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H - 31 : How Justinian Paid for All That

Byzantine Peasants working the Lands - the Painting is from the 11th Century though

Whenever we go on shore this summer, we will find Byzantine Churches and Forts. The Roman Empire ended in 476 AD with the deposition of Romulus Augustulus, the child emperor who lasted for 12 months. Then Gothic mercenaries under Odoacer took over. East Rome – where we sail this summer - was a different story though – one that is rarely told. As the Germanic tribes migrated west and carved their kingdoms out of Western Rome – the Franks took Gaul, the Goths Spain, the Vandals North Africa and the Langobard Italy – the eastern part under Co-Emperor Zeno had a relatively quiet time.

The Eastern Roman Empire stayed intact whilst the West collapsed in 476 AD

East Rome enjoyed its longest period of peace. In 387 AD, Roman Emperor Theodosius and Persian Shah Shapur III had signed a peace treaty that held until 532 AD. It was interrupted twice by short conflicts (502 – 506) and (527 – 532) over tributary payments and a few border towns. These dispute seemed to be finally settled with the Perpetual Peace Treaty between Emperor Justinian and Persian Shah Khosrau I in 532 AD. Justinian agreed to pay 4’500 kg in gold to secure the peace. He had bigger ambitions.

Justinian paid the Persian Shah Khosrau 1'000'000 pieces of

Solidi for the Perpetual Peace Treaty or 3.5% of his Treasury

During the 150 years of peace, Eastern Rome economically prospered. Always the wealthier part of the Roman Empire, its military spending did not spin out of control, it continued to benefit from long-distance trading and was able to maintain its sophisticated division of labor. The trade relations with Asia stayed intact. The cooler and wetter climate benefitted agriculture in the hotter eastern Mediterranean. Egypt now sent grain to Constantinople instead of Rome and contributed 30% to the empire's taxes. Byzantium also reaped rewards from currency reforms introduced by Constantine the Great. Coinage was tightly controlled. The Solidus (4.5 g gold coin) remained strong. That Egypt could mine the necessary gold for the minting was definitely a plus.

Constantinople in the 12th Century. Reconstructed Image by Vivid Maps

Whilst the number of people in the former western part of Rome declined, its economy shrank and towns were deserted, the population in the eastern part held steady at around 25m people. From the 4th to the 6th century, the rural economy expanded and once abandoned parts like the Balkans were resettled. The more humid climate allowed even marginal regions to prosper again. Provinces close to the sea grew cereals, produced wine or managed olive orchards. Areas further inland like Anatolia or the Balkans raised live stock to produce meats and cheeses. Also, under Justinian, the silk industry was brought to Constantinople. Some historians believe that Constantinople – to avoid the term East Rome or Byzantium for once – was the richest economy in the world. The town was at the cross road of all major trade routes. With 600’000 inhabitants it was the biggest city outside China.

The Silk Shroud used for Charlemagne's Coronation in 800 AD

in Rome was made in Constantinople - the Purple is from Tyros

The prosperity was reflected in the solid state of the empire's finance. Under Diocletian (the one with the palace in Split we visited in 2019), the eastern part had tax revenues of 9.4m Solidi (out of 18m for the empire). By 450 AD, or 150 years later, it was still at 7.8m – this was at the time when the western part was bankrupt and run out of funds. When Justinian was crowned Emperor in 527 AD, he found the equivalent of 28.8m Solidi in his treasury or roughly 130 tons of gold. Not shabby. Of course, he could pay the Persian Shah 4.5 tons to keep him off his back. It was “peanuts”.

Expansion of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian from 527 to 565 AD

Justinian had big plans for his empire. He wanted to win the western part back which was lost 50 years earlier. The Germanic Kingdoms recognized Justinian as the legitimate emperor but this was all but in name. None of them paid any taxes to Constantinople or made any troops available. Justinian would now spend the funds that his predecessors refused to pay for the defence of Rome!

The Coptic Churches in Egypt and Ethiopia are still Monophysites

albeit the definition morphed and is called Miaphytism instead

Justinian also wanted to strengthen the church and give it a unified doctrine. Pagans and “heretics” could not hold sermons any longer. The famous Academy of Athens, custodian of classic philosophy, was purged of non-Christian. Justinian also tried to reconcile the eastern Monophysites and the western church. Since the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the church’s doctrine was that human and divine nature coexisted in Christ. The Monophysites (Justinian’s wife Theodora was a Monophysite) believed that Christ was simply divine. Of course, the conflict was not about the nature of Christ but about who called the shots. Under Roman Law, Justinian was Pontifex Maximus, the highest priest. The Pope in Rome had different ideas. Now that Germanic tribes ruled the west, they wanted independence and used the dispute to further their goal.

Last but not least, Justinian aimed to streamline the Roman Law that over the centuries became cumbersome and contradicting. He wanted a simpler codex to streamline court procedures. Will talk about this separately – the subject merits its own blog.

Belarius' (535 - 540) and Narses' (562) Campaign in Italy

Within a year after signing the Perpetual Peace Treaty, Justinian sent his most talented General Belisarius west with an army of 17’000 men and several hundred ships. By 533 AD, Carthage and North Africa were his. Nobody lifted a finger to help the unpopular Germanic Vandals. In 535 AD, Justinian embarked on his next step: “Liberating” Rome. He asked Belisarius to conquer Italy. By 536 AD, Rome was taken. Belisarius sent the town keys to Constantinople. The symbol was greatly appreciated but war was not over. The ruling Goths were popular and successfully waged an asymmetric war. Belisarius had to besiege Ravenna to secure his victory. By 540 AD the Goths surrendered. The prospect looked bright - next would be Spain and Gaul.

There are various Theories about the Origin of Justinian's Plague

This map shows one of them. Others locate it in Central Asia

History took a different turn though. The Persian Shah disliked the idea of a strong Roman Empire on his western border. He broke the Perpetual Peace agreement in 540 AD, sacked Antioch, Byzantium’s second largest city, and lead its people into slavery. Belisarius had to return from Italy. The Goth reasserted their control.

Even worse, the plague hit the empire and ravaged it from 541 to 549. Justinian fell ill but miraculously survived. The plague destroyed most of Justinian’s navy and ended all of his resettlement plans. The empire’s population dropped by 30% from 26 m to 17 m. Tax revenue from 7.8 m Solidi to 5 m. Persia was hit by the plague as well but as a land-based power suffered less. With on and offs, the war lasted to 562 AD. Then both sides were exhausted and ready for peace. In the 50-year treaty, Justinian agreed to pay the Shah 900 kg in gold each year. 20% of what he paid in 532 AD.

The Saint-Nicholas Church in Myra was financed by Justinian

which we will visit this summer

By 562 AD, Justinian and the empire were broke. The treasury’s coffers were empty. What survived to today are some of Justinian’s great buildings (Hagia Sophia), many churches (we are going to visit Saint Nikolaus’s church in Myra), many castles and the Roman Law. As one famous historian once said: “Rome conquered us three times. First by its army. Then by its church. And eventually by its laws.”





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