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 after the Goth warlord Odoacer toppled the last Western Roman Emperor, Romulus Augustulus (“little Augustus”).
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 with barely
5,000 Roman knights, 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.
Did Belisarius panic in the face of such impossible odds? This quote from Procopius – an eyewitness to these events – makes the hairs on my neck stand on end every time I read it:
“On the eighteenth day from the beginning of the siege the Goths moved against the fortifications at about sunrise […] and all the Romans were struck with consternation at the sight of the advancing towers and rams, with which they were altogether unfamiliar. But Belisarius, seeing the ranks of the enemy as they advanced with the engines, began to laugh, and commanded the soldiers to remain quiet and under no circumstances to begin fighting until he himself should give the signal.” – Procopius
Belisarius stood atop the Aurelian Walls and drew his bow (a compound bow design that he borrowed from the Huns and improved upon) and in a blur fired three arrows that killed the three Goth field commanders that commanded the attack, causing chaos in the Goth ranks. Then he began to fire one arrow after another at the oxen that drew the siege engines forth and order his knights to do the same, stopping the towers dead in their tracks. The Siege of Rome that followed would last for one year and nine days and its outcome would make indelible history…
Absolutely fascinating stuff!
This Wikipedia link which does a decent job of summarizing the ensuing Siege of Rome.
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.