City Hall, public buildings, railway stations, telephone exchanges and electricity stations were occupied. Barricades went up in the streets and trees were cut down to block boulevards. The Germans blew up a big flourmill, threatening bread supplies. De Gaulle insisted to Eisenhower that there could be ‘serious trouble’ unless the city was liberated as soon as possible with French troops under Leclerc leading the way.

On the evening of 24 August, French vanguard tanks crossed the Seine south-west of the capital, but the main column was still 5 miles from the main southern gateway into the city, the Porte d’Orléans. Growing increasingly frustrated, the overall field commander, General Omar Bradley, ordered the US 4th Division to join the attack, raising the prospect that French troops would not be alone in liberating the city. That was enough to spur on Leclerc. Cane in hand as he walked through the streets of a southern suburb, he took aside a captain, Raymond Dronne, who had been with him in Chad in 1940–1, and told him ‘Head immediately for Paris . . . Go fast. Arrive this evening.’

Dronne’s tanks crossed the Seine, rolling along the quays on the Right Bank to the Hôtel de Ville. Church bells rang in celebration. The German commander, von Choltitz, decided to surrender. In all, 1,500 resistance fighters died in the freeing of the capital. De Gaulle was driven to Paris where, after calling at the Police Prefecture, he walked through dense crowds to the Hôtel de Ville. There, he made one of his most evocative speeches to proclaim ‘Paris! Outraged Paris! Broken Paris! Martyred Paris! But liberated Paris! Liberated by itself, liberated by its people with the help of the French armies, with the support and the help of all France, of the France that fights, of the only France, of the real France, of the eternal France!’ Then he went to the window looking down at the crowd below and raised both his arms in a gesture that would become familiar, his height turning him into a monument.

As he staged a triumphal walk down the Champs-Élysées, the throng lining the wide avenue erupted in joy. The tanks of Leclerc’s division rolled down from the Arc de Triomphe, but snipers, mainly from the Milice, fired from the rooftops on the Place de la Concorde and along the rue de Rivoli when the General boarded an open car to drive to Notre-Dame, where he marched through the church, his shoulders thrown back while bullets ricocheted off the pillars behind which people sheltered, women cuddling children in their arms. When the service ended, the shooting continued, but the General took no notice as he walked out into the sunlight. The bullets may have been from over-excited partisans. In a letter to his wife, de Gaulle suggested that ‘certain elements’ – he meant Communists – had seized on the occasion to flex their muscles.

The Wehrmacht launched a bombardment that killed 50 people, injured 400 and turned the night red with the flames from burning houses. Electricity was cut off – in the war ministry, de Gaulle’s aide-decamp took the only oil lamp available. In the north and west of the country, 75,000 German soldiers held out; the last Nazi troops were not driven from French territory until early 1945, with the First French Army under de Lattre de Tassigny taking Strasbourg and joining the Allied advance across the Rhine. More than 2 million French people were prisoners of war or labourers in Germany.

The Pétain regime evaporated as if it had never been. But collaborators had to pay, with the exercise of summary popular justice reminiscent of the Revolution and the insurrections and repressions of the previous century. Women who had fraternised with Germans had their hair cropped and were paraded through the streets, daubed with tar, stripped to the waist and painted with swastikas; at least 20,000 were punished in this way. In Paris, some prostitutes who had entertained Germans were kicked to death. In half-a-dozen cities, there were riots to force tribunals to condemn collaborators to death, encouraged by the Communist Party, which claimed the impossibly high number of 75,000 members killed during the war. Elsewhere, mobs simply grabbed those regarded as guilty, torturing and executing some out of hand.

France had emerged from the war on the winning side, thanks largely to de Gaulle’s perspicuity and perseverance. But now it had to confront the problems of peace under an unelected leader whose mindset was at odds with the nation’s modern history and inclinations. The threat of civil war with the Communists using their muscle to try to usher in a new regime was evident. So was de Gaulle’s determination to thwart them in the name of the Republic as he pursued his vision of national unity which would transcend the country’s old divisions.

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.

