“You behold the ensigns of supreme power. You are about to receive them, not from my hand, but from the hand of God. Honor them, and from them you will derive honor. Respect the empress your mother: you are now her son; before, you were her servant. Delight not in blood; abstain from revenge; avoid those actions by which I have incurred the public hatred; and consult the experience, rather than the example, of your predecessor. As a man, I have sinned; as a sinner, even in this life, I have been severely punished: but these servants, (and he pointed to his ministers), who have abused my confidence, and inflamed my passions, will appear with me before the tribunal of Christ. I have been dazzled by the splendor of the diadem: be thou wise and modest; remember what you have been, remember what you are. You see around us your slaves, and your children: with the authority, assume the tenderness, of a parent. Love your people like yourself; cultivate the affections, maintain the discipline, of the army; protect the fortunes of the rich, relieve the necessities of the poor.”
– Emperor Justin II to his successor Tiberius II Constantine, from The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Chapter XLV, Edward Gibbon (1776)
When Justin II ascended to the throne of the Byzantine Empire in 565AD, he inherited a realm beset with problems: his uncle, Justinian, had taken a treasury in surplus (thanks to the spend-thrift policies of a preceding emperor, Anastasius) and spent it all on costly building projects, draining conquests and exorbitant payoffs to barbarian neighbours. The borders had been expanded but at the expense of army maintenance, while wars and the plague of 541AD had cost the empire dearly in precious manpower.
The Byzantines were spread thin, overextended and bankrupt.
Into this crisis stepped Justin II, nephew of the “Great” Justinian and his nominated successor (although, as is often the case with Byzantine succession, even this is suspect). A stronger man may have been able to take this rampaging bull of a predicament by the horns and wrestle it back under control; unfortunately, Justin II was not that man. In order to spare the state excessive taxation and poverty he was forced to suspend payments to the Avars and Persians, ensuring their belligerence and putting even more pressure on the Imperial borders. It wasn’t long before the Avars crossed the Danube and went rampaging through the northern provinces, while renewed hostilities with the Sassanids helped to drive the fragile emperor (literally) insane.
This was the beginning of a slow erosion of Byzantine territories and power. In Italy, the Lombards under King Alboin saw an opportunity and took it, overwhelming the Imperial garrisons and claiming the northern half of the peninsula for their own. The moors in Africa continued to harass the newly re-established authorities there. And everywhere the noose continued to tighten around the beleaguered Byzantines’ collective neck…
Having degenerated into a wild and unpredictable wreck of a man, Justin II nevertheless showed impeccable clarity when nominating his own successor early – Tiberius II Constantine suffered all the same problems but was much more resilient than his predecessor. Throughout his reign he managed a delicate balancing act, reinforcing both the western and eastern provinces at crucial times; managing to placate a restless populous and a near-mutinous army; and practicing timely diplomacy to shore-up the Empire’s tenuous position.
That is to say, he did his best.
Unfortunately, there was nothing that could really stem the tide of decay – the Lombards continued to seize key territories in Italy (with Rome barely being retained at one point by the Byzantine forces), Avars and then the migrating Slavs penetrated into Greece (reaching as far south as Athens), while the war with Persia continued to seesaw back and forth.
It was in the east that the next man to wear the purple, Maurice, made his mark. Acquitting himself against the Sassanids, Maurice managed to win the favour of the Emperor, and was so esteemed that by the time of Tiberius’ death (by illness, or possibly poison) in 582AD he was ready to be nominated as Augustus.
Continuing the balancing act proved problematic though, with the state treasury once again bare Maurice was forced to cut back on almost everything, including the army that had helped make his name. Although he managed to win notable victories against almost all the Empire’s enemies, when he asked the disaffected soldiers of the northern frontier to winter on the upper, unprotected bank of the Danube, it was one step too far. They mutinied, and elevated one of their own – Phocas – to be Emperor.
Immediately marching on the capital, Phocas captured and executed both Maurice and all his sons, putting an end to the Justinian dynasty and inaugurating a reign of terror that would last for eight years and see the Empire exposed to one of the greatest threats it would ever face.
Next Part: Persian Dominance.