The Wars of Justinian, Michael Whitby

The Wars of Justinian, Michael Whitby

Justinian’s most famous military achievements were the reconquests of Africa and Italy, which for a brief time looked like they might lead to a restoration of at least part of the western part of the Roman Empire. However as this book demonstrates, his armies also had to fight hard against the Persians in the east, and in the Balkans to protect Constantinople against attacks from the north.

One interesting aspect of Justinian’s reign is that he almost never left Constantinople. This was very unusual for militarily successful Roman Emperors, most of whom led their armies in person (Augustus being another notable exception, although he was more personally active and more mobile than Justinian). As a result Justinian relied on his generals, and although he was lucky to find several capable and loyal men (most famously Belisarius and Narses), this meant that his campaigns could be undermined by disputes between his generals – most notably in Italy, where the inability of his senior leaders to cooperate prevented them from completing the conquest in the first year or two, and subjected Italy to a series of devastating wars. 

We start with a wider look at Justinian – his background, how he came to power, his legal reforms and buildings, the state of the Byzantine Empire during this period, and what we know about his army. After that we move onto the wars, starting with the lengthy conflicts with Persia. This serves as a reminder that Constantinople was on the border of Asia, so places that seem utterly remote for Rome, such as the eastern shores of the Black Sea, were actually relatively nearby from Constantinople. The reconquest of the lost African provinces also involved a land border with Egypt. As the historical heart of the Empire Italy was always going to be a target for a conquering Byzantine Emperor in this period. Finally we move onto the Balkans, key to the defense of Constantinople and under constant threat from an ever changing array of tribes north of the Danube. These wars are the worst documented of the four, and most have to be reconstructed from minor mentions, but were clearly important. We finish with a look at the internal threats to Justinian’s reign, the most famous of which was the Nike riots, which almost forced him to flee the city.

This is an excellent study of a key part of Justinian’s reign, and provides a good overview of the wide range of military activities carried out under his rule. As such it adds a great deal to other books that tend to focus on one campaign or one general.

1 – Justinian, Man and Ruler
2 – State of the Nation
3 – Sources
4 – Sixth-Century Army
5 – Persian Wars
6 – Reconquest of Africa
7 – Italian Campaigns
8 – The Balkans
9 – Internal Challenges

Author: Michael Whitby
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 304
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2021

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