Late Roman Decline I


Army of Diocletian by JohnnyShumate


The new emperor, Diocletian, was yet another former Danubian general who was to prove to be as outstanding an administrator as his predecessors had been military exponents. Diocletian realized early on that the empire simply could not any longer be handled by one man; whenever he was in any one part of it, pretenders arose or barbarians invaded in another. Carausius, given a fleet to combat the pirate menace in the North Sea, had fled with it in 286 to Britain. The Bagaudae tribe had rebelled once the former emperor Carinus had left Gaul, and barbarians had invaded in 286. Therefore he divided the empire into two (286), appointing an old army friend and general, Maximian, as his coemperor in the west; Diocletian took the wealthier east. Both in turn appointed successors as emperors designate, known as caesars, to provide a system of rule known as the Tetrarchy (293). It meant that the most capable generals were assured a share of the imperial power, while the presence of effectively four rulers enabled a much closer guarding of the frontiers and posed an almost insuperable problem to any usurpers. The tetrarchs built magnificent palaces for themselves in their self-selected capitals of government. They also launched a savage new attack (303–304) on the fast-growing Christian Church that would prove to be both the last and also the fiercest of all the Church’s persecutions, and would persist in the eastern empire until 311.

Diocletian raised the manpower of the army from some 300,000–400,000 in the time of Severus to more than half a million men under arms, and again favoured the concept of a frontier defence where barbarians were to be checked at the empire’s perimeter and not within it. He continued the separation of the frontier garrisons, comprising mostly ex-barbarian soldiers, from the mobile ‘rapid-response’ units of infantry and cavalry that were generally made up from conscripts from the empire reinforced with barbarian special troops. This rapid expansion of the army must have caused a deterioration in the quality of the recruits.

Diocletian also reorganized the provinces into dioceses for better management and defence. The number of provinces within each diocese was approximately doubled from the original number, with extra provincial governors and their administrations, partly with a view to making rebellion harder for would-be usurpers. Each provincial governor now commanded about half the number of soldiers that he might have called upon to support a rebellion before the division of the provinces.

The Tetrarchy also had the effect that the numbers of senior administrative staff were perhaps quadrupled, the dioceses doubled the number of civil servants and the army had also been greatly increased. All had to be paid for; taxation was changed from an erratic collection when needed to a regular levy. Aurelius Victor claims that the new tax burden to pay for all this had been fair as first imposed by Diocletian, but that later emperors became greedy. The Christian writer Lactantius, a contemporary of Diocletian, paints a grim picture of the cost of the new bureaucracy and armies.

Diocletian tried again to reform the currency after Aurelian’s partial success in the 270s. He reminted the gold coin at sixty to a Roman pound of gold and a high-grade silver coin was issued at ninety-six to the pound weight of silver. Aurelian’s old reformed antoninianus was standardized now at 3 per cent silver content, including face wash, and about 10 grams weight. The name of the new coin is unknown; it is today referred to by numismatists as a follis, although a very similar coin described in the ancient sources as a nummus appears in the fourth century. Again, the silver content of the follis drifted down over succeeding years to about 1.5 per cent silver before Constantine the Great introduced new reforms. Diocletian also took giant steps to improve the economy, but his attempts to control inflation by mandate (prices were not allowed to rise – by order) proved to be a failure despite the most stringent penalties.

On Rome’s eastern front, Diocletian established numerous fortresses to watch over the Persians. The Strata Diocletiana provided a fortified main Roman road connecting many of the strategic points on the eastern frontier, and ran from Sura on the river Euphrates to the caravan city of Damascus. The new Persian king Narses (293–302) tried to renew hostilities against Rome with the invasion of Mesopotamia and Armenia in 296, followed by an incursion into Syria. The nearest tetrarch, Galerius, lost a battle in 297, but the new forts held firm and Galerius defeated Narses heavily in the following year, seizing the Persian ruler’s family and harem. Diocletian was able to dictate terms to Narses, resulting in a pact in 299 that ended some fifty years of hostility between the two kingdoms and enabled trade to resume. The peace lasted for forty years.

After twenty years of rule (305) Diocletian committed the unique act of resigning as emperor, and forced his reluctant colleague to do the same, so that the caesars now stepped into power and appointed in turn their successors. Unfortunately, squabbles began as to the appointments, another dreary cycle of civil wars began and finally the empire was reunited (324) under the sole reign of Constantine, who was joint or sole emperor from 306 to 337.

