A History of Medieval Europe, RHC Davis
As noted, the fall of Rome was not sudden, but long and slow – with change only somewhat noticeable to those living through the time:
Because the barbarian invasions were not sudden but gradual, it was possible for many Roman citizens to ignore their significance. Though they bewailed the fact that the times were not as good as they once had been, they tried to go on living as if nothing had changed.
Davis offers three reactions to this reality – as noted by Salvian, the barbarians were no longer at the gates but within them. First, that of St. Augustine, who concluded that Rome was sacked because God willed it. While saddened by this realization, he determined that Rome was not a true state because it was not founded on justice: “Set aside justice, then, and what are kingdoms but great bands of brigands?”
Next, Davis offers Theodoric the Ostragoth – as an example of collaboration and cooperation. The Italians had to admit that military power passed to the barbarians; Theodoric, now ruling Rome, was viewed as a “good” barbarian.
Finally, Justinian, for whom the title of this post is taken. Justinian was not satisfied to allow Rome to die a long, slow death. He felt it his calling to fight back, to reconquer what was lost. He was the last Latin speaking emperor, and the last who framed his policies with a view toward Latin rather than Greek interests.
Fifty years since Italy was taken, one-hundred years since Africa; Justinian saw it as his duty to take it all back. The Vandals, Visigoths, Franks, and Ostrogoths had carved up the empire of the west. Fortunately for Justinian, they had their quarrels with each other at the same time.
Eventually, having seemingly brought Africa and Italy back into the fold, he turned his attention to the law. Roman law had become so vast and bulky that it had become impossible to establish what, in fact, was good law. Justinian re-codified the law: Corpus Juris Civilis, according to Davis “an achievement to make any emperor famous.”
Additionally, Justinian built fortresses and cathedrals – Hagia Sophia in Constantinople being perhaps the most famous. But by the time the church of San Vitale was consecrated in 547, the Goths were once again in possession of much of Italy. To the extent there was any peace, it was a peace brought about by exhaustion.
Justinian thought he could bring harmony within the Empire and the Church through force and legislation; he discovered soon enough his mistake. He only proved that the empire was truly lost – he was paying barbarian troops to fight the Roman fight. Who were the Romans? By this point, the answer to this question wasn’t clear. The eastern empire was Greek, the western mostly barbarian or mixed.
The cost of his re-conquest was enormous – vast armies, many mercenaries, requiring significant taxes to pay them. Land taxes requiring neighbors of abandoned properties to pay the tax. War upon war, on three fronts as necessary.
So far as Italy was concerned, it was Justinian’s wars that marked the beginning of the ‘Dark Ages’. In reconquering the West, Justinian had in fact destroyed it; of him it could be said more truly than of any other emperor, that ‘he made a desert and called it peace.’