Reconquering the West
“It will be evident that no more important or mightier deeds are to be found in history than those which have been enacted in these wars,—provided one wishes to base his judgment on the truth. For in them more remarkable feats have been performed than in any other wars with which we are acquainted…”
– The Wars, Book 1, Procopius of Caesarea (549)
In 533AD Emperor Justinian embarked upon an ambitious plan: the reconquest of the western half of the Roman Empire, previously lost to successive waves of barbarian invaders in the last century. Whether or not he believed it possible to complete this goal within his own lifetime; or, more pointedly, whether or not he believed it even was possible to recover so much lost territory, is a matter for speculation; what we do know is that he was determined to try. And the agents of his attempt were some of the best generals of the age: Belisarius, Mundus, Narses…
At the beginning of his reign, Justinian ruled over the rich and still-powerful Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire. The western provinces of Africa and Italy beckoned though, controlled as they were by the heretical (according to Orthodox adherents of the Empire) Arian Christians of the Vandals and the Ostrogoths, respectively.
The pretext for invasion wasn’t simply one of pious concern for the souls of the erstwhile citizens of the Western Roman Empire though; in both cases Justinian used the deposition and/or execution of a pro-Byzantine monarch (Hilderic of the Vandals, and Amalasuntha of the Ostrogoths) as casus belli for war.
Despite these “laudable” justifications, the true reasoning behind Justinian’s decision to commit so much of the Empire’s wealth and manpower to such perilous undertakings is much more likely to have been one of riches and glory – reconquering the West gave him an opportunity to have his name writ large in the annals of history, as much as his legal reforms (see the Codex Iustinianus), his building projects (see the Hagia Sophia) or his attempts at promoting religious unity amongst the disparate variants of early Christianity.
Of those the Emperor (who, thanks to some contradictory evidence enjoys a somewhat murky reputation these days) chose to entrust this task to, none did more of the heavy lifting than Belisarius, widely considered the greatest (but most often overlooked) generals of late antiquity. Born in Thrace and a trusted confidante of Justinian from early in his reign, Belisarius was instrumental in securing the eastern border of the Empire against the Sassanid Persians before the reconquest of Africa beckoned.
Commanding a vastly outnumbered force comprised mostly of mercenaries and foederati, Belisarius defeated the Vandal King Gelimer at Ad Decimum and Tricamarum, routed the entirety of the forces sent against him and captured the principal North African city of Carthage all within a short space of time. When he returned to Constantinople in 534AD his victory was celebrated with a Triumph (the last of these traditional Roman processions to be celebrated, as it turns out) and was named consul for the year 535AD.
The conquest of Italy though, was to prove quite a different beast. Begun in 535-536AD, it wouldn’t be until 554AD that the Ostrogoths would be finally defeated by Narses at Mons Lactarius; but only after the death of Mundus in the early stages of the conflict and more than a decade of grinding warfare undertaken by Belisarius, who was often forced to maintain his armies on the barest resources, reinforcements and support from Constantinople. By the end both the great cities and the fertile hinterlands of Italy would be ruined, along with Belisarius’ good favour and the credibility of Justinian’s “vision”.
Between 552 and 555AD a foothold was also established in the former Roman province of Spania, but like the newly re-established control over Italy and Africa, it was not to last. After the death of Justinian in 565AD the Byzantine Empire quickly went into decline…
Next Part: Reverses