The individual rule of Constantine ushered in a new era, described variously as ‘the Police State’, ‘the beginning of the Middle Ages’ or ‘the end of the Roman Empire’. At first the new emperor was an ardent adherent to the Sun god, and Sol Invictus appears on his coins as late as 318. However, Constantine attributed his military victories in the civil war of 312 to a vision of Christianity, made it the official religion and received the title ‘The Great’, bestowed by a grateful Church. He created what we would today recognize as a medieval court, which he moved from Rome to a new capital on the Bosporus that he named modestly ‘Constantinople’. The new capital was furnished by removing valuables from other parts of the empire, particularly from pagan temples, and it possessed its own senate so that the ancient centre of power in Rome was greatly diminished. At the same time, all power was concentrated completely into the hands of the emperor, who served as head of state and head of the Church. Constantine was a king in all but name.

Because Christianity was now the official Roman religion, Constantine was in the happy position of being able to grab gold from the richly ornamented pagan temples in order to institute another revision of the currency. He introduced the new solidus, a gold coin minted at seventy-two to a pound weight of gold, and this high-quality coin would be retained as the standard gold issue for centuries to come – well into the Middle Ages. He also minted a new, high-quality silver coin at ninety-six to the pound weight. The follis continued to deteriorate and its production had largely ended by 353. Simple silver-less coins of base metals still provided the small change for day-to-day transactions.

Constantine extended Diocletian’s laws creating hereditary classes of citizens so that members could not move into any of the (many) occupations, such as the clergy, that were exempt from taxes. They could not even join the army. These changes resulted in widespread, overt hostility to the rule of the State. He also formalized the distinction between the frontier army and the better-paid mobile army, a decision that Zosimus would claim in the next century to have been responsible ultimately for the collapse of the Roman Empire. Worse, increasing use was made of barbarians within the army at all levels up to the top officers, while higher levels of immigration were permitted. The size of the legion, which had remained fairly constant at some 5,000–6,000 men for centuries, was reduced to 1,000 infantry and/or cavalry for flexibility of deployment. There were accordingly far more legions than previously.

The relative freedom from external enemies and civil wars allowed a final flourishing of Roman art in the middle of the fourth century. For a while pagan and Christian cultures coexisted comfortably in a nominally Christian empire, and this was when several historical works and the illustrated ‘Calendar of 354’ were produced. The latter shows that the birthdays of several of the ‘good’ emperors were still celebrated officially as public holidays, with circus races in their honour. Present in the list are the birthdays of Augustus, the first true emperor, Trajan, Hadrian, the Antonine emperors, Severus and, more recently, Claudius II Gothicus, Aurelian and Probus, followed by Constantine and his successors. Remarkable omissions from the feast days are the names of Diocletian, Carus and his sons, Valerian and Tacitus. Less remarkable are the omissions of the despised Commodus, Caracalla and Gallienus. The immediate successors of Augustus are also absent. The list of feast days includes the celebration of several pagan gods, including Sol Invictus, but lacks the celebration of the pagan god Mithras, still very popular but significantly never adopted by an emperor. Christian feast days are not yet commemorated. It was at about this time that the emperor Constantius II transferred the celebration of Christmas to 25 December, allegedly in order to counter the worship of the Sun.

There was a brief pagan revival under the last non-Christian emperor Julian (361–363) who, wisely, contented himself with encouraging pagan rituals rather than active persecution of Christians. While still a general, Julian had crossed the Rhine in 359 to harass the Alamanni after repelling their earlier invasion. In the east, the Persians again became aggressive under the rule of a new Shapur II. In the years from 337 to 350 Shapur made three raids into Mesopotamia and in 359 the Persians made a full-scale invasion, seizing several of the key fortress cities. Julian moved his armies to the east, but died in action; his Christian successor Jovian abandoned the Roman conquests so hard-won by Galerius in 298.

