Discover Late Antiquity: The Sixth-century Roman East

Mosaic of Justinian I (San Vitale, Ravenna)

Our tour of Late Antiquity, having reached the sixth century, has considered the trans-Mediterranean legacy of Justinian, the sixth-century West, sixth-century religion, and sixth-century manuscripts. We also looked at the death of the Senate, an important event of the sixth century. Today, we look East.

Now, in the preceding century, the Western Roman Empire had found itself being chopped up, sliced and diced, and bereft of an emperor. The Eastern Empire persevered and endured. The century opened in the reign of Anastasius (r. 491-518) who had already got himself involved in ecclesiastical politics (usually simply maintaining his predecessor’s policy) but was largely neutral in the Chalcedonian-Miaphysite dispute, and put down an Isaurian revolt, and reformed the coinage. His religious neutrality is parallelled by a chariot neutrality. Chariot racing was a big deal in the Later Roman Empire, and the two main teams were the Greens and the Blues. Anastasius backed neither. This is a power play to keep himself aloof from their riots, violence, and disorder.

502-505 saw war with Persia which ended in a truce. In 511, Anastasius was explicitly behind the Miaphysites. As a result, Vitalian, an army officer in Thrace, rebelled in 511-12. Like most religiously-motivated turmoil, dissidence, and violence, Vitalian’s motives were a mixture of religion (he supported Chalcedon) and military discontent. Vitalian rebelled again in 513, and again in 515 — in 513 he was willing to back down when Anastasius made some favourable religious promises. In 515, Vitalian suffered a military defeat.

In 518, Vitalian was a contender against the dynamic duo of Justin-Justinian.

We’ve already discussed Justinian’s reign (527-565).

Justinian was succeed by Justin II (565-78). Justin tried to keep things calm on the religious front in ways similar to Justinian. He also provoked a war with Sassanian Persia in 573. Tiberius is made Caesar, and he succeeds Justin II as Tiberius II (578-82).

Besides war with Persia, the rest of the century will see the coming of the Sclavenians (Slavs) to the Balkans, raiding as far as Athens and Corinth. Although they will ultimately never leave, the Avars who turn up around the same time will find themselves devastated by Charlemagne over eight years, ending in 791. You never know the fate of a kingdom in the late and post-Roman world, no matter if it’s been around for a few centuries.

582-602 sees Maurice on the throne. Maurice did his best to maintain stability on the military front. Some see his overthrow by Phocas in 602 as the real end of things, and that Heraclius (610-41) inherited all of Phocas’ problems plus the rise of the united Arab world under Muhammad. Despite some spectacular successes in his Persian War, Heraclius saw enormous, ultimately permanent, losses of territory to the Arabs in Palestine and Egypt in particular. And that’s where we’ll end the world of Late Antiquity for now.

What is remarkable, of course, is that even in these years of drawn-out war with Persia, Sclavenian and Avar invasions, military revolts of one sort or another, besides the loss of some of Justinian’s gains in the West, is the ongoing artistic, religious, cultural world of the Eastern Mediterranean. Something to think about. Twilight of supremacy does not mean the end of civilisation. Not always.

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