The fifth century was the century when the Roman West unravelled. By century’s end, the barbarian kingdoms were there. As a result, the politics of the sixth century is much more varied and takes a number of routes; the Visigoths, the Franks, the Burgundians, the Ostrogoths, the Vandals — these kingdoms are all part of the story at the outset, joined by Lombards along the way. We also have various rumblings from Scotti and Picti throughout the century, and their Anglo-Saxon neighbours come into full view by century’s end.
There’s a lot of politics in this century, for many the last of Antiquity, and in many ways the first of the Middle Ages.
Plus, the eastern portion of the Roman Empire is still around.
Let’s begin there.
Very quickly, what you most need to know is that the Emperor Anastasius, who supported the Mono/Miaphysite cause in religion, died in 518. His successor was Justin I, who had a very able and energetic nephew, Justinian. In 527 Justinian acceded to the throne when Justin died and ruled until 565.
That’s a very long time.
Like all emperors, he had to maintain domestic issues, and was involved in one of the biggest riots of ancient history, the Nika Riot of 532 that destroyed a lot of the city of Constantinople and left thousands of civilians slaughtered by Justinian’s troops. But he held onto power and continued to levy taxes and do the whole ‘Roman Emperor’ thing.
However, the most significant political act of Justinian was invading the post-Roman West. His general Belisarius invaded North Africa in 533; it had been conquered by the Vandals about a century before. Belisarius made short work of the Vandal Kingdom, and conquest came in 534. The Vandals had maintained many Roman traditions and levels of adminstration, and sixth-century North Africa produced its own poets. North Africa had been crucial to the western Roman economy, and its recovery had been the goal of the military policy of many emperors in the central decades of the 400s.
Now Justinian had it.
North Africa wasn’t enough, however. He decided Italy was a good thing to have, too. From 535 to 554, Justinian’s forces tried to reconquer the peninsula from the Goths. The city of Rome changed hands three times. Arguably, however, Italy was still being ruled by the successors of Theoderic on behalf of the Roman Emperor, so seeking to replace and supplant them was not actually ‘constitutionally’ valid. Thus argued the Goths, anyway.
These decades of campaign are what broke Italy (see Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages). The economy and culture of Italy had maintained themselves in strong, unbroken continuity since 476, with the Goths respecting the Roman laws and traditions as they found them.
Italy was, in the end (554), integrated into the East Roman polity with more direct rule (and taxation!) governed from Constantinople. A governor was established at Ravenna. Cultural ties between the eastern and western Mediterranean renewed to some degree; this included the visual arts as well as theological controversy.
Assuming that Justinian was too preoccupied with western business, in 540 Khusru I went on the offensive, breaking the ‘Eternal Peace’. For the next twenty years, the Romans and Persians were once more at war in the usual manner of neither ultimately gaining much from the other for long.
Politics, of course, is not merely wars. Justinian was also involved in the realm of law — hence the Institutes, Digest, and Code(x) that bear his name (mostly the work of able lawyers, such as Tribonian). Thus was the world of the sixth-century Roman Empire regulated and regularised, and the deposit of Roman Law handed down to us.
And, also of great importance for the future, Justinian got himself directly involved in ecclesiastical affairs, turning away from the policy of Anastasius and supporting the Council of Chalcedon. It is of note that Chalcedon was universallly popular in the West, and that a Chalcedonian set out to reconquer the West. Justinian’s ecclesiastical policy was a bit mixed, and seems to have alienated the extremes of both pro- and anti-Chalcedonian Christians. But it is not insignificant that he himself drafted some of the legislation without first gaining approval of episcopal councils.
So. Justinian. A big deal in politics. But what about all those barbarians I mentioned at the beginning? Tune in next time find out!