Again the empire had to be divided for defence, and the last strong emperor of the western empire, Valentinian (364–375), not only repelled a barbarian invasion but decided on a policy that had not been seen for decades. He carried the war back into the barbarians’ territory across the Rhine and ravaged their lands intermittently for the next seven years. Undoubtedly this strategy was made possible by the fact that Valentinian had appointed his loyal younger brother, Valens, as emperor in the east, so that Valentinian could deploy safely the great part of his army for reprisals. Valentinian seems to have impressed Jerome, who described him thus: ‘Valentinian in another time would have been an exceptional emperor, and was similar to Aurelian in his behaviour, except that his undue strictness and a certain frugality were interpreted as cruelty and greed.’ Valentinian died of apoplexy at the height of his triumph over the German tribesmen, and in the east Valens and his legions were overrun by the resurgent Goths – who had been allowed to settle within the Roman frontier – at the battle of Adrianople in 378. The army was almost wiped out after faulty tactics (probably part of the Roman cavalry engaged the enemy before the complete army was properly deployed) and then smoke from blazing fires blowing into Roman faces, and Valens was never seen again.

The victorious barbarians swarmed over Thrace but were unable to break into its walled cities. The new emperors of west and east, respectively Gratian and Theodosius, settled the Goths within the Roman frontier and recruited heavily from them to replace the vanished legions. Yet the barbarians served under their own chieftains and could be persuaded to adopt Roman military tactics only with difficulty, while they were also reluctant to wear their heavy Roman armour. Even the famous Roman curved, rectangular shield gave way to a lighter, circular type. The imposition of strict discipline on Roman armies had become troublesome from the early third century, with their propensity to make and unmake emperors; now it would be well-nigh impossible. Although neither the bravery nor, surprisingly, the loyalty to Rome of the new recruits could be criticized, the fact remains that by the end of the fourth century the ‘Roman’ army amounted largely to just another barbarian force. Less surprisingly, the new army was not successful against the numerically superior waves of other barbarians pouring in across the frontiers.

As the situation deteriorated, the increasingly Christian rulers and leaders of the empire took firmer steps to prevent its superstitious population from reverting to pagan worship in the hope of averting the barbarian onslaught. The use of public funds to pay for pagan ceremonies was halted in 384. In 389 all pagan festivals were stopped, excepting those deemed to be innocuous, such as the celebration of Roma Aeterna. Pagan temples were to be preserved as ‘ornaments’. Six years later, all pagan holidays were removed from the calendar but the games that once celebrated them were allowed to continue. The gladiatorial schools were closed in 399 and the last gladiatorial games were held in 404, being then replaced by wild beast hunts. The barbarian army, however, remained predominantly pagan.

Late Roman Decline II


Aetius surveys the Catalaunian fields. Aetius was still generalissimo of the west, and as we know from Merobaudes’ second panegyric, he had been anticipating the possibility of a Hunnic assault on the west from at least 443.

The first intimation of the end of empire came in 405–406, when swarms of tribesmen crossed the frozen Rhine and devastated Gaul. The Goths under their chieftain Alaric again rebelled, crossed the Alps and finally sacked Rome herself in 410. The last stupendous achievement by a western Roman general, Aetius, was to ally with the Goths in Gaul to inflict a decisive defeat on the fearsome Attila and his Huns (451) – the only time that Attila was ever defeated and a crucial victory that held the west for civilization.

Thereafter the end came swiftly, and the last Roman emperor of the west was deposed by a Gothic king ruling from Gaul in 476. This is the date traditionally given for the fall of Rome. A lot of nonsense has been written about the reasons for the fall of Rome; Gibbon famously attributed the fall to the triumph of the barbarians and Christianity. It would be fairer to argue that the Church had defended and salvaged Roman culture. Modern historians have imputed a huge number of reasons, while some have even denied that anything unusual happened at all, arguing that Constantine’s medieval court progressed simply to a German medieval court. It is unlikely that it felt that way to the citizens of Italy. The truth is that Rome’s barbarian armies could not withstand the larger numbers of barbarians from across the frontiers.

By now the Roman Empire had been divided permanently into two. In the east a series of dynastic emperors ruled from Constantinople over what was effectively a Greek dominion, in speech and in culture, later called the Byzantine Empire. At the beginning of the sixth century, the emperor Justinian decided that it was time to restore the Roman Empire to its old entirety. Troops were despatched to Africa to oust or rule the Vandal invaders, and then to Italy under the command of a very talented general, Belisarius. The armies of the latter, like those of Aurelian, were greeted with huge enthusiasm after they had driven out the barbarians occupying both lands. The local citizens had already had their fill of barbaric standards of justice, with lands seized and the violence and insolence of the invaders.

