On this day in the year 565CE, one thousand four hundred and fifty one years ago, a truly extraordinary man died – a man who changed our world irrevocably. What’s more, the changes he wrought impact all of us, every single day in ways grand and small and yet most of us have never heard of him. It is safe to say that our world would be quite different had he not lived.
At birth his name was Pietrus Sabbatius, citizen of the Roman Empire born to a family of little merit in the grasslands of Thrace, west of the capitol of the Roman Empire at Constantinople. A note on that city – at the time of his birth not only was it the seat of government (the Emperor Constantine had moved the capital to Constantinople, formerly known as Byzantium, known today as Istanbul in 335CE) – but it was the grandest city in the entire world, filled with a million inhabitants. By the time he died, Pietrus was known as the Emperor Justinian “the Great”, Caesar, “Restitutor Orbiter” (restored of the world) and later Saint of the Orthodox Church.
He was a most peculiar man, married to an equally peculiar woman by any standard who went by the name of Theodora – she was as beautiful and cunning as Cleopatra herself. Together the Imperial couple were (not by accident) surrounded by some of the most extraordinarily able, creative, and dedicated people that had ever been assembled in support of an idea, a sovereign, or a nation. In the case of Justinian’s cabinet (filled with such luminaries as the General Belisarius who won wars with ideas, John ‘the Cappadocian’ the able administrator, Anthemius of Tralles the architect and inventor responsible for the Santa Sophia, and Tribunian the Qaestor the man who codified the whole history of Roman law), they supported something that was at once of this earth and yet more, aspirational, otherworldly. A single word that captures their cause continues to enchant us for reasons that none can entirely explain so long after it ceased to exist – ROME. It enchanted Justinian as well, it motivated his every breath, for that reason he bears remembering this day.
Justinian ruled Rome (and hence the known world) for 38 years, rising to the throne 51 years after the last Western Emperor was forced off the throne by the Goth warlord Odoacer. This new Caesar did not accept the status quo of a dismembered Empire where barbarian princes ran roughshod over Roman peoples and principles. Eastern Emperors that had ruled before him, after the fall of the West, seemed resigned to this new, diminished, belittled Rome but not Justinian. He dedicated his life to stitching the Empire back together – his unequalled general by the name of Belisarius took a handful of elite Roman knights and reconquered Africa and Italy, defeating vastly superior barbarian armies in the process.
Although Justinian was known by contemporaries as the Last Roman, the very last Caesar of Rome, Constantine XI “Palaiologos” would die in 1465, nine hundred years later, scant decades before Columbus set sail for the New World. Yet Justinian was very much the last Caesar of the ancient world. Many scholars have sought to explain why the Western Roman Empire declined prior to Justinian’s ascension, and to distill the world-rending pressures that would forever change Rome after Justinian (I would warmly recommend “Justinian’s Flea” by William Rosen for any interested in a brilliant and unconventional analysis of Rome’s transition into the Dark Ages – for those interested in a fictional account of his reign I’d be honored if you would see my trilogy on the subject, the “Legend of Africanus” on Amazon).
That said, it is worth repeating a few of the simple reasons why Justinian’s life represents such a milestone in world history and why his controversial reign marks the end of the Ancient World. Here is a short list of my reasons why this man should matter to you.
– Justinian was the last Roman Emperor to speak Latin as his native tongue (after him they would speak Greek first, Latin as an afterthought if at all).
– His remarkable compilation of a thousand years of Roman law formed the basis of most modern Western democracies, continuing to provide their legal framework to this day.
– His legal reforms allowed woman to inherit property and decreed that the beaches of his territory were public property and could not be taken as private property nor could access to them be blocked (a tradition that is still enshrined in our legal system).
– He was the last Caesar to rule over a Roman Empire that included the city of Rome amongst its dominions (thanks to General Flavius Belisarius – another contender for the title of “Last Roman”).
And while he lived, Rome remained ‘The One’ – after him, she gradually became one amongst many. She would wax and wane over the next nine hundred years and for as long as there was a Caesar on the Bosporus she would influence the world in infinite ways large and small, but never again as she did under Justinian.
The milestones allowed the traveller to know precisely where they stood in relation to their departure point and destination, long before our slavish devotion to smart phones and GPS.
In what had been Roman Africa, stolen by the Vandals 100 years before, there stood such a stone on the approach to Carthage from the east on the ancient Roman highway that ran along the coast. It was the tenth milestone from Carthage, known simply as Decimum Miliare (the tenth mile).
At the tenth milestone (Ad Decimum), on this day – September 13th of 533 – the Roman Army led by General Flavius Belisarius met the Vandal King Gaiseric in a battle that would change the course of history.
The world fully expected the Romans to fail as Roman armies had failed in the field against the Vandals and their Germanic ‘barbarian’ cousins for generations. The Romans were 1,000 miles from home – having set sail with an invasion armada for the first time in decades (on ships that were specially built for the purpose since Rome no longer possessed a deep water navy). If they lost to the Vandals there would be no retreat and no hope of reinforcements. The Western Roman Empire had already ceased to exist with Romulus Augustulus’ abdication in 476 (in great part due to the Vandal theft of Africa and their brutal sack of the City of Rome). If Belisarius lost the battle at the tenth milestone, the Eastern Roman Empire would be in grave jeopardy.
