Written with the characteristic pugilistic vim that has become the hallmark of his recent publications, Peter Heather's latest book is a political and military history of the reign of Justinian. The central aim of the book is to interrogate previous assumptions that instability caused by Justinian's storied military campaigns, and the strain that these campaigns placed on eastern imperial resources, eventually caused both the reversal of his military successes and, ultimately, the downfall of the eastern provinces in the face of Muslim conquest (pp. 7–9). Thus, the book attempts to provide a balance sheet for the successes and failures of Justinian's reign, primarily by focusing on the effectiveness and overall impact of his military policies. On the whole, Heather portrays Justinian as a political actor behaving in patterns that were well established for Roman emperors and, following a dominant theme from his previous work on the end of the western Roman Empire, he attributes the later contraction of the eastern Empire in the seventh century not to the long-term consequences of Justinian's policies, but to instabilities caused by “foreigners” (esp. pp. 3–6). Although the style and manner of citation indicate that the book was written primarily for a popular, non-academic audience, Heather's stance against a “revisionist discourse” (pp. 3–4) in academic interpretations of Justinian's reign suggests an academic audience was intended as well. Whether or not the book succeeds in its suitability for either a popular or academic audience is a subject to which this review will return in its conclusion.
The book is organized into twelve chapters, including an introduction which attends to the preliminary business of framing Justinian's legacy in the wider context of modern studies of the sixth century, outlining some themes related to the exhaustion of western imperial power and explaining Heather's methodology for reading of primary sources related to Justinian (primarily Procopius). In Chapters 1–4, Heather explores particular themes that shaped Justinian's behaviors as emperor. Thus, in Chapter 1, he outlines the long-term formation of Roman imperial ideology. Justinian is to be understood as the direct heir of processes begun by Constantine, in which Christian concepts of divine will became enmeshed with Roman concepts of triumphal rulership. For Heather, the notion that the legitimacy of God's support for a ruler was manifest in military victory over the enemies of the Roman state becomes key to understanding Justinian as emperor. Chapter 2 builds on this foundation by providing a short history that traces changes to the structure of the military and fiscal apparatus of the Roman state to the rise of the Sasanian threat in the mid-third century and changes to military tactics to encounters with the Huns in the mid-fifth century. Chapter 3 focuses on the nature of imperial succession and draws attention to how the various insecurities of Justin's accession determined policies that would directly impact the opening years of Justinian's reign. Heather argues convincingly that Justinian inherited from Justin a provocative posture directed at the Persian Empire which had been intended to discredit the brokers of the former peace orchestrated under Justin's predecessor, Anastasius. Finally, with Chapter 4, Heather elaborates on the basic contours of the policies that would dictate Justinian's conflicts on both eastern and western fronts, including religious and legal interventions, and the launch of Justinian's initial campaign against the Persians.
The next five chapters form the core of the book. Chapter 5 traces the origins of the Vandal kingdom of North Africa, including an extended rehearsal of Heather's perspectives on “foreign invasion,” and then provides a thorough narrative account of Belisarius’ victory over the Vandals in North Africa. In Chapter 6, Heather shifts to a discussion of Justinian's putative justifications for the Italian campaign, some overview of the nature of Theoderic's kingdom, and then a detailed narrative of the Gothic war from Belisarius’ arrival in Italy to the capture of Ravenna in 540. Chapter 7 returns to Constantinople and a more detailed consideration of the political propaganda generated as a result of the African and Italian campaigns. Justinian's legal codifications, his building programs, and his involvement in Christian doctrinal matters receive particular attention as the means of capitalizing on his status as a victor, especially for the purpose of rehabilitating his public image following the Nika Revolt of 532. Chapter 8 returns to the Persian front with the rupture of the Eternal Peace and Chosroes’ devastating campaigns in Roman Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine, and the war of attrition that developed in Roman Armenia and Lazica. Heather moves beyond the initial phases of the African and Italian campaigns in Chapter 9 by outlining conditions that encouraged continued instability in both regions. Here, Heather relies largely upon the account of Procopius to provide a detailed narrative for the rebellion of a portion of the eastern army and an insurgency of Berbers in North Africa and the reversals initiated by Totila in Italy.
The final two chapters move beyond the narrative account of various campaigns followed in previous chapters. In Chapter 10, Heather considers the impact of Justinian's military policy on the western regions by challenging the notion that imperial overextension resulted in the eventual loss of western territories. Heather speculates on the “profitability” of campaigns in North Africa, the Balkans, Italy, and Spain, and arrives at the conclusion that these acquisitions were “successful” based on what may be adduced concerning economic returns on the cost of conquest. Chapter 11 applies the same balance-sheet style of analysis to the eastern provinces and concludes that Justinian's western campaigns had not depleted the resources of eastern provinces. Rather, Heather finds that “Both the cities and countryside of the Eastern Empire show every sign of continued prosperity into the late sixth century, with no evidence for a major economic downturn” (pp. 303–07). Heather instead points to the fifty years of renewed conflict with Persia, initiated by Justinian's successor (Justin II), as the primary condition that would allow Muslim armies to unravel the eastern Empire's control of its eastern provinces.
On the whole, Heather's study makes a number points that are salient for understanding the political culture in which Justinian maneuvered. For example, Heather is correct to note that Justinian's campaigns can only be properly understood as responses to political exigencies at Constantinople. Justinian's reign had been shaped by dependency upon well-established political ideology and the involvement of various interest groups in the succession of his predecessor, Justin I, had generated particular insecurities in Justinian's reign. Justinian's military policies and his involvement in both legal reform and religious doctrine relate to these insecurities. Similarly, Heather is correct to signal the Nika Revolt as a tipping point in Justinian's reign, both as a sign of the resistance of upper circles of governmental elites to innovative policies at Justinian's court and as the foundation for the continued propagandistic need for military victory. Of course, most of Heather's reconstruction of Justinian's political culture has already been carefully elaborated in previous scholarship, including some studies that Heather himself has publicly criticized.