Justinian recovered ultimately most of the Roman Empire, excepting the north-western provinces (Germany, Britain, Gaul and Spain), yet the reconquered areas of the west proved to be impossible to hold. The emperor had assumed that the restoration of taxes from the west would pay to maintain the necessary garrisons there. But the lands had been so devastated by the constant fighting, and the peoples so impoverished, that the armies could not be paid properly. Locally recruited garrisons faded away slowly for lack of pay. The eastern troops were withdrawn to stabilize other frontiers and to meet the Persian threat.

It was the Lombards who finally wrecked any hope of reuniting the two halves of the Roman Empire. Originally a North Germanic people known to the Romans of the first century, they began a massive migration westwards towards the end of the fifth century. It is thought that the migration was motivated by poor harvests in their own lands. They reached Italy in about 569, and the city of Ticinum (Pavia) had fallen to them by 572. All of Italy had been weakened by the interminable struggles for control between the previous Gothic invaders and the Byzantine newcomers, now the government. The small garrison army of the latter could do little in the face of the Lombardian locusts, and was driven back to a handful of coastal towns. These towns could be supplied by the Byzantine navy, which ruled the waters of the Mediterranean.

The new Roman Empire controlled all the old eastern Roman Empire, northern Africa and the Mediterranean islands, and even added to the east, annexing all of Armenia from the Persians in 590. The Balkan provinces had been severely ravaged by incessant invasions heading west, but the eastern Balkan province of Moesia remained largely untouched, and was also held by the Byzantines. After thirty years of war, the exhausted Byzantine and Persian empires signed a peace treaty in 630.

But by now the Arabs were mobilizing under Islam and they swept suddenly eastwards and westwards. The Persian Empire collapsed completely. The old capital city of the Persians, Ctesiphon, and its counterpart across the Tigris, Seleucia (or Coche), were both destroyed by the Arabs when the Persian Empire fell. The Arabs built a new capital city some 12.4 miles (20 kilometres) to the north, which they named Baghdad.

The main Byzantine army was heavily defeated in 636 by the Arabs in the north of Jordan, and after that the Arabs swarmed all over the Middle East and northern Africa. It required only a 4,000-strong Arab army to take Egypt against weak Byzantine resistance in 639 or 640. Thus, within just ten years, ‘a combination of incompetence and apathy, disaffected soldiers and inadequate defensive arrangements resulted in a series of disastrous Roman defeats.’ Only the rump of the old empire remained, and the Byzantines had lost all the tax revenue and grain from Egypt. By 698, the old Roman town of Carthage in north-western Africa had fallen, at which time virtually no Latin-speaking lands remained to the Byzantines. Meanwhile, the Balkans had been lost to the Bulgars by 679.

Thus Justinian’s expanded eastern empire lasted fewer than 150 years, although the Byzantines retained Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica for centuries to come – long after all of northern Africa had been lost to the Arabs. The immediate Byzantine reaction was to hold fortified centres while avoiding set-piece battles with the Arabs. But finally the energetic emperor Leo III (717–741), and then his son Constantine V (741–775), managed to stop the rot. They checked the advance of the Arabs in open battles and recovered much of the Balkans from the Bulgars.

The Christian Byzantines, in slow decline, withstood the onslaught of Islam from the east for centuries, with the intermittent help, or hindrance, of the Crusaders. The last Roman emperor, Constantine XI, died in action at Constantinople when that great city fell in 1453 to the Turks, who were aided by gunpowder and cannon provided by rogue western traders. It was Gibbon who defined the 1,000-year period between the fall of Rome and the fall of Constantinople as the ‘Middle Ages’.

Aurelian’s original wall had not made a full circuit of the city, and this was completed in 402–403 under the emperor Honorius. It was rebuilt, perhaps after the earthquake of 502, by Theodoric the Goth as part of the general Gothic rebuilding programme in Rome. After little more than three decades, during the attempts by the eastern emperor Justinian to recapture Italy, his general Belisarius besieged Rome. The city would be taken and retaken at least three times. In 536 Belisarius overhauled the walls for defence against the Goths, but the Byzantines were ejected. Ten years later, having been damaged by the departing Goths, the walls were again repaired by Belisarius. The last recorded races at the Circus Maximus were run in 549.

Once more, the walls were repaired in the eighth and ninth centuries, against threats from seagoing Arabs and the intruding Lombard peoples, by the Christian popes who now provided virtually the only stable government in Rome. After St Peter’s Basilica had been looted by the Arabs in 846, the old wall was extended to provide protection to the Vatican (848–852).