Belisarius and his Roman knights would triumph at Decimum Miliare against all odds and went on to extinguish the upstart Vandal kingdom and to bring Africa back into the Roman fold. This was the first in a string of stunning victories engineered by Belisarius that would restore much of the lost Western Empire in the name of the reigning Caesar, the Emperor Justinian. These recuperated lands (Africa, Italy, parts of Gaul and Hispania) would remain part of the Roman Empire until after Justinian’s death – the moment when the ancient world truly ended and the Dark Ages began.
This moment, the battle that became known as Ad Decimum, figures prominently in the second book of the Legend of Africanus series: Avenging Africanus (available at amazon.com here).
For those that would like to read more of the military history of Ad Decimum, see the excellent Byzantine Military blog by clicking here.
BREAKING NEWS – TURKEY DEFEATS THE ROMANS (563 years ago – too late to celebrate?).
Talk about being desperate for good news! Over the weekend the autocratic regime of Turkish President Recip Tayyip Erdogan (image at right) mounted a major celebration to mark the anniversary of the Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II’s (“The Conqueror”) victory over the final Roman Emperor, Constantine XI (“the Marble Emperor”). A million people were expected to attend the celebrations and the President’s extravaganza would feature the army, navy (replete with submarines), etc. Just in case the nasty Romans pop up to ruin the festivities?
None can deny that when Mehmed finally pierced Constantinople (now Istanbul’s) Theodosian City Walls on April 6 1453, it marked a turning point in world history. The Turks had spent nearly 700 years trying (unsuccessfully) to take the city that had been the center of human civilization since it was founded by Constantine the Great in 330CE, and thanks to some of the largest cannon ever cast they finally succeeded.
A sad day for lovers of Roman history!
And evidently a very happy day for Erdogan. Nothing like kicking a dog when he’s down, especially when the dog (the Roman Empire) has been down for about six hundred years.
Yet another enduring testament to the power of Rome – still resonant, and relevant, six centuries after it finally disappeared from the face of the planet.
Some images from that fateful day, including one of the Marble Emperor, one of the famous canons, and one of Mehmed entering the city.
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MANY THANKS TO YOU ALL!
Matthew Jordan Storm
It’s easy to forget that all of Turkey was once the heart of the Roman Empire after the far-sighted Emperor Constantine moved the Empire’s capital from Italy to Turkey (to Byzantium-Constantinople-Nova Roma-Istanbul).
Yet evidence of Rome’s presence in Turkey (not to mention Syria/Libya/Israel/Egypt/Algeria etc.) is everywhere, sitting patiently in the shadows, enduring benign and not so benign neglect by the country’s current government.
Hence this intriguing article. There seems to be a rebirth of interest in Turkey’s Roman past among academics and ordinary citizens, and a growing movement to preserve and promote that past. As you will see in the link below, the paper, Hurriyet, references what appears to be the last Roman church where traces (ruins) are still visible in the capital of modern Turkey, Ankara – far from Istanbul / Constantinople, wedged in between modern buildings, almost forgotten and rapidly disappearing.
The article speculates that the church known as Saint Clement’s was built as early as the 4th century, and the paper calls for the Roman building to be preserved. From a glimpse at the picture above, one cannot help but hope that the call to action is heeded. Saint Clement the man (and the structure) is described by Wikipedia as:
In 303, Ancyra was one of the towns where the co-Emperors Diocletian and his deputy Galerius launched their anti-Christian persecution. In Ancyra, their first target was the 38-year-old Bishop of the town, whose name was Clement. Clement’s life describes how he was taken to Rome, then sent back, and forced to undergo many interrogations and hardship before he, and his brother, and various companions were put to death. The remains of the church of St. Clement can be found today in a building just off Işıklar Caddesi in the Ulus district. Quite possibly this marks the site where Clement was originally buried.
Other Roman structures still exist in Ankara, including traces of the Roman Baths below. See this Wikipedia on Roman Ankara for more on Ankara’s Roman past.
On this day, December 9th in 536CE, Roman General Flavius Belisarius (pictured above) entered the city of Rome through the Asinarian Gate (seen below) with his small cohort of Roman knights.
The city’s residents had not seen a Roman Legionnaire for almost exactly 60 years, when what remained of the Western armies deserted the Eternal City when the Goth warlord Odoacer toppled the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus.
Since that time, Rome (the city) had been under the control of a series of Goth rulers, including Odoacer, Theodoric (the “Great”), Amalasuntha (daughter of Theodoric), Theodad (cousin of Amalasuntha and her murderer) and at the time of Belisarius’ arrival, the Goth King Vitiges.
Imagine that! For 60 years, the Roman Empire had gone about its business with an Emperor mounted on a throne in Constantinople, while Rome herself – the birthplace of Empire – was held by barbarians. Imagine a United States continuing to exist, and to thrive, with a Washington D.C. belonging to a foreign power. It sounds inconceivable and so it was to the Emperor Justinian who was determined to accomplish what none had dared, to return Rome to Rome.
By the time that Belisarius arrived in Rome his exploits (in Persia and Africa) were the stuff of legend. But he arrived woefully understaffed and soon faced a Goth army that exceeded 100,000 in number surrounding the city, determined to crush Belisarius and with it, Justinian’s aspirations of restoration.
Absolutely fascinating stuff!
Following is a Wikipedia link which does a decent job of summarizing the ensuing Siege of Rome.