The Magazine

Imperial Transition

Sailing to Byzantium, with a push from the Vandals.

Apr 28, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 31 • By RICHARD TADA
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By contrast, the East maintained five separate field armies. A general in charge of one army could find his ascent checked by the commanders of one or more of the others. Even when a general made himself influential at court, he found that the eastern emperors were less pliable than their western counterparts. Emperor Leo, who reigned from 457 until 474, feared that his general, Aspar, was planning to supplant him and had the general and his sons murdered in 471 during their visit to the palace. As Lee notes, this action “gained Leo the unwelcome epithet of ‘the butcher,’ ” but it also helped to ensure that civilian rule continued in the East. Anastasius could not have carried out his economic reforms later in the century without the assistance of several talented civilian officials. 

During the fifth century, the East was secure enough to throw lifelines to the floundering West, including contributing troops to no fewer than three attempts to halt the march of the Vandals, the most serious threat to the western empire. The Vandals crossed the Rhine at the end of 406. After passing through Gaul and Spain, they made their journey intercontinental by invading North Africa in 429 and taking Carthage a decade later. Their takeover of North Africa knocked the props out from beneath the western empire; the provinces there were wealthy and had provided the West with much of its revenue. 

All three attempts to halt the Vandals failed. The last, mounted in 468 by the combined forces of East and West, was a fiasco. It culminated with the Vandals using fireships to ravage the imperial fleet. The financial cost to the eastern empire probably exceeded its entire revenues for a year. This disaster, in Lee’s words, “effectively seal[ed] the fate of the western empire.” Furthermore, “it left deep psychological scars in the memories of the elite in Constantinople for many years to come,” ensuring that the Vandals were left alone for decades thereafter. 

“Byzantium” is a term of modern scholarship. Some authorities see the reign of the great eastern emperor Justinian (527-565) as marking the point at which the Roman Empire had changed sufficiently (most strikingly by way of Christianization) to deserve the new appellation. Justinian finally brought Vandal rule to an end. A surprisingly swift and decisive campaign in 533-34 brought North Africa back under the empire, where it remained until the Islamic conquests of the late seventh century. Justinian attempted to duplicate the feat by retaking Italy from the Goths, with less success: A fresh wave of invaders undid most of his conquests in 568, a mere three years after his death. 

Justinian continued Anastasius’s tradition of able administration. His reforms—which he liked to portray as a return to traditional Roman practices—were well-considered and, at times, innovative. Justinian streamlined the clunky provincial administrative machinery. In one striking action, he unified two noncontiguous sets of provinces under a single official: those on the bleak Lower Danube (where army units were stationed in defense of the frontier) and those in the prosperous and productive Aegean. The responsibility of this official, the quaestor exercitus, was to see to it that supplies for the army units were transferred from the latter region to the former. 

A. D. Lee defends Justinian from his numerous detractors, both ancient and modern. Many commentators have focused on the prolonged and destructive war in Italy, occasioned by tough Gothic resistance, as well as on the devastating plague that struck the empire in the 540s and renewed trouble on the frontier with Persia. But Lee regards the failure in Italy as counterbalanced by the recovery of North Africa (which eventually contributed to the empire’s coffers) and the overall prosperity of the eastern Mediterranean. While Justinian proved unable to reunite the Roman Empire, he did well enough by its surviving eastern half. 

Richard Tada is a writer in Seattle.