The legacy that the fallen Roman Empire left to its European successors comprised Christianity and Roman Law. The latter was written down finally in definitive form as a digest under the great emperor Justinian (527–565), and was abridged separately by the Gothic kings for reuse in Italy in about 500. It was the rediscovery of a copy of Justinian’s Digest in northern Italy in about the year 1100 that invigorated the readoption of Roman Law within Europe. Roman Law is currently the basis of most European law, but not in England, where Saxon Law prevailed and was passed on to the majority of countries of the British Empire, including North America.

Christianity, with its central tenet of ‘love thy neighbour’, had a strong civilizing effect on the conquering barbarians that overthrew the western empire. The Goths, for example, had already largely adopted the religion by the time they settled in Gaul. Later medieval nobles would create ‘rules of war’ incorporating Christian elements into the age of chivalry and heraldry, providing a strong influence to tame actions even in this field.

And what was the legacy of the barbarians? What do you do when you have stolen everything from the civilized peoples of the Roman world, ruined their lands, destroyed their buildings and given nothing back? You have to start fending for yourself, that’s what. In the former province of Britain, the invading Anglo-Saxons built their mud huts amid the ruins of the greatest civilization that the ancient world had ever known. The structures of Rome and other cities were knocked down deliberately to furnish building materials for churches or farmsteads. Europe entered the Dark Ages.

Finally, what of the Sibylline Books? The last known consultation by the Senate of the genuine Sibylline Books was in 363, during the reign of the pagan emperor Julian. When the barbarians reached northern Italy, following their mass invasion across the Rhine in 405–406, the Christian emperor of the west, Honorius, ordered that the books be burned by his general Stilicho. They have never been seen again.


Europe in 477 CE. Highlighted areas are Roman lands that survived the deposition of Romulus Augustulus.


‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ (G. Santayana, philosopher, 1863–1952).

The barbarians had overthrown the western Roman Empire, but they could offer nothing to replace it. The Saxons who invaded Britain violently in the fifth century, destroying the remnants of Romano–British society, dwelt in hovels while they watched the collapse of great, but unmaintained, Roman buildings and aqueducts. The ‘Dark Ages’ lasted for hundreds of years, say from 500 to about 1100 in the more distant parts of Europe. When Gibbon finished his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire at the end of the eighteenth century, many parts of the world were still unexplored. Gibbon therefore considered whether a new race of barbarians, hitherto unknown, could undo the civilization in Europe in the same way that Roman society had been ruined. He reasoned that technological developments in Europe, predominantly in weapons, ensured that no undiscovered race of barbarians could conquer Europe without first learning how to master the same or equivalent technologies. In other words, the barbarians would have first to become civilized before they could encompass the downfall of European civilization. One wonders what Gibbon would have to say about a Western civilization that sells sophisticated armaments to (relatively) barbarian potential enemies.

The second great lesson from the decline of the Roman Empire is the importance of ensuring that soldiers and their generals are subject to proper control by their masters. The English Civil War occurred nearly as soon as a general had a professional army to do his bidding, while rebellions in Africa and South America have been almost endemic. The only long-term solution appears to be to ensure that soldiers are drawn from the society they are supposed to defend, so that they are subject to peer pressure.

The third great lesson comes from the middle of the third century. Populations will take steps to find local solutions to pressing problems if the central authority will not act. Both the western and the eastern parts of the Roman Empire created their own governments, under Postumus in the west and Macrianus or Odaenathus in the east, when the acknowledged emperor failed to respond to invasions in these territories. The emperor, Gallienus, was perceived to be more interested in the suppression of invasions or rebellions elsewhere than in protecting the peoples of the west and east. He was actually removing their frontier troops, reducing their protection.

Postscript – the Triumph of the Barbarians

It is not generally recognized today just how catastrophic for the future of civilization was the final collapse of the Roman Empire in the west. Contrary to general belief, it is prolonged periods of stability that result in the greatest human advancement, not the pressure of wars. Economic prosperity advances on all fronts when ordinary people can prepare long-range plans or can enjoy the luxury of leisured thought about life’s problems. The economic affluence of Britain, and the huge scientific advances of the nineteenth century, were greatly dependent upon the long period of unbroken peace under Queen Victoria.