Where Heather offers a more genuine contribution is in the realm of military and strategic analysis. Heather provides one of the best available narrative accounts of Justinian's wars. The military narratives are largely straightforward readings of Procopius, but unraveling Procopius’ prolix account is itself a valuable service for the general reader. Several insights are also worthy of attention, such as the suggestion that Justinian's initial successes in North Africa and Italy may have induced Chosroes to violate the Eternal Peace in 540. Similarly, Heather's conclusion that Justinian's military policies are better understood as a series of ad hoc and opportunistic responses to political challenges at Constantinople, rather than a grand strategy for recovering the western half of the Roman Empire, is perfectly reasonable.
In terms of the book's contribution to the scholarly field, Heather clearly demonstrates his command of the period, as one would expect in a book from a scholar of Heather's considerable reputation, but a number of opportunities to plumb topics more thoroughly were missed. Heather's downplay of “persecutions of highly marginal religious groups” (p. 98) ignores the impact that highly public and ritualistic punishments of pagan members of the Constantinopolitan governmental elite had on the political culture of the capital. Certainly, Justinian's religious policies contributed to the incredible polemic focused on his reign in eastern literary sources, but Heather simply does not address this. Similarly, greater clarity may have been brought to bear on the Nika Revolt, which Heather considers the crux of Justinian's reign. Although Heather acknowledges that the Nika Revolt involved “conspiracy at the highest levels” of the government (p. 98), he dismisses potential political agency of the bureaucracy: “there is not the slightest sign that the bureaucracy was capable of functioning as a coherent political bloc” (p. 326); contrast this to a later description of the Nika Revolt as an attempted coup led by “a cabal of wealthy bankers and medium-level functionaries,” including “a senior bureaucrat” (p. 328). In a book that, quite correctly, attributes Justinian's campaigns to the political culture of Constantinople it is similarly unclear why there is absolutely no discussion of the political impact of émigrés at Constantinople from both North Africa and Italy and their potential influence on Justinian's military policies. Likewise, for a military history not to offer a satisfactory explanation for why the North African campaign ended in a few months, while the Italian campaign protracted across 20 years, seems a glaring lost opportunity to explain differences between the two regions in terms of land settlement, geography, and economic history.
The aforementioned absences, although unfortunate, may be readily supplemented by consulting numerous other studies dedicated to Justinian's reign, so the loss is primarily to the general reader. Less easy to reconcile, however, is the pervasive tendency of Heather's book, all too common in (often poorly informed) modern political banter, to equate modern political debates to the end of the Roman Empire. Especially in a book aimed at a popular audience, references to the behaviors of British and American politicians (pp. 31–41, 84, 87, 148–49) come across as overly casual equivalencies. More troubling, and perhaps more irresponsible given the modern political climate in the United States and western Europe, is Heather's insistence on negative impact of “foreigners” on the Roman Empire. Heather's book is essentially a zero-sum assessment of the Roman state based on its capacity to wage war against foreign entities and to extract profitable resources as a result. Granted, a tally-sheet approach to the absolute success or failure of Justinian's government may appeal to more myopic observers of modern political events, but the cinderblock certitude with which Heather's book categorically asserts the negative impact of “foreigners” on the Roman state threatens to reduce Justinian and the sixth century to a talking point susceptible to 21st-century phobias about the impact of “foreigners” on the viability of the modern state. Such a portrayal of the Roman world is simply irresponsible. Regrettably, Heather's book openly dismisses the “revisionist discourse” of cultural historians who would have cautioned less-informed readers that everyone living under Roman rule was a “foreigner” of some stamp. If so-called barbarians were foreign in any sense, they were only foreign to the rarified culture of a hereditary senatorial elite, as were most “Romans,” and they were hardly more destructive than the civil wars waged by the same Roman political elite. Heather's book unfortunately underestimates the ability of general readers to understand the nuance of cultural distinctions that shaped so much of the later Roman political culture.
Similarly, another casualty of Heather's book is an opportunity to teach the general reader what the fall of the Roman Empire actually means. To be clear, nobody would contest that the western and eventually the eastern Roman state fell, but what Heather's book loses sight of is the fact that those events were simply the end of political systems, not human society. Political systems end, and those who benefit the most from them may endure “collapse,” but history teaches that when the Roman state ended, it really only ended for the super elite. The majority of Romans, whether urban or agrarian, civilian or military, had only participated in being “Roman” in highly qualified terms. Thus, by studying the later Roman Empire, we ought to be less concerned about asking how the Roman Empire ended, but rather for whom. Here, the parallels that Heather implicitly draws to the modern political state could be truly instructive for a popular audience. History teaches that governments eventually change, and that even modern states will eventually undergo radical transformations in terms of the sovereignty of borders, cultural demographics, and form of government. The longue durée of human existence teaches that the modern state is not proof against this inevitability, dire warnings about “foreigners” not withstanding.
In conclusion, Heather's book is difficult to assign to an audience. Heather's acumen with the details of the period is evident throughout, and readers of popular history will enjoy Heather's jaunty style of narrative prose, but those readers will not walk away from this book with the full scope of lessons that could be gleaned from Late Antiquity. Specialists in the field may appreciate, again, Heather's ability to narrate complicated events, and the dismissal of an image of Justinian as an idealist with a grand strategy for restoring the Roman Empire to its previous grandeur is surely welcome, but with the exception of some interesting points of analysis concerning military strategy, most of what the book offers in terms of political, military, and economic history has already been said.