The Pax Romana had created for about four centuries a settled condition – for most of the empire’s population – in which trade could flourish to the advantage of all, and new inventions could spread rapidly. The propagation of Christianity was perhaps the empire’s greatest achievement. When the barbarians marched in for the last time, trade collapsed and non-military inventions died.

The names of some of the invading tribes still echo through the ages as bywords for death and destruction – the Vandals and the Huns. The reputation of those old Roman foes, the Goths, has fared better. According to one of their own chieftains, he entered the remnant of the empire as a would-be plunderer, but recognized in time the value and the achievement of what he would destroy. And thus he stayed his hand. By now, constant contact between Romans and Goths had largely civilized the latter anyway, and many had converted to Christianity. Gothic kings ruled Rome herself after the last emperor had been deposed, and today we associate the Gothic name more with architecture than with pillage.

Even so, the areas controlled by the Goths were as uncertain of their futures as those held by the other barbarians, while the eastern Roman Empire lapsed into introspection and lethargy. Much Roman literature was lost, as were many Roman inventions from the old, great empire. Worst of all was the loss of economic efficiency with the collapse of international markets. Pottery and glassware were still manufactured, but were no longer of the old high standard, nor were they widely distributed. Glass would no longer appear in window frames. Tribes on the periphery of the empire would abandon even those advanced farming techniques that the Romans had taught them.

The collapse of trade routes and safe lines of communication reduced greatly the scale of building in brick or stone. The necessary raw materials simply could not be moved from quarries to building sites. In Rome herself, older monuments and buildings were knocked down to provide materials for new churches and new dwellings. The creation of the fine old country villa, with baths, mosaics and underfloor heating, ended and would not be seen again until the nineteenth century. The generally good hygiene practices of the Romans, engendered by flowing (piped) drinking and washing water, public baths and good medical treatment, had also gone, as had the plentiful supply of food known to be necessary to create resistance to illness.

The great public records were upheld no longer, and literacy was not now widespread. In the general collapse of law and order, the Roman attempts at early police and fire-fighting forces were seen no more. Roman roads and viaducts (for conveying fresh water) were allowed to disintegrate, where previously they had been maintained regularly. Again, it was not until the nineteenth century that these deficiencies were made good again.

And what of the loss of inventions? In more recent years, though, marine archaeology on the wrecks of Roman ships in the Mediterranean has discovered that each ship has a lump of rusted iron next to the steersman’s post. The Romans had the magnetic compass. The barbarians lost it. A similar fate befell the secrets of Roman concrete and mortar. It was necessary to analyse chemically the mortar in Hadrian’s Wall recently in order to discover the mystery of its extraordinary longevity. The Romans produced a concrete that could even be used underwater.

The Baths of Caracalla at Rome were one of the wonders of the medieval world. No one could understand how the long, unsupported concrete beams could stand up under their own weight. In the end, they collapsed. Subsequent investigation showed that the beams were made of iron-reinforced concrete. When the iron finally rusted, the concrete beams fell down. Today we use steel-reinforced concrete for much the same kind of purpose.

The Romans used water for power, as in water mills and various hydraulic machines. They employed springs in their carriages, again confirmed only from some recent archaeological finds in Germany. This technique had also to be rediscovered centuries later. The carriages were used on the impressive network of well-constructed Roman roads. Even Roman surveyors used methods subsequently forgotten and rediscovered, and they drew accurate maps. The Romans did not believe that the world was flat.

It is surprising to discover that the Romans never invented the printing press. They had advanced as far as putting several inked seals onto a wooden bar so as to make multiple official stamps on documents, but there is no evidence of printing. Despite their high levels of literacy, they never found it necessary to put individual letters, instead of seals, onto their wooden bar. When slave labour is cheap, the need for labour-saving devices becomes greatly reduced. Those who wanted a copy of a book simply asked their slaves to copy the original.

The barbarians are sometimes credited with bringing an end to slavery in the Roman Empire, but the Christian empire was improving the lot of the declining number of slaves and had already terminated gladiatorial contests. Europe did not recover the state of civilization enjoyed by the Roman peoples until the nineteenth century. Even today, many parts of the world remain more backward than the Roman era. That was the achievement of the